I imagine you’re thinking that this blog has a strange title. It sounds rather serious. “It would be nice to have a funny blog once in a while,” someone said to me in the hallway the other day. “Why don’t you tell a story about Poobar Meyers, your high school teammate, or the time you went into the woman’s restroom, then called the Ladies’ Room, when you were a lecturer visiting Rutgers University?”
Maybe a funny story can help us with both the serious title and serious idea of not imputing motives to people. In fact, I think the second of the two stories mentioned above may just fit the bill nicely. It happened when I was at the beginning of my writing career—I was writing under a different name than my family name, H.R. Jakes, in those days, but I leave that aside, as I won’t bore you with the details and you wouldn’t want to read what I was writing in those days anyway, so early in my career was it.
It was an overcast day, so I was wearing a raincoat, what in the New Jersey area was then called and may still be called a trench coat—like Colombo or Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau—and the university kindly allowed me to use their gym. Accordingly, I had shorts on under the trench coat. En route to the gym, I wanted to stop off in the library to check a reference for my talk later on that day, so in I went, locating the book I needed (in the NDs, I think, an art book). Yet when I entered the library I knew, too, that I needed to visit the men’s room.
“It’s down this way, at the end of the stacks,” said a kind librarian, by no means circumambulating when it came to such practical instructions that provided me relief as I became increasingly desperate to find latrinal liberation. And thus it was that a fool rushed in where an angel would have feared to tread, for I bounded down the hall of stacks passing P and PA, with their suggestive Library of Congress numbers only urging my desire as might the sound of babbling brook. Indeed a man slurping from the water fountain performed that very task.
Before me lay two doors, one ivory-colored, the other horn-colored. From the horn-colored door, on the right, a woman emerged from the clearly marked Ladies’ Room, so I chose the ivory door on the left. Scooching in quickly, I walked into what seemed to be a lounge of some kind, taking a hard right toward the bathroom stalls. Alas, I could find no urinals, but I remembered that the campus I was visiting, Douglass College in New Brunswick, had been a few years earlier an all-women’s school. Indeed, it technically was still so, though now, as a part of Rutgers University main campus, it was merely one of several colleges that made up an essentially co-educational university. All students, male and female, take classes on all campuses. And that is why, I quickly reasoned, there were no urinals.
I went into a stall, kicked up the seat with one foot and took care of my mild emergency, standing and, as I was in a cheery enough mood, whistling a familiar song, “Jimmy Crack Corn …,”,arguably a song of indifference or social justice. (Interpretations of the song abound; I think I was just whistling out of sheer joy at having found a toilet.)
And that’s when it happened: there was a very nervous rumbling of toilet paper coming from the next stall. “Oh,” I thought, “I probably disrupted the fellow’s newspaper reading.” I half thought to apologize, but I decided that it would be too strange for me to say anything. Instead, I re-girded my athletic attire and went out to wash my hands, only to notice to my left what I assumed to be a condom dispenser. “Well,” I figured, “I suppose that’s par for the course these days on a college campus” (it was the 1990s). But upon closer inspection, as I toweled off my wet hands, I saw that it was a feminine napkin dispenser.
“Well that’s weird,” I thought. “You’d think by now they would have removed these from the men’s rooms.” And that is when, of course, it donned on me: this was no vain dream, but the gates of ivory and horn both led to the same place: I had been all along in the woman’s room. The nervous toilet papering person was a woman. My attire—seemingly nothing but socks and sneakers covered by a trench coat—must have seemed quite strange to her as she peered out through the small slit between bathroom stall doors.
So I decided to leave forthwith (of course!). But as I left from the ivory-colored door in came another woman, who looked at me dumbfounded. “Inspecting,” I said as authoritatively as I could, hoping she would not notice my legs bare save socks and shoes.
“Oh,” was all she said, and she then left.
Now my motives were pure—as pure as flowing water. But it must have appeared, of course, rather bad. Woman number one likely thought I was a pervert; woman number two knew I was a liar. Not good!
But the motives, primary and/or secondary? That’s where not judging comes in. Woman number one knew that at least one of my motives was to use the bathroom. But she might have thought that my primary, or at least secondary, motive was to be perverse, to use the woman’s room for whatever reason, probably an opprobrious one. The other woman, if she saw my unclad calves protruding from the bottom of my trench coat, probably figured on about the same thing. I never found out what woman number one looked like, so I don’t know if she came to my lecture that afternoon. Woman number two, I am glad to report, did not.
It’s amazing to me that Kathleen Parker’s piece in the Chicago Tribune is now already nearly three years old for it is still highly relevant. It starts with the striking line, “Trigger warning: This column will include discussion of ideas that may conflict with your own.” In it Parker calls attention to the fact that on many college campuses nowadays the mores of group identity trumps, you’ll pardon the triggering expression, freedom of thought, or at least qualifies it (which de facto trumps it).
What I mean by “the mores of group identity” can be redacted actually quite fairly, I think, to a groupthink mentality. I shall never forget, when I, a mere novelist and blogger, happened quite by accident (at the invitation of my philologist friend) to be in attendance at a major research university when a newly elected provost, i.e. chief academic officer, was giving his inaugural address to great applause and raucous approbation. In his speech he called for a more tolerant, more politically correct atmosphere than had occurred under his predecessor, one where there was “more groupthink” (sic!) and thus fewer ideas coming from individuals. He bandied about the word transparency. He used the word new several times, often in front of words like “initiatives,” and then, just for good measure I imagine, added words or phrases like transdisciplinarity or polymorphous vantage points. I wasn’t quite sure about the former term, and was (and remain) completely lost on the latter.
Of course this was many years ago now, and maybe he really used different words than these, but whatever he really said, it was more or less in such a vein, at least as far as I can recall all these years later. I am pretty sure of one thing, though: he advocated, more than just obliquely, for the community standards to usurp any possibly offensive ideas—ideas that did not conform to the community’s notions of what was acceptable. I don’t know for sure what he meant by that, but from the tone of the rest of the meeting, which was really more of a political rally, I imagine that he meant that such an offensive idea might be expected to come from someone on the “far right.”
Now before I go on, let me say that the far right, like the far left, often expresses some ideas that are to my mind unbecoming. If fascists, Nazis and racists represent the far right, then I am as disgusted as the next man (or, rather, as Prime Minister Trudeau would say, the next people[-kind]). And nobody likes hearing Nazis talk, especially when they are running for congress in Illinois in 2018. Wow. But to say they haven’t the right to have their bad opinions or to express them—well, that’s a “wow,” too. In fact, one could cogently make the case that simply removing bad ideas doesn’t make them go away. It could make them worse. Al-Qaeda was more destructive when it was bunkered in caves than when it was out in the open where it could get shot. Simply suppressing bad ideas doesn’t allow you to construct positive alternatives to them, to address their underlying concerns constructively and with a view to the common good.
Where I am I going with all this? To Chicago, I think. Not the Chicago Tribune, with which this piece began, but to the “Chicago Statement,” which seems to me the most sensible statement since that of President Everett Piper of the Oklahoma Wesleyan University who said to a student who was complaining being victimized, “This is not a daycare. It’s a university.”
All coddling aside, here is the Chicago Statement, written by Geoffrey R. Stone, Professor and former Provost, taken directly from the University of Chicago’s website:
Eighty years ago, a student organization at the University of Chicago invited William Z. Foster, the Communist Party’s candidate for President, to lecture on campus. This triggered a storm of protest from critics both on and off campus. To those who condemned the University for allowing the event, University President Robert M. Hutchins responded that “our students . . . should have freedom to discuss any problem that presents itself.” He insisted that the “cure” for ideas we oppose “lies through open discussion rather than through inhibition.” On a later occasion, Hutchins added that “free inquiry is indispensable to the good life, that universities exist for the sake of such inquiry, [and] that without it they cease to be universities.”
This incident captures both the spirit and the promise of the University of Chicago. Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn. Except insofar as limitations on that freedom are necessary to the functioning of the University, the University of Chicago fully respects and supports the freedom of all students, faculty and staff “to discuss any problem that presents itself,” free of interference.
This is not to say that this freedom is absolute. In narrowly-defined circumstances, the University may properly restrict expression, for example, that violates the law, is threatening, harassing, or defamatory, or invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests. Moreover, the University may reasonably regulate the time, place and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University.
Fundamentally, however, the University is committed to the principle that it may not restrict debate or deliberation because the ideas put forth are thought to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the members of the University community to make those judgments for themselves.
As a corollary to this commitment, members of the University community must also act in conformity with this principle. Although faculty, students and staff are free to criticize, contest and condemn the views expressed on campus, they may not obstruct, disrupt, or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.
For members of the University community, as for the University itself, the proper response to ideas they find offensive, unwarranted and dangerous is not interference, obstruction, or suppression. It is, instead, to engage in robust counter-speech that challenges the merits of those ideas and exposes them for what they are. To this end, the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.
As Robert M. Hutchins observed, without a vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry, a university ceases to be a university. The University of Chicago’s long-standing commitment to this principle lies at the very core of the University’s greatness.
In these politically correct, trigger-warning-ready, safe-space-provided, coddling times in which we live, the Chicago Statement seems to me to be a good kind of wow.
The title of this blog is anything but titillating. I chose it for that reason. It is meant to challenge us to ask a fundamental question: Why would anyone do anything boring? Life is tragically short. Given that fact, I think it is perfectly legitimate to ask why anyone would choose to do something boring.
I have a friend who is a philologist, and you can imagine even from the career description encapsulated in his professional title that he has what most people would deem to be a boring job. Perhaps an aversion to such boring jobs provides the very rationale, to the extent that there is a rationale beyond “ratings” or “advertising dollars,” for “extreme” television shows, or even reality television shows, which seem to me far from real. To take but one example, this week, when I had a bad headache, I turned on the television. We haven’t cable television, but as I occasionally like to watch sporting events, we decided to purchase an antenna that would allow us to get local channels. Now that everything is digital, we actually only sort-of get the local channels, as they often barely come in on time; there are all kinds of data transfer delays so that you often just see blocks of pictures popping up, especially, it seems at critical moments in a sporting event. But no matter—such is the digital age in which we live, like it or not.
But back to the headache. As I convalesced for a few minutes I did what I rarely do—turned on the television for a non-sporting event, only to find a telling example of reality television. Reality? It was a dating program where the same man kissed many women and then got to pick which one he would send home from his harem, presumably because she didn’t kiss well enough. What a message, I thought for young people: for young women, that they need to “compete” to get a boyfriend, in this case a creepy one and, for young men, that they should think of women as commodities, like automobiles, to be test driven and then chosen. Such a sad world we live in now. I’m afraid the show just made my headache worse.
Well, I thought to myself, what is the alternative? Is the alternative to embrace the “boring”? Church, by comparison, must seem very boring. Helping at the local recycling center must seem very boring. Volunteering at a shelter for the poor must seem very boring, too, by comparison with reality televisions shows like that one.
But that’s when I thought of why in fact the reality television show is actually the boring thing—indeed I did find it very boring, as I could stomach it only for a few minutes while I sharpened my thoughts in my throbbing head about it. The reality is that going to a shelter to help the poor is anything but boring. You actually meet really interesting people there—real people with real problems—and you get to speak with them about your life, perhaps even what God has done in your life, if you’re volunteering through a religiously based organization. And God is not boring because he is not the God of “and”—for the man had this woman and that woman and then would send one of them home and next week start all over again and choose the next loser and send her home and then refine his harem and then pick another loser and so on. That’s the world of and, and, and. Advertisers thrive on it: you need this thing and this thing, oh, and by the way, that one, too. And then comes the next commercial. And, and, and …
But God is the God of buts. He says your life is a mess, but I am here to help you. You think you need this and this and that, but you really just need me. To the women in that television show, he says the world turns you into a commodity, but I say you are a human being. To the male star of that television show (and perhaps to any man watching it), he says you want woman upon woman but you won’t be satisfied until you let go of your hedonism and listen to the buts of the Ten Commandments and the buts of the whole story of the Bible. Moses was a murderer, but he was called to lead the people of God. Jacob was a trickster, but he would bear the name of Israel. Joseph was in jail, but he came to rule over Pharaoh’s kingdom. His brothers threw him into a pit, but he forgave them. Peter was a fisherman, but he was called to follow. Paul was persecuting Christians, but he became one. Lazarus was in the tomb and there was a bad odor, Mary said, after all the time he was in there, but Christ called him out. Jesus was dead—but he arose.
But all that is boring churchy stuff—religion, hocus pocus in the age of scientific reality. Yet if reality television is any indication of the alternative, of the reality of this psychologically needy and spiritually defunct age, maybe, just maybe the boring might start to look, if not exciting by comparison, at the very least more palatable, for if it claims miracles—a good, highly educated friend of mine only came to believe in miracles when he saw them occur repeatedly in his own life—it still offers something that the stark world of reality doesn’t quite offer: hope. Hope is what we really need because hope says what God says: but. I’m in a mess now, but there’s hope.
Here I will end, I think, my discourse on the boring, as I have invited a friend to church tomorrow not with a promise of anything but that it may seem boring. We will sing, we will pray, we will listen. That sounds, I imagine, pretty boring. Boring, yes, but for a small word—but.
 I owe the refining of my thoughts about the word “but” to a sermon by Rev. Philip DeCourcy (“Jonah, Man on the Run,” 4th part in the series) who cites a similar observation by the late Rev. James Montgomery Boyce of Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia.
Coincidentally, I was in a hotel shuttle with a couple who hail from Oskarshamn, Sweden. “What a small world,” I said. “One of my favorite authors, Axel Munthe, comes from there.”
“Oh, yes,” they said, “we love Axel Munthe.” They were on their way to Disneyland, but I on quite another errand of consulting for a Californian liberal arts college.
“It’s a small world after all,” I said, not being able to resist, once I had discovered where they were heading. Chuckles all round.
But the essence of today’s blog is yet another coincidence. Not that seeing my old friend from high school was coincidental, for it was not. Indeed, a few weeks before we had planned the rendez-vous at a restaurant on the San Clemente pier; and what spectacular views of the Pacific coast can be seen from that pier! And the conversation was loaded with coincidences, too, if you believe in that sort of thing, for it takes a certain kind of faith to believe in coincidence. I haven’t that faith; I rather invest mine in Providence.
A quick synopsis of the conversation with John: life, family—kids in particular—jobs. And that is when it got interesting—how he had gotten his current position through a labyrinth of coincidences. And mine, too, I said. How I had come to be writing what I am writing now—no, I shan’t tell you, my reader, as that must remain between me and John until it is completed—and so much more. My work in California, and the potential for more where that came from, and on and on. All of which was loaded with coincidences, coincidences that can, in my view, best be explained by Providence, as it seemed that some of them were so coincidental as to suggest the evidence of the intervention of a divine hand, a divine plan.
“As you know, I am a moral agnostic,” John said, and then he added with a wry smile, “Probably the only happy agnostic I know.” I agreed that he is one of the few truly content moral agnostics that I know. And I agreed that he is moral, for he is. He lives by a moral code. And in spite of his clearly moral posture, a friend had, he shared with me, given him a copy of Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ. I told John about an old friend of mine, a doctor also named John, who had read that book and become a Christian.
“Yet,” I added, “I think you would enjoy C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity more. It’s really written for moral agnostics.” I then recapitulated a bit about C.S. Lewis’ life and his connection to J.R.R. Tolkien and the other Inklings.
We parted, John generously picked up the tab, and I got in my car and thought of what I should have added, of course, about morality, for I agreed with him that these days our society needs a good dose of morality and its twin sister civility. But what I didn’t state as clearly as I might have is that morality must have a source, an authority outside of ourselves, for if morality just comes from within us, one person’s morality could look very different from that of another’s. One person might justify stealing or lying or coercing or bullying and even casting aspersions on someone as means to a greater end, while another might see lying or the other nasty behaviors just enumerated as wrong under nearly all circumstances, or even all circumstances. In other words, as Lewis shows deftly in Mere Christianity, we are ourselves not the buoys or the stars and we are certainly not the compass or the magnetic poles. We are, rather the ships, or better the pilots of our own ships, and sailing out of line can damage or even sink our neighbor’s ships, too.Without doubt we, as captains, can and sometimes must use dead reckoning to sail, but that would only be on a cloudy day when we can’t see the sky and we have misplaced our compass. So, being moral is great—good ship captains are welcome—but it necessarily derivative. And then the question becomes, derivative of what source? And that source does in fact matter very much. Do we really want it to be textless, ever-shifting cultural groupthink? Are there not founts (maybe Cicero Plato, Aristotle?) or an even higher source (perhaps the Ten Commandments?) that speak to our moral formation better than pop music, reality T.V. shows, Dear Abby or the op ed page?
Alas, I neither got that far in my thinking nor we in our conversation. Why not? I would like to say it was only because I had a plane to catch, but in reality it was because I am not as mentally quick on my feet as I would like to pretend I am. Yet it was a delight to see an old friend, and a joy to think through the need for civil discourse in a world so fallen, so in need of kindness, so lacking in grace and forgiveness. But there I go again, sounding like someone lamenting, “In my day it was much better…” But maybe, just maybe it was, and the only way back to that day or an even brighter and better one is to find, once again, our moral moorings and, most importantly, the Source that gives those moorings its authority. Not that it was all perfectly clear even “in my day,” but maybe just knowing that it is there at all can be our first step toward what Plato calls “the good,” as we navigate in these waters that have of late become choppy in terms of morality and simply civility. But the faith to get through it, to find the moorings, and to act on their teachings—that’s where coincidence ends and Providence begins.
In his own words, Captain Henry Bell, who served in the court of King James of England, when he was soundly sleeping one night, saw a frightening vision of “an ancient man,” who grasped Captain Bell by his ear. That vision admonished him to translate a book that the captain had cryptically received from a German gentleman named Casparus Van Sparr, a friend of the captain whom he had met in Germany. Thousands of copies of that book, known as the Colloquia Mensalia (in German, Tischreden), had been burned throughout Germany to the delight of Ferdinand II but the chagrin of many German protestants, for it is, of course, the wittiest work of Martin Luther. One copy of that book, however, that captain recounts, had actually been mummified and preserved “deep into the ground, under … [a building’s] old foundation, … lying in a deep obscure hole, being wrapped in a strong linen cloth, which was waxed all over with bees-wax, within and without; whereby the book was preserved fair, without any blemish.”
The captain’s narrative, dated to 3 July 1650, reads as if it were a combination of a detective novel, a moment of poetic inspiration, and a remarkable account of supernatural intervention in a para-biblical narrative. Bell himself comes off at once as a character from ancient epic instructed by a divinity (e.g., Aeneas heeding Hector’s ghost in Aeneid 2 or Mercury’s charge in Aeneid 4); Joseph, jailed but remaining faithful in the midst of a long sentence only to be sprung from prison if not in return for, at least in light of, his faithful obedience; and Boethius, whose consolation was Philosophy (whereas for the captain it is Theology):
“… about six weeks after I had received the said book, it fell out, that I being in bed one night, between twelve and one of the clock, my wife being asleep, by myself yet awake, there appeared unto me an ancient man, standing at my bedside, arrayed all in white, having a long and broad white beard hanging down to his girdle steed, who taking me by my right ear, spake these words following unto me: ‘Sirrah! will not you take time to translate that book which is sent unto you out of Germany? I will shortly provide for you both time and place to do it’; and then he vanished away out of my sight.”
The captain soon goes on to explain the Boethius-like circumstances under which he would render the Tischreden.
“… sitting down to dinner with my wife, two messengers were sent from the whole council-board, with a warrant…. Upon which said warrant I was kept ten whole years close prisoner, where I spent five years thereof about the translating the said book; insomuch as I found the words very true which the old man, in the aforesaid vision, did say unto me –’I will shortly provide for you both place and time to translate it.’”
Eventually Captain Bell would be released from prison by an order of the House of Lords, and his Table Talk—for that is the English titled when translated from either the Latin or the German, cited above—or, rather, Martin Luther’s Table Talk, would become well known in the English speaking world, having been duly approved by the House of Commons in February of 1646. And thus, in his recounting of the entire affair, which was obviously quite an ordeal for the captain, he concludes:
“…now bringing them [the Tischreden] again to light, I have done the same according to the plain truth thereof, not doubting but they will prove a notable advantage of God’s glory, and the good and edification of the whole Church, and an unspeakable consolation of every particular member of the same.”
Now at this moment you just might be wondering why I tell this story in this week’s blog? Well, I will tell you, for there are a couple of good reasons. First, the Captain, however kooky he might seem to you, was obviously a man of some noble character, for he embodies perseverance and grace under fire. Jailed unfairly, like Joseph of the book of Genesis, Captain Bell does not kvetch about it but rather accepts it as a part of his story, a part of the rich beauty of his purpose in life which involved, I think it seems fair to say, the preservation of Martin Luther’s dinnertime remarks. These include moments of amazing insight combined with moments of raucous humor, scathing curses (mostly directed at Erasmus or the pope), and moments of tender reflection on the value of liberal education. And they’re funny, and give us a real glimpse of the personality of Martin Luther and some of his cronies. Second, the good Captain shows, too, the value of knowing another language well, in his case German. And third, the story shows—and this is the amazing bit—how history can sometimes hang by a thread. We can lose a valuable chunk of it all too easily, in the twinkling of an eye. In this case though, we wouldn’t have lost the Table Talk, we would most certainly have lost Captain Bell’s understanding of it. How perilously close we came to that, so close. Yet because the good Captain saw purpose in his life, even in captivity, and because he believed his work was worth something, he persevered in the face of opposition from an at first unfriendly government to find a way for his book, i.e. Luther’s book, to come into the English language.
And there you have it—a story you may not have known and a person of whom I don’t think we even have a single portrait but we do have this story about a brave and patient captain whose knowledge, obedience, and perseverance seem worth noting nearly four centuries now after the fact. We don’t know his face, but maybe now his name at least rings a bell.
Well, this title may be a bit misleading—but I do intend to suggest how to build a library below. But I need to back up a bit, to suggest first why to build a library. Now when I say “build” I don’t mean physically to build a building or anything like that. Rather, I mean to build a library collection. And when I say why, I don’t propose that one size fits all. Some folks are not readers—and that’s okay, it’s not sinful not to be a reader. So if you’re married to one, that’s alright, too. You needn’t file for divorce because your husband or wife happens to prefer watching Game of Thrones to reading Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, which I have not yet read myself, but I want to.
But you obviously are a reader, for you are reading this. Chances are, therefore, you read books, too. And if you do, you should probably think about building a library. Why? Because outside of character, books are the best legacy you can leave to your children, if you happen to have them. Books inform character. Yes, I just wrote that. Books inform character, and they tell you something about someone’s character. This is pretty obvious if you look at, say, someone’s movie collection. If they have lots of “spicy” titles, even X-rated titles, well, then, I don’t think I have to explain that to you. If they have classic films in their collection, that says something else again. Likewise books—we are what we eat and we are even more what we read, for food shapes the body but books the mind. So be careful of what you put in your mouth and what changes into the cells that make up your body—for bad food makes bad cells, and bad cells are called cancer. But good food and good books—you can do the math.
Building that library, putting good books in your library, will tell your children someday a lot about you, for they will inherit your books. And remember, while you’re off in the kitchen cooking, your dinner guest is sitting in your sitting room doing what? Well, I always find myself looking at peoples’ bookshelves. Why? I’m curious about what they’re like to read, of course. Aren’t you? Don’t you? Aren’t you curious? (Now that sound’s familiar, for it’s the theme of this website and the Curious Autobiography, a book you really should read. Not that I’m trying to make you feel guilty for not having read it by now, especially if it is already in your library. But maybe, then again, I am.
Well, so that’s why to build a library, one rich in good books. But now, how? Well, that’s a bit easier. Amazon Prime? Yes, that works. But better, of course, to go to a bookstore and peruse. Now that bookstores like Barnes and Noble often have coffee bars attached, how can that not be a good idea? And there’s nothing better than smelling a fresh book. Nothing better. Not even smelling delicious coffee. But books and coffee do go together quite well.
Finally, where will you keep all the books? Well, you’ll see from the pictures of my own library here in this blog that there are all kinds of nice storage places, from the tool room to the garage-converted-into-a-library. So, go for it! Read? Yes. Buy? Yes, or at least borrow from your local lending library. And, whatever you do, unless you give a book away, don’t ever get rid of your books. Build yourself a wonderful library, instead, book by book. Tolle, lege! “Pick it up and read it!”
Well, now, there’s a provocative headline for you, n’est-ce pas? I’m sure you agree, I mean, about the title being provocative. But seriously, I have had many a friend ask me how one can determine God’s will. It’s a scary question, in a sense, even otherworldly, especially if you turn around the possessive from “God’s will” (friendly sounding) to “the will of God” or “the will of the Lord” (more august, a touch scarier). Some of those friends are spiritual folks, like a good friend of mine from Montana, who earnestly tries to do the right thing and sometimes calls me for advice, advice ultimately about what God’s will might be for the next big decision, the next step in that friend’s life. Other folks, who themselves are quite skeptical about spiritual things, ask me a bit more petulantly, almost mockingly, as if I couldn’t possibly really know what God’s will is. And they’re right to think that I am no oracle or even a holy, religious man. I am just a Christian, and a boring one (Lutheran) at that, which may obliquely make the title of this blog even more provocative.
I write this week, I confess, somewhat autobiographically, which is fitting, I suppose, for a website entitled The Curious Autobiography. I myself have often faced big decisions, and who knows, I may even have to do again soon. In any case, I recently found myself asking how I may know what the will of God is. And I thought about what I have done in the past when confronted with a big decision: what worked and what didn’t work. In thinking about the question of God’s will, the answer simply donned on me, so I thought I would share it cathartically with you.
That answer—the short version at least—lies in what one might call “overlaying” or “mapping.” For me that begins with prayer and knowing some key bible passages well enough to have them at my fingertips; if you’re a sceptic, perhaps I’ve already lost you. Perhaps you think the Bible just an old and irrelevant book and you haven’t prayed since you were six years old. But, I think I will just tell you anyway, if you’ll keep reading. Because I believe God to be a loving, kind, and tender person (an opinion about him I have largely derived from the comportment of his Son), I ask Him not that I may know precisely what His will is, or for a sign that would confirm that x or y or z is His will, but rather I ask Him to equip me to learn from this new challenge what I need to learn and, most of all, ultimately to seek to do His will, even when I don’t know what it is or even why it is. In other words, I ask God to make me like a character from the Bible who behaved in a similar fashion, particularly one whom I perceive to have been in a similar situation.
Such mapping can vary widely, as the situations of the assorted characters of the Bible so vary. So, to take a banal example, a few weeks ago I invited a friend over to dinner whose spouse had been out of town for quite a while and I thought it would be nice to share a meal together. So I perhaps was thinking of Zacchaeus, the wee little man who welcomed Jesus to dinner on short notice. Or perhaps I thought of him the first time I did that kind of thing on short notice and now have simply become Zacchaeus to some extent. I am so used to imitating him that I don’t have to look at my arm-band and think, “WWZD?” (“What would Zacchaeus do?”). That’s a rather mundane example. But when I moved with my family to Texas from New Jersey, a long time ago now, the mapping was more extreme—it was more like Abram leaving Ur of the Chaldeans, where he and Sarai had been, I suppose, more or less happy Chaldeans minding their own Chaldean business, hoping to have a large Chaldean family but being entirely unsuccessful. Yet, perhaps they were content with just trying to do so when they were young. And yes, no doubt as time wore on they were frustrated by their lack of success. But maybe not having children allowed them to amass wealth that might not have happened otherwise. I’m not sure. It seems from Scripture that Abraham eventually became pretty wealthy, and I imagine that my wife and I would be a much wealthier if we had not had children or, if we had had, as Abraham and Sarah (and Hagar) eventually did, only two children, one of whom was sent packing with no alimony payments. Poor Ishmael, and Hagar, too; at least, though I’ve always found it strange, Hagar got some nice double-knit slacks named after her.
And there is, of course, in these paradigms, also anti-paradigms. Each of these folks were not perfect, so we have to learn from their mistakes as much as from their steps of faith. But in the end, I want to remember as we look at their lives, what they did that was noble and good and was clearly “doing God’s will,” and I seek to do likewise. Moses obeyed God and, even though he was happy herding sheep on Mount Horeb, he listened to God and did what God told him to do. Joseph was an obnoxious teenager as I suppose I was, but when God rescued him from the pit and had him sold into slavery, he remembered the faithful God of his youth and obeyed Him and received God’s special gifts and blessings—even though he was in jail. Gosh, I’ve felt like Joseph a time or two.
And David was minding his own business until he saw Goliath making a fool of the army of God. He could bare it no longer and became the highest paradigm of faithful heroism. Inspired by David’s bravery, no doubt many a soldier has dived on a grenade to save others in the foxhole.And Abraham of the Chaldeans, he is the one that St. Paul holds up as the best example of all: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness” (Romans 4:5). The writer of Hebrews, too, speaks of Abraham’s faithfulness “by faith, Abraham, when he was called to go … went out, not knowing whither he went.…” (Hebrews 11:8).
“Now you’re waxing theological,” someone from the skeptical set might say, “and you’re losing me.” I apologize but, seriously, what do you expect from a blog entitled, “How to Determine God’s Will”? And with that I will close. I determine God’s will simply by studying characters in the Bible who I perceive to have done God’s will and then I try to do likewise. And I will do that same thing with my next big decision. In the meantime, I will try at every opportunity to show good hospitality like Zacchaeus, a wee little man with, no doubt, a big heart.
You might think a blogger would love op eds. “After all,” someone might say, “a blog is really just an op ed of a different sort.” Point taken. Yet, hopefully, this blog, is more, even though it purports to be from a residual Welshman, i.e. someone of Welsh heritage so distant that if he doesn’t do something about that, such as each week writing a piece called the Residual Welshman’s Blog, it would be lost.
“Is your ‘Welsh’ heritage really so worthy of preservation?” that same someone might query. “Why don’t you just do what everyone else does—move on, get on with your ‘American’ identity already. Get over this vain preservation of your romantic notions of ‘heritage.’” I’m sorry, this time point not taken.
Why? Because dealing with history, grappling with our own history, is actually not as much cathartic as it is enlightening. We must ask questions about how we got where we are, recognizing that “we” is not simply ourselves but it is the collection of those who made us who we are—our parents, our grandparents and, if we are lucky enough to remember them, our great-grandparents. Yes, as the Bible says, “we are not our own,” though I think St. Paul means what he says there (“and you are not your own” [καὶ οὐκ ἐστὲ ἑαυτῶν], 1 Cor 6:19) in a different way in that passage. There he is talking about redemption. Yet maybe I am, too, or at least what must lead up to redemption, for that same saint explains that you can’t self-redeem any more than you can self-birth or self-resurrect. We are part of a larger, human family, and that human family, like our own family, has problems.
What I am getting at, then, with this blog is the first thing we should do, if we want really to go forward into, say, the new year resolved to be better people—assuming betterment is on your mind at all—is to confront the truth of who we are, how we have become who we are, not forgetting the past but embracing it, confronting it, dealing with it, and maybe even admiring some parts of it. For there just may be some folks in our personal histories we admire. For me there certainly are.
I think a recent op ed. that I reluctantly read but basically agreed with states this pretty well. It’s about confronting the truth, taking ourselves out of our psychological safe spaces and looking hard and long at ourselves and saying, “Well, this needs to change.” And some of that may come with reminding ourselves why it needs to change. Maybe it’s just a matter of being a bit overweight, so for our health, our longevity, and our role in our family or our need to be a good example to others that we need to lose weight. Or maybe it’s something even more serious, like our comportment or something we do that we know our grandparents would never have approved of. Maybe that kind of recollection of the past can urge us to make some changes. Maybe we can learn to forgive more quickly, too—I speak for myself. I know for me, in that sense, my grandparents, who taught me the “law,” as it were, also provide an example of grace.
Thus, as we get ready to launch into the new year, I hope you and I and all of us can exercise the good judgment that hopefully our forebears once did, and be tough enough on ourselves to make the changes that need to be made, while showing the grace to others that, I hope may be true for you, our grandparents once showed to us. Paradoxically it all starts, as every new beginning always does, with the past.
Around the holidays there are only a few things that I’ve done that I’ve felt somewhat odd about doing that I later was really glad I did. Skiing is not one of them. I felt perfectly good about skiing, and enjoyed it even though I am not that good at it.
This is true of wearing odd Christmas clothing. Now I don’t do this often—in fact, like most people, I do it only during one period of the year. Inasmuch as we live in Texas, instead of sweaters, my wife and I sometimes don matching Christmas tee-shirts, which I will occasionally put directly over my regular holiday attire. For me, that might include a Christmas tie, and at least the knot of the tie is then visible above the neck of the tee-shirt and, as you may have guessed, meant to coordinate with it (a red tie and a green shirt). But wearing a tee-shirt over an oxford shirt, itself cordoned off with a tie is, in any other circumstance, unacceptable; yet it is one of those awkward things one can do this time of year and it is fine, just fine. Anyway, it’s acceptable during this season.
The same cannot be said for eating lingua all’agrodolce (beef tongue in sweet and sour sauce), a Sicilian favorite, especially around the holidays. Some years ago when confronted with beef tongue, I must say that I felt very odd about eating it and I have never looked back upon that experience and said, “Wow, now there’s something I’m glad I did” or, “I can’t wait till I have my next bite of tongue.” In fact I’ve always felt a bit guilty about eating someone else’s tongue, even if that someone else was a cow. They have such prominent tongues, after all, the way that peacocks have tails or camels humps. Might it be akin to eating a camel’s hump? I am not sure, but at least, I don’t think, in any culture peacock tails are deemed to be edible—even fried.
Yet when it comes to visiting a nursing home and, especially, spending a few minutes with some elderly people, whether you know them or not, singing Christmas carols to them, well that’s a far cry from tongue eating. In fact, it’s the opposite, I think, as you must use your own tongue and the wind in your lungs to sing to some folks whom you may not know or who, even if you do, no longer recognize you quite; but they are, you imagine and certainly hope, enjoying your best attempt at singing.
Now, when I say “your” I mean a group, not just one person; maybe you have brought a friend with you, or even a group of friends, or some family members. It’s great that way, singing in a nursing home, I mean. And, in any case, one person singing Christmas carols might well be a bit awkward. But there is, indeed, strength in numbers. So bring some family or friends, too, if you can.
And that’s what I would like to say this Christmas. Why not put on your tackiest Christmas sweater (or in my case, pullover tee-shirt) and try something odd but good, not like beef tongue but like visiting a nursing home and putting your arm around someone who needs you to do that? I, for one, am planning to do so. And, yes, given the opportunity, I will sing, too. In so doing, hopefully I may even bring joy to someone, a new friend but one who is, in fact, old, quite old.
Merry Christmas, friends! Please do, if the spirit moves, go and sing for there is joy in the air, theological yes, even divine, but also very human, as well.
Christmas Excerpt from The Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes (pp. 108–114):
Simply being the neighbor of Mr. Charles Miller—the cowriter with Johnny Gruelle and Will Woodin of Raggedy Ann’s Sunny Songs, music that had made him famous some forty years before I knew him—helped me, if not to remove, at least to assuage the pain of some of the blotches on the escutcheon of my character. Mr. Miller’s deliverance came not by any words he said, though his words were kind, but merely because Sheila and I made Mr. Miller the object of our annual “Christmas ministry.” This sounds strange, I realize, because, as I have explained earlier, both Sheila and I (especially Sheila, but also I, if only incidentally) were practicing Jews. Yet I had recalled and now imitated my father’s various ministries to persons of poor fortune, many of which had been performed under the auspices of the church, of course.
Harry always went further than the mere parameters of any ministerial mission. If the church’s holiday ministry were to bring a poor family a Thanksgiving turkey, Harry would size up that family when he brought in the bird, accompanied, in accordance with the normal Jakesian attitude of generosity, by a full range of fixings and fresh bread and good Welsh Hên Sîr cheese. Having guessed the sizes of the children’s clothing, he would then go straight out to the army/navy store on Wyoming Avenue—for he loved to buy his clothes in that particular store—and buy ample amounts of clothing for the family. He would then put it in a box and leave it on the porch of the family so that they would find it when they came home. Indeed, Harry loved to use porches to give unexpected presents. On the occasion of my son’s fifth birthday, for example, Harry sent the excited lad out of doors to get the paper. Upon returning, my son delightfully discovered, hard by the front door, a shiny red bicycle with training wheels.
Such were the days of joy when we lived in my father’s house. But I return to Mr. Miller, whose special breakfast we served, every Christmas from 1968 to 1971. This gentle little old man incidentally provided me with a baby step toward redemption, not by works—lest I should have boasted, which, I confess, I did—but by the infusion of grace, through faith that had not yet come to me, but was en route, if coming in a slow boat. Among his rich and varied accomplishments, Mr. Charles Miller had briefly played professional baseball when he was twenty years old for the 1912 St. Louis Browns. […] Mr. Miller and I lived just behind Rob and Rich’s store, and we slowly became friendly. Mr. Miller was virtually a shut-in by the mid-1960s, when he was already an old man, and Sheila and I invited him to Christmas breakfast. We knew he was not Jewish, and, though we were, we knew that he should not spend Christmas Day alone. Added to this was the fact that he clearly enjoyed our company. So, each year on Christmas Day, I would prepare him pancakes and bacon, though Sheila meticulously avoided eating any—nor would my son. I perhaps snuck a piece or two during the preparation of the unclean meat, but, I rationalized, this was only to ensure that it was properly cooked so that we would not make Mr. Miller ill.
The delightful old man therefore offered Sheila and me a good excuse to celebrate Christmas, something I had sorely missed ever since quasi-converting to Judaism in 1964. I had always loved the story of the wise men, and, nearly as much, I wistfully recalled Christmas carols, with their eternally optimistic message of hope for humankind. Besides, having Mr. Miller over gave me an excuse to set up the Christmas yard, which I had loved to do since childhood. The Christmas yard, in turn, provided a reason to get a Christmas tree, which afforded me the opportunity to trim the tree and decorate the apartment, and of course to send out Christmas (and Hanukkah) cards, which gave me a pretext for celebrating both holidays, though emphasizing Hanukkah, of course. And celebrating Christmas allowed me again to create a space for my parents in the holiday season, because they could then visit us, mutely rejoicing in my gradual return toward Christendom with every Christmas present they gave their grandson. Perhaps to deemphasize the material aspect of the holidays, I would always tell my son in advance of Christmas specifically what Harry and Blanche had bought him, and then instruct him to act surprised on Christmas Day.
“Why, Mother, why?” he would ask.
“Because you don’t want to hurt their feelings.”
“No, not that. Why,” he would inquire, “do you tell me every year what they bought me in advance?”
“So that you can act surprised,” I would say with a mildly aggravated tone.
“No,” he would say, “I mean, why don’t you just not tell me so I can actually be surprised.”
“Because, if you were not to like what they bought you, you would not want to hurt their feelings, would you?”
“But Mother, in that case I could just act like I liked whatever it was that they bought me. Besides, I always do like what they buy me.”
“Just shut up and act surprised. More tea, Mr. Miller?” I said on Christmas morning, 1968, changing the topic of conversation.
“Yes, that would be fine, thank you.”
“What was it like writing all that music, you know, for the Raggedy Ann musical?”
“Well, it was exciting. We were in the big town in those days, in New York, I mean. Johnny Gruelle and I would go to the apartment of one of our closest friends, Will Woodin. Locking ourselves in for the whole weekend, we would just compose, and we would compose for hours. I mostly wrote down the musical scores while Johnny worked on the lyrics with Will, though we all worked on all of it together. I was the purest musician, and Johnny was the storyteller, while Will, whose true gift lay in keeping the finances, did a bit of both. Those were great days, and I was able to quit my job at Harms music and start my own business. There were tough times, as well, because in the midst of all our activity the stock market crashed and the whole country suffered in, well, you know, Elaine, the worst of times. My company survived, but just barely. Still, we had a lot of fun in the midst of the storms of life.”
“My mother spoke many times of those years,” Sheila said, “often with tears in her eyes.” This was a fitting statement, for I thought I saw a bit of moisture coming to the eyes of Mr. Miller himself, whether it was merely his age or the nostalgia that the moment afforded us all.
“Yes, those were hard times, but Christmas always got us through, not simply because it was, and is, such a hopeful season,” Mr. Miller explained, “but because the sales of my musical scores did much better during that season of the year.”
“Did you write more music with Johnny Gruelle and Will … what was his name?” Sheila asked.
“Yes, we did work on a few more pieces together. But Will—Will Woodin—was only a musician on the side. His day job was that of a financier, and had our compositional trio stayed together, I’m sure Miller Music Co. would have made it much bigger than it did, for after leaving Harms—a name I always thought was too foreboding to have lasting success—I set up my own music business. And Will, well, boy did he make it big! Having garnered quite a name for himself in the financial world, he was tapped by none other than President Roosevelt to be the secretary of the treasury. This occurred during the critical years as America struggled out of the Depression. So fine at what he did was Will Woodin! About the same time Johnny had been having some health issues, so he moved to the warmer climes of Florida, which spelled the breakup of our team. Ah, but we had some great days in New York in the late twenties and early thirties.” He paused reflectively and added, “You know, my dears, I have no regrets, no regrets at all. It really was a wonderful life.”
“Mr. Miller, did you really play pro baseball?” My son piped in. “Mom said you did.”
“Well, as a matter of fact,” he said, stretching forth the neatly wrapped box that his old and wavering hands had brought with him, “I have a Christmas present for you, son. You open it, and I will tell you about my not-so-stellar baseball ‘career.’ ”
My son opened the box to find within a beautiful new baseball mitt. Mr. Miller explained the gift: “It’s a Rawlings infielder’s mitt, signed by Eddie Mathews. You know Eddie Mathews, don’t you? He was the famous third baseman of the once Boston, later Milwaukee, and lately Atlanta Braves.” He paused as my son turned the mitt over in his hands, sliding it on his left hand. “Mathews, you know, took Milwaukee to the World Series championship in ’57. What a fine long career Eddie had! He finally retired, playing his last season with the Detroit Tigers, just this past year,” Mr. Miller said smoothly, though it was clear that he was carefully reviewing the details of Eddie Mathews’s career in his mind even as he spoke.
“You can use this mitt for any infield position, except first base. I think you’ll turn out to be an infielder, son; I just have a feeling. You have a good baseball look to you, and a good baseball name.”
“Wow, Mr. Miller,” my son said, “I never had a mitt before.”
“Break it in well, my boy, and put plenty of oil on it. Oil’s the best stuff for a new mitt.”
So the next day my son went to Ristorante Villa Vito and oiled his mitt with a generous helping of Signora Favoroso’s olive oil, in which she had been soaking three cloves of garlic. For this reason his mitt always smelled more delectable than those of the other boys.
“My baseball career, I’m sorry to say, was, unlike Eddie Mathews’s, very short lived. I only ever played one game, coming up to bat twice, and grounding out both times. But my moment of fame, such as it was, came on a diving play in the infield. I was the St. Louis Browns’s new shortstop, young—if you can imagine it—energetic, and known for my glove. You know what I mean by ‘glove,’ don’t you? It’s baseball talk for fielding ability.
“Now I wanted to show the manager, George Stovall, that I could really play. The Browns had been terrible the year before and were not doing so well even for George, who had just taken over his managerial role, and was thus trying all kinds of things to get the team on a winning track. He wanted a good defensive unit, and when he heard about my fielding capabilities, he put me out there at shortstop in the seventh inning, hoping for my defense to help the team close out that game with a win. This was important because we had lost more than a hundred games in 1911 and we were on a similar trajectory that year. So here I was, fresh to the majors—I had only been called up at the end of June—playing what would be my one and only game on August 19, 1912, against the crosstown rival St. Louis Cardinals.”
“Oh, the nineteenth of August. That’s my birthday!” I piped in.
“It was the bottom of the ninth, and, as I said, I had batted twice already, to no avail, but now I was in the field at my shortstop position and ready to help our team close out this game with a win. A runner was on first, and there were two outs. Crack went the bat, and the ball went toward our third baseman at a clip. Lunging to his left, Jimmy—Jimmy Austin—snagged the ball and then zipped it toward second where I had to reach for it. The ball was thrown low, toward the legs of the base runner in full slide. I caught the ball, and tagged the runner, but I heard a loud popping sound as I tagged. Nevertheless, I managed to get the ball out of my mitt cleanly and fire it off to first base, completing the double play and getting us a badly needed win.”
“What was the popping noise?” my son asked.
“When I looked down at my arm, I saw my hand just hanging there by the skin. The wrist bone was completely severed, and the pain was, well …” He paused and lifted his left hand, pulling up the sleeve of his old man’s cardigan sweater to display the slightly misshapen limb. “I could never play baseball again. But as you can see, over time it healed, if a little crooked. That’s why I pursued my second love, music, and became a musician. And, thus, my life healed, too.”
It was time for cheese now, and I brought out my cheese plate, thanking God without words that Mr. Miller had forced me to keep Christmas, if not in my heart, at least in my home. It’s funny, I thought to myself, how Christmas is like the pungent smell of certain types of cheese. It has a kind of buoyancy, an annoying obstinacy. I later realized that Christmas shares that characteristic with Welsh Presbyterianism. Though we had eaten breakfast less than an hour before, Mr. Miller indulged in a sizable hunk of Hên Sîr cheese on a Carr’s water biscuit.
“The face on that cheese plate is, for all its luster, rather disturbing, Elaine,” Mr. Miller said, as I served him a second piece of the flavorful Welsh cheese. “Would it be possible, do you suppose, to turn it round the other direction?”