Another Wave

Photo by Allan Watson on Pexels.com

In May I wrote about “Coming Out of the Cave.” I wrote about some of the “normal” things we were starting to do. We’ve dined out and gone to public places without wearing masks. We booked a remodeling job in our home in October. I started making plans to sing with our choral group in the fall.

I wrote back then:

I hope we don’t have to return to the cave. But we don’t know what will happen with the virus. The worst nightmare is that it keeps getting more infectious and also causes more severe illness with high mortality rates. As long as it is out there, especially at significant levels, that is possible, especially with over half the country and much more of the world un-vaccinated. Because of that, I can’t think of a return to pre-pandemic “normal.” That is living in a dream. But like most of you, I will enjoy a bit more life outside the cave this summer.

What I hoped would not happen has. The Delta variant is sweeping through the country with huge rises in cases. It is at least 2 1/2 times more infectious as original COVID, and while the vaccines are very effective in preventing hospitalization and death, they are less so, in preventing infection. As one of the “over 65” crowd, my immune system isn’t as strong as younger people, and even a number of them who have been vaccinated have had “breakthrough” infections. Most of these are mild, but one doctor described mild as a bad cold or a case of the flu. That doesn’t sound great. A booster shot will help, but there aren’t any yet, and it will be some time. The six-month mark when the vaccine may begin to wane comes around the end of September for me.

So what does that mean? I will continue to worship with our “masked” church and resume wearing masks when I am shopping indoors. I will seek outdoor or take out dining. Indoor gatherings with large numbers where I don’t know the vaccination status seems really iffy. Long exposures mean enough exposure to this more infectious virus that may be more than my immune system can handle.

Looking at the infection curves of the previous waves, it appears waves take five to six months to wax and wane, peaking 2-3 months in. Officials are saying October will be bad. That would be about right. And maybe it will wane by January–if something new doesn’t come along.

I find myself both angry and sad. Fundamentally, I’m angry because this doesn’t have to be. While vaccines never provide complete protection, a high vaccination rate would make it much harder for this variant to take hold. I’m angered at the misinformation campaigns that have persuaded people that the vaccine is far worse than the virus, which is just plain wrong. The long term debilities and the deaths resulting from this are on them, and on the public officials who cave to them. I’m angry that those asserting their “freedom” end up making others less free and possibly sick.

And I’m sad. I’m sad for our economy, which will never fully recover until COVID is suppressed. I’m sad for all those like myself, who because of risk factors need to reconsider all the things we had just begun doing. Most of all, I am sad for all those who will die or get very sick who did not need to. I’m sad for kids who are getting sick because they can’t get vaccinated and the adults in their lives won’t. It all seems such a waste. I’m sad that we are so divided over this even in a time of crisis.

I’m not sure if I will sing with our choir (if they are able to). The choir is requiring proof of vaccination. But it is not clear that we will mask, and singing has been proven to be a very effective way of spreading COVID. Do I hope that no one is infected with a breakthrough infection, and that vaccinated people are unlikely to spread infection? [Update: In the 24 hours since I wrote this the CDC has announced that vaccinated persons who are infected do shed the virus in significant amounts and can infect others.] There is a lot we don’t know. I also have to think about my wife, who has had some health issues.

I’ve concluded that I can’t change anyone’s mind about these things. Given our divided state, and the challenge of vaccinating the world, I believe we will be dealing with COVID for a long time, as the virus keeps mutating and circulating. I think we will have alternating seasons of relative normalcy, and others of infection spikes. I will keep paying attention to infection rates and gauge my behavior appropriately.

And my faith? I will not “test” God by exposing myself to possible infection on purpose or recklessly. Nor will I presume that anything “protects” me–masks, vaccines, anything. I will use these means as gracious provisions of God to reduce my risk of infection but my trust is in God, not means. My trust is in the God who already has numbered my days. I believe I will live as long as God gives me life. I will do all I can not to be a source of infection to others.

While I’ve enjoyed life out of the cave, I’ve also discovered in the last year the richness of days shared with my wife, a good conversation with a friend, times with vaccinated friends and family, the beauties in my own backyard, and the delights of a good book. Philippians 4:12-13 is more real to me now than ever: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” Whether COVID waxes or wanes, and I believe it will continue to do both, Christ continues to be the one who gives me strength. And that is enough.

Consider the Lilies of the Field

Saksa Daylily Farm, Photo by Bob Trube, all rights reserved.

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin,  yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:28b-33, English Standard Version)

I spent last Saturday morning “considering the lilies of the field.” My wife and I are part of a plein air painting group. Many Saturdays will find us loading our easels and paints into the Outback and trekking off to a park or farm or small town (or even urban Columbus). This past Saturday, we painted at the Saksa Daylily Farm located outside Centerburg, Ohio, about 40 minutes from our home (by the way, Centerburg gets its name from being located at the geographic center of Ohio).

What a gorgeous place! Lilies of every variety as far as the eye could see. There were so many different varieties, and walking through the rows felt like walking through an art gallery, each variety a masterpiece. In the end, I focused on a single flower, and hardly did justice even to that. This is that flower:

“Lily,” Bob Trube, all rights reserved.

The starburst of yellow against the magenta petals, the stamens reaching up to the sun, the delicate veins and curling edges all caught my eye. Little wonder Jesus said that “Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these!” Jesus invites us to stop and consider the lilies of the fields and, in earlier words, the birds of the air and how God cares for them, and how much more God would care for us.

The field of lilies was a peaceful place, kissed by the sun and refreshing breezes. Such a contrast to the anxious life we often live. My own anxieties are less about food and clothing and more about what life in our senior years will look like. How long will we be able to remain in our home? What can we do to stay healthy as long as possible? What will the coming years bring? And often our thoughts are as much or more about our son and daughter-in-law as ourselves. We could not ask for better, but you never stop being a parent.

The verses above have been something of a watchword throughout my life. They were etched into my memory as a college student on a spring break outreach in Fort Lauderdale. A gifted jazz pianist, James Ward joined us in evening coffeehouse performances in an outdoor venue on the strip opposite the beaches. One of his songs was “Seek First the Kingdom (Consider the Lilies)” the first verse and chorus of which said:

Consider the lilies, how they grow,
Your heavenly Father takes control,
Are you not much more important than they?
What can your worrying do anyway?

Seek first the kingdom.
Keep the righteousness of God in view.
Seek first the kingdom.
He said all of these things will be added to you.

--James Ward, 1974

Ward’s song made sense out of my experience getting to Fort Lauderdale. I didn’t have either the money or a car to get there. People gave me money without knowing what for, and a friend lent us a car. It taught me that if I sought God’s will in God’s way, life wouldn’t always be easy, but God would take care of us. Over the years, we continued to live into the promise of this passage in moving to a new city and buying a house in a recession. Trusting God for a couple hundred dollars turned into trusting God for hundreds of thousands of dollars for the team God gave us to engage in ministry among students and faculty. We were sustained by God and his people through my wife’s two cancer diagnoses and a stubborn foot infection I faced. I could go on. We’ve been blessed to share forty-three years together.

The lilies at the lily farm reminded me of the promise we’ve lived into all of these years. The things that might cause us anxiety may be different from earlier years. The promise hasn’t changed. Most of all, the God who has proven faithful over the years as we’ve oriented our lives toward him hasn’t changed.

The lilies also recalled the song. I could not find the acoustic piano version I still have on vinyl, but I came across this jazzier version on YouTube. I like the version on my vinyl better, but this gives you a taste. It just might become a watchword for you.

Seek First the Kingdom (Consider the Lilies), James Ward

Climate Change In My Backyard

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

That’s what my lawn looks like in the middle of July. In many past years the grass is dry and going into dormancy, its natural response to the hot and dry weather of mid-summer.

Not this year. Our lawns are green and growing. The landscape has the lushness of spring. It has rained nearly every day of the last week. Someone may say it is just a weather pattern, like the hot weather in the west. While there is truth to that, climate scientists say the impact of a warming climate is an intensifying of these patterns. In the case of Central Ohio, where I live, we are in the fifth year of wetter than usual weather. Average rainfall in Columbus is 39.7 inches. Over the past four years the rainfall here has been:

YearRainfall
201746.7 inches
201855.2 inches
201944.0 inches
202050.5 inches

What I have observed is more rain events with heavy downpours with risks of everything from flooded basements to more widespread flooding. This corresponds to the predicted effects of climate change for our region. Sometimes, those rain events are dramatic–high winds, tornadoes, more lightning strikes.

Temperatures in Ohio have risen 1.2 to 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the last hundred years. While summers are wetter, we are also seeing more days over 90 degrees. The growing season is longer, I would estimate by 10 days on each end. While we have more rain, generally, we are having less snow and warmer winters.

Compared to some parts of the country, we are relatively fortunate. We don’t have the hurricanes of the southeast or the hot and dry weather and fire seasons of the west.

These are the kinds of things I think about given the changes we are seeing in our climate:

Water drainage is the big one. It begins with the gutters and downspouts on my house. With heavy downpours making sure these are clear and adequately can handle the water coming off the roof. Are all the drains to our street clear? Is the drain outside the landing to the backdoor on our lower level clear? Is the sump working properly (we replaced it last summer after bailing the pit during a heavy rainstorm)? I’m also looking at all the grading around our house to make sure water is flowing away from the house.

Warmer and wetter conditions invite insects. Ticks and mosquitoes are a growing concern. Ticks can transmit Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Mosquitoes carry West Nile Virus, and Zika could also become an issue. Now an evening working in the yard includes a tick check on oneself and one’s clothes. We look for any standing water where mosquitoes can breed.

Last summer, we cleaned out an interior storage closet so it could be used for a tornado shelter if worst came to worst. We hope that’s enough. If I were building a new house anywhere in the Central and Midwest part of the country, I would incorporate a safe room in the design.

The high winds that accompany some of our storms mean evaluating the health of the trees on our property. We do find ourselves spending more time cleaning up branches after a storm. We don’t want to clean up heavier limbs, though.

When we replaced an A/C unit to our house, we installed one that had greater cooling capacity and energy efficiency to handle the higher summer temperatures.

We’ve probably halved our electricity consumption in recent years through energy efficient appliances and lighting. But heavier storms have made power outages a greater problem. We’re weighing using the southern exposure on our roof for solar energy, and the possibility of some form of backup power. Two major storms in recent years have resulted in widespread outages, some lasting a week.

There are some upsides. We do have longer growing seasons. I can put my tomatoes out by May 1 instead of May 10-15 when I first moved here. That means ripe tomatoes in July. We do have ample water (wish we could send some out west). During the worst of COVID, we were able to do outdoor visits comfortably from April through late in October of last year.

I don’t want to indulge all the tiresome arguments about whether climate change is real or whose fault it is. What I do have to think about as a responsible homeowner are the climate impacts we are experiencing. What I’ve discussed is simply how I am thinking about “what is” rather than “what if.” I do think the longer term challenge to limit global warming is an important, even an existential issue, as the heat-related deaths in the Pacific Northwest underscores. But the changes to our climate that I have seen in the thirty-one years we have lived in our home involve all sorts of practical considerations from maintenance schedules to what improvements we make on our home.

Human beings all over our planet are making changes, many far more dramatic than the ones I’ve described. Some are having to relocate to produce food or because rising sea levels are inundating their homes. Some have “go bags” packed to evacuate at a moment’s notice during fire season and are not sure to find their home standing when they come back. Some are trying to survive unseasonably hot temperatures that can be deadly to the elderly.

Whether we choose to admit it or not, life is changing for all of us. It certainly is for me.

Repentance and the Christian Mind

Photo by 胡 卓亨 on Unsplash

It is typical to think of “repentance” as a highly emotional experience, often arising from a sense of one’s sinfulness and need for God. Perhaps the comic image of a bearded man carrying a sign saying “Repent or perish” comes to mind. We may think of a revivalist setting with an “earnest bench” or an altar call for the repentant turning to Christ.

I do not want to deny the reality of such experiences. In fact, there is an element within them that I want to focus on. All of these involve a mental understanding of a need to turn from one way of thinking and living to another, combined with actions that reflect this change of mind.

“Change of mind.” That phrase is a good way to translate the Greek word metanoia which is often translated as repent in the Bible. It reflects what happens in genuine Christian conversion, or other forms of conversion. A person who has been thinking, seeing the world, and living one way, begins to think, see the world, and live differently. Christians believe this involves both human agency, believing and following Christ, and divine intervention–forgiveness and the indwelling of God’s Spirit, initiating and empowering this new life.

I’ve written from time to time as one who works among academics of the idea of the Christian mind and how this is formed. The title of a chapter in Who Created Christianity titled “Metanoia: Jesus, Paul, and the Transformation of the Believing Mind” written by Alister McGrath stimulated my thinking about some of the ways metanoia or repentance shapes the Christian mind.

Humility. The awareness that one’s prior way of thinking was subject to error ought lead to humility in our thinking. We may believe that the faith we have embraced is true but we don’t confuse our own grasp of that faith with the one we believe to be true. I think this makes us more willing to be proven wrong in other areas.

Passion for Truth: When we turn from being our own source of truth, we become more passionate for truth in whatever field we pursue it. We discover that truth is bigger than us and that if someone else has an insight or even shows where we have gone wrong, we are glad and open to learn, because we have been freed from a life that sees ourselves as the source of truth.

Dependence: Understanding in any field, whether Christian doctrine or any field of academic study doesn’t come easy. The change of mind that is repentance means turning from autonomy to dependence upon the God we trust. If we believe that God is creator and the source of all knowledge and wisdom, it only makes sense to turn to God for insight in our studies. It’s not that God does this for us, but that God wants to do this with us.

Doxological wonder: I draw this phrase from Jeff Hardin, an embryologist, who hopes to foster that sense of wonder in his students. So many who are drawn to academic work come to this with a profound sense of the wonder of some aspect of the world, whether it is how tone, harmony, meter, and rhythm make music or for how four nucleotides paired together in a double helix can encode all the instructions needed for the “program” that creates all living things. Whereas we’ve wondered what to do with this wonder, with this newfound way of thinking and seeing, we find that worship is the proper outlet of wonder.

Realism: In life among the academics, I’ve observed this interesting fluctuation between ungrounded optimism about the human project and unremitting cynicism (usually directed toward the institutions within which one must work). We are quite skilled in seeing what is wrong with “them” but pretty clueless to what is wrong with us. Repentance recognizes the worst in human beings because we’ve seen it in ourselves and yet believes in a God who does not give up on us. We live with a kind of critical realism that holds together our newly won self-knowledge of our finiteness and fallibility and hope in one who is devoted to the world he has created and is redeeming.

Peacemaking: To repent is to accept God’s peace offer ending our rebellion against God. Of all people, Christians ought be people of peace because of our peacemaking God. We often work in contexts of contended ideas. Often these reflect societal binaries–the either/ors that often polarize and separate us. While contradictory ideas cannot both be true (they both can be false!) it is rare that people are utterly wrong. Might the role of Christians in at least some of these disputes be to listen to both sides and help reconcile the connections to a possible larger underlying truth and place of agreement? Often, instead, we side up and add to the acrimony.

Curiosity: I do not think that curiosity is unique to the believing mind. In fact, curiosity strikes me as one of the things that drives the academic enterprise. Questions drive research as well as the peer-review process that tests and advances that research. I would simply suggest that repentance punctures all our mental pretensions, challenging us to question our questions, to doubt our doubts. Curiosity coupled with a new way of seeing might lead us to ask different questions. One education researcher I know, caught in the tension between social justice and academic performance asked the questions, why aren’t advances in academic performance for ethnic minorities not social justice? and, why shouldn’t social justice be concerned about academic performance? This led to crafting a novel approach attempting to bring these two polarized streams in educational theory together. (This is also an example of peacemaking!)

Excellence: People in the academic world care about excellence. Often career advancement and reputation become obsessions that drive excellence. Repentance de-centers the self. Someone else and what that Person cares about becomes the center of our lives. Excellence is no longer a competition with others over who gets the most citations or the biggest grants. It is a passion for the reputation of God showing through how we teach, the quality of our work, our care for students and collaboration with colleagues. It shapes not only how we work but our ethics. Nor is it one dimensional. It concerns our families, our community life.

You might think of other implications of repentance for the development of the Christian mind. The development of a Christian mind is a lifelong project as we seek to see God’s world God’s way. Likewise, repentance is not a moment but a way of life. We keep turning from a self-centered to God-centered life. I would propose, as I have here, that this means a change from a mind closed in on our selves to a mind set afire by the grandeur of God. To my mind, that is a project worthy of our lives.

Politics, Partisanship, and Partisanism

Photo by Joshua Sukoff on Unsplash

It’s always been etiquette in social situations to avoid religion and politics. Fights about these two important areas of life are not a new thing. I would contend though that what has occurred in our time is a move beyond politics and beyond partisanship to partisanism. Let me explain what I mean.

Politics: I know people who say they just don’t want to talk about politics. I haven’t figured out how we live without talking about politics. “Politics” comes from the Greek polis, the word for city, and has to do at root with the affairs of the city. The city was the state in ancient Greece. Since then, we have created additional levels of politics at state and national levels. Decisions about school curriculums, trash pick up and recycling services, policing, the creation and maintenance of state parks, the right of way of roads, what taxes we pay, and the regulations that govern interstate travel all are political.

Politics exist because more of us exist than simply our own households. We all have our ideas of what makes a good place, a good society. Politics is the process of how we figure out together how human societies best flourish. Good political processes are essential to a healthy society. When these processes cease to function well in promoting the common good, social orders deteriorate. Not all at once, perhaps. Societies may live for a while on the capital of formerly constructive political processes. I think that is our current predicament.

Partisanship: If you have two human beings, you probably have disagreements. Often, a number of people will take the same side against others. In many countries there are multiple groups with particular interests. Partisanship is not necessarily a bad thing because it allows diverse interests to have a voice in political decisions all have to live with. Effective politics recognizes the situations that need to be addressed for the health of a society, allows different voices to be heard, and arrives at compromises that aren’t perfect, but work, at least imperfectly for everyone. Healthy partisanship ensures that all the citizens are considered and that political solutions are ideally common good solutions, not favoring some citizens over others. Partisans keep in mind that they represent a certain interest but also serve those with different interests. Maintaining that tension is important if you believe in the equality and value of all your citizens.

Partisanism: I looked. It is actually a word. I see partisanism as a distortion of healthy partisanship. It is where party ideals become ideology and there is a kind of absolutism about it that says we are right and they are wrong. The point is not seeking some form of common good, but simply the good of our party, our group. Wrong people don’t deserve good. Partisanism stirs up a religious fervor befitting the fact that it is an -ism. If partisanism can’t get its way it obstructs and often complains that the other side is unwilling to compromise. What is really the case is that the extreme positions sides are forced to in these situations brook no compromise–only winners and losers. Nothing is left on the table. We only allow either/or. There is no room to consider both/and.

Partisanism at its worst becomes political extremism in which pretenses of principle are jettisoned for the ruthless exercise of power. It might be a form of fascism on the right or a form of statism on the left. In history, this always ends badly in the loss of human rights, and often, a succession of violence.

As a follower of Christ, I believe both that politics reflects an aspect of the “culture mandate” given Adam and Eve and that in a world of finite and fallen human beings the best that can ever be obtained are proximate goods. Any move toward the absolutism of partisanism and political extremism ignores these realities and substitutes an earthly kingdom for a heavenly one. Hence, I believe at best politicians work for proximate solutions that listen to and serve all those represented by them. I believe it is essential that our parties strive toward this kind of political work and that as a citizenry, we support that work and stop vilifying political compromise and negotiation. Might we release a kind of creativity when we free politicians from the tyranny of “either/or” politics to explore what “both/and” might look like?

I hope those of you reading don’t try to argue with me about what “they” did, whoever “they” are. I’m not interested in those arguments because I’m not interested in that kind of partisanism. I don’t mind a politics where we have different ideas of the common good as long as the common good of all our citizens is our aim. Any other politics is unworthy of us because implicitly we are saying that there are some Americans we don’t need, some Americans who don’t count, some who don’t have the same value as human beings. I’ve watched us espouse the idea of all being created equal on July 4 and ignore it the rest of the year for too long. We won’t get it perfect but a politics that relentless pursued the common good, and vigorously resisted partisanism, could get it better. No matter your party, that’s a politics worth talking about.

Real Fathers

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Father’s Day is approaching and I suspect there is good cause for ambivalence in celebrating this holiday. We have too many reports of men, including biological fathers who are abusers of their spouses, children, or other women. To make matters worse, many institutions dominated by men have covered for and defended the abusers. Sadly, we see this even in churches from Catholic to Southern Baptist. More than outright abuse, part of the problem is the use of power to uphold abusive and subordinating regimes, treating women as a lesser form of human, not unlike what we’ve tried to do with many of the people of color in this country.

I have to admit to being deeply disturbed as a man and as a father with what I see. It cuts across the grain of my deepest convictions and aspirations as both man and father. I find myself deeply angry with the men who perpetrate these wrongs, and perhaps even more angry with those who have tried to cover them and blame the victims instead of protect them. This was not how I was taught to be a man.

Fundamentally, I was taught respect. Respect for my elders and every elderly person on my street. I was taught respect for women, beginning with my mother. I was taught to respect women of my own age as I would want my own sister to be respected. I was taught that children were special in God’s sight.

I was taught partnership and not patriarchy. It is not about power, but about seeking to outdo each other as servants. I was stunned as I read St. Paul’s injunction that I was to love my wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. Christ died for the church. Sometimes the hardest dying is to listen to another and give up what you want because what they want or think is needful is more important.

I was taught responsibility. Not sole responsibility but shared responsibility–for finances, home, children. I was taught that real men neither are irresponsible or controlling, but co-responsible. And there is no off-loading the blame when things don’t work out.

I was taught fidelity. There was no one else in the lives of either of my parents. Fidelity has meant for me that I don’t go with another woman even in my thoughts. That doesn’t mean I don’t notice other women. It is simply that there is no other woman for me. It is actually a joy as we celebrated our 43rd anniversary recently to revel in what we have been for each other, and each other alone. I’ve sometimes joked that any man can love a lot of women. It takes a real man to love one woman thoroughly and deeply and passionately for a lifetime. I want to be that man.

I was taught that parenting was a job for both a father and mother, if both are present. I recognize there are many single-parent families which exist for many reasons, where the parent does an excellent job raising a child and nothing I say here should detract from that. Children learn from the models of each gender both about themselves and those of the other gender and how we treat each other in ways that enable us to flourish. The reward is cherished memories. I cherish memories of early morning feedings, story times, school projects, campouts and hikes, and long drives together with my son getting his driving hours on his temp permit.

There are real husbands and fathers out there doing this work. Part of what angers me about the men who have forsaken this noble calling and have abused and demeaned women, who have abused or just walked away from children, as well as those who cover over these egregious transgressions, is that you have drawn away the attention from the real men who are doing the work of being real fathers. You cast disgrace on all of us even as you disgrace yourselves. What is worse is that some of you have clothed this in the robes of sacred work. You not only disgrace other men but also dishonor the God you claim to serve.

Instead of protecting each other as men and blaming women for our behavior, it’s time for us to call one another out for this ignoble and unmanly behavior. We say “boys will be boys” and that is exactly what so much of this is, boys in men’s bodies. It’s past time for this to stop. It’s past time to let this behavior go with silence, or an uneasy laugh. If you are an abuser, or one who must put women down to raise yourself up or if you cover for those who do these things, be enough of a man to admit it and get help. Find men who will be ruthlessly honest with you who will call you into the respectful and responsible manhood you’ve not yet learned.

It is a good and honorable thing to be a father. For those men who are not yet fathers, are you working to develop the character of a good father? For those of us who witness the demeaning of women and other abuses in institutions we are part of, will we stand against this and with those who are abused? We must not put the onus on the victims to do this but stand with them. This is the work of real fathers. Perhaps this is the work to which we can dedicate ourselves as men this Father’s Day.

A Million Views Later

Screen capture of part of my WordPress stats page, 3:30 pm ET, 5-30-2021.

I don’t usually post on Sundays, but thought I’d share a milestone for Bob on Books, the blog, today. About 3:30 pm today. I passed the one million view mark.

One one hand, that is not a particularly remarkable accomplishment. It has taken nearly eight years and over 2500 posts to reach that mark, There are some bloggers who reach that mark with a single blog post! In my case, it was a matter of perseverance.

What is remarkable is all the people who helped make that possible and the real intent of this post is not so much to brag as to say “thank you” for all those who visited, over 683,000! Then there are all the authors whose books I reviewed, the publicists who sent many of those for review, and the loyal followers from Youngstown who not only visited but often suggested ideas for posts, and sometimes materials I could not otherwise have found. I’ve been blessed to be able to post in a number of Facebook groups that have helped grow the audience and I appreciate all the admins who have put up with me! I’m also grateful for the Bob on Books Facebook page and its 11,000+ followers and the nearly 1100 who follow on WordPress. I’ve appreciated all those who commented, and am grateful that for the most part, I’ve been free of “trolls.”

One of the pieces of counsel I came across early was not to pay attention to views or worry about audience and simply do the work:

  • Post consistently
  • Make an effort to write good material
  • Engage with those who comment
  • Post in groups appropriate to content and engage and always abide by group rules.

The audience has grown over the years from 3,281 in 2013 to 102,054 in 2015, my first year over 100,000 views, to 223,837 in 2020. This year looks on track to reach 275,000 to 280,000 views. The highest single day I’ve had on the blog was 8196 views on December 27, 2015 , a list of the Top Ten Youngstown posts for that year. It was my all time leading post at over 20,000 views, again, pretty modest by most standards.

I write six posts a week, and that nearly daily routine keeps me sharp, and hopefully over the years, has made me a better writer. I admit that it has been a constant learning curve on everything from grammar to understanding SEO. I’ve also learned that a rich archive of posts is like savings in the bank that keep yielding dividends. On many days, old posts account for 50 to 75 percent of the traffic.

As for the future? One never knows, but I have to admit that I still enjoy the writing and all the interactions on the blog, so, Lord willing I’ll be around to write again when I reach the two million mark, which I could reach in a bit less than four years at the current pace.

I also have to say thanks to the team at WordPress, which hosts this site. They have been helpful on a number of occasions when I’ve run into technical problems beyond my expertise.

Above all, I appreciate you, whoever is reading this. I wondered when I started out on this in August of 2013 whether anyone would read what I wrote. I still am amazed when someone tells me they bought a book because of a review, or liked one of my Youngstown stories. I’m both humbled and grateful!

Coming Out of the Cave

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It feels a bit like climbing out of a cave. Since the middle of March 2020 we have basically been sheltering at home. Not utterly, but pretty close. We have grocery shopped, bought take out, and only gone to other stores during periods when infection curves have dipped. Our main in-person interactions have been plein air painting with art friends, a few outdoor visits with our son and daughter-in-law, and doctor and dental visits. I am one of those fortunate who can work at home and, thanks to good internet, have had tons of interactions with friends, and even those I’ve not talked to for years.

We’ve stayed healthy, by the grace of God. Simply being the age we are is a co-morbidity, so this is a blessing. We’ve followed the health advisories. And we’ve been fully vaccinated for over a month.

We’re taking our first tentative steps out of the cave. A few more shopping outings. Painting with our friends. This weekend we celebrate Mother’s Day with our son and daughter-in-law who are also fully vaccinated. We expect to hug them for the first time in fifteen months. Unmasked. We have a few other such meet ups on the calendar with vaccinated friends this month. We’re having a crew in to do radon mitigation on our home (something probably most homes in Ohio need–it’s just the geology). We’re starting to plan the bathroom re-model we’ve been using our stimulus checks to save for.

It still feels a bit weird and awkward. We’re not ready for indoor dining at restaurants or other larger gatherings where not everyone is vaccinated, especially indoors. I wish I could figure out how to help those who won’t accept vaccinations understand that this fact alone restrains me, and I think others from engaging in many gatherings, especially where mask-wearing is intermittent. There are counties in my state with low vaccine acceptance and higher infection rates. They depend on tourism and we’ve obliged in the past. Not now. You want me back? Get vaccinated and get your COVID rates down.

Have you noticed the new dance when we talk about getting together? We often mention when we reached our full immunity date as do others. Then we know we’re “safe.” I wonder what the etiquette is when someone is not vaccinated. Do we just ignore the risks (more to them, really) and feel awkward.

Our church has not met in person but will start to do so this summer. It’s a place where there has been high vaccine acceptance. Still, it will probably feel a bit strange at first.

I hope to catch a Clippers baseball game this summer. Enjoying America’s pastime on a summer evening in the open air ranks among my favorite things. There will probably be a few more trips to bookstores. There are some in the area I’ve not been to that I’d like to check out and write about. And if things keep getting better, I hope to rejoin my local choir in the fall.

You can tell we’re still on the cautious side. This all still feels provisional. We wish we could just get the whole world, especially the poorer parts, fully vaccinated, so this virus would run out of hosts that offer it opportunities to multiply and mutate. Until then, we run the risk of variants that break through the protection vaccines currently offer, and the variants spread fast in our global village. I don’t think of vaccines as making us virus proof. They make us harder to infect. But with the vaccine, we will start edging out of the cave and doing some of the things that are less risky to us now than before.

I hope we don’t have to return to the cave. But we don’t know what will happen with the virus. The worst nightmare is that it keeps getting more infectious and also causes more severe illness with high mortality rates. As long as it is out there, especially at significant levels, that is possible, especially with over half the country and much more of the world un-vaccinated. Because of that, I can’t think of a return to pre-pandemic “normal.” That is living in a dream. But like most of you, I will enjoy a bit more life outside the cave this summer.

Living Christianly in a Changing Climate.

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I wrote a post last week titled “Pandemic as Dress Rehearsal,” discussing how the pandemic is really a test of how we will respond to the challenges of a changing climate.” A friend of mine who shares my Christian commitments wrote back, “Now, in next column, tell us what are a few Biblically correct ways to respond to the frightening facts you put before us today!” This is my attempt to do so. I don’t claim to speak for all Christians by any means, but rather of the biblical convictions that are formative for me.

I would begin in response, that I believe we are called not to live in a “spirit of fear but of power and love and a sound mind” (2Timothy 1:7). It is one thing to confront frightening facts (or hide from them which I believe is one species of fear). I believe living in and acting out of fear thwarts our capacity to live with power, love, and a sound mind.

Power. Often this is seen as a bad thing, and certainly can be. However if we understand power as agency, or even better, as vice-regency with God in the care of his creation, this means we’ve been given capacities to act for good or ill in the care of creation. Sadly, we have often understood our dominion over the creation as license to exploit it. If, however, we see creation as a trust from God to be cared for, cultivated and developed for the flourishing of humans and other creatures, and conserved for those who will follow, we will act differently. A principle of gardening is to put as much (or more) into the soil as you take out, and it will keep feeding you. In our changing climate, we do not need to surrender to fear or hopelessness, because to do so would be to surrender our power or agency to care for God’s world. Scripture? Genesis 1:28 and 2:15 begin to address these matters. There are things to be done to address build-ups of greenhouse gasses and the effects these are already having. But how ought we do them?

Love. The greatest command to love God and neighbor (Mark 12:30-31) summarizes the ethic of a Christian, with the other commands elaborating how we do this. It seems to me that we cannot love God without loving what he has made. It is sad that I see many Christians spending more of their time fighting about how God created than devoting themselves to love his creation. We cannot care for places or people well without loving them. Do we recognize their intrinsic worth, whether the trees of the Amazon rain forest or the people living on islands or coastal regions facing inundation from rising sea levels. Often, sadly we only consider the economic, extrinsic worth of so many things (and people) and how they may enrich those of us with more access to wealth and power.

Love means love of the soil, of rivers and oceans, of the tiniest creatures of earth and the rarest. If we believe God made them all and that not a single sparrow if forgotten before God (Luke 12:6), then the extinction of a species surely grieves him and is a loss to the fabric of creation, weakening it and rendering it less lavish and full. Loving means we will take steps to care for those whose lives are ravaged by extreme climate events–shelter, food, and for those from other countries who lose their home or livelihoods, a welcome to find these among us, as challenging as that may be. Mother Theresa spoke of doing “small things with great love.” There are a thousand small things we may do from our dietary choices to the vehicles we drive that may be done with love. Both cows and cars are significant factors in contributing to greenhouse gas buildups. I can also envision technological interventions implemented lovelessly. These will not be good.

Sound mind. There is no other creature that devotes the energy to studying everything from genomes to galaxies that we humans do. As Ecclesiastes 7:25 say, there is something in us that wants to search out “the reason of things.” I’m struck in Paul’s encouragement to Timothy that he speaks of a sound mind. Elsewhere, in Romans12:2 he speaks of a renewed mind. Christians are to live contrary to those who accept whatever their “itching ears” want to hear. They believe there is such a thing as truth that may be distinguished from falsehood. No wonder that science grew up in a Christian atmosphere that believed both in our abilities to observe and study the world’s phenomenon, and to search out the truth about them through rigorous processes. We have great need for those with soundness of mind not only in science but among those who develop technology, who model data, who develop public policy, and who seek to skillfully marshal public support for the changes that need to be made.

Beyond all this, I believe we need to live as people of hope. My pastor preached this past Sunday on Jeremiah 29 which includes this passage:

Build houses and dwell in them; plant gardens and eat their fruit.  Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters—that you may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace. (Jeremiah 29:5-7)

Jeremiah is writing to exiles in Babylon. This should ring true for all of us who Peter also calls exiles (1 Peter 1:1,2:11). We live in hope of a better home. It might be easy to become indifferent and say “let it burn.” Jeremiah tells people who are tempted to indulge false hopes of a quick return home to build homes and gardens, have babies and grandbabies and seek the peace of the city of their exile. That is how they live in hope. For us, caring for our home and seeking its peace prepares us for our new home, the new heaven and earth. No matter what happens to our climate (and I believe things will get worse before they get better), our care of creation reflects hope, not that we will bring a new Eden on earth, but rather in some dim way prepare for the new creation to come.

Faith. Finally, this is an uncharted journey for all of us. But we are not the first to take uncharted journeys. Abraham gets that honor, for leaving his family in Haran to go wherever God would take him. The scriptures say, “Abram [Abraham] believed God and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). And God kept his promises to Abraham to give him offspring, land, and to make him a blessing to the nations. Someone has said that what matters is really not the size of our faith (a mustard seed is enough) but the size of our God. Another friend observed that the big question of the Bible is, “is God good and can we trust Him?” I believe within the next generation, we will face serious tests of faith. Will we trust that the God who did not spare his own son will bring us through?

So to my friend who suggested I write this, here is my humble and far from complete reply. Whole books have been written about this (and I should probably write a post listing some of them!). Surely my friend and many others may add to what I’ve written, which I welcome. It is an important conversation I believe we need to be having about how then we shall live in these times.

Pandemic as Dress Rehearsal

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OK. I’m just going to put it out there. I am convinced that the pandemic is a dress rehearsal for a more serious challenge that makes infection control, treatment, and a global vaccination campaign look like child’s play. The challenge is our rapidly warming planet and the ways it will change and imperil life on our planet, the only one we have.

An article from 2013 states that the last time CO2 levels on earth were as high (then 400 ppm, recently as high as 420) was before we humans were around. The oceans were 100 feet higher, the arctic was a tropical paradise. Since 1800, planetary temperatures have risen 2 degrees Fahrenheit, on average, and far more in some locations. The evidence of a changing climate is evident in rising sea levels, melting glaciers all over the planet, more extreme storms in some areas, drier, prolonged drought and fire seasons in others. The growing season where I live is at least two weeks longer than when I moved here 30 years ago. In some places, summer temperatures have hit 120 degrees Fahrenheit, levels that challenge human habitability. Coastal cities globally face inundation.

At this point CO2 outputs continue to rise as the rest of the world catches up to the US in outputs, and likely global temperatures will follow. If the permafrost melts, large amounts of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas, will be emitted, further accelerating global warming. Now some forms of life survived while others died during this previous time of high CO2 levels. One thing that is clear is that some people will die from heat or famine or flooding. Many others will be displaced and what will happen when they (or we) try to share the remaining habitable places. We haven’t even begun to reckon with other creatures on the earth. Even if we make the requisite effort to reduce CO2 output to “net zero” by 2050 or earlier some of this will happen. If it is not evident yet to everyone, I believe we are facing an existential threat.

It is one that:

  • Threatens our very existence.
  • That will wreak significant global devastation even if we take the necessary actions, which may mitigate but not eliminate the consequences of what we have already done contributing to global climate change.
  • Will require significant changes in the way we live.
  • Will require concerted efforts to address the primary causes of CO2 emissions–cows, coal, and petrochemicals.
  • Calls for a shared ethic of pursuing the common good.
  • Cannot be accomplished without global cooperation and coordination.

Do you recognize the parallels with our global responses and sometimes lack of responses to the coronavirus? I think the verdict is mixed. We did mount a global scientific effort to study the virus, sequence its genome, and develop highly effective vaccines in record time. Efforts to mitigate the virus’s impact worked to a certain extent, more in some countries than others. In the US where personal freedom is more highly valued than acting for the common good, these efforts have faced a tug of war between public health and personal freedom that has led to an acceptance of infection rates, hospitalizations, and deaths that have outpaced the rest of the world. At this point, there are great inequities of vaccination rates reflecting distribution of vaccines in various parts of the world. Meanwhile the virus continues to mutate becoming more effective in spreading itself, especially in parts of the world where it can continue to spread unchecked, which imperils us all.

The thing is, we have seen human beings at their best and worst through all of this–selflessly caring for the very sick in ICUs and hoarding toilet paper. We’ve seen the capacities of researchers to study something that was novel and learn immense amounts about how it infects and spreads and effects the body and where it can be attacked in the space of a year. Medical personnel have made major advances in treatment. And we’ve seen it turned into a political football, where nearly every insight into prevention, treatment, and the safety and efficacy of vaccines has been contested.

It makes me wonder how we will respond to the coming climate challenge. Now some of you don’t buy that this is really an issue. I do. Truthfully, I’d rather you were right. I respect you if you think differently. But I would hope you might think about the “what if?” Because if “what if” turns out to be true, this will be one of those situations where we either choose to “hang together or hang separately.” We can choose to listen to our better angels and work for the global good. Or we can choose a “survival of the fittest” (and the richest) ethic in a hotter and less hospitable world. Ultimately, what happens to the earth is beyond me. But what kind of person I will be as we face these challenges is not. At this juncture of the pandemic, it seems time for me to consider how I’ve played my own part in this “dress rehearsal” for the greater challenge before us.