The extraordinary moment…

Again from Marilynne Robinson’s The Givenness of Things, from a chapter titled “Proofs”, a paragraph (which I am splitting up for online readability) about the extraordinary experience of Christian preaching:

The great importance in Calvinist tradition of preaching makes the theology that gave rise to the practice of it a subject of interest. As a layperson who has spent a great many hours listening to sermons, I have an other than academic interest in preaching, an interest in the hope I, and so many others, bring into the extraordinary moment when someone attempts to speak in good faith, about something that matters, to people who attempt to listen in good faith.

The circumstance is moving in itself, since we poor mortals are so far enmeshed in our frauds and shenanigans, not to mention our self-deceptions, that a serious attempt at meaning, spoken and heard, is quite exceptional. It has a very special character. My church is across the street from a university, where good souls teach with all sincerity – the factually true, insofar as this can really be known; the history of nations, insofar as this can be faithfully reported; the qualities of an art, insofar as they can be put into words.

But to speak in one’s own person and voice to others who listen from the thick of their endlessly various situations, about what truly are or ought to be matters of life and death, this is a singular thing. For this we come to church.

Sabbath is a way of life…

More from Marilynne Robinson’s The Givenness of Things, from a chapter titled “Decline”:

The Sabbath has a way of doing just what it was meant to do, sheltering one day in seven from the demands of economics. Its benefits cannot be commercialized. Leisure, by way of contrast, is highly commercialized. But leisure is seldom more than a bit of time ransomed from habitual stress. Sabbath is a way of life, one long since gone from this country, of course, due to secularizing trends, which are really economic pressures that have excluded rest as an option, first of all from those most in need of it.

Marilynne Robinson on Cultural Pessimism

I’ve been a fan of Marilynne Robinson’s for a while now, though perhaps even more for her volumes of essays than for her award-winning novels.

(As a complete aside: Robinson lives in Iowa City, and my fantasy flight back to Cedar Rapids is to end up seated next to her for the 45-minute flight from some hub airport. In my head we could have some meaningful conversation about theology; in practice it’d take me nearly all of the flight to work up the courage to say hello. Ah well.)

I’m reading through The Givenness of Things right now and enjoying it immensely. I’ve found several passages that I’d like to share, but I’ll just start with one in this post, from a chapter titled “Reformation”. (I’ve split it into a couple chunks to make it easier to read; in the original this is a single paragraph.)

Cultural pessimism is always fashionable, and, since we are human, there are always grounds for it. It has the negative consequence of depressing the level of aspiration, the sense of the possible. And from time to time it has the extremely negative consequence of encouraging a kind of somber panic, a collective dream-state in which recourse to terrible remedies is inspired by delusions of mortal threat. If there is anything in the life of any culture or period that gives good grounds for alarm, it is the rise of cultural pessimism, whose major passion is bitter hostility toward many or most of the people within the very culture the pessimists always feel they are intent on rescuing.

When panic on one side is creating alarm on the other, it is easy to forget that there are always as good grounds for optimism as for pessimism – exactly the same grounds, in fact – that is, because we are human. We still have every potential for good we have ever had, and the same presumptive claim to respect, our own respect and one another’s. We are still creatures of singular interest and value, agile of soul as we have always been and as we will continue to be even despite our errors and depredations, for as long as we abide on this earth. To value one another is our greatest safety, and to indulge in fear and contempt is our gravest error.

I aspire to this sort of grounded, optimistic faith.

Finished Reading: The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

Grabbed this one off the library shelf on a whim. I read Kostova’s The Historian a few years back and remember enjoying it, and I was ready for some fiction.

First comment on this one: bet you’ve never read a book set in modern Bulgaria before! (Kostova is an American but is married to a Bulgarian, hence her interest in the region.) The novel flashes back and forth between present-day and early Cold War-era Bulgaria to tell the story of a family and their suffering under Communist rule.

I didn’t find it as intense or engaging as The Historian, but Kostova writes beautifully and the story kept me going until the last page. Not a bad choice for some casual reading.

The Shadow Land: A Novel by Elizabeth Kostova

James: Gotta Trust Somebody

Samuel James made a couple excellent points yesterday about our intake of the newsmedia over at Mere Orthodoxy.

The problem for all of us is simple: You gotta trust somebody. No human being can function as their own all self-sufficient filter… To make suspicion and distrust toward established, respected, and accountable sources of information your default orientation is to either put yourself at the mercy of other sources of information–which are probably just as biased and ideological as the sources you eschew, but biased in a direction you’re more OK with–or, even worse, it’s to make intuition and assumption your primary means of knowledge.

Right enough so far, yeah? Then he goes here, which may be a more squirmy point for a lot of evangelical Republicans:

So what? Let’s assume you’re right that every CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, etc etc, news feature is commissioned, written, edited, and disseminated by progressives who sincerely hope I will inch further to the left after reading their coverage. So what? Do their eschatological hopes for people like me actually determine whether the information they present is valid or not?

Here’s where it gets interesting. If the answer to that last question is, “Yes,” then it seems to me that conservatives have adopted a kind of philosophical identity politics. Liberals make liberal news, because they’re liberals. I don’t know for sure, but I could have sworn conservatives were suspicious of worldviews that reduced individuals to the sum total of their sociological groupings.

Yes, this. While we as evangelicals have been told for decades that we can’t trust anything from “the liberal news media”, we need to exercise better discernment than that.

This past year I’ve ponied up for online subscriptions to both the New York Times and the Washington Post. While they’re clearly never without an angle (and no source is), they’ve provided very good and worthwhile reporting on current events. While not perfect, their expertise in reporting provides a good baseline of facts from which to start to understand world events. I’m planning on maintaining my subscriptions to both.

Read widely, think critically, don’t discount the concept of experts… a good word for today.

Rands: Assume they have something to teach you

A brilliant post from Rands today that has broad applicability beyond managing in the tech industry.

When stuck with “marginal” meetings that don’t have apparent value going into them, Rands says he takes this approach:

The marginal meeting. It needs to be there, so I must figure out an angle to increase the value. I’ve got one hack that works consistently: assume they have something to teach you.

We would all be better off to take such a gracious, humble approach with those that we meet.

It is my personal and professional responsibility to bring as much enthusiasm, curiosity, and forward momentum to every single minute of my day. When I find myself in a situation where the value is not obvious, I seek it because it’s always there.

“Hi, Cathy. How do you know Ray? Interesting. How’d you two end up working together in such different parts of the company? No way. I never imagined that legal and engineering would end up working together on that? Tell me that story.”

With three questions, I’ve found a story that will teach a lesson.

A wonderful saint I used to serve on a deacon board with (who has since gone on to glory) modeled this principle for me. Even as a senior citizen, he daily approached young people (as our local director of Youth for Christ) and drew them in with this same approach. Ask questions. “Tell me your story.” Listen intently. Care.

Whether you’re a tech manager or just a person meeting other people on a daily basis, there’s a lot here to be learned.

Rands in Repose: Assume They Have Something to Teach You

Finished reading: another compendium

Finished reading:

Since I can’t seem to get individual posts written…

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan

A short history of the world as viewed with the Persia / India / China Silk Road corridor as the center of the action. Interesting in parts, though was far more of an overview than I was expecting. Now I need to go back and read some Persian and Chinese history.

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

An autobiography by the famed rock-and-roller. An enjoyable read that sure seems to have his sense of style… no ghost writing here. I’ve never followed Springsteen’s music closely but it was fascinating to read his story.

Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty: An Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother by Kate Hennessy

A portrait of Catholic radical Dorothy Day as written by her granddaughter. While this book might add a lot of color for someone already very familiar with Day’s story and importance, to somebody like me who wasn’t familiar with her at all, it focused far more on their bizarre (and usually bleak) living and family arrangements. Could’ve been more accurately subtitled A Family Picture from the Perspective of Day’s Daughter, Who Was (Rightly) Put Off by Most of It.

Boeing Versus Airbus: The Inside Story of the Greatest International Competition in Business by John Newhouse

Interesting to me primarily because I work in the industry. The book is 10 years old – would be interesting to read an update now that Boeing’s 787 has made it to the field.

Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren

Now this is a lovely little book. Warren, an Anglican priest from Austin, Texas, looks at how our mundane daily practices can make us mindful of God in our lives and how spiritual disciplines include mindfulness of the little things in life. An encouraging read that was over far too quickly.

Pavarotti, Moscow, 1964

So I’m not really an opera guy but this video of Luciano Pavarotti singing in Moscow in 1964 is amazing nevertheless.

It’s a little odd seeing him so young (age 29 or so), with no beard, and his eyebrow action is, well, non-trivial, but the level of vocal control is ridiculously impressive.

Worth the 3 minutes to watch.

Matthew 6, a modern paraphrase

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

So when you do your good deeds, do not announce them with hashtags, as the hypocrites do on Instagram and on Facebook, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you do your good deeds, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your doing may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

And when you have your Bible study and quiet time, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to do this with Twitter pictures of coffee and their Bible, and on Facebook statuses to “encourage” others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Inspired by nothing in particular and many things in general.

An open letter of apology to my wife, to be reused as necessary

Dear Becky,

Tomorrow the postman will drop off an Amazon package in the mailbox. Yes, it’s another book. Yes, I know the last one I ordered just showed up a couple days ago. And the one last week before that.

I managed to justify them all to myself in one way or another. Last week was a book about major players in my industry, and I figured it’d be good history for me to know. Early this week was one about leadership that a bunch of people have been raving about. Having been in a leadership position at work for almost two years, it’s probably worth reading. Tomorrow is a two-volume (sigh) book of theology.

Had I been able to arrange the delivery date for tomorrow’s book, I would’ve spaced it out a little bit better, but I ordered it back in January and it just dropped this week. But hey, Amazon tells me I saved $5 by preordering, so that makes it worth it, right?

And yeah, I know I’ve got a pile of books as long as my arm stacked next to the bed. And another pile as long as my other arm stacked behind that. And full bookshelves everywhere we have bookshelves. But is it really my fault that N.T. Wright is such a prodigious author? Heck, the last time I bought a book of his I spent $4.99 on sale for the Kindle version. That saves bookshelf space!

(On second thought, let’s not get into how many unread books I still have on the Kindle…)

I have at various times in the past made a resolution that I won’t buy any more books until I whittle down the unread pile next to the bed. It’s probably time to make that resolution again. (Well, maybe after I use that Half Price Books gift card I was just given.)

At this point my unread book collection probably outnumbers your cast iron collection, though by weight the cast iron still wins… but maybe not for long. I think we get similar amounts of enjoyment out of our own respective collections, but to be fair I’m sure I get far more benefit from all the yummy stuff you cook in the cast iron than you get from all the rambling I do in conversation with you after reading.

Thanks for nearly 20 years of putting up with my bad habits. As much as I try to improve, maybe sometimes buying another bookshelf would just be the easier solution. (If we only had room…)