A retired minister looks at the world around him from a different perspective -- the back pew. From this viewpoint his restless mind is free to wander out the door to topics secular as well as religious.
One night recently I dreamed I was walking with Walter Mitty, our cat, through an urban neighborhood, trying to reach our home, just a few blocks away. Like so many dreams, this one did not fit reality. To begin with, Spanish Fort, where I live, is a long way from being urban.
Moreover, I would never try to walk down a street with Mitty and, more to the point, he would never try to walk down a street with me. Mitty is totally an indoor cat, who never wanders up the hall from our apartment door further than to the next apartment, a distance of about 25 feet, and who has to be carried out of the building in a cage for his annual trip to the vet.
My dreams, typically, are about the struggle to accomplish something always just a bit out of reach. It was so in this urban neighborhood. No street was a thoroughfare. At every intersection I was faced with a choice of a half-block jog to the left or to the right, and I never knew which would being me closer to my destination.
To complicate my struggle, I was having to carry my weary cat. At 16 pounds, Mitty is no small burden, and he fights being held by anyone in an upright stance. (Laps are another thing.) So I struggled on and on in this dream, carrying my heavy, squirmy cat and getting nowhere. As is usual in such dreams, I woke before I reached my seemingly unreachable destination.
I wondered later if this was a dream about the publishing of my book, Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough. It took me two years, working full time, to write this novel, and I’ve spent another year or more querying agents and publishers. More recently, I decided to self-publish, and that’s not a straight thoroughfare, either.
When my writer’s group met last week we were treated to three new blank verse poems by our in-house poet, Betty Ivy. I introduced you to Betty as my favorite contemporary poet in a blog posted on April 1.
Betty’s new poems were marked by her usual lyrical blank verse rhythm and her sense of the ironic, Betty’s trademarks. My favorite was called “The Fan.”
This fan is no ordinary house fan. It is the fan that sits beside the pulpit at St. James Church in Fairhope week in and week out and says, as it swivels and bobs, yes yes yes to the affirming words of the pastor and no no no to the things we don’t want in our lives.
Ingenious! Why did I never think to put such a fan alongside my pulpit, when I had a pulpit? Probably because I didn’t have a resident poet to tell me how it might sing out the gospel in reinforcement of my preaching.
Best of all, when St. James’s preacher leaves the pulpit and the members file out the door, the little fan remains behind, still saying yes yes yes to the preacher’s benediction.
In a prayer entitled “I Need to Start Over,” the late Kenneth G. Phifer confessed past sins, as we all must confess ours, and moved on with a prayer for his future: “So let me rise up and be done with the past. / Each day is new and fresh, / and each hour is fraught with grandeur. . . . / I’ve roads to walk / and hills to climb / and meadows in which to dance.” (From A Book of Uncommon Prayer. Used with permission.)
Many of us live in urbanized places where there are no meadows in which to dance or, if there are meadows in view, we do not use them for this happy purpose which God must surely have ordained for them. But our spirits, through faith, can take us to such a place and set our feet in joyous motion.
Dancing in the meadows of God’s forgiveness. It’s a refreshing thought.
According to A. J. Jacobs, the author of The Know-It-All, who read his way through all 33,000 pages of The Encyclopedia Brittanica, Honore Balzac was a perfectionist. He nearly bankrupted himself making changes to his manuscripts after the printer’s deadlines. That got my attention. I am currently bogged down in the proof reading and reformatting of my novel, Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough, and it’s time to get on with it. My cover designer promises a finished product is within sight. The proofing and formatting will then be all that will stand between me and the print-on-demand publisher who will issue a paperback version for the general market.
Problem is, as though proofing and formatting isn’t enough of a chore, I keep finding small ways to improve the text. A change of word here, a minor deletion there. I’ve spent three long days getting half-way through it. If it ever makes it into print, it will be a better book than the earlier Kindle version.
But now there’s this Balzac thing. Of course there’s no way I can compare Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough to The Human Comedy, but Balzac’s work habits are nevertheless a warning to me. I’ve been labeled a perfectionist before, and the thought of ruin-by-procrastination should be enough to reform me. Strike that. Make it “enough to set me straight.”
One of the things I’ve learned about John Quincy Adams in my recent reading is that, through most of his adult life, he had a strong interest in religion. He rose early and read several chapters of the Bible during his pre-breakfast regimen of long walks, long swims, and the reading of the classics.
Adams read voraciously. Along with the classics, history and the Bible, he enjoyed reading sermons and theology. He was also a church-goer. During his years as secretary of state and president, he attended three services of worship on Sundays: morning, afternoon and evening--Unitarian, Episcopal and Presbyterian. And these were not our modern, hour-long services.
Then Adams went home and critiqued the sermons in his journal. Once a professor of oratory at Harvard as well as a theology buff, his standards were not always met. Paul C. Nagel, his biographer, remarks that “the homiletical powers of Washington’s clergy were not of the highest order.” Hard to imagine in this day of prestigious capital-city pulpits, but Washington was then a mud-street village. (At least they had clergy. They had no dentist.)
By most norms, Adams displayed unusual religious commitment, yet not until 1826 did he make his own confession of faith. At the age of 59 he united with the Quincy church, where his forebears had worshiped for almost 200 years. He acknowledged he was about 30 years late.
One of my favorite biographies ever has been David McCullough’s life of John Adams. Recently I’ve moved forward a generation to read Paul C. Nagel’s biography of John Quincy Adams. The son, it appears, inherited all of his father’s brusque and contentious personality and enlarged upon it.
A brilliant scholar and accomplished diplomat, John Q. Adams was less successful as a politician. Serving as Monroe’s secretary of state in the years leading up to the presidential election of 1824, he held the second most powerful position in the land. It wasn’t enough. He hoped to be elevated to the presidency, as three of his predecessors had, but he had scruples that are entirely foreign to our generation. He wanted to be called into the position by the House of Representatives, who then elected presidents, without campaigning for the position or even acknowledging his ambition for it.
After persisting in this high-minded approach for most of 1823, he finally found a way to throw his hat into the ring without quite acknowledging it. His strongest rival for the position was Andrew Jackson, who was not timid about admitting his own ambition. On January 8, 1824, John Quincy and Louisa Adams threw a ball honoring the 9th anniversary of Jackson’s defeat of the British at New Orleans. Adams’ goal was to gain the attention of a lot of people and to maneuver Jackson into settling for the vice-presidency.
An estimated one thousand people attended the ball at the Adams residence. Wow! The Adams home was admittedly a large one where John Quincy and Laura did a lot of entertaining, but one thousand people? It raises two questions in my mind, the first being: this was supposedly a ball, but how could that many people crowd into even a large home and leave enough space for anyone to dance?
My second question is, what did this big shindig cost? It was a large campaign investment for a man who did not even admit he was campaigning.
The irony is that it didn’t change a thing with Jackson. He couldn’t decline the honor of the ball, but he could and did refuse to lower his own sights and close down his campaign for the presidency.
What a ball! And all for a victory that was fleeting and sour. It makes me look again at my own goals and priorities. What price will I pay for that which does not satisfy and does not last?