A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, June 14, 2009
Forbidden Books: A Reflection on the Summer, and the Reading of Summer Books
Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,?
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse---and Thou?
Beside me singing in the Wilderness---?
And Wilderness is Paradise (enough.)
—The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
It is hard to believe that here we are, at the formal end of the church year. Of course, those halcyon days of yore when this meant that your local Unitarian church closed its doors for the summer are long gone. Although, if you don’t know, even a dozen years ago you could still find UU churches, mostly here in New England, that indeed did close their doors until September. How many here recall the old joke from that time, how ours was the only denomination that God trusts out of sight for a season?
But that’s over. Like just about every other UU church we now continue on through the summer; more informal, and with most services taken by members of our community. Next Sunday, for instance, at ten o’clock our summer worship time, our own Ryk McIntyre, poet and raconteur will be kicking off our summer program with a reflection on his typical UU atypical spirituality. I got a sneak peek, and, what would you expect; it’s good!
Now with all the rain you might miss noticing, but this is summer. And I’ve been thinking about what I might say on this day, while one of those small markers of new season in our communal lives, it is particularly important for me, as among other things it is the official end of my first year as minister here. I can report from my side, how grateful I am to have been able to live and work among you. I feel fortunate beyond my deserving. We’re settling in nicely, thank you. Jan has found her place here, as well, even with her somewhat daunting commute. Auntie, well, auntie is usually happy wherever she is, so a good guide for us all in that regard. Our cats don’t seem to have noticed the change. And, I hope, on balance, you don’t regret that vote a little more than a year ago to call me to this lovely pulpit and to a life among you.
Now summer is upon us. As most know I’m a child of California where the shifts of seasons are subtle things. Even now a decade into my New England life, and nearly two decades away from the lotus lands of my first forty plus years, I still think of seasons as appropriately two, the wet one where everything is green, called winter and the dry one where everything is brown, called summer. But here in New England we have four, or perhaps five seasons, if one counts “mud,” each with their own colors and smells and texture. We are, if with some false starts along the way, and certainly with a soggy beginning, nonetheless, at this moment, launched into summer.
Whatever the rhythms of life for us as individuals, frankly possibly just working straight through, or grabbing kids and camping, or slipping away to the Aegean or just out the Cape to P-town with our sweetie, there are particular and peculiar rites to the season.
As I constantly suggest there can be some profit in the art of noticing. Today I want to call your attention to this season, and to suggest some small ways to inhabit it that allow the best to happen. In farming, I’ve been told one must have a fallow season. For us in the rhythm of our lives, this is the season our culture has set aside to discover the wisdom of stopping, of pausing, of playing. Of course we can’t mark out all of it for lazing about, hardly any of us can devote even a significant amount of time to stopping and playing. But all of us can embrace the spirit of this season, each in our own way. And, I really suggest doing so is part of a healthy spiritual enterprise. I have contracts for two books, and so there will be some serious work for me. But, I am committed to the discipline of taking some time off, particularly the weekends, noticing the lovely reality of a New England summer, and to just plain have a little fun.
So, my Hawaiian print shirts are out of their boxes. As are the short pants. The grill is already fired up. You can bet ice cream begins to rise in my mind. For our family after the required and expected to be largely pleasant trip west, mostly to visit relatives, only one of whom is agonizing over the illegal immigrant we’ve elected president, there’ll be a visit or two or three to see the Paw Sox. And, if we’ve watched our pennies carefully, maybe we’ll take in a trip to Fenway. These excursions to the game of ball are religious experiences for one member of the family, and fun for the rest. We haven’t yet explored our new home state beyond a drive or two to Newport. So, there’s that. We’re not so much Cape people, but we do love the Berkshires and the Pioneer Valley and feel a need to visit Northampton and environs this time of year. And, of course, there has to be a weekend at Tanglewood before the season ends.
I believe we all have both communal and private rites for the summer. Perhaps this means taking in the Bristol Fourth of July parade, a major Rhode Island feature. Speaking of Rhode Island summer requirements Jan and I feel a need to sample Del’s frozen lemonade for the first time, and to eat at least one New York System wiener. These hot dogs as most here know, don’t have anything to do with New York, but rather are pure, if that word can be used in this context, I gather there are perpetual disputes with the health department around the traditional making of these, how shall we call ‘em, food products. So, New York System wieners are pure Rhode Island eats, and we will this summer eat one, if only one. I gather we must, absolutely must pass a day on Bloch Island, as well as explore a couple of our Rhode Island beaches. But, you know, at some point that’s work, and what we very much mostly want to do, is to get to know our backyard.
However, the summer ritual I find myself most thinking of is that of selecting and then savoring that unique category of things called “summer books.” The origins of this habit are lost to the shrouds of history. Although I learned in my researches the first children’s summer reading program appears to have been sponsored by the children’s library league in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1895. There’s a factoid for you. Of course this sort of reading is meant to improve us, or at least our children. And bless the project! We all can use a little improvement, some among us more than others. And I don’t disdain the serious book.
However, there is something about the summer that calls to the light fantastic. And I want to hold that up. I notice how when I requested book titles at my minister’s list serve, I was disappointed to see how most titles were heavy going theological treatises. I mean I’m glad to see the colleagues aren’t the intellectual lightweights they sometimes seem, but hey, it’s summer, man! Their other choices tended along the lines of catch up on heavy literature. Again, good stuff, no doubt. But, they were not touching on something I feel deeply important. Perhaps the better term for what I would like to hold up for our consideration today in the context of lying fallow, of resting, of rejuvenating, might best be called “beach reading.”
And, yes, I consider this light reading important. As that old curmudgeon G. K. Chesterton put it, angels fly because they take themselves lightly. It is important to let the mind play. Now, I also very much believe there is a time for the heavy slog through the depths. But, in addition there is a need, a deep human need for the frivolous. Bread and roses, always bread and roses. We need both. And this time of our life, in our culture, is the time where if at all possible we should honor and hold it, by among other things reading trashy novels.
Today, on the last day of our formal church year, on a day we’ve welcomed some lovely children among us and in that I hope have recalled some of the deeper currents of relationship, let us also remember the little things that give life its joy. I’ve almost finished the latest from Iain Pears, Stone’s Fall, which to my mind teeters a tad too far in the direction of literature, certainly for something being sold as a murder mystery, so I’m considering my real inauguration into the summer will be Laurie R. King’s latest adventure featuring Mary Russell and her husband Sherlock Holmes. Yes, King is theologically educated, so there’s maybe a little cheating here. But, she tells a rip-snorting page-turner and one almost misses that there’s often a theological reflection buried within the story. So, far as I’m concerned, this counts.
I’m not sure where I go after that. I also sent out a request for summer reads at my Facebook page. But sadly they also seem to be a bit high-minded and were recommending by and large literature or important non-fiction. I’m ashamed of them. I don’t know how I fell in with such bad company.
My dear Jan has told me for her this summer is going to be something of a Trollop revival. She assures me this is closer to the trashy fun read than I suspect. But wherever your tastes take you, to murder mysteries or suspense thrillers, to science fiction or fantasy, to bodice rippers, to westerns, and yes, even to literary fiction or important non-fiction; my suggestion to you is do it! Read it. Savor and enjoy it.
And all along the way, notice.
That, my friends, will enrich and enliven. In the rhythms of our lives we need these moments of respite, noticed, appreciated. The work that needs doing will not go away. But when we return, rested a little, renewed a bit, we will be able to see that work with new eyes.
That’s the deal.
Thank you, and amen.