In the sermon I preached to our congregation this past Sunday, I mentioned that I think we should be reading the Bible the way we read our newspapers (or Facebook newsfeeds): daily, to be informed, to understand the world, to make sense of our lives in community, and, most importantly, to be the catalyst for a change in the way we live. Meditation on Scripture and prayer are far more beneficial for our minds and our souls than skimming headlines, especially in the time in which we find ourselves.
What shall we call this time? I think many people feel that we in the West are teetering precariously on the edge of some impending plunge into chaos. That might be true. Many are concerned about President Trump, not only because they find his policies abhorrent and inhumane, but also because of his character. Hence, for those who oppose Trump, anyone who might be ambivalent about him (or worse, a supporter) must be either a blind victim unable to see the error of his or her ways, or simply another unthinking crony who is bent on violently propelling America into an evil totalitarian state.
These are views I have picked up as an outsider, sitting comfortably somewhere in the woods of Toronto, and I recognize this. Still, the times are troubling to us in the North as well; I hear the chatter in coffee shops and subways, and even in calm denunciations from the pulpit.
I see all of this, watching the unfolding of history, trying to discern the lines where the providence of God is leading, and I admit I’m gobsmacked most of the time by my inability to see anything intelligible. So I wait. I can’t diagnose the cause of the problems we are facing in the West, let alone the problems my city is facing, because I don’t even know if I can put my finger on the problems themselves. Everyone has their own take on Trump, and how we ought to be responding to him, if at all. I suppose what I am about to say is just another angle to peer from, though I can’t help but worry I am asking the wrong questions to begin with.
I cannot understand the world rightly — because of my sin and the sins of my fellow Canadians; because of my frailty — and so I expect my criticisms won’t be very incisive. In addition to all of this, I remember that “some men’s sins are open beforehand, going before to judgment; and some men they follow after” (1 Tim. 5:24, KJV). I pause, then, when I feel most confident about placing my finger on the errors of someone like Trump. As correct as I think I am, I wonder about the rolling ocean of corruption, murder, and lust seething under the surface of the lives of others (not least my own). Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!
In sum: I don’t understand the ills of our time. What I can offer is a little proposal for moving forward in an evil world. Here it is:
Instead of fretting over the present global catastrophe, read old books, and live in your neighborhood, doing whatever else you can, according to the ability God has given you.
I began this little note by suggesting we ought to read the Bible more; this is where we begin. It’s not a very profound idea, and nobody will likely care whether or not you do read Scripture regularly. Nonetheless, it will nourish you sufficiently, so that we might blunder through the world with just enough grace and truth to be flickering flames in a brooding darkness. After the Bible, anything old is good, written by anyone who is dead. You can read the period that most suits your tastes.
Annie Dillard writes this:
Why are we watching the news, reading the news, keeping up with the news? Only to enforce our fancy — probably a necessary lie — that these are crucial times, and we are in on them. Newly revealed, and we are in the know: crazy people, bunches of them. New diseases, shifts in power, floods! Can the news from dynastic Egypt have been any different?
A hundred years ago, Americans saw frenzy consuming their times, and felt the whole show could not go on much longer. Those people saw electricity come and the buffalo go. They had settled the country from shore to shore, run telegraph wires across the sea, and built spanning railroads that shortened overland trail journey from five months to five days. America had surpassed England in the production of steel. Surely theirs were apocalyptic days. Rushed time and distance converging on a vanishing point before their eyes. They could, by their own accounts, scarcely bear their own self-consciousness. Now they seem innocent… 
As Dillard notes, it has always felt like we are edging toward some kind of free fall. From the destruction of the Roman Empire all the way up until the great wars of the last century, there was always some impending doom, always wackos with unchecked power, always political one-upmanship. By reading Scripture, then reading old books, we can at least see that if this moment in history is crucial, so was every other moment. This puts ours brains back in balance.
Having read, we can live. But we can’t all live in D.C. or Ottawa. We can’t all walk around the White House or Parliament (or the national offices of our churches). We all live somewhere, though, and we all talk to some people, and work some job; we all have a family of some sort, friends, with whom we buy (or grow) food, cook meals, shovel snow (or not).
I’ve read enough of Wendell Berry to know that thinking about how we can change our society or our country is useless because it is impractical, and it is impractical because we are simply thinking too big. It’s by looking to what we have in front us — what we are going to eat for lunch, how we are going to talk to the folks in the next apartment, whether or we will give these few dollars in the church offering plate this Sunday — that we are able to move forward with some tact in a tottering world. Ironically, it’s these seemingly little things, local things, that are often overlooked when trying to get to the big picture of “what’s really wrong with our country.”
Do you loath everything Trump stands for? Do you want to resist his government somehow?
Go to church and pray. Show kindness to that difficult person in your life. Cook a healthful meal with ingredients you’ve grown in your backyard. Commit to helping out with the kids ministry that needs volunteers and give your extra sweaters to they who have none.
Now I realize that there is place for civic engagement at higher levels. It’s hard to welcome the refugee into your home when your government won’t welcome them into your country. But while we can all play a part in the former, helping the people who live nearby, only some of us have the position or ability to make a ruckus with the latter. I suppose we can all write letters, though.
Is my quiet proposal to read Scripture and tend gardens utterly naïve? Perhaps. The ideas I have are small ones, and I am proud of that. Take them as some provisional thoughts from a fellow pilgrim in the way. My hope is we can do something concrete where we are with what we have — however little — rather than burning out and doing nothing over pressing national issues. If we fail to do the little, I fear we will only fuel our anger and rage.
 Dillard, For the Time Being (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), pp. 31-32. She goes on (pp. 88-9) to remind us that not only is our time not unique in its feeling of novelty when it comes to upheaval, but that we too live in the age of saints and miracles. Our times are not as crucial as we think they are in any respect, at least in comparison to any other times.
Thanks for this, Cole. Another thought: in a time of fear of immigrants, Muslims, and people from the Middle East and Africa, I’d add another set of suggestions. Go, befriend your local Muslim community; get to know those you fear. There is no substitute for real interaction and personal knowledge.
Wisdom and food for thought here. Loved Cole’s stress on reading the Bible and I recall that it was precisely this reading of the Bible together – for those of faith, no faith, or even anti-faith, commitments – that served as a form of resistance to totalitarianism during WWII, Barth, Jacques Ellul, and many others with them, and the influence this had on the young William Stringfellow and his struggle for justice.