What's Tony Thinking

A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Lecture


About a year ago I was contacted by a church in Arizona that was establishing a lecture series in honor of their recently deceased pastor. They invited me to give the inaugural lecture in the autumn of 2020.

I accepted their invitation. Before long they asked me to provide a title for my lecture, so they could begin promoting the event with their own congregation and neighboring churches. This was all pre-COVID.

At the time I had just finished Jill Lepore’s one-volume history of the U.S., These Truths. I was struck in reading the final chapters of her book how in the first decades of the twenty-first century, we had experienced one seemingly catastrophic event after another.

The contested 2000 Presidential election settled by the Supreme Court, the 9/11 attacks followed by the “War on Terror,” and invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq, the 2008 economic melt-down and emergency efforts to stabilize the economy, President Obama’s election, then the white backlash of The Tea Party, the series of racial incidents and police killings of black men that led to Black Lives Matter, the astounding rise of Donald Trump and his stunning election in 2016, the distortions, lies and “fake news,” Trump’s subsequent impeachment and on it goes.

Just reading Lepore’s account of the early part of the present century left me exhausted and feeling a great sympathy for all of us who reel from what I would call, “multiple overwhelmings.”

So I settled on a title for my lecture for fall of 2020. “How to Live When the Things Fall Apart.” I provided that in maybe December of last year. Then came COVID, and things fell apart in altogether new ways. My title only grew more relevant. I appeared if not prophetic, then at least prescient. Not, mind you, that I had any clear idea about what I was going to say about “How To Live When Things Fall Apart.” I only knew the topic seemed apt.

Well, now the lecture will be, like all else, on-line, this October.

There is an old children’s book which I like very much, though I can’t remember the title. As the story goes, a peasant farmer is going nuts from the noise of his household. His many children are constantly fighting. His spouse is scolding. The chaos is making him crazy. So he goes to see the rabbi and describes the situation. “What should I do?,” asked the desperate farmer.

The rabbi asked, “Do you have chickens?” “Yes,” said the farmer. “Bring them into your house,” said the rabbi. The farmer returned home and moved the chickens inside along with his squabbling, noisy family. It only got noisier and messier.

The farmer returned to the rabbi and said that things hadn’t improved, only grown worse. The rabbi asked if he had a cow. Yes. Bring your cow into the house. More noise. More mess. On it goes, chickens, cow, pigs all inside now.

Back to the rabbi again, who asked if the farmer had in-laws. Yes. Invite your in-laws to come and stay. Then one day the rabbi starting reversing, one by one, his previous instructions until all that was left in the house was the man’s still squabbling family. The farmer returned to the rabbi one last time to thank him, saying, “It’s a miracle.” So quiet so calm, so tidy.

Not to trivialize our situation, but it feels a little like that. We’ve added, or had added, one element of craziness and chaos after another.

Let us pray that Trump will be sent packing on November 3. (I know, I know, it could all get even worse as he claims electoral fraud). Perhaps, by early in 2021 a vaccine will be available. And in time, people will return to work and the economy will sort of normalize. And maybe, just maybe, we will make real progress on racism. We will have a bunch of continuing challenges, along with some new ones, but we will have the feeling the farmer had, “It’s a miracle,” as we give thanks for a world that is noisy and perplexing, but isn’t falling apart. Such is my hope.

I’ll let you know how the lecture goes. In the meantime, feel free to share with me what you’ve learned about “how to live when the world falls apart.”






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