Anxiety as a Feature

   Increasingly, one hears it said that the inducement of anxiety is not an accidental byproduct of social media; anxiety is a feature, not a bug. The anxious user will click more, seeking ever-more affirmation, finding instead dismissive comments, and so forth. A friend writes that he is considering dropping out of the whole thing. 

    That was a comment in his latest blog, which is slightly ironic: we who write blogs want more subscribers, more readers. But there is a world of difference (literally, the world) between reader feedback and social media clicks. When you write me, we are fellow creatures in the real world who happen to be using email. When you click and like or dislike my Media-Formerly-Known-As-Twitter post about one of these emails, we are in a merely virtual world. 

    It is not a hard question for me, which world I want to be a part of.

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    Some anxiety, however, is built into the physical human world, and these weeks are often specially fraught. Here are a few old thoughts about dealing with the anxieties of December.

    1. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, sunset has gotten as early as it’s going to get. The evening will soon begin to lengthen as it stretches towards summer. 

    2. Christmas doesn’t really start for another couple of weeks. It’s okay to wait for it. There are very few things you really have to get done.

    3. You have all the time you have: there is no more! Lacking all the time there is, you can’t do everything. (This has become something I say to myself daily: “I have all the time I have.”)

    4. Christmas doesn’t end until Epiphany, January 6. The week after Christmas is a great time to write letters and have parties. Ditto the first week of January.

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    A younger colleague was sorting through impressions of the hymns we had just sung at a “lessons and carols” service. Many Christmas hymns aim to teach us how to be children awaiting the birth of the Christchild. We sing about being children, about growing in obedience to God, about sleeping in a cradle (as God the newborn baby did), and so forth. 

    Of course we must mature into Christlikeness. But it is also Christlike to eat and sleep and smile. 

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    Out & About. This Sunday (Dec. 17) at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, I am teaching an Advent class on “An Adult Christ at Christmas.” It meets at about 10:20 in the Great Hall. The text is Luke 2:21 to the end of the chapter; we’ll consider how this Christmas story is a proclamation of the death of Christ.

    For your Christmas reading: get Morte d'Urban by J. F. Powers. Father Urban (of the title) is a priest of the order of St. Clement, a group known for nothing much. Urban has designs to improve them. He is amazingly successful with wealthy donors and nonstop work; then it all collapses after his head intersects with a golf ball. Powers, a favorite of Garrison Keillor (his fellow Minnesotan), wrote deadpan, drily humorous stories and novels; Morte d’Urbanwon the National Book Award in 1963—then it fell into ill-deserved obscurity. We will discuss it at 5pm on Sunday, January 14, at the Good Books & Good Talk seminar at St. Matthew’s. But it’s worth reading even if you don’t live in Dallas.

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    I am to teach the Christian Ethics course at the Stanton Center starting Sat., Jan. 20. Auditors do various readings prior to each meeting, one of them a Muriel Spark novel, many of them drawn from Christian Ethics: A Guide for the Perplexed. Students needing credit write responses to the readings prior to class also. The main thing is in-person discussion; no final exam, no term paper. Registration begins with an email to Erica Lasenyik:


 

Watch out for Bison

The signs were all over the highway: watch for bison. This was in the sub-arctic area of Canada’s Northwest Territories, where the highway goes through woods for miles upon miles without a dwelling, a cell tower, or a store in sight. (In five hours, there was one gas station/convenience store; we stopped for it.)

    They had me sit up front so I could see more of the country, but they also said it was my particular job to watch for bison. They said bison won’t leap suddenly into your path; they don’t act like deer. But they do take up their space with insouciance. Sometimes, I was told, they just stand in the middle of the highway. Sometimes they are lined up along the shoulder. 

    We did see one. It was dark and, to our benefit, the falling snow had collected on his back; that snow reflected our headlights much better than his dark hide below it. Our driver eased to the left and we went on by. I heard stories of bison that are just dark, unseen until your car is too close to go around. It is said that if you run into a bison, it, not you, might walk away.

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    I have said before that the book of Job is the best book in the Bible. It seems to me to nail the human predicament. On the one hand, God loves us. He has made us, he watches over us and is even willing to talk with us. In particular, God is proud of Job and in the end does talk with him. On the other hand, the world is full of dangers. God has made a lot of creatures who could destroy us. Leviathan, for instance, has an impenetrable hide—in sharp contrast to Job, whose hide (his skin) has suffered a hideous disease. Leviathan could kill Job and not even know it. Job can do nothing to Leviathan.

    Nonetheless Job has something that Leviathan, along with most of creation, lacks: Job is aware of his condition. He can ask the question of justice, even though he cannot grasp any answer to the question. Job, that is to say, is aware of the mystery of things.

    The world we human beings live in is strange. There are beasts out there that we need to guard against. We need, together, to be looking out for them and to help each other, not only in the lookout but also after. Most of all, we need to strengthen and encourage one another. After we’ve looked out for the bison, as it were, we come home and, like that beautiful scene at the end of the book of Job, we gather around in a sort of communion. 

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    Out & About. Sunday, Dec. 17, at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, I am teaching an Advent class on “An Adult Christ at Christmas.” It meets at about 10:20 in the Great Hall. 

    Looking ahead: we'll discuss Morte D'Urban by J. F. Powers on Sunday, Jan. 14, 2024, at 5pm; this will be the first Good Books & Good Talk seminar of 2024. An introduction: Father Urban is a priest of the order of St. Clement, a group known for nothing much—but Urban has designs to improve them. He is amazingly successful with wealthy donors and nonstop work; then it all falls apart. Powers’s humor is dry, deadpan; his stories and novels capture the intrinsic comedy of celibate Catholic clergy life. Powers was a favorite of Garrison Keillor, his fellow Minnesotan. This novel won for Powers the National Book Award in 1963—then it fell into ill-deserved obscurity. 

    Future books & dates (all Sundays at St. Matthew’s, Dallas, open to anyone who reads the book):

    Feb. 11: Roald Dahl, The BFG

    March 10: Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

    June 2: Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun

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    Drop me a line if you have questions about the Christian Ethics course at the Stanton Center starting in January. The teacher is lined up (guess who) and there are student spaces available still. If you audit this class, you will be expected to do various readings prior to each meeting, one of them a Muriel Spark novel, many of them drawn from Christian Ethics: A Guide for the Perplexed. If you take it for credit, you’ll be asked to write some responses to the readings prior to class also. The main thing is in-person discussion; no final exam, no term paper. Registration begins with an email to Erica Lasenyik:

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The Rev. Canon Victor Lee Austin. Ph.D., is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Friendship: The Heart of Being Human" and "A Post-Covid Catechesis.: