Personal Notes from Mike
  • Schools started here in Mattoon this week. It seems a bit rushed:  temperatures are still in the 90s, the city pool should still be open, people should still be on "slow" for a bit longer.
  • Reading Alice Pung's novel, Lucy and Lihn, a novel describing how a "common" girl gets a scholarship to an elite high school and how she navigates the change.  The novel is set as a letter to her best friend from her old school.  Enjoying it. Also read an Atlantic magazine article by Jean M. Twenge entitled, "Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?"  She is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University.  Her upcoming book on the same topic will be published later this month:  iGen.  Looking forward to reading it.

August 20, 2017
Tomorrow is "Eclipse Day" in the U.S.A.  Depending on where you are, you will witness the moon butting in front of the sun and totally blocking your view.  Here in Mattoon, the sun will be 96% covered come 1:21 p.m..  It won't be a total block from here.  For that you'll need to travel to Makanda, Illinois, a few miles south of Carbondale.  

The pathway where the sun will be 100% blocked is about 70 miles wide, stretching from Oregon to South Carolina.  The last time a total eclipse of the sun travelled all the way across the U.S. was in 1918, while we were still fighting World War I.  The last time a total solar eclipse passed through Illinois was in 1869.  

Thousands are expected to travel to Carbondale to see this one.  If you can't get to Carbondale tomorrow, though, you'll not have to wait another 148 years.  You can go to Carbondale again in April of 2014 and see it all over. 
Since we benefit from science and math and Facebook, we know nowadays that an eclipse is coming.  But back in the day, people would be caught by surprise.  The unexpected darkness, the drop of temperature, and the freaky aura can cause emotional distress, even in the modern world.  People who've experienced it say it is disorienting.  

Since ancient people thought the sun revolved around the earth, explaining an eclipse required some imagination.  The wise ones of China decided that a dragon was trying to eat the sun.  The Vietnamese blamed it on a hungry frog.  A few Native Americans reckoned it was a bear.  In ancient India, they say that a demon (missing the rest of his body) was trying to eat the sun, but then it would escape again out his throat-hole. 
Night time animals think it's time to wake up.  Experts warn us that tomorrow, in the middle of the day, we may notice some crickets, bats, owls, and frogs acting like it's early evening.  Earl-the-Cat may think it's time for me to fill his meal bowl.  Birds may stop chirping and look to settle in for the night, even though it will still be the middle of the day.  

According to some scientists who observed wildlife in Africa during an eclipse several years back, hippos seemed the most confused.  Hippos normally spend their days in the river and their nights on shore.  But on eclipse day, in the middle of the day, as the sky blackened, the hippos headed for shore.  But as the eclipse ended, they seemed to freeze in place, not knowing what to do.  Elephants, on the other hand, seemed not to notice that there was anything strange going on.  I'm tempted to make a brief political commentary here.  But I will refrain since I have no data on donkey behavior during an eclipse. 
The ancients believed that an eclipse was a message from the gods.  Perhaps because an eclipse involves a darkening of the sky, the omens were generally bad. In Babylon, an eclipse (which they were able to forecast) meant that the king was in for some personal abuse.  So, during the eclipse, a decoy would sit on the throne till the eclipse was over.  When the sky returned to normal, it was then safe for the real king to take charge again. In Togo and Benin, it was believed that an eclipse was a sign that people should reconcile: the sight of the sun and the moon going at each other and...the ensuing darkness are said to be signs to the human race that if we don't get along, we'll be headed for trouble.  That story sounds true to me.
The Bible has numerous sky incidents.  There is the star that led the magi to Bethlehem, the pillar of fire that guided freed slaves, and a dragon knocking stars out of the sky with his tail. And those stories are just the start. Quite a bit of astronomical activity occurs in the Bible.  

In particular, those biblical authors who never missed a chance to include some heavenly action were known as "apocalyptic" writers.  They gave us the book of Revelation, parts of Daniel, sections of Matthew, and several other passages scattered throughout the Bible.  

The word "apocalyptic" comes from a Greek word meaning "reveal."  These marvelous writers always had something going on in the sky.  And it was the narrative occurring in the sky that revealed what was really going on in everyday life.  In apocalyptic writing, whenever the sun went black, everyone knew that the present way of doing things was about to end...and a new day was dawning.  

So, enjoy the eclipse tomorrow.  Just don't look at it or you'll go blind.  Look around you instead, and into your imagination, and into your faith.  From the start of the eclipse (11:48) until it is completed (2:45) think how good it is for the whole nation to stop and ponder this instead of our other burdens.  Afterward, we can get back to the heavy stuff, once we've been inspired.  And there will be heavy stuff indeed, what with the burgeoning racism and hatred let loose in recent days.  But first, a message from the sky.  --Mike

 The Sunday letter is something I have done now for over 20 years.  It is a disciplined musing:  mindfulness, memory, and imagination.  I write it when I first wake up on a Sunday morning and then share it with the congregation.  The letter you see published here is usually revised from what the congregation receives.  This discipline of thinking and writing puts me in the place of describing rather than advising.  It prepares me to proclaim the gospel rather than get preachy with the souls who will sit before me.  --JMS


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