Monday, December 29, 2003

Hebron Crossroads 1-04-04
By Jeff Gill

“Rats, Lice, and History” by Hans Zinsser was a book on a reading list for college students someone gave me in high school. Granted, it was an eclectic list an eccentric professor had compiled to prepare young people for higher education, but there were a number of interesting picks on it I’ve never regretted reading: “Tristram Shandy,” “The Mabinogion,” or “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”

But “Rats, Lice, and History” has stuck with my thinking processes far beyond the contents. It is a book, written as a series of magazine articles in the 1930’s, that was intended to make the point that bacteria, amoebas, and communicable diseases of any sort had always played a great role in history beyond what historians have ever wanted to tell. Battles won and lost, sieges lifted or triumphant, civilizations in rise or fall, all have hinged more on typhoid, cholera, or bubonic plague than they have on leadership, skilled generals, or valiant warriors.

In fact, one large section of Prof. Zinsser’s work is meant to sing the praises of the then-and-now unglamorous work of public health officials. Testing back then was usually directly hazardous to the life and health of the university staff or civic officials involved, and rarely well-funded or generally appreciated, but Zinsser argued to my satisfaction that they had advanced human civilization more than most artists, engineers, or diplomats.

The obvious, overarching point was that microscopic life forms have been around from the beginning, and will always be with us. . .necessarily, since microbes make our digestive tract and other systems of our bodies function properly. But his more subtle point had to do with the fact that just when we thought we understood the invisible world of disease thoroughly, there would always be another new outbreak, hitherto unknown, to make new work for the protectors of public health.

Certainly the AIDS pandemic of the 1980’s made Zinsser’s work interesting again, especially since viruses, Human Immunodeficiency Viruses or otherwise, were little understood and less mentioned in “Rats, Lice, and History.” His point was all the more sharp in that infectious agents whose very nature wasn’t understood were the next new public health threat.

And now, mad cow. Or, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, called BSE for obvious reasons and “mad cow” for the symptoms in an infected animal. Infected with what? Well, Prof. Zinsser would find the very concept of “prions” fascinating, while yet another example of how public health work is never done.

Some excitable and less well-informed writers have called “mad cow” a mystery disease. The cause isn’t a mystery: proteins that make up our bodies that our bodies constantly make are infected with a “misfolded” protein that causes further proteins to be misfolded, and all these mangled, useless building blocks of life gum up the works. Cholesterol is a necessary building block of our physical fabric, but too much of it in the wrong places gums up the works, which we call coronary artery occlusion, or “a heart attack.” When an organism has a prion disease, you start to have brain attacks, with the works of the mind gummed up, ultimately beyond repair.

There is a mystery, and that is whether prions constitute a lifeform or just a very complicated kind of enzyme; are they just a dead hunk of template run amok, or a deeper mystery of biology? These aren’t abstract questions when you’re looking for cures and preventive strategies, and the implications for our beef-eating society are immense.

But we know very little about prions (my spell check on the computer this gets typed on doesn’t know the word, but I think I’ll enter it into the dictionary when I’m done here for future use), even as their effects turn out to have been long-observed among trout, sheep, and south seas cannibals who noticed that brain-eating often causes a strange, wasting disease (can you say “kuru,” that Scrabble favorite? Yep, same thing).

Should we eat beef? Well, I will disappoint my vegan readers by saying I’m not in favor of going whole hog with chickening out on my meat eating. Good news for steak eaters in that whole cuts of “muscle meat” appear quite safe. The brain, spinal cord, and nervous system material off those parts are where the prions reside, misfolding their origami destruction, and the human hazard seen in Great Britain is in meat processing that gets a little “too close to the bone,” as it were, scraping every scrap off to maximize profits but also increasing risk. Globally, much is now known about what not to feed and how not to process cattle that makes us safer; generally, more is known now among us gen’l public folk about how a calf gets to your dinner table, which is not always pleasant, but helps us accurately judge risk for ourselves.

Ground beef is going to see a number of new checks and balances introduced, increasing the cost a bit for your cheeseburger. Zinsser would have said that we should not begrudge a little extra cost for research as well as prevention, because just as we finally all get informed about BSE, we human creatures can expect to have something new sneak up on our blind side.

Meanwhile, we all could probably do with a lot more vegetable matter in our diets, anyhow. And if you’ve got one of the myriad new strains of the common cold or furious flu, drink plenty of fluids and get some rest, and read “Rats, Lice, and History.” With your chicken soup, of course.

Jeff Gill is pastor of Hebron Christian Church and an omnivore in both reading and eating habits; if you have dietary suggestions or public health guidelines to share, call him at 928-4066 or e-mail
Notes From My Knapsack – The Church Window January 2004

With the new year, and our annual congregational meeting Jan. 25, many of us are working on our annual report for 2003 (right?).

Anyhow, while such stuff can seem like needless number crunching, there is a kind of stewardship in “being faithful in little” such as tracking how many are in worship and how often, how much we give as “in-kind” gifts as well as in funds, and which areas of church life have met with hearty response. . .or not!

While there’s much of pastoral ministry that can’t be put into numbers, there’s actually quite a bit that can, and thereby tells a story we need to listen to as the elders and leadership plan for the future. Times and circumstances change; thankfully, the Good News doesn’t change, but how we share it is affected by different influences.

One huge one is this: just before Christmas, I made a pastoral visit to my twelfth (that’s 12!) hospital or surgery center – only two of those were one visit each. From Riverside in Columbus to Bethesda in Zanesville, from Fairfield General in Lancaster to Mansfield Memorial, to pray with patients before surgery and wait with families, to visit folks in rehab and come to ER’s late at night, 12 medical centers to get to, navigate within, and work with or through the staff.

There are other interesting numbers: seven nursing homes for resident visits, eight cemeteries for committals (but only three funeral homes I had to work with), three jails to visit inmates, two courthouses where hearings or proceedings needed a friendly face, and one Elections Commission hearing (that was the hardest to find!). But 12 medical centers.

I’d hazard a guess – and since Ralph, Paul, Morgan, Connie, and Keith all read this they may have input to share – that previous pastors in Hebron didn’t have parishioners spread that widely each year, but the new medical reality, with HMO’s and PPO’s and managed care that often seems more than a little mis-managed, is that we go where we’re sent, and that could be about anywhere in central Ohio.

In fact, adding up church mileage on the car yesterday, the total. . .well, put it this way. If you assume an average of 30 mph (which between highway miles and creeping up 79 or 30th St. seems about right), I spent 40 eight hour days just driving. Not including time spent in the hospital or home or meeting, but just turning the steering wheel. Almost two months of standard work week time, getting to where I’m needed. I’m the one who does the driving, and I was surprised.

So that’s some of what you learn by record keeping and report sharing; information we all need so our ministries can continue to grow and be fruitful. Oh, and have you given Ila your report yet?

In Grace and Peace,
Pastor Jeff

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Christian Reading Week

Sunday, Jan. 18, a special set of displays will be on view in the back of the sanctuary and downstairs with reading material and Christian literature. Some is from our library, some for sale (or ordering), and subscriptions to DiscipleWorld, our newest Disciples of Christ national publication, can be signed for at this time.

Winter can be a time for cabin fever, or for enjoying the quiet of a snowy evening. Reading can be one way to keep the winter blues at bay. Inspirational reading, stories of history and faith from our shared past, or vital accounts of the church at work today are all available.