I traveled to eastern Mahoning County this morning, to the McGuffey Wildlife Preserve. It was lovely, but not exceptional, as far as nature preserves in this part of the world. Pretty small. Mostly meadows, with a few sections of thin forest and one area that might be described as either a small pond or a marsh. I made a point of hiking every trail, as indicated by the Gaia app on my phone. And even then the whole hike came in just under two miles.
My main goal was just to rest and soak up the presence of God, out in Creation. But I was wondering if God might also provide some ideas for spiritual goals at the start of this New Year. And as I walked through the nature preserve, one of the early impressions that came to me was the continued priority of rest: to know my limits and regularly force myself to “let balls drop” and remind myself (and others) that “Jesus is the savior of the world, not Eric.”
It’s a theme to which I’ve returned again and again over the last decade. But I bit off more than I could chew in the first half of 2022 — and I really don’t want to make the same mistake again in 2023. So, I want to keep mindful of these things as I step into a new semester of ministry. Particularly one in which we’re going to be short-staffed and stretched in other ways. We’re all going to need to play good, solid, team “basketball.” No hero-ball.
Then, about halfway through my time at the McGuffey Wildlife Preserve, I came across a large stone with a metal plaque saying, “William Holmes McGuffey Boyhood Home Site.” And the plaque made it seem like this was a big deal. Reason for a registered national historic landmark, posted by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1966. But I didn’t have the faintest idea of who this McGuffey guy was. So, of course, I looked him up on my smartphone and learned he was “a college professor and president who is best known for writing the McGuffey Readers, the first widely used series of elementary school-level textbooks. More than 120 million copies of McGuffey Readers were sold between 1836 and 1960, placing its sales in a category with the Bible and Webster’s Dictionary.”
“McGuffey Readers” sounded a bit familiar in my ears. Still, I’m a nerd. A history buff (especially when it comes to history with local connections). And I tend to remember obscure details like this. I can’t imagine that many people my age (or younger than me) would even have that flicker of recognition. McGuffey has drifted into obscurity — even though his books were “in a category with the Bible and Webster’s Dictionary” for more than a hundred years!
By almost any measure, William Holmes McGuffey should have “achieved immortality.” He probably made a lot of money. He likely helped to shape the thinking of multiple generations. And he did it all in a format that should endure better than most. Countless books on countless shelves bearing his name. And yet, even when I encountered monuments designed to preserve the memory of this man, the name “McGuffey” did nothing for me. “McGuffey Readers” did only slightly more. And I can’t imagine it’s been much more than perhaps a dozen people who have even bothered to glance at that plaque in the last year. And even the number of people visiting the McGuffey Wildlife Preserve is probably negligible. It’s so small, so out of the way. Nature has reclaimed the territory that once belonged to him.
Even a quarter of the trails indicated by my Gaia app were grown over, unmaintained. Remembered only by the deer who have left a thin track to get from one part of the brush to another. It all just struck me as a stark reminder of entropy at play. (Crazy that it was almost exactly one year ago that the theme of entropy was brought to my attention!).
It all reminds me of the folly of a person trying to “make one’s mark” on the world. The world is just too temporal. And I know this could be discouraging. But somehow, I’m actually reassured to know that our notions of “notoriety” and “mediocrity” are pretty short-lived. “The grass withers and the flowers fade,” along with all our human accomplishments. “But the Word of the LORD stands forever.” Hiking in the McGuffey Wildlife Preserve this morning, I felt compelled to capture this understanding. To hold onto it throughout the coming year. Not just in January. Not just in the Winter. But throughout the year and throughout my everyday life.
How, exactly? I’m still working on that. I want to figure out ways to keep living my life as a signpost, directing others towards Jesus. To keep proclaiming the Good News of His Kingdom come (and coming). Maybe to memorize the Romans Road (maybe even in multiple languages) as a way of directly acknowledging the permanence of God’s word, in contrast to the impermanence of my words (or ideas or accomplishments). I don’t know. I’m still working on the practicals.
All I know is that we’re all going to go the way of McGuffey. At least as far as it concerns McGuffey 2023. Some of us may end up with a temporary level of recognition like McGuffey might have had in 1873 (the year of his death) or in 1966 (when they put up that plaque in the park). But even the “famous” people fade from memory, with time. All while God keeps faithfully working, day after day, year after year, century after century. The best parts of us, the most eternal parts of us, are all God. So why not live that way in 2023?