Transitions

“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves.  We must die to one life before we can enter into another!”

Anatole France, French author and philosopher.

“There is no sin punished more implacably by nature than the sin of resistance to change.”

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of Charles Lindberg the aviation pioneer.

“Change is the process by which the future invades our lives.”

Alvin Toffler, American futurologist and author.

(Photo credit: emindful.com)

(Note: Biblical citations in this piece are taken from The Kingdom New Testament as translated by Anglican theologian and Bible scholar N.T. Wright.)

The list of certainties in life is very short: birth, death, and change.  Some people add taxes to that list.  However, it is theoretically possible to conceive a life without taxes, and we are told by anthropologists that in primitive societies they didn’t exist – although contributions to the common weal were expected.

I suppose birth is not even inevitable if we accept that a child in the womb is alive, but may not make it to birth.  Of course, this has become a very uncomfortable and largely ignored subject in polite progressive societies like Canada, but scientifically there is no denying that an unborn child is alive.  The US is not as “polite” as Canada, so this subject is still a hot public one there.  But we will not follow that trail today, as worthy a discussion as it is to have.

The US has just undergone a very important change, a transition from one President to another, with the legislative reins of power also significantly shifting from Republican to Democrat hands.  Some readers of this blog are doubtless also going through major life-changes, transitions from one chapter to another.  All of us, young or old, rich or poor, famous or ordinary folks, partnered or single, are going through change, experiencing transition.  As Henry Ford once said, “Life is just one damn thing after another.”

Our three citations above all point to different facets of how everyone experiences transition.  I could have given many more.  I will simply add the gist of a few of them: “… [the] gate of change…can only be unlocked from the inside” (Marilyn Ferguson); “Most of us are about as eager to change as we were to be born…” (James Baldwin); and finally, a famous one, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” (Alphonse Karr)

Toffler speaks of change “invading” our lives.  This is because most of us, if we reach a place of comfort and ease, or just plain old being used to how things are even if they are pretty dismal, like “the devil we know rather than the devil we don’t know”.

Anne Lindbergh, who went through horrendous pain in her personal life, knew what she was talking about when she said that resisting the inevitability of change brings on “implacable punishment”.  In her case, she was speaking of deep grief never being able to bring back her once fairy-tale life after her dead child was kidnapped and killed and her family destroyed.  Anyone who has lost what is most loved and precious either learns this truth or ends up emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually destroyed.

It is easy to be philosophical about change as you observe it from afar.  It is a far different thing when I am the one in the midst of it.  When it involves great pain, loss, and prolonged suffering, whether physical, mental, or spiritual (and they are inextricably interwoven in the long run), philosophy becomes very thin.  At that point, survival becomes primary.  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s paradigm of loss and grieving comes into play with all its messiness. 

There are many variables in how individuals, groups, and whole societies undergo transition and change.  There is no fixed template.  Kubler-Ross’s brilliant synopsis, nuanced since then by her and others, remains a tremendously helpful reference point, allowing that there is no clean order in which the phases occur, the length of time they may endure, or the intensity of the feeling.

“Navigating” change and transition is a helpful analogy.  Traveling the road of transition and change is much more like a voyage in an old sailing ship than in a vessel equipped with powerful engines to combat the forces of nature.  Even powerful modern ships are often blown off their planned course.  “Nature” and Life do not play by our rules.  Life is embedded in Nature and not governed by how humans hope, yearn, and strive to control its course and outcome.

With few exceptions, none of us knows ahead of time when “the end” will come.  Paul Anka and Frank Sinatra famously sang “I did it my way!” with more than a little autobiographical hubris.  I suspect that upon reaching the other side we find that what awaits us is not about “doing it my way” anymore, and in fact never was.  A very old aphorism says, “You reap what you sow; if you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind.”  If all you have is now and then you go into oblivion, perhaps the complete ego-centrism of “doing it my way” and telling everyone else that they can just go down “the highway [to Hell? – as per ACDC]” – has appeal.  But the deadness at the centre of such a life kills what is essentially human even for atheists.

“Doing it my way” is described by the Biblical author Kohelet (King Solomon’s pen-name) as “chasing after the wind.”  You can never catch up to it or cage it.  We like to think we are quite clever because we have found some technology to make the wind work for us when it is blowing the right way.  But we always rediscover that, as Jesus described the work of God’s Spirit, “The wind blows where it wants to, and you hear the sound it makes; but you don’t know where it’s coming from or where it’s going to.  That’s what it’s like with someone who is born from the spirit.” (John’s Gospel in the The Kingdom New Testament, Chapter 3, Verse 8.)

We can never really have it all our own way.  There is indeed a highway to Hell.  Jesus once described it like this.  “The gate that leads to destruction is nice and wide, and the road going there has plenty of room.  Lots of people go that way.  But the gate leading to life is narrow, and the road going there is a tight squeeze.  Not many people find their way through.”  (Matthew’s Gospel in the The Kingdom New Testament, Chapter 7, Verse 13.)

Born of the spirit.  That’s the difference between insisting I do it my way and everyone else can just take “go to Hell”, and discovering a life full of greater meaning and enduring fulfillment.  Humans are spiritual beings, but many of us spend our lives neglecting or even denying the inner source of our life.  When we do that, change become hell, because the darn old world and cosmos keep insisting that we’re not in charge, no matter how carefully we strive and contort ourselves to make the reality we want happen.

That is the deep truth that Anne Lindbergh was referring to when she said, “There is no sin punished more implacably by nature than the sin of resistance to change.” 

That is what Anatole France was driving at when he said, “We must die to one life before we can enter into another!”

The future will “invade our lives” as Toffler said.  And when it comes, if we have not prepared to meet it with openness and grace, it will “punish us” and perhaps even destroy the life we led up until that time.

We will conclude these reflections with another saying of Yeshua/Jesus that is really the last word about changing, for it speaks of the only way to really change permanently to open the road to birth into what the Creator made us to be.

“Let me tell you the solemn truth,” replied Jesus [to a Jewish leader named Nicodemus two thousand years ago].  “Unless someone has been born from above, they won’t be able to see God’s kingdom.”

“How can someone possibly be born,” asked Nicodemus, “when they’re old?  You’re telling me they can go back a second time into the mother’s womb and be born, are you?”

“I’m telling you the solemn truth,” replied Jesus.  “Unless someone is born from water and spirit, they can’t enter God’s kingdom.  Flesh is born from flesh, but spirit is born from spirit.  Don’t be surprised that I said to you, You must be born from above.  The wind blows where it wants to, and you hear the sound it makes; but you don’t know where it’s coming from or where it’s going to.  That’s what it’s like with someone who is born from the spirit.”

(Gospel of John, Chapter 3, Verses 3-8)

Water

“… a mist went up from the earth which watered the entire surface of the ground.” – Genesis 2:6 – Hebrew Bible (Old Testament)

Fog. Vapour suspended in the atmosphere at or near the earth’s surface, obscurity caused by this…

The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1964

Mist. Water vapour descending in fine drops smaller than raindrops and causing obscuration of the atmosphere. Ibid.

H₂O.  Water.  Water gives life.  Life needs water.  Science fiction and fantasy aside, everything we know about life requires water for it to exist, to come into being, to persist in being, to evolve, according to both the evolutionary and the creationist paradigms of life.

You may have seen episodes of science fiction series and films in which life somehow has come to be in crystalline or gaseous (not water-vapour) form.  There is no evidence for that anywhere, and no science that can even propose how it could ever happen.  Such episodes have crossed from science and even science-fiction into shear fantasy.

Even the standard evolutionary tale we have been given for the last 160 years since Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) is not so much science or even science fiction as science fantasy.  Somehow all the gaps and “missing links” are filled in without much more to go on than some fragments and deposits often found in the wrong geologic sequence but pry-barred into appropriate position in the chronology to maintain the tale.  Meanwhile, the Flood Story is relegated to some sort of Jungian “collective, species memory” engraved in our genes by our remote ancestors fleeing in terror from a local cataclysm.  More pry-barring!

Micro-evolution is indisputable.  It is observable.  “Extinction events” are indisputable.  They too are observable and the geological evidence is everywhere.  But macro-evolution is highly disputable, as even honest evolutionist academics will admit.  They will justify it because “there is no other possibility” in a materialist, closed universe – as Stephen Hawking famously did in his conclusion to A Brief History of Time.

Let us therefore admit that our a priori presuppositions create “obscuration of the atmosphere”.  Let us admit that every culture and people since time immemorial has operated with such presuppositions and that now, in this Age of Reason and Science, our presuppositions have obscured the perception of the fine, delicate mist which envelopes us and, in its quiet omnipresence, has become invisible to us.

Here we have an amazing fact – a blue and green water and oxygen clothed planet teeming with life, a water-based system which is so delicately balanced to renew and replenish itself that, allowed to function as it is designed to do, and as long as good ole Sol, our local star, keeps doing its regular thing, it closely approximates the mythical “perpetual motion machine” imagined by early modern physicists operating under a Newtonian paradigm.

However, “unNewtonianly”, it is not an inanimate “machine” but a pulsating, living, breathing oneness, a co-dependent, interdependent and incredibly wonderful, beautiful, miraculous contradiction of everything that mindless matter and chaotic energy should ever produce, regardless of however many eons of time may be allotted by those seeking to open the door to it without conceding that other option – a Creator-Designer-Executor.

We have made ourselves spiritually and intellectually blind to the “mist [going] up from the earth which water[s] the entire surface of the ground”.  The presence of water ensures life, and water vapour is physically present in every nook and cranny of planet earth –“the entire surface of the ground”—even in the hottest and coldest, remotest deserts. 

Two thousand years ago, a man named Yeshua said some outrageous things about water and himself.  He called himself “the water of life”.  He said that if we would drink of the water that he gives to drink, we would never thirst again.  He said that it—He!—would give us eternal life.

Once, to show his intimate connection to and command over water, the very essence of life, he wordlessly (as far as we know, although he may have prayed some silent words) changed about three hundred liters of water into the finest wine at a wedding feast.  Many would love to have a power like that at their command!

On another occasion, he commanded the wind and waves of a violent storm to be still, and they became so. There were twelve eye-witnesses to this event. Who can command both air and water?

As to the water-into-wine story, some have tried to understand why Yeshua, a much revered holy man, made it possible to keep a crowd of people happily tipsy at a days-long wedding celebration when the standard image of his followers is that they’re such party-poopers and sour-pusses when it comes to celebrating and cutting loose.  I certainly don’t subscribe to some of the more dour interpretations of this indubitably real event in Yeshua’s public life in ancient First-Century Israel.  Contrary to such sanctimonious interpolations, it was not non-alcoholic wine he made!  Sorry, but that is Queen Victoria era evangelical theology talking anachronistically.  In its details, with the singular exception of having a real-life prodigy-worker in its guest-list, it is entirely consistent with the Jewish culture and society of that time.  And Jesus was fully a First Century Palestinian Jew.

I have my own theory about the marriage at Cana episode where this transformation occurred.  Water means life and wine means enjoying it.  Yeshua wanted to gladden the hearts and lift the souls of the people there in a time when life was really pretty hard and often grim. 

Which raises many questions, such as, “Why did the Creator make a universe with life?  Why did the Creator make (material) life such that it cannot be without water?”  Here on Planet Earth, the only world of life we know, and the only one where life can in some respect know the Creator and be in personal relationship with Him, water is a physical testimony to the Creator’s omnipresence and our total dependence on Him.

The judgment on land life of Noah’s time and tale was by water, the very means and primary agent of life.  Life was given via water in the beginning –whether you believe in direct act of creation or a process of (Divinely-directed?) evolution.  Life was temporarily erased from the land (but not the water) by the Creator’s direct action, just as it was His direct word which made it in the first place by calling life out of the waters He had separated “in the beginning” (see Genesis Chapter 1). 

The cause of the cleansing of the Noahic Deluge was the depravity of humanity. Humans had betrayed their mission to cause earthly life to flourish and abound and to care for it.  They had so polluted and befouled the land that the Creator decided to purify the land.  Although He would leave a remnant to regenerate it, God knew that the root of corruption in human hearts was not really healed.

But the permanent healing and restoration of the earth and of humanity’s brokenness requires a new kind of water.  This water would fill the heart, renew the mind, and give eternal life to the spirit so that broken, polluted human nature would be healed and conformed to the image of Himself God had put there in the first place.  Mere physical water cannot do this.

To make it happen, the Creator came in person as Yeshua, Israel’s promised Mashiach (Messiah) who brought the water of life—Himself!  Coming into direct relationship with the Creator’s “Son” – an actual living, flesh-and-blood human being who would bridge the chasm between the Creator and His creation.  The spiritually renewing water heals the heart and fills the soul.

One of the most poignant water stories in the New Testament concerns a meeting between Yeshua and a woman of Samaria at a town well.  It is found in John’s Gospel, Chapter 4.  It was to this lost woman whose life was a mess and who was an outcast that Yeshua said that He could give water that would quench the inner thirst.  It was Himself, as healer and renewer and redeemer—Israel’s and the world’s Messiah!

That offer is still valid and open to anyone who wants such water, such life everlasting.  “Come to me all who are loaded down [burdened] and heavy-laden [with cares and troubles of whatever type] and I will give you rest for your souls…. I will give you water for your spirit such as will heal your heart for good and bring you into eternal life.” (That last bit is my interpolation.)

Thus, it is no accident that you absolutely must have water to live, both physically and spiritually.  You need it for cleansing, healing, comforting, soothing, warming, cooling, nurturing, and on and on. 

Let us open our eyes to see through the fog and see, and be enveloped in God’s omnipresent mist.  Open your ears to hear His waves splashing and crashing all around you.  Be reminded when you look at a river, sit by a shore, paddle on a lake, sail on the big waters, take a refreshing drink when you are parched, or when taking your shower or bath to cleanse your body.  Receive the water that washes you clean, inside and outside.

And thank God that He has put water everywhere to remind you constantly that He is very near, as the Muslims put it, “Closer than your jugular vein!”

Shalom!

Breath

“Yes, everyone, no matter how firmly he stands,

is merely a puff of wind.

Humans go about like shadows:

their turmoil is all for nothing.

They accumulate wealth, not knowing

who will enjoy its benefits.”

Psalm 39: 6b-7, The Complete Jewish Bible

Photo credit: ledgerinsights.com

It is rare for a child, a youth, or a young adult to think they are “merely a puff of wind” and they “go about like shadows”.  I doubt that the obscenely wealthy, (e.g. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos) give much consideration that “their turmoil is all for nothing” and that all their immense riches will one day pass beyond their control to someone(s) who may completely overturn whatever they had conceived should be done with it.

But really now, who can conceive of amassing a personal fortune of $200 Billion?  That’s greater than the GDP of a host of poor and small countries, or several of such countries combined, being in the bank and investment accounts of a single person!  Think of all the works of mercy and compassion it would be possible to do with such means available!  You could relieve much of the poverty on earth, finance hundreds and even thousands of worthy research and development projects to relieve suffering, etc…  But I guess you don’t create a personal fortune of such stupendous size based on a philanthropic disposition. 

People of mega-wealth should heed the story of King Solomon of ancient Israel.  He lived in the late 10th Century BCE and, building on the great success and empire that his warrior father King David had left him, accumulated an incalculable treasure, built immense works of prestige to show it and his power off, including a gold-plated Temple to Israel’s God (but only after he had built a shatteringly opulent palace complex), fathered dozens of sons and daughters through his hundreds (yes, hundreds!) of wives and concubines whom he kept in his vast palace complex, and no doubt expected that all this would endure long after he died because he believed he was in a virtually impregnable position based on a prophetic promise from God to his Dad.

Solomon is said to have written the fascinating Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes as he neared his end.  If so, he seems to have had a sort of late-great awakening to the total vanity of all his efforts to create more and more wealth and show off his power and riches and reputed wisdom to all far and wide. 

Ecclesiastes has some priceless passages worth reading whether you believe in God or not.  Its opening line is a real attention-getter: “Vanity!  Vanity!  Everything is vanity!”  or “Meaningless!  Meaningless!  Everything is meaningless!”  Look it up some time if you are ready to consider why you’re on planet Earth and what you want your life to have meant when you stop blowing your “puff of wind”.

In Hebrew, the word for wind also means breath.  Each time you exhale, you are emitting a tiny bit of wind to mark the passage of another few moments of your brief-candle-life.  (We won’t mention the other body part associated with “breaking wind”.)  When you can no longer give an “answer blowing in the wind” (Bob Dylan), time’s up!

You and I are not Musk, Bezos, or Solomon, but we have the same questions to ask and answers to seek.  What will be the meaning and legacy of our “three score and ten, or, if you are strong, four score” (70-80) years on our tiny glorious Gaia-ball in the Cosmos? 

Mssrs. Musk and Bezos, and a host of others I’m sure you could name, and some whom you probably know personally with much less but much more than enough for anyone, are zealously busy accumulating and amassing “stuff”, power, and prestige as their life’ passion.  They probably think they know and can control “who will enjoy its benefits” when their breath gives out.  No doubt clever lawyers and accountants are devising ways and means for their wills to reach out from the grave (or urn) to direct the disposition and use of their massive fortunes, perhaps even in some posthumous works of charity to allay some of what may be a glimmer of inconvenient conscience.  We can always hope.

But Solomon’s story and all of history’s tales of such intentions almost always belie such ideas and hopes.  In Solomon’s case, as in most similar cases since, it all came down to what his heir(s) would actually decide to do with the greatest fortune the world had yet seen to that time, despite what the Big Boss had willed.  The Bible says that Solomon was richer than anyone had ever been and could imagine.  Historically, we have no reason to think that wasn’t true.  People who don’t like the Bible may dismiss it just because it’s a Bible story, but that’s their problem and loss.  According to the Books of Kings, Chronicles, and Ecclesiastes, Solomon certainly acted like the richest man of all time.   

Presumably, Solomon’s principal heir was very carefully chosen after due process.  Or, perhaps not, given that so much else that ended up happening even while the Great King was alive seemed to have come from a sort of moral and intellectual deterioration and negligent arrogance that set in as he got richer and richer and more and more powerful. 

The young heir’s name was Rehoboam, one of his sons.  Other than that, we have no information as to his qualifications for the job of Israel, Inc.’s new CEO and major shareholder.  Upon assuming power, he needed to be acknowledged by the other major stakeholders – much like a new Corporate CEO or major owner needs to get a vote of confidence these days upon taking over the reins (in Reho’s case, the “reign”).  The “Board of Directors” of “Ancient Israel, Inc.” was the chief tribal elders.  They asked Reho what his policies would be – more of the same as dear old Dad, or was he prepared to give them a break from the escalating taxes and levies and compulsory labour that had been the cornerstone of Solomon’s super-wealth?  The heir asked for a few days to consult and think about it. 

He went to two sets of counselors – the Old Boys who had guided Dad, and whom Solomon had increasingly ignored as he aged, and his own crowd of young bucks chomping at the bit to get their teeth into the pie and enjoy all the perks and advantages of having climbed to the top of the heap on the coattails of the New Boss.  So much of this is so familiar today in both government and any significant business.  The Old Guard advised restraint, a time to ease up and give the ordinary people a break.  The Young Guard said, “No way!  Show them who’s boss now!  Be even tougher than Dad!”

Rehoboam wanted to make his mark and went along with his buddies.  The outcome was and is completely predictable – revolt!  The stakeholders /major shareholders told him, “Enough already!  From here on, you’re on your own.  We’re splitting the company and already have a new CEO ready to take charge up north.  We no longer recognize your authority and will not contribute a dime more to your lust for gold and power.”

As per real life today, it was not long before the main competition smelled blood.  The CEO of Egypt Inc. moved in and made a hostile takeover of Judah, Inc., the much reduced southern by-product of Israel, Inc.  North Israel, Inc. kept the name “Israel” and most of the shares and power.  Rumor had it that Egypt’s CEO had played more than a small role in the whole dirty business.  From then on, things were never good between the former partners.  (Sounds just like modern life with its political, business, and family squabbles.)

Pharaoh, Egypt’s CEO, simply stripped Judah Inc. of all its best stuff and then calculatingly dumped it back into the hands of the incompetent management of Judah, Inc., figuring he could walk back in for more whenever he found it convenient.

Did anyone learn anything in all this?  Debatable.  The same pattern repeated itself over and over for centuries in both Judah, Inc. and North Israel, Inc., until finally two super-powers simply took them over lock, stock, and barrel.  It’s no different now in business and commerce, politics and families.

Back to breath.  Ultimately, breath is the gift of the Creator to every living being.  We are told [in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 of the Bible] that as the crowning touch to His work, “God formed a person [adam] from the dust of the ground [adamah] and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, so that he became a living being” made “in the Creator’s own image”.  What sets the breath of humankind apart from that of other living creatures?  It is that the “living being” called human is made to be like, to reflect, to mirror God in the creation.

As long as we have breath in our bodies, we have the opportunity to aim at becoming what we were originally intended to be.  We can choose to use that breath, which in Hebrew also designates the living essence of who and what we are, to act like the Creator’s agents and image-bearers or to pursue what Solomon and every other great potentate and magnate has typically pursued in place of that.

One day, when the breath of life which is God’s greatest gift to us leaves these “puff of wind” bodies, we will face the Creator to give an answer for “the deeds done in the body” as the New Testament puts it.  One thing we know for sure is that heaps of wealth, satiation of pleasures, and lust for stuff and prestige and power manipulation will not impress the One who made us to reflect His intention for what He made.

For you and me, as long as we have breath there is still time to heed Solomon’s conclusion to a life very largely misspent (his own “famous last words”).  He had finally seen that he had messed it up terribly, despite having been handed all the means and opportunity to make it count for something immeasurably better.  At the last, he knew it and said:

“So remember your Creator while you are young, before the evil days come…. Here is the final conclusion, now that you have heard everything: fear God and keep his mitzvot [Hebrew word often translated as “commandments” but which means far more—good deeds, general principles for living a good life]; this is what being human is all about.  For God will bring to judgment everything we do, including every secret, whether good or evil.”

Kohelet/Ecclesiastes 12:1,13,14

Scary!  Time to get ready!

Cat’s Eyes

© Vince Marquis

(Photo credit, Nature Canada)

How beautiful this day has been!  Quiet and peaceful down by the river, listening and being with the birds and small creatures, reading and dozing pleasantly in company with my Most Special.  The river moves around and through the rocks and boulders, eddying along the shore, cool and soothing to the spirit as it gurgles and splashes, ever constant and ever changing.

In mid-July the bugs have mostly gone, while our little gazebo on our tiny islet provides just enough shelter from any persisting little blood-suckers and biters still seeking our tasty flesh.  Since early afternoon we have enjoyed our haven, the sun shining off the moving, shimmering water, and dappling the shores and their slopes with an ever-changing artistry.

If we get too warm, our little bathing pool awaits along with at least a score of young fish who come curiously to see if we have anything for them.  If not, they will try a little nibble at a mole or spot that looks like a grub or little worm on our legs or torso.  Disturb a rock here and there, and the crayfish scamper away to seek shelter.  These little pinchers have a surprisingly hard nip if you tempt them with a finger.

There are frogs along the shallows – leopards mostly but a few bulls too.  The two do not mix, for the leopards know that their big dull-green cousins will happily make a meal of them.  The leopards are energetic in their hunting, while the bulls mostly sit stalk-still waiting for unwary prey.  Both species like damsel- and dragon-flies, or deer- and horse-flies, the staple of their diet at this time of year.  But they are opportunists and will snag anything they can swallow that comes within range of their lightning fast tongues or a powerful kick and thrust of their rear legs through the water.  How incredibly fast are their reflexes and precise their brains in computing those flies-in-flight trajectories! 

Every once in a while we may catch sight of one of the neighbourhood turtles, painted or snapping.  If the snapper is around, it is time to be cautious about venturing into the water, but she is very shy, while we are happy to observe her sly movements as she seeks a good hunting hide-away.  Froggies beware!  And perhaps a rat-snake will pass through, maybe even sunning itself on a flat rock.

The great blue heron may occasionally glide into the shore-weeds along the other bank and take post in its own frog-hunt or fishing sally.  Perhaps mother wood-duck will tootle along with her gaggle of fuzzy little cuties.  Or Mr. Ferret will nimbly hop and jog along the shore.  All in all, frogs have a lot to look out for – even raccoons! 

The pileated woodpeckers are never far off, frequently making the rounds of their best boring trees with the most grubs and wood-digging pest-nests.  Their patient, solid knocking is easy to recognize, while their smaller relatives, the downies, rat-a-tat like cartoon Woody.  And many other birds can be heard with their various chirpings, cooings, and buzz-songs.

The hawks have been nesting atop one of the big, tall trees and we can hear the parents calling the hawklets in their piercing cry, coaxing the young to practice flying.  Sometimes we get to see them.  Hawks always return to the same nests if they can, so they are regulars.

As wonderful as all this “regular” riot of nature’s life all around us is, it is not quite la pièce de résistance.  Every once in a blue moon, there are true rarities that only presence and patience can harvest by being there serendipitously at the right time.  Over the years, we have seen the sort of stuff which most people will never see in their whole lives, even if they are wilderness trekkers. 

Perhaps an indomitable nature photographer may catch something of the sort.  There was Mother Otter with three kits coming down the river to play around our special standing rock in our pool, delighting my spouse as she stands on the rock revelling in their game and very quietly “chatting” with the boldest of the three gambolling young-uns.  For an instant, their eyes lock, the playing baby wide-eyed and tremulously curious, unsure, just a meter from her fingertips, until Momma chatters to back off and the family jauntily turns about to head back upriver to their den.

Or the time when she heard a great splashing coming downriver from behind her and turned to see a yearling deer bounding in panic as a large coyote was in hot pursuit.  Her sudden “Hey!” to the coyote balked it while the deer caught a break and raced onto the opposite shore and up the wooded hill before the coyote could regain its stride.  She had given the losing dear a few precious seconds, maybe just enough.  The coyote returned to his hunt, but now with far less chance of catching his prey.  “Interfering in the natural order!” you might say.  Our natural sympathies favour the underdog, I guess.  Maybe it’s the old human fear of wolves who hunted our ancestors.

Unfortunately for me, I missed the otters and hunting coyote dramas.  These are my spouse’s special moments.

We have both had encounters with bear cubs down there, Momma Bear not in sight, I with two grand-daughters in tow.  For obvious reasons, these are not comfortable encounters.  In P’s case, the cub got so close that she took refuge with her cell-phone up a nearby tree and called me to come rescue her with something very noisy to scare the bruins away.  We keep boat-horns to blast if there is any real danger, but the horn hadn’t worked!  I resorted to the weed trimmer running at full-tilt, and it did the trick!  Lesson learned to check the horns regularly.  They are actually much better and safer than bear-spray – or a clumsy weed-trimmer.  We take these dandy super noise-makers with us when wilderness canoeing.

My personal summit of sightings was two summers  past with a creature so rare to encounter that I was at first quite incredulous that it had really happened.  It was at the end of the particularly idyllic day in question above.  It was the day before P’s birthday, and she and I had quite enjoyed our afternoon together.  She went back to the house ahead of me to put supper on the table.  I was savouring the last half hour or so before heading back. 

Finally, it was time to go.  I gathered my things and got off my chaise-longue, putting on my clogs.  I rose and picked up my day-pack, then exited the gazebo.  It was a lovely evening just before the sun really begins to retire.  I stood quietly, just listening to the river’s soothing patter and savouring the fresh evening air.  I took a few steps to the flat rock that is our step as you go down into the water.  There was some extra splashing coming from the right, and from the corner of my eye there was movement a good way off.

When I turned my head to see what it was, I perceived a large animal in mid-stream, about 75 meters away.  I could not quite fathom what it was – tawny beige colour, too short for a deer, too big for anything else in my categories of “the usual suspects” of river denizens and neighbours.  Right general size for a middling bear, but totally wrong colour.  A really big dog?  This animal was lunging about in the deeper pool down there.  It dawned on me; it was fishing!  Its movements were wonderfully graceful in a feline fashion.  What??? 

As it was turned away from me, I gazed intently, waiting for it to present itself in full profile as it continued to poise for successive plunges.  Certainly no deer, or dog, or wolf-kind!  Catlike in movement and grace and poise.  Then it turned full sideways and I clearly saw the curve of its back, the long, furry tail with the end-tuft rising in that very catlike manner, and, finally, the massive head.  Cougar!!  No possibility of mistaking this top-of-the-food-chain monarch!  Full-grown and quite large, archetypical specimen in size, colour, form, and grace.  Absolutely awesome!

He turned his head, sensing he was being watched.  He had not scented me, for the breeze was from him to me, and I had been stalk-still, entranced, transfixed!  He saw me and his yellow eyes locked onto mine.  Neither moved, but there was an electric moment of contact and acknowledgement. 

“I see you there,” was what I sensed from him.  I should perhaps have been afraid.  After all, if he had decided to change his menu to go for bigger game, he was far faster than I, and trees and logs are no obstacle to a creature who climbs trees like a baboon.  But I felt an uncanny calm.  My own sense was, “You are king of your domain, but I, the human, am your master in God’s order of things.” It was not a contest of wills or a challenge.  It was a moment of mutual recognition.  Satisfied that I was no threat to him, he turned once more to his graceful fishing venture.  I decided that it was a good time to make my way home.  No hurry, no running to convey fear, just keep a good pace and go quietly, leaving him to enjoy his mastery of the land that evening.  For my part, I felt like I had been hugged and kissed by the Creator.

What Trees Say

“In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments—there are consequences.”

Robert G. Ingersoll, American Free Thinker

I love trees.  I have lived in and among them for well over thirty years.  I love the “official” discovery of forest therapy, that spending two hours in the woods has a positive impact on your psychological disposition for up to a month.  And yes, this is a real thing, now established by legitimate scientific research.  Perhaps I should credit the forest with keeping me reasonably sane for the last three decades of my life!  My spouse would attest to the woods’ overall good influence on me, I’m sure.

But the forest is not just a spiritual, psychological, and emotional tonic and booster.  It’s a parable, a symbol, a home, a macro- and microcosm all rolled into one. 

We all know the saying, “(S)he can’t see the forest for the trees,” and its converse, “(S)he can’t see the trees for the forest.”  It’s all a matter of perspective, a question of being where you are and seeing what is there right at that moment. “Mindfulness” is the new buzzword for a very old practice.

I’m not a certified forester or a trained arborist by any means, but over the years I have learned something about the trees I find in eastern Ontario, where I live, and am always interested in those I find on my travels, wherever these have taken me.

I suspect that for most Canadians and even most of the earth’s human inhabitants, trees are just a vegetative part of the natural landscape to be assumed—or perhaps noted by their absence, or lamented because of the human propensity for over-zealously cutting them down and (ab)using their abundance.  According to National Geographic and treefoundation.org, just about 50% of the earth’s land surface was once forest-covered and just under 50% of that 50% has now been cut down by human exploiters.

I’m not among those who decry all tree-cutting as evil.  I’m not a tree-hugger and I use a chain-saw when necessary. Trees are like every other living thing – they are “born” (“germinate”, as plants), they grow, they mature, they die over time.  Some have shorter and some have longer life cycles.  Some die early because of disease or injury, some are misshapen and deformed and therefore not strong enough to survive through a normal life cycle. Some are just caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Nature culls its own “problem children” and careful human herders cull the deformed, sick, and old of their flocks.  Natural events such as tornados, hurricanes, fires and floods wipe out vast expanses of forest without any human aid (although humans cause about half of all forest and bush fires now).  For humans to use trees to provide shelter and fuel is not an evil thing.  Animals of many kinds use the trees to live and we do not proclaim them evil exploiters. Some even cut or rip them down (e.g. beavers, elephants). But only humans can choose to wantonly destroy and use the gentle giants of the plant kingdom just for pleasure and luxurious overconsumption. 

If we take a walk in the woods or forest, or camp out in the wilderness surrounded by these majestic plants, most of us hardly give a thought to the idea that each of the trees we find around the lakes, rivers, streams, and mountains is an individual entity.  Of course, as far as we know, they are not a self-aware, conscious sort of being with a personality and with which we can form a mutual recognition, like we can with many animals, but they certainly have an individuality, an individual history, a species-character that differentiates them from other kinds of trees.  A spruce, pine, fir, poplar, birch, maple, apple, ash, oak, elm, or ironwood (all varieties I find readily close to home, plus many others) are not the same.  You tell them apart by what they look like, how they grow, what they produce, the character of their wood, etc. – very much like we do with animal species and, dare we say, human beings!

And there are multiple varieties (sub-species) within each of the sorts of trees mentioned above, just as people of one ethnicity can also widely vary, or dogs of one breed.

But we can only carry the analogy so far.  Aside from their majestic beauty, the quality of trees that most impresses me is their steadfastness, their dependability, their sturdy life-force, their continuing presence.  They won’t run away because storms come up and hard times set in.  They hang in there and stick with the role and the job they have been given by the Creator, or “Nature” if you prefer. 

If I can have a plant-friend, trees are it.  They have been with me and my family for decades.  I have learned to recognize them and value each species regardless of its being coniferous (evergreen, “softwood”) or deciduous (leaf-bearing in season, “hardwood”).  I have also learned something about how to cull.

When culling (cutting them down), they need to be treated with respect.  They are not tame.  They can hold secrets—even dangerous secrets—that can suddenly jump out and lash you, even imperil your very life.  There are lots of stories I could relate—mine and those of friends or relatives—on that score.

You may not live in the woods or forest, but I’m sure you can find many parallels in life and nature to this our human role on the amazing and miraculous planet we inhabit.  As well as to the forest of your relationships among the most amazing creatures of all—your fellow human beings.

On the one hand, we all just kind of happen—come into the world unbidden by the coming together of two cells in a reproductive act.  Even plants have to cross-pollinate (most of them, at least).  At that level, it all seems random, just “the luck of the draw”.  But on the other, each of these entities is so miraculous and special, it is a miracle just in its being alive at all.  And there is so much incredible variety and, still, each person is unique, one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable.  That person is there instead of a virtually infinite number of possibilities of others that could have been instead.

Think about that the next time when you’re relegating someone to the dustbin of your life as “such a jerk, a bother, a nasty person”, etc, or, on the other hand, when you’re appreciating them as so wonderful and special.  You did nothing to deserve to exist, nor did they, but there you are.  Both of you and all of us are here by the pure and simple grace of the Creator.  Even if you believe we are all just random evolutionary outcomes, you have to be blown away by what you see and find, out of all the incalculable possibilities! 

To me, and most people, it takes a heap more faith to believe that you and I and the trees and all the rest were just spit out by the Big Bang in some sort of totally chance + time defiance of all probabilities than to see what seems so clearly the design and act of a Presence and Being wanting it all to be. My friends the trees constantly remind me of my proper place in the big-scale of things

2020-2021 and Hope

“Those who have never been ill are incapable of real sympathy for a great many misfortunes.”

André Gide (French novelist and playwright).

“It is easy for the one who stands outside the prison-wall of pain to exhort and teach the one who suffers.”

Aeschylus (ancient Greek playwright)

(Image credit – Dani Pettrey)

No one who has lived through and is old enough to remember it will forget 2020 – the “Plague Year” of a century.  We tend to forget that there have been many plague years in human history, and many far worse both in absolute numbers of victims and in proportion. 

But saying, “There have been many worse times,” is no comfort to the loved ones of those who have fallen victim to this latest iteration of the fourth (pale, pestilence) horse and horseman of the Apocalypse (see Chapter 6 of the Book of Revelation in the New Testament).  Neither can we say, entering 2021, that it is over yet.

M. Gide (see opening quote) had an earned right to talk about sever illness based on his own experience in a rather tragic life.  I would add that those close to someone who is passing through the “Valley of the Shadow” very often truly begin to suffer with the sufferer.  Not the physical pain, but, as we now realize, the psychological and emotional and spiritual dimensions of pain can be just as acute and devastating.  Otherwise, what Gide says is totally true.

Compassion is a word derived from Latin – cum passione  – meaning “with intense feeling, with passion”.  It is the act of “feeling with”, being alongside someone in the depths of their suffering.  If we are not the direct victim of a serious illness or great misfortune, we do not know its suffering in the same way as its primary target, but we can still know very much what it means through the pain of seeing what it has done and is doing to someone we care for.  Grieving for and with a suffering dear one is a true and real form of intense suffering, and it begins even in the middle of a great ordeal.  From our cum passione presence with those suffering, we learn to have “real sympathy for a great many misfortunes”, even of a sort we have not lived with or had to help someone else through.  We come into a place of wanting to do and doing whatever we can to alleviate their suffering.

It is only by suffering the pain, the sickness, and the calamity ourselves, or by choosing compassionately and with a real commitment to enter and walk through the Valley of the Shadow with another, that we cease offering the inane sort of comfort Aeschylus refers to.  It is only by giving up some sort of right to “exhort, advise, adjust, and correct” the people in the Valley from outside “the prison-wall of pain” that we actually begin to become compassionate people.  The best birthing coaches are women who have been there.  The best addiction counselors are former, “recovering” addicts.  The most merciful people are those who have received great mercy.

Generally, the deeply suffering don’t need more banal advice such as “keep up the good fight” and “don’t give up hope”.  Advice, encouragement, and exhortation best comes from people who have earned the right to give it.  In any specific life, they are actually few.  It becomes irksome and (maybe not just a little) irritating to have “wisdom and insight” offered by people who mean well but are not really part of the sufferer’s journey.  Assuredly “experts” with special knowledge have their place, but it’s relationship that opens the door for the needy person to “have ears to hear with”.

General assurances of “thoughts and prayers” are of little worth.  Many people utter these clichés who rarely if ever pray.  The idea of sending positive thought-vibes too often flees our conscious minds as soon as we move on to the next thing.  By all means express sympathy and concern if they are sincere, but refrain from empty assurances if you know you are unlikely to follow through.  You may feel more like a compassionate person in that moment, but the recipient will usually know what such declarations are actually worth by the sort of relationship you already have.  If, despite all that, you succeed in praying and sending “positive vibes” their way, great!  But don’t salve your bad conscience about your shallow relationship and spiritual life by declaring meaningless intentions.

Year-Ends and New-Year beginnings are full of banal good intentions.  For my part, I have given up making “resolutions” because I know that if I really mean to take care of myself and work on becoming a “better person”, I will put in the daily effort of deciding and doing what I need to one day at a time.  Overcoming temptation is always a one-at-a-time struggle to build up the spiritual and mental muscle I lack, just like building muscle mass to keep my body from deteriorating is a matter of doing the physical exercise involved every day. 

I am not without hope as we end 2020 and begin 2021.  But saying a bunch of nice-sounding but empty piety is not hopeful.  It is delusional.  “Saying so don’t make it so!”  As the Apostle James expressed it when talking about how compassion really works,

“Supposing a brother or sister is without clothing, and is short of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; be warm; be full!”—but doesn’t give them what their bodies need—what use it that?…. faith, all by itself and without works, is dead.”

James Chapter 2, verses 15-17, The Kingdom New Testament

Real hope is based on faith, and faith is not an empty leap in the dark – not even, in fact least of all – in Christianity.  Despite the caricature of Christian (and “religious”) faith so often used by sceptics and critics, some of them even within the Churches, the Bible never suggests “blind” faith.  The best definition of faith in the Bible, perhaps in all human expression in any language of any time, is this: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  In another translation, “It is what gives assurance to our hopes; it is what gives us conviction about things we can’t see.”  (Book of Hebrews 11:1 – New Testament.)

Scientists have just as much faith as any religious believer.  Everyone lives by faith in and about some things.  Otherwise, it is impossible to carry on.  For the scientist, reason and the scientific method give him/her faith about discovering “truth” and “reality” – facts that point to the big picture.  Contrary to the prevailing paradigm about science versus religion, they are not really so far apart.  At least not for Christianity and Judaism.

The source of hope in Christianity is available to all, regardless of “race”, class, gender, age, or any other human distinction one cares to suggest or invent.  It is also as factual as any fact of human experience can be.  The conflict is in that some (if not most) scientists of the modern and post-modern age classify it as a priori outside the realm of possible facts.

I speak of the “miraculous” as attested by history, and specifically as pertaining to the person of Yeshua ben-Yosef of Natzeret, Jesus of Nazareth to the world at large.  Hope for Christians is not a vague wish for better things to come.  It is an assurance based on a promise sealed in blood, and verified by the resurrection of Yeshua as God’s guarantee that He keeps His word.  He had promised He would redeem broken humankind.  He sent His Son to do that and to show all how to return to Him and find their true worth and destiny.

Even in dark times like 2020, and there have been many much darker in many ways over  the centuries, the Creator has not departed.  He remains anchored among us through the presence of a living Redeemer, a presence shared far and wide wherever those who know Him bring His light.

May you know Him and His light more than ever as we leave 2020 behind and throughout 2021.

Reason for the Season, 2

Three things go by the name of Christmas…. a religious festival…. a popular holiday…. the commercial racket.”

C.S. Lewis, “What Christmas Means to Me”, in God in the Dock.

Observing this year’s Christmas hubbub, I am more convinced than ever that the whole origin and meaning of “Christmas” is sliding more steeply and deeply down the slope to cultural irrelevance. 

In “What Christmas Means to Me”, Lewis points out that seventy years ago the “second Christmas”, the popular holiday, still had “complex historical connections with the first”, and the two together gave people a good “occasion for merry-making and hospitality” – which he had no objection to!

Things have moved on considerably since Lewis’s time.  Of the “three things called Christmas”, we now observe but two in the generality of culture and people’s awareness of why we have a “Holiday Season” at all.  As Lewis says, few object to throwing a good party and being hospitable, at least for a few cheery days of the year – all the more as we deal with the onset of the long cold and lengthy nights of winter (as we experience it here in the great white north, anyway).

What do you note people saying, if anything, in reference to the “Holiday Season” and any particular reason for celebrating it?  Is it anything more than “merry-making” for the sake of merry-making and plunging into the tide of the “commercial racket” so you won’t be classified with Uncle Scrooge or the Grinch?  Certainly it is a good custom for family and friends to gather to symbolically demonstrate love and affection and concern for one another – although this year this is problematic. 

There is no denying that we need some cultural markers to allow us reasons and ways to be together to support one another and experience some more intimate human community.  So even if there is no Jesus factor involved, a merry-making and gift-giving binge once or twice a year is not a bad thing.  As Lewis said, no need to be the party-pooper harping away at telling everyone they are missing the real point – although it is appropriate to mention the birth of Yeshua-Jesus now and then as a reminder.

But, without Jesus, beyond the binge and after the bloating indigestion, mega-sugar-crash, and fortified  eggnog and other spirits hangover, what was it about?  Fantasizing about Santa and goodwill to all people for some vague reason?  Receiving some gifts that symbolize a love which is usually neglected in practice?  Feeling a nice glow for a few days but then crashing back into the loneliness or shallowness of regular life for most of the rest of the year?

Think about what all that maudlin Santa-elogizing and schmaltzy glitter and twitter really says.  What about all that “Commercial Racketeering”?  “Things are given as presents which no mortal ever bought for himself—gaudy useless gadgets, ‘novelties’ because no one was ever fool enough to make their like before,” as Lewis described it.  “Long before December 25th everyone is worn out—physically… by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally… by the effort to remember all the right recipients and… suitable gifts for them.”

Lewis recognizes that for many businesses, the whole thing “is good for trade” and they can’t survive without it.  The whole thing is topsy-turvy.  Tongue-in-cheek, he suggests that it would be more meaningful to just tell the businesses to shut down and give the shopkeepers charitable donations.  (Hmm-sounds like 2020…)

Meanwhile what have we made of “Christmas”?  it is now a mostly shapeless cultural lump called “the Holiday Season” in which we wish one another a vapid “Happy Holiday(s)” according to whatever you choose to make it mean.  “And so this is Christmas, and what have we done?” asked John Lennon in one of my all-time favourite Christmas songs.

Without the (shudder) “religion”,  the merry-making is actually poisoned by the gross usurpation of what was once a joyous but reverent celebration of the coming into the world of the very Person and Being of God in the flesh of a human baby over two thousand years ago in an animal shelter in the village of Bethlehem in ancient Judea.  No amount of gooey sentimentality and nostalgia for a fuzzy lost innocence of bright hope for something eternal to be born in us can ever substitute.

To be sure, there are remnants of Jesus, or “the Christ-child”, still invoked or slid in among the multitude of cloying old and new “Christmas music” and trendy films about happy-ever-after love-finding or old hurts being reconciled somehow miraculously.  An angel may glide in here and there too, or a nod to a little shepherd-boy or gentle farm-animals lowing softly at a baby in a manger.  But who understands what these oblique references are even about now?

It’s a daring and risky school pageant that allows anything like the Bethlehem story to appear.

How do we return to joy in all this, especially when the year ending that has been so full of gloomy-doomy shadows?  At least, for the most part, the “crowded shops” that wear us out have been far less wearing.  And, if this year of shadow has had an positive effect on our spirits, it might be that we are more open to considering why we are here in the first place.  And so, why can’t we say “Merry Christmas” without worrying that it might offend someone’s hypersensitivity to a specific Christian festival in a culture that was largely built by professing Christians?  I have met Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists who are less hung up about it than many Christians.  And they could care less what the militant secularists think if they say it.  Can we face the shallowness of what we now think and do and believe about the real meaning of so much in our Western cultural jungle, including the Reason for this Season?

Thank you for the seventy-year old reminder, Professor Lewis!

Merry Christmas, and may God’s peace (shalom) fill you up unto overflowing so that you can’t help passing it to others!

Reason for the Season, 1

This week and for one or two more, World.V.You will take a short break from the ongoing series “Inconvenient Conscience” (see the previous ten posts in the Archives).  We are rapidly approaching both Christmas and the end of the memorable year 2020.  At Christmas-time, faithful readers might appreciate a break from the usual sort of articles found on this site, and it is a good time to turn to thoughts about the “reason for the season”.

What is that reason?  That question is more relevant than ever in 2020 and in this season of our society’s and culture’s development.

Many Westerners are now so secularized that they barely recognize that “the Holiday Season”, “Yuletide”, etc., are substitute names for “Christmas” – a term now somehow often considered offensive in the public forum and even much commercial advertising.  “Christmas” is an old religious term derived from the public celebration of the birth of Christ, but even in that we miss something of the historical origin of what was a central event in the Western calendar for almost 1500 years.

“Christ” is not a personal name, but a title transcribed from Greek, Kristos – the Anointed, the Chosen of God.  The Greek term translates the Hebrew word Mashiach (Messiah) – which is also a title meaning exactly the same thing.  Both words point to the same person whose birth the “Christ Mass” commemorated and celebrated with proper and due joy and solemnity for Christians – the followers of the one whose birth is the real “Reason for the Season”.

Jesus “Christ” is, in his humanity, Yeshua ben-Yosef of Natzeret, a humble Jewish village in Galilee of northern Israel.  You can still go visit this place.  His parents were very humble folk in ancient Israel two thousand years ago, but their ancestry joined them both in direct line of succession to the most celebrated King in ancient Israeli history – David of Bethlehem. 

The human Jesus story was never really lost over the last two thousand-plus years since that humble birth took place, but over time it was obscured and heavily overlaid with opaque layers of piety.  The story of this man’s extraordinary life and death became the stuff of legend and initiated startling change in both the History of Israel and that of the wider world into which it became inextricably woven.  Yeshua the man morphed into a semi-mythological being called “Christ” and for centuries all but disappeared behind a wall of theology, liturgy, and ritual.  The wall was built and maintained by usually well-meaning people, mostly men, who became its keepers and guardians, protecting it against questioners and unorthodox thinkers and practitioners.  To reach the man-god behind the wall and actually have a relationship with him became harder and harder.  It was easier to find proxies (priests and saints) who could stand in less exalted posts which ordinary sinners could approach without fear of immediate thunderous judgment and rejection as unworthy.

The last hundred and more years have seen an ongoing “quest for the historical Jesus” among Biblical scholars and archeologists and many others from almost every discipline thinkable in academia.  But, like so many demythologization campaigns, the actual, historical truth which undergirds the myth and the wall and, in the case of Jesus-Yeshua, the theology, has all too often rejected even the real man, or buried him under even more levels of obscurity in attempting to shed anything that does not fit the new framework (theology?) of rationalist empiricism.

The central meaning of the story, as it swiftly emerged from the events of his life, death, and reputed resurrection from the dead, is simple when accepted as it was told by his earliest followers.  The man Yeshua was in fact the incarnate Son of Israel’s God, the One God, the only God, the very Creator of the universe and all that is.  He had been promised to the first humans as a Saviour and Redeemer to restore humanity’s broken relationship with and estrangement from the Creator.  As such, he was the heir of King David, and thus the rightful King of Israel, but he was not to make Israel the new world superpower overwhelming all the nations with judgment and wrath, but to bring universal peace, reconciliation, and restoration between God and humanity, and among all humans, and between humanity and the broken creation.

The story continues.  Yeshua demonstrated who he was/is by the works he did and the things he taught.  He was rejected and killed by crucifixion by both the Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities.  His death was freely accepted by him and was, in fact, the once-and-for-all sacrifice for all the sin and brokenness brought into the whole Kosmos by the rebellion of humankind since its first days and by its first progenitors.  God confirmed what that death meant and accomplished by raising his Son from death on the third day after his execution-murder.  Before he returned to his Father, Yeshua-Jesus commissioned his disciples to go out into the world and preach, teach, and demonstrate the coming of his Kingdom, a new kind of Kingdom called the Kingdom of God.  Its characteristics include love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.  It seeks no earthly dominion except over people’s hearts.  It welcomes anyone who seeks it and will follow Yeshua-Jesus as Lord.

The story of Yeshua fits no other parameters in human history, philosophy, or ideology.  In fact, it redefines the parameters of human history and society.  Many attempts have been made to explain away its miraculous aspects, especially the resurrection.  These are declared by dubious scholars to be later accretions and pious (or even malicious) fabrications.  They are even categorized as a continuation of pagan and Oriental mythico-theology of a dying and rising god(dess) as the personification of the cycle of being, the wheel of existence.  But all these attempts to wave aside Jesus utterly fail, for they all run into the same adamantine wall – the evidence-based claim that was there from the very first that Yeshua really and truly and physically rose from the grave alive and transformed into an incorruptible but still recognizable human being.

Thus we arrive at all the modern and postmodern relativistic probing and questing, desperately trying to elicit a non-miraculous “historical” Jesus from the original events.  This despite the fact that, as the Apostle Paul told the Roman Governor Festus and the Jewish King Agrippa II, “these things did not happen in a back alley” but in front of hundreds and even thousands of eye witnesses.  Every rationalization of these things hits the wall of Good Friday followed by Easter Sunday.

Christmas is a special time and event fully worth celebrating in its proper context as the recognition that God sent His Son to live among us to show us how to live in restored relationship with our Creator.  But in and of itself it is not enough.  It is not the whole story and cannot be understood and truly absorbed into the heart or change the soul without its completion in Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Otherwise, it is just a nice cultural tradition we use to gather together, eat good food, say nice things, and have nice family times hoping to support one another and trying to be nicer to one another for a few days in the year.

Santa the merry elf is a poor substitute for the King of Kings and Prince of Peace bringing His Kingdom of righteousness, shalom, and joy.

Inconvenient Conscience, 10 – Turning Around, 6 – England and Slavery

“With regards to myself, I have nothing whatsoever to urge, but the poor Publican’s plea, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”” – William Wilberforce, July 11, 1833 – eighteen days before his death. 

Quoted in William Wilberforce by Robert Furneaux, Regent College Publishing, 2005 edition, p. 453.

“IN AN AGE AND COUNTRY FERTILE IN GREAT AND GOOD MEN,

HE WAS AMONG THE FOREMOST WHO FIXED THE CHARACTER OF THEIR TIMES

BECAUSE TO HIGH AND VARIOUS TALENTS,

TO WARM BENEVOLENCE, AND TO UNIVERSAL CANDOUR,

HE ADDED THE ABIDING ELOQUENCE OF A CHRISTIAN LIFE.

EMINENT AS HE WAS IN EVERY DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC LABOUR,

AND A LEADER IN EVERY WORK OF CHARITY,

WHETHER TO RELIEVE THE TEMPORAL OR SPIRITUAL WANTS OF HIS FELLOW MEN

HIS NAME WILL BE SPECIALLY IDENTIFIED

WITH THOSE EXERTIONS

WHICH, BY THE BLESSING OF GOD, REMOVED FROM ENGLAND

THE GUILT OF THE AFRICAN SLAVE TRADE,

AND PREPARED THE WAY FOR THE ABOLITION OF SLAVERY

IN EVERY COLONY OF THE EMPIRE…

Excerpt from the epitaph inscribed on the base of Wilberforce’s statue in Westminster Abbey

We occasionally find instances of national repentance accompanied by a substantial change of culture and society in the Bible.  With one exception, they occurred in ancient Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah.  They also came “from the top down”, so to speak, being initiated primarily by royal decree. 

The one prominent Biblical example of a Gentile nation repenting is found in the Book of Jonah, when, to Jonah’s chagrin, the pagan Assyrians, the most terrible aggressors and terrors of the ancient Near East in the ninth to seventh centuries BCE, listened to Jonah, an Israelite prophet, and repented in sackcloth and ashes.  The Assyrians begged the mercy and forgiveness of the “God of Heaven” – Israel’s God – lest they be brought to death and utter ruin.  From the evidence of archeology and Biblical scholarship, the Book of Jonah appears to be authentic to the culture and historical and religious context of the period 785-770 BCE, when it is best dated.

In the History of the West where “Christendom” once prevailed, we find that the same sort of “top-down” leadership seems necessary for a nation to truly turn around (“repent”) from its dissolute and destructive course.  There may be an exception or two out there, but they do not come to mind as I write this.  Our previous case study of Germany started that way. 

This post will consider the seismic shift which occurred in English and British culture beginning in the late 18th and on into the first half of the 19th Centuries.

For the last hundred years it has been easy and fashionable to satirise and even mock the “Victorian Era” as a funless, humorless age when official morality and censoriousness stifled personal self-expression.  Asked for one-word descriptions of British culture in that century, we frequently hear pundits and commentators use “prudish”, “intolerant”, and “racist”.

Without debating the justice of such sobriquets, what is the “real deal” about why Britain moved into such a morally and socially “unprogressive” (by anachronistic 21st Century standards) state?  It’s very hard for people such as ourselves to wrap our heads around the answer, and many, perhaps even a majority of post-Christian, post-modern Westerners are likely incapable of crediting it.  I suspect that even many professing Christians of our time accept the now stereotypical characterization of that age in Britain and much of the West as supremely judgmental and closed-minded, following Britain’s lead.

Given our opening quotes, the reader will justly suspect that the answer I propose has to do with William Wilberforce.  That extraordinary Englishman, still venerated in the former British colonies in the Caribbean as “the Great Liberator” (although there is strong resistance to that description even there now) and entombed in Westminster Abbey, the ultimate recognition of national greatness in Great Britain, certainly played a huge role in the dual transformation of the general British society and the British Empire of his time and several generations following, with remnants of that change still functioning.

Here is an illustration of our age’s revulsion from the whole ethos that produced that moral and social revolution.  Not long ago my beloved and I were viewing an episode of the BBC series “The History of Britain”.  The episode was concerned with the late 18th and early 19th Century.  The eminent British historian narrating was fascinated by the rise of Romanticism and the ferment produced by the French Revolution and the beginnings of the struggle of the working class and women for rights.  I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop: “But what about slavery and the slave trade?  What about the movement for moral transformation that was paired with it?  What about that, Simon?” 

It was fine to analyse those other aspects of the age, but the absence of the number one internal imperial issue had become a yawning abyss.  Then, just as the episode was ending, the slaves were suddenly free and there was a nod in the direction of “the Church and the Chapels” as somehow having had something to do with it.  And that was all!  Astonishing! 

William Wilberforce and his and his monumental group effort and their prodigious forty-year campaign were invisible.  Not a word about the man declared “the greatest living Englishman” all over Europe during his lifetime, and the “the greatest Englishman of the 19th Century” later by the considered opinion of British historians!  How does a first-rank historian deliberately neglect and avoid something so enormous in a well-regarded media production?  How does it slide by the BBC, let alone the great mass of modern media-consumers undetected?

I see this neglect as a manifestation of both the modernist materialist perspective that moral and spiritual motivations cannot be true primary causes of any great change, but are masks, disguises for power, money, and reason, which are always the underlying real motivators of any group and individual claiming they are acting for moral and spiritual reasons.  Now we also add the fear of offending someone or other if we let the old Christian influence back into the public sphere in any way – even if only by recognition of its previous importance in public and private life, perhaps for fear and horrific idea that we might see it come back.

Today in this blog is not the place to debate this.  Today we are merely noting that in the England and British Empire of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, the moral and spiritual motivations manifested themselves as the determining forces in excising the most pernicious practice of that age, and perhaps of all history, from the commercial, social, and moral fabric of the then greatest power on earth.  The influence of that mighty work led to a radical (in the true sense of “right to the root”) transformation which percolated into political and social progress of the most substantial kind, changes which launched the very progressive world we have come to expect, with a social conscience and expectation that it is the job of rulers to seek the general welfare and to reach a helping hand to the most downtrodden.

All of this is an enormous topic.  Repentance was at its core, and actions following testified to the reality.  All luminary claims that these immense changes stemmed from the Enlightenment, shunting the obscurantist “religious enthusiasts” to the side as obstructing rather than leading in all these struggles are irrelevant to the actual historical record. 

Guilty conscience over the terrible inhumanity and atrocious degradation of whole sectors of humanity based on race and class had to be reawakened, and the powerful brought to shame and acceptance of guilt – at least a critical mass thereof.  It was the work of William Wilberforce and his growing army of collaborators who undertook this impossible-looking task.  And they won the hearts of the masses along the way with their practical demonstration and savvy campaign strategies. 

We will not rehash this story.  It is extremely well documented and remains readily available and researchable for any who care to seek it out.

Like every long-lived nation and society, England and Great Britain have many sins and failings to repent of, and some they have.  In this instance, it was done and, on the whole, well done, although, of course, not perfectly.

The story of real revolution that makes change deep and long-lasting is not that of political violence and upheaval mass vengeance taken by under-classes against elites and overlords.  That is the usual picture of history, but the universal record of such reversals is the eventual, and usually quite precipitate replacement of one set of tyrants by a new set and a new regime just as monstrous, if not moreso, as the old soon oppressing the new underclass.

In his England in 1815: The History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century, Elie Halevy, an eminent French historian (1870-1937) declared that England was spared the terrible upheaval of revolution and class warfare which had swept Europe because of the virtually miraculous transformation of its society through the efforts and influence of its Christian reformers.  Although a pretty small minority, they were the leaven in the lump which allowed the English to ride out the waves of violence and mass destruction and slaughter and emerge as the world’s superpower.  Halevy was a Jew, not a Christian.  His “objective” analysis and interpretation (as objective as any could be, at any rate) was widely accepted, although it has since been drowned out by a more “rational, scientific” way of seeing things through “hard facts and statistics”.

The trouble with facts, statistics or other, is that their interpretation is always through the lens of worldview.  But in the case of England’s repentance and transformation, the statistics point even more powerfully to the power of the spirit operating within the reformers than to a “hard-nosed” argument from economic and political “inevitability”.

Next time, Canada in the Dock.

Inconvenient Conscience, 9 – Turning Around, 5 – The USA

“Everything clarified and articulated becomes visible…. Why avoid, when avoidance necessarily and inevitably poisons the future?”

Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life, an Antidote to Chaos, Random House Canada, 2018.  pp. 272-3.

As we saw last time, Germany’s successful emergence from its terrible past and dark night of the soul is a signpost of hope.  As per Peterson’s insight above, Germany allowed its desperate soul-sickness to be articulated, to be clearly declared in full light of day.  Once it was confessed, real steps became possible and were and continue to be taken in turning things around.  In large part, they have succeeded.  Failing to do so would have poisoned Germany’s future for generations.  Germany’s repentance is shown in action to have been real and genuine.  The Germany of the last thirty years has been Europe’s anchor rather than its terror.  Its most ancient and bitter foe, France, is now its closest ally and firmest friend.

While never condoning the 100 million (including in Asia) or so deaths directly attributable to those wars, we can see one good thing to have come out of the horror of World Wars 1 and 2 – Germany’s substantial redemption.  (Until the final wrap-up of all things by the Creator, everything is partial, even the best things.)  As Saul/Paul of Tarsus wrote to the ekklesia in ancient Corinth almost two thousand years ago:

“We know, you see, in part; we prophesy in part; but with perfection, the partial is abolished…. For at the moment all that we can see are puzzling reflections in a mirror; then [at the great culmination], face to face.  I know in part, for now; but then I’ll know completely, through and through.” (First letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 13, verses 9 and 12. 

The Kingdom New Testament, a Contemporary Translation, N.T. Wright, 2011.

As to the rest of the West, we have not seen such a turn-around, such a turning about, such a recognition of having so terribly missed the mark and needing to repent, needing to lean in a new direction and actively take a different path.  Perhaps, as we watch with fascination the increasing signs of the unravelling world order largely created by the Western victors of the World Wars, we are approaching the reckoning.  Or, more optimistically, perhaps we are the threshold of an awakening of the spirit, in the Spirit.  Every crisis is also an opportunity.  It need not be for evil to take charge.

When it comes to candidates of nations with deep, unresolved, unrepented sins buried in the closet, or even having come out of the closet but still not dealt with, there is no lack of examples we could pick and choose.  As a white Canadian, I could quickly sketch out a list for my own homeland and its European-stock population, as could my Canadian readers.  Take, for example, our utter, shameful, and so far unpardonable failure in dealing justly with our Native Peoples.  And, as a Canadian, that is perhaps what would be proper for me to do.  After all, “People who live in glass houses should not throw stones at others.”  And then there is, “Before you go taking the speck out of your neighbour’s eye, take the log out of your own,” – a saying of Jesus, by the way, and one which Canadian lumberjacks can appreciate.

According to international perceptions, Canada is a model of progressive multiculturalism and accommodating, inclusive pluralism.  So non-Canadians (and even some Canadians) might yawn from lack of interest in dissecting the internal squabbles of a minor state such as Canada.  While I am well aware of the possible impropriety of picking on someone else, we will take the United States as our next case-study while reserving the right to deal with Canada later.

After all, the USA is the leader of the democratic world, the self-acclaimed “land of the free and home of the brave”, the “cradle of democracy”.  For over 240 years the USA has touted itself as the “champion of the oppressed and down-trodden”.  It is not hard for outsiders, and even many Americans, to poke eighteen-wheeler sized holes in these brash declarations.  But Americans have been bold about wearing these labels and dressing in these cloaks since 1776, when the “Founding Fathers” signed and proclaimed the Declaration of Independence in breaking from the “Mother Country” of Great Britain.

So let’s just consider the Declaration’s opening statement: “We hold these truths to be self-evident – that all men are created equal, that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…” – except… Africans and African-Americans, Native peoples, Latinos… 

The Founding Fathers themselves did not really believe what they said, as much as some were probably at least consciously quite sincere in saying it.  It is the hidden (and for some of them not hidden at all) reservation beneath the high rhetoric that, from the very first, cracked the Liberty Bell and undermined the very cornerstone of the nation’s constitution.  In 1776 and 1787, the problem was reserved for future resolution, but never resolved.  Instead, as Jordan Peterson put it, it was systematically avoided by the vast majority, left unclarified or excused, obfuscated instead of clearly articulated—until it produced the inevitable result Peterson states: it poisoned the future.  It continues to poison the US.  Even the Civil War did not really lance the boil and extract the poison.  And so the race issue continues to do its devastation, having set profound hooks in the nation’s very soul from the very beginning.

The second profound flaw that took root in that now distant time was class domination, apart from race, but inextricable with it.  Of course, class distinctions in human societies have existed for thousands of years.  They seem to be an innate aspect of fallen, mark-missing human nature, despite all the ideal scenarios human ingenuity can imagine.

It’s not that there has been no repentance or attempt to reconcile in the USA.  There have been some valiant initiatives to undo the most serious consequences of the sins of the Fathers.  For example, in 2019 there were some important ceremonies and activities to repent for and commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of the first importation of African slaves into the British colonies of North America.  So why has American society slid into such a dire state of division and turmoil, apparently even deeper than what we see in other nations of the West?

There is no perfect or scientific answer to such questions, and no one alive (apart from the Resurrected One who will someday give the answers) has the wisdom to unravel it all and find the perfect road out.  Abraham Lincoln might have been that person, at least a Pathfinder, but he was martyred shortly after giving the most splendid oration of his career (the Second Inaugural) which included the phrases “with malice towards none” and “binding up the wounds of the nation”.  He eschewed the road of revenge and punishment towards the defeated Rebels while signifying that the newly freed African-Americans must now be integrated as full citizens.

His death meant the death of his unique, hard-earned authority to lead the nation on that very path.  Instead, it was vengeance and retaliation which took hold, and ten years later this engendered the return to power of the old southern racist and ruling-class elite bound and determined to both keep the blacks in their place and the poor whites in line through fear of the negro and manipulation.  The industrial magnates and financial plutocrats of the North also played their role in condoning and conniving in the South’s backdoor revenge, for class suppression was in their interest too, and they were no less racist than southerners, just not outright slavers.

Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy might also have been Pathfinders to the way out and up, but they too were martyred and the path since then seems to have reentered the quagmire.

Thus, until the American nation as a substantial whole repents and renounces these sins and their continuing deep racist and elitist class roots and their blatant current manifestations from the heart , forgiveness cannot be asked and given, and true healing cannot begin.  The Southern myth of the noble “Lost Cause” must die.  it remains a deep poison. Northern complicity in that myth must be repented.  We could say the same about the terrible and repeated genocides of American First Nations. 

Without such deep and wrenching measures, which cannot be done in any short time and once truly begun will have to be ongoing and continuous, as Germany as done in its national repentance, the US will not lose its violent, divided heart.  That can only be a work that begins by a massively turning towards the One Being who has the power to move on human hearts and spirits to break the chains of slavery and the festering wounds of unresolved internal conflicts.  It involves surrendering the blame-game and the right to make the other side pay “the last full measure”. 

The example for doing that was given on a small hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem two thousand years ago when the Creator chose to take it all upon Himself in the Person of His incarnate Son, Yeshua/Jesus of Natzeret, rightful heir to the throne of Israel.  Instead, He accepted a crown of thorns and took the full wrath of His own people’s leaders and sins as well as that of the quintessential world empire, Rome, representing all the rest of humanity. 

Instead of saying how He would make them all pay “the last full measure” once His Father vindicated Him and raised Him incorruptible and immortal from the grave, He prayed for His executioners, and for the whole human race, so blind and enslaved by the depth of their “failing to measure up” (hamartia –missing the mark, sin), saying, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”  Would He have prayed a different prayer even if they had known what they were doing?

If you know Him at all, you know the answer to that question.  Because, let’s admit it, since then, millions and even billions of us have known very well what we’ve been doing, and how wrong it has been and is, and how these things so deeply wound Him, His Father, and those humans we sin against, and the rest of the Creation we sin against by our destruction of it.  But he still offers His full forgiveness “to the last full measure, for the last full measure”, thus robbing us of any right we have to claim it of those who have wronged us.  He has claimed it and paid for all of it, from Eve and Adam to you and me.

To paraphrase a young Swedish maiden, “How dare we!” keep claiming we have a right to extract the last measure of vengeance, of profit regardless of how its getting has made others suffer?  On the other hand, if we will not turn from our wicked ways to the Healer Who can really bring us to the healing we all so desperately need, the Creator will leave us to do our own will to persist in our sin and thus to also experience the terrible consequences thereof.

“Domine, in Tua gratia, misericordiam Tuam nobis da.”  (Old Latin Liturgy – “Lord, in Your grace, give us Your mercy.”