Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Taking casual pleasantries seriously

 “Hi! How are you?”

“Just fine. And you?”

            The routine exchange of pleasantries is one of the social graces that grease the axles of human interaction. We say the words to acknowledge the other’s presence -- to till the ground, as it were, for our real reason for getting together with that other person. Which, often, is not personal at all.

            Unfortunately, we rarely take the words of the ritual seriously.

            I had a lawyer friend in Toronto who loathed idle chit-chat. If you greeted him, “How are you?” he commonly barked, “Don’t ask unless you mean it!”

            So I almost always asked him how he was anyway, just to see what would happen.

            And he, to his credit, answered as if I really did mean it.

            Sometimes he was indeed “just fine,” and told me so. Other times I heard about legal controversies, committee wrangles, and family crises.

            He trusted me enough to share those elements of his life.

 

Earning trust

            I had to earn that trust, I suppose. Over time, I must have shown him that I knew some things should be kept to myself. And for some other things, that my work as a writer might lead to a word or two that had ripple effects.

            I admit that sometimes I heard more than I wanted to hear. I wasted a few valuable minutes when I could have done something else. It might have been easier to coast by without getting involved.

            Still, as I look back, I feel I was privileged to have someone take, “How are you?” seriously. It’s never easy to bare your soul to another person.

 

Being willing to talk

            Literature on counselling and therapy sometimes uses the metaphor of “the horse on the dining room table.” Or, “the elephant in the living room.”  The metaphor refers to the realities that everyone is aware of, but no one wants to talk about.

            Grief counselling first popularized the metaphor. We all know we’re there because the family matriarch has died. Or a business has gone bankrupt. A son has been arrested. But those things are too difficult to talk about. So we gather in stone circles, discussing the weather, the stock market, the fate of the Blue Jays.

            Those are safe subjects. If we talked about the elephant, we might break down and cry.

            And we can’t have that, can we?

            Small talk is an admission that I can’t see you on the far side of the elephant. I can’t hear you because the horse is in the way. Yet we all have stories that we hide behind the smiling “Just fine” mask.

            When we acknowledge the elephant and the horse, we usually discover that we’re not alone after all. No one else has had exactly the same experience; but almost everyone has come close. They’ve experienced pain. Or loss. Separation. Humiliation.

            It starts with asking, “How are you?” as if we mean it. And not being satisfied with a shrugged “Just fine.” Even if they add, “Thanks for asking.” We have to persist, “No, really, how are you?”

            If I don’t want a response, I wouldn’t ask. I shouldn’t ask.

            So, really… how are you?

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Copyright © 2017 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.

            To comment on this column, write jimt@quixotic.ca

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YOUR TURN

 

Last week’s column was ab out what some people call “biblical sexuality.”

            As Tom Watson noted, “The Nashville Statement suggests that God worries about the same things that particular people, or particular groups of people, worry about. Therefore once people have fixed the problem that troubles them so much, God can scratch that one off God's list.

            “I wonder if this works in reverse? I tend to be a worrier, so might I be able to turn my list over to God and have God worry for me...or find somebody else to fix things so I can quit worrying about them?

            “A neat system when you think about it.”

 

As you’ll recall, I did not support the Nashville Statement. June Tink simply wrote, “AMEN to that!”

 

I loved James Russell’s comment: “Everyone knows that god doesn’t obsess about sex -- god obsesses about head covering!  Sometimes he insists that men and not women wear hats; sometimes that women not men wear them.  Sometimes he insists on a one-hat fits all policy -- a beanie, say, or maybe a scarf.  Sometimes he wants hats that distinguish among clans, or within hierarchies.  Sometimes he loves a special occasion hat.  Sometimes he insists that certain men shave their heads; sometimes that they never shave their heads, or even cut their hair.  Of course, there are also special hats for those who must -- and must NOT -- cut their hair.  Travel the world and you can find versions of god that are indifferent to sex, but never a version that is indifferent to head coverings.  That’s how you know what god really worries about.”

 

Two readers expanded the biblical morality theme into current issues.

 

Helen Arnott wrote, “Your words have restored my own affirmation that ‘God’ is a 3-letter English word for a concept, a universal cohesive force of some kind, a mysterious power for which we do not have a name but which has many names -- Allah, Bhagwan, Jehovah, Universal Spirit, Dieu. There are as many names for God as there are languages, and even no name. 

            “Like Rev. Gretta Vosper from Westhill United Church in Scarborough. I think that what you believe is less important than how you live your life.”

 

A similar comment from Jean Hamilton: “I am reminded of the story Bob Smith recounts in the report, ‘Mending the World’:  ‘When God gets up in the morning, God calls all the angels together and asks, "Where does my world need mending today?" Being faithful means worrying about what God worries about when God gets up in the morning.’

            “And I think you're exactly right when you list the things God doesn't worry about.  So why are we enduring what amounts to a heresy trial for one of our clergy?  I still haven't heard a satisfactory answer to that one.”

 

Steve Roney “followed your link and read the Nashville statement. It is what Christianity has taught for the past two thousand years.”

            Steve also wrote, “There can nothing controversial about calling God a person. This insight is fundamental to Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and accepted as well in Mahayana Buddhism and by most Hindus.

            “You seem to be saying that to be a person you must have a body. This is a novel idea, theologically speaking, and you need to defend it.

            “Does God worry about creeds and catechisms ? God is truth. If we seek him, we must seek truth, and that is what a creed or catechism is about: to state the truth that has been discovered.

            “Does God care about sex? Yes, for the same reason. God is absolute moral good. If we seek him, we must seek the moral good. If there is any morality involved in sex acts, then following that morality is important. Sex for pleasure is intrinsically a case of treating another human being as an object. That is intrinsically immoral.

            “If God cares about us, he cares about this.”

 

I don’t get many letters about the Psalm paraphrases. But Isabel Gibson liked last week’s paraphrase: “Excellent Psalm today. Once upon a time, Mom and Dad bought extra copies of a newspaper cartoon and had it framed. It showed a family lined up for a portrait, with the photographer commenting ‘Nice!  Four generations all lined up.’

            “Unseen by the photographer, but visible to us, were the now-dead ancestors of that family standing with them, and their as-yet-unborn descendants -- a family line of untold generations stretching into past and future.

            “It's not an image I think about very often, but it's an excellent counterpoint to my tendency to focus on my little slice of time, family, and community. It's good to stop and think sometimes about the story we're a part of.”

 

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PSALM PARAPHRASES

 

When I had to memorize Psalm 19 as a child, I thought of the laws of God as a straightjacket -- something that restricted freedom. I didn't believe they were "sweeter than honey" -- I had also been told that brussel sprouts were good for me. Later, I have come to think of God’s laws being embodied in the universe – they keep the universe running.

            I see these verses acknowledging and honouring human curiosity. They celebrate the insight and understanding, the excitement and discovery, that grows as we explore the precepts and principles of God's wonderful universe.

 

1          The whole earth is God's textbook.
The skies shine with God's glory, and the land blossoms with abundance of life. 

2          Our days are alive with with learning,
and our nights are full of fanciful notions. 

3          God does not need words to teach us;
curiosity and experience are not limited to any language or nation. 

4          Humans separate themselves by their languages, but the delight of discovery is universal.
Wherever the sun shines--on rocks and trees, on skies and seas--the universal messages of life spring forth. 

5          The light encircles the earth tirelessly;
like God, it persists even when we cannot see it. 

6          Where there is light, there is life;
where there is life, there is God. 

7          The ways of the Lord are wonderful;
With sure skill, God has woven the web of life;

8          Predictable patterns become evident;
We recognize them and rejoice.
The laws of the universe unfold like a flower
before our thirsting minds;
we begin to understand. 

9          Our intellects explore the intricate mesh of a planet pulsing with life.
We sense the underlying order of the universe;
It is so true, so right, that we stand in awe.

10        These insights are worth more than wealth and popularity--
more than chocolate kisses or honeyed words.

11        For by them we come to understand our place;
Within this framework we take our proper place in the order of things. 

 

12        Yet pride seduces us into considering ourselves special.

13        Keep us from presuming our own importance, God;
Protect our minds from those who promote selfish and short-sighted goals.
Then we can be clean,
and innocent of crimes against your fabric of life. 

14        May all that I say, all that I think, all that I do
Be acceptable to you, Lord of all life. 

 

For paraphrases of most of the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalms from Wood Lake Publishing, info@woodlake.com.

 

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YOU SCRATCH MY BACK…

·       Ralph Milton’s most recent project, Sing Hallelujah -- the world’s first video hymnal -- consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at www.singhallelujah.ca

·       Isabel Gibson's thoughtful and well-written blog, www.traditionaliconoclast.com

·       Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://www.churchwebcanada.ca>

·       Alva Wood's satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town are not particularly religious, but they are fun; write alvawood@gmail.com to get onto her mailing list.

·       Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at twatson@sentex.net

 

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TECHNICAL STUFF

 

If you want to comment on something, send a message directly to me, jimt@quixotic.ca.

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            My webpage is up and running again -- thanks to Wayne Irwin and ChurchWeb Canada. You can now access current columns and about five years of archives at http://quixotic.ca

            I write a second column each Sunday called Sharp Edges, which tends to be somewhat more cutting about social and justice issues. To sign up for Sharp Edges, write to me directly, jimt@quixotic.ca, or send a note to sharpedges-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca

 

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Author: Jim Taylor

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