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

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Published on Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Too few, enough, and too many

A few weekends ago, I spent a morning disentangling barbed wire.

            The community group that maintains a trail network wanted to clear away an old barbed wire fence that once defined a block of private property, now municipally owned.

            Local children run and cycle along a trail that now cuts through the property, to get to and from their elementary schools. But the old barbed wire still lurks just off the trail. A child who trips and falls, or whose bicycle goes out of control, could get badly hurt.

            Cleaning up the old rusted wire was not easy. Long grass hid it. Bushes had grown around the fallen wire. Fence posts had fallen, sometimes backwards, sometimes forwards. The multiple stands were twisted together. Where previous workers had dragged sections of fence away from the trail, the wires were literally tied in knots.

            So we set to work. And I was reminded again of how well humans can work together in small groups, when we know clearly what our task is.

            We didn’t need anyone to tell us that loose ends of barbed wire can lash out. That springy coils need to be handled carefully. We didn’t need supervisors with clipboards telling us what to do. We just went to work.

            Seen from overhead, we probably looked as if we were performing some kind of folk dance: One step forward, one step back, pass the coil to your partner, duck under, turn around…

            Perhaps that’s how folk dances evolved originally.


The Goldilocks equation

            Someone, somewhere, must have done a study on the ideal size of working groups. In our small groups of three or four, we solved problems without supervision. We didn’t need a management hierarchy. Or a policy manual.

            But as groups get larger, factions develop. Different people have different ideas on how the job should be done. Or shouldn’t be done. Some members try to dominate others.

            In his book Sapiens, author Yuval Noah Harari calls the smallest self-governing unit the extended family, up to 100 members. When it grows to a tribe, or a clan, it needs a defined social structure, to keep families from fighting each other. The bigger the group gets, up to kingdom and nations, the more formal structure it needs, so that former foes can work together under a common central authority.

            Conversely, the smaller the group, the less formal structure it needs. Although some organizations still feel they need a seven-member executive for five active members.

            So what’s the optimal size for any working group?

            My personal hunch is that any group of more than twelve tends to split. A single unified discussion turns into two running conversations. Or into two task groups. Some people feel ignored or overlooked.

            I wonder if that’s why Jesus chose only twelve disciples, when he could have had thousands. And why the Hebrew people had twelve tribes.

            Author Lynne McTaggart contends that the ideal group size is eight. Eight people who concentrate their attention on a single issue can affect the way events unfold, she claims.

            Whatever the number is, I wonder why so many organizations measure their success by the size of their membership. Surely what matters more is what those members can accomplish by working together.


Copyright © 2019 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





The responses to last week’s column fell into roughly two groups: 1) Does God intervene in natural events, and 2) what’s the point of praying?


On the first question, Steve Roney found the flow-chart process inherently flawed: “I have a hard time answering your first binary question here, ‘Was God responsible for the tsunami?’ The obvious answer is ‘no.’ According to the Bible, and conventional (Catholic at least) Christian doctrine, man is responsible for natural disasters. Nature fell when man fell.

            “On the other hand, it is necessarily true that God could intervene to prevent this or any natural disaster. Surely he could also have prevented nature from falling with man.

            “So a binary, yes/no response does not seem possible.”


Donald Schmidt, on the other hand, liked the flow chart: “I really enjoyed the flow charts column. And I was struck by the question posed near the end: if God doesn’t cause things to happen, then why pray to God?

            “I have so struggled with this one myself over the years and it took a long time to conclude that decades of well-meaning but grossly-misguided Sunday School teachers had led me down the wrong path. I ought not pray things like ‘God, please don’t let that bridge fall’ or ‘Dear God, please heal Aunt Mary’s cancer’ -- or ‘if you love me, bring me a bike.’

            “I think the best prayers are ones where I simply say something like ‘God, help meknow what to do’ or ‘God, help me to understand.’ Or even ‘God, this is what I really want. Now, help me to accept what happens.’

            “The nonsense that I can tell God what to do is, well, nonsense. But the idea that God can help me cope with whatever life throws at me -- that makes sense.”


Is God responsible for disasters? Bob Rollwagen asked, “Did God give our neighbours to the south Donald Trump?”


And Frank Martens took a skeptic’s view: “You have seen this often enough -- two football players from opposing teams kneel and pray that ‘god’ will let them win. One player wins, and the other loses. Why does ‘god’ answer one player’s prayers and not the other? Looks like ‘god’ is playing favourites.”


Laurna Tallman had a different perspective on miracles: “Some people naturally possess or take pains to develop a sense of what will happen in future time. Those people can sense disaster or some other kind of event coming and take steps to avoid it, usually leading other people to safety in the process.

            “In the Judeo-Christian tradition, stellar examples of that ability are illustrated in the foresight and actions taken by Moses, Samuel, Joseph, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Noah, Jonah, John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul, Cornelius, John the Divine, and many others. I know these stories to be true because I and several of my friends have moved through life with those sorts of foreknowledge. I know the benefits of having developed that capacity myself. I have seen the benefits of that ability in others. I have seen so much of this type of behaviour that I can make the statements above about people who exercise this ability.

            “Those sorts of stories are not restricted to the Judeo-Christian tradition. They pop up in Aboriginal tales, in Muslim tales, in the folklore of manyethnicities. These stories reflect human abilities that have been poorly understood but that corroborate one another. They may take on mythic qualities but if you have experienced them you know them to be literally true.”


Karenbueno offered a simple answer: “Until we can accept an answer to the question of natural disasters and the power of God, we will continue to doubt our faith.”


On the subject of prayer, Tom Watson asked, “Why is it that we -- at least most of us -- seem uncomfortable with just sitting quietly and hoping to hear something meaningful?”


Marg (still no last name!) sent this quote from Mother Teresa: “I used to pray that God would feed the hungry, or do this or that, but now I pray that he will guide me to do whatever I'm supposed to do, what I can do. I used to pray for answers, but now I'm praying for strength. I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.”


After the tsunami in 2004, John Griffith sat down and wrote a prayer. It came out like this:

            “O Mother Earth, what can I say? We have been blessed in so many ways from your bounteous gifts. But this week your stretching and growing has caused an event, a wave of water that has killed thousands of people and brought heartache to so many more. We know you didn’t mean to cause this pain but your human family is in great distress and mourning. The human family is pulling together to help those in need and bring love and compassion, help and forgiveness to this painful situation.

            “I know I can forgive you for this because there was no evil intent and it is just a part of your life as you live and grow. I understand because it brings to mind times when my own stretching and growing sent out a wave that affected the life of those around me, my family and friends and colleagues and resulted in dislocation and pain for my community. So I just have to say that today I am sad and I feel deeply for my brothers and sisters and for you, Mother Earth, and I will join with my human family to find new ways of connecting, helping, caring, and celebrating the love of life.”






The Lectionary’s psalm for this coming Sunday reflects some of the views expressed in the letters above. The writer of Psalm 82 clearly thinks of God as the cause of everything. I chose to transpose the context into a corporate boardroom.


1          God sits at the head of the table.

2          "How long," God demands, "will you keep making the wrong choices? 
How long will your policies favor injustice?

3          I expect you to be fair to everyone, including those who have no economic weight;
To defend the rights of those who have no voice, and no one to speak for them;

4          To protect the weak and the struggling from exploitation.

5          Of all people, they need your protection most. 
They do not have education, or money, or friends in high places. 
They have suffered devastating losses in their lives."


6          God says: "You think you have taken over my responsibilities.

7          But you are not God. When your time comes, 
you will die, like everyone else."


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






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

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                  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

                  And for those of you who like poetry, I’ve recently posted another poem on my webpage .https://quixotic.ca/My-PoetryI post (occasionally, when I feel inspired) poems that I have written. If you’d like to receive notifications about new poems, write me at jimt@quixotic.ca,  or subscribe yourself to the list by sending a blank email (no message) to poetry-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca(If it doesn’t work, please let me know.)






To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. Some spam filters have been blocking my posts because they’re suspicious of some of the web links.

                  Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8

                  Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It 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. The original website has been closed down, but you can still order the DVD set through Wood Lake Publications, info@woodlake,com

                  Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTcaHe’s also relatively inexpensive!

                  I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has lots of beautiful photos.

                  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 tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet



                  I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge.





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