My pea vines have died. Despite getting the same water and sunshine as the rest of the garden, they seemed to know, somehow, that they had accomplished their mission. Now it was time to go to The Great Compost Bin in the Corner.
Like salmon, they produce their next generation, and then give up living.
All living things seem to recognize when their time is running out. Pea vines live less than one full summer; some trees will live thousands of years. But they all die, eventually.
And so, interestingly, do their individual cells. Cells have their own life spans. Human skin cells die every few days. So do the cells in the toxic environment of your digestive system. Sperm cells survive only a few hours.
Indeed, without cell death, we wouldn’t be human. A human fetus has webs between its fingers and toes -- a throwback, perhaps, to our amphibian ancestors -- and those web cells must die so that an infant can be born with recognizably human hands and feet.
I’ve become acquainted with cell death because my wife has chronic lymphocytic leukemia, commonly abbreviated to CLL. If you have to have cancer, CLL may the best kind to have. With treatment, a normal life expectancy is still possible.
But I learned a new word from her oncologist -- apoptosis. (The second “p” is sometimes silent, as in ptomaine, pneumonia, psoriasis -- and psmith, the fictional character created by British humourist P.G. Wodehouse.)
Apoptosis describes the life cycle of a cell. All cells die. Even brain cells, eventually.
The average human loses between 50 and 70 billion cells every day to apoptosis. The process is regulated by a gene known among oncologists as bcl-2.
Cancer cells have somehow learned to ignore bcl-2’s traffic signals. Lymphocytes, for example, should have a life expectancy of about a week. In fact, they romp right through bcl-2’s red lights. Theiruncontrolled population growth is cancer.
That growth was once blamed on cell proliferation, but “it is now known,” says Wikipedia, “that it is also due to a decrease in cell death.”
The population explosion
It’s a disquieting thought. Because I heard, the other day, that more humans are living today than all the humans who died over the last three million years.
If that’s true, it’s not just because more humans are having more babies; it’s also because humans are dying less.
Medical science has extended human life far beyond former limits. The 2016 Canadian census found that centenarians – 100 years and older – are now the country’s fastest growing age group.
In Roman times, average life expectancy was about 30 years; those who reached their biblical “three score and ten” were exceptions. Infant mortality in some cultures was so high that parents didn’t bother naming their children until they survived their first year.
It makes me wonder if our technologies have sidelined whatever functioned as a bcl-2 gene among human populations.
At the cellular level, it seems, death is essential for life.
At the planetary level, I wonder if we’re becoming a cancer. I don’t like the idea of encouraging deaths. But maybe we should re-think our incessant urge to prolong life indefinitely.
Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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I called last week’s column “Five Things I’m Sort of Sure of.” I had several personal comments to the effect that they liked the idea one could be “sort of” sure about things – it seemed reassuring, somehow.
The first email came from Bob Wallace, the bass in the popular Common Cup singing group. He wrote, “The five things you are sure of was a gracious reminder to me of all that flexibility and balance offers as we make our way through to older age. I particularly appreciate the concept of a continuum rather than a fixed point. You gave me lots of meditation this week.”
Tom Watson kept his praise brief: “Great column. Personally, I'm absolutely sure of...damn, I can't remember what it was.”
Isaabel Gibson was even briefer: “Nice. I think . . . :-)”
And Bob Rollwagen commented, “Good list, even better title. The only thing I am sure of is that if I wake up tomorrow and hear someone complaining, I must be alive and still on the planet earth.”
Occasionally, someone writes to say that they tried to respond to a column, and had their message blocked. No, I didn’t do it! I have not blocked anyone from the list. (Maybe I should, sometimes, but I haven’t.) So if you don’t get through the first time, please try again. Perhaps the gremlin in the system will have gone for coffee break by then.
I don’t like Psalm 50. I don’t like the original, and I don’t like my paraphrase of it. It portrays God as both prosecutor and judge. Granted, that’s a common theme in the so-called Old Testament. You’ll also find it running through the Prophets. God makes a case against us; we humans offer feeble defences; God delivers judgement.
It may be true that God judges. And perhaps the effects of climate change – droughts, storms, floods, fires – are a form of judgement against human-unkind’s unthinking exploitation of nature. But it also leads to a theology that says we can earn Brownie Points with God by behaving well in this life; we’ll get our reward later.
Nevertheless, here’s the paraphrase I wrote about 30 years ago.
1 As an alarm drags us out of deep slumber,
2 so God rouses us from our lethargy.
3 God does not sneak into our consciousness on soft-soled slippers.
God enters like a roaring lion,
a tornado rampaging across the prairie,
a parent who has already warned us three times.
4 God rattles our excuses.
Feeble rationalizations cannot defend us.
5 At baptism, at confirmation, at communion, we make promises.
God judges how well we live up to our commitments.
6 How can we challenge God's verdict?
We know how often we have failed.
7 God knows everything;
God is the chief witness against us.
8 "You have continually sacrificed yourself to other gods," says God.
"You have chased after power and popularity, after success and selfish pleasures.
22 Now I will make an example of you."
23 And God says to all, "If you have ears to hear, listen.
Unless you want to share the same fate, smarten up.
Do not discredit God by your behavior;
in all your lives, make God visible for others."
For paraphrases of mostof the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, email@example.com.
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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
ALVA WOOD’S ARCHIVE
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.