On the last day of summer, before all the kids went back to school, I walked along our beach, watching families having a final day of fun.
A young girl offered a salted potato chip to a duck swimming near the shore.
Nervously, the duck paddled towards her. It snatched the chip. Then it retreated to deeper waters.
A second girl came down to the water. She kicked water out over the duck. Again and again.
It was -- pardon the cliché -- like water off a duck’s back.
And I did nothing.
What should I have said? What could I have done?
And how would the girls’ parents react, if a total stranger had lectured their daughters on right and wrong? The parents themselves apparently saw no reason to intervene.
Because both girls were doing something I objected to.
The first girl at least had kindly intentions. But feeding human food to a wild creature is not a good idea.
The second did not have kind intentions. She tried to torment another living creature. But she did no harm. She might even have done some good, by encouraging the duck to avoid humans.
Coulda, woulda, shoulda
And yet, by doing nothing, I implicitly endorsed both behaviours.
That point has frequently been made about bullying. If you see it happening, and don’t do anything, you’re backing the bully.
My high school had a high academic reputation. Many students had university professors for parents. Other parents owned prosperous businesses. But one boy, from a working class family, earned pocket money by running the milk concession. Half-pints of milk, in returnable glass bottles.
Some guys in my class delighted in smashing his bottles. Despite his pleading.
And I did nothing about it. I could have. I should have. I didn’t.
There have been other occasions when I didn’t speak up, didn’t take a stand. With the wisdom of hindsight, I should have.
These failures bother me. I even tried to write a poem about shoulda-woulda-coulda. Then I realized that Ogden Nash did it a lot better, half a century ago, in his Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man,
Nash mused about sins of omission and commission:
“All sin is divided into two parts.
One kind of sin is called a sin of commission, and that is very important,
And it is what you are doing when you are doing something you ortant,
And the other kind of sin … is equally bad in the eyes of all right-thinking people, from Billy Sunday to Buddha,
And it consists of not having done something you shuddha.”
The poem is worth reading again, if only for Nash’s imaginative rhyming.
He concluded that we generally regret what we didn’t do more than what we did: “You never get any fun/Out of things you haven't done.” Although Justin Trudeau might disagree with his conclusion: “The suitable things you didn't do give you a lot more trouble than the unsuitable things you did.”
But that incident on the beach reminds me that there rarely are simple answers. Maybe the thing you coulda done, the words you shoulda said, would have been no better than what you actually did.
Or, perhaps, didn’t.
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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About worship (last week’s column) I always thought that Lutheran worship relied heavily on liturgy. Vic Sedo suggested otherwise: “Read the bulletin more than once, and who wrote the hymns, and sometimes read the Bible in back of the pews. Best thing is the coffee after with sandwiches.”
Tom Watson pondered, “You make excellent points. One wonders why we spend a significant piece of our lives doing something that we don't know what it is. Maybe, as you conclude, it's not something we do, it's something we experience. In that way, it's like love: we can't make it happen but we know when it occurs.”
Barb Taft: “I agreed with much that you had to say about worship. But, although fishing and golf are not my ' thing', I do feel that I worship that 'energy ' that I call God when I am out in my canoe in the stillness of sunrise, with my cup of coffee and a meditative book to guide my thoughts. To balance this, most Sundays will find me sharing 'worship' with others whose fellowship bring me close to the 'Holy Mystery'.”
Anne McRae shared Barb’s sense of wonder: “According to the dictionary, one meaning of worship is 'full of adoration'. Is looking out the window in the early morning at a sunrise and thanking God for a beautiful world, worship? Or walking in the woods and thanking God for beauty, worship? Do we need to be in church to worship? I don't know.
Jean Skillman: “How refreshing to hear someone -- especially a journalist writing about religion -- say they don’t know what worship is. I resonate with this experience, yet the mystery of worship is something I crave. I agree that elements of participation, community, meaning, challenge to respond, and transcendence all are part of worship. I get participation, community, meaning and challenge from my service club, but not transcendence. When I have experienced worship, it is in community with the other elements present, but with open acknowledgment and invitation to transcendence which comes from the setting, the ritual, the leadership of music and word. I take a deep breath and fill myself with something that inspires me to take on the next whatever in my life. Thanks for triggering me to think about this topic.”
Norma Wibble enthused, “Wow! I’ve never known how to explain it before to my husband, who’s been ‘worshipping’ most Sundays of his life! I totally agree with your assessment of involvement, and I can’t wait to share this with him. (He also takes off Sundays on the golf course, so I’m particularly grateful for that comment!)
“As a former English teacher, I don’t plagiarize; but having taken the preaching class in our Presbytery, I recognize good material when I see it. I intend to borrow some bits here, if the lectionary readings match up some time when I’m called upon to fill a pulpit.”
George Brigham offered a surprising example: “I too am not entirely sure what worship is. I can prepare and deliver an acceptable service, without the sermon ‘dribbling over the pulpit and expiring on the floor.’ This I gauge by the sometimes excessive and embarrassing comments I receive afterwards. Sometimes I feel a real sense of worship, but not as often as I’d wish.
“Sitting in a congregation I also feel a sense of worship, sometimes, but too often this is not the case. Sometimes it is mind-blowingly dull and/or incompetently presented.
“One memorable experience of worship in which I shared in recent years was not a Christian but a Dervish service. There was music and very slow dance including the turning on the spot which is the Dervish ‘trademark’. I was merely a spectator but was none-the-less transported to a higher plane.”
I should add that I deleted emails that simply cited dictionary definitions of worship. Knowing the definition of worship is not the same as worshipping, just as knowing the definition of riding a bicycle is not the same as actually riding one.
Psalm 137 is a bitter, angry psalm, that ends with the harshest of wishes, to smash the skulls of Babylonian babies against the rocks. As appalling as that sounds, there must be many who have been imported, or deported, who harbour similar feelings about the culture of their “rescuers.”
We didn’t ask to come here.
Deep in our DNA, we remember where we have come from --
another continent, another culture, another world.
You ripped us from our womb.
You beat us, maimed us, used us, sold us.
You said God had authorized you.
And you told us we should be happy
because we learned to sing, to dance, to laugh,
to hide our broken lives.
Then you gave us our freedom.
You said you had.
But you hadn’t.
We were still shut out of your restaurants,
your washrooms, your schools, your families.
We were lynched, tortured, humiliated.
And then you ask us to sing your warlike words,
to stand in respect for your glorious achievements.
We cannot sing of your narcissism.
We cannot stand for your self-congratulation.
We would be happy to see you trip on a splinter,
to fall down and smash your skull open.
For paraphrases of most of the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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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://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca He’s also relatively inexpensive!
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has lots of beautiful photos. Especially of birds.
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 (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)
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. (Although maybe if I charged a fee, more people would find the archive worth visiting.)