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

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Published on Thursday, March 9, 2017

The urge to embellish

The Christian churches in this part of the world are now one week into the season of Lent, starting on Ash Wednesday, March 1.

            Few people pay attention to Lent anymore, it seems. Except that candy-makers start selling Easter eggs in supermarkets.

            It wasn’t always so. When I was younger, churches taught us to give up something for the seven weeks leading to Easter. Like smoking, for example. Easy for me, because I didn’t smoke. Giving up chocolate would have been harder.

            In my first fulltime job, the boss hired a stunning secretary. One March morning a rather ordinary looking woman replaced her.

            “Who’s the new secretary?” I asked another staffer, cluelessly.

            “Same one,” he said. “She’s just given up makeup for Lent.”

            “Why?” I wondered.

             “Because she’s Catholic, you dummy!”


Splurge before purge

            The self-denial imposed by Lent led to its opposite immediately before Ash Wednesday. My family splurged on Shrove Tuesday. ("Shrove” derives from “shrive,” to confess and be forgiven.) In theory, we should have used the day to examine our lives and amend them accordingly. In reality, we pigged out on pancakes.

            The French-speaking world called it “Mardi Gras” – Fat Tuesday. Similarly, Brazil called it “Carne Vale” – Portuguese for “farewell to meat”. In pre-freezer days, food stored over the winter tended to pass its Best Before date around Lent. So they had a grand feast to eat it all before their time of abstinence.

            I suppose if some meat had spoiled, it would precipitate an involuntary period of abstinence.

            Brazilians love to party. So they stretched a single day to almost a week. Carnaval draws two million tourists a year. The whole country spends months preparing floats and dances.

            In Sao Paulo, one samba school’s presentation had 32,000 dancers. Rio de Janeiro’s famous Sambodromo annually turns into a swirling kaleidoscope of colour, sound, and movement.

            Every year gets more elaborate. Maybe too elaborate. Four accidents marred this year’s Carnaval in Rio. A couple of floats couldn’t get onto the Sambodromo. One got in, but then collapsed, sending five dancers to hospital. Another dancer was injured when the pedestal on which she was gyrating toppled.

            When you want to impress, it’s so easy to add a decoration here, an embellishment there. Until the whole thing becomes unwieldy.



            Carnaval, of course, leads to Lent, which leads to Easter. And I wonder sometimes if the same thing might have happened to some of the stories about Easter – and Christmas too. Did over-enthusiasm lead the storytellers to add a detail here, a touch of colour there?

            After all, no one took minutes at a secret meeting of the Sanhedrin. Pilate did not keep Watergate tapes of his meeting with Jesus. No one recorded Jesus’ birth on cell phone video.

            All we can be absolutely sure of is that, as a human, Jesus was born and he died. In between, he lived an unforgettable life – so unforgettable that two million Christians believe he lives on, 20 centuries later.

            If there weren’t three kings with a little drummer boy in tow, if there weren’t three crosses all in a row, would that suddenly make Jesus forgettable? I don’t think so.

            Perhaps, as part of our self-denial during Lent, we should give up taking biblical stories too literally.


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





If the mail is any indication, you readers share my lack of belief in hell. Some of you explored the notion further.


Jim Henderschedt sees me as a kindred spirit: “Thank you, Jim....we may be small voices crying in the wilderness but maybe, just maybe, a few brave souls will hear the message, think long and hard on it, search spiritually, and conclude that the God we [were taught about] in our past is not the God revealed by the rabbi we call Jesus.”


Also George Brigham: “A wholehearted ‘Amen’ to your final paragraph. One is left wondering what to make of the whole heaven and hell thing. I've heard various theories over the years. Everyone goes to heaven, but it seems like hell to some. That does not seem like the God I put my faith in either. Immortality is conditional (i.e. only for the ‘good’) -- I think not. Perhaps there is some merit in the non-Protestant concept of purgatory, though not in the rigid way it is sometimes portrayed. Repentance has to remain a possibility, even if it takes some an eternity to get around to it. One is left wondering for probably a few more years yet.”


Tom Watson wrote, “I, too, don't believe in a literal heaven and hell...especially as locations where humans, after judgment by God, will be sent for our final resting place. I also agree with the statement in your closing paragraph that God never gives up on anyone.

            “At the same time, however, I find that these theological ponderings become endlessly circular, because they constantly push me to find some clear definition of God. Who, or what, is the ‘God who never gives up on anyone?’

            “Ruling out the notion of God as a supernatural being, the best I can do is that what we call God is the universal force that aspires for, and nudges towards, good and away from evil. That force exists within all of us and the price of our humanity is the free will to decide whether or not to follow that force.

            “But then the conclusion would have to be that that universal force also existed within Douglas Garland. Does it then follow that, at least at the moment when he perpetrated his senseless deeds, Garland gave up on himself?”


Dale Perkins: “This is a heart-wrenching article, Jim.  I haven't had a child of mine get killed or maimed so I have nothing personal to relate to the agony felt by a parent.  All I can offer in response are scattered reflections on the big imagined concepts of heaven and hell.  I don't believe in either as well. In fact, the entire mystery surrounding personal responsibility for one's behavior towards others has been clouded and confused by the likes of Trump and his enthusiasts. I have benefited from reading Gretta Vosper's 'Amen' and the section where she attempts to differentiate between 'shame' and 'guilt' (p. 118 approximately).  I think it crazy for society (even the institutional church) to be in the business of ‘shaming’ people -- there's nothing that person can do to reclaim any personal worth once shamed.  It is possible around guilt; we can make amends for behavior done for which we feel guilty. Restitution is possible; the same is true for others.

            “I think we move too casually from the two realities... and it doesn't serve us well.  And I don't think we are served by holding onto a supernatural being out there somewhere who is orchestrating the whole business …”


Frank Martens reasoned, “If there is no hell, then there can't be a heaven. If there is no heaven, then there won't be a St. Peter holding open the pearly gates. If there is no St. Peter, then there is no God. If there is no God, then we don't have need for a soul. If we don't have souls, then we can be atheists. Therefore you are an atheist.”


Judyth Mermelstein added a Jewish perspective: “The Christian notion of Hell as eternal punishment has always struck me as an aberration that expressly contradicts the principle of an all-knowing and merciful God. Perhaps it arose from the idea that people need to be terrified into accepting their view of Jesus for fear of eternal damnation?

            “Anyway, as a non-believer in that idea, it strikes me that at least some Christians don't share that concept, believing instead in true repentance as proof of God's mercy. The less fanatical strains of Islam also allow for God's mercy.

            “We Jews are a rather mixed lot -- the line ‘two rabbis, three opinions’ is close to the truth. Some of the Old Testament suggests we all end up in Sheol regardless of merit and that seems to be a sort of Limbo or waiting-room for the end of the world. For the most part, we believe death is the end, except insofar as we're remembered by friends and relations. Either way, although some Jews are as eager for revenge as anyone else, there doesn't seem to be a theological justification once one gets past the tribalism of the prehistoric Hebrews and the Code of Hammurabi.

            “It may well be a natural impulse to want pain inflicted on those who cause pain to others, but I've wondered since childhood why anyone would find it satisfying, given that it can't undo the original pain. It also seems weird to me to want a person consigned permanently to Hell for sending another to the eternal Heaven one presumably believes in, too.

            “Oh, well, the older I get, the less sense I see in some of these traditions.”


Finally, Laurna Tallman wrote a long letter about the diagnosis of her son’s schizophrenia, and various efforts to control and heal it. These paragraphs leaped out at me:

            “Years later, when I discovered that his alternating shifts in consciousness were shifts from the dominance of his left, rational brain on his thoughts (and behaviour) to the dominance of his right, irrational brain on his thoughts (and behaviour) I saw in slow motion the source of the concepts of Heaven and Hell in all of us.

            “You, Jim, have just proven again the truth of that divide in all of our brains: Hell is not a rational concept. It is not based on geographical reality. It is, however, based in the reality that our left-brains can reason and our right-brains contain everything evil we encounter in our lives stored in a loose association of emotional constructs. As long as we remain rational, we can pay less attention to evil. We can dissociate ourselves from it. We can compare ourselves with others who have less left-brain control…

            “Each of us holds Heaven and Hell within our minds.”

            I haven’t included, for reasons of length, Laurna’s studies into the effects of music therapy on right- and left-brain dominance. If you want to follow up with her, write rtallman@xplornet.ca





As I grow older myself, I become more aware of, and more impressed by, the willingness of people with disabilities to struggle on. So here’s a different version of Psalm 121:


            I lift my eyes to the mountains --

            but my feet remain rooted to the ground.

            I need help to walk the rest of my way.

2          God doesn't move my feet for me.

            God doesn't put a spring back into my stride

            or a bounce back into my behavior.

            But God keeps me going.

3          I must be more careful now.

            Sticks and stones will break my bones

            if I stumble over them.

4          It's harder to "lift my eyes unto the hills"

            when I need to keep them constantly on the path.

            Perhaps it's a good thing I don't have to hurry

            through life, any more.

            I can afford the time to pause, to reflect, to be grateful.

5          The Lord of life has looked after me.

            I've never had to carry a burden bigger than I could bear.

6          Successes did not subvert me,

            nor did despairs destroy me.

7          The Lord of all life will look after you too.

            You can never see the end of the road

            when you take that first step,

8          but you can take each step of the way

            with faith that God will guide your feet

            right to the end.

            Thanks be to God.


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.





        Ralph Milton 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






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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