A friend gave me a little book to pass on to our local museum. But because Covid-19 closed the museum for the last couple of months, I’ve kept the book on my bedside table for occasional edification.
It’s called “Rules for the Conduct of Life” -- a large topic. Closer inspection reveals a less lofty goal. It was intended as an ethical guide for apprentices seeking to join the Freemen of the City of London.
The text contains 36 rules, all of which seem to me to be summed up in the first:
“Whatever you at any time intend to do, consider the end which you therein propose to yourself, and ensure that it be always really good, or at the very least innocent. He who does anything and knows not why or wherefore, acts foolishly; and he who aims at an unlawful end acts wickedly, which is the worst sort of folly. If you are careful always to observe this fundamental rule, you will thereby avoid many sins which would disturb your conscience, and also many trifling actions which would tend to your discredit, or trouble your repose.”
You have to pardon the florid style and gender-biased language; the booklet was published in 1901.
Bolstered by Bible verses
I found it interesting that only four of the 36 rules were considered self-evident, capable of standing on their own.
All the rest include at least one text from the Bible. Sometimes two, or three. As if they needed an external authority to validate their wisdom.
It makes me think of Donald Trump standing in front of a church he doesn’t attend, that didn’t invite him, and that has opposed against his policies, holding up a Bible, as if that were all he needed to justify his actions.
I’m not surprised that all the quotations in Rules for Life came from the Bible. I assume that the Freemen of London was a specifically Christian organization; so I can’t imagine such them quoting from the I Ching or the Ramayana.
But I am continually surprised at our need to rely on external authorities.
I remember writing university essays, long ago. I had to footnote every concept. I spent days in the library stacks, tracking down any obscure writer, anywhere, who had previously said what I wanted to say.
It didn’t matter whether it came from John Stuart Mill, Freddie Nietzsche, or the Venerable Bede –original ideas had to come from a recognized source.
Backwards through the years
Why do we discount reaching conclusions from personal experience? Direct observation?
The authorities we rely on all speak out of a bygone context. They knew nothing of electronic communication, Covid-19, species extinction, or nuclear weapons.
Why do we trust their wisdom, their insight, but not our own? Relying on ancient authorities implies that we cannot think for ourselves.
It seems to me that we’re working backwards. We look for eternal wisdom in the past. Then we try to glue it onto current situations.
Surely it should be the other way around. First, observe the current situation fully and correctly; then look to the wisdom of the past, to see how much of it still applies.
If there are connections, well and good. And if there aren’t….
Copyright © 2020 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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Last week’s column was, obviously, difficult for me to write. I’m glad you appreciated it.
Ralph Milton called it, “beautiful and powerful and true.”
Ruth Buzzard wrote: “I’m crying here at the computer. What a beautiful column.”
Boyd Wilson has sometimes shared his psalm paraphrases with me. In this case, he wrote, “Moved by your piece, here are some lines I wrote attempting to summarize conversations while sitting with the dying through their last hours when the clichés were redundant, questions uppermost.” I’m not sure if his line formatting came through the email transmission accurately; here’s what I got:
Says the dying one, “All I’ve done and been
were just a couple of trickles under the bridge,
down the great river, drops in the ocean,
soon forgotten. Gone.”
Not so, my friend: every H2O molecule
– in sea, lake ice, steam, cloud, creek, soil,
aquifer, rain, snow, your body, whatever --
keeps on cycling in the global whole.
None is lost.
As Earth remains each drop counts, of equal
value in the real economy of the infinite.
Such is a life.
“Mine’s a bit polluted, though,” you say.
Well, aren’t we all! But the H2O molecule itself retains
its integrity. The body returns to the earth but
the gifted wellspring of all life -- yours included --
will sing on in the great, continuing, hymn of all creation;
joys, regrets, suffering, loves, failures, griefs, confusions,
thoughts, works, every drop of you, in this world.
“No conscious me joining the righteous in another world,
then, or at least parked up out of sight waiting my turn?”
Mm, let’s you and I wait and see, eh?
But dead’s okay. Earthed new life comes no other way.
Remembrance is not just by few: know that
each tiny moment of this, your life,
-- good, regretted, just ordinary --
remains in the great ocean of Love forever.
Eduard Hiebert commented, “Dylan's words referenced have always evoked a sadness in his dis-ease of the inevitable.
“I'm with Joan! It's not always been this way, when I was younger. But as I cross more age markers (recently 70) and that time comes, to the extent I have a choice in the matter I hope and anticipate it’s like going to bed. With a sense of gratitude for my being and embracing the upcoming transition into sleep which comes silently -- when consciousness itself peaceably slips into sleep. How we daily fall asleep is but a dry run.”
John Shaffer thanked me “for your openness in talking about death and what your beliefs are. It should help me to articulate my own. Like you, there is much about death I cannot affirm, based on my own personal experience. While I would prefer just going to sleep and not waking up, whatever route I take will not be easy for my spouse. Same for me, if she goes first.
“Many beliefs I reject for myself, but I have not been on a quest to influence what people believe. But when a friend gets up at a service and proclaims that his departed friend is enjoying a round of golf in the after-life, I join in the smiles. And I wonder what that person really believes.”
Diane Robinson trusted me, and you, with her own experience: “What I'm going to share is something I have shared with only a few others. Inarguably, each of us has our own ideas and unique experiences of the "what comes next". That's as it should be.
“This is my experience. I share it not because I have any explanation or proof, but because it is mine.
“For a number of years I had a furred companion I named Khar'pern. I adopted him when he was approximately 7 or 8 weeks old. In February 2009, I was told that Pernie had abdominal cancer. After talking about the options, I made the horrible -- but only -- choice to have him euthanized. We said good-bye to one another on February 6th. (I share this background as I believe it speaks to the bond Pernie and I had.)
“The following winter (2009 - 2010) I had these experiences:
“Late one night, while in bed, while stretching out one leg my foot encountered a circle of warmth. While I thought it a little odd (even strange) I didn't think a lot about it. However.... a week or two later (again at night, while in bed) I awoke suddenly with an awareness of a presence beside me. I knew the presence was there because I was lying on my side.....and behind me, at my back, I felt the bedcovers being pressed down as if someone was standing there.
“It was then that I KNEW that Pernie had come -- these two times -- to visit me. He came in ways that my limited human sense could understand. He didn't come again after that second visit....at least, not in a way(s) that I would be able to feel and understand.
“What comes next? I don't know. But I KNOW beyond any shadow of a doubt that Pernie came to me twice following his death.”
The Revised Common Lectionary offers two choices for psalms, this coming Sunday. One is Psalm 100. The other is Psalm 116: 1-2, 12-17. When I look back, I see that I already used Psalm 16:12-17, in April of this year. That leaves Psalm 100. It’s a joyful psalm. Indeed, I’d suggest that instead of using the paraphrase below, you might look up, and play, Linnea Good’s musical rendering, “Make a Joyful Noise, All the Earth…” (Try https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZAiYkunxGDM )
Okay, my paraphrase of Psalm 100… Few things are as joyful as in impromptu street party.
1 Two guitars and a washtub bass,
a country fiddle, an old-time caller.
Come on, everyone, join the dance.
2 Dosey-do and allemande left,
swing your partner, bow to your corner.
Clap those hands and stamp those feet.
3 Yes, God, this is good!
God calls the square dance of our lives;
God weaves our varied colors into a swirling kaleidescope;
we dance our complex patterns to God's grand design.
4 So step onto God's dance floor
with a song in your heart and a smile on your face.
5 For God loves a good time too.
God is in the sweat and the swinging,
in the sawdust and the singing.
God IS the dance of life.
Whether you join the dance or sit on the sidelines,
the beat goes on,
and fills the night with music!
You can find paraphrases of most of the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary in my book Everyday Psalmsavailable from Wood Lake Publishing, email@example.com.
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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.)