Thursday July 15, 2021
Bad things happen in threes, my Irish relatives used to tell me.
I never understood why “in threes.” Except that things often happened in threes. Sneezes, for example. Whenever Auntie Rosie sneezed, she paused for several seconds after the first sneeze with her face all scrunched up. Then the second sneeze came.
“Wait for it!” she would order. Sure enough, a third sneeze soon followed.
Some sources will tell you that the “rule of threes” derives from trench warfare in World War I. Two soldiers could safely light their cigarettes off a single match. But if you kept the match alight long enough for a third soldier to light up, enemy snipers had time to aim. One dead soldier.
But the rule of threes surely goes back far before that.
Hinduism, the world’s oldest religion, has three personifications of the ultimate divinity: Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu.
Threes are endemic in Christianity. The Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In baptisms, people are dipped or sprinkled three times. Everyone knows that there were three Wise Men – although the Bible itself never cites that number. Resurrection came on the morning of the third day. Peter denied Jesus three times; Jesus countered by asking Peter three time, “Do you love me?” Jesus rejected three temptations in the wilderness…
Perhaps the emphasis on threes comes from living in a three-dimensional world.
So, outside of religion, we have three little pigs. Three musketeers. Three strikes and you’re out. One, two, three, go!
And think of all those jokes: “Three men walk into a bar…”
When I led writing workshops, I taught that three well-chosen details could define a character. And that three examples would prove convincing; additional examples simply added boredom.
So I wonder if we humans have some kind of instinctive preference for paying attention when things happen in threes.
One could be just a random occurrence, after all. Two might be coincidence. Three feels as if there must be larger plan of some kind, some intentional design unfolding.
A friend had that feeling about some recent news events.
Her son died.
Followed by the discovery of 215 nameless children’s bodies, buried near the Kamloops Residential School.
And right after that, four members of a Muslim family, run down and killed by the driver of a pickup truck in London, Ontario.
Her emotions went numb. “I just can’t feel anything for anyone, any more,” she said.
It’s sometimes called compassion fatigue. You’d like to care. But you can’t. You have nothing left to care with.
It seems to me that these clusters of threes commonly include at least one personal tragedy. Maybe more than one.
The personal aspect affects only a limited number of people. And there will be no connection between those personal losses and the external tragedies. But nevertheless, they have a cumulative effect.
In recent weeks, we’ve had two collective shocks. The condo building that collapsed in Surfside, Florida. And the fire that erased the village of Lytton in a single night.
Unconnected, unrelated, events.
But I wonder how many people will fuse those two events with a private tragedy of their own. And conclude, once again, that bad things happen in threes.
Copyright © 2021 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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Jim Henderschedt has been filling in as a Lutheran pastor for over a year now. As part of his service to his parishioners, he has posted online a daily devotion – partly from his own experience, partly from his reading.
Jim had already sent his devotion out when he received my Soft Edges column last week. He immediately forwarded it to his readers with this comment: “This morning I received my friend Jim Taylor's ‘Soft Edges’ and I knew I had to share it with you. Being ‘Christian’ is much more than believing in Jesus (Orthodoxy). It is more doing what is the right thing to do (Orthopraxy) or following the example of Jesus. Jim's article is a very good commentary of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. I offer it to you as today's parable of the Kingdom of God.”
I’m enormously flattered.
Most of the other comments on Walter’s tree were short.
Tom Watson: “Yes, kindness begets kindness, and bad acts beget retaliatory bad acts.”
Cliff Boldt: “Good for you and unnamed others. Even trees need support and tender loving care.”
Holly McNeill: “Awesome. Thank you.”
Jayne Whyte: “I hope the tree survives, and kindness thrives. Thanks for this story of grief and caring.”
Bob Rollwagen tied Walter’s tree to larger issues: “Climate change is making us more aware of the role of trees in our life cycle. I am truly amazed every time I see a tree growing out of a rock crevice on a cliff during a hike, or a tree that is as straight as a telephone pole for 50 feet before it’s canopy opens at the top.
“[Trees are] nature’s way of illustrating the reality of life; we are the result of our DNA and our environment. We are all watered uniquely and some of us are lucky to have been watered by kind, generous, educated individuals who give us the opportunity to be who we want to be. They give us the awareness that many do not receive this care and we need to share and guide.
“Water is life. The most valuable natural resource. The rest is obvious for too few of us. If you can relate your personal success back to water, then you understand how fortunate you are.”
Isabel Gibson called the column on Walter’s tree “a delightful commentary on human nature. We can be nasty and brutish (for too long), but we can also be amazingly thoughtful and kind.”
The psalm for this coming Sunday is 89:20-37. Apparently I wrote this particular paraphrase in 1994, but have never used it since then – I don’t know why.
20 "I have chosen my successor," says God. "I have chosen you.
You will take my place.
21 For years, I have taught you my vision;
now I want you to take it forward into the future.
22 To avoid being controlled by bureaucrats,
to protect yourself against fast-talking promoters and bottom-line economists,
23 you must always ask yourself what I would do.
24 By keeping me in mind, my reputation and yours with both grow.
25 What I have started, you will continue;
through you, my influence will spread.
26 I have been your launching pad--
27 Now it's up to you to carry on.
28 I want to be proud of you.
29 As long as you pursue my vision, you will prosper.
30 But if you wander off my way,
if you lust after competitive advantage and chase after quick profits,
31 if you sell out to other gods and other goals,
32 then you will destroy yourself.
You will lose all credibility;
You will go ethically bankrupt.
33 Even so, I will never turn against you.
34 I have adopted you into my family;
you are a member of my household.
35 I promise it; I do not lie.”
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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I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has lots of beautiful photos. Especially of birds.
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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.)