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

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Published on Saturday, July 9, 2022

Making sense of meaningless words

Thursday July 7, 2022


I can’t remember why it felt important for a group of Sunday school children to know about the distance called a league.

            Predictably, I opened with a question: “Does anybody know what a league is?”

            Long silence.

            Then one of the brighter lads ventured, “You mean like the National Hockey League?”

            Every storyteller runs into these difficulties. A retired Ontario minister told me his favourite children’s story disaster. He started, like me, with a question: “What is furry and runs up and down trees?”

            No answer.

            He tried again: “What hides nuts for winter?”

            Still no answer.

            Somewhat desperately: “What has a big bushy tail and beady eyes?”

            Finally one girl held up her hand. “I know the answer is always supposed to be Jesus,” she said. “But it sure sounds like a squirrel to me.”


Complexity redux

            Fortunately, none of my group assumed a league was something Jesus had played in. They’d just never heard of a league as a measurement of distance -- three nautical miles.

            “What’s a mile?” they asked.

            Then I remember that Canada converted from miles to kilometres 47 years ago – long before they were born.

            I decided not to explain that a that a nautical mile matches one degree of latitude on the earth’s surface. It is 6076 feet, compared to an ordinary mile’s 5280 feet. Which is also 8 furlongs. And each furlong is 660-feet. Or 10 chains. And each chain is four rods. And each rod…

            Are your eyes glazing over yet?

            When I was young, my mother sang me a lullaby of sorts: “From Ushant to Scilly is 35 leagues…” Ushant and Scilly were ocean reefs renowned for shipwrecks. It paid to stay clear of them

            Maybe that song was familiar only in Britain. I’ve never heard it in Canada.

            But the kids’ blank looks made me wonder how much else they don’t get – when folk tales, for example, refer to people wearing “seven-league boots.”

            And does anyone still listen to Tennyson’s stirring Charge of the Light Brigade: “Half a league, half a league, half a league onward….”?

            Ordo these meaningless words just turn into background noise?


Swept along by sounds

            I have the same question about people’s comprehension of words in some Bible passages read in churches. Traditional translations say that Noah’s Ark was 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits tall.

            What’s a cubit? Something to do with Lego?

            Contemporary versions update the ephahs and homers and firkins into bushels and pounds. But rarely into kilograms or litres.

            And not even modern scholars know what the Urim and Thummim were.

            Do we just assume that these words have some sacred meaning that we don’t need to bother with? Do they just float past our consciousness like cottonwood fluff?

            And how much else in worship services becomes just a warm bath of sounds that we can sink into with a sigh?

            Preachers spend hours crafting their sermons, their prayers and, yes, their children’s stories. How often do their words become little more than Muzak for the mind? Where the answer is always “Jesus”?

            Or, perhaps, is the act of saying the words more important than the words themselves?


Copyright © 2022 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





Last week’s column was – ostensibly – about flaggers on construction sites. It turned out that Jim Hoffman had actually been one of those flaggers. He wrote, “I was a young man, earning my way through college in the early 1960's -- had a lot of interesting jobs, and one was being a flagger on the construction crew building I-80 across Iowa. I particularly liked viewing close-up all the different makes and models of cars coming through. And I had the opportunity to visit with all the drivers at the head of the procession I had stopped.

            “One day I stopped this big, beautiful Cadillac Eldorado convertible -- and the driver was Yukon Eric (at that time, a famous professional wrestler we watched on television). He was traveling from Omaha to Chicago for a match the next night. He gave me a handshake and urged me to watch him pin his opponent in the 2nd round. That flagger job was boring at times -- but not that day.”

            (JT question: Umm, how did he know he would pin his opponent in the 2nd round?)


Like me, Bob Rollwagen had yearned to drsive some of those big machines: “I too would love to operate one of those big earth moving machines. My neighbour at the cottage owns a miniature model he uses for projects around his property. His man toy. He lets my grandkids ride on his lap, and sometimes to pull a lever or two.

            “Sometimes I think the list of global issues you so accurately provided are a result of allowing too many people the ability to operate earth-moving machines without any prior qualifications.”


Isabel Gibson: “In the Olde Days, when highway repairs necessitated closing one direction of traffic (and the other end was out of sight or earshot, as it usually was), flaggers used to hand a baton to the driver of the last car in the set let through. That driver handed it to the flagger at the far end. Pretty primitive but pretty clear, also. There was no chance of misinterpreting the spoken word over a scratchy-noisy hand-held radio; no need to describe a vehicle in a way the other could not mistake.

            “As for drivers ignoring flaggers, well, in a world where folks no longer know to get out of the way of an emergency vehicle (or how to do it), I guess that's just part of the new normal.”


John Shaffer wrote about the previous week’s column, on journaling: “I have some journals and I know where most of them are going when I die. To be clear, it is called "the dump". It is called "kicking the can down the road". Most of us have one book in us and that window is passing me by.. Glad I put some thought in a blog. At least it will last until that technology becomes like the "Model T" car - most went to the junk heap, as will my thoughts and opinions and personal history.


So did Florence Driedger: “I have kept diaries for many years and continue to do so. In addition I began daily musings regarding the war in Ukraine. I spend about 2 hours a day on the latter. Because we have been involved in the development of a community based service in Ukraine for about 35 years and we have many friends there, as well as many here in Canada who have supported this charitable organization, they are grateful to know the prayers for Ukraine, and what is happening to the staff of the Centre as well as to many in the various communities. It is amazing at the creativity and the service they continue to provide while also experiencing the pain of the situation.

            “Diaries, blogs and daily postings are so important to all concerned. Thanks for the diary posting topic. And I still have some of the diaries of my mother & her older sister. They are priceless.”


Sheila Carey: “My comment is about your (offhand?) comment before your weekly Psalm paraphrase that “I suspect the greatest liberation for many women was to discover that they were not intrinsically inferior to the men in their lives.”

            “I was a feminist long before I ever heard the word, because I grew up thinking that I could do any job that I was qualified for and should be paid the same as any man doing the same job. I thought that marriage was a partnership of equals. It never occurred to me to feel that I was in any way inferior to the men in my life.

            “In hindsight, I realize that was because I grew up in a home where my father treated my mother as an intelligent equal partner. He also encouraged his daughters to obtain a level of education denied to him by the Depression..

            “I also benefited from attending a small-town Saskatchewan high school where I do not remember the teachers – most of whom were men - ever implying that the girls didn’t need to do well ‘because they would just get married’ as I have heard happened to girls in other schools.

            “I realize now that I owe big ‘thank you’ to my father, my forward-thinking teachers, and my husband for instilling in me the self-esteem that helped me navigate the ‘real world’ where I definitely bumped up against a few of the ‘women are inferior’ types. Working women were in the minority when I entered the workforce in 1970 and I spent the next 40 years in a field where most of my co-workers were men.

            “I’m sure that many other women who have been labeled as feminists also had men in their lives in their early years who set an example by treating the women around them as equals, so they knew that it should apply to all women and could fight for the rights of all people, regardless of gender, to be treated equally in all situations.

            “It seems that fight is far from over…”




Psalm paraphrase


When Psalm 82 was written, they didn’t have boardrooms, or executive suites. But if they had such things, the writer might have used this metaphor. A loving God does not have to be toothless. 



1          God sits at the head of the boardroom table.

2          "How long," God demands, "will you keep making the wrong choices? 
How long will your policies favor injustice?

3          I expect you to be fair to everyone, including those who have no economic weight; 
To defend the rights of those who have no voice, and have no one to speak for them; 

4          To protect the weak and the struggling from exploitation. 

5          Of all people, they need your protection most. 
They do not have education, or money, or friends in high places. 
They have suffered devastating losses in their lives."


6          God says: "You think you have taken over my responsibilities. 

7          But you are not God. When your time comes, 
you will die, like everyone else."

8          Come, Lord. 
Come judge the earth. 
We are yours to judge.


You can find paraphrases of most of the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary in my book Everyday Psalmsavailable from Wood Lake Publishing, info@woodlake.com.






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To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. Some spam filters have blocked my posts because they’re suspicious of some of the web links.

                  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”)



                  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.)



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