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

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Published on Monday, February 20, 2023

Working in amiable anarchy

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On New Year’s Day, I helped serve dinner to 120 or so homeless people in a downtown church hall. It was an oddly satisfying experience – and I hope I didn’t find it satisfying because I felt superior to them. 

            I didn’t have time to feel superior, anyway. I was too busy setting tables, buttering rolls, mixing salads, pouring glasses of water or juice…

            And I had a great time doing it. 

            Why? I’ve wondered that myself. I suspect that I like to work in a kind of creative anarchy --  almost the opposite of military discipline (which, I hasten to add,  is also essential sometimes).

            The dinner had about 40 volunteers, I’d guess: table hosts, servers, kitchen staff.  Plus numbers of people who came in bearing pans of golden turkeys. Bags of salads. Baked hams. Steaming veggies. Trays of desserts.

            There were people in charge, of course. But no one barking orders. Everyone knew why they were there. Everyone filled in wherever they were needed. All the jobs got done.

            And everyone seemed happy. 


Cooperation for survival

            Maybe that’s the natural order of things, the way living creatures have cooperated for billions of years. 

            Left to themselves, for example, individual sponge cells in the ocean will organize into clusters, colonies, that somehow assign roles to each cell. Gathering food. Filtering water. Breathing. Excreting wastes. 

            I don’t know how they do it as separate cells. but apparently they do. 

            Slime mould does something similar. 

            Herding creatures – from herring to horses – don’t unite into a single entity, but they do seem to form a collective intelligence. 

            New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo recently published an extensive piece about ants (sent to me by fellow-blogger Tom Watson). 

            “What has always beguiled me about ants,” Manjoo wrote, “is their similarities to humanity — they live in societies, they've all got jobs, they endure arduous daily commutes to work.”

            But he’s also fascinated by their “incomprehensible alienness… The subsuming of the individual to the collective. The absence of any leadership or coordination, their lives dictated by instinct and algorithm, out of which emerges collective intelligence. The way they navigate and communicate with chemical signals, creating road signs from pheromones and never getting stuck in traffic jams.”


Collective intelligence

            From my own observation, I know that a single ant or termite will wander aimlessly. Add a few more ants or termites, and they will immediately get busy building a home for themselves. Without any leaders. Or blueprints. Or strategic action plans. It just happens.

            How do they do it? Instinct, true. And yet every anthill or termite mound in Africa is as unique as a human fingerprint. It has its own astonishing complexity, with built-in heating and air-conditioning. 

            “It is natural as a human,” Manjoo mused,  “to think of our species as somehow special… Humans are, of course, smarter and bigger than ants, and in the past 300,000 years or so we have conquered the planet to a degree perhaps unmatched in the history of life. But compared with ants and other social insects — bees, termites, and some wasps — our record is a hilarious blip.”

            Maybe, at events like that church dinner, we humans experience again the cooperative values that let us become a dominant species in the first place. 


Copyright © 2023 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 (on human expiry dates) brought so much mail that I’m not sure whether I should apologize for its length, or celebrate it. Most of you agreed with me, but I was glad that some of you didn’t, and had the courage to express your beliefs. 


 Penny Rankin, for example: “I have come to believe that our essence, our ‘me-ness,’ is something that is pure and unchanging and it is held temporarily in our physical being. The ‘me’ at my birth and the ‘me’ today is constant even as my experiences, choices, and beliefs and leave a trail behind me. 

            “I think many people go through life with little awareness of this ‘first-being’ within...Possibly the love you shared with Joan gave you glimpses of her being and gave you fleeting awareness of your own true self...Love can do that.

            “At this point in my life I believe/ think that what leaves the body is that original essence- the ‘me-ness’ that is at birth and is buried deep within me...Yes, human memory dies along with each and every generation...but I believe that there is a reunion of some sort that is ‘known’ well beyond personality and shared human experience and relationship.”


Norma Wible: “Although I’m not as old as you, I’ve thought for a long time that our ‘souls’, what makes us ‘us’, live on beyond our bodily death.  I wish I could give you some proof of that, but all I have is friends saying, ‘I could hear my mother’s voice in my ear,’ which is really no proof at all.  But….”


Isabel Gibson: “In the last few years of her life, I think my mother was in about the same place that you are now. I know some thoughtful people -- C.S. Lewis among them -- who are/were in a different spot.

            “I try to live as if everlasting life is true. As if it matters to my eternal soul how I behave, what I think, what pleasures or pettiness I indulge in. I don't succeed, but at my best I try. Not for a potential reward after death, but because that is the way to life, here and now. And maybe, then. L'Chaim indeed.”


The rest of the letters, generally, shared my viewpoints.


Steve Enerson: “I appreciate the honesty and directness in this missive. I have done similar thinking, particularly regarding any spiritual afterlife of people with different mental abilities and/or different bodily conditions at time of death, and reached similar conclusions.”


Karen Bueno: “I'm with you, but fear to ever reveal that in my church groups!”


Jim Henderschedt called my thoughts “right on the money. We are close in our understanding or belief about ‘presence’ after death. Remembering that I am a bit heretical, I believe that a part, a pretty big part, of ‘presence’ after death remains as long as our memories last. Recently I read, ‘When you miss me close your eyes and think of me and I’ll be there.’ And I deliberately avoid using ‘life’ after death and instead refer to ‘presence’ after death.”


John Shaffer responded to loved ones living on only in memory: “Some time ago, this idea became very real to me, but at the same time it seems very unfair.  My mother lives on in my memory, but when I die, those memories will die with me.  Unfair to my mother, while George (Washington), Abe (Lincoln), and Hitler live on, not to mention Moses and Jesus.”


Larry Eddy: “The native way is to believe that we live as long as our clan speaks our name.  I believe that we live on as long as our thoughts are spoken.”

JT: Perhaps this notion offers a justification for the endless “Saints’ Days” of the Catholic calendar.


Wayne Irwin: “The CBC did a documentary on the life of Dr Bob McClure when he went off to Borneo on another mission adventure when he was 88. It was entitled “They’ll Tell Me When the Tread is Gone.”

            “You’ve still got some tread and some traction, as do I. And one day we won’t. But you continue to bless us all every time you share your current inner reflection. And I, for one, am grateful for you and your life and your sharing. May we each continue to live until we die, having given to life what is ours to give for the sake of those who carry on.”


Nenke Jongkind: “I resonate with you. As so many mentors, friends, and acquaintances die the circles become smaller. I cannot imagine what memory of me can exist after my immediate family, friends, and former colleagues die. I have not borne children so I will be gone.”


James West thought “we are on a parallel discourse.” He sent me a link to his own column on life after death:  https://westj.substack.com/p/immortality?utm_source=%2Finbox&utm_medium=reader2


Steve Lawson: “I agree with your sentiments and comments about aging, time, and circle of life. The best line was the last – ‘To Life!’ That is what I celebrate every new day, life as it is, as it comes to me. I joked with myself in my journal today – ‘Best to get the new date written, early in the new day’… because you never know! I continue, as I know you do, to celebrate living this day.”


Margaret Mills: “Your subject this week was timely.  As we age, many of our friends are no longer with us physically, but we remember them fondly and often recall the things they taught us.” 


Kerry Mewhort: “Indeed, we all have an expiry date. We just don't know when it is.” 


Laurna Tallman: “We all are edging near our own expiry date, some far too young to die and others ripe beyond description. It’s a good thing we don’t know exactly what that ‘expiry date’ means. The challenge is to make every day count as best we can. 

            “I am interacting with young people who have spent time in  jail and who don’t know how to escape the cycle in a place where they are constantly under watch by the police. It’s hard to build a future when your mind is stuck in the past… 

            “I am not unaware of the physical changes happening to me. I deeply miss people close to me who have died. I am challenged by the needs of those near to my heart who are declining mentally and physically as they remind me how fortunate I am still to be useful. But, amidst the grieving and sorrow there is much joy. I pray for more of such joy for you.”


Ruth Shaver: “About collecting titles -- for a very, very long time, women were denied the opportunity to earn the titles that men created and then saw as their birthright. One of my seminary professors for my doctoral program, a Black woman, asked us to call her by one or both of her titles, Reverend or Doctor, because it was so hard for her to be taken seriously in the academic and formation programs that led to the granting of those titles. ‘To all of you who are women in this class, I say to you, USE YOUR TITLES. You earned them and likely the much harder way than the men in this class.’ 

            “We women, white and Black, in that course, were on average delayed by 18 months in our ordination processes across denominations, and had to wait until later in our careers after ordination to be afforded the time by our congregations to earn our Doctor of Ministry degrees.

            “I am, to the congregations I serve, ‘Pastor Ruth’, ‘Reverend Ruth’, or ‘Doctor Ruth’ (with all the giggles that title elicits from people over a certain age), and to my students, ‘Dr. Shaver’. I am forever grateful to Dr. V. for her wisdom about naming and claiming what I worked so hard to achieve.”





Psalm paraphrase


I ended my column a couple of weeks ago with Tevye’s toast -- L’Chaim! To life! Psalm 40 seems to echo that emotion. 


1          I believed I could make it on my own.
But I slipped and fell.
I sank into a morass of my own making.

2          God heard my cry.
God lifted me out of the mire and set me safe on solid ground. 

3          Like any addict who quits, I must talk about what has happened to me.
Like a robin at dawn, I must sing God's praises to the skies.
I will risk being a bore;
If just one person hears me, my work has not been wasted. 


4          Too many today chase false gods;
They try to multiply their own gains.

5          But the richest returns come from God.
You can't begin to count your blessings! 

6          God does not want us to wear frowns or long faces;
God wants us to find childlike joy in shining drops of dew,
in whispering pine needles, 
in warm mud squishing between our toes. 

7, 8      Our delight becomes one with God's;
Our personalities blend. 


9          So I will not keep silent;
I will proclaim my good news privately and publicly. 

10        I cannot keep it to myself. 


Apparently the print version of my paraphrases of most of the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary is now out of print. But you can still order an e-book version of Everyday Psalms from Wood Lake Publishing, info@woodlake.com, or 1-800-663-2775






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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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Author: Jim Taylor

Categories: Soft Edges

Tags: Homeless, dinners, anarchy

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