Grace in Knowledge

Grace in Knowledge

Advent – 3

 

Mankind took the leap to discover knowledge at the dawn of man.  In the creation stories of the Torah and the Bible, it was curiosity that led to sin and evil.  For many belief systems, education is still a privilege granted only to a select few or group.  Grace was also a concept given to only a few.

 

As it gained momentum, the Christian Church, the Roman Church became the vessel for all learning.  Scholasticism became the method of teaching and it used strict dialectical reasoning to teach Christian theology and to interpret the ancient classical texts of learning.  Using Aristotle’s approach of determining knowledge through our senses proved too down-to-earth for church leaders who felt it took away from the mystery of faith.

 

Nicholas of Cusa proposed something he termed “learned ignorance”.  According to Nicholas who was also known as Nicolaus von Kues, all knowledge came from “the One”, “the Good’.  God, according to Nicholas came before that so it was impossible for a mere human to truly know God.  Nicholas believed that one should use reason to understand this ignorance and that we only knew of God what we could through the “learned ignorance”.

 

Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus took exception with the Roman Catholic doctrine and felt one’s personal relationship with God was much more important that the doctrine of the Roman Church.  The knowledge of philosophy he saw as a hindrance to the basic human traits emphasized in scripture and preached by Jesus.

 

Knowledge had not been seen as evil by all belief systems, however.  Mohammed founded Islam and by the seventh century it had spread from Arabia to Asia and Africa and then to parts of Spain.  Rivaling the empire of Christian Europe, Islam entered into what is known as its “Golden Age” around 750 ACE.  This period lasted for more than five centuries as learning and discovery was encouraged in the field of math, sciences, and scholarship.  Major advances were made in astronomy, alchemy, medicine, and mathematics and Aristotle’s philosophy was smoothly integrated with Islamic tenets of faith.

 

The Islamic philosopher Avicenna proposed a “flying man” theory which married knowledge gained from our senses and reason.  He offered that a man flying blindfolded and floating in the air would still know he had a soul or self, even though his senses were not giving him any information.  According to Avicenna, one’s mind and body coexisted as distinct entities.  He also suggested that if this is true, then the mind or soul existed in a different realm than the body and did not die when the physical body did.

 

Not surprisingly, Avicenna’s theories were not accepted by all.  Al-Ghazali was an Islamic philosopher who felt such beliefs were contrary to the Qur’an.  The Iberian Islamic philosopher Averroes or Ibn Rushd disagreed.  He argued that the Qur’an presented metaphorical truths and that, instead of any incompatibility between religion and philosophy, philosophy could be used to interpret religion.  This way of thinking was similar to the paradoxes of Plato.  They also greatly influence Christian philosophy of the period.

 

The Crusaders in the eleventh century unlocked Europe to the knowledge of the Islamic world, though, and soon the influence of such spread throughout Europe, leading to the Renaissance and the losing of control over scholarship and knowledge previously held by the Roman Church.

 

Whether you believe in the ascension of a man who previously presented as a mere mortal or whether you fail to believe in any religion, one cannot deny basic principles of life and our living.  We all need air to breath.  Plants use photosynthesis to convert light energy into chemical energy and then into carbon dioxide which is released into the atmosphere and creates the air we breathe.  The plants in my garden in one hemisphere are not the same plants I had when living in another.  Yet, they still follow the same basic processes in their growth, their blossoms or fruits, their harvest, their period of dormancy, and their value.

 

AS man delved further into knowledge, though, the question of grace had to be answered.  Do we live each day with grace or is it lived in dissension leading to the descent of knowledge?   What I do or do not do today affects my tomorrow.  The Hindu mystic Swami Vivekananda says “The will is not free; it is a phenomenon bound by cause and effect, but there is something behind the will which is free.”  American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “Shallow men believe in luck.  Strong men believe in cause and effect.  Cause and effect, means and ends, seed and fruit cannot be severed; for the effect already blooms in the cause, the end preexists in the means, the fruit in the seed.”

 

Mankind has always been curious and that curiosity has fueled a quest for knowledge that continues today.   Regardless of the period of history or location on the planet or even in space, we are constantly learning as we live.  Living in the northwest part of the USA, young adult author Richelle Goodrich sums up our ascent into living and the subsequent knowledge gained from it this way:  “You are here to make a difference, to either improve the world or worsen it. And whether or not you consciously choose to, you will accomplish one or the other.”  How we do that is determined by the grace we show and live to each other and to ourselves.  Grace might very well be the key to a brighter future oif we extend it to each other.

 

 

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Who Knew?

Who Knew?

Advent 2

 

Every writer at some point wonders, Will anyone ever read this?”  November is National Novel Writing Month in the United States although it is an international event now.  Known by the acronym NaNoWriMo, its purpose is to beat the odds and help aspiring writers get busy writing the next great novel.  Local groups meet to encourage each other as do online bulletin boards and guest critiquing of posted works.  Begun in 1999, the percentage of those who attempt to write their novel has steadily grown while the number actually completing the suggested fifty thousand words has declined.

 

The probability factor of those who want to write a novel compared to those who complete the fifty thousand benchmark of NaNoWriMo is not surprising once one considers just exactly what probability is and its impact on our lives.  Urban slang has reduced the root word “probably” to “prolly” but the meaning is still the same – “almost certainly”.  The desire to write a great piece of work is common to most people, probably because fame is a well-known dream of the masses.  Whether it is “prolly” to you or not, at some point you may have thought you had a great story.  You “probably” did or do.  The “probability” of you writing it, though, is minimal at best.

 

This series is about the concept of grace and you might be asking why we are talking about writing a novel and probability when we should be discussing grace.  The reason is simple.  The probability of you receiving and recognizing grace today is about the same as those who will complete their writing dream for NaNoWriMo.  In 2012 that number was eleven percent.  As most people join the novel writing movement, the number who will be successful declines, due to the laws of probability.  The same might be said of those receiving and recognizing grace.

 

Probability is usually discussed from four different perspectives – Classical, Empirical, Subjective, and Axiomatic.  There are four weeks in Advent and each week we will approach the concept of grace from one of these perspectives.  You may be wondering about the connection between grace, a concept generally thought of in theological terms, and probability, a concept holding a great position in the field of mathematics.

 

The Classical approach to probability is really rather simple and is usually introduced to most of us in formal education.  The classical example concerns the rolling of a pair of dice.  As long as the dice are not weighted or otherwise altered, such an activity is considered fair or unbiased.   There are six possible numbers that could come up (“outcomes”), and, because the dice have not been altered so as to enable someone to cheat the process, each one is equally likely to occur. This means that there are six possible outcomes and each one of the six numbers has an equal chance of appearing.  So we say each of these outcomes has probability 1/6.  Since the event “an odd number comes up” consists of exactly three of these basic outcomes – there being three odd numbers and three even ones, we say the probability of “odd” is 3/6, or 1/2. 

 

The classical perspective has the advantage that it is applicable and easily understood for many situations. It is not perfect, though, as the University of Texas math webpage explains.  “However, [the Classical perspective] is limited, since many situations do not have finitely many equally likely outcomes. Tossing a weighted die is an example where we have finitely many outcomes, but they are not equally likely. Studying people’s incomes over time would be a situation where we need to consider infinitely many possible outcomes, since there is no way to say what a maximum possible income would be, especially if we are interested in the future.”

 

A Classical approach to grace is similarly flawed since the amount of compassion and consideration given to another is often based upon that which we ourselves have most recently received.  More on that later this week but do consider this.  If you are having a bad day, how gracious are you when someone else’s bad day infringes upon yours?

 

The aspiring writers who complete their writings are those who have been encouraged and mentored.  After seventeen years, NaNoWriMo has proven the advantage of having a support system.  The tribe a writer gathers around him/her often determines their probability of success.  This is true for most endeavors, not just writing.

 

“No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure.”  Ernest Hemingway was not just speaking of writing but of the grace in living, the grace we extend to others and in turn, receive ourselves. 

O.M.H. – no typo

O. M. H. (no typo)

Advent – 1

 

On June 20, 2011, filmmaker Louis Schwartzberg gave a TED talk on gratitude.  For the past twenty years, people all over the world have given and listened to oral presentations sponsored by TED, a nonpartisan nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of these short, powerful talks. It began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) converged, and today covers almost all topics — from science to business to global issues — in more than 110 languages. TEDx events are independently operated local presentations that help share ideas in communities around the world.

 

Schwartzberg employed his skills as a filmmaker and previewed two interviews for an upcoming project of his entitled “Happiness Revealed” in the particular discussion on gratitude.  As he introduced the brief filmed interviews which featured the stunning time-lapse photography of nature that he is known for, he used a popular slang term – “O.M.G.”.

 

In English this popular acronym stands for “Oh my God” and is used both pleasantly and in shock and horror by people of all ages.  Little children are shown on commercials seeing a new bicycle for the time screaming it much the same of older people appear on camera to say it when surprised.  Schwartzberg, however, did not use it in a trendy fashion.  He explained it.  He asked his listeners to think about what they were saying and hearing and gave one beautiful explanation.

 

“Have you ever wondered what that [O.M.G.] meant? The “oh” means it caught your attention, makes you present, makes you mindful. The “my” means it connects with something deep inside your soul. It creates a gateway for your inner voice to rise up and be heard.  And “God”?  God is that personal journey we all want to be on, to be inspired, to feel like we’re connected to a universe that celebrates life.”

 

Today is the first day of Advent, a liturgical season which captures our attention.  The first season on the liturgical calendar, Advent is the “oh”, a season whose purpose is to grab our attention.  It is the new beginning on such a calendar, the season that ushers in a new year and because of this, we are encouraged to be present and mindful of what we believe and how what we do, think, say, and act conveys those beliefs. 

 

Even if you do not believe in Advent, everything you do illustrates who you are, what you believe, and how you live.  The “my” when we utter it connects us and who we are to the present, to what is happening right in front of us or what we have heard about happening somewhere else.  When we hear of six children dying in a senseless school bus crash and say “O.M.G.”, we are connecting to the pain that must be felt by their families.  Saying it in shock as yet another terrorist action takes place or a natural disaster is experienced, does indeed as Schwartzberg explains “creates a gateway for your inner voice to rise up and be heard.”

 

Over the past almost three years that I have been writing this blog, we have discussed sacred spaces and holy creation stories as well as mythologies that are not perhaps quite so holy.  This blog is read in over forty-three countries and I have delighted in hearing from a diverse group of people.  That is why I truly respect and adore the definition Schwartzberg, considered one of the best naturalist cinematographical artists ever, give to the “g”, the “God!” in this colloquialism. 

 

“God is that personal journey we all want to be on, to be inspired, to feel like we’re connected to a universe that celebrates life,” Louis Schwartzberg explains.  Whether you consider yourself to be religious or spiritual, atheist or Buddhist, young or old, we are indeed all on a personal journey.  We do all want life to inspire us and yes, even the most hardened curmudgeon desires connection to the universe.

 

This season, during Advent, we will discuss a commonly held concept in the entire world.  It is a concept that gives life to how we explain the beauty of a butterfly dancing through the air as well as the kindness of a stranger.  It is the one action that connects us to each other when we experience it, that illustrates our own personal journey, that takes us out of the basement of the everyday and creates something very similar to a miracle made by humans.  It is grace.

 

Grace is a word that most of us have heard used in a variety of ways.  Some claim it is, as a concept and undeserving gift, the foundation of the Bible and explaining it is what the Bible exists to do.  Others use it as an adjective to describe action of movement.  In the next twenty=eight days we will explore all its definitions and yes, there are many.

 

The word ‘grace” has its history in twelfth century Middle English dialect.  It was derived from the Anglo-French and as a romance language, taken from the Latin “grati” meaning a favor, charm, or thanks, and also from the Latin “gratus” which meant pleasing or grateful.  All were considered akin to the Sanskrit “gṛṇāti” which translates as “he praises”.  In Hebrew grace is “chen” from a root word “chanan” which is defined as “to bend or stoop in kindness to another as a superior to an inferior”.  In Greek “charis” is the word for grace and is refers to a “graciousness in manner or action, derived from the root word “chairo” which meant “to be cheerful, happy”.

 

All of our modern-day definitions for the word “grace” illustrate its varied etymology and all are correct.  Grace has, in all its manifestations, one common element – the human experience.  And so, out title today is a derivation on that popular slang term Louis Schwartzberg so wonderfully described.  In our discussion of grace we will, hopefully become attentive to how we live it and connect it to each other, making it “O.M.H.” – “Oh, my human.” 

 

You see, grace is something we all would like to share and without remembering our human connection to each other, we will fall short of that wish.  Regardless of your age, condition, belief system or lack thereof, grace is still salvation from the human condition that we all need, not only to survive but to thrive.  Twenty-eight stories and anecdotes will take us on this journey as we explore this first season of the rest of our lives.  Today truly is the first day of the rest of our lives, the advent of our living! 

Secret of Life

Secret of Life

Pentecost 196

 

“The root of joy, as of duty, is to put all one’s powers towards some great end.”  Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. has given us the secret to a great life.  Despite your religious leanings, whatever traditions you follow, or your ethnic upbringing, we all want a life with joy and success.  Living a life that reaps goodness for others will give you that very thing.  Our focus for the past one hundred and ninety-five days has been making the “ordinary time” of Pentecost into something more, something extraordinary.  To do this, we reviewed ways to give to others, to give back, to give to ourselves.  In short, we have been talking about how to practice altruism.

 

During this series of Pentecost 2016, we have discussed over two hundred-plus ways to be altruistic, to do good for another.  I have given you websites that allowed you to give to charitable organizations simply by clicking with your mouse.  We have shared ways to practice benevolence as well as things to contribute.  We’ve shared organizations and companies that use their earnings to give to others in times of need and we’ve exchanged tips for better personal living.  We have also illustrated how doing positive things for others also helps us and the importance of remembering to be kind to ourselves.  Albert Einstein believed “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.”  Considered a man of science and not of spirituality or religion, it is interesting the importance he placed on altruism.

 

The purpose of this blog is to invite thoughts into our head, to expand our thinking and, hopefully, improve our living.  Doing that also means improving our world and creating better and greater opportunities for us and others.  Your comments and suggestions for topics have certainly done that for me and this demonstrates the way in which altruism works:  positive action begets more positive action.

 

Altruism is the core of most of the world’s religions.  The selfless concern for others is a traditional value of most of the world’s civilizations, regardless of the era or location.  “The happiest people I know are people who don’t even think about being happy. They just think about being good neighbors, good people. And then happiness sort of sneaks in the back window while they are busy doing good.”  Rabbi Harold Kushner explains how we often are subconsciously being altruistic without realizing it.

 

Dr. Sherrie Bourg Carter reported for Psychology Today in 2014 that altruism is not a one-way street.  It can be of benefit to the giver as well as to the recipient.  She reported scientific data that recognizes that doing something positive for another also does good for the person doing the giving in the release of endorphins.  “The positive energy that you feel from doing a good deed can act on your body in much the same way that exercise does, releasing endorphins that make you feel good naturally.” 

 

Dr. Carter also took note of how helping others allows us to be grateful for our own lives.  No one has everything and it can easily seem tempting to envy others.  Helping those less fortunate can serve to remind us of the good things in our own lives.  Such acts of goodness also help us keep our lives in focus.  Dr. Carter advises such actions can distract “you from your own problems – focusing on someone else can actually pull you away from your own self-preoccupation and your own problems. In fact, studies have found that when people with medical conditions (e.g., cancer, chronic pain) “counsel” other patients with those same conditions, the “counselors” often experience less depression, distress, and disability.”  Those that volunteer tend to live longer with a better physical well-being than non-volunteers.

 

This is the time of year when many are rereading “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens.  His story of Ebenezer Scrooge delights many but it is the moral of the story that we should really give our attention.  DR. Stephen Post of Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine conducted over fifty studies regarding altruism and its affect.  In a paper published earlier this year, Post describes the biological underpinnings of stress — and how altruism can be the antidote.

 

In an article entitle “The Science of Good Deeds” the website WebMD discussed Dr. Post and his findings regarding the connection between altruism and personal health.  “This connection was discovered inadvertently in 1956, when a team of Cornell University researchers began following 427 married women with children. They assumed that the housewives with more children would be under greater stress and die earlier than women with few children.  Surprisingly, they found that numbers of children, education, class, and work status did not affect longevity,” writes Post. After following these women for 30 years, researchers found that 52% of those who did not volunteer had experienced a major illness — compared with 36% who did volunteer.

 

“Two large studies found that older adults who volunteered reaped benefits in their health and well-being. Those who volunteered were living longer than non-volunteers. Another large study found a 44% reduction in early death among those who volunteered a lot — a greater effect than exercising four times a week, Post reports.  In the 1990s, one famous study examined personal essays written by nuns in the 1930s. Researchers found that nuns who expressed the most positive emotions were living about 10 years longer than those who expressed the fewest such emotions.”

 

The secret to living and living well is really not a secret at all.  We have spent this entire season of Pentecost discussing it.  Joe Klock summarizes it for us:  “Success, happiness, peace of mind and fulfillment – the most priceless of human treasures – are available to all among us, without exception, who make things happen – who make ‘good’ things happen – in the world around them.”  Happy last day of Pentecost!

 

Snowball Effect

Snowball Effect

Pentecost 195

 

I once wrote a thank you note to someone who, in turn, replied with a thank you note to me.  I had written my note in thankfulness for their performance; we will call that Note A.  Their thank you note was to let me know how touched they were by what I had said; let’s call that Note B.  I do not really recall exactly what Note A said and I doubt I spent days drafting it.  However, their note to me was beautifully written and I was so affected by Note B, I felt I should write a thank you note for it.  I suddenly realized that the saga of the thank you notes was starting to sound like the set-up for a Laurel and Hardy joke.  Then I recognized that, like faith, such gratitude is supposed to take on a life of its own.  The snowball effect of each is what makes them so important.

 

The first step you should take in beginning a new day or project is to think positively.  Negative thinking narrows one’s field of vision.  Imagine yourself swimming in the shallow waters of a beautiful ocean resort.  Suddenly someone cries “Shark!”  You no longer are focused on the rest of the people on the beach but only on getting yourself out of the water.  This is a healthy instinct of self-preservation but your focus has also become extremely self-centered. 

 

Recently a great deal of the rhetoric has been about “I”.  One person claims to have all the answers while another says they voted to protect themselves.  The ego or “I” is the conscious self so it is not unnatural that we would consider it in most things.  The problem is that the “I” is not the only living entity on the planet.  There is also a “You” and “We”.  The word affect is a verb, grammatically speaking, in the English language.  Basically it means to have an impact on something or someone.  In writing this blog I am hoping to affect your thinking and encourage you to do something positive to benefit all of us, the family of mankind.  Since a verb is an action word, to affect something or someone is to bring about change.

 

Effect is most commonly used as a noun, the result of an action or, as we just discussed, a thought process.  While I am encouraging you to affect someone in this series by positive action, the intent is that your actions will create a productive effect or result.  “Affect” refers to the doing; “Effect” denotes the end result of that doing or action.  Effect also can be defined in another way.  It can also mean someone’s personal belongings.  This might seem confusing and yes, it can be but I like that effect is both the result and the possession.  It encourages us to be accountable for our actions.  No one is going to score a perfect rating on our actions.  We all make mistakes.  This is where thinking positive can keep us from letting past actions become a future death sentence.  Thinking positive people also have lower blood pressure and sleep better.

 

Positive emotions help us to broaden our field of vision and imagine what is possible instead of seeing only the negative and dire outcomes.  Maybe yesterday really was the worst day of life.  Today really can be the first day of the rest of your life.  Take care of yourself and start the day off thinking of possibilities.  Share a smile with another and together you will create something extraordinary out of an ordinary facial movement.   Maybe you really don’t have time for going to the movies but take the time hurrying on your commute to notice the flowers along your path.  A healthy person can accomplish much more than one who is thinking or feeling negative.  We all have time for a smile and the first smile of the day should be a smile to you.

 

Living positively benefits the “I” and also the “We”.  To make the most of living and do what is best for “You” involves helping another and being grateful for when someone helps you.  The time for talk is over.  It is now time for action.   As Walt Whitman once said, “If you keep your face towards the sunshine, the shadows will fall behind you.”  With one ordinary affect, you will create an extraordinary effect.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Enemies Gather

Enemies Gather

Pentecost 194

 

Today in the USA is a holiday, a holiday known as Thanksgiving Day.  Stories are told, depending upon one’s perspective about the American Indians living in the area hosting a harvest festival for the Pilgrims, newly arrived from England, or that the Pilgrims invited the Indian savages to a meal of giving thanks to the Creator.  It is a day set aside to give thanks, regardless of how you celebrate and many will gather with families to do just that.  It will not be a typical, ordinary day but rather one with platters of food and desserts, games, and frivolity.  It has been welcomed in this tense political climate and many consider it a pleasant change from the daily mood of the country.

 

In truth, the first Thanksgiving, taking place in 1621, was held amid much the same derision and division as people feel today.  The Pilgrims wanted to celebrate their first anniversary in the New World, a pilgrimage for religious freedom that had taken them first to Amsterdam and then Leiden in the Netherlands.  These Separatists had broken from the Church of England in 1607 but after a decade decided they needed to join the already established colony of Virginia.  Thirty-five members of the English Separatist Church joined other would-be settlers to embark on a journey across the Atlantic Ocean aboard the Mayflower. 

 

Those undertaking the trans-Atlantic journey included a professional soldier named Myles Standish and the leader of the Separatists, William Bradford.  While still on board the ship forty-one men signed a document ensuring they would work together in a “civil body politic”, a document known as the Mayflower Compact.  The document would become the foundation for the first independent government of sorts in this new land.

 

The Mayflower failed to reach its intended destination of Virginia due to rough seas so those aboard hoped to settle in what was called New Amsterdam, now known as New York.  It was believed the two settlements were close together; we know today they are not.  Arriving in Plymouth Harbor in December, the newly arrived lived mostly on board the ship while they carried supplies to shore to build their living quarters.  Of the one hundred that had made the journey, over half died that first winter.

 

Living in the area were various tribes of the Wampanoag people.  The Indians had lived there for over ten thousand years, having originally been descendants of people from the Caucasus Mountain region in Eurasia. [The Arabs called these people Caucasian because of that although today the term is not used for American Indians but for people who came from west of these mountains, those of European descent.  Again, perspective has rewritten history.]    Those encountered by the Pilgrims as they now called themselves were of a group under Chief Massasoit, known as the Massachusetts tribe.  Tisquantum was an Indian living with this tribe, having escaped an attempt to make him a slave several years earlier.  Known by his English name Squanto, he had been captured by John Smith in Virginia and taken to England, as much a trophy as a servant/slave.  He had escaped and ended up with the Pawtuxet, another tribe living in the area.  Tisquantum/Squanto had learned English and served as a go-between for the two groups.  The Indians shared agricultural tips and hunting locations and the Pilgrims shared newer techniques for living.  In the fall of 1621 a joint feast was held amid the still simmering suspicions each group had of the other.

 

By 1622 power had corrupted Tisquantum/Squanto and his attempt to lead the Pilgrims in a revolt against Chief Massasoit failed.  He died later that year while leading an expedition around Cape Cod.  One of Massasoit’s sons, known as Metacomet or Phillip, assumed leadership of his tribe and in 1675, a war broke out between the two factions – Indians and settlers.  The conflict left over five thousand inhabitants of New England dead, seventy-five percent being American Indian.  IN terms of human loss of life, this was twice as deadly as the American War Between the States and seven times more deadly than the American Revolution or Wear of Independence.

 

That first ship the Mayflower had arrived in 1620 and was followed by the Fortune in 1621, the Anne and the Little James in 1623.  By 1630 some one thousand Pilgrim settlers were living the in Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Those first arrivals were known as “Old Comers” and many ended up leaving to go elsewhere due to the politics of the settlers. The term Pilgrim was not used until Daniel Webster adopted it in 1820 at the colony’s bicentennial.

 

What has not changed in the successive years of celebrating Thanksgiving is the fact that food is involved and groups of people gather, groups with differing opinions and usually lifestyles.  The momentum behind the celebration has also not changed – the effort being designed to give thanks.  Regardless of the year, the climate or the culture, gratitude is definitely worth our efforts.

 

Grateful people are healthier people and more successful.  They have lower stress levels and seldom suffer from depression.  Gratitude is not only seeing the silver lining of a dark cloud, it is living thanksgiving every day.  We are seldom if ever in a place where everyone is exactly alike or thinks exactly the same about anything.  Today as many gather together around the Thanksgiving table, some will like one style of mashed potatoes while others wanted candied sweet potatoes.  Turkey is the traditional meat entrée but many will have sausage dressing with it or oyster stuffing with their fowl.

 

The fact is that wherever we are, we are among those who are different, who at some point in history have probably been viewed by our ancestors as enemies.  Thanksgiving is a time to realize our uniqueness and celebrate our differences while recognizing that we all have something to offer to each other.  That first Thanksgiving was not a love-in.  It was a coming together with respect to give thanks to the Creator and creation.  It was time to celebrate the ordinary in an extraordinary way.  Hopefully, one day we can learn their example and live the lessons they passed down to us.

 

 

New Beginnings

New Beginnings

Pentecost 193

 

It might seem strange as we wind down our Pentecost series to speak of starting anew, but really, that is what we do each morning.  The sun rises onto a brand new day.  Regardless of where we are, each sunrise is a new creation.  Another child or a thousand born will affect the atmosphere as will new plants being opened or closed, a natural disaster wreaking havoc from the sky or shifting geological plates beneath the earth’s surface, and the daily grind of living slightly being altered as people’s lies require change.  How we adapt to those changes and view them determines whether our living is ordinary or extraordinary.

 

One day in 1606 a certain Mrs. Van Rijn gave birth.  She was the daughter of a baker and her husband was a miller.  The Netherlands at this time were religiously a bit chaotic. Most countries had a unified religion but the Netherlands…not so much,  The Reformation had begun twenty years earlier and would continue for another twenty years.  Catholic masses were held and often publicly but not every Sunday and often times people lost track of who, if any, had been baptized that year.  Folklore and superstition prevented some from coming, soldiers marched through other churches and, for those towns with no town bell, and taverns would remain open during services resulting in an inebriated congregation that might or might not remain.  There were those churches felt to be in good order, several services held daily, support from monastic properties, and the communicant number steady or rising, but for the most part, change was in the air for the Dutch.

 

While the British were establishing the first settlement of Jamestown, the rather prosperous Van Rijn family was establishing their young son into the family of eight children (another would be born later for a total of ten).  Their young son lived with the family in the town of Leiden, known to be an artistic and intellectual center. He studied mathematics, Greek, classical literature, geography and history at the Latin School in Leiden. He then entered Leiden University where he undertook studies in science, particularly enjoying the anatomy classes in which cadavers were dissected on stage. The knowledge of anatomy he gained in the anatomy theatre was invaluable in his artistic career.  This son, named Rembrandt, however, had a strong preference for painting which led him to abandon his studies after just a few months, move to Amsterdam and study under an Italian master.

 

With a face often compared to a loaf of bread, Rembrandt Van Rijn did multiple self-portraits and developed a style of painting known for its use of light and shadows, most likely developed from studying his own shadows of self.  Coming from a family of Calvinists, Rembrandt had painted on commission for wealthy clients who sometimes did not like the drama he interjected into his works.  Holland in the seventeenth century was a country of rigid rules and artists were expected to follow them.  The wealthy were presented almost one-dimensionally which often complimented them.  Rembrandt painted scenes of dimension, using light and its subsequent antithesis of shadow to illuminate and animate the picture.  Everything had purpose in a Rembrandt painting; every inch was interesting; the parts, seemingly often unrelated, were the sum of a beautiful moment captured on canvas.

 

Rembrandt’s life was not all paints and success, though.  His first wife suffered several unsuccessful attempts at childbirth and only one child, a son named Titus, lived past infancy.  He would later die as an adult from one of the various plagues.  Rembrandt’s first love and wife died, he was sued for breach of promise amid rising financial difficulties and lost the case, another mistress gave birth to a daughter and later die and Rembrandt was bankrupt, forced to sell his beloved art collection and possessions.  With his son’s death one year before his own, Rembrandt still managed to paint astoundingly beautiful paintings and at his death was found to have amassed another wonderful art collection.

 

Rembrandt Harmenszoon Van Rijn once stated:  “Without atmosphere, a painting is nothing.”  The same might be said of life.  We often focus on the dark shadows of life and forget that, in order to have the shadow, we must have experienced light at some time.  Rembrandt often told his students that they should only have one master – nature.  Some might interpret that to mean he lacked faith.  That would be incorrect. He felt painting was the grandchild of nature and that being so, it was related to God.  Rembrandt was a man of deep faith and it was that faith that saw him through the hard times of his life.  Once, when a patron protested over the length of time taken to produce a painting, Rembrandt remarked:  “The deepest and most lifelike emotion has been expressed and that’s the reason they have taken so long to execute.”

 

It is of little solace when I am going through one of life’s inevitable trials and/or personal struggle but the fact is that those times are the ones that bring our life’s deepest emotions to the surface.  It is at those times where we cannot see the end or a successful resolution that our faith is most present.  Howe we react to life’s surprises illustrates whether we see only darkness or realize the beauty that exists within the nuance of each situation.

 

Ontology is the branch of metaphysics that discusses existence and reality.  Often what we perceive to be real, to exist, is not always the reality of a situation.  A perceived slur or insult might actually not have been intended as such.  To paraphrase Rembrandt, without context, how do we know what exists and what is real?    We touched on this earlier in this series with our discussion of solipsism.   Ontology seeks to answer questions by defining what is real, what exists, what is in a state of “being”.  We have already discussed the philosophy of logic.  Ontology delves into similar avenues, asking about the substance or essence of an object.

 

As a child I was fascinated by the journey to Mecca that many took.  As an adult, I had a coworker who had completed his pilgrimage to Mecca.  The last part of the journey is done on foot, something that might seem strange in this day and age of fast travel on and off the planet.  Just as we walk through our daily living, those going to Mecca walk.  As a child I thought it glorious that people undertook such a journey.  For me it combined ontology with faith.  Such a journey took what these people believed to be true and served as their compass for how they existed.  Together this became their reality and their journey not only for going to Mecca but for going through life.  Eidl al Adha celebrates a man known to Muslims as Ibrahim and to the Jewish and Christian community as Abraham.  His journey of faith was just that – faith-based.  He believed in the gift of his child but also in the love of his deity and in his belief being strong enough to connect him to both.

 

We all undertake such a pilgrimage as we live each day.  While many will be pausing this weekend to give thanks, truly we should do that each and every day.  Our journey is seldom traveled alone.  Between family, friends, coworkers, fellow believers, we have the change to connect and give life to our beliefs.  Rembrandt is said to have encouraged patience in his students:  He most likely would have felt the same as Hal Borland who said “Knowing trees, I understand the meaning of patience.  Knowing grass, I understand the meaning of persistence.”  Living requires both patience and persistence.  The philosophy of struggle is then possibly not a question of what is but rather who are we.  Rembrandt used his own struggles and lack of perceived beauty to define what beauty could be found in the light and shadows of life. 

 

On his journey to Mecca, my friend was delayed in France.  The train derailed near a little village and the townspeople took croissants and cheese to the weary travelers.  My friend said that while none of the townspeople were Islamic, they gave him extra bread for the rest of his trip home.  One wise old man simply stated:  “We travel far but the greatest destination is that of returning to ourselves.  Here is food for the remembering of your journey as you travel home to yourself.”  Sometimes in the detours and the shadow we have true illumination.

 

When we see the shadow for its real purpose, to illuminate that which is light, then we have won the struggle and gained greater knowledge.  We have been patient, persistent, and we have persevered.  That is victory in living.  We all travel many roads to get to where we are going.  The detours life throws at us are simply part of the journey and sometimes take us to beautiful places we’d never see if we hadn’t changed our route.  Each day is a celebration of the harvest we reap from living.  Enjoy it, please.