Thursday, February 14, 2019

Good-bye Opportunity


About three weeks ago I wrote about the Curiosity Rover that has been functioning on Mars for six and a half years. Today we say farewell to the Opportunity Rover (2004 – 2018) which was formally pronounced dead at a news conference yesterday. Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate, said, "I'm standing here with a sense of deep appreciation and gratitude to declare the Opportunity mission as complete, and with it, the Mars Exploration Rover mission as complete."[1]

What a run this little rover had. NASA has a webpage[2]dedicated to the travels and images of this rover from more than fourteen years of roving. It was last heard from on June 10, 2018 when a dust storm caused it to begin to lose the ability to harvest electricity from the sun. Yesterday’s announcement emphasised the technological triumph of this rover staying active far beyond the days of its original 90-Martian-day (90 sols) mission.[3]Of course NASA’s Curiosity Rover is still expected to continue sending back data for the foreseeable future and NASA has plans for a Red Planet: Mars 2020 mission that includes another rover.

So, this Valentine’s Day, we send our love to Oppy, the little Rover who gave us so much more than we asked. We look forward to the next series of explorations of the Martian landscape.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

With God as Our Father


The Bible repeatedly refers to God as father and his followers as his children. Dependent upon our relationships with our earthly parents, this can either be a calming thought or one that leads to tension. Some of us were taught that our heavenly father was mostly a judge who showed his disappointment and anger when we made mistakes. Most of the time when I think of the relationship between father and son, my mind goes to how I feel as an adult, but perhaps the better way to imagine the concept is between a wise father and a very young child. The Bible tells us that God is far superior to humans in reasoning and love (Isaiah 55:8 is only one place we find this truth) and we can readily see that as the creator of this vast universe in which we live, he is far beyond us. When we are mere babes-in-arms or toddlers, and our fathers are given the responsibility to care for our needs and train us up in the ways that we should go, perhaps that is when we are most like the relationship between God the father and we the children.

Pastor Steve McMillan at Bow Valley Christian Church recently used an illustration that points to the truth in this. When a child reaches that age where they begin to walk (usually within a few months of their first birthday) we see the pride of the father in the child. The child manages to get up and hold onto some piece of furniture and walks along it before coming to the end of safety. At some point, they must launch out on their own and so they stretch a leg and arm out and take those first halting steps. Soon the awkwardness of legs, body, and heavy head get in the way and the child thumps down on the forgiving cushion of a nicely padded bottom. At this point we don’t see the father berate the child for falling. We don’t hear him say, “What is wrong with you? You only took three steps!” No, instead the father is ecstatic. He cheers the babe on and says, “Wonderful, you did so well. You took three steps before falling." He pulls out his cell phone and tries to capture the next steps on video. He calls his wife into the room and says, “Honey, come in here quick, see what our daughter has just done!” He calls his parents on the phone and acts like his child is the most brilliant and coordinated child on the planet. He jumps around and hoots like a mad-man, all because this child took three steps and fell hard.

So too, our heavenly father is more interested in the steps we take than in the many times we fall. Sure, he does not want to see us fall and get hurt; there is pain in his heart when he sees us scrape our knees and bruise our muscles. Yet, he is more interested in the fact that we actually walked for a while. He is there to encourage us to get up, wince at the pain, bandage the scrapes, and get moving again. Fathers do not worry about the falls. Certainly, if the child keeps falling for the next several years there may be something wrong and the father intervenes to find a way to help the son walk, but that is not the usual case. 

So, what of my life here on this earth? Am I focussed on how many times I fall or on how much progress I am making? I would do well to set myself some goals and aim toward them rather than focussing on the time I spend on the ground. My heavenly father is certainly looking at foot-steps and progress, otherwise he could not be my loving father at all.


Thursday, January 24, 2019

Six and a Half Years of Curiosity


About six and a half years ago on August 6, 2012, I got up early to watch NASA TV as they broadcast the landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars. I remember the significant tension of this particular landing because NASA was employing some new technology that had never been used before. They used the usual heat-shield to brake through the upper atmosphere, then deployed parachutes to slow the lander even more. But, what was novel about this landing was the use of a “sky crane” which NASA engineers dubbed, "seven minutes of terror." The Curiosity Rover was much heavier than other craft that had been landed on Mars and so the usual airbag crash would not protect the heavy rover well enough. The sky crane was a rocket-powered descent device that separated itself from the Curiosity Rover with a bridle of three cables and an umbilical cord which allowed the sky crane and rover to communicate with each other. After separating from the rover but remaining attached by the cables, the sky crane fired its rockets to allow for a gentle descent to the surface. Once the rover was gently landed on the ground of Mars, Curiosity communicated this via the umbilical cord so that the sky crane could cut the cables and fly far away to crash elsewhere on the surface of Mars. Won’t humans one day have fun when we finally do travel to Mars and see the various landing and crash sites of such vehicles as the sky crane, Mars 2 (a Russian craft that crashed hard on Mars and did not respond to calls from earth), Viking 1 and Viking 2 (NASA landers that did manage to send back data to earth), Mars Polar Lander (a failed NASA lander), and Spirit (active from 2004 to 2010) and Opportunity Rovers (active 2004 to 2018 when a dust storm forced it into hibernation) two more successful NASA landings? 

What I find amazing is that the Curiosity Rover that I sat watching as it landed in 2012 is still active on the planet, roving over the surface and doing science. And of course, Opportunity Rover holds the record so far for the longest rover mission on the Red Planet. These technological feats of engineering stagger the mind. Once a rover has successfully landed on Mars it must then survive dust-storms that foul moving parts and cloud over solar power systems. Yet these rovers grind on in the cold. The average temperature on the planet is estimated to be around −63 °C, with highs of 20 °C and lows near −153 °C. To be sure, it is not a very hospitable place for a rover.

Yet NASA and other space agencies continue to plan more missions to Mars. Hope Mars 2020 is a United Arab Emirates launch scheduled for July of 2020, Mars 2020 Rover, a NASA venture, will collect samples that will be returned to earth by a later vehicle, and the Exo-Mars Rover 2020 which is a joint effort of the European Space Agency and the Russian Roscosmos Agency, will also land in 2020. Japan and China also currently have plans to land landers in 2020 and the Indian Space Research Organization plans to land on Mars in 2022. It seems that all of the nations of the world are involved in this space-race to begin the process of colonizing Mars.

NASA, in collaboration with SpaceX and other private space companies have plans to put humans on Mars by 2033. Other countries around the world are making their own target dates for when they anticipate landing humans on Mars. In the 15 years from 2020 to 2035, what will this kind of competition and cooperation look like? Will this contribute to world peace or add fuel to many world-wide conflicts. Let us pray that the space race may truly be used to satisfy human curiosity rather than human greed. Here's to many more years of Curiosity!

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Dancing With the Beast


Dancing With The Beast
(Words and music by Gretchen Peters, Ben Glover)

He only comes around when he pleases
He only comes around when I’m alone
He don’t like my friends or my family
He don’t like me talkin’ on the phone

It isn’t that he doesn’t care about me
If anything it’s that he cares too much
It’s only that he wants the best for me
It’s only that I don’t try hard enough

But he takes me in his arms like a lover
He hears my confession like a priest
He whispers in my ear, in the darkness
I’m dancing with the beast

We circle round the room together
Seal this devil’s bargain with a kiss
One by one the lights go out inside me
And I’m falling into the abyss

He takes me in his arms like a lover
He hears my confession like a priest
He whispers in my ear, in the darkness
I’m dancing with the beast

I’m dancing with the beast

He takes me in his arms
Hears my confession
He whispers in my ear
I’m dancing with the beast

With the beast

© 2017 Circus Girl Music (ASCAP), administered by Carnival Music/Ben Glover (PRS), administered by Proper Music Publishing Ltd. Used By Permission. All Rights Reserved.

Gretchen Peters knows how to write songs that pull at the heart strings and articulate feelings we may not want to explore. On this song she teams up with Dove and Grammy Award winner Ben Glover to write a song about the “beast” - and this particular word is the key to understanding the song. Who or what is the beast? At one level it could be anything with which one wrestles. It is something dark, and engaging with it means that “one by one the lights go out inside” and the singer is pulled closer to “the abyss.”

One never knows when the beast will come around for “he only comes around when he pleases,” but only when she is alone. The beast has a critical voice and does not like her friends or her family and convinces her that she doesn’t “try hard enough.”

Despite all this, we sense that the singer is drawn to the beast. “He takes [her] in his arms like a lover” and “hears [her] confession like a priest.” But in hearing her confession, we get the impression that he is only offering cheap absolution for her sins and draws her back into them once again.

Is it simply the devil? Is it the ancient antagonist who has tempted every one of us including Adam and Eve, and the human and divine Jesus? Perhaps it would be enough to identify the beast this way. Yet, the following lyrics lead me to believe that the authors may also be speaking of something more.

It isn’t that he doesn’t care about me
If anything it’s that he cares too much
It’s only that he wants the best for me
It’s only that I don’t try hard enough

The beast acts like he “cares too much” and that “he wants the best for [us].” But, he also suggests that we “don’t try hard enough.” Those are the emotions of depression: causing us to focus too much on our abilities and what is best for us. Could it be “depression” which charges us with not trying hard enough; comes around when he pleases, doesn’t like our friends and our family, doesn’t like us reaching out to others on the phone?

Perhaps I am reading too much into this haunting song. Each of us must allow art to touch us in a way that interacts with our experience and our emotions. Readers of this blog will make their own interpretations and understand it in their own way.

For those who wrestle with a “beast” in their life that threatens to, one-by-one, turn out the lights, there is help. There is light, because there is one who has been tempted in all ways, just as we have been tempted. Hebrews 4:15 and 16 says that we have a priest who “understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.” If you find yourself dancing with the beast, reach out to friends who will point you toward that kind of grace and love. They can help you break the cycle of dancing with the beast.



Monday, December 17, 2018

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs




The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a movie written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (2018), may certainly be viewed at a number of levels. (Spoiler alert: Watch the movie before reading this blog.) On the one hand, it is a collection of entertaining stories woven together into one movie. At another level, it is entertainment that causes one to say after each segment, “And the moral of the story is …”. Perhaps we could leave it there and allow the viewer to approach it in one of those two ways. Yet, having seen many other Coen brothers’ movies, I have a sense that there is still more to the story. This movie is much like previous movies of the Coen brothers: it generates certain philosophical questions. Perhaps the theme of this movie is most like their 2009 movie, A Serious Man. In a previous blog, I suggested that the theme of that movie was the “absence of meaning in the universe and that the only answers lie in having a good hedonistic time with sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll.” The opening Jewish myth portrayed in A Serious Man would seem to emphasise the fact that random decisions are the difference between seeing something as chance or as supernatural. The most prominent theme in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is that our only defence against the randomness of life is to dress up in top-hat and tails, put on a brave face and march forward to whatever awaits. But here, allow me to substantiate my case.

I would suggest that if we wish to understand this movie and the mindset of the writers, we will need to watch it multiple times with attention to various details with each viewing. I found that I needed three viewings, the latter two while taking notes, to begin to get a picture of what the Coen brothers are doing. 

Vignette 1: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The opening scene shows Buster Scruggs riding through the desert singing a classic song, Cool, Clear Water, made famous by the “Sons of the Pioneers” in 1941 (Bob Nolan, writer). The song speaks of the souls that long for more. The larger than life cartoon character of Buster Scruggs is considered a misanthrope (one who dislikes all other people) and speaks of the sad and immoral state of the human condition. He claims to have violated the statutes of man and God and is shown to be selfish and devious. He is presented as a protagonist and we find ourselves hoping he will survive his several encounters with people who want to kill him and are as depraved as he is. We buy into the classic white hat mentality in which there are good guys and bad guys. This movie continues a theme established in the 1992 film, Unforgiven (directed by Clint Eastwood), in which the cowboys are no longer divided into “good guys” and “bad guy,” all are broken and evil. There is a randomness expressed in the fact that there will always be a faster gun. Buster Scruggs even admires his killer as the two of them harmonize as he departs to his eternal reward.

Buster Scruggs does have the redeeming quality of being a great singer and entertainer and in one scene, he has the entire town joining in with his songs and antics. The cartoon-like violence is heightened in a scene where Buster first shoots the fingers off of a man before gunning him down in the street. I say cartoon-like violence because it is reminiscent of what happened in Yosemite Sam, Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, and Foghorn Leghorn cartoons of another era. Characters exploded, got smashed, got shot, and fell from heights only to survive another day. Perhaps the Coen brothers are making a statement about the entertainment violence with which they grew up and which continues to this day in many entertainment fields (cartoons and Quentin Tarantino movies come to mind). They seem to be asking questions about what this kind of violence says about our culture and the connections between entertainment and behaviours in western society.

Also similar to the cartoons of the past, when Buster Scruggs finally does die, his soul is shown rising out of his body and winging its way to heaven as he and his murderer sing a song about the hope they have of a better life in the hereafter. There is no reference to justice, only hope, and joy in a life beyond this broken world. Of course, the Coen brothers were raised in a Jewish tradition and would have heard many stories of ultimate destinations, justice, and forgiveness. In this and other movies, they often ask questions about the validity of such world-views as Judaism and Christianity.

Vignette 2: Near Algodones

Another selfish man attempts to rob a bank for his own gain. The bank appears to be easy to rob and is in the middle of nowhere with only one employee. But, in the randomness of life, the old man behind the counter turns out to be more than a match for the robber. The banker covers himself with protective pots and pans as a form of dangling armour and takes on the would-be robber.  The would-be robber is arrested, tried, and sentenced to hang. However, just before he is hung, a classic cowboy and Indian battle breaks out and, whether by luck or the grace of God, he manages to escape. But justice appears to catch up with him when he is mistakenly accused of cattle rustling and is hung for that crime. Random events of life and how they conspire for good-luck or bad-luck is a prominent theme in this vignette, particularly as we consider the chance of being saved by a “pan-shot.”

Vignette 3: Meal Ticket

Two men make their living as travelling entertainers. One, the caregiver and leader, the other, an invalid with neither arms nor legs. As they set up to entertain a small crowd it soon becomes apparent that the invalid is a gifted entertainer who has memorized a number of spell-binding monologues with which he charms his audience. The two men do not seem to have a deep friendship; theirs is a business arrangement. As the story goes on, their form of entertainment becomes less and less interesting to the audiences they meet. Other forms of entertainment come and go and take away from the two men’s livelihood. Sadly, it becomes apparent that the two will soon starve if they do not find a better way to entertain the people. 

By chance, the leader happens to see a man entertaining a crowd with a chicken who seems to be able to do math by pecking at numbers on a wall. The leader immediately buys the chicken from the entertainer, and invalid and leader set out down the road with the chicken in their wagon as well. But, before the men arrive at the next town, the leader suddenly pulls the invalid out of the wagon and throws him off a high bridge. We see the leader and the chicken heading off to the next town. 

Many questions remain. Has the caregiver been fooled into buying a useless chicken? After all, he has not yet tested the system. What was the nature of the relationship between invalid and caregiver? Why was the caregiver suddenly so cruel? The Coen brothers are once again showing the nature of the cruel and apparently random world in which we live.

Vignette 4: All Gold Canyon

Next, the Coen brothers tell the tale of a hard-working old prospector who has been working all of his life for that legendary large strike of gold. The film-makers spend much time giving us the impression of how hard he works and that he is a good, salt-of-the-earth kind of man. As he works, he sings an old Irish song:

Oh I love the dear silver that shines in your hair
and the brow that's all furrowed and wrinkled with care
I kiss the dear fingers so toil worn for me
Oh God bless you and keep you Mother Machree

Finally, he strikes it rich and harvests a large amount of gold. But as he works in his hole in the ground with back-breaking labour, an evil man creeps up behind him and shoots him in the back for his gold. We are convinced that the miner is dead, and the story has come to a sad ending. But, miraculously, the old man survives and kills his would-be assassin and is last seen taking his gold away to be sold. We can expect that the old man will live out the rest of his days wealthy beyond what he could have imagined. Again, the story raises questions of the cruelty of man, God’s justice, and the seemingly random nature of this world.

Vignette 5: The Gal Who Got Rattled

A poor man, who has not done well in business, and his sister set out on a wagon-train to Oregon. The brother has suggested that his business partner would be predisposed to marry the sister. So, they set off, but the brother dies from lung disease and the woman is left alone with no prospect of a suitor in Oregon and no money to pay her hired-hand. One of the leaders of the wagon-train takes to the woman and eventually asks her to marry him. He is ready to settle down rather than continue to lead wagon-trains. But, by a strange turn of events (chasing after a lost dog), the woman finds herself separated from the rest of the people and from the wagon-train. The other wagon-train leader (the one to whom she is not engaged), comes to her rescue, but they are set upon by an Indian war party. The wagon-train leader leaves her with a gun to kill herself if he should happen to be killed in the fight.

At a certain point in the battle, the leader plays dead before killing the last of the war tribe. The woman thinks he is dead and so she puts a bullet into her forehead. The wagon-train leader must go back to the man to whom she was engaged to tell him what has happened. It is one more tragic story in the list of Coen brother sagas. Over and over again they are telling the audience that the world is tragic, random, and senseless.

Vignette 6: The Mortal Remains

The final story has to do with five people riding in a stage-coach. Two of the men have made the trip many times before as they use the coach to ferry people dead or alive from one place to the next. We soon discover that there is something odd about the trip and realize that it is a metaphysical journey from the land of the living to the land of the dead. However, the three passengers have not yet clued-in to the fact that they themselves are dead. The two men are “harvesters of souls.” They “help people who have been adjudged to be ripe.” The passengers slowly begin to realize that they are already dead to the world and they themselves are being ferried to the next world.

There are five people in the cab of the coach and each one has one or more opinions on the “two types of people in the world.” They range from the simple to the sublime: “dead and alive,” “all alike,” “lucky and unlucky,” “hale and frail,” and “upright and sinning.” 

Other moral and spiritual controversies are apparent among the travellers; especially the concepts of “spiritual betterment,” “spiritual and moral hygiene,” and the authority of the Bible. One man asserts that “we must each play our own hand,” and “we cannot know each other completely.” We may call another "friend," but “we cannot know their soul.” Although it is not explored, we can tell that each person has a certainty in their heart as to what love is and yet, none of them would agree as to what that certainty is. One passenger asserts that “one can only coax love through subservience,” while another believes that love is domestic and eternal. We are left contemplating the appropriate spiritual destiny of each one on the coach and all three of the unaware passengers have the same look of doom as they approach the door of their next resting place.

The final scene shows one of the travellers walking with abandon into whatever fate awaits him. There is a mood of judgement but no clear sense of justice or mercy. The man simply does not know what awaits him and we get the sense that this rather simple man, who has been a product of his culture, is woefully unaware of right and wrong, love and peace, and ultimate destinies. He simply trudges on, taking what is sent his way and adapting to it as he goes. Perhaps, in the world of the Coen brothers, he represents us all.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Beacon Publishing Group



Pre-ordering a book can be an excellent way to get a great book at an amazing price. The Great Beyond, formerly published by Amazon’s Create Space (now out of print there) is about to be published by the Beacon Publishing Group. It is available in e-Book, paperback, and audio book. You can save up to 50% by pre-ordering the book at Amazon.ca, Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, or BeaconPublishingGroup.com.

The book is set for release on January 11, 2019 when the regular prices will be established. Buy it for yourself or buy it for a friend who would enjoy a thoughtful and entertaining story.

Links:
Barnes and Noble - https://bit.ly/2PyFiVG
Amazon.com Kindle - https://amzn.to/2SJlgtw
Amazon.com paperback - https://amzn.to/2C7CVWx
Beacon Publishing Group - https://bit.ly/2QPkzlh

Friday, November 23, 2018

Five Minutes



Gretchen Peters writes songs that tell stories and offer insight into the human condition. “Five Minutes” is an example of a song that tells the story of a broken and flawed woman.

Five Minutes
(words and music by Gretchen Peters)
(From the album Hello Cruel World)

I've got five minutes to sneak a cigarette
Five minutes to myself
Back behind the screen door of Andy's luncheonette
And I ain't got time to worry 'bout my health

My boss Andy says I smoke myself to death
Andy he reminds me some of you
Back when you were Romeo and I was Juliet
West Texas Capulet and Montague

Now I don't think too much about you anymore
We weren't much more than kids
It was nearly twenty years ago I shut and locked that door
Now I've got five minutes
Not much time to reminisce

Most nights I come home from work and I pour a glass of wine
Sometimes it's three or four before I stop
And Jessie makes a sandwich if I sleep through suppertime
And she leaves me on the couch to sleep it off

Now Jessie just turned 17 and she's wild as she can be
And there ain't nothin' I can do
Last weekend she ran off to meet a boy in Tennessee
Just like I used to run to you

I gave her hell when she came home this afternoon
Mascara runnin' down her face
Seems like history repeats itself, and it ain't up to you
And in five minutes
Your whole life can change

Andy he's good to me, and I can see it in his eyes
He'd love to take your place
But somethin' deep inside me just withers up and dies
To make love to him and only see your face

Somehow I've let myself go gently down the stream
A fine example I have set
Between the working and the livin' and the ghosts that haunt my dreams
I've got five minutes and I'm gonna smoke this cigarette

There is so much I like about this song, but perhaps my favourite is the ambiguity in the line that says, “Most nights I come home from work and I pour a glass of wine, sometimes it's three or four before I stop.” We get the impression that there is a problem here. Through the rest of the song, we see history repeating itself in her daughter and we see both women drawn to men who are not good for them. They are lost and need to find a clear direction in their life.

From my Christian worldview I can’t help but think of flawed women in the Bible and how Jesus sees them and shows love toward them. Perhaps the woman in “Five Minutes” is a bit like the Samaritan woman in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John. Both women seem to be searching for something more and looking in all the wrong places. The human condition is difficult. We are prone to wander from the better paths and stray so easily into destructive paths. There seems to be so little time in life to ask the important questions and find the true path and so we muddle on in the way we have always lived. Perhaps even the author of “Five Minutes” is searching for something more.

“…those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.” - Jesus (John 4:14).