Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Mystery of the Incarnation

My fellow-blogger, Phil Reinders, over at Squinch, reminded me of this gem of a poem by one of our favourite poets. Of course, poetry is made for slow reading. So make yourself a cup of tea and dip your biscotti as you read (well, that is what I did today). The poem is entitled, “On the mystery of the Incarnation” and it is by Denise Levertov. Make certain you read it several times and catch the phrasing. Read it out loud (swallow that biscotti first). Convince yourself of the correct places for pauses. Wait for the moment when the meaning of this poem enters your heart and then meditate upon it throughout the day. May this mystery be good news of great joy for you this Christmas. 
On the mystery of the Incarnation 
It's when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind's shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
the Word.
 - Denise Levertov

Monday, December 21, 2015

No Where's Good

The television series Hell on Wheels continues to intrigue me. The writers and director have done a great job of creating interesting questions for us to ponder. This scene from Season 4, Episode 11 is a good example. Cullen Bohannan has just walked into the room where Sydney Snow is recovering from being shot by Ruth Cole. If Sydney dies, Ruth, the “Church Lady," will be guilty of murder; so Cullen has worked hard to see that Sydney Snow survives. The following dialogue then occurs.
Cullen Bohannan: Congratulations, you ain't dead.
Sydney Snow: All this to see me hang?
Cullen Bohannan: Nope. First you gonna save the church lady.
Sydney Snow: One good act ain't gonna wash away all the bad I've done. What becomes of men like us, Bohannon? Where do you suppose we end up?
Cullen Bohannan: Nowhere's good.[1]
Is Bohannan a man of integrity, or an evil, vindictive man like Sydney Snow? Notice the double meaning of the words in Cullen’s reply to Sidney: “Nowhere’s good.” Does Cullen mean, “We will not be going to any place that is good.” Or does he mean that “‘Nowhere’ would be a good place for them to ‘end up’? Cullen Bohannan has killed many men. Some of the killings were clearly wrongful; others were a form of execution for persons who deserved the death penalty. Perhaps he is hoping that there is no after-life where he will be held accountable for his deeds. By episode four of the series, Cullen seems to be seeking to live a good life and repent of his past. At one point he puts away his guns and seeks to live a pacifistic life; but the circumstances of the world, and evil men like Sydney Snow, cause him to regretfully put on the gun belt and punish those who harm women and kill children. Where does a man like Cullen Bohannan “end up?” He has repeatedly ignored the offers from Ruth and her preacher father who encouraged him to turn his life over to Jesus. Bohannan is reluctant to turn to the church and to Jesus at either the Congregational Church or the Mormon Church because he seems to believe that he is unworthy of God’s grace. What will become of Cullen Bohannan? Perhaps Season Five will make things clearer.

[1] "Hell on Wheels: Bleeding Kansas (#4.11)" (2014);

Sunday, December 20, 2015

A Review of 2015

I have begun to review the events of 2015 and look forward to the year 2016. I find that the best way for me to review the year is to look back at the 107 blogs I have written in 2015. My favourite blogs will tell me something about my personality and my year. Here is a list of the posts for which I am most thankful.

1.     The Heart is Full 2015-02-10 - a poem for a new grand-daughter

2.     Whiplash 2015-04-06 - a movie review

3.     Oblivian 2015-07-13 - another movie review

4.     Running With Horses 2015-08-10 - inspiration from Eugene Peterson

5.     Of Hobbits and Books 2015-08-15 - about the joy of reading classic books

6.     Violet 2015-09-15 - another poem for another new grand-daughter

7.     Loving Our Enemies 2015-09-20 - inspiration from Wendell Berry

8.     Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Regulus are Alright Tonight 2015-09-30 - all year I have followed these celestial points of light

9.     Cullen Bohannan 2015-10-16 - good questions from a well-done television series

10.  Imagine True Religion 2015-11-17 - thinking about Paris.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Star of the East, Oh Bethlehem Star

For as long as I can remember, I have wondered about the nature of the star studied by the Magi of the east; you know, the one they used to find their way to Jesus. There are many theories. Could the “star” be a comet, a planetary conjunction, a supernova, or some other celestial event of miraculous or natural origin? It had never occurred to me that the biblical narrative in the Gospel of Matthew might describe the miraculous appearance of an angel that guided these men of wisdom. This is exactly how the Eastern Orthodox Church understands this event. Perhaps the Wise Men first noticed a light far off in the sky that they assumed was a new star. Later, they might have found this star growing in intensity as it began to reveal itself as an angel on its way to visit them. The angel may have even spoken to them and given them further guidance or simply moved ahead of them like the ancient pillar of fire that Moses and the people of Israel followed. This treatment of “the star” leaves more room for the miraculous nature of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. It is an important perspective to keep in the forefront. We all need to leave room for miracles in our lives.

Oh Little Town of Bethlehem:
No ear may hear His coming
But in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive Him still
The dear Christ enters in

The Troparion of the Nativity:
Your birth, O Christ our God,
dawned the light of knowledge upon the earth.
For by Your birth those who adored stars
were taught by a star
to worship You, the Sun of Justice,
and to know You, Orient from on High.
O Lord, glory to You.

Works Cited:
“Feast of the Nativity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ;” Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America; accessed 2015-12-14;
“Star of Bethlehem;” Wikipedia; accessed 2015-12-14;

Thursday, December 10, 2015

"Yesterday I missed my exit, on my way to Sears" - Joe Diffie

Have you ever had one of those days where you missed your freeway exit and had to take an alternative route? The process can be quite time consuming and often adds several minutes to the anticipated travel time. It is hard not to get frustrated. Of course, such emotions only complicate things and make the trip even less efficient. Recently, a team of Japanese aerospace engineers learned first hand that, in space exploration, one little missed exit can lead to many years of extra work. In 2010, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency was excitedly watching as their Akatsuki probe was moving rapidly toward Venus. All was well until the main engine failed to come online and make the appropriate course correction. The result of this, missed exit on the cosmic freeway, was five years of unplanned wandering in the wilderness. Not only did it mean that Akatsuki would be late for her rendezvous with the “planet of love,” it also meant that, like Icarus, Akatsuki flew too near the sun and singed her wings.

What I like about this story is that the team did not give up on the mission. They knew that this “miss” meant the probability of success was small; but they did not lose focus and they kept seeking solutions to the problem. They still could not rely upon the main engine but knew that every five years Akatsuki would be close to Venus. This would be their window of opportunity. They would use the attitude control thrusters to position the craft for Venus gravity capture. On December 7 at 8:51 am (Japan Standard Time) the gamble paid off and Akatsuki is now in orbit around our “sister planet.” The scientific mission can resume. The probe has been scorched by the sun but remains functional and will soon begin to take continuous pictures of the atmosphere and surface of Venus.

This reclamation of the mission is a testament to tenacity and problem solving. Lesser engineers might have given up on the Akatsuki probe and begun work on a replacement vehicle. These individuals continued to work as a team and redeemed what might otherwise have been seen as a failure. There is something very impressive about this work. May they now enjoy the fruit of their labour as they gather data and explore further questions related to this closest neighbouring planet.

Other Works Cited:
“Japanese spacecraft reaches Venus — five years late”; Science News, December 8, 2015;—-five-years-late.

“That Road Not Taken,” Joe Diffie, from the album, Third Rock From the SunListen to it online here. Songwriters: Kelly Casey and Deborah Beasley, Published by The Bicycle Music Company.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Results of Tardigrade Paper Questioned

It only took a few days for the results of a new Tardigrade study to be called into question. No one questions the hardiness of Tardigrades, aka Water Bears; but are they the great scavengers of DNA that the Cambridge Researchers suggested? (See the paper by Eyres, et al.) A paper published by researchers at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Oxford concludes that the genomic research from Cambridge may have been contaminated by other genomes. (See also Science News here.) Of course the Cambridge team acknowledged this and worked hard to prevent such contamination; but the fact is, with incredibly sensitive PCR reactions and hardy sequencing of small amounts of DNA, contamination is always a possibility.

The Cambridge team will likely be working through the Christmas break to see if they can redeem the results of their previous study. But, with the suggested level of contamination, they might do well to move to another lab where they can start with a fresh supply of Tardigrades that will not be prone to the same sources of contamination. Perhaps the only thing hardier than a Tardigrade is cellular DNA. This lends a further significance to the concept of selfish genes

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Stardust Memories

I have always found Woody Allen to be an honest atheist. He does not sugar-coat his atheism in either his movies or his interviews. He does not try to convince people that atheism will make them a better person, that they will be happier if they choose atheism, or that the world will be a better place. His movies show the stark reality of seeking to live by an atheistic philosophy. Stardust Memories (1980)[1] is an example of Woody Allen struggling to - and failing to - understand life. The closest he gets to solving the problem is near the end of the movie where he is seen resorting to existential moments of bliss to get himself through life. But the moments are short-lived and the final scene shows him back on the same train as he was on at the beginning of the movie, with the emotional and philosophic angst of the opening scene still present. The movie is one of my favourites, not for what it teaches, but for the questions it asks. They are questions that all of us must ask and they are questions that just might cause us to reach out to God. It may be a little difficult to find this older movie, but when you do find it I recommend watching it with a discerning eye. The following scenes are some of the key moments in the philosophical arc.

Many have interviewed Allen as they seek to understand his funny, yet dark, persona. Here are a few of his responses to questions about the meaning of life.

“This is my perspective and has always been my perspective on life: I have a very grim, pessimistic view of it. I always have, since I was a little boy. It hasn’t gotten worse with age or anything. I do feel that it’s a grim, painful, nightmarish, meaningless experience, and that the only way that you can be happy is if you tell yourself some lies and deceive yourself.”[2]

“You start to think, when you’re younger, how important everything is and how things have to go right—your job, your career, your life, your choices, and all of that. Then, after a while, you start to realise that – I’m talking the big picture here – eventually you die, and eventually the sun burns out and the earth is gone, and eventually all the stars and all the planets in the entire universe go, disappear, and nothing is left at all. Nothing – Shakespeare and Beethoven and Michelangelo gone. And you think to yourself that there’s a lot of noise and sound and fury – and where’s it going? It’s not going any place… Now, you can’t actually live your life like that, because if you do you just sit there and – why do anything? Why get up in the morning and do anything? So I think it’s the job of the artist to try and figure out why, given this terrible fact, you want to go on living.”[3]

Allen is a comedian who asks questions about the meaning of life and why we would want to go on living. This is the Woody Allen many have heard and not completely understood. This is the writer, philosopher, actor, and comedian who makes such interesting films. This is the same Woody Allen who also has said, “I don't believe in an afterlife, although I am bringing a change of underwear.[4]

[1] IMDB, Stardust Memories;
[4] "Conversations with Helmholtz,Getting Even, Woody Allen, Vintage Books, 1978.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Science is Stranger than Screenplays

With Batman and Superman preparing to do battle in our movie theatres[1], perhaps you have wondered, "What is the most invulnerable creature on our planet?" The armadillo? The Blue Whale? Lions? Elephants? No, there is one creature that is much more durable than all of these. It can survive being boiled and frozen; in fact it can live in temperature ranges of −272 °C to 149 °C. It can tolerate the vacuum of space while being exposed to more ionizing radiation than any other creature. It can also survive without food or water for decades (some have been rehydrated after 120 years of desiccation).[2] No, it is not that fictional life form from the Alien[3] movies. Truth is sometimes stranger than our fictional screenplays.

The Tardigrade, or Water Bear, pictured here, wins the gold medal for invincibility. However, you would need a very small ribbon to hang the award around its neck; Water Bears are only visible with a microscope and measure approximately 1.5 mm across their longest dimension. They are certainly weird looking animals and would likely scare the wits out of any of us if they were more like half a meter in length. Fortunately, unless you go looking for them, you will never see one. They like to live on mossy surfaces where they thrive on microscopic drops of secreted liquid. They can also live in our water supply, the gutters of our city streets, and our cupboards.

Researchers (and yes there are those who study these tiny animals in the wild) have recently made a remarkable discovery about Tardigrades. They have the ability to scavenge and incorporate DNA from other living creatures. (Note well, the paper related to this research has been subsequently questioned and researchers are working to confirm or deny the results of this research.) In one recent study, it was found that "the Hypsibius dujardini tardigrade incorporated into their own DNA genes from more than 1,300 bacterial species, 40 archaea, 91 species of fungus, 45 plant species and six viruses."[4] When severely dehydrated, Water Bears, and other organisms around them, spill out DNA from broken cells. The unique thing about the Tardigrade is that when water returns to the environment, they can quickly sew their DNA back together and sometimes incorporate other free-floating DNA. It is likely this feature that has made them so invulnerable to extreme conditions. Move over Superman, there is a new god-like creature in town. Perhaps someone needs to turn this match-up into a movie.

[1] Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016); IMDB;
[4] Science News; November 25, 2015, "Water Bears Are Genetic Mash-Ups; The validity of this study has since been called into question. See the follow-up blog at .

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Body and Wine

I write a blog, first and foremost, as a place to work out my own faith. There are times when the best way to sort out what is going on is to spill out emotions and words. The first draft makes little sense. The edits make it a learning process. On a really good day those thoughts also help someone else. Meditation on the words of others can be a great way to stir up this practise and there are many times when I turn to Jars of Clay. “Body and Wine” is one of those songs that has not yet revealed to me its full meaning. I meditate upon the words and sometimes something comes clearer. There are real questions here. There are real questions that need an answer: “What if this was all that we were made of; . . . all that we could make of love? If there wasn’t more, I wouldn’t be here.” What if humanistic science tried to tell us that we were only a collection of carbon, water, and trace elements? What if that was all that we were made of? If there wasn’t more, what would keep me here? What would make this earth worth staying for? If it’s been a while since I was king, is there someone else who should be on the throne? Hero or crime? Hero and crime? Body and wine.

Body and Wine
Rusty ground and dusty roads
It's been a while since you were king
Undermined and overthrown
You tried to run it on your own

Forget the birds with broken wings
Under piles of things on things
No one stops and no one stares
Seen it all and no one cares

What if this was all that we were made of?
This was all that we could make of love
If there wasn't more, I wouldn't be here
Hero and crime, body and wine

Drove my heart toward the sea
Passed the graves up over hills
Saw the spires hit the ground
Voices raised without a sound

What if this was all that we were made of?
This was all that we could make of love
If there wasn't more, I wouldn't be here
Hero and crime, body and wine
Hero and crime, body and wine

What if this was all that we were made of?
This was all that we could make of love
If there wasn't more, I wouldn't be here
Hero and crime, body and wine

What if this was all that we were made of?
This was all that we could make of love
If there wasn't more, I wouldn't be here
Hero and crime, body and wine
Hero and crime, body and wine
Body and wine

Words & music by: Dan Haseltine, Charlie Lowell, Stephen Mason, Matt Odmark
Produced by: Jars of Clay

Commenting on the song “Loneliness and Alcohol,” Steve Mason (one of the members of Jars of Clay) said, “Everything matters . . . there is always something artful to be said.”