Those who have studied the demographics of religion have grown accustomed over the last two decades to the statistical forecast of the extinction of Christianity (and religion in general). The popularity of the ‘New Atheists’ bolstered faith in such a forecast. The ‘rise of the nones’ (a demographic which, if not truly atheist or agnostic simply describes itself as not associated with or identifying as - any ‘religion’ – religion: none) raised the volume of secular prophesies of a non-apocalyptic end of the Christian world. Evidence that neo-paganism (Wicca et al) may be the fastest growing religion in the west, while perhaps dimming the view of the coming secularist utopia, offered little encouragement to practicing Christians.
I have studied all these trends as best I might. At the end of the day, I just keep preaching the gospel and trusting God. My faith does not require a turn-around in the forecast. Faith may die in any country – or globally (the bible predicts something of the sort) – without affecting the actual existence or goodness of God! But, while my faith does not require it, I can’t help smirking, just a little, at the latest turn in these kinds of demographic studies. It is now projected that the religious will outflank the nones et al as a percentage of world population by a factor of 29 between now and 2050. Wait. I thought we were on the way out. What happened?
Well, some of it is just the birth rate. Religious peoples start families younger and have more children than their secular counterparts. Faith, it seems gives courage and a more optimistic view of the future as well as a less ‘self-focused’ attitude. Also a factor – faith and traditional marriage enhance prosperity. Skeptics keep hoping this effect will disappear but it doesn’t. So, more kids. This trend works so fast that already the average ‘none’ is 7 years older than the average religious devotee. The trend toward the nones has only been tracked carefully for a couple of decades and it already appears that it peaked before we were really aware it existed!
Granted, that factor of 29 is for religious people in general – not Christianity specifically and global rather than just in my neighborhood. The same forecast estimates that by 2050 Islam will almost have matched Christianity in size. But I am not so sure about that either.
The projections indicate that Christianity will in fact grow but that most of the growth will be in Sub-Saharan Africa which will replace the United States as the hub of the faith. Whatever happens here – I praise God for the growth of the faith in Africa! But, there is a growing suspicion that the statisticians are missing something – or are only beginning to catch a glimpse of it.
For one thing, there’s China – home to about 18% of the world’s population but about 60% of the world’s nones (atheists included): That’s a large imbalance! And Christianity is growing in China. A real shift there (which many are beginning to envision) would change the picture considerably.
And there’s India – which may soon replace China as the most populous nation on the planet. For years, according to the official census, Christianity has remained stable at about 2.5% of India’s population. But that official number seems suspect to many who observe more and more Christian churches and witness more and more conversions without ever seeing the percentages change. It is of course true that Christianity can grow in raw numbers without growing as a share of the population. It requires only that the non-Christian segment grow even faster than the Christian. Quite possible in a place growing at the speed of India. Still, observers have long felt something is out of kilter in this picture.
As it turns out, the government of India confers some financial aid on ‘Scheduled Caste Hindus’ – also known as the Dalits or Untouchables – India’s largest and poorest caste. This aid is known as ‘reservation’. Converts to other religions are often excluded from reservation and there are efforts in the government of India to see that they are universally excluded.
A word here for any who may not completely understand the religion to politics connections. Hinduism teaches that we are all reincarnated over and over and that our situations improve only ‘life to life’ rather than in the course of any one life. The soul builds up good karma over cycles allowing progress in cycles to come. This ‘religious’ tenet is also a political control. The poor are supposed to remain poor – in the current life. Wealth is supposed to be concentrated at the top and if the poor want to move up, they need to build up good karma in this life (while staying poor) positioning them for a better shot in future lives. The Indian government thoroughly resents the Christian tendency to upset this system.
Consequently, it has become the strategy for Christian converts to remain registered as Hindu so as to keep getting the reservation. This has provided for a stealth (so far as official record keeping is concerned) growth of Christianity. But the growth is becoming too big to hide. The government of India is catching on and regards the previously unrecognized growth of Christianity as a crisis. Some areas of India may well be 25% Christian and in four northern Indian States Christianity may very well already be the majority religion.
I find these things very encouraging and wonder how much else God has been doing right under the noses of those who have so vociferously forecasted His demise.
I do not know if we will have anything resembling a Christian revival in the United States and/or Europe. But it becomes more and more obvious that rumors of the death of faith were, to quote Mr. Twain, greatly exaggerated.
*Just a few articles you can easily find and read on this subject.
Pew Research – The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010 – 2050
Explainer: Are Scheduled Caste Converts Eligible for any Reservation?
The Jaipur Dialogues – The Mysterious Rise of Christianity in India
Some years ago I carried on an extensive two year conversation/debate with a group of atheists. It was a valuable learning experience for me – I can only hope for them as well. The core subject of the discussion was why they considered Christianity intrinsically ‘hateful’. The discussion ranged considerably in all kinds of directions. It got started because of comments made by an old friend of mine – once a fellow minister – since turned atheist. When I questioned him about his comments, he felt the discussion would be more profitable if held with the online atheist group to which he belonged. The discussion was hosted by an atheist blogger whose online title was SEB (Stupid Evil B******) While it lasted, this conversation became the single most popular and enormous blog SEB had ever had. I often thought he should have paid me for upping his online stats. Ah well. The conversation ended when enough of the atheists resented its continuation sufficiently that I called a halt. I tell you all that so I can tell you this. Every once in a great while I have checked in on the SEB blog just to see what was going on there. I will say, sadly, that I never saw any great change. But, I just recently checked in and saw that SEB (his real name was Les Jenkins) passed away this last March. In one of his last posts he observed that he was approaching the age at which his father had died of pancreatic cancer – a specific possibility he felt he didn’t have to worry over since his doctor kept on top of that. He did worry that he was obese, diabetic and physically inactive. He hated exercise and dieting, feeling that in a just world, healthy food would taste better than the unhealthy kind and exercise would show positive results in just a couple of days. His doctor told him that his happiness would increase if he just stuck with things long enough for the benefits to accrue. He decided that, while he did not wish to die young, he was ‘happy’ eating and sitting and could not justify the ‘misery’ of better eating and regular exercise. After all, ‘happy’ is the goal of life, right? Then came a period of extreme weariness and some abdominal pain. Tests, procedures, stage 4 pancreatic cancer, spread to the liver; (the very thing he thought he wouldn’t have to worry about) chemo, blood thinners, internal bleeding, hospice, a post by a relative announcing the final arrangements. In recent years I said goodbye, for this time, to my parents with gut wrenching grief. There was none of that for SEB. Just a flat blanket of sadness. I never met the man in person. We agreed about almost nothing. I deeply resented his brand of gleeful ‘thumb in the eye’ blasphemy. But I know that God loved him and I know from having read and been a participant in his blog that he had plenty of opportunities to come to know God – all squandered in unrelenting and largely unreasoning malice toward the very concept of the divine. But this is the nature of free will and is encompassed in God’s love – He will not force us to come to Him. I wish SEB’s widow and children well. In all cases, I trust the love, mercy and justice of God implicitly. As to that: SEB’s sins are not worse than or even particularly different from mine. If our eternal destinations differ (left with God) it is only a matter of accepting an invitation. I can only encourage everyone to accept that invitation while you can.
I had minor surgery yesterday to remove a large and still growing lipoma from my neck. Because of placement near the spine the Dr. wanted to use a general anesthesia rather than a local – he didn’t know how much ‘teasing’ (that’s the word he used – read cutting, gouging, tugging) he might have to do to clean the thing out to its roots and how those roots might or might not be attached to the spine. It tuned out not to be attached to the spine but ran deep into muscle tissue so the ‘teasing’ left me a little ouchy. But, praise God I am back up and about – with limitations like no lifting more than 20 pounds and as little turning my neck as possible. On most counts I might as well stay home and watch TV! But I figure I can write this blog! So, OK, anesthesia – a wonderful invention allowing all manner of medical benefits (I read the account of George Rogers Clark’s leg amputation!). Here’s what I can tell you. Local anesthesia (lidocaine, etc.) works slowly on me. I have had to persuade a few Doctors that I really do know the difference between pressure and pain and that if they will just wait another couple minutes – we’ll get there. General Anesthesia, on the other hand, works extremely well and VERY quickly on me. I have not had a lot of procedures requiring general anesthesia (one that should have – but that’s another story): a hernia repair a long time ago. Mostly I have had colonoscopies (age!) for which the professionals assured me I would not really be out – just a twilight groggy kind of thing which would even allow me to answer questions. Well, let me tell you – the last thing I ever remember is thinking it hurt when the anesthesia came through the IV tube into my arm. The next thing is usually a dim awareness that someone is fussing at my wife ‘This office needs to close – can’t you get him to wake up?!) If forced to wake up quickly from anesthesia – there needs to be a receptacle for the contents of my stomach available. So this time I told the intake nurse, the surgical nurse, the anesthesiologist and the surgeon in turn of this issue. They all assured me I would not really be out. ‘Oh yes I will!’ I said. By the time I got to the anesthesiologist who was even more inclined to argue the point I said I would bet him $100 on the matter. He finally agreed to start off easy and see what happened but figured really that I would end up with the normal dosage. While they were positioning me for the surgery I remember thinking very briefly that my are hur…. Later, when I started to wake up in recovery – which I did because the anesthesiologist stopped with a lighter dose – the recovery nurse commented – ‘You really are a lightweight!’ OK. I’ll take the abuse sooner than be over-anesthetized any day! There is a difference in general and specific knowledge. I don’t know a lot about anesthesia generally. I do know my own history with it very well. There are lots of things I don’t know in the fields of theology, ecclesiology, hermeneutics and so forth. But I know my own history with Jesus Christ very well. At the end of the day – and THE DAY – that’s enough for me.
Well, these are certainly exciting times for Biblical archaeology! I have already written about my experiences on the archaeological did at Shiloh and the famous/infamous ‘curse tablet’. In addition to this I just read an article on Archaeon Magnetics. A basic physics lesson – Prevailing theory is that the earth’s magnetic field is generated by heat churning in the planet’s core and radiating outward. This process arranges electrons in a pattern of matching orientations (attractive not repellent) so that the attraction between them creates the magnetic field. There are new tweaks to this old theory that are very interesting but I will not go into that here. When a material substance becomes magnetic it means that groups of electrons within the substance have shifted into alignment with the earth’s magnetic field. This requires a certain ‘free range’ capability of electrons in a substance. The more ‘fixed’ the electron positioning and orientation within a given substance, the less potential for magnetism. You can do a little bit with your hair and a balloon but only metals have significant magnetic potential and among metals, iron is the king of magnetism as it has lots of free range electrons capable of moving into alignment with the magnetic field and ‘attractive’ rather than ‘repellent’ orientation with each other. Heat and/or electrical current are the drivers of this magnetic alignment. So, for instance, some metals can become magnetic at elevated temperatures. But only four metals are magnetic at room temperature. Again – iron is king. The other three are nickel, cobalt and gadolinium. And, because there is always a weirdo – dysprosium becomes magnetic at LOW temperatures! AND – because nothing is ever as simple as we want it to be, metals like gold, which are not magnetic in the normal sense, apparently ARE magnetic at the nano-level which opens up all kinds of opportunities for nano-machinery functioning via magnetism inside a larger but totally non-magnetic component! Go figure. So, iron is a unique metal in that it will conduct heat, electricity AND magnetism and remain magnetic at room temperature. One other interesting note already known to every blacksmith– heat iron to a high enough temperature (the Curie Point) and the electrons scatter so that the iron loses its magnetism until it cools!
‘So what?!’ I hear you say -even though you pronounced it poorly through your yawn. Well, here’s one ‘so what’: most clay contains iron particles. Further, archaeological destruction layers (like the one I sifted through at Shiloh) are identified by two characteristics – smashing and ashes. The ashes are there because everything got set on fire. Does the picture begin to emerge? The iron particles, under heat, will have aligned with the magnetic field of the time (Did I mention that the magnetic field shifts over time). Comparing the alignment of iron molecules in clay (you have no idea how much pottery is in almost any archaeological context) scientists can identify sites that were destroyed at the same time (a military campaign). And, establishing a ‘magnetic field curve’ by examining iron alignment from samples of known dates, the various destruction layers can be accurately dated. This is especially helpful in the known ‘holes’ in carbon dating and may well refine – or even replace – carbon dating in the field of archaeology. And in the early going of this exciting new development, examination of 21 different destruction layers at 17 different archaeological sites have verified Old Testament accounts and dates of Egyptian, Aramean, Assyrian and Babylonian military campaigns from the 10th to the 6th centuries BC.
Pretty good for a book so many skeptics think to be ‘made up’ huh?
Continuing my studies in Biblical archaeology, I recently read several articles about Dr. Mazar’s (recently deceased) work in the City of David. To make sure we are all on the same page, the City of David is the designation for the city of Jerusalem as it was when David was king – the city he took from the Jebusites by leading a special forces expedition through a narrow tunnel carved to bring water inside the walls. Turned out it could bring soldiers inside the walls too. But only very bold ones willing to emerge from a small passage one at a time. Had they been detected in the tunnel they would all have been doomed. Anyway – David took the city and built his palace and administrative center there. The old city of Jerusalem as it stands now is not a big place. The city of David was tiny by comparison even with the modest area inside the existing walls. David’s son Solomon enlarged the city by adding the temple mount. But all that is long gone – a couple of major destructions ago. The original city of David was lost to time, buried under various and increasingly larger reconstructions of Jerusalem. Until some enterprising entrepreneur tried to get a permit to build a parking lot convenient to the modern old city. The original City of David was uncovered immediately. As you may guess, the parking lot was never built. But David’s city has emerged – And – with enlargements and improvements – was apparently in use all the way up to the Babylonian destruction. I will list only one of the many interesting things that have been found – a set of Bullae. A Bulla is a seal placed on a closed bag or sealed jar. The soft clay of the Bulla is stamped with a signet identifying the owner of the contents – and allowed to harden in place. Lots of Bullae have been found in the city of David – which makes sense for an administrative center. But the two most important ones were found only a few feet apart. The first – and remarkably whole and detailed – Bulla, with graphics and letters, identifies the owner as King Hezekiah. This is important as it identifies a Biblical king thus substantiating the record of the Bible. In fact, it’s a twofer as it identifies ‘Hezekiah the son of Ahaz’! The second Bulla – found only a few feet away – is flawed in two ways. 1. The top, where the graphic probably appeared, is broken off. 2. Whoever held the clay to impress the seal on it left a big thumb print on the lower left, obscuring the last letter (Hebrew is written right to left). The Hebrew word for prophet(s) is Navi(m). In Hebrew the word should end with an Aleph – indicating a sound much like clearing your throat. Assuming the Aleph was there, it has been obscured by the thumb print. So, forgetting Hebrew for just a moment and pretending the whole thing was in English, it would read – This belongs to Isaiah the Prophe(thumbprint).
Well, Ok. Hezekiah and Isaiah are mentioned in the same breath dozens of times in the Biblical record. Isaiah was the prophet who ministered to King Hezekiah. Isaiah was different from most of the prophets in that he was part of a noble household – the kind of family that would be expected to have a place in the administrative center surrounding the palace and a seal to identify their property. The two Bullae were only a few feet apart. You may be surprised to find that skeptics refuse to accept the Bulla as corroboration of the Biblical record of a specific prophet ministering to a specific king. After all, that last letter is missing. It could say anything. Maybe it says – Isaiah the Prophessor. Isaiah the Propheteer. Something. There are none blind as those who will not see.
Final thought: beyond the corroboration of the Biblical record – we just may have the thumb print of the prophet Isaiah! Bully! I mean Bullae!
First – my apologies for neglecting to put up any blog posts for a good while. Sometimes my life is crazy – well, my life is always crazy but sometimes it’s crazier than others. It’s the only excuse I have so it will have to do. Anyway – I did a thing this fall I have never done before. I put weed and feed on my lawn. I am not a big lawn care guy and have never vied for any prizes for any lawn related endeavors. But our lawn was getting so ugly it bothered even me! So I set out to repair it. I have already made two applications in August and September and tomorrow (Lord willing) will make the final Fall application – with Winter Guard! The ’feed’ component of the treatment made itself known right away. The grass started getting thicker and grew faster. I could have lived without it growing faster. But walking around looking at the lawn for the first week after the first application was an exercise in disappointment. The bag claimed the ‘weed’ component of the treatment killed 250 common lawn weeds. I began to wonder if I must have really uncommon lawn weeds – though I knew this not to be the case: crab grass, purselane, dandelions, buckhorn, lawn ivy, scorpion grass, creeping Charlie, wood sorrel, white clover, thistle - the usual list of suspects were all poking their heads up through the grass of my lawn – and showing no signs of duress. Then, in the second week the lawn ivy just curled up and died – little veins of brown running deep down through the grass, showing itself plainer where it crossed a (still healthy looking) dandelion or buckhorn that had spread out and choked the grass. Well, I thought, that’s something; 1 down, 249 to go! By the time I made the September application the dandelions and buckhorn were getting a little brown around the edges. By a few days after the second application, they were dying wholesale. The scorpion grass followed suit in a few more days. The crab grass generally specializes in the edges of a lawn. By then I had a nice tannish brown border going. Even the thistles were starting to look a little sickly. There remain two prominent holdouts: Creeping Charlie and Wood Sorrel. Hmmm, tough guys huh. But in the last little bit even they have begun to yellow up in a few patches here and there and the final application is still to come. Oddly – or maybe not – the whole exercise put me in mind of Satan and the church – not just IRCC – the whole church. Satan introduces slow poison and is patient enough to wait for it to do its work. Fast catastrophic poisons would get out attention and motivate us to action. But the slow poison is different and after all, only the weakest and least noticeable may be affected first. The stronger individuals and aspects maintain the appearance of health and vitality for quite a while even as the poison is at work. Near the end, perhaps there is still a nice bunchy wood sorrel showing off its attractive yellow blossoms – which doesn’t mean it hasn’t been poisoned and won’t be dead soon. I realize that for the purposes of this post I have flipped the value scale of the weeds I myself am trying to kill. But I remember learning long ago that the real definition of a weed is any plant you don’t want in a particular location. I grew up on a farm and even though you grew corn in one field just a year ago – this year’s volunteer corn is still a weed in the soybeans you are growing now! As a gardener, smart weed is my single most hated weed species. But people trying to create ideal duck and goose habitat actually plant the stuff! My point is, looking at the church as a field, Satan and God disagree about which plants are desirable and which need eradicated. But in the end, God makes the church live and Satan kills it. And, at the end of the day, slow poison has probably served Satan well. Be on guard – and don’t be deceived by the fact that it may take several generations to complete the job – the church will still be dead in the end. Turn away from the poison and to the God who deals in life!
First – my apologies for an inexcusably long break in blog writing. Coming home from a six-week absence in the middle of the summer…well it’s still not a good excuse but it’s the only one I got. So let me tell you a little about my trip to Israel. Many years (nearly 40) ago, as a young seminarian, I had an opportunity to go on an archaeological dig for college credit. I really wanted to go. The time wasn’t right. Young married, toddler, baby on the way, not on my job as a youth minister nearly long enough to ask for a sabbatical, didn’t have the necessary money, etc. Let me say this about God – His timing is always right. I would have been younger and stronger in my 20’s but I was much better prepared to profit from the experience in my 60’s – and still able to work plenty hard enough – and sharing the experience with four family members (wife, wife’s sister, brother-in-law, and eldest son) added to the blessing. I learned a ton and would recommend the experience to anyone – if not the full six weeks, many volunteers dug for a single week, my wife and sister-in-law came for the first week of touring and then dug for a week. That arrangement; airfare, hotel, bus transportation (week-long original tour and smaller weekend tours) in Israel, meals and all included – cost $3,000 apiece. My six-week gig ran about $8,000. Try to arrange such a thing outside the context of an archaeological dig and you will realize what a bargain it is. You pay for the rest of the experience with sweat. But it’s good sweat.
Imagine a thirteen-acre site with a hill/knob about the size of the one the IRCC building is located on. Now, imagine there have been thirteen distinct periods of occupation of the site over a few thousand years, most periods ending with a destruction – conquest, earthquake, etc. Following a destruction, a new period begins with salvaging a lot of building materials from the ruin, leveling up the rubble, adding soil, broken rock and every imaginable sort of trash – old pottery, worn out flint tools, bones, broken stone, etc. (Archaeologists love trash!) and rebuilding on top of the previous level. This results in current ground level for the site being dozens of feet higher than say – three thousand years ago. The period you want to look at, of course, is from three thousand years ago. No problem! You just have to move the hill.
Not so fast! When you have moved the hill you will have destroyed all the evidences of all those more recent periods of occupation. The record of that evidence must be preserved. So, you move the hill by scraping the soil away an inch at a time with a hand-trowel. When you encounter rocks, you scrape the soil from around them so the trained archaeologists can see the rocks at every level as you go. Rocks may indicate a wall that has been pushed over – or the top of a wall still standing beneath your feet – or a floor – or a second-story floor that fell during a destruction – or or or… You also save the pottery you find while scraping the soil away – and the bones – and the flint – and the seeds – and of course any coins, bits of metal, intact tools (bone sewing needles, stone scrapers, etc.). When the archaeologist has photographed, categorized, taken elevations, and marked on a grid everything of import, bagged all the objects and identified the nature of the rocks at the current level of scraping, everything is removed, toted off for dry and wet sifting – or to a big and growing rock pile, and you start scraping again.
Down you go – the masonry techniques, the types of pottery, dateable bones, material of tools – and weapons (sling stones, ballista, arrowheads), coins and so forth dating the eras. Standing walls are left intact, emerging from the dirt as you dig. And, of course, each change in soil composition must be noted and recorded – trashy fill, decayed clay bricks, etc. Also, once in a while you find what have been work areas – the remnants of a clay over with charred bones, seeds, and so forth – storage areas with lots of jar stoppers and the like – occasional smashed but complete clutches of pottery that can be reassembled. And, periodically, the destructions, extended strata of ashes and breakage. It all tells a story
My own work mainly consisted of de-constructing walls that had been unearthed in a previous year’s digging. You would be amazed what all workmen throw into the clay joints between stones! I finally worked my way down to the bronze age walls we were looking for and, if everything the archaeologists theorize proves to be true, stood in the holy of holies in the tabernacle at Shiloh.
Apart from the experience, which was great, why does it matter. Because skeptics doubt the historical reliability of the Bible. They regard figures such as Joshua as mythological and events like the conquest of the promise land as late propaganda. But what if the Israelites were there in the fourteenth century BC and what if they did build a tabernacle? What if that monumental building can be proven? What if the remains of actual sacrifices (kosher animals – right side bones representing the priest’s portion) can be demonstrated. What if a destruction took place about 1050 BC – right when the Bible would place the Philistine destruction?
Well, work remains to be done at Shiloh but none of the questions from the previous paragraph are what ifs’ anymore. All of that is now demonstrated. It was a privilege and an honor for me to be a small part of the process.
BTW – for anyone interested, we will be making a presentation – with photos – concerning the Shiloh dig at IRCC, September 14. Light refreshments at 6:30, presentation at 7. All welcome!
As a child I recall having sharp vision – at least, I was unaware of any deficits. I learned to read quickly and I remember various occasions reading small print (the writing on coins, the index to the road atlas, etc.) for dad. It seemed almost tragic to me that someone should have an inability to read such clear and crisp text! Or course, Dad had worn glasses for all of my young life so, such were the breaks I guessed. One year in grade school they gave us all vision tests and I could read right down to the last line of the poster. Again, I had similar thoughts about how unfortunate it was that some of classmates already had to wear glasses at the time and without their corrective lenses could only make out the Giant E at the top! My own vision deficits crept up on me. My near vision remained strong but by the time I was old enough to drive I needed glasses to read signs at any great distance. I did want to drive – so – when I got the glasses I was amazed at how poor my distance vision had actually become. Suddenly, trees in the middle distance had individual leaves! The mortar lines on masonry buildings were distinguishable! My distance vision had faded so slowly I had been unaware of how bad it had become. It continued to worsen over the years and my corrective lenses became stronger. There came a time when, without glasses, I could no longer read even the large bright interstate exit notices – especially at night – until I was right on them. House address numbers were completely out of my capacity if I had somehow gotten off without with the specs. In all this time, my near vision remained comparatively strong and the glasses were in the way for reading books, newspapers, or still, even coins and indices. When this was taken note of, I was urged to try bifocals. HATE! HATE! HATE! I had read that some people’s vision improved in middle age as a function of the changing shape of the eyes over the years. This turned out to be the case with me. In my mid 40’s my distance vision began to improve. Steet signs and house numbers suddenly popped into legibility to my unaided eyes! Lo and behold, for the first time ever, I could pass the eye test at the BMV without glasses! The restriction was removed from my license! Major annoyance alleviated. My optometrist told me I had developed natural binocular vision – one eye with good distance vision and the other with good up close vision. I experimented looking at things at varying distances with one eye and then the other and – whatayaknow! Indeed, I had binocular vision. Suited me! Once again I could function without the need for corrective lenses. About age 60 though, I began to notice that my up close vision was fading. In a reverse from my teenage years, I now see fine at a distance but – I get it after all these years dad – that small print is a bummer. These days I am in need of a kid to read coins, indices, my concordance, etc. for me. I’m sure they feel bad for me. After many years absence I have renewed my acquaintance with the optometrist! I can still pass the eye test at the BMV! But I’m sure, if I live long enough, that day is coming. So, my capacity to see has changed considerably over the years. Oh for a return to the days of my early childhood when I just took seeing clearly for granted. In spiritual terms though, I do find that return. As a child I felt I saw clearly into the heart of God. There was no fuzz of worldly distortion or distraction of floaters. God was just there and it was perfectly natural. As an oldster, that kind of vision returns. And eternity? Our sight there will make our best days here like ‘looking through a glass darkly.’
Most people who know me know that I like birds. I have, for three decades now written a monthly column in the IRCC newsletter concerning birds. Those who know me better also know that I am equally fond of trees. I find trees amazing. I always remember the day I looked at the mature hickory in the pond lot of the little farm I grew up on and thought to myself, That’s essentially a really big parsnip. I’m not entirely why parsnip came to mind rather than some other vegetable, perhaps the profile of a stand-alone hickory is a little carroty. My family has long since grown weary of my attempts to teach them to recognize tree species. We go somewhere new and the next thing they know I am nosing about at the base of some tree or other and they just shrug. But I have learned new species of trees almost everywhere I’ve ever gone. In Georgia I learned the Soap Berry. In Oregon I learned the Cimarron. In Oklahoma I learned the Western Hackberry – which is considerably different from the eastern variety I grew up with. Also in Georgia I discovered the tree that owns itself. Look it up! One of the most exciting moments in our visit to Hershey, PA was the discovery of the biggest Willow Oak I have ever seen. My wife would probably pick a different moment. In Louisiana I first discovered the Crepe Myrtles. And so it goes. What amazes me is that when I find a new tree in a new locale – none of the locals can tell me what it is. I have to search that out for myself! Most people everywhere, it turns out, share the views of my family – It’s a tree. What else do I need to know? It’s almost inconceivable to me, this not wanting to know what kind of tree it is. Is there any edible fruit? Is it a good source of lumber? Is it highly prized as an ornamental? Did you know that people have used hollowed out sycamore stumps as pig pens? Did you know there are a million leaves on a mature American Elm – and there aren’t so many of those left. Have you seen the width of the floor planking and barn boxing that came out of those old Chestnuts? Not many of those left either. Were you aware that a Weeping Willow will dry up wet spots in your yard? Of course, it will also invade your septic system, so…
I first learned to climb trees in the Catalpas at my maternal grandmothers. I quickly added to my ‘species climbed’ list. I knew the Tulip Trees were the tallest in our neck of the woods long before I read it. Climbing to the top of a large Tulip Tree gets you a good view of – everything – including being able to look down on the tops of all the other trees. I have helped with maple syrup enough to know which of the Maple species are preferred. I have made root beer (not just tea) from Sassafras trees. I like the taste of Beech nuts, Tupelo berries and Black Haw. I will never forget the massive old Black Walnuts in the virgin forest at Turkey Run State Park. I love the varying size range of trees. I love the varying profiles of trees. It astounds me how many shades of green there are. Don’t even get me started on texture – though I will say I have always been fascinated by the muscley/sinewy flow of the American Hornbeam. OK, I will also add that the gator hide/pebbly bark of Persimmons is cool. And since you brought it up, the peely bark of Birch trees is pretty interesting.
There are 60,000+ known species of trees on earth and my knowledge represents only a pitiful handful of those. To date, my favorite is the Redbud - though I understand there are maybe twenty species of Redbud – I guess I like them all about equally. And, of course, I may yet discover a species I like better.
At the end of the day, everything I know about trees leads me to this conclusion – God is infinitely creative. And when I think about all the things trees do for us I realize God is also infinitely good. And when I think about how complex trees are I realize God is also infinitely smart!
Perhaps it comes as no surprise that my all-time favorite poem is A Ballad of the Trees and the Master by Sidney Lanier. You might look that up too.
I remember a day in 1969 – rummaging around in Taylor’s Music Store in Martinsville, Indiana. My older sister and I were both recruited to the marching band before we reached high school age and we were there so mom could float a second mortgage to get Leann a flute. I looked around at this and that – all pretty much out of my price range at 12 years old – until I came across a ukulele. I had enough paper route and lawn-mowing cash to afford a ukulele, a felt pick and a copy of Mel Bay’s Fun with the Ukulele instruction book. It was an impulse buy. I mainly played the Sousaphone in the marching band and made do with a model owned by the school as there was never a serious question of really mortgaging the farm to afford a Sousaphone or figuring out where, in our small and crowded home, such a thing should be kept! In retrospect, all my siblings got their own instruments – flute, clarinet, trombone, and saxophone! Was it my fault the band director needed me to play the biggest and most expensive thing? But – I digress. The uke was an impulse buy and I learned to play it (It’s not that hard!) Just a few years later two friends and I formed an impromptu junior church camp counselor band writing and singing our own material accompanied by guitar, ukulele, and a set of spoons. We called ourselves ‘Spoons, Strings and Other Things’. All the third and fourth graders we helped look after that week loved it. There were several local pulpit ministers involved in that week of camp and we actually got invitations to visit their congregations (and one county wide hymns-sing) to provide special music. The gig ran through the summer and into the fall. If Alan and Brad ever happen to read this, I hope they remember the thing as fondly as I do. Brad had recently acquired a new guitar and gifted me with his old one. Back to Taylors for a set of guitar strings, a plastic pick and a copy of Mel Bay’s Fun with the Guitar! Also, a harmonica – hay baling money by this time. I went off to college able to get along on all three instruments – and of course, the Sousaphone. My friends Roger and Sue – who subsequently married – and I played together a lot; some Cowsills tunes and the Christian Choruses popular at the time. Sue recently passed away but I hope she and Roger also remember those times with as much happiness as I. As I made my way into youth ministry, I worked harder on the guitar and, like my friend Brad before me, purchased better instruments and gifted Brad’s old guitar to another aspiring musician. I spent many years keeping up with the changing choruses and camp songs, led worship for a thousand weeks of church camp (in many of which little impromptu bands got put together), played for my own youth group, and formed a quartet with three other men from Harmon Chapel Christian Church in Shady Valley, Tennessee and another group with some of the members of the youth group there. Both groups got some invitations to sing here and there and we had a lot of fun – at least I did. If Tony, Kevin, Lonnie, Brian, Barry and Rob ever read this, I hope they’d say they did too. The time eventually came for me to become a Senior Minister and I took my first pulpit in Indianapolis. While there, I learned to play bass as part of a quartet called the Red Letter Edition. This group (with a bit of a shifting membership) lasted many years – outliving my decade long tenure at Drexel Gardens Christian Church – and travelled more than any other I have ever belonged to. We made a pretty good-sized splash at a national men’s preaching clinic in Oklahoma. Iterations of the group have even come to my congregation in East Canton, Ohio a few times. It was a blast. Harold started the whole thing and has also gone to be with the Lord many years ago. But I hope he, Will, and Richard – and then Bob, Wally, Dianne and a few others over the years were as blessed as I. I still play but it finally happened that the current praise music has moved on without me and I am no good at leading it. Mostly, I play mandolin and sometimes harmonica for our contemporary praise band – led by a young family man to whom I gave his first guitar lesson. My son – whom I taught, plays bass and sometimes guitar. I work with other youth trying to keep the music going into the future. I do some programs here and there and play guitar for a southern gospel team that leads worship for our congregation once a month or so. It’s still a great blessing and I hope the dozen or so folk I currently play with would all say the same. I have recently started messing with a five-string banjo. Maybe someday soon I will break it out at church but first I would like to meet the sadist who thought it was a good idea to put the high treble string out of order! I am not and will never be a professional musician – or even a particularly good one. But praising God through music has tied me to so many people over the years and been such a source of happiness. Passing on the blessing has been a blessing. Things should always work that way!
I write this particular blog because one of my grandsons has recently taken up ukulele and harmonica. I smile because he has no idea!
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Pastor of Indian Run Christian Church