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!
Lord willing, come May I will make a trip to serve as a volunteer on the archaeological dig at Shiloh in Israel. This is something I have wanted to do since my early twenties and I feel blessed to finally have the opportunity. Just last week, the outfit I will be working with (ABR) made an extremely important discovery. They were ‘wet sifting’ the spoil piles of another organizations previous dig at Mt. Ebal. Wet sifting has not been used much in Israel to this point and much remains undiscovered among piles of dry sifted dirt and debris. Among the seeds, pottery fragments, and other small items, they found a curse tablet – a 2 centimeter square piece of folded lead with a curse scribed on the inside. (There is writing on the outside as well but a translation of that has yet to be released.) The lead could not be unfolded without destroying the piece so the reading of the letters inside the fold was done radiologically. Curse tablets are a known quantity. Many such have been found. They were a ceremonial item – the appointed leader making him/herself subject to the terms of the curse specified should they fail to fulfill their accepted obligations. (Think of the phrase from Ruth – ‘The Lord do all this and much more to me if ought buy death part me from thee.’ – only formalized for a ceremony.
This particular curse tablet is important for several reasons.
Why does this matter? Critics of the Bible have long contended that almost none of the Old Testament could have been written within hailing distance of the events it purports to record because they thought the Hebrews were an illiterate people until the period of forced education in the Babylonian Captivity in the 5th Century BC. The curse tablet – dateable because it’s lead, remember – backs the timeline for the literacy necessary to have written the Old Testament up 500 years – and shows that said literary ability existed prior to that (The advanced proto-Hebrew alphabet in the curse tablet was not invented out of whole cloth just for the occasion.) The people who formed this tablet were intellectually capable of writing any and all chapters of the Old Testament.
This serves to increase our confidence in the direct knowledge of events possessed by the O.T writers. At least it should. I predict that the skeptical crowd will not be moved. And, I realize that backing up the development of writing half a millennia doesn’t prove the divine agency of the destruction of the walls of Jericho but – if the assumption of the late development of literacy counted against the reliability of the Bible, surely the destruction of that assumption must count for the reliability of the Bible. But I repeat my prediction – to the minds of the skeptical scholars, it won’t.
The skeptics used to say the absence of any evidence of an actual Assyrian Empire rendered a large portion of the Old Testament non-credible. The discovery of the evidence for the Assyrian Empire and the relationship of that empire to such figures as Omri and Jehu did not convince them to regard the Bible any more favorably. They used to argue that absence of any evidence outside the Old Testament for an event like the destruction of Sodom showed the unreliability of the Old Testament – if something THAT BIG happened there would be evidence and we’d have found it. Well, recently, we have found it (Tell Hammam). And again, I get it – discovering this city on the north shore of the dead sea where the buildings were melted into puddles and the ground rendered uninhabitable for the next 700 years by the close passage of a meteorite – does not prove divine agency. But if the lack of evidence for such an instance of destruction by fire falling from heaven (interesting description, eh?) tells against the Bible then the discovery of such a place – in the region indicated by the Old Testament – ought, in equal measure – to increase confidence in the Bible. But it hasn’t.
I realize I’m getting old and crotchety but – I have reached the conclusion that most of those who cry out for proof – ‘Come on, just a little proof of what the Bible says!’ don’t mean it – or want it. There is no proof that would move them. Any proof that arises only increases their discomfort and hostility against God’s word because they have already made up their mind that IT JUST CAN’T BE!
I can only say that the more I learn the more I am convinced of the trustworthiness of the Bible.
From just before I turned 4 to just after I turned 12 my family resided in a small house on Forrest Street in Eminence, Indiana. I didn’t know at the time that the name of the street was Forrest – there were no signs and we got our mail from a box at the tiny Eminence post office. I also didn’t realize at the time that the house was small – but it was. The original floor plan had four rooms arranged in a simple square. Only one of the four rooms had doors that closed it off from the others. This room served as my parent’s bedroom. The other three rooms featured open passages. One was the kitchen, all five of us kids slept in one and the fourth was our living room. A later bump out addition provided a tiny indoor bathroom to replace the old outhouse. One more addition – which I helped with a little bit – was a utility room off the kitchen built mainly to hold a washing machine. Prior to this, moms’ options included washing clothes by hand in a wash tub (which did double duty as a bath tub) or dragging her mob of little kids to the tiny Eminence laundry mat. The house had lath and plaster walls with no additional insulation, minimal electricity and zero provision for central heat. In the years of our residency we switched from a wood stoves in the kitchen and living room to an electric range in the kitchen and a gas heater in the living room. I remember also that dad put knotty pine paneling on the walls close to the gas heater. The house originally got water from a hand pump in a well in the side yard. Installing an electric pump in the well and running plumbing into the house was an obvious afterthought and the hand pump was left in place, protruding from a hole in the twin formed concrete slabs that covered the otherwise open well pit. That job had been done at the time the bathroom was added and the bathroom was the only room on a slab so that portion of the plumbing was fairly secure. The additional lines run to feed the kitchen sink were – less than tightly sealed and we suffered through more than one episode of furry invaders: I say suffered though I was at an age to recall them as pleasantly exciting adventures. Catching and evicting chipmunks has a certain appeal to little boys. Dad sealed the opening around the plumbing better after the episode involving the rat – an episode that remains a clear memory though I was only four going on five at the time. Dad’s first attempt to repel ‘varmints’ was to place poison in the crawl space under the house. If the rat were not already pretty sick from the poison the story would have been different. Anyway – It started with Mom shrieking – ‘RAT!!!!’ The piercing tone of her announcement of the latest ‘varmint’ got all our attention and sure enough – there was a rat in the passageway between the living room and the kids’ bedroom – staring at us with its beady little black eyes. I wasn’t sure what all was going on in mom’s head but she obviously was much more alarmed about the rat than she had been about the chipmunks. She had partnered with my older sister and I in driving the chipmunks either out the door or into a box that allowed us to carry them out the door. Even at my very young age I caught the drift that mom was not going to take an active hand in evicting the rat. Perhaps it was the way she pointed at the unfortunate rodent (with the hand she wasn’t busy chewing the nails off) and wailed – ‘Don’t let it get away!’ Well, OK. I advanced on the rat (solo – my sister shared my mom’s inexplicable aversion to the animal) and it turned to flee. I realized later that it moved very slow for a rat and that it must have been suffering from the poison bait in the crawl space. Otherwise, it would not have been so easy for me to seize it by the tail as I did. The rat turned its head toward my little almost five-year-old fingers (again – very slow for a rat) and mom screamed again – ‘Let it go’. So I did and it started to scrabble away and mom screamed – ‘Don’t let it get away’ So I grabbed it by the tail again. Mom screamed ‘Let it go!’ so I did – beginning to be very confused. One more cycle of catch and release occurred before Dad – who had been working on the car in the back yard and heard the commotion – came through the door with a crescent wrench still in hand. The rat was dealt with shortly and the space around the kitchen plumbing better sealed that same evening. That house is gone now – and four other houses that used to line Forrest Street – which now has a sign! It is hard for me to believe that five homes used to occupy that tiny patch of grass. The last time I looked, the old well was still there covered by the same concrete slabs – though the hand pump was gone. My sister got her tongue stuck on that thing once – but that’s another story. There are things I miss about those days and my thoughts about that house are somewhat nostalgic – we were largely happy there. But I will tell you this – I would not trade living in my current house (or any other house I have lived in since we moved when I was 12) to go back to the structure on Forrest Street – if it were still there. I find God always to be good and I am happy enough now. But when I have moved into my eternal home, I suspect I will not ever want to trade back.
I have been leading a Bible Study on I Samuel for a few months now (all welcome – Wednesday mornings, free breakfast at 8:00, Bible study immediately after). The life of Saul always leaves me feeling sad. We just went over chapter 18 which strikes me as the crux moment of all the trouble. Prior to this, Saul has made mistakes. Though he didn’t want to be king in the first place, be began to be addicted to power. ‘Power’ being the issue, he trusted military might more than he trusted God. These things led to Samuel informing Saul that God had rejected him from being king but Saul’s seeming inability to step down and go back to farming. Then David enters the picture. There is the slaying of Goliath (a job Saul surely should have stepped up to himself but didn’t) and the subsequent adulation of David by the people. Here Saul complains – What remains but to give David the kingdom?! Hint – that might have been a good idea! But Saul isn’t going to do that.
And the longer Saul refuses, the worse his problems become.
*Separated from God, Saul is troubled by an evil spirit. This idea is complicated by the description that God sent the evil spirit to trouble Saul. There’s more than one way to understand that. Briefly (since it really isn’t the point of this blog) The spirit in question may be an angel – not evil in itself - but accomplishing a purpose that may be described as ‘evil’ for Saul – contrary to Saul’s personal good and happiness. Or, the spirit may be a fallen angel; little to no distinction being made between what God allows and what God does/sends. Either way, Saul is deprived of the wholesome influence of God and left to something else. Repairing his relationship with God – which would need to have involved abdicating the throne – would be the direction of healing. Continuing in rebellion against God leads to – not healing.
*Saul’s son Jonathan becomes David’s fast friend. Saul perceives this as a personal betrayal. The more he hates David the more he resents his son’s loyalty to David. Not only is Jonathan, from his father’s perspective, being disloyal to his dad – he is also being disloyal to his own future interests. Saul wants Jonathan to take the throne after him – not David!
*Saul arranges (partly in accord with the promises he made to ‘whoever’ would slay Goliath) for David to marry one of his daughters. He plans for the daughter to become ‘a snare’ to David, i.e. feeding Saul crucial information about her husband and using her wifely position to influence David according to Saul’s dictates. In this manner, Saul will control and likely be able to ruin David.
*Saul, failing in his attempts to murder David personally, repeatedly puts David in dangerous situations with their national enemy – the Philistines. Saul openly admits to himself that he is trying to get David conveniently dead.
But Jonathan remains loyal to David. Michal (Saul’s daughter) turns out actually to love and support her husband and God keeps giving David success against the Philistines. Saul is increasingly isolated – neither his God nor his family seems to favor him over David.
What Saul seems incapable of realizing is that neither God nor his children wish to favor wrong over right. But, then, this is a common human failing. We want those important to us to support us – right or wrong – to take our side in every fight. We are painfully slow to realize that those who won’t support our wrong actions are doing us a favor.
And here, with all these frustrations mounting, the language changes. Saul had ‘hated’ David. Now he ‘fears’ David and a ‘feedback loop’ is established. Terminology note: In the world of audio-electronics microphones produce an increasingly loud and unpleasant sound when a feedback loop is established – Speakers amplify the signal from the microphone and the microphone picks up the sound from the speaker – which amplifies the signal from the microphone – which picks up the sound of the speaker – which amplifies the signal from the microphone – which ….. The technical term for this is ‘positive loop gain’. We all call it feedback. Business and advertising have picked up the idea and strive to set up loops in which information from the point of sale is fed back into product development which increases sales – the information from which is fed back into product development which …. They still call it a feedback loop. It’s a concept in psychology too. As it turns out – the phenomenon of feedback is useful for describing all sorts of things.
Anyway – Saul and feedback loops. Saul falls victim to twin monsters - isolation and fear – which feed each other. The two monsters grow increasingly large. And Saul’s soul shrivels, consumed by the growing feedback monsters. It didn’t have to happen. There were paths out. Saul just refused to take them.
And how different are we really? Don’t let Satan set up feedback loops in your life. But, for what it’s worth, there are positive (positive in the moral sense, not the digital audio sense) feedback loops for us too. Love and hope feed each other just as surely as isolation and fear but the result is – better.
During the tenth and eleventh years of my life, owing to scheduling issues for my mother, I spent a larger than usual amount of my summers at my maternal grandparents’ place. This coincided with my mother’s older sister living with my grandparents – my aunt married a military man and he was deployed overseas for a spell. Well, at the time, my aunt and I were oil and water – or maybe gasoline and a match. Grandma raised eleven kids and had always been pretty tolerant of noisy play and, so long as there was not an IU basketball game on, kids selecting the television programming. My aunt had at this point raised no kids and was in favor of peace, quiet, and strict control of the television, and the house – and everything else. So, my siblings and cousins and I were routinely banished from the house, urged on by swats from an egg turner – my aunt’s weapon of choice. I was the oldest of the male cousins (oldest of the females too with the exception of my one older sister) and something of a leader of the pack. The kind of outdoor activities I led involved the hay loft, trees, the woodlot, a small cave that existed on the farm, the gently sloped roof of a hog house, a long rope left over from an old system for putting up loose hay, and so forth. It turned out my aunt was not in favor of any of these activities either. Whenever she discovered we were involved in them she would issue forth from the house, egg turner in hand and demand that we line up for instructions drilled in with repeated swats. Grandma shook her head a lot and grumbled that kids ought to be allowed to be kids but no more than that. My mother laughed when the whole matter was reported to her. My aunt’s reign of terror continued – which is simply to say that I continued to find things to do that irritated her. I don’t think I thought this out in advance. I recollect it as the impulse of a moment. I had rounded up some old lumber from the destruction of a dilapidated granary, grandpa’s can of bent rusty nails, a hammer and a piece of pipe and was busily constructing a see-saw to accompany the swing I had hung from a limb in a barnyard cedar -for which, by the way, I had already faced egg turner justice. My aunt’s objection to the swing was in my methodology. I had flung the afore mentioned long rope over the first limb, perhaps fifteen feet off the ground, shook the loose end back within reach, tied a slip knot and drawn it tight. I then used grandpa’s brace and bit to drill two holes in an appropriately sized plank, passed the rope through the holes, tied the loose end around my waist and climbed the rope to the already fastened end, sat on the limb, adjusted the length to level the plank below, tied off the remaining end, and climbed back down the rope to the ground. It all seemed perfectly reasonable to me – less so to my aunt. I subsequently reasoned that the construction of the see-saw would require no climbing that would ‘risk breaking my fool neck’ and so concluded that it should not be a problem. This was an incorrect conclusion. My aunt re-emerged from the house with the egg turner. It occurred to me all in an instant. I could climb the rope – had already done so. I was almost certain my aunt could not. This turned out to be a correct conclusion. I sat secure on the high limb while she fussed, shouted, threatened, paced below, and stopped several times to jerk on the rope. It occurred to me that she might be trying to shake me out of the tree which, I thought, put the lie to her supposed concern for my fool neck! I was never swatted with the egg turner again – not for lack of effort. It was simply that I could run faster and climb things. My grandmother and mother were sufficiently amused by the whole proceeding to let me get away with it. This period of my life came to an end – I turned twelve and was reckoned old enough to stay home alone and my uncle came home and my aunt move out of grandma’s place. I can no longer recall which thing happened first. My aunt and I eventually reconciled though all these years later she is still fond of explaining to people that though I am all right now – I was a baaaad kid. Anyway, it was certainly a poor lesson to learn – that one can escape punishment by running ahead of the punisher rather than by modifying one’s behavior. I hope I have learned better since and at any rate, we cannot ever really outrun justice in a universe where God reigns – and He does.
I enjoy the History Channel program ‘Forged in Fire’. Someday I may try my hand at knife making or Black Smithery in general. I have never done much in that line. My sons have done more and it pleases me that I was able to pass along my Great Grandfather’s anvil to them for use in their projects. That said, most of my sermons involve some kind of side study – either a related Bible study, a historical study, or a technical study. (For one sermon not too long ago I studied the history of toilets and septic systems in the ancient world.) I seldom use everything from such a study in the actual sermon. Sometimes I use none of it explicitly. It may be enough for my background knowledge to be expanded. Most times I will include at least a few details of such a study. Only very occasionally does the study become the sermon. Anyway, for a recent sermon the side study was Biblical, historical and technical! I used some of it in the sermon. The main point was to better understand the text in question. I will share a bit of this now in the hope that the issue itself may interest some and that some may see how to expand their own Bible studies.
In II Kings 6, the prophet Elisha causes an iron ax head to float. A member of his community – the Sons of the Prophets – had borrowed the axe head. In the process of the job being done, the iron ax head flew off the handle and disappeared beneath the waters of the Jordan provoking the particular son of the prophets to lament – ‘Alas, it was borrowed.’
Like most things in the ministry of Elisha, the incident generally strikes us as strange. I believe there is a much larger spiritual lesson contained in the incident but in this blog I will only be speaking to a technical question. So the ax head fell in the river. Why was that such a big deal? The incident doesn’t really make much sense – or convey the larger spiritual lesson – until we understand why the lost ax head should be such a big deal.
Most of you probably already know that the eras between ‘pre-history’ and ‘modern history’ are divided into three general periods: the stone age, the bronze age and the iron age. These divisions were established because the progress from stone tools to bronze tools to iron tools had major impacts on civilization. It should also be understood that the divisions are not chronologically neat. The changes did not happen everywhere at once – not even near at once. Still, it can be technically said that the chunk of history covered by the Old Testament falls partly into all three – stone, bronze and iron ages.
There are seven ‘metals of antiquity’: gold, silver, lead, tin, copper, iron and mercury. The only one of these metals of antiquity not mentioned specifically in the Bible is mercury. In the progress of antiquity, records outside the Bible agree that two peoples known to the Bible – the Hittites and the Philistines – were pioneers in the transition from the bronze age to the iron age. The switch required advances in smelting and forging technology.
The non-ferrous metals known to antiquity all have relatively low melting temperatures. I say relatively because (excluding mercury) they all melt somewhere between 800 and 1100 degrees F. But iron melts above 1500 degrees F. Picking up those extra degrees was a big hurdle. The earliest iron working was done on metal harvested from meteorites – the smelting having been accomplished by the heat provided in the passage through the atmosphere. But the Hittites and Philistines discovered how to smelt raw ore gathered from the earth rather than fallen from the heavens. The main necessity was charcoal. (It is interesting here that the earlier Hebrew word for ‘Smith’ was ‘nappar’ – the user of bellows - but the later Hebrew word for ‘Smith’ was pehami – the user of charcoal) Not only did charcoal make a hotter fire, at temperatures well below the normal melting temperature of iron, the heat from charcoal alloyed carbon into the iron. You don’t want much carbon or the iron becomes so hard as to be brittle. But a little carbon hardens the iron AND lowers the temperature at which it can be forged. Iron could now be smelted and forged and temperatures only a little higher than the non-ferrous metals.
The proprietors of this new technology suddenly enjoyed tremendous economic and military advantage. Bronze weapons don’t fare well in contact with steel weapons and the new iron/steel tools took and held better edges and lasted longer. The first iron agers carefully guarded their secrets to maintain these advantages. But, of course, secrets get out. It just took a while.
The ’early iron age’ – that time in which the secret technology was slowly spreading – is reckoned to have run from 1200 – 600 AD. During this time the needed techniques were learned by the Egyptians and spread as far away as China. The Americas were late comers to the iron age. When the Europeans began arriving 2000 years later, the Native Americans were still stone or bronze age peoples.
If you study the early chapters of I Kings you will discover that the Philistines stringently and violently kept their secrets of iron-mongery from the Israelites in the generation of Saul. This was part of the way they maintained their control of Israel. Elisha (early II Kings comes a little later – about 800 BC – closer to the end of the early iron age than the beginning. The point is that there would be a few iron axe heads around for Elisha and his Israelite contemporaries – and these tools would be vastly superior to stone or bronze versions - but they would be PRICEY! As nearly as I can find out, a member of Elisha’s prophecy school would have to spend an entire month’s wages to buy such a thing. And in this instance the son of the prophets in question did not buy the iron ax head. He borrowed it. He borrowed a thing worth about 9% of all the money he could expect to earn in a year and lost it in the river. ALAS, IT WAS BORROWED! I am on the hook! This being the heart of tax season, I can tell you it would be like me being on the hook for about $6000. Alas! Maybe even alak!
Apart from making this incident from II Kings more comprehensible (and helping prepare us for the larger spiritual lesson) the study lends credence to the historicity of the Bible as a whole. You might try moving forward a few more centuries and considering how texts like Isaiah 44:12 fit into the historical progression. Of course, we might also back up to Genesis 4:22 and read that Tubal-Cain was a worker of various metals including iron. Wait – what! It’s too early! I will tell you that I think much knowledge was lost in the flood of Noah. Anyway – if this inspires you to expand your Bible Study techniques, have fun!
I have never been good at doing nothing. But I have always been good at being still. There’s a difference. At least there has been for me. I was in many ways an odd child (I was often told so at the time and people who speak with the retrospect of the decades since still agree on this issue). I was about normally gregarious and my siblings and I played much together and I had friends. But I frequently sought time alone. For what reason, you may ask. Well, when I was 9 or so, my family still resided in the heart of a tiny town called Eminence, Indiana. There was a utility building behind the house and behind the utility building was a small weed patch – a space boxed in between the shed, the garden plot, the neighboring farmer’s fence-line and a gravel driveway. The rest of the property got tilled or mowed respectively but this little corner was generally left to its own devices. In short order it was grown up in horseweed, iron weed, Jopie and the other taller weeds that choke out the grass, clover, sorrel, etc. and rule supreme until the more briary growths get started. Off and on, I had use for the dry woody stems of the horseweed in the fall and the tough pliant stems of the ironweed in the mid to late summer – but that’s another story. I also haunted the weed patch because it was a prime location for catching grasshoppers, katydids and crickets for fishing bait. In the pursuit of bait I discovered that Praying Mantises also haunted the weed patch. They were bigger and creepier than the grasshoppers and I generally left them alone. One day I saw a Praying Mantis holding and eating a struggling grasshopper. The fascinating, if somewhat grisly scene captured my curiosity. Among other questions – I knew how I caught grasshoppers – how did the Mantises catch them? This one obviously had! Helpful internet videos not having made their advent in the early 1960’s, on a subsequent visit to the weed patch I say down with my back to the rear wall of the utility shed and got still. After a while a big green mantis made its presence known by hopping/climbing from the stem of one weed to another. I hadn’t seen it until it moved. If I hadn’t caught it assuming its new location I might not have been able to see it then. I had always kind of stumbled on them by accident before. The long slender green mantis hugged the long slender green weed stem and held still. I maintained my station against the shed wall and held still. I don’t know exactly how long it took. A while. Now and then a grasshopper would hop from place to place in the weed patch. Finally, one hopped onto a stem within reach of the mantis. The mantis maintained its grip on its perch with four legs though those legs extended and reached out with the big barbed ‘praying’ legs to snatch the grasshopper off the neighboring weed. Dinner was served. Oddly, no attempt of mine to describe the fascinating scene to my siblings (three of whom are female) could move them to spend any appreciable time crouching against a shed in a weed patch. The very notion brought on dismissive eye rolls. For myself, I discovered that there were almost limitless creek banks, logs in the woods, perches in trees and so forth that served as places to be still and see neat stuff. I found that if you hold still enough long enough, chipmunks will climb on your legs. If you are able to hold still in the dark hours sans the comfort of a campfire, possums and skunks will come right up and sniff at you. When it’s a skunk you get real good at continuing to hold still until the skunk satisfies its curiosity and moves on. I have watched a fox pad by, climb a large anthill and survey the surroundings before moving on. He never knew I was there because I am good at holding still. I also now knew right where to set a trap to acquire a fox fur! This kind of holding still is not the same as doing nothing because it gathers knowledge and reveals wonders. Activity is good too. But my life would be poorer without the hours of solitude and stillness from my childhood on. Those hours also prepared me to understand Psalm 46:10 and learn how to profit from the Psalmist’s advice ‘Be still and know that I am God’ – advice I highly recommend.
This Friday, February 11, 4-7 pm will be the annual East Canton Rotary Chili Cook Off – for which this blog is, in part, a shameless plug! Come on out – for $7 you can enjoy all the chili, fixin’s and dessert you can eat, see who the judges think is the best mild and spicy chili and add your voice to the People’s Choice selection (Vote for Terry!). There will even be carry out options available. It’s always a fun event and still a value – Cheaper than McDonalds! But – a word or two about chili apart from the cook off.
Chili is a funny thing. It isn’t thought of as a soup or stew though it plainly could be. On it’s second or third day of leftover status most chili could be thought of as a casserole though it isn’t that either. Chili is often served over pasta or has pasta cooked into it but it isn’t a pasta dish. Chili is uniquely its own thing and we recognize it in almost any context, far beyond the traditional bowl. We put chili on hot dogs and wouldn’t be fooled by a wiener topped with sloppy joe. We love us a chili–cheeseburger and wouldn’t be fooled by a hamburger topped with BBQ.
And yet – what is chili? It can have meat and no beans or beans and no meat and we would still recognize it. Among hardcore chili enthusiasts one of the great debates is whether or not to add cumin. The non-cumin camp generally thinks you might as well add strawberry ice-cream. I can only say for myself that I like chili both ways – light on the cumin strikes me as better than heavy – but cumin or not I still recognize it as chili.
The old cattle drive trail chili was composed of equal parts beef, beef tallow (those longhorns were pretty lean and needed the extra tallow) and whatever herbs could be found on the trail – which means it might have sage, wild onions, and who knows what else. The ‘Chili Queens’ of the markets in San Antonio of days now long gone, each had their secret ingredient(s) that made their version different from and – each would insist – better than all the others.
One might say that cayenne is the essential ingredient that transforms a pot of beans, ground beef and tomato juice into chili. Or – one might not! Or one might argue that pork sausage is the right meat for chili – or venison. I have had bear/blueberry chili. It was good. And it was definitely chili. White bean and chicken chili also apparently counts. On different years at the cook off I have seen a chili that featured mushrooms win the people’s choice award. Some like their chili thin and some add mazteca just to make it thicker – or crackers – or macaroni -or cheese – don’t start the old argument of cheese verses sour cream!
The categories at the cook off are only mild and spicy and spice level is always a key thought about chili which ranges from absolutely bland to burn out your nose hairs hot. But, truth to tell, some chili’s are sweet or savory or tangy or smoky. Some are heavier on black pepper than cayenne. I add Jalapenos and habaneros to the base of cayenne but the variety of peppers from which to choose is staggering. I have had chili with hot dogs and maple syrup added. I have had chili with corn or potatoes or rice. Chili can be onion heavy, onion light, onion absent, cooked with onion or topped with raw onion.
My daughter was never fond of chili in her years at home but at college told me she had discovered she liked chili. What she had discovered was Cincinnati Chili which has cinnamon and chocolate added. I’m going to be honest – not a particular fan. But it is chili.
Some chili is very tomato-forward. But I can tell the difference between that and tomato soup. Some chili has chunks of meat rather than ground. But the difference in meat preparation does not make it hard to tell chili from beef stew. I saute’ the meat for my chili in lime juice. I have seen the same thing done with cherry juice. But it remains inalterably – chili.
At the end of the day the best we can say in terms of defining chili is that we know it when we see it – or perhaps taste it.
I sometimes feel the same way about Christianity. While I cannot be fooled by substitutes or alternatives, I can recognize the worship of Christ in almost endless variations. Praise God.
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Minister of Indian Run Christian Church