Saturday, January 28, 2023

"Memento Mori" for the World?

In this year’s first blog post, I wrote some about the ancient idea of memento mori. (If you didn’t see or don’t remember that, click here.) Now, referring to some of my most important posts from 2022, I am wondering whether memento mori can apply to the world, not just individual people. 

Once again, I am linking to significant ideas of Michael Dowd, by whom I have been significantly influenced.* In December of last year, he posted a new YouTube video titled “Sanity 101.” The full version (here) is over 90 minutes long; the “Cliff Notes” version (here) is 30 minutes.

At some point, I encourage you to listen to one or both of those videos, which have the subtitle, Living Fully in an Age of Decline: Essential Wisdom for Hard Times.”

While still fully affirming the reality of overshoot and the collapse of what he calls TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it), his emphasis in this new video is “post doom, no gloom.”

Dowd’s main point is that we humans today should not deny what we find disturbing or frightening but fully accept reality. In his opinion, formed by extensive reading of scientists and informed thinkers, the predicament of overshoot and collapse of the world’s civilization is certainly real.

So, acceptance of reality means making the most of the present rather than holding on to hope of change for the better in the future. Accordingly, he speaks pointedly about hopium, that is, holding on to false hopes that prevents us from accepting reality.

Memento mori for us individuals means that we live as meaningfully and as purposefully as possible now, fully realizing that we will die at some point in the future.

Rightly understood, memento mori is not a morbid dwelling on our approaching death, whenever that may be, but a healthy emphasis on living life to the fullest today, and every day.

Perhaps this significant idea needs to be applied more broadly: since the collapse of the world as we know it is inevitable, we need to make our existence in this world now as meaningful as possible, living in this post-doom time with no gloom.

This is a fruitful way for us older people to think. But what about our grandchildren (a disturbing matter I plan to write about next month)?

In spite of all I have learned from Michael Dowd, I have a couple of lingering questions/criticisms of his central emphases.

1) He repeatedly talks about the collapse of more than 100 civilizations in the past, emphasizing that the current industrial civilization’s collapse will be similar to those. But it seems to me that his point would be made more strongly if he talked more clearly about the uniqueness of TEOTWAWKI.

None of the collapsed civilizations of the past were as global in scope as the impending collapse, which could—and likely will!—mean a “mass extinction.” According to National Geographic, there have been five mass extinctions in the history of the earth; the sixth has already started.**

The Nat Geo article says the sixth mass extinction may occur as soon as 2260; Dowd says it is most likely to occur in this century. so why, I wonder, does he repeatedly emphasize the collapse of human civilizations in the past 4,000 years, none of which, obviously, led to mass human extinction.

2) Dowd repetitively emphasizes the futile nature of all human efforts to prevent collapse. All current attempts to stem global warming are based on the belief—or at least the hope—that that activity can and will result in reversal of collapse. Dowd refers to all such efforts as hopium.

But even if all human actions are insufficient to deter mass extinction, which they probably are, surely that doesn’t mean that concerted efforts would not postpone that fate to some extent, and maybe even significantly.

Concern for my grandchildren and now for my two great-grandchildren, makes me want to do more to help push as far into the future as possible what might well be sure mass extinction.

If we take seriously memento mori as individuals, we still do what we can to postpone our death, which is sure to occur at some point.

Similarly, if we apply the concept of memento mori to the present world civilization, shouldn’t we wholeheartedly do all we can to delay the coming collapse/extinction for as long as possible?

_____

* Last year I mentioned Dowd in four blog posts; the first times are here and here.

**The last mass extinction occurred about 66 million years ago, long before the first civilization of homo sapiens, which began less than 4,500 years ago. 

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Seeking to Understand Salvation

Here is my 1,001st blog post—and I have been wanting to write this since making the Dec. 26 post that was largely based on Habakkuk 3:17. This article begins with Hab. 3:18—and focuses on just one word in that verse: salvation (or Savior, depending on the translation). 

What is the meaning of salvation in Habakkuk 3:18? That is the first matter to be clarified. In evangelical Christianity, salvation is primarily thought to be the future gift of “eternal life” in Heaven that we humans can receive through the forgiveness of our sins by faith in Jesus Christ.

That, obviously, was not what Habakkuk meant in referring to “God of my salvation” (NRSV) or “God my Savior” (NIV). Habakkuk lived 600 years before Jesus was born, and the context is about being “saved” from the effects of crop failure.

As in much of the Old Testament, salvation here primarily means deliverance from physical hardships in the present, not salvation from the punishment of sin and blissful life after death.

Salvation in the OT usually means deliverance from some physical calamity or liberation from bondage. Of course, even in modern times, we sometimes use that same terminology. For example, a child is saved from death in a burning building, or a company is saved from bankruptcy with a large loan.

So in spite of the fig tree not budding and there being no fruit on the vine, the song of Habakkuk 3:17-19 rejoices in the God who the prophet expects to deliver God’s people from doom. At the very least, the people’s faith in God delivers them from worry and frees them from fear of the future.

What did Jesus say about salvation? Jesus didn’t talk much about salvation or people being saved—although there was certainly much about that in the New Testament after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

One of the very few times Jesus used the word salvation was in the story about Zacchaeus as recorded in the 19th chapter of Luke. After Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus’s house, treating him as a person worth respect rather than an enemy of the people, Zacchaeus said,

Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.

Jesus responded by declaring, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham” (vv. 8-9, NRSV).

Was the salvation Jesus was referring to here the gift of eternal life in Heaven? No, Zacchaeus’s promise to generously share his possessions was not him buying a ticket to Heaven.

Jesus was most likely thinking of salvation in the ways the Jewish people of his time, and for centuries before, had generally thought of salvation. It was deliverance or liberation for the present, not for some future state of existence. But from what was Zacchaeus saved/delivered?

He was saved/liberated from his alienation from his own people by his working as a hated tax collector for the Romans. By releasing much of his ill-gotten wealth, he was freed from allegiance to Rome and became, again, a member of his Jewish community. He became, again, “a son of Abraham.”

Concurrently, Zacchaeus was saved/freed from his greed, his love of riches, his self-centeredness. He committed himself to boldly helping others, not lining his own pockets as tax collectors then regularly did.

Because of Zacchaeus’s repentance (=180o change of direction in his way of living), salvation came to his house that day.

What does salvation mean for us today? Certainly, I am not disparaging what the followers of Jesus later said about “eternal salvation,” even though there are, undoubtedly, many misunderstandings entwining that important concept.

What I am emphasizing here is the need to understand salvation also, or maybe first, in the way Jesus spoke of salvation to Zacchaeus.

Perhaps it is primarily the “prosperity Gospel” preachers, the “Foxvangelicals” (to use the term my friend Brian Kaylor recently used with reference to Robert Jeffress), and so many U.S. Christians who are so entangled in consumerism who need to consider this the most.**

But what about you—and me?

_____

** Kaylor is President and Editor of Word&Way (the Christian media company based in Missouri since 1896). He used this term in a Jan. 17 article (found here) titled “A Tale of Two Services.” I highly commend this piece comparing/contrasting what former Vice-president Pence said at First Baptist Church, Dallas, and what President Biden said at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, this past Sunday.

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Thanks from a Happy Workhorse

So, as announced last week, here is my 1,000th blog post, including the first tentative one I made in July 2009. I am posting this with deep gratitude to those of you who have read my posts through the years—and especially to you who have taken the time and energy to post or email comments. 

Cover of the book with
100 of my 1,000 blog posts.

These 1,000 blog posts have been made by a happy “workhorse.” As I wrote in the post made in November 2016, during the academic year of 1981-82 when I was back in Missouri on a missionary “furlough,” I had the privilege of teaching at William Jewell College.

Dr. David O. Moore (1921~2016), my professor/benefactor/friend, was on sabbatical, so I had the privilege of using his faculty office (and library) during that wonderful year. Hanging on the wall of his office there was a horseshoe with the accompanying words, “God loves a happy workhorse.”

I resonated with those words, as I had up until then—and have also since then—seen myself as a “workhorse,” that is, as a person who is not flashy (like a racehorse) but a “plodder.” That had/has been my modus operandi up until then, and since.

Recently I asked ChatGPT about the characteristics of a workhorse. Since I actually drove workhorses as a boy back in the late 1940s, I expected an answer about horses. I was surprised that the response was about persons.

The first sentence from the chatbot was, “A workhorse is typically a reliable and hardworking individual who is able to handle a large workload and complete tasks efficiently and effectively.”

Well, I don’t know how effective I have been, but what I learned as a farmboy about working hard became a lifelong characteristic. (But now, in my 85th year, I have decided to quit working so hard.)

I also asked ChatGPT what it means to say that God loves a happy workhorse.

The response explained that “God values hard work, perseverance, and dedication . . . individuals who are willing to put in the effort and dedication necessary to achieve their goals, and who find joy and fulfillment in their work.” Yes, I can identify with that.

But then I was surprised that the chatbot cited Colossians 3:23-24 as an example of a Bible passage that speaks about “the importance of hard work and the value of being a good and faithful servant.”

I was surprised not only because I didn’t expect response to my question about a workhorse to include a Bible reference, but I was particularly surprised because I cited that Bible passage in a sermon preached in 1955, the month before I started to college.**

The AI response concluded that “the characteristics of a workhorse and the idea that God loves a happy workhorse reflect the importance of hard work and dedication in achieving one’s goals and serving others.”

When I started this blog in July 2009, just before my 71st birthday, I didn’t set a goal of posting 1,000 times. But in March 2010 I decided to regularize the blog by posting articles of 500~700 words every five days (give or take a day at times).

I set the goal of making 1,000 posts around the time I made my 500th post back in 2016. And I am happy to say that I have met that goal, never missing one time to post as planned.

Once again, many thanks to all of you Thinking Friends, and others, who have read most, many, or even just a few of my 1,000 blog posts. And while I will be posting irregularly and less often now, I hope you will continue to be friends who read—and perhaps respond—to my future posts.

In 1963—60 years ago!—I remember Ed Burgher (1925~2001), an older ministerial colleague, saying, “Impression without expression leads to depression.” I still think that that is a wise observation.

So, I am going to continue to blog, just not so often and not on any regular schedule. I don’t want to be depressed!

Please look forward to my next blog post. On the day after I made my 999th post, I started writing number 1,001—but it will not be posted until after January 15. I trust you will find it worth waiting for.

_____

** Colossians 3:23-24 says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”

I’m fairly certain I read that passage in that 1955 sermon, although the text I used was Ecclesiastes 9:10, which admonishes, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” Even though I didn’t know the words memento mori then, these are words related to that concept which I was thinking about when I was still 16.

Thursday, January 5, 2023

The Beginning of the End

This blog post is being made not long after the beginning of the year 2023—and today is the beginning of the end. In just 360 days, this year will end—and the earthly life of some of you Thinking Friends, or my own life, may come to an end before then. That’s worth thinking about, isn’t it?  

This is my 999th blog post, so as announced previously, after my next post (planned for Jan. 10), I will no longer be posting blog articles every five days as I have done since early in 2010. I do hope to continue writing—but no longer on a schedule with deadlines.

I’ll be writing more about this next time, but since I will turn 85 this year, I have decided to reduce things that make for stress, even though writing these blog articles has mostly been eustress (= “moderate or normal psychological stress interpreted as being beneficial for the experiencer”).

It remains to be seen how often I will make blog posts in the months ahead, but they will, no doubt, be far fewer than now—and probably more personal and reflective as I likely won’t do nearly as much reading/research in writing new articles. So, this is the beginning of the end to my planned blogging.

Today is the first day of the rest of your life. These words, which have almost become a cliché, are attributed to Charles Dederich (1913~97) by The Washington Post (in their 12/10/78 issue). So today, and every day, is the beginning of the end, and we should make the most of it. 

Recently, I’ve been reminded again of the old Stoic emphasis on memento mori, the Latin words often translated as “remember you must die.” As explained on Stoic.com’s website, “The point of this reminder isn’t to be morbid or promote fear, but to inspire, motivate and clarify.”

The same website has these significant words: “The Stoics used Memento Mori to invigorate life, and to create priority and meaning. They treated each day as a gift, and reminded themselves constantly to not waste any time in the day on the trivial and vain.


From far back in history, some people have carried coin-like medallions with an image of a skull and the words memento mori as a regular reminder to make the present as meaningful as possible because of the inevitability of death. Such “coins” are readily available for purchase even now.

There are more modern ways to be regularly reminded of death, always with the purpose of making life now more meaningful. For some time now, my son Keith has subscribed to the daily reminders sent by WeCroak.com, which has this invitation: “Find happiness by contemplating your mortality.”

Earlier this week I signed up to get their short daily quotes, and all of them have certainly been worth thinking about.

When the Grim Reaper comes, I’ll just say, Reap away. That is what I said to June, somewhat light-heartedly, the other day. I certainly am in no hurry for the end to come, but I can honestly say that I have no fear of death—and that I want to make the most of every day until the end.

I am currently reading a book theologian Larry L. Rasmussen wrote for his grandchildren.** The final letter, written in April 2021, ends with the words of a Mexican folk hymn that I don’t remember ever hearing.

That hymn is included, in Spanish and in English, in The New Century Hymnal (#499). Here’s verse one, which expresses well my foundation for living meaningfully now and for thinking about the end with no fear:

In all our living, we belong to God; 
and in our dying, we are still with God;
So, whether living, or whether dying, 
we belong to God; we belong to God.

_____

* I don’t have and don’t intend to buy such a coin, but they are available for purchase here for $26.

** Rasmussen’s book is The Planet You Inherit: Letters to My Grandchildren When Uncertainty’s a Sure Thing (2022). At the end of next week, I will be submitting a review of it to The Englewood Review of Books.

Note: Arthur C. Brooks’s new book is From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life (2022). While it is written for people his age (he was born in 1964) rather than for people my age, his fifth chapter is “Ponder Your Death.” He doesn’t write specifically about memento mori, but he emphasizes that important idea: “Remembering that life won’t last forever makes us enjoy it all the more today” (p. 105).

Also, yesterday a Facebook friend sent me a link to this article posted on Christmas Day: “Want To Be Happy in 2023? Repeat This Four-Word Phrase.” Those four words are “remember you must die” (memento mori).

Saturday, December 31, 2022

Happy New Year of the Rabbit!

Today is New Year’s Eve in the Western world, but as I have done in previous years, I am posting this after the new year has already begun in East Asia. So, in true Japanese fashion, I am wishing each one of you a Happy New Year! 明けまして、おめでとう御座います!

The new year, 2023, is the Year of the Rabbit according to the zodiac of China/East Asia. The Chinese New Year doesn't begin until January 22, but for a long time now Japan has celebrated January 1 as New Year’s Day, although many of the ancient traditions are still maintained to varying degrees.

As most of you may know, in East Asia there is a sign for each of twelve years rather than twelve signs in one year as in the West, and each sign repeats in a twelve-year cycle.

It is easy to guess what year a person was born in if you know their sign, so in Japan it is common to ask for a person’s zodiac sign rather than asking their age. If a young senior citizen says they were born in the Year of the Rabbit, you could easily guess they were born in 1963, not 1951 or 1975.

People born under the sign of the rabbit,” according to this website, “are gentle, sensitive, compassionate, amiable, modest and merciful, and have strong memory. They like to communicate with others in a humorous manner.”

My father was born in the Year of the Rabbit (so as you might guess, he was born in 1915), and the characteristics given in the previous paragraph seem to have fitted him well. How do they seem to fit those of you who were born in, say, 1939, 1951, or 1963?

What can we expect in the Year of the Rabbit, 2023? Early this month, I received a special issue of The Economist titled “The World Ahead 2023.” Every year they publish this sort of special edition, which I always find interesting and helpful.

This time, though, I didn’t find editor Tom Standage’s “Ten trends to watch in the coming year" to be particularly beneficial. The first two were “All eyes on Ukraine” and “Recessions loom,” but perhaps most any of us could have predicted the same things.

I did, though, think that these words from his final paragraph were thoughtworthy.

In retrospect, the pandemic marked the end of a period of relative stability and predictability in geopolitics and economics. Today’s world is much more unstable, convulsed by the vicissitudes of great-power rivalry, the aftershocks of the pandemic, economic upheaval, extreme weather, and rapid social and technological change. Unpredictability is the new normal. There is no getting away from it.

So, yes, what the world will experience in the year ahead is quite unpredictable—although to a large degree, that is true for every new year.

I asked ChatGPT what the world could expect in 2023. It quickly replied, “It is not possible for me to predict with certainty what will happen in 2023, as the future is always uncertain and can be influenced by a wide range of factors.” That was pretty much a no-brainer.  

But the “chatbot” did suggest four “potential developments” that could take place in 2023, including, “It is likely that there will be continued progress in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and biotechnology, which could lead to new products and services that change the way we live and work.”

That is consistent with what Economist editor Standage mentioned as one of the expected ten trends in 2023. Apple is set to launch its first virtual reality headset, which they suggest may be the next “best thing” in the “metaverse.”** Will they change society as much as iPads/iPhones have? We'll see. 

Regardless of what might happen in 2023, the Year of the Rabbit, I pray that it will be a good year for you—and for the world at large.

_____

* If you don’t have Japanese fonts loaded on your computer, you may not be able to see the Japanese words in this sentence.

** As envisioned by Octavia Butler in her 1998 dystopian novel Parable of the Talents, by 2033 such virtual reality headsets were being replaced by the superior Dreamasks. 

Monday, December 26, 2022

Though . . . Yet

 Yesterday was Christmas Day, the first time for Christmas to be on a Sunday since 2016—and the next time won’t be until 2033. On the week before Christmas, my church’s theme for the Sunday worship service was “Do you see what I see?” and yesterday it was based on Habakkuk 3:17~19.

“Do You Hear What I Hear?” has been a popular Christmas song since the 1960s. Perhaps few people have recognized that that song was written as a Christmas prayer for peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.**

While the second verse voices the title, the song begins, “Said the night wind to the little lamb / Do you see what I see?” And what is seen is “A star, a star, dancing in the night / With a tail as big as a kite.”

A writer for Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (see here) explains that the latter phrase “can be interpreted in two ways: as the bright star of Bethlehem that leads the Magi to the baby Jesus—or as the sight of a nuclear missile in flight.” 

But the plain plea of the song is in the last verse: “Pray for peace, people, everywhere.” Sixty years later, that is still a pertinent plea. 

Do you see what I see about the coming global crisis? While there is certainly serious concern about nuclear war in the year ahead, my main fear is much more long-ranging, namely, an increasing concern about climate change and the collapse of the world as we know it. 

My first blog post of 2020 was “Climate Crisis: The Challenge of the Decade,” and beginning on Jan. 25 of this year I have posted a few articles referring to what seems to be an unfathomable crisis because of overshoot.

(To see/review what I have written this year about that, click here to read that 1/25 post, and then at the bottom of that article click on the tag “overshoot.”) 

What can we learn from Habakkuk 3:17-18? 

Earlier this month, a Bible study group of my church studied/discussed much of the Old Testament book of Habakkuk, and on Dec. 12 we shared what we had thought/written about the final verses of that short prophetic book—and some shared their thoughts yesterday in our Christmas worship service.

Here are the words of Habakkuk 3:17-18 from the New International Version of the Bible:

Though the fig tree does not bud

and there are no grapes on the vines,

though the olive crop fails

and the fields produce no food,

though there are no sheep in the pen

and no cattle in the stalls,

yet I will rejoice in the Lord,

I will be joyful in God my Savior. 

(Bolding added)

In reflecting on those powerful words, here is what I wrote to be shared yesterday:

Though global warming continues to worsen 
and sea levels keep on rising,
though droughts increase in severity
and floods become even more destructive,

Yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior. 

Though the world’s economy spirals downward
and standards of living begin to plummet,
though accustomed to luxuries decrease greatly
and hardships significantly proliferate,

Yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.

Though domestic polarization becomes grimmer
and troubling discord roars across the land,
though worrisome threats of war persist
and rogue nations increasingly rattle their sabers,

Yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior. 

Though civilization’s collapse becomes more imminent
and impending doom seems progressively threatening,
though the future appears increasingly uncertain
and sure hope begins to seem illusionary,

Yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior. 

I am still working on articulating the basic reason for the yet affirmation, but primarily it is due to my faith in the eternal God whom I believe to be the Creator and, yes, the Consummator of the universe. 

As Creation was in a far more distant past than traditionally conceived, so Consummation will most likely be in a far distant future.  

_____

** The story about the writing and meaning of this Christmas song is told by Kathy Warnes here. She reports that Noel Regney, who wrote the lyrics, said that of the numerous renditions of the song his favorite was the one by Robert Goulet, which you can hear here on YouTube.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

They’ll Know We are Christians by Our ??

In this last blog post before Christmas, I am writing about the central message of Christmas and also writing about what I want both those of you who are Christians, as well as those who are not, to read and think about deeply.

Christmas is the celebration of love. This past Sunday was the fourth Sunday of Advent, and the theme for that last Sunday before Christmas was love.

There are various Advent traditions and practices, but according to the Christianity.com website, the selected Bible passage for Dec. 18 was the third chapter of John, with those best-known words of the Bible, 


The longstanding practice of giving Christmas presents is largely rooted in the gifts of the Magi who came from afar and presented gifts to baby Jesus. But the first and greatest Christmas gift was none other than God’s loving gift of Jesus himself to humankind.

Christians were long known for their love. “They’ll know we are Christians by our love,” is one title given for a gospel song written in the 1960s by Peter Schottes, a Catholic priest.

In the 1970s and ’80s, I enjoyed singing that song with Christian friends and fellow church members in Japan. Here is its second verse and the chorus:

We will walk with each other, will walk hand in hand,
We will walk with each other, will walk hand in hand,
And together we’ll spread the news, that God is in our land

And they’ll know we are Christians,
By our love, by our love.
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.*

The lyrics of that gospel song are loosely based on words of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of John: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (13:35, NIV)

In addition, though, until perverted by its alliance with political power, Christianity from its beginning was a religion of love for all people—and it still is when it is faithful to Jesus Christ.

Some Christians are now known for their hate. In my Dec. 10 blog post, I introduced Octavia Butler and her two dystopian novels. I have just finished reading the second of those, Parable of the Talents (1998).

In that prescient book, the U.S. elects a new President in 2032, a man who is an ardent advocate of Christian nationalism. In fact, he formed a new denomination, the Church of Christian America (CA).

The most alarming characteristic of that new church is its horrendous persecution of those considered to be “infidels.” Lauren, the protagonist of both novels, experiences unthinkable suffering at the hands of fanatical CA believers. They, indeed, were “Christians” known for their hate.

Perhaps you have seen the recent news stories about a restaurant that refused to serve a Christian group because of what they deemed was the “hatred” of that anti-gay group toward their employees.

Metzger Bar and Butchery in Richmond, Va., posted on Instagram (here) that they “denied service to the group to protect its staff, many of whom are women or members of the LGBTQ+ community.”

After reading about that happening, I came across a YouTube video titled “Hate Preachers: Bigotry and Fearmongering by Extremist Christian ‘Leaders’.” That video includes several clips of preachers saying almost unbelievable things, especially about LGBTQ people.**

Posted on YouTube eight months ago, that video has had 117,000 views, and when I accessed it last week, the first of the more than 1,600 comments said, “I simply don’t have enough hatred in me to be a Christian.”

How exceedingly sad that this is how some people view Christians now!

During this Christmas week, my plea for all of us is that we will fully accept the love of God manifested on that first Christmas and broadly implement that love. And, indeed, may all of us Christians be increasingly known by our love for all people.

____

* Here is the link to a YouTube video with those words being nicely sung.

** Some of these are affiliated with New Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches, a relatively new organization you can read about here