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The December 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine includes an excellent article about one of the few remaining hunter-gatherer groups in the world, the Hadza of northern Tanzania. Unlike the vast majority of African tribes in the early 21st century, the Hadza have not switched from hunting and gathering to either of the two dominant forms of land agriculture: grazing herds or planting crops. The Hadza, as hunter-gatherers, simply live off the land without any special preparation or maintenance of the plants or animals.
According to the article, there are several interesting characteristics of the Hadza that I think are worth considering:
- They have no real sense of elapsed time, such as a year, month, day, or hour. Because they are not tied to annual agricultural cycles, they perpetually live in the immediacy of the moment.
- They have no concept of warfare and live almost entirely free of any possessions. It is considered inappropriate for a hunter to gloat over a successful hunt, and the game of each hunt is shared openly with everyone else.
- There are no official leaders of the Hadza, although the senior male of each camp has the honor of the best portion of the hunt of the day and has the camp named after him. Each Hadza group (camp) maintains a small number of members, usually clustered around the senior male. Other Hadza are free to come and go between the various Hadza camps.
I would propose that the Hadza give us a glimpse of the genuine expression of the life of the kingdom of God:
- The kingdom is a place where elders are respected, yet no one lords it over anyone else.
- The kingdom is eternal and comes from a realm beyond time and space. It is truly timeless.
- The kingdom’s modus operandi is cooperative and not competitve. Provision is freely shared.
According to the podcast The Missing Link, Episode 6, when European farmers began to settle southern Africa about 200 years ago, they noticed that the native inhabitants of that region had a completely different way of keeping track of their cattle.
When it came to cows, the Europeans were masters of headcounts. If a count came short by the expected number, then these farmers knew that cows were missing. The native African farmers, on the other hand, had a completely different way of keeping track of their cattle. As far as counting was concerned, the Europeans quickly discovered that most of the African herdsman could not count beyond the number ten.
Instead of counting, the native farmers took the time to know each of their animals personally. For example, the African herdsmen would carve, over the course of a long time, the horns of cattle into distinct shapes and curves. Special care was then paid to the various spots, colors, and patterns of each animal. The native Africans would raise each of these animals from birth and knew which ones would be near certain others in the overall herd. The rich pasturelands of southern Africa allowed the native Africans to live with their cattle rather than having to send them off to distant grazing areas. Another memory aid: Names were assigned to each of the animals that matched their personalities and habits.
The culture of the African tribes also supported the personal care of their cattle. For instance, the Xhosa tribe’s creation story tells of their ancestors emerging from a cave with their cattle. Additionally, cattle were held in high regard and only killed on very special occasions.
So we see here in the difference between these two methods of keeping track of cattle a way of knowing versus knowing personally. And it is knowing personally that is the true spiritual path.
Posted in: Current Events, Popular Culture, Science and Nature, Spirituality by bill-o on August 30, 2009
Time flows in one direction from past to present to future. Is eternity, on the other hand, essentially non-linear? Or is eternity simply time itself as we know it: linear, but with an infinite past and an infinite future?
Growing up in a Protestant, evangelical tradition, it was implied to me (though, to be fair, never stated) that eternity is linear. With this view, eternity is simply the straight-line projection of time from infinity past to infinity future.
Yet, does not the Bible say that God created all things? Would this not include time? And if time is present from infinity to infinity, could it not be said that time contains God rather than God contains time? And if time contains God, can God really be said to be God?
As time has progressed, I’ve been introduced to other views about eternity. Views that are implied by biblical books such as Ecclesiastes. With non-linear views of “eternal time”, normal rules about cause and effect don’t necessarily apply. Time can ebb and flow and even loop back on itself again. With this, God could simultaneously touch two different circumstances on earth 1,000 years apart at the same time for him. Such a non-linear view of eternity might radically reshape views of predestination and prophecy. For example, the biblical picture of the Lamb of God being slain before the foundation of the world yet also being crucified on the cross at Calvary here on the earth about 2,000 years ago would only make sense with a non-linear view of eternal time, if that event was one and the same.
A recent movie that explores the possibilities of non-linear time is “The Time Traveler’s Wife”. In this film, a man is born with a genetic defect that makes him involuntarily travel through time. (Viewers of the film will have some issues with determining how old the time-traveler is at any given point in the film, by the way.) When he time-travels, usually to the past though sometimes to the future, he arrives naked without clothing (as per the Terminator movies and television series). So when he arrives, he has to resort to stealing clothes and then waiting for the next moment when he will travel through time again.
I see this as symbolizing the fall of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. This time-traveler, like all of humanity, is forced again and again back to this terrible point in time: To the point where our progenitors recognized their own nakedness. Adam and Eve then felt compelled to make clothes for themselves (fig leaves). At that point, we feel compelled to resort to stealing and hurting others to provide for ourselves, rather than simply trusting in our heavenly Father for his constant provision, which was his original plan for all of us.
It is the daughter of Henry the time-traveler, Alba (which is a very rare name in the English-speaking world that means “sunrise” or “white”), who learns to control her time-traveling abilities by singing. After trying to sing, too, Henry gives up by saying tersely, “I can’t sing”. Yet, we know from the very beginning of the movie that he can sing, as he had sung with his mother, an excellent singer, when he was a young boy right before she died. Yet, like many of us, Henry (a common name that means “home ruler”) had lost the simplicity and innocence of childhood when he became an adult. After all, everything that can be spoken can also be sung. Yet to sing something requires reaching deeper into ourselves to something more emotional and primal. Singing speaks of love, joy, faith, and hope. And Henry’s and his mother’s deaths both come on Christmas Days, the day of the choir of angels in Bethlehem. So, the coming of Alba, who seems to be the only completely content character in the film, represents a new beginning for humanity (a new sunrise) where people can control their own destinies rather than be controlled by them.
Posted in: Science and Nature by bill-o on March 07, 2009
Someone told me a few days ago that a single candle is all that is necessary to warm the inside of an igloo. I was surprised by this, but my research shows that this in fact a true statement. For example, please see:
For those of you who may not be familiar with igloos, they are blocks of snow (snow bricks) arranged to form a dome that can serve as a winter shelter or house. In fact, igloos are sometimes called snow houses.
A single candle is enough to heat an igloo for two reasons. First, the design of the igloo naturally reflects radiating heat back to the center of the floor of the igloo. Second, the candle creates just enough heat to melt a thin layer of snow in the ceiling of the igloo into ice. This layer of ice then provides insulation for the interior of the igloo. In a igloo, each snow brick relies on the surrounding bricks to hold it up. Each brick is important in its own right, but could not by itself form the very functional structure that is the igloo.
An igloo is a great picture of what is known as interdependence. Interdependence is where a group of people come to rely on one another to solve problems that cannot be solved independently from one another. It is a way of life that emphasizes cooperation over competition. It is an emphasis on linking people together rather than driving them apart.
While independence is stronger (more mature) than dependence, it is not as mature as interdependence. Thus, a snow brick by itself, apart from any overall structure like an igloo, may serve some useful purposes. It may be more useful to a person than bare, unorganized snow on the ground. It might serve as a table or a chair, for instance. However, a single snow brick is not nearly as interesting as a whole igloo.
During these challenging economic times throughout much of the world, we are each coming to a time and a place where we are going to need to rely upon one another more and more. Interdependence is a way of life where people form families, teams, and groups of people come together to share in the joys and challenges of life. Everyone has a role to play and no one is unimportant. Interdependence is a way where each of us can come together to weather our “economic winter”.
Please watch this amazing story about a friendship between an elephant and a dog:
As the reporter says at the end of this story, if two very different animals can learn to forge such a great friendship, then why can’t people learn to do the same with each other?
Posted in: Science and Nature, Spirituality by bill-o on August 22, 2008
I believe that simple questions about science and nature can be points of reflection for us. These points of reflection can then lead to deeper questions about life and its meaning. In this way, the familiar leads to the unfamiliar; the natural to the spiritual.
A simple question about the natural world had puzzled me until recently: How do plants survive at night? Most of us know about photosynthesis: the amazing process by which green plants and trees use sunlight energy to survive and grow. Yet, for those of us who forgot the section about plants in biology class, plants also undertake the act of respiration, just as we do. With respiration (”breathing”), plants take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide. Because plants “breathe”, they can survive at night and in the winter (for those trees that shed their leaves each autumn).
Yet, there is still a little more to this story. Through photosynthesis, plants manufacture sugar. Many of these sugars become the main building blocks of the plant. They give the plant its overall structure and form. What is most interesting for us here is that plants make enough sugar from sunlight to tide themselves over during the nighttime and during dark, cloudy days. The sugar can be stored away as a starch and then converted back to sugar, as is necessary. Ultimately, the energy that is stored in the sugar is needed for respiration.
I would propose to you here that this natural process can serve as an example for our spiritual lives. We are like the plants and the light is like God’s touch upon our lives. Specifically, light may represent wisdom, insight, guidance, and revelation. This light represents the “Springtime seasons” of our lives, our “good days”. The nighttime and winter represent our difficult “desert” or “wilderness” spiritual experiences. At its most difficult, this can even be the “dark night of the soul” that Saint John of the Cross speaks about.
I think that many followers of Christ and spiritual seekers in general see the difficult times of life (trials) as completely distinct phases that are separate from the rest of one’s life. Yet this is not so. Just as the plants manufacture the sugar that they need during the day so that they can then breathe at night, so God gives us what we need during the good times so that we will have what we need during the trials of life. In this way, there is a delayed effect. His touch on our lives should not be completely and immediately consumed. Rather, some of what he does in our hearts and lives should be stored up for later use, … when the sun sets or the snow falls in our lives.
After Jesus fed five thousand people with bread, he told his followers (disciples) to gather up all of the leftover fragments lying around on the ground. In this way, no bread would be lost. The disciples first experienced the miracle and immediately distributed its result, but then Jesus told them to do the very messy job of picking up whatever remained. For the disciples, what came first was blessed loaves of bread, touched by the hands of God’s son. What came next were partially eaten fragments touched by the dirty ground. In Christ, nothing is ever wasted. Some of God’s bread is for right now. Some of his bread is for later. All is his, … given to us. For the day and for the night.
It was piece of information that I found to be beyond comprehension. As I sat there reading the Wikipedia article about stars (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star#Distribution), I could hardly believe my eyes. I usually find that most Wikipedia articles are interesting or at least informational, but this was something beyond mere bits of trivia. Yet, … there it was, and I did not grab a hold of this fact, so much as this fact about stars reached out of the screen and grabbed me:
Astronomers estimate that there are at least 70 sextillion (7×1022) stars in the observable universe.
A sextillion is a billion trillions. Please consider that there are less than 7 billion people on this planet. There are 10 to 100 trillion cells in the adult human body. A sextillion is, in fact, so large that it is rarely used as a numeric term. In fact, numbers greater than 1 quadrillion (a number 1 million times smaller than 1 sextillion) are seldom needed because they are so large.
If the God of the Bible is the one who has made these countless specks of light, then what does that say about him? That he is powerful. That he is intelligent. Yes, indeed he is, … but there is something more, much more.
“To whom then will you liken Me
That I would be his equal?” says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high
And see who has created these stars,
The One who leads forth their host by number,
He calls them all by name;
Because of the greatness of His might and the strength of His power,
Not one of them is missing.
Isaiah 40-25-26 (NASB)
We see here a personal connection between God and each of his stars. We see him not just having created them (past tense) but leading and ordering them still (present tense). There is a connection of call and response from him to these great balls of fire in the heavens. And he’s keeping score: he knows where each one is at all times.
This is not the God who can easily be boxed into the many categories and thoughts of humankind. And this is definitely not a boring or mass-marketed Supreme Being. This is the one who demonstrates a fireworks of creativity and artistry.
Yet, if these inanimate stars are designed to respond to the call of God on their lives, how much more are we? We are self-aware; they are not. We have the power of choice; they do not. We have the ability to love; they cannot.
This is the God who creates big things (lots of them) and who expects big things from his sons and daughters here on Earth. How can we be connected to God in such a way, and perform deeds greater than the shining of stars? Also, through his call and our response to us: his spirit gently calling to our spirits.
Listen. Hear. Go.