Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Would beauty transcend

I went to the ENGAGE conference on the weekend up at Katoomba. I was particularly encouraged by the talks from Justin Moffatt, which were based on the hymn "Come thou Fount of Every Blessing". There's much I could write about the talks, but today I am just going to blog about one of his illustrations. In the first talk, titled "Tune My Heart to Sing Thy Grace" he made reference to a newspaper article from the Washington post, in which an experiment was set up to answer the question: "In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?". It's old news in America (from April's paper) and has been blogged to death up there, but for this experiment they had Joshua Bell, one of the world's greatest violinists, play some of the world's greatest classical music on a Stradivari violin, worth 3.5 million dollars, in a metro station in Washington DC. I couldn't resist going away and looking for the article, curiously called "Pearls Before Breakfast" describing what happened. It's long, but it's a good read (touching also on the old epistemological debate of whether beauty needs an audience to be beauty, and the idea that perhaps art needs a frame to be appreciated, and the question of what beauty is - just for interest's sake). Here's an excerpt:

Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he's really bad? What if he's really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn't you? What's the moral mathematics of the moment?

On that Friday in January, those private questions would be answered in an unusually public way. No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities -- as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?
The conference was based on work, and Justin was making the point that Jesus and the gospel is like Joshua Bell playing his Stradivari ... And it's a crying shame to take no notice.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Poetry Friday XI

I have been blogging a little this week about books that give some guidance for living, which varies according to what your goal is. As a Christian I believe that there is one book that comes above all others as an authority on how to live, but that it is not a book of guidelines for life, but the book of life itself. Therefore I though it fitting for poetry Friday to post this poem by an unknown author, which was apparently included in the front of the first bible printed in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1576.







Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Further musings on wealth and greed

The sin that emerges in all its seriousness in "Luther on Greed" is that of what we put our trust in. We are exhorted that to obey the first commandment is to cling to, rely upon and look only to God for whatever one needs in any circumstance. That serves as a corrective to any anxiety I might feel about my "financial future" (which I could perhaps keep in the balance with wise stewardship – though perhaps we too often use that notion to run into what God considers foolishness).

I couldn’t say it better than Luther and Brian Rosner already have, so I will end with their tips for surviving the deadly sin of greed:

1. Recognise the seriousness of the sin of greed – it is a form of idol worship that arouses God’s jealousy.

2. Resist the urge to immoderate accumulation of wealth that grows out of a lack of trust in God.

3. Seek contentment and be generous and willing to share – in order to deal with greed that consists of both unrestrained grasping and selfish hoarding.

4. Appreciate the natural world – greed arises when we forget that God is our creator and sustainer. Go bird watching, hiking, gaze at the sunset, grow vegetables, keep chickens.

5. Wait expectantly for the resurrection – we put too much stock on material things when we think that they are all that exists. Keep a loose grip on this world, for this world in its present form is passing away.

6. Aim to get really rich – God has many new and marvelous things to engross those who know him and are known by him.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Musings on wealth and greed

Yesterday I bought a new car, which is really quite exciting. I thought I could actually do life without a car for a longer period of time, and the truth is that I could, but it has actually proved more difficult that I thought it would be to get around on public transport – as soon as I want to go somewhere other than the city and back, or do so later in the evening, it all gets complicated, and I have spent lots of time waiting for buses, killing time when I got to places because I was early and so on. So, in the end I bought a little old runabout sort of car, because I don’t really use a car all that often, no longer bother driving long distances like home to Brisbane, I don’t have a garage and because insurance is so outrageously expensive in Sydney.

Anyway, in the process of looking for a new car I got talking to a few people about money. One of them subsequently bought me a book called Rich Dad, Poor Dad (as you can see, they know about making money, yet are also very generous with it) about creating wealth. I have very little interest in anything financial, have never read a book about money in my life and never done anything more creative than put money in a term deposit. So I figured that I should read this book and learn to be more astute with what I am doing with finances etc.

However, at the same time I started reading Still Deadly: Ancient cures for the 7 sins. The first chapter is called Luther on Greed by Brian Rosner and is really very challenging. I won’t even get started on how many sentences in that chapter say the exact opposite of sentences just in the introduction of Rich Dad, Poor Dad. Even seemingly harmless sentences like "... the rich teach their children differently. They teach their children at home, around the dinner table" instantly brought to mind the thought that there are much better things to teach your children around the dinner table (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). Then there’s the part where he actually writes that poor dad would say "The love of money is the root of all evil", while rich dad would say "The lack of money is the root of all evil" – and you can guess which he thought was right, and hopefully also guess which God thinks is closer to right (1 Timothy 6:10 - though note it's KINDS of evil).

So, I am going to keep reading the book (for the novelty factor if nothing else! – and maybe blog material ;) - though my interest is waning) but read it carefully and prayerfully (hopefully), remembering that God counted as a fool the man who thought he’d build bigger barns to store up wealth for himself in the future (Luke 12:13-21) – something that might look like prudent investment for security if it was done here and now.

This post is already quite long, so I will save for later some of the thoughts from Luther on Greed and the tips for surviving the deadly sin of greed.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Poetry Friday X

I confess that I almost forgot about poetry Friday this week. But a poem is never far away and another of my favourite poets (I think one of hundreds perhaps) is Wordsworth. Once upon a time I did a rather literary tour around the UK and am sorry that I don't have a scanner so I could post some photos of Wordsworth country. I've chosen the poem Daffodils because it's spring, and that is the time for daffodils. The only problem with poetry like this is that it is hard to inhabit it living here in Sydney. Hyde Park looked beautiful as I came by in the bus this morning with the sunlight glancing through it, but it is not a field of daffodils. So, that is why I have included the second poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins (yet another favourite). The world immediately around me at present is indeed seared with trade and wears man's smudge, but nature is never spent (if one could only find a little piece of it!).


I wandered lonely as a Cloud
That floats on high o'er Vales and Hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced, but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:-
A poet could not but be gay
In such a jocund company:
I gazed-and gazed-but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude,
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the Daffodils.

William Wordsworth

God’s Grandeur

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

On moths and pygmy possums - a lesson in ecology

I rarely revert to my past these days, but the recent influx of Bogong moths into Sydney, and the stories being told me of friends' little boys counting how many they can catch and kill, has sent me back there. So, I decided to give you all an ecology lesson. Ecology was one of my favourite parts of biology at school, and the subject I later pursued at University. Ecology is the analysis of distribution and abundance, for those who may not be so sure about that - the exploration of why species live where they do, and what influences their population levels. That sounds simple enough, but ecosystems can be complicated things, and species are often interconnected in ways not readily apparent.

A lot of people I've been chatting to seem unaware that the Bogong moth is only on a migratory path through Sydney, so if you can bear it a little while they will soon be gone. They are on their way to the Southern Highlands for the summer. And waiting for them in the Southern Highlands, or Australian Alps, is a very small marsupial called the Mountain Pygmy Possum. It was thought to be extinct, and known only from fossil records, before it was rediscovered in 1966. There are now estimated to be less than 3000 individuals living in a habitat of only around 10 square kilometres in the Alps. The Mountain Pygmy Possum is one of the only marsupials in the world that hibernates for the winter, and when it emerges in Spring it's energy requirements are understandably high. The Bogong moth is a very important food source for the possum and part of its staple diet through the Summer. So that is one reason why we should let the moths go unharmed on their merry way to the Alps. The moths themselves are also showing alarming levels of arsenic contamination of late, possibly from agricultural chemicals in the soil of their larval pasturelands in the Darling Downs, where they start their migration, and these high arsenic levels have been found in the scats of the pygmy possum.

So, next time you feel tempted to swat or spray a completely harmless, though perhaps a little annoying moth, spare a thought for the moths themselves, for the hungry mountain pygmy possum waiting in the Alps and for the God who made such an amazing and interconnected world.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Poetry Friday IX

I am an appreciator of the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, so thought I'd feature her this poetry Friday. The first poem below is the full sonnet of fragment I have blogged in the past, about the sad perplexity our current experience sometimes is, yet with a reminder that when we know the full story all will be seen as the goodness of God. The second is just a lovely love sonnet, from the Sonnets from the Portugese (though it begs the question of whether humans are capable of such a love - else why should there ever be any discrimination involved in a "romantic" love?).

EXPERIENCE, like a pale musician, holds
A dulcimer of patience in his hand,
Whence harmonies, we cannot understand,
Of God's will in his worlds, the strain unfolds
In sad-perplexed minors: deathly colds
Fall on us while we hear, and countermand
Our sanguine heart back from the fancyland
With nightingales in visionary wolds.
We murmur 'Where is any certain tune
Or measured music in such notes as these?'
But angels, leaning from the golden seat,
Are not so minded their fine ear hath won
The issue of completed cadences,
And, smiling down the stars, they whisper--SWEET.


If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love's sake only. Do not say
"I love her for her smile - her look - her way
Of speaking gently,- for a trick of thought
That falls in well with mine, and certes brought
A sense of pleasant ease on such a day" -
For these things in themselves, Beloved, may
Be changed, or change for thee,- and love, so wrought,
May be unwrought so. Neither love me for
Thine own dear pity's wiping my cheeks dry,-
A creature might forget to weep, who bore
Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!
But love me for love's sake, that evermore
Thou mayst love on, through love's eternity.

Elizabeth Barrett-Browning

Thursday, October 11, 2007

I feel ...

Life has gone on too fast since the return of holidays, with four nights out of five being out so far. Where is a person supposed to find the time to blog anything worth saying I ask myself. But, I have noticed hits on my blog site of late from a curious looking website called "We Feel Fine". So, I went to this website and discovered something rather fascinating. We Feel Fine was created by a an artist, whose work involves the exploration of humans through the artifacts they leave behind on the Web, and by the technical lead of personalization at Google and a Consulting Professor of Computational Mathematics at Stanford University. This is their mission:

Since August 2005, We Feel Fine has been harvesting human feelings from a large number of weblogs. Every few minutes, the system searches the world's newly posted blog entries for occurrences of the phrases "I feel" and "I am feeling". When it finds such a phrase, it records the full sentence, up to the period, and identifies the "feeling" expressed in that sentence (e.g. sad, happy, depressed, etc.). Because blogs are structured in largely standard ways, the age, gender, and geographical location of the author can often be extracted and saved along with the sentence, as can the local weather conditions at the time the sentence was written. All of this information is saved.

The result is a database of several million human feelings, increasing by 15,000 - 20,000 new feelings per day. Using a series of playful interfaces, the feelings can be searched and sorted across a number of demographic slices, offering responses to specific questions like: do Europeans feel sad more often than Americans? Do women feel fat more often than men? Does rainy weather affect how we feel? What are the most representative feelings of female New Yorkers in their 20s? What do people feel right now in Baghdad? What were people feeling on Valentine's Day? Which are the happiest cities in the world? The saddest? And so on.
If you go to the Methodology section of their website you can read more fascinating things about how they are going about this and what it all means, and the Movements section is quite intriguing, where you can see what feelings look like. The last paragraph of the Madness movement is quite poignant. So, unbeknownst to me I have been participating in this research (and even in endeavouring not to diarise on my blog this system has found the particular entries where I slipped up and did so). I'm contemplating creating a psuedo-self, who writes a blog littered with "I feel" statements and strangely associated pictures, just to play with the system.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Poetry Friday VIII

It’s never a particularly nice feeling to have reached the end of a holiday, but that is where I find myself. I have just had morning tea (with my Harrogate tea) and lunch with my grandparents after a nice two weeks with the three sweetest little girls in the world (my nieces) and other relatives. And here is my poem for today:

Dear God,
We rejoice and give thanks for earthworms,
bees, ladybirds and broody hens;
for humans tending their gardens,
talking to animals,
cleaning their homes
and singing to themselves;
for the rising of the sap,
the fragrance of growth,
the invention of the wheelbarrow
and the existence of the teapot,
we give thanks.
We celebrate and give thanks.

Michael Leunig