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Archive for the ‘Pseudo-Philosophical Ponderings’ Category

Abigail,
As it is Christmas season, you may be wondering, “Daddy, who is Santa and why does he bring people presents on Jesus’ birthday?” This is a good question. Recall, on your birthday, people bring YOU presents – it’s not like the Easter Bunny delivers candies to the elderly when it’s your birthday. So why does Santa do it at Jesus’ birthday? Is Jesus OK with it? Is Santa Jesus?

First off, let’s get one thing straight. Santa Claus is not Jesus Christ. They have some similarities though, and Santa knows Jesus. Both of them were born, both of them died, and both of them live on in the hearts of men, women, boys and girls. While Jesus rose from the dead and is still alive the same way he has always been alive, Santa lives in a different way.

Santa Claus is the new name for a man named Saint Nicholas, who lived in Turkey (the country, not the sandwich) a very long time ago, back when Turkey was part of the Roman Empire. He loved God and loved Jesus, and felt that giving people secret presents was a good way to show others that love. Jesus thought that this was a nice idea; after all, Jesus gives gifts to people that have done nothing to deserve them too. While Jesus’ gift is the biggest gift of all, eternal life, Santa gives littler gifts, gifts that you can hold and play with, or wear and play in. Jesus loves illustrations and parables. Santa is like a large, jolly parable in a red suit, giving gifts to the nice boys and girls, despite the fact that all are naughty and fall short of the high standards of true nice. Santa is like grace, if only grace rode a sleigh and ate far too many cookies.

So, how does it all work? Well, when St. Nick (that’s what his friends call him) died, he went to the heavenly registrar’s office and was given a few options for the jobs that he could fill in Heaven: gardener, roofer, lumberjack, poet. They were great jobs, but what he REALLY wanted to do, was to keep giving presents to boys and girls. He thought to himself, “When I was an imperfect man, I could give presents to a hundred children in my town. Now that I’m reborn with a perfected body, I should be able to give presents to all the children in the whole wide world!” As I mentioned before, Jesus thought this was a good idea. St. Nick was so happy to hear this that he decided to celebrate the yearly event on Jesus’ birthday.

There was a problem though: the people still living on Earth didn’t know when Jesus’ birthday was. You might think, “Come on, they didn’t know the most important person ever to live’s birthday??” Yup. They didn’t know it. Remember, Jesus wasn’t famous for almost 30 years after he was born. He was born in a manger, for crying out loud. His parents knew days and weeks and months based on the Jewish calendar, and most people on Earth were using a whole different calendar by this time. Everyone forgot, like when you don’t play with a toy for a month and it stays stuck behind the couch until you move.

Finally, someone decided to re-use a holiday called Saturnalia as Jesus’ birthday. This sent shivers down St. Nick’s spine. Saturnalia was at the end of December. Almost all the people in the world, particularly at that time, lived north of the equator. You see, in December, it is winter in the northern hemisphere. This is because of the way the earth is tilted with respect to its orbit around the Sun.

But that’s neither here nor there. The point is St. Nick was going to get cold when he delivered all those presents. Very cold. So cold that he decided that there was no way he could do it unless he lived someplace that was cold all year round so that he could get used to the chill. This was actually convenient, as Jesus thought it was prudent for Santa to stay away from people during the rest of the year. Jesus knows people, you see. People will steal, they’ll pillage, they’ll do all manner of sinful things. It was best for St. Nick to keep out of sight. The North Pole was just the place.

There was another condition on his new employment. He still had relatives on earth. He didn’t want his friends and family to know that he was doing the presents, so he had to come up with a new name. He decided on Santa Claus, because his first elves all came from a place that would eventually become Holland. They had strange accents, and used to mess up his real name all the time. He finally just started calling himself what they were calling him by mistake. It stuck.

So, by a few dozen years after he started, Santa Claus was all set up on the North Pole. He had elves to make toys – mostly swords and baby dolls at first, but eventually everything up to micro-electronics. The big companies, you see, waive their patents for Santa, since it is fantastic marketing to have one of your products seen in a sleigh. He had some major logistical challenges when getting started as well. Back then, there were no airplanes, no trains, no cars, and barely even any roads. Horses found the North Pole to be far too cold. He thought about riding polar bears, but they would get too hot in certain parts of the world, and they occasionally eat children, which is particularly inappropriate during the Christmas season. Really, the only option was reindeer driven sleighs. He requested an allocation of supersonic magic dust which was delivered within two business days by an armored vehicle. He was all ready to go, but no one knew that he was coming.

He started it out as a secret, then, dropping a toy here, a book there, some sweets in a shoe (that’s what people called candy in the old days), tasty meat and so on. People were confused, but grateful. Soon, they started to realize that all of this stuff was showing up on the same day, December 25th, Jesus’ birthday. Even more confused, they set up guards to watch. Nobody could see Santa though, at least not anyone who was too tall to ride the rides at the amusement park. Only kids could see him at first, because believing is seeing.

People sometimes say that seeing is believing. But this is all backwards, especially when it comes to Santa Claus. In order to see him, you have to know that he’s there, and look based on that assumption. Me, I saw him a lot of times when I was a kid. I saw his sleigh in the sky when we were driving home from Grandma’s house some years. I heard him on the roof. Once, he even knocked over something in my room in the middle of the night! See, Santa, though quick, is not very graceful. It’s all those sweets (candy), and the fact that he only gets one really good workout a year, on Christmas Eve.

Anyway, since I saw him when I was a kid, I can still see him. In fact, your mother and I interviewed with one of his elves, Henry, right before you were born. It’s standard procedure for Santa to consult with parents before a baby’s first Christmas. Even though Santa’s a nice guy, he’s only around one day out of the year. Some large elves make believe they’re Santa in malls and such, something which Santa is fine with: this is also great marketing. Your parents are around all the time, so we make the rules and Santa is completely fine with that. In fact, he uses our rules when determining whether you’re naughty or nice. So, you better be good for goodness sake. And good is defined by this guy, right here, Little Pea. Don’t you forget that!

We told Santa to only bring you one or two presents each year. I know, I know – but think about it little baby. You have all you need already, right? We have a little house! A bunch of presents wouldn’t fit! So, when Jesus’ birthday comes around, you get a couple presents from Mom and Dad, and a couple from Santa Claus. Occasionally, an elf or a reindeer, or even Mrs. Claus (they met in Iceland when he was on his way to the North Pole – it’s a whole different story) will send you a little present.

One thing is very important to remember. Some kids get a lot of presents from Santa, and it’s a good thing because if they didn’t, the economy would collapse. Some get very few, and we set aside some of your presents to help bring holiday cheer to those less fortunate every year. For you, you must understand that you can be happy with what you’ve got; a little or a lot. Stuff isn’t what makes you happy, and presents aren’t what makes Christmas special. It is the bigger things like family and love, friends and fellowship, mystery and holiness, and most of all Jesus that make Christmas special.

One last thing…not everyone believes in Santa Claus. Some folks can’t even see him when he’s right in front of them, dancing a jig. They think it’s silly (though they don’t complain about the presents) and there are even some people who think that you shouldn’t believe in Santa either. It’s possible to live your life without believing in anything, or believing certain things so much that there’s no space for other things. Maybe one day your relationship with Santa will become a bit more complicated than it is now, and maybe you’ll start to see him a different way, but just remember: there’s mystery, magic, and miracle in this world. Whether it’s Santa and elves or not, doesn’t much matter. There’s more to life than what you can see with your eyes and hear with your ears. Believing is what makes life worth living.

So, Abigail, this year on Christmas Eve, keep your eyes on the sky. Listen for bells. Look for a jolly man in a red suit. It’s possible you’ll catch a glimpse, or even a smile and a wink if you’re lucky. Enjoy these simple, happy times. You’re only young once, and sometimes, it’s harder for old people to believe the way that you can. When you meet such people, give them a wink and a smile. Maybe, if they’re lucky, they’ll see Santa Claus too someday.

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SK

“I have just returned from a party of which I was the life and soul; wit poured from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me – but I went away – and the dash should be as long as the earth’s orbit———and wanted to shoot myself.”

It’s been too long since I last read Kierkegaard.

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I have little spare mental energy to write things most of the time, so when I have an idea for a post, I make an appointment in Outlook for it. Then Outlook nags me for weeks, as I kick the reminder 8 hours into the future over and over again. I do the same thing with Outlook at work for any number of chores, but I’m not here to talk about Microsoft Outlook.

My most recent pending topic has been about the predictability of nature and in how that impacts God’s sovereignty. This is a topic with obvious ramifications to both Christians and non-Christians alike, though oppositely obvious.

Hurricane Sandy came ashore after being predicted roughly 9 days before landfall. The models were sniffing at the solution that ended up occurring for a week – a preposterously long time and, as an aside, a marvelous job. The timing of this prediction doesn’t really matter. We understand nature to work in a certain way and make predictions based on this. It is, then, a deterministic system. Given more perfect knowledge, more accurate predictions can be made.

Such systems occur all throughout science. Exactly what should happen most often does happen given a set of well understood initial conditions. There are some exceptions to this of course. There used to be more exceptions. As time passes and our understanding of our environment increases, there are fewer and fewer unexpected results.

For centuries, people, not so much theologians, but regular people, have assigned to God the unexplained. Natural events of unexplained origins, are assigned divine cause. The idea that God has authority over all things is called sovereignty. I’ve been thinking about exactly when this sovereignty has to take place to have its effect recently. In a very real sense, God did not have to control where Hurricane Sandy went. We, with our computer models, knew where it would go, just based on the physical dynamics of the atmospheric system. There was no needs for divine steering of anything. Sure, two weeks out we didn’t know where it would go. If we had more data, better models and faster computers, would we? What if we were able to push it to three or four weeks? At some point, God barely fits into the system – in the limiting case, he’d have to perturb the young universe in such a precise manner that 13 billion years later, Hurricane Sandy would interact with a blocking high pressure system and slam into the New Jersey coast – everything else could be predicted. Once set in motion, it was not to be stopped. (pardon my passive voice)

To the atheist, this is all painfully obvious. It’s because there is no God, and all divine manipulation that we perceive is our own layer of interpretation on top of perfectly reasonable outcomes driven by an initial set of conditions. For the Christian, the opposite is true. Yes these things happen, but they happen to us for a reason, specifically to steer us to some greater trust or faith, some deeper understanding and some more transcendent experience of LIFE, real life. They happen for ANY reason – a plausible reason can be generated for any outcome in hindsight. This worldview could, if abused (or possibly, if allowed to reach its own conclusions), support the abolition of science in favor of the comfort of faith.

To do so would be dishonest. The world is not as simple as that. It does wheel through the universe under the control of knowable laws and forces. If there is a God who is somehow sovereign in the universe, he must operate through the determined courses of predictive science.

Now, I happen to believe that God can intervene within this system, though it certainly doesn’t seem that he does so on a macro sense very often. I may have less answers now that I did in the past, but I do know that the sun will rise and then set tomorrow. I could even tell you the times. But I still can’t explain to you why I find it beautiful. Somewhere in there, there’s truth.

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People do not, generally speaking, keep things because they believe that they will use them again. People keep things because they remind them of their past. Things root people – they prove and validate their existence; they provide a map, a trail, sign posts. Whatever I am now, this is who I was or who I could have been before I was. Time passes, but the past is fixed and immutable.

To some, the thought of an unchangeable past is a millstone about their necks. To others, it is a reminder of dream dashed, hopes left unfulfilled. In either case, there is a steady consistency to the past; it is yours and can never be taken.

I went home to Goshen for about 30 hours on Monday and Tuesday. The water having subsided, I helped move several tons of saturated furniture and assorted boxes – decades of the past, submerged, ruined, erased. Some of it was mine, some my brother’s, some my mothers, but most my father’s.

On one hand, the past is already dead and gone. You can never return to it, you might watch it in hindsight as an observer, but you may never again live in it. On the other, the past is encapsulated in the present. The past lives forever in the person, scribed permanently across time and space, locked and frozen into every scare or line on the brow. The past already happened, died, and decomposed into the present. Physical things might remind one of the past, but they themselves do not own it. The past was not thrown away with the couch and mattress; so long as there is a future, there will always be the past, feeding and anchoring the present.

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I get about 10 hits a day. It’s pretty sad. Of course, who wants to read the same week old entry over and over again? Especially now that AE’s gone.

Anyway, in brief, Jen and I spent the weekend in Buffalo on an unexpected funeral induced vacation. I only talked to my Grandfather-in-law once…he seemed like a pretty funny guy. By the time I met him, words were a scarce resource in his economy. In our conversation, he wasted none on causes less noble than saying some dry, witty remark. He was also a bronze star and purple heart recipient, having fought in the Philippines during WWII. Though it was a funeral, we had a great time – I like her family a lot, they’re a fun bunch of people. And like always, whenever I see a military funeral, I regret not going to West Point. I’ve inquired about how late in life one can enlist. I at least want to go through basic training so that I can show young people that I’m tougher than them, kids these days with their cell phones and twitter and video games. I shake my fist at you. Bah humbug.

My train of thought derailed a little while back. My apologies.

Meanwhile, these pictures are fascinating. Contrary to popular belief, people were not monochromatic 100 years ago. It kind of screws with your brain, you even visualize the world in the terms that you’ve been made to perceive it…but really, black and white film was a limitation of technology, not an artifact of reality. No one 100 years ago, when looking upon a black and white photo, would develop the subconscious impression that the world was really gray – after all, they looked around and knew better. For us, our technology allows us to capture our world essentially as we see it (albeit with less dimensions, for the time being at least), so we never had to negotiate this dissonance between what we see in pictures and what we experience in reality. It makes us less capable at understanding the limitations of the past, as our brain doesn’t automatically translate the blacks to colors.

This presumably happens everywhere; we develop preconceived notions based on our limited ability to understand a situation, then store away that simplified construct in our subconscious, unaware (autonomously at least) that it’s merely a shadow of reality. I could probably think about this for a while…but I have to go to bed.

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I was thinking about it in the bathroom stall at work a couple of days ago. I should have been in the Army – I’ve said that enough times now that it’s probably true. Long ago, I thought that I’d need about 4 lives to accomplish what I wanted to do. In one I’d do what I’m doing, in another, I’d stick with the academic route, and in the other two I’d be a military guy, Air Force and Army. The thought of these multiple life scenarios got me thinking about reincarnation, not so much because I believe it in, but more because I find it to be logically inconsistent.

So, if there’s reincarnation, why don’t more people know what they used to be? Sure, some think they do, but even they don’t think they’re just a continuation of the same consciousness. I, meanwhile, am yesterday’s person plus today. My recollection meaningfully connects what used to be my conscious self to what currently is. It is this continuation of being that defines me (and you for that matter) – I am the collection of my thoughts, feelings, dreams and experiences.

Let’s say I was a WWII airman in my last life – who isn’t after all? I remember Sully and Hank, my name was Tommy and we crashed into a glacier and were entombed in ice. How is that useful again? It’s not like I, me, yesterday’s person one day further along, have had the opportunity to build 22000 days worth of experiences on a previous foundation. Those people think they were something else in another life. Even if they were, it’s useless – they don’t get to reap the benefit of living more than once. Without the accumulated set of experiences, that previous life is no more you than some old photograph – two dimensional, frozen in time.

Understandably, this transitioned to the idea of losing one’s memory in some brain malfunction. If my collective sum of experiences were deleted, the old me would no longer exist. I am what I have been, not what I could have been or wanted to be, but what I have been. People try to reinvent themselves by moving to where nobody knows who you once were…but you still do, and you’re still you. If you lost your mind though, then you’d be nobody. You’d disconnect from your past, start new, be different, under no obligation to be who you are, whatever that once was. Of course, you’d still be old and your achilles’ would still be busted. But you can’t deny it’d be interesting to blow it all up and start it all over.

How old is too old to do that, do you think?

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Where there’s conflict for me it has rarely been, “is it my fault, or is it your fault?” It’s always my fault. My pertinent questions are “is it entirely my fault? do I need to start implementing damage control measures?” Once you’ve caused as many problems as I have, you stop wondering if someone else is to blame and just assume that you are.

In a way this is a positive. I rarely feel affronted by others, most of the time I assume conflict resolution is something that I have to do to make someone else feel better, as surely it’s my fault. Most of the time I was at fault with women, and women, as you might be aware, are never wrong.

That’s the cultural claim, at least. We, mankind, must avoid womankind’s whimsy and wrath, because we are always wrong and they are always right. Conditioned as I was by this cultural assumption, I was surprised when a girl/female/lady friend of mine recounted a recent conflict with someone by echoing my common refrain – of course it was my fault, it’s always my fault, I mess everything up.

As with most things, there’s a fine line between a healthy perspective of ones negative tendencies and an unhealthy self-loathing. Yes, you, me, everyone, even those who are too blind to see their real selves through their mythological self-conceptions, are bad people. We mess everything up. Our natural human tendency is to sow discord. Attribute it to whatever you want – maybe it’s original sin, maybe it’s survival of the fittest, but we constantly strive to elevate ourselves, our glory, our genome above our neighbors. It’s good to hold open the constant possibility that one might be wrong…because we probably are.

The problem comes in when you wrap your identity into being this bad person. Let me introduce myself. I’m Eric. I’m the guy that messes everything up. I can’t help myself, I’ll mess you up too, steer clear, watch out, I’m secretly scheming of ways to screw up the next thing too. We start to use our corrupt nature as an excuse, start to think we are resigned to our fallen fate, we’ll rot and fall under the weightiness of our own evil. Inevitability is an expedient to the continued future decay of your soul.

And it’s true, the whole world is still mired in its corruption, groaning under the stress of its brokenness. It shivers and cities shut down, it spasms and they fall, it heaves and they disintegrate. Year after year more broken people do more broken things, year after year people get sick and die. One day it will be better, one day we will be redeemed from ourselves, but in the meanwhile, deep down we have a new nature. We are now defined by something other than our intrinsic corruption.

Because of this some day it might not be my fault. You will be the first to know. Don’t hold your breath.

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