Category Archives: Inspiration
Emma, by Jane Austen, is a delightful story with vivid characters, challenging interpersonal relationships, but overall a backdrop that encourages doing one’s duty, being principled, caring for others, and ultimately doing what is right.
In this reading of the story, I was struck by a new word that I learned:
Valetudinarian: A person of poor health or unduly anxious about health.Oxford Reference English Dictionary
After introducing the term, Austen illustrates it accurately in the character of Mr. Woodhouse, Emma’s father.
Before I describe him for those who have not read Emma recently, I think it’s important to distinguish Valetudinarian from Hypochondriac. A hypochondriac imagines he has a serious disease. I suppose when those fears are disproven, fear of another raging, illness emerges.
A valetudinarian, such as Mr. Woodhouse, does not necessarily believe he is ill at the moment, but rather evaluates every activity, every relationship, and every interaction from the perspective of the health implications. So, for example, when others are enjoying a hearty meal, Mr. Woodhouse insists on a thin gruel. When guests are coming over, he insists Emma make sure they are not ill. Children are seen as carriers of disease and travelling is to be avoided if there is any chance of cold, rain, or snow.
Austen does not overtly criticize Mr. Woodhouse, but simply shows how his valetudinarianism constrains his own life and the lives of those around him. Still he is much loved, and understood. Emma cheerfully looks after him. Even Knightley acknowledges this duty as an important obligation.
When I look at my own life in 2020 and 2021, the tendency toward valetudinarianism is very strong. I seem to have been conditioned to see every relationship, every activity, every human interaction from the perspective of health. Like Mr. Woodhouse, this long term focus, this application of a health filter to every aspect of my life is not beneficial and constrains me much as it did Woodhouse. Indeed, it naturally engenders a constant feeling of vague fear.
So what’s the answer?
While I was reading Emma, I was also reading George MacDonald’s The Seaboard Parish. MacDonald, like Austen, lived in an era when medicine could do very little to improve health. The recipe seemed mostly to rest and wait to see if the patient is able to recover. MacDonald’s personal experience with illness and death, should have made him a prime candidate for valetudinarianism, but he was not like that at all, even though he suffered many sorrows from disease.
Sickness, particularly Tuberculosis, was no stranger to the MacDonalds. George would christen it as being “the family attendant” in later years. It took the lives of four of his children and some of his grandchildren as well.http://georgemacdonald.info/children.html
MacDonald lived the idea that God is supremely good and we can trust the future to him, including whatever confronts in the way of illness or death. Our job is to do our duty in the present and leave our future (over which we really have no control) in the hands of the Almighty.
In The Seaboard Parish, there is a massive storm which casts a great ship on the rocks just off the coast of Walton’s parish. At great peril, some sailors and passengers are rescued but many were not. A battered sailor with a broken leg believes he is dying (he was not) and asks Vicar Walton what he should do. Here is what what MacDonald said through the character of Walton:
Trust in Christ and do not be afraid.George MacDonald, The Seaboard Parish, Kindle Edition (Unabridged).
He did not lie to the man as perhaps some would today, to make him hopeful of recovery and easier. He gave the unvarnished truth and I believe it was the best thing to say, since MacDonald had a hope that transcended even the prospect of imminent death. So, as I continue to hear the never-ending news reports on Covid strains as they move through the Greek alphabet, like hurricanes moving through alphabetical names in September, I’ll remember George MacDonald’s admonition and try to live a life of faith, unintimidated by the government, the health agencies, and the news media.
In these days when, by government edict here in Canada, churches are deemed “non-essential services,” I find myself searching the internet for inspiring and thought-provoking messages. A few weeks ago, I listened to a 2004 message by Timothy Keller on guidance. See the link below:
For a transcription of the talk, check out the link below:
Keller talks about three forms of guidance:
“We’ll find out by answering, by looking at these proverbs and understanding first of the guidance God does, secondly the guidance God gives and thirdly the guidance God purchases for us.”
- Guidance God does
- Guidance God gives
- Guidance God purchases for us
He further subdivides “Guidance God does” into:
- Paradoxical guidance God does
- Non-obvious guidance God does
There is so much in this message that I can only talk today about what spoke to me about “Paradoxical guidance God does.” When I think of guidance I think of help in decision making. Keller points out there are two contradictory views about decisions. One view is a deterministic view that decision making is really an illusion. Our brain chemistry, our hormones, are appetites so completely determine our decisions (if you’re a Materialist) that our decisions don’t matter. There is also a theological version of this: God makes our decisions for us, so again they don’t matter.
The second, free-will view, is that our decisions completely determine everything. Keller astutely points out that both points of view, if thought through to their logical implications, can’t help but lead to despair. Absolute determinism logically leads to complete passivity. My decisions don’t matter, ever. But free will leads to paralysis since I know so many of my decisions will not only be wrong, but devastatingly wrong that second guessing and doubt will paralyze me.
Keller correctly points out that, not only Proverbs, but he New Testament itself asserts both individual Free Will and God’s Sovereignty (Determinism) simultaneously and the two together are essential for hope and confidence in the future.
Since Free Will exists and is operative, my decisions matter a lot, so I cannot be passive. Yet since the God who loves me still is sovereign, he can smooth over my many poor choices, so in the end I will be okay. Keller uses the Genesis historical account of Joseph where many people made terrible decisions with some good ones thrown in, but God, made everything work together to good purpose and save Jacob and his family from a killer famine.
How to Come to Terms with this Paradox
As a scientist, I am no stranger to paradoxes. The one that springs immediately to mind is the wave-particle duality that is particularly pronounced in small particles. One knows this paradox is intrinsic to particles. One also understands the quantum nature of very small particles is so different from what I encounter in the macroscopic world, that I should not be surprised the properties characteristic of the quantum realm appear as paradoxes to me.
The way a physicist handles these paradoxes is instructive. One knows when to treat an electron as a particle and when to treat it as a wave to solve a particular problem. For diffraction one treats an electron as a wave; for collisions as a particle.
Some years ago I read Roger Penrose’s book The Road to Reality. Much I did not understand but his explanation of the arrow of time always stayed with me. Of the four dimensions (x, y, z, t) only time is unidirectional, that is to say time always moves from the present to the future. Indeed, our world is what it is, because of time. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that for any process, the entropy of the universe must increase. To go back in time is to return to a lower entropic state of the universe and so contradicts this law. As a human being, I am remorselessly and relentlessly bound in time. At one point in time I am deciding cereal or eggs for breakfast. Twenty minutes later that decision is irrevocably set in the past. Within time I made a decision.
Yet if I believe that God created everything including time, then I have to believe he exists outside of time as well as within it. This to me is the whole explanation why Free Will and Determinism can co-exist. Within time (the only realm I comprehend), real decisions are being made and have consequences. Outside of time, in some way there is some multidimensional present where all of infinity is seen (I want tot say simultaneously, but that would be a symptom of my incurable compulsion to always drag time back into God’s timeless realm).
This brings me to my final point. I can’t understand God’s Sovereignty without dragging time into his timeless realm and so making him responsible for all actions and destroying Free Will. I can’t understand his sovereignty, but at least I know why I can’t understand it.
As Keller points out, having free, meaningful choices and a sovereign God superintending all is the only way of avoiding paralysis on the one hand and passivity on the other. Like the scientist, I apply my imperfect models to the problem at hand. When I am making a decision, I decide knowing that this is my responsibility. When I have second thoughts and wonder if I my decision has been a huge mistake, I am confident that God in his sovereignty will make it work out, despite my flawed choices.
Kathy and I had a chance to spend thirteen glorious days at our cottage near Seeley’s Bay, Ontario. The days were mostly sunny and the weather was warm. Here are some of our highlights.
It’s a time to disconnect from the internet, enjoy God’s wonderful creation, and see the beauty of the natural world.
We’ve had our cottage since 1989 and never before have we seen swans in our bay. I have seen them elsewhere on the Rideau, but never in our bay. Here is a picture of one with the evening reflection of the trees coloring the water,
We often see turtles in the water, but this is the first time one was wandering across our front lawn. My best guess, after looking at the eight turtle species of Ontario, is that it was a Blanding Turtle, although I didn’t handle it to check for a yellow neck and characteristic markings on the plastron.
We have a small elm on the front lawn just ten feet from the porch. To our surprise we had a large porcupine in it. Thankfully it left at the first opportunity. I don’t know if our dog knows the danger of porcupines and they can damage buildings if they set their mind to it.
One morning I was up before dawn and took my kayak up the channel. It was beautiful seeing the first glimmer of sunrise from the water. It reminded me of Proverbs 4:18
“But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day.” [ESV]
As I thought about it, most people would say this metaphor has it backwards: our lives begin with the dawn, progress through the noon day of young adulthood and then fade into night as we grow old and die. But I think Proverbs has it right. As Christ-followers, old-age is like the darkness before the dawn, but we have a great hope and look forward to a glorious sunrise. I find that a very cheerful thought.
Finally, one of the things I am able to do consistently at the cottage is write. I had set as my objective to complete the first draft of my next book: Coventry 2091. I didn’t quite achieve it, but I came close. My first drafts are very crude and really show up the defects in my story, but even so it’s a major milestone for me.
Now Something I had Intended to Add
Othello, our dog, often watches to make sure that everything is okay at the cottage. If it is not, you can be sure he goes out to investigate.