Money Talks

Before my wife and I retired, I came across an article that broke down by state what it took to be considered in the top 1% of household income in the US.  Because our state is poorer than most, we just made it into that now much-maligned category.  We still work, in a manner of speaking, but it is all essentially for free, so we have fallen quite a bit in the rankings.

We still live in a respectably modest home and drive Prius’s.  We have no vacation home and travel economy most often.  We do own a boat, but it is basically the smallest and oldest among those where we keep it.

Having had a passing interest in the subject, I was intrigued by a recent headline stating that the top 1% in the world now own half of all the wealth in the world.  Last year, Oxfam reported that just eight people, six of whom are Americans, own half of the world’s wealth, which, if true, is even more troubling.

The American ethos has long held that anyone who applies him or herself, can become a success, and there have been enough examples to support for the myth, including a few recent individuals who earned billions from Internet businesses.  The rate of consolidation, however, is likely to make such examples rarer in the future, because new ideas are more apt to be acquired by those with capital.

The trend of holding capital, rather than investing is a relatively new development in the history of capitalism.  It is directly contrary to the dictates of Adam Smith, who observed that profits always go back into the system as capital for new profit making endeavors.  Apple serves as perhaps the best such bad example, having now over 260 Billion Dollars in cash sitting idly offshore.  It seems that the rich not only get richer, they also lose interest in doing anything with what they have.  This means that much wealth is no longer is used for ventures that create jobs and opportunities for working people to improve their own lives.

Apart from the systemic poverty that all these developments ensure, there is an additional and insidious consequence that we seem to be experiencing even now.  Money has always been used to influenced policy in government.  Now, it seems, Dollars and not votes, are the currency in government.  The most recent and, so far worst, example is are the two tax bills currently before Congress.  Politicians are openly advocating increasing taxes on most individuals and eliminating health and entitlement benefits in order to cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy.  This kind of thinking is what gets a morally bankrupt, reality TV star elected President.

I can’t say I have any easy answers to these troublesome trends, but we do need some.  Societies in which the rich live in excess while the poor struggle and often starve tend to fall in time.  People need live with hope for a better future and believe that our government and way of life can make that possible.

As I first wrote this post, I began to list examples of government by and for the plutocracy, but I thought better of the effort.  I have tried to avoid political commentary as a rule here, and my point is not a political one, but rather about a worrisome economic tread.

If we avoid “us versus them” arguments, perhaps we can accomplish better economic opportunity for all.

 

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All Saints’ Day

Today is known as All Saints’ Day, in recognition of the Roman Catholic Saints, who are too many to have a day of celebration for each.  Five hundred years ago yesterday, Martin Luther posted his 95 theses, marking the beginning of the Reformation.  We know that he mailed his propositions to the Archbishop of Mainz that day, and tradition has it that he also posted his theses on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, the town where he was a professor of moral theology.  The propositions were originally intended as topics for debate and not statements of belief, but his opinions were clear, and his stance ultimately led to his excommunication.

The first thesis argued that  Christian’s entire life should be one of repentance.  From that he went on in the remaining statements to criticize the prevailing practice of selling forgiveness, or indulgences, by the church as corrupt and harmful to the proposition of salvation by faith and to the welfare of the poor.

Two years earlier, Pope Leo X had granted open indulgences to pay for the building of St. Peter’s Basillica, preempting local sales of indulgences for eight years, which probably chaffed local clergy in northern Europe.

Luther was not the first to criticize indulgences.  Wycliffe, Hus and others had done so earlier, but history seems to decide when the time is ripe for change and if you believe that history has a direction, Luther was its chosen messenger.  Similarly, the issue of indulgences was the vehicle for more fundamental change, a revolution in religion that was more mildly named the Reformation.

Luther was finally excommunicated in 1521 for refusing to recant his condemnation of indulgences, two years before the construction fund for the Basilica ended.  He went on to form the Lutheran church and emboldened others in Europe to establish new faiths.

Today, the notion that God wants his people to be wealthy holds sway in much of this country.  On Sundays in church and on the airwaves you can hear propositions that God will reward you with greater wealth if you give handsomely to the church.

The Gospels hold the last word, I believe.  All that need be said is found in Luke 21:1-4.

Sidenote:  Another German, German Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press around 1440.  While it is true that the first book he printed using this process was the Bible, that was clearly not his reason for creating movable type.  After all, the text of the Bible doesn’t change, so a fixed page was much simpler and cheaper to create and reuse.

It is more likely that his movable type was first used to insert names into documents granting indulgences by the church, which would have been a lucrative and suitable use for his invention.

 

 

 

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Vacillating About Vaccines

The last case of Smallpox occurred in Somalia 40 years ago this month.  There were two varieties of the disease, Variola Major, which had a mortality rate of 30 to 35 percent, although children died in much greater numbers, and Variola Minor, which killed about one percent of those infected.  Those who survived often suffered from blindness and, of course, pitiful scarring.  In the 20th Century, between 300 and 500 million died from the disease.

Smallpox was perhaps the first weapon of mass destruction.  After it was introduced by the Spanish in the New World in the early years of the 16th Century, 80 to 90 percent of the native populations infected died of the disease.

Edward Jenner found in 1796 that exposure to the milder disease Cowpox created an immunity to Smallpox.  Through the efforts of generations of physicians, Smallpox became the first disease to be fully eradicated, although both Russia and the US have samples of the virus in storage.  Our vials are kept at the CDC, a short distance from my home.

Jonas Salk used an inactive form of the Polio virus to create a vaccine in 1955, a year after I was born.  Having seen firsthand the devastating paralysis it could cause, my parents did not hesitate to have me inoculated.  Today, the disease is nearing eradication, with only 37 cases worldwide reported last year.

Other vaccines followed Salk’s work with general success.  The diseases of Measles, Mumps, Rubella, Chickenpox, Diphtheria, and Hepatitis A and B were each reduced and, in some cases, nearly eliminated through vaccines.  Pertussis, or Whooping Cough, seems to be coming back, perhaps because the immunity from weaker versions of its vaccine may wear off over time, a situation that occurred in my own case, just a few years ago.

The November issue of National Geographic  has an excellent graphic illustrating the impact of vaccines on there diseases.  One interesting observation depicted there is the impact of “herd immunity.”  100 percent immunization is not necessary in order to reduce a disease’s incidence to near zero.  The greater the percentage inoculated, the less likely it is that any one sick person will infect others.

The concept of herd immunity means that the occasional child that slips through the inoculation net is unlikely to cause great harm to others.  This safety net fails, however, when the number not inoculated rises.  In 2014 383 measles case arose around an Amish community that had not been vaccinated.  Mumps still surfaces today in the US in areas, such as colleges, where unvaccinated may be in close quarters.

All that is why the misguided parents who refuse inoculations for their children based on fake science are a danger.  They put not just their own children at risk, but all those that their children come in contact with.

In 1918, 99 years ago, the flu pandemic that circled the world killed between 50 and 100 million people, 10 to 20 percent of those infected.  Almost 500,000 Americans died from the disease, reducing the life expectancy in the US by 12 years because of its effects.  Today, most of us dutifully find a source this time each year to get our flu shot for the expected strain to impact our population.

Fake news is too easily spread today and is fittingly described as “viral.”  The consequences of sharing misinformation can be as devastating as the diseases that good science and generations of doctors have worked so hard to protect us from.

Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote, “The good thing about science is that it is true whether or not you believe in it.”  What you say to others, however, could cause lasting harm.  Words are powerful tools.  Use them wisely.

 

 

 

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About Evil

CNN published a thoughtful article today that expounded on President Trump’s characterization of the Las Vegas shootings from a week ago as “an act of pure evil.”  Daniel Burke’s comments there resonated with thoughts I have had as information has surfaced on the shooter.

Some want to describe the shooter as a domestic terrorist, but no purpose has been discovered for his actions to date.  Others label him as insane, but other than having a propensity for gambling, his amassing of guns and his apparent mistreatment of his girlfriend, he seems, to this point, to be much like your average middle-aged man.

That lack of distinction from any of us is deeply troubling to me.  It implies that the capacity for unthinkable evil lies in each of us, which make the plots for Steven King’s novels all too passé.

We are all too familiar this year with the evils that occur through “acts if God” or the spontaneous destruction that nature can yield.  What is troubling to me is that we too are capable of mindless evil on a massive scale.  It can be by a people who go on with their lives in the face of genocide, the daily accrual of damage to our world or acts of unprovoked war.

It seems that we, as individuals, are equally capable of pure evil, a reality that I struggle to comprehend, even with the events of this week.  Johnny Cash’s line from Folsom Prison Blues, “I shot a man, just to see him die” suddenly becomes all too real.

I suppose we may be too sheltered in suburbia from people like that to recognize that pure evil does lie in some heartless hearts.  What seems all the worse is that this particular shooter seemed like one of us.  Efforts to uncover something to distinguish him may yet find a motive, but it will never explain evil on this scale.

None of this line of thought in any way diminishes my earlier comments on the need for sensible gun control laws.  The ability to convert a rifle into a fully automatic weapon multiplies the impact of an evil act exponentially, and the fact that seemingly normal individuals are capable of senseless and pure evil makes gun control all the more essential.

Burke ends with a quote from the philosopher James A.K. Smith,”Evil didn’t have the first word in this world,” he said. “And I don’t expect it to have the last.”  Perhaps we are capable of good as well.

 

 

 

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Bearing Grief

A footnote following the Las Vegas shooting of Sunday night notes the, once again, dramatic increase in gun purchases following the most recent and for now worst mass shooting in our sad and ongoing past that is our apparent future.  In a perverse and sick consequence, gun manufacturer stocks rise notably following significant mass shootings, while lobbyists and gun advocates repeat again that now is not the time to discuss gun control measures.

There have been over 1500 mass shootings in our country since the end of 2012.  We have had 273 year-to-date, and October 1 is only the 275th day of 2017.  If these tragedies occur daily, when is the right time to discuss sensible gun measures?

I purchased a .22 caliber rifle years ago to deal with water moccasins that lived near my home.  After the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, I got rid of it because I felt powerless to do anything more to stem the senseless violence we endure.  After the Gabby Giffords shooting, I joined the gun control group she founded, Everytown for Gun Safety.  Sadly, the gun lobby has grown too radicalized in its ideology and too powerful through its political donations for reasoned debate and sensible measures to be considered in this country.

In 1996, Australia suffered its worst mass shooting, resulting in gun measures removing over one million guns from the populace.  We are, in fact, the only developed nation that has little to no gun control and have, by far, the worst levels of gun violence.

We suffer from vastly more gun violence here than any other developed country in the world, as this chart depicts.  Interestingly, in all but one of the countries named most of the deaths are self-inflicted. We have more homicides alone than virtually all the countries shown.

Nicholas Kristof, a conservative writer, wrote today about the need for sensible gun control measures.  We need a license to drive or even to marry.  We may own our homes, but they are rightfully subject to safety laws.

The NRA quotes from the Second Amendment as scripture in promoting its radical agenda of an unrestricted right to guns.  They gloss over, however, the language within the amendment that justifies, and should limit, the rights they espouse.  It begins, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State….”

One could debate the relevance today of the amendment itself, since militia have passed into obscurity, now that we – unlike then – have a standing army.  What part of “well regulated”, however, prohibits reasonable gun safety laws?  Perhaps it is too inflammatory to say that legislators that take donations from the gun lobby have blood on their hands.  Surely though, there is a reasonable middle ground.

I accept that there is a place for guns in our society.  Assault weapons and Saturday night specials, however, simply don’t belong.  If you live in many rural areas or if you hunt, having a rifle or shotgun makes plenty of sense.  In a city, I’d say you are better off with a can of bear spray, which requires little to no effort to aim and is apt to disable more quickly than a bullet in most cases.  One shocking statistic reports that half of all firearms here are owned by just three percent of Americans.

I understand the attraction many have for a well made weapon and the sense of security that it can foster, however false that may be.  If we could only talk rationally though, thousands of innocent lives could be saved.  Let’s hope that all has not yet been said in this arena.

 

 

 

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History Lesson

Sixty years ago today US Airborne troops escorted nine black students into Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, marking the beginning of public school integration in the South and in much of the rest of the nation.  I have visited Central High, which is now a National Historic Site, and was struck by the reflections of hate depicted in the museum there – something I believed was foreign to us now.

Instead, I find that we are living in a time in which our President defends white supremacists and decries demonstrations that highlight the inequalities in our society still today.  Students of all races can now attend public schools, but the quality of education has eroded in many places to the point that, despite dedicated teachers, more time and effort is spent on discipline than education.

Even more, it is economic opportunity that has eroded most in the time since Little Rock.  Wealth has become increasingly concentrated in white elite households at the expense of minorities and even many of the poor working class whites that elected their President.  The fact that this man rose to one of the economic elite beginning with a housing business that he was given by his father and that discriminated against minorities, simply magnifies the sorry irony that comes in looking back sixty years today.  In the words of Ronald Reagan, “Are we better off today…?”

And so, with the effects of natural devastation still fresh in Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico, we instead are focused on whether the act of kneeling during the National Anthem should be banned.  It was telling that the act or one man, Colin Kapernick, an excellent quarterback who is now unemployable in the NFL, has become a statement adopted by scores of players to refute the President’s tirades against free speech.

The flag naturally reflects, for some, a symbol of their way of life.  The reality, sadly, is that opportunity is not within the reach of many.  Nothing could be more American than for those left out to voice their dissent.  The fact that they have chosen to do so by silently kneeling could not be more humble, respectful or appropriate as a personal statement.  We have religious groups that do not salute the flag or sing the anthem.  Such is their right and, as Americans, we should honor that freedom, not condemn it.

I have heard some say that a protest during the National Anthem is the wrong time to speak out.  I might agree if the form of protest interrupted the act, but taking one knee is anything but disruptive, except to the consciences of those of us that might need to be more aware.  The anthem verse we sing after all, ends with the words, “The land of the free, and the home of the brave.”

It saddens me that some attempt to co-opt the flag into a divisive symbol.  I sometime hear them sing the words to the song written by Lee Greenwood after the Russians shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007, “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.”  We should all celebrate that freedom.  Through sitting at the front of the bus or at the lunch counter, one black woman and a handful of black youth spoke volumes and changed our land. Jesus wrote silently in the sand, when asked to condemn an adulteress.  Tradition says that he wrote the sins of the hypocrites standing there, but the message in his silence survives to this day.

When all is said, a quiet act can speak volumes.

 

 

 

 

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How Fragile We Are

On and on the rain will fall
Like tears from a star
On and on the rain will say
How fragile we are…

Sting

 

Perhaps the only way any one person can carry on, in the face of all that nature and life presents, is to live in denial of how fragile life really can be and often is.  Sadly for now at least, Houston is a poignant and painful reminder of how small and puny we are.

I have spent enough time at sea and along its shore to know how small one person can be in what a “mere” gale or storm may present.  Hurricane Harvey’s deluge of rain stands as orders of magnitude more massive than anything ever recorded anywhere in this country and all too comparable to an entire monsoon season in all of India.

Large areas have received over 40 inches of water from the storm and as much as 10 more inches is expected.  Weather forecasters had to add new colors to their rainfall maps to illustrate these rainfall amounts.  Seattle, which is one of the rainiest areas in the country, receives around 40 inches in an entire year.  Hurricane Katrina dropped about 10 inches of rain, by way of comparison, though its greatest damage came from its storm surge.

By some measures 9 to 11 trillion gallons of water have fallen thus far in Houston and more is sadly to come.  It is hard to fathom (sorry for the pun) how much that of a deluge that really is.  It would take 15 days for all of the people in this country to use that much water.  By another measure, that measure amounts to all the water evaporated across the entire world in a single day.  For more comparisons, see The Week, and the Washington Post.

Flood insurers count in terms of 100 year measures.  Climatologists talk about 500 and 1000 year events.  Sixty inches of rain is considered a once in a million year risk.  None have meaningful comparisons for Harvey, whose name is perhaps most associated with an “imaginary” rabbit in an underrated film staring Jimmy Stewart.  This flood is unprecedented, and perhaps Biblical.  Sadly, there are news reports today that a protective levee in the region has broken, threatening even more destruction.

There are hints and a few records of floods in history.  The one given Noah’s name could have been the breach of the Straits of Gibraltar or the demise of early Minoan civilization by way of earthquake and tsunami.  The 1900 hurricane that destroyed Galveston now sadly pales in comparison with the flooding from Harvey.

It is impossible to say whether climate change contributed to this natural disaster.  The unusually warm waters of the Gulf certainly contributed to the rainfall by allowing the air to hold more moisture.  Gulf water temperatures have regularly been this warm in recent years, just as sea ice in the Arctic has all but disappeared in the same months.

What we do know is that the lives and livelihoods of all too many have been devastated and it will take years for them to recover.  You can blame God, global warming or whatever you wish, but there are people now who need our help.

Social media is flooded with questions about a Houston mega-church that has refused to open its doors to those flooded from their homes.  At the same time, the “Cajun Navy” of Houston’s local boaters has reached out like the private and merchant mariners of Dunkirk.  Luke recorded a meaningful question for today and every day, “Who do you think was a neighbor?”

It was on this day in 2005 that Katrina made landfall.  I was returning home on a cross-country flight that day and our plane was diverted by the storm.  A few days later I flew on a relief flight to Baton Rouge to help residents there deal with FEMA.  I was amazed at the resilience of the people I met and stunned at their gratitude for the little I could do.  We must all do what we can now.

Follow up Friday, September 8, 2017:

On this day, actually this night, in 1900 the city of Galveston was destroyed by an unnamed hurricane, and today hurricane Irma is leaving a trail of its own destruction through the Caribbean with an eye toward Florida.  Winds as high as 150 MPH and rains of 12 to18 inches are expected.

Much of Houston is still underwater from hurricane Harvey and one report says that the total rainfall for the area was as much as 27 trillion gallons.  That is enough water to serve the city of New York for 50 years. The death toll there stands at 35.  Irma is likely to be vastly more deadly, as entire islands are reported to have been overrun by its storm surge.

 

 

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Elvis Lives?

Forty years ago today, Elvis Presley died while sitting on the toilet in his Graceland home in Memphis, Tennessee.  Or so the story goes.  Elvis would, or might, be 82 today.

I am old enough to have listened to Elvis in my formative years and to appreciate his larger than life story of a poor Mississippi boy who wandered into Sam Phillips little recording studio to make a record for his mother, only to become the King of Rock and Roll.  The first time I went to Graceland, I passed by his grave and saw a big-haired – and also big – woman on the ground next to the flowery grave crying real tears.  Just for fun, my wife and I renewed our vows at the chapel there a year ago.

I remember hearing the news of his death as I turned into my driveway that August morning in 1977.  I found it hard to believe, and it seems that more than a few continue to doubt his death.  You can find a chronicle of the conspiracy theories around his death here.  There are almost as many Elvis conspiracy sites on the Internet as there are cat videos.  I even have somewhere – please don’t judge – a copy of a National Enquirer with the headline, “Elvis Abducted by Aliens.”  Who could resist?

There are more than a few movies claiming that Elvis’ death was faked.  Elvis is Alive is one.  The Identical claims that is stillborn brother actually lived and took over Elvis’ identity after his death.  You can access descriptions of other bizarre films at the same link.  One example is Bubba Ho-Tep, in which Elvis and John F. Kennedy are said to be kept in a nursing home, where they find an Egyptian god who rises from the swamp nearby.  Actually, it is worth seeing.

Far and away my favorite is Finding Graceland, starring Harvey Kietel, who goes about being, or believing, he is Elvis, while helping the downtrodden that he comes across.  I won’t spoil the ending, but it is poignant.  But then there are so many tales of Elvis that still touch hearts today.

I suppose we still miss you Elvis, wherever you are.

 

 

 

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A Look Back and Perhaps Forward

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.

Attributed to Mark Twain

 

On this day, August 8, in 1974, Richard Nixon became the first and, so far, only U.S. President to resign from office.  It was a tragic moment for the nation, regardless of one’s politics, age or persuasion.

It had been a long two years since the Watergate burglary of June 11, 1972.  The Senate had begun an investigation in February of 1973.  Following the resignation of his Attorney General at the end of April, Nixon was forced to allow the new A.G., Elliot Richardson, to name a Special Prosecutor.  In October, he fired Richardson and the Deputy A.G. for refusing to fire Cox.  Robert Bork, the third in line at the Department, did fire Cox.  Interestingly, Bork was later nominated by the next Republican President, Ronald Reagan, for the Supreme Court, but was rejected due to controversial positions he had taken in certain publications.

Historians, with the advantage of hindsight, tell us that the firing of Cox made Nixon’s departure inevitable.  It’s hard to say whether that was true, but, having lived through those times, there seemed to be a public consensus that Nixon’s action was beyond any standard of justice, propriety or decency.  This sense was reinforced in April of 1974, when the Supreme Court forced Nixon to release the transcripts of Oval Office conversations.  Apart from the legally damning portions, the ranting and abusive language used by Nixon troubled even his remaining supporters.

This period reminded me of a time I have written about earlier, when the tide of public opinion turned against Joseph McCarthy and his campaign of accusations meant to tear down others for his own benefit.

American was deeply divided in 1974 over many things that were centered over racial and generational divides, relating to everything from the Vietnam war to racial equality.  We are also divided today in an almost tribal conflict between polarized political identities.  We now have a President who boasts of sexual groping and has claimed he could get away with murder.  He seems to measure loyalty by the extent one believes his obvious lies.  Once again we have a prosecutor that the President has threatened to fire.  In fact, this President has even mulled publicly about pardoning himself.

History may or may not repeat itself, but Nixon’s case offers two valuable insights.  First, it took a terribly long time for justice to prevail and for Nixon to leave office, facing certain impeachment and conviction in a Senate that could no longer support him.  Second, public opinion, long tolerant of his conduct, did ultimately turn against him.

We are living in a time remarkably similar to those days.  None of us knows what will happen when all is said and done.  It is wise though to stop and think about the past, because the perspective may be something of a guide today.  As for me, I think of Welch’s words to McCarthy, “Have you no decency?”

 

 

 

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A Thought Experiment

A thought experiment is a way to test an answer to a question too big or small for science to verify.  Einstein’s speed of light train and Shroedinger’s cat are two examples from science, though you will find others in philosophy and mathematics.  It is, in a sense, a way for man to play God.

In that context, a theological thought experiment came to my mind recently.  It bears a relationship with the fifth proof of God’s existence by Saint Thomas Aquinus (his argument by design ), but with a different purpose.

Instead of proving that there is a God, let’s begin by simply assuming that he, she or whatever does exist and was responsible for the Creation.  Stay with me if you don’t believe in God, because my little experiment may have still something meaningful to say.

Let’s assume as well that what one creates says something about the creator.  That should be a simpler premise to accept.  The posts in this blog, for example, would probably lead you to conclude that I’ve been around a while, try to view issues with a bit of perspective, am not that conservative – at least in today’s context –  and want to share my thoughts while remaining relatively private.

Aquinus drew certain conclusions about the nature of God: that he is perfect, infinite and unchanging, but I wonder if the universe and world we live in offer more subtle insights to consider.

Given the size of the universe, God must have a vast imagination and power.  God must also value simplicity and consistency, if you consider the mathematical precision of the laws of nature that we continue to discover.  At the same time, the fact that God chose to allow events to unfold and creatures to evolve seems to say that he is both curious and satisfied not to intervene in creation in at least most respects.

I think God must have a sense of wonder and a joy in beauty, because the majesty of a sunset and the beauty of a bluebird cannot be things that we alone appreciate.  He must also have a playfulness and sense of joy, because so many of his animal creations display those emotions.  If we reflect something of God, he must also grieve as we, and even many animals, do.

There is another side to creation, evil in its natural and human forms, that we struggle to understand.  Where that fits and how it relates to God forms the unsolvable problem of evil that we live with and see the results of daily.  If nothing else, it tells us that God is ultimately incomprehensible for mere humans.

God must also have in mind an end to his creation.  The arrow of time exists for a reason, and the the fact that disorder in the universe or entropy always increases means that, at some point in the long away future, creation will reach an end.

As a sailor, I often look at the sea and wonder.  It is, in its own way, alive – constantly in motion and beyond our ability to tame.  It gives life, provides livelihoods and can take both away without warning.  Still, it draws many to it for reasons too deep to grasp.  Almost like we, or at least many, are with God.

Is there a God?  When all is said, we only answer for ourselves.  Still, creation may say much about him.

 

 

 

 

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The Last Word

After all is said and done, more is said than done.

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