He Is There. Because He Wants To Be.

I rarely repost other people’s work, but this is too good not to share. J.

Samaritan's Song

There is no rhyme or reason to when or why my cat wants to get in my lap.

When it happens, she grabs the arm of my desk chair with both paws, hauls herself up to a standing position, and mews pitifully at me until I scoop her up and drop her in my lap.  If I don’t scoop her up, she meows indefinitely until she jumps up herself, stabbing me in the thigh with a claw in the process.

Sometimes she stays for five minutes before I do something to dissatisfy her and she stalks off.  Sometimes she stays until my legs fall asleep.  Sometimes she plays with her own tail or cleans her paw. Sometimes she sleeps or kneads my pants leg.

Either way, the intention is clear: at that moment, for whatever reason, she wants to be with me.  Even more clear?  At that moment, for whatever…

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Sugar: the spice that changed history–part two

Portuguese sailors explored the African coast in the fifteenth century, wanting to purchase gold without dealing with the sub-Saharan empires, which placed a surcharge on the precious metal. Coastal Africans were willing to exchange any commodity they had for European products, including horses and guns. They offered ivory, and they offered slaves. Once the Portuguese explorers found uninhabited islands nearby, they were happy to purchase slaves so they could establish sugar fields. The Africans were happy to sell slaves, not from their own tribes, but from neighboring tribes—captured prisoners of war. As the Atlantic slave trade grew, some African nations deliberately went to war with their neighbors to provide themselves with more slaves to sell to the Europeans.

The Portuguese sought a route around Africa so they could buy spices and other Asian products without paying a surcharge to west Asian merchants and governments of Arabia and the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, an Italian sailor proposed to the government of Spain that he could take ships directly to China and India by crossing the ocean to the west. Christopher Columbus did not have to prove to anyone that the world is round—educated people in Europe, Asia, and Africa had known the shape of the world for more than a thousand years. Greek scholars had even determined the size of the world with reasonable accuracy by measuring shadows in different cities. Most sailors did not want to try the western route because of the size of the world—European ships could not carry enough food and fresh water to supply their crews for such a long voyage. Columbus overestimated the size of Asia. He also suggested that the curve of the Earth is different measuring north to south than measuring east to west. (Had he been correct, the world would be shaped more like an egg than like an orange.) Columbus wanted gold from Asia, but he also wanted spices, including sugar. Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand gave Columbus the money he needed for three ships, and in the following years he made four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean and back again.

When Columbus first landed in the Caribbean Islands, he thought he was in Indonesia, and he called the people living there Indians. He found no gold and no sugar, but he found islands where sugar could be grown. Although Columbus never publicly admitted his mistake, others quickly realized that he had found land previously unknown to Europeans. They referred to the islands of the Caribbean as the West Indies, calling the islands of Indonesia the East Indies. Spain and Portugal, and later Great Britain and the Netherlands, copied the farming system first made by the Portuguese on islands near Africa, and soon a vast sugar industry was operating.

The Portuguese system involved many African slaves supervised by a few European landowners and managers. Slavery was not invented by the Portuguese; it has existed since ancient times. People became slaves due to debt, or to crimes, or to being prisoners of war; often slaves had rights protected by law. Some had respected duties such as managing the property of the rich or teaching their children; in some cases, certain slaves owned slaves of their own. The new system, prompted by an appetite for sugar, created the plantations and haciendas of the New World. In addition to sugar, American plantations also began raising tobacco, cotton, coffee, and rubber. When the local population was found insufficient for working the plantations (largely because of their lack of immunity to smallpox and measles), Europeans began transporting more Africans into the western hemisphere. In fact, between 1500 and 1800, more Africans than Europeans crossed the Atlantic Ocean to live in the Americas.

Until recently, history books said that we will never know the number of Africans removed by the slave trade. Researchers finally realized, though, that the slave trade was a business, and that there must be business records stored somewhere. Once they knew what documents they needed, they knew where to find them, and now it is known that roughly thirteen million Africans were forced into slavery during those three centuries. Even more appalling is the fact that the loss of one quarter of those thirteen million lives in transit across the ocean was considered a legitimate cost of doing business.J.

Epiphany Day

The word “epiphany” has been overused the last few years. Many people use it as a synonym for discovery, especially a discovery about one’s self. The word means “shining out” or “shining upon.” In the original Greek of the New Testament it usually refers to the glory or grace of God shining upon his people, although in Acts 27:20 it is used literally of the sun and stars.

In the traditional Christian calendar, the season of Epiphany follows the twelve days of Christmas and extends to the night before Ash Wednesday, which  starts the penitential season of Lent. The Sundays of Epiphany are bookmarked by the first Sunday of the season, in which the Baptism of Jesus is considered, and the last Sunday of the season, which recalls his Transfiguration (in which Jesus literally shone with light). On both occasions, the voice of God the Father claims Jesus as his Son. The other Sundays of the season also reflect upon the evidence that Jesus is God’s Son and the world’s Savior, evidence coming from his miracles and from his teachings.

The Day of Epiphany, January 6, is a festival which remembers the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem to honor the King of the Jews. This event is also evidence of the identity of Jesus, as these foreigners honor him with gifts worthy of a king—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. As poems and songs over the centuries have revealed, these gifts describe the identity of Jesus as “king and priest and sacrifice.”

The Bible does not say how many Magi came bringing these gifts. Traditionally they are depicted as three—one for each gift—and many depictions of the Magi show one as Asian, one as African, and one as European. This reflects the theme that Jesus, as King of the Jews, is Lord and Savior of the entire world. As an artistic theme, it is beautiful, but it is not historically accurate. Historians debate the origin of the Magi. Because the word is Persian, some think they came from Persia. However, the word was in general use by this time in history. Others think that, because they were following a star, they came from Babylon, the center of astrological studies. Since the Word of God forbids astrology, this interpretation is problematic. The best hint of their origin is the gifts that they brought. Usually gifts to a king (or other national leader) represent the products of the givers’ homeland. The one part of the world which produces all three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—is Arabia.

Moreover, the only prophecy linking the King of the Jews to a star came, not from a prophet of Israel, but from an Arab prophet named Balaam. “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth” (Numbers 24:17). Who was more likely than the Arabs to preserve this prophecy and to discern its fulfillment?

Picture a group of Arabs showing up in Jerusalem asking for the newborn King of the Jews. The man the Romans had named king of the Jews, Herod, was an Idumean, not a Jew. He was suspicious of any threat to his rule, even killing his own sons for fear they would take the kingdom from him. When his scholars showed Herod and the Magi that the Messiah should be born in Bethlehem (so he could inherit the throne of David), Herod first tried to trick the Magi into leading him to the child, then ordered the murder of all the young boys in Bethlehem. Warned by an angel, Joseph took Jesus and his mother to Egypt, sparing his life as a child so he could later save the world by his sacrifice.

The nature of the star that led the Magi to Jesus is also uncertain. It probably was not a comet or a nova, since ancient civilizations do not report such an event at the right time in history. A very scholarly website links the star of Bethlehem with the motion of the planet Jupiter, involving retrograde motion near the star Regulus at approximately the right time. While I appreciate the thoroughness of the research and its faithfulness to the Biblical record, I am uncomfortable with its reliance on astrological symbols to communicate to the world the Incarnation of the Son of God. Given that God spoke at other times through the casting of dice, I suppose I cannot totally dismiss the possibility. J.

 

The spice that changed history–part one

Since early times people have been gathering and using spices and herbs. They make food taste better (and sometimes they hide the taste of spoiling food), but spices can also preserve food, or be used as medicines, or as perfumes, or in potions and salves and ointments. Merchants liked to deal in spices because they are incredibly efficient as merchandise. They are easy to transport and possess a large density of value, whether measured by weight or by volume.

The spice trade—and one spice in particular—helped to shape the history of the world. The Persian Empire built and maintained roads for government messengers and for their army, but these roads were also used by merchants traveling across the Empire from India to Egypt or Greece and back again. India, China, and Rome all imitated the Persian system of roads; the result was an intricate system of travel ways (some involving rivers or coastlines) called the Silk Road. Italian glass was sold in China two thousand years ago, and Chinese silk was sold in Rome. Anything that could be bought and sold traveled along the Silk Road—precious metals, gems, artwork, fabric, fruits, vegetables, animals, and slaves. Spices were an important part of this vast economy which linked three continents and would eventually shape two more.

The most prized spice that traveled the Silk Road was made from a plant indigenous to the islands of Indonesia. Indian travelers brought this spice west, selling it in India and also in Arabia. Europeans first encountered this spice when they traveled to Asia for the Crusades, and it rapidly became popular in Europe. Italian investors tried to raise this spice on islands in the Mediterranean Sea, but the climate was too temperate for this plant. By the 1400s, as Portuguese explorers traveled along the coast of Africa, they found uninhabited islands of the coast that were ideal for this Indonesian spice. Soon the Portuguese had a booming business raising and selling this popular spice, enriching the nation and making further travel possible.

If you search through your spice rack, looking for this particular spice, you will not find it there. This popular spice is not pepper, or cinnamon, or nutmeg, or cloves. Nor is it ginger or mustard. The name of this spice, so desperately wanted in Europe centuries ago, is sugar.

Of course now sugar is treated as a staple, sold in five pound bags like flour rather than in tiny jars or cans. Yet sugar is indeed a spice and was treated as a spice by merchants and by governments that taxed products when they were bought and sold. Europeans were familiar with other sweeteners, such as honey, but cane sugar appealed to the European sweet tooth. This addiction to sugar changed the history of the planet, as I will describe in coming posts. J.

The Haircut

When I saw myself in the family photographs from our Christmas gathering, I knew that the time had come for me to have my hair cut. I don’t schedule haircuts on a regular basis—I tend to go for a haircut when I feel the need. Usually I get a shorter haircut at the beginning of summer and let my hair grow longer during the winter. The way my hair was sticking out over my ears in the pictures, though, made me decide that it was time for a trim.

My last haircut was in August, just before classes began. After that haircut, I told my family and my friends, “I’m not going to that barber again!” As I intended, they asked me why, and I told them, “He’s moving to Canada,” which was the truth. But for the past twelve years or so, he has been my regular barber, which meant that it was time to shop around for a new place to have my hair cut.

I did some online shopping, comparing prices at national chains, which were much higher than what I had been paying. Finally, I decided to have my hair cut by a student at the local salon and styling school. The contrast between that salon and the traditional American barber shop is immense. The barber shop is rarely entered by a woman, but in the salon women far outnumbered men (though I was not the only man there). The barber shop had one barber, one chair, and one set of tools, but the salon was equipped to handle many customers at once. The barber shop had no background music, just quiet conversation between the barber and his customers; the salon had a radio tuned to a top forty station playing the latest hits, whatever they may be.

The biggest change, though, was for me to sit in a chair and have a young woman, all of eighteen years old, begin running her fingers through my hair. My barber was adept, but his manner was definitely masculine; the young woman’s gentle touch took me by surprise at first. We did not have much to say to each other, apart from discussing what kind of haircut I wanted. The lack of conversation drew my attention all the more to the intimacy of our situation, even in a crowded salon, filled with the buzz of many voices.

She even shampooed my hair after the haircut, which is the regular policy at the salon. I am used to washing my own hair, not to having someone else wash it for me. That morning I walked out of the salon with shorter hair, but also with the feeling that I had experienced something new and different.

Will I go back to the same salon? Probably, but most likely not until summer approaches and I am ready for my summer cut. J.