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A matter of seeing: decay and delights to consider

Some years back we rented a little island cottage north of Kingston, Ontario, sight unseen, for the first week of July.  The fact that in a world filled with animosity and chaos – spiritually as well as financially – we could freely do such a thing as rent a cottage was truly amazing.  We read of beheadings, homicides, protests, countless refugee camps; of the persecuted, impoverished and dying; of massive and mind-boggling national debts; and we were free and able to go to a cottage.  It is something to digest – something over which to chew.

It was a Friday afternoon when we traveled along the 401 towards our destination. We stopped at a small motel across from the Brighton Christian Reformed Church where, forty-two years ago, our second daughter had been baptized by my oldest brother. My brother is now with the Lord; the church, however, and its denomination, have deteriorated incredibly. We walked around the church building with a pang and thought, “How the mighty have fallen,” but Paul’s voice reproved us as we drove away across the black parking lot, “… let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.”

Four score and some years…

Saturday morning we drove on towards Elgin, bought some fruit and then, became a trifle lost.  We asked directions from a man who was an apparent four score and some years – a man who was motoring along on the edge of his driveway in a wheelchair.  He was a friendly sort, all gummy smiles and anxious to help.  After he had pointed us in the right direction, he began to back up his wheelchair… towards the nearby ditch.

My husband, Anco, spoke loudly through the open window, “Stop! Stop, sir!  There’s a ditch behind you!”

His voice grew louder as the thin, old figure smilingly continued to move backwards.

“Stop! Stop!”

It was too late. The wheelchair and its occupant slid down a small embankment.  The octogenarian fell backwards off his seat and tumbled onto the grass.  We were both out of the car in an instant, as was another motorist passing by. Thin glasses had been knocked off.  We reached him as he, on all fours, was reaching for them. A little dazed, the man still smiled as we carefully helped him up.

“You really have to watch those culverts,” he said and grinned, while blood dribbled down his nose from small cut next to his left eye.

“Are you all right?” I held onto his arm, and he nodded brightly.

“I’m fine, really I am.”

My husband and the other motorist retrieved the mechanized wheelchair, rolling it back onto the driveway.  I held a kleenex on his cut and like a child that has fallen off his bicycle for the first time, he climbed back on the wheelchair full of courage.

“I hit the reverse instead of the forward,” he said, “I should have known better.”

Anco checked the cut, but it was small and he seemed fine.  So we drove off as he waved to us.

Good news and bad

We launched our boat at the appointed dock at Sand Lake.  The owner, who was to meet us and guide us to the cottage, was late.

She arrived in a small aluminum boat, exclaiming as she jumped out, “You must be Anco and Christine.  Sorry about the wait.”

We nodded and she went on. “There’s good news and bad news.  I’ll give you the bad news first.”

We nodded again.

“There was a fire in your cottage last night and the fire department had to come.  The good news is that the cottage did not burn down and my daughter and myself have been cleaning all day.”

We sympathized greatly, raised our eyebrows at one another when she wasn’t looking, and followed her, boat-wise, out to the cottage.  A little three-room construction on a beautiful hilly, three-acre island met our eyes.  Fir trees, mossy rocks, a female loon nesting on a little outcropping by the dock, all met our expectations of a northern getaway.  Disembarking and loading ourselves down with food and luggage, we climbed up a small path towards the front door.  As we entered the smell of smoke pricked our nostrils.  The upstairs bedroom ceiling was somewhat blackened but, on the whole, with the windows flung wide open, things seemed to be under control.

“The last people,” Joan, our landlady, volunteered, “foolishly lit a candle before drifting off to sleep and the lampshade under which the candle was standing caught fire.  The wife burned one of her hands trying to put the fire out.  She had to go to emergency.  They left a day early.”

We nodded once more and felt compelled to say that, generally speaking, we were not in the habit of burning candles. Joan next related that a John 3:16 framed Bible text had been standing on the night table but, amazingly enough, it had not caught fire.  This was something which had confounded the pyromaniac couple causing them to exclaim, “Your God did not burn!”  Joan, who was a Christian, smiled as she told us this, commenting that perhaps this would give them something to think about.

Wonders to behold

We spent the week fishing, playing Boggle, reading Spurgeon sermons and marveling at God’s creation. There was a scarlet tanager moment in which we noted a small splotch of red in a rock pool – a crimson fifth-day creature stretching its wings as it bathed.  God must have smiled when he pronounced this bird good.

We often heard the raucous cry of the great blue heron as he skimmed by and saw, nearby, the dark belly and the white tail of the bald eagle majestically soar overhead.  Again and again, the muskrat, apparently undaunted by our presence, swam up to and past our boat towards rock crevices on the shore.  Daily the female loon, whom we dubbed Constance for her faithfulness in brooding her eggs, eyed us as we paddled by on our way out.  A cerulean warbler sang a duet with a pine warbler.  Water lilies lined inlets and little bays.  During the day, the high heavens above declared how great God’s love was towards us; and as we contentedly fished in the evening, the red-balled setting sun in the west sang of the immeasurable distance God had removed our sins from us.  The osprey as well as the kingfisher dove, the big and small mouthed bass bit, and we tanned under God’s goodness.

Something better coming

Yet we were unable to forget that we are pilgrims and continue to be pilgrims en route to a much, much better place than Sand Lake or any other northern getaway.  For even as we enjoyed and glorified God’s goodness, Genesis 3 lurked in the background. We noted that creation has many thorns and thistles. There was poison ivy to avoid.  Fly-catchers hunted dragonflies and other insects. Bald eagles and osprey ate fish. Owls hunted mice… and so the list went on.  And in the background, the newspaper headlines we had left behind, whispered of terrorist organizations, human turkey vultures, seemingly devouring God’s people as if eating bread.  Neither could we hide from the rampant materialism, egoism and self-centeredness breeding around and in ourselves.  It skulked in our hearts and minds; it hid in the weeds as we trolled the shores of earthly life for a piece of the action.

On our way home, we stopped to say hello to the man who had fallen off his wheelchair.  Full of good cheer, he was glad to see us.  He told us that when he had fallen off his wheelchair, one of the things that had initially concerned him the most was that he might have lost his eye.  It seemed that his left eye was made of glass.  He was greatly relieved that it had remained in place in spite of the fall.  We told him that we had prayed for his well-being and he smiled broadly.

We drove off thinking about the man’s eye, and about eyes in general.

After the fall, the continued though spoiled beauty in nature is God’s gift; and the promise of a totally renewed nature – both for the earth and for ourselves – through our Lord Jesus Christ, is grace.  And Paul’s words of hope followed us as we drove home on the highway, “For, as it is written, no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him” (I Cor. 2:9).

This first appeared in the November 2015 issue. Christine Farenhorst is the author of many books, including “Hidden: Stories of War and Peace,” “Katharina, Katharina: the story of Katharina Schutz Zell,” and “The Sweet Taste of Providence.”

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Come now, let us reason together

They say that the optimist sees the glass half full, the pessimist sees the glass half empty, and that the alchemist sees the glass completely full - half in liquid state and half in vapor state. So what is alchemy?  The dictionary defines alchemy as the medieval forerunner of chemistry, based on the supposed transformation of matter.  It was a preoccupation with transmuting a common substance, one of little value, into a substance of great value. Alchemy was accepted from the Middle Ages on, until some time in the 1600s.  It was based on the belief that all metals, indeed all matter, contained one common element, of which the purest and most perfect form on earth was gold.  Wealthy patrons often hired alchemists to conduct research on their behalf, or better put, to make money for them.  The fact that they never saw returns on their investment, did not stop their inborn desire to obtain something for nothing.  Perhaps it was like buying a ticket to the lottery today with the hope that maybe, just maybe, your "lucky" number will come up. In 1463 Edward the Fourth of England granted a Sir Henry Grey of Codnor in Derbyshire authority to labor for the transmutation of metals.  This permission for research was given at Sir Henry Grey's own cost provided that he answer to the king if there was any profit.  The ensuing years showed no profit at all. The king, however, must have desired to make some money because thirteen years later he again granted a license to two other men, a David Beaupee and a John Merchant, to "practice for four years the natural science of the generation of gold and silver from mercury." There are other records of such dealings or authorizations.  Presumably, the need for such license was based on a royal claim to mines and other precious metals.  But regardless of royal license, all experiments led to nothing. Last of the alchemists James Higginbotham was one of the last alchemists.  Born in London, England in 1752, his surname was changed to Price following the wishes of a relative who bequeathed him some money.  And perhaps, in the long run, this new surname proved rather apt for him.  Attending Oxford University, James Price seemed to be a bright young man.  He obtained his M.A. at the age of 25, was made a doctor of medicine a year or so later, and became a member of the Royal Society when he was 29. James Price was an able, but amateur, chemist and certainly not an adventurer looking for wealth or power.  A rich man in his own right, he had a family and possessed a good name.  His portrait shows the face of a rather serious, handsome young man, perhaps somewhat introspective, wearing a well-groomed wig. As a member of the Royal Society, James had already distinguished himself as being reputable in the field of chemistry. He loved science, and according to records, was an amiable, well-respected man and one with no skeletons in his closet. In the year 1781, James Price believed he had succeeded in compounding a wondrous powder, a powder capable of converting mercury and other inferior metals into gold and silver.  He wavered before making his "discovery" public. However, he could not help but speak of it with a few friends and they had animated discussions together.  At long length, Price decided to conduct some experiments in front of a select group of men – men of rank, science and public renown.  This he did from the 6th of May, 1782 to the 25th of May, 1782 – a duration time of almost three weeks. There were seven experiments in all and these were witnessed by peers, baronets, clergy, lawyers, and chemists. All the experiments resulted in gold and silver, in great and small quantities, and were apparently produced from mercury. Some of this "resulting gold" was presented to George III who received the gift graciously. The University of Oxford, where Price had been a student at Orial College, bestowed the degree of M.D. on him; and his work, containing an account of his experiments, ran through two editions in a few months. The general public, reading of these experiments, was enthusiastic.  People saw them as the beginning of an era of prosperity for England. This discovery would surely wipe out poverty; introduce a wonderful economy, and usher in a society of peace. There were those who doubted and were sure that  Price was mistaken. Conflict ensued between various groups of Englishmen. Do it again At this point, the Royal Society, of which Price was a member, felt bound to intervene. They asked James to prove to his fellow Society members the truth of his transmutations and to repeat the experiment in their presence. Price, who had initially been very positive about his work, was evasive in responding. He remonstrated that he did not want to repeat the experiments on the grounds that the preparations had been difficult and harmful to his health. Besides, had he not already demonstrated the veracity of his work in the presence of other witnesses, and should that not be enough? Arguing that the result of the experiments had not been financial gain, (though the public supposed it was so), Price went on to say that it had cost about seventeen pounds of sterling to make one ounce of gold. The questions about repeating the experiments went on for some time. Price would not agree to meet with the Royal Society. Yet the honor of this first scientific body in the world seemed to be implicated. It had been founded in 1660, granted a charter by Charles II, and named the Royal Society. It was the oldest national scientific institution in the world – promoting science, recognizing excellence in science and providing scientific advice. They more or less insisted that he repeat his work. Price was hurt. "Would you treat me evilly and not believe me?" he said. "My wealth, reputation, and position in society should free me from suspicion." At long last James Price agreed to make another powder and satisfy the Royal Society. In January of 1783 he left for his laboratory in Guildford, promising to return in a month's time. Upon his arrival, he distilled a quantity of laurel water - a quick and deadly poison also known as prussic acid.  Then he wrote up his will beginning: "....believing that I am on the point of departing from this world...."  After this, he commenced working on the powder. Six months later, he reappeared in London and formally invited as many members of the Royal Society as wanted to meet him at Guildford on August 3rd of 1783. There had been a change in public acclaim. Whereas before people had expressed great faith in James Price and his transmutation of base metals into gold, they now were no longer supportive or interested. Only three members of the Royal Society arrived at the laboratory on August 3. Price received them warmly but could not have helped but feel their air of skepticism.  Excusing himself and stepping aside for a moment, he swallowed a vial of the laurel-water he had prepared. The three men who had come into his laboratory immediately noted a change in his appearance. The man suddenly appeared very ill.  They did not guess why and called for a doctor.  But within minutes James Price was dead. He was only thirty-one years old. There have been many speculations as to why James Price would take his life! Had he deceived both himself and his spectators with his first experiment? Had he been willfully ignorant of this deception? Had he discovered an error? Had he been unable to bear the consequences of mocking? Did he not have the moral courage to confess or own up to a mistake? After his suicide, the Royal Society refused to carry out any further investigations into Price's claims. It is a mystery and upon reading of it we can only speculate. Getting rich, for real People crave quick wealth. In the US approximately 183 million people play a lottery at least one time each year. In England, James Price's homeland, 70% of the population takes part in a lottery on a regular basis (Lottery Demographics, April 2018).  It seems that most people think a change in their lives from perceived hardship to wealth is the answer to their troubles. Thoughts travel on. There is Someone Who can transform base materials into gold. There is One who can transform red into white. Not many people, however, walk into His laboratory to behold the truth of His claim. Strange that the One Who can transform dirt, that is to say, sin, into the golden crown of eternal life, was admired one day and much sought after, and killed the next. His laboratory was Golgotha, and Isaiah 1:18 invites many to come, believe and be transformed: “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool."...