Comments Look Better Now

My brother left some comments last week.

I hadn’t done the part of the template that handles comments yet. There weren’t any comments, so I hadn’t bothered with it. They were showing up below posts as plain text.

His comments gave me some material to work with. Now they’re formatted to match the rest of the blog.

That, and then I posted replies.

Thanks, Seth.

The Plan

When I was 16 my mother put a sign on the door to my room.

Teenagers! Tired of being harassed by your parents? ACT NOW!! Move out, get a job, pay your own way, while you still know everything!!

I didn’t get a job, but the next year I did move out.

I went to Brazil.

I spent a year in Campinas as Rotary exchange student. I had taken French and German in High School. I was pretty good at them.

The plan was to learn Portuguese, go to College, then be a translator at the UN. It was a good plan. I learned Portuguese. I was good at it. People from Sao Paulo thought I was from Piracicaba. (That’s a joke. If you’re from Sao Paulo, you’ll get it.)

I went to College.

That’s where it got off track. Somehow I managed to get into a college that didn’t offer Portuguese, or any classes that had anything to do with Portugal or Brazil. There may have been a course on Latin America in the History department. I don’t remember.

I thrashed around until I settled on majoring in Physics. I liked physics. I wasn’t a whiz, but I was ok. I changed the plan. I could be a civil engineer. Except there wasn’t an engineering department at my college. I figured I’d cross that bridge when I got to it in grad school.

Then I got religion.

Someone invited me to go to an InterVarsity Fellowship meeting. At the meeting, someone else suggested I read the Bible. I didn’t have a Bible, so I went to the library and read one of the Bibles on the 3rd floor. I got hooked.

By the time I got to my Senior year, the religion had taken over. Instead of applying to grad school for engineering, I applied to seminary. I was going to be a Pastor. I was going to save the world. I loved computers, coding, designing stuff for labs and playing with fractals. Jesus wanted me to save the world.

Jesus: "I Want You"

Of course, Jesus didn’t really want me to save the world. He’d already done that. But that was the impression I got from InterVarsity. It took me 10 years to sort out how much of my religion was InterVarsity and how much was Jesus.

At seminary, they painted a picture of the “princes of the pulpit.” Harry Emerson Fosdick, Henry Ward Beecher, Jonathan Edwards. Never mind that it was verging on the 21st century and the world wasn’t like that any more. “You can be one of the greats,” they said. So that became the plan — be a “pulpit prince.”

I graduated.

My Area Minister sent me to a little backwater in Maine, West Bowdoin. There was a little church there that the denomination had marked as a “restart.” A restart meant that it was in rough shape, but might still be viable. Nobody had much hope for it. Nobody else wanted to go there. “Send the rookie.”

It actually did alright. Somehow I got credit for “turning it around.” So they sent me to another one to see if I could turn that one around, too.

Then another. And another. And another.

It’s just what happened.

Life is what happens while you’re making other plans, they say. It wasn’t a bad thing. I’m not complaining. Along the way I met some really cool people and saw a lot of outrageous stuff.

I never did use my college education for anything. I never became a “pulpit prince.”

When I got the chance to retire early, I did. I went back to computers and coding and designing stuff and fractals. Brooke takes a group of teenagers to the UN for a week every February, and I tag along. Maybe some day I’ll get to go back to Brazil for a while. I hope so.

We’ll see.

Happy Birthday, Martin

Dr. Martin Luther King first published The Measure of a Man in 1955. Two sermons that lay out what it means to be human.

It only takes a half hour’s read to see how he could inspire a movement.

Chances are, the speeches you will hear today in his honor will not be as good as listening to the man himself.

What Are You Looking For? Where Are You Staying?

This morning I’m filling in at First Presbyterian Church in Hudson Falls, NY. Here’s the sermon:

The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.”
– John 1:27–39a

I must have read this passage from John a couple hundred times. Well, maybe not a couple hundred. But a lot of times.

When I read it last week – actually, when my wife read it aloud to me last week – for the first time I wondered, “What are these questions doing here?”

Maybe it was because I was hearing it out loud. Most of the time I read silently. Whatever the reason, as I heard them again they sounded funny. So funny I laughed out loud. “Ha!”

Jesus is walking along. It’s the day after his baptism. John’s disciples are all standing around on the shore. Maybe it’s a union break. Maybe they have the day off. I don’t know why they’re standing there. Maybe they were kinda hoping Jesus would come back that way.

Lo, and behold! He does come by. So they follow him.

I remember in second grade, one day, I just decided to follow my friend Mark home from school instead of going home. I don’t remember why. I don’t think I had any reason. I thought Mark was cool. We were both “walkers,” kids who walked home from school every day. (I don’t think they let kids be “walkers” any more. Not in the 2nd grade. Maybe it’s my fault. I just followed him home at the end of the day.)

Anyway, John’s disciples had someplace they were supposed to be that day. They were supposed to be following John around. Helping with baptisms. Crowd control. Making sure people were in line. Vetting them for the sins they were going to confess. Making sure all the paperwork was filled out. All that. Instead of that, Jesus walked by and they followed him.

So far, there’s nothing  strange about that. People go where they’re not supposed to all the time. People skip work to go fishing. I followed my friend Mark home in the second grade. Now they don’t have “walkers.”

When Mark realized that I was following him home, I remember as clearly as if it were yesterday. I remember he stopped and turned around and said, “Why are you following me?”

I just shrugged my shoulders. “I don’t know,” I said. Because I didn’t know.

Those were the questions. “Why are you following me?” “I don’t know.”

“Well, I’m going home,” Mark said.

“Ok,” I said.

And off we went, to Mark’s home.

John’s story is a little bit the same way, only the questions are different.

Jesus realizes he’s being followed. He turns around and says to these guys, “What are you looking for?”

They answer with a question. They don’t say, “We don’t know.”

I’m guessing they didn’t know. But when you’re all grown up, you’re not supposed to say, “I don’t know” any more. This isn’t second grade. When you’re grown up, you’re supposed to know what you’re doing, even though most of the time you still don’t.

So they say the first thing that comes to mind. They say, “Where are you staying?”

Jesus says, “Come and see.”

Isn’t that perceptive of Jesus? When he realizes he’s being followed, he sorta already knows that these guys are looking for something.

They haven’t found what they’re looking for with John. They don’t really know what they’re looking for. They don’t know what they want. When they say, “Where are you staying,” he knows they don’t know what they’re doing or why they’re really doing it.

He says, “Come and see.”

Well? Come and see what? Where he’s staying? Really!

For all we know, he’s staying at the Motel 6? He’s not from here by the Jordan. He’s from Galilee. He made the trip down from Nazareth. So it’s not like they’re going home with him for Mary to make them all peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and they can play in the back yard for a while, and Jesus can show them his Lego collection.

Maybe that’s really why I followed Mark home that day. My parents never bought me Legos. But it’s not what Jesus was going to show them when he said, “Come and see.”

Now, here’s the most important thing I’m going to say to you today. They had no idea when they followed Jesus that day what they were going to see. They didn’t know, and we don’t know either, when we set off to follow Jesus, what we’re going to see.

They had no idea that Jesus was going to show them how to heal paralytics, and turn water into wine, and cast out demons by the legions. They didn’t know Jesus would show them how to restore sick and dying little girls and boys to their mothers and fathers, how to walk on water, and how to feed thousands when you’re starting out with just a couple tuna-fish sandwiches.

They had no idea when Jesus said, “Come and see,” that he was going to demonstrate the right way to love prostitutes, and give them a degree in cleansing leprosy. They didn’t realize they were signing on to a plan to give dignity to the poorest of the poor, and to tell off the preachers with rolexes and TV shows.

When Jesus said, “Come and see,” they had no idea that Jesus was going to show them that the Passover Seder was a sign of God’s salvation that went deeper than any Priest or Rabbi had ever let on it did. They had no idea they were going to witness his arrest on trumped up charges, his torture, and his death carried out in the cruelest way any sick, perverted mind could dream up.

They had no idea what they were looking for that day when they decided, for reasons they couldn’t explain, to follow Jesus.

I had no idea that afternoon why I’d decided to follow Mark home from 2nd grade. Most of us, most of the time – if we’re honest with ourselves – have no idea what we’re looking for.

When we got to Mark’s house and I followed him in the side door that day, his mother went into a huge panic. “Who are you?” “What are you doing here?” “Does your mother know where you are?”

All these questions! She was going off the deep end. I was in second grade. I was fine. Why was she so worried? I didn’t get it. I hadn’t considered that grown-ups would get so frazzled by what I’d done.

She asked me if I knew my phone number. I did. She called my mother. She called the school.

My mother came and got me from Mark’s house. She said she had wondered why I was later than usual, but she didn’t let on she was worried. Maybe, in hindsight, she was more worried than she let on. For whatever reason, her only words on the subject were, “You should let your friends’ parents know before you just show up.”

The next day at school, I was called down to the principal’s office. I was in trouble. My mother didn’t seem to be all that concerned, but the principal went up one side of me and down the other.

Again all these questions. “What were you thinking?” “Why did you do that?” “Did you know it was against the rules?” “Do you know what could have happened to you?”

In second grade I had no idea what the answers were to any of the questions the grown-ups were asking me. All I know is, they don’t let kids walk home from school in second grade now, and it’s all my fault.

Most days, I still don’t know what the answers are to all the questions grown ups ask me. Now I have a kid who’s in 4th grade, and he asks me questions I don’t know the answers.

Here’s the thing – and what’s gospel to me in this story. It’s ok that I don’t know the answers to any of these questions.

“What do I think I’m doing?”

I don’t know most of the time.

“Why am I doing this?”

I don’t know.

“Who are you?”

Beats me most days. I get up and stumble into the bathroom and look in the mirror and wonder, “Who let him in here?”

“What are you looking for?”

It’s ok that I don’t know most of the answers. I follow Jesus. He asks me what I’m looking for. I say, “I don’t know.” And then he always says, “Come and see.”

Why I Didn’t Call You

I don’t like talking on the phone.

When someone says, “Just call me,” I cringe. Most of the time I don’t want to pick up the phone and call anyone. I might really like you, but I don’t want to talk to you on the phone if I can help it.

Ask me why I didn’t call. It’s not you. The reason is I just can’t stand to pick up the phone and call you. Sometimes, not always, I’d rather chew my leg off than talk on the phone.

I can’t explain why. It’s not that I’m afraid of the phone. I don’t have telephonophobia (which is a real thing). I just hate it.

I can’t imagine that I’m the only person in the world who hates talking on telephones. Maybe I am, but more likely, in a world where “everyone” talks on the phone a lot, it’s awkward for people to admit it.

I’d venture to bet there are lots of people who hate talking on telephones. They’re just too polite or embarrassed or both to say, “No, I probably won’t call you. I hate talking on the phone.”

Instead, they just don’t call. You were wondering why. Now you know.

I’ll email you. I’ll meet you for lunch or a drink. If you call me on the phone I’ll probably answer, but I won’t have much to say. If it’s an emergency and there are no other options available, I’ll call you. Otherwise, forget it.

It’s not you. It’s me.

Unsustainable Stuff Intake

When getting rid of clutter, half of the battle is getting stuff put away and getting rid of extra stuff. So far, so good. I’ve been quietly working on that for a while now.

The other half of the battle, I am now discovering, is to stem the tide of new stuff coming in.

Without part 2 happening, there’s only so far part 1 will get you.

I’ve suggested to my family, as a general practice, that we ought to get rid of at least one thing, if not more, for every new thing we bring into the house.

It’s easier said than done. This week alone, we’ve probably brought between 10 and 15 new items in (excluding groceries) and nothing has gone out.

Every other week or so, we send a bag of things out. But it’s not nearly as much as we bring in. I’m afraid we will soon be completely buried in stuff.

I haven’t got a good solution for this part of the de-junking equation yet. All I know is that the present level of stuff intake is unsustainable.

Damage Control

<Rant>

I forget who said. “All control is damage control.”

Whoever said it, it was a stroke of brilliance.

At least once a week I get a letter telling me about some policy an institution somewhere wants me to read. It’s always a minimum of two pages of very small print. The only part in large print is usually the top line that says something like:

Please Read this Policy in its Entirety. It contains important information pertaining to your account.

Not only is it small print, but it’s written by lawyers for lawyers.

I just pitch them. Which is exactly what they’re designed to get me to do.

The other day, though, I got one from the “Conference Office.” It was a reminder that certain forms are due next month, and that there was a policy that had recently been adopted for failure to comply, which I was encouraged to read in its entirety.

The policy (and the letter informing me of it), the letter explained, was the conference’s response to a more than 30% failure to file the required forms last year, which had cost staff uncounted hours of tracking down the delinquent parties. I was getting this because they thought it was going to save money to threaten me with all the hellfire and brimstone they can muster if I don’t comply.

No fewer than three copies of this mailing were sent to the same PO box in separate envelopes, each with first class postage affixed. They must have spent a few thousand on this mailing alone.

I thought about sending them a letter back suggesting that they wasted any savings they may have gained on paying a committee to write a threatening policy, and paying someone else to write a threatening letter to go with it, and paying for someone else to stand in front of a copy machine and then stuff it in all those envelopes, and paying for all that postage.

Then I decided they probably wouldn’t take my advice, and didn’t waste my postage money.

All that. But here’s the real punchline.

I filed their damn paperwork on time last year. Then I get threatened with hellfire and brimstone.

I will probably file their forms on time again this year, but I don’t really care whether I remain a part of their organization or not. I’ve been kicked out of better places than this.

This organization constantly wrings its corporate hands over losing membership and donations.

All control is damage control. Until it becomes damaging control.

</Rant>

I Am Not a Guru of Anything.

For 25 years I was a pastor.

A pastor is not a guru. Some people think their pastor is a guru. I suspect a few people in the churches I served may have thought I was a guru. Not very many, though. Most people in the churches I served thought I was just a nice guy. A few thought I was a pain in the ass.

Some pastors want people in their churches to think of them as gurus. They’re wrong. Pastors are not gurus. Most gurus aren’t gurus either.

I was the pastor that got called in when churches were going to hell in a handbasket. If your church got me, you were in rough shape.

I was the guy they sent to the churches that were either on the verge of closing or had been blown up or were blowing themselves up.

They sent me to the church where the previous pastor had his picture of being escorted out of the parsonage in handcuffs on the front page of the newspaper. He had been arrested for having child porn on his computer.

They sent me to the church where the previous pastor had taken half the congregation with him down the street to start a new congregation.

They sent me to the church where the previous pastor had been fired and the congregation was fighting like cats and dogs over whether he was wrongly terminated. There were lawsuits threatened, and one member had threatened to run the former pastor down with her pickup truck. The first interim pastor they had lasted 3 weeks.

They sent me to the congregation where a certain celebrity had been a member for many years, but he moved away and nobody came to the church any more to gawk. They had 13 members left.

In the clergy business, they have a name for what I did. They call people like me “afterpastors.” We are the clean-up. We go in when there is theological blood and guts everywhere and wade into the psychic residue of people who are dead and gone, and people who are just gone, and people who are gone but still meddling.

When an afterpastor goes into a church, it’s either to clean it up or shut it down, and you never know when you go in which it’s going to be. Somehow, over the course of 25 years, I managed to accumulate an 83% clean up record.

But 83% doesn’t make you a guru. It just wears you out.

The last church I cleaned up as best I could, and then I stayed there just over 7 years. It was the longest I’d ever stayed in one church. I knew when I started there that it was going to be my last one. There are some there who might tell you it was 7 years too long. Others write occasionally to tell me they wish I’d stayed longer.

Truth is, I couldn’t take it any more. I was wrung out. I retired.

I told everyone I was retiring like Michael Jordan. I’d just do whatever came up that seemed interesting. Maybe play baseball. Maybe model underwear. Whatever.

For a year after I finished I wrote a daily meditation, plus three on Sundays. It took that whole year and more to recover. I suppose I’m still recovering.

I used to say that every time I thought I’d seen everything something else would come up.

I’ve seen a lot. But not everything. I have a .833 average batting church clean-up.

That doesn’t qualify me as a guru of anything. Not by a long shot.

It’s a good thing you don’t have to be a guru, and you don’t have to be perfect to be happy.

Crap from China

As I’ve been slowly cleaning things up around the house over the last few weeks, I’ve realized that crap from China dominates the cluttered mess.

Most of the plastic toys littering the floor and other horizontal surfaces are Chinese. It seems like everything the kid wants to order online comes by way of Ebay from China.

I never pictured myself as a Chinese importer before. It comes as a bit of a shock.

I’m not alone, of course. Crap from China is everywhere. Manufacturing in the US is dead, and has been for a while.

I tweeted a question: “All the toys in our house are plastic crap from China. Real question: Are there any good toys left NOT made in China, available in the US?”

Someone tweeted back: “It’s the US fault. Tariffs and industrial policy would stop and reverse outsourcing.”

I didn’t ask whose fault it is. I wanted to know if finding toys not made in China was even still possible, and if so, what are they?

As it turns out, there are. Bernadette has a list of 1000 Toys NOT Made in China.

Legos are not made in China. They’re made either in Europe or Mexico. Yomega yo-yos are made in the US. So are Scientific Explorer kits and K’nex sets and Fractiles. I’d never heard of Fractiles before, but they look like something I could spend hours playing with.

At least some, I can’t say for sure all, Bandai products (Ben 10, Transformers, Power Rangers) are made in Japan, not China, although China seems to warehouse a lot of them. Barbie stuff is not made in China.

So to answer my own question, there is a lot of stuff not made in China. That’s not to say you can easily fill a toy box with “Made in USA” stuff – or even that you’d necessarily want to. There’s plenty of “crap from USA,” too. Any worthwhile collection is bound to include a smattering from around the globe.

The key, with toys as with anything, is to be mindful. Crap is crap, no matter where it comes from. Same with quality.

Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs, Same Thing

John Hodgman writes in this week’s New Yorker that watching Downton Abbey with his cats (a.k.a. kids) made him “realize that ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ are the same thing.” Watching it with his kids, he had a sudden deja vu moment remembering that he had once been the kid watching Upstairs, Downstairs with his parents.

Well, duh.

That was my first thought. What took him so long to figure that out?

My second thought was, “I figured that out two years before Hodgman. I should be writing for the fucking New Yorker.”

It only took me the first five minutes of the first episode I watched to have that realization. “Oh, I don’t need to watch this. I’ve seen it all before.”

I haven’t had any interest in watching it since.

Brooke enjoys it. She stayed up late watching the season 3 premier. I don’t think she watched Upstairs, Downstairs with her parents, though, so it’s the first time around for her.

Hodgman’s realization leads him to the conclusion that, “No matter what you make in life, it will be forgotten. And then people will just make it again and pretend what you did never happened.”

Of course, Hodgman himself, writing this in the New Yorker, is repeating what’s already been said and mostly forgotten.

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done;
There is nothing new under the sun.
— Ecclesiastes 1:2-4 & 9

Hodgman and Solomon have in common the disappointed expectation that their lives should have permanence.

Lao Tzu is wiser:

The sage acts without action and teaches without talking
All things flourish around him and he does not refuse any one of them
He gives but not to receive
He works but not for reward
He completes but not for results
He does nothing for himself in this passing world so nothing he does ever passes
— Tao Te Ching, Verse 2c

The Western (American) mindset is that meaning is somehow inextricably attached to self, as in the questions, “What is the meaning of my life?” and “What will be my legacy?” and “How shall I fulfill my potential?”

These questions are, in the end, bullshit.

The universe is not about you. It’s not about me. We just live here, passing through.

This doesn’t mean that “God doesn’t care.” You can still believe that God cares about you, if you want to. If you’re living well, other people will care about you, too. And you will care about them.

But care and concern, even God’s care and concern, don’t constitute ultimate meaning.

So, where can you find meaning, if not in the personal, and if not in building monuments, or  “God’s purpose for my life”?

Not easy, but doable.

You find it in your interactions with the universe in every moment as it presents itself.

Who are the people present to you right now? What can you do right now to be present with them, for them to flourish.

What is available for you to do right now that engages you in a healthy way with your surroundings?

It doesn’t have to be original, or unique. Chances are, it won’t be. It could be something as simple as enjoying a cup of hot chocolate, or taking a nap, or flashing someone a smile, or saying “no.” It could be something big, like coding an app or writing the next great American novel, or designing a high-speed, coast-to-coast monorail.

It’s being mindful, present in each moment, that connects you and me to any sense of meaning. You are. I am. The universe is. That is it’s own meaning.

As Solomon concludes:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep God’s commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.
— Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

Or, again, Lao Tzu:

Though formless and intangible It gives rise to form
Though vague and elusive It gives rise to shapes
Though dark and obscure It is the spirit, the essence, the life-breath of all things
“But is it real?” you ask —
I say its evidence is all creation!
— Tao Te Ching, Verse 21b