Banjos and glass-blowing

“What do you do?”

It’s a question asked to find out one’s occupation. But if it was answered accurately it would walk the one asking through the litany of details of activity making up a day and a life. Of course that’s NOT what is being asked for. But really, it’s the question that’s inaccurate and the answerer is called upon to interpret and answer what is meant, not what is said. There is an even more inaccurate form of the question:

“What are you?”

.. which goes deeper than just making you name one thing you do, but name the one thing you ARE. And what you ARE is what you do in that context.

Now I would strongly posit that these questions are loaded with cultural and professional context. Implicit in their wording and answering is a categorization of human beings into a small set of roles, positions and specialties. Even the correctly worded “What do you do for work?” implies that livelihood is the central determinant for meaningful “work” which is inaccurate in itself.

As the pun goes “Farmers are outstanding in their fields.” I have long been in awe of those whose utter focus makes them masters in their endeavors. But outstanding (or is it “out standing”) farmers can also play banjo, paint and blow glass, say, at a world class level. And even if they don’t do those secondary things at such a high level, they can do them proficiently enough to bless or elevate or ennoble other people. I’ll even say that those other people are poorer for the farmers’ lack of pursuing those secondary things.

 

At this point my personal life, I am looking for something to do that will leave behind my story and the story of Christ as it eclipses mine and thus will make and inspire disciples. Yes I have agenda, as do most, but it’s actually very wide in scope.

I do find the discouragement and impediments to that pursuit to be so strong as to threaten to rot my soul lately. Yes I know all the platitudes blaming me for that, replete with regimens and hands-off, formulaic advice. This morning I delight in calling them all hollow, cited by people who “do” and “are” something other than what I “do” and “am”.

I also know the advice to go higher, to define vision and mission. That also sells books and I intend to do that, but this blog post is about life on the street where vision can be worked out even as a long slog and still be active.

Here are the parameters of the struggle I’m working through:

  • Livelihood is required if one wants to eat, own clothing and be housed, but in itself does not define a person. I have worked so hard at something that was never my life pursuit that it has become my life pursuit. I need to unwind that, slowly (or quickly) firing my bosses and disengaging with my colleagues, many of whom look up to me as an elite software engineer. Yes, I said it, I am elite at something I did not set out to even do. The hardest part of the people part is that I love these people; indeed it’s love that gets me to and keeps me at work every day.
  • There is a new phase coming for me. It’s called “retirement” but I will not likely define it as a time to simply cease working. I will sleep later in the morning but then work at something else. My income will decrease. But time and energy, my most valuable resources, will increase. It’s important that I plan how to invest them, because just as they are invested by others in my current occupation, retired life will have incumbent pressures as well.
  • Having little experience in a new field can not bar pursuing work in that field. Or even play in that field. Knowing well the faults of the masters in engineering from their personal glitches to thick tribal arrogance that embraces wrong things as often as right ones (proven by history), the masters of any new field must not be seen as intimidating but merely having experience.
  • Finding a team is hard but vital. People want to be alone and have their vision and pursuit be theirs alone. But one of the principles I bring to the table is that teams are much more than the sum of their parts. Said on the negative side – loneliness has absolutely been the worst part of this process. Still, finding – or forming – my team is something I cannot give up on.
  • I cannot listen to ageism. People in all professions disqualify others by any means available so as to advance their own standing – even though it accomplishes quite the opposite. Disqualifying based upon someone being “over the hill” has always been silly, and particularly if an older person is nimble and can be quick to learn. Personally, I am qualified for anything I pursue by virtue of accumulated wisdom and principles alone. I have gifting I don’t even know about that practice will reveal.
  • At the same time, there are things I will never do. Surrendering to this truth – where it applies – is hard and requires bona fide grieving processes. I need to discern where and when this is true because once again there are advice-givers who would deny dreams by citing destiny they have no power to even know.

Maybe this post applies only to me; I hope not. And I don’t mean to be selfish in any of this, only a tad introspective and brutally honest.

Writing is one definitely of those “other” pursuits I will go after in larger measures going forward.

And also, I do “get” that I need do nothing for God’s grace to be active in my life, or else it wouldn’t be grace. Ann Voskamp’s brilliant exposition of “cruciform” speaks and echoes deeply. Maybe rest is all I need truly, but love has my heart beating to do as well.

March (well April) for Science

I ventured onto Boston Common after a meeting I was attending on Tremont Street this past Saturday (April 22, Earth Day). I had heard that the March for Science was to take place that day. It was rainy, pretty cold with a raw wind and I wasn’t really dressed for it so I wanted to make it quickly to my car parked under the Boston Common. When I started across the common, entering at Park Street Station, I could tell the march was already in full swing. Well, that wasn’t right either, because many hundreds of people were still arriving from all directions.

The first person who caught my eye was a HUGE man, with a sign that said something defiant and angry (I forget exactly what and you would too). He scowling, growling with a shaking fist held high in the air as if to rally the people. I passed up the opportunity to involve him in the pugilistic exchange he seemed to long for, and walked by to his right. For the next several days I was searching my memory for the image that best fit his appearance and mannerisms. Then it came to me.

The tone of the signage, speech and even the expressions on people’s faces was just like that. Lots of spouting. Lots of indignation and well, hatred.

Now I love science. My Dad had a PhD in Physics. I love the researching, the discovery and the exchange that goes into the scientific method.

And the scientists I have known have been a pretty humble lot. By no means all of them, but

  1. Their work is so laden with trial and error that it just makes them cautious towards advancing their findings beyond some initial positive results, qualified with words like “tentative”, “preliminary”, etc.
  2. They are careful not to cite something, even evidence, as “fact” until is it thoroughly vetted.
  3. When there are theories that get developed, it’s only after lengthy community scrutiny and testing.
  4. Their work is open to revision and even repudiation, should other, overriding evidence emerge.
  5. Their community is not American but international.  That is, advancements and contributions arise from all over the world.

The contrast between that careful process and the brash posters and talk on the Common was profound. The march was not about science but about using some selected scientific themes and theories to advance a world- and political-view that the people felt was being attacked by the current president and his administration. “Science”, then was the ultimate authority, though science itself establishes its authority with much more trepidation and process.

And the hatred was palpable. Another saying from the movie referenced above came to mind:

I was relieved to see a nerdy, overweight kid smiling with a poster reading “Be a proton. Be positive”

I do think I understand the antipathy particularly against THIS president. It’s not so much as he’s conservative, though that certainly was unforgivable to this crowd. It’s that he is defiantly so, ill-mannered and impenitent in the face of mistakes.

But this Saturday I didn’t see anything better in his opponents.

Which brings me again to the place of saying if that is the substance of modern political “discussion”, then I am proudly unpolitical. Because I will not hate like that. Not even (or especially not) or science.

Sanity and mercy for the alien

Matthew 5:7 Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy

The third beatitude spoken by Jesus at the Sermon on the Mount hits at a key double standard that plagues humanity. That is, people universally want mercy extended towards them but adopt stances that lack mercy towards others. Christ repeatedly linked the incoming with the outgoing, because it’s the foundation of community in a human condition where people have a strong likelihood to fall into destructive and hurtful behavior.  So the statement has a flip side – no outgoing mercy, none coming in.

I take it as a given that we all need mercy.

I’m going to write about a hot button issue with the hope of being a cooler head and inspiring other heads to cool off as well. And become exercise more mercy, because they need mercy towards themselves.

As we experience the actions of individuals and groups, we will observe behavior that can offend and injure ourselves or our group. That behavior is widely various and so are its effects.

When the others’ behavior becomes a hot button due to flash points or political arousal, the practice of outgoing mercy evaporates and hearts are made hard.

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The current turmoil of sentiment against illegal American aliens is a very good example. Offenses, real and imagined, have energized a movement and candidate to take decisive action. And the backlash of liberal ideology that embraces immigrants then became merciless towards their political foes who they didn’t bother to understand, let alone even consider exercising mercy.

I’m a moderate, which means I have very few political friends – or better put my political friends are actually civil enough to see both sides of the issues. So you know

  • I do understand the problems caused by illegal aliens – lack of tax-paying while consuming services, taking jobs from American citizens, breaking the law by being here illegally, crime and more.
  • I do understand compassion – that these people came to our country for a better life just like all immigrants before them, that they are “illegal” because of laws that have failed and that they have families just like mine.

I’m also an engineer and part of my make-up is trying to solve problems. So I want to advance some ideas, not necessarily new ones but in composite perhaps only lightly articulated. I would ask readers – who mostly fall into the camps described above – to avoid finding a problem with every solution. Mostly because we have no solutions now and the very will to find workable ones is primary to getting out of the current turmoil.

Here are the bones of a plan:

  1. Establish a path to citizenship for aliens currently in the country. Make it attractive and make it well-defined with steps anyone could walk. Start with a social security card to go with a path towards a green card.
  2. Provide a deadline by which people have to sign up for the plan and make it clear that if they fail to do so, they will be deported. I mean forcefully.  Serve strong notice to all known employers of undocumented aliens.
  3. Once the deadline is reached, aggressively go after scoff-laws and have them either sign up or leave. Hit places of employment very hard.  Yes, this is merciful because it advances responsibility.
  4. Reform the immigration laws. Establish reasonable quotas (higher than they are), asylum rules and vetting processes. Provide a method for safe haven for refugees while keeping out those who would harm the country.
  5. Make a 5-year review of immigration law mandatory. That is, times and people movement change. And so should the law.

.. or some set of points like that.

I realize this forgives the offenses of overstaying one’s visa, illegally crossing borders and potentially lying about it.  I don’t do that lightly but as a pragmatic step whose only alternatives both lack the mercy and are too costly on many fronts to make them viable.

And I would definitely both share the riches of my country with others and insist that if they are here, they become part of “us”. Because we need each other.

Healing points

Acts 3:6 Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”

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The story of the crippled beggar in Acts 3 is as historical as any we have from the era. There are those who deny the miraculous – usually until they need a miracle. And there are those assign such accounts to some hopefuls stuck in the first stage of grief – denial.  In other words, to them, the need for belief in miracle is a sign that one hasn’t accepted the reality of one’s suffering.

But that’s hardly the context of the story. There was no doubt that the man involved was crippled. He wasn’t expecting a miracle or asking for one, but only for money.  In a day when there was no social welfare, his disability relegated him to being a professional beggar for his subsistence. It was a low calling, and beggars were among the lowest caste in society. The same is largely true today.

So, when Peter and John told the man to walk and as he stood to his feet he was healed, it was more than a physical transformation to healthy legs. (As H. David Edwards once mused “he was asking for alms but received legs”). It was a raising of social standing, a redemption of soul and restoration of dignity to a human being long denigrated to shame.

When we encounter the crippled – and I widen the scope to include emotionally and mentally crippled – knowledge of the nature of transformation to health is vital if we are to use what we have been given to help. I hold as a given that miraculous healing powers are given in a similarly wide array of talents and gifts. That is to say, you who read this likely have gifts that perhaps you have never used. But that’s getting off subject.

I am by no means an expert healer. I don’t even know what that means. But I have learned that to really help people in all the ways this man was helped, there are some guidelines. Forewarning – some of this may sound unloving and uncaring. That’s because the ultimate health of someone is a strategic goal and tactics may in fact be confrontational and challenging:

  • Don’t decide to cripple yourself. Identifying with someone who is suffering establishes a connection to a degree. But adopting the attitudes and pathos of unhealth drags you down and leaves the person you want to help in the same straits where you found him/her. This is not a statement of considering yourself superior. Indeed, you will likely need help yourself if you haven’t already. But you must be true the goal of healing, not merely empathy.
  • Listen before you speak. It is an impersonal insult to classify someone by his/her maladies, even if they are easily categorized and treatment standardized to an extent. You are working with a human being who needs to be heard and understood. It’s required to establish trust.
  • RSVP “no thank you” to pity parties. A crippled person can become so attached to his/her role as victim that it is demanded that you buy into the lies they have told themselves about how they got to their current state. This tempers the “listen before you speak” directive just above. When someone tells their story, it is vital at some point to confront and correct their negativity. This may even cause them to shut down but that is better than letting the recitation of the reasons they got into and must remain in the broken state to define their very identity. Truly, self-pity is uniformly a trap to keep people down.
  • Silver and gold won’t often do anything but enable. To only throw material wealth into a life that is so broken only enables brokenness. Am I saying to not provide for someone’s needs? No. Only that someone who has never learned to balance a checkbook or understand priorities of where money should go is not going to learn by simply having money.
  • The healed should become healers. If there is restoration in a life, it is best to use that to invest in the lives of others. There is no better testimony to the cripple than “I have been there, done that, and here’s how I found my health”.

So yeah, all that. Peter and John saw instantaneous result from their action. That’s great when it happens. But you shouldn’t give up even though it takes time, prayer and sacrifice. You will see healing if you persist, even in your own life

The deafening expectations on a drone

I recently heard a friend express a mindset I know too well – that he was drowning in the expectations of others. I have been there. There was a time when I felt that I was even accountable to my dog. I don’t know or care if there is a clinical name for that state of mind. I only care that it’s wrong and that it’s healthy to get past that feeling.

It’s not that others can’t impose – they can and do. It’s not that we don’t truly have obligations to meet – we do. The problem is that we can sink into an existence that doing what is expected of us is all we are. We become beings whose only value is doing our jobs. Worse, those jobs only increase in number, have virtually no rewards and they never end.

This doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The people and institutions in our lives enforce a thankless, workaholic drone existence. No, not the pilotless drone aircraft, the drone bee, who does nothing but work for the queen in service to the hive:

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I have found some ways out of this trap, but for sure it can still be a struggle, and one that depresses and steals joy. Here are some ideas:

  1. Celebrate. If you are like me, you work for and/or with people who rarely if ever give you a sense of completion, even when you are victorious. At least that’s how you see things and how you hear what they say. Every finished task is rewarded by a list of future expectations. In that situation, it’s not just advisable but required that you intentionally mark your accomplishments with times of relaxation, reflection and parties. I mean spend resources – time and money – to formally do it. You have done and/or built something beautiful.  It’s part of life’s rhythm to sit back and rejoice in that, enjoy it.  And if you don’t do that, your longing for closure and the accompanying “feel good” will plague you. I know this from experience.This includes celebrating the finished work of others. Because the joy is contagious whenever you do.
  2. Identify voices. If there are certain people who make it a habit of telling you only what you haven’t done, make sure you notice and give them a label – toxic. It’s not that you always get to separate yourself from these people, but you can certainly marginalize their impact on your life. It may be that you must pay attention to these people (e.g. this might be your boss). But the message of incessant shortcoming is not good to listen to; so learn to tune that part out.
  3. Turn down the volume of competing priorities. I have had times when urgency was all I heard. And I was not imagining it – it was all there was. So I developed a saying – “If everything is urgent, nothing is urgent” – that has served me well. Find the few people who can help you and get your priorities straight. If they can’t help you 1) make your own priorities by level of impact (list things by what you think can you do that would help the most) and 2) know they are not worthy to be advisers or authorities in your life.
  4. Ask for help. I was never accountable to my dog. It was just a job I had assumed that turned into drudgery at times. We didn’t even need a dog in the first place, though Alex gave me great joy also. But as for stuff like that, rotate the job with others or take the steps to just eliminate it from your life.
  5. Decide what really matters. Years ago, a wise friend in the Christian faith shared a verse from the Old Testament with me – Micah 6:8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Now I have determined I’m a mortal, so this pertains to me. The first two parts – act justly and love mercy – define attitudes and actions towards myself and others. Am I just with myself – really weighing what I’ve done and am doing against how things were before I did those things ? And do I love mercy – towards myself? Do I forgive myself, cut myself some slack and allow for myself to learn life’s lessons? The last part is about being humble; putting others first and letting myself be a small part of something much, much bigger.

    And these things apply to how I work with others. Acting justly and loving mercy gives them the same benefits I need.

    So if this is all that’s required of me – and I would posit it does – the urgency projected onto the drone are simply the wrong measuring stick for a life well lived.

It’s Christmas in 2 days. Let’s relax and celebrate. Because we need it.

Can we learn from Bruchko? Please?

We have just celebrated the American holiday of Thanksgiving.  Along with the general attitude of gratitude suggested by the holiday is a the history of least a single point-in-time harmony of Europeans and Native Americans.  The image of the two groups in fellowship, enjoying a share meal is seared into the minds of young American children from early age.  And it’s not that inaccurate:

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But it’s also not complete as a story.  Because the whole story mostly features the two group not getting along well at all.

Native Americans were misnamed “Indians” by the wave of southern European explorers who found themselves landing in the shores of the Americas. “America “ itself was a name bestowed upon the new world, after the explorer Amerigo Vespucci.

By most DNA and historical analysis, the tribal groups inhabiting the Americas at the time of the “discovery” by Europeans had migrated from eastern Asia thousands of years earlier. Their distinction as the earliest inhabitants establishes a context for what would follow, but their real origin makes the moniker “Native American” a bit less sticky.

Whoever or whatever existed in the American continents prior to their arrival would be more “native” than they. This does nothing to soften the horrible tale of brutality later practiced against them. I mention their origin only to note that their discovery and settlement of the same land traveling from the east had at least the same aspect of people movement as that of the discovery and settlement from the west by Europeans. And we’ll never know what else it had in common.

I have thought and hard about how the ensuing conflict between the two cultures could have been avoided or lessened. Aside from the Europeans sailing back and leaving the Americas and their residents alone – maybe establishing trade partnerships, say – there was going to be conflict. Consider:

  • The Europeans who came to the New World were discoverers and settlers. Negatively they could be called conquerors, though the European version of conqueror was quite different than these settlers. They were not diplomats or people sensitive to other cultures. There were traders for sure, and perhaps these were the most likely strike a harmonious balance with the indigenous people.
  • Cultures were going to clash. There were many difference, but the principle one causing conflict concerned land. Owning and permanently settling on land was a foreign concept to Native Americans. And restrictions of where could live, hunt, fish and farm were also foreign.
  • There was a profound technological advantage. There has been much said and written about the forgotten (or repressed) advances of the Native American people. In spite of this, the Europeans held a 800-1500 year advantage in development upon their arrival. I do not say that to say that made them better as a people group, though that’s exactly what they concluded. The racist attitudes created an atmosphere that squelched any move for reconciliation.

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Now, Native Americans were not the only people treated poorly by the westward moving whites. Mexicans, Asians and Africans also received prejudice and brutal abuse.

So, beginning with King Phillip’s War, there would be conflicts between the peoples. The Europeans prevailed, supplanting their culture over the land. It is in the wake of that prevalence after conflict that we live today. It can also be said that the conflict is not over – there have been skirmishes that persist even today.

Native American population is thought to have decreased from 12 million to about 250 thousand by the end of the 19th century. Most of the decrease is attributed to disease, but loss of life due to conflict and relocation was awful.

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Saying that conflict was inevitable is not to say that cruelty or maltreatment was. The war had atrocities like many others, and after a point, neither side cared much about the culture or even survival of the other.

There have long been voices calling for restitution and restoration but I would hold that neither can occur without allowing Native American culture to dominate, at least provincially.  And yes, that means the war for cultural dominance is still with us.

I will assign value to advancement in technology for the benefit of people without it, divorced from its often-linked cultural domination. Some might call this culturally insensitive; I really just want the best for all people. I believe that the advancement of the human race through innovation and invention is a blessing for all humankind. And yes, not all technology is good or used well, of course. Like all people who are exposed to new things, we do well to be suspicious of the motives and practices of those introducing us to new things.

So how can Culture A be brought up to speed with the blessings of Culture B? And how can the differing elements of culture be reconciled?

I thought about this and one story came to mind.

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It was Bruchko – the story of Bruce Olson who sought out a reclusive tribe of Native South Americans in Venezuela – the Motilones – and not only brought them into the 20th century, but made them a political force to be reckoned with in the nations of Venezuela and Colombia. They kept their land and evolved their way of live mostly peaceably.

And please, if you assign him a stereotyped role as “missionary” you will miss a very important story of compassion and cultural sensitivity.

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How can this story help us today with Native Americans in the US? I don’t know, but I want to believe it can be done. Because it has been done.

Nothing “senseless” about it

I don’t like war. But when it happens, it doesn’t matter what I like. And if I dub an act of violence “senseless” when it makes perfect sense in war, I practice self-deceit.

We’re watching war, like it or not. We’re at war, like it or not. We have a tough time saying that word “war” because a) the events don’t fit our patterns of territorial acquisition – though they really do – and b) our very neighbors can be turned into the enemy without our knowing. And let’s be sure we fully understand the murderous antipathy that happens in b); body counts tell a vivid story of hatred.

The root of Islamic terrorism is a mix of greed, poverty and broken, missing or dysfunctional government. I don’t mean American or European government, but that in the Middle East from where most jihadists hail. They find Quranic verses to justify all manner of depravity and slaughter. But they recruit those who calculate they have little to lose in life and yearn to be heroes of something. And indeed they do not.

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Why then are the targets America and Europe? It’s because those nations are seen – somewhat accurately – as those with interests that prop up corrupt and oppressive regimes while vaunting an un-Islamic culture. Jihad is waged against infidels – those of another belief system. But it’s more than that internally. It’s a tribal-based chauvinism directed against those who have shamed the tribe. And there is no statute of limitations on such feelings of shame – the nations of Europe and America are called Crusaders due to a long, selective memory (indeed there was no America yet).

It is of interest that if America and Europe stopped consuming Mideast oil that China and Russia would continue – propping up those same leaders.

As important as any of those sentiments are, there is one that is greater. It is so strong that bitter Muslim enemies unite behind it. Of course I mean resentment towards the democratic state of Israel. Its Jewish identity offends Muslims. The tragic relations between Arabs and Jews have created a permanent state of war. Of course, who but the Europeans and Americans are those who support Israel? Thus, the lumping. And again, not inaccurate.  Though to emphasize the good sense in supporting Israel – it remains one of the only nations in the Middle East where an Arab (yes Arab!) can vote.

But there’s no getting around it – Western Civilization, for all its flaws and injustices – stands opposed to the caliphates, monarchies and oligarchies of the Middle East. And I have no issue with citing its evolved superiority. I don’t say that proudly because there is no human history without systemic crimes and injustices. But the means in place to address those are further along in the West.

It’s obvious that this war cannot be fought conventionally. George W. Bush said that after 9/11 but no one has gone deeper into strategy beyond better military options. I am no pacifist in this conflict, but if one leads with guns one or uses only guns, then it will only enforce the hatred, ironically because our guns are better than theirs.

So, what to do? There are thousands of lists out there, so here’s number 4903:

  1. Love a Muslim. It is absolutely true that most Muslims are NOT jihadists. They don’t even bite. They need to be heard, understood and loved.
  2. Nix the tribe. Individuals are much more effective to engage with than armies. And I don’t even mean the armies with guns. If I want another to surrender his/her preconceptions, I should surrender mine. Because most of them did not come from me in the first place.
  3. His name is Jesus.  The Crusaders got it wrong.  Very wrong.  This is not at odds with “nix the tribe” because Jesus followers are from every tribe.  He didn’t conquer by force, he did so by dying, loving those who were killing him.  And yes, that’s more powerful than suicide belts.
  4. Work and support justice for the poor. Very few charities get the money to the problem. Find one. Support it. Raise a child.
  5. Become energy independent. Not only in the name of being green, or more natural but because Mideast oil is too valuable to the whole world.
  6. Advocate for better Israeli/Arab relations. It’s a bitter past but not all Arab people are united in the desire to destroy Israel. Nor are all Israelis hateful of Arabs. There has to be middle ground to find here. Support those who seek to find and walk on it.
  7. Pray. Doubtless there are those who are decidedly non- or even anti-spiritual reading this. That’s okay, we’ll pray for you too. These problems are bigger than us all, so I have no problem promoting them to One who can actually help.
  8. Fight and support the fight. Yes this includes supporting the military forces of the West, but it’s also a cultural and moral fight. Learn the truth and tell it – even if it indicts our side and thus pollutes our cause. Truth wins the war.

We have a mess on our hands. Doing nothing is not an option. Jihadis want us dead. It’s a war.