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.

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:

Image result for drone bee

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.

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.

jihadpic

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.

When umpires get it wrong

A while ago I figured out why I have always been a baseball fan. Sport – particularly that one – is analog. Drama gets played out on the field that we see in our lives. It’s a replay or a sidebar to all that has happened or is happening. The characters have similar analogs – pitchers are those who put their best foot forward and present their goods, skills and personalities. Batters are those who – a third of the time at best – send them packing. And they do it by being scrappy – bunting, beating out an infield hit or Texas-leaguer – or masterful – culminating in the grand slam home run.

There are two teams with management and strategy honed for each game and each season.

And there are .. umpires.

I was watching the Red Sox bat in the 9th inning at Yankee Stadium last night. Here’s another reason I’m a baseball fan – you can’t script this stuff. Of course bases loaded. David Ortiz is up. He strikes out. Not because there were 3 strikes thrown, there was one (ok if pitch 5 was a strike there were 2). He is called out on strikes that were not strikes. Here’s the pitch placement:

Umpire Ron Kulpa is an evil villain today in Red Sox nation as he would be among any fan base rooting for the team that he victimized. And I’m sure his performance will be analyzed by the big wigs in MLB and maybe something will come of it.

But I’m more interested in the analog, as I said above.

So first, who are the umpires in our lives? That’s pretty easy – they are or bosses, the authorities, the government. And I must include God, as we perceive God.

And it’s no wonder why people get so steamed when they get it wrong; when our players get judged unfairly. But the analog is deep, and deeply instructional, because when umps mess up:

  • We are reminded who our authorities are. That is, who has power over us. Sometimes we can change who they are, sometimes not. But there are ultimately two responses to the rule of authority – acquiescence or rebellion. In the face of injustice, both are perilous. The former because it can ignore what’s really inside of us and the latter because it considers our position higher than it is and, as St. Paul said of the authority – “he does not bear the sword for nothing.”
  • We see disappointments that had nothing to do with us. Our projects are canceled, we lose our jobs or even more tragically, our marriages or families. Again, it had nothing to do with us. But we struggle to believe that because we know we’re not perfect. Because in disappointment we always try to find a reason so we can try to avoid it next time. So we blame. Ourselves. Now it might be true that we did have something – and maybe a lot – to do with it.  That is, it wasn’t a bad call after all.  But the truth is that the tendency to blame ourselves is universally overblown.
  • We learn – erroneously – that we can’t trust as much as we thought. Multiple bad calls forge patterns in our emotions. This can get dangerously generalized to the point that we view all the world as hostile. That blossoms into operational and even clinical paranoia. The trick here is to isolate the bad call, see it in situational and relational context. If there is a pattern, identify all the patterns, not just the ones that dealt us a bad hand. And big point – see the hand of God as always for us, even when we are disappointed. God’s goal is our redemption. Always. Thus, God can be trusted. Always.
  • We fail to move on. There will be another game, another day, a different and fair umpire. Adopting futility will do nothing but take us down a dark hole. Different than trust issues, this takes us into depression – seeing things worse than they really are. People still love us. We’re still talented, desirable and valuable. A bad call, or a bad ump can’t change any of that.

Like many reading this, for me there is a flip side. I have also been an umpire. Who made bad calls. Often there’s nothing I can do to fix the error; either the people are gone or just won’t talk about it. To be sure, I made good calls that weren’t accepted either. No one is perfect, and the place where our imperfections hurt the most are when we are leaders.

Grace, humility, mercy and forgiveness are what get me through the day and through life. Because the umpires calling my game get it wrong. Many times. Humility calls me to remember when they got it right too. And honesty says that is most of the time.

Let’s go Red Sox!

Cancelled

The business world is unpredictable. I have learned over many iterations and through the depths of devastation NOT to cement my hopes to promises of management and plan my future according to their word. When I do, I will almost invariably find myself awash in the emotional muck of betrayal, futility and just fatigue.

The problem is that I want to be passionate about my work. It has to matter to me to do it right, with excellence and diligence. I want to finish the job. And I’m good at what I do. That’s not a boast; it’s the testimony of those who regularly review and evaluate my “performance”.

So it happened again.

Cancelled.

canceled

The cycle goes like this:

  1. A project starts up, designs happen, maybe a prototype.
  2. Preliminary results roll in and they are somewhere between auspicious and stellar.
  3. The meat of the project gets underway. People work hard, together and intermediate results are produced.
  4. Management reviews the project or there is a business event or shift.
  5. The project is cancelled.

Now, I’ve been on projects that are canceled earlier than point e). And this most recent cancellation was after point b).

And most painful were those project canceled who had lasted 2-5 years before point d).

I had someone once tell me to “just get over it” and that stung almost as much as the cancellation. You don’t just turn your passion off like a switch.

They say it’s not failure; that 70% of all projects never finish. You can imagine how much that helps.

Now it is a business fact that management loses confidence if a deliverable is not produced in months and not years. They are not paid to be patient or risk-tolerant.

In engineering it’s supposed to be adult and well-adjusted to just produce. Anything. For any amount of time. Dispassionately. Without attachments or emotions.

I can’t do that. Or I won’t. And I don’t really care which it is. It’s not me.

So where do I go when this happens? I go to loving people; it’s all that keeps going.

  • There will be a new team with people I can love, encourage and do stuff with. I don’t know how long it will last but the people are what matter, not the work. No matter what management says.
  • I will love management. Those people live in fear and under constant criticism. They don’t need more from me. It’s not that I won’t speak my mind – they also need to know they don’t manage robots.
  • I will love my wife, my family, my friends and my church. They are always there for me and .. they are a big reason I go to work in the first place.
  • I will love my work. Picking up the pieces, assessing what I’ve learned, I will dare to try again. In smaller places. Even unapproved ones. Because that’s where I’m a genius.

Canceled. It’s not the end of the world. Just another disappointment.

The prison called “I can’t”

There are those reading this that don’t believe in God. And those who believe in God but are suspicious of anyone claiming a personal encounter or even communication with God. I acknowledge and grant you the right to believe what you will, but ask you to grant me the same. And to suspend your beliefs long enough to read this story because it might well be for you.

In the early 90s, God gave me a dream as I slept. I know it was God because of the nature of the dream and the communication afterwards.

It was an intense, vivid dream of a little boy. He was only 4 years old or so, just learning how to draw.

And he took all his best crayons, and with all the love and hope in his young heart, he drew a wonderful, beautiful picture of his house, his family and all the trees flowers all around. In the dream I wasn’t just watching him do this like someone looking over the shoulder of a child and saying “Isn’t that cute”.  No, I was feeling his emotions as he drew. And they were absolutely beautiful.

When he was done, he was so proud of it, and it was so much a part of his young creativity that he took it to his mother to show her.

He had no way of knowing, but it was bad timing and she was not in good health emotionally.

Out of her own pain and hurt, she took her son’s beautiful picture, ripped it up into little pieces and said “that’s a piece of garbage”

God let me enter his little heart to feel how it broke, absolutely devastated that something he thought was so beautiful could be cast off as ugly and shameful.

And I woke up in horror, devastated, and asked God – “Where is that boy now? You’ve GOT to tell me” Because it wasn’t just a dream. It was the story of someone’s life.

In my spirit, I heard God say “He’s in prison. A prison called “I can’t””

I told the dream to 2 groups of people shortly after that – at MCI Shirley to a group of inmates and at church. In both cases, multiple people came up later and said that little boy was them. If not verbatim, then thematically.

So I said 2 things to them:

  1. That drawing was VERY GOOD and you have vital gifts that you have put away in shame.
  2. You’ve been in a prison of lies but today you’re going free.