Change of Season

The wind is rushing through the bare trees, thumping and buffeting the house. I love the rush and roar. I mourn when warmer weather begins to melt the snow, but I suppose it’s the change in temperature that makes the spring winds so fierce.

Everything I thought I would write about in this blog got tossed upside down by COVID-19. I thought the commute along route 117 would provide a unifying theme, but I haven’t commuted since last March, and I probably will never drive to work again. I will probably work from home until I retire.

I expected to write about shared work life, but my own came to a halt with the beginning of total isolation at home. In addition, the background noise of our work lives is utterly different now. Instead of a steadily functioning economy, we have a patchwork of seeming normality mixed with closed or cratered businesses, people unable to pay rent and mortgages, and mounting debts and obligations that sooner or later are going to crush us or someone we know. My own circumstances are secure, and my social life and family are so small, I haven’t had much contact with people who are hard hit. It would be pretentious for me to write as if I understood it well. So I don’t write about it at all.

I thought I would write about church life, but churches are closed. Online services are either impersonal, or intimidatingly personal. What conflicted, anxious, God-suspecting person – my target audience, to be perfectly honest — wants to attend a service, if it means emailing and asking for a Zoom invitation, and then appearing in the Zoom checkboard? How can you have a furtive assignation with the Holy One if you have to declare yourself publicly before you can get started?

When I was a kid living at home, I used to love walking on windy spring days. My dog and I would reach the end of the paved street, climb through the barbed wire fence, and walk the length of the cornfield. We would reach the scrubby in-between place of second growth between the cornfields and the woods, and step silently toward the deer yard under the pines. There, a group of four or five deer would sit and stand. Peaceful. Were they communing with each other? Were they daydreaming?

I could stand a long time and watch without their noticing, and then I would always give in to the temptation to creep toward them. How close would they let me approach, before one startled face would turn to me, one foot would stamp, and away they would race, white flags raised.  Crashing footsteps rapidly growing faint, then only the sound of the wind.

Posted in Career values and work life, COVID-19, Economic fears | Leave a comment

Lift

I can’t remember how I used to feel.

I don’t anymore have the amazed vitality of suddenly seeing; I only remember that it happened.

Now I am trudging.

I think “Don’t publish that. No one needs to read that.” But it is all I have to say. Is there any value in saying it?

Consider all the qualifications to have been offered and all the self-reproaches made. I’m fortunate — I have nothing to complain of —  other people are enduring awful things – consider, just for one, the children in cages.

All true.

There are people who believe they can choose how they react, how they feel. I can’t judge; maybe they really can; or maybe they are self-deluding control freaks who will find out soon enough that they can’t; or maybe they are emotionally blunted, talkative dolts. God knows.

You made enough of them.

I can’t choose how I feel, but I do choose my circumstances and influences. I work hard to maintain perspective and do things that diminish panic and lift depression. I know how to manage my emotions with some success. But there are limits.

I am trying to be patient.

Here. Have some beauty. Don’t skip it. Click the link.

A hymn from 1653 by Paul Gerhardt.

February 24, 2021 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

WorldUnited StatesMassachusetts
Infections111,788,40826,484,395573,885
Deaths2,480,268478,35615,945
Posted in Lutherans, Lutheranism, Mental health, Music | Leave a comment

The Sunlit Uplands

Yes, we have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. No matter how we try, we can’t seem to give it up.

But don’t worry! God saw the mess we are in and came to live with us and ultimately show us that no matter how awful we are, God will never abandon us. Not even if we do our worst, which involves torturing God to death. God has demonstrated that death does not have dominion over Him, and made promises that it does not have dominion over us, either.

So, to recap: no badly how we screw up, God loves us and will not abandon us. Furthermore, no matter how terrible death is – how premature, how devastating to those left behind – it does not have the final word. Life continues, in God’s love, in a way that we will discover when our own time comes. Where am I getting this from? Well, for example, Jesus says to the thief who spoke to him kindly, “Tonight you will be with me in paradise.” See? Physical death is followed by continued existence in what surely must be joy.

In the meantime, there is the problem of the suffering we endure in this life. But God is present in it with us; God knows our suffering; God in some ultimate way will make it right, although we don’t currently see it or know how it will happen.

So suffering is squared away.

Therefore, we are free to do what God asks of us: to love one another as we would be loved. Bear out God’s love in the world, without fear or self-dealing. Just get out there and do things to help other people. Make the world a better place.

Have I missed anything significant?

February 22, 2021 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

WorldUnited StatesMassachusetts
Infections111,139,08626,364,915570,546
Deaths2,463,888473,87015,853
Posted in Bible, God is like, Social justice activism | Leave a comment

Wrong Place

We were sent our ashes in the mail, in a tiny plastic pouch that we were instructed to snip open. I didn’t open mine, and I didn’t put them on my forehead.

Short-timer.

Clock-watcher.

That’s me. And I have a few years left before I can clear out for good.

I was friends with a church that died. How loving that tiny congregation was, that last crew of a dozen people in all. I went to their final service. They’d sent announcements to their complete mailing list; suddenly, their sanctuary was packed. The deconsecration service was almost unbearable.

But you know, even then, even as an outsider, I felt, and I heard, the weight of habit and burned-in obsessions. “That stained glass window should never have been put there,” said a member of the family that donated it. “Too low on the wall. Hard to see. Too much going on around it.”

When was the window donated? Fifty years earlier, at least. That family had long since slipped away, but they came back at the last, to complain once again.

When do you decide to slip away?

At my job, I’m trying to keep my enthusiasm up. My company offered me the role, after all; I accepted; they pay me. A simple arrangement. I still like it when I have the resources to work to a high standard, but that doesn’t happen very often. I used to be able to bear the frustrations because I anticipated new tools, new techniques, new opportunities for improvement. Now, with a short horizon, there is not much to look forward to, so there is little to temper the frustrations.

Clock-watcher.

Short-timer.

I don’t know if I can keep going to my church, as it becomes more and more obsessed with perfection. Will we still be good to each other when we come back together? Will we be able to relinquish the millisecond, microtone control that digital tools give us, and remember how to love untrained voices, mumbling readers, missed notes? We must. We must.

I don’t know what I’ll do with my thimbleful of ashes. I guess I will put them in the compost heap. It is full of life.

February 18, 2021 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

WorldUnited StatesMassachusetts
Infections109,630,02426,135,054563,976
Deaths2,425,374467,05115,686
Posted in Career values and work life, Episcopalians, Anglicanism, Mental health | Leave a comment

Collect of the Day

Almighty and everlasting God of all the nations of the earth, giver of all good gifts, whom to know is perfect peace, God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
You’re my excuse
You’re my hall pass
You’re my diversion
You’re my self-indulgence
You’re my pretension
You’re my self-justification
You’re my rationalization.

Every morning I wake up to futility and dread. There is no explanation of You that fits the fractured world together. God suffers with us explains nothing at all.
I make my path by walking
By You and with You and in You,

February 14, 2021 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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Infections108,246,99225,915,947557,777
Deaths2,386,717459,89415,484
Posted in God is like, Mental health, Praying, Theodicy | Leave a comment

Quiet Room

When my father died, the top of my head came off and vitality rushed in.

My dad was the last in a long line of family deaths, five in nine years. Only one was a heartbreaker, and she was the first. The other four were expected, long lives ending at 85, 86, 87, my personal Olympians falling one by one: expected deaths, mostly in gentle circumstances. I gave thanks for them, but that long season of death was protracted and exhausting.

And so he was the last one.

Maybe it’s the lighting in an ICU; maybe it’s the result of sitting at eye level with someone: your seat at their bedside. But in Dad’s room, I saw that his eyes were a deep, rich blue, like the ocean, like agate, like that photo of Earth taken from outer space. Until then, I would have told you his eyes were light blue, like steel and ice. But no.

He stayed too long in that goddamned ICU, but that was because there was hope that he would come out of the anaesthetic delirium when all his vital signs were steady and his blood was good. It never happened, though, and finally he was moved to a quiet room, tasteful, still as death, where he waited us out, his two very middle-aged children, until we bade him goodnight and safe journey and went home to our beds. He died alone, at 3 in the morning.

When I was a teenager, he told me about having dinner out, where, despite his usual questioning, something he was served must have had peanuts in it, or traces of them. “I got up and went to the men’s room right away,” he said. “Boy, I thought I was going to have to lie down on the floor. It was awful. But finally I started to feel better.”

I said, “Did you tell anyone you were having an allergic reaction?”

He shook his head.

“Do you mean you’d rather die on a bathroom floor somewhere than ask somebody for help?”

He smiled a little and said nothing.

So yes, he waited us out, in order to die in his own company.

Then I crashed into the worst depression I have ever known – the worst and the most dangerous. But with it came mental intensity that was pure gift. I was in terrible pain and I related to God with pure directness. I could barely drag myself through the days, and nothing distracted me from God. When the ice-cold weight on my chest threatened to crush me, I had these words, which I said again and again: Don’t leave me.

February 10, 20221 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

WorldUnited StatesMassachusetts
Infections106, 577,23225,592,230548,946
Deaths2,334,228446,21115,207
Posted in Mental health, My Dad, Praying | Leave a comment

Performance Review

I contracted for a few years at a company that used a ranking of 1 to 5 in its annual performance reviews. The review form had multiple sections, and each section contained multiple questions, so by the time you’d finished analyzing your work, you’d ranked yourself maybe a dozen times. Your manager evaluated you on the same criteria, and when you got together, you hoped to discover a meeting of the minds. I generally did, and do. I know how this goes.

The dead center, 3, meant that you had jumped through every hoop, delivered every deliverable, met every date, and handled your never-ending workflow with few if any hiccups. One screwup, one time, was permitted. Beyond that, you’d better handle it all, at a high level. A 2, by the way, meant you were screwing up and were probably on a performance plan. A 1 meant you were a hair’s breadth from being let go for cause. (I am a good girl, a high performer, I have complied all my life long, and have never had a 2 or a 1 at any company, ever. I was not raised to draw attention to myself. Learn how the world works, and make your way in it. You don’t have to be a superstar. Just don’t screw up.)

If you really shone at something, you might get a 4 in that category. If you were a knockout at a couple of things, those 4s might raise your average to 3.5, or 3.8, or 3.9. At an overall performance review ranking of 4%, you got some kind of reward. I don’t know what it was, because as a contractor, I never paid that much attention. For a 5, if a 5 were ever to exist, the company would have, I don’t know, had the Air Force spell out your name in contrails and given you a 5% bonus, something munificent like that. Everyone’s annual bonus was tied to two things: your number, and how the company did that year. So your number really mattered, and it also really mattered that the company rounded the ranking numbers down, not up, and rounded them down no matter where the decimal was. So you could kill yourself with effort and achieve a 3.9, and be rounded down to a 3.

The wide-open secret was that everyone was a 3.

What is the point of that system, other than to make it clear that contempt was a foundational aspect of the relationship between upper management and the rest of the workforce? Even as a contractor, I was asked to do the self-evaluation, although my pay wasn’t affected and I didn’t receive a bonus. I could see some benefit to it. There has to be a way to handle poor performance or irresponsible behavior, and for long-term employees, there should be a way to encourage an employee to develop new skills or improve existing ones. Because in those days contractors were kept on for years, it made sense for our managers to think about the skills we brought, fitting us into the scheme of the work that would be coming to us.

Of course, I knew people who did my kind of work who did awful, sloppy, incompetent work, and got by year after year because companies don’t understand what we do and pass along crap without comment. A review system only works if the reviewers are competent.

For myself, I didn’t have a problem with a yearly evaluation and discussion. Of course, the travesty of the ranking system was the source of deep cynicism and low morale among the fulltime people. It contributed to the harshness of that environment.

I was going to be a hippie, or a pianist, or an academic, but instead I ended up with a worklife that traveled through this business landscape, and many others. It’s so odd to me, so odd.

I talk to my sister-in-law about it a lot; she was very successful in business. I talk to my former manager, who became a personal friend after she left the company. She was a dynamo. They don’t say much in return – how can they – but it comforts me to imagine them near me. What would they say, if they could?

February 7, 2021 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

WorldUnited StatesMassachusetts
Infections105,429,38225,352,112543,934
Deaths2,275,295439,01114,999
Posted in Career values and work life | Leave a comment

The Church of What’s Next

The social justice churn and rhetoric that I read on Facebook and Twitter remind me of the 1970s and 80s. Nothing is new except the catchphrases: then, racial prejudice; now, whiteness. Then: sex discrimination; now, LGBTQIA rights. I can name activists, now quiescent, who were once as fiery as the ones I read online today. I can hear their voices in my memory.

Every activist post, every tweet, is amen’d by a crowd of sympathizers, who chime in with their own tales. They express jubilation, sometimes, and sometimes frustration and pain, over the suffering, dwindling mainline churches — and fury at those churches’ inability to lead nobly enough, and effectively enough, to eliminate sinfulness in their members and in their structures. Only some sinfulness, you understand, the kinds that the activists themselves are targeting.

But the driving out of all sinful attitude and action was never going to be possible, and it won’t be possible in whatever movements and initiatives come next, no matter how many times the word revolutionary is slapped over banners and titles, trumpeted in speeches and sermons, and parroted in a never-ending stream of social media output.

Be careful what you jeer at. What will you do when it’s gone? Will you find that some detested church had a greater stabilizing influence than you realized, that its governance was the product of greater wisdom and humility than you’d recognized?

When I was a teenager, a pretend hippie in the 1970s, living in comfort and safety in my parents’ house, I made fun of the nuclear family, Mom-and-Dad-and-2.5-picture-perfect-children and the house and yard, saying those words in an adolescent sing-song.

“We grew up during the war,” my mother said. “You realize how important things are when you know you may not be able to have them.”

World War II, she meant.

At another time she told me, “There were two things everyone looked at in the paper, but no one talked about. The map of the front, and the list of casualties.”

That was her adolescence.

O activists of the 2020s, do you think you will eliminate sinfulness when no one before you has been able to? Do you think that, if you succeed in building a new movement, ego and power hunger will not arise among your peers? Do you think you will not succumb to temptations?

I think that, if you achieve any power and influence, over time your movement and organization will fill up with the currents and distractions of ego, greed, vanity, attention-seeking, and power hunger, and an In Group and Out Group mentality will arise in which some, even many, of your leaders and rising stars will know exactly what arrogance they can express, what people they can target for ridicule, what age-old prejudices they can indulge among themselves. Maybe they’ll try to hide it all from you, and maybe you’ll be fool enough to miss it, or maybe you’ll know perfectly well what has happened.

Maybe you’ll try to preserve and strengthen the movement you created, because you believe it does more good than harm, even with its many faults. Maybe you will hope that future leaders will keep steering it in the right direction, despite all the counterforces that undermine it from without and within.

If you do, you will have a church like all the ones that came before you.

The evil you resist: where does it reside?

Are you sure?

February 3, 2021 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

WorldUnited StatesMassachusetts
Infections103,525,28724,941,875531,117
Deaths2,247,255426,44414,708
Posted in Social justice activism | Leave a comment

A Modest Proposal, Part 1

You know how people say they hate pews? They think that a bold, fresh outlook employing flexible seating and maybe slapping the altar against the north or south wall will announce to an eager world that there’s new life in your church.

That’s BS.

You can rip out all the pews you want, but the world is not going to beat a pathway to your door as a result.

No. Think bigger. If your congregation is dwindling slowly but surely. If you have tried everything. If your synod or diocese is indifferent or even wants you gone. If you can see the writing on the wall. You have a choice:

Continue to love your church and your dwindling community – that’s the good part – and continue to struggle as you grieve for the deaths among your ranks, and the friends lost to memory units, or to new homes or nursing homes closer to grown children. Keep busy and grieve. Keep grieving until the day comes for the long-dreaded discussions with the synod or diocese, and then the closing service and deconsecration, and then the final grief and exhaustion.

Or,

Sell the building now, making it crystal clear to the diocese or synod that your congregation isn’t dead, your ministry isn’t ended, and you need the resources from the sale to continue your life in Christ as a congregation. While you still have a critical mass of people, make this heartrending decision and do your grieving up front, while you can envision your future once you are no longer stuck in pathways that clearly are not working. Grieve together. Sell the building, having arranged to rent space in another church or in a purely secular space like the middle school. Or the YMCA. Or a coffee shop. Or your living rooms.

“Do you have any idea how hard that would be?” I can hear seasoned, knowledgeable voices asking this. I am sure they’re right, and they’ve forgotten more than I will ever know, if they’re clergy, about congregational behaviors and of course their own needs. But my question to them would be: Does the idea cause your spirit to lift?

I know one group that would suffer terribly: the older men who keep the place from falling down. What a huge loss this would be for them. This needs to be considered from the start. Where can they transfer that devotion?

There’s a lot to think about.

What I want most of all, when I consider this, is to free a congregation that can’t rescue itself from the alternating paralysis and flailing that are exhausting and don’t succeed in attracting new members. And I want to offer the clergy the freedom and resources to try truly new things, with a newly energized congregation.

How hard it would be, though. Imagine letting go of the glorious organ, the fair linen and paraments, the cherished ceremonial objects, the barely-used Sunday School rooms that symbolize so much, the font, the sanctuary light, the service book, the handbells. Imagine.

But remember: all those things will have to be let go anyway, it is just a matter of when and how. Do it now, with sadness and determination, or do it in another 10, 15, or 20 years, after people have exhausted their passion and energy, instead of finding out what is next.

Posted in Clergy, Episcopalians, Anglicanism, Lutherans, Lutheranism | Leave a comment

Not Sure

2 Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. 3 In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” 7 The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” 8 Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” 9 At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
John 5:2-9

It’s not an easy question to answer, is it: Do you want to be made well? You’d think it would be! Who wouldn’t want to get up and walk after 38 years.

But if you’ve survived in your illness for that long, you’ve learned how to manage. You know what your battles are and how to get from day to day. Maybe the prospect of moving into a larger life is daunting. You know how to live on alms. How will you make your living, you who have no connections and no skills, once you are healed? I can imagine that a truthful answer to this question might be I don’t know.

But that’s not the answer the man gives. Instead, he makes it clear he wants to get down to the pool, but he might want to do that simply for refreshment and renewal, to face another day in his unchanged state. After 38 years, it must be pretty clear that that pool is not going to heal him.

So, he gives a meandering answer that is no answer. Is he touched in the head?

I imagine Jesus listening. Maybe the man is mentally ill, too. Or hasty, or clueless. Or maybe his life has become so crabbed and limited that he can no longer imagine anything else. Jesus listens through the off-kilter answer that is all the man can give, and then he heals him.

Jesus looks, and listens, and decides to give the gift that a confused and scattered person can barely conceive of, but desperately needs.

Sometimes I imagine Jesus sitting beside me. I should do it more often. By writing this, I’ve reminded myself.

January 26, 2021 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

WorldUnited StatesMassachusetts
Infections99,413,87023,964,926506,183
Deaths2,137,378402,39014,220
Posted in Bible, God is like | Leave a comment