Called to, part 1

I spent a week with the sisters at what they called a live-in. That used to be a popular style of naming: back in the day we had sit-ins, teach-ins, live-ins, and even die-ins. I spent the entire week at the convent terrified that somehow a vast, unwanted change was going to be forced on me by God, by some signal that I would come to recognize despite my dread and resistance.

I got to the live-in by convincing myself that it would be a simple personal retreat. Somehow I ignored the part of the write-up in my church bulletin that said something about living with the sisters in community. Sure, you could do that in a personal retreat, couldn’t you? Those words didn’t mean anything more than that. Right?

I took a bus; a sister picked me up at the station; we drove for not very long as I got more and more anxious, because it was dawning on me that I was now sitting in a car with a professed nun, going to the place where she lived to spend a week with her and women like her, because I had somehow gotten myself here, and something might be going on with me that I had not really recognized, and then we were in the circular drive in front of a rambling house. I was too distracted to notice much, so I barely heard the phrase “dirty cards” being sort of sung through the air. As in, “Yes, Sister, I got something for you! Some dirty cards from Smokey Steve’s!”

The sister who had picked me up was young, 35 at most, and now she was calling out to an elderly sister at an upper window. Even at a distance I could see that that face was full of mischief. She was waving something at us: her dirty cards, which turned out to be worn and creased, possibly soiled or discolored prayer cards. She could not bear for them to be thrown away and lovingly took them into her care, and all of the sisters were continually on the lookout for them. Yes, Anglicans (Episcopalians) have prayer cards, although they are not very common. The very first thing she called out, which I pieced together later in my memory, was “Sister! Did you bring me anything?”

There was more back and forth, equally funny. We were standing on a pebbly driveway in the sunlight of a beautiful summer’s day. We were talking and laughing. What had I been so afraid of? God presumably was not going to overpower me then and there. I relaxed a little. And anyway, I came here for a retreat, I thought, only that. I never said anything about wanting to be a nun. I relaxed a little more. Everything would be fine.

We carried my bags into the house. The young sister caught sight of someone behind me and said, “Here is our other live-in for the week. I will leave you two to get acquainted.”

I turned. Standing before me was a young woman about my height, about my size, another skinny girl, only blonde. She radiated something. Could it possibly be anxiety? I soon found out, because she said — well, really, she shouted — “Hi! Are you here to see if you want to be a nun?” And looked as if she might jump out of her skin.

September 9, 2020 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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Posted in Bad ideas about God, Episcopalians, Anglicanism, Nuns and monastic life | Leave a comment


There’s abandoned farm equipment in the woods near me. Rusted, curving blade-plates menace behind axles half sunk in the mud, a trailer lists on flat tires, a tractor cab, door-off-hinges, reveals a still-gleaming steering wheel and torn upholstery. I always wonder about the last day of ordinary use. When did the cab last vibrate with the strokes of an engine; when did the discs last cut through the soil? When were they hauled to the side of the field, set down, and left for good?

I think about a shard of beach glass: when did the bottle smash? Who made it, transported it, sold it; who bought it, used its contents, and threw it away?

My family is probably ending. From my great-great-grandparents until today, each generation has had at most three children, and only one young adult has married and had children. One of my brothers died as a young man. I have no children. It seems likely that none of my living brother’s children will have kids. And so we will be gone.

Henry David Thoreau was descended from Huguenots who were driven out of France. Their beliefs must have mattered to them, or they would not have chosen exile over conversion to Roman Catholicism. Did they see religious conviction slipping away from their younger generations? Did they grieve?

Ralph Waldo Emerson was the son of a Unitarian minister and the descendant of many ministers. He left the ministry altogether; he left every vestige of Christianity. When did the last spark of vitality depart from his vision of Christ?

I have always had You hanging around my neck, even during the years I ignored You. I’m not going anywhere, and I assume You’re not, either. How lonely will You make me be, before You are done?

My loudly anti-religious father kept his Sunday School Bible all his life. I looked up the Lutheran church in the inscription. It closed many years ago.

When does it happen? When does each spark die away?

When I started gardening, I quickly learned that you can move a plant and see it standing in its new location all green and sprightly. You can tend it lovingly and keep an eye on it. Even so, one fine day you may see that it has begun to wilt, and in a day or two more, it has died. If the move disturbed it too much, and tore away too much of the root system you couldn’t see, or gave it a shock you never noticed, the damage though invisible was too great, and so it died.

That is what happened to my middle brother. We were there in a flash; we labored over him; the ambulance came quickly; no one failed in their efforts. But he could not live.

I’ve had to say goodbye to people; I’ve loved and struggled with a church community that closed. Now my current church is in strife, and our condition is uncertain. Is there a wound that is too deep?

Posted in Bible, God is like, Lutherans, Lutheranism, Transcendentalists | 1 Comment

Career Planning, part 4

At my newish job, I’m still learning systems and processes. I always record the Teams meeting when someone shares their screen and shows me the Box location, the Sharepoint site, the Development server, the transfer directory, the template, the form, etc., etc. When I need to follow a process, I dig up the relevant .mp4 and review it.

Every time I look at one of those videos, I’m pretty horrified at how I sound. The person I deal with most often tends to ramble, and sometimes does not hear what I say. I’d like to say that I speak in a curt, abrupt way because that’s the only tone that succeeds in getting my coworker’s attention, but that would be only partly true. I speak curtly and abruptly because I am practically crawling out of my skin with impatience. The impatience seems to radiate from the screen, and it meets up with the fresh impatience I feel as I review the video.

Irritability is an old companion of mine, and it’s spending more and more time with me as the days of isolation pass. I have to find ways to handle it. I can’t be rude and cold to someone who is trying to help me. I hope I’m overreacting to how I sound on the videos, but I can’t tell if I am. I have to get a grip.

Therefore, I’ve come up with a plan:

  • Exercise to exhaustion every day. This is hard to do since joints don’t obey the way they did when I was younger. But I need to find a way.
  • Find more ways to connect with people outside of work. Walks and phone calls are good.
  • Drink less coffee.
  • Take many deep breaths.
  • Ask my coworkers if they can hear me, or if I speak too softly.
  • Give thanks for employment. Give thanks again.

I don’t feel like praying to You and I haven’t prayed Evening Prayer in weeks. I recite the Phos Hilaron when I’m walking at dusk, that is all I can manage.

It is strange that my thoughts about You recede when I write about work. I could start to berate myself, but I think about how human beings have always had to work, and how demanding it is. It simply does take up your mind, and many kinds of work take up your body, too. There’s a picture of my great-grandparents on the step of their farmhouse; unlike their descendants, they are stick-thin. Physical work from sun-up to sun-down will do that to you. I can’t imagine that they were thinking about You, either, as they did their neverending work. I have it easy, that’s why I’m nattering on about You at the end of the day instead of falling into an exhausted sleep. Even though my work life is laughably easy compared to theirs, it absorbs me, and thoughts of You slip away.

September 2, 2020 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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Career planning, part 3

What is your moral state if you have a regular job? Meaning, you’re not clergy, you don’t work for a social justice organization, you’re not in a helping profession. You keep the lights on, maybe, or the supermarket supplied with food, or you write software — and there isn’t some brilliant social-justice purpose to your software. Much of what you do is morally neutral. You write code for automating things, which could be, say, drug discovery for curing cancer, or drug discovery for germ warfare, you aren’t in control of how your product is used. Are you missing something morally? Is God angry at you?

We’re not supposed to believe that ordinary life is less virtuous than professional religious life, but I spend my time thinking about code errors, the Product Life Cycle Process, corporate branding, repositories, workflows, etc., etc., not social justice, the doctrine of the Trinity, family dynamics as acted out in church communities, proclamation of the Gospel, etc. Why wouldn’t I regard my work as less worthy?

My first employer in high tech made early automation products that enabled an Apple 2 to monitor the condition of a piece of equipment. When the condition exceeded a range of permissible values, the Apple 2 could send an output signal to make something happen. Example: You put a temperature sensor on a furnace. In a software program on the Apple 2, you entered the highest and lowest temperatures at which you wanted this furnace to operate. When the values returned by the sensor exceeded the upper limit, the Apple 2 sent a signal that turned the furnace off so it wouldn’t overheat. When the temperature value dropped below the allowable range, the Apple 2 sent another signal to turn the furnace back on.

Because our products were most often used in laboratories, I fooled myself into thinking that they were only used for beneficial purposes. I had no way to prove this, but I had to believe that my work was contributing to something that was virtuous. I’d been a teacher before I switched careers, and I had had plenty of illusions about the inherent virtue of teaching. God, I was full of myself.

Well, we added a new product, a counter-timer board. Yes, you used to have to buy a circuit board, open up your computer chassis, insert the counter-timer board into the motherboard, and close up the chassis before you had a computer (a desktop computer, that is) capable of performing multiple counts at a high speed, with accuracy.

At just about that time, my employer hired a new marketing guy who was smart as a whip. At his first presentation, he told us that he’d found a potentially lucrative market for the counter-timer board.

He said, “The Army’s got a shrapnel gun that can fill a stadium in a matter of seconds. It fires in microsecond bursts, and the Army needs a way to test if it’s firing evenly. If we can get in there, this could be a great opportunity.” (He really was a very smart guy. He came in, took a tour of the company for just a few months, and got himself back out of there. Most of the rest of us were gotten out of there by a massive layoff not long after.)

I just went looking for shrapnel gun or shrapnel weapon and didn’t find anything obvious, but that moment, in that meeting, is still emblazoned on my memory after all these years. I am sure that’s what he said.

The shock of that day has stayed with me. I finally realized there is no way to control how a technical product is used except in the most extraordinary cases. For example, the United States and the USSR, and ultimately many more countries, have cooperated to control the use of nuclear weapons.

But with run-of-the-mill technical innovations, there’s no way to tell how a commercial product will be used. I make my living working on products the application of which I can’t control. Am I complicit when they are used to perpetrate horrors?

Is God angry at me for the work I do?

No matter how overtly virtuous your work may be, if you have a retirement fund or other savings, your money very likely is invested in products that can be used for good or ill. You can’t control their application.

Are you complicit? Is God angry at you?

August 30, 2020 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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Career Planning, part 2

The biggest laugh I’ve had recently came from hearing that some godforsaken company is requiring its employees to come back to the office, while they could as easily continue to work remotely, because the company’s numbers are not good enough, and management attributes this problem to a lack of collaboration and creativity.

That is total BS. Here is what is driving your numbers down, Mr. and Ms. Senior Management: You ship inadequately specified, inadequately designed, inadequately developed, and inadequately tested products. Your customers are forced to buy your stuff because your industry is made of up companies just like yours; mediocre products are the order of the day; and sometimes your offerings appear to be the best of the bunch. That’s not much of a recommendation.

But once in a while you ship such a stinker, or such a series of stinkers, and you delay your new releases for so long, and drag out so many dot releases to correct the problems that absolutely can’t be ignored, that your customers really do go elsewhere, and your numbers suffer.

Or, just possibly, your numbers are dropping because the global pandemic is causing the global economy to crash, and not because your employees are insufficiently creative and collaborative.

Either way: how dare you put your business failures on your employees’ shoulders.

How dare you then impose a course of action that is a non-solution to your actual problem, a requirement that exposes your employees and their families to a potentially lethal health risk.

Why are your products so deficient? Because you do not have the head count to support them. Every last one of your employees is responsible for a scope of work that is too great for anything to be done well. Everything is chiseled down, skipped over, triaged; only the most egregious problems are solved; everything else is kicked down the road or ignored altogether.

Your employees don’t have the time to do a solid job, much less a stellar job, and they most certainly don’t have time to shoot the breeze while sitting in the cunning conversational groupings of bean bag chairs upholstered in primary colors that are strewn about your open-plan, no-privacy, no-quietude office space, where all that creativity and collaboration are supposed to occur. Everybody knows this, really. Even you.

I hate the dishonesty that is woven through corporate life, the relentless pressure on every employee to parrot the language of goal-setting, continuous improvement, innovation, and, of course, creativity and collaboration, when the workload makes all but basic maintenance and incremental improvement impossible.

I get so angry.

I avoided all of this nonsense for years by being self-employed and accepting a very low level of income and a high degree of insecurity. For years, it was good enough, but eventually I had to have greater stability. I had to get a permanent job. There have been many rewards, and I’ve voluntarily stayed. But it’s OK to still be angry, isn’t it?

I had those years of freedom. How I feel for younger people who went into the corporate machine early and now feel trapped.

August 26, 2020 COVID-10 Infections and Deaths

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Career Planning, part 1

You know the background to your work life, and I know mine. Everything I think and do goes on while immersed in this mental world. The pressures never let up, but they are so pervasive and elemental, I forget to talk about them. So many people struggle with them, they’re like the air we breathe: why would you mention it? And yet, they are so hard to take, they really drag us down.

Background Noise

For starters, here’s a tale of two companies:

I just learned that my old company has required everyone to come back to the office. I don’t know why; most people could work from home. The lab, quality, and shipping people, who have no choice and have to be there, shouldn’t be exposed to any more potential COVID-19 carriers than absolutely necessary. There have already been some COVID cases, and then, oh yes, management has added a layoff to the mix, so really, they’re ahead of the curve in several ways.

My new company requires everyone who can to work from home, so the people who must be in the buildings are as safe as possible. There’s been one COVID case, evidently contracted elsewhere, immediately traced and monitored. No layoffs, yet.

I had a lot of seniority at my old place and am now the last hired, so for quite a while I thought I’d made the worst-timed move in all the history of white-collar serfdom; now, I thank my lucky stars.

At my new place, 92% of us said in a survey that we want to continue working from home at least part of the week. Although I am starved for human contact, I don’t want to go back, ever, because my commute was just too punishing. When the Age of Loneliness is over, I will find new human connections. Maybe I and the other serfs will meet up for coffee before our workdays begin. The coffee shop will be like a high school cafeteria, with tribal groups gathering in fixed locations: Old Farts Within A Gasp of Retirement here, No End In Sight Workhorses there, Young Empire Builders over there. We’ll have to develop a new shared culture, won’t we, since we won’t be attending the same company meetings, responding to the same HR directives, or struggling with the same development schedules. (Although, really, when you’ve seen one idiotically unrealistic schedule, you’ve seen them all.)

My old life, my new life; my luck has been holding steady so far. How are you doing?

August 23, 2020 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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Walking on the Sea, part 5

OK. It’s you. You’re up.

You’re going to tell someone what’s important, to you, about Jesus walking on the sea.

In case it’s helpful, here’s a summary:

  1. Jesus told the disciples to go ahead.
  2. They obeyed, and trouble came up.
  3. They struggled and were very afraid.
  4. They saw Jesus approaching in a way that was so strange they could barely believe it.
  5. Peter asked Jesus for clarification, took a huge risk, began to fail, and called on Jesus for help.
  6. Jesus saved him.
  7. Jesus ended the trouble and brought peace to the disciples.

What would you say?

Tell me.

In case it helps: the Bible says an awful lot of this: 

Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. (Matthew 18:19)

I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. (John 14:13-14)

There are lots more quotations like those on this webpage, in beautiful King James English.

Because the story says Jesus saved Peter immediately when Peter called out for help, because you find this idea throughout the Bible, would you preach it?

I would the hell not.

There is too much suffering that goes unrescued no matter how much people pray and plead.

I have only my experience and my mind to go on. I won’t give them up in obedience to a religious demand that I somehow absorb, and parrot, an idea that is obviously untrue. The Bible does not trump what I observe in life. I don’t worship the Bible, and you shouldn’t either. If that’s what faith requires, I will call myself unfaithful.

Here’s a sermon that responds to the story in a different way. I know about it because I met the preacher, Gary Manning, through Twitter. This sermon does not say that Jesus will make sure to save you from danger if you ask him to. But it offers an opening, a possibility. It offers something maybe you haven’t thought of before. The sermon begins at 13:15.

August 19, 2020 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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Posted in Bad ideas about God, Bible, Praying, Theodicy | Leave a comment

Walking on the Sea, part 4

I’ve given Matthew 14:22-33 my best shot! Here’s a round-up of sermons, where you can hear what actual preachers have to say.

Sermons are food. These are from all of the Episcopal and ELCA Lutheran churches on the towns along route 117, plus I have come up with an innovation: I have added a bonus Lutheran! Lutherans are so outnumbered in New England, how will they ever be heard? It seems only fair to improve the ratio from 3 to 1 (6 Episcopal sermons to 2 Lutheran) to 2 to 1 (6 to 3).

All but one deal with the passage in Matthew that I talked about in part 1, part 2, and part 3 of this set of posts; one church does not use the lectionary and the preacher preaches about the Good Samaritan instead. Plus, with another church, I tossed in another sermon just because I like it.

All of these sermons are good! This means, friend, that the preacher thought deeply about the Bible readings for the day, and then thought about the state of the world, the state of the local community, the voiced concerns and observable conditions of parishioners and non-parishioners (this means they thought about everybody, including you), and the preacher’s own experiences. Every church community is different and every town is different, so no two sermons are alike.

(Well, actually, two of these sermons are identical, but that is a result of the miracle of technology, it is not the result of two different preachers coming up with the same sermon!)

Each one is about ten minutes long. Listen to a few. Listen to them all! Think of all the crap you have to listen to in your life! Why not listen to something good and loving, too!

Something in them will speak to you.

  • St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Leominster. The sound is awfully murky, I’m sorry to say. Headphones are your best bet. Sermon begins at 13:30 on the timeline of the video. Click here.
  • St. Elizabeth’s  Episcopal Church, Sudbury. Sermon begins at 20:10. Click here.
  • St. John Lutheran Church, Sudbury. Two things:
    –Beautiful sung psalm at 23:24.
    –Sermon begins at 31:00.
    Click here.
  • Trinity Episcopal Church, Concord. A sermon that refers to the Old Testament reading, too, and relates the stories in a moving way. Sermons are food. This sermon is food. Sermon begins at 15:12. Click here.
  • St. Anne in-the-fields Episcopal Church, Lincoln. Two things:
    –The choir sings from inside their cars! You can hear their happiness at being together in real time. AND the words are printed, so you can sing along. Amaze your friends and co-workers! Hymn begins at 17:20.
    –During the sermon, I think the space-time continuum slipped a bit; the sound is disconnected from the image and the Second Guy (OK, I looked him up, he’s Greg Johnston, Curate), disconcertingly pops in and out of existence. But the sound track is fine, which is what we care about. Sermon begins at 22:20.
    Click here.
  • St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Weston. This turns out to be the same preacher and recording as the one used by St. Elizabeth’s in Sudbury. The preacher, Rev. Lauren Lukason, is the Curate at St. Peter’s. She must have been asked if she would provide her sermon to St. Elizabeth’s; their rector must have been unavailable for some reason, perhaps taking a vacation (which all clergy should do. They are all exhausted. This time is hard on them.) Sermon begins at 16:35. Click here.
  • First Lutheran Church, Waltham. This church does not follow the lectionary, and the sermon is about the Good Samaritan. Two things:
    –A wonderful children’s sermon at 5:30, with visual aids!
    –A wonderful adult sermon. Since the Gospel is different, I am including it. It starts at 20:36.
    Click here.
  • Christ Church Waltham, Episcopal. The sermons are provided in separate sound files, so they start immediately:
    –August 9, the sermon about walking on the sea. Click here.
    –August 16, because I like it, too. Click here.

And, finally, our Bonus Lutheran!

  • St. Stephen Lutheran in Marlborough. This was their first outdoor service of the year. Sermon begins at 15:00. Click here!

August 16, 2020 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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

Walking on the Sea, part 3

Peter, forgetting everything, stands up and shouts —

No – it’s me, it’s you, isn’t it?

Peter tells Jesus what to say: Tell me to come to you.

Jesus replies: Come.

Peter steps onto the water.

It’s an act of suicidal abandon, yet the story gives no sense that he acted out of despair. No, he acted out of crazy wild desire and trust. What did he want that much?

What religion tells a story like this? A religion that is trying every way it knows to tell us what God is like. God cannot be described, but a glimpse of God – a tiny glimpse that still overwhelms all knowledge and reason — can make you willing to step onto a raging sea.

Sometimes it’s me, shouting. Is it ever you?

August 12, 2020 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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Walking on the Sea, part 2

It matters what Jesus walked on. Some translations say water, some say the lake. The translations I look at most frequently say the sea. For translators who choose that term, the distinction between the sea and any other candidate is important.

It is important to note that “they saw Jesus walking on the sea” and not on water. The sea is an essentially different being from water. To walk on the sea is to trample on a being that can engulf people with its waves, swallow them in its deep, and support all kinds of living beings… people who traveled over or worked on the sea literally put their lives in the hands of the spirit(s) or deity that revealed its moods  in the varying movements of the sea…

Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Malina and Rohrbaugh, page 82

We, today, know the sea is powerful. We know it can kill you. But when we hear this Bible story, we don’t think of the sea as a living being, so we don’t understand what early listeners understood immediately: By walking on the sea, Jesus dominates a dangerous, living power.

This scene establishes unmistakably that this rabbi is more than a very good man who taught people to be nice to each other.

He is not like other men.

He is somewhere in the realm of the divine.

His closest followers struggled to understand who he was; he did not provide them with a simple, easy answer, and sometimes his strangeness scared them. Now, when asked who Jesus is, we have 2,000 years of Christian catchphrases to draw on without skipping a beat. Then, the disciples had nothing except the witness of their eyes and ears, and their befuddled, astounded wits.

The pitfalls of understanding this tale are too great for us; we go down our opinionated, defensive, exhausted, or serene pathways and gain nothing new. How can we hear it freshly, how —

Jesus wrapped up a big meeting on Boston Common and the crowd began to disperse. But some people hung around, wanting to talk to him, so he told the disciples to go ahead to the AirBnB they’d reserved for the night;  he’d catch up with them later.

After he spoke with the last people, he managed to take a walk by himself on the Esplanade. He looked like any other tired guy at the end of a long day; nobody paid any attention to him as he made his way to the dock by Community Boating, sat down, and prayed.

The disciples meanwhile walked down the long, grassy path alongside the Charles, to the Mass Avenue Bridge and beyond, into the netherworld of the Charlesgate overpass and the Muddy River, and alongside Boston University. Then, suddenly they see before them, high overhead, the BU Bridge, which they know they have to cross to get to the triple-decker in Cambridgeport where they will lay their heads.

The air has been humid all day; now it is even heavier. The evening sky turns dark. The disciples don’t know a tornado watch is in effect. They’ve overshot the pedestrian bridge that could get them safely across Storrow Drive, but being new in town, they don’t realize that. So they take their lives in their hands and race across both lanes of the highway, up the asphalt and concrete wasteland of University Road and Mass Ave, and onto the bridge.

They’re halfway across when wind comes out of nowhere, and rain crashes and whips through the air. They think it’s kind of funny, a wild predicament, but then a traffic sign whirls past them like a frisbee and smashes into the ground not 10 feet in front of them. A set of traffic cones lifts up and skitters towards them – sure, they’re made of flexible plastic, but at 70 miles an hour they can do a lot of damage.

There are no cars on the road, there’s nowhere to take shelter. They crouch beside the bridge walls. Peter pops his head over the rail and sees Jesus down below on the bike path. But then Jesus is rising, he is walking to them, calmly, on the air. Peter cries out, the others are looking, they are shouting, too. Jesus is walking to them, up, up through the air, unharmed as debris of all sorts flies past him, the rain sluices down, and the wind howls.

 Peter, forgetting everything, stands up and shouts —

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