Friday, December 30, 2005

The Price of Nonconformity

I don’t know when I decided to become a nonconformist but the tendency showed up early in my life, at least in my choice of literature. I got an early start on reading and read most of the Oz books in early elementary school. (Long books to satisfy my literary appetite with large print to fit my immature eyes.) When my classmates discovered the joys of reading and were excited about the Boxcar Children, I was reading horse stories. When they moved on to the "Little House" books, I yawned and went back to my horse stories. Walter Farley. Marguerite Henry. Those were my favorite authors. I enjoyed the Bobbsey Twins somewhere along the way, but when the other girls started reading Nancy Drew books, I was already a Hardy Boys fan, having delved into my brothers’ collection, and couldn't get excited about a girl detective. I became a fan of the Lone Ranger in books without knowing anything about the radio or television versions of the stories. And I read all the childhood life fictionalized biographies I could find.

Of course, this meant I missed out on some excellent standards in children’s literature. I finally got around to reading the "Little House" books by Laura Ingalls Wilder during a college break one year. I didn’t get to know the "Boxcar Children" by Gertrude Chandler Warner until my son read the series when he was in elementary school. Around that same time, I pulled the Beverly Cleary "Ramona" books out of the elementary library where I was doing volunteer work and read that complete set. I’ve slowly filled in some of the gaps in my literary background from the children’s department of the library over the years as well as sampling new juvenile selections. I enjoy children’s literature. It’s fast. It’s clean. It is often very well written. I can pick up on the underlying message more readily than in adult fiction. (At least I can now; when I read Black Beauty for probably the tenth time but first time as an adult, I was shocked to discover that it was not the horse story I had always loved as much as social commentary.)

Somehow, in my reading as a child and still as an adult, I passed over the Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, even after being greatly influenced by his books written for adults. I’ve read his space trilogy but not his children’s books! I’ve read the books by Lewis’ friend, J. R. R. Tolkien. I’ve read several fairy tales by George MacDonald, whom Lewis called his mentor, and found them wonderful. Why not The Chronicles of Narnia?

It’s not that I didn’t try. I bought a boxed set of the series and read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when my children were young. They eventually read the entire set. I thought maybe I made it through the set sometime along the way. I know I read The Magician’s Nephew. Apparently, I never made it further than that.

When the movie based on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was released a few weeks ago, my husband and I went to see it on opening night. I decided it was a good time to (re)read the series. However, by the time I got to The Horse and His Boy, I realized I was not reading again but for the first time.

How did I pass these up? This is the exact kind of children’s literature that most appeals to me. (Since my Oz days, I’ve enjoyed books of magic and I've read through long collections of fairy tales.) They are widely accepted as children’s classics. In fact, they are perhaps the most popular classics in children’s literature I’ve never read.

So, all you Harry Potter fans, what are your favorite selections from classic children’s literature? Have I missed anything else?

Saturday, December 17, 2005

What is it about Christmas that makes me go crazy?

Every year in December I lose my grip on sanity. Why?

Ordinarily, I don’t consider myself a perfectionist to the point of driving myself or other people crazy. However, something about the Christmas season stirs up my strongest insecurities and weighs me down with the conviction that whatever I’m doing, it’s not good enough. I’m not baking enough. I’m not entertaining enough. I’m not buying enough gifts. The gifts that I am buying are lame. The ones I bought last week are obviously totally inappropriate. I have ideas that are SO much better this week, but still probably not good enough. Someplace out there is the perfect gift for each one of my loved ones. I just have to find it and then they will see how well I know them and of what value they are to me.

My usual solution to the gift dilemma is to wait until the last possible moment to commit to anything in gift-buying so that there’s no time for second thoughts. Then I realize that the perfect gift was the one that I should have ordered two weeks ago and can’t be bought in stores anywhere the week of Christmas.

One thing I do because I want to during December (as opposed to the many things that I do out of obligation) is send Christmas cards. Even in that area, though, this temporary insanity sucks much of the joy out of sending them. A form letter? Can’t do it. How can one write a one-size-fits-all letter? That’s not good enough. Cards out of a box with our names under the pre-printed greeting? What’s the point? It’s the chance to actually communicate with long-lost and not-so-lost acquaintances that is attractive to me. Why give up that chance to communicate? So I write multiple letters that contain the same basic information but which are each somehow customized to their recipients. The problem is that this requires a substantial time commitment, even with the aid of a wordprocessor and cut-and-paste. The list of people who get letters isn’t very long.

My church family has a tradition of exchanging cards each year by dropping them in a special box in the church foyer. It’s rare to have a note included with the card. Again, I ask: What’s the point? If all we’re doing is wishing each other a generic Merry Christmas, why bother putting so much time and effort and money into it? Why not just wish each other a Merry Christmas in person and be done with it?

This year I came up with a partial solution to the church card exchange. I created my own "church families are special" greeting card in PrintMaster (by Broderbund). Ahh... much better. Hallmark doesn’t make a card that expresses the appreciation I feel for this group that so often has filled the role of extended family for me and my husband and children. But I can feel good about creating one card that embraces each family group individually but equally and expresses my appreciation for them in a special way during the Christmas season.

So I made the card. I printed multiple copies of the card. I signed our names. I wrote names on envelopes. I piled up the cards to take over to the church for distribution. I even went so far as to carry them into the church. Then I carried them back home. I realized that I had failed to include children when putting names on the envelopes. I realized that there was a chance that a few of the people might ask, "Dave & Marsha who???" I realized that just one slight modification would have made the card so much better. I realized there was a flaw that will likely be pointed out by a few. Perfectionism caused paralysis again. I had to push it aside, add the children’s names and our last name for the cases where there might be doubt and take those terribly imperfect homemade cards back over for distribution. It’s only a pile of greeting cards to people I see every week, often multiple times each week. Why would I let myself get in such a twist over making them perfect?

Making my own cards has allowed me to expand my mailing list by providing opportunity to customize the greeting itself to fit various groups. In this first year of the empty nest, I’m missing the interaction I’ve had over the years with my peers in the community, the parents of my children’s classmates. I made a special greeting card for my favorite people from that group. I’ve completed around 60 cards (mostly going to people either in the church or the community) and have another 30 or so to go. Most of the cards that will actually include a letter are left and I’m beginning to feel overwhelmed, wondering if I’ll ever complete this task. And this is one of the most enjoyable parts of Christmas for me! I don’t even want to think about the gifts!

Christmas is a week away and I’m not even close to ready. I have a bare evergreen tree in my livingroom and colored lights running down the banister. That’s the extent of my decorations thus far. There are no Christmas goodies in the house and all my kids are coming home in the next 48 hours. (Yea!)

Maybe it’s the absolute drop-dead deadlines of the Christmas season that do this to me. Not only are there multiple obligations that could be done with excellence if there were a little more time in which to do them, but the deadlines are mostly non-negotiable.

Obviously, blog posts need to go way down on my list of priorities. In defiance of my compulsiveness during this season, I will now post this in its imperfect first-draft form. Maybe. After I fix up just a few minor problems.

I’ll see you after Christmas.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Me, Me, Me

Blog (Weblog): An online journal.

Journal: An account of what happens or of what one thinks, feels, or notices, such as a diary, a ship’s log, or the written account of what happens at each meeting of a society or town meeting. (World Book Dictionary, Thorndike Barnhart, 1984)

Ponder: To consider carefully, think over. (1984 World Book Dictionary again)

Ponderings: Considerations, personal analyses. (Not in dictionary)

So I have a blog, an online account of either what happens or what I think, feel, or notice, carrying a title coined from a term meaning personal thoughts. I think that takes the focus off of actual happenings and leaves me with just thoughts. My thoughts. My feelings. What I notice.

I was sharing my feelings on a particular matter with someone this week while trying to resolve a conflict which had popped up unexpectedly. It felt so self-centered. Does it matter what I think on the matter? It would be foolish to think that anyone else thinks exactly like I do. There’s NO one who thinks like I do on every subject. There may not be many who share my feelings on most subjects. If I’m the only one who is bothered by something, is it even worth mentioning?

Perhaps I should check to see how others feel on various subjects so that I can report their thoughts, feelings, and observations instead of focusing in on my own. Of course, I’d have to make sure I completely understood what they told me so that I could report it accurately. And I’d need permission to broadcast those thoughts and feelings on a public blog site. Even if I’m not planning to share those thoughts publicly, there are still difficulties in accurately understanding and reporting what other people think and feel. I may THINK I know how others are responding to something, but I don’t really have a complete grasp on their thoughts even after they attempt to share them with me. Sometimes the thoughts don’t fit well into words. Sometimes I look behind the words for hidden meanings and guess incorrectly as to what the unspoken undertones are saying. Sometimes I have filters installed that interpret the meanings of the words and give them a slightly different hue. I might filter them to be more in keeping with my own thoughts. Or I might give them more or less charitable interpretations.

Back to this week's conversation. I shared that a particular approach to management makes me feel a certain way. I was guessing that maybe other people respond in a similarly negative way but I don’t really know that to be the case. If it’s true, it might be helpful to the person doing the managing to hear my thoughts as representative of those of other people. But if my response reflects personal hangups, maybe I’m better off trying to disarm my ‘hot buttons’ rather than complaining to the one who pushes them. Even if my thoughts and feelings are representative of how others respond, will the person with whom I share dismiss them as springing from my own personality problems?

The thoughts, feelings, and observations I know best and am most authorized to publicize are my own. Some of what I share might reflect a common thought process. Other times I might verbalize the unformed thoughts of others. Much of what I share may simply seem like it’s coming out of left field. My thoughts are not always rational or ‘correct’ or helpful. They may not even be particularly interesting most of the time. They’re just the ones I have. If anyone would like to share some of their own thoughts here (in the comments), they’re welcome to do so. Meanwhile, it's a blog. It's all about me. Which may get pretty boring after a while.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Reason for the Season

I see it on church signs, on greetings cards; I hear it in various Christian settings: "Jesus Is the Reason for the Season". In response, something within me suggests, "If Jesus is the reason for all this, why do I associate myself with Christianity? If the values of the Christmas season with all it’s tinsel reflect the heart of Christianity, I need to find a new faith."

Is Christmas about Jesus? No. Not now. Not ever. Christmas didn’t begin in a manger in Bethlehem. The life of Jesus Christ began in Bethlehem, but Christmas began in the dark lands of the north.

I recently heard someone say that they are glad Christmas comes at this time of the year because the lights are so beautiful on dark winter nights. Hello! That’s not coincidence, you know! December 25th is not the historic date of Jesus’ birth. Rather, it’s the first day of perceptibly longer daylight after the winter solstice. The winter solstice is the reason for the season. Think how dark and cold and depressing December would be without Christmas. Winter is a time of darkness and death. We need help to make it through. What a momentous occasion when after weeks of each day being a little shorter than the previous one, there comes a day that is just a wee bit longer. The tide has turned. We’re heading back to warmth and light. It may be a long time coming, but we’ve made a start. It’s a reason to celebrate.

Even though it’s dark now, the light will return. In the meantime, we string up lights all around city, town, and country. We change our decor to a Christmas theme. We bring evergreen trees inside and hang lights and ornaments on them. We have social gatherings. In the midst of the darkest days, our electric meters hum as we light the world in defiance of the darkness.

There’s more to Christmas than bringing artificial light into the darkness of December. We also shop! We fill the streets with traffic and the store aisles with shopping carts as we go out and spend our money on the commercial offerings of our culture. We buy gifts and wrap them in bright paper and adorn them with ribbons. We pile those gifts high under and around the trees in our homes. We buy gifts for people we love and for people we hate and for people we barely know and for people we don't know at all. We buy gifts for people who ask us not to buy them gifts. If we don't know someone well enough to select a suitable gift, we buy something that we would like or that we think they ought to like but which may have no actual value at all to them. Or we buy what other people tell us our gift recipients will like, whether the gift seems of true value or not. (Sometimes we make sure they’re returnable.) It gives us something to do in December. Go out and enjoy the lights and the cheery music. Mingle with other people. Collect the gifts. Wrap the gifts. Anticipate the distribution of the gifts. Chase away the darkness.

In the midst of this comes a group of people saying, "Jesus is the reason for the season." The lights? They’re about Jesus, the light of the world. The music? Jesus, the reason to sing. Christmas trees? Jesus again, bringing us eternal (evergreen) life! The wreaths? Symbols of God's unending love. The gifts? Celebrating the greatest gift ever and reminding us of those who brought gifts to Jesus on his birth. December 25th? No, not the first day of perceptible increase in length after the winter solstice (who even knew that?) but the day of Jesus’ birth.

This is a problem to me. I don’t mind celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25th. But I mind it very much when people try to match up the over-the-top excesses of our culture’s holiday season with the life and values of Jesus Christ. To say that Jesus is the reason for frenzied shoppers trampling each other trying to grab the last hot item available in town is a terrible affront to the Christian faith, denying the most basic values of Christianity, such as simplicity and generosity. To say that He’s the reason for the piles of often-thoughtless gifts that are so soon broken or discarded trivializes the value of the gift He gives to us. To say that Jesus is the reason people string up lights is to presume that we know the motivation of people who may be simply enjoying the beauty of the displays. We don’t do all these things because of Jesus! We do it because it’s December and it’s dark and we need a way to cope with the darkness of winter.

Maybe I’m deceived here. Maybe other people truly trace all of their winter holiday activities back to Jesus. Maybe the joy of their relationship with Jesus Christ inspires them to put up lights and a tree in December and go out and buy gifts for everyone they know. I’m not one of those people. The joy of my relationship with Jesus Christ doesn’t make me do anything in December that I don’t do at other times in the year. Celebrating Jesus’ birth, even if I do it in December, does not require more preparation than celebrating the greater wonder of his resurrection a few days after the spring equinox. Being a Christian doesn’t prompt me to make an annual pilgrimage to the mall to buy gifts of dubious value for my friends and acquaintances. Only the cultural pressure of the winter solstice celebration prompts me to do that.

For many years, I have dreaded the arrival of December. Stress is caused by unpleasant circumstances that are beyond our control. Christmas in my adult years has involved multiple sets of unpleasant circumstances beyond my control. Thus, for me, Christmas is the ultimate source of stress. One thing that has helped me is to realize that American (or European or any other) Christmas traditions are not nearly so sacred as Christians like to make them out to be. Very little of what happens at Christmas time in the 21st century truly traces back to the birth of Jesus Christ.

If I regard Christmas as simply a cultural response to the cold, dark days of winter, it is freeing to me. I like the lights. It’s dark in December. Lights are good. A Christmas tree is nice. Christmas decorations brighten the atmosphere. Special food and social activities lift my spirits. A few gifts exchanged with loved ones is a pleasant winter event. Taking time during December to send greetings to friends and relatives near and far is a good use of this month when the darkness gives us more time inside. Commemorating the birth of Jesus during these dark days adds a special touch to the winter holidays.

No, Jesus is not the reason for the season. My commitment to Jesus Christ is not measured by how much I spend at the mall. Nor by how many social events I host or attend. Nor by how much fruitcake I make and give away. Not even by how many hours I spend in church either celebrating or preparing to celebrate Christmas. I actually appreciate the shift from saying "Merry Christmas" to "Happy Holidays". Not only do I favor descriptors other than "merry" for the commemoration of the advent of Christ, I think the latter greeting is more appropriate in light of the overwhelmingly secular nature of our winter celebration. Giving our blessing to the excessiveness of the holiday season by referring to the entire frenzied season as "Christ’s mass" is offensive to me as one who seeks to follow that humble carpenter.

So to those of you who will marvel at the miracle of the Incarnation this month, may the season be blessed with warm gatherings and a fresh wonder at the amazing love that prompted that event. To those of you who are more focused on other aspects of the season, I wish you "Happy Holidays." May the lights and the music and, yes, even the shopping bring you good cheer during these dark days.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The First Empty-Nest Thanksgiving

We went from five around the table last year on Thanksgiving Day to two this year – my husband and me. The kids all found other places to be. One has moved too far away to come home for a 4-day weekend. The other two spent the day with friends. We could have pressured one to stay home but let her go as the others submitted their negative RSVPs. Dave’s extended family is in Florida. Mine is doing Thanksgiving with the "other side" today. I was going to have them here Saturday but my brother and sister-in-law offered to host the event so we’re going there.

This all started to fall into place a couple of weeks ago. That’s good. It helps to have a little notice that a holiday isn’t going to follow its usual pattern in order to bend my mind around it before it arrives.

I asked Dave what we were going to do for Thanksgiving. He suggested cutting firewood. That didn’t set real well with me. Gathering firewood has been a frequent activity lately. It seems that there should be something special to do on a holiday, something that we don’t do on ordinary days.

There are always stories about people who invite intellectually-stimulating guests to join them for Thanksgiving gatherings. I tried to think of all the intellectually-stimulating people I know who wouldn’t be celebrating with family and drew a blank. I thought about the less-than-stimulating people I know who might not have a family gathering but then remembered that hospitality is not exactly my best talent. I envisioned bored people sitting around in our livingroom with nothing to entertain them -- no television for parades or football, no stimulating conversation. Suddenly, the firewood idea started looking better.

We went through the list of possibilities. We’re not particularly interested in parades or football. There are no soup kitchens in the area where we could volunteer. The schedule at the movie theater is only mildly interesting – "Chicken Little" or "Harry Potter". We don’t hunt, although we do have four acres of woods. Cooking a big dinner seemed pointless with a church turkey dinner last Sunday evening and my family gathering on Saturday. Some people from church invited us to join them at a steakhouse 35 miles from home. Stuffing myself with restaurant food didn’t sound all that inviting. Television bores me. Sitting by the fire reading good books bores him. Playing games doesn’t appeal to either of us.

A co-worker told me this week that she and her teenage daughter were going to lounge around in their pajamas all day. That sounded cozy and relaxing. Maybe large family gatherings and turkey dinners on Thanksgiving are over-rated. Still, it seems like the day requires more than sacking out on the couch all day.

We came up with a plan. A tornado ripped through our county last week and did enormous damage along its 12-mile path. Fortunately, there were no deaths and only one serious injury, but 60 houses and 10 businesses and high-voltage towers and wires were strewn across the area. The roads were closed in the area for the rest of the week but opened up to sightseers last Sunday and we joined the gawkers, amazed by the awesome destructive force of nature. It was a spontaneous outing and we didn’t take our camera. We could go back and take pictures today. Then maybe an outing to the theater would round out the day.

We never left the driveway. Nor is the pile of firewood in the back yard significantly higher. We slept late and took naps. I caught up on some reading. We had sliced turkey from the deli on sandwiches for lunch and pot pies from the freezer for supper. I baked a pumpkin pie just because it was Thanksgiving, they're easy (with pie crust from the dairy case) and I wanted to have one in the house.

Thanksgiving seemed like a good day to tromp through the woods and I took some pruners with me to maybe tackle some undergrowth as I went. I ended up rescuing a few trees along the woods side of the yard from vines that were threatening to strangle them. It felt good to be out in the cold doing enough work to end up warm rather than cold. (Maybe I should have signed up for the firewood idea.) We watched part of a movie on the small television in the kitchen. We cleaned out an area in the basement where we’re going to install a small, modified furnace to circulate heat from the outside wood furnace that’s supposed to arrive next week. We talked to family on the phone. We were on the verge of heading out to where the tornado went through but didn’t quite make it out the door. When darkness arrived, an evening at home started to sound better than driving the 25 miles to the movie theater.

This probably sounds like a terrible Thanksgiving to someone with an extroverted personality who thrives on social activity, but it worked for us. It was a good mix of relaxation and accomplishment. We won’t end the week lacking for social interaction.

Like some other parts of the empty nest experience, it’s something that I think I could get used to but perhaps shouldn’t quite yet.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

On blogging

Last night I was talking to someone who referenced something I had written here. It always startles me when that happens. The internet is a big place. While there are a few internet sites, including some blogs, that include a link to bring you here, it still surprises me when someone who knows me in 'real life' happens across one of those sites and follows the link, particularly when that person is an adult.

The blog that sends the most people here -- The World of Sondra -- is maintained by my college-age daughter. Thus, I'm not quite so surprised if her friends stop past. Besides the conversation I mentioned above, I also chatted with one of those friends last night, a young man whose blog also has a link on my daughter's. I noted that I enjoy his posts. He indicated that he has stopped past here, too. Then there was an awkward pause in our conversation. It seems that neither of us could find anything further to say on the subject of our blogs.

I've participated in internet discussions on topical forums for probably ten years -- eons in computer time. I've developed relationships of various degrees, met some of the people behind the posts in person, shared much with others whom I've never met in 'real life'.

Internet relationships are interesting. They tend to have fewer dimensions than 'real life' relationships. I might know someone's 'hot buttons', how many kids they have, what they're passionate about. I might think they're hilarious or that they whine too much or are too sensitive. I might have a mental picture of them that resides entirely in my imagination if I haven't seen a photo. (There are a couple of people who exist in two forms in my mind -- the person I imagined them to be before I met them personally and the person I now know them to be. When I remember early exchanges with them, I have to go back to the earlier image in order to recall the nature of those exchanges.) If I've seen a photo, I don't have to rely so heavily on my imagination to flesh them out, but I still don't have a complete picture of them.

When I meet someone new in 'real life', I think it's safe to say that most of the information I gather about them in that first exchange comes from my observations rather than their words. I can look into their eyes, observe their facial expressions, check out their personal appearance, their posture, their gestures, etc. and make multiple assessments, many of which will later turn out to be totally erroneous. As I get to know them better, I modify my first impression to more closely match what I continue to learn about them, still using my observation skills as much as listening to the plain meaning of the words they say.

When I meet someone on the internet, all I have is their words. Beyond the plain meaning of those words, there aren't many other things to assess -- spelling skills and sentence structure, maybe. There's not even tone to consider, except for the tone I add to the words as I read. I might be able to say they are skillful at expressing themselves in writing or that I find it hard to follow what they're saying. What does that really tell me about the person behind the words? I may know them very well as internet friends and yet know nothing about what they're like in a social setting. What takes only a few short moments to pick up on in face-to-face exchanges may take much longer to gather via the internet, if it's even possible to detect without personal exposure.

Blogs add a new dimension to the world of internet relationships. Reading a blog is like reading a person's diary. You know what makes them laugh and what makes them cry and what makes them angry. Unlike topic-based internet discussions, you get a broader picture of the person's interests. However, it's a one-way exchange. The blogger pours out their life into the blog. The reader might make a comment now and then, but it's certainly not a two-way street with equal traffic in each direction. Thus, the reader gets to know the writer quite well while the writer is often unaware that the reader is even reading. This can lead to some awkward moments.

Last spring, I watched a ping-pong match while seated next to a young man who had received a college degree the week before and whose blog I read regularly. (We were cheering for opposite teams in the ping-pong match.) I know him as a talented writer dealing with some serious issues in life in ways I admire. He knows me only as 'Marissa's mom' -- after I introduce myself again. So what are we going to talk about? I feel like I know him well and would love to chat with him. But the most I can think to say that wouldn't be 'weird' is, "I enjoy reading your blog." Even that might be too intrusive. Does he really want to know that there's someone the age of his parents reading his blog?

Even when you know someone and are pleased that they would bother to read your blog, it still makes for some awkward moments. Last night I brought up something and my friend said, "I know. You said that in your blog entry." Yes, sure enough, I did. Do I have anything else to say on the subject at all? Or did I totally exhaust my thoughts on the subject in that one post. How inconvenient to have indulged in a monologue and have left myself no resources for a dialog.

It's all right, though. You all, whoever you are, can keep reading. If I didn't want people to read what I write, I'd confine my writing to locked diaries. I just hope you'll overlook the awkwardness if we meet in 'real life' and I realize that you already know my innermost thoughts on some of my favorite topics and find myself struggling for something to say.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Why I go to church

First, I should maybe confess that I am a follower of the teachings of Jesus Christ – a Christian. Since church buildings are designed as places for Christians to gather, it would seem obvious that I would associate myself with a group of other Christians and gather with them in a church most every Sunday (the Lord’s Day). Followers of Jesus Christ have had such gatherings since the day of his resurrection, although Christian church buildings came a little later. And, indeed, I have such an association and I habitually gather with the group twice on Sunday and again on Wednesday evening, as per long-standing tradition.

Being part of a church is not always easy, however. The portrait of Jesus Christ and the God of the universe that I encounter when I attend church sometimes stands in stark contrast to what I find in the Bible – God’s revelation of himself to us. Sometimes the contrast irritates me. Thus, my previous posts concerning going to church without getting angry.

So why do I keep going if I often come away upset about what I encounter in the church? Why do I continue to gather so frequently with people who sometimes blacken the character of God, who sometimes make me ashamed to be associated with them? As someone once asked me, “Why would I continue to go someplace where I am consistently offended?” Why indeed?

There are several reasons:

1. “Lone ranger” Christians are likely to develop a view of God even more skewed than one finds in the church. There is balance to be found in a group of believers. Even when I don’t agree with what I hear at church, the introduction of a different perspective helps me hone my own beliefs and check them against the Holy Scriptures. I need the shaping that the church provides. I need to make myself accountable to a community of believers.

2. The church is my family. These are people who care about me. If I’m in the hospital they’ll come and visit me. When I’m grieving they extend sympathy. When I receive blessings they rejoice with me. Sure, some of them are scallywags. Isn’t that the case in every family? They’re still family.

3. Fellowship. When someone steps through the doors of the church, they are indicating at least some minimal level of interest in spiritual things. The church brings me into intentional contact with such people. I find encouragement along the way as I interact with others who have chosen to live as Christians.

4. Ministry. The church is a place to share my spiritual journey with others and hopefully encourage them in their own walk. Just as my church family ministers to me in my times of joy and grief, I too can minister to others. Perhaps I can encourage someone who is searching for God and having difficulty finding Him. I can weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who are rejoicing.

5. To worship God. I left this for last because I find corporate worship challenging. My most focused worship times occur in solitude. Generally, the only way I can carry worship into the church is to have it begin at home. Still, occasionally I am surprised by a glimpse of heaven even within the church.

As I mentioned in an earlier entry, the author who wrote about going to church without getting angry achieved his lack of ire by finding a church that better matched his worldview. There are several reasons I don’t attempt to do this.

1. There is no perfect church. If there were, I wouldn’t be allowed to join it because then it would no longer be perfect.

2. I am basically in harmony with the official doctrine of the church of which I’m a part, at least more than with other churches around where I live.

3. There’s a possibility that I can be a positive voice in the church, ministering to those who come to church looking for the God of love and instead encounter the misrepresentation of God that I find so irritating. Perhaps when I'm at my best the church is better because I'm part of it.

4. I am not alone. There are more people than I involved in this decision. Leaving the church would mean letting multiple people down.

So I stay and get involved and continue to show up on a regular basis. And I find family and fellowship and a place of ministry. Sometimes I even catch a glimpse of God in the church! It’s a good place to be.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Standing on the Threshold

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the questions to which I’m asked to respond. This was initially prompted by a survey administered at my church. There were 160 statements. The five choices on the answer sheet ranged from strongly disagree to strongly agree with the middle option being “no opinion/don’t know”. I chose the middle option for statements concerning the thoughts of other people. (If you want to know what other people think, ask them. I’m not a mind-reader and haven’t interviewed enough people on these topics to make a categoric assessment of what ‘everybody’ thinks. I’m not even sure of my own thinking on some of them.) I also chose it for statements that could be either true or false depending on various factors. Do I like the music in the church services? Yes. And no. Some of it I love (particularly the songs I choose to play). Some of it makes me want to leave and never look back. I have strong opinions about music but they pretty much cancel each other out at church and leave me in the ‘don't know/no opinion’ crowd.

I was sailing through the survey pretty well until I got to the last set of statements, which were obviously designed to test the orthodoxy of my beliefs. The first one that made me balk read: “Prayer works.” ‘Works’? Works for what? Prayer is conversation with God. Does talking to one’s spouse ‘work’? Does talking to the boss ‘work’? Does talking to your children ‘work’? Does talking to God ‘work’? None of those questions can be answered without defining the goal of the conversation. Talking to the boss might not ‘work’ if there’s tension in my marriage and I’m looking for a solution. Talking to my husband doesn’t ‘work’ when I need to clear up a disagreement with a friend. Talking to God doesn’t ‘work’ when my goal is to get my own way. I could neither agree nor disagree with the statement without clarification. Nor could I say that I have no opinion on the subject or that I don’t know whether prayer works. I have definite opinions on what prayer does and does not accomplish. I just need a definition of the word ‘works’. I left the answer sheet blank on that one and six others. There is no good answer to a bad question. If the statement had read, “Prayer is an essential part of my life,” or even, “Prayer makes a difference,” I would have gladly agreed. But I don’t even fully agree with the old adage, “Prayer changes things.” Sometimes prayer doesn’t change anything about a situation except my own view of it. Does that count as changing ‘things’?

After refusing to respond to seven of the statements on the survey on the basis that none of the choices reflected my beliefs, I’ve been noticing other questions that bother me. The one behind the title of this post comes from a Bible study book. It is: ‘How would your life be different if you really surrendered everything to God and sought His ways above your own?” As I considered the question, I heard echoes from other discussion questions. “What would happen if we really prayed?” “What would happen if we really cared about people?” “How would things change if we had our priorities straight?” “What if we really believed in heaven – or hell?”

These questions all assume that we’re standing outside this possible attitude or activity looking in at the possibilities without stepping over the threshold. The ‘correct’ answer generally seems to be that stepping over the threshold would bring amazing improvement to our lives. So ... if surrendering and praying and caring and believing bring such wonderful things, why would we stand outside discussing the possibilities that lie inside? Shouldn’t we be stepping over the threshold and experiencing the glorious results of doing these things? Shouldn’t the question be: “How is your commitment to God changing your life?”

I can see where some steps might take consideration. For example: “What would happen if we truly revealed our hearts to each other?” It might leave us vulnerable to unpleasant attacks. People might not understand us. Or, at the other extreme, it could bring us unity and a closeness we’ve never experienced before. It might be good to weigh the various possibilities before taking the step of transparency. But I think it’s safe to pray, even to “really pray,” without a lot of discussion first.

The odd part is that when the question puts us on the threshold, any answer that casts oneself as standing inside the doorway smacks of arrogance. Example: “What would happen if we really prayed?” Uhm ... I do pray. “Yes, but what would happen if we really prayed?” Uhm ... I do “really pray”. It’s a rare day when I don’t devote part of the morning to intentional communication with God. “But what would happen if we all prayed longer and more fervently?” Uhm... I guess I don’t know. Amazing things happen in my life when I pray. I’m not sure longer or more fervent prayer is what God wants from me, but I can talk to Him about it if you think I should. As to others, I guess the only way to find out what happens when we all pray is to try it and see.

None of these responses are acceptable when the ‘correct’ answer is, God would bless us with astounding results if we really prayed. Claiming to ‘really pray’ without demonstrating such results rings hollow, particularly in light of reports of how God responded to prayers in other times and places.

Still, I would rather wade deep into the experience of being fully surrendered to God and praying and believing than to stand on the threshold and only speculate as to what might be inside, even if the reality when my human frailties get involved doesn’t measure up to the ideal picture being drawn by those who never seem to move past speculation.

Monday, October 24, 2005

It's Getting Darker

It was February when I started blogging. That’s a good time of the year for me. Even though it’s still cold and dreary in southern Indiana, I know that spring is on its way.

Now it’s the end of October. The days are getting shorter. The dark days of winter are closing in on us. Worse, the holidays are on their way. Holidays. Holy days. Busy days. Days driven by rules, traditions, and expectations.

Have I mentioned that I’m domestically challenged? I’m a woman with an engineering degree. I can do math. I love maps and exploring new territory with them. I’m a compulsive accountant. I follow written instructions well. I’m always ready to rip open a package stamped “some assembly required” and get started. I have designed and built simple wood shelving units for our house. I can hunt down and eliminate computer bugs. When I worked as an engineer, trouble-shooting electronic circuits was my specialty.

On the other hand, I’m lost in the kitchen. When I’m in large groups of women, I feel like an onion in a petunia patch. They complain of filth in places that look fine to me (prompting me to make a mental note not to allow them into my house, which doesn’t look at all fine to me). They exchange household hints for tasks I didn’t even know were part of housekeeping. They give oral instructions for making the dish of the night and I listen with amazement. Are others actually taking in the information and leaving equipped with the knowledge to duplicate the dish? Assuming that I’d want to make it, I’d need clear, written instructions that detailed every step. The verbal list of ingredients has no meaning for me. Is the person who is handing out the information just making conversation or does she assume I’m capable of hearing and understanding it?

Oh, I can bake well enough if I have to. I can find clear, written instructions for that. But my heart’s not in it. I don’t view it as an art or a pleasure. Cooking is harder. Gravy is beyond me. So is fried chicken. I don’t have a knack for such things. Not for cooking or decorating or fashion or entertaining.

Along come the holidays. Women cook for the holidays. Women decorate for the holidays. Women host gatherings for the holidays. People give gifts during the holidays. I strike out in all those areas, but opting out of holidays is not really an option. Holidays happen.

This first year of the empty nest will surely be different in many respects. Still, sometime in the next few weeks, I’ll likely slip into survival mode: lowering my expectations for routine accomplishment, doing what I have to do for the holidays, plugging away one day at a time, counting the days until normal life resumes in January.

It's not that I won't enjoy seeing friends and family during the holidays. I’ve even invited my extended family here for Thanksgiving and I’ll do my best to prepare a tasty meal for them. I’ll probably try to send Christmas cards and make goodies. I tend to put my actual Christmas shopping off until almost the last day in the evening -- waiting until gift choices must be made and there will be little time for second-guessing those choices before Christmas arrives. There are enjoyable times during all the hustle and bustle, but it tends to be primarily a stressful time for me.

I’ve been trying to post something here once a week. That frequency may go either up or down as the holidays approach, depending on whether blog entries turn out to be one more pressure or a temporary escape from the pressure.

Just thought I'd post a warning.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Left behind

First of all, I apologize if you came here looking for something related to the Left Behind Series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. This is not it. So far I have not been left behind by the Rapture, at least as far as I know. I do believe in the second coming of Jesus Christ, but I don’t believe there will be anything or anybody left behind after that event* nor that there will be anything secret about it.**

However, this week I did feel like I was being left behind - by technology. My favorite internet community is moving to new software. When I looked at the new environment, I seriously considered whether my ties to the community were strong enough to accept the annoyances of the new software. Maybe it was time to “kick the habit” (and the association of that phrase with addiction is not entirely inapplicable here). As I considered that option, a feeling rose up within me that I recognized as grief. I mourned the good days that would be left behind us, the comradery, the laughter. I had to remind myself that I didn’t have to leave it all behind me. I could simply take another look at the new software and decide to stick around. Even though I had expressed reluctance to make the jump, I certainly hadn’t burned any bridges.

As I watched the community settle into the new software, I soon started to see the advantages that others were seeing. It turned out to be a relatively easy move once I decided I was going to make it. But during the one or two dark days as I watched the inevitable come and wondered whether the move would be made without me, I could identify with people who fight change. It’s frustrating to be hanging on to the old, familiar ways of doing things while others are tossing aside the old and rushing to embrace the new. As I associated myself with the old, negative remarks began to sound personal. It was sort of a “like me, like my dog” mentality. If people show disregard for what I value are they showing disregard for who I am? If the crowd goes rushing over to the new software and leaves me behind crying, “the old is better,”*** does it mean that they don’t care whether I continue to be part of the community? It seemed that all I was seeing was the backs of people leaving me behind. I kept watching to see if anyone was going to turn around to make sure I was keeping up.

I’m a part of this community by choice. The truth is that they can get along without me. I hope that my presence is a positive addition to the community but I know that it would not be a dreadful loss if I were no longer around. That knowledge does not cause me grief. My value is in serving, not in being served. Yet, I caught a glimpse of the grief experienced when people watch the things they value being set aside and wonder whether anyone truly values them. I need to stash away this brief exposure to such grief so that I can recognize it when I see it in others.


* But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. (
2 Peter 3:10 NIV)

**Look, he is coming with the clouds,
and every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him (
Revelation 1:7 NIV)

*** No one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, `The old is better.' " (
Luke 5:39 NIV)

Saturday, October 08, 2005


I attended a ladies retreat this weekend. The organizers included a survey in the packet they gave us. One of the questions was, "What was the highlight of the retreat for you?" I left that question blank. Sharing the scene that popped into my mind would have been of no value in planning future retreats.

It happened in the morning, before the day's activities started. Morning is my "quiet time". I dressed early and, leaving my roommates behind, slipped down to the lobby with my book bag. As people started gathering for the day's activities, I left behind my initial resting place on a sofa in a hall and looked for someplace further from the beaten path.

At the back of the lobby, I found a cozy cluster of unoccupied furniture and settled in once again on the sofa there. A few minutes later, a black man in work clothes, maybe 30 years old, settled into the chair across from me with a cup of coffee. I greeted him with a smile and turned back to my books. I was enjoying what I was doing, but also very aware of my surroundings. I occasionally glanced up and took in the activity around me. I noticed that the man lit a cigarette. Coffee and tobacco. Neither are a part of my life, but I don't particularly mind the smell of either when they're fresh. However, in this case, the hotel circulation system did a good job providing clean air for me and I didn't notice the odor.

A mother and daughter with matching blond curls approached our area. The mother was talking and as she came close enough for me to hear her words, she expressed relief at finding a place to smoke. The man assured her that he didn't mind but wasn't sure about me. He indicated that he had been watching me. I found that interesting since I hadn't observed him observing me while I was observing him. I wasn't sure what information he had gathered in his observation, but apparently he had decided I didn't smoke. I greeted the newcomers and let them know that the smoke wasn't bothering me. The mother took the other chair in the area and told her daughter, who was maybe six, to sit with me on the couch, away from the smoke. I smiled and welcomed her and her teddy bear to the "non-smoking section".

The bear was clad in a wedding dress and as we admired her, the little girl noticed that she had spilled some of her chocolate milk on the dress. For reasons I won't go into, I had a mansize handkerchief in my pocket. I pulled it out and dabbed at the milk, but suggested to the girl that she would need to use water on it. She carefully set down her lidded cup of milk on the coffee table and reached out to take my handkerchief. Before I realized what she had in mind, she showed me a trick that she later explained her daddy had showed her the night before when she dropped some food on her dress. She puckered up a bit of the hanky and wet it with saliva before applying it to the bear's dress again. I suspected that her mother would not be thrilled with the idea of her putting a hanky from a stranger's pocket in her mouth. When she did it a second time, I started trying to think of a way to reclaim my hanky without making a scene. I glanced over to where Mom was sharing her views on smoking with the man: "My Uncle Joe smoked and my cousins smoked . . ." Her curiosity was roused and the little girl carried the bear (and my hanky) over to her mother. I waited to see if she would continue the spit bath and whether the mother would go ballistic, but they simply discussed the nature and source of the stain and then the girl returned to me. I quickly reclaimed my hanky. A little later the girl asked me if she had given back my "towel". I assured her that she had.

Mom shared with me that the little girl was the flower girl for a wedding that day. I turned back to my companion and asked if she had practiced the night before. She had.

It was time for me to go. As I got up I explained that I had been retreating from my retreat and needed to return. Both the man and woman smiled and I was pleased that my little joke amused them. As I walked away, the mother was telling the man about the ring bearer in the wedding.

And that was the highlight of the retreat for me: Sharing a pleasant few moments with strangers, strangers to me and to each other; smiling at smokers; seeing them as people instead of as smokers; making them smile; having a serious conversation with a charming flower girl; being reminded of "spit baths".

I don't spend a lot of time in hotel lobbies and don't often find such pleasant companions when I do. It was a nice contrast to the more structured and proper atmosphere of the retreat.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

The empty nest revisited

I see that my “empty nest” post is the one that draws people here via search engines. Maybe it’s time for an update. It has now been five weeks since we packed our youngest child off to college. She’s coming home next weekend for the first time. We visited her last week on her college campus. She seems to be having a great time. We haven’t seen her older brother and sister for seven weeks and three months, respectively. Telephones are nice.

I still miss being involved in the local school system and haven’t found a satisfactory substitute for it. On the other hand, I’m actually updating this blog semi-regularly as well as squeezing a few other projects into my days that had previously been beyond my time budget.

I hope my mixed reaction to the empty nest, particularly rejoicing in the increased freedom to choose how I fill my days, does not bring further grief to the hearts of those who wonder about their purpose in life now that their children no longer need them on a daily basis. The truth is, I fall rather low on the need-to-nourish scale. I once killed a pet rabbit by neglect (and imposed a lifetime ban on myself from ever owning another bunny). The fish in our 10-gallon tank (originally belonging to one of the kids) know about life on the edge. I was always glad the kids were so insistent in their demand for my attention. However, I think that if I had a need to nurture children, I could find plenty of opportunity in volunteer positions.

For me, one of the freeing things about having the kids move on is the realization that I’m no longer responsible for correcting anyone’s behavior. I can make it a life-goal to “live and let live”, to accept people as they are without feeling a need to fix their social skills.

I’m convinced there’s life after kids. It’s a different life, but a good one. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, there are a myriad of things to fill my days. The biggest challenge is to find ways to maintain the variety of relationships the school brought to me. Internet exchanges are good but I want to be involved in the community where I live. Our rural setting, with only four houses on our stretch of the road, three of which are out of sight from our house, adds to that challenge.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Whistling in the desert

Bible reading is part of my daily routine. Unlike many people, however, I don't attempt to read the entire Bible through every year. Rather, since the Old Testament is over three times as long as the New Testament and I'd rather focus on the New Testament, I split off Psalms and Proverbs for daily immersion and divide the rest of the Old Testament into three one-year sections.

This year I started again with Genesis. With this 3-year schedule, I've been wandering in the wilderness since the Israelites left Egypt in mid-April (Exodus 13). It's not quite 40 years, but it's long enough that I'm getting a little weary of laws, and seemingly endless instructions for sacrifices and lifestyle regulations and tabernacle furnishings, and grumpy people to whom God has revealed himself in ways he has never done with any other group but who seem to have the memory and faith of a goldfish. They came so close to the Promised Land back in July (Numbers 13) but were afraid to challenge the "giants in the land". This prompted God to assign them to 40 years of wandering in the desert. Of course, at that point they realized that they had messed up and tried to take things into their own hands in Numbers 14, with devastating results. So they settled into desert life, but not without plenty of grumbling.

Now it's the end of September. Moses has reviewed the entire journey at length in Deuteronomy and is about to die. We're on the verge of finally entering the Promised Land with Joshua in October.

If only these people had trusted God to conquer the giants back in July, we wouldn't have had to spend all this time wandering around in the desert. The years have not been pleasant. There has been grumbling and unrest every time Moses stopped to take a breath between dictating all the laws and regulations God shared with him on the mountain. Faith, trust, hope, contentment ... these concepts all seem foreign to this people. Rather, "We want meat. We're thirsty. We're tired of manna! Who put Moses in charge, anyway? It's not like he has all the brains of this outfit! Where IS Moses, anyway?! Is he back up on that mountain again? What does he DO up there? WE WANT TO GO BACK TO EGYPT!! Sure, we were slaves there, but at least we had leeks and onions to eat."

Ah, the promised land. Can I glimpse the delight and joy of the land across the river clearly enough to be content in the dry heat of the desert? Can I tolerate the hunger and thirst I experience today in confidence that I will forget all the discomfort of today when I cross that river? Do I genuinely believe that the unknown land before me is far better than the painful but familiar land of slavery behind me? Do I grumble any less than these people who have been driving Moses, God, and me crazy for the past five months? Is my faith any stronger and my memory any longer than theirs?

I hear of shortcuts into the promised land that don't involve extended time in the desert. They promise milk and honey now rather than later. Am I strong enough to resist the urge to run ahead of God's leading in order to satisfy my hunger? Is it possible to be content in the desert?

This time in the desert has given me plenty to ponder.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Front porches

I mentioned a couple of months ago a book by Joseph R. Myers called The Search to Belong. One of the concepts he explored was the loss of front porches in our culture. As I've finished the book and set it aside, it's the front porch question that has stayed with me.

Here's the idea (as it has stuck with me, without referring back to the book):

1. A front porch is a public setting. The whole neighborhood can see you sitting there but can't necessarily overhear your conversation. It's a place where one-on-one conversations can be held in public.

2. A front porch announces availability. When you're sitting out on your porch, people know that they're welcome to stop by and say 'hi'.

3. A front porch is a neutral place. In a way, you're on your own turf but you're not inviting people into the intimacy of your home.

4. A front porch is easily escaped. Your guests can wander on down the street. You can withdraw into your home and shut the door with little excuse needed. Or you can suddenly be distracted by something or someone in the neighborhood and change the direction of an uncomfortable conversation.

I mentioned this concept to an older person and her response was that front porches are a pain to keep clean. I'm not sure how that fits into the analogy. But there are other drawbacks to literal front porches. The only people you meet there are your neighbors or those who venture into your neighborhood for some reason. Our lifestyle doesn't allow a lot of time to simply sit on a porch waiting for someone to come by. There's no easy way to be available to some passerbys but not others. There's no climate control on an open porch and we're not much open to making do with whatever temperature God gives us.

I'm not sure literal front porches were ever the ideal places they were painted to be in the book, but the concept of finding such a place intrigues me. The author says that today's front porch is Starbucks. There's no Starbucks where I live, but even if there were, I don't think that would be the "front porch" place for me. So I've been looking for front porches in other places in my small town.

Here's what I've found:

1. The public library. I work there so it's a natural place for me. It fits several of the criteria -- a public place where semi-private conversation can happen, a place of availability, neutral territory. However, many people never come to the library and the one where I work doesn't easily allow conversation without listeners. It's definitely a front porch kind of place, but not adequate for all the front porch conversations I'd like to have.

2. The local high school football stadium. This is actually the best "front porch" I've found. It fits all the criteria of a front porch and attracts a variety of people, some of whom are absorbed in the game, but many others who are there as much for the social event as for the game. A person can sit here a while and then there and wander off to the concession stand, chatting with those encountered along the way. Unfortunately, it's seasonal, with maybe a half dozen home games every fall.

3. The foyer at church. This is not quite as nice as the football stadium. Like the library, it only attracts a certain set of people. Also, unlike the football game where the main event happens on the "front porch", at church the "front porch" life is tacked on to the beginning and end of the main event and there's a sense that we ought to be moving on soon.

4. Church fellowship times. These tend to revolve around eating, which forces one to choose a seat and set of companions for most of the duration of the event. And, again, there are only so many people involved. They're good, but I think I've probably experienced more satisfying fellowship at both the football stadium and the foyer than in the church fellowship hall, even with the same people.

5. Wal-Mart. Stores attract all sorts of people and pretty much fit the criteria for a "front porch" except for having lousy seating options. It doesn't cost anything to browse and, anyway, we all have to buy soap eventually. I've had some excellent "front porch" exchanges in store aisles. (I've also been mildly irritated by other people's "front porch" conversations that are blocking the aisle.)

6. Restaurants. These are probably the most obvious places to do "front porch" outings, but have the drawbacks of the church fellowship hall -- being seated in one spot eating rather than free to mingle -- plus more. I'm not ready to depend on restaurant dining for my social life. My metabolism can't handle that lifestyle.

What do you think? Where do you do "front porch" fellowship: unscripted, personal-level conversation in a public setting with whomever happens to be there with both parties free to move on at any time? Where are you available to take time to listen to people who need to talk about personal issues?

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Going to church without getting angry -- Take 2

I've been working on this.

Maybe I should start by explaining what makes me angry at church.

1. Having God portrayed as out-dated and dumpy, stuck somewhere back in the 1950s without much connection to what's happening in the 21st century.

2. Selfish attitudes that say the most important thing is to keep the church alive, that call us to evangelism more in order to add people to the church than because we care about people who are spiritually hungry, that place church growth as more important than spiritual health and converting people as more important than ministry to the poor and oppressed.

3. Bad theology.

4. Reading bad theology into the sacred Word of God.

5. Turning the living and active Word of God into something as dry as dust.

6. Pride.

7. Critical attitudes. (Oh wait, that would include my own. Well, maybe my own critical attitude does indeed add to my anger. I don't like spending so much time recovering my equilibrium after every church service.)

Yet, I'm part of the church. I like being part of the church, even if it presents God as old-fashioned and stuffy. I refuse to leave my church behind in my quest for Christian community.

So how do I avoid getting angry? I've been puzzling over this and I think I have an answer. It involves setting aside my view of the church as a single organism and instead seeing individuals within my church family and appreciating each of them.

When I look at the church as an organism, my view is heavily influenced by the most visible members: the leaders, both official and unofficial; the outspoken people; those with longevity and influence.

When I focus on individual members, I remember that for every outspoken person with intolerable theology, there is a quiet person who has profound insight into the Word of God. For every senior adult who insists that the key to spiritual fervor is doing things like we did in the good old days, there's a young person doing less talking but eager to embrace the postmodern age in which we find ourselves. For every insensitive leader, there's a compassionate worker caring about those around them.

I still have to make focused steps toward recovery after most every church service, but this approach shortens the process by helping me put the most obnoxious things I see and hear in perspective. The church as a whole isn't stuck in the 1950s. A few vocal people are stuck there, but there are also some quiet people who support every move toward becoming relevant to our culture. I am not alone.

Tomorrow is once again a chance to practice attending church services without getting angry. Challenges are good for us, right?

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Much to learn

I wrote last week that I've never been bored at home. Maybe I should clarify that to say I've never been bored at home while free to choose my own activity. There are always plenty of interesting things to do if I have the freedom to choose.

Thursday evening, Dave and I made the 45-mile trek to Bloomington, Indiana, our closest shopping area with a mall and bookstores. While looking around at Barnes and Noble, I felt the familiar urge to buy books and learn new stuff. I'm a visual learner. Books are my primary source of learning. And there are so many of them!

Standing in the computer section of the bookstore while Dave selected a book on Postfix, I was drawn to the idea of learning HTML or Java or Perl or C++ or Windows Networking or even Postfix.

If there were a series of books titled, "Master [fill in the blank] in 30 Simple 10-Minute Lessons!" and they delivered on that promise, and I had plenty of money and plenty of 10-minute chunks of time in my day, I would buy one each on all those computer subjects. Then I'd wander off to collect other books from the series on Spanish and woodworking and home decorating and cooking for two and ceramic tile installation and saxophone and drums and music composition/arranging and flower arranging and prayer and dog training and gardening and literature and poetry and Shakespeare and accounting and writing and a couple of dozen more.

Unfortunately, the "if" statements above have not been met. Most subjects can't be mastered so easily. Both money and time are dear. Plus, I'm reminded of a Beatles song called "Junk": "'Buy buy,' says the sign in the shop window; 'Why? why?' says the junk in the yard." I already have piles of how-to books at home that I haven't finished. Why would I need any more?

This week at the library, I was working on a task I do weekly which involves taking tabulated output from a database, manipulating it in a spreadsheet, and printing the results. The steps aren't many but eat up maybe half an hour of my time every week. I decided to see if I could create a macro to help me with the task without investing a lot of time in it. The short answer is no. I once used macros but haven't for several years, which means several versions of the software. I would need to start with the basics and bring my skills up to speed. I'm not sure I could count on saving enough time on my weekly tasks to justify the initial time investment. Even if it would save me substantial time in the long run, I would still need to figure out where to find the time to invest in this learning endeavor. It's like buying a high-efficiency furnace. The fact that it will pay for itself over time in lower heating bills doesn't help with the initial cost. And in this case, I'm not certain there would be a payback.

For now, I've taken on only a few topics for persistent time investment in learning -- Spanish, prayer, the nature of the kingdom of God. Other learning projects drift in and out of my focus but mostly I reject them for lack of time to commit to them.

Still, yesterday at the huge antique show a few miles from here I found "DOS for Dummies" for fifty cents and all my defenses were breached. It's just for reference for those rare occasions when I find myself looking at the c:/ prompt and searching through my limited DOS vocabulary for something intelligent to type. I'm sure I can find room for it on a bookshelf somewhere. Maybe I could study it for, say, 10 minutes a day and actually become proficient at DOS. Or maybe not.

It's probably a good thing I live so far from Barnes and Noble.

Friday, September 09, 2005

A Letter to the Editor

This is now my second letter written and delivered to the editor of the local daily newspaper, the first having been written around 10 years ago concerning a school controversy. The current controversy is about what time should be observed in Daviess County, Indiana. The Indiana legislature narrowly passed (by one vote) a bill stating that the state will henceforth observe Daylight Savings Time like normal people. The governor is leaving it up to individual counties to petition the federal government if they want to be reassigned to a different time zone. Daviess County, like most in the state, is in the Eastern time zone. The county commissioners think Central time is a better choice for us. The editorial staff of the newspaper concurs with that position with one dissenting opinion. Thus the letter. By way of explanation, the locations mentioned are Crane Naval Base (employs around 4000 people about 12 miles east of my home), Bedford (small city 35 miles east), Bloomington (larger city 45 miles northeast), Indianapolis (state capital and largest city in the state 80 miles northeast), Evansville (large city 65 miles to the south which is in the central time zone), and Chicago, Illinois (very large city 250 miles northwest and also on central time).

The likelihood of my letter making any difference is small, but the urge to respond publicly to what is being thrust upon us finally became strong enough to send me to my keyboard.

To the editor:
As a North Daviess resident, I greatly appreciated Shannon Graber's opinion piece on the time change. Personally, I'm more concerned with being on the same time as Crane, Bedford, Bloomington, and Indianapolis than with Evansville or Chicago.
We could split the county in discussing our economic ties, but perhaps it would make the choice more obvious if we considered the sun. We have been blessed during our decades of observing year-round Eastern Standard Time (EST). The sun is always up by a few minutes after 8 a.m. and never sets more than a few minutes before 5:30 p.m. At the other extreme, the earliest summer sunrise is around 5:30 a.m. and the latest sunset around 8:15 p.m. Unfortunately, in order to be like everyone else, we either have to give up some morning time or some evening time. Daylight "savings" time is going to cost us some daylight somewhere.
When we don't change time, we have around 3 months of the sun rising between 7:30 and 8 a.m. and 3 months of the sun setting between 5:30 and 6 p.m. If we choose Eastern Daylight Savings Time (EDT), we will add around five weeks of late (after 7:30) sunrises in the early fall in exchange for longer summer evenings. (The spring time change will come after the sun already rises by 7:30 even on EDT.)
On the other hand, if we choose Central Daylight Savings Time (CDT), we will go from three months of sunsets before 6 p.m. to five months! And from the time change in the fall until the end of January the sun will set between 4:30 and 5 p.m. People who work until 5 will go three months without any after-work daylight hours! Every 7 pm activity between the October time change and the middle of March will be at least an hour after sunset. Ask some of your Evansville friends about those dark days of winter.
I realize that Daylight Savings Time for Indiana is more about being like our neighbors than saving any daylight, but I for one hope we don't give up our already-short winter afternoons in order to be like our neighbors to the south and west rather than those to the north and east.
Marsha Lynn

Monday, September 05, 2005

The empty nest

It has been a little over a week since Dave and I settled our youngest child into a college dorm room. We came home to our empty house on Saturday night. By Friday, six days later, I finally quit listening for the household to stir into action in the morning and comprehended that after Dave leaves for work each day I am truly alone.

This is a new experience for me. Last time I didn't have kids in the house (at least at both ends of the school day) -- 22 years ago -- I worked 40 hours per week. Now I work 15 at the public library and have various volunteer positions, mainly church-related.

I've told people over the years that I have never been bored at home. That's still true. There's no danger of boredom setting in any time soon. I come from a long line of putterers. According to my World Book dictionary "putter" means: To keep busy in a rather useless way. Yes, that's it exactly. I can happily putter away long hours on projects with little real value such as, say, alphabetizing my CD collection or pulling weeds in the garden one at a time by hand rather than finding a tool that would expedite the job. It would be easy to settle into those types of activities. The challenge will be to direct my energy toward projects that require more effort than puttering but are also of more value.

One important goal I've set is to maintain relationships beyond my church. For the past 17 years, I've had children enrolled in the local school system, and their activities have been my gateway into community life. There was a time when it was unusual for me to see an unfamiliar child on the streets of our small town. I knew my children's classmates and got to know the parents of those classmates at school sporting events and concerts and open houses and summer ballgames at the park. I could attend school events and count on recognizing many faces in the crowd. We would chat and compare notes on child-raising and catch up with each other and then go our separate ways until the next event brought us together. Now those other parents are moving past their days of involvement in the school just as I am doing. Their children have gone off to college and careers just as mine have. I need to figure out places to frequent in order to continue those happenstance relationships. My library job helps, but there are many among that crowd who never come into the library.

Friday evening Dave and I went to the high school football game. With our youngest having just graduated, we still found plenty of acquaintances among the crowd -- parents with younger kids still in school. I came away from the game feeling like I'd had my "social fix" for the week. I sort of wish we actually enjoyed watching sports so that we would continue to be motivated to attend the games. But the truth is, I only go for the social interaction and Dave often declines to accompany me.

A book I recently read by Joseph R. Myers called The Search to Belong addresses, among other things, the loss of front porches from our streets. The front porch was a place to sit and chat with someone on neutral territory -- in full view of the neighborhood rather than in the intimacy of the home, in public space yet with some level of privacy. The school gym, cafeteria, tennis courts, and ball fields have served as my front porch for the past 17 years. Myers suggested that Starbucks is the new front porch. Besides the literal problem of not even knowing the location of the closest Starbucks and not drinking coffee, I'm a little reluctant to tie my social interaction to places that require plenty of disposable income. Again, the library is one alternative. It's free and draws many people for visits of various frequency and duration. Still, I'm looking for other possibilities.

One thing I'm doing is making more frequent trips to the local grocery store, buying less per trip. How the simple household task of "getting groceries" has changed over the years -- from going one evening a week after work, to packing up babies for a weekly outing, to moving back to evening outings because I couldn't handle three children under 5 in the grocery store alone, to shopping while the kids were in school and racing home to beat the schoolbus, to leaving a note telling where I was and when I expected to be home, to sending teenagers out for last-minutes items. Now I just pop out and get what I need when I choose with only my husband to keep informed of my whereabouts if my grocery run extends beyond his work hours.

At every stage of life there have been new joys even as some of the old joys became but memories. It seems that the empty nest stage is no exception.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Lessons in Morse Code

Long ago and far away I was the daughter of a science teacher who was a "ham" -- an amateur radio operator. Since he was a teacher, it was natural for him to guide his young students into the world of amateur radio. Since I was his daughter, it is not surprising that I was included among those students. I learned the Morse code and practiced it until I could send and receive it at 5 words per minute, memorized enough incomprehensible facts to pass a written exam, and received my call letters -- WN9DHQ. "N" for "novice". At the time, holders of a novice license were only allowed to communicate via Morse code, not by voice. For the same code speed but more memorized facts, I could earn a "technician" license and use voice but on frequencies with limited range. In order to talk around the world by voice, I would need a "general class" license, requiring a code speed of 13 wpm and an even more extensive written test.

The only way to increase my Morse code speed was to practice. The most interesting way to practice was to get on the radio and "talk" to people using Morse code. I would send out a CQ ("seek you") on an empty frequency or respond to someone else's CQ and we would exchange the usual information -- name, location, license level, etc. This is where I learned a lesson that is applicable to several areas of life.

It turns out that sending Morse code is easier than receiving and decoding it. I could always send it at a faster rate than I could receive it. With all the practice I had sending CQs, I could especially fly on that invitation to a stranger. There was the rub. People tended to respond at the same rate that I was sending. Whenever I sent code out faster than I could receive it, I'd end up missing half the letters of the response. Sometimes I could slow down and my partner in conversation would take the hint and follow suit. Other times, the attempt to comprehend what was being sent just became very frustrating and I'd have to sign off in embarrassment, knowing the other person probably despised me for starting a conversation at a speed I couldn't handle.

The other thing that I observed during this time was that it was often obvious when someone was sending code faster than they could receive it. It took on a telltale sloppiness. Although it's easy to send Morse code at a faster rate than one can receive it, it's not nearly so easy to do it well at the higher speed.

It has been years since I was a novice "ham" and it would take a lot of review and practice to regain my Morse code skills at this point in my life, but one lesson has stuck with me. When speaking, people can easily move beyond their grasp of a subject, but it shows when that happens.

I deal with computers more than radios these days. I hear various people "teaching" other people about computers. Sometimes they're "sending" at a higher rate than they can really handle, moving beyond what they clearly understand into areas where they have just enough knowledge to be dangerous. It starts to show.

The same phenomena can be observed in those teaching interpersonal skills or doing religious training. For example, sometimes I wonder whether those teaching about prayer have skills in keeping with their teaching. Are they sharing what they themselves have learned or are they repeating lessons they've heard from others but have yet to master? It reminds me to check to see if I too sometimes try to teach lessons I haven't quite learned.

Just some thoughts.

WB9DHQ, General class amateur radio operator.

.-- -... ----. -.. .... --.-
- - --.- .-..

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Teamwork and Leadership

It has been an interesting and frustrating week. I certainly don't want to relive the whole thing here, just share a couple of observations.

One of the highlights of the week was a visit with a professor whose classroom my husband and I sat in 26 years ago at Tristate University in Angola, Indiana. After over 30 years as a professor and with three years to go until retirement, he is still enthused about his work. That was a blessing in itself. As he shared some of the current projects in the Tristate engineering department, he used the word "team" several times to describe the approach. I shuddered and was glad I escaped academia before the emphasis on teamwork in education took hold. There were few times I was asked to serve on a team during my early education. More recently, I took a graduate library science class and was assigned to do a team project. It was a source of high stress as we sought to coordinate schedules and efforts. The class was on organizational management and as a reaction against the team project I did my research paper on individualistic versus collectivistic cultures in the workplace. I much prefer to take responsibility for a project and do it myself than to use the team approach.

Dinner with the professor was Tuesday evening. On Wednesday, I discovered that management has zeroed in on something I do and is working on ways for it to be done better. As a first step, they've adjusted the format. This was disturbing to me. Should not those most affected by changes be involved in the process of planning those changes? As someone responsible for implementing the changes, why aren't I part of the leadership team? Why am I being informed of the changes via a general announcement?

Obviously, there's inconsistency in my attitude. Am I a team player or not? I'm still working on the answer to that question. I think it has to do with whether or not the project is too much for one person to handle and how teamwork is managed. Group grocery shopping drives me crazy. If there are two of us working together to fill one grocery cart, it seems to me that one of us is superfluous. One can quickly make decisions and fill the cart. Two will end up discussing which brand of yogurt to buy and whether we really need the Twinkies. If both have opinions, my philosophy is to give each a grocery cart, assign general categories of responsibility, and cut out all the negotiations. Buying groceries for a household does not require a team but if it's going to be approached as a team project, find a way to divvy it up into individual projects.

On the other hand, the graduation party we had back in May was more than I could handle and I was glad to team up with two other families for it. I became a team member, discussing details, measuring how strongly each felt about certain aspects of the event, reaching compromises, and dividing up tasks in order to do more together than we could do apart. After all the parties were over and my graduate sank exhausted into the clutter of gifts and memorabilia, the reward for our work was her contented sigh as she commented that she and her buddies had the best party of all. It was teamwork that did it.

Back to the grocery store analogy, what I encountered this week was the discovery that while I was out filling my cart, someone had changed the menu without telling me. When I signed up as a shopper, I was agreeing to a particular set of expectations. If the expectations are changing, I'd like to be involved as part of the meal-planning team. I may not be interested in the job if I have to visit specialty shops every week to seek out elusive ingredients added to my list by people who don't shop.

Some things require teamwork. I like being on teams with worthy goals and good management where I can find a role to play. I don't mind managing teams if all the members are interested in working together and listening to each other. I'm uncomfortable on teams where the team members are assigned tasks at the whim of management without involvement in the decision-making process.

I protested Wednesday's management decision and a team meeting has been scheduled for next Wednesday. It remains to be seen whether I can continue as part of the team. Once again, relationships get difficult, but they are still worth the trouble.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

What is it about a garden?

When you live with people you live with expectations. You're generally expected to do something more productive with your days than sitting around eating bon-bons and watching soap operas.

I spend too much time at the computer. Sometimes it has to do with productivity. Other times I'm keeping up internet relationships. Either way, my family finds it annoying. If they were in charge of planning my day, they would put more emphasis on other activities.

I read. In the morning I read inspirational books and magazines. In the evening, I'm more likely to turn to fiction (if I can get away from the computer). Again, those who observe my life most closely seem annoyed to find me reading while they're doing other things, even though I seldom read anything beyond the newspaper between my morning reading and bedtime.

I have a garden. There is very little productive about gardening the way I do it. I have 20 4X4 raised beds and work them by hand. I don't use commercial fertilizers and don't end up with a bountiful crop. One bed is in alfalfa, four have strawberry plants, two others are growing flowers. Once strawberry season is over in early June, my main harvest consists of fresh cucumbers and tomatoes. I hope to increase the productivity of my garden as I move into the empty nest years. (There's something wrong with that picture -- finally having enough time to cultivate a productive garden when those who would eat the produce move out of my life.) For now, however, I garden more for pleasure than for produce. I like to work in the dirt, to break up the soil and plant seeds, to knock Japanese beetles and potato bugs into a jar of ammonia water. There's something very relaxing about sitting out in the garden pulling weeds, seeing the contrast between the bare ground behind me and the weeds ahead. The actual crops are just props for those other activities.

What amazes me is that no one seems to mind the time I spend in the garden. Don't they notice how little there is to show for my work? Don't they worry about the things I'm not doing while I'm out in the garden? Aren't they annoyed that they have to track me down when the phone rings? Shouldn't I be cooking their meals or ironing their clothes or ... something?

When I'm reading people want to talk to me. When I'm sitting at the computer people want my attention elsewhere. Those same people would be perfectly welcome in the garden. I could chat while I weed. I wouldn't mind if they sat and watched. The cat shows up consistently, knowing that the garden isn't really a good use of my time and that it's a good opportunity to claim my lap and my attention. But the people mainly wave as they drive past the garden unless a phone call comes in for me.

I'm certainly not complaining here. I greatly enjoy my time in the garden. I'm just not sure how I can get away with using my time so frivolously with so few complaints. How does playing in the dirt pass for real work so much more easily than, say, updating financial records?

This is a good deal.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

What I'm reading

Earlier this year, I placed a "reactive" order of three books (gotta meet the $25 free shipping level) from Amazon. Each of the three was an act of rebellion. One of them was in response to being assigned to read a book about small groups so that I could be a more effective SS teacher/small group leader. The assigned reading wasn't terrible, but certainly didn't shine amidst my other reading. (A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren, Spiritual Leadership by J. Oswald Chambers (again), the quarterly Notre Dame Magazine, A Theology of Love by Mildred Bangs Wynkoop (again), The Signature of Jesus by Brennan Manning, Live to Tell: Evangelism for a Postmodern Age by Brad J. Kallenberg) The small group book kept getting shoved aside during busy times. The week of General Ass'y, I finally decided I'd invested enough time in it and just skimmed through the second half of it.

Then I pulled's recommendation to me for a book about small groups from the pile of "on deck" books -- The Search to Belong by Joseph R. Myers. (Amazon knows what I like. :-) )

What a contrast. I am greatly enjoying it. It talks about how people look for belonging at four levels -- public, social, personal, and intimate. Public belonging is still belonging and not inferior to other levels of belonging. It's the type of belonging people find at bingo night or with a special-interest group, where you know people from the group at a certain level and enjoy being part of the "family", but don't really know (or particularly care to know) them on a personal level.

It turns out the author isn't particularly supportive of the philosophy that says all true ministry in the church happens in small groups. Good things do indeed happen in small groups but it's hard to force people into such fellowship. It's better if the groups form spontaneously in an environment that nurtures such groupings without forcing them.

Although I'm enjoying the book, so far only one quote has made it into my quote collection. I'll share it here:

"Be at peace. People connect and are motivated to connect in all four spaces [public, social, personal, intimate]. It is our charge to invite the stranger in. We do not invite strangers in for intimacy. We invite them in so they will no longer be strangers. We give space and they find family, belonging, and community. So gently knock and wait for them to invite you in."

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Church: How I go without getting angry

I borrowed my title from a book I read. When I saw the chapter title coming up I was excited and almost skipped ahead to see what tips I could find there. Finally, I arrived with great anticipation. How does this postmodern author go to church without getting angry? What is his secret?

He changed churches. He shopped around until he found one he liked. Sigh.

I'm not changing churches. There's too much good about the one I attend. It's convenient. It links me to a larger community. There are good people there. However, in multiple ways, it's stuck in the middle of the last century and I encounter things there make me angry.

I notice in the Bible that Jesus got angry when he went to church. (See Mark 3:1-6) Apparently, it's not a terrible thing to have happen. But I'm not nearly so justified in my anger as Jesus. Some of it has to do with the poor and needy being overlooked but there's also some of it having to do with me being overlooked. And I've become hypersensitive in some areas, misinterpreting things said and done to be more offensive than if I would were I being more gracious in my assessment of them. Sometimes I'm not very charitable. Sometimes I have the sensitivity on my offense meter turned up way too high.

So how do I go to church without getting angry? I'm still working on that. Here's a tentative list of ideas:

1. Nurture my sense of humor. It's hard to stay angry with someone when you're laughing with them.

2. Be slow to see offense. Give people the benefit of the doubt.

3. Refuse to focus on my own sad self when among the blessed family of God.

4. Seek fellowship with the quiet people rather than focusing on the more vocal (and offensive) people.

5. Seek points of commonality while overlooking annoyances.

Tomorrow is another chance to put all this into practice. Will it help me escape without steaming? Time will tell.