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.