Sentences on Which I Would Like to Declare a Moratorium

  1. “We sure could use it.”
    Every single time someone says, “Looks like rain this week,” the response is always “We sure could use it.” And it’s not just when the grass is brown like right now. It seems to be a kneejerk reaction, like “How are you?” “Fine.”
  2. “How are you?”
    There’s no point in asking this. The answer is always, always, always, “Fine.” I guess it’s just a complicated way of saying hello.
  3. “I was going to say…”
    This sentence creates its own paradox. If you were going to say something, that implies that you’ve changed your mind. And yet you have now said it.
  4. “I wanted to thank you for…”
    Then do it. Just thank me for whatever. I don’t need to see your work.
  5. “Are these the best candidates we can come up with?”
    Yes, I know the unfavorable polls are historic with Trump & Clinton, but still…I recall this question being asked every four years going back at least to Mondale vs. Reagan.
  6. “When you assume, you make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me.'”
    I remember the first time I heard this pearl of wisdom. I was in Cub Scouts, and my den mother told this to all the boys. She said it in a conspiratorial tone, like she was imparting some deep gnostic wisdom upon us. We were all in awe, but that was mainly because we heard a grown-up say a potty word. (And by the way, I’ve never understood how I make an ass out of you in this situation.)
  7. Anything complaining about “new math.”
    For one thing, “new” math has been around a long time. I distinctly remember a joke being made about it on The Cosby Show. For another thing, the strange-looking math that a lot of our kids are learning is actually fantastic stuff, and it’s not new. I was the kind of kid who took books about math out of the library, and I recall learning a lot of shortcuts and techniques to do math quicker in my head. Some of them are great tricks that I still use in adulthood. They’re the same things that kids are being taught in class now! I can add and multiply large numbers in my head because I was lucky enough to stumble onto these tricks…my kids will be able to do it because our educational system has improved!

And one sentence I like a lot, which I think should be repeated more frequently:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” – John F. Kennedy, 1962

This is the most famous line of one of Kennedy’s most famous speeches, the speech in which he announced a goal that Americans would land on the moon before 1970. I absolutely love this line when it’s taken out of context like this, because of the phrase “and do the other things.” Just a moment before, Kennedy had just compared the lunar challenge to climbing the highest mountain and to flying the Atlantic. Those are the “other things.” But I just love it without that context. I would like to add the phrase “and do the other things” to my sentences more often.

 

The Administration of Grace

This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached this morning. The lectionary gospel was Luke 16:1-13. The “Spiritual Gift of the Week” was Administration.

The Spiritual Gift for the day is “Administration.” Administration is the gift of being able to deal well with the minutia of daily life, whether it’s at your workplace, or at home, or at your church, or somewhere else. It’s about details. Communication. Scheduling. It involves dealing with things that come up, surprises and crises, unexpected things.

Today’s gospel story is about an administrator, the manager of a rich man’s funds. But before we get to him, I want you to imagine two other groups of administrators, two other groups responsible for other people’s money.

First, I want you to imagine a big Wall Street firm called Sleazeball Financial. Sleazeball Financial is doing really well, making lots of money for the shareholders. But the executives of this company can see the writing on the wall, and the writing on the wall says, “The bottom is about to fall out.” Very soon this whole company will be out of money. So the executives say to one another, “We don’t have much time. We’d better do something to make sure that we’re okay once this is over.” So they quickly sell their company stock and approve huge bonuses for themselves. They say, “Everything will be okay. Because when this is over, we will have money. And we can rely on that money to take care of us.” That’s easy to imagine, isn’t it?

Now imagine another huge financial firm, we’ll call it Righteous Financial. It’s in the same position; the executives see the same writing on the wall. And they say to one another, “We don’t have much time. We’d better do something to make sure that we’re okay once this is over.” But here’s what they do. They take the money they still have, and they send a $200 check to every shareholder. Then they offer generous severance packages to all the employees they’re about to lay off. And they make huge donations to the Red Cross, to the United Way, to the American Cancer Society. They say, “Everything will be okay. Because when this is over, people will respect and like us, and we will have friends. And we can rely on those friends to take care of us.” That’s harder to imagine, isn’t it?

Let me ask you? Which executives were right? In your experience, which can you rely on more? Money or friends? (Everyone will say “friends.”) It’s obvious. And yet it’s so hard for us to imagine Righteous Financial.

But it’s a lot like the story Jesus told us. Kind of like the executives at Righteous Financial, this manager realizes he doesn’t have much time, and he quickly makes use of what’s still available to him, in an attempt to make people like him, so that he will have friends to rely on.

It’s a bit surprising that Jesus should tell this story, because even if it’s better than Sleazeball Financial, what this manager did still sounds unethical. He’s abusing his authority. Buying people off with someone else’s money. Yet Jesus applauds the dishonest manager for exactly this.

And maybe we can learn from him. Perhaps he shows us how God calls us to act in the midst of a crisis. He was in a crisis…he was about to lose his livelihood and his reputation, and he didn’t have much time.

Let’s look at what he did.

First, the manager quickly recognized that things had changed, and that he had to quickly decide what he was going to rely on, what he was going to put his trust in. He chose to rely on making friends.

Second, the manager used all the resources at his disposal in the service of that which he trusted. He did everything he could to ensure that he would have these friends.

And third, he did it all with a spirit of forgiveness. What was the manager actually doing? Forgiving debts. He shared forgiveness.

Perhaps we can do these three things when something unexpected happens in our lives.

Perhaps we can quickly decide what to rely on in a crisis, because we know that nothing and no one are more reliable than God. Throughout scripture, nothing is more constant than God’s faithfulness and steadfast love for God’s people. Perhaps we can switch gears quickly when things change, because we don’t have to rely on the status quo. We can rely on God, whatever the circumstances.

And perhaps we can use everything we’ve been given in service of the one we trust, in service of God. If we can believe that God will provide, just as God has promised, then we can use the resources at our disposal to serve God, even in a crisis. We don’t have to cling to wealth, the way that the folks at Sleazeball Financial did. They saw money as their rock, their salvation, their god. And so they served wealth. And there was no room for the true God.

And perhaps we can do this with a spirit of forgiveness. Because we know what it is to be forgiven. We know that we are sinners through and through, that we have messed up so many times, that we are deserving of nothing good, but that God nonetheless faithfully provides good things for us, because through Christ, God has given us forgiveness for all our sin. We are forgiven, and because we are forgiven, we can be forgiving people.

This is countercultural. This isn’t the way the world tells us to act in a crisis. But Jesus says it’s good. And perhaps it’s also encouragement whenever you find yourself in an administrative role, whenever you have to make decisions, even routine decisions, for yourself and others. Perhaps you are always invited to put all of your trust not in wealth, but in God. And to use what God has given you to share in a spirit of forgiveness and love.

My Center of Gravity

One of the stranger habits I have is this: figuring out my “geographic center of gravity,” in other words, the very center of where I have lived throughout my life. It works like this. I have a spreadsheet in which I have the latitude and longitude of every place where I’ve lived in my life.

center-of-grav
Eleven places, all between the Susquehanna and Delaware Rivers, and more often than not, pretty close to PA State Route 309.

I then take an average of these coordinates, weighted by how many months I lived at each. This weighted average gives me a new set of coordinates, and that is my center of gravity. I have lived the same amount of time north of that spot and south of it, and the same amount of time east and west of it. As of September 2016, my center of gravity is along Municipal Road in East Penn Township, Carbon County, moving eastward toward the village of Ashfield.

Center Of Grav Map 1.jpg
Red markers are where I have lived. The blue marker is my current center of gravity, which is slowly moving ENE, strafing the Blue Mountain, toward Bangor.

Okay. Now, here’s where it gets interesting. I’ve drawn up a map that shows how my center of gravity has moved over the years. I’ll try to explain it below the map.

Center of Grav Map 2.jpg

Okay. So, the green line represents everywhere my center of gravity has been throughout my life. The very first place I lived is the red marker on the left. I spent my first 4.5 years in Minersville, a small borough in Schuylkill County, so my center of gravity just sat there, in that one house, for 54 months. Then we moved to St. Johns, a vanishingly small village in Luzerne County, and I lived there until I left for college. The portion of the green line heading northeast from Minersville shows the motion of my center of gravity over the course of my childhood. It just kept moving toward St. Johns, closer and closer each year. (If you were to continue that NE line another seven miles or so, you’d reach St. Johns.) Then I moved to Allentown for college, and the line makes a sharp turn, going southeast to follow me there. If you look closely, you’ll see a blue dot right in the upper corner at that turn…that blue dot is the Humboldt Reservoir in Hazle Township, Luzerne County. My center of gravity did a slingshot around the reservoir, and continued to head southeast for the next fourteen years. Even though I moved several times during those years, every place was significantly southeast of St. Johns, so my center of gravity kept moving that way, until hitting that bottom right point. (Which is pretty much at the parking lot for the Appalachian Trail on top of Blue Mountain on Rt. 309.) That’s when I moved back to Nescopeck, in Luzerne County. For five years, my center of gravity began to retrace its steps northwest, until my most recent move to Bangor. These past four years in Bangor have provided the eastward motion at the end, stopping at the blue circle, which again is the current location of my center of gravity.

One interesting thing is that even though I spent less than five years of my life living in Schuylkill County, my center of gravity has been in that county for the vast majority of my life. The thin black lines in the picture above represent a portion of the Schuylkill County border. You’ll notice that I was centered in Luzerne County for a time at the top “peak,” as I circled Humboldt Reservoir. I was briefly centered just inches into Lehigh County at the bottom right corner, at the A.T. parking lot. And for the past few years, I’ve been heading east into Carbon County.

To put it into a different perspective, here’s a map showing all of my physical homes, along with the green center of gravity line:

Center of Grav Map 3.jpg

Weird, isn’t it, how much it sticks to the upper left? It’s all based on time. I spent a total of 18 years in Minersville and St. Johns, and only three years in Philadelphia. So because it’s weighted, the northern homes have “stronger gravity” than the southern ones, and keep me closer. It’s also interesting that over time, the blue dot moves more and more slowly, because each month is worth less and less compared to all the months before.

I hope I’ve explained this well. If not, let me know in the comments, and I’ll try to clarify. And, if any of you think this is interesting and not completely and utterly dorky and bizarre, I’d be glad to run a “center of gravity” for you. (You’ll have to provide me with every address you’ve had, and how long you lived at each…don’t put that in the comments!)

A Conversation with “The Voice”

I was scrounging around in my computer’s archives today, and I found this. It’s a document I typed up at a coffee house, one afternoon about ten years ago. I had had a bad day. It seems I had done something wrong at St. Stephen’s, where I was then working. I had made some sort of mistake, and thought that I had hurt people through it…at this point, I have no idea what that mistake was. But it upset me then, and so I just started typing. I guess I thought it would turn into a therapeutic journal entry or something. It actually quickly became a conversation between me and the Voice within me that tells me such nasty things. I’ve adapted it somewhat from its original form to make it more understandable. (The original was loaded with references that only I would understand.) It was never intended for public consumption, but when I found it today, I thought it makes a good glimpse into the kind of things we tell ourselves so often. It started with me just slamming my fingers on some keys…

 

SOoSOOSOSOOSOSOSO

SOS?

Yes. SOS.

What makes you say that.

What makes you think I said that?

It’s written above.

I understand that, Sherlock. But why do you think it was me?

Who are you, anyway? Are you the voice?

What voice? Metatron? The God of all voices, voice of all Gods?

No, I mean the voice of one crying in the wilderness of my mind, “Prepare the way of getting your ass kicked repeatedly.”

Ah. That voice. Yes. That’s me. At least it is now.

So what do you want?

I want to protect you.

From what?

From yourself. From fear. From sadness. I want to protect you from the world. You are not ready. 

Not ready for what?

For anything. You are alone. You are a child. You haven’t figured it out yet. You need me to protect you.

No, I don’t.

What do you mean? Of course you do. You should know that better.

No, really. I don’t need you to protect me.

I told you long ago that you should be doing math for your career. Then you wouldn’t be able to hurt people with your inexperience.

That’s interesting. I distinctly remember you showing up at the MathCounts contest in seventh grade, telling me I’d completely fouled that up, that I was worthless.

Ah. But you were on the spot then. You were interacting with others, and you didn’t do your best work. If it was a written test, or better, a take-home test, I wouldn’t have had any problem with it. And more than that, the team was counting on you. You don’t have it in you to be part of a team.  It wasn’t fair. To them.

But, if you recall, dear friend, I won. I won every single award on the local level at MathCounts two years in a row.

See? You’re a genius. But nobody’s good at everything. You have the ability to be good at something. So you MUST do that. You can’t take risks, not when you have such a gift. Use THAT gift. Don’t try to play around with others you don’t have.

I have friends.

Excuse me? 

I said, I have friends. They love me.

They don’t know you. They don’t know the real you. The one that I do.

That’s simply not true. You are, sadly, stuck in a time that isn’t here anymore. The only things I have left from that time are one pair of shoes, and you. Oh, and Doctor Who.

You knew who you were back then. You listened to me. You made your girlfriends hurt.

You made them tell me over and over that they loved me. And that pushed them away. Don’t blame me for that.

So it’s my fault now? You’re the one in control, not me. I’m just a trusted advisor.

Interesting point. You’re not going to drag me down, though. I have tricks now.

Tricks? You hear that? TRICKS. The same sort of tricks you’ve been fooling everyone with for years. Sure, you became a good boyfriend, a good husband. You know why? Because you are so SMART you can think of the right thing to do, and then FORCE yourself to do it. It’s not in you. It’s just a trick you’ve learned.

How could I trick so many people?

You’re VERY SMART. I’ve always told you that. You’re a freaking genius. That’s no secret. But it’s also the ONLY thing going for you. Remember gym class? Remember shop class? Remember playing football or kickball? SMARTS ARE ALL YOU HAVE. So of course you’ve adapted them to help you mimic real human behavior.

Damn, you’re good.

I’m only observing what I see. I don’t hate you; you’ve got to understand that. I’m not here to try to kill you, try to ruin you. I’m trying to help you become the best you can be. And you know what that is. A hermit. A hermit with a computer and a CRC book.  You can do wonders with your mind. 

I’m called to be a pastor.

Says who? Says some people at a retreat? Says a bunch of coincidences? Who knows you better? A song on the radio, or ME?

I’m called to be a pastor. God is calling me to do that.

GOD? What makes you think you have a connection to God? You know what you’re “called” to? The path of least resistance! That’s what you always do! You should be in grad school, studying and learning math! But you don’t know that system, so you got scared, and went to seminary, where you knew what was expected. YOU BELONG IN GRAD SCHOOL, STUDYING MATH. YOU BELONG WITH JOHN NASH. You could have been as good as him.

What do you know about John Nash? What you’ve seen in a movie? He was married to Jennifer Connelly. He had friends.

He had IMAGINARY friends. I’m more real than imaginary friends. I can be your friend. I can be the best friend you’ve ever had. Wait until you see what I’m like when you’re NOT AROUND PEOPLE.

Oh. I see. You’re jealous. You’re jealous that I spend so much time with other people. You’re that side of me that used to just play games by myself. That used to draw maps. That used to record tapes, and then transcribe them. You miss that. You want me to stop spending time with other people.

That’s not it at all. I want you to be alone. I want you to be happy. 

You want me to be alone, so you can be happy.

No, NONONONONONONONONONONONO!  That’s not it!  FUCK YOU!

You’re not convincing me anymore. There’s a chink in your armor.

Look, what’s been driving you nuts lately? Losing your friends! Losing your connections! If you didn’t HAVE those connections, you wouldn’t be sad right now!

So you’re saying I should just go and be a pastor in Montana, and screw my friends?

No. I don’t want you to be a pastor. You’re not a good friend. You won’t be a good pastor. You know this. 

No, really I don’t. I listen to you sometimes. You’re very loud. But lots of other people have told me otherwise. Besides, I think I hit on something a few lines ago, with your reaction of NONO etc.

What makes you so sure that was me, and not you making another end run? Don’t you see you’ll never be rid of me? You’re not SMART enough.

Now that doesn’t make sense. You told me I’m plenty smart.

You’re book smart. You’re so book smart you’re stupid. You don’t have empathy, you don’t have compassion. You don’t have a heart. You just have a brain.

That’s just not true. That’s just not true. Where are you really from?

I’m from you. I am you. I’m your protector. 

Then I would like to renounce your protection. You’re like a cancer. Whatever your real purpose, you’ve gone bad.

I’m not leaving. You know that.

I understand. But I’m getting better at ignoring you.

Really?  Then why did you run to me so quickly when things got tough today? Is it because someone told you something that you know to be true, something I tell you over and over?

How can I trust you? Why should I trust you? Why am I even going this direction? I don’t need to trust you. What’s your name, anyway?

Michael. Everyman. Superman. GOD.

No, really. What should I call you?

A cab. You obviously don’t want me here. If you don’t want to talk, we’ll talk later. I’m not going anywhere. See you around.

That was good. I feel relieved. Tired, but relieved. Time to drive home.