I Am Not a Cat

But you can see that, I suppose.

How are you doing? As of this past weekend, we are eleven months into operating under pandemic restrictions. A year ago today, what did you think mattered? What were you looking forward to and what were you dreading? Thinking about this reminds me of how bad we all are when it comes to our assumptions about the future.

But that works both ways, too. Whenever you find yourself thinking, “This problem will never get better,” I want you to remember that you don’t have a great track record of predicting your own future. Most of our assumptions about our own futures are based on way too little information. And we get lulled into a false sense of foreknowledge because just assuming that the future will be like the past does, in fact, work up to a point–but then when that point comes we are suddenly wildly off track and totally unprepared.

That’s how comedy works, by the way. It’s where the “rule of three” in humor writing comes from. A joke is something that intentionally sets up an expectation by drawing to points on a graph, daring us to assume we know where the third point on the line will go, only to smash our expectation with a punch line that shows the line wasn’t a line at all but a curve. Our momentary resorting of our expectations versus our results, and the tension and release that comes with that, is the core of comedy.

Where am I going with this? Well, on a serious note, I hope you are finding ways to laugh, to surprise yourself, to humbly acknowledge your ignorance, and to experience an occasional catharsis of endorphin-releasing light happiness. Because statistics say you could probably use it. Symptoms of anxiety and depression are sharply up over the past several months, and people are hitting the COVID wall.

We’re not out of this, yet, and it can feel like we’re swinging from one hoped-for turning point to another like a crazed trapeze artist sometimes. For awhile, people took solace by saying blaming the year, but going from 2020 to 2021 didn’t seem to make a big difference. Maybe a new President of the U.S. will make things better? Not instantly, at least. Yay, there’s a vaccine? But…not really sure when we will all actually get it.

Things are progressing. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. But sometimes looking forward to relief turns into a spiral of disappointment and impatience. Sometimes (often) the best thing to do is to let go of the future a little, and focus on the very immediate present. When the people cried out to the Lord because they had been forcibly relocated from their homes to the strange land of Babylon, they were told through the voice of the prophet, Jeremiah to settle in and make a life, and to stop yearning to go back to how things were:

“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Jeremiah 29:5-7

So look for what’s good right in front of you. And find ways to be a part of what’s good in the immediate lives of others around you, too. There are steps you can take to shore up your emotional resiliency. Prayer, meditation, laughter, humility, and useful service are all healthy parts of living purposefully in the present. I encourage you to pursue them.

And, like I said in a sermon two Sundays ago, read the Word. Not just as a form of instruction, but also as a means of connection with the Lord.

Speaking of reading the Word, I am planning a new online group that will be starting in a couple of weeks: “Let’s Read: The Easter Story According to Luke”. Starting a week from next Wednesday (February 24th), and for six Wednesdays leading up to Easter, I will facilitate an online group for reading and discussing the Gospel of Luke’s account of the Lord’s final week on earth. This group is open to interested people everywhere through the Grand Human Project. So mark your calendars. I’m looking forward to exploring this story with you all.

That’s it for now. Have a great week.

[Chekov’s Cat Reference]

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Happy Holiday

I hope you had a good Valentine’s Day, Presidents’ Day, Et Cetera Day Weekend. Personally, the pandemic has pretty much flattened whatever significance these days may have once had for me. Not that I was ever big into either. But for me, they both passed with hardly a notice. The days and weeks kinda just blend into one another.

That’s the post.

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I Don’t Hate the Super Bowl, But It’s Not Great

That headline was intentionally constructed to increase clicks, by the way. I’m playing a dumb game with my blog post titles right now, so if I come off as a bit more inflammatory than you’d expect, that’s probably why. However, it is true that I’m not super excited by the super bowl. But I’m not trying to tell you that your enjoyment of it is somehow bad or wrong. Far from it! And no, I’m not making yet another dumb sarcastic “Go sportsball!” type post that is so common this time of year every year on Twitter.

In fact, I think football is a very entertaining sport. I played it for most of my high school years, and a bit in elementary school as well. I grew up in the household of lifelong Eagles fans (insert obvious joke here), and never thought my parents’ season tickets were a waste of money for them. I saw how much fun they got from going to games for years and years. And when the Eagles themselves won recently, I loved it!

But most years, I only halfway pay attention to the super bowl, even if I watched some NFL games leading up to it. So you could say I’m kinda neutral on professional football in general. I can take it or leave it. When I do watch it, I have fun, but I often don’t bother. (Ice hockey, on the other hand, is a different matter altogether…)

Thinking about this got me wondering how much of a minority I’m in, here. I mean, I know that on the global stage the American obsession with the super bowl annually irks lots of people who think football is played without using your hands on a “pitch”. But here in the U.S., what percentage of people, like myself, didn’t watch even the half-time show?

As it turns out, about 42%. Or rather one can say that about 58% of TVs were tuned to the game. (Increasingly I wonder how much TV ratings diverge from actual percentages of homes engaged in something as more and more turn to other methods of consuming video content.)

Anyway, this is interesting and also not that surprising. And it’s a smaller number than it once was in years past. In fact, total viewership of the annual championship has been down for a few years, now. It peaked in 2017 at 172 million total viewers, and in years since has faded below 150 million. Still, that’s the majority of America. But here’s my real question:

How many cultural “touchstones” do we still have today? Is the Super Bowl one of the last ones standing? And will it, too, some day be something a majority of Americans do not experience?

And I have a follow-up question:

Is that a good thing, a bad thing, or just a meaningless bit of trivia good for blogs and think pieces but not much else?

I honestly don’t know. I have an instinct that immediately offers me answers to these two questions, but I don’t know that I trust my gut on this one.

Hm.

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The Centre Cannot Hold, but Perhaps That’s Good?

Yesterday was a “snow day” at the church and school I work at and where my youngest son attends classes. Based on the weather, today could just as easily have been declared one as well, or at least as a “late start” day for the school, but it wasn’t. Because the students don’t physically go to that school anyway. Since March of last year, the school has been pretty close to online only.

So why did they even have a “snow day” at all? Mostly because the school principle isn’t a complete grinch and recognized that the students would appreciate having a snow day despite (or even maybe because of) the weirdness caused by the pandemic. So we’ve kind of split the difference, and declared yesterday a snow day but today a regular school day. And it’s all increasingly obvious how arbitrary such things can be.

Now, there is a lot that is less than ideal about distance-only education for kids. Likewise, there are big challenges for workers and employees in this world of suddenly-tons-of-people-telecommute that we now find ourselves in. But there are also certainly benefits. There are portions of my job that require I spend time in the presence of other people, but there are others that do not, and in fact that are made much more efficient when I am not being interrupted by all the various drop-ins and drive-bys my office would experience under more normal circumstances. (And I write this even as a conversation in the next room over here in my home suddenly provides a wonderfully ironic bit of distraction.)

And with all this going on, I, like many others, have been really thinking a lot about what all this will mean in a “post-COVID-19” world. Because we are going to see some of these changes in how we work stick around even after the events that forced them on everyone subside. One of the biggest reasons telecommuting didn’t become generally widespread is that there is a disadvantage to being one of the few people not actually coming into the office, and so there was built-in resistance even for those who were most inclined to give it a try. Plus, businesses in general were reluctant to allow it for fear of lost control. But with the outbreak of the pandemic, masses were suddenly forced to all switch over together. And a lot of us are finding we like it, even with the new challenges it brings.

And with the now-accelerated tele-work revolution many are finding themselves in, expect to see a domino effect of other changes. The biggest one I’ve seen talked about recently is the decoupling of our careers from where we choose to live. In a telecommuting world, finding a new home town where the Internet access is fast, cheap, and reliable may become more important than a location that has a good job market. Because the job market for many (but certainly not all) industries is going digital, just as many other markets already have.

This means changes for the digital workers, of course. They can choose to live in places that better serve their needs in the areas of friendships, family, recreational activities, culture, lifestyle. climate, etc. It will mean changes for employers, too, possibly seriously reducing overhead costs associated with leasing or owning real estate, among other things. And perhaps most interestingly, it will bring about changes for the physical locations themselves. It seems obvious that real estate prices will shift everywhere, but also consider the social impact: small communities will experience less of a talent drain, in ways that I have to imagine will be mostly positive.

My instinct is to be cautiously excited by these changes. Partly because I am a very change-friendly person by nature, but also because I see a lot of potential good in it. I think a world where many more occupations are decoupled from location than ever before is exciting and possibly much healthier for civilization in the long run.

But. But…I also worry greatly about the loss of intangible value that will come about from a reduction of semi-random social interactions. The Internet has no public spaces. Everything belongs to someone. Every online space is there because some government or corporation is providing it for a specific purpose, and these spaces are designed to be efficient.

There’s value in bumping into a friend when standing in line at Starbucks, but my love affair with ordering ahead on their mobile app and skipping the line is a powerful thing. Chance encounters with strangers while waiting for a bus have deepened my appreciation of humanity. I play a lot more chess against serious opponents now that I can find a game at any minute of any hour of any day from anywhere that has cell phone service, and yet some of my favorite moments playing competitive chess come from conversations with other chess players out in the lobby outside a physical tournament hall.

And I remember how I felt about the first Internet revolution back in the 1990s. I helped build this world. As a cofounder of one of the first web development companies, I was an excited evangelist for how the Internet would free us from the shackles of space and time, allowing people who felt lonely in their ultra-niche interests to go out into the new online world and build communities with the one thousand others on earth who shared their interests and passions. I was extolling everything that is great and convenient about shopping online before e-commerce was really even a thing. And I was right…but I also severely underestimated the powerful dehumanizing elements that would come with this kicking free of the earth from beneath our feet.

And now we live in a world where the loss of local institutions has caused us all to be constantly glued to national politics in a wildly unhealthy way. We live in a world where lunatics and fanatics instantly network among themselves in powerful feedback machines. Heck, even the most sane among us are more and more getting stuck in informational echo chambers that inevitably radicalize us, even if just by small amounts.

Churches are in serious, serious trouble in this regard, and therefore the human race is. Churches, when they are healthy and fulfilling their purpose, provide three things: meaning, purpose, and connection. A church should be a place where a person goes to learn, so that they can better understand themselves, their neighbors, and the universe and what all this might be about. A church should be a place where a person goes to be inspired to rise above selfishness and materialism, and to find ways to contribute to the good of others outside of themselves. And a church should be a place of community: a place where one gathers, not because of language or ethnicity or race or politics or economics or age or any of that, but because of a common view of spiritual purpose and meaning.

But if churches retreat into the online-only mode that we seem to be headed toward, then they will become purely about information. They will continue to preach messages about meaning, but that’s just the information leg of the stool. Online church so far does not seem to be any good at service or community. The action leg and the passion leg are both missing. And this worries me deeply.

And yet, I’m still mostly optimistic about the new future we are building. I just hope we are thoughtful and intentional about it, rather than just letting it happen to us however it unfolds.

For two really thought-provoking perspectives on this decoupling of work from location, I highly recommend this TEDx talk by Justin McElroy, and this article in the Atlantic. Check them out, and let me know what you think.

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Life Gets Complicated

So, my publishing plans at the end of the year didn’t work out so great. Partly because I skidded from the end of a Christmas vacation into the beginning of an unexpected period of quarantine when a member of my household came down with COVID-19.

Don’t worry, they got through it with minimal difficulty, and they successfully isolated within our home to such a degree that no one else was infected. They’ve recovered and we’ve all tested negative, and we’ve waited out our timers and life is now (finally) getting back to normal.

Sort of. Like it was normal before, right?

But that’s not the only reason I fell behind. the weeks leading up to Christmas turned out to be more complicated and stressful as well. It turns out that planning and executing safe and responsible church celebrations of Christmas during a pandemic can be like that.

Anyway, the podcast episode on why resolutions fail never happened (some irony there), and I put a general pause on writing and producing new material apart from the weekly newsletter I do for the church. In fact, I even went three Sundays without preaching–something I haven’t done in my 15+ years in ministry. The only content I produced was the beginning of a long series of short videos titled, Let’s Read: the Gospel of Mark. (By the way, you can check that out here.)

So now I’m trying to get back on the various saddles. I have no idea what to do with the podcast this week. If an idea comes to me in the next 24 hours, that’d be great. Otherwise, I may just let it go one more week. Alternatively, I may just record another chapter of my novel in progress.

I’ve got scripts for more Gospel of Mark videos already queued up, so at the least I’ll shoot a couple more of those this week, but I’m also hoping to produce something for my own channel. (The Mark series is for the Washington New Church channel, which I am the primary contributor.)

And, of course, I need to come up with a sermon for this Sunday…and in fact I’m hoping to map out a plan for the next six months of Sunday sermons by the end of this week.

Church should be about more than just preaching and teaching and information transfer. But the pandemic has made it really hard to act like a community. So, while I’m looking for alternative ways of leading the church in its community uses, I’m also using this opportunity to double down on strengthening those parts of the work that are still very possible. Hopefully when this is all over, we will be able to both benefit from this period and get back to the real work of being a church.

In the meantime, I still need to move all of my studio equipment (camera, lights, tripod, various mics and stands, miscellaneous electronics, etc.) from my home back to my office, and I’m not really looking forward to that. But at least I will have a quieter (and less echo-y) space to record things in again.

So that’s the update. Nothing fancy or thought-provoking or important. But for the curious, that’s where I am at the moment. Talk to you next time!

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