Failure of Inconsequence

Posted on January 29, 2008
Filed Under Mundane | Comments Off on Failure of Inconsequence

On Monday, arriving for work, I found an e-mail from the highest authority asking me to explain something I can not control and can only slightly effect. I made a pie chart and a bar chart representing what the situation that I could not effect was, and then I attended a meeting on that subject.

For the balance of the day I worked to force some processes through our system so that some items of very little value, of which we have very many physically present, would be sent on to the customers who wanted them. It should have been an automatic process, but as a side effect of a cost-saving measure it was not; and forcing the process results in problems for other people working to accomplish other tasks. However, in order to post the largest possible dollar figures for the month, a goal stressed by the cheif in the meeting that morning, it was necessary to abuse the system in this manner.

It is a tedious job, and I was often interrupted. However, the information necessary to set up the job is highly changable, so I prefer to complete it in one sitting rather than losing my place. This kept me somewhat overtime. Then I spent more time helping an employee access several safety training videos which contained advice such as “Smoking is bad for you” and “sleeping is good for you.”

When I at last left work, I went to Wal-Mart and bought a box of cereal, a tube of toothpaste, a water filter, a prepaid phone card, and two boxes of crackers on a buy-two sale. When I arrived home, I booted up the computer to redeem a bonus code for twenty extra minutes on the phone card, and a began to browse the internet.

I sat in a thinly-padded office chair directly by the thermostat, which was set for sixty-eight degrees, and time passed. The pages of the internet were neither profound enough to engross me, nor vapid enough to bore me. I chose to keep clicking.

When the time had trickeled past nine, I rose. I was shivering. I pulled on a sweater and opened the refrigertator. There, in its small plastic bag, was the palm-sized cut of beef, and the leftover broccoli, that I had intended to eat for supper. It was far too late for that. It felt like two in the morning. An almost empty jug of milk was the only other item on the shelves. I pulled down a box of cereal and realized that all the bowls were dirty, although little else was.

I drew dishwater. I was still shivering slightly as I dipped my hands in the hot water. When the dishes were clean, I set out a bowl and poured cereal. I got out the milk and pulled of the cap; a whiff of animal odor reminded me that the milk was ripening, three days past the stamped date.

I ate two bowls of cereal, finishing the box. I rinsed out my bowl, dumped the remaining milk down the drain, and went to bed, trembling between the cold sheets.

So to speak

Posted on January 23, 2008
Filed Under Theological | Comments Off on So to speak

If perchance there are gentle and refined readers out there, be advised that in this post I use coarser language than I usually employ–in writing.

I once told my boss that if so-and-so told him such-and-such, they were full of bullshit, because it wasn’t so. He replied, “Oh, you said ‘bullshit.’ You’re all grown up now, I’m so proud of you.”

I have never attempted to say or act as though certain words were scary and taboo and naughty. It seems that for a while I managed to limit my use of such language to the point where it was generally perceived that I would not swear. I have heard some ripe things and I have probably used every phrase I have heard at some point in time. I do not believe that the language, by itself, is sinful. The meanings of particular sounds and symbols are determined by our usage and have no external significance; what was an obscene word may not be today, and what is today an obscene word may not be tomorrow; and also, what once was clean language may become vulgar. “Gay” used to mean happy, carefree. “Bitch” used to mean female dog, with no more pejorative than female dog necessarily implied in that culture (which did not think of dogs so much as pets).

I have read someone approximately my age who wrote that “bitch” to him and his peers has a familiar and jocular sense of one-upmanship or superiority, something like the term “loser.” I see that usage becoming more common around me. Perhaps by the end of my life people will barely remember that it meant anything else, as is current with ‘gay’–which is now being used to mean silly, pathetic, or odd, but not necessarily homosexual and certainly not happy and carefree.

But understanding language as relative and not intrinsically good or bad does not give us free license in its use. On those occasions when my boss has remarked on my language–and the incident above is not the only one–besides showing a very affected sort of paternalism, he is demonstrating an awareness that I am using language which I have demonstrated myself to consider inappropriate. And yet as someone I work with said in response to one of those paternalistic remarks, “Oh yeah, Arlan swears like a Marine.” And the person speaking was a Marine. I am sure he was speaking hyperbolically; I am not that profane, yet. I have thus far kept my coarse language to informal conversations and not business meetings where other employees have freely used it.

Yet I think it is clear that I have condemned myself. While I am saying that language is relative, and all a matter of how your audience understands you, I am also clearly being understood by my audience to use vulgar speech. It would be nice to pretend that they are only seeing the shedding of a self-righteous veneer I never intended to employ. The truth is, I swear, and I shouldn’t.

In the first couple of months in my current job I also tried very hard to ignore the ribald banter. Several of my current coworkers can be quite explicit before they are even attempting to be titillating or obscene. One in particular fires off colorful retorts on the least provocation.

The truth of the matter has always been, since long before I took this job, that I can drop innuendo as easily as about anyone I’ve met. As with language in general, I don’t agree with the view that all sexual references are automatically bad unless necessarily used for medical discussion. Humor that plays off of an awareness of sexuality is not in all cases different than humor about intelligence, hunger, or misfortune. But if we should avoid language or humor that is meant to demean, humiliate, or antagonize, and if we should avoid encouraging or accepting sexual relationships contrary to the created order, then a lot of my banter goes beyond recognizing what is to encouraging what should not be. So many times a coworker has said, “You’re worse than the rest of them,” with mixed surprise, amusement, and sometimes disgust, and I accept this with a grin because I love to get a reaction.

On Monday night at a relative’s house I saw an episode of the popular children’s TV show “Hannah Montana.” On Tuesday morning I complained to a coworker that it was not appropriate for the pre-teen children it is aimed at, and popular with; although there was no nudity or use of Forbidden Words, the show runs on a backdrop of physical desire. It took me until Tuesday evening to actually realize the irony of that complaint, coming from someone who likes to look askance and exlaim “Whoa!” so as to imbue whatever someone just said with a sense of indecency. Even when notorious coworkers are not being suggestive I “misinterpret” them in that direction, as if that somehow absolves me of responsiblity for the flavor of my remark, since I was only responding to what was said. Such conceits pronounce by themselves more condemnation than most sermons on righteous living can muster.

Old Testament prophets sometimes use very graphic language, and New Testmant authors do not spare on invective when they wish to make a point. I doubt that gracious language always sounds as serene as we might imagine. But if proper speech for a Christian sounded no different than what everyone else is saying, apostles would not remind us to avoid idle and profane speech. My tongue is so far from being tame that one could hardly call it housbroken.

My Calling

Posted on January 16, 2008
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Jesus knew His purpose in this life, and He called disciples after Him, giving them instructions to carry on His teaching. Without doubt, He is the model in principle for our lives. While we are not in the same circumstances or given the same specific tasks as Jesus Himself, the principles–really, the Person–which shaped His work should also define our work.

Now, among those who profess that our faith should inform our decisions and intentions, this comes to mean that each one of us has a specific life-work, whether you call it a ‘mission,’ ‘vocation,’ ‘calling,’ or ‘burden.’ Pick your word, and I’d say it is a fair enough term to get started with when talking about Jesus, or Paul, or Jeremiah, Amos, or David. There are men who have received a mission for their lives; I believe there still are such men today, notwithstanding doubts that they might entertain from time to time.

But I also think there are far more men who say they have “a calling” and do not, and far too many who say that every single Christian has a definite mission in this life. God has a purpose for each life; Amen. That does not mean that every faithful believer will be able to appreciate God’s purpose, or even that God has a sort of thematically unified Mission Statement purpose for each person.

I think first of Abaraham. God told him to leave his home land, so he left. God did not say, “Now raise sheep,” but Abraham did that while he loitered around Canaan, waiting. Then God said, “You shall have a son and this whole land will be filled with your descendents.” Aha, a mission! A purpose in life! But when Abraham tried to have a son it didn’t work out. He had an absolutely God-given mandate to have a son, he had more clearly than most “called” men these days a good reason to be certain of his purpose in this life, so when he became frustrated and tried to find an alternate way of getting that son God wanted him to have, you have to admire his faithfulness to his calling. Except, of course, that it wasn’t what God intended. The man was older than most of us live to be when he finally got a real start on his calling. The rest of his long life was, in so much modern parlance, just hanging out where he was more tolerated than welcome.

Issac and Jacob had pretty much the same glorious calling. The wandered around around raising sheep, and God had to keep getting them out of trouble so they would stay alive long enough to rear their offspring so that there could be a nation of Israel. To be fair, Abraham defeate the kings and Jacob’s sons wiped out a town. But these are incidentals. They don’t have the same grander purpose that Noah or Moses or David have in their lives.

There are many people who are noted in the Bible for one or two incidents, significant moments to be sure, but nothing that really stands out as The Reason God Put You On The Earth. If you actually think about it, the number of people whose entire Biblical significance is raising children actually is most of the people mentioned in the Bible. You know, the begats.

We can’t always take the Old Testament as an adequate model for how we should now live. Christ has come, and the New Testament refines the signifcance of the Old Testament. If you pause to consider what isn’t in the New Testament, you should wonder where the idea of every person having a Calling, per se, ever came from. The apostles were adult men before Jesus called them. Many of them were fishermen. Probably they were fishermen because their fathers were fishermen; it is not likely that any of them agonized about which college to go to or which subject to major in. It appears to have been a default occupation in their lives. Jesus came and called them, and just like that they dropped it and followed Him for years. Then Jesus was crucified; and what’s the next thing the disciples do? They go fishing. How many people today with a Call to The Ministry would, after three years and a dissappointing, world-crushing end, would then look at each other, shrug, and go back to fishing?

Clearly, the twelve were wrong. They needed the Holy Spirit to come and get them on track. But let’s consider the possibility that the disciples were exceptionally wrong; that is, for most people, a job that you just do because it’s there may be all that God expects you to think of your life’s occupation.

Even Paul, who was the equivalent of college educated, had a plain ordinary job as a tentmaker, which he continued to practice even after receiving his life-changing call. We know and do not dispute that Paul was called to be an apostle, but somehow before he got that call he had picked up the vocation of tentmaker.

Paul famously reminded Timothy not to neglect his calling. Paul did not say the same thing to young men in general. Nowhere in the New Testament is any mention made to Christians in general that they ought to have arrived at a specific life work through conscious strategic consideration of God’s Gifts to them to Equip Them for His Work. Certainly God has given each of His children abilities that He desires us to use to help our brothers and sisters, but that is not to say that we will spend most of our lives using a particular gift.

Say that we are tools, and we all would like to be the cordless drill. Some, though, are the humble, old-fashioned hand screwdrivers, and when we think we ought to be twisting those screws we are instead being used to pry off lids, prop open gaps, poke holes, and accomplish all kinds of jobs for which, we feel, we were not designed. Over there the cordless drill is driving drywall screws one after the other, zoom zoom zoom, and here we are twiddling around with nubbly little screws for outlet covers. Talk about a meaningful existence.

Even Elijah, who had a pretty high-profile calling, got fed up with his job. How many of the millions of shepherds, whose job most days was to watch sheep eat grass, do you think might have prayed to God, “Lord, I am bored to death. Please give me a more exciting job. For instance: anything”? And to how many of them do you think God replied, “Fear not, this will make a great anecdote when you have the job interview with King Saul”?

God has a purpose for each of us, but I think that for the majority of us all that purpose, even at the end of our lives, has very little to do with what we have done for a living and much more to do with how we lived. The incidentals, the forgettable things that we did merely because we found ourselves in such a situation, may be God’s whole purpose. It may be that (so to speak) where we live and what job we have and all the rest of the things we regard as significant to our entire lives does not matter at all, because wherever we live and whatever we do God will still show Himself through us, and that is what counts. Of course, with a sovereign God, whever we are at any given moment is part of His plan. But with what we really mean by the terms ‘purpose,’ ‘plan,’ or ‘calling,’ God may have no such thing for us at all.

I am intimidated by people who feel confident of God’s desired work for them (aside from the clergy; it is far too easy to assume that it is God’s calling for that to have any immediate import). If you can say with sincerity that “I am a garbage man because God lead me to it and He has so often used this work of mine that I feel blessed and priviliged and humbeled to have ever gotten this job,” that will make me shut right up about my job, which is not what I would have guessed a year and a half prior to this date, or at any time before that. There’s no doubt in my mind that God got me here, but I certainly have no conviction that this is some work that He will have me do as my life service to Him.

At times like these, when my job is so frustrating because everything I accomplish is undone or made vain by the caprice of someone on that long chain of command from which I dangle, the gist of my prayer is to have a more meaningful life. A wife and kids; that’s What’s Really Important In Life, right? A hobby; a passion, as it were. Then this other stuff could be the means to support a nobler end. Something besides this bizzare, nonsensical merry-go-round in which I climb on my little painted horse, whip the sorry lifeless steed as if thereby to make my progress faster, get off when the music stops, and wait in line for my next turn.

I have been lower than this. I have been to the point where I hardly recognized the paint on the horse or the canned music or my changing place in the carousel of vanities. Sometimes you do not even feel like a participant in a futile exercise, but as one just barely snagged in reality–a leaf, caught on a wiper blade, beating senselessly in the wind and by rights already gone, vanished, yet pinched just so, on the outside, irregardless.

Facts cannot touch feelings. If this is how you feel, than the fact that your life has purpose is as cold and meaningless as the fact that the distant stars are immense balls of fire, with a heat to melt the world. Yet I think it is still important to remember is not a purpose, for we have that, nor an appreciation for our purpose; when David woke up in the morning he knew he was King of Israel and that was what he did. When Joseph woke up in jail, after being sold by his brothers and bouncing back from that to an important place in Potiphar’s household, he did not know that he would serve Pharoah but he did whatever it was he could do in jail. And when you wake up in the morning, you know what you are supposed to do, even if it does seem utterly without meaning or worth. What we need is to stop desiring a different purpose.

You can never say,

“Behold, this is our God;
We have waited for Him, and He will save us.
This is the LORD;
We have waited for Him;
We will be glad and rejoice in His salvation”
Isaiah 25:9

if you have not first said, “How long, O Lord?”

There are gifts and there are callings. There are apostles, prophets, teachers, preachers, and ministers.

Me, I am a Begat.

I think I’ll print me some business cards.

It Will Not Be Long

Posted on January 14, 2008
Filed Under Poems | Comments Off on It Will Not Be Long

As She Moved Through the Fair
My love said to me,
My Mother won’t mind
And me Father won’t slight you
For your lack of kind.
Then she stepped away from me
And this she did say:
It will not be long, love,
Till our wedding day.

She stepped away from me
And she moved through the fair
And fondly I watched her
Move here and move there.
And she went her way homeward
With one star awake,
As the swans in the evening
Move over the lake.

The people were saying,
No two e’er were wed
But one has a sorrow
That never was said.
And she smiled as she passed me
With her goods and her gear
And that was the last
That I saw of my dear.

I dreamed it last night
That my true love came in;
So softly she entered
Her feet made no din.
She came close beside me
And this she did say:
It will not be long, love,
Till our wedding day.

Unlike all other poems posted thus far, this is not my own. I know of it through Loreena McKennit’s arrangment.

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