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A bumper sticker forced me to smile yesterday—not so much because of its humor, but more for the sense of perspective it provided. “I had friends on that Death Star,” it said. Somehow life’s problems don’t seem so big when they are compared to the big problems other people have, whether in real life or in the movies.

I’ve been in an emotional trough this winter and spring. Several things have contributed to this low, some under my control and others not. Most of them I’m not inclined to share at this time. But two specific events this week have tested my spirit. We speak of “first world problems” and compare them to the violence, poverty, hunger, disease, and abuse that other people endure every day in this world. I’m not asking for anyone’s sympathy. (Prayers are always welcome.) But today I’m feeling stressed and blue, and I just thought I’d share a few things.

Wednesday I had the oil changed in my car. Thursday when I started the car, the “Service Engine Light” came on. I happen to drive past the service garage on my way to work, so I pulled in there and waited twenty minutes for them to open. A young man looked at the car quickly, said that rain water had gotten on the spark plugs, and the car was good to go. I got to work and back and to school and back without any problem. Then, Friday the light was on again. (Don’t sing to me about Paradise by the Dashboard Lights. Dashboard lights are always bad news.) I didn’t want to lose another twenty minutes, so I drove to work, and then stopped at the garage on my way home. The manager didn’t have a mechanic to spare—they were all in the middle of big jobs, so he suggested I stop by first thing Saturday morning. I did that, and after waiting half an hour, I was told that there is a small oil leak by the cam. It will cost about $100 to repair and will take about an hour. I didn’t have that hour today—I am scheduled to work all day—but the mechanic said the car will operate safely through the weekend. So I will stop by the garage again for that repair Monday morning.

It’s stressful driving a car with a warning light ablaze. It’s stressful not knowing what is wrong and how dangerous it might be and how much it might cost. It’s only slightly better knowing those things.

But now the plot thickens. When I got home Friday afternoon, I was told that my youngest daughter was at one of those clinics that have popped up around the city to replace hospital emergency rooms. Details were sparse, but she had hurt her foot. So I drove to the clinic. Her foot was being X-rayed when I arrived. She had been at the final run-through for a play in which she was scheduled to appear Friday night and today. She had spent hours rehearsing with the cast, singing, dancing, assembling costumes. This was to be a really big deal. The last two years her love for live theater has grown, and this was to be her first time on stage in a show for an audience. Career plans may be in the works.

Anyhow, the mother of another girl her age had driven my daughter home from the rehearsal, and my daughter realized that she had forgotten her house key. No one was home, and the front door was locked. She told the driver and the daughter that she could get in through the back door. Evidently this has been done before; no one ever told me. Our house is two stories, with a deck on the back that enters the upper floor; the deck is surrounded by a waist-high rail. There is no stairway to the ground. But my daughter said that with a boost from the other girl she could get to the rail and over and then get into the house. (Yes—we often left that door unlocked, because I didn’t think anyone could get to the deck from the ground. That has now changed.)

Instead of getting onto the deck, my daughter fell and landed hard on her foot. Then they proceeded with what should have been their first plan: they drove to the mall where another of my daughters was working and borrowed her house key. When my daughter came home from work and saw how much her sister’s foot was swollen, she knew medical help was needed and took her sister to the clinic. I met my daughter there, and soon the doctor was with us after seeing the X-rays. He said that no bones are broken but there is soft tissue damage that will need two weeks or more to heal. Meanwhile, she is to keep off the foot—no sports, no dancing, and definitely no performing in this play.

My daughter burst into tears. I felt heartsick myself. The doctor tried to lighten the mood, but to no avail. As we drove home, my daughter repeatedly berated herself for doing such a stupid thing. Though I was tempted to agree with her assessment, I was a good father and spoke more kindly to her, saying that accidents happen and there will be other shows in her future and anything else that came to mind to try to ease her burden.

Again, these events are on top of other stuff going on that I may or may not share. In the grand scale of life it’s small stuff. In fact, as I was driving to the pharmacy to fill a pain medicine prescription for my daughter, I saw a car ahead of me pull to a stop. The driver then turned into a driveway, stopped and got out of her car. I saw her begin talking with an older woman who was wearing a sweat shirt and what appeared to be pajama pants. The older woman had a confused look on her face. My mind supplied the rest of the story—perhaps accurate, perhaps not. Mom has dementia and went wandering, and her daughter had to drive around town searching for her. Impulsive teenagers and their fathers have no monopoly on life’s problems.

I hope your weekend is going well. J.

 

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The Lord’s a Shepherd I don’t want

When I was a little boy, I misunderstood the meaning of Psalm 23, verse one. When we read, “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want,” I thought that we were saying that we did not want the Lord to be our Shepherd. Only later did I come to understand that the verse really means, “Because the Lord is my Shepherd, I lack nothing.” Rather than proclaiming the goodness of the Lord and the sufficiency of his blessings, I thought we were confessing the depravity of our own hearts, our likeliness to wander away from the Shepherd who is caring for us.

“We all, like sheep, have gone astray,” the prophet Isaiah wrote. We are not content with the blessings provided by our Shepherd. He makes us lie down in green pastures, but to us the grass seems greener on the other side of the fence. He leads us beside still waters, but we have more exciting beverages in mind. He leads us on paths of righteousness for his name’s sake, but we want to strike out on our own and blaze a new trail for ourselves.

He teaches us to pray for daily bread, but we desire a larger supply and more variety; like the Israelites of old, we would soon grow tired even of the miracle of manna. He tells us to be content, forbidding us from coveting what he has given to our neighbors, but we covet all the same and try to keep up with their worldliness. He warns us against earthly treasures, vulnerable to rust and moths and thieves. He promises us heavenly treasures that cannot be stolen and will not spoil. When we talk to him, we tell him much more about the earthly treasures we want and say much less to him about the heavenly treasures he wants us to have.

Jesus describes the hired hand who abandons the flock. Undoubtedly, one of the temptations Satan offered the Lord was the opportunity to forsake the flock, to permit us to wander, to stop trying to care for rebellious and wayward sheep. Jesus said no to this temptation as he resisted all the devil’s temptations. He continually explores the wilderness, finding his straying sheep and carrying us back home. He even lays down his life for us, taking upon himself the penalty we deserve so we can belong to him forever.

If Jesus abandoned us in the wilderness, we would be lost forever. Instead, he provides for us in every way we need. He gathers us into his one flock, the Holy Christian Church. He guides us with his Word in the Bible and in the teachings of the Church. He blesses us in the Church, preparing a Table for us and blessing us with his anointing. He has blazed a trail for us across the valley of the shadow of death, assuring us that we are not alone even on that journey. Instead, we will dwell with him in his house forever. Meanwhile, his grace and mercy accompany us every day, for Jesus is our Shepherd, whether we want him or not. J.

Privacy (and where yours has gone)

Never in history has personal privacy been more protected by law. Yet never in history have people sacrificed their own privacy so completely. 

If you confess a sin to your pastor or priest, that member of the clergy cannot tell anyone else that you have said—not even a police officer, or a judge and jury during a trial. Your confession remains private among yourself, your confessor, and the Lord. 

Health professionals are also required to keep your information confidential. They cannot even share your information among one another for your own good without your permission. If you are in the hospital and a family member or friend (or your pastor or priest) calls the hospital for information about you, the hospital workers cannot say anything about you—not even whether you are there. 

If you are a student, your teachers cannot discuss your academic progress without your permission. If you are under eighteen, your parents or guardians have access to that information; otherwise, even they cannot know your grades unless you allow them access. A professor, teacher, or instructor cannot even give you information about your grade by email or over the telephone because of the risk that some other person may impersonate you to get this information. 

Your financial information is similarly protected. Your bank, your lending agency, your credit card company, and anyone else involved with your money cannot discuss your finances without your permission. Even your tax returns are confidential and cannot be discussed unless you have given permission for that to happen. 

To protect all this privacy, the entities that use our information frequently inform us what they are doing with the confidential information we share with them. Medical clinics, banks, credit card companies, and the like constantly bombard us with written descriptions of what information they have and what they do with it. When we see the doctor or when we open an account or take out a loan, we sign documents about our personal information. How many of us read all those documents and remember what permission we have given these entities to share that information? How many of us are careful to restrict every bank and school and health-related facility to minimal sharing? How many of us acknowledge with our signatures that we have read the documents about privacy and approved their contents—without actually having read them or even received a copy of them? 

With all this protection, no one can stop you from sharing private information where and when you choose. You can put up a poster downtown telling anyone who reads it who you are, what your health and grades and finances are, and any other personal information you choose to share. You can write a letter to the newspaper or buy an ad and tell the newspaper’s readers anything you want to share about yourself. You can write a letter to a government worker—whether elected or appointed—and anything you say about yourself in that letter becomes part of the public record which any researcher may access. You may post information about your private life on Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, or any other social media platform, and what you have revealed about yourself is available to any person or computer in the world that has internet access. 

Even the research you conduct online is publicly available, unless you take extraordinary precautions to protect your privacy. Social media platforms and search engines and internet sites all keep track of your online activity, and the things you have done on your computer are available to government agencies, corporations, hackers, and anyone else curious about your life. Anything you tell your Facebook friends is public information. Prospective employers can read about your weekend parties. Prospective thieves can preview your vacation plans. Research an illness, and medical companies target you as a prospective consumer. Look on Google once to see if there was ever a purple Volkswagen Beetle (there was), and you will receive pop-up ads from Volkswagen for months. 

Some elements of this lack of privacy bother me less than they bother most people. If my neighbor is using the internet to learn how to make a bomb and then is using the internet to buy bomb-making supplies, I don’t mind the fact that law enforcement officers will be watching my neighbor and perhaps preventing a crime from happening, or at least shortening a string of potential crimes. For that protection from violence, I am willing to allow government agents to read about my political and religious views as I express them on Facebook or WordPress; the First Amendment protects me from any negative government reaction to my opinions. 

I am less content about my permanent record being open to private corporations whose interest in my life focuses on selling me goods and services I might or might not want. My on-line shopping and on-line research have created a public profile of my life that in some ways is frighteningly accurate and in other ways is comically distorted. Because I was curious about cerebral films starring Peter Sellers (having enjoyed Dr. Strangelove, Lolita, and Being There), I now see regular Facebook promotions for the Pink Panther movies. Similar searches for various actresses appears to have convinced some corporation that I am interested in dating Russian or Asian women.  

Ignoring advertisements for things I don’t want is easy. Sensing that news stories and other items are being sent my direction based on assumptions about my opinions bothers me more. Because I am comfortable with my own beliefs, I want and value access to a wide range of opinions and information. I prefer not to have amazon or Facebook or WordPress suggest to me what I might like because of previous online activity. I prefer not to have search engines tailor my results to choices I have made in the past. I prefer not to receive telephone calls or mail selected for me by a computer because of something I have viewed online. I prefer not to have computers monitor my thinking and try to predict my thinking, out of concern that their input today may well flavor my thinking tomorrow.

Since the 1950s (if not before), science fiction writers have warned of a future world in which machines think for people and tell people what to think. We are closer to that dystopia being reality than ever before. The machines that want to serve us—and that, along the way, may begin to control us—come not from a totalitarian government or a worldwide conspiracy, but from corporations that want our money, or at least that want to generate money by selling our information.

Can Congress or other parts of the government protect our privacy? Probably not. We tend to discard privacy for convenience far more often than legislation can prevent. The more we ask government to guard our privacy, the more likely we are to surrender that privacy to government. The more we reveal about ourselves to social media and other non-government agencies, the less privacy we keep to ourselves. Our best choice is not to legislate privacy, but to preserve privacy by our individual choices. J.

Imitation

The great mathematician and physicist Albert Einstein, during the later years of his career, went on long speaking tours around North America. Usually on college and university campuses, but sometimes for civic groups, Einstein would talk about his theories of Relativity and other scientific advances of recent times, helping students and citizens gain an appreciation of what was being discovered in the academic community. It is said that he generally traveled by car from lecture site to lecture site, with a driver who would see to his needs on the road. The driver (or chauffer) would sit at the front row at each lecture for one reason: as soon as the question-and-answer session ended at the end of the lecture, the driver would whisk Einstein out the side door of the hall, take him to a motel where he could get a good night’s rest and a healthy breakfast, then set out on the road again for the next evening’s lecture.

One summer, after a few weeks of nightly talks, Einstein was exhausted. Getting into the car, he said to the driver, “Billy, I don’t think I can do this one more time. I need a night off; I’m sick of saying the same thing night after night.”

“Dr. Einstein,” the driver answered, “A lot of people say that I look just like you.” The resemblance was slight, but Billy did have longish unruly white hair and large blue eyes, and he was about as tall as Einstein. “I’ve heard your lecture enough times that I know it by heart. Tomorrow night why don’t you let me wear your suit and stand up and give the lecture. You can wear my uniform and sit in the front row and get some rest for a change.”

“I don’t know, Billy,” Einstein said. “You could probably give the lecture from memory, but what about the questions and answers afterward?”

“It’s been the same questions twenty times over,” Billy said, “and I’ve heard you give the same answers twenty times over. I’m sure I can pull it off.”

Einstein was tired of lecturing, so he agreed. Before they reached the next town, they stopped at a service station and exchanged clothes. When they arrived, the driver met the organizers of the lecture as Einstein, and the real Einstein sat in the front row as the driver. When the lecture began, the real Einstein was nervous, but as the talk proceeded he realized that Billy was speaking his lines perfectly. He relaxed and even napped a bit. When they got to the questions and answers, Einstein woke up and was fretful at first, but the first two questions were perfectly familiar, and the driver answered then exactly as Einstein would have answered.

The third question came from a young man who clearly had been thinking about the theories of Relativity for a while. His two-part question called for a response that had not been needed at any of the previous lectures. Billy’s heart was racing, but he kept his outward composure. Peering over the top of his glasses, he frowned at the questioner. “Young man,” he said, “you clearly think you have come up with something new in the field of physics. You are mistaken though. In fact, your question is so elementary that I believe even my chauffer could offer you a response. Billy, come up here and answer this man’s question.”

 

Discipleship is largely a matter of imitation. In the ancient world, disciples lived with their teacher, traveled with their teacher, and learned to imitate their teacher. Eventually they were sent out on teaching tours of their own, sharing with others the same things they had learned from their teacher. Christ’s Sermon on the Mount was probably a talk that he gave dozens of times to various crowds in synagogues and outdoors and in people’s houses, until Matthew and Peter and the other disciples could repeat the teachings of Jesus word-for-word.

Now we are the disciples of Jesus, learning how to imitate him, to say the things Jesus would say and to do the things Jesus would do. When we least expect it, Jesus invites us to stand up and take his place, to represent him to a world that needs his message of hope and forgiveness and love. As disciples, it is not enough for us to remember what Jesus said. We are called to say it too. It is not enough to remember what Jesus did. We are called to do it too. We save no one by our obedience, not even ourselves; Jesus has already saved us, and he has already saved the sinners we encounter. But the Church of Christ is his body: his hands, his feet, his voice. Our imitation of Christ forms the basis for everything that many people know about Jesus.

At times, we will be confronted with something unexpected. Jesus will not leave us on our own at those moments. He is always with us, always ready and able to take our place, to fight our enemies, and to win our battles. He rejoices, though, to see us succeed in our imitations of him. He is the genius; we are just the drivers. Yet because we know him, we can speak for him even in this sinful world. J.