Binary writing styles

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who divide people into two groups, and those who do not.

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who prefer that their toilet paper roll be served over the top, and those who prefer that the paper hang behind the roll. A few don’t care; and a lot of people in the world do not use toilet paper; but those facts disrupt the point I wanted to make.

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who have excellent math skills, those who have average math skills, and those who have poor math skills.

There are two kinds of writers in this world. One kind of writer, usually after creating an outline, writes a first draft of the introduction, then a first draft of chapter one, then a first draft of chapter two, and on to the end of the book. Afterward, those writers go back and edit their work, starting from the first page, making corrections, additions, deletions, and other improvements until they have achieved a final version of their book. The other kind of writer creates the book in sections, often writing the middle and even the ending before covering the beginning. Those writers then sift and sort what they have written, organizing their work into the best arrangement, as well as making corrections, additions, deletions, and other improvements until they have achieved a final version of their book.

I am the first kind of writer. Ideas brew in my head for weeks, months, even years, but they remain unwritten until I have created an outline that covers the ideas I have been carrying. After making an outline, I write the first draft of the article or book, starting at the beginning and continuing until I write the ending. Then comes the hardest part: evaluating each sentence and each phrase, deciding if every idea is stated in the clearest way possible, making sure that pronouns clearly reflect the nouns they represent, breaking long sentences into shorter sentences, discovering and eliminating needless repetitions of ideas, filling in jumps of thought that were not clearly handled in the first draft, and otherwise improving the article or book until I am ready to send it to the publisher.

There are two kinds of bloggers on WordPress and other platforms. One kind of blogger has an idea—perhaps a reaction to a recent news item, an event in his or her life, or an idea expressed by another blogger. Such bloggers write a quick draft representing their thoughts, perhaps read through their draft once to check for spelling and grammatical errors, and then post what they have written and go on to read other posts or accomplish other tasks. The other kind of writer considers a post for days, perhaps weeks, before composing it on a computer. Such writers often work from an outline, organizing their thoughts, and arranging them to make them clear and complete. Before posting what they have written, they carefully check their work for spelling and grammatical errors, needless repetitions, jumps of thought that were not clearly handled, and other improvements. Their final product might appear days or weeks after the prompt that first led to their post, but even if they are late to join a conversation, their ideas are presented in a competent and professional form.

I am the second kind of blogger. Often I write posts in the first fashion, quickly responding to something that is happening (or merely trying to keep the blog active while new thoughts are slow to develop). My better posts require time to develop and more time to complete. Along the way, I catch most of my typos and other mistakes. Even my most spontaneous posts call for a second reading, a flurry of tweaks and corrections, and reconsideration of their significance. For that matter, I rarely send an email or even a comment on FaceBook or WordPress without reading what I have written once or twice to be confident that I said what I wanted to say.

Some of my grammatical corrections are natural, done almost without thought. Unlike James Kirk, I rarely split an infinitive; unlike Obi-Wan Kenobi, I rarely end a sentence with a preposition. Nine times out of ten, following those rules produces better sentences. My harder work involves shortening sentences, separating different thoughts into different sentences so that both are stated clearly. I try to ensure that pronouns and prepositional phrases clearly identify what they represent or modify. I strive to find synonyms rather than repeating words (except when repetition makes a statement clearer). I aim for punctuation that best demonstrates the connection of the ideas I am presenting.

For weeks, I have been mulling a series of posts to be called “Racism without race.” Obviously, the topic of racism and race relations has been highly relevant for weeks. Obviously, clear answers to the problems posed by race relations are hard to find. Obviously, I am no expert in this area; but, all the same, there are ideas I want to share about racism and race relations.

Tomorrow, I hope to write my first draft of “Racism without race.” It will probably be divided into several posts of one thousand words or less that will appear as a series next week. Meanwhile, I am preparing an outline for a book about Christian faith and depression, while also trying to compile book-length publications of earlier writings in two different areas. My thinking and production have been stuck in two ways. On the one hand, my ideas are like characters in a comic movie, jammed together while trying to exit my head from the same doorway. On the other hand, I have had occasions when I wanted to work on any one of these projects and have not mustered the energy to begin. Summer doldrums, combined with the stress of the past several weeks, have made writing harder for me than writing usually is.

I am a writer. Even though most of my salary and benefits come from jobs in which writing is only a byproduct or a step in the process of my assigned duties, writing is my dream, my goal, and my passion. I hope to turn the corner this weekend, beginning a productive summer, and culminating in posts and in books that will attract and benefit readers. J.

More about my family

When I composed yesterday’s post, I got so excited sharing the history of my family that I forgot part of what I wanted to say. Here it is:

This month I have been posting historic family pictures on FaceBook each day. Sometimes it’s a single picture, sometimes it’s two or three pictures. I’ve been getting good reactions from family—including cousins I almost never see anymore—as well as from other friends.

Why am I doing this? Well, as a historian and an archivist, I want to promote the business. Especially those weeks that I had to work from home, trying to do the same things I would be doing at work, I knew that I had to do the full job of an archivist—not merely to preserve and to organize, but also to share. Archivists don’t digitize the entire collection and put it online—we digitize a small amount of material that is interesting or informative. Real researchers don’t stop at surfing the internet; when they find something of interest, they identify where it is located and come to that place to look at the rest of the collection.

Beyond that, I have gotten major fatigue scrolling through FaceBook and other social media. It feels like a game of dodgeball back in junior high school, trying to avoid all the mentions of disease and politics and the intersection of the two. So I thought I’d change the subject—give myself and other people something different to talk about and think about. And that has worked.

It has worked so well that my sister and some of my cousins commented over the weekend that I ought to take all this family information I’ve been gathering and write a book. I’ve handled books written by genealogists. They tend to be dry as dust—recording vital information, but often omitting the interesting and unusual family stories about these various individuals.

So I’m considering a book on the Salvageable family. The first question is: how much of the family do I want to cover? Am I writing for my children and their descendants—do I want to include my wife’s side of the family? Do I want to focus on me and my ancestors? Or do I want to stick to my mother’s side of the family, which contains most of the interesting stories that have come to light thus far. (And includes those cousins who are suggesting that I write a book.)

Even though that matter is not settled, I have made two other decisions. If I write this book, I will start each family line with the immigrant who came to the United States. Where I know names and dates for ancestors who remained in Europe, I might include them in an appendix or sidebar, but I want this to be an account of the Salvageables in America. Also, rather than focusing on one line at a time, with chapters relating to different streams that entered the river, I want to make the book chronological. I would like to write a chapter for each decade, describing where the various ancestors were during that decade and what they were doing.

Moreover, I want to include some historic context in each chapter. Think how much fun the 1860s will be—men fighting each other in the Civil War (and I have ancestors who fought for the Union and ancestors who fought for the Confederacy). Wouldn’t it be cool to find two great-great grandfathers involved in the same battle, shooting each other? (And, if either of them had been a better soldier, I would never have been born.)

I can only guess how long it will take to complete the family research and begin writing. This project likely will be years in the making. And it will not be lucrative—we’re not talking Roots here. I don’t care to dabble in historical fiction, creating conversations that may have happened. I want to include verifiable facts, along with family stories and mysteries.

And this is much more fun than slogging through the current international crisis and thinking only about it night and day. J.

Photographs and genealogy

Years ago, when I first saw this picture in the family collection, it puzzled me. I knew that the little girl to the left was my grandmother, and I suspected the other two children on the floor were her brother and sister. I assumed that the man to the left was her father and that the woman in back was her grandmother? But who is the other boy in the room? My family and I dubbed him Heathcliff, remembering that he joined the Earnshaw family by adoption when he was a young boy (Wuthering Heights).

This spring I’ve had the opportunity to go through family photographs and also to research my family tree. I deduced that this picture was taken Christmas 1905. The extra boy is a cousin to my grandmother. These same people were still in the same household at the 1910 census. The grandmother, by the way, is the mother of my grandmother’s mother, mother-in-law to the man in the picture.

Here’s another picture of the same family taken a few months earlier. The younger woman is my great-grandmother; she died in June of 1905. The man with the cigar is probably Heathcliff’s father, and the two additional girls are Heathcliff’s sisters.

Why are those sisters missing from the Christmas picture? According to the 1910 census, they were boarding at the Chicago Industrial School for Girls. Later records show that both grew up, had jobs as clerks, and got married.

 

Here’s Heathcliff and his sisters—possibly taken at their school. On the desk is a cube with the date: Wednesday December 27. Historians, archivists, and genealogists love clues like that hiding in photographs. (December 27, 1905, was a Wednesday.)

And what became of Heathcliff? He also got married. He and his wife had a son who lived only three months and a daughter who eventually grew up and married. In 1917, when Heathcliff registered for the Great War, he was a clerk supporting wife and mother (possibly mother-in-law). In 1920, he was living with his wife, in-laws, and infant son. In 1930, though, he was divorced and living alone in Chicago. October 1930 saw him incarcerated at Leavenworth, Kansas—I have no idea why. By 1942, when he registered because of the second World War, he was back in Chicago, working for Keller & Sons. He died in 1959, at the age of 63.

“Heathcliff’s” real first name was the same as his father and his grandfather. By coincidence, my wife and I chose the same name for our son. After skipping several generations, it’s nice to have the name return to the family, even though the previous holder of that name was a crook. J.

 

Keep your soul diligently

We’ve all seen those memes on Facebook and other places where the letters of each word are scrambled, but the first and last letters are kept unchanged. Sometimes these memes are accompanied by statements such as, “Only intelligent people are able to understand this message.” Actually, most adept readers are able to read them; as we learned to read, our brains developed shortcuts that recognize words even when the internal parts of the words have been changed.

But, by the same token, sometimes we mistake one word for another. The slip-up can be amusing, such as confusing “immorality” and “immortality.” Usually a second glance fixes the misreading. But this morning in my Bible reading, I faced a misreading that indicates just how overwhelming our current virus crisis has become.

I was reading Deuteronomy chapter four. I got to verse nine, which says, “Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your hearts all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and to your children’s children.” This is a trustworthy saying. But when my eyes first scanned the verse, my brain changed the beginning to, “Only take care, and keep your social distancing.”

Of course a second glance fixed the misreading. I suppose the words “take care” only added to the tendency to expect s…l d……..y to be “social distancing.” But my mildly amusing experience only shows how overwhelming this virus crisis has become, that I even expect the holy Word of God to command social distancing.

My experiences with the virus crisis are like those of most people. As an introvert, I don’t mind keeping my distance from other people. Three times a week I take a two-mile walk through the neighborhood. I do what I was taught as a child: I walk on the left-hand side of the road, facing the traffic. But now, with social distancing, if someone is coming toward me on the same side of the road, I cross to the other side to avoid that person. I’ve always wanted to do that. Now, not is it not rude to cross the road to avoid people—it’s recommended.

I’m very much blessed to have three jobs that all paid me my regular salary while I worked from home. Every week I write a sermon, and every Saturday I email it to the members of the congregation. Our church musician presents a concert of church music on Facebook every Sunday. We mail in our offerings, and my check comes in the mail. My history class was changed from classroom to online. Some students dropped out, and a couple have fallen behind on the work, but several are faithfully taking their quizzes (open book, since we don’t have the classroom discussion before the quiz) and—I expect—writing their essays that are due next week. But my full time job at the library raised the biggest concerns. How can a library function when the doors are locked and the workers are told to stay home?

The first week the library was closed, we were told that it was like snow days—we would stay home and be paid. The second week, they began encouraging us to do tasks at home that were somehow job related. Since I am an archivist, I began sorting and arranging the family pictures I brought from my father’s house several years ago. After they were arranged, I even started putting them on Facebook and tagging family members. I also explored the family genealogy. More than half the people who visit our research room in the library are doing genealogy—some in great depth, others just getting started. I’ve always been able to guide people to resources, but now I have much more experience in genealogical research and will be more helpful.

By the third week, we had a process of reporting how we were spending our time “on the clock.” But after that, the library decided that 75% of our hours had to be of direct benefit to the library system; the other 25% could be for learning and wellness activities. Some library branches began experimenting with curb-side services. Four branches are providing free meals to neighborhood children who usually get fed at school. My department remains locked up; but we are taking turns being in the building to answer the phone and help patrons.

Last week, with the phone-answering system in place, I was invited to return to my desk and continue processing archival materials. I must wear a mask everywhere in the building except at my desk; I must wash my hands frequently and wipe down surfaces often. This procedure might last for the rest of the summer.

Since it is losing some money—parking and meeting room fees, and overdue fines—the library director decided that he would reduce or eliminate some positions temporarily to save the library money. All positions will be restored when the crisis is over. People in eliminated positions retain their health insurance and other benefits but must apply for unemployment. Those who are reduced will—if the state government allows—work only part-time and receive unemployment money for the hours lost. I have been placed in the second category.

I do not feel comfortable with the likelihood that I will be receiving unemployment compensation for ten weeks or so. It’s not that I don’t need the money. It’s that every person thrown into the unemployment system is added to the financial burden that taxpayers like me and my children will be reimbursing for years to come. I disagree with the library’s decision to lower its costs by putting its workers temporarily into unemployment. In fact, I cannot help but view this as a cynical political ploy to deepen the crisis (and the feeling of crisis) at the expense of the current administration.

We will all get through this together. Stress and anxiety are high right now. (I spend little time on social media precisely because I rapidly tire of all the talk of virus and quarantine. It makes me shaky and queasy.) Meanwhile it’s important for each of us to take care, and keep our social distancing… I mean, keep our souls diligently. J.

A wedding story

My daughter got married this week. She and her husband had originally intended to have their wedding May 2, but the virus crisis clearly was going to prevent that gathering. Instead of delaying the wedding until the crisis passes, they chose to be married one month early in an essentially empty church. Their guests watched the wedding on YouTube.

My new son-in-law is in his last year of seminary. In a few days, he will be told where he will begin serving as pastor. The May 2 wedding was to have taken place in the seminary chapel. When the two of them first realized that the wedding would have to be rescheduled, their families considered the possibility they would just get the license and be married at the courthouse. In other words, they nearly eloped. (A future pastor and his bride, the daughter of a pastor, eloping—that would be humorous.) They were able, however, to arrange for a church wedding at a place that was already equipped to livestream its services on YouTube.

The groom and the best man were attired in formal Scottish garb—yes, including kilts. The bride wore a traditional white wedding dress. (She nearly had to improvise: the woman doing alterations on the dress had basically closed down her business because of the virus and could not be reached by phone. I don’t know the details of how my daughter finally got hold of the dress.) The bride’s sister was maid of honor. Because she works at a hospital, she was not able to take a day off for the wedding, so it was held at 8 p.m. In his homily, the pastor who married them commented on the unusual timing of the wedding—during the season of Lent, in the darkness of night, and during a pandemic.

So there were bride and groom, best man and maid of honor, pastor, musician, and one other woman who helped the bride and took part in the singing. They began with a traditional evening liturgy, then sang a hymn. We rushed around the house gathering hymnals and got to join in singing the fourth and fifth verses of the hymn. The pastor read from Genesis 2, delivered his homily, and then conducted the wedding ceremony. During the exchange of vows, the bride and groom had their hands bound together with a strip of cloth—another Scottish tradition.

As the father of the bride, I watched from the den. I was sitting in the same chair where I sat to watch the Chicago Cubs win the World Series. (We are never getting rid of that chair.) I was wearing a t-shirt, sweat shirt, blue jeans, and slippers. Other family members were present, as was the family cat. Popcorn was served.

This is not an April Fools prank. This is not First Friday Fiction. This is part of how the pandemic is rewriting life’s scripts for us all. I hope that you and those you love are well. J.

Experiencing technical difficulties (a rambling update for my online friends)

My WordPress presence has been somewhat limited these last few weeks because of assorted (and unrelated) technical difficulties. At times I wonder whether these difficulties are a Sign that I should curtail WordPress activity and focus more attention on other writing.

(On a related note, I am awaiting shipment of my latest book, much of which appeared on this blog as meditations on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. I gave the book the title Blessed with Perfect Righteousness to emphasize the Gospel themes I identified in these meditations.)

As of the beginning of December, my job required me to spend considerably more time than before as a reference librarian in the research room. The new leadership of the library system decided that the department where I work was costing the library too much money, so our budget was cut, some employees lost their jobs, and the rest of us have to replace the missing workers on the schedule. Since I often spend two hours at the reference desk with no one to help, that seemed to be an opportunity to keep up with WordPress, both writing my posts and reading, liking, and commenting upon other posts. For a while that pattern was working. Then, one day, the computer at the desk stopped downloading WordPress correctly. I can still read posts, but all the interactive functions are kaput. Likewise, I can compose posts and publish them, but I cannot interact with readers through that computer. I don’t know what the problem is: it could be a security filter that IT has added, or it could be a fault within that one computer module. In either case, I hate to report the problem to IT since it does not impact the work I am paid to do for the library.

(Beginning today, the library computer is no longer an issue. To prevent the spread of Coronavirus, the library has closed its doors, locking out patrons and employees alike. We are being paid, just as if the library was temporarily closed for ice and snow. And some employees are still keeping the system functioning, but not in my department.)

Meanwhile, my home desktop computer is nearly eight years old, and it is very slow, especially connecting to the Internet. I can read a post, then might have to wait a minute or two before I can click the Like button. The frustration level with this computer was so high that my son donated his desktop as a replacement. It took a few days for me to transfer files from the old computer to the newer computer, but I finally got the new system up and running. I left the old computer assembled on a nearby piece of furniture in case any family members remembered something else that hasn’t been transferred. But last week the new computer began to malfunction. For some reason, the main computer is not corresponding with the monitor. When that happened on the old computer, I was able to fix the problem by removing the side panel and blowing out the accumulated dust. I did that this weekend with the new computer, and the first time I reconnected it, things started right away. Since then, it has become increasingly balky, to the point that today the computer system is not working at all. I am considering taking the computer to the nearest ubreakifix location to see if they can identify and fix the problem.

(Since I have competed the Sermon on the Mount book, my next project is to be a twelve chapter book, “Witnesses to the Lord’s Passion.” Each chapter will be the account of Christ in the latter half of Holy Week as seen from one point of view: Peter, Judas, Caiaphas, Pilate, Barabbas, etc. Years ago I wrote and presented some selections for this book; these I have to find and copy (while editing and improving them), while others I will write from scratch.)

I am doing what I can on this older desktop computer. I am scheduled to teach a college class this spring. Ten students signed up for the class, but only four came to the first session last Tuesday, and only two were there last Thursday. Over the weekend, the school announced that all teaching would be done online, so I have to figure out how to give quizzes and other assignments through the school’s web site. Most teachers do this already, and I have had training sessions for online teaching. But I have always preferred the classroom experience, and it seems that the students who sign up for my classes feel the same.

(Meanwhile, we have had a wet, gray, and gloomy February and March, which is not good for morale. And our family’s fifteen-year-old cat, who was getting more frail, suddenly took a turn for the worse and was essential on hospice care last week. Family members in the area were able to visit her by the end of the week. On Saturday she was taken to the veterinarian, who diagnosed renal failure and recommended euthanasia, which was then done. So yesterday I buried a cat in the growing pet cemetery behind our house.)

My prospects for a new job still seem good, although I have not heard directly from those in charge of a decision. My guess is that they will wait until after Easter before moving to the next step, which would include interviews of prospective workers. That probably means that the position will not be filled until June or July, leaving a few weeks between the retiring worker and the replacement—which probably is healthy for all involved. This delay has not stopped family members from scouting new houses in the neighborhood of the church, while making lists of what has to be done to sell the house we have now.

(And I needed to jumpstart my car after church a week ago, so I stopped by the auto parts store on the way home and bought a new battery, which they installed for me. Plus I’m trying to get my income taxes filed, which has been complicated by these computer problems. Yesterday a lot of churches canceled their services, although I did get to attend the one I had been planning to attend. I’m not sure whether the cancellations will continue for many weeks on Sundays and Wednesdays, or if yesterday was a one-time event.)

So I will try to return to WordPress when I can to continue building my political platform, to comment on current events and on the life of the Church, and to keep up with my friends. God’s blessings to you all: Keep Calm and Stay Healthy. J.

I have a dream

It began at a gas station. I had just filled the gas tank of my car, and I was prepared for a long drive home. I had not been home for a while, and I was looking forward to returning.

The service road was crowded with traffic, so I had to wait a bit for a gap before I could leave. But soon I was on my way, merging onto the Interstate. Almost immediately I passed some construction, and some of the vehicles in front of me pulled over into the site, but I kept on driving.

The next thing I knew, I was on Washington Street in my childhood hometown. Some trees next to the street were in bloom, covered with flowers. I pulled a branch to my face and sniffed, but I smelled no odor.

After that I was home. I knew people were sleeping, so I was moving quietly from room to room. Suddenly, I heard the Beatles singing “Paperback Writer.” I knew that my alarm was going off, and my first thought was worry that the alarm had been playing every morning while I was away.

Then I woke. My alarm was playing “Paperback Writer,” as I had set it to do last night. I had not been away from home, and my alarm had not been disturbing my family during my absence.

Most of the dream makes sense: my returning home after an absence, my departure somewhat delayed by traffic, passing through construction—all that I understand. But I am trying to decipher the odorless flowers close to home.

Any suggestions? J.

My acting career

My review last week of the musical Wicked has prompted memories of my own career on stage many years ago. The high school I attended put on a play every fall and a musical every spring; the productions approached a professional level and were popular in the community. My sophomore year I played in the orchestra for The Music Man. The next year I was back in the pit for Fiddler on the Roof. My senior year I finally found the courage to try out for a part on stage. That year the faculty chose to produce Hello, Dolly! and I was given the part of Horace Vandergelder (clear evidence that, even in high school, I was already recognized as a curmudgeon).

The high school had enough talented students interested in these productions that they were able to double-cast every major part. On Fridays and Sundays the main cast would have the major parts, while the “understudies” would perform smaller parts. On Saturdays (and for the school assembly promoting the production) the “understudies” performed the main roles while the main cast took the smaller parts. This meant that many students had to learn two characters for each production.

The Music Man portrays a traveling salesman who sells musical instruments for children, as well as uniforms and instruction books—in spite of the fact that he has no musical training. The town’s librarian, who also gives piano lessons, is the chief threat to his sales campaign. Being a comic musical, a romance develops between Professor Hill and librarian Marian Paroo. That year the school boasted a fine crop of actors and musicians, especially among the young men. The smaller parts for said young men were the school board, who begin the play bickering in public but become united when Professor Hill introduces them to barbershop quartet music. In the cast room after the production, and on other occasions out of the public eye, the two quartets would combine into a powerful octet, singing barbershop songs from the musical. I was one of the three trombonists in the orchestra (a far smaller number than the seventy-six trombones mentioned in the show). I also got to produce the blats of the tuba for the children’s band that appears in the finale of the show.

Fiddler on the Roof depicts a Jewish community in Russia during the nineteenth century. What a learning experience for white, Protestant, suburban kids, learning how to portray a vulnerable and persecuted community of outsiders. Although the script has comic moments, the tenor of the show is very serious. The cast became very close during the rehearsals and put on a powerful performance.

Hello, Dolly! is a comedy about a New York widow early in the twentieth century who also serves as a matchmaker. As the heart of the story, Dolly decides to choose a match for herself—a wealthy but dour merchant in the suburb of Yonkers. Several subplots become entangled in the story, including the merchant’s two assistants, a milliner and her assistant, the merchant’s niece and her prospective husband, and a famous restaurant in New York City. Those of us who had been involved in Music Man and Fiddler found Dolly to have less substance and life than the previous shows; I, for one, was rather glad when the curtain came down on Sunday afternoon. On the other hands, I became good friends with some of the sophomores who were getting their start in theater, which made rehearsals, performances, and cast parties a lot more fun.

I have not been able to return to acting since high school, although I have been an enthusiastic supporter of amateur community theater everywhere I have lived. I cannot count the number of live productions I have seen over the years. My family owns dozens of DVDs and VCR tapes of famous musicals. I understand that a number of people are not fond of productions in which the story is interrupted periodically by singing and dancing, but I agree with a friend of mine who wrote a song, “Life Should Be More Like a Musical.” J.

Prayer request

Last week I mentioned that some of my coworkers are retiring.

I neglected to mention that their retirement was not voluntary.

This is how that came to pass:

Four years ago, the director of the System for which I work retired. He was replaced by a new director, a former member of the Board that oversees the System. Clearly, they knew what kind of director they were getting.

The previous director was a visionary leader. The new director is a pragmatic leader. (One of his favorite words is “sustainable.”) Once he settled into his position, became familiar with the details of the System, and replaced most of the administrative leaders with his people, he then persuaded the Board to hire a consulting firm to determine how the System is operating and how it can be improved.

Now at this level of operations, one does not find a consultant by randomly looking in a phone book. Instead, one researches the various consultants in the field, studying the advice they have given other clients. One selects the consultant that has, in the past, given the kind of advice one wants to receive. The consultant then examines the System, interviewing employees and clients and people in the service area who have not been clients. Having done all this work, the consultant produces a report on the System with suggestions for improvements. Any unpopular improvements can be blamed on the consultants and on their research. So the System began developing a strategic plan, based on the recommendations of the consultant, and aimed at making the System more helpful to its clients and prospective clients.

The previous director—the visionary leader—created, over the years, a special department within the System to achieve tasks not done by other branches of the System. I was hired to work in that department. The strategic plan, based on the work of the consultants, treats my department as one of fifteen branches, similar to the others rather than unique. That same plan points out that my department is far more expensive to the System than any other branch. Although there was talk this past spring and summer about targeting our unique services to serve the branches, by the end of the summer it was obvious that our branch budget was going to be significantly smaller in 2020. The only way to meet that budget was to reduce staff. My division of the department was targeted for cuts, and so our size as we enter 2020 is about half of what it was a year ago.

And we already know that the branch budget for 2021 will be smaller yet.

The coworkers who were involuntarily retired happen to be workers who have served in the System for years at various capacities. They had scaled back to part-time, aiming toward eventual retirement; but they had hoped to continue working for a bit longer. The branch manager explained to all of us that no one had been singled out for removal, but that part-time positions were no longer considered “sustainable.” This explanation is, at best, a partial truth. Removing these positions without singling out the actual workers saves the branch money, and it also indicates that my division within the branch is least valuable to the branch and to the System and most likely to be targeted for future cuts.

That presents half the puzzle. Now that I have written more than five hundred words—now that casual readers have clicked off the post and only my friends are still reading—here is the other half. In the summer of 2016, I studied for, took, and passed a certifying exam, giving me full credentials for the position I currently occupy. But that same summer, I received a phone call from a pastor in the area (who also happens to be a friend). He said that two congregations were combining to hire a pastor and my name had been mentioned among the possibilities. Would I consider returning to full-time church work? I had not been thinking about returning, so I asked for a day to consider the question. My oldest daughter pointed out that I could say yes, I would consider it, and still be free to say no later; but that if I said no right away I would wonder later if I had been right or wrong. So I said yes, I would consider the position if it was offered. It turned out that I was the second choice of the committee choosing a pastor and their first choice said yes. But a hint was dropped that a new door might be opening.

I belong to a group of churches that are very congregational. No church official can assign a pastor to a congregation, nor can a pastor advertise that he is seeking a position. Congregations seeking pastors create a list of possibilities, study the qualifications of the candidates, sometimes interview the most promising candidates, and then offer a call to the one they believe will serve them best. Church officials can make recommendations, but they cannot place a pastor in a position. Any pastor who advertises himself for a position disqualifies himself for that position. “The office seeks the man; the man does not seek the office.”

But, having been considered for one opening in the area, I updated my paperwork and indicated to the regional church official that I was willing to be considered for a call. Several opportunities came and went, but no one contacted me to say I was being considered. More than a year ago, the regional church official, along with my friend, strongly urged me to accept a call to a congregation about fifty miles away, but it would have been a part-time position, so I told them no. Now, with the changing situation with my full-time job, I thought I had better act. I contacted the regional church official, and he set up a meeting with me early in October. I gave him the details of my personal position and encouraged him to recommend me wherever he thought I would be suitable. Commenting that adult members of my family were establishing themselves in the community, he suggested that he would be reluctant to recommend me for a position too far from where I live now. But he agreed to do what he could to help move me back into full-time church work.

On December 1, another friend of mine—also a pastor—announced his retirement, effective the beginning of May. I know his congregation well, and I am well-known there. Some of my children have joined that congregation. My family attends special services there, including Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. I am very comfortable with their traditional style of worship, and I know that my theology and approach to pastoral work is much like that of the current pastor.

The regional church official met with the congregation’s call committee around the middle of December. On the last Sunday of December, the chair of that committee announced that the members of the congregation will be surveyed about the congregation’s need for a new pastor and that nominations will be accepted at the same time. (These steps are happening much faster than is typical for a calling congregation.) There is no way to apply for the position, no one who would accept a resume, no way of getting their attention that would not have the opposite effect of disqualifying me for the position.

All I can do is pray. I can bypass the congregation’s leaders and the regional official and go straight to the Lord of the Church. But even such prayers must be qualified with the phrase, “Thy will be done.” I see only part of the picture; the Lord sees far more than I see. To me it seems like an ideal match. I expect that at least some of the members of this congregation would agree. But the process must be left for the Lord to guide.

I invite your prayers for me and for this congregation. I know that getting other Christians to pray will not force God to do what I want. At the same time, we can always ask. And please also pray that I may be made worthy of such a position, that God would shape me to be the kind of servant he wants in his Church. And may his good and gracious will be done. J.

Remembering my uncle

He was my uncle. When I was a boy, he was also my neighbor, my keyboard teacher, and my mentor. He passed away December 23, 2019, at the age of 97.

During the Great Depression, my grandfather went to a famous food company and offered to work at any job they had available. They had him loading trucks for a few weeks, until one company official discovered that the new man was very talented mathematically. They hired him as a bookkeeper, a position he held for many years. By the end of the 1930s, my grandparents had purchased a farm house and three acres of land in a western suburb. They intended that their son and their daughter, after each of them married, could have a quarter of the property on which to build a house. My uncle and my mother accepted this gift, and so the family remained in close contact. Traveling east to west, or west to east, one would encounter a street, a front yard, a house, a back yard, a garden (two adjacent cultivated gardens, one belonging to each household), another back yard, another house, another front yard, and another street. Both households had a small orchard at the north end of the garden, and journeys through the orchards from one household to another were common. There were also paths from each household to my grandparents’ house to the south.

My uncle was hired as a chemist by the same company that had hired my grandfather. He also served in the U.S. Army during World War II. His company was among the waves of soldiers that continued the invasion and occupation of German-held France in Normandy after D-Day; he and his fellow soldiers landed on June 8, 1944, the third day of the landing, and he saw action in France during the war.

He had two sons and two daughters. One daughter preceded him in death (due to cancer), and one son became estranged from the family. His four children were all older than me; in fact, during family gatherings I frequently joined the two sons of my cousin, playing in the basement while the adults visited upstairs. The family came together to celebrate birthdays and wedding anniversaries, as well as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. Even children’s birthdays were marked by multi-generational gatherings that featured cake, ice cream, and (for the adults) coffee.

When he was working outside, my uncle would frequently have a young boy following him. That boy was me. My uncle teased with riddles. (Can you identify the longest day of the year? It’s the day each fall when we turn back our clocks to end Daylight Saving Time, because that day lasts twenty-five hours.) I learned a great deal from my father and from my mother, but my grandparents and my uncle were also part of my life nearly every day.

My uncle played the piano. I am sure he taught his children how to play. My sister also took lessons from him. When she wanted to quit, I was ready to start. Since I was only in the first grade, my parents doubted that I was ready for lessons, but my uncle was willing to give it a try. I still remember the triumph of mastering the piece that had frustrated my sister, leading to her quitting and my starting the lessons. But I did not practice on a piano. My grandparents had an electric organ on which I would practice my assignment every weekday afternoon. When I thought I was ready, I would make an appointment with my uncle and play the piece for him. He would either suggest improvements or pass me and assign a new piece. We completed all three books of the Thompson Method, and then he suggested various classical pieces for me to learn. His favorite was Schubert’s “March Militaire.” Because I practiced on an electric organ, I did not learn the fine points of piano technique until I was in high school, where I finally had regular access to pianos.

Eventually I grew up, took on a full-time job, was married, had children, and only occasionally visited my parents. When I stopped by the old place for a visit, I usually took time to cross through the orchards and visit my uncle as well. In his later years he battled failing sight, hearing, and strength. Despite these limitations, his mind remained strong, and provided I didn’t mind shouting and repeating myself, I was able to converse with him.

The death of my uncle produces a mild melancholy, not a deep grief. He had a long and meaningful life, and I have many fond memories of our time together. I know that I will still think of him from time to time. I am thankful to the Lord for my uncle’s place in my life and in my memories. J.