Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Trinity Can Also Give You Healthy Gums & Fresh Breath!

     At an earlier service I teased my rector Stefani about her upcoming sermon for this morning, Trinity Sunday: “I’m looking forward to having this whole Trinity business explained to me.”

     With a coy smile she replied, “All will be revealed.”

     During her excellent sermon, she gave a number of wonderful illustrations, including historical ones. There were two new ones I had not heard before that especially stuck with me.

     The first used the toothpaste Aquafresh. She mentioned she had picked this illustration up elsewhere, but it is delightful to think of a representation of the Trinity being right in your medicine cabinet.

     The other explanation came from Roman Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson who compares God with DNA. The shape of DNA is a double helix: two strands of genetic material woven together to form the building block of all biological life. Now imagine DNA with an extra strand, Johnson says – a triple helix that’s the greatest source of life ever! The sheer immensity of God the Trinity woven into every aspect of our lives like DNA spoke to me personally.

     The most delightful explanation of God, although Order In God's Name at Amazon!not explicitly Trinitarian, came this morning during the children’s service from another of our priests, Kathy, who read a wonderful children’s book entitled In God’s Name by Sandy Eisenburg Sasso. In it, everyone is searching for God’s name and all of them think they have found the best one. It is not, however, until they all gather around a still pond and speak their own name for God that God becomes present. The kids were enthralled, and the insight of the book, as we struggle to name the unnamable, awed me and gave me goosebumps.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ghosts in the New York Public Library!

     Remember the movie Ghostbusters and the scene shot at the New York Public Library with the ghost in front of the card catalog? There is a wonderful group called Improv Everywhere that stages brilliant stunts in public places to the amazement of unsuspecting onlookers. The great thing I like about them is their pranks are never mean, but always the kind of performances that make people smile and laugh in wonder. Their latest video was arranged with the complicity of the New York Public Library to help with its current series of Public Service Announcements. Imagine you are studying at the library, when all a sudden ghosts begin to infiltrate, opening their laptops, reading, checking a dictionary entry. I mean, who you gonna call?

     This second video is the original one that caught my attention; you may have seen it too. It was filmed in the Liverpool train station as part of a commercial for T-Mobile. Imagine during a regular busy travel day, music begins and a man starts dancing alone in the middle of the station, only to be joined by five more people, and then ten, and then… I only wish something like this would happen to me when I travel.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

11th Annual Ecumenical Choir Festival

     Over one hundred choristers gathered at Trinity Episcopal Church last Sunday for our 11th annual Ecumenical Choir Festival. The church was packed, as choirs from as far away as Quincy, California lifted their voices in praise. Each group presented an individual anthem they had prepared, and there were three incredible mass choir pieces. Our church has a long tradition of supporting ecumenical relations, and it did my heart good as I watched Episcopalians, Methodists, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Unitarians all joining their voices in song. For a couple hours every year, it always feels to me I am seeing Christians united in faith as it was meant to be.

     This first piece is the mass choir presentation of Elijah Rock in an exciting gospel arrangement I had never heard:

     The second piece is Trinity's offering of Taste and See arranged by our talented new Interim Music Director, Michael Langham:

Monday, May 24, 2010

Leaving Facebook

     So, Facebook admits to making another privacy gaffe and apologizes profusely and sincerely, promising it will respect your privacy in the future. I, for one, don’t buy it. You can read the latest mea culpa in the "Washington Post". Wanting to beat the Christmas rush, I deleted my account two weeks ago.

     There are many reasons why people get onto Facebook. It all sounded so noble and logical as I repeated my reasons to others a year ago, “My oldest daughter has graduated from college, and my younger daughter will be following her in a couple years. As they go away to graduate school, I want to be able to stay in touch.” Sometimes, I even threw in a justification based on evangelism: “You know, most young people communicate through Facebook, so this will open up a whole new way of staying in touch with younger parishioners and older ones too.” What a great dad! What an edgy emergent-church kind of priest! The real truth was far less pretty.

     I was driving home last year when my oldest daughter called me on my cell phone to say she had been accepted by Seton Hall University about fourteen miles outside of New York City. I was thrilled; I was proud; I made all sorts of appropriate parental noises. I also hung up and cried the rest of the way home. Seton Hall: 2,861 miles from my doorstep in northern Nevada.

     According to Google Maps, it would take me forty-three hours to drive there. Clearly, Google Maps based this wild-eyed optimistic estimate on three assumptions: 1) I would not sleep, eat, or stop for gas; 2) My little Hyundai sedan could maintain a constant rate of 66.5 miles per hour shooting out of my sleepy little neighborhood and blazing through downtown Salt Lake City, Omaha, Chicago, and Cleveland without attracting the interest of law enforcement, and; 3) A large-sized Diet Pepsi wouldn’t force my tricky fifty-two-year-old bladder to the side of the road within fifteen minutes flat. I had realized the girls were eventually going to grow up and have their own lives, but did they really have to begin them on the other side of the planet? OK, to take the drama down a notch we return to Google Maps where we learn that the “other side of the planet” would technically have been somewhere in the neighborhood of Samarkand, Uzbekistan – but you get my drift.

     So, in what some would uncharitably describe as a less-than-manly display of parental panic, I joined Facebook. At first it was fun. We had some great father-daughter time as the girls tutored me in how to post my status (“Dad is now on Facebook!”) and learned how to make critical updates about my life (“I have uploaded my first picture of the cats!”) Ever the Episcopalian and concerned about my privacy, I spent hours perusing articles about online settings for Facebook to prevent personal details being divulged to identity thieves or the Huffington Post – both evil enterprises who would naturally want to access private shots of my cats. Finally it was done, and I settled back into making daily checks of Facebook to learn about my daughters’ lives and share mine with them. What I learned is our lives consist mainly of what we have eaten today, things we already discussed on the phone or in person, and who our latest Facebook friends are. Week after week, I found I had less to say and would prefer to talk to my daughters in person rather than try to make my rather predictable day sound interesting by coming up with catchy status updates like, “Whoa! Jonah swallowed by sea monster during Morning Prayer. God: 1; Jonah: 0!”

     Yes, it was life on the edge, until the day Facebook decided to make its first “enhancement” to my privacy settings. What Facebook means by “enhanced privacy settings” is they have defaulted all your previous privacy settings to absolute zero, allowing everyone (especially their advertisers) to see your profile, marital status, home town, groups you have joined, list of friends, and the new Thai restaurant you ate at last night. Another facet of being Episcopalian is I am basically polite. I found it hard to refuse the deluge of friend requests from people I liked, people I was not sure I liked, and people I did not even know. What began as a family sharing experience shortly became a mob. Soon, I was being informed about vague acquaintances purchasing fertilizer for their simulated ant farms on Facebook and important valid scientific tests I could take (“What Gemstone Are You?”; “What Celebrity Are You?”; “What Theologian Are You?”) I learned how to hide friends or activities like the ant farm but still, as one friend put it, “What does it say about your sixty-eight friends when you have sixty-two of them hidden?”

     After each of the four “privacy enhancements” Facebook has rolled out in the year I have been with them, I had to spend too much time learning how to lock down my settings again. Each time, they introduced one more way to make it difficult or impossible to do so. Sometimes I did not realize I had missed a setting until I had a new friend request from a stranger waiting for me or received startling E-mail notifications from Facebook (“Margaret went to the same Thai restaurant you did last night!”). The final straw came during their last upgrade when I discovered I could no longer completely opt out of people sending me friend requests. I had received thirteen requests from current and former students within a week. There is no way I am sharing my personal life with twelve-year-olds I am currently teaching and middle schoolers I taught last year. I’m their teacher, not their friend – no matter what more groovy teachers say, there does remain an important gulf between those two. Read about privacy concerns on Facebook at the New York Times here: "Price of Facebook Privacy?" Given these four previous missteps and the amount of money to be made from ad revenue if Facebook does not respect my privacy, you will understand if I am less than ready to swallow the latest spin-saturated apology.

     Since I also work with websites, I have a rather advanced Internet virus protection program. I say “advanced” because it cost me a lot of money. Over a week’s time, my virus protection program would indicate an uptick in malicious traffic whenever I accessed Facebook. Reports online have indicated Facebook is one of the new favorite targets of spammers, hackers, and identity thieves. Read about these concerns at the New York Times here: "A 'friend' might send you a virus"

     So, a couple weeks ago, I deleted my account. It is a pretty easy process if you can withstand the pleading messages that arrive in your E-mail afterwards: “Mark will miss you!” “Susan still wants to be your friend!” Simply go to the help page on Facebook, type “delete account” into the search box, and the answer will come up – it is just one simple click on a link after that. I even have heard there is a move to get people to quit Facebook on Memorial Day due to these privacy concerns ("Quit Facebook on May 31"). For once, it’s nice to be ahead of the curve. Facebook will try to get you to just “deactivate” your account, but don’t fall for it – if you ever sign in again, even accidentally, your account is automatically reactivated. Even when you choose to delete your account, if you sign in again within fourteen days, the process is cancelled, and you have to start over.

     My oldest decided not to go to Seton Hall last year after all; instead she will be heading down to Texas for grad school this fall. It is not the other side of the world at least, but she is probably going to end up with a drawl at the end of her first month, and I am concerned about her even being in the same state as George Bush. We will keep in touch in old fashioned ways – letters and phone calls – and in new fashioned ways like E-mail. The bottom line is I do not really think a third party focused on advertising dollars maintains your relationships – only real human contact does that. Besides, Texas isn’t that far away. Google Maps says it is only a twenty-nine hour drive!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Retirement or Act II?

     After many years teaching elementary school, I have decided to retire. It really was not an easy decision. Realizing I was finishing my thirtieth year finally hit me after the holidays. Just out of curiosity, I wrote to our public employees’ retirement system to see what kind of retirement income I would have if I retired at the end of this year. After looking at the figures, I realized if the church wanted me as a part-time priest, they would be getting quite a deal since I did not need that much additional salary to bring me up to my current teaching salary.

     In February, I approached my rector with the idea. We did have a full-time priest in addition to her when she arrived, but that priest was hired into a rector’s position back east quite awhile ago. We also have a part-time priest shared between our congregation and another. For the past four years, I have simply acted as what we jokingly refer to in Nevada as a “gas money priest” since the small monthly stipend we receive usually pays for the gas. I presented the idea of the job initially, and then she called me back for a more serious talk a couple weeks later. Once she decided it was a great idea, it went to the executive committee, and then needed vestry approval. The hard part was knowing all this was underway, but having to keep track of who knew and who did not know, so I did not say something I shouldn’t. Finally, with the mailing of our May newsletter the whole congregation knew – what a relief! The congregation has given me a warm reception – odd statement since I have been there for thirteen years − and I am looking forward to starting formally in July. I am thinking of it not so much as “retirement” (I’m only 52 – a tender age), but as “Act II” in the unfolding play that is my life.

     It is an odd and somewhat unsettling feeling to think of myself not teaching school. When I pause to consider it, in one form or another I have never really been out of school: Grammar School – Middle School – High School – College – Grad School – Teaching. My entire life has been lived among schoolchildren. When I am asked what I do for a living, the answer has always been, “I’m a teacher.” Rarely does the priest thing come up. Now, the correct answer is, “I am an Episcopal priest.” That is going to take some getting used to.

     The standard questions I am asked on almost a daily basis are, 1) “So, are you counting the days?” and; 2) “What are you going to do?” That first question is beginning to get on my nerves. Yes, I am ready to move on, but I still love my students, and am going to give them my all until we have to say good bye in June.

     The second question is easier to answer, except most people seem a trifle disappointed I am not planning to sail around the world with only my cats for company or something equally extreme (We teacher/priests are a dull lot.) To be honest, there are a few things I am really looking forward to in my retirement: not grading papers every evening, not having to wait for a bell to go to the bathroom, and not being afraid of those icons on the evening weather report. I want to just watch the evening weather report without my stomach clenching if there is snow or rain midweek. If I see the rain or snow icon it means I’m going to have a rough commute (only 35-45 minutes, but lots of hills and mountains), and probably the kids are going to stay inside all day.

     It is public knowledge at my school that I am retiring, and even my students are beginning to know. One boy asked today in a hurt tone of voice, “Why didn’t you tell us you were retiring?! We would have treated you better.” I just laughed. I will miss the kids.