Well, as of yesterday I am no longer a Democrat. Nor a Republican. Nor a Libertarian, or Green Party, or any party affiliation. I am now officially “Non-Affiliated”. It’s a lot better than it sounds.
I need to share why I did this at this time. In part, I’m hopeful this will shield me from political robo-calls, at least at the primary level. Dealing with them at the general election level is just hopeless. But more importantly, I cannot in good conscience give my hand, affiliate myself, with either of the two major parties in this country because I find them shameful and embarrassing. I dislike what the Republican Party has come to stand for, and I mourn for the Democratic Party that seems to stand for nothing. The Libertarians believe in the inherent goodness of people, that, left to their own devices, people and the human system will take care of things properly. Greens (and the other really minor parties) are almost entirely fixated on a single issue to the exclusion of all else.
It was true 20+ years ago when Linda Ellerbee said it and wrote it, and it’s even more true today: the GOP and the Democratic parties are Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber.
Am I being unfair? I don’t think so.
There’s not enough space here to adequately explain how shameful I think our political system, and our culture as a whole, has become. And no political party has the priorities and principles I seek to demonstrate and to encourage in our leaders: Integrity. Honesty. Humility. Service. Making justice and the promotion of the general welfare the first priority. Truly caring for “the least and the lost” not just giving lip service.
This is what my faith says is most important; this is what it takes for us to really and truly be “the greatest nation on Earth.” To act with justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with my God who has called me to love others as he loves me and them. To fight the good fight, because the system, as large as it is, can be changed; I will not be moved, nor will I fail, for “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
I will continue to strive for a better nation, to seek and to call people to higher principles and ideals…and until there is a political party that seeks that as well, I will have nothing to do with them, or politics-as-usual.
Recently I picked up a new “client” (so to speak) in my unofficial capacity as resident tech support for family and friends. The home computer of folks my wife knows was infested with one of those malware applications pretending to be anti-virus software and rather then them take the computer to somewhere disreputable like Geek Squad, I fixed it for them pretty quickly and easily, and took the time while the cleaner program I use was running to educate the guy on what to watch out for.
It made me think of all the people—family, friends, members of my church, so-called IT people I worked with at Hopkins—who I’ve taught about computer infections over the years, and maybe rather than repeat myself I should, I dunno, put up a tutorial somewhere like a ‘blog, y’know?
I won’t try to cover everything in one post. Let’s start with what, exactly, infects your computer, what they do and what they look like, and in the next Geek Help post we’ll talk about how to clean ‘em out, and in part 3 we’ll talk about how to reduce your risk of getting them in the first place.
If you’re attacked, it’s most likely because you’re a Windows user. I don’t say that with a holier-than-thou attitude because I’m now primarily a Mac user (and yes, we are seeing exploits on Macs), I say it because Windows is the most widely-used personal computer system. If you’re writing a program to exploit computer users, are you going to write one for 5% of personal computer users (Linux), 7% of computer users (Mac) or 86% of computer users out there—where are you going to get the best bang for your buck, so to speak? In fact, it’s the popularity of Android coupled with its openness that has made it the easier target for exploits in the mobile world, while iOS remains safer, relatively-speaking.
There are ways to protect yourself, but you first have to know what you’re protecting yourself from. Here’s what you will face, if you are on-line and use a computer long enough:
Malware is a portmanteau of “malicious software”. The key is that it is something that either gets installed without your knowledge or permission, or lies or otherwise misleads you as to its purpose or intention. There are legitimate applications out there that could fall into this definition partially or entirely, but for now let’s think in terms of “evil”.
Spyware is a specific category of malware that’s designed to collect data from your computer or spy on your activities. Spyware might watch what websites you go to and report that information back to a data aggregator/miner, or collect personal data such as accounts and passwords (email, shopping, banking…), or filter your Internet activity through itself and serve you different ads than the ones websites want you to see.
Spyware is not generally self-propagating, so it’s not as though you would get infected by someone else’s spyware or that spyware on your machine would infect others. But that’s only a rule-of-thumb. Always treat malware as highly contagious.
Adware is a specific type of spyware designed to serve advertisements to your computer. It routes all Internet activity through itself and may either serve pop-up ads at you from time-to-time, or replace legitimate ads on web pages with ones from its organization (e.g., replacing all car ads on web pages with an ad for Hummer).
Trojans are the malware I most see these days because they are the sneakiest, most deceptive sons-of-seacooks out there. The name, obviously, comes from the Trojan horse, and tells you what this malware is: something bad designed to look like something nice. It could be a program that piggy-backs on a legitimate program—a less-evil example of this are the so-called “toolbars”, “browser enhancements”, and “download assistants” you get with many printers, cameras, and other digital media devices today. Or it could be a program that pretends to be something else. The biggest example are the pop-up ads you get on the Internet that look like a warning message from your computer that you’ve been infected and that you need to download such-and-such anti-virus or whatever “right now” to be protected. Thinking this is a legitimate alert, you click “download” and now you’ve just infected yourself with the very thing that you thought you were protecting yourself from.
Think of worms as the truck drivers who deliver the malware. Worms merely propagate without altering the system they’re on, though in corporate environments they can slow networks to a crawl because they “clog the pipes” in their effort to propagate to as many machines as possible. The real danger is that worms can carry “payloads”: other programs that commit the evil acts. They may open a “backdoor” into a computer, allowing other programs to be installed or the computer to be hijacked, or they may be the first-wave of infiltration of other, larger, more malevolent programs.
Viruses and worms bear some similarities; in some ways viruses are the common ancestor of all the above evil. The first virus I was ever infected with was the Ethan Fromme virus. It did one thing: it changed all Word documents on the computer so that the author of the document was “Ethan Fromme”. Big whup, right? But if someone could use the code that did that and changed it to make Outlook replace the names of all your contacts with the name Pete Zaah, it could cripple businesses that rely on Outlook.
So now you know what can infect you. Next time we’ll go to the computer doctor’s office and get ourselves a does of antibiotics for our computers!
As I write this it has been 11 months since I last wrote something here…not for want of something to write, but for want of something worth sharing. Part of it, to be candid, is because for the past year I’ve been working with a mental health professional on what I like to call my puppy dog tendencies…what a local funeral director in town I really like to work with calls his ‘chocolate lab moments’…what clinicians like to call ADD. Funny, but I find I’m a calmer, more thoughtful person here almost a year later, not as quick to share whatever thought enters my head at any given moment, and not as prone to fits of, well, anger about things that have no direct impact on me, like the post I wrote a while back about Al Sharpton and Pat Robertson. There are more important things in life to think about and talk about.
Which leads me to why there’s been a drought on Mor Beal. I refuse to be one of those people who talks about the minutiae of my day, what the weather’s like, what my mood is, what food I’m eating. Well, maybe that last one—but not here! You’ll have to check that out over at the cooking ‘blog I’m starting of the experiences of my wife and I in the kitchen and on the grill. But the more time I’ve spent on the Intartubes reading other peoples’ blogs and Facebook and Google+, the more I realize that far too much of what is posted means little in the grand scheme of things. And don’t even get me started on the dehumanizing personality of the Internet, especially in places like Reddit and Fark.com!
I encourage those who take meeting minutes to use what I call the 10/100 Rule. For, say, a work or brainstorming session, what will we need to remember about what we did 10 days and 100 days from now? For a management meeting, what will those in authority need to know 10 months or 100 months from now? For something like my church board of elders, what will those who come after us need to know 10 years or 100 years from now?
I think the same should be true of ‘blogs…or at least I promise to make that true of this ‘blog.
(Wish I’d written this four years ago when I started here…!)
Laws are like sausages — it is best not to see them being made.
Otto von Bismarck, first Chancellor of Germany
Bismarck’s quote from the 19th century is even more true today than it was in his day.
Whether it’s Washington County’s commissioners wrestling with capital improvements, delegates in Annapolis wrangling over tuition rates for state universities, or Congress arguing over debt ceilings and entitlement programs and the budget, governing is a messy affair.
That’s no less true for church governance than in the larger society. Session elders regularly have to deal with the messy bits tangentially-related (or sometimes unrelated) to the ministry of the church. Gatherings of the entire presbytery can be both uplifting and a grinding burden as we revisit the same issues over and over and over with no progress let alone resolution. Many Presbyterians have no idea what General Assembly is, when it meets, or what goes on there. (Hint: it’s the bi-annual national convening of representatives from every presbytery.)
Now, stay with me, as this might seem dry and boring at first and you might be tempted to roll your eyes and think, “Oh, jeez, not this stuff”, but we’re going somewhere good here I promise.
The constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) is composed of two parts: the Book of Confessions, which is composed of the great and significant credal statements throughout the history of the Church, and the Book of Order, which provides the organizational and operational framework of our denomination.
Neither is static, cast in stone. The Book of Confessions has seen additions as recently as 1983, with the “Brief Statement of Faith” that resulted from the reunification of the northern and southern Presbyterian denominations. The Book of Order is so regularly amended, added-to, revised, tweaked and otherwise tinkered with over the past 28 years as to make it like Bismarck’s sausages.
Last year the General Assembly sent to the presbyteries a few items to vote on to “fix” the Book of Order, the second part of our denomination’s constitution, which provides the organizational and operational structure of our denomination. The Book of Order is so regularly amended, added-to, revised, tweaked and otherwise tinkered with over the past 28 years as to make it like Bismarck’s sausages. In trying to fix what’s broken we just break it more.
One such example is the so-called “Fidelity and Chastity amendment”, an addition to the Book of Order in 1997 which very specifically addresses sexuality and ordination standards. It’s bad government, in part because it’s largely ignored by those churches who want to ordain people who are gay or lesbian, and in part because it’s not enforced by churches that do want to uphold the standard. But more importantly, it is so poorly worded that my congregation is technically in violation of it because we have art in our worship space—graphics in our PowerPoint and images in our stained glass windows. So one of those “fixes” we as a denomination had to vote on was whether or not to remove this section from the Book of Order.
It is things like this that gave impetus to Presbyterian polity wonks to seek to completely revamp the Form of Government section of the Book of Order. After 28 years it’s a bit of a mess. In my opinion the problem has been that the changes to the Book of Order have focused on micromanaging doctrine, fixated on the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law. But, in my opinion, once again in a good-hearted effort to fix what’s broken, we’ve just replaced one broken thing with another.
One of the clearest examples we have of Jesus’ own position on such things as polity and governance is from the 12th chapter of Matthew’s gospel. As happened so many times, the religious leaders protest that Jesus and his disciples are violating laws governing the Sabbath and Jesus responds, “…it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath”.
Whether it is the Book of Order or Robert’s Rules of Order or the old Presbyterian saw about “doing things decently and in order”, the highest standard is not whether we are following the rules, doing the proscribed steps, adhering to the letter of the law. The highest standard is to always, always, ALWAYS measure our thoughts, our decisions, our actions by the following questions:
How does this advance the Kingdom, the living embodiment of the Good News of Jesus in the world through us, right here, right now?
Do we believe this is pleasing to God?
Act on the answers to those questions, and we will never go wrong.
The title of this post is taken from a story I was told by a fellow seminary student from Baltimore back in 1996. It had been the usual mid-Atlantic 3-H Summer: hazy, hot, humid. Several days of 90+°(F, not C) and 90+% humidity had finally broken in typical fashion, with a late afternoon line of thunderstorms that formed over the Poconos and came roaring across central New Jersey with a vengeance. A group of Summer Language students who were from the West Coast who had never seen anything like this before were standing in the Quad, staring at the post-storm sky—a miasma of golds, reds, slate greys and greens. Dr. Gillespie, the president of the seminary, came out of the Admin building at that moment, and came over to the group of students. He, too, started at the sky, and then said, “Huh. Just as I always thought: the Rapture happened…” he looked down at the students and with a twinkle in his eyes deadpanned, “…and we’re all still here.”
As I write this, Harold Camping’s absolute, unequivocal prediction of May 21, 2011, as Judgment Day has come and gone…and we’re all still here.
It would be easy to mock him and his followers, as many have already done long before this day proved Camping wrong (again). Heck, I’ve been sorely tempted myself to crack jokes at their expense. As I rode the tractor around the back lawn Saturday, I thought to myself “If Camping is right, I’m going to be p.o.-ed that I spent my last moments in this life mowing the freaking grass!” But the people who spent their life savings, spent years traveling to tell others, who decorated their cars with messages about Judgment Day deserve neither derision, nor pity. We have more in common with them than any of us would want to admit.
In their book Lucifer’s Hammer, authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle describe something they dub “Hammer Fever”: as a comet (nicknamed “the Hammer”) threatens to hit the Earth and wipe out civilization, some people not only embrace the idea but look forward to it. Network news reporter Harv Randall reflects that people do so because they hate their jobs, their marriages, their lives, they want out of their mortgages, their responsibilities, and they see “the Hammer”, the comet, as a way out.
It comes down to one word: hopelessness. Camping, and others with an eschatological obsession, look at the world and all they can see is insurmountable problems…how the greedy triumph and the powerless are exploited, how the good suffer and the evil seem to prosper, an explosive population growth and global climate change, and “wars and rumors of wars”, nation against nation, famines and earthquakes, increasing wickedness and love grows cold, abominations and desolations… And they are overwhelmed.
What is needed in the aftermath of the Judgment Day That Wasn’t is for all of us to not only find but promote those places of hope in our lives and in the world around us with the same commitment and passion Campings followers had for promoting The End.
In the state of Maryland, where I live, a bill just passed the state legislature allowing that children of families who are not legal residents of the U.S. may pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities…providing that the family has paid state and federal taxes for the past three years and the student is a graduate of a state public high school. It seems reasonable to most sane people, but a few on the political Right who get their BVDs in a twist over “illegal immigration” are mounting a petition drive to put on the next election ballot a referendum to repeal the law. This before the law has even been signed by Governor O’Malley.
After writing to two of the locals who are spearheading this issue, and getting a thoughtful if ill-conceived reply from one, here is the letter I wrote to the editor of the local daily newspaper:
We need some clarification in this recent dust-up over the question of allowing students who do not have permanent residency visas to pay in-state tuition at Maryland colleges and universities. We need to get away from emotions and self-righteous posturing, and get down to principles.
Principle #1: it is delusional to think the in-state tuition bill somehow will reward or encourage illegal immigration. There’s not a single person in any nation in the world saying as a result of this law, “Hey, let’s sneak into the United States, settle in Maryland, and after 10-15 years of struggle our kids can go to Hagerstown Community College without having to pay international student rates. Wow, we will have so exploited the system!”
Principle #2: let’s drop the term “illegal immigrants” as it is inaccurate. When people use the term “illegal immigrants” far too often the image in their mind is of Mexican and other Central American people scurrying across the U.S. border in the dark of night in order to “steal jobs and benefits from hard-working Americans.” While that image has some basis in that nearly 3/4 of all so-called illegal immigrants are from Mexico and Central America, the fact is only slightly more than half of these immigrants gain entry to the United States by crossing the border illegally. According to the Pew Research Center, quite probably nearly half of our “illegal immigrants” enter the U.S. legally: on a tourist or business visa. They overstay the visa’s limitation while working to gain their residency visa which allows them to become permanent residents, and allow them to work on becoming U.S. citizens.
These are not people the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (I.C.E.) would, or do, deport. These are people who are working hard, complying with the requests the federal government makes of them. They are filing the proper paperwork, they are paying the myriad fees and penalties the government demands, they are doing everything asked of them but they are stuck in an immigration system that is beyond broken, beyond hopeless.
Despite this, these people who come to our country continue to strive to overcome. They are issued Employee Identification Numbers by the federal government, through which they obtain employment because they have a specialized skill-set that cannot easily be duplicated. They pay local, state, and federal taxes, including paying into Social Security (from which they will never derive a penny). They are an integral part of the fabric of our community, and still some of us want to treat them like second-class humans.
We want to deny them the benefits of the system they have paid into with their taxes, benefits others are able to enjoy.
We want to deny children who have been part of our communities for years the chance to approach something approximating parity with their classmates, friends, neighbors. They will not get to Harvard or Yale or Princeton because of this law, but maybe, just maybe, they can get an Associate’s Degree from HCC and have a chance at a reasonably decent life, despite the fact they had no say in how they were brought to this country.
We want to argue that this is a matter of not rewarding law-breakers…we who regularly break laws like the speed limit, running traffic lights, cheating on our taxes, stealing office supplies from our employers, looking the other way when our leaders in government and business pillage the public trust…”Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.”
To Mssrs. Parrott and Shank, and to those who agree with them: put down your stones.
What’s the statute of limitations on an April Fools joke? If the Housing Office at Princeton Seminary ever finds out about this, I’ll make restitution because that’s the right thing to do. But this is as much bragging as it is confession, I have to admit.
March 31, 1997, 11:30PM. A fellow seminarian down the hall from me appears in the door to my dorm room. “I hear you know electronics.” Yeah, I took a class in undergrad, and I’ve worked with my dad’s remodeling business. A sly smile spreads across his face as he shares his idea for a great April Fools prank. I smile back. Let’s give it a shot.
We get on the elevator, pull the stop switch (which has no alarm for the sake of people moving in and out of the dorm), and proceed to open the control panel. The panel wiring uses slip-on connectors, not hard-soldered connections, so this should be a cinch. I trace the various wires, determining which ones are to the button light and which ones send the signals. It’s a four-story building, so this shouldn’t be too complicated. My co-conspirator (whose identity I will never divulge to the seminary) and I do a little figuring, and reconnect the wires so that the elevator won’t go to the floor you call for, nor to the floor above or below it.
The morning of April 1. My dorm room is near the elevator, and I had only one morning class that day, so I’m enjoying the morning reading in my room, hearing the elevator doors open, and someone exclaiming, “What the-?” It was particularly frustrating for Linda, who was trying to do laundry in the basement and every time she got into the elevator on the 3rd floor and pushed (B) it would take her up to the fourth floor. The fourth or fifth time it happens I hear a string of four-letter words as she storms off the elevator, through the door and down the fire stairs. I understood the reaction: she was, after all, Irish.
On my way back to my room after my one class, I run into an Otis Elevator repair person the seminary had called in. Worried that my co-conspirator and I endangered people, I ask what’s up. “The elevator’s broken”, he replies. “Nothing bad, the elevator just doesn’t go to the right floor.”
I put on my most innocent face as I comment how, given today was April 1, it sounds like an April Fools prank. “Nah, it’s gotta be a bad call switch in the basement” he grunts. “No one would know how to rewire an elevator to do that.”
The fact I’d pranked my fellow seminarians was great; the fact that in five minutes with an Allen wrench and a pair of needle-nosed pliers I’d done something a certified elevator repair technician charging $100/hour said no one could do just made it epic. And the fact the seminary paid $100/hour to fix the elevator made sure I couldn’t take credit for my BEST. PRANK. EVER.
On this day when you turn 49 and I turn 46, I wish you many happy returns and want to share understanding and solidarity, because I think you and I have something more in common than just a shared birthday.
We both wrestle with “an unruly flock”; the difference is one of scale. You are responsible for 350 million people, and I for a little over 100 people. We’re both relatively new at shepherding those in our care (18 months for you, 40 months for me). So if I may be presumptuous…
We both are caught in battles with people who are grasping desperately at a past that is more myth than reality. We try to work with people who believe absolutely that they know better than anyone else what must be done and will bulldoze their own grandmothers if they get in the way. We both serve people who are coming off years of hurt and anger, sparked by a lack of trust and an unwillingness to come together. We both are experiencing (on different scales) the agitation and lashing out of a group of people who are mired in pointlessness and hopelessness.
We both serve people who have no vision for the future. They hunger for something to draw them in, something that will inspire them to do more than simply maintain what is, they want purpose and to be a part of something meaningful in and for the world.
In your campaign you spoke of a United States of America that would rise above petty politics, that would not cower in fear of the vague threat of terrorism, that would lead the world not through “shock and awe” and intimidation but a United States that would demonstrate fearlessness and power through humility and compassion.
That compelling vision has been lost in the noise of Washington politics since you took office. My sense is that you have buried your more natural style of leadership, the leadership this country needs. Be courageous, be passionate. Let loose the Barack Obama we saw on the campaign trail, who spoke with such certainty of the hope of our future. Let loose the man who in March of 2008 gave one of the most insightful and inspiring speeches since Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream”. Make “Yes we can!” more than a campaign slogan, because it is a prayer of millions of people.
Again, happy birthday, and I wish you much happiness with your family this year.
A little over a year ago in preparation for an upcoming event about 20 people helped clean out and reorganize the kitchen at the church. The cleaning was absolutely necessary; the reorganization was meant to make things easier, like moving the dishes and glasses from over the stove to a cabinet next to the door to the Assembly Room. When we were done, we were all pretty proud of the work. Over the past year I’ve watched as glasses and dishes slowly, a few at a time moved back to the cabinet over the stove, back to where they’d been…for years, apparently.
John Kotter, in his book Leading Change, writes how organizations—not just churches—make changes that don’t stick because the people in the organization didn’t buy into the need to change. In churches, we usually think of this battle over change vs. “what was” as between the younger generation and the “grey saints”. Both younger and older generations see that the mainline traditions aren’t working to grow people in numbers or spiritual development, but the older generation wants the congregation to remain the way it was for them for decades even if it means that local church dies, while the younger generation wants to take some risks, do some possibly crazy stuff in an effort to make spiritual life meaningful (again?).
The delicious irony here is it’s not just the older members of the church who gradually took our kitchen configuration back to the old, less sensible, configuration. It was members of all ages.
The 20-somethings are great for accusing the older generations of being stubborn, of trying to take the church backwards in its development and ministries. But here we have a 21st century version of Jesus’ warning about being too concerned about the speck of dust in your friend’s eye you can’t notice the 2×4 plank in your own eye. Regardless of what generation we’re from, we have a blind spot when it comes to seeing our own tendency to go back to “the way things were”.
I understand this desire. I think we all have this unconscious habit in times of stress of going back to old habits, taking up old practices simply because they’re more familiar and therefore seem simpler, easier or more sensible.
So my practice now is going to be looking for those places in my own life where I’m undoing the good changes, and am moving the plates and glasses back to where they were.
Back in the early 1990s, I followed a car through “downtown” Greenwich, Connecticut, that sported a bumper sticker that said “Oppose the military-industrial complex”. The irony was it was on the bumper of a SAAB.*
I hadn’t seen such delicious irony on a car until today. As I was turning into my neighborhood, the car in front of me waiting to cross Route 40 sported a Harley-Davidson sticker on the side window. That, in and of itself, isn’t irony—that it was on the side window of a Smart Car is just too much!
The difference is this person was not ignorant of the implications of what she or he had done. I’d like to believe that this is a person saying you can be macho and environmentally responsible at the same time.
* – SAAB stands for Svenska Aeroplan AB (“Swedish Aeroplane Ltd.), and is the largest builder of military aircraft in Europe.