Coming soon: My best line ever

I just came up with the most sensational lead-in of my entire adult life. But I can’t use it yet because it has someone else’s name in it and I really ought to clear it with him first.
There’s no shortage of other things to talk about. I’d really love to use that line because it’s so politically incorrect… But I need something to make you come back tomorrow anyway. Meanwhile I’ll talk about something else. Politically incorrect, of course.
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Big trouble

Getting in trouble. At work, we use a content-filtering application called Websense to keep people from visiting sports sites and porn sites and checking their stocks at work. Prior to its installation, one of the most commonly visited sites in our firewall logs was Well, I set off Websense this afternoon:

Status: The Websense category "Sports" is filtered.


As you can pretty clearly see from the URL, I was wanting to see if the CD-R drive we have is compatible with Ghost 7.5. Websense didn’t see it that way.

I printed that message out and hung it on my cubicle wall. That’s what we do with bizarre and amusing Websense messages.

So I just had to do a little research. It would appear that Sabu is the name of a professional wrestler. I learn something new every day. But that raises the debate of whether professional wrestling is a sport. Websense and I disagree once again.

Hey, I never said I learn something useful every day…

And that leads me straight into this:

How I once almost accidentally stole a piano from some Mormons. It was my junior year of college, and I was living next door to the Lutheran church just off campus. I was walking out to my car, which was parked on the church parking lot, when a guy walked up to me.

“Can you get me into that church?” he asked, pointing over his shoulder with his thumb.

“Why do you need in the church?” I asked.

“I’m here to deliver a piano,” he said.

I had no idea what the church would want with a new piano, but seeing as I hadn’t set foot in the place all year, what did I know? I had a key for emergencies, and this seemed like one. “Hang on,” I said. “I’ll run in and get a key.”

So I came back out with a key, unlocked the door, and the guy wheeled the piano off his truck. “Any idea where they want this?” he asked as he wheeled it through the door.

Seeing as I didn’t even know they were getting a piano, I definitely didn’t know where they wanted it.

“We’ll just leave it here in the Narthex,” I said. “That way Pastor will see it first thing when he walks in, and he can move it where he wants it.” (That’d teach him for not being there when a piano was due to be delivered.)

“This is 305 S. College Avenue, isn’t it?”

I paused. I didn’t know the church’s address off the top of my head, but seeing as I lived next door at 206 S. College Ave., I knew the church’s address wasn’t an odd number. So I told him that.

“Where else is there a church on College Avenue?” he asked me.

There was none. I racked my brain for a minute. “Let me step outside and see what the building number is.” This was Columbia, after all. Maybe they did put even- and odd-numbered buildings on the same side of the street, for all I knew. They do everything else screwy in that town. Then a thought hit me out of the blue. “I wonder what the address of that Mormon thing across the street is?”

So I peered across the street at our squarish, utilitarian-styled neighbor. “Institute of Religion. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints,” the sign read. Then I looked for a building number. Indeed, it was the address the piano delivery guy was looking for.

He thanked me and wheeled the piano out the door and back into his truck.

I locked the door back up, then went back inside to put the key away. “Have I ever got a story for you,” I said to the first guy I spotted.

A nice Sunday surprise

I had a big surprise Sunday night. A couple of months ago, I was up at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in north St. Louis, and they asked me if I’d come to their Christmas banquet this year. I said I’d love to come to their Christmas banquet. They said they’d send me tickets. “Some” ended up meaning five. They’re generous people. I ended up using one–I didn’t feel like looking too hard for a date, and I felt weird asking a bunch of my friends who’ve never been up there to go with me on a rainy Sunday night.
My relationship with Bethlehem goes back several years. I moved to St. Louis in Nov. 1998, and immediately started going to a church in Oakville, a semi-ritzy, very white-middle class suburb in south St. Louis County. I was driving 30 minutes to go to church every Sunday because I had connections there, and I’d never seen a church that was so on fire. I liked it there. It was a church that made me better, and, as I would quickly learn, it was more than willing to let me make it better too. Mark my words: When you find a church like that, keep it. They’re harder to find than you might think.

In Faith Lutheran in Oakville and Bethlehem Lutheran in St. Louis, I’ve found two. And I’m much the better for it.

The north St. Louis neighborhood around Bethlehem is about as opposite of Oakville as you can get. It’s not ghetto, but the buildings are well past their prime. A number of them are condemned. Many others are boarded up. It’s lower-middle class at best. But there are people there who are trying to make a difference.

I’d been going to Faith Lutheran in Oakville for a couple of weeks when I started receiving its newsletter. And in that first newsletter was a blurb from The Rev. John Schmidtke, the pastor at Bethlehem. Faith is one of five suburban churches that has partnered with Bethlehem to reach out to its community. Pastor Schmidtke’s letter was a wish list of sorts, but he wasn’t wanting money or objects. He wanted people. “Who can help us build a computer lab so we can teach elementary computer skills to the people of our community?” he asked. “Who can help us give our children a safe, welcome place where they can sit down at a computer and do their homework?” At the end of the letter, he gave his phone number.

The next day, I called him.

He said he already had some beat-up PCs that had been donated to him. I asked when I could come look at them. I don’t really remember many specifics anymore, other than driving into north St. Louis in a snowstorm one night to come look at a pair of beat-up Compaq Proliant servers. They were DX2-66s, decked out with external SCSI CD-ROM towers. One of them had three SCSI drives. The other had five. They were pretty snazzy servers… in 1993.

It was a humble beginning. Pastor solicited some obsolete computers from other businesses, and since this was the midst of the Y2K crunch, he was able to find plenty of people willing to give up some 386s and 486s they’d just retired. The best catch was a pair of non-compliant Pentium-75s. One of them even had a hard drive–a 40-megger. No, not a 40-gig drive. A 40-meg drive, like most of us had in our first AT clone.

Basically, we had a whole lot of nothing, and I did a whole lot of nothing with it. Sure, I was able to impress a few people by taking hard drives out of 486s and putting them in those Pentiums and booting up DOS, but as far as doing anything useful, we didn’t have much. So the project pretty much sat there, a pile of beat-up PCs in the corner of a storage room.

Then one day in the summer of 2000, I got a voice mail message. It was Pastor Schmidtke. He sounded excited, but there was a certain plea in his voice. He had a grant for several thousand dollars, and it was pretty much there for the asking, assuming he knew what to ask for. He didn’t know what to ask for. So he asked me if he could have five minutes of my time to tell him the wisest way to spend a few thousand dollars to build a computer lab.

I hopped on the ‘Net and checked it out, then faxed him a shopping list. For the budget he gave me, I figured I’d be able to get several name-brand PCs and a laser printer. The grant needed three competitive bids, so I priced systems from IBM, Compaq, and Dell to give him ballpark figures, plus phone numbers to call to get hard quotes if that was what he needed.

A few months later he had the money. A couple more months after that, we’d turned that money into eight new Compaq Deskpro PCs. I wasn’t going to leave him high and dry at that point–what good is a room full of computers when no one there knew how to make them go? A couple more months after that, some volunteers had turned that storage room into a nicely laid-out computer room. So then I set about taking those PCs, installing network cards, cabling and hubs, configuring them identically, and connecting a printer. We had a usable network. An Internet connection was the tough part. I took one of those Pentium-75s, installed a 56K modem and an Intel 10/100 NIC, and configured Freesco. We were live. While 56K dialup split among 9 PCs isn’t fabulous, it’s better than it sounds–while people are reading pages, after all, their computers aren’t loading stuff. I tried setting up a Squid server to help ease congestion a little, but Squid seemed to hurt as much as it helped, so I scrapped that idea.

So now, three years after we initially met, they have a working, useful computer lab. Neighborhood kids come in and research and type. Pastor’s family comes in, and with that many computers at their disposal, the kids can play around all they want for hours and his wife can get work done. It’s not the best, but it’s worlds beyond a pair of Pentium-75s. And in a neighborhood where a Pentium-200 is considered a luxury item, it’s doing a lot of good.

So I got to the banquet Sunday night and sat down at a table. There was a program sitting there at every place. I looked at it. “That’s nice,” I was thinking. “Star of Bethlehem Awards.” There were two people listed. Then I saw people were picking up the program and flipping pages. So I picked up mine, turned to the inside, and saw there were more than two people listed. Two more on page two, and then I turned to page 3 and saw my name. With a really kind write-up to go with it.

They read the write-up, along with everyone else’s writeup, after dinner. They gave each of us plaques and asked us to say a few words. I don’t remember exactly what I said–I’m not very comfortable giving impromptu speeches. It was Pastor Schmidtke who had the vision and who got the money. And it was Cathy, a member of the congregation, who made all the phone calls and made all the runs to Office Depot to get things like power strips and network cables when I ran out of power outlets or didn’t have quite enough reach. Maybe I could have done it all without them. But chances are I wouldn’t have. No one would have. One person can’t take on a project of that magnitude alone. It’ll kill you.

The speaker who read the write-up on me was interrupted by applause a couple of times. I got a round of applause as I walked up and another one as I sat down. Helping people like them is easy, because they appreciate it so much.

I hung the plaque up right after I got home. I guess that says something about priorities–I have an expensive Jesse Barnes print I bought more than a week ago that isn’t hung yet. But the sentiment behind that plaque is worth more than a room full of Jesse Barnes prints. It’s a nice plaque. It reads:

New Birth at Bethlehem

We Thank God For You

David Farquhar

For your ongoing support, encouragement, and Christian love to the ministry of Jesus Christ through Bethlehem Lutheran Church. You are God’s Star for the ministry of Bethlehem.
…Daniel 12:3

December 16, 2001
Bethlehem Lutheran Church, St. Louis, MO

Daniel 12:3 reads as follows:

“Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”

There’s just one more thing I wish I’d said Sunday night. They’re a group of people trying to make a difference in north St. Louis. A lot of them are there by choice. They didn’t have to give me an opportunity, but they did. I’m glad they did.

Back again….

That new job. I started my transition on Tuesday. Tuesday was my best single day at work in more than four years. For the record, I started my professional career in March 1997–so I haven’t been working much more than four years.
I picked up the laptop I’ll be using for my new job yesterday. It’s a Micron Transport LT, a short-lived lightweight. It was a good machine, but when Micron sold off its PC division, it got axed. Its replacement, the Micron Transport XT (a name that still makes me chuckle; old-timers will know why), is bigger and heavier. It has a bigger screen, which is worth the extra weight, but I like the small size of the LT. It’s a 700 MHz machine, so even though it’s about six months old, it’s no slouch.

I installed Windows 2000 and Debian 2.2 on it. Of course I quickly made Debian into a hybrid because I wanted to run packages like Galeon that aren’t available for 2.2. Yeah, so it hasn’t been deemed stable yet. The most bleeding-edge Linux distros I’ve ever seen are more stable than anything Microsoft’s ever slapped its name on, with the possible exception of MS-DOS 5.0. Even Debian-Unstable is more conservative than Mandrake, so having bits of Debian-Unstable on my PC doesn’t bother me in the least.

I got to dabble in my new position yesterday, even though I was officially doing my old job. There was a server to deploy, and I was reasonably idle, so naturally I worked on the server.

They should be ashamed of themselves. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the president of my church body, Dr. Jerry Kieschnick, and the president of the Atlantic district, Dr. David Benke, committed the unpardonable sin of praying with people who are members of church bodies other than the LCMS. They now face expulsion from the church body.

This account from a St. Louis television station is a fair summary of the events.

What that account doesn’t tell you is that the First Vice President of the LCMS, who would take office if the presidency were vacated, was widely considered a political enemy of Dr. Kieschnick before the two of them took office early this fall. Dr. Kieschnick is considered a progressive, while his would-be successor is a hard-line conservative. I don’t know anything about Oberdieck, but I do know that Lebanon, Mo. isn’t exactly a hotbed of progressivism.

KSDK oversimplified Oberdieck’s reasoning slightly. Oberdieck believes that Drs. Kieschnick and Benke’s actions imply that all religions are equal, and he objects to that implication. However, if you talk to Dr. Kieschnick, the last thing he’ll tell you is that all religions are equal. He’ll agree wholeheartedly with Oberdieck’s statement that there’s only one way to God–that’s Jesus Christ, in case you’re wondering what I’m talking about–and that it should be followed strictly. The motivation behind the two mens’ actions in NYC in September was to extend a hand, to tell people that the LCMS cares about what happens to them and wants to help them.

The overwhelming majority of Lutherans in this country know and understand that.

This is a political play, pure and simple. It’s just like what the Republicans tried to do to Clinton with Whitewater and what the Democrats tried to do with Gingrich after he became speaker.

And it may undermine the current president’s credibility. What it certainly will do is leave a bad taste in people’s mouth. In a month or two months or five years, people won’t remember these specifics anymore. What they will remember is having a bad taste in their mouth about the LCMS, or worse yet, about Christianity as a whole. The immortal Someone Else will have to work hard to overcome those feelings. Sometimes Someone Else will succeed. Inevitably, sometimes Someone Else will fail, and the hurt will continue. But that doesn’t matter, because it’s Someone Else’s problem, not theirs.

I hope Oberdieck and his allies are happy.

Fide et fortitudine

Fide et fortitudine. That’s the motto on my family crest. It seems appropriate. If I didn’t have fidelity and fortitude, I wouldn’t be making this post, because I wouldn’t care. I’d talk about how to use Samba and Ghostscript and your favorite free Unix to set up a print server that spits out Acrobat-compatible PDF files or something.
I guess it’s an indication of how my readership has changed over the past year that I only got one e-mail message like this. A year ago I wouldn’t have dared write on the subject I wrote about Friday, for fear of alienating readership. Well, I alienated them anyway, somehow, some way, and in the process picked up a bunch more, so who cares, right?

I’ve had three days (or is it four?) to formulate a careful response. I didn’t take that much time. That says something. Obviously I’m still OK with what I wrote.

Anyway… I never know how to present reader mail, which is why I prefer people use the comments system here–I’ll call attention to the comments when there’s something good there. Speaking of which, be sure to check out yesterday’s comments. There’s some good stuff there, and I managed to change the subject just slightly by telling a story of how I gained some popularity for my writings in high school.

Back to the subject at hand. I guess I’ll turn this into a dialogue, even though it wasn’t a dialogue. Daynoter Matt Beland took issue with Friday’s post. So he wrote me.

MB: Hi Dave,

Like you, I get asked about religion a lot, mostly by family members. They don’t seem to understand how I can work in “that industry” where so many of the workers are not Christian (or an acceptable variation, such as Muslim or Jewish.) I personally am not particularly religious, of any flavor, despite having been raised Roman Catholic. I do, however, have a number of friends who are religious of all types, and I have to say you’re being extremely unfair in your comparisons. I mean no criticism of Christianity or you personally, but it’s not a good idea to be critical of other religions without more information.

DF: Now you’re painting with awfully broad strokes to call Islam or Judaism an “acceptable variation” of Christianity. Neither of them would appreciate that label. I’m sure you already know this, but for the benefit of those who may not, here goes.

Christianity is derived from Judaism (Jesus was, after all, a Jewish rabbi). Islam is the newest of the three but it, like Judaism, traces its origin back to the patriarch Abraham. Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. Isaac gave rise to Israel and Judaism; Ishmael gave rise to the Arabic nations and ultimately to Islam. Yes, the figure that Christianity calls “God the Father” is Judaism’s Yahweh and Islam’s Allah. Islam regards Jesus Christ as a prophet, but not the Great Prophet (that title belongs to Muhammed), while Judaism regards Jesus as little more than another heretic.

But your point wasn’t to write a broad explanation of Judaism/Islam/Christianity, just as mine wasn’t to write a broad explanation of pagan religions and the occult.

MB: The first thing I usually show those members of my family who ask is from the Jargon File, if you’ve not seen it before. In Appendix B, “A Portrait of J. Random Hacker”, there’s a section on religion. This is what it says:


Agnostic. Atheist. Non-observant Jewish. Neo-pagan. Very commonly, three or more of these are combined in the same person. Conventional faith-holding Christianity is rare though not unknown.

Even hackers who identify with a religious affiliation tend to be relaxed about it, hostile to organized religion in general and all forms of religious bigotry in particular. Many enjoy `parody’ religions such as Discordianism and the Church of the SubGenius.

Also, many hackers are influenced to varying degrees by Zen Buddhism or (less commonly) Taoism, and blend them easily with their `native’ religions.

DF: Eastern religions blend nicely with one another and with Middle Eastern and Western religions, almost by design. There are neo-Christian sects (such as the Moonies and Hare Krishna) that do the same thing and have been doing so for longer than computers have been available to the masses.

MB: There is a definite strain of mystical, almost Gnostic sensibility that shows up even among those hackers not actively involved with neo-paganism, Discordianism, or Zen. Hacker folklore that pays homage to `wizards’ and speaks of incantations and demons has too much psychological truthfulness about it to be entirely a joke.”

DF: Indeed. And some Christians do take offense, rightly or wrongly. I know of Christians who pick Linux over one of the BSD Unixes strictly because of the Chuck the Daemon mascot, even though FreeBSD is the demonstrably superior OS under many circumstances. Personally, I could live without the pentagram on the Sorcerer Linux logo, but I don’t throw a fit about it because Gentoo Linux is a lot better anyway.

With computers, people can, and do, try anything. I have seen people resort to witchcraft to get things working. And in one case I’ve seen it work.

People will also tend to explain away something that’s hard to understand by drawing parallels to something else that’s hard to understand.

MB: First, let’s look at this part: (quoting Friday’s piece).

> Someone sent me a nice explanation for it. It’s a little longwinded, so
>I’ll summarize and paraphrase. It said we’ve been telling God we don’t want
>Him. And God’s a perfect gentleman, so when He’s told He’s not wanted, He
>butts out. We’ve told God we don’t want Him in our schools. We’ve told Him
>we don’t want Him in our courts. We don’t want Him in our government. We
>don’t want Him in our business. We don’t want Him in our streets. We don’t
>want Him on our televisions and movie screens. And each time we’ve told Him
>to get lost, he’s sorrowfully complied.

No, we don’t want your God in our schools. We don’t want Him in our movies, books, newspapers, streets, or most especially our government. That’s not because we’re all evil, it’s not because we don’t have faith, and it’s not because we don’t necessarily believe. It’s because we don’t all believe in the same things. No matter who you choose to represent as “God” in schools, in government, in any public forum, you’ll be leaving someone out.

I’ve fought hard to keep “God” out of schools. I’ve not fought to prevent schools from holding non-lead “Periods of Reflection” where students may pray or meditate as they like. What’s the difference? The students have the choice. If you as a parent have raised your child to be a true Christian, then they will probably pray and make you proud. However, the child in the next row who’s Buddist or neo-pagan should have the right to make *their* parents proud, too. No one has asked you to keep God out of your life, or your home, or your family. We encourage that. But your God is your choice. My God is not your choice. It’s very easy for the christians to say “but we just want everyone to share in the glory of our God” – the problem is, the rest of the world remembers that christians have not always offered others a choice. And the current refrain of “you’ve pushed God from our lives” sounds remarkably the same – you don’t want to offer others a choice.

DF: We’ve gone to the extreme of teaching relative morality where there no longer is any right and wrong, only what works for you. The end result? A couple dozen evil men hijacked planes and crashed them into buildings (or tried) because it worked for them and they could use a twisted form of Islam to justify it. So now we’re finally starting to think about right and wrong.

Should we teach Christianity in the schools? Not necessarily. Should a Christian group be allowed to assemble just like a model train club could? Absolutely. Unfortunately that hasn’t always been permitted, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly be damned.

I never said no one else should have a choice. I talked about my personal choice and gave my justification for it. And yes, it bothers me that some of the 17-year-olds I know who would like to start up a Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter in their school cannot, on grounds of Church and State.

And I disagree that we can’t teach morality. You can boil the world religions down to a set of moral principles that won’t offend anyone, except possibly those who refuse to keep them. Then again, Benjamin Franklin wanted them taught, even though he wasn’t willing to keep them in their entirety.

I would also think that if you don’t want God in the movies or on TV, if you have no problems with Harry Potter, then you’re practicing a double standard.

MB: Love your God. Rejoice in your God. But love your neighbor, as well, and allow them to worship the God of their choice.

DF: Again: I never said no one else should have a choice. I talked about my personal choice and gave my justification for it. And you seem to have missed the biggest point: Anyone who follows Christianity ends up inadvertently fulfilling the requirements, as far as is humanly possible, of any other religion. And, unlike any other interpretation of God, this one doesn’t leave you to your own devices to fulfill what’s required of you. So tell me who has the kinder God? But He doesn’t force Himself on anyone, and neither do I believe in forcing Him on anyone. Indeed, you can trace many of Christianity’s problems to it (or a different form of it) being forced on people who don’t want it (or who wanted a different form).

MB: Next: (again, quoting Friday)
>And I believe in the Holy Spirit. I can’t explain the Holy Spirit. But I’ve
>seen His work, I’ve felt His presence, and yeah, it’s weird. But powerful. I
>know some of the appeal of Satanism and of pagan religions like Wicca–most
>of the appeal–is power. They don’t compare to Holy Spirit power. And
>personally, I’d much rather go to a God who’s willing to look bad by saying
>no when He knows what I’m asking for is bad for me or someone else, rather
>than going to a god who’ll give me whatever I ask for to ensure I come back
>for more. God’s a whole lot smarter than me, and has a much better
>perspective than me. I’m better off when I defer to Him.

No. None of this is correct. It’s what most Christians belive, but unfortunately that doesn’t make it true. Many of my friends and coworkers are neo-pagan, Satanist, and so on. “Neo-pagan” is a very broad term, including Wicca, Druidism, Animism, Witchcraft (which is NOT Wicca), and other variations. I personally know members of each of the above religions, and my own curiosity has lead me to investigate all of those and many others as well. Please note that Satanism is not considered a Pagan religion, either by the pagans or by the satanists.

DF: I didn’t state that paganism and Satanism were related, other than that they have similar appeal. That’s what the extra “and of” is there for. Had I said, “appeal of pagan religions like Wicca and Satanism,” then you’d have a case. That doesn’t mean the same thing as “appeal of Satanism and of pagan religions like Wicca.”

MB: Let’s tackle the hardest one first. Satanism. Please note that Satanism is not considered a Pagan religion, either by the pagans or by the satanists. Christians have absolutely no doubt about this one – they’re evil. Worshipping Satan!

The first thing the followers of this religion will explain is that it’s simply not true. Christians believe in Satan, the fallen angel who defied God. They are not Christian, they do not believe in hell or heaven, and they do not worship the christian Satan – despite movies and what they consider christian propaganda to the contrary.

Here are some basic facts:
* They do not worship a living deity.
* Major emphasis is placed on the power and authority of the individual
Satanist, rather than on a god or goddess.
* They believe that “no redeemer liveth” – that each person is their own
redeemer, fully responsible for the direction of their own life.
* “Satanism respects and exalts life. Children and animals are the purest
expressions of that life force, and as such are held sacred and precious…”

The founder of the Church of Satan is a very controversial figure; his primary motivation appeared to be financial, and as such many followers of the church and of the religion do not regard him to be a true Satanist. They use the church, however, since it provides a legal framework and foundation for their beliefs and legal (if not social) protection from persecution.

DF: There are at least two forms of Satanism. The Satanism of Anton LaVey (The Church of Satan) has more to do with hedonism than the Biblical figure of Satan. That’s the Satanism you describe, and the Satanism that is best-known. Supposedly LaVey once stated he wrote the Satanic Bible as a joke but it caught on. I don’t know if that was ever verified, and I remember he died back in 1997 or 1998 so he’s not around to answer any questions anymore. I am aware that they state their Satan isn’t the same as the Judeo-Christian Satan.

There’s also another, darker religion that calls itself Satanism. Most people think it only exists in the movies, but in the small town in Southeastern Missouri I lived in for five years, they wish the Satanists practiced LaVey’s religion. These people don’t hold life in particularly high regard, either animals or humans. They drink blood, systematically break the Biblical Ten Commandments, and practice sacrifice. Sometimes they attempt human sacrifice. This dates back almost 15 years, but a Satanic group in that town had a hit list and at least two of my former classmates were on it. One of them opened her locker one day and found a cat skull in it along with a note that stated, simply, “You’re next.”

This was not Christian propaganda. I knew these girls. I went to school with them and to church with them. To my knowledge it was never publicized aside from their families asking people they knew to pray for them.

Maybe there are similar stories in Christian propaganda. I don’t go looking for that kind of stuff so I don’t know. Most of the Christians I know, sadly, are too busy beating each other up to pay attention to that sort of thing.

If Anton LaVey didn’t want to be associated with this subculture, he should have called his movement something else. If today’s Church of Satan doesn’t want to be associated with this subculture, it can always do what the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints did in order to differentiate itself from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (aka the Mormons): Change its name.

LaVey also didn’t do anyone any favors by portraying the Christian Satan in movies, but that just adds fuel to the argument that his motivation was money, or a joke, or both.

MB: The most common Pagan religion today is Witchcraft, including the subset of Wicca. I know many witches, including some who identify themselves as Wiccans. They do not ride brooms, they do not wear black (other than as a fashion choice – most actually wear Earth-toned clothing, brown, grey, green, etc.) They don’t fly, light candles with their breath, or anything else you may have seen in the movies.

They do, however, believe in limits.

DF: I’ve known a number of wiccans, and at times considered them friends. I even built a computer for one a few years ago. We’ve lost contact but I don’t hold anything against them. They dressed more or less like I do, hung out at a lot of the same places I did, could only fly in an airplane, and at least one of them didn’t even own a broom.

MB: (Again, quoting Friday):
>personally, I’d much rather go to a God who’s willing to look bad by saying
>no when He knows what I’m asking for is bad for me or someone else, rather
>than going to a god who’ll give me whatever I ask for to ensure I come back
>for more.

Um. No. The first rule (as was explained to me by the first witch friend I aquired when I expressed interest in the matter) is the Threefold Law:

“Ever mind the Rule of Three
Three times what thou givest returns to thee
This lesson well, thou must learn
Thee only gets what thou dost earn!”

This is interpreted that any spell, any action of any kind, which affects anyone, will return to you three times. This eliminates any possibility of “black magic”, because the results of the spell will supposedly return to you with three times the power of the original spell. It’s also the belief that any spell you cast with positive effects for others will be returned threefold – so it’s better to give, for by giving, you will receive.

Also, spells and requests do *not* always work. You only receive what you request from a Deity (usually “the Goddess”, but there are others) if it meets the following basic conditions:

1. It is truly your heart’s desire, rather than a simple “I want this” – you
have to want it badly enough to accept the cost, because everything has a
2. It has to be something which is beneficial to you and to those around you.
3. The second law – “And it harm none, do what ye will”. It cannot be
something which would harm anyone or anything.

True, Witchcraft (and pagan religions in general, so far as I’ve seen) place more of an onus on the practitioner for their decisions and for life in general. No pagan would ever say “How could God/Goddess/the Gods allow this to happen”, because they don’t believe it works that way. The works of Man are the works of Man, for good or for ill, and preventing evil from the works of Man is also the responsibility of Man. They believe that there is no deity who will make things right – they believe that is their job as human beings. I recently gave one of my team members permission to take a day off so she could attend a Coven meeting to try to repair some of the spiritual damage done by the September 11 attacks. A prayer meeting, if you will, except that instead of asking God to help those who need it, they believe that a part of themselves goes out to all those who need it – and that if enough of them give enough of themselves, they can repair the damage to people’s hearts as much as is good or possible. (I didn’t understand that at first. She explained that they do not want to take away the pain entirely – it should hurt when you lose a loved one, because you’ve truly lost something. If it didn’t hurt, if there was no pain, then there would be no appreciation of the loss. However, they do believe it is also the responsibility of the loved ones who remain to help soften the blow as much as possible.)

Is the appeal power? I don’t know about that. It seems to me, from what I’ve seen and what I’ve read, that the power they believe themselves to have is balanced and more by the responsibility they’re given. They can’t just DO things. They have to accept costs. They have to accept pain. They have to accept that they are responsible for their own actions, and they have a near-contempt for the christian practice of Reconciliation. It’s not any God’s place, they say, to forgive them for their since. Only the people or things they’ve sinned against can do that, and it requires more than a prayer or two – you have to earn it.

DF: What you just described is power. And the forgiveness you just described isn’t much different from Judeo-Christian forgiveness. Unfortunately most Christians don’t celebrate Yom Kippur anymore, but human-to-human reconciliation is what Yom Kippur (Judaism’s Day of Atonement) is all about. Jesus Himself once said that if you’re in the temple offering a sacrifice and you realize your brother (and “your brother” means anyone and everyone) has something against you, leave your sacrifice there and go reconcile with your brother. Reconciliation is more important to God than worship! That’s something not many people seem to know. Merely asking God for forgiveness is only half of it. Some would argue that asking God without asking the other person isn’t true repentance–true repentance is turning from the sin, hating it, and wanting to make it right. Often we only go two for three on that front.

But that does bring up the other big attraction to either Satanism (especially LaVey’s Satanism) and paganism, and one they share with atheism and agnosticism: lack of a central moral authority. You’re accountable to yourself, and to the people you want to be close to, but that’s it.

I also remember reading in a philosophy class an essay titled, “Why Women Need The Goddess.” It was written by a feminist who argued that no woman should practice any religion that used male pronouns in conjunction with a deity. So maybe there are people who worship “The Goddess,” for purely feminist reasons, but there again, the motivation is partly power, although in this case it would be political power more than spiritual power.

MB: There’s more, there’s a lot more. Most christians don’t bother to look. For all the preaching about God’s love and preventing evil in the world, the most common trait I see among christians (unfortunately) is intolerance, followed closely by hatred and fear. That team member who wanted to attend a coven? She was afraid to approach me because she didn’t know if I was christian or not. She was afraid that if I was, I might do something – fire her, maybe, or just make life so hellish she had no choice but to quit.

DF: A lot of Christians don’t bother to look at their own religion, but Christians don’t have a monopoly on that. Any religion that isn’t being persecuted has plenty of complacent practitioners. Persecution tends to weed those out, which is why persecution tends to make a religion grow, rather than stomping it out. If you want to destroy a religion, subsidize it. It worked splendidly in Europe. First it twisted Christianity beyond recognition, leading to atrocities like the Crusades, then it eventually reduced it to a government-subsidized subculture. Today there are more Christians in Africa than there are in Europe.

You also see plenty of hatred, intolerance, and fear in many Muslim sects. You see it in Orthodox Judaism as well. If the tables were turned, you’d see it in the pagan religions too. It’s called human nature.

Am I being intolerant here? Some might see it that way. But I didn’t set out to tell people why they should be what I am. I set out to tell people why I am what I am. If they want what I’ve got, great, I’ll answer any question, any time of the day. If they want to leave it, that’s their choice.

MB: At first, I thought she was being paranoid. The only reason she felt comfortable talking to me about it was that I commented on a piece of jewelry she wore which signified witchcraft, and I did so favorably and in a way which showed I knew what it meant. Then I noticed a few things:

“I don’t think witchcraft is a religion. I would hope the military officials would take a second look at the decision they made.” Who said that? Gearge W. Bush, while still Governor of Texas, in regards to a decision by the military to allow soldiers to practice Witchcraft as their religion.

The second was a quote on the website. They’re a Canadian group who have essays and information on every religion, lined up equally. They’re no more critical of christianity than they are of any other. Apparently, this makes them unpopular with christians for some

DF: Insecure people in any group tend to lash out when they feel attacked, whether the attack is justified or not. Christianity as it’s been practiced through the centuries has problems, yes. It always did. The bulk of the New Testament is St. Paul’s criticisms of Christianity as the churches of his day, many of which he founded himself, practiced it. Even when Jesus was alive there were problems. He had a lot of harsh words for the Scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees, but He had plenty of harsh words for His own disciples too.

Don’t project the ravings of a vocal minority on the entire group.

MB: “Neopagan faiths are modern-day reconstructions of ancient Pagan religions from various countries and eras. They experience a high level of discrimination and persecution in North America. They are rarely practiced in public for reasons of safety.”

Who’s doing the persecuting? Simple statistics says it’s not other pagans –

“About Christian Faith Groups We treat Christianity in greater detail than other religions, simply because about 88% of North Americans identify themselves with that religion. Christians outnumber the next largest organized religions by about 40 to 1 in the U.S. and Canada. We are not in any way implying that Christianity is superior or inferior to other religions.”

Please. Worship whomever you like. Write about whatever you like. But label fiction as fiction, or else write the truth when you talk about religion.

DF: Disagreement with or misinterpretation of something doesn’t make it fiction. As far as I can tell, you objected to my statement that paganism’s appeal is power (then you went on to describe power as I definie it), and you misread a clause so you thought that I was calling Satanism a pagan religion, which I was not. I glossed over a few things that you would have preferred I talk about in more detail. Neither does that make it fiction, or false.

Or maybe you just misread my intentions. Hopefully this explanation clears that up.

I can’t tell if you want me to come out and say that any other religion is OK to practice. I won’t come out and say that–that would make me a Unitarian Universalist, which I am not. I won’t try to stop anyone from practicing something else. That’s all I ask of anyone else, and that’s all the Constitution asks, so that’s all I’m going to give or ask for.

Weeks in the making…

I had someone ask me a few weeks ago, not terribly long after the 9/11 attack, why I believed in God. After all, most sysadmin types don’t. Or they aren’t Christian–they’re pagan, or they dabble in Eastern religions. I understand the appeal. For one who’s used to building PCs and even operating systems from best-of-breed components (or best-of-economy components, or some other selectable criteria), the idea of assembling your own religion from best-of-breed components is nearly irresistable.
I can tell you how I became a Christian, but that’s not the same as why I remained one. I’ll focus on the latter. It’s a more pleasant mental place to be.

So let’s go back to that original question: Why can I be a Christian after such a terrible thing? And since you believe in God, why didn’t your God do something about it?

Someone sent me a nice explanation for it. It’s a little longwinded, so I’ll summarize and paraphrase. It said we’ve been telling God we don’t want Him. And God’s a perfect gentleman, so when He’s told He’s not wanted, He butts out. We’ve told God we don’t want Him in our schools. We’ve told Him we don’t want Him in our courts. We don’t want Him in our government. We don’t want Him in our business. We don’t want Him in our streets. We don’t want Him on our televisions and movie screens. And each time we’ve told Him to get lost, he’s sorrowfully complied.

Then, when tragedy hits, finally someone misses Him.

So where was God when those evil men hijacked those four planes?

Well, we told God where we didn’t want Him to be. But I saw Him. I saw Him in the actions of Todd Beemer, who rounded up all the big guys he could find on United Flight 93 and overtook the terrorists. I saw Him in President Bush, the onetime laughingstock who’s guided our country the past two months.

That’s consistent with my experience. I’ve seen places where God isn’t welcome, and I’ve seen bad things happen there. Lots of bad things. Sometimes terrible things.

But everywhere I go where God is truly welcome, good things happen.

So, yeah, I believe in one God who created the heavens and the earth. I believe He had one son, Jesus Christ, who is the only way to God the Father–incidentally, God the Father is the same God that Muslims and Jews believe in. We’ll come back to Jesus in a minute. And I believe in the Holy Spirit. I can’t explain the Holy Spirit. But I’ve seen His work, I’ve felt His presence, and yeah, it’s weird. But powerful. I know some of the appeal of Satanism and of pagan religions like Wicca–most of the appeal–is power. They don’t compare to Holy Spirit power. And personally, I’d much rather go to a God who’s willing to look bad by saying no when He knows what I’m asking for is bad for me or someone else, rather than going to a god who’ll give me whatever I ask for to ensure I come back for more. God’s a whole lot smarter than me, and has a much better perspective than me. I’m better off when I defer to Him.

OK, back to that whole Jesus thing. Do I really believe Jesus is the only way? Well, Jesus said He was. I just got back from spending a good part of the evening with three good friends. Whatever they say, I’ll take them at their word if they tell me it’s true. None of them has ever done what Jesus did. So I take Jesus at His word.

But there’s another, more selfish, more lazy reason for it. This appeals to the sysadmin in me. I make computers do as much of my job as possible. That’s why I like Christianity, because Christianity does all the work for me. Let me explain.

Truth be told, there is one world religion, and that religion can be summed up in exactly two words: Be perfect. Now, religions like Hinduism and Buddhism and Confucism all tell you to do that, and they give you some ways. Beyond that, they offer no help.

Islam teaches full submission to Allah. Again, it offers no real help other than some practical advice.

Judaism is a bit different. Again, it tells you to be perfect. It offers some practical advice. But it takes it a little further. It also offers a promise. It offers forgiveness of sin. It offers reconciliation with God. But it doesn’t say how.

That, my friends, is where Christianity kicks in. It delivers on that promise of Judaism and offers others. The most beautiful one: Jesus told His disciples He was going away, but He’d send the Holy Spirit to be with us, and live through us. God, living and breathing inside you. You’re not perfect, but God is.

That’s the beauty of it. Let’s just say–God forgive me–that Jesus was wrong. And we’ll say that Gandhi and his Hinduism was right. So Gandhi went to heaven on the basis of his works. Well, who was greater? Ghandi or Mother Theresa? Tough call. If Gandhi’s in heaven, Mother Theresa’s definitely not in hell.

Now, I don’t hold a candle to either of those two. But I’ll put my best up against the best of my peers in any other religion. I know we all struggle. But we do some good things too. If I’m wrong, and it is on works alone that we get to our ultimate destination, my Christianity will get me the same place as my peers’ Buddhism or Islam or Judaism gets them.

And that’s why I don’t think Jesus can possibly be wrong. He’s either right, or when He’s wrong, He’s still right.

So I’ve seen enough of God that I won’t deny His existence. I’ve seen and felt and breathed enough of His power to know I want Him on my side. And here’s Jesus saying, “Be perfect. Not only will I help you, but when you fail, I’ll pinch hit for you, and credit my statistics to you.”

I’d be a fool to turn down that deal. So that’s why this sysadmin who ought to be an atheist or a pagan or a Buddhist is a Christian.

Is God punishing the United States of America?

In the wake of Jerry Falwell’s controversial statements on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, and after a conversation with a pastor who told me one of his congregants asked him whether “God still reaches down and zaps people,” I think it’s time for a voice of reason.
First, an introduction. I’m 26 years old. I’m not a pastor. I am schooled and trained as a journalist. Theology was my best subject in grade school and high school, but I have no formal schooling in religious studies or theology besides that. I approach the Bible the same way a journalist would approach a source, or a good academic would approach a piece of literature. I am a Protestant. I do not buy the Catholic argument that all one has to do is listen to the bishops. That kind of thinking led us to the sale of the forgiveness of sins in order to finance the building of massive cathedrals in Europe half a millenium ago. One schooled in the Biblical languages can make a better interpretation of scripture than I can, yes, for the same reason that someone schooled in Russian can make a better interpretation of Tolstoy. But that doesn’t mean someone can’t read a good English rendering (or better yet, several good English renderings) and understand. I believe it is the duty of every Christian to spend at least a little bit of time in the book that gave rise to the religion; it helps keep people like Jerry Falwell and the Catholic bishops of the 1500s in check.

Enough of that. On to the issue at hand. Many evangelicals, and I’ll lump Falwell into that category, operate under the impression that the United States of America is God’s chosen nation. But nowhere in scripture is the renunciation of Israel’s status as God’s chosen nation. God’s chosen people today are those who believe in Jesus Christ. But that’s not the same as a chosen nation. It extends beyond political and racial boundaries.

God is interested in nations only because nations contain people, and God is much more interested in the people that make up that nation than He is about the nation itself. Governments exist to preserve order and to serve out justice. I don’t think it’s a drastic oversimplification to say government’s job is to protect its citizens from thugs. I believe the only real difference between conservative and liberal and democratic and totalitarian is a disagreement over just who thugs comprise.

Is God disciplining the United States Government? Absolutely. Is that His only purpose? Absolutely not.

We the people of the United States of America have sinned. There is no question of that. Is God disciplining us? Yes, along with many other peoples–it wasn’t just Americans who died in this tragedy. Is this punishment for specific sins, or an indication that God has turned His back on us? Absolutely not.

God woke us up. He got our attention. God does that, or tries to, just about every day. It can take many forms: something someone says, a close call in the parking lot, a feeling in the pit of your stomach, or the destruction of a building. If we paid attention to the little things, would the big things happen? Maybe not. But maybe so.

So why did God let this happen?

The simple answer is we don’t know. We have to remember that God’s priorities aren’t the same as ours. Our priority in the United States right now seems to be to maximize profit and pleasure. Profit and pleasure are fine things, and I think even Jerry Falwell will agree with that. But we run into problems when we let them control our lives. So, yes, the United States would do well to take the hint and realize that there’s more to life than profit and pleasure.

God’s priority is to get as many people into heaven as possible. Pure and simple. Prosperity and pleasure in human terms are entirely secondary to that.

There are numerous examples in the Bible of God letting nations go their own way, in order to punish other nations. God let Egypt run wild over the children of Israel. Then He punished Egypt for what they did. The Old Testament is full of these kinds of stories.

Is the now-provoked United States about to become an instrument of God, raining down God’s discipline in the form of bombs and warheads? That’s an awfully self-righteous thought. But I do believe God is now going to go use the United States to get someone else’s attention, yes.

And what of vengeance? It’s not up to the citizens of the United States of America to seek vengeance. The hate crimes taking place in the United States now are completely unjustified. But what about war? The job of governments is to protect its citizens. That includes waging war when the other side refuses to be reasonable. And if the government calls on its citizens, it’s their duty to take up arms and serve.

So why did God let 5,000+ people die?

Simple answer: Damage control. Believe me, seeing those deaths and the pain it caused hurt God more than it hurt all of us, combined.

I was talking about sin with one of the elders of my church the other day. I observed that the sin hurts the participants, much worse than they know. And it hurts the people around them. Making matters worse, the process of stopping the sin can hurt people. Sometimes stopping hurts more people in a single day than continuing the practice for a single day would. It’s a vicious mess with no good, easy cure. No wonder God hates it.

God feels the pain and anguish of the congregation that lost its priest. God feels the pain and anguish of the people who suddenly found themselves widows and widowers. God feels the pain of the children left without mothers or fathers. God feels the pain of the terrorists’ family members who are asking why and how their good little boy could have done such a thing. God feels it all, all at once, and more deeply than we’re capable.

But these kinds of things happen all the time. I had a Canadian reader write in, expressing his well-wishes. He said he understood totally. He left South Africa to try to get away from these kinds of senseless atrocities. They didn’t follow him to Canada, but now one has happened next door.

And let’s look at what’s happened since this tragedy. Yasser Arafat has told his men not to shoot Israelis, even if the Israelis shoot first. If the ceasefire lasts 48 hours, they’re going to sit down and talk. It probably wouldn’t have happened without this.

Russia is sharing intelligence with the United States. And it’s looking like Russia might get us the use of some former Soviet military bases. This is unprecedented. French author Alexis de Tocqueville saw the rivalry between the Russian Bear and the American Eagle in the mid-1800s.

Military experts expected our next war to be with China. But for now, China and the United States face the common enemy of terrorism. Terrorists hate us because we’re the biggest kid on the block, but China has attributes the terrorists would hate as well. China knows this. God may yet get China’s attention.

I haven’t been paying attention to what’s happening in Northern Ireland, but if nothing else, this tragedy has people on both sides of the conflict there thinking too.

And one thing we seem to forget is that it was only 5,000 deaths. There was a fourth plane that could have killed thousands more, depending on its target. God didn’t allow that plane to reach its destination. He also didn’t allow any other planes to be hijacked. There’s plenty of evidence that it wouldn’t have ended with those four planes.

And what of our 5,000+ innocent casualties? Their fate rests in the hands of a just and loving God. As hard as it may be to do, we have to trust that God knows what He’s doing and that this could have been much worse.

Christianity that annoys me

Something’s really bugging me. Keep in mind that yesterday was Sunday. I’m gonna talk about Christians who annoy me. So if there are no Christians who annoy you, go play in the forums or scroll down and read about my motherboard upgrade misadventures or something.
Anyone left? Darn. I guess I’ll just talk to myself then.

I really should protect confidences here, so I’m gonna make up some names. I like Gordon, Stewart, and Andy.

OK, so I had a conversation the other day. Actually it was more like a debate. Gordon was talking about how great Benny Hinn is. Now, Benny Hinn is a televangelist known largely for faith healings. I’ve repressed most of what else I know about him–I know I had to know him for a religious studies class I took in college. Gordon could tell I wasn’t intimately familiar with Benny Hinn, so he stepped down to my level and explained to me what Benny Hinn has taught him.

Gordon won’t like the way I put this at all, but essentially he believes that Christians are better than everyone else, and that the rules that apply to the rest of the world don’t apply to Christians. If you’re sick, you go to God and ask him to heal you. OK, so far so good. But Gordon argues that God has to heal you. If God doesn’t heal you, then that means you don’t have enough faith.

He talked about having prayed for someone who died recently, and how he and the others who prayed for this person would now have to deal with that.

I was getting really annoyed, but I kept my mouth shut. Stewart and Andy jumped in. One of them brought up the Apostle Paul. It’s hard to imagine anyone with greater faith than Paul. Or, for that matter, anyone who had a greater impact on Christianity before or since. I would argue that Paul did more for Christianity than anyone other than Jesus Christ himself. Jesus founded it, then Paul ran with it.

Paul wrote, of course, of having a “thorn in the flesh,” which God refused to remove. God’s answer was, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Gordon jumped all over that. “That thorn was a messenger of Satan, sent to harrass and torment Paul. It wasn’t physical.”

So we looked it up. Indeed, most of our translations said “messenger,” which implies spoken harrassment. But the original Greek word used is “angelos.” It doesn’t take a linguistics genius to figure out what that word means. An angel from Satan, of course, is a demon, and when the New Testament speaks of driving out demons, frequently they manifested themselves in physical ailments. And the words “thorn in the flesh” sure sound physical. Gordon said that Benny Hinn went back to the original Hebrew and Aramaic and assures us that this wasn’t a physical ailment.

I pointed out to Gordon that the New Testament was originally written in Greek. Now, since this is a second source, maybe Benny Hinn knows that the New Testament was written in Greek and it was Gordon’s mistake. But I certainly won’t rule out the possibility that Benny Hinn doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and if Gordon can’t keep Biblical languages straight I know he’s no great Biblical scholar. (For the record, the Old Testament is written in Hebrew, with a few short quotations in Aramaic in later books, while the New Testament was written in Greek.)

We argued a bit about the thorn in the flesh and what that could mean. Paul’s eyesight was notoriously bad. He closed out his letter to the Galatians by observing how large he had to write when he wrote himself (Paul’s letters were often transcribed). We know from 2 Corinthians 10 that Paul was much more highly regarded as a writer than as a speaker. Some deduce from that letter that it went beyond that, and that Paul may have had a speech impediment. And isn’t it suspicious that Paul kept a doctor with him so much of the time? (St. Luke, author of the Gospel of Luke and probably also the author of Acts, was one of Paul’s most frequent companions. He was a doctor by trade.)

Galatians 4:13-15 refers to an illness, described as “revolting,” involving his eyes.

We can go on and on about Paul. The most important thing is this: Here was a man who had a lot of things wrong with him, in spite of how much he prayed, and he came to accept it.

Gordon shook his head through this whole thing. “There is not one place in the entire Bible where someone asked for healing and was told no,” he said.

Well, we have one recorded instance where Paul asked for something and was turned down, and it sure looks like he was asking for healing. Gordon said that’s an invalid interpretation. That was when I piped up. “There are at least three interpretations of that verse, precisely because it’s vague enough that we can’t prove one of them over the others. This sounds to me like starting with a premise–that God has to heal–and then when you find a verse that may go against that premise, you take the interpretation you like and instantly call all the other possible interpretations invalid.”

Both Stewart and Andy shot me looks at that one. I saw Andy laugh a little.

“I’ve heard many studies on this, and you can’t disprove any of them,” Gordon said.

“Then cite them,” I said. He never did.

I alluded to Kaycee. (This was before the hoax came to light… Argh.) I told the short version–being clinically dead twice, beating leukemia, then having liver failure. With her, I’d come to expect a miracle, so I pretty much expected this one. Then she died, after so many people asked God to heal her. But let’s think about that for a minute. She’s no longer in any pain. If she wants to ask God a question, she can walk right up to Him and ask it. She’s living in the mansion Jesus promised all believers. The cares of this world are gone. Isn’t that the ultimate healing? What else do you want? (Of course God won’t heal people who don’t exist, but the principle works.)

“You are God’s son,” he said, pointing to me forcefully. “Now, if you had a son, would you want him to be sick, or hurt? Not if you were a good parent!”

Well, of course not. But consider this: We live in a fallen world. We all make mistakes (except maybe Gordon). We have to live with the consequences of those mistakes. Sometimes we make mistakes without even knowing it. I lived for 26 years without knowing that the oils we fry food in quickly become carcinogenic. Will years of eating fast food cause me to get cancer one day? Possibly.

Will God forgive me for not always eating as healthy as I should? He already has. Will He spare me from the consequences of not eating healthy? He might. But He’s under no obligation to do so. Even if I am His son.

Imagine me having this conversation with my biological parents when I was 16: “Gee, Mom and Dad, I wrecked my car. I was doing something I shouldn’t have been doing, but I’m OK. Now will you buy a car to replace the one I just wrecked?”

Some parents would do that. But good parents won’t let their sons and daughters off that easily. Life without consequences is life without learning.

The God Gordon believes in isn’t a very good parent. That God lets you off the hook, but conditionally. But He doesn’t spell out the conditions very well. You have to have the faith of a mustard seed. How do you measure the faith of a mustard seed?

I sure am glad Gordon doesn’t know I struggle with acne in the winter time, that I’m allergic to cats, that I have a trick elbow, that I have a history of problems with my wrists, that I’m prone to insomnia, or anything else that’s wrong with me. What would he think of me then? I’m sure Gordon already thinks I have the faith of a weakling.

For whatever reason, Gordon segued into the Gospel of Prosperity–the annoying teaching that once you become a Christian, God will make you rich, or at least protect you from financial harm. Gordon beckoned back to a recent hailstorm that caused a lot of damage in the northern St. Louis metro area. “We prayed that God would put a shield around our car, to protect it, so we wouldn’t have to pay that $500 deductible, and indeed, God protected our car. It had only very minor damage.”

Stewart piped in with a classic argument. “What if there was someone at the body shop who needed to be witnessed to? A lot of good could potentially come from that misfortune. Maybe God was trying to lead you to someone so they could go to heaven.”

“You’d carry your Bible to the body shop and watch for someone? That’s noble of you. But that’s God’s responsibility to see to it that someone talks to them,” Gordon snapped. He looked around the room. “Would you agree to $500 worth of damage to your car to get someone to heaven?” he asked me.

“If it meant someone would be in heaven who otherwise wouldn’t, I don’t care if there’s a thousand dollars’ worth of damage to my car. It’s just a car,” I said.

Andy and Stewart smiled and nodded in agreement. Gordon looked shocked. “You really think that? Then your heart’s in the right place, but you don’t have to think like that.”

I don’t know what I looked like, but I sure felt disgusted. Here’s someone who professes love of God and mankind, but if God’s plan to save someone’s soul is going to cause him some inconvenience or minor hardship, then God has to change it.

No wonder so many people want to have nothing to do with Christians. Christians are supposed to love one another, but often the vocal ones love their material things more than they love people.

I didn’t cite Phillippians 4:10-12 right then and there (I cited it later in another context–Stewart and Andy caught it but I don’t think Gordon did), but St. Paul dealt with a lot of inconvenience and a great deal of financial hardship, and he learned to not only live with it, but even to not let it change his attitude. If there was a Gospel of Prosperity at the time (I think that’s a product of the United States’ wretched theology), Paul sure didn’t believe it.

I think we’ve all seen those bumper stickers that say, “If heaven is full of Christians I really don’t want to go.” I understood that after this conversation. Gordon believes God is the creator of the universe, yes, but he’s not willing to trust God’s wisdom or perspective. He certainly won’t hesitate to boss God around, and he believes that if he says the right words and believes the right thing strongly enough, God has to do what he says.

Wait a minute. Gordon thinks the creator of the universe, He Who Knoweth All Things, He Whose Name Should Not Even Be Spoken, is subject to his (note the lowercase “h” there) desires and whims. So if he’s above God, then where does that put me?

Not that I care. I know God knows all things. I know I don’t know very much. Fortunately, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that it’s better to defer to someone who knows more than you know.

It’s a good thing people like Gordon are in the minority. The results of their arrogance sure makes life more difficult for the rest of us.

More Like This: Christianity



IE Synchronize; ASPI Error

One night last week, I had a beer with a good friend. He invited me to join him for dinner; I always learn a lot from him (I hope it’s mutual) and it seemed like he needed to talk, so while I’d already eaten, I joined him for a beer.

Hopefully I can say this without betraying any confidences. There are two people who mean a great deal to him; I know both of these people, so I understand why. In their minds, he let each of them down. In his mind, there wasn’t much he could have done differently; there certainly wasn’t much of anything he could have done better. He did his best, and in these instances, his best wasn’t good enough. In the time since, they’ve let him down. The question is, did he get their best? He doesn’t know. And it hurts.

It always hurts when a friend or someone else you really care about lets you down. When someone you don’t like does something stupid to you, it hurts, but let’s face it. You don’t expect anything else from those kinds of people. What more can they do to you? They continually try to show you what more they can do, but usually it’s not much. It’s lost its impact.

But like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, who, at the end of a day whose events particularly repulsed him, realized it was his 30th birthday, these last couple of days are significant. Thursday was the holiday known as Maundy Thursday. Some 1,972 years or so ago (no one’s ever precisely pinned down the day) on Thursday night, the most infamous letdown by a friend in history took place. A young Jewish rabbi was praying on a hilltop with his three closest friends trying to keep watch despite total exhaustion. An armed mob of his political enemies ascended that hill, led by another one of the rabbi’s closest friends. Judas Iscariat walked up to the man he’d followed and dedicated his life to for the better part of the past three years and forever tainted a sign of love and respect. With a kiss, he pointed the target out to the mob. The result of that betrayal, of course, was the arrest, trial and execution of Jesus Christ.

But I’m convinced that Judas’ kiss hurt more than the crucifixion. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were nothing more than self-righteous scum who couldn’t stand seeing someone understand the things they didn’t. This was to be expected. And the Romans? Well, what else do you expect from a spineless governor under the thumb of a totalitarian dictator? He didn’t get his office by doing the right thing, after all. But Judas… Judas was capable of so much better. Jesus knew it, and the 11 knew it. They’d all seen him do great things. Those religious leaders were no loss. They were lowlives, doing what lowlives do. Judas showed flashes of brilliance, then he flamed out. The other 11, who were just like him, went on to change the world. Judas could have been one of them. But he chose another path, even though he knew better.

Or maybe the significance of last week means nothing, because to me it seems a sacrilege to compare 11 people who changed the world to a ragtag band of people who keep online journals. Or maybe the awkwardness is perfect, because some of us have been attaching too much importance to it. Maybe that puts it in perspective a little.

At any rate, we’ll never change the world, but for whatever reason, there are people who have high expectations of the crowd known collectively as Daynoters. Maybe it’s because of the difficulty of doing what a Daynoter does–getting up each day and having something to say. It’s hard to write something new every day. And a lot of the Daynoters not only write something every day, but they write something consistently thought-provoking, or entertaining, or informative, or useful, nearly every day. And occasionally, someone writes something that manages to be all five.

It’s hard to do. We all know it’s hard to do. Usually we just settle for writing something, anything, each day. We write our stuff, then we go wander around and see what some of the others have to say. Invariably, there’s a jewel out there somewhere. Someone exceeds expectations. And maybe what they write is something we can relate to, so we feel close to them, even though in most cases it’s someone we’ve never met in person and in many cases it’s someone we’ve never even spoken with on the telephone. Even still, expectations rise.

Most of us are computer professionals or hobbyists, and in this field, wild and hairy problems breed. They’re everywhere. When one of us gets surrounded, we post something to the backchannel mailing list. Invariably, someone’s been there before, seen it, conquered it, and has guidance to offer. Again, expectations rise.

I would argue that in some cases, we may expect more of a fellow daynoter than we would a close friend. I know my friends’ faults. I spend enough time with them that it’s impossible not to know them. I don’t know any of the Daynoters that well. I know Dan Bowman better than any of them, but I don’t know his faults, let alone those of the other 29-some people on the Daynotes mailing list. From where I can see, his biggest fault is drinking too much Pepsi. But he’s the exception. At least I know he has to drink Pepsi. I’ve got some indication the guy’s human. What do I have of these other guys? All I know is they know more than I know, write books that sell more copies than mine do, write for bigger-circulation magazines than I do, get more Web traffic than I do… It’s easy to start thinking of them as larger than life.

And then the talk strays from computers… I like talking about computers, because there’s almost always a right answer, and it can be proven conclusively. If you want to boot off an IDE hard drive, you plug it into IDE0 and set it as master. Period. End of argument. Anyone who disagrees with it goes off and quickly makes a fool of himself. Sure, there are holy wars, like AMD vs. Intel, or Apple vs. 98% of the market. But you can do something even with those arguments. No sane person would use a non-Intel CPU in a mission-critical system? I can respond to that. My Cyrix-based PC was only up to producing a 292-page book. In the end, it turned out that Cyrix CPU was a whole lot more reliable than my wrists were.

When the talk turns to political or social issues, there are few slam dunks. Is the American way of doing things demonstrably better than the European way? The majority of Americans think so. The majority of Europeans do not. And professional politicians, having no answers, frequently fall into logic traps, or, worse, finger-pointing and name-calling and other things no human being over the age of 15 should fall into. We turn away in disgust when politicians do it. And when the world’s problems show up on the Daynotes backchannel, and the great minds can’t slam-dunk them?

Well, it turns out they’re human too. And soon, the same traps come up, and we’re disgusted. But it’s worse than seeing Dick Gephardt roll around on the floor and throw a temper tantrum. We expect that of Dick Gephardt, because we already know he’s a finger-to-the-wind, unintelligent, uncreative individual who can’t think for himself who’s in politics because he’d be a total failure in the real world. He’s not worthy of respect. But then we see people we know, people who’ve earned our respect, reduced to that…?

Sometimes when that happens, we join in. If we agree with them, we try to help them out. If they’re attacking someone we agree with, we lob a grenade.

Or we can get disgusted and ignore it. All of our keyboards do have Delete keys, and a lot of our delete keys are starting to wear out from excessive use these past few days.

Or we can get disgusted and try to stop it. Or we can get disgusted and leave the community.

On Tuesday, the mailing list shut down to mixed reactions. In some cases, our disgust with one another turned into disgust with the one who would try to exercise authority over us. Personally, I thought it was the only sane thing to do–close things down, let things cool down for a time. That turned out to be the right decision. Reality hit. People started realizing that name-calling wouldn’t solve all the world’s problems, and that a valuable resource was suddenly gone.

I don’t know how many people know this, but I had a run-in with a fellow Daynoter back in January, 2000. You can ask my sister about it, because she was visiting when it happened. She and I lived in the same house for about 18 years, so she’s seen me mad, but never madder than I was that night. I was ready to chuck it all and leave the community then. It was bad enough that I had gender in common with this guy, let alone had my name on the same Web page as his. I didn’t want people to associate him with me. But my sister advised me to sleep on it, say as little as possible, do as little as possible, and sort it out after I’d had time to cool down. I called a friend who knew both of us and got his counsel. With their help, I determined that leaving wouldn’t solve anything. So I didn’t. He and I haven’t spoken since. And that’s fine. We couldn’t resolve our differences, but at least we didn’t let it become a war.

Late on Thursday, the portal was also shuttered. I didn’t see any point in that measure. It was more a symbolic gesture than anything else, and as far as I can tell, the only thing it accomplished was making a lot of people as mad as I was that night in January 2000. I was mad too. Chris Ward-Johnson and I both published that address as a resource for people to reach us and others like us. Now we look like just another fly-by-night dotcom.

And as soon as the thought had occurred to me that’s absence might be intentional, rather than just a flipped bit in Tom Syroid’s Apache configuration file, the coup occurred. I had notification in my inbox that I’d been subscribed to the Daynotes mailing list at I had messages in my Daynotes folder–mail from the new backchannel, all thanking Bob for his efforts. Then I had notification that Bob had registered the domain name and he expected it to be active come Monday. In the meantime he offered an alternative portal for people to use…

And the talk on the backchannel? It was mostly like old times. Lots of well-deserved thanks and congratulations headed Bob’s direction. A little patching up. And some traffic was exactly like old times. Jonathan Hassell wrote in asking for recommendations for a hotel in New York. Then I made a rare appearance, asking my cohorts across the Atlantic whether Murphy’s Law meant the same thing there as it does here, because I didn’t know and I wanted to invoke it in the Shopper UK article I was writing yesterday. The result? Jon got hotel advice, and I got a brief, “Well, over here it means ‘anything that can go wrong will go wrong…'” from the Good Dr. K.
This has dragged on far too long, so I’ll conclude with this. Three years ago this past week, I had a life-changing experience. I spent a week in a big room 120 miles from home with about 50 people I didn’t know from Adam. And I learned something in that room. Friends aren’t people who like you because of the superhuman qualities they see in you. Our group spent close to 90 hours together that week, and trust me, we didn’t see much in the way of superhuman qualities in one another. Indeed, mostly we saw the very worst that 50 people can offer the world. We could have held it against one another. But those 50 people continued to stand by and admire one another. I never did figure out if that was in spite of what we knew about one another, or precisely because of what we knew about one another.

I’ll never, ever forget that life lesson. True friends learn how to work around their weaknesses and disagreements. It’s hard sometimes, but even at its worst, it’s a whole lot easier than living in isolation.


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