Pandemic Reflections: The Omicron Edition

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I did not think that in January of 2022 that I would still be writing pandemic reflections. Now, I’m beginning to wonder when pandemic reflections will be a thing of the past. Right now, I wonder who else I will learn has COVID when I open Facebook each day (perhaps opening Facebook is my mistake!). I keep hearing Omicron is milder but we’ve never had so many in the hospitals where I live. Right now, over 700 are dying each week in my state. Tests are hard to get. I suspect there are far more infections than those recorded on our state’s dashboard.

Against this backdrop, it is hard for me to hear talk about “new normals” and “I’ve got to live my life.” When schools scramble to get teachers in the classroom and bus drivers to get the children there, when restaurants close because all their servers are sick, when sports teams cancel big games because of “protocols,” this hardly seems normal and I wonder what kind of life we are trying to live when it requires a lot of people to get sick for us to live it, or equally when it requires us to get sick. This all sounds off to me, somehow. It makes me wonder what “living my life” means.

For me it has meant a two year respite from getting on airplanes. It’s meant growing closer to my wife who is my bubble-mate! It’s meant treasuring those times when we have gathered with others. It’s meant working on our home. It’s meant near daily neighborhood walks, glorious sunsets, changing seasons, and getting to know people along the route. So many of my work years have meant getting on a plane or jumping into a rental car for a trip and I haven’t met many of the people in our community beyond my immediate neighbors. I’ve participated in virtual pilgrimages with people from all over the country–times to walk, and meditate on scripture, to listen to stories, and to pray. I’ve written nearly 600 blogs, engaged in hundreds of online conversations, worked with over 30 talented writers in my work, hosted online conversations with a variety of authors and online book groups, and read a few good books along the way (actually more than a few!). I’ve enjoyed plein air painting with my wife and a group of artists in good weather, and actually felt I improved. While I can think of things I wish we could do, I’ve lived, and I think lived well these past years. I even weigh five pounds less than at the beginning of the pandemic (not much, but I’ll take it!).

And by God’s grace, we’ve remained healthy. I don’t presume it will continue when I hear reports saying nearly everyone will catch this latest variant. But neither am I going to run out, plunge into a big, maskless crowd and “get it over with.” That’s the vibe I get as I listen to the media. When I talk to friends our age (late 60’s), we feel like the tornado sirens are blaring and right now we are going to our safe place until the storm of this latest wave blows through. We’re getting good at this. We’ve had a lot of practice and many of us have found the richness of life on the other side of “safe at home.”

Here’s how we look at it. No illness is “milder” when you get older. It takes longer for anything from a cut to a cold or the flu to heal. Even if our vaccinations and booster mean we don’t get sick enough to go to the hospital, that can still be pretty sick. And it is a crapshoot when it comes to after effects. And getting exposed and sick adds to the strain on testing, on our primary care docs, pharmacists, and if we get sicker, a host of others at a time they are all being pressed to the wall. As far as it depends on us, we’ll try to avoid becoming another case.

What’s hard is that as you get older, it is easy not to think of yourself in that way, especially when you see the world around you trying to get back to “normal” in the middle of a wave. It’s easy to start questioning whether you are too cautious. It helps to have other older friends who tell you that you are not nuts.

So for the time, we do takeout. We shop early, and only as necessary, don’t linger, and wear at least a KN95 mask. We won’t do any indoor, unmasked gatherings with a significant group of people. Perhaps for the next few weeks at least, no indoor gatherings outside our bubble.

We don’t take talk of things “levelling off” or “lessening” at face value. We watch infection rates as a rough benchmark. At one time in our state, our governor wanted to get below 50 infected out of 100,000 (1 out of 2,000) over a two week period (and we actually got down to 19.2 per 100,000 last summer). Today the rate in our state is 1818.8 per 100,000 (nearly 2 out of 100) infected in the last two weeks (and because of test shortages, that number is probably low). That means in a group of 50, at least one person is probably infectious. That feels to me that we are amid a storm.

When it was a few hundred cases per 100,000 we did discretionary shopping, and some indoor dining at off hours. Probably, we’ll wait to see things go below 100 per 100,000 to go back to “normal,” perhaps with an Omicron booster.

At the end of the day, I realize there is no sure thing about any of this. The choices we make, we do so out of prudence (God never invites us needlessly to imperil our health or life) and love for each other. My choices affect my wife, other loved ones, and indeed a wider community. But they finally do not make us invulnerable. I live each day grateful for this day’s life (something the pandemic has taught me that is itself a gift). As a Christ-follower, I do believe that someday I will rest in peace with Christ and be raised with him in glory. So I act, not out of fear but rather as one who both lives in hope and cherishes each day of life. I’ve also learned with this pandemic this wisdom of James 5: 15 which says, “Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ ” It seems that any predictions of what this virus will do are folly, and the best we can do is say, “if it is the Lord’s will.”

This reflection is neither an argument or judgement on other choices. Some of the choices we’ve made, we realize, are not possible for others. It is simply a reflection of how we are thinking and acting at this stage of the pandemic. If it’s helpful to someone else, I’m glad, and if you see things differently, I have no interest in a quarrel. We have to get through this thing together, so a fight is counter-productive. I suspect whenever this relents, we’ll all have a lot of sorting out to do, and who knows but that we may end up helping each other–or at least forgiving each other the unkind judgements we have made upon one another.

The Compelling Alternative

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It was a familiar conversation, one I’ve been a part of many times in recent years. How did white evangelical churches become so captive to one political party, welcome patriarchal treatment of women and cover up abuse, become militaristic, nationalistic, anti-science and anti-environment, and racially divided from those who believed as they did but had different colored skin.

There have been a proliferation of critiques, both from other Christians as well as the secular press. What I found myself wondering as I listened to this discussion is why the alternative vision so many of my friends and I pursue has had so little sway among so many that claim the identifier “evangelical.” This is worth serious study, but I have a few very preliminary thoughts–less “answers” than hypotheses.

One is that we have focused more on critique than an alternative compelling vision of pursuing the kingdom. We focus more on:

  • What’s wrong with “making America great again” than on magnifying the greatness of God and God’s global mission of forming a great people of every language, tribe, ethnicity, and nation.
  • Criticizing patriarchy rather than casting vision for what marriages of mutual service shaped by Christ are like and what churches might be like where women and men use all of the gifts of God to serve the people of God in shared leadership.
  • We join the chorus of #MeToo discussing abuse in the church and rightly so. However, I rarely hear about redeemed, chaste, and flourishing sexuality–mostly what I hear is silence.
  • We speak against the racism of “white” evangelicalism but still have a long ways to go in partnership with believers of color, learning even to submit to their leadership and repenting of white Messiahship.
  • We denounce political captivity to one party, but offer little more than political captivity to another. Rarely do we recognize that the church is its own polis, a people of the Third Way speaking prophetically without being entangled with any party, turning neither to the left nor the right.
  • We deride the anti-science attitudes of others but fail to convey the doxological wonder of exploring the incredible world God has made, sometimes falling into a greater confidence in science than in God.

As I keep pondering this, I wonder if it is more than a matter of who has the better way? Might it be that we are both wrong? I wonder if we are looking at a mirror image of each other, and that we all have abandoned the core values that made evangelicalism such a vibrant movement within Christianity over the last couple centuries, not only in the U.S., but globally. David Bebbington has articulated this as a quadrilateral of core values:

  1. Bible-centered. We affirm the inspiration, trustworthiness, and authority of the Bible. My sense is that there is very little Bible in much of evangelicalism–often only in misapplied proof texts rather than attentive listening to and meditating upon and even memorizing scripture. In particular, one challenge for us is to read scripture together with people of color and believers from other parts of the world who may not have the same blinders we have.
  2. Cross-centered. The cross challenges all our pretensions to power and influence–from gender relations to politics. The cross gives us all pause to recognize that we are sinners, and that this recognition is good news, because in the cross, the curse of sin is reversed, real pardon is possible. We believe “the ground is level at the foot of the cross,” that all of us meet without distinctions of race, gender, socioeconomic status, or anything else that separates people. There is no “othering” and certainly no fear-mongering that infers the inferiority of others. We are all both base sinners and the redeemed of God.
  3. Conversion-centered. The cross shows us we need something more than personal and social betterment. We are dying people who need new life, and our hope is in Christ’s death and resurrection. Period. That both moves us to be converted and seek that of others. What I notice is how little we speak of these things. Have we so lost confidence in the transforming power of the gospel that we have turned to meagre earthly things like politics, or efforts to control other people?
  4. Activism. Evangelicals were distinguished by gospel energized activism that effected abolition of slavery, the building of hospitals, the earliest social agencies, and the founding of educational institutions, among other social goods. I wonder if much of our activism, whether of the right or left is co-opted by political connections or shaped by what is in favor in our political tribe rather than energized by the Jubilee proclamation of Jesus in Luke 4:18-19.

I wonder if white evangelicals of the left and right are both apostate. Have we both renounced our birthright in Christ, which is what is truly compelling? Are we both worshiping idols, just different ones? I wonder if we might begin with common confession that we have turned from our first love, a common repentance. Might that be the beginning of the revival we urgently need, both within the people of God and spreading to a deeply divided and struggling nation? Right now, we are only amplifying the divisions that exist among us when, as reconciliation people, we ought to be healing them. Might the beginning be to admit our unfitness for the work, and how desperately we need God to heal us before we can begin to bring healing?

Important Things We Can’t Seem to Talk About

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Conflict is as old as Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve bickered over who was at fault for their joint act of eating the forbidden fruit. What strikes me about our present moment is that there seem to be so many things that are actually quite important that large parts of our society simply cannot talk about with other large parts of our society:

  • Public health measures in a pandemic.
  • How we will make the drastic changes to limit carbon emissions and mitigate the climate effects that are too late to prevent.
  • How we will face our deeply engrained history and patterns of racism and find ways to repair the damage and move toward the “beloved community.”
  • How we will stop “othering” those who are different than we are and recognize that common citizenship, whether in the nation or the world.
  • How we will address growing disparities of wealth and poverty; particularly when wealth has power to protect its position.
  • What it will take to move beyond gerrymandered politics in which political representatives must pander to extreme bases while the moderate middles that make up the majority don’t have anyone who speaks for them.

I don’t think this is a silver bullet for these really tough conversations. But I do think in our highly internet-mediated world we have forgotten how to talk with others, except those of our tribe. With others, we seem to have concluded that we can be nasty and dismissive and forget that they are human beings.

Tish Harrison Warren in a recent New York Times opinion piece suggests that we need to recover the art of small talk with our neighbors. I don’t have to leave my neighborhood to find those who see the world differently than I–political parties, social issues, race, religion, you name it. But we help each other find lost animals, share recommendations on home repairs, redeliver the mail our postal service regularly seems to scramble. Of course, we all share a love for our home town sports teams.

Can we extend that online? I notice that my “friends” who share what I think the most outrageous things, also share their personal joys and sorrows, the things common to all of us–the birth of a child or grandchild, a graduation, a serious illness, the death of a parent. Sometimes they will say things I can affirm. Do I ignore them, or express compassion or agreement.

We still haven’t gotten to the serious matters I mentioned above. That’s genuinely challenging and I am not sure I see the way forward, entirely, but I can’t help but wonder if caring for each other’s families, and especially our children and grandchildren is a decent common ground. The commonplaces that we love might just be a good enough reason to step into the hard work. The impasses that exist on so many important questions mean we very well could leave a pretty messed up world to those who follow. I so fear that part of my dying words, if I am permitted them, will be simply, “I’m sorry for the mess I’ve left you.”

While the scriptures say, “God so loved the world” they command us to love our neighbors. Neighbors are both tangible and situational. They are the people who live all around me. They are the ones with the immaculate yard, the barking dog, the kid who excels at everything. Neighbors are also situational. They are the ones who unexpectedly intrude into our life–like the girl at the fast food window who tells me she was hesitant to get vaccinated because of a relative who died shortly after getting one. There are logical answers to that and loving ones that recognize loss.

On a spring break urban project years ago with a church in St. Louis, we saw “re-neighboring” in action. In an area with a tenuous fabric of neighborhoods, people moved in, stayed, and cared and then worked to re-develop home ownership and mutual care in that neighborhood. We’re in a time as we struggle to emerge from the pandemic where we need to lean into “re-neighboring” both with tangible and situational neighbors.

Many of our global and national challenges do require concerted action. But I can’t help wonder if the basis for such action are healthy local communities that decide to really practice “neighboring” instead of being isolated into internet echo chambers susceptible to manipulation by the political machines and other nefarious actors. Maybe Mr. Rogers was right when he asked, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

Ethics For Algorithms

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You are probably aware that the material that shows up in your newsfeed on Facebook or Twitter is only a fraction of what your friends and connections are posting, and some of it is sponsored content tailored for you. Have you every wondered why you are seeing what you are seeing? Algorithms (and a lot of data collected about you).

A similar kind of thing happens when you search on Google. I am surprised how often it works well and I find exactly what I’m looking for. But sometimes it goes sideways. Why for example, when Dylann Roof searched Google, following up a search on Trayvon Martin with a search on “black on white crime” did the top search choices come up as white supremacist organizations? Algorithms.

Why, when I search for a book on Amazon, do I receive a number of recommendations of books in the form of “because you looked at this, you might like this”? I have similar things occur at Barnes & Noble or at Thriftbooks. Why? Algorithms.

One definition of an algorithm I found is: “a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.” Actually, algorithms are not some arcane mathematical art. They may be as simple as the process we use to solve a long division problem or the process we use in doing our laundry.

What is happening with all these algorithms is that somebody, an individual or group, has established a set of rules to determine what you see. What much of the world became aware of when Frances Haugen appeared on 60 Minutes this past Sunday night is that the ethic behind these rules that form the algorithms is very important. Haugen alleged, producing massive documentation, that Facebook has consistently chosen profit over safety on its various platforms. For one thing, it selected content that fostered anger on its newsfeeds despite the fact that it often spread misinformation and fostered division simply because this kept people on the platform longer, which was where the money is. Another prime example is the impact that it was aware of Instagram having on teenage girls. Not only do glamorous images feed body-shame, but they discovered that the shame and depression keeps girls on the platform in an emotionally destructive spiral. They knew this and did nothing to change their algorithms of what these girls saw.

Computer-based algorithms are widely used for everything from fantasy baseball to mortgage application processing to screening resumes to your FICO score. People are not directly making decisions about what we see online or about our finances or career aspirations. Machines are making the decisions, using the rules programmers establish in the code.

There are at least a few key ethical considerations that rise to the top, highlighted in Cathy O’Neill’s, Weapons of Math Destruction:

  1. How opaque or transparent are the rules used in the algorithm? Most of the time, the algorithms are highly opaque and we know that we’ve been affected but we don’t know why. Because of this, questions of fairness often arise–how do factors of race, gender, age, etc. get factored in?
  2. What is the scale of impact of the algorithm? FICO scores affect credit, auto insurance costs, getting hired or promoted, and being able to rent an apartment or buy a house. How will this algorithm be used in the marketplace and what protects individuals from wrongful harm?
  3. What is the damage this could cause? Where possible, this should be considered proactively. For example, on social media, under what conditions is more engagement harmful to persons or the broader social context?

This is not easily done, particularly because algorithms serve beneficial purposes as well as cause harm. At very least, identifying the real instances of unfairness and harm and eliminating these, or better, anticipating them, seems a place to start. What is most egregious about the content of Frances Haugen’s testimony was that internal studies were showing known harms from platform algorithms that were not addressed because of profit considerations. We should never use complicated ethical questions to forestall dealing with the clear-cut ones. Let’s begin here.

Community Doesn’t Stop At Your Feet

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I’m in the middle of several long books, hence fewer reviews in recent days. So I thought I might share one interesting idea from one of the books I’m reading. In Majority World Theology, theologians from around the world write on the major themes of Christian theology. The situation of various writers offers unique perspectives. One of these was from some Christians from Canada’s indigenous peoples. Writing about community, one writer observed that land for indigenous people was considered part of their communal life. For indigenous peoples, separating people from the land, as occurred with the Cherokee tribes who traveled (and died along) the Trail of Tears in U.S. history, is devastating

Certainly this was true of ancient Israel as well, and part of the grief of exile was the parting of people from their land. I wonder if this is actually true of many people in the world. It makes me think that many of us modern urban Euro-Americans may be the anomaly. We live on land but often think little about it. We live in places from which we draw our life but often think little about its care or future.

Even the quarter acre on which I live is vibrantly alive and I’m part of a complex community of microbes, creatures in the soil (including the grubs of the seventeen year cicadas who emerged this summer and created cacophony), and insects and spiders. Hundreds of species of vegetation draw nutrients and water from the soil and the air and return them as they decay. Squirrels, chipmunks, the occasional skunk, rabbits, possums and raccoons and birds from sparrows to vultures visit our property.

St Francis of Assisi spoke of the animals as his brothers and sisters and preached to the birds. Hildegard of Bingen commented, “Every creature is a glittering, glistening mirror of divinity.” John Paul II loved to ski and hike in his native Poland and urged an “ecological conversion.”

I wonder if our own lack of connection to the land and community with its creatures makes us less sensitive to those around the world who face displacement from their homes, and what a wrenching decision it is to flee one’s home. Even if they leave as a family, they leave a “family” behind, a part of themselves. As sea levels rise, as temperatures and drought in some areas, or inundations in others displace these “climate refugees,” will they find those who grieve with them or will we close our doors to them?

I’m struck that many of our burial rites even sever our relationship to the land. Where at one time, we committed the remains of those who died to the earth, now we keep them in columbariums, or even on a shelf in our homes. We believed “for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). In past days, churches had graveyards, where we remembered the “saints of old,” a communion of land, and people past and present.

Might a renewed awareness of our community with the land around us begin to teach us to love the wider world? And might that awareness help us care for those displaced, including those our own forebears displaced? I’m reminded every time I hear the name of a river in my state, and even the name of my state that people lived here long before it was “discovered” and “pioneered.” Many of our roads began as their trails. They left their impact on the community in which I live, even as I will for another generation. And the land ties us together.

The Freedom of the Christian

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I hear a lot of talk about freedom in our current pandemic situation where people do not want to accept mandates to wear masks or be vaccinated to hold a job or participate in a function. I don’t want to discuss that for the moment because I believe this reflects a different understanding of freedom than how I understand freedom as a Christian. When we discuss things from different premises, we often end up talking past each other–no wonder we disagree.

As a Christian, I understand freedom as freedom from and freedom to. Fundamentally the uses of freedom from in the Bible are either freedom from human bondage or freedom from sin. In the Old Testament, the outstanding case was the liberation of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Exodus 20:2, the prologue to the Ten Commandments says “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (NIV). Even here, we see they are freed from Egyptian bondage for a relationship with God.

The other form of bondage is that to sin. The singular “sin” refers to the fundamental approach that says to God, “not thy will but mine.” Bondage to sin means a life of running from God, living under the tyranny of self, broken relationships with others, and the abuse of creation, fouling our own nest as it were. In one of the most famous passages, often misappropriated, Jesus said:

Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:32-36, NIV)

Jesus says elsewhere that the truth that sets free is “to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29) or in the immediate context, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples” (John 8:31). Jesus says real freedom comes in believing and obeying him.

That brings me to the freedom for. Real freedom is to be freed for right relationships: with God, with ourselves, with each other, and with the creation. Instead of rebelling against and running from God, we love God and believe that our highest joy is found in “knowing and glorifying God forever.” Instead of seeing ourselves at the center of the universe, we find that our greatest dignity is living as beings who reflect the character of the God who is. It is a great relief to realize that God is God and we are not. When I realize I’m not the center of the universe, I can get along better with others. When we accept that we are creatures entrusted with the care of a creation that belongs to the God who made us, we cherish what he made and seek its flourishing. We gain freedom from poisonous water, polluted air, unhealthy food, and, hopefully, a climate out of control. And other creatures of God gain their lives.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians may be called the manifesto of Christian freedom. Here is what he says our freedom is for:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

Paul says that our freedom in the society of people comes not in seeking our personal wants but rather seeking for our neighbor what we want for ourselves. He observes that self-seeking at the expense of others is an exercise in mutual destruction. It deeply troubles me that people cloak this disregard of neighbor in an assertion of personal freedom against “tyranny.” Paul wrote these words under the tyranny of Rome that would one day take his life. The use of “tyranny” in our context is an insult to the sacrifice of martyrs to real tyranny around the world.

As I think about our present moment, freedom means freely choosing to do all I can to protect others from being infected by COVID. Masks block the spread of the virus to others. The vaccine can sometimes prevent infection, or if not, make me less infectious to others. No one has to require these of me. If they prevent my neighbor from getting sick, even if I do, that is love for my neighbor.

These verses challenge me in my response to those who differ. My temptation is to belittle their decisions, which I believe endanger themselves and others. I think my belief warranted, but my belittlement or angry reactions are also indulgences of the flesh and a form of biting and devouring. Where I have done this, I am in the wrong.

But I do want to question my Christian brothers and sisters who refuse to wear masks or receive vaccinations, despite their safety, for reasons of personal freedom, to explain how this freedom takes precedence over the love of neighbor and the humble service of others. I would love to know how you believe this is both love of God and neighbor for which you have been freed in Christ. I honestly would like to understand how an assertion of personal freedom that puts at risk the freedom, health, and possibly life of another is consistent with freedom in Christ. In our present situation, I am deeply concerned that this especially puts the children Jesus loves, and those with other illnesses, at greater risk.

My discussion is not with those who do not share my faith commitments but with those who say they do, who say they follow Christ. It seems to me that you are embracing a worldly rather than Christian definition of freedom. My concern is that when we embrace the worldly, we move away from right relationship with God, ourselves, our neighbors, and the world. Instead of freedom, we return to an embrace of bondage. That is even more deadly than COVID. I dare to raise these concerns not merely out of concern about a disease, but out of concern that you renounce the freedom that is in Christ for a poor substitute.

Things That Bring Joy to a Page Admin

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Most of the people I know who are group or page admins on Facebook have thoughts about giving it up. I do. It’s not easy, and more people can mean more problems. Spam posts, comments, and messages. People who openly defy page or group rules. Deciding when to shut down a thread that is going sideways. Banning people. I know. I’ve curated a book page for three years that has grown to a community of 35,000.

The headaches are well known. There is another side–the things that make it worth it. I thought I would share a few of those. Online spaces can be good spaces when we work together to make that happen. Here are some of the things that bring joy:

  1. Knowing that the page has made at least a bit of a difference in someone’s life. It was heartening when someone jotted a note saying that our page was one of the things that was helping them get through the pandemic.
  2. I love when I see people helping each other out. They share enough about a book and what they love that another person finds the next book they want to read.
  3. It gives me joy when I see people trying to learn from their disagreements, asking questions rather than flinging arguments past each other.
  4. It is a delight when people from different cultures share books and ideas that may be new to others of us. I’m glad when others take note and affirm them.
  5. I like it when people can have fun with something that is fun and not feel they have to pontificate or disagree.
  6. I enjoy reading threads where no one feels the need to leave comments like, “I never read anything by Steinbeck, in fact I really don’t like to read, but just thought I ought to say something.”
  7. It’s fun when someone adds an article or quote or even thought that is totally on point and enlarges the discussion.
  8. I like it when people on the page invite their book-loving friends to join the fun. It is encouraging when people think our page is a good enough place that they aren’t embarrassed to share it with their friends.
  9. My heart is touched when someone shares about hard things they are going through and others care without trying to “fix’ them.
  10. I’m grateful for a day when I haven’t had to delete spam comments or messages or ban anybody. But I’m glad to keep our growing “neighborhood” a good and safe place.

None of this is about numbers or platforms or making money. It is about shared conversation around a shared interest–in my case, books. I’ve learned about new authors and read some of them. Most of all, it has been a rich community of very different people–not perfect but pretty good (do we ever get better than that, at least this side of eternity?). While I created and admin the page, I like to call it “ours” because the others who are part of the community help make it what it is. Despite the hassles, I’d say this, and pages or groups like it, are some of the best things on Facebook. And when you find one, be sure to thank the admin who works to make that happen. When people do that, it makes my day.

Facebook’s Other Problem

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Much has been made both of Facebook as a source of disinformation and its efforts to address it which have been attacked as suppression of free speech (news flash: it isn’t–as a private sector corporation, it is fully within its rights to determine what and who is on its platform). I’m not here to debate that–a stupid debate, especially when people use the very platform they are criticizing to have the debate!

I’m talking about a problem that is somewhere between annoying and insidious that it seems to me Facebook is uninterested in dealing with. In my experience, it is growing, and I think if allowed to grow, it could undermine Facebook as a platform for legitimate social engagement. It is the problem of people creating fraudulent profiles with various nefarious intents.

How many of you have received a Facebook request from someone who is already your friend? This is like a virus. Gaining access to your profile they can either do the same thing to you, or they can fill your newsfeed with their extremist views. The simplest thing to do is to search all friend requests before you accept them to be sure they are not your friend already. If not, report them to Facebook, which almost immediately shuts down the person’s activity on that profile. Also, this seems to happen most to those rarely on Facebook, and not likely to notice as quickly that someone is “spoofing” their profile. If you are not going to use Facebook, you might be wise to close your account.

I ran into a variant of this the other day. Someone tipped me off that someone named “Bob on Brooks” was friending them. “Bob on Books” is the name of my Facebook book page. They were using my profile image, which is easily downloadable or screen-captured from Facebook. I searched and found it and reported it and it was taken down. If you got that request, believe me, I’m not that interested in brooks!

Then there are the seductive friend requests. As a male, barely a day goes by where I don’t get a request from a woman, usually with two first names, like “Emily Laura” whose picture usually reveals some cleavage and that supposedly sexy pouty face. Lately, more of them include “Bitcoin trader” in their profile. All this suggests that they want to be friends with my money, not me. I suspect there are other old guys out there gullible to this stuff. This one’s simple: delete.

The newest has started cropping up on my Facebook page (not my profile). It has happened more to women who comment on a post and get a comment from a man (supposedly) who says “I really like your personality but was not able to friend you. Could you send a friend request?” Creepy, huh? It gets creepier when they do it with five other women on the same thread! So much for being someone special. Some men receive these from (supposed) women. I’ve reported this to Facebook but they say it falls below their threshold of violating “Community Standards.” Everyone is glad that I ban anyone doing this and delete posts. We’ve essentially created a “neighborhood watch” to ferret out this stuff. My sense is that Facebook really doesn’t care.

From what I can gather, when they have a friend request from you that they have accepted, anything in your profile accessible to friends is accessible to them. Whether they use it to create fake profiles or for identity theft, this can be serious. Never fall for the sweet-talker who tries this!

Finally, there are the messages that start with “Hi” or “How are you?” Best thing is not to respond and block. Your real friends send a message, not a teaser. They are looking for a response, usually to set you up to hit you up for money or collect personal information about you.

Like other things in the social media world, there is no upside for Facebook to care enough about this to take real action unless their existence is threatened. Here’s a newsflash for Facebook. When people start having a daily experience with Facebook that is one long exercise in avoiding fraud and stalkers and fake identities, people might start leaving. People leave Facebook when the negatives start outweighing the positives. Public assurances are not enough.

One thing much of this has in common from what I can tell is fake identities. Right now, Facebook only has a program to verify business identities, from what I can tell. Individuals can create fake accounts easily, and if Facebook closes down one, the same person simply creates another (or a bot does). Could Facebook create a trusted identity program? I’d even be willing to pay a modest fee for this (an upside for Facebook). Devices used to interact with Facebook (and Facebook does track this) could be blocked if used fraudulently. That would make this a much more expensive activity. If the same name and likeness are used as an existing account, it should not take a user report. Facebook notifies me whenever I log in from a new device or even browser.

I suspect there are a variety of other strategies Facebook could use. The question is, will they wait until they are overrun by this problem? At that point, it might be too late. And Facebook will become a neighborhood of scammers trying to scam the promoters of fake news. The rest of us will have left. And they will deserve each other.

Another Wave

Photo by Allan Watson on Pexels.com

In May I wrote about “Coming Out of the Cave.” I wrote about some of the “normal” things we were starting to do. We’ve dined out and gone to public places without wearing masks. We booked a remodeling job in our home in October. I started making plans to sing with our choral group in the fall.

I wrote back then:

I hope we don’t have to return to the cave. But we don’t know what will happen with the virus. The worst nightmare is that it keeps getting more infectious and also causes more severe illness with high mortality rates. As long as it is out there, especially at significant levels, that is possible, especially with over half the country and much more of the world un-vaccinated. Because of that, I can’t think of a return to pre-pandemic “normal.” That is living in a dream. But like most of you, I will enjoy a bit more life outside the cave this summer.

What I hoped would not happen has. The Delta variant is sweeping through the country with huge rises in cases. It is at least 2 1/2 times more infectious as original COVID, and while the vaccines are very effective in preventing hospitalization and death, they are less so, in preventing infection. As one of the “over 65” crowd, my immune system isn’t as strong as younger people, and even a number of them who have been vaccinated have had “breakthrough” infections. Most of these are mild, but one doctor described mild as a bad cold or a case of the flu. That doesn’t sound great. A booster shot will help, but there aren’t any yet, and it will be some time. The six-month mark when the vaccine may begin to wane comes around the end of September for me.

So what does that mean? I will continue to worship with our “masked” church and resume wearing masks when I am shopping indoors. I will seek outdoor or take out dining. Indoor gatherings with large numbers where I don’t know the vaccination status seems really iffy. Long exposures mean enough exposure to this more infectious virus that may be more than my immune system can handle.

Looking at the infection curves of the previous waves, it appears waves take five to six months to wax and wane, peaking 2-3 months in. Officials are saying October will be bad. That would be about right. And maybe it will wane by January–if something new doesn’t come along.

I find myself both angry and sad. Fundamentally, I’m angry because this doesn’t have to be. While vaccines never provide complete protection, a high vaccination rate would make it much harder for this variant to take hold. I’m angered at the misinformation campaigns that have persuaded people that the vaccine is far worse than the virus, which is just plain wrong. The long term debilities and the deaths resulting from this are on them, and on the public officials who cave to them. I’m angry that those asserting their “freedom” end up making others less free and possibly sick.

And I’m sad. I’m sad for our economy, which will never fully recover until COVID is suppressed. I’m sad for all those like myself, who because of risk factors need to reconsider all the things we had just begun doing. Most of all, I am sad for all those who will die or get very sick who did not need to. I’m sad for kids who are getting sick because they can’t get vaccinated and the adults in their lives won’t. It all seems such a waste. I’m sad that we are so divided over this even in a time of crisis.

I’m not sure if I will sing with our choir (if they are able to). The choir is requiring proof of vaccination. But it is not clear that we will mask, and singing has been proven to be a very effective way of spreading COVID. Do I hope that no one is infected with a breakthrough infection, and that vaccinated people are unlikely to spread infection? [Update: In the 24 hours since I wrote this the CDC has announced that vaccinated persons who are infected do shed the virus in significant amounts and can infect others.] There is a lot we don’t know. I also have to think about my wife, who has had some health issues.

I’ve concluded that I can’t change anyone’s mind about these things. Given our divided state, and the challenge of vaccinating the world, I believe we will be dealing with COVID for a long time, as the virus keeps mutating and circulating. I think we will have alternating seasons of relative normalcy, and others of infection spikes. I will keep paying attention to infection rates and gauge my behavior appropriately.

And my faith? I will not “test” God by exposing myself to possible infection on purpose or recklessly. Nor will I presume that anything “protects” me–masks, vaccines, anything. I will use these means as gracious provisions of God to reduce my risk of infection but my trust is in God, not means. My trust is in the God who already has numbered my days. I believe I will live as long as God gives me life. I will do all I can not to be a source of infection to others.

While I’ve enjoyed life out of the cave, I’ve also discovered in the last year the richness of days shared with my wife, a good conversation with a friend, times with vaccinated friends and family, the beauties in my own backyard, and the delights of a good book. Philippians 4:12-13 is more real to me now than ever: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” Whether COVID waxes or wanes, and I believe it will continue to do both, Christ continues to be the one who gives me strength. And that is enough.

Consider the Lilies of the Field

Saksa Daylily Farm, Photo by Bob Trube, all rights reserved.

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin,  yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:28b-33, English Standard Version)

I spent last Saturday morning “considering the lilies of the field.” My wife and I are part of a plein air painting group. Many Saturdays will find us loading our easels and paints into the Outback and trekking off to a park or farm or small town (or even urban Columbus). This past Saturday, we painted at the Saksa Daylily Farm located outside Centerburg, Ohio, about 40 minutes from our home (by the way, Centerburg gets its name from being located at the geographic center of Ohio).

What a gorgeous place! Lilies of every variety as far as the eye could see. There were so many different varieties, and walking through the rows felt like walking through an art gallery, each variety a masterpiece. In the end, I focused on a single flower, and hardly did justice even to that. This is that flower:

“Lily,” Bob Trube, all rights reserved.

The starburst of yellow against the magenta petals, the stamens reaching up to the sun, the delicate veins and curling edges all caught my eye. Little wonder Jesus said that “Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these!” Jesus invites us to stop and consider the lilies of the fields and, in earlier words, the birds of the air and how God cares for them, and how much more God would care for us.

The field of lilies was a peaceful place, kissed by the sun and refreshing breezes. Such a contrast to the anxious life we often live. My own anxieties are less about food and clothing and more about what life in our senior years will look like. How long will we be able to remain in our home? What can we do to stay healthy as long as possible? What will the coming years bring? And often our thoughts are as much or more about our son and daughter-in-law as ourselves. We could not ask for better, but you never stop being a parent.

The verses above have been something of a watchword throughout my life. They were etched into my memory as a college student on a spring break outreach in Fort Lauderdale. A gifted jazz pianist, James Ward joined us in evening coffeehouse performances in an outdoor venue on the strip opposite the beaches. One of his songs was “Seek First the Kingdom (Consider the Lilies)” the first verse and chorus of which said:

Consider the lilies, how they grow,
Your heavenly Father takes control,
Are you not much more important than they?
What can your worrying do anyway?

Seek first the kingdom.
Keep the righteousness of God in view.
Seek first the kingdom.
He said all of these things will be added to you.

--James Ward, 1974

Ward’s song made sense out of my experience getting to Fort Lauderdale. I didn’t have either the money or a car to get there. People gave me money without knowing what for, and a friend lent us a car. It taught me that if I sought God’s will in God’s way, life wouldn’t always be easy, but God would take care of us. Over the years, we continued to live into the promise of this passage in moving to a new city and buying a house in a recession. Trusting God for a couple hundred dollars turned into trusting God for hundreds of thousands of dollars for the team God gave us to engage in ministry among students and faculty. We were sustained by God and his people through my wife’s two cancer diagnoses and a stubborn foot infection I faced. I could go on. We’ve been blessed to share forty-three years together.

The lilies at the lily farm reminded me of the promise we’ve lived into all of these years. The things that might cause us anxiety may be different from earlier years. The promise hasn’t changed. Most of all, the God who has proven faithful over the years as we’ve oriented our lives toward him hasn’t changed.

The lilies also recalled the song. I could not find the acoustic piano version I still have on vinyl, but I came across this jazzier version on YouTube. I like the version on my vinyl better, but this gives you a taste. It just might become a watchword for you.

Seek First the Kingdom (Consider the Lilies), James Ward