Thoughts and Words

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I reviewed Adam Smyer’s You Can Keep That To Yourself yesterday. He make’s this interesting observation at the beginning of the book:

I will tell you what not to say, but I will not tell you what not to think. Think whatever you like.

Let’s review.

THOUGHTS are the things on the In side of your head. They are invisible. Your thoughts are yours. No one else’s. No one else wants them.

WORDS are the things that exit your hole to the Out side of your head, where we are. They are a lot like thoughts, except that we can hear them. We don’t want most of those, either. You can keep them.

Adam Smyer, You Can Keep That to Yourself, p. 9.

Smyer’s book is about the insensitive things “well-intentioned people of pallor” say to Black people. But there is a principle here that is worth considering in all situations: you don’t have to say everything you think.

This is a principle I’ve called to mind again and again during the past election season. Whenever I’ve failed to observe it online, I’ve ended up responding to those who disagreed with me, wasting too much of my one precious life. How liberating it was to realize that I didn’t have to respond to an objectionable comment. I could respond in my head and hit mental “send” and let it go.

There are so many times when I’ve wished I could stuff words back into thought-land. Unfortunately, you can’t. All you can do is clean up the mess.

I personally wonder why people feel compelled to disagree on matters of taste. If you don’t like butter pecan ice cream, you really don’t need to rain on my parade. Why not just share your own favorite, like cookies ‘n cream–or whatever!

I like how the New Living Translation renders Proverbs 10:19:

Too much talk leads to sin. Be sensible and keep your mouth shut.

There are times, though, when we do need to speak. It’s one thing to think about what not to say. What tests may we apply to discern what we should say? There is a test developed by Herbert J. Taylor and introduced to the Chicago Rotary Club that was eventually adopted by the Rotary International and called the Four Way Test for these four questions:

1. Is it the TRUTH?
2. Is it FAIR to all Concerned?
3. Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

Imagine applying this to work conversations, our marriages, and everything we post online. Imagine if we could get all our politicians to pledge to this simple test and keep everything that doesn’t meet the test in thought land.

I suspect using this test, if nothing else, will incline us to say less. Sometimes, by pausing and using this test I find my initial thought was wrong and not what I really think, or would say. If I am not sure in some situations how to answer, it can help. After all, should I say what I’m thinking when I’m not sure of the answers to the questions of the Four Way Test? Probably not.

Just remember. You don’t have to say everything you think. Less is more.

Pandemic Fatigue

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What day is it? They all seem alike. I haven’t been out to eat at a restaurant since early March. I haven’t hugged my son and daughter-in-law since early in the year. All my conversations, except with my wife, are on Zoom, except for brief exchanges when I’m out for walks in my neighborhood. I miss singing with my choir–except for virtual recordings (I did last night). I hadn’t reckoned on this going for seven months, and perhaps that many more.

I don’t think most of us did, and it is hard on all of us.

And it is very tempting to just say, “I’m over with this.” Can’t I just throw a big football party with all my friends? Or celebrate Thanksgiving with lots of friends and food?

And then I remember I’ve made it through seven months. We are in our sixties, and that is good news. By God’s grace, we haven’t gotten sick when others in our age group have gotten very sick. We personally know of people who have died–our age or younger. Perhaps you do as well.

I’m also reminded of life challenges that have lasted into years. And there were times when I wanted to throw in the towel. Caring for a parent with terminal colon cancer. Walking through each parent’s final years, the calls in the night (never good), the emergency trips home. There was a graduate degree while working a full time job with a young family. There were the half marathons I ran. Walking with my wife through close to a year of cancer treatments and recovery. Working a number of years to accomplish work goals that couldn’t be done in a year.

I’ll bet you have stories like that. You were tired. You even were tempted to quit. Why didn’t you? Those memories and the answer to why you didn’t quit might be important in your life right now. It might be your love for someone else who was dear to you. It might be a goal that answers to a deep calling in your life. It might be a faith that believes goodness and truth triumph in the end.

What practices sustained you when you had to say “no” to many good things in life? Maybe it was a few quiet minutes with some music and a glass of wine. Maybe it was a walk in the park. Maybe you read the Bible or said your prayers. Reaching out to a trusted friend with whom you can be your unfiltered self. And you kept doing these things as you were able.

While none of us have gone through a pandemic before, many of us know what it is to go through hard things that aren’t over in a few days or weeks. We know what it is to be fatigued, and find the resources to keep going.

And if we haven’t? Then this is our time to develop the grit, the resolve, the stick-to-it-iveness that will serve us well in any other challenges we face in our lives. What story will you tell about this time?

Why does it matter? Because the infectiousness of this disease means the action of one could affect 10 or 50 or 100 others. In a highly individualistic country, it reminds us how our lives are inextricably intertwined. That party could result in the deaths of grandparents who weren’t even present.

Have you ever thought, “I’ve made it this far, I don’t want to lose all I’ve worked for when I’m getting closer to making it through.” We’re a lot closer to a vaccine than last March. We’re closer to when this virus will recede if not disappear.

As a Christian, I do not fear death. But my faith also teaches me that life is never to be thrown away heedlessly. These have been good months of reading and writing, communicating and planning, building and clearing out. They have been months of clarifying and simplifying. They have been months of trying new things. I’ve been fortunate to work, and work as hard in many ways as any time in life. They are months for which I’m glad I’ve been alive. By God’s grace I hope to be doing these things for a while yet and I want to be around when we can gather and party and sing again–without masks.

I want that for you as well. Let’s hang in there together.

How Then Shall I Vote?

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There are numerous discussions on how one should make decisions about for whom to vote. I approach this question as a Christian and the first thing I note is what an exceptional thing in Christian history it is to be able to vote for those who serve us in government. For much of history and even today in many parts of the world, Christians have no say over who leads their government and must figure out what Christian faithfulness looks like in these circumstances, sometimes under regimes openly hostile to Christians. The U.S. recognition of the right to vote for all our citizens (with certain exceptions) is a precious right that should be vigorously protected for all as a recognition of our common humanity in the image of God.

For many Christians, their primary criteria is where their candidate lines up on the issues. My difficulty is several-fold. One is which issues? My difficulty is that when I consider biblical teaching, I find no party whose platform conforms to biblical teaching across the board. Also, there are differences among Christians about how to achieve certain aims, or whether the aim of Christian political engagement is the conformity of a pluralistic country to biblical morality specific to followers of Christ. There are many issues, for example local issues, for which there may not be a clear biblical principle.

I would contend that the Bible prioritizes character and competence, that I might summarize in the phrase, “skillful shepherds.” Psalm 78:72 pays this tribute to David: “And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them.”

First of all, the psalmist emphasizes the integrity of David’s heart. David wasn’t perfect, but when confronted with wrongdoing, he admitted his wrongdoing and the justice of God’s judgments. I grew up in Youngstown and saw the impact of a half century or more of political corruption, where political leaders would say they were serving the people when they were beholden to criminal elements and lining their own pockets. As a young voter, I saw how Richard Nixon betrayed the trust of the people in the Watergate cover-up, helping undermine confidence in those in public office.

Second, he describes his work as leading with skillful hands. I want to find not only a person of integrity, but one who has demonstrated skill in the requirements of the office to which that person aspires. I want to see that in their family life, their business affairs, or whatever prior office they have served in. Perhaps this reflects the experience of hiring people based not on their aspirations but on the basis of their deeds done. Doris Kearns Goodwin highlights Lincoln’s skills in Team of Rivals in uniting and calling out the best from a cabinet made up of Lincoln’s political rivals.

Finally, David is described as a shepherd. Good shepherds do not drive sheep, they lead them, going ahead, interposing their own bodies between any threat and the sheep. In John 10, Jesus says that he knows sheep by name. Elsewhere, he says good shepherds care for all the sheep, going after the stray. A good shepherd does not have favorites or those they ignore. A good shepherd serves the sheep, not oneself.

One of the challenges of leadership is that one cannot know the future. No political leader in the world had a platform article or position on responding to a pandemic in 2019. The character and competence of leaders has played a significant role in the differences in outcomes in a virus that knew no distinctions of people, or state or national boundaries.

No political leader is perfect, nor are any of the rest of us for that matter. What I want to look at as best as I can determine is the basic trajectory of the person’s life up to now. Only then do I turn to issues, especially when the contest is between two people of integrity and skill, a choice to be wished for, but not always achieved. I also keep in mind the important but limited purpose of political leaders in God’s economy. At their best, they uphold justice and maintain order and pursue the flourishing of all our citizens, but they cannot bring in the new heaven and the new earth, nor can they effect the inner transformation of the gospel. They can create or abolish laws, establish programs, make policies and appoint judges. But so much of the fabric of society is sustained by how we “do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God” in our neighborhoods, businesses, and wider communities.

I neither think it is my place to tell you how I am voting, nor how you should (if you have not already!). But I know there are some of you, like me, who are conscientious about making these decisions and wrestle over the question of issues and campaign promises, and I hope my own discernment process is helpful. It is how I think about voting, whether for presidents or local officials. It is how I’ve made these decisions for much of my life. It’s how I will make these decisions this November. Stay well, friends.


[I have no time to respond to standard campaign slogans or tropes or gaslighting or trolls. I will just delete such comments. I’ve not advocated for or against any candidate. If you do, I will delete that. Serious questions and discussion are always welcome.]

Do Not Fear Poll Watchers

Voting Booths in Cleveland Heights” by Tim Evanson licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

During the presidential debate on September 29, the president called upon his supporters to show up at voting precincts as observers to make sure there is no fraud in the election.

In truth, there has been very little voting fraud in the United States. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative group, documents 1,298 proven cases of voter fraud in the United States over a twenty year period, or roughly 65 per year on average–for the country, or a little over one vote per year per state. The Brennan Center observes that one study showed only 31 cases of impersonation fraud out of one billion votes between 2000 and 2014. One Brennan Center study revealed only 30 instances of non-citizen voting out of 23.5 million votes in precincts with heavy immigrant populations.

One real concern about this call for observers is the intimidation of voters. Already, chanting supporters of the president showed up outside an early facility in Fairfax, Virginia. These people are not poll watchers and most states have regulations about how close to a polling place campaign supporters can demonstrate, and that they cannot impede voters from voting.

Poll watchers are permitted and regulated by law in each state. The National Conference of State Legislatures provides a summary of the laws for each state. The full text of these laws for each state should be referenced because it includes information not in the summary. I also found one inaccuracy for Ohio–poll watchers must be registered to vote but do not need to be from the precinct they are observing. I will use Ohio’s law (Ohio Revised Code 3505.21) as an example. Here are some pertinent facts:

  • Poll watchers must be registered voters.
  • They must be appointed by their political party or a group of five candidates.
  • Only one person is permitted per precinct and may observe the casting and counting of ballots.
  • No candidate, no one in uniform (highway patrol, police, fire, military, militia, or any other uniformed person) may serve as a poll watcher.
  • No one carrying a firearm or other deadly weapon may be a poll watcher.
  • Appointments of observers must be received by local boards of elections at least eleven days before the election.
  • For those observing the counting of absentee ballots, observers must be appointed at least eleven days before the ballots are ready for use.
  • No one other than poll workers, election officials, representatives of the Secretary of State, police, and officially appointed observers may be present for the counting of votes.
  • They receive no compensation from public funds.
  • They swear the following oath: “You do solemnly swear that you will faithfully and impartially discharge the duties as an official observer, assigned by law; that you will not cause any delay to persons offering to vote; and that you will not disclose or communicate to any person how any elector has voted at such election.”

Each state’s laws are different. What should be noted at least about Ohio’s:

  • No one can just show up as a self-appointed observer. It is against the law! You must be appointed ahead of time meeting your state’s requirements. Voters not officially appointed may vote, but then they MUST leave.
  • There are a number of protections against voter intimidation or pressuring: only one per precinct, no uniforms (which can be intimidating), no guns or other weapons, no delaying of voters, and respecting the privacy of the ballot.

It is important that states, county boards of election and poll judges are all prepared to enforce the law for fair and free elections. States have declared that they are prepared for this whether you vote by absentee ballot, early voting, or on November 3 at your precinct.

The Democracy Project provides “how to vote” information for each state in both English and Spanish.

Some important things:

  • If you are not registered, register to vote by the registration deadline for your state. You can’t vote if you miss this deadline.
  • If you are voting absentee, request your ballot now, read the instructions carefully and follow them scrupulously, including the ID requirements to certify your identity. Mail this well ahead of election day.
  • If you vote in person, familiarize yourself with your local ballot. The League of Women Voters provides information for every part of the country of what is on your ballot. Also, make certain to be prepared to meet all the identification requirements for your state, follow all the instructions for properly voting and having your vote recorded. Poll workers are glad to help with questions.

Do not be afraid to vote by whatever means your state provides. Given the possibility of poll watchers, know the laws in your state, and if you see something out of order, or are in any way impeded in voting by someone other than an election official, report this to the precinct judge, and if not satisfied, your county board of elections.

Voting is one of the great rights of democracy, and one of the most solemn responsibilities of citizenship. Women and people of color had to fight for the right to vote. Some blacks died just trying to register. I was one of the first eighteen year-olds to vote. We fought for this right because in my day, we were old enough to die in military service, but not old enough to vote. A right not exercised may be taken away. We should not let poll observers or anyone else deter us from exercising these rights. I’ll be looking for lots of those “I Voted” stickers!

The Adults in the Room

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Remember when we were kids and we got in a quarrel because we both wanted the same crayons or toys, and an adult stepped in and helped us to figure out that we either had to share and work it out, or go to our rooms? Usually we figured out that some crayons or toys and being in the same room was better than no toys and our own rooms. When we were older, when we got into fights over a disputed call playing baseball or basketball, we eventually figured out that playing the game was more fun than continuing to argue or going home. We’d call a do-over, or flip a coin and get on with the game. We were learning to be the adults in the room when no adults were around.

Watching our political discourse, and the social media discourse around it. I find myself wondering where have all the adults gone? What I’ve seen over the last number of years is an escalating fight that has lost the sight that you need an opponent, an opposition, those who are on a different team to have a good game–that it is the game and not the fights that matter (unless you are talking about hockey). Of late, it seems that the objective is not merely winner take all and leave nothing on the table. It is winner subdue or wipe out all and be the last ones standing. Suddenly it is OK to show up in public buildings with assault weapons, destroy property, and threaten the lives of public servants and their families.

The game I’m talking about is our country–this troubled place of 330 million people drawn from all over the world, from every religious faith and none, living in rural, urban and suburban settings, black, white, brown, and more. Increasingly, the question may be asked, could the fabric of our union unravel, and what could that mean?

For so many years, I think we’ve thought, “it could never happen here.” Except that it has within our very short history. It was called the Civil War. Over 600,000 young men from the north and south died because inflammatory talk escalated from words to a contentious election, and shots fired.

As a Christian, the most troubling part of that history was that churches mirrored the divisions in American society. People who believed they worshiped the same God, read the same Bible and recited the same creed didn’t care that they were deeply divided from each other. Most churches, north and south, didn’t care that blacks also worshiped the same God.

It doesn’t appear to me terribly different today except that the vitriol comes via social media and competing news networks, rather than old fashioned newspapers.

It can happen here. Children who play with matches often don’t really understand that you can burn down the house until they burn down the house. Then there are those who don’t seem to care about the house as long as they are the ones wielding the matches.

There are so many different doomsday scenarios for how it could unravel. Anne Applebaum, in The Twilight of Democracy fears the rise of authoritarian government. In a place that appears to be unraveling, a strong leader who sets things in order, no matter what else they do, has an appeal. David French, in Divided We Fall (released yesterday), thinks we could be headed toward a bloodless secession as red states and blue states ideologically harden and the United States becomes two or more separate “countries.”

I find myself wondering at times that Octavia Butler in The Parable of the Sower might be more prescient. She portrays a dystopian United States of 2024, rife with disasters both ecological and political, and where street gangs rule (writing in 1993, she portrays a California increasingly ravaged by fire seasons).

One of the interesting things that I’ve noticed is that when you listen to those doing the fighting, they all love the country and are deeply concerned about it. Granted, many of their concerns are different. What troubles me is that our binary, zero sum thinking that says you have to choose between caring for mothers and the unborn, that you have to choose whether to care for blacks or police, that you have to choose whether to care for business or God’s good creation, is leading to destroying the very place we love. Have we lost the creative imagination and skill at negotiation found at the intersection of both-and?

It’s time, and past time, for the adults in the room to step forward, and for those who should be adults to act like it. We cannot keep escalating our toxic discourse, including our toxic social media postings that are just kindling for the fire. Whether our future is authoritarian, or one of Balkanization, or civil war in our cities (which we have already tasted in some places), each signals the death of “the land that we love.” Each signals the triumph of the argument over the game.

I don’t know if it is too late at a national level for “adults in the room” to matter. All I know is that I want to work for solutions in terms of “we” rather than “us versus them” wherever I can. If someone has to be my enemy for me to be part of your party, I’m not interested. Perhaps it is quixotic to hope that there will ever be enough adults in the room to expect our political leadership to act this way. But that is just politics. There is so much more to life in this country than politics, which we’ve made into a kind of god. Perhaps the best thing at times is to dismiss this as childish and start looking for adults of integrity who will seek the common good, not as political messiahs, but as public servants.

All I know is to start with us, dear reader. Will you be an adult in the room? Will I? And who else can we get to join us?

Redeeming Social Media During an Election Year

Source unknown

Redeeming social media. Many would consider that a quixotic endeavor, especially in an election year. The meme above, which has been circulating on Facebook is an example. I posted it yesterday on Facebook and indicated it reflects my own social media philosophy.

Post wisely over the next months. Someone who commented suggested pausing before speaking, especially when in doubt. I’ve reminded people on my Bob on Books Facebook page that we don’t have to say everything we think. Herbert J. Taylor formulated a 4 Way Test for communications in his company, Club Aluminum back in the 1950’s which was eventually adopted by the Rotary.

  1. Is it the truth?
  2. Is it fair to all concerned?
  3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
  4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

Imagine using this test on everything you post on social media.

Contribute to discourse, not division. We have to seriously consider the implications of all our “us versus them” rhetoric, and often how we pigeonhole and caricature “them.” Are we really interested in dialogue? Do we just exchange slogans and gaslighting tropes? Or do we ask questions, explore reasons, and find out if there are common ground concerns? For example, I think both left and right are concerned about where the country is going. What if we accepted that we all love the country and then listened to each other’s concerns?

Check your facts. So many news stories being circulated on social media are based on dubious information. You might check several fact-checking sites, and if there is evidence that they are false, even if they conform to your political ideas, posting is passing along lies. Realize that much of this material may be generated by foreign entities trying to shape the election. I use reputable news media from different perspectives from the Wall Street Journal to the Washington Post. When they agree, there is a pretty good basis for them being accurate. If you see blatant falsehoods, report them to social media admins.

Resist memes and cheap digs. Other than the one above, I rarely post memes, and never cheap ad hominem attacks. I don’t comment on them unless it seems beneath the dignity of a friend posting it because that just draws attention to the meme. Stuff doesn’t stay in a newsfeed if no one likes or comments on it.

Create beautiful content. This is a challenging time to think about beauty with fires, disease, and political discord. On my book page, we just stay away from all that and are reminded of the good, true, and beautiful in literature. I post prayers to give words to spiritual longings, and humor because I think it helps to have a good laugh. Sometimes I post music, looking forward to the day I will be able to join others in song. Remembering beauty is an act of faith expressing the hope that beauty will prevail.

We can transcend the bitterness and be better, even when we disagree. Some would have us believe that those who disagree with us are nasty or deplorable. Our current political climate thrives on creating tribes that believe they are the only real human beings around and the others subhuman at best. If we believe all are created equal, that all are created in the image of God, that every human being, imperfectly to be sure and to various degrees, reflects something of God, then we already have something in common. Indeed, we have the most important of what makes us human in common. We all have dreams, hopes, and struggles, no matter our politics. In truth, our disagreements are often just about politics, which, despite the rhetoric, is only a small part of daily life. Could it be that we give it too much space in our lives, in our heads?

There will be people who use social media to foment discord and spread deceptive stories and malign those who differ. We don’t have to join them. I would suggest we “socially distance” them when they engage in this kind of behavior, and look for ways to build bridges with those who are our friends, when there are chances–an illness, a new baby, a beautiful family picture. Discord and division spread through those who misuse social media to pass toxic material along, in the same way viral infections spread. We can’t eliminate the infection of political discord in social media, but we may “flatten the curve” by consistently pursuing the social hygiene practices in this post.

Where Do Our Books Go When We Die?

Image by Achim Thiemermann from Pixabay 

One of the great “ultimate questions” is what happens to us when we die? It is an important question, and I personally think that we are not able to truly live meaningfully if we have not reckoned with that question. But I’m going to leave that for another time, another post.

A conversation with my son recently raised a question that matters to many book lovers. What will happen to our books when we die? I was telling my son of clearing out ten boxes of stored books and selling them at two of our local Half Price stores and remarked that what motivated me was thinking of him, and how he’d react if he had to clear out this stuff (which also included old notebooks filled with outdated training materials). He said (maybe half-jokingly) that he’d just get a dumpster and haul it away.

That’s probably realistic based on experiences with my own parents. Fortunately, before they passed, we were able to load up our station wagon with books and donate them to a local library’s book sale, and save a few of the most valuable. We certainly couldn’t take all her books–we had too many of our own!

That ten boxes (and others we’ve previously disposed of) still leave us with plenty of books. The other day, I was looking at hundred year old books that were my grandfather’s and then my mom’s. Cared for, they will outlive me, as will many of the books in our home. I think of the hours of enjoyment and the helpful information many have provided. I hate to think of them ending their lives in a dumpster. I would rather they end in the hands of others who would enjoy them.

Recently, I’ve been reading Nicholas A. Basbanes, A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books. It’s a fascinating account of bibliophiles who legitimately, and sometimes illegitimately, accumulated huge collections of books, sometimes of great value. Some literally died surrounded by stacks of books. Others made plans to donate collections to libraries, sometimes treasure troves to researchers. Some even donated funds to maintain the collections.

What’s plain to me is that now is the time to accelerate my efforts to find good homes for my books if they are to avoid a dumpster destiny (unless that is what they truly deserve, which might be where mass market paperbacks that are on cheap paper and falling apart should go). Here’s some of the ways I’m approaching it.

  1. With any book I read, it has to be outstanding for me to keep it. If it is new, now is the time to re-sell it, when it will likely command the best price.
  2. I need to cull my shelves, where books are stacked atop of books, sometimes two or three deep. Step one would be to get rid of all the stacks. Step two would be no hidden books. Step three would be to eliminate the books stored in boxes or in other stacks in my office or by the bed.
  3. For my theological books, I’ve been able to pass some along to people building their libraries and to the seminary library where I was a student. If they can’t take them, there are some overseas libraries in developing countries that may take them. I do want to think about what will be useful, which includes thinking about the cultural bias in those books. [A comment for this post from James mentions the Theological Book Network in Grand Rapids, Michigan which has shipped over 2 million theological books to 90 countries.]
  4. I’m still working in collegiate ministry and some books relate to that work. When that work ends, my “higher ed” shelf, and other related books should go.
  5. At some time, it probably makes sense to identify the hundred or so books that are “best friends,” preferably before we may be in a situation where that’s all there may be room for, and start culling out everything else.

Of course, none of us never knows how life will unfold. But being in my sixties and still healthy, it seems that this is a good time to pass along my books where they can be useful for others. They deserve better than the dumpster.

A Thank You To Librarians

Wikidata education for librarians group at WikiCite 2018 by LiAnna (Wiki Ed) licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Libraries in many places are just starting to open up. But librarians have been hard at work all along, even though they miss having patrons in their buildings. I asked people on the Bob on Books Facebook page what they would want to say to librarians.

A word that kept coming up was “lifeline.” Whether it was help getting e-books or gathering their book requests for the curbside pickups many of you provided, people were so grateful for the effort you invested in getting books to us safely.

People didn’t merely see librarians as helping them, but the whole community, just as they always do. But in a time of isolation and strain, your service sustained that sense of knitting together a community and serving that community.

Several mentioned some of your challenges, from the time it took to get book requests to your need to take our temperatures. We just wanted to say “we understand, and appreciate all the things you are doing to keep us safe. We want to keep you safe as well.” And we won’t microwave the books!

You are so creative. Some of you provided craft kits in your communities or special online programs.

We think of you as essential! We want you to be safe and we will wear our masks (over our noses!) when we can come back to the library. We don’t know what we would have done without you during the pandemic.

We appreciate all those library skills and research skills you taught us. We’ve had all kinds of professional and personal reasons to use those during the pandemic.

In some cases, infection rates are still too high to open up. We want you to know how much we miss you!

Your service moves some of us to song: “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine; You make me happy when skies are grey.

One person wrote, “You are important, loved, necessary, and valued!” Some pray for you, others bless you, and what everyone wants to say is:

Why Returning to University Campuses Now is a Bad Idea

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I write as someone who has worked around universities all my adult life. In the last week some high profile campuses like the University of North Carolina and Notre Dame have suspended in-person classes after welcoming students back to campus. Last spring and early summer, administrations on these and other campuses made plans to open up. Many spent the summer creating elaborate testing, social distancing, living, dining, and classroom protocols to lessen the risk of infections. It seemed to me then, and now, that these were plans with holes in them.

  1. Even if campus plans control infection risk on-campus, they don’t control infections in the towns students were living in over summer, or the behavior of students in those places. This is different from primary and secondary schools, where everyone is local and decisions can be shaped by local infection rates. Some students from areas with high rates of infections, or who engaged in higher risk behaviors may bring infection to campus. These students come from all over. Some campuses test students before they move in, but all tests are a “moment in time” measure.
  2. Even if campus plans control infection risk on-campus, they don’t control infection rates and policies in the city, town, or state where they are located. The city where our flagship state university is located currently has a high, though falling, infection rate. Students have returned amid this. They are in bars, restaurants, coffee shops, businesses all over our city.
  3. Even if campus plans control infection risk on-campus, they don’t control student behavior off campus. Students are just like the rest of us in this pandemic. What have adults been doing all summer? Having large, non-socially distanced, non-masked parties. And students are already following suit as reports from many campuses are bearing out. Just like the general population, most students are trying follow safety protocols. But enough are putting themselves at risk of infection, and in turn risk infecting others.
  4. Even if campus plans control infection risk on-campus, not all students live on campus. In fact, more students may be living off-campus because of reduced density resident housing. The number of students in apartments, the ventilation of buildings, what steps are taken in social distancing, masking, and in gatherings likely will be left to students. And these students will be mixing with students living on campus.
  5. Finally, I question the premise that campus protocols will minimize infection risk making in-person classes feasible. At this time rapid-tests have higher false-negative and false positive rates. The better tests often take two days to a week. Students without symptoms could spread infection to others throughout that time. Even with reduced class sizes and masking, I wonder if these will be sufficient to prevent infections when people share this space for an hour or longer. Will residence halls be safe when senior facilities, which are basically dorms for seniors, have had significant outbreaks?

Students are at an age where many may be asymptomatic, though contagious, or contract mild illnesses and recover (although we are continuing to learn about long-term effects on even some healthy young adults. And some will get very sick. What is more concerning are other university personnel, some with more significant risk factors. Where these are known, some have been able to work out remote work arrangements. But those who provide food, sanitation, and maintenance services and many support staff cannot work remotely.

What drove these decisions as in so many of our “open-up” decisions were two things: economic realities and the difficulty all of us have had sheltering in home. The former raises questions about our economics. The latter raises questions about the health of our souls. Yet I cannot help but wonder if this decision will result in greater losses with all the extra costs of starting up only to suspend classes and send students home. What will this do to student morale? It will be interesting to see how campuses that planned for remote learning in the fall from the start do in comparison to those who tried to open up.

The situation on universities is dependent on what is happening in our larger society. John M. Barry, author of The Great Influenza, says that if we do not get the virus under control now, colder weather will likely make things worse, with up to 150,000 new cases daily nationally. We cannot reasonably hope either to bring back the national economy, nor students to our campuses without rigorous control measures. Given our apparent lack of will, consensus, and leadership, I think universities need to start planning now to extend remote instruction through the spring. Either that, or plan for a lot of sick students and campus personnel.

Writing as Naming

fashion woman notebook pen

Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

I came across a statement this morning that captured why I write. It is from one of my favorite writers, Tish Harrison Warren, in a new book co-edited by Tim Keller and John Inazu, Uncommon GroundShe writes:

When we write, we participate in Adam and Eve’s vocation in the garden: the vocation of naming. We give words to reality, and through our words, we help shape reality” (p. 73).

Both my outer and inner worlds often feel inchoate. Whether it is making sense of what I am thinking and feeling, describing the gist of a discussion among colleagues, or trying to discern some thread of meaning in the chaos of modern existence, I find myself turning to writing.

I write to know what I think. Sometimes I write to figure out what I think. When I review, I write to crystallize in a few words the thousands of words I’ve read in a book. Sometimes writing is the way I sort out my own sense of how I should live in pandemic times. I give words to reality, and at least shape how I will engage that reality, if not the reality itself.

Writing as naming is communal as well. It certainly is in a medium like that which on which you read my words, or in magazine articles, newspapers, and books. Our writing gives shape to reality not only for ourselves but for others. One of the tests of good writing for me is whether others recognize the reality I’ve tried to name as their own. I love it when someone writes back and says, “you found words to describe what is was like for me.”

More than that, writing as naming, when done well clarifies how we will work together. Lawyer friends of mine tell me that this is at the heart of a good contract. I’ve learned a great deal about getting the words right from my attorney friends. It is equally important on a work team as we discern and decide what we will work on together, and what we each agree to contribute to that work.

I’ve never been a writer of fiction, but I suspect this is part of what drives these writers. They are not just telling a story. They are creating a world. I think of J.R.R. Tolkien, who created Middle-earth, fashioned languages, and a whole mythology of origins and cosmology. That is some serious naming!

For babies to receive a name, a mother must give birth. Many writers describe the labor of giving birth to words that name as akin to the birthing experience. Finding the right words and phrases, the right composition of paragraphs is hard. There is such a difference between “almost right” and “just right.” I think any of us who write feel we rarely totally achieve that end. Sometimes, it feels that the beautiful or pithy thing we want to say is out there, just beyond our grasp. One thing for sure: for writers, words matter.

Why then do we do it? I think it comes back to what it means to be human. We are naming creatures, gifted with amazing language powers far exceeding any other creature. While not all of us are drawn to writing, all of us use words to describe our world. Writing simply allows us to deliberate our words (hopefully) and to extend them in space and time, extending them beyond the circle who can hear our voice, and the ephemeral moment of our utterances.

This helps me understand a bit more why I write.