Fire in the Valley, Third Edition

This is the first edition of this book to be published by Pragmatic Bookshelf, which I believe is an excellent fit as a company for the book’s content. The second edition was published back in 2000 by a publisher who specializes these days in a different sort of content. Plus, I love The Pragmatic Programmers series by Pragmatic Bookshelf and this history contained here belongs in this series. Good move for both the authors and the publisher.

Fire in the Valley, Third Edition is subtitled The Birth and Death of the Personal Computer, and for good reason. The book is a history of the types of computers that people bring into their homes, starting at the very beginning when this was just a dream for a few stalwart hobbyists willing to build their own computers. It continues through the usual suspects like MITS and Apple all the way to the present day when computing power has been grafted in to so many different devices that the meaningfulness of having “my own computer” isn’t quite the same as it once was.

The book covers not only historic events and figures, but also issues and philosophies that had an impact of the birth, growth, life, and death of many companies along the way. It also includes a ton of first-hand accounts from key players that make the story rich, interesting, and fun to read.

While this is being sold quite rightly as a history book, perhaps it should receive more fanfare as a chronology of a revolution, of a sweeping cultural shift. I lived through much of the era described in the book (I bought my first computer in 1981) and can easily remember a time when there were only three or four people in my school who had a computer at home, when there was no computer lab, or when the first computer labs were created and filled with Commodore PET computers that had no software other than an operating system, so there was nothing for students to do with or on them. Society is indeed different, and this book describes integral and foundational reasons why and how that change occurred. If this sounds interesting to you, this book is easily the best one I have encountered on the topic. That was true of the previous edition, and is even more true today with the third edition. Pick it up!

Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy. See also: Are All Book Reviews Positive?

Today’s Sermon 12/2014

I had the privilege of delivering the sermon on December 28th at New Song Episcopal Church in Coralville, Iowa. For those interested, here it is.

Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Psalm 147, Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7, John 1:1-18
(Full lectionary passages are included below the sermon text along with today’s introductory prayer.)

I started writing this sermon when I was in college. It all began in the Spring of 1992 while sitting in a class being taught by Dr. Vivian Cox. I was an education major and her class was primarily concerned with the methods of teaching and learning language, and she specialized in semiotic theory. I was fascinated with that and with something I had first encountered in a sociology class a few semesters earlier called “symbolic interactionism.” These two classes combined to stir up in me thoughts and questions that have never left.

My questions begin with a seemingly simple one: what is a word? I know we can look in a dictionary and give a definition, but I’m going after something a little deeper, maybe even philosophical. I’ll give the best definition I can think of right now: I think a word is a symbol, composed of sounds, if spoken, or of a pattern, if written; a symbol that we use to communicate something. For example, a man loves his wife. He can communicate that to her in various ways: buy her flowers or give her a kiss. He can also communicate that by saying to her, “I love you.” But what does that mean? It means that he cares for her deeply, very deeply, that he holds her in great esteem, that he feels toward her great feelings of desire, intimacy, that he gets excited when she is near and sad when she is far, it can mean that he gets that “squishy, mushy, butterflies in the stomach, ‘wow, she’s looking at me!’” feeling in the center of his chest when she’s nearby. It also means far more, more than I know how to put into words. And that’s the bummer thing about language, it’s often imprecise. It can be so beautiful, so colorful and so powerful, but it is never completely perfect.

Things get more difficult when I want to tell my friend about the love I feel for someone. We have the word “love,” but how do I know that my friend really understands what I mean when I use it? Maybe for him, the word means “I like her a lot, she gives me pleasurable feelings,” or worse, that she ranks in my scheme of things just above chocolate and just below buying a new electric guitar. That wouldn’t be accurate at all! And yet, the word “love” is still the best thing I have, short of writing a book, that I can use to tell my friend how I feel.

It is a frustrating reality in our universe that there is always some degree of difference between what we are attempting to communicate through our words and what another person thinks we are saying. There is an idea I wish to express. I choose what I believe to be the most appropriate and effective words to express that idea accurately. Someone hears or reads my words and interprets their meaning through the filter of their experiences and interactions with the same words in the past. When I say “I saw a beautiful sunset today,” one person may be thinking of the time they were on a seashore and enjoyed the golden hues of the sun sinking below the western horizon as it descends into and reflects upon the sea. What I would be thinking of is the amazing mixture of crimson, amber, violet and infinitely more colors than I have names for in an Arizona desert sunset where the dust in the air bends the light into a million colors all at once and there are not words enough to describe its beauty. The first image would be sufficient to express the main idea, but the second image is far more involved.

Words mean things. They are symbols that we use to represent and communicate thought, ideas, needs and so on. They are not perfect, but they are the best tools we have. As we learn and use words within a society they take on new shades of meaning. In fact, we can even use two different words sometimes to communicate the same basic idea, but with a different flavor. Take, for example, “That car is red” vs. “That car is crimson.” What is the difference? Both sentences tell us the color of the car, and both can be equally true. What makes one seem better and more appealing to us? What would you rather use, a “hand-held two-way communications device” or a “mobile telephone”? Which is better? Which is preferred and why? What makes one description seem more intimate and friendly?

That leads me to my next question: How exactly does language limit and enable our thinking? Especially regarding abstract matters like love? Is it possible to have higher level thoughts without the benefit of language? I am certain we could not communicate them to someone other than the object of our thoughts. A hated person might understand how you feel about them by your treatment of them, a beloved friend might know it by your behavior around them, but how would you tell a third party, non-observer about your feelings if you could not say “I hate Francis” or “Wally is my best friend”? Harder yet, how would you think about it to yourself? You could sit and stew in anger, but you couldn’t think to yourself, “He makes me so angry.” You could gaze in adoration, but you couldn’t ponder “How do I love thee, let me count the ways…” If you had no words, could you still think? Could you ponder deep questions? I don’t see how. You might look at a mountain and wonder if there was anything beyond it, but could you actually come up with the thought “What is on the other side of that mountain?” or would it just be an instinctive urge?

Okay, my brain is starting to hurt a little already, and yet I have another question. Does the language you learn as a child affect and determine what you think? Obviously, your language and culture will have a strong influence on how you perceive the world and your perspective on life, but I am asking whether it will go beyond mere influence and into the realm of limiting your ability to understand some ideas and giving you greater ability to understand others.

The language of the New Testament, Greek, uses three different words that we translate “love.” There is “eros,” the sensual and intimate love between a man and woman, “phileo,” the brotherly love between two good friends, and “agape,” which is a love of choice and sacrifice that decides to consider and treat others as better than one’s self. Now, if I want to tell someone that I love my friend Kirk, I will have an easier time in Biblical Greek expressing the nuance of that love than I might in English.

Did the classical Greeks have an easier time discussing love? Certainly. What I want to know now is did their more precise vocabulary about love make it easier for them to understand and think about love and does our less precise language make it harder?

Sometimes we have an idea in our head that we want desperately to express, but we just can’t find the words. We may even begin describing the idea to someone and say something like, “I know there’s a word for this, but I just can’t think of it…it’s on the tip of my tongue.” It is extremely aggravating to have an important concept floating through our minds that we cannot express adequately or accurately because we lack the word or words for it. We are aware of a hazy image that, if properly focused, we feel would be helpful in expressing something deep and meaningful.

In the Bible, Jesus is called the “Word of God.”1 In addition, the Bible calls the message preached by the Apostles throughout the book of Acts the “word of God.”2 Even the scriptures themselves are known by the term the “word of God.”3 I sense a theme here. To make it painfully obvious what I mean, in each instance where there is something important that God wants to use to communicate with mankind, the vehicle of communication is called by the name “word.”

Jesus is the “Word of God.” The message of the Gospel is the “word of God.” The Bible is the “word of God.” All three of these are the means by which we gain an understanding of who God is and what He is like. First, God’s character is communicated through Christ’s actions on Earth. Second, it is communicated through the message of grace and forgiveness that His followers began to share. Third, God’s character is revealed by the writings in His book. How would we perceive of God without these three things? How could we think about Him? Would it be easy, or even possible to tell someone else what we think and believe without these things?

It strikes me as powerful that Genesis records creation as happening in response to the spoken word. God spoke and there was light and there was darkness. Everything that was made was done in response to God’s spoken word. Words are powerful things! Words existed even before the beginning of the universe, before anything other than God. God created language and it was His tool for making everything else. That is why I am convinced that it is still the means of communication for us, His creation, and that is why I believe we could not exist as we are without the existence of words.

May we use the words God has given us to understand God’s nature more completely and allow God’s truth to transform us from within. Then, may we use the words God has given us to share God’s glory, grace, and truth everywhere we go.

Amen.

Christmas 1: December 28
Loving Word of God, you have shown us the fullness of your glory in taking human flesh. Fill us, in our bodily life, with your grace and truth; that our pleasure may be boundless, and our integrity complete, in your name. Amen.
All Desires Known by Janet Morley

The OT: Isaiah 61:10-62:3
I will greatly rejoice in the LORD,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.
The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the LORD will give.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

The Psalm: Psalm 147
Laudate Dominum
Hallelujah!
How good it is to sing praises to our God!
how pleasant it is to honor him with praise!

The LORD rebuilds Jerusalem;
he gathers the exiles of Israel.

He heals the brokenhearted
and binds up their wounds.

He counts the number of the stars
and calls them all by their names.

Great is our LORD and mighty in power;
there is no limit to his wisdom.

The LORD lifts up the lowly,
but casts the wicked to the ground.

Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving;
make music to our God upon the harp.

He covers the heavens with clouds
and prepares rain for the earth;

He makes grass to grow upon the mountains
and green plants to serve mankind.

He provides food for flocks and herds
and for the young ravens when they cry.

He is not impressed by the might of a horse;
he has no pleasure in the strength of a man;

But the LORD has pleasure in those who fear him,
in those who await his gracious favor.

Worship the LORD, O Jerusalem;
praise your God, O Zion;

For he has strengthened the bars of your gates;
he has blessed your children within you.

He has established peace on your borders;
he satisfies you with the finest wheat.

He sends out his command to the earth,
and his word runs very swiftly.

He gives snow like wool;
he scatters hoarfrost like ashes.

He scatters his hail like bread crumbs;
who can stand against his cold?

He sends forth his word and melts them;
he blows with his wind, and the waters flow.

He declares his word to Jacob,
his statutes and his judgments to Israel.

He has not done so to any other nation;
to them he has not revealed his judgments.
Hallelujah!

The Epistle: Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian.

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

The Gospel: John 1:1-18
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

Ubuntu Books I Wrote in 2014

Just in time for the end of the year holidays…

I have a new edition of Ubuntu Unleashed 2015 Edition (affiliate link), now available for preorder. This book is intended for intermediate to advanced users.

I also failed to mention on this blog the newest edition of The Official Ubuntu Book (another affiliate link), now in its eighth edition. The book continues to serve as a quality introduction for newcomers to Ubuntu, both the software and the community that surrounds it.

The LEGO Neighborhood Book

LEGO. There, now I have your attention.

The LEGO Neighborhood Book is another addition to the series of cool LEGO books published by No Starch Press. In it, you find a set of instructions for building anything from small features like furniture or traffic lights to large things like buildings to populate an entire neighborhood. Unlike the creations of my youth, these buildings are detailed structures. Gone are the standard, boxy things I used to make. Replacing them are fancy window frames, building mouldings, and seriously beautiful architectural touches. In fact, many of those features are discussed and described, giving a context for the builder to understand a little bit about them. Also included are instructions for creating different types of features to put in those buildings. Everything from art work to plants to kitchen appliances is in there.

I’ve said so much about the books in this series, and it all holds true here, too. Part of me feels bad for the short review here, but the other part of me hates to repeat myself. In this instance, the praise of the past still applies. If you are a LEGO enthusiast, this is worthy of your consideration. Pick it up and take a look.

Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy. See also: Are All Book Reviews Positive?

Linux Distro for Kids?

Short, informal survey. Feel free to comment here or via private messages/email. I may not respond to all comments, but will read with appreciation any you make.

What is your favorite Linux distribution that is intended for use by kids, say anywhere between the ages of 8 and 18? If you have more than one, feel free to name each.

Why do you like it?

If your preference for kids is a standard distro and not one intended for that audience, which is it and why?

Seeing from Another Point of View

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.
–To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch

These aren’t purely my thoughts. I’m sure I read something somewhere that sparked them, but I don’t have a link or citation, so I’m just being honest that I am not the source of all that I have written here, although I am using my words. Oh, and great book.

I’ve been thinking about this. I love the idea and I will always strive to learn about and understand other’s perspectives. But, I feel inadequate, like if I am to be honest, I really cannot do this. Not completely, anyway.

No matter how hard we try, we will each still see things with some skewing from your own perspective. We can never really know what it’s like to be that other person.

When you hear, see, or experience other people’s lives you may try to put yourself in their shoes and consider how you would deal with life as it has been dealt to them. That is noble.

However, it is impossible for us to actually do so. We hear, see, and experience things differently and our history and emotional, spiritual, mental, and intellectual makeup and status affect that. We each create our own reality based on our experiences filtered through all those layers of what we call self.

You can live with someone your/their whole life but that doesn’t mean you really understand their perspective. You may know intimate details or have a pretty good idea of what the other person is likely to think or do in certain situations based on past responses and patterns of behavior, but that is not really the same thing.

No matter how much we think we do, we are unable to climb fully into the mind and perspective of someone else. We are all made up of our perceptions, experiences of success and failures, societal programming, genders, and more. Humans are complex

To fully grasp another person’s perspective in its purest form we would have to wipe clear all of who we are and then copy over to ourselves who the other person is. It is not possible to eliminate our biases this way.

I’m starting to think that we can never really climb inside someone else’s skin, but we can hope to acquire a better understanding. The attempt is worth the effort, even if it can never be complete. We can learn to walk beside someone else. We can attempt to see things from their perspective. In doing so, we each hope we gave and gained something from it, drawing each of us a little bit closer to the other.

Today’s Sermon 03/2014

I had the privilege of delivering the sermon yesterday at New Song Episcopal Church in Coralville, Iowa. For those interested, here it is.

Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
(Full lectionary passages are included below the sermon text along with today’s Collect, which is also referred to in the sermon.)

Do you ever feel hopeless? Helpless? Alone. I do. I think we all do from time to time. I don’t know about you, but I am very bad at exposing my need for help. I feel embarrassed. Ashamed. Worried that either no one will want to help me (because I’m unworthy) or that someone will rejoice in my sorrows (because I deserve them). I have a very unhealthy self-image sometimes.

Some of that comes from how I grew up. Some of that comes from my own personality quirks and issues. Either way, it is an unsustainable way to live.

For me, the most beautiful message in the whole Bible is grace, when God decides not to treat us the way we deserve, but instead with love, with forgiveness, with healing.

There is truth thrown in there. We aren’t allowed to cling to our fantasies that we are perfect. Instead, that truth is so beautifully mingled with kindness and acceptance. When it is God speaking truth to us, we don’t like be are being bashed with the truth, pummeled into submission.

No, we feel like the mist in our minds has been cleared and suddenly we can see things. With this clarity, honest self-evaluation is finally possible and we find ourselves humbled, not squashed or crushed, but no longer proud or defiant either.

It is in this moment when grace comes in and makes us feel loved.

It isn’t the guilt-ridden sort of thing many of us have experienced in life: “Yeah, you are really screwed up, but I guess I’ll love you anyway.” That makes us feel worse. Maybe we attempt to do penance and fail at that, too.

God’s grace simply reveals reality to us and, as we accept it, we are embraced with love. This is what we see when people say things like, “Here, let me help you up” and “I’m really happy to see you today” when we are in the middle of feeling alone or unworthy.
What happens when people don’t see us?

We have four passages today. Each has a slightly different perspective. Let’s see if they can help us answer that question.

In Exodus, God is using Moses to lead the people of Israel through the desert. They run out of water. The people react with anger. I’ve done that.

“Moses, you said…”

The people didn’t feel like their needs were being taken care of. In fairness to them, they didn’t have any water, so they had an urgent need and no visible means of meeting it. They didn’t ask God for help, they didn’t have faith in God. They got mad at Moses, who was the one they trusted to lead them into the desert and they blamed him. Moses asked God for help and God came through.
Today’s Psalm is primarily a song of praise, of thanksgiving. It extols the virtues of God as a King, a provider, and a protector. Then, in the middle of that exclamation, the incident from Exodus is mentioned.

It says things that I am really uncomfortable with. I’m okay with the honesty of “do not harden your hearts like they did.” That is factual. But, the idea that for forty years God detested that generation and then swore in his wrath that they would never enter God’s rest.” Ouch.

I don’t like the idea of a God like that. A God that is vindictive. A God that rejects people. Part of me fears this is how God is, because it is how God was always depicted to me growing up.

Part of me hopes this is more of a poetic expression that was written long after the fact and filled with hyperbolic exaggeration for effect, kind of like people used to tell stories about The Big Bad Wolf and Hansel and Gretel to keep young kids from wandering off in the woods.

The truth is, I don’t know. I’m uncomfortable.

Paul seems to go to the opposite extreme in the Epistle to the Romans. Here grace is preeminent. I read this and I have echoes in my mind of Martin Luther. Grace. Faith. While we were yet weak, Christ died for the ungodly. This is beautiful.

I remember Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Then I look back at Romans and see Paul boasting. But he is boasting in sufferings. This is something else I do not understand.
I mean, I understand his words and his real point, but I don’t like suffering. I don’t like to tell people I am suffering. I’m certainly not going to boast about suffering.

Suddenly, I get it. It is that last line of the first paragraph. “…because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

He’s not boasting about the actual suffering. He is boasting about the beauty of feeling accepted and loved in the middle of his suffering. It is this love that Paul feels that gives him hope. The grace in the realization that without Paul deserving it, Christ chose to sacrifice himself so that Paul could be reconciled to God.

I like it when people do nice things for me, especially when I know I don’t deserve it. It makes me uncomfortable, but it also makes me want to be a better person. It makes me want to spread undeserved kindness and unrequested love.

Three passages and I still don’t have an answer to the question “What happens when people don’t see us?”

Maybe that is where today’s Gospel comes in.

Jesus walks into a Samaritan city and sits by a well and talks to a woman. Already he has broken several social mores. Jews hated Samaritans. They would avoid their land and towns. They wouldn’t drink their water. Male Jews would avoid women and generally wouldn’t talk to them—any women, especially a Samaritan. Something is up.

Jesus asks the woman for water. They start talking. Jesus tells her about “living water” and she becomes intrigued. She asks him to give her some of this “living water.”

Jesus tells her all about herself.

She replies, “Sir, I see you are a prophet.”

He tells her the truth about herself, but continues to accept her and speak with her.

She runs into town and brings everyone back to meet Jesus.

The idea of the incarnation is amazing to me. The idea of God becoming flesh and dwelling among us, growing up as fully human, finding a way to understand us and relate to us as we are and then speak to us from within that understanding. This story exemplifies that.

What happens when people don’t see us?

I still don’t know. But, what I do know is that Jesus saw those who would move through the society of his day unseen by the religious leaders of his time. He saw, he approached, and he engaged.

That is when the woman asked him for the living water.

That is when you and I are able to ask for help—after we see and know that there is someone willing and able to give it.

What happens when people don’t see us? I don’t know. But I know that you and I have been seen by Christ. That through faith, we too can receive from God the same love and grace that we share together with our family here at New Song. I know that you and I are able to go out and see people and share what we have received with them.

Jesus asked for water from the hands of a woman in the land of the stranger; may he teach us to name our need, to love our neighbor, and to worship in spirit and truth.

Amen.

Collect:
Lord of the wellspring, source of life and truth: Jesus asked for water from the hands of a woman in the land of the stranger; may he teach us to name our need, to love our neighbor and to worship you in spirit and in truth, through Jesus Christ, who shows us who we are.
(Prayers for an Inclusive Church by Steven Shakespeare)

(All scripture passages are quoted from the Revised Standard Version translation of the Bible, copyright © National Council of Churches of Christ in America.)

The OT: Exodus 17:1-7
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

The Psalm: Psalm 95
Venite, exultemus
1
Come, let us sing to the LORD; *
let us shout for joy to the Rock of our salvation.
2
Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving *
and raise a loud shout to him with psalms.
3
For the LORD is a great God, *
and a great King above all gods.
4
In his hand are the caverns of the earth, *
and the heights of the hills are his also.
5
The sea is his, for he made it, *
and his hands have molded the dry land.
6
Come, let us bow down, and bend the knee, *
and kneel before the LORD our Maker.
7
For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand. *
Oh, that today you would hearken to his voice!
8
Harden not your hearts,
as your forebears did in the wilderness, *
at Meribah, and on that day at Massah,
when they tempted me.
9
They put me to the test, *
though they had seen my works.
10
Forty years long I detested that generation and said, *
“This people are wayward in their hearts;
they do not know my ways.”
11
So I swore in my wrath, *
“They shall not enter into my rest.”

The Epistle: Romans 5:1-11
Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person– though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

The Gospel: John 4:5-42
Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, `Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, `I have no husband'; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, `Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, `One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

Every Page is Page One

Just about all of you reading this know that I am a technical writer. One of the things I do to keep up to date with the latest trends in the field is read. I read books, articles, blogs, whatever I can find that relates. I especially enjoy Mark Baker’s blog, Every Page is Page One. Baker consistently posts articles that make me think, and in good ways. When I heard he has a book out, I contacted the publisher immediately.

As a side note, Baker’s publisher, XML Press, consistently produces books that I find useful. Every one I have read is well-written, authoritative, and filled with real-world experience and practicality.

Every Page is Page One: Topic-based Writing for Technical Communication and the Web shares the first part of its title with the blog, but the content is not directly from the blog. Rather than a collection of posts on assorted topics assembled into book form, this is a well-thought-out and well-organized text. In it, Baker observes that documentation projects tend to think about technical writing from a very book-centered paradigm. This was once ideal, but in the age of communicating technical information electronically, it forces limits on the end product that hinder the true goal of technical writing, the goal of delivering the right information at the right moment to the person who is seeking it. As someone who is not only a technical writer, but who also has a degree in information resources and library science, I have multiple reasons for supporting this goal.

What Baker does is give tangible form to thoughts and ideas that he, other technical writers, and even I have had in the abstract. How do we provide needed information to people who seek it in an age where the web makes almost anything searchable? Do manuals still matter? What about other forms of documentation? Are there changes to our style of communication, to our style of writing and presenting information, that will make the information seeker’s task easier? Baker discusses serious and realistic ways we can improve our field. It is all organized around the idea that we can no longer control the order in which information seekers will consume or even find our information, that every page (in a documentation wiki, for example) should be created in a way that enables a user to immediately understand and acquire what they need when they need it. Since we know we do not have this control like we had in a printed book, we must modify how we write and present information to fit the expectations of the seeker.

I enjoyed reading this book. I have benefited personally from reading this book. I am taking this book in to my workplace and sharing it with the other tech writers there and I believe our workplace and our employer and our customers will benefit from this book. If you work in the field, I’m convinced you will, too. The whole book is good, but my favorite parts are Section I, which lays the foundation in five chapters, and Chapter 22, which gives very practical and useful advice for making your case to others when you begin to try to make the changes the book describes.

Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy. See also: Are All Book Reviews Positive?

Ubuntu Planet Feed Changed

For years the main feed for my blog has been posted to Ubuntu Planet. Early on, most of my posts were strictly Ubuntu-related. That hasn’t been true for a long time. I changed my feed today in the Ubuntu Planet configuration and starting from whenever the cron job on that server reads the new config file, only posts with a specific tag should appear on the feed.

Everything that has appeared on Planet Ubuntu is also tagged, so I can keep track. I hope this doesn’t cause a huge posting flood when the new config is read…if so, apologies in advance.

Let me know in the comments if you are interested in things like my computer book reviews continuing to appear in the feed.

Today’s Sermon 01/2014

I had the privilege of delivering the sermon this morning at New Song Episcopal Church in Coralville, Iowa. If you are reading this introduction via an RSS feed and are interested in the rest of the post, click through to read on.

Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 5-13; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23
(Full lectionary passages are included below the sermon text along with today’s Collect, which is also referred to in the sermon.)

Today’s lectionary includes passages that deal with light. Even the Epistle, though it doesn’t mention the word, includes an idea closely related to light. At least it did as I read it in a new light this week.

I started the week pondering light itself. What is light? I don’t mean the scientific definition, although that is also interesting. I mean beyond that. What does light mean to us? For us?

For me, it starts with something visceral. Light means safety. I’ve walked down dark streets that feel very different than they do on a clear, sunny afternoon. In the light, I can see what surrounds me. I don’t fear what may be lurking nearby, the potential for harm or accident. In the light, objects take their true shape and are clearly discerned. We don’t guess about shadowy figures and nightmarish hidden motives.

Light means warmth. Historically, light is produced by something burning. Our sun, a giant ball of flaming gas. A fire. A torch. A candle. We can escape the cold by drawing ourselves near to this sort of light—especially apt after a week like this one.
From the safety and warmth of light, we get the sense of comfort. Light comforts us in our fears, in our times of unknowing, in those times when we feel the coldness of being alone.

Light symbolizes knowledge. Truth. Light symbolizes acceptance. A refuge from the cold, dark realities that often confront us. A safe harbor from the storms of doubt, fear, pain, and ignorance.

It is in these cold, dark moments of our lives that light has its greatest impact, where it can perform its most transformative work, for it is in these moments when we see most clearly its stark and beautiful contrast against the backdrop of our plight.

I’ve had several of these moments in my life. I’m sure you have, too. These are the moments where, when we feel like we are standing in the deepest valley of our fears, stuck in a bog of despondency or terror, someone comes in and brings us hope. Sometimes it is in the form of an answer. Sometimes it is in the form of a rescue. Still other times it is just standing alongside us so we know we are not alone. I’ve even had a few moments where I felt something I can only call supernatural convincing me that an absurd hope exists where none may be seen, where no evidence gives reason to believe, where in the flash of a moment everything in my perspective and understanding changes.

These, all of these, are the moments that Isaiah talks about so poetically as he describes those who walked in darkness who have seen a great light and he then uses words like these to describe their response: joy, rejoice, exult. These are the moments that the Psalmist is singing about as the words of the song proclaim salvation, strength, beauty, and shelter.

Jesus, in the Gospel, is named as Isaiah’s light. As evidence, Matthew tells about Jesus giving the good news that the Kingdom of God is near and describes Jesus healing sickness and disease. Jesus’ message is “repent,” but that seems an easy thing to do when one who lives in what today’s service started out calling “the shrouded world” and “the borderlands” suddenly experiences this light. Who wouldn’t want to drop everything to follow that?

Maybe that is part of what Paul is talking about in today’s Epistle. When you go through this kind of life-changing experience, so many things become less important to you. I wonder if he is making his appeal for unity based on the realization that Christ’s ability to transform us from our darkness is a process. A life-long process. One that is more analogous to a journey than to a doorway. We each begin our journey differently. Maybe some learned through one teacher. Others from someone else. But, ultimately we are all traveling toward the same destination. We are all in the process of experiencing the great light in different ways, each of us having ourselves and our world revealed to us in uniquely appropriate ways and at opportune moments.

For some, seeing the great light is the result of feeling loved and accepted, not just by a mysterious spirit somewhere “out there,” but by a loving community of people who are connected to one another by faith. For most of us, that sort of love, acceptance, and yes, forgiveness is a deep-seated need. A longing. Our hearts cry out, “Is there anyone who knows what I am going through? If they know, does anyone care? Will I still be accepted if people know? If they know who I really am?”

I am absolutely convinced God is capable of answering that supernaturally. But, I’m even more convinced that God usually chooses instead to answer that through people. Voices in our head tend to make us question our sanity. Someone coming up and giving us a warm, honest welcome does something more beautiful. Over time, God may choose to add a supernatural voice to confirm what human voices have first said, but that may not even be necessary if we have clear evidence in the unusual, wonderful lives and examples of the people around us.

I wonder if Paul’s point is that the power of the cross of Christ has nothing to do with specific people, with words, with decisions about what color carpet should be installed in the sanctuary. Maybe he is saying that the true power is in the way it enables us to set aside the undue importance we place on those things to work for a common good as a community. These types of communities still disagree, but they are not divided by those disagreements. These types of communities still honor leaders, but do not idolize anyone. These types of communities understand that every person is important and should be welcomed, loved, and valued.

These types of communities are not normal. In my opinion, they only exist where there is light.

These types of communities do not exist for the purpose of fighting against darkness. They exist for the purpose of spreading light.

I’ve really come to think that repentance has nothing to do with highlighting the evil in the world and warning people away from it. It isn’t even about self-training, self-discipline, or self-flagellation to remove impurities we find in ourselves.

Repentance is embracing light when we see it. It is running toward that light. It is being honest when the light exposes dark places in ourselves and being willing to face reality and ask for help.

Repentance is what happens when the beauty of the goodness of God outshines the grim reality of our worlds, both personal and corporate, outshines to the extent that our hearts long for the beauty and discover we no longer feel attached to anything else.

New Song is a beautiful community. It is a unique place in the world. We aren’t perfect, but we know that. However, this is a community that has seen and experienced light. In each of our lives, something has happened to make us want to embrace one another. For me, it started with the act of being embraced by you when I first walked in. Maybe your story is similar. I shouldn’t be surprised if we all agree that being welcomed was integral to our experience here.

I’ve attended a lot of churches. I’ve visited a lot more. The typical, but not universal experience is a warm greeting at the door, maybe a smile or two. As time goes by, though, I always find myself wondering if the people around me would still like me if they knew “who I really am.” Listening to what has been proclaimed in many of those pulpits has sometimes made my fears more pronounced.

If you knew my hopes, my fears, my dreams, and my struggles, what would that mean to our relationship? We all ask questions like that. We all have reasons to do so. All of us have experienced pain; we have been hurt by past relationships, hurt by family or friends, maybe even hurt by other communities of faith. The evidence of our experiences prepares us to expect disappointment.

We may even start to wonder in despair whether we will ever find anyone who will accept us as we are—and who will also be honest with us and themselves about who they are. We wonder if we will ever find anyone who is real.

What do you do when a group of people makes you feel wanted and welcome, even when they learn your secrets? Even the secrets that others have used as a reason for rejecting you? What do you do when you see these people’s warts and flaws, but realize that beneath them lie hearts that are filled with pure motives and kind intentions and a willingness to own up to imperfections with a desire to improve? What do you do when you see loving acceptance in action?

What would anyone do? It is so very rare.

Me? Like the sons of Zebedee, I drop everything and run to embrace it.

We exist to bring light into dark places. To be light in a world of shadows. It is not our job to subdue the darkness ourselves, but rather to carry the light. Light is more powerful than darkness.

Light brings freedom and joy where there is oppression.
Light brings safety where there is trouble.
Light brings unity where there is division.
Light brings purpose where there is tedium and toil.
Light brings healing where there is sickness and disease.
Light draws the attention of everyone who sees it.

May the dawning light of Christ give hope to the broken, the persecuted, the alien and the excluded, that we might feel the kingdom drawing near and turn to follow him. And, as we do, may we be the means by which others experience that same light.
Amen.

Collect:
God of all people you sent your Son into the shrouded world into the borderlands; may his dawning light give hope to the broken, the persecuted, the alien and the excluded, that we might feel the kingdom drawing near and turn to follow him; through Jesus Christ, the morning star. Amen.
(Prayers for an Inclusive Church by Steven Shakespeare)

(All scripture passages are quoted from the Revised Standard Version translation of the Bible, copyright © National Council of Churches of Christ in America.)
The OT: Isaiah 9:1-4
There will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness–
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.

The Psalm: Psalm 27:1, 5-13
Dominus illuminatio
1
The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear?
the LORD is the strength of my life;
of whom then shall I be afraid?
5
One thing have I asked of the LORD;
one thing I seek;
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days
of my life;
6
To behold the fair beauty of the LORD
and to seek him in his temple.
7
For in the day of trouble he shall keep me safe
in his shelter;
he shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling
and set me high upon a rock.
8
Even now he lifts up my head
above my enemies round about me.
9
Therefore I will offer in his dwelling an oblation
with sounds of great gladness;
I will sing and make music to the LORD.
10
Hearken to my voice, O LORD, when I call; *
have mercy on me and answer me.
11
You speak in my heart and say, “Seek my face.” *
Your face, LORD, will I seek.
12
Hide not your face from me, *
nor turn away your servant in displeasure.
13
You have been my helper;
cast me not away; *
do not forsake me, O God of my salvation.

The Epistle: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

The Gospel: Matthew 4:12-23
When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles–
the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea– for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.