The kingdom of God is like a practical joke

Leaves are falling here in the Brandywine Valley, carpeting everything in a lovely, multicolored chore.

This time of year always reminds me of one of my favorite church high school youth group activities from when I was growing up in a fundamentalist, nondenominational Baptist church in New Jersey. This one didn’t involve passing out gospel tracts. It was stealthier than that, which was why it was so much fun.

This was one of the things our church got right, and it’s something almost any church youth group could do as well. I recommend it because, again, it’s about as much fun as you can have on a Saturday in November. All you need is: a church van and a driver, a bunch of teenagers with rakes and tarps, and a list of addresses of older folks no longer able to rake their own leaves.

The idea was to get in and get out as quickly as possible — a blitz attack that was over before they even realized what was happening. The van pulled up and then Go, go, go. A flurry of raking until the lawn is pristine and then — quick! — everyone back in the van and get away before she catches us.

We’d drive away laughing and delighted, as though we’d just pulled off a terrific prank. In a way, I suppose, we had. Sometimes the kingdom of God is like unto a practical joke. And it’s a really good practical joke.

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  • Anonymous

    Soon as the 4 year old has grown up enough to wield a rake, I’ll have to see if he’s interested in pulling this sort of prank.  Because I’m definitely game for it.

  • Twig

    Leaves are falling here in the Brandywine Valley, carpeting everything in a lovely, multicolored chore.

    It has baffled me for years now that you’re not a syndicated columnist.

  • Matt Dick

    That’s fabulous… makes this atheist wish he’d been involved in such a thing as a kid.

  • Marshall Pease

    IMO, the major problem with atheism (of the humanist sort) is that there isn’t much structure for like-minded people to gather together and do stuff like this. NB, it was an experience in peer bonding and civic-mindedness for the kids as much as it was in maintenance for the physical community. I mean, obviously there are secular (ecumenical) service opportunities, but as far as I can tell atheists only gather as atheists to congratulate themselves on their atheism.

    …picking nits, “nondenominational Baptist” reads like an oxymoron to me. Etymology of ‘denomination’ is Latin ‘named’. Suggest using ‘independent’ or ‘unaffiliated’? Whoa, that was a spelling test.

  • Lori

     I mean, obviously there are secular (ecumenical) service opportunities, but as far as I can tell atheists only gather as atheists to congratulate themselves on their atheism.  

    IME atheists often gather together as atheists to get a break from being treated like there’s something wrong with them or they’re baby-eaters out to bring on the end of civilization whatever other crap fundies are saying about us this week. 

    Setting that aside, a secular service groups would seem to serve the purpose just fine. Why would a group need to be explicitly atheist to provide an opportunity for atheists to do community service projects? 

  • Anonymous

    I mean, obviously there are secular (ecumenical) service opportunities, but as far as I can tell atheists only gather as atheists to congratulate themselves on their atheism.

    Yes, we’re so irritatingly smug like that, aren’t we?

    As far as the OP goes, I’d be worried about trespassing charges, myself.  I’m all for helping people with their lawn, but I’m neurotic about getting permission first.

    Also, some people have a lot of pride and it might seem like the community was judging them if they wake up to find someone else has presumed to do their yardwork.

    I guess my point is:  Be very, very sure the beneficiaries of your largesse are going to appreciate it, but if so, then go to it.

  • Apocalypse Review

    It’d take a pretty petty and asinine person to scream and yell about a bunch of kids cleaning your effin’ lawn.

    One should not be scared of petty and asinine people gumming up the works. Such people are too small-minded to appreciate kindness anyway and would probably find something else to carry on about if it wasn’t a bunch of kids raking the lawn.

  • H_O_Petard

    I would probably die of a heart attack a week later, while obsessively racking leaves, so that I would never again be subject to the humiliation of being publicly exposed as a man who was unable to maintain his own lawn in a manner befitting the neighborhood.  I confess that I am prideful and I would be utterly humiliated if a group of children did that to me.

  • Lori

     I would probably die of a heart attack a week later, while obsessively racking leaves, so that I would never again be subject to the humiliation of being publicly exposed as a man who was unable to maintain his own lawn in a manner befitting the neighborhood.  I confess that I am prideful and I would be utterly humiliated if a group of children did that to me. 

    I sincerely hope that if the time comes that you are physically unable to rake your own leaves safely you’ll find a way to overcome your issues and allow others to help you. Because allowing your pride to give you a heart attack is a really stupid way to die. 

    Maybe you can shift your pridefulness to your intelligence, instead of your raking ability. As in, “I would be utterly humiliated if everyone knew I was dumb enough to kill myself rather than accept help from some spry young ‘uns who were happy to offer it.”

  • Anonymous

    Your pseudonym fits your comment.

    But I’d add that sometimes best kindness–the grace, for those who want it in religious terminology; the thanks, for those thinking in terms of community–one can offer those who are offering a kindness is to gracefully accept the role of recipient. And I agree that it can be very hard to do.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    IMO, the major problem with atheism (of the humanist sort) is that there
    isn’t much structure for like-minded people to gather together and do
    stuff like this. NB, it was an experience in peer bonding and
    civic-mindedness for the kids as much as it was in maintenance for the
    physical community. I mean, obviously there are secular (ecumenical)
    service opportunities, but as far as I can tell atheists only gather as atheists to congratulate themselves on their atheism.

    Don’t you ever get tired of flogging your straw atheists?  Let’s try something here:

    “IMO, the major problem with readers (of the novel sort) is that there
    isn’t much structure for like-minded people to gather together and do
    stuff like this. NB, it was an experience in peer bonding and
    civic-mindedness for the kids as much as it was in maintenance for the
    physical community. I mean, obviously there are secular (ecumenical)
    service opportunities, but as far as I can tell readers only gather as readers to congratulate themselves on their literacy.”

    Or:

    “IMO, the major problem with music fans (of the rock sort) is that there
    isn’t much structure for like-minded people to gather together and do
    stuff like this. NB, it was an experience in peer bonding and
    civic-mindedness for the kids as much as it was in maintenance for the
    physical community. I mean, obviously there are secular (ecumenical)
    service opportunities, but as far as I can tell music fans only gather as music fans to congratulate themselves on their ability to drink beer and cheer loudly.”

    See, when atheists gather together as atheists, they’re often doing it at, like, conventions and stuff.  So they’re going to want to see lectures on atheism and discussions of political issues that affect atheists.  That’s kind of the point of the whole thing.  It’s quite literally no different from, say, a bunch of comic book fans gathering together at a Con or a bunch of music fans going to a rock festival.  It’s a safe place to meet, network, and learn.  For a lot of them it’s one of the few safe places to be openly atheist.

    Atheists who gather at atheist meetups are functionally gathering as a type of fandom.  The fact that you have no interest in that type of experience in no way invalidates the experience itself.  I am an atheist who has never been to one of those meetings and probably never will because I don’t give a shit.  I’m also an atheist who has no urge to meet other atheists as atheists.  I’d much rather meet other atheists as fans of the same band or people in the same book club, because I don’t define myself according to my non-belief outside of not going to church or praying and keeping up with a few atheist writers I like because they talk about things I care about (usually politics and culture, not atheism itself).

  • Richard Hershberger

    “IMO, the major problem with atheism (of the humanist sort) is that there
    isn’t much structure for like-minded people to gather together and do
    stuff like this.”

    My first thought was to respond with “I thought that was what the Unitarians were for?”  Then I came to my senses and decided not to…

  • Anonymous

    I love it.  You are 100% on the mark that your church got it right.

    A beautiful example of what my grandfather would call true christian charity.  Helping those in need, anonymous, and simple joy in your hart.  

  • Kaylakaze

    Seems to me this demonstrates the selfish nature of altruism (assuming that statement doesn’t completely negate the meaning of altruism in the first place). I’m not saying that as a bad thing, I just feel that we should always strive to identify our motives  in everything we do. You obviously felt great joy about doing something nice for someone (and you should) especially to remember so well so many years later.

  • Anonymous

    Kaylakaze: Seems to me this demonstrates the selfish nature of altruism

    Or simply that helping others and having fun aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive things. 

  • http://mordicai.livejournal.com Mordicai

    I think an application of “enlightened selfishness” plus a rational ability to look at the consequences of actions can result in a pretty utopian ethical system, yeah.  If you want to come at it that way.

  • http://nagamakironin.blogspot.com Michael Mock

    Tragically, my Episcopalian youth group was nowhere near that interesting.

  • Naomi

    I love this post. It reminds me of Jon Carroll’s annual columns about the Untied Way. (Untied. I did not mistype “United.”) The Kingdom of God is like a practical joke; the Kingdom of God is also like the man who walked down the street and gave a $20 to each person who asked him for money, whether they were the “deserving poor” or whether they reeked of cheap whiskey, until his pockets were empty. (Have you written about Jon Carroll’s Untied Way? They’re online, but Google will try to convince you that you want the United Way of Carroll County, Iowa. You may have to click the additional link that says “no, I really did mean to search for ‘untied.'”)

  • Sarah Jane

    I envision the other half of this story involving the good-hearted older folks peeping out their windows, realizing what’s going on and how important it is for the kids involved, and then playing along with the prank — maybe even going so far as to mention at the grocery store later that week that they were SO SURPRISED to look out on Saturday afternoon and realized that all their leaves were gone!

  • Alicia

    Maybe even take it one step too far and putting up missing-persons flyers all over the neighborhood for one specific ‘lost leaf’. “She was crinkled and greenish with brown patches and her stem was snapped in two places but still sort of hanging together.”

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    I think that some of the joy is, yes, from helping others, but another part of it is the trill and excitement of potentially getting caught.  

    Sure, you are just doing something helpful, but the people in the houses do not necessarily know that.  What if you show up when they are awake?  Or if you wake them up?  The do not necessarily know what you are doing, or necessarily welcome it, and at any time you might here them yell, “Get off my lawn, ya’ damn kids!”  

    Being able to do that kind of thing, and get away with it, produces an incredible rush.  Since the “prank” is actually something constructive though, you do not get the nagging sense of guilt that brings you crashing down afterward though.  Your sense of accomplishment just gets to ride out the high, and it is awesome.  

  • Apocalypse Review

    This put a smile on my face today. :D Thanks, Fred. :)

  • Daughter

    How could you have been a part of a nondenominational, Baptist church?

  • Erl

     as far as I can tell atheists only gather as atheists to congratulate themselves on their atheism.
    Actually, the student Secular Society at my school regularly holds Days of Service for the atheist/humanist community, as well as encouraging atheist participation at ecumenical service events. 

    So the younger generation is on it, I think.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, the SSA and other student groups are the answer when talking about secular/atheist alternatives to churches doing this sort of work. They’re laying the groundwork for continued involvement into the next generation. I wish we had had something like that at my hs.

  • Erl

     Be very, very sure the beneficiaries of your largesse are going to appreciate it, but if so, then go to it.

    How do we know that this wasn’t done? Sure, the kids were running it as a prank, but it would be easy for the Youth Group coordinator to get in touch with local lawn-owners in advance to arrange it. It’d make plenty of sense to do so, as well, cause it would help target those who most need yard-assistance. 

  • Ima Pseudonym

    My high school used to do this – we called them “Service Days”. We were in small town New England, and in the Fall Service Days meant going around to elderly or disabled or otherwise indisposed people’s houses and raking and bagging. I always loved it. High school was when I first began to develop anything in the way of physical strength, and getting out and working in the crisp Autumn air was wonderful – there’s nothing like being young and breathless and a little sore while elbow-deep in brilliant, fragrant leaves. It felt like a celebration of everything I loved about the season.

    Occasionally you’d look up from your pile and see the owner of the house peeking out of a window or standing in their doorway. Those moments were actually the only ones that made me feel ill at ease. I had no idea if we were a welcome presence or not. Presumably our teachers had cleared all of this with the the owners beforehand, and we were working for free, but I still worried. Were we interlopers? An imposition? An unwanted reminder of age or infirmity or other unhappy circumstance? We were there to reach out and help, but what if we were making them feel more isolated and alone, instead?

    One year, our group made an extra stop at the end of our rounds. Our teacher/escort told us that is was Mr. _______’s house. Mr. _______ was a teacher at our school who had just lost his wife to cancer. Between looking after his young daughters and handling his work at school, he hadn’t had time to rake his yard yet this year. We hopped out and raked and bagged like we’d been doing all day (after a while you get it down to a science), and headed back to school. I didn’t think much of it until a few days later, when Mr. _______ got up in front of a high school assembly. He told us that “some anonymous people” had raked his yard on Service Day, explained in broad strokes what he was going through, and spoke of how welcome and supported we had made him feel in his time of need. I think he made it through his speech without crying, but I didn’t.

    That made me feel a lot better about raking yards for folks.

    Huh. Thinking about it, Mr. _______ went on to be one of my favorite teachers, well, ever. We shared a passion for his subject, and we became quite close because of it. He wrote one of my college recommendations. And he never knew that I was one of the kids who raked his lawn that year.

    That feels good.

    (Should I have put a trigger warning in front of the story about Mr. _______’s wife? My apologies if I should have.)

  • http://twitter.com/Rhysdux Rhysdux

    If anyone did that for me, I’d have a grin all day–even when I broke down crying about how NICE people can be.

  • http://mistformsquirrel.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    I like it… that’s really clever hehe – it’s guerrilla helping-people <_<

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    Not long after I left the church I grew up in they did something almost exactly like this.  They declared it something like a “Day of Service” or somesuch similar thing.  Then they got project sites all lined up and had people sign up.  Then on the same day they sent people all over Wheaton to do work projects.

    Everyone wore t-shirts that identified them as part of the group.  And they had signs that looked like the political signs made to stick in the front yards of houses so everyone driving by would know that the church was doing a big ol’ work project RIGHT THERE.

    Oh, wait.  Did I say, “Something almost exactly like this?”  I meant, “Something that’s exactly the opposite of this.”  I mean, on one hand at least they were trying.  On the other hand, holy crap, they couldn’t have been more self-aggrandizing about it if they’d tried.

  • Marshall Pease

    I’m thinking here of atheism as the null hypothesis of theism. Especially humanism, which is the only socially positive form of atheism I’m aware of. Here’s from Humanist Manifesto III:

    Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness.
    Progressive cultures have worked to free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community. We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.

    Humanists are concerned for the well being of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views. We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society and maintain it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process and a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner.

    Reading novels and listening to rock music are good forums for personal enrichment I’ve no doubt, but that has nothing to do with what we’re talking about here, right? There are book clubs and rock concerts where people gather, but the focus is inward, on their own thing, no problem with that, outreach isn’t always a relevant concern. Granted many churches are equally focused inwardly, that counts a a problem for me.
     
    However, Evangelicalism has a core idea that there is “good news”, and it’s a duty do work to share it. Or, as Scoop Nisker said, “Get out there and make some [good news] of your own.”

    So a side effect of gathering for worship is in creating an organized group that is or should be motivated to get out and do useful stuff, like raking leaves, feeding the hungry, converting eyesores, and in general building the Kingdom in the local community. Which is an advantage to the whole community, even atheists. You’re welcome, we didn’t expect a reward, we did it for the Glory of God.

    If you abandon religion, if your goal is to get society to abandon religion (not thinking of anyone in particular here), you leave that behind. Humanism has much the same goals but an individual, not a collective, motivation (emphasis above is in the original), and as I said, no visible structure. I personally would feel more (but not entirely) comfortable with the notion of a non-religious society if it could be shown how humanism can potentiate such active local community. 

    For which I don’t see any evidence that it does. Sorry if you disagree; ‘pologies to any who want them, no offense intended. Some of my best friends are atheists.

  • Lori

     Especially humanism, which is the only socially positive form of atheism I’m aware of.   

    You;’re doing this just for the Lulz right? You did not actually make a statement of such breath-taking ignorance in all seriousness did you? 

    Holy crap, you did. 

    So a side effect of gathering for worship is in creating an organized group that is or should be motivated to get out and do useful stuff, like raking leaves, feeding the hungry, converting eyesores, and in general building the Kingdom in the local community. Which is an advantage to the whole community, even atheists. 

    This is so wrong on so many levels I don’t even know where to start. Creating a group that can do good things is not some special property of a church. Many churches never do anything that’s actually useful. The Bible doesn’t actually say anything about community service being the purpose of the Church. Areas with greater church attendance do not reap any great social advantages over areas where fewer people attend church. 

    There’s more, but I’m bored with you already. 

    You’re welcome, we didn’t expect a reward, we did it for the Glory of God. 

    Man, you might as well get yourself a t-shirt that says “I’m a total ass”. Or perhaps, “I’m the Stupid other people claim to be with”.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    I’m thinking here of atheism as the null hypothesis of theism.
    Especially humanism, which is the only socially positive form of atheism
    I’m aware of. Here’s from Humanist Manifesto III:

    Well then you’re confusing your terms.  I suspect you’re doing so intentionally, since we get one of these “Marshall Pease explains atheism to atheists” conversations about once a week ’round these parts.

    But let’s try this:  atheism is the null hypothesis of theism.  As such, “atheism,” in and of itself, is a socially neutral issue.  There are, however, atheists who like to meet with other atheists as atheists.  If you actually paid attention to the conversations around atheism, you’d know that there’s extensive discussion within the larger atheist movement, such as it is, about the value and efficacy of creating what would be, for all intents and purposes, an atheist church.  It would be a social gathering place for atheists to do the sort of things that religious folk do in church, but without the bits about god.

    I, personally, find that stupid and counter-productive.  A large number of atheists do, too.  However, even a lot of the atheists who think that the “atheist church” idea is lead balloon stupid still like going to atheist convention-type-things in order to meet and network and whatnot, because there are several broad cultural connections between atheists.  They tend to, by and large, be interested in science and politics and skepticism have a strong overlap with most areas of geek culture.  They also tend to be extremely interested in issues like feminism and gay rights (although the feminism thing can be a major minefield, since there’s also a lot of white, male privilege in atheism, mostly due to the demographics).

    So they meet.  And they discuss things of interest to the broader collection of that sub-set of humanity that defines themselves as “atheists who care about the broader atheist movement.”  Those meetings, then, are like a Con for people who have specific fandom.  From all the reports I’ve seen, they do tend to be “socially positive,” even if they aren’t strictly humanist, because they spend most of their time trying to decide how to handle being and dealing with humans.  It’s generally in a format that tries to say, “How do we increase freedom and become more inclusive?” since one of the things that most people in the broader atheist community tend to agree on is that no one type of human is better than any other type of human, since there is no special plan, we’re just the products of nature.

    And if they don’t break up the big meetups by going out and raking leaves, well, that’s not the purpose of their meetings.  And that doesn’t make them somehow automatically worse than churches.  I’ve been to an awful lot of churches where the people mostly go on Sunday morning, then go home and never bother to give a rat’s ass about the parts of the Bible that say that helping people is a good thing.  So simply saying, “Churches care about people” and “atheists don’t” is a false dichotomy.  And it perpetuates the exact sort of attitude that forces some atheists to feel uncomfortable or outright threatened by the idea of admitting they’re not religious.  We are in a society where, “He goes to church on Sunday” is shorthand for, “He’s a good person,” even when it turns out that the he in question has been going to church to find young boys to sexually molest or old ladies to swindle out of their retirement accounts.  But, still, somehow, “He goes to church,” is seen by a lot of people as a free pass, while, “He’s an atheist,” somehow means that that other guy has no moral structure and is probably an old-lady-swindling-child-molester.

    By the same token, by the by, “humanism” is not synonymous with “atheism.”  You can be a Christian Humanist.  Fred Clark, for one, could probably be considered one, because he’s a Christian, but he’s concerned primarily with issues of humanity and how to help his fellow humans.  And the “Humanist Manifesto” is just a document put out by some people who want to make it seem like they speak for a larger group.  I consider myself an atheist humanist and I don’t even know what the Humanist Manifesto says because I, personally, don’t care.  I don’t need a manifesto written by someone I’ve never met to tell me to be decent to others and try to help where I see need.

  • Ursula L

     I mean, obviously there are secular (ecumenical) 
    service opportunities, but as far as I can tell atheists only gather as atheists to congratulate themselves on their atheism.

    Frankly, as an atheist, I’m find with secular service opportunities.  The point is the service, not that it’s done in the name of a particular set of sectarian beliefs.  

    But you’re making a major factual error in conflating a secular service opportunity with an ecumenical service opportunity.  A secular service opportunity is simply about the service.  An ecumenical effort is still sectarian, although it involves several sects working together.  

    “Look, different Christian denominations can work together ecumenically to do a service task!” is something very different from “Look, there is a need in the community, anyone interesting in helping, lets get together and fix the problem!”

  • http://twitter.com/mattmcirvin Matt McIrvin

    There’s a beautiful little story in Arnold Lobel’s children’s book “Frog And Toad All Year”.  One autumn day, Frog and Toad, who are best friends, each coincidentally decide to surprise the other one by secretly raking his lawn.  They both simultaneously sneak over to the other’s house and rake up the leaves, then head home.

    While they’re on the way home, a wind comes up and undoes all the work, blowing the leaves all over both yards again.  They each come home, observe their unchanged lawns, and go to bed happy in the contemplation of the lovely surprise their friend is experiencing.

    Was it all pointless?  In one sense, yes, but in another, not really.

  • Anonymous

    As far as the serious business, I got nuthin’ right now. Too brain-tired after a long long week.

    But I -loved- the Frog and Toad books. <3

  • Lori

     But I -loved- the Frog and Toad books. <3  

    That’s because they’re wonderful. 

  • http://profiles.google.com/marc.k.mielke Marc Mielke

    I’m an atheist, and I can’t think of too many socially responsible forms of atheism other than Humanism. There’s logical positivism, I assume, but even that often gets folded into humanist philosophy.

    The other major schools of atheist thought would be Socialism, Communism, and Objectivism. I have a soft spot for socialism, but the actual socialists I know have a totally worthless “all or nothing” view of things, and the other two are the poster boys for ‘socially irresponsible’. 

  • Matri

    I’m not saying that as a bad thing, I just feel that we should always strive to identify our motives  in everything we do.

    The motive is “being nice to people without expecting reward or recognition.” That’s what altruism is. Why can’t that just be it? Why must there be a motive behind everything, and why must that motive always be “God”? Why can’t we just do nice things for people just because?

    I mean, obviously there are secular (ecumenical) service opportunities,
    but as far as I can tell atheists only gather as atheists to
    congratulate themselves on their atheism.

    You know what, screw you Pease. Fred makes these posts to show people that not all Christians are stuck-up assholes, and you make it your duty to show up to be a stuck-up asshole and take credit for it. And take your insincere apology with you.

    Some of my best friends are atheists.

    We’ve had a lengthy discussion on why this is a blatant lie. Just because they aren’t immediately sickened by your presence doesn’t mean they’re your “best friends”. And just because they don’t agree completely with everything you say doesn’t make them atheists.

  • Tonio

    If that was my lawn that had been raked, I don’t know how comfortable I would feel to find that strangers had sneaked onto my property, even if it was to do me a favor. First, I might wonder if I was being laughed at, like someone was playing a game with me. Second, I would likely feel vulnerable, since it would mean that strangers could come onto my property and basically do whatever the hell they wanted and I couldn’t stop them, and the strangers could just as easily have done something cruel instead of helpful.

  • Lori

    I assume the houses weren’t chosen at random and that the owners had agreed. That’s how it worked when my youth group did things like this. The adults were all in on the “joke” and no one invaded anyone’s space uninvited. In short, you wouldn’t walk out one day to discover that people had raked your leaves without your permission. 

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Unless your lawn has a fence around it, Tonio, someone’s dog has probably gone and pooped on it anyway.

  • Tonio

    That’s different because the dog’s motives have nothing to do with me. Highly unlikely that the dog would seek to steal from me or ridicule me. If a dog bites me, it’s because it perceives me as a threat, whereas if a person mistreats me, it’s because he or she doesn’t like me for some reason.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    The thing, Tonio, is that people who want to do others a favor sometimes like doing it anonymously. I’m not sure how you think someone raking your lawn equates to someone casing the joint for stuff to steal or an occasion for them to point and laugh.

    And usually dogs are on leashes and so poop with an owner nearby, meaning someone’s likely stood near your lawn, wishing the little barker would get it over with already.

  • Tonio

    I’m not sure how you think someone raking your lawn equates to someone
    casing the joint for stuff to steal or an occasion for them to point and
    laugh.

    They’re only equivalent in that all involve people being on one’s property uninvited, thus creating a sense of vulnerability, and that feeling can easily lead to rumination on bad outcomes. Sort of like preparing for a storm – it’s better to get the generator and canned goods and then not need them than to avoid taking preparations and then wish you had. There’s a possibly apocryphal story about soldiers huddling in twos in sleeping bags to protect against the cold, and the enemy waging psychological warfare by sneaking in at night and killing one member of each pair, thus traumatizing the survivors.

    And I assumed the dog poop example involved something like a lone dog on the loose going through people’s back yards.

  • Lori

    I think that the fact that we’ve gone from leaf raking to psychological warfare via improbably stleathy murder indicates that leaf raking is not remotely the issue. 

  • WingedBeast

    Actually, doing stealth favors has been used in psychological warfare.  It’s a statement.  “We can come here.  We can do this.  You can’t stop us.  You want to make sure we stay nice.”

  • Lori

    Yeah. I don’t think there’s much of a connection between that and an ordinary person living an ordinary life in current day America finding that someone has raked some leaves. Or at least the connection says more about the person than about the leaf-raking. 

  • Tonio

    Or at least the connection says more about the person than about the leaf-raking.

    That was my point. I wasn’t claiming that the stealth raking was wrong. My point was that if if this was done on my property, I would be justified in feeling vulnerable. And no, I wasn’t accusing anyone of saying that my feeling would not be justified. The possibility of the raking being a psychological game didn’t occur to me until I started typing, as a “what if” scenario. But I might still react the way WingedBeast described, concluding that I couldn’t stop them and I should stay on their good side. In part, it would evoke bad memories from living in the dorm in college.

  • Anonymous

    That’s different because the dog’s motives have nothing to do with me.
    Highly unlikely that the dog would seek to steal from me or ridicule me.

    Tonio, you make my daily Internet-browsing experience at least 17% percent more worthwhile.  And I mean that absolutely sincerely.

    My dog has never sought to steal from me.  I sometimes worry that she might want to ridicule me, but upon reflection I think it’s an article of faith with her that I’ll always be In On The Joke.

  • Tonio

    Why not assume we’re nice in person until otherwise indicated?

    The short answer is that it’s too good to be true.

    The longer answer, which I alluded to earlier, is that the most prudent option is to expect and prepare for the worst. This doesn’t mean assuming that everyone is mean in person. It means that assuming the opposite can leave one vulnerable to the percentage of people who are mean, since one has no way of knowing for sure whether someone will be nice or mean. If something bad happened once, it could happen again. If some people are mean, then anyone can potentially be mean.

    “Mean” is actually somewhat of a misnomer here – I’m talking about behavior and not mindset. The real problem is that often I don’t know what sets people off, so if someone is mean to me, I’ll usually wonder, “What the hell did I do to provoke that?” Even then I feel like I’m giving myself too much credit by assuming I acted out of ignorance, instead of considering the possibility that I was being a jerk.

    So if I woke up one day and found that my lawn had been raked and had no idea who had done it, I wouldn’t automatically assume that someone was playing a game with me. I would probably consider it a possibility, and I would be reminded of the times in the college dorm when I felt afraid and vulnerable. Ultimately it would confirm my experience of people as somewhat inscrutable, where I don’t fully understand their motivations and am unable to reliably predict their behavior.

  • Anonymous

    Ultimately it would confirm my experience of people as somewhat
    inscrutable, where I don’t fully understand their motivations and am
    unable to reliably predict their behavior.

    Yeah, but you’re pretty consistent in applying that attitude to all other people.  It seems like Marshall would conclude that Christian kids who raked his lawn were being nice and having a fun team-building exercise, while atheists kids who raked his lawn were trying to demonstrate their smug superiority over non-rakers and their militant intolerance of scattered leaves.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    My dog has never sought to steal from me.  I sometimes worry that she might want to ridicule me, but upon reflection I think it’s an article of faith with her that I’ll always be In On The Joke, even if she’s not.

    I have had dogs steal from me before.  Like that time we left a blueberry cobbler cooling on the kitchen counter, only to come back a little while later with the cobbler messed up, and a line of blueberry paw prints leading out of the kitchen, into the living room, and right up to the chair upon which sat our dog with his blueberry-stained snout…  

    I am sure he could not figure out how we unraveled his perfect crime.  

  • Dan Audy

    If you abandon religion, if your goal is to get society to abandon
    religion (not thinking of anyone in particular here), you leave that
    behind. Humanism has much the same goals but an individual, not a
    collective, motivation (emphasis above is in the original), and as I
    said, no visible structure. I personally would feel more (but not
    entirely) comfortable with the notion of a non-religious society if it
    could be shown how humanism can potentiate such active local community.

    I find it bizarre how people seem unaware of how atheists can (and do) contribute to society.  They simply don’t do so as atheists but simply as people because atheism is not a social organization unlike most varities of theism.

    As an atheist I do good in my community through my work and contributions to Childhaven International, the Edmonton Foodbank, the Youth Emergency Shelter Society, Habitat for Humanity, Boy Scouts of Canada, and have ‘adopted’ a stretch of highway to keep clean.  Admittedly it might be easier to do some of this stuff through a church group because someone would decide what we are doing and tell me to help or god would be disappointed in me but I’ve never had any trouble finding similarly civic-minded people to work towards the benefit of my community.  Some of the people who also do these things are religious and that doesn’t take away from or prevent me from contributing to these causes on a secular level.

    Also, as an aside, I personally find the implication that both atheism is an abandonment of religion and that atheists want others to abandon religion to be moderately offensive.  Atheists don’t believe in god(s) – that is it.  Some of us were raised in religious culture and left that behind when we concluded that the universe is godless, others felt that their faiths behaved immorally and concluded that god(s) couldn’t be guiding them if that were the case, and yet others were raised by atheists or non-worshipping individuals and never became involved in religion and saw no reason to be.  As for wanting others to abandon religion that is very much an individual response and widely varies.  While some very prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins think that we should get rid of religion, the vast majority don’t particularly care what others believe as long as they don’t try to force their beliefs or the consequences of their beliefs on the rest of us.  Personally, I am slight jealous (though admittedly somewhat patronizingly) of people with religious beliefs for the simplicity of having someone else just give you the moral answers and tell you how to act and how very lovely the world would be if (some) of their beliefs were true.

    Trying to ascribe any belief or motive to atheists other than the lack of belief in god is much like trying to ascribe certain beliefs to ‘people with hair’.  The group is so broadly diverse and very little holds them together beyond the descriptive box they’ve been placed in. Lacking anything resembling a credo or code treating them as a identifiable group is simply an excercise in nonsense.

  • Lindenharp

    I can see that this would be a great kindness for some people. In my case, it would be a disservice to the gentleman who is paid to blow leaves off my lawn.  He charges per session, so an unexpectedly clean lawn would be money out of his pocket.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    If it bothers you that much tell him to wave the leafblower around and pretend he’s experimenting with the resistance of grass blades to sudden blasts of air, and pay him anyway.

  • Lindenharp

     A witty but facile response.  In the real world, it might take me a while to realize that someone else had removed my leaves.  Mr. L usually comes when I am not at home and sends me a bill in the mail.  Because I have a bunch of oak trees on my property, it takes multiple sessions over the autumn to get all the leaves.  I might get a phone message asking if I still wanted him to take care of my yard.  Mr. L is an immigrant whose English is less than fluent.  He’s a bit shy, but also proud.  I doubt he’d take money for work he hadn’t done.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    If it bothers you that much, then put up a sign if you know these things occur regularly. Have it read “Thank you for your desire to in good faith help others; however a person already comes to clear this lawn.”

    Or if a person, like someone else suggested, fixes these things in advance, just make it clear you’ve got someone doing the lawn already. The problem of unintentionally causing problems in an act of good faith is not insuperable.

  • Lindenharp

    If it bothers you that much,

    You’ve used this phrase twice in replying to me.  *resists temptation to do a bad Catherine Tate impression*  I’m not bothered.  Not annoyed, anxious or worried.  I simply provided a real-life example of how this intended kindness could have unintended consequences.

    then put up a sign if you know these things occur regularly

    I’ve never heard of such a thing before — a stealth, blitz clearing of multiple yards.  If done either by prearrangement or with knowledge of the homeowner’s situation, it could be very, very helpful.

    My husband died (many years ago) in early spring, when our yard was full of leaves that had been finally uncovered by melting snow.  After his death, I was away from home for a week, staying with other family members.  I came home to find an immaculate yard.  A neighbor who owns a landscaping business had sent a team of workers to clean up.  She told me, “It’s not much, but it’s what I could do.”  I assured her it was that much.  I was very grateful to have one less problem on my plate.

  • Anonymous

    @Dan:disqus  Audy, I agree with most of what you wrote but must quibble about:
    “Personally, I am slight jealous (though admittedly somewhat patronizingly) of people with religious beliefs for the simplicity of having someone else just give you the moral answers and tell you how to act and how very lovely the world would be if (some) of their beliefs were true.” Religious people are just as diverse as atheists, and for many of us finding the moral answers is just as hard as for atheists. And many people, religious or not, just accept the moral/political/social assumptions of their neighbors.

  • Dan Audy

    I agree with most of what you wrote but must quibble about:
    “Personally,
    I am slight jealous (though admittedly somewhat patronizingly) of
    people with religious beliefs for the simplicity of having someone else
    just give you the moral answers and tell you how to act and how very
    lovely the world would be if (some) of their beliefs were true.”
    Religious people are just as diverse as atheists, and for many of us
    finding the moral answers is just as hard as for atheists. And many
    people, religious or not, just accept the moral/political/social
    assumptions of their neighbors.

    I’m definitely aware of that, which is why I acknowledged that my attituted is patronizing (and unfair) to those that do struggle with how to balance their faiths moral positions amongst each other and what they believe to be true in their hearts.  It was mostly a jab at RTCs and other people who accept authoritarian decrees about what and how they should believe without putting them against the actual scripture which they preport to follow.  A site like this shows exactly how difficult some of those answers are and Fred does a lovely job illustrating that people ostensibly following the same faith reach wildly differing conclusions, though often doesn’t treat (fairly I think) the opposing viewpoint as being reached in good faith.

    Thank you for calling me out on that though, I should have been more careful and clear about not putting all people of faith in the same basket when I had just finished complaining about someone else doing the same for all people without faith.

  • Anonymous

    Dan, thanks for clearing that up. 

    Somewhere, could it be on Fred’s blog? I am sick in bed so not sure, I saw a remark that instead of shades of gray, things were all sorts of colors — I like that  Dawkins and the Dalai Lama (and the late Jacques Derrida, just to keep the D thing going…) are atheists, and well, I can’t think of alliterative examples here, Fred Clark, the Pope, lots of Wiccans, Shinto mountain devotees, are all theists… means I’ll never run out of interesting stuff to think about, or books to challenge my assumptions. 

    But to speak more directly to the point (sorry I’m kind of wooly minded at the moment) yes, authoritarianism is a pretty strong strain in religion, esp. in places like the American Bible Belt at the moment. It’s sad that like the US Republican party, the most extreme strains seem to be taking over. In the 19th century, evangelical Christianity was often very progressive. Sigh. Fred has an uphill struggle.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Seconding.

    Dan, it sounds like you are actually patronisingly jealous of people with black-and-white worldviews. I’m religious and moral questions keep me up at night. Many of my atheist friends sleep fine.

  • Lori

     However, Evangelicalism has a core idea that there is “good news”, and it’s a duty do work to share it. Or, as Scoop Nisker said, “Get out there and make some [good news] of your own.”

    So a side effect of gathering for worship is in creating an organized group that is or should be motivated to get out and do useful stuff, like raking leaves, feeding the hungry, converting eyesores, and in general building the Kingdom in the local community. Which is an advantage to the whole community, even atheists. You’re welcome, we didn’t expect a reward, we did it for the Glory of God.  

    So, on this idea that Christians are some great gift the community: 

    Should Uncle Sam provide diapers to help struggling families? One leader of a national advocacy group says no. Concerned Women for America’s
    Penny Nance argues it is not the government’s job to provide diapers
    for children — yet Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut) has
    authored a bill that she believes will stimulate the economy by
    directing the federal government to distribute free diapers through
    daycare centers.
    Nance
    says there will always be people that think it is the government’s job
    to do everything for them. She acknowledges, however, that families are
    having a difficult time.

    “The other thing I would say is there already are programs in place
    through welfare that actually do provide for the very indigent and
    that’s important, but this was a giveaway through daycare centers and
    really a bail-out for daycare centers — and we just strongly believe
    that this is inappropriate,” Nance says.

    According to the CWA spokeswoman, government involvement in these kinds of situations only tends to make matters worse.

    “I call that cheap grace,” explains Nance. “You’re meeting one little
    issue, but there’s an overall issue that is requiring these folks to so
    desperately need diapers that they’re either taking a government
    hand-out or calling at the ninth hour.”
    Nance believes it is a great opportunity for churches and charities to reach out and meet the needs of some Americans.

    http://www.onenewsnow.com/Culture/Default.aspx?id=1472204

    So many things could be said about this. I’ll stick with three.

    1. A “bail-out” for daycare centers? WTH?

    2. “Cheap grace”—I do not think that means what Nance thinks it means.

    3. Nance is demonstrating the main problem with “let the churches help the needy”. She cares more about the church than she does about the needy.  Clearly Christians weren’t providing the diapers or there would have been no need for a government program in the first place. This johnny-come-lately whining is really unattractive. 

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    I think people like Nance believe in this sort of Schroedinger’s Charity effect: Until the federal government steps in, there’s no need to talk about how the church should be the ones to provide this charity, but once the governemnt *does* step in, the superposition collaspes and you find that the church was *just about* to start such a program but was forced to give it up because the government had stolen their thunder.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Ross:

    Kind of reminds me of stories I’ve heard about cheapos on Craigslist who have, like, half the money agreed upon at the meeting, and who “suddenly” remember they have the extra cash when the seller decides to no-sale the transaction.

  • Rikalous

    I think people like Nance believe in this sort of Schroedinger’s Charity
    effect: Until the federal government steps in, there’s no need to talk
    about how the church should be the ones to provide this charity, but
    once the governemnt *does* step in, the superposition collaspes and you
    find that the church was *just about* to start such a program but was
    forced to give it up because the government had stolen their thunder.

    Well, if they’ve already got the momentum going, it should be trivial to shift it to some other charitable goal. Everyone wins, especially the people in need. Unless you’ve got some some baffling notion of charity being a zero-sum game, somehow.

  • Liz Coleman

    A dear friend of mine just did this last weekend at a convention. It was four in the morning, everyone had gone to bed, he was drunk and still full of energy. Wandering through the lawn in front of the hospitality suite, and seeing the tables covered in cans and bottles and junk, he thought, “heh heh. Wouldn’t it be hilarious if the volunteer staff got up in the morning, and didn’t have as much cleanup work to do?” 

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I’ve been reading my replies here and I kind of feel bad. I was being dismissive, I think, so Tonio and Lindenharp are due apologies, if you’ll have them.

  • Lindenharp

    Invisible Neutrino: Thank you for that.  I didn’t take (much) offense.  Mostly it felt as through we were having two different conversations.  Apology accepted.

  • Anonymous

    Hmm. I agree that “it would confirm my experience of people as somewhat inscrutable, where I don’t fully understand their motivations and am unable to reliably predict their behavior”, but I don’t know that it’d make me feel insecure about anything — that is, I KNOW people are (to me) as inscrutable and unpredictable as Midwestern weather, and I’d just be happy that it’s pleasant outside today.


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