Thursday, September 15, 2011

Changed, for good

I have had 7 addresses, in 5 cities, in 8 years...and two of those cities I lived in for 2 years apiece. So the last several years have been, to put it mildly, "transient." "Nearly rootless" might be a better word.

That very transience has made me value the people who have connected with me - some of them at a very, very deep level, very quickly. But I guess I had been in some denial about how deeply those connections have affected me, until I learned of the death of one of those connections recently - my friend Ernie M.

It was May 2009, and Chris and I had just moved to Champaign-Urbana a couple weeks earlier. We had moved for Chris's job...and he had connections he was making at work. I was working from home, and the only personal connections I was making were those at AA meetings. One of the meetings I had gotten a little comfortable and settled-into early-on was the Monday Night Men's (MNM) AA meeting.

I distinctly remember the first time I referred to my significant-other as my "partner" at Monday Night Mens, at the second MNM meeting I attended. In my mind, the temperature in the room dropped about five or ten degrees, and I was afraid I might have outed myself to a not-so-friendly crowd.

But no sooner was the meeting over than this big fellow reached out to me as I headed toward the door after the meeting. He introduced himself as Ernie M., grabbed me in his big ol' paws and half-shouted, "SO...why don't you come to DINNER with us?..." Ernie's attitude made it very clear that he had decided I was welcome, whether anyone else thought so or not.

I couldn't go to dinner that night, because I'd already committed to dinner at home with Chris. But I got the message (not a new message, either) that  my immediate gut-reaction had been nothing but unfounded, baseless fear - and forever afterward I was grateful for Ernie's very-typically unsubtle invitation and welcome.

As I started to attend dinners after the Monday meetings, Ernie also made sure that Chris knew he was  welcome to join us when he got off work. Chris quickly got roped into the Monday Night Men's dinner circle, even if it was just to stop by and have a soda as we were wrapping up our meal. Chris and I also had several dinner and open meetings with Ernie and his wife Jane.

Jane really seemed to connect with Chris, and while we could go months without the two of us seeing the two of them as "couples," we always seemed to just pick right up where we left off whenever we would connect. Ernie helped organize our farewell dinner potluck when we left Champaign-Urbana for Springfield, MO earlier this year, and we managed to stay in regular contact through email and Facebook after we left C-U.

Ernie had struggled with health issues several times in the two short years we knew him - and he had a stubborn habit of waiting at least 48 hours after "we should get to the hospital" would have been a good idea. So it wasn't overly surprising when we heard that he'd been admitted to the hospital in Urbana on Friday, September 2nd. He always pulled through before...

But by Saturday, we knew Ernie was in trouble - heart problems, kidney failure, infection, you name it. A line from Wayne Watson's song "Home Free" rang in my head as we waited for news, 400 miles from our ailing friend:

Out in the corridor, we pray for life
A mother for her baby, a husband for his wife
Sometimes the good die young, it's sad but true
But while we pray for one more heartbeat
Our real comfort is with You...
By Tuesday, the Red Cross had been notified to bring Ernie's son Duane back from Afghanistan, and hope had dwindled to simply, "Please, God, just let him hold on until his son makes it home."

Duane hit the ground in Champaign on Friday, September 9th, about 11 am. And shortly after 2 PM, the CPAP keeping Ernie's  lungs going was shut off, and our friend died peacefully in the presence of his family and friends. Ernie M. was 65 years old, 36 years married, and 19 years sober.

I heard that the Monday Night Men's meeting after Ernie's death went well beyond their typical 6:30 closing time. His 19-year coin sat on an empty chair, as the stories abounded about Ernie - especially his humor, his encounters with newly-sober folks, and his work with recovering veterans (he was a very proud Vietnam vet). If I could hope for a way to be remembered by my various home groups, that surely would be my first choice - to be "absent in body, present in spirit" and remembered for caring for others....

I'd gently mention, at this point, that Ernie was no saint. As loving as he could be, he also had a strong streak of bull-in-the-china-shop too. He had character features that sometimes went far beyond "charming eccentricity" - as we all do. That's why I would veto any petition for sainthood for Ernie, me, or anyone else I know in our little club. Ernie was perhaps what writer Ray Bradbury called "a porcelain genius - that is to say, cracked but brilliant."

But his presence changed people. I know he changed me.

A couple days after Ernie died, I went into a funk - thinking not only about Ernie but to a whole host of people who have changed my life in powerful ways across the last 20 years. People who my new friends in Springfield would never get to know, except for whatever could be seen of those distant folks in me. People  like my first sponsor, Bob S., whose mind is still pretty sharp, even as he struggles with Alzheimer's. Bob's inimitable ex-wife, Brooke K., one of the first real definitions of "tough love" I met in our fellowship. Jon P., who invited me to Frisch's Big Boy after my first meeting and showed me the meaning of "giving it away." Brian D., the executive-turned-artist, who helped show me how to corral anger, rather than letting it run free.  A whole bunch of crazy Irishmen and Polacks from the Toledo Monday Night Men's group, who showed God's love in the most irreverent ways.

And then the Kansas folks - my first Kansas sponsor, Bruce F., who told me "you'll have to deal with these issues of sexuality, sometime," thirteen years before I was willing to look at them. Crusty old Frank K., who continued to ask "Are you running for mayor again, Goddammit?" every time I went around shaking hands at the Lenexa "Basement Boys" meeting. Nick T. and Barry H., who walked me through some very tough times in later sobriety. Barry G., Lee Z., and so many others who went on in death way too soon.

The Chicago folks - Tom S. and Michael D., who gently herded me out of the closet like a pair of border collies (never pushing, but gently nipping at the heels). Fred K., the first person in the Chicago fellowship to welcome me.  The crazy group at the Fireside Men's group - artists, musicians, comics, executives, and good ol' boys.

And Champaign-Urbana - the whole Monday Night Men's crowd, but especially my sponsor Terry S., Scott S., Ernie, John C., Bill B., Jim E., Robin H., Rockin' Rodney, Mike H. And Karen C., Doug B., Gil T., Andy C., Jason E., and so many others.

It's a fool's errand, trying to list them all - I could be here all day and night, thinking of the men and women who have blessed me by their friendship, both in and out of our fellowship and here in the blogosphere. As I have left them, they have left pieces of their heart with me. Right now, I am just feeling the absence rather strongly. I will never be able to sit down with each one of them and let them all know how much they have changed my life...but I know they have.

I was sitting here late one night, thinking about this "band of brothers and sisters," when I was reminded of a beautiful song that said what I could never say to each of them in person. The song needs a little background, though...

Wicked is a musical based on the novel "Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West." The musical is told from the perspective of the witches of the Land of Oz: Elphaba, the misunderstood girl with emerald-green skin, and Galinda, later Glinda, the beautiful, ambitious and popular blonde. Wicked tells the story in which these two unlikely friends grow to become the Wicked Witch of the West and the Good Witch of the North while struggling through opposing personalities and viewpoints, rivalry over the same love-interest and, ultimately, Elphaba's public fall from grace.

Near the end of the show, the two women confront each other, and forgive each other for all grievances, acknowledging they have both made mistakes. Elphaba makes Glinda promise to take charge in Oz, allowing Elphaba to disappear. The two friends embrace for the last time before saying goodbye forever.  This song, "For Good," describes how each one has been changed by the other. In the Broadway performance, it is a duet with Kristen Chenoweth and Idina Menzel.

Here is the song, with the lyrics included in the video. Listen along, and know that I owe a debt I can never repay to a whole host of men and women, who have woven pieces of their lives into my own story. I will always be thankful for all those - past, and present - who have changed me, for good.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Branching out....

I am not done posting here.

But I am finding the need to post things that don't need to remain anonymous. I'd like to be able to talk on some topics that don't require anonymity...and I'd like to share some of the things I've written here with a wider audience.

So I've started a new blog over at A Bubble Off Square

The first post can be found over here.

The title comes from a term I often heard from older men when I was growing up..."that guy is just a bubble off square." It's a carpentry term, and refers to using a level to indicate whether an item was built "square."  If the angles were precisely level or vertical, a bubble would appear centered between two vertical lines. If the item were not level or not vertical, the bubble would show as crossing those two vertical guide lines. If the item were really off-kilter, the whole level bubble would be outside the guide lines...hence "a bubble off square" was the equivalent of saying "that's really not right" or "that guy is way off." 

(My mom would say it differently: "That boy is not wrapped right, or tight.")

One thing to confess, up front: I haven't really received the gift of brevity, yet. The second post proves that I am still capable of an epistle or two. (In fairness, the ideas behind post #2 have been churning for a while now. It all just kind of came out at once.)

I will still be posting here... and I will likely steal some of my stuff from here and cross-posting it over there. Forgive me - even though I think I know what I'm doing, sometimes.

Stay tuned....

Friday, April 01, 2011

"And so it begins..."

Actually, it's been underway for about a month - preparations to relocate to a new address have been going for a while, now.

Chris's job has been what one generous soul would call "a hot mess" for more than a year. It has been degenerating for at least a year, and he's been developing a case of "homesick" that's been getting more and more obvious over that same year. We had been looking at relocating someplace further south - Charlotte, NC was a prime candidate - but the "homesick" part started to grow, fueled in part by something not far from a miracle.

Chris and his parents have not had the best of relationships - a combination of old hurts and their resistance to his orientation. When he left his hometown to come to Toledo to be with me, the phone lines were silent from New Years' to Mothers Day, and even after that, there wasn't a lot of phone traffic between Mothers' Day and Christmas.

But things started to change last July when we went down to visit for his birthday, and the turnaround since then has been really miraculous. And when it was time to decide our new destination, Chris finally admitted that where he would like to go was back to his hometown of Springfield, MO.

So, after spending a bunch of time on Craigslist and surfing the property management sites in Springfield, we went down and found a great two-bedroom duplex with a two-car garage and a little deck on the south side of the city. A quiet neighborhood, but one pretty accessible to almost anything, about 25% bigger than the place we're in now, and about $50 a month cheaper. We got the approval on Monday, and the process has begun.

The word has been out before this...I let people in the recovery community know a month or so ago, and Chris had his notice given for him about the same time. He  made the mistake of telling one of his supposedly-trustworthy co-workers (on that person's last day at work) that he planned to be leaving also - which meant that in a flash, his whole department, including his manager, had the word also. Chris's co-workers are bumming, big-time - he's been a key-player there for more than a little while - but he's put the "going to be with my parents" spin on it, so they can hardly fault him. I would guess that if anyone else could come up with a half-way-decent job, they'd be out-de-door too...

It's harder for me...I've lived in Toledo for 17 years, and in Chicago for three, so the lack of scenery is hardly a new or difficult thing for me, as it is for Chris. Where I've been has largely been a function of the people, especially in the recovery community - so this is a kind of tearing-apart for me that Chris isn't experiencing, so much. I've just been here long enough to put down the kind of roots that hurt when they're pulled-up, so this is a different experience for me.

And yet, it's not so very different...I left a loving church and recovery community in KC when I went to seminary, and had some pretty solid roots in the Chicago recovery community when I left for Toledo. Looking from that standpoint, I was in KC for 12 years, Chicago for 3, Toledo for 2, and Champaign/Urbana for 2 (almost to the day). It feels like I've been saying "goodbye" and "hello" for quite a while. Not to mention that with Chris's move to Toledo, my move in with Chris, our joint move to C-U, and now the move to Springfield, we will have made four moves in 3-1/2 I'm ready to be shut of moving-boxes, bubble-wrap and Penske trucks for a while.

The plan is to be 95-98% packed by Easter Sunday, April 24th, and to wrap up on Thursday, 4/28, have folks from "Two Men and A Truck" load the truck on Friday, drive down there by Friday night, have the "Two Men" folks unload us Saturday afternoon, and be residents of Springfield on May 1st. We'll see how it all works out. But for now, back to packing...

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Faith, belief, and finding community

Yes, I have been gone too long. Yes, I have some catching up to do. Sorry, it's going to have to wait....

A friend of mine recently decloaked as a fellow blogger, Ravenmoon at Becoming A Perfect Mom. Her post Not beliving, a lonely business brought me a flashback from my Church History experience with Dr. Kurt Hendel at LSTC. Here's my flashback word, with its Wikipedia reference:

Adiaphoron (plural: adiaphora from the Greek ἀδιάφορα "indifferent things") was a concept used in Stoic  philosophy to indicate things which were outside of moral law – that is, actions which are neither morally mandated nor morally forbidden. [emphasis added]

Adiaphora in Christianity refer to matters not regarded as essential to faith, but nevertheless as permissible for Christians or allowed in church. What is specifically considered adiaphora depends on the specific theology in view.

(And yes, I know - some of my seminary friends could do a whole sermon series on what's wrong with that definition. But it's close enough for the purpose at hand.)

I love this concept. One of the best ideas I got from seminary. It's "the stuff we agree not to argue about." It doesn't mean we agree on how we do it - only that this thing (whatever it is) will not separate us, in faith, friendship or fellowship. The opposite, I guess, of "adiaphora" is "anathema" - the stuff that is utterly rejected or "beyond the pale," as they used to say. It put names to things that I'd felt all my life.

Being a closeted gay man in the church meant that I was always the "other" in the group. I often found myself reading the Bible and looking for the Scripture passage that would somehow "vote me off the island" of salvation. (It's not a good way to read it, by the way.)

I knew, from the way I heard God's supposed words preached, that God liked "us" and didn't like "them," and while I knew that I loved God and I wanted to be like "us," I also knew that at rock-bottom, I was "them."  (Trust me, I have since learned much differently, and found great acceptance for the "thems" among us).

First, I was a former Catholic in a Lutheran church. This was definitely an us-vs-them thing! However, I received a pure inspiration one day, when someone said, "But you weren't BORN Lutheran! How can you preach effectively to life-long Lutherans?!?" The gift I believe God gave me was simply this: "Correct me if I'm wrong - but I thought Martin Luther was a former Catholic - and somehow he turned out OK..."

I was also a childless, profane and divorced man and a recovering alcoholic in a church full of happy and polite families (or so they would have had us believe). But as I threw myself into service, they came to love me despite my "rough edges" and "unfortunate earlier life."

The gay thing, though, was one from which I could never get free. Looking back over the wreckage, I'm not entirely sure that the only reasons for me to go to seminary was so (a) I could find a group of accepting and loving people in some of my professors and theologians, and (b) that the God of my misunderstanding could drop me 750 miles away from my guilt community, into a world in Hyde Park that was richly populated with faithful, celibate, deeply devout and thoroughly-gay priests, as well as faithful gay ministers and lay people.

[Note to reader: insert your own favorite "gay lay people" pun/joke here.]

They taught me the difference between "who I am" and "who or what I sleep with." They taught me alternate ways of understanding the holy words that I felt condemned me for years. And they showed me a way of being a faith-community in which homosexuality itself was adiaphora. "You love God? You enjoy the community and the ceremonies? Then come along - our God is big enough to sort all the rest of it out in the end."

We are ALL different. Some of you might well think I'm an idiot, madman, fool and free-thinker because I choose not to spend a lot of time around children! (My favorite prayer for children comes from the late storyteller Gamble Rogers: "Let them that want none have memories of not gettin' any.") That may be a difference between you and I - but it does not separate us. I value motherhood and fatherhood, even though I would not choose to participate in it.

The very fact that my friend Ravenmoon even deals with diapers - regardless if they are cloth, paper, or some future atomic-force-field variety - makes her a MUCH better person than me. (Please note: gay men have nothing on new-parents when it comes to the "ick factor"!) She also mentions a not-often-mentioned taboo - women who do not shave. For me, I could give a rat's patootie about what parts of her that do or do not get shaved - because all of these things are adiaphora to me - they do not show me her soul, and they certainly do not separate us in our beliefs.

Even the Buddhist thing just doesn't faze me. When it comes to being excluded from "the body," I have never felt from any other faith group the kind of apart-from-ness  that I have felt from wide swaths of Christianity - so their moral mandates about being "THE way and THE truth" ring more than a little hollow.

Buddhist practices and beliefs may not jive with all of mine - but I find much of the Buddhist tradition that shares ground with what I have come to know, as well. A Catholic, Father Roy D. of New York, talks about how much of the experiences he had sitting-lotus in ashrams and temples in Southeast Asia reminded him of the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius (founder of the Jesuit tradition in Catholicism).

Mama Cass Eliot, more than 40 years ago,  sang the words that started to set my soul free:

You're gonna be knowin'
The loneliest kind of lonely
It may be rough goin'
'Cuz to do your thing's
The hardest thing to do...

So if you cannot take my hand
And if you must be goin'
I will understand...

You gotta
Make your own kind of music
Sing your own special song
Make your own kind of music
Even if nobody else sings along!

(Can I get an "amen..."?)

I've found this thing about so-called "people of faith" (especially in the Christian variety - and yes, I tend to lump your Mormon friend into that category, Ravenmoon). As a large group, I've found they tend to subjugate the way they feel and are to the way they are supposed to feel and be. Or, to put it better, they want the way that they try to feel and be to correspond with their ideal of how a "true believer" ought to feel and be. (Again, thankfully, I have found hundreds, if not thousands, of exceptions to this broad and sweeping generalization. But I think I'm not far off the mark here.)

My experience is that the rare people-of-faith who are honest about their faith find it just as cracked and flawed as my faith seems to me. I "identify" with them, because they are broken toys too - yet they consider themselves "believers," too. So I guess that if they qualify, so can I....and that's good enough for me.

None of us are the appearance or beliefs. All of us have hangups and "baggage," to be sure (I sure do, anyway). But, as the song from "Rent" says, "I'm lookin' for baggage that goes with mine." To be real, to be honest about who and what I am, always runs the risk of rejection. It also runs the risk of finding community and building relationships - which is almost always worth the risk.

Back in 1997, in one of my several copies of Richard Nelson Bolles' classic What Color Is Your Parachute?, there is an appendix of advice for "special populations" - ex-offenders, gays and lesbians, stay-at-home-moms, ex-clergy, you name it. He gives specific advice to each group - but then tells them that (other that the specific advice), their drill is the same as for the rest of us. Then he concludes each section in exactly the same way - forgive me, my copy is packed away, so I'm doing this from memory:

In your job search, you will encounter two groups of people: those who will not be bothered by [insert your issue here] and those who will be bothered by it. Your job is to say "Thank you very much, have a nice day" to the second group of  people - and then go on and find the people in the first group.

That has become my mantra, in these later years.

Back in the 60's, they actually allowed advertising for cigarettes, and one memorable campaign was for Tareyton cigarettes. It featured people with artificially-blackened eyes and the slogan "I'd rather fight than switch."

I am finding that I have become somewhat of an Anti-Tareyton-Man - I would much rather switch than fight. If you can find common ground with me, let's walk the road together. If not, then be on your way without me - don't let me hold you back from your appointed rounds; you surely shall not hold me back, either.

You also need to know that there have been remarkable instances of grace in this journey, as well. There is a man named John who I know from the recovery community here. He's a family man, a man of faith, a hail-and-well-met fellow, and a pleasure to be around. He tends to be more politically-conservative than I, and I suspect (but never have confirmed) that his church might be more than a little uncomfortable (both theologically and socially) if I showed up arm-in-arm with Chris to services on a Sunday morning.

But here's the deal: John has come to know me.  And my partner Chris. And John has come to see us as people, and I have come to see him as a friend. No, we will probably not be in the same line at the voting booth; I probably wouldn't join his church (though I'd be happy to visit, and I'd sing right along with him in the hymns of faith). But we can share large parts of our life and our recovery - because we find, and focus on, the parts of our lives that are common. And that, as they say, is close enough.

/end epistle/  :-)

I'm grateful to get to share the road with you, Ravenmoon. I would gently suggest that your beliefs are as powerful, and as deeply rooted, as any of those who have a building, creed or hymnbook - and I trust you will continue finding those fellow travelers whose baggage goes quite well with yours. Here's a music cue for both of us, filled with smiles, from my favorite bear and frog combo...

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Back to the beginning...

Six years ago this morning, my car got towed from the parking lot of an Osco pharmacy in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood at something like 4 in the morning. I was unemployed, desperate for money, and my friend had just paid me $150 to take care of their pets for two weeks while they were gone to South America. I had taken them to the airport, and on the way home, stopped at Dunkin Donuts in Hyde Park for an extra-large coffee and two donuts.

The tow fee was $125, plus bus fare. It was not one of my better days. As my blog post that morning also shared, it was the single most expensive snack-food I have ever eaten - figuring that the coffee figured to about $45, and the donuts were about $43 apiece, all told.

Today was much, much better by comparison.

My friends in recovery will tell me that if I want to see how important my problems are, I should try to remember what I was really worried about a week ago. Part of the joy of a blog, a journal or a diary is that I really can see what the big deals were, once upon a time. And they just aren't so very big deals, any more.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Outta my mind on a Wednesday moanin'

Yet another tribute to the late Bob Talbert of Detroit Free Press fame (1936-1999) - a Southern boy whose accent translated "morning" into moanin' and whose book, Good Moanin', is one of the unsung classics of life in Detroit (along with Richard Guindon's cartoons).

So today I divide my early-morning thoughts into Good moanin' and Jus' moanin':

Good moanin' - there is nothing like having a cat jump into your lap and start to purr and knead your tummy to prevent you from throwing a misbehaving laptop through a window. The wee beastie surely calms the savage beast.

Good moanin' - there is also nothing like having factory-service-critters come out and fix aforementioned laptop to cut off the savage beast at the pass.

(Helpful PC tip: if your laptop is a couple years old, and seems to be losing connections or periodically slowing down drastically or shutting down for seemingly no reason at all, it may just be (as it was with me) that the internal heat-sink vents had become clogged with dust, and the system is overheating just enough to make it "hinky." It also would have helped if my company's support center might have suggested the upgrade from BIOS 4.0 to 15.0... but my friendly service guy did that, too.)

Jus' moanin' - The silence remains deafening on the shortage of bankers' and investment-brokers' heads on pikes in the town square. This irks me more than the lack of progress on health-care, more than the partisan BS that passes for business as usual in DC, more than the war,l more than almost anything. These bastards helped eliminate multiple generations of savings and investment, and not one of them has been punished.

- My favorite quote on this topic comes from the sci-fi TV series Babylon 5, where Vir is asked by the evil Mr. Morden that favorite Shadow question, "What do you want?" Vir's response is exactly what I'd say to most people in the financial sector today:
I'd like to live just long enough to be there when they cut off your head and stick it on a pike - as a warning to the next 10 generations that some favors come with too high a price. I want to look up into your lifeless eyes and wave like this [waves at Morden]. Can you and your associates arrange that for me, Mr. Morden?
(But then, I haven't had my first cup of coffee yet, either. I'm sure I'll be better later on.)

Jus' moanin' - for the same reason, anyone who is thinking that we brought ourselves into this economic meltdown on $25-an-hour auto jobs but we will somehow bring ourselves out of the disaster on $7-an-hour McService jobs is on drugs. People who are struggling to keep their homes and buy needed medicines are not buying $25,000 cars.

Good moanin' - my family's '76 Chevette, my former wife's '82 Monte Carlo, and my '83 Celebrity broke me of ever wanting to drive a Chevrolet product - ever, ever again (the same way my '92 Ford Probe and my '95 Mercury Sable broke me of Ford ownership and sold me on extended factory warranties). The 2010 Malibu and Camaro make me want to be a believer again. I wish GM well; I really do.

Good moanin' - But if I won the lottery, and wanted to redeem my high-school muscle-car dreams with a 2010 model, a hot contender would be the Dodge Challenger SRT8 6.1. In either Hemi Orange (shown) or Detonator Yellow.

(And yes, I know exactly what a 6.1-liter Hemi engine would do to the environment, and how much I should be choosing some plain-vanilla hybrid. And yes, I know that I'd probably have my license for about, oh, 8 minutes with a 6.1 under the hood. Blah blah blah. It's MY dream, and I'll dream what I want to. I may be gettin' old, but I still have what the Top Gun boys called "the NEED for SPEED.")

Jus' moanin' - but the bottom line is that given the current jobs environment, I will be pretty unlikely to purchase any car except the ones with the "Hyundai Assurance Plan."

Good moanin' - After a long absence from reading non-fiction about faith, I have three titles on my desk: Bulletproof Faith by Candace Chellew-Hodge, A New Kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren, and Losing Your Religion, Finding Your Faith by Brett Hoover. I've found good bits in the early going on all three.

- But I have to admit that I learned a lot of what I'm seeing in Hoover's book 15 years ago from Jesus for A New Generation by Kevin Ford, which I still believe ought to be required reading for all seminarians and people involved in ministry.

Jus' moanin' - and I'm not sure how much I'm really called to finish these books, to be honest. I find the ideas in each book interesting, but I am so post-church-and-denominations that I could almost hurl at the thought of getting-back-into-it. When it comes to organized religion, I have become the "Anti-Tareyton Man" - I'd much rather switch than fight.

Good moanin' - I love our church; I really do. But whenever I hear my recording of Marty Haugen's Holden Evening Prayer, my eyes tear up, and I am transported to a more naive, simpler time when I was surrounded by friends and family in a beautiful, simple worship service. I want to hear my friend Natalie playing the piano, I want to hear "Friends of Faith" leading the service, and I so very much wish I had a DeLorean with a flux capacitor. Not to stay, of course - but it would be so very cool to visit.

That's all for now. Let's all be careful out there, and try to play nice with each other. I'll try to do the same.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Changes in the air

Taking a moment to reflect on some interesting - and challenging - events out here in the slushy, mushy tundra of the Big Ten College Town in the Cornfields...

One of fun trips we allow ourselves is a trip to Indianapolis each year to see the AMA/FIM Supercross (indoor motorcycle dirt-track) races. Yes, I know, you'd never peg me for a motorcycle-racing guy - but it's a good time. The racing is the one "sport" I get enthused about, and it's something that Chris introduced me to that I really "get." The race is held at the reasonably-new Lucas Oil Stadium, downtown Indy, which is a really nice venue.

The racing has been particularly fun this year because the two "big-name" racers, James Stewart and Chad Reed, are both out with injuries. Without adding to the drama between these two, I would just say that the racing has been much more exciting without either of them - and it wouldn't bother me a bit if neither of them came back this season. A lot of younger racers have had a lot more chances to shine without them, and to be honest, it's much more exciting to me.

I could get into the other "dramas" - especially related to perennial bad-boy Jason Lawrence - but I put this kind of crap in the same category with People magazine and Fox News: "sound and fury, signifying nothing." The race was fun, with lots of switch-ups and battles going on.

The big stories, for us, came afterwards. Chris is a small-town guy, and had never seen homeless people as up-close as we did walking from the car to the stadium. Men and women, sleeping on the sidewalks under the railroad overpasses - it un-nerved him to see them that up-close. Chris had been less than happy about the way his week at work had gone - but he was a lot more grateful as we went home than he'd been in a while. Travel does open one's eyes...

I'd told Chris I wanted to stay overnight in Indy because I'd wanted to visit Jesus Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) on the east side of town. Their pastor, Jeff Miner, had written The Children Are Free: Re-examining the Biblical Evidence on Same-sex Relationships, and had appeared on the Gay Christian Network's "GCN Radio" program. His book had been the first one to discuss the possibility that how I'd been reading the Bible regarding same-sex relationships might be off-base (long before I had a same-sex relationship, I should add), and I really wanted to see what JMCC was like.

So off we went - stopping at Hubbard & Cravens coffee-shop on Carrollton first. We got to the church, and were greeted by two people, welcomed, handed two "visitor bags," and pointed toward the refreshments and the sanctuary. Can you guess what happened next?


Absolutely nothing.

Now, I know - two gay men at an MCC church (made-up primarily of GLBT members) is not a rarity. But two people - regardless of gender or orientation - at a church carrying "visitor bags" should be a red-flag (or at least bright-orange) for a church to welcome the strangers in their midst. Yet not a single person welcomed us, introduced themselves, or acknowledged that we existed. We went through the service, and except for the prayers said over us by the person giving us communion (which I have always loved about the MCC), we remain untouched until the service end.

Pastor Miner was standing at the door at the end of the service, and I introduced myself and thanked him for The Children Are Free. When he was done greeting worshipers, he showed me the other resources JMCC had available. But other than the greeter and the pastor, not a single member of the church noted our presence.

I enjoyed the music (a blend of praise choruses and traditional hymns), and the sermon from their clergy intern. But the welcome at our home church (McKinley Presbyterian) 10 months ago has evidently spoiled us for life at other churches. We felt more welcome, and more joy at our presence, from McKinley in the first ten minutes we were there than we felt at this nearly-all-GLBT church during our whole visit. I'm glad we went (I got a couple great books from their resource area). But I don't think we'll be missing a Sunday "at home" to attend there again.

There were a couple of Taize' songs (which Chris recognized from McKinley) being sung that morning. I had the chance on the way home to explain more about Taize' and their tradition of meditative worship music, which Chris had been unfamiliar with before then. I have warm memories of Taize' singing, or our best approximation of it, from my "Friends of Faith" days in Kansas, and find it to be a great comfort to me.

It's funny, but having been (at one time) a big proponent of praise music, I've found some of the so-called "praise choruses" I've experienced lately to be quite empty, at times. Being a heretic, I find singing "You're WORTHY" repeatedly (OK, seemingly unendingly) to be one of the ultimate redundancies in the known universe. After all, folks, if God's not "worthy," we're pretty much screwed, aren't we?...

There's a lot more to talk about on that topic, but I won't digress much more for now.

I have been reflecting a lot about items of faith and recovery - about Lent and how twisted (or enabling) Lenten practices can be; about the supposed divide between spirituality and religion; about what makes "a church"; about calling and being called. Lots to write, lots to share. But for now, off to a meeting, dinner, and back to work, sadly. Peace for now.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Finding answers

We are expecting the next "great wave" of snowfall here in central Illinois - generally, two-to-four inches of the white stuff can medium-paralyze The Big-Ten-College-Town-On-The-Prairie. So we are stocked up with enough groceries that we will survive, well-fed, for a while. Actually, I'm pretty sure we have enough food for Thanksgiving dinner for 12, if we only had enough places for them to sit.

I've been ignoring several questions, and using pretty typical practices to avoid asking myself what's going on. My first choice, of course, is over-work; my employer has come to expect that one, sadly. My second is obsessing over TV shows - NCIS is the current drug-of-choice, followed by Stargate SG-1 and I can fill in any leftover space in my life with Food Network programs (don't even get me started there).

We added a couple extra distractions last Monday - meet Blackie and SuzieQ:

I had not had a cat since getting divorced and getting sober in 1990. Chris has always been around animals, and his mom has had cats forever. But since moving out, he's never had a cat of his own. And I'd been thinking that since things seemed to be "settling down" (at least a little), it would be great to get back-in-the-saddle with a cat (note the singular usage of the noun...).

We visited the Champaign County Humane Society several times - lots of close calls but no final sale. I had my eye on a couple part-Maine-Coons, but I was also partial to a couple orange tabbies Chris was fond of. But this one was an outside cat, and Chris wanted an inside cat. That one had all four claws, and we both really wanted front-declawed cats. So we went round and round, until the shelter folks introduced us to these two.

They were older (7 years each), and had been together since they'd been kittens. The previous owner had to surrender them when they entered a nursing home, and the shelter folks were looking to place them in a new home together. They put us in a "get-acquainted" room with the two of them - and that pretty much was the end of that. Not what we went looking for; certainly not what we expected. But that's been the story of our lives since we met....

So it's easy to see that between the cats and Netflix and Facebook and whatever was next, I was doing a good job at avoiding something. It took a friend in recovery to comment on his own avoidance activities - and referring to them as drunk thinking - that got me wondering: what is the deal here?...

Yesterday's church service triggered at least part of it. As part of our stewardship drive, folks from church were doing video vignettes of members, asking them why they came to McKinley Presbyterian, why we stayed, and what the future held for the church. Chris agreed to be part ("...but only if YOU do all the talking..."), and a friend taped a couple-minute segment of us.

I said that we had come to McKinley because we'd heard that we'd be accepted and welcomed, just as we were - and we stayed partly because we found welcome and acceptance beyond our imagination. But we mostly stayed because of the variety of worship experiences and the congregation's commitment to social-justice work in our community and the world.

Frankly, I didn't think they'd use our segment - but when it showed up as part of Sunday's segment, I got several comments about how as a relative newcomer to McKinley, I'd managed to capture much of the heart of this congregation.

That's when the lights started to come on, and I started thinking, "I still have more to say..." Not just about McKinley, but on a number of topics. I think part of what I've been willing to call "seasonal malaise" is at least partly brain gridlock - too much stuff in my head left unexamined, un-shared and un-purged. I will never have a pulpit to share from - other than the occasional speaking at AA meetings. But that doesn't mean I shouldn't at least be emptying my mind of some of the racing thoughts...

So I'm here, and this is a start. Or re-start.

Note to self: more things to consider:

- Daring to dream, again
- Things that don't change, don't change
- "Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem" and Christian music
- Once again, storytelling

For now, it's time to make some coffee and get into this day. Happy Monday.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

A disciplined return

I found this in my inbox recently...a clear image of how connected I am, and how ripples in my life are detected by others...

Can't sleep. Up browsing.
It seems you haven't posted on the ragamuffin blog for a l.o.n.g. time.
Are you okay?
Are you blogging elsewhere?
Are you done blogging?

Perhaps none of it is any of my business.
I miss your words. your thoughts. you.
Still pondering deeply and praying for understanding.
Saying a prayer for you also tonight.

Love from Kansas.


Thank you for the wake-up call, Deb...and Michael...and others.

Yes, I am okay, overall - though it has been a bit of a roller-coaster. No, I am not blogging elsewhere. I did allow myself to get sucked into the catch-up-with-the-world-of-the-past of Facebook, for a bit, and I allowed myself to get wrapped up in the stuff of life for a bit. I have also been somewhat annoyed by technological issues - my 2002 PC has been dying a slow death, and I'd been trying to nurse it along. But all these things are just contributing factors.

Am I done blogging? That has been the big question that I think I've been avoiding over the last two or three months. I confess that there have been a number of "what's it all about, Alfie?" moments scattered over the last four or even six months. I wondered if I really had anything to share, anything new or worthwhile.

I found, in some introspection, that I had once again succumbed to an old, old character defect - being concerned about what other people thought, rather than just voicing my belief or conviction. That concern for the opinion of others, combined with my natural conflict-averse personality, made it more comfortable for me to simply withdraw.

I found, however, that my failure to write, even about the most mundane thing, hasn't necessarily freed me from anything, but seemed to have left me in some kind of spiritual sloth - not wanting to do much of anything. It hasn't helped, to be honest.

So I am going to work toward posting more regularly - catching up on some of the events of life over the last three months or so. And I'm making an effort to be more "present" in the community of friends.

There are more than a few topics to consider...

- Six months in a strange new land
- It's not perfect, but it's home - joining a church
- Hitting the "hide" button on Facebook
- If the phone ain't ringin', I know who it is
- Going back to roots of faith
- Is it worth arguing?
- Running from "the faithful"

And for those who sent the "where have you been" messages (and especially to Debby, whose message I quoted at the beginning), thank you.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Fall reflections...

It's October 1 - plenty of changes in the fall air...

A little known fact about me is that I have had an oldish Oscar Schmidt autoharp in my closet for about a decade. It's had a couple buzzing keys, and it was a pain in the nether-regions to tune (there are thirty-six strings to tune!), so other than using it for a couple of kids' sermons in the 1999-2001 period, I never really pulled it out much.

But something stirred in me when I found out about the Champaign-Urbana Folk & Roots Festival, and the fact that a couple ladies were going to be doing an intro-to-autoharp session. I also was astounded to find out that fully chromatic tuners are available pretty cheaply (thus easing the whole tuning-nightmare issue). They are basically a pocket-sized electronic gauge that shows whether a given note is sharp or flat). You pluck C-sharp, and if it's flat, the little red "flat" light shows, and a dial shows how far off you are. If it's flat enough, it shows up as C; you tune it up, it switches to C#. They've had them for guitars for years - but I'd never known they had them fully-chromatic for instruments like the autoharp. Pretty damn amazing....

It also turns out one of the ladies doing the workshop is actually involved in recovery in a nearby town, so we have a double connection. She's quite an enthusiast, and renewed a long-submerged desire to sing and play. She is also experienced in autoharp maintenance and repair - so she should be able to help me fix my buzzing keys. So I'm pretty excited about getting back into some kind of folk music again.

There was also a session by the C/U Storytelling Guild - a dozen or so folks doing storytelling in the area. This is another area that I'd never thought I'd get back into - frankly, I never was that good at it, especially since a large portion of the stories I told had been lifted from other tellers. But their story examples gave me some inspiration - so we'll see. I'm good when it comes to starting stuff - not so hot about follow-through...

This weekend is the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN. I remember being appalled at how the weekend price had grown from $60-70 to $160 a person (and then reflected that I'd spent $50 a ticket to go to a Supercross race in Indianapolis, which was basically only 8 hours). So my attitude about Jonesborough has changed - although it probably won't happen next year, either - our travel budget will be stretched anyway because of the AA 75th-anniversary international conference in San Antonio next July.

I'd like to try it out on Chris at a couple smaller festivals first - I heard that the Fox Valley Folk Music and Storytelling Festival is a pretty good festival in the western Chicago suburbs (Geneva, IL) over Labor Day weekend. (I'm kicking myself about not knowing about the 2009 FV festival - Pete Seeger's sister, Peggy Seeger, did a workshop there!).

This weekend was also saying farewell to Chris' Yamaha WR426 enduro/dirt bike. We had tried a number of different riding areas, trying to get Chris up-to-snuff to get back into amateur motocross again, but Chris never really felt comfortable enough to do the kind of riding he needed to do. And any riding area for enduro/woods riding were an hour east, or two hours west. So he put it up for sale - and after a dozen false leads (including a couple different scams, and an offer to trade it for a set of AR-15 assault rifles!) he finally found a buyer from Chicago who came down to get it on Sunday.

Sunday night, seeing the dirt-bike riding away on someone else's trailer, was kind of a melancholy evening for Chris. For quite a while, he'd had the dream of winning one more race, even in the "seniors division," so this was a little bit of an end-of-the-era for him. But he's much more comfortable on his mountain bike (bicycle, not motorcycle), and he enjoys the exercise on that so much more. So he'll continue to do that at nearby Kickapoo State Park, and do some road-rides out in the corn-n-beans around Urbana.

And we had to postpone our trip to Kansas - we had put off getting our motel rooms to stay, not aware that this weekend is NASCAR weekend in the KC area. Every motel room in the area - even as far away as Liberty, MO - had their prices doubled. And while I love the folks in KC, the idea of paying $106 a night for a Motel 6 (!) was more than I could handle. So we've rescheduled for Oct 16-18, and will look forward to seeing folks then.

For now, I need to get things wrapped up at work, and get ready to have an enjoyable weekend. And, perhaps, more than one post a month here in the blogging world...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Something fun...

Is it me, or do you see the resemblance?

Left, Assembly Hall at the Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Right, the Jupiter 2, from the original Lost In Space.

I keep expecting to see Zachary Harris and The Robot rolling out of Assembly Hall each time I drive by....

Monday, September 14, 2009

Thoughts from "Peace and Justice Sunday"

Mr. Kissinger, as the Church, our job is to ensure that justice flows down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream; and, your job as the State is to irrigate the fields. (William Sloane Coffin, on Amos 5:24)

Back in the '60s, two school reformers wrote a book in which they defined education as the fine art of "crap detection." That's not a bad way to describe good theology. (Rev. Dick Watts)

On Sunday, I heard one of the best-ever Christian responses to the current economic crisis and the resulting bailouts. For McKinley's Peace and Justice Sunday, the entire service was devoted to calls for justice in our world, including music by Stephen Foster and Pete Seeger and an incredibly powerful sermon by Rev. Richard (Dick) Watts. His fifty years in ministry and social justice have given him an incredible vision to some of the roots-of-sin in this financial and economic melt-down. He put into words what I have felt in my heart but have not been able to coherently express.

I have posted the full text of his sermon at the bottom of this post. The core of it was pointing out the sins of idolatry, greed, and pride in our culture. Those sins have led to deifying the preservation-of-net-worth of a few, on the backs of those who can least afford to do it. Many of us who represent the Church - those who claim to follow Christ - have stood silently by as the market has been declared our economic Higher Power, have watched as the protections of bank regulation (which were put in place to preserve the-least-of-these) were dismantled in service to that idol, and then watched as those who created the crisis have been bailed out, floating high on the corpses of those who have been devastated by the flood.

There have been a few voices in the wilderness, to be sure. But in large measure, the voice of the Church has been silent.

I agree with Dick Watts wholeheartedly. It seems that Unending Profit has become our Pyramid, and far too many of us has been enslaved to build it by the Pharaohs of Commerce - with no regard to who suffers or dies in the meantime.

Let me just ask you folks - have you heard any of this from Focus On The Family? David Jeremiah? Or any of the other well-known preaching voices? I've checked the websites of several of the ELCA mega-churches (including some of those who have planned to leave the ELCA over that other topic). Denouncing the sins of the wealthy and powerful few in this country (and their roles in devastating our collective wealth) are strangely missing from the list of sermon topics. (If I'm wrong, I will gladly retract...but I'm not finding it.)

Much like in World War II, when many in the Church establishment turned a blind eye to Hitler, I think the Church universal has turned a blind eye to the powers and principalities of this age. And I think that it's going to be to the lasting shame of the Church - because this Jesus person that so many of us claim to follow has clearly told us to do otherwise.

He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matthew 25:45-46, NIV)

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil,
who put darkness for light and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.

(Isaiah 5:20, NIV)

Who will sound the trumpets, if we will not?

- - -
[The text of Reverend Dr. Watt's sermon follows:]

"Shocked!" – A Theological Perspective
On Our Economic Meltdown

Yahweh says: Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am Yahweh who practice steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I delight, Yahweh says. (Jeremiah 9:23-24)

You might well feel that a sermon about our economic meltdown is like warming up last Sunday's meatloaf for today’s dinner – isn't healthcare reform today’s big issue? – though I'll suggest later why it's more than a leftover. Or you may be asking other questions: "What are your credentials, Dick, for talking about economics?" "Why bring into worship about what we can hear about on the evening news?" "What can a 'theological perspective' mean to a 'secular' subject like economics?" Good questions - so let me say a few things by way of introduction.

First, I promise that this won't be a lecture on credit default swaps, derivatives, collateralized debt obligations, sub-prime mortgages, bank bailouts or Detroit bankruptcies.

Second, I make no pretense to be an expert in economics - though I've noticed that the track record of such "experts" hasn't inspired much trust lately. I have, however, been doing my homework, because I take very seriously Reinhold Niebuhr's warning that "consecrated ignorance is still ignorance."

Third, I believe that for democracy to flourish, we cannot simply hand over our fate to pundits and politicians. Just as war is too serious to be left to generals, the economy is too important to be left to "the powers that be." We are all obliged to reflect and to speak out on matters that affect our common life.

Fourth, "theology" is not just about "churchy" things. Someone has rightly said that "Christianity is not a way of looking at certain things, but a certain way of looking at all things" – and that includes politics and economics. I realize that when we talk in church about our core values - reverence, integrity, generosity, compassion, kindness, and the like - we are tempted to limit them to our personal life and close relationships. That's understandable enough, since the personal sphere is one over which we have substantially more control than the public arena. But to be Christian is to be heirs of a story that also focuses on social sins and virtues – from the liberation of an economic underclass in Egypt to Micah's denunciation of the unjust rich, from Jesus' sovereign indifference to imperial power to Paul's subversion of ethnic loyalties. When we reflect on personal issues only and let the wider society go merrily on its own way, we do only half our job as the church.

And so we can't leave it to Fox News or The New York Times – or even Tim Geithner and President Obama - to tell us how to think about the economic mess our country is struggling through. As church, we have not only the right, but the duty, to ask what light our religious tradition can shed on our predicament. And the name of such reflection is "theology."

Where, then, should we begin. With David Brooks, perhaps, a conservative pundit who titled a recent column "Greed and Stupidity?" Or the review of a book about the meltdown, a review titled "Greed layered on greed, frosted with recklessness?" Well, greed and recklessness, certainly, along with corporate arrogance and congressional collusion. But I want to begin at a more basic level yet. And I want to get at it by calling your attention to an amazing event that occurred last October when the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, appeared before a Congressional committee.

No one has had a more central role in American economic life for the past quarter century than Alan Greenspan, appointed to that post by Ronald Reagan, continuing for 18 years under presidencies both Republican and Democrat. A true believer in the Reagan philosophy that "Government isn't the answer; government is the problem," a staunch foe of regulation, he was supremely confident in the wisdom and virtue of Wall Street. But now his faith was shaken.
"Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity – myself especially – are in a state of shocked disbelief." [This failure at self-regulation was] "a flaw in the model that I perceived as the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works."
He had lost faith in what he saw as "the critical [model] that defines how the world works." As one critic commented, "that's a hell of a big thing to find a flaw in." "Shocked!" – shocked to discover that the titans of finance put self-interest ahead of the common good. And we Christians are often called "naïve"!

The dogma that has defined U.S. economic policy for the last quarter century – that the Market is god, and will ceaselessly bless us as long as we keep it free from the sin of government regulation – has proved to be a false faith. Congress had for nearly two decades treated Greenspan as beyond question or contradiction, as he said "No" to almost every attempt at financial regulation. He was consulted like the Delphic oracle - in fact, his nickname was "the Oracle" – and of course an oracle is one who brings messages from the gods. That's why I believe that our present peril is the end result of bad theology, of what the Bible calls idolatry. When you hear that word, don't think simply of an ancient temptation to bow before an image of Baal or Asherah. Idolatry means giving to any human being, ideology, or system, an ultimacy that it does not deserve. Alan Greenspan was in "shocked disbelief," but no Christian should have been. For we have always known that the human mind is a factory for the making of idols, that we are all prone to cloak our self-interest in the garb of divinity. Greenspan's testimony was about one more god that failed.

People of wealth and power have done their best to persuade us that our economic system is part of the natural order of things, like gravity or the speed of light. But that is a lie, and has always been a lie. When we hear hymns to the "magic of the marketplace," we need to remember that magicians deal in illusion. Human beings create economic policy, and those who manipulate it for their own benefit are always eager to baptize it with the holy water of natural law. Like the banker who recently consoled a wage earner being thrown out of his home, with "Nothing personal. It's just the market."

No it isn't. The financial movers and shakers want to talk about our crisis as a financial "tsunami," that is, a force of nature no one could either see coming or do anything about. Wrong. The current mess cannot be blamed on an "invisible hand" directing market forces, but on quite deliberate human efforts to rig the rules for the benefit of a tiny elite. I won't bore you with too many statistics, but I do want to remind you of how far we've moved toward plutocracy. In 1981, the ten most highly paid CEOs had an annual salary of $3.5 million. By 1988, their average salary was over $19 million. In 2000, it was $154 million. By 2007, the fifty highest paid investment fund managers averaged $588 million per year – 19,000 times the pay of the average worker. All this was regarded as a positive good: let wealth accumulate at the top, and its benefits would "trickle down" to the bottom. A New Yorker cartoon got closer to the truth, I think. Two business tycoons are sitting in their overstuffed chairs at the Club. "And I say," argues one, "if there’s a trickle down, there must be a leak somewhere!"

So how did we get here? For starters, Congress tossed aside a regulation born out of the Great Depression, that kept banks from also becoming investment houses and insurance companies, thus encouraging them to take new risks with other people’s money. In 2000, Congress passed and President Clinton signed a bill exempting from most oversight those Byzantine new instruments called derivatives – gambling that houses and everything else would keep increasing in value, and they'd never have to pay their gambling debts. Regulators fell asleep at the switch, leaving to agencies like Moody's and Standard & Poor's the rating of financial offerings, ratings on the integrity of which investors depended. But when Congress looked into the email files of Standard & Poor's, they found one staff member writing, "...that deal is ridiculous. We should not be rating it." To which his colleague replied, "We rate every deal. It could be structured by cows and we would rate it."

Analysts and forecasters caught the exuberance; in a column called "Confessions of a pundit," one of them wrote, "While I have always said what I believe, what I believe sometimes has been subtly shaped by who pays the bills." In the case of the rating agencies, there was nothing subtle about it - they were being paid by the very firms whose offerings they were rating. And it's not true that no one knew what was happening: six years ago Warren Buffett warned of the new "financial weapons of mass destruction." The cost to us all of this wild excess? Well, consider the Wall Street bailout alone - $700 billion. To picture that, said an article in the International Herald Tribune, imagine counting to 700 billion, one number per second: it will take you 21,000 years.

But now it's all over, right? Well, not quite. Not for the millions out of work, or who have lost their homes, or have seen "retirement" savings go up in smoke. And now the financial industry is waging a full-court press in Washington to nip new regulations in the bud. From 2007 to 2008, securities and investment concerns gave $152 million in political contributions to move that "invisible hand" along in their direction, and in the same period the top five firms – companies like Citigroup and J.P. Morgan Chase – spent some $215 million on lobbying activities. Just a few weeks ago a frustrated Senator Dick Durbin lashed out: "And the banks – hard to believe in a time when we're facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created – are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place." Yesterday's headline in The New York Times read: "A Year After A Cataclysm, Little Change on Wall St. – Progress Is Slow on Regulatory Overhaul, Posing Risk of Even Bigger Crisis."

From a Christian theological perspective, have we anything to say about the way forward? During the Vietnam War Bill Coffin confronted Henry Kissinger, who asked, "What do you want me to do?" "Our job," replied Coffin, is to say 'let justice roll down like waters.' Yours is to build the irrigation system." He was right, of course: it's not possible to draw a straight line from a critique of idolatry to particular public policies. Nothing in our tradition can tell us, for example, whether a given "stimulus package" is too little or too much, whether federal dollars are better spent on mass transit than on solar energy, whether ethanol production costs more in food prices than it saves in greenhouse gas emissions. These are all prudential human judgments, on which people of integrity may differ. As Thomas Jefferson said, "Not every difference of opinion is a difference of principle." But I believe that we can offer some help in the designing of the "irrigation system" - we do have some principles to guide us through the thicket of policy options.

First, no social entity should be trusted to regulate itself, since we all have an infinite capacity to rationalize our self-interest. That is what sin means. Second, any corporate entity "too big to fail" is too big, period, and should be broken up, so that it cannot hold the wider society hostage to its needs or demands. Third, the purpose of economic policy is to promote the common good, not the enrichment of the few, and government exists, among other reasons, to make sure the rules of the game are fair. Adam Smith, whose Wealth of Nations has been the market's Bible, wrote of government that "when the in support of the workman, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the master." Advocating for these principles is a part of our calling individually as Christians, and corporately as church.

Is there no good news to be told today? Of course there is, because there are always people who do the best things in the worst times. I think of the business owners and workers who slashed their own earnings and hours so as to avoid having to lay off any of their colleagues. Or the MBA graduates of Harvard Business School, who took a voluntary oath "to serve the greater good," to bring a moral dimension back into their besmirched vocation. Or the group calling itself "Wealth for the Common Good" – people with incomes over $235,000 a year – urging Congress to repeal the Bush-era tax cuts immediately, because, they say, having profited from the boom years, "Now is the time to give back." You will know of other such stories.

But I make no apology today for focusing on analysis. Back in the '60s, two school reformers wrote a book in which they defined education as the fine art of "crap detection." That's not a bad way to describe good theology. Because we know what the primal sin is – the Greeks called it hubris, the Bible calls it idolatry, theologians call it pride – our antennae are sensitive to the perennial human attempt to mask self-interest in noble language, to take some relative good, whether religious, political or economic, and make it absolute. I believe that we have no greater contribution to make to our society than to unmask such pretension. Alan Greenspan may be shocked to discover that gambling has been going on in the casino, but we are not. John Gardner long ago called us to be "loving critics" of our institutions. We can help our fellow citizens to see our current crisis for what it is: the inevitable result of putting trust in a false god.

And then perhaps we may move together toward a new economic model - more humble and realistic, less driven by the interests of the few, more oriented toward justice and the common good.

A Reflection by Richard G. Watts, D.Min.
McKinley Memorial Presbyterian Church
Champaign, Illinois
September 13, 2009

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Just something to consider...

Someone to need you too much
Someone to know you too well
Someone to pull you up short
And put you through hell
And give you support
For being alive...

(Stephen Sondheim, "Being Alive," from Company)

It was 8:10 PM Saturday, well after dark, as I drove through our development towards home. And as I came up to our duplex, my heart sank and panic set it.

It was after dark, and Chris hadn't made it home.

My mind started racing. Chris had left at 6:20 PM to go for a short hour's ride on his bicycle. His black road bike. When I saw him leave, he was dressed in an orange biking shirt and black shorts, and he was only going to be gone for an hour - because he knew sunset would be at 7:30. He went on his way; I went off to Office Depot to get some supplies, and then off to Godfathers Pizza for our typical motocross-watching feast (a large sausage pizza).

The plan was that I'd meet him back at the duplex at around 7:30. But they messed our order up (mushrooms - ick), and so I waited while made us a new one. I called and left him a message on his cell, but figured he was showering after his ride. No big deal.

But then I came home, and Chris wasn't there. And I panicked.

You see, Chris has been riding bikes a long time. And he knew not to ride bikes after dark - especially since his bike didn't have a front or rear light. And yet, his truck was here, his bike was gone and so was he - and it was after dark. That could only mean trouble.

I did the first sensible thing - called his cell. No answer. Called again - two-calls-in-a-row is our signal for "trouble - pick up." I left the inevitable "call me AS SOON as you get this!" demandment, then hung up - and started to pray for direction. Because if he was (by then) 50 minutes overdue, and not responding, I knew he had to be really in trouble.

So I picked up and pressed the three hardest numbers to dial when you're thinking about a loved one - "9-1-1" - and waited. I told the 911 voice that my housemate was out on a bicycle in the fields between Urbana and Rantoul, uncharacteristically overdue, and unresponsive. "Have there been any... reports of trouble ... involving a bicyclist in this area in the last hour? ..." I forced out.

"We haven't had any reports of any accidents or incidents regarding a bicycle anywhere in the area in the last two hours, sir," the 911 operator said. His tone of voice was meant to be calming, conveying that "I'm sure this is nothing to be worried about" message.

But the voices in my head weren't hearing it. Instead, they were screaming, "Well, then - send your people OUT there and FIND him, for God's sake! He's NEVER late without calling, EVER! He's already been hit once on a bicycle, two years ago, and left for dead in a ditch! Don't you understand?!? This is Chris, the man I LOVE we're talking about here!"

Instead, the one shred of level-headedness still resident in my brain said, "I'll try retracing his route - I'll call back if I need to," thanked the man and hung up.

About thirty-five voices in my head started shouting all at once; if they were strung all together, it would've sounded something like this:
Are you over-reacting?
Of course I'm not over-reacting, you moron! HE KNOWS better than this.
Wouldn't he call if he was in trouble?
But what if he can't call?!? What if he's lying in some ditch, with his cell phone underwater, or smashed?
What if he's unconscious, or worse?
Dear God, you can't just have brought this guy INTO my life and dragged us clear to ILLINOIS, of all places, just to have you take him back OUT of my life, could you?
And what the HELL am I doing, still standing here listening to myself blithering, for God's sake?
With that I left a note that said "GONE TO FIND YOU - IF YOU GET THIS, CALL ME IMMEDIATELY!" and raced out the door.

I had my hand on the door-handle of his pickup when the phone rang. When I saw it was Chris' caller-ID, I shouted "OH THANK YOU, JESUS!" then punched the answer-button and yelled "WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU?!?"

Ten-minutes-that-seemed-like-an-hour later, when he pedaled his way up to the garage, I gave him a minute to dismount and catch his breath before I grabbed him and hugged him. Hugged him and gave thanks to God that he was back with me and safe.

It took a minute before I let him start to describe what had happened - one wrong turn and then another; listening to that silly voice that says, "Oh, no problem, I can handle this;" and a desperately bad estimate of how fast the sun would set - and more than a little panic on his part as well. I could see how it could happen - how I could have been in the very same place myself...

So we ate some lukewarm pizza, and talked about how the first sign of trouble for either of us should trigger the "E.T. syndrome" - phone home - and how the bike will not go back out on the road without marker-lights fore and aft. All was forgiven, all was comforted, and smoothed over with three hours of motocross racing, courtesy of the Speed Channel. And I drifted off to sleep with prayers of thanks for the safe return of the man I love.

Now normally, I wouldn't even bother to share this. After all, it was just an hour of drama in the otherwise boring life of two reasonably contented, average men. However, in the aftermath of the comments around the ELCA's vote about same-sex partnered clergy, I needed to give this testimony...

You see, I've known for a quite a while now how much I love Chris, and how much he loves me. Not "lusts after," not "desireth the same flesh," but love. Real love. There is a lot more agape and filios than there ever was of eros, folks.

I am reasonably certain that if the spouse of any married person reading this would turn up inexplicably missing, their thoughts might well parallel those I've described. Even the possibility of living without the love of your life would be no more tolerable to you and yours than it was for me and mine.

If I were feeling theological, I would say that your relationship and mine are homoousios - of the same substance and essence. Not homoi ousios (similar in nature), but homo (which has to be some kind of cosmic pun). Same ingredients, same stuff. Love, commitment, affection, interdependence.

I believe that the taboos that the ELCA has called its churches to reconsider regarding men like Chris and I are no less challenging than those that the apostle Peter faced in Acts 10. It was absolutely unlawful for Peter to even TALK to those Gentiles; yet he heard the call to share the Good News with them. And then made the Spirit-led decision to baptize them into the fellowship of the Spirit!

They got over it; they got past it. Why is it so hard for us to do the same?

How terribly different is it for the Church to see us? The Gentiles were outcast, despised, against the moral standards and sinful in the eyes of The Church at the time. And yet, in so many ways, the Gentiles were not so different. And in the end, they heard the Word from Peter, and the Spirit moved.

Am I so different than you? I love my partner as you do yours. I am committed to be faithful to him, just as you are committed to be faithful to yours. Perhaps more committed – because there is plenty of social and religious pressure for me to abandon this man, and forsake this relationship. And yet I can’t even consider it. For half an hour, I stared into the abyss and had to consider what life without this man might be – and I couldn’t face it.

My faith has not changed; my hunger to reach those who need Christ has not changed. It has, in fact, sharpened – because I see the spiritual wounding in the gay/lesbian community that has separated so many people from the faith communities of their families and loved ones. I am the same man who stood in a church and Overland Park, Kansas and wept at the memorial service for my faith mentor and pastor. I am the same man whom faithful, praying saints of the church urged to pursue leadership in the church.

In many ways, I have little vested interest in what happens to the ELCA – after all, they rejected me, and the gifts I offered five years ago (including, I might add, a willing commitment to celibate ministry). So if others reject the ELCA, there’s an icky little part of me that doesn’t feel all that bad.

But I guess I have to ask those of you who plan to leave the ELCA: are you sure - I mean, really, really certain – that what Chris and I represent is enough to sunder the unity of The Church Universal that I’ve heard you preach about for years? Are you really, really sure that this is the absolute, number-one, sheep-and-goats issue that you need to divide the church over?

To be honest, I don’t even need to know the answers – I’m way past that point. I just had to ask the questions. Regardless which path get taken, I wish everyone involved well.

As for me, I have already said the words I have heard at so many ceremonies before:
But Ruth replied, "Don't urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. (Ruth 1:16, NIV)
Here I stand ... I can do no other.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

A place of healing, a place of hope

Oh, there's nothing as sweet as fellowship
As we share each other’s hearts...
Sweet, sweet fellowship...

- the group Acappella

It's been a long, long time since I could say that about a church. Thanks be to God, I can say it today.

For the last four years, I have been waging a 3-sided internal battle. On one side, I've been wanting to again be a part of a fellowship of Christian believers. On another side, I've not wanted to go any place where I am not wanted (having become an "I'd rather switch than fight" kind of fellow). And on yet another side, I've not wanted to end up the one round peg in a set of otherwise square pegs.

In my search, I found churches where I could be active, but closeted; I found churches where I could be out, but the theology was way too watered down. And I found churches who were accepting of anyone, because they were just desperate for live bodies - anyone with a pulse was welcome as long as they were willing to pitch in.

Then for the last year, Chris was working until midnights on Saturday and then he was working again on Sunday afternoons. I was simply too jealous of our one-morning-a-week-to-sleep-in to give it away looking for a potential church home, so the idea sat on hold.

Then the move to Champaign came, and we were both finally on the same Monday/Friday schedule. Once we got settled in, I went to the GCN "Welcoming Churches" website, and instantly one church stood out among the rest. Their website, the person we talked to on the phone, everything about them shouted "welcome."

What sold us both was the welcome, and the worship...

We came in the door, and someone immediately welcomed us with a cheery “Hi, have you been here before?” When I introduced myself "and my partner Chris,” the response was “We’re SO glad to have you here!...” We were ushered into the sanctuary and plied with coffee, banana-nut bread, and then led over to see the church's beautiful stained-glass windows. Specifically, the newest one… this one:

If you note, the top of the window has the pink-triangle that was both a symbol of shame in World War II as well as the symbol of the early gay community. Below it are rainbows, symbols of the GLBT community from the 70's until the current day. There is red-ribbon which is the reminder of HIV/AIDS sufferers world-wide, and the heart with tongues of flame symbolizing the presence of the Spirit resident in the hearts of believers. The peaceful, pastoral scenes symbolize a place of peace and rest, while the hands of the community supporting the clasped hands of two men and two women symbolized the support this church wanted to give the GLBT community. (You can see it more clearly over here...)

Down at the bottom, there are two scriptures - I don't remember the first, but the second is Galatians 3:28 - "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

The lady who greeted us told us proudly that to the best of her knowledge, this is the only GLBT-affirming stained-glass window in a church the US. (I'm sure it's the only one in a Presbyterian church in America.) The bottom line, she said, was that this church wanted us (and people like us) to feel welcomed and affirmed.

It was all I could do not to weep tears of joy....that anyone would make a commitment in the very structure of the sanctuary to share that message. How could we not feel at home?

This next item will sound ridiculous and trivial, but it's worth mentioning, especially to my Lutheran friends. I've been in churches which fought tooth-and-nail about having coffee in the sanctuary, or even in the narthex. Not this congregation...they have no narthex to speak of, so when the church was being remodeled, they put nooks on both sides of the back of the sanctuary, for coffee-pots and coffee-mug racks (no styrofoam cups here; this congregation believes that "being good stewards of the earth" means not filling up landfills!). A group of members provide fresh baked goods to go with the coffee every Sunday, and it's just expected that responsible people will (a) take their coffee and sweets to their pew, (b) clean up after themselves, and (c) wash their own mugs afterwards! And a stone sanctuary floor means no carpet to get stained...

The church was built in 1911. Back 15 years ago, the massive roof beams were found to have some sort of rot problems, and the church was all but condemned to be bulldozed. A way was found to re-strengthen the beams with some hardening resin, and the church interior was remodeled as well. The seating is now in the form of a T, with seating on either side of the beautiful wooden altar, which is on the floor-level with the congregation. The former altar space is now occupied by a small but respectable pipe organ, and a beautifully restored stained-glass figure of Christ looks down from above the organ.

Chris came from a very relaxed, family/house-church style of worship - where the "prayers of the congregation" were actually done by the congregation, where there were no bulletins, no order of worship, just a retired pastor and his flock gathered in folding chairs and couches around a piano in a community center. I had come from a congregation that regularly had 1,000 people a Sunday for worship, with a pre-printed liturgy in a bound bulletin, multiple hymnals - while not hardly as lock-step as many Lutheran communities are wont to be, it was hardly spontaneous worship.

But I had also come from a group of people who'd introduced me to Taize' (teh-ZAY) singing, to Maranatha's worship-n-praise, and to all-night prayer-vigils locked-in at the church sanctuary. I'd been through the "worship wars," the our-way-or-the-highway worship committee meetings, and encountered people who either believed that synthesizers were of the devil, or people who believed that they'd rather stay home than listen to one more organ prelude. As a result of all that (not to mention the emphasis on high liturgy at seminary, I've generally concluded that more diversity in worship meant more ways to experience God. But it had been a long time since I'd experienced that diversity.

Until we walked into McKinley Presbyterian Church.

Our first Sunday, I was greeted by some of the same Taize' songs I had sung back nearly a dozen years ago - the memory of which literally brought tears of joy to my eyes. As we sang we looked around the congregation - taking in the physical beauty of the sanctuary and the peace of the community. Chris and I were astonished that we were just one among many same-sex couples present, surrounded by a congregation for whom it was just no big deal in such a way that we instantly felt both welcomed and accepted.

As the Christ candle was lit, the congregation was invited to come forward and light candles symbolizing their prayers for peace - something which the congregation has done since the Sunday before the current Iraq war began. The beauty of the pipe organ did not overwhelm the congregation, but seemed to lift it up and support it. The prayers of the congregation were "popcorn-style" (whatever popped up, so to speak), and even the Lord's Prayer was said in a format that came from Tanzania or another African group of believers.

In short, everything was familiar, everything was similar - but nothing was the same.

My ELCA Lutheran friends will understand this image ... you know the kind of worship services that you have at the regional Synod conferences? Where everything's a little edgy, everything's in somewhat the same location, but nothing's exactly as you've known it at your home church and it all feels new and a little strange, but somehow cool?

Welcome to our worship - each and every Sunday.

Today, the Gospel reading was the woman who was bleeding, and touched Jesus' robe. The sermon dealt with healing and restoration - and talked about how the women who bled and the girl who died were both ritually unclean and untouchable. Their healing was not only physical healing, but social restoration - being returned into the community from which they had been excluded.

Today, as communities around the world celebrate Pride Week with parades and marches and so much more, Chris and I simply celebrated being home - being healed and restored to a sense of community in new and powerful ways. It is not so much that we are in a gay-friendly church - it's that we can worship here, and no one really gives a rat's patootie what we are. We are simply two among many of the Children of the Heavenly Father in ways that I have never before experienced - and as the old song says, it's a good feelin' to know....

I am looking forward to the ways in which God will use this community in both our lives.