Wednesday, June 30, 2004

It still was a good day....but...

Nothing deep or theological here...just some frustrating and embarrassing recent-history. According to a friend here, I became an official Chicagoan Tuesday morning. He called my experience "one of the rites of passage" for city-dwellers.

My car got towed.

The circumstances were so, so very stupid that I'm embarassed to even describe it. It was 4:00 AM...I'd just run my friend Ben and his wife Jen up to O'Hare Airport. They were leaving on a 6:30 AM flight to Costa Rica for vacation, which meant that they needed to get there about 2 hours early, which meant that we needed to leave about 3 AM to make sure we got there. Anyway, with no traffic at ALL on the Dan Ryan, we got up there in no time, I dropped 'em off, got back in no time, and realized that my stomach was on fire, because I'd taken my morning drugs and hadn't eaten anything with 'em. So I stopped at Dunkin' Donuts for a couple donuts and some decaf. Just a couple donuts...

The parking spots on the street were full, so I just zipped into the empty lot of the Osco Drug store dead across the street, walked the 20 steps or so to Dunkin-land, got my coffee and donuts, and came out. As I walked out the door, I got the shock of my life: my car, which I had pulled in facing the donut shop, was now turned 90 degrees away from it and was sitting at a funny angle. When my eyes adjusted to the dark, I realized the reason for it was that a black tow-truck had spun the car around, and had lifted the front end in the air. I ran across the street, screaming "HEY! HEY! WHAT THE HELL! STOP!!", but the guy saw me coming and roared out of there - sparks flying off my car's tailpipe as it bounced out of the parking lot. I'd been gone 180, maybe 240 seconds, max - so this guy either (a) was called by one of Chicago's finest, sitting in their cars watching the lot from the safety of the Dunkin' Donuts alley, or (b)they were just sitting there, waiting for some idiot like me to come in and make their night.

In that moment, I really, really understood about original sin, and my condition as a sinful human. Because despite my love of my neighbor as myself, despite my value on all human life as created by God and died-for by Jesus, despite years of commitment to non-violence...the fact remains that if I had access to a weapon in those few seconds, I would have committed homicide. I had visions of the bar scene from the original "Star Wars," of scenes from "The Godfather," "Saving Private Ryan," and other similarly peaceful, humanitarian movies. I was hearing Arlo Guthrie in "Alice's Restaurant" saying, "Shrink...I wanna KILL." I wanted to scream; I was all set to throw my donuts and coffee at something or someone - except that (thanks to the $125 towing fee I now owed) they had suddenly become the single most expensive snack-food I would ever purchase.

What amazed me (and scared me, a little) was the senseless rage that continued to burn in me long after I walked the five blocks back to the apartment, drank my $42 cup of coffee, and ate each of my $41.50 donuts. I know the Serenity Prayer as well as anyone, and I've prayed it a bunch...but at that moment, I didn't want serenity - I wanted to hurt someone. And that bothered me, a lot. Still does, in fact.

I guess what offended my sensibility was not that I got caught doing something stupid - there were, after all, two signs on the side of a dark Osco wall that said "no overnight parking" and "parking for Dorchester Commons only." When I pointed out to the towing-service lady that the signs weren't visible at night, that I wasn't taking anything from the tenants of Dorchester Commons at 4 AM, and that it had only been a few scant minutes, she informed me in a bored, callous tone that there was no time limit on unauthorized parking, and if I couldn't read, maybe I shouldn't be driving. (That helped my attitude a great deal, I can assure you.)

And it wasn't that I desperately needed the $125 for other things - though that part of it burned especially bright in the compound vulgarities I was hurling around in my mind.

I just hate the fact that there are certain businesses, and certain people, who operate with absolutely no tolerance and no compassion. (In fact, I just got off the phone with my buddy Mike M., who's having the same sort of "close encounter" with his landlord.) There is no element of "cut 'em some slack" involved when it comes to these people. It's all about money, and profit, and "How can I most thoroughly screw you today?" My immediate reaction is, "This isn't FAIR!", and I hate the fact that I'm losing something I want, or not getting something I need. That nonsense still makes me angry...period.

Once upon a time, I was given to rage at the drop of a hat. People who were close to me were scared to death of how I might react at any given moment...and I have worked long and hard to change that part of me. As a result, today I am normally a patient, compassionate and tolerant soul...having been both in telecom, and being in recovery and dealing with folks in church work helps build that in a person. But when something bites me in the nether-regions like this, it makes me so very angry that I could still feel the burn of it, 36-plus hours later. (That anger is the main reason I don't own guns, and don't hang out with people who do. Guns are all too often the solution for either rage or despair...and I can still find myself encountering one or the other, or both. So I just don't go there.)

When a friend in recovery later said something about using the Serenity Prayer, I wanted desperately to tell him what orifice to insert the text of that prayer into. (Hadn't quite gotten back to "patient, compassionate and tolerant" by that point.) I also know (almost by heart) a classic portion of the AA "big book" about acceptance:
And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation - some fact of my life - unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. ("Alcoholics Anonymous," 3rd edition, page 449).
I know it...but I just don't want to hear about it at certain times - like Tuesday morning.

By Wednesday morning, the anger and resentment had degraded to whining, and by the evening, I could even laugh about parts of it. It's done; the money's gone; and all I can do now is go forward, and "try, try again."

But I know that, as civilized and as peaceable as I can be at times, there still is more than a bit of the monster still alive and well within me. As my friend Bob Sollmer often says, "The tiger is in the cage - but the cage is not locked." So thank you, God, that yesterday, my anger and resentment didn't hurt or embarrass me, or anybody else. Not everything I call "progress" in my life really is "progress" - but the element of self-control that I've been given in times of strong anger definitely is progress.

Monday, June 28, 2004

"Incompatible with Christian teaching..."

First of all, a disclaimer: I happen to love the United Methodist Church. In my early days of seminary at St. Paul School of Theology, women and men of great power and spirit like Susan Sonnenday Vogel, Tex Sample (my very first ministry professor!), Eugene Lowry, and other mighty pastors and theologians gave me a great sense of what it was to "do ministry," and to carry Christ to the world. Even in my current life as a student at LSTC in the Lutheran tradition, I still owe much of my call, and the ministry I have done up to this point, to the training I received from ministers of the United Methodist Church...for which I will be forever grateful.

However, the General Conference of the UMC has declared, under Paragraph 304.3 of their 2000 Discipline, that certain practices are "incompatible with Christian teaching," and that those practices "are a chargeable offense under ¶ 2702.1(b) of the 2000 Discipline." (Click here if you want to see the text of their decision.)

Hold onto that bit of background knowledge... and shall we open our online pew bibles to Matthew 25:31-46? (Click on the link if you want to see the text.)

If you're not familiar with Matthew 25, Jesus tells us that the measure of how we follow him - whether we end up as "sheep" or "goats" - will be on the basis of some very basic things:
-Feeding the hungry
-Giving drink to the thirsty
-Welcoming the stranger
-Clothing the naked
-Caring for the sick
-Visiting those in prison
Jesus is anything but subtle at this point; he says to those who do NOT do these things, "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels..." (v.41) and "'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (v.45-46). When Jesus talks about "the least of these," he's pointing out the people who are least likely to be able to get food, drink, clothing, healing, and comfort on their own - the ones who need help from us.

Call me a me a me "soft on sin," or a sloppy interpreter of Scripture. (You can just get in line behind a whole lotta folk on those topics.) But I'd propose to you that Christians who aren't actively involved in doing those six simple things "to the least of these" are living lives that are much more "incompatible" with Christ's own teaching than the people to whom the Methodists (and others) would call attention.

So here's the interesting question: why isn't the UMC prosecuting ministers, and churches, who are not promoting (or even suggesting that we follow) the commands of Matthew 25? Why is the failure to care for our fellow women and men not "incompatible with Christian teaching"...but other practices are? Is it because ignoring those in need is something we're all used to doing (even if they are things that Christ commanded us to do) - and certain other practices are just culturally taboo?

Why aren't our churches (yours and mine) joining every single Christian church of every variation and denomination in demanding, with one voice, that these six commands of Jesus be followed universally? Regardless of what we believe about worship, or preaching, or "the real presence of Christ" in communion, or musical styles, or any other supposedly-central thing - why are we as the united body of Christ not locked arm-in-arm over this?

I'm afraid I know why. I am terribly afraid that the church of Christ has allowed itself to be defined and redirected by the media, and a few loud voices, according to one issue which Jesus never, ever addressed in his ministry. At the same time, we have allowed our hearts and minds to be turned away from the weeping, the hunger and the thirst, the nakedness and the sickness and the isolation which Jesus specifically spoke out against - again, and again, and again.

The church throughout history seems so eager to schism over whatever the hot-button topic of the day might be. But are we willing to unite over what Jesus himself called the issues that would separate the sheep from the goats? Are we willing to stand with Christians of every race, creed, denomination, and orientation (and non-Christians as well!), and take to the streets on this topic with the same passion that some folks would demand that we focus on their favorite hot-button topic?

Why is it that church members can raise tens of millions of dollars to build a mega-barn for worship, but can't raise a tithe of that for poverty relief? What would happen if every denomination mandated that out of every ten dollars spent to the glory of the worship experience, we sent one dollar directly to those serving the poor?

Will we ever see so-called Christian broadcasters sending out millions of pieces of direct mail clamoring for money for "the least of these," the way they do in their fight against "them"?

Will we say "NO MORE!" when it comes to suffering and need in our own our own back yards?

I can only hope. And pray.

To Pastor Terry Boggs...Heidi Neumark...Ed Chambers...Kim Bobo...Dick Hoehn (the leaders and challengers of my LSTC "Leadership Development for Public Life") seminar:
Thanks for planting the seeds of these thoughts for three weeks last January. I've been doing a slow boil about the injustice around me since then, but all those seeds are germinating now. God alone knows what they will grow into...hopefully something that brings change, and unity, and signs of God's love into the world.
And to Tex Sample, Sally Geis, John J. McNeill, Ted Menten, and all those who have shown the way to be bold and resistive in the cause of compassion - thank you for your leadership, and your example. You have been, and continue to be, a gift from God to me.

Happy Pride....

Sunday, June 27, 2004

A sabbatical turns into a Mondical, and a Tuesdical...

Re-creation and rebirth is happening in so many areas in my life...why not here, too?

Back at Christmas-time 2003 - inspired by uber-bloggers Laura and Micah Jackson and their merry band of blog-friends - I started a blog (short for web-log) over here. Now, admittedly, I had no illusions of being either as deep or as inspiring as the Jackson Two were, by any means (I don't think my mind ever has operated at their level!). But I thought it would be fun to have a place to share my thoughts, and get people to comment on them from time to time.

There was only one real problem. I was so mentally, spiritually, and emotionally drained by events in my life during the November-January timeframe that my Christmas-time energy burnt out almost as quickly as it ignited. The flash-in-the-pan syndrome set in, and "ye olde blogge" sat unused for...well, months. Six months, in fact.

But "the times they are a-changin'," as Bob Dylan would say. For a variety of reasons, my plans for the next twelve months are radically different than they were a few short months ago, and it's taken every bit of the last 70 days or so just to put my emotional and spiritual rail-cars back on the tracks. So I'm starting my blog anew here on a fresh-start, but also because I like the blogging features here better.

So over the next weeks and months, I'll be discussing
- my journey of faith, and some of the struggles and sticky questions I face on that road
- my adventures in seminary education at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC), as well as life in Chicagoland (whoever thought I would end up in a place with a name like an amusement park?!?) [Note: thanks to roommate Tim for pointing that little item out!)
- my journey of recovery (from more addictions than I care to mention) and
- anything else that comes to my wee-bitty mind.
I am still very much on a voyage of discovery, so there will be many times when postings may very well seem half-baked - grammatically, theologically, you name it. That, of course, is because I am often a cake in the oven, sometimes I need to have others stick a toothpick in my thoughts to see if they're really done, or if they're still a bit gooey in the center.

For now, I leave this effort in God's hands, and leave you with my favorite prayer from the Lutheran Book of Worship:

Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen. (LBW page 137)
Amen, indeed.