Tuesday, August 31, 2004

A chapter has closed

Well, it's over. What a wild ride. Three long weekends in Toledo, and it seems like forever since I've been home. But it's done.

Sister Sue and her husband Jeff are officially residents of Waterville, Ohio! After 3 days of (at least for me) 18-20 hours a day, we shut the door to the house on Woodhurst Drive on Sunday at 8:30 pm, and drove away. The new condo is way overstocked - they have at least 50% more stuff than they have room for. So their 2 car-garage is exactly 1/2 full of boxes and bags waiting to be unpacked, re-sorted and re-evaluated. Their neighbors, Dean and Diane, were neighbors back at the old address, too, and joked that it's almost universal that people bring 50% too much when they downsize. So Sue & Jeff are right at "meets expectations" on that score.

I started off the weekend really worried - my back wasn't doing too well, and I was afraid I was gonna either be incapable of helping much, or (more likely) hurting myself so bad that I'd be out of commission for good by the end of the weekend. (Why is it I never remember - if you're gonna pray, why worry? And if you're gonna worry, why pray?) Thankfully, I got in to see a chiropractor Friday morning, and that helped a bunch - and Sue and Jeff both dogged me to slow down, take it easy....and for the most part, I did. I got a friend from my AA home group in Toledo to help me move boxes out of the basement before loading them into a U-Haul to take them to the new place (which saved them about $300 on the "Two Men & A Truck" moving bill). That sure helped a lot - because some of the heavier boxes were the theology books that I was storing back there. So it felt good to get them out of the way.

It felt very good to shut the door on the Woodhurst house for the last time. I've long since fallen out of love with the old house - virtually everything was wearing down, or already broken. It had become increasingly troublesome for Sue & Jeff to maintain, so there wasn't any emotional attachment at all to the place. We were all ready to be gone...there was some real freedom in walking away from that place. It was a chapter that's needed to be closed for a while.

And yes, it did rain all weekend. We didn't get the six inches of rain that my friends in Kansas City got, but we had a steady deluge from about 3 AM Friday until 2 PM Sunday, with one break - from about the time that we started loading the rental truck until about an hour after we got it unloaded at the condo. But through it all, we were just thanking God that it rained this weekend - when it didn't hurt the move much - and not last weekend, when it would have killed our garage sale (and about 40% of the stuff that we sold or gave away, and didn't have to move or throw out!).

We had a couple screwups - but even those weren't very severe, thank God. Someone took a trash bag with all their shoes in it, and started emptying the refrigerator debris into it. But somehow, despite throwing out two dozen eggs in the same bag with their work and dress shoes, not a single egg broke by the time we got back and picked it up the next morning. The last few trips - carrying stuff that didn't fit in boxes (or just never made it into boxes) took longer than it should have - but in the end, we turned out the lights and walked away in time to get to KFC and have a celebratory dinner, and I got to give a blessing for their new home and their new life, which was very cool.

Sue and Jeff will be unpacking, and weeding out what they REALLY want to keep, for a month or two - but that's why the St. Vincent de Paul Society has a truck that comes out to that neighborhood the 3rd Saturday of every month - because they *know* there will be things worth picking up out there. So all in all, it was an amazingly, blessedly successful weekend.

Coming home was the only real mess-up - I'd asked my boss if I could leave Monday morning, and be in by noon, but ran into two different runs of construction on the Indiana turnpike that delayed me nearly two hours. Fortunately, all the staff was out on a variety of vacations and breaks, so no one was impacted but me. I stayed until 8:30, and then came home and collapsed.

I thank God, too, for being sober and healthy enough to be able to be of service to my sister. Back in my drinking days, I never would have been able to show up - and would have been a hinderance instead of a help. I just am so thankful to be sober... it just makes life a whole lot better!

My back isn't in nearly as bad shape as I'd have expected, and I sure slept like a rock last night. So I have Tuesday and Wednesday in Chicago, then Thursday morning I fly to Kansas for an AA sponsee's sobriety celebration and wedding this Friday and Saturday.

I haven't forgotten the topics I promised to write on...just running short on time, rather than inspiration. I'm glad to be home, if only for a little bit!

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Evidence for the existence of blog-gnomes...

...as I really don't think I hit "publish" four times for my one simple entry. It is, of course, very possible that it was operator error, owing to being 2 AM and operating on 4 hours of sleep...

Nah, it's gnomes.

We are at the 75-80% point on the move - which means that we have one or two boxes to pack in each of the rooms in the house. This move, so far, has been proof of the often-repeated rule that "80% of the work takes 80% of the time, and then the last 20% of the work also takes 80% of the time."

The "Two Men and a Truck" brigade show up Sunday at 9:30 AM - so it's gonna be a long, long night. But the new place is shaping up - and the reality of walking away from this 3-floor albatross is looking better and better with each passing hour. I celebrate for my sister and brother-in-law...

Upcoming topics: surviving suicide attempts, gratitude, September without school, and whatever else the Spirit moves on.

For now, peace to all and e-hugs all around...

Friday, August 27, 2004

Quick reflections...

...since it's nearly 2 a.m. Eastern time, and I'm way past ready for bed.

Wednesday night, I had stayed late at work, and so didn't get to the Garfield Blvd. GreenLine stop until 9 p.m. It was raining, and lightning was flashing overhead. I wondered - how close do you have to be to a lightning strike to have it be dangerous? I had to admit going through a self-composed "litany for lives in peril" as I stood in the mist and rain underneath a huge metal superstructure topped with highly-electrified rails! The bus didn't come for nearly 40 minutes - and I could have walked, if I wasn't more afraid of getting mugged along the perimeter of Washington Park. But I got to see some magnificent displays of what we Easterners used to call "heat lightning" - truly works of a magnificent Creator!

Next week, we will have an end to the moving saga, and a discussion on communion - plus considering whatever angels or demons have to to whisper in one's ear on any other topic.

For now, I am grateful to be here and safe...there were enough madmen and fools out that it got dicey a couple times! G'night...or (more accurately) G'morning...

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Mulligan stew

For the younger generation, "mulligan stew" was a meal (presumably Irish in origin) which was made by throwing little bits of everything into the pot, and letting them simmer together for a while. It's very much like the idea of "Stone Soup," which is a great tradition (and a great traditional story). So that's what this post will be....a little bit of everything.

I really need to do something different when it comes to editing my entries. I just spent the better part of an hour writing a clever (and reasonably theological) discourse about the whole communion issue, and somehow hit the control-and-something keys, and sent the whole thing into the bit bucket.

That really sucks.

The good news is, you’re spared my discourse about the Eucharist until at least the weekend – probably Monday night, at best. The bad news is, I’ve got to find something to make these posts easier to write (or harder to completely trash in mid-stream). I don't want to go through this again!

I leave Thursday night for Ohio - this is "move weekend" for my stalwart sister Sue and brother-in-law Jeff. There have been some last-minute snafus in the closing for the new place - and my mild fear (and the major fear of my bro-in-law) is that they will close on the old house on Thursday, and then not be able to close on the new place on Friday, and have no place to go with all their belongings. (The new owners of the old house have stipulated that they be out of the house on Monday). So there is some praying going on with THAT in mind.

The forecast for the weekend is on-and-off showers, and high temperatures and humidity. That would pretty much suck, too. It's survivable - but it won't be fun, for sure. I've moved in the rain before - and it is just no fun. So I'm trying to be positive, and pray for the deluge to hold off as much as possible.

My back is still not entirely recovered from last weekend - so I need to be as good a boy as I can this weekend, too - which will be tough. Need to see if we can find some reinforcements for Saturday's move-the-non-heavy furniture time.

So I will be away from this keyboard from Thursday night until Sunday night. Forgive the extended silence - and trust that there will be much to do when I get back to Chicago on Monday! Until then, peace, y'all.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

It's gotta be easier than this....

My friend Lisa posted a link to this article on CNN about a girl who was denied communion because she is is cannot eat wheat. The more I read the article, the more I wanted to cry - or clobber someone.

I have said it before, and I'll say it again: there is much to be valued in some of the contributions that the Roman Catholic tradition has made to the body of Christian faith. When it comes to a life of contemplative prayer, for instance, you just can't do it better than any of the Catholic monastic communities that have grown up over the years. When my Lutheran sisters and brothers seek a retreat, it's often to the Catholic convents and monasteries that they go. And there is much besides the contemplative life that has benefited from Catholicism.

But then the Catholic hierarchy goes and does something like denying the sacrament of communion to a faithful girl because a flaw of biology prevents her from consuming the ritually-formed wafers which (so they believe) become the Body of Christ. Their legalistic behavior brings up several Pharisaical questions.

First of all, whose fault is it that the little girl can't eat wheat without harm to herself? The Pharisees - both ancient and modern-day - among us would say that the girl, or her parents, had sinned, and it was their sin that was blocking her from receiving communion. Unfortunately, there's this Jesus person who seemed to think otherwise. And I'm still enough of a Christian that I think we ought to defer to the Son of God in some areas....

Is this little girl, as some yo-yo systematic theologians might say, ontologically incapable of sharing in the communion of the faithful, because of her illness? Never, never, never! If it was that easy to drop out of faith, I would have given up on it years ago. I have to believe that if the Son of God could have communion with Peter, who denied him hours later, and with all the rest of the backsliding disciples, I'd bet he'd have a rice-cake to share with little Haley.

I know that many Catholics hold the tradition as holy as the scripture in cases like this - but I have the sneaking suspicion that the God who could come to earth as a baby, in a stinking stall, and be miraculously born of a virgin teenager could probably appear in the "real presence" sense in a rice wafer as easily as a gluten-based one. (Of course, I should admit at this point (with apologies to Mark Bangert) that I believe that the high school youth group having communion with Wheat Thins and Dr. Pepper on a mountainside in Colorado have every bit as much of a consubstantiated "real presence of Christ" as those of us who are having alcoholic wine and glutinous wafers. I know...heresy!

There's more to say on this topic, but for now, sweet dreams....

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

"Shrink....I wanna KILL...."

(For those of you who are too young to have encountered Arlo Guthrie's maniacal classic, "Alice's Restaurant," the title of this post is from that song. If you haven't listened to the whole thing, I'd advise you to do so.)

While I was writing my last post, I went searching for a link to a Steven Curtis Chapman song that I love, titled For The Sake of the Call. I found one site, and clicked to link it to my blog - and out of nowhere, a little "confirmation box" popped up - and before I could catch myself, I'd hit the enter key, and I'd been "hijacked." And oooooh, that just honks me off something awful.

So now I'm running Ad-Aware, and will follow with Norton AntiVirus. I've uninstalled the obvious "Ad-Destroyer" and "WebSearchPlus" applications - but right now, I really wouldn't want to be in the same room with a tire-iron and any one of the folks who design this crap-ware. I'm not normally a violent person - but being violated in any sense just infuriates me. As my friend Bob Sollmer so often says, "That tiger is still in the cage - but the cage isn't locked."

God, help me never to descend to their level - even though it sounds like a perfectly delicious thought sometimes. Amen.

You have to wonder....

Saturday afternoon, as we were in the busyness of my sister Sue's mega-garage-sale, my cell-phone gave the familiar ring that says "Hi! Here's a voice-mail from a call that you never heard, because your cell-phone network SUCKS in this area." One of the more irritating signs of today's information-age...

Surprisingly, the message was from a young man (OK, he's 25, but from the high-side of 47, that's young) who's a student with me at LSTC. He's transferred from the LCMS to the ELCA, and spent last year at the LCMS' flagship seminary, Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. Now, he's come to the ELCA, and was in Kansas City, meeting with the same candidacy committee that indefinitely postponed granting me a decision to continue my path to ordained ministry.

When I got hold of him, and listened to the pain and outrage in his voice, for a moment I thought he'd been put "on ice," as I had been. But I soon learned that my buddy actually had received "a positive entrance decision," the first jump-through-the-hoop step in the candidacy process.

What had provoked my friend's ire, however, was the cavalier treatment he got from the church's regional candidacy committee, whose charter (at least in theory) is two-fold: to be an encourager of those who are qualified for ministry, and to be a prophylactic shield against those atheists, madmen, libertines, free-thinkers and fools who just think that they should be ministers.

Sorting out the facts from the ire, it seemed that my fellow student had not only not been welcomed with open arms, but had in fact been emotionally and theologically dissected by members of the committee. His irritation was not so much the actual content of their message (which wasn't what he wanted, but wasn't really unexpected), but the way in which the message had been delivered. It was funny, in a way, because everything that had been done to me, was done exactly backwards for him. In fact, I had come to my candidacy meeting in a suit, and several of the members of the committee were moved to laughter, saying that they hadn't expected me to dress up, and they didn't remember ever seeing me in a suit before. (Of course, that's because none of those who spoke had ever actually been in the building when I had ever preached at any of my home congregations - but I wasn't about to point that out to them, at the time. )

In contrast, one person in my buddy's meeting actually offered him some "fatherly advice" about how to dress-up for these meetings (knowing, of course, that clothes make the person, as all good Christians know!). There was a lot of other folderol - but most of it was secondary. What was central to the whole close-encounter was that my friend came out of the meeting really questioning his call to ministry, and whether he really wanted to be part of a church which gave such power to a group of people that evidently existed primarily to tear up candidates for ministry. I hate to say it, but his story was sadly familiar...and not just to me...

And that's what I have to wonder about, I guess. Why is it that people seeking to enter Christian ministry end up dealing with a group of human beings who don't seem in the least bit Christian in their outlook and attitudes toward seminarians? When one has "abandoned it all for the sake of the call" (as Steven Curtis Chapman would sing), wouldn't you think the church (and its assembled multitudes) would be uplifting and supportive? I know I sure did....as did many of my fellow seminarians.

It's funny...for those of us who are called to this life, there are times (like encountering mule-ish members of the church hierarchy) when we just wish we could go do something else. My buddy actually spoke for many of us when (in extreme exasperation) he said, "Heck, I don't want to be a pastor - but this is what God is calling me to do." And for those of us who have been told (either permanently, or indefinitely, as in my case) that we can't do what we believe God has called us to do, the question then becomes, "OK, God....now what?"

I remember the sense of betrayal - and the rage. I remember thinking, "They surely can't question my commitment - I mean, I'm here, after all!" But I also remember asking myself, "Whose side are these people on, for crying out loud?" But as I listened to my friend vent his frustration, there was a tiny voice in my head that said, "Well, at least you're not the only one who's gotten a rough ride from this group of God's kids..." It didn't help him much, but it was strangely comforting to me...

After all, I know several people with more financial debts - and more mental instability - than me - who just sailed through their entrance interviews. And I had to wonder..."Why them, God, and not me?"

But I know the answer to that....Job heard it first, and I don't need to replay his encounter with the Almighty anytime soon. So I was reminded that the question is rarely "why?", but "what" - "What can I do?" "What is the next right thing?"

I tried to remind my brother-in-arms that it ain't so bad, and that he is in fact "entranced" (yes, even the church can come up with grammatical nightmares like that) - so at rock bottom, he ought to be saying "Thank you, Jesus" that he cleared the first hurdle. (I, for one, would give up use of an organ or two to be able to say that.) But through it all, the part of me that lives in "the world as it should be" still wants to take some of the folks in "the world as it is" and kick their theological butts.

It just shouldn't be this hard.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Happy Anniversary to me...

It was a year (and about 40 minutes) ago that I arrived in Chicago. Everybody think, "Happy Anniversary, Steve" really loud...

I know it was 9:50 PM on August 22nd because we left Kansas City about 4 hours late, hit White Sox traffic on the Eisenhower and the Dan Ryan Expressways, and made it to LSTC with exactly 10 minutes to spare until the security office closed at 10. We got the keys to the apartment, and started unloading the 17-foot Penske rental truck that contained almost all my belongings in the world at about 10:15 p.m. My best friend Mike Moore had noted the condition of the neighborhood between the Dan Ryan and LSTC on 55th St., and said to me, "You just don't want to leave this truck overnight to unload it." So we started emptying it out - box by exhausting box.

At about 3:15 AM, exhausted mentally and bone-weary physically, I announced to Mike that I couldn't take another box (as it was, we were both at the stage of take-a-box-in-and-then-sit-on-the-porch-and-recover mode), and we left for the hotel, where we didn't actually get to sleep until 4:15 AM or so. Later the next week, at orientation, I had to make a public statement of amends to all of my potential neighbors along 54th Place for all the noise we had made during those trips with the refrigerator cart, up and down the side-walk.

I got back from Toledo tonight - after a fairly successful but mentally-and-physically-exhausting garage-sales. Sister Sue, my brother-in-law Jeff, and I worked for hour emptying the house of anything that was not primo condition, or of anything of which we would say, "Well, I should keep this, just in case. I told several people that I had to get back to Chicago, just so I could get some rest!

But as I pulled up, I saw a familiar site - a U-Haul pickup, a crowd of people hanging around, and looking at the 3rd-flood balcony, wondering "What have we gotten ourselves into, this time?" I'm glad I'm not moving in tonight - although the weather for it was certainly better than it was a year ago!) As it is, my back is tender and sore, and I'll rely on my friends (Mr. Blue-Gel Icepack and Ms. OD-on-Ibuprofen) to recover from the weekend. As it is, my room is a mess, owing to 3 weekends of chaotic running-out-of-town, and my bed is unmade. Yikes! But I'm glad to have been able to help my sisters.

I wonder - would I have made the same mistakes if they had known what it would take to move lal that stuff? Would I have been so eager to start at LSTC if I'd known what would happen within three short months? I wonder....

For now, bed is beckoning, and I'm slipping into a sleepy coma as it is. Sweet dreams, y'all!

Saturday, August 21, 2004

A great end to a VERY busy day

Oh, my aching back...

Yet another Toledo posting....got in late Thursday night after a trouble-free drive from Chicago, and spent Friday running around in the pouring rain. Now, I love rain - when I can stay home and watch it...preferably after a big breakfast, sitting by a roaring fire, and watch it rain and storm with a big mug of Raspberry Zinger hot tea, a fascinating book, and some antiphonal brass music of Gabrielli on the stereo. (To me, that scenario is about as close to heaven as I may be able to get here on earth - at least, with my clothes on.)

But when you have a hundred errands to run, a short time-window to get 'em done, rain is an uncomfortable thing. And when it comes rain storms, this one was right up there at an almost-like-the-fire-hoses-of God rate, it's never pretty.

But today was absolutely beautiful - sunny but not too hot, dry but not overly so, and the most beautiful, crystal-clear blue skies you could imagine. Both my sister Sue and brother-in-law Jeff had to work, so I was manning the 9 AM- 4 PM garage-sale from 8:10 (when the "early-bird shopping-folks started to arrive) to 10 AM all by myself. So it's been a busy, and hard working day. My back is sore, my nostrils are fully of dust - and I'm grateful to be alive and sober today, so that I can be a part of today's exercises. It's been hard work, but it's good work. We are closer to completion - and we have gotten rid of a lot of stuff. But, as a friend so frequently says, "The first 80% of the work takes 80% of your time; and the last 20% also takes 80% to complete."

For now, my head is nodding, so I'm actually going to head to bed. Tomorrow is going to come very, very early. There's lots more I'ld like to write - but it's just not gonna be that way this evening.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Outta my mind on Friday moanin'

Time for some random bounces around the spiritual ping-pong table...

Good moanin'- if you're within 50 miles of Chicago, take the time to go to the Garfield Park Conservatory (check out their website here, and especially the page showing the various display houses). I'm not a big dinosaur person, so their current show ain't much to me - but the other 99% of the conservatory (and the flower show going on right now in the Show Hall, and the flowers in the outdoor gardens) are worth the $3 suggested donation (if you really don't have it, it is a "suggested" donation). A camera can't really do it justice - but don't hesitate to try. (Even my limited photo skills resulted in some neat photos!) Do not spend time in Chicago without seeing this 96-year-old living legacy.

Moanin' - CPE (clinical pastoral education - fancy name for chaplaincy internship) is ending for my fellow seminary students, and school plans are underway. So the three questions I hate more than anything are (1) How was your summer? (2) How was your CPE experience? (3) What classes are you taking this fall?

I only hate these questions because I don't feel that I really have a good answer to any of them. The summer was good in many ways - but pretty challenging and humbling in other ways. It wasn't always fun (especially the near-poverty times, and the ongoing failure to find permanent employment within the city limits) but if humility is good, then yeah - it was pretty darned good. I hate admitting to myself (let alone anyone else) that not only did I not get to do CPE, but that I'm not even qualified to do CPE, thanks to my candidacy-in-limbo status. And, to be honest, I don't want to have to admit that I not-so-secretly envy the snot out of those that did get to do CPE this summer. Don't get me wrong - I am glad for them - just jealous, I guess, and feeling a wee bit inadequate. (Unfortunately, this is not a new condition for me.)

Another humbling moanin' moment was talking to a friend who's going to meet with the same candidacy committee that put my ministry quest on ice four months ago. I don't know why, but I felt compelled to tell him to not mention my name in the presence of the committee, for his own sake. I mean, it wouldn't be fatal - after all, one committee member is a member of my home congregation, and one is a former pastor - and they might make the connection, and it would probably be OK for those two. But I guess I didn't want any taint of my once-and-future-candidacy on his meeting, so felt compelled to mention it to him. (I evidently have a lot more praying, and healing, to do about that topic.)

Good moanin' - made it to Ohio in record time, with clear skies and hardly any traffic. Thank you, God, for traveling mercies! I also had nearly 4 hours to catch up with friends via cell-phone, which is always a good thing. Know what's an even better thing? Every one of them seemed genuinely glad to hear from me. That is a definite gift from God - because that just wasn't always the case.

So, it's nearly 2 AM Eastern time, and way past time for this big boy to hit the hay, 'cause we've got three very busy days ahead of us.

A prayer for the very late close of the day:
Thank you, God of wonder and love, for the gift of the day just past, and the gift of the day nearly upon me. You have brought me safe through work and travel, and have given me the gift of food, shelter and love - and the promise of both rest, nourishment, and new life. If this is as good as it ever gets, Lord, I'll take it. Thank you! Amen.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

A break in the action....

...even if it is a somewhat manufactured, "let's just ignore everything for a few minutes" break.

Work has been both better and worse than I had hoped or intended. Better, because I am working for a wonderfull lady, in a great setting, with incredibly good access to the "L" train and an almost impossibly good commute. Worse, because (to be honest) I've gotten out of the habit of working, and sloth still sounds like a really, really good idea.

Add to this the fact that I'm really never, ever home these days. For the last two weeks, and for the next two weekends, I'm doing 4 days at work, leaving Thursday after work (around 7 or so), driving to Ohio, and doing the maniac-packing-deal. This weekend is the garage sale - pray for good weather in and around Toledo, Ohio, please....we need it!

So just some random catching up, and addressing some questions posed by friends....

No, the deal at Garfield is not gonna be permanent. They are looking for a part-time, 2 days a week kind of person, and I'm really looking for full-time stuff. Still, it's nice to be able to get back in the swing of things. No, the job at UC that I lusted after is still open - but at this stage of the game, that's probably a not-so-good sign.

Several folks have asked about the status of my candidacy. As I described last Thursday, I'm still at school at LSTC, and still planning on taking at least a class a semester, either at LSTC or one of the Association of Chicago Theological Schools (ACTS for short) schools. My scholastic work is just waiting for my financial condition to recover enough to move forward. As to the long-term plan for ministry, I guess the Lord's just saying "Wait," for now. The plan, for now, is to stay here, and explore what other directions God may use me. No pillars of fire have shown up, just yet (regrettably). But I'm trying to stick to Twila Paris' wonderful lyrics:
I cannot imagine what will come
But I know that I have made my choice
This is where I stand, until He moves me on
And I will listen to His voice...
I wish that last line were truer - I have probably not been listening as close as I ought...but for now, that is my prayer and my mantra. I'm staying here until I just can't stay any longer, and look to see where God is working around here!

I need to hit the hay - try to make it early to work, and get out at a reasonable hour and hit the road to T-town tomorrow night. It will be a busy, and a hectic, but a fun weekend....at least that is my hope and prayer!

Monday, August 16, 2004

Taking it on faith

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith...If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. (1 Corinthians 15:13-19, NIV)

I've been back in Ohio, working on the move-from-hell with my sister Sue and bro-in-law Jeff. (It's actually going pretty well...more like the move-from-an-upper-level-of-Purgatory, to be more specific.) We only have 13 days (including today) to sort-and-toss, have a monster garage sale next weekend, pack up the remaining flotsam and jetsam, and actually MOVE them (August 20-22 and 27-29 - PRAY for good weather!). As my sister keeps saying, "it will be fine."

That, however, has nothing to do with what's on my mind this early AM.

Part of the winnowing-down process has been sifting through hundreds of books that Jeff, Sue, I (and others in the family) read, or collected and intended to read someday. The new condo just doesn't have enough space for them all. So today we took a pile of books to a local used-book-seller-&-buyer in Toledo, hoping to convert hardback ballast into cold hard cash.

While Jeff was dealing with the book-buyer in the front of the store, I wandered through the stacks, looking for a replacement copy of "I Sing The Body Electric" by Ray Bradbury. And that's when I heard it - the voice of the shop owner, talking to another patron about how "Luke didn't write the Book of Luke" and "only about 16% of the New Testament is really verifiable" and "if God wanted to be heard, why didn't He just leave some DVD's with the answers on them for us to find? After all, us lowly mortals can make DVD's - why can't He?"

God help me, but my first thought was, "Ah, another pseudo-intellectual has found a copy of John Crossan's The Historical Jesus and now thinks he can join Nietzsche in declaring God dead. Please, Lord God, spare me." Quite the compassionate evangelist, aren't I?

Now I have to admit...part of me was strongly tempted to engage the speaker in the discussion, and speak the truth in love on the side of righteousness. But a significant other part of me thought, "The best thing to do when confronted with whirling dervishes is to just let 'em whirl." Maybe it was cowardice - maybe it was just not really wanting to deal with it. But I left them to their discussion of the non-existence of God and the ficticiousness of supposedly sacred writings, and went on my way. (And then second-guessed the decision on and off for 10 hours.)

But as I drove home from Ohio tonight, I reflected on how much of Christianity is based on nothing more than the words of faithful people. What we call "the testimony of the faithful" is what many in the world calls "first-century UFO sightings." In the end, it comes down to faith. This afternoon's bookseller has faith that there is no God, and that the Bible is a work of questionable historical fiction. I have faith that there is a loving God, who despite my worst behavior, loves me anyway and wants me to be faithful. To be honest, I'd much rather have my faith - even when it's difficult to defend parts of it - than to have a "what the %$&#" attitude.

I see this dichotomy of "faith" all the time. I have a number of friends who are lesbians or gay men. Several of them tell me that a loving God would not make their life suck so badly, so there cannot be a God. Yet I also know a number of GLBT folks, of both genders, who are people of active and powerful Christian faith - despite the condemnations of a significant number of women and men who claim to be "God's people," and despite suffering mightily for both their orientation and their faith at the hands of supposedly civilized and nominally faith-full people. Who's right? Who's deluded?

For today, I'm grateful to have faith in a God of wonders, who truly is "God with us," who would go to Hell for me than to spend eternity in heaven without me. And if I'm deluded - well, I'll take it. So far as I can tell, it beats the snot out of the alternative.

Thanks, God, for a safe trip, for my sister and brother-in-law's relative health, and the gifts of time, love, and service that you have given me to share. I know I don't deserve any of it - but for this day, I'll take it. You really are an awesome God. Amen.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

"So, what kind of position would you like?"

In less than 8 hours, I rejoin the work-a-day world.

Oh, it's not my final stop on the career journey...just two or three weeks of temporary work with the Chicago Parks District, helping them get ready for their annual audit. I'll be at the Garfield Park Conservatory - a beautiful location - and a very easy commute on the Green Line "L" (instead of driving out the Eisenhower Expressway!). So it will be a blessing, and I am very, very grateful.

But this starting back to work also signals a bellwether shift in my career plans...all around this question of "what kind of position would you like?" Over the last four months of job hunting, I have been asked this question more times than I would even want to describe (or admit). And after four months, the only rigorously honest answer I can give is the answer nobody wants to hear.

You see, the job I want is as a minister of Word and Sacrament in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. And there are a lot of people who think I'd do pretty well at it.

There's only one tiny little problem with this little pipe-dream. According to the regional powers-that-be at that same national church organization, I don't fit their profile for ministry. I have too much personal debt, I am told. And based on that criteria, my "entrance" into the candidacy process has been postponed indefinitely, until I eliminate my debt. (Not "get it below some theoretical threshold," as one person at LSTC suggested; the letter from Kansas City was quite clear. Eliminated.)

In fact, when I went back to my candidacy committee last April, I was told (again, very clearly) that the issue of indebtedness of ministry candidates was the overriding concern. When I asked the committee to consider the gifts for ministry that other people had seen in me, and allow me to go forward in school part-time while reducing my debt, I was told, "Steve, as far as this committee is concerned, you don't HAVE any 'gifts for ministry' until your debt is repaid."

(I'm sure that, after some reflection, the person who spoke those words might have wished they had found a more loving, caring, pastoral way to get their message across. But trust me... I got the message.)

Now, let's be clear about this. My vocation to ministry has not stopped, simply because of the decision of a group of people in a building in Kansas City. It's still what I want to work toward. But my candidacy for ministry, and the opportunity to participate in a ministry of Word and Sacrament in the ELCA (or, in fact, any rostered ministry in that church), is effectively on ice for about, well, a significant number of tens of thousands of dollars. A good long while, in other words.

So, all the things that I thought about leaving in order to go to grad school, to be a minister? That's what I'm left with. Now, don't get me wrong - they're all things that I do pretty darn well ... and I'm looking forward to getting on with doing them well, for someone. But here's the kicker:

I left them - all of them - to go into ministry.

In fact, for the last year I was in financial-systems management, the closer that I got to coming to Chicago, the more trivial and meaningless the tasks I had been assigned to do seemed to become. The last month I was there, I literally was marking time until I could embark on the path I really felt called to follow.

So when people say, "Why would you like to work with us?", I'm almost certain that it would be impolitic (not to mention impolite) to say, "Well, actually, I don't want to work for you at all. I'm just using you, and your firm, so I can get back to the work I really feel called to do."

So I don't say that.

Now, trust me: I have read Brother Lawrence's The Practice of the Presence of God, and DeCaussade's The Sacrament of the Present Moment, not to mention the 12th step of the AA program, which says that once that we have had a spiritual awakening, we try to practice the principles of a spiritual life "in all our affairs" (including at work). I know that I can "do ministry" on the Green Line, or at a local congregation, or in prison ministry, or wherever, without a collar. (I was doing it for six years before I got to Chicago.) And I do know that I will be a member of the priesthood of all believers wherever I am, including at whatever work-site to which I happen to be assigned.

But as much as I feel victorious and somewhat vindicated for finally finding work in one of my former professions, and as excited as I am about getting started tomorrow, it still feels more than a little bit like failure. I'm broke enough that the job I want is the job that will pay me...period. And I'm grateful to be starting....don't get me wrong. And I'm especially grateful for the people who have supported me (and continue to do so, until my first check comes in!). I could not physically have survived without them. So I am grateful - and I know that I have way more blessings than I can even begin to describe. I'm sunny-side up, suckin' air, sober, and free - and that makes it Christmas Day for a guy like me. I'm truly still very much "in the bonus round."

I know all of that.

I just can't help wishing that things had turned out different....that's all. Because, as Ken Medema sings so well for both of us, "We are bound for greater things." And this little stage of my life seems to feel like moving away from greater things, not toward them.

This, too - like gallstones - will pass. For now, I'm going to bed, so that I can get up tomorrow to "suit up and show up" - which appears to be the "next right thing" on my journey, anyway.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

A challenging, hard-hitting piece of writing

I want to say, "Go buy this book." But I'd have to warn you that it probably won't be "a fun read." Worthwhile; yes. Challenging and thought-provoking; yes. Fun? Nope. No way.

I also want to say, "Thank God for whatever it took for this author to write this book." But so far as I can tell, it took an incredible amount of pain and suffering to be able to write it, and I really can't thank God for that. I'm certainly arrogant and pompous...but not nearly that pompous.

What am I talking about? It's stumbling toward faith: my longing to heal from the evil that God allowed, by Renee' Altson. I found it quite by accident, while chasing down a series of virtual rabbit-holes from one blog to another. I started with a link from Laura Waters Jackson's Magdalen Institute blog, which led to Altson's blog, then to her book's website, and the online PDF sample of her book (which I'd encourage you to read here).

This book raises questions that I'd really rather not ask, let alone answer. Yet they are questions which we as people of faith are called to address every single day (whether we choose to or not). Faith in a "good-times God" often seems a lot easier to live with (and understand) than a God who seems to really pay attention when life gets messy. But I've found it's in my own deepest struggles that my faith seems most important, and God seems most real (although conversely most distant).

It's also true for me that when I'm hip-deep in processed Puppy-Chow, it's very, very easy for me to believe all sorts of trash about God and God's faithfulness (or lack thereof). But when I remember that God (as I misunderstand God) is a Supreme Being of love, and it's just us folks down here who pervert that love, I find that the trash of life is somewhat easier to deal with and live with. But I also realize that my often-simplistic view of faith frequently comes a-cropper on issues of theodicy, and I've got miles to go (and grow) on this subject.

As soon as I get beyond the "survival-mode" level of existence, I'm getting my own copy of this book. (If you look on the book website link above, you'll find that ordering the book from the Zondervan Youth Specialties website benefits a safe-house for domestic violence. How can you beat that?)

Pass it on. I think this is an author - and a topic - that needs hearing.

A trip down memory road - and an extended farewell

Early in 1973, Joe & Helen Flower brought their 3 kids - me (2 months shy of 16, in the middle of my sophomore year of high school), and sisters Sue & Sandy (twins at 13, in junior high) to a recently constructed two-story tract-style house in the Crossgates neighborhood of south Toledo, Ohio. It was an interesting journey to get there...

My father had been unemployed for an extended period, and had finally found work with Prestolite Electric in Syracuse. So we were uprooted from our dream home in Niantic, CT, to stay in a tiny rented house on Warners Road in Camillus, NY (where we thought we were going to build our new home). But after five short months, Prestolite transferred their entire engineering department from Syracuse to Toledo - uprooting us yet again. It was that transfer that brought us to the house near the end of Woodhurst Drive during that first dreary, rainy week of February, 1973.

The house was not an impressive sight, unfortunately. There were at least 4 cookie-cutter houses almost exactly like ours within a two-block radius; there was no grass or landscaping (sod wouldn't come until summer-time), so only a sea of brown mud greeted us. Where we'd lived in Connecticut and New York, there had been scenic areas of hills and trees around our homes - but much of the "newer" part of Crossgates had been built on a treeless, barren patch of cornfield. So seeing our "new home" for the first time was not a spiritual experience for any of us, as I remember.

It's been a shade over 31 years since that fateful week - and after more than 3 decades, the house (the closest thing my family has ever had to an "ancestral homestead") is going on the market. My sister Sue and husband Jeff moved into the house when they got married (shortly after my Mom died in 1992), and they have worked mightily to keep it up. But neither of their health is so good, any more - and with a good-sized yard crying out for maintenance, and two sets of stairs between the bedrooms on the second floor and the washer/dryer in the basement, even things as simple as mowing grass or laundry had become a real trial for both of them.

So when the chance came up for Sue & Jeff to buy a single-floor, no-maintenance condo, there was no real argument - it definitely seemed like the right thing for them to do. As a result, it looks (barring unforeseen financing issues) like "ye olde homestead" could well be in someone else's hands by the end of September.

Several people have asked me how I felt about this - and on the surface, my reaction was between "Yaa-HOOO! Oh yeah, baby!" (for getting Sue & Jeff the heck out of what has become "The Money Pit") and "Ye gods!" (as we contemplate dealing with more than three decades of family flotsam and jetsam). But attachment to the place? No way. After all, some of the worst of my family's history - the crumbling of my parents' marriage, the death of both parents (13 years apart), and all of my benighted experiences of high-school, college, marriage and divorce (and my subsequent entry into recovery) mostly revolved around the blue-&-white two-story on Woodhurst.

In addition, while my dad was alive, it seemed that whenever he would travel, something in the house would inevitably break down or fail. Once my dad died, it seemed that the house continued to subtly fall apart, as if in tribute to his final going-away. I tried to help Mom keep it up - God, friends and neighbors alike know I tried. But somehow, my father's predisposition to handyman-hood never really made it into my own genetic makeup - so ever since Dad's death in 1978, the house just slowly degenerated, despite Sue & Jeff's efforts to keep up with it. In fact, when Mom died, and Sue & Jeff took possession of the house, I would not have faulted them if they had somehow "accidentally" burned the place to the ground, and started fresh somewhere else. (It would have been my number-one option, if our positions had been reversed.)

The last two weekends, I've been in Ohio with Sue & Jeff, starting the process of winnowing down a four-bedrooms-plus-basement house to a 2-medium-bedrooms/no-basement condo. It has felt good to start creating a pile of garage-saleable stuff, as well as throwing out a sizeable amount of formerly-valuable stuff that had just become trash, over time. But like the old song The Way We Were, it seems that "it's the laughter we will remember" - even amidst the memories of some truly yucky times in that household. And somehow, that's what I've been focusing on this last two weeks.

After all, for thirty-one years, this place was "home" for me, no matter where I lived. Anyone could find any of us siblings simply by mailing to this one address, or calling one phone number. There has been more than one person who couldn't even remember my last name (but somehow could still remember my mom's old phone number) who tracked me down that way. But in a few short weeks, those links to our collective past will be irrevocably severed.

So while I won't miss rolling down the badly-patched pavement of Woodhurst Drive, or dragging suitcases up the steep set of stairs to "my" bedroom, nor the remnants of the 30-year-old puke-green carpeting, the baby-blue-metallic-nightmare wallpaper in the main bathroom, or any of the other mechanical or decorating idiosyncracies of the house, I do recognize that it's truly the end of an era for my sisters and me. No matter what, it's going to seem pretty weird not to get off the highway and just head down Heatherdowns or Glendale to the old domicile when I come to visit.

Still, in all my moves over the last six years, I have learned that "home" is not a place, but a collection of people and God-given relationships - so wherever I have people who love me, that is where I am truly "home." Peter, Paul & Mary captured it best in this song chorus from the CD Lifelines:
Home is where the heart is
No matter how the heart lives
Inside your heart - where love is -
That's where you've got to make yourself
At home
So I'm sure that whether I'm at the new condo in Toledo, or with my church and recovery families in Kansas City, or with my seminary and recovery family here in Chicago, wherever love abides, that is where my home will be. And that's a very, very good feeling to know.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Just catchin' up...

...it actually is Sunday morning, now...by 3 minutes, anyway. I'm in Toledo, Ohio with sister Sue as she and husband Jeff get ready to move to a condo within a month. It's been a full...and yet relaxed...couple of days. If only I could live like this, and get paid for it, life would be wonderful. Alas, and alack, it is not to be.

Topics that I've been thinking about, but haven't really sat long enough with 'em to write about, yet:
- The ongoing question of "WIGDIAT?," and why it's really worth asking
- Struggling with the "hey, we may have a job for you" syndrome
- The "so what would you like to do?" conundrum - and the one true answer that nobody seems to want to hear
- Thoughts on leaving the closest thing we have to an "ancestral home," and what really makes a "home," anyway?
- The blessings of truly "old friends"
All those are coming topics...so either you've got something to look forward to, or you can start looking for something really worthwhile to do with your time, I suppose.

For now, I have been over-fed some really, really fresh, high-quality vegetables (corn, green & wax beans) and whipped up a batch of really good sausage-&-zucchini soup, and it's been a great day, although we didn't get as many boxes packed as we could have. We've got a full day scheduled for tomorrow before I head back to The Big City, so maybe the best thing to do would be to just ring the curtain down on today. In fact, I'm almost sure it is. G'night (or g'morning), y'all.

Friday, August 06, 2004

54 degrees...

...who'da thunk it?

I'm in Toledo, back with sister Sue and her husband Jeff, who are embarking on the "we're moving out of the ancestral home into a much smaller condo" adventure. So I thought I'd just bring my laundry home, and wear what I laundered. Smart move, eh?

Except, of course, that what I had in my laundry was t-shirts, summer shirts and shorts. And it's 54 degrees.

Now admittedly, I'm well-insulated enough that I'm generally good in shorts down to about 50-55...but it's also a wee bit breezy here. So it's "brisk and refreshing," to put it mildly. Still, I will take this weather anytime over hot and humid Chicago summers, and just give thanks to God we didn't have to deal with what my friends in Kansas City had earlier this week (heat indices above 105!!).

I hate to admit it, but my mental health and the strength of my faith seems to be stronger, somehow, when the weather is cool and dry. It may sound bad, but God just seems to smile more when my thighs aren't sticking together. So thank you, Lord, for this respite - for all of us whose spiritual fortitude wobbles in the dog-days of summer. And thank You for a really, really easy summer, so far...at least as far as the weather has gone. Some of the rest of it hasn't been quite what I would have chosen...but then, You know I've always been a whiney, demanding so-&-so, and out of Your goodness, love me anyway.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

The news can be SO infuriating....

Getting the New York Times and Washington Post e-mail headline feeds can be such a blessing (because it capsulizes the news into digestable format for me) and such a curse (because I find out what's going on in the world, and it makes me crazy sometimes).

This is one of the "makes me crazy" moments.

In a Post article here (you may have to register - for free - to read it), Halliburton gets fined $7.5 million for accounting errors. That, at first, sounds like a good thing - evil-doers getting their due, eh? I'm all for that - suffering the consequences of one's actions. (I get to do that all the time, unfortunately. )

What blows my mind is later on in the article, where it says that these accounting practices went on from 1998-99, and that in 1998 alone, they erroneously reported $87.9 million, which is 46% of their total earnings. That means that they reported $191 million in income, nearly half of which was fraudulent, and got fined $7.5 million, or only 4% of total earnings, (9%, or not even a tithe, of their illegal earnings).

Now I wouldn't mind if they'd apply that same math to my $75 parking ticket (just for being in the way of the street sweepers)...but no one seems to be looking to help the little guys like me. Maybe a better way would be to base these fines on assets, instead (making it more on the ability to pay, so to speak). Say that my cash on hand at the time was $400, and let's fine me 4% of that, or $16. Then let's fine Halliburton 4% of their cash and equivalents on hand ($1.1 billion, as of 2002), or $44 million, instead. (And then put that money into gasoline vouchers for low-income folks.)

That sounds like a much better answer.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Brennan Manning is my soul brother

These are not my words...but God help me, this just sounds so familiar that I have to share it.
Wernersville, PA, January 2, 1977:
Outside it's dark and below zero. That pretty well describes where I'm at inside. The opening night of an eight-day retreat and I'm filled with a sense of uneasiness, restlessness, even dread. Bone-weary and lonely. I can't connect two thoughts about God. Have abandoned any pretense of prayer: it seems too artificial. The few words spoken to God are forced and ring hollow in my empty soul. There is no joy being in his presence. An oppressive but vague feeling of guilt stirs within me. Somehow or other I have failed Him. Maybe pride and vanity have blinded me; maybe insensitivity to pain has hardened my heart. Is my life a disappointment to You? Are you grieved by the shallowness of my soul? Whatever, I've lost you through my own fault and I am powerless to undo it...

(Journal entry of Brennan Manning, quoted by him in the book Abba's Child)
Ring any bells with you? For me, it was like Manning was reading my mail...or my mind.

This whole topic comes to mind because of my discussions with my spiritual-formation group on Saturday about "Discovering Your Authentic Self," and the process of taking an honest look at oneself. The fact is, over the last four months, I've been down in the same neighborhood that Manning described a number of times. And it embarrasses me to admit it, but with each new delay in finding full-time employment, the doubts and fears come stampeding back.

Is my time here done? Do You really want me to pack up and leave here? Where is the message in all of this? I know that I came here for the right reasons...I couldn't have gotten here, or made it through the year, without Your blessings and Your help. And I know that I have been a blessing - or at least been reasonably non-toxic - to a number of folks...because they've told me so, and I really have no reason to doubt their sincerity. I know that You've given me gifts, and skills, and You sure have given me the willingness to use 'em. But what's the deal now, hmm? Because trust me - this whole "wait and see" thing is getting pretty old, right about now.
And so on.

As I've told a number of people, when these thoughts come to mind, the song lyrics that also come to mind are from the title song to Chris Rice's CD Smell the Color 9:
I would take "no" for an answer
Just to know I heard You speak
And I'm wonderin' why I've never
Seen the signs they claim they see
Are the special relevations
Meant for everybody but me?
Maybe I don't truly know you
Or maybe I just simply believe
Half jokingly, I told my group-mates that very often, I think that my "authentic self" is the one I wake up with -
-the one that says, "Good God, it's morning" instead of "Good morning, God"
-the one whose first waking thought is "Five more minutes?..."
-the one who boots-up in selfish/self-centered/self-seeking mode, and only exits that mode by the grace of a loving, caring Higher Power.
In fact, there are days when if someone said to me, "I met your 'authentic self' over at the mall today," my first thought would be, I hope he didn't hurt you or embarrass you in any way...are you OK? Did the "real me" do you any damage?

In Lutheran terms, we're talking about issues of original sin and sanctification, I think. Is my "authentic self," as Dr. Kurt Hendel would say, "a rot-gut sinner" who can't begin to even want to do good, without the power of the Holy Spirit? Or is my "authentic self" actually the essence of God's Holy Spirit, resident in me, and is what Brennan Manning calls "the impostor" actually the one who hides behind all the neuroses and nonsense, living in fear that my "authentic self" will rise up and assert its dominion over all the trash in my life?

The answer isn't as simple as it might seem. Tucked behind those simple words are issues of creation, God's sovereignty and omnipotence, and some issues about just how true that line about "God don't make no junk" really is.

For now, my credo is that I'm a broken toy, baptized and set free by the Holy Spirit, with an immense skill for forgetting who (and Whose) I really am. For now, this someday spiritual leader is just gonna put his big butt to bed, and start anew on Tuesday.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Wish I could have been Ricky Williams YESTERDAY...

...because I really would have liked to have the option to say "Yes! I'll do just about anything to let go of my marijuana addiction, and hold onto my $3.6 million salary," rather than giving in to the addiction, and throwing a career away.

Now, I admit, playing pro football is a physically-grueling thing...and this ol' body of mine wouldn't take even the practice for 15 minutes. But I'd like to think that if someone said, "Gee, Steve, you have the opportunity to earn more than sixty-five times your last professional salary, if you'd just put down the weed," I might work reasonably hard to make that happen. But not ol' Ricky Williams, player for the Miami Dolphins (see his story here). According to a press release, "Williams has told the Herald his desire to continue smoking marijuana played a role in his decision to retire after five pro seasons" at age 27.

But as much as I shake my head at Ricky Williams, I also have to admit that I've made choices every bit as stupid in my own life. Hell, every time I eat anything containing refined sugar as a Type II diabetic, I am taking a step down the road toward amputations, neuropathy, blindness...not to mention all the side effects of being overweight.

And I also know that money rarely makes the difference. Keith L., a fellow in recovery whose talks I've admired, says that for him, the definition of alcoholism is "not caring about the price of the next drink" [or whatever]. I often wonder...if I went into Dunkin Donuts, ordered coffee and two donuts, and someone said, "That'll be $2.89, plus two toes eventually amputated off your left foot," would I be still be so happy to pay it and walk out the door with the donuts?

One of my best friends, Eric Amundson, is watching his sister struggle for life, after years and years of drug and alcohol abuse. They are watching her individual organs struggle to function after being damaged for years on end. And while I understand what drives us addictive types to "keep on keepin' on," it still makes me crazy. I wish things could be different for her - and I pray for the willingness to make them different for me.

Despite all of that, I have a significant issue with envy going on with Br'er Williams. In fact, I'd bet that tonight there are many, many unemployed people like me who would be willing to do any number of things (moral, immoral, sensible or otherwise) to come up with a tithe of the salary that Ricky Williams let go up in smoke today.

God help him ... and God help me this day (and henceforth) to really, really see the consequences of my actions. What price must we pay to surrender our addictions? The cost - to ourselves, to our families, and to the world - is so terrifyingly high that most of us can't even contemplate it.

WIGDIAT and other fun information...

I get to spend time with some really cool people.

Saturday night, our spiritual-formation group did a "moveable gathering," visiting each person's living space here on campus, and seeing how our personal space reflects our "authentic self." I think there's some value in doing this with any group you'll be working with closely.

I think my 3 cohorts have all been to my place before - primarily for meals - but I hadn't been to the apartments of two of my three buddies. So it was fun to see their abodes, as well as the quirky (and telling) things that showed up in each location. Without convicting anyone by name, some of the more interesting items included a stuffed-animal moose, a "disco Jesus" party light, a pocket copy of the Kama Sutra, a sign saying "WIGDIAT" ("What is God doing in all this?", which is a good question to ask at any time), and a really cool transient/refugee cat named Atticus.

For my part, I shared with my group-mates my mystery wall-hanging of "The Old Irish Blessing" (never did find out who left that for me) as well as family photos and a picture of the only public fountain in which I have ever appeared naked in public. (As you might guess, there's a lengthy story behind that one.)

In fact, one of the things that was neat to discover was something that happened a year ago, about this time. I was winnowing down what I would be taking to Chicago, and what I would be selling, discarding, giving away, or storing at my sister's house in Ohio. In that process, I ditched a lot of stuff, in one way or the other....desks, dressers, tons of books, and a great many things which I had moved at least three times because I was sure I was going to use them someday.

As I was showing them around, and pointing to this book, or that picture, one of my classmates observed, "Everything you have seems to have a story attached to it."

Those who know me, and my penchant for telling stories (or, as my late mother used to say, running on at the mouth) will not be surprised by that. But it's true...most everything I have held onto, I have kept because there is some real personal history with it. And that's a good thing. That's not to say that the stuff I sold or gave away didn't have a story. It's just that the stuff I have has a story that I enjoy retelling - from Fosdick the Gund teddy bear to my parents' 1954 Gregorian Bible.

And in a way, the stories have stayed evergreen with each telling, and the people in those stories somehow always end up cl ose in my heart in the retelling. It seems that even as I was being torn up with severing myself from about half of my possessions, God's guidance was very, very, very clear throughout the process. It was pretty obvious what God was doing in all that - helping me trim down enough to get here, and making sure that what I brought with me was "the good stuff" - the stuff of my life, and both my story and God's story. It didn't feel like that at the time - it felt clearly amputational...but it was, and is, the right thing to do.

That's a good feeling to know.