Monday, November 29, 2004

Continuing the giving of thanks

God, we give you thanks for the bread and the meat, for the shelter of house and the warmth of clothing, for daily work and thoughtful friends, and reasonable margins of security and comfort. Yet others of your children starve, homeless and hopeless, with no sign of human caring, fearing tomorrow more than death. If we do nothing for them, then leave us without your blessing until we learn the ways of mercy. Deliver us from the gross sin of indifference, and make our blessings holy and special to us precisely to the degree that we share them. Amen.
(adapted from Samuel H. Miller, Prayers for Daily Use (New York: Harper & Bros, 1957), p.120)

(Who's this Samuel Miller guy? Learn more here.)

Thursday, November 25, 2004

"Over my shoulder, a backward glance..."

As I start writing this, it is late Thanksgiving eve in Chicago...a snowy, blustery night. My apartment-mate is in the western suburbs with his family for an early turkey-day, since he is stuck working on Thanksgiving Day, so the apartment is empty. The folks at the Garfield Park Conservatory, where I'm doing some temp work, said that we could go home at 2 p.m. - but if I didn't stay there, I wouldn't get paid. (And trust me - I really need to get paid.) So I was the last one out of the building, and took the El (the Green Line) back to Hyde Park about 6 p.m. in the blustery, slushy & snowy slop.

I should be packing to leave for Toledo tomorrow morning. I'm riding with my former schoolmate Barb, whose family is also in Toledo - but the weather prompted us to stay overnight, and leave in the morning. Instead, I took the time to fix myself a pretty decent dinner - a tolerable attempt at "pad thai with shrimp" - and catch up on a bunch of my friends' blogs. It has not been a particularly productive evening, but it's been a good one.

It's one of Paul Harvey's favorite lines...."Over my shoulder, a backward glance..." Those six words signal reflection, introspection, and most of all, a discernment of what is a source of gratitude in life. I've always loved it...and it fits, today.

Am I grateful for this last year? That's a tough call, in a way. I have walked through some long, dark days, and over the last half-year I have felt much more like living in the incinerator than in "the refiners' fire." I have to admit that in the last seven months, I have experienced some of the darkest depression I've encountered in sobriety. I have wept more, and had more Book-of-Job-like run-ins with my Creator, than I would ever have chosen to have in one 12-month period. Can I really be grateful for that?

In fact, if anyone would have told me when I left my job in Kansas City in August 2003 that fifteen months later (and a scant few months from my 48th birthday) I would be on the outside of the seminary community, without permanent employment, without health insurance, without even car insurance, and down to my last few sheckels, trust me...I never would have left. Had I seen what was coming, I would surely have said to God, "We evidently have had a hideous misunderstanding about what 'following God's call' means." So yeah - this has not been the year I would have hoped for, back a year ago.

But despite all that, I am truly grateful for my life - beyond any measure I could share with you.

The four or five times I "hit bottom" in this year (financially, emotionally, and spiritually), there were people who were there to give me a "hand up" (not just a hand-out) when I needed it most. I have found friends who have been willing to pray for me when I have been absolutely unwilling to pray. And I have found amazing insights into my life, and my sometimes wobbly relationship with my God, as a result of it all. It's hard not to be grateful for all that, no matter what it took to get here.

I'm grateful to God, the community of faith and the community of recovery for getting me through the storms of my life, one day at a time. There have been many, many times when "giving up" sounded like the absolute next right thing to do (because I'm a wimp, at heart)...but each time I've come close to the precipice, real live people have acted as God's hands and feet to ensure that I might certainly get "down," but never completely "out."

I'm thankful to my brothers and sisters here at LSTC - first, for the bulk of my classmates who (on the rare occasions that we interact, now that I'm not in school) are still uniformly glad to see me whenever we cross paths. But I'm really grateful for my apartment-mate Tim, and for Laila, Lisa, Barb, Mike and Michelle, who have worked hard to help me stay connected. Along with a few blessed professors who have been willing to listen and encourage, these people continue to let me know that even though I am "walking apart from" the community, I am still "a part of" their lives. That means more than they will ever know.

I give thanks for the sisters and brothers who have supported me financially when I couldn't help myself...Jerry & Bev, the Lentz family (all of you, but especially Nathan), Barry H., the Tea Tin crowd, and a whole bunch of folks whose small but timely gifts kept me from complete and abject failure as a going concern. I owe you all more than just money...I owe you life itself, because that's what you gave me. I'm still a long way from out of the woods - but I never could have made it this far without you. Thank you.

My companions in faith and recovery have meant the difference between spiritual life and death over the last year. Sandy M., Natalie, Mike M., Eric, Norma, Barry, Cherri J., Ben B., Momma Delphine, Larry K., Tim B., Tom S. and Michael D. - as well as Pastor Joe, Pastor John, and my late mentor and surrogate dad, Pastor Tom Housholder - have been encouragers, prayer partners, and recovery partners (both here and in KC). I am so very grateful for the gift of love and friendship you have shared with me. Whatever fractional share of sanity I have today is (in large part) because of you. You have carried me spiritually far more than I have walked - and I give thanks to God for each of you.

One of the great gifts I have received in sobriety is the restoration of my relationship with my sisters, Sue and Sandy. Being closer to Toledo has meant seeing them more in the last year than I have in the prior four or five. And given how long I went (before I got sober) without really expressing to them what they meant to me, I am so incredibly blessed to have them (and their families) in my life.

I'd be incredibly remiss if I didn't mention the online blogging community, who have accepted me, encouraged me, and uplifted me with their faith, their insights, and the power of their stories. To Renee', Rick, Drew, Bobbie, Mommy T., Levi, Poor Mad Peter, Chris (Radio Reb), and so many others - thank you for your incredible honesty, and for sharing your stories, your insights and experiences, and your faith with me. Though we may never meet face-to-face, you are daily proof of what my first AA sponsor told me before I left my hometown for Kansas City: "If you are walking hand-in-hand with God, and I am walking hand-in-hand with God, then you and I are walking together, no matter how many miles lie between us."

All these people - and so many more that I cannot name - form "the cloud of witnesses" that continues to lift me up, to bless me, and to encourage me on my way. How could I not weep with gratitude for those kind of gifts in my life?

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: if (by some accident, medical trauma, or tragedy) this is my last day on earth, I can truly say this: It has been a good day; it has been a good life. I woke up sober, was of service to my sisters and brothers, brought some smiles, shared some joy, and was able both to love and be loved by more people than I can count. Regardless of my material standing in life, that puts me 100% "in the bonus round" of life. I know that my Redeemer lives, and I know I am redeemed; I know the love of God and of my fellow human beings.

That makes me rich beyond all the measure of this world.

I'll be "off the air" for a few days while I'm in Ohio. But you all will be in my heart, wherever you are, and wherever I am.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

An argument for the record books

Is an individual's constitutional right to bear arms superceded by an oil-refinery's right not to risk a cataclysmic explosion?

That is just one of the questions being posed in this AP article discussing a newly passed Oklahoma law that permits employees to keep guns in their locked cars on company property. ConocoPhillips (who has offices and a refinery in Oklahoma) is joining Williams Energy in suing to keep the law from being enacted.

The arguments made in this article by the pro-gun folks are the kinds of things that encourage otherwise level-headed citizens to label gun-lobby folks with some pretty unpleasant names. Let's face it - if Chicago Transit Authority employees on the south side of Chicago (parts of which really are "the baddest part of town") don't get to bring guns with them to the Green Line's park-&-ride, how can anyone possibly justify it in rural Oklahoma? I really have to wonder, somedays...

Back from a sabbatical.... least this one wasn't like the last one, which started off as a brief break...but somehow turned into six months away from the keyboard. Just working a lot, and not entirely firing on all cylinders, mentally or physically. But I seem to have turned the corner - or at least turned a corner...

Thanks to a few of my brother and sister bloggers, who actually cared enough to ask, "Have you fallen, and can't get up?" Happily, the answer is "No, thank God."

Giving thanks for one brave Republican

I may as well confess this up front: for years, I have been an ardent foe of nuclear-weapons development. There is enough literature...popular and support my postition, so I won't belabor the reasons why, I think. But the "children of God" in the Pentagon and the current administration have continued to support the development of tactical nuclear weapons, in clear defiance of our own nuclear non-proliferation treaties.

So imagine my surprise to read this article in the Washington Post, reporting that it was a Republican, Rep. David L. Hobson of Ohio, who led the successful effort to keep the tactical-nuke programs out of the omnibus appropriations bill adopted Saturday. Hobson, in one of the wisest quotes from any Republican that I've read, said that he had been against developing smaller-yield tactical nuclear weapons precisely because someone might think it would actually be possible to use them safely in battle, without consequence or fear of escalation. (Anyone who believes this line of crap should read Greg Bear's classic Eon, which has the most devastatingly accurate projection of what would happen under those circumstances.)

My major objection to tactical nuclear weapons can be illustrated by this fairly gross image. Most people I know would object strongly to my urinating in a toilet, flushing it twice, and then offering them a drink from that (or any other) toilet...because of the relatively tiny risk of mild biological contamination. But even "small" tactical nuclear weapons will toss immense amounts of radioactive fallout into the atmosphere - and the radioactive half-life of plutonium-239 (the major component of a nuclear weapon) is just a hair over 24,000 years. Now, you might actually believe that if I dropped a "bunker-buster" mini-nuke on a fortified bunker in Iraq, that most of the fallout might be limited in scope, and only a small amount would drift across the world to our side of the globe. But using the same toilet analogy, how much deadly-radioactive plutonium in your breathing air is acceptable?

The other terrifying thought is that there are people in the world who really believe that if I use a "mini-nuke" against an enemy, that my enemy won't respond with a "small nuke," against which I'd have to retaliate with a "medium nuke," and so on, until pretty soon the whole earth is on fire. In fact, the very notion of a "controllable nuclear exchange" is the very worst kind of fiction.

Of course, we won't even talk about what half a billion dollars would do if it went into services and programs for "the least of these," instead of senseless weapons development...

So I give thanks to God for Rep. David L. Hobson of Ohio, and I'd urge you to do the same. He's gonna have a particularly hard row to hoe, after messin' in the current administration's Post Toasties. But thank God there are still some people who will vote their conscience, and not their party line.

Friday, November 19, 2004

A drizzly-morning prayer, and reflection

Day after day we pray to you, God, knowing that our words are often poor and wingless, and stumble from our hearts like strangers. Yet we continue to wait for the time when even our anguish and silence will be touched by your healing glory, and we will be one with You in peace and joy. Give us patience in these heavy- burdened days, Lord. Strengthen us to labor at Your gates mighty God, this day and every day, until those gates stand open wide and visible to all, so that every one of us can enter into communion with Your spirit. Amen.
(Samuel H. Miller, "Prayers for Daily Use," page 30)
(Who's this Samuel Miller guy? Learn more here.)

It's a rainy Friday morning in Chicago. As much as I need to, I really don't want to go out in the rain, or stand in the weather waiting for the bus or the El. I'd love for my prayers to soar like eagles, or like the Concorde...high and strong and beautiful. As a wise man once said, "Some of my prayers are Concordes and some are crop-dusters" - and the scale, I'm afraid, is weighted heavily to one side. But I know that both kinds of prayer are welcome in God's sky, regardless how attractive or airworthy they might seem at the time.

My faith may seem to waver and contract with the change in the season - but through the water and the rain of this day,I have have to trust that God is hearing what I'd like to say, and hearing "the part that really matters" in everything I say or do. My heart may be heavy, but God's burdens are light. Which one will I choose? Only by God's help can I choose and live a life that would honor my Creator!

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Good Thursday moanin'

Nothing deep here today - no great "ah-ha" moments...just a case of (happily) untreated life.

Stuff I didn't know - Starting last Monday, I am spending time at the Garfield Park Conservatory - a beautiful place with some wonderful folks working to keep it beautiful. The Chicago Park District owns and maintains the building, all the plantings and the grounds, and the GPC Alliance is the organization which puts on the programs - tours, education events, you name it.

Well, in talking with one of the staff yesterday, I heard her get all excited about something. It seems she was arranging for give-aways for a volunteer appreciation event, and she was quite delighted to find that they were going to be able to "give everyone who attended their very own bag of worm castings!" And she looked at me expectantly, waiting for me to share in her joy.

"OK, I give up," I said, giving her my best "Yeah, I am a doofus" look. "What are worm castings, and why should anyone be excited about getting some?"

I had to ask, eh? Turns out worm castings are, in essence, worm poop -" that which is cast-off" from happy, well-fed worms. (Perhaps baby castings or dog castings would be better language for those by-products, as well.) At any rate, I found this web-page which describes just what a gift this, er, casting is. Turns out the Conservatory has several huge worm beds just exactly for this purpose. Wow.

Stuff I'm glad I experienced - On a much more pleasantly-fragrant note, the folks are setting up for their Holiday Flower Show, which opens the day after Thanksgiving. The GPC folks have moved half-a-dozen miniature orange trees into Horticulture Hall, and each one of them is in bloom. The beauty and delicacy of orange blossoms is a rare thing - incredibly aromatic, and proof once again that, no matter how much some folks might want it otherwise, Nature is still the best advertisement for the handiwork of God in creation. And my encounter is just a small taste of what's in store for encountering God's handiwork at Garfield Park. If you're in the Chicago area, admission is free - and worth it.

Stuff that makes me wonder "where is God in all this?" - while celebrating the endorsement of several very wonderful people I went to school with (the next step on the approval process for ordination), I heard of several folks who I would have said should have gotten endorsed, as well...who weren't. Several of them were postponed (rather than rejected, which would have been the end of the road for them) - and while it's just "not yet," instead of "go away," I certainly can sympathize with them. Because I also learned of several folks who (if I were king of the forest) would never, ever get into ministry...who just sailed through the process. It really makes one wonder.

Stuff I need to write about later on - I've been following a number of bloggers who have been questing deeper into their faith, and finding new and different answers. Some of them have changed the labels and denominations that they feel called toward - and have tickled my own thoughts about faith-formation. Three different bloggers I "know" have talked about suicide - past attempts, current thoughts, and the way that this ultimate escape tempts us (even in, and sometimes especially in - the church. And I've been thinking and reading about what "the ragamuffin church" might look like - and where it's actually happening (as well as my own experiences where it is not).

That's it for now, kids. Gotta go!

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Looking for "my place in this world"

If there are millions down on their knees,
Among the many, can You still hear me?...
Hear me asking, "Where do I belong?"
Is there a vision that I can call my own?
Show me...I'm
Looking for a reason, roamin' through the night to find
My place in this world - my place in this world
Not a lot to lean on, I need Your light to help me find
My place in this world...

(Michael W. Smith, "Place In This World," from the
1990 CD Go West, Young Man
A month ago, one of Renee/iphy's posts talked about being "in a season of that space in-between the death and resurrection." I remember being moved to tears as I read her words, although (for better or worse) that's nothing new. (If I keep on reading Renee's stuff, I'm gonna have to purchase Puffs by the pallet-load!).

Like that old Roberta Flack tune, she was "singin' my life with [her] words." I really identified with this image: "my only prayer is that somehow there is a presence in my emptiness. that somehow there is a holiness in my moments of breathing, of cupped-open hands, in this long waiting i find myself living in." As I've found with all Renee's writing, the stuff this posting helped me dredge up was not comfortable...but was dead-on, nonetheless. (Thank you again, my sister - I think...)

It happened again tonight.

At an AA meeting on the north side of Chicago, God spoke through a man celebrating 30 years of sobriety, when he said, "Now that I'm retired, I am trying to figure out who I am outside of being just a-guy-with-a-career." As he said that, I had one of those "cosmic V-8 moments," and I finally came to understand at least a part of why I've been "stuck" where I am...

In leaving Kansas City, I not only left my job and my address, I left my identity (as a friend among friends, a committed member of powerful communities of faith and recovery, and as a worker among workers) in order to pursue seminary and ordained ministry. In effect, I swapped one identity for another.

Now that it's clear that I won't be able to do the ordained ministry path (at least not for a long while, anyway), the question is: so who is Steve, now, apart from the telecom/church/recovery guy, and apart from ordained ministry? So far, the terrifying answer (the answer I really would rather choke on my own vomit than admit) is this: "For the most part, I don't know."

I hate that.

There is, however, light among the clouds. I may be seeing dimly, but I am not entirely in the "can't-buy-a-clue" column. I know that I know and love Jesus, in a clear and powerful way... even when I struggle to pray, let alone meditate (especially about this topic). I know that by God's grace, I am a sober person in recovery - even when going through these changes, and these doubts, has made a drink sound like a real good idea at times. I know that no matter what denomination or setting I end up in, I will always be Lutheran enough to understand the balance of faith and works as my brother and pastor Joe Crowther put it: "What are you called to do, now that you don't have to do anything?"

And I also know that God has given me these gifts, and these bits of knowledge, for a reason. I'm a pretty darned good actor, but I really couldn't manage to fool all of you, for all this time. So there's got to be something about all this that is beyond just "what I feel." The testimony of the saints vastly over-trumps that one small group of church folk who told me that I have no gifts for ministry, just because I'm deeply in debt.

So what next?

For way too many years, my friend Eric Amundson has been telling me that he didn't see my path in congregational ministry - and that writing was going to be a part of whatever I ended up doing. I'm finally coming to agree with him - both from his own encouraging, that of a number of my friends both in Kansas City and at LSTC, and from the support of a number of new friends in the blogosphere (Rick, Drew, and others) - all of whom have continued to both open my mind and kick my nether-regions when I've needed it. I wanted you to know that I have heard you all.

I'm just grateful to God for each of you - for your prayers, for your encouragement and feedback...and for your putting up with my whining and questioning ad nauseum. (Well, all of you except for my brother Mike Moore - who keeps reminding me that the best place to find "sympathy" is between "sewage" and "syphillis" in the dictionary. Ditto for Eric's dad Jerry, who would second that notion...)

But, to be rigorously honest, I also hope I get some kind of clue about which way to go before I end up I completely broke. (Which ain't too far away, right now. I'm not there yet...but I can see it from here...) "I owe, I owe, so off to work I go..."

Monday, November 15, 2004

Which wolf am I feeding?

An elder Cherokee Native American was teaching his grandchildren about life. He said to them, "A fight is going on inside me...It is a terrible fight, and it is between two wolves. One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, pride and superiority. The other wolf stands for joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. This same fight is going on inside of you and every other person too."

They thought about it for a minute and then one child asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?"

The old Cherokee simply replied..."The one I feed."
I first heard this story from a Cherokee storyteller at the National Storytelling Festival, nearly 20 years ago. (An aside: My sister says you can tell you're "getting old" when you start measuring time in decades. Grrr...)

God's infinite sense of humor comes into play because a friend from Ohio sent me this story via email tonight, as I've been pondering why I find blogging such an important part of my life, right now. As with the two wolves, there are two major motivations for doing this.

The first is more selfless - and is really an extension of AA's 12th step:
Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Most of what I share here is my own encounters - with God, with the communities of recovery and faith, and with the incredible messy journey that is daily living. So some of what I share is closer to the sacred, and some of it is much closer to the profane...but I can't help think of all of it as "holy." Because in the end, I'm sharing my experience, strength and hope about my encounters with God's world and God's kids, in all the messy-ness and order, all the ugliness and beauty that is "life." Several of you have responded to me, saying that you found inspiration (or, at the very least, you have identified with thoughts and feelings that we've had in common) - which has been the answer to many a prayer of mine.

The other part of my blogging personality, however, is completely self-centered, self-seeking, and self-absorbed, and is vastly more interested than being heard than in hearing. It's the part that secretly hopes that you'll just be bowled away by what you read here... the part that checks my own SiteMeter details to see just who is reading me more often than I'd like to admit. In a sad way, it is a part of me that never grew up, and is still the kid who was standing at the side of the gym at junior high dances, waiting to be noticed...the high-school and college guy who would do almost anything to be "a part of" rather than "apart from." I understand that part of me; I just don't like it very much.

It is precisely this person who was much annoyed over the weekend, when a blog-reader emailed, and said what a wonderful job I was doing...and then wrote back a minute and said, in effect, "Oops...I really thought you were somebody else." :-|

Which part will win? "The part that I feed," I guess. And there are days that I'm not sure which side I'm on...both wolves can look very much like each other, at times. Only God will know for sure - so I'm going to trust an old truth that Tom Housholder once told me about the source of my inspiration: "If it's good, it's God...and if it's slop, it's probably Steve."

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Love is patient, love is kind...

Just in case anyone has forgotten, shall we turn our virtual pew bibles to Matthew 22:36-40(NIV)?
"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
Just wanted to make sure we understand what this Jesus guy thinks of how we're supposed to treat our relationships with God and each other. Now, let's hear a portion of a letter to our re-crowned President from a brother in Christ, quoted in the NY Times today (Sunday) by Maureen Dowd:
Bob Jones III, president of the fundamentalist college of the same name, has written a letter to the president telling him that "Christ has allowed you to be his servant" so he could "leave an imprint for righteousness," by appointing conservative judges and approving legislation "defined by biblical norm."

"In your re-election, God has graciously granted America - though she doesn't deserve it - a reprieve from the agenda of paganism," Mr. Jones wrote. "Put your agenda on the front burner and let it boil. You owe the liberals nothing. They despise you because they despise your Christ."
As Ms. Dowd, wrote, "Way harsh." Excuse me while I put in my order for the T-shirt that says, "Yes, I'm a Christian....just not one of them."
The shepherds are senseless and do not inquire of the LORD ;
so they do not prosper and all their flock is scattered.

(Jeremiah 10:21, NIV)

Reflecting on being a ragamuffin

I was going to post this over on my friend Drew's blog, but I guess I wanted to put it here instead...because it speaks to where I am, as well as (hopefully) speaking to him.

I believe one of the reason so many people identify with Brennan Manning (the author of The Ragamuffin Gospel and Abba's Child, among others) is that he is willing to name the monsters within. He picks up "the stranger" that I'd really rather not let anyone else see, and parades him around naked on the front porch. And in so doing, he lets me know that I'm not alone. I'm just like him. (And, if you identify with him, just like you, too.)

One of the things that I appreciate about ragamuffins is that when they name their ugliness amongst themselves, it seems to help defuse the self-hatred and shame that goes with it. It's as if Manning says to me, "Hey, you ever feel like this? Then welcome, buddy - sounds like you're one of us. Or we're one of you. Or something." It makes it harder for me to believe that I'm isolated and unique, even as I'm ashamed of how I feel, or how I fail, or how I react. (Folks in recovery frequently say, "You're terminally unique... just like everybody else.")

This may sound funny, but I'd aspire to be as internally monstrous as Brennan Manning is, was, or ever has been. Because, in the end, God's grace was (and is) sufficient for it would be "enough" for me, too.

I have to be reminded - often, and loudly - that John 3:16 does NOT say, "God so loved the world that He threw open the gates of heaven, and stood at the gateway, tapping His foot, waiting for us mortals to make an agonizing climb up the rope ladder He threw down to us." At a conference once, I heard a speaker say, "Imagine Jesus up there, on the very top row of the stadium, and you're way down here on the floor. Does he call to you and say, 'Come on up'? Or does Jesus say, 'Wait there - I want to be with you so much that I'm coming down to GET you!'"

Trust me - in April of this year, when I heard from my candidacy committee that I should, in essence, "Don't go away mad - just go away," it sure felt like failure. It felt like the church - the assembled Body of Christ - had said, in essence, "Screw you! We don't *want* you, and we don't NEED you." Even now, after 6 months of futzing around, it still feels like that, a little bit. And it's even worse because, financially, I had just one shot at this. I spent nearly 5 years of accumulated capital so that I could move to Chicago, and devote myself to full-time study for ministry. Nine months later, I was essentially told that I never should have come here, because the financial sins in my past negated any gifts I had for ministry. (And yes, they were that direct.)

That can make you feel like a failure, let me tell you...

I have had to be reminded (repeatedly) of a line from a Caedmon's Call's song, "Table for Two" - "...You knew how You'd save me before I fell dead in the garden/And You knew this day long before You made me out of dirt." If I didn't believe that God's will was in the middle of this somewhere, I would have chalked-it-up a long time ago.

One of my anchor verses - the Scripture to which I tie-down in stormy times - says "While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." Hear those 9 words, a little more clearly: while I was, and still continue to be, a monumental, selfish, self-seeking screwup - "Christ died for us." Not just for them - those fictional people who I keep believing have their spiritual, mental, and emotional poop all in a group. For "us", and me.

Do I think that the coldness of the few prayers I want to pray pleases God? Heck, no!
Do I think that God wants - desires - more from me? Absolutely.
Do I think that God looks at my own self-destructive behaviors and obsessions and addictions, and says, "Awww...isn't that cute?" Nope.

But do I think that I can somehow fail the One who spoke the story of the prodigal son? Is there really some obscure footnote in my Bible (or yours) that says, "This passage is appropriate and greatly helpful for most people, but it really doesn't apply to poor, hopeless, helpless, sinful and backsliding sons-o-guns like Steve"?

No way. (Trust me...I've looked. Carefully. Repeatedly.)

To steal a great truth from Max Lucado's Six Hours One Friday: The grace, and love, and forgiveness of Jesus Christ are present in the outstreched arms of Jesus, mirroring the welcoming arms of the prodigal father. Those arms opened wide for all of humanity, for all time - including for you and me.

And to make sure those arms would never, ever close...

...he had them nailed that way.

"Let your light shine before others" - The National Donor Sabbath

On Thursday, I had the blessing to be able to meet with Mike Henderson, the education director of Gift of Hope, the main organ/tissue donor network in Illinois. I've talked about how important I think this is in the past, so I won't bore you (you can check out my earlier post here.) But here's why I keep harping on this - and why I think this is a big deal:

I believe that organ and tissue donation is the ultimate expression of charity and love for one's neighbor. It is as Biblical a practice as you can find - and it is also a place where the actions of a faith community can become really, really relevant to the unchurched world. When we encourage donation of organs and tissues, those donations help "our neighbors" - all of them. Christian or Muslim, churched or unchurched, regardless of color, creed, sexual orientation, economic standing - none of that matters, in this case. Organ and tissue donation becomes the one truly selfless act of charity and love that we can take.

Here is some critical information, that should be known especially by people of faith everywhere:

Only 5% (one out of 20!) of all registered organ & tissue donors will likely be able to donate organs. It's a complicated issue - but basically, if a potential donor dies a "cardiac" death (e.g., heart attack, most disease processes, old age) the organs do not stay viable enough for transplant. Tissues are still OK (eyes, skin, blood vessels), but not organs (heart, kindey, lungs, liver, etc). Only the 5% (or so) of people who die "brain death" - stroke, aneurysm, some type of trauma that causes brain death, but where a person's organs can be sustained on a ventilator - can actually donate those organs. So it's critical that everybody who possibly can sign up as an organ-donor actually does sign up - just to make that 5% as big as possible!

Family support is critical! Nationwide, only about 50% of the people who actually signed their drivers' licenses, or universal-donor cards, ever get to donate - because no matter what, the donor's family has the last word on whether donation happens or not!! You can be "on the table," with a signed and witnessed organ-donor card, but if the family says "no," that's it. Period. That's why it's so important that you get your family members to be the "witnesses" on a driver's license or an organ-donor card, and why you need to tell them what you want, and how important it is to you.

Almost every major faith tradition supports organ and tissue donation. This is what I spent most of my time talking with Mike Henderson about - the fact that churches (and especially seminaries!) need to educate potential chaplains, pastors, teachers, Stephen Ministers, and anyone-who-will-listen about their faith traditions' stand on organ and tissue donation. You can go here to the Gift of Hope clergy resources, and see how various religious traditions view organ and tissue donations, as well as "10 ways you can help."

Mike pointed out an important concept to me... one that it seems almost no one understands. Deciding about organ and tissue donation - the gift of life and hope to those who live on after we die - is as much a part of "end of life decisions" as funeral planning, buying insurance, or a living will. The time to decide about being an organ/tissue donor is not when you, or your spouse, child, parent or friend is lying in ICU on a ventilator! Many times, baseless fears about preserving the physical completeness of one's body (sometimes, based on fears about jeopardizing "the resurrection of the body") prevents people of faith from donating organs and tissues.

The second Sunday before Thanksgiving is always the observance of The National Donor Sabbath. Please - put it on your church's worship and education planning calendars for next year. Wherever you are, find your local organ-donor network at The Coalition on Donation, and hook up with them. Look at how your faith community can partner with schools and civic organizations to build participation and awareness for this worthy cause. What a simple way for communities of faith to say, "Our faith and our beliefs matter - not just inside this building, but out in the world!"

My own ongoing crusade will be to reach out through the Association of Chicago Theological Schools (the ACTS consortium) to try to get this message out to every person who's preparing for clinical pastoral education (CPE) sessions. The 12 ACTS-member seminaries have almost 2,500 students - a significant number of them headed toward pastoral or chaplaincy roles. Those students, along with faculty and staff, could be an incredible resource in breaking down walls of ignorance about this topic. And let's face it - who will end up involved in end-of-life situations more than these people will?

Saturday, November 13, 2004

I wouldn't have guessed this - not at first, anyway...

But it's close, I guess...check it out for yourself...thanks to Bobbie for the clue-in!

What Common Breed of Dog Are You?

brought to you by Quizilla

Life imitates art...again...or still

OK, so I never was much of a fan of author/director Terry Southern - best known for "Easy Rider" and "Dr. Strangelove." I only vaguely remember the movie "The Magic Christian," which is neither about magic nor Christians, really.

But as this Washington Post article shows, Southern's art is very, very much the vogue, decades after he was largely declared to be a non-event in the media world. Reading this article, I wonder why one of these hopeless "reality" shows hasn't stolen a page out of Southern's playbook.

Or maybe they have.

[As an aside...if I'd known that "Dr. Strangelove" was (in the word's of Southern's web site) "John Kerry's favorite movie," would it have changed my vote?...hmmm....]

So you don't think write-in votes can change the world?

Don't tell the folks in San Diego that. They know better. Click here to see the story. (You'll probably have to register - for free - but it's worth it.)

Thank you, Donna Frye, for the courage to change the things you can.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Getting angry at "what sucks"

I've found quite a number of kindred spirits out here in the blogosphere. One of them who consistently probes the balloon of my self-image and beliefs with a sharp needle is Rick, author of a new life emerging. The other day, he posted this entry entitled "Focusing on What Sucks... Sucks." It's definitely worth reading - and since my attitude, when I read it, was closer to "raw-sewage-brown" than "blue-sky," it was exactly what I needed to read at the time... and I told Rick so. (I find that God's economy is pretty amazing, that way...when the student is finally ready to hear, the teacher appears.)

However, this afternoon I read something by Chris over here at Radio Rebellion about the Iraqi war, and it just set me off. This topic has the ability to fire me up like few you can no doubt tell from my comments/sermon/rant at the bottom of his post.

I know, in my heart, that anger and resentment are poisonous to me. I can stay in the negative, and just spiral down into hopelessness, helplessness, and rage - in a New York minute. The book Alocholics Anonymous tell me that
Resentment is the "number one" offender... From it stem all forms of spiritual disease...It is plain that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness. To the precise extent that we permit these, do we squander the hours that might have been worth while... [For those] whose hope is the maintenance and growth of a spiritual experience, this business of resentment is infinitely grave. We found that it is fatal. For when harboring such feelings we shut ourselves off from the sunlight of the Spirit. (Alcoholics Anonymous, chapter 5, pages 64, 66)
And later on, it also clearly says that
We try not to indulge in cynicism over the state of the nations, nor do we carry the world's troubles on our shoulders. (chapter 9, page 132)
My struggle is, how do I get angry at injustice, at injury, at actions and beliefs which are clearly against the greater good, and stir up resistance to evil... and at the same time, maintain my sanity and serenity, without which I'm as good as dead?

You see, for better or worse, I am a child of the 60's and 70's. There was an awful lot of Peter Paul & Mary, Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie mixed in with my rock-&-roll diet. There didn't seem to be a single neighborhood that was untouched by the Vietnam war - no church that had not had a flag-draped casket in its sanctuary. Even though I was only five when Martin Luther King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, I came to understand that racism was something worth getting angry about, and racial injustice needed to stop. As a teen, one of my mentors was Bob Walker, a youth-group advisor who often used the supposed-Buddhist acronym ITCTWWSOFCN - which he translated as "impossible to change the world while sitting on fanny contemplating navel."

Even in my brief sortie into seminary life, I have encountered folks like Heidi Neumark (read a wonderful interview with her here), Ed Chambers, Kim Bobo and the National Interfaith Council for Worker Justice and a whole bunch of folks like them, who believe that anger over injustice, and taking action to right those injustices, is part and parcel of where Jesus calls them in their faith walk.

Nicky Gumbel, one of the central figures in the Alpha Program, starts the first recorded talk of the Alpha series with "Christianity: Boring, Irrelevant, Untrue?" We will talk about charges 1 and 3 later, but for me, #2 was definitely true. What I found in church seemed completely irrelevant to what I was living and breathing at the time. And even though much of that was formed as a rebellious teenager, I have to say that much of my experience in the church today echoes that experience.

I have to believe that if the Church - emergent, pre-emergent, mainline, you name it - is going to remain relevant in the world, we need to continue to understand that following Christ isn't defending the world from the GLBT community, and it isn't ensuring the permanence of one-man-and-one-woman. It means two Great Commandments, and one Great Commission - and being willing to take a stand on what doesn't fit into that very, very large spiritual triangle.

And, as an old friend would say, "that's worth gettin' het-up about."

That's probably not the last word I'm gonna write on this...but for now, it'll do.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Want a laugh?

Check out this article. It's exactly what I needed today.

Veterans Day: "A Pittance of Time"

Take two remember.

Our neighbors in Canada (where Veterans Day is "Remembrance Day") have produced a beautiful video about remembering veterans. Follow this link to read the story, and watch the's worth every minute. I admit that I can be a weepy sap at times, but this one brought unashamed tears to my eyes. Spread it around, girls and boys.

And, if you're traveling this weekend, and see one of our servicemen (and women) as you go, stop and tell them what another blogger suggested: "I'm grateful for your service."

I don't have to agree with the policies that started - or perpetuate - this war, or any other. But I'm very, very grateful for the men and women who believe enough to put their lives on the line.

To every person who has ever served in the armed forces, in any capacity: "thank you" is a poor substitute for the gratitude in my heart for you. I hope my life and my faith can in some way be a repayment for your service.

Happy Veterans Day.

A mix of really good/weird/cool news

Good news/bad news: It seems I am going back to work on Monday. Bad news is, they only pay on the 15th and 30th, so I still need some money before then. God, help me never to get in this situation again, huh?

Weird news: This quote from Micah Jackson's blog caught my eye: It seems that, fed up with their working conditions, clergy in Canada’s United Church have decided to try collective bargaining. And, they’ve decided to join up with the Canadian Auto Workers Union. No, I am not kidding.

Cool news: Have stuff you want to get rid of? Willing to let it go for free to a good home or cause? Then you need to check out FreeCycle!

It's a group of Yahoo mail groups that post stuff that is available, or stuff that is wanted, and exchange things, all for free. I heard about it on another blog, went to their site, and found that the ChicagoFreeCycle group has been up for more than a year.

I had my dad's old Argus C3 rangefinder camera - but I've already got an SLR and a digital camera, so I really didn't need it - but I didn't want to just throw it away (and ebay would only offer a couple bucks for it). But I posted it on FreeCycle, and from 1 AM to 8 AM, I got 12 requests for it! One is a young man who's getting into photography again, and his story sounded best of all of 'em. Very worthwhile - I'm a believer! (If you join, DO read the emails about posting frequency. Your inbox could get flooded if you don't.)

That's it - I'm off and running. (Well, I've been "off" for some time, and as for "running," it's more like a slow trot. You know what I mean.)

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

These are not my words...

...but they bring great hope for me...and perhaps for you, too. It seems I found this exactly when I needed to find it.

This is a quote from CS Lewis, taken from Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, (chapter 21, para 2, 4, 6-7, 10-12, 16) which are excerpted in Wayne Martindale & Jerry Root's classic The Quotable Lewis, under the heading "Devotions". (By the by - if you're going to own one CS Lewis book, get this one. It's amazing...)

In hearing Lewis' words, I find hope that my own faith is not so singularly weak as I would suspect. And hearing his rigorous honesty about his struggle with his prayer and devotional life, I find encouragement that this is not something that I struggle with, alone. So step up to the microphone, Br'er Lewis:
The truth is, I haven't any language weak enough to depict the weakness of my spiritual life. If I weakened it enough it would cease to be language at all. As when you try to turn the gas-ring [burner on a gas stove]a little lower still, and it merely goes out.

...Prayer is irksome. An excuse to omit it is never unwelcome. When it is over, this casts a feeling of relief and holiday over the rest of the day. We are reluctant to begin. We are delighted to finish. While we are at prayer, but not while we are reading a novel or solving a cross-word puzzle, any trifle is enough to distract us...

The odd thing is that this reluctance to pray is not confined to periods of dryness. When yesterday's prayers were full of comfort and exaltation, todays will still be felt as, in some degree, a burden....What can be done
for - or what should be done with - a rose-tree that dislikes producing roses? Surely it ought to want to?...

The painful effort which prayer involves is no proof that we are doing something we were not created to do...I must say my prayers today whether I feel devout or not; but that is only as I must learn my grammar if I am ever to read the poets.

...I have a notion that what seem our worst prayers may really be, in God's eyes, our best. Those, I mean, which are least supported by devotional feeling and contend with the greatest disinclination. For these, perhaps, being nearly all will, come from a deeper level than feeling.

For the gift of honesty, for the gift of language - and for the gift of speaking from the heart, even when it hurts - I give thanks for CS Lewis today, Lord. Amen.

A Tuesday morning prayer

Teach us, God, how to be humble in praying, though we may not kneel; how to turn our sight to the inner world of life as we close our eyes; how to cease from restless labors while we fold our hands in peace. If, in prayer, your mercy comes like healing on our unquiet hearts, teach us how to share it with one another. If life has left us shaken, be a rock for our questing feet. If we have grown confused amid the storm of circumstance, be a mighty peace steadying our hands and hearts. Be with us, we ask you, for Christ's sake. Amen. (Samuel H. Miller, Prayers For Daily Use (NY: Harper & Bros., 1957), p. 27.)
(Who's Samuel Miller? Check it out here.)

Monday, November 08, 2004

A night for mulligan stew

Lots of random neurons firing tonight - no concerted grand opus of philosophy tonight. Definitely in 4-wheel "ragamuffin" mode...

Employment: After some steady temporary employment, I have again hit a dearth of income. This is getting ridiculous. At this rate, I'm not going to be able to stay in this city much longer. And maybe...just maybe...that is the message that I haven't wanted to hear. I don't know...there is such promise here, and I am finally starting to see some light in "recovery" from my depression and spiritual struggles. But I can't take much more of this financial really is a spirit-crusher. And the longer I go without work, and the further behind I get, the more hopeless it looks. It's just getting hard to suit up and show up, as they say. More interviews tomorrow - 8:30 and 10 AM, 1:00 PM CDt. We'll see.

Election aftermath: I almost hate reading the news - especially as I hear the loving "Who's yo' daddy?!?" talk from Catholics and evangelical Christians. Consider this quote from an AP article on Yahoo tonight:
"There is no reconciliation between good and evil," wrote Mary Ann Kreitzer of Les Femmes, an organization of conservative Roman Catholic women. "Voters rejected the party of gay activists, radical feminists, the Hollywood elite, pornographers, death-peddlers, anti-Christian bigots and apostate Catholics."("Liberals Dismayed by 'Moral Values' Claims," By David Crary, AP National Writer, Mon Nov 8, 6:10 PM ET)
Well, I guess it's helpful to know where I stand...evidently stuck with the anti-Christian bigots, standing in opposition to the Christian bigots. God help us all.

One hopeful voice, at least, comes from (are you ready? dun dun duh DUH!) the ELCA. In the same article, we read this:
However, the Rev. Stephen Bouman, a New York-based bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, worries that conservative Christians' definition of "moral values" may be too narrow to accommodate those of different faiths and backgrounds, including new immigrants. "One thing Jesus was absolutely clear about was helping the poor, and the welcoming of strangers," Bouman said. "Maybe this election was a wake-up call to have a serious conversation about what morality means, to look at what sort of country we're becoming."
Boy, you think?

Life in Chicago: I had the opportunity to learn a great deal about a notorious case of police brutality in Chicago several years ago. I'm not sure what was more horrifying - the idea of what the "to protect and serve" boys and girls can do to a fellow human being, or the blase' attitude of the fellow members of the "focus group" I was a part of. Two things - one, it astonished me how much the black members of the group bought into the concept that a white man in Hyde Park is worth more than a black man on Kedzie Ave. The other thing was that when I asked how this kind of violence was even possible, at least two people visibly shrugged and said, almost as a chorus, "Well, this IS Chicago, after all..."

That was on Friday. Saturday and Sunday, as I walked or biked around Hyde Park, I found myself freezing to the spot whenever a Chicago police vehicle drove by. I found myself just terrified of doing anything - or worse yet, being seen as doing anything - that might attract their ire (or worse, their action). Now, I learned as a wee bitty boy that if someone in authority says "Stop," you stop. But trust me, I'm going to be a lot more careful of what I'm doing when they're around, from now on.

Issues of faith and church: I've stumbled across more than a couple blogs that are arguing the same-old-sameold - is (or isn't) the church the "inerrant" Bride of Christ? Do you really have to believe in that silly resurrection stuff to be a real Christian? Is communion received from a woman "irregular and invalid"? It just makes me wonder, when we argue the things that Paul believed were "as of first importance", we "take our eyes off the prize," and I believe there's weeping in heaven.

That's it, y'all. Keep me in your prayers tomorrow as I go to do the job-interview thing.

Same message, different words

Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit. (Psalm 51:10-12, King James Version)
God, make a fresh start in me, shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life. Don't throw me out with the trash, or fail to breathe holiness in me. Bring me back from gray exile, put a fresh wind in my sails! (same passage, from Eugene Peterson's "The Message")
Sometimes it helps me to hear things just a little differently...

I've been thinking about - and amazingly enough, sometimes even praying for - a sense of renewed purpose in my life. Part of me, sad to say, doesn't want me to have to change, but has been waiting for God's mind to change about how things have been in my life.

And yet, another part of me has wanted to just open the door, and throw out all my old hopes, dreams, and fears, and say to God, "I need to empty out all of what I thought I wanted, or needed, or been afraid I would (or woudn't) get. Would you help me clear out my mind, and soul, and fill me with what You want?"

And this morning (for some reason) I woke up early...just snapped awake at 5 AM. So I padded over to the computer to reflect what God would want in the posting I needed to do for my home church's email devotion list today...and this passage came to mind.

Now, I've been hearing the original King James version of this ever since I came back to faith, 14 years ago. And, God help me, there have been times that I have heard it (and said it) like this:
(And I'm reasonably sure I'm not the only one who's ever done that.)

That's why "The Message" is such a gift to me - it says things in ways that just slaps me awake and says, "Do you hear what you're reading?"

Create a Genesis week in me from the chaos in my life, Lord. Start with the raw matter of my life - the mud and the gunk and the goo - and begin Creation all over again in me. Don't toss me out, like I sometimes feel You should, as the trash I certainly can become, most days. Blow the fresh wind of your Spirit through the stale air in the rooms of my heart.

In the gray light of a cold Monday morning, remind me of the beauty of your Creation. Fill me with Your vibrant color - the reds, yellows, blues, greens and purples of your living Rainbow - the sign of Your covenant with us.

Help me sail out onto the seas of life today, toward the unknown shores of Your plan for my life, filled with Your spirit, and not my own. Let there be joy in my journey today, Lord - that others might see You in me, and share in that joy. Amen.

(Only problem is, now I'm ready to go back to bed...figures.)

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Identifying "defining moments"

Over the last couple weeks, I've had more than a few people ask variations on the same question:
"I like what you write...but I don't have time to read your entire blog, from start to finish. Can you point me toward the entries in your blog that say what's really been going on with you?"
Well, that got to be kind of tough...because the last year - and certainly the last six or seven months - have been a bit of a rollercoaster. But I went through, and picked out a group of entries that were "defining moments" - points in time where I either had to make a decision (or survive someone else's decision); points where my path has changed (for better or worse); and points where I've shared some past moments that have shaped my life, my faith, and/or my recovery. So I've gathered them together, and put them into a "Defining Moments Postings" box in the sidebar.

Now, I can assure you - you won't be able to read these few postings and know my life, my faith, or my entire stand on any particular theme or issue. But for my new friends, this is a way to "catch up," I guess, and see the "big ticket items" in my personal inventory over the last few months I've been blogging.

Looking back since I restarted blogging at the very end of June, I can certainly say, "...what a long, strange trip it's been." And I'm sure it will be a growing, evolving, changing time, going forward, too.

I'm eager to see where the road leads...

It's not a "military draft"...just an "involuntary activation"

Congratulations, America...we made it 5 days (120 hours) after the election before the first lie of the nouveau Bush administration comes to light.

Remember the claims that we would never have a draft? Well, this story from the Associated Press puts the lie to that one. In the same way that "genocide" becomes "ethnic cleansing," "miltary draft" becomes "an involuntary activation" of 5,600 soldiers.

My next impossible goal will be to introduce legislation that only people who voted for the incumbent president (and his foreign policy) get called up and sent to support his personal multi-hundred-billion dollar ego-fest in Iraq.

This whole war - and its continued anointing by conservative pro-Bush Christian leaders as a "just action" - simply infuriates me. As of today, 1,278 US soldiers have died - and more than 8,000 wounded - fighting this war. (This report, back in February 2004, listed fewer than 600 KIAs - killed in action - and 2,600 US wounded. It's been a busy 9 months, eh?)

Do we really have to run the numbers up to Vietnam-era ranges - 54,000 or so - before we figure out that no one ever changed the hearts and minds of a people with guns? I dare you - go to CNN's site, here, and look at the faces (and ages) of those who have died. Look into those faces and say, "Yup - based on what we now know, continuing to let our men and women die for this cause sounds like a good idea.

Don't call me "un-American." And don't say I'm not supporting my troops. I have the utmost respect for the skills and the commitment of our soldiers, and I love my country - I just hate what is being done in its name, and I hate the waste of humanity on a useless cause. And I hate the incredible waste of our scarce resources that are being sucked up in this desert boondoggle.

The tragic, cowardly actions of the US media mean that we don't get to see the casualties, like we did in Vietnam. We don't hear the butcher's bill on the news each night, or see the mangled bodies of US soldiers, fighting people who don't want us there.

Again. Another Republican administration. Another hopeless, endless "police action."

God, forgive us...we know what we do, even if we don't want to look at it. Give me the strength to object, to call attention to what is happening, to help my anger over injustice overcome my despair. Show me what I can do.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Looking for the *next* president

Wow...hearing some really pithy remarks in the blogosphere about the election (and God help me, but I can't help but agree). We'll talk more about the Shiite-Christians and their impact on this election later. But for now, you really, really need to go here and read a great specification for a REAL president of the US. God only knows where we'll find one...but if we could, I'd vote for them in a nanosecond.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Seeking strength in brokenness

When my heart is broken, when my life is torn,
shepherd me beyond my grief and loss...

Shepherd me, O God –
Beyond my wants, beyond my fears,
From death into life.

- Marty Haugen, "Shepherd Me, O God," from Turn My Heart: A Sacred Journey from Brokenness to Healing (GIA Music, 2003).

A fellow blogger hundreds of miles away, this morning...a fellow seminary student down the block, this afternoon...a new parent in the next timezone, this evening...each of them have said to me today, in so many words: "I don't know if I can hang on."

God have mercy, but I understand that.

In November, 2003, when I heard from my denomination's candidacy committee that my formal entrance to the ordination process would be delayed indefinitely, I plunged into a depth of despair that I thought was impossible to reach outside of the death of a loved one. Despite my outward "I'm hangin' in there" declarations, on the inside I flat-lined, spiritually.

My prayer life went straight to hell, my Bible seemed to weigh a thousand pounds, and it seemed be filled with useless ancient writings that could not begin to address my pain. Worst of all, I felt that I had to hide my spiritual collapse from everyone, so that they didn't see what a fraud and spiritual midget they had reposed their trust in. The more the shock wore off, the deeper the despair became.
Through my days of weeping, through my sleepless nights,
shepherd me within Your loving arms...
It was just about 3 months afterward, on February 8th, that composer Marty Haugen appeared at LSTC to perform his work, Turn My Heart, including this song, "Shepherd My Heart, O God."
When the waves rush o’er me, When I’m sinking down,
Shepherd me beyond the roaring deep...
Over the intevening months, this song has ministered to me in more ways than I could ever describe - even when my prayer and devotional life was all but dead, and my faith seemed all but gone.

Now, don't get me little song (or, for that matter, the rest of the beautiful songs on the CD) didn't "make everything OK," by any means. (I'm still waiting to be "poofed wonderful" again.) But it did give me an enduring image of myself as a lost sheep... lost, alone, hopeless, screwed, and feeling like I was about to die...and a Shepherd who would seek me (and even catch up to me) no matter how far I ran away or how much I kept bleating about being screwed.
When my spirit fails me, when all hope is lost,
shepherd me from death into new life...
Over the last six months, I had the same candidacy committee reaffirm my "postponement"; two days later, my mentor, pastor and friend died of a heart attack. I lost my funding for my studies, and it seemed that every place I turned, I couldn't find a job to save my life. I had to ask friends for help just to keep my lights and phone on. I found temporary work, had it run out...there have been a number of times over the last months that curling up in a ball and retreating from the world (in any number of ways)sounded like a damn good idea.

I wish I could say I was all better now - but it would be at least a partial lie. I'm still without permanent employment...and discouragement on that topic sets in about every 2 days. There are still days when it's tough to even want to get out of bed...let alone "put my best foot forward" in the job search. I've found a bunch of lame excuses for churches, and a couple good ones...but none that really cries out, "You're finally home." And with my fellow seminarians in class (and me sitting out a semester, for financial reasons) life can get pretty damned lonely here in the big city.

But, on my best days, I remember what my first AA sponsor told me - "God has not carried you this far to drop you on your [butt], Steve" - and I try my very best to act on that belief, even though it can seem like a flickering candle in a tornado at times. And a couple times, he has called to remind me of a time early on, when he asked me if I could just not drink - nothing else, just not drink - for one day. With some disdain, I acidly replied, "Hell, Bob, any [fool] can do anything for ONE day." That's when he replied, "Yeah...but can YOU?"

On days like today, I have to remember that I am not "some special kind of fool," but just "any fool." And I have to remind myself, and others, that "one day at a time" doesn't mean "forever" - it really does mean "just this 24 hours." As a wise man from the First Step House in Des Plaines, IL once told me, "Steve, if you haven't been drunk, high, naked in public, or shot at, and if you haven't used a vulgarity in the final draft of a're having a good day."

And so, I am. And probably, so are you. It may not have been the day you'd choose - mine certainly wasn't, in several respects. But there are still many, many things for which I am of family, friendships that endure beyond my failures, and a God that can endure my sinfulness and backsliding, and still welcome home a prodigal child like me. Just like you, I only have to make it through this one day...and even when I run away from God like a bleating sheep, I know there is One who will leave the 99 to search for me.

And that's a good feeling to know.
Shepherd me, O God –
Beyond my wants, beyond my fears,
From death into life.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Gentle prayer request

Jerry Motsinger, husband of my dear friend Sandy Motsinger in Prairie Village, KS, is going for surgery today to have a cancerous kidney removed. Take a moment and pray for Jerry, for the surgeons and nurses that will treat him and care for him, and that the cancer is as contained as it appeared to be in their pre-surgical tests. I can't be there - so I trust that your prayers will help carry my friend and her husband through this rough spot.

(It's at times like this that being 590 miles from my long-term friends is really, really annoying.)

Toto, we aren't in Lake Wobegon anymore

I am, among other things, a storyteller. So when I got a last-minute chance at tickets to see Garrison Keillor's performance (part of the dedication of the UC-Comer Children's Hospital) I couldn't resist. I'd only heard Keillor as part of the Prairie Home Companion programs on public radio - once, I even saw him do a PHC broadcast from KC's Starlight Ampitheatre, which was cool to be at. So I was looking forward to more-of-the-same.

Gee, was I wrong.

Before the performance started, my classmate Kris B. shared with me that she'd gotten an email from Kerry campaign HQ, urging the Kerry volunteers to work for unity and reconciliation. However, it was clear that Keillor didn't get the email. One of his first volleys suggested that, having worked for the Kerry campaign, Keillor's next "hopeless cause" would be a constitutional amendment to withdraw American citizenship (and the right to vote) from Evangelical Christians. His logic was that (a) since evangelicals only have "one book" from which to review and learn (and are so content with home-schooling), they don't need to avail themselves of public schools; (b) since they can trust in the Lord for healing, they don't need access to health-care; and so on. In short, according to Keillor, since God is the answer to so much of their lives, evangelicals didn't need access to "real life" in America at all. The largely-Demoncratic crowd at the UC Rockefeller Chapel roarded their approval.

It was cute - and funny...and yet so unhelpful. Even as I laughed along with Keillor and the crowd, I thought, "This may be what we want, but it is definitely not what we need.

Lord God, eternal Three-in-One, help us find our way from separateness to unity.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

This is SO not "building the Kingdom"...

For conservative evangelicals, there is far more at stake in the presidential elections than just gay marriage. "The right to be a Christian in this country is at stake," said Gregory Quinlan at the Solid Rock Church in Monroe, Ohio on Sunday. (from "Ohio voters set to approve controversial anti-gay marriage measure," Mon Nov 1, 3:00 PM ET [AFP news article quoted on Yahoo! News, Nov. 2, 2004])
No, Mr. Quinlan, I'm sorry. It's not.

However, given the tone of your comment, it does seem that the right to be anything but a Christian is at stake.

Now this may sound strange, coming from a Christian who dreams of being a pastor some day, but I fully support people's right to not be Christian. Part of my own life-story is that I wanted nothing to do with Christians, or Christianity, for 17 of my first 34 years of life. No, I didn't firebomb churches or file lawsuits against prayer in schools. I just didn't want anything to do with Christ or Christianity. Period.

These days, I spend a lot more time with Christ and Christians than I could have ever imagined back then. But I still support the right of individuals to not even like Christians (though I draw the line on acts that are in any way harmful to them). It's hard to remember, but even while Jesus walked the earth he didn't expect everyone to follow him. In fact, he gave some very specific instructions to his followers for the cases where they (and their message) were not welcomed.

I'm going to leave aside the questions of "is 'it' a choice?" and gay marriage, because those are topics for another posting. But I'm much more scared by folks who think that those who disagree with Christianity are a threat to the very existence of Christians. To me, comments like Mr. Quinlan's are inflammatory fear-mongering, and only serve to broaden the rift between Christians and non-Christians (the very rift we are called to bridge in our practice of the Great Commission).

Yes, I know...Jesus did talk about separating the sheep from the goats, and he did talk about judgement that is to the end of the age. But this is also the Son of God who sat (and had table fellowship) with tax collectors, bar owners and prostitutes; Emmanuel ("God with us") who hung out with the very least (and the most undesirable) of us.

I will continue to say this: the treatment of "those-who-have-the-least" by "those who have the most" in this country is as stunning a condemnation of the state of Christianity as any that could be conceived by a non-Christian. No perceived sexual perversion, no so-called assault on family values is as devastating to the cause of Christ as our own failure to love our neighbors as ourselves, and care for them as the Good Shepherd and the Good Samaritan would do.

As election day draws to a close, I truly believe that the right to be a Christian is not at stake in this election...and that saying so is the spiritual equivalent of yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theatre. But I do believe that the practice of following Christ is very much at risk - but mostly from the voices of those who would focus on the splinter in others' eyes, and ignore the log that is lodged deeply in our own.

Have mercy on us, Lord...despite the fact that most of the time, we know exactly what we do.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Absolutely hysterical!

Thank you, Lisa, for the link to Movies in 15 Minutes!

So far, I've read through Troy and The Day After Tomorrow - and they are both amazing. Cleolinda Jones is an incredible talent (which, of course, means I envy the hell out of her writing!).

Troy is especially funny for the LOTR references alone. I did find that it's easier to read this if you go here to figure out who's-on-first.

Seven hours and counting

No deep theology here (for which some may be very thankful). The voting polls open at 6 AM Central time, here in Chicago, and I plan to be there, first thing.

In the community of recovery, I am blessed to spend time with a number of felons. Being in prison changes the way you look at life on a number of different levels, and I'm grateful that these men have been willing to share their lives and their souls with me. It's a rare privilege, and one that I don't take lightly.

Election Day is one of those days that generally make these guys feel very much "apart-from," because one of the rights they have to give up after their conviction is the right to vote. And especially in an election year like this one, where every single vote is going to matter, it really has annoyed several of them to have to be on the sidelines.

That's why I will be up and out the door early tomorrow, even though I don't need to be up that early. By sheer grace, I was never arrested for any of the things I did in my past, so I still have that privilege. And because I can, I must. It's just that simple. Every single vote may mean the difference between victory and defeat on Tuesday; there are no insignificant or meaningless votes this season.

Thank you, God, for the ability and the privilege to vote. Help me to exercise that gift with wisdom and strength. Protect our candidates - the ones we vote for and the ones that we don't - and the voters, and the innocent ones who are standing targets. Amen.

Monday, November 01, 2004

The classic of election-year humor

While walking down 55th St. with me, roommate Tim looked up and spotted this sticker, comfortably nestled between "Barack Obama" and "Kerry/Edwards" stickers on someone's front window.

When he pointed it out to me, I almost wet myself.

You can see the cartoon that triggered the whole craze here. Yet another catchy idea I wish I had come up with....

Still needing re-formation

For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus...For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.
(Romans 3:22b-24, 28)
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:8-10)

For much of the Protestant world, Sunday was Reformation Sunday. In churches around the world, organs thundered out the fight song of the Reformation, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," as festival worship services commemorated the actions of an Augustinian monk who was simply looking for some theological debate...a monk named Martin Luther who, by the act of posting 95 discussion-points of his disagreement with the Roman church, ignited the Protestant Reformation.

It's kind of humorous, I guess...but here in Hyde Park, on the south side of Chicago, the Lutheran churches have wised up: there are no wooden doors to which anything could be nailed, either at the seminary or at the Lutheran campus ministry across the street. In fact, any incensed Lutheran theologian at LSTC would have to walk across our common courtyard to the massive wooden doors of McCormick Theological Seminary to perpetrate an act of dissent (and one could only imagine what the Presbyterian reaction to defacing those beautiful doors might be).

History books will tell you that the Reformation officially began on October 31, 1517 when Luther nailed his "95 theses" to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg, and ran in various phases for 150 years, give or take. But I would suggest that the need for reformation - for re-forming and re-creating the church, the culture, and the individual - is as critical today as it was 487 years ago.

I've seen it in the churches I've visited recently - where religiosity has once again become a comfortable hiding place for those who claim the name of a radical Savior. I've seen it in the stories of my fellow seminarians, striving to follow their call to the ministry of Christ, and finding their sense of call all but smothered by the gatekeepers of the very church they have chosen to serve. But I also see the Breath of Life being breathed into dry bones...and virtual nails being driven through virtual parchment into virtual doors, as groups worldwide are calling forth "the emergent church" in homes, in traditional and in unusual physical locations, as well as by digital disciples on the Web.

But for me, the importance of this day comes back to these two slivers of Scripture - and the incredible promise they have for a ragamuffin and perennial prodigal like me. I see the ongoing need for re-formation and re-shaping in my own life - in my ongoing need to renew my prayer life, my devotional life, and my physical and financial self. But no matter how I complicate my work, my recovery, my call or my life, in the end it all leads back to this truth: I'm saved, redeemed...and there was nothing I could do (or needed to do) to do it. Justification by faith is a free gift from God, irrespective of the strength or durability of my own faith.

For years before I came back to church on Reformation Day 1990, I held the belief that I needed to "have enough faith" to justify my justification - a hopeless circular-reference nightmare. I simply believed that I didn't have enough faith to be justified-by-faith - and trapped by that delusion, I walked in darkness for far too many years. So on this day, I give thanks for Pastor Peter Brown, formerly of Epiphany Lutheran Church in Toledo, who (on the Wednesday before Reformation Sunday) gave me both the Good News and the invitation to join the fellowship of sinners that Christ died to save.

I walked into Epiphany Lutheran that Sunday convinced that I was more in need of reforming than anyone else in the place. The difference today is that I realize I'm not more in need of reformation than anyone else - but exactly as much as anyone else. As a friend in recovery often says, "Yup, Steve, you're terminally unique - just like everybody else."

Lord God, you are the Potter, and I am the clay...and I really do desire to be re-formed, to be shaped according to your will. My prayer to you this day comes from a 60's song by The American Breed:

Bend me, shape me, anyway you want me -
Long as You love me, it's all right;
Bend me, shape me, any way You want me,
You've got the power to turn on the Light.