Friday, December 31, 2004

Crawling out from under the covers

A confession: I have not been firing on all cylinders, lately. After the high of the Christmas-time, coming back to Chicago, to the noise and the reality of life, the universe and everything just seemed like a big order for me. So there have been several nights in a row lately when I felt very much like I had nothing worthwhile to say - and I know myself fractionally well enough to know this truth: "Better to remain silent, and be thought a fool, than to speak, and erase all doubt." So I apologize for my absence from the blogosphere. (I got a gentle "where've you been?" nudge from Rick, and I have to admit, it's nice to be missed...)

To be honest, I've been overwhelmed - or numbed, I don't know which - by the horror in Asia. Tonight, in checking out the blogs of my virtual sisters and brothers, I found Chris's posting on the topic, and it seemed like he had been reading my mail...or my mind. In a few brief, powerful words, he expressed what I've been struggling with all week. Thank you, brother, for giving voice to what I was unwilling (or unable) to speak.

At the seminary I am connected with, a number of the PhD students are from India, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma...but somehow the immensity of the tragedy didn't hit me until Monday night, when I got off work and went to school to check my mail. People were gathered around several of the PhD students, asking if they'd heard from their families...and it finally connected: this hits right here, too. It turns out that all of the students' families were fine, but we found out that Tamara Mendis, wife of Rev. Eardley Mendis, and a long-time part of the LSTC community and the Metro Chicago synod, died in the tidal wave that struck Sri Lanka. Tamara and their daughter Eranthie were traveling on a train by the coast when the tidal wave struck. Eranthie was rescued but they were unable to save Tamara.

I tried to imagine the devastation. I was in Kansas in 1993-94 when all of the area rivers (the Missouri, Kaw, and Mississippi) flooded areas from Des Moines through to St. Louis and beyond. I saw sections of roadway washed away, I saw farmers' land covered with sand and silt, I saw homes washed away, and I was stunned. But the loss of life was minimal, and there was just no comparison.

How can I pray "Thy will be done" in this situation?
How can I mourn 120,000 people?
How can I even conceive of what five MILLION homeless people would be like?

God knows, I have tried. I actually hunted down the 2000 Census information for Overland Park (one of my former hometowns), the Kansas City area, and for the Chicago area. It turns out that there's only roughly 150,000 people in Overland Park; I just can't imagine the possibility of nearly every person in that city, dying in a flash like that. I found out that the Kansas City metro area (11 counties)is only about 1.8 million people, and the city of Chicago, by itself, is only 2.8 million people - it takes all of Cook County to come in about 5.3 million. (If you know the area, that's from roughly Evanston, to Schaumberg, to Oak Park, to Palos and Calumet.) From O'Hare to Midway, to the Skyway, and then some.

That's how many people are homeless, without basic services.

It blew me away. I am still blown away.

I remember back in the early 80's seeing the movie The Day After (a movie about the aftermath of nuclear war), and wondering whether I'd really have the will to live and go on, or whether I'd just lay down and let whatever death (radiation, exposure, marauders) take me. I have to admit to the same feelings as I read about the horrors in Asia. I don't know if I'd be able to find the faith or the strength to carry on in the face of that devastation. Part of me wants to pray for restoration - and part of me wants to pray that those who suffer die quickly and go to peace. Some spiritual Goliath, eh?

It reminds me of a line from And The Band Played On, the HBO movie about the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic. Ian McKellan, playing gay activitist Bill Kraus, is dying in a San Francisco hospital and talking with Dr. Don Francis (played by Matthew Modine). McKellen's character says, "I used to be afraid of dying...I'm not anymore. I'm just afraid for the ones who will live..."

I understand that.

God, I come to you a overwhelmed soul, this day. Help me hear from you, that I might know what to pray...what to feel...and what I can do. Because right now, I just don't know. Amen.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Christmas is all in the heart...

the "Girl Scout" ornament Posted by Hello

No philosophy or theology today...simply images of our Christmas, past and present...the ornament that one of my sisters made in Girl Scouts probably 3 decades ago (Sue and Sandy both think the other one made it!)...the wafer-thin slice of Corelle, with the words "Home Sweet Home" laser-cut in the center with incredible precision, back from when Sue & Sandy visited the Corning glass works...ornaments of glass and wood and Hallmarkian characters...they adorn our Christmas tree, and the memories of our Christmases past.

the Corning ornamentPosted by Hello

Christmas has gotten a little complicated, as we have gotten older. Sandy and Sue both have in-laws that require time and energy, which means that "our family" (the three of us) sometimes have to work around (or share time with) those folks. This Christmas Eve, Sue's mother-in-law came to visit their new condo for the first time, but she had to be back at the nursing home by 8:30; Sandy's husband Dave was working in Findlay (an hour away) until dinner-time. So we ate with Sue's husband Jeff's family at 5, Sandy and Dave got there later...and the food and conversations just continued on. As we talked, and watched Christmas movies, and ate our traditional pulled-pork sandwiches and jumbo shrimp (and way too many sugar cookies), the ornaments looked over our shoulders from the tree - reminding us both from whence we have come and the history that we share.

Today, Christmas Day, sister Sue had to work (she's a pharmacy tech at a local hospital) and Sandy was with her husband's family. So we had dinner with Sue's in-laws (sister-in-law Chris makes a killer batch of kielbasa and cheesy-potatoes), and their family opened presents from each other. Then Sue had to go back to work at 11 PM, so Jeff and I came home, and here I am at the very end of Christmas day, reflecting on the day.

Tomorrow, we will let Sue sleep for a few brief hours, and then drive down for brunch to Findlay, just to be together as a family. With the exception of a couple aunts (each several hundred miles away) we're all that remains of our family...Dad died in 1978, and Mom in 1992. So we will gather, and spend time together, even if only for a little bit. And for the second year in a row, we will have a Christmas celebration unlike almost any others in our community...

...because this year, there will be no gifts exchanged between my sisters and me.

I know, I know - it's un-American, isn't it? How will the world's greatest economy survive if we don't do our share to make sure Wal-Mart, Target, Kohl's and Best Buy have a banner year? Nope...sorry. We've opted out of society this year. Sandy is still a little nervous about her job situation; Sue and Jeff are struggling to recover from the expenses of moving and a new condo; and I'm an under-employed former seminary student who's still without health insurance. So when one of the sisters proposed it (I don't remember which one) it was easy to agree. No shopping. No packages to wrap. No immense amounts of money spent on just the right kind of wrapping paper and coordinating ribbons and bows (another long-standing family tradition). Just two sisters, their two husbands and one brother, and a very untraditional brunch in Findlay and some time together as family.

Several people have asked..."How did you manage to DO that?"

Well, to be honest, like so many things, I didn't "see the light" - I "felt the heat." I think if I'd still been employed, I probably would have kept on trying to spend my/our way to a happy holiday....even if I'd had to do it myself. I am not nearly as virtuous (or as un-materialistic) as I would like you to believe I am. But I'm grateful it's happened, nonetheless... because it has forced me to look hard at the gifts I already have.

Earlier today, I heard from a dear friend of mine from Kansas who said to me, "I made out like a bandit yesterday." I was happy for her, but I also had to admit to myself (AND to my friend) that I have been making out like a bandit for years!

Take family, for instance. For 12-1/2 of the last 14 years, I lived 750 miles from my sisters, and would only visited them twice (maybe three times) each year in that decade-plus. [If they had been potted plants, they would have died of neglect!]

But for some reason, they still love me - and still eagerly welcome me into their homes, and anticipate the times when I can come back to Toledo. They are concerned when I travel (Sue and I talked a couple different times as I drove through the winter storm Wednesday night), and they are glad when I am "home" safe (wherever "home" seems to be at the time). I have met all kinds of people (through church, Alpha groups and through the recovering community) who would consider my two sisters and their husbands and extended families to be "jewels of great price." My gift, this year, is to be able to agree publicly and wholeheartedly about what a blessing they are, and how much I love them. And my prayer for the year-to-come is this: to commit to becoming the man that my sisters seem to believe that I am.

I'm also grateful for my sister Sue's inlaws, who have welcomed me into their home (and to their holiday table) for a number of years. Ernie, Chris and Aaron: what a gift you have given me, to be welcomed and greeted as family. Your hospitality hasn't done much for my waist-line - but it's been a true gift from God for my soul.

My Aunt Roma, in upstate New York, prays for me daily and writes me wonderful notes and emails, to which I am usually *lousy* in responding. I think that over the years, if I had not been one of her prayer assignments, that I would have been dead - or would have lost faith entirely - a number of times over. Roma can't get out all that much, and has endured more challenges than a space-shuttle launch - and yet her faith endures. When I finally can become the relative (or family member), or the prayer warrior, or the student of the Bible that my aunt Roma is, then I'll know I've accomplished something. She is definitely a gift (and an example) to me!

If a person's measure can be found in their friendships, then I am rich beyond Midas...beyond the Medicis... beyond Donald Trump or any Wall Street guru. If I were to list my friends, you'd be here reading until the time a secure version of Windows comes out. (About 4 hours before the final trumpet, in other words.) With their laughter, tears, emails, phone calls, hugs, and prayers, I have been enriched beyond measure. I would never be able to write enough to thank you, or God, for the blessings each of you have brought to me. What incredibe gifts each of you are to me!

I have been uplifted by both my faith and recovery communities. I am especially thankful to Atonement Lutheran Church, and my friends in several faith communities, who have supported me (spiritually AND financially) as I have journeyed into "the divine madness of ministry" at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC)...and they have carried me through the hard times as I have had to leave that dream, for a time. Thank you for the gift of your trust, your encouragement and your support! You have believed in me a number of times when I was quite willing to stop believing in myself...which is exactly how I understand that my Savior works, too. "Thank you" is way too small a word for folks like you!

A few of the students and faculty at LSTC have remained around me, even after my seminary life has gone "on-hold." To my apartment-mate, Tim (he of long-suffering and enduring tolerance), my spiritual-formation partners Lisa and Barb, and to my recently-engaged friends Mike and Michelle: you each, at some point in this challenging year, have been the hands and feet of Christ in my life. For as long as God allows us to journey together, I will give thanks for the gift of each of you. You each have been much better friends to me than I have been to you.

One of the greatest struggles I've had when I came to Chicago was to move away from the community of recovery which has been my strength and my shield for 12 of the last 14 years. I am ever grateful for the recovering folk in the KC area who have continued to ensure that though I am absent in body, I am not at all absent in the spirit of the fellowship. And I'm very grateful that God has given me the beginnings of a new set of "home groups" and people in the Chicago area who genuinely seem to care. God's gift to me is that wherever I am, I get to "trudge the road of Happy Destiny" together, one day at a time, even when I'm not physically (or mentally) present! I'm also very grateful that the recovering folks in Toledo (who saw me when I was a really desperate case) still can laugh about those days, and remind me from-whence-I-came whenever I visit.

The gift of the blogosphere community - my virtual sisters and brothers in spirit - is one that I continue to open every day. In ways great and small, these talented and Spirit-led people continue to lift me up and kick my butt...which is evidently exactly what I need, and have needed. "I thank my God every time I think of you..."

My greatest gift of all - the gift which makes all this possible - is my faith in God, which (like the Weebles I resemble, wobbled a bit but never entirely fell down). At Christmas, I am reminded again and again that the One who knew of my life as an often-broken, often-failing ragamuffin still sent a Son as Emmanuel - God with us - to redeem me. I know that God (as I misunderstand God, anyway) is one who uses broken tools like me to bring glory to the Kingdom...and trust me, I am aware that just the knowledge of that fact is an incredible gift. What's even better to know is that God's love and calling for me will never change, no matter what people of this world may decide. It seems that I was born broken, in a number of important ways - yet I have God's testimony that I was created and declared "very good." So I'm willing to wear both labels ("broken" and "very good") today. Thank you, God, for this new life and this day. Help me to use them both to Your glory.

It's interesting - if someone were to draw up my financial balance-sheet today, it would be awash in red ink. (I have exactly three signficant assets that are free-and-clear - I'm typing on one, taking pictures with another and driving the third.) Physically, I'd really like to trade this ol' body in on a model that works a greater percentage of the time. And there are still times when I can't help envying the young and the beautiful people in my life, and wishing I were one of foolish as I know that is. Economically, physically, and in appearance, I am not where I'd choose to be, compared with so much of the world.

But in faith, in family, in friends, in community - that is to say, in relationships and in love - I am one of the richest people alive. If I were to shuffle off this mortal coil tonight, I would have 14 years "in the bonus round" - and very, very little of it has been my doing. All of it has been a very undeserved gift...for which I give thanks today.

Oh, yes indeed...this Christmas, I made out like a bandit. No doubt about it.

Friday, December 24, 2004

More than a story...

God come to earth? A virgin birth?
No - how could anybody believe?
(Wayne Watson, "One Christmas Eve")

In the little town of Bethlehem
A miracle was born to set us free
We read about it every year
I wanna live my life so everyone can see
That it's more than a story to me.

(GoFish, "More Than A Story")

It's the improbability that gets me about the Christmas gospel. Not even Zaphod Beeblebrox and the Heart of Gold, his ship equipped with the Infinite Improbability Drive, could come up with a plot-line like this. Even Cecil B. DeMille couldn't script something this unlikely, this amazing, this insane.

A God of unending love and limitless power slips out of infinity to adopt human form. And unlike the Greek and Roman gods of the day, who occasionally visited the earthly sod robed in beauty and power (Apollo, Aphrodite, Zeus), the God of Abraham and Moses breaks into human space and time in the most helpless, powerless, ultimately human way possible: as a baby. An infant. Born to a confused carpenter and his teenaged fiancee'; born into a nation trapped in servitude, occupied by an oppressive foreign power. Living a life as the carpenter's son. On the surface, living an utterly normal infancy, childhood, youth, and adulthood.

Did you ever stop and think, "That's God eating my soup"? (Max Lucado, "Twenty-Five Questions for Mary," from God Came Near)
People who are not Christian hear this story, and their first reaction is often some variation on "What the hell was your God thinking??"

Perhaps - especially for thick-headed folk like me - the greatest improbability of the coming of Christ is not how God came near...but who God chose to "come near" to. I was always willing to believe that God would choose to spend time with you - because I truly believed that you were more beautiful/handsome/talented/intelligent/"good" than I ever was, or ever could be. It made sense that God would come to earth to spend time with beautiful, talented, affluent, powerful people like you. It made no sense whatsoever, when I first read about the Incarnation, that God would come to earth for me. No way.

The story of an impossible God doing impossible things just validates that maybe - just maybe - that the God who loves to do impossible things might have done the most impossible thing of all - love me, and desire to be in a relationship with me. In the insanity of the Nativity, I find hope that an impossibly-acting God can accept me exactly as I am. And then I come to believe not only that God can do this, but that God did, and does, do just that.

Come, Emmanuel...come and dwell with us again...dwell with us still.

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

No problem with a white Christmas...

(The view from sister Sue's condo, 10 AM Thursday)Posted by Hello

I left Chicago after having a quick dinner with my friend Matt, and finishing the packing I didn't do the night before (procrastinator that I am). So I didn't hit the road until 8 PM. I'd been reading about snow-showers across northern Indiana all day, so I was sure I was in for a hellish ride. To my surprise, I had virtually dry pavement from Chicago all the way to Angola, IN, and I pretty well flew along for the first 2 hours or so.

But about the I-69/I-80/90 interchange, it all went to hell - by the time I came to the Eastgate of the Indiana toll road, the anti-lock brakes were kicking in regularly. The phrase "slip-sliding away..." kept dancing in my head, and as I was definitely averse to spending the evening waiting for AAA to come tow me out of a ditch, I joined the "slow-poke parade" in the right lane that the morons trucks doing 60 mph kept buzzing around. (I'm sorry, but despite being born in Buffalo, and living most of my life in snow-states, I'm just not a star driver in snow...and I'd much rather be known as "the delayed Steve F" rather than "the late Steve F...)

Each time these hot-rodding cars and trucks would blow by, I'd experience this wonderful white-out effect, and lose all visibility for an interminable moment. I don't know what semi-rig I followed across most of Ohio, but s/he was going as slowly as I was, and their tail-lights were like a guiding angel during each of those whiteouts. Thank you, God, for sending me an 18-wheel guide-dog to lead me through!

I got to Sue & Jeff's about 2 AM ET - nearly 5 hours to make a 3-1/2 hour trip. But I'm here, safe and warm, and slept like a log. We're expecting more snow all day, so I think we're just gonna settle in and admire Sue & Jeff's beautiful tree, eat some great chicken chili, and bake cookies. Hopefully, I'll be able to get out tonight and tomorrow AM, and get to visit some friends in recovery. Then Friday night will be the big family evening with sisters Sue & Sandy, husbands Jeff and Dave, and Jeff's family.

For now, I'm just very grateful to be here, safe, sane, sober, and undented.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Look who gets the good news....

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests. (Luke 2:8-14, NIV)
It's Monday of Christmas week...and echoing in my mind is a lesson that recurs in my mind every year at this time. It's a powerful lesson I learned about shepherds nearly 7 years ago, in one of my first ministry classes. Some who have listened to me for a while have heard this before. But I think it's an image that bears repeating...

It's very easy to picture the peaceful scene Luke describes...of flocks of sheep grazing, and shepherds watching over them. In my mind, I always hear Handel's "Pastoral Symphony" playing in the background...but unfortunately, that doesn't present much of the truth at all. You see, in Biblical times, shepherds were considered some of the most distrusted, dishonorable, dishonest, and lowly people of all the world. Listen to what professor of ministry Donald Messer says about shepherds:

"Far from being a noble profession, the job of shepherd in first-century Palestine was one of the most despised trades, along with gamblers, usurers, and publicans. Contrary to our romantic images, shepherds were generally considered to be thieves. Far from being viewed as reliable and responsible, they were habitually known to graze on other people's lands and to pilfer the produce of the herd. Their social and religious status would not be much higher than pimps and drug pushers in our day. They, like the publicans and tax collectors, therefore, were deprived of their civil rights. They could not fulfill a judicial office or be witnesses in a court. It was forbidden to buy wool, milk, or a kid from a shepherd - because it was widely assumed that it would be stolen property. One ancient writing reports that 'no position in the world is so despised as that of the shepherd.'" (Donald Messer, Contemporary Images of Christian Ministry (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), page 172.)

Yet Luke reports that the first ones to hear of Jesus' birth were shepherds - among the most despised people in their world! Can you imagine their shock - to find out they were the first ones to be eye-witnesses of God's majesty? And can you imagine the people they talked to afterwards? No wonder Luke writes that everyone who heard of Jesus' birth from the shepherds "wondered at the things told them by the shepherds"!

When you read it that way, it's not a very pretty scene, is it?

No, it's not. And it's not meant to be.

God didn't mean it to be pretty. God meant it to be real.

Let's put it in today's words. Jesus could have come as a triumphant warrior-king, bristling with power, to smite the evil and establish a kingdom built on power. But that wasn't God's plan at all. There was no royalty, no engraved invitations for the rich and mighty to the arrival of God's son. Instead, there was an obscure town of Bethlehem, in the filthy corner of a barn, in a feed trough, where a confused carpenter was witness to the birth of God's son to his teen-aged wife-to-be. Wonder with me at how the despised and lowly men tending sheep felt as angels from Heaven give them the telegram: "...Born to you this day is a Savior, which is Christ the Lord." The news of God's son had come - not to those who felt they deserved to hear, sitting comfortably at the Temple - but to those who needed the news most! Creatures who thought that their sins had left them without a prayer were the ones who found that the salvation of the world had come first to them!

And what does it say of the one who becomes "the Good Shepherd"? Messer points out that this oxymoron is the equivalent to saying "I am the the Good Homosexual" to the religious right, or "I am the Good Fundamentalist" to the gay & lesbian community, or like saying "I am the Good Terrorist" - because in those days, shepherds were just that despised. Messer writes, "It is no wonder that after Jesus called himself 'the Good Shepherd' the Gospel of John reports, 'there was again a division among the Jews because of these words (John 10:19)" (page 173). Jesus identified with the lowly, and with the despised - and yet turned that despising description on its head, transforming the label as he did everything else he touched.

As I celebrate - as I sing praises of joy for "God with us" - let me never lose the amazement and wonder of those who witnessed the birth of our Savior. And let me never forget that if God could be present and "with them" in the mess of the stable, surrounded by the disreputable and untouchable ones of that time, then God can and is surely with me, during the messes of my life, and when I feel unworthy and apart from the rest of the world. It is in the most impossible of my own times and situations that I have to remember the amazingly unlikely people and places that were part of the story of God's arrival on earth. And I also remember that I am the unlikely - and undeserving - recipient of the gift of grace brought by Jesus to the world. May I continue to stand by the manger in wonder at the astonishing love of God for you, and for me!

Friday, December 17, 2004

Do not be afraid....

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." (Matthew 1:20-21, NIV)

I'm sure he must have been surprised
at where this road had taken him
'Cause never in a million lives
would he have dreamed of Bethlehem
And standing at the manger, he saw with his own eyes
the message from the angel come to life - and Joseph said,

Why me? I'm just a simple man of trade!
Why Him, with all the rulers in the world?
Why here, inside this stable filled with hay?
Why her? she's just an ordinary girl!
Now I'm not one to second-guess
what angels have to say -
But this is such a
strange way to save the world.
(4Him, "A Strange Way to Save The World",
on "The Season of Love" CD)
I don't know which would have been stronger - my fear and terror to be visited by an angel, or my utter incredulity at the message the angel brought. When storyteller Ed Stivender tells the story of Joseph's visitation, Joseph hears the announcement, and says,"You have just GOT to be kidding me." The angel replies, in a Gregorian-chant kind of way, "No - angels aren't allowed to kid."

"Don't be afraid, Joseph - what seems like despoiling your virgin fiancee' and attacking your reputation is actually the work of God. The Law tells you that you can divorce her, even have her quietly killed. All I'm telling you to do is disregard everything that your mind tells you to do - because this is God's plan, not an earthly plan."

I just love "A Strange Way to Save the World" - it has become one of my all-time Christmas favorites, precisely because it speaks to my own heart. If I were Joseph, I'd be asking, "What the hell kind of plan is this, God? What's this baby going to do to save the world? It all seems so, so impossible." But then I'm reminded...that's what God does best of all...

When God's messengers tell me that the road I walk is going to change, of *course* I'm afraid, at first (and often for a while after that, too). I've experienced that a lot this last year...and I've learned, time and time again, that "walk by faith" can be three terrifying words, sometimes. I'd much rather stick to my own plan, time and time again. The only problem is, I'm usually not given a choice...

The good news is, Scripture tells us that Joseph pioneered this road for us. When we are called to step out in faith, and we can't see where the next step will take us, the angel says to us as well: "Do not be afraid...the word Emmanuel is still true: our God is still with us."

For me, there is an amazing comfort simply in knowing this is true.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Being an outsider

One of the best blogs I've found is my brother Rick's a new life emerging. The more I read him, the more I am convinced we are what Dan Fogelberg called "twin sons of different mothers." He and I are frequently on similar wavelengths, and it has been great to get to "know" him in the blogosphere.

However, his posting on being an outsider is one of his best. (I'll warn you ahead of time that his language - like mine - can get, well, colorful...especially on this post.) I strongly identified with being an outsider in church, but on a number of different levels.

First, in the Lutheran tradition, there are a whole lotta "cradle Lutherans" - folks who were born into Lutheran families, baptized as infants, dragged to church every Sunday, and have never stopped going because "it's what you do when you're a Lutheran." I give thanks for those people, and for their example of faith - but their stories have nothing whatsoever to do with my life after age 13.

These are the people who are 30 and 40 (or more) years old...who attend the same church where they attended as children, where their confirmation pictures still hang on the wall in hallways. Now for guys like me, who attended three different high schools, that level of permanence and institutionality is completely foreign to me. On one hand, I long for that level of anchoring to a place and a community - and on the other, I can't imagine giving up the amazing diversity of experience that I've had by being as mobile as I have been.

Another place where I find my "apart-from-ness" is the fact that from age 17 to age 34 - more than a third of my life - I wanted nothing to do with God, or the church. Admitting that little fact in church gets me more weird stares than admitting that I'm a recovering drunk! People have asked me the strangest questions after that admission - things like, "So what did you do on Sunday mornings?" (as if people who aren't in church just go off into the ether until after services end, and then show up at Denny's or Bob Evans, fighting the "good folk" for tables). I usually give 'em the answer my sister once gave me: "I was worshiping at St. Mattress's" (sleeping-in, in order words). I don't want to tell you how many people have asked, "So where IS that congregation?..."

I've come to realize that this lack of common experience at least partly accounts for the lack of willingness in many mainstream denominations to reach out to unchurched people - because a goodly churnk of "churched" folk can't understand why anyone would not want to be at church! Their attitude toward unchurched people is what I once saw on a drum-&-bugle-corp fan's t-shirt: on the front, To those that understand, no explanation is necessary; and on the back, To those that do not, no explanation is possible.

To "cradle church-goers," the idea of being lost is completely foreign, because they firmly believe that you can't be "lost" if you're at church. They have never understood the difference between being "a churchian" and "a Christian." They've never comprehended the thought I heard first in an AA meeting, that "just because you spend six hundred meetings in a McDonalds, it doesn't make you a hamburger." I know I've quoted it before, but it's still a good set of words from our late brother Keith Green:
The world is sleeping in the dark
That the church just can't fight
'Cause they're asleep in the light -
How can you be so dead,
When you've been so well fed?
I'm glad that my cradle-church-members have had enduring faith traditions and practices. For a number of people, those traditions teach much about faith practices. I think it's important to teach, however, that church attendance, tradition, and discipleship are three entirely different things - and that you can have the first two without ever coming close to the third. I believe that's why there are so many efforts toward re-visioning and re-vitalizing mainline churches, and why the "emergent church" is such a hot topic...because people are finding out on which side of the churchian/Christian divide they are, and the answer disturbs them.

One of my favorite quotes from Rick's profile says, "Personally, I don't have the guts to follow Jesus, so I often settle for being a Christian." It's desperately true for me as well (although I admit that I would have paid money to have thought up a line that clever, first!). I also think he's a little harder on himself than he might deserve. But I know that I can't coast uphill, only downhill - and that even on a level surface, if I'm not pedaling forward, I'll fall over. So I have to "keep my eye on the prize," even as I know I have a long way to go to "get there."

But I'm grateful to have sisters and brothers like I have met here in the blogosphere with whom I can share the journey from "where I'm at" to "where I'm called to be." And thanks, Rick, for some great inspiration.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Another year, one day at a time

"My whole life has conspired to bring me to this place, and I can't despise my whole life..." (Joe Pitt, in the HBO DVD, Angels in America: Perestroika)

December 12, 1990. About 8:29 PM, I slunk into the Chapter V Club on Airport Highway in Toledo, Ohio for my very first AA meeting. I tried looking inconspicuous - but one guy got a look at my eyes, came right over to me and said, "You're new here, aren't you?" He led me to the coffee-pot, made sure I got a seat, and then left me blessedly alone for a bit. I don't remember much of the gist of that first meeting - I'm sure they talked about the 12-step program of recovery, and I'm sure there was some God-talk that made me more than a little nervous. I remember thinking that the Lord's Prayer, said at the end of the meeting, was the single most comprehensible thing I'd heard the whole meeting.

But at the end of the meeting, two promises were delivered to me that changed my life forever. A Ford tool-&-die worker, just shy of 30 years sober, came up to me, looked me in the eyes, and said, "Steve, you never have to feel the way you feel tonight - ever again - if you don't want to." And another man said to me, "You're welcome here, son - and you never have to be alone again, if you don't want to be."

So far as I can tell, they both were absolutely right...for which I give much thanks.

Recently, as I've been visiting churches and talking theology with friends and fellow bloggers, I've been asking myself this question: "What if the primary mission of the church was to make those two promises from my first AA meeting a reality for our church members and visitors, rather than either focusing on getting new members, or simply saving them from some future eternal punishment? What if we stopped trying to save people from Hell in the afterlife, and worked to save them from the various hells they are in right now?"

What if the Christian church, in all its forms and places, stopped the "We've got Jesus, yes we do/we've got Jesus, how 'bout YOU?" chanting, and simply said, "Welcome. Come on in. You don't have to admit, or profess, or decide anything're welcome here. Regardless of where you are, where you're from, what you're wearing, what you've been or done, or what you believe, trust this: this is a place of peace and safety for you." Can you even imagine it?....

At 8:30 p.m. tonight, I was sharing a delightful dinner with two other AA guys up in Evanston - one with nearly 30 years of sobriety, and one with about 30 days. We laughed about some of the tragic situations in each other's lives, sighed as we talked about the character defects that still raise their ugly heads on a daily basis, and chatted about subjects far and wide. And we each left the restaurant, grateful for the meal, grateful for the fellowship, and thanking God (as we each misunderstood God) for the incredible blessing of continuous sobriety.

Fourteen years. It's a long time between drinks. For people who aren't alcoholic, they often wonder, "What's the big deal?" But I am grateful that almost everyone I know today has never seen me drunk, or naked in public, or known the shameful behavior that brought me to my "bottom" all those years ago.

This last year has been one of the hardest in my sobriety, from a number of standpoints. I have to admit that there has been a time or two when what one man called "a sabbatical from sobriety" sounded like a really good idea...but I'm grateful that I didn't have to choose that road. And there have been a number of other times in the last 13 months that I have desperately wished that my life could have been different, somehow...that I could have chosen differently, a time or two, so those choices would not have led up to the place where I find myself today - in my career, in my calling, in my finances and romances, you name it. But as Joe Pitt says, I am the product of my entire life - and while I can wish it was different, I can't despise it...because every bit of it makes up who and what I am today.

Whenever I get the chance, I share parts of my past with folks, both inside and outside the AA fellowship. I do it for two reasons: first, to remind myself of where I came from (and where I can easily go back to). But I also share the truth of my past with others so that they know that transformation and restoration is possible - not just for "guys like me," but for folks like them as well. "Our God is an awesome God," indeed...

One thing I do know: my sobriety is not my own doing. There are no congratulations due to me...because left to my own devices, I would be drunk tonight. This precious, precious gift of continuous sobriety is entirely a gift of grace - my only part in it has been the honesty to know that I needed it, the open-mindedness to accept direction (occasionally) from God, and his willing servants in recovery and in faith, and the willingness to accept the gift as it is offered to me on a daily basis. That, my friends, is h.o.w. it works - and I give thanks to God today for the stockbroker, the doctor, and the sister who made it all possible.
Abandon yourself to God as you understand God. Admit your faults to Him and to your fellows. Clear away the wreckage of your past. Give freely of what you find and join us. We shall be with you in the Fellowship of the Spirit, and you will surely meet some of us as you trudge the Road of Happy Destiny. May God bless you and keep you - until then. (From Alcoholics Anonymous, page 164)

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Catch-up time...

...It has been a long day - supposedly a day off, but I've been on the move since 7 AM. I feel like I've been out of touch, in a number of ways. Part of it is that I just haven't felt real well - not so much "sick" as just "not entirely right."

I changed my blog profile today - in a burst of honesty, my personal designation is now "former seminary student." It's an admission that while my ministry is far from done, my seminary career is on "hold," for the foreseeable future, anyway. I guess what triggered it was some early morning reviewing of my financial status, and knowing that (barring a winning lottery ticket) I will not have enough of my bills paid back in order to get back to school by January 31, the start of the Spring semester. But part of it has been recognizing that I've been "apart from" the seminary community (with the exception of a few stalwart companions) for a while now. At least for the time being, my path is not the same as their path...and as lousy as it feels to admit that, it's still true.

Tonight was an "end of semester" party at one of the student's apartments. I was e-invited...and probably would have been welcomed, if I'd shown up. But the fact is, the semester never started for me, so there is no cause for celebration on its ending, I guess. I have no common ground with the folks who struggled through Systematic Theology, or Hebrew, or "Jesus & the Gospels"...because I wasn't there. At least a part of the core of my understanding of community has to do with "shared experience" - and the simple (if annoying) fact is that I have no experiences that I share with my former classmates anymore. We live on the same block - some of them live in the same building - but we are rapidly growing apart in experience.

The good news is that I had a very good day - primarily because I was immersed in being of service in the program of recovery. I heard from one fellow AA early this AM, had a sponsee take me out to lunch, spent the afternoon with him, went to speak at a meeting in Pilsen tonight, and then out to a late dinner afterwards. Every part of that was a true gift from God.

For now, I'm thankful for another day of life - thankful for the people in my life - and thankful that the lessons I've had to learn haven't ended up being fatal yet. And if that's as good as it gets, I'll take it.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

"God Is Still Speaking..."

Dear Lord, hear this simple prayer: let the UCC's new TV ad be right. Let it be that You are still speaking, even if we don't listen very much. "Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me..."

There are several things that have brought me hope amidst the despair of a number of situations - first, the suicide of a friend of friends, with all the wreckage and grief that brings. Then hearing about several friends, here and in Kansas, whose recovery has shattered and who are in the midst of daily self-destruction. And it's been a long, busy week, and I'm just kind of drained on several levels. But there is still hope...

First, hope comes in a book that has been sitting on my shelf for three years - Churchquake! by C. Peter Wagner. Like so many people for the last 30 years, he predicts the eventual demise of most traditional denominational church structures. Unlike a lot of people, he sees "the new apostolic reformation" raising up new wine for new wineskins, and affirming the work and research of lots of people I admire - whether you start with Michael Slaughter and Adam Hamilton and work up, or start with Lyle Schaller and work down. I need to digest a lot more of the book before I discuss it, but it's a worthwhile read. Wagner diagnoses the things I have struggled with the most with mailine denominations in general, and the various permutations of the Lutheran tradition in particular. It's a 1999 book, but it's very, very relevant today.

Second, a voice from the recent past has brought me great comfort this week. I finally got to listen to a presentation by Richard Webb at Atonement Lutheran Church's Power in the Spirit prayer conference back in October. His words are going to take some time to digest as well, but I'm sure they will provide fodder for a number of entries here.

Lastly, I've found that God is still speaking through a couple of new sponsees in the recovering community. I find, once again, that the more I give away, the more I get. I once likened sponsorship to a jug of chocolate milk: if I keep it to myself - leave it in the refrigerator - it will slowly go sour, and become an awful, stinking mess. But if I pour it out, and share it. it stays sweet - and by some God-appointed blessing, the more I pour out, the more appears in my jug. I've found this is true in recovery, in ministry, even in my daily work: when I give of my self in a selfless way, the world just looks better. No matter how much of a schmuck I've been in the past, I can be a useful member of some community today.

Thank you, God, for the gift of this day. Help me to use it to do your will, today and always!
God, I offer myself to You this day, to build with me and do with me as You will. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I might better do Your will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Your power, Your love, and Your way of life. Amen.
(the AA 3rd step prayer)

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

So what does it TAKE?...

According to this article (and several others) Donald Rumsfeld was getting grilled by US soldiers - especially reservists - about having improper armoring on vehicles used in combat. And Mr. Rumsfeld had the audacity to say, "As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time."

Excuse me, Mr. Rumsfeld - but the ongoing US military budget is $400 BILLION - six and a half times the next largest government - exclusive of costs for Iraq and counter-terrorism. (Don't believe me? Check it out here.) How is it possible that after all these years of pouring money into the military, somehow we still don't have "the army you might want to go to war with"??

Mr. Rumsfeld, I have a sneaking suspicion that if it was your son, daughter, or grand-child whose life was on the line out there - or if one of the potential casualties was named Bush or Cheney - there'd be a whole lot more armor rolling around Iraq than there is. You may not think much of the men and women who are fighting Dubya's war for you - but those are our sisters, our brothers, our fathers and mothers, our church members... our beloved family and friends. It's bad enough that this administration has put them in harm's way - but sending them to war badly equipped is sending them to a senseless death. This stupidity is more irresponsible than anything any Democrat - even the former President from Arkansas - ever did. Your administration may claim to be concerned about "morals" - but there is nothing "moral" about this, whatsoever.

Don't mess with the safety of our loved ones. Find the money, find a way, and do it.

We're gettin' mad as hell, Mr. Rumsfeld. Be forewarned. Tell your boss.

"...the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame..."
- John McCutcheon, Christmas in the Trenches

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

What a gift THAT would be...

O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
(Thomas Helmore, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," verse 4)
"My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you." (John 17:20-21, NIV)

"Bid Thou our sad divisions cease." Now there's a Christmas gift worth asking for.

Parents not speaking to children; siblings not speaking to each other. Friends avoiding each other at social gatherings. Nuclear-armed nations staring in hate across boundaries at each other. Women and men of every race trapped in distrust and fear of each other. Nonsense about blue and red states, when in reality every state is simply varying shades of purple - blue and red mixed together, side by side.

Jesus prayed "that all of them may be one." That's us...and that's the prayer of the Son of God for each of us - but beyond just the church, to both believer and unbeliever. That Christ's whole body - not just the believers - might be one. In this time of Advent preparation, I need to ask myself today: what can I do - in my home, my extended family, my circle of friends, my work environment...yes, and in my church...wherever I am, to repair the divisions that fear, doubt, and sin have created. Those acts of healing and unity-building, perhaps more than anything, will help assure the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God.

Lord Jesus, you prayed that all of us might be one in you. Help me see, today, where I can make that prayer a reality. Amen.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Read it and weep

Still think the war in Iraq is a good idea? Read this article from the Arizona Republic...and ask yourself the question again.

It made me weep. What a tragic waste.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

And here we go again...

In this AP article today, the Pacifica Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has punished an urban ministry that aids the poor and homeless in a dispute over an associate pastor who is in a lesbian relationship. The article says "the decision by the Pacifica Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which oversees congregations in parts of Southern California, marks the most severe punishment of a Lutheran congregation over the issue of homosexual clergy" since the last two congregations were tossed out in 1990.

There is no mention of this on the ELCA's main website. But on their "news" page, dated two days ago, there is this statement in support of the UCC, who tried unsuccessfully to get a promotional ad aired on CBS and NBC. The ELCA's article says that "The ad, part of the UCC's new identity campaign that began airing nationwide Dec. 1, stated that -- as Jesus did -- the United Church of Christ (UCC) seeks to welcome all people, regardless of ability, age, race, economic circumstance or sexual orientation." The ELCA communications director is joining other denominations' officials in supporting the UCC's efforts to get their ad run with CBS and NBC.

Now isn't that interesting?

The ELCA is more than willing to go to bat with the UCC, supporting their right to air an advertisement saying that they can welcome folks regardless of sexual orientation. But the very same denomination won't let our own people actually minister to the poor if they are in a relationship in that same orientation. And we'll punish the poor people that were being served by this renegade ministry... just to show that you can't play in our sand-box if you have a same-sex partner, no matter how much good you are doing for people.

Sound a little schizophrenic to you? Me too.

Want to see the UCC ad that sparked the conflict? Check it out here. I just wish our denomination could air an ad like that...but it would be false advertising... ::sigh::

"The poor you will always have with you..."

I was reading Naomi's blog, and her post about the budget deficit and cuts proposed in Minnesota. She quotes their governor as saying "...there is a spending problem in this state in the area of human services," to which she definitely (and appropriately) took exception. In response to her posting, a person commented, "Jesus said the poor would always be with us. We can't spend or minimum-wage them out of poverty."

That really irked me.

I agree that Jesus did say, "The poor you will always have with you." It is important, however, to note that those words were spoken in the context of a poor woman pouring precious nard on the feet of Jesus. The objection was, "Why waste that stuff on Jesus? We could be feeding the poor!" Jesus points out that worship and reverence to the Son of God (not to mention physically ministering to the 'Son of Man') ought to be first, and everything else should follow that. The entire quite says, "The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me" (Matthew 26:11)

For me, the real danger is that we hear "The poor you will always have with you..." and we allow the unspoken tagline to be " screw 'em - we can't fix 'em all, anyway." However, if you look at the record of Christ's work while here on earth, it shows that he spent much, much more time healing, feeding, and restoring "the least of these" than he did anything else. Sure, Jesus didn't heal them all, or feed them all - but that's no reason not to make efforts to try a priority.

I have always understood that a primary function of democratic government is to provide for those that cannot help themselves. That's why it always blows my mind that we as a culture (at every level of government) seem to ensure that the strong-healthy-wealthy one is taken care of, and the weak-and-struggling 99 are often left to fend for themselves amidst the dregs and the cast-offs from "polite society."

I live in Chicago. I still find it amazing that infrastructure for wealthy neighborhoods continues to get first priority under the reigns of The Son of Daley and Herod of Blagojevich, while funding for the Chicago Transit Authority - the primary transit option for "the least of these" (including me) - is in serious danger of being drastically slashed. Trust me - the folks up on the Gold Coast and out in Naperville aren't standing out in the cold to find gas for their Lexuses (Lexi?) or Hummers...but I know what it is to stand in the cold waiting for a bus, because I can't afford car insurance as a member of the working poor.

I've said it before (here), and I'll say it again - I will never understand why so much of the Christian world considers homosexuality to be "incompatible with Christian teaching," and yet blithely ignores the *demands* of Matthew 25:31-46 as some sort of "we'll get to it someday" suggestion. A careful reading of that text would put most of the all-too-holy evangelical Christian church in the "goat" category. And the text is all too clear about what the goats get...

Friday, December 03, 2004

Prepare ye the way...

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.(Isaiah 40:3, King James version)

We speak of Advent as a time of preparation, and yet so often the days before Christmas are crammed with activity - both at the mall and at church. For so many years, I became "a human doing" instead of "a human being" - a ball of activity that seemed to collapse on itself about 12:30 AM Christmas day, after the 11 pm Christmas eve service. Generally, that's not a good way to go.

A dear friend of mine has a better plan, it seems. She's taking a birthday gift and some unused vacation to take a personal retreat out to the Hollis Renewal Center for a, drink, a Bible, and several days of silence and peace, just to reconnect with God. As I'm getting ready to head off into the mazes of the Chicago Transit Authority this morning, I kind of envy her....

This passage from Isaiah has always sounded most "right" in the King James, if only because that's how I learned it in Handel's Messiah, too. But I hear that voice, crying out in the semi-arid desert of my own spiritual life, saying, "Hey! How about getting out the spiritual bulldozer, and clear out anything that's standing on the road between you and your God? Make the path between you and your Creator - between you and the One who sends you salvation in Jesus - a super-highway, clear and unobstructed!"

Now, I can't take several days off to live in silence...but I can start to ask, "Where is my devotional life, today? How is my prayer connection? What am I doing to prepare my soul as much as I prepare my Christmas cards and decorations for 'the season'?" Even when it comes to the daily devotions I receive on email - do I read 'em and say, "Yeah, that's nice," and go on with my day - or do I really reflect on them, and take them to heart? *can* start just as simply as that.

Lord God, help me clear away the brush and the overgrowth and the trash that may have accumulated on the highway between you and me. Help me make that path straight and direct, that I might know you more and rejoice in the coming of your Son. Amen.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Does anybody REALLY know what day it is?...

As of 10 AM CT today, the Chicago Sun-Times e-version was trumpeting news about a potential rock concert at Wrigley, and a reduction in murders (always good news in Chicago). The Chicago Tribune reported how choked-up Mayor Daley is that his son Patrick is enlisting in the military, and more good news about "the concert" (with performer(s) to be named later). The New York Times told of the departure of "Homeland Security" chief Tom Ridge, and more details behind the Hmong hunter shootings. Christianity Today had a big splash review of "Myths America Lives By," and a big promo for the Faith & Money Channel. The home page of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)- my own denomination - featured an article about women in the early church, and ecumenicism.

It's World AIDS Day - and the world seems largely silent - most of all, seemingly, in the Christian community. The One who came to topple the powerful and to serve and heal and save the powerless might be astonished at the silence (much less the condemnation) in our ranks. The average life-span in Africa has dropped below 40 years - and yet we don't talk about that; we talk about how we need to reach the world for Jesus.

It's true; we do - I don't argue with that. But while Jesus spent a lot of time teaching, he spent an even larger amount of time meeting the needs of those around him - feeding four or five thousand at a time, healing the impossibly-sick, transforming lives. Given the catastrophic losses of life, in this case I'd sure like to be teaching less, and doing more. How high must the butcher's bill go, before we decide this stuff is important?

And why, pray tell, do so many Christians find it worthwhile to give money to prevent diabetes, a slow-moving, largely preventable disease - while so often ignoring the black plague right under our noses, because of a perception that somehow homosexuality is a greater sin (more deserving of a death sentence, anyway) than gluttony? (And, lest anyone think I'm picking on one group at the expense of another... as a diabetic myself, I truly can ask that question...)
"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' "He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' " (Matthew 25:44-45, NIV)