Saturday, December 31, 2005

Do you feel more caught-up?...

...because if you do, it's probably because according to the BBC, you're going to be one second closer to being on-time than you were on Saturday.

(If you're sufficiently geeky that you would even want to know the real, detailed reason why we need leap seconds in our lives, the answer can be found here at

Of course, for folk like me, who are living in a plus/minus 5 minutes world, leap seconds are in the "who the ---- cares?" category. But it's fun to mention, anyway.

Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

A battle between faith and searching for proof

Ellie: "So what's more likely - an all-powerful, mysterious God created the universe and then decided not to give any proof of his existence; or, that he simply doesn't exist at all...and that we created him, so we wouldn't have to feel so small and alone?"
Palmer: "I dunno - I couldn't imagine living in a world where God didn't exist. I wouldn't want to."
Ellie: "How do you know you're not deluding yourself? I mean, for me, I'd need proof."
Palmer: "Proof....hmmm...Did you love your father?"
Ellie: "What?"
Palmer: "Your dad...did you love him?"
Ellie: "Yes - very much..."
Palmer: "...Prove it...."

(Ellie Arroway to Palmer Joss, in Carl Sagan's film Contact)
I'm catching up on about a hundred topics I've wanted to post about - this one ties way back to this article in the December 20th Washington Post concerning the Dover, PA school board and a judge's ruling against "intelligent design" (also known as ID).

The article quotes U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III, a Republican appointed by President Bush. In part, Jones said,
"The overwhelming evidence is that Intelligent Design is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism and not a scientific theory," Jones wrote in a 139-page decision. "It is an extension of the Fundamentalists' view that one must either accept the literal interpretation of Genesis or else believe in the godless system of evolution."
I not only think Judge Jones hit the nail on the head, he also names the black-n-whites of the battle - Genesis, or godless evolution.

Now I have to make an admission up-front: long before these battle-lines were drawn, I had problems with a literal interpretation of Genesis. After all, the first question is always, "Which Genesis creation story are you taking literally - Gen. 1:1-2:4, or Gen 2:4-24?" The fact that there are two - the first attributed to the P (priestly) source and the second atttributed to the J (Yahwist) source, (if you buy into historical-critical analysis of the Bible) - just points out that Genesis is much more of an analogy than a day-by-day description of what actually happened.

I've always put it this way - if God were to try to explain the process of creation to members of a nomadic ancient Near Eastern tribe, the Almighty would probably not choose to drop a pile of texts on organic biochemistry, physiology, and RNA/DNA replication. The explanation would probably be tailored to their level of understanding - much as a parent's explanation of sexuality for a four-year-old probably doesn't start with diagrams of tab-A-and-slot-B. The Genesis account of creation (and the fall) may have worked for the early Jews – but I don’t think it’s a clear description of what physically happened, any more than “the two shall be as one” means that a man and a woman get super-glued together in the act of sexual consummation.

The funny part is that I’ve heard otherwise sensible people try to tell me that the whole concept of evolution is anathema to them, because it reduces the all-powerful, glorious nature of God’s creation. For me, the idea of the “Big Bang” (a really, really, really big bang) is as God-like an act as I could imagine. I imagine the evolutionary process as particularly awe-inspiring - one cosmic cue-shot that sinks every single ball on a thousand-million pool tables, all in sequence. Because, you see, that’s the kind of “random chance” that would have to occur to get from primeval protein soup to mammals.

Perhaps it would help to use two images I have shamelessly stolen from the rooms of recovery. In the first, one man said, “Well, if you’re talking about random chance of things in the world just happening to come together, ask yourself this: how many times would you have to throw the parts of a bicycle into the air to have them randomly come down as a bicycle?” The second image is one I like even better – the idea that a tornado would rip through a junkyard, picking up things randomly, and yet depositing a fully-functioning Boeing 747 on the far side of it.

So if you ask me how strongly I support the Biblical view of creation as statements of fact, the facts that I hear from Genesis are that a loving, caring God was personally involved in the act of creation, and that the Creator was deeply concerned with the well-being of the created-ones. And not only do I not believe in a literal, done-in-six-days creation, I think that creation is still continuing…that “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22, NIV).

And if you want to call me a heretic, just get in line behind a long, long line of people.

But for me, it comes back to the opening quote from Contact - it’s a question of faith, not a question of proof. In many ways, I believe the religious fundamentalists are largely responsible for the deep rift between the communities of science and faith – by insisting that it has to be either/or. And as things stand today, we have two opposing hermeneutics (ways of understanding) that ultimately devalue the opposing side – if you side with faith, then there is no place for science in the study of creation (and vice versa). This does such a disservice to the hundreds (if not thousands) of prominent scientists who believed that God’s guiding hand was behind much of the process of creation and what we know today as science. Even Einstein is widely quoted as saying, "I am not interested in this phenomenon or that phenomenon. I want to know God's thoughts – the rest are mere details."

Ultimately, I think that Judge Jones was right. I just wish those who claim to be “on the side of ‘intelligent design’” would see that the quest to see God’s blueprints does not always equate to an assumption of God-less creation, and I wish those on the “science” side of the gulf will see that there’s an awful lot of order, rhyme and reason in the supposed randomness of the created order.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Naked Truth, wrapped in Story's robes

Rick Luoni's post about the naked truth inspired me to find and tell this story, which I have cleaned up as best I can. As best I remember it, this is an old Hasidic tale that I first heard from either Doug Lipman or Steve Sanfield.

Truth walked naked into a village, and almost immediately the local inhabitants started cursing at him. Spewing epithets, they chased him out of the village, and Truth walked along the road to the next town. But they too spit at him, cursed him and spewed epithets, driving him out of that town as well.

He walked, lonely and sad, along the empty road, until he reached the next town, still hoping to find someone who was happy to see him, who would embrace naked Truth with open arms.

So he walked into the third town, this time in the middle of the night, hoping that the morning would find the townsfolk happy to see Truth in the clear light of dawn. But as soon as the townsfolk's eyes lit upon him they ran to their homes and then came back throwing garbage at him.

Truth ran off out of the town and into the woods crying. After cleaning off the garbage, he returned to the edge of the woods, when he heard laughter and gaiety, singing and applause. He saw the townsfolk applauding as Story entered the town. They brought out fresh meats and soups and pies and pastries and offered them all to Story - who smiled and lavished in their love and appreciation.

Come twilight, Truth was sulking and sobbing at the edge of the woods. The townsfolk disdainfully ignored him, but Story came out to meet Truth on the edge of town.

Truth told Story how the folk of every town mistreated him, how sad and lonely he was, and how much he wanted to be accepted and appreciated.

Story replied, "Of course they all reject you!" Story looked at Truth, eyes a bit lowered to the side. "No one ever wants to look at the naked Truth."

So Story took pity on Truth, and gave him some of her colorful, beautiful clothing to wear. Then they walked into the nearby town together, Truth dressed in the beautiful robes of Story. The townspeople greeted them with warmth and love and appreciation, for Truth wrapped in Story's clothing can be a beautiful thing, and is almost always easier to behold.

And ever since that day, Truth travels best with Story, and when Truth is wrapped in Story's robes, he finds much more acceptance than the simple naked Truth would ever find.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Not the Christmas I would have hoped for...

God come to earth?
A virgin birth?
No! - How could anybody believe?

(Wayne Watson, One Christmas Eve)
Merry Christmas, everyone. And trust me, Wayne...I believe...I really do...

It's been an odd Christmas holiday, for a number of reasons.

First, my sisters and their husbands and I didn't buy a single Christmas present for each other. Third year running, in fact. One sister has been struggling with finances for years; I've been struggling with mine ever since my ill-fated run at ministry nearly 30 months ago; and one gets completely overwhelmed by the whole gift-buying-wrapping thing. So we haven't been able to find much involvement with the whole "Christmas-is-just-so-damn-stressful" thing...because we opted out of the whole commercialism thing. Felt pretty good, too.

There are two important caveats to that "commercialism-free" claim: the grocery store and the meat market.

Christmas is still a time of feasting in our family circles. Christmas Friday was a journey down to Tony's Ribs in Findlay (in lieu of making Sandy cook), and then an extended round of turkeyfoot and lots of holiday memories. Oh, and Magic Bars. You just can't have Christmas in our family without Magic Bars. Lots of them, actually.

Christmas Eve night, Sue and Jeff had sister Sandy, and Jeff's side of the family, over for dinner. Pulled-pork sandwiches, peel-n-eat shrimp, and all kinds of accompaniments were the fare on the eve. Unfortunately, something in the feast didn't agree with Sue & Jeff (although everyone else was fine) and by the time 9:45 PM rolled around, both of them were dealing with significant gastric distress. So for the first time in a long, long time, I didn't go to Christmas eve service, but stayed around with them, to make sure they were OK. I have to admit - that felt pretty weird.

It's not that I missed the particular service at the LCMS church Jeff's family attends - I've never been overly impressed with the pastor, his preaching, or the particularly cool reception I get as an outsider. And since I am not a Missouri-Synod-branded Lutheran (and don't subscribe to their particular interpretation of transsubstantiation, taking communion at their church every Christmas Eve has ended up being my one act of liturgical rebellion each year. So while it felt somehow empty to not be in worship on Christmas Eve, I didn't really miss being there, to be honest.

For Christmas Day, I had planned to attend Cedar Creek Church in Perrysburg, of which I had heard all kinds of good buzz in the local Christian radio and media. But lo and behold, when I checked their service times this morning, it turns out that they were not having services on Christmas morning. (Seems they were following the lead of Willow Creek and other Protestant megachurches in not offering services on Christmas Day - though they are offering New Years' Day services. Just forgive me, because I'm not even gonna pursue that little bit of market-driven insanity...)

Yeah, I probably could have found somewhere else to go. Yes, it was probably sloth and inertia on my part. But I didn't. And that felt weird, too...but not so terribly wrong as I would have thought it would have felt.

Back to Christmas eve morning, the 7:30 AM "Early Bird" AA meeting had about a hundred people - overflowing the room with people celebrating a sober holiday (some for the first time). The new folks were wondering how people actually made it through holidays sober - and the folks with some sober time were sharing their experience, strength and hope. It was an amazing, gratitude-filled time.

Christmas Day brought yet another feast with Sue's in-laws - plus calls from friends and family around the country - but yet not so many as in years past. And a number of calls I made to friends went unanswered. That felt weird, as well.

So I have to admit that while I'm grateful for my family, and for the gifts that God has put into my life, I feel more apart from what I've known as sweet fellowship in quite a while.

That dissatisfaction with the institutional church has been growing for a while - and it certainly wasn't helped by people who felt they could speak for the Church universal with statements like this one:

"Every company in America should be on its knees thanking Jesus for being born. Without Christmas, most American businesses would be far less profitable; more than enough reason for businesses to be screaming Merry Christmas." -- Bill O'Reilly, Fox Talk Show host who is leading the "Christian" defense in the "War on Christmas", The O'Reilly Factor, November 28
(If you really wanted to pursue this, my friend Tom posted this great item which says it better than I could ever say it.)

So the holiday scores a 10 on the "being connected with family" score, and a 3 on the "participating in the life of the faith community" scale. I'm grateful for what I have - and I'm not quite sure how to find my way back to what I missed this year. But I know I've got some miles to go on that score.

For now, I'll see my sister Sue off to work later on today, hook up with some old friends here, and then make my way back to the greater Chicagoland area in the afternoon. Hopefully the wet, slushy snow that's been falling will clear off by then, and I'll have smooth and safe driving as I head "westbound-and-down."

And I'll trust that "Emmanuel" is not someone who just shows up on Christmas Eve, but truly God with us who will be with us every single moment of today, and every day.

That thought alone is worth celebrating...

Friday, December 23, 2005

Traveling reflections

I started this post about 2:30 AM Eastern on Friday...I guess the Revised Common Lectionary would say this is the 4th Friday in Advent, or Christmas Friday, perhaps. (If the day Christ died is Good Friday, is the Friday before Christ was born Bad Friday?)

More to the point, when I started writing was about 8 hours after the start of my four-day Christmas break. Then my sister came in and found me asleep in the computer chair - so now it's mid-day Friday in Ohio.

There are people at my job who are going to be working over the weekend - either in preparation for one client's payroll year-end or trying desperately to prepare for the go-live week for another client. Some will physically be in the office; some will be dialed-in from home. But I asked if I would be needed - either in person or remotely - given that I'd planned to head to Toledo. And my new boss said, "No, we're not going to be working on anything you can help with at this point. Go ahead and go."

The growth in my life is that I didn't say, "Are you sure you won't need me?" Instead, I just said, "Cool...thank you," and went on my way.

I'm hoping that God will help me kill the part of me that is insistent on being the people-pleaser on this new job. I'm slowly "coming to believe" that they hired me because I'm acceptable, just as I am. I can do what I can do - but I'm trying to give myself the freedom to not have to be Superman or Dudley Do-Right for my employer.

In positions past, I have always felt like I was always playing catch-up - never quite sufficient to the task or the role. Today, I know that anyone who really did feel like they were "sufficient to the role" in whatever organization I was in would either be egotistical in the extreme or completely delusional. So today, when my inner insanity wants to ante-up to that table, I can simply say to that annoying voice, "Uh-UH...homey ain't gonna play."

"Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly..."

Last Thursday I gave a "lead" at one of my home AA groups. In the community of recovery, a "lead" is AA-talk for time when I can share my experience, strength and hope about my life in recovery. The AA text says that "our stories disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now." It's not "a speech" or "a talk," not exhorting or evanglizing or promoting, but truly "sharing" where I am, and some of the high-points and pot-holes in getting there. I guess the easiest comparison is not "You shouldn't drink," but "here's how I live sober today...however broken that might be."

(An aside for the folks in recovery - I often hear this instruction from the "Big Book" said as "...what IT was like, what happened, and what IT's like now." When I hear that, I'm always reminded of a friend who says, "Hell, boy, it don't change. I can get a quart of it any time I want! Only the first half of it changes...I change, and as a result, living in a world with it in it is a much easier place in which to live.")

I try to do this close to my sobriety anniverary every year. But the process was kind of humbling this year, on a number of levels. After all, for my 12th anniversary, life was pretty wonderful; it was my last year at Sprint before heading to Chicago in August. I had a good job, a pleasant, warm, safe living arrangement with a dear friend, and all the benefits of a mid-size Midwestern city: free parking, cheap beef, available public restrooms, wide open short, life was very good.

Year 13 was in the middle of my first year of seminary, and even though there was a question of whether I'd be able to go forward, life was good, for the most part. Year 14 was a time of desperation - I'd been emphatically told that I wouldn't be able to go forward in ministry, I'd finished the most devastating six months that I'd ever had in sobriety (financially), and I was reeling from wrestling with issues of self-worth, identity, faith, and what seemed at the time to be a spectacular failure of discernment. I had a new job (30 days old) after an extended time unemployed, and I was desperately trying to get them to like me enough to make me full-time (which they never, ever did). At that point, I had to be content with the fact that I was, as a friend says, "sunny-side up, suckin' air, sober" - and that for the forseeable future, that had to be enough.

At year 15 it was different. I'd hoped that by the time I was 15 years sober, I'd have had most of my past cleaned up, and be very solidly anchored in the career of my dreams. Having to truly come to terms with the death of my ministry dreams, with having to move (but not really having the money to do so), and that once again I was starting life over (and once again behind the 8-ball, cash-wise) was a series of annoyingly humbling realizations. I really, really wanted to say, "Hey, folks, everything's fine" when it was anything but.

Instead, what I remember talking about was gratitude, the 12th step, and the fellowship. How working with my three young sponsees has given my joy, hope and encouragement when I couldn't find it in my own living situation. How God manages to use me in seemingly powerful ways, despite not wearing a clerical collar. And how no matter how many challenges I get today, if I go to bed sober, I'm a winner. Because the simple truth is that drunks drink, and junkies use - unless there is a miracle.

So I left at 5:30 last night. I could have left straight for Ohio then; perhaps sanity would have encouraged that. But one of my sponsees was turning six months sober, and I wanted to give him a card and a hug and be there for the 7:00 meeting. So I didn't leave there until 8:15, stopped home and picked up the suitcases and packages, left about 9:20, and had a particularly slow but peaceful drive (darn them Highway Patrol folks...), and got here about 1:30 AM CT, 2:30 Eastern - safe, sober, undented...and now we're full circle.

So even though it's Friday morning, it's still Christmas Day for me. I've received a gift of life, of sobriety, and of love from my God, my family and my friends. And there's a whole bunch of people in palatial estates driving Hummers and dripping with "bling" that can't say that.

Topics that are half-started thoughts include Lutherans, Methodists and what "church unity" means; what it means to have a gift-less Christmas; and my Christmas-music playlist. But for now, we're having Tony's Ribs (yay!) in Findlay with both sisters and their husbands tonight, Christmas eve with Sue's in-laws, and a variety of options for Christmas Day. is good. Thank you, God.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Well, it's official....

According to the AWS Weatherbug location near my place, we are officially fresh out of Fahrenheits, at -1 degrees (-18.3 C for my Canuck friends). Don't know where they all went, but it's definitely time to bundle up...

The message comes to the outsiders

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 8 years ago, in one of my first ministry classes. Some who have listened to me for a while have heard this before...feel free to tune out. But I think it's an image that bears repeating...

I think it's especially important to repeat the image now...when a great deal of what society sees as "Christianity" comes down to pseudo-righteous people pointing fingers at other groups, and yelling "You're a sinner! You'd better repent or you're going to Hell!"

As if we all weren't if, somehow, there were people who somehow didn't have lifestyles that were unacceptable to God in some way...

It's particularly appropriate to talk about this in connection with this passage of Scripture, too. 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 the New Testament 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.

In these days of insanity - when businesses are encouraged to "keep the 'Christ' in Christmas" so they won't get boycotted - it's important not to 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!

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Enjoying life, helping others

...We have been speaking to you of serious, sometimes tragic things. We have been dealing with alcohol in its worst aspect. But we aren't a glum lot. If newcomers could see no joy or fun in our existence, they wouldn't want it. We absolutely insist on enjoying life.
...So we think cheerfulness and laughter make for usefulness. Outsiders are sometimes shocked when we burst into merriment over a seemingly tragic experience out of the past. But why shouldn't we laugh? We have recovered, and have been given the power to help others.

(from the text Alcoholics Anonymous, page 132)
The book Alcoholics Anonymous is the only textbook about a progressive, fatal disease that contains the phrase "We absolutely insist on enjoying life."
(Scott R., Sherman Oaks, CA)
Today is a double celebration of sorts. This morning, I began my new career as an official employee of Hewitt Associates, a major human-resources consulting firm headquartered in the 'burbs north of Chicago. After my disastrous foray into theological studies, I am once again on the road to being (as AA's 7th traditions says) "self supporting through our own contributions." And today also marks my fifteen-year sobriety anniversary.

Neither celebration started off so well, however.

Somehow, in the process of moving this summer, I managed to misplace my "important papers" file - the one with my will, my birth certificate, and the original of my social security card in it. While my profound hope is that I won't need the will for a while, I desperately needed the social security card (or the birth certificate) in order to fill out my I-9 form for my new employer during orientation on Monday morning.

So I spent the weekend emptying boxes, sorting through papers that I swore I'd file or read or take action on someday (but never did) in a vain effort to find the critical documents. The result is that my apartment now looks like a drug dealer or mob enforcer came in and "tossed" the place. Not pretty. And certainly not what one might expect from someone sober that long.

Finally I just gave up late last night, accepted the fact that if it was a drop-dead fatal requirement, I'd just end up ordering the replacement documents and being a temporary employee for another month, and went to bed. I needed to get up very early on Monday to travel up to the company HQ up in Lincolnshire for the first day of orientation.

This morning, I was ready to leave the house about 5:25 AM when I realized that somehow, in the excitement of tearing things up to find my "important documents," I had somehow also managed to misplace my wallet. (You have to understand that I was still beating myself up for supposedly being a responsible adult, but nonetheless somehow managing to misplace two critical life documents. And there I was, with the clock running on my departure time, and once again I couldn't find stuff that was important to me.)

Let's just say that it wasn't exactly a spiritual high-water mark for me.

In fact, my language might have indicated that I was having a spiritual blackout (or at least "rotating brownouts") rather than a spiritual experience of any kind. And as I was tearing around my apartment, the recurring theme in my head was: People who are fifteen years sober aren't supposed to be having days like this. This is first-year sobriety nonsense. So what the hell am I doing here again?

(Trust me - I know better than that. I really do. I know lots of people who have had much worse days, with much more sober-time than I have. But I wasn't listening to me this morning.)

Now, the end of the story is pretty simple: About 6:00 AM, I finally stopped to breathe, and pray the only honest prayer I could say: God, grant me the serenity to be able to find my FREAKIN' WALLET before I break something! And shortly after that, I actually did find the damn thing, said about a hundred reps of "Thank you, God," then got in the car, and did deep-breathing exercises for about 5 miles up I-94. It took just shy of two and a quarter hours to travel the 50 miles to Lincolnshire by leaving at 6:15 instead of 5:30. But it was OK. Really.

And the day got immensely better. I arrived not only on-time, but calmed down and reasonably serene. I found out that just the application for a replacement Social Security card would be enough for the employment folks. And we got done early enough that I could perform some tech-support by phone for one of my coworkers on the drive back down from Lincolnshire.

And I got to go to my Monday AA meeting - and be reminded, again and again, just what an incredible gift this sobriety is for those of us who need it. I got to see the people who have so enriched my life for the last three years - and got to admit that while my day certainly hadn't gone according to my best-laid-plans, it still went OK - because I was sober.

At one of my first AA meetings, a man said to me, "Steve, drunks drink, and junkies use - unless there is a miracle. So if you qualify for this group, and you wake up sober, you're an absolute freakin' miracle." Like my wallet, I've managed to misplace that thought a bunch of times, but I've never truly lost it yet - for which I'm grateful.

I am not where I want to be - not by any means. In some ways, parts of the last year have been failures - financially, emotionally, spiritually. There is part of me that wishes that I weren't starting my life and my career over - again - on the low side of my half-century birthday. There are lots of things I wish were different...lots different.

But despite all the things I wish could be otherwise, I also can claim a whole bunch of real blessings this year. I know that I have family and friends alike who love me, and are grateful for my presence in their lives. That, by itself, is a huge gift. It is not good, as Scripture says, for this particular man to be alone - and so I have received incredible gifts of love, inclusion and friendship...many more than I could ever measure.

And I know that God has managed to use me, and my struggles, for good this year. I know that there are people who God has managed to "reach out and touch" through me. I know that over the last year, I've taken some actions to be more honest about who and what I am - steps that I have put off taking for decades (literally).

And I know where my wallet, my keys, and my phone are.

So as the young folk would say: "It's all good."

The last several days have not been fun, by any means. But I can honestly say that tonight, I am not "a glum lot," and that my goal for tomorrow is not only to "enjoy life," but to use both my blessings and my struggles to help others.

To the people in the community of recovery - my sponsors, my sponsees, and all the people who have made this journey possible - all I can say is thank you, and thank you, and forever thank you. I'll never be able to repay the gifts that each of you have given me over the last fifteen years.

But it will be my honor and my pleasure to try, nonetheless.

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. (page 164)

Friday, December 09, 2005

Comedy of errors, snowstorm-style

Well, it has been an interesting day here in the Windy City...

Good news - the official "offer letter" came from my new employers-to-be today. Orientation will be Monday through Wednesday - although in order to make it out to Lincolnshire, IL (where the corporate HQ's are) I'll have to be up by 4:30 AM, on the road by 5:30 AM to be downtown at Union Station by 6:15, to catch a 6:30 a.m. to Lincolnshire, to get there by 8:30. (I can just hear Stevie Wonder singin' Livin' just enough...just enough for the cit-aye...) But a boy's gotta do what a boy's gotta do...

For some reason, digestive challenges kept me getting up repeatedly through Wednesday night and into Thursday morning. Despite getting up earlier than usual, I still managed to be running out the door late. But I was encouraged, because I was going to be seeing my friend Eric from Kansas for dinner Thursday night - a long-awaited reunion. So that eased my frustration at getting to work late.

A series of technical FUBARs made the day at work a challenge - leaving me with half-a-dozen things half done, and only one completely resolved. I definitely opened more cans of worms than I managed to seal up. Of course, that's the nature of the work, too - but it was frustrating, nonetheless.

It was when someone walked back in from getting coffee that they said, "Look at the snow!" And snow it did - making the Chicago riverside walk look like quite the winter wonderland. I have to admit, it was pretty - snow falling pretty much straight down, in a relatively windless and warm day (well, 28F/-2C - warm for a Chicago day in December!). Not exactly a Kincaide painting, but close...

Of course, it completely scrambled Eric's travel - he got to take off from KC to St. Louis, then they delayed him 2-1/2 hours in STL, and then he finally did take off from STL to Chicago. Of course, no one could have known that Southwest flight 1248 from Baltimore would land in Chicago about a half-hour before Eric's flight, sliding off the runway, crashing through the barrier wall around Midway Airport and ending up in the intersection of 55th St. and Central Ave. (you'll have to do a free registration to read the article). Needless to say, they closed the airport, and that, as they say, was that.

So Eric's plane went back to St. Louis, and I started a two-hour trek from the office to the apartment in Pullman. I managed to connect by phone with several folks along the way - sponsees, friends - so it wasn't lost time. But the 6 blocks from the train to the apartment were long, slipperly, snowy, crappy blocks - so I was more than ready to get into the apartment and get dry...when I got to the door of the apartment building and realized that I had somehow left my house-key-ring at the office.

If there is anything more embarrassing than being locked out of your own apartment, and having to wake your landlord up to let you in dead sober, I can't think what the hell it might be. I blistered the air with more than a few oaths that you will never find in the pages of Scripture, you can be sure.

Of course, I had a spare set of keys - it's just what you do when you're a forgetful guy like me. But the night before I had dropped my wallet onto the bedroom floor, and a whole bunch of stuff fell out of it. I just threw it all on the desk, planning to sort it all out the next morning. (So much for good intentions...)

At any rate, my landlord is a much more gracious guy guy than I am, and gave me a loaner set of keys, and all has ended well. My pants are hanging by the furnace to dry out, and I have a cup of hot herbal tea with which to finish the day off. Eric's flight from St. Louis to KC should be arriving right about now, and I trust that he will be home safe soon.

So despite all that, I'm home safe, unbruised (except my ego), undented, and I'm going to get to bed and give it another shot tomorrow! (Or actually later on today...)

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Still a strange way to save the world

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 table 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,"
from their CD "The Season of Love")

Lately I've had the good fortune of some quiet time on the train to think about the arrival of our Savior on this earth. I heard the 4Him song above this morning, and it made me think of just how it might have been.

Several years ago, I was at a concert, and one of the songs the group performed was "Breath of Heaven," written by Amy Grant and Chris Eaton. The song is written from Mary's perspective, and is an extremely powerful tribute to the Incarnation - God taking flesh and coming to Earth - and how it must have been to be in the middle of that whole miracle. If you have not heard it, you have missed a very powerful image of how the first Christmas was.

The leader of the performing group gave a powerful testimony for "Breath of Heaven" before the musical set began. He said that he had never heard the song before picking it for their "Christmas Cabaret" - but he felt that it was a powerful reminder of how we are, compared to how Mary and Joseph were.

Then he reminded us all that as we prepare to celebrate Christmas with gifts and dining-rooms filled with hot food, and beautiful music sung inside brightly-lit churches surrounded by stained-glass, flowers, torches and candles...that the first Christmas was not that way at all. It was cold and homeless and messy and stinky and painful and lonely. The birth of the King of Kings
was done without pain-killers or antiseptic soap or Lamaze lessons. Just a teenaged unwed mother who was ready to deliver her child, taken in by a carpenter from Nazareth, who were both a long way from home, with no place to go. It wasn't pretty, and on the surface, the scene itself was anything but holy.

But even that ugliness is a powerful message - if we just choose to listen to it! Humanity, plus a stable, plus an unwed mother and a clueless carpenter, sounds like a plot for an episode of "Cops" - it’s probably not gonna end up pretty. But the same setting, the same people, and
the same situation in God’s hands creates a time of holiness, when the angels sing and strangers come to give praise. God sends a baby to save the world, and we wonder at the sacred insanity of the idea. An unwed mother - someone that might not even be welcome
in some churches, these days - becomes the source of the Light of the World.

If God can do that with Joseph, Mary, and a stable, what can God do with me? What can God do with US in our individual congregations, in our places of work, and in our homes? Can we really say, as Mary did, "Let it be according to God’s will"? I believe that answering that question can be the best thing we can do with our time while we’re "preparing the way for
the Lord."

Lord God, help me to continue to ask myself the question, and then try to not be afraid of the answer...

Monday, December 05, 2005

Outta my mind on Monday moanin'

Yet another installment...

Good moanin' - Mandatory reading: go straight over here and read some incredibly powerful stuff from my 2nd most favorite German Lutheran, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In light of recent events in Catholic circles, this is especially timely. (Thanks to Poor Mad Peter for the hat-tip!)

Good moanin' - the date is now set: I should become an official employee of Hewitt Associates on December 12th. I had two "interviews" (with my boss and her boss) and their only concern was that I was being hired in "below my skill set." Of course, they don't know that I'm being hired in well above my subsistence level for the last eighteen months. Thank you, God, for another fresh start.

Moanin' - however, the downside is that because the Hewitt bureaucracy was running like most bureaucracies (slowly and methodically), my health insurance was scheduled to run out before my new group policy would kick in. So I called the firm, and said, "So, if I renew my policy for another quarter, and pay the $700 premium, if I get a new job in the interim, can I cancel the policy and get a partial refund?" The response back was basically, "If you're not going to be a student, you're not eligible for the insurance - period. The only reason we renewed the policy in the first place was because it looked like you were going to be a student again." (Whoops.) So I get to be really, really careful over the next seven days... may saints and angels surround me!

Good/moanin' - both good and bad news. Good news: while I was in Ohio, I picked up what look to be my Christmas decorations. (I brought the artificial tree back at the end of October.) Bad news - it looks like there's at least one box (perhaps more) that didn't make it to Sue & Jeff's new place. I don't know whether it got tossed in the moving-Sue-n-Jeff melee a year ago, or if it got relabled and is in my basement somewhere, mismarked as something else. Now if I can just get my apartment straightened up enough to have some folks over for dinner and tree decorating...

Good/moanin' - while I still have drafts coming into my apartment from places I can't really pinpoint, the 3M window covering film (thank God for whoever invented that stuff!!) seems to have stopped the worst of the winter gales, which were entering through the kitchen windows (the upper halves of which were painted nearly-closed, but not completely closed). So now the furnace is only running frequently, instead of nearly-continuously. Progress, not perfection, I guess...

One reason I have not been posting much lately has been an ongoing dramatic slowdown in my Internet connection. By this morning, it was so severe, the WOW! service speed test showed that my download speed was only 3 kbps. (Dial-up service would have given me at least 48kbps...) I did the usual - installed the latest browser update (new Firefox 1.5!), cleared my cache and history, done everything I'd known to do. In a burst of inspiration this morning, I remembered that while I had rebooted the PC repeatedly, I hadn't restarted the modem or router in all this process. Once I did that, and got the router reinitialized, shazzam! Back to broadband speeds again. Woo-hoo!

Blessings ahead - my buddy Eric Amundson is coming into town Thursday night! He's got a business meeting out in the northwest suburbs (Hoffman Estates, to be exact), so he'll come in Thursday night, and head back home Friday afternoon. It will be great to see him.

That's it - I'm already starting off the week by going to bed WAY too late (early) - but I want to get back in the habit of posting more regularly...

Thursday, December 01, 2005

World AIDS Day 2005 - the band still plays on

Today's NY Times email summary contained only one article, this editorial, about AIDS on this World AIDS Day. But the first and last lines basically told the story:
AIDS is outrunning us. The annual report of the United Nations' AIDS agency, released last week to mark World AIDS Day today, informs us that this year there will be 5 million new infections, a record, and more than 3.1 million deaths, another record.

The most troubling aspect of the report by the agency, UNAIDS, is its grim evidence that many large countries are still closing their eyes to limited AIDS epidemics that will soon explode into the general population. India is providing numbers no one believes. Russia has the world's fastest-growing epidemic, fueled by intravenous drug abuse. Drug abuse also now accounts for half of China's AIDS cases, and it is spreading AIDS infections rapidly in Vietnam, Indonesia and Pakistan...

The AIDS story this year is mostly one of failure: the failure of rich countries to give the promised money, the failure of poor nations to muster the political will. All around, it's a failure of leadership.

Twenty years ago, a friend of mine who was a research pathologist was casting about for his next project. I asked him at the time if he'd thought about researching what was then called GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). His words are still accurate: "It will never happen. No one wants to provide funding to cure a disease that only affects IV drug users and anally-active homosexuals."

Well, it's been at least two decades since AIDS was confined to those small populations. A contaminated blood supply - and corporate greed, unwilling to spend the money to protect the blood supply until it was too late - saw to that.

Check out this list of well-known people living with HIV, or who have died from HIV-related illness. The one that blew my mind was Isaac Asimov - one of the all-time great sci-fi writers - who died of AIDS-related surgical complications after being infected with HIV-tainted blood.

We can't afford to be complacent - so far AIDS has killed, or helped kill, more people this year than every other natural disaster...tsunami, flood, hurricane - everything. In 1989, the death of Amanda Blake (Kitty on Gunsmoke) and the 1990 death of Ryan White, a teen-aged hemophiliac, proved to the public that this was no longer a gay or drug-user disease. But because people like Magic Johnson can pay huge amounts of money for anti-retroviral drugs, so many people assume the cure is in hand, and that somehow we don't need to worry any more.

But it's not over. It's not even slowing down. The AIDS Quilt, a memorial created by family and friends of AIDS victims and the Names Project, would now cover multiple football fields if it were all brought together.

Wear the red ribbon. Make a contribution. Make your voice heard, that we will not remain silent in the face of this disease.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

You really need to check these out...

My brother and friend Damien sends us a classic link link to Gay Church Schisms. The pertinent passage:
Meanwhile, this week the North Carolina Baptist State Convention has sparked its own gay controversy with a Tuesday vote deciding to expel any member churches that display queer-friendly tendencies. Among the dissenting minority was Rob Helton, a messenger from the Cherry Point Baptist Church in Havelock, NC, who challenged the convention to practice equal opportunity expulsion: writing policies for every sin in the Bible, and not just homosexuality.
You absolutely need to go to see Damien's images for this post here, too.

Damien also has a painfully honest reaction to the Catholic announcement about gays in the priesthood over here

Tom Scharbach issues a powerful challenge in the face of the Vatican's announcement over here. His post is a trumpet-call:
If the Vatican's finding is correct, then sexual orientation is a job qualification for the bishopric, and gay bishops are - to be blunt - unqualified and should be removed ... That being the case, I think that it is fair to ask each of our bishops, on the record, whether they are gay -- whether they lack an essential qualification for the office they hold.

So do ask.

I intend to ask my bishops, The Most Reverend Joseph Perry, the Auxiliary of Vicariate VI, and His Eminence Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago, the next time I am within earshot.

And I intend to get an answer, not an evasion.
I feel for them. After all, I know a little bit about not being wanted by the church that I'd devoted a goodly chunk of my life to. But for all the rejection I felt at the time, they never told me that I was "intrinsically disordered" (at least not to my face). But who knows what else they might have said...

To Catholics everywhere - gay and straight - I'm sorry for your pain. As I commented on Damien's blog, maybe it's time to find some parchment, a nail, a hammer, and a wooden church door on which to nail them...

Monday, November 28, 2005

Weeping in heaven...

In my former hometown of Toledo, OH, there was a stretch of Byrne Road whose speed limit dropped to 25 from 35 for three short blocks. For years, people like me blew through there - probably closer to 45 than 25 - because the few times that we got pulled over, we were just given warnings. The first time I got a $50 ticket (which, in 1990 dollars, was a big deal...), I became much more careful about how I drove - both in general, and on that specific stretch of road.

I bring this up after reading this morning's NY Times article carrying reactions from around the country related to the Catholic Church's leaked-enough-to-be-official statement regarding gays in the priesthood. (You can read the article here, or go to the Catholic News Service and read their take on it in more detail. Thanks to Damien for the hat-tip on the CNS link...)

If the Catholic Church was sticking to its standing dogma, then every gay man who has been ordained since 1961 has been irregularly ordained - since a 1961 Vatican document on religious-order priests said homosexuals should be excluded from religious vows and ordination. So "tradition" is not a supporting argument - because the church itself has been the greatest violator of that tradition.

In the NY Times article, there is a telling statement:
Most supporters of the directive said they believed there was a link between homosexuality and the sexual abuse by clergy members that has recently rocked the church, and they said the initiative would make such scandals less likely in the future.
To get back to the Byrne Road analogy, the Catholic position would be like saying that since males between 16 and 30 tend to be hot-rodders, the solution to speeding problems would be to not license any young men under the age of 30. In this case, the Toledo Police Department made the right choice - when people were speeding, they arrested them. The Catholic Church's failure was in not enforcing the existing rules related to clergy sexual abuse, and punishing the offenders forthwith.

Preventing gay ordination will only hurt the church. Placing pressure of scrutiny (or worse) on already-ordained gay priests will only help drive them out of a church that they already believe doesn't want them. After all, if you are called to celibacy, obedience, and poverty - and then proclaimed as "objectively disordered" and placed under ever-increasing scrutiny - how long would it take you to find something else to do with your life?

Here's another sign of how much denial is involved with this issue:
...supporters of the Vatican's stance said that such a step was necessary to root out priests whom they considered dangerous.

"If it is part of church doctrine, we'd be better off with 5 percent less priests, but who conform to church doctrine, rather than a few more," said Travis Corcoran, 34, the owner of an online DVD rental company, as he left an early Mass yesterday at St. Agnes Parish in Arlington, Mass., near Boston. "It's the same way if there's a shortage of school bus drivers. If you drug-test school bus drivers and the result is there are a few less school bus drivers, that's better."
Just five percent, eh, Mr. Corcoran? It'll be interesting what you think when you see just how big your "acceptable losses" really are...

And the other flaw, Mr. Corcoran, is that drug-use is directly related to impaired bus-driving. A homosexual orientation is not a direct cause of sexual abuse.

But unthinking comments like these underscore the massive two-pronged tragedy that exists not only in the Catholic Church but in the greater society: first, the idea that a homosexual orientation is a choice - something that can be un-chosen or somehow reversed; and second, that homosexuals are, by default, by their nature, considered dangerous. Both of those statements are fundamentally flawed - in the same way that saying that "all hunters are potential terrorists, because they all have guns" - and yet it seems these kinds of assumptions are the basis for church doctrine.

The actions (and, more importantly, inactions) of the Catholic Church have served to smear a significant portion of their priesthood with the sins of a few. And now, rather than admit their errors, I'm very much afraid that the Church has chosen the scapegoats for their own sins, and the righteous and the unrighteous will all be consumed in that fire.

You might well ask, "You're not Catholic - what does it matter to you?" And it would be a fair question - after all, I am not under the authority of Rome. But there are a lot of folks, both friends and persons I know or have contact with - all of whom are faithful, caring, committed, celibate servants of God - who may well be left dangling over the fire on this issue. And there are also a lot of people who will point to Rome's position and say, "See? See?" None of these decisions are being made in a vacuum.

I just have to believe that there is weeping in Heaven over this.

A quick note....

It's been a full, and wonderful Thanksgiving. Way too much turkey, the family-recipe stuffing, and not enough getting up off the sofa made for periods of real sloth this weekend. But there were bursts of activity - fixing up a few honey-do's at my sister Sue's, fabulous Tony's Ribs and turkeyfoot in Findlay with both sisters and their husbands, seeing the new Harry Potter movie with brother-in-law Jeff, and an absolutely great AA gratitude meeting at 7:30 AM Thanksgiving Day. (And I brought Tony's ribs home for me, and for my young friend Matt. Definitely a good thing!)

It was a winter wonderland - the roads were great going into Toledo on Wednesday night, but Thursday morning found snow and black ice as I came out to go to the meeting - my poor car looked like a glazed donut! And we had more snow-bursts Thursday afternoon and Friday night - it wasn't until the rains came early Sunday morning that winter abated for a bit (enough to drive home, anyway).

Strong recommendation - if you're a Harry Potter fan, this movie is the best of them all. Definitely a big-screen show. I won't give anything away, but it is definitely a two-thumbs-up thing.

Topics for this week will include wondering about how sin-free you have to be to pray for the church; World AIDS Day (December 1st); and getting back into some Discipline.

If you read nothing else on the internet today, read this incredible post by my friend Rick at a new life emerging. In fact, as I'm trying to catch up in the blogosphere, I'd say you should start with this one, and just read everything he's written since. Incredibly, incredibly powerful stuff.

OK, enough blogging - off into the rain and the wind...

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Quiet gratitude...

O, wad gift the Giftie gie us,
to see oursels as others see us!

(an ould Scots rhyme)

It's now officially Wednesday morning. I should be in bed, but I'm not. Nothing new there...

In about 22 hours, I will be with my sisters in Ohio for Thanksgiving weekend. I'm more than ready to be there, too. (I can smell the family-tradition stuffing from 240 miles away...) The weather forecast is for cold, snow and slush across northern Indiana and northwest Ohio - so my travel goal will simply be "slow and steady progress," with a lot of music and more than a few phone conversations to keep me company as I eat up the eastbound miles.

This evening, I made the mistake of looking back at my Thanksgiving-eve post from a year ago. The problem is, every single word of that post is still true today - so it seems a little redundant to repeat it all in this space. But in retrospect, it also sounded a little bit like a blogger's Oscar acceptance speech - there is perhaps more of a strain of pomposity woven through the gush of gratitude than I would have liked to have seen in that posting.

It's that awareness, which is happening on so many levels in my life, that is making this Thanksgiving both sweeter and more bittersweet than last year.

A week or more ago, a friend said to me, "You haven't been blogging much lately," and I half-heartedly replied, "Yeah, well, I haven't felt much like being inspiring." His snappy comeback hit home: "Oh, well, not to worry - you never really were inspiring, anyway." More truth than I wanted to hear, at the time...but truth, nonetheless.

This year has been one of constant digestion of truths like that - or, perhaps, indigestion. I've spent this year alternating between just trying to survive, putting one foot in front of the other, and then chewing my way slowly through a number of uncomfortable revelations about myself, my motives, and the consequences of my actions over the last several years. It's all been necessary - and a great deal of it has been good and worthwhile, but not much of it has been comfortable, to be honest.

What's different, this year?

Well, my material condition is considerably less bad than it was a year ago. By last Thanksgiving-time, I'd only been working steadily for two weeks...I was still smarting from post-seminary financial reverses that I couldn't even have imagined a year earlier. And those continued through this year, despite a low-but-steady income all year. Even on the cusp of being made a full-time, really-real employee again, life's still gonna be less than peaches-and-cream for a while. But it's a whole lot better than it was a year ago - for which I give much thanks.

I have wandered for a year without really participating in a faith community. Oh, I've attended a bunch of 'em - notably Fourth Presbyterian of Chicago - but I never really found a place where I could really feel "a part of." And I think it's going to take some time before I'll really feel comfortable going back and getting in the middle of a church community again. It will happen - this particular man was not meant to live his faith life alone, to be sure - but I'm going to need to do some healing first.

My saving grace this year has been quadruply-anchored in the love of my sisters; the support, encouragement and love I've received from the community of recovery; the ongoing prayers of my brothers and sisters in faith, both from my Kansas congregation and from Fourth Pres; and the accountability and encouragement of my online sisters and brothers in the blogosphere. Without each of you, I do not believe I would have had the strength to "keep on keepin' on," as my mentor Tex Sample used to say. And for each of you, I am eternally grateful to God.

And I'm thankful for at least the willingness to take the painful steps toward being more honest - about my life, my faith, and my struggles with them both. There is much more to say about that journey - but at least today I'm aware I don't have to say it all tonight. Or this morning, as the case may be...

As the old spiritual goes, "I ain't where I wanna be, and I ain't where I'm gonna be, but thank you Jesus, I ain't where I used'ta be." It's been a long, strange trip - but it' a long way from over, too. And today, I really do believe that the best is yet to be...

To each and every one of you who have read my feeble scratchings, and have shared your thoughts and your hearts in this space, I'll steal the words of Shakespeare: "I can only say thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks." You've helped make the journey more than worthwhile; you've pushed and pulled me when I've wanted to stay rooted, and you've both lifted me up and kicked my ass precisely when I've needed it the most. That is a gift that's worth celebrating.

Happy Thanksgiving, y'all...

Monday, November 21, 2005

Blessed are the poor...

God, we thank you for bread and meat, for the shelter of house and the warmth of clothing, for daily work and thoughtful friends, for reasonable margins of security comfort. But how can we thank you for these things, and yet have no pain of heart that even now other children of yours starve, are homeless and hopeless? Can we do so with no sign of human caring for those who fear tomorrow more than death?

If we can give thanks for all our blessings, yet not find any anguish for those who do without, then leave us without blessing until we learn the ways of mercy. Deliver us from the gross sin of indifference, and sanctify the things we enjoy by the courage and kindness with which we share them. Amen.

(Samuel Miller, Prayers for Daily Use (New York: Harper & Bros., 1957), page 120)

Saturday night, at the end of a Disney-character-laden parade, the Mayor of Chicago threw the switch that illuminated nearly a bazillion Christmas lights along the the stretch of Michigan Avenue known as "The Magnificent Mile." Thousands of parents clutched their children and tote bags from Marshall Fields, Filene's, Anne Klein, Virgin Records, and a hundred other stores downtown as they watched the parade and the majesty of the lighting ceremony.

What most Chicagoans downtown on Saturday had no eyes for were the people who are always downtown - folks with signs that said "Homeless," "Hungry," "Will Work For Food," or my personal favorite: "Just Lookin' for a Blessin'." But as I watched, people just kept on walking, ignoring the helpless and hopeless. I emptied my meagre wallet on my short walk to the bus - knowing full well that what little I could do wouldn't really mean anything - but nonetheless unwilling to just walk on by, say nothing and do nothing.

This metropolitan area has one of the largest concentrations of self-identified Christians in the nation. The Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago is one of the largest in the nation; Bill Hybel's Willow Creek Church is one of the leading evangelical mega-churches in the nation. Yet church giving to the poor, outside of the significant ministry of a few downtown and South-Side churches, is ridiculously low.

Those in power - in the church and at the the city, state and national level - take great pride in claiming this nation's "Christian heritage." But where is the Body of Christ, when it comes to taking care of "the least of these"? Is what we say about being followers of Christ being mirrored in how we feed, clothe, and care for those who have the least and suffer the most? As I prepare to give thanks for all that I have, am I doing what I can to let the leaders of my church and my nation know that we need to share our blessings with those who are "lookin' for a blessin'"?

Lord God, let my thanks-giving be mirrored in my giving - of my time, my talents, and my possessions. And let my voice not be silent in calling others who claim Christ with their lips to claim His children as our own. Let my words be few, and my actions be plentiful. Amen!

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Seasons - and life - changes

May the light of the Lord shine from your eyes
like a candle in the window, welcoming the weary traveler.

(part of an old Irish blessing - see the whole message here)

Well, it is well and truly winter.

This weekend, we had gale winds, but temperatures still in the 60's. I woke up yesterday, and all the Fahrenheits had evidently run south - it was 29 degrees. By the time I headed to work at 11, it was 24 degrees...and this morning, the sun is out and it's a crisp fourteen degrees. I now know where (and how much) each of my aging windows are leaking cold air. (In at least one case, I would be doing better to just put up burlap instead. Thank you God, for 3M shrink-wrap window coverings...)

You'd better believe I'm wearing my long underwear for the walk to the train station.

My friend Loye Mattie sent me a particularly beautiful Irish blessing, part of which you see above. Having seen (and owned) dead, lifeless eyes, I love the idea of candlelight shining in "the windows of the soul." Blessings, indeed...

Our late-night payroll processing went well - we were actually done by 10:30, and I was out of the office by 11. My boss seemed pleased - I think I'm catching on to the rhythm of the processing here. The paperwork is submitted to open my job position up for me to apply - the target hire date is November 21, which leaves them a week to slip before I end up in insurance jeopardy (my school insurance would have to be renewed - for more than $700 - before December 1).

And I've set myself a deadline of December 2nd to have my apartment cleaned up, so I can have my sponsees over for dinner and a Christmas-tree decorating party. That is gonna take some work, to be honest, especially with being gone for Thanksgiving weekend. Just means I'm going to have to do some serious work on Friday night and Sunday this week...

The train is calling - but more will be coming...I promise.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Just keep dancing...

To misquote Garrison Keillor, "It's been a busy week in the Pullman Historical District, my hometown..." A number of events have conspired to keep me out on the edge of my time and energy budget, which have been both a blessing and rewarding.

My work with three young men in the community of recovery has intensified for this last week - I don't know whether it's the phase of the moon, or the change of the seasons, but it has been a wee bit more intense, timewise, than I would have chosen. (Not that I want them to stop calling - on the off-chance they're reading this [very off]). The AA text tells me a truth that I've learned over and over again:
Practical experience shows that nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics. It works when other activities fail...Life will take on new meaning. To watch people recover, to see them help others, to watch loneliness vanish, to see a fellowship grow up about you, to have a host of friends - this is an experience you must not miss. We know you will not want to miss it. Frequent contact with newcomers and with each other is the bright spot of our lives.
So this is not whining - just a partial explanation for my absence in the blogosphere.

There are many changes happening here, which is the other part of my absence. I am adapting - not always well - to a much different life as a carless commuter. The new job requires that I be "on" a lot more than my previous job - so no time to slip in creative moments. And I've also been wrestling with a couple personal demons - ones that have been hiding in the background for a while. It's a worthy wrestling - but it just sucks up time.

So I will be back here soon. But in the meantime, let me point you toward a wonderful, and powerful post by my brother Rick over at a new life emerging. That process of getting naked (in a spiritual, and not a physical, sense) is part of what I have been experiencing for the last month or so. Rick is always worthwhile reading, but this is especially appropriate for me. And there's only 5 days until the new Harry Potter movie opens. And God is still on the throne, and I'm sunny-side-up, suckin' air, sober, and bilaterally symmetrical. How much better can it get?

I'll see you soon...

Monday, November 07, 2005

My story, and The Story

I was a storyteller before I was a Christian. One of the wonderful resources I found in Jesus for A New Generation by Kevin Ford was the idea of narrative evangelism - in his words, "finding the place where your story and The Greatest Story Ever Told intersect."

My story intersects The Story in so many places. I am Adam, wanting to blame someone else for getting his ass booted from the Garden. I am Moses, doubting if God is really big enough to pull this whole Exodus thing off. I am David, coveting beauty and indulging in lust enough to kill someone to make it happen. I am Peter, falling into the sea that the Son of God had helped me walk on. And I am still Peter, being summoned to Galilee by special angelic invitation.

There is not only the risk of the failure of "heroes," but the absolute certainty of it. In fact, it is more likely that children of earth will identify with the muck-ups rather than the Joshua's of the Bible. But even in Joshua's story, it's not the story of them marching and blowing trumpets - but of Joshua saying, "God says THIS, and that's what we're going to do," and then God acting.

Every part of my broken relationships, my broken trusts, my failures of faith and hope are mirrored in Scripture. I identify with so many of the psalms - especially 13 and 137 and the rest of the lament psalms. They make perfect sense to me.

Harold Washington, Old Testament Professor at St. Paul School of Theology, once told us that the story of the OT was that of a loving father and a flock of stubborn, disobedient and willful children who seemed to know nothing so well as how to end up in "time-out." No matter how many times the children were punished, no matter how many times they seemed irredeemable, a loving Parent left the door open for restoration.

Ralph Klein, OT professor at LSTC, pointed out that it wasn't Moses' staff that parted the Red Sea. But Moses had to be willing to do his part - and then God stepped in and did God's part.

I'll admit, that is much more accurate in the grand-sweep of the OT than in the specifics of individual episodes of death, plague, pestilence, etc. There's plenty of individual places in the OT (as one friend in recovery used to say) where Yahweh could easily get confused with someone crossed between Genghis Khan and Santa Claus - someone who hated my guts, but was willing to make a deal for good behavior.

And trust me - looking at stories like the Moses/Exodus epic, it seemed that it was not "Yahweh or my way," but more like "Yahweh AND the highway."

But there is also a danger in reducing Scripture to story, or myth. There are many powerful myths that parallel story-lines in Scripture - but there is a difference in the longevity of the myths versus the power of Scriptural story. There has to be some Divine radium in the pitchblende in order for that kind of endurance to occur.

Last thought (for now, anyway) - CS Lewis, in The Great Divorce, spoke of the idea that the choice for heaven or hell would be retrospective in nature. A tragedy which one endured, and ultimately grew in faith from could lead one to choose Heaven - and then all the person's life would be seen, in retrospect, to have been leading toward Heaven...even the tragedy.

By the same token, if one gave up on God as a result of the same tragedy, it could lead one to Hell - and the person's life would then be seen as one unending slide toward perdition. One person would say, "I have always been in Heaven," the other "I have always been in Hell," and they would both be right. It's an interesting concept.

Never again...

These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.

Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
(Revelation 7:14-17, NIV)

These words are particularly comforting as I reflected on All Saints Sunday. As I get older, the list of people who have died - "gone on to GLORY," as my Gospel Choir friends would say - gets longer and longer.

I have never been a particularly heaven-minded person - I tend to think of the here-and-now, of God in flesh walking this earth, of the Holy Spirit guiding us and leading us. Before I came back to faith, I often thought that life was a vale of tears - but wasn't so sure about Heaven, because my sins weren't going to let me get *there*. But in faith, I see Christ's incarnation as the key - Emmanuel, God-with-us - and so I tend to be more focused on the real world, and real hurts and real pains.

But at this time of year, I think of my family and friends who have died in faith, and that's when this passage of of great comfort to me. I have faith and trust that there is an afterlife, that eternal life with God is possible (even for a schmuck like me!) thanks to faith in Christ. I have faith that eternal life means that those "never again" phrases in this passage from Revelation 7 are promises of eternal peace.

Those promises bring me peace in the here-and-now, as I think of my loved ones who have died in faith. And it's that faith that allows me, as I think of those who are gone, to sing:

"I'll see you, when I get home
In the sweet by-and-by,
And we'll walk along the streets of gold
With angels by our side,
And time will have no meaning there
In a land of no goodbyes,
Oh, it's good to know...
I'll see you, when I get home."
(4Him, "When I Get Home")

Save me a seat at the banquet table, y'all...

Thursday, November 03, 2005

We need more power, Scotty...

What a rollercoaster!

This is just a brief update - I got out of work last night at 11:15 (payroll processing week) and have been in phone calls and conversations with folks such that I'm generally dropping into bed about 1 AM. I should be getting dressed right now - but wanted to reach out to my friends in the blogosphere....

The good news: it looks like I may be a full-time employee at Hewitt as soon as November 21 - just over the minimum 30 days needed to be made full-time, and a couple days ahead of my December 1 benefits cut-off. Even better news: after a 14-hour day yesterday, the team I'm on was in great spirits, and I seemed to fit in really, really well.

I've had a wild ride recently - the weekend was absolutely filled with activity, including some powerful, powerful activity in the recovery community. One of my first Chicago sponsees celebrated a year of sobriety on Sunday - and in the process of conversations, there were tears of joy and gratitude. Thank you, God, for allowing me to be of service.

For now, I'm falling back on a prayer from the classic Lutheran morning prayer service:
Lord God,
you have called your servants
to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden,
through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go out with good courage,
not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us
and your love is supporting us;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(from the Lutheran Book of Worship, Morning Prayer)

Monday, October 31, 2005

Reformation and remembrance

Memento, Domine...

It's always fascinating to me that the weekend of October 31st becomes a triple-commemoration. It is Halloween - a time of laughter and sugar-highs for American kids. It is All Souls' Day - a time of remembrance for all those who have died, both in the last year and in years gone by. And in the Lutheran tradition, it is Reformation Day - a recollection of the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg, Germany.

For me, Halloween was the signal of the end of good weather - when I was growing up in Buffalo, snow or sleet were our trick-or-treat companions as often as not on Halloween night, and we wore winter coats under our costumes. It seemed to be the end of the beauty of autumn, and the beginning of the long winter (really long, in Buffalo terms).

All Soul's Day was a tradition I picked up after I came back to church in 1990 - a remembrance of those who have died, and a time to give thanks for having "a season in their path," as Wayne Watson would say.

But today, I remember Reformation Day not so much as the trigger to a movement in the greater Church, but the day a broken 33 year old walked into church for the first time in 17 years - utterly convinced that I was more in need of "reformation" than anyone else in that sanctuary.

I've since come to learn just how "terminally unique" I was that first day. I have come to believe that the church is a hospital for sinners, and not (as it so often seems) a country-club for saints. And I've also learned that there can be deadliness in the ritualistic practice of empty forms, as well as great beauty and power in them.

My friend Tom Scharbach posted a comment last week about my writings on the church that bears repeating: I grew up without the concept of "church". I grew up born into a "people", who needed no further attachment to each other or God, and who gathered to study, to learn how to live ethically as the "people". So I missed the idea of "church" -- whatever it is that substitutes for being born to a "people" in Christian thinking -- altogether.

I've come to see that the primary need for us is to find that understanding of being "people of God" in community. I don't have the luxury/curse of a ethnically-based culture that identifies me as part of "a people" - that is, not outside of the church.

I'm trusting - and praying - that the Presence of God can be a powerful, transforming "re-former"...that in God's hands, I (and whatever church in which I find a home) will be formed anew, day by day, according to the plan of the One who brings us together. I'd rather be "reformed" than "reform-ing," but it appears that God is not done with me - or the church - just yet. And I guess I'm grateful for that, today.

And today I remember Joe and Helen, my parents; Laura, my paternal grandmother; Skip B., my best friend from high-school; "the other Steve F.," Todd L., and so many more whose lives have ended, but whose influence continues across the ages. Rest in peace...

Friday, October 28, 2005

Keeping the monsters away

"Lack of power, that was our dilemma. We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be a Power greater than ourselves. Obviously." (Alcoholics Anonymous, "We Agnostics," page 45)

"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." (Acts 1:8, NIV)
Coming home on the Metra train late last night, I sat across from a young boy and his grandma - and as we rode together, I couldn't help but overhear their conversation. It seemed they were coming home after a day in the city, and while Grandma looked "done," the 10-or-12-year-old was still ready to go. In the boy's hands were a set of cards - evidently part of a character- or role-playing game. He was scanning through the cards, and asked, "Grandma, what's 1200 plus 2400?"

Grandma roused herself from nearly-napping, and said, "That'd be 3600." The boy's eyes got wide as saucers, and he said, "Wow, Grandma - now that I've got these two cards, I've got thirty-six hundred power points! None of the other players could possibly defeat me. Lookit!"

Grandma looked over, smiled, said, "That's nice," and went back to looking out the window. But the boy kept shuffling through his cards, and said, almost inaudibly, "Man, I wish these cards were real...I mean, really, really real. I wish I had enough power to defeat all of my enemies. I wish I could keep all the monsters away, all the time...."

It was so honest, so real, and so true, it almost brought tears to my eyes.

I really, really identified with that boy.

It would be so nice to be able to do the "Bewitched" nose-twitch (am I dating myself with that reference, or what?) or the Harry Potter wave-of-the-wand and make people disappear - or, even better, do my bidding. There have been many times when being Cyclops (of X-Men fame), and being able to blast certain people or things with my vision, sounded like a real good idea. (It may be just my own quirkyness, but I think there's a hint of of latent power-hunger in the heart of everyone who enjoys sci-fi or fantasy stories. Perhaps it's in everyone...)

It would be nice, in short, to have a permanent, inexhaustible supply of "power points."

But it seems I'm fresh out of power, most times.

The language of recovery and the language of faith are very similar on this, by the way. The first of AA's 12 steps says, "We admitted we were powerless over [insert your compulsion-or-sin-of-choice] - that our lives had become unmanageable." The Apostle Paul is wordier, but no less accurate...
For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. (Romans 7:18(b)-19, NIV)
That's why the quote from the AA text is so important to me, on a daily basis - "lack of power" is my dilemma - every single day. Sometimes the monsters are financial - unemployment, under-employment, over-spending, homelessness. Sometimes the monsters are social - loneliness, or shyness. And sometimes, the monsters are internal - guilt, shame, fear...even dementia and loss of reality.

I saw this last monster last night, hearing from two others folks who are having trouble dealing with a mutual acquaintance who is deep into bipolar mania. They described the incessant phone-calls, the repetition of endless yes/no, stay/go questions - and all I could do was nod, sympathize, and tell them that when it gets too much, to cut the rope, as I had to do.

I saw this in my employment situation over the last two years. Many people who have been listening to me since my seminary career ended have heard me agonize about the what's and how's and when's and where's of my next employment - all the while tapping my feet impatiently, waiting for God's perfect timing to appear. It seemed that I was completely powerless to move things along - despite a snowstorm of applications and interviews. All I could do, it seemed, was suit-up-n-show-up, and try to endure day by day.

I see this in the most recent issue of Time magazine - dedicated to the hundreds of thousands of working men and women who have been robbed of their retirement by people who made promises they couldn't keep, profited immensely from them, and are now scrapping pension plans left and right - leaving said hard-workin' folks broke and devastated.

All I know is that the worst times in my life have been when I have tried to muscle through on my own power. As the folks in AA are fond of saying, "After all, my best thinking got me here." And, by default, God's best planning has gotten me places I never would (or could) have imagined.
For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (Jeremiah 29:11, NIV)

A brief update...

I've been burning the late-night oil lately - both with gatherings with friends and the vagaries of urban transit. I ended up running late at a meeting at work yesterday, for instance - and really got bollixed up in transit. I got on what I thought was the last regular "express shuttle" bus, and it sat for 20 minutes for no apparent reason whatsoever. Then I missed the last regular "rush-hour" train down south - and ended up sitting an hour downtown. Then a 40 minute "whistle-stop" train ride - and it was nearly 9:00 PM (when I'd left the office at 6:15).

Tonight was more of the same - left the 7 PM AA meeting at about 8:20, stopped for dinner with a sponsee, and missed the 9:20 southbound train from Hyde Park out to the ghetto. The 10:20 showed up at 10:40, and I got back about 11:20.

That's why it's just before 1 AM, and I'm still not in bed.

But I got fantastic news today - it seems that (after only a week and a half) the folks at my new temporary assignment are happy enough with me that they want to make me a permanent guy! Yes, with benefits and everything! As a Kansas friend would say, "Woo-HOOO!"

Considering that on September 15th, I didn't think I'd be working until October 15th - and that on October 10th, I didn't think I'd be working at all after October 15th - this is like a dream come true. It's a great fit between my experience, my desire to be of service, and some specific skill-sets that they don't have.

For all of this, I give thanks to God - and to everyone who has kept me and sustained me - emotionally, spiritually, and financially. I literally could not have survived without your support. "Thank you!" is such a mild-mannered word for what I'm feeling!

So - happy Friday, y'all...

Monday, October 24, 2005

Simple, but not easy

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: "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." (Matthew 22:34-40, NIV)

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus replied, "What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?" He answered: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself." "You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"... [Jesus said, ]"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him." Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise." (Luke 10:25-29, 36-37, NIV)
The first passage was the prescribed Gospel reading for this Sunday, and the second, a companion text from the book of Luke. And, reading them again, I have to ask myself: How much more do we have to complicate it?

God didn't say to only love the neighbors that I like.
Or just the people that I go to church with.
Or just the people that my church is in full communion with.
Or the people who vote my presidential ticket.
Or the people who look like I do, live where I do, or love like I do.

God didn't say that I should only love the folks who worship as I do.
Or interpret Scripture as I do.
Or attend the same worship service that I do.
Or who like the worship music I do.

In fact, Jesus doesn't even indicate in these passages that we should only love the people who know Jesus Christ.
Or even just the people who want to know Christ.
Or his Dad, for that matter.

I am not called to even LIKE my neighbor, let alone approve of her-or-his laundry-list of sins. But regardless of who they are, where they are, and what has happened to them, it seems I am called by God to heal wounds, to provide food and lodging and comfort for those who are hurting, and to show mercy to those who stumble - or those who have been knocked down.

I don't have to like it. But I am called by God to do it.

Lord God, help me to focus my heart and my mind not on what I think others should be doing, but on how I can love you more dearly, and on what I should be doing for my neighbor. If YOU think this stuff is "first-things-first" important, perhaps I should follow Your lead today. Amen.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Do you believe in the Church?

First, words from a wiser man than I:
The Church is an object of faith. In the Apostles' Creed we pray: "I believe in God, the Father ... in Jesus Christ, his only Son … in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting."

We must believe in the Church! The Apostles' Creed does not say that the Church is an organization that helps us to believe in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. No, we are called to believe in the Church with the same faith we believe in God.

Often it seems harder to believe in the Church than to believe in God. But whenever we separate our belief in God from our belief in the Church, we become unbelievers. God has given us the Church as the place where God becomes God-with-us.

(Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey, daily meditation for October 18th)
In the Henri Nouwen Society's email devotions, there have been several postings recently (including this one) about having faith in "The Church." I'm sure it's no coincidence that they're showing up now, precisely whenI’ve been having some real trouble with that concept.

As I remember it, Mike Housholder, pastor of the Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines (and a man I deeply admire and respect) once said in a sermon that the local congregational church is a broken, often sinful entity – but at the same time, it’s also the very best answer for encountering the living presence of Christ on earth. At the time, I agreed with him – but back then, I was much more hopeful about the power of the Holy Spirit to work in and through the local church.

I’m not so sure about that, any more. I am sure that the Spirit can work in the local church. I’m just not so sure that it does.

The thing that makes me wonder at this particular time is my friend Eric, and his church’s ongoing challenge with battles over styles and times of worship. And while I’d like to tell him to just have faith, and “be strong and courageous while working to change the hearts and minds of the congregation,” I really can’t do that. In the end, I’m not sure I actually think we can change the hearts and minds of established congregations.

I’ve been through this with one congregation – hoping specifically NOT to change the congregation, but to create another entry-way into the congregation through alternative worship in a completely separate service. Despite some support, there was significant resistance to it from a number of older members of the congregation, who felt that the new worship service violated the tradition of the church (which it did) and was therefore un-Lutheran (which it was emphatically not).

The struggle ended with a highly-conservative, traditionally-anchored pastor putting the kibosh on the whole project, with a whole lot of name-calling and extraordinarily questionable actions taken in order to justify his position.

In the end, it was the ethical failures and the autocratic practices of the senior pastor (and not the lack of worship alternatives) that drove a significant chunk of members away from that congregation. The last I heard, the congregation had shrunk by 70% since the exodus began in 2001 – and to combat the numeric slide, they had actually begun another contemporary worship service. (The irony in that still amazes me.)

In Eric’s church, as I understood it, they had voted to change their worship services as part of their move to a new building – and in a very short time after moving into the new building, it was absolutely full to capacity. But once again, a group of folks who had grown up with a specific tradition of worship have put significant pressure on their senior pastor, who (despite earlier assertions to fight rather than switch) seems to have caved-in almost entirely on the subject.

The congregation seems poised to make some fairly illogical choices (like having two differently-styled services at the same time, when they are already fighting issues of parking) in order to preserve the supposed status-quo. I listened – but in the end all I could do is sigh, and wish him luck.

This may sound cynical - if so, I can't help that - but I have come to believe that church dynamics are governed by one very deeply human and very real truism of sociology, and not of spirituality: Birds of a feather flock together.

People naturally gather together based on shared experience and tradition – period. If they came to a church where pipe organs and hymnals and 10-minute sermons are the norm, that’s what they want, and that’s what they expect. And by definition, they will mightily resist any action that seeks to move them away from their expectations – no matter how logically those actions are presented, and no matter what possible spiritual adventures might come from them.

The final answer almost always is, “This is the way in which we choose to experience God. You may not find this uplifting, or stimulating, or even Biblical, to your way of seeing it. But this is how we are – and these modes of worship are the ways in which we define sacredness and holiness in this place. Stay if you like; go if you like. But deal with it.”

To make the point absurdly clear: I wouldn’t ever consider driving up to Willow Creek Community Church, joining there, and then insisting that they install a pipe organ, or that they start using a given liturgy in their weekly services or hang a cross in the front of their worship space. Why should I think that the answer should be any different for the little traditional church that I may be attending?

In retrospect, I'm sore afraid that the answer for me was as simple as “I wanted to have my cake and eat it, too.” I had experienced worship at other congregations which seemed to me to be a much more powerful experience than that to which I’d been accustomed. In my own mind, I wanted the folks I’d grown fond of to have that same experience – and blindly assumed they would want it, too. (Of course, when I found that some of my fellow church members were like-minded, that realization only fueled the fire…)

But after some distance and reflection, I’m coming to believe that the heart of my motivation was simple selfishness and self-centeredness. I wanted to have the same worship experience I’d had elsewhere, without giving up my constellation of church friends, many of whom had become as close as family. I believed that the “either/or” choice was unacceptable.

I now believe that “either/or” is not the only way - but it is the best way.

Interestingly enough, this is exactly how the 12-step/12-tradition folks do it, too. There’s a standing truism in AA – to start a new meeting, all you need is two members, a resentment, and a coffee-pot. As a leader of my original former congregation said to me once, “We simply do not care what you think. If you don’t like how we do things here, there’s the door – don’t let it hit’cha where the Good Lord split’cha!” (And in the end, that’s exactly what a good number of us did.)

I’m coming to believe that “church unity” is not necessarily a good thing. I think that focusing on Christ needs to be the central thing – and questions of liturgy, of music, of decorations, and of doctrine and dogma should all end up being what the AA folks would call “outside issues.”

In the end, it’s Christ that matters – and not whether the bread is made of wheat or rice, leavened or unleavened, or whether the music is plainsong or chant or this song in this hymnal or that praise chorus on that PowerPoint presentation. To me, it’s like sitting around a campfire – there is one fire, but each of us will see the flames differently, depending on where we’re sitting.

While I used to pray for unity in the various mainstream churches over acceptances of gays and lesbians, I no longer pray for that at all. I look forward to the day when those who want to welcome gays go one way, and the rest go the other. Then maybe they’ll stop fighting over this stuff, and get back to doing something about loving their neighbors and feeding the poor and fighting for justice and against war.

And in the process, maybe they’ll spend enough time in the Word to figure out that “those fags” (or "those poor people," or "those cross-towners," or that minority group, or whatever) are their neighbors – and treat ‘em as Christ told them to treat them.

Or maybe they’ll just create a place where resentment, hatred and fear can fester and grow. I don’t know.

I wish Eric well with his congregation - but I’m glad I’m not in it, to be honest. And I’m still looking for someplace I can call home. The old U2 song says it best:
You broke the bonds
You loosened the chains
You carried the cross
And my shame
You know I believed it

But I still haven’t found what I’m lookin’ for…