Monday, January 31, 2005

Wow! Thank you!

A big "Saaaa-LUTE!" to everyone who responded to my "Who ARE you?" post. It's good to hear from both the regular responders and a few of the "lurkers," as well. Thank you, too, for the affirmations - sadly, I can still buy into the voices that say, "What the heck do you think YOU have to offer out here, that hasn't already been said by smart people?"

So it's good to hear that people find value in what they find here - if only to say, "Well, at least I'm not that poor so-&-so..."

Thursday, January 27, 2005

OK - so who are all of you?

All my best ideas were stolen by the ancients. (Mark Twain)

It's not important who said it first, but who said it last, and who said it best. (my friend Ted Korn, quoting someone else that he can't remember, either.)
A principle I learned in graduate school - if you can't have an original thought, then steal shamelessly from smart people, and then footnote heavily.

With that, I shamelessly admit I stole this idea from Adam Cleaveland.

Back when my blogging life was new, and posting to my blog was all about "Are people reading my stuff?", I was foolish enough to install a SiteMeter on my page. I hadn't really looked at it for a long I was astonished to see what it read recently. (Of course, I know that most of those hits are web-bots, and don't actually mean anything. And I also know that Adam gets more hits in a week than I've gotten in my entire blogdom!). Still, it made me curious... who is it that comes here (other than automated blog-scanners) - and (more importantly)why?

Hence the idea from Adam. I'd love to know who's out there checking this stuff out, and I'd love to get to "meet" people who are readers, and hear what you find attactive (or revolting) about this madness.

I'm going to be away for the weekend - meetings Thursday and Friday night, a weekend workshop, HIV/AIDS Workshop for Medical and Religious Professionals hosted at LSTC by the Zygon Center for Relgion and Science, and then a dinner party Saturday. I'll be back around Sunday after worship. So this will give folks an extended chance to respond!

So please: everyone who comes and sees this post, please comment! The long-winded-one is away - let the visitors (and the lurkers) play! Copy these questions, click on "comment," and then paste in and fill in your answers!

How'd you find this blog? (Link from another blog, one of Steve's incessant emails?):
Why in the world do you even read this blog?:
If you could take over Ragamuffin Ramblings for a day, what would you change? (design, content, etc.):
What topic (or topics!) would you like to see Steve write about in the future?:

I'm curious to hear what you have to say...

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Just a little weird today...

Strange stuff is going on at the not-for-profit where I'm serving as a not-quite-so-temporary donor-services person. We had a consultant in today, and she kept singing my praises like I was someone's savior - which I am completely aware that I am not. Other interesting things - like being invited to give a five-line report at their board's fundraising committee meeting on Wednesday - keep indicating that some folks think I'm going to be made permanent at this. But nothing explicit has been said - and to be honest, I know enough about their finances to know that they can't afford to hire anyone else, at least not at a salary I could live with. So I'm kind of in a weird in-and-yet-not-of situation there.

So I'll be putting on a suit and tie for the first time in a while to go to this meeting in slightly more than 8 hours, and riding the bus downtown (probably in the snow, to boot). Lovely.

Got some great news - my dear friend Norma, the Methodist pastor of Holt, MO, is engaged! She's been a great friend of mine for years - ever since I first started part-time classes at St. Paul in KC. She's had a number of hard rows to hoe over the years, including the death of both of her parents. So she's about due for some happiness, and I'm really happy for her. (Of course, there was just a twinge of "well, GOD...where's MINE?" But I'm at least fractionally sane enough to know that right now, I couldn't take care of a parakeet...let alone a serious relationship...)

Talked to a friend from KC, who sounded really worried about me. I'm not sure about that - I openly admitted that I'm probably not going to qualify for ordination (at least, not for five or ten years, anyway), and he seemed concerned that I'd somehow lost heart. I guess in some ways, I have - but in others, it's just accepting the things I cannot change (that the church I currently belong to has the right to include, or exclude, whomever they choose from candidacy for ministry), and trying to find the courage to change the things I can (trying to discover what the "next right thing" is for a former corporate geek and former ministry candidate). I guess I've gone from "it'll all work out the way I hoped, somehow" to "it will all work out, somehow" - which sounds to some people like acceptance, and to others like giving up.

If you figure it out, let me know. For now, the "next right thing" for tonight is bed.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

An incredible journey - that you can join

I am unashamedly promoting three fellow bloggers' efforts to encourage people to read the Bible:

First, Adam Cleaveland's Pilgrimage - Through the Bible in 2005. Then, Chris Harrison's Fields of God, blogging his way through 1st Corinthians. Then Chris' blog pointed me toward Will's Imagine.

To be honest, these digital disciples have a discipline and a faith that I wish I had - and their example is an inspiration and a challenge to me. I can promise you, I'm not yet called to do as they have - but I think their efforts deserve both praise and emulation. No matter where you are when you read this, you can join them right now on their respective Biblical journeys - and benefit from their commentary on how the Word of God intersects their own stories, in their own words. None of them are presenting themselves as "right," or "the last word" on the texts. But they are challenging the world (or at least the blogosphere) to engage the Bible - and to let us walk alongside them on the road, at least in a virtual way.

One of the reasons I am so excited about this is that I've heard for years (starting with Marva Dawn's Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down) that technology is the bane and the enemy of the church, transforming worshipers into audiences and God into a sound-bite. Now, I do agree that any 3-points-and-a-poem sermon can be just as deadly with a PowerPoint slide-show and a synthesized music background as simply with a talking head. But I've always had a real struggle with the institutional church's fear of technology. My experience has been that the folks who look down their noses at the worst implementations of technology and contemporary music rarely are willing to see where traditional liturgies and organ music have been equally as deadly.

For myself, I truly belive that technology and liturgical innovation can be just as powerful tools of God today as the printing press, the German Bible and the German mass were in the 1500's. And I cannot believe that using the technology of the web and the blog to encourage people to encounter and engage the Word of God can be in any way destructive.

To these three - and to the folks whose blogs I read (and who are crazy enough to read mine), and to the hundreds of others whose blogs and vlogs (and technologies yet unnamed) help reach the world in the name of Christ - I can only say this: "I thank God every time I think of you." Your willingness to share your experience, strength and hope out here in Blogaria continues to enrich my journey of faith...and for that, I am eternally grateful.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Here I stand

"Martin, what is it you seek?"
"A merciful God! A God that I can
love! A God who loves me..."
"Then look to
Christ...bind yourself to Christ, and you will know God's love. Say to him, "I am Yours - save me!"
(Johann von Staupitz to Martin Luther, in the movie Luther)
I know that story.

It is my story, too.

When I first heard of Martin Luther's faith struggles in the classic book Here I Stand, I knew I had found a kindred soul. Like him, I felt driven to church by the pangs of guilt and shame, and the fear of hell. Like Luther himself, I knew that there was never going to be enough penance that I could ever do to keep myself clear of the flames. Like brother Martin, this revelation of Scripture hit me like a thunderbolt:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:8-10, NIV)
Do you feel like God's workmanship? I sure don't, most days.

Courtesy of a real winter storm this weekend, I had two complete days of freedom. I could have cleaned my room, and rearranged it the way I wanted. I could have read any of two dozen spiritual classics: everything from Luther himself, to Henri Nouwen, to Robert Foster, to Brian McLaren. My one selfless act of the weekend, shoveling out our building's front step and back-porch stairways, was obliterated less than an hour later by another wave of snow. The rest of the weekend was spent absorbed by the latest shipment from Netflix, including seven back-to-back episodes of Stargate SG-1.

My friend Chris over at Radio Rebellion wrote this little gem that convicted me in a big way. I, too, keep singing the song, "(I'm Coming Back to)The Heart of Worship," but so often I get derailed by my own desire to just walk away, to escape. I've done it with booze, with prescription drugs, with food, with work - hell, I've even done it with study. In the end, all I ever really want to avoid is the voice of judgement - my own voice - telling me what a failure and a fraud as a Christian I have been (and still can be). And in the end, all that I escape is the knowledge of God's love for me...which in the end is the only thing that can heal me.

That's why I've had such a love/hate thing with the movie Luther. This 2003 version of the story of Martin Luther's life has been on my desk all weekend, and yet somehow I watched all my other escapist sci-fi stuff before I even thought to watch it. Admittedly, I did ask several of my fellow students if they were interested in watching it with me...but all to no avail.

So finally, on Sunday night, I broke down and slipped it in - knowing full well that I would see myself in almost every scene. My struggles with the Catholic church (as I understood it, growing up), my struggles with the hypocrisy I saw in the church (that mirrored my own), my questions about God, and my calling (and my fear of God's answers to those questions) - it was all there.

I'm not sure I'd ever be as courageous under fire as Luther was. (And I'm very sure I'll never be as good-looking as Joseph Fiennes!...) But I know that I am not alone in my struggles - and that my solution, in the end, is the same one Martin found five hundred years ago. I may never again be a candidate for Lutheran pastorhood - but I will always be a minister in Luther's footsteps. Loud, brash, obnoxious - and driven forward by the lash of faith...with you, Br'er Martin, I can say, "Here I stand."

(And if you haven't seen the movie, do yourself a favor and see it. And then thank the good folks at Thrivent for making sure it got made.)

Look through any window, yeah...what do you see?

Yeah, what a mess. Depending on where you were, and which way the wind was blowing, there was between 12-18" of snow on the ground. This is the view out our front door this morning. Unfortunately, there were cars blocking both ends of the street I would have left on to go to church - so I ended up walking down 53rd St. to breakfast at Valois, and reading some more of The Church in Emerging Culture - and helping to push several folks out when they tried to drive through more snow than they had ground clearance to survive.

One man, listening to folks whining about the snow, said, "Hey! What do you want? I hate to tell you folks, but snow is part of God's perfect plan for Chicago in the winter time."

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Sobriety is beautiful....

...because when I'm sober, I'm never tempted to do stuff like this poor lady describes her husband doing in her blog here.

Now, don't misunderstand - I'm not dancing on the misfortunes of another. And I know I'm exactly one drink from doing this kind of stuff. But when I read it, I couldn't help think, "Thank you God, for the gift of a sober day."

Friday, January 21, 2005

Waaa-HOOOO! He made it!

What a deal!!

I don't have any kids...and not much chance (or desire) of gettin' any, to be honest. But I have had the opportunity to work with a lot of young men who have chosen to turn their lives around, and a number of them have somehow managed to worm their way into my cold, cold heart. (One of the richest blessings in my life is the ability to see the change and growth in their lives, often despite some amazing circumstances.) So it's always a celebration when I see triumph in these young men's lives, and I delight in each of their successes.

But I have to admit that very, very little in my life made me as proud as seeing this image in last night's email. Jimmy has worked incredibly hard, and in the last 2 years has weathered the loss (and regaining) of a job, the break-up of his marriage, being a single parent, and more emotional rollercoasters than I would have chosen for my worst enemy. And at least 5 times a year, he was ready to throw in the towel on his agonizing climb up the hill of higher education. But (with some slight encouragement, from a whole lot of his family and friends) he persevered - and this is the result. This is a young man who had a 1.85 GPA in high school - graduating with a 3.55 GPA (yeah, that's graduating cum laude, baby!).

Jimmy, there were times that neither one of us expected to live long enough to see this day...but you've done an amazing thing, against some ugly odds. You've "trudged the road," and God has carried you when you couldn't trudge - and this is the result. I am proud to know you, and to have had a tiny part in your journey. Your success is an answer to a whole lotta prayers!!
Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us - sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will
always materialize if we work for them.

Show God your plans, and listen to the laughter

I wanted to attend a potluck and discussion of the report of the ELCA Task Force on sexuality being held by fellow students at the seminary downt the block. But, I was going to be at work, so I couldn't cook for the potluck. So, I thought, I'll just bring the famous tomato-basil-garlic-n-sausage pizza from Pompei, eh? I'll just leave plenty early, drive on over there, get the pizza, and be in the south end in plenty of time to reheat it and make it to the gathering.

That was the plan.

The reality was that traffic in the West Side neighborhoods had ground to a half, courtesy of about an inch of snow. It took me an hour and a quarter to go 3.1 miles from the Conservatory to the pizza place; and it took another hour to make it to the downtown post office (and then 20 minutes to get from downtown to Hyde Park). By the time I got home, the pizza was cold, the potluck/discussion was essentially over, and I'd been dealing with a badly overfilled bladder for way too long.

About a dozen times a minute, I thought one of three things:
+ OK, God, how about a break here? All I wanted was a little fellowship with my fellow that so bad?
+ Well, the pizza can be reheated.
+ God, I hate this town some days.

The good news out of all this? I got to microwave the pizza and share it with roommate Tim, have a delightful conversation with him, and still had time for coffee with a sponsee. I made it home undented, undamaged, and with gas to spare. How bad can that be?

In short, it was a cat-and-mouse day - after a poster I saw a long time ago, with a very small mouse looking up at a very large, and saying, "You're the answer to my prayers." And then muttering under his breath, the mouse continued: "You're not what I prayed for, but apparently you're the answer."

A gentle reflection...

A couple shorter posts, just to clear my brain and clear the air. Multiple topics are racing around in my brain, so I'm just going to do a brain dump on several of them.

Responding to an earlier post, my friend Wes D. made an interesting comment. (Actually, he makes interesting and challenging comments all the time - I just was listening, for once, however badly). The one that caught my eye/ear was this: "Maybe our calling should include informing rather than reforming."

It's an interesting thought because so much of the 12-step way of thinking is about accepting "what is" rather than having expectations of what "could be" or "should be." The Serenity Prayer itself speaks of accepting what I cannot change, having courage to change what I can, and asking for the wisdom to discern between the two. And Chapter 5 of the AA "big book" speaks specifically to us: "If you want what we have, and are willing to go to any lengths to get it..." At least one simplistic converse of that is, of course, "If you don't want what we have, then leave us the hell alone."

In a former congregation, a group of us were what Len Sweet would call "park" or "meadow" people, in a church that was very much in the "garden/glen" understanding. Silly folk that we were, we couldn't accept how things were, and thought we had the courage to change them. In the end, we brought lots of good things to fruition, but also seeded a considerable amount of dissent. At least a part of that struggle was failing to "inform" before we tried to "reform," I think. But a part of it was that several of us saw what that community of faith could become - and hoped to transform into something in which all of us could grow. Those efforts failed - and a number of us had to choose between accepting the way things had always been, or having the courage to change (in this case, our location and our home congregation). Evidently "the wisdom to know the difference" still can be elusive (and not just to those in the community of recovery, it seems).

I thought of this, too, in the comments on my semi-snarky thoughts about the inauguration. Dave P. was exactly right - the inaugural ceremonies and celebrations have escalated continuously for the last century, and regardless who got elected, the result would have been the same.

But is it wrong to wish - to pray - for something different? For something better?

This is where I struggle - and where I will continue to struggle. I think that $100 million for a presidential inauguration is obscene - regardless who's doing it. I think $130,000 to blow up a baseball is obscene. And I know that having one person, talking or acting alone, will never change anything.

But I believe that I have to speak out - to bring my understanding of the truth to the world. They may not like it - in fact, almost invariably, whoever they are never do like the spotlight of truth on them. But remaining silent has eaten my lunch for so long - and there are things which I find to be evil against which I must speak.

I forget who first said it, but it's still true: the first step to changing the world is for one person to imagine it differently, and then work to see their imaginings come to life. As Mary Travers once said, "If the Spirit of God really is like the breeze, whirling past each one of us, then 'the answers,' my friends, really are 'blowin' in the Wind'."

Thursday, January 20, 2005

A message to Dubya: Ford has a better idea

It's just after midnight on Inauguration Coronation Day. Not a limo to be found for 50 miles around Washington today, from what I hear. The Washington Post headline email is full of Barbara's Oscar-de-la-Renta gown, George's tuxedo, and what it would cost to do the Presidential suite at various DC hotels (cheapest shot, $150K a night). The early reports said $100 million - I'd bet that's low by 50%. How the rich do love a good party...

In this article in Wednesday's Chicago Tribune, it seems Ford Motor Co. has been taking some of CEO Bill Ford's better ideas to heart, and has actually posted a profit of $495 million (admittedly, on revenue of many billions of dollars). But interestingly enough, Bill Ford is not drawing a salary, even though the company that bears his family name is "back in the black." He could get paid - but as Ford said in the article, "It's not about the money."

Don't you wish we had a president who could say that? One who could say, "A hundred million dollars for one day's formal-wear debauchery, in a land where there is so much desperate need, is an obscenity - there is no need for this! There are a hundred - no, a hundred thousand better uses for this money than to spend it for parties for fat cats who have profited - and will continue to profit - from their support for me. They'll get theirs, certainly - but for now, let's at least consider looking less rapacious than we really are."

But the fact is, I at least have to give Br'er Bush and his hunta this: they are completely honest about where they are, what they want, and how they want to do things. They are doing things up right, treating themselves to a mega-millions victory dance (and disregarding the needs of the common folk) because that's what they do. The voting public knew it, and voted 'em in anyway. So I should be happy, I guess, that there's no credibility gap - what we see is what we get.

I just wish it were different, that's all.

If you hear someone humming "We shall overcome" during today's events...well, that would be me.

Monday, January 17, 2005

The dream is still alive - and unfulfilled

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:9-12, NIV)

What is the memory that's valued so highly
That we keep it alive in that flame?
What's the commitment to those who have died
That we cry out, "They've not died in vain"?
We have come this far always believing
That justice would somehow prevail -
Now this is the burden, and this is the promise,
And this is why we will not fail!

(Peter Paul & Mary, "Light One Candle," from the CD "No Easy Walk to Freedom")
It was in the first year of my studies that I read "Stride Toward Freedom," the story of the Montgomery bus boycott by Martin Luther King. This weekend, I set aside the other books on my reading list, and picked it up again. Every time I read the history, every time I hear the "I Have A Dream" speech, I hear the power of God's Holy Spirit speaking through King's voice and his pen - and once again I am humbled and awed. "All gave some," the country music song says, "but some gave all."

Sitting safely in a suburban office or home, hardly anyone reading this can imagine the kinds of hell people of color experience today - let alone the level of hatred and suffering they experienced back in the 50's and 60's. As I read again the story of how the King family home was fire-bombed, I wondered if I would have been half as willing as Dr. King to step back out on the streets and take a stand for the cause of right. I wonder if I would have done as Jesus said, and turned the other cheek - or if I would have answered violence with violence. Sadly, it's not a happy answer, most of the time...

So today, as much of the business and educational world takes a day off, I'd encourage you to join me in taking some time to reflect on the gift of service and ministry of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Read Dr. King's life story; listen to the "I Have A Dream" speech at one of the many websites that have the recording and text online; even attend a King Day remembrance service in your community, and reflect on the ways in which God came near in the life of Martin Luther King.

And then ask yourself: "What can I do, this day, to see that the dream does not die - that the work began by Dr. King continues on, and does not falter - and that the lights that were lit forty years ago continue to illuminate our world in *this* time and *this* place?"

Thank you, God, for giving us Martin Luther King. Help us to live worthy of the callings he pointed us toward - equality, liberty, and freedom for all. Let Dr. King's dream become a reality for us, as well. Amen!

Saturday, January 15, 2005

And the Band Still Plays On...

Thanks to my friends at the Garfield Park Conservatory, I am now a devoted fan of Pompei's Pizza, near Taylor & Ashland right near the UIC campus. The tomato-&-basil pizza with garlic and sausage is one of my all-time favorites. So Thursday night, I brought one home to share with roommate Tim and his girlfriend Jean, who is visiting from Virgina for the week. The goal was to introduce them to the pizza, and then share with them a movie I'd wanted Jean to see for a while.

The pizza met with mixed reviews - Jean proclaimed it the closest she'd had to NY-style pizza outside the Five Boroughs, but Tim seemed under-enthusiastic. Which was too bad for him, but great for me (as it left plenty of left-overs for dinner tonight!). There had to be about 20 cloves of garlic minced onto the pizza - primo stuff. And aromatic - even through my stuffy sniffer, it was great.

Before Jean developed her current passion for early American history (she's pursuing a PhD in it) she was fascinated by immuno-biology, and actually fancied a career with the CDC for a bit. That's why I wanted her to see And The Band Played On, an extraordinary HBO made-for-TV movie about the start of the AIDS epidemic (one that I also believe should be required viewing for anyone under the age of 30!). Click on the link to read the reviews - and then rent it/buy it/see it.

Throughout the video, date/place stamps show up...together with "the butcher's bill," the dead-and-dying count for the time. At one point, in 1985, there were 8,300-odd cases, and 6,400 deaths - an unbelievable 75% mortality rate. But in the final minutes of the movie (whose timeline ends in 1986, but which first aired in 1993) the statistics-up- to-that-date showed nearly 400,000 people infected with HIV, and 194,000 US deaths from AIDS. Not world-wide...just the US. Us. Right here.

That rocked me back a bit - believe me.

Eleven years ago, more people had died of AIDS than have been killed in the greatest natural disaster in our century. Today, between 850-950,000 people in the US alone are living with HIV - and 525,000 US deaths attributed to AIDS. That's ten times more than the number of casualties in the entire freaking Vietnam war, people. How is it that no one at WorldVision is lining up volunteers and contributors in front of the CDC headquarters to help out in the battle against this slaughter, do you suppose?...

Sadly, what one clinical pathologist told me 15 years ago still holds true: "It's hard for the research community (let alone the government) to find much desire to cure a disease that primarily kills homosexuals and drug addicts." Of course, it's not exclusively gays and addicts, any more - almost 5,400 children under 13 have died from AIDS, too. But far too many people consider the deaths of those innocents nothing more than "collateral damage"...

What is also sad is that the followers of Jesus - both God and human, who was always the advocate for "the least of these" - are often the first ones to race around the world to help people out - but the ones most silent in the HIV/AIDS crisis. Tomorrow there will be a "Clergy Leadership Summit for HIV/AIDS Community Outreach," hosted by McCormick Theological Seminary, our Presbyterian sisters-and-brothers-across-the-quad. I won't be able to attend - but I'm kind of curious about who will attend, and what will be proposed. I've gotta congratulate the McCormick folks; this kind of session is a long, long time overdue.

I'm not saying the crisis in Asia isn't real, or tragic. I'm just saying that the AIDS epidemic was real, AND tragic - ten years ago. The relief worker in Asia and the AIDS researcher in Atlanta and San Francisco all say the same thing: "The need is great; the situation desperate; and way too many people are on the brink of destruction."

What will your reply be?

Monday, January 10, 2005

Raw sewage from some respected names

For years, I have heard the name John Piper - mostly for a book which I've never read, but has influenced a number of my friends, called When I Don't Desire God. But I'd never read any of his stuff personally...I just knew of him.

Then I stumbled over to Adam Cleaveland's blog (one that I really respect), and caught the tail-end of this post, concerning a blog entry by John Piper about the tsunami disaster. I clicked on the link to see what had stirred Adam's ire, and was completely appalled by what I read. You can check it out here - if you dare. A few summary lines to give you a flavor for my anger (these are the main headings of Piper's article) and my responses:
1. Satan is not ultimate, God is. No argument from me. I pretty much pin my hope on that.
2. Even if Satan caused the earthquake in the Indian Ocean the day after Christmas, he is not the decisive cause of 100,000+ deaths, God is. If the only card in your theological deck reads, "God is omnipotent and omniscient" - all powerful and all-knowing - then I could see how you could get here. But that's an image of God I'd hope I'd never encounter.
3. Destructive calamities in this world mingle judgment and mercy. Ah, I wondered when we'd find someone who'd climb on the "this is God's judgement on the region" line of reasoning. This is a variation on the party line that reads, in part, "God hates homosexuals; that's why He sent AIDS into the world. If innocents babies and kids like Ryan White die, it's just that much more blood on their heads." (Just in case you're wondering, this line of reasoning is crap.)
But here's the real kicker:
Finally, Christ calls us to show mercy to those who suffer, even if they do not deserve it. (And then Piper has the nerve to end with, "In the merciful hands of Almighty God...Pastor John")

As I read the Gospels, there was this fellow Jesus who gave some very specific instructions to some very righteous men who were going to stone a woman to death for adultery. He said, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her" (John 8:7, NIV). I have never understood "any one on of you" to mean just those people gathered around the woman. To quote most Biblical literalists, "What part of 'any one of you' don't you understand?"

There was this other guy - Paul, as I remember - who was pretty clear about what he thought of his own righteousness: "As it is written: 'There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God' " (Romans 3:10-11, NIV, emphasis added).

My blogging buddy Rick recently asked the question, "What is it about Christians that is so repulsive even to other Christians?" I posted one answer on his blog...but the answer I wish I'd written really was this: what is so repulsive about some very vocal Christians is that they believe that somehow, because they have "the answer" in Jesus, they have somehow been struck "holy" and "wonderful," and believe that their sewage doesn't stink. The simple fact is that just because I have accepted Jesus as my Savior does not mean that I am without sin (or propensity to sin). In fact, to do so is (to me) the very essence of the sin of pride - Lucifer's sin.

Bottom line? The folks in Asia don't deserve God's mercy. Not the Muslims or the Buddhists who died. Not the Christians that died. None of them deserve God's mercy.

And neither, thank God, do I. Nor am I likely to deserve it any time soon. But that mercy is available to me, nonetheless. That's why it's called grace; it's an undeserved gift.

I've said it on other people's site - but let me say it loud and clear here: My understanding is always going to be that God's love and compassion will trump any human understanding, theology or dogma. Always. God is always going to be more than anything (even the Bible) would indicate.

No, it doesn't say that in the Bible. Of course, it doesn't say that tomorrow morning, the sun isn't going to turn into a bran muffin, either...but I have faith that it won't, nonetheless. I have to believe that the God of restoration and transformation that I see working in lives every day in the community of recovery is not also in the habit of randomly snuffing out life, as well. Thinking that the One who sent a Son into the world to redeem it would sweep 150,000 people out of existence - and leave another 150,000 to die of disease and deprivation - seems like insanity to me.

My hope and prayer is that maybe, by exposing raw sewage to the Light and to the open air, it can decompose into something less toxic to faith.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Two AM, thinking of "gardens" and "parks"

Thanks to a surprise Christmas gift from my friends Fred & Jane Green, I've been able to take a mini-vacation from austere living to purchase a couple of long-lusted-after books about "emerging culture" and "emergent churches." (Sad-but-true: you can always spot an intellectual by the kind of books he buys himself as Christmas presents...)

The first book to arrive was The Church in Emerging Culture, edited by Leonard Sweet. In the last two days, I've been busy enough that I've barely made it through the introduction to the book, a mini-epic by Leonard Sweet himself. But what I've read so far has literally been worth the price of the book, by itself.

What Leonard Sweet wrote about addressed a long-standing set of hurts in my past. In 1997-2000, I was part of a congregational schism - a Lutheran church that literally exploded apart, deeply wounding people on both sides of the split and scattering members of the 50-year-old suburban congregation to the four winds. I've spent nearly 5 years (on & off) trying to understand just what the hell happened in those times. I've studied this for two reasons: first, to avoid encountering that kind of pain again; but also to identify what kinds of forces were at work at the time, and recognize how to deal with them in the future.

I've tried hard to avoid the whole "it was just 'the worship wars'" nonsense, which was the ralling cry of "Milord Pastor," a.k.a "He Who Must Not Be Named" (can you say "Lutherans for Voldemort"?) I've also struggled to separate the "he-said, she-said, they-said" foolishness from the truth of what was going on (at least, the truth as I can perceive it, from this distance). Sweet's introduction gave me the first real framework to address the troubles of those times...the understanding that his words brought me was like a cool, healing rain on my soul. So here I am at 2 AM, trying to summarize this incredibly rich imagery so it makes sense. (Perhaps the insanity here is that 2 AM is not the best time, at any rate, to be attempting to make sense...oh, well...)

The four images in Sweet's model are based on how the church decides to act with regard to what he calls changing the message, and changing the methods for delivering that message. He described the four categories as "gardens," "parks," "glens" and "meadows." The way he describes the congregational variations, and how they each act, really rang true with me - and spoke volumes to the troubled history of my first congregational "home." (What follows is a summary of pages 18-29 of Sweet's essay, to avoid endless footnoting.)

Sweet describes a garden as a place apart, transformed from the local indigenous growth to be a special place of beauty. So he describes "garden" churches as folks who look to preserve what has been planted - both the message and the method of transmitting that message. "The Pastor Who Must Not Be Named" referred to this, time after time, as "the eternal truths of the historic church and faith" and "the ancient liturgies and traditions of 'The Church'" (always spoken-of in all-capitals).

In his model, Leonard Sweet suggests that the goal of the gardener is preservation of what he has worked so hard to plant and establish. So the "garden" church weeds out anything that is not part of "the historic faith", and decries that which is popular in favor of that which is ancient (and therefore "true"). "Garden" churches are often closed systems, gated or walled-off areas for keeping the new and the modern out, in favor of "that which came from our fathers." The action of faith is in preserving "what is" and "what has been done", often at the expense of moving towards "what should be". Slugs, snails, and rogue versions of variegated flowers are rooted out and destroyed, to protect the varieties already in the garden from corruption. "Identity" (who we are, where we come from) becomes much more important than "identification" (with whom do we "fit in," or who might we engage in the world around us).

In contrast, the "park" is a place for walking, for visiting. Where the garden may have walls and stone barriers to keep flowers in (and weeds and trespassers out), the park has pathways to facilitate visiting, exploring, and discovery. The "park" churches praise the apostle Paul for participating in three cultures (Sweet quotes E. M. Blaiklock describing Paul as "the rabbi of Jerusalem, the Greek of Tarsus, the citizen of Rome"). "Park" churches adopt "Mozart or Manilow or Madonna" and use them all, somehow, for the glory of God. Sweet quotes the slogan of Calvin College: "We're looking for 1,000 ways to express a 2,000-year-old tradition." If the "garden" is "a rock for truth that is changeless," the "park" is "a river of life that is ever-flowing - making things fresh, cutting new beds, finding new ways."

As I see it in retrospect, in my first congregation I was part of a group of people who longed to live in a "park" church - and yet we found ourselves in a church filled with people who were in love with their very-traditional "garden." Several of us kept wanting to make the garden into a park...thereby really annoying the loyal gardeners who had built up that garden in their own way for so long. They couldn't understand how we could not want what they wanted for their garden; we couldn't understand how they couldn't want to encounter the beauties inherent in the parks we sought. And it seemed to each group that what the other group was doing was a violation of faith and integrity.

So when a number of us finally left the "garden," looking for more open and dynamic pastures in which to labor, I know it seemed like betrayal for those who stayed behind...and it certainly felt like indifferent rejection to those of us who left. None of us could see, at the time, that what we were seeking was two entirely different understandings of what it meant to be "the church." Neither of us would be happy in the others' world - but the separation nonetheless felt very amputational.

The evidence that separating was the right thing to do came as each person left our "garden" church home, and subsequently found healing, new activity, new enthusiasm, and a renewed sense of calling in their new congregational homes - even though many of the families that departed left not only the congregation, but their historic family denomination as well. It stopped being about a tradition or a denomination, and became a fundamental shift in the way we understood what it meant to be "The Church." In retrospect, I'm amazed that we lasted as long as we did...and I'm also very glad that we aren't still there, making everyone miserable by trying to make them something they didn't want to be.

Reading this typology of churches helped me see that though it did feel like evil when we were going through it, God meant it for good in the end...much like the story of Joseph in the Old Testament. And it's proof again of the value of the Serenity Prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." May all God's people say, "Amen..."

A slightly funny aside: The second eagerly-awaited package I received was addressed to me, but actually contained someone else's order. I opened the box with haste and excitement, but was disappointed to find "my" box with a whole bunch of strange books inside it...including a copy of XXX: Thirty Porn-Star Portraits. (Fortunately for my tattered virtue, that particular volume was shrink-wrapped to avoid prying eyes...)

So that box goes back to Amazon, and I trust that the Amazon machinery has sent me what I really wanted: the book with the great title, A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished CHRISTIAN, by Brian McLaren (a prophetic voice in the "emergent church" movement). I've heard so much about this one - I'm sorry it's taken me this long to get on the bandwagon!

(Alas, my copy of When Bad Christians Happen to Good People: Where We Have Failed Each Other and How to Reverse the Damage by Dave Burchett will have to wait for a least until after I read the two Henri Nouwen books that Natalie got me for Christmas...)

Perhaps you too, found some understanding and truth in this imagery. Personally, I can't wait to hear what the rest of the books will offer...I promise more to come!

Monday, January 03, 2005

A God who pitches tent with us

The Word became flesh, and pitched tent among us.
(John 1:14, an alternate translation)
I first heard this version of John 1:14 from my first ministry professor, Tex Sample. I won't bore you with the Greek - but the word that is commonly translated "dwelt" literally means "fixed his tabernacle." That didn't mean much to me until a Messianic Jew explained that in the Old Testament, a "tabernacle" was a temporary dwelling for the Spirit of God - often a tent-like structure - erected on feast days. So, the Word became flesh, and for a time, pitched tent among us.

Over the years, this has become one of the most powerful images of my faith - the unending, limitless, all-powerful God, El Shaddai, Yahweh, accepting human flesh as a temporary dwelling place, in order to bring salvation to all of humanity. But it's this idea of "pitching tent" that still intrigues me.

When you live in separate houses, it's sometimes hard to know what's going on next door. Things happen behind closed doors that we as neighbors often never know. But when I've been camping, life is definitely much more communal, more open. If someone is laughing - or crying - in the next tent, it's hard for others not to acknowledge it. Generally, folks who camp together seem more considerate of each other and their space, and more intentional about bringing about harmony and community.

And I guess that's what captured my imagination about this idea of God "pitching tent" - that God came close enough to hear my weeping, and my laughing, and to care about my life. The word Emmanuel, "God with us," seemed much closer in the next tent than in some dwelling next door (or away at the Temple). I also resonated with the idea of the tabernacle as a temporary dwelling, because it matches perfectly with Jesus' very temporary life among us.

Amazing how such a simple change of a word or two can bring such powerful meaning...

Saturday, January 01, 2005

"Just another New Years' Eve..."

It's just another New Years' Eve, another night like all the rest
It's just another New Year's Eve, let's make it the best...
It's just another New Year's Eve, it's just another Auld Lang Syne,
But when we're through this New Year, you'll see -
We'll be just fine...
(from the classic by Barry Manilow)
There is artillery going off in the distance - fireworks and shouting and whistles - which indicate that the calendar has flopped over another page.

I had been asleep at 10:30, after crusing around the Hyde Park "Neighbor's Eve" (decent music, but all the food was gone at every site I visited). Still, it was well worth riding around on the trolley to the various spots, and running into various folks around the town. But for some reason, by 10 p.m., I was just done - and so I tried to do the sensible thing, and snuggle down early. But for an equally odd reason, I just snapped awake about 11:57 - just in time for the artillery display - and to consider the end of one day, and the beginning of another.

In working to live "one day at a time," New Year's Eve has become kind of a "so what?" thing. Perhaps it's having lived through my twenties, and passing the midnight mark with the guy determined to be the first person to puke in the New Year. Perhaps it's just being much, much closer to 48 than to 28 (or 18). But being up at the magic minute, and seeing the countdown, just doesn't ring my chimes anymore. I'm glad for the people who are out whooping it up - but it's just not me anymore.

I wasn't going to do a retrospective of the last year - for some reason, it feels good just to be shut of this one (which is the first time I've felt like that in a long time. It has been a year of very unwilling (and badly-executed) transitions, a year of sadness and much mourning. Lives, friends, and dreams were all casualties, caught in the crossfire over the last 12 months.

I wish I could tell you that I allowed God to carry me through, and everything went fine. But in reality, if the last year suddenly became a version of the old poem "Footsteps," my version would look like this:
1) My footsteps, and God's, walking side-by-side
2) God's footsteps by themselves, carrying me (for very brief distances)
3) God's footsteps beside a very deep furrow, dug by my heels as God dragged me along (the majority of the distance)
I also thought about doing "my top 5 blog-posts," as several sisters & brothers in the independent kingdom of Blogaria have done. But doign that felt suspiciously like self-centered navel-gazing. So I'm content to leave my "defining moment" posts on the right sidebar, and if anyone's crazy enough to read 'em all and pick favorites, I'll be happy to tabulate the results!

I've given up on resolutions, too - they usually dissolved somewhere about noon on January 1st or 2nd, anyway - but on the cusp of the New Year, these are my prayers for the days to come:

- to be more intentional about God's direction for my life, long-term, and to get out of "survival mode";
- to seek out things that bring joy and build community, and engage in the ones that are unique to Chicago (I don't want to leave here and find that I never really "lived" here);
- to celebrate my friendships and enduring relationships more frequently than I do;
- Lastly, to live as Bill W. wrote so many years ago in the AA Big Book:
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.
Happy New Year, my friends.