Monday, March 28, 2005

Is it true?

The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. "Sir," they said, "we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, 'After three days I will rise again.' So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first."
"Take a guard," Pilate answered. "Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how." So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.
(Matthew 27:62-66, NIV)
At a conference several years ago, I saw Joe White do an incredible one-man drama as the cross-maker who was building the cross on which Jesus was to be crucified. He hefted the timbers, and with a hand-axe he actually hewed the notches in the log, then nailed them together...talking all the while about Jesus, how Jesus had stirred things up in the neighborhood, and about the crucifixion to come.

White, as the cross-maker, made a powerful point. He described the process of crucifixion, and how Jesus had claimed to be coming back three days after he died. The cross-maker's words are instructive here, as best I remember them:
"Nobody comes back after they are crucified...nobody. It's horrible, it's agonizing, it's hideous - and then you're dead. Period. Nobody comes back from that. And if Jesus dies, and he doesn't come back, in 20 years, no one will remember this crazy carpenter from Nazareth. He'll be just one more religious crackpot; just one more feeble attempt to raise up folks against Rome, and one more pathetic failure."

"But," he thundered, "...what if he's telling the truth?"
What indeed?

What if the story, and all the pomp and ceremony, of Easter morning is more than just something that we repeat because "it's what we always do" on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the Spring equinox?

What if the witness of the women and the apostles is true? What if this Jesus person really did rise from the dead, for you and for me?

A lot of you reading this may well say, "Well, Steve, of course it's true. We believe, and we say that we believe - every single Sunday." Well, I'd celebrate that statement - but I'd also ask a question, and make a suggestion.

The question I ask myself this morning is simply this: how is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ going to change my life, and the way I deal with the rest of the "children of God" in my life, on the day after Easter? Will I continue with "business as usual," now that Lent and Easter Sunday are over? Afer the fasting and the prayer is done, will it be "the same old same-old"?

Or will the two "great commandments" and the "one great commission" become central in my life? Will I look at living my life like a sheep, or a goat (Matthew 25:31-46)? What is the answer of my life to the resurrection?

I am reminded so often of Brennan Manning's tragic analysis: "The greatest cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who proclaim Jesus with their lips, and reject him with their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable." Am I proclaiming Jesus with my lips, or my life? I know, as a sinful man, I'm bound to fail...but am I willing to try? That's the question.

The suggestion I'd make is this: if you were in church on Easter Sunday, it's very likely that there were unchurched or nominally-churched folks so close to you that you could smell them. And perhaps someone among them is asking Joe White's question, right now: "What if Jesus was telling the truth? What if everything I heard on Sunday is true?"

The suggestion? Pray for those people. Pray for the long-term church members, who are showing up by rote or out of obligation, that they might hear the saving message of Christ anew, and be changed. Pray for those who came because their parents or children or friends invited them (even if they didn't want to come) that they might feel the Presence of God in the greetings, in the prayers, in the sermon, in the music and in sharing the peace, at the communion rail, and in the fellowship hall afterwards.

Pray that those who are "new" will be transformed - and that those who are "not new" will be renewed, and restored.

I leave you with Joe White's final words:
"...if Jesus dies, and he doesn't come back, in 20 years, no one will remember this crazy carpenter from Nazareth...but if he DOES come back, this coming Sunday will be remembered for all time! No war, no persecution, no threat of death will ever be able to quash a story like that! If what Jesus said is true, what happens on Sunday will change the world..."
Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" (John 11:25-26, NIV)

Friday, March 25, 2005

And the part of Peter will be played

Some rigorous honesty for Good Friday....

I hated The Passion of the Christ.

You heard me. I wanted to love it, but I. Just. Hated. It.

Know why? Because I'm a wimp. A puss. A pud. A softie. I get weak in the stomach and the knees at the sight of blood. I despise violence, and yet I fear getting involved. I hated it for the same reason I hated Saving Private Ryan - because deep down, I never wanted to know just how bad it really was, back then.

A terrible admission, remembering Saving Private Ryan: there is a scene in that movie where one lone American solidier and German soldier fight, and wrestle, and the stronger German soldier gets the upper hand, and slowly drives a knife into the chest of the American soldier...all the while softly urging him to relax and just let it happen. Watching the film in the theatre, at that moment I found this murderous rage boiling within me...mostly because I identified with the weakening, dying American. You see, to put it oh-so-mildly, I am a physical weakling: a 14 year old with a letter opener could have done the same thing to me. And I hated to watch it...because I knew, in the same situation, it would be me. It just made me want to run screaming from the theatre, because I just did not want to face that truth about myself. And if I had not been absolutely center-of-the-packed-theatre and surrounded by friends, I would have done just exactly that.

Here's where it gets bad. Watching that scene on-screen, I had this mental flash of being in the real-life scene, and coming upon the German soldier immediately as he finished driving that knife into the American. In my mind's eye, I would have shot the German in both legs and both arms to brutally, painfully disable him, and then I would have gutted him like a fish...all the while quietly whispering to him to let go and let it happen, just as he had done to his victim.

the kind of hate it aroused in me. And God help me, but that's the kind of Monster that lives in me, at times. I hate to admit it, but both the Monster and the Coward are still very much alive in me. Only a very thin veneer of civilization and compassion separates the me I want to be from the me I'm terrified I could become.

On Good Friday? It wouldn't have been The Monster you'd see - it would have been The Coward that showed up. I would have been with the disciples, running like hell from Gethsemane - mostly because I wouldn't want to be arrested and killed, but at least partly because I wouldn't want to witness the barbarity that Jesus was sure to endure - let alone endure it myself. After all, I love being on the side of God and good and right - but I'm enough of a coward that I really, really don't want to go to jail for it - let alone die for it. I wish I could tell you otherwise - that I would somehow be braver, nobler, and stronger - but that would be at least three complete lies.

(An aside: I think last year was the first year that I didn't receive the perennial email that supposedly contained a physician's graphic description of the physiological effects of crucifixion. We no longer needed it; we'd seen acres and acres of footage of gore to show us just exactly what it was like. No speculation or imagination required. It still sends shivers up my spine. Thanks a lot, Mel...)

The person with whom I most identify in the tale of Thursday and Friday, however, would be Peter.

"You will never wash my feet." "OK, then wash ALL of me!" "I will lay down my life for you!" Falling asleep when the Son of God begs for wakefulness and companionship. Forsaking everything about loving one's neighbor to slice off the ear of the high priest's servant...go with what you know, eh Peter? Following Jesus (but only at a safe distance...) on the way to the high priest's house. "Do you know him?" "Not me, sir, no way..." knowing the truth all the while, and feeling the truth scorch the soul. The rooster's crow like a laser, cutting straight into his heart. Look what a disciple you are, eh, Pete? What a piece of work you are...

Oh, yes. I know that role well. I have been there. In some ways, I am there tonight. I don't have to look hard at my life to know that I have not been the disciple I should have been. I am not the disciple I could be. On ninety-nine days out of a hundred, I'd much rather switch than fight. And I'm terribly afraid that when push comes to shove, I might still abandon you to save myself - and then hate myself for all time afterwards.

The Monster, and the Coward. On Good Friday, I face them both. And my only hope resides in this: that Jesus went to the cross for me - not for the person I'd like to be, not for the church member, or the seminarian, or the employee, or the neighbor - but for the Monster, and for the Coward. In the words of Max Lucado, Jesus died and descended to Hell for me rather than go to Heaven without me. And for this child of God, it is that truth - and only that - that makes anything about this Friday "Good."

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, NIV)

Thursday, March 24, 2005

God, or the Devil?

In his challenging work Naked Before God: The Return of a Broken Disciple, Bill Williams tells a story that is worth retelling this Holy Week. It's a story of an encounter between his wife, Martha, and one of her Sunday school students. Martha had built a powerful rapport with her students - they felt safe and loved in her presence, and they worked hard...and they developed a very special rapport with Martha. That trust, and that love, are probably why this piece of truth got spoken.

These words are Bill Williams - and yet they are also mine:

One Sunday, Martha asked her kids what they thought about God. They did what kids usually do when you ask an open-ended question. They rolled their eyes and looked dumb. It always takes some work to get the water flowing.

"Well," she said, going for the most basic thing she could think of, "is he good, bad, or what?"

One of them - we'll call him Timothy - looked at her and said something a lot of Sunday school teachers will never hear, because they are not Martha.

"Well," Timothy said, "God killed his son."

Shut your ears, Timothy! You're listening too well. That fig tree won't bear you any fruit, Tim. You just hold on to the notion that God is good, not evil, and that loving you doesn't mean he wants to kill you. If you let that filth in, you'll spend the rest of your life trying to scrape it off. When they start to bleat their poison in the big room, you just plug your ears and chant with me:
God is good. God is good. God is good. That will be our measuring stick, you and me. If anything doesn't measure up to that, you'll know it's broken. This is your basic wiring, child. You won't be able to bulk-erase it later - take it from me, I've tried and tried. Tim you just stay away from that piece of hate and don't ever let it touch your heart or you'll end up as crippled as I am can't you see the way I've struggled and I'm still being dragged down to hell....

Don't believe that God is the Devil, no matter what your church says.

God is good
God is good
God is good
God is good
God is good
God is good...

I'm chanting right with you, Bill.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Tragedy conveyed by two numbers

2b This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 5 So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.
10 This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.
(Ezekiel 34:2b-6,10, NIV)
30 and 45.

Those are the numbers of worshipers present last weekend at a congregation in suburban Kansas City - one that I was a member of for just over 10 years. Thirty at the first service; forty-five at the second.

Once upon a time, in the 1991-94 time-frame, people in that church thought they would need to expand the sanctuary...there were so many folks, it was gettin' snug in there, at times. But then there were pastoral changes: a beloved pastor retired because of his health; an assistant pastor drew a number of worshipers to a neighboring congregation when he left; and the new senior pastor did some things in the name of "preserving the ancient traditions," which polarized (and ultimately schismed) the church. Lots of things drew the average attendance from over 400 a decade ago down to near 200 by the time I left in July, 2001.

But when my friend visited last week, and told me of the devastation of my former church home, I was stunned. It was like not seeing a favorite aunt for four years, and then to visit and see her dying of cancer. In a way, it felt like what the crew of the Titanic must have felt as they saw its bow sinking lower into the Atlantic..."this can't be happening...I know I expected it to happen, but not so fast..."

I left that church - with a lot of other folks - because of behavior by the senior pastor that many folks felt was unacceptable. Leaving that church was as painful for me as my divorce had been - amputational, at best - but I knew that staying, for me, would have been far worse. So I left, and wished them well. I resolutely put them out of my mind, and moved on to the next community of faith.

My friend spoke for me when she said, "You know, I stopped praying for that bunch a while ago. But I really need to start that up again." Her comment, directed at her own life, burned in my soul, too. So here I am - praying for my former congregation, and for the shepherd who led them to this wilderness.

I've had harder assignments in my spiritual walk, but this one is right up there near the top of the "hardest tasks" list...

Monday, March 21, 2005

Look around - can you see me?

It's amazing - very, very few people who read this blog have ever met me. Most of us in the blogosphere share a fellowship and friendship which is digital-only. In fact, I get very envious of fellow bloggers who tell how they manage to hook-up in the real-world at this conference or that gathering.

But no matter where you are, I guarantee you'll see me this week...if you look.

See? Over there, on the edge of the street? The heavy-set guy with the beard, waving the palm frond and shouting "Hosanna!" until he's hoarse? That's me...

Look - there in the back of the temple, with Judas? Wondering whether all this hype will last, and if this Jesus guy is all he says he is? Asking himself whether we can still get an appointment with the High Priest? Yeah, that's me...

I admit, my name's not on the reservation card at the Upper Room Grill, but you'll see me at the dinner table Thursday night - wondering just what the heck Jesus is talking about, and making a stink about my Rabbi washing my feet. And it'll be my snoring you hear - a little louder than the rest, probably - while Jesus prays, and weeps, and begs for his cup to pass.

And as big as I am, I don't run much...but you'll see my heels flying when the Roman guards come for Jesus. Faithful follower that I am, when it comes down to the hard places, I'm a track-star just like the rest of 'em. Watch me run...

My hand is right next to Judas' on the money-bag - flinging it back in disgust at the way I've betrayed my Lord. And the rope will be in my hands, fashioning my own noose right alongside Judas, too...but I'm too much of a coward to jump. I should, though...I'm every bit as guilty of the betrayal.

I'm there, a couple rows back from the front, in Pilate's court, yelling "Crucify!" just like the rest of 'em. God knows that I'm good at jumping on bandwagons...I was there shouting with the rest of the yo-yo's on Sunday, and I'm good for some more shouting on Friday. Always wanting to be at the center of things - yup, that's me...

And it won't be hard to pick out my face up at Golgotha. I'll be the one standing about 20 feet away - giving John and Mary their space - but weeping at the horror of the Son of Man's blood-drenched body hanging on the cross. You see, my hand was on the mallet as it drove the nails in. Look at what you've wrought, Steve...

Oh,'ll see me around a lot this week. No matter where you look, there I'll be...because it's my story.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Why isn't it just "Palm" Sunday any more?

Those of you who have been reading here a while know I'm not the biggest advocate of the liturgical calendar. (Those who have joined us recently can catch up here.)

But in the church communities where I've visited the last two years, there seems to be this trend to make Palm Sunday into "The Passion of Our Lord Sunday," and tell the Good Friday story on Palm Sunday, and squeeze the "Palm Sunday" imagery into a pseudo-procession at the beginning of the service. And for some folks, that seems to work. I've just got one question for folks who encourage this kind of liturgy-planning....

What were you thinking?

The whole idea of the liturgical calendar is to provide both structure, symmetry and symbolism to our worship. And, to be honest, even in the Catholic church I despised as a child, I figured some stuff out:
- Palm Sunday began "Holy Week" with a monster pep rally - everybody is "on the inside" with Jesus, and everything is groovy.
- The last supper (or what storyteller Ed Stivender would tell us, "the next-to-the-last party...") starts the great adventure for us.
- Good Friday is where the passion happens - and that's where it belongs.
- "Holy Saturday" is a time of being "between" - between death and eternal life, between crucifixion and resurrection. It's supposed to be empty.

It may have been that most of the Christian world used Palm Sunday as "Passion of the Christ" Sunday, but to me, it just seemed repetitious - and forced folks to mainline a whole mess of Scripture just so we could say we got all the lectionary readings in. It seemed strange to me, especially given the framework I grew up with.

Yeah, I know - some people don't come to church on Good Friday...when are they going to hear the Passion texts? Well, that may be a minor point - but it just doesn't cut any ice with me, I'm afraid. So I'm going to side with the traditionalists, for once. Give us back the beauty of Palm Sunday, so that we can experience the joys, and the depths of sorrow and sadness, and celebrate the story of Holy Week in sequence. Just my two liturgical cents worth...

Monday, March 14, 2005

Lutherans without "Purpose"...

Several articles appeared in the February '05 issue of the ELCA's The Lutheran magazine concerning Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life (click the link to see the article index). While I don't believe for a minute that Br'er Warren is the 14th apostle or anything, I do believe that there are definitely broad concepts in his book that can enrich faith practices across denominations. I've actually read the P-D-L, and was curious what the official voice of the ELCA had to say about it. So I started reading, and was brought short by the very first paragraph of the lead article, The man with the 'Purpose':
In 1980, Rick Warren started his church with a time-tested formula used by thousands of up-and-coming Baptist pastors. He moved to a Sunbelt city, started a Bible study in his condo and taught aimless baby boomer suburbanites how to connect with God — simple seeker-sensitive stuff, the sort of message that has built prosperous congregations for ambitious ministers nationwide.
Now that really irked me. Maybe it's just the large-ish chip I have on my shoulder about my denomination in general, but the tone of this article sounded really condescending.

Call me crazy (won't be the first time) but the idea of a pastor starting a Bible-study in his condo (be it Sunbelt, Snowbelt or Rustbelt) and teaching aimless people how to connect with God sounds like the kind of pastor I'd like to shepherd my church. It also sounds an awful lot like the church of Acts 2:
They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers...Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42,46-67, NRSV)
Or am I missing something?

I hate to point it out, but reaching out to non-believers or nominal believers, and sharing the word of God with them, doesn't just build "prosperous congregations for ambitious ministers nationwide." It builds something called the Kingdom of God, in obedience to the gentle suggestion of a Galilean to his unordained flock of fledgling evangelists:
And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:18-20, NRSV)
Any of this ringin' a bell with you Lutherans? Any of you want to check out the Scriptura that you're so Sola about, and tell me I'm wrong?

Now, the rest of the article does quite fairly point out some of the book's (and the author's) flaws. I always thought that the whole "40 days of purpose" was kind of a stampede through a lot of territory, and I agree that there is a bit of an "infomercial" quality to it. And yes, I don't have much use for Br'er Warren's view on Biblical infallibility, or the Southern Baptists' views on women (especially in ministry) and other issues of fundamental Christianity. As I said, I'm not advocating joining Saddleback Church, nor becoming Rick-Warren clones.

But as usual, the Lutherans have missed several key points:

- Most of the ELCA churches that I have encountered have no real heart for reaching out to "aimless" people of any kind. (Now, admittedly, there are some - but they are few and far between, in my experience.) A careful reading of Matthew 28 shows that it does not say, "Fling open the doors of your church, and if anyone wanders in, make sure they get a good, solid liturgy and the eucharistic elements, properly consecrated." It does, however, say "GO" - as in "get off your lutefisk-laden behinds and go find the ones who are LOST!" Sadly, however, in most congregations with which I've been connected, fully 90% of their new-member intake is from other Lutheran congregations (as opposed to the unchurched or nominally-churched) - adding new definition to the term "vampire evangelism"...

- Literally millions of people in hundreds of churches across the US found there to be enough value to commit to the "40 Days of Purpose" as congregations. Are we going to deride the transforming power of the Holy Spirit because (once again) the idea was "not invented here" (meaning in "our camp")?

- A disastrously-telling set of images come from the study guide that The Lutheran published to go along with this article. One can only wonder: what the heck were they thinking when they wrote these questions?
Which is a better goal for churches: to be faithful or successful? When do you have to choose? Can you have one without the other? Why can’t you have both? Is it better to be successful even if it means being less faithful to your tradition?
These questions are completely ludicrous, especially when asked by the folks whose founder was forever immortalized as the "both...and" guy (Martin Luther's "both saint and sinner" concept).

The big question they won't ask, I think, is this: "To what are we being faithful? To the core of the Gospel - two Great Commandments (love God, love one another) and one Great Commission (Go, make disciples...)? Or are we being faithful only to the tradition - the hymnal, the liturgy, and the cultural icons like pipe organs, lutefisk and potlucks?"

Could converting 16,000 "aimless suburbanites" into disciples, and retaining them through the use of "seeker-sensitive" church services really be considered "not being faithful"? Are we Lutherans really so afraid of the sin of pride that "successful" is considered the antithesis of (or at least the other end of the continuum from) "faithful"? Is it more virtuous, or more faithful, to have 40 saints gathered in a sanctuary that seats 800, performing a perfectly executed eucharistic liturgy?

Can we learn from Rick Warren's hugely successful publishing adventure without actually having to become "nouveau Baptists?" Can we utilize the tools of the P-D-L without buying into every concept being presented? Can we, as a denomination, and as the church universal, stop and recognize that if twenty million people bought the book, that there might be 20 million people around us who are not finding the answers to fundamental faith questions like "What on Earth am I here for?" within our walls and our liturgies? Can we at least buy into Article VII of the Augsburg Confession (which all ELCA churches are required to incorporate into their constitutions) and agree: "Nor is it necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies, instituted by men, should be everywhere alike"? (It's tragic that another NIH (not invented here) idea, the Alpha program, often gets blown this same kind of smoke...)

Then comes the coup de grace:
How is your church doing? Are your finances stable? Is membership growing bit by bit? Or are things in decline? How about churches in your area? Are programs needed to energize church life? Is Purpose-Driven good for that reason?
How very tragic, eh? Sounds like we've bought right in to the message of the world, doesn't it?: Should the first question about the health of a church really be, "Are your finances stable?" What does that say about the focus of the denomination, and the need for disciple-building in our congregations?

Again: Rick Warren is no saint. But neither is he the devil...nor is he someone worthy of receiving playground-quality deriding. I give thanks for bold Lutheran pastors like Eric Burtness, the pastor of St. Matthew Lutheran Church, Beaverton, Ore. (who is featured in a second article about their use of the "40 days of Purpose"), as well as women and men of vision across dozens of denominational boundaries who have used this to great effect. They speak for the hope that "dinosaur heart transplants" are just some of the miracles that are happening when committed disciples try to tell "the old old story" using new words, new images, new songs and new settings. For them, and for the renewing and transforming power of the Holy Spirit, I give thanks today.

(It'll be interesting to see if any Lutherans actually bother to comment...)

Sunday, March 13, 2005

My favorite Easter card this year...

...comes from Ben Bell's blog. Check it out here... wish I could afford to print a couple hundred and pass 'em out. Hopefully posting here will be the equivalent! Thanks, Ben, for sharing a very powerful vision.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Make sure you read this...

...because it is bloody brilliant - just inspired from God. I wish I'd written this...and I really wish I had read this before I wrote "the post." Check out "What Jesus Never Said."

Over my shoulder, a backward glance...

Last Sunday, it was 65 degrees, sunny, and we were all in short sleeves, ready for crocuses to start popping up. Then, the denizens of Chicago weather struck...
Monday: clouds, sleet
Tuesday: clouds, cold, snow
Wednesday: sunshine, pretty cold
Thursday: cloudy, rain
Friday: sunny, bright, snow

For someone who suffers from mild-to-medium depression, and seasonal affective disorder, this kind of stuff can make one crazy. I guess we get the good days (what my friend Natalie would call "my one good day in a row") to keep us a safe distance away from mental-health professionals!

I've been struggling with sinus and ear infections. The cure (a good-sized dose of amoxicillin) has played hell with my digestion all week - and that, on top of the earaches and runny nose, has (a) given me opportunities to feel like a whimpering baby and (b) to lose all kinds of sleep. So I've been struggling that way for the whole week.

Add to this the fact that my employer's email and internet connections have been down all week (8 business days, to be exact), and I have to admit I've not been firing on all cylinders. But there are enough other things in my gratitude hopper to keep me fractionally right-sized, I guess.

While I'm sure that the topic will pop up and again, I promise that this is the last time I'm going to mention "the post" for quite a while - in many ways, this explains exactly why...

As John McCutcheon would say, "Alleluia, the great storm is over..." It's pretty clear that I'm between 14:30 and 16:00 into my "fifteen minutes of fame" on this topic.

I am, however, tremendously grateful to everyone who stopped by, who shared encouragement, and especially to those who took issue with what I wrote politely (a rarity in some parts of the blogosphere, to be sure). I hope whoever stopped by found some things worth reading besides "the post." I'm not really looking for fame, but friends (even long-distance, virtual ones) are the things for which I'm really grateful. Peace!

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Just remember to let me go home

But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.
In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their departure was thought to be a disaster,
and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace.
For though in the sight of others they were punished,
their hope is full of immortality.

(Apocrypha, Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-4 (NRSV))
I'm not a "hot-button preacher," and I've never been a Fox-News let's-find-a-hip-topic-and-argue-about-it kind of guy. So even though tons of ink, quintillions of bytes and all kinds of hyperbole have been spilled over the issue of a woman on life support in Florida, I've tried to stay away from that topic.

I still am. The fact is, there's no answer for the family and friends of Terri Schiavo. Her plight has been politicized to the point where all people can do is shout words like "Murderer!" and "Torturer!" at each other, and the only people benefitting from the circus are the lawyers and the media/pundit cartels. They are picking at the carcass in a way that would make vultures look like Disney characters, and "being right" means winning the battle. :::sigh:::

Wednesday night, the Chicago Tribune posted this article, saying how more medical tests are required "to determine if she has more mental activity than previously thought." So now, scientists, doctors, and theologians start again the wicked battle to define how dead you have to be in order to be allowed to die. And, perhaps the most chilling sentence I've read in a while is at the end of the article: "In Washington, Rep. Dave Weldon and Sen. Mel Martinez, both Republicans from Florida, introduced legislation Tuesday that would require that incapacitated people be represented by their own attorneys."

(We won't even touch the whole Republicans-from-Florida issue. That's just too cheap a shot, even for me.) But here's my battle cry:

You mean I'm going to need an attorney in order to die, for cryin' out loud?

Not me. Not gonna play that game - and I'm here to declare it publicly.

I do not hold with the idea that because you can keep my brain alive (even though there's no way for your thoughts to get in, or my thoughts to get out), that somehow you should do so, anyway.

This is not about Dr. Kervorkian or the Hemlock Society or "physician assisted suicide." This is not even about quality of life. It's facing life (and its end) as a very mortal, very human being and person of faith.

In December 1990, I was only having the occasional thoughts of suicide. But if you had killed me at that time, I would have welcomed it as a mercy killing. God gave me a second shot at life - and several since then. To be honest, I've had more than fourteen years "in the bonus round." So if I were to have a heart attack or stroke tonight, and it were to paralyze me such that I couldn't eat, drink, or communicate in any way, I'd still be one of the most amazingly blessed men I know.

If I have lost the ability to feed and hydrate myself...if I have lost the ability to communicate, and share what God has given me with the world...then I don't care what my EEG or EKG or any-other-G tests say. If the only way you are keeping me alive is by technology and the intervention of man, then my life is already over. Period.

Which brings me back to this passage from the 3rd chapter of the Wisdom of Solomon. Biblical scholars will argue about whether this is "Scripture" or not; I won't even go there. But this beautiful passage, read aloud at my mother's memorial service by a sensitive priest, reminds me that in a community of faith, death is truly only a disaster to those who are left behind.

If as a result of accident, sickness, or trauma, you find me unable to draw breath, sustenance, water, or share my experience strength and hope with others, then I would ask you to just "let me go home." Just stop fighting the inevitable, and let me go home. Please don't fight over trying to keep me here...

...because I'm bound for better things.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

And so it begins...

I heard the news yesterday from my friend Sandy M., who's still in Kansas... though I really wasn't surprised, I was particularly saddened.

As this article in the Kansas City Star indicates, Christ Episcopal Church in Overland Park, KS has agreed in principle to withdraw from the US Episcopal Church. As I read that, three words came to mind.

Damn, damn, damn.

You see, this is personal. Christ Episcopal is about 2 miles from my former home congregation, Atonement Lutheran in Overland Park. Atonement's Alpha program, a core piece of congregational revival at my former home church, started as an offshoot of Christ's program. They helped our congregation out when we were going through our re-visioning process; their rector, Ron McCrary, spoke at one of our council retreats. And their congregation has always seemed to have a heart for the unchurched and the nominally-churched. All that to say this: there is much to recommend one to the ministry of Christ Episcopal Church. I can't deny that.

The bad news is, as Bishop Wolfe points out, that this church has been headed out the door for a year, and now (assuming the congregational vote in April follows the pastors and council's recommendation) they're all but gone.

While the article says that there are a number of issues underlying the split, the triggering episode sure seems to be the election of an "actively" gay bishop two years ago. It seems that Christ Episcopal has decided to hang their congregation's future on the theory that "The translators of the [fill in your favorite] Version say that God said it, and I believe it, and that settles it."

The greater tragedy is that when the church schisms over issues related to homosexuality, the two camps invariably look across the divide at each other with loathing, splitting into "How can you tolerate THAT awful sin?" and "How can you leave us over such an inconsequential issue as THAT?" camps. (This sounds like a wild generalization - but in fact, this has been my personal experience with other congregations, too.)

Once again, a church that claims to follow the "love God, and love your neighbor" guy has allowed acceptance of GLBT people and lifestyles to become the ultimate litmus-test of faithfulness, rather than issues of substance like I dealt with over here.

And what's sad is that the churches that seem to have what I want - spirited, contemporary worship, powerhouse preaching, and a heart for welcoming the unchurched (well, the str8 unchurched, anyway) - also seem to have this same hardline understanding about homosexuality. (Chicago's Fourth Presbyterian seems to be an exception to this rule, although their worship style is pretty "traditional.")

The next time Atonement Lutheran calls on Christ Episcopal, will the answer be "Of course, we'll help you out...just tell us what your church's position on gays and lesbians"?

This crap makes me crazy. God, grant me the serenity....

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

A church with a sense of humor

Check out this brought a smile this morning. Thank God for the UCC.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Bob Vila and "This Old Soul"

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul.
(Psalm 23:1-3, NIV)
The 23rd psalm is one of the most recognizable pieces of Scripture there is. People who have never set foot in a church, folks who have never heard about Jesus, folks who can't even pronounce the word "psalm" all know these words. In movies, in literature, on greeting cards - it's hard not to find it somewhere. And that's too bad...

...because it can become so familiar that we don't pay attention to what it actually says. It's possible for us to hear "The Lord is my shepherd..." and to say, "Oh, yeah...that stuff. Yeah, it's good," and tune out.

I heard the 23rd psalm in church yesterday, and verse 3 just kinda leapt out at me: "He restores my soul."

I had this image of Jesus as Bob Vila, the old host of "This Old House," walking into my own soul with his familiar banter. "Folks, we've got a big restoration project starting up this week...we've got weakened resolve in the faith foundation, prayer rot on the 2nd floor that needs to be cut out, we've got toxic spiritual asbestos that needs to be removed...oh, and we're going to put in a new bay window upstairs, to let the Light of the World shine in a little better. All this, and more, on 'This Old Soul'..."

There are this weekend...when I wonder if even Norm Abrams and a Holy-Spirit-powered reciprocating saw can restore this soul o'mine. It sure can be a mess. Challenges and fears and doubts and you-name-it can knock against the I-beams and cinder-blocks of my soul, and I wonder whether the whole structure can possibly stay standing through this pounding.

Then I'm reminded: I don't have to do anything. Just step out of the way, ask the Master Craftsman (with all those cool Crafstman tools!) to come in and go to work. Lie down in the green pastures, beside still waters, and simply say, "Loving Carpenter, I need to be your remodeling project today - every day, in fact. Come in, and restore my soul."

And then watch the transformation take place.

Let the work begin, Lord...

Saturday, March 05, 2005

A thought-provoking question...

In backtracking to see where folks visiting my blog were coming from, I found this post from Todd Hiestand's blog. In it he asks a simple, yet dramatic question: "What are you REALLY living for?"

I think it's a powerful question - one that people in general (and we in the church in particular) don't ask often enough, or answer honestly enough. I started to post the answer on his blog, and then thought that I really needed to answer the question here.

I come to this question with a couple frames of reference. Forgive me for rambling even more than the usual bit. (For relative newcomers, now you know where this blog gets its name...)

I come to this question first as a member of the community of recovery. My first day back in a church was on Reformation Sunday, 1990 - forty-some days before I got sober. But I really didn't get connected with a faith community until the first week of May, 2001 - so I was almost 5 months sober when I came to faith (literally, at Faith Lutheran Church in Prairie Village, KS).

As a recovering alcoholic, almost by definition I start my day out selfish, self-centered, and self-seeking. It's no big surprise - those are classic character defects of addictive personalities. I'm not proud of it, nor am I making excuses. But the truth is that even after an extended period of recovery, that's just where I boot-up. Absent the transforming love of God and the power of prayer, that's probably where I would spend my every conscious moment. Needless to say, that colors a lot of what I think and do...

You see, I'd love to tell you that I was drawn to Christian community out of a love for the truth I found in Jesus Christ...but it would be a big, fat lie. As a self-seeking person, I at least started off my Christian life just not wanting to be lonely. Truth be told, I desired their acceptance, and accepted their hospitality, long before I accepted their Savior.

I didn't come to Faith Lutheran because I was "a cradle Lutheran." In fact, I'd been away from church for half of my 34 years, at that point, and I'd been raised Catholic before that (even being "most valuable altar boy"). The only reason I came to that Lutheran church was because a fellow AA member was a member of that congregation, and he invited me to go with him. Left to myself, I never would have gone.

I came to that congregation in Kansas so broken, so "apart-from" that I really believed I would never, ever fit in. You see, all the folks in that church looked so good, on the outside...and I was so terribly broken on the inside. I made the classic mistake of comparing my "insides" with their "outsides," and decided that I'd probably never, ever fit in there. I was sure that if the folks in that church ever found out what kind of "damaged goods" they had on their hands, they would either run away screaming...or drive me from their midst. The fear of rejection almost made be quit going - because it would hurt less to reject them than for one more group to reject me.

The second Sunday I was there, I let it slip that I sang, sometimes, with my ex-wife. (Whoops...didn't mean to let them know I was divorced. Damn.) They skipped right over that little detail, and invited me to choir. (OK, that's a lie. There was no invitation, whatsover. Two ladies grabbed me, one on each arm; one of them said, "Last week, you were a visitor. This week, you're family," and they duck-walked me down to the choir room.) I hadn't read choral music since I graduated high school; it didn't matter to them. They simply said, "If you want to be here, you're welcome." And I was willing to be anywhere, with anyone, rather than be alone. So I stayed, and I sang.

Interestingly enough, that was exactly what the people in the 12-step communities told me, too. I didn't have to be good enough, sane enough, or anything-else enough to be in their meetings; if I wanted to stay sober that 24 hours, I was "in." Nothing more than willingness was required...

Over the next months, those church folks welcomed me over and over again - into Helpmates, a divorced/widowed support group; into Friends of Faith, a somewhat-"contemporary" worship music group; into Bible study; and into their homes. Their pastor, Tom Housholder, and his wife Delphine, became the surrogate parents I needed so desperately. I found the same welcome the prodigal son found in his father's arms - and I believed them, and their Savior. Like Naomi and Ruth, I'm not sure I had any faith of my own, but I decided along the line that "their God would be my God."

So my very first answer to "what are you REALLY living for?" became to be of service to the community that welcomed me, and to the Savior to whom they re-introduced me. Even when I'm filled with lust, greed, anger, and sloth, I know that's where I'm supposed to be.

The more I became a part of that community, however, the more I realized how different my faith experience was from most of theirs. Many, if not most, of them had grown up right, lived right, married right, and attended church all their lives. The halls that held their kids' first-communion pictures also held their own. I'd never had that kind of permanence; I'd attended 3 high-schools, and had more addresses in my first five years of sobriety than some of my church-mates had in four decades. Ninety-nine percent of them never knew what it was to "find faith in Jesus," because they had grown up believing they were saved. I had this hunger to be able to give away the gift that I'd received to those who were still outside the community of faith - an urgency they didn't share, because most of them didn't hang around with unchurched folks, period.

So my second answer to the question was to encourage and welcome unchurched and nominally-churched people - people like me - into the community of faith. And a third developed out of it: to share my experience, strength, and hope - as a follower of Christ and a person in recovery - about my journey of faith: where I've been struggled, where I've sailed-through, and how I've been carried by the God of my misunderstanding. I think that it's in my sharing of the very brokenness that I experience - even today - that the unchurched see us both as we are, and as we are called to be.

Much later - when I first started considering going to seminary - a friend introduced me to the poem that's at the end of this posting, called So I Stay Near The Door, by Rev. Sam Shoemaker (an early clergy friend of AA). If you've not encountered it before, it's worth reading...

Lastly, in the 2nd step of the 12-step program, it says [We] came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. A Jesuit priest in recovery once told me that sanity was "the ability to work, play, and love successfully, and in balance." I believe the pursuit of that - by itself - is a worthy goal for a lifetime. But combined with the others, they seem to strengthen and reinforce each other.

I also come to this question with more than 15 years as a student of Martin Luther. I've found much in the power of "justification by grace, through faith;" I've found my identity in the "both...and" of Luther's idea of "both saint and sinner;" and though I'll never be ordained by the ELCA, I'll always be a member of "the priesthood of all believers." These concepts, and so many others, form and frame my faith experience.

Sharing the faith I was given...helping to build and support the faith community in which I participate...learning to work, play, and love successfully and in balance. When I clear away all the external nonsense of my life - my sin, my addictions, my obsessions and fears - this is what God has left as my foundation.

And when I can stay focused on that, my life goes so much better. Which, in a completely self-serving, self-seeking way, still manages to point me toward God's will...which brings me full-circle, again...

Friday, March 04, 2005

An overdose for an applause-hog


I've been humbled and awed by the feedback on my post on the woman at the well. I've found at least 3 different blogs that have it hot-linked...which I don't think has ever happened before. As I told both my nouveau readers at One Hand Clapping and parazeloo: provoked, linking back to another persons's post is the highest praise one blogger can give another - for which I'm really, really grateful.

In a spirit of shameless self-promotion, I'm going to offer one of my first posts, on a similar topic, might be of interest, over here. Though it was only my second blog-post, it's something I still believe in mightily.

I have to admit, this kind of attention is kind of like what I'd imagine a hit of coke would be like: instantly addictive. My fundamental character defects are being self-centered, self-seeking, and believing "it's all about me," and any kind of praise and "Woo-hoo!" just feeds into this, as you might imagine. The good news is, the original post practically wrote I know there's much more of Someone Else in this, and not a lot of me.

As I posted a couple days ago at RickinVa's Brutally Honest, I was once told by my pastor-mentor, Tom Housholder,"If it's good, it's probably God; if it's slop, it's almost certainly Steve." I think that's pretty much true today, too. And I'll rest in that grace, while I'm at it. "Praise God from whom all blessings flow..."

Thursday, March 03, 2005

More on "the woman at the well"...

My friend Eric called me on the fact that I have too often said, "I need to write more on this..." and then don't. So, fulfilling my most recent promise, here are some reflections on Pastor John M. Buchanan's sermon last Sunday on the John 4 story of "Jesus and the Samaritan woman." (By Friday March 4th, his sermon should be available at the Fourth Presbyterian website.) I wish I could say that these were my insights - but I'm glad to pass Pr. John's wisdom around. Let me start off with a personal insight into one of his points.

My friend Barb hates driving down 55th St. in Chicago. It's a straight shot, dead west, to Midway Airport from the LSTC neighborhood - in good weather and traffic, maybe 20 minutes. But it runs through some admittedly sketchy neighborhoods - where a young white woman would be more than a little nervous breaking down or changing a tire. So, now imagine an equilateral triangle. The bottom right corner is LSTC. When Barb drives to Midway, instead of driving west across the base of the triangle, she takes Lake Shore Drive way up north, then picks up I-55 near McCormick Place (the top point of the triangle), and drives south to Cicero, and down to Midway Airport (the left bottom corner).

In short, she'll go way the hell out of her way not to go through bad neighborhoods.

In the same way, the way my map of the Bible lands looks, going from Judea in the south to Galilee in the north would run straight through Samaria. But Pr. Buchanan pointed out that to the Jews, Samaria is a bad neighborhood. They didn't have to go through it; they could have just as easily gone around. But it seems Jesus isn't put off by bad neighborhoods - or cultural prejudice, either.

Samaritans and Jews had been part of a mutual despising culture for seven centuries. Imagine race relations in the southern US states - with segregated bathrooms and drinking fountains and public transportation and rejection of basic civil rights for blacks - and then imagine it going on for seven hundred years instead of 230. Sadly, US history is full of white women and men who befriended blacks in those days - and how they were shunned, rejected, often driven from their homes, businesses destroyed, even killed. That is the role Jesus plays in speaking to the Samaritan woman:
- a man, talking to an unmarried woman
- an unmarried rabbi, talking to an unclean, outcast, immoral woman
- a Jew, offering to drink from the same cup as a despised Samaritan
Jesus breaks through cultural taboos and seven centuries of prejudice in speaking to this woman. And then he shares with her what no one has yet heard - that he is, indeed, the One who both Samaritans and Jews have been waiting for.

(A personal aside: the closest thing to this I can think of in our current day would be Pat Robertson going to an AIDS clinic, offering to drink from the same cup as a gay patient, embracing him, and inviting him into the Kingdom, without first telling him to repent of his orientation first. To me, it's that outrageous an idea.)

Pr. Buchanan also pointed out that Jesus didn't say to the Samaritan woman, "You need to come to Jerusalem, start worshiping right, be cleansed, and then I'll tell you a big secret." There was no "Become like us, and then you're 'in'" requirement. This triggered something in me.

For years, I have struggled with a lot of fundamentalist theology which says, in effect, "You need to get right with Jesus, and come to him." Just yesterday, I heard a female radio preacher talking about how "You need to be holy, as Christ is holy. Practice holiness, so you may approach the throne of God."

I have news for you - if that's true, I'm screwed. Utterly and completely screwed. There is about as much chance of me being "holy, as Christ is holy" as there is of me sprouting wings and flying to the sun.

Now, I'm not saying that I am not in the process of growing in Christ, of sanctification; not in the least. In the recovery community, they have a saying: "If you take a drunken horse-thief, and just sober him up, what you're left with is a sober horse-thief." I believe with all my heart that I am called to grow closer to Christ's example than I am - and that this growth is part of the process of "discipleship" or "spiritual formation."

But I am saying that I'm never gonna "get there" this side of the final trumpet. And I also believe that "straighten up your life and follow Jesus" rejects the good news from the book of Romans: "But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8, NRSV). A Lutheran pastor, speaking at the 1995 AA International conference, said, "A pastor who says 'you need to quit drinking and come to Jesus' is just like saying 'you need to get clean enough to get in the bathtub.' That's not what the message of Romans says. Just get in the bathtub, and be clean."

Puts an entirely different spin on "Just As I Am," doesn't it?

The last point I'll share from Pr. Buchanan - and one that I'm sure he gets a lot of flack for, this week - is the idea of difference and diversity. Quoting Rabbi Professor Jonathan Sacks' book The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, he suggested that the church needs to change from a mentality of "You need to be like me before I can validate your right to exist" to one of "you can be as you are without my needing to destroy you."

Isn't it interesting? Since the Crusades, we've been waging war against the infidels. In the fifties in the US, it was "godless Communism." In the 70's, it was Spiro Agnew against the "nattering nabobs of negativity." Rabbi Sacks, and Pr. Buchanan, both ask: is there space for difference? Is our faith authenticated by exclusivity, by who we are and we keep out?

Do I withhold love from my neighbor until they become like me, and vote like me, and live and love like me? Did Jesus really command us to "Love your neighbor as long as he is like yourself"? Hmmm... maybe not.

I hope his words made people wonder about how we are and how we love those who are not like us, both individually and as "the church." I know it's made me think - and even pray - differently.