Saturday, April 30, 2005

...but you can call me "Howie"....

And now, for something completely different...

Back more than 15 years ago, storyteller and Catholic-turned-Quaker Ed Stivender had a wonderful recording called The Kingdom of Heaven is Like A Party. On that recording, he described himself as a member of of a group of Mummers called Les Jongleurs de Notre Dame - in his translation, "The Liturgical Fools of Our Lady," or, if you like, "Catholic Jihad." Somehow, that image always made me smile...

Later, as I became somewhat of a firebrand liberal within a congreation of the ELCA, I said that our little band of misfits should be called Lutheran Jihad. However, the Keillor-esque visual image of Lutherans attacking people by flinging liturgically-colored jello-with-fruit at them was too much for some of the faithful (since bladder control failure is particularly hard to deal with in adults), so we abandoned that idea.

Now, Mumcat from The Cat's Cradle gave me this link about the Unitarian Jihad (well worth perusing), and another link to find my UJ battle name. When I clicked on it, this is what I got...

My Unitarian Jihad Name is:
Brother Howitzer of the Enlightened Compassion.
(Get yours).

Those who know me in-the-flesh know that "Brother Howitzer" is particularly appropriate, since a friend in the recovering community has accused me of being "about as subtle as the Guns of Navarone." And "enlightened compassion" - well, I'm gettin' there. Seems there's still some work to be done, looking at some of my recent posts...

Friday, April 29, 2005

Celebrating my re-birth-day

The pictures are buried in a box, in one of a hundred slide's been a while since I've seen them, but I remember them oh so clearly. Captured in vivid colors, frozen in the amber of Kodachrome, are my mother and father, Helen and Joe, standing in the nave of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church in Williamsville, NY. Nearby stands Joe's Mom and sister Roma, and Helen's sister Mary and her husband Charlie. In the center, Father Schweier - white-haired and kindly - and a roly-poly baby in a white gown with blue bows and blue buttons.

April 28, 1957. My baptismal day.

Scripture - the Word of God. Prayers, asking the blessing of God. Water, poured over the wispy hair of the month-old infant, sign of the promise of God. A priest's finger, dipped in a cruet of oil, and a cross marked on a forehead. "Steven, child of God, you have been sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Amen."

Two years shy of five decades ago. What a long, strange trip it's been...

Now, I know: the fastest way to start a fight among Christians (short of using the H-word) is to start a discussion about baptism. One group claims it is the salvific washing away of sins, while another sees it simply as an entrance into the Christian Community. Another group insists on baptising infants; yet another demands that only "true believers" can be baptized; and so on. Complicating my own matters is the fact that I no longer practice the tradition in which I was baptized. So the discussion could get long, and arduous, and somewhere between interminable and indeterminate.

There are days, even recently, when I wish I could be rebaptized - somehow to reclaim the promise: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool (Isaiah 1:18b, NIV). And then there are days - those "rotating spiritual brown-out" days - when I'm not sure that being sprinkled (or even dunked) in water could wash away my sins, and I'm looking at Home Depot for a power-washer capable of blasting the accumulated gunk of four-point-eight decades of sin off my soul. But this evening, reflecting on the Scriptures around baptism, I'm reminded that I'm buried with [Christ] in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead Colossians 2:12, NIV).

It's been a long day - and I don't feel particularly re-born tonight. But my faith still stands that the water, the Word, and the promise has the power to transform me, and to continue my own transformation.

And for today, that's a good enough. This day, as the sun rose, I heard the old Phillips, Craig and Dean song on the radio, saying "You make your mercy new every morning." For me, that's a promise enough to put me to bed tonight, and to get me to rise tomorrow. And if, by God's grace, I do rise to greet the son, I'll celebrate another day of re-birth. Soli deo gloria..

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Bet nobody would have guessed this one....

You Are 60% Normal
(Really Normal)

Otherwise known as the normal amount of normal
You're like most people most of the time
But you've got those quirks that make you endearing
You're unique, yes... but not frighteningly so!

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Two very different terms

First, a gentle warning - this is a rant. The spiritual Goliath will return soon - I promise - but the snarky guy is writing today. Sorry.

To begin with, you'll need a couple definitions:
umfriend - noun (slang) - a term describing a relationship of questionable moral character; often coupled with the use of a pseudonym to describe the partner in the relationship. Usage: "Uh, Auntie Jean, this is...well, you can call him 'Bill,' and he's" (Stolen shamelessly from some email I got a while back.)

a friend of Bill - slang - a bit of verbal short-hand used by members of 12-step communities to acknowledge each other, when it would be inappropriate to just blurt out questions like, "So, are you a member of Alcoholics Anonymous?" The name "Bill" refers to Bill W., one of the co-founders of AA (along with Dr. Bob S.).

In common usage, an AA member like myself could drive up to a building with a number of people standing in front of it, and ask, "Hey, is this where the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting is?"... thus breaking the anonymity of everyone standing there in the process. Or I could just as easily ask, "Hey, is anyone here a friend of Bill's?" An affirmative answer says I'm where I need to be. (If they respond, "Bill who?" I just keep on driving.) See also a friend of Bill & Dr. Bob, and this listing from the Urban Dictionary.
The rest of the story...

I love SiteMeter, because it gives you the last 100 sites that referred folks to your blog. I find it fascinating to see where folks came from. But it was a little less fun to read this little exchange on a community board (which will remain nameless and linkless, to protect them). One of them had read my one-and-only famous/infamous post, Just how shocking is the Gospel?, and the group was bantering back and forth about all the usual issues that conservative Christians find with the post - how come he didn't have Jesus command them to "go and sin no more," it's just a justification of the homosexual lifestyle...the same kinds of things conservative folks commented about when the post went up two months ago. (I appreciate their concern, but it's old news. You can go back & read the comments, if you want to know.)

But then, this pops up:
Person A:Did you read the author's biography section? He says that he is "a friend to Bill since..." Plus he has a link to support World AIDS Day. Hmmm...
Person B: What does "a friend to Bill" mean? I'm clueless. Does that mean one's gay?
Person A: The fact that HE puts the quotation marks around it, and that he gives the year in which their relationship began...In case you didn't know, homosexuals who are either "in the closet" or who don't want to be blatantly offensive to the 'delicate sensibilites' (as was once told to me) of people like us, will often use that formula to indicate their significant other.
Hence the definitions at the beginning of the post.

So, feeling a need to at least correct the perception of brothers and sisters in Christ about "friends of Bill" not all having boyfriends, I applied for membership on their board, and gave them a less-sarcastic definition of "a friend of Bill" than I gave here, trying to make the point that "a friend of Bill" was different than " 'Bill's'." I also shared that I'd been sober a good while, and that I saw it as a gift of grace from God.

Person A's response?
Are you a homosexual? I ask because you don't deny such in your response. You simply say that the "friend of Bill since 1990" bit is a reference to your affiliation with AA. That comment - which, since you say you have several homosexual friends, you know is often the way "they" speak of their "significant other" - plus the overall tone of your posting gives the impression.
I'll save an apology until I get a straight answer.
That's when I got angry.

It's never a good place for me, spiritually, but it happens. I swore - a lot - and was all set to be devastatingly snarky. I even had a dazzling epistle about half-way written, when (by what can only be the Holy Spirit) the words of Mark 6:11 came to mind: And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave, as a testimony against them.

So my final post to them was much shorter, and much less snarky than it could have been. The essence of my reply was "I thought I was saving you from a bit of stupidity. Too late, it seems. Thanks a lot. 'Love one another, as I have loved you.' Yeah, right. Don't worry, I won't be back to sully the character of your discussion."

I've had a day to think about just what made me furious about the whole thing. I'm not sure I'm done yet, but here's what I've got so far.

I really don't give a damn what you think about me. I'm not a representative of any church, or the spokesman for any movement. I'm just a man who struggles daily with what it means to follow Christ - so (as my brother Rick L. says) I usually just settle for being a Christian. And I'm not going to address my orientation - because, if I'm straight and say I am, folks like these just assume I'm lying, anyway.

Besides, it doesn't matter what my orientation is - since I've unfortunately been celibate for, well, multiple presidential terms. Even the strictest literalists will give you that it's the act, not the orientation, that's the abomination. (One of the annoying things I've considered over the last two years is that in the ELCA, I could have been ordained if I was gay - I just couldn't be ordained if I was broke. That says something, but I'm not sure what, exactly.)

But the heart of my aggravation is this: it really annoys me that with folks like this group, anyone who is friendly to homosexuals, or seeks in any way to understand their orientation, their struggles, or (God forbid) their faith is automatically assumed (by folks like Person A) to be gay themselves. And, of course, since all gay-sympathetic people are really gay anyway, there's no sense in listening to them, or paying any attention to what they say - since they're all just trying to justify "the homosexual agenda." Why build a bridge, when it's so much more fun to burn them?

To quote Ray Bradbury - that, my friends, is "Crappulous Nonsense." There are hundreds of people I've met recently - both in person and in the blogosphere - who are passionately following Jesus Christ, heterosexual through and through, and yet deeply concerned about the lives and faith of people in the gay/lesbian community. Whether they are outspoken bloggers, or passionate preachers of the Gospel like John Buchanan at Fourth Presbyterian and Jeremiah Wright at Trinity UCC here in Chicago, or the dedicated servants at Balm in Gilead, these people are deeply faithful followers of Christ - and I'm blessed by God to know them.

As I said, think what you want about me, my orientation, and my faith.

Part of me really wants to go over there and post a link to this entry. But to be honest, I need to keep repeating that Mark 6:11 text. Resentment is the number-one offender in this deal, and I just need to put this - and them - behind me. I'm not there yet, but I am getting there...

Oh, the best part of all? Person A's signature line shows him to be a Masters of Divinity student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. This is a future pastor talking... Now, I don't believe for a minute he'll have any gay folk in his church (at least, not for long) - but there probably will be a number of folks in recovery - those infamous "friends of Bill." Pray for those folks, will you? They'll need it.

"E'en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come..." And save us from ourselves, and each other, Lord. Amen.

Be still and know....

Martha, Martha had some pointed questions about prayer over here, and she's gotten some marvelous answers. I've been back a couple times, and I'm amazed by the truly inspired comments she's gotten. You need to take some time and read through 'em.

It's funny, in a way, because I've been struggling with my prayer life lately, and this has been part of my journey back, I guess. So I posted this meditation technique over there, and thought I would share it here. Like almost everything that has any spiritual value in my life, it's stolen from someone else in the recovery community. This is what I shared with her...
I am usually a dismal failure at this [meditation]. And to be honest, my prayer life has sucked lately - not that I don't know HOW to pray, but I'm afraid of the next answers, to be honest. I was thrilled with the LAST set of answers and directions I got from Upstairs - but not with how things turned out when I followed 'em...

Nonetheless, you asked about prayer, and this is one technique which I've used a lot, both personally and with people new to recovery and new to a relationship with God. In a way, it's a spiritual formation meditation, because it forces me to ask some questions about my understanding of God. And, interestingly enough, it comes from the title of your post...

Eyes closed, in a quiet place, I say the phrase: "Be still and know that I am God." And then I take one word off...and fill in the blank with whatever comes to mind.

"Be still and know that I am..." loving, accepting, forgiving, all powerful, not going to drop you...

"Be still and know that I..." want the best for you, love you infinitely, value you exactly as you are...

And so on. The last one is simply "Be..." happy, at peace, present for My other kids...

I suppose you could call this a praxis prayer - action, then reflection.

Interestingly enough, I also had one AA sponsee who was WAY hyperactive (coming down off crystal meth). He ran - a lot - and I suggested just repeating this phrase over and over, one word per step: be-still-and-know...

It's just simple enough that it works for spiritually-damaged folks like me.

Monday, April 25, 2005

What will you do with your stones?

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God's sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4-5, NRSV)

Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him...
(Acts 7:58, NRSV)
Last night, I reflected on the readings for this Sunday, and came up with one set of questions. This morning, quite a different vision came...

Two readings for this last Sunday - two sets of stones, with two entirely different purposes.

In this reading from the first book of Peter, we are called to come to Jesus, "the stone that was rejected by the builders," and and we are told to become living stones, as Jesus was, to be built into a spiritual house. That's a high and holy calling.

In the reading from Acts 7 that is also a part of the assigned readings for this Sunday, there are also stones - stones that were picked up by a religious mob - a mob of the church people of the day - in order to stone Stephen to death.

So this morning I come to you with no deep reflections, no hidden meanings to analyze...just this simple question: if I am to be a living stone today, will I be a stone that will be used to build something holy, or destroy something (or someone) holy?

By my words and my actions today, will I build unity in the body of Christ by finding the common threads between denominations? Or will I work to smash that unity, by finding every way in which my church and my faith aren't quite like everyone elses? Will I point out how they don't do music, or baptism, or Eucharist right - and separate myself from "them"? Or will I look at "one faith, one hope, and one baptism, one God and father of all," and embrace my sisters and brothers?

Will I work to try to "keep sin out of the church," by excluding those whose sin I find objectionable? Or will I remember the words of Paul, that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23) and open the door to all the folks who are still sinning? Because if we decide to keep out the people who are still sinning, I'm not going to be eligible to come to church...

Lord God of love and light, help me remember what kind of church you called us to build with these living stones. Help me remember that I have a choice - to build a church that is a country-club for a select few, or a church whose doors are open to every sinner to hear the Good News. And then, Lord, point me back to the words of Paul, and remind me for which group I really qualify. Amen.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Three verses - two challenging questions

"Look," he said, "I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!" But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. (Acts 7:56-58, NIV)
This is not a popular piece of Scripture - for a bunch of reasons.

First, it begs the question: Stephen died for his faith. Would you? Would I? I wonder - for myself, more than anything else. These days, I don't think there are as many Of-course-I'll-die-for-you-Lord Christians as we'd like to think. (Hell, I don't think there's as many I'll-give-up-my-Lexus-for-you-Lord Christians as we'd like to think...)

But let's break these three verses down to their simplest components:
+ Stephen sees a vision, something no one else can see.
+ The representatives of the institutional church, who have been listening to Stephen for the last 53 verses, cover their ears. They've had enough.
+ With a loud outcray, they rush together against him, and stone him to death, rather than hear any more of what he has to say.
So here, to me, is the first of two really challenging question:

(1) Who are we, as a church, stoning today?

Who are the groups we (as a church or denomination or community) don't want to hear? What are the topics that make us clap our hands over our ears? Is it even slightly possible that the voices we don't want to hear today in the church are as valid and right as Stephen's were?

(2) How many people are going to have to die in order for us to have our spiritual awakening, like those for Saul-who-become-Paul?

Just wondering...


Yuck. That's all that I can say.

It's April 22nd...actually, April 23rd, by now. It was cold today - but the sun finally came out about 3 this afternoon. Still, they've threatened snow for three days, when I was driving - but the one time I'm taking the El/CTA bus home, it snows.

Actually, it was more like "wintry mix" - which is not Chex Mix with peppermints added. It is sleet and freezing rain, and it sucks to have it stick to your hair and ears while you're waiting for a bus. Trust me.

Oh, well, I am home safe - and warm - so what am I whining about, eh? It was a great evening, a great potluck with friends from Fourth Presbyterian, a great musical review of MGM's great musical movies - so, basically, screw the weather! It's still been a pretty damn good day.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Calling the Physician

Come, my Light...illumine my darkness -
Come, my Life...revive me from death
Come my Physician, and heal,
Heal my wounds

Come Flame, Flame of Divine Love
Burn up the cords of my sins
Kindling my heart with the flame of
Your love...your love...

Come my King, sit upon the throne of my heart
Come my Lord, come and reign
For you alone are my King
And my Lord

("Come My Light [Prayer of St. Dimitrii]", by Edye Jackson (2000),
recorded by Corey Hastings on Faith Lutheran Church's 50th
anniversary CD, Journey of Faith)
Well, it has not been the week I would have chosen for Lake Wobegon, let alone the north side of the south side of Chicago, my hometown. But I'm coming to see that it's been exactly as it's supposed to be.

I am grateful to folks - from near and far - who've emailed and written and called to encourage, or to say, "Hey, I identify..." with my post earlier this week. I can't say I'm "leaping up the charts," spiritually - but I am finding places in the mountain's face to drive a piton or two, thus to start the climb upwards. As folks in recovery are fond of telling me, the longest part of the journey is from the sofa (or the PC!...) to the front door. So, I can say there is progress.

But tonight, for some reason, I was drawn to this recording from my first Lutheran church home, and to the haunting sounds of the "Prayer of St. Dimitrii." It fits my mind and heart so much tonight - praying for light, for life, for healing...for "the Flame of Divine Love" to "burn away the cords of my sin." I can even trust that those cords will burn...even if I'm only hearing a little sizzling of the composite threads right now...

Sadly, my apartment-mate, Tim, seems to be in a bind in his academic career similar to my own. His first several choices for a doctoral program have not worked out - and he is faced with "what do I do now?" - a question that I'm still trying to answer for myself a year later.

I don't know where he got it - but shortly after he got the news, a new magnet appeared on our refrigerator door. The text, though simple, is exactly what I've needed to hear each night this week:
courage does not always roar.
sometimes courage is the quiet voice
at the end of the day saying,
"i will try again tomorrow."
- Mary Anne Radmacher
So here at twenty-minutes-to-"oh-my-God" in the morning, it would be easy to beat up on myself for what I haven't done or haven't been, this week. But on this particular morning, the answer is clearly, "Nope - not gonna go there, today." I need to remember that if God's name truly is "I AM," then God is not present in the regrets of the past. It's a hard place for me to stay out of, though. My mom always used to say, "Go with what you know..."

Come heal me, Lord and King. Come and revive; come and restore; come and love. Amen.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Not nearly where I would want to be...

It has been a weekend of uncomfortable anniversaries - and realizations.

Friday was the LSTC Gospel Choir's annual benefit concert; a year ago Sunday, I missed the recording of their CD because I was in Kansas City. Sunday was also the one-year anniversary of my final meeting with my denomination's ministry candidacy committee - the one where they told me, basically, that any hopes for being an ordained minister would be indefinitely postponed until I eliminated all my personal debt. And a year ago today, my friend, mentor, and adoptive dad, Rev. Tom Housholder, died of a heart attack, after a long battle with Parkinson's disease.

It was particularly appropriate (in a warped way) that I celebrated Sunday's anniversary by contracting a particularly vicious urinary-tract infection. Because as I trotted back and forth between couch and bed and bathroom (about every 4-6 minutes!) it just focused me even more on how pissed I was about the condition of my life, a year after it fell apart...and how little I've done to put it back together.

Back a month or so ago, I really started to realize how depressed and how listless I have become over the last year. Housekeeping has become a real chore; any attempts to provide decent nutrition have been pretty much by-the-wayside (spanning the range from not-eating to over-eating, but definitely spending more time at the "over" end of the spectrum). And a couple close-encounters-of-the-wrong-kind late last week at the temporary job I've been at pointed out that somewhere in the last couple months, I stopped being there to "be of service" and somehow became the fat guy with the attitude.

And, with these realizations, I started to realize how much I have been cut off from any real spiritual encouragement or formation. I don't remember saying, "Screw you, I'm not playing!" Quite the opposite; I've really tried to focus on being "sunny side up, suckin' air and sober." But over the last year, I was engaged in several searches - for a career, for a job (any job!), for a church home, for a way to do ministry "without a collar." And in every case, somewhere along the line I just lost hope and gave up. I just got tired of trying to start over (yet again...) and just withdrew from the fray. Somehow I just gave up on facing truth in my life - about much of anything.

As you might imagine, those have been some damn painful realizations.

The spiritual books and tapes sit on the shelves, or piled next to the winter clothes that haven't been put away. I've read most of my Scripture online, recently - but I have to admit I haven't read much that hasn't been connected with a devotion or a topic I was writing on. Oh, there have been bursts of interest - but the embers seemed to cool quickly...

The only thing I haven't given up on in the last 12 months has been my committment to remaining sober. I've gone to meetings, been of service (even when I didn't want to). The 12-step programs have been all the "community" I have been able to hang on to for quite some time - and I don't even want to think what it would have been like to lose that. On Easter Sunday, a guy known by several of my AA friends jumped in front of an El train for much the same reason, I'd guess...

But today is a new day. The antibiotic is kicking in; I've been able to write this whole post without leaving for a bathroom break; the sun is out; and I've made it to 9:30 AM without overeating. And today, I guess I'm fractionally more willing to pick up the spiritual tool-kit I've been given and start to use it.

Between now and June 30, I need to decide what I'm going to do about a living situation (the lease at the seminary is up then) and full-time permanent employment. And there's definitely a gnawing fear that lack of attention about the employment thing might really hog-tie me about where I can live. However, for today those are long-range goals; while they need attention, they really aren't number-one on my list, today.

I really need to get back to the practice of "one day at a time." Yesterday, I was reminded of what I was asked after my first AA meeting by the man who became my first sponsor. Bob S. asked, "Steve, can you just not drink for one day? Just for 24 hours?" Somewhat annoyed, I snapped back, "Hell, any asshole can do anything for 24 hours!" And Bob smiled and said, "Yeah? But what about you?"

I'm sure it's just a coincidence that a whole series of otherwise-boring events conspired to have me leading a little AA meeting in Hyde Park on Saturday night that I haven't gone to in over a year (I usually try to do something fun, or go elsewhere, on Saturday night). But at this meeting, they read a wonderful little Alanon reading called "Just For Today," which I really needed to hear. I reproduce it here as one of my new morning devotions:
Just For Today

Just for today I will try to live through this day only, and not tackle all my problems at once. I can do something for twelve hours that would appall me if I felt that I had to keep it up for a lifetime.

Just for today I will be happy. This assumes to be true what Abraham Lincoln said, that "Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be."

Just for today I will adjust myself to what is, and not try to adjust everything to my own desires. I will take my "luck" as it comes, and fit myself to it.

Just for today I will try to strengthen my mind. I will study. I will learn something useful. I will not be a mental loafer. I will read something that requires effort, thought, and concentration.

Just for today I will exercise my soul in three ways: (1) I will do somebody a good turn, and not get found out; if anybody knows of it, it will not count. (2) I will do at least two things I don't want to do - just for exercise. (3) I will not show anyone that my feelings are hurt; they may be hurt, but today I will not show it.

Just for today I will be agreeable. I will look as well as I can, dress becomingly, keep my voice low, be courteous, criticize not one bit. I won't find fault with anything, nor try to improve or regulate anybody but myself.

Just for today I will have a program of action. I may not follow it exactly, but I will have it. I will save myself from two pests: hurry and indecision.

Just for today I will have a quiet half hour all by myself and relax. During this half hour, sometime, I will try to get a better perspective of my life.

Just for today I will be unafraid. Especially I will not be afraid to enjoy what is beautiful and to believe that as I give to the world, so the world will give to me.
If I were to check all the things on that list that I have stopped doing over the last year...well, there'd be a lot of checks. But if I'm going to spend this day even thinking about trying to get ready to walk with God, then I can't be beating myself up for what's been done. If God's name really is "I AM," then I'll only find that Power and that Love in this day - not in yesterday or tomorrow.

There is one rather nasty problem with "Just For Today," however...each statement begins, "Just for today, I will..." And I know that just won't work for me. I have been trying to "handle things" for the last year - and I'm particularly unimpressed with my results, to date. For me, this little reading stops being a declaration of self-will and starts being a prayer when "Just for today, I will..." becomes "Just for today, would You please help me..."

Anne Lamott says that her two best prayers are "Help me, help me, help me!" and "Thank you, thank you, thank you!" Just for today, I'm gonna try to stick with that.


Saturday, April 16, 2005

Who needs Joe McCarthy when you've got Bill Frist?

"If you're not with us, you're against us. And if you're against us, you're against God."

That's the message Senator Bill Frist is selling. See the sad story - including the damning print ad - here. (Thanks to Lisa P. at CrazyFaith for doing the newspaper reading I should have been doing...)

Just in case you're wondering - this sucks. No nice, pretty Christian way to say that. Sorry, but I'm not even sorry about that.

Just in case you're reading this, Bill, let me assure you: we can be people of God, and people of faith, and people who love America, and still not want the people you're proposing to lead us into a religious state of theocracy.

Cue the music. Sing it with me: "We won't get fooled again..."

Friday, April 15, 2005

Sin City, The Passion and obscenity

RickInVa's blog Brutally Honest is just that. If you're going there looking for the "easier, softer way," keep on going. But I like reading him just because he speaks his mind, and can defend his positions in ways that I never have been able to articulate. While I don't think we'll ever have to worry about going on a double-date or anything, I respect his stuff.

This posting of his showcases the interesting contradiction between the acclaim for the hideous violence of the movie Sin City and the equally hideous violence Mel Gibson's you'll-either-love-it-or-hate-it The Passion of the Christ. (If you're curious, you can read some of the snap reviews of Sin City over here.)

Anyway, Rick's post quoted this passage from another blogger, which cuts to the heart of the matter:
Most of the critics hammering The Passion of the Christ did so because of the violence. Some called it pornographic. But was it the violence or was it the persuasive effects of telling that part of Christ's story? Here's an interesting exercise:

Sin City is a film filled with dismemberments, disembowelments, torture, castration, and pedophilia. The Passion is an historically accurate depiction of scourging and Crucifixion.

Now compare the reviewers who raved about Sin City to those who panned The Passion and tell me it was the violence that offended them.
Rick closed his post with this challenge: I can't help but wonder what members of the religious left who were also critical of The Passion think of Sin City? Perhaps some of them will leave their comments here. Or not. So, thinking that I might qualify for his invitation to "the religious left," I posted this at his blog, and share this with my own readers here.
I probably would get stuck in the "religious left" by people who need to think that there are two sides to everything (and that everyone is on one side or the other), so I guess I'll take the invitation to comment.

I haven't seen Sin City. Thanks to the reviews you've highlighted, I won't. Unlike a significant chunk of Americans, I don't find violence onscreen entertaining - whether it's some sick slasher movie (which I avoid like the Marburg virus) or Sin City, or Saving Private Ryan, which was deeply moving but hideously uncomfortable for me to watch.

I went to see The Passion with three other seminary students. We met a dozen more at the theatres. The original plan was to go out afterwards and discuss the movie. That plan fell apart in the aftershock, I think. In fact, in the car going home, not a word was spoken - we were in that much shock. When we got to the seminary, I offered to make a pot of coffee, and sit down and process what we'd seen. The two ladies passed - my buddy Ben joined me. As the coffee brewed, we struggled with how to react.

My first thought, walking out of the theatre, was exactly what you've heard: "That was pornographic." The amount and the quantity of the violence in The Passion did exactly what viewing pornography has done to me in the past - dulled my senses, to the point where no more stimulation can be taken. After a while, all I could do was close my eyes and pray for it to be over. I didn't find the ecstatic reaction that so many have expressed to me; the Scripture about "by his wounds we are healed" didn't come to me. I was just sick and numb.

After a pot of coffee and a lot of stumbling around, trying to find words to express how we felt, Ben and I came to realize that while the movie was probably closely factual, and it brought a new level of reality to Christ's suffering, it still was horrifying to experience. In the time since, I've came to understand that what we saw in that movie was not pornographic, but it was obscene. Not in the Supreme-Court definition, but in the way of definition 4 of the American Heritage Dictionary: something that is offensive or repulsive to the senses.

It still is. In fact, that kind of violence done to any living creature (human or animal) is obscene. I hate to say it (especially in this particular pulpit)[that is, in Rick's very conservative blog], but I believe that what was done to Matthew Shepard (the gay college student murdered in Laramie, WY) was obscene in exactly the same way. It is the horrific, unspeakable result of evil destroying life - consciously, with malice and forethought and brutal intention. And I am one who finds no pleasure, and no inspiration, in watching the destruction of life.

I'm grateful for the lesson of the movie, even if it was more uncomfortable than having teeth drilled without Novocaine (at least I could punch the dentist, and make him stop!). No one will ever be able to say to me, "But you don't understand what Christ went through." Short of living it myself, I can't imagine how I could understand the suffering of Christ more than I do now.

But what I really object to is the assumption (voiced to me by a number of people in the last year) that if I didn't like The Passion, that I'm somehow less Christian or less faithful than those who oohed and ahhed over it. That's a load of raw sewage - period. And while no one you've referenced has made the direct claim, there's a gentle hint that folks over there "on the left" will find Sin City's obscenity more acceptable/less obscene than The Passion's.

That simply is not so. Not for me, and not for a lot of folks in my same theolgical and social neighborhood.

I agree that there's a whole lot of people who would find any reason to dig at The Passion - from the violence, to the subtitled Aramaic, to whatever. But I also find it problematic to rant about it - after all (as a wise pastor once said), it's kind of silly to get mad at lost people for acting lost.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Sounds so familiar, it's scary... the weeks have gone by, it has become clear that both the hearings themselves and some of the commentaries on them have become increasingly absorbed in an effort to implicate the President personally in the illegal activities that took place...I ask for your help to ensure that those who would exploit Watergate in order to keep us from doing what we were elected to do will not succeed. (Richard M. Nixon, August 15, 1973 - 2nd speech on the Watergate break-in scandal)
At a crowded news conference, Mr. DeLay said he would not entertain questions about his political activities. It was his first question-and-answer session with reporters since one fellow Republican, Representative Christopher Shays of Connecticut, called for him to resign his leadership post and another, Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, said he should explain himself to the American people. "I'm not here to discuss the Democrats' agenda," Mr. DeLay declared.

He has asserted that Democrats and the "liberal media" are orchestrating a campaign to discredit him by raising questions about possible ethics violations, including overseas travel financed by outside groups.
April 14, 2005 New York Times article
Is anyone else hearing an echo of not-so-distant thunder?

Does it scare anyone that yet another Republican has wrapped himself in the flag (only this time, sprinkled with holy water from the religious right) and started talking about how it's all the fault of the "Democrats and the liberal media"?

Can a resurrection of Spiro Agnew's "nattering nabobs of negativity" speech be far away? Will we get to hear "I am not a crook" for a whole new generation of voters?

Just wondering...

Now, those of you who have been listening for a while know that I'm about as apolitical as a former graduate student can be. When I list the things that I can change, control, or even affect, Tom Delay is not on my radar screen.

But folks, I lived through this once. And it was some of the scariest times I had experienced in my life. I was 16-goin'-on-17 when Nixon's Saturday Night Massacre purged the Judicial Branch of the people most likely to uncover the wrongdoing of the President. Less than a year later, the "I'm not a crook" president resigned his office, and the Special Prosecutor recommended pressing charges. But it was touch-and-go for more than a year. And if by some legalistic shenanigans or direct act of violence someone had managed to discredit or eliminate Judge John Sirica during that year, we all would be living in a terrifying place right now.

So when Tom Delay stepped-up his gunning for the judiciary based on the Terri Schiavo case (which is the worst possible basis for a legal attack, but the best possible basis for an emotional, Spiro-Agnew style slam), it just gave me the willies, to be honest.

Those of us who are old enough to remember the fear, the doubt, and the uncertainty of life both under and in the wake of Richard Nixon need to be especially clear about what's happening today. We have to remember: whether one wraps themselves in the flag, or position themseles around the Cross (as oppose to embracing it, heart and soul), it's just posturing. And that posturing can't help but point us away from what the truth is.

My prayer, as voiced by The Who a generation ago, is that "We won't get fooled again." Make it so, Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

So you wanna know who the next Pope will be?

Kudos and a tip-o-the-hat to Lisa at CrazyFaith for this great link. NCAA, eat your heart out - now this is a set of match-ups for the ages! Check out "Dick Vitale's Popeapalooza"!

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Just not getting it...

I'd like to be inspiring and entertaining tonight...but the fact is, recent events have had me a bit off my spiritual feed lately, and I have been struggling with some old wreckage from my past.

Despite having left the tradition some 15 years ago, I am grateful for the incredible spiritual gifts that Roman Catholicism has given to the Christian community (and you can start with my folk heroes, Brennan Manning and John O'Neill and work backwards, or start with Augustine and work forward). And I've also been blessed by a number of Catholic bloggers (notably my unsubtle brother at Unapologetic Catholic and my young friend Nick at This is My Song, and even my dear radical friends at Damien's Spot and Purple Scarf). Their experience, strength and hope enriches my life and my thinking, even when I disagree with it.

But there's a whole lot of the Catholic tradition that I struggle with - for a variety of reasons. And the Papal funeral ceremonies have brought a number of them in to sharp focus. I guess the biggest one, so far, has been the incredible pomp and ceremony surrounding the death of a man, and the reverence shown for his dead body.

In the same way that no one venerates a cocoon after the butterfly has emerged and flown away,I never "got" why there is such a fuss made over the Pope's remains. In fact, I found the incredible extravagance of the trappings of the Papal funeral to be, well, obscene. The Vicar of the One who extolled his followers to feed the hungry and clothe the naked was buried in a burst of opulence that likely exceeded the gross national product of some African nations. If four million Catholics just took their Roman travel budget and contributed it to mission work world-wide, how much closer would we be to the Kingdom of God?

My friend Michael A. said it Saturday night - at its heart, the funeral was a corporate expression of the grief felt by observant Catholics for their spiritual father (although Michael probably said it with far greater erudition than I could manage). And perhaps that's where I struggle - because I share with my Catholic brothers a belief in "the resurrection of the body and life everlasting." Il Papa has not left the flock forever - but simply "gone on ahead" to await the final trumpet. So why the big deal, if we are assured of hope of life eternal? Isn't this a good thing?

Admittedly, I am far to the left of most folks in this area. Both my parents donated their bodies to science, and directed that their ashes should be disposed of by the respective medical schools. There are no grave-sites, no tree-on-a-hill where my parents' ashes are scattered. And this has never really bothered me - because I know that even if there was a traditional grave, my parents wouldn't be there, anyway.

I guess I'm feeling the same kind of discomfort that happened when my former wife's family would go to visit the paternal grandparents' graves - because I just don't (and never did) get the whole "go to visit Grandma" deal. When I feel closest to my mother is when I hear a polka, or when I see someone sipping Drambuie - when the colors change in the fall, or when I have a really, really good meal...the kind of gastronomic extravagance for which Mom was well known. My father seems closest when I see Air Force jets (remembering his lifetime of service), or when I encounter some really beautiful wood-working like he would have done, or hear any song by CW McCall. These are gifts of memory that are not tied to space or place, but only to kairos time - time from God's perspective.

So I'm glad for my Catholic sisters and brothers, that they have had this public time of mourning. And I guess a part of me wishes I could feel it with them. But my road, and my experience, have led in a different way, I guess...and I'm grateful for it.

And when it finally comes time to do the final acts for me, I think Lee Jordan's words (quoted by Pete Seeger on the CD Precious Friend) will be enough:
If I should die before I wake,
All my bones and sinews take -
Put me in the compost pile,
To decompose me for a while...
Worms, water, sun will have their way,
Returning me to mortal clay -
All that I am will feed the trees
And little fishies in the sea.
If upon vegetables you munch,
You may be having me for lunch -
And then excrete me with a grin,
Saying, "There goes Steve, again..."
Yeah, that's just about as reverent as I'd want it to get.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Keep on tellin' me...

He said to them, "How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?" And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27, NIV)
"OK....let me give it to you one more time, from the top..."

It's been a rough three days for our friends on the Emmaus road. Folks from all over the countryside saw Jesus arrested, tried, nailed to the cross...and watched him die an agonizing, horrific death. Every single follower of Christ is in hiding, hoping not to be riding the next set of crosses. In Luke's telling of the Gospel, the women have encountered the open, empty tomb and the two men who remind them, "Hey, you know better than this! Jesus told you he wouldn't be here in three days, didn't he?" They run back to tell the rest of the 12, who evidently got word to the Emmaus travelers.

But the Emmaus-road folks don't go to the tomb, for whatever reason...they are headed home. So when Jesus encounters them, the only thing they have to offer their strange road-fellow is the bad news - Christ died, even though he said some foolish stuff about coming back, and the women are acting crazy and saying stupid stuff. And that's when Jesus kind of sticks it to these guys - foolish and slow of heart to believe probably aren't any more encouraging words in Aramaic or Hebrew than they are in English. But the fact is, Jesus teaches them...once again. He pours out what was supposed to happen, and what is to happen, to remind them.

That's some of the best news in the Bible - because it's precisely where I spend so much of my time. I know the bad news - kids killing kids, adults killing coaches over high-school athletics, wars and scary diseases and all manner of insanity on every continent. What I so often forget is what the Emmaus boys see as the bread is broken and the wine is passed - the face of the risen Jesus, and the proof that I am acceptable to Jesus - because he came back from the dead for me.

Jesus reveals himself in Scripture, but he is made visible as he shares the bread and wine. That image of the Last Supper makes it all click - and in that instant of recognition, Jesus is gone.

The Emmaus boys are standing in for me - foolish and slow of heart, and oh so stubborn. There are days when I wonder whether I forget to see, or deliberately choose not to see. But then there are times when the bread and wine are shared, and I remember the promise: "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again" - and I see him once again. And I find strength to go on, again.

Thank you, God, for revealing your Son in Scripture, and in the stuff of communion. Remind me of Jesus' presence this day, that I might walk and act as he would have me walk and act. Amen.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Pondering the void

Back on March 10th, I wrote about my own convictions about end-of-life decisions (check it out here). The last comment posted was by a lady named Amy, who asked some very valid questions:
You said, "If the only way you are keeping me alive is by technology and the intervention of man, then my life is already over. Period."

Steve, have you ever taken an antibiotic?
Does your mother have a pace-maker?
Just wondering.
Keyboard in hand, I crafted a wonderful, sensitive response to her comment, hit "publish"...and all my marvelous thoughts vanished into the cosmic byte-bucket. Lost in the blogosphere's ether. It was one AM anyway, and I should have been in bed, so I said "the hell with it" and did what I should have done 2 hours earlier.

But Amy's questions have been itching at the back of my brain, and tonight, I'd like to explore those a little further. (And "save" far more frequently...)

Have I ever taken an antibiotic? Oh, yes...since I was, oh, age 5 or so. In fact, were it not for sulfa drugs, and progressively stronger antibiotics and decongestants fighting allergic sinus and middle-ear infections, I would have been stone deaf by the time I was 13.

Not only that, but in 1997, on my way to a conference in St. Louis, an insect-bite on my leg got infected and developed a very bad case of cellulitis. By Friday noon, it was red and Saturday morning, my leg was almost aglow with the redness of raging infection. If it weren't for the intervention of a doctor, a home-care nurse, and two other health-care professionals who got me on IV antibiotics while I was at the conference, I was assured that I would have gone into septicemia, toxic shock, and eventual death within 12-18 hours. As it was, I was on IV antibiotics twice-a-day for 30 long days before I was finally rid of the infection. (I joked with folks in AA that I had to be nearly 7 years sober before became an IV drug user...) To top it all off, I am currently on hypertension and diabetic medications without which I would surely have died before now.

As for my mother, she died of a heart attack - one too severe and too sudden for a pacemaker to be implanted. But I know half-a-dozen other folks who have benefitted from things like pacemakers, and balloon angioplasty - including both my brothers-in-law. My sister Sandy is nearly 7 years in remission from Hodgkins' lymphoma because of an aggressive course of radiation and chemotherapy - and I thank God for the marvels of medicine and technology that gave each of them a new lease on life.

So let me be clear - I am not anti-medicine, nor am I anti-technology. Nothing could be further from the truth.

My struggle is with how the medical profession has defined "life," and under what conditions they are bound and determined to preserve that so-called life.

Medicine tells us that so long as there is brain activity - as measured by an EEG machine - then I am alive, and whatever efforts are possible should be taken so that my life can be preserved. My personal experience tells me otherwise.

In 1977-78, my father was dying of lymphatic and brain cancer. He fought it every step of the way - alternating treatment between Roswell Park in Buffalo and Sloan-Kettering in NYC - but it was relentless. In the space of a year, my father went from a vital, alert, technically brilliant man to a vacant, listless skeleton of a man who spent much of the last weeks of his life tranked out on Brompton's cocktail to control the hideous pain. Nonetheless, this was a man who believed he was going to get better. Less than three weeks before he died, he bought a two-year membership to the YMCA - that's how much he believed in the possibility of recovery. And I'm glad he did it - it's not like I begrudged him the money, after all. But I don't think I would have fought that hard.

In fact, when my friend Steve Fellman was diagnosed with esophageal cancer 14 years later, I fully supported his decision not to do chemo or radiation. He made a choice to fully live the last two years of his life, rather than spend them just fighting to stay alive. Steve might very well have existed for a longer period of time if he'd gone through treatment - but I doubt very much that his existence would have been nearly as much joy and blessing as the much shorter life he had.

In 1989 or so, my friend Ron L. - a brilliant avionics technician with the Ohio Air National Guard, an extraordainarily talented craftsman, a devoted husband, father, Scout leader and DeMolay advisor - was diagnosed with with ALS - Lou Gehrig's disease. He quickly deteriorated, and was wheelchair-bound for months. Then he was completely bed-ridden, unable to communicate other than by eyeblinks, unable to feed himself or take care of any bodily function. In what seemed like no time at all (although it probably took a year) all he could do was take in nourishment, and eliminate its byproducts. Everything that made Ron "Ron" was gone. And then, against all reason, he remained in that state for ten long years.

At one point, in what can only be termed a superhuman fit of will, Ron somehow crawled out of bed, and tried to throw himself down the stairs in his house. Even that didn't kill him. In fact, Ron's wife (who was his primary caregiver) developed a rapidly-moving cancer and died before him, 10 years into his paralysis.

As I understand it, from the moment of his wife's death, Ron refused nourishment, and gave up all will to live. He died a week or two after his wife.

Now I am absolutely sure that if the family had agreed, they could have tied Ron down to his bed and immobilized him, inserted a feeding tube, and kept Ron alive. His heart and lungs were strong, strangely. In fact, I'd bet that the medical community could have preserved Ron's biological existence for yet another 10 years.

But for what?

Yes, I know about Joni Eareckson Tada, Christopher Reeves, Stephen Hawking, and folks like them. But even though each of them had grave physical impairments which severely constricted their lives, they were still able to coherently communicate who they were and what they believed with the world around them. Absent the ability to communicate, I believe I'd be nothing more than a lump of autonomically-driven protoplasm. For me, life would be over - regardless of what the medical community says. Notice that I'm not dictating what should happen to you - or the Terri Schiavos of the world, or anybody else. I'm just begging you not to apply those standards to me.

I'll say it again, with a slightly different emphasis: If I have lost the ability to feed and hydrate myself...more importantly, if I have lost the ability to communicate, and share my God-given blessings with my family, friends, and 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.

The important words are in bold: only and keeping me alive.

If I go to bed tonight and have a severe heart attack or stroke, then I'll be glad to have you use clot-buster drugs, or a crash-cart, or angioplasty to help me recover. But if you've subsequently done all there is to do, and I'm not getting better - if what you are doing is forcibly extending an empty, purposeless existence because it still falls within some arbitrary definition of "life" - then you are standing between me and my destiny, and it's time to get you the hell out of my way, and out of God's way. For me, it's the difference between "this is all there is" and "there is so much more to life than this."

If there is a reasonable chance that you are truly improving, healing or restoring my life, then do so with my blessing. But if you are simply extending life because you are afraid for it to end, then please love me enough to let me go into the arms of God. Allowing that surrender will be the last gift anyone on earth gives me in this life - and it will be a welcome gift.

I suspect that Amy and I will not agree on this topic. And I'm more than happy to treat her with honor and respect for her beliefs.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Could it really be that simple?

[A note to early readers - for some reason, this post didn't get completely posted early this morning. Check out the end...]

It's always interesting to look at a faith tradition or denomination, and to figure out the salvation quotient: what must I do to be saved?

One group says you have to be perfectly sorry for all your sins, confessing them and repenting of all those icky behaviors. Some will add that wonderful sinner's prayer as a precursor to receiving one's get-out-of-hell card.

In the Lutheran tradition, there is almost always a reference to 1 John chapter 1, verses 8-9: If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Of course, Mark 16:16 is even more open: The one who believes and is baptized will be saved. The downside to that little gift is that in some churches, it takes six months of classes, elaborate robes, and a ceremony on Easter Vigil complete with anointing with oil in order to be baptized....hmmm. Maybe that's not such a bargain, after all.

The reason that this is all interesting is that there is one group of people who were forgiven by Christ without any of this. This is a group who heard the Gospel straight from Jesus' own mouth, and not only did not believe, they rejected it and Jesus himself. They prayed no prayer, were never sprikled with water nor dunked nor were they taken to the river-side. No penance, no repentance, no nothing. They lived their sinful times, commiting the ultimate blasphemy against Christ, and yet they really were forgiven:
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
They were ignorant; they were stubborn; they were violent. Yet the folks that Jesus had the most right to hate - the ones that killed him - were the ones he forgave.

What would happen if we started living that kind of Christ-like walk of forgiveness? Not waiting for people to repent; not waiting for the sprinkling of water or anything else, but just forgiving them?

Just wondering.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Checking the anchors

One of the recurring lessons in my life - and one that I often struggle to remember - is a lesson from the very first Christian author I ever read, Max Lucado. In his classic book Six Hours One Friday, he described an oncoming hurricane, and his attempts to save a houseboat he and some friends had bought, which was in danger of being destroyed. After a series of attempts that he described as "a scene from McHale's Navy, he got some great advice from an old sea-veteran:
If you tie your boat to land or trees, she'll get eaten by the 'cane. The only thing you can do is set some deep anchors, and let her ride it out. Just anchor deep, say a prayer, and hold on.
In classic preacher style, Lucado gave me three anchor points to hold onto:
+My life is not futile
+ My failures are not fatal
+ My death is not final
I have to admit that I've forgotten those lessons this last week. I'd like to tell you that I've been busy, and life has been just too intense to sit down and post here - but the fact is that I've been in a bit of a funk. The Alcoholics Anonymous text calls it "regretting the past and wishing to shut the door on it." In case you're wondering, it's not a good place to be...

Then a devotion from the church I'm attending here in Chicago talked about "going with what you know," which brought up Max's quotes from 15 years ago...and a piece of Scripture which has been one of my anchor points:
I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:12-16, NRSV)
I don't know if any of you needed to hear that piece of good news today...but I sure did. The apostle Paul and I, evidently, are both proof that God can use broken tools to build God's Kingdom...and I'm going to try to rest secure in that knowledge today.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Happy Birthday, Bob!

On April Fool's Day, 1961, I believe God pulled a 30-something Detroit auto worker out of alcoholic insanity, took him off the streets and brought him into the community of sobriety.

Thirty years later, when I crawled into the rooms of recovery, Bob S. was there to meet me. I don't remember much of that night, but I do remember Bob saying, "Young fella, trust me - you never have to feel the way you feel tonight, ever again" - and his words were the first sounds of hope I'd heard in a long time. He became my first sponsor, and a dear, dear friend over the last 14-plus years. He has been (and is) a gift from God in my life.

Forty-four years - it's a long time between drinks, Bob. Congratulations - and know that a big guy in Chicago is thinking of you today, and sharing the joy with the world. All my wishes for love and joy are with you today!

The sacred music of CW McCall

Uh, breaker one-nine, this here's the Rubber Duck - you got a copy on me, Pig-Pen, c'mon?...Uh, yeah, 10-4 Pig Pen, fer sure, fer sure, by golly, it's clean clear to Flag-Town, c'mon?...uh, yeah, that's a big 10-4 Pig-Pen...yeah, we definitely got us the front door, good buddy...mercy sakes alive, looks like we got us a convoy...
It was 1975 - the year I graduated high school (put your calculators away...the number you're looking for is forty-eight). In the front seat of a blue 1972 Olds 88 sedan somewhere on I-90 east of Toledo, Ohio sat my father and I (he's the one behind the wheel, of course). He was the engineer, military man, Republican, and Silent Generation standard-bearer; and I was the pompous, arrogant, intolerant liberal 18-year-old...probably detoxing from one last drunken party before being dragged on vacation with my family. Mom and my twin sisters were in the back seat, silent passengers.

I'm not sure where we were going - memory grows fuzzy after three decades - we were probably headed east to his brother Russell's house in New York for Thanksgiving weekend, but it doesn't matter. All I know for sure is that Dad and I weren't getting along all that well (and hadn't been, for some time), and we didn't have much to say to each other on that trip. The AM radio was on, muted down so Dad could hear any warnings about the highway patrol come over the citizens-band radio slung under the dash. The CB-radio was a constant companion for Dad while he drove, and hearing it took priority over anything else we passengers wanted to hear.

Of course, it didn't help that Dad didn't have much use for rock music, or much contemporary music for that matter. As a teen in the 70's, I'd been listening to AM top-40 stations all my life - powerhouses like WABC in New York City, WKBW in Buffalo, and CKLW in Windsor, Ontario. Just coming onto the radio playlists about that time was this one song that really made me laugh. In fact, I thought of my father, his travels, and his CB-radio "good buddies" on the road whenever I heard it. I was almost sure he'd never heard "Convoy" before, but I never thought he'd ever get the chance to hear it...

So we were roaring down I-90 (at a rate well above the posted speed limit) when I heard the tell-tale strings of the "Convoy" intro, and C.W. McCall's drawl call out Uh, breaker one-nine.... I just grabbed the car-radio volume-control and cranked it up, and said something cogent and mature like "Oh, WOW, Dad, you've gotta hear this!" I remember getting the look that said, "Who told you that you could touch the radio volume control?", but then Dad actually did start to listen...and an amazing thing happened.

He smiled.

Then he smiled some more, and it became a grin.

By the time we got to the song's bridge...
...Well, we shot the line and went for broke
With a thousand screamin' trucks
An' eleven long-haired Friends o' Jesus
In a chartreuse micro-bus...
...something amazing had happened. In fact, I really thought my father was going to do one of two unthinkable things: he was either going to lose control of the car, or he was going to lose bladder control...he was laughing that hard.

We both were.

One of the many definition for sacred is "that which evokes the presence of the divine." And for me, C.W. McCall's music is sacred - because listening to songs like "Convoy," "Wolf Creek Pass," and "Four Wheel Drive" was some of the last few things my father and I shared as common ground. In fact, it's one of the last really joyful memories I have of him.

By the time of that trip, Dad had abandoned any obvious practice of faith, and the rest of the family had followed suit. My parents' marriage had been in trouble for several years. And sadly, because he and I were both stubborn and prideful, the relationship between Dad and I deteriorated, and one morning of hateful words brought an impenetrable wall of silence between us. My father would move away in search of work, and eventually find a new job and a new life in New York state - one that was cut tragically short by the reoccurance of cancer, which killed him in August, 1978.

There was never any reconciliation between us.

But whenever I am on the road, like this last Easter weekend's travel to Ohio to visit my sisters, I invariably slip C.W. McCall's Greatest Hits into the CD player. I hear the luscious strings, arranged by a young Chip Davis, who was already busy founding a little group called Mannheim Steamroller. And a holy, sacred thing happens: my father is present, and laughing with me, once again.

And I smile...and more than a few tears fall...and I pray for forgiveness, and peace, and eternal rest. And I think God smiles, too.

Sacred music, indeed.