Monday, May 30, 2005

Still on the road...

...I'm in Ohio through Tuesday noon - taking care of some life-administration stuff (like getting a new title for my car, which I can only do in the state it was last titled in, Ohio) and hanging with family.

My goal is to be back in Chicago Tuesday night, and begin catching up on 5 days of my friends' blogs and 4 days of laundry...

Peace until then!

Memorial Day reflections and struggles

Well, even on Eastern time, it was still before midnight when I started this post, and at 12:30 AM I'm almost ready to go to bed. Perhaps a sign of returning sanity...

A delightful Sunday, all told. A peaceful and serene drive to Toledo through almost unbelievably light traffic; talking with a number of church and AA friends while on the road; a wonderful reunion over Tony's Ribs in Findlay; seeing pictures of sister San's step-grandchild and pictures of their travels and adventures as president and first lady of their HOG (Harley Owners Group); and hearing of my late father's family connections at the funeral of a cousin back in New York state. Then sister Sue, husband Jeff and I came back to Toledo to watch TV and wind down from the day. In short, the specifications for a really good day.

It's Memorial Day weekend. For a goodly percentage of the country, this is a time to celebrate an extra day of weekend, to cook out, spend time outdoors, and perhaps watch fireworks - all of which are good things, but none of which are really the central thing of this weekend. And, as every Memorial Day, I am of two minds on this day.

My father was a World War II vet in the US Army Air Force; afterwards, he served stateside in the Air Force Reserves for more than 30 years, until he died from cancer in 1978. He rarely spoke of his war experiences, no matter how much he was asked about them. But Memorial Day parades, military base visits, and picnics were a staple of my growing up. From him, I learned the valuable lesson of respecting those who served in battle - something I would have gladly run from, if I had been called - and honoring their sacrifices.

By the same token, I am also a child of Vietnam, Watergate, and the infamous Iran-Contra affair. I remember a President telling me, "I am not a crook," and then seeing proof to the contrary on national news. I remember the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, and the frisson of fear as I listened to Alexander Haig declare, "As of now, I am in conrol here in the White House." While I am glad to be an American, and I celebrate the freedoms won for me by others, I sure haven't believed my nation's panties have been spotlessly clean for a long time.

I really had a lot of strong doubts about our current president's motivation for the Iraq war. I doubted there were such things as Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and only grudgingly accepted that there might be a good reason to ensure that if there were, they should be removed. When there were none to be found, I believed it was time to get out - recognizing that there had been a mission, and it was accomplished, and we should be done. While I honor the service of the international military command laboring in Iraq, I also believe the time is long past for them getting out. And I believe that every American inury and death subsequent to determining that there were no WMD's has been a triumph of obedience on the part of our soldiers - but that otherwise it has been a tragic waste to support our president's agenda.

I know that view isn't popular - and in many ways, it's only ancillary to the topic. And you don't need to flood this blog with charges of being un-American - because nothing could be further from the truth. I must remember, however, that the primary purpose of Memorial Day is not about waving the flag to support the president, his party, the entrenched bureacracy, or the war that is ongoing.

It's about the people who came back damaged or dead, and the sacrifice that they made. And it's those men and women, and their devotion to the ideals of America and its leadership, that I honor today.

The folks at PBS tried to do that earlier tonight - first, with a broadcast of the National Memorial Day Concert from the south lawn of the Capitol building in Washington, and secondly with a special on Arlington National Cemetery. I have to admit that while I wanted to enjoy the concert, it seemed a very jingoistic rah-rah for the war in Iraq, and didn't seem to emphasize the inordinate number of folks for whom Memorial Day was established who did NOT serve in Iraq or Afghanistan.

But there were stories of soldiers who had died - and soldiers in the audience from every war since 1900 - and I was happy for them to receive honor for their service. I felt sorry for the young men in wheelchairs, with eyepatches, with arms in slings - in some ways sadly photogenic, but completely unlike the ugly tragic truths of men and women with arms and legs shot or blown off, blinded, crippled...the ones that we saw on the news in Vietnam but who are so notably absent from American news in 2005.

I've found it hard to pray about a lot of things in recent weeks - but I had no problem praying for our soldiers, and those who served alongside them from a variety of countries, for the courage and strength to go on with their lives. I am reasonably sure that I could not do what they've done...

So I find myself torn in two on this Memorial Day. I am awash in awe and gratitude toward those who have served, and those who have died, in service to my country and in the protection of my freedom (including the freedom to question our national leadership). At the same time, I want to start singing, Gonna lay down that sword and shield, down by the riverside...ain't gonna study war no more... I can't help but pray for the fighting to cease.

And if there is to be sacrifice of life and health by our military, I pray to God to help us as a nation to ensure the righteousness of the causes for which they are called to sacrifice. I'd feel a lot better about this day if I were more sure that was the case.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Tagged, twice!

Ok, we're just gonna have some good clean fun this Memorial Day weekend, as I'm traveling to Ohio to be with my sisters (for which I'm not packed, and I leave in an hour...)

Both the Incurable Savant and Lisa P. from CrazyFaith tagged me for some personal information, so I guess I had better get it in gear. First, the I.S. tag:

A: Total number of books I own: More than 1,000. I'd guess more than 600 are stored in "my room" at my sister Sue's house in Toledo.

B: Last book I bought: Non-fiction: Brian McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished CHRISTIAN. Fiction: Eternity, the sequel to Greg Bear's sci-fi classic Eon.

C: The last book I read: Taking a Chance on God by John J. McNeill.

D: 5 books that mean a lot to me: Max Lucado's Six Hours One Friday; Brennan Manning's Ragamuffin Gospel; Bill Williams' Naked Before God: The Return of a Broken Disciple; Tex Sample's Ministry in an Oral Culture-Living With Will Rogers, Uncle Remus, and Minnie Pearl; and Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy (OK, so I'm cheating here. It felt like one long book..)

(Of course, this is a hideously abbreviated list...)

E. 2 major books when I was a kid that I kept on me all the time: besides the Dr. Seuss book-of-the-month (as a very young kid), I remember a lot of books about cars, jets, and dinosaurs. A lot of those were lost when our basement flooded in 1966, and thousands of books were destroyed...

F. People I want to tag on this one (if you choose to accept...):
1. Poor Mad Peter from Another Country
2. Rick L. from a new life emerging
3. [rhymes with kerouac] from Daily Life in a Homeless Shelter
4. Damien Scott from Damien's Spot
5. Dead Youthpastor Walking

On the subject of books, I have this calligraphied sign on my wall:
OF COURSE you're out of book space
EVERYONE is ALWAYS out of book space
If you're NOT out of book space,
you're probably NOT worth knowing...

If this sounds familiar, there's probably a 12-step group to help you recover...

The tag from Lisa:
1. Total number of films I own on DVD/video: about 50

2. The last film I bought: Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban

3. The last film I watched: (for the first time - not a repeat) The Bourne Identity

4. Five films that I watch a lot or that mean a lot to me: Dead Poet's Society; Mr. Holland's Opus; Stargate; Sister Act; Monty Python & The Holy Grail. (F there was a #6, it would be The Blues Brothers)

5. Tag five people and have them put this in their journal: if you're inspired on either one of these, leave a response in the would be fun to see what my fellow bloggers would list for either of these. (Leave the theology for a while - God will still be there when we get back to it...)

Have a great weekend, y'all.

Friday, May 27, 2005

The things to which we are called....

Lord God,
you have called your servants
to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden,
through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go out with good courage,
not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us
and your love is supporting us;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from the Lutheran Book of Worship, Morning Prayer)

Raise up His name on high
Raise up you people of His pride
Raise up and bare the fire that's in our eyes,
And in our lives, and shows that we are not afraid...
(Caedmon's Call, Covenant Song, from the
City on a Hill CD)

If there are four words I'd like to be able to speak about myself right now, it would be "we are not afraid."

Three or four times this week, I have found myself completely paralyzed by fear. And the only thing I hated more than being afraid was admitting that I was afraid. Afraid for my life and health, afraid of the consequences that my past decisions are having on my present and future - hell, just being afraid of being afraid. And when I get into these kinds of funks, I'm rarely in a frame of mind that says, "Hey, if I just pray about this, it will get better!"

That's why I'm sure that it was no coincidence that as I was looking for something completely different, I found the LBW morning prayer at the exact moment that the Caedmon's Call Covenant Song was playing. The two appearing simultaneously was a hint that even a clue-resistant guy like me could latch onto...

And then I reflected back on a quote from Max Lucado's website, emailed to me by fellow blogger Deanne earlier today:

We will find grace to help us when we need it. (Hebrews 4:16, NLT)

God isn't going to let you see the distant scene.... so you might as well quit looking for it. He promises a lamp unto our feet, not a crystal ball into the future. We do not need to know what will happen tomorrow. We only need to know he leads us and "we will find grace to help us when we need it."

So I pray, on this Friday morning of a long weekend, for the willingness to pray the prayers I'm afraid of, and to trudge on - even if I don't see the "ventures of which we cannot see the ending, the paths as yet untrodden, or the perils unknown."
Lord, either "make it so" or make me so. Amen.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

File sharing and the "Creative Communist" evolution...

OK, so I'm a late-comer to this idea, but I like it...

First, over at BoingBoing a while back I found the idea of a "copyleft" - the "free culture" version of a "copyright." You can see the initial idea for the backwards-(c) logo over here. Evidently, the idea has to do with the comment made by Bill Gates that file-sharing is essentially communism - and the "copyleft" seems to be a kind of pirate-flag for the file-sharing folks.

Then, MegNut shares her feelings on file-sharing over here, and I have to admit, I'd agree with several of her points, including the digitization of the vast libraries of the out-of-print recordings of the RIAA. She then suggests that what we need is "a bumper sticker that says to the recording industry, 'Your failed business model is not my problem.' "

Then Paul Beard posted this bumper-sticker and t-shirt art. And somewhere in the midst of all this, the "Creative Communists" were born. (Of course, now they're capitalists, because they're selling their "swag"...)

For what it's worth - I really do support people's rights to intellectual property. While I'm really glad when people quote me, I think if someone were passing my stuff off as theirs, and giving it (or selling it) to others, I'd get really, really annoyed. I'm one of the few people who never got on the Napster/Kazaa bandwagon (I tried a couple files from Kazaa, and got a really, really nasty virus infection out of it, and that was the end of my file-sharing days). But I also like the idea of being able to tape and share tracks from my favorite CDs with others, primarily so they can check it out and buy them if they like. So I'm back to the Lutheran model - both saint and sinner - in this area.

I do agree with MegNut on the out-of-print music stuff - because there are dozens (if not hundreds) of out-of-print titles for which I would willingly and gladly pay cash, if they were available digitally.

Hattip: has really cool stuff. Lots of it. And thanks to AKMA for the tip.

Looking into the void

I'm not sure that the entire Christian world has gone mad - but there are definitely corners of it that are significantly more strange and outre' than others.

The folks who are out to save the world from the demons of the emergent-church movement (or non-movement, or post-movement...) have their own axes to grind, and I'm not even going to get into most of the battles they're fighting.

But something I have seen lately is the vituperative attacks on any kind of spiritual practice that doesn't fit into the anti-emergent folks' theology. And what is the big, evil monster that the anti-emergents want to drive out and slay? The hideous threat to the salvation of people everywhere?

Contemplative prayer.

No, Virginia, you didn't misread anything. Contemplative prayer has been labeled by this crowd an evil based in Eastern mysticism - as one site describes it, "centering prayer, the silence, yoga, Reiki, the Desert Fathers and spiritual formation teachings."

In one paragraph, the author of this blog (and the author of the book she is parroting) manages to lump Michael Card, Richard Foster, Mike Yaconelli, Philip Yancey, Brennan Manning, Thomas Merton, and Henri Nouwen in with Deepak Chopra, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Dr. Phil and Oprah Winfrey - because, supposedly, they all practice something that sounds like something that looks like contemplative or centering prayer. So of course, the automatic assumption is that the entire list of people all believe exactly the same thing - about prayer, about God, about the Bible, you name it.

Now, I have to admit, I haven't read Deepak Chopra; I don't listen to Dr. Phil or Oprah. So I have no idea what they believe - and I couldn't really care less. But that first list of people have been powerful, wonderful instruments of the grace of God to me - and to whitewash folks like Brennan Manning (a favorite of mine, as discerning folks might perceive) with the same brush as the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (a pseudo-Buddhist who led a huge cult in Oregon in the 80's) is the worst kind of theological rubbish and kindergarden playground-level name-calling I've seen in a while.

It's interesting that one of the more strident voices on that particular blog refers to the Desert Fathers as something from the 1970's - when in fact they were a movement in the earliest stages of Christianity - much closer in time to St. Augustine (the bishop from north Africa, not the city) than to Crosby, Stills & Nash...

The tragedy comes down to this: there may be "one faith, one hope, one baptism, one God and father of all" (Ephesians 4:4-6), but the claims of the Emergent No crowd seems to be, "If you're not believin' or doin' stuff like we believe and do stuff, then you're obviously wrong." This is nothing but variations on what one pastor was trying to sell our congregation in 2000-2001 - that if we aren't attending to "the ancient traditions of the church," then we are falling away from the One True Faith.

It was rubbish then; it's rubbish now.

As for contemplative prayer, let me use a common boom-box CD player as an example of the fallacy of these folks. My boombox is equally capable of playing either "Sweet Hour of Prayer" or AC/DC's "Highway to Hell." That doesn't make the boom-box good or evil; it just presents what is being played - period.

In the same way, I can "center" my thoughts in prayer on Scripture, chakras and auras, or on a scene from a Madonna video (and you know which one I'm talkin' about). Now, I've never meditated on chakras, but there have definitely been times in my life when I definitely meditated on one of the other two. That doesn't mean that centering prayer is a tool of Madonna and her Kabbalah, but rather the reverse.

I'm beginning to wonder if everyone just needs to lay down and take a chill pill. Because some things (like this particular topic) is born out of a little information, and a whole lot of hysteria. And it's not helping anyone - least of all the confused newcomers to faith, who wonder who's a cult-member and who's teaching the Real Deal about Christ and the gospel of love.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Face to face with the consequences

Monday morning, I had to face the consequences of my sin.

No, I wasn't in court...well, not exactly. But I was being examined and cross-examined - at the University of Chicago hospital, taking a thallium stress test. Recently, I've been getting winded pretty easily doing even moderate exercise - and since I am closer to 50 than not, significantly overweight, and having diabetes and high blood pressure, it seemed that getting checked-out was just the next right thing to do. Almost sensible, you might say. (Almost...)

But let's face it: I didn't end up taking this test because I sang too loud in the church choir. I was there because of the cumulative lifetime effect of two particular sins - gluttony and sloth - and because I don't deal with grace well.

For most of my life, I have had two active prayers. The first is, "Dear God, get me out of this and I will never do this again," and the second is, "Phew! Thank God that's over!" But somehow repentance - the act of turning away from sinful behavior - doesn't come until just immediately before the knot at the end of my rope unravels. I have never ever in my life been one to see the light, but somehow always hold out until I feel the heat. "Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly..."

Well, I started feeling the heat over the weekend, as I was contemplating the upcoming test - and I came to the conviction that if I got what I deserved on Monday, I'd get on the treadmill, get up near my maximum heart-rate, have "the big one," and die right there. (As my dear mother would say, "You're not wrapped right, or tight.") I hate to admit it, but I still hear the voice that says, "It would serve you right if it did happen that way..." So I admit to fretting a bunch about it over the weekend. Fretting didn't help as much as praying might have - but I still did more fretting than praying. Which just goes to show what a spiritual Goliath I can be at times like this.

However, I've been thinking about this more than usual because of a seemingly unrelated story that hit the news last week, but somehow I didn't hear about it until I was blogsurfing during my "sleepless in Chicago" spell Sunday night/Monday morning. Seems a girl at a Catholic school got pregnant, and was told in March that she could no longer attend school because of safety concerns - and that she could not attend graduation, presumably for the same reasons. You can read the original story - and what I feel is the school system's lame excuse - over here.

Alysha Cosby is 20-some weeks pregnant - she can't hide the results of her indiscretion any more than I can hide mine. But somehow, her condition is getting her treated differently. The end of the story (which you can read here), is that she was told not to attend graduation, then chose to defy the school, and walk across the stage and announce her own name at the end of her graduation ceremony anyway. She, her mother and aunt were then escorted off the premises (presumably for their safety, as well).

How does my obesity relate to her pregnancy ?

Well, I just get so tired of this sin or that sin being somehow objectionable and needing additional protection/exclusion (like having a teen-aged unwed mother around) and other sins (like mine) being somehow tolerable or acceptable. As many of you know, the one that really honks me off is how a significant number of churches have much less trouble with having Jimmy and Susie getting out of the same bed, coming to church and coming to communion than they do when Bob and Joe do the same thing. Jimmy & Susie, Bob and Joe, and I are all unrepentant sinners - along with Jack, the handsome high-school quarterback who's washboard abs are augmented by steroid injections, and loads of men like my late father, who went to church on Sunday, and then left to visit his girlfriends on business trips on Monday. If we exclude all the unrepentant sinners, who's gonna be left?

But Alysa Cosby's situation is particularly irksome to me because she is a pregnant teen who's chosen to preserve the baby's life, in keeping with Catholic teachings! Unless I missed something in the articles, she's not walking around her parochial school flaunting the fact that she's pregnant. From what I've read, she's just trying to go on with her life, and do the right thing - completing her education. If I were her, I think I'd be wondering whether a quiet abortion wouldn't have been a viable alternative to having my desire to attend graduation become a national media spectacle. (No, actually, I'm sure I'd be wondering about that - even though I know, to the core of my being, what the answer should be.)

Is this really the message we want to be sending? I have to wonder....

As for me and the results of my sins, I survived the stress-test in reasonably good form. There obviously wasn't anything red-flagged enough during the test to send me straight to a hospital bed or operating room (which was what I was afraid of happening) - and I give thanks for that. I won't know if there's anything less-sinister hiding in the results for several for now, I need to just get to bed, and trust that God will give me another day, and fresh mercy, when I awake.

And if I don't get another day, then I will thank God for this day, and this life, and years and years of undeserved grace and joy. Even if I die tonight, I'll still go out in the bonus round...

Update, Tuesday morning 8 AM: my doctor called this morning, having already received the test results back (talk about speedy!). Results? Clean. Not "no minor blockages," not "we'll need to watch that, and check back." No discernable plaque deposits, period. The angel of death has passed on by, this time. (And I didn't even have to smear lamb's blood on the doorframe.)

So I guess it's time to start living like a believer. Thank you, God.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Eucharist - four unorthodox views

If you want to get Christians to argue about something besides homosexuality, get folks from different denominations together and have them talk about Communion, or as some call it, the Eucharist.

Whether you read the version in Matthew, Mark or Luke, there has always been disagreement. There's the argument about whether to emphasize the "this IS" or the "DO this" portion of the Words of Instituion. There's the argument (foreshadowing a US president of recent memory) asking how we should understand "This is..." There are folks who believe that if the bread is leavened, or doesn't have wheat in it, or if some restriction or other isn't met, the Eucharist is "not valid" or "is not efficacious." And there are people who think that "do this..." means exactly what was done twenty-plus centuries ago. Or sixteen centuries. Or four. Or one. And so on.

I'm not going to resolve any of those arguments, though I certainly have my ideas. But I'm going to pose three from my own experience, one from my adoptive hometown, and one from history, on the topic. My purpose is not to annoy you in your understanding of what it is to "have Communion," but to simply ask if maybe God's purpose might just be bigger than our understanding (whatever that happens to be).

One view
In my seminary class on leading Lutheran worship, we had to break into teams and be videotaped while either presiding or assisting in leading worship. We had a team of 5 - and each time, one person would be the "senior pastor," one would be the "assisting minister," and the other three would be ushers/congregants. This was done in the seminary worship space, with the real robes, the real implements and paraments, everything just like real worship. Well, almost...but more on that in a bit.

We'd been told by our professor - definitely an authority on Lutheran worship - that there was no element of "zapping" in our service; no magic, no hocus-pocus. We learned at least the basic concept of consubstantiation. In very simple terms, this term means that the real presence of Christ (whatever that is) is present along with the unchanged reality of the bread and wine - "in, with, and under" the elements is the stock dogmatic line. The bread and wine are still bread and wine, but Christ is "with" the elements. (I still struggle with this, by the way.)

We'd also been told that in order for the Eucharist to be valid, there had to be (a) the gathered community of faith, (b) the Word of God, (c) the bread and wine, and (d) a Eucharistic prayer. The concept of personal, solo communion, or of communion without a worship service or without at least the words of institution was to be anathema for us seminarians. And for our Worship class video, almost all of these things were present.

In the place of the bread and wine, however, there was a host-shaped cardboard disk and a flagon of water. The message seemed to be that if it had been "real" bread and wine, we might have had "real" Eucharist - and since none of us were regularly consecrated and ordained clergy, that would have been dead wrong, eh?

But by the time I'd left our video session, I was really wondering about how hard we work to limit God's activity in the world. After all, the five of us were certainly true believers in the community of faith. I (in my turn as presiding liturgist) had read the Gospel, said the Eucharistic prayer, and had spoken the words of institution and the epiklesis, calling down the Holy Spirit on these pseudo-elements. My question to the group was, "If I had torn off pieces of the cardboard disk and given them to you to eat, and shared the cup with you, would that have been a valid Eucharist? Would the Spirit of Christ be 'in, with, and under' these elements as well?" But the group was uniformly weary from the video session, and just moaned and left the chapel...

It's not as silly a question as you might think. Every youth pastor who has stood before his or her youth group on the side of a mountain and spoken the words of institution over a plate of Wheat Thins and a cup of Dr. Pepper asks the same question. In fact, forty years ago in the book The Shoes of the Fisherman, the Pope-elect (who had been a Russian political prisoner for years in their gulags) spoke of sharing a Communion meal of bread crusts and water with people who he knew were not Catholic.

In the time since my seminary career ended, I have come to believe that if the Gospel is preached, the prayers are prayed, the elements (whatever they may be) are consecrated and shared in good faith, then it doesn't matter who does it, where, with what materials, or with what specific words. In fact, it could be argued that the youth-group pastor probably had the most "real" communion, because there was so little of the "traditional" church service and trappings to prop up the truths underlying the sacrament. The more we erect barriers between people and the Lord's Table, the worse off the church is. (Note, too, that it's not the Church's table.)

It's probably a good thing they aren't going to ordain me....

A second view
Excerpted from an article from the independent newspaper, the Chicago Free Press:
Obeying the Vatican and Cardinal Francis George, celebrants at Chicago's Holy Name Cathedral denied communion to two people wearing rainbow-colored sashes May 15, then watched as others receiving communion shared their wafers with the Rainbow Sash protesters.

"We were told many years ago, 'Do this in memory of me,' and that meant sharing and that meant the eucharist, for anyone," said Sister Donna Quinn, a Catholic nun who took her communion wafer, broke it in half and walked over to share it with the Rainbow Sash protesters.
I've always found it interesting - Jesus shared the Last Supper with Peter, who was still waiting for Jesus to pick up a holy light-saber and lead the Jews in whacking the Romans. What if Jesus had denied communion to "the Rock upon which I will build my church," because Peter didn't agree with Jesus' party line about the Romans? What price apostolic succession then, eh? Was it OK back then because he wasn't wearing a sash? Just wondering...
(Thanks to Damien's Spot for the hat-tip on the Free Press article.)

A third view
Pastor John Buchanan told a story in his sermon a week ago that stuck with me. As I remember, a Scotsman in the British Army in World War II was captured and kept in various POW camps for nearly five years. As the war dragged on, and things were not going well for the Germans, food and supplies for the prisoners was being diverted to the front-lines, and the prisoners got hungry. Soon, almost every prisoner had open, running sores and every kind of malnourishment disease. Several tried to escape...and were caught and executed. A few more threw themselves onto the electric fence, choosing to end their own suffering the only way they could.

One night, this soldier had enough. Starvation was an awful way to die, and so he resolved to throw himself on the electric fence, ending his suffering once and for all. But as he approached the fence, preparing to jump on it, he realized he was not alone. A local farmer stood on the other side of the fence, and as the prisoner stared in disbelief, the farmer threw something over the fence at him. The prisoner walked over, and was shocked to find a large potato.

And then the farmer, in broken English, managed to say, "The body of Christ" ... and walked away.

That farmer would have flunked my Worship class. But I imagine there was cheering in Heaven that night...

A final view
And the call is to community - the impoverished power that sets the soul free... (from Michael Card's song, The Basin and the Towel)

John Michael Talbot was one of the first Christian musicians I ever heard; I still think his Heart of the Shepherd CD is one of the most serene recordings I've ever heard. So years later, when I heard that Talbot (a contemplative Catholic) had joined with Michael Card, a Protestant, to sing each other's songs, I was delighted and amazed. Brother to Brother is a CD that I'd recommend to everyone.

Hearing the recording of Card's classic song Come To The Table, with the addition of the lush orchestrations so familiar in Talbot's word, and hearing both their voices lifted in joy and in praise, brought me to tears this morning as I finished this post. Their work is an example of the unity in Christ which is just so scandalous to those who would keep us apart.

Lord God, may we all set down our doctrines and dogmas and rules and holy nonsense, and just follow the example of these two men.

Come to the table He's prepared for you,
The Bread of forgiveness, the Wine of release!
Come to the table and sit down beside Him -
The Savior who wants you to join in the feast!

To which I can only say amen, and ever amen.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Two words for today: "but God..."

Well, if I started off with a dozen or so postings that needed sharing, I've probably tripled it by now...a powerful, powerful couple of days. Yes, I did actually get some sleep - desperately needed, it seems. And yes, I stayed away from Blogger 99% of the time. (A 100% sabbatical will have to wait for my someday-trip to Holden Village, or some other bandwidth-impaired location...)

The world is the same - and yet it is, in some ways, markedly different.

In many ways, nothing is different. My work situation is still completely up in the air, which makes my search for a new living situation a little tenuous (at best). I have two more days of laundry not done, so my room really looks like the inside of a Goodwill clothing drop-off. I have three weeks of work to do next week, and yet I'm going for a treadmill heart-check-up on Monday - which I'll hopefully pass. (But let's face it, folks like me don't go for these kinds of tests because we're on top of our game...) And so on.

In short, there is plenty that could generate genuine and sensible fear; plenty of reasons to doubt whether I can even buy a clue about my future; plenty of reasons that prayers like, "OK, God, WTF?" sound like a good idea...

But listening to Jeremiah Wright preach on Exodus tonight reminded me of how much I can complicate God's simple message. He reminded me that "folks in the black church" (his phrase, not mine) only need to know a couple important phrases to keep their faith strong. And one of these is simply "but God..."

That's as in:

The people of Israel were suffering in Egypt, but God heard their cry.

Moses would have just as soon stayed with his wife in Midian,
but God had another plan.

The Egyptian army was behind them,
but God was before them.

You may be walking through the valley of the shadow of death,
but God is with you.

You may feel alone, unworthy, and abandoned by the world,
but God will not forsake you.

After that, it was pretty simple for me to hear it this way:

You're in some real wilderness time, Steve - struggling in more than one way - but God hasn't dropped you yet.
I may not know where to go, or where to turn - but God does.
I may not see how God can use this mess - but God knows the plan that is before me (Jeremiah 29).
My strength sure seems to have failed - but God's lovingkindness does not fail, and God's strength is sufficient.

So for this coming day, I'm going to try to revel in these thoughts:
It may be late in the game; my scorecard may read "zero" on a number of levels - but God bats last.
I may be a broken tool - but God can still use me for the Kingdom.
I may not think much of my chances for joy, at times - but God knows better than that.

Now, I know, there's a lot of brilliant theologians out here in the blogosphere who will be quick to point out what a spiritual simpleton I might be. And they might well be right. But the AA folks have taught me this truth: it's impossible to save my face and my ass at the same time. I have to admit the fact that I need to keep it real simple, to build up my life and my faith from where they are right now.

Is thinking like this simplistic and unsophisticated? Perhaps.
Is it exactly what I need to hold onto, right now?
Is it simple enough that I can't complicate my way out of it?
You betcha.
Is that a good thing?
You betcha.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

A brief sabbatical

I've developed a bad habit - and I'm trying to take some action to break it.

A wise man in recovery once told me, "It's good that I'm with you folks - 'cause when I'm with you, then I'm stuck with me. And when I'm with me, sadly, I'm not alone." I've never had the voices tell me to clean my guns, or anything - but I hear from the unhealthy ones all the time. (Given that, the fact that I'm still sober is proof of the existence of a loving, caring God...)

But I tend to get to blogging at night. And I do it like everything else - obsessively. So I end up getting lousy sleep, which ends up affecting everything else in my daylight hours. So I need to find a way to moderate that behavior (though God knows I haven't had much success at moderation in anything else in my life!).

At any rate, tonight I had a delightful meal with roommate Tim, his lady Jean, and their good friend Josh. I definitely was the "can you tell which one doesn't fit?" candidate, both in age, in worldview, and in politics. But the chili and jalapeno cornbread and strawberries and shaved white chocolate were wonderful, and it was nice to just spend time with Tim & Jean before Tim leaves town for Virginia.

I came back to my room, watched a little Stargate SG-1, and realized there are about 18 ideas for blog postings in my head right now - and yet I'm tired enough that I just need to go to bed.

And rather than stay up until 3 AM way the hell past my bedtime, I'm just going to trust that God will preserve whatever ideas I have that are worthwhile, and let the rest of 'em float away. And I'm going to bed before 1 AM - which is a vast improvement, believe me.

Wednesday and Thursday evening, I'm hoping to spend time with my pastor from Kansas, Joe Crowther, who is in town for the Festival of Homiletics, being hosted at Fourth Presbyterian downtown. So I'm going to take a bye for Wednesday night and Thursday night, and re-join the blogosphere on Friday night or Saturday. Some topics for when I get back...
- The only real way to do the Eucharist
- One or more entries about Dave Fleming's The Seeker's Way and the changing/emerging church
- Renee's powerful post about ruach elohim - check it out over here
- A lousy office with a great entrance lobby.
- Trusting God and taking action.
Plus whatever the voices tell me to write about in the meantime.
See you soon...

Monday, May 16, 2005

A prayer for a new Pentecost is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans and Arabs — we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!" Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, "What does this mean?" (Acts 2:8-12, NIV)
Isn't it interesting that the first gift of the Holy Spirit was not doctrine, dogma, liturgy, or "correct" teaching - but understanding?

That day, Jerusalem was a melting pot; when I read this story, I imagine modern-day New York City. The crowd was made up of "God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven" (Acts 2:5), with virtually every language known to humanity at that time. However, unlike the Star Trek universe, there was no Universal Translator gizmo available. Language was a barrier, even to people who professed the same beliefs.

But the Holy Spirit descends as tongues of fire, and an amazing thing happens. The Spirit does not settle the long-standing struggle between the Jews and the Samaritans; nor is the Battle of the Believers settled between the Pharisees, Saduccees, the Essenes, or anybody else. Dogma was not decided, turf-wars were not terminated, barriers between social groups were not blown away.

But people whose language was completely undecipherable could suddenly understand each other. And the message they received was not one of doctrine, or of moral purity, or of condemnation and repentance for sinful behavior. It was a message of promise and of hope - delivered not by the established church, but by a ragtag ragamuffin-band of fisherman, tax collectors, untouchables and ne'er-do-wells. The Gospel delivery guy turns out to be none other than the former "No, trust me - I'm sure I don't know this Jesus fellow" guy, Mr. Championship Screw-Up himself, the apostle Peter. And listen to the promises packed in Peter's delivery:
God says, "I will pour out my Spirit on all people...not just the ones onto whom you THINK I should pour it.
Everyone - male, female, young old, even those who are enslaved and treated as
property (in short, the ones you'd never guess would get the gift) - they will all see visions and dreams.
You're gonna see stuff you can't even imagine - wonders in the earth and in the sky. It will knock your socks off.
And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." (Acts 2:17-21, my paraphrase.)
On this first Monday after Pentecost, can we pray for that kind of understanding today?
- That the message of the Holy Spirit (then, and today) is not about getting the dogma right, or having the right music, or the right program, or the right liturgy, or the really catchy "mission and vision" tagline for our so-called ministries?
- That it's not about us coming up with a checklist of who's going to heaven, or hell?
- That it's God's job, and not ours, to decide who's "in" or "out" of the Kingdom of God?
- That the message of the Holy Spirit - regardless of tongues of fire or any other modern-day manifestation - is about people coming to understand each other, and
their being able to hear a message of promise and salvation?
- That the people who most need to hear the voice of the Spirit from us are the supposedly "God-fearing" religious people, just like it was at the beginning?
Dear God, let those tongues of fire rain down again. Remind us of Your promise, and your salvation. And God, please - help us understand each other. Help us hear each other. Let every voice on earth be silent, so that Your voice can be heard - in every language and every tongue. Rain down Your fire on our souls, Lord. Amen.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Does God answer the prayers of sinners?

My brother Jared Coleman has started a mini-storm with his question, "Does God answer the prayers of sinners?" You can check out the commentary volleyball over here.

One commenter, David Scarpino, started his volley by saying, " I see no evidence that God listens or answers the prayers of the unrighteous..." and uses verses from Proverbs, Job, Psalms, and Isaiah to basically show God as saying, "If you're sinnin', I ain't listenin'." (These were the kinds of verses, by the way, that used to make me run from church, and Christians, in hopeless despair. You see, I already knew what I was - a hopeless, helpless sinner. And as such, I had been given scriptural proof that God would never, ever listen to a poor sinful schmuck like me.)

My friend [rhymes with kerouac] commented on Jared's blog: It just seems to me that the verses Mr. Scarpino quote refer to the long term, unrepentant sinner who has purposefully and willfully turned their back from God - and consciously chosen to act in defiance of Him.

Now I respect [rhymes] a great deal - and usually, I'd agree with what he writes. (To be fair, he goes on to point out that Jared and Mr. Scarpino are talking about two different things.)

And I'd even support the Scripture-slinging of Mr. Scarpino and others over there - except that so much of it flies exactly in the face of my personal experience.

You see, I drank in an alcoholic fashion from age 11 until nearly 34; I walked away from church, and belief in much of anything, for over half my life, from age 17 until nearly 34. In my former life, I have done things I couldn't bring myself to mention to a priest in confession. In every way imaginable, I fit the definition of someone who "willfully turned their back from God - and consciously chosen to act in defiance of Him."

In fact, I was consciously considering suicide - actually planning it - when I prayed that last desperate prayer: "God, help me!"

The events of the next 2 hours of that morning in December, 1990 led me to sobriety, and eventually back to faith. I won't bore you with the details (well, that's a lie; I've already bored readers of this blog repeatedly with that tale...), but the story of that morning was a series of events that even the Infinite Improbability Drive couldn't have conjured, without the considerable and loving involvement of a very-much-Higher Power.

You can sling Scriptural proof-texts around all you want; but you'll never, ever, ever convinced me that I'd repented of my sin on that December morning. (I got tired of the consequences, to be sure, but I didn't truly "repent" of my sin for weeks afterwards. I didn't "climb out of the hole," that morning, so much as I "simply quit digging." I think there's a big difference between "cease-fire" and "putting down the rifle.")

However, you will also never convince me that God didn't answer my prayer that morning. Fourteen-plus years of continuous sobriety, and blessings beyond my imaginings, indicate otherwise.

If I had to "become righteous" or "holy" before God heard my prayers, my light would have been snuffed out years ago. I believe that the fact that I am still drawing breath, and giving thanks to God for it, either affirms God's unending mercy or denies God's justice. Take your pick.

I'm glad the folks are having fun volleying back and forth over at Jared's. For me, however, the fact that I spent this day sober and reasonably non-toxic to my fellow human beings is testimony and proof positive that God answers my two simplest daily prayers: "Help me today," and "Thank You for doing so, even when You had every right and excuse not to do so."

In my own game of life, it seems that God always bats last. Perhaps the Ultimate Clean-Up Hitter?...

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The Blogger's Prayer

This posting is not mine. I just wish it was.

It is yet another in the 30-50 terabytes (or so) of things I wish I were deep enough to have written. Instead, it belongs to Andrew Jones, aka tallskinnykiwi. He's one of the bloggers who is not good because he's popular, but rather popular because he's good. So it seems that in this case, my job is not to be brilliant, but merely to point to true brilliance when I find it. Hopefully I will never sign onto my own blog without at least thinking of this. I'm grateful I found this, Andrew.

The Blogger's Prayer 1.1 by Andrew Jones (June, 2002)

Our Father
who lives above and beyond the dimension of the internet

Give us this day a life worth blogging,
The access to words and images that express our journey with passion and integrity,
And a secure connection to publish your daily mercies.
Your Kingdom come into new spaces today,
As we make known your mysteries,
Posting by posting,
Blog by blog.

Give this day,
The same ability to those less privileged,
Whose lives speak louder than ours,
Whose sacrifice is greater,
Whose stories will last longer.

Forgive us our sins,
For blog-rolling strangers and pretending they are friends,
For counting unique visitors but not noticing unique people,
For delighting in the thousands of hits but ignoring the ONE who returns,
For luring viewers but sending them away empty handed,
For updating daily but repenting weekly.

As we forgive those who trespass on our sites to appropriate our thoughts without reference,
Our images without approval,
Our ideas without linking back to us.

Lead us not into the temptation to sell out our congregation,
To see people as links and not as lives,
To make our blogs look better than our actual story.

But deliver us from the evil of pimping ourselves instead of pointing to you,
From turning our guests into consumers of someone else's products,
From infatuation over the toys of technology,
From idolatry over techology
From fame before our time has come.

For Yours is the power to guide the destinies behind the web logs,
To bring hurting people into the sanctuaries of our sites,
To give us the stickiness to follow you, no matter who is watching or reading.
Yours is the glory that makes people second look our sites and our lives,
Yours is the heavy ambience,

For ever and ever,
And ever amen, Andrew. Soli Deo gloria.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

About "Mother God" and inclusive language

Make sure you get a cup of coffee first - this is a long one.

Karen over at Raw Faith is talking about the mother image of God, and I'm glad of it.

Just for the lurkers who think this female-image-of-God stuff is 21st-century political-correctness nonsense, my extended stint at seminary taught me that this idea is as old as the Desert Fathers (and Mothers), or Julian of Norwich, or hundreds of medieval Christian mystics. It's shot through the Bible (which is where all those wacky mystics found it, by the way).

I bring this up because there's a whole bunch of wrasslin' goin' on with the use of inclusive language. People get really, really emotional about this in two of my worlds - in church, and in the community of recovery.

Bill W., the primary author of the book Alcoholics Anonymous, wrote largely to men - because, in 1935, that was the primary clientele of AA. Men were drunks, and women had to deal with them. There are now two forces at work, however - the AA purists, (who, justifiably, would preserve unsullied-by-time the original text of recovery) and legions of women alcoholics (many of whom have been physically and sexually abused by male alcoholics), who get a little frosty at the idea of God as a loving father, and lines like, "That one is God; may you find Him now."

Church folk get irked about this topic for the same reasons - the Bible being the Bible, and also the interpretation and translation of God's word by a male-dominated organization. Gay Christians - especially gay men who have been rejected by earthly fathers - often find this "loving Father" image an unfathomable concept. For them too, the idea of a Mother God is a powerfully comforting one.

And then there was the woman a friend of mine encountered in an AA meeting. He'd spoken of an abusive father, and how his image of God was that of a mother who would hold him in her arms and comfort him. After the meeting, an older woman encountered him and said, "I dunno what kind o' God YOU know, but I'm a Cat'lic, and we teach God the FATHER and God the SON and we won't have any of this God-as-a-woman stuff!!" (He gently reminded her that in AA, it's "God as you understand God," and left it at that.)

I've been all over the map on this topic. For that reason, I'd like to share with you what is perhaps the best statement about inclusive language I've ever read. Once again, I am indebted to a mentor I never met - Bill Williams, author of Naked Before God - The Return of a Broken Disciple. This is a direct quote from his forward, A Word About Inclusive Language, and these are words I wish I had written, but did not:

The issue of male/female God-talk has evolved to the point of agony. No matter what a writer does, someone will get angry or hurt.

Picture, if you will, two prospective readers...

Claudia had a dysfunctional, abusive father, and whenever God is referred to as "Father," she finds the word so filled with bad meanings that she can no longer relate to God in a positive way. When too many male images clutter up church talk, she has to rush out. She resents having to do that...she
needs God.

Doris experienced a loving father, loves the liturgy of the church, and is pained by all the furor over the issue. She takes the Hebrew prophets seriously, and whenever she hears phrases like "Mother God" she feels like she has stepped into a pagan cult that will threaten her salvation. She rushes out of the church. She resents having to do that...she
needs God.

Both of these people are real, many times over. I love them both. I've sat with them for many hours in lounges, living rooms and cafeterias. They have real claims on my life; they have held me up when many other supports dropped away. I not only want to share my story with them, I
must speak to them.

I have this crazy notion that if I master the rules to this obscure game, both of them might be able to read this book. But I've been playing this game for a while now, and I've figured out something that makes me want to scream. The game for a writer, has only one rule to it:
You lose.

What to do?

Some folks try to avoid the issue by avoiding all pronouns. In small doses this can work, but I've seen some atrocious trombone solos, too:
God will do this by God's self, because God must be sure God's creatures do not compromise God's freedom to act in God's own best interests...

After reading an entire paper like that, the reader does, at least, discover why pronouns were invented! It is barely decipherable in an academic paper, and in a book written in colloquial style it stands out like a cyborg among farmers. Furthermore, in our increasingly polarized atmosphere, it is becoming a red flag in itself: a gang handshake indicating whether or not the author is going to stand with "us" or "them." Those who would walk among both Jews and Samaritans are likely to get shot on certain streets.

There are other possibilities: "It," which depersonalizes what Jesus was trying to personalize; "s/he, he/she" and all the other eye-breaking textual speed bumps; alternating genders; the creation of new words shuch as "isth"; only speaking to God in the second person; or complete, helpless silence.

I've considered them all.
Sometimes silence sounds the most attractive.

Even if you pull the teeth on pronouns, you still have to deal with "Father" language, or "Son of Man" language, both of which are ever-present in Jesus' dialogues. (Note, too, that "Son of HuMANity" simply buries the distinction in syllables - please, laugh with me, I think I'm about to cry - and if in desperation I go to "Son of Earthlings," will you follow that with "take me to your Leader" in your best robotic voice?)

The ironic thing about all of this is that very few people are convinced that God has a sexual organ at all. Let's all pause for a minute and contemplate that.

To those of you who hate Political Correctness: I know you wish I'd just be a man and stop whining. But this book contains a cry about things I've found hurtful. Shall I squash others, just because their hurt differs from mine? That would be the height of arrogance.

To Claudia and Doris: I don't want to hurt either of you. I will do my best. I will try to write things so that they are readable and responsible.

But you know what? I will fail. I am human, and I can't win a game with only one rule such as this.

Forgive me for being human; understand that it makes me hurt, too; and approach this text with compassion. Only your grace can keep this writer from falling silent.

Your weary friend,

I'll take my stand with Bill on this one. I've grown to appreciate - if not be entirely successful using - inclusive or female language about God. (I'm forty-eight, for cryin' out loud - change comes slow.)

But I also want to say, to the political-correctness haters, that my God (as I misunderstand God) is an awful lot bigger than this. Of all the sins we commit on a daily basis, is this such a big deal?

Karen, this is a whole lotta words about this topic. I'm glad you roused me to dump 'em all out of my head, because they've been rattling up there for a while.

My mother and father, I trust, are both with God. That means that God - with the help of a lot of loving folks here on earth - is standing in for both my parents, now. If God is Three-in-One, then I'll trust that God is Two-in-One - Father and Mother - and leave it for that list of questions which I keep thinking I'll ask once I'm in the presence of The One who is Love.

Monday, May 09, 2005

And let's not forget the "other mothers"...

Having written about my biological mom, I have to tell you, too, of my other moms.

"Other moms," you may ask?

Yes indeed. They came from church, they came from the communities of recovery - and when I was a lost little boy (which still happens at 48, God help me) they're the ones who have picked me up, dusted me off, encouraged me, fed me, housed me, and generally said, "OK, stop that crap!" (yes, even in those words, sometimes). They are as responsible as the mother who gave me birth for my still being alive, sober, even fractionally sane, and still a Christian.

Brooke S., the wife of my first sponsor, is a raspy-voiced lady with the same "colorful" tinge to her language that my mom had - and has tried to both kick my butt and open my mind repeatedly over the years. Delphine H., wife of my late mentor and pastor Tom, suffered through my first year sober in Kansas, and listened to the wreckage of my divorce in their church's Helpmates group. She was, and is, one of my biggest cheerleaders.

Bev A. and Mary Lou L. made sure that I was always a part of their family gatherings when I was a single guy in a church full of married folk. Bev and her husband Jerry, and Mary Lou and Neil (and their families) have been so terribly supportive of me in every way possible - I absolutely could not have made it through any part of this last year without them. Judy F. and her husband Pastor John have been prayer partners, discernment partners, and general hosts-with-the-mostest. I know I always have a room, and a place at the table, with all of them, and that's a good feeling to know.

Sandy M. has been part "mom" and part "sister" since my days in church in Prairie Village. She and I have remained in every-other-day phone contact ever since I left Kansas for the Big City. She has listened to more whining, more doubts, more tears, more laughter than you could imagine. I'm grateful for her thoughts, her prayers, and her support.

When things fell apart at my first church, they were the ones who encouraged me. When I spent 5 years going to school part-time thinking about getting ready to prepare to go to seminary full-time, they were part of the discernment process. When it all fell apart a year ago, they were the ones that I cried with. As I've struggled through a year that seems to have been FedEx'd straight from the bowels of hell, at times, they have been encouraging and sympathetic voices and prayer warriors.

Only God could have given me a flock of women like this.

So, very late on Mother's Day, may this by my virtual card-to-the-world to let each of you know how grateful to God I am that when my own mother's time on earth ran out, each of you have stepped in to keep me (as much as is possible) on the Broad Highway of love and faith. If there is anything good, kind, decent, loving, or faithful about me, you are each at least part of the reason that it's still there. A belated, but no less heartfelt, "happy Mother's Day."


Sunday, May 08, 2005

Thinking of Mom and Mother's Day

A gentle warning: this is going to get sappy. Sorry.

Thirteen years ago - just over a year after my new life of faith and sobriety began, and just three weeks after she retired - my mother died of a massive coronary. For obvious reasons, this has colored much of my thinking about Mother's Day. On the one hand, I think of my mother a great deal - not just when Hallmark and the restaurant industry tell me I should. On the other hand, her mortaility means that I'm not part of the "so where are you taking your mother this weekend?" crowd; I'm no longer eligible. So at times, it can seem almost like a non-event...just another day in Paradise. But today was one Mother's Day when she felt particularly close.

It started with the seafood newburg.

A group from Fourth Presbyterian Church have a standing brunch date on the 2nd Sunday of the month. And this month was no exception, even though it was Mother's Day (normally the busiest restaurant day of the year). The Fourth Church crowd had invited me several times, and I'd not made it before, for various reasons. So when the e-vite came out, I said, what the heck. The prices on the e-vite seemed reasonable for the Magnificent Mile ($7-16), and it's not like I had a full social calendar, so I said, "sure."

Now, unbeknownst to me, it turns out the restaurant, McCormick & Schmick's, is one of the priciest, richly-traditional seafood places in Chicago. And for Mothers' Day, there was no was the M&S Mother's Day Brunch Buffet - base-priced at just about double what I was hoping to spend for my meal. When we got that news (after we were seated and ready to start) I was all set to say, "You know, this little experience is just out of my league, folks. Thanks for the invitation...I'll see you later."

But then, just as I was ready to push away from the table, the voice in my head spoke up, and said, What would Helen tell you to do?

And I knew.
And I sat down and surrendered.

Helen was not a spendthrift (though God knows I certainly can be) - but she was determined to have every experience that she possibly could, and to live life as close to the top-shelf as she could. Her favorite phrase, when we were traveling, was, "So tell me...when are we going to have the opportunity to do this again?" She never mentioned Auntie Mame by name, but her life was a tribute to the classic line, "Life is a banquet, and most poor bastards are starving to death." I'm not sure she ever saw the 1989 classic "Dead Poet's Society," but she certainly believed in "sucking the marrow out of life" whenever it was even remotely possible.

One time, Mom actually had me drive her from Toledo to Cincinnati (4-1/2 hours, one way), and we stayed overnight one weekend just so she could visit to visit a restaurant called The Seafood Feast - an incredible seafood buffet she'd heard about from a friend. When she and I went to see the Smoky Mountains, she chose to stay at the hideously luxurious Jack Tar resort, The Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa in Asheville, rather than in some Motel 6 (which was much closer to our budget), because she said she'd never been to a resort before... "and, well, this one's here, so let's go!"

She'd always been furious with my late father for seeing travel as something to get from point A to point B, and never simply enjoying the journey. (For years, she'd hounded Dad to stop along the way from our home to his brother's home to tour a winery in the nearby Finger Lakes region of New York. After he died, on the way home from the funeral, we ended up stopping at three different New York wineries...)

When we went on a trip up into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan several years after Dad died, the entire trip was a series of "What's down there, down that road? Let's take a look..." She wore a five-dollar Petoskey-stone ring from that trip until the day she died, I think. The quest for the journey, for the experience, was what she craved. Given two options, she always) chose the more outrageous, the most unusual (and what I'm sure my father thought was the most whacked-out) opportunity.

Back to McCormick & Schmick's...

Crab fettucine alfredo - saffron rice - peel-n-eat shrimp - and the aforementioned seafood newburg - created an incredible gastronomic sensation. I knew, as I savored every bite, that Mom would have been in heaven. At times, I felt a little guilty - after all, it's the kind of meal I would never have even considered having on my own, on my meager budget, and will likely not have for another year or more, absent a winning lottery ticket.

But, as a friend pointed out, there is no grave upon which to place flowers - both parents believed in anatomical gifts to science, and to cremate the remains. And what the heck - I can eat cereal the rest of the week, I guess...

Thank you, God, for the gift of a woman who (given the chance) always sought the special, and the extraordinary, in her life. As I make choices about where to live, and what to do with my life and my ministry, help me remember to look for the extraordinary, and live boldly, rather than in fear and doubt. Thank you for the gift of beautiful memories of a loving mother, amidst all the laughter and tears....

And Lord, let Helen, know, please - the seafood newburg was outstanding.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Wondering about Heaven, and Hell...

Andrew over at TallSkinnyKiwi has posted this question today,and it definitely got me wondering about my own convictions of heaven and hell.

Back when I was drinking, I kept running into born-again folk who would give me encouraging words like "You're goin' to HELL, boy, if you don't stop drinkin'!!" And I distinctly remember thinking a number of times, "It's too late, moron...I'm already there. I'm already in Hell. So much for your spiritual discernment crap..." (And so on...)

My minimalist Catholic upbringing told me I wasn't going to Heaven, anyway - because somewhere I'd heard that if I'd thought it, I'd done it - and even by age 8, I'd already thought a lot. I knew I'd never be able to get "caught up" in confession - so I knew I was done for. Period.

In defense of the Catholic church, I'm sure the priests and monsigniori talked about Jesus, and salvation, and hope of eternity - but I wasn't hearing it. Somehow, the message that I heard was that my scorecard was going to stay in the red, and I was going to die, and that was it. Heaven was for all you "good" people, who really knew Jesus and really lived sin-free lives. So when folks talked about "you need to do x or y to get to Heaven," it bounced right off me. You see, I'd already judged myself, and found myself ineligible. Damned and done-for. It's not a comfortable place to live, as you might imagine...

My drinking career only intensified those feelings. I was completely unable to tell the truth to anybody - about how much I hated myself, about how much I hated God for letting me get to this point (as if God stopped caring for all of the world, and bent down to screw with my life!), about how much I hated trying to act OK, you name it. I hated everything and everyone - most especially myself. Love, compassion, and concern were things that people talked about, but of which I had no experience - either giving or receiving.

About the same time, I discovered an earthly definition of eternity - the knowledge that my life was somehow already completely and totally over, but that somehow I wasn't going to die. It seemed I was going to live in this twilight half-life with no hope of ending, except for suicide. But I'd watched others try, and succeed, at that option - and it didn't seem to help any. It just left the problems, and only took them out of the solution.

Shortly after getting sober and returning to church, my pastor at the time (the late and very-much-missed Tom Housholder) encouraged me to read CS Lewis' classic The Great Divorce. I really, really grooved on the image of "the grey town" as Near Hell, or Purgatory - the grey, unending drizzle, neither light nor dark, stretching out seemingly forever, barren, uninhabited, terminally lonely and terminally hopeless. It sure sounded familiar...

But it was the image of Heaven that really got me - that Heaven would be like Earth, but more real. The image of people newly arrived from "the grey town" as ghosts, insubstantial and needing to be "thickened up" with the love and knowledge of God, was a riveting understanding of Heaven that I'd never heard before - but one I fell in love with instantly. Those images are still a lot of what I hope for in Heaven and fear in Hell, I guess.

About a year sober, I went with an AA friend to a bible study at this pastor's house. The topic was heaven, and this pastor proceeded to describe an entire hierarchy of servants of God in heaven. In this pastor's cosmology, Heaven was going to be a lot like a corporate headquarters, with the good people milling around on the middle floors, the really, really good people on the top floor with Jesus, and guys like me (who had wasted so much of their life of faith) working as the janitors and mail-clerks for the Heavenly Headquarters campus.

At the end of the study, the pastor actually went around the room and asked us how we felt about what he'd presented, and where each of us thought we'd be in the Heavenly hierarchy. I was the last one to speak, and remember the gasps in the room as I told them that I'd been a drunk, a thief, a liar, a cheat, and things I wouldn't even mention in polite company - and I didn't give a damn if I ended up cleaning toilets in Heaven, just so long as I got in. (My friend never suggested I attend that bible study again - something that I still give thanks for to this day.)

Today, I have come to this peace on the topic:

I am a sinner, through and through. I am saved by grace, through faith...not through any magic transformation of my sinful self into something pure and sinless. Folks who are a whole lot less sinful than I (from fellow seminarians all the way up to nationally-known evangelists) assert that they haven't gotten "struck pure and holy" yet.

I've stopped keeping score of my sin, and am trusting in the grace and love of the One making the invitations to heaven.

I find no evidence that Paul ever stopped qualifying for the Romans 3:11-12 text he wrote:
As it is written: "There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one."
Or the classic confession in Romans 7:18-19:
I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.
And I'm right there with him here, too:
What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:24-25)
I have hope of Heaven - a resurrection to the true spiritual body I would have had as a follower of God - not the wreck and ruin that my sinful life has made of this flesh. My prayer has always been that the "resurrection of the body" means that the folks disfigured by disease and calamity and selfish stupidity will not have to wear their earthly wreckage for eternity.

I have hope of a reunion with the saints - all who have died in faith. I'm looking forward to that reunion, yet I also think it will pale in comparison to being in the presence of the unending love of God. For years I had a list of questions for God - what were You thinking of when you created chiggers?, for instance - but I have a growing sense that those questions will fade to insignificance.

I am also a firm believer in the "already and yet not-yet" understanding of the Kingdom of God. I see its inbreaking in everyday miracles of faith, and life, and love; I have come to see God's fingernails on the hands of everyone caring for "the least of these," whether around the world or down the block. I try daily to break the bonds of the eco-terrorism that our culture (especially U.S. culture) breeds. And I try to do what I can to work for those who are "outsiders" - both in terms of social justice and in terms of the supposed "family of faith." That song that says, "I wanna be Your hands, I wanna be Your feet - I'll go where you send me" is a tough pledge to make - but I'm at least willing to pray to become willing to say those words.

Last of all, I've found an answer to the question, "So who gets to go to Heaven, and who ends up in Hell?" The best answer I've heard is, "It's none of your business who goes where - no more than it is mine. My hope is to work like going to Heaven depends on me; and pray like it depends on God."

Man, I am REALLY getting annoyed at Blogger...

This is 3 times in three days that I have been editing a post, and somehow lost huge chunks of text. That just really chaps my hind-quarters. Grumble mumble $%&@ Blogger grumble...oh, well, that's what God created WordPad for, right?...

So NOW what?

"...But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. "Men of Galilee," they said, "why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven." (Acts 1:7-11, NIV)
I sat here, Thursday evening, trying to imagine being one of the "men of Galilee" at the Ascension, and wondering this simple question: what would Steve have said?

The first answer wasn't real inspirational - something about "Holy...." and then something else that wasn't, quite.

The next couple answers I came up with weren't much more inspirational, I'm afraid. I think my first urge would have been to yell something along the lines of either "WAIT! COME BACK!" or "NOW what are we gonna do?"

And I guess that's where I'd probably have landed as an apostle, at least for a while. You see, even a quick reading of the Gospels points to Jesus as the Energizer battery of the apostles. Jesus was teacher, a combination of shepherd and border-collie, and source of power, strength, name it. He led them for three years, right up to the cross. He died, and left them for three days, and everything stopped. The apostles were afraid, and ready to run back to their toll booths and fishing boats. And then Jesus rose again, and it was all good - for forty short days.

Until, of course, "he was taken up before their very eyes."

Sure, Jesus has just promised them the Holy Spirit - but how's THAT going to happen, now that he's gone? Huh? Huh? Can't you just hear them?

I think it's important to look at this scene through my own eyes, and remember that the first leaders of the church were very human, very prone-to-forget women and men. And it's important for me to realize that Jesus chose these folks intentionally. Not because they were spiritual Goliaths - but precisely because they weren't.

Why is it important to keep this in mind?

Because something - something BIG and POWERFUL - transforms them from slack-jawed guys staring into the sky, wondering what happened, into the powerhouse preachers and evangelists that changed the world, sixteen short verses from now.

That is the power that is available to each and every one of us - the Comforter, Counselor, the very Spirit of God promised to us by Jesus. That power is available - to us as individuals, to us as congregations, and to us as a Church universal. How's THAT for good news?

Lord God, let me feel that power, and trust in that Spirit, as I go about my day today. Help me remember that of myself, I am nothing - but the Holy Spirit can be the wind in my sails, to move me through any storm. Left to myself, Lord, I would still be staring at the sky, waiting. By your Spirit, keep my eyes on this world - the world you came to redeem, the world we are called to love and serve. Amen.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

National Day of Prayer - 05/05/05!

It's a cool, beautiful day. A cool date - 05/05/05. And it's also the National Day of Prayer...time to pray. About anything...and anyone.

The folks we love. The folks we find it hard to love. The folks we think are a slice of heaven. And the folks we think should go to Hell.

My heart says I should be praying for that last group most of all, somehow. Not that God should change them - but change my heart about them.

My first sponsor, speaking at an AA meeting on my 5th sobriety birthday, said, "I'm supposed to love you all...because you're God's kids. But the simple fact is that there's a middlin' few of you that I can tolerate, some days. And there's some of you I just won't warm up to - even if we are cremated together."

Our instructions for daily living include the words "Pray without ceasing." That goes double (!) for today, I guess.

Salud Cinco de Mayo

...which is about as close as I can get to Happy Cinco de Mayo, or "5th of May."

It's funny - when I was in Shawnee and Overland Park, Kansas, Cinco de Mayo was a big deal - it seemed every Americanized pseudo-Mexican restaurant had some CdM deal going on. Here, in Chicago, with a huge Spanish-speaking population, I hardly hear about it. Of course, I hardly read a physical Chicago paper, and I live in Hyde Park (which is pretty Espangnol-impaired, compared to other neighborhoods) - so I'm not sure how I'd hear about it. But it snuck up on me, nonetheless.

Which is funny, in a way. After all, my parents were of English and Polish stock, respectively - so it wouldn't be a big deal anyway. In fact, I wouldn't even care...if it weren't for Bart.

Bart was a young man I sponsored in AA for a while. He was a free-spirited soul who was more straight than not, but had a flair for cross-dressing and a habit of in-your-face dressing when I first met him. (The first night I met him at an AA meeting, he was in a three-piece suit; the second night was in a black lace see-thru blouse, black hiking pants, black fishnet stockings, combat boots, and a black leather jacket. That kind of "in-your-face" dressing.)

We had talked about how to channel those expressions in a new and sober life. I'd shared with him Gentle Closings and Where is Heaven? by Ted Menten, and he picked up on Menten's dressing up in costumes to entertain sick kids. It wasn't too long before Bart discovered clowning. He'd find the most outrageous outfits - polyester suits in tangerine or lime green, Cat-in-the-Hat style hats, you name it - and he even adopted Ted Menten's nickname... Mr. Silly (among others).

He found that kids and adults alike loved the get-ups - and he started his clowning career with AA picnics, then visiting kids in hospitals. And then someone referred him to On the Border, or one of those quasi-Mexican restaurants, to do clowning for their Cinco de Mayo event. We talked about it - how to be in a bar and stay sober, and how to focus on his primary purpose for being there (to bring joy to the folks who were dining, and be of service to his employer for the night).

He had a blast. I don't remember any more whether the phone call I got was that night, or the next day - but it was full of laughter and "You shoulda seen..." and "oh, WOW..." moments. He'd had a natural, sober "high" - and he was pumped. I couldn't help smiling as I listened to him talk.

I remember thinking of two quotes as I listened to him.
The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) the world most needs to have done. ...The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet. (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, p. 95.)

To watch people recover, to see them help others, to watch loneliness vanish, to see a fellowship grow up about you, to have a host of friends - this is an experience you must not miss. We know you will not want to miss it. Frequent contact with newcomers and with each other is the bright spot of our lives. (Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th edition, 89.)
Bart's 650 miles away - with a wife, two beautiful kids, a great job, and a new AA community. Our lives have gone in different directions. But no matter what happens, on Cinco de Mayo, his indomitable spirit swooshes into my mind - sometimes in a floral sarong, sometimes in his tangerine suit, sometimes (God help me) in fishnet stockings. But always with a smile.

And I smile.
Like I am right now.
Sometimes I think about you
Some old memories make me cry
Remembering the good times makes me laugh -
But all in all, I'm richer for the happy and the sad,
And thankful for a season in your path.

(Wayne Watson, "A Season in Your Path," from
the CD A Beautiful Place)
Happy Cinco de Mayo, y'all.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Douglas, we hardly knew ye...

In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move. (Douglas Adams)

To those who understand, no explanation is necessary. To those who do not, no explanation is possible. (seen on a t-shirt at a Drum Corps International competition, but applicable, nonetheless...)
Monday night, I felt like I had something in my eye - some kind of irritant that kept making my eye water. I kept flushing it out with saline, to no good avail. Tuesday morning, I woke up with my left eye completely swollen shut. Faced with being at least temporarily half-blind, my morning prayer routine was abbreviated to just two words, one of which was "Holy..." I lept out of bed, and started trying to find help. Four hours later, I left the University of Chicago Hospital "ER-Express Care" center with a diagnosis of an infected tear duct, two different kinds of antibiotic (just in case it tried to turn into conjunctivitis, or "pink-eye") and a prayer of gratitude that it wasn't worse than that.

I wasn't supposed to drive, and to be honest, I hadn't much excitement for doing much of anything through a visual haze of antibiotic-creme, so I went home and spent the afternoon catnapping and applying warm compresses to my eye.

Tragically, this seemed to me to be as good a frame of mind as any in which to review the newly-released movie The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

And so I wrote this really incredible, in-depth review of it, and my likes, and dislikes. And hit "save as draft." And lines and lines of text disappeared, to be replaced with the cryptic characters "%2". Gaaagh...grumble mumble grumble Blogger grumble...

So you get the short(er) version.

The good news is, I liked it. The bad news is, I liked it because I understood it.

You see, I'm a Hitchhiker's fan from way back. My introduction to the Guide (or HHG, or H2G2...) was back in the late '70's or early 80's, when PBS was carrying the original HHG radio plays...twice a week, once on Sunday night, repeated on Wednesday night. I rearranged my entire weekly schedule to accomodate my weekly dose of Peter Jones as the Book, Simon Jones as Arthur Dent, Geoffrey McGivern as Ford Prefect, Susan Sheridan as Trillian, Mark Wing-Davey as Zaphod Beeblebrox and Stephen Moore as Marvin The Paranoid Android. I'd delight to the work of Patti Kingslund and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (and a small furry creature from the Crab Nebula) as they created some of the greatest sound-effects ever heard, to accompany some of the great lines of British radio humor:
Ford: Arthur, what if I told you that I wasn't from Guilford after all, but from a small planet in the vicinity of Beutelgeuse?
Arthur: I dunno...Why? Do you suppose it's the sort of thing you're likely to say?
My roommate Tim and I went to see the movie's opening on Friday night - one of the digital projection versions. And it was fun enough...for us. And it was great - from the opening bit about the dolphins to the final credits. But the cleverness only seemed to translate to the big screen if you knew what to look for and listen for - as both of us did. There were people laughing who I really hoped were wearing Depends, for fear of impending bladder failure. And then there were folks (like the two right in front of us) that had looks that clearly said, "Wha...?...."

I loved the image of the starship Heart of Gold, and the Infinite Improbability Drive effect was great. Marvin, as voiced by Alan Rickman, was near perfect. The Vogons were, well, full of Vogonity (to quote Ford). And the images of the hyperspace factory as the Magretheans build Earth Mk. 2 were classic. But Ford Prefect missed the Simon Jones version by a country light-year, and Zaphod was either too manic or just not hip-slick-and-cool manic enough. It could have been worse, but it could have been so much better.

Don't get me wrong - for HHG fans, you'll have fun seeing someone else's vision of all the things you've been imagining in your head for a quarter-century or so. The rest...well...

If I were king of the forest, I'd force (US) to sell the Amazon.UK CD versions of the original HHG radio broadcasts at a deep discount, so everyone could get The Real Thing, and then go on and see the movie. But alas, my appointment to Forest leadership is still held-up by some hanging chads...or maybe just not having the right forms...

For now, my movie sights are on Fantasic Four and what looks like a cute remake, Herbie: Fully Loaded...

To Rich Dubler, my buddy who introduced me to The Guide a quarter-century ago, thanks for the memories. Wish I knew where you were to tell you in person.

To Douglas Adams, I can only quote your own words, attributed as the final message by God to Creation: We apologize for the inconvenience.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

"...that they may all be one..."

I generally try to be a hopeful creature - though I certainly can find myself in doubt, fear and uncertainty at times. For that reason, I am striving to find hope and encouragement amidst some mixed messages recently.
In his message, Pope Benedict greeted, with special affection, the Orthodox churches that are celebrating their Easter. The pope said he hopes the path toward Christian unity will continue. (from the Voice of America May 1 reporting of Benedict XVI's Orthodox Easter address, emphasis mine)
Therefore, there exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him....On the other hand, the ecclesial communities which have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery are not Churches in the proper sense....The Christian faithful are therefore not permitted to imagine that the Church of Christ is nothing more than a collection — divided, yet in some way one — of Churches and ecclesial communities...
(excerpted from the original text of Domine Iesus, the 2000 declaration of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, part IV, section 17 - emphasis mine. Click here to read the entire text)
I had read article after article about then-Cardinal Ratzinger's authorship of Domine Iesus, and how it supposedly condemned other religions, as well as other Christian denominations. But I also knew that "nothing spreads faster than mis-information." So, when I read today's VOA article on Google, I decided to do a search on the original proclamation, and found this article in the Wikipedia, along with links to the original proclaimation's text from the Vatican web-site (so one could get it straight from the Vatican's mouth, so to speak).
(Speaking of mis-information, please note this brief side-topic before you crawl up my virtual nether-regions: contrary to some popular opinion, the Wikipedia is not Wiccan, or having anything to do with pagans, witchcraft, or the like. It is simply a free, public, open-source Web-based encyclopedia. Don't believe me? Check out the background articles here, here and here. Cool stuff, eh? Back to the topic at hand...)
An appointee of Ratzinger's was the primary author of Domine Iesus - but the document appears over Ratzinger's imprimatur, and is ratified by his mentor, John Paul II. Given that, I find it kind of hard to lend a great deal of credence to claims for Christian unity from Rome, given that the olive branch seems to be, "We can all be One, so long as you admit that we're The Real Thing, and we're right..."

At the time, I deeply hoped it was just my warped perception that led me to feel this, and that I hoped my views were not so close to reality as they seemed to be. But two years later, at seminary, these words became particularly irksome as I studied the Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification between the Catholics and Lutherans (another document heavily influenced by then-Cardinal Ratzinger). The JDDJ was signed and celebrated on October 31, 1999 (Lutherans' Reformation Day) as a sign of Catholic/Lutheran unity - and yet just over a year later, in Domine Iesus we received word from Rome that no matter what we may agree on, there is still only One True Church, and the rest of us are understood to be defective in our faith.

So much for unity, I thought. So glad we spent all that time and effort (and money), just to find out that you may agree with us in some faint ways on justification, but that you really don't consider us to be "the church of Christ" after all. Thanks a lot.

That was not one of the more spiritual moments in my brief seminary career.

But in that claim of defectiveness, there is a hint of light. This statement, buried near the bottom of part IV, section 17 of Domine Iesus, holds a glimmer of hope for me:
...these separated Churches and communities as such, though we believe they suffer from defects, have by no means been deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church.
At first glance, it sounds silly - but wouldn't it be cool if every Christian sect and denomination could say something like that?

I know it seems simplistic and reductionistic, but I could at least hope for a world where every Baptist, Pentacostalist, Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, born-again-independent and you-name-'em Christian in the world could say, "Yeah, you folks have your faults and defects, but the Spirit of Christ is is still using you as a means of salvation." Wouldn't that bring us a good deal closer to the Kingdom of God here on earth?

I could pray for that. I think I will, actually.

Now with praise and thanksgiving, we join in the song -
All are welcome! We gather to sing loud and strong -
Not enslaved, but set free! From now on, all will be
One in Jesus, one in water, baptized and set free!

("Baptized and Set Free," text & music Cathy Skogen-Soldner,(c) 1999,from the Augsburg Fortress Worship & Praise songbook)

Yes, I'm screwing with my template again...

...but fear not, it's not going to end up "chartreuse" or anything...