Thursday, June 23, 2005

Three places I'm not

We ain't where we wanna be
We ain't where we're gonna be
But thank you, Jesus,
We ain't where we used t'be.

(apocryphal African-American spiritual)

It's been my experience that when I'm sharing an idea or a tenet of faith with someone else, the thing that I share is the very thing I most need to hear. It's true in the 12-step communities, and it's more than a little true in preaching as well; so many times the thing I get so passionate about sharing from Scripture is the very thing I struggle with the most.

That's why this old spiritual came to mind tonight - because once again it's telling my story. I'm definitely not where I want to be, or where I hope I'm going to be - but I'm also light-years from where I used to be, for which I'm grateful.

Wednesday night I had dinner with a young man in the middle of his first year of sobriety. For him, it was certainly a time of the glass is half-empty, and a time of struggling with self-centered fear - of the opinions of others, of the future, of the effects of the wreckage of his past, and especially fear that it's just never going to get better, is it? At one point in the conversation, he looked at me and said, "There. That's what sucks in my life...."

" fix it."

Dear God, if I only could, I would. For him...and for me.

The irony here, of course, for those of you who've been tuned in for a while, is that in the struggles of his last couple days my young friend named every fear that I have struggled with ever since my seminary career derailed a year and a half ago. And here he was, looking for swimming lessons from a man who's spent the last 20 months in various stages of drowning in the same sinkhole that was sucking him down.

So all I could do is share what I know to be true - even if I'm having trouble hearing, seeing it, or acting on it at times. And as I left my young friend tonight, I realized that I'd identified some of what Max Lucado would call "the anchor points of my life" - the places, in the midst of the storms, where I can "anchor deep and hold on" to make it through the tempest.

Back two weeks ago, my brother Rick L. wrote this classic post about what he'd gotten for the $50,000 that his seminary education had cost him. I'm not sure, but I think my half-an-M.Div (or 2/3-an- M.A.) probably cost me and my church about $40,000, spread over seven years. (It's more expensive if you drag it out...)

Answering the question "what did I get" could be a book by itself - maybe it will be (enough with the not-so-subtle hints, already). But here's at least a start on the answers...

Encountering your worst fear won't kill you. When I left for seminary, an unvoiced fear was that because I'd been raised Catholic, because I'd left the church for almost 1/3 of my life, because of X, Y, and Z, that somehow I wouldn't be Lutheran enough to get ordained. Eventually, I found that I couldn't be ordained, period - no matter how Lutheran I was. Finding that out broke my heart and shattered my spirit in a billion tiny pieces. (In fact, I don't think I ever knew the meaning of those phrases until last year.) And there were plenty of times when dying sounded like the easier, softer way out - trust me on that one. But I found out that having to start life over didn't mean I had to drink, or taste gun-metal - although there still was plenty of self-destructive behavior I could engage in. But it wasn't the end of life - just the end of that part of my life.

I know I'm Luther-like, no matter how Luther-an I am. I came to identify more and more with the crazed German monk - the one who struggled with grace, flogged himself in an effort to make himself acceptable to God, and who wrote A Mighty Fortress Is Our God in the pits of despair while on the run and sentenced to death for heresy. (It's sheer grandiosity to hope that one day my pen would inflame hearts for God as his did...) I have channelled Luther's spirit more than I would have ever believed.

But I am not one of the "traditional Lutherans," no matter how much my friend Tom S. razzes me about it. I am not bound to tradition and to "the ancient traditions of the church." My spirit rankles whenever I hear "But we've never done it that way before." Given the choice between having an "irregular" communion by an unordained person with non-traditional elements and "not having communion," I'll vote for the Wheat Thins and Dr. Pepper in the mountains every time. I don't believe in fruit-n-Jello salad (or vestments, or anything else) in colors of the liturgical season. And I believe, as the AA text says, that God wants us to be happy, joyous and free. As many of my friends would note, that doesn't sound terribly Lutheran to a lot of our denomination (even among the backsliding members of the ELCA...).

I'm more of a Wesleyan than I ever thought... The "Wesleyan quadrilateral" of Scripture, experience, tradition and reason is a concept that is woven throughout my own life, and even is even visible in the writings of Luther, even though it is never named as such. Having encountered the quadrilateral, one would have a tough time going back to "the four solas" alone. I'd have to admit that my "quadrilateral" would be more of a trapezoid - longer on reason and experience than many folks in my current tradition would find comfortable. But I'm grateful to the folks from St. Paul School of Theology - not only students like Norma and Chuck, but prophetic folk like Tex Sample, Susan Vogel, Adam Hamilton and so many others in my life - who opened my eyes to a new way of seeing. They showed me Christ in powerful ways, and I'm thankful for a season in their path.

...and I'm more Roman Catholic than I'd have believed possible. While there is much I'd leave behind in Roman Catholicism - the Papacy and the historic episcopate, the historic emphasis on works and the power of the local priesthood, their ignorance of women in ministry and their blatant homophobia, to name a few - there is also much for which to give thanks. Put simply, the practices of spiritual formation that gave us Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Thomas a' Beckett, Theresa of Avila, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Pope John the Twenty-Third and Pope Paul VII just can't be all bad. In the renewing spirit of Richard Foster's Renovare' movement, I salute my Catholic sisters and brothers, and the legacy of faith they've given me. And only those who knew me as the loud-mouthed, angry "recovering Catholic" will know how far I've come to get to this point...

The age of miracles is not yet past. The young man who I spoke with on Wednesday night has been a miracle of healing for me, even as he thinks God sent me to him for his own healing. In moments of deepest despair, when I've seen nothing but wreckage in my life, he's reminded me that God still uses broken tools - and that God is the ultimate arbiter of what has value, and what does not. Miracles of healing, of transformation and renewal are happening every day. It's not the withered hand, foot or flesh that was restored in the Bible, but the withered soul, the damaged heart and the sinful past that are healed and made new - one day at a time. My young friend is proof of that; and so, if I'm rigorously honest, am I.

The pain, sorrow, guilt and shame of today are gifts for tomorrow. All that I hate about right now is nothing but raw sewage. In the presence of the Sunlight of the Spirit and fresh air, that sewage will be composted into fertile soil - soil from which joy will grow up tomorrow (or the day after...). It's hard to believe it, with the stench of sewage around my ankles (or waist!), but everything about my life (and so many others in the communities of faith and recovery) tells me this is so.

God's love and grace are available to everyone in the room - and I am in the room. It is so easy to fall for the lie that the world loves beautiful, charming, physically attractive, successful people - and even easier to believe that God would act in our image, rather than the reverse. This is a lesson I sometimes struggle with mightily - that as ugly, broken, and failed as I can feel, God accepts me and loves me just as I am. But I have received a lot of love from God's kids, even when I've been an ugly, broken failure; I can't deny that. So I have to believe that if God's very broken kids could show me that kind of love, how is it that I could ever be undesirable to the ultimate Parent of us all?

My life is not futile; my failures are not fatal; and my death is not final. That simple bit of beginning theology, stolen from Max Lucado's Six Hours One Friday nearly fifteen years ago, is a lesson I still need to hear, and a truth I still have trouble believing. My actions don't often confess these three truths. But at the rock-bottom core of my being, I desperately cling to them as the core of the Gospel. I'll never be able to thank Emile Boselli enough for giving me that book. Perhaps he'll read this, and know what a gift he gave me.

The dinner that spawned all this reflection cost $28. For that pittance, I got three hours of blessing, the encouragement of a young friend, and reminders of a lifetime's accumulation of faith, experience, strength and hope.

I'm $28 poorer - and yet I once again find myself richer than I could possibly imagine. What an absolutely incredible deal.


Anonymous said...


Enjoyed your blog a lot. Kind of funny to see the word Wesleyan. You do not see that every day. Us Wesleyans are usually pretty quite.

Have a great day!

Anonymous said...

Great post, Steve. I appreciate your mix of personal reflection and theological insight. there is practical wisdom here. God Bless.

Anonymous said...

Ditto what Herb said.

"My life is not futile..." You got that right. Have you any idea how many people you bless every time you add another entry to your blog? Your life is FAR from futile; trust me.

God bless YOU, Steve, and I hope you will soon see for yourself that at the times when your life seems to have no purpose, God is still using you. In a big way. :)

New Life said...

Wonderful post brother, wonderful!

This is not a sales pitch, but "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You." You know Wesley was an Anglican. :)

Steve, honestly, this was a very deep and moving post. Thank you, as always, for sharing.

Bar L. said...

Steve, Promise me won't stop posting. Between you Rick and Rob I feel like I three new pastors that are full of wisdom, honesty, insight, inspiration and encouragement.

Today, right before I read your post I was feeling so discouraged over a family incident and a relationship, a girl can only take so much at a time.

I wastrying to mediated on the Serentiy Prayer (i plan to post the whole thing tomorrow...not just the part everyone knows) but instead my mind was full of condenmation for toward myself: How horrible I was last year in my addiction, how I wasn't really better so I may as well give up, how I have to hang on to my current issue out of FEAR.

Then...I opened my daily reading blogs for the day and found THIS POST.

I'm going to stop taking up room and just sum it up by ending with the words you began with:

I ain't where I wanna be
I ain't where I'm gonna be
But thank you, Jesus,
I ain't where I used t'be.

Adinah said...

That's my favorite Lucado book, when I think my life has run amuck, I whip that book out. I read it every Lenten season as well. As a reminder, like all the things you've listed in your post.
thanks for your post.

me said...

how many times are the real pastors...ones who never finished seminary (or ever went)...but have post grad degrees in LIFE. bless ya brother!