Sunday, July 31, 2005

A euphemism for "almost done"

Ninety percent of the stuff takes ninety percent of the time. And the last ten percent of the stuff still takes 90 percent of the time, too.

Well, it's almost done, I guess. The majority of my stuff - more than 90 percent - is now residing in the Pullman neighborhood. The remainder is still in Hyde Park, and that is tomorrow's work.

It's been a long, long, long damn day. I managed to hurt myself - tripped on the bare bed-frame and fell (with about half my weight) on the exposed corner of the bed-frame, resulting in a fairly severe (and bloody) puncture wound. Freaked me out, to be honest - not to mention that it was half an hour before I was supposed to get the U-Haul truck. But, some pressure, some ice, some hydrogen peroxide, and an improvised pressure bandage later, it seems to be some better.

So when I finally dragged myself south to get the truck, I found out the truck was available, and ready - but the KEYS had gone home with the former renters, who were not responding to their phone. I could either take a 26-foot truck - that I couldn't even turn corners with, in our neighborhood - or I could wait until 3 PM (my helpers were scheduled to arrive at 1). What could I do? I said I'd come back.

The people who I asked to help me were absolute guardian angels - they swept up the boxes I'd packed, got them to the street while we waited for the truck to become available, and then my friend Craig H. was God's own loadmaster, and packed that truck so not a single thing shifted in the 11 mile journey to the real South Side.

There's clothes, computer stuff, and 3 months worth of dust and whatever to clean up - so I will have a busy, busy day tomorrow (as busy as I can be, that is, as a hop-along). But for now, I'm going to take a goodly dose of Advil, and put my butt to bed.

Thanks for your prayers - I wouldn't have made it without 'em. And thank you, God, for the gift of great friends, reasonably good weather, and the beginning of the next great adventure.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Ever get the feeling someone has been reading your mail? Well, this would be one of those times, for me. Here's the July 29th devotion from the Henri Nouwen Society:
Spiritual Dryness
Sometimes we experience a terrible dryness in our spiritual life. We feel no desire to pray, don't experience God's presence, get bored with worship services, and even think that everything we ever believed about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit is little more than a childhood fairy tale.

Then it is important to realise that most of these feelings and thoughts are just feelings and thoughts, and that the Spirit of God dwells beyond our feelings and thoughts. It is a great grace to be able to experience God's presence in our feelings and thoughts, but when we don't, it does not mean that God is absent. It often means that God is calling us to a greater faithfulness. It is precisely in times of spiritual dryness that we must hold on to our spiritual discipline so that we can grow into new intimacy with God.
(from Bread for the Journey)
Thank you, God, for people like Henri who had enough guts to describe the struggles openly and honestly enough for the rest of us to be able to say, "Wow...even he felt like that? Then maybe I can pull out of this, too..."

An absolute must-read

My friend Natala has written an incredible account of her relationship with a girl who was a porn performer. Check out Seeing Jesus Through a Porn Star. I'd make the time to read it through from the beginning, here - but do not end this day without reading the part 8 post, here

I daresay that if you don't identify, you haven't been a Christian long - or have been a much, much better one than I have been.

Offline for a couple days...

The move is in earnest - the push to the finish line is 1 PM tomorrow (a change due to UHaul, for those who have been keeping score this is the 3rd change!!). Sometime today, the computer and peripherals will be unplugged and moved to the new setting, so I'll be offline this afternoon sometime.

While you're wondering how I'm doing (and praying earnestly for no damage, no injuries and no rain!), check out this article by a guy I found quite by accident. I don't agree with everything he writes, but his "next church" sounds a lot like the one I'd like to find...and there are several other interesting posts on his blog. I'd love to see his movie when it comes out.

So, until we next meet...

Pray for me and I’ll pray for you
Pray that we will keep the common ground
Won’t you pray for me and I’ll pray for you
And one day love will bring us back around...again.
(Michael W. Smith

Friday, July 29, 2005

A night off - and a new project

It's Thursday night, and I just couldn't face more packing tape - or little mite-sized spiders everywhere - so after the AA meeting, I went to the Medici (a popular Univ. of Chicago hangout) for a burger with sauteed onions and fellowship. I rationalized this by (a) knowing that I was taking half of Friday off, and (b) because I couldn't stand it any more. It helped my frame of mind, a lot. Didn't do much for the cumulative percentage of possessions packed ratio (say that three times fast!), but as a mental health activity it was great. And the burger was pretty good, too...

But the new project is one I'm actually stealing from my Malaysian friend Messy Christian, via an Austrailian connection on Baggas' Blog. I have to thank them both for inspiring me to action...

At least a hundred years ago, I picked up a copy of Richard Foster's spiritual classic, A Celebration of Discipline. My friend Collin Freeman recommended it, and I was all hot to run right through it - and then, like so many good spiritual ideas I've had suggested to me, I just ran out of gas with it.

I'm ready to make another run at it, I think. But, being a wee bit wiser these days, I'm not gonna do it alone.

A month or more ago, I read that Messy Christian and Paul B. were part of a group blogging their way through Celebration - just about the time a group from my home church in Kansas went to a Renovare' conference in Denver. And I thought, "Gee, blogging our way through this would be a great way to (a) go through this book, slowly savoring it and sharing the experience with others, and (b) to actually develop some spiritual disciplines (as opposed to letting them rust, as I have been doing for a while, now).

Then surprise, surprise...I came across my copy of the book as I was beginning the packing process, and I thought, "You really need to do this." And then my friend Cherri from Kansas wrote today and said, "What about the Celebration of Discipline study you talked about?..."

OK, so I get the hint...

For those of you not familiar with the book, discipline in this sense is not "you better behave or I'll rap your knuckles with a ruler," nor is it intended as a "gotta make the donuts" kind of works righteousness. The Disciplines as Foster describes them are practices which help us grow spiritually. His list of 12 disciplines are broken into three groups:

Inner disciplines: meditation, prayer, fasting, study;
Outer disciplines: simplicity, solitude, submission, service; and
Corporate disciplines: confession, worship, guidance, and celebration.

And the good news for y'all is, I'm lousy at almost all of them. This is not a study that I'm undertaking to show you how good I am, or what a spiritual Goliath I have become - but an invitation from a guy whose spiritual muscles have gotten pretty darn flabby to journey together towards a life lived in the disciplines. No superstar pray-ers, meditators, or other spiritual rocket-scientists need apply. In short, this is not an adventure for people who already have mastered these spiritual disciplines; it's for the folks at the other end of the spectrum. So if you're saying, "I could never get to be good at those kinds of things," I have just two words for you:

Welcome aboard.

So here it is:

I'm suggesting starting the reading on Labor Day (Monday, September 5th). That gives everyone a month to find a copy of the book (as you can tell from the link above, there are used copies available from $5 and up). It will also give those of you who aren't bloggers a chance to create your own blog (Blogger is really kind of idiot-proof in that regard). For this project, blogging can be just as simple as an online place to journal and reflect - and it can be as anonymous as you want it to be. (As I am, for the most part...)

We'll read one chapter a week, and you'll be encouraged to post on your own blog (a) what strikes you about the topic at hand and (b) how you succeed (or struggle, or fail outright) in the practice of that particular discipline. Honesty - especially about the areas where you struggle - will really be the best policy. I'm betting you'll be surprised how much company you'll find....

My job will be to provide a place to comment for those who really, really, really can't bring themselves to set up a blog, and also to provide links to folks who are part of the circle who have posted on the topic in the last week (which I'll probably do either late Friday nights or on Saturdays).

The one thing I want to be fairly firm about - if you are one of those people who think Richard Foster is tied to Eastern mysticism because he encourages meditation, or those who think that the Renovare' movement is one step removed from Harry Potter worship, just move on by, please. There are millions of other blogs to read and comment upon; pick one of them, and leave us alone.

I can't find anything evil or New Age about any of the 12 disciplines - in fact, they seem to be at the heart of a renaissance in Christianity, where they are being practiced. And I have remarkably little patience with folks that do have problems with it. (Probably something I'm gonna get to work on, over the next 13 weeks...) But for now, trust me - it's like strawberries, or ragweed, or science fiction - if it bothers you, stay the heck away from it (and us!).

So - if you're interested, post a comment below and join us!

Thursday, July 28, 2005

T-minus 4 days and counting

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me...(Philippians 4:13)

If it's gonna get done, You're gonna have to do it
Then this world will come to see Your power thru it
Father, I trust you - I believe it's true
If it's gonna get done, it's gonna have to come from You...

(The Martins, "If It's Gonna Get Done," from the Experiencing God CD)

Can I hand you the packing tape, Lord?

Gads, I hate this. I'm at the "find a box and throw crap in it" stage of the game - because while I have 97% of this kind of book and 99.5% of the CD's and 96% of the videos in boxes, I've got at least five boxes worth of "it just won't fit where it's supposed to, but I'm not ready to throw it out yet." Gaaaaagh....

The shelves and the dresser drawers are getting emptier...I'm finding things I thought I'd lost forever (or thought I'd already thrown out), and it's just insane. I know "this, too, will pass..." but so far, it seems like gallstones. I think I'm gonna have to take off part of Friday (though I really don't want to) if I have a prayer of getting this done in time.

The weather is a great break - at 7:15 AM, it was a blessed 56 degrees outside. I slept with the windows open for the first time since, oh, May, I think. It was beautiful. These old brick buildings sure know how to hold the heat, though...

It's funny - as I was driving into work yesterday, hitting the scan button, I caught a bit of David Jeremiah's study of the book of Revelation on his Turning Point radio program. Dr. Jeremiah was discussing the whole Tribulation discussion - whether the church will be raptured before the Tribulation, in the midst of it, or after it. His arguments were clear, cogent, seemingly well-reasoned....

...and God help me, but I could really care less.

And it has nothing to do with the move, or being distracted, or short of patience, or anything like that. But people who argue about how and when (and whether) the church is going to be taken up to Heaven before everything here on Earth goes to Hell has never engaged me much before, and engages me even less now.

Why, you ask?

It comes down to this: Jesus told us that "But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only" (Matthew 24:36, NRSV). And I get kind of tired of arguing about how the world ends, because it's so easy to get distracted from the very real challenges of the here-and-now, and focus on the supposedly sweet-by-&-by, when all the Godly people get swept up to Heaven.

And part of it, I suppose, comes from the legalistic scorekeeping faith I had as a kid, that said if I'd confessed just enough of my sins to be 50.000001% good and 49.999999 bad, I'd get taken up. My fear, for a great deal of my life, was knowing there was just one too many sins that I'd forgotten to confess, and I'd be "left behind." (Actually, it wasn't a fear - it was pretty much a certainty.)

Today, I know that the absolute knowledge of my sinfulness, and faith in Christ, is at the heart of my salvation. In short, I know I'm a schmuck, with no hope of heaven except for a loving and merciful God. I can't buy into the "Oh, I'm a pretty good person" defense - because I know I'm not.

I have to trust 1 John 1:8-9 - If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Because I know that with my dying breath, I'll probably manage to utter some blasphemy that a just God could use to keep me out of the Kingdom - but that a merciful God has already sent his Son to redeem.

So you can study Revelation to your heart's content. I happen to love the first three chapters - the letters to the churches. But the rest? It's an amazing, powerful vision, but whatever calling I have is to sharing God's love right now, in this world, and leave the end of it in the very capable hands of the One who formed it in the first place.

Back to the boxes...

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Holy freon, Batman!

Dig this: 8:24 AM, and only 78 degrees! And down to 71% humidity!!

I awoke to tolerable morning conditions for the first time in what seems like weeks, and it sure feels like mercy, and grace to me. The rains yesterday - about a tenth of what we need, unfortunately - made yesterday seem like the most ghastly sauna, but there is promise of highs in the middle 80's (never thought that those numbers would be bringing a Woo-HOO!, but it's a pleasant switch from the 100's!). Even better, the forecast for move day on Sunday is much the same (at least for now).

I finished Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince last night over an extended dinner hour. It was worth the wait, and worth delaying the boxing effort to finish. One less obsessive distraction, anyway...

For all my local friends, I found this really cool map of the neighborhoods of Chicago. The Loop (the heart of downtown) is 32; where I currently live (Hyde Park) is 41; where I'm moving to, Pullman, is 50 (down south) and where I work in East Garfield Park is 27.

That's it - gotta run!

Monday, July 25, 2005

Oh, the things you'll find...

It's been a busy weekend in Hyde Park...I've haven't been in full "warp-core breach imminent" kind of panic, but enough to motivate me to get some serious packing done. A significant portion of the books and CD's have been gone through, and boxed up - a box of theology books will go to my home church in Kansas, and there will probably be more later. I'm just not ready to part with the others, just yet. Maybe moving them one more time will do the trick...

There is also a significant throwing-out component of this - the things I swore I'd get around to fixing, the notes and programs from workshops that I swore I'd put together into a document at some point...I'm trying to be brutal about this stuff. There are lots of memories going into the trash - but there are plenty of memories out ahead, on the horizon, I'm thinking...

But I have to admit - as I did several times over the weekend - that while I will probably grow to love my new location, that I'd really rather not do this. I've gotten quite skilled at whining about moving, and it's like everything else - the answer is, "Shut the hell up and just take the next indicated action. Mature people do this kind of thing all the time, cheerfully and happily. Try acting like one of them, maybe?...."

There is an old story - which I quoted sometime back - about the man who said he had two wolves inside him, one of light and good, and one of dark and evil. His son asked him, "Which wolf will be victorious in the end?" The father responded, "The one that I feed..." It's the same way with this. I can see this as seven days of hell to get through, or see it as a healthy transition to the next part of my life - whatever that is going to look like. But I won't be able to do anything until I make this change.

For now, we pray for rain, with thunderstorms looming on the horizon. Come Lord, and wash this place in your healing rain! (But wait until I get to work, please!)

Friday, July 22, 2005

Harry's house-mate....

Seems I qualify for Gryffindor! Want to get Sorted?

Thanks to Poor Mad Peter for the hat-tip on this one!

What do we do with the weeds?

OK, so I should be furiously packing boxes - because I have, as the old "Smokey & The Bandit" song says, "a long way to go & a short time to get there." But I wrote these notes during a powerhouse sermon on Sunday morning, and they're burning a hole in my mind. So here goes...

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to hear two different takes on the "weeds among the wheat" parable in Matthew 13:24-30,36-43. The first approach, which I heard down in Hutchinson on Saturday evening, might have been something fairly grace-filled and I just misheard it (wouldn't be the first time). But what I heard was a fairly straight-forward call to right living as a path to salvation - "the wheat goes into the master's storehouses, the weeds are bundled to be burned. Where do you want to end up?" A lot of righteousness, but not much hope for folks like me.

You see, there's at least one big problem with the whole "wheat goes to heaven, weeds go to hell" approach. It assumes that I can always choose to be wheat, and not a weed. And while many Christian denominations will tell you that a person can just "turn away from sin," and stay that way, that just has not been my experience.

You see, I'm with my soul-mate Martin Luther on this one. By nature, it seems, I'm a weed. Left to my own devices, I'm a creator of disharmony, chaos and pain; it seems it's just where I boot up, even on the best of days. I do not normally wake up singing God's praises; whereas a lot of folks I know are "Good morning, God" kinds of people, I'm more of a "Good God, it's morning" guy.

That's why last Sunday's sermon by my hometown preacher-man, Dr. Joe Crowther at Atonement Lutheran in Overland Park, really hit close to home for me. He cast this parable in at least three ways I'd never heard before. And he asked some powerful questions I'd never heard asked in this parable.

Do we really want to pull up the weeds? At first, it sounds like a stupid question. There's all kinds of similes for this one. It's the parental admonition from childhood: "Stay away from those kids - because one bad apple will spoil the whole barrel." It's the medical image - cutting out the cancerous tissue to save the rest of the body. Shouldn't we take a stand against the weeds, after all? They'll ruin the rest of the crop. It just makes sense...

Or does it, really? It reminds me of several science-fiction stories (episodes from Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5 come to mind) where machines were designed to destroy everyone but the "pure" members of a race or a world. But who among us is pure? In the sci-fi world, the machines end up killing everyone - and no one wins.

So many Christian churches see the battle as simply cleansing the culture of whatever passes for weeds. In my pre-teen years, the Protestants fought us Catholics; white supremacists fought blacks. Back in the 50's and 60's, people would go so far as to burn their own house down before they'd sell out to a black family - making the neighborhood a walled fortress to keep out the weeds.

Gays (even celibate ones) need not apply to some churches; their kind aren't wanted, no matter in whom their faith resides. Even in my own life, I need not apply to have communion with my sister and brother-in-law on Christmas Eve, because I don't believe what her church believes about Eucharist. So I commit my one act of blatant heresy (and my one blatant lie) every Christmas Eve, because I love my sister more than I care about the supposed "Christian" church she attends.

And if my sister were to leave her church, because her brother couldn't share communion with her, she wouldn't be missed. After all, it's OK to just pull up the weeds - the wheat around the weeds are just "acceptable losses" - collateral damage, if you will. Pastor Joe pointed out that when we are "cleansing" the weeds, we often come to look like weeds ourselves.

What can be done with these weeds? The cry goes up often in the church: Are you really crazy enough to leave those weeds in there? What's gonna happen if we let them grow, and thrive, in our wheat field? What happens if we leave the weeds in the field? So often, we forget that in God's kingdom, weeds can become wheat by the transforming power of Christ.

But even more than that, we often find that in allowing the weeds to stick around, the weeds start to look more like wheat, and some of us wheat stalks seem to look a little weedy. So often, the church that welcomes the "outsiders" (the active alcoholic, the drug addict, the unwed mother, or the gay couple) will soon see the face of Christ in the most "weedy" among us - and see true brokenness in the seemingly most-upright among us.

The last question is what the servants ask the landowner: Did you not plant good seed? It seems that the servants think the landowner is responsible for the weeds. "After all, this weed-pulling is gonna be a pain - and it won't be you sweating it out in the fields. You bought cheap seed, full of weeds, and now we have to pay the price."

What about the goodness of the seed - or the landowner, for that matter - if the seed has weeds in it? What does it say about the goodness of creation if so much evil comes out of it? And what about things which seem to point to the heart of a weed, but which in reality are truly wheat? If "they" are really "like that," how can they be like us? How can what "they" are really be "fearfully and wonderfully made"? And what does it say if we paint God as the creator, and yet there is even the tiniest hint that this very same God could have made "them" like "that"?

For so long, my primary fear of Christians was (and, God help me, still can be) this: What if they find out how "weedy" I really am? Won't they just yank me up by the roots, and throw me on the fire? That's why so many Christians hide what they feel is most true about them - for fear that others will only see thistles, and bring a torch...

The Landowner I know is not afraid of me, nor of my weedy nature. While I was yet spreading my weedy seeds in the field, the Landowner sent his very best Seed to grow, and be uprooted, that I (the hopelessly weed) might live forever in his field. You know what that is?

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.

Thanks, Joe. I really needed to hear that. And thank you, God, for giving your servant a message of grace like that.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Divesting myself of masterpieces

The pain and the longing,
The joy and the moments of light
Are the rhythm and rhyme,
The free verse of the poem of life...

(Michael Card, "The Poem of Your Life," from the Poiema CD)

I need to apologize to my online community - the combination of being gone last weekend, being in the midst of turmoil at my day job, and dealing with the challenges of preparing to move has just not left a lot of time or energy for blogging. The fact that it's 12:51 AM on Thursday, and I'm just beginning a post - means that I'm just running flat out of time. So I'll try to keep you posted on what's happening here - but I'm not gonna promise any great inspiration between now and about August 5th or so.

And it's not because of a lack of anything to say. I could write about a dozen topics, already sitting on the desk in front of me. But I really, really need to just clear the bed off, and hit it, big time. I was actually starting to nod off at work today, and that's not a good sign.

I am still coasting on the glow of being in Kansas, and some of the powerful spiritual awakenings that occurred over the trip. But those thoughts are coming, gentle readers. For now, it's off to bed...

Monday, July 18, 2005

A golden blessing

The pictures cycled through on the eager young man with a dashing smile, a stylish young woman with glasses, three children (a girl, and then two boys), and a series of ever changing settings and outfits. The PowerPoint slide presentation showcased fifty years of memories for my "adopted parents," Neil and Mary Lou, as together family and friends celebrated their golden anniversary in Hutchinson, Kansas on Saturday.

Neil and Mary Lou have always been teachers - Neil as a string-instrument teacher and orchestra director for elementary and junior highs in and around Hutchinson, and Mary Lou as a elementary teacher. For years, Neil has also taught Suzuki violin, and together they ran the Montessori school in Hutch. So the crowd contained a number of students - some with kids of their own, now - and even parents of students who were grateful to have been a part of this family's "great adventure."

I came into Kansas City last Thursday night, about 11 PM. My Friday morning started by meeting up with the men's Bible study I'd been a part of for years (yes, at 6:30 AM on my "vacation day"), and then led into a deep and powerful discussion with my buddy Eric, an all-too-brief visit with my pastor, and lunch with Eric and Sandy. Then, way before I could even imagine it was time, my dear friends Nathan and Laura picked me up to drive me down to their "ancestral homestead" in Hutchinson.

Friday night, they celebrated Nathan and Neil's birthday. A year ago, in the depths of my worst financial straits, Nathan made the extraordinary gesture of asking his family to take what they'd have spent on birthday presents, and put it together to send to me to help me make it through the summer. Their gifts made it possible for me to stay in Chicago last summer and fall - which set in place another whole set of gifts and blessings. So it was a double blessing to be able to share their birthday celebration, and their anniversary celebration today.

But the real blessing was Saturday afternoon - to see brothers and sisters, students and parents of students, and musicians of every caliber joining us in the fellowship hall of Emmanuel Lutheran Church to celebrate the lives of this couple and their families. I got to see a tiny slice of the reward of lives of servanthood, lives of love and compassion and grace - and it looked very much like a slice of Heaven on Earth.

As the "let's eat" and the "let's showcase our musical talent" portions of the program ended, the family opened the microphone up for reflections from friends and family. So I had the blessed opportunity to share how, for my first solo Thanksgiving a dozen years ago, Neil and Mary Lou welcomed me into their home, their family, and their lives. I don't remember all that I said - but I do remember saying that this couple has never seen a stranger at their table or in their home, and that I've always seen God's fingerprints at the end of their fingers.

It's still true.

God of wonder, and power, and strength, and endurance, thank you for the gift of your love, channeled through these two servants. I am a life that was changed through their actions, their attitude, and their love for each other. I thank you for a season in their past, Lord - and trust that, together, we will remain part of a greater fellowship of believers that only You can create!

Saturday, July 16, 2005

A time away - a time of celebration

I am really not AWOL - or MIA - but am on a 4-day journey to Kansas City and Hutchinson, Kansas to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of my dear friends (and adoptive parents) Neil and MaryLou Lentz. It's already been an eye-opening, butt-kicking, blessed time - but I am laptop-impaired, so posting will have to wait until Sunday or Monday night. But God is definitely giving me PLENTY of material to work with! So peace, y'all!

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Who knew....?

Following up on my earlier post about Biblical messages, Damien sends me God's clear teaching about shrimp. Thanks for the hat-tip, brother. Now, I know...

Kill your stubborn sons

That's the advice I heard as I was punching car-radio buttons on Sunday, and heard a portion of program oddly titled Grace to You, in which radio preacher John MacArthur was talking about raising children. Here, according to this fellow, is what God's plan for your kids is:
I can sum up all you need to know about raising your children, all you need to know about parenting in just a couple of sentences. One, teach them the truth about God and His law all the time. That's the first sentence...

Second sentence, demand that they obey that law and punish them physically when they don't. Those two sentences sum up what the Bible teaches about raising children. Teach them the truth about God and His law all the time. Demand that they obey that law and punish them physically when they don't.
And then a little later, the good reverend dropped this little gem:
I take you back to Deuteronomy 21:18 to 21, "If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that when they have chastened him will not listen to them, then shall his father and his mother lay hold of him, bring him out unto the elders of his city unto the gates of his place and they shall say unto the elders of his city...This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice, he is a glutton and drunkard." By now you can tell he's at least a teenager. "And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones that he die."

Take his life. Why? Because the infection of this in the nation is devastating, an infection we experience even at this time. So, says Deuteronomy 21:21, "You shall put away evil from among you, and all Israel shall hear and fear."
This, from a program entitled Grace To You. (Don't believe me? Just go to the broadcast transcript and see for yourself; the Deuteronomy 21 passage is down about half-way on the "Side 2" portion.)

In my more paranoid, terrified moments, I wonder, "How many idiot fathers and mothers will take that little reference to heart, and kill their disobedient, willful children 'cause the Bible tells me so, so to speak?"

It reminds me of Rev. Ed M., a recovered alcoholic turned Methodist minister, who used to say "I make it a point to give 'em Heaven on Sunday morning, 'cause they've been getting Hell all week long." Preach on, Rev...

Of course, this particular line of reasoning irks me most because I am a stubborn and rebellious son. I'm sure that if my father own had heard this little discourse (especially in the last years of his battle with brain cancer, when he wasn't firing on all cylinders) he might very well have acted on it - because, at that time, I would have deserved it. He and I butted heads for years, and I'm sure he died thinking I had been an entire waste of genetic material.

And who knows? Perhaps the people who were hurt, financially and emotionally, by my active alcoholism and insanity would have agreed. At one time, in between the time my wife asked me to leave and the time our divorce was final, I remember thinking that a caring God would have killed me, and leave my wife a stainless widow rather than a tainted divorcee'...

But this kind of irresponsible preaching would have deprived me of the last 15 years - years when I truly think I've done more good than harm, and restored at least a part of "the years that the locusts have eaten." God knows, I haven't been able to make as much financial restitution as I'd like - but I think I can say the "more good than harm" measure is a good thing. I think I've shared the peace and love of God with folks who could only hear it from me, and have brightened the lives of others.

And all that would have been lost, if my parents had listened to this so-called preacher.

Now, to be honest, there are a number of ideas in this transcript of John MacArthur's that I do agree with. I agree that discipline and teaching is lacking in many of our youth, as it was with me. I agree that there is an appalling tendency to use mind-affecting drugs to deal with behavior problems than to reach children and teach them. I'd even agree that we need to teach our children about God, and his law, and his grace, all the time. And I'm sure there are broadcasts of MacArthur's which truly are instruments of grace.

But when I hear this kind of careless, let's shock the people in the pews kind of preaching, I have to call it for what it is, and tell the world that this is not what a God of love, who sent his Son to die for us, would choose.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Busy, and multi-cultural

It's been a good weekend here on what some friends call the north-side of the "south side of Chicago." At least for now, it's not "the baddest part of town"...

I have a relatively new AA sponsee, who is 18 days clean - so talking with him, and listening to him (much more the latter, at this stage of the game) is a big part of my non-work time. And I started the process, this weekend, of trying to compress down my belongings into what would fit into a studio apartment. So the mess has, if anything, increased slightly, but order has also increased fractionally. I've still got a long way to go to get to "ordered," but I'm on the way.

This week, I am starting another study group down at Fourth Presbyterian Church on Monday, packing Wednesday and leaving Thursday night for four nights (3 days) on Thursday night. So life is pretty, well, chaotic - to put it mildly.

But beyond that, a lot of my non-work, non-AA time has been spent with my new LSTC roommate, Erkan.

Erkan arrived on July 1st from Istanbul, Turkey. He is a fascinating man - 33, a Turkish Muslim working on his doctoral dissertation on (as best I can understand, so far) understandings of creation across various faiths. In some ways, we are as different as can be - he is as thin and bony as I am, well, not; he speaks passable English, whereas I am 100% Turkish-impaired. His full-time salary as a teacher in Istanbul would be about $600 a month - well-below poverty levels on my scale. So in our backgrounds, we are vastly different. But he seems to have a great heart, and a desire to learn all he can about this country and how we live and love. And so our first week together has been fun.

Over the summer, Erkan is taking a class in English for international students - which he's finding quite challenging. So as we try to talk about our respective days, the mini-Turkish/English translator gizmo gets a workout - even though Erkan would say it knows very little!

I can't imagine what it would be like to leave family and friends for that kind of duration. Yes, I left family and friends when I came here, but it's not a big deal to get back to Kansas - let alone Ohio. But with Erkan, Istanbul is literally the other side of the world from Chicago. He's called his mother, who lives about 500 km. away from where he lived in Istanbul, 3 times since he got here. She effectively lives as far away from his home in Turkey as I live from my friends in Kansas City. She's cried each time he's called - which only reinforces his belief that "there's nothing like a mother."

So we talk - about food, about the neighborhood, about Chicago, and about the twists and turns of our respective faith journeys. It will be an interesting thing to watch this relationship blossom and grow, for however brief it is. But for now, it's late, and I'm going to bed!

Sunday, July 10, 2005

A story worth repeating

I may have posted this story before; I don't know. But today, facing a number of decisions about how this day will go, I needed to hear it, and I needed to share it. It comes from the distant past, but I remember hearing it first from storyteller Doug Lipman at the first National Storytelling Festivals I attended, and found it again on the web last night. You can quibble with the theology - being grilled about my life by angels - but it's a powerful lesson nonetheless.
Once, the great Hasidic leader, Zusia, came to his followers. His eyes were red with tears, and his face was pale with fear.

"Zusia, what is the matter, you look frightened!"

"The other day, I had a vision. In it I learned the question the angels will one day ask me about my life."

The followers were puzzled. "Zusia, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying you would be frightened to answer it?"

Zusia turned his gaze to heaven. "I have learned that the angels will not ask me, "Why weren't you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?" His followers persisted. "So what will they ask you?"

"And I have learned," Zusia sighed, "that the angels will not ask me, "Why weren't you a Joshua, leading your people to the promised land?"

One of his followers approached Zusia and faced him squarely. Looking him in the eyes, the follower demanded, "But what will they ask of you?"

"They will say to me, "Zusia, there was only one thing that no power of heaven or earth could have prevented you from becoming." They will say, "Zusia, why weren't you Zusia?"

--From The Storytelling Coach by Doug Lipman
Lord God, give the willingness and the strength to grow toward that which you have exclusively created me to be. Amen.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

That's what we're supposed to do

Driving from work to an AA meeting this evening, I was listening to NPR's coverage of the London attacks when it seemed I heard Jesus speaking on the radio. Amidst all the discussion, there was a brief (but extraordinary) interview with a 94-year-old Red Cross worker, who had walked many blocks to show up and be of service at one of the hospitals treating the wounded.

The interviewer asked her what made her walk all those blocks, at her age. "Yes, well, I rather expect that's what we're supposed to do - don't you?" she said, clearly expecting an affirmative response. "You just show up and do what you can to help calm people down a bit. Even a nice cup'a tea helps, I s'pose..."

There was more of the interview, but I don't remember much else of it - perhaps because I'd heard all the testimony I needed already. This woman, just a hair shy of twice my age, didn't know what was needed; didn't wait to be asked; didn't wait for a message from a calling tree, or an email from her pastor or accountability partner. She heard there was trouble, got up, and walked to where there was a need - and then did her best to meet it.

Two things kept echoing in my mind as I drove south. The first was a very simple prayer: "God, make me more like that." The second was a question...

"What would the world look like if this woman's attitude was the response of every person who calls themselves a Christian? If we - you, me, all of us - could just set down the scales of righteousness and let go of the self-appointed role of Heaven's gatekeepers, and just take care of people who are in need? What would that look like?"

Well, a quick glance at the end of Matthew 25 tells me that it would look like the Kingdom of God.

I have no idea whether this anonymous Red Cross grandma believes in Jesus Christ as her personal savior, or has said "the sinner's prayer," or anything else. I don't know if she even believes in God. To me, it doesn't matter at all. The improbable picture of a 94-year-old women walking through the melee of post-attack London to be of service is one I hope to hold onto for a while as a "gold standard" of what it should mean to be a God-follower in this world.

The first time I remember experiencing that kind of love for one's neighbor was almost 27 years ago. My dad died in August, 1978, after an ugly struggle with cancer. We arrived at my dad's brother's farm outside of Hornell, NY about midnight the night after he died for the memorial service. Already, people from farms "up and down the hill" had brought everything we could need - food for an army, folding chairs, you name it. And it continued the next morning - as I dragged myself downstairs, one of my uncle's neighbors had just dropped off what could only be described as a pile of fresh sausage...and his was obviously not the first delivery of the morning.

When I introduced myself to him, I thanked him for what he brought, but asked him why the extravagant outpouring? He looked at me, and smiled, and said, "Son, when one of us up here on the hill runs into trouble, that's just what we do. We bring what we can, and we do what we can. That's just our way."

Lord God, let that be my way, too. Let that be "just what we do."

In the face of hatred, in the face of pain and loss and disaster, in the face of everyday struggles to suit-up-and-show-up to life, let me think like that, and act like that. I sure don't always live to that standard, Lord - but I'd sure appreciate your help to get closer to it.

Send your comfort, endurance and strength to those who mourn the death of loved ones, to those who have suffered injury and trauma, and to those who labor to help, heal, protect and restore. In the midst of pain, loss, and chaos, let them know You are there, and they are not alone.


An undeclared, but very real, war

My brother [rhymes with kerouac] has written a challenging post that has crystallized a lot of my thoughts about the G-8 summit, Live-8, and a lot of the recent strident voices in the so-called "evangelical right."

It seems we're at war, all right.

[rwk] says it so very clear: this is a war between the rich and poor, between the powerful and the powerless. This great divide, sooner or later, forces all of God's children into a no-man's land between two equally adamant world views: that in which expedience merely serves our self and that in which the love of Christ is expressed in a surrender of self for a world full of 'others'.

He is so very right. The battle between "I want what I want" and "I'm called to take care of my neighbor" has become very much like the Cold War - shaping the way we look at everything, and everyone. The big difference, of course, is that there isn't some hulking evil super-power "over there" working to destroy us. The opposing side is likely my next-door neighbor, or the person in the apartment two floors up. They attend my church, pray to my God, love their kids, and are probably great employees.

But when it comes to a choice between an iPod and giving money (or time) to caring for those who are "the least of these," the two sides of this battle react very differently. I have often wondered, as I see a bazillion-dollar Hummer rolling down Michigan Ave., whether the driver's contributions to charity total even a tithe of the payments on that thing. In fact, I wonder what the world would look like if every CD, every DVD, every product you'd buy at BestBuy or CompUSA, carried a mandatory 10% contribution to charity...

And yet this battle is also very much like the war in Iraq. The government and the media seem to be very focused on ensuring that the casualties in both battles are invisible to the average Mary and Joe. One of the reasons the Vietnam War ended when it did (when it could have easily run for years and years) was because we saw the body-count every night on the news. We saw the bodies of dead servicemen and women coming back; we saw the carnage.

And a whole lot of people started saying, "This HAS to stop. NOW." And it stopped.

But there are no images of wounded and dead soldiers coming from Iraq...and no pictures of homeless or hungry people on the front page of our newspapers. In fact, in Chicago the process of "gentrification," of clearing out low-income properties and building $359,000 condos, has become its own kind of religion. In this city, the answer is clear: "we don't want them around here; we don't want them visible. And the way to move 'em out is to buy up where they live, and drive them somewhere else." No outcry, no protesting - and the steamroller just rolls on, flattening those who get in its way...

Now, I have to confess - I spend time on both sides of this battle. I have driven past the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago without ever stopping to volunteer, or contribute. I try to help out folks when they ask, but I have also been a schmuck to panhandlers at times, too. And there have been plenty of times that I have come out of a restaurant, having had a good meal with good friends, and found myself annoyed by the homeless people asking for handouts. Given the day, you might wonder which side of the battle for "the least of these" I'm on.

But I know what side I want to be on. I'm not all the way there, yet - but with God's help, I can be a voice that says, "This HAS to stop. NOW."

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

A blessing from a friend

A hat-tip to Keith Brenton for pointing me to this incredible post in response to my post about my Catholic heritage.

I am not as far away from my seminary experience as he is - so my perception is probably a little warped. But I identified, big time. It's well worth the read.

The 46th percentile...

"Raised Catholic, can you tell?
I'm goin' to Cat'lic heaven 'cause
I been to Cat'"
(storyteller Ed Stivender)

On one of those mini-quizzes, I scored heavily in the Emergent, Lutheran, Calvinist categories, but only in the 46th percentile as a Catholic. Which is pretty funny, because I spent the first 17 years of my life going to Catholic church weekly, including a period where I was going to Mass every day before school. In fact, I even won the "Most Valuable Altar Boy" award at St. Agnes' RC Church in Niantic, CT.

A while back (June 8th, to be precise), my friend Well Woman asked me a seemingly simple question:Can I ask a personal question? Maybe I should email you...I am just wondering when and why you left the Catholic church?

Well, it's like this...I didn't so much leave, as fade away, and then be refused re-admittance.

In the 1965-72 timeframe, my father was still working very hard to be a righteous Catholic man - kind of a Kinghts-of-Columbus poster guy. In all the churches we had been members of, up to that point, Dad had been an usher, retreat leader, Holy Name Society officer, you name it...ol' Joe Flower was there.

Then, in the winter of 1971, Dad lost his job with General Dynamics/Electric Boat. By the spring of 1972, he'd found a new job in Syracuse with Prestolite - so he moved to Syracuse, and we stayed behind (so I could go with my high school band on a tour of Europe that summer). We moved to Camillus, NY in August, and in October, Dad was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer. He made it through - but it was a long, hard surgery and chemo treatment afterwards. And three months later, he got the word that his work was being transferred to Toledo, OH, and he could either go - or lose his job...again.

When we got to south Toledo, we started going to St. Patrick's of Heatherdowns RC church - but the folks there didn't need Dad's ushering, or retreat-leading, or any of the other "just let me help you" behaviors. And Dad got mad - officially, about the "morons" who were still collecting pew tax (for you heretics: a 25-cent per seat collection before the collection). And so he just stopped going to church - period. And when he stopped, we stopped, too. And that, at age 17, was the end of my "practicing Catholic" phase of my life. To the best of my knowledge, the only other time I was in a Catholic church was for Dad's memorial service in 1978. (Amusingly enough, since Dad had donated his body to science, he himself was not "in church" for his memorial service...)

When my life and marriage were blowing apart in October 1990, I tried reaching out to the Catholic church - to three different churches. When I called and said I desperately needed to talk to the priest, each of the three rectory aides told me (in no uncertain terms) that Confession was on Saturday at 8 AM. (As this was Tuesday, that didn't seem at all likely to me.) When my friend Jeff connected me with his Lutheran (ELCA) pastor, and he shared the gospel with me, I knew I was home.

Of course, it was 11 years later that I encountered Richard Foster's Renovare' movement, and found Catholicism's contemplative strains to be a linchpin of the way the Renovare'movement is to be lived.

Wish there was more drama than that, sister. But there was no cosmic "screw you, Charley" moment - just simply falling apart from my old life, and definitely feeling "a part of" rather than "apart from" in the land of the Protestants. But, like everything else in my journey, my life among the Roman Catholics has played its part. And I'm glad to say that the anger and resentment have faded - I'm no longer "a recovering Catholic," as I once was. And for that, I am grateful.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Four days filled with life

It has been a weekend filled to overflowing with both rest and activity. Lots of changes in the last ninety-six hours...

God smiled on Chicago on Friday - cool breezes and temperatures in the low seventies. By 2 PM Friday, I had a severe, near-fatal case of spring fever - somehow, sitting and printing off donor thank-you letters seemed completely useless while a respite from the summer heat and humidity waited outside. My boss had left for the weekend, and my "other boss" was amenable, so I left early, and drove straight downtown to the "Taste of Chicago" festival.

"The Taste" (as it is known here) is a big deal - lots of food and entertainment down at Grant and Millenium Parks downtown. I hadn't been too drawn to the entertainers - Donna Summer, Clint Black, LeeAnn Rimes, etc. - but in a way, I wish I'd stayed for Steve Winwood. But to be honest the food was plentiful, but pretty lame - not much above what you'd find at a good-sized county fair midway (and sometimes below!). And the crowds were, well, stifling, even at 4:00 on a Friday afternoon. So I walked through it all, did my best to find non-lame food, people-watched a bit, and then headed out. I can check the "Taste of Chicago" box off my list...

Friday night at 10 PM, I got the phone call from school that my new roommate had arrived. He was supposed to have arrived the prior Monday, and was rescheduled for Saturday - but anyway, here he was. Erkan Kurt is a Muslim teacher and doctoral student from Istanbul, Turkey, doing his thesis on understandings of creation across faith traditions. He'd been on the plane for 11 hours, and had been taken out to dinner by 3 of the other Turkish students at LSTC, so he got settled, and went to bed.

There isn't much visual evidence for it, but I did a goodly amount of cleaning this weekend. All the winter clothes are clean, and waiting to be put away; all the summer clothes are clean (and mostly hung-up or put away!). I've emptied a dozen boxes, and have been filling several more - a box of theology books to send to my former sponsoring church, a box of clothing to be donated, a box of miscellaneous books to go to the local library, and a box of heavy stuff that's going to the trash. It still looks bad...but there is progress.

Sunday afternoon, I took Erkan on a driving tour of the lakeshore - just to give him a sampling of what's available in Chicago. A couple Turkish students had taken him on a walking tour around the University of Chicago - but I thought it was worthwhile to let him see the bigger picture. He has a pretty good handle on English - vastly better than my handle on Turkish - so our conversations were good, if a little slow.

I had the blessing to be able to spend time with folks from Fourth Church on Sunday evening - a massive potluck organized by my new friend Larry Nicholson. Then the special treat was going to one of his friends' luxury condo a couple blocks away, and going up on their rooftop patio to watch the city's massive fireworks display. It's the first time I've seen live fireworks in, oh, forever - so that was a really good time. The travel back home on the El and CTA buses was a nightmare; even after waiting an hour for the crush to die down, it didn't. Add to that enough personalities fortified by alcohol (or whatever) and it was..."interesting." But worth it - and the CTA was vastly preferable to driving...

I made several journeys down to the apartment I was going to rent in the way-south parts of Chicago - and determined that it's just not the right fit. I'm putting in an application for a studio apartment in Hyde Park, and only if that doesn't work will I take that one. In fact, I think that if I had to choose between that apartment, and staying in Chicago, I'd head back to Toledo instead. I wish it were different, but it's just not the right choice. More on that later.

Through a post on Bagga's Blog, I just discovered a cool term - "liminality" - which describes the state of being on the threshold of something, or at the beginning of a process. Jodi McLaren, on whose blog Bagga found the term, defines it as "this in-between state of letting go of the past, but being uncertain of the future." Of course, this didn't sound familiar to me at all...

I've had two offers recently - both to "pack up and go home," to leave the Big Bad City and run away. And frankly they sound terrifyingly tempting. Except...

Except that whatever I have been brought here to see, to do, to learn...I haven't done it yet. In fact, in some ways, I've been running away from it for a year and a half. I can't live life the way that I was - and I've been too afraid to live life the way I'm called to. All I know is that there is more honesty, more being "real" to do - and I don't think I can do it where I came from.

It seems I've been brought here not to study, not to be ordained, but to wrestle - perhaps with demons, perhaps with the better angels of my nature...I don't know. But I haven't wrestled with anything, yet - or perhaps I've just started. I don't think I'm going to escape Jacob's outcome - but perhaps a limp (or a different kind of limp) is what I'm going to need in order to improve my walk. But I've been doing the "float like a butterfly" part - avoiding the fight for fear of the punches - for far too long.

I'm really starting to feel this, strongly - it's time to make contact. It's time to come out swinging - knowing full well that it's going to hurt, and knowing I'll be limping at the end of it. But having really "lived" this last weekend, I know this - living in limbo sucks. The alternative is far preferable.
Look to this day, for it is life,
The very life of life,
In its brief course lies all the realities
And verities of existence:
The bliss of growth, the splendor of action,
The glory of power...

For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision.
But today, well lived, makes every yesterday
A dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore, to this day.

(a Sanskrit proverb, from the Twenty-Four Hours a Day devotional)
That will be my goal for today...and all I can add to it is, "Amen."

Friday, July 01, 2005

A week of "trudging"

Abandon yourself to God as you understand God. Admit your faults to Him and to your fellows. Clear away the wreckage of your past. Give freely of what you find and join us. We shall be with you in the Fellowship of the Spirit, and you will surely meet some of us as you trudge the Road of Happy Destiny.

I've always loved this last paragraph of the "recovery instructions" part of the AA text - particularly the idea of "trudging the road of Happy Destiny." I have to admit that the first time I read it, "the Road of Happy Destiny" sounded too corny - like a movie with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. But over the years, it has become the image for doing the "left-foot, right-foot" thing: just moving forward, and trying to do the next right thing, trusting that God will guide me when my own wisdom seems mostly inoperative.

Within 90 minutes of the end of my visit with my former wife on Sunday, I started to come down with all the signs of a classic summer cold - constantly running nose, sneezing my damn head off, and a complete energy crash. The fact is, I just don't have time for this - but that doesn't seem to matter, somehow. It's just what is...

I'm also envying several of my AA friends who are headed to Toronto for the 70th anniversary AA International Conference. I had the opportunity to be at the 60th, in San Diego in was amazing beyond description, but I just couldn't justify it financially this year - too many other balls in the air. (If you want a view of how Toronto sees the onslaught of 50,000 recovering alkies (not to mention families!), you can see this article at the Toronto Star website. Pretty cool.)

The last week has provided several opportunities-for-growth at my place of employment, all pointing to the fact that I need to be somewhere else...period. The fact that I don't want to change horses mid-stream just doesn't seem to matter, right now; it's just time to get really serious about heading somewhere else. No sense in whining (though I do anyway); it's Nike-time (just do it!). :::sigh:::

I've had this image of a great place to live, and I've had to come to terms with the fact that it's just wrong. I've been trying to tell myself that my sense of discomfort about it was simply that I just don't want to leave the quasi-comfort of the known situation I'm in. But I've done the drive down south to the location a couple times - and though it's about 9 "surface" miles away, it's really about half-a-world away, for me. (For my Kansas City friends, it's like the difference between being at Zarda BBQ in Lenexa and Rosedale BBQ on Southwest Blvd. - about the same distance and driving time.)

Moving to this location has many advantages - one of which is that I wouldn't have to "simplify" or pare down my life; I could just move it all there. There'd be space - to entertain, to have overnight guests, you name it. The problem is, it just seems wrong. It seems like I'm headed in the wrong direction. And there is this sense that I need to just get rid of the baggage that I've been carrying, and get even more "simple" than I did when I got here two years ago.

And then I think, "Well, you thought you were doing the right thing when you moved here, bubba. Look how well that turned out..." (Even though I know there have been many blessings about coming's just weird.)

So I turn and twist. I need to commit to one place or another, soon. God, grant me the serenity...and the wisdom...and the courage. Especially the courage.

The one thing I know is this; either way will not be fatal. And if it turns out I've made a hideous decision, well, I can make another decision. And maybe it will be less painful than this one seems to be.

There's one thing that feels right: anything which makes me more mobile, and less anchored to "stuff," seems to be a good thing. My friend Damien moved into a studio apartment when he first left his order - and he highly recommended it...but it was a bit easier, I think, because he started out with nothing. Separating from "stuff" seems more of an uncomfortable spiritual exercise, somehow. And maybe that's what this whole adventure is supposed to be teaching me...I don't know. I feel like I'm in a game of Jeopardy - "Could I have 'Tablets of Stone' for $300, please?"

Meanwhile, this Saturday I'm scheduled to get a new roommate at the seminary housing. A student coming from Turkey; he was supposed to be here Monday, but plans changed at the last minute. Maybe he'll be here Saturday...maybe not. Anyway, I have much laundry and housecleaning to do this weekend in anticipation of losing my "solo bachelor" status.

High points for the weekend seems to be a run down to "Taste of Chicago," and watching the big fireworks with some friends from Fourth Church on Sunday. One of the folks has access to a rooftop access, which should be cool.

For now, the sniffling and sneezing seems to have slowed down enough to get some desperately needed shut-eye, so I'm off to bed.