Tuesday, August 30, 2005

"Celebration" update and some links

Several people wanted to know about the timetable for our blog-through of Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline. The central question was, "Are we going to start reading on September 5th, or start blogging on what we'd read the week before?"

I'm suggesting we start reading on 9/5, even though it's a holiday here in the US. I'm going to be posting my "Celebration" blog entries here - although there was a temptation to create a Cele-blog, for a bit. And who knows - it may happen yet. I'll also post a list of links to the Celebration bloggers, and on Saturday the plan is to post links to others' entries. I think it will be a good discipline - and a good time. We've sure got a flock of fellow bloggers, including a number of newbies! For them, especially, here's a big "Welcome to our [virtual] world!"

In other news, there is an extremely good article about what folks are calling "a good death" - dying with dignity and a minimum of suffering. The New York Times health section had this article on August 7th, which should be available for a couple more days. Definitely worth checking out.

And this year's Beloit College freshman mindset list is out - and for those of us of a certain age, it's pretty amazing. Tom McBride, who directs Beloit’s First Year Initiatives (FYI) program for entering students, notes that "This year's entering students have grown up in a country where the main business has become business, and where terrorism, from obscure beginnings, has built up slowly but surely to become the threat it is today. Cable channels have become as mainstream as the 'Big 3' used to be, formality in dress has become more quaint than ever, and Aretha Franklin, Kermit the Frog and Jimmy Carter have become old-timers." He also points out that many of them have never taken a road trip in a station-wagon, walked in the woods without fear of Lyme disease, or known that Howard Johnson's had 28 flavors. Check out the whole list here. That's all for now!

Monday, August 29, 2005

When brooks dry up

So [Elijah] did what the LORD had told him. He went to the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan, and stayed there. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook.
Some time later the brook dried up because there had been no rain in the land. Then the word of the LORD came to him: "Go at once to Zarephath of Sidon and stay there. I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food." (1 Kings 17:5-9, NIV)
God has a sense of humor, and a great sense of timing.

I've been holding onto H. Beecher Hicks' powerful text Preaching Through a Storm, so I could send my friend Eric a copy of a sermon from it for his pastor, as they struggle with building a new church. But instead, this morning, I opened it randomly, and found a wonderful discussion of this text from 1st Kings 17. And it's exactly what I needed to hear.

If you don't know the story, this is where the prophet Elijah has prophesied that the rain will stop and wells will dry up, because of the evil in the land. Ahab and Jezebel don't take well to this, and so Elijah's on the run from them. The Lord tells Elijah to head down to Kerith, hang out by the brook, and the Lord would send ravens to bring food and water in the brook.

And then the brook dries up.

Hick's question is simple and direct: What do you do when it certainly seems like you've been called to go to a place, and the brook you're depending on for life dries up?

This is not just an idle Biblical reflection - especially not for me at this time in my life. Rev. Hicks tells me that "whenever you loose that which gives meaning and importance to your life, your brook has dried up. Whenever you can no longer find the thing that puts a smile on your face and joy in your soul, your brook has dried up." Wow...that gets to be a long list, eh?

When the job I've relied on is gone...when the retirement fund I've been counting on for years is now only worth pennies on the dollar ...when the goal I've had my eyes on for years is no longer a possibility... when the child, loved one or friend I've cared for goes completely off the deep end...when I come to church and sing the songs and say the prayers, but have no melody in my soul or desire to communicate with the One I'm praying to...then Hicks would suggest that my brook has dried up.

Sound familiar?

Yeah, it did to me, too. Entirely too familiar.

The worst part is, Elijah is at the brook as a hiding place - a place of safety - and now it looks like that hiding place is no longer safe. I'd imagine he had some choice words for God at that point, though the text doesn't say it. In fact, later on, Elijah finally gets exhausted and says, "It is enough! Lord, take away my life..." (1 Kings 19:4)

Rev. Hicks tells me that when my brook dries up, it first forces me to remember exactly Who provided the brook in the first place...kind of an attention getter from the Giver of all things. But the main thing is simply this: don't panic, and be ready to move - because God who is in charge of the water is also in charge of you!

Hicks suggests that the reason that our brooks dry up is to make sure that each one of us has a testimony - a story to tell of the struggles of this world, and God's provision in all of it. In Elijah's case, when the water and the food dried up, God sent him to a widow and her son - both of whom were about to starve to death. (Not the best rescue team for a dehydrated, hungry man, eh?)

But the most broken of vessels, plus God's blessing, can be a place of refuge in the middle of life's storms. Just handful of meal and a bit of oil (plus God's provision) meant biscuits for everyone for quite a while. The message seems to be, if I'll leave my dried-up stream over here, God will provide for me over there. Which is exactly what I needed to hear, this morning, and this week.

God, it's hard to even consider being thankful when my brooks dry up - and even harder when I've been the one who's caused my brooks to go dry. It just seems so hard to "keep on keepin' on," at times. But You tell me to just keep on, and that solace and peace are ahead of me. Thank you for that assurance today, Lord. Amen.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

They'll know we're Christians by our...hmmm....

If he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war. And I don't think any oil shipments will stop.
(the now-infamous comments from pseudo-Christian Pat Robertson calling for the assassination of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez)

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (spoken by the guy Robertson is supposed to be following, in John 13:34-35, NIV)

When will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

(the chorus from the folk song, "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?")
The word on the news is that the media misconstrued what you said, Pat. Yeah...it sure sounds like folks misconstrued your statement. After all, you were pretty ambiguous there, buddy. If he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it.

The good news is, you now have a lot more in common with former president Bill Clinton tonight than you ever did, Pat ol' boy...because now you are both debating the definition of what "it" is. There's some real irony in that...

All in all, it's just another brick in the wall, I guess. Over the weekend, my good friend Tom S. was waxing somewhere between philosophical and opinionated about the way Christians have either actively persecuted the Jews, or looked blindly aside as Jews were being persecuted or murdered. Even in his small-town-Wisconsin upbringing, there were enough hurtful memories to rouse an impassioned response, decades later. Then he caught me a little slack-jawed when he said something to the effect of, "I sleep with one eye open around Christians."

I don't know if my face said it, but my very first thought was, "I'm a Christian...do you feel that way about me?" Then I thought, "As a matter of fact, your partner is a Christian, many of your good friends are Christians..." Then I thought, "Well, that depends on what you call Christian, doesn't it?"

Many times, I've wanted to say to people, "Yes, I'm a Christian - but not like them." Tom and I have had this same kind of discussion about Lutherans, and Luther - how at the end of his life, Luther wrote some hideously bitter, vitriolic crap about Jews being "the Christ-killers" (which he did, sadly) which was later used by Hitler as justification for turning millions of Jews into air pollution. And, of course, the majority of the Lutheran church (and Catholics, and the whole of Christianity except for bold saints like Dietrich Bonhoeffer) stood silent as it happened.

It's at times like this that I've wished that there was a way that the 90% of Luther's theology that focused on justification by grace could be preached (and lived) while actively denouncing the tragic anti-Semitism that colored the last years of a triumphal life. I hope that's what I'm living - but evidently it doesn't show.

And of course, Tom sees the loving, caring, accepting way that 95% of the Christian church reacts to gays, and justifiably sees his Jewish history happening to him all over again. The voices of evil are very loud - especially in the church - and the voices of good are ever so soft. I can't remember who said it, but it's true: The only way for evil to triumph is for good to be silent.

On another front, the 50th anniversary of the August 28, 1955 murder of Emmett Till has been in the news here lately. Emmett Till was a former Chicago resident, and much of his family was still here, though he was living in Mississippi when he was kidnapped and brutally murdered by racists. The trial and acquittal of the accused murderers galvanized the Civil Rights Movement and forever changed American society. In the Chicago media lately, there has been this same kind of very justified talk among the black community: "They did it to Emmett...they've done it to lots of us...and if they get the chance, they'll do it to us again." They see the collapse of the institutions which fought for civil rights, the erosion of the government policies designed to protect those rights, and they wait for the white men to come. And I, as a white man, become one of "them" by default.

Over the years, I've had friends. Some have been Jews, some have been Catholics, Protestants, straight, gay, black, Hispanic...it hasn't mattered. No matter the social gaffes I've made, the innate prejudices and attitudes that I've been raised with, I was always raised to accept people on their actions, not their appearance - and I was never raised to hate anyone. So it smarts (more than a little) to be tarred with the same brush as racists, anti-Semites, and gay-bashers.

I deplore violence; very early on, I fell in love with Isaac Asimov's great line, "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent." But because I'm white, male, and believe in Christ, there is the assumption that I'm part of the ones who will be coming for the Jews, the blacks, the gays, the women, the underprivileged and the powerless (or I'll stand aside while others do the dirty work) - because that's what white Christian men have always done.

So the sin of guilt by association goes on. I guess I was a little hurt by Tom's comment on Saturday - but after some reflection, I can see how he (and a lot of folks) justifiably feel that way. I shouldn't be surprised when people who supposedly know me can look past my present actions and see a long history of injustice, abuse and violence, and "sleep with one eye open."

I just wish there was a way to denote follower of Christ* or white* or male* or American* that carries the asterisked footnote, "...but not like them." I guess the old song is really true, in the end - only way they'll be able to see the true Christians is by our love.

God, let me show that love today - let my actions speak louder than other people's preconceptions.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Lookin' forward to a permanent connection

I am still in transition - the work on the apartment that I'm going to move into is moving more slowly than I would have chosen. So I'm still without a permanent desk or internet connection. Ah, the joys of being "in-between"...

At least part of this should end Friday - when the folks from WOW cable are coming to install my connection. So I'll be able to set up my PC and get back to some more regular connectivity, I hope! Until then, my postings may continue to be a bit spotty - but I'm doin' my best!

Beware...do not be led astray...

They asked him, "Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?" And he said, "Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and, 'The time is near!' Do not go after them."
(Luke 21:7-8, NIV)

I am always surprised that we seem to have decided that the only "signs" worth discovering are those that signal the end. No one ever seems to be calling attention to the positive signs of God’s activity, to the breaking through of light or hope or insight or justice. For my own part, I can get so focused on nuclear threats, sectarian violence, ecological disasters created by man, and constant natural tragedies (forest fires, droughts, you name it) that I can buy into this idea that the end is near.

Is it possible that the reason that so many of us are so sure there is no good news is that we have never been encouraged or trained to look for it, to identify it? Do I enter into each new day intent on seeing the hand of God in the midst of our activities and encounters? Or am I so sure that everything is in decline that when I'm confronted by a sign of God’s grace, I argue against its significance—even deny its reality?

Jesus said, "Beware," and he wasn't just kidding. "Do not be led astray." I have to be constantly reminded to let God determine and shape the future (it's not as if I have a choice - God wins on this one, every time!). If I'm willing to do that, I'm usually pleasantly surprised by what God has in store. In the meantime, for today I'm going to watch for the signs of hope, the evidence of faith, the marks of love that will appear if my eyes are open to them. If I turn my head the right way, I'm pretty sure they'll be easy to see.

Open my eyes, O Lord, to the way you are working in the world. Help me to focus less on its demise and more on its promise and mine. Amen.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Memories, farewells, and next steps

On Friday August 22nd, 2003, at about 12:30 AM, an aging Toyota Camry and a bright yellow 17-foot Hertz/Penske rental truck left Shawnee, KS headed for Chicago, carrying with them every item I owned and several truckloads worth of both dreams and memories.

It was a long drive to Chicago. It's been a much longer journey since I got here, even though (in many ways) I haven't gone nearly as far as I would have wanted...

I've always been a kind of anniversary-laden guy. Part of that habit has been the connection that I have with people at certain dates-and-times. But part of me also sees those anniversaries as mile-markers along the journey of life - times to review, to give thanks for gifts received, to make amends and ask forgiveness for sins of omission and comission, and to re-set my sails.

This weekend has been a lot of all three of those things.

I spent a significant part of the weekend digging through the boxes that are still stacked in Jamie's garage - sorting through some of the stuff I should have ditched before I moved, rearranging stuff that needs to come into the apartment next weekend, adding things to the take-to-KC boxes and the donate-this-stuff boxes. I probably moved a third or my belongings in one way or another this weekend, and it was hard work (despite the very moderate temperatures, for which I give much thanks!).

I found a bunch of pictures - from my youth, from my "old life," and from my former church and AA community. There were some beautiful memories, and some twinges of regrets - friends I've not kept in touch with and the like. I got pretty ruthless with my class notes from the two sets of seminary classes I've attended - tossed a bunch of stuff that I'd rationalized, "You'll want to look at this again, some day." The fact that I still kept some stuff is proof I probably wasn't ruthless enough - but I'm not ready to toss that stuff, just yet. And I got a bit more realistic about just how many books I should keep, and how many either need to go to my former church or to the seminary libraries.

This has been a weekend of farewells - notably of my friend Craig H., who is moving to LA with his wife both to work on his doctoral disseration and to be closer to their families. We had a beautiful cookout tonight down at a friend's absolutely-fabulous condo in the South Loop. The food was fantastic, the fellowship was fantastic - and it was a very enjoyable send-off for Craig and his wife Jackie.

In some way, I missed having that kind of closure with the seminary community - to have a farewell cookout, do the "so long, it's been good to know ya" thing. But in many ways, my relationships with folks at the seminary had been atrophying for a year - and by the time I left for Pullman, I was ready to be gone. Perhaps, once we get the apartment painted and nominally moved-into, I'll be able to invite those few with whom I've remained connected to a apartment warming party. Maybe in late September or early October, when it's cooler and prettier around here.

Tomorrow, I'm going to be going downtown to register for a set of potential jobs. It's stuff that I've done before (admittedly, 15 years ago) but it sounds (a) like fun and (b) a lot closer to commutability than my current position. It's scary - but I'm definitely in the "nothing ventured, nothing gained" mode, that way. I've also found a number of positions on the Chicago CraigsList site. This is yet another next-step kind of journey, one that would be far scarier if I hadn't just posted this about not being afraid.

Topics I need to write about...
- how Cindy Sheehan is shattering the silences about the war;
- how hard it is for us to really, really hear the Gospel;
- whether my choice to change jobs was the result of listening to God or Satan; and
- reflections on the ELCA churchwide meeting, and their choosing not to choose.

But for now, I need to be up at 5:30 to get ready to leave at 6:45 AM to be at the Accountemps office at 8 - so it's just bedtime. Peace, y'all...

Friday, August 19, 2005

Eternal rest grant unto Brother Roger...

I haven't been following the news much, and so was shocked to hear of the brutal murder of Brother Roger, the founder of the Taize' movement in France. You can read a good summary of the tragic events here.

The founder is gone on to glory - but the movement, and its work here on earth, continues. "Well done, good and faithful servant..."

A bit of this, a bit of that...

It's been a busy week - in some ways, it seemed like Friday would never get here, and in other ways, I've wondered where the week has gone. A week full of the Chinese curse - "May you live through interesting times." So I thought I'd just play catch-up before the weekend...

The preaching gig down in Danforth, IL last Sunday was very nice. I took the time to drive down Saturday night, and had a good, leisurely drive down (rather than get up at 4:30 to be ready to leave by 6 to get there by 7:45 for an 8:30 service). The congregation was very friendly, very welcoming, and affirming - and generous. The pastor and his wife (who were down at the now-infamous ELCA churchwide meeting in Orlando) had left me with several wonderful books. Not only did I get a copy of the Lutheran Book of Worship Minister's Desk Edition (I'd lost mine during Worship class a year ago) but a wonderful prayer book, a mini-devotional by Max Lucado, and a delightful volume by Craig Nessan titled Many Members, Yet One Body: Committed Same-Gender Relationships and the Mission of the Church (2004).

I thought the sermon went well, although I've done just enough preaching to know that "nice sermon, pastor" doesn't necessarily mean much - it can oscillate in meaning between "you finished before I actually fell asleep" and "God actually spoke to me through you." There were no tongues of fire visible, but no one actually burst into flames, either. As either Stan Hauerwas or Will Willimon once said when a parishoner said, "Good sermon, pastor," I'd have to say, "Well that remains to be seen..."

The living situation is still good - my landlord returns either Friday or Sunday, and the work on the upstairs apartment will begin in earnest. There is a bunch of painting and just general sprucing up that needs to be done - but my landlord seems genuinely ready to do the deal, for which I am grateful.

The work situation is still unsettled - but the amount of stress I'm enduring over it is decreasing. There's probably a blog post still waiting on the topic of whether I was really led by God or the Devil to self-impose a departure deadline. It may be the biggest mistake of my life...but the level of peace certainly doesn't feel like it, somehow. There are a couple of options that I've found quite by accident, while pursuing some "more traditional" job sources. Here's hoping, and praying...

The weekend is going to be unpacking and repacking boxes, a trip to the Chicago Air Show, and a return to Fourth Presbyterian. It seems I may get the chance to meet one of my sponsee's lady friend - which is a huge step for him as far as being "out" about his recovery. I'm just ready to get some real sleep - for some reason I just haven't been really getting the sleep I need lately.

All that to say this - I'm grateful to be here, sunny side up, suckin' air and sober - but for now, I think the "growing closer to sanity" thing would be to head for bed. Happy weekend, y'all...

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Jesus Outed in Megachurch, Film at 11

You really, really need to check out this incredible set of posts by Mac. It's particularly poignant if you've ever visited a megachurch or mega-wannabe, and heard some of the watered-down drivel that oozes out of some of them.

(To be fair, I've been to a number of churches that seat thousands of people, where the Gospel has been preached in it's purest forms and where faith and the world meet every single week. But I've also experienced the other, too.)

Thanks to Rick at a new life emerging for the hat-tip...

Some simple, clear Biblical teaching

Looking for a central theme to the Bible, apart from God's love? I wish I could take credit for this, but it's inspired by a meditation by Elizabeth Stuart:
God said to Abraham, "Do not be afraid" (Gen 15:1)
God said to Hagar, "Do not be afraid" (Gen 21:17)
God said to Jacob, "Do not be afraid" (Gen 46:3)
God said to Moses, "Do not be afraid" (Exodus 14:13)
The Lord said to Joshua, "Do not be afraid" (Joshua 11:6)
Jonathan said to David, "Do not be afraid" (1 Samuel 23:17)
Elijah said to the widow, "Do not be afraid" (1 Kings 17:13)
God said to Israel, "Do not be afraid" (Isa 41:10)
God said to Jeremiah, "Do not be afraid" (Jer 1:8)
God said to Ezekiel, "Do not be afraid" (Ezekiel 2:6)
An angel of the Lord said to Joseph, "Do not be afraid" (Matthew 1:20)
An angel of the Lord said to the shepherds, "Do not be afraid" (Luke 2:10)
Jesus said to Peter, James and John, "Do not be afraid" (Matthew 17:7)
Jesus said to the disciples in the boat, "Do not be afraid" (John 6:20)
The angel said to the women at the tomb, "Do not be afraid" (Matthew 28:5)
Jesus said to the disciples, "Do not be afraid" (Luke 12:7)
The Lord said to Paul, "Do not be afraid" (Acts 18:9)
The angel said to John on the isle of Patmos, "Do not be afraid" (Rev 1:17)

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

I needed to hear that, today.

Monday, August 15, 2005

A bit of terror, a bit of joy

My former roommate, Erkan, was wandering around the University of Chicago about a month ago when he heard the most amazing sounds - bells, ringing in what sounded like music. He came back and, in his halting English, attempted to describe what he heard. After a while, I figured out he was hearing the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon, installed at the University of Chicago's Rockefeller Chapel.

Then, about a week ago, I read on the UC website about the Carillonathon - a series of free recitals featuring various arillonneurs from around the world. And before each recital at 5:30 PM, there would be a tour of the chapel tower and the "guts" of the carillon itself. So I made sure I'd be back from my gig down south, and I met up with Erkan this evening and went to to check it all out.

Well, I really hadn't considered that to see the carillon, we'd have to climb almost all the way up the bell tower - up a narrow stone spiral stairway, across a wooden walkway suspended over the nave of the chapel and just under the roof, and then up another spiral staircase. Two hundred and twenty-six steps - I was literally gasping for air as I made it into the carillon "playing room."

It was not the sort of thing I would have chosen to do - I hate heights, closed spaces, and climbing stairs - especially spiral staircases. You see, with size 12-EEEEEE feet, about the only place I can get any real traction on these spiral staircases in on the very outside of the steps - so every other step feels like I'm going to fall all the way down to the bottom.

And for a person who's not particularly excited about heights, falling down 226 steps - or imagining dropping through the creaking, squeaky wooden walkway over the ceiling of the nave and falling to my death - were about the worst panic-inducing events in which I could have participated.

But between my late mother's voice saying, "When are you ever gonna get the chance to do something like this again?" and the voices of a whole bunch of AA folks talkin' in my head, saying, "What part of one step at a time don't you understand?", I made it - both up and down. Seeing the thing in operation was an amazing process - since actually playing the carillon is all-mechanical, with no technology boost for its operation. (There is an automatic-ringer for the chimes on the quarter-hours, but it gets turned off for recitals).

Now, don't get any fancy ideas - I didn't go up the last three flights of stairs, and go out onto the Chapel roof or anything. But I made it, saw the second largest carillon installation in the nation, and lived to tell the tale.

That's pretty cool, I'd say.

But by the time I had dinner and got home, I was done. I mean, done like dinner. I had no energy left for any of the stuff I was supposed to do this evening. But I have an indelible memory of this adventure, which is probably the best way to be connected to my immediate past...

So tonight I give thanks - for the gift of a good friend, and the combination of courage and endurance enough to experience what had been so freely given to me. Those are two great gifts, God - along with "Advil for serious pain" in my legs and knees...

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Matters of trust, matters of hope

It has been an interesting week in the Windy City, to be sure. For some reason, I have been struggling with sinus problems that have really affected my ability to sleep soundly - which has affected just about every other part of my life (I just don't do well when sleep deprived). And I'm still in a kind of transition - the apartment upstairs has been vacated, but it's in desperate need of cleaning and paint (which should be addressed early next week when my host and landlord returns).

The main deal has been in my employment. For more than three months, I've been in limbo as far as a permanent position with my current temporary employer - and at each month-end, the story has been, "Well, I don't think we're going to be able to make this position full time until next month..." Needless to say, this hasn't helped my serenity very much at all, and it surely has not done much for my attitude or productivity. It hasn't helped that a couple times, there have been subtle digs - like being told that there's no need for me to attend staff meetings (because, of coure, I'm not staff).

Finally, I was speaking with one of my AA sponsees on "a matter of the heart," and he asked me what I should do. "I know you're not a relationship counselor," he said, "but just tell me what to do, OK?"

Well, I try hard to never tell people what to do - that would assume that I know what's best for them, when I have very little indication that I know what's best for me on any given day. But I told him that if something would bring more truth, more love, more joy, and more peace in the world, it would probably be good - and if it brought more resentment, fear, anger, doubt, or jealousy in the world, it was probably bad. And way back in my head, this tiny little voice said, Oh, really? And what side of this divide does your work situation come down on?

Isn't it funny that what we would share with other people is so often what we need to hear ourselves?

A little spot-check inventory on this particular deal showed me that I'd been holding on, waiting for them to do what I needed them to do, and alternating between "I'll just be a star, so they'll be amazed with me" and "what the hell, why bother - they're not going to hire me, anyway." And I came to see that I had been allowing them to become my higher power, at least as far as financial security had been concerned. It just wasn't real pretty...and I was going to work resentful, and coming home the same way.

So I "hit bottom" Thursday night, and the words I'd given to my sponsee echoed in my head all the way home, and all the way to work the next day. So I asked to meet with my boss, and told her (a) I'm not finding any enjoyment in what I do, (b) I'm not doing a good job of it, as a result, and (c) I'd like her to plan to have me replaced by September 15th.

She took it well - and was grateful both for the notice and, I think, secretly grateful for my bringing resolution to the situation. It's strange - because even though the idea of cutting off my own employment in 30 days is somewhat terrifying, it also felt freeing in an amazing way. The sense of at least knowing there's a working deadline, rather than endless delay and uncertainty, seems more tolerable somehow. My friend Neil L. in Kansas called shortly afterwards, and said, "So - is the sky a little bluer? The birdsong a little brighter? That's how it was for me..."

So that's going to be interesting. I'm back to trusting that I can't fall outside of God's grace, and that if I just do the footwork that I'll find some peace and serenity (and permanent employment, hopefully!).

Sunday morning (tomorrow) at 8:30 AM, I will have the blessing of leading worship and preaching at St. John's Lutheran Church in Danforth, IL. I'm driving down tonight to stay (as opposed to getting up at 4:30 AM and driving down at the crack of dawn). So it should be a good time. There is a little irony in that I had to move off the seminary campus before I got another lay-preaching gig...but I'm no stranger to irony in God's plans for me...

God of enduring power, help me remember that you are always present to strengthen me in my weakness. Grant me the words to speak, and the willingness to seek your will for my speaking, for my working, and every part of my life. Amen.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The search for "good dying"

An excellent article in the New York Times about the evolution of hospice care, and the idea that a "good death" is starting to edge out the "preserve life at any cost, no matter how much it hurts" idea in medicine. Check it out here. Well worth reading - the story on page 6 of the article is a powerhouse one.

Compassion for the outsider

A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession." Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, "Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." The woman came and knelt before him. "Lord, help me!" she said. He replied, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs." "Yes, Lord," she said, "but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered, "Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted." And her daughter was healed from that very hour. (Matthew 15:22-28, NIV)

By a fluke of blessing, I'll be preaching on this text in a little church in Danforth, IL this weekend. (You can start prayin' for 'em now...) It's a challenging text, as it reads. In the past, I've heard so few satisfactory explanations of Jesus' reactions, but I've got an idea...

In the passage immediately before this, Jesus is talking about the fact that food and dietary purity (something the Jews were really good at) wasn't going to make them pure. Then this woman comes and says, "Help me!"

Frankly, I don't like the explanations of this text that says Jesus was teasing or jesting with the woman, nor do I like the image of God-with-us saying, "Hey, here's a little test - a little hoop to jump through. Let's see if you can convince me before I save your daughter." That just doesn't sit well with my understandings of Christ as sacrifice to the whole world.

I'd suggest that Jesus believed that the Jews needed to get this message more than anyone else. After all, in those days they relied so heavily on this kind of works righteousness, even though the practical upshot of their actions was to cause all kinds of hurt in Yahweh's name. The story of the Bible in the "first testament" is the story of God's relationship with the people of Israel - so why wouldn't Jesus be sent to them, first? How would miracles for an outsider advance his case with the Jews?

I can easily fall in love with the idea of God-with-us that can be spoken with, and pleaded with, and a Savior whose eternal mind can be changed. Once again, Jesus breaks every social barrier - Jew speaking to Canaanite, rabbi/teacher speaking to (and listening to) a woman, the One with power acting to benefit one without any power at all. The example that God-come-to-earth gives us is breaking comfort-zones and trampling social barriers to share love and compassion with those with whom the "church society" of the day would not even bother themselves.

Who are the groups that today's church would shun, and not want to serve, in this day and age? To whom would the disciples of this age say, "Send them away?" Who are the Canaanites among us today who need miracles of compassion? I'd be interested to hear your lists...

God of power and love, let the church that claims to follow your Son stop deciding who is going to Hell in Your name, and let them reach across every social and moral barrier to share Your kingdom here on earth. Amen.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Thank you, Tony Blair....

Recently, the self-styled "reverend" Fred Phelps has started organizing protests at the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq. His premise is that since America has chosen not to condemn homosexuals, that God has therefore withdrawn any blessing from the US, and in fact now hates the entire nation. Thus it serves the soldiers right, for fighting for a queer-loving nation like the US.

This sickens me. Phelps always has sickened me, to be honest; when I think obsess about the evil he spouts, I can feel my blood boiling (which is exactly what the bastard wants...dammit). He uses the Bible just as Hitler did - to kill, hate and destroy. There are very few people who I believe truly fit the description of "pure evil" - but Phelps is one of 'em.

But help has come from across the Big Pond, from our British cousins. In an interesting exercise, I took this article from CNN.com, and modified it ever so slightly. (I was originally going to link to Phelps' website to show some of the most awful protest images - with the poor saps smiling as they hold signs like "God Sent The IEDs" - but to be honest, I don't want to give them a way to link back here. You can see the horrific images yourself...)
British Prime Minister Tony Blair has announced new measures to deport and exclude from UK those advocating hatred and violence.

Blair, speaking nearly a month after deadly bombings on London's transit system, said Friday the UK's human rights act would be amended if necessary to counter Islamic religious extremists.

The government also plans to draw up a list of extremist Web sites, book shops and organizations that promote these extremists, he said.

"Let no one be in any doubt that the rules of the game are changing," Blair told a London news conference, his last before breaking for a summer holiday.

The prime minister said the Government plans a one-month consultation period to determine new criteria for excluding and deporting people from Britain.

"We will establish, with the Muslim religious community, a commission to advise on how, consistent with people's complete freedom to worship in the way they want, and to follow their own religion and culture, there is better integration of those parts of the community presently inadequately integrated," Blair said.

Blair said new legislation, which is expected to be passed by the end of the year, will also outlaw "indirect incitement" of terrorism.

The measure is seen as an effort to crack down on extremist Islamic pseudo-religious clerics who glorify acts of terrorism.
Oh, and Mr. Phelps - there are lots and lots of Marine and Special Forces men and women who are friends of the soldiers whose funerals you've been picketing. And may your so-called God help you if some of those folks ever catch up with you...

Monday, August 08, 2005

Outta my mind on Monday moanin'

Yes, since it's 12:09 AM, it's definitely Monday moanin' time...

Good moanin' - I've been asked by a little Lutheran church about 90 miles south of here to be a lay preacher whilst the pastor is away at the ELCA churchwide assembly. My buddy Mike Willis met the pastor's wife in Gettysburg, of all places, and suggested me as a sub for the good Rev while he's outta town. So that will be interesting. And it's a great text - Matthew 15:10-20, 21-28. The downside is, it's an 8:30 service (meaning 6:30 AM departure!) and it's not air-conditioned. But hey, given the fact of my current status, this is very cool.

Moanin' - the folks upstairs moved out this weekend, and I went up to see the apartment I'm supposed to move into. The way it looks now - dirty, icky walls and floors that haven't been cleaned or painted in what looks like forever - is pretty depressing. But I'm gonna talk to my buddy about getting some plain Killz (stop-stain white, to those of you from out east) on the walls before I move in. But it's gonna take some heavy-duty cleaning to get it done - and I'll be gone most of next weekend. So that sucks.

Good moanin' - I started sorting through some of my stuff in the garage, and figuring out where it's gonna go - upstairs, or in a storage area downstairs. The answer (especially given the cleaning/paint needed upstairs) is probably "downstairs." Well, at least I'll know what to get rid of if the boxes are unopened this time next year!

Good moanin' - a delightful young man has been corresponding with me about issues of faith and Christian life. He's from way south-n-east - but his questions are quite powerful, and remind me of the questions of faith that I had (which remained devastatingly unanswered for years). He may not know it - but he's given me much more than I could ever give him as we've volleyed emails back and forth. Thank you, God, for someone with whom I can share my faith!

But it's 12:30, and it's time to hit the hay. Peace -

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Sixty Augusts ago...

...a President, a bunch of scientists and even more soldiers ended up opening Pandora's Box for all time. (And if I'd been there, I'm afraid I would have done exactly the same thing.)

On August 6, 1945, a specially-fitted bomber called the Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. It ended the war, but opened a box of ultimate evil, and for sixty years we've been trying in vain to stuff it all back in the box.

Today, in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, a ceremony will be held on the University of Chicago campus, where the first controlled nuclear reaction occurred in the first atomic reactor. A Henry Moore sculpture marks the site; unfortunately, the marker for the first controlled nuclear chain reaction is clearly symbolized by the first tragically uncontrolled reaction.

In the exuberance of my youth, I found atomic power to be the dream of the future. No emissions, highly efficient, I saw it as the triumph of science and technology over the needs of culture, and I trusted in the technology to keep us safe. I even remember touring the yet-unfinished Millstone Point nuclear power station with my dad as part of an IEEE conference on nuclear reactors.

Interestingly enough, Millstone 1, finished in 1970, was shut down in 1996 after a series of safety issues and releases of radioactive gas. It's going to be dismantled, and this is where the problem comes. The "waste" products from commercial atomic energy remain radioactive for tens - even hundreds - of thousands of years (see this link for a good article about radioactive half-lives). Technology failures (think Three Mile Island and Chernobyl) would cause devastation which could literally wipe out civilization. If you can find it, an old sci-fi book called The Prometheus Crisis offers a great way to see how the world could very well end.

I didn't mean to get off on a nuclear-safety rant...but, as I listened to survivors retell the stories of the hideous effects of radiation poisoning, and the incredible devastation of the blast itself, I sure as hell wish we could have done differently. The problem today is that not only does the tiger still have 24,000-year teeth, but it's not in the cage - nuclear material is being actively sought by terrorists. While I couldn't bring myself to see the movie, I found the book The Sum of All Fears to be terrifyingly accurate as far as what I understood of the process for nuclear destruction.

On this day, I mourn the lives lost, and the innocence lost. We will never be able to stuff Pandora's evil back in the box - and living with it is going to require more courage than most of us can imagine. I've lived with the air-raid drills - hiding under desks in elementary school forty years ago - and I can't go back to living in that kind of fear. I can only go forward in faith, and work for a better way. And pray...

Friday, August 05, 2005

To comfort, or to clobber?

Six hundred miles southwest of me, a man named Shorty died about 3 AM this morning.

I didn't know him - he was my dear Kansas City friend Mike M's sponsee. He'd lived a hard life - alcohol and drugs had helped him throw away a lot of dreams in his forty-five short years. And when he was diagnosed with a massive brain tumor eight months ago, he threw away what sobriety he had and spent two months drinking over it. Then his lady intervened, and he spent the last six months sober and active in AA.

It's interesting that as death approaches, people get a little crazy, and start forming debating societies and splitting into camps of doctrine and dogma. Was Shorty really Christian? He was still living with his girlfriend (although I'm not so sure how much sin you are capable of while having chemotherapy...); more than one voice, I'm sure, asked "Can you really be a Christian while 'living in sin'? He's not gonna go to heaven like that..."

The debates weren't limited to the religious side of the house, either. In his last month, when the tumors started metastatising just about everywhere, the pain became unendurable for Shorty, and they put him on morphine. "That sumbitch ain't sober if he's taking morphine," said more than one legalistic AA voice, who was talking without the benefit of sharing Shorty's experience. "I'm not gonna hang around and watch while they juice up some damn junkie."

And then there were the people who just came to comfort, and be a blessing to a dying man...the ones who listened to him yell about the pain, and the injustice of dying at 45 (as if there is less injustice in dying at 55, or even more for dying at 12 or 22). They listened, they talked, they helped take care of his girlfriend, Lisa Jo, and they loved Shorty, knowing that they wouldn't get the chance much longer.

With his death this morning, the camps are lining up again. "He's in a better place," my friend Mike said this morning. "He's sitting having coffee with Bill W. and Dr. Bob, and our buddy Steve, and Doug K...and laughin' at all of us." Then there's the group preaching, "he should have repented of his sins, he's burning in HELL! And YOU need to repent RIGHT NOW and accept Jesus Christ..."

A friend often says that "Death makes universalists of all of us," and I agree wholeheartedly. My only prayer for this man I didn't know is, "May God be merciful to him, and comfort his family and friends," and trust that when I die, that my God is greater than my theology and my dogma.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Staying in the construction zone

To become neighbours is to bridge the gap between people. As long as there is distance between us and we cannot look in each other's eyes, all sorts of false ideas and images arise. We give them names, make jokes about them, cover them with our prejudices, and avoid direct contact. We think of them as enemies. We forget that they love as we love, care for their children as we care for ours, become sick and die as we do. We forget that they are our brothers and sisters and treat them as objects that can be destroyed at will.

Only when we have the courage to cross the street and look in one another's eyes can we see there that we are children of the same God and members of the same human family.
(from Henri Nouwen's daily meditations, Bread for the Journey, July 22)
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35, NIV translation)
In physics, the strength of a signal (radio, TV, electrical current) degrades over distance. Bill Hybels believed that this concept applied to human communication, as well - that the distance between the pulpit and the first pew was much greater than the distance across a dinner table. To steal Henri Nouwen's idea, the shorter the gap, the easier it is to bridge it.

For the last month of my stay at school, I lived with a Turkish Muslim man named Erkan, who arrived in the US for the first time July 1st. Whenever I would mention this in company, at least one child-of-God would say, "You're living with a terrorist?" And my first reaction (which, thankfully, I never voiced) was "No, but I'm talking to a moron..."

Folks who spoke like that simply refused to bridge the gap between their prejudices about one group of people who happen to have the same faith as my former roommate, and the real-life experience of a devout, kind, gentle, Allah-loving doctoral student. They haven't seen his revulsion at violence, his sadness at the death of any creature, or his belief that there is One above us all, even though we understand that One differently. Thirty days of talking - and listening - showed me this truth, and Erkan is a friend with whom I hope to remain connected. We met as strangers - we parted as brothers. I hope that bridge remains strong for the long haul.

Even in the midst of the chaos of moving, I saw this happen. Several (not all) of the people who helped me move were guys from AA - but two were fellow Lutheran seminary students, and one of the AA guys was definitely not hiding his sexual orientation. One of my sponsees talked to me over dinner last night, and told me again how he really enjoyed meeting the two seminarians, and how they really seemed like neat people. And he found a lot of powerful connections with my gay friend, as well - both are farm boys at heart, and both long to return to the joys of rural life. It was neat to be able to see bridges being built, even as we watched.

I firmly believe that if I refuse to see and hear my neighbors - my sisters and brothers - then I cannot love them. I can talk about them; I can even contribute to their welfare. But if I refuse see the person across the dinner table (or the U-Haul loading ramp!) as they are and not as I suppose them to be, then to it is impossible to bridge the gap between us - gaps built by ignorance, fear, and prejudice.

God, grant me the willingness to continue to build bridges with the neighbors I do not yet understand. Help me to see Your presence in all of them.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

"Houston, the Eagle has landed..."

(...or, is it as Benjamin Franklin suggested in 1776, not the Eagle but the Turkey?...)

Five-twenty PM Tuesday night, and the last load of clothes and detrius left Hyde Park. I am more tired than I have been, probably, since I actually moved to Chicago two years ago. What a ride.

I promise something more substantial in the days to come - but right now, as my sister Sue would say, "I'm done like dinner."

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Better, and worse

Good news - I managed to get into my doctor about my move-related leg injury today. Bad news is, it took 2-1/2 hours that I couldn't really afford. Good news is, it didn't require stitches after all, and the doctor said it was gonna get sore, but it would be fine in the end.

Of course, it didn't really get sore until about 1/2 hour after he was poking and prodding around the puncture, so I didn't get much of what I needed to do today done. Which means I'm going into work for a bit tomorrow, and then back to the apartment to finish what I needed to do today.

Nothing deep or theological today - I'm sure it's coming, but not tonight. For now, I'm doing the only sensible thing and going to bed...

Monday, August 01, 2005

Feeling a bit like Dr. Smith....

Oh...the pain...the pain.... (the dark voice of Lost in Space)

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. (James 1:2-3, NIV)

When I woke up this morning, Dr. Smith's signature phrase was on my lips. And I have to admit that at lease initially, I didn't even consider considering the aches and twinges in my muscles pure joy, but rather the reverse. I ache in places I didn't think I had places...

But I slept well, and I need to get off into the day - not only do I have a number of things yet to move, I have a MESS of other stuff to take care of. Not to mention about two weeks of blogs I haven't read to catch up on...

I've also been gratified to read the responses to my invitation to blog through A Celebration of Discipline starting Labor Day. So far, the best response has been from Spencer at Staying Straight Edge: I'm sceptical as I am not 'a christian' and have no real desire to become one ... but I'll read anything that's thought provoking and so I will get a copy and play 'devils' advocate with you :) That was the best gift I got today, actually.

On a different topic, something I've been noticing is how spartan others lives are - and how cluttered mine has been. I have some time, while my new landlord is out of town and the folks living in my apartment-to-be are getting out, that I need to go through my stuff and ask (yet again), "Do I really, really, really need this? Or is this the same I'll need it someday thing that my parents bought for years, and sold to me?"

First things first, though - gotta make the bed, put some clothes away, and get into the day. Still "a long way to go, and a short time to get there..."