Monday, October 31, 2005

Reformation and remembrance

Memento, Domine...

It's always fascinating to me that the weekend of October 31st becomes a triple-commemoration. It is Halloween - a time of laughter and sugar-highs for American kids. It is All Souls' Day - a time of remembrance for all those who have died, both in the last year and in years gone by. And in the Lutheran tradition, it is Reformation Day - a recollection of the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg, Germany.

For me, Halloween was the signal of the end of good weather - when I was growing up in Buffalo, snow or sleet were our trick-or-treat companions as often as not on Halloween night, and we wore winter coats under our costumes. It seemed to be the end of the beauty of autumn, and the beginning of the long winter (really long, in Buffalo terms).

All Soul's Day was a tradition I picked up after I came back to church in 1990 - a remembrance of those who have died, and a time to give thanks for having "a season in their path," as Wayne Watson would say.

But today, I remember Reformation Day not so much as the trigger to a movement in the greater Church, but the day a broken 33 year old walked into church for the first time in 17 years - utterly convinced that I was more in need of "reformation" than anyone else in that sanctuary.

I've since come to learn just how "terminally unique" I was that first day. I have come to believe that the church is a hospital for sinners, and not (as it so often seems) a country-club for saints. And I've also learned that there can be deadliness in the ritualistic practice of empty forms, as well as great beauty and power in them.

My friend Tom Scharbach posted a comment last week about my writings on the church that bears repeating: I grew up without the concept of "church". I grew up born into a "people", who needed no further attachment to each other or God, and who gathered to study, to learn how to live ethically as the "people". So I missed the idea of "church" -- whatever it is that substitutes for being born to a "people" in Christian thinking -- altogether.

I've come to see that the primary need for us is to find that understanding of being "people of God" in community. I don't have the luxury/curse of a ethnically-based culture that identifies me as part of "a people" - that is, not outside of the church.

I'm trusting - and praying - that the Presence of God can be a powerful, transforming "re-former"...that in God's hands, I (and whatever church in which I find a home) will be formed anew, day by day, according to the plan of the One who brings us together. I'd rather be "reformed" than "reform-ing," but it appears that God is not done with me - or the church - just yet. And I guess I'm grateful for that, today.

And today I remember Joe and Helen, my parents; Laura, my paternal grandmother; Skip B., my best friend from high-school; "the other Steve F.," Todd L., and so many more whose lives have ended, but whose influence continues across the ages. Rest in peace...

Friday, October 28, 2005

Keeping the monsters away

"Lack of power, that was our dilemma. We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be a Power greater than ourselves. Obviously." (Alcoholics Anonymous, "We Agnostics," page 45)

"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." (Acts 1:8, NIV)
Coming home on the Metra train late last night, I sat across from a young boy and his grandma - and as we rode together, I couldn't help but overhear their conversation. It seemed they were coming home after a day in the city, and while Grandma looked "done," the 10-or-12-year-old was still ready to go. In the boy's hands were a set of cards - evidently part of a character- or role-playing game. He was scanning through the cards, and asked, "Grandma, what's 1200 plus 2400?"

Grandma roused herself from nearly-napping, and said, "That'd be 3600." The boy's eyes got wide as saucers, and he said, "Wow, Grandma - now that I've got these two cards, I've got thirty-six hundred power points! None of the other players could possibly defeat me. Lookit!"

Grandma looked over, smiled, said, "That's nice," and went back to looking out the window. But the boy kept shuffling through his cards, and said, almost inaudibly, "Man, I wish these cards were real...I mean, really, really real. I wish I had enough power to defeat all of my enemies. I wish I could keep all the monsters away, all the time...."

It was so honest, so real, and so true, it almost brought tears to my eyes.

I really, really identified with that boy.

It would be so nice to be able to do the "Bewitched" nose-twitch (am I dating myself with that reference, or what?) or the Harry Potter wave-of-the-wand and make people disappear - or, even better, do my bidding. There have been many times when being Cyclops (of X-Men fame), and being able to blast certain people or things with my vision, sounded like a real good idea. (It may be just my own quirkyness, but I think there's a hint of of latent power-hunger in the heart of everyone who enjoys sci-fi or fantasy stories. Perhaps it's in everyone...)

It would be nice, in short, to have a permanent, inexhaustible supply of "power points."

But it seems I'm fresh out of power, most times.

The language of recovery and the language of faith are very similar on this, by the way. The first of AA's 12 steps says, "We admitted we were powerless over [insert your compulsion-or-sin-of-choice] - that our lives had become unmanageable." The Apostle Paul is wordier, but no less accurate...
For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. (Romans 7:18(b)-19, NIV)
That's why the quote from the AA text is so important to me, on a daily basis - "lack of power" is my dilemma - every single day. Sometimes the monsters are financial - unemployment, under-employment, over-spending, homelessness. Sometimes the monsters are social - loneliness, or shyness. And sometimes, the monsters are internal - guilt, shame, fear...even dementia and loss of reality.

I saw this last monster last night, hearing from two others folks who are having trouble dealing with a mutual acquaintance who is deep into bipolar mania. They described the incessant phone-calls, the repetition of endless yes/no, stay/go questions - and all I could do was nod, sympathize, and tell them that when it gets too much, to cut the rope, as I had to do.

I saw this in my employment situation over the last two years. Many people who have been listening to me since my seminary career ended have heard me agonize about the what's and how's and when's and where's of my next employment - all the while tapping my feet impatiently, waiting for God's perfect timing to appear. It seemed that I was completely powerless to move things along - despite a snowstorm of applications and interviews. All I could do, it seemed, was suit-up-n-show-up, and try to endure day by day.

I see this in the most recent issue of Time magazine - dedicated to the hundreds of thousands of working men and women who have been robbed of their retirement by people who made promises they couldn't keep, profited immensely from them, and are now scrapping pension plans left and right - leaving said hard-workin' folks broke and devastated.

All I know is that the worst times in my life have been when I have tried to muscle through on my own power. As the folks in AA are fond of saying, "After all, my best thinking got me here." And, by default, God's best planning has gotten me places I never would (or could) have imagined.
For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (Jeremiah 29:11, NIV)

A brief update...

I've been burning the late-night oil lately - both with gatherings with friends and the vagaries of urban transit. I ended up running late at a meeting at work yesterday, for instance - and really got bollixed up in transit. I got on what I thought was the last regular "express shuttle" bus, and it sat for 20 minutes for no apparent reason whatsoever. Then I missed the last regular "rush-hour" train down south - and ended up sitting an hour downtown. Then a 40 minute "whistle-stop" train ride - and it was nearly 9:00 PM (when I'd left the office at 6:15).

Tonight was more of the same - left the 7 PM AA meeting at about 8:20, stopped for dinner with a sponsee, and missed the 9:20 southbound train from Hyde Park out to the ghetto. The 10:20 showed up at 10:40, and I got back about 11:20.

That's why it's just before 1 AM, and I'm still not in bed.

But I got fantastic news today - it seems that (after only a week and a half) the folks at my new temporary assignment are happy enough with me that they want to make me a permanent guy! Yes, with benefits and everything! As a Kansas friend would say, "Woo-HOOO!"

Considering that on September 15th, I didn't think I'd be working until October 15th - and that on October 10th, I didn't think I'd be working at all after October 15th - this is like a dream come true. It's a great fit between my experience, my desire to be of service, and some specific skill-sets that they don't have.

For all of this, I give thanks to God - and to everyone who has kept me and sustained me - emotionally, spiritually, and financially. I literally could not have survived without your support. "Thank you!" is such a mild-mannered word for what I'm feeling!

So - happy Friday, y'all...

Monday, October 24, 2005

Simple, but not easy

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." (Matthew 22:34-40, NIV)

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus replied, "What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?" He answered: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself." "You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"... [Jesus said, ]"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him." Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise." (Luke 10:25-29, 36-37, NIV)
The first passage was the prescribed Gospel reading for this Sunday, and the second, a companion text from the book of Luke. And, reading them again, I have to ask myself: How much more do we have to complicate it?

God didn't say to only love the neighbors that I like.
Or just the people that I go to church with.
Or just the people that my church is in full communion with.
Or the people who vote my presidential ticket.
Or the people who look like I do, live where I do, or love like I do.

God didn't say that I should only love the folks who worship as I do.
Or interpret Scripture as I do.
Or attend the same worship service that I do.
Or who like the worship music I do.

In fact, Jesus doesn't even indicate in these passages that we should only love the people who know Jesus Christ.
Or even just the people who want to know Christ.
Or his Dad, for that matter.

I am not called to even LIKE my neighbor, let alone approve of her-or-his laundry-list of sins. But regardless of who they are, where they are, and what has happened to them, it seems I am called by God to heal wounds, to provide food and lodging and comfort for those who are hurting, and to show mercy to those who stumble - or those who have been knocked down.

I don't have to like it. But I am called by God to do it.

Lord God, help me to focus my heart and my mind not on what I think others should be doing, but on how I can love you more dearly, and on what I should be doing for my neighbor. If YOU think this stuff is "first-things-first" important, perhaps I should follow Your lead today. Amen.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Do you believe in the Church?

First, words from a wiser man than I:
The Church is an object of faith. In the Apostles' Creed we pray: "I believe in God, the Father ... in Jesus Christ, his only Son … in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting."

We must believe in the Church! The Apostles' Creed does not say that the Church is an organization that helps us to believe in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. No, we are called to believe in the Church with the same faith we believe in God.

Often it seems harder to believe in the Church than to believe in God. But whenever we separate our belief in God from our belief in the Church, we become unbelievers. God has given us the Church as the place where God becomes God-with-us.

(Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey, daily meditation for October 18th)
In the Henri Nouwen Society's email devotions, there have been several postings recently (including this one) about having faith in "The Church." I'm sure it's no coincidence that they're showing up now, precisely whenI’ve been having some real trouble with that concept.

As I remember it, Mike Housholder, pastor of the Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines (and a man I deeply admire and respect) once said in a sermon that the local congregational church is a broken, often sinful entity – but at the same time, it’s also the very best answer for encountering the living presence of Christ on earth. At the time, I agreed with him – but back then, I was much more hopeful about the power of the Holy Spirit to work in and through the local church.

I’m not so sure about that, any more. I am sure that the Spirit can work in the local church. I’m just not so sure that it does.

The thing that makes me wonder at this particular time is my friend Eric, and his church’s ongoing challenge with battles over styles and times of worship. And while I’d like to tell him to just have faith, and “be strong and courageous while working to change the hearts and minds of the congregation,” I really can’t do that. In the end, I’m not sure I actually think we can change the hearts and minds of established congregations.

I’ve been through this with one congregation – hoping specifically NOT to change the congregation, but to create another entry-way into the congregation through alternative worship in a completely separate service. Despite some support, there was significant resistance to it from a number of older members of the congregation, who felt that the new worship service violated the tradition of the church (which it did) and was therefore un-Lutheran (which it was emphatically not).

The struggle ended with a highly-conservative, traditionally-anchored pastor putting the kibosh on the whole project, with a whole lot of name-calling and extraordinarily questionable actions taken in order to justify his position.

In the end, it was the ethical failures and the autocratic practices of the senior pastor (and not the lack of worship alternatives) that drove a significant chunk of members away from that congregation. The last I heard, the congregation had shrunk by 70% since the exodus began in 2001 – and to combat the numeric slide, they had actually begun another contemporary worship service. (The irony in that still amazes me.)

In Eric’s church, as I understood it, they had voted to change their worship services as part of their move to a new building – and in a very short time after moving into the new building, it was absolutely full to capacity. But once again, a group of folks who had grown up with a specific tradition of worship have put significant pressure on their senior pastor, who (despite earlier assertions to fight rather than switch) seems to have caved-in almost entirely on the subject.

The congregation seems poised to make some fairly illogical choices (like having two differently-styled services at the same time, when they are already fighting issues of parking) in order to preserve the supposed status-quo. I listened – but in the end all I could do is sigh, and wish him luck.

This may sound cynical - if so, I can't help that - but I have come to believe that church dynamics are governed by one very deeply human and very real truism of sociology, and not of spirituality: Birds of a feather flock together.

People naturally gather together based on shared experience and tradition – period. If they came to a church where pipe organs and hymnals and 10-minute sermons are the norm, that’s what they want, and that’s what they expect. And by definition, they will mightily resist any action that seeks to move them away from their expectations – no matter how logically those actions are presented, and no matter what possible spiritual adventures might come from them.

The final answer almost always is, “This is the way in which we choose to experience God. You may not find this uplifting, or stimulating, or even Biblical, to your way of seeing it. But this is how we are – and these modes of worship are the ways in which we define sacredness and holiness in this place. Stay if you like; go if you like. But deal with it.”

To make the point absurdly clear: I wouldn’t ever consider driving up to Willow Creek Community Church, joining there, and then insisting that they install a pipe organ, or that they start using a given liturgy in their weekly services or hang a cross in the front of their worship space. Why should I think that the answer should be any different for the little traditional church that I may be attending?

In retrospect, I'm sore afraid that the answer for me was as simple as “I wanted to have my cake and eat it, too.” I had experienced worship at other congregations which seemed to me to be a much more powerful experience than that to which I’d been accustomed. In my own mind, I wanted the folks I’d grown fond of to have that same experience – and blindly assumed they would want it, too. (Of course, when I found that some of my fellow church members were like-minded, that realization only fueled the fire…)

But after some distance and reflection, I’m coming to believe that the heart of my motivation was simple selfishness and self-centeredness. I wanted to have the same worship experience I’d had elsewhere, without giving up my constellation of church friends, many of whom had become as close as family. I believed that the “either/or” choice was unacceptable.

I now believe that “either/or” is not the only way - but it is the best way.

Interestingly enough, this is exactly how the 12-step/12-tradition folks do it, too. There’s a standing truism in AA – to start a new meeting, all you need is two members, a resentment, and a coffee-pot. As a leader of my original former congregation said to me once, “We simply do not care what you think. If you don’t like how we do things here, there’s the door – don’t let it hit’cha where the Good Lord split’cha!” (And in the end, that’s exactly what a good number of us did.)

I’m coming to believe that “church unity” is not necessarily a good thing. I think that focusing on Christ needs to be the central thing – and questions of liturgy, of music, of decorations, and of doctrine and dogma should all end up being what the AA folks would call “outside issues.”

In the end, it’s Christ that matters – and not whether the bread is made of wheat or rice, leavened or unleavened, or whether the music is plainsong or chant or this song in this hymnal or that praise chorus on that PowerPoint presentation. To me, it’s like sitting around a campfire – there is one fire, but each of us will see the flames differently, depending on where we’re sitting.

While I used to pray for unity in the various mainstream churches over acceptances of gays and lesbians, I no longer pray for that at all. I look forward to the day when those who want to welcome gays go one way, and the rest go the other. Then maybe they’ll stop fighting over this stuff, and get back to doing something about loving their neighbors and feeding the poor and fighting for justice and against war.

And in the process, maybe they’ll spend enough time in the Word to figure out that “those fags” (or "those poor people," or "those cross-towners," or that minority group, or whatever) are their neighbors – and treat ‘em as Christ told them to treat them.

Or maybe they’ll just create a place where resentment, hatred and fear can fester and grow. I don’t know.

I wish Eric well with his congregation - but I’m glad I’m not in it, to be honest. And I’m still looking for someplace I can call home. The old U2 song says it best:
You broke the bonds
You loosened the chains
You carried the cross
And my shame
You know I believed it

But I still haven’t found what I’m lookin’ for…

Monday, October 17, 2005

Last days, first days - Sunday evening catchup

May you live through interesting times.
(Ancient Chinese curse)

It has been an interesting weekend.

First, a disclaimer: October 8th was the 15th anniversary of my firing from my former actually took from October 8th to December 12th to actually find the community of recovery. So while I appreciate the many well-wishes I received, even fractional rigorous honesty requires me to say that the "woo-hoo!" moment is, in fact, two months away. The accountant would say "it's materially fifteen years ago," but that kinda stuff just doesn't cut it in my sober experience. Having said all that...

Thursday was my last day at my former temporary place of employment. It seemed like everyone was Barbra Streisand in "The Way We Were" - my accounting supervisor saying "What am I going to do when you're gone?", and everyone saying how much I'd be missed - which was nice to hear, even if I have some trouble believing it.

My "farewell" card was a little weird - often, the staff will take a large leaf from a tropical plant (like a banana-tree leaf) and have everyone sign it. But for some reason, they decided to sign what looked like a cross between a plantain and a banana (it's the size and shape of a banana, but the coloring of a plantain). This is particularly funny, because (since it's a fruit) it simply will not last very long - nor would the dried banana-peel fit well in whatever scrapbook I might happen to keep. So perhaps the message is, "We wish you well, but don't rely on these memories, 'cause they won't last." Hmmm...

Friday was a weird day - some highs and lows. I started off very early, to do a dry-run taking the Metra train and CTA bus down to my new place of employment at Hewitt Associates. It's a beautiful location - right on the Chicago River at Adams St., 17th floor. The commute shouldn't be bad at all - although since the starting time at the old job was around 9:30, and this one is an hour earlier, with a somewhat longer commute, I need to be up and going by 6 AM, which is a big shock to the system. It was good I did it - not because getting downtown was hard, but because I got on the wrong train coming home and ended up at 93rd St. in the South Shores, which wasn't good. It took an extra hour-and-a-half to recover from that little "oops" - so I'm glad I didn't have anything else scheduled for the afternoon.

On that erroneous train ride, I was derailed by a voice saying, "Steve? Steve, is that you?" It turned out to be an LSTC student whom I'd hosted for lunch during one of the "Seminary Sampler" weekends 18 months ago. He told me briefly what was up with him, and then said, "So where are you in school?"

I felt myself freeze-up for just a moment - and then, I got a burst of grace, and I said, "Well, I'm not in school any more - I didn't make it through the candidacy process." There was a brief look of embarrassment (and pehaps a flash of pity), and after a brief "Sorry to hear that," I asked him what he was taking this semester, and allowed his answers to take the focus off me. And I found myself surprisingly at peace with that answer.

I spent some time on Sunday afternoon at the Fulton St. Market's Artists Weekend. The Fulton St. Market area is just west of the Loop, and it's been portrayed as a SoHo-in-process for Chicago. Industrial warehousing, food processors, and art-galleries and lofts are side-by-side in this unusual area. Several friends share studio space in a converted warehouse near Ashland & Fulton, and it was neat to both see some of their work and meet their families and partners.

It was just a little annoying, though, since several folks who had planned to go with me ended up crapping out at the last minute. But I really wanted to see this show (especially my buddies' stuff), so I went by myself. I saw some beautiful stuff - most of which cost way more than the Blue-Book value of my car.

I've continued to struggle with staying focused in my time off - which is definitely a cosmic "joke's on you," considering the bi-polar antics of one of my friends (and the definite negative effects it's had on me, recently). My motivation to do much of anything this weekend has been zero, plus or minus 5% - reading, writing, blogging, cleaning, you name it. I've caught up on a good deal of sleep (which ain't all bad, given my sleep patterns for the last two weeks) (which I'm also kind of undoing by still being up at this hour!). But all I can do is start again later on today, and try to be of maximum service to my employer and fellow employees.

For now, clothes are ready, the day is truly done, and it's time to hit the hay before my "new first day at work."

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Seeing what God can do...

...we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.
(2 Peter 1:16b, NIV)

[We] came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. (from "How It Works," in Alcoholics Anonymous, chapter 5)
It is absolutely astonishing to see what God can do.

I mean, fall foliage is wonderful. A baby is God's testimony that the human race should go on. Bumblebees flying defy all we know about aerodynamics. The Grand Canyon is, from what I've been told, grand. But sometimes, God's majesty and transforming power shows up in far more powerful ways.

Like in a diner in Hyde Park, where a friend of mine made the point-blank declaration that he was beginning to believe that there was Something out there that wanted something good for him.

Now, to many folks who have studied deeply the intricacies of Judeo-Christian practices, this may not seem like much. But to see this person, so broken and damaged a few months ago, so bound by intellectual pride and rational determinism and the like, make these kinds of admissions was like seeing Plato wake up and say, "Wow! I can still HAVE a V-8!"

It started simple. "Try believing that there is Something or Someone who wanted you to get sober more than you wanted to kill yourself drinking." "Well, OK, I guess I can believe that." Sometimes the steps were itty-bitty baby steps; sometimes they were quantum leaps of today. My friend had been struggling - on a number of fronts - physical and emotional challenges.

And it suddenly came to him - "Any one of these problems would have sent me screaming to the bottle four short months ago! And yet, here I am dealing with several of them, and doing it dead sober! There just has to be Something Else that is doing this - because left to my own devices, I'd be loaded, for sure!"

I've been talking to this fellow about my own understanding of God - as a loving, caring, accepting, forgiving, very personal presence. And at the start, my buddy would say, "It's hard to believe that you aren't completely around the bend on this religious crap about God." But he kept showing up, and kept listening. And all I could do was show how this God was working in my life - sometimes against my better judgement.

Just like I was, nearly 15 years ago, he is starting to believe that there is a God - one that is concerned, loving, caring, accepting and forgiving. And in his looks of astonishment, of wonder, and of relief, I can see my own experience echoed and mirrored for me.

In the depths of my despair at having to leave the seminary, several people suggested that there were "other reasons" that I'd been drawn to Chicago: other experiences to have, other people to meet, other spiritual encounters and lessons. But in the last week, I've seen ever more clearly the truths of those promises.

Fifteen years ago, on October 8, 1990, I was fired from my job and escorted from my then-employer's offices. That dismal failure was the blasting cap that started the implosion of my old life, and the beginning of my new life out of the rubble of the old. In the days and weeks following that devastation, I could have never predicted this evening's events. Nor could I have imagined it nearly two years ago, when I was told that ordained ministry had no room for me.

It will be interesting to see what this weekend looks like a year from now...

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Wednesday morning mulligan stew

Well, it's been a busy forty-eight hours here on the South Side... lots of thoughts roiling, and lots of news.

First, after being on the ropes for two weeks, I found out last night that I start a new temp-to-perm job with payroll outsourcing giant Hewitt Associates. I've been hoping against hope that the Accountemps folks would get this to connect right after the gig at the Park District ended, so I'm very relieved, from a financial standpoint. My prayer is that I can step up to the levels that this job will require - but right now, it's all good.

Second, a friend of mine who is bi-polar is going through a very rough patch of manic behavior right now, and it's been taking it's toll on me. Being a helper and a "wounded healer," I want to help him - but the insanity (for me) is trying to reason and be rational with a person who is clearly irrational. It doesn't help that he's been hospitalized for manic bouts before - and so his primary motivation is to seem solid, sane, and in-control - which means HUGE amounts of denial.

I kind of hit the wall last night, and had to tell him that I couldn't help him in a number of areas which he said he wanted help, but continues to do his own thing. I'm more than glad to invest the time to help someone - but if it's just going to be ignored, well, I've got plenty of things to spend time on. It's just frustrating - and I wish I could do more, but there's only so much of me to go around (even though there's definitely a LOT of me, by any measure...).

Needless to say, by the time I got home it was after 11, and I just ran out of gas, mentally and emotionally. I'm thinking that Thursday and Friday might be a good time to take off, and get some stuff done before the new work-situation begins. The work that I'm doing really isn't critical any longer, so I'll see what the boss-lady thinks.

A couple fascinating articles in the New York Times - one, on the Great Robot Race, won by a sturdy little robot Volkswagen for a $2 million prize. This race has always fascinated me, because of the great technology that's involved. Interesting stuff.

And, for those of us who are on the digital-photography revolution, there's this article about why printing color photos at home may not add up cost-wise for us. Definitely worthwhile reading.

It's interesting - commuting to the new job will mean spending time on the train into downtown. I may actually have to invest in subscribing to a real hard-copy

Monday, October 10, 2005

One bread, one body...or not....

The sacrament of the Eucharist, as the sacrament of the presence of Christ among and within us, has the unique power to unite us into one body, irrespective of age, colour, race or gender, emotional condition, economic status, or social background. The Eucharist breaks through all these boundaries and creates the one body of Christ, living in the world as a vibrant sign of unity and community.

Jesus prays fervently to his Father: "May they all be one, just as, Father, you are in me and I am in you, so that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me" (John 17:21). The Eucharist is the sacrament of this divine unity lived out among all people.
(Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey, October 10th - emphasis added)
God evidently has a massive sense of humor. I'm sure it's just a coincidence that this devotion from Br'er Nouwen came just a day or two after an AP news release I saw in the Chicago Sun-Times on Friday about communion. In part, it said this:
The head of the conservative Roman Catholic movement Opus Dei suggested Thursday that the church consider not giving out Holy Communion during huge Masses because it cannot be done ''in a dignified way.''

Monsignor Javier Echevarria Rodriguez also criticized Masses that have what he called an excessive number of priests celebrating together, saying it can confuse the faithful and diminish the link between the priest and the altar.
All right, Monsignor - are we missing the point, perhaps?

If it is true that in the Eucharist we encounter the "real presence of Christ" in the transformed bread and the wine, why should we care about how far the bread and wine (or the priest holding them) is from the altar? Or how many priests are con-celebrating? I'll admit that I may very well be talking out of my nether-regions here - but where should the focus be in this sacrament? The altar? The priest? The crucifix? Or on the one whose Presence is the reason we do all this, anyway?

In my own tradition, there is a fundamental understanding that in the sacrament of Holy Communion, we are communing not only with the folks in the sanctuary with us, but with everyone who shares the bread and wine everywhere in the world - regardless of denomination, blue or red state, straight or gay, or anything else! The Lutherans stole these words from the Catholic liturgy: Send your Spirit upon these gifts of your Church; gather into one all who share this bread and wine... The intent, as I misunderstand it, is to see the church as small-"c"-catholic (read: universal), united through the communion elements.

We won't even go into the concept of the communion rail extending beyond the front wall of the sanctuary - encompassing what (in older days) was the crypts of the departed faithful. This image allowed us to be united in the eucharist with those who have "gone on before us" - which, if you think about it, makes the idea of "huge Masses" seem pretty petty and picayune, eh?

I've never attended one of the huge Masses done under the previous pontiff - but I've seen videos of several of them on the news. Everything I've seen pointed toward dignity and reverence for the elements. Yes, there were an army of priests involved - but in the end, the only relevant distance was between the celebrant's hand and the worshiper's mouth. It wasn't like priests were flipping communion wafers into the crowd like mini-Frisbees or anything...

You may well ask, "What's the big deal? Why do you care what Opus Dei - or the Pope, or anybody else in the Catholic world - think about how they should be doing communion?"

For me, it comes down to that very simple 12-step concept: first things first. If one is focused on Christ, resurrection, and salvation, then the number of priests, or the distance of the priest from the altar, or the vestments, or whether the wafers are made of wheat or rice or graham-crackers makes absolutely no difference. And if those other things start making a difference, then it seems we've put something else in the place of Christ as the "First Thing" in the sacrament. And there's a simple definition for putting things in place of Christ.

It's called idolatry. And last time I checked, that was considered to be a major "Bozo-no-no," even for those who consider themselves the "workers of God."
They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. "Sir," they said, "we would like to see Jesus." (John 12:21, NIV)
So would I, would I.

Healer of Our Every Ill

You who know our fears and sadness,
grace us with Your peace and gladness.
Spirit of all comfort, fill our hearts...

Healer of our every ill,
Light of each tomorrow,
Give us peace beyond our fear,
and hope beyond our sorrow.

(Marty Haugen, "Healer of Our Every Ill," in the Gather and With One Voice hymnals)
This last weekend, I came across Marty Haugen's CD "Turn My Heart" again, and it seemed that every song had some powerful meaning for me as I listened. But this classic hymn - one that is sung by Lutherans and Catholics and Christians of every flavor - just seemed to be Monday's prayer, somehow.

So many people I know - myself included - face some significant uncertainty in their lives. Several of my friends are struggling with their physical health, and there are loads of very natural concern about how each of them will face the next steps in their treatment.

Other friends are facing dramatic changes in their employment, their housing, and their careers - and it's hard for them not to find fear and doubt about how they will survive financially. Still others are facing a long road back from mental illness, and trying to re-establish credibility in a world that doesn't tolerate weakness or imperfection well.

That's why saying, "Spirit of all comfort, fill our hearts" is a powerful idea for me this morning. Earlier on Sunday evening, I needed to be graced with the gift of hope and encouragement, and not very long after I asked for it, I got it - in a phone call with a person nearly a thousand miles away.

In fact, every time that the darkness of trouble or challenge are turned back, I have had to look back and see so clearly how God has blessed me (and continues to bless me!) in every moment, despite the challenges that seem foremost in my life at the time.

Trusting in the One who said, "I will never forsake you," we pray this morning from our pain and our despairing to You, God of healing and of hope. Rekindle the flame of hope in each of us who despair, and lift up the feet of every person who stumbles.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

An interesting photo

Here's Wil Wheaton wearing the t-shirt I want for Christmas - if not sooner. (Maybe it would inspire me to write more often...)

Friday, October 07, 2005

Endings, and more transitions....

Well, I got a kind of answer to prayer late this afternoon. There has been part of me that has said, "Dear God, let the insanity at this job-site end," even as I've been fearing the possibility of going without gainful employment. Well, The Temp Agency that Starts With "A" called today to say that their client is actually interested in bringing me on for the temp-to-permanent position as of October 17th. Given the fact that the current gig had every sign of ending October 15th, this is a very, very good thing.

I should be ecstatic, I guess, and I don't know why I'm not. Perhaps it's just that this existing gig has sucked the joy-glands dry; perhaps it's just the thought of leaving anything (even when it's been mostly miserable) has been such a serenity buster for me (fear of the unknown having been a deeply-rooted character defect of mine).

But part of me has struggled - even with the accounting portion of my current job - because I just didn't feel like I'd been given enough information to do my job right, and consequently never felt I did the best job I could have. And there are some niggling doubts that maybe my mind is just slowing down, that I'm just not as clever or as bright a bulb as I used to be. The fear is compounded a bit by the insinuation from a couple people I know that the future employer is known for having a fairly high turnover rate - and that I'd just be going from "annoying work site #1" to "son-of-annoying-work-site."

But we'll see. In the end, even an annoying job that actually is fractionally climate controlled (as opposed to working in a tropical rain-forest) with equipment that works more than half the time will be a significant step up from what I've been doing. And I think (though I'm not sure) that travel to the new site will be easier because of the chance to take the train into downtown, which would be great. (I have to admit that the drive from the way-South-Side to the West Side has started to get a bit old.

My friend Dave asked the question via email:
I was wondering - Have you asked God for a great job? Or to send some money your way? I know it sounds trite but I don't think most people simply ask God for what they want. Like "Daddy, would you please give me a great job or send some money."

Paul tells us to come boldly to the throne, and that we have not because we ask not (I think that's James) and if it's within his will he'll give it to us.

It's been working for me quite well in several areas.
And the answer, if I'm rigorously honest, is, "No, I haven't...primarily because I was somewhat unimpressed with the last couple answers I've gotten to prayers related to changing careers." In fact, it was praying for a change of career that brought me here in the first place... It's kind of felt like seeing thunder-clouds gathering, and not being entirely willing to pray the words, "Show me your power, Lord!" I'm not sure I want to see what's behind door number three, given what was behind doors 1 & 2....

I know there's some deeply erroneous belief and theology behind those kinds of thoughts. But hell, I never said they were rational thoughts, did I?....

For tonight, I think the best thing is to thank God for the end of one challenge, and to ask for strength for the next one, and go to bed while there's still several minutes before midnight.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Hitting both extremes

I have felt strangely adrift lately - I'm not sure whether it's poor sleep, or my allergies, or some kind of mildly creeping crud, or just depression (nah, couldn't be that...) but my energy levels have just flat-lined the last week or so. I have felt becalmed - not "calm" as in "serene," but "becalmed" as in "the wind has gone out of my sails." And I'm not really sure why, to be honest.

I am grateful for many things - for the extension of the existing job, for the possibility of a couple successor jobs (although none of them have gotten to the "marry-me" stage of the game, yet), for a roof over my head (even if the plumbing is kinda funky), for the gift of sobriety and even somewhat reasonable health. But my mental acuity is really suffering - to the point that I forgot to take my blood pressure and diabetes medications two mornings in a row. (Yes, I did take the evening doses, and I'm back on track now.) But trust me - that's not a good sign for me.

And, to be honest, it's been hard to pray about it. There are times like now when the voice that says, "This is the fruit of living a sinful life, you yo-yo - so just shut up and live right, and it will get better" sounds pretty strident. But I know that's not the answer, any more than the recurring voice that says, "Don't worry - nothing will be all right..."

Yes, I'm disappointed about not going to Kansas this weekend - but to be honest, I'm a little relieved about that from a financial standpoint, that's not it.

But then, this morning, I had just come under the old Chicago post-office on the Eisenhower Expressway (I-290 for you out-o-towners) when David Bowie's Rebel, Rebel came on the radio, and I could just feel myself start to smile...and step down a little harder on the gas pedal. I don't know what it is about those five simple chords, but they bring back memories of a wilder, happier time in my life, and somehow life just looked better.

And on the way home tonight, the same experience happened on Lake Shore Drive with REO Speedwagon's Roll With The Changes, which got me to a very pleasant dinner with my friend Matt in Hyde Park a little sooner than I would have normally made it. In fact, I'd recently read about the new Volkswagen Golf R32 with a 240-hp. turbocharged engine in it (a galvanized washtub witha tornado strapped to the front). Reading about that just made me long for a wide-open highway, an R32 with a full tank of gas, and a CD sampler including REO's Roll With The Changes and Ridin' The Storm Out, Kenny Loggins' Danger Zone, Triumph's Magic Power, ELO's Fire On High, Gary Wright's Power of Love, and Billy Joel's Travelin' Prayer, to name just a few. (There's probably a blog entry on how music affects my spirituality and my emotional state - but it ain't gonna happen tonight.)

So I can get back to the "happy highs" even though the "grungy lows" seem to be more prevalent. The end result is that I've scheduled a trip to the doctors to get checked out. I'd much rather figure this out on my own - except that I've been trying that for two weeks or so, and it just ain't happening. So "surrender" and "acceptance" mean that I get to get the hell out of the way and let someone who might be able to at least buy a clue give me some answers - or at least some possibilities.

For now, I'm just checkin' in, letting folks know I'm still around - though it would take two weeks straight to catch up on all the blog-reading I've missed. For now, all I can do is climb back on the bicycle and start pedalling, I guess.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Thinking about "barren prayer"

I remember the day so clearly. Actually, I remember plenty of them, and I continue to experience my fair share of them. Days of barren prayer. On that specific day, more than anything, I desired communion with God. Alone in my room. Bible open. Schedule cleared. Heart expectant.

Yet only silence. My prayers seemed to drop to the ground. The pages of my journal remained empty. There were no tears of longing. The Word did not tenderize my heart. One hour turned to two as I watched the clock.

Why am I here? What am I doing? Have I missed it entirely? Is this all a waste?
(Dana Candler, "The Nobility of Barren Prayer," in the July/August NavPress Pray! magazine)
If you haven't yet had the experience that author and prayer minister Dana Candler, either it will come to you eventually - or you're not praying.

Actually, having this experience for days in a row can encourage one to stop praying. I know - I've done it. The image I received was not of my prayers falling to the ground - but of them going up a chimney, and simply dissipating like chimey-smoke blown away on the wind. People would say, "Just keep praying and have faith," and every part of my mind and soul would say, "Why bother? Nothing's happening, anyway."

It's at times like this that the one I know as the Tempter starts talking loud and strong. "You've finally crossed the line, haven't you, Steve? You've finally sinned enough that God can no longer hear you. You've failed God and your fellow human beings so completely that your Divine phone line has been disconnected. No dial-tone on the land-line, no 'bars' on the cell-phone. God's home-page has gone -404, brother - and you did it to yourself."

I have been there more times than you can imagine. Especially in the last two years. Chicago has been a great teaching-ground for my experience with barren prayer. I have never heard the words, "Maybe you just missed what God had for you entirely," as often as I have since I got here.

The worst part is, I know what it's like to be connected, to feel like I was "online and real-time" with the Spirit of God - so the absence of any connection is a palpable loss. For me, these times of empty prayer seem most like having an ear infection. When I have one of those painful events, I can't really hear anything external from the infected ear. On the other hand, what I can hear is the pounding of my own pulse echoing painfully behind the infection...each beat singing some variation on the dirge, "Abandon hope..."

Dana Candler, who is a teacher at the Forerunner Ministry School and one of the leaders of the International House of Prayer in Kansas City, MO, has some interesting images to help us through the dry times of barren prayer. She echoes the feelings of discouragement, of seeming failure, that come from these times. But she also points out that the very weakest, emptiest, shakiest prayer is heard by God, even if it feels almost imconceivable that they are being heard by anyone other than the Devil, whom (it seems) is laughing his/her lungs out.

She points us back to Scripture - to pillars of the Church like David, who wrote, "How long, o Lord? Will you forget me forever?" (Psalm 13:1). For me, it's easier to go through "the dry and barren lands" if I know that I'm not alone in my journey. And she writes a powerful challenge for each of us: On days when emptiness lurks and voices of condemnation threaten, our feeble hearts captivate Him as we choose to believe an absurdity: that He is for us, and that our prayers, though weak, are meaningful to Him. God will surely, certainly reward those who earnestly seek Him (Hebrews 11:6). Or, to quote Bill W. from the text of recovery, "Thus was I convinced that God is concerned with us humans when we want Him enough" - note, not when we sense God's presence, enough...

The problem is, I hate hearing that "faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). I want to see, want to feel, want to see fireworks and feel ecstacy and a live-wire connection with the Power of the universe. And it's just not often like that. But the answer is so often what I heard that first week of being sober: You don't have to believe, Steve - you simply have to 'act as if...'
God, grant me the willingness to pray to you even when every fiber of my being declares that you cannot or will not hear me. Then help me share that glorious truth with those who need to hear it most!

Monday, October 03, 2005

Outta my mind on Monday moanin'

Well, it's been a busy weekend in the Windy City, my hometown...and a busy week. I have been moving so fast, recently, it's seemed hard to just sit down and write. So this week's goal is to slow down some, and spend a little time each day getting reconnected - with what's happening with me, and around me in the bigger world. A sampling for this issue of Monday moanin' -

The apartment is getting both worse and better, thank you very much. I spent a bunch of time unpacking stuff, which was good - but not necessarily finding final-resting-places for all of it, so the effect is that the mess (temporarily, at least) looks worse than it was on Friday. But I've managed to find some critical pieces, like the lamp harps (bet you didn't know that's what the things that hold up lamp shades are called!), and the glass carousel for the microwave. So the level of civilization is improving, even if the general chaos is still a little severe.

Metrosexual matrimony is the title of an article in the October 3rd issue of Time magazine. A sample is worthy of note:
By the time Pasquale Pignatelli visited luxury clothier Hickey Freeman for the final fitting of an $1,800 custom-made worsted-wool suit, he had devoted as much time perfecting his wedding outfit as his fiancee' had spent selecting her bridal gown. Pignatelli, 29, a cargo salesman, also carefully chose his groomsmen's and ushers' outfits and bought white-gold bracelets to accessorize them. He arranged for them to get eyebrow waxings and manicures on the day before his September 18th wedding. "It's not about what's superficial," says Pignatelli of his fastidiousness. "It's about making this artistic."
The article goes on to describe how "bridezillas" (women who obsess about every detail of a wedding) are being joined by "groomzillas," who go about hiring "engagement consultants," and having $30,000 fantasy bachelor-parties.

I just have to ask: is this consumerist crap really what James Dobson and his homies are trying to preserve from the deadly devastations of same-sex unions? Seems straight folks have done a pretty good job of trivializing their marriage ceremonies into a first-run spectacle that has less than a 50% chance of succeeding, long-term.

The Judith Miller affair got me a little more than annoyed over the weekend, as a number of media spokespeople tried hard to paint her as her own worst enemy as she was released from jail and testified on Friday. I'm sorry, but I'm old enough to remember that it was only the media in the early 70's that was the primary savior of democracy back in the Nixon/Watergate affairs, so I tend to cut the media more slack than others would. The president is backing away from his earlier claims that law-breakers would be punished - now that they're all from his own camp. So far, the only one who has gone to jail did so for protecting someone's identity - not for revealing it illegally. Why aren't more people screaming about this?

Topics for this week:
- a great article about "barren prayer"
- Rosh Hashanah, and why Christians and non-Christians alike could benefit from observing it
- what we are "called to do" for a living, and how often we miss it
- hiding out in the digital wasteland.

That's all for now!