Saturday, December 31, 2005

Do you feel more caught-up?...

...because if you do, it's probably because according to the BBC, you're going to be one second closer to being on-time than you were on Saturday.

(If you're sufficiently geeky that you would even want to know the real, detailed reason why we need leap seconds in our lives, the answer can be found here at

Of course, for folk like me, who are living in a plus/minus 5 minutes world, leap seconds are in the "who the ---- cares?" category. But it's fun to mention, anyway.

Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

A battle between faith and searching for proof

Ellie: "So what's more likely - an all-powerful, mysterious God created the universe and then decided not to give any proof of his existence; or, that he simply doesn't exist at all...and that we created him, so we wouldn't have to feel so small and alone?"
Palmer: "I dunno - I couldn't imagine living in a world where God didn't exist. I wouldn't want to."
Ellie: "How do you know you're not deluding yourself? I mean, for me, I'd need proof."
Palmer: "Proof....hmmm...Did you love your father?"
Ellie: "What?"
Palmer: "Your dad...did you love him?"
Ellie: "Yes - very much..."
Palmer: "...Prove it...."

(Ellie Arroway to Palmer Joss, in Carl Sagan's film Contact)
I'm catching up on about a hundred topics I've wanted to post about - this one ties way back to this article in the December 20th Washington Post concerning the Dover, PA school board and a judge's ruling against "intelligent design" (also known as ID).

The article quotes U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III, a Republican appointed by President Bush. In part, Jones said,
"The overwhelming evidence is that Intelligent Design is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism and not a scientific theory," Jones wrote in a 139-page decision. "It is an extension of the Fundamentalists' view that one must either accept the literal interpretation of Genesis or else believe in the godless system of evolution."
I not only think Judge Jones hit the nail on the head, he also names the black-n-whites of the battle - Genesis, or godless evolution.

Now I have to make an admission up-front: long before these battle-lines were drawn, I had problems with a literal interpretation of Genesis. After all, the first question is always, "Which Genesis creation story are you taking literally - Gen. 1:1-2:4, or Gen 2:4-24?" The fact that there are two - the first attributed to the P (priestly) source and the second atttributed to the J (Yahwist) source, (if you buy into historical-critical analysis of the Bible) - just points out that Genesis is much more of an analogy than a day-by-day description of what actually happened.

I've always put it this way - if God were to try to explain the process of creation to members of a nomadic ancient Near Eastern tribe, the Almighty would probably not choose to drop a pile of texts on organic biochemistry, physiology, and RNA/DNA replication. The explanation would probably be tailored to their level of understanding - much as a parent's explanation of sexuality for a four-year-old probably doesn't start with diagrams of tab-A-and-slot-B. The Genesis account of creation (and the fall) may have worked for the early Jews – but I don’t think it’s a clear description of what physically happened, any more than “the two shall be as one” means that a man and a woman get super-glued together in the act of sexual consummation.

The funny part is that I’ve heard otherwise sensible people try to tell me that the whole concept of evolution is anathema to them, because it reduces the all-powerful, glorious nature of God’s creation. For me, the idea of the “Big Bang” (a really, really, really big bang) is as God-like an act as I could imagine. I imagine the evolutionary process as particularly awe-inspiring - one cosmic cue-shot that sinks every single ball on a thousand-million pool tables, all in sequence. Because, you see, that’s the kind of “random chance” that would have to occur to get from primeval protein soup to mammals.

Perhaps it would help to use two images I have shamelessly stolen from the rooms of recovery. In the first, one man said, “Well, if you’re talking about random chance of things in the world just happening to come together, ask yourself this: how many times would you have to throw the parts of a bicycle into the air to have them randomly come down as a bicycle?” The second image is one I like even better – the idea that a tornado would rip through a junkyard, picking up things randomly, and yet depositing a fully-functioning Boeing 747 on the far side of it.

So if you ask me how strongly I support the Biblical view of creation as statements of fact, the facts that I hear from Genesis are that a loving, caring God was personally involved in the act of creation, and that the Creator was deeply concerned with the well-being of the created-ones. And not only do I not believe in a literal, done-in-six-days creation, I think that creation is still continuing…that “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22, NIV).

And if you want to call me a heretic, just get in line behind a long, long line of people.

But for me, it comes back to the opening quote from Contact - it’s a question of faith, not a question of proof. In many ways, I believe the religious fundamentalists are largely responsible for the deep rift between the communities of science and faith – by insisting that it has to be either/or. And as things stand today, we have two opposing hermeneutics (ways of understanding) that ultimately devalue the opposing side – if you side with faith, then there is no place for science in the study of creation (and vice versa). This does such a disservice to the hundreds (if not thousands) of prominent scientists who believed that God’s guiding hand was behind much of the process of creation and what we know today as science. Even Einstein is widely quoted as saying, "I am not interested in this phenomenon or that phenomenon. I want to know God's thoughts – the rest are mere details."

Ultimately, I think that Judge Jones was right. I just wish those who claim to be “on the side of ‘intelligent design’” would see that the quest to see God’s blueprints does not always equate to an assumption of God-less creation, and I wish those on the “science” side of the gulf will see that there’s an awful lot of order, rhyme and reason in the supposed randomness of the created order.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Naked Truth, wrapped in Story's robes

Rick Luoni's post about the naked truth inspired me to find and tell this story, which I have cleaned up as best I can. As best I remember it, this is an old Hasidic tale that I first heard from either Doug Lipman or Steve Sanfield.

Truth walked naked into a village, and almost immediately the local inhabitants started cursing at him. Spewing epithets, they chased him out of the village, and Truth walked along the road to the next town. But they too spit at him, cursed him and spewed epithets, driving him out of that town as well.

He walked, lonely and sad, along the empty road, until he reached the next town, still hoping to find someone who was happy to see him, who would embrace naked Truth with open arms.

So he walked into the third town, this time in the middle of the night, hoping that the morning would find the townsfolk happy to see Truth in the clear light of dawn. But as soon as the townsfolk's eyes lit upon him they ran to their homes and then came back throwing garbage at him.

Truth ran off out of the town and into the woods crying. After cleaning off the garbage, he returned to the edge of the woods, when he heard laughter and gaiety, singing and applause. He saw the townsfolk applauding as Story entered the town. They brought out fresh meats and soups and pies and pastries and offered them all to Story - who smiled and lavished in their love and appreciation.

Come twilight, Truth was sulking and sobbing at the edge of the woods. The townsfolk disdainfully ignored him, but Story came out to meet Truth on the edge of town.

Truth told Story how the folk of every town mistreated him, how sad and lonely he was, and how much he wanted to be accepted and appreciated.

Story replied, "Of course they all reject you!" Story looked at Truth, eyes a bit lowered to the side. "No one ever wants to look at the naked Truth."

So Story took pity on Truth, and gave him some of her colorful, beautiful clothing to wear. Then they walked into the nearby town together, Truth dressed in the beautiful robes of Story. The townspeople greeted them with warmth and love and appreciation, for Truth wrapped in Story's clothing can be a beautiful thing, and is almost always easier to behold.

And ever since that day, Truth travels best with Story, and when Truth is wrapped in Story's robes, he finds much more acceptance than the simple naked Truth would ever find.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Not the Christmas I would have hoped for...

God come to earth?
A virgin birth?
No! - How could anybody believe?

(Wayne Watson, One Christmas Eve)
Merry Christmas, everyone. And trust me, Wayne...I believe...I really do...

It's been an odd Christmas holiday, for a number of reasons.

First, my sisters and their husbands and I didn't buy a single Christmas present for each other. Third year running, in fact. One sister has been struggling with finances for years; I've been struggling with mine ever since my ill-fated run at ministry nearly 30 months ago; and one gets completely overwhelmed by the whole gift-buying-wrapping thing. So we haven't been able to find much involvement with the whole "Christmas-is-just-so-damn-stressful" thing...because we opted out of the whole commercialism thing. Felt pretty good, too.

There are two important caveats to that "commercialism-free" claim: the grocery store and the meat market.

Christmas is still a time of feasting in our family circles. Christmas Friday was a journey down to Tony's Ribs in Findlay (in lieu of making Sandy cook), and then an extended round of turkeyfoot and lots of holiday memories. Oh, and Magic Bars. You just can't have Christmas in our family without Magic Bars. Lots of them, actually.

Christmas Eve night, Sue and Jeff had sister Sandy, and Jeff's side of the family, over for dinner. Pulled-pork sandwiches, peel-n-eat shrimp, and all kinds of accompaniments were the fare on the eve. Unfortunately, something in the feast didn't agree with Sue & Jeff (although everyone else was fine) and by the time 9:45 PM rolled around, both of them were dealing with significant gastric distress. So for the first time in a long, long time, I didn't go to Christmas eve service, but stayed around with them, to make sure they were OK. I have to admit - that felt pretty weird.

It's not that I missed the particular service at the LCMS church Jeff's family attends - I've never been overly impressed with the pastor, his preaching, or the particularly cool reception I get as an outsider. And since I am not a Missouri-Synod-branded Lutheran (and don't subscribe to their particular interpretation of transsubstantiation, taking communion at their church every Christmas Eve has ended up being my one act of liturgical rebellion each year. So while it felt somehow empty to not be in worship on Christmas Eve, I didn't really miss being there, to be honest.

For Christmas Day, I had planned to attend Cedar Creek Church in Perrysburg, of which I had heard all kinds of good buzz in the local Christian radio and media. But lo and behold, when I checked their service times this morning, it turns out that they were not having services on Christmas morning. (Seems they were following the lead of Willow Creek and other Protestant megachurches in not offering services on Christmas Day - though they are offering New Years' Day services. Just forgive me, because I'm not even gonna pursue that little bit of market-driven insanity...)

Yeah, I probably could have found somewhere else to go. Yes, it was probably sloth and inertia on my part. But I didn't. And that felt weird, too...but not so terribly wrong as I would have thought it would have felt.

Back to Christmas eve morning, the 7:30 AM "Early Bird" AA meeting had about a hundred people - overflowing the room with people celebrating a sober holiday (some for the first time). The new folks were wondering how people actually made it through holidays sober - and the folks with some sober time were sharing their experience, strength and hope. It was an amazing, gratitude-filled time.

Christmas Day brought yet another feast with Sue's in-laws - plus calls from friends and family around the country - but yet not so many as in years past. And a number of calls I made to friends went unanswered. That felt weird, as well.

So I have to admit that while I'm grateful for my family, and for the gifts that God has put into my life, I feel more apart from what I've known as sweet fellowship in quite a while.

That dissatisfaction with the institutional church has been growing for a while - and it certainly wasn't helped by people who felt they could speak for the Church universal with statements like this one:

"Every company in America should be on its knees thanking Jesus for being born. Without Christmas, most American businesses would be far less profitable; more than enough reason for businesses to be screaming Merry Christmas." -- Bill O'Reilly, Fox Talk Show host who is leading the "Christian" defense in the "War on Christmas", The O'Reilly Factor, November 28
(If you really wanted to pursue this, my friend Tom posted this great item which says it better than I could ever say it.)

So the holiday scores a 10 on the "being connected with family" score, and a 3 on the "participating in the life of the faith community" scale. I'm grateful for what I have - and I'm not quite sure how to find my way back to what I missed this year. But I know I've got some miles to go on that score.

For now, I'll see my sister Sue off to work later on today, hook up with some old friends here, and then make my way back to the greater Chicagoland area in the afternoon. Hopefully the wet, slushy snow that's been falling will clear off by then, and I'll have smooth and safe driving as I head "westbound-and-down."

And I'll trust that "Emmanuel" is not someone who just shows up on Christmas Eve, but truly God with us who will be with us every single moment of today, and every day.

That thought alone is worth celebrating...

Friday, December 23, 2005

Traveling reflections

I started this post about 2:30 AM Eastern on Friday...I guess the Revised Common Lectionary would say this is the 4th Friday in Advent, or Christmas Friday, perhaps. (If the day Christ died is Good Friday, is the Friday before Christ was born Bad Friday?)

More to the point, when I started writing was about 8 hours after the start of my four-day Christmas break. Then my sister came in and found me asleep in the computer chair - so now it's mid-day Friday in Ohio.

There are people at my job who are going to be working over the weekend - either in preparation for one client's payroll year-end or trying desperately to prepare for the go-live week for another client. Some will physically be in the office; some will be dialed-in from home. But I asked if I would be needed - either in person or remotely - given that I'd planned to head to Toledo. And my new boss said, "No, we're not going to be working on anything you can help with at this point. Go ahead and go."

The growth in my life is that I didn't say, "Are you sure you won't need me?" Instead, I just said, "Cool...thank you," and went on my way.

I'm hoping that God will help me kill the part of me that is insistent on being the people-pleaser on this new job. I'm slowly "coming to believe" that they hired me because I'm acceptable, just as I am. I can do what I can do - but I'm trying to give myself the freedom to not have to be Superman or Dudley Do-Right for my employer.

In positions past, I have always felt like I was always playing catch-up - never quite sufficient to the task or the role. Today, I know that anyone who really did feel like they were "sufficient to the role" in whatever organization I was in would either be egotistical in the extreme or completely delusional. So today, when my inner insanity wants to ante-up to that table, I can simply say to that annoying voice, "Uh-UH...homey ain't gonna play."

"Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly..."

Last Thursday I gave a "lead" at one of my home AA groups. In the community of recovery, a "lead" is AA-talk for time when I can share my experience, strength and hope about my life in recovery. The AA text says that "our stories disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now." It's not "a speech" or "a talk," not exhorting or evanglizing or promoting, but truly "sharing" where I am, and some of the high-points and pot-holes in getting there. I guess the easiest comparison is not "You shouldn't drink," but "here's how I live sober today...however broken that might be."

(An aside for the folks in recovery - I often hear this instruction from the "Big Book" said as "...what IT was like, what happened, and what IT's like now." When I hear that, I'm always reminded of a friend who says, "Hell, boy, it don't change. I can get a quart of it any time I want! Only the first half of it changes...I change, and as a result, living in a world with it in it is a much easier place in which to live.")

I try to do this close to my sobriety anniverary every year. But the process was kind of humbling this year, on a number of levels. After all, for my 12th anniversary, life was pretty wonderful; it was my last year at Sprint before heading to Chicago in August. I had a good job, a pleasant, warm, safe living arrangement with a dear friend, and all the benefits of a mid-size Midwestern city: free parking, cheap beef, available public restrooms, wide open short, life was very good.

Year 13 was in the middle of my first year of seminary, and even though there was a question of whether I'd be able to go forward, life was good, for the most part. Year 14 was a time of desperation - I'd been emphatically told that I wouldn't be able to go forward in ministry, I'd finished the most devastating six months that I'd ever had in sobriety (financially), and I was reeling from wrestling with issues of self-worth, identity, faith, and what seemed at the time to be a spectacular failure of discernment. I had a new job (30 days old) after an extended time unemployed, and I was desperately trying to get them to like me enough to make me full-time (which they never, ever did). At that point, I had to be content with the fact that I was, as a friend says, "sunny-side up, suckin' air, sober" - and that for the forseeable future, that had to be enough.

At year 15 it was different. I'd hoped that by the time I was 15 years sober, I'd have had most of my past cleaned up, and be very solidly anchored in the career of my dreams. Having to truly come to terms with the death of my ministry dreams, with having to move (but not really having the money to do so), and that once again I was starting life over (and once again behind the 8-ball, cash-wise) was a series of annoyingly humbling realizations. I really, really wanted to say, "Hey, folks, everything's fine" when it was anything but.

Instead, what I remember talking about was gratitude, the 12th step, and the fellowship. How working with my three young sponsees has given my joy, hope and encouragement when I couldn't find it in my own living situation. How God manages to use me in seemingly powerful ways, despite not wearing a clerical collar. And how no matter how many challenges I get today, if I go to bed sober, I'm a winner. Because the simple truth is that drunks drink, and junkies use - unless there is a miracle.

So I left at 5:30 last night. I could have left straight for Ohio then; perhaps sanity would have encouraged that. But one of my sponsees was turning six months sober, and I wanted to give him a card and a hug and be there for the 7:00 meeting. So I didn't leave there until 8:15, stopped home and picked up the suitcases and packages, left about 9:20, and had a particularly slow but peaceful drive (darn them Highway Patrol folks...), and got here about 1:30 AM CT, 2:30 Eastern - safe, sober, undented...and now we're full circle.

So even though it's Friday morning, it's still Christmas Day for me. I've received a gift of life, of sobriety, and of love from my God, my family and my friends. And there's a whole bunch of people in palatial estates driving Hummers and dripping with "bling" that can't say that.

Topics that are half-started thoughts include Lutherans, Methodists and what "church unity" means; what it means to have a gift-less Christmas; and my Christmas-music playlist. But for now, we're having Tony's Ribs (yay!) in Findlay with both sisters and their husbands tonight, Christmas eve with Sue's in-laws, and a variety of options for Christmas Day. is good. Thank you, God.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Well, it's official....

According to the AWS Weatherbug location near my place, we are officially fresh out of Fahrenheits, at -1 degrees (-18.3 C for my Canuck friends). Don't know where they all went, but it's definitely time to bundle up...

The message comes to the outsiders

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests. (Luke 2:8-14, NIV)
It's Monday of Christmas week...and echoing in my mind is a lesson that recurs in my mind every year at this time. It's a powerful lesson I learned about shepherds nearly 8 years ago, in one of my first ministry classes. Some who have listened to me for a while have heard this before...feel free to tune out. But I think it's an image that bears repeating...

I think it's especially important to repeat the image now...when a great deal of what society sees as "Christianity" comes down to pseudo-righteous people pointing fingers at other groups, and yelling "You're a sinner! You'd better repent or you're going to Hell!"

As if we all weren't if, somehow, there were people who somehow didn't have lifestyles that were unacceptable to God in some way...

It's particularly appropriate to talk about this in connection with this passage of Scripture, too. You see, in Biblical times, shepherds were considered some of the most distrusted, dishonorable, dishonest, and lowly people of all the world. Listen to what professor of ministry Donald Messer says about shepherds:
Far from being a noble profession, the job of shepherd in first-century Palestine was one of the most despised trades, along with gamblers, usurers, and publicans. Contrary to our romantic images, shepherds were generally considered to be thieves. Far from being viewed as reliable and responsible, they were habitually known to graze on other people's lands and to pilfer the produce of the herd. Their social and religious status would not be much higher than pimps and drug pushers in our day. They, like the publicans and tax collectors, therefore, were deprived of their civil rights. They could not fulfill a judicial office or be witnesses in a court. It was forbidden to buy wool, milk, or a kid from a shepherd - because it was widely assumed that it would be stolen property. One ancient writing reports that 'no position in the world is so despised as that of the shepherd.'" (Donald Messer, Contemporary Images of Christian Ministry (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), page 172.)
Yet Luke reports that the first ones to hear of Jesus' birth were shepherds - among the most despised people in the New Testament world! Can you imagine their shock - to find out they were the first ones to be eye-witnesses of God's majesty? And can you imagine the people they talked to afterwards? No wonder Luke writes that everyone who heard of Jesus' birth from the shepherds "wondered at the things told them by the shepherds"!

When you read it that way, it's not a very pretty scene, is it?

No, it's not. And it's not meant to be.
God didn't mean it to be pretty. God meant it to be real.

Let's put it in today's words. Jesus could have come as a triumphant warrior-king, bristling with power, to smite the evil and establish a kingdom built on power. But that wasn't God's plan at all. There was no royalty, no engraved invitations for the rich and mighty to the arrival of God's son. Instead, there was an obscure town of Bethlehem, in the filthy corner of a barn, in a feed trough, where a confused carpenter was witness to the birth of God's son to his teen-aged wife-to-be. Wonder with me at how the despised and lowly men tending sheep felt as angels from Heaven give them the telegram: "...Born to you this day is a Savior, which is Christ the Lord." The news of God's son had come - not to those who felt they deserved to hear, sitting comfortably at the Temple - but to those who needed the news most! Creatures who thought that their sins had left them without a prayer were the ones who found that the salvation of the world had come first to them!

And what does it say of the one who becomes "the Good Shepherd"? Messer points out that this oxymoron is the equivalent to saying "I am the the Good Homosexual" to the religious right, or "I am the Good Fundamentalist" to the gay & lesbian community, or like saying "I am the Good Terrorist" - because in those days, shepherds were just that despised. Messer writes, "It is no wonder that after Jesus called himself 'the Good Shepherd' the Gospel of John reports, 'there was again a division among the Jews because of these words (John 10:19)" (page 173). Jesus identified with the lowly, and with the despised - and yet turned that despising description on its head, transforming the label as he did everything else he touched.

In these days of insanity - when businesses are encouraged to "keep the 'Christ' in Christmas" so they won't get boycotted - it's important not to lose the amazement and wonder of those who witnessed the birth of our Savior. And let me never forget that if God could be present and "with them" in the mess of the stable, surrounded by the disreputable and untouchable ones of that time, then God can and is surely with me, during the messes of my life, and when I feel unworthy and apart from the rest of the world.

It is in the most impossible of my own times and situations that I have to remember the amazingly unlikely people and places that were part of the story of God's arrival on earth. And I also remember that I am the unlikely - and undeserving - recipient of the gift of grace brought by Jesus to the world. May I continue to stand by the manger in wonder at the astonishing love of God for you, and for me!

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Enjoying life, helping others

...We have been speaking to you of serious, sometimes tragic things. We have been dealing with alcohol in its worst aspect. But we aren't a glum lot. If newcomers could see no joy or fun in our existence, they wouldn't want it. We absolutely insist on enjoying life.
...So we think cheerfulness and laughter make for usefulness. Outsiders are sometimes shocked when we burst into merriment over a seemingly tragic experience out of the past. But why shouldn't we laugh? We have recovered, and have been given the power to help others.

(from the text Alcoholics Anonymous, page 132)
The book Alcoholics Anonymous is the only textbook about a progressive, fatal disease that contains the phrase "We absolutely insist on enjoying life."
(Scott R., Sherman Oaks, CA)
Today is a double celebration of sorts. This morning, I began my new career as an official employee of Hewitt Associates, a major human-resources consulting firm headquartered in the 'burbs north of Chicago. After my disastrous foray into theological studies, I am once again on the road to being (as AA's 7th traditions says) "self supporting through our own contributions." And today also marks my fifteen-year sobriety anniversary.

Neither celebration started off so well, however.

Somehow, in the process of moving this summer, I managed to misplace my "important papers" file - the one with my will, my birth certificate, and the original of my social security card in it. While my profound hope is that I won't need the will for a while, I desperately needed the social security card (or the birth certificate) in order to fill out my I-9 form for my new employer during orientation on Monday morning.

So I spent the weekend emptying boxes, sorting through papers that I swore I'd file or read or take action on someday (but never did) in a vain effort to find the critical documents. The result is that my apartment now looks like a drug dealer or mob enforcer came in and "tossed" the place. Not pretty. And certainly not what one might expect from someone sober that long.

Finally I just gave up late last night, accepted the fact that if it was a drop-dead fatal requirement, I'd just end up ordering the replacement documents and being a temporary employee for another month, and went to bed. I needed to get up very early on Monday to travel up to the company HQ up in Lincolnshire for the first day of orientation.

This morning, I was ready to leave the house about 5:25 AM when I realized that somehow, in the excitement of tearing things up to find my "important documents," I had somehow also managed to misplace my wallet. (You have to understand that I was still beating myself up for supposedly being a responsible adult, but nonetheless somehow managing to misplace two critical life documents. And there I was, with the clock running on my departure time, and once again I couldn't find stuff that was important to me.)

Let's just say that it wasn't exactly a spiritual high-water mark for me.

In fact, my language might have indicated that I was having a spiritual blackout (or at least "rotating brownouts") rather than a spiritual experience of any kind. And as I was tearing around my apartment, the recurring theme in my head was: People who are fifteen years sober aren't supposed to be having days like this. This is first-year sobriety nonsense. So what the hell am I doing here again?

(Trust me - I know better than that. I really do. I know lots of people who have had much worse days, with much more sober-time than I have. But I wasn't listening to me this morning.)

Now, the end of the story is pretty simple: About 6:00 AM, I finally stopped to breathe, and pray the only honest prayer I could say: God, grant me the serenity to be able to find my FREAKIN' WALLET before I break something! And shortly after that, I actually did find the damn thing, said about a hundred reps of "Thank you, God," then got in the car, and did deep-breathing exercises for about 5 miles up I-94. It took just shy of two and a quarter hours to travel the 50 miles to Lincolnshire by leaving at 6:15 instead of 5:30. But it was OK. Really.

And the day got immensely better. I arrived not only on-time, but calmed down and reasonably serene. I found out that just the application for a replacement Social Security card would be enough for the employment folks. And we got done early enough that I could perform some tech-support by phone for one of my coworkers on the drive back down from Lincolnshire.

And I got to go to my Monday AA meeting - and be reminded, again and again, just what an incredible gift this sobriety is for those of us who need it. I got to see the people who have so enriched my life for the last three years - and got to admit that while my day certainly hadn't gone according to my best-laid-plans, it still went OK - because I was sober.

At one of my first AA meetings, a man said to me, "Steve, drunks drink, and junkies use - unless there is a miracle. So if you qualify for this group, and you wake up sober, you're an absolute freakin' miracle." Like my wallet, I've managed to misplace that thought a bunch of times, but I've never truly lost it yet - for which I'm grateful.

I am not where I want to be - not by any means. In some ways, parts of the last year have been failures - financially, emotionally, spiritually. There is part of me that wishes that I weren't starting my life and my career over - again - on the low side of my half-century birthday. There are lots of things I wish were different...lots different.

But despite all the things I wish could be otherwise, I also can claim a whole bunch of real blessings this year. I know that I have family and friends alike who love me, and are grateful for my presence in their lives. That, by itself, is a huge gift. It is not good, as Scripture says, for this particular man to be alone - and so I have received incredible gifts of love, inclusion and friendship...many more than I could ever measure.

And I know that God has managed to use me, and my struggles, for good this year. I know that there are people who God has managed to "reach out and touch" through me. I know that over the last year, I've taken some actions to be more honest about who and what I am - steps that I have put off taking for decades (literally).

And I know where my wallet, my keys, and my phone are.

So as the young folk would say: "It's all good."

The last several days have not been fun, by any means. But I can honestly say that tonight, I am not "a glum lot," and that my goal for tomorrow is not only to "enjoy life," but to use both my blessings and my struggles to help others.

To the people in the community of recovery - my sponsors, my sponsees, and all the people who have made this journey possible - all I can say is thank you, and thank you, and forever thank you. I'll never be able to repay the gifts that each of you have given me over the last fifteen years.

But it will be my honor and my pleasure to try, nonetheless.

Abandon yourself to God as you understand God. Admit your faults to Him and to your fellows. Clear away the wreckage of your past. Give freely of what you find and join us. We shall be with you in the Fellowship of the Spirit, and you will surely meet some of us as you trudge the Road of Happy Destiny. May God bless you and keep you - until then. (page 164)

Friday, December 09, 2005

Comedy of errors, snowstorm-style

Well, it has been an interesting day here in the Windy City...

Good news - the official "offer letter" came from my new employers-to-be today. Orientation will be Monday through Wednesday - although in order to make it out to Lincolnshire, IL (where the corporate HQ's are) I'll have to be up by 4:30 AM, on the road by 5:30 AM to be downtown at Union Station by 6:15, to catch a 6:30 a.m. to Lincolnshire, to get there by 8:30. (I can just hear Stevie Wonder singin' Livin' just enough...just enough for the cit-aye...) But a boy's gotta do what a boy's gotta do...

For some reason, digestive challenges kept me getting up repeatedly through Wednesday night and into Thursday morning. Despite getting up earlier than usual, I still managed to be running out the door late. But I was encouraged, because I was going to be seeing my friend Eric from Kansas for dinner Thursday night - a long-awaited reunion. So that eased my frustration at getting to work late.

A series of technical FUBARs made the day at work a challenge - leaving me with half-a-dozen things half done, and only one completely resolved. I definitely opened more cans of worms than I managed to seal up. Of course, that's the nature of the work, too - but it was frustrating, nonetheless.

It was when someone walked back in from getting coffee that they said, "Look at the snow!" And snow it did - making the Chicago riverside walk look like quite the winter wonderland. I have to admit, it was pretty - snow falling pretty much straight down, in a relatively windless and warm day (well, 28F/-2C - warm for a Chicago day in December!). Not exactly a Kincaide painting, but close...

Of course, it completely scrambled Eric's travel - he got to take off from KC to St. Louis, then they delayed him 2-1/2 hours in STL, and then he finally did take off from STL to Chicago. Of course, no one could have known that Southwest flight 1248 from Baltimore would land in Chicago about a half-hour before Eric's flight, sliding off the runway, crashing through the barrier wall around Midway Airport and ending up in the intersection of 55th St. and Central Ave. (you'll have to do a free registration to read the article). Needless to say, they closed the airport, and that, as they say, was that.

So Eric's plane went back to St. Louis, and I started a two-hour trek from the office to the apartment in Pullman. I managed to connect by phone with several folks along the way - sponsees, friends - so it wasn't lost time. But the 6 blocks from the train to the apartment were long, slipperly, snowy, crappy blocks - so I was more than ready to get into the apartment and get dry...when I got to the door of the apartment building and realized that I had somehow left my house-key-ring at the office.

If there is anything more embarrassing than being locked out of your own apartment, and having to wake your landlord up to let you in dead sober, I can't think what the hell it might be. I blistered the air with more than a few oaths that you will never find in the pages of Scripture, you can be sure.

Of course, I had a spare set of keys - it's just what you do when you're a forgetful guy like me. But the night before I had dropped my wallet onto the bedroom floor, and a whole bunch of stuff fell out of it. I just threw it all on the desk, planning to sort it all out the next morning. (So much for good intentions...)

At any rate, my landlord is a much more gracious guy guy than I am, and gave me a loaner set of keys, and all has ended well. My pants are hanging by the furnace to dry out, and I have a cup of hot herbal tea with which to finish the day off. Eric's flight from St. Louis to KC should be arriving right about now, and I trust that he will be home safe soon.

So despite all that, I'm home safe, unbruised (except my ego), undented, and I'm going to get to bed and give it another shot tomorrow! (Or actually later on today...)

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Still a strange way to save the world

Joseph said, "Why me? I'm just a simple man of trade...
Why him, with all the rulers in the world?
Why here, inside this table filled with hay?
Why her? She’s just an ordinary girl…
Now I'm not one to second guess what angels have to say...
But this is such a strange way to save the world."

(4Him, "A Strange Way to Save The World,"
from their CD "The Season of Love")

Lately I've had the good fortune of some quiet time on the train to think about the arrival of our Savior on this earth. I heard the 4Him song above this morning, and it made me think of just how it might have been.

Several years ago, I was at a concert, and one of the songs the group performed was "Breath of Heaven," written by Amy Grant and Chris Eaton. The song is written from Mary's perspective, and is an extremely powerful tribute to the Incarnation - God taking flesh and coming to Earth - and how it must have been to be in the middle of that whole miracle. If you have not heard it, you have missed a very powerful image of how the first Christmas was.

The leader of the performing group gave a powerful testimony for "Breath of Heaven" before the musical set began. He said that he had never heard the song before picking it for their "Christmas Cabaret" - but he felt that it was a powerful reminder of how we are, compared to how Mary and Joseph were.

Then he reminded us all that as we prepare to celebrate Christmas with gifts and dining-rooms filled with hot food, and beautiful music sung inside brightly-lit churches surrounded by stained-glass, flowers, torches and candles...that the first Christmas was not that way at all. It was cold and homeless and messy and stinky and painful and lonely. The birth of the King of Kings
was done without pain-killers or antiseptic soap or Lamaze lessons. Just a teenaged unwed mother who was ready to deliver her child, taken in by a carpenter from Nazareth, who were both a long way from home, with no place to go. It wasn't pretty, and on the surface, the scene itself was anything but holy.

But even that ugliness is a powerful message - if we just choose to listen to it! Humanity, plus a stable, plus an unwed mother and a clueless carpenter, sounds like a plot for an episode of "Cops" - it’s probably not gonna end up pretty. But the same setting, the same people, and
the same situation in God’s hands creates a time of holiness, when the angels sing and strangers come to give praise. God sends a baby to save the world, and we wonder at the sacred insanity of the idea. An unwed mother - someone that might not even be welcome
in some churches, these days - becomes the source of the Light of the World.

If God can do that with Joseph, Mary, and a stable, what can God do with me? What can God do with US in our individual congregations, in our places of work, and in our homes? Can we really say, as Mary did, "Let it be according to God’s will"? I believe that answering that question can be the best thing we can do with our time while we’re "preparing the way for
the Lord."

Lord God, help me to continue to ask myself the question, and then try to not be afraid of the answer...

Monday, December 05, 2005

Outta my mind on Monday moanin'

Yet another installment...

Good moanin' - Mandatory reading: go straight over here and read some incredibly powerful stuff from my 2nd most favorite German Lutheran, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In light of recent events in Catholic circles, this is especially timely. (Thanks to Poor Mad Peter for the hat-tip!)

Good moanin' - the date is now set: I should become an official employee of Hewitt Associates on December 12th. I had two "interviews" (with my boss and her boss) and their only concern was that I was being hired in "below my skill set." Of course, they don't know that I'm being hired in well above my subsistence level for the last eighteen months. Thank you, God, for another fresh start.

Moanin' - however, the downside is that because the Hewitt bureaucracy was running like most bureaucracies (slowly and methodically), my health insurance was scheduled to run out before my new group policy would kick in. So I called the firm, and said, "So, if I renew my policy for another quarter, and pay the $700 premium, if I get a new job in the interim, can I cancel the policy and get a partial refund?" The response back was basically, "If you're not going to be a student, you're not eligible for the insurance - period. The only reason we renewed the policy in the first place was because it looked like you were going to be a student again." (Whoops.) So I get to be really, really careful over the next seven days... may saints and angels surround me!

Good/moanin' - both good and bad news. Good news: while I was in Ohio, I picked up what look to be my Christmas decorations. (I brought the artificial tree back at the end of October.) Bad news - it looks like there's at least one box (perhaps more) that didn't make it to Sue & Jeff's new place. I don't know whether it got tossed in the moving-Sue-n-Jeff melee a year ago, or if it got relabled and is in my basement somewhere, mismarked as something else. Now if I can just get my apartment straightened up enough to have some folks over for dinner and tree decorating...

Good/moanin' - while I still have drafts coming into my apartment from places I can't really pinpoint, the 3M window covering film (thank God for whoever invented that stuff!!) seems to have stopped the worst of the winter gales, which were entering through the kitchen windows (the upper halves of which were painted nearly-closed, but not completely closed). So now the furnace is only running frequently, instead of nearly-continuously. Progress, not perfection, I guess...

One reason I have not been posting much lately has been an ongoing dramatic slowdown in my Internet connection. By this morning, it was so severe, the WOW! service speed test showed that my download speed was only 3 kbps. (Dial-up service would have given me at least 48kbps...) I did the usual - installed the latest browser update (new Firefox 1.5!), cleared my cache and history, done everything I'd known to do. In a burst of inspiration this morning, I remembered that while I had rebooted the PC repeatedly, I hadn't restarted the modem or router in all this process. Once I did that, and got the router reinitialized, shazzam! Back to broadband speeds again. Woo-hoo!

Blessings ahead - my buddy Eric Amundson is coming into town Thursday night! He's got a business meeting out in the northwest suburbs (Hoffman Estates, to be exact), so he'll come in Thursday night, and head back home Friday afternoon. It will be great to see him.

That's it - I'm already starting off the week by going to bed WAY too late (early) - but I want to get back in the habit of posting more regularly...

Thursday, December 01, 2005

World AIDS Day 2005 - the band still plays on

Today's NY Times email summary contained only one article, this editorial, about AIDS on this World AIDS Day. But the first and last lines basically told the story:
AIDS is outrunning us. The annual report of the United Nations' AIDS agency, released last week to mark World AIDS Day today, informs us that this year there will be 5 million new infections, a record, and more than 3.1 million deaths, another record.

The most troubling aspect of the report by the agency, UNAIDS, is its grim evidence that many large countries are still closing their eyes to limited AIDS epidemics that will soon explode into the general population. India is providing numbers no one believes. Russia has the world's fastest-growing epidemic, fueled by intravenous drug abuse. Drug abuse also now accounts for half of China's AIDS cases, and it is spreading AIDS infections rapidly in Vietnam, Indonesia and Pakistan...

The AIDS story this year is mostly one of failure: the failure of rich countries to give the promised money, the failure of poor nations to muster the political will. All around, it's a failure of leadership.

Twenty years ago, a friend of mine who was a research pathologist was casting about for his next project. I asked him at the time if he'd thought about researching what was then called GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). His words are still accurate: "It will never happen. No one wants to provide funding to cure a disease that only affects IV drug users and anally-active homosexuals."

Well, it's been at least two decades since AIDS was confined to those small populations. A contaminated blood supply - and corporate greed, unwilling to spend the money to protect the blood supply until it was too late - saw to that.

Check out this list of well-known people living with HIV, or who have died from HIV-related illness. The one that blew my mind was Isaac Asimov - one of the all-time great sci-fi writers - who died of AIDS-related surgical complications after being infected with HIV-tainted blood.

We can't afford to be complacent - so far AIDS has killed, or helped kill, more people this year than every other natural disaster...tsunami, flood, hurricane - everything. In 1989, the death of Amanda Blake (Kitty on Gunsmoke) and the 1990 death of Ryan White, a teen-aged hemophiliac, proved to the public that this was no longer a gay or drug-user disease. But because people like Magic Johnson can pay huge amounts of money for anti-retroviral drugs, so many people assume the cure is in hand, and that somehow we don't need to worry any more.

But it's not over. It's not even slowing down. The AIDS Quilt, a memorial created by family and friends of AIDS victims and the Names Project, would now cover multiple football fields if it were all brought together.

Wear the red ribbon. Make a contribution. Make your voice heard, that we will not remain silent in the face of this disease.