Friday, January 27, 2006

A message from my Parent

As I was packing up to move last July, I was taking a lot of stuff to the trash. (None of the people who helped me move could have imagined how much stuff didn't make it to the new place!) But, of course, that meant a large number of trips to the community dumpsters.

On one such trip, early in the morning on trash day, I found a white framed canvas leaning up against the dumpster, onto which someone with a great eye for design had painstakingly lettered a message from God. Every word was in a different lettering style and color, mixing bold and italic and cursive and block, serif and san serif, outline and shadow with an amazing rainbow of color. And if the visual presentation was great, the message was pretty cool, too:
My dearest child,
I am constantly working in your life, adding this color, that shadow, this line. Like an artist with a paintbrush, I am making you into the very image of my beautiful and sinless child.

Don't constantly question what I'm doing. Don't struggle against my hand. Learn to trust the Artist who stands back and sees from his own perspectie what is needed in the portrait he is creating.

If you must question something today, ask this: "How will the circumstances of this day make me more like Jesus?" Then thank Me for the circumstances, and receive my grace to walk through them. I love you with a tenderness you cannot imagine.

Let's face it - how could I leave that kind of message (both in beauty and content) to go to the trash?

Recently, in going through some boxes, I found that canvas again, and ended up hanging it on the inside of my door, so I can read it everyday as I go outside. I can't help believing that my day will go better if I remember that my Creator really is constantly working in my life, working with color, beauty and design.

And it helps to believe that God loves me with a tenderness I cannot imagine.

My hope and prayer is that the person who crafted this prayer canvas did not part with it because they were tired of hearing it.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

My place in the heavenly realm...

Said a friend to a friend one day,
Was a man who passed away
St. Peter met him at the gate
Pete said: Walk with me if you will
I'll take you to the house you built
Man said: I can't wait!

Passed a mansion made of stone
But with each new house he's shown
They get smaller by degrees
Stopped in front of a two room shack
Pete said hope you're happy with that
Man said: How can this be?
Pete said…
That's all the lumber — that's all the lumber
That's all the lumber you sent
Looks like the Builder—Man, he's got your number
That's all the lumber you sent...

("The Lumber Song," words & music by Eli)

I heard this song on the Christian radio the other day, and it got me thinking.

About a year sober, I met up with this real Jesus-freak guy who also went to AA. He knew that I'd newly returned back to church, and was seeking to understand this relationship with a God of my mis-understanding. So he invited me to come to his pastor's house for "a bible study that will really open your eyes." I told him that I'd never studied the bible, and didn't think I'd fit in well. And he said (in words so familiar to addictive personalities) "Hey, just try it once. If you don't like it, you don't have to come back." So I went.

The home we drove to in Leawood (a ritzy neighborhood south of Kansas City) was beautiful, and the welcome I received was a warm one. But it didn't take long to realize that I was not in the right place at all...

You see, the topic for that week's "study" was this so-called pastor's interpretation of the various "levels" of heaven and the structure of the heavenly realm. In this particular pastor's view, the Kingdom of Heaven was like a cruise ship. Your place in eternity was determined by how the spiritual price you paid while you were still on Earth, it seemed.

The folks who were good and righteous, who gave considerably to this particular church and ministry, the folks who did right all the time, would be up on the 1st-class decks of heaven, dining on prime rib and French pastry. The folks who weren't all that perfect would be in the "second-class cabins," whereas the folks who just claimed Jesus as their Lord but otherwise didn't do much would be down in steerage, near the "bottom" of Heaven.

And one's role in the New Heaven and New Earth would be determined in the same way. The cherubim and seraphim would be made up of the truly righteous, and so on. Us barely-repentant critters would spend eternity living as the waiters and janitors for the rest of the holy and glorified assemblage.

It went on a lot longer than that - with lots of diagrams and hierarchical drawings - but you get the gist of it.

And then, as the pastor had completed his presentation, he tacked up a chart of the various levels and branches of heaven on the wall, and asked us to put a blue dot where we felt our lives so far would put us in the celestial pecking order, and then a green dot where we'd like to spend eternity. And he looked out at us with great anticipation.

It was all I could do not to laugh.

Remember - I was just a year sober..

A year earlier, my life as I knew it had ended. I'd been fired, divorced, cut off from my old friends, and contemplated suicide on a number of occasions. I'd been lifted from the depths of guilt, shame, and despair to a place of relative peace, serenity, and knowledge of the absolute love of God.

And this guy wanted to know if I was going to be happy with where my chair may (or may not) be in the heavenly seating arrangements?

I was the last person to speak, and I listened to the other 6 or 8 people rationalize about how they would be on this level, or that area or role. And it's been 14 years since that night, and I still remember the feelings of astonishment that someone would even bother to sit and study this stuff. I remember the pastor turning to me with this expectant air, and saying, "And where do you believe you will spend eternity, Steve?" As best I remember it, this is what I said:
I appreciate you all inviting me into your home, and your bible study group. And I appreciate your welcoming me into your group. But listening to you folks tonight, I have never felt more of an outsider than I do right now. Because evidently we come from two entirely different places.

For 17 years, I walked away from faith - not just away from church, but away from God. I lied, cheated, stole, and broke the laws of God and man. I knew there was a God, but I believed myself doomed to Hell and to be abandoned by God. And only in the last year have I come to understand about being justified by grace through my faith, not by my actions. So I'm a lot closer to the position of the 'good thief,' who simply asked, 'Remember me when you come into your kingdom.' That's my story.

I don't deserve heaven; I am not righteous, or holy, or good. Just being sober in
this world beats the hell out of where I was; so to me, being the janitor in Heaven, in service of the God who saved me, sounds like a damn good deal.
It still does.

Back to the song that I opened this post with...I haven't sent much lumber up yonder, brother Eli, so there won't be much more than a fishin' shack for me. But I'm convinced that being in the presence of Everlasting Love will more than make up for that. Just hand me my broom, and let me sweep the streets paved with gold. After all, the only reason I'd be there at all is because Someone Else paid for my admission ticket...

Monday, January 23, 2006

"Just keep swimmin' "

That recurring theme from "Finding Nemo" has been my theme song, lately. It has been a whirlwind, for obvious reasons - but just "keepin' on keepin' on" has been the best I can do, for now.

It was an incredibly busy weekend, but also blessedly a work-free weekend. I was a cleaning/organizing tornado going through my apartment, and I can say (with a degree both of pride and of "Oh, thank GOD - finally!") that I have moved out of the "gee, does a crack addict live here?" mode into "gee, another week like this and I could actually have COMPANY over" stage of the game.

It's a good feeling - of course, my spare bedroom has now become the "junk room" - the place where I will be working through the winnowing process (what do I need to keep, what do I want to keep, and do I have any reasonable expectations of using this any time soon?). But it definitely was worth it to get through this.

A close encounter with my physician last Thursday pointed out the need for definite lifestyle changes - my lousy diet and lack of exercise are at the heart of them. The weekend didn't help much - I spent Sunday from 10 AM to 9 PM with one of my AA sponsees, which was mostly sitting, talking, listening and drinking herbal tea. But any time I get the chance to participate in a "fifth-step inventory" with a sponsee, it is an incredibly powerful and moving experience, and I'm always blessed by the experience, even if it can be incredibly draining for both of us.

This week we are attempting to change our processing schedule, to prevent us from being here until midnight Monday and Tuesday. I'm not convinced that it's going to work - nothing this team has touched has worked once since this implementation started. But we will continue to try. So I need to get back to the battle. To my friends in the blogging world, I appreciate your attention and your encouragement, even though I haven't seen hardly anyone else's blog in three weeks. I just keep telling myself, "This too (like gallstones) will pass..."

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Averting a warp-core breach...

Warning: warp-core breach is imminent...warning...

For those of us geeky enough to be Star Trek: The Next Generation fans, we know that there are few crises more serious than the voice of the Enterprise computer announcing the impending catastrophic failure of the ship's engines. The resulting matter-antimatter explosion added a new definition to the phrase "big bang," and was the tragic fate of several of the Enterprise's sister ships.

The reason that all this geekiness is relevant (besides the fact that at heart, I'm a geek) is that the explosion results from the failure to contain powerful and opposing forces. Allowing the tiniest interaction between matter and antimatter allowed the Enterprise to travel faster than light and do all kinds of cool things. But when the containment between matter and antimatter failed, the result was a devastating explosion.

The alert klaxons have been going off at my (relatively) new place of employment, this week...and one could almost hear Majel Barrett Roddenbery sounding the alarms. (For the geek-impaired, she was the wife of ST founder Gene Roddenbery, and played the voice of the computer for both the original ST and TNG).

The containment fields are definitely weakening...

In our case, the two self-annihilating forces are the desperate need to produce at work, and the hope of things getting better. We easily have enough work to keep 16 people busy 60 hours a week - and with only 8 of us, it means that even at 80-plus hours a week, we're still going backward, fast. And the more people can see that we're going backward, the less hope there is of things getting better. The "just hang on, do your best, and things will get better" motto has been wearing a bit thin with my coworkers, causing a number of flare-ups throughout the last two days (complete with invocations of God's damnation on the technology and liberal dropping of the "F-bomb"). It was no wonder that several of my teammates started moving toward the life-pods about 4:30 today.

To my boss's credit, she sounded the general-evacuation alarm at 6 PM today - and then led the charge for the elevators herself. It was a good thing - tempers have been running higher, fuses have been shorter, and the software we're using for our daily processing is more full of bugs and "features" than a pomegranate is of seeds.

All this has produced a snowstorm of trouble calls and problem tickets, most of which we don't have the skills to resolve because our team didn't get to participate in the software build or testing - the implementing team basically "threw it over the wall" about 12 hours before we went live. Needless to say, every single thing we have touched - and some things that were never supposed to be touched - have all broken or failed badly.

The big difference between my life at the telecom-who-bought-Nextel and this operation is that in my former IT/accounting life, I had a group of managers, DBA's and programmers who wanted us to be able to get into the heart of the system and understand the data and the programming, so we could help diagnose the system when it died. The folks here, by contrast, as every bit as nice (most of the time), but 100% in the "there are no good users, only stupid users and stupider clients" mindset. So it's been especially hard to try and see "the soul of the new machine" to find out what makes it tick (or not, as the case may be).

But I, amidst all this, seem to be doing OK. My friend Wes D. reminded me recently of a fellow we worked with who would say, "If this stuff were easy, the Scout Troup would have already done it by now." Don't get me wrong - yeah, I'd like someone to buy me a life, and yes, no one will have to rock me to sleep tonight (good thing, too, since the candidates are few...). But it's still a remarkably good place to work, with a really good group of people that I work with. I just pray that they all got some high-quality rest tonight.

It's close to midnight, and I need to pull some clean clothes out of the dryer, and hit the hay. All I can hope is that tomorrow will be a a better day, and we can get less in the "fingers in the dyke" mode and more into the "proactive, building trust and relationships" stage of the game.

But for now, I'm going to bed and "let the world (and the job) turn without me tonight."

Monday, January 16, 2006

Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening

The LORD came and stood there, calling as at the other times, "Samuel! Samuel!" Then Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening." (1 Samuel 3:10, NIV)

The Revised Common Lectionary on the ELCA web site lists the readings for this last Sunday, and then has this brief notation for Sunday's worship: "Martin Luther King, reformer of society, martyr, 1968 (commemoration)."

Truer words have rarely been spoken.

It would have been very easy for Dr. King to stay at his pulpit, continue to preach heaven and holiness to his congregation, and to take no action against the powers and principalities of their world bent on perpetuating hatred and racism. Thankfully, Dr. King heard the calling of the Lord to do something more - and the world is a different place because of it.

It has been forty-plus years since Dr. King's famous "I have a dream!" speech. Yet that dream remains stubbornly unfulfilled in the early days of 2006. And I have to wonder how much we, as Christians, are responsible for that lack of fulfillment.

In the great commandments, Jesus calls each of us to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. There is no asterisk (*) next to the word "neighbor" saying "just the neighbors who look like us, sound like us, or believe as we do." Yet the 21st-century Christian church has been more well known (especially in the last years of the 20th century and forward) for judging others, rather than how it has been known for helping the stranger or the ones who are not like "us."

On this day, declared as a holiday to commemorate Dr. King's life, let us, as followers of Christ, resolve to love our neighbors, and serve them and their needs, and ignoring the reasons that "they" shouldn't receive our help (no matter which group we might happen to consider to be "them").

For myself, I look forward in anticipation to the days when "the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood." (That sure sounds like a description of the Kingdom of God to me!)

I too have a dream that the children of this land "will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

I, too, dream that "one day, right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers."

I too dream that "one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together (Isaiah 40:5)."

I have a dream today - that the Christian church in America will turn to their Lord and Savior and, putting aside all private or denominational agendas, they will all say, as Samuel said and as Dr. King's life and death testified...

"Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."

Write-off weekend...

Well, this weekend definitely didn't go the way I'd hoped it would.

After the son-of-the-week-from-Hell at work, my plan was to make it to my Saturday-morning AA home group, spend some time cleaning my apartment, spend some time catching up on work, and then some more time cleaning and reorganizing my apartment.

With the exception of the Saturday morning gathering, nothing else happened.

Sometime Saturday afternoon, I came down with some kind of digestive ailment - not flu, because I'd had a shot for that, but every bit as vicious and draining. By two o'clock Saturday afternoon, I'd pretty well written off plans for Saturday, and by Sunday the only thing I'd accomplished was doing the dishes, taking out the trash, and finishing the last 8 episodes of Stargate SG-1.

I desperately needed to do way more than that - but it would have taken more power than God was willing to give me this weekend. So humility (or humiliation?) and surrender said, "Screw it - I'm done. Hopefully I'll be able to start again on Monday." I'm feeling better now - very late on Sunday night - but I'm not ready to go out and do Jazzercise anytime soon.

Those who know me also know there is not an athletic bone in my body, and have little or no use for football. Yet I actually tuned in periodically to see how "The Game" (between the Carolina Panthers and our own Chicago Bears, aka "Da Bears") was going. Tragically (though it was a tie-game a number of times), the Panthers beat Da Bears, quashing dreams of a Super Bowl victory for another year. Sadly, there was no gunfire in South Chicago this night... (at least not on MY street, anyway...)

I'd hoped to be able to install my company's remote-VPN software and work from home (assuming I had the energy or motivation to get off the damn sofa!) but I couldn't get the install program to do it's thing. I'm not sure whether that was a good thing or a bad thing, looking back at my energy levels over this weekend. After all, I've got company coming in next weekend - so if I wasn't in shape enough to clean and organize for them, I probably wasn't in shape enough to do much of anything else, either.

So, in a few minutes, I'm going to bed - again - and I'll try rising early tomorrow and headin' in to do battle with our problem-child implementation.

Topics on the horizon that I've been meaning to write about...
- having a history of work excesses
- where I fall in the heavenly hierarchies
- the one thing I absolutely know I'll fail at, and my one guaranteed success
- prayer, and how qualified one has to be to be a intercessory pray-er
Peace, y'all...

Friday, January 13, 2006

Workin' for the man every night an' day...

I can't believe that it's Thursday night. (Well, OK, it's Friday morning, barely.)

I can't believe that it's 12:28 a.m., on a night that I got off work at 4:30 (only because I was going to a doctor's appointment) and I'm still freaking awake.

It's been a long week. A long two weeks, actually.

Without being hideously disloyal to my new employer (who I really, really love), the process of "going live" for our latest major client has been a minefield of screw-ups, and we've hit a whole bunch of them in the 10 short days since we cut live. Our small band of intrepid warriors have been battling bad converted data, bad software and systems interfaces, and a genuine lack of disseminated data about the client. Consequently, I've been at the office until 1 AM the last three days, and this weekend promises to be another long one.

There have been thoughts, especially in the last 24 hours, that I've given up one form of being half-alive for a slightly better-compensated form of the same condition. That there has to be more to life than this. That I did much better at this schedule at thirty-eight than I am doing at forty-eight. My info-technology skills picked up a lot of rust and barnacles over the last three years of getting into (and out of) seminary, and I have heard the voices in my head saying, "You're just not the right person for all this."

But the primary fact I learned from my 12 years at Sprint was that a sense of humor was critical to survival - even more critical than having the right data. And it's also important to realize what a "bad day" really looks like. As Robert Fulghum once wrote, "It's important to remember that a lump in your oatmeal and a lump in your throat and a lump in your breast are not all the same lump."

For now, I am grateful to have what I have - and more than ready to be "workin' for the weekend."

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Hangin' in there...

Well, last week's 80-hour slide is likely to repeat itself - or worse - this week. So the weekend was 3 AA meetings (Fri. nite, Sat., Sunday) and mostly staying in bed Sunday trying not to be sick.

I had lots to write about, but to be honest, most of my time was either catching up on sleep or watching Roswell (which I finally finished) and Stargate SG-1 season 8, just as mind candy. I'm sure that getting back to meat-and-potatoes will come later this week.

My sister Sue's husband Jeff has been laid off for the month of January for the first time in 20-plus years - pray that he find the strength and the motivation to seek new employment. And my friends Sandy Motsinger and Jerry Amundson are both struggling with health issues - Jerry's actually in the hospital in KC. And my friend Eric Amundson is leaving for China for two weeks today. So lots and lots of prayer concerns...

Thursday, January 05, 2006

It's an amazing thing

Price-tags for the last three days of insane working on a massive payroll implementation:

Dunkin' Donuts for twenty fellow team mates: $18.31

Parking the car at Union Station the last three days, because there was no way we were going to get out of the office in time to catch the last train to Pullman at 12:50 AM: $55.00

Getting a chicken caesar salad from the cafe' downstairs, instead of having free pizza with the team for the third time in three meals: $8.95

Walking with my boss to her car at 2:45 Wednesday morning, and hearing her say, "I'm so glad your path and ours crossed, Steve - because I don't know how we would have gotten through this week without you": priceless.

I'm too tired to even add up my hours over the last three days, so I'm just going to bed. Hugs, y'all...

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

A lull in the storm

Well, we are in the middle (God help us) of day two of our "go-live" project with my new employer's latest client. It has been what I would call a "mitigated disaster" - like so many technical processes that are long on promise and short on testing, we have had a series of crippling delays and technical FUBARs that made yesterday run until the crack of 2 AM, and promises to do the same or worse tonight. It's 7 PM now, and we are not anticipating being able to even start tonight's key-entries (preparatory to our evening processing) until about 8:30. That basically means that we may not be out of here until the sun comes up.

I know that this is temporary - and so it's easy to say things like "this, too, will pass - even if it will be like gallstones." To our credit, my boss says this implementation has been much better than the one from a year ago - the wreckage of which I am still helping them wade through. So I'm grateful for that.

And I'm greateful that my manager is one who's concerned about her people - they're paying for parking, lunch, dinner and pop. So they ask a lot, but they provide a lot. So it sure ain't as bad as it could be...

I'd love to share something smart, witty, or inspirational, but I think I'm going to go into a conference room and close my eyes for a few minutes. Hugs and peace, y'all.

Monday, January 02, 2006

New Year's ramblings

If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

The gunfire started precisely at the stroke of midnight. In fact, I had dozed off watching the last of the Roswell episodes I had on DVD, and wouldn't have known it was midnight, except for the gunfire.

Happy New Years' from the south side of Chicago...

They do that here. Shoot guns off at midnight, that is. Oh, yeah, there's fireworks - firecrackers, M-80's (and bigger) - all illegal, of course. But I'm coming to be able to distinguish the sound of gunfire out here on the edge of the 'hood.

Depending on the weapon, I'll hear six or eight bangs in succession - not poppoppoppoppoppop, but slower and more deliberate - like pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop. It's a little scary for me, actually - after all, each room in this apartment (except the bathroom and the front stairwell) has one or two very un-bulletproof windows. And while I'm sure the 100-year-old brick will stop good-sized slugs, my only protection really is that the line of fire from the street would probably hit me unless I was standing pretty close to them. I often wonder what happens to all those shells - and where they end up coming down. After all, it's not like the bullet-fairy whisks them off somehow - what goes up must come down, I guess. Thankfully, none came down in my place.

This is not the first time I've experienced this - there was minor gunfire in Hyde Park where I used to attend school (and an earlier display of firepower here in Pullman while celebrating the White Sox's World Series win), but last evening's display sounded more like a scene from the OK Corral...or Apocalypse Now.

Fortunately, gunfire was not the dominant theme this weekend. Sloth and entertainment were. From Tuesday to Friday I put in 60 hours at the new job; not unwelcome, just not expected. If I'd planned not to be home before 10 PM for a week, I'd have done things differently (like come home a day early from Christmas to prepare for it). But while it was exhausting (and promises to be so again this week) it really wasn't bad, compared to my former employment.

After all, I've been on the new job for nearly 2-1/2 months, and I haven't yet heard anyone say, "Gee - it really smells like dead mouse(/rat/varmint) in here." (Not an unusual occurrence in my former employment site.) In 10 weeks, I haven't yet come into the office to find out that the powers-that-be decided to turn off the electricity (or heat, or water) for long-overdue all-day repairs (without telling the staff ahead of time). No squirrels have chewed through the DSL line, cutting off Internet and email connectivity to the company. And even among the employees of color, there hasn't been nearly the overdose-of-attitude that was all-too-frequently the case "back there." So I'm still a grateful man.

About 12:45 AM Thursday morning, as we were preparing to leave the office, one of my co-workers came into my cube and said, "You don't even look pissed!" And she was right, thanks be to God. I was tired; I was disappointed (a goof on my part resulted in more than an hour's rework added to the long-day-and-night) but I wasn't angry. Gratitude was still very much a gift for me, because I knew (and know) what the alternative is. And thankfully I don't have to go there, today.

Friday night, I got to go up to the Improv Olympic to see one of my friends and his team in an improv competition final-match. It was pretty neat - especially when they won - but it was also just nice to be a part of the evening. He seemed appreciative of my coming out, too (especially since the show started at midnight Friday). So Saturday, and Sunday, except for the a couple AA meetings and a New Years Eve afternoon prime-rib dinner with friends, was basically spent in bed or on the sofa.

All weekend long, I've been seeing and hearing tragedies - just on the ride back from the Improv early Saturday morning, there were 6 car wrecks on the stretch of Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island between Belmont and 115th St. In addition, several AA friends had weeks last week that would have made Job himself wince. So compared to them I really, really don't have anything to complain about.

This afternoon, I heard that there was gunfire and explosions in Iraq - but they were much more deadly than anything that happened on the south side of Chicago last night. It reminded me yet again of how safe and secure my life is, compared to so much of the world.

Amidst the gunfire, Lord, here is a prayer for peace. That nations and sects and denominations might stop fighting (and killing) in Your name. That Your followers will remember that Your son prayed "that they might all be one," and not that each and every one could start his/her own splinter group. That this will be a year when the death toll from natural disasters will not be matched by sectarian and racial violence. That a quarter million people will not die in places like Darfour again, alone, barely noticed, and rarely mourned.

Help us remember, Lord, that no matter what we think about "just war" or same-sex partners or gay-lesbian ordination, the central fact of Christian faith remains what Paul wrote about 1,940 years or so ago:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all, as to one abnormally born, he appeared to me also. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8, NIV).
Help me keep my eyes on that prize, Lord. Let me be of maximum service to my fellow human beings, and as honest as I can be about who and how I am. That's probably the best I can do to do Your will - this day, and always. Amen.