Monday, April 24, 2006

Surpassing evil - and grace - in the Bible

And you, Lord - don't you dare forget
The ones who tore your city down -
You hear me?
They tore it down to its footings
Reduced your temple to rubble
And they laughed.

O Babylon, you Destroyer
I wish I could do it myself
I wish I could pay you back
I wish I could take your babies
And dash their heads against
The stones that you tore down.

(Psalm 137:7-9, a contemporary translation)
In my Old Testament readings class, I heard this translation of the end of Psalm 137, done several years earlier by a former student. I'd always struggled with Psalm 137 - but my struggles were nothing compared to another one of my fellow students, who all but yelled at the end of the reading, "That is awful! I don't see why we can't just pull those pages out of the Bible and burn them!"

I understood that notion then - and I still do. The idea of wanting to slaughter babies - even Babylonian babies - seems obscene, something that doesn't belong in a book of holy writings. But there is a lesson in that expression of anger and hate, one that I found expressed best by Bill Williams in his book, Naked Before God: The Return of a Broken Disciple. These words are Bill's:
There is grace in this passage - not in the text itself, but simply in the presence of the text. After all, think where you find it - the Psalms reside almost exactly in the center of the Bible, at its very heart. And the Psalms tell us a powerful lesson - that the ugliest, most vengeful coals we can harbor in our souls will not throw us out of God's presence. Hear the Good News: bitterness and wrath nearly consumed the psalmists....

...and God used them anyway.

Those people wrote words which are read and sung in churches week after week. Their words have given courage to millions of souls passing through the doors of death and destruction. One of their writings may be on your lips the day you die.

That's how God punished 'filthy' people filled with nasty human emotions....they helped write the Bible
When I struggle with doubt, or anger and resentment, or fear that the riot of my own emotions can cut me off from being any use to God, I remember this passage and these words about it.

And I remember that I am not alone in the family of God - no matter how much the outside appearances of believers on Sunday morning may look much better than how my "insides" feel.

I remember that these struggles are not something which condemns me as a spiritual failure - but something that brands me as a human being, struggling to live a life of faith. It gives me the hope to move forward, to walk through the tough times "by faith and not by sight."

And it reminds me that the same Psalmists who wrote of such horrible violence also wrote of surpassing joy:
Praise the LORD, O my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits -
who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.

(Psalm 103:1-5, NIV)
And, finding myself once again renewed, I can only say, "Amen, and ever amen."

Friday, April 21, 2006

How do we treat the defiant ones?

Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord!"
But he said to them, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it."
(John 20:24-25, NIV)
This Sunday's Gospel is one of my favorites, because it describes so much of my life in faith. And it points out a critical flaw in much of Christian practice today...

Our central character is frequently known as "doubting Thomas," but that's not how I hear it when I read this passage. I'd say that "Defiant Thomas" is probably more like it. Rejecting the claims of those who had been his friends and his fellow apostles, he says, "Nope - not gonna do it. Before I believe something that big, you're just gonna have to show me."

Unfortunately, that's the story of much of my life, even as a believer. "How can this possibly be true? Are you pulling my leg, or what? A God who loves you, I can believe...but a God who loves me? You're gonna have to show me..."

But here's the part I find so beautiful about this passage, in verse 26:
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them.
Can you believe it? Thomas had rejected the heart of the best news the apostles could give him - and yet a week later, Thomas was still a part of the group, together with them in the house!

Weird, isn't it?

It's one of the reasons that I love the Alpha program - because it specifically does not say to the seeker or non-believer, "You MUST believe this!" In the spirit of the 12-step organizations, the Alpha program says, "This is what we believe - this is our hope, and our faith. Have dinner with us, stick around, check us out. This is our experience, strength and hope. Come and see..."

But this passage begs the question, doesn't it? How do most Christians today deal with people who don't want to believe as the group believes? How do many Christians today often deal with those whose beliefs or actions or lifestyles aren't acceptable to the church family as a whole?

Tragically, the history of Protestant Christianity is one of schism and splitting. We find the ones who don't believe like us or live like us, and either we drive them out (as heretics, unbelievers, unclean, unfaithful or blasphemers)- or we split the church into "them" and "us."

But look what happens to the apostles, who put up with the defiant one, the doubter! Thomas is there with them a week later - probably as doubtful and rejecting as ever - and what happens?

"Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you!' "

It seems that Jesus shows up for the church, even when there are doubters and unbelievers around. Even through locked doors. Perhaps even through locked hearts....

God, help us to remember that the ones who don't live as we'd choose, or believe as we'd choose, are still your children. Help us to be welcoming, inclusive and loving - trusting that your Son will show up, bringing peace and faith to those who need it. Amen.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Stepping gently out of the insanity

Ineresting thing I'm learning about codependent organizations and employees - they are like drug addicts dealing with drug dealers.

I'd heard the image first in connection with churches from a professor at St. Paul in KC -
churches are addictive and codependent organizations. Their drugs of choice are overwork, over-commitment and works-righteousness. And the only word they know is "more." Never "enough," only "more."
I've found it's true with employers as well.

My employer is an addictive group. Their drugs of choice are over-work, over-commitment, hyper-responsibility, and fear of financial insecurity. They too only know "more." There are no limits; only deadlines. If you've committed to doing six insane things before the weekend, and it's Thursday night, you stay until they get done.

Last weekend, I melted down. Completely. Easter weekend - Jesus came out of the tomb, and I retreated to my apartment. The proximate cause was a combination of bowel and bladder problems that ensured I wasn't going to go far from a bathroom all weekend. But the underlying cause was that I was done. I'd said "yes" when I should have said "no," I'd over-committed myself, and I'd failed. Deadlnes missed, emails and reports not sent, you name it. And I just didn't care - which scared me, I think, more than anything. At some point, my new boss (a kindly, but ineffective man) came in asking for the fourth time in 15 minutes about a task that was ninth on the list. I all but shouted at him, "I'm trying - I really am! But I've got only so much bandwith, and there's a lot more requests than there is throughput around here!!"

By noon on Friday, I had every intention of going to 7:30 Good Friday services, but by 5:30, all I could think about was going home and going to bed.

I dragged myself out for a Saturday morning meeting - but by the time I got home (just in the nick of time...) the bladder problems helped me redefine the term frequent urination for the whole rest of the weekend. And mind and spirit just shut down as the physical discomfort increased. So I pulled into my shell and stayed there.

I felt guilty for not going to Easter services - especially when I'd been thinking of how much I was looking to move forward with finding a new church home again - but my plumbing problems ensured that I would not be riding the Metra or El trains (no public restrooms on the trains or at the stations). So I spent my time listening to classic Christian music - Glad, Keith Green, Acapella - and I slowly relaxed.

Then I stumbled on my old recording of Leonard Bernstein's Mass - which will probably generate about a dozen posts, by itself. But more on that later.

So Monday and Tuesday were typical of our "purgatory weeks" - we ran late, and hectic, but I was home and relaxing by 11 (which feels like mercy, unfortunately). But then I heard that our "efficiency team" lead had taken yet another one of the leads "into the woodshed" over errors that were made - and my spirit just kinda broke. If, despite all our efforts, we're still failing, then why not do it gracefully?

The funny thing about employers and drug addicts. When you can't deliver the goods, they go to someone else. If the dealer is all out of pot, no addict just does without pot; they go from place to place, from dealer to dealer, until they find some. On Wednesday, I went to do a couple of tasks, and in each case, I heard, "You don't have to worry about that - it's been taken off your plate." I was introduced to Jason, a whiz kid from the Mothership headquarters, who was taking one of those pesky items "off my plate." It probably didn't help that he's 20 years younger than me, and a whiz at precisely the kind of stuff they needed him to be (SAS software systems) - and I'm not.

Part of me felt like a failure - oh, you're not strong enough to play with the team, so we're delegating it back to the "A" team. And part of me said, "Screw it - I couldn't do it anyway." So I had to just let it go. (I have to admit, I've got some work still to do on that...)

I sent out an email about my upcoming absence (I'm having some non-invasive medical tests done at the UC hospital Monday morning), and I went home. By 6 PM. And it felt good. I had dinner with a friend, then went home and watched Batman Begins, which had been sitting in my Netflix queue since, oh, February, and I still got to bed before midnight. And that felt good, too.

I'm going to do my best to be a worker among workers, today. No heroics, no "no problem, I'll take that bullet for you." Just my job, and to be helpful to others.

Just for today, I'll try that.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Time to make another decision

I can't believe how long it has been since I have posted here.

Early in sobriety, a man told me, "If you're sober, and you've made a bad decision, you have the option to simply make another decision. Drunk, the only option you have is to say 'the hell with it,' and keep drinking. Sober, you've still got a choice."

Well, I've made a bad decision. And it's time to make a new one.

Back on January 13th, I wrote these prophetic words:
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."
That voice has gotten a lot louder, recently.

It's not even the biweekly "Hell Week" runs, which have consistently kept me at work (and as the last person on deck) until 3:15 - 3:30 AM. It's the fact that even as they have added more people - supposedly, to help out - my job has become more about helping them out, and less about doing my own work. The result is that today, I am further behind than I have ever been, with no end in sight. People are continuing to send everyone on the team messages like, "I expect an answer by 4:00 PM today" - and I'm getting the email at 5:15.

The simple fact is, I really don't believe I have gone three days without breaking down in tears at work since the first of March. When I left the office at 5:20 yesterday, I left with 6 hours worth of work that needed to be done before the stroke of midnight.

And I just didn't freakin' care. Not a bit. Not at all.

I've put on weight that I can ill-afford to carry. My blood-sugar regulation has been in the dumpster for months now. I'm not sleeping; my apartment looks like a crack-den, because I have no energy or will to clean it when I get home.

And I should have worked all last night, too. And I even brought my laptop home to do it.

Instead, I ate way too much carry-out food and watched Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith, which has been waiting to be watched since mid-Februrary. (Thank God for Netflix and no late fees...)

As a friend fondly says, "How low do you have to go before you know you've hit bottom?"

Well, I'm not sure, brother - but I'm in the right neighborhood.

I love my boss...well, my former boss. She was laterally-transferred off the project as a sacrificial lamb to the corporate weenies. She didn't fail - none of us have - but she was at the helm as things were going down (even though the engines and the rudder and the navigation were all sabotaged before we even got on board), so she was the one shunted aside.

My dear friend, to whom I gave the Music From The Neighborhood CD (back here), also ended up being set-up as the bad-girl for several high-visibility screw-ups - most of which were caused my our near-fatal lack of knowledge about the system we're running. She ended up quitting the day after I gave her the CD. She took a week off - and then came back, and was shuffled to a new client (a slightly less dysfunctional one). Sadly, she's no happier - although she is going home at 5:30 a lot more (whereas we are going home at 5:30 only when we can no longer stand it).

So yesterday was Maundy Thursday - commemorating the Last Supper. And it was my own personal "Can't You make this stop?" kind of cry. I made it to one of my three regular AA meetings a week (the only one I make during the regular work week) and it helped a lot. But I still feel like sitting down in a garden and crying out to God.

The two big differences, of course are that I am not even remotely like Jesus, these days - and that I also can choose to walk away from the cross.

So we'll see what this day brings. My employer may well try to crucify me for the work that has not been done. But I'm all done killing myself for the greater corporate good.

If you're the praying type, pray for me.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Cheers for the one we'll be killing

Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,
"Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"
"Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!"
"Hosanna in the highest!"
(Mark 11:8-10, NIV)
Yessir and yes-ma'am...take a good look at that Jesus fellow! He's come in the name of the Lord God! He's bringing the Kingdom that we've been waiting for! We're praising him for all his wonderful works! An entry into Jerusalem so triumphant that they'll be calling it "Palm Sunday" for years!

And five short days from now, we're all going to be crying out for his murder.

Almost every mother's child standing here along the parade route will be down at the temple, or down at Pilate's place. And there won't be a "Hosanna" to be heard. Not one.

Nope. Almost all of us will be there, yelling "Give us "Barabbas!"

And "Crucify him!"

Yes indeed. If Jesus could have come back in the 1970's and made a guest appearance on "Laugh-In," he definitely would have won the "Fickle Finger of Fate" award.

How's this for a public-opinion collapse, eh? Hero on Sunday, servant of all at Thursday dinner, arrested on Thursday night, and the target of our hate and bloodlust Friday morning.

Wanna know the most amazing part of all, though?

Jesus knows all this. Today. Big-C-minus-five-days and counting...

Yeah, I know - it LOOKS like he's listening to all the adulation and praise...but he knows what's coming. He's been telling those crazy disciples of his for a week or more that he's going to be handed over and crucified. They don't believe it, today, any more than the rest of us do.

But Jesus knows.

And he came to Jerusalem anyway.

He knows we're going to turn on him in 5 days like a pack of hungry wild dogs, and watch him be torn nearly to shreds before he's crucified.

And he came to Jerusalem anyway.

He knows we'll betray him; that some of us will be jeering as he's dying.

And he'll go to the cross anyway. Even though a single word from him could have struck us all dead, and another word could have shattered that cross into splinters. And we would have deserved every bit of it.

Jesus didn't come to Jerusalem for the praise, or the ride on the colt.

He came for you. And for me.

Such is the Son of Man's love for us all: Jesus knew what the road ahead held...and Love led him here. For us.