Monday, August 28, 2006

"He's a guitar wizard..."

I am a child of the sixties and seventies, so I have an affinity for rock music. I am also a product of high-school band, orchestra and choir - so I have always appreciated rock/alternative arrangements of classic music. (For instance, I have always loved Emerson Lake & Palmer's classic arrangement of Copeland's Hoedown).

So imagine my surprise when I read this article about a mystery guitar player, identified only as "funtwo," with an amazing style of playing and an astonishing arrangement of Pachebel's Canon in D. The guitarits turns out to be Jeong-Hyun Lim, a 23-year-old Korean who taught himself guitar over the course of the last six years. Now living in Seoul, he listens avidly to Bach and Vivaldi, and in 2000 he took a month (a MONTH!) of guitar lessons.

Obviously, he has a accompaniment tape playing - he admits that openly - but people who know say the guitar-work is genuine. I think it's pretty amazing.

You can see the amazing video here, and see a blog (more attuned to guitarists, I think) about the backstory here.

What an incredible display of talent. Just color me granny-smith-apple green with envy...

Thursday, August 24, 2006

What would be worth five years?

Occasionally, I'll pick up just an idea for a blog entry, and paste it into a draft post, waiting to develop it into something. Usually, I also note where I got it from, so I can credit the idea where credit is due.

For some reason, I didn't do it with this one. But the idea has still galvanized me, so I invite you to ask the question with me: What would be worth five years of your life?

That is, what would you want, for yourself or someone else, that you'd be willing to give up five years of your life in order to receive it? If you could make a heavenly quid pro quo, a cosmic tit-for-tat, what would you ask for?

I wish I could say that solving world hunger and bringing the world to know Christ would be my first answer. But spiritually I'm a much smaller man than that, I'm afraid.

If I could know that my sister and brother-in law in Toledo would be healed of their physical ailments (MS and fibromyalgia for Sue, arthritis and back pain for Jeff), it would definitely be worth five years of my life. Especially to know that my sister, who spends every day in constant pain and is troubled by even the simplest mobility issues, would be made whole would make five years seem cheap at the price. I'd pay and never think twice.

I'd give five years of my life to know that my sister and brother-in-law in Findlay would find a saving faith in Christ. They put up with me and my faith - and they're glad that I have it - but for whatever reason, they haven't found a need for faith of their own, and they just can't hear it from me. Something about a prophet in his own country...anyway, I'd definitely give five years of my life to know that they had found faith in Christ. No question.

But there's another side to this question, a more practical and powerful one. The way I first read the question, it was in the manner of a point-in-time exchange - desirable-thing-A happens, and my lifespan is shortened. But perhaps the more important question is, what would be worth spending the next five years working toward?

Restoring my own health would be worth five years (although I'd much rather it were a thirty-day process, to be honest). Listening to Christian radio today, there was a story of a guy who was five inches shorter than I am , and weighed a hundred pounds more than me. But over 3 years, he lost 200 pounds, and fulfilled a dream to enter the Army. Bit by bit, inch by inch...

My friend Tim D. is living another dream of mine. Having graduated from seminary at Catholic Theological Union (CTU) here in Chicago with a Masters of Divinity degree, he is stepping away from the Roman tradition and is ordained in the American Catholic Church. The ACC holds to the same basic rites as the Roman church, but abandons the need for celibacy and closed communion. Several people here have suggested that a new church only needs the Word and a shepherd - degree or no degree. That is something that would be worth five - or even ten - years.

Back six months ago, I had this idea of going to the Old Town School of Folk Music to learn guitar. My impending departure to Toledo kind of puts the kibosh on that particular route - but I have a sneaking suspicion that there are guitar teachers available, even in Toledo. For forty years, I've envied guitar players like my cousin Bill, who introduced me to folk music as a wee lad.

In all these thoughts, I am reminded of a Supreme Court justice - perhaps Oliver Wendell Holmes - who was teaching himself Latin at eighty-plus years old. One of his clerks asked him why he was trying to learn such a language at his advanced age, and the response was something to the effect of, "Well, if not now, when?...."

In my original AA community in Toledo, there was a fellow named Ocee K. As I remember it, he came to AA for the first time on his 71st birthday - and he died several days after his 81st birthday, doing what he loved best: doing 12-step calls on people who wanted to get sober. I know that several people asked him, "Why bother getting sober so late in life?" And his response was always, "Because I wouldn't want to have missed these last years as a sober man."

God, help me see Your dreams for me - and help me find strength in You to pursue them... Amen.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

There goes Merton, kicking my butt again

by way of Martha, Martha:
You must realize that it is the ordinary way of God's dealings with us that our ideas do not work out speedily and efficiently as we would like them to. The reason for this is not only the loving wisdom of God, but also the fact that our acts have to fit into a great complex pattern that we cannot possibly understand. I have learned over the years that Providence is always a whole lot wiser than any of us, and that there are always not only good reasons but the very best reasons for the delays and blocks that often seem to us so frustrating and absurd.
(The Hidden Ground of Love, Letters by Thomas Merton)
Thanks, Penni, for that little text. I have struggled with the "why" questions for a long, long time - especially in the last two days, and I need to reflect mightily on those bolded words.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Measure in love....

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes,
Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear,
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes -
How do you measure, measure a year?

In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife.
In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure a year in the life?

How about love?
How about love?
How about love?
Measure in love...

("Seasons of Love," from the movie Rent)
I wish you had the soundtrack to this show. It is so appropriate for this posting...actually, you can hear snippets of "Seasons of Love" A&B cuts here)

August 22nd, 2003. Just after noon. A seventeen-foot yellow Hertz rent-a-truck and a '98 Camry pulled away from a duplex in suburban Shawnee, Kansas - destination, Chicago, Illinois. On board the two vehicles was every material possession and almost all of the hopes and fears of one past-middle-aged seminarian, accompanied by the prayers and well-wishes of several hundred of the Lutheran faithful of suburban Kansas City. The horizon seemed filled with dreams and possibilities...

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes later, the dream of ordained ministry was deferred - no, demolished. My mentor and encourager had died the day after the dream did, the money was gone, and it seemed I was unemployed and unemployable. Life, on the whole, looked pretty damn bleak.

Another half-million minutes passed, and the scenery was both brighter and darker still. Leaving the seminary grounds, abandoning even the possibility of using what I had thought were God-given talents, fighting back depression and hopelessness, and hanging onto sobriety like a man adrift clings to a life-raft. Finding a refuge on the far south side of the city, and spending another half-million minutes trying to find peace and acceptance in the midst of struggles of faith, hope, and finances.

Tuesday will be my third anniversary in Chicago - and the beginning of the end of my stay here. But as I look back on a million-and-a-half minutes in the Windy City, I can only do what the cast of Rent would have me do - measure my journey in love...

My own self-centered search for significance has beaten me up so badly over the last year, asking variations on these questions: Was it worth it? After all the money, all the time, all the laughter and all the tears, what is different? Will it matter that I have been here? Will anyone miss me when I am gone?

I think that's why seeing the movie version of Rent with my sister this weekend was such a blessing. The powerful messages of that movie were exactly the Gospel I needed to see and hear at this point in my journey. It's such a powerful reminder that my life is not measured in stuff, but "in daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee / In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife." And in love...

The community of recovery reminds me that the only lasting gift I have to share is my story, my truth, my love and my service. And it doesn't matter worth a damn whether anyone benefits from it, or even acknowledges it. It matters simply whether or not I offer it, to the glory of God and to the benefit of God's kids.

Perhaps the testimonies I shared in the short time I was active at seminary will bless some of my classmates on their journeys. I'm reasonably sure that the minutes that I spent in the rooms of recovery have blessed others. But who knows? Not I, for certain. Those are all in the hands of the One who can best deal with them....

The work week starts in five short hours. So as this milestone passes, I'm going to try very hard to focus on these simple words from Rent's conclusion:
There's only now
There's only here
Give in to love,
Or live in fear -
No other path,
No other way,
No day but today...
God, may it be so - today, in my life, and in the lives of all with whom I come in contact. Amen.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Catching up amidst crazy times....

My brother, Poor Mad Peter, sent me my semi-monthly reminder to post - and to be honest, I've been building up to this post. So here I am, and here it is...

A catch-up over the last month or so...

The Employer
The vacation I took really wasn't much of one. And a handful of tragic mistakes I made in my hurry to get away from work caused, oh, about thirty times the amount of work as if I had stayed in town and gone to work that week. God in heaven, what a mess.

My week away from work has been followed by two entire weeks from hell, trying to (a) atone for plain, simple, in-too-much-of-a-hurry mistakes I made in the rush to get the hell out of town, which never really happened the way I wanted it to, anyway, or (b) boneheaded maneuvers by my coworkers, trying to correct my errors, which generally made them worse. So the general reaction when people say, "How was your vacation?" is, "What vacation?"

I should have been working all day both days over this weekend - but just could not possibly bring myself to do it. I didn't even work long hours last week, but it was like being in a room with four needy two-year-olds, all saying, "Mommy ...mommmy ... mummymummymummy - MOMMYMOMMYMOMMY!!!" At one point, our Lotus SameTime instant messaging system was indicating 14 IM's flashing insistently at me. It was unbelievably draining. And I'm going to be working tonight, getting ready for another Hell Week this coming week...

There is one bright note - I have a second co-worker joining the team, who is going to be working remotely from Memphis, TN. She's brand-spanking new, and is going to be involved in "observing" during this Hell Week, and then going for three weeks of training - but there is hope, long-term, I guess.

The Vacation
The actual week away was in three phases:
- Sunday and Monday, spent in Chicago, futzing around, waiting for work to be done on the car. (I actually ended up working most of Monday anyway.)
- Tuesday and Wednesday, spent in Chicago instead of Saugatuck, dealing with a rather nasty bio-hazard-grade gastrointestinal plague of some sort.
- Late Thursday through Sunday, hanging out with my sister, ordering new glasses (under Sue's careful guidance), spending even more money on the car, and eating fresh-off-the-farm sweet corn and grilling steaks.

All in all, it wasn't bad having 4 days away from The Employer, but it sure wasn't worth the price I paid when I got back. I am convinced that Ohio sweet corn is one surefire way that God shows humanity that summer isn't going to be all hellish weather and humidity forever...

Life in the Big City
After some truly hideous weather (compounded by the fact that the current apartment-in-the-hood is only air-conditioned in the bedroom), we have had a break in the ghastly portion of summer weather, and this weekend has been truly, truly glorious. Just an absolute dream come true.

I missed out on the Gay Games (held here in Chicago last month), but since I never watched the Straight Olympics (even when they were on TV in my own living room) I'm not surprised that I didn't travel across town to see the gay version here, either. Oh, well. I caught the last day of the Tall Ships appearance in Chicago, but it wasn't anything I hadn't seen before - after all, living in Connecticut (30 minutes away from Mystic Seaport) it wasn't as big a deal for me as it might have been for some.

Traffic has been fractionally better in town - the "get off the Dan Ryan" traffic has been mitigated by vacation absences. So there have been blessings there, too.

The Living Situation
In this same two week period, my landlord received word that after trying to find a less-toxic job with the Chicago Public Schools (he'd been a high-school history teacher for four or more years), he'd finally gotten a new job - but in Alpena, MI (in the northeastern "lower peninsula" of the state).

And his new-job orientation started August 14th. (Yup, tomorrow.)

So he and his father have been doing all the "improvements" (like putting in new flooring in the kitchen, re-doing the bathtub enclosure, and replacing tile in the hallway, all the things to make the place less like a crack-house) that he originally told me he was going to do over last Christmas break and early this summer.

So the apartment has been turned upside down - all the kitchen, hall and bath stuff pushed into the living room. They also tore the back deck off the place (it was in imminent danger of falling down) so I had no access to the washer, dryer, or trash for two weeks (unless I wanted to walk two blocks around and come in off the alleyway). And the bath and shower were out of commission for three days.

So it's been insane, at a level that I can only begin to describe.

But I guess the big news is not really news at's just kind of a surrender. Somewhere in this last week, my willingness to keep fighting it out here in Chicago broke, once and for all.

Part of it was need - my sister Sue is looking at some scary health issues, and she and her husband are going to need both physical and financial support over the next 3 to 6 months, at the very least. Part of it is my own need for healing and reconnecting with family and sane life - I've needed to withdraw, and just take it easy at some level, for some time. My meltdown earlier this year proved that.

But part of it is just being done with Chicago. I came here to go to seminary; I would not have chosen to come here, for all the charms of big city life, given the choice. When that dream fell apart, I thought that Chicago would be a viable life-hub, being close to Big Transportation, Big Business, etc., etc.

And I have come to learn a lot about myself - stuff that I wouldn't normally have chosen to learn, but good stuff nonetheless. At times, I still mourn the loss of my "regular ministry" career - much as Moses mourned not passing over into Canaan - and I wish I could still feel "a part of" the religious community that tossed me out. But more and more I can see that it was probably not for the best....but it's OK. Acceptance has been slow in coming.

But I've also come to see that this is just not my town. I am tired of the noise, tired of the hustle and bustle, tired of public transport, tired of it taking 30 minutes to go 5 miles by car, tired of the cost of living and the taxes and the fees and the politics and the parking and all the rest of the crap. I'm ready to be somewhere else.

And as much as I needed to put down roots here, I just haven't done so. When I leave here, the people who will miss me will be counted on both hands, and still leave a couple fingers free. And virtually every one will be in the recovery community. Part of that is my fault - my failure to stay connected to the few seminary friends who really worked hard to remain connected with me. But I can't help believing that my road lies elsewhere...

My sister Sue is not doing so good. She was already dealing with multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia, two particularly ugly conditions. But in March, she fell at work, twisted her back up, and generally has been somewhere south of "damn uncomfortable" ever since. Walking from the parking lot to her work-site has been increasingly difficult, and finally the workers' comp folks signed her off for two weeks of recovery and alternative therapies.

As of last weekend, she ain't gettin' better. A visit to the neurosurgeon pretty much said, "We can try some time off, we can try some therapy, but surgery is on the horizon." Now she has some more definite guidance about when we're going to hit "the horizon," and I really need to be in Toledo when that happens.

So my primary goal with my employer is to get a title change and a pay boost by the end of August, and then give my notice that I need to do an "alternative work arrangement" (also known as "working remotely"). This shouldn't be a big deal - we already have people on our team working from Tennessee and New Jersey, not to mention the crew from Mumbai and Chennai, India. And after all, if I'm in such demand that people can't do without me for five business days, they should be able to accomodate me on this. My goal is to be in Toledo and up-n-running by September 24th, with any cleanup the weekend of September 30th.

It will be an interesting five weeks. Time to winnow out, time to toss and keep. God, grant me the serenity....

Which I trust God will.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

How do you say goodbye to a church?

My former church's associate pastor, Ashley Masoni, is leaving Atonement Lutheran after three years. It's not uncommon for fresh-out-of-seminary pastors to move on to a new assignment after 3 years - but regardless of that truism, she leaves behind lots of folks who care about her deeply.

And there are a group of seminarians - some who are even crazy enough to be readers here - who are winding up their year-long internships at churches across the country in the next couple of weeks. For a year, they have been part of the family (and part of the drama) of local congregations - and, I'm sure, have been woven into the fabric of their respective communities. And now the time is drawing near for them to once again be torn out of that fabric, and returned to school in Chicago.

For both Ashley and my former fellow seminarians, I give you these thoughts. They are part of a collection of writings from my adopted "dad" and mentor, Pastor Tom Housholder. Tom had been my biggest cheerleader in my quest for ministry - and he died the day after my candidacy committee aborted my ministry career back in April, 2004. I miss him more than I can say...

Shortly before he died, his wife Delphine published an assortment of Tom's reflections, ruminations, sermons, and poetry. Included in those writings is his retirement sermon, on February 5, 1995 - delivered after more than 35 years of ministry to a number of vibrant congregations. The last portion of that sermon was titled "How To Say Goodbye to a Church." These are Tom's words:
I don't know how to say good-bye to a church. How do you say "good-bye," "farewell," "we will meet again one day at the feet of Jesus"? It is not difficult - it is impossible.

You have been involved in their lives. For some, it has been too little - for others, too much. You are leaving with memories of a rich, dedicated staff. You are leaving the community where forgiveness is a given. You are leaving the community of Saints where we speak of life without end.

Baptisms, both children and adults. Shouting matches at the church council, problems only God can solve.
There are a few with tears - and some are smiling too much for a farewell party. Great faith in a gracious God, and small faith in a great God - either will work. You are the greatest people on earth because God is loving you into greatness. I expect to hear a lot about this congregation of believers in the future.  It is so hard to leave you - but we shall meet again at the feet of Jesus.

I can think of no better tribute to my friend Tom than if you might find some comfort - or inspiration - in his words. For my part, I still find great comfort in these words, and trust that others will, as well.