Thursday, September 28, 2006

The hard part starts today

Hell Week - our biweekly work-time of peak intensity - is almost over. And a season is about to close in my life.

It's been a ghastly week, worthy of its name...technical failures, hideous hours...the aftermath yesterday evening felt like the final scene of The Towering Inferno, when the survivors are on the ground, staring up at the burning remnants of the tower. We were glad that we survived, but what a disaster, and what a mess to clean up.

My last official day "in the office" I never even made it to the office. I rolled out of bed and sat straight down at my PC at home at 6:30, and didn't get up but three times in 12 hours. So it was about 8 PM last night that I'd finally showered, put on clean clothes and headed down to the office to clean out my desk before the move to Ohio.

The staff had called several times during the day, saying, "So...aren't you coming into the office?" I kept saying, "I wanted to, but the work just kept getting in the way..." When I got to the office, there was a bag with some funny a mug from our client, signed by everyone, and some gag gifts as reminders of some of my more colorful comments. Not the way I would have wanted to leave, but that's the way of the world, I guess.

So the herculean task of packing up remains ahead. The books and the CD's are done, the and the rest of the stuff should go quickly - but I know my own rule, and the last 10% of the stuff always takes 10 times longer than it should...

I will be offline as of noon today (when they come to take the cable modem out) and into the most maniacal part of the preparations to leave. My farewell with my AA crew is this evening, and then two long nights before the load out on Saturday. My goal is not to encounter any puncture wounds (like I did last year, when I tripped and fell on the exposed corner of the of the bedframe) or back strain. Fortunately, I have hired folks to do the up-and-down-stairs work, so that should be good.

I should be back online late Sunday night from Ohio, and back "at work" Monday morning in my new virtual status. Pray without ceasing, please...

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Hello, and goodbye

This has nothing to do with moving - but everything to do with birth, life, and death.

In the process of moving TO Chicago, I had emptied out my safety deposit box. In one envelope I had my birth certificate and my baptismal certificate. In the process of looking for something else, I set the two envelopes aside with some other important papers - and promptly lost them all.

Flash forward three years - and I'm weeding through boxes, trying to thin out what I'm taking with me next weekend. I found two things that I'd been looking for - the first one, of course, was the birth and baptismal certificates. (Interestingly enough, in the same envelope was my father's birth certificate and Mom & Dad's marriage certificate, too.)

The second thing I found was my last copy of The Gentle Closings Companion, by Ted Menten. His foursome of end-of-life texts are must-haves for anyone dealing with death, dying, and saying goodbye:
- Gentle Closings: How to Say Goodbye To Someone You Love
- The Gentle Closings Companion: Questions and Answers for Coping With the Death of Someone You Love
- After Goodbye: How to Begin Again After the Death of Someone You Love
- Where Is Heaven? : Children's Wisdom on Facing Death

The power of these books is that (a) they come out of Menten's years of experience working with terminally ill children and adults, and (b) they are not a set of instructions, but descriptions of experience. Menten says his books are "not so much a how-to as a how you might guide to finding closure in the dying process. He encourages people to live, rather than fighting to stay alive, which sometimes puts him at odds with doctors who want to prolong the days of life at the expense of the joy of living.

The amazing thing is that all these books have been remaindered - almost all are out of print, but can be picked up from wholesalers for a penny, and the shipping costs more than the book. So I took the time to get a couple extra copies of TGCC, because I keep giving them away to people who need them.

At any rate, I opened up the Gentle Closings Companion - a book of dozens of letters he has received over the years from readers, and responses to them. And in an article about labels, Menten wrote these simple words:
And I think about another label. The original little label that was imprinted on my fanny at the moment of my birth. There, in clear, simple block letters, it reads: RETURN TO SENDER.
I like that image.

Maybe it's just my emotional state about this move, but finding my birth certificate and rediscovering my "return instructions" on the same night is a fascinating coincidence.

Ken Medema is coming to Overland Park!

To all my Kansas and Missouri friends:

Ken Medema is coming back to Overland Park!

The incredible singer, composer, musician and storyteller will be at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church on November 4th at 7:00 PM for a concert (the $10 tickets are well worth it!), and then Ken will be involved in worship at all 3 services on November 5th.

GCPC is at 11100 College Blvd. in Overland Park (between US-69 and Quivira). Call (913) 345-1256 or go to their website for more information.

If you have heard Ken Medema, you won't want to miss him. If you haven't, you owe it to yourself to go see this incredible storyteller, servant of God and musician. He has wow'd dozens of youth gatherings, professional organizations, even congressional meetings.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

T-minus seven days and counting

Start spreadin' the news...I'm leavin' today...

Actually, it's not's NEXT Saturday. September 30th will be my last day of residence in Da Mayer's Windy City.

My "alternative work program" application for working virtual (fancy phrase for telecommuting) from Ohio has finally been approved. I have 23 half-empty boxes, and a whole bunch of shelves that are half (or more) empty. This weekend will hopefully put a major dent in that amount.

The tragic thing is, there just isn't all that much there - not a lot of value there, as I survey the wreckage. A man standing on the nigh-side of 50 should have a little more to his name, it seems. But, as I once told friends, in packing it seems that 90% of the stuff takes 90% of the time to pack, and the last 10%....also takes 90% of the time.

Some things will go into storage; some things (probably too much) will go to the new abode in Waterville, OH where I will share space with my sister and brother-in-law. The goal is to get the heck out of the city, and help them out financially as well.

I had a last dinner with one sponsee Thursday night. Despite his repeated claims that he had his tear-ducts surgically removed early in sobriety, he seemed a wee bit leaky around the eyes. I supposed I shouldn't have been surprised, but it still was touching to see how one soul can link to another. But his road has already separated from mine - he moved into a new-to-him home in Crown Point, IN a week ago. He has a lady in his life, and a baby enroute (ETA, January 2) - and the house, relationship, and impending child take up a lot of time. Hopefully, he will find another sponsor to hold onto as his life gets more and more interesting.

As I told him, if he is walking hand-in-hand with God, and I am walking hand-in-hand with God, then we will be walking together, regardless how many miles separate us...

My co-workers were a bit non-plussed. Comments ranged from "oh, well, good luck" to "Damn, this SUCKS!" It's all a little funny, because there are days when I won't see anyone in my cube for 4 hours - this crew will even send instant messages (IM's) when they are 3 cubes away. I may have to post pictures of myself in my new space, just to remind folks of what I look like.

Tomorrow will be my last Saturday-morning meeting in Chicago. I will miss those meetings - the (mostly) younger men infused that meeting with a passion for recovery that was inspiring. But I know the same good meetings will be there in northwest Ohio, too. And, as always, the AA truism is still there: wherever you go, there you are. Disease or recovery, I will bring it with me, I suppose.

This week will also be "hell week" at The Evil Empire - long nights, and long days, are ahead. So I need to bring this day to a close, and get up early tomorrow to make the most of the daylight.

Pray for me. I rarely do transitions I need all the support I can get.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Words from the past to a world gone mad

Never before has man had such capacity to control his own environment, to end thirst and hunger, to conquer poverty and disease, to banish illiteracy and massive human misery. We have the power to make this the best generation of mankind in the history of the world - or to make it the last.
(John F. Kennedy, UN address, September 20, 1963)

Am I the only one noticing this?

* Item: The president of the United States - the leader of a country once known as a beacon of democracy to the world - has been the primary advocate for policies which have been (for all intents and purposes) violating the Geneva Convention on teatment of war prisoners - and is now looking for a Congressional stamp of approval for their abuses.

Anyone see any fundamental inconsistencies goin' on here? Or is it just me?

* Item: After the world has watched violence break out all over the world for months over cartoons offensive to the Muslim faith, the LA Times says:
The Pope on Tuesday quoted Manuel II Paleologus, a 14th century Byzantine emperor, saying: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

The speech was designed to provoke a theological debate, Vatican officials said.
No kidding. Looks like it worked...

* Item: Noting, of course, that Muslims everywhere were furious with being represented as violent, evil and inhuman, the LA Times went on to say that Palestinians torched two Christian churches in the West Bank, the second consecutive day of such attacks there. (Yeah, that oughta show 'em...)

But the coup de grace was in my email inbox tonight. As a Time magazine subscriber, I get an "Ahead of TIME" preview of the upcoming issue. And what, do you suppose, is on the cover of this once-prestigious news magazine?

Oh. My. God.

This may sound stupid, but I don't even have to open the magazine to know what war with Iran would look like. In fact, I have every certainty of what war with Iran would look like. It would last about an hour, and it would end like this:

Talk about insanity....whether we are watching Dr. Strangelove or Matthew Broderick's wide-eyed guilt at having set off World War III in WarGames or Jason Robards in The Day After, any one saner than a demented bee knows that there is no such thing as a "limited" response to a nuclear event.

And it is inconceivable that any war effort with Iran would not escalate insanely into a nuclear exchange...regardless whether it was "terrorist" or "governmental" in nature. Anyone who believes otherwise is living in a dangerous fantasy world...

There is no such thing as a "tactical" nuclear weapon, no matter how much any Administration (past and present) claim there to be. There are only small nuclear weapons and big nuclear weapons. And once they are used, even once, that tiny, thin line of sanity will be crossed, and there will be nothing holding anyone back. Once the first nuclear weapon explodes, war becomes a brief round of "well, they hit us first" that only ends in three terrifying letters - MAD.

Mutual Assured Destruction.

We all need to back down from the panic. We need to step away from the table with the sharp knives. The fate of the known world depends on Nancy Reagan's famous motto: "Just say no."

Just say no to violating the very principles that made this nation great. Just say no to saying hurtful things - no matter how intellectually brilliant they might seem in an academic setting. Just say no to picking a fight with people who are surely more fanatical than we are.

Or it will be more than our churches that will burn.

God, help us to back away, gently, from the insanity. Amen...

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Read it, print it, pass it on....

...if you haven't got to read this great post from Thoughts from a Pooh, you need to.

Then print it off, fold it up, and mail it to every member of the religious right that you know.

I tried saying the same thing two years ago in this post, but he said it a whole lot better than I ever could have...

Monday, September 11, 2006

We have not forgotten

People. It's the people I think about, today, more than anything.

I had been at the dentists that morning - with a set of headphones from my CD player trying to distract me from the drilling. And I got in the car, and plugged the CD player back in, skipping the late-morning drive-time yammering on the radio.

So I walked into our office building at the Sprint world-headquarters campus in Overland Park, KS, rode the elevator up to the third floor, and discovered a huge crowd of co-workers gathered around the TV monitors in the elevator lobby. "What's the big deal?" I asked someone (thinking they'd finally found OJ guilty after all, or something equally as "important" as that).

"Planes have crashed into the World Trade Center," she responded, "and it's not looking good."

As the story unwound, the sense of unreality rose exponentially. Waves of shock, denial, anger, and futility washed over me. And over and over the question came: "How do people of supposed faith come to hate that much?"

Today, it's still about the people - the ones who died, the ones who lived, and the countless ones who lived and died trying to help. All gave some, and some surely gave all - truer words were never spoken.

I can't bring myself to jump into the debates about who should have done what, who should be doing what (and aren't), and the endless second-guessing and blamestorming. That's not where I am called to be.

In fact, my place is probably best on my knees, praying this:

May God have mercy on all of us, and forgive us that which we have done and left undone in the wake of this tragedy. Grant us wisdom to see the right path, so that the next five years might serve humanity better than the last five years have.

Now this is cool...

One of my dirty little secrets is that I check my SiteMeter links to see who's coming around. I don't do it often, but it's one of my less-health-threatening vices.

Tonight, before diving into the evening portion of my work day (:::deep, annoyed sigh:::) I clicked on the little logo, and noticed that one of the links was to a student blog at Bethel College (Mishiwaka, IN). (Bethel College describes itself as "an evangelical Christian college affiliated with the Missionary Church" on their website.)

The cool part? They'd linked to my "fifteen minutes of fame" post, Just How Shocking Is The Gospel?, retelling the "woman at the well" story with Jesus meeting a gay man in the Boystown gay neighborhood of Chicago.

I can't tell you how it warmed my heart to know that, 19 months later, that post is still reaching people. That's just too cool for words. Thank you, God, for giving Rev. James Buchanan the words to kick my butt and open my mind. "Startle us, O God," indeed...

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Still the vanguard of "the final frontier"...

I was nine-and-a-half years old on September 8, 1966 - the day that the future changed for an entire generation of dreamers.

I was one of those geeks who would have rather watched a space launch than Saturday morning comics. I couldn't draw worth a damn - but could easily freehand-sketch for you the differences between the Mercury and Gemini space-capsules. And I could spell nitrogen tetroxide and hydrazine (the fuel components of the Titan-II booster used by the Gemini program) long before I could successfully figure out how many S's were in Mississippi.

Yup - I was that kind of space geek.

My world changed on that Thursday night in September, 1966. What I saw that night was far beyond the adventure of Lost in Space, and more exciting than Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (which was saying a lot, living with a father who worked for the Electric Boat submarine shipyards in Groton, CT).

In a world where blacks were still trying to get the 1964 Civil Rights Act enforced, where Russians were still the enemy and space-faring aliens were to be shot on sight and cut apart in the interest of human science, a gleaming white starship and a multinational, multi-planetary crew gave voice to the hope that we would outgrow the elementary school air-raid drills, not destroy ourselves in nuclear fire, and would one day sail to the stars and beyond.

That is what Star Trek meant to my nine-year-old life.

It's been a long 40 years.

And, to be honest, it ain't all been pretty. It's sad that the series whose identity was bound up in Alexander Courage's dramatic orchestral theme could also witness Kirk, Spock and McCoy attempting to sing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" on the silver screen, or Leonard Nimoy's rendition of "If I Had A Hammer." Bones and Scotty have since "gone on home to glory," which meant that neither one of them had to hear their former Captain singing (in collaboration with Ben Folds).

That was something the world didn't need to hear.

(Of course, this might seem a little hypocritical coming from a man who sang "I Talk to the Trees" from Paint Your Wagon in the summer of 1975 after his senior year of high school, and was told by his mother that "Your singing voice would sound best with forty other voices around it.")

But I still remember the undeniable magic on September 17, 1976 - 10 years and a week after the first Enterprise took to the heavens - as the hanger doors opened at the Rockwell Aerospace Air Force Plant 42 assembly facility in Palmdale, California. The amplified tell-tale opening of Alexander Courage's now-famous theme rolled across the concrete hangar apron, and Orbital Vehicle OV-101 - the space shuttle prototype Enterprise - rolled out to an enthusiastic public and some very special guests:

It hardly mattered that everyone knew that OV-101 would never see space - that she was built only for "launch, glide and land" testing. But a key bit of the Star Trek canon had been hammered home by fans (despite NASA bureaucrats, who wanted to name her Constitution)- that in every wave of space exploration, an Enterprise had been a part of the fleet.

And so it was.

And in 1987, even as parts of my old life were falling apart, I still remember a magical night watching the two-hour pilot of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I remember the ohhh, wow.... moment as I watched the "saucer section" of the newest Enterprise, NCC-1701-D, separate itself from the main-drive section for the first time. I couldn't want to see what could happen next...

Yes, there were moments when the special effects were horrible. Yes, there was rampant sexism and horrific acts of chauvinism in the original series and films. Yes, we've all figured out that "the newbie ensign in the red shirt is the one that's gonna die." Star Trek, like the humans who built it, was flawed and imperfect.

But despite the flaws and the campiness, there are still those of us who still believe that a TV show that gives us hope of a 24th century - and a less-inhumane version of humankind - may be doing more to advance faith than many so-called Christian churches in the 21st century...

I'm still a space geek. I'm guessing that my friend John was living one of my dreams yesterday, watching the shuttle Atlantis launch from their new home in Titusville, FL. And you'll just have to color me sour-apple green with envy. Hope there's an extra bed in that new place, John - because one day, I'm gonna come down and watch one with you...

And this coming weekend, I will continue my adventures in "the final frontier." You see, my sister Sue, her husband Jeff, and I all share the Star Trek gene. And this week, I found, ordered and sent their way a copy of the 25th-anniversary Star Trek TV special (which, if memory serves me right, contains all 19 occurences of Dr. McCoy saying variations of, "He's dead, Jim").

We will sit, and laugh, and sigh...because each of us knows that at some level, our hopes and dreams for the future are inextricably bound up with ladies of the stars named Enterprise. And, as Doctor McCoy told Data on The Next Generation pilot, "If you treat her like a lady, she'll always bring you home."

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Light a candle...

I was bouncing between Christian blogs, following various bunny trails from my SiteMeter, and found myself in the midst of a number of ugly, ugly discussions on supposedly-Christian sites. I saw one site with more than 120 comments volleying back and forth about whether Spencer Burke's A Heretic's Guide to Eternity really WAS heresy or not. Blah, blah, blah...

The deeper I dug, the more I saw various folks - supposedly all children of the Heavenly Father - decrying denominations, anti-denominationalism, Lutherans, Catholics, and the entire emerging-church movement (not to mention Emergent Village, Brian McLaren, Jordan Cooper, and virtually every other so-called "emergent" critter). On and on it went...yuck-o-rama.

By the time I was done, I wondered, "Can there be any real hope for peace between Christians?" The initial answers weren't too encouraging...

And then, I stopped by my dear friend Penni's blog, and she posted this beautiful quote from CS Lewis on her blog. And it got me smiling, and it got me thinking and thanking God for her.

Then I stopped at my brother-of-the-heart Rick's site, and was uplifted by this post, too. Ditto [rhymes with kerouac], ditto Jeff's So I Go Now, ditto Poor Mad 12:30 AM, it was a much better day, trust me.

Penni, I'll see your Lewis quote with this one, which has a deep anchor to the recovery community...forgive me, in advance, for gender-neutralizing br'er Lewis' male-only language:
True friendship begins at the point where one soul says to another, "You too? I thought I was the only one..." (CS Lewis, The Four Loves)
I believe that part of the thing that draws us together - these sisters and brothers across timezones and miles and terabytes of data - are the common themes, ideas, and experiences of faith which touch us in such powerfully similar ways. It's why I identify with Renee's stumbling towards faith; why I long to meet Jeff's savior on his Harley; why I stand in awe of Penni, Rick, Hope, Chris, Tim B., and so many others living out the kind of faith that first drew me to wander in the dust behind the spirit of Brennan Manning...

I think we see in each other what folks in recovery call "the God-shaped hole" - that emptiness which folks like me have tried to fill with everything but the One who can fill it.

I used to believe that my problem was (as one wag put it) that I was just "born a half-pint low" (whether bourbon or butter-pecan ice cream, doesn't matter). But if I had been wired differently, it would have been sex or money or possessions or looks or talent or whatever else I could find. There was just something missing...

Lewis said, "We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul" - but each soul that resonates with me out here in the blogosphere does so because of that same hunger, that same longing. And I believe that in the best of us, it transcends dogmas, creeds, traditions, worship styles, social status, sexual orientation, cultures and taboos.

Like a ring of people gathered around a campfire, it never looks the same to any of us, depending on our position and our vantage point. But we all bask in the glow of the same Light, we are all warmed by the same holy fire. And this image reminds me...

Nearly 30 years ago, I stood on a hillside overlooking the lake at Craftsmen Park, just south of Akron, Ohio. We had gathered with more than a hundred fellow DeMolay members for a leadership conference, and the end of this conference was a rededication ceremony. We stood in complete darkness, and heard a advisor named Bob Walker speak of the events of the conference we'd just completed, the friends we had made, and the blessings we'd received.

"Dad" Walker began to speak of the "light of brotherly love," and he struck a match, lighting a torch on the lakeshore. As he continued to speak, from that single torch, the other advisors lit candles, and shared that single flame with each of us as chapter leaders. We in turn passed the flame to our brothers - and soon, from a single torch by the lake, the whole hillside was illumined by the gentle blaze of candlelight.

We stood in silence and awe as we looked about, seeing the light illuminating the faces of friends, who minutes before had stood in utter solitude. The darkness had isolated us; the candlelight united us. And as the ceremony ended, we were charged to remain silent until dawn, reflecting on the lessons we'd learned and the blessings we'd received. So as we walked slowly away from the hillside, to "say" our farewells in silent, heartfelt hugs, each of us saw this sea of candlelight disperse to be tiny islands of lights, gathered in twos and threes across the darkness of that Ohio summer night.

Twenty years later, I heard the Christian band Whiteheart sing this song, and it seemed to embody the spirit of that long-ago rededication. And tonight, I think of my sisters and brothers in the blogosphere - who are beacons in the darkness to me, showing the light of Christ in new and powerful ways. I wish I could play the song for you all - but for now, the words will have to do.

Light a Candle - by White Heart
(From Tales of Wonder - 1992)

A flame is rising up in you
A spark is struck, electric blue
For the Hand of Love has brushed your eyes
And now, it's Love that shines
Light a candle

There's a surge of hope within your heart
And you want to play a bigger part
For you've heard the words that Jesus said
You want to turn the world upon it's head
Now lift your hands up high to the sky -
And light a candle

The city of faith can not be hid
Let the fire burn on the holy wind
So if you want to change the world
And be a living flame
Light a candle

So on a cold and moonless light
In your window, place your candle-light
And let it burn for all to see
Your holy torch of liberty

And pray for love
Pray for peace
Pray the world can be released
From the fear that locks us in the dark
From that hate that pulls us all apart
From the ashes there will rise a sacred flame -
Light a candle (light it up now)

Your back may be against the wall,
But you've seen the Love that conquers all -
You know that He can change the world
So be a living flame
Light a candle....
Light a candle....

You can change the world
If you believe
You know you can light up the world...

Light a candle...

Friday, September 08, 2006

When Scripture gets twisted

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit — fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. (John 15:16, NIV)

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. (Romans 8:26, NIV)
Several teachers and friends have drilled into me this truth: Satan knows Scripture, too. And every once in a while, I get proof of it.

Like tonight.

Thursday night. Long day; lots of challenges. A good evening, free of work, dinner with friends. But as I came home, and opened my copy of a devotional book to search for a text for my devotion, I came upon John 15:16. As I read it, this is what I heard, in the back of my head:
I, Jesus, chose you, and appointed you, Steve, to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last. And when you've done THAT, then (and only then) will the Father give you whatever you ask in my name. (But until you DO that, forget it.) So if you're not getting "whatever you ask in my name," evidently you haven't borne any fruit that will last. Have a nice day.
(Believe it or not, I've heard that preached. And yes, to the unspoken question, even in Lutheran congregations.)

Now, trust me - I know better than this. I really, really do. I believe with all my heart that a God who would come to earth, live WITH us and die FOR us would never ask for those kinds of quid quo pro's.

But there are days when my petulant, self-centered heart looks at my prayer list, and how few of those requests appear to have been responded to, and I can start to buy into this kind of trash thinking. Like today. Days when my heart can twist a scripturally based plea like "How long, O Lord?" into, "All righty, GOD - can I buy You a new battery for Your hearing aid? Because You're clearly not hearing me!"

Thankfully, whatever portion of my soul was still Spirit-connected skimmed forward in my devotional, and was led to these blessed words from Romans 8:26: "The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express."

Well, dear Lord, I am definitely weak. And there are days like today when I truly should not even be in charge of my own devotional life - because I would probably be able to complicate a screwdriver and mess up a free lunch, all in the same prayer.

I can trust that on nights like tonight, I can simply ask the Holy Spirit to intercede for me - to ask God for what I cannot name, to confess to God what I cannot speak, and to ask a blessing from God that I know I'll never deserve.

To me, dear Lord, thhis is the definition of "Amazing Grace"...the grace I cannot earn, the love I can't describe or measure, and the hope that works best for the hopeless.

Thank you, God - for all of it.