Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Still with us

Our God is with us...Emmanuel
He's come to save us...Emmanuel
And we will never face life alone
Now that God has made Himself known
As Father and Friend
With us till the end

(from "Our God Is With Us," by Steven Curtis Chapman)

... deep down in every man, woman, and child, is the fundamental idea of God. It may be obscured by calamity, by pomp, by worship of other things, but in some form or other it is there. - Alcoholics Anonymous, page 55
For three days, it seemed that "calamity, pomp, and worship of other things" left the field vanquished, and it was clear that our God is indeed with us.

The two weeks leading up to Christmas were another thing entirely. Without going into all the horrific details (including 2 separate 24-hour work marathons) I will categorically say this: by January 9th of the new year, a change is gonna come. It will be a change in situation, or it will be the serious search for new employment - but life is going to change dramatically. I am certain that my work life absolutely cannot go on as it has for the last thirteen months...and that's all I'm gonna say about that.

For me, the emphasis of my faith has always been on that word Emmanuel - "God with us." And perhaps it's why "the season" didn't feel like much before Friday, because it's been a real effort to see God with us in the mix of calamity and uncertainty around my family and I. I know, intellectually, that God has been present - the fact that I haven't had a heart attack up to this point is proof of that - but it's been hard to feel, to be sure.

The holiday began with a delightful Friday breakfast with my friend Ted. I told him how dry and drained and untouched-by-the-Spirit I had been feeling - and he reminded me that when he had gone through the tougher times in life, the only thing he could do at the time was to simply persevere. And I was reminded again of my dear friend Sandy Motsinger's image of "left-foot, right-foot" - just keep taking one more step forward. It felt more familiar than I wanted, of course...

Which, of course, led me to the apostle Paul's instruction, "Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand" (Ephesians 6:13, NIV).

And, thanks be to God, I am still standing...even if I was so filled with panic and loathing by the end of the work day on Friday that I could have just curled up and become catatonic. The whole weekend was an exercise in just trying to stay awake - my sleep patterns had been so disrupted that it was an extreme effort to just keep my eyes open....

The weekend continued with dinner Friday night at sister Sandy's in Findlay. It was a good time all the way around, even if we were suffering "sudden sleep syndrome" (SSS) by the time the meal was over. San is a step-grandmother (her husband's daughter has baby Faith), and that was going to take up a good deal of her time for the holiday. But I was delighted we could come down, have dinner, catch up, and see her beautiful Christmas tree. The calamities of work and life in Toledo haven't left much time to stay connected with Sandy recently, so it was good to spend time with her.

Saturday morning started with a gratitude AA meeting and breakfast, and the evening was filled with my sister Sue's favorite Christmas movies - "The Christmas Gift" with John Denver, "Christmas In Connecticut," Reba McIntyre's "The Gift," and (of course) "Scrooged." We'd already made it through "A Wish for Wings That Work" (with Opus from "Bloom County" cartoon fame), "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and the original animated "How The Grinch Stole Christmas". (I don't think I will ever be able to watch any other version of that show.) Sue and Jeff know about all the lines, but we still have to watch 'em all ("it's the rule," Sue says).

Christmas eve was a family reunion, with sister Sandy and husband Dave up from Findlay, and Sue's husband Jeff's whole family over for the traditional meal of pulled pork sandwiches and shrimp, then church with Jeff's family. Christmas Day, I started off the celebration by sleping in, then calling friends across the country (the ones that weren't out visiting others). I went down and saw a bunch of friends in recovery at the city-wide AA open house at the Toledo Senior Center, and then
returned to south Toledo for dinner at with Jeff's sister's family, and wrapping up the night with a gratitude gathering at the Monday Night Men's meeting.

There were no presents; Sue, Sandy and I made that decision a couple years ago, when Sue and Jeff were first struggling financially, and to be honest, I didn't miss it. Even as I was watching my sister open gifts with her inlaws, it somehow felt weird - the gifts were nice and all, but it just seemed to draw away from what the holiday was about. Yes, I wish I could do the shopping/gift thing with abandon, as so many do. But this Christmas, the gifts were all "family" and "friends" and "home" and "love," and nothing that would fit in a box under a tree.

The work-a-day (and night) world will arrive in about forty minutes. The chore now will be to carry the spirit of Christmas into the lion's den. I have signed myself up for a spiritual retreat January 19th-21st, put on by two Jesuits in recovery down at the Spiritual Center of Maria Stein near St. Mary's, OH. I'm carrying more than 70 hours of vacation time over this year - and it's the last year I intend to do that - so I have time to spare. And I need to take this time, too.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Preparing for Christmas 101

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire."

"What should we do then?" the crowd asked.

John answered, "The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same."
(Luke 3:7-11, NIV)
Long before the birth of Jesus, a cranky prophet named John was sent out in the desert to "prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God" (Isaiah 40:3). And John was none too subtle about it - talking to upstanding church-folk with phrases like "brood of vipers." He told them, "It doesn't matter about your heritage, who's son or daughter you are, or your tradition - what matters is the fruit you are producing for the Kingdom of God."

The crowd says, "OK, you've insulted us, but we're listening. What should we do?"

And then he delivers the simplest definition of repentance and service: "The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same."


Take care of those around you. Not just at Thanksgiving. Not just as part of a "Toys for Tots" drive or "adopting a Christmas family." If you have some, and someone has none, you take care of them. All year long.

Look at the sweep of Christ through his three brief decades of life, and you'll hear the same lesson, time and time again. "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly" (John 10:10). "...for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me" (Matthew 25:35-36). "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?...Feed my lambs." (John 21:15)

Jesus has no problem hanging out (and even having dinner) with prostitutes, tax-collectors who are traitors to their countrymen, with thieves or lepers or the blind or lame. Physical and medical uncleanness, or who has slept with who, or who gets to have communion, or what color the liturgical vestments should be just doesn't seem to bother Jesus as much as the answer to the simple question: "Are you takin' care of my Father's kids?"

It's tragic how far we as a church, and a supposedly Christ-following community, have strayed from the instructions on how to prepare for the first Christmas.

God, in the midst of the insane commercial sprees of this time of year, help us to focus on the very first instructions for Christmas preparation - to take care of those who are in need. Help us turn our churches back to this simple message from John. John showed us how to prepare the way for Christ's arrival. Let it begin with me - with my church - with my life - with this day. Amen.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A backward glance, a glance ahead

God will constantly disclose more to you and to us. Ask Him in your morning meditation what you can do each day for the man who is still sick. The answers will come, if your own house is in order. But obviously you cannot transmit something you haven't got. (Alcoholics Anonymous, page 164)

The gentle alarm sounded - my fourth "where are you?" email this week. So I am following instructions from my sister-of-the-heart Erin to stick my head up and let folks know what's going on.

It's been a long month - a long two months, to be honest. I have been wrapped up in myself, and the challenges facing me and my family - and, as the old saying goes, a man wrapped up in himself makes a mighty small package. I have been spending an awful amount of time working - perhaps hideous would be a better word - and for many days, the absolute last thing I have wanted to do after 14-18 hours sitting at a PC is to turn from the work PC to the home PC and write. So that has been part of the my absence here in cyberspace.

Part of the struggle has been the crashing return of what the recovery community calls "fear of people and of economic insecurity," that stuff that's supposed to leave us after a while. The week of Thanksgiving (a peak time in the insanity cycle at The Evil Empire), sister Sue got word that the job she'd had for almost 19 years would not make allowances for her to be in a light-duty position - and so she joined "the job placement pool" of soon-to-be-laid-off employees at the hospital she works at.

That same week, my brother-in-law's employer of 25 years told him, "We might have to lay you off, this year," and then followed through the following Friday. So, having come to Ohio to "help out," to hold up one corner of the structure here, I find myself the sole means of support for my family. Oh, there are options, and there is hope, but for a while it seemed pretty ephermal. Not exactly what I signed up for...

At times like this, there are two phrases that get over-used and mis-used in recovery - the first being trudging the road of Happy Destiny. The contradiction in the phrase, of course is that trudging has always painted images of walking through a vat of molasses with wading-boots - every step an effort...while the road of Happy Destiny seems more suited to a Nike or Irish Spring advertisement.

It also evokes the Dunkin' Donuts ads of a decade or more back, when the DD baker is literally trudging along, with his hallmark phrase, "Gotta make da' donuts..." It's corny, but in many ways it's exactly where I've been for a while. Just puttin' in my time, trying to make it through the day.

The second dangerous phrase in recovery is one day at a time. The classic Al-Anon passage Just For Today says,
Just for today, I will try to live through this day only and not tackle my whole life problem at once. I can do something for 12 hours that would appall me if I felt that I had to keep it up for a lifetime.
The danger of that, especially as I've seen it this last two months, is that I often end up putting-up-with appalling circumstances for a whole lotta 12-hours, and found myself in states of mental, spiritual and emotional deprivation that I would never have put up with if I'd know about it going-in. That's definitely been my story since Veterans' Day...

It's appropriate to be returning to posting today, too, because today is my sixteenth sobriety anniversary. In some ways, I've struggled as this date approached, because I haven't felt like I've been at a very good point in my recovery. My meeting attendance has been limited, my general interaction outside of the virtual-work environment has been nil, and very few people would look at where I've been recently and use the words Captain Serenity. The recovery text says, "If you want what we have...." - but I've felt like I wouldn't even want what I've had over the last two months. So that too, has kept my voice low - both in meetings and out here in blogger-land.

By the same token, I've had the opportunity over the last week to reflect on the high-points and low-points of those sixteen years - and it has been interesting to be here, so near the place where it all began, at this stage of my life. While I would choose to be in vastly different circumstances, there is much to be said for being, as one friend says, "sunny-side up, suckin' air, and sober." I am not where I'd choose to be - but I have ample evidence that I am not where I used to be, either.

And I have seen, especially in recent meetings, people who have been so gravely affected that they are mentally incapacitated...wet-brains, or close enough, who seemingly have no control over their minds or their actions. That is a cause for gratitude right there. I have to admit that while gratitude has been a little harder to find in recent days, it has been coming easier the last few days.

Today is also my one-year anniversary at The Evil Empire. And it is, as they say, the first day of the rest of my life. In this last week, there has been a reinforcing of the image that the firm really doesn't care about personal sacrifice - any more than a vampire is concerned with their victim's anemia. The Empire's motto seems to have become Use 'em up & toss 'em aside. On sites like JobVent and Yahoo!Jobs, the conversations appear to be pretty uniform: (1) The EE is sucking the life out of everybody, (2) there's no sense in giving them loyalty or service, because no good deed goes unpunished, and (3) if you haven't been laid off, and you don't already live in India, you will be. It is oh, so very very Dilbert-ian.

So today, I asked my co-worker if he would cover for me tonight on the late shift. I called my local AA sponsor, and made a date for a meeting and dinner - and then actually went. The meeting topic was finding faith and maintaining it, which was perfect. Then I took Bob S. (who was my very first sponsor when I got sober here) to a wonderful Italian dinner at Biaggi's in Perrysburg, and generally spent the evening making one long gratitude list. It was time well spent.

Just before I left for the meeting, my sister stopped in to say that she was ready to throw in the job-search towel and take the first job she was offered - this one through a temp agency, with no benefits. I feel badly because being sucked into The Empire's daily drama overdose has left me less capable of "being present" for Sue in her job search. So the time from 11:30 PM to 1 AM this evening was spent asking her what was going on, and trying to find some answers to questions about timing and benefits and what the job would mean to her wage-continuation package. She's depressed, both about her health and her unemployment, which is not compounded at all by her husband's unemployment. (Yeah, right.)

Which brings me back to the image at the top of this post. I can remember as I left for seminary, wishing that I could see the road ahead, and see around the bend so I know what was coming. But, as the photo shows so clearly, I can't see around the curves. I can only see a little bit ahead, and see a bit of the curves that life has headed my way. I just have to keep on going - and continue to ask God for some direction. I haven't been doing that as much as I should, lately, but it's getting better.

I've also struggled with posting here, because it seems that all my life right now is just making it through the day, rather than anything beautiful or uplifting. So much has been left aside, lately - and (as the AA text quote says) I haven't felt that I had much of anything to pass along. But one of the lessons that my dear friend Tom S. has pointed out is that my primary purpose is not to teach or to share but simply to be. It's still a slow lesson for learning, for me...

Tonight, at the meeting, this young fellow spoke up. He said he'd been 6 months sober, but 5 of those were in jail. He was 2 days out of the joint, and didn't feel "a part of" the fellowship, or life in general. And once again I heard the call...to welcome, to encourage, to bring a smile and a handshake. So I gave him my number - and more importantly, I got his number. And when I go to the Thursday night men's gathering, I'll invite him along...not because I'm some kind of saint, but because that is what was done for me. The task, as I understand it, is simply to pass it on. Who knows if he will go - but it's clear what my part is.

So begins the next phase of the journey. I know in my heart that the time from now until January 8th is going to be a challenge at the Empire, but I also know that I am called to be alive and "a part of" each and every day. So I will trust that this passage from the last page of the recovery text is still at the core of what will be right and true - and try to do a better job of following instructions...
Abandon yourself to God as you understand God. Admit your faults to Him and to your fellows. Clear away the wreckage of your past. Give freely of what you find and join us. We shall be with you in the Fellowship of the Spirit, and you will surely meet some of us as you trudge the Road of Happy Destiny.
May God bless you and keep you - until then.