Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Tidings of comfort and joy

It's a tiny chip of white Corelle (yes - the dinner-plate stuff), etched by a laser - the finished size is about an inch square, and about as thick as a communion wafer (if that). A casual bump could snap it in two. A delicate ornament, hanging on our Christmas tree, reminding me of what really is important on this blessed holiday.

There are no presents under the tree; the third year it's been that way, in fact. Sister Sue is still barely functioning, physically, a year after being disabled. Sister Sandy is in the process of moving from the dear-God-it-finally-sold house to the dream-house in the country. And I am still trying to help out and dig out, myself. So all the "gifts" in my life are gifts without wrapping...

Home. A place to lay one's head. Heat, food, light. A warm bed, a hot shower. So many people have forgotten what an incredible gift these things are. Thanks to ever-growing lists of foreclosures and evictions, an awful lot of people are being reminded how crucial a home is - even if it IS a royal pain, sometimes.

Health. That's been more of a challenge this year than in years previous. Sue's continuing agonies with her back and her knees have reminded me not only how glad I am that mine are still OK, but how blessed I am to be mobile. No wheelchair or walker for me, yet - for which I am grateful. The diabetic care needs to take a notch-up this next year - but there are other things which will probably help that...

Family. Sue and Sandy and their husbands, and Sue's in-laws, completed the family circle this year. We are not all in the best of health, we are not all in the best ways financially or materially - but we are all here, alive and at least partially well. That is a great gift, all by itself. So many friends have lost loved ones in the last couple months, I find myself very grateful for this gift today.

Love. I haven't written much about this here, but when my friend Ted and I had dinner last week, he asked about work and family and health, and then said, "...And what about your love life?" Well, The Guy and I have been in constant, daily contact for more than 3 months now, aided and abetted by video instant messaging, two visits of mine to Springfield, MO and one visit by him here to northwest Ohio. We've found much that we have in common - and much about the other that fascinates each of us. We have found how much fun it is not to be alone, to be cared for by another - and it is, as the old song says, "a good feelin' to know..." And then it happened.

(I posted this elsewhere, so forgive me if this sounds familiar...)

The house Chris and his housemate owned, which has been on the market for seven months...sold. "Under contract," as they say. And the questions began, for Chris. What's holding him there, what would he do? What would WE do?

That's when he asked me...what I thought of him moving to Toledo.

I was blown away. After all, I moved to Toledo because I felt I had to, for my sister and brother in law. I don't think I would have come here otherwise. But there he was, in my arms, saying he was ready to move to Northwest Ohio...for me. Just for me.

Holy capoley, Batman.

My mind, which tends to run to the negative, saw all the reasons why it probably wouldn't work. But arrayed against all the nay-saying voices was the fact that this man wanted to be with me. And I wanted to be with him. Not just for a weekend. And not to "move in together," at least not yet. But I sure didn't want this to continue to be a long-distance relationship (it's expensive, to be honest).

The second movie we saw together was Transformers (which is just a fun piece of film, to be honest). When Sam and Megan (the two teen protagonists) encounter the Autobots for the first time, they are faced with a beat-up, driverless Camaro whose door swings open to invite them in...

Sam: It wants us to get in the car!...
Megan: And go WHERE?!?....

Sam: Fifty years from now, when you're looking back at your life, don't you want to be able to say you had the guts to 'get in the car'?...
What a revelation.

It was the same feeling I had when, years earlier, I heard Robin Williams talking about "seizing the day" and "sucking the marrow out of life" in Dead Poets Society. Yes - of course I want to "get in the car." Even if I have no idea where it's going...

And so it begins.

We found him an apartment; he has been looking for a job long-distance. This Thursday, I will take a two day journey to Springfield, MO (in between the Evil Empire's demands), and I will meet his parents for the first time. And then we will pick up the loaded Budget rent-a-truck and his Ford pickup, and head for Toledo.

Part of me is terrified - afraid of the weight of my past relational failures. Part of me keeps going over why this won't work. But a large part of me is singing hosanna's and torch songs and can't wait and is willing to leap tall buildings...and ride Greyhound buses... to make it work.

Perhaps this is the greatest gift I have received this year - the ability to even consider myself worthy of this affection, this companionship - this love. All I can do, for today, is trust God, do the best I can to be ready for what's coming...

...and be willing to get in the car.

Merry Christmas to all of you. You who share this journey with me continue to be an amazing blessing, wherever and however things go.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Music of Christmas

For me, there are lots of Christmas albums which are part of my holiday listening. But there are two or three Christmas CDs which really seem to share the heart of the amazing message of Christmas.

When Steven Curtis Chapman's "The Music of Christmas" came out in 1995, I fell in love with it instantly. My faith revolves so firmly around the Incarnation - Emmanuel, God with us - that this album just anchored itself in my heart instantly. There is nothing that will cure Grinch-yness like hearing br'er Chapman's voice proclaiming God's presence, here in the real world.

And the blessing and absurdity of Christ's birth comes through in his song "This Baby:"

"This baby made the angels sing,
And this baby made a new star shine in the sky
This baby had come to change the world
This baby was God’s own son,
this baby was like no other one
This baby was God with us -
This baby was Jesus!"

Then there is the song by the group 4Him from "The Season of Love" CD, with the chorus which captures the seeming insanity of the Incarnation:

"Now I'm not one to second guess
what angels have to say -
But this is such a strange way
to save the world..."

But for me, the essence of Christmas is captured in a beautiful ballad by Chapman, reminding us of just how real this Jesus really is, all year long:

One of us is cryin’
as our hopes and dreams are led away in chains,
And we’re left all alone -
One of us is dyin’
as our love is slowly lowered in the grave,
Oh and we’re left all alone -
But for all of us who journey
through the dark abyss of loneliness
There comes a great announcement,
We are never alone -
For the maker of each heart that breaks,
the giver of each breath we take
Has come to earth
and given hope it’s birth

And 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 through the end - Emmanuel!
(Steven Curtis Chapman, "Our God Is With Us")

And then, of course, there is the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin - and I'm telling you, no church choir has EVER proclaimed the birth of Christ like she does:

So much of this season will focus on shopping, gifts, Christmas cards, parties - the busyness and the business of a holiday. But thank you, God, for men and women of talent, who by their words and music point me back to the manger, back to Bethlehem... back to Jesus - God with us. Right here, with us. Amen.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Farewell to The Leader of The Band

The leader of the band is tired
And his eyes are growing old
But his blood runs through my instrument
And his song is in my soul --
My life has been a poor attempt
To imitate the man
Im just a living legacy
To the leader of the band
I am the living legacy
To the leader of the band.

(Dan Fogelberg, "Leader of the Band")

The "leader of the band" was his dad, but Dan Fogelberg's song about their relationship and the bond they shared in music touched an awful lot of people (as so many of his songs did). So it was a real sadness to read that Fogelberg had died of prostate cancer Sunday, at age 56.

He was a marvelous composer, writer, and musician. His classic songs ("Longer," "Another Old Lang Syne," "Part of the Plan") helped shape my musical landscape.

His songs reminded us of the power of love, and to say "I love you" to the people who need it, and his illness and death remind us men that prostate cancer screening is something we ALL should be doing, anytime after 30 but especially after 50.

My bet is that the music in heaven is a little sweeter, this day...

Update: for some of my readers who never were familiar with Fogelberg's music, some YouTube links. For anyone with a father, anyone who struggles with their place in the world, and anyone in love (especially Make Love Stay), these are required listening...

Leader of The Band
Part of the Plan
Same Old Lang Syne
Make Love Stay

Are you there?

Are You there? Are You there?
Do You watch me when I cry?
And if it’s in Your power,
How can You sit idly by?
I try so hard to please You
But you never seem to see
Is it my fate to sit and wait?
Wonder what my struggle means
I wish I knew that someone out there cared -
Cared for me...

("Are You There?", from the pop opera "bare")

But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring
you good news of great joy that will be for all the
people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been
born to you; he is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11, NIV)

It's the week before Christmas, and the battle is on. Several radio stations are playing continuous Christmas carols, Christmas specials are on TV every night, and every page of the newspaper is packed with ads selling Christmas joy. Against this background, so many churches are trying to shout, "HEY! Over HERE! See, it's about CHRIST, the Savior!"

I finally heard someone ask the ultimate question yesterday. Hearing one more "He's the reason for the season" message, one disgruntled shopper said, "Yeah, fine, it's about Christ, Christ is born, I get it. But so what?"

Wow. So what, indeed.

Do we ever stop and ask ourselves WHY it is such a big deal that Christ is born?

For me, it comes back to the song quote at the start of this - a song sung by two boys at a Catholic high-school. Things aren't going so well in their lives, and their song cries out the question, "Are you there, God?" Is God there, and does God know, really know, how hard life is, at times?

The answer to the question is in the manger. Yes, God knows - because God was here. Present, and fully human. Emmanuel - God WITH us. Right here, with us. As lowly and as persecuted and troubled as us.

The reason for "the reason for the season" is to let us know that God was right alongside us; hungry and cold and tired and struggling just as we are. We are never alone, because there is One who walked among us. Right here, with us. Emmanuel.

That knowledge, that understanding brings more peace to me than an awful lot of the dogma and doctrine I've swallowed over the years. The knowledge and assurance of a limitless God who knows how limited and powerless I can be, and is present for me in those times, has literally been the difference between "going on" and "not going on" more than a couple times in my life.

God of beauty and power, I give thanks to You today for the gift of Jesus - the Emmanuel who walked among us as one of us. Remind me of Christ's presence as the challenges of the worldly holiday come upon us. It helps to know that you are "there," God, because we know your Son was "here." Amen.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Not writing over the head of my audience...

I did this test as a result of my buddy Chris Harrison over at Prophets and Popstars - just to see where these yo-yo's scored me. It does help for trying to sell any future publication, anyway. Not TOO intellectual - but probably not enough images and pictures to make it "elementary school," Chris. Too much text....

Another year, one day at a time

It's 3:30 AM. I should be asleep, but a late-arriving cold has devastated my intentions for rest this evening. Coughing, sneezing, sore throat - all kinds of happiness.

But that's OK. It just means I get to start celebrating early.

Seventeen years ago - December 12, 1990 - I walked into the Wednesday Night Men's group of Alcoholics Anonymous in Toledo, Ohio. My life was about as broken as it could be - and I started a new life that night, even though I wouldn't recognize it for quite a while afterwards.

Today, there are still parts of my life that remain broken - my finances aren't what they could be, my health could stand some considerable improvement, and I still cling to a job I'm not excited about while I look for "the next right job." It ain't all peaches and cream, by any standards, folks.

But life today - challenges, snuffles, sneezes, wheezes and all - is vastly better than anything I could have imagined in December of 1990. For that I have to thank a God of infinite love and patience, the worldwide AA fellowship, and a series of sponsors and friends who have kept nipping at my heels to keep me on the right path.

Today is especially gratifying because I learned yesterday that a fellow blogger went to their first AA meeting a few brief days ago. I had the chance to share some of my early recollections with them, and hopefully encourage them to "keep on keepin' on," as so many others have done for me.

I have a weird image that I share with folks about the gift of service in AA. For me, I see my sobriety a lot like chocolate milk. You see, if I just get some chocolate milk, and leave it in my refrigerator, it eventually goes sour - just like my own sobriety will, left to my own devices. But if I take the chocolate milk out of the fridge, pour it out and share it with others, it stays sweet and fresh. And by some AA miracle, the more than I pour out and share, the more I find left in the fridge. I get so much more than I give away, time and time again.

So thank you, God, for the gift of this year of sobriety - with all its challenges and joys. Now if you could just clear up my nose long enough for me to go to sleep, that would be really cool...

Monday, December 10, 2007

I wish someone would have told me…

We will not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it. (Alcoholics Anonymous, fourth edition, page 84)

Of all the “promises” that I’ve heard from the 12-step recovery programs, this one has been one of the most challenging, to me. It has been way too easy, over the years, for me to mourn what could have been rather than move confidently forward toward what might be. After a while, if one stumbles enough (and I sure have) one starts looking more and more at one’s feet, and looking less and less at the horizon and the heavens.

I believe with all my heart that all my mis-steps and “opportunities for growth” can be of benefit to others – if nothing else, as a “good bad example,” or at least as a sign-post in neon-orange saying, “Ye need not pass this way….” So here is a short list of concepts I wish I’d been heard (or had been willing to hear) earlier-on in life.

[Note: There are plenty of other bits of wisdom I could pass along (for instance, the wisdom of not doing the “rent-a-truck and have friends help you move” thing after you’re 40). But these are ideas and concepts that I believe could have radically changed my life if I’d bumped into them a little earlier.]

I wish I would have learned…

Feelings aren’t facts. I wish someone would have told me that my perception of facts would not always be the same as the facts themselves. In certain circumstances, I would look at something and believe it to be true and yet it would not, in fact, be anywhere close to true. This was especially true when it came to feelings. “Feelings aren’t facts,” I heard recovering people say – but for years, I lived as though my feelings were facts in my life - rather than just my own responses to what life dealt me. That would have helped a lot, especially early on. For instance, just because I felt ugly and unlovable for much of my childhood (despite what my mother tried to tell me) didn’t mean, in fact, that I was either of those things….

Capital-T truth. I wish someone would have said, “Forget these eternal truths and so on. There are people who have been arguing over eternal truths for centuries, and they are no closer to agreeing or finding the one true way than they were in the first century. It’s enough just to be searching – because if you are, you’ll find truth that works for you along the way. And you may be surprised to find out that at least a part of what you find will agree with someone else’s version of eternal truth, and you will find connection and community there.” (And if that sounds like I have been reading Richard Bach’s Illusions or something, so be it.)

Comparing myself to others. One absolute truth which I learned from people in 12-step recovery groups that would have been helpful very early on was this: “You cannot judge your insides based on other’s outsides.” It would have been very helpful to know that there was an excellent possibility that the self-confident, self-assured people who were in my junior-high and high-school classes were frequently just as terrified and uncertain and ready to self-destruct at any one moment as I felt I was. I’m not sure I would have believed it, at that stage of the game, but it would have helped to have someone at least plant the seed.

The presence of doubt in the lives of people of faith. I don’t know if I would have been able to listen, back then – I’d started forming an idea of right and wrong and good and bad by the age of seven or eight, and had decided that there was something very wrong with me (especially looking at others’ outsides, and comparing them to my insides). But I sure wish I had heard as a youth someone like Pastor Tom Housholder, of Prairie Village, KS, who made the bald-face declaration in the first sermon I ever heard him preach that “there are times that a voice in my head says to me, ‘What if everything you’re saying is a lie?’”

I still remember that moment – it was electrifying! After 34 years of feeling like I was the only doubter since “doubting Thomas” in the history of the Church Universal, I finally found someone with a collar who admitted to the same doubts and fears I’d lived with all my life. I wish I had been exposed to people of powerful faith – like Pastor Tom, like Martin Luther, like so many of the “fathers and mothers of the Church” who actively questioned and doubted in their hearts, even as they professed mighty faith (and led others to it) in their public lives.

So much of what I heard preached about faith in my formative years was about certainty – about being absolutely certain about God, about His being all-powerful, all-righteous and all-knowing, and about being absolutely certain of my “salvation.” People professed to be absolutely certain that their prayers were heard, that God could change things (even if He often wouldn’t), and were also certain that rejection of the desperate prayers of the devout didn’t mean rejection of the devout.

I wasn’t certain of that. Not at all.

In fact, I’d pretty much decided by the age of eight that I was a lost cause (based on some very selective hearing of what I heard preached). I had this belief that I was stained with original sin – something so bad that a few splashes of water and mystical mumbo-jumbo as an infant wasn’t going to save me from it. Believe it or not, by that age I had a sense that I was intrinsically broken – that there was something fundamentally unacceptable about who and how I was made that just wouldn’t fit in with the church-going world. That, of course, led me to the next revelation.

We’re all outsiders, at times. Growing up an overweight, un-athletic kid (with all the doubts and fears about whether the taunts about sissy and pansy were true), I thought some pretty unkind thoughts about my tormentors (well, awful thoughts, if the truth be known). As a result, I was absolutely certain that there was no room in church (or even in polite society) for people who thought about others the way that I did. From there it became very easy to say, “Yup, I’m on the outside, and I don’t see any way of getting ‘in’ any time soon.”

It wasn’t until I started listening to hundreds of people from every walk of life saying over and over again, “I felt apart from everything, and never a part of anything,” that I realized that this feeling is closer to a universal experience than many so-called religious experiences. And by definition, if I share “being apart from the world” with most of the rest of the world, I’m already “on the inside.”

There are probably more of these – but this is a start.

So....what are some of the things you wish you'd heard (or been willing to listen to) earlier in life?

Friday, December 07, 2007

Christmas for "notorious sinners"

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. (Luke 2:8-9, NIV)

Echoing in my mind is a lesson that recurs every year at this time, so forgive me for plowing familiar ground today. It's a powerful lesson I learned about shepherds nearly 10 years ago, in one of my first ministry classes. Some who have listened to me for a while have heard this before...feel free to tune out. But it's an image that bears repeating...

What brings this image back to mind is my recent reading of Mike Yaconelli's book "Messy Spirituality," and a passage entitled "Notorious Sinners." He writes, "'Notorious sinners' refers to the scandalous category of forgiven sinners whose reputations and ongoing flaws didn't seem to keep Jesus away. In fact, Jesus had a habit of collecting disreputables; he called them disciples."

So I think it's especially important to repeat this particular Christmas image now...when a great deal of what society sees as "Christianity" comes down to pseudo-righteous people pointing fingers at other groups, and yelling "You're a sinner! You'd better repent or you're going to Hell!"

(As if we all weren't sinners...as if, somehow, there were people who somehow didn't have lifestyles that were unacceptable to God in some way...)

You see, on Christmas eve, one group of key players in the story are shepherds. And in Biblical times, shepherds were considered some of the most distrusted, dishonorable, dishonest, and lowly people of all the world. I absolutely love what professor of ministry Donald Messer says about shepherds:

"Far from being a noble profession, the job of shepherd in first-century Palestine was one of the most despised trades, along with gamblers, usurers, and publicans. Contrary to our romantic images, shepherds were generally considered to be thieves. Far from being viewed as reliable and responsible, they were habitually known to graze on other people's lands and to pilfer the produce of the herd. Their social and religious status would not be much higher than pimps and drug pushers in our day. They, like the publicans and tax collectors, therefore, were deprived of their civil rights. They could not fulfill a judicial office or be witnesses in a court. It was forbidden to buy wool, milk, or a kid from a shepherd - because it was widely assumed that it would be stolen property. One ancient writing reports that 'no position in the world is so despised as that of the shepherd.'" (Donald Messer, Contemporary Images of Christian Ministry (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), page 172.)

Now those are DEFINITELY "notorious sinners."

Yet Luke reports that the first ones to hear of Jesus' birth were shepherds - among the most despised people in the New Testament world! Can you imagine their shock - to find out they were the first ones to be eye-witnesses of God's majesty? And can you imagine the people they talked to afterwards? No wonder Luke writes that everyone who heard of Jesus' birth from the shepherds "wondered at the things told them by the shepherds"!

When you read it that way, it's not a very pretty scene, is it?

No, it's not. And it's not meant to be. God didn't mean it to be pretty. God meant it to be real.

Let's put it in today's words. Jesus could have come as a triumphant warrior-king, bristling with power, to smite the evil and establish a kingdom built on power. But that wasn't God's plan at all. There was no royalty, no engraved invitations for the rich and mighty to the arrival of God's son. Instead, there was an obscure town of Bethlehem, in the filthy corner of a barn, in a feed trough, where a confused carpenter was witness to the birth of God's son to his teen-aged wife-to-be.

Wonder with me at how the despised and lowly men tending sheep felt as angels from Heaven give them the telegram: "...Born to you this day is a Savior, which is Christ the Lord." The news of God's son had come - not to those who felt they deserved to hear, sitting comfortably at the Temple - but to those who needed the news most! Creatures who thought that their sins had left them without a prayer were the ones who found that the salvation of the world had come first to them!

And what does it say of the one who becomes "the Good Shepherd"? Messer points out that this oxymoron is the equivalent to saying "I am the the Good Homosexual" to the religious right, or "I am the Good Fundamentalist" to the gay & lesbian community, or like saying "I am the Good Terrorist" - because in those days, shepherds were just that despised. Messer writes, "It is no wonder that after Jesus called himself 'the Good Shepherd' the Gospel of John reports, 'there was again a division among the Jews because of these words (John 10:19)" (page 173). Jesus identified with the lowly, and with the despised - and yet turned that despising description on its head, transforming the label as he did everything else he touched.

In these days of insanity - when businesses are encouraged to "keep the 'Christ' in Christmas" so they won't get boycotted - it's important not to lose the amazement and wonder of those who witnessed the birth of our Savior. And let me never forget that if God could be present and "with them" in the mess of the stable, surrounded by the disreputable and untouchable ones of that time, then God can and is surely with me, during the messes of my life, and when I feel unworthy and apart from the rest of the world.

It is in the most impossible of my own times and situations that I have to remember the amazingly unlikely people and places that were part of the story of God's arrival on earth. And I also remember that I am the unlikely - and undeserving - recipient of the gift of grace brought by Jesus to the world.

May I continue to stand by the manger in wonder at the astonishing love of God - for you, and for me!

Monday, December 03, 2007

Killing me softly...

I felt all flushed with fever, embarrassed by the crowd,
I felt he found my letters and read each one out loud.
I prayed that he would finish but he just kept right on...
Strumming my pain with his fingers,
Singing my life with his words,
Killing me softly with his song...
(Roberta Flack, "Killing Me Softly With His Song")

"No wonder, when I peruse the titles of a Christian bookstore, I feel like I am the only klutz in the kingdom of God, a spiritual nincompoop lost in a shipful of spiritual giants. When I compare my life with 'the experts,' I feel sloppy, unkempt, and messy in the midst of immaculately dressed saints...and I'M A MINISTER. Maybe that's why God allowed me to pastor a church 'for people who don't like to go to church.' When your 'pastor' has been kicked out of two Bible colleges, maybe it's easier for people not to be intimidated by some ideal of spirituality."
(Michael Yaconelli, from his book "Messy Spirituality")

There are days when I feel like a spiritual Concorde - mighty and powerful, designed by God to be of immense service to God's kids. And then there are days when I feel like an old spiritual bi-plane - revving and then spluttering, climbing and then losing altitude, just barely hanging in the sky.

And when I heard people quoting verses like "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48), I felt that I would never, ever be able to be one of "those Christians," because I'd never, ever be able to measure up. The people who I met in church seemed so "good," and I kept comparing my insides (which seemed dirty, damaged and broken) to their outsides (which sure looked on their way to "perfection"). Those were definitely "losing altitude" days...

And then, occasionally, I would hear a saint - like my late mentor, Pastor Tom Housholder, or like Michael Yaconelli - speak of being both "broken and beautiful," of being "a spiritual nincompoop" - and I would sit back down in the pew and say, "Maybe I'm eligible after all..."

There is a reason Jesus was born in a manger. There is a reason the first person he revealed his true nature to was a Samaritan woman, by a well. There is a reason Jesus hung around with disciples who were more "misfits" than "good fits." There is a reason that we are all eligible to be waiting for the Christ child to arrive, this season.

We qualify as Christians precisely BECAUSE we are broken. It's just that simple. It seems impossible, but it is absolutely true. Read the Gospels carefully, and you'll find that the folks who think they are righteous don't get much mileage in Jesus' presence...

And for that reason, my spiritual heroes and mentors have been the ones who spoke of struggle, not inspiration or perfection - because they knew I'd never identify with anything but feeling "apart from."

Michael Yaconelli is just the latest in a long string of saints who have kept me in the corral every time I think of jumping the fence.

To all those who, by their testimony, have made me understand that I have a place in God's mercy and love, I give thanks in this season of preparation called Advent. They are the people who, by their words and their actions, gently welcomed me and said, "Come in and sit a spell - you're welcome." They were the ones who wrapped ME in swaddling clothes at my Christian birth - and I will always be grateful for them.

Thank you, God, for saints like Mike Yaconelli, who were capable of "killing me softly" with their words and the stories of their lives. Help me to be a bridge like them, that I might reach those who might otherwise not hear the words of Christ. Help me help them hear the message of welcome and acceptance. Amen.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Brushing the dust off the keyboard

Yes, in response to a couple of your emails, I am alive. Even fractionally well - "sunny-side-up, suckin' air and sober," as my Kansas friend Bob L. would say.

It has been a busy month. Full of challenges, hopes, and fears. A brief recap, to catch you up:
  • Work - I am in Chicago this week, as the Evil Empire has summoned me from the hinterlands of Ohio to the the outpost of Payroll World, downtown Chicago. They didn't have the money to bring me in to train my co-worker, seven months ago. But they evidently are bringing me in so they can drain my brain before turning our work over to the folks from India (Mumbai or Guragon, depending on the task). I have missed some key deadlines, and I have at least a partial fear that they are bringing me in to set me up to be laid off or fired. Needless to say, that's not helping my attitude any...

  • Work II - we have had some significant setbacks in our team. We have a Unit manager, and two payroll operations managers. One POM is leaving effective November 21st; the second, who is pregnant, is widely rumored to be departing at the end of November, even if her "due date" is not until Dec. 17th. With that, plus the rest of the "domestic" (non-outsourced) team looking for a job, it will make for an interesting year-end close process.

  • My health - despite reductions in weight, I have had to go on insulin shots - so far, just once a day long-acting Lantus. That really, really, really felt like a massive failure, in a number of ways, and I haven't dealt well with that whole process. It's not the shots, so much - although that IS weird.
  • Sisterly health - Sue has been struggling a bunch with back problems, and I have tried desperately for a month or more to help ease her pain with using a massager and ice to help reduce her back inflammation. She resisted the idea of going to a chiropractor, and has had it with conventional medicine altogether. Finally, last week, she resignned herself to going to a local chiropractor, and she seems to be getting slight improvements in her ability to move, if not in her overall pais levels. Most of the "massage/ice" treatment I've done came in the morning - when I was usually doing my blogging...

    • A new relationship - albeit a long-distance one - has come out of a trip I took on a lark to Springfield, MO. We've spent a couple long weekends together - he's met my family - and we are trying very hard to go slow and be reasonable. I've not said much about it here - and probably won't. But that has been a distraction as well, if a rather welcome one.

    • So other than work, health, and personal relationships in a state of flux, life is going pretty well.

      I will try to post more regularly - although this week (by virtue of the work nightmare) will be more spotty, rather than less.

      Thank you to those who set off the "Where are you?" sensors. That means a lot, in this world....

      Thursday, October 11, 2007

      What have you done today to make you feel proud?

      I look into the window of my mind
      Reflections of the fears I know I've left behind
      I step out of the ordinary
      I can feel my soul ascending
      I'm on my way
      Can't stop me now
      And you can do the same

      What have you done today to make you feel proud?
      (It's never too late to try)
      What have you done today to make you feel proud?
      You can be so many people
      If you make that break for freedom
      What have you done today to make you feel proud?

      (Heather Small, "Proud")

      Today is National Coming Out Day - a day when gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals are encouraged to "come out," to share our identity as GLBT persons with the rest of the world.

      By acknowledging on this day that I am a gay man, I am not "flaunting" what I am. I am not "recruiting" others to some mythical "gay lifestyle" (whatever that mythical thing is). I'm not saying that I have a boyfriend, or a promiscuous sexual life, or that I am a drug-using club-hopping playboy.

      In fact, it means exactly the opposite.

      "Coming out" means that I am all the things that I was before - as well as gay. I'm still a follower of Christ; I still am kind of an outsider in organized religion (and there is some good in that!); I am still a storyteller, I am still a recovering alcoholic; I am still a 50-year-old, heavyset, graying man. I am still, hopefully, a man with a great heart, and great dreams, and a desire to be of service to my God and my fellow human beings. None of that has changed.

      And I am a gay man.

      There is much of me in that regard which has changed, certainly. I am not the desperate-for-approval, please-accept-and-love-me person that first came out two years ago. There is still one area in my life - my youth-group activities - in which I am not out. I made that choice because I wanted to be of service to the organization. But I also told them, when I started, that "don't ask/don't tell" would work, until someone asked - because I wasn't going to lie. No more.

      Until I find a friend/boyfriend/partner who's willing to put up with me, there just isn't a lot in my life to deal with. But on this day, if none other, I need to let people know who I am...what I am...and Whose I am. The song lyric at the beginning of the post, used in the very last scene of the 5th seasons of Queer As Folk, reminds me that to "step out of the ordinary" is what I'm called to do. And that I'm called every day to do something "to make me feel proud" - as a brother, friend, man in recovery, and Christian who just happens also to be gay.

      If you are interested in coming out, or know someone who is struggling with it, there are vast resources to help. Here are just a few:

      The HRC Coming Out Project - including stories of those who have come out, and all kinds of information for GLBT's and their families.

      FamilyAcceptance.org - a site started by a mother and father whose son came out to them, and their journey to acceptance.

      A Letter To Louise - a former chaplain and Civil Rights Commission worker responds positively to a friend whose son is gay.

      Accepting What Cannot Be Changed - an article by Dr. David Meyers of Hope College about sexual orientation.

      Why Come Out? - Tom Scharbach's very sensible and common-sense advice to me (and many others) about the benefits of coming out. An excellent bit of experience from a very sharp mind.

      The Gay Christian Network - including messages and discussion threads on all aspects of gay Christian life by more than 7,000 online members who are both gay and Christian. A podcast called GCN Radio has some great information, including a great interview with Patti Ellis of Family Acceptance (above).

      Tuesday, October 09, 2007

      Looking back, looking ahead

      There has been a long silence in the camp of the squires. As I climb back into the light of the digital community, a look back over the last month wouldn't be out of place....

      October 1st marked one year in Waterville - 365 Chicago-traffic-free days. Despite that joy, it's not entirely a comfortable anniversary, because much that was challenging on that day (even the physical state of the household) still is unresolved.

      I spent some time over the weekend trying to figure out what to do with some of the stuff I've accumulated - and part of me wants to just throw out massive amounts of stuff and start over. There are books on the shelves that are good books, but books that I may never read again - and some books that are like Oreos, that I go to as comfort food or candy, just for diversion. If I cleared those off the shelves and took them to the library as donations, I'd have more shelf space...

      Finding the discipline to pick up anything - papers, clothes, anything - and deal with them once would be a blessing. Hell, finding discipline, period, would be a blessing, these last couple weeks.

      November 17th will likely be my brother-in-law's last day of work until March or April - he's been designated as "seasonal worker" after 30 years at his job at the country club. Of course, he's spent 30 years at a job with no benefits, no retirement - and finally no assurance of re-hiring. So that's scary. We cannot survive another winter of him only receiving unemployment for six months.

      And there is the looming deadline of January 31, 2008 - which will is latest possible date for outsourcing my job, and the rest of our jobs, to India. That's an entirely separate post - so much of that is tied up in asking, "Well, when are you going to find the job you WANT to do, rather than the next-lifejacket-job?"

      I've made a set of what I consider very positive steps, however.

      The first is that I'm trying to do something - every day, even a little bit - to improve my conscious contact with God. That's been something that's been sliding downhill for a while. Writing, praying, yelling, something - anything. Because that's at the heart of it all. If that ain't happenin', ain't nuthin' much good gonna happen.

      I've restarted exercise. (Yes, again. And again and again, if need be.)Well, i wouldn't even call it exercise, so much as cessation-of-sloth. I become such an inanimate object, working and blogging and posting to online communities - it really is an act of discipline to push away, walk away, and do something (anything) physical. Walking around the block twice has become one of those "just do the next right thing, dammit!" things.

      I'm looking at the "stuff" in my life, and trying to look at what I can do to "keep current" - little bits, every day. Not world-changing stuff, but do something, dammit.

      The last one will be a bit of good news. For more than six months, I've been struggling to find a framework to put so much of my writing into some kind of book format. My friend Ted gave me some inspiration for part of it - but finally the spirit spoke in the words of a song by Ken Medema titled "The Call."

      Can you hear it down the ages, like a mighty trumpet sound
      A call to leave the night and step into the morning
      It's a call to joy and gladness in a world of war and pain
      And yet it sounds a note of danger and of warning

      It's a call to leave your treasures and your trinkets on the road
      It's a call to join the weeping, and to bear the sufferer's load
      It's a call to live like fools, by another set of rules
      Well, it's a call to take your cross in hand and follow

      Yes, it's a call to take your cross in hand and follow
      Well, yesterday I sent a email to Ken Medema, asking for his permission to use the song lyrics in a book tentatively titled A Call To Live Like Fools. (I actually attached an audio file with my background and request, since Ken's sight-impaired.) Without his permission to use the lyrics in the introduction and the title, the whole concept wouldn't be worth much.

      So while I'm waiting for his reply, I'm working on the outline of what I want to include in this. My hope is that it can be snapshots of life along the road to (and through) faith, a kind of my personal credo or "this I believe," and yet I want to make sure that I include enough of my own brand of humor and irreverence to make it palatable.

      So the process is begun. We'll see what brother Medema says.

      That's all for now, folks....

      Monday, October 08, 2007

      Shut up, get on the bike, and ride

      As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. "Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men." At once they left their nets and followed him.

      Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
      (Matthew 4:18-22, NIV)

      Imagine this. You're in a minivan, or a sedan. You've just dropped the kids at soccer or the YMCA, or maybe you've just left work. You pull up to one of those long traffic lights, and you look to your left - and see a familiar face.

      Now most of the time, you've seen this face in paintings, or drawings. The long hair, the graceful, radiant face. This is the face of Jesus. Emmanuel. God with us.

      Jesus. Savior of the world. Right there, next to you, at the light.

      On a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

      Not a huge one, but a Harley, nonetheless. With those big ol' mufflers that don't really muffle much sound. He's wearing those black leathers, and his hair in a ponytail. Worn, callused hands on the handlebars. The saddlebags are mostly empty, because Jesus doesn't carry much with him.

      The fenders and the leathers are dusty - he's been on the road a while. But you feel the call...you know you have to speak. So you roll down your window, and before you can say anything, he smiles at you, motions to the empty seat behind him, and says, "Come follow me...come with me for the ride of your life. The ride of a lifetime..."

      That's the theme of my friend Jeff Jacobsen's book, So I Go Now: Following After the Jesus of Our Day. Jeff describes how time and time again, the Rider appears, and motions to him to park the minivan, turn off the cell phone, ditch the job and the church work and the Boy Scouts and reruns of "Friends" and Monday night football - all of it - and just RIDE with him. How marvelous the ride has been, when he's been willing to do it...and how much he's regretted each time he's let the chance slip away.

      Now imagine pulling the minivan (the sedan, SUV, you name it) over at the corner - say at 95th & Metcalf in my former home in Overland Park, KS, or at 75th and Cicero in Chicago. Imagine shutting off the key, leaving the van there in the parking lot of the Home Depot, getting on the back of the Harley, and riding away.

      THAT is what the Gospel writers are talking about when Jesus said, "Come follow me," and they left "immediately." Or "at once." Leave your fish, your nets, your father...your van, your responsibilities, your commitments. "Follow me."

      It brings me to tears to think of the number of times I've watched that Harley ride off - the seat behind my Savior empty, and me sitting at the light, cars honking, with a heart full of "Yeah, but's..." I'll follow you - as soon as I lose a hundred pounds (fat men NEVER look good on Harleys, no matter how cool it might be). As soon as I get my finances in order (gotta take care of business first). As soon as the family is settled (they're my number one priority, now - who will take care of them if I don't?). Yeah, yeah, yeah, Jesus....soon. Just not right now.


      God, help me to see where God-as-I-understand-God is in my life today - and give me the strength and the willingness to just shut up, say, "Yes," get on the motorcycle, and ride, whatever that will mean today. Amen.

      Wednesday, September 19, 2007

      God blessed the broken road...

      Every long lost dream
      Led me to where you are
      Others who broke my heart
      They were like Northern Stars
      Pointing me on my way
      Into your loving arms
      This much I know is true
      That God blessed the broken road
      That lead me straight to you....

      (Rascal Flatts, "Bless The Broken Road")

      They stood at an altar in a rather untypical country church in Holt, Missouri, north of Kansas City. She was beautiful in a champagne-cream colored pantsuit, and he was clearly a country-boy wearin' a handsome black suit out of deep, deep love. Her Methodist preacher friend and his Baptist pastor stood before them, their family and friends - but you didn't need to have the professional holy folk to know that God's spirit was on that place, and that couple.

      Norma and I had started seminary together, way back at St. Paul School of Theology in September, 1997 - almost exactly ten years earlier. Church folk like Tex Sample, Gene Lowry, Warren Carter and Harold Washington were some of the salts-of-the-earth who accompanied us on our way as part-time students. Norma and I walked through the death of her mother, and later her father, and struggles galore. We both have struggled with our faith, our call, and our respective denominations' candidacy processes. And through it all, we have grown as close as friends can be.

      There was different times when I think each of us thought that the other might be a candidate for the "Spouse 2.0" program (though it was a number of years before I could admit to myself, let alone tell her, exactly why that wouldn't work). But even that revelation only gave us more to laugh about. We are folks who love to laugh - and there sure was a lot of that this weekend...

      Her dear friend and mother-of-the-heart, Gertrude, was there from Marshall MO, as was her daughter Becky from Phoenix, looking lovelier than ever, and her dear friend Rose from St.Paul, MN. As both Norma's parents had died, it was my honor and privilege to fly out from Ohio to walk Norma down the aisle, and to present her to her husband-to-be "on behalf of her family, her friends, and the family of faith."

      (To be honest, it was tough to say where one group left off and the next one started...)

      I don't know where the first reading came from, but it began with both truth and hope: "This is not my first marriage; but it is my last." One of their marriages had ended in divorce; the other, in death - but on that day, the focus was on new life, new hope, and a love that had grown out of friendship.

      And after their vows were exchanged, a handsome young man and his wife sang Rascal Flatt's beautiful ballad, with the chorus that seemed so appropriate. (You can hear the original version over here.)

      Earlier that day, as I was visiting with friends in south Overland Park, KS, it had started to pour down rain. Knowing the reception was to be in an outdoor tent, at the end of a long gravel road, my first thoughts were hardly spiritual ones (having a lot to do with raw sewage and unbridled copulation). But almost immediately on the heels of those unholy thoughts was this passage from Scripture: In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world (John 16:33(b), NIV).

      Once I heard that, I knew it was gonna be all right.

      And it was.

      From the rehearsal, to the preparation, to the ceremony and the reception, it didn't go exactly as it might have been planned, but it went absolutely beautifully. It did my heart good to see Norma finding peace, friendship and love after seeking it for so long. The whole thing was the answer to a whole bunch of prayers I have prayed for my dear friend.

      Norma and Clayton. September 15, 2007. May every good and beautiful thing come your way, my friends. God has indeed blessed every mile of the broken road that has led you to each other.

      The rest of the weekend...

      ...was full of some amazing (and some tragic) moments. Overall, a good theme-song for the weekend would have been Poco's A Good Feelin' to Know....

      Flying in Thursday night was a mess - but then flights in and out of Chicago often are. Given the fact that I wanted to be up and at 'em by 5:00 AM Friday, it didn't help that I got to the hotel at 1:00 AM...

      Friday morning was a blessing - first, meeting up with the men's Bible study group that I'd been a part of 4 years earlier. They'd changed locations, and I had to hunt around to find which strip mall at the corner of 87th and Lackman held the Panera Bread where they were now meeting. But it was just so cool to be back with a group of men who were both friends and Christian brothers, in the truest sense of the word.

      I managed to find some decent dress black shoes at Bob Jones Shoes close to downtown KC. Frankly, if they didn't have size 12-6E shoes, I doubt anyone else in the Midwest would have!

      Then back to Johnson County for a lunch reunion with friends from my former church life. It was such a blessing to be out to my friends, and find the same welcome and love that I'd always known. Our time was great, but way too brief. It made me sad to have to take off, but the wedding festivities were calling me. That pretty much consumed the rest of Friday.

      One of the sad moments came Friday night, after the rehearsal. I was calling a number of my AA buddies, and found more than a couple of 'em dead drunk when I called. I knew we hadn't kept in touch, and I know that people who stay sober are the exception rather than the rule. But it was still sad to hear. One of the saddest was to hear that my former sponsee Mike, whose recovery and wedding I celebrated in this 2004 post, was divorced, drinking and using, and in jail, yet again. /sigh.../

      Saturday morning was a good news/bad news time. Good news, it was great to be back at the Lenexa Little House and run into a number of friends I hadn't seen in years. Bad news - because it was "Parents Weekend" at the University of Kansas (in nearby Lawrence) and also the Kansas State AA conference in Great Bend, a bunch of folks that would have been there just weren't. And that kind of sucked, even though I know it's not ALL about me...

      Yet another blessing was a brief 90 minutes spent with Pastor Joe from my former congregation. When I think of the close bond we have, despite being 760 miles apart, it just boggles my mind. It was even more appropriate when I read that the lectionary lesson on Sunday was 1 Timothy 1:12-17, a set of Scriptures that have always been close to my heart. That a man such as I once was could be a friend and a brother to a man like Joe shows the power of God working with broken tools...

      Saturday afternoon was the wedding (see the post above). By 8:30, things had pretty much wound down, and I bid my dear friend and her new husband farewell.

      On the way back to the motel, I thought I'd stop by the 10:00 candlelight meeting at the Little House. Sadly, the group had discontinued the 10 pm meeting - but I was blessed to meet up with a fellow I'd known almost my entire sobriety, who had an exceptionally cool story to tell.

      He'd been one of those folks who had a hard time going back to church after he got sober - even after a number of years of continuous sobriety. In one of our late-night talks, I had given him a copy of Brennan Manning's Ragamuffin Gospel,, which sat unread on his shelf for a number of years. Turns out he'd ended up reading it after a job and a crazed boss led him to some ugly places while dead sober - and it gave him a new way to look at and understand God. Fast-forward to current times - and two weeks ago, this former reluctant believer is now the leader of the Alpha program at his church congregation - a church family that includes a significant number of recovering people.

      You just never know when the seeds you plant might sprout...

      Seeing a bunch of my friends at Atonement Lutheran on Sunday was a real blessing. I even got to be a group leader for our adult Sunday school session, which was quite a blessing, and to run into fellow blogger Tim B. and his kids for the 2nd service.

      But now, it's day 3 of being back in the work-a-day world, and some of the glow is wearing off, I'm afraid. We can't stay long on the mountaintops, I guess. But it was a great, and memorable weekend...."a good feelin' to know," indeed.

      Thursday, September 13, 2007

      A wedding weekend...

      I will be mostly offline for the next several days - I leave this evening for the Kansas City area. One of my dearest enduring friends, Norma, has found what seems like enduring love, and is getting married Saturday. Since both her parents are dead, she's asked me to give her away (knowing that I love to do the "dad" thing, and have been told I'm a "mother..." repeatedly...).

      So I will be in town for a number of quick visits with old friends, a brief Saturday morning reunion with the recovery community at the Little House group in Lenexa, and services at my former home church Sunday morning, wrapped around the rehearsal Friday and ceremony Saturday.

      Life has changed dramatically since I was last in Kansas - in a number of ways. So it will be good to catch up with many friends who for I've not seen in more than a year. Everything about this trip has been kind of last minute, but I'm praying that it will all come together. Norma is a sweetheart, and she and I have been "trudging the road" since I started at St. Paul School of Theology back ten years and two weeks ago (wow...). We both definitely "have seen fire and rain," but we've slogged through - and I am richer for her presence (even if mostly virtual, these days). I wish every good thing for Norma, and Clayton, even as I envy them their relationship, just a tiny bit...

      See you all on Monday.

      Monday, September 10, 2007

      Thoughts on communion and "Jesus as bread"

      This post is directly in response to Bobbie's post about "Jesus as bread" over at emerging sideways. So it would help you if you read her post, and the follow-up post she did, listing some comments...

      Sister Bobbie, I wrote a half-epistle on communion topics back here, more than 2 years ago. Maybe some of it will apply, maybe not...

      I'm also very, very curious about whether you have read Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion by Sarah Miles. The image of sharing Jesus as bread drives her to do mighty things on behalf of God's kids - if you don't like it, I will buy it from you. Promise. It's that good, in my humble opinion.

      It's strange - in my Catholic upbringing, all the emphasis was put on the "THIS IS..." portion of the Words of Institution (whereas much of the Protestant practice is centered on the "DO THIS..." portion - "do this in remembrance of me"). From my Catholic youth, I understood that they believed THIS IS the body, THIS IS the blood, and the emphasis was on "the elements," the bread and wine, and reverently protecting their holiness and purity. This affected even the architecture - the elaborate structures built over the Tabernacle were designed in part to protect the elements from dust, dirt, bird droppings, you name it.

      In the olden days, if someone dropped a host, the priest had to eat it (don't know if that's still the case). The congregation never got the wine back then, but even now, the practice in Catholic churches I have visited was that a certain amount of wine was consecrated, and if more people showed up than that, they just didn't get the wine, because you couldn't redo exactly pour the Blood of Christ back in the bottle with the wine... In short, it seemed to be all about an enhanced reverence for "the stuff" - because it was really, really, really the body and blood of Christ.

      The Lutheran take on Jesus as bread seemed more reasonable - because the "elements" only became the "real presence of Christ" (a) in the presence of the community of faith, (b) when the Gospel had been spoken, (c) when the Words of Institution and the epiklesis - the calling down of the Spirit of God on the elements - had been spoken, and (d) the elements were given as Eucharist.

      Otherwise, they were just bread and wine. That's why the same fresh bread which had been on the Altar as the body of Christ at Communion could be taken to hospitals and nursing homes by un-ordained lay-people and given as Eucharist (because (a), (b), (c), and (d) were still in effect), while the rest could be used in a brunch after the services. Outside of that setting and that specific space, there was no transformation. The "real presence of God" was "in, with, and under" the elements (if I remember my Lutheran dogma correctly) - but the elements themselves remained unchanged.

      While I don't know what their "Eucharistic theology" is, I know that the distribution of communion is a big,big deal in the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC). When I've attended there, I find a dozen "stations" for communion, and each person who "comes to the table" is prayed for, and communicated with, in a very reverent and personal way.

      The MCC, by comparison, didn't seem to focus so much on the "stuff," but on the interpersonal transaction - the "come to the table" invitation. When I knelt to receive the elements at the MCC service, it flat did not matter that the person handing the elements was actually a cross-dressing man (if an extremely attractive, "gee, would you have guessed" one). It didn't matter what "she" was wearing, who else was receiving the elements or who happened to be holding hands with them at the time - things that would have absolutely scandalized folks in other denominations.

      But when I knelt down, this person (a "Magdalen," if ever there was one) put her hand on my shoulder, leaned down, and spoke to me as though I was the only person who was receiving communion that day. I don't remember the exact words she said, but she made sure that I knew
      - that a loving God was glad that I was there
      - that this "table" belonged to Christ, and that I was welcome at it
      - that this was the body, and the blood, of Jesus Christ, and
      - it was given for me, as a free gift of grace, for everlasting life.
      It was a moment frozen in time, pressed-down-and-overflowing with meaning. And I think I can safely say that, with the exception of the outdoor Communion services we had in Kansas with the Holden Evening Prayer service, it was probably the single most powerful Eucharist I've ever received.

      It didn't matter whether the bread was leavened, or whether it was made of wheat or rice or cardboard. It didn't matter whether it was wine or grape juice. It didn't matter whether it was a woman or a man saying the Words of Institution, or that it was a cross-dressing gay man giving me the elements. Despite everything, I knew what "this" was, I knew in Whose name that they "did this"...

      And you'll have a real hard time telling me that Someone didn't say, "And it was good..."

      Sunday, September 09, 2007

      Dullness and dangerous wonder

      There are very few times when I will abdicate this space to another author. But today, I am called beyond doubt to share with you the words of the late Mike Yaconelli - author, pastor, and founder of Zondervan's Youth Services. These few paragraphs hit my heart like none other in recent months.

      These are not my words, though I wish I had written them. They echo the cry of my heart, however, and are a powerful cry out to the Church. Preach it, brother Mike:
      The most critical issue facing Christians is not abortion, pornography, the disintegration of the family, moral absolutes, MTV, drugs, racism, sexuality, or school prayer.

      The critical issue today is dullness.

      We have lost our astonishment. The Good News is no longer good news, it is okay news. Christianity is no longer life-changing, it is life-enhancing. Jesus doesn't change people into wild-eyed radicals anymore, He changes them into "nice people."

      If Christianity is about being nice, I'm not interested.

      What happened to radical Christianity, the un-nice brand of Christianity that turned the world upside down? What happened to the category-smashing, life-threatening, anti-institutional gospel that spread through the first century like wildfire and was considered (by those in power) dangerous? What happened to the kind of Christians whose hearts were on fire, who had no fear, who spoke the truth no matter what the consequence, who made the world uncomfortable, who were willing to follow Jesus wherever he went? What happened to the kind of Christians who were filled with passion and gratitude, and who every day were unable to get over the grace of God?

      I'm ready for a Christianity that "ruins" my life, that captures my heart and makes me uncomfortable. I want to be filled with an astonishment which is so captivating that I am considered wild and unpredictable and...well... dangerous. Yes, I want to be "dangerous" to a dull and boring religion. I want a faith that is considered "dangerous" by our predictable and monotonous culture.

      A. W. Tozer said a long time ago, "Culture is putting out the light in men and women's souls." He was right. Dullness is more than a religious issue, it is a cultural issue. Our entire culture has become dull. Dullness is the absence of the light of our souls. Look around. We have lost the sparkle in our eyes, the passion in our marriages, the meaning in our work, the joy in our faith.

      (Mike Yaconelli, Dangerous Wonder: The Adventure of Childlike Faith)
      God of all creation, burn away the scales in our eyes, and on our hearts. Help us see the wonder and the astonishment of what you have given us - this day, and every single day. Let this wonder ignite our souls in ways both old and new. Restore us, renew us. Let your holy fire descend once again. Amen.

      Friday, September 07, 2007

      Nancy Reagan's answer for iPhone owners

      It started off as "the right thing to say." It became a joke, and eventually became a cultural icon.

      But I'm afraid it's also the answer to the folks who are whining about the $200 premium they paid for their iPhones. I've read recently that many of them feel victimized, used and abused. They're saying that they'd been listening to the iPhone hype for two years, and when the iPhones finally came out, they absolutely, positively just had to have one. Right away. No matter what it cost.

      And I'm sorry, but the simple, sane answer is, "No - no, you really didn't absolutely have to have an iPhone. Nancy Reagan was right....Just say no."

      No to $600 phones, and $300 jeans, and $40,000 soccer-mom vans. No to $200-a-month cell-phone texting bills. No to $500 gaming consoles and $1,500 plasma HD TVs, too.

      And in case you were thinking of calling me an "old poop," just get at the end of a long line of folks over the last 20 years. I was the same way about Air Jordan basketball shoes. In 1985. (That's 22 years ago, for you calculator-impaired folks.) And those $200 NFL team coats, back when $200 meant something.

      Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not sin-free in this area. Techno-gadgets are my downfall. I've probably paid close to a thousand dollars, over the last ten years, on cell-phones alone. (Hell, I've probably paid $200 in those stupid corded earphone/mike attachments, alone, not to mention chargers, cases, blah blah blah). I bought the first Sprint PCS phone, when it was a specialty-green brick with the pop-up screen. I know what it's like to pay top-dollar for being an early adopter.

      But that's the point. Everyone who wants to be "the first on the block" knows that they pay a premium (and sometimes, a ridiculous premium) for being first. Look at all the morons who stood in lines for this gaming console or that one, even a few short months ago.

      And let's face it, every single iPhone owner got his or her $200 of instant coolness. But the fact is, Apple introduced the iPhone in a sinking market, in a sinking economy, and it wasn't a perfect phone to begin with (especially riding the AT&T-rebranded Cingular BS network). So it's no surprise that they paid a massive premium for it. It's no different than standing outside some domed stadium, paying $1,000 for SuperBowl tickets or two seats to see Aerosmith or Billy Joel or whomever.

      You're paying to be exclusive. It's how God separates fools from their money. So shut the hell up about it.

      No sympathy here, folks. In my mind, anyone who can pay $600 for a phone should be required to make an equal-sized contribution to the local food-pantry. Not to punish them - but because it's the right damn thing to do.

      And lest you think I don't practice what I preach, I have made a commitment to contribute to charity an amount equal to what I spend at Amazon and Borders. If I can afford the books and the CDs, I can afford the contribution. Period.

      I dare the owners of iPhones - who HAD to be exclusive by belonging to the first-on-the-block club - to take that $100 coupon, and take it to your local school or Head Start program, and let THEM use it.

      Because they need the money a hell of a lot more than you do. Your phone proves it.

      And if you want to call me up and bitch about it, you can call me on my $49 already-obsolete-when-I-bought-it RAZR phone...

      Perceiving the Godhead

      If one man calls you an ass, pay him no mind. If two men call you an ass, pay them no mind. If three men call you an ass, get yourself a saddle. (anonymous)

      It's saddle time.

      For 20 months, the theme of my team at work has been, "Hang on, it will get better." Over and over again, the message has been, "If you just hold on, things will get stable, and life will be good." And oh, I held on, because I had already been through hell, and I was looking forward to a taste of heaven - or at least, a lukewarm Purgatory...

      However, in the last 3 months, the message has changed, and become loud and clear: "If you'll just hold on until things get stable, we'll finally be ready to outsource your job to India. Let us just flog you until this work becomes predictable and repetitive, and then we'll push you out of the airlock in your underwear."

      The Mumbai folks have landed. (Bombay, for those of you who have been asleep for a couple years.) Hail, Elbonia...

      The Greek chorus that lives in my head has been particularly active in the last two days. The principal themes have been

      - How could you be so dumb - again - to buy into the "it'll get better" lie?
      - This isn't the first time you've been shown this - or the 15th, for that matter. What personal perversion of yours keeps you in denial until you can hear pebbles tumbling into the abyss?
      - Despite all the good things you've done here, why the hell do you still feel like you've failed here?

      and the classic, loud solo voice, which has been taking a cadenza above the rest of the background chorus:

      What the hell are you going to have to do to not end up here, again?

      I'm struggling with all kinds of emotions, too.

      Embarrassment - I've known better. Others have gotten out before this, and sounded happy. How come you haven't?

      Fear - of rejection, of failure, of ending up in a place like this again. (After all, my best judgment got me here...) But most of all, of not being able to support myself and my family.

      Resentment - at the Evil Empire, for leading us on, for using us like a cheap blow-up doll and throwing us away. And at myself, for allowing myself to be led on, and for finding denial such a comfortable place to live. At wasted chances, and the seeming waste of two years.

      Regret - this opportunity looked so good, going in. Why couldn't it have turned out less bad than this?

      The tragic part is, I heard this story twenty years ago at the National Storytelling Festival. It took Googling the title to remember that it was told by Gayle Ross, and this may not be the best rendition of it. But even back then, in my impaired state, I understood that there was a fundamental message for me in this story.

      Sadly, there still is.

      A young monk, studying in a mountain temple, was called by the Great and Wise Master, and told that his time of study has come to an end. "Now is the time," said the Master, "when you must carry your learnings into the world, that it might become a better place."

      "I will give you a gift," the Master continued, "contained in these few words:
      If you will perceive the Godhead in everyone, and everything, with which you come in contact, the path you walk will be a safe one." Then smiling and bowing, the Great and Wise Master led the student to the door of the mountain temple, gently pushed him out, and closed the door behind him.

      As the young man walked down the mountain, he reveled in the freshness of the air, the sunlight upon his skin, and the gift the Great and Wise Master had given him. In the beauty of the trees, in the warm glow of the sun, in the twittering of the birds, he could perceive the Godhead in everyone and everything - and he felt safe, secure, and cared-for.

      As he approached a village, he saw people running in terror. "Run away! Run away! An elephant has gone mad, and is rampaging in the village! He has demolished shops and homes, and he will destroy us all!"

      Remembering his Master's words, he stopped the runners, gathered them together, and spoke to them, kindly and lovingly, about the power of perceiving the Godhead in all of creation - even the mad elephant. "If you can but perceive the Godhead in everyone and everything," the student assured them, "the path you walk will be a safe one."

      But terror was within them, and they rushed off, calling frantically for the student to do the same. Calmly, serenely, sure of himself and his protection, he proceeded down the road into the village.

      As he came onto the main street of the village, he saw the elephant as it was completing the demolition of a villager's home. Bodies were strewn everywhere. Yet as the elephant turned to face him, the student drew on all his training and his inner resources, and
      perceived the Godhead in the mighty beast as bands of rainbow colors emanating from his body.

      The elephant started to walk slowly toward him.

      Focusing every bit of spiritual energy within him, the student
      perceived the Godhead in this immense animal as clouds of beautiful, rainbow butterflies swirling in joy and beauty about the mighty head of the elephant.

      The elephant continued on toward him.

      And then, on a more personal level, the student
      perceived the Godhead in this mighty elephant...as it trampled him into the ground.

      ...later, as he awoke in the hospital...

      As the student opened his swollen, bruised eyes, he vaguely perceived the image of the Great and Wise Master, sitting in the chair beside his hospital bed, with an air of concern and yet bemusement on his face. The student was instantly furious, and cried out, "You LIED to me, O supposedly Great and Wise Master!! You told me,
      If you will perceive the Godhead in everyone, and everything, with which you come in contact, the path you walk will be a safe one." Now look at me!! Look at how your great gift has destroyed me!"

      "My boy," the Master said, with a sad smile, "it is not the gift that is flawed, but your hearing of it. It is an eternal truth that
      If you will perceive the Godhead in everyone, and everything, with which you come in contact, the path you walk will be a safe one."

      "But my son," the Master asked sadly, "How is it that you failed to
      perceive the Godhead in those who told you to stay the hell away from the elephant?"

      Friday, August 31, 2007

      Not quite getting it right...

      Blessed is the man who fears the LORD,
      who finds great delight in his commands.
      Wealth and riches are in his house,
      and his righteousness endures forever.
      Even in darkness light dawns for the upright,
      for the gracious and compassionate and righteous man.
      Good will come to him who is generous and lends freely,
      who conducts his affairs with justice.
      Surely he will never be shaken;
      a righteous man will be remembered forever.
      He will have no fear of bad news;
      his heart is steadfast, trusting in the LORD.
      His heart is secure, he will have no fear;
      in the end he will look in triumph on his foes.

      (Psalm 112:1, 3-7, NIV)

      My sister, brother-in-law and I are going through a rough patch right now. Health issues, finances, trying to make it with radically reduced incomes...then the car breaks down. The 12 year old TV rolls over and dies. A sprained ankle causes a lost day's work. Things which used to be "little things" now seem like "big things."

      So I went to this coming Sunday's lectionary readings, looking for strength, consolation, or solace. But when I turned to this passage, I heard a much diferent message - that a truly GOOD person, a righteous person, will have wealth and riches, no fear of bad news, a steadfast heart, and no fear. And my first reaction was, "Well, I guess that's pretty convicting, 'cuz that's exactly NOT what we're getting!"

      Now, I know - I'm no saint. Never have been. And I trust in the Gospel, that all who believe and are baptized will be saved. But it's hard, at times, to recognize that it's at least partly my failures at truly righteous living that have brought me (and those I love) to these kinds of impasses. And it just hurts a bit when it's the Bible rubbing my face in it.

      I know that elsewhere in the Bible, it tells me that "there are none who are righteous, not even one. there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God" (Romans 3:10). I know that there is much of our current condition that has absolutely nothing to do with my unrighteousness.

      My head knows this, even as my heart struggles with it. It seems that when I'm down, the old tapes can start playing, and I can become the Steve-of-old who heard "the good news," but was still waiting for the one Bible passage that would "vote him off the island..."

      In the rooms of recovery, I frequently hear someone say "Why is this HAPPENING to me?" The answer frequently is, "Buddy, it's just HAPPENING - it's not specifically happening TO YOU..." I know, in my heart, that there's lots of people with troubles, and we are hardly unique in our struggles.

      In the end, my help comes from another Psalm - the 23rd - and I remember that no matter how dark and terrifying the road I walk (even through the valley of death), God is with me. I have a Shepherd who loves and cares for me - rich or broke, homeless or living in a penthouse. As a friend often tells me, "It's not like anyone gets out of this life alive, Steve..."

      So I keep on keepin' on, and I trust that God will be with us, even when it seems like the rest of the world might be against us. That's what I understand "faith" is all about, in the end.

      God of mercy and lovingkindness, remind me that no matter where I am, you are there with me. Sometimes life just seems overwhelming, and hope seems far away. That's when I need to be reminded that my hope is in you. Amen.

      Thursday, August 30, 2007

      The lies about home sales and poverty

      A couple things in the local papers - articles which have been echoed nationally - have really angered me lately, and it's time I get this off my chest.

      The first anger-inducing headlines were about how home prices have dropped for the fourth straight quarter. You can read about it in this Money.cnn.com article, with the caption "Mortgage Meltdown 2007."

      The part that all these articles don't mention is the thing that has been happening for much more than a year - and that's the long-standing freeze in the mid-priced housing market. Up until recently, if you wanted to buy or sell a half-million-dollar or better house, it was no big deal - because people in that economic strata hadn't been hit with the economic two-by-four that many of us now face.

      But I knew a year ago, visiting my sister's neighborhood on the southwest suburbs of Toledo, that the housing market was already showing signs of rigor mortis, because in a neighborhood of 50 or 60 condos in the $150-200K range, there were 12 of 'em for sale. A quarter of the housing stock in this reasonably-new (less than 10 years old) development was on the market - with almost no movement whatsoever.

      My sister and her husband had already lost nearly $40,000 in equity two years ago, trying to get out of the two-story house which they could no longer live in because of Sue's advancing MS and fibromyalgia. They'd been clobbered by the soft housing market two years ago.

      I truly do understand that what the market is measuring is the price of homes that actually sold - and that average is down considerably for four quarters straight. But no one is measuring the devastating effect of the homes that won't sell - like my friend John's house in Lexington, sitting empty on the market for a full year. If you factor in the homes whose sale price is zero - those that haven't (and likely won't) sell, then the market is in a much, much scarier place.

      When you look at the group of people being affected by this, they are what used to be called the lower-middle class - working stiffs whose home was their single biggest asset, and their single biggest investment. These are also the people whose employers (where they are still employed!) are also squeezing them on health care. Sue went from reasonably good employer-paid HMO health care with reasonable cost sharing to a 70%/30% plan with a vastly reduced prescription formulary and much higher co-pays. This happened even as she went from more than $15 an hour to barely $10. Less money, more costs, and no cushion in sight.

      The tragic part about this is that it wasn't front-page news until the melt-down in the sub-prime market affected Mr. and Mrs. Lexus-and-BMW's ability to sell their half-million-dollar house to move up to the $750k one with the granite countertops. Once they couldn't get what they wanted, boy, it was Oh, the humanity!..." everywhere.

      Honey, we have been there. For a while.

      For ten years or more, economists have been warning about the housing boom and the home-equity mortgage market that has been propping up consumer spending. Without those two things fueling the economic engine (and with it stock prices), there would have been a considerable retraction before that - and the White House couldn't have afforded that, now could they? Well, folks, the vultures are coming home to roost - folks like us have been watching the flies circling these particular corpses for quite a while.

      The Toledo Blade's recent report says that 22% of Toledoans - more than one in five - are living below the poverty line. Detroit (a scant 40 miles away) has the unenviable position of having the highest percentage in the nation for big cities of people under that ugly line.

      And there are a whole bunch of people like my sister and brother-in-law who are hovering just above that dreaded line. People who may become the last generation in their family to have the "American dream" of home ownership. Like an iceberg, I'm afraid that the true size of the problem has been hidden up to now, and I don't know what we can do to recover from it.

      And yet our President can still justify what is upwards of $400 billion in costs for the Iraq war - not to mention the human costs of 4,031 lives in the coalition forces, more than 27,000 wounded and crippled US soldiers, and more than 70,000 civilian casualties (possibly much higher).

      John McCutcheon's lyrics come to mind:

      The ones who call the shots
      Won't be among the dead and lame
      And on each end of the rifle
      We're the same.

      ("Christmas In The Trenches")

      We need a different set of answers, people.