Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Real life, real hurts

You show me someone with significant pain, and no signficiant grace, & I'll show you someone who has withdrawn from the human enterprise in one way or another. And if you show me someone with signficiant grace, and no significant pain - no scars whatsoever - I'll show you someone so slick, you wouldn't buy a used car from 'em. (Eugene Lowry, "Jazz & Christianity")

My virtual brother-of-the-heart, Rick Luoni, has a great post over at a new life emerging about Joel Osteen. In Rick's typical, gentle way, he doesn't slam Osteen - but he points out how sugary-sweet, "life is GOOD!" stuff may sell books and draw folks, but it just ain't real life. Not to him, and not to me. His post led to my comment, and I couldn't help but post it here as well.

Joel Osteen, and folks like him, always call Gene Lowry's quote to mind. People who are just full of honey and vanilla simply creep me out...even though there are people who are good, kind, and seemingly loving folks who are that way. They may be honest, open, caring folks - but they sure as hell don't live in my world.

The first pastor I ever really listened to was the first person in a collar who I ever, ever remembered admitting doubt from the pulpit. (That story is back here, if you're interested...) The folks whose spiritual journey speak the loudest are the ones whose scars show the clearest. I'm so glad that I found life in the church and life in the community of recovery at the same time - because I needed both of them to find God.

Interestingly, Pastor Tom's wife was one of those sunshiney folks to me, for quite a while. It just seemed that nothing could faze her. Later, as I got closer to her, I learned that nothing could be less true - it was just her faith kept dragging her back to the sunshine side of the street. But she struggled with Tom's illness, with her mother's dementia, and with her church's stumbling toward faith. (To be honest, though, her faith witness looked a lot more real to me once I saw her struggles.)

My buddy Dave G. is one of the very few co-workers I have shared this blog with (because I understand the term Dooced). Though he is less than half my age, and I've only met him a few times in person, we've found a neat "virtual" bond across the miles, it seems. He sent me an instant message yesterday, saying he had gone back and read some of my older posts, which touched me (though I told him he really needed to get a life...). His comment made me smile: "You've had a hell of a life."

It's true - and yet I hope that even through the "hell of a life," he also saw signs of heaven, for there has been much of that. It is that balance that Gene Lowry talked about, between pain and grace...a balance I don't always maintain, but always strive toward. Even as I struggle with work, and what direction to take (and the willingness to take it) I have to admit that there is sunshine in the midst of all the mudslinging and sewage. If I'd not been at this job, I'd not have touched a whole bunch of folks - and I've had that reinforced time and time again since my hospital stay. So it seems I'm still very much "in the bonus round."

I am very much the doubting Thomas - even though Jesus is not here for me to touch his wounds. But when I see my sisters and brothers in Christ, and find just enough of them who are willing to show their scars, I can find my way back to the One whose wounds saved me.

Perhaps, that is an answer I have been searching for to the question I have struggled with mightily of late: "Why even go to church at all?" Perhaps it is simply to go and be a part of something... to sift through the flawed humanity, the politics, struggle, hypocrisy and rituals in order to find those folks who can show their wounds, and through their wounds find Christ in them. (That's something to think about a lot more, later...)

Fact is, the world is painful. The world hurts. If you are unhurt, then I'd guess you are probably unengaged with the world. Jesus came to earth - even though he knew in the end it would kill him.

You won't hear it from Joel Osteen, but you will here it from Jesus:
I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.
(John 16:33, NIV)
Now that will preach.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Listening to powerful voices

My first day back to work today was a reasonably sane day - although there are rumblings on the horizon that are still saying, "Head for the lifeboats." We will see, and try taking the next right action...

But today, I need to step aside and share with you some incredibly powerful writing by some of my favorite bloggers:

My friend and mentor Tom at PurpleScarf has an incredible post about Bayard Rustin, who was (in Tom's words) "the man who brought Gandhi's protest techniques to the American civil rights movement and helped mold Dr. King into an international symbol of peace and nonviolence." The difference is that Bayard Rustin is largely unknown and discounted in the civil-rights movement, because he was an openly-gay man at a time of great homophobia. Go read about the man who taught MLK about non-violence...and give thanks for the teacher of the teacher.

One of the most powerful voices I've found in the blogosphere is the very-anonymous [rhymes with kerouac] at Today at the Mission. I think that everyone who professes to be a Christian - regardless of flavor - should read [rwk]'s Following Jesus Manifesto. It's as powerful a statement of living-my-so-called-faith as I have seen in a long, long while. And then, when you're done, check out his definition of church and his reflection on finding "the least of these" at church. Br'er [rwk], you are a classic example of one who is "blessed, to be a blessing."

One of my "brothers-of-the-heart" is Rick at a new life emerging. I've never seen a bad post on his site, but two of his recent posts have definitely struck me. In his post Shut off from the light, he talks about the various kinds of things that can cut us off from the source of spiritual light. As one who has allowed himself to walk on the dark side of the street for too long, it was a powerful read for me. And Rick's Losing My Religion reminds me that anything that distracts me from God is not a good thing - even if it's my religion or my church.

There is much I need to think about - everything from lessons from a century plant to the basic spiritual struggle I share with Henri Nouwen. But for now, it's time to get to bed...

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Praying for a church with a dream

1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,

2 to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,

3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
(Isaiah 61:1-3, NIV)

I always find it fascinating that when nationally-known preachers insist on the "inerrancy" or the "infallibility" of the Bible, they are rarely pointing to passages like this one. God, I am told, was absolutely right about a literal seven-day creation; absolutely right about the ordaining of marriage, absolutely without error about Levitical prohibitions. But when I point to this passage, and ask if these words are inerrant, somehow the once-loud voices go strangely silent.

On this day, when we remember the legacy of a Baptist pastor from Alabama (and his commitment to freedom and non-violence), I found Isaiah's challenges curiously missing in the congregations I visited this weekend. I visited Lutheran, Episcopal, and non-denominational services this weekend - and I heard sermons about getting out of debt, preserving the sanctity of marriage, and the bioethics of stem-cell research. I visited web-sites of nationally-known evangelical leaders, and found many of the same topics.

What I didn't hear about was the challenge of Matthew 25 - the command by the One we claim to be the Son of God to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick and the imprisoned. I heard nothing about Christ calling us to serve "the least of these," and nothing of Isaiah's Spirit of the Lord anointing each of us to bind up the brokenhearted or proclaiming freedom for captives.

Over the years, I have listened to more than one Lutheran pastor preach elegant sermons claiming that one could hardly call oneself a Christian without understanding and accepting "the absolute truth of the doctrine of the Trinity." But sadly, I have rarely heard from those same pastors about the commands of that same Trinity to love one's neighbors (even the neighbors who didn't believe in the Trinity).

On this Martin Luther King Day, I am praying in hope for a new spirit in a new church, one willing to both "preach good news" and "do good works" to the poor - the poor in spirit and the poor in fact. A church of open arms, of willing hands and feet. A church that takes action, rather than taking "responsible positions on important social issues." A church that will not just *speak* of justice and mercy, but one where the members will actually act on it, and live it. A church that spends more time on caring for sinners than on cataloging their sins.

If we can transform Christianity from words to actions, from judgement to love, then I truly believe that, as Reverend King wrote, "we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Lord God, let that change come in your church...and let it begin with me. Amen.

A late Christmas story...

Yes, I know what the date is.

, I know that according to the Revised Common Lectionary, we are at the Second Sunday in Epiphany. We can't talk about Christmas, for cryin' out loud, right?

Well, for all of you who find such violations of the "church calendar" heretical, I have three words: get over it.

In following a couple blog-bunny-trails from penni/martha's blog, I found Sister Mary Martha's post about spiders at Christmas, and I felt (for whatever cornball reason) compelled to share this story. I don't remember who told it first, or last, for that matter. But while I certainly loathe spiders (certainly on the top-20 list of everyday things I loathe), I do enjoy telling this particular story about one particularly generous spider. I guess I enjoy it because the theme is a recurring one in my life - one's ugliness and self-revulsion, overcome by the gifts one offers to the Savior. So, Sister, I offer you...
The Spider's Christmas Gift

In a barn in a distant village, there once lived a spider. He was well-liked by all the other creatures who lived in the barn, for he had a good and loving heart. But one day, after a rainstorm, he chanced to see his reflection in a puddle of rain-water. He could not see himself as the other animals saw him, but instead he saw only a multitude of skinny, hairy legs and a heavy, misshapen body.

Despising his appearance, he climbed up into the very highest rafters of the barn and hid himself away, determined not to inflict his ugliness on the other animals, lest they tease or reject him. The only thing he did to pass the time was weave intricate and beautiful webs out of gossamer threads, and hang them from the barn's roof beams. Sometimes, on humid mornings when the dew was heavy, these delicate artworks would gather drops of dew, reflecting the early morning sun.

The barn animals would be amazed at their beauty, and call out in joy to the artist. But the spider was ashamed, thinking only of his appearance, and could not hear their words of praise. So he hid in the dark recesses of the rafters until night-time, when he could continue his weavings in solitude and anonymity.

One cold night, the doors to the stable flew open, and in came a man, and his wife who was heavy with child. It soon was obvious that the time had come for the child to be born, but there was no place for these two travelers among the rest of the humans, so they had been exiled out with the animals in the stable.

The woman gave birth; the newborn baby was wrapped in rough swaddling clothes and was laid in a bed made out of the hay in the feed-trough. Star-light from heaven shone on the Child, showing him to be a gift from Heaven sent to that lowly place.

It was soon clear that the baby, though healthy, was extremely cold. Yet neither the parents nor any of the animals in the barn could help - there were no blankets or other cloths left to use, and none of the animals could give of their fur to help the shivering Child. Each of the creatures cried, whinnied, bleated and neighed, "Who can comfort this heaven-sent Child?"

From his vantage point in the rafters, the spider was given a wonderful idea. He raced from rafter to rafter, gathering all the beautiful webs hanging from the roof-beams, and stitching them together, layer after layer after layer of intricate web.

The products of year after year of the spider's work were woven together, until they formed a wondrously white blanket. And on a gossamer thread, the spider lowered the blanket down onto the manger and the baby. The holy Child's shivering ceased, and the grateful Mother smiled her thanks. "Thank you for your blessed gift, dear spider! May your weavings continue so long as the sun rises, o shy one, and may your threads never run out!"

Later, shepherds and wise men arrived bearings gifts - but the first gift to the Christ-child was given by one who felt himself unworthy to be seen.

Thus it is (to this very day) that some cultures consider spiders to be a sign of luck or blessing at Christmas, and we remember the spider's gift with shiny gossamer strands on our Christmas trees.
I understand that the original story may be Polish or eastern European in origin. If nothing else, it's a great story of sharing the gifts that one has been given - another constant theme in my own life...

[back into Marty McFly's theological DeLorean, to take you back to your regular liturgical season...]

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Two heartbeats away....

Here's an interesting point, and (also interestingly) from brother Paul Baggaley in Australia:
Feminists take note. As of today we are now 2 heartbeats away from a female US president. Democrat Nancy Pelosi has taken up the position of Speaker of the House of Representatives, the first woman to hold this job. This makes her second in the Presidential line of succession, behind VP Dick Cheney. So if Bush and Cheney were both killed off, she would have the job. Now wouldn’t that make Hillary mad!
As I commented on Paul's post, very few people in the US think of Nancy Pelosi as #3 in the chain-of-command. And that's either a great thing or a scary thing, depending on your view of things. As for me, nothing could be scarier than a Dick Cheney presidency...

Friday, January 12, 2007

Starting over again, looking for more light

Here's an interesting coincidence. January 11, 2007 marks 21 days since December 21st - the winter solstice. Twenty-one days since the year's shortest day and longest night - the time of the least light and the most darkness of the winter.

In the olden days, on the solstice I understand there were huge bonfires to bring light into a darkened world. It's from these supposedly heathen celebrations that we have the traditions of lights on Christmas trees - illumination to a darkened world, reminiscent of a Star shining on another dark night, bringing the Light of the world.

It would be nice to celebrate the coming of more light, wouldn't it?

I'd really like to take that high road of philosophical imagery today, but I can't.

For me, Thursday is simply the fourth day that I have been out of the hospital.

Anyone who has been reading these posts over the last year know that the single most significant focus of my life for the last fourteen months has been a sadly codependent, addictive relationship with my employer. It has been a battle to do the impossible - to take a series of systems that don't play well together and an undertrained but desperately committed staff and somehow make them work for a deeply-unhappy client. The intention was always that "when things get better, when things get stable, the work schedule will ease back." But we "went live" on New Years' Day 2006, and twelve months later the situation is not in the least improved. In fact, it is in many respects worse.

And I've been an idiot - somewhere between a John Candy imitation of the Man of Steel and a badly-drawn Dudley Do-Right, trying desperately to save the day, to make things right, to "get it all together" somehow so that life would be good. Through increasingly manual intervention, I (and others) have tried and tried and tried to defeat the shortcomings of systems we barely understood. And the more we tried, the more we (especially I) failed. Once again, I have learned the painful lesson that the blue tights and the red cape still don't fit, and almost certainly never will. In fact, they never did fit. It was all a lie.

Over the last four weeks, the hours have gotten (if one could believe it) even more insane - aided and abetted by the fact that since my move to Ohio and my work-at-home situation, I don't even have to walk to the train anymore. My "commute" is now about 8 feet - from the bed to the desk in my spacious bedroom/den/office. Over the last three months, physical human interaction (e.g., non-instant-messaging relationships), exercise, even eating dinner with my sister and brother-in-law, all fell off significantly. And when I finally did take time for myself - for sleep, for recovery meetings, for fixing and eating meals (or, eventually, eating the meals that my disabled sister fixed for me) - it always felt like there was too much left to do to get up and walk away from the desk, from the crisis at hand, from the heart of the battle.

All that changed Friday, January 5th. For about two weeks, I'd been having some uncomfortable spasms in my chest when I finally did get to go to sleep. Being overweight, hypertense, diabetic and nearly 50, I was getting a wee bit nervous about what those spasms might mean.

So I went to the doctor on Friday, in the midst of the latest end-of-year and start-of-new-year battles at The Evil Empire, to get it checked out. I figured it would be as it had been in the past - new medicine, new/fresh warnings about my lifestyle, and that would be that... that is, "until things got stable" and I could actually find some leisure time to take some action.

Then the doctor said the words no one wants to hear: "I don't like the looks of this - I can't be 100% sure, but I'd say you really need to be in the hospital to get this checked out."

I said, "But..."

...and the doc gave me a look that spoke volumes, and said, "Today. As in, right now. As in, 'Do you need someone to drive you? Or should we call you an ambulance?' "

So I called my brother-in-law, and I went.

When I got there, my blood pressure was at stroke level, my blood sugar was in the stratosphere, my heart was racing like I'd just run a 50-yard dash, and I was damning all the time that I spent working and NOT either praying or getting my will and durable power of attorney updated. All the things that were so critical two hours earlier - other people's lives and information - seemed to shrink to insignificance as I confronted the admissions form saying, "Indicate your next of kin."

Those five words will get your attention.

So will having a nurse start an intravenous line in your arm.

I have to admit it - I made a great drunk at times, but I would have been a dismal failure as an IV drug user. I simply hate needles. Yes, I get the occasional vaccination; yes, I submit to the periodic blood-test, and don't even whimper much (though I do sing Hosannas to whoever invented those marvelous vacu-tainer things that mean you can get stuck once, and get many vials of blood removed. Thank you God, for those things).

But getting even a short-term hospital IV line set? I'd rather have a gasoline enema. I'd rather be stretched on a rack, or to attempt suicide by hitting myself in the head with a baseball bat. I loathe them - period. My preference would be that if I have to have an IV, I would have them start it, then immediately fill it up with thorazine or pentothal or something to knock me smooth out. The long-term goal would then be to wake me up five minutes after the IV was successfully removed. I don't hate many things, but I hate IV's.

I even tried, pitifully, to hold off getting it started. After all, I just GOT here, for cryin' out loud. Do we have to do this now, of all things?

The nurse looked at me, pointed to my chart and said, "Honey, with readings like those, I may need to get medicine into you quickly. And if I do, you just don't want me fumbling, trying to find a vein. If you're sick enough to be in a hospital, you're sick enough to need an IV line in."

And she pointed again to the listing of my vital signs, and said, "And I'm sorry, honey, but you do qualify to be here. Really."

At least she was sensitive about it, and was successful the first time she tried. The semi-sadistic triage nurse who first encountered me slapped the heart-monitor (EKG) connecting pads on my somewhat-hairy chest without benefit of shaving the spots first. So everytime I moved, one or more of the connector pads would be pulling chest-hair - and trust me, that is a serenity-killer, every single time.

After all the tests and the imaging and this and that, it ended up a 50/50 deal. I was not as bad as my doctor feared - but I am worse off than I imagined. And all those "someday" lifestyle changes? Eating less, doing some exercise every day, watching the vital-signs more, working less?

They started yesterday.

For two days after I left the hospital, I had a 24-hour heart-monitor. Now, I have a heart-rate monitor (like runners use), a new glucometer and an auto-inflating blood-pressure meter. If the heart-rate gets too high, or the BP gets too elevated, it's no longer a "white flag" situation - it's an "international-orange" flag. And I have started the daily stroll to the condo clubhouse, to the exercise bike and the treadmill - starting slowly, but starting. And the work situation? Well, I had a doctor's release for three days off - and my boss extended the offer to just take the week off. And I took him up on it.

I haven't signed back on to see what's waiting for me on Monday. I have no doubt the demands of the addicts will start as soon as I turn the silly thing on.

But I have my hospital arm-band taped to the side of my work PC's monitor - as a reminder.

And my left arm is still well-bruised from where the IV was, and there are still a dozen round bare spots on my chest where the pads were. (They itch, too.)

I've had the three-and-a-half days in the hospital, and four more days at home, to reflect on just what has been happening over this last year. The spiritual, emotional, mental and financial excuses for the insanity of which I've been a part. And the lessons - in all of those categories - that I've ignored to get to this point.

In the communities of recovery, what we call 'hitting bottom' is the process of realizing that you can put down the shovel - you don't have to dig the hole you're in any deeper. As a friend "in the rooms" is wont to say, "If you'll just put the shovel down, and look up, you'll see where you need to go - at least you'll see daylight, for a change!"

It's sad, too - both from a spiritual and a recovery standpoint - how easy it has been to set up worship of false gods - to violate the spirit of the 1st Commandment: "You shall have no other gods before me." How many times have I heard the lesson - where your treasure (in my case, my time) is, there your heart will be. What a sad, sad waste.

But, if I am willing to trust that each day is indeed a new begininng, and that everything that does not kills us makes us stronger, then today is Christmas Day all over again. I have the gift of life, of love, of (relative) health, and hope. Yes, I'm stuck with a heart monitor, for a while - but I still have a working heart for it to monitor, as well. I have spent a long time walking a long way from God over the last year, it's true - but I also know that this God is one whose Son told the story of both the prodigal son and the prodigiously welcoming Father.

So today I am celebrating the light, rather than cursing darkness. I'm trying my best to make wiser choices, even as I acknowledge my seemingly innate ability to live and work stupidly.

Monday will bring a fresh set of challenges to this rediscovered faith - but, just for today, all is not "well" - but it's OK.

And that's enough.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Glances backward, by candlelight

Happy New Year, one and all.

Life has been crowded since my last post - way too crowded to cram into one posting. So I'll be taking a couple days to catch you up over the next several days.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were islands of respite from four weeks of absolute, flat-out insanity at The Evil Empire. Everyone involved in the technical side of things was on a similar "rev-on-the-red-line" schedule - several of the tech/IT guys went way beyond my own excesses of work addiction. But I resolved that whatever wasn't done on Friday, December 22nd could just wait until December 26th, and worked hard to focus on the holiday, and the Savior, and not the taskmasters in Chicago.

One of our family Christmas traditions is a set of incredibly delicate ornaments from the Corning Glass Works. Less than 2 inches square, each one is a thin wafer of winter-frost Corelle (yes, just like your everyday dishes) laser-cut into incredible designs. Each ornament is about the thickness of five or six sheets of paper - and I've never seen anything like them ever again. Both sisters and I own a set of four - and when they go on the tree, I know the holiday is in full swing.

The "Home Sweet Home" ornament has been triply meaningful this holiday - because my heart is both at home here in Ohio with my family, and missing friends and "extended family" in both Kansas and Chicago. The problem has been that during this holiday, I allowed my working "works-righteousness" addiction to worm its way more and more in between me and the important parts of my life. Looking back - especially in light of a number of recent events - that was really freaking stupid.

But the holiday itself was pure bliss. Between Friday night dinner in Findlay at sister Sandy's, Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas Day, we definitely caught up on family. We saw the photos from San'n'Dave's latest Harley-Davidson ride adventures (and, of course, all the photos of the cutest grand-baby in these here parts). We ooohed and ahhed over each others' respective Christmas tree decorations, spent a brief amount of time whining about our respective work situations, and gave thanks that for a few short days, our respective taskmasters had been retired to at least tertiary place, behind God and family.

The week between Christmas and New Years' was just lost to work. There is no other way to say it. And to be honest, at times I didn't know whether I was making things better or worse by my participation in the insanity. There were a number of SUE's (stupid user errors) caused strictly by an ill-conceived mixture of my own exhaustion and SSP's (stupid system problems) - and it wasn't very pretty at all. By December 30th, I'd had all I could take - and more.

New Years Eve was, in some ways, amazing. A "gratitude meeting" at the AA hall, watching the movie Camp (which will be fodder for several other posts), followed by just lolling around the house, and then Chinese food (boneless almond chicken, a dish I could never find in all the Chinese restaurants I hit in Chicago) and going to see A Night At The Museum, which gets my vote for feel-good movie of the winter.

As we left the Chinese restaurant, headed for the movie, the all-day-cloudy skies opened up and poured, as one friend is wont to say, "like the firehoses of God." When we got back home, about 10:30, we found out that the power had been out since 7 PM for about a mile radius...the entire neighborhood was in darkness. With no alternative (no TV, no internet, no nuthin') we lit candles and oil-lamps and snuggled under blankets, reflecting on the year gone by and the blessings we had received.

And that gratitude was important. By the time that New Years Eve rolled around, we all needed a dose of it. A day earlier, I'd been ready to quit the job that my family and I needed so badly; but that night, by candle-light, I could see how it had helped me help my family when they have needed it badly. In fact, it was fairly easy to see how almost every challenge or calamity in the last twelve months has brought at least some good with it, even though it seemed impossible at the time.

The power came on about 12:30 - so somehow, the various symbols of the new year managed to drop successfully without us. We yawned, kissed, and went to bed - and in my mind, at least, the song which echoed was not "Auld Lang Syne," but a 70's classic by Barry Manilow:
It's just another New Year's eve
Another night like all the rest
It's just another New Year's eve
Let's make it the best
It's just another New Year's eve
It's just another "Auld Lang Syne"
But when it's through
This New Year, you'll see
We'll be just fine....
Happy New Year, indeed.