Monday, February 26, 2007

That can't be right, can it?

...if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. As the Scripture says, "Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame." For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile — the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."
(the apostle Paul's letter to the Romans, chapter 10, verses 9-13, NIV)

I heard this reading in church on Sunday, and I had to write to you, buddy. Surely there must be a mistake, brother Paul... maybe it was because you were writing this letter to the Romans, and not to us faithful folks. You're just watering down your message for those heathens, right?

I mean, come on ... don't I have to DO something? Don't I have to clean up my language, get holy as God is holy? Don't I at least have to come to church, sing in the choir, serve, *something*?

And that word EVERYONE? Don't you mean everyone who comes to church, o wonderful apostle Paul, o former dispenser of the Law? Or everyone who believes as we believe? Folks who worship as we worship? The ones who use the right hymnal?

Didn't you mean to say, "everyone who is righteous?", Paul? The good folks - like us? The ones who pay our taxes and live good lives and send our kids to school? The respectable ones? I mean, what if we had to let the rifraf in? Those sinful folks, Paul? What kind of church would we have then?

And you really slipped a cog with putting the word "Gentile" in there, brother Paul! I mean, come on - those people are sinners, bubba - sinners with a capital "S"! They're disgusting! They eat filth, they don't know how to cleanse themselves, their very LIFESTYLES are abominations! We wouldn't even let them into the temple! We certainly wouldn't dare let them be priests or servants in worship! So if they can't even be a part of our church, how can they POSSIBLY get into Heaven?

But there it is. In our Scripture.

Believe in your heart, and you are saved.

No difference between observant Jew and disgusting Gentile. None. No wiggle room there. Their practices, much as we despise them, don't keep them out.

"Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." No asterisk, no footnote, no escape clause, nothing. No matter what anyone else tells you, it's there in the Bible. The Bible we all profess as the inspired word of God.


Even you.

And yes, even me.

Friday, February 23, 2007

People who normally would not mix

We are average Americans. All sections of this country and many of its occupations are represented, as well as many political, economic, social, and religious backgrounds. We are people who normally would not mix. But there exists among us a fellowship, a friendliness, and an understanding which is indescribably wonderful. We are like the passengers of a great liner the moment after rescue from shipwreck when camaraderie, joyousness and democracy pervade the vessel from steerage to Captain's table. Unlike the feelings of the ship's passengers, however, our joy in escape from disaster does not subside as we go our individual ways. The feeling of having shared in a common peril is one element in the powerful cement which binds us.
(from Alcoholics Anonymous, "There Is A Solution," p. 17)

My friend and co-worker Dave G.'s last day as an employee of The Evil Empire is today. He hasn't even left yet, and I miss him already. But as I contemplated our brief time together, I thought of this passage from the AA text, and how it also applies to my relationship with Dave, as well.

I was at an AA meeting Thursday night when I thought of Dave. My sponsor, Bob S., and I were talking with a new guy named Jon at the end of the meeting. Jon was 25 (maybe), a college dropout, and only 12 days sober; then there was me, nearly 50, 16 years in recovery, and a college graduate; and Bob S. is 76, nearly 46 years sober, and a life-long tool-and-die man who didn't finish 8th grade. Bob's known me since my first night in the fellowship; we'd never seen Jon before.

Yet we understood each other perfectly, because we had been given common experiences which gave us a special fellowship and a common "language of the heart."

In many ways, it is the same with my young friend Dave and I. Dave is 23 today (happy birthday, brother!) and I am a month away from fifty. Dave naturally multi-tasks on about twenty different channels, while I have trouble walking and chewing gum at the same time. (A geek friend of mine would say that Dave is definitely USB 2.0, while I am closer to RS-232 serial.) He is a trim, attractive young man in the prime of life - and I am (to be kind) somewhat past that. He is quite comfortable with social drinking - he will likely never grace the tables of the fellowship that I attend regularly.

Externally, we could not be more different.

I've only worked with Dave for about 8 months now - and due to the virtual nature of our work, I think I've only actually met him in person about twice in all that time. But like so many virtual friendships I've already made across the blogosphere, we've managed to develop a special relationship despite the physical distance.

Poor Dave was recruited to The Evil Empire out of college in June; I came here after my ministry career plans soured, eight months earlier. Dave got drafted onto The Client from Hell team, and sometime in his first week or two he got stuck with me, as I was (a) trying desperately to get our weekly payroll operations completed and (b) trying to provide him with a mind-dump of what I knew about the operation and the system we'd been stuck with.

It's a tribute to his durability and resilience that he didn't run screaming from the building....

The crucible that forged our friendship was a series of crushing system failures, our impending year-end processing, the simultaneous effort of recoding a significant portion of our system, and his providing technology to Band-Aid our system together until the recoding was complete. As part of his trying to create specifications out of thin air for the "panic-code" projects we needed, Dave and I spent a lot of time on the phone and in instant-message-land. We discovered a common love for science fiction, dry humor and a certain level of cynicism, and an appreciation for just how much good material Dilbert would have found at our firm. Dave's experiences with many of the folks in EE-Land (like my own) have often been very much like this classic comic:

Which brings me back to my opening quote: We are people who normally would not mix... The feeling of having shared in a common peril is one element in the powerful cement which binds us.

It's true that if we had met at a restaurant, or a theatre performance, we would likely never have connected. But we have been through wind, and rain, and fire together - and I have to say it has been a blessing to "trudge the road of happy destiny" with him. In fact, I don't know that I would have made it through without his help - period.

When he first told me of the call from the recruiter, and the offer of a much more lucrative position, he said something to the effect of, "Leaving the job won't be hard - but it will be tough leaving the people" - and I know that many people feel the same way about him. It's amazing that when people of goodwill band together to do good things, a special bond forms that (like the rope of three strands) is not easily broken.

Though Dave's last day as a fellow employee is today, the virtual community of the Internet will ensure that we will be no further apart than email or instant messaging. He will join the binary band of sisters and brothers I have been blessed with in the virtual world - digital disciples working toward a more peaceable kingdom. But in our little band of co-workers, he will leave a hole not easily filled, and I will miss the laughter at work most of all.

The words of singer/songwriter Wayne Watson, perhaps, say it best:

Sometimes I'll think about you
Some old memories'll make me cry
Remembering the good times makes me laugh
But all in all, I'm richer for the happy and the sad
And thankful for a season in your path.

Fare thee well on all the roads thou must travel, my young wizard friend...

Friday, February 16, 2007

Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly

Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us - sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.

(just a few of the promises from the text Alcoholics Anonymous, page 84)

If you were outside Wednesday evening about 5 PM Eastern time (4 PM Central) and you heard a great sucking sound followed by a loud pop!, I can tell you all about it. I know what that sound was.

It was the sound of loving hands helping me to pull my head out of my ass about my employment situation.

For more than three months, I and my co-workers have been led through a seemingly unending series of crises at The Evil Empire. The carrot at the end of the stick that led me to put in more than 300 hours of unpaid overtime in the last quarter of the year (leading up to my hospitalization January 5th) was the promise that the Empire would "make it up to us," with some kind of financial compensation. What each of us heard was variations on this line: "I know that it's been difficult, and I know you've been putting in impossible hours - but we'll work to make it up to you in the new year."

And then, the second week of January, the person who had provided this assurance was abruptly slid out of managing our team, and those promises were deferred. Then they were rejected by our former manager's boss. The expectation that we would continue to breathe life into the ongoing processes through working late into the night every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday didn't go away. Just the promise of any kind of compensation or flex-time-off for it. Our position was getting a wee bit ambiguous, to say the least.

So I sent the obligatory "here's what we've done for you lately" memo, and suggested that if we were going to be expected to keep doing this, we needed a different compensation model.

Silence from the camp of the princes and knights. Growing annoyance in the camp of the squires.

So I sent a second copy of the email - with a read-receipt attached, this time. A swift response to this one - basically saying, "Hey, I've been busy. But you should know that these positions are salaried, exempt positions. That's what you signed up for. And exempt positions are not eligible for overtime or bonuses. Oh, and by the way, you guys shouldn't have to be doing all this stuff anyway - don't know what you were thinking when you agreed to do it. I'll call you later and we'll talk about it."

I re-read his email, and I thought, "Well, that is many things - but it is certainly not ambiguous."

I got angry. How dare they do this to me, after all I've done for them! Then I got a fleeting dose of reality. I put on my CSI:Miami glasses, and looked very carefully at all the evidence - all the timecard entries, all the software and all the files. And guess what? An objective examination showed that everything that had hurt me had my fingerprints on them. No weapons had been pointed, no poison threatened. No GSR anywhere. If I had any wounds out of this deal, they were entirely self-inflicted.
Selfishness - self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate. Sometimes they hurt us, seemingly without provocation, but we invariably find that at some time in the past we have made decisions based on self which later placed us in a position to be hurt.
So our troubles, we think, are basically of our own making.
(ibid, p. 62)
It seems that my twisted logic went like this: if I were just selfless enough, willing enough, committed enough, and just fixed enough, saved them from the fire enough, then surely they would have no choice but to reward extraordinary effort with extraordinary rewards, eh?


(The sad part is, I am the one who keeps taking the institutional church to task for being stuck in the 1950's. But evidently my work ethic and motivation comes out of that same twisted history...I just think it should "work," in my case. Bleah.)

Well, after passing through anger, denial, and self-examination, the humiliation led me to just a wee dose of humility, and a massive dose of depression. I got vastly demotivated to do much of anything.

And the combination of all those things led to that great sucking sound, and that pop, I referred to earlier.

And I surrendered.

So today, at work, I didn't kill myself responding to anyone today. And by the time dinner-time came in northwest Ohio, I was logging off from whatever passes as "virtual reality" at my employer. No "hey, I'm leaving," no explanation. Just "Take me off the grill; I'm done." Watched a little CSI:Miami with my brother in law. Went to the Thursday night men's meeting, and told them of my uncomfortable revelations. Came home, had dinner with the family, and here I am.

I am still grateful for my job, to be sure. I am still employed, I still got paid this week, and I still have benefits. (There are 13,000 Chrysler workers who would gladly swap with me, today. ) The vast majority of my co-workers think that what I do has value, even if my managment does not. It didn't take another trip to St. Luke's Hospital to get here, this time. I'm still sunny-side-up, suckin' air and sober. This lesson didn't cost as much as others I have learned from....I am still a very, very, very blessed man, still very much in the bonus round.

So, later on today, it's back to the exercise routine. And I'll suit up, show up, and give 'em a full day - but no more, and let the chips fall where they may. There is a God, and They are not it.
When we sincerely took such a position, all sorts of remarkable things followed. We had a new Employer. Being all powerful, He provided what we needed, if we kept close to Him and performed His work well. Established on such a footing we became less and less interested in ourselves, our little plans and designs. More and more we became interested in seeing what we could contribute to life. As we felt new power flow in, as we enjoyed peace of mind, as we discovered we could face life successfully, as we became conscious of His presence, we began to lose our fear of today, tomorrow or the hereafter. We were reborn.
May it be, even unto me, God. Amen.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Winter wonderland, finally

So this was the scene outside Casa de Ragamuffin this morning. This is looking out our garage, at Sue's car, with about 18" drift, and a 3-foot drift across the neighbors' garage area.

It was hardly a blizzard - that's defined as "a violent snowstorm with winds blowing at a minimum speed of 35 miles (56 kilometers) per hour and visibility of less than one-quarter mile (400 meters) for three hours."

But here in Waterville, it became a level 3 snow emergency briefly - where if you're not a law-enforcement, rescue or medical-facility staffer, you are not supposed to be on the road. Highways were closed due to icing and snow-pack, and wrecks were everywhere.

The weird part, though, was the way the snow got blown around. In our neighbor's driveway, right next to the car, there was a pure bare spot in the middle - no snow at all. There were several places where bare pavement was set right next to 2-3-foot drifts.

Thank God, no commute, all the comforts of home. The 15-35 mph winds are showing us where our windows are in need of repair or recauling, though...

People like Poor Mad Peter, my blogging brother from Thunder Bay, Ontario, will just scoff. Peter has already recorded actual temperatures lower than -40 C (at -40, Fahrenheit and Celsius scales actually cross!). But at -3 F, I'm glad I'm here, and they are there...

We are safe, warm, and tucked in for the night. For what it's worth, Happy Valentines' Day.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

A place of welcome

"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Matthew 22:36-39, NIV)
Rick said we should live missional lives, that we should intentionally befriend people who were different than us. I didn't like the sound of that, to be honest. I didn't want to befriend people just to trick them into going to my church. Rick said that was not what he was talking about. He said he was talking about loving people just because they exist - homeless people and Goth people and gays and fruit-nuts. And then I liked the sound of it. I liked the idea of loving people just to love them, not to get them to come to church. If the subject of church came up, I could tell them about our church, but until then, who cared. So we started praying every week that God would teach us to live missional lives, to notice people who needed to be loved.

(Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz: Non-Religious Thoughts About Christian Spirituality, page 135)
Over the years, I've heard so many people say, "How can we connect with the culture, with the community? How can we reach others for Christ?" Rick, the leader of Imago-Dei, the small church that Donald Miller attended, seemed to have the right idea.

But how many times have we as a church prayed that God would teach us to live missional lives? How many times have we as a congregation prayed for those around us, who need to be loved?

So many times, the mainstream church has had the attitude made famous in the movie "Field of Dreams" - "If we build it, they will come." We build a beautiful edifice; we put out attractive signage; a great Yellow Pages ad; news articles in the paper; flyers and notices in our weekly bulletins. And then we ask the question: "We've built the place - why won't they come?"

Could it be that we (as the Church) are asking the wrong Person?

I can only give you one person's perspective, in one context. In Toledo, 90% of the AA meetings are held in churches; one local church I know of hosts AA meetings Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. But there is nothing I have seen in any church so far that specifically invites the community of recovery to fellowship, worship, or provides any other service besides a meeting place.

I have seen one particularly smug sign - in my sister's inlaw's LC-MS church here in Toledo - that I find particularly offensive:

Free coffee. Eternal life.
Yes, membership has its benefits.

The message is, of course, that church members get free coffee and eternal life - and those who are outside the pale are, of course, bereft of those things. Interesting message, of course, given the attitude of Jesus toward the established church in the Gospels...words like "snakes...viper's brood" come to mind. Not to mention that Jesus had much more concern for people than he ever did for institutions and buildings...

Here's the sign I wish I could see on the wall of even one of the churches where I attend meetings:

Questioning? Seeking?
Wondering how to connect with this Higher Power?

So are we.
It's what we do.

Why not join us on the journey?
It doesn't matter where you come from.
You're welcome here.

(The closest I have ever come to that is this series of ads, which brings me to tears every time I watch them.)

And then it would be really, really cool to see a seeker-friendly service - even a prayer service - open and accessible enough that even the most timid souls would find themselves welcome.

I know - it's a dream. Probably a hopeless dream. But most of the ideas that changed the world started with an impossible dream, I guess.

God of love, open our hearts to those who need to be drawn in, welcomed, helped, and loved. And help us to remember that it doesn't matter if they never come to church, if they never sing in the choir or do anything for us. Show us the ones who need to see you, Lord God. And then help us show You to them, through our love. Amen.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Prayers for healing....

Too much illness, I'm afraid...

Beyond my own health concerns, a number of friends are struggling as well. My blog-sister Penni is struggling with both pneumonia and conjunctivitis in both eyes (yuck-o-rama, sister!). Her own mom has been dealing with all kinds of health issues, too. My sister and brother-in-law's health has been sagging lately - at precisely the time that their temporary health insurance has run out.

In addition, my adoptive sister Sandy in Kansas is dealing with asthma, and my aunt Roma in New York has been generally failing for some time. My brother-of-the-heart in Kansas City, Mike M., has been fighting shingles and emphysema and various other ailments - and for the last little while, the ailments seem to be winning.

I tell people of faith what's going on, and they say, "Well, you gotta just pray for them!"

Well, duh. No kidding?

The problem is, I have struggled for years with faith healings - running between faith, trust, and complete disbelief, at times. For a long time, faith healings (and the lack thereof) was one of the biggest stumbling blocks to belief that I had.

I have seen truly Godless people being spontaneously healed, while incredibly Godly folks, dedicated servant ministers, were prayed for day and night and still died - often horrible, senseless deaths. I kept wanting to ask God, "OK, whose side are you on, anyway?"

The worst was the loving wife of a minister, who was herself a powerful preacher and music minister. At the time when their church was reaching out in powerful ways to the middle-class black community in suburban Kansas City, cancer swept through her like a wild-fire. There were prayer vigils and prayer chains and prayers without number; faith healers; anointing with oil; laying on of hands. Nothing. In no time at all, she died. A family lost a mother and a grandmother; a church lost a preacher and a music minister; and a whole lot of people lost a friend who knew Christ in a powerful way.

It made me insane. I completely understand the envy, and the "what the heck did she, or I, do to not make it on this particular train, Lord?" Because trust me - this woman did NOT die to to a lack of faith. If faith was the answer to healing, the whole city would have been healed on her faith alone!

The one who saves me from the fire on this particular topic is Nicky Gumbel, of the oft-maligned Alpha Course, who had perhaps the best words I've heard on praying for healing:
When we prayed for no one, no one was healed. When we prayed for people, some were healed, and some were not. We have no answer for the whys and wherefores, but now I pray for everyone, hoping that some prayers will be answered.
A dear friend also suggested to me that there is a big difference between prayers of supplication where I turn my prayer concern over to God and let it go, and praying just to manipulate God into giving me what I want. Ouch. There are many days I still can't find the line between those two. I know beyond any doubt that I know how to do the latter much better than the former.

And then there are the words from singer Wayne Watson's old classic, "Home Free:"

Out in the corridor,
We pray for life
A mother for her baby
A husband for his wife
Sometimes the good die young
It's sad but true
But while we pray for one more heartbeat
The real comfort is in You

You know, pain has little mercy
And suff'rings no respecter or age
Of rank or position
I know that every prayer gets answered
But the hardest one to pray
Is slow to come
"O Lord, not mine
But your will be done....

Yeah, no kidding, Wayne. When I heard of Penni's illness, I told her, "I keep telling God, 'You're not checking my list!' And the fact that I even have a list is a good sign that I'm not quite all there, spiritually..."

In the end, I have to come back to the simple answer: God is God, and I am not. This side of the final trumpet, I will never know the "whys." All I can do is sing and pray Wayne Watson's chorus:

Home free
At the ultimate healing
We will be home free...