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 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?"