Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas blessings

In the Eastern time zone, as I started writing this, it lacks a few minutes of Christmas Day. For a Christmas eve, it's been an interesting day.

At The Evil Empire, Christmas Eve is simply the 7th day before the start of new new payroll year, so it was pretty much business-as-usual (read: organized chaos). The work day yesterday ended about a quarter to midnight, and I was grateful to be working from home today - not commuting into downtown Chicago in the freezing rain.

Christmas lunch with Chris, Sue and Jeff was fun - Chris had to work 3-11 this evening, so we got together at a local restaurant, courtesy of Chris' brother, who sent us gift-cards despite our plea for no presents. Sue has really been struggling physically, and so it was good to see her smiling and goofing around (something she does with Chris even better than she does with me!). Food was a good solid "A" grade, but the smiles and laughter were frosting on the cake...definite extra points.

Christmas eve dinner has been consumed, with a mess of shrimp and pulled pork (my brother-in-law's family tradition. My contribution was green grapes and peanut-butter cookies, both dipped in white chocolate. Unfortunately, the major theme for dinner was the status of various football bowl games, as covered in exquisite detail on ESPN on our hosts' 60-inch HD TV. Truly a spiritual night...

Chris is home safe after work - too late to do Christmas Eve services, sadly - but the tree is lit, and an assortment of contemporary Christian Christmas music is serenading us as he winds down. And I am blessed, as ever, by the absolute impossibility of the heart of Christmas - that an infinite God would become finite, in order to be "God with us."

So as the dawn is comin' on on Christmas Day, may every blessing be yours.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A painful, and embarrassing, confession

I sent this to my church's email-devotional list today. It may well be the last devotional I'm asked to send to this group of church folks.

Frankly, I'm not sure that I care. I need to share this sense of being convicted that I got, courtesy of Waving or Drowning? Several of his recent posts have hit home with me, but this one just nailed me. Hence, this confession today:

"Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me." (Matthew 25:34b-36, NIV)

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I've been pretty loud-mouthed, over the last several years, that the church is spending an awful lot of time and an incredible amount of money dealing with topics which are very, very distant from that to which the Gospel calls us to attend. I bring this particular passage up now - despite the fact that this is the season of Advent - because there are some things being done in the name of the Child we are waiting for, and they aren't pretty. And it's interesting, because the passage above is what Jesus himself said would define us - that how we addressed this passage would "separate the sheep from the goats," Matthew tells us.

I've been asking myself how to make the point - when an anonymous writer was quoted in Burundi saying what I've wanted to say all along. Read those two verses above (aw, go on, read the whole of Matthew 25:31-41), and then see how they were heard by a man in one of the ten poorest nations in the world:

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I was hungry,
And you formed a humanities group to discuss my hunger.
I was imprisoned,
And you crept off quietly to your chapel and prayed for my release.
I was naked,
And in your mind you debated the morality of my appearance.
I was sick,
And you knelt and thanked God for your health.
I was homeless,
And you preached a sermon on the spiritual shelter of the love of God.
I was lonely,
And you left me alone to pray for me.
You seem so holy, so close to God –
But I am still very hungry – and lonely – and cold.
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For the last four years, my family has forgone Christmas presents, because we just couldn't afford them. Now that my sister's home is gone, we are not spending money to keep that thing alive. And a person I work with recently said, "So now you can go back to giving Christmas presents, right?"

But reading the passage above, I just can't. Others are in need much more desperately than I, or my family do, right now. Reading that passage above, I really don't care whether the economy recovers or not. My spending won't save the country, but that same amount of cash might make a difference between starving and not starving to someone.

So I've told my family - all of them - that there won't be any presents coming from me to them this year, either. I'm not doing this (or sharing it with you all) because I think I'm some sort of goody-two-shoes; anything but, in fact. I'm simply doing this because of the guilt and shame I feel over my past actions. I have never, ever felt the conviction-of-the-Spirit in the way I felt it, reading these words tonight - not about any sin I have committed, ever (and trust me, there's a good long list of those).

So a good part of that money is going to the local food bank, downtown. Another part is going to organizations that are working to help the poorest people in the world. And my voice is going to be raised against all the people - everywhere - who still say "we can't afford to do this."

Because let's face it - we can. We have been able to do something about it, too - for a while. We, as The Church and as a nation, have simply chosen not to. Those who profess to follow Christ have spent an awful lot of money as The Church - especially in the last six months. And yes, before you say it - others have spent just as much money on those same topics. But to put it simply, they aren't the church. We are.

We have a calling. We are called to act with justice and love. But our man in Burundi is still hungry, and lonely, and cold.

In my Catholic youth (it's OK, for my Lutheran friends - Martin Luther grew up Catholic, too...), there was a phrase that we repeated during the Mass: "mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa." The English translation of the phrase said that the faithful acknowledged that they have sinned “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”

This is my confession to you all - that I have lived a life of excess, while others have starved. And this is my first step at redemption. I don't know that I will ever live long enough to make amends - but it starts now.

If you are convicted by this passage, as I was, perhaps this can be your moment of truth, too.

Mea maxima culpa.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Christmas vs The Shopping Season

It was funny to hear Chris say it, even if it was true.

"You know, now that I don't have to go shopping for anyone, or worry about how I'm going to pay for things or anything, Christmas seems a lot more like - well - Christmas."

I'm not sure whether this is the fourth or fifth Christmas that our family has not done the whole "bury each other in gifts so we can prove to each other that we care" extravaganza. Now that Chris is part of the family, he is under the same "vow of poverty." And at first, it was a little rough - mostly because sister Sue blew it last year in his honor. But now that we really, really have him convinced that there will be NO gift-giving - period - he's a changed man.

You see, last year, he spent the month of December trying to get ready to close on his house's sale, and packing to move up here, and budgeting "tight" to save as much money as he could before he got a job up here. So he made me promise that "this year was going to be different."

And it is. The tree and decorations (which have been in storage since I packed them up for seminary after Christmas 2002) are up, and they are beautiful. The outside lights are up and on, and while it's not exactly a Christmas Vacation display, it's clear to see which apartment is ours from two blocks away. The Christmas music, from Steven Curtis Chapman to Wayne Watson to Vince Guaraldi to Eugene Ormandy's Messiah, are on the ol' iTunes loop. And our days and nights are focused on the Christ child to come, and the Star who's arrival is pending in the East, and not on what's hot on people's shopping list.

And it's good.

People at work are astonished - "how are you ever going to get your shopping done with your work schedule the way it is?" is the question of the month. When they hear that "I simply don't have any shopping to do - we aren't exchanging gifts," I'm often viewed as if the Grinch had stomped his way across our lives. One person, in fact, had the nerve to say, "How are we EVER going to have an economic recovery if people keep thinking like YOU are, you selfish bastard?"

I wanted to tell him to sit down and watch A Charlie Brown Christmas. And listen carefully. But I simply told him, "It's not up to me, today."

Thank God.

Friday, December 12, 2008

A long time between drinks

"I thought that when I got sober, God would open up the gates of heaven, and let me in...but He didn't. Instead, He opened the gates of hell, and let me out." (Bill S., Atlanta, GA)

"I know for sure that Jesus Christ saved my soul - but you people, and AA - you saved my ass." (a wise fellow whose name I cannot remember)

It snuck up on me, this year.

In fact, even though I have the date circled on the calendar, life has been moving so fast that I haven't really been thinking about it. And, to be honest, I had missed the Monday night meeting because of my month-before-year-end dance of death with my employer (who has come to be known as The Evil Empire, once again).

So it wasn't until Tuesday night, in a meeting, that someone said, "Hey, they announced your anniversary at the Heatherdowns Monday Night Men's meeting - congratulations!"

December 12, 1990. Eight thirty in the evening. The Chapter Five Club on Airport Highway in Toledo. The night my life changed.

There are lots of things that are unchanged about my life from that day to this. My ability to control my weight, my big mouth, my tendency to "boot up" each morning in selfish-and-self-centered mode, and my seemingly unending addiction to praise and encouragement - none of them have waned all that much. As my old Southern friend Sam used to say, "Ah ain't much, but Ah'm all Ah evah thaink about..."

But despite all my character defects (or, as my friend Michael D. would say, "my charming eccentricities"), and my best efforts not to work the program of recovery over the years, there is one thing that is different: by the grace of a loving God, I have not had a drink or a mind-altering drug in eighteen years, today.

"It is," a friend said, "a long time between drinks, really."

I'd like to think that the worst of the man who walked into the meeting on that night in 1990 died there. My prayer ever since is that any part of that man that walked out of that meeting was worth saving, and remains worth working on. I haven't done anything perfectly, and I haven't done a lot of things right - but as folks in recovery say, "Not taking the first drink is a good start..."

So when a fellow asked me to moderate a meeting tonight down at the Open Door, a transitional-housing project for men getting sober, I knew what the answer had to be. I'd been told time and time again, "If AA asks, and you can possibly do it, the answer is 'Yes'." It didn't matter that the car was in the shop, or how rested or tired I was, or anything else. So I hopped in Chris' truck (yeah, picture me riding to the inner-city in a '96 Ford F-150 pickup), and rode down to Kenilworth and Cherry St.

The topic was perfect - "going to any lengths to stay sober," especially around the holidays. So many of the things those men shared took me right back to that first Christmas season, and how impossible it seemed that I could stay sober for anything like twelve months in a row. For the second time in two days, I walked in with a medium-sewage-brown attitude (thanks to my inability to practice the Serenity Prayer at work) - and walked out thanking God for everything under the sun and moon.

I'm thankful, tonight, for the men who have mentored me along the way - including Bob S. (my first, and current, sponsor), Gene E., Bruce F., Nick T., Barry H., Tom S., and hundreds more who have graced my journey. But I'm even more grateful for the men - young and old - who have had the courage to reach out to me before they took the first drink. Every man who has asked me to sponsor him; every person who had the courage to call me instead of choosing to drink; and every person who has shared their sober life with me - they are each very special gifts from God - gifts of love and grace.

Back when I lived in Kansas, AA anniversaries ("sober birthdays") were a big deal. The Lenexa "Little House" Group had "birthday nights" on the weekends, where people celebrating an anniversary could get up and share their story. Frequently, a group of us would go out for dinner before-hand, or out for pie and coffee afterwards. The celebrant would buy a birthday cake to share, and it was just a big deal. But since I've been in Toledo, I've just never found anything like that. So it doesn't seem like as big a deal - but I know in my heart that it's still a gift of grace.

So in about six hours, I am taking the morning off work. I'll be at the Early Bird meeting at 7:30 AM - partly to get the "Woo-HOOO!" factor, but mostly to testify to folks who need to hear it that this impossible thing called twelve-step sobriety really, really works. Then, hopefully Chris and I will visit the "Homespun Holidays" at the Wildwood Metropark Manor House, and I will take him to lunch and then in to work. He asked me tonight, "Is this something where I should be getting you a card, or taking you out to eat? Because I think this is something worthy of celebrating."

He's right, of course. People like me - people who have lost the power of choice in drink, who have been saved from a living hell by a loving gift of sobriety - get to celebrate every day we wake up sober. But this year - this day - the celebration will be getting to share my life with my partner, my family, and the community of recovery. Oh, yeah - and continuing to give it away, one day at a time.

Soli Deo gloria...

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Seasons of love

I started this on Thanksgiving eve...and it's now Saturday night. So this is going to be one of those work-in-process posts...

First and foremost, happy Thanksgiving to you all. Part of the blessings I give thanks for is getting to share my life and my loves (and occasional snarkiness) with each of you. Your responses and comments continue to bless me, well after my writing has been forgotten.

I was leaving my apartment/office to go to my sister's place, to help make broccoli-cheese casserole, cranberry-nut jello cups, and turtle pumpkin cream pie when I got a call from Chris about the attacks in Mumbai. My employer has hundreds of workers in Mumbai, about a dozen of which are members of my client team. Naturally, I called the office, and no one had heard anything about it, so I asked a co-worker to pass word on to one of our team leads.

Sadly to say, when I got home at 10:30 from Sue & Jeff's, there was no note of condolence or caring sent from any of our leadership. (Nice work, folks. ) While working with our Mumbai team can often be an opportunity for growth, they are part of our group - and that should count for something. So I took the time to send out a note to everyone I knew from Mumbai - wishing them well, letting them know they were being thought of and prayed for, and hoping for their safety.

It's thoughts like this - of caring for those we know - that are closest to me this extended weekend. One of the blessings of the week started off with coffee and a sandwich with a dear friend today. Our lives tend in slightly different directions these days, but whether five miles apart or a thousand, we have managed to remain connected in spirit across more than three decades. That, by itself, is an incredible gift. Another friend frequently comments on these ramblings from his new home in Florida. His marriage has endured for 18 years, and he has definitely seen mountain-tops and valley-floors in those years. That is another friendship that endures across time.

I think of my loving friends from Kansas, from Chicago...from seminary, from church, from work, from the community of recovery. They feel close to me, even though our contact is not nearly as much as it was a year or two ago. Our lives are diverging - and yet so much of me is anchored there.

It was funny that we were listening to a Travel Channel program on barbeque across America as we were cooking Wednesday night, and there on the screen was Arthur Bryant's BBQ in Kansas City (the very best), Gates BBQ (where everyone is greeted with "MAYAHHEPYOO?!?! ("May I help you," for those who are uninitiated) and so many other Kansas City BBQ landmarks. I could just imagine Natalie, Eric & Laura, Ed & Becca, Sandy, Cherri, and so many others gathered for a plate of the best - and it transported me 750 miles in seconds....

(To be fair, though, if I was thinking of Natalie, the image would have been at Rosedale's, down on Southwest Trafficway. A lot easier to get to than Bryant's, and brisket that just can't be beat...)

And I can't think of Kansas City without thinking of my dear friend Norma and Stroud's Restaurant ("we choke our own chickens") and so many other adventures. ( I keep trying to get my friend Ted to get to Stroud's when he goes there periodically...perhaps one of these days he'll make it.) Norma and I started school together at St. Paul School of Theology in KCMO back eleven years ago (can you believe it?...) in September 1997. We have had the blessing of sharing in each others' great joy, and great sorrow, and back to joy. What a long, strange trip it's been, sister...

But this isn't just some gastronomic reverie - my mind simply ties beautiful people in disparate places and great food together in a remembrance that is both tantalizing and holy, at the same time. (As someone once said, "My mind is an interesting place to live, I guess...I don't always agree with it, all the time, but it sure is interesting...")

Chris and I have been reflecting a lot about times and places, lately. It was the end of September last year when I was first introduced to him. It was a year ago the beginning of November when he met my family for the first time...and a year ago next week that his house in Springfield sold, and he made the decision to move up here "to pursue a very special relationship," as he said at the time...

My sister wrote this to Chris in her Thanksgiving note to us:
Well, around a year has come 'n' gone. It's been interesting! We are definitely not afraid of change. I just wanted to tell you that I'm so happy for you n Stevie. He was alone for a long time, and he's got a lot to give and I'm so glad he's got you in his life, and vice versa.

I never thought there would be room in my life for "another man", but there is and I'm glad it's you. Welcome again to "the family".
Now there's something to give thanks about...

In fact, all the people to whom I have introduced Chris have all been genuinely glad to meet him and welcoming - which is both a credit to Chris and a tribute to my friends, to be sure. In this day and age, that is still an incredible gift of grace.

Two years ago, I couldn't have imagined meeting anyone I would consider sharing my life with, ever again. I had quite simply given up hope of that happening. People I know in the recovery community would hear me whine about being a solitaire, and say, "Awww, don't worry about it - celibacy is non-fatal, and it's ultimately treatable." However, I had all but accepted that for me, there would be no treatment. I couldn't see how it could possibly happen.

Today, I simply cannot imagine life without this man in my life.

I know that, in the eyes of the probate court, or the emergency-room nurse, or the judge or the clergyman, we are just two people sharing an address.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

So tonight, as I go back to assembling a too-large Christmas tree in a too-small apartment, I'm giving thanks for many, many things - but most of all, for a life-giving love that I believe could only have come from God.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Done with....graceless politics

(see the original here)

I have been taking a bit of a blogging sabbatical. And, as Pete Seeger once said, "it turned into a Mondical, and a Tuesdical..."

It hasn't been that I haven't had anything to say; quite the contrary. But I have been so overwhelmed with so much raw emotion that I really couldn't put my thoughts into focus until today. Two blog posts have brought the issue into sharp focus.

I know the author of one of the posts. In it, a person who considers themselves a Christian spews every kind of poison and vituperation about the US president-elect, forecasting a fall into socialism and communism, doing the whole Osama/Obama thing, and basically predicting the end of American democracy and capitalism. This person basically echoes the most absolutely divisive, abusive portions of the weeks-before-the-election nonsense - including the nonsense that Barack Obama is a Muslim and is sold out to al-Quaeda.

It's clear that this person is so blinded by party-line hate that they have lost all sense of proportion - and that there is no sense in confusing them with any facts, or indeed any questions about what they believe to be facts (like, what was a Muslim doing as a long-term member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago?).

I won't even link to their post; I don't want to give them any more traffic than they get already. But it brought into sharp relief the divisiveness and hatefulness that has stampeded into the American psyche in the last ten years - a hatefulness that seemed to swell and crescendo in the last three months.

And, God help me, I started to buy into it. Those hateful bastards!, I found myself shouting at the radio in the car. How could morons like that be that way?!? I found myself listening to news programs and getting furious - absolutely furious - about the misinformation and the sheer evil that was being spewed in the name of "righteousness" and "defending America."

That's when I realized it: I was getting hateful - about hatefulness. How sick is that?

That's when a voice of pure grace came through - courtesy of this post from the I Am Done with... blog. It put into clear focus just what I've been "done with."

Graceless politics.

Look at these faces:

These are not the faces of two enemies, no matter how much some people would like to paint them as such.

These are not the Godless Muslim Socialist and the Right-Wing Whack Job.

These are not the Right One and the Wrong One, or vice-versa.

They are two men who are, I hope, dedicated to their country and to their ideals. They both profess to believe in God.

And - despite language about "landslides" and "mandates" - both of them would have been leading a nation that is neither red nor blue, but decidedly purple.

So what I am "done with" is this idea of " Us" and "Them." I am done with the idea that people who disagree with me - regardless of the topic - are The Enemy. I am done with the idea that the world is going to end because of the results of the election. And I am really, really, really done with the idea that we could be any worse off in 4 years because of the election than we are now (James Dobson and Focus on The Family notwithstanding).

The fact is, regardless of who won the election, we are very likely to be a lot worse off in 4 years than we are now. I don't believe that any one president could possibly undo the evil that we have done to ourselves in the name of greed and selfishness in the last decade.

And I believe that the so-called Christian church, in their rush to focus on their own very specific agenda of the last dozen years, has absolutely failed to address the fundamental sins of selfishness, self-centeredness, and conspicuous consumption that have led us to this point. Yes, we may be safe from same-sex marriage in the near term - but I hate to tell you: that's not what got us to the edge of economic and social disaster, folks.

I found this passage from the "I am done with..." post particularly appropriate:
What I am saying is we don't have to vote for someone we disagree with, we don't have to support them but we do have to love and extend Grace to them if we are going to call ourselves followers of Christ. The Religious Right is known as a legalistic, moralistic, loveless, extreme of the Republican Party because there is no Grace shown to anyone that opposes them. That is not Jesus.
(emphasis added)
Are you hearing this? You and I are not simply proponents or opponents on this topic, or that one. We are individuals. Human beings. Members of families. We are your brothers, sisters, parents, neighbors, and co-workers. We are all "children of the Heavenly Father," as the old hymn says (even the group of us who don't believe in that same Heavenly Father and won't sing that hymn). And those of us who profess to follow Christ need to remember that Jesus came with a new set of instructions:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 35 By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35, NIV)
Note that it doesn't say "that you love the folks who look like you" or "love the folks who vote like you, or go to your church." But it does say that everyone else will know that we are Jesus' disciples - if we have love for one another. Not if we vote the right ticket; not if we go to the right place to worship or listen to the right preacher or exclude the right undesirable folks.

I'd issue a challenge to every person who is both a believer in Christ and a politically-active person: that we read those two verses - twice, slowly - before we write or speak anything (anything) - about those who might disagree with you.

It will be interesting to see how the political landscape would change if we all would practice that tiny little portion of what we preach.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A note of sanity...

I've been amazed at the anger I built up before the election.

I've been afraid of it, actually. I found myself shouting at the walls when Chris wasn't around; shouting at the insanity on some of the radio stations; talking back to some of the moronicity I heard, even on respected stations like the BBC. And, being the conflict-averse person I am, I just shrank back from it all. I didn't want to get into the shouting-matches. Yes, I am a coward.

And then, catching up on blogging after a week away, I found this. I won't say anything more - because to do that would reduce the impact of what's being said here. If you know someone who is vocal on this topic, ask them to respond - preferably in writing - to the questions posed here. Thank you, Keith Olbermann, for your brave words of compassion and your plea for honesty on this topic. And thanks to Eugene at Paradoxy for the hat-tip:

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Belated All-Saints Day reflections

I wrote this on Sunday - before the work week got crazy; before I found out about "the letter from 2012"; before the election insanity peaked; before the world changed. So forgive me if it's a bit behind the times. We'll catch up with all that pesky "reality" in a little bit. But for now....


As I write this, I am sitting at the trailhead at Island Lake State Park, outside of Brighton, Michigan. It's really too cool to sit out at the picnic table - I really shouldn't have trusted the weatherman, and should have brought the coat along anyway - so I'm sitting in the cab of Chris's truck, laptop on my lap, looking off at the falling leaves and gently rustling pine branches.

Chris is off on what will likely be his last Michigan bike ride of the year. We woke up early, thanks to the death of Daylight Savings Time, and I just spontaneously said, "If it's halfway decent out, let's get you up to Brighton for one last ride." So we piled his bike and my laptop bag into the truck, and off we went.

On the way, I made him pick up breakfast at Tim Horton's (the breakfast sandwiches are proof yet again that "five million Canadians can't be wrong"), and led him on a ten-mile detour out to Secor Metropark. The trees form an arching tunnel overhead as we rode from Bancroft Street to Central Avenue, showcasing the last of the fall colors in a brilliant show of yellows, golds and oranges, with the occasional flaming-red sumac thrown in as a kind of Divine exclamation-mark.

It's All Saints' Day, and for the first time in a long time, I missed being in a worship service today. In the recovery community, November is traditionally "Gratitude Month," so the combination of the day and the month has me thinking about the people who have died or who are out-of-sight for whom I'm grateful.

I'm grateful for the men who taught me to be a man, once I finally decided that getting sober and growing-up might be a good thing. I'm thankful for my sponsors - Bob S., here in Toledo; Bruce F., Nick T., and Barry S, in Kansas; and Tom S. in Chicago. I'm especially grateful for Bruce, who first told me that my sexuality was something I was going to have to deal with at some point (more than a dozen years before I was ready to hear it) - and for Tom S. and his partner, Michael D., who were ready to lead me out of the closet and into the light when I finally ran out of denial. Though all but Bob S. are hundreds of miles away, their voices live on in me, and it always brings a warm feeling and a smile when I hear myself speaking their words in meetings.

I'm forever grateful to Jeff Wise, a high-school and DeMolay friend who, when I was finally ready to hear words of grace, directed me to the pastors at Epiphany Lutheran Church. I'm grateful to Emile Boselli, a DeMolay brother and Church of Christ pastor-in-training, who first introduced me to Max Lucado and the incredible images of grace in the book Six Hours One Friday. But the man I'm most thinking of this weekend is my pastor, mentor and friend, Tom Housholder. His life, his servant faith, and his willingness to share his struggles gave me an image of Christ and Christianity that will endure for my lifetime. When I was introduced to Henri Nouwen's image of "the wounded healer," I recognized it instantly - because I'd seen it for years in Tom Housholder's life and ministry.

Another man I miss greatly is Jerry Amundson, another surrogate-father who I met through his son, Eric. Jerry was a big bear of a man whose only real surrender in life was at the very end, to death itself. He was a soldier, a talented artist and businessman, a loving father, and a man who displayed passion in every area of his life - whether it was love for his wife and kids, hunting and the outdoors, or for his favorite Kansas City barbeque. I pray that someday people will see in me the kind of passion he displayed for those he loved, his life and his God.

And today, more than most days, I'm missing my mother. Mom was one of those persons who knew the motto of the Dead Poet's Society long before the movie came out - "to suck the marrow out of life," to enjoy each and every moment that one possibly could. Looking back, she also understood that classic line from Auntie Mame - "Life is a banquet, and most poor bastards are starving to death." Her gifts of humor, spontaneity, and physical displays of affection (she was a hugger way before it was cool) continue to give to this very day. Her "what the hell, let's just go somewhere" attitude is at least partly why we are in Michigan today - because she passed on to me a drive to never miss a chance for joy if it was at all possible.

There was a moment, last Monday, when I really wished Mom had been around to share a moment with Chris and I. We had wanted to have a kind of anniversary dinner for a couple weeks, but this and that and the other thing just kept us from doing it. But finally, we had a night when nothing else was in the way - and I took Chris up to Eddie Lee's (up on the north side of Toledo, near Sylvania) for some classic prime rib.

Neither Mom, Chris or I had ever been there, but when we walked in I knew - this was Mom's kind of place. Not fancy-schmantzy (though she also got a kick out of that), but a nice joint. She would have loved the French onion soup - the baked kind, with the cheese baked onto the side of the bowl - and there was the bread-basket with warm rolls and the little bread-stick crackers that she loved to munch on before a meal.

We didn't want to spend a bunch of money, so we split a prime-rib dinner. (Yeah, Mom would have said "Just go ahead and have a dinner, for cryin' out loud- live a little!") But I think she would have been smiling as we reveled in the perfectly-cooked meat, quickly dipped in au-jus seasoned with just a bit of strong fresh horseradish. (Eddie Lee's is definitely an under-sung treasure in Toledo dining.) And she definitely would have approved of how much joy it was to just be, without any deadlines or gotta-do lists, to just sit back and celebrate the end of a good three days together.

My faith in an afterlife is what encourages me, this day - knowing that Tom, and Jerry, and Mom, and Chris's grandmother and uncle, and so many other people who have encouraged us both along the way are with us today. I trust that they can see what has come up, and gone down, in our lives - that they celebrate the victories and the joys, and mourn the losses and sorrows with us. I really wish that they were here to share this time with us. But I know in my heart that they are here, and smiling, nonetheless.

It is a day of faith, of hope, and definitely of loving remembrance. Top that with great food and great love, and you really couldn't ask for anything more....

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

A prayer for healing and acceptance

Dear God, be with America as it votes for leadership today.

Help each of us remember that the person next to us in line is our brother or our sister - regardless how they feel, regardless how they act, or what they are chanting or singing, or for whom they vote. They are not the enemy; they are not "them" or "us." They are "We, the People...." and they are children created in the sight of God.

Be with those who man the polling stations. Theirs is a thankless and unenviable position, and their day will be long and horrifically busy. But they are the ones who help make democracy work, Lord, and we give thanks for them. Encourage them to carry on, honestly and thoroughly, so that no shadow may fall on this day in the life of American democracy. Let us not become what we have so long despised in other countries, Lord.

Let every person who faces a daunting line be emboldened to stay, and to vote. Let every person who is voting for the first time make the commitment to stay, and to cast their vote, regardless of the obstacles, Lord.

And then let there be healing, Lord. Let the lines which divide us, built by the media and by hatemongering on both sides, dissolve. Your people have often prayed, "Let the walls come down," and there is no day which this needs to happen more than today, Lord. Our problems are bigger than "them" or "us" or "those people" - our unity must be bigger, as well, Lord.

Guide and shape this day, Lord God. Regardless what the fearmongers say, regardless what the pundits and the polls say, you are still in control. You know that; remind us, please, of that eternal truth. Amen.

Monday, October 27, 2008

"Oh, you're one of those..."

I have been avoiding politics like the plague lately. And, if you have a pulse at all, you know how tough that is.

I don't avoid it because I don't care - anything but, in fact. But as you might notice, it's awful hard to have a civil conversation with people about much of any topic these days. And there's one phrase that seems to be at the heart of it.

"Oh, you're one of those...."

It's a way of dismissing an entire person by recognizing their view on one particular hot-button topic. It's a way of saying, "Now that I know that you're 'one of those...', I don't have to listen to you any more, because I know how you are. You're just one of them. "

I've been hearing it for a while, but the place I really felt it like a slap was when I came out to some people that I knew from seminary. One fellow (who will remain nameless), who is now an ordained Lutheran pastor, had been my classmate in multiple classes; had given and received communion from me; had attended chapel with me. He had heard how much I wanted to serve God, and how hurt I was when the whole house of cards imploded on me.

But when he found out I was gay, his words were, "Oh, so now you're one of those Godless queers, eh?..."

Needless to say, that was the end of our conversations, on any topic. Without asking, without even thinking, I became one of them, one of those Queers With A Homosexual Agenda, and that was that. Never mind about how I really felt, what I had experienced (in and out of the church), or what it had taken to get there. I was one of them, and that was that.

Several weeks ago, I was with a couple friends - people I had known for years. One is a local politician, one is a former Marine, and one a philosopher and metaphysician of many trades - although describing them just that way is vastly oversimplifying any of them. They all tend to be somewhat conservative in nature, and I care deeply about them. We have traveled similar roads in a fellowship for several decades.

It was shortly after Sarah Palin had been nominated as the Republican VP candidate, and one of my friends was crowing about what an impact the nomination had made. We were talking - and, as these things often do, it heated up quite quickly. I don't remember what I said, exactly, but one of them turned to me, and said, "Oh, yeah, but you're just one of those tax-and-spend Democrats..."

And I honestly don't remember what he said after that. I remember just shutting down - like someone had kicked the plug out of the wall. I don't know that my younger friend meant to be quite so dismissive - but I instantly had this overwhelming sense that whatever else I said wasn't going to mean anything. And just that quick, I was "done." The conversation was over.

I left them to celebrate their political moment-in-the-sun, and walked off somewhere else. I'm sure they didn't even notice it - the conversation kept on despite my withdrawal. But the question in my mind lingered..."Gee, wonder what he'd think if he knew I was one of those 'Godless queers,' too?..."

(Actually, I'm pretty sure I don't really want to know. I'd rather not ask. Sometimes silence is golden.)

In Toledo, we're close enough to get Michigan NPR stations, which carry the BBC News overnight, and I often listen to them coming home from meetings. (Yes, I'm one of them, too - One Of Those People Who Listen to NPR and the BBC...) . The BBC has been sponsoring the BBC Talking America '08 Bus, traveling across the US talking to people about the nation and about the election. A recurring theme in the reports I've heard from "the Bus" has been how the US has become absolutely polarized over politics - to the point of people seemingly despising other people simply because of who they would vote for. Families divided, not speaking...in some ways similar to the way the US was over slavery in the 1860's, only with fewer guns (at least, for now). The death of civility, at least on this topic...

Listen for it. Listen for how many times you or others are declared to be one of them. Listen for when you do it, too. I know I'm not innocent, in this area, either.

These are people. Your people. My people. People whom we've known....in many cases, for years.

They are no more one-dimensional or one-issue than you or I are. Like them, I am not defined simply by where I live or who I support politically or whom I live with or whom I worship. I am not just a set of stereotypes. I am not just one of them...

And neither are you.

I pray that we can get back to seeing each other as human beings, and not as simply supporters of issues or purveyors of stereotypes.

We're all so very much more than that.

Monday, October 13, 2008

A time apart, to rest and reflect

As I write this, it's Sunday mid-afternoon. After a particularly hideous night dealing with local trash at the waterpark/hotel where Christopher works, and a week of dealing with the wreckage of the past at the condo on my part, we decided a rather-spontaneous "vacation day" was in order.

So we slept in, drowsing and listening to the excellent "Sunday Jazz Brunch" (8-12 noon Sundays on the local 101.5 - The River), then loaded up his mountain-bike and my PC and got in his truck to ride north.

We journeyed along the wooded areas around Toledo to see the beginnings of fall colors - to revel in God's magnificent skill with a color-palette. From there, we drove to near Brighton, MI to Island Lake State Park. There are a pair of particularly wonderful mountain-biking trails there, and a chance for me to sit down and just mentally detox. While Chris is off riding, I am here at the trailhead, writing, reading, and enjoying a beautiful day of "Indian-summer."

It's been a draining week.

Chris made his decision, last week, that he was just pushing too hard to try to get to his dream jobs - which are out there, sometime in the future, but not on the immediate horizon (pardon the pun). As I posted earlier, the dream is not dead - but the economy seems to have ensured that it is deferred, at least for now. So that was one emotionally-charged decision made last week.

In the midst of that decision, it became clear that we needed to make a decision about what we as a couple were going to do above our living arrangement. While Chris' one-bedroom apartment is comfortable for one, it's pretty close-quarters for two on an ongoing basis. But the lease runs through December, and the one lone nibble we had on subletting it crumbled about the same time we decided not to go to Champaign. But shuttling back and forth between the condo (where my internet connection was, thus where I had to work) and the apartment (which has become "the rest of my life") was getting increasingly obnoxious, now that Sue and Jeff are mostly out of the place.

So this week, it was my turn to start moving out. We got a larger storage unit - to store what I would keep once we had a 2 bedroom apartment, and moved from our former unit to the new one. I'm glad to see that the winnowing-down process we've been doing is finally showing progress - it only took us about 2 hours to move stuff out of the old holding-cell into the new.

I finally got new cable/internet/phone at the apartment on Friday. Once I knew the online connection was working, I started the process of changing his address to "our" address. We will stay in this place until springtime, and then start the process of looking for something more permanent - work and residence-wise.

(It's been pretty clear that the relationship had reached "permanent" status a while ago.)

A recurring theme over the last weeks has been to pick out the few books that I would want to keep with me during the five-to-six month stay in the storage-deprived apartment. Here's a few from my list:
  • Wounded Prophet by Michael Ford - a excellent biography of one of my spiritual mentors, Henri Nouwen
  • The Wounded Healer and Return of the Prodigal Son, the classic texts by Nouwen
  • Ragamuffin Gospel and Abba's Child by Brennan Manning - number two in my "spiritual mentors" trinity
  • Messy Spirituality and Dangerous Wonder, by Mike Yaconelli - with great thanks to Renee' Altson - completing my "earthly trinity"
  • Gentle Closings: How To Say Goodbye to Someone You Love, The Gentle Closings Companion, and Where Is Heaven? Children's Thoughts on Death and Dying all by Ted Menten - better than most of the pastoral-care books I've read, so far
  • In Ordinary Time by Roberta Bondi - a great one when it seems like God's voice has gone silent, and
  • stumbling toward faith, a classic of faith despite every reason not to have it, by Renee Altson
There's more in the box, but they aren't leaping to mind.

I had to give up on the music-digitizing process, for now. At some point, I will have to replace the CD/DVD drive in the desktop - it's clearly starting to fail, because the error-correction routines are slowing the process way, way down. But there's four boxes of books to go, and a box and a half of CDs - 2 boxes of books and about 3/4 box of CDs each to the church and the local public library.

Interestingly enough, there is a large ELCA congregation in Maumee, to whom I originally offered my resources - but their education/library director never bothered to return my repeated calls. Epiphany Lutheran in Toledo is smaller, but hosts a half-dozen AA groups a week, and was the start of my journey back to faith - and their Christian education director was ecstatic when she got the last delivery. So, it's sad, but it's a case of "who loves ya, baby?"

The Toledo-Lucas County Public Library is one of the gems of living in Toledo. While I can't speak to their staffing situations (their management caused my former wife and a lot of library professionals unspeakable agony back in the late 80's), they seem to have come light-years in the collection and technology departments. The ability to browse their collection online, including ALL of their music and video offerings, and to request items to a local branch in a day or two, brings them right up there with library systems four and five times their size. (When we were looking at moving to Champaign, one of the big down-sides to the move would have been the differences in the public libraries). So I am very glad to be able to send some of my books home to them - either to their collection or their book-sale, I don't know (and don't care) which.

The thing that pains me is some of the big stuff, which is really worthwhile, which we can't sell because of the no-garage-sales clause in the condo association, and I really hate to just give away because they're too good NOT to get some value from them. And I can't bring myself to just give them away - although that may very well be what happens in the end, because I'm not moving this crap again.

I like the idea of FreeCycle, but getting a thousand emails a day (only a mild exaggeration) is a frustration. So we will start with CraigsList, and move to FreeCycle after that. We have two or three weeks to get it out - two would be preferable. It would be very nice to be done by Reformation Day, October 31st....

There are a hundred other topics I need (and want) to write about -
  • the housing crisis (which has not stopped being a crisis, even though the stock market and credit crunch has vastly overshadowed it)
  • the credit crunch - and how it may finally bring about the death of conspicuous consumption (albeit too late to really help anyone)
  • how we are going to teach an entire generation (or two) the difference between "needs" and wants - and if it will take an honest-to-God Great Depression to make it stick
  • why an awful lot of people of deep-and-abiding faith continue to ditch The Institutional Church; and
  • living between Death and Resurrection - and why most churches don't recognize Easter Saturday when it happens in October.
On the first two topics, there are still an awful lot of people who are asking, "How the hell did we get here?" I'd like to recommend three very powerful, very informative stories - each will take about an hour of your time, and each one is absolutely worth it:
  • Chicago Public Radio's This American Life has done two very insightful, powerful programs on the economy - "The Giant Pool of Money (talking about the fundamentals of the housing crisis) and "Another Really Scary Program About The Economy. Both should be required listening - especially if you think you know what caused the whole sub-prime crisis.

  • Dick Gordon's The Story on NPR had a particularly powerful program called "Blowing The Whistle" (click on the link to go to the archive to listen). The second half of the program is an interview with Bill Thornton, a real-estate appraiser who had to get out of the business because his practice of giving reasonable appraisals didn't support the housing-market insanity. For 20 years, he was a home appraiser. But as prices climbed during the housing boom, lenders stopped calling him. Yet when he recently heard how Wall Street helped create the housing and financial meltdown, he realized that losing his business wasn't exactly his fault.
Powerful, painful, and yet so informative. I'd really, really recommend you set aside an hour to listen to the first two, and a half hour to listen to "The Story."

It might just open your mind to some new ideas about what's been happening...

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Life is like a balloon race....


...because everything's up in the air.

So, company #2 is in the "we've passed things on to the hiring manager, they will call you" stage of the game. Chris has been dealing with company #2 for years in the retail hobby business, and has never been overly impressed with their customer service. It seems their general & administrative service ain't all that much better.

In the meantime, the HR contact at Company #1 (his first choice) called back on Monday, with a "no news - it's just too bad you couldn't be here in Champaign for our Job Fair this Thursday night..." message. And of course, ol' "WTF Steve" said to Chris, "Well, why the hell not?..." (Guess that would be "WTH not?"...)

So the itinerary is...
  • Leave Wednesday night, about 7 PM, get to Champaign about 1 AM
  • Crash until 8; Steve gets up and signs in to work from the hotel
  • Do the late checkout thing; Chris gets his stuff ready to go
  • Steve signs in from Panera Bread (talk about the joys of telecommuting); Chris goes looking at potential housing
  • Chris goes to the Job Fair from 5 - 7
  • Once he gets done with he needs to do, Chris picks Steve up, and we roll on "eastbound and down," as Smokey and the Bandit would say
  • Back in Toledo about 2 AM Friday
Total cost - about $200. Insanity factor, medium-high. But it's worth 30 hours of insanity to get an idea whether to go now, or wait out the winter and go next spring. I figure that all told, the move would be about $1,500 - truck, gas, deposit on a new place and utilities, etc. And at least meeting people face-to-face can't hurt in the recruiting process...

So I'm loading up the iPod with dance and "rollin' down the highway" music, and gathering my mobile computing needs, and printing off maps. Nothing like spontaneity, eh?

Prayers, as always, are appreciated.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Not sure what to pray for...

What a difference 72 hours can make.

On Monday night, after almost two months of questioning, it seemed that the opportunity to move to Champaign, IL to pursue Chris' dream job was going to have to be deferred. Both potential employers seemed to be pulling back, not ready to hire him for either sales or product support positions. Chris also had a disappointing weekend as he'd been working hard on the replacement of steering bearings on his motorcycle, and the process had been (to be kind) fraught with adventures.

So by Monday night, we both concluded that the thing to do would be to put everything on hold, settle in for the winter, and see what comes next spring. We'd finish closing up the condo, and we'd eke through the winter in his one-bedroom apartment (the lease runs out in December, but we really didn't want another winter-time move).

And Chris seemed at peace with that - even ready to change shifts (or jobs) to get to enjoy life more over the winter seasons. As the sun came up on Tuesday, and the pain in his back from all the efforts over the weekend eased, it seemed the right thing to do.

Then the phone call came at 4:50 this afternoon. Company #2 was calling; how soon might he be in Champaign? Sales openings were available now...

And once again everything is in the air.

Are we crazy - to be relocating in the midst of the worst economy and financial market in 20 years? Moving away before Thanksgiving, before Christmas? It doesn't matter much to me - and almost any job market would be better than Toledo, I guess (being tied heavily to the housing and auto markets, so being double sucker-punched by the credit crunch). But there is this voice in the back of my head that says
  • You were wrong about seminary. Your worst fears came to pass.
  • You were wrong about working at the Conservatory.
  • You were wrong about your current employer.
  • Moving to Toledo hasn't done much of anyone any good.
So now I'm second-guessing my second-guesses about almost everything I have to make a decision about - everything but my commitment and love for this guy. (There's no second-guessing there.)

Does being spooked about this move make it a good thing? Has God brought me to this scary place just to get me to trust Him again to jump off? Or am I so broken that I'm not even ready to hear guidance? What is faith, and what's just foolhardiness? I'm not sure that I can discern that, any more...

And I'm one to resist change - I always have been. Going out on a limb is not my favorite place.

In 20 minutes, I'll find out more from Chris. But for right now, it's a "where the hell is God's will in all this insanity?" I just don't know...

So prayers would be welcome.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Alive and well...

Storytelling is alive and well!
Gather 'round people, and listen for a spell,
I've got stories and fables and tales to tell!

Listen to each story with imagination -
The stories you hear will be your own creation!
Storytelling is alive and well!


(as heard from Heather Forest, a long time ago)

Starting tonight, I imagine the traffic this weekend will be considerably heavier along Interstates 81 and 26, headed toward Jonesborough, Tennessee. Friday marks the kickoff of the 38th annual National Storytelling Festival in and around historic Jonesborough.

A dozen huge tents will be erected across town - with names like "Tent on the Hill" and "The Railroad Tent" - that will hold anywhere from 250 to 1,000 people. Every shop and vendor in Jonesborough will have warm cider, fresh donuts, homemade candy, and every kind of comfort food available all along the "downtown" area. for the throngs of people (usually upwards of 10,000) who flock from around the country to the Festival.

Friday night will kick off with an "olio," a kind of storyteller's sampler to give everyone a taste of what's ahead. Then on Saturday the storyteller's lineup will rotate between tents all over town, giving people a smorgasbord of amazing imagery, music, even dance. Saturday night will have the traditional Ghost Story Concert and the more recent Midnight Cabaret (for more "adult" themes). Sunday will be Sacred Storytelling - with open "swappin' grounds," storytelling areas for anyone who wants to sign up. There will be pure performance pieces, participation stories, and every kind of storytelling experience one can imagine.

Several of my all-time favorite storytellers - including preacher/storyteller Donald Davis, singer-storyteller John McCutcheon, Kathryn Tucker Windham and cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell - will be in the line-up. And the weather promises to be perfect festival weather - highs in the upper 60's to low 70's, overnight lows in the 40's, and blessedly clear skies. It should be a beautiful weekend for it.

Do I regret not being there? A little - Chris and I talked about going some year in the future, when things aren't quite so up in the air (although I think that $2.50 gas prices to make it economical have gone the way of once upon a time...). The problem is that the tickets have gotten up to $135 a person for the weekend - much cheaper than a big-name concert (especially on a per-hour basis) but a good-sized investment. That, plus hotel and food, plus gas for the 11-hour-each-way trip just wasn't going to make it in the budget this year.

Still, the idea of the drive through the changing colors, the drive in from hotels in Johnson City, and the smell of Krispy Kremes (the official corporate sponsor of the festival) wafting over the main streets of Jonesborough bring back the kinds of memories that just don't fade. So sometime this weekend, Chris and I will listen to The Storytellers version of "No News (or, What Killed The Dawg)," Gamble Rogers' infamous story "War Bunny" and Ed Stivender's classic retelling of Adam and Eve's story, and maybe even have a mug of warm spiced cider and donuts - and dream of October weekends stuffed, pressed-down and overflowing with stories.

To all the folks at the National Storytelling Network (formerly the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling, or NAPPS), to all the tellers, and to children of every age who come to Jonesborough with wide eyes and open hearts: all my best to you.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Working at "not regretting the past..."

If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.

August 17, 2003. Atonement Lutheran Church, Overland Park, KS. My final Sunday at my home church - my sponsoring church - before I left for seminary at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC). Dozens (if not scores) of people coming up to me, congratulating me and wishing me well. And pushing cards into my hands...

Prayers for guidance. Prayers for success. Prayers that the sender would live long enough to see my ordination. "What a wonderful preacher you are." (Lord, God, who were they listening to? I've had 0ccasion to HEAR some of those sermons since then...yeesh.) Oh, and my favorite: We so appreciate your openness, honesty and candor about your past life, and how God has worked in you. This, to a man who lived a lie as a deeply closeted gay Christian so he could go off and serve God in a dog-collar....

There was a moment today, re-reading all those cards, that I really just wanted to run off screaming into the corn and disappear. I haven't been involved in a church for a year, and haven't been in any kind of church-based ministry for more than 3 years. The people who I thought were the most unlikely to be ordained - the self-righteous, the control-freaks, the people who are only telling the truth when they are asleep - those are the people who The Church in Her wisdom ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. And here I am...

I almost wrote, "and here I am....vegetating, rotting away," but that would be a lie. I've worked hard at my work - a large part of which has been unofficial Morale Officer and Cheerful Charlie (along with Universal Fix-It Guy). I've continued to stay sober; I go to meetings, and I share my experience, strength and hope to anyone who will listen. I help out on Gay Christian Network, financially and online (when I can). And I've taken the time to get myself involved in a very vital and beautiful relationship, for which I have absolutely no regrets at all. I think I have been a good friend to some of my fellow advisors in DeMolay. So it has not all been a loss.

But the voices in the back of my head keep talking, anyway. After all, I came here to help, two years ago - and there are days when it surely looks like nothing I have done has borne any fruit whatsoever. My sister and brother-in-law still lost their house; my sister has never gotten any substantive kind of rehabilitation or therapy for her injury; my brother-in-law is still trapped in a dead-end job. I'm as broke as I ever was, and all of the money I've invested in any of these situations (as my British brothers would say) hasn't done a dickey-bird.

In the two years I've been active in the AA community here, I've only half-assed-sponsored two guys, neither of which really gave a rat's ass about staying sober. And I tried to help out my friends in DeMolay; the chapter has apparently ended up in worse shape than when I started supposedly helping them out, sixteen months ago. A month over five years ago, when I left town, there was a farewell party at work, a farewell party at the AA hall, and a farewell party at church. When I leave for Illinois at the end of October, I'm not sure that anyone outside of my family and those few very close friends will even notice....

Part of me knows that this is nothing more than seeking significance in the eyes of others, which is always doomed. But part of me is self-centered and human enough to want all this to have mattered for something. I don't think that's such a sin, but on days like today, I really wonder. About all of it.

So I go back into left-foot, right-food mode, and just keep on truckin'. Which is what I'm gonna do tonight.

So finding these greeting cards - and all the hope and promise and "God's got your back!" that went into them - has really put me into a phase of "what's it all about, Alfie?" How could I have been such an inspiration to so many people, and have my life seemingly have gone so far wrong?

...Update...the morning after....

Back story: so, about a month ago, I had gotten into the car a little too fast. My considerable bulk hit the back of the reclining bucket seat a little too hard, and something went crack. The seat seemed considerably wobbly in the back, and I resolved to get it fixed...

Then, getting carefully into the car on Friday, I leaned this way when I should have leaned that way, and whatever was cracked broke clean through - and the reclining portion of the seat flopped back like a visual-gag in a teen-aged make-out movie. I discerned (you learn things like discernment in seminary...) that this was a clear sign from God that the seat finally needed to be fixed.

So Chris lovingly got up early today (working nights, he almost NEVER sees two nine o'clocks in the same day) and drove me to the condo to work, and took the offending seat wreckage over to a welding shop in nearby Neapolis. On the way. we stopped at our favorite Blue Creek Coffee Shop for a Mud Turtle (chocolate, caramel and peanut butter in a blended iced coffee base - should be on an Index somewhere as way too sinful).

And somehow, life just looks better today.

Yeah, it could be the sugar-rush from the Turtle. It could be the caffeine kicking in. It could be hearing "Walking On Sunshine" on the radio. It could all be artificial, like the stock-market roaring back on the faintest hope of something bailing them all out. But I don't think so. I think life just looks better today.

I don't doubt that the doubts will be back; I tend to be a Pushme-Pullyou, looking backwards and forwards at the same time. Maybe this is the faint echos of whatever call I heard five years ago, telling me that whatever I heard is still not fulfilled. I know at least part of it is the recurring feeling of having failed the people who supported me from Atonement - and not being in a position to repay them yet. And maybe it's part of "letting go of the past, and not wishing to shut the door on it." Or at least getting there...

I would not have written the script this way - but I know that I am here for a reason. (I almost wrote "I have been put here for a reason," but that would be a lie. God did not teleport me here - I am here because of my choices, and my responses to the choices of others. For however it worked out, I am responsible for being here.) I am going through this sorting-out / downsizing / shedding of unnecessary stuff for a reason. The loss of this beautiful place is happening for a reason. I may not know it until well after the final trumpet sounds. But the direction of the movement has to be forward, that much I know is true.

At the top of this page, in the blog masthead that my friend Penni made for me, there is an image of a winding path - a picture I took at nearby Wildwood Metropark. It's there to remind me that I don't get to see around the corner very far to what's ahead - but that I have to keep moving forward. Someone Else is in charge of what's around the bend. I hear the truth of that quite frequently in meetings...
We realize we know only a little. God will constantly disclose more to you and to us... See to it that your relationship with Him is right, and great events will come to pass for you and countless others. This is the Great Fact for us.
(the closing to the text Alcoholics Anonymous, page 164)


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Facebook-ing and tossing trash

I finally surrendered to Facebook yesterday.

I got an email from a fellow former LSTC student. As Eliza was filling me in on her life (which has been as crowded as mine over the last four years, in different ways), she said, "You know, a lot of people from our class are listed on Facebook," with at least the hint that I could be too.

So I went and I registered. Put up a reasonably recent picture, along with a "work in progress" disclaimer. While I can do all right in the mainframe techno area, I really haven't been drawn in as much to the "online communities" as many of my friends (especially the younger ones).

Part of that is simply that I spend all day in front of a PC - while I am fascinated with where and how people from my past lives are, I simply don't have the energy to deal with life in the real world and spend all day and all night connecting with folks in the virtual world. It's part of the reason I haven't been blogging much - life in the real world has been, well, busy. (To put it mildly.)

I had a flashback from high school - I can't imagine that my senior-year English teacher, Mrs. Bonash, could have ever imagined that the word "friend" would ever be a verb (I forget the term for when a noun is, for lack of a better word, "verbed"...sorry, Mrs. B., it's not comin' back to me...) But it's been fun to see the people who have "friended" me, and where/how they have ended up. It's been interesting too, looking at lists of the "friends" of friends, and seeing the whole six-degrees-of-separation thing playing out.

In a similar way, it's been strange seeing the ones who haven't responded. For some odd reason, my seminary roommate has not responded to emails or my FB inquiry. It makes me wonder what I did to deserve that... but I can't dwell on that kind of insanity. To paraphrase Richard Nelson Bolles, the world divides into two groups of people - the ones who want to be around you, and the ones that don't. To the second group, I have to say, "Thanks anyway," and then leave those to go find the first group...who, I'm sure, will be a lot more fun to stay in touch with.

It's kind of interesting, though - I've kept my blogs pretty anonymous, largely because of the connection with the community of recovery. AA's Eleventh Tradition states: Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films, which is usually expanded to include "all broadcast media," including the Internet. So I've decided to keep my blogging links off my Facebook entry, for that reason and others.

In other news, the process of boxing up and tossing out has picked up a bit. Now that Sue and Jeff are out of the condo, there is more room to be stacking stuff, so it's a little easier to move around my room . (A little, I said...not a lot, just yet).

There are things I've kept for sentimental reasons that, looking back, I should have tossed. I made the mistake of listening to a series of sermons that I did while I was a volunteer lay preacher for a church in Kansas. Gadzooks, were they awful - I wonder how in the world anyone hearing those ever thought I was ministry material? So when I found my first-ever sermon tonight - proudly videotaped by a church member - I was torn between watch it in the secrecy of the condo and just throw the damn thing OUT!

I'm leaning toward the second option. Some boxes, like Pandora's, just shouldn't be re-opened, I think. The target is to have a garage-sale next weekend - which is going to require some significant work this weekend to get ready for it. And I've pretty much decided that the work of digitizing my CD collection isn't going to get done in time to move - and will probably require some additional disk storage (for the music AND the backups). So, that project is going by the wayside for the time being. I made a valiant effort, and the Toledo Public Library and Epiphany Lutheran Church will be the richer for it.

And, in the end, I will probably move some things that I will wish I hadn't - especially when I've had to carry them out of the condo, onto and off the truck, and into the New World Home. But I'm making headway - and I'm already sure that the move out of Ohio will be considerably lighter than the move in was.

Tomorrow, The Great Load-Out will be 34 days away. It will go by quickly...

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Letting go of the past, one box at a time

What a challenge this is for me, winnowing down the stuff of past lives.

Doing this takes a certain willingness for self-revelation and self-acceptance that I've not found lately, but events are forcing me into action. Chris and I have resolved that we will not move in the winter-time (moving him here from Missouri at year-end in the snow was NOT a lot of fun...), so we have set ourselves a deadline of October 31 to be headed to Champaign. And Sue and Jeff are set to abandon the condo/boat-anchor by the end of this month, or the first week of October. (I'll keep my "office" here until the end of October, and hold whatever garage-sale we choose to have.) But the clock is running...

And so the questions that happen in any consolidation of households begins. Everything from furniture to table-settings to glasses and pots-n-pans: Yours, mine, or both? And what do we do with the leftover? Keep it? Sell it? Give it away?

Tonight, I went out to the storage unit, and started sorting through books - the theological library that would have gone with me into ministry. Books that I had duplicates of (one to keep and one to loan-out, like Tom Bandy's Coaching Change and Adam Hamilton's Confronting the Controversies). The songbooks that had one or two songs that I once had fantasies of singing at church, someday - even though my singing voice is not anywhere close to "solo" quality. There were half a dozen Maranatha/PK song books, the music to Keith Green's Ministry Years (companion to the two-CD silver set), and four different Steven Curtis Chapman song-books (each with one or two meaningful songs in them). I've got a box of books and music that will go to a friend's congregation in Maumee, and half a box (or more) that will go to the local ELCA congregation. A box of cookbooks (mostly untouched in the last five years) that will go to the local library, along with three or more boxes of fiction.

Going through these boxes has brought me to a couple unpleasant realizations - one of which is how intellectually stagnant my life has been lately. With the exception of the last couple Harry Potter books, I'll bet I haven't read ten new books in two years. I've tended to find "old friends" from my family bookshelves and re-read them, rather than exercise my mind all that much. I need to work on that...

I've also realized how little of my reading has been about my faith, too. Part of that is, I think, a kind of retreat from organized church in the whole. Reading Can Mainline Denominations Survive? and Helping Congregations in Decline just isn't appealing when I have no immediate desire to be part of a congregation in the first place. And books like Sharing the Word: Preaching in the Roundtable Church by Lucy Rose (while an excellent resource) just don't have as much pull when planning sermons is not on your horizon (near-term or far, for that matter).

And when 99% of my music listening is from my iPod or internet streaming radio, I wonder about the value of packing and hauling perhaps two hundred pounds of CDs that I already have digitized (and backed up). (My pile is not as bad as the picture, but it's still three or four hundred CDs...) There are some, like The New World Symphony, John Williams' Summon The Heroes and Rick Wakeman's Journey To The Center of The Earth that are just much better in their uncompressed, raw beauty. But other than their archival value (in case both the PC and its 250GB backup drive are lost), what do you DO with CDs these days?...

Even my fiction collection has come under close scrutiny. Yes, having a copy of The Unabridged Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galary is a beautiful thing - but even if we manage to find the duplex of our dreams, I don't think we'll have room for two walls of shelves being just my library. And to be honest, that thing could be one more "old friend" keeping me from fresh ideas, fresh fiction...

Some decisions are easy; some aren't. At fifty-one, what's really important in my life, materially? Will I ever again have the kind of dinner party where I'd use those glass platters with places for olives and pickles and such? Or will strategically-placed Corelle soup bowls do just fine for that?

It boggles the mind.

There were some tears tonight, too - fresh tears for ministry dreams that I'd been sure were dead and buried. Thoughts of what-could-have-been and what-I-would've-wished-for. Opportunities lost, others thrown away. And resolve - the songbooks from John McCutcheon and Peter, Paul & Mary went in the "keep" pile, along with Discerning Your Congregation's Future and other books I just might want if I ever get back "in the fold" again...

And let's face it: there are somewhere between two and three million people without power tonight, thanks to hurricane Ike. There are people who would be blessed to actually have options on where to go to live. So these are definitely concerns of a much higher quality than a lot of people in the world have to deal with. So I'm grateful - don't get me wrong.

But I don't want to squander what I have, either. I'm not running from a hurricane; I'm moving to the next phase of my life. But the question is, what am I willing to carry into my next life? Because in the end, it will be Chris and I unloading this stuff once we get to Champaign. I need to be willing to physically carry it, this time. And the companion thought echoes in the back of my head - what will I regret jettisoning, once I get there?

Time will tell. Prayers for guidance, discernment and endurance will be most welcome...

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Sic transit gloria mundi

Sic transit gloria mundi, according to Wikipedia, is a Latin phrase that means "Thus passes the glory of the world". It has been interpreted as "Worldly things are fleeting."

Today starts the beginning of the end - and the beginning of yet another new beginning - for my sister, my brother-in-law and I. They were approved for a rather nicely sized apartment/duplex in a nearby Toledo suburb - and so the process of paring down, selling, tossing away and packing up begins again. Target is the end of September to be out of this place - although the mortgage-holder won't take over for months yet. They may still be able to sell - although at a fantastic loss. But who knows? All I know is that this beautiful dream turned nightmare is ending.

According to USPS.com, Chris's application for his dream job has been delivered. Now starts the toe-tapping part of the process. He's done everything he can do. Now it's fully in the hands of God, and we can only wait.

And a long-time friend of Bill's - McKinley (Mac) F. from the Early Bird Group died late last week. The memorial will be 10 AM Friday, and I will be there - work be damned. Mac was a prominent feature in my early days of sobriety at Early Bird; like me, he could get more than a little long-winded, and like me, his journey "in the bonus round" has not always been on the sunshine side of the ledger. But thanks be to God, he died sober, and surrounded by people who loved him. When my time comes, may I do as well, dear God...

So much change. So much unwilling change, in amidst that I would choose to change. It's probably not any wonder the topic of the meeting last night was on the Serenity Prayer, and especially on accepting the things I cannot change.

At that meeting, I talked about what we don't often talk about is how much it can just hurt to accept change; how damn humbling it can be. It's no wonder people go out, rather than admit to how much we are like children, who just can't accept what we can't have (or are getting what we don't want!).

We lie and say "the phone weighs five hundred pounds, at times." The truth is the phone weighs just ounces; but it's that monstrous pride sitting on top of it - the part that doesn't want to admit to being childish, to being embarrassed, to not want to see our families or loved ones hurt, to just not wanting to have to cry any more, some times.

It still hurts. But the alternative is still way too scary. So I keep on trusting that God is with us, whether His presence seems a little thin on the ground at times, and keep moving forward. And giving thanks - every minute is a moment to give thanks, for goals met, for challenges walked-through, and for love of the people with whom God has gifted me.

Including each of you, gentle companions. Thank you, for coming back here, and reading. I confess I'm self-centered enough that your words, your comments, your emails mean an awful lot to me. Each of you are part of that great circle that will never be unbroken, by and by.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat

Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport...the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat...the human drama of athletic competition...

Anyone who knows me knows - I have no use for most sporting events. My one hat-tip to sporting events was to buy a Kansas City Chiefs "starter" jacket (because KC had just lost in the playoffs, and everything was on sale!), and I have taken merciless ribbing about it for years. Even in Toledo, Ohio, if I wore it out, some guy would give me a grin, and yell, "Hey, buddy, how 'bout dem Chiefs?"

(After years of staring vacantly at these folks, I finally figured out that the safe answer was, "Y'know, you just never know about that team...", and then the person would fill in their own half of the conversation, never knowing that I neither knew or cared - it was just a warm and inexpensive coat.)

But there is something different about the Olympics. In Summer, swimming, diving, gymnastics., biking. In Winter, skiing, ski jumping, bobsled, luge, figure skating, ice dancing. And for years, the voice of Jim McKay over all...

So many people become nationalist morons at times like this. Basketball especially, but not limited to that by any means. The only appreciation they have is for the score, and the chance to mindlessly shriek, "USA! USA! USA!" until they are hoarse.

I have no use for that, or them.

I can marvel at the stunning form of the Chinese gymnasts; share in the glee of the USA men's team as they struggled to achieve their bronze medal; see beyond the medal-tally to the humanity (and humility) of an American swimmer who almost seems superhuman, and the incredible work he must perform to make it seem so easy. I can cheer for the man from Poland who took the gold in shot-put; clap for the woman from Zimbabwe who took gold in women's butterfly swimming. It is, as Jim McKay would say every Saturday afternoon for years, "...the human drama of athletic competition."

Since Chris works until 11 each night, our Olympic viewing has been pretty limited, but has seen some of the classic moments from Beijing. The infectious grin of Jonathan Horton (can you believe that guy is only 5' 1" tall? Heck, his SMILE was that wide...), the almost helicopter-like performance of Alexander Artimev on the pommel horse, and the absolutely amazing come-from-behind performance of Jason Lezak in the men's 4-x-100-meter relay team.

(Some of you may say, "OK, this is STEVE here, talking sports stuff? Who ARE you, you impostor, and what have you done with Steve F? Tell us!" Nope, this is the real deal, folks...)

Part of it is sheer envy. I have never been athletic; I have always envied those who were. But most of it is sheer admiration for the ultimate athletic prowess, and even more for those who gave their best despite never making it (like the legendary Jamaican bobsled team!). But beyond that, for those who performed with class and grace. The men and women who were memory makers.

Like in Sarajevo, 1984. Winter Olympics. Ice dancing.

I don't know if I had ever even SEEN ice-dancing before 1984. I know that I had never followed it, and I knew nothing about who was good and who was not. Until, that is, I saw a couple from Britain who simply set the ice on fire.

Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnole. A little less than four minutes of visually captivating, stylistically arresting performance that won them the gold medal. I don't know what it was that embedded their performance forever in my mind - but that 4 minutes came to epitomize the best of the Olympics. Performance, beauty, strength, skill, flair - pushing the boundaries of what was possible in search of new levels of excellence. And to this day, I cannot hear Capriccio Espagnole without thinking of Torvill and Dean.

There is much that is not good about the Olympics, and Olympic competition in general. It saddens me every time someone must cheat (whether it be drugs or performance enhancing chemicals, using under-age athletes, or clearly predatory judging) to achieve some nationalistic goal. It is tragic how the spectacle of Olympic competition draws attention away from Darfur, Georgia, even the rest of China - not to mention the tragedies going on right down the street from each of us.

But for me, these Olympic dramas are a gentle drug that (along with my loving partner) help take the edge off days of frustration and uncertainty. These are moments of beauty in otherwise ugly times - and I give thanks for that. So here's to those talented men and women - with a tribute from Olympic past...

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A simple meme, for a simple man

I have been overwhelmed - work, the challenges of finding a new home for my sister and brother-in-law, a potential move, and financial challenges have had me bottled up for a while. But I needed a way to break the spiritual blogjam, and this challenge seemed the perfect entry. The instructions over at Black Pete (formerly Poor Mad Peter)'s Red Wine and Garlic were simple: share seven things about oneself that are relatively inconsequential. So here goes...

1) I have two sisters who are fraternal twins; as kids, we hardly looked like we belonged to the same family, but the resemblance is getting better.

2) I have a fascination with glass - blown, cut, colored but almost never painted. Emerald green, ruby red, cobalt blue, and clear cut crystal are my favorites; either rich deep color or the absence, I guess. Two of my favorite places in the world are the Corning Glass Museum in Corning, NY, and the Toledo Museum of Art's Glass Pavilion.

(The Glass Pavilion alone is worth a trip to Toledo, although you'd really miss out if you didn't go across the street to the Museum proper, or downtown for a Tony Packo's hotdog...)

3) I am fascinated with the work of Elbert Hubbard and the Roycrofters. My AA sponsor gave me a copy of A Message to Garcia (which I later gave back, like a fool) and Elbert Hubbard's Scrapbook, which is one of my more prized book possessions. I wish I could fully adopt the creed of the Roycrofters: A belief in working with the head, hand and heart and mixing enough play with the work so that every task is pleasurable and makes for health and happiness.

4) I never knew that I was given to jeremiads, but thanks to Black Pete, who made me look it up, I know I'm pretty good at 'em. Jeremiad (noun) - a prolonged lamentation or mournful complaint. [Origin: 1770–80; Jeremi(ah) + -ad, in reference to Jeremiah's Lamentations] (Thanks to Dictionary.com)

5) I also share a trait with Black Pete - I both very much enjoy cats, and am very much allergic to them. One gift given to me by my friend Ted (and a very lovely apple-headed Siamese of his) was overcoming my childhood fear of cats. One night Ted and I sat in blue armchairs in his living room, with a fire burning, just talking (as we are both wont to do). That Siamese just bounded into my lap, and with a blatant disregard for my discomfort, snuggled down between the chair's arm and my leg and began purring loudly. I never looked back. (It was preparation, I'm sure, for the procession of furry friends that my former wife brought into my life.)

6) Being a virtual employee (working from home, over the Internet) means that I have as many coworkers from Mumbai and Chennai (India) as I do in Lincolnshire and Chicago (Illinois). My most unusual location for a work day (at this job, anyway) was on December 28, 2007, when I spent 9 hours working in a coffee shop in Springfield, MO called The Mud House - a converted pottery studio. (I have been thinking I should do that at least every other week, just as a change of pace.)

7) I have seen one storyteller's performance that I have not heard. I wish I could remember the fellow's name, but he was a storyteller who was deaf, and who performed all his stories in American Sign Language (ASL). I saw him at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN back twenty-some years ago. If I remember right, his "interpreter for the ASL-impaired" was John Basinger. It took some forceful reminders to look at the storyteller, and not at his "speaking" interpreter - but it was a fascinating experience. (That was also the year that I was first introduced to the stories and songs of John McCutcheon, if I remember rightly.)

More thoughts that are mulling...
- the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat in Beijing
- bellwether changes
- how many books do you need - really?
- revisiting a Labor Day tradition, after 20 years

I'll try not to make it a month till the next post....