Monday, March 31, 2008

Percolating thoughts

Saturday was birthday #51.

A time of celebration, a time of joy, a time of reflection - all at once.

It is a much different time in my life - love life is an A-plus, health is C-minus, up from D-plus, finances are still somewhere between C-minus and D-plus, family still struggling physically and financially. Definitely a "mixed bag," you might say.

I have been both celebrating items of gratitude, and bouts of "regretting the past and wishing to shut the door on it." Now that I have someone to spend time and money with, I sure could use some of the "wasted days and wasted nights" and some of the untold piles of dollars I have lost (or missed out on) over the years. There have been days when the weight of the "if onlys" have been pretty immense, to be honest.

And yes, before you say it - I know. I really do. If I hadn't done everything I had done, taken every step and mis-step I've taken up to this point, I wouldn't be here. If I hadn't moved to Toledo, I might not have been in a position to find love in the first place. If I hadn't had the job from Hell, I wouldn't have had the chance to move here and help out my family. If I hadn't had all those drinks, I wouldn't have found the blessed fellowship I now participate in.

Here's an interesting one - if I had come out sooner in life, I might well have engaged in behavior that would have earned me one of the millions of funerals that have happened over the twenty-five years. I might be dealing with a much more lethal disease than diabetes (though I am not for a minute minimizing the effects of that one, either).

So, every time I bring up what "woulda/ coulda/ shoulda" happened, I have to admit this:

I should be dead.
I should be in jail.
I should be in an institution somewhere.
I qualfied for each, time and time again.

Rascall Flats said it best, especially to the love of my life - but for the One who loves me, as well:

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 led me straight to You.

Soli Deo gratias. To God alone be the glory.

Oh, and just so you know I haven't lost my sense of humor entirely, here is the very best blogger's birthday cake I've seen (double-click on it to see it bigger):

Topics yet to come:
- prayer as a tool to healing the past;
- "simple church" a la [rwk];
- the feel good movie of 2008; and
- two places I never expected to be in the next two weeks.

Keep comin' back...

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Monday after...

Erin posted this simple post Friday. Her follow-up post today says everything I want to say about the Monday after Easter - only better, and more clearly.

As Gamble Rogers' infamous character Agamemnon Jones would say, "If you find that someone has already made your point, and made it clearer, better, or sharper....then shut up."


Thursday, March 20, 2008

The strangers and aliens among us

"Do not mistreat or oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt." (Exodus 23:9)

It's Good Friday, and any good devotional writer would have his face, and his pen, turned toward Golgotha, and the cross. But somehow, my heart is pulling me in another direction...

Good Friday. Easter Vigil. Easter Sunday. "The Three Days." Along with Christmas, this is one of the two most sacred and revered Christian feast days on the calendar. Crucifixion, death, silence, resurrection and celebration. The very pinnacle of the Christian story. In virtually every Christian pulpit, the focus will be on the cross and everything it stands for.

But in my mind's eye, I'm standing in my home congregation in Kansas on Easter Sunday morning. In the huge, glass-walled space outside the sanctuary, I'm standing by the glass wall of the sanctuary near the top of the entry stairs, and I'm looking down the stairs at the faces coming in. There are the church members and their families - confident, well-dressed, and assured that no matter what special effects or special music or liturgical dance or procession or whatever, they will know the basic shape of the service they are about to experience. They've grown up with it all their lives, or at least for a long, long time. This is familiar, joyous territory for them.

But then, there are the others. They come in the door somewhat tentatively, looking about. Not quite sure where to go, they follow the crush of members up the stairs into the lobby (which everyone keeps calling a "narthex," for some reason). There are incredible images of color, powerful sounds of celebration - all of which seem completely unfamiliar to them. Not sure where to go or what to do, they go into the sanctuary, and take a seat near the back, so they won't be noticed if they do something wrong or say something out of place.

They are the outsiders. The non-Christian or non-practicing Christian visitors who swell the ranks of almost every Christian church on Easter weekend. And on this Good Friday I'd like us as a community of faith to start praying for them.

Some of them are there because they have to be; their parents or siblings or spouses or partners have dragged them to the "just this once, please" service. Some of them are there because they believe Christian folk are supposed to have a corner on what's right in the world, and there isn't much going right in their world right now. And some of them have heard just enough of the story of this Jesus person to want to be there - to see what all the big deal is about.

All this talk about "the Lamb of God" and "the King of Kings" and the organ music and the fanfares and shouting "He is risen, indeed!" makes them feel like they have landed in a different land, like the children landing in Narnia for the first time. They haven't been there throughout Lent, so they haven't understood the times of preparation and transformation that many congregations go through. The liturgical colors, the significance of the white linen, the lyrics of the hymns, none of it makes sense to them. And all this strangeness will leave them feeling tense, ill at ease, and adrift in a place with a slightly different language and an entirely different landscape.

How do I know this? Because I was "one of them," once upon a time. And that's how I felt.

And that's why, today, I'm going to ask you to do four powerful things.

First, pray for your church's visitors, all weekend long. Whatever draws them to your place of worship, literally pray them off the streets and in the doors.

Second, look for them, and be aware of them, in each of your services. Their first urge (as mine was) will be to not get noticed, to not draw attention. But look for the strangers among you with your heart, and they will not be hard to find.

Third, realize that your visitors very well may have no clue what's going on around them, this weekend. If you see someone fumbling with a hymnal or wondering whether to stand up or sit down, give 'em a hand. They will be grateful.

Lastly - welcome and encourage your guests whenever you see them. A friend of mine says that when dealing with visitors or guests, "Our primary purpose is to show them that we don't bite; that they are safe here among us." Perhaps that is near the heart of what a welcoming community does - they smooth the road, light the pathway and make things a little more comfortable for those that don't know the way.

Our sanctuaries and fellowships halls will fill this weekend. Not everyone will come in as friends, and many will feel as strangers. With our help, and our prayers, and our loving actions, perhaps they will leave feeling that they might just be able to come back and find a place among us. That they might find a home. That they might know we are Christians - by our love, and by our welcome.

I know I did.

He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!"
(Revelation 21:5, NIV)

(Shameless plug: the images used on this post, from Atonement Lutheran Church in Overland Park, KS, have been lifted from the archives of my brother and friend, Timothy Bredow of Kansas City. He is a talented photographer, father, and all-around great guy. Go check his stuff out at his KCinFocus flikr site. Tim, I love you, but I get a very un-Christian case of envy looking at your stuff, bro. Your photography captures what one songwriter called "the rhythm and rhyme of the poem of your life." Thank you for allowing your images to bless these meager words.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The part that remains

For at least a dozen years, I have been telling a story that I remember from thirty years ago. I remembered it from before I ever called myself a Christian; before I came to belief in God; before I could even pretend to have faith.

I don't remember the details any more, and I've been asking questions of folks involved, and no one seems to remember them either. All I can tell you is that sometime in the late 1970's, two churches on Glendale Avenue in Toledo were torched on the same night, just about a week before Christmas. My memory is foggy, but I thought one congregation was east of Byrne Rd., and one was near Green Valley. One congregation's fellowship hall burned down; one church was a complete loss. Thousands of dollars of Christmas presents for needy kids were lost in the two conflagrations.

The memorable part, for me, was a TV news broadcast that occurred the day after the fire. One of the pastors was being interviewed by a TV news reporter about the effects of the fire, as they were standing in front of the wreckage of the church. The reporter asked, "How does it feel to know that your church has been destroyed, less than a week before Christmas?"

Unbelievably, the pastor smiled, and replied, "Oh, no - it's not as bad as that."

With a stunned look, the reporter glanced over his right shoulder at the still-smoking remains of the sanctuary, and then back to the pastor. The pastor, however, kept on smiling and said, "No, you don't understand...they destroyed the building, not the church. The church is what remains after your sanctuary has burned to the ground. "

I can't tell you why or how that idea stuck with me, but it has, for three decades.

The reason that story comes to mind is that probably dozens of Christian bloggers I know have published items in the last several months talking about searching for church communities and what "communities of faith" might/could look like. There are lots of people who are searching for what Michael W. Smith would call "their place in this world," and right now, I'm one of them, again/still.

I know that one thing that I believe true "faith communities" don't do is what my friend Natalie would call "worshiping the barn instead of the Savior." There are some congregations of which I've been a member who were more concerned with getting coffee stains on the narthex or sanctuary carpet than with welcoming strangers into the presence of faithful friends. In fact, those experiences have led me to believe that the more reverence a congregation puts on its building, the less impressed I am with 'em.

Which brings me back to the fire.

What I remembered, too, is that I've been a witness to several congregations whose buildings have been destroyed since that weekend. Living in Kansas, there are lots of stories of tornado damage - including one year-old building that was picked up whole by a tornado, and dropped exactly one foot off of its footings. The amazing part in all these stories was that "the part that remains" became only more enthused, more servant-oriented, and more engaged in the community. They took care of each other, but they took care of the community, too. I know that doesn't always happen; sometimes "the barn" is the last thing holding a shaky community together, and when the building goes, so does the church.

I do remember being a part of a church back in the mid-90's that had a problem. They had a long-standing dream of building a pipe-organ for their sanctuary - the choir loft had been designed especially for it when it was built years before, in fact. And the education wing needed upgrades, and an elevator. And they'd raised most of the money for the organ, and the worst-needed upgrades.

But then voices were raised that the pipe organ was an extravagance, and we'd be "worshiping the damn organ, eventually." There were lots of good arguments, pro and con - but it split the congregation, split the women's circles, you name it. Longtime friends were not speaking to each other over this thing - it was pretty bad.

One of the pro-organ people cornered me after worship one day, and asked me what I thought they should do. I hadn't learned a lot of tact and diplomacy at that point, and I didn't want to get involved, to be honest. But the poor soul kept pestering me, and so finally, I blurted out, "You wanna know what I think you should do? You wanna know what I think would solve all these problems?"

"Yes, of course I do! Tell me!"

"I think you should burn the damn sanctuary down."


"YOU heard me! You people are so damned spoiled, you have no idea what a real problem IS! You've got most of a half-million dollars raised for your building - and you can't agree on how to spend it. Aww, poor babies! What a damn tragedy that is! You're so blinded by your riches, you can't SEE your blessings, and you're setting brother against brother and friend against friend over this thing. So just burn down the damn sanctuary - and then you'll know what real problems are!"

Needless to say, no one ever bothered me about the topic again.

So when I'm visiting your church, don't bother telling me about your beautiful building, or your wonderful sound system. Tell me about your prayer team; tell me about your community outreach. Tell me about how you are serving "the least of these" in according with Matthew 25. Tell me how you are building the kingdom of God, one soul at a time. That's the stuff I want to hear about.

But if you start talking about your beautiful barn/mauseleum, I might just suggest that you burn it down.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

An unplanned sabbatical

It has been a long, long time, my virtual friends. My apologies for being absent so long.

Two things I have been learning these days are (1) how undisciplined I can be and (2) how good I still am at living completely out-of-balance. As friends of mine in recovery often say, "I recognize 'balance' in my life - usually as I'm swinging past it from one extreme to the other..."

But for now, let's focus on the good stuff:

Chris, the very special man in my life, has only been getting, well, more special. To be honest, I cannot imagine how I lived without him in my life before September 30th. And I have been asking myself how I managed to survive as many years as I did without someone like him in my life. The answers, as usual, have been interesting...

One is, I have had a number of deep and wonderful friendships in my life - closer-than-friend, closer to soul-sister or brother-of-the-heart than anything else. Whether on the next block or across the country, they have at least partly filled the gap where a "significant other" would have been - for companionship, social connections, and deep rumination on all manner of topics. They have, in many ways, prepared me for this time.

And the other thing - perhaps not as significant, but certainly a measurable force - is that I never completely let go of the hope that there might be a someone with whom I might find that soul-mate bond I'd been searching for all these years. I despaired of that hope, time and time again - but a tiny ember of that flame kept on through it all, evidently. Enough of an ember, anyway, that when the right person came along, he clicked like a key in a lock.

And we are good for each other. He has me up and exercising at least 1/2 hour a day 3-4 days a week, and eating better when we are together (for the most part, that is). Chris' job has him on a 3-11 shift, which means later-than-usual nights for me, and it's been very tough to get up and get enthused about work after those late nights (hence the discipline failure, repeatedly). But even our schedule has forced us to be flexible and tolerant of each other's needs. For a while, he had Sundays and Thursdays off - and I was off to Van Wert for DeMolay stuff on Thursday nights, so that felt kind of like a cheat (since the 2-hour-each-way drive made sure I didn't get home until after 11:30 most weeks). But we've managed to work around our schedules, and it's been good.

Work has been somewhat calmer - although the wreckage of the last 4 months is somewhat coming home to roost, and this next weekend and week should be, well, pretty insane trying to catch up. I still have several big hurdles yet to come, and the ever-present threat of down-sizing (especially in THIS sucky economy) continues to add to the stress-levels. But so far, at least, the day-to-day screamining-meemies level of craziness seems to have come down considerably. "We ain't where we wanna be, but thank you Jesus, we ain't where we used to be..."

It has been more challenging to try to schedule housework and laundry and recovery meetings and DeMolay and anything else (including blogging) into the few short hours between when I get off work and when Chris comes home. So some of those tasks (especially housework and blogging) have gotten embarrassingly out-of-hand. I keep trying to get caught up on some things, and then others tend to push their ways into the schedule instead. There are days when I would like to have a work-free, solo day to get caught up on all this stuff of earth, as Rich Mullins would call it, but I keep reminding myself that I had 12 years to get caught up as a solo man, and that never happened, so why I think I'm going to find more time to do it now that I'm in a relationship is a mystery...

It's hard to remember that it's not been quite six months since I met Chris; not quite 3 months since he landed in Ohio. Lots of changes continue - but for the most part, they seem to be good ones. He can't wait for a reasonably warm, calm day to share with me the first flights of his new RC airplane; I continue to share with him the wealth of storytelling tapes and CDs I've collected over the years, including a rare recording of the 1988 Minnesota Public Radio program Good Evening (hosted by Noah Adams) broadcast from the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN. We have laughed over the likes of Gamble Rogers, Don Davis' classic telling of "The Southern Bells," and Bill Harley's classic "How Coyote Put the Stars in the Sky."

In short, it is good in a deep way that I never would have imagined possible a year ago.

My sister continues to struggle with her health, and her job; my brother-in-law remains unemployed. Both struggle daily with the motivation to keep on keepin' on, and I understand that completely - believe me. We still have way too much month left at the end of our money, and I have more and more questions about whether we will be able to stay in this condo by summer's end. But for today, we are here, we are fed and warm, and we are (as my old friend Bob L. would say) sunny-side-up, suckin' air and sober.

New love has a way of focusing me on my gifts, rather than what I lack. So today, I celebrate.