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)


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:


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.

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...