Thursday, December 03, 2009

A disciplined return

I found this in my inbox recently...a clear image of how connected I am, and how ripples in my life are detected by others...

Can't sleep. Up browsing.
It seems you haven't posted on the ragamuffin blog for a l.o.n.g. time.
Are you okay?
Are you blogging elsewhere?
Are you done blogging?

Perhaps none of it is any of my business.
I miss your words. your thoughts. you.
Still pondering deeply and praying for understanding.
Saying a prayer for you also tonight.

Love from Kansas.


Thank you for the wake-up call, Deb...and Michael...and others.

Yes, I am okay, overall - though it has been a bit of a roller-coaster. No, I am not blogging elsewhere. I did allow myself to get sucked into the catch-up-with-the-world-of-the-past of Facebook, for a bit, and I allowed myself to get wrapped up in the stuff of life for a bit. I have also been somewhat annoyed by technological issues - my 2002 PC has been dying a slow death, and I'd been trying to nurse it along. But all these things are just contributing factors.

Am I done blogging? That has been the big question that I think I've been avoiding over the last two or three months. I confess that there have been a number of "what's it all about, Alfie?" moments scattered over the last four or even six months. I wondered if I really had anything to share, anything new or worthwhile.

I found, in some introspection, that I had once again succumbed to an old, old character defect - being concerned about what other people thought, rather than just voicing my belief or conviction. That concern for the opinion of others, combined with my natural conflict-averse personality, made it more comfortable for me to simply withdraw.

I found, however, that my failure to write, even about the most mundane thing, hasn't necessarily freed me from anything, but seemed to have left me in some kind of spiritual sloth - not wanting to do much of anything. It hasn't helped, to be honest.

So I am going to work toward posting more regularly - catching up on some of the events of life over the last three months or so. And I'm making an effort to be more "present" in the community of friends.

There are more than a few topics to consider...

- Six months in a strange new land
- It's not perfect, but it's home - joining a church
- Hitting the "hide" button on Facebook
- If the phone ain't ringin', I know who it is
- Going back to roots of faith
- Is it worth arguing?
- Running from "the faithful"

And for those who sent the "where have you been" messages (and especially to Debby, whose message I quoted at the beginning), thank you.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Fall reflections...

It's October 1 - plenty of changes in the fall air...

A little known fact about me is that I have had an oldish Oscar Schmidt autoharp in my closet for about a decade. It's had a couple buzzing keys, and it was a pain in the nether-regions to tune (there are thirty-six strings to tune!), so other than using it for a couple of kids' sermons in the 1999-2001 period, I never really pulled it out much.

But something stirred in me when I found out about the Champaign-Urbana Folk & Roots Festival, and the fact that a couple ladies were going to be doing an intro-to-autoharp session. I also was astounded to find out that fully chromatic tuners are available pretty cheaply (thus easing the whole tuning-nightmare issue). They are basically a pocket-sized electronic gauge that shows whether a given note is sharp or flat). You pluck C-sharp, and if it's flat, the little red "flat" light shows, and a dial shows how far off you are. If it's flat enough, it shows up as C; you tune it up, it switches to C#. They've had them for guitars for years - but I'd never known they had them fully-chromatic for instruments like the autoharp. Pretty damn amazing....

It also turns out one of the ladies doing the workshop is actually involved in recovery in a nearby town, so we have a double connection. She's quite an enthusiast, and renewed a long-submerged desire to sing and play. She is also experienced in autoharp maintenance and repair - so she should be able to help me fix my buzzing keys. So I'm pretty excited about getting back into some kind of folk music again.

There was also a session by the C/U Storytelling Guild - a dozen or so folks doing storytelling in the area. This is another area that I'd never thought I'd get back into - frankly, I never was that good at it, especially since a large portion of the stories I told had been lifted from other tellers. But their story examples gave me some inspiration - so we'll see. I'm good when it comes to starting stuff - not so hot about follow-through...

This weekend is the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN. I remember being appalled at how the weekend price had grown from $60-70 to $160 a person (and then reflected that I'd spent $50 a ticket to go to a Supercross race in Indianapolis, which was basically only 8 hours). So my attitude about Jonesborough has changed - although it probably won't happen next year, either - our travel budget will be stretched anyway because of the AA 75th-anniversary international conference in San Antonio next July.

I'd like to try it out on Chris at a couple smaller festivals first - I heard that the Fox Valley Folk Music and Storytelling Festival is a pretty good festival in the western Chicago suburbs (Geneva, IL) over Labor Day weekend. (I'm kicking myself about not knowing about the 2009 FV festival - Pete Seeger's sister, Peggy Seeger, did a workshop there!).

This weekend was also saying farewell to Chris' Yamaha WR426 enduro/dirt bike. We had tried a number of different riding areas, trying to get Chris up-to-snuff to get back into amateur motocross again, but Chris never really felt comfortable enough to do the kind of riding he needed to do. And any riding area for enduro/woods riding were an hour east, or two hours west. So he put it up for sale - and after a dozen false leads (including a couple different scams, and an offer to trade it for a set of AR-15 assault rifles!) he finally found a buyer from Chicago who came down to get it on Sunday.

Sunday night, seeing the dirt-bike riding away on someone else's trailer, was kind of a melancholy evening for Chris. For quite a while, he'd had the dream of winning one more race, even in the "seniors division," so this was a little bit of an end-of-the-era for him. But he's much more comfortable on his mountain bike (bicycle, not motorcycle), and he enjoys the exercise on that so much more. So he'll continue to do that at nearby Kickapoo State Park, and do some road-rides out in the corn-n-beans around Urbana.

And we had to postpone our trip to Kansas - we had put off getting our motel rooms to stay, not aware that this weekend is NASCAR weekend in the KC area. Every motel room in the area - even as far away as Liberty, MO - had their prices doubled. And while I love the folks in KC, the idea of paying $106 a night for a Motel 6 (!) was more than I could handle. So we've rescheduled for Oct 16-18, and will look forward to seeing folks then.

For now, I need to get things wrapped up at work, and get ready to have an enjoyable weekend. And, perhaps, more than one post a month here in the blogging world...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Something fun...

Is it me, or do you see the resemblance?

Left, Assembly Hall at the Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Right, the Jupiter 2, from the original Lost In Space.

I keep expecting to see Zachary Harris and The Robot rolling out of Assembly Hall each time I drive by....

Monday, September 14, 2009

Thoughts from "Peace and Justice Sunday"

Mr. Kissinger, as the Church, our job is to ensure that justice flows down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream; and, your job as the State is to irrigate the fields. (William Sloane Coffin, on Amos 5:24)

Back in the '60s, two school reformers wrote a book in which they defined education as the fine art of "crap detection." That's not a bad way to describe good theology. (Rev. Dick Watts)

On Sunday, I heard one of the best-ever Christian responses to the current economic crisis and the resulting bailouts. For McKinley's Peace and Justice Sunday, the entire service was devoted to calls for justice in our world, including music by Stephen Foster and Pete Seeger and an incredibly powerful sermon by Rev. Richard (Dick) Watts. His fifty years in ministry and social justice have given him an incredible vision to some of the roots-of-sin in this financial and economic melt-down. He put into words what I have felt in my heart but have not been able to coherently express.

I have posted the full text of his sermon at the bottom of this post. The core of it was pointing out the sins of idolatry, greed, and pride in our culture. Those sins have led to deifying the preservation-of-net-worth of a few, on the backs of those who can least afford to do it. Many of us who represent the Church - those who claim to follow Christ - have stood silently by as the market has been declared our economic Higher Power, have watched as the protections of bank regulation (which were put in place to preserve the-least-of-these) were dismantled in service to that idol, and then watched as those who created the crisis have been bailed out, floating high on the corpses of those who have been devastated by the flood.

There have been a few voices in the wilderness, to be sure. But in large measure, the voice of the Church has been silent.

I agree with Dick Watts wholeheartedly. It seems that Unending Profit has become our Pyramid, and far too many of us has been enslaved to build it by the Pharaohs of Commerce - with no regard to who suffers or dies in the meantime.

Let me just ask you folks - have you heard any of this from Focus On The Family? David Jeremiah? Or any of the other well-known preaching voices? I've checked the websites of several of the ELCA mega-churches (including some of those who have planned to leave the ELCA over that other topic). Denouncing the sins of the wealthy and powerful few in this country (and their roles in devastating our collective wealth) are strangely missing from the list of sermon topics. (If I'm wrong, I will gladly retract...but I'm not finding it.)

Much like in World War II, when many in the Church establishment turned a blind eye to Hitler, I think the Church universal has turned a blind eye to the powers and principalities of this age. And I think that it's going to be to the lasting shame of the Church - because this Jesus person that so many of us claim to follow has clearly told us to do otherwise.

He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matthew 25:45-46, NIV)

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil,
who put darkness for light and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.

(Isaiah 5:20, NIV)

Who will sound the trumpets, if we will not?

- - -
[The text of Reverend Dr. Watt's sermon follows:]

"Shocked!" – A Theological Perspective
On Our Economic Meltdown

Yahweh says: Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am Yahweh who practice steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I delight, Yahweh says. (Jeremiah 9:23-24)

You might well feel that a sermon about our economic meltdown is like warming up last Sunday's meatloaf for today’s dinner – isn't healthcare reform today’s big issue? – though I'll suggest later why it's more than a leftover. Or you may be asking other questions: "What are your credentials, Dick, for talking about economics?" "Why bring into worship about what we can hear about on the evening news?" "What can a 'theological perspective' mean to a 'secular' subject like economics?" Good questions - so let me say a few things by way of introduction.

First, I promise that this won't be a lecture on credit default swaps, derivatives, collateralized debt obligations, sub-prime mortgages, bank bailouts or Detroit bankruptcies.

Second, I make no pretense to be an expert in economics - though I've noticed that the track record of such "experts" hasn't inspired much trust lately. I have, however, been doing my homework, because I take very seriously Reinhold Niebuhr's warning that "consecrated ignorance is still ignorance."

Third, I believe that for democracy to flourish, we cannot simply hand over our fate to pundits and politicians. Just as war is too serious to be left to generals, the economy is too important to be left to "the powers that be." We are all obliged to reflect and to speak out on matters that affect our common life.

Fourth, "theology" is not just about "churchy" things. Someone has rightly said that "Christianity is not a way of looking at certain things, but a certain way of looking at all things" – and that includes politics and economics. I realize that when we talk in church about our core values - reverence, integrity, generosity, compassion, kindness, and the like - we are tempted to limit them to our personal life and close relationships. That's understandable enough, since the personal sphere is one over which we have substantially more control than the public arena. But to be Christian is to be heirs of a story that also focuses on social sins and virtues – from the liberation of an economic underclass in Egypt to Micah's denunciation of the unjust rich, from Jesus' sovereign indifference to imperial power to Paul's subversion of ethnic loyalties. When we reflect on personal issues only and let the wider society go merrily on its own way, we do only half our job as the church.

And so we can't leave it to Fox News or The New York Times – or even Tim Geithner and President Obama - to tell us how to think about the economic mess our country is struggling through. As church, we have not only the right, but the duty, to ask what light our religious tradition can shed on our predicament. And the name of such reflection is "theology."

Where, then, should we begin. With David Brooks, perhaps, a conservative pundit who titled a recent column "Greed and Stupidity?" Or the review of a book about the meltdown, a review titled "Greed layered on greed, frosted with recklessness?" Well, greed and recklessness, certainly, along with corporate arrogance and congressional collusion. But I want to begin at a more basic level yet. And I want to get at it by calling your attention to an amazing event that occurred last October when the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, appeared before a Congressional committee.

No one has had a more central role in American economic life for the past quarter century than Alan Greenspan, appointed to that post by Ronald Reagan, continuing for 18 years under presidencies both Republican and Democrat. A true believer in the Reagan philosophy that "Government isn't the answer; government is the problem," a staunch foe of regulation, he was supremely confident in the wisdom and virtue of Wall Street. But now his faith was shaken.
"Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity – myself especially – are in a state of shocked disbelief." [This failure at self-regulation was] "a flaw in the model that I perceived as the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works."
He had lost faith in what he saw as "the critical [model] that defines how the world works." As one critic commented, "that's a hell of a big thing to find a flaw in." "Shocked!" – shocked to discover that the titans of finance put self-interest ahead of the common good. And we Christians are often called "na├»ve"!

The dogma that has defined U.S. economic policy for the last quarter century – that the Market is god, and will ceaselessly bless us as long as we keep it free from the sin of government regulation – has proved to be a false faith. Congress had for nearly two decades treated Greenspan as beyond question or contradiction, as he said "No" to almost every attempt at financial regulation. He was consulted like the Delphic oracle - in fact, his nickname was "the Oracle" – and of course an oracle is one who brings messages from the gods. That's why I believe that our present peril is the end result of bad theology, of what the Bible calls idolatry. When you hear that word, don't think simply of an ancient temptation to bow before an image of Baal or Asherah. Idolatry means giving to any human being, ideology, or system, an ultimacy that it does not deserve. Alan Greenspan was in "shocked disbelief," but no Christian should have been. For we have always known that the human mind is a factory for the making of idols, that we are all prone to cloak our self-interest in the garb of divinity. Greenspan's testimony was about one more god that failed.

People of wealth and power have done their best to persuade us that our economic system is part of the natural order of things, like gravity or the speed of light. But that is a lie, and has always been a lie. When we hear hymns to the "magic of the marketplace," we need to remember that magicians deal in illusion. Human beings create economic policy, and those who manipulate it for their own benefit are always eager to baptize it with the holy water of natural law. Like the banker who recently consoled a wage earner being thrown out of his home, with "Nothing personal. It's just the market."

No it isn't. The financial movers and shakers want to talk about our crisis as a financial "tsunami," that is, a force of nature no one could either see coming or do anything about. Wrong. The current mess cannot be blamed on an "invisible hand" directing market forces, but on quite deliberate human efforts to rig the rules for the benefit of a tiny elite. I won't bore you with too many statistics, but I do want to remind you of how far we've moved toward plutocracy. In 1981, the ten most highly paid CEOs had an annual salary of $3.5 million. By 1988, their average salary was over $19 million. In 2000, it was $154 million. By 2007, the fifty highest paid investment fund managers averaged $588 million per year – 19,000 times the pay of the average worker. All this was regarded as a positive good: let wealth accumulate at the top, and its benefits would "trickle down" to the bottom. A New Yorker cartoon got closer to the truth, I think. Two business tycoons are sitting in their overstuffed chairs at the Club. "And I say," argues one, "if there’s a trickle down, there must be a leak somewhere!"

So how did we get here? For starters, Congress tossed aside a regulation born out of the Great Depression, that kept banks from also becoming investment houses and insurance companies, thus encouraging them to take new risks with other people’s money. In 2000, Congress passed and President Clinton signed a bill exempting from most oversight those Byzantine new instruments called derivatives – gambling that houses and everything else would keep increasing in value, and they'd never have to pay their gambling debts. Regulators fell asleep at the switch, leaving to agencies like Moody's and Standard & Poor's the rating of financial offerings, ratings on the integrity of which investors depended. But when Congress looked into the email files of Standard & Poor's, they found one staff member writing, "...that deal is ridiculous. We should not be rating it." To which his colleague replied, "We rate every deal. It could be structured by cows and we would rate it."

Analysts and forecasters caught the exuberance; in a column called "Confessions of a pundit," one of them wrote, "While I have always said what I believe, what I believe sometimes has been subtly shaped by who pays the bills." In the case of the rating agencies, there was nothing subtle about it - they were being paid by the very firms whose offerings they were rating. And it's not true that no one knew what was happening: six years ago Warren Buffett warned of the new "financial weapons of mass destruction." The cost to us all of this wild excess? Well, consider the Wall Street bailout alone - $700 billion. To picture that, said an article in the International Herald Tribune, imagine counting to 700 billion, one number per second: it will take you 21,000 years.

But now it's all over, right? Well, not quite. Not for the millions out of work, or who have lost their homes, or have seen "retirement" savings go up in smoke. And now the financial industry is waging a full-court press in Washington to nip new regulations in the bud. From 2007 to 2008, securities and investment concerns gave $152 million in political contributions to move that "invisible hand" along in their direction, and in the same period the top five firms – companies like Citigroup and J.P. Morgan Chase – spent some $215 million on lobbying activities. Just a few weeks ago a frustrated Senator Dick Durbin lashed out: "And the banks – hard to believe in a time when we're facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created – are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place." Yesterday's headline in The New York Times read: "A Year After A Cataclysm, Little Change on Wall St. – Progress Is Slow on Regulatory Overhaul, Posing Risk of Even Bigger Crisis."

From a Christian theological perspective, have we anything to say about the way forward? During the Vietnam War Bill Coffin confronted Henry Kissinger, who asked, "What do you want me to do?" "Our job," replied Coffin, is to say 'let justice roll down like waters.' Yours is to build the irrigation system." He was right, of course: it's not possible to draw a straight line from a critique of idolatry to particular public policies. Nothing in our tradition can tell us, for example, whether a given "stimulus package" is too little or too much, whether federal dollars are better spent on mass transit than on solar energy, whether ethanol production costs more in food prices than it saves in greenhouse gas emissions. These are all prudential human judgments, on which people of integrity may differ. As Thomas Jefferson said, "Not every difference of opinion is a difference of principle." But I believe that we can offer some help in the designing of the "irrigation system" - we do have some principles to guide us through the thicket of policy options.

First, no social entity should be trusted to regulate itself, since we all have an infinite capacity to rationalize our self-interest. That is what sin means. Second, any corporate entity "too big to fail" is too big, period, and should be broken up, so that it cannot hold the wider society hostage to its needs or demands. Third, the purpose of economic policy is to promote the common good, not the enrichment of the few, and government exists, among other reasons, to make sure the rules of the game are fair. Adam Smith, whose Wealth of Nations has been the market's Bible, wrote of government that "when the in support of the workman, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the master." Advocating for these principles is a part of our calling individually as Christians, and corporately as church.

Is there no good news to be told today? Of course there is, because there are always people who do the best things in the worst times. I think of the business owners and workers who slashed their own earnings and hours so as to avoid having to lay off any of their colleagues. Or the MBA graduates of Harvard Business School, who took a voluntary oath "to serve the greater good," to bring a moral dimension back into their besmirched vocation. Or the group calling itself "Wealth for the Common Good" – people with incomes over $235,000 a year – urging Congress to repeal the Bush-era tax cuts immediately, because, they say, having profited from the boom years, "Now is the time to give back." You will know of other such stories.

But I make no apology today for focusing on analysis. Back in the '60s, two school reformers wrote a book in which they defined education as the fine art of "crap detection." That's not a bad way to describe good theology. Because we know what the primal sin is – the Greeks called it hubris, the Bible calls it idolatry, theologians call it pride – our antennae are sensitive to the perennial human attempt to mask self-interest in noble language, to take some relative good, whether religious, political or economic, and make it absolute. I believe that we have no greater contribution to make to our society than to unmask such pretension. Alan Greenspan may be shocked to discover that gambling has been going on in the casino, but we are not. John Gardner long ago called us to be "loving critics" of our institutions. We can help our fellow citizens to see our current crisis for what it is: the inevitable result of putting trust in a false god.

And then perhaps we may move together toward a new economic model - more humble and realistic, less driven by the interests of the few, more oriented toward justice and the common good.

A Reflection by Richard G. Watts, D.Min.
McKinley Memorial Presbyterian Church
Champaign, Illinois
September 13, 2009

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Just something to consider...

Someone to need you too much
Someone to know you too well
Someone to pull you up short
And put you through hell
And give you support
For being alive...

(Stephen Sondheim, "Being Alive," from Company)

It was 8:10 PM Saturday, well after dark, as I drove through our development towards home. And as I came up to our duplex, my heart sank and panic set it.

It was after dark, and Chris hadn't made it home.

My mind started racing. Chris had left at 6:20 PM to go for a short hour's ride on his bicycle. His black road bike. When I saw him leave, he was dressed in an orange biking shirt and black shorts, and he was only going to be gone for an hour - because he knew sunset would be at 7:30. He went on his way; I went off to Office Depot to get some supplies, and then off to Godfathers Pizza for our typical motocross-watching feast (a large sausage pizza).

The plan was that I'd meet him back at the duplex at around 7:30. But they messed our order up (mushrooms - ick), and so I waited while made us a new one. I called and left him a message on his cell, but figured he was showering after his ride. No big deal.

But then I came home, and Chris wasn't there. And I panicked.

You see, Chris has been riding bikes a long time. And he knew not to ride bikes after dark - especially since his bike didn't have a front or rear light. And yet, his truck was here, his bike was gone and so was he - and it was after dark. That could only mean trouble.

I did the first sensible thing - called his cell. No answer. Called again - two-calls-in-a-row is our signal for "trouble - pick up." I left the inevitable "call me AS SOON as you get this!" demandment, then hung up - and started to pray for direction. Because if he was (by then) 50 minutes overdue, and not responding, I knew he had to be really in trouble.

So I picked up and pressed the three hardest numbers to dial when you're thinking about a loved one - "9-1-1" - and waited. I told the 911 voice that my housemate was out on a bicycle in the fields between Urbana and Rantoul, uncharacteristically overdue, and unresponsive. "Have there been any... reports of trouble ... involving a bicyclist in this area in the last hour? ..." I forced out.

"We haven't had any reports of any accidents or incidents regarding a bicycle anywhere in the area in the last two hours, sir," the 911 operator said. His tone of voice was meant to be calming, conveying that "I'm sure this is nothing to be worried about" message.

But the voices in my head weren't hearing it. Instead, they were screaming, "Well, then - send your people OUT there and FIND him, for God's sake! He's NEVER late without calling, EVER! He's already been hit once on a bicycle, two years ago, and left for dead in a ditch! Don't you understand?!? This is Chris, the man I LOVE we're talking about here!"

Instead, the one shred of level-headedness still resident in my brain said, "I'll try retracing his route - I'll call back if I need to," thanked the man and hung up.

About thirty-five voices in my head started shouting all at once; if they were strung all together, it would've sounded something like this:
Are you over-reacting?
Of course I'm not over-reacting, you moron! HE KNOWS better than this.
Wouldn't he call if he was in trouble?
But what if he can't call?!? What if he's lying in some ditch, with his cell phone underwater, or smashed?
What if he's unconscious, or worse?
Dear God, you can't just have brought this guy INTO my life and dragged us clear to ILLINOIS, of all places, just to have you take him back OUT of my life, could you?
And what the HELL am I doing, still standing here listening to myself blithering, for God's sake?
With that I left a note that said "GONE TO FIND YOU - IF YOU GET THIS, CALL ME IMMEDIATELY!" and raced out the door.

I had my hand on the door-handle of his pickup when the phone rang. When I saw it was Chris' caller-ID, I shouted "OH THANK YOU, JESUS!" then punched the answer-button and yelled "WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU?!?"

Ten-minutes-that-seemed-like-an-hour later, when he pedaled his way up to the garage, I gave him a minute to dismount and catch his breath before I grabbed him and hugged him. Hugged him and gave thanks to God that he was back with me and safe.

It took a minute before I let him start to describe what had happened - one wrong turn and then another; listening to that silly voice that says, "Oh, no problem, I can handle this;" and a desperately bad estimate of how fast the sun would set - and more than a little panic on his part as well. I could see how it could happen - how I could have been in the very same place myself...

So we ate some lukewarm pizza, and talked about how the first sign of trouble for either of us should trigger the "E.T. syndrome" - phone home - and how the bike will not go back out on the road without marker-lights fore and aft. All was forgiven, all was comforted, and smoothed over with three hours of motocross racing, courtesy of the Speed Channel. And I drifted off to sleep with prayers of thanks for the safe return of the man I love.

Now normally, I wouldn't even bother to share this. After all, it was just an hour of drama in the otherwise boring life of two reasonably contented, average men. However, in the aftermath of the comments around the ELCA's vote about same-sex partnered clergy, I needed to give this testimony...

You see, I've known for a quite a while now how much I love Chris, and how much he loves me. Not "lusts after," not "desireth the same flesh," but love. Real love. There is a lot more agape and filios than there ever was of eros, folks.

I am reasonably certain that if the spouse of any married person reading this would turn up inexplicably missing, their thoughts might well parallel those I've described. Even the possibility of living without the love of your life would be no more tolerable to you and yours than it was for me and mine.

If I were feeling theological, I would say that your relationship and mine are homoousios - of the same substance and essence. Not homoi ousios (similar in nature), but homo (which has to be some kind of cosmic pun). Same ingredients, same stuff. Love, commitment, affection, interdependence.

I believe that the taboos that the ELCA has called its churches to reconsider regarding men like Chris and I are no less challenging than those that the apostle Peter faced in Acts 10. It was absolutely unlawful for Peter to even TALK to those Gentiles; yet he heard the call to share the Good News with them. And then made the Spirit-led decision to baptize them into the fellowship of the Spirit!

They got over it; they got past it. Why is it so hard for us to do the same?

How terribly different is it for the Church to see us? The Gentiles were outcast, despised, against the moral standards and sinful in the eyes of The Church at the time. And yet, in so many ways, the Gentiles were not so different. And in the end, they heard the Word from Peter, and the Spirit moved.

Am I so different than you? I love my partner as you do yours. I am committed to be faithful to him, just as you are committed to be faithful to yours. Perhaps more committed – because there is plenty of social and religious pressure for me to abandon this man, and forsake this relationship. And yet I can’t even consider it. For half an hour, I stared into the abyss and had to consider what life without this man might be – and I couldn’t face it.

My faith has not changed; my hunger to reach those who need Christ has not changed. It has, in fact, sharpened – because I see the spiritual wounding in the gay/lesbian community that has separated so many people from the faith communities of their families and loved ones. I am the same man who stood in a church and Overland Park, Kansas and wept at the memorial service for my faith mentor and pastor. I am the same man whom faithful, praying saints of the church urged to pursue leadership in the church.

In many ways, I have little vested interest in what happens to the ELCA – after all, they rejected me, and the gifts I offered five years ago (including, I might add, a willing commitment to celibate ministry). So if others reject the ELCA, there’s an icky little part of me that doesn’t feel all that bad.

But I guess I have to ask those of you who plan to leave the ELCA: are you sure - I mean, really, really certain – that what Chris and I represent is enough to sunder the unity of The Church Universal that I’ve heard you preach about for years? Are you really, really sure that this is the absolute, number-one, sheep-and-goats issue that you need to divide the church over?

To be honest, I don’t even need to know the answers – I’m way past that point. I just had to ask the questions. Regardless which path get taken, I wish everyone involved well.

As for me, I have already said the words I have heard at so many ceremonies before:
But Ruth replied, "Don't urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. (Ruth 1:16, NIV)
Here I stand ... I can do no other.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

A place of healing, a place of hope

Oh, there's nothing as sweet as fellowship
As we share each other’s hearts...
Sweet, sweet fellowship...

- the group Acappella

It's been a long, long time since I could say that about a church. Thanks be to God, I can say it today.

For the last four years, I have been waging a 3-sided internal battle. On one side, I've been wanting to again be a part of a fellowship of Christian believers. On another side, I've not wanted to go any place where I am not wanted (having become an "I'd rather switch than fight" kind of fellow). And on yet another side, I've not wanted to end up the one round peg in a set of otherwise square pegs.

In my search, I found churches where I could be active, but closeted; I found churches where I could be out, but the theology was way too watered down. And I found churches who were accepting of anyone, because they were just desperate for live bodies - anyone with a pulse was welcome as long as they were willing to pitch in.

Then for the last year, Chris was working until midnights on Saturday and then he was working again on Sunday afternoons. I was simply too jealous of our one-morning-a-week-to-sleep-in to give it away looking for a potential church home, so the idea sat on hold.

Then the move to Champaign came, and we were both finally on the same Monday/Friday schedule. Once we got settled in, I went to the GCN "Welcoming Churches" website, and instantly one church stood out among the rest. Their website, the person we talked to on the phone, everything about them shouted "welcome."

What sold us both was the welcome, and the worship...

We came in the door, and someone immediately welcomed us with a cheery “Hi, have you been here before?” When I introduced myself "and my partner Chris,” the response was “We’re SO glad to have you here!...” We were ushered into the sanctuary and plied with coffee, banana-nut bread, and then led over to see the church's beautiful stained-glass windows. Specifically, the newest one… this one:

If you note, the top of the window has the pink-triangle that was both a symbol of shame in World War II as well as the symbol of the early gay community. Below it are rainbows, symbols of the GLBT community from the 70's until the current day. There is red-ribbon which is the reminder of HIV/AIDS sufferers world-wide, and the heart with tongues of flame symbolizing the presence of the Spirit resident in the hearts of believers. The peaceful, pastoral scenes symbolize a place of peace and rest, while the hands of the community supporting the clasped hands of two men and two women symbolized the support this church wanted to give the GLBT community. (You can see it more clearly over here...)

Down at the bottom, there are two scriptures - I don't remember the first, but the second is Galatians 3:28 - "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

The lady who greeted us told us proudly that to the best of her knowledge, this is the only GLBT-affirming stained-glass window in a church the US. (I'm sure it's the only one in a Presbyterian church in America.) The bottom line, she said, was that this church wanted us (and people like us) to feel welcomed and affirmed.

It was all I could do not to weep tears of joy....that anyone would make a commitment in the very structure of the sanctuary to share that message. How could we not feel at home?

This next item will sound ridiculous and trivial, but it's worth mentioning, especially to my Lutheran friends. I've been in churches which fought tooth-and-nail about having coffee in the sanctuary, or even in the narthex. Not this congregation...they have no narthex to speak of, so when the church was being remodeled, they put nooks on both sides of the back of the sanctuary, for coffee-pots and coffee-mug racks (no styrofoam cups here; this congregation believes that "being good stewards of the earth" means not filling up landfills!). A group of members provide fresh baked goods to go with the coffee every Sunday, and it's just expected that responsible people will (a) take their coffee and sweets to their pew, (b) clean up after themselves, and (c) wash their own mugs afterwards! And a stone sanctuary floor means no carpet to get stained...

The church was built in 1911. Back 15 years ago, the massive roof beams were found to have some sort of rot problems, and the church was all but condemned to be bulldozed. A way was found to re-strengthen the beams with some hardening resin, and the church interior was remodeled as well. The seating is now in the form of a T, with seating on either side of the beautiful wooden altar, which is on the floor-level with the congregation. The former altar space is now occupied by a small but respectable pipe organ, and a beautifully restored stained-glass figure of Christ looks down from above the organ.

Chris came from a very relaxed, family/house-church style of worship - where the "prayers of the congregation" were actually done by the congregation, where there were no bulletins, no order of worship, just a retired pastor and his flock gathered in folding chairs and couches around a piano in a community center. I had come from a congregation that regularly had 1,000 people a Sunday for worship, with a pre-printed liturgy in a bound bulletin, multiple hymnals - while not hardly as lock-step as many Lutheran communities are wont to be, it was hardly spontaneous worship.

But I had also come from a group of people who'd introduced me to Taize' (teh-ZAY) singing, to Maranatha's worship-n-praise, and to all-night prayer-vigils locked-in at the church sanctuary. I'd been through the "worship wars," the our-way-or-the-highway worship committee meetings, and encountered people who either believed that synthesizers were of the devil, or people who believed that they'd rather stay home than listen to one more organ prelude. As a result of all that (not to mention the emphasis on high liturgy at seminary, I've generally concluded that more diversity in worship meant more ways to experience God. But it had been a long time since I'd experienced that diversity.

Until we walked into McKinley Presbyterian Church.

Our first Sunday, I was greeted by some of the same Taize' songs I had sung back nearly a dozen years ago - the memory of which literally brought tears of joy to my eyes. As we sang we looked around the congregation - taking in the physical beauty of the sanctuary and the peace of the community. Chris and I were astonished that we were just one among many same-sex couples present, surrounded by a congregation for whom it was just no big deal in such a way that we instantly felt both welcomed and accepted.

As the Christ candle was lit, the congregation was invited to come forward and light candles symbolizing their prayers for peace - something which the congregation has done since the Sunday before the current Iraq war began. The beauty of the pipe organ did not overwhelm the congregation, but seemed to lift it up and support it. The prayers of the congregation were "popcorn-style" (whatever popped up, so to speak), and even the Lord's Prayer was said in a format that came from Tanzania or another African group of believers.

In short, everything was familiar, everything was similar - but nothing was the same.

My ELCA Lutheran friends will understand this image ... you know the kind of worship services that you have at the regional Synod conferences? Where everything's a little edgy, everything's in somewhat the same location, but nothing's exactly as you've known it at your home church and it all feels new and a little strange, but somehow cool?

Welcome to our worship - each and every Sunday.

Today, the Gospel reading was the woman who was bleeding, and touched Jesus' robe. The sermon dealt with healing and restoration - and talked about how the women who bled and the girl who died were both ritually unclean and untouchable. Their healing was not only physical healing, but social restoration - being returned into the community from which they had been excluded.

Today, as communities around the world celebrate Pride Week with parades and marches and so much more, Chris and I simply celebrated being home - being healed and restored to a sense of community in new and powerful ways. It is not so much that we are in a gay-friendly church - it's that we can worship here, and no one really gives a rat's patootie what we are. We are simply two among many of the Children of the Heavenly Father in ways that I have never before experienced - and as the old song says, it's a good feelin' to know....

I am looking forward to the ways in which God will use this community in both our lives.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Synchro Blog - Bridging the Gap, and loving our neighbours

And yes, I spelled "neighbours" correctly - specifically for some friends I've never met in Canada....

New Direction Ministries is a former Exodus ex-gay ministry based in Canada. Earlier this year they left Exodus because they disagreed with the direction and rhetoric of Exodus, which cost them a lot of support and funding. Since leaving Exodus their goal has been to be an important voice in trying to "bridge the gap" between gay people and religious people.

I heard Wendy Gritter, the director of New Directions, interviewed on Gay Christian Network's GCN Radio (you can hear the whole interview by going here, going to the May 29, 2009 show and click on "Listen to this show"), or you can also download an MP3 recording of it there.

I was so touched with her commitment to building bridges between all the parties in the gay/Christian/gay Christian issue that when she mentioned the idea of a concerted effort to blog together about how to "bridge the gap" I couldn't help but participate. You can see more on their Bridging the Gap SynchroBlog project here as well as the "day of the Synchro" post here.

If there was one thing I'd like to share with my fellow Christians on this Bridging The Gap day, is would be this: please, please - listen to your gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered neighbors. Listen to what we have to say - about our lives, our faith, our doubts, and our fears. Please don't assume that because you know we're gay, that you know everything you need to know about us - because you don't.

There is only one way we will ever bridge this gap between the gay community and the Christian community - and that's when men and women on both sides stop shouting at each other, and start listening. When Christians start to hear the woundedness and loneliness in the gay community, when they can see gay persons as human beings, and not as stereotypes - and when people in the gay community stop to listen beyond the "going to hell" chanting to see that there are people of great heart and great love in the Christian community, that is when we will start to grow closer.

As part of this listening effort, I make this gentle request to my straight Christian sisters and brothers. When someone speaks to a gay person like me, the one thing they don't need to do is tell me about those seven bible texts - so infamous in the gay community that they are known as "the clobber passages," because we keep getting clobbered with them by church folks. So many of us GLBT people have been told by well-meaning Christians that their homosexuality is the one sin that will keep them out of heaven - as if there were such a thing!

Let me start this "getting to know you" conversation. Let's face it - it's impossible to "know" a person from a few paragraphs of writing on one day. So I invite you, gently, to get to know me a little more....or maybe a lot...
After I'd left seminary, I started a post-seminary blog called Ragamuffin Ramblings. Even after I left seminary, it was more than a year before I could face coming out to my Christian friends, especially those who had supported me in my ministry quest. This blog post was that coming-out.

In response to Peterson Toscano's question on a GCN forum, I wrote "What I wish straight Christians knew." You may be surprised at what you find there...

For a year before I came-out in that first post above, I had been blogging about my coming-out process on "A Rainbow Flag in Narnia," to keep my "outing" process separate from my "after-seminary" process. During that time, I had a "close encounter" with a former pastor, who tried to liken homosexuality to alcoholism (just say no, in so many words), and out of that came this posting about how homosexuality was much closer to "being a Gentile in Bible times" than "being an alcoholic."

In response to a request from Christian Cryder (a fellow bloggger, church planter and minister in Montana) I wrote this - which is definitely "get a fresh pot of coffee and a donut or two" posting. It is a response to a bunch of questions that brother Cryder had about my faith and my understanding of homosexuality.

Five years ago, I wrote this post asking the church what was really incompatible with Christian teaching. Only two people had the guts to respond to this post in five years of blogging...
My prayer in spilling all of this digital ink is simply this - to give you, the reader, an insight into my life and faith. My hope, throughout this exercise, is that stories will be shared and heard, and people who are concerned about issues of faith and homosexuality will hear common voices.

For now, I leave this effort in God's hands, and leave you with my favorite prayer from the Lutheran Book of Worship, which I have used throughout my journey of faith:
Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen. (LBW page 137)
Amen, indeed.

(Credit where credit is due: The image of cross at the beginning of this post is a drawing by my friend and talented Ohio artist Jason Ingram. The image of the cross surrounded by the rainbow is the logo from Affirm United, a GLBT-welcoming ministry within the United Church of Canada. Thanks to Peter Fergus-Moore for the hat-tip!)

Monday, June 08, 2009

Thoughts on "holy unions" and same-sex marriage

Late afternoon, Saturday...

I am sitting in a shady spot at The Badlands Offroad Park in Attica, Indiana. All around me there are the rasps and roars of off-road vehicles - everything from the bumblebee buzz-whine of 125cc 2-stroke dirt bikes to the throaty roar of high-powered dune buggies, and everything in between. For folks who would forsake pavement to ride through the great outdoors, The Badlands is a mid-US mecca for off-roading (I forget how many hundreds of acres they have here). Today Chris is just doing a blow-the-dust-out and get-acquainted ride on his Yamaha WR426 (I mention it only because someone, somewhere, may want to know what he rides, I guess - and because I care enough to know, believe it or not!).

Riding a motorcycle holds no thrill for me - I have enough trouble balancing on four wheels - but I enjoy being outdoors when it's cool and breezy, and Chris has been longing to come to The Badlands ever since he first thought about coming to Champaign.

So here we are. It's cool, shady and breezy, and I have a sufficient supply of pretzels and Diet Coke, and about 3 hours of battery time on ye olde laptop. So as he's off on his first dream-ride, I have some time to catch-up, reflect, and ponder life around me.

For a number of reasons, my thoughts have been turning to questions of faith, and questions of church. One of the valuable lessons which the two decades have taught me is that questions of church are quite, quite separate from questions of faith. I will be forever grateful to the communities which helped form my faith - but I am also very glad that there were non-church communities that helped my faith survive when the church world failed me.

For many of my former seminary friends still in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), this is the weekend of several Synod conferences...gatherings of the regional governing conferences within the ELCA. It is a time when bishops are elected, and policy is either set (for a region) or recommended to the greater Churchwide Assembly for action. Synod conferences can be a time of stunning boredom, of great inspiration, or great frustration (sometimes in equal measures!), especially as the regional synods act on resolutions which can indicate an area's stand on certain issues.

It was out of these regional resolutions that the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in 2007 took the step to "memorialize" (without getting painfully technical, to make a non-binding recommendation to the Church at large) that ELCA bishops did not have to enforce the rules on clergy in committed same-sex relationships. The rules still stood - clergy should be monogamous within traditional marriage, and celibate outside of it. Nothing changed there.

But up to that point, the rulebook essentially said that clergy found to be in committed, monogamous same-sex relationships were to be removed from the roster of ordained clergy, period - effectively defrocking them. What happened in 2007 wasn't a giant step forward - as I wrote earlier, the bishops still hold the gun, and it's still loaded - but the action two years ago allows the bishops to not have to "pull the trigger" and remove partnered GLBT clergy. The action of the ELCA allows their bishops to choose mercy (imagine that in a Christian organization!...), where there once was no room for it.

I've seen updates this weekend on Facebook from my former classmates attending their synod conferences, and some of them are hearing the same old language on same-sex marriage and partnered GLBT clergy - abomination, sin, death, rejection. But the joy, for me, is hearing them some of them angered by it, resisting it - and speaking out against it. For those of you who are in that group, and are reading this, my partner and I give thanks to you, and give thanks for God for you and your voice.

That, by the way, is one of the reasons I am "out" - not because I feel the need to convert anyone, wear a rainbow flag banner, or any of that nonsense, but to simply put a face (or a pair of faces) on this issue. My prayer is that men and women of faith, when they hear these discussions about same-sex relationships, will realize, "That's Steve they're talking about. My friend... coworker.... fellow student... church member... neighbor. We're talking about Steve, and his partner Chris. Not some fear-based mythical stereotype, but a person I've worked with, and laughed with, and prayed with, and lived with."

Several people have asked me if I want to have a "holy union" ceremony (the Presbyterian church we attend does that), and I think they are surprised by the answer. You see, anyone who spends time with us doesn't have to ask if we are a couple. It's not because we are some lovey-dovey, please-get-a-room kind of people, but because we care for each other, deeply - and I think that kind of love and care becomes obvious, even if you aren't used to seeing it between two men.

We are committed to each other. At one point near the start of our relationship, Chris said something like, " think you'll keep me for a while?...." and I jokingly told him that we'd see how we do for the first forty years, and still occasionally tell him that he only has 38 years left before he can re-negotiate this deal between us.

To be honest, there is nothing that a church can do to legitimize our relationship that McKinley Presbyterian Church in Champaign hasn't already done. The pastors and members greet us as a partnered couple; no one bats an eye when we hold hands when we pray in worship; it's just no big deal in so many ways that I can't even begin to explain to someone who has not seen a truly open-and-affirming congregation. This congregation already recognizes our relationship; we don't need a ceremony or a party to get there. My family doesn't need a holy-union to recognize our commitment to each other, either. We celebrate that union every time we get together with them.

My dream would be to have a "holy union ceremony" where it would matter most - in Chicago, among my former seminary and AA sisters and brothers; or in Kansas City, among my former church members and AA friends who have loved me, supported me, and know my faith; or in Springfield, MO, among Chris's family and friends. It would be the chance for our family and friends to join us in celebrating a life-long commitment to love, to publicly affirm our belief that God says to Chris and I, "This love is good in My sight," and to build community as the early church did - with some really, really good food. (Wonder if Arthur Bryant's or Oklahoma Joes's would cater? Now that would be a "dream wedding"!)

It couldn't happen at LSTC in Chicago, nor at Atonement Lutheran in Kansas - the ELCA just isn't there yet, and won't "get there" for some years to come, I think. I don't think we could even do it at the Hollis Center, an ELCA-supported retreat center west of KC - too much church support would be jeopardized if the word got out. Maybe Arthur Bryant's up at the Casino wouldn't be such a bad idea, after least we wouldn't have to worry about Fred Phelps picketing us there...

The only legitimacy that my relationship with Chris can gain is in legal and civil rights - rights of survivorship, joint property ownership, being treated as "family" in a hospital setting, and things like this. That's the reason why we are advocates for same-sex marriage - not for the cake and candles, or the chance to be his-and-his Bridezillas - but so this bond between us can receive the same legal and social blessing from the rest of the world that McKinley Church has already bestowed upon us.

Until that day, we will soldier on as we have, trusting in God's acceptance and love, and praying for the same from His followers. May it come quickly, Lord.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Facebook, reunions and Paul Anka

Good morning, yesterday
You wake up and time has slipped away
And suddenly it's hard to find
The memories you left behind
Remember, do you remember?

The laughter and the tears
The shadows of misty yesteryears
The good times and the bad you've seen
And all the others in between
Remember, do you remember
The times of your life...

Paul Anka, The Times of Your Life

I'm not really sure where "the times of my life" have gone, lately. How did it get to be the tail-end of June, already?

Life has been busy, of that there has been no doubt. And yet, I've been both full of ideas to write down, and singularly uninspired to write them down. I have found myself asking questions like, "Am I depressed? Am I done with this writing thing? What is the deal here?...."

Part of it, of course, is just living life. When I first started blogging, I felt terribly isolated and in the midst of trying to figure-it-all-out. And I am (thankfully) just not there any more.

Another part of my blogging, at one point, was a desperate need to both understand and to be understood. I wanted people to "get where I was coming from," to use the vernacular. And (for better or worse, I guess) I'm less concerned with that. As the classic song from La Cage Aux Folles says, "I am what I am, and what I am needs no excuses..."

But the third reason for this - and for me, any more, the most important one - is to do some public journaling: sharing thoughts, sharing experiences, and just catching-up and reflecting on life. So, in that spirit, here's a bit of where we are (though "where we are now" will probably take a number of posts to get through).

We have been here in The Little Big 12 (11? 13?) College Town In The Corn for 14 months now. I have legitimate Illinois plates, drivers license and insurance, all paid up and all at the same address (a true sign of respectability, a friend once said). And we are settling into a bit of a routine, finally.

It took me a while to realize it, but I have moved twice in one year, and five times in six years. I even had to write it down to figure it out:

Kansas to Chicago/LSTC - Aug 2003
LSTC to S. Chicago/Pullman - July 2005
S. Chicago to Waterville, OH - Oct 2006
Waterville to Whitehouse, OH - Oct 2008
Whitehouse OH to Urbana, IL - April 2009

So the sense of "having things in their place" is a relatively new thing. And a good thing.

The Paul Anka song, however, refers to an upcoming rite-of-passage for me - my 35-year high-school class reunion. I am struck with an ambivalence about it I wouldn't previously have imagined, and to be honest, Facebook is a big part of that ambivalence.

Facebook, for me, is a way to "just check in" with friends near and far. If a group of folks from the local AA community are getting together, I hear about it; same with friends in Kansas with ailing family members, or a buddy in Toledo that's received good news. It's how I first heard about the EF3 tornado that smashed through Millbury and Lake Township, home to one of the DeMolay chapters I was involved with several years ago.

I don't play all the games, quizzes, petitions, blah blah blah. There are a select few sites I keep up with, like the ThirdSpace group that Peter Fergus-Moore led me to. But otherwise, it's just "keeping up with folks."

Just after I signed on to Facebook (or FB), I started getting pinged by folks from my high school. About 99.44% of those were the few folks (like, half-a-dozen) from choir and the theater group with whom I'd managed to stay in touch. But then the talk came about the potential date for a 35-year reunion (our class has been AWFUL about doing reunions from the 5-year on up). And activity started to pick up.

And it was the weirdest thing - dozens and dozens of people who could have cared less about me for three and a half decades now wanted to be "FB friends." But when you are a FB "friend," you get to see every post they put up: when their kid wins an award, what they're having for dinner, what the neato-coolo dance joint they went to, and whether the rain will hold off long enough to mow the yard.

I don't mind this from the people who've stayed in touch; but I really didn't care to have that level of detail from 200 or so people who I'm (at best) glad to spend a couple hours with in July. So I've been a bit of a troll, ignoring most FB friend requests. I'll see 'em at the reunion, have some laughs, and let it go.

It's strange - I'm sure I'm not the first person who's wondered about how the reunion will go. Who will show up, who won't; who's still married, and who have been serial monogamists. I wonder if I'm the only one among my class who came out as gay; statistically, it's not likely that I am, but it will be interesting if anyone else actually RSVPs to the reunion with a partner (as opposed to spouse).

And it will be interesting to play the "whatever happened to ol' what's-his-name...." game. There are days when I wonder - although, to be rigorously honest, I'd have preferred a reunion with the class of '75 (my class) and the class of '76, as well, since a number of my friends were not in the same class as I was.

It will be a time of passage - and I probably won't go to another one (in the unlikely chance that another one is held at 40 or 50 years). That's history - ancient history. And to be frank, I'm more focused in now and going-forward than going-back, these days.

To my blogging friends, if you're still listening, thanks for your patience. More to come...

Thursday, May 14, 2009


Starting over, nearly five years in...

It's been 65 days since I went into St Luke's Hospital in Toledo, complaining of chest pains. In that 50 days, a lot has happened, and blogging has simply been pushed near the back of the pack, so to speak. So now, as the holiday weekend ends and a new week begins, it's time to catch up, and reboot my blog.

A scant 38 days ago, Chris got the phone call he'd come to believe wouldn't come - a call from his dream employer with an offer for his dream job: doing product support for the second-biggest remote-control hobby distributor in the country, in Champaign, IL . The call came April 3rd, as we were leaving the Weak Signals RC trade show in Toledo - it turns out one of the biggest RC product gatherings in the country happens in Toledo the first week in April every year (and I never, ever knew that - even after living in Toledo for 30 years - until I met Chris).

His phone rang, he looked at the caller ID, and just registered this "NOW what?" look. As I watched his face, I could tell - like he'd been throwing himself against a door for a year, and when he turned his back on it, it swung open all by itself. The challenge, of course, was the timing: it was after the first of the month, our landlord required 30 days notice - and the New Job wanted him there by the 27th.

Twenty one days later, on April 24th, the 26-foot Penske truck, the Camry and the F-150 were loaded to the gills and we were on our way. A couple of retired AA friends were driving the Penske truck, so we could make the trip once. We had a late start - it is a moving truism that "90% of the stuff takes 90% of the time - and the last 10% of the stuff ALSO takes 90% of the time. " And we tossed some stuff that was marginal, that we ended up replacing when we got here - just because there was simply no more room anywhere to put it.

Six hour later, we landed in Champaign-Urbana, and checked into the motel for the night (the water wouldn't be on in the duplex until the following morning!...). We had a great meal together, and then my AA buddies and I went to my first meeting in "the new world." The next morning, we sent them home in a one-way rental car, and we started the task of unpacking and settling-in to our new world.

We've had 4 weeks here. The boxes are either put away or neatly organized in garage storage. Pictures are on the wall, Chris' workshop is in perfect order, and I am trying to keep my office chaos to a minimum in my new world. It looks, and feels, like home. One of Chris' employment benefits is cheap membership for himself and one other at The Fitness Center in Champaign - so he's become "a regular" and I'm working on getting to be a "periodic." And the insanity has come way, way down.

And we've found a church home - which will be a post in itself. Suffice it to say that McKinley Presbyterian seems, at first blush, to be everything we could hope: a friendly, welcoming and accepting "More Light" congregation.

We spent the Memorial Day weekend in Chicago - Chris flew his float-plane off the water for the first time, and I showed him around some of Chicago (you can't do much in one day, obviously). That trip will be yet another post.

Whatever happens - with my health, with my job, with the two of us - it seems we are in the best place for it. My prayer is that this will be a time of restoration and renewal for both of us. So far, it seems to be just that.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Filling in that one blank

No matter what our chronological age is, we never really become an adult until we are asked to fill-in the blank that says, "Please list your next of kin." I think we never truly mature until the moment that we acknowledge our mortality.

I don't remember who said that quote first, but I remember hearing thoughts like this early on from my dear friend Ted, and then hearing it echoed later-on in meetings in recovery. For quite a while, I've believed the core of that thought - that childhood is connected to that "I'm gonna live forever" idea, while adulthood seems to bring with it an understanding of finite existence.

I had "the conversation" with Chris tonight. The one where I told him where the bank accounts are, where the title to the car is, what the passwords on the various email and phone accounts are. And I made out a list of who-to-call, "just in case." While there's a logical, rational part of me that says that this is just a cardiac catheterization, not "farewell," you moron, there's another part of me that knows all too well that while I trust God to catch my immortal soul, He makes no guarantee about this fragile earthly shell.

For that reason, there have been a thousand thoughts racing around my head tonight - and not all of them have been chock-full of gratitude, to be honest. For a number of years, I have had problems with "prayers for healing" - because I have known a number of good, wonderful, upright, humble and loving servants-of-God who sickened, were prayed for and anointed with oil and fasted-for and had every kind of spiritual sacrifice for them, and died anyway.

And there is a sick, untreated part of me that's stuck in justification-by-works thinking that says If those people, who were all-that-I-would-want-to-be, didn't get saved, what chance do you have? (This is not, as you might imagine, a positive or upbeat line of reasoning...)

The fractionally-sane part of me knows better. That part of me knows about faith which is the size of a mustard seed; knows about forgiving seventy-times-seven; knows about the woman at the well and the penitent thief and the disciple who denied and yet was welcomed. That part of me knows that it's not "me down here, and them up there" on some cosmic sliding-scale of righteousness.

I try very hard to listen to that part of my mind and heart. But I don't always succeed.

There is also a part of me that prays, begging for mercy. Not for me, mind you - but for Chris. He's been rejected so many times, Lord, I pray, please don't let this end for him when it's just truly beginning, OK? And for my sister Sue - it's a McDonalds' thing, Lord - she really deserves a break today, cuz she sho'nuf hasn't had one lately.

But it seems I am still a theological work-in-process, because I can still believe that God will take care of them more than he will take care of me. Deep down inside there's still part of me that thinks I've used up all my chances - even though the rest of me wants to shout that little part down and deny it.

I was reminded, in talking with my sponsor, Bob S., and several others tonight, that regardless how this procedure comes out, a couple things are still true. The first is that I'm God's kid; I've been on God's list, even when I was walking in darkness all those years. I never did buy the idea that I am somehow "predestined" to be this or that; I was reminded that God chose me, regardless of the times that I walked (or staggered) away. As Bob said, "You've been on God's side for a long, long time, Steve. You don't owe for the flesh, any more."

I was also reminded that my life is, and always has been, in God's hands. When I got up and was feeling wonderful, or when I woke up terrified of how things might be, or on those days when I woke up and didn't give a thought to God or God's plan - I was in God's hands all those times. What is any different about tonight? Nothing, of course.

I was also reminded that (despite the absence of a black shirt and a white collar or a pulpit) I've still been able to minister to a whole lot of people, in many ways and in many places. While many of the people I went to school with have been ordained recently, I've had a time or two (or nineteen) to consider how often I've had the chance to tend to God's critters, even without a formal degree, position, or designation. I tend to forget about that - especially as I have heard a number of my younger friends calling each other "Reverend" these days. But there's room at the table for everyone, it seems - fancy collar or no.

And lastly - just in case I don't get the chance to say it: though I am far from ready for this run to end, it's still been one hell of a run for a guy like me. I have honestly had eighteen years "in the bonus round," and the last eighteen very special months in the "Super Bonus Round."

As I was reminded tonight, heaven can be my home, but I don't have to be homesick, quite yet. Even so, I can honestly say that while I haven't gotten all that I wanted, I still have gotten way, way more than I could have ever deserved. To the love of my life, to my family, and my friends far and near, I can truly say this: Soli Deo gloria - to God alone be the glory, for this glorious mess.

Thoughts from the body-n-fender shop

Thursday night, 9 PM.

I was at the Thursday night Men's meeting when I started to feel this twinge in my left chest, and a little numbness in my left arm. I thought back over the evening - Chris and I had been to two standing-room-only restaurants before settling on "comfort food" at Bob Evans, and my first thought was "...too much caffeine for one evening," and gave it no mind.

When I got home, the little twinges were a little sharper, but nothing to be alarmed about. I took an extra aspirin (just in case, you know) - and (since I have been prone to 3-4 panic attacks a year) a half-doze of medicine for that, just to be sure - and went to bed.

About 4:30, I woke up, fully awake and alert, and realized the twinges were now what I would call between "discomfort in my chest" and "chest pain." The left elbow still hurt, and the left fingers were still numb. And then "the debate" started...

From what I have heard, everyone who has had a heart attack has had this debate in their head. It starts off with, "Well, how bad IS this, really? It's not really THAT bad, is it?..." And then that thought is followed by...

- Nah, it's not really that bad...
- ...but it's not going away.
- And it's been six hours since you took the drugs.
- If it was going to go away, it would have, by now.
- But it's not that bad. It's not even painful, really.
- But - you're over fifty, over-weight, hypertense, and diabetic.
- A four-star risk-factor list, if ever there was one.
- And you're eleven miles from the hospital.
- And who knows how far the ambulance would have to come.
- But if you go, you're not gonna get out for at least a day.
- And it's gonna be a pain in the ass.
- You hate IV's worse than the prospect of a gasoline enema.
- And your partner has had a long day, and needs his sleep.
- He's had a hard week.
- And he's not an early-morning person - you KNOW that.
- And a trip to the emergency room will not help any of that...

But the deal-breaker always comes back to this: Are you sure - absolutely sure - that if something happens, you'll get him up in time? And how bad's his day gonna be if he wakes up and finds the love-of-his-life cold and dead next to him, or sprawled-out on the kitchen floor?

And the answer (for me, anyway) always comes back to Well, that would pretty much suck forever and ever, wouldn't it?

Talk about God speaking to you in a clear voice....So, off to the hospital we went, at 5 AM.

Thank God, St. Luke's in Maumee, OH had an empty emergency-room and a "chest pain to the top of the list" protocol. As soon as they had gotten the blood tests back, they knew I hadn't had a heart attack, which was good. However, since we knew that they would admit me anyway (the ER doctor said, "An admission of diabetes and a complaint of chest pain means an automatic 24-hour stay at Hotel St. Luke's, for monitoring"), I sent Chris home. No sense in two of us having to sit around, doing nothing...

Part of the ER protocol for chest-pain is administering a drug called Lopressor, to ease the load on the heart. That drug, however, also screws up the chance to do any kind of stress-testing for 24 hours. So my 24-hour stay got stretched to 48, by mid-afternoon. And the next morning, they told me that the stress-test would have to be done in two parts (the double-scan would pump too much radioactive tracer into me in one day).

So that's why it's 3 PM on Sunday, and I'm waiting eagerly for the results of the second portion of the heart scan, so I can get the hell out of here. So far the only real benefit of this stay (other than knowing that I haven't had a heart attack) is to catch up on sleep and to see the Battlestar Galactica marathon and finale on Friday night.

I've watched about all the Food Network and National Geographic I can stand. I've had it with 99% of the nonsense I've seen on SciFi, and more Catholic priests and black gospel preachers than I would have ever imagined I'd watch. I've caught up on my sleep, and am ready to go out and hit the YMCA and a Thai restaurant, each with a fervor I've not found previously.

And I'm damn tired of sleeping alone, to be honest. I've grown accustomed to the big ol' bear I live with, and I miss him terribly. (No matter how unnatural a couple of the Sunday-mornin' preachers would call it...) I've been hearin' Can't Help (Lovin' That Man o' Mine) more times than I choose to, and I'm ready (as Richard Marx would say) for him to be Back In My Arms Again.

It's been a blessing, though, to see how the community of recovery has rallied around me. I called my friend Red when it became clear I'd be here for a couple days, and he sent out an email to his list of half-a-bazillion people letting them know I was in the hospital, and my room number. About ten minutes later, I got a call from a buddy I used to go to meetings with in Kansas - who used to go to meetings here in Toledo - who got the email and wanted to know what was up.

I did the same thing on Facebook, and got a similar response. Dozens and dozens of messages, prayers, and "listen to your damn doctor" texts from across the country.

And that's the way it's been all weekend - call after call, prayer upon prayer. If ever I needed reminding how I'm blessed, I would certainly have gotten that reminder this weekend.

And I have to commend the nursing and dietary staff at St. Luke's for making the very best out of a bad situation. The dietary folks have done a wonderful job of making "low-salt, low-fat" seem tolerable, and the nurses and nurse-techs have done a great job of putting up with a whiner like me. They have made an unfortunate stay into a more-than-decent experience, and who can ask for more than that?

(Note to self: next time you have to do this, have them shave your chest AND your IV arm, right up front, in the ER. The absolute worst part about having an IV is dealing with the hair-and-tape nightmare at the end...)

I'm debating work on Monday - frankly, I could use a day of downtime after my "Less Than Excellent Weekend" here. And The Evil Empire will be there when I get back, for sure. (Well, that was a short debate, wasn't it?...)

For now, I'm just giving thanks for another day above-ground, and (as my friend Bob L in Kansas would say) "sunny-side-up, suckin' air and sober." For someone who briefly contemplated the possibility of "cold and dead on the kitchen floor" on Friday morning, that's a pretty wonderful way to be Sunday afternoon.

Thank you, to all who wrote and prayed. I know it's a gift from God that I get this day, and any that are yet to come.

Update: I am staying here another day - I now have a cardiologist, which I didn't have before, and a tentative date for cardiac catheterization Monday afternoon. Prayers would be welcome.

Monday, March 09, 2009

"Heart and Soul" and nursery rhymes

OK, here's a freaky one, that has nothing to do with anything at all...

There is, in this video, a monotone-ish female narrative, and a melodic line. I'm going to suggest that most (if not all) nursery-rhymes will fit into the narrative rhythm, just as well as...well, whatever she's saying in the background.

Try it. Let me know if you find yourself hearing
Jack and Jill
Went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water
Jack fell down
And broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after...."
or something similar every time you hear this song, from this day on....

Friday, March 06, 2009

Not a record to be proud of

Twenty-nine days without a post.

Not a sign of spiritual or emotional solidity, to be sure. Which, I guess, is what a friend would call "the God's honest truth of the matter."

My blogging absence started with not feeling quite well - a winter cold that turned into a sinus infection, then into a series of bloody noses and all kinds of plague-like symptoms that even grossed me out, at times. Started right about the time I signed up for a year of YMCA membership - which really annoyed me, at times. Sadly, however, I literally was too exhausted to even care, most days.

And then the announcement that we've been afraid of for more than a year came out: The Evil Empire will be closing our office by December 31st, and will be outsourcing our operation to their operations in Mumbai, India. The original target for the "transition" was originally in the June-to-September timeframe. But our offshore operations ended up with a surplus of India folks who have "transitioned" from another team (one of our clients, a national department-store firm, went bankrupt and ceased operations in December).

So we are creating "standard operating procedures" or SOPs (euphemism for idiot-proof job guides at the "...and the monkey pushes the button..." level of detail), and have begun the process of actually training the men and women who will be taking our jobs. I wish that I could say that I have been a resentment-free, willing participant in this process, but I have found more than a couple days when it took every fiber in my being to walk from the bedroom to the kitchen and sign on to the network at The Empire. (Could I call this chapter in my life The Empire Strikes Back, I wonder?...)

Then, my sister and brother-in-law have been even sicker than I have been - having both the respiratory and gastro-intestinal varieties of plague. Jeff is still without a job - although Sue has been sending out resumes and doing what she can. But she has been struggling with her own health, and both the advancing symptoms of fibromyalgia and the ongoing financial burdens of the now-abandoned condo (keeping enough heat on to keep pipes from freezing has still cost them almost $200 a month in this bitterly cold winter).

We do not have winters like my Canadian brothers and sisters - not even like br'er Ben up in Lansing. But the consensus of the long-timers here is that this has been the longest stretch of below-freezing weather that northwest Ohio has had in many a long year (some would say back to the epic Blizzard of '78). That has probably contributed to my bear-in-a-cave syndrome. Being sick and cold and cranky is not a pretty combination, even in a man of great character. In a whiney, self-centered bear like me, it's not been pretty at all.

But there is still much to celebrate.

Chris started his new job at a local hobby center at the end of January, and is vastly happier with his days and nights than he ever was with The Spawn of Satan Hotel. He has had a couple dances with his someday-future dream job in Champaign, but a recent trip there basically told him that the dream will still be deferred a while longer. However, our relationship remains strong, and I still thank God that this wonderful guy is in my life.

After a long-ish drought, a young man has asked me to sponsor him in the recovery process, and that has loosened some of the spiritual logjam in my soul. (I was beginning to believe that somehow I'd lost whatever it was that was attractive in sobriety, and nobody "wanted what I had." Thankfully, that doesn't seem to be the case...)

I wish I could find a faith community in which I could feel comfortable; partly I have resisted because of Chris' Sunday schedule, but to be honest, I just don't want to get into it, right now. But as Ash Wednesday came and went, I have to admit to missing the sounds of the "Holden Evening Prayer" and being a part of a caring face-to-face community of believers.

The liturgical calendar says that it is Lent - but it seems like the Easter Vigil - somewhere between crucifixion and resurrection. A time of waiting, a time of not knowing the answers, hoping for recreation, for new life. And, for now, a time for "trudging the road" - even when it seems like it is covered with cold molasses.

One day at a time, one trudging step at a time, trusting that we are moving forward - even when we cannot see the way.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

It still hurts, even now

When I was active in Kansas AA (before my abortive trip to Chicago and seminary-land), I would get asked to speak at "open" AA meetings - those meetings which are open to anyone, not just those with a desire to stop drinking. When I got asked, I almost always said "yes" - because that's what I was taught. If you're asked by AA, and you can possibly do it, the answer was "yes."

A fellow frequently joined me. He was a year "younger" in sobriety than me, but otherwise we were nothing alike. He was barely a high-school graduate; I was "the college boy." I'd never even gotten a DUI; he was a guest of the Kansas penitentiary system twice. I'd only done marijuana once; he was like "Mikey" in the Life cereal commercials - he'd try anything (and liked it all, too). Folks got such a kick out of our duo, they nicknamed us "The Choir-boy and The Convict." We had vastly different stories, and yet had grown to be fast friends in sobriety.

Since I'd been in Ohio, I'd only gotten to "tell my story" once in 2-1/2 years here. So I was whining about how "no one wants what I have, evidently" and a fellow immediately snapped me up to speak at a meeting a week ago Sunday. It would also be the first time that many of the men in my men's-meeting circle of friends would get to meet Chris - and the first time Chris would get to hear much more than snippets of my story.

It went great. There was so much I wanted to share, but you can't fit 18 years into 60 minutes in any kind of detail. Chris was delighted to meet folks, and to put faces to names he'd heard about. I didn't save anybody, but it was good to do, and several people said they were glad they got to hear my story.

The afterglow lasted through the next day - and on my way to Monday Night Men's, I thought, why not call my friend and see how he's doing? I had to admit, it would have been cool to have him there, to split the meeting with him and all my new sober friends in Toledo. So I called him up to share the joy.

What I was greeted with was a slurred, stumbling voice that I barely recognized as my friend's. And it was pretty clear his incoherent speech was not because I'd woken him up out of a sound slumber.

He was loaded. Whacked out on pain medication. He tried hard to ignore it, to act as if everything was fine. And after the shock passed, I tried to do the same. But I knew. I knew.

I've been afraid of this for a while. I'd asked him what the hell he was doing with Percoset; I told him that he was out of his mind when he was considering low doses of methadone to deal with his back and leg pain. He told me he was going to meetings, that he was doing everything through the VA Hospital, and he was doing it all exactly as prescribed.

But he's either had a stroke, which he denied, or he was just plain loaded.

I got to the meeting in shock, and when they asked for a topic, it just tumbled out. "I know I'm not responsible for his sobriety; I know I can't change him or fix him; I know I have to just let it go and go on. I know all of that. But right now, I know our relationship is never going to be the same. It feels like a part of my past died tonight, and it just hurts. And you people have told me for 18 years that when it hurts, it needs to come here. So here it is."

Not everything that happens in sobriety is joy and fun and coffee-n-cookies. Sometimes it just hurts, dead sober.

There's lots more, where that came from - my little encounter with my friend came the night before we found out that my job situation is being "offshored" to India between now and September 30th, probably closer to June 30th (maybe even sooner than that). But the fact is, it's not worth drinking over. It's not worth gorging myself on pizza or whatever, either.

Today, all I can do is take care of myself, do the best I can for my partner, and live for today to the fullest degree possible. And, of course, keep on sharing. Once again, I find myself praying a prayer that I was given a dozen years ago, when another friend threw himself off the wagon:
Dear God, please find my friend someone who can help him - because I can't. And please send me someone who needs my help - for exactly the same reason. Amen.