Monday, July 31, 2006

A glance or two over my shoulder

It has been an interesting week away from The Employer. The greedy part of me - the part that hears the alarm clock bleating and thinks, "Five more minutes?" - would like to take tomorrow off, too. But alas, it's not gonna happen. Reality is beckoning.

Things didn't quite go the way I would have chosen. But they have gone all right, I guess.

I didn't stay away from work the entire 5 days I was gone - but after Monday noon, I did. I didn't write the great manifesto I'd planned to send about how under-recognized and under-compensated I am, either. But I think I'll be much, much less resentful in five or six hours when I do start writing it than I would have been last week.

My apartment still looks like a pit - but I've at least moved the PCs into the air conditioned bedroom, so that working from home will be more tolerable.

I sure didn't want to be sick as a dog Monday night, Tuesday and Wednesday - but no one else got sick as a result, and I managed to get two books by Henri Nouwen read in between the both-ends gastric distress.

And the last three days have been damn good days.

It's 1:15 AM; and I should be in bed. But I was talking to folks in AA and responding to emails until 12:30 - and I was determined to have one last burst of "vacation" today. So it was that I sat down to four ears of the most absolutely-glorious "butter-n-sugar" bicolored sweet corn I've had in, oh, a hundred years or so. Even at 1:15 AM, it's still 84 degrees (and 86% humidity) in Chicago - so I guess perfect sweet-corn, freshly-picked this morning and freshly-boiled this evening, helps folks like me remember that even a little bit of Heaven can offset a big chunk of Hell. Well, that, and a well-blessed window air-conditioner...

"Hell Week" (and all it entails) and "the Monday after vacation" starts in about six-and-a-half hours. So I really do need to get to bed. But I'm going to bed in a lot better frame of mind than I did seven days ago, about this time. For which I give thanks to God for undeserved mercy and grace.

We'll see how long it lasts...

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Memories of doing the right thing

Some of the best times of my mis-spent youth were spent in a youth group called the Order of DeMolay - a youth fraternity sponsored by the Masonic lodge.
(A side-note: please don't write in to tell me that I'm going to hell for having been a member of a Masonic organization. I've read all the debates about how the Masons are a cult, and how Masonic membership is incompatible with Christian teaching. We can have that debate later - but after 20 years of involvement with Masonry, I'm really not buyin' it. My experience with Masonry was entirely non-toxic - unlike my experience with the Church, and much of the rest of my youth.)
After turning 21, I was honored to be an advisor for DeMolay in northwest Ohio. And after a number of years, I found myself as the advisor for a chapter in Bowling Green, OH, and one of my best friends, Ted Korn was the governor (the advisor's advisor) for northwest Ohio.

Though DeMolay (and Masonry) filled a powerful role in my teens and twenties, one of the things that pained me about Masonic organizations in Ohio was their long-standing history of racial segregation. There were separate Masonic Lodges for black and white - each with their own youth organization. And that's the way it had been ever since DeMolay was founded in 1919. While I understood the history of it, and the long-standing prejudices that fed it, I still didn't like it, nor did many of my fellow Masons.

But in the late 80's (I don't even remember the year rightly) a group of young men from the Bowling Green chapter cornered Ted and me after a meeting. As I remember it, a couple of the real smooth-talkers among them started telling us about this guy they wanted to initiate - good looking, athletic, smart, concerned for others (wanted to be a nurse after high school) ... in fact, everything our Order said it represented...

"Yes....And?..." Ted and I said almost in chorus.

"And we really want to have him in the Chapter, and he's ready to join, and he's a great guy and you'll really like him..."

"....and he's black."

And then they looked at us...and waited to see how we would respond.

Ted and I both knew what we had to do; Ted's old enough to have participated in civil-rights marches, and I'd been half-expecting this ever since I joined the group. But we also knew the kinds of opposition we would receive from some of the men in the Lodge that sponsored our chapter. And so we took a deep breath, and moved forward.

In going through some boxes yesterday, I came across the picture - Ted and I flanking the chapter leader, who is shaking the hand of a handsome young black man named Ben. Behind us are twenty or thirty of Ben's new DeMolay brothers...every one of them with a beaming smile on their face. It's a snapshot of a magical, marvelous moment - one of the few times I can say that I was part of something that made a difference.

Don't get me wrong - there were all kinds of repercussions. One former leader of our sponsoring lodge confronted me later that week, and said, "So - I hear your boys desecrated the Masonic Temple the other night!" There were lots of discussions, a goodly amount of shouting, and isolated incidents of private ugliness. But in the end, brotherhood won out - and Ben became the "first small step" in Ohio Masonry.

Sadly, there has not been a huge revolution in the racial makeup of Masonic organizations in the last 20 years, at least not in Ohio. But this weekend, as the Ohio State DeMolay organization gathers for their statewide conference, among the DeMolays' honored guests will be a group of their black brothers from the Knights of Pythagoras. And as the black Knights are escorted into the conference by their white DeMolay brothers, another bridge across the chasm of racism will be built. The cause of reconciliation between black and white will, hopefully, take another step. And I have to believe that there will be at least a few smiles in heaven.

To my brother Ted, to all those men of integrity who supported us as we took those baby steps toward justice all those years ago, and to all who labor to guide and shape the hearts and lives of young people - you have my unending admiration and respect.

I have to admit that when I finally got around to meeting Jesus, it seemed he looked a lot like you folks.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Not missing Kansas a bit, today...

Temperature check-in, thanks to WeatherBug:
- South-side of Chicago (not "the baddest part of town," but a short drive from there) - 82 degrees F (27.8 C, for my international friends...)
- Lenexa, KS (a western suburb of Kansas City) - 98 degrees F (36.7 C)
Yikes. Even if I could "go home again," I wouldn't. Yuck-o-rama...

No, I'll take this, thank you very much...before the sun came out, it was darn near tolerable here in the 'hood, even with 72% humidity...

Time to stop, time to think...time to ramble

I am just beginning day 3 of seven whole days without The Employer.

It should have been nine days - five days of "PTO" (paid time off) bracketed by two weekends. But no - The Employer even managed to invade Sunday and Monday morning. Which infuriated me...I don't get paid nearly well-enough to be that "mission-critical." Part of me wanted to just say, "OK, so my life will was hell trying to get away for a week, and it's going to be hell when I come you will have accumulated an entire week's worth of resentments for all things left undone. So why even go on vacation?"

It has taken a day and a half of almost pure sloth to slow down and calm down from that.

The answer to the question, of course is, "Because you'll either die, kill yourself or kill one of us if you don't go..." I never actually heard that said, but it kind of hung there, in the background.

So I am gone.

Tom Welling and the cast of Smallville (season 2) helped start the detox process. And now Netflix has brought me an interesting present - an anniversary recording of Leonard Bernstein's Mass, recorded live at the Vatican (of all places). Now folks, that's gonna be interesting.

I had great plans to go up to Saugatuck, MI for a couple days - but a bad tire short-circuited that on Sunday night/Monday, and now a rather nasty case of some stomach/lower-GI "thang" has my guts all in knots and my nether-regions not very far from a restroom. So the side-step to Michigan will probably have to wait. Thursday, I will go to Ohio so I can go with Sue to her neurosurgeon's appointment on Friday morning.

Sue's prognosis may well determine whether I will stay in Chicago or not. If she gets as bad as I'm afraid she is, one of my alternatives may be to move back to my hometown and move in with them to help out with her (and to help support them financially). Big decisions, scary times...

It doesn't help that this is the time of year I hate most - it was still 82 degrees at 1 AM, and it evidently got all the way down to 80 this morning. There are people who just find all kinds of joy and glory when the mercury slips past 80, and just thrive on heat and sunshine.

I do not.

I have never been a trim, fit person. And I have always been of a size that would discourage public states of undress. As a friend often said (and I have often stolen), "In the winter, I can always put more clothes on. But in the summer, there is a limit to which I can with any propriety take clothes off...

And of course, the problem is also location...location...location. Down here in the historic/hysteric Pullman neighborhood, the electric supply in these old apartments will only support one "big" window air conditioner, so my choice was to keep the bedroom cool and leave the rest of the apartment open to the elements. This worked well in my seminary apartment - but that one was a ground level apartment, and it was a big bedroom, so the bedroom was combination bed-and-office. (And it had newly-replaced windows which helped keep the cool air in, too.)

The current apartment (a) is an upper apartment, so the hot air from downstairs rises, (b) has a flat tar roof that just soaks in the heat, (c) is as leaky as a sieve, so air-conditioning the whole place on one 1-ton air conditioner is impossible, and (d) only has an 11x11 bedroom, that already has a queen bed and two dressers in it. So the migration into "one air-conditioned room" is a wee bit tough. So keeping cool is a big challenge.

But that's really not the issue. At the heart of it all, I'm beginning to think my time here in Chicago is done. Was done quite a while ago, in fact.

Yes, it can be a fun city - but I came here behind the 8-ball, financially, and have never really made it out from under that, and Chicago is really only a fun place to live if you've got money to burn, I think. Regardless of all that, it seems I've never really made Chicago "home," I think. I came here for seminary, and tried to make connections - but when the seminary dream died, I think I really gave up on a lot.

While I enjoy mass transit, for the most part, I've never really reconciled myself to being a non-driver in the city - and it sucks driving here. And it's also an extremely expensive place to live.

Gas is $3.42 a gallon here in the neighborhood, $3.39 on the way downtown, or $3.29 if I drive the 8 miles across the border to Indiana. The general 9% sales tax here applies to food,too, and is supplemented by additional taxes on restaurant food and (another 2%), depending on where you are. If I can help it, I buy anything major either in Indiana or back in Toledo. Which is a mini-rant all to itself.

But I really think I could have stopped with "I never really made it 'home'." Despite the connections I've made in AA, I have never really felt "part of" the city and the community in the way that I have elsewhere.

So I am starting to think about next steps - and who knows? Maybe that's the reason for the distress in my gut.

Topics to come:
- pictures and a boatload of memories
- prayer, and why it "works" even when it doesn't work
- liturgy as "how you might do" rather than "how you ought to do"
- and whatever else comes to mind, of course.

Thank you, again, for your prayers, your emails, and your support. They all mean more than you can know...

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Slogging through....

...I'm trying to commit to posting (something, anything) every couple of days. So this is just a flash-post, because we're in the middle of 24 hours of insanity that happens every two weeks.

I have four hours to do 8 hours work today before our 1:00 deadline. The insane Steve would have just stayed up all night and got it done, which would have been less pain in the end, but devastating to me personally. Instead, I went to bed from 2:30 until 6:45, and now am behind the 8-ball. So I took the time to write some absolutely-gotta-send emails, and now I'm off and running...late, as usual...

Basically, anything after 1:30 today doesn't really matter. So here's hoping for calmer days Thursday and Friday. And then I'm doing the unthinkable - five work days off in a row. Just thinking about the last time that happened will be a post in itself...

Monday, July 17, 2006

Well done, good and faithful servant...

"His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!' (Matthew 25:23, NIV)
My high-school/life friend John Zeigler's mother died Friday. The illness that overtook her was sudden, unexpected, and shocking...and in a week, she was gone. So it was that I was on the road to Toledo to be present for my friend in his loss.

My experience of Ann Zeigler over the last 30 years was of a woman who cared deeply for her children, her husband of 50 years, the schools she taught at for 20 years, and Park Congregational Church. The best time to visit the Zeiglers' was always when Mom Z had been baking pies - and it seemed there was always just one slice more for the next person who had stopped in to visit.

They worked hard in life, and they played well in retirement. Ann and her husband Ned traveled often, frequently bouncing from one set of grandkids to the next. I've known her son John long enough to know she was not without flaws by any means - but those flaws seemed long and far away as we gathered for the visitation in Toledo Sunday afternoon. Like the Barbra Steisand song says, "It's the laughter we will remember/ whenever we remember/The way we were." And as I thought of Mom Z's life, this verse from Matthew leapt to mind - there is no doubt that it applies to Ann Zeigler in spades.

These gatherings, sad as they are, are almost always a chance to reunite with friends and renew relationships that have drifted apart. But they also make me look at my life, if there were to be a final accounting for me this weekend. And the balance-sheet rarely looks all that positive.

I know I'm my own worse critic; as a friend often says, "Who better to judge than I? After all, I was there at the scene of all the crimes..." It becomes very easy to focus on the catalog of sins, of character defects, of all the times I turned left when I should have turned right, or the times when I could (and should) have stepped up to an opportunity, and instead stepped back in fear or doubt.

I know I'm not unique in this. As a wise friend often says, "I may not be much - but I'm all I ever think about." Self-centeredness is definitely at the top of my character-defect parade...

But my faith - cracked an wobbly though it may be at times - is that there is One who has redeemed me, who sees all my failures and sinful nature and yet still says, "I love you. No matter what you think about you, I know you - and you are Mine. I have gone ahead to prepare a place for you, and there is already a place for you at my Table. Come to me, and your soul will find rest."

And when I'm able to remember that, it's easier to put down the scorecard, to stop comparing myself and my struggles to folks like Ann Zeigler, and to simply accept the gift of grace. I can trust that Ann and I will both hear God say the words of one of my favorite praise songs:
Do not be afraid, I am with you,
I have called you each by name -
Come and follow me
I will bring you home...
I love you, and you are Mine.
Loving God, welcome your servant Ann into your presence. Let your love and your presence be like a strong, cool wind on a sweltering summer day - bringing comfort and relief to those who struggle with the loss of a wife, mother, sister, and friend. And let each of us who believe find renewed hope in the promise of life after death with you. Amen...

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Awash in gratitude

I can no other say but thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks. (Shakespeare)
"Thank you" is a very, very small phrase for the feeling of gratitude I have in my hearts for many of you.

Your outpouring of encouragement and of prayer blessed me beyond my ability to describe. I am humbled - and God (and many of you) know just how much work that takes.

There were many, many times in my life over the last year that I really, really, really felt like like I'd been in the car, with God as The Dad, and I'd been left at a roadside rest-stop. Not that I'd been rejected, or "dropped," but that somehow I had gotten out of the car, and the family of faith had left without me. It's a poor analogy - but it's the best I can do with the three remaining soporific brain cells I have left. I really felt like the community of faith had moved on, and I had been left wondering how I failed to get back in with y'all.

No, it's not rational. Yes, it does fly in the face of many folks who have affirmed me over the years. But it's also true, irrational though it may be.

Your messages of affirmation have shown the lie in all that.

So where am I today?

The morning will be devoted to one of the few rituals that have held through all this - the Saturday morning Fireside Men's AA meeting. I make the trek north from Pullman (South 115th St.) to my former seminary neighborhood in Hyde Park, and pick up oe of my sponsees. Then we journey north past downtown to North Avenue (North 22nd St.) and have breakfast at a little cafe' before the meeting. It gets me out of me for at least a couple hours.

Then I am headed to Ohio for a sad occasion. One of the only high-school friends I've kept in touch with, John Zeigler, emailed me yesterday to let me know his mother died. His mom was one of the sweetest women I've known, and she seemed to adore being a grandma. I'd not seen her in quite a while - seems to me I had just moved to Chicago, nearly 3 years ago - but even though they were older than many of our friends' parents, they were always welcoming and gracious. The funeral is Monday, but the visitation is Sunday afternoon. So I'll head out about 2 CT, get there about 6, and come back tomorrow night.

Then it's back into "hell week." (We have two seasons at work - "purgatory week," which is just medium stressful, and "hell week," which includes at least one 14- and one 18-hour work day.)

A bright note - sometime in the last couple months, as I've been off-the-map, one of my fellow bloggers, Jeff Jacobsen of So I Go, has published this remarkable book. I have to admit, his success (he's on Amazon, after all) has gotten my own writing juices going again. I'd strongly recommend Jeff's book - his blog, from which the book is taken, is filled with powerful images and a great understanding of Jesus. Very, very cool.

That's all for now - hopefully there will be a moment or two in Ohio to post...

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Coming up, after a long descent into darkness

Hello Lord
It's me, your child - I
Have a few things on my mind
Right now I'm faced with big decisions and I'm
Wondering if you have a minute, 'cuz

Right now I don't hear so well, and I was
Wondering if you could speak up
I know that you tore the veil
So I could sit with you in person
Hear what you're saying
But right now
I just can't hear you...

(Sara Groves, "Hello, Lord", from Conversations)
If one man calls you an ass, pay him no mind
If two men call you an ass, pay
them no mind
If three men call you an ass, get yourself a saddle...

(ancient parable)

When one person writes and says, "So...what's up?", it's easy to ignore it. Five people, it was pretty easy, too, to be honest. But when one email came from Canada, one came from Australia, and a bevy of emails came from people I hardly speak to any more, it was pretty hard to miss the notes of care and concern.

I am grateful to God for your concern, and your inquiries - even if I'm not grateful for much else, right now.

Yes, I am physically all right. No heart attack, no seizures, no strokes.
Yes, I'm still sober. No drinking, no drugs, no public lewdity.

Just an ever-increasing spiritual and emotional darkness that flowed into my soul over the last year, and just cut me off almost completely from the sunlight of the Spirit. If you have never known truly spirit-killing depression, I am glad for you. If you have, then you know where I've been.

How bad did it get? Pretty damn bad, actually. First, I stopped going to church; then I stopped praying; then I lost any belief that God even wanted to hear from me. Oh, I still said God wanted to hear from me; and I believed that God wanted to hear from you. I was being beaten to pieces by a battle between what I wanted to believe and what seemed to be absolutely, unarguably true.

I still have a shelf full of books on prayer; they mocked me in the silence. Trust me, there is an immense difference between knowing about prayer, actually taking the action to pray, and believing that God would want to hear my prayers. And when you've lost that belief, it's almost impossible to even "go through the motions" or "fake it till you make it," you know?

And in the midst of all this, I found an employer who was the perfect synergy of codependence and compulsive activity. My reason to get up and go to work became like the song from the musical Oliver:

I won't betray their trust
Though people say I must
I've got to stay true, just
As long as they need me....

The Employer (to protect their anonymity, too) became very much like an octopus - spraying inky blackness all around when threatened. Which, given the brokenness of their systems and procedures, was constantly. So yet another life-sucking vampire came into my life. In addition to being at work one to two days a week until 2-3 AM, I found myself not sleeping. That was when my brief adventure with anti-depressants turned me from a listless, uninspired, withdrawn, depressed man into a listless, uninspired, withdrawn, depressed man who couldn't sleep. That helped a lot, I've gotta tell you...

I stopped doing even the most basic of things - returning phone calls, cleaning the house, doing the laundry. It got pretty ugly. A series of increaingly strident demands from Codependent Associates made it even uglier. It culminated with a 32-hour marathon to meet an impossible deadline. And of course, being Dudley Do-Right, I made it...but at what cost, I wonder...

At one point, in a one-on-one with my Dilbert-esque boss, I told him that in the Spanish Inquisition, they would take heretics, place them between two immense planks, and then place large rocks on top of the top board, to crush confessions out of them. The only difference that I could see was that the Inquisition actually allowed people to DIE... whereas The Employer didn't seem that civilized. Like the sainted martyr, we indentured employees were evidently just supposed to say, "More weight...."

I wish I could say that it's all better now.

It is, in some ways. I actually started taking my blood pressure and diabetic medication again. (There was a nearly-disastrous time when I wasn't even doing that....)

Tomorrow will be my first day back at church in, oh, forever and a day, it seems. It will be interesting...the church also has a counseling center that may well provide some guidance out of the darkness.

And throughout all this, neither drinking nor suicide ever looked like serious options (though there were times when they both looked like "the easier, softer way.") That, in itself, is a gift, I suppose. (Although one might argue that my overeating and "just forgetting" to take life-prolonging medicine might have fit in the latter category...)

But the work situation, the financial situation, and the whole "WTF am I supposed to do with this insistent yearning to ministry" thing, still seems unsolvable. There are other issues - some involving one of my sisters and her health, and a couple others that don't bear mentioning yet - that are equally vexing.

It still ain't too pretty.

Like Tom Cruise in a scene from Top Gun, it seems like my fighter-jet of life has gone into a flat spin. I can hear the engines trying to re-ignite; the nose of the plane seems to be pulling up. But I've lost a lot of altitude, and there's no ejection seat in this situation....

Part of the spiritual sickness, of course, is that I would have rather had a gasoline enema than admit any of this to anyone. But I was also losing any ability to "fake it till I made it" with my writing. (Not to mention that being at a PC for 10, 12 or 18 hours at a time meant that the last thing in the world I wanted to do was sit back down in front of a PC.

This last week, though, I got several emails that basically said, "Car 54, where are you??" I got a phone call relayed by a reader to one of my old friends, basically saying, "Where's Steve?" But I have to admit that in the end, it was my Canadian blogo-sister, Erin, who sent the email that put the icing on the cake. She wrote:
If you're just too busy to write, maybe you could poke your head up so we won't worry.
If you're not alright, maybe you could poke your head up so we could know how to pray.

Either way...missing your presence...
So now you's definitely the latter.

Tonight - well, earlier this morning - I pulled down my trusty (and dusty) copy of Prayers for Daily Use. This prayer, "for one in dire extremity," caught my eye...
God of all mercy, Shepherd of every hope, the Refuge of bewildered hearts, steady us with your most tender mercy, lest the darkness of this hour hide the providences of a lifetime from our sight.

Within the shadows of our fear, your love stands waiting upon the very threshold of our need. Though we cannot see the way, guide us step by step and strengthen us for each day's journey with a peace beyond our making.

Wherever we walk, in sunshine or in shadow, show us the sign of Christ our Lord, who has gone before us and suffered all things that we might be delivered from fear, and in every extremity trust you with our life. Amen.
Amen, indeed.