Christmas 2013 – The Cutting Room Floor. Or 13 that got me through 2013.

Most of the Christmas cards I received in the mail are beautiful.

Then there is the one of my college buddies and general conspirator in mayhem, Timbo, who entitled his “Seasons Beatings.” I placed it next to another card with the classic snow-covered cottage with two beautiful small children and a bible verse. I thought to myself, “this is the spectrum of my friends. And this is why I wonder if I’m crazy.”

In our American Holiday season, we like to just post the beautiful on our Christmas cards. Because beauty to many of us is the absence of imperfections – like what we post on our social media.  

My nieces and nephews are beautiful & most certainly super cute – even when they have dirty diapers. But they belong on my brothers’ and sister’s Christmas cards – not my B-Sides. I joked with my roommate that we should do a picture of the two of us with smoking jackets, doing our best impression of the Most Interesting Man in the World…but we were too busy.

When your relationship status is single, it is clearly brought to the surface during the Holidays. During the rest of the year, I respond to the void of the “honey, how was your day” conversation by trying to connect with others – either via coffee, drinks, brunch, dinner, social media, text, phone, walking home, riding the bus/train, etc.

If you are like me, you typically cut through the crap pretty quickly because – let’s just be honest here – I don’t have time for pleasantries. If I ask a friend, “how are you doing?” and get a half-truth answer – then truthfully, is that person really my friend?

Friends are honest. And honestly, honesty is in short supply in a world when we compare our messy internal world to the airbrushed social media world of our “friends.”

I was having brunch on the last Sunday of 2013 with dear, dear friends and we lamented how hard this last year was for us. Throughout the year, I’d walk a couple of blocks over to their place and we’d sit on the porch together and we’d just…lament. The collective crap we and our friends went through was pretty awful. We lamented ours and our friends’ break-ups, breakdowns, separations, divorces, downsizings, deaths, miscarriages, rejections, car crashes, house fires, losses…

…that’s enough. I don’t wanna write any more of those words.

Even writing those words in one LONG run-on sentence on a “holiday greeting” seems like I’m being such a downer. But staring at those words in succession – man-oh-man, each of those has a story.

And they all happened. This year.

Do I just crop them out like I do in social media? Or do I take them for what they are?

Trying to write a Christmas Letter for me this year is like the the smell of a little one’s dirty diaper while taking the extended family Christmas photo. Everyone knows someone really stinks and you breathe through your teeth in your smile to avoid the smell so the world can see how “wonderful” you are.

(Not that this has happened in my family. Ever.)

But when someone names the stink, it somehow is better. Because now, everyone. can. relate. and. is. thankful. you. gave. permission. to. be. honest.

(full stop.)

So back to the Christmas Card (which is now post Christmas.)

My hipsters’ hipster ex-roommate has replaced the Holiday Greeting with his top songs of the year for like 15 years now. That usually got me through March as being “with it” when it came to music. But I’m not an audiophile like him. And I was unemployed for half of the year, so I can’t really give you pictures of me looking awesome somewhere beautiful (with the exception of a mountain – to be explained below.)

So, here are a bakers’ dozen of things that got me through 2013 – to endure the stink. Some of them are beautiful, some quirky, some brilliant, others just ordinary. But these, along with Jesus, my friends and family, helped me endure 2013 and not become a triskaidekaphobic.

1. Step Out – Jose Gonzalez. Confession: this song has been on repeat for the last three weeks for me. I love it. I’ve always appreciated his quiet, subtle sound with deep lyrics in songs like “Heartbeats.” Jose reminds me of Paul Simon. But this song, with it’s majestic drum cadence, choral chants, strings…wow. This song is the musical equivalent to mountains, something at which you can just stare and say, “wow.”

2. Climbing Mount Princeton. In July, the old PC2K gang got together again to make mayhem, argue about everything, and leave our mark on another city. We decided more on a state this year, and landed in Aspen and conquered Mount Princeton.

Mount Princeton with the guys.

Mount Princeton with the guys.

My buddy A said that Colorado left a mountain shaped hole in his heart after living there a few years. I believe it. If it weren’t for family and my love for the city of Chicago, I’d move there in a heartbeat.

Climbing a 14,000 foot mountain isn’t easy, but manageable. We were winded, for sure. But we did it together. It’s hard to believe that these guys I’ve known for nearly half of my life, and I seriously can’t imagine who I would be without them. When we pledged a fraternity and became brothers, I can honestly say I don’t think we knew the depth of influence we would have on one another. Climbing a mountain together is just another chapter in an amazing story of the most unlikely of friends.

3. Yoga. Yes, I said it. This former high school football linebacker is now a dude who practices yoga. I set my alarm for 5 AM to speed walk 28 minutes to the gym in the morning for a 6 AM Yoga class. I’m not a yogi by any means, but this practice has meant as much in my life as Sunday worship this past year. I’ve learned that I’m an embodied soul, and just listening to a person talk at me on Sunday morning hardly equates to growth. Yoga has been a slow process of seeing how stretching, waiting, resting, listening, and balance can bring a deeper strength. It’s been a physical manifestation of a spiritual reality.  

(As a side benefit, I’d say yoga is the second biggest reason why I’m finally approaching my college graduation weight and tailoring suits to fit my emerging six pack. The first? Eating right.)

I’m sure somewhere Mark Driscoll is demanding I turn in my man card, but I can still bench press more than him and chop more wood than him any day. [Enter male grunt here.]

4. This video on wealth inequality in the US. Why? Well, let’s just say I have more motivation now to plunder and redistribute wealth and power than I ever have before. In a pragmatic way, I have more insight into why things are the way they are in our country, and how to be an ordinary revolutionary that plunders one kingdom for another.

5. My spiritual director. I don’t know how I would have gotten through the last 4 years without her. Seriously, C has helped me to see presence of Jesus in my life when I couldn’t.

In the wise words of Forrest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that.”

6. Caipirinhas on the back porch with M&A. This wonderful-yet-simple drink of lime, sugar, and cachana (we’d substitute vodka ‘cause that’s how we roll in the ghetto HP) reminds me of an old friend tragically killed in a car crash in his native Brazil not long ago. L was a Kellogg student when he introduced them to me 10 years ago at a church young adults retreat, where we stole away and he showed me carefully how to crush the lime not too much to avoid the bitterness of the peel. We drank and laughed deeply as we shared stories of life together. I did the same with M&A this summer.

Before hipsters were crafting cocktails, L invited me to understand his people through the simple craft of making a drink. In a year of much lament, learning how to continue to celebrate the lives of those who have left this world has greater meaning. I celebrated my Kellogg Graduation with a Caipirinha that evening, and thanked the person who planted the first seed of business school in my mind.

7. Georgio Moroder, by Daft Punk. I’ve loved Daft Punk since Bairdo blared them through the speakers of our frat house in the bright light of the late 90’s techno world. Their latest album this summer was amazing. Everyone heard “Get Lucky,” but perhaps most brilliant was the third track, Georgio Moroder, an artful ensemble of story, spoken word, synthesizers, strings, turntables, horns, drums, beat boxing, electric guitars…and I’m sure I’m missing something in here, but I don’t want to analyze and just sit in wonder.

Georgio’s timeless line in the center of the song forms the thesis (of the song, and maybe his own life):

“Once you free your mind about the concept of harmony and of music being correct, you can do whatever you want. So nobody told me what to do, and there was no preconception of what to do.”

Innovation is so often talked about but rarely tried today because everyone plays it so damn safe. We are afraid of making mistakes or getting burned. I get it. I’ve been burned enough now that I’m totally tempted to just play it safe. So we just recycle what’s been done before because of marketability. I get it – I majored in marketing and understand the logic behind all of it. That doesn’t mean I have to like it. I just wish some others would have the courage to try.

And by “others,” I am totally projecting and really mean me.

8. This by Michael Gungor. Gosh this fed my soul when I read it. Because here is someone who captured what mentioned with Daft Punk and nailed why we are so sucky in the Evangelical subculture about being real. (Not all – for one of the most real people I know and am proud to call my friend is K – read her blog.)

After being away from professional ministry for two full years now, Michael gave words to one the largest “push factors” for leaving: Zombie Christianity.

I see this all the time today (see exhibit A) and I cringe. Because more than anything when it comes to living life on this planet, especially in hard years, I need to see the proof of the incarnation – that the Holy Spirit chooses to indwell His people today. Not Christian Zombies who parrot the pastor; but faithful folks who use their own words to describe the living work of God within them and through them.

Perhaps this is why the voices of prophets of today are often those we don’t want to hear – so they escape to the margins and find truth away the acceptance of greater society, and there they find those ideals are greater than their lives.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t without costs.

9. My career coach. I’m just going to say it: Unemployment is a bitch to the soul. J was a gift because she follows Jesus & helped me look at the big picture of where I was going with my career.

Let’s be honest: I’m on my third career in my mid thirties. When employers look at my resume, they must assume I have ADHD.  Engineer turned college pastor turned human capital consultant. I’m a man out of my time. As cool as they sound, renaissance men were meant for the renaissance. They might be surely interesting at cocktail conversation, but in today’s world it’s deep subject knowledge that matters most. I can only fake it for so long (like a minute – I’ve never really been good at deception or lying.)

J helped me think backwards from where I want to end my career, and after a long session I realized that I desire to return to the university – but as a professor. But not a research professor. I’m still a teacher on the inside, but I teach as a practitioner. I feel more called to help organizations become healthy than I ever have in my life; but I know that the future in this arena is beyond platitudes, cliches, and cheesy PowerPoint graphics – it’s in real data.

And right now, that doesn’t exist. At least not yet.

Which means I have some time to figure it out along with the rest of the world trying to get ahold of big data.

10. My Fitbit. Speaking of big data, how many steps do you take a day? My average is 11,562. Boo-yah. Why do I know this? My Fitbit. Why does this matter to me now?

When you are unemployed, you need to see progress in something. Because you experience rejection. Every day. People don’t get back to you. People avoid talking about it because they don’t want to feel uncomfortable. It’s one thing to be rejected in romantic life, but unemployment can deny you from your God given right to add value to the planet through your calling.

My Fitbit was one coping mechanism for seeing a lack of progress in my job search for a few months. So when I would rock out a 15,000 step day, there was something satisfying about that. And I can almost always put one foot in front of another.

11. John Madden’s eulogy for Pat Summerall. First, it’s a crying shame that this BEAUTIFUL piece has only 5,000 views. THAT’S RIDICULOUS. John’s love for Pat as a deep friend and broadcast partner is worth pondering.  “I know Pat is saying right now, ‘John, Brevity, Brevity, Brevity’…one more time I’m gonna talk over you.”

(Maybe I should follow Pat’s advice right now…)  

But the line that gets me tearing up every time?

“The criterion for greatness and being the best at what you do, or ever done, is can the history of what you did be written without mentioning your name?”

That’s beautiful. As I grow older, I don’t worry about carving my name on things like I did when I was younger. I just want to help people see things for what they truly are – in all of their wonder.

12. U2’s Peace on Earth. OK, another item on the list not from 2013. Fair enough. But for some asinine reason, we don’t sing sad songs in church. We sing about joy, but part of joy involves lament. Therefore joy becomes just an ideal and a theory, but in practice I know I can’t get to joy unless I walk through lament.

I can’t experience real joy until I sing these words from Bono from the depth of my soul:

Heaven on Earth, we need it now.

I’m sick of all of this hanging around.

I’m sick of sorrow, I’m sick of the pain,

I’m sick of hearing again and again,

That there is going to be Peace on Earth.

Bono wrote the song as a lament for the innocent children who died in a bombing in Ireland. I sang it after news of a tragic suicide this summer.

Sadly, this year was the second self-inflicted death that I’ve grieved. They don’t get easier with age. This one may have been harder because it was linked with the first we weathered 8 years ago. Except I saw my then-students who were grieving their college friend’s death now grieve again in their late twenties, at the same point in life when I was grieving our first loss.

Grieving in youthful naivete is different than when you have been around the block a few years. Because you just think you will bounce back – and you do.

But when the idealism is gone, I’m almost sick of hearing people say things I know are true – and they can sound so cliche.

Like “Peace on Earth.”

But I know it’s true, and I just say the words anyway because I hope eventually they will become true if I just say them over and over again.

And that’s why I need hope.

13. “Hope” by Emily Dickinson. I discovered this poem out of desperation. I’m not at all savvy in poetry, and was fortunate enough to discover this  in the nick of time late this fall.

The first verse is enough for this entry:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul -

And sings the tune without the words -

And never stops – at all

Over time I’m learning the lyrics to the song of my soul. I’m not writing these lyrics; I’m uncovering them – because they’ve always been there. And uncovering leads to disillusioning in the best way possible. The illusion of what I perceived to be the lyrics of reality is replaced with something weightier, something of a far deeper beauty: hope.

The beauty of the Christian faith is hope. I love that in the Spanish language, the verbs “to hope” and “to wait” are the same word: esperar. Because I don’t think I can understand what it means to hope without waiting.

And with that, I’ll wait a few more hours for a new year. And if you made it this far, I hope you are still sane. :)

Hopeful in 2014,

Andy

Good Friday: Embracing Hurt

Every Easter, I reread Philip Yancey’s ending chapters in The Jesus I Never Knew.  I find his work on the passion week facinating, even after I’ve read over it probably 10 times over 15 years.

For me, Good Friday is the day that has deepened it significance over time. It has helped me learn to embrace mourning, and to be sad.  Many folks like to dress up Good Friday by talking about the resurrection – and a large part of me just wants to say, “Please don’t – not yet. Resurrection Sunday only has it’s power when we embrace the darkness of God’s Friday.*”  On Friday, I listen to two songs to end the day: Agnes Dei (the choral version of Samuel Barber’s haunting “Adagio for Strings”) and Johnny Cash’s “Hurt.”  I don’t know of a better song for Good Friday than Cash’s hauting version of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.”  If you’ve never seen the video – look it up on YouTube.  It’s amazing, stirring, and beautiful. 

Saturday (tomorrow) I have an interesting day – meeting a friend who just decided to become a follower of Jesus, and going to one friend’s mother’s funeral.  It’s interesting when you are calendaring out your week, and the contrast of such activities makes you pause and reflect.

Speaking of pausing and reflecting, here is a piece from Yancey’s Jesus I Never Knew.  Enjoy.

Yet is a real sense we live on Saturday, the day with no name.  What the disciples experienced in small scale – three days, in grief over one man who had died on a cross – we now live through on cosmic scale.  Human history grinds on, between the time of promise and fulfillment.  Can we trust that God can make something holy and beautiful out of a world that includes Bosnia and Rwanda, and inner-city ghettoes and jammed prisons in the richest nation on earth?

It’s Saturday on planet earth; will Sunday ever come?

That dark, Golgathan Friday can only be called Good because of what happened on Easter Sunday, a day which gives a tantalizing clue to the riddle of the universe.  Easter opened up a crack in a universe winding down toward entropy and decay, sealing the promise that someday God will enlarge the miracle of Easter to cosmic scale. 

It is a good thing to remember that in the cosmic drama, we live out our days on Saturday, the in-between day with no name.  I know a woman whose grandmother lies buried under 150-year-old live oak trees in the cemetery of an Episcopal church in rural Louisiana.  In accordance with the grandmother’s instructions, only one word is carved on the tombstone: “Waiting.”

 

 

*Originally, “Good Friday” was called “God’s Friday,” similar to when we say, “Good-bye,” which originally was, “God-be-with-ye.”

 

Lenten Reflection: Peeling Paint. Bureaucracy. Nasal Blockage. Carefully Taught. Bathroom Tours. Rent Free.

In past lenten seasons, I’ve given up meat, facebook, and other sorts of things.

For me, Lent has been a journey.  At first, it was repenting of past preconceived notions of lent that were just caricatures.  And then, it was learning that depriving myself of things was an opportunity for me to hunger for such things to be filled by Jesus.  Now I’ve looked at it as an act of following Jesus, who walked in the shoes of humanity, and specifically of Israel. He went for forty days in the desert and had the opportunity and power to do everything that Satan tempted him to do, but chose not to.

When Jesus was hungry in the desert, and was told the plain fact by Satan that if he wanted, he could just turn the bread into stones.  You know, Satan was “tempting” Jesus by just stating the plain-old-reality that he could do that. It was true.

But Jesus chose the path of restraint.  Just because he could have done it, that doesn’t give him the justification to do it.

And the same is true for me.

So this year for Lent, I’ve chosen to restrain myself from watching TV and movies in non-social settings.  I want to order the role of television and film narratives to create community in my life, not draw me away from it by creating an escape fantasy world.  I mean, watching the freakshow of Jersey Shore with my roommate isn’t really creating community.  It’s watching a freakshow and saying, “wow, I can’t believe they are that screwed up.”  That is good for my ego, but it certainly isn’t good for my soul.

I’ve also given up Facebook.  This one is just a good discipline for me in general, because I want to have the surprise and delight of hearing people’s stories from their hearts in person, not online. I want real intimacy with others – not the appearance of it.

And this week, it opened up some great doors.  I’m taking Frederich Beuchner’s advice to “Listen to my life” that I’ve done in previous blog posts.  So here is a reflection (based on time I may be tempted to spend doing other things) because I’m more sensitive to listening to my life and hearing God’s voice within.

*

Ash Wednesday

I’m in Cincinnati on my first client visit with my boss.  I love my boss.  She is fantastically gifted and so good at her job.  I love hearing how she responds to the real needs of our clients and helping them get what they really, really want.

I wanna be as good as her someday.

The account manager and myself decide to go to a Ash Wednesday Catholic Mass to receive the ashes and be reminded that that we are nothing but little dust bunnies: We came from dust, and we’ll return to dust.

We walk into a downtown sanctuary, a beautiful building. Ornate churches still help me awe and wonder at the glory of God.  The former architect in me looks at the space and wonders with amazement how art can capture the both the unspoken groans and dreams of our souls, and kneeling in a sanctuary puts us in the proper posture to meet the Lord.

But it’s sad, because as I raise my head and get up from my knees I see the paint chipping near the clerestory on the walls.  The first part of my career from working in facilities tells me that there isn’t enough money in the budget to fix it.  Which probably means there may not be a lot of butts in the pews in mass on Saturdays and Sundays.

My coworker acknowledges it as well, and as a Notre Dame Alum, he wonders aloud about the future of the Catholic church. We are intimately aware of compensation and benefits because of our work, and let’s just say ministry is a hard market to get good talent in.  I know that first hand.

Sometimes I wonder about the future of the church as well. I know all the stats about the incoming generations of young people, and spent nearly 10,000 hours of face time helping college students at Northwestern.  There are times when I wonder if I were to have children, how they would know church?

I fly home and help open up the scriptures for my small group, teaching them to observe and ask questions of Jesus’ story, trying to figure out what it meant as it’s original listeners would have heard it. As we open the first chapter of the gospel of Mark, we see how so many were preparing for Jesus.  We ask the question, “What does it mean for us to prepare the way for Jesus in our lives today?”

As our stories unfold of transition and confusion, we pray for each other and realize the reality of ashes in our lives – that ashes are a simple reminder of that our world is broken, and sometimes burned, and our only hope as Christians is to prepare the way for Jesus to announce a new way is coming, a fresh sign of something greater – that our Heavenly Father loves us, and is pleased with us, and sometimes that means he loves us enough to kick us into a desert time for 40 days (like Lent) to know that we can trust him to take care of us because he really, really loves us.

Hello Lent. Thank-you sir, may I have another?

* *

Thursday: 

I’m still working on my MBA – I was fortunate enough to convince an employer of paying me an MBA salary without actually having an MBA.  And I did that without even taking the class on negotiations.  :)

I’m taking what might be the most interesting class I’ve had in B-School – Organizational Design.  This professor has taught at Kellogg since 1974.  So when someone has been teaching at the same institution for nearly 40 years, you listen.

Today is a somber class.  We talk about how the intent of a good organizational design can later become the cancer of bureaucracy. He walks us though the steps of how companies die – and someone who has been teaching for nearly 40 years in an institution like Kellogg, you know this man has seen at least a thing or two about how the best of intentions lead to colossal failure.  He talks about “the rage” company that everyone was trying to be for the past 40 years…and shows where they are today.  It’s not pretty.  It’s like listening to an all-star lineup that got old, fat, slow, and ugly (not unlike Jersey Shore, or the paint chipping on the walls of the Cincinnati sanctuary).

And while we’d like to talk about other factors, most companies fail because they are confined to the view of success that got them to where they were.

Their success created blinders that ultimately led to their failure.

I reflect on the churches and ministries I’ve seen in my life, and I cry on the inside.  Because when someone foretells tragedy of places you’ve loved, but are powerless to stop it, the only appropriate response is tears.  Just because I can do something, doesn’t mean I should.

At the end of class on the drive home I pray, not because I’m holy, but because I know I need to trust that God is good.

Lent works. Again.

* * *

Friday:

I visit a nasal and sinus specialist.  How in the world can a stuffed up nose be spiritual?

I used to snore.  Really loud.  So bad that I have sleep apnea and wear a sexy mask to sleep in.  But I wonder if constant congestion is what I have to settle for as my lot in life.  So the combination of a friend who raved about a specialist with some new insurance, led to a visit to a nasal and sinus specialist.

I find out I have a deviated septum, and 90% of one nostril is blocked.  This is why I snore.  This is why I have sleep apnea.  This is why I have my sexy sleep mask.  And now I will be taking a drug cocktail that rivals senior citizens for the next 10 days that hopefully gets rid of any infection that we can determine if I need surgery.

Maybe admitting I have a problem is the first step to a solution.  Maybe settling for something in life isn’t really what we were intended for – but settling is certainly easier than admitting the extent of the problem.  Maybe the good news is that I found out my everyday bad news can be changed.

More to come.

* * * *

Saturday:

In the last couple of years, I’ve developed the habit of taking my parents to a show for their Christmas gift.  They have so much stuff in their house that I don’t know what to give them anymore, and since our family has lived there since we moved from Chicago in 1962, I there’s going to be a lot of stuff to clean up when we leave that home.

I figure a date and a musical with me is about as good as it gets, so why not give them that? :-)

We go to a fancy restaurant.  More importantly, we have extended time to talk and reconnect.  We talk about my life transitions – from ministry back to the marketplace, changing churches, and look at what is in store for the future.  We talk about the next generation – my six nephews and nieces, and the two new arrivals that will be with us in April.  It’s a happy time in our family, enjoying the present and expectant for the future.

We see South Pacific – and at first, I’m honestly not impressed.  But then I reflect on the score and apply the good principles of inductive bible study and ask the question what it meant at that time to it’s listeners in 1949, over 60 years ago.  I’m particularly entranced by a song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” and realize how revolutionary it was in race relations at that time in history, in the pre-civil rights movement in the early 50’s.  Maybe songs like this led to people seeing each other as God saw them, made in his image, and our diversity reflecting God’s diversity.

Maybe I need to learn to look more deeply at things beyond the surface.  Maybe art is the means through which we are able to display the reality of our world, both past and present, in a way that can be swallowed.

* * * * *

Sunday: 

I take my parents to breakfast, and before we head to church we do a little family history lesson.  My family’s roots have been in Chicago for over five generations. Though I was raised in rural Wisconsin, this city is the home of my family.

My great great grandfather, George Bilhorn, built a church at North and Kedzie while his brother toured with DL Moody, the great evangelist.  The original church dedication pictures have North Avenue as a gravel road.  Yes – a gravel road that was “out of town” in the 19th century, if you can believe it.

When I was a boy, we came down after George’s last remaining son, Oliver, died and our family came for his funeral.  I read up a little on him, and am amazed that I live so close to his residence for his entire life, and am oddly similar in some respects.

But when you are a boy, and you come to the funeral of an uncle-you’ve-never-met for reasons-you-don’t-know, and you are in the hood of Chicago, you aren’t exactly interested in the back story.

You’re more concerned with playing your video games and baseball.  At least I was.

The church was signed over to a Puerto Rican congregation for $1 when Ollie died in 1994.  Nearly two decades later, my father and I walk in the door and announce ourselves as the great and great great grandsons of George Bilhorn, and nephews of ol’ Ollie Bilhorn.  They know us instantly and we are given an instant tour and greeted by all in the church, welcomed and told that “this is your house.”

My house…and I’ve never really been emotionally present there before.  This is grace and hospitality at work.  Two white guys, father and son, walk into a group of Puerto Ricans…this sounds like the start of a bad racist joke, but it’s the new reality of what happens when God invades earth.

One elder proudly displays all of the work that has been done on the church.  We even get a tour of the bathroom!  (Because it’s really important…I’ve prayed many prayers there…)

And by the way – none of the paint is peeling.

My Spanish is weak, but what I can hear in prayer is sincere thanks to Jesus for taking care of them.  I see AWANA signs all over the place, and flash back to my childhood.  Across the hall I see a disinterested boy in Sunday School, and flash back to when I was that disinterested in that same church at his age, rather playing video games or baseball. I say a quick prayer for him, so he can understand God’s gentle care for him involves being in a desert sometimes.

I smile and walk out, realizing that I’m part of a tradition in my family.  Thank God Oliver wasn’t “carefully taught,” and learned how to discern the spirit of God working in a community not like his that needed a facility to facilitate God’s work.

* * * * * *

We go to my new church, where we were given the facility for $0 rent for the first two years.  Apparently, ol’ Uncle Ollie had co-conspirators in Jesus’ revolutionary plot to bring heaven to earth in the west side of Chicago.

I see two of my former students, K & M, get baptized.  I flash back to our time together on campus at NU, and how we talked of their lives and in the Scriptures.  I’m so thankful that I had a front row seat for God’s work in their lives.  Baptism as the public proclamation of their personal decision to follow Jesus reminds me that my work in ministry at NU wasn’t in vain.  It’s fruit that lasts.

The seeds of words from myself and others spoken to them about their identities as new creations, that the old is gone and the new has come, has blossomed into real fruit.  When they experienced Jesus transforming their lives, and in the lives of their friends around them, they have been forever changed.  And their children’s lives will be different from theirs, being carefully taught that they are loved by their earthly Father and Mother and their heavenly father.

I hear their stories and get choked up.  I’m so proud of them. They inspire me.

I’m reminded that the good news is that lives can be changed, and that statistics of youth leaving the church can be damn lies when they damn us to be overwhelmed to inaction.

The fresh wind of the spirit that is symbolized by baptism is what allows for stale institutions with peeling paint to become vibrant, loving communities that meet in buildings on someone else’s dollar.  It’s in these communities where we speak words of blessing to one another, enabling them to hear God afresh in their lives rather than filled with some cliche from film or bad reality TV.  And it’s that same Spirit that drove Jesus immediately after he was told how much he was loved by God; because the wilderness has a way of helping us know that we need to trust God will really take care of us, to experience his love more deeply.

* * * * * * *

Why would I watch movies when, if I merely listen to my life, I realize the drama here is better than anything I can find on Netflix?

Lent works.  At least it did this week.

Stay tuned.

The Crucible in which “I Have a Dream” was Forged

Martin Luther King is one of my spiritual mentors from afar.  I’ve listened to his recorded sermons, and learned so much from his life.

One of the most particularly important moments in his life is recounted by Philip Yancey in Soul Survivor, and something I read every year on MLK day to remember what King’s true legacy was all about. May it help you continue to realize that the forces of sin in this world are not stronger than those of God, and that his Kingdom reign can be advanced with the decisions of ordinary folks to trust and follow God at his word.

You can read the whole chapter here, but I’ve attached the excerpt from Philip Yancey’s Soul Survivor.  Feel free to forward to your friends.

David Garrow builds his book around the scene of King‘s supernatural call, early in his career. “It was the most important night of his life,” writes Garrow, “the one he always would think back to in future years when the pressures again seemed to be too great.” King had been thrust into civil rights leadership in Montgomery, Alabama, after Rosa Parks had made her brave decision not to move to the back of the bus. The black community formed a new organization to lead a bus boycott and by default chose as a compromise candidate for its leadership the new minister in town, King, who at age twenty-six looked “more like a boy than a man.” Growing up in middle-class surroundings, with a kind of inherited religion from his preacher father, he hardly felt qualified to lead a great moral crusade.

As soon as King‘s leadership of the movement was announced, the threats from the Klan began. Not only the Klan-within days King was arrested for driving 30 miles per hour in a 25 mph zone and thrown into the Montgomery city jail. The following night King, shaken by his first jail experience, sat up in his kitchen wondering if he could take it anymore. Should he resign? It was around midnight. He felt agitated, and full of fear. A few minutes before, the phone had rung. “Nigger, we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out, and blow up your house.”

King sat staring at an untouched cup of coffee and tried to think of a way out, a way to quietly surrender leadership and resume the serene life of scholarship he had planned. In the next room lay his wife Coretta, already asleep, along with their newborn daughter Yolanda. Here is how King remembers it in a sermon he preached:

And I sat at that table thinking about that little girl and thinking about the fact that she could be taken away from me any minute. And I started thinking about a dedicated, devoted and loyal wife, who was over there asleep. . . . And I got to the point that I couldn’t take it anymore. I was weak. . . .

And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me, and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed down over that cup of coffee. I never will forget it. . . . I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night. I said, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage.”

. . . And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.” . . . I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.
                                                                                                           

(From sermon tape)

Three nights later, as promised, a bomb exploded on the front porch of King‘s home, filling the house with smoke and broken glass but injuring no one. King took it calmly: “My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.”

David Garrow weaves his narrative around that “visitation” at the kitchen table, returning to it again and again, because King drew strength from that memory at every hinge moment in his life. For him it became the bedrock of personal faith, an anointing from God for a particular task. As I read accounts of King‘s life, and his many references to that night, I am struck by the simplicity of the message he received: “I am with you.” Those words convey an underlying theme of the Bible: the Immanuel (“God with us”) presence of God. Over the next thirteen years of his career, King had other religious experiences, and many moments of crisis, but none to match what happened that night at his kitchen table. This one word sufficed.

May God, Immanuel, empower you to continue His work and call others to follow Him to join him in the restoration of this world as he restores us along the way.

Advent: Waiting = Hoping | Esperar

Hello long lost blog. Remember me?

During Advent, I’m trying to get my blog back. If anything, I’ve realized during my sabbatical my enjoyment of writing, and getting to the point of needing to write again.  So sitting and looking over the shores of Northwestern University, staring at the waves crashing over the on the rocks, I thought I would remix a past entry on waiting.

Why waiting? Slowing life on my sabbatical has accented certain aspects of life – namely, a need for reflection.  The only way that happens is when I slow down.  But slowing down requires waiting.  And as you’ll see below, waiting and I have a complicated relationship.

What I love about Advent is it is a season of preparation.  Advent typically amplifies my existing disposition – of either cynical groaning, or delightful anticipation.  It surfaces what is going on in my soul.  Perhaps it’s why sabbatical has been so significant – it’s helped me ponder anew what lies beneath.

I wrote this a few years back, but I thought I would bring it back for good measure. Enjoy.

I’m at the airport while writing this. I’m waiting.

Waiting bothers me; I’m really bad at it. I’m slightly better at blogging than waiting, which isn’t much to say about my blogging prowess.

In what seems like a previous life, I used to work as a construction project manager. I told big burly men with power tools what to do and where to go. And because of my white hard hat said I was in charge, they listened to me. And if they weren’t working on the job, and it wasn’t break, they were waiting.

In construction, waiting is the enemy. Waiting was what holds up a project from completion. And that will get you fired. So everyone knows you need to look busy when the white hard hat is on the construction site.

I studied project management theories to talk about waiting as the enemy so I could sound smarter. In one theory, the critical path was the set of successive activities that must be completed in order for the project to be completed in the duration promised to the client. Another theory views that critical path as the primary constraint to the completion of the project – so when you apply more workers or resources to the critical path, the constraint was released and the burden of the critical path was no longer on that set of activities.

Sounds smart, doesn’t it?

It did to big burly men with power tools and executive clients in suits who signed my paycheck, so it was smart enough for me. To them, I was a smart, highly productive machine.

I believed them.

So I thought about more ways to make my waiting “more productive.” One summer I took the train because it was cheaper, better than sitting in Chicago construction traffic, and I could do more work on the train than I could in the car. I was an gadget & technology maven so I bought a PDA that helped me do all my stuff and I needed to do. I’d crack open the laptop and work on the train.

Then I was really productive because I conquered the enemy, waiting. I ruled.

But here in the airport, I’m on standby. I don’t rule anymore; I’m ruled by the airline people wearing cheesy uniforms. I’m subject to their authority.

I hope they don’t make me one of them. I’d look awful in those uniforms.

I don’t know what flight I’ll be on, let alone when I’ll be arriving at my destination. Really, I’m blogging now because I can’t stand the waiting and being ruled by the cheesy uniformed people.

Now I’m hungry. Waiting makes me more aware of being hungry, because I’m not busy with anything else. Being on standby, I’m able to familiarize myself with the O’Hare Airport cuisine. I look at the menu prices. Maybe that I’m not that hungry.

The intercom system tells me that the terror threat level is orange. Should I be nervous? Hasn’t the threat level been orange since they introduced the system in 2002?

Cheese. Hungry. Orange. Mmmm…what are my favorite orange cheesy foods? Mmmm…Cheetos. I love Cheetos. But at overpriced O’Hare I think the orange fingers just aren’t worth it.

These are the kinds of thoughts I have while waiting. Do you see why I don’t like waiting?

A woman next to me is speaking in Spanish. I’m trying to hear what she is saying, but it’s been entirely too long since I sat in Spanish class in high school. The flight attendant tells us the flight is delayed in both Spanish and English. She speaks more slowly, and I can hear her say “lo siento, tienen esperar,” ‘I’m sorry, you have to wait.’

Esperar – to wait. Interestingly enough, “esperar” also means “to hope” in Spanish.

What does waiting have to do with hoping? What does hoping have to do with waiting? Why are they nearly the same word in one of the most spoken languages on the planet?

Maybe waiting is like hunger. My craving for food reminds me that food does indeed exist. I’ve had food before – and it is good. And the hunger I feel reminds me of the times I’ve really enjoyed food – with my family and friends. And I hope I will have it again someday.

Waiting does something to me. It makes me realize that much of my life is filled with doing things that distract me from facing the all too difficult and sometimes shallow self that can be covered by my busyness.  Waiting is a furnace that burns off the chaff and allows a refiners fire to shape us.

At the same time, Proverbs tells us that hope differed makes the heart sick; waiting too long makes hope become dream, dream to become legend, legend to become myth, and myth to be forgotten.  When is it appropriate to give up hope for our dreams? Do we keep waiting in hope, or do we move on to something else?

How do I hope while I wait? How do I wait while I hope?

 

Sabbatical Journey: A New Color for a New Season

As evidenced by my last entry being six months ago (gads!), it’s been a blur of a year.

Working greater than full time, taking two courses a quarter at a demanding business school is more than enough to have made me question my sanity.

While it’s yet to be official, I’ve completed my sabbatical paperwork and will be applying for a sabbatical for August, 2011-July, 2012.  I’ll be finishing my degree, and ceasing from direct ministry for a season before reentering once again in August, 2012.

So, for those of you who have sabbatical suggestions, suggest away.  While not going to class, I’ll probably be learning to sail on Lake Michigan, and getting back to the Rockies once or twice.

It will be to the point where I’ll actually be moving out of my office and working out of a home office.  And when it starts, I think it will be  time to paint the office a new color…any one have some suggestions for this color blind man?

Stupid Brett.

I don’t know if any of you looked at the deadspin.com report of Brett Favre and Jenn Sterger…but it’s just sad.

I don’t know how much of it is true, but hearing the voicemails, looking at the video…

…well, it’s safe to say that my childhood is more than over now. Brett, you should have left football when you left Green Bay.  While all of us still loved you. What I wrote then seems so silly now.  Why would you ever do something so incredibly stupid?

It’s absolutely ironic that the consecutive games streak will likely not be ended by a blitzing linebacker, but by stupidity and poor judgment.


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