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.

2 Responses to “Lenten Reflection: Peeling Paint. Bureaucracy. Nasal Blockage. Carefully Taught. Bathroom Tours. Rent Free.”


  1. 1 Robert S February 27, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    Great stuff.

  2. 2 Amy Kay March 6, 2012 at 9:23 am

    So glad your back here….good luck on the Lenten Reflection


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