Friday, February 26, 2010

Everyone Dies (part one)

Memories of God #8

Our pastoral care professor in seminary would say that being present as someone dies is one of the few "supernatural" occurrences we modern people may still see---and we're hiding it away more and more. His main point was that our scientific age, for good and ill, has taken away much mystery in our lives. The sound we hear in the dark is easily enough dispelled with the flick of the switch, whereas there was time when one had to light a fire to explain the noise. And lighting a fire wasn't always as easy as striking a match.

I've been present at the deaths of a handful of people, maybe 4 or 5. Most were unknown patients when I was a chaplain in a hospital one summer. One was my mother. We all die and it is a terrible, mysterious event, but it can be full of revelation as well.

A very few years after seminary, I had a friend who was dying. He was coughing to death, having lived into his late 30s with cystic fibrosis. His name was Bill. Simultaneously, a seminary friend had a friend, also named Bill, who was dying from brain cancer. She asked me to pray for a miraculous healing, for her Bill to be fully cleared of cancer. I said I would, of course, and asked her to pray for my Bill. But then I asked a terrible question, one full of theodicy.

Why do we pray for a cancer patient to be fully healed while another has a congenital disease that we simply accept will kill him? We might reasonably expect a cancer patient to be healed---there are treatments and sometimes they work. But there are no treatments for a cystic fibrosis patient, except maybe a lung transplant, and then that's only temporary. Eventually, s/he will cough to death. She saw my point, but promised to pray for my Bill all the same.

Which brings me to this particular experience of God, one that troubles me less than it once did, but may be troubling for others. Praying for my her Bill, I had a very distinct feeling that there was nothing to be done. I felt that the answer to the prayer was, "everyone dies and this is how her Bill dies." That seems like a terribly rotten answer from an all powerful God. But I suspect even God might feel badly about that.

Is God all-powerful? If so he is cruel to let us die in these terrible ways. If God is not all-powerful, what do we make of the power God does have? This is not an answer to be received in a blog post, after libraries of books have been written on these questions.

What I do believe is this: We are mortal. For whatever reason, we're designed with this flaw of fragility. And all the terrible ways we die---disease, violence, disaster, alone---are but opportunities for God to work some sort of redemption out of it. Stated more plainly, while I don't believe that God sends disease, I do believe that God goes about the business of redeeming the event of the disease. More scientific data is gathered to prevent further suffering. A family or separated friends are reunited. Comfort comes from unexpected places and the Reign of God breaks into the horrors of our lives.

My friend's Bill died and so did my Bill. I know less about the aftermath of her Bill's death, and I know only some about the aftermath of my Bill's death. I do know that my Bill's death has found some redemption, from writing he left behind, from achievements his wife has made that would have been impossible while she was caring for him.

I don't know that I'm expressing what's on my mind about this very well, and there's always the question, "but why did they get sick in the first place?" hanging in the air. No one has been able to answer it. I only know that redemption comes for those willing to work with God, watch for God's movement. I trust when my time comes to die, someone's grief will be blessed by God's redemption, too.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Fingers Around My Sternum, Pulling Me Foward

Memories of God #7

Ambiguous story tonight. Few details because they're hard to report.

In the final years of being in college, I was appalled by the fact that I was in a relationship with a man. To call it a "relationship" is to define it broadly. It involved some strong emotions, most of them involving me in a puddle of tears telling God I'm sorry and I wouldn't do it again.

It was not a healthy time.

There are . . . events? That suggests definite occurrences. There were ongoing tugs. If you're praying an awful lot, you might expect God to answer, I suppose. There were no answers that I wanted at the time, none that seem to address the immediate situation.

But--and I may have mentioned this before somewhere, as it's a favorite illustration--a dearly departed friend once described God as a triage doctor. God looks at the wounds and decides which are the most life-threatening and gets to work on that. My being gay was not the biggest threat to me just then.

I hesitate to talk about this time because I know how fortunate I am. Any number of people in similar situations have not received this answer and have perished. Not everyone escapes the whirlpool. Still, this is my story . . .

As I felt the pull of an undertow, I felt some sort of tug into the future. This is how I've described it before and it still seems the best description: It was as if the fingers of a hand were plunged into my chest, between my ribs, and grabbed hold of my sternum, like that was the best handhold to pull me up. It is one of my images of hope. When the whirlpool looked like it might win, this painful grip got hold of me and pulled me into the future, out of the sadness and despair. A painful but insistent hope.

I can't explain it. Maybe shouldn't try. Here I am and it hurt to get past those years, but I've had some amazing joy along the way, too. No regrets. Happy to have felt the grip of God on my bones to bring me to this place.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Memories of God #6

Back in 2006, early fall, I started feeling what I've come to call "nudges" from God. A nagging feeling. (Yes, I worship a God who sometimes nags.) I remember praying one night, "Okay, I hear you whispering, but I'm too dense to get it. I'm afraid I'm going to need something more dramatic than the 'still-small-voice' thing."

At the end of November, I found myself spending 6 nights in the hospital due to a clogged artery on my heart. (At first, no one was calling it a heart attack, but since then most visits to doctors have included a discussion about my heart attack, so maybe I had a heart attack. Or the difference between what I had and an heart attack is too slim to matter.) I remember sitting in my hospital gown and saying, "Okay, this is dramatic. But---WHAT?"

(I pause to note that I'm not entirely sure that God sent me a heart attack to get my attention. At the same time, I've suffered so little for this heart disease, that I recognize an awful lot of grace in it and therefore can't help but look for God in it. But maybe that's another discussion about God sending good and/or evil and probably not well suited to a blog post.)

The "WHAT?" is still unfolding, still an ongoing journey, even now, 3 years later.

But as I pondered my life and its hazards in the hospital, I realized that two separate friends had recently defined me as a gay, Christian artist/writer. Not precisely in those words, but it became clear that is how they see me. I pouted over that, as I really just want to be a writer or an aritst, sans labels. I pout that only straight white men get to be writers or artists. Everyone else gets adjectives: woman writer, black artist, gay author, Christian musician. Etc.

Around the same time, I received page proofs for two different stories that had been accepted for publication. One story was a sort of a fictional memoir, with me as the first-person narrator (it is based upon dreams I have of my parents visiting me in my present circumstances, even though both are dead). It was accepted by Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature. The other, a short-short story about a man who reframes some family history into "just so" myths. It was accepted for an anthology called Charmed Lives: Gay Spirit in Storytelling. I couldn't help but notice a trend.

So over the last 3 years, I've made some effort to own my adjectives. Gay and Christian. I believe being more "out" as both has led me to some interesting places. Whether or not God is directly involved in these things, from heart attack to finding reward in being open about the two biggest adjectives in my life, I am thankful for the journey. In all things, give thanks, St. Paul said. It's hard to give thanks for a heart attack, but I'm thankful for the redemption for it. I always find God working hard at redeeming these awful things.

There's much mystery involved with where God is leading me, but I believe God to be active. I'm in a cloudy time right now, as if God is nudging me again. I'm hopeful I can discern some direction without another hospital stay. I'm trying to pay closer attention.

At the very least, I'm no longer asking for something dramatic to get my attention.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Sustaining Abundance

Memories of God #5

I work retail and live in a neighborhood that is not so posh. There are times of stretching to make ends meet. Some of this is a chosen lifestyle, some is just how my particular cookie crumbles.

In my neighborhood, there are deep ditches along the back streets, places for the occasional torrential rain Houston gets to run and not flood. Water often stands in these ditches, but there are also drier seasons, when there is no water in them.

It may be my farm boy early life, where I had acres and acres to explore, but sometimes I have to get down in the ditches and see what's in them. There are wildflowers of various sorts that I can't name, and they give me endless delight. These are not big-blooming, call-attention-to-themselves flowers, but small, easily overlooked blooms.

For example, there is some plant in those ditches that grows very close to the ground. It blooms in small clusters, about the size of a winter coat button. The individual flowers in these clusters are tiny. They are a classic 5-petal arrangement, like we learned to draw in grade school, but they are about the size of a large pin head. I cannot imagine how little nectar or pollen a flower of that size produces, what part it might play in a ecosystem, but then beauty is its own purpose.

I first noticed this flower during a particularly hard stretch a couple of years ago. In the middle of some economic hardship, I spontaneously thought, "What abundance!"

That tiny, tiny flower brought to mind that I live in a world of tiny beauties that add up to something overwhelmingly spectacular. This came to me in a ditch, beside tin warehouses in a not-so-posh neighborhood.

It is not abundance that pays the rent, but it is abundance that sustains me more than the easy payment of utilities. It is abundant life.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Gracious Love

Memories of God #4

"Merciful Father, we offer with joy and thanksgiving what you have first given us - our selves, our time, and our possessions, signs of your gracious love. Receive them for the sake of him who offered himself for us, Jesus Christ our Lord."

The above prayer will be familiar to Lutherans who used the Lutheran Book of Worship every Sunday for 30 years. It is the "offertory prayer," or the prayer after the offering. I don't know if it's in the new Evangelical Lutheran Worship or not and I'm not taking the time just now to look. I just know my congregation hasn't used this prayer since we got the ELW.

In the spring of 1995, I was finishing up my seminary career. My mother had died the spring before, I was making my first steps out of the closet, I was completing a Master of Divinity degree that I wasn't planning on using---in short, the future was looming with lots of "new normals" to be discovered. In short, I was a mess.

Well, I'm often a mess. If there is one recurring issue in my life, a "besetting sin" (as some might call it), it's that I just can't imagine that I have anything of real value to offer the world. Forget the world---to offer much of anyone. I hate putting that out there. It sounds so remarkably whiny and not a little self-absorbed. Okay, add that to my list of besetting sins. I'm sure I'm not the only one who can make a list of them.

But the 1995 version of the mess that is me: I was all kinds of heartbroken, grieving, uncertain about my future. One day, that spring, we were in chapel and we prayed the above prayer, as I'd been doing since 1978. This time, though, there was a (non-literal) tap on my shoulder and a (non-literal) finger pointing to the one line: "
our selves, our time, and our possessions, signs of your gracious love." I heard a (non-literal) voice say to me, "See? You are a sign of my gracious love."

I burst into tears and didn't really stop crying for the rest of the chapel service. I'm sure people around me were concerned I'd finally cracked. Maybe I had. It wasn't something I could explain right away. I can't explain it now.

Part of the problem is I don't really believe it. Maybe that's just as well. Maybe it's something for others to believe, although I'm sure I can produce witness who would gladly plant a seed of doubt against that (non-literal) voice. At the very least, if I ever live up to the (non-literal) voice's word to me, it is sporadic and often despite my intentions.

The more important thing is that the prayer speaks in plurals. If my sorry self can be a sign of God's gracious love, then others are the same. It forces me to look at other people, the "our selves" around me, and see the Imago Dei in them, the sign of God's gracious love that they are to the world, too.

In general, I have a fairly low opinion of our race. I'm not proud of that, but that's my knee jerk reaction. People suck and it's a terminal condition. Except all "those people" (and I am one of "those people") are children of God, heirs of the "Merciful Father," who loves us despite our terminal suckiness.

We are the beloved of God. Let us be reminded of that and live according, as signs of God's gracious love.

Friday, February 19, 2010

God in a (Mail) Box

Memories of God #3

Growing up on the farm was a great, great childhood, but it was occasionally isolating. We lived a half-mile off the highway and no neighbor within shouting distance, so during the summers, when we maybe went into town twice a week (once for church, once for groceries and/or other business), the only contact with the outside world was the mail box a half-mile away. (I should also say we didn't have a phone in those days. Sounds so primitive, doesn't it? Just my version of normal.)

So everyday, I would ride my bike (or walk, but once we got bikes, why walk?) down the gravel road to get the mail. Thursdays brought the weekly local paper, but other days were unpredictable. I would save cereal box tops and send off for stuff, join record or book clubs, subscribe to comic books, anything to generate mail. It happened so seldom, but the greatest excitement on some days was to get a piece of mail that was addressed to me, with my name on it. It's nice to get affirmation of one's existence and I guess I'll take it where I can.

There was this one time---and I wish I could remember how old I was, but late elementary, early junior high I'm guessing---when I was wondering about atheism. I don't think I was ever going to really commit to the idea, but it sort of intrigued me that some people just didn't belive in God. Taking this question and using it to put God to the test seemed like a reasonable thing to do---and maybe use it to generate mail with my name on it (because I really did believe God existed and figured God probably wanted me to keep believing).

So I prayed something like: "Dear God, If you are real, there will be something in the mail today with my name on it." Ridiculous, I know. Sometimes I think it is my ridiculousness that keeps God from striking me down, even today.

It came to ride down to get the mail, which was about 9:20 a.m. as I recall. I pedal on down, pull up to the mail box and open it with anticipation. A post card! It's addressed to me! There is a God!

I turn it over. It's from my dentist. It's time for my check up.

I laughed. Not only did I learn there was, indeed, a God (and would play along now and then with being put to the test), but I also learned God has a sense of humor (hence my faith that being ridiculous entertains God and keeps the smiting away).

* * *

In seminary, I told this story during a sermon. Afterward, another seminarian came up to me a little indignant about the whole thing. "You know that was just a coincidence, right? What if there hadn't been anything in the mailbox?"

I just shrugged and said, "Then that would have been a different story."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Godspell Spirit

Memories of God #2

I'll say this with some uncertainty, but I believe it was the 1983 Lutheran Student Movement National Assembly in Bozeman, MT. If it wasn't, it was the assembly in '84, in Missouri.

One night at the assembly, we saw the film version of Godspell. I don't remember a great deal about the film itself, but I do remember being moved by it. (I've never seen it since and I've read that it's not a very good film---but that matters little.)

Either later that night or later that week, there was a worship service that used music from the musical. At the passing of the peace, we sang "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord," over and over and over. There was a band playing and the entire assembly---I don't remember how many that would be, maybe something like 300-500 college students? maybe more?---wouldn't stop. We were caught up in the moment and there was a euphoria in that place as we went throughout this university hall, hugging one another, encouraging one another to make the crooked paths straight (not that those were in the lyrics, but they are in the Isaiah passage that John the Baptist is quoting in the song). In retrospect, it is a good song for preparing for the Eucharist.

Anyway, we're singing, the one line over and over, and it got away from the worship leaders. We were all laughing and crying and singing and hugging. I remember saying to my friend, Shari, "I don't even know why I'm crying!" She said, "I don't either!" But we kept on crying and singing and hugging.

I don't know if this is really a memory of God or not. It may simply be a memory of mass hysteria. I do know what it's like to get caught up in the enthusiasm of a crowd, how it can take over, how good it can feel.

I was in love that night with several hundred strangers. I didn't want it to end. Movement of the Spirit or just the madness of a crowd, I'm thankful to have experienced it.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Lying in the Grass, Looking Up

Memories of God #1

Sometime in my preschool years (before we transferred from the country church to the town church), a Sunday school teacher commented that God was not an old man with a big gray beard, but was a spirit that was everyone all at once. Seems like a heavy idea to be laying on preschoolers, but this comment stayed with me.

Sometime later (that week? that month? I don't remember), I was in our backyard, lying in the grass and watching clouds. I was thinking about what that Sunday school teacher said. I don't know that it's fair to say a preschooler was "meditating" but I was definitely trying to wrap my young mind around that idea.

Then, at once, I was aware that God was in the grass under me, in the pecan tree a few yards from me, in the crepe myrtle next to me, in the clouds way above me, all around me. God was in the air that moved about me.

It would be 20 years or more before I knew that this was called a "mystical experience."

But it remains foundational in my faith. In my life. The world is shoot through with God.

This is one way I understand the Reign of God is at hand.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Controversies and Voices

I'm doing it again. I'm engaging in internet debate. It's a practice I swear off now and then, but my recidivism rate is alarming.

What set me off this time was a claim that there is no biblical explanation for the ELCA's actions at last August's Churchwide Assembly (check out posts from last August to learn more, if you don't know what that's about). These claims came from two individuals who have had explanations given to them over and over, biblical and beyond. The problem is they simply reject the interpretation.

Which is really okay. I reject their interpretation of the Bible passages in question. Bible interpretations vary widely on any number of issues and have been used to justify building hospitals and torture devices. I believe the rigorous discussion of interpretation is essential to avoiding abuses and outright horror. Obviously, the church has not always been so good at such rigorous discussion.

The thing about the whole GLBT debate is that it really is about whether or not people can be comfortable with the idea of two men or two women living together in emotional, spiritual and sexual relationship, because the issue of things in the Bible that refer to heterosexual sin can't get a good discussion going. I've repeatedly brought up the ELCA's allowance of divorced and remarried pastors to serve, despite very clear words from Jesus himself that such a relationship is adultery. The only answer I get is "that's too complex to go into here."

Which I read to mean, "heterosexual sex just doesn't bother me so much and I can overlook that problem." Or else, "there is s double standard for people who are heterosexually oriented and those who are homosexually oriented---one may sin and continue in their sinful relationship, but the other may not."

I'm not sure how else to read their comments.

What annoys me most of all, however, is the abdicating from the conversation. Almost always we get to this point and the anti-GLBT ordination person will cry foul, say there is clearly no room for a conservative voice in the ELCA, and leave the conversation.


Asking questions you don't want to answer is denying you your voice?

I'm at a loss. And I'm leaving the conversation, too, because I have too many other things to attend to.

But here is my wish, and it may need another post, but I'll end with this wish:

I wish we could put aside terms like "liberal" and "conservative." I feel certain that they get in our way. Somewhere along the way, we decide, "well, yes, I want to be a conservative" and then we go looking for what conservatives think and believe and teach. Same with liberals. I swear, I've known people from both sides who, if told by the right person (Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, for example) that the liberal/conservative thing to do is to paint your houses canary yellow with hot pink trim, there would be canary yellow houses with hot pink trim. And there would be arguments about how it's important to uphold the conservative/liberal value of canary yellow houses with hot pink trim.

But this conversation is held among Christians, where we allegedly claim Jesus is Lord. We do not claim conservative values are lord, we do not claim liberal values are lord, but Jesus is Lord. From day one, 2000-and some-odd years ago, there have been arguments about what that means and how we live under that Lordship, but that doesn't mean we can't look to that as the guiding principle.

Can we come together, in the love of God, and discuss, ARGUE, even, about things without claiming a liberal or conservative silencing or bias? Maybe not. But we're also supposed to be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit, who, scripture might lead us to believe, is always doing something new, even some shocking things. I'm willing to bet that if we could somehow learn to pay attention to the leading of the Holy Spirit, people who claim both liberal and conservative labels will be blown away by the surprising newness of what's in store, and all camps would all be brought to the ground, their faces in the dirt, in worship and awe of how the Spirit breaks our preconceptions and shows us the crazy wild beautiful Reign of God.