Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Saint and Sinner

I couldn't resist a memoir that begins like this.

This book is by the one who thought he'd be farther along by now, but he's not.
It is by the inmate who promised the parole board he'd be good, but he wasn't. 
It is by the dim-eyed who showed the path to others but kept losing his way.
It is by the wet-brained who believed if a little wine is good for the stomach, 
then a lot is great.
It is by the liar, tramp, and thief; otherwise known as the priest, speaker, and author.
It is by the disciple whose cheese slid off his cracker so many times 
he said "to hell with cheese 'n crackers."
It is by the young at heart but old of bone who is led these days
in a way he'd rather not go.
This book is also for the gentle ones who've lived among wolves.
It is for those who've broken free of collar
to romp in fields of love and marriage and divorce.
It is for those who mourn, who've been mourning most of their lives,
yet they hang on to shall be comforted.
It is for those who've dreamed of entertaining angels
but found instead a few friends of great price.
It is for the younger and elder prodigals
who've come to their senses
again, and again, and again, and again.
It is for those who strain at pious piffle
because they've been swallowed by Mercy itself.
This book is for myself and those who have been around
the block enough times that we dare to whisper
the ragamuffin's rumor--
all is grace.

Brennan Manning is now in his 70's and is saint and sinner.  Decades ago I began reading him (e.g. The Ragamuffin Gospel) and his authenticity, his vulnerability, and his reliance on grace have helped me to keep going.  

I was only a few lines into his preface above and was weeping.  I, too, often feel like a disappointment, a hypocrite.  There is often such a gap between who I really am and who I desire to be.  The shame that breeds can be paralyzing.  Brennan depends on grace and has always pointed the rest of us who are wounded and wounding, in need of healing yet healers, to that same grace.

In the intro is contained a poem by Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in. 

I was raised to believe that the cracks elicit the darkness of God's judgment.  It has been such a buoyant relief to know that the cracks draw the light of God's grace. 

Teach me, brother Manning, as I read further.


Saturday, December 3, 2011

(Herman) Cain Wasn't Abel

Today, Herman Cain suspended  his campaign  in his pursuit of the Presidency of the U.S. claiming that the "false accusations" of four women and a fifth who claimed a 13 year sexual relationship with him served to be too much of a "distraction."  All of these allegedly lying women had hurt him and his wife to such a degree and the recent fallout sidetracked him from his mission, so he says, and therefore he is dropping out.   

He blamed the "spin" of the media and the "pundits" for their unfair and biased reporting.  Mr. Cain, it is that same media that catapulted you from obscurity to being known by millions. I'd be interested in seeing how you fare if you refuse the media any access from here on out, but, of course, you and I know that you won't do that.

I--none of us--knows whether Mr. Cain is being truthful in what he claims as to his innocence.  He claims he is "at peace with my God, at peace with my wife, and at peace with myself" --that's either a clear conscience or a seared one--and though I'd like to believe him something just looks and sounds suspicious as to his moral integrity.  My reasoning runs like this:  If  I am on a mission and a number of people trump up ludicrous and absolutely false charges as to my ethics and sexual morality I'm thinking that would motivate me even more to focus on the mission-at-hand rather than quit.  I'm thinking I have nothing to hide and these women have no dirt to dig up so I'll let them muck around in their mire and I, in the meantime, will be open and forthcoming--but focused on the mission.  Check my cellphone records, my email history, my texts--it's all there for your scrutiny.  While you're checking I'll be available for your questions but undeterred from my campaign.

In contrast, Mr. Cain, says these trumped allegations and the spin the media has put on all this has become "too distracting."  Again, I can't prove it, but I suspect that what has become ""too distracting" are poor choices he has made with a number of women, none of whom happen to be his wife and those choices have now bitten his beleaguered butt.

He now talks as though he is the victim.  These lying,  perpetrating women  went to the out-to-get-him  media and, consequently, all of this has brought upon him unwarranted hurt and distress.  In the Old Testament is the story of Cain killing his brother Abel.  In this scenario Cain was the perpetrator of the crime; Abel, the victim.

Mr. Cain, you don't appear to be Abel.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Random Reflections about Life Back Home

We returned from rural, poverty-stricken Honduras two weeks ago.  A culture shock to say the least.  Here's some of my impressions and observations, most of which are not "pretty."

**We're becoming a bunch of fat slobs.  I'm not suggesting that there are no fat slobs in Honduras.  Neither am I implying that all people who are overweight are slobs, i.e. lazy couch occupiers whose only calorie burn is the effort it takes to wipe the cake off their face.    I know there are genetic and medical and organic (e.g. thyroid) factors for a number of people.  But, really?

Maybe it's the diet of the poor in Honduras--typically rice and beans.  Maybe it's the small proportions of food available at any given time.  Maybe when you eat to live rather than live to eat you tend to have little excess weight.  

**I notice the extreme sensory stimulation with which we are bombarded here at home.  Non-stop traffic movement. Unending traffic sounds.  The decibel level of human voices in most restaurants makes it nearly impossible to have a quiet conversation because you have to talk more loudly than the surrounding clamor so that the person  sitting three feet across from you can hear you. Visual overload everywhere.  Technological incoming messages abound.  Advertising screaming for my attention, whether via billboards, commercials, internet.  It's exhausting.  When are we ever still?  Quiet.  Silent.  And how?

**I left basically gracious and thankful people only to return to basically in-your-face entitled people.  Thank God there are exceptions but that black-hearted woman who pepper-sprayed competing shoppers on Black Friday may be more of a mirror than an anomaly. 

The pace here is nerve-wracking. We are in fifth gear, pedal to the metal, and continually.   We sprint to a point of exhaustion.  In Honduras they know it's not the 100 meter dash--it's a marathon--and they pace themselves accordingly.  I'll be honest--their pace drives me nuts, not because their pace is deficient but because I'm wound up tight and it's difficult to downshift once I'm there.  Now that I'm back, I'm noticing the intensity with which most of us sprint.  I think it's a recipe for burn-out.

 **I am neither glamorizing or idealizing the poor but this is my experience of them.  Generally, they are thankful for what have and do not speak much about what they lack.  They have very little and somehow find joy in the scarcity.  We, on the other hand, are driven by consuming and acquiring and do not seem to be grateful for the abundance, but, instead, complain about  that which we do not yet have.

**I go on these trips to serve and help the poor.  The great white missionary goes to impart all he knows and he builds these wonderful houses and he thinks he is such a blessing to them.  Invariably,  these people who are so poor materially bless the great white missionary who is spiritually bankrupt.  

I go with the purpose of giving; I return with the outcome of receiving.  

Friday, November 18, 2011

Heaven Invades Hell in Honduras

She is less than five feet tall but larger than life.  Her name is Maria Isabella, mother of eight children.  She is the quiet matriarch.  There is no patriarch. Her husband, who apparently regarded himself as a mere sperm donor, left after their eighth child was born.  She has been sole provider, comforter, teacher, protector for years.  She has raised them alone.  She works 60 hours a week in a little bakery.  The three adult daughters who live with her lament about growing up alone and left to themselves while their mom was making a living in order to provide for them.  There are tears as they look back on those early years.
Two of the three each have two little ones of their own. These eight and several other family members have shared existence in this hellhole of a shack for ten years.  It's dark, damp, and depressing inside.  They burn wood or anything they can find that is combustible in order to cook and heat.  The smoke permeates the shack.  The upper walls and ceiling are coal black.  And their lungs?
There is no room, no space, no privacy.  They can't afford dressers or containers, so everything is piled or stacked.  A fish-net hammock is hung inside; I look closer.  A little baby is lying in it.  No room for a bed, even if they could afford one.

They have been on the waiting list of families for whom Mercy International would build a house.  It's been two years.  Day after week after month--"Maybe today?"  Finally, their wait is over.
We arrived at their little father-forsaken but Father-favored shack last Sunday and we began digging trenches to serve as a foundation for the house of their dreams in an open, barren area in front of their shack.  20x24--or as a friend described it--"a garage and a half."  To them, though, a mansion.  Saturday, we left and in those 7 days we built them a house that will last them for generations.  I wish you could have seen the light in their eyes.  Their smiles. Their hugs of gratitude.  One of the daughters joyfully confessed, “I don't have words." Another, “I wish I could have a big party for all of you."  Maria Isabella thanked God and us.
I gathered several from the team and asked the family if we could pray for them.  They welcomed our prayers.  I asked them what they would like us to pray for.  A daughter quietly said, "Food."  I was speechless.  I'm sixty-two years old and there has never been a single day of my life when I have ever prayed that I would have food.  I was humbled by her earnest request.  I asked if there was anything else she would like us to pray for.  Work so they have income.  Peace in their family.
This family now has shelter.  Concrete block, concrete floor and metal roof never looked so extravagant.
I visited a family for whom we had built a house this past Spring.  Momma looked good and her 16 year old daughter, Kenya, was full of smiles as she held her two year old, Melbie, in her arms and a growing child in her belly.  I was surprised at her pregnancy, though she is not the exception, and saddened.  We hugged and re-connected.  Just a day passed and I was talking with Momma and she was particularly distressed.  I inquired and she told me that in the last 24 hours someone had "deceived Kenya" with a the promise of a job and this stranger convinced her to leave her mother and Melbie and travel with her to the capital city, Tegucigalpa, and work there.  Tegucigalpa is a city of 1.7 million people, and a 5-6 hour drive away.  Momma doesn't own a cell phone and has no idea what is happening to her daughter.  What depths of lies or persuasion--coercion?-- could convince Kenya to leave her little boy and mother on a moment's notice?  What will become of Melbie?  How does a little boy deal with mom abruptly leaving him?  Life was hard enough with her family intact; what worry must  now consume Momma each day as she wonders if she will ever see her daughter again and if she does will Kenya be dead or alive?  Life had been weighing on her enough and now she has sole responsibility for Melbie, also.  It's hell.

Yet, I would not be providing an accurate picture if I left it at that.  There are moments of heaven as team members hug all these kids who are often discarded.  Glimpses of heaven as the kids laugh and frolic with the team.  The team gives their undivided attention and unconditional love and for some moments these kids do not have a care in the world. It's heaven.

Today, I ask you to thank God for what you have. 
And ask God to provide for them what they don't have.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Did You Think The Titanic Sank?

I didn't name it The Titanic Swim Team just to be cute.  I've been in a slump for some time,  some days feeling as though I'm barely keeping the ship afloat.  Other days the water may be up to my neck but I'm "Footloose" on deck.  I apologize for the drought.  If you're still on board I invite you to resume the sail with me.

This will be brief.  In one hour my wife and I leave for Honduras, to lead another team from our church to serve the poor.  Our goal is to build a house for a family living in and on the dirt.  We have 7 days to do it.  Over the course of a mere week of work we have the chance to make a difference that will last for generations in the life of this family.  Exciting!

Upon our return I will fill you in.  

Thanks for your patience and I hope to continue blogging with consistency.

p.s. sorry--no time for a photo

Monday, September 19, 2011

Open Heart, Open Hands : Counterintuitive in a World of Pain

“A glowing sun-orb fills an August sky the day this story begins, the day I am born, the day I begin to live.

And I fill my mother’s tearing ring of fire with my body emerging, vergin lungs searing with air of this earth and I enter the world like every person born enters the world:  with clenched fists.
From the diameter of her fullness, I empty her out—and she bleeds.  Vernix-creased and squalling.  I am held to the light.
Then they name me.
Could a name be any shorter?  Three letters without even the flourish of an “e.”  Ann, a trio of curves and lines.
It means “full of grace.”
I haven’t been.
What does it mean to live full of grace?  To live fully alive?
They wash my pasty skin and I breathe and I flail.. I flail.
For decades, a life, I continue to flail and strive and come up so seemingly. . . empty.  I haven’t lived up to my christening.
Maybe in those first few years my life slowly opened, curled like cupped hands, a receptacle open to the gifts God gives.  But of those years I have no memory.  They say memory jolts awake with trauma’s electricity.  That would be the year I turned four.  The year when blood pooled and my sister died and I, all of us, snapped shut to grace.
Standing at the side porch window, watching my parents’ stunned bending, I wonder if my mother had held me in those natal moments of naming like she held my sister in death.
In November light, I see my mother and father sitting on the back porch step rocking her swaddled body in their arms.  I press my face to the kitchen window, the cold glass, and watch them, watch their lips move, not with sleep prayers, but with pleas for waking, whole and miraculous.  It does not come.  The police do.  They fill out reports.  Blood seeps through that blanket bound.  I see that, too, even now.
. . .At the grave’s precipice, our feet scuff dirt, and chunks of the firmament fall away.  A clod of dirt hits the casket, shatters.  Shatters over my little sister with the white-blonde hair, the little sister who teased me and laughed, her milk-white cheeks dimpled right through with happiness. . . They lay her gravestone flat into the earth, a black granite slab engraved with no dates, only the five letters of her name.  Aimee.  It means “loved one.”  How she was.
We had loved her.  And with the laying of her gravestone, the closing up of her deathbed, so closed our lives.
Closed to any notion of grace.”                 (excerpt from One Thousand Gifts, by Ann Voskamp)

A few of us might be spared tragedy.  Some may never be utterly betrayed or violated.  Shattered dreams may not visit everyone’s waking hours.  But, as Marcus Borg states,  “None of us gets out of this alive.”  If pain, unspeakable ache, has not yet seared your soul, it likely will.

Such bewildering unfairness raises many “why” questions, and the answers escape us.  Of even greater importance than resolving the “why” questions is this:  How will I respond?

When tragedy strikes, will I respond with clenched fists –or—open hands?  When betrayal lacerates my heart, will that broken heart “snap shut to grace,” or in brokenness remain open to God and goodness? 

I have done both.  Regrettably, I have spent years with closed fists, angry at God, at life, for gut-goring tragedy in one season of my life, for a broken relationship that nearly buried me  in another season.
It seems my life has been a  painstakingly slow plodding toward opening my heart, my hands to receive grace, to express gratitude.

My closed heart and clenched fists were how I coped.  But it was no way to live.  To live a life of the closed fist is to always be looking back, rather than living in the present.  It’s a life of reaction; I want to live a life of response.  I’m tired of the backward look at the unfairness, the abuse, the tragedy, the plethora of grievances and spending the present moment reacting to it all.  I’m not suggesting there is no value in looking back; in fact, I think it’s an essential component of grieving and healing.  I need to visit the past, not live in it. If I’m always looking back at the past, I will miss living in the moment.

And there is grace and goodness now that I earnestly desire to savor.

May God give you and Amy Voskamp and me open hearts and hands to, in time, receive healing and wonder and joy.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Life: A Bipolar Experience

It's Labor Day and  the sun is shining. After temps endlessly in the 90's it is a mellow and mild 70.  The cicada sing to the waltz of the gentle breeze.   God is great and life is good.  

All it takes is one phone call to send us careening into chaos.  "Mr. Harris, this is the Peoria County Sheriff.  There has been a terrible car accident. . ."    "Steve?  This is Dr. Wahlberg's office.  We received the results of your tests.  Doctor wants to see you as soon as possible."  

 All it takes is one poor decision to plummet us to  the depths.  "Dad, I'm allowed one phone call.  I'm calling from jail. . . "   

 Life is filled with laughter so deep it hurts; life is replete with hurt so deep one doubts she'll ever laugh again.  It's still a mystery to me how to navigate such unpredictable waters.  One season I can be sailing carefree and not a care in the cosmos; the next season I'm  stranded in the middle of the ocean with no land or craft in sight, desperately clinging to a piece of shattered lumber, hoping to stay afloat.  

 The song of life can be so good that I lift my open hands in thanks and praise, and I have no sooner sung the chorus and a dirge begins and I'm shaking my angry fists at God.  

I know I am not alone.  Even the great saints and prophets of God have reported a similar experience.  Hear the heart of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah as he bursts into spontaneous joy.  "Sing to the Lord!  Give praise to God!  He rescues the life of the needy from the hands of the wicked."  And without skipping a beat he agonizes in lament, "Cursed be the day I was born!  May the day my mother bore me not be blessed!  Cursed be the man who brought my father the news, who made him very glad,saying, 'A child is born to you. . . !'"  (Jeremiah 20:13, 14)  

This unpredictability of life teaches me  to savor the joyful, the wonder, the beauty without demanding it or allowing those moments to define me.  Neither can I allow the hellish and horrific to dictate and determine my state of mind,my outlook.  There is One who transcends both the delightful and the decimating; there is One who is above and not circumscribed by the awe-full and the awful.  

I need eyes to see and ears to hear the One when there is so much vying for my attention, clamoring so loudly that often all I notice is the immediate, rather than the Ultimate.  

Friday, August 19, 2011

“Most of Us Can Read the Writing on the Wall; We Just Assume It's Addressed to Someone Else --Ivern Ball

Once there was a group of people who surveyed the resources of the world and said to each other, "How can we be sure that we have enough in hard times?  We want to survive whatever happens. Let us start collecting food and knowledge so that we are safe and secure when a crisis occurs."  So they started hoarding so much and so eagerly that other people protested and said:  "You have much more than you need, while we don't have enough to survive.  Give us part of your wealth!"  But the fearful hoarders said:  "No, no, we need to keep this in case of an emergency, in case things go bad for us, too, in case our lives are threatened."  But the others said:  "We are dying now; please give us food and materials and knowledge to survive.  We can't wait; we need it now."  Then the fearful hoarders became even more fearful, since they became afraid that the poor and hungry would attack them.  So they said to one another:  "Let us build walls around our wealth so that no stranger can take it from us."  They started erecting walls so high that they could not even see anymore whether there were enemies outside the walls or not!  As their fear increased they told each other:  "Our enemies have become so numerous that they may be able to tear down our walls.  Our walls are not strong enough to keep them away.  We need to put explosives and barbed wire on top of the walls so that nobody will dare to even come close gto us."  Now instead of feeling safe and secure behind their armed walls they found themselves trapped in the prison they had  built with their own fear."         --Henri Nouwen

A sobering story.  A story that mirrors much.  What do you see?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Ego Makes Sure The Joke's On Me

The ego is --surprise!--egotistical.  It's all about me.  The ego, that selfish part of us, hates two things: exposure and change.

The ego will resort to any means to avoid being found out.  It will minimize--"It's not as though I robbed a dozen banks; it was just one."  It will rationalize--"I needed the money more than the bank did."  It will deny--"what bank?"  

It will do anything but tell or face the truth because that then would necessitate change.  We will cling to what's familiar even though it's killing us and we'll act like it's just another day in paradise.  "I'm in the dance band on the Titanic, singing Nearer My God to Thee."  The ego thrives on equilibrium; the current status quo may be as dysfunctional as a Big Brother episode, but it's predictable, though possibly lethal.  

Decades ago, I was a therapist in a rural county mental health clinic.  An adolescent male whom I'll call Sherwin Williams was a substance abuser.  Sherwin was into huffing spray paint.  One day he showed up for his appointment, walking into my office as nonchalant and ho-hum as could be.  He had a large circle of paint around his nose and mouth; walking in naked wouldn't have made him look any more conspicuous.  I asked him how he was doing.  "Fine."  I asked him if he had been huffing lately.   "Nope.  I'm clean." 

Are you kidding me?  How stupid do I look?  His ego was so entrenched in denial that what was obvious to anyone else was not even factored into the equation.  I still shake my head in disbelief when I think of Sherwin.  

But then there are those occasions when I look in the mirror--when I am honest with and about myself--and I can't believe it.  There's paint all over my face.  

Don't worry about me, though.   Like Sherwin, I'm fine.  I just need to stay away from mirrors. 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Am I Looking for the Infinite in the Finite?

I love to read.  I love to read from poets and mystics and theologians and  Franciscan monks and men and women who describe their pilgrimage.  Reading is the equivalent of eating.  I feast upon good books and deep thoughts and touching memoir. 

 I love to listen to music.  If I'm feeling lethargic, music can serve to energize me.  The Stones.   Springsteen.  Steve Winwood's, "You Gotta Roll With It, Baby."  Marshall Tucker's "Can't You See?"  Some music soothes and comforts my melancholy.  Van Morrison has made me cry.  Sarah McLachlan's mournful soul has caressed my own. 

I'm always looking for the next book to ground me, to anchor me in my journey.  I'm always listening to the next new artist, hoping that, maybe this time , the healing will come, the mood will stabilize, the epiphany will occur.    

I think I'm kidding myself.  I want to read, but I don't want to be read by the One who truly knows me.  I want to continue to expand my mind, hoping that through the vehicle of my mind I will eventually experience that "Aha!" revelation.  At other times I feel it is the heart that is the necessary mode of movement.  Maybe the next album will usher in a new lasting sense of peace and ease my anxious spirit. 

There's a part of me that knows better.  Yet, a part continues to pursue down paths that will not lead me to my desired destination.

Don't worry; I'm not about to engage in a frenzied book-burning extravaganza.  I'm not going to melt my cd's in a puddle, fueled by misguided repentance.    I'll keep reading, I'll keep listening.  Two questions arise.  Am I willing to be read?  Secondly, am I willing to listen to One who speaks in silence and solitude? 

Mick Jagger put it well:  I can't get no satisfaction. . . .and I try, and I try, and I try.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Fundamentalism: A Blessing and a Beating

I am a recovering fundamentalist.   I go to meetings weekly--every Sunday morning at a grace-filled church.  Ironically, I am grateful for aspects of my fundamentalist heritage.  My childhood fundamentalist church instilled in me a respect for and devotion to the Bible as the revealed Word of God.  In those early years I memorized much Scripture.  It wasn't that I was devout and preferred the Bible to my comic books; the church instilled and impressed those passages upon my mind. To this day recalling some of those passages in times of turmoil has brought me encouragement.  For that I am grateful.   

My fundamentalist past taught me the reality of objective Truth.  There are anchoring truths--realities--which, indeed, are true, whether or not I choose to acknowledge them.   That, to this day, instilled within me a passionate pursuit of what and Who is Truth.    For that, too, I am thankful.

Unfortunately, virtues pursued to excess become vices--and much of fundamentalism is about extremes, rather than balance.   The fundamentalist preoccupation with Word precluded little attention to Spirit.  My faith and life was centered on rule-keeping, rather than relationship.  It was a life of merely obeying God, devoid of loving God--or having a sense of God loving me.  My church instilled a fear-based life of obedience.  My obedience was not prompted or fueled by my love for God, but by our fear of falling into the hands of a holy God.  I was squeaky clean behaviorally, but shamed and fearful emotionally.  It was a terrible world with which to cope. 

 In our focus on truth, and this is a common trait of fundamentalism, we believed that we alone possessed the Truth.   We were very exclusive, which you would think would appear to us as a contradiction to the life and teachings of Jesus.  It wasn't a part of our consciousness then, nor is it among fundamentalists now.  If there is a disagreement in beliefs, the other party's stance or belief isn't regarded as different, but as wrong.  Consequently, even though many of my friends attended other denominations which held the same basic view of  Christ/ the Bible that we did, because they differed from us in other areas of belief we viewed them as either back-sliders or heretical, and it was our mission to "witness" to Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, certainly Catholics, and anyone else who wasn't us. 

That way of thinking breeds a self-righteousness  (which, in the gospel records, Jesus adamantly rejects) and a sense of moral superiority (which--who would have thought?--in the gospel records, Jesus adamantly rejects.)   We were concerned about the eternal destiny of these "lost souls" but simultaneously looked down upon them, loathing their language and and judging their behavior. 

Fundamentalism tends to breed a negation of life, rather than an affirmation of our existence.  Growing up I knew what was wrong, what I couldn't and shouldn't do, but I had no clue what I was meant and designed  to do.  Thou-shalt-nots prevailed.    That negation is all-encompassing; it is a mindset, the Weltanschaaung --the worldview, the way they perceive reality.  Typically, if a fundamentalist encounters a different belief or theological concept, the initial and, usually, the settled response is, "I know what is true and I know I am right; there is something spurious about this person's belief.  Be wary!!"  Seldom is there an openness to the possibility that I might learn from this other person, that maybe they have something to offer me that might enrich or expand my existing faith.  Instead, "they are wrong and it's up to me to refute them."  It's a negation of anything incoming that does not arise from their own closed system.  

I cannot adequately communicate the depth of relief  I feel in God having extricated me from that system decades ago.  It was oppressive, the dead legalism suffocating.  To be transported and transformed from a life of fearful obedience to a life that is loving response is a beautiful thing.  To move from being saved by God to being loved by God is, as they say, priceless. 

I feel a heaviness lately,  birthed on two fronts.  On an individual level, I am  feeling unfairly judged.  Someone I love very much is a fundamentalist and they are rejecting much of what and who I read--my mentors--and is the next step a rejection of me?  That would be terribly painful.  On a corporate level, our church is facing  judgment and  rejection by certain fundamentalist believers.  I love our church and so that pain is also felt by me. 

I need grace.  My initial impulse is not one of a loving response.  It makes me angry; I want to fight back.  I want to tell them how unlike Jesus they are in their condemnation, in their exclusivity.  I want to tell them that the Ultimate Judgment will not focus on whether or not we give mental assent to a certain number of theological propositions about Jesus.  We will be judged not on the basis if I held all the right beliefs about Jesus, but if I lived and loved like Jesus.   

But if I resort to that, then I am no different than these individuals who seem so judgmental.  I need grace.  I want to love when condemned.  I need to bless when seemingly cursed.  I want to bestow the love of Christ when hammered by the letter of the law. 

I have a long way to go.  I don't want my first reactive response to be one of regarding them as "freakin' fundies," but as my brothers and sisters.  And I want to love these brothers and sisters in God's family who would question my own belonging to that same family.

I need grace.

 (I apologize for the drought in my blogging.  We were out of the country the past 2 weeks, preceded by a 3 month hitch in Honduras.  I hope to re-establish some consistency in writing.  Thanks for your patience.)

Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Sign of the Times

I have a friend who has been in the construction trade for decades.  He has headed up projects constructing entire subdivisions, as well as road and bridge construction.  He is now nearing retirement and for whatever reasons the company to whom he has given his life is now treating him badly before he exits.  He has been demoted from his multi-faceted responsibilities and lately they have him working as a “flagger.”  I should say, standing around and being bored out of his freakin’ mind as a flagger.  No offense to any flaggers, but a chimpanzee—on an off day—could perform the job.  (If you can earn that kind of income--read further-- doing what you do, more power to you.)
I didn’t realize this but apparently the state regards “flagging” so difficult that certification is required.  Flagging 101.  “Class, we will devote the entire morning to the intricacies of turning the sign.  Write this down:  turn it to the side that says GO when traffic can resume; turn it to the side that says STOP when you want traffic to, uh, stop.  Now, in groups of two’s practice this maneuver with each other until you can do so without notes.”
He feels humiliated that he may very well finish his career in this capacity.  Maybe that’s the whole purpose of the company doing this.  One of my favorite sites for sarcasm——offers this “demotivator:” 

I think that’s their attitude--dead wrong, but thoroughly convinced.

It gets absurdly funny.  He tells me that a flagger will start out at  around $28 an hour, some of them working 14-16 hours a day, time and a half on Sat., and double-time on Sun.  Here’s the “welcome to America” moment.  At some of the bridge or RR crossing construction sites flaggers are standing at attention with their signs for 8-16 hours but, get this--the road is completely barricaded, closed to all traffic.  There are no “flagees,” only a solitary flagger.  I think this is absolutely brilliant.  Only in America

Maybe there’s a metaphor here.  Am I “flagging” a non-existent crowd?  Do I get on any one of my personal soapboxes and provide answers to questions people aren’t asking?    Am I intersecting with the traffic of humanity around me or am I off in my own little world waving irrelevant signs?  Am I on roads no one is traveling, not because I'm so advanced but because I'm clueless?  

And why am I waving an abrasive sign in someone's face, anyway?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Disdained in Life, Discarded in Death

He was a loner, but likeable.  John was a very intelligent homeless man who stayed in one of the local shelters at night, and fended for himself during the day.  His yellow-tinted glasses gave color to his weary eyes.

I first met him a year or so ago.  Our church operated out of a small storefront and served breakfast to the homeless early each Sunday morning.  We would pack 60, sometime 70, homeless men and women into our narrow quarters.  John was anxious around crowds.  He would arrive late, and linger outside.  He seldom asked for a meal, but always asked for coffee.  I struck up conversation with him, and it became a near-weekly ritual.  I looked forward to seeing him.

He would miss a week or two but always managed to reappear. During this time I left for 3 months to work with the poor in Honduras.   Upon returning,I didn't see John for a couple weeks and asked a street person who was a buddy of John's.  He told me John had died months ago.  I was shocked.

Nobody on our "team" had heard anything.  The grapevine of the homeless network was quiet; John was aloof enough that his brothers of the street apparently either didn't know or didn't care.

How does someone die without anyone noticing?  How does a man created in imago Dei--the image of God--die and get discarded like a cigarette butt tossed out the window?  How can you become so lost, so invisible that no one notices you dying?

I don't know.  I do know this:  I miss John.  John, I wish I had known your health had been significantly deteriorating.  Maybe I could have been there with you so you wouldn't have died alone.  Maybe some family member broke out of their comfort zone and re-established contact with you and held your hand and uttered comforting words and provided loving presence as you died.  Maybe.  I hope so.

No one should die alone.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Another Angle About Our Return Home

We have returned home.  The return trip home was not without a delayed flight, a cancelled flight, the beloved airlines losing ¾ of our checked baggage, and the bus breaking down between Chicago and home.  “Other than that. . . how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”

It is quite an adjustment to life back home.  There is so much sensory stimulation here in contrast to rural Honduras.  Noise, movement, traffic, bombardment by TV, schedule deadlines.  I forgot how difficult it is to relax here due to the constant stimulation of all our senses.  Another difference is the pace.  I’ll put it in driving terminology.   Here I feel I’m always in 5th gear—hurry, you’re running late,  ya snooze ya lose.  In Honduras life is done in 2nd or 3rd gear.  As the director of the Mercy International, our mission base, said about a scheduled hike into the mountains, “We would like to leave at 9:00; we will leave when we are ready.”  People tend to take priority over projects.  In Honduras, time is to be enjoyed, not monitored.  As a friend put it,  “You have the watch; we have the time.”   If only I could learn to down-shift. . .  I can already  feel myself tensing up now that we’re back.

I’ll share a realization or two with you.  We take the ordinary for granted.  We assume the routine and the people in our lives are a given.  In going to Honduras we left EVERYTHING and EVERYONE that had been familiar to us.  We were transported to a culture where we knew less than 10 people in the entire country.  We know very little Spanish and the vast majority of Hondurans knew absolutely no English.  We uprooted from our entire support system—family, friends, community of faith—and I wasn’t prepared for the gaping hole that created.  Being home now and being able to call anyone anytime, being able to laugh together and embrace and hold and hug—all that I had taken for granted—I now regard as a gift to be cherished.  The ordinary is a gift.  Cherish it.  On one of our walks through the Honduras countryside Les took a picture that I regarded at the time as a waste of time and camera space.  My thoughts were, it's a stupid cow.  What's the big deal?

 Now I get it.

I also realize how spoiled and fortunate and blessed I am even when life is at its worst.  I knew about the poverty there but living in it for 3 months moved it from my head to my heart.  I’ll give just one example.  One of Mercy International’s missions is to build houses/shelter for the poorest of the poor who reside In the mountains.  These people are the furthest removed from accessing resources, medical care, and supplies.  We took a U. S. team up to a mountain village, requiring a 2 hour fifteen minute drive over an unpaved mountain road and then a 3 hour hike to get to this area. Each evening our team would fire up the Coleman gas stoves and cook dinner.  During every meal the Honduran children are standing around us watching us eat.  We can’t give our food away because we need the carbs/energy for the difficult physical labor we’re engaging in.  So, you learn to eat, in spite of these kids staring at you and your plate of food.  One night, we had food left over—rice, actually.  So we asked the kids if they would like the remaining rice.  It broke my heart as they grabbed rice by the fistful.

 I knew these children don’t have much, but had no idea they were “grab it by the handfuls” hungry.

There is much more to share at another time.  We wanted let you know we’re back and we thank you for your support, your encouragement, your friendship.

We now face a most significant decision—do we return/relocate to Honduras and serve full-time, or do we consider other avenues of serving??  Honestly, we do not have a clear sense of direction at this point.  We have allotted two months in which to make that decision.  Any insight or direction you might offer will be appreciated.  We will appreciate your prayers, as well, regarding this decision.
I’ll end with several reasons we loved the people we served.

Be thankful for what and who you have.

Grace and Peace, Steve and Leslie

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

We're Back in the States Where Technology Makes Life Run Smoothly

Well, we've been back home for over a week.   I apologize for the delay in getting back to my blog.  We're back in spite of the particular airlines we used.  Our morning of departure we got up at 4 a.m. to depart Honduras.  The flight to Miami was without incident or food.  The flight from Miami to Chicago was delayed, which I feared would set in motion a chain reaction of disasters in making our connecting flight from Chicago to home.  I don't know why I was worrying so much; the connecting flight was cancelled completely.  It was a special moment.  By now it's @ 5 p.m. and it's been a long day.  The same particular airline informed us that they lost 3/4 of our checked baggage and had no idea where our cargo might be.  Because our flight was cancelled they offered to toss us on a bus (or was it under the bus?) from Chicago to home, another  4 hours or so.  I asked if they would include a meal while we were waiting for the bus, but they informed me they "couldn't do that."  Another special moment.  At 7 pm. we boarded a bus and while sitting there idling, the engine died.  But not to worry, the after a couple minutes the driver got it running again.   About 3 hours into the ride home, the engine died and the driver pulled off the interstate and there we sat in the dark.  Now would be the time to worry.  He called the dispatcher of Vern's Bus and Bait Shop and eventually the dispatcher sent out another bus to meet us and pick us up and transport us the rest of the way home.  We got in at midnight and were completely surprised by some of our family and friends welcoming us off the bus.  

Soon I hope to fill you in on my reflections as I look back on our 3 months in Honduras.  We are now adjusting to re-entry into mid-upper class IL.  By the way, we did get all our luggage two days after we got home.  But I still carry an attitude about the whole affair.  I guess you carry your baggage whether or not you lose your luggage.  Know what I mean?

I hope to hear from you as I get back in my blogging routine.  If you have questions to which you'd like me to respond, let me know.

Be thankful for what and who you have.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Harris Honduras Update: Time is Flying By

Two weeks and we return home.  Can’t believe it!  It seems like it was only yesterday that upon our arrival here American Airlines lost half our luggage for five days—but I’m over it and don’t begrudge them in the least.  Right.

A team of good ole boys from Texas came down and with some help from a mason and his crew we built two concrete block houses, start to finish, in four days.  Don’t anybody mess with Texas!  Hard workers who laugh a lot.  Each evening we would return to the mission base for dinner and they’d chow down and while still at the table pull out their pouches of Red Man and chew a wad.  I got a kick out of it, but I certainly would never sit downwind of them at a picnic.

They were immediately followed by a team of @ 20 guys from Cincinnati.  We tackled a work project up into the mountains.  The typical 2 & a half hour drive on a rough unpaved mountain road and then a three or so hour hike to a little village, Agua Calliente.   We were able to pour a concrete floor for the village church and also put on a roof for a family who resides there. There was a gap between the roof trusses and the existing adobe blocks so we needed to mix some mud as filler.  Here’s a pic of the man’s wife mixing the mud with her bare feet.  Few “princesses” in Honduras.

I had a day off a couple weeks ago and went hiking/exploring further out in the country and met this family out in the sticks.  Three generations living together.

I regard Honduras as the Beauty and the Beast.  In my updates I know I tend to focus on the beastly nature of the country; here are a couple pics of the beauty.

When I take pics  I am still drawn to the children.  This is Michelle, who lives between our apartment and the mission base.  One of the most beautiful Honduran children I have met.

A few more pics of precious people.  When you look at their pic, please pray for them and, in turn, go out of your way to do something for someone you know who may be in distress.

Last and totally unrelated, the following is a pic of the inside of the back door of the bus we took from the base into town.  I guess Jesus is many things to many people.

As always, be thankful for what and who you have.


Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Brief Introspective Honduras Update: The Look in the Mirror

We don't have a team down here this week and Easter week is typically a week of diminished activity at the base. This has allowed for more time to think and ponder, whether wanting to or not. Some random thoughts and perceptions:

Living in community sounds Thoreau-like but often plays out more WWIII than Walden. Don't get me wrong--Mercy International is not characterized by cat-fights and brawling. It's just that living in community is always difficult, regardless of the context. Les and I have lived in community on two prior occasions. Those prior occasions brought to the surface and caused me to confront my own judgmental attitude and my selfishness. This occasion is no different. I need grace to bestow grace.

Living in this harsher environment as also accentuated the strengths in our marriage, but simultaneously has brought to the surface the flaws and deficiencies. It's like a crucible. Great things are being ground out in our relationship; we have laughed more the past two months than we have in a long time. We have felt a sense of accomplishment in working together on some projects. The crucible is also making obvious and grinding out some impurities. That look in the mirror has made me see that there are times when I am more loving toward a poor Honduran than I am toward my wife. I won't unleash on one of them what I will spew upon her. I am very thankful for her patience and graciousness in living with and loving me.

I'm somewhat of a germaphobe. So here I am in rural Honduras. Go figure. For years I was very hesitant to "get dirty," meaning I hedged on touching dirty and, at times, smelly children. I am embarrassed to say this. I now experience a much greater comfortability in holding and hugging them. (I still will not share a water bottle with anyone, so if you ever come down here, bring your own.)

Though not appearing in this update, due to all my pics being on my laptop and my laptop having no Internet connection this week and therefore I am using a computer in the office-- I love taking pics. I find myself taking pics of the children predominantly more than that of the scenery or other elements of the country. I'm discovering that it's the children that capture my heart. And the Honduran women who struggle to survive.

One last introspective glance: the tension between DOING and BEING has become magnified while here. I can DO loving things without necessarily BEING loving. e.g. I can build a house for a poor family (plenty of DOING) while grumbling, complaining about the poor quality of the lumber and the lack of help (scarcity of BEING.) I trust that God will continue to diminish the seemingly expansive gap between the two and that some day I will truly BE loving and also Do loving things.

Until then I'm thankful for my wife and some close friends who love me in spite of the gap.

Be thankful for what and who you have.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Honduras Update: A Week at the Base and Home

Greetings from the two of us!  (A rare photo which includes my shy and beautiful wife)

This week we didn’t have a team come down from the States, so other than hauling gravel from town to the base we worked at the base itself.  We also dug a foundation in order to begin the next house when another team comes in next week.

Another program of Mercy International is an attempt to keep kids in school.  Education is a primary key to breaking the cycle of poverty.  So many of the girls become pregnant and drop out and so many of the boys become apathetic and quit.  Once either sex makes that choice their fate is typically sealed.  Many of the kids are raised in poor families and the father or mother cannot afford to send their children to primary school, much less college.  MI provides scholarships to kids who demonstrate a significant need as well as motivation and determination.  The program is called Hope and a Future, directed by Cindy Lowman.  People in the states sponsor a child for a school year.  (For more info you can go to

The last team interviewed some of the girls who are now going to school because of gracious individuals who have provided them scholarships.  Here is a photo of the interview and then some excerpts: (I represents  the interviewer; S,  a student)

 I: What would you tell your mom if she were sitting here? 
S:  I’d give her a kiss and tell her I love her because she never had an opportunity like I have.  She gives me the strength to go after my dream.

I:  (to another student)  How is your life different than your mom’s?
S:  The last baby my mom had was very difficult for me.  This is very personal.  My mother made a big mistake and she had a baby from a married man, and I saw that another child has come and I was afraid of what people would say.  People have always told me I’m going to be just like my mom. I can show them NOW that I am different.  NOW my goal is to graduate and have work.

I:  If you girls someday have a little girl what will you say to her?
S:  Be careful with the boys.  Keep your zipper up all the time.
I:  Why keep your zipper up?
S:  We have a goal, a dream and if we get pregnant this dream will be worth nothing.

I:  How different would your life be if you weren’t in school?
S:  If I hadn’t gotten a scholarship I’d probably have children now.  I wouldn’t be a Christian.  My brothers and sisters wouldn’t be motivated because they now see me as an example.  I give thanks to God to have a different opportunity than my family.

I will use the rest of this space to provide you a slice of life where we live, since we’ve been at the base and home all week.  Here's me at the mission base.  (Les always prefers to take a photo rather than being in one.)

Life here is full of contrast.  You can see a kid with a whip in one hand as he mans an ox-cart, and a cell phone is his other hand.  Go figure.  (Unrelated, this is the road we walk from the base to our apartment.)

The outdoor markets are lush with the freshest strawberries, pineapples, watermelon, apples, blackberries—and we can’t touch it without first bleaching all fresh fruit and vegetables.  It can drive a guy like me—who hates to delay gratification—absolutely over the edge.

The tap water is not safe to drink; we’ve also been instructed to keep our mouth shut when showering.  Speaking of the shower in our apartment, apparently the plumbers in Honduras missed Water and Electricity 101.  Notice the exposed electrical wiring running into our showerhead so that we have hot showers.  I am now very anxious when I shower and have developed a nervous tic.  One raised hand to wash an armpit and I could be fried.

Nonetheless, life is good here and the people are beautiful.

Be thankful for what and who you have.