Have we lost the plot?

I have been Facebook friends with a nationally known celebrity for a number of years (and personal friends with her sister for several years before that).  Lest anyone think I’m here to “name drop”, I will not identify the celebrity in this writing.  Her identity isn’t what’s important – what matters is the issue she brought up in a recent Facebook post.  Her question, and the response of another of her followers, drove home to me in heartbreaking fashion a problem I have seen for years with the church’s witness to 21st Century America. 

Before I share their words, I want to emphasize that this post is NOT about the current U.S. election cycle, though that cycle is almost certainly what prompted her question.  Nor is this post even more generally about my opinion regarding the most “Christian” approach to U.S. politics.  Please look beyond both of those subjects and view these words from the wider perspective of the commission Jesus left with the church prior to his ascension – to win people’s hearts to him.  I fear the church has allowed herself to be distracted by that which we have become convinced is “good”, to the exclusion of what is actually best.  Read the following with the thought impressed upon your mind:  “I am called to be like Jesus”. 

(Though primarily intended as a conciliatory sentiment designed to cause us all to think from a spiritual perspective, that last paragraph is admittedly also code for, “Anyone derailing this conversation into political arguments via comments here or on Facebook, whether intentionally or unintentionally, will quickly find said comments deleted.”  You’ve been warned…)

I should also point out that the questioner makes no claims to being Christian, which is (fairly obviously) also true of the commenter.

Here is the exact text of her Facebook status, followed by the comment left by a follower:

“I really don’t understand the greedy selfish mindset of those who rail against the “welfare state.”

Do you really not see that helping people survive is a good thing?

And, are these really the most Christian people among us?

I don’t get it.

Please explain.”

“Because they are all talk and no action. It doesn’t affect them directly so they don’t care. Heck with Christians. They are inhuman!”

 Go back and read the exchange again, and let those words sink in.

 Rather than use them as a springboard to promote my own agenda.  I will simply suggest the following thought questions:

 1)      In our zeal to cry persecution and victimhood from the mainstream media and all that seems to be fighting against what we as Americans hold dear, is it really Jesus we are fighting for, or just a cobbled-together notion of what we would like his Kingdom to look like?

 2)      Does good capitalism equate to good Christianity?

 3)      Is it possible that we have allowed ourselves to become so committed to a mode of Christian behavior that we have lost touch with the Christianity that is supposed to drive it?

 4)      And most importantly, what is our path forward toward having people be attracted to our message because they “recognize that we have been with Jesus”, rather than being repelled by our hypocrisy?

 I have one reason, and one reason only, for specifying that the words I quoted come from someone who has been fairly well known in the realm of American entertainment:  To remind us that these types of reactions to our selfish approach to evangelism are not just coming from the guy on the corner who doesn’t go to church, or from your atheist college professor, but from levels where they can be heard, and can influence others’ lives, to a degree we might not want to admit. 

 In this age of social media and a 24/7 news cycle, the eyes of the world are watching and judging the church more closely than ever before. 

 What will they see when they fall upon you?

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Here’s to Sobriety!

So, it turns out it’s been nearly a year since I wrote a post for this blog.  Maybe it’s time to bring it back to life.

 A friend mentioned to me recently that he had not said anything to me this year about my sobriety anniversary because he had forgotten its date, due to the fact that I hadn’t really “broadcast” it (those quotes are just to report his word accurately, not to connote any disapproval of the word choice).  It wasn’t a criticism.  He was merely making an observation.  He’s right.  I didn’t make any public mention of it (it was April 23rd, by the way, for those of you keeping score).  His comment started me thinking about WHY I hadn’t said anything in social media, that haven where words are seldom misconstrued, secrets are kept religiously, and everybody believes the best about everybody else.  Following is a synopsis of my conclusions, and a few words about what you might expect from me in the future.

I quickly realized that any hesitancy wasn’t out of embarrassment or shame.  If anything, it was just the opposite.  Many (if not all) of us have experienced at least one major defining moment or event in our lives – the kind of event that narrates much of how we relate to our world for the rest of our time in it.  Some react by holding it in, rarely speaking of it.  Others just can’t seem to keep their mouths shut about it.  Hopefully, most of us find a comfortable and healthy spot somewhere in the middle.  Wherever you fall in the spectrum verbally, that event is never far from your mind, directing your thoughts if not defining your words.  My fear was that my own wordiness about my exorcised demon was more about me wanting attention than it was about whatever good my story could do for someone else.  And the more often I thought of something else to write about it, the more I became convinced that others would just think (if not say), “Oh, great, there he goes again.  We’ve heard it all before.  Just put a sock in it now, Dearie, won’t you please?”  So I kind of just shut up about it for a while.

But this presents a problem.  Thirteen years ago I sold my soul to the demon rum (OK, it was vodka, but that’s not nearly such a good turn of phrase), and three years ago I very nearly died for that mistress.  When I somehow survived and began beating the odds by healing without a liver transplant, everyone (including myself) began telling me how God obviously had something left for me to do on this planet since he had intervened to keep me here despite my best efforts to leave.  But to be honest, so far I have seen no clear (nor to my mind, even vague) indication of what that divine purpose is to be.  I don’t have anything more to offer the world to make it a better place than I had before.  In fact, in most ways that I can see I actually have less. 

Except… except… except for the one thing I do have to offer that absolutely no one else can claim – my own story.

And it occurs to me that I have two choices when it comes to deciding whether or not to say something about that story at any particular moment:  I can keep my mouth shut, fearing to annoy those who feel they already know quite enough about my poor decisions; or I can speak up, knowing that there just might… there just MIGHT be even one tortured soul who might hear something that can produce enough hope to buoy them in the midst of the sea in which they are drowning.  I don’t know that I’m strong enough to tow anyone to shore, but if I can be a life preserver for even five minutes to let someone catch their breath for the next effort, then by my calculation that is five minutes well spent.

So, to the dismay of some of you I am sure, I might begin having more to say in the future.  You might hear me repeating stuff that seems important to me – because sometimes important stuff bears repeating.  And Lord, I am so very grateful for this second chance you have given me… but until I hear more clearly from you about any grander plans you have for me, I’ll just settle for speaking my piece now and then.

Peace — Bruce

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To The Church: An Early Charleston Editorial

I’m already seeing well-meaning Christians post about the event in Charleston as being an attack against Christianity in America. From what we’ve been told so far, I think the tragedy has almost nothing to do with Christianity, and everything to do with race.

1) The shooter is reported to have specifically said he came to shoot black people.
2) He also reportedly said (I paraphrase), “You have been raping our women and taking over our country.” Combined with #1 above, this seems to point specifically to race. I have yet to hear even the staunchest of athiests accuse Christians in general of “raping our women”.
3) But it happened in a church. Yes, but a church with a known history of specifically standing up for the black community against white oppression. This church fought for the end of slavery, and stood side-by-side with the leaders of the Civil Rights movement to bring equity in the treatment of black people.

Christian friends: I’m gratified that you recognize the gravity of this event, and that you are mourning with and for the families of those affected by it. But please, PLEASE don’t attempt to twist this into an example of persecution against the church. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus is indeed mourning along with you, but his pain is NOT because of the particular building in which the tragedy occurred. Furthermore, I believe that his mourning is amplified by our arrogant attempts to make his body into the victim here. It’s time to put down your Hal Lindsay books (OK, substitute “Left Behind” books, if that reference is too old for you), and pick up the gospels.

Peace — Bruce

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A Cop’s Backside

Many of you who know me also know that I am not often given to bouts of “hero worship” as regards those who engage in public or national service.   I have a cynical streak about a mile wide.

I grew up in the 1960s to the growing cadence of anti-war sentiment, following on the heels of the Great Victory brought to us by the Great Generation.  My father served as a Marine in World War II, and my brother was a career Marine in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.  I am proud of both of them and of their service.  With those factors considered, I admit to being conflicted about the necessity and value of war.  I never served in the military myself, and to be honest I personally find the whole business messy and deplorable.  That doesn’t mean I am against those who serve in the military – it just means that I am less likely than most to be a big flag waver about it, or to want to glorify war by putting those who engage in it on a pedestal.

As regards public service in law enforcement, I grew up in an era where the public image of the police transformed from the noble do-gooders portrayed in Norman Rockwell‘s magazine covers to the release of the movie “Serpico”, where a very different picture of cop life and motivation was revealed.  As a teenager, due to the “extra-curricular activities” in which we chose to engage, my peer group feared and loathed the police, referring to them as “pigs”.  I don’t remember if I ever actually called an officer by that name to his/her face, but if I ever did I deeply regret it, and can only hope that somehow they know of my repentance.

Today, from Facebook to the news to the water cooler talk at work, wherever you look you see people taking sides regarding the role of law enforcement in our society.  Unfortunately, it appears that the usual “few bad apples” have tainted the public’s perception of how the police think (and therefore act).  Some are responding by calling for the pitchforks and torches to be brought out, for a storming of the castle to break the institution from the top down.  Others take the opposite approach:  To automatically defend and support every officer’s actions as good and acceptable and necessary from someone doing a tough job in a tough situation.

I am not writing this post to take either of those sides, nor even to give an impassioned appeal for all reasonably thinking people to find the appropriate middle ground.  I just want to tell you about the one time I got to stare at the butt of a cop as he knelt on the ground about two feet in front of my face.

On December 23, 2002 I was awakened at 5 a.m. by every father’s nightmare – the sound of my 20 year-old daughter screaming in abject terror.  Fortunately, my initial fear that she was being attacked in the night was quickly dispelled.  The real “night stalker” turned out to be that her room – no, not just her room – her bed was on fire.  She woke up to that horror and jumped out of bed, and to my everlasting gratitude it was from the kitchen where she was already out of immediate danger that I was hearing those screams.

The family (plus one overnight guest) was marshalled in the kitchen, 911 was called, and six people and two dogs found their way safely out of the house as the fire began to rage from the end of the hall.

As we huddled together in the front yard we heard the sirens approaching from the distance.  But before any fire engines, ambulances, or other emergency vehicles topped the hill to descend into the cul-de-sac on which we lived, it was a single St. Ann police cruiser that made the first appearance.   The lone officer got out and approached us and immediately asked if anyone else was left in the house.  We replied that there were still two cats inside, and two rabbits in a cage on the living room floor.

Without any hint of amusement or disdain on his face about the relative value of the poor creatures, he wheeled and headed for the front door.  I followed along behind him.  He ducked to crawl into the house beneath the level of the smoke pouring out, though by now the smoke had grown so thick there was no staying under it.  He crawled across the floor and pulled the rabbit cage toward the door behind him so I could pass it on out to the front porch.  Then he continued to scan the floor of the room with his flashlight.  He looked under the futon, and I found myself faced with the south end of his uniform pants, illuminated by the glow from the flames around the corner.  He reached under the futon and extracted the terrified cat that had hidden in the only place it could find.

By then it was imperative that we both leave the house.  We did, in time to see the arrival of the fire crew (who deserve their own commendation, but that is for another post).  If I ever heard the name of that officer I have since forgotten it.  That’s a shame, because he’s missing out on a great steak dinner that I would love to buy for him, if I knew how to contact him.

I have seen (and lived) both sides of the “trust the police, they are there to serve you” issue.  When I was 15, if that cop had knelt down before me exposing his most vulnerable parts, I would have been tempted to kick them.  At age 45, on that cold December morning, as he selflessly put himself in danger to save my cat, I might have just as gladly kissed them instead.

Peace — Bruce

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Déjà vu

A number of years ago my family and I were members of a relatively small church in the St. Louis area.  Lest anyone assume by what I am about to relate that we were malcontents or “church-hoppers”, I should mention that we were members there for fourteen years.

During the first twelve or so years of our time there, we saw many changes take place in the church.  Elders and deacons came into office, served for various lengths of time, and some left office again.  There were changes in the paid ministerial staff (including the senior pastor, once).  Because it was a small church most people had their finger on the pulse regarding most of what was going on.  As far as I ever knew, none of the above changes were the result of any major disagreements between factions of people within the church.  Throughout the changes the people loved and took care of each other with a deep affection.

Somewhere around the thirteenth year, however, that idyllic atmosphere began to change.  A particular man with a strong personality and a penchant for control ascended to the role of Chairman of the Elders.  In what had previously been a largely democratic environment (people were used to having a say as a congregation in major decisions), he relatively quickly consolidated power to the small group of elders.  This really meant that he consolidated power to himself, because the other elders were generally inclined to go along with a strong, confident presence rather than raising obstacles or objections.

That is, all except one of the other elders.  He became a strong dissenting voice against the “bullying” that was beginning to appear from the leadership of the church.  As payment for his earnest endeavors he fairly quickly found himself (and his wife) drummed out of not only the eldership, but also of the church he had loved and served for decades.

As these events unfolded people in the congregation began to choose sides in the battle.  The environment began to get toxic as some families chose to leave, and the ones who remained continued to lob their “holy hand grenades” at one another.  Questions were asked of the leaders, and letters sent, and meetings held.  Soon it became clear to my wife and me that our attempts to hang on and try to promote healing were ineffectual, and the negativity of the situation was actually becoming a danger to the spiritual welfare of our family.

We had prayed, we had fought, and we had wept.  But we ultimately felt forced to make the hard decision to leave the church and the people we had loved for so long, and look for another place to serve the Lord.

I wish I had a happy ending to report for this story.  Within a year or two of our departure, so many others had departed also that the church was forced to close its doors and merge with another small church a few miles away.  The man who had stood so strongly on his principles had won his battle, chasing away all the naysayers who disagreed with him – but he had lost the war at the cost of many devastated believers.  That man was wrong.  His principles were too inflexible and his character too stubborn.  But I still believe to this day that he honestly in his heart believed he was doing the right thing.  Unfortunately, whether his heart was in the right place or not didn’t end up mattering.  He tore the church apart, and it no longer exists to be a witness for Christ in that community.

By now most readers are probably already aware of why I entitled this post “Déjà vu”.

After we left that church, our family became members of a different, much larger church in a different St. Louis area community.  We were active there for twelve years.  As the years passed, some patterns and tendencies began to appear that concerned us.  Those perceived issues in themselves weren’t the main reason we left.  An opportunity arose for us to assist in the planting of a new church venture in the City of St. Louis, an endeavor that seemed to fit our own attitudes and beliefs about ministry more closely than did the church of which we were a part.  We couldn’t help but notice, even then, that other faithful, longstanding families were beginning to leave too.  There were rumbles about leadership styles and lack of transparency with the congregation that were frustrating even the most balanced-minded of the members.

Since then, now as an outsider looking in, I have only heard those rumbles grow, and have seen more people leave.  I wondered how much of my own discontentment there had been a result of my own overinflated sense of self-importance or selfishness.  Was my imagination making mountains out of molehills?

Well, as of recently, that church has begun to tread a disturbingly familiar path.  With the unfolding of a recent major development, sides are being chosen and battle lines drawn.  Years-old frustration now bubbling to the surface has combined with anger over the immediate scandal to create a deep hostility from many current and former members toward a leadership they feel won’t respond to their concerns. Surprise:  Questions are being asked, letters sent, and meetings held.  Rather than addressing these concerns openly as shepherds of the flock, the leadership appears to be retreating to the safety of their legal rights (including resorting to lawsuits to attempt to silence the dissenters).

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:  As an EX-member of the church, I don’t really have a dog in this fight.  I write this not to choose a weapon and a flag under which to fight, but to wave a white flag of warning.  I hope this church will rethink its strategy.  I have personally seen what happens when leaders become so embroiled in their “rights” that they alienate the flock.  It is scarcely of any value to our Lord to hold our ground and win our battles when the price is that we have nothing of any value to come home to after the victory.  Signs are prevalent that the church is in the process of being torn asunder.  I pray that God will grant to us all the wisdom and clarity of purpose to keep that from happening.

Peace — Bruce

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The Storm

I know a man who has recently found himself in the middle of a whirlwind.  He is surrounded by a vortex of rumors and accusations, and facing scrutiny from legal, professional, and personal perspectives.

I don’t know this man well, and I have had no recent conversations with him.  Therefore, I am in no position to claim to know anything about what he is thinking or feeling about the storm in which he finds himself.  Nor is it my intent to speculate, or even speak, about his situation.  Enough people are doing so already.  Nothing will be gained by me injecting my own noise into the fray.

Some of you will by now have figured out exactly who I’m talking about.  If so, please refrain from commenting on this in any way that will reveal more than I have tried to share discreetly for the sake of context.  If you don’t know who I’m talking about, that’s good.  You don’t need to know.  The lesson is valid without knowledge of the specifics.

But what I will do is share a few words about my own experience, in hope that the few who will read these words will be encouraged to look with fresh eyes at anyone who is in their own storm, but may not have a lot to say about it.  The storm in which this man is embroiled is real, with real importance and real consequences.  Most of us, however, are not in any position to speak authoritatively regarding how the situation should play out.  Let those of us who are really at best spectators leave that hard work to the coaches and the players on the field.

Maybe I digress.  My family has told me for years that I always try to over-explain everything.

A couple of years ago I found myself in my own storm.  In my case, it was a storm of my own making.  I brought it on myself, and my silence about it very nearly cost me my life.  I was an alcoholic – a closet alcoholic.  I very nearly drank myself to death without anyone ever knowing I had a problem.  As I grew sicker and sicker, weaker and weaker, I realized that I was surely going to die – and yet even then I couldn’t bring myself to confess to my family, my friends, my doctor, my employer, and my church that I needed help.

While my external self bravely tried to go on as though nothing was wrong, internally I felt the walls closing in like the inside of a trash compactor, ready to smash the garbage that I had become.  All I could do, emotionally, was cower in the corner and pray it would all go away.

The story of how I escaped the compactor is long, mostly anguishing, yet sometimes even funny.  I won’t attempt to share it in detail here.  Suffice it to say that after very nearly dying, God brought me out the other side to begin a long and hard recovery.  The difficulty of the recovery does not relate directly to alcohol.  I have never had to rely on the tried and true “one day at a time” encouragement.  Since my last drink on April 23, 2013, I have honestly not had a single real craving for alcohol.  The difficulty has been in the physical and emotional recovery, trying to find out again who I am, what I can really do, how I am to regain the trust of my family, and how I am to pick up my life and move on with it now that I am sober.

So what does any of this have to do with the man in the storm?  I have learned two really important lessons in going through my near self-destruction and recovery:

  •  I learned that we really, really need the support and love of our family, friends, and fellow believers when we are in the storm – even, or more likely especially, when the storm is of our own making. The real test of love and support lies in how people react to us when we fail them.
  •  I experienced that love and support from those whom I love in ways deeper and wider than I could have ever dreamed. Those whom I had hurt the worst, and who had every right to reject me because of the magnitude of my failure, were the ones who almost literally carried me through the darkest days of my life.

The man in the storm of whom I wrote above is in a completely different situation than mine.  As I already mentioned, I am in no position to know how he feels right now.  But I wonder if it’s possible that at least a part of him feels suffocated by the whirlwind around him.  I wonder if silence perceived by many as stubbornness might actually be a feeling of despair.

Whether we realize it or not, we all know people who are living their lives silently in the storm.  We might perceive their outward countenance and/or behavior as anything from joyful to miserable, cheerful to angry, enviable to pitiful, talkative to stoic.  But inside, the storm is tearing them apart.  And they need our help.   We may not be able to help them with the storm itself.  It might quite literally be their own fault, with consequences that will have to play out appropriately.  But meanwhile, how will we, the spectators, react?  Perhaps before we allow ourselves to start choosing sides (and weapons) and attacking, we might wonder what’s really in the eye of that storm and spend a little more time praying instead.

I can’t possibly express adequately my gratitude for those who stood by me when I deserved it least.  They didn’t attempt to justify my behavior – they were clear that they understood (as did I) that I had royally screwed up.  But they also made it clear that they valued me more than they despised my behavior.  That is what really saved my life, and gave me hope, in 2013.  Without it, I sincerely doubt that I would have ever seen 2014.

So who do you know today that is “in the storm”?  What do you intend to do about it?

Peace.

Bruce

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That thing I tried once

A few years ago I decided to try my hand at poetry.  I finally finished this one about 5 years ago after it had “brewed” for about a decade.  At that pace I ought to have another one ready by about 2024!  For your viewing and critiquing pleasure, I offer “Kingdom”.

Sunrise: shadows against the mist
through castle windows new,
fall ever mild upon the child
who sleeps within their view;
A father dotes, his gaze portends
his son’s place in his plan–
to learn, to grow, to someday know
the measure of a man.

High morning: the boy begins
to train for battle’s din,
His father’s pride will be his guide,
a kingdom here to win.
No easy task awaits his hand
as training makes him strong.
A path to try, ideals as high
as dreams that drive them on.

Midday: a leathern hauberk,
and a sword fashioned of pine
have taught the youth to fight for truth
Now shod with steel and iron.
The character instilled within,
along with battle’s skills
Becomes the power foes hard and dour
Succumb to as he kills.

As sun moves west the father’s plan
Brings justice in its wake;
With ne’er retreat, but victory sweet,
A kingdom’s his to take.
As enemies retreat he knows
this battle’s just a start
The laurels earned have served to burn
this war into his heart

In evening shades as daylight fades,
his zeal begins to wane;
Where battle’s story once reeked of glory,
it now brings naught but pain.
As on a dusty throne he slumps,
his father’s memory chides:
“Where went the man who proudly ran
to conquer by my side?”

Sunset: shadows within a heart
from which the day has fled,
cast a pall, no more enthrall
a soul that’s only bled.
With nothing for the kingdom left,
he fears he’s failed the test,
Sometimes the most a man can boast
is still but second best.

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