Tuesday, July 31, 2007

I Hate Lasts...

So far this week, I've given my "official" two week's notice at work, had my last meeting with my spiritual director, and my last meeting of a ministry group I've been actively involved in for the last two years at church. In the month prior to this, I've spent my last night in my home, had my last Saturday morning "made to order breakfast" at my Gammaw's house, scratched my kitty on the head for the last time, cooked my last meal in MY kitchen, met for the last time with two long-time clients in my job...

...and that's just right off the top of my head. If I were to sit and think about it for another ten minutes I could fill an entire post with just listing my "lasts". But that would be more depressing than I even want to attempt.

I hate lasts. I hate goodbyes. I really, really, REALLY dislike change. I was sharing with some friends tonight that I'd gladly keep bringing "firsts" into my life forever... if only I could just "give up" any "lasts". (My sense of humor is quirky... I was just thinking the only "last" I'd ever really enjoy is my last last.)

The difficulty with some big changes in life is that there can be a overabundance of lasts all at once. Emotionally, I feel like I did 12 years ago when I graduated college. It seemed like my WHOLE WORLD was "last" something. And I hated it. It made me sad. It wasn't "bad" per se. But... I wasn't yet across the bridge from all those "lasts" to begin experiencing any firsts to balance it out.

It's very much like this right now... and has been for more than a month. Actually, I think it started for me at Christmas time when I realized I was probably decorating my house for the last time for Christmas. Seven months of lasts... and now a marathon of them for the next three weeks - before any "firsts".

It's hard. That's all. Just hard. OK. But hard. It will get easier when the "firsts" begin to come. And, I AM looking forward to them. First night at the seminary. First class. First mass at the seminary chapel as a seminarian. First meeting with my new spiritual director. And... I'm sure the firsts will create some anxiety. (First test?!?!?! I haven't taken a test in 12 years! First paper?!?!?! Someone hasn't critiqued my writing in forever.) But, with firsts I'm able to connect with the sense of life moving on. Living. Today, all I'm experiencing are chapters closing.

A wonderful woman shared a prayer card with me tonight as our meeting closed. She said it had just happened to be in her purse today - and she wasn't sure why. As I was sharing tonight, she began to think maybe sharing it with me was why. It was just what I needed. (THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!)

For all who are moving through a season of change, of lasts...

Lord, be our guide and our protector
on the journey we are about to take.
Watch over us and preserve us from all accidents,
keep us free from harm to body and soul.

Lord, support us with Your grace when we are tired.
Helps us be patient in any trouble which might come our way.

Keep us always mindful of Your presence and love. Amen.

Monday, July 23, 2007

I've Never Liked Roller Coasters...

...in fact, I don't think I've ever been on one. The one trip I can remember to an amusement part as I child, I got on one of the rides with my Aunt Sherril. And no sooner had it started, than I began to scream bloody murder. I don't know if its something about the out of control sensation, perhaps my fear of heights - I'm not sure what it is. The closest thing I've ever experienced to a roller coaster is those "virtual coasters" you can ride - where you get in, and they play a movie all around you and move the seats you're in to match the movie. But even in those, when it "gets too much" you can close your eyes...and the sensations diminish.

I have many friends who LOVE roller coasters. And they describe the sensation as one of intense fear and excitement at the same time. I always thought that was bunk - there's no WAY to feel both fear and excitement in the same measure at once, I thought. It must not really be fear they were feeling. And...even if it WERE possible to feels those sensations at once - there's no WAY that could be an enjoyable thing. I mean, if you did it once - and that's the way you felt - there'd be no WAY you'd want to do that again. Certainly not spending loads of money and waiting in line just to be terrified again...no matter how exciting it was for you.

Well...I still don't like roller coasters - don't know that I'll ever get on one. But I gotta' tell ya' - in these last few weeks I've come to believe what it is others tell me they like about them. Fear & excitement all at the same time...and experiencing that in a context of enjoyment. That's very much the emotions that are prevailing all day every day for me these last weeks.

When I first began to pack up the house - sort through those things I wanted to keep, and those things I couldn't take with me to school. As I began to go through the emotional and physical process of letting go...letting go of material possessions, letting go of my pet of 10 years - the most amazing cat I've ever known, letting go of the freedom and secuirty of my home, beginning to feel the letting go of financial security of having a good job... well, it all feels like riding a roller coaster. I'm terrified in many ways...and yet excited in many ways...all at the same time.

Letting go isn't easy. The physical and emotional effort that's involved is taxing, its hard. I'm not really sure I can explain how I've been able to do it. There have been many tasks - throwing away memoribilia that I can no longer find a way to keep, taking Smokey (my cat) to the Humane Society, loading up the car and hugging my grandmother for the last time as a neighbor. I'm not sure how I did these things. As I approached and moved through each of those events, all I could think was, "There's no way I can do this. It's not possible. I just don't have it in me to do this." And yet - somehow - some way - I did. (Talk about evidence of God's grace...I mean, I KNOW the strength to do these things did NOT come from within me.)

And yet - even through all of the fear and difficulty of those things - there is right along with it a growing excitement. No - I'm not excited about having to do and experience those things. Most of them make me very sad. But I AM excited about where this path is going. I AM excited about beginning this new phase of my life...embarking on this adventure. That's what it feels like - an adventure. I have no way of knowing for sure where it will lead. It's possible that a year away at seminary will lead away from the ordained priesthood instead of toward it. But - the ADVENTURE - well, it IS exciting.

So, I have a new found appreciation for those that like riding roller coasters. Don't get me wrong - I have no intention of getting on one any time soon. But, for perhaps the first time in my life, I have an appreciation for what that experience offers to so many. There is something OK - something even enjoyable perhaps - about being utterly terrified and excited at the same time. I don't know that I understand it completely. But my sense is that there's an "X-factor" in the mix somewhere that allows it to be enjoyable. I don't know about the roller coasters...but for me, I must accept that x-factor as God's love, presence, strength and friendship. I only hope all those around me, for whom this adventure of mine is creating change, and fear, and sadness, and loss...I only hope for them that the same sense of excitement, or at least peace and presence of God, finds its way to them through it all.

Friday, July 20, 2007

I Been Tagged....Why I Love Jesus...

OK - I'm still new to this blogging game. Couple of months ago, I posted my response to the iPod Shuffle Challenge - its something I discovered in the blogsphere (uh...from the way I've read it, this means "blog universe"). I've read about getting "tagged" too. Sometimes specific people are tagged - to share answers to a common question, for example, on their website. Another blogger in the blogsphere might comment or email to tag someone - and they might respond on my blog. Another way it works is that someone "tags you" just by reading their blog - as happened in this case. I have to admit - I've been tagged in this way before (anonymously, so to speak). And, maybe I'm a cheater because, though I've been tagged, I've never done anything.

But... what fun is that? I mean, when we played tag as kids, how much fun would it be if I just said - "Um... nope." when you tagged me?!?!?! So - today I'll play along. And - if you're reading this - consider yourself TAGGED. (If you don't have a blog yourself - publish your answer in the comments.)

Why do I Love Jesus?

  1. He's "big enough" and "bad enough" to love me - even when I'm unlovable.

  2. He turned water into wine at a party, fed strangers when they were hungry, did what was right without telling everyone about it all the time, and still found time to hang out with his family & friends .... (wow - what a model for a good priest!)

  3. He didn't pay attention to who the "authorities" (civil, religious) believed to be dirty, beyond help, or not worth it. Well - that's not true. He paid GOOD attention to it...

  4. He invited his friend to walk on the water with him, didn't laugh at - scream at - or ignore him when he fell in, helped him out of the water and back to the boat, and didn't hold it against him.

  5. There are many people who have sacraficed in their life for me - and love them all very much. (Mom, Dad, Grammaw, John & DeeDee, Vernon & Pauline, Victor & Mae, Mr. Miller ... OK - can't write the whole list...) So - doesn't it make sense that I - too - love the One who not only sacraficed IN life for me... but WITH life?

Go ahead - play along. TAG!

An Open Letter to My Lord & My God...

I can count a million times that people have asked me how I can praise You with all that I've gone through. The question just amazes me! Can circumstances possibly change who I forever am in You?

Maybe since my life was changed - long before any rainy days - it's never really ever crossed my mind to turn my back on you, my Lord... my only shelter from the storm. Instead I try to draw closer to You through these times. I am yours regardless of the clouds that may loom above because you are much greater than my pain. You who made a way for me, suffering Your destiny. I mean... whats a little rain?

So I pray: Bring me joy, bring me peace. Bring the chance to be free. Yes - please bring me these. Bring me anything that brings You glory! Still - I know there'll be days when this life brings me pain. But if that's what it takes to praise You... Jesus, bring the rain. Bring me anything that brings You glory.

You know - my experience doesn't always match what's above. I wish it did.

There have been a million ways I've said, "Bring the rain." I have to admit - there was a time just about three years ago, when it sounded a lot more like... "OK big shot! You think you're so good? You think You've got everything under control? Tell you what! BRING IT ON! I DARE YOU!!!"

I know... not an attitude that one would imagine from someone who's about to enter the seminary, huh? Thing was... at the time, that's how I felt. When I looked around - from the middle of the storm - well, it seemed like God was hurting so many people that I loved. Seemed like He wasn't doing anything to help them. Seemed like He wasn't doing such a good job of loving this creation of His.

And in all my arrogance - I stood on the edge of my existence and consciousness and said "Bring it on!" I was ready for a noon-day showdown with God. In my arrogance, I wanted Him to come account for Himself.

I don't know how this works out theologically... all I know is my experience. Something miraculous happened when I let God into the place where I really was... when I shared with Him all that I was thinking and feeling... even the parts that weren't "a good little boy" thinking in "all the right ways". God did come. Right there. To all those places of dark, and doubt, and pain, and struggle. Right there - where all the anger and frustration toward Him was living. Right there - where I was wandering in the storm... lost, and cold, and afraid. Right there. When I came before God and took off all the masks, stopped "performing", and just 'was' - God loved me.

The "letter" at the top of this post isn't my writing. You might have guessed it - its the lyrics to a song. Sometimes, as I've shared before, a song captures all that's in my heart better than I can. (Just click the image below to play the song.)

The song is beautiful. They lyrics are beautiful. They bring me tears - of joy, of humility, of love. They capture what I want to be my posture toward God. And - I've found that since that time I dared to say "Bring it on..." - well, I've found that since then, my heart is closer to seeing and feeling a different way of saying "Bring the rain." It's no longer a challenge - no longer from a place or arrogance. Today, its from a place of love. Today, I say (as best I can) - bring me joy, bring me peace. Bring the chance to be free. I know there will be days when this life brings me pain - and when that's what it takes to praise You... oh Jesus... bring the rain.

I've Never Forgotten You, My Friend...

I know you'll probably never see this blog. Chances are, we'll never meet again this side of heaven. I just wanted you to know... I've never forgotten you. You'll never know how you touched my life with your friendship those humid days in the Phillipine outback - what you taught me about generousity, what you taught me about friendship.

And you'll never know how many people you've touched in the same way by having shared with me something I can (and do) share with them. In the 18 years since we chewed little pieces of gum together - your act of friendship and kindness is still my most often shared story of my travels to your country. And - whenever I doubt that God cares for us through others - you're not far from my mind.

Thank you for the chicklet my friend.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Back to School

Sometime in the 80's, one of my favorite all-time movies was made. "Back to School" was Rodney Dangerfield at his best. He plays the father of a college-age son who decides to enroll at his son's university. There's something hilarious and quirky about an adult person enrolling as a resident-student at university. The movie is very entertaining...and being a child of the 80's, the Oingo Boingo soundtrack is awesome. (Don't know who Oingo Boingo is? Man... you're missing out.)

I find myself in a similar situation. 34 years old...going back to school. Dorm life on the horizon. It's strange. Feels odd. For so many years, I've lived in my home. In a month or so, I'm going to be living in a dorm. As I began to go through my things, the drastic reduction of space had a very practical application in what I could pack and what I had to leave behind. And as I move through my days, I begin to find myself with interesting puzzles. For example, how will I do morning coffee? The washer & dryer probably won't be just over there in the utility room. And for that matter - where will I keep my dirty clothes until I wash? My "weekend fun" closet had to go... candle making equipment, geocaching stuff, my "family fun time" board games - most all didn't make the cut.

And - not only is it a matter of "paring down" - but I have some different needs to address. Having something cold to drink at hand is a 'must have' for afternoons & evenings. Where will I store that? There won't be the refrigerator in the kitchen. There won't be the store just down the street. It's not all a matter of worries and sadness...there's something neat about it as well. And its leading to some situations I wouldn't have imagined would come back into my life.

There was the trip to Wal-Mart with grammaw to buy storage totes. And - while we were there, we looked at Boxer Shorts & T-Shirts. It was interesting...like I'd jumped into a time warp back 16 years when I was a month away from heading off to college. And then there was the trip to Bed, Bath & Beyond with mom. I know it had to look odd to the staff. Here was a 30 something guy with his mom...browsing the "back to college" section...testing out the various solutions to the laundry hamper problem the market has come up with for college living. (If its been a while since you've looked at the inventions available to make dorm living more comfortable... do yourself a favor and go to Wal Mart, Target, or Bed, Bath & Beyond to check out the selection. It's AMAZING what they've come up with!)

What's funny is the child-like excitement I felt on those trips with grammaw & mom. It took me a little by surprise. The hamper thing we bought is really COOL. It has three compartments so I can sort clothes as I go. And - get this - IT'S ON WHEELS...so I can roll the laundry to do the wash instead of having to lug it on my back like back in college. (Ok... Ok... I guess I need to be a little more honest. I DID have a bag to put my laundry in while at college. But - truth of the matter was... I washed maybe, what - TWICE a semester? and packed everything to take home for breaks to wash then.)

Don't think that strategy is going to work this time.

And - these drink things I bought...they look like minature water bottles for a water cooler...with a sports-drink spout on the top. I'll have water & Crystal Light for days! I still haven't decided on the "morning coffee" puzzle...but I've had a lifetime of fun looking at all the options and trying to determine which will be the best.

I know it sounds odd...but this "Back to School" thing is at once nostalgic, exciting... and giving me some really great new memories with my family. I'm grateful that in many situations these days I don't have to look very far for the silver lining in the cloud. Not all situations, mind you...but many.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The "Church in the Valley" ... or a Downtown Corner

There's a church in the valley by the wildwood,
No lovelier spot in the dale;
No place is so dear to my childhood
As the little brown church in the vale.

That was an old hymn that we sang often in the churches of my childhood - and it always reminded me, even as a young boy, of the little church that was, for me, my first memories of organized religion. It's a little white church on a bit of a hilltop in rural Harrison County, Kentucky. One summer afternoon a little boy about as big around as he was tall played in the front yard of a poor ole' farmhouse just down the road from that little white church. As a child, I would spend quite a bit of time - particularly during the summer - at the home of "Dee Dee & Uncle John" - dear friends of the family who were like a second (or third, or fourth) set of parents to me. The farm house belonged to them. Up pulls this BIGGGG shiny gold cadillac, with a woman almost twice as big around as she was tall. That kind lady - I can still remember her face - invited me to attend a Vacation Bible School at that little church that was to start that evening.

In many ways, my relationship with 'religion' began that day. My mother and grandmother had taught be about prayer, about God...I knew how to sing "Jesus Loves Me". I said my prayers before going to bed. But organized religion really wasn't a part of our experience in those early days. Until that first time I went to Vacation Bible School at the little Salem church. It was white, with a steeple that actually held a bell. Ringing that bell when I was little was one of the neatest things I could think of - and the pastor of that little church would sometimes let me do it before church time. It was still the call to worship.

That little church in Harrison County - and its pastor - soon introduced me to another loosely affiliated church in Lexington at the corner of Cramer & Hanover near downtown that became my home church. You know - as I sit here and write this - even without having stepped foot in that church for several years, it still feels like home to me. In fact, one of the things I really want to do before heading off to seminary is visit the church - and spend some time sharing love and memories with its people.

You see - all of who I am spiritually has its roots in the work God was doing in and through the loving people at those two little churches over 20 years ago. It was in those churches that I learned to lead in worship, learned to preach a sermon. I think I was 12 or 13 years old the first time the Elders of the little protestant church allowed me to preach my first sermon. Following around the Pastors and leaders of those churches - men and women alike - taught me a lot about what it means to serve God in big and little ways. In fact, all of the things that led me to the Catholic church...all of the tools I had at my disposal to seek God's direction for me toward the Catholic faith, toward the call to priesthood...it all had its beginning in the love, and ministry, or those two little churches.

I'm no theologian - I don't have the answers to lots of big questions - chief among them how the divisions in the body of Christ came about, what purpose they serve, how the Spirit of God may work in and through all Christians...how we all form the body of Christ on Earth. I don't know the answers to all those questions. What I do know, though, is my experience. And for me, I'm happy to call the men & women at Salem (in Harrison County) and Cramer & Hanover (in Lexington) my brothers & sisters in Christ. And I'm forever grateful for those "churches in the valley" so to speak - for all they meant to my life as a child, and they still mean today.

There's No Big Red "S" Painted on My Chest.

It seems that not a week passes that someone doesn't come up to me and say, "I really admire what you're doing. It must take a lot of courage and strength - I could never do that." I appreciative of the support and compliments. Yes - it does take strength and courage. But, I don't know that I can take credit for it. And - what strikes me even more strongly - is that its not any more courageous or strong than what people all around me are doing every day in a million different ways. Those of us who are called to the seminary or religious life... I don't think we're superheroes. We get up in the morning and have to wipe the sleep from our eyes the same way the rest of the world does. We put our pants on the same way. We have the same challenges, we have to confront our doubts, our fears, our sadnesses - all the same way. And...we're not immune from temptation, sin, vice.

Well - let me take a step back. I'm in no position to speak for seminarians, priests or religious everywhere. It's quite conceited for me to pretend to do so. So - let me put it this way. I'm not a superhero. I'm not perfect. I struggle with the same kinds of challenges in living this life in God's service as you do. The only difference, I think, is that my path may look different than yours. The commitments that I'm being asked to make - the things I'm being asked to let go of - they're just different than the committments, challenges, and sacrafices that are before you in your life.

There's nothing more or less heroic in what I'm embarking on than, say, the challenges my grandmother faced in finding her way through life without the earthly love of her mother or father after age 14, or the challenges and commitments my mother and father face in having spent the last twenty years repairing a marriage that was broken before I was born, and given a second chance when I was around 10 years old. Nothing in front of me requires any more wisdom, reliance on God, patience, or sacrafice than the lives any parents, spouses, business men & women face if they're trying to live their life in service of God.

What's heroic, it seems to me, is not necessarily WHAT one's calling is...but rather, in trying to live life in service of that calling. I watch my dad get up every day, working a job that is physically taxing on his body. I watch my mom care for the household, work in her professional life to be a good steward of worldly goods and build & maintain Christian relationships among her co-workers and clients. I watch my grandmother caring for me, preparing meals, working with her flowers, loving others. And I see superhoroes all around me.

Yes - I believe my fellow seminarians and I are given a chance to let super-human courage flow through us as we follow our path through discernment - perhaps to priesthood - willing to open our lives to God's guidance, leading - surrendering to God's will for our lives. But... I don't see something in this experience so far that sets me apart from others, raises me above others. Rather, I've begun to see what's amazing about the lives that so many around me are leading. I'm seeing big red "S" painted on the chests of so many around me. No - they may not wear habits or collars. They're often masquerading as "regular people" leading "regular lives". And yet - there's heroic courage, commitment, fidelity, and surrender to God's plan in those "regular lives".

Hey...you...look down at your chest. Do you see the Big Red "S"? I do.

Straight With Crooked Lines

Someone once said to me "God draws straight with crooked lines." It was a powerful statement at the time - it still is. When I first sat down many months ago to write my "autobiography" several months ago that was the first thought that came to mind. Re-touching that for my seminary application brought that concept to the forefront of my mind again. I wonder if that's the reason so many diocese and seminaries require that as part of the application process. Sitting down and trying to distill one's life experiences to a few pages - I would imagine - teaches the writer as much about his own life as it does create a convenient way to let others "get to know" them.

And never have I had a more profound exposure to the fact that my life's journey isn't just a string of unrelated coincidences than in trying to put my life on paper. I mean - who would have ever thought that a journey that started along a little country road in rural Kentucky... that led to as diverse places as a small country church, a little independent New Testament church in Lexington, the Phillippines, Washington DC, a prestigious liberal arts college in rural Virginia and back to Lexington...and all the experiences that took place in between...

...who could have ever thought that such a varied, seemingly unrelated set of experiences could have led to discernment to the Catholic priesthood and entering the seminary this fall at the age of 34? I certainly could have never guessed it. And, for a very long time, it seemed like all of life that had led to this point was just a rag-tag set of unrelated experiences. There have been times in the last two years when I would really ask myself "What is going on? How can this be? It seems so unorganized...so unrelated."

But - you know - as I began to put words to paper - really tell my story as best I could... Well, I really began to see that there's no way I could be where I am today without all of those experiences. My journey to the Catholic church is rooted in my experiences in those small independent Christian churches throughout my childhood and young adult years - and in no small way a direct result of both my studies and experiences in college. Just just one of the "little coincidences" that began to string together to give me a confidence that they all worked together to bring me where I am today. Yes - taken idenpendently, without a view of the whole - it looks like a lot of crooked lines, heading in a bunch of different directions, from which no meaningful course can be found. But, when I took the time to put them down on paper, look at them as a whole - I'm amazed! All this time - in all these ways - through all these veried experiences, each pointing in what seems like different directions... well, when I looked at it all together, there's no doubt. They HAVE all been heading the same way.

This has one really amazing and lasting benefit. There have been times in the last three months when the several events of a single day or week really leave me feeling just as much as if I'm a ship adrift on the ocean - rudderless - with no direction. But I'm reminded of how often I felt like that in the past. How all of the "moments" that made their way into the autobiography seemed to be unrelated twists & turns. And - thank God - I'm reminded even more how they all seemed to be in perfect concert when looking back over them. The crooked lines are all an important part of a journey that does have meaning & direction. And so, in the moments when I feel adrift - when I can't see or sense the guidance, purpose or direction - now there is this peace, this comfort - I suppose its faith based on experience...that its all part of the same whole. All part of a journey that does have meaning, purpose, and direction - even when I can't see it.
Maybe you wonder sometimes, like I have, where the direction is - where the meaning is - whether there is some purpose to all the "crooked lines" in your life. If so, maybe writing your story will help you like it has me. Maybe you, too, will see the hand of God in your life - you'll come to know as I have that, its not just random chance. And, perhaps that will do for you what it has for me - given me a peace that, even when I can't see or understand in the moment, all of this really isn't just random chance and coincidence. It's all part of something grand, beautiful, and anything but random. Maybe you'll see - too - that God draws straight with crooked lines.