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Lifeline This Week

Sat May 30 @09:00 - 11:30AM
Downtown Mobile Medical Clinic
Sun May 31 @05:00 - 08:00AM
Koinos Church
Fri Jun 05 @02:30 - 04:30AM
Mobile Clinic
Sat Jun 06 @05:30 -
LifeLine Community Dinner
Sat Jun 06 @09:00 - 11:30AM
Downtown Mobile Medical Clinic

Leaning In

Some years ago I worked in a funeral home as a second job, assisting the Funeral Directors with everything to do with the business of helping people begin to say goodbye. It was one of the best ministry training grounds of my life, and I learned many lessons. The single most important lesson I learned there was this: the depth of pain when loss comes is directly proportional to the depth of love in the relationship. It seems so obvious, right?

I have some friends who are moving to Virginia in a week. This move has involved life-changing decisions that require radical change in every plan this family has made for the past several years. It also involves massive change for the church they currently serve, and which they planned to serve in even bigger ways beginning in what is now the immediate future. So for the past 4 months, since this move was announced, there has been a slow and often painful process of a long goodbye. I've been in quite a few situations similar to this over the many years since my Heyl Funeral Home lesson, but that lesson is being driven home yet again during these days.

People in general have a penchant for trying to kill pain. That's because we don't like it. Some choose healthier means of killing pain than others, but the vast majority of us are bent on it. In this situation, my friends are experiencing the deep pain of leaving people and ministry they have grown to love, their friends are experiencing the painful loss of friends and mentors and pastor, and a church is experiencing the loss of a pastor and integral family.

And in painful losses like this, many try to buffer themselves from the pain by isolating, withdrawing, and generally backing into the shallower waters of relationship. We convince ourselves that it will hurt less if we reduce the exposure that depth and love bring. Some actually succeed at doing this, but the reduction in pain always comes at the expense of the depth of the relationship and the real treasure that cannot be gained any other way.

What we so often seem to forget is that the reason we hurt so much at the time of loss is that we have something worth hurting over. I can read the obituaries all day long and never shed a tear when I know none of the people named. But separate me in some profound way from someone I deeply love and I come unglued.

This is a powerful and profound demonstration of humanity's creation in the imago dei. We were made for community, for deep and interdependent relationship with God and each other. This is a weighty reflection of our innate longing to fulfill shema, loving God and neighbor. If we are made to live in this way – and even more to the degree we actually live in this way – then of course it should hurt when separation or death or other kinds of loss come.

Our experience of pain at the time of loss is itself a great demonstration of the quality of our love. If this is the case, then we would do well to avoid the common pulling away from one another in order to mitigate the pain. It seems to me this is the precise time to press in to even greater depths of trust and intimacy – even knowing that doing so will increase the pain – in order to mine and mutually share in the riches and joy of life in community. Our tears can be wrapped in laughter, knowing that they mean we did not miss our chance to love deeply and well.

And that, in the end, will be more than worth the pain. Lean in.

_____

Keeping On

So I ran in my first race of any kind in many years yesterday: The Toledo Zoo Dart Frog Dash 5k Run. And I learned something about myself and my life.

I started walking on my treadmill, then running about 3 months ago. After building up to running about 20 miles a week after a couple of months, my treadmill went down. I have a ruptured disk in my low back and was not sure about running on pavement, so I didn't run for 3 weeks. But then I registered for Dart Frog Dash about 6 days before the race, and I figured I'd better run on the road before trying the 5k. I ran 3 times on the road in preparation, and found it more difficult than the treadmill. By race morning I was pretty sure I was going to struggle.

It seems as if much of my adult life has been like my recent running experience – a mixed bag of success and struggle, advancement and regression, obstacles overcome and progress prevented. I have often questioned why I continue on in the face of obstacles that make even me think I must be on the wrong track. Yet somehow I keep on. Awhile back, a friend said to me: "You know why I know you belong here? Because you won't go away."

There's a difference between "not quitting" and "keeping on." Not quitting is, whether for good or bad, hanging on, toughing it out, surviving. Keeping on has purpose, maintains focus, and maintains its bar of measurement at its original height, rather than lowering it for convenience or self-deceptive satisfaction. Not quitting means willingness to get up again and again so as to be standing at the end of the fight. Keeping on means pressing through not only for survival, but to triumph on the highest terms.

During yesterday's run I wanted to quit. Just over halfway into the race came the course's second significant hill, and it was pretty steep. Two things were at work in me from that point until the end of the run. First, I wanted to quit, and if I had been alone on the course I would have. The hill just about knocked me out, and a couple of other factors nearly conspired to convince me to quit. For a few moments the only thing that motivated one foot beyond the other was the desire to not quit.

But then, the second factor found preeminence: I found myself recounting the history of my life, and especially the past 6 years of ministry in Toledo. I remembered how many reasons and opportunities I've had to quit, and how many times I've tried. I mean really tried. In all of those moments, no matter how despondent or disappointed I've been, I have never been able to shake the vision that brought me here. And that vision has propelled me forward even when I was gasping for every breath; it's kept me keeping on.

On the road yesterday, I found myself realizing that, while I may not be great at a lot of things, may not be the smartest, fastest or best, I am good at keeping on. The race is a metaphor for life, and my life yesterday became a metaphor for the race. That thought kept turning over and over in my mind: "The one thing I'm good at is keeping on." This didn't make the run easier, but it did keep me pressing on. In the end, I finished the race with a better time than I was running on my treadmill before it went down, and about a minute a mile faster than I had been able to run in the three runs I had the week of the race. Somehow, in the midst of the struggle of the run itself, something deeper in me focused on an un-lowered bar of measurement.

I didn't win the race on the road, even in my age group, but something was won in my head and my heart at the Toledo Zoo yesterday. And that something is at the root of hope that what my dreamer's eye sees will one day be fully and finally realized – bar lowered not an inch. And that is what keeps me keeping on.

_____

On Being Proactive

So today I went to Toledo's Martin Luther King, Jr. Unity Celebration at the University of Toledo, as I do every year. As usual, it was filled with inspiration in the form of a great Keynote Speaker and music that brought me out of my seat.

I was also reminded of many things from my own past. I thought of Dewayne Wilson and Don Spaula, and my first traumatic encounter with racism at my childhood home in Pontiac, MI when I was 7 or 8 years old. I remember how that shaped my thinking, together with a father who was pretty vocal about the subject. I remembered my Presidential campaign speech at Sterling (MI) Elementary School, running against my "girlfriend," Irene Gordon, in which I gave a civil rights speech and lost in a landslide. I thought of the people I have encountered, whether briefly in passing or those I've known and truly loved, over the course of the years since. I thought of the night I watched the news coverage of King's assassination, and the frustration that has come whenever I have made the mistake of trying to convince someone that their race is not an obstacle to me. I thought about many King quotes that have touched and inspired me over the years, and how I have wished that things were different than it usually turns out they are.

I also thought about the fact that, while my convictions about this issue are deeply ingrained, I have sometimes gone relatively long stretches of time without ever speaking to this issue.

A few years ago I wrote a poem about that first encounter with racism in 1963 or 64. I am posting here to remind me of what is at stake, and what I must be a part of for the sake of so many. I hope you will find in it both pain and inspiration, as I do.

DEWAYNE'S FENCE
Pontiac, MI 1963
020309

We were just grade school boys

Doing what grade school boys do:

Playing baseball in the back yard

And imagining I was Al Kaline.

I don't remember who you were,

Or who Jim pretended to be…

Actually, come to think of it,

We all wanted to be Al Kaline.

I was the oldest and biggest, and

Regularly, I'd get ahold of one

And most literally "go yard" on you,

While Jim went over or around

The fence that divided our small yard

From the next door neighbor's,

Endlessly running the path to

Retrieve both the ball and our dreams.

It turned out, that fence segregated

More than just the family's spaces.

Jim, exhausted and frustrated,

Asked to swap places for awhile,

So you could be the rabbit

And run all the homers down,

While Don Spaula cheered our

Real game and imagined heroics.

I didn't know. Honest, I didn't.

When you ran after your first homer

Just like Jim had been doing,

I didn't know Mr. Spaula would be mad.

I didn't understand his words:

"You are not welcome in this yard."

But by the look on your face

I could tell you were not confused.

As if it were yesterday, I can see

The hurt, the disappointment,

The humiliation and the knowing

Casting a shadow on your dark face.

The innocence of boyhood play

Ravaged by a devastating reality:

The contentedness of friendship

Shattered by such cruel intent.

"I didn't know" wasn't an excuse then,

And it can't be claimed now.

Your memory etched in mine

Has refused to let me resign

To the cultural status quo.

I wish I could tell you I remember,

And how your pain shaped my life.

As if that would right the wrong.

Words are cheap.

The difference that counts is to live it.

My life has been too often silent

About those wearing shoes like yours.

That darkness is on my soul.

I must – we must – do more than

Avoid the same prejudices.

We must tear down the fence.

"Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." Let me – let us all – be a part of the bending. We must tear down the fence.

LifeLine Steve

_____

Overwhelming Thanks

As many of you know, I returned home from 1Matters' annual Tent City event on October 30 to find our home in flames. Lyn and Lauren and I arrived home to see the foyer/grand staircase area of our 1897 Victorian home engulfed in flames and smoke billowing out the 3rd floor vents and windows. It was a scene I had only seen on TV, and had never thought I might one day experience it myself. Five fire trucks responded in the early evening, along with dozens of people from our neighborhood in the Old West End of Toledo. My wife wept in despair and my daughter collapsed through my arms to the asphalt of the street. My son came home early from work, unaware of the disaster, and looked more discouraged than I've ever seen him. I wondered how I could possibly soften this blow to our family, much less lead us to a place of stability or hope. It was a very hard night – surreal in every way.

In the midst of all the chaos, something wonderful beyond words began to happen. One by one, members of our community began to come to be with us in our sorrow. Before it was over, more than 30 people who love us came to stand with us on the sidewalk or in the street. They didn't try to fix what was going on – who could? They were just with us. They cried with us, held us, and prayed with us. They accepted us with our grief, and helped us to accept it too. The LifeLine Community Dinner scheduled for 6 days later was planned and funded right there on the sidewalk – a secret from me until it was done. Friends went through the Red Cross interview with me, took the first walk through our home's charred remains with us, and made arrangements for a hotel that would keep us and our pets.

The next day, members of our community came to be with us for our first daylight experience of the disaster. They cried with us, brought hope and insight to us, stood with us in the collapsing moments, helped sift through the rubble of both house and belongings, and held us very close again and again.

There are some things I will never forget from that first night and day. Never. I'll never forget Jim's hug when first he arrived on the scene. I'll never forget Shellie, Liz, George and Shawn calling off work to be with us. I'll never forget Becky and Liz standing with their heads on my shoulders as we listened to the song "You Never Let Go" on Liz's phone. I'll never forget Shawn and Becky taking the broken glass out of The Giant's charred frame, and Shawn hanging it back up over the fireplace, saying "This is not over, Steve." I'll never forget the Rooks and the Leslie's announcing that the LifeLine dinner would still go on. I'll never forget Shawn collapsing in the ashes and rubble on the second floor outside Lauren's room and crying out to God on behalf of my family, nor Becky and Liz getting down in the ashes beside him. And more.

Of course, there was more. On that night and during the following day, as well as over and over during the days that followed, people from our community came alongside us and refused to let us go through this alone. In more ways than I could possibly count, our community was, and continues to be, the incarnation of the invisible God to me and my family. It has been a totally overwhelming experience. I have grown quite fond of telling people that the one thing more overwhelming than the fire has been our community around us.
About a week after the fire, I posted the following on Facebook: "What is happening is not so much a community rising to meet a crisis, as it is a crisis revealing what the community has become." Somehow, over these past years, we have all gotten to become a community that lives in just this way. This is what's normal for us, and it is a thing of surpassing beauty and power. I can't believe I get to be a part of it, and I am overwhelmingly thankful.

_____

Letting Go

I have, for a long time now, believed and taught that the most fundamental need of humanity is that of security, and that what God most desires to work in us is the answer for that need: trust. We humans, however, are convinced that the answer to that most fundamental need is control. Few of us would ever be caught saying such a thing, but our behavior gives us away. This is as true of me as it is of anyone. Five and a half years ago, my family and I moved to Toledo under the most ridiculous of circumstances. I expected that all of the effort and thought and research and strategizing I had done for the previous 3 years was going to produce something incredible, and I was all ready to make it happen.

From the first day it was evident that nothing was going to go according to plan in this venture, and nothing was really in my control. Even the simplest things like job, cars, food, etc. were seemingly outside the realm of my control. Like most guys, I thought the answer to this was something like "give it more power!" and so I gunned my own engine more and more. The result was simply digging my ruts of frustration and fear deeper and deeper. Many of the voices around me pumped more fuel into me in order to enable me to "give it more power!" which I was more than ready to do. This was not new to me, by any means, and it produced much of the same fruit in my life with which I had become very familiar: anger, fatigue and heart attacks.

When talking with my closest friends, I often talked about letting go, developing trust, experiencing provision and more. This sounded spiritual, at least to me. When my resolve on this issue eroded, depression and a desire to quit grew to enormous proportions, until I bounced back and was able again to wax eloquent about trust for my audience. This happened again and again, through all kinds of challenges and obstacles. One particularly insightful friend recognized what was going on inside my head and tried to help me see, but I was acutely aware of my inability to control anything and insisted I was letting go and expressing trust in God.

It was just over a month ago that my family and I lost our home in a big fire. During those hours, as well as the days that followed, I experienced the breaking up of some of the clouds that cluttered my mind. In a conversation with that close and most insightful friend a few days later, I came to the realization that what I had identified as letting go over the previous five years was more resignation to a lack of control than it was letting go or an expression of real trust. It was often more despair than it was hope; a visit to the tree of knowledge rather than lodging at the tree of life. And I was poorer for the pretending.

This recovering Type A thinks he needs to be in control, to outwork everyone and everything against overwhelming odds, and to do a great impression of Atlas shouldering the planet and giving it a whirl. I so often want to take to myself responsibility can never really be mine. I wish I knew better how to actively, intentionally let go; to really trust. I'd like to be able to not know what's next and still be able to keep my mitts off of things more. Maybe this fire will help me. Maybe it is helping me...to find myself unable to control things, or even hang on, but able to live secure in the moment's grace.

_____

Humility

Recent events of various stripes have resulted in renewed soul-searching on my part. It's the kind of soul-searching that has often caused me to question pretty much everything about myself and my life, and usually ends up with me in a ditch of depression. Here things often feel unsettled; even deeply shaken. Here I can often chase demons from my distant and sometimes not-so-distant past, until I have adequately helped them catch me.

The questions I may ask myself during this time go something like these:

Have I just been wrong all alone?

How rotten must my motives really be?

Am I really just an inflated balloon of hot air?

Is all of my life just an exercise in the use of smoke and mirrors?

The good news for me in all of this is that I have people in my life who love me enough to ride down into the ditch with me, to help me roll my kayak back to right-side-up after it's tipped over, and to tell me the truth no matter what. It's the presence of these people in my world that help to keep my depressions shallow, my upside-down times shorter and my hope level closer to my real-time experience. And it's in the atmosphere of their patience and acceptance that I am learning more and more to jettison my natural self-loathing, and to continue walking on a path toward a healthier me.

Among the deeper discoveries into which I have been led is that the things – whether inside or outside my self – that have so often shattered my psyche throughout my life, actually reveal what is solid more than what is jello. They reveal what is core, unshakeable and deeply true about who I am and my value as a human being. The stripping away of the things that I prefer to adorn my self don't leave me like the emperor without his clothes, but instead reveal what was gold – real -underneath all the false adornment all along. This process in which God is engaged in my life is similar to what a sculptor does with a piece of marble: chipping and hammering away the material until all that is left is the likeness the artist saw in the stone in the first place.

I hope to learn to live with and from what is truly gold – real – about my self more and more as the days and years go by, and with the help of those closest to me in my community this is what is happening. I wrote the following poem about this very process a few years ago, and I've been thinking about it a lot for the last couple of weeks:

HUMILITY
101308

Once proud,
Now pulverized;
Reduced to miniscule particles,
Resigned to the outcome
Of relentlessly pounding waves.

Self-'ssured
Bravado spent;
Essential nature fully revealed,
Exertion to the contrary
An endeavor ebbing with the tide.

Now shamed
In surrender;
Acquiescing to widespread pleasure
Applauding th' apparent demise
Of aggrandizement washed out to sea.

Still, what
Intrinsic worth!
Modified form notwithstanding,
Metamorphic still at the core,
Its mettle proven in crashing surf.

Clear eyes
Now envisage
Self in unadulterated state;
Static in its truest essence,
And shining through water's frame, refined.

Thanks for reading, and here's to what's left when everything else in which we falsely hope is reduced to what alone is real.

_____

A Long Silence

For a guy who loves words so much, I sure have been quiet. I'm not even sure why. I haven't written anything for this blog this year, and it's been even longer since I wrote anything else. Just nothing. Silence. And the silence has seemed to me to go two ways: I've had little to say, and have felt like there was little to hear. It's not like I've been buried in depression or anything like that. It's not even that nothing exciting or moving or noteworthy has been going on in my life or the people around me. It's just been a time of silence.

But now there are things stirring in my soul again. Words and thoughts are rolling around like rocks in a polishing tumbler. I don't know exactly how or when it's all going to start coming out again, but I hope that when I speak it will be with words worth saying:

SPEAK

You've a voice to speak and a pen to write,

An incisive eye, and an affinity for humanity's pain.

Your world needs to hear what you've got to say.

A cacophony of sound fills halls of learning,

Headquarters of commerce, and

Hallowed chambers of government.

Whether raised in proclaimed certitude,

Indignant in protest or detestation, or

Urgent in benevolent warning,

Myriad voices pour out their expression,

Each insisting it's worthy of the list'ning.

In the deaf'ning assault not every voice is heard –

Nor should they, truth be told.

Contrary to popular opinion,

Not every idea is laden with equal merit.

Don't be swayed by the prevailing winds, but

Instead press on to the destination

Of what's real, deep, unjust and painful,

And speak to these things that matter most.

Don't measure success by the moment's applause;

Instead, the look back, which alone can reveal

The credence of the real hearing you won.

If, in the end, you have spoken the truth,

And prompted the stuff of a more just world;

If you've been the mute's expression,

There'll be no regret for the expenditure,

And your presently pounding heart can rest.

You've a voice to speak and a pen to write,

An incisive eye, and an affinity for humanity's pain.

Your world waits to hear what you've got to say.

Waiting for the moment when the silence really ends…Feels like it could be any minute.

Steve

_____

Either Way

I've been bothered for several days now about an experience that should have gone by my wayside quickly, but that, instead, has persisted in tormenting me. The experience itself, however, is not the subject of this post; rather, it is the awareness of the power of perception.

There are some experiences that, like the undefined one mentioned above, entice me to relive them, strategize and re-strategize my responses, and color whatever else is going on. The fact that every re-living winds up leaving me thinking exactly the same thing, makes no difference in the Groundhog Day into which I tend to enter. I tell myself not to do it, yet somehow I manage to ignore my brain and follow the same routine again and again.

I am reminded in this – as in many other experiences – that perception is powerful enough to change the decision-making processes and rational inclinations of, well, probably anyone. Perceived rejection has exactly the same impact as actual rejection. If I believe you have rejected me it has exactly the same impact as if you actually have rejected me. Either way, I become defensive, morose and/or hurt. Perceived disapproval has exactly the same effect as actual disapproval. If I believe you disapprove of me it has the exact same effect as if you voice your disapproval plainly. Either way, I become paranoid, debilitated and/or try to hide.

This has far-reaching implications for my life, work and relationships. Yours, too. I don't think I have to spell them all out, do I? The machinations of the mind can not only drive one crazy inside, but invariably produces behavior that actually supports the perception and turns it into a self-fulfilling prophecy of a repeated cycle of behavior and perception that becomes more and more and more reality.

The only antidotes I know for this are honest communication with myself and others, and the patient support and relentless truth-telling of those who love me enough to do that. The telling the truth to myself is the hardest part, it seems. Sometimes what I think is real; often it's simply my perception. Either way, I am particularly thankful for those truth-tellers in my life.

_____

Greatest Christmas Ever!

This was my favorite Christmas ever, I think. I know some say that every year, and others say something similar about almost any thing, but I really mean it. Our family time in the morning, exchanging gifts, was particularly sweet. The traditional afternoon at my sister's house was filled with lots of food, laughter and a short, badly needed nap.

In between those two wonderful sections of the day was an amazing time with family and friends, outside in the cold, next to the main library in downtown Toledo. We're there every week, serving and loving each other across all kinds of socio-economic and other lines, but this time was extra special. It was Christmas Day, after all, and the sheer surprise and joy of it all was awesome. Hundreds of us gathered there to share a traditional turkey dinner, give and receive gifts and hugs and a ton of love for each other. A lot of people were there for the first time, and that's always a lot of fun. The whole thing was very special. The thing that made it the greatest Christmas ever, for me, though, was not even this special exception to the Christmas rule (this might have been enough to do it all on its own, if this other part hadn't happened).

I have made innumerable mistakes as a parent: some were made while I tried my dead-level best to do the best thing, others came because of my own stubbornness, insecurity or immaturity. I have made enough mistakes for my kids to be justified in holding things against me for as long as they wanted. There have been parts of my life and calling that have lent themselves to misunderstanding, resentment and pain of various kinds and degrees. The last four years have particularly been marked by these kinds of difficult things and times, and I have often agonized over them. My wife and kids have, at times, really suffered pain in the middle of it all, as have I, and there have been many times all of us have felt alone and estranged.

After our time downtown on Christmas Day, last Saturday, and as we were leaving to go to my sister's house for lunch, my children gave me the greatest Christmas gift I have ever received. It was a letter in three parts, each of my kids having written their own section, that expressed their support, love, acceptance and forgiveness for me. I was undone by the grace and love of my children, who set me free from frequent self-condemnation, guilt and occasional despair with their words. In that moment understanding and joy filled the place where we were, and healing gained a foothold in our home and our hearts. I'll never forget it.

_____

Bucket List

Early this week, in the midst of several days of difficult decisions, grueling meetings and very short nights, a very dear friend called to meet me for lunch and read words of life written for me, to me. It was like gulping fresh, ice cold water after enduring an afternoon of suffocating heat. Imagine that – someone knocking a hole in their day to do that for me! While I am usually determined to do what life requires of me, regardless, I am very aware of my need for such life-giving affirmation. What a gift that was for me! And how often those around me graciously bear me up that way.

Earlier today, I had that rare and holy privilege of spending a few hours with a dear friend and member of our community trying to navigate the pain of a loved one on the edge of death. Not everyone gets invited to that place, you know, and I count it as a privilege whenever I am. The depth of trust and love necessary for that invitation to be issued always touches me.

Robinwood Church tonight provided its usual combination of organized chaos, a good meal together, the making of our community's communion bread, deep sharing and prayer around the scriptures and the people we love who are hurting, and more. It was rich and real and, as so often happens, God met us powerfully around the table of communion. For four hours the expression of our love of God and neighbor expanded in multiple ways. Grace was here.

After the meal and worship and prayer and ice cream (:-), just a few of us were left – one journaling her thoughts back up in The Nest, while another awaited her for his ride. The movie, The Bucket List came on. I remarked about how much I like the movie and Geoffrey posed the question: "So, Steve, do you have a bucket list?" I thought for a moment or two about things that might populate such a list for me, but ended up giving this response: "Actually, Geoffrey, I think I'm living mine."

I can say truthfully that most of my adult life has been characterized by anything but those kinds of thoughts. It's not that everything is perfect or rosy, but simply that I love navigating my life with the people who populate it. Much of the time, I'm keenly aware of the grace that fills my life and relationships, despite the factors that challenge that grace. Often I am filled with amazement that I get to do the things I get to do, with the people with whom I get to do them. I am involved with amazing people, doing work that really matters, and seeing God at work around every corner.

So I am left with this question: If my current life is so full that I can't think of things to populate a bucket list, how rich a man am I?

_____