God’s Cathedral of Prayer

A version of this testimony was first printed in the Lamoni Chronicle, December 8, 2011 edition, in the section”Everyday Blessings.”

satellite view of southern Lake Michigan (taken from nasa.gov)

In 2007, my family and I left home for Thanksgiving.  We were living in Chicago.  We were traveling to Michigan to have the holiday with my family.  Margo, my wife, was a Chicago public school teacher and having a stressful year.  She wasn’t feeling well that day, but we hoped that some rest would be good and help her feel better.  The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Katy and Kenzlee (my daughters) piled in the car with Margo and I, and we left for a three-hour drive along Lake Michigan’s coast to grandma’s in Grand Rapids.

We arrived safely at my mother’s home.  The day of Thanksgiving, Margo still wasn’t feeling well.  She slept through most of Thanksgiving.  Friday evening, her headache and stomach pain worsened.  On the way to the bathroom that evening, she collapsed to the floor.  A friend and I immediately took Margo to the closest emergency room.

Within an hour, our family’s life changed.   We learned that Margo had a dangerous and rare blood disorder.  She was admitted to the hospital.  I didn’t know it, but I began thirty of the most grueling days of my life that day away from home and in an out-of-state hospital.

Unfortunately, Margo didn’t respond to standard treatment for her disease and she ended up being unconscious for over two weeks.  During those weeks, I lived on a 36-hour cycle of staying up with her at the hospital for twenty-four hours and going to my mother’s to sleep for twelve.  The entire time, no one knew the outcome of our hospital stay.  I was learning through chatting with survivors of her rare disease on the internet that the disease was unpredictable.  Both survivors and Margo’s specialists assured me things would be OK, but day after day her blood work did not improve.  The feeling of the doctors and nurses went from serious to somber.

With two daughters and my wife’s prognosis unsure, I turned more and more to others for support and prayer.  Physically and emotionally, I felt indescribable stress.  I was without any control, helpless to do anything except watch the doctors hook her up to machines and wait for her blood work each day.  I talked to Margo and prayed with her, even though she was unresponsive.  I tried to calm her to keep her from seizures, which seemed to help.  I cried with her and prayed for her.

Before she went to ICU for the second time, one morning at 5:00am, I turned my face to Michigan’s gray sky and began to pray.   I felt as if I was going to break.  I turned to God in prayer desperate for direction and help.  During my prayer, something happened that I can only describe as a vision.  It forever changed the way I think about prayer and Christ’s church.

Eyes closed and deep in prayer, I wearily watch the sky open to behold a cathedral.  The inside of the cathedral was tall and immense.  I stood in the cathedral and saw the faces of people, some I knew and some I didn’t know, pass through the sanctuary’s open space.  I saw each one in their various settings.  I saw a woman praying for our family over her morning coffee.  I saw a man offering prayer as he was driving to work.  I saw a woman in a congregation standing in prayer, and a parent pushing a stroller silently holding a loved one before God in her thoughts.

The scenes of people praying and their faces continued to pass through the sanctuary several at once.  Somehow, I knew these images passing through the sanctuary were coming from all over the world.  It filled the space with the feeling of worship.  Somehow, I also knew that God was being glorified in each prayer, and what I was witnessing was God’s church in its invisible spiritual reality.

Later, I learned that prayer requests for Margo had spread through our church to Asia and Australia.  Friends and members were praying from far reaches of the globe.  One of our Jewish neighbors in Chicago also had her synagogue praying for our family down the street from our home.   Some of our non-religious neighbors were praying for us from the living rooms.

In that moment, I knew God was near me and that God was hearing not only my prayers, but the prayers of others.   The vision did not give me answers to my questions about the outcome of Margo’s hospital stay.  My terrible fear of the unknown and the incredible stress of our situation did not come to an end.  But, at some level, I received an indescribable peace knowing that God was present with me in my darkness and unknowing.  Somehow, I knew I was in God’s hands, buoyed up by the prayers of others.

I learned in the moments of that vision that God’s church exists far beyond our perception.  I learned that the church is spiritually gathered whenever and wherever we come to God and pray.

The persons and faces continued to pass through the sanctuary of that cathedral.  The earnest prayers of all who passed through its space made it holy.  As the vision closed and my prayer came to an end, I had the feeling of just being in worship.

Margo, my girls, and I went home near the end of December.  Margo was released to outpatient services in Chicago.  We fought the disease at home for another few months.   Today, Margo is living with her blood disorder and is doing well.  She experienced another episode in May of this year.  This time, she was not unconscious.  We came through it, again, together after a few months.

Life is uncertain, yet I remain changed by the vision I received that day in prayer in the hospital.  I know God hears our prayers and the prayers of others.  I know prayers are answered, not by receiving whatever we ask for, but by sustaining in God’s presence and promise.  I also know Christ’s church is gathered whenever and wherever, across the world, people turn to God and pray.  The spiritual reality of God’s church goes far beyond its physical presence and our worship goes beyond ourselves and the assurances of our five senses.  There is a spiritual reality in which God draws near to us whenever we draw near to God, who gives life-sustaining peace.

On Race (and Racism) in America

It’s been over two months since I’ve posted.  My family and I have been out of town.  A lot has happened this summer.

Our summer was busy traveling from youth camps to family camps and a family vacation.  We saw family out of state as well as took a long awaited trip, the one I kept putting off because I was in graduate school.  I promised Margo that I would go on any vacation she planned.  It was the least I could do to thank her for supporting me through doctoral studies.  The trip she planned was in our family van, pulling our camper trailer.  It was a two-week road trip to Yellowstone.

From Chicago across Wisconsin to Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Idaho.  We traveled through 10 states in all.   We saw the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, Yellowstone Park, and the Grand Tetons.  There was incredible beauty, much of which is documented on Facebook.   But among the memories I made is an epiphany driving through the West.  At some point in South Dakota, something I knew in fact became profoundly real to me.  It changed how I view myself and America in light of driving through American history.

Driving across the highways that crisscrossed the prairies of the Oregon trail, by Reservations and Native American roadside exhibits, by battle sites of Americans’ drive West, I began to think about race and the fact of my whiteness really sank in.    The epiphany, something I already knew but gained new meaning for me, was this:  There is  no such thing as a white-skinned American in terms of America’s indigenous history.   I was driving across vast lands populated by First Nations peoples and thousands of bison just 150 years ago.   I was struck by how much I felt a stranger there.   I became very self-aware about our being a white American family, with two kids, in a van towing a trailer.  I thought about this against the memories of the Native peoples that once inhabited there.   Thinking about the all-American road trip we were on became a little much for me.   It was as if the Spirit of history spoke through the land to me.  From the central America to the Alaskan Inuit, America is a land of dark-skinned peoples.  I, the white man and his family, am the stranger here.  Measured in millenia, I was.

Race is difficult to talk about for Americans.  As an American with white skin, I find most white Americans deeply resist, or outright protest, any real talk about race.   Yet, to refuse to talk about race severely limits our ability to understand history.  It can even make it impossible.

Race is so much more than skin color and racism is not mere personal prejudice.   Americans did not discover race in the 1960’s and swiftly eradicate racism by the civil rights movement.   Far from it.   Race is a logic-structure that shapes America and all periods of American history.   We still live in shadow of race today.   Many Americans believe race is simply a matter of politics, but it is much more.  Race is historically deeply influenced by 19th century science.

The differences between the “races” were empirically verifiable to 19th century scientists, in a time when colonialism assisted science and its quest to catalog and categorize the entire world, including human beings.   Influenced by Darwinian science, race helped early science shape the logic of evolutionary development in Western history.  European scientists, of course with consent of their governments and philosophers, viewed white-skinned Europeans as the highest point of natural development.    They thought white Europeans were the most developed in terms of cognition, use of reason, instrumental use of nature, culture and self-government, as well as physical features.  If you pay close attention to images of beauty, power, and desirability today, the effects of this racial logic is still recognizable.

As I drove across the West, I couldn’t help but think about the history of how I got there – how I was able to drive freely (and so quickly!) across the vast western prairie to the Rockies.  I traveled in relative comfort compared to early Americans, who traveled under tremendous risk for months.   I thought about the violent history revealed in the story of the land.  I thought about how the image of America became both white and middle-class in little over a century.    Race played a decisive role in a violent and tragic history.

I, now, live on the southside of Chicago.  Here, I am the racial minority.  Chicago is a racially segregated city.   While there is a large population of African Americans in Chicago, Chicago’s southside (Sox country!) is historically black.   More African-Americans live in Atlanta than Chicago (as I recall from a recent NPR program).   Nevertheless, Chicago is still, arguably, the black capital of America by many measures.  It is the home of Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam, Jet magazine and Ebony.   The neighborhood I live in on the southside is a pocket of wild diversity because the University of Chicago and five mainline seminaries attract a wide array of people.  Still, as a southsider, almost all the professionals I see  are African American: my dentist, doctors, pharmacist, insurance man, and veterinarian.    I am not naive enough to believe I know what it means to be a racial minority.   In fact, I am a racial minority here because it is my choice to live here.   I live, shop, and worship on the southside of Chicago.  But, I am also reminded how much my race is a decisive factor of me being here.   It shapes my choice to live here or not.

One thing I don’t hear from the Right, and only a little of from the Left, is how much race is an enduring reality in America.  Politically and economically, America remains deeply shaped by race and racism.   Despite our election of America’s first black President, the current recession is partially defined by high national unemployment rates that reflect the changing state and nature of our economy.  These unemployment rates resemble what unemployment has been for African American men and other racial minorities for decades.   Why wasn’t America in a crisis, then?    Exactly, whose America is in crisis?     When we say “America,” whose America do we mean?

I believe the current rage against government and the ideological campaigns to reclaim America can also be considered in light of race.  Again, race is much more than skin color.  Liberals are blamed for rewriting American history because intellectual honesty requires that we accept the phenomenon of “winner’s history.”  This is the fact that history is written by the winners and is shaped by that perspective.  In America, the winners can still be racially defined.   While Obama is labeled a Muslim (something much less believable if Obama was white), “his” government is being blamed for economic decay and taking away American freedoms.  I can’t help but wonder how race shapes these politics?    Whose America is under threat of being lost?

I don’t believe America can talk about “recovery” without talking about race.    In addition, if Americans are ever going to share a sense of history, we must begin to acknowledge racism and the enduring perspective of race.  As I drove across America’s countryside, I realized there was no white-skinned American before Europeans claimed America for themselves.   Listening to politics today, the debate about who claims America lingers on.   After 300 years of slavery, the conquer of First Nation peoples, annexing parts of Mexico, immigration debates and ongoing economic disparity between races in America’s cities and countryside, Americans will continue to struggle about race and racism because it goes to the heart of who we are.

Life and Community, post-Ph.D.

Limbo.  After seven years.  That’s what it feels like.

Last Tuesday, I passed my dissertation defense and earned a Ph.D. “with distinction.”  On May 15th, I will be awarded the Ph.D. in Theology and Ethics from  Chicago Theological Seminary.   Elated and relieved, I remain unsure about what all of it means.

The last seven years have been transformative for me.  In 2003, my family and I moved to Chicago from Kansas City, Missouri.  I quit a job in ministry that I loved, but really was not fully spiritually or emotionally prepared for.  I was to be pastor of a fairly new and large suburban church (around 200-250 active members) that had equal challenges and potential.  But, something within me and in my family was not right.  Margo and I separately felt a mix of latent restlessness and angst.  We needed to break away, move on, give up some things to focus our lives.  My previous six years in ministry had been difficult with consistent leadership changes and direction always dictated from the top.   And, it kept changing in a mix of organizational control, disorientation, and theological reinterpretations.  Spiritually, we were a bit strained.  I would have had one of the best jobs in the church, in some ways, as a full-time Pastor.   But, God, future, and family – and a faint sense that I needed to grow and heal – drew me away.   So we moved.   We left family, career, and community, to look for ourselves and God on our own.  I enrolled in Chicago Theological Seminary’s PhD program.  I went from pastor to student and stay-at-home dad of my 2 year old and 6-week old infant.  Our rent was higher in Chicago than our previous house payment in Kansas City.  Margo went to work for Chicago Public Schools.   Our income and sense of sanity was cut by 30-40%.

Here we are seven years later.  We now own a small co-op just off Lake Shore Drive and can see Lake Michigan from our living room window.  It is both quaint and affordable, though the lack of garage or parking spaces is an ongoing frustration.  Margo works in one of Chicago’s top 25 elementary schools, where Katy and Kenzlee also go.  I work, again, for Community of Christ, which is finding its way amidst new opportunities, shrinking U.S. congregations, and dwindling resources.  I’m surrounded by new inspiration and wonderful people as a church employee, but also a durable struggle for corporate direction.

I have now earned my PhD.  I’ve written a book that has reworked the very way I think about theology, economics, and community.  My work consistently causes me reflect on my own economic habits, who they effect, and what the Kingdom Christ came to affect means to me and those who share my kind of life.  Should we continue to live frugally?  Give money away?  Envision a co-operative with an urban garden with those like-minded?  Look for a job in academia?  Move into a single family home and seek out real community with our neighbors?  I don’t know.  Life, no longer shaped by the pressure of a Ph.D. program and its rigorous requirements, is disorienting.

Limbo.  I’m not sure where the next thirty years will take me.  The city is so different than the suburbs.  In many ways, I like it.  I actually walk by, see, and interact with strangers everyday – right outside my front door.  Even, on the elevator.   But, like a sailor, I’m trying to discern the winds while I have not yet plot a course.  How will God work with me?  Through the winds?  Through the inspiration of my prayer, heart’s desires, and vision?  Do they matter?  Life is, yet is so much not about…me.

I’m lucky to have a job.  Even though it looks less and less secure, especially for both ministry and theological education, the fact that I have a job is a blessing.  I have no doubt I have something to offer both my faith tradition, and if not it, then another tradition or another theology school.  I’m impassioned.  I want to ask the questions Christ’s life and ministry brought into others lives and immerse myself as he did in new life.  For me, church is not a doctrinal system (though I can do those), nor is it some kind of personal spiritual outlook that is somehow more optimistic.   Personal salvation is nothing without life in community, unless personal salvation is about being saved from a life that is ultimately alone.  Life with Christ speaks to relationships.  The Spirit of Christ is both the inspiration and the glue that holds together temporal life with spirituality.  God is creator, Christ is redeemer, and the Spirit sustains.

What does God create, Christ redeem, and Holy Spirit sustain?  Relationships.  Now that I have grown, become a dedicated father and a loyal partner.  I’ve deepened my life in the disciplines of spiritual discernment, of reading and reflection, and the practices of disciplined written and oral proclamation.  I just am not sure what relationships God will call me to next.

I know our world and churches have monstrous challenges to face, spiritual and temporal, and most are without answers.  I fear America’s increasingly robust and elaborate, even if inordinate, faith in ourselves and dependence on the promises of our all mighty economy (“In God We Trust”) is shaping up a storm of forces that will both shake us and unravel some of the fabric of our society and its mode of relationships.  An economy that survives on consumption, self-regard, and debt is simply not a mode of community, sacred or otherwise.  It is a mode of relating in which the very meaning of human being is redefined.  The edifying and enriching part of human relationships becomes what enriches and feeds ourselves, while the commitment and obligations that create and sustain these relationships are relegated to a secondary position.   Our world promotes “have now, earn and pay later” relationships, whether we are looking for a home, a hassle-free meal at the end of a harried day, or the long-standing love of a significant other.   I can only hope a uniquely Christian and profoundly human faith and community can respond with knowledge of a different kind of relationship – ones that flow in grace, peace, and generosity, as well as grounded in a commitment to what ultimately creates, redeems, and sustains human relationships.  I’m tired of relationships based on fear and promises that are increasingly empty.  I’m looking for a community that begins with people who hit the bottom of their addiction and finally realize that real life, now and eternal, begins somewhere on the other side, at the edge, of “me.”

from dad

Dear Katy and Kenzlee,

As I sit here this morning preparing for a sermon, it is just past 6:00am.  I am at a coffee shop reading scripture and thinking about some of the most basic and important things in my life.  Your faces beam at me on my computer screen.

My prayer for you is that you realize, at some point in your lives, that the most important thing you can commit yourselves to in your life is serving God.  It will draw your life beyond immediate things or even your own lifespan and into eternity.  From this perspective, you will be able to find and see the eternal worth of persons, the scope of God’s purposes in the universe and even among us, the beauty of God’s creation, and the fragility of each moment and each life.

There is nothing more rewarding and more fulfilling, in the long run, than serving God and seeing life from this perspective.  To find it, you will need to have moments when you can be alone with God, in the silences, and take in the wonder and grandeur of seeing your own lives in this perspective of things.  God knows each hair on your head, and God knows and lives throughout the waves of energy, light, and space that stretches out into eternity.  And, in those moments, you will know and feel how God knows and always thinks of you.  I know my love for you and my affection are both a sign and gift that God gives me because it is God’s own love and affection for you.

As I prepare for a sermon today, I know, somehow, God cares for me and the people I’m going to worship with today in the same way.  Each worship service is a sacrament of our love for one another, shared in Jesus Christ.  What makes Jesus special is that his life, death, and ministry is the promise that all that we sense, believe, hope for, and marvel of in ourselves and each other can become real.  Jesus was the full bloom of God’s eternal love and purposes in one life.  We learn who we are and can be through him.  The love God had for Jesus came true in his life and purpose, even amidst confusion, misdirection, and tragedy.  I, too, feel and hope that the love I feel for you can come in full bloom in you – that you will grab it, grasp it, and pay it forward because it is just a small piece of God’s love that lives in me and so want to give to you.

I love you more that I can say.  I’m thinking about you today, as I prepare for this day, in scope of all things God has for us.

You are the miracle of my mornings.

Love, dad.

To Margo

There are times in life to remember those who make you who you are.  Margo, my best friend and spouse of 12 years, went back to school today after winter break. She is a Kindergarten teacher for Chicago Public Schools.  Being a teacher, some days, is hard.

She has supported me through so many aspects of my life.   So, I simply wanted to offer her this verse…to say “I Love You,” and “Thanks.”

Here’s to those who stand by us, our best of friends.

I thought of you today

I thought of you today
As we prepared your room
With little chairs and number lines
For minds not yet in bloom

I thought of you today
When I left to start my day
Laptop, coffee, and alone
You’d want to start this way

I thought of you today
As I wrote this very verse
You’re with kids in class right now
Would this day bode better or go worse?

I thought of you today
Finally hoping I’m to blame
For making your day a little different
As the one thing that stays the same

For Katy, On Your Baptism

IMG_0342Dear Katy,

You are being baptized this Sunday.  Wow.  I come to this event with so many feelings.  Mom and I are so proud of you, but not just because you are being baptized.  We’re  grateful because we couldn’t have asked or planned a better journey to your decision.  You made this decision on your own – in your 8 year old way.

Mom and I feel we were baptized when we were 8 years old for not the best of reasons.  Other people were doing it.  We wanted to take the bread and grape juice at church.  We knew it would make others proud.  Because of this, we didn’t want to put any pressure on you.

With the reunions and camps we go to each summer, however, we knew you’d see others be baptized.  So, we began teaching you the things we wanted you to know if you asked about it.  We wanted you to know who Jesus was and what following him meant.  We talked to you about sitting in church more, and not going to the play room.  We told you, following Jesus meant being friends with some of the kids you didn’t like at school, or with those other kids picked on and didn’t have many friends.  Mom remembers one conversation with you when you began to cry, “But I can’t do that!  I don’t want to be _____’s friend!  He’s mean!”   In that moment, you realized following Jesus wasn’t easy to do.  It was too much for you.  Mom and I let it go.  Then, something happened at reunion this summer that changed things for you.

Mom and I will not forget that night in our little pop-up camper.  It brought tears to our eyes.  You and Kenzlee had been actively attending Kevin’s campfires at family camp all week.  You guys loved campfire.  One particular night, you came back from campfire and after brushing teeth came to bed.  Campfire was always the last thing you did at camp before bed.  That night, because I hadn’t seen you guys much that day, I asked what your favorite part of camp was that day.  You and Kenzlee answered right away, almost in unison.  “Campfire!”  Kevin Henrickson was doing a wonderful job with campfire that week.

Then, you began to tell us your simple testimony.

IMG_0467During campfire that night, you said felt something touch your heart.  You were singing songs, looking into the campfire, and you said, “I felt Jesus in my heart.”  You then blurted, “I just want to get baptized right now!”  Mom and I listened.  The feeling we felt with you in the silence after was hard to describe.  You just said, “I just felt Jesus in my heart.”  We knew it was special because when we taught you about Jesus, we didn’t talk about your relationship with Jesus in those terms.   We taught you the stories.  We shared our love for Jesus.   But, tonight, you felt something in a way that lit your face and changed your heart.  Mom and I were touched so deeply and in ways we didn’t expect.  We began to remember the first time we felt the Spirit, when we felt something bigger than ourselves in and around us.  We remembered what it was like to feel Jesus for the first time…to feel Jesus and his love in us.

After you were born, I remembered the nights I often prayed for you in college.  For some reason, I was worried about the future at that time in my life.  I prayed for you, the companion I had yet to meet, and the children I might have some day.  I prayed with such earnestness and would do so from time to time.  I remember, I prayed one thing more than anything else for my children – that they would have a relationship with God, the God I knew and changed my life.

I think you are on that road.  I can only praise the God of life and proclaim my belief that something, somewhere, profound, wonderful, real, and beyond all knowledge is present and real.  I call that God.  When that God is with us, it is Jesus.

Be Good To Yourself

Today, feel good.  Unemployment is at a 25 year high.  Political conservatives and poison pundits self-righteously hope the ‘s stimulus plan fails after creating record deficits with control of the White House and congress for the last 8 years.  To boot, I just got a message on Facebook from a friend who’s struggling.  We live in a world that seeks to profit on our insecurity, spiritual faults, and emotional despair.

Resist.

Play Journey’s Be Good to Yourself. Turn it up.  Bounce around your bedroom.  End with a responsible beverage of your choice.

Be good to yourself when nobody else will
Oh be good to yourself
You’re walkin’ a highwire, caught in a crossfire
Oh be good to yourself

For the Love of God, rock on.