Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Broken brotherhood

When I’m not on the road, I have lunch with a group of longtime friends on Wednesday afternoons. Some of these men grew up here in central Florida, others of us are transplants. We are as different in background, upbringing, education, financial status and careers as you could possibly imagine.

We’ve met in at least 8 different restaurants over the 14+ years we’ve been together. None of our meeting places were what you would call “haute cuisine” by any stretch of the imagination. We started in the upstairs room of Jeanette’s (a local lunch spot long since gone) followed by The China Pearl that proudly served the best (and only) Chinese buffet, Mongolian Barbeque and cat in town. There were several other short stops along the way but our longest by far was Wilbur’s. They served the best southern/soul food in central Florida; fried chicken, fried gizzards, fried livers, fried fish, fried shrimp, fried okra, fried hamburger, fried onion rings (by now you get the idea that they fried just about everything.) Red velvet cake was their signature desert, sending anyone into a diabetic coma. There was a certain ambiance to Wilbur’s that started with the fact that the floor was so sticky that you could literally come out of your shoes as they remained fixed to the grease infused carpet while you kept walking. We’d probably still be there if the health department hadn’t shut them down, or if they had paid the rent.

These days we meet at La Botana, serving the best Mexican food around. It’s located in the back of a convenience store with about 6 tables and a small kitchen, but the food is really phenomenal and at modest prices. The burritos are huge, homemade salsa (pico de gallo, salsa verde) and hot sauce that burns the top two layers of flesh from your month, tongue and throat. I know of nowhere else in central Florida where I can get pork cheek tostadas. Yes, that’s correct, they take the cheek from a pig’s head, cook it and serve it on a fried tortilla with lettuce, tomato, onions, salsa, sour cream, etc. While the floor is not nearly as memorable as Wilbur’s, you really need to bring an English-to-Spanish app on your smart phone if you’re not totally fluent in Spanish.

As a group we’ve been through thick and thick together, good times and bad. We’ve lived and walked together through births, deaths, cancer, graduations, comas, successes, failures, weddings, moral failures, loud laughter and uncontrollable weeping. I count it an incredible honor to call these men my friends.

Recently a son and wife of one guy both experienced broken bones in relatively short succession right after one another; one ankle and one collarbone, one hairline and one requiring surgery. As he took us through what he and his family were experiencing, I could hear their personal pain of the breaks, changes in lifestyles; the long and painful recovery process. It was helpful for them to know there were others that went through similar experiences. They were surprised to receive an email with an attached x-ray showing a wildly shattered fibula where Humpty Dumpty was put back together again with 7 screws and a metal bar. And unless you’ve had the most unfortunate opportunity to see me in shorts without shoes or sox, and then looked closely at my ankle for scars, you would never know that it was my x-ray.

I think it’s safe to say that we all have scars of some kind; some are more visible than others. Some are physical, some are emotional. Some live with open wounds that are really sensitive to the touch. They will do anything to protect that hurt from being bumped up against, or even noticed.

And scars do not travel alone; they come with their close cousin, pain. I know that some of you feel totally alone right now in your pain and your suffering. You have a sense of living on a small, pain infested island with no bridge, no lifeline, no ferryboat, no rescue.

It may come as something of a surprise to hear that God personally did this too. He didn’t sit up in heaven and just look down at us. No, he personally “experienced it all himself—all the pain, all the testing” that you and I go through. Without any anesthesia, he felt the complete and total force of the pains we endure, but not just to collect information or experiences. In Jesus, God came and went through the same things we do so he “would be able to help where help was needed.” [1]

Hope and comfort start by knowing that we are not alone. But we need someone to walk with us daily as we feel the searing intensity of pain. And because God experienced all sides of pain just like we do, he is able to help you and me in our deepest pit.

While living in another part of the country, I stopped by to visit a mother a few days after her son was discovered in his apartment by friends. He had struggled for most of his adult life with drug addiction, having been in and out of several rehab facilities. Speaking about his apparent overdose while standing in her front yard, I heard a broken woman and mother talk about the red-hot dagger in her heart. I watched tears of anguish and heartbreak roll off her cheeks and onto the ground. Feeling totally inadequate, I listened and put my arm around her. Through the tears and pain she slowly but surely moved from talking about her deep sorrow and transitioned to how God was with her and her family. She explained how comforting it was to know that Jesus had gone through every temptation that we had, and was there to help us. I marveled at how she left the pain to lean on his love. As she began to wrap up her story, she told me that Jesus was there to help her and was truly comforted by the old hymn, “I Need Thee Every Hour.” I looked into her tearful, red eyes and with a great sense of unworthiness finally said something. “Yes, every hour, and sometimes every minute, every second.”

That’s the kind of God Jesus is. He went through pain, grief, disappointment, experiencing separation and loneliness more than we’ll ever know. And he did this all for us, to bring us back into a right relationship with him. And once reunited with God, we can move forward reuniting with one another…a band of brothers.

Bring your pain, scars and problems to Jesus today. He’s the only solution, the only savior, the only source for healing.

Blessings - Chet

Chet Gladkowski speaks and writes on topics that touch on culture, life and faith through GLAD Associates. This article is taken from a chapter in his upcoming book.

[1] Hebrews 2:18

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Dancing with God

Coming into this life, I was placed in a multi-ethnic family environment. As you can guess from my last name, my father’s heritage is Polish. What is hidden from view is that my mother’s family is from Italy. This very interesting combination not only afforded me many different forms of food and music, I also was a very convenient verbal piƱata for all sorts of ethnic jokes and slurs. I’ll let your imaginations do the work there.

One thing that both Polish and Italian cultures embrace is dancing, and my parents were great at it. When they first met after World War II, they would go out dancing with their friends all around Baltimore. And since my grandmothers bore a total of 28 aunts and uncles, there were plenty of weddings for my almost innumerable cousins affording countless opportunities for dancing.

Whenever my parents got up to dance, they were the center of attention. Their faces lit up with excitement and enjoyment as they moved across the floor with such great grace and energy. People would move off the dance floor just to watch them, clapping with the music and finishing the number with applause for the music, the entertainment and my parents.

It was a source of pride to be their son. Family members, friends and even strangers would come up to them; shake their hand, patting them on the back. Everyone was astounded and amazed at their dancing skill.

At one point in my life I was absolutely convinced that dancing was a learned talent and not genetic. I came to this scientific and statistical conclusion because I have enough trouble just walking, no less dancing. You would be amazed, or perhaps you wouldn’t, to know how many times I trip over myself, a leaf on the sidewalk, crack in the street or curb. My knees, elbows, hands and head all bear the scars of countless close encounters of the third kind with the floor, street, sidewalk, pieces of furniture.

But dancing appears to be one of those DNA things that skip a generation. Our daughter Jenny is a phenomenal swing dancer. Watching her live and through video clips, my jaw still drops as she effortlessly moves across the floor, synchronized with her dancing partner; arm in arm, spinning, moving across the floor while they talk. With great big smiles on their faces and laughter in their hearts, they move within a crowd of other dancers like a great school of fish who are all connected by some mysterious, invisible string. When the dance is over, they clap and laugh while I trip and almost fall trying to get a bottle of water.

While some of us can dance better than others, we all desire this kind of close friendship and contact with people. Even though I trip over myself as I just walk across a dance floor, there is still that hidden part of me that wants to dance. And somewhere deep down we also want this with God. We want a close, transparent and open relationship with God but we somehow feel dirty, unworthy and guilty about approaching him.

The great news is that God wants to dance with us. More than just a close, step by step and completely open and ongoing connection, God wants to be part of our lives. To prove it, he came in Jesus Christ, fully God and completely human all at the same time. The Bible uses some very interesting and relational language to describe Jesus as someone who is “alongside” and “near” us. He is also “holding with” us in this life and forward into all eternity. [1]

When we read those words, doesn’t it sound just like dancing? God wants to be alongside us, moving step by step with us, holding onto us. Yes, God wants to dance with you and me. But as with dancing, it can’t be forced. He offers to dance with us, but we have to reach out our hand and welcome him alongside. He will not force us to dance with him. But we know that he greatly wants to dance with us. Our part is to open ourselves up to his invitation to dance.

Now I can hear some of you saying, “But Chet, you don’t know how I’ve stumbled and fallen in the past. My hands, mind and life are dirty from all my dancing disasters.” While that is true for all of us, God also knows all about us yet he openly and freely wants to dance with us, face to face.

I would really encourage you to reach out your hand and life to Jesus, inviting him to dance with you today. He’s life’s great dancing partner, knowing us, looking into our hearts with love and acceptance. As we live and dance with him, gliding side-by-side, arm-in-arm,  hand-in-hand with us across the dance floor of life.

Blessings - Chet

Chet Gladkowski speaks and writes on topics that touch on culture, life and faith through GLAD Associates. This article is taken from a chapter in his upcoming book.

[1] Hebrews 2:14

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Thank you for the pain

Now the topic and conclusion may be up for debate, but when I picture myself I sort of think that I’m a semi-intelligent human being… Now that the immediate laughter has died down a bit, I really do think of myself as somewhere right in the middle when it comes to smarts. With my educational experience to the contrary, some people have even thrown out the idea that I’m even a bit smart. But all that went down the drain when I spoke with a clerk the other day at the county courthouse.

My passport is coming up for renewal, so I went online to find out what form needed to be filled out. I was a bit stunned to easily find the form because governmental web sites are notoriously overly complex and difficult to navigate. Not only did I easily find the form, there was even a $4 off coupon for the required passport photo. Quickly printing and filling out the prerequisite form with information that took neither time nor talent, I clipped it together with the coupon and old passport.

Laying out my plan and route carefully, I retrieved the prepared items and began what I thought was going to be a “walk in the park.” Everything necessary to complete the renewal application and process, including the coupon, was in my folder as I left the house for what turned out to be another Gilligan’s “three hour tour.” First stop the pharmacy for the obligatory passport photo with $4 off coupon in hand. The photo process took no more than 5 minutes and I walked out a very happy customer with my newly minted (and $4 discounted) photo’s in hand.

Jumping over to the courthouse, I went through security and joked with the officers about my hip replacement that was sure to set off their metal detector. Walking briskly down the hall, I stood in line with all the joy and confidence of an Olympian competing against third-graders. What could possibly go wrong?

When the next window opened, I almost floated over and said “Hi” to Nancy, the clerk from a place a little bit lower than heaven. I handed her my completed form and was about to surrender my passport when it all started; a 17 minute detailed doctoral dissertation diatribe about the correct way (and there is truly only one proper way) to fill out the all-important document needed to renew my passport. Some of my passport faux pas included;

Using a pen with blue ink and not black – What was I thinking, using blue ink and not black! Why didn’t my Federal government guardian angel scream from the heavens to prevent me from committing this most heinous and offensive of paperwork sins?

Photos not properly stapled – Not having an engineering degree, I did not realize the importance of stapling the pictures exactly square on the form. Now that I think back on it, I must have set off the small earthquake in the south pacific on the day that I stapled my picture on the form; unbalancing the tectonic plates on which we live.

Not having my date of birth on the memo line of my check – this one really caught me by surprise. When I originally looked over the form, nowhere did I see this. But at this point in the process I was exhausted and not in the mood to argue, I just made a mental note and hoped that my stay in paperwork hell was just about over. But because of who I am, I had to find out. So, I read and re-read the form over and over, and by golly there it was; buried in a word map that would have challenged Indiana Jones! Yes, I had to admit, the form did actually tell me that this was an actual governmental requirement for the form.

There were numerous other details that Nancy covered, all being vitally important or the planets would stop spinning around the sun. Her final advice was that I needed a “big paperclip” to properly hold all my paperwork together. I smiled, thanking her for her concern but assured her that I had large paperclips at home. Her entire facial structure seemed to fall, her forehead came over her eyes while her mouth gaped oven as if to say, “You poor unfortunate thing, you have no idea how you have just stepped into it, offending the paperclip gods.” She repeated my desperate need for a large paperclip over and over, each time the tone of her voice dropped lower and lower, as if to add importance with her anxious call for my paperwork redemption.

Leaving with my tattered clerical tail between my legs, I tried to stay in the shadows so as not to draw any attention to my setback and shame. I hung my head as I slowly made my way through the courthouse, wanting to remain anonymous in humiliating defeat.

Looking back on my encounter with Nancy, I took a few minutes to think about what some people will stand up and fight for. In my unfortunate case, she was the expert and I was just a poor, unfortunate and uneducated person from the wrong side of the forms. While this will not permanently damage my psyche, we’ve all witnessed and even participated in endless wrangling about seemingly meaningless details. I once witnessed a heated, long and loud debate over who was poorer as a kid.

We do the same thing with God; we bring mountains of anger and details to God, demanding definite rulings about our “rights.” We look down out nose at others, pumping ourselves up while putting them down in their place.

Jesus tells a story about two people just like us praying to God [1]; the first is right, self-important and arrogant. With his head held high he thanks God that he is not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers. At the end of his prayer, he informs God how lucky he is to have him on his team, not like that “sinner” in the back row. The second guy in the back row is so sorry and embarrassed that he refuses to look up to heaven. Instead, he looks down and humbles himself before God. No attempt to justify his failures, his only prayer and hope before God is to ask for mercy and forgiveness. Jesus concludes that the second guy was forgiven, restored and made clean before God.

Our hope for a relationship with God is not to try and impress him with our accomplishments, knowledge, power, rightness – they are like the dirtiest rags imaginable. The only way to be truly made right with God is to admit that we cannot fix ourselves and throw ourselves on his mercy. That’s why Jesus came, lived, died and rose from the dead; to make a way back to God for us and all who are willing to abandon their self-righteousness.

Instead of bending God’s ear with how great we are, we need to bow down and loose our arrogance and receive his mercy. Now that’s an argument well worth losing.

Blessings - Chet

Chet Gladkowski speaks and writes on topics that touch on culture, life and faith through GLAD Associates. This article is taken from a chapter in his upcoming book.

[1] Luke 18:9-14