How Can This Be?

Presented at West Boylston (MA) UCC Church, December 18, 2011.

Readings:
       2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
       Romans 16:25-27
       Luke 1:26-38

I’ve been considering Mary’s question in this morning’s reading from Luke. Gabriel tells Mary that she will soon have a child, a son; that he’ll be a great King, and that he will sit on the throne of his ancestor, David.  Mary then asks “How can this be?

As Christians, this is a question we often ask ourselves, or perhaps others ask of us: How can this be?   A lot is wrapped up in that simple little question: How can a baby be born of a virgin?  Why is God doing this?  Why does it matter?

I begin by asking myself “what was Mary thinking when she asked this?”  I’m not so sure the common assumption, that she’s wondering how a virgin can give birth, is what she is so perplexed about.

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Lord of the Unseen

Sermon presented at First Congregational Church of West Boyleston, MA; November 20, 2011…

Readings:

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

I’ve found that the best place to work on my Christian witness is while I’m driving in my car, alone.  Like, when someone cuts me off, I’ll spontaneously give them the fist of fellowship; and I’ve been known to utter a few very warm and heartfelt words when someone steals my parking spot. I also find that when I drive during rush hour, or when going to the mall during the Christmas season, that I pray every chance I get.

It’s so easy to let go, just a little bit, when we are wrapped in a steel and glass cocoon, when no one sees what we’re doing, or saying.  We are safe from interference, from having to judge whether the inconsiderate actions of others are due to their merely having a bad day, or if their IQ really is less than the speed they’re driving.  Since we’re invisible to those around us, why not let fly with a little emotion?  Why not blow off a bit of steam?

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A Stewardship Moment

Presented at First Congregational Church of West Boylston, 11/6/2011…

I am standing here today because of your generosity.  All of you have been very supportive and very patient with me, even when my microphone doesn’t work, or I stumble, or forget a name, or don’t see Steven sitting over there, whispering that I’m supposed to be saying something now, or perhaps George motioning for me to … sit downsit down!!

All of this is a form of stewardship, of helping me to learn and grow and explore this Odd and Wondrous profession that I’ve been called to.  But, I’ve seen Stewardship operating in so many other ways here: from serving coffee and ushering, to choir rehearsals.  From preparing Church School lessons to sitting in long meetings.  From planning for a service to wondering how best to support a local charity.  From rejoicing over the arrival of a new grandchild, to sharing in the sadness of losing a loved one.  All of this is Stewardship; and is an essential part of what being a member of the Body of Christ means.  We’re more than just an audience listening to this week’s sermon.  We work together to further the Good News here on earth, to fulfill the mission that Christ mandated for us, and to care for each other and our fellow human beings.

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The Most Pernicious Idol of All

A sermon originally entitled “Mine!” given October 9. 2011 at First Congregational Church UCC in West Boylston, MA.

Scriptures:

OLD TESTAMENT LESSON   Exodus 32:1-14

A CHRISTIAN LETTER           Philippians 4:1-9 (& Acts 16:11-15)         

GOSPEL LESSON                    Matthew 22:1-14

One thing I recently noticed about my little boy “AJ” is that when he builds things, it’s about the process, not the goal.  For instance, when he’s building a tower with these big cardboard blocks and it gets too high, he knocks them down and starts over again.  His play is not about being the biggest, nor the best, nor the tallest, nor any other human measure of success.  It’s about playing – about stacking blocks.  That’s where his fun is, that’s what makes it meaningful and valuable to him.  What’s more, his parents’ approval is not important. …Well, at least not yet!  – But our participation is.

Now, recently we had a dinner for a number of friends and their toddlers at our home. After some visiting, we went into the room where the kids were playing, and … guess what …  … … The Dads saw the kids playing with these big blocks!

Well, as good parents, we had to participate, shouldn’t we?

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A Little Faith

Presented at Memorial Congregational Church, Sudbury, Massachusetts, August 7, 2011.

Scriptures: I Kings 19:9-18 and Matthew 14:22-33

The other day, while running errands in my car, I encountered a timid driver.  You know the type: hesitating at intersections, driving slow or speeding up unexpectedly.  These drivers start to do one thing, and then without warning change their mind.  If they’re at a stop sign, you don’t know whether to go, or wait for them.  If they’re trying to make a turn, you don’t know whether to go around them, or not, because you know they might suddenly turn right in front of you.

It would be far better for everyone, including themselves, if these people would just make a choice and go with it, rather than second guessing themselves and changing their minds.  They don’t project confidence, don’t clearly indicate their intentions and leave us guessing as to how to respond.

These drivers seem to have no faith in the choices they are making.  Maybe they’re unsure of where they’re going, or perhaps they’re afraid of the consequences of making a wrong choice.  When they do choose, they change their minds the second there is any reason to doubt the decision they’ve made.

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Faith

Sermon presented at the Congregational Church of Grafton, MA, July 1, 2012.

Texts:

Mark 4:30-32 (Parable of the Mustard Seed)

Hebrews 11:1-7 & 11:32-12:2

What is Faith?  That’s not a small question.  In Christianity, the answer to that question begins with Genesis … and never really ends.  Faith defines how we see ourselves, who and what we choose to have relationships with, and what we envision our end and the end of Creation, to be.  Faith helps us make sense of the events and circumstances that shape us and our world.  It lays out a path for us to follow into the future.  Faith enables us to gaze into the infinite and the unknowable and find a place there for ourselves.  It helps us make sense of the mystery of God and the vastness of Creation.  Faith enables us to exist in a world of uncertainty and change.

Faith.  A great deal is expressed in that one tiny little word.  So, it’s kind of audacious to think we can have any sort of meaningful exploration of this topic and yet still have time to get to the Sox and Mariners game this afternoon.

A lot has been written on the topic of Faith.  Not just the Bible, but everything from Hamlet or Pilgrim’s Progress to Harry Potter and Star Trek.

We talk a lot about Faith too, saying things like “I have faith in Evolution” or “This (or that) strengthened my faith” or, “I lost (or I found) my Faith.”  But, we never define what Faith is, even though we talk a lot about how much of it we have, or need, or how to find it, or how to use it.

We also talk a lot about how important faith is to us.  We admire those who have strong faith, and we honor those who die for their faith.  We seek to encourage faith in others, and we minister to those in need as a product of what our own faith impels us to do.  Faith is a powerful thing, and central to our existence.

Yet, even though we talk a lot about what to have faith in; or, how to find faith; or, how to use our faith, we never define what it is.  It’s assumed we already know.  I’m not sure that’s a good assumption.

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The Fabulous Flying Fuzzball

A sermon I presented in 2008 at Payson Park Church in Belmont, MA…

Back in the mid 90’s I bought a home in rural Virginia.  The house had a huge backyard.  I had to keep the grass there under control, but could not afford a rider mower, so I bought three lambs instead.  (I figured I’d eventually get a meal or two out of the deal, but did not tell this to the lambs.)

The Bible often compares us to sheep.  Frankly, now that I’ve owned a few, that’s a scary thought.

I am not sure that sheep are as dumb as many have said they are, but they sure have a talent for getting themselves into trouble (mostly – I think – out of curiosity).  When sheep are frightened, they run.  However, if it is their curiosity that gets them into trouble, they often just sit there until someone comes and rescues them, rather then figuring out how to rescue themselves.  I think of this behavior as a sort of silent whining.

Sheep love to climb.  I remember more than one occasion where they tried to climb onto the two swings hanging from my daughter’s playset in the near corner of the backyard, in the opposite corner from where the sheep’s shed was: I’d come out in the morning and see them standing there, front hooves on the ground, back ends up in the air hanging from the slings, patiently waiting to be rescued.  Every so often they’d somehow climb up on the slide – never did figure out how they did that, but I’d find them standing up there in the morning: surveying the back yard, waiting for me to show up and make it all better.

The two ewes, Heidi and Sally were fairly docile, but we were wary of the ram, Fuzzball, because he became more and more aggressive as he approached his first birthday.

One morning, Fuzzball’s curiosity collided with my own carelessness, and so earned his place in history…

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Power and Silence – First Sunday of Advent

Sermon given at Payson Park UCC Church, Belmont, MA November 28, 2010.

Scripture readings:
2 Samuel 11:2-5; 11:14b-15 and 11:26 – 12:7a (Bathsheba & David)
John 7:40-8:11 (The Story of the Adulterous Woman)

My thoughts today are on two themes, Power and Silence, which are both found in this morning’s scripture readings. We will look at how Power and Silence interact with each other in each story, and how they tie these two stories together across a one thousand year gap in time. Then we’ll close with some reflections on what we’ve learned and how these two themes are reflected in the coming of Christ, and Advent.

Let’s start by considering our Old Testament reading, and the setting of Nathan’s audience with David.

Nathan’s story is presented as a legal dispute. This is significant. For thousands of years throughout the ancient world disputes were brought to the local ruler or wise man for judgment. It was a very public event, with many people there: those seeking a resolution to their disputes, spectators, the King and his Court, all listening to the proceedings.

When Nathan presented his case to David, it was in such a setting; which, given what he intended to do, was a wise move! I suspect that if he had done this in a private audience with the King, he might have succumbed to a “Sword Malfunction.”

Let’s imagine what the scene must have been like: David is there with his badges of authority, a scepter and crown. He is sitting on a simple chair in front of the crowd. Scores, and perhaps hundreds of people are standing around the edges of the courtyard, waiting for their turn to be heard. David’s advisors are waiting off to the side for him to call on, if needed.

Then Nathan steps forward to tell his story. The King listens, his anger rising as he hears the tale, and when he can’t restrain himself any more, his face red, gripping his chair with both fists, he leans forward and says “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity!”

And then Nathan said four simple words, “You are the man!”

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The Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:23-34), a Narrative Sermon

You know, never in my whole life did I think I would ever see the things I that saw today.  Boy and how, it’s been quite a day, I can tell you!  What did you think?

Oh, that’s right: you were out in the vineyard since early this morning, picking grapes for the master.  So, I guess I’d better tell you the whole thing from the beginning.

You remember the steward telling us that today was the day when the master was going to come out from the city to settle accounts?  That’s right, I guess he was going to do you after you guys came back from the vineyard.  Yeah, I know, it’s been a long time.

Well, this one fellow – you know, the guy with a swelled head, always thinking he’s some hoity toity bigshot?  Parading around showing off his nice clothes?  Yeah, him!  Well, now we know where he got the money for all that nice stuff!

You shoulda seen his face when he was brought in to the master!  He was the first one!   Hee hee hee!  It was just too good!  I don’t think he ever imagined the master would actually make him settle up.  Maybe he thought the master had forgotten about him.

Anyway, my jaw just about hit the floor when I heard the steward tell the master how much this bozo’s debt was: 10,000 talents.  10,000 talents!  Can you believe it?  The master couldn’t!  He was angry, I can tell you.  And you know, I think the guy spent all of it.  I have no idea where, you could buy a whole kingdom with that kind of money.  Remember how he’s been calling in the debts us other slaves owe him for the last few months?

So, like I said, the master was already really angry, I think because the steward never told him about the debt.  Then this guy said he didn’t have the money to pay it back.  So the master, he stands up, turns red and starts shouting at the guy.  Then he tells the steward to sell him, his wife, his kids and everything he owns to repay the debt, not that the few thousand denarii you’d get for the sale would do any good against a debt like that!

What’s amazing is this guy is as cheeky as ever.  He falls down on his knees and starts worshipping the master – worshipping him!  I mean, I never saw a bigger suck up in my life.  He grovels, pleads for mercy, tears running down his cheeks, grabs the master’s knees, said he’d name his oldest son after the master, kisses his feet, the whole bit.  Yeah, can you believe it?  I wanted to poke a stick in the guy, the whole thing was absolutely nauseating.

What’s worse, the master buys this guys act. He eats it up!  Really!!  We all knew the master wasn’t the brightest lamp on the block, but come on!

Then comes the part you just won’t believe: the master goes ahead (and I think probably went soft in the head) and forgives the guy’s debt.  The whole thing!  Every last bit of it, down to the last mite!  … And the guy just gets up and walks out of there without a word, and what does our master do?  Nothing!  He just smiles, lets him go, and starts reviewing the accounts of the next guy in line.

Ah, but then the good part.  A little later, after my turn, I went to have lunch in the shade, you know, where everybody hangs out under the fig tree over by the far wall of the barnyard?  And here comes that guy, the one who’d had his debt forgiven.  You should have seen him! …And we thought he was bad before!  The guy was acting like he was the master!  Kicking the old woman and making her give him the best spot; then taking the best piece of meat away from her, too.  I could hardly stand being in the same province with the guy!

Yeah, I know –hold on, I’m coming to it!

Then the guy who just had a baby comes up.  You know, he had a rough time the last few months, his wife was sick while she was pregnant, and he had a real hard time scraping together enough money to pay the physician.  Now he’s trying to do both his job and his wife’s because she’s not up to working yet, and the steward isn’t giving him or his family any slack.

Well, the new father gets his lunch and sits down.  Then this other guy, the one with the swelled head, goes over, grabs the new father with both hands and hauls him to his feet.  He starts yelling at him, cursing, choking him, and demands that the new father pay him back what he owes him – 100 denarii – right now.  I was like, be real!  It may not be as big as that stuck up guy’s debt was, but nobody carries that much money around with them!  It’d take any one of us years to pay back a debt that big!  What was Mr. Fat Head thinking, that he was the master?  Unbelievable!

The new father didn’t have that much money either, of course.  So, this guy, he throws him in prison until he can pay the debt.  Now, how’s that going to help?  Not to mention that when the steward finds out he’s in prison and that neither he nor his wife are working in the field, then the stuff is really going to hit the wall, if you take my meaning.

That guy’s fun didn’t last long though.  We all ran up to the house – really! We ran into main hall where the master was, and told him what had happened – yeah, me too.  I don’t know what we were thinking, the master could have whipped or tortured us for coming to the house, let alone interrupting his meal like that.  But, when he heard the story, he got mad like we were afraid he might, but (praise the Lord) not at us!  He had the steward go out and drag that guy into the hall.

Then the master said “You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?”

He didn’t say a thing.  I mean, really, what could the guy say?  Then the master handed him over to the torturers until he could pay back everything he owed him.

Good riddance, but I wonder: I mean, we all knew this guy was a real nut job.  Yet, the whole thing is just too bizarre.  Running up a 10,000 talent debt, and the master didn’t even know, then forgiving the guy?  Then the idiot goes ahead and acts like he’s the master!  I mean, what did he think was going to happen when the master found out about that? And so, when we tell the master about it, he tortures the guy – no surprise there!

But, the master doesn’t even try to reclaim the debt.  Torturing him until he can pay it back? … Never going to happen: that guy’s gonna be in a world of hurt for a long, long time!

You know, the master would’ve done better if he’d just sold the guy and his family, like he said he’d do at first.  I just don’t get it.

 

Copyright (c) 2010, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).

Why No Fence?

Many people focus on the “fall from sin” aspect of the “second creation narrative” in Genesis chapters 2 & 3. But, a question we never ask is “Why was the tree there in the first place?” This sermon provides a possible answer to that question, and the implications of such an answer.

Below is the text of a sermon I gave in a class at Theological School on 11/19/2009.  The scripture is Genesis 2:7-9; 2:15-17 & 3:1-7, which recounts the creation of the Garden of  Eden and the eating of the fruit of the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” by Adam and Eve, up to the point where they are “ashamed”, sew fig leaves together to “cover their nakedness” and then try to hide from God.  The reading includes only those scripture verses pertinent to the sermon – others, such as those describing the rivers that flowed out of the Garden of Eden, are omitted.

Many of my readers with a strong knowledge of the Bible will note – and some will probably object – to my using “she” when referring to God, as well as to the use of the name “Yahweh” instead of using only the more traditional consonants (YHWH) or phrase “Lord God”.   I use the name “Yahweh” and pronoun “she” very intentionally here: to emphasize that YHWH as shown in this story is seen as a very personal, relationship oriented sort of God (wouldn’t you know the name of a very personal acquaintance or friend?) and to emphasize that Yahweh’s attributes seen in the scripture we examine here are often traditionally associated with the feminine.

Why No Fence?

You know, the story of Adam and Eve is a great story, but it’s always bothered me.  I mean, come on: if the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil were so darned important, why didn’t God put a fence around it?  I mean seriously: even if the man and woman obeyed, I could easily see one of their kids or grandkids, or great-grandkids “forgetting” and taking a bite.  Without a fence, someone was bound to slip-up eventually.  So, why run the risk?

On the other hand, there was no penalty for eating of the Tree of Life – until we slipped up.  Was God trying to trick us?

Well, let’s step back for a minute and consider the text as a whole.  This particular story, the second of the two “creation narratives” at the start of Genesis, belongs to the “Jahwistic” tradition: identified primarily by its use of the name “Yahweh” when referring to God.

In this narrative, Yahweh is a very hands-on sort of God: unlike the “Priestly” God that we see in the first narrative (in Genesis 1).  God (in Genesis 1) “spoke” the world into being, hovered over the waters and said “Let there be light!”, but Yahweh (In Genesis 2 & 3) doesn’t command things into being, Yahweh gets down and dirty: She lovingly forms us with her own hands, then gently breathes the breath of life into our nostrils.

Yahweh is concerned for us personally, saying “it is not good that the man is alone” and created the woman.  Yahweh isn’t a distant, hands off God.  She talks face to face with the us.  The man and woman, we are told, “heard the sound of Yahweh walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.”  Yahweh works, walks, talks and breathes.  Yahweh is a very human God.  Yahweh is a very personal God.  Yahweh is a God of Relationship.  Yahweh is a God of Love.

So, what does the type of God that Yahweh is have to do with all this?  Why wasn’t there even a “keep off the tree” warning sign?  Why was it left unguarded, tempting us?

First: its clear God was not trying to trick us.  Nowhere in the Bible is there a case where God “tricks us”.  True, there are many places where God tests us, but such tests are always explicit, never hidden – never a trap.  As James 1:13 states, God never seeks to “ensnare us”.  Yahweh did not “trick” us into eating of that tree.

Still, there had to be a reason for no fence!  My hunch is that it has something to do with the kind of God that Yahweh is.

What kind of relationship can you have if you have no choice about it?  Sure, you can have relationships with a doll, or a toy, or a computer – but they don’t have any choice in the matter, do they?  Such relationships don’t have much going for them because you control both sides of the interaction.  There is no synergy, no freshness, no exploration, no intimacy, no growth. They are relationships that give nothing back.  They are relationships without a future.

If Yahweh controlled every aspect of our relationship with her (which she could easily do), we wouldn’t be much different from that doll, or that toy, or that computer.  At best, we’d be a kind of pet: cuddled, fed and watered, but not an equal, not in charge of our own destiny.

We need a real choice as to whether we will have a relationship with Yahweh.  The fence can’t be there – if it is, we’d never have a choice.  To have a meaningful relationship with God, we have to choose to have it: it cannot be forced upon us.

But, let’s not forget about the other tree, the Tree of Life: it has a role in this story, too.  The Tree of Life was no big deal to the man and the woman.  There were no rules concerning it – Yahweh doesn’t even mention it to them.  It was just another tree – over there, next to the “Knowledge of Good and Evil” one.  There was no reason why they wouldn’t have eaten of it all the time.  They had eternal life in the bag (at least, as long as they hung out in the garden)!

But, we don’t even know how long they were in the Garden.  If you think about it – what would it matter?  With Eternal Life, and no experience with death, time was an unlimited commodity for them: every day was just that – simply another day – one of an infinite number.  There was no need to count them, no need to keep track of them, no need to worry about them.  With Eternal Life, time meant nothing.  It was not a precious commodity.  Phrases like “saving time”, “making time” or even “wasting time” – all of which you and I hear every day – were meaningless.  The man and woman never ran out of time, they never gave time a thought.

Yet, they certainly made choices all the time – whether and what to eat, when to sleep, but their choices were never about the future – they were always about immediate things: after all, they didn’t even worry about what to wear!   They never considered the consequences of their choices, they couldn’t – they hadn’t eaten of the fruit.  They existed purely, and eternally, in the present.  In a sense, they had no future, because their future was identical to their present, and to their past.

In this timeless world, Yahweh was … just there: there was no choice as to whether we wanted a relationship with God – or not.  Without meaningful choice, there was no meaningful relationship.  Yet, Yahweh is a God of Relationship: She would not have created us without providing a path for us to choose to have a meaningful relationship.  There had to be a way to escape eternity.

Let’s call that escape-path the “First Choice” – the choice of whether to eat of the fruit – or not.  But, we had no knowledge of Good and Evil.  Or, to put it another way, we never had to choose between Good and Evil.  We never had to deal with the consequences of making choices.  Good and Evil are always the outcome of choices.  Good and Evil cannot exist unless there are choices, choices with consequences.  That tree is all about knowing the possible consequences of our actions, about choosing between what is Good and what is Bad, about knowing the difference.

Eating of that Tree was the only thing in the Garden for which we’d been told there was a consequence – “In the day you eat of it, you shall die.”  Yet, the man and woman did not know what a “consequence” was: Yahweh was speaking way over their heads: a specific day?  Time?  Death?  What’s that?  I’m sure the man and woman thought: “Hmmm, sounds bad, let’s not go there!”  Time was infinite, so why rush? Why push the boundaries?  Why risk change?

Yet, there was a reason.  The serpent knew what it was: they would “become like God, knowing Good and Evil.”  Eating that fruit meant we’d learn new things: we’d escape from merely existing.  Something new would happen in the never ending cycle of days.  But, to do so, we had to be willing to face what we had never known: change.  We would have to experience limited time, we would have to experience death.

Yahweh knew we would eat of that fruit when we had outgrown the Garden, when we were ready for change.  She did not tell us we’d be cursed if we ate of that fruit, She told us change would happen, that things would be different.  The endless sameness would go away.  We would step into a world where we would have to make choices, we would be able to envision the consequences of our choices, and we would see our choices making a difference in the world: consequences we would have to live with – for Better or Poorer.

Our relationship with Yahweh would change from a one sided, limited relationship to a full one, a two way relationship: one capable of growth and change, one that would produce fruit.  Eating of the fruit marked the point where we changed from being one creature among many, to being capable of having a real relationship with Yahweh.  We escaped from eternity.

Now, we can’t say this escape was all good!  Having choices means we have to live with the choices we make.  We’ll inevitably make bad choices, and will be faced with situations where even the best choice is not good.  It means pain.  It means loss.  It means death.  (I could go on, but would rather not do two sermons at one time!)

But, most importantly, having choices is part of Yahweh’s plan for us.  As we saw: Yahweh is a God of Relationship.  To have relationship with her means being allowed to chose to have a relationship with her.  To make that choice required the man and the woman to make the first choice, of whether to eat the fruit: the choice to have choices.

We cannot Love Yahweh through a fence: we first had to be allowed to escape eternity.  We had to be able to make choices that mattered.  We had to have the choice to Love.

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

Do It Again, Daddy!

Even though the Universe is huge and complex, and we ourselves are such a small and insignificant part of it, the Bible is filled with lessons and examples of how God is committed to us and cares for us. God emphasized this to me one night through a simple question asked by my young daughter.

Sermon delivered at Payson Park Church, UCC, Belmont MA; August 23, 2009

It was the evening of Friday, May 4th, 1991. My life was at a crossroads. Worries that had been looming over my family on every side for months, getting ever darker and more worrisome, hit as full blown crises – all at the same time.

At home, my marriage appeared to be on the rocks: divorce seemed to be unavoidable. Compounding this was a financial situation that was dire, due in large part to our buying a house that had far more problems than we’d been led to believe, or could have imagined.

My career was also up in the air: I had been managing a very successful two year-long project, but the economic recession of 1991 (sparked by the first Gulf War) hit just as we completed the effort. This resulted in a hiring freeze at my company: I was given a temporary assignment, but was also told I would be laid off if things didn’t improve soon.

I felt very alone. I felt like I had no one to turn to. I have not been in a more challenging situation either before or since that time.

Continue reading “Do It Again, Daddy!”