Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Spiritual disciplines

A lot of times when someone hears the phrase "spiritual disciplines", one of the following thoughts may rise up:

  • If it's spiritual, why do I have to "do" anything? Isn't "spiritual discipline" an oxymoron?
  • Sounds selfish. Why not do something for somebody else?
  • Is this about the "big 3" disciplines from Judaism that Jesus talks about in his sermon on the mount (prayer, fasting, giving)?

OK, you got me... these are my thoughts that often rise up when thinking about spiritual disciplines. But it's not because disciplines are a bad thing -- it's just my cynicism and rebeliousness coming to the forefront.

A friend challenged me to write down some personal disciplines that are simple, achievable and have an impact. Here's what I came up with:

  • I will smile and use the name of service-people I come in contact with (waiters, cashiers, etc...).
  • I will read the bible with an open mind to learn new things, not just reaffirm what I've always thought.
  • I will listen to God's lessons in daily relationships, discussions, experiences and challenges. He can teach me through the ordinary as well as the extraordinary.
  • I will remind myself that other people are priceless souls, just like me. They are all worthy of respect and unconditional love.
  • I will use the internet to become a better person.
  • I will use film the same way (will watching this movie give me an opportunity to grow?).
  • I will find my niche in work that is fun, rewarding and fitting, but I won't worry about it. I will trust God with my career.
  • I will put my family relationships above all other earthly ones. They come first and should get my best, not my leftovers.
  • I will pay attention to people in need, and try to meet those needs.
  • I will remember that redemption is not dependent on what I do. I will relax about eternity and try to stay in the moment.
  • I will give myself room to screw up all of the above.

If this year has taught me nothing else, it has given me an appreciation and acceptance of people across all walks of life. My list above may have absolutely no relevance to you at all, and today I can accept that and inquire about your own life lessons, hoping we can all learn together. Life's too short to keep learning lessons the hard way through personal experience. I'm ready to cheat off somebody else's work for a bit. :)

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Julian Ruiz funeral, Western-style

Last Friday was Julian’s funeral, and there was plenty of drama to go around. Here’s a rundown on the proceedings, put in the structure of an all-time great film:

The Good

The funeral was held at United Methodist Church in Westbury, less than a mile from the street where Julian was killed. There were three main ministers for the funeral – the senior pastor, the associate pastor and the music minister. You can read a profile for each of them here (hold the “Shift” key when you click on the link to open it in a new window, or else you’ll leave this site).

I really liked Dr. Phillips, the senior pastor. He has a very genuine, down-to-earth demeanor and had some good comments. My favorites included:

  • “Did anyone of you in here give yourself life? Did you choose who you are, when you were born and what family you’re in? NO! The Lord did that for you – you had no part in it! Your job now is to take what you’ve been given and choose what kind of life you want to live. Don’t waste your time or energy wishing you were somebody else or somewhere else – you’re right where you’re supposed to be.”
  • “The Lord gives life, and he also receives life. I believe that God has received Julian, and that is the solid ground that gives me peace.”

Note: I was so glad he didn’t say “God gives life, and he also takes life”. Although the bible shows instances where God used people to kill, I don’t think that’s what happened here. Those boys had a choice, and they chose to kill Julian. God didn’t take the life, but he will receive it. I liked that perspective.

The most moving part of the funeral was when Julian’s stepmom spoke. She said that she had some regrets about her relationship with Julian, but she would not wallow in them. Instead, she would channel those regrets into positive actions to make her family even stronger in the future.

--"Julian, I want you to know that I noticed how hard you were working lately to make some good changes in your life. And I’m sorry I didn’t say anything to you about it. But I did notice, and I’m very proud of you. From now on, I will pay closer attention to your brothers and sisters, and will encourage them when they show the kind of strength and dedication you were showing.”
--“Julian, I’m sorry that we had so much drama in our family. It seemed there was always a fight, a crisis or a grudge. From now on, I will not let petty disagreements mess up what should be joyful family moments. Our time together is too precious to waste on those things, and I promise I will do better.”

It was also good to spend a little bit of time with the family before the funeral, and then spend some time alone and reflect on things. I just sat and thought and watched the video tribute to Julian that was being played on the projection screen at the front of the auditorium. I sat on the fifth row on the right side of the church, and had the row all to myself. The solitude was welcomed and it seemed like my first chance in 10 days to just sit alone and be.

The Bad

This may seem pedantic and inappropriate, but the associate minister’s voice kept cracking me up during her part of the eulogy. She was a very large woman (over 6’ tall and quite wide) and seemed to have a kind spirit, but she talked like the priest in the movie “Princess Bride”. All of her “Rs” came out as a “W” sound. And of course, of all scriptures to read, she picked John 14:

Twust in God, twust also in me. In my Fathah’s house awe many wooms. I am going there to pwepare a pwace for you.

How was I supposed to keep a straight face during this? Answer: I didn’t.

The other bad part was when Julian’s oldest sister got up to speak. She said:

“There are people who have hurt Julian. Who have abused him and caused him pain. They know who they are, and Julian will haunt them forever.”

Whoa. There’s a pretty sordid history here between Julian and his mom and stepdad, but it’s not my place to share details. Just know that Julian escaped his mom and stepdad in Michigan three years ago, and was on the way to becoming a healthy human being when he was killed.
Now for the ugly.

The Ugly

The funeral was to begin at 2pm. I got there around 1:35 and visited with the family for a few minutes, then Mr. Ruiz invited me to go to the casket and see the body. I went ahead and did that, but seeing Julian’s face really didn’t have an impact on me. He’d been dead for 10 days by then, so he was very “dry” and fake-looking. Nothing at all like the face I saw lying on the street, so it was like looking at a different person.

While I was still standing there, I heard some shouts and other nosies behind me. My first instinct was that the gang had showed up, against all logic and sense at this funeral guarded by dozens of police officers. Thankfully, my first instinct was wrong – it wasn’t the gang; it was Julian’s mom and stepdad who had arrived unannounced from Michigan.

Julian’s father had seen the two of them arrive and had asked the stepdad to leave, but the stepdad stayed. Seconds later fists were flying. I kept hearing the oldest sister scream,
“You’re not his mother! You gave birth to him but that’s all you were good for! You are NOT his MOTHER!”

Very, very sad scene. So much emotion and history here, and it obviously isn’t going to lessen anytime soon. Of course there were lots of news cameras there, so the whole thing was all over the news (even CNN) just hours later.

And then it was over. Good, bad and ugly, all done.

Bonus anecdote

Friday night I was cooking some food in the kitchen while Jamie was outside with the kids. Samantha came in to check on things and noticed the smell of her favorite pasta. I confirmed that I was making it for her, and she said, “Thanks, Daddy! You’re good at making people happy!”

She ain’t so bad at it, either.

Monday, December 04, 2006

I'm still alive

Since Wednesday night nothing new had really happened with Julian's family or the investigation. I tried to call around and get information about funeral plans but had no luck. Then this morning I got blasted.

In one hour, the following things happened:

  1. Jamie's father-in-law called and had the cell phone numbers of Julian's father and of Julian's stepmother. He got them by talking to the medical examiners and funeral home. Sometimes it's good to be a chaplain.
  2. Julian's stepmother called me and we talked for a few minutes. She let me know that the family still wants to talk to me about Julian's final seconds, and that there was a community meeting tonight at the high school to discuss safety. I promised her I would be at the meeting and would see them there.
  3. Courtney Lavala at Houston's NBC affiliate, Local 2 Houston, called me to let me know about the school meeting. She also wanted to interview me about my experience and my feelings and reaction to living in this neighborhood. I declined the interview but she still went through the neighborhood and talked to some people. In particular there was one really hot chick with her two kids, and the hot chick said some really good stuff about coming together and saying no to violence. Yes, the hot chick was my wife. The kids were filmed playing in the yard and loved seeing themselves on the 6 o'clock news.

After that I finished some things in the office and then headed to the YMCA for a workout, which felt great. Then I got home just in time to spend some time with the kids before going to the community meeting.

The meeting was positive and well-attended (maybe 300 people?), although of course the media focused on the one idiot heckler who showed up. After it was over, Jamie and I got to spend about 30 minutes with Julian's family, just walking the school halls and listening to their cute and heartbreaking anecdotes.

They gave us t-shirts with Julian's picture and the DOB and date of death. Below his picture were the words, "I'm still alive". Last week he burned a CD of music for his sister, and that was the title he gave the CD.

It was a big day, and a very good one! We're really starting to get the sense of our neighborhood standing up and supporting the school, the kids and the local public service staff. Why can't we ever seem to get it together unless something terrible happens first? I guess for the same reason we don't really clean house thoroughly until company's coming over.

At least it's happening now! In the past 48 hours all local graffiti has been removed, three illegal dump sites have been cleaned up and some street lights have been fixed. If only we could keep this kind of attention to this stuff without continued tragedies.