Saturday, February 28, 2009

The First Temptation of the Phoenix

While publishing my previous post, I had something go awry.

I post at both LiveJournal and Blogger, and when I posted to LJ I went to review my handiwork. No sooner did the post display than I was instantly whisked away to some site with ... well, let's say if I was actually looking for a scantily-clad site I would have bookmarked it!

Clearly this has religious overtones. Jesus was tempted by the devil during those forty days (there's that number again). I don't want to get too deep in that aspect now, because that is the theme of Sunday's Gospel passage.

I may be living in the proverbial desert of midwestern suburbia...however, the site plainly said that all these were in the area of Park Ridge.

But indeed there's a message in there. You see all kinds of things like that in the media, but very little of it in real life. Am I correct? Do any of you see this sort of thing parading around at Target, McDonald's, or Old Country Buffet? Or in church, for that matter?

The old adage, "You get what you pay for," is no longer true. Because I'm getting a breast breadbasket full of stuff from the media that I'm sure I didn't pay for. And if I did, I would be looking for a way to change that into a donation to the charity or church of my choice.

However, it could certainly serve as a motivation for weight loss...I am so confused...

Week One Odds & Ends

Today's Word:
Isaiah 58:9b-14 (Turn to the Lord, and he will renew your strength)
Psalm 86:1-2, 3-4, 5-6 (Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth)
Luke 5:27-32 (Jesus invites Levi/Matthew, the tax collector, to follow him)

Don't seem to have a definite focus today, so here are a few meanderings -

I need a sign to let me know you're here
All of these lines are being crossed over the atmosphere
I need to know that things are gonna look up
'Cause I feel us drowning in a sea spilled from a cup
When there is no place safe and no safe place to put my head
When you can feel the world shake from the words that I said

And I'm calling all angels
And I'm calling all you angels

And I won't give up if you don't give up
I won't give up if you don't give up
I won't give up if you don't give up
I won't give up if you don't give up

I need a sign to let me know you're here
'Cause my TV set just keeps it all from being clear
I want a reason for the way things have to be
I need a hand to help build up some kind of hope inside of me

And I'm calling all angels
And I'm calling all you angels

When children have to play inside so they don't disappear
While private eyes solve marriage lies cause we don't talk for years
And football teams are kissing queens and losing sight of having dreams
In a world where all we want is only what we want until it's ours

And I'm calling all angels
And I'm calling all you angels
And I'm calling all angels
(I won't give up if you don't give up)
And I'm calling all you angels
(I won't give up if you don't give up)
Calling all you angels
(I won't give up if you don't give up)
Calling all you angels
(I won't give up if you don't give up)
Calling all you angels

--Calling All Angels (2003)
written by Charlie Colin, Patrick Monahan, Jimmy Stafford, and Scott Underwood
recorded by Train (NOT on one)
Today is Patrick Monahan's 40th birthday...there's that number 40 again...

When I was a kid, my home parish had 'Forty Hours Devotion' on the first weekend of Lent...

The 'calling all angels' lyric reminded me of the legion of angels waiting to come to Jesus' side during his forty days in the desert...

...but most special today is that on February 28, 1784, John Wesley chartered the Methodist Church. Without John, my friends Mike, Jeff, Calvin, Paul, Earl, Orv, Emily, Jennifer, Sue, Natarsha, and all the rest might have to have been Presbyterian or Lutheran or Pentecostal...or even Catholic...and that would never do.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Street Cred

Today's Word:
Isaiah 58:1-9a (Isaiah explains the manner of fasting the Lord desires)
Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6ab, 18-19 (God will not reject a heart contrite and humbled)
Matthew 9:14-15 (Jesus indicates by imagery that his disciples will fast at his loss)

Most people in the circles I travel have heard of or seen either a stage production or the movie version (or both) of Meredith Willson's "The Music Man." If you by chance have not, I highly recommend it.

The lead character, "Professor" Harold Hill, comes to small town Iowa at the turn of the 20th Century. He's selling marching band instruments...or so he says. Word in the community of traveling salesmen know better. Hill is a con artist. He gets the townspeople worked up into forming a boys' band to keep them away from the evils of the local billiard parlor (which, oddly enough, the town mayor has a stake in). Now the local officials aren't stupid - the mayor deputizes the school board and all of them are in a chase throughout the play to get Hill's credentials. He's finally exposed when a) the town librarian discovers that the only credentials Hill mentions is a music conservatory in Gary, Indiana that opened the year after he supposedly graduated; and b) a legitimate traveling salesman, being kicked out of every place Hill gets to first, spills his information.

This has an uncanny parallel to the early ministry of Jesus. He's a teacher. He's a preacher. Then he's a healer, miracle-worker. Word starts getting out and attracts the religious authorities.

In my first post last Sunday, I touched on Mark 2:1-12 from the standpoint of indifference on the part of the modern church faithful. I want to revisit this passage here in the context of what was happening at the time. Jesus, now attracting a following large enough to be noticed and even mildly disruptive, witnesses four people trying so hard to get him to heal a paralytic that they have to lower the afflicted on a mat through a hole in the roof. Jesus says, "your sins are forgiven." This drew an immediate reaction from the religious leaders in attendance. Under whose authority did Jesus have the right to say this? Only God can forgive sins! What were Jesus' credentials? Over the course of his ministry, he gave the honest, straight-forward answer. His "credentials" were the will of God, his heavenly Father. And yet from the start many, especially those in positions of authority, would not believe him.

Both Professor Hill and the Lord Jesus were ultimately brought before the local leaders in shackles. But while Willson gets Hill out of a jam and provides a happy ending, our happy ending in Christ leads us to the cross on Calvary.

Still, my story of credentials doesn't end here. There's a personal aspect to all of this, one some of you know, though probably not all of it.

I'm sure there's at least one of you reading this and have had a lightbulb moment. "Okay, omnipotent writer Phoenix, what are your credentials? How is it you think you can write as you do?"

Well, I am a church minister, mainly in the role of a musician. In this role I straddle what divides Christianity; hence I'm sort of a wandering minstrel. I serve in two congregations and they're NOT in the same denomination.

But I'm also a certified lay minister. I spent three years studying those principles and while they're important from a "Church in the modern world" perspective, none of it prepares you completely in dealing with the fragility of the human soul. It's a piece of paper. It's a set of credentials Jesus didn't have and he did a far better job of ministering than I'll ever do.

And there's one more thing.

I became a certified minister as a requirement for ordination as a Catholic permanent deacon. I was ordained nearly fifteen years ago and served for five as an active minister. I am no longer active in that ministry; that is, active in the roles attributed to it as defined by the Church. I didn't leave due to any scandal; I have never committed the types of offenses that would have me thrown out on my ear. I thought I was prepared to carry the cross I would receive, and perhaps I fully received it. I don't know.

I honestly believe that what qualifies me to share my writing - and most of it is far from original thought - are the few points of unique connectivity I make. These are things that tie together many loose strands of life in some attempt to make sense of what is in all its complicated simplicity a matter of personal faith. The faith itself is simple. Living it out is what gets complicated. Seeing one vision, and not a bad one in and of itself; but coming to the reality that it was, in some ways, Professor Hill's con game played on a different scale. I wasn't out to steal anyone's belongings or lead them astray. No, I led myself astray, thinking I could be something when God had other, better plans for me.

It comes back to forgiveness. Hill ultimately got people to believe in a better version of themselves; he was exonerated. Jesus still wants us to do that very thing; it's called a conversion of heart. We still pray for His forgiveness. That's what calls me to write. I don't know that I ever wronged all that many people, but I pray that they forgive me all the same.

I wanted to get this out before I pulled anyone in too far. I am human, presumably like most of creation able to read this sort of thing. I will slip up. I will most likely say something that will cause you to think something other than what's on my mind. I apologize in advance if I inadvertently cause you stress or anxiety or anger. But in spite of this, it is the bumpy road of life experience that are my truest credentials. One does not get to the top of anything without seeing and experiencing the bottom of it all.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Doing The Math

Today's Word:
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 (Set before you is the choice of life and death; the blessing and the curse. Choose life)
Psalm 1:1-2, 3, 4 & 6 (Blest are they who delight in the law of the Lord)
Luke 9:22-25 ("What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?")

There are 45 days left until Easter.

WAIT A MINUTE!! Lent began yesterday, and that's only supposed to be 40 days, so there should only be 39 days until Easter, right? Where did the other six days come from???

Well, according to my Catholic sources, Sundays don't count. Sundays are always observed as a "mini" Easter, even during Lent. Since there are six Sundays remaining (five named in Lent and Palm Sunday), that brings us to 40.

If Sundays don't count (according to the Church), then I don't have to maintain the disciplines I set for the season on Sundays, right?

Well...the answer is both no, you don't; and yes, you do. The big rules (fast and abstinence) don't apply to Sundays (just Ash Wednesday and Fridays). However, the character of the Sundays in Lent are fit to the season, and not as set on the joy of the resurrection or the 'ordinary' teachings of Jesus. They're a bit more intense. In the Catholic Mass, the "Gloria", the hymn of praise, along with the use of the word "Alleluia" is deliberately omitted. It's generally accepted that you shouldn't take one day out of the week to undo whatever personal discipline(s) you've decided on, so...

You thought you bought into this for forty days, and you discover that it's now forty-six. Hmmm...some people are probably claiming 'Foul!' about now. What's so special about the number 40, anyway?

Well, the number 40 appears at least twice in the Old Testament. Noah was cooped up in his floating zoo for forty days and nights. The Israelites spent forty years wandering in the desert after they left Egypt because they disobeyed God.

So it would seem that 40, while a finite number, represents something like infinity. Don't get me wrong. In these days I can blow through 40 bucks in the blink of an eye. Forty minutes can pass quickly. But When you're waiting for the rains to stop and the flood to subside, or wandering aimlessly in the desert, or going without basic necessities, or when your life or someone's you love are in danger, forty anything can seem like forever. It's that sense of 'forever' that gives this season its character.

A priest I knew and worked with years ago had the bad habit of smoking cigarettes. He was a chain smoker and OCD as well, which complicated matters. Every year he would attempt to quit smoking during Lent. The subsequent period got progressively worse for anyone on his staff, so much so that by Week Three they'd all be praying he'd abandon his quest - which, sadly, he usually did; twenty to twenty-five days after starting. That's what I mean by that sense of 'forever.'

In the end, it's faith, prayer, determination and baby steps - including taking a moment to happily note your progress, and being thankful for it - that gets you through the seeming eternity of these next forty-five days. By then, as was commented on an earlier post, the behavior patters are better cemented in place.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Eat MY Dust

Ash Wednesday
February 25, 2009

Today's Word:
Joel 2:12-18 (Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord)
Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6ab, 12-13, 14 & 17 (Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned)
2 Corinthians 5:20 - 6:2 (Now is the acceptable time!)
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18 (Jesus teaches on almsgiving, prayer, and fasting)

No more pre-season fanfare. It's here. Now. Mardi Gras has passed; Carnivale is over.

Suddenly the lights have gone out, and all is in darkness. Then they come on with a blinding brightness, and expose you for who you really are.

I close my eyes
Only for a moment and the moment's gone
All my dreams
Pass before my eyes a curiosity
Dust in the wind
All they are is dust in the wind

Same old song
Just a drop of water in an endless sea
All we do
Crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see
Dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind, oh...

Now, don't hang on
Nothing lasts forever but the Earth and sky
It slips away
And all your money won't another minute buy
Dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind (all we are is dust in the wind)
Dust in the wind (everything is dust in the wind)
Everything is dust in the wind
The wind

--Dust In The Wind
written by Kerry Livgren
Recorded by Kansas

Not at all like "I'm gonna live forever," is it? And it can happen in the flash of an instant; in the blinking of an eye.

Now if that's too heavy for you, consider something a bit more up-tempo:

She told him she'd rather fix her makeup
Than try and fix what's going on
But the problem keeps on calling
Even with the cellphone gone

She told him that she believes in living
Bigger than she's living now
But her world keeps spinning backwards
And upside down

Don't say so long, you're not that far gone
Don't spin today away, 'cause today will soon be

Gone, like yesterday is gone
Like history is gone
Just try and prove me wrong
And pretend like you're immortal

She said, he said,
Live like no tomorrow
Everyday we borrow
Brings us one step closer to the edge, infinity
Where's your treasure
Where's your hope
If you get the world and lose your soul?
She pretends like she pretends like
She's immortal

Don't say so long and throw yourself wrong
This could be your big chance to make up
Today will soon be

Gone, like yesterday is gone
Like history is gone
The world keeps spinning on
Your going, going
Gone, like summer break is gone,
Like Saturday is gone
Just try and prove me wrong and
Pretend like your immortal

We are not infinite
We are not permanent
Nothing is immediate
And we pretend like we're immortal
We are so confident in our accomplishments.
Look at our decadence.

Gone, like Frank Sinatra, gone
Like Elvis and his mom, gone
Like Al Pacino's cash
Nothing lasts in this life.
My High School dreams are gone,
my childhood streets are gone
Life is a day that doesn't last for long.

Life is more than money, time was never money.
Time was never cash, life is still more than girls.
Life is more than hundred dollar bills and roto-tom fills.
Life is more than fame and rock and roll and thrills
All the riches of the kings end up in wills
We've got information in the information age
But do we know what life is
Outside of our convenient Lexus cages?

She said he said live like no tomorrow
Every moment that we borrow brings us closer
To the God who's not short of cash
Hey Bono, I'm glad you asked.

Life is still worth living
Life is still worth living.
Life is more that you are.

written by Jon & Tim Foreman
recorded by Switchfoot

There's no reason to elaborate further, is there? Ash Wednesday reminds us that we're not in this plane of existance forever. Where do we go from here?

Oh, about the subject reference...If we're all dust, as is suggested in Genesis and by today's themes, so is the rest of creation and what we ingest.

On the other hand, I just checked my body composition this morning, and according to the scale my body is 51.9% water. No matter; clay or mud seems to be rather suitable as a starting place for most creativity...

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Mardi Gras Faux Pas

One last tongue-in-cheek fling before the shift in season...

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Low-Down on Give-Ups

Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday
February 24, 2009

Today's Word (read at
Sirach 2:1-11 (Stand in justice and fear; be sincere of heart and steadfast)
Psalm 37:3-4, 18-19, 27-28, 39-40 (Commit your life to the Lord, and he will help you)
Mark 9:30-37 ("If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all")

In Sunday's initial post I indicated that Lent isn't really about give-ups; it's about forgiveness. I'm sticking to that. In the course of forgiving others and ourselves, we often discover some behavior patterns that, when push comes to shove, we could do better without. To make room for change, we have to discard that which isn't working. Sounds like something our new President is saying, doesn't it?

If you choose to 'give up' something for Lent, it should for some crazy reason be a step on the way to accomplishing a larger goal. Even if you are only doing this for the six-week period, whatever you do should be part of something larger. It should be realistic, measurable in some way (there are some things that aren't so easy to measure in a short period of time, but don't let that serve as an obstacle), and is something you can devote some effort into doing.

I thought about what I'd like to do this year and came up with a couple of things.

1) I'm already doing what I can to eat more simply (losing 40 pounds from a starting point fourteen months ago). Indulging is already something about which I am careful. No rich foods this Mardi Gras! I will be observing the Catholic days of fast and abstinence - dinner Wednesday, for example, will be a salad with dried fruit and nuts, and bread. That's it. Fridays will be something similar. It may help break the current hurdle my weight's been hovering around lately.

2) This daily blog. Taking the time to make sense of it all in the spirit of the season. The object here is to give credit where it's due, and to put in my own words what I may need to address and put some steps in place to work on it. To do so may involve recalling my past and how what I did then affected the person I am today.

Some days will be easy to express thoughts, as they're built into the day. Others will be harder. Sometimes a song's or hymn's lyrics will give me a starting point.

3) I'm an info junkie; but sometimes I get too wrapped up in the mundane. What's the state of the world in which I wake each morning? Sometimes it's enough to make me crazy! Does it really matter? For the next six weeks, I will refrain from listening to or watching the news programs in the morning, or during the course of the day at work. I will only listen long enough and at those times when traffic and weather reports are on. I commute 20 miles to work and it's still winter, so I see that as important.

Overall, I will try to keep things as simple as I can. This isn't easy. As a church musician, my calendar gets full that last week. But I'll do my best to keep everything in proper perspective.

Already, there are a couple of things calling for my attention. Good thing is, after all these years, I have one of the best support systems in the world, and it has two basic parts. Both involve communication. One is communicating with the most supportive person in my life, my dear wife Diane. The other is communicating with God in prayer. The older I get, the more of both I see myself doing, and the better it gets.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Dieter's Guide to Weight Loss During Lent

Scripture Citations:
Sirach 1:1-10 (All wisdom comes from the Lord and with him it remains forever)

salm 93:1ab, 1cd-2, 5 (The Lord is king, robed in majesty)
Mark 9:14-29 ("Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!”)

NOTE: The book of Sirach is part of the Apocrypha, those books and sections of the Bible considered canonical by Roman Catholics but removed in the King James Version and other versions used by non-Catholic Christian denominations. To read this passage, visit

After yesterday's long yet meaningful introduction, I thought I'd take today's post to review with the readers the special rules for Lent that Catholics are supposed to observe, with a few tongue-in-cheek observations following. Catholics between ages 14 and 60 are bound by these rules, unless medical condition directs otherwise. Once you hit 60 you are exempt from them.

1. On Ash Wednesday and all Fridays between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, Catholics are obliged to refrain from eating meat and most meat by-products.

2. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Catholics are to fast – this is defined as eating one full meatless meal and two smaller meatless meals.

This is real good fodder for a bunch of relatively meaningless questions, especially since I stated in yesterday's post that Lent is not about meatless Fridays or fasting. Among them:

If chicken (a meat) is taboo, why aren't eggs? And why is fish allowed?

Why is there such a fuss over getting a dispensation from the bishop to hold St. Patrick's Day corned beef and cabbage fund-raising dinners? (Let alone the St. Joseph's Day Sweet Table!)

Does a Snickers bar and a Red Bull constitute a “light meatless meal?”

And my favorite comes from the late comedian George Carlin:

You're out on a cruise, and you crave a hot dog, and it's Friday night. You wait as patiently as you can, and finally it's 12 Midnight; and Friday's over. Time to eat that hot dog! But then the boat crosses the International Date that a sin, Father?”

Is it any wonder that Sirach opens his book stating, “All wisdom comes from the Lord, and with him it remains forever?”

Well, to answer the questions in the simplest sense, the best answer is “it's a mystery.”

And it just about is. The Lenten rules as they are today are scarcely what they were centuries ago. Yes, the call to fast is symbolic of Jesus' fast of forty days in the desert.

Abstaining from meat was another matter. I really have no answer as to why eggs and fish are okay. Some claim as conjecture that as Jesus' apostles were fishermen, we were obligated to support that industry for at least one meal a week over the course of the year. Consider that in days before refrigeration, meat especially had to be cured and preserved using more natural means. Storage was a problem, especially after the temperature got above freezing. So things like meat had to be consumed before winter began to ease into spring. The older regulations forbade things like eggs, too; as well as yeast and other leavening agents. Since these items would spoil if left unused, there was a big push in the last days before Ash Wednesday to prepare and consume meat and other foods with eggs and/or yeast. Hence, the pre-Lenten traditions of Pancake Tuesday and paczkis (pronounced punch-keys), a Polish pastry similar to and richer than a jelly-filled donut.

So, in the culture of past history, we managed to create one of many rich food 'holidays' that we somehow have to pay for bodily later. But there is hope.

The Lenten rules as they are today don't stop you from eating healthy. Fresh fruits and vegetables in season are never taboo. You only have to eat a little less, and that's only on two days of the next fifty.

Maybe it's time to take a look at what you eat and make a goal of tweaking your menu into some better choices. Eat out less. Prepare food from old family recipes – even if they're a little richer – instead of from food manufacturer's recipes on the side of the box.

Your body, a temple of the Holy Spirit, will thank you. What you don't spend on fast food, convenience food and "fine" dining can fill better purposes elsewhere. It might even provide some stock for the local food pantry.

Then start working on exercise. I may provide some spiritual ones through my writing, you can never tell. I'll leave the physical up to you.

Endings And Beginnings

The Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time
(aka The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany; Quinquagesima Sunday)

Today's Scriptures:
Isaiah 43:18-19, 21-22, 24b-25 (See, I am doing something new!)
Psalm 41:2-3, 4-5, 13-14 (Lord, heal my soul, though I have sinned against you)
2 Corinthians 1:18-22 (Christ has put his seal on the faithful, and given the Holy Spirit in their hearts)
Mark 2:1-12 (“Who but God alone can forgive sins?”)

As I open this series of daily reflections, a survey of the landscape is in order. It's a lengthy post, so I ask your patience, indulgence, and forgiveness. Most posts will be mercifully shorter.

When I last left my readers (in e-mail; I was sending out reflections during Advent and Christmastide to family and friends), we had entered the season of Carnivale – the season of the year between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday where anything could happen (and more than likely did).

Carnivale traditionally included such 'amenities' as the Feast of Fools, where the locality was turned topsy-turvy for a day; peasants were treated as royalty, and royalty was kicked down a notch. (Does anybody really think that a king lived willingly as a peasant for a day?) Some traditions state that debts were pardoned, and that prisoners on good behavior were freed. Gradually, the giddiness of the season built up until just before Ash Wednesday.

I wonder how accurate those traditions were translated to us today. I mean, it's winter. Maybe winters in continental Europe in the medieval period were milder than they are in 21st Century midwestern North America. I have my doubts. As I have two days to wrap my arms around this before Lent begins, I'm going to table that thought for the moment. There are a couple of bigger things looming on this particular Sunday in my here and now. I don't want the opportunity to pass before reflecting on them.

A long-time friend of mine takes a leap of faith in his own spiritual life this week.

I've known Mike for over 25 years. I met him when I served in as a music minister two churches ago. At that time, he served as an assistant to the director and accompanist/organist at roughly half of the Masses there. Then that director left, another took his place (the two directors are stories in themselves), and when the replacement was let go, Mike agreed to become director. Mike isn't Catholic, but his exposure to Catholic liturgy, his familiarity with the local church and the pastor, and his talent made him a very good candidate for the post. Or so I thought. He lasted a year and then resigned, citing among his reasons irreconcilable differences with the pastor. I suppose it was one thing when there was a intermediary, but without one he had more trouble getting along.

Mike grew up with the granddaddy of all church musical instruments, the pipe organ. He studied it, got degrees in the science of it, plays it like few people I've seen or heard, and even assisted in designing the rebuilding of the organ at that church where we met. When he finally left, he went back to his roots as a Methodist. He had developed a good sense of balance between the classic repertoire (hymns, Bach preludes, and the like) and the contemporary.

Though we went our own ways in the ministry, he kept in touch with me. There were occasions when Mike wanted or needed an extra voice, and he'd call me. I don't know that I ever refused him. We have always worked well together.

About ten years ago, the Methodist church he belonged to closed and reorganized in a rural area west of the city where we both lived. Mike landed a position on the new church staff. He was going with the flow, as it were. Over the last ten years the new congregation witnessed the building of its own facilities, and expansion of the same. New housing in the area brought new members. All seemed to be going along well. He would still invite me to work with him on occasion, and I would do so.

With newer, younger members of the congregation came a younger pastor. The path both sought to take moved away from the traditional style and more toward the contemporary, with the organ replaced by a 'praise band' with keyboards, guitars, and drums. It was not necessarily by choice. The new congregation spent their first years in a school gymnasium and everything had to be portable. Undaunted, Mike adapted. But he told me one day that he was concerned that one day all the great hymns and repertoire that he loved might one day be abandoned completely. Pipe organs are hard and expensive to maintain, and it's not what everyone's into. Still, the new church reclaimed the organ from the old church, and raised funds to have it refurbished.

Here I pause to bring up today's passage from Mark's Gospel, as it's an important tie-in. While the narrative in Mark 2:1-12 deals with something greater than the present subject, it fits well in the ongoing saga of Mike's position, and my relationship with the Church.

A paralytic was brought to Jesus, carried by four men.
Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd,
they opened up the roof above him.
After they had broken through,
they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic,
"Child, your sins are forgiven."
Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves,
"Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming.
Who but God alone can forgive sins?"
(Mark 2:3-7, NAB)

The Life Application Bible offers a couple of interesting footnotes. Successful churches or busy Christians can be oblivious to those in need trying to get in. It's a sad situation when people in a congregation are so preoccupied with their own relationships and agendas (church politics, a pet peeve of mine) that they don't see those who are trying to get in. I am well aware of this. I know Mike's pastor, Paul, is aware of it, too. By his own admission he saw it go too far in his congregation, and has since been careful to stem an ill tide. He has worked hard to build and maintain community, and it shows. I consider Paul to be a good man and a friend. I have found a spiritual home in this congregation. Through Paul's direction, it is a vibrant community.

But a comment on the reaction of the scribes is equally if not more important. They were able to observe and criticize, although subjectively. Sometimes, members of a congregation get caught up in following that example.

“Is the music at church too fast or too loud (or too traditional or too contemporary)? Is the sermon too long or too short? Do people aggravate you by sitting in 'your' pew or dressing too casually? How much time do you spend in church worshiping and how much time do you spend complaining and criticizing? ... Are you criticizing the Church or changing the world? (commentary on Mark 2:6-7, The Life Application Bible)

Believe it or not, this seems to have found its way near the top of many a church's political agenda. And it's sad, but we all go church shopping. I'm as guilty as the next person. If I don't like what I see or hear, I'll go someplace where I do. I can rationalize it and justify it a thousand ways, and I'll get people to agree with me. We can never fully comprehend God, so we'll put Him on our terms and get Him to fit what we want to hear. And we almost have no choice. As ministers, if we don't keep an unchanging God dynamic (that is, relatable), we lose the ability to speak to the youth, the future of the faith. They can't see things as we do because we've messed it up, so we give them a chance to see God in their own imagery, and ultimately, they mess it up too. Unfortunately, too often we attempt to relate to God by somehow altering Him. It's part of being human, and that means people are going to get hurt along the way. I've done it; I realize it's wrong; and yet I do it again.

This recurring situation is one reason I embrace the coming season of Lent. It's not about meatless Fridays. It's not about giving up or giving in unless you understand why you do it. It isn't because Jesus resisted the temptation of the devil, or fasted forty days in the desert. It's because we forget where and who we are and we don't always understand the implications of what we do. It's about forgiveness. Jesus forgave the sins of the paralytic, not dwelling on them or even mentioning what they were. When challenged by the scribes (“Only God can forgive sins!” “Only music on K-LOVE Radio -or the 16th Century- speaks to my immortal soul!”) Jesus implicitly tells us and those around him that the power to forgive is ours. The power to choose is ours. It's shared. If we cannot forgive enough to look past church politics to 'get it done' and yet be inclusive, how will God possibly forgive us? Forgiveness is one of the recurring themes of this season. Forgiveness not only for ourselves, but our forgiveness given to others.

Mike has become an unfortunate victim of the economic hard times that currently befall us. As the annual budget forecast was out of balance, Mike had to take a steep cut on the church staff. Because music is his primary means of making a living, he sought out and has found another place to play, one more suited to his repertoire. Yes, he had to go church shopping; yet I had the impression he didn't want to do it. He will be given his bittersweet farewells today. Anyone who knows him well enough will miss him. I will stay in touch with him. I hope he can truly forgive us for what has happened. I have my feet stretched across different doorways, in part due to Mike. He helped bring me to a place where I have better understanding. Yes, I'm rationalizing, just like so many others. I can't help it. I am thankful for his friendship on the long journey of life, and pray for his success on the journey ahead.


And so it begins. Pray with me that we all gain something from these meanderings.