Sunday, February 22, 2009

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.

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