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.

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