Friday, April 10, 2009

The Path to Nowhere

Ho-Ho Sanna Hey Sanna
Sanna Sanna Hosanna
Hey Sanna Ho and how
Hey JC, JC please explain to me
You had everything - where is it now?

--Andrew Lloyd Webber & Tim Rice

He's a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody
Doesn't have a point of view
Knows not where he's going to
Isn't he a bit like you and me?

Nowhere man, please listen
You don't know what you're missing
Nowhere man, The world is at your command

He's as blind as he can be
Just sees what he wants to see
Nowhere man, can you see me at all

Nowhere man don't worry
Take your time, no hurry
Leave it all till somebody else
Lends you a hand

Doesn't have a point of view
Knows not where he's going to
Isn't he a bit like you and me?

Nowhere man please listen
You don't know what you're missing
Nowhere man, The world is at your command

He's a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody

--Nowhere Man
John Lennon & Paul McCartney, The Beatles

Nearly every American has heard the term "March Madness." To most, it equates to the National Collegiate Athletic Association's annual basketball tournament. The term can also apply to the utter disgust we might feel over the weather, longing for lasting pleasantness to cure ourselves of cabin fever.

But to me, the endearing term is a reminder that 'the bunny rabbits IS coming'; that hippity-hoppity, Easter's on it's way. (Please forgive the apparent flippancy; it did bring a smile to my face as I typed it.) It's all the more 'maddening' when Easter falls in March or very early in April. Most years are taken in stride, without much to really get mad about. (But there's really nothing maddening about a basketball tournament, is there?)

The year 1999 was one huge exception.

The seeds were sown almost immediately after my ordination five years earlier.

The new bishop of Rockford was installed in June 1994. His first year as bishop was relatively uneventful. But as he got used to his new digs, the eventual shuffling of personnel took place. In June 1995 my pastor was reassigned and was made Vicar for Clergy and Religious. His replacement as pastor was a 60-ish priest who had no aspirations whatever to utilize me (or any other deacon for that matter - at least that's the impression he gave me in the beginning). His thoughts at the time were on retirement and how nice it would have been to retire from the parish he had just left.

As a deacon, I had not only responsibilities at the parish level, but also to the diocese. I was required to make an annual retreat. At the beginning it was just that. But everything would change. My former pastor, now supervising the clergy at large, through his own perception and with input (including some haplessly provided by yours truly), established a policy for continuing education - 20 hours of approved coursework related to ministry. Half of them could be fulfilled through the annual retreat. But the other half - well, the cart was put in front of the horse. There just wasn't a lot to pick from. Further, the new diaconate director - a deacon himself, whose day job was an educator in one of the public school districts - was no help. And if you follow the news, you'll understand that the Catholic Church is not all that keen on being innovative in the use of modern online technology. Enough of it was available in 1995 and onward that it would have done a diocese that covered the northern third of Illinois well to get connected online. But it didn't - and most likely still isn't.

It's not that I didn't want to fulfill the requirements. I wanted to do so in an efficient matter. Driving 120 miles or more every time I wanted to attend a class was not efficient. It put further demands on both time and treasure, both already under considerable stress with a tight personal economy and a special-needs child my wife and I had decided to educate at home. Nobody really cared about the talent part. And the course matter fell into the category with which I was becoming quite familiar: information that was for all practical purposes, useless.

As an example, it was also about this time that my son was to make his First Holy Communion. Mindful of the educational requirements to receive most sacraments, particulary the initiatory ones which include Holy Communion, we put our son in a Sunday School class. It would be an opportunity to determine how well he could manage in a group of his peers. He was excited at the prospect. But it only lasted two weeks. He was so excited about the goal that the catechist and her assistant couldn't cap our son's exuberance. I then went to the school's Director of Religious Education, who was sympathetic. She provided some material that could prepare him to receive Holy Communion when he was 'ready.' Unfortunately, this was too little and really too late. The way this was handled just opened another wound for my wife, and I agreed with her. At every turn it was looking like we'd have to come up with answers that fit neatly within the rules, and with no support of any kind.

More bad news. I learned very early in January 1999 that my employer had sold his business to big company competitor, who almost immediately announced that our facility would be closed. By October I would be out of work. There was no sympathy from the diocese, no offer of even extending deadlines due to the unusual circumstances I was under. With no hope on the horizon save a full-blown miracle, I was resigned to whatever fate I was handed. At the beginning of March I received a letter from the diocese. My faculties would expire on March 31; Good Friday that year. Hoping against hope, I had asked my pastor if I could at least serve out the Easter weekend. At first he agreed but reneged at the last minute.

All this hurt me deeply, but it wasn't over yet. I was torn between quietly getting back to music full time or leaving completely. Moreover, I was torn because I had tried doing what I felt was right in seeking compromise; but there would be none. I had given all I had, there was nothing left. As is, my family had been sacrificed at the altar of ministry without so much as even a sincere thank you. My wife was properly angry at all of this. I was frustrated, panicking, and at a total loss as to where to go. During the rest of 1999 I even tried to reassimilate, while hoping of finding any work that might be secure enough to survive while I got more real education. Every attempt met a dead-end.

By Thanksgiving 1999, I had lost my job as well as my desire to serve God. It was part of a chain of events that didn't turn around completely for the next three years.

Then I was inspired
Now I'm sad and tired
After all, I've tried for three years
Seems like ninety
Why then am I scared to finish what I started
What You started - I didn't start it

God - Thy will is hard
But You hold every card
I will drink your cup of poison!
Nail me to your cross and break me!
Bleed me, beat me!
Kill me! Take me now - before I change my mind!!!

I had all but lost my faith, and that was on unstable ground. I had serious questions about the practicality of it all. What I had left was my wife and son, and the love we shared. To be honest, I had taken that love for granted and I never should have done that. I grew from the experience and realized I had stretched myself too thin. Losing my job was in the end a good thing, because the institutional church had to take a back seat to it, whether or not anyone cared. We had to get this behind us if we were to have a roof over our heads and food on our table. And as this unfolded I promised myself I would keep my wife and son at the top of my priorities. In loving them and in compassion and respect for them I knew I was following God.

What also remained was my longtime friend Mike, who offered me a change of scenery on the spiritual landscape whenever I wanted it. He introduced me to another man whom I consider a friend, though I've now known him ten years and have never really called him such in person: Pastor Paul, at Cornerstone.

The story ends happily, though; and the rest of it follows in the more joyous season which we're about to enter.

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