Sunday, March 27, 2011

And Yet Another Passing

When William Shakespeare - whom, I am learning, is a distant ancestor of my wife's - wrote, "A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March" (Julius Caesar, Act 1, scene 2, 19), he was setting up the backdrop for the Roman Emperor's assassination which took place on March 15, 44 BCE. It would seem in that particular setting, March that year was a rather busy and fateful month.

For me, some twenty and a half centuries later, this particular March has been personally busy and fateful as well. A week ago I related here that my wife's 83-year-old uncle passed away, and all that we as a family went through to pay our respects and mourn his loss. The next morning (this past Monday) we learned of the death of her brother-in-law, of cancer, at the more youthful age of 44.

The first thought was whether or not any of us would attend services for him. He lived over two hours away from us, and we had to consider the number of potential (or lack of) restroom stops we might have to make. The trip out there would be during the day, but the return trip would be at night, with fewer options as far as being able to stop. Then there was the fact that he was brother-in-law through a divorced marriage. But in her great wisdom, my wife reminded us both that we are godparents to two of his three children from that marriage; they would definitely appreciate having family around, and it was very unlikely that anyone else would be able to make the trip, especially on a weeknight and so soon after the last family gathering. So we agreed that I would go.

Sure enough, I met up with my sister-in-law and her two sons, as well as her present husband, who was about as lost in the room as I. We spent a good deal of time keeping each other company. Having lived out there a number of years, my sister-in-law and her boys had plenty of folks to talk to. A lot of people turned out for the visitation and the memorial service; so many that the funeral director had to bring out more chairs to seat everyone.

I had not necessarily known my brother-in-law to be all that much of a church-going man. My godchildren were baptized at a Catholic church in Chicago one summer when he was working there. (He worked for a traveling carnival back then and must have worked some mojo with the pastor at the time.) His mother and aunts were also Catholic. Toward the end of his life, my brother-in-law (or at least his second wife) was attending an evangelical church in the area, so the pastor there was going to lead the service, while his aunts would lead the Rosary later. Nobody left between the two rites of prayer.

It was weird listening to the pastor speak of what a good, caring person my brother-in-law had been, noting in my mind that he had, after all, deserted his first marriage, leaving his first wife and their three children in a rather bad way. And from all my upbringing and education in the Catholic faith, I know he must answer to God for that, with whatever consequences are deemed fitting. Still, to see how the boys and their mother accepted this, and spoke as did others about how the pain and suffering of his last days was now gone, reminded me that no matter what happened in life, the best thing anyone can do is to put aside whatever ill feelings we might have and pray for the repose of his soul.

I thought of that during the long drive home. I have many occasions where I am ministering to the family of someone who has died, none of whom I really know. It is easy enough to pray for them because I don't know the background, and it is not important that I know. When the scene shifts as it will more and more to people with whom I am related or colleagues of mine, I really have to lay down all thoughts of the things I knew about the person, and commend this soul to God. All of us struggle and stumble through life. I think I can apply that across the board, if you will. In the end, where it really matters, is where I hope I can see forgiveness and mercy. It was clear that on this cold March evening, the two were found in this out-of-the way place. I pray not to lose sight of this as life somehow gets back to its regular patterns.

Some Sort of 'Lude'

(Note: I actually wrote this post four weeks ago, when I had a bit of time and not much else to do. Put in the context of what has happened in these last four weeks, a few lines here seem almost prophetic.)

What does one do when you have a limited amount of so-called ‘free’ time, but you’re not in a place where much can be done effectively? One such example of this is if you travel by airplane, and you have to change flights in mid-course. You most likely have a layover at the terminal where you change flights. Chances are you can’t go anywhere, save the bar at the airport. People caught in that scenario are usually thoughtful enough to bring along a book or something else to do to occupy their time. In these modern days of cell phones and wi-fi connections, some people take to their phones and/or laptops and attempt to be productive that way.
I am in a similar situation this Sunday morning. I am serving as cantor at all three scheduled Masses, and there is a layover between each of them. Too long to sit and do nothing, too short to really do anything. On occasions like this I usually take a quick drive to the cemetery where many of my (and my wife’s) immediate ancestors are buried; it is only a five-minute drive away. But it is late February, and the grounds are covered with a fresh layer of snow; and if it weren’t it would likely be too saturated to walk on without getting muddy, so that is out. (However, I am thinking of them in prayer as I write.)

I might have considered calling home. My wife is going through an elaborate family tree research project. It started out as trying to trace her mother’s side of her family back a few generations, but didn’t get too far. When she moved to her father’s side, though, she got caught up in much detail, particularly her paternal grandmother’s French roots, which she’s managed to trace back five centuries and shows no signs of an end just yet. In all of that she’s found out that a great number of her ancestors figured in the settlement of Quebec in Canada, though that is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

But I digress. I said I might call her – only I left my cell phone at home. Plus, she doesn’t need interruptions that aren’t important while she does all this research. So, I thought, bring the laptop along. I might get some work done; at the very least I’d have the internet to keep me company. But, as my Catholic parish has an expansive land footprint between the church, the parish center, and the parking lot, there is no wireless signal close enough for me on which to get attached. So, now what??

I’ve had time to think about the last few weeks, along with the next few, and how I am being of service to God and to others. I can’t say I haven’t been busy. I don’t want to toot my horn too much, for I would be quickly reminded that I am not nearly as generous in my situation as I’ve known others to be in theirs. But in my relatively unique position of straddling the fence between a Catholic and a Methodist congregation, I indeed have a bit to reflect upon.

It’s relatively quiet in my Catholic community. Easter is still two months away; Lent hasn’t even started yet. The new pastor here is slowly changing things; a little here, a bit there, nothing to get excited about. Over in the land of the Methodists, on the other hand, things are jumping. They are at a crossroads as a congregation, not only with the change in pastors there (and the new one a woman, my first experience as such), but with the realization that they have to work off a $3 million debt put on by expanding their facilities and building classrooms, meeting rooms, and a youth center.

A couple of weeks back I was asked if I would be willing to volunteer some time contacting members of the congregation, asking them to raise awareness in prayer for their stewardship campaign. Among the goals of this campaign is the elimination of the debt over the next three years. I thought for nearly a week as to whether or not I should really do this. I am probably the least likely to represent the achievement of the goals. I openly admit that I straddle two diverse and markedly different congregations, one out of tradition and where I am compensated for my talent, which keeps us financially solvent and for which I am thankful to God. The other, more contemporary, putting a fresh and more vibrant spin on being a disciple of Christ; and one where I am considered a member even though I am not, formally.

Now throw on top of this today’s Gospel passage from the pen of the evangelist Matthew:
Jesus said: 24 “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You can’t serve both God and Mammon” (Matthew 6:24).

Hmmm…this begs a couple of questions. Am I trying to serve God, or myself? And I have to be careful, because as a musician the ministry can become self-serving instead of God and community-serving rather quickly. So, to volunteer more than just getting up in front of others to sing, even if it’s just to sing – that extra time spent calling others to prayer is a proper and good thing to do.

But what about the fence straddling? Is it possible to serve God from two seemingly different perspectives? From a lofty, hierarchical approach, men would generally say no, I can’t. But I don’t know that I can choose one or the other. I am invested in the one because of my office as well as the compensation. I am invested in the other because of my son’s interest and attachment there. I have had several friends there and made others over the course of time. Further, it doesn’t seem that I am the only person who is affected in such a way. No, it is good for me to understand Christianity from more than one perspective or experience. Tradition cannot be ignored, nor should it; for we don’t know where we are without understanding where we’ve been. Putting that into a contemporary context is welcome provided it is not self-serving, but fosters a true extension of God’s will into the modern world; a practice of Christ’s Great Commission to his disciples. Some congregations are able to pool resources, especially in urban areas; but when you’re a standout, you have to stand out. I’ve seen this in a very real and demonstrative way among the Methodist congregation, and I pray fervently that it doesn’t die in the wake of pastoral change, aging congregants no longer able to attend worship on Sunday, or concern about a massive debt. So it is apparent that I have a vested interest there for my own sake as well as that of my son. Are we not all family in the same, the one Christ underneath the skin of denominational doctrine?

In that same passage, Jesus reminds his disciples to seek first the kingdom of God…and He will see to all your needs; in short, not to worry needlessly, because God’s omnipresence knows what we need even without having to ask. So the real question all of Scripture should call on us to ask of ourselves, and in our prayer to God, is two-fold. One, as so gracefully and artistically put by an instructor of mine, is So what?? What does this have to do with me? And the answer is: it has everything to do with me, who I am, where I’ve been and where I am going. It is not an easy path, but it seems to be immeasurably easier than a path where this first question is never asked.

The second question follows almost immediately on the heels of the first: Lord, what is it you want of me? What is your will for me?  I will watch, listen, and observe as You guide me.

It seems the best response at these crossroads comes from the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. The Methodist Covenant Prayer is a reminder to me that God may not have big plans for me, but he does have a Plan and in order to best discern how I fit in it, I must yield myself to whatever it is – and whatever it is not – I am supposed to do.

And so, when those times come along when I think I have nothing to do but wait…are the best times to be with God in the place where I am, and let Him turn me in the direction I should go.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Spiritual Stupor

Once upon a time, some years ago when I was serving in diaconal ministry, the pastor under whom I served at the time had given a homily in which he said something to the effect that people guided in the spiritual way of life often had periods of difficulty in managing everyday, mundane affairs. It is perhaps the one thing I remember him saying that had special meaning for me.

While my biggest role in ministry has been as a church musician, it has often been eclipsed by the role just below it, that of a minister of consolation at a time of loss. While in formation for the ministry over 20 years ago, my wife and I suffered the loss of our first child in the 19th week of my wife's pregnancy. The ensuing weeks following this sad event opened my eyes to the level of grief that can be experienced when tragedy occurs. I believe that through this process God pointed the way to a level of service I would carry out, and I desired to do so to honor my lost child's memory for as long as God would allow me.

When my active diaconal service came to an end, the door to this ministry did not close completely. It was not long before I was asked if I could be available for singing at funeral services, which I have been able to accept most of the time. On the occasions when I serve in this capacity I do my best to leave my ego far removed from my duties; to be simply present and let God work through me.

There have been four other occasions when the role took on a significance outside what I might consider normal, if there is such a thing when death occurs. These four have all involved members of my extended family. The first was when my father-in-law passed, just over seven years ago. He was never much of a church-goer, so it was no stretch of any rule to officiate at his rites of passage. That safe passage to the next life being our hope is almost universally accepted; so it becomes a matter of celebrating the good moments and experiences we shared in this life.

Having said that, it's still not simple. The target audience - the living survivors and friends of the family - know who you are, so it can be difficult to put into the best words what hope and consolation I am consigned to convey. Further, as a minister, those closest to you know the pattern of your life both during and apart from service. I have to put the situation at hand in the best possible and meaningful light on one hand; and on the other, take out the trash, wash the laundry, and do my best at my secular day job. Somehow I manage.

My grandmother passed six years ago this month. Being a devout Catholic, her funeral was set according to the formal rites of the Church. This is kept pretty well with regards to the Mass itself; but the elements apart from it vary depending on the local parish and the communication between the parish staff and the family of the deceased. My grandmother knew the Rosary and the verse about the angels meeting her and taking her to Paradise; neither of which were mentioned at either the wake or the funeral Mass. When my father and uncle finally let it be known I was a minister, I was asked if I wouldn't mind leading prayers at the cemetery where she was to be buried. I agreed to do it, and at that moment I knew what I had to do. I had to invoke those things she would have expected to hear and had not.

Three years ago, the father-in-law of my wife's sister passed away. At the time, I had already contracted to sing at another funeral Mass in my parish of service, but I agreed to meet the family at the cemetery and lead prayers there. I had the fortune to catch up with them toward the end of the Mass, so I was able to talk at length with my brother-in-law (the procession to the cemetery being another long drive). I really wanted to convey hope and consolation to him, because his life was changing in a way which could prove out harmful to his loved ones and himself if left unchecked. Something tells me he is still struggling with this loss, as well as that of his mother a couple of years earlier.

The most recent of the four happened just this last week, when my wife's uncle passed away. There was the usual wait to discover the arrangements, and another wait to determine what, if anything, anyone wanted me to do. Complicating matters was the ongoing recovery my wife was enduring from an injury she sustained late last fall. Between aches and pains and the winter weather, she had not been out of our home since just before Christmas. She was determined, however, that she was going to make it to see the family. She had been close to her uncle during childhood.

Before the time came for the wake service, I still didn't know exactly what I was supposed to be doing; only that I was going to do something. And at the appropriate time, we prepared to leave to attend the wake, only to discover that the moment my wife put any shoes on her feet, she lost her sense of stability and couldn't move without pain and uncertainty. Not knowing what to do, and having no time to explore an alternative, I had to attend the wake alone. I know my wife was heartsick, and so was I. However, she was going to explore potential solutions and if anything was possible, she would contact me.

Contact me she did. A department store chain with a store in the area carried ballet-style slippers. Just enough of a sole to protect the feet from pebbles and such, but with the give she needed to have the near-barefoot feeling she had while walking about the house. I was able to find a pair in her size which did the trick. At least now she would be able to attend the Mass and see those in the family who would be there.

At the same time, I also discovered what it was I would do for the funeral. I would serve as a deacon at Mass, something I had not done in twelve years. I weighed on this for some time. I felt this was appropriate as my wife's uncle, a devout Catholic himself, had offered his home to us on the day I was ordained to celebrate the event. I would also lead prayers at the cemetery, which I'd done before.

Even though I knew what I was to do, and did it without difficulty, I have had this strange feeling of wandering around in something of a daze; it's been around since the wake Thursday night and still hasn't quite cleared up. Part of it can be rationalized away, I suppose. It's a busy time for me; I've had to step in and do more since my wife's injury which takes away from time spent on other intellectual pursuits (not complaining at all; it simply is). But there was something about vesting again after twelve years, something I can't put into words. For some reason, time is turning faster right now. Life in general, which had been more or less quiet, has become busy. I've not been able to sleep well for some time, but I manage to do what is needed. I have much over which to pray and often find myself unable to focus on prayer itself; this disturbs me a little. At the same time, my wife and I are still very much happy and in love with each other for who we are.

I sincerely hope and pray that whatever the destiny of my life is as I grow older, that I am granted the strength, perseverance, and love to endure it.