Sunday, May 23, 2010

Come Holy Advocate, Our Defender and Hope

This morning, Pentecost, I listened to the Gospel lesson (John 14:8-17, 25-27) and was reminded once again of the legal terms in our faith. An "Advocate" is the lawyer who defends the accused before the judge. ("Counselor" is another word that comes up in regard to the Holy Spirit---another term associated with lawyers.) Jesus promises that while he'll be leaving the disciples, he will not leave them alone but will send the Advocate to be with them always.

The word "satan" is also a legal term, translatable as "adversary." This is the lawyer that brings the accusation before the judge. It is Satan who accuses Job of not being such a faithful person, who makes a case against Job that Job is faithful only because he has an easy life.

These were my musings even as I listened to my pastor rightly discuss the ongoing movement and transforming power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. My mind kept going back to the law and the grace that protects us from it's condemnation.

So, nothing new or profound here. Just a quiet reflection on all the ways I do not live up to the new commandment Jesus gave us just a few chapters earlier in John's gospel (chapter 13 for those checking). On Maundy Thursday, I heard the new commandment: Love one another. Despite the resurrection power of Easter, I remain woefully inadequate to fulfill this commandment. But it is God's kindness and goodness that leads us to repentance and, look, Jesus promises the goodness of an advocate who, despite all evidence, will argue for our innocence.

And so I'm compelled to pray:

Come Holy Advocate, our defender and hope. You show us such mercy and goodness, give us such hope of acceptance, that we fall down in worship and praise. Now, help us rise up and turn around. By your kindness and mercy, lead us in this new discipline of loving one another. Come Holy Advocate, and renew us once again.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Ritual and Grieving and Renewed Hope on the Bus

This evening, I attended the memorial service for Dr. Margaret Flowers, who we all called Meg.

Meg was the music director at the congregation where I belong. She ended her ten year service there this past January, when she resigned to fight a recurrence of cancer. I'll admit I've been a bit heartbroken over her resignation. It's been a hard 2010 without her. It's simplest to say I loved her.

She's also the reason I'm in this congregation. I landed there at the end of 2003 when I first moved to Houston. I didn't church shop, I just landed there because it was in a convenient place. After a year there, I wasn't quite sure it was the place for me. I didn't feel connected to anyone there, and I wondered if I might fit better somewhere else.

Except I connected to Meg. I don't know why, don't really remember how. She was the arts person in the congregation, so I guess I naturally gravitated toward her. I didn't sing in the choir, at least not much that first year. Maybe not at all. I honestly don't remember. I just remember loving Meg.

Then she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Even though I was ready to leave this congregation and, hence, Meg at that time, I decided I couldn't possibly do it while she was going through chemotherapy. I decided to stay and see her through treatment.

She was remarkable. She continued with her music director duties while doing chemo. She had some rough days, to be sure, but with a little help from her friends, she didn't miss much time. We talked about how much cancer treatment had changed since I watched my mother go through it ten year earlier. They have much better meds for the nausea now. She lost her hair, but kept her appetite for the most part.

Then a remarkable thing happened to me. I started feeling connected to other people in this congregation. While I watched Meg battle cancer, I also began to love other people. By the time Meg completed her treatments and was declared in remission, the taproot had started to take hold in this congregation. I have a church home because of Meg.

During the four years when we were hoping she'd beaten her cancer, she continued her worship and musical leadership in our congregation. She had a definite idea about what a church choir was and was not. She spoke to us about being worship leaders, not performers. We led the congregation in hymn singing and we sang anthems to draw worshipers more deeply into the season or message of the Sunday.

She also kept vigilant over the designs of our new nave. The architect understood in no uncertain terms that, whatever else we decided about the design of the worship space, it had to have good acoustics for music. Since the nave was completed nearly two years ago, nearly every musician who has come into that space and remarked on the acoustics. Of course, there was a whole building committee there to affirm and back Meg up with the architect, but without her vigilance, it's quite possible compromises could have been made. One of her legacies to our congregation is this worship space that is great for singing.

She was one year away from that magical five year anniversary, when she would have been considered cured, when she started getting intense, debilitating headaches. For six months she went in for test after test, every scan known to modern medicine (and in Houston, that's saying something), and they could not figure out why she was having these headaches. At first, they ruled out cancer. They couldn't find it. Then, after at least two spinal taps, they recognized cancer cells in her spinal fluid.

I'll say no more about the diagnosis and treatment from there. I don't want to tell lies and I'm not clear on all the details. What matters is treatment was very hard on her this time (despite keeping most of her hair). She resigned as music director. She started getting confused, not being able to find the right word she wanted to say. Today was her memorial service.

If you click on her name above, you'll see her obituary. She had quite a career in church music, so of course many of her colleagues came to sing and remember her today. The music couldn't help but be glorious. It was a fitting way to commend her to God's care and eternity.

She was very dear to me. I'm going to be sad for a while. Even though she's been out of the position as music director for a few months already, we're only starting to find our new normal in our congregation. I'm not nimbly leaping into the changes her absence brings. I'm a little angry. And sad.

After the service, another member of our congregation, another friend, Akiko, asked me if I was okay. She knows I loved Meg. She did, too. I shrugged in my cavalier way and said, "yeah, I'm fine. It's only grief." I was being flip and everyone knew it, but in a way, I'm being genuine. It is only grief. It is something I've felt before, multiple times, and I suspect I'll feel it again. It is serious pain with serious tears. I'll acknowledge it's presence, acknowledge it's impact, but it won't rule me, not for long. I read some singer (I don't remember who---a gospel singer) once quoted to say that when his father died, the remarkable thing he learned was that the healing started almost immediately. The pain and anguish was real and present, and then something would happen to make the family laugh. He remarked how merciful God was, that we weren't left in our grief for too long, that the healing begins right away.

Case in point:

Coming home from Meg's memorial service, there was a man on the bus with an iPod and he occasionally bobbed his head and raised his arms in graceful, rhythmic patterns. Though he was sitting, I guessed that he was tall. He was definitely thin. He had large, strong hands, the kind of hands Michelangelo sculpted. His head was shaved and he was dressed all in black, shirt tales untucked. His skin was dark, a shade lighter than the darkest skin I've ever seen. His eyelids were heavy, his mouth full and serious.

He was beautiful, but his beauty was beside the point. He danced while sitting on a bus. On a day of grief, he gave me joy and made manifest what I already knew: I won't always feel this way.

He got off the bus suddenly, too quickly for me to tell him that he was a sign and a gift from God.