Monday, October 10, 2011

Between my high school reunion and my mother's birthday lunch lay all of Sunday morning.

What to do, what to do.

I'd already taken care of the Sunday obligation Saturday evening at what used to be called St. Joseph's. After mergers, it goes by Resurrection. I was immediately struck by all the gray heads when I entered. A sea of gray. I was early, hoping to make confession for the Day of Atonement but I didn't, and this was 4:30 on a Saturday evening. I didn't like the service in the least. After a million dollar sanctuary renovation, the sound system is still inadequate.

My friend from high school is church secretary for a non-denominational congregation that meets in the old Mancuso movie theater on Main St. She's done that from the beginning, sixteen years or so. I invited myself to her church on Sunday as it didn't seem likely she'd invite me. I opted for the earlier service, 8:30, because I could be sure it would end before the later service at 10 am. God only knows when the 10 am service might end and I had a very important lunch date! At 7:30 am, I attended mass at what used to be called St. Mary's on Ellicott. As this parish is merged with St. Joseph's across town, the music selections were identical. Ever since the outbreak of H1N1 or even before, Western New York Catholics do not make physical contact during the Sign of Peace. They are all overly concerned about germs despite the availability of hand sanitizer stands in the church entryway. I knew the service would run about 50 minutes and I'd have time to get to the next service.

Kathy and I arrived at about the same time. Just as I was asking someone where she might be, she appeared from the back. She'd gotten herself a coffee and offered me one. I don't drink coffee. She took her usual seat but caught herself and told me to select our seats. I moved us to the center of the theater which turned out to be a bad idea because the two screens which display the song lyrics are, ironically enough for a theater, each placed along an outside wall. No wonder no one sits in the center.

Her daughter performs in the band. She did a fabulous job and I told her so afterwards. She looked as if she was really getting into it but wasn't a distraction. She took this picture of us after the service. We didn't sing many songs, maybe three. I don't remember knowing any but they were uncomplicated praise songs. The collection was taken up immediately after, as the pastor said something about joyful giving. The preacher was an evangelist running a mission-type event for the youth that evening. He scared me considerably. I took adequate notes to describe the service here.

The presentation included a slide show in Powerpoint which the speaker referred to as "post-modern stained glass." Every bullet started with "P." He looked at each of the final words of Jesus to his disciples in the four Gospels and Acts. Matthew 28:19-20, "Presence Commission;" Mark 16:15-18, "Protection Commission;" Luke 24:46-49, "Power Commission;" John 21:11, "Personal Commission;" Acts 1:8, "Promise Commission." I was a little disappointed that the sermon didn't require me to flip all over the Bible. At one moment in the sermon, the evangelist seemed on the verge of making a subtle point and the pastor gave him a hardy "Amen" before he actually got the thought out. Inexplicably, the evangelist failed to make his conclusion - whatever it was - and the pastor was left saying, "Bring it, oh, bring it!" It was an awkward Emperor's New Clothes moment. He gave a helpful breakdown of obedience: principled obedience == the moral law, particular obedience is God's call on you, not on me and pointed obedience - do what Jesus says to do now or you miss it.

Something he said made me jot down "Pentecostal?" in my notes. It may have been the bit about asking God for an anointed pickup line, so he could meet his wife at church on Wednesday night. The website says he's Foursquare.

Afterwards, the band did not take the stage again; the service was just over. My friend offered to show me around. I told her that I wanted to make the Episcopal service at 10 down the street but I had a few minutes. She showed me all their space, including a new youth center across the parking lot. "Children's Church" will be taking place there next week. It was set up for a rock concert. She showed me their food pantry which was enormous and their dining hall space that they rent out to local guilds of businessmen. I was encouraged by all the good they're doing in a financially struggling city and I saw no possibility for this former Catholic to find her way back.

I was, unfortunately, a bit late for the Episcopal service. Unlike at the City Church, the bulletin was invaluable for active participation in the service. Jeff's grandmother was Episcopalian but the closest I'd ever come to setting foot in this church as a kid was attending her viewing at the funeral home next door. I came in during the Gloria and immediately recognized that, when the Roman Catholic liturgy changes next month, this liturgy which is nearly identical will remain the same. Quite a revelation. The Gospel was the same - this was the third time that I was hearing this particular Gospel reading - the first and second readings was both "earlier," if you get that. The service relied on the Book of Common Prayer. The sermon was outstanding, really made an impression. I was totally moved. The Peace was something else again. Orderly, yes, but not emotionally restrained. Very heartfelt. Naturally, my feet were bolted to the floor and I couldn't move from my place so everyone came to me! The choir came down and walked the entire aisle, shaking hands. Even the pastor came down, recognized me as a stranger and asked what brought me from New Jersey that weekend.

There was no elevation of the host during the consecration. The rubrics say not to. I didn't go forward for communion - even for a blessing - because the altar seemed so far away. Seriously. All the music was just perfect and beautiful.

If, by any chance, I could find an Episcopal or Anglican service like this one near my home, I would attend especially if I get frustrated by the liturgical changes this Advent.
It was the combined events of a high school reunion and my mother's 70th birthday that brought me to my childhood town this long, Columbus Day weekend. I had to shuffle Kenny off to his cousin's house Saturday night as children were not welcome at the reunion dinner. Turnout was low, mostly us out-of-towners. As one old classmate put it, the locals see each other all the time.

I'd never been to the Batavia Country Club before, so I wasn't sure I was in the right place. On the one hand, the voices in the group entering ahead of me sounded vaguely familiar. Yet, on the other hand, they were also just typical Western New York accents. Turns out I knew them as we graduated less than 100 students 25 years ago: we all knew just about everybody then.

I wasn't late, really, returning to the hotel after Saturday evening mass momentarily to retrieve the camera I'd forgotten. I grabbed my one and only alcoholic drink from the cash bar, a white Russian. I'd been up since 4:30 AM, driven 8+ hours, eaten only breakfast and expected to be out until 11:30 or 12 so, as refreshing as the drink was, I did not take a second one. I allowed myself some caffeinated soda instead.

I felt awkward without Jeff. Not everyone had "a date," so being alone wasn't the issue. It was just hard to get past the superficial questions of "Where do you live? What do you do for a living?" And I couldn't remember anything anyone said. We posed for a group photo and watched a video provided by the family of a classmate who'd died in a car crash within a few years of graduation. It became obvious from the remarks made aloud during the showing of that video that some people were already drunk.

Mercifully, dinner was served rather quickly after that. I tried to join a particular table but there wasn't room so I moved to the next one. I felt as if I was following the same people around all night. I wonder whether they noticed. Like I was "clinging." At dinner, we were regaled with the absurd ramblings of a "much older" drunken spouse. My old classmates were polite to him, answering his personal questions. I would not. He got the message and moved on.

As I said, the turnout wasn't great and the hall had a minimum number of 80 people. We were half that, if even. How to raise the difference? Raffles and 50/50's. That's right. After dinner, a line formed in the back, near the bar, and people put down 20's for a strip of ten tickets. I followed suit but declined putting my tickets in the raffle jar. The prizes were for local services anyway, a round of golf at the country club, gift card to the local grocery chain. And the 50/50 prize went to a reunion organizer who almost certainly contributed out of pocket for decorations, etc. Besides, I abhor gambling in any form.

The DJ did a fantastic job. He wasn't intrusive and played the songs we'd requested. He had a setup for karaoke. Believe it or not, I've never done karaoke. A group of us went up and sang the class song, REO Speedwagon's "Time for Me to Fly." I wasn't drunk in the least and found karaoke to be alot of fun!

As the night wore on and more and more people left, it became difficult to find anyone to talk to. Many people were around the bar, but it wasn't as bad as in reunions past. There was a TV at the bar so that helped a bit. I noticed that my former classmates weren't very generous with the bar staff in regards to tips. Drinks were $5 and I saw very little money coming back or being left. So before I called it a night, I gave the girl a $20 - wish it could have been more - and she was appreciative.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

I listened to Marcus Grodi of EWTN's The Journey Home program at a nearby parish today. When he entered the sanctuary, walking a few paces behind the pastor, Fr. Ian, I was quite overcome with joy. I thought to myself, "Wow, that's really him, in the flesh." I was downright giddy. The first thing that struck me is how tall Grodi is, nearly as tall as the towering Fr. Trammell.

The titles of the three scheduled talks over the course of the day were "Why Be Catholic? A Conversion Story," "How to Stay Catholic," and "Keeping Your Family Catholic." Grodi delivered on the first title but not so much on the second two. I think that the parish tried to tie him into their current Pastoral Year of Marriage and the Family program but Grodi talked about what he wanted to talk about. And why not?

First, he told his conversion story to Christ and to the Catholic Church. He was converted to Christ by a concerned friend who challenged him to read the Bible. He picked up St. John's Gospel and swiftly read to chapter 15 before he even realized how deep into it he'd gotten. He recalled a couple of moments from his youth and young adult years when Protestantism wasn't adding up but no one else seemed to be bothered, so he continued to "go with the flow."

But when he read in the paper that Catholic theologian Scott Hahn was speaking, he attended to see whether the rumors about his old seminary friend were true. He half suspected that Hahn had faked a conversion in order to gain entry into Catholic churches by stealth. This is how these people think, I'm afraid. But it was on the up and up, so he listened to Hahn's conversion story on tape and was a goner after 15 minutes or so.

After a break, he spoke about our progress in the faith. He used punctuation marks as a framework. Our initial response might be "Jesus?" - meaning that we aren't familiar - followed by "Jesus," - meaning he's one of many things in our life. Then "Jesus." meaning we're more committed. And "Jesus:" - meaning that we're learning more. And finally, "Jesus!" - meaning he's everything to us. It was an innovative framework.

The local Catholic radio was on site broadcasting live during lunch. I so wanted to be interviewed. I even practiced what I'd say on air on the drive over this morning. But I never even found where they were! While we ate our boxed lunches, Marcus and Fr. Ian were interviewed. Then we said the rosary in the church while the clergy and Marcus went out to lunch with the retired bishop.

When they all came back, Marcus gave his third and final address. He was quite nervous at first with the bishop in the audience but he quickly remembered a time when Billy Graham visited his seminary and he gave the chapel sermon without being fully prepared. Compared to Billy Graham, retired Bishop Smith ain't much, I reckon. He could have just imagined the bishop in his underwear or some other public speaking trick without namedropping.

So Grodi got his groove back and preached on the Beatitudes. He said he never preached on the Beatitudes as a Calvinist minister because the theology of the Beatitudes didn't make any sense1. He called the Beatitudes the "stair steps to Heaven," saying that the virtues are progressive and build on each other. He pointed us to an outline of his talk.

I'd heard this before, that the Beatitudes are progressive and that one first descends into poverty, mourning and meekness until one is empty and hungry for God. Then the ascent begins. But one lady in the audience was overcome and, with the bishop and all the parish's priests in attendance, she explained that she's never heard such wonderful preaching on the Beatitudes before! I thought to myself, "She's gotta get out more." It's a Protestant commonplace. But I just wonder how the clergy took her comments. I'm sure they were tugging at their Roman collars a bit.

He graciously signed the book that I bought.

1 I've heard a Calvinist contrast "imperative" and "indicative" in regards to the Beatitudes. Marcus also rejects the Lutheran interpretative prism of Law & Gospel. And the idea that the purpose of the Law is to uncover our sinfulness, to prime us for the Gospel.