Flesh and blood, scars and blemishes

Another guest post from Mr. 52godpickup.

Noon Sunday Mass, Holy Name Church, Birmingham, Michigan.

When I’m backed into a corner and forced to say that I live in Birmingham, I sometimes add, in a weak joke, “in the poor part of Birmingham.” In my working-class Irish family we were taught by example to never let them think you’re putting on airs and never, ever let them guess what’s in your bank book.

Holy Name is most definitely in the part of Birmingham where the third generation of immigrants are lawyers and doctors and auto company executives, and where I hope at least one of my children will someday own a house with a little apartment above the garage where mom and dad can spend their old age gardening and volunteering.

My wife, knowing and probably despairing of my working-class sentimentality, had first steered me to the other Catholic churches nearby, but I was attracted to Holy Name’s Mass at the civilized hour of high noon. I ventured, and was glad of it.

To start with, the sanctuary is beautiful and the building bursts with meeting rooms, offices and conference rooms. I could easily picture a national brokerage or a marketing team taking over the place for the week.

In the lobby I saw more signs of success — posters and placards recognizing this year’s confirmation class of 124 eighth-graders. Yes, Holy Name has a school, but even so, 124 eighth-graders are practically a regiment of soldiers for Christ.

In the pews, I counted at least 200 worshipers, including a smattering of elderly gentlemen, white-haired but bursting with vitality, as if they had breakfasted on oatmeal and cantaloupe and then dashed off a few sets of tennis before going to fulfill their Sunday obligation.

More signs of vitality in the missal, which had three pages of local business advertising — and not just plumbers and roofers but also Realtors, financial advisors and orthodontists.

Then the Mass unrolled with its timeless comfort of ritual, familiarity and mystery. Even the new responses seem familiar by now. I had lapsed as a Catholic years ago, when I was a new father and I was frustrated by the Church’s near-criminal fumbling of the sex-abuse cases. (I remember a respected great-uncle snarling, “The bishops couldn’t manage a corner grocery.”) I was reminded today that home is always home. The Catholic Church will always take me back, should I choose to return.

And then the Rev. Msgr. John Zenz delivered a wonderful homily on Luke 24, in which the Risen Lord appears to His disciples and invites them to inspect the wounds in His hands and feet to see that He was indeed real. And then He said He was hungry and asked for a piece of fish to eat.

“Matter Matters” was Zenz’s title and his point: The risen Christ was not an apparition or an abstraction. Easter is not a metaphor, a celebration of new life blooming in spring, like crocuses bringing forth new flowers. Easter is a celebration¬†of Jesus Christ rising from the dead as a physical body. And eating fish.

So we should remember that our outward glowing signs are not the whole story. We too are flesh and blood, scars and blemishes, wounded in all kinds of physical and psychological ways.

And it is our scars that are our bridge to Christ. He suffered; we will suffer. He rose; we will be resurrected.

Wonderful to hear that message insisted upon.

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Second cousin to compassion

A guest post from Mr. 52godpickup, who did some seeking while I finished tax season.

11 a.m. Sunday worship, Pilgrim Congregational Church, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

I counted 23 souls in the sanctuary and it left me with an unfortunate moment of pity — the poor second cousin to compassion — and then the brooding sense one gets when watching a BBC documentary on ancient Crete.

Surely this was a thriving congregation once. There are pews available for a couple of hundred and a roomy parking lot out front, down the stone steps. A nice piece of real estate, too, on the nexus of Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills and Troy.

Where did the people go? Why did they leave? Were there angry words? A divisive pastor search? Or did members just slowly fade away, until the survivors went to church one fine morning, blinking in the summer sun, and realized they were alone?

These are interesting questions for a member of a declining Mainline Protestant church whose leadership bravely insists, as mine does (or did, I can’t decide yet), “We will not lead a dying congregation.”

The sad answers, I think, are the same for a church as they are for aging Japan and old Europe — when you lose children’s time, when the families go elsewhere, when your day-care centers are converted to nursing homes, then maybe only prayer can help you.

(Don’t get me wrong. A society needs octogenarians as much as we need toddlers, if only in part to answer some of the questions a visitor might bring, and to give younger members the sense of wonder I get when speaking to someone who was there at the founding … in this instance, 1961.)

To their credit, the people at Pilgrim Congregational Church understand their situation. Perusing their Sunday missal this morning, they pray that “God would bring new people to Pilgrim both to minister to and help us accomplish His plans for Pilgrim,” and, even more touchingly, that “God will direct Pilgrim to make any changes that He wants us to make and that we at Pilgrim would be open to His direction.”

And then the last chords of the opening hymn fell away and all these academic and gloomy thoughts were washed away by an organized, sincere jewel of a service that took as its cornerstone the opening verses of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

Paul’s message of joy was transmitted in the hymns, the Offertory Prayer, the formal Gospel reading and the informal sermon, all working to remind us, as Paul did in his missive from a Roman prison cell, separated from old friends and colleagues back in Macedonia, that the glass is not half-full or half-empty but always overflowing with God’s love for us.

That was Pastor John’s answer to me. What do you do when you have just 23 “saints,” as the church’s part-time preacher suggested we were? Well, you do the best you can and you thank God for the opportunity to deliver the message, and to absorb it.