Part I: Sunday Morning
I am sitting at Maple Grove, a Columbus area church about which I have written before. Twice, in fact. Warren is playing timpani in the service today. Today's job came up very suddenly; usually, the music director at Maple Grove contacts Warren several weeks out.
While Warren set up and tuned, I started writing about time - my time - and about the pace of life - my life.
It's the little picture: my little picture.
Warren just came over to retrieve his tie before rehearsal started. As he did so, he said "this is the minister's last service. Apparently he is leaving for medical reasons."
I stopped writing my other post and began this one.
Back at Easter, when Warren last played here, Bill Croy, the church's minister, was unexpectedly out for medical testing. I remember my thoughts at the time flicking to what it does whenever I hear the phrase "medical testing" - cancer.
After all, that is my little picture.
At this point, I don't know what it is. I find that I am bracing myself for the service and Bill's last sermon. I hear choir members asking one another if they brought enough tissues.
Warren said, when he told me, "maybe that explains why this service came up so quickly." Then he added, "maybe that's why one of the pieces is The Church's One Foundation."
There is an usually high amount of hugging going on as choir members stream in for practice. One walks by carrying a box of tissues. I only brought three with me, for the cold weather and the occasional bloody nose I get. I hope they are enough.
Church members are arriving early and getting seats up close.
My friend and colleague Doug, who earlier this year went through surgery and treatment for stomach cancer with the best possible results, is still building up his strength and energy. He recently posted on Facebook that he had just completed riding 50 miles on his bike, then added "God is great!"
Another friend, hearing of Doug's comment, said "I bet he wouldn't be saying that if he were dying of cancer."
I disagreed at the time. Doug's affirmation of his beliefs had nothing to do with whether he recovered from his cancer, and while I may be somewhat at sea on my own spiritual beliefs, I do not question those of others.
As I watch the preparation for this service, that conversation comes back to me and I disagree all over again. I anticipate that today's service, whatever Bill's diagnosis and prognosis, will likewise be an affirmation of faith and of the spiritual joy and unity that binds this congregation together. Indeed, I note in the church bulletin that there are two celebrations scheduled for this afternoon: a retirement celebration for Bill and his wife, followed by a ministry celebration of his career.
Note the word choice, which was used in the bulletin: "celebration."
I have noted before that my spiritual beliefs, whatever they may be, are changing. I have my own journey to make. But for this day, this milestone at Maple Grove, I am glad I am with this body, part of their small picture and part of the bigger picture of life and faith.
Part II: Sunday Afternoon
It isn't cancer, it's ALS. Bill Croy was diagnosed in August and, per the parishioner sitting next to me, stepped down today because of his waning strength.
ALS is terminal. But as Bill reminded us all today, so is life. In fact, he predicted, some of his parishioners would likely die before he did. Then he added, slyly, "I'm not saying any names."
Today's service was wonderful. Today's service was magnificent. At times there were tears streaming down many faces, including mine. At times we were all laughing. It was an emotional mix of joy, sorrow, love, and faith.
In his final sermon as minister of Maple Grove, in his final sermon as a Methodist minister of some 40 years experience, Bill shared his unfinished dreams for the congregation and his beliefs as to what is ahead. He made it clear that he was not looking forward to dying.
"I love life," he said, "I love living!"
In the half beat of silence that followed, we all heard a little girl, possibly his granddaughter in the front row, pipe up, "I do too!"
Bittersweet laughter swept across the pews.
I'm not going to attempt to sum up Bill's sermon; you can read it here yourself. But I will tell you what I saw today, which was an affirmation of faith and belief. I saw and heard someone who could say, and in fact did, that God is good, despite the realities of the disease he is now facing.
Today I had the privilege of watching a beloved minister and a beloved congregation say goodbye to one another as minister and congregation. They did it with love and with dignity, with laughter and with tears. There was sorrow. There was joy. And there was belief - in the goodness of God, in the goodness of life, and in the goodness of one another.