(reposted June of each year, in honor of Michael)
Each June I think about my friend, Michael. Michael was a conductor, chorus master, lecturer, author, musicologist, accompanist & my vocal coach when I performed opera. He was also my good friend.
I first met him when, as a very young singer, was making my professional debut in opera and he was assigned to me, by the company, as my “coach”; leading me in the method of singing the small role that I had. We became fast friends.
He was much older than he looked, (we almost looked the same age) and so seemed like a “wunderkind”: a brilliant man with a quick wit and energy that made the rest of us look like slackers…and I do a lot of stuff. When he learned that I was getting my degree in Music Composition he insisted on hearing every piece I wrote and came to each performance of my new works at the college I attended. He would analyze each piece, not to judge or criticize, but to ask questions about my choices of phrases, keys, motives, themes and construction…all without ever SEEING the music on paper…just from what he had heard, once. He made me think about my own compositions in ways I had never thought…He listened.
He introduced me to his musical love, Richard Wagner. He knew more about the composer than anyone I had ever met, and was writing a book on his favorite composer…a commissioned work (a publisher payed him an advance to write it…that’s how good he was).
Mike and I would get together regularly, maybe once or twice a month, to eat, drink, and talk about music…his and mine. He would always have his calendar so that he could write down when my next concert was. We continued to work together at the Opera Company. And when Seattle Opera commissioned ME to compose a small touring opera for their company, I dedicated it to him…and he accompanied the opera on one of the three Pacific Northwest tours.
Then one day I called and left a message for him. He never returned the call. I called a couple more times over the next few weeks…until at last a female voice answered. It was a mutual theatre friend of ours. As I was obviously startled at her voice on his phone, in his apartment, she said, “Rick, didn’t you hear? Michael is very sick, you know…SICK. He’s been in the hospital for the past three weeks.”
The way she emphasized the word, “sick” was the code back in the ‘80’s, in Seattle, for someone who had AIDS. I was stunned. Frankly, I’d forgotten he was a part of the gay community there. What stunned me was that he didn’t share his illness with me, and we were good friends.
As we continued to talk, she said that he was embarrassed. He didn’t want me, his one and only Christian friend, to know that he was “sick”. He was afraid that I would judge, that I would condemn…and most importantly, think that I would leave. Ironic, since he’s the one that did the leaving.
I attended his funeral a few weeks later. It was a doubly-sad affair, for me, at least. To this day I feel like I had no closure. And I was angry. Not at him, but at the notion that he believed any Christian would be filled with judgment and hate for him: one of the nicest, kindest, most generous people I had ever met.
I’m older now…maybe not wiser. I am, in many ways, more cynical and bitter. I understand that Jesus tells those who Believe & Follow Him that the world, and sometimes the Church, will “hate” us. But what really hurts is to think the “world” would hate any “Christian” because “Christians” themselves are filled with hate. That’s not what Jesus teaches, on the contrary: we are to love our “brothers and sisters” (fellow followers) AND our enemies…I’m pretty sure that covers everyone. So how could Michael think that I, whom he knew well, would judge him, would hate him, would abandon him? Not because of anything I did, but because of what some other “Christian” have done, all in God’s name.
I stood on one side of that story long ago…now I stand in both worlds and see both sides. There are those “Christians” whose FIRST response will always be reminding us of God’s judgment; careful to let us all know that as long as Jesus isn’t here in the flesh to judge the living and the dead, they will be happy to take up that job. There are those “Christians” who think that Jesus’ command to love is conditional.
And yet, though it’s sometimes more difficult to see it, there are those who understand that to know a person’s heart, read a person’s mind, know a person’s story is something that God and God alone has the power, and the responsibility, to do. Our job is simple: love them all, and let me sort it out in the end.
I think about what would’ve happened with Michael had the reputation of “Christians” in the ‘80s been as the most caring and loving, the most compassionate and least-judgmental of all humanity. I try to bring closure to his death by imagining him telling me everything and me just hugging him in response…because he was my friend, and because Jesus is my King.
Central Christian Church could, and should, be known as the people who love like no one else, accepting those with whom we agree and share our life-goals, as well as those we don’t. We can, and will, be the ones who others see and say, “If being a CHRISTIAN means being like those people at Central, then count me in…when I was hungry, they fed me, when I was thirsty they gave me something to drink…when I had AIDS and was dying, they cared and loved me without judgment or superiority.”
Each June (Pride Month) my heart remembers what my head may forget: that Michael is as unworthy as all of us to receive God’s love…and yet God loves Him, and loves us all.
If we belong to Jesus, how then should we live?
We can and should be God’s people; people who love others as Jesus loves them – people who remember that Jesus unconditionally loved us…BEFORE we loved Him.