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Friday, July 31, 2015

Shut up and kiss me (B17O, 2nd reading)

Sunday we heard in the 2nd reading the beginning of chapter four of Ephesians. Since I'm not a scripture scholar, I need to leave aside the very interesting discussions of scholars about Pauline authenticity, and the ways in which large parts of this letter do not match the theology or style of the letters (like 1 Corinthians and Romans) that are almost certainly of Pauline authorship. For my purposes, I want to ask a question about what the author of Ephesians says about what it means to "live in a manner worthy of the call you have received." I've been thinking a lot about vocation these last few weeks as I have been preparing for my sessions with the adults at Music Ministry Alive. So trusting that in this section, at least, Ephesians carries the best spirit of the church and perhaps the mind of the apostle, I just want to say "out loud" what I heard as our readers proclaimed the first verses of that reading.

First of all, let me say that "the call" that we have received is the call to believe in the good news. To put that into words that might "translate" what they meant in the first century: we have a choice to make between empires. The civilization the runs the world—the whole world, no matter what the form of government or economy—is based on violence and threats of violence. It is an escalating resource-grab, six billion people and their representatives vying for control of limited and dwindling resources. Civilization requires law, borders, armies, treaties, enforcement, and religions to keep the whole thing from turning into a violent free-for-all. For the people of the first century, the god of civilization was Augustus, then the rest of the Caesars who rules and guided the Roman Empire.

But Jesus, raised in Jewish tradition, understood that that was not the world that God had made, nor the one that God wanted. Jesus began preaching "Turn around, "repent," go the other way. The empire of God is close by. You just have to turn around." Everybody knew something was wrong. Everybody knew it wasn't fair, that they weren't happy. I like to say, "Hey, how's that Roman empire thing working out for you? Is Caesar a good god? Giving you a good life? I have another way." 

In the sermon on the mount, his healing, his table ministry, and his exorcisms, Jesus reminded people about "the call you have received" in their Jewishness to be the people of God. He called them to be who they were meant to be, the children of God, brothers and sisters to one another. It was clear to Paul, and later to the gospel writers, that Jesus expanded the heart of this "good news" of the new empire to include everyone, not just the Jews, but all kinds of non-Jews as well, even the Romans, even enemies. Enemy love was a major component of the teaching of Jesus, whose message was to "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" by letting the sun of our lives shine and the rain of our lives fall on the good and bad alike. Jesus lived that good news himself by sharing his table with everyone, "good and bad" alike, that is, those who perceived themselves as good, and those whom the good perceived to be bad. And as his message grew in popularity, he attracted the notice of the Romans, who killed him for sedition. And we know the rest of the story: how God raised him on the third day, and was experienced as alive by the twelve and others.

So with that as a background, how does the letter to the Ephesians call the Ephesians (and us) to "live a life worthy of the calling" we have received when we were baptized into Christ Jesus?
with all humility and gentleness,
with patience,
bearing with one another through love.

Isn't this the very heart of the new empire's good news? That there is to be no more violence, not even rhetorical violence, or psychological violence, in a world ruled by agape, the love with which God has loved us. There is no rivalry in the text, no urgency toward shortcuts that might require coercion, no sense of "having all the answers," insisting on being right, or superiority. We live a life worthy of the good news/gospel we have received by being patient, by acting humbly and gently. That is gospel living.
…striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace,
one body and one spirit, as you were also called to the one hope your call.
One Lord, one faith, one baptism,
one God and father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

The one God whom Jesus identified as Abba, the head of the household of humanity, and the spirit of Christ that gives life to the body are the source of radical unity that underlies everything and that ought to be evident in the life of the church as a living sign of the truth of who God is and what Jesus means. We "strive to preserve" that unity through the "bond of peace." That is to say, by rejecting rivalrous antagonism and refusing to take part in activities that incite violence or drive wedges between people or groups of people, we live lives worthy of the calling we have received through the gospel. 

Knowing that we are loved, living in that love, and promoting that love by living gentle lives, this is the way that we live lives worthy of the calling we have received.

It's not about noisy protests, talking heads of self-righteous orthodoxy, legislative demands on a non-believing society, sociological litmus tests of personal "morality" constructed by the self-appointed gatekeepers of truth. 

Working, worshipping, singing, serving, affirming, living together in non-competitive mutual benevolence is a sacrament of the gospel. The calling we have received is to believe in a different empire and a different "emperor," an emperor who serves, who bows low to be like us and be with us, who points the way to a civilization based on justice and love and not on violence and threats. Lives worthy of that calling will reflect Jesus's call to enemy love, forgiveness, and reconciliation. 

I guess what I'm feeling today is, the next time someone says that the United States should be a Christian nation, ask them if that's really what they want. If a church says it is a gospel church, ask them if that's what they mean. It's not meant to be an argument. It's a call to every one of us. Be humble, gentle, and patient with each other. Cool it with the orthodoxy tests. Live a life worthy of your calling. Or as God might say dramatically in the avatar of Rita Hayworth, throwing back her red hair and looking right into humanity's flabbergasted eyes, "Shut up and kiss me."

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Bread of Life—Liberation and transformation (B18O)

Eucharist at its best, it seems to me, should engender some cognitive dissonance in the Christian. We are awakened, when liturgy is good, to the Good, to God, to who God really is, and also to who we really are. Good liturgy reveals the dominion of God, the "peaceable kingdom" in which the poor and wretched, the meek and peacemakers are the blessed, and throws light on the dark dominion of the "world," which is to say, wherever people have opted for other gods: security, power, money, pleasure, property, consumption, etc. Having revealed the dichotomy of these worlds, the immanence of God's reign and its availability to those who embrace solidarity with God in Christ, the liturgy calls us to metanoia, to a change of interior direction and a change of life-orientation, that quickens the pulse to the new creation, allays fear, and rallies the ragged remnant around the fire.

This, I think, is the "life" that Jesus is talking about in John, whether he's talking about the "bread of life" in John 6 or the living water with the Samaritan woman, or the "resurrection and the life" with Martha and Mary or the "road, the truth, and the life" with Thomas and the twelve. It's the life that is enigmatically but forcefully summoned by John's use of ego eimi, the Greek equivalent of the tetragrammatic name of God from Exodus, YHWH, in all of these and other passages. By invoking the Name from the story of Moses and the Exodus, and by the association in the gospels between the death and resurrection of the Lord with the Passover, we are called to equate "life" with the God of Exodus, the God of freedom. Not just freedom for me and for you, but for everyone. "I am the bread of freedom, the water of freedom, the road, the truth, and the freedom to pursue them, I am the resurrection and freedom even from death and its dire consequences. I came that they might have freedom, and have it completely." Those who had manna still got hungry; those who drink water from the well will get thirsty again; but if you eat me, if you drink me, you will be completely free.

Free from what? Well, we go there together every year in the scrutinies, right? Free from the ethnic hatred and  prejudice like that which was the birthright of Samaria and Judea. Free from the restrictive laws of religion that oppress, or put ritual ahead of peoples' genuine need. Free from the fear of the death that drives us to choose lesser goods, counterfeits of freedom and life. Freedom from gnostic and arcane pursuits of the divine that do not lead through the road that is Jesus, good shepherd, gate, person of truth, and Son of God. 

Still, the sobering truth is that, in the words of Pope John Paul II, we Eucharist-eaters still allow "the tragedy of hunger which plagues hundreds of millions of human beings, the diseases which afflict developing countries, the loneliness of the elderly, the hardships faced by the unemployed, the struggles of immigrants. These are evils which are present—albeit to a different degree—even in areas of immense wealth. We cannot delude ourselves: By our mutual love and, in particular, by our concern for those
  in need we will be recognized as true followers of Christ (cf. John 13:35; Matthew 25:31-46). This will be the criterion by which the authenticity of our Eucharistic celebrations is judged." (From the Apostolic Letter Mane Nobiscum, Domine, 2004, 8.) The Eucharist, even the Spirit's presence that transforms bread and wine into the living Christ, cannot change the way we act toward one another. The legendary Benedictine liturgist and patristics scholar Godfrey Diekmann has been quoted as positing the disturbing question, "What if the bread and wine change, and we don't?", a question which renders theological arguments over the modality of the magnum mysterium meaningless. 

Collaborating in the divine work of transformation means surrendering, means sharing, means gently embracing the freedom of others and committing ourselves to discovering together a common path to God's reign. We know that the path is Christ, who is the road, the truth, and freedom. Christ exposed the truth of the cross, of surrender, as the path to God, who is love, the creative fullness of freedom in self-emptying. The Eucharist, with Christ as the main agent uniting all of us in his eternal act of self-emptying adoration of the Father, exposes our world of counterfeits, violence, and greed for what it is, and introduces in us who have been seduced by its empty promises a redemptive dissonance, awakening us to the truth of who we are. Claimed for Christ in baptism and branded with the cross, we are summoned in our gathering to rehearse, however timidly, the right relationships of God's dominion, to hear the Word of truth, and to break the bread and share the cup of freedom. Thus we are taught to walk with the poor and wretched, to be roused by the word that wakens us to the often invisible structures of injustice and domination, and to start living now, in this world, in the blessed bounty and peaceable solidarity of the the living God.

Here's what we're singing at St. Anne this week:
GATHERING:   I Am the Bread of Life (Toolan, octavo version)
RESP. PSALM:   Psalm 34: Taste and See (Cooney)
KID PSALM: Haugen – O Taste and See
PREP RITE:   We Are Many Parts (Haugen)
FRACTION:   St Aidan (A)
COMMUNION:   I Myself Am the Bread of Life (Cooney, blog post here)
SENDING FORTH:   A Place at the Table Lori True 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The hand of the Lord feeds us

At 7:15 mass this morning. I'm on the right.
Some apparently random thoughts after encountering John 6 for the first four times at mass this weekend.

With my eyes barely open this morning, I already had plenty to be thankful for. And it was all reinforced, literally reiterated, since I was at mass last night as well, by the liturgy this morning. But it made me realize again how liturgy isn't separate from life, it's on the continuum of life, a place to which we come to celebrate what has gone before and then be pushed out into an altered future.

First, I'm grateful to the wonderfully crazy Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber for her sermon at the ELCA's worship conference, "Called to Be a Living Voice." She was preaching on the same readings we heard, particularly the feeding of the five thousand in John 6. There was so much to like in her words, but for me it was a call to own up to the fact that the good things in my life are not always explainable by logic or hard work or even genetics. Sometimes they are just miracles, even though they are accomplished by ordinary people using ordinary things like food, water, time, and love.

For one thing, I had to play for the 7:15 am mass this morning (yawn), which I usually have to do once or twice a month, but today promises to be an unusually long day on which we'll be arriving in Minneapolis about 10:30 tonight to begin preparing for Music Ministry Alive. I was expecting to have to cantor as well as play piano, which I can do with a brief apology to the assembly at that hour but which isn't my forte or my first choice. I walk in with my sunglasses on and my eyes still at half mast, and who walks into the church but my friend Patty, who is cantoring at the 9:00 mass, smiling and saying, "I was up, and thought you could use some help." Now, this is not a miracle if you know Patty, but it is cause for gratitude on my part, because "the hand of the Lord feeds us, he answers all our needs."

For the second thing, and this happened even earlier, "for he gives to his beloved in sleep," I received a text message overnight. It concerns another good friend of mine who has been weakened recently by symptoms that have turned out to be Parkinson's disease. One of my friend's choir members is a nurse at a research hospital, and her love and concern for my friend led her to research all she could find on Parkinson's. She sent me a long text message this morning, describing an event yesterday that on the face of it may not be miraculous, but does at least demonstrate that sometimes God orchestrates the events of our lives in ways we don't perceive, but which are too strange to be considered accidents, at least by me.

A quick digression: about eleven years ago, as many of you know, I was diagnosed with cancer, and my surgeon thought it was ok to delay surgery for a while (the diagnosis was in the summer) but not indefinitely. Now, about a year previously, my friend Gary Daigle had been the victim of some injustice in his parish workplace, and was fired from his parish job. He had a wife and children, and was in danger of losing his benefits, and it was not a good time in church life in general. But I approached my pastor, and asked if we could put Gary on 30-hour full time in order that he could get benefits, and he would could continue to supplement his income with producing recordings and doing appearances etc. My pastor, a fellow whose nature was to put people's needs before just about every other consideration, said yes. So when this cancer diagnosis happened, Gary had been in the parish a year, knew the choir and other people there, had a good feel for our music program plus more talent than anyone has a right to, and simply slid into the work of running the liturgy and music program during the time of my surgery and recovery. Oh, I forgot to mention: my surgery was two weeks before Christmas, and I wasn't able to get back into the musical saddle, as it were, until three weeks into January. Things went seamlessly through the holidays. So you tell me: was Gary's misfortune an accident, or his joining us at St. Anne's? Were they a coincidence? Or was it creation from nothing?  And a few months later, Gary joined the staff at St. Edna's where he has been ever since, as music and liturgy director.

Back to the original story about my friend and the nurse: her text to me was about an event at the hospital where she works, involving a patient diagnosed who also had Parkinson's. He had not taken proper care with an implant, and had developed serious, even life-threatening complications. The nurse's research on Parkinson's had emboldened her to advocate for surgery for the patient with doctors who may not have been listening to or consulting with one another, and they listened to her. Her advocacy led to a much better mental and physical state for the patient almost immediately, and the doctors told her she saved the patient's life. All of this because of her love for and devotion to my friend, going the extra mile with her research, and then speaking up to her peers in a way that improved life for a completely different patient. So you tell me: was the nurse's involvement in my friend's case an accident? A coincidence? Or was it creation from nothing? I suppose people of good will, even people of faith, may differ on their answer. It sounds like Genesis to me. It sounds like feeding five thousand from the fish and bread one little boy brought for his meal.

One lovely insight that came from Nadia's sermon, an insight I've seen noted in other commentaries on this passage, is how she sees the miracle of feeding the five thousand as an act of creation from nothing, that is, something that only God can do. I'm a modernist. I believe in science. But I'm also a post-modernist, at least in the sense that I am certain that facts are not the same as truth, that there is more to reality than what can be seen or proven. We have to be very modest about what we say about what can't be seen or proven, but neither does it make any sense at all to deny our experience of the good-that-is-invisible, because that good is for everyone, it binds us together. That good wants the good of everyone even more than we do, and finds a gentle way to break through our worship of facts and the clamor for personal rights and freedoms above the common good and all of our unevolved habits of coercion to let us see what things might be like if we learned to drop our rivalry and love one another.

So my suggestion is, think about your life. Think about those startling little "coincidences" that changed the water of your life into wine—the actions, words, and touches in which everything was instantly transformed by love. You are part of the continuum that is life in the universe. Grace has sustained you in every breath, made the miracle of evolution and natural selection that resulted in you possible, let you first hear the stories of creation, manna, exile, and enemy love that blossomed into faith. Christ in God wants to take your memory and transform it into life for the whole world. Christ is fashioning salvation through your participation in the mystery of God. Let the meal of Jesus feed your longing and open the eyes of your heart to the miracle of your life, and to the realization that every life around you is just as miraculous and beloved of God. It is then, when we finally walk out of church with our vision and humanity transformed again by grace, that in everything we touch or hear, in everything we taste, in everything we see, we taste and see the goodness of the Lord.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

It takes a village to pitch a no-no (or feed 5000. or the world) (B17O)

In Mark’s gospel, there are two feedings of multitudes. One takes place in Jewish territory, the other in the Greek territory, the Decapolis, on the other side of the lake. It is this second feeding for which the lectionary substitutes the John 6 story and continues with the rest of John 6 for several weeks. The first feeding takes place between the pericopes we heard a few weeks ago about the healing of the two women (the woman with the hemorrhage and the 12-year-old) and the calming of the sea, and it is skipped by the lectionary compilers, no doubt because of the amount of time being spent on the John’s version. But there are some things we ought to ask ourselves about the Mark feedings, like, why two? What’s different about the (earlier) Mark versions of the story?

My thoughts were about meaning as I was re-reading the gospel these days. Interpreters have grappled with the meaning of this miracle from the beginning. From the beginning is exactly right, as all we need to do is look at Mark’s narrative of the aftermath of the first feeding to see that the meaning of it, like the meaning of most of what Jesus was about, was lost on the ones who witnessed it. (This is no condemnation, by the way, as all of us have pretty much lost the meaning of it even today.) In chapter 6, Mark tells the story of the feeding of the five thousand. Then the disciples get on the boat and head over to the Decapolis. This is when the storm blows up and Jesus walks to them across the water. Mark then says this:

...(W)hen they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out. They had all seen him and were terrified. But at once he spoke with them, "Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid!" He got into the boat with them and the wind died down. They were (completely) astounded. They had not understood the incident of the loaves.

One could understand “they had not understood...” to refer to the divine power of Jesus in the multiplication, which they should have transferred to his power over the sea. But when I think of this gospel as arising from a community in the crucible of the destruction of Jerusalem and the passing of the torch of discipleship to a generation that had not known Jesus personally, it strikes me that another meaning might be intended. What is the meaning of the incident of the loaves?

This story in John, if not in all the gospels, is certainly meant to recall the feeding of Israel with manna in Exodus. The “bread from heaven,” the bread of life, was the food that kept Israel alive and together during their sojourn in the desert. The bread was a sign of God among them, and that assurance forged them into a people. In both wilderness settings, in the context of both “miracles,” there is the grumbling, the uneasy protests of those unable to summon the faith of gratitude. In both stories there is the possibility of a “natural” miracle: some kind of pollen in the case of manna; some extraordinary preaching-induced sharing by the multitude with Jesus. In both stories there is the extraordinary dialectic between the abundance of God (all have enough, there is enough to store and share), and the equality of the gift (no one has more than they need.)

Six years ago tomorrow (July 23, 2009), during this summertime sojourn into John 6, another Mark, Chicago White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle, pitched a perfect complete game: no hits, no walks, no baserunners for the other team. The “miracle” of the perfect game, as Mark Buehrle knew and repeated in so many words in dozens of appearances in the Chicago media following the game, is not the work of one man, no matter how extraordinarily talented he might be, but the work of a “village,” or a team. No pitcher can win a game if his team doesn’t score a run. Unless he can manage to strike out twenty-seven consecutive batters (a feat that has still never been accomplished at the major league level), he depends on the rest of his team for the ordinary and extraordinary defensive work that they do day after day in winning and losing. Buehrle acknowledged this in action by sending a case of beer to Sox center fielder Dewayne Wise for his game-saving catch at the wall in the 8th inning!

What is the "meaning of the loaves"? I think it has to do with God’s abundance, with a divine strategy of grace that requires a surrender to equality, cooperation, and participation. It means that there is enough if we all stop hoarding, more than enough, enough to have some left over, 12 baskets full, enough until the “twelfth of never,” enough forever. Team Humanity’s perfect game will happen when we are inspired, in-Spirit-ed, so that we surrender to the divine plan of mutuality and interdependence, letting go of our need to hoard for ourselves and our ability to ignore the desperation and need of those around us. The meaning of the loaves is that whether we’re lost in the desert, or hungry in the wilderness, or on a boat in a storm, God is with us, Christ is with us, and we are together. And it will always be enough.

That’s not everything there is to know about the meaning of the loaves, of course, but I think it’s part of it. And, like everything in the gospel, it is easier said than done. But to me, at least, that’s something to hope for, something worth believing in.

Here's what we're singing at St. Anne this week: we're also celebrating the patronal feast, Ss. Anne and Joachim, this weekend.

GATHERING:   A Place at the Table (Lori True)
RESP. PSALM 34 Taste and See (Cooney)
KID PSALM: O Taste and See (Haugen)
PREP RITE:   We Come to Your Feast (Joncas)
FRACTION:   St Aidan (A)
COMMUNION:   I Myself Am the Bread of Life (Cooney) (blog post here)
SENDING FORTH:   All Are Welcome Haugen
Or On Holy Ground (Peña)

“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish;

but what good are these for so many?”  (Jn. 6:9)

Friday, July 17, 2015

Albums 19: Like No God We Had Imagined (2015, GIA)

We are so thrilled to announce the release of our new CD and music collection, Like No God We Had Imagined. It has been almost two years since we started the process of negotiation and recording that finally emerged as this recording, and we couldn't be happier. The long and winding road that brought us to this place has been fraught with twists and turns in our personal and professional lives, and it has, in fact, turned into two collections, one of which won't be seen until next year. For now, this one is an exciting beginning, and in addition to the new songs on this CD, there are seven more already recorded, so we have work to do before next spring!

First of all, what happened was that we finally got thirteen new songs recorded for a collection that we had decided to call "To You Who Bow," with the song that made its debut at the 2014 NPM convention being the title song for the collection. As it turned out, though, when listening to the songs together, I began to feel that it wasn't going to be a very cogent listening experience, with half the songs recognizably Christmas songs, and the other half more general. It's not like it was a vinyl record or cassette that would require you to turn it over or make some other gesture of differentiation! So as I considered this issue, an idea came to me that the publishers at GIA, particularly Michael Silhavy who was liaising this with the rest of the staff at the company, came to approve.

What we decided to do was to take the six Christmas songs and put them on a separate CD with other seasonal music we had recorded over the years that we thought might deserve a second (or first) hearing with music directors around the country. These songs were recorded on several different albums in four different decades, beginning with Safety Harbor, released in 1989, over a generation since they were first released. There are also songs on this recording from Stony Landscapes (1994), Today (2007), and of course Terry's Christmas CD from 1998 which was a very popular listening collection, On Christmas Day in the Morning. We recorded the new songs in late 2014 and 2015, which means  that the songs on this album were recorded over a period of more than twenty-five years. With Mark Karney (of Norwest Communications) and Gary Daigle's careful ear, the songs on the disc were remastered to blend together as though they were all recorded yesterday.

So you see, we didn't set out to make a Christmas collection at all, like we did when Terry recorded OCDITM in 1998. I just tend to try to do a new arrangement every year, and recently have taken to writing lyrics for traditional songs that are maybe second-tier familiar, where you know instinctively that you've heard or sung them at Christmas, but you might not know the words. I thought this might be a way of bridging the gap between a modernized (or, I suppose, personalized) incarnational theology in the text and a traditional tune associated with the holiday.

A second kind of energy that is in the new songs is that they are arranged for smaller (SAB) choirs. This is the kind of choir I have at St. Anne, and I hear from other church musicians that SAB arrangements are very welcome in their work too. I intended to have four of the songs published together in a fascicle, perhaps something like, "Four European Carols for Smaller Choirs," but that turned out to be too cumbersome, and they are packaged individually, but in the collection. Those four would be "Friends in Christ, Rejoice," which is a French carol by way of England, "Still, Still, Still," which is German, "Song at the Manger," which is the Czech "Rocking Carol," and "Lullaby, Little One," which is a Polish carol. (I wrote this in consultation with a new associate pastor at St. Anne in Barrington where I work. Fr. Chris suggested it as a representative Polish Christmas song, and sang the first verse in Polish two years ago when we first introduced it before Midnight Mass.) The other two new songs are my own version of a "Christmas Glory" based on "Angels We Have Heard on High" and a new text and arrangement based on the Rossetti text and the Holst tune of "In the Bleak Midwinter." "Christmas Glory" may stand out a little bit from the crowd of similar efforts at least in its brevity! The "Angels" refrain is sung only three times. There are two verses of a simple SAB chant tone, and then after the second verse, the final refrain is sung, with the last words of the Gloria ("...For you alone are the holy one..." through the Amen) sung as a soprano descant over that refrain. Not that brevity is everything, but you might have more energy for the liturgy of the word if you're not exhausted from the introductory rites! Just sayin'...

A word about the marvelous group of singers and musicians in Arizona and Illinois who have made all these songs come alive. Some are still singing and working, inside and outside of music ministry, some have gone to God. Reading the names of the singers and players who worked on these songs over the course of the last quarter century is a humbling experience, and I am grateful to them all because they have graced my life, certainly, but kept music alive with their art and ministry for decades. Some of my Phoenix friends have died, some have retired, some are very active in ministry, others have put that part of their past aside. My daughter Claire, barely a teenager when she sang verses on "Carol of the Stranger," is now a successful author in her early thirties. Gary, Terry, and I are "changed, not ended" too, still busy, but all of us having navigated the fast-moving waters of life, and still (crazy) friends after all these years. New friends, like Breda King, who sings with Terry on my "new favorite" song, "In the Bleak Midwinter," and Paul Rausch and his sons and students and former students who made up much of the choir on these new songs, and Lara Lynch, Gerry Aylward, and Tom Yang and his crew of amazing musicians from Chicago Musical Connection, fill our lives with music we can barely believe we helped to create. A lot of Christmases have come and gone since we started singing and recording this music, but each one has been a season of grace and mercy in our blessed lives.

The title of the album is taken from a repeating motif in the first song, "Friends in Christ, Rejoice," which is set to the carol tune, "Masters in this Hall."
Noel, noel, noel! Sing the news with awe,
Like no God we had imagined is the baby in the straw.
The rest of the text is here, part of our "2013 Christmas card" on my blog. Our 2014 Christmas card was the little YouTube video linked above, in which I paired images with the music of "Still, Still, Still," track 7 on the CD.

You can audition all of these songs in mp3 form (available for purchase as well) at GIA Publications website.

Track List

1. Friends in Christ, Rejoice (2015)
2. My Soul Gives Glory (text by Miriam Therese Winter, MMS)
3. The Advent Herald (text by Brian Wren)
4. Sing We Maranatha (SongStories post)
5. In the Bleak Midwinter (2015)
6. Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day
We regularly come back to this song in our Christmas repertoire. A beautiful melody and a clever medieval text that seems to take off from Zephaniah 3:17, a prophetic text read in Advent liturgies. There is a brief instrumental ritornello between the stanzas for string quartet and flute, and the choral and instrumental parts quote from Silent Night in one of the stanzas.
7. Still, Still, Still (2015)
8. In the Stillness of the Night.
This is one of two wonderful Balhoff-Daigle-Ducote songs (Dameans) on this collection. Terry recorded this as a solo on OCDITM, and we put this SAB version on Today, but included it here to get it another hearing. I really love the wedding of text and tune on this Christmas song, its unusual modality and expressiveness. Gary's part-writing and instrumental arranging are also wonderful.
9. Christmas Gloria (2015)
10. Psalm 96: Christmas Midnight
11. Song at the Manger (2015)
12. Carol of the Stranger (from Stony Landscapes, with 12-year-old Claire singing the solos!)
13. Lullaby, Little One (Lullajze, Jezuniu) (2015)
14. Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow
15. I Saw Three Ships.
I tell Terry, whenever we're listening to her Christmas recording, that I think this is the best arrangement I've ever done. On that recording the arrangement is soprano soloist with TTB choir, but it could easily be done SATB as well, with just flute and cello accompaniment. When she asked me to do a couple of arrangements for the album, I threw myself into this one and "Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day," which also appears on this CD.
16. Light in the Darkness
This bright Dameans song, like "In the Stillness" above, has been one one of my choir's favorite Christmas songs for twenty years, and I hope that many others will discover it with its inclusion in this collection. The Balhoff-Ducote text moves through many moods as it explores "light in the darkness," and Gary's joyful musical setting and choral and instrumental arrangement captures their work wonderfully.

Like No God We Had Imagined page at GIA publications for more information, or to audition or purchase songs or printed music.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Bad shepherds and the exile of God (B16O)

I’ve written before about “the shepherd thing.” Thinking about it again for this coming weekend, because of all the imagery in the first reading and psalm that are at work in us by the time we hear the gospel reading. There’s a thread of Catholic theology that sees the anointing of Christians in baptism and (to some) par excellence in holy orders as a symbol of being made priest, prophet, and king. These are the castes that were anointed in Jewish scriptures. And in the prophecy of Jeremiah, some of these are also the bad shepherds. 

Kings, priests, and prophets were all good or bad in the Old Testament depending on who was doing the writing. The chroniclers, in the hire of the kings, generally gave them favorable reviews. Prophets and priests often gave the same kings bad reviews, but not the prophets and priests who were in the king’s employ. There were bands of prophets who were “in,” who were affiliated with the royal temple, and there were prophets who were out. Some of these were priests, like Jeremiah. Jeremiah supported and affirmed the piety of King Josiah, but Jehoiakim, his successor, was a syncretist and theological opportunist. Jeremiah, and with him all of Jerusalem, paid the price for Jehoiakim’s unfaithfulness when Nabuchodonosor II destroyed the city in 587 BCE and carried most of its citizens to exile in Babylon.

In Jeremiah’s prophecy heard in Sunday’s first reading, God rails against the false shepherds who have led the people of Israel astray. Since at least the time of the great king, David, in the early 11th century BCE, Israel thought of God as shepherd in their liturgy and song, as we sing in the psalm for today. God is always the shepherd of Israel. Kings, priests, and prophets, and by extension (or a priori) husbands and fathers, were shepherds who were to lead like God. The problem for them, and for us, is figuring out what that means. Our image of God is going to shape our image of the kind of shepherd, or leader, that God is. Clearly, if we think that God is the all-powerful king of the universe who can do anything and does whatever he wants, well, then the shepherd will also be a big, omnipotent protector of the sheep, who may try not to let anything bad happen to them, but herds them with an iron fist. But what if the anointing of kings, priests, and prophets is the anointing of the Holy Spirit of agape, and not the anointing of human kings in the courts of the rich and powerful? What if it’s a different kind of God and a different kind of shepherd, whose most clear image is not an avatar or a metaphor but an incarnation, is Jesus Christ, the shepherd who “lays down his life for his sheep”?

The “bad shepherds” lead, badly, by bad example. They lord it over others, maintain “peace” by violence and threats of violence, substituting revenge and personal vagary for justice. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. Which lead me back to good old Jeremiah, carried into exile in Babylon with the rest of Jerusalem. Maybe, after all is said and done, this is how God pastures his flock: by going with them into exile. Maybe creation and incarnation are both, in a way of speaking, the exile of God. Maybe they are manifestations of what St. Paul calls, in Philippians, kenosis, the emptying-out of divinity. Out of that experience of exile, of the destruction of the temple and the ruin of cult worship, Jeremiah is able to prophesy a new covenant that does not depend on cult or priesthood or temple or king. God speaks, through him, of a future where Torah will not be stored in the Ark, but in the heart:

The days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers the day I took them by the hand to lead them forth from the land of Egypt; for they broke my covenant and I had to show myself their master, says the LORD. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer will they have need to teach their friends and kinsmen how to know the LORD. All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the LORD, for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more. (31:31-34)

Christians really need to focus on this message, and we need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and who he is, how he lived his human life: healer, bridge-builder, servant, welcoming table-host. If God had wanted to show us how to change things by force and violence, then God could have chosen, I suppose, to have revealed self as an emperor or a general or a judge. But that’s not what God did, not for those of us who believe in the gospel. Christ, the “image of the invisible God,” became an artisan, a workman, an ordinary human being subject to all kinds of other human beings, who slowly (apparently) came to the conclusion that, if God alone is God, as the sh’ma he prayed proclaimed, then Caesar must not be, and that living in God’s world means acting with equality towards every other person, putting the sword away, nourishing the body and soul with hospitality and acceptance. If Jesus is the exile of God, then he is also the way home, who levels the mountains and raises the valleys to make a straight highway for the return of the rest of us.

The task of the Church is to continue this work of Jesus, blessed by, anointed by, the same Spirit of agape that made Jesus messiah, the Christ. No servant is greater than her or his master. Good shepherds, the community of the baptized and those ordained to serve them in the name of Christ, all of us are called out of the safe country of our selves into the “exile” of other people. In this, we enter into the very life of God, and walk in the footsteps of Christ, who “alone can lead my spirit.”

Here’s what we’re singing at St. Anne:

Gathering:  Come to Us (Gather #842, published by OCP) This is one of my compositions, originally on the record and cassette (yes, record) Do Not Fear to Hope, from 1985, which some people still think of as my best work (I really, really hope not, but I’m glad people like it.) I wrote this song after a homily on a summer Sunday probably in 1984, a homily by Vernon Meyer, a St. Louis transplant who became incardinated in the diocese of Phoenix and eventually the third pastor I served with at St. Jerome. He also taught scripture at the diocesan higher education center, the Kino Institute. As often happens in my songs, the lyric transfers the words of Christ more explicitly to the lips of the assembly, that is to say, it tries to allow us to sing who we really are, the body of Christ. I'm also happy to promote, however self-servingly, a beautiful new arrangement by Patti Drennan at Hope Publishing, for choir, piano and flute.

In the words of the great American preacher William Sloane Coffin, “It is one thing to say with the prophet Amos, 'Let justice roll down like mighty waters,' and quite another to work out the irrigation system.” To sing a song like “Come to Us” means that we don’t just say, “Go to Jesus, and he will give rest for your soul.” It says, “Come to us, we are the people Christ made through the Holy Spirit by our baptism. There is rest here among us, we can share the yoke with you.”
 My fellow parishioners at St. Anne make this come alive every day of the year at our local resale shop ("House of Hope") and used to add a massive annual “Annie’s Attic” garage sale, raising over $125,000 for the poor in the Ministry of Hope at the parish. Come to us, indeed. And thanks be to God. It's about the people of God being good shepherds.

Psalm 23: Daigle Gary's Psalm 23 is so beautiful, simple, transparent. The refrain is, literally, "mi-re-do," which is the motif of "Come to Us" as well: I wonder if anyone will notice that? (In fact, I didn't until just now what I was writing about it.) It's sort of the bright antithesis in feel of Sting's "Every Breath You Take," as though reimagined as "You Give Me Breath" and sung by James Taylor. Gary originally submitted this as part of a composers' project called Gathered for God, published by GIA about three or four years ago. It will also be part of "part two" of our new collection of music, the first part of which was released last week at the 2015 NPM in Grand Rapids, entitled Like No God We Had Imagined. Look for the new collection, tentatively entitled To You Who Bow, in early 2016.

Preparation rite: Lead Me, Guide Me (Gather 656)

Communion: Heart of a Shepherd (Gelineau/Cooney)
 (Gather 786)

Recessional: We Will Serve the Lord (Gather 753)

Woe to the shepherds

who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture,

says the LORD. 

Friday, July 10, 2015

Being sent, accepted, and rejected (B15O)

It's a weird ritual, but it's the one we go through at least once a week and keep coming back for more. It's a ritual that gathers us in the name of a God who is revealed in the public execution of a teacher who rose from the dead, wherein we gather to praise the God who sent him and revealed self to us through him, we listen to stories millennia old from cultures and languages oceans away, we gather around bread and wine to ask God's Holy Spirit to transform them and us into what we most truly are were meant to be, and then we hear those joyful words:

Get out of here. Mass is over. Make something of your lives.

Well, we've got the poetry to disguise the urgency and terseness of that sentiment. We take the edge off of it, some of us do, by singing a rousing song while some people are obediently making their way to the exits, and we massage each other's bruised egos when they don't seem to value the music as much as we do. But hey. The guy in the fancy get-up said "Go." Who are you gonna believe?

Ite, the plural Latin imperative of the verb ire, "to go," is pretty strong. The way ancient Rome generally said "goodbye" was Vale (pl. valete) which is more like "be well, go in good health." But the liturgy doesn't seem to have time for those niceties. Instead, it just says "Go" - "begone! Get out of here. shoo!" just in case we've started liking the apparent homogeneity inside the building too much. Get out, the man says. "Go and announce the gospel of the Lord." Almost like Jesus does with the Twelve in today's gospel.

Jesus, at least, gives the apostles some instructions and a mild warning about the dangers awaiting out there. In fact, Mark's gospel makes a larger point by telling in this story in three "chapters," which, when taken together, ring an ominous bell. If today's verses from Mark 6 are part one of that story, next week's gospel, which tells the story of their breathless return to Jesus with tales of wonder about their first crack ministry (in pairs), is part three. The intervening verses, skipped in the Roman Catholic version of the lectionary but preserved in the Revised Common Lectionary used by other lectionary-based Christian assemblies,  tell the story of the murder in prison of John the Baptizer by the tetrarch Herod Antipas. The story of John's death in Mark roughly parallels in detail the death of Jesus later. By any reading, the inclusio of this story, sandwiched between the missioning and return of the twelve, is a cautionary tale about the real price of faithful discipleship.

Other interesting details in Sunday's gospel include the reference to wearing sandals and carrying a staff, which, in these verses so close to the narrative of the feeding of the five thousand, might be meant to allude to the exodus narrative, with its command to eat the Passover meal "…with your loins girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in hand…." (Ex. 12:11) Already here, not even halfway through the narrative of Jesus's ministry, Mark expresses a connection between mission and death, between journey, providence, liberation, and food, that will come to their full expression when the band makes its way toward Jerusalem and the events of the week surrounding Jesus's last pesach.

What I'm trying to suggest here is that it is the nature of the church to be sent, that it is not static, but on a journey, that that journey is taken together, that it's nature is to call out evil by its name and heal what is broken in the name of the Abba of Jesus, and that it's a dangerous journey, always has been, and we're damned smart to think twice before embarking upon it. In the words of scripture scholar Daniel Harrington in the Sacra Pagina volume The Gospel of Mark: 
"The enduring theological significance of this passage is its role as a call to the church to never forget its origin in a community of missionaries: the Twelve are among the first recipients of a resurrection appearance in 1 Cor 15:3-7, a tradition that has been described as "community founding" and mission inaugurating. The church's self identity is as a community that is sent; it is to "travel light" and to proclaim the word in freedom and fearlessness. Like Jesus it is to confront the power of evil and serve as an agent of God's healing power. As many churches today are engaged in a continuing quest for identity in a complex world, this rather simple narrative should always be a conversation partner." Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Mark (Sacra Pagina), John R. Donahue, S.J. and Daniel J Harrington, S.J.; Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., editor, Sacra Pagina series, © 2002, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN. A Michael Glazier book.)

In the first reading, we hear from the prophet Amos, who was like a Yankee preacher preaching abolitionism in Richmond before the Civil War. One of the earliest prophets, he was not one of the nabi'im (from a professional "band" of prophets) but a shepherd and dresser of sycamore figs (he knew the routine of hastening the ripening of the fruit by puncturing it a few days before harvesting.) From the southern kingdom of Judea, which was subject to the stronger and wealthier kingdom of Israel to the north, Amos went to prophesy at the shrine of Bethel, the holiest of the northern shrines, against the policies and breaches of the Torah of Jeroboam II, by most accounts an otherwise successful ruler. The problem was that the political and economic success of the north had brought about excesses that created desperately poor people in the land, made others wealthy, and meanwhile the wheels of religion turned as though all were well. Amos warned against continuing on this road, predicting the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria if they did not repent. It was Amos, you will recall, whose vision of equality and justice inspired Martin Luther King Jr. and many others through the ages with his condemnation of worship without justice, and his dream of a desert transformed by water:
I hate, I despise your festivals,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
    I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24)
Prophets, like Amos, like Jesus and probably like the twelve, know that something is wrong in the land. God is just, and the way to make right what is wrong in the world is to remember who God is and what God wants. Amos's solution is a return from religion to justice. That is also Jesus's solution. But it doesn't take a prophet to know that something is wrong in the land. The prophet just has that extra ounce of courage to say it out loud, and to give a voice to what we already know. The routine of civilization isn't working out for everyone! The question is, do we see the dissonance between our "alleluias" and the policies, neglect, and violence that we allow to undermine the hope of so many in the world, even in our own cities? Do we understand that God's mission is liberation, a world whose people understand and act upon their fundamental equality and relationship as children of one divine householder? That salvation is the restoration to health, physical, emotional, and spiritual, of every person? Is the church taking its Sunday meal with sandals on, staff in hand, ready to walk out with all hands and stand at the sea with an army at our back, until the waters part?

The psalmist also sees the return of justice as the harbinger of peace, and both as signs of the Lord's favor in the present day. God's promise is that a day will come when "kindness and truth shall meet, justice and peace shall kiss," a promise we remember in song today. The day is now. God is already here. What is lacking is our conviction and our moving forward. Which is why, I think, we need to pay attention to those words at the end of our ritual: Scram. Do some good with your lives. God has already left the building and is waiting outside.

Here's what we're singing at St. Anne this weekend.

GATHERING:   Go Out and Tell the Good News (Laura and David Ash, OCP)
RESP. PSALM:   Your Mercy Like Rain
PREP RITE:   Turn Around or The Summons
COMMUNION:   Be Not Afraid
SENDING FORTH:   I Send You Out or Anthem