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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Identity and authority (A21O)

As I was thinking over the readings for next Sunday, especially the gospel, I heard them in the shadow of last Sunday’s gospel, for which I once heard an excellent homily from my friend and colleague Fr. John Durbin. He said that he lifted most of his ideas from John Shea’s book, The Spiritual Wisdom Of Gospels For Christian Preachers And Teachers: On Earth as It Is in Heaven Year Aabout the cycle A gospels in Matthew, but even if he did, they were ideas that really need to get out into the air, because they ring true, and people haven’t heard them enough.

Here’s the thing I was thinking, for what it’s worth. In Sunday’s gospel, we have the story of Jesus asking the disciples the question, “Who do people say that I am?” “What are people saying about me?” is another way of saying that. And I think that most of us have in mind that Jesus knows who he is, and he’s just sort of “testing” the apostles to see if they know, and of course, Peter answers with the big theological affirmation and gets the tiara. But what if Jesus doesn’t know the answer? What if he’s “advancing in wisdom, age, and grace” as the gospel of Luke put it, and figuring it out as he goes along, as one might expect a human person to do, as one of us might do? “Blessed are you, Simon son of John, because no human being revealed this to you.” That’s another way of saying, “Great is your faith,” which echoed last Sunday’s gospel, which got me onto this thing of identity. If no human revealed it, then it came from God. Faith is the gift of God. So those statements are very similar in meaning. What do Peter and the pagan woman that the apostles tried to shoo away last week have in common, and what do they have to do with Jesus’s emerging self-image?

The pagan woman who approached Jesus last week knew who he was. She was pouring herself out for her daughter, so she was “like God,” who is agape. She knew, better than Jesus, apparently, who he was too, calling him “Lord” (that is, one with power) and “son of David” (knowing him as both Jew and king). Jesus protests that his gift is only for his own, that, in the words unhappily sung since in the hymn “Ecce Panis Angelorum,” “the bread of the children shouldn’t be thrown to the dogs.” (Does anyone else find it woefully ironic that the only part of this dialogue that made it into the church's eucharistic sequence for Corpus Christi, the "Lauda Sion Salvatoris," is the line, "Vere panis filiorum/Non mittendus canibus"? In fact, in this case at least, Jesus was wrong about that!) The intrepid woman, overflowing with love for her daughter and knowing that God’s power would flow from this stranger, appeals to her milieu—“Lord, even the dogs eat what drops from the children’s table.” You see, in pagan households, the family dog(s) roamed the house freely, but in Jewish households, one had to go outside to take the scraps to the dogs, because the dogs were not allowed into the house itself. She’s saying in effect, “your house, or my house—you can take the food outside to me, or let me in to take it from you, I’ll do anything.” She sees, and he doesn’t, that God shows no favorites. In fact, Jesus says to her, “Woman, you have great faith,” which is to say, “I can recognize in your words the presence of God, a presence that I know well.” And he does what she asks. He changes. She changes him. It struck me, too, how this story is related to John’s Samaritan woman story, another story of the frontiers and borders between people, of risk, and of mutual life.

So in this Sunday’s gospel, we have Peter giving the answer to a question that Jesus himself doesn’t know the answer to, and Peter clearly doesn’t know what he’s saying, as we’ll see in next Sunday’s gospel. Peter doesn’t get what involvement with the God of Jesus means for leadership and destiny. Peter sees “son of the living God” and “the anointed (christos)” to mean that Jesus has a destiny like Herod’s or even Caesar’s. He misidentifies God with the emperor, a mistake multiplied over the centuries of the Church’s love affair with Constantine, Charlemagne, and the courts of Europe. Caesar is interested in borders; God’s interest is in reconciliation. Caesar rules by oppression; God rules by invitation and shared good. Caesar rules by victory; God rules by justice. Jesus realizes quickly that neither Caesar nor Herod is going to be interested in the reign of God, and that the powers of earth are going to line up against the God of life and justice. Jesus further knows and trusts that God is God, and Caesar is not, and not even the power of armies and death can staunch the flow of life into the universe.

But the link between rule and service is yet to be learned by Simon and the rest, and there is still time. It’s a new beginning, and Jesus changes Simon’s name to Cephas, or in Latin, Petrus. The new “Peter” will learn, over the period of a couple of decades, the lessons Jesus learned from the pagan woman on the frontier. He, too, will die at Caesar’s hand on a road outside the city, and in a strange reversal of fate that we have come to take for granted as a sign of divine favor, the humiliated Jew, crucified upside-down by the power of Rome, is remembered by a Basilica on the Vatican hill that is a symbol of the faith of billions of Christians who have followed in the faith of Jesus. Learning the way of the God who is agape, who teaches leadership through servanthood, will become the stumbling-block, skandalon, and school of discipleship for Christ’s followers as long as the sun shines. Maybe longer.

This Sunday at St. Anne -

  • Gathering: Dan Schutte's "Glory in the Cross." At some masses, we’ll use Tom Conry’s Psalm 23, “God alone may lead my spirit,” which translates well the Vulgate’s “regit”, “pastures me” or “rules me.” The shepherd-lord cares for me; nothing is lacking.
  • Psalm 138: On the Day I Called (Cooney) We’re using the refrain, “Faithful God, we praise you for your love; do not forget us now.” It’s a good prayer for today’s scripture - teach us, today, to know you as you are and not as we want you to be. Bend us, conform us to Christ the servant.
  • Gifts: Lead Me, Guide Me. "You are the Messiah, Son of the Living God." So I think it seems appropriate to sing "Lead Me, Guide Me" after making our confession of faith with Peter. If I weren't going to be away at a wedding this week, I think we could have also used Tom Kendzia's song, from the same collection, Change My Name,” his adaptation of the spiritual, so we could sing with St. Peter, “I told Jesus it would be all right if he changed my name!”
  • Communion: Heart of a Shepherd (GIA, Cooney-Gelineau) Ugh, I know, I don’t deserve to mentioned in the same sentence with the great Jesuit liturgist and musician who passed away on 08/08/08 at the age of 80 or so. But as I’ve mentioned before, I used his tune for the 23rd psalm verses with a new refrain that I wrote to celebrate my pastor’s, Fr. Jack Dewes’, 40th anniversary of ordination, a celebration of servant leadership. I hope, in the long run, my refrain and arrangement holds up well against Père Gelineau’s gorgeous and simple music.
  • Closing: We Will Serve the Lord. Enough said, I hope. “Ya gotta serve somebody,” says Bob Dylan. “It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but ya gotta serve somebody.” May we learn quickly and thoroughly, and be changed into Christ for the world.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

SongStories 36: Canticle of the Turning (GIA, 1989)

Neither Hannah nor the mother of Jesus, this painting
depicts the "other" Miriam's dance. (Sandra Pond)
2014 is the 25th anniversary year of the publication of our first GIA collection of songs, Safety Harbor. As the page views on my blog inexplicably approach the 100,000 mark (someone who reads this post will move Google's hit counter past that marker), I thought that it might be a good idea to finally write a little bit about the best-known song of mine from the GIA catalogue, which was the first song on that CD. I'm speaking about my 1988 (written) setting of the Magnificat, "Canticle of the Turning."

Advent of 1988 was the beginning of a Luke Year (C) in the lectionary, and as it approached I was thinking about how I might write a song that my parish, St. Jerome in Phoenix, Arizona, might use to tie together the themes of Luke's gospel through the year, and in a special way to begin it in Advent. At the time we already knew a handful of Magnificat settings, including the Dameans' version from their Remember Your Love collection, "My Soul Rejoices," and Michael Joncas's wonderful setting of the Oosterhuis paraphrase that appeared in the same rich collection that gave us "On Eagle's Wings" and "I Have Loved You," a responsorial-choral version entitled, "Mary's Song." The more I thought about the task I had set for myself, though, to craft a song that contained some of Luke's main evangelical themes that could be used through the year, the more I came back to the canticle of Mary from the end of chapter 1.

According to some scripture scholars, the songs in Luke's gospel might have been pre-existing Christian hymn that he was writing back into the story of Jesus as if to say, "Here's how our songs got started; see them again as part of the bigger story." This is not to say he was rewriting history, just that he may have wanted his community to read its own history, including the "new song" of the Lord that its faith engendered, through the lens of his narrative of Jesus and his mission. The song of Mary known by its first word in the Latin version, "Magnificat," (Lk. 1:46-55) celebrates that story in the even wider context of Jewish song, as the Magnificat itself parallels the Song of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, in 1 Kings 2. God takes action in the world on behalf of the powerless, the song goes, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry, tearing the mighty from their thrones.

So in setting this canticle for my parish, I decided that I wanted to use music that suggested the revolutionary spirit of the canticle, that cosmic tables are being turned over, as it were. And who has better songs of uprising than the Irish? "Star of the County Down" is not a revolutionary ballad, of course. It's a love song about a man who aspires to woo Rosie McCann, a brown-haired beauty from "the banks of the Bann" near Belfast. The lyrics most of us know were written in the late 19th century, but the tune is much older, and in fact had among its many incarnations a military connection, as there was a lyric called "The Fighting 69th" about the Irish Brigade in the U.S. Civil War. The tune dances a bit, and there's both joy and excitement in the melody that I think fits the spirit of Mary's song well. Like many folks songs (and in the spirit of Martin Luther), it is a self-teaching melody, with a two-line refrain whose melody is expanded and paralleled in the verses (AA1BA1-BA1), making the tune easy to learn and remember. I kept the in-rhyme of the familiar Irish text as another mnemonic device ((aa)B(cc)B etc.)

The idea of "turning" in the title was both a nod to the inner conceit of "revolution," (derived from the Latin "volvere," which means "to turn") and to the message of Jesus's preaching in all three of the synoptic gospels, the core message of which was, "Repent, and believe the good news." "Repent" translates a Greek verb the noun form of which is metanoia, that is to say, a complete change of the self, of mind and heart, which might also be rendered as "turn around." The idea, of course, is that we are all walking a particular course dictated by the gods of "this world," for Jesus and his countrymen, the god's name was Caesar. Jesus was saying, "Look, how is that working out for you? Happy? Well, I have good news: a God with another idea, and his name is Abba. Let's "turn around" and walk in another direction." So the "revolution" is both interior (a change of heart-self) and corporate and visible (a new way of living together). It is, in fact, against the prevailing set of values in society, a revolution. But I want to emphasize that it is a peaceful revolution, a revolution of action, persuasion,  and justice. In the spirit of Miriam of Egypt, Hannah, and Miriam of Nazareth "Canticle of the Turning" invites us to sing around the fire in the darkness while we await the new world's dawn. has a great page about Canticle of the Turning, which I was surprised to discover while ego-surfing as I researched this post. You can click on the title just above and go to the page yourself. In addition to the original arrangement published in the Safety Harbor collection, "Canticle of the Turning" is also available in two different arrangements for choir and organ, both by august arrangers and composers whose sandals I am unworthy to untie, Hal Hopson and John Ferguson.

Songs get a life of their own after they're written. I've said it before and I'll say it again, I'm sure: I write songs because I need to. I need a specific song to be written, because there's some nagging ember inside me that, either out of my ignorance or chutzpah, thinks that there's nothing else serving a specific need of which I'm aware. What happens after I finish that song and start to share it, and occasionally publish it, is way out of my control, and perfectly unpredictable. While I was encouraged and grateful by its reception, early in the days after I had written in, by its reception in Ireland when Gary and I were working there on a Forum institute, I still felt some hesitation and self-doubt for using a completely secular melody with as beloved and sacred a text as the Magnificat, no matter how well-intentioned I was. But the fact that, twenty-five years later, it appears not just in Catholic hymnals, but also in Lutheran, Mennonite, and Presbyterian hymnals, and has been used by such titans (certainly to me, and I think in my world, by reputation) as Hopson and Ferguson in their own arrangements, says to me that maybe, for now, this was a good choice, and has "moved the deal along" a little bit, as songwriter Greg Brown might say.

It was a bit of a revelation to me to see the number of covers of this song that appear on iTunes - about a dozen of them (with a couple of reissues), and the variety in feel and tempo is really remarkable as each artist or group feels the song with the freedom-soaked independence suggest by folk music and the lyric itself! Just click through the right-arrow-in-a-circle audition buttons in the iTunes window below and get a feel for the creative energy of the different artists' interpretations of the Irish tune.

Thank you to everyone who has prayed with, sung, recorded, played, or published "Canticle of the Turning." Terry and Gary and GIA, happy 25th anniversary!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Gentiles-R-Us (A20O)

Readings for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

So, who's your Gentile?

Everybody knows that "gentile" is derived from the Latin gentes which means "nations" or "peoples," and translates the Greek equivalent of the word we know from current Hebrew as goyim, which just means, "anyone with the misfortune of not being born Jewish." In the time that the Christian scriptures were being compiled, this was an increasingly important distinction. At the time of Jesus's death, there were, to the best of anyone's knowledge, no Christians at all, only Jews, some of whom came to believe in Jesus. Jews-who-believed-in-Jesus began to be seen as a threat to the limited resources of the community and to its leadership and orthodoxy, and ultimately were separated from the temple cult, at times with threats and other reprisals.

After St. Paul, also a Jew, and a pious proselytizer at that, had his famous encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, things got even more heated. Convinced by his encounter with the Lord and his own study and experience that the law of Moses had no power to save his people, a power that only faith in Christ had, he expanded his preaching of Jesus Christ as the savior of all humanity to some of the great cities of the Mediterranean, probably preaching in the vicinity of Jewish proto-synagogues.  His preaching targeting many of the same potential "converts," the "Godfearers," or Gentiles sympathetic to and interested in Jewish beliefs and moral life, upon whom local Jewish communities depended for financial and political support as well as socialization. So from the outer courts of the Jerusalem temple to the streets of Corinth and Thessaly, the stage was set for tension, mistrust, and conflict between Jews, Jewish Christians, and Gentile Christians within just a few years of the death of Jesus. It is entirely possible, in fact, that the gospels' near exoneration of Pilate and the Romans for the death of Jesus, a death for which they were almost certainly entirely responsible, was because of the animus between the fledgling Christian communities and their Jewish neighbors. If Acts (see Acts 6: 1-7) is to believed, there was even some dissent in the Jerusalem church itself between Jewish and non-Jewish factions, for instance, in the discrimination against the Greek widows, who were neglected in food distribution, leading to the creation of the first deacons.

All these fights about tradition, being right, who's in and who's out, are present in every stage of the church's development from the beginning of Jesus's ministry, through the New Testament times, and right up to the present day. We cannot know the mind of the historical Jesus himself, but in the hands of the evangelist Matthew, he is at least apparently conflicted. While other evangelists have Jesus preaching in pagan territory and interacting with Gentiles, Matthew's Jesus is clear, the great commission notwithstanding, that “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” having told the twelve, back in chapter 10, “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."

In Sunday's gospel, our hearts open to the possibility that Jesus had some lessons to learn as a teacher, even one who was the incarnate Son of God, and the lesson comes by way of a woman who doggedly (sorry, unintentional pun) wants what she wants on behalf of her possessed daughter. Note too, that this gospel passage is preceded by a condemnation of the substitution of rigorous law for right living (justice) on the part of some Jewish leaders, and is followed by a second miracle of the loaves. While this latter miracle is not apparently very different from the one we heard a couple of weeks ago, it is based on the structure of the two feedings recorded in Mark (chapters 6 and 8), the second of which (corresponding to this one) takes place in the pagan territory. Mark's Jesus does not confine his preaching and ministry to the Jews like Matthew's does, and yet it's the same Jesus. So there is also the possibility, at least, of a literary movement that corresponds to what might be the mind of Jesus: what begins with the condemnation of a rigid and narrow-minded approach to law, a legalism that saves by strict adherence, ends with a feast on the Gentile side of the lake, and arrives there by way of a storm in the boat and the plea of a Gentile mother for the benefits of Jesus's ministry heretofore being lavished only upon his own people. Talk about character development!

This gospel and the whole liturgy today touches on hot-button issues in our church and in every church; for that matter, between churches. What are our sacred cows? What are the matters about which we are so certain we are right that we're willing to push people away who ask for help? Parish registration? Baptism? A certain kind of music? Celibate clergy? Ministry only by straight people? Or expand this kind of thinking into the wider world, the world that we church people populate and in which we vote and do business. What about health care? How about border control and immigration?

What's the goal of religion, specifically, the goal of Christianity? For Jesus, it appears, from at least the point of view of the fourth gospel it was this: "that they all may be one, as you, Father, are in me, and I am in you, that they all might be one in us." The shattering truth that Paul's letter to the Philippians sings in its quotation from a first-century Christian hymn is that God wanted reconciliation, that is, unity among us and between God and us, so much that, the he "did not cling to godliness,' and became a human being like us, and suffered death on a cross. God, in other words, didn't think being right was worth it. Being God meant nothing if we weren't all together. So God left it behind, and emptied Self into humanity.

Today's gospel suggests—suggests, I say—that Jesus learned that from a Gentile mother who was desperate to save her daughter from the demons that raged within her. Her tenacious love "did not cling to Gentile-ness" but emptied itself and begged from an enemy, or at least, a stranger, for what was available to others. The "faith" that saved her, we know, and Jesus knew, was not her own doing, but was planted in her by God, the only source of that gift. The Giver is the same one who wants reconciliation of all people, and she acts like the giver in emptying herself, and in the process, just maybe, opened the eyes of the Messiah to who he really was.

The repeated metaphor in the scriptures for the diversity (or chaos) of the world is the division between the Jews, i.e., the people who wrote the scriptures, and the goyim, the Gentiles, the rest of us. That is an unbridgeable gap from our side, that is to say, from the side of the Jews. God created the gap. If the Gentiles can come to the Lord, and even serve as priests, Isaiah suggests, then all bets are off. Creation has begun again. If "all the peoples" can praise the God of Israel, then the covenant has been rewritten. The Jews aren't written out; it's that the rest of us are written in. We can't do that. The Jews can't do that. Only God can do that. If that can happen, anything can happen.

It may be a suggestion that it's time to stop throwing up walls, and start tearing them down. At least, it seems to me, all of us should keep in mind that the telos, the consummation, the final goal of all things, the dream of God, is "that they—we—all be one." Everything we do, every rule we make, every decision we make, every law we vote for, every candidate we trust, everything we invest our time and money in, should be oriented toward that goal.

So, who's your Gentile?

GATHERING:   Gather Us In (Haugen) 848
KYRIE/Gloria: St Aidan
RESP. PSALM 98:   All the Ends of the Earth (Haugen/Haas) 70
PREP RITE:   In Christ There Is No East or West or A Place at the Table 832 /812
FRACTION:   St Aidan (G)
COMMUNION:   One Bread, One Body (Foley) 932
SENDING FORTH:   Saving Power of God (O'Connor)

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Daily Double for Assumption: Two songs for Assumption (WLP, 2005)

The Assumption, from the chapel at my
alma mater, St Mary's of the Barrens,
Perryville MO
Anything worth doing is worth overdoing, right? On this underappreciated feast day, I thought I'd share the brief stories of two songs I have written specifically for this day. One is a setting of the responsorial psalm of the day, and the other a sort of antiphonal hymn. Both were published by World Library Publications in my 2005 collection Christ the Icon. The album post is here.

I wrote "Every Generation" as a commission for St. Mary’s Parish in Port Washington, Wisconsin, for their 150th anniversary in 2003. Their church is under the patronage of Our Lady of the Assumption. Drew Rutz, the organist there, commissioned the score for brass quartet, organ, oboe, and cello, but we scaled that down a bit for this recording to make it more accessible to more churches. The refrain text is an expansion of the communion antiphon for the Feast of the Assumption, taken from the Magnificat. Using two response texts, one placed on the lips of Mary at the Annunciation and the other on the lips of her Son in response to someone’s praise of his mother, the verses describe Mary’s blessing in her Assumption as foreshadowed in her life by her actions as mother and disciple. It is as mother and disciple, servant of God, that we remember Mary of Nazareth, remembering in her own words that it is “God who has done great things” for her.

Two parallel thoughts alternate in each couplet that the cantor sings. As an example:
Cantor: You taught the Son of God to eat and drink,
Choir and assembly: Here I am, the servant of the Lord,
Cantor: Now Christ takes you to eat his wedding feast.
Choir and assembly: Blessed are they who keep the word of God.
Cantor: You taught the Son of God to stand and walk,
Choir and assembly: Here I am, the servant of the Lord,
Cantor: He guides your steps on paths of paradise.
Choir and assembly: Blessed are they who keep the word of God.So the cantor first sings some imagined event from the family life of Nazareth or something from the gospels in which Mary gives something to Jesus as his mother, and then in a parallel text imagines Christ in glory "returning the favor," as it were, but in the glory of heaven in the act of the Assumption. Returning the antiphon each time, we may begin to see at least one sense in which "every generation calls you blessed," and how "God has done great things for you." Throughout, Mary's greatness is seen in her being "servant of the Lord" and disciple in her everyday life by keeping the Torah, raising her son in justice, and being formed in love as the image of God.

In preparing myself and trying to get ideas for the commission, though, I pored through some of the apocrypha about the Assumption, particularly the story as recounted in the Dormition of the Mother of God by pseudo-John, complete with the Virgin being taken up on a couch, and an angry "well-born Hebrew" trying to hold her back and having a seraphim cut his arms off, leaving them dangling from the couch. In spite of the presence of a lot of anti-Jewish polemics, Peter restores the man's arms to him. You can't make this stuff up. But it also doesn't belong in a hymn, right? The editors at WLP (rightly) decided that it would be a more useful song if the verses were about a cross-section of Marian mysteries, so I provided another set of verses of general use.

Psalm 45: "The Queen Stands at Your Right Hand" is my second "stab" at setting this psalm, though I have to say that this current version owes a lot to the former. There is no getting around the cultural milieu of the text of Psalm 45, which is a "A song for the Davidic king’s marriage to a foreign princess from Tyre in Phoenicia," whose florid text not only praises the king for his godly qualities but even calls him "god." But the section of the psalm cited for today's use is addressed to the queen herself, praising her beauty and reminding her that her past is history, she's now in the king's house and belongs to him. It's an epithalamion, applied in the Christian era to Mary, Theotokos, mother of God and queen of heaven.

I had hoped, for your amusement, to be able to find the original version of this psalm that I wrote 35 years ago or so, but have been unable to unearth the manuscript from my own personal Nag Hammadi, aka my office. Perhaps I can append it at a later date, should archaeologists succeed in recovering it. In the meantime, enjoy this clip from the current version, and if you like it and/or the song above, visit the World Library website and check it out. Below is a link to iTunes, whence the two songs may be purchased.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"No storm can shake my inmost calm" - second thoughts

So today (Sunday), like a lot of you may have done, I programmed and we sang the great old hymn "How Can I Keep from Singing." Often misidentified as a Quaker or Shaker hymn, it was actually written in the late 19th century by Robert Lowry, the minister who also wrote "Shall We Gather at the River?" (he apparently liked songs with title questions), to a set of pre-existing lyrics. 20th century singers from Pete Seeger through Ed Gutfreund and Enya to Jeanne Cotter to Eva Cassidy have put their own stamp on it, with Seeger notably adding, via his friend Doris Plenn, the politically shaded stanza about trembling tyrants and friends in "prison cell and dungeon vile." It was, as far as I can tell, Gutfreund, in his recorded version that became enshrined in Glory and Praise in the 1970s, who took the quatrain "No storm can shake my inmost calm..." and made it a refrain, editing some of the original stanzas into verses for the song.

On Sunday, though, as I sang it, I wondered about the sentiment when we sing it with those words as a refrain. Like this, you know?

Ebola virus death toll reaches 1,000.
"No storm can shake my inmost calm."
Riots after unarmed teen shot in Missouri.
"No storm can shake my inmost calm."
ISIS beheads enemies, rapes women, drives countrymen from their homes in Iraq.
"No storm can shake my inmost calm."
Dozens shot in weekend street violence in Chicago. (again)
"No storm can shake my inmost calm."
Schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria. Pro-Russian militia shoot down passenger jet in Ukraine.
"No storm can shake my inmost calm."
Three friends have cancer, son's off to college, work's kinda dicey, and I'm not very good at relationships.
"No storm can shake my inmost calm."

I wondered if anyone else felt like a liar when they were singing?

In the original text, those lines were just one of several stanzas in a lyric that make a song of eschatological hope, clearing skies and a rescuing savior; the absolute statement of "no storm can shake..." is just one line of eighteen, and thus can be seen in a certain context. When the later verse written by Plenn is added, it helps us to see a context of a just world coming into being, even from the perspective of unjust imprisonment. When "Christ is lord" becomes "love is lord," it gives to non-Christians the opportunity to express similar hope about a new world, and without rendering the song meaningless to Christians, for whom Christ, as God, is love.

These are just second thoughts, thinking out loud, after saying words, writing my blog, hearing scripture at liturgy, singing the text. This happens not infrequently, right? How many times have I heard one of my friends or colleagues say, "It just felt wrong to sing 'All are welcome in this place,' because I know damn well that all are not welcome, and I can name names." Or singing those Isaian claims in "Be Not Afraid," safety in arid desert, stormy sea, raging fire, at all those funerals.

The editors of Gather for some reason deleted the Plenn-Seeger stanza after the first edition of the hymnal in 1994. There is no question of copyright, though that stanza first appeared in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Since Ms. Plenn gave Pete Seeger the authorization to publish it in his folk music magazine Sing Out, and it appeared without a copyright claim, U.S. courts ruled that the Plenn verse, like the rest of the text, is in the public domain. The deletion, however, makes the song too short to sing during communion at our church, so I wrote a couple of verses that reflect the gospel story to flesh out the piece for Sunday. They were sung between verses 3 and 4 in the Gather Comprehensive Third Edition version. (You can use them next time around if you want.)

3b. The wind and rain may lash the night
While lightning fiercely blazes,
And though I slip into the deep
Christ's arm with power raises.

3c. There is no time to cower in fear
Though boiling sea may swallow.
When Christ says "Come!" across the waves,
Oh let us boldly follow.

But you might recall that the event that set in motion the stories recounted in Matthew 14 for the last two Sundays (the feeding of the multitudes and the storm on the Sea of Galilee) was the violent death of Jesus's kinsman John the Baptist, a prisoner of Herod, who feared John's influence with the crowds and the potential for an uprising hem feared John might lead. As I thought of (the grieving?) Jesus trying to find some solitude after hearing the news, and being pursued by the crowds, and as I heard again the story of the gifted prophet Elijah on the run from the lethal anger of Ahab and Jezebel, it occurred to me that another way to hear the word of the Lord was to learn that our calling to kenosis, to self-emptying love that attempts to mirror the divine life even as it is empowered by that life, endures through the worst that life throws at us. Our vocation, whatever it might be, matters. Whatever the threat or the sorrow, people need to be fed, to sing, to hear the truth. I need to hear the gospel as a disciple, yes, to know that whatever the storm may bring, the universe in which the storm resides belongs to Christ. But I also need to hear the story as a member of Christ's body, entrusted with his mission. 

So I was glad that the words of "How Can I Keep from Singing" caught in my throat Sunday. Life sometimes makes us want to do anything but sing, and to think or sing otherwise is a lie. But just maybe, in my inmost calm, that place claimed by Christ in baptism and fed every Sunday by the word of God and the bread of life, the song echoes. It is the song of a God whose power is not expressed by deliverance from the pain of life but through solidarity in it, not divine light at the end of the tunnel, but light, somehow, in the darkness. For me, the song that hit all the right notes this weekend was Tom Kendzia's "Stand By Me," which reaches back in its inspiration through Charles Tindley's gospel anthem to the spiritual of experience of former slaves.
When the storms of life are raging,
Lord, stand by me.
When the current pulls me under,
Lord, stand by me.
When the rising waters toss me
like a ship upon the sea,
You who rule the wind and water,
Lord, stand by me.
Refrain: Stand by me, stand by me.
Lift me up from the restless sea.
When I am lost, when love can't be found,
when no one cares, Lord, stand by me.
Sometimes, we need to be the rock to which those in trouble are clinging. Selfish swine that I am, I hope that I can remember this, and put aside my petty need for "personal space" and give someone else a reason to sing, and not just a song. It's a move from singing about love to actually loving, which is another way of saying, from singing about the cross to taking it up, and becoming Christ. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Moving from shock to compassionate action

Just a couple of thoughts on the passing of Robin Williams. 

Being almost the exact same age, and having experienced his work in television and movies over the years, I was as shocked as most people. I don't really follow pop culture much, so I didn't know, beyond a passing awareness, that he had a history with substance abuse and depression. His talent was a distraction to us, I guess, and maybe to his friends and family, even those who were aware of his personal demons.

I confess that as I saw that the cause of death was "suicide by asphyxia," I wondered at the irony of that as I recalled those times when we all laughed at Williams' manic comic performances until we couldn't breathe. That was near-asphyxia by an overdose of life and joy, having the incongruities of the ordinary rubbed in our faces like shaving-cream pies. And on this day, a master-seer of those incongruities with a mouth that could speak them more quickly than many of us could process them, died from asphyxia, choking off the very laughter and life he imparted to millions.

Being in church work, I've been a witness to the grief of many over the years in the wake of suicide. It is a colossal tragedy that rattles the community of those who are friends and family to the deceased. The sadness of it overwhelms everything else for a while. We're cut loose from the moorings of reason, and start to drift in the chaos in which, it has to be said, so many of these ordinary people have invisibly drifted while appearing to live normal or marginally quirky lives right before our eyes.

There is other stuff going on in the world. Other people are dying, too, just not famous people, rich people, people whom we think ought to feel good and people with whom we think, in our myopia, we might like to trade places. Most of them die not by their own hand but by the hand of violence. In the world of social media, there are those voices that are outraged by the focus on the attention to the dead superstar, whether Robin Williams, or Michael Jackson, or Heath Ledger, or whomever. And I understand their perplexity and indignation. But choice between absorbing our sorrow and seeking some new meaning in the loss of someone whom we know in our cultural household and facing into the horror of war, famine, disease, genocide, and natural disaster it's not a choice we have to make. While we might hope for some sense of emotional balance and equivalency of weight between our cultural sphere and the global or human family, there is room, it seems to me, for a search for meaning and engagement in both kinds of events. Some of what we see in the news media and social media is little more than self-indulgence and hyperbole when our individual illusions of life and control are disrupted by these tragedies. But if they can be refocused on the other, in this case, Robin Williams and people like him who suffer from depression and other mental illness, they can be a source of evolution for us, just as global suffering, when it moves beyond morbid fascination and a rush to quasi-religious or nationalistic judgment, and be a catalyst for acts of true compassion, intervention, and national self inventory.

So I suppose my feeling today is that I hope that some of the people who are shocked and saddened by the loss of Robin Williams will look into the state of our national response to mental illness in this country, and make demands of their representatives in government to reverse the decades-long retrenchment that has deprived depressed and mentally-ill people of adequate facilities and health care. I hope they will attempt to see that depression can't be "fixed" with an exhortation to "cheer up" any more than cancer can be cured by M&Ms. Depression isn't "not getting it," whether "it" is religion, or the sunny side of life, or how good we have it. Depression is a disease, and it's a disease for which there are treatments but not a cure. Wishing people would "have a nice day" and then voting for people who want to shrink research, treatment, and advocacy funds to the point where they can be "drowned in the bathtub" is disingenuous at best, calculatedly cruel at worst. And I hope, too, that we will open our hearts to other suffering, and not become hardened to the daily reality of violence, hunger, and disease that rips families apart in this and every land, and which, ignored, will only grow like the cancer it is in the body of the human race.

I saw a version of this story on someone's Facebook post early today, but could not relocate it to credit the person who posted it. I remembered enough of the story to Google it, though, and it's pretty easy to find. This is how it appears on the BBC's History site, with some background there as well as this, which is the crux of the issue.
In the year 1806, a well-dressed man in his twenties visited a doctor who was renowned throughout London for being able to treat what nowadays we'd call depression, but back then was called melancholia.
The patient explained that he felt overcome by a terrible sadness, that he didn't want to get up in the morning. He could not see any point in his existence.
"With your condition I would normally prescribe a course of my patent powders," said the doctor, "but it so happens that I have recently come across something which will alleviate your condition much more quickly.
"You must," he continued, "go to the Covent Garden theatre to see the pantomime, Harlequin and Mother Goose. This is the happiest thing I have ever seen performed on a stage, tears of laugher ran down my face. Why, sir, I can almost guarantee that watching Grimaldi the clown will cure you completely!"
"Ah, but doctor," said the man sadly, "I am Grimaldi the clown."
While we can trust that Robin Williams may rest in the peace he could not find in life, I hope that those of us who remain for a while might be provoked out of complacency and into action on behalf of others who suffer without the resources to help themselves.

1-800-273-8255 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Friday, August 8, 2014

The dance of presence and absence (A19O)

Cover of Safety Harbor, original artwork
by Gary Palmatier, Ideas to Images
When we pick up his story this weekend, Elijah is in some pretty deep dung as he cowers in the cave on Horeb.  Under a threat of death from King Ahab and his wife Jezebel, he escaped into the desert where he was miraculously fed by angels, and then hides out in the cave "on the mountain of God." The surrounding story is fascinating (see 1 Kings 18-20; today's first reading is from chapter 19.) To Elijah, the word of God comes as a question: Why are you here, Elijah? All he can do is respond that he has done God's work with all his heart and soul, and look where he has landed, a fugitive under a death sentence, hiding in a desert cave. Like every prophet before and since, he wonders, if God is his ally and strength and, well, God, why he is always on the run and fearful for his life.? With Tevye he wonders, "I know we are your chosen people, but once in while, couldn't you choose somebody else?"

I don't like us to forget this political aspect of these biblical narratives. Because the lectionary (necessarily?) truncates them in excerpting them, their larger narrative context is lost. But we should remember that we're not supposed to be hearing all this for the first time! These narratives are our story. Those who have compiled the scriptures into the sacred liturgy through the centuries knew the stories, and as they were put together in their current form certainly hoped, if not expected, that we would grasp the broader context as we heard them, aided by the trained preaching of deacons and priests. My point here is that Elijah is not on retreat in the sense of a silent eight-day vacation of spiritual introspection. He is on retreat in the sense of hiding out from an army after having attacked the guild prophets of the king and queen of Israel. It makes a difference, because after doing everything God told him to do, he's up to his loincloth in scorpions and rattlesnakes. And another little surprise that is excised from the story as we're read it today: after all we hear, up to the presence of God revealed in the absence of powerful signs, the voice comes to him in the cave again: Why are you here, Elijah? Hiding out, apparently, is not part of his vocation. Neither should we be able to hide from the political context of scripture in a cavern of pious introspection.

In that first reading, "the Lord was not in the storm." In the gospel, it's apparently a good thing he was. This parable about the storm on the lake, the fear of the experienced fishermen, and their rescue by the Lord who walks on the water may be a good example of what Crossan calls the dynamic by which the stories of Jesus became stories about Jesus. (See his book, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus.) In the decades following the death of Jesus and the emergence of the apostolic church, there were many different interpretations of the meaning of Jesus and who he was, many different "christianities" that were part of the landscape. Some we have some insight about, like the Jewish christianity that seems to have been directly descended from Jesus through James, Peter, and the Jerusalem church, and the "adoptive" christianity of the Gentiles that was preached by St. Paul, and which brought him into serious ideological conflict with Peter and James. Others we have some historical evidence of, or even scriptural reference, like the preaching of Apollos and other evangelists whose preaching Paul, at least, might tear the church apart, as thought the evangelists and apostles, and not Jesus himself, were the salvific center of the story. The destruction of Jerusalem and suspicion of Christianity as a rival religion within the Roman empire created a climate of persecution and challenge to faith that would have pervaded the church right up through the surviving apostles and disciples who had known Jesus in Galilee. How was the Christian "boat" going to stay afloat? Is Jesus in it with us, or not?

This may be the genesis of a narrative like the one in today's gospel, or it might have happened just like it says. I don't know. I think the story is true, I just don't know if it actually happened. For me, it's important to know who's in the boat with me, who is in charge of the storm, and who, when I'm  sinking, can pull me out of the impending briny (or freshwater) grave.

So this is all why Psalm 85 seems so wonderfully appropriate today, especially with its refrain interpreted the way I explained in my post earlier this week about my setting, "Your Mercy Like Rain." If we allow ourselves to sing, "Lord, let us see your kindness; grant us your salvation," we stand in line with the psalmist and Peter and all our ancestors in faith, especially the martyrs, who were, like Elijah, up to their loincloths in scorpions, and heard the voice of God in the silence whisper, What you still doing here? and then moved on fearlessly to fulfill their vocation. We know, in other words, what God did for David, and Elijah, and Peter, and Dr. King. Let us see your terrible wonder in our own lives, here, today. That is why we are singing "Be Not Afraid" and "Stand by Me" at mass this weekend. Even when the voice of God is a tiny whisper, we do well, we are impelled, to cover our faces lest we see what lies ahead. Life, unrestricted, boundless, and poured out all at once, must be an fearsome thing to behold.

My song "Mystery" attempts to deal with some of this, the questions about God present and absent, to be recognized, it seems, both in "lovers' whisper" and "eye of the storm." Thinking that we can know or define God is tricky business, by definition, I think, doomed to failure. Some of these opposites or paradoxes or dialectics are probably good for us just to hold in tension while we act on behalf of others as we are led by the gospel. We too are called out of the cave by the voice that says, Why are you here? The voice says to get back out on the road, and don't be afraid. Nothing, including life itself, is what it seems.

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

Entrance Song: Be Not Afraid (Dufford)
Kyrie and Gloria: Mass of St. Aidan (Cooney)
Psalm 85: "Your Mercy Like Rain" (Cooney)
Celtic Alleluia
Preparation rite: Stand by Me (Kendzia)
Mass of Creation (Haugen)
Lamb of God: May We Be One (Daigle)
Communion: How Can I Keep from Singing (trad., Footnote: I dislike the slavish literalism of the lyric change from Gather Comprehensive to Gather Comp 3. Really? "Love is Lord" isn't true enough?)
Sending forth: If/Si (Cooney) or Though the Mountains May Fall (Schutte)