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Friday, September 12, 2014

SongStories 37: Let Us Go to the Altar of God

Since I'm writing this on the 13th anniversary of 9/11, I thought I'd share a song that reminds me of my conflicted heart whenever the winds of war start blowing, and politicians speak of evildoers, and the process of demonization begins. This song is more than that to me, of course, but in the way the life gradually exposes one's personal history as part of the story of the world, I connect it with the war with Iraq and all the ensuing trouble.

I wrote this song on a commission from the publisher, World Library Publications/J.S. Paluch. The company had offered a commission as a prize in a contest for parishes. The parish could choose the composer, and give some specifications about what kind of song they wanted to have. The parish was St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Columbus, Ohio, whose music director was Charlee Hathaway. This song appeared in the collection Christ the Icon, and I wrote a little about it already on that page, which is here.

The lyric came to me gradually as I walked through Citizens' Park and Barrington's back roads in 2004, and there were a lot of events that influenced its writing. As a way of getting into this, I think I'll write the lyrics a couple of verses at a time, and give some background as I go along. That's a different approach than I usually take, but it seems appropriate today.

Who will fight my fight
When the mob surrounds?
Who will be my light
When the sun goes down?
Who will be my song
When by death I’m bound?
I will go to the altar of God.

Who will find a way?
Who can rescue me,
Caught between the Pharaoh
And hungry sea?
Though I’m sick and broken,
Alone, unfree,
I will go to the altar of God.

Let us go, let us go,
To gather with friend and with foe.
On the mount ahead
There’s a banquet spread:
Let us go to the altar of God.

What I've done as the song starts out is say what's going on with me personally. In this case, I'm wondering about the process of scapegoating that arises from our violent nature, a motif that comes out of my spiritual reading of Rene Girard and James Alison. At the same time, I was dealing with a new reality in my life, a diagnosis of prostate cancer. I was writing this song in the late summer and early fall of 2004. In July, I had received the diagnosis, and we had set up surgery for December of that same year. This was a deeply felt, radically humanizing return-to-earth for me. Nothing quite disabuses one of any aspirations to immortality like a cancer diagnosis. But I felt it was all right to inject this into the text of a liturgical song. What I had discovered already was that I was not alone, and that people in my community were coming out of the woodwork in solidarity as cancer sufferers and survivors, surrounding me with the presence of Christ. "Sick, broken, alone, unfree" as I might feel, my community assures me that "alone," at least, was an illusion.

When the winds of war
Thru the land increase,
When they call your children
My enemies,
Where will I draw strength
To proclaim your peace?
I will go to the altar of God.

Though the fields of death
Lie the world about,
From the cross, Christ is breathing
His Spirit out,
Til the millions lost,
With the living, shout:
I will go to the altar of God.

Let us go, Let us go,
To gather with friend and with foe.
On the mount ahead
There’s a banquet spread:
Let us go to the altar of God.

Since 9/11/01, the United States had occupied Iraq and war there had been ongoing. Early in 2004, the CIA had admitted that there was in fact no evidence of "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq, which had been the premise for going to war in the first place. Our emotions as a nation had run high after the attack on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and perhaps an unsuccessful attempt at the Capitol. In a sense, battling an enemy without land, without a city, and with an incomprehensible (to us) ideology, our leadership had allowed itself to strike out blindly at clearer, if unrelated, targets. To me, as a Christian, the hubris and criminality of this seemed immense, especially with the accompanying civil rhetoric demonizing the opposition as "evildoers" with no admission of any national complicity in the problems that gave rise to al Qaeda and other anti-western movements. It's not that this emotional overreaction is unexpected. To me, it was just that it was a source of wonder that there wasn't a more moderated counter-reaction from my church, its leaders, and, I suppose, me. Christianity is hard enough. It's impossible if we don't stand together.

Send forth your light and your truth,
And lead us to your holy mountain.
O joy of our years and our youth,
O hear us, come near us,
And bring us to you!

And if I should stray
From all I hold dear,
And I’m left alone
With my shame and fear,
Where will sun shine warm,
Streams of hope run clear?
I will go to the altar of God.

Though I act in ways
I don’t understand,
Though my heart be dry
As the desert sand,
I’ll press on and sing,
Loving your command:
I will go to the altar of God.

Let us go, Let us go,
There to gather with friend and with foe.
On the mount ahead
There’s a banquet spread:
Let us go to the altar of God.

"Let Us Go to the Altar of God," by Rory Cooney. Lyrics copyright © 2005 World Library Publications, Franklin Park, IL.

At the end, after a prayer that harkens back to the first line's echo of Psalm 43, asking that God shine light on our wandering and lead us to the path to which we have all been called, I return to personal musing, aware that my inaction makes me as complicit as anyone else in the mess the world is in. It is a fine line between delusion and Marxian "opiate of the people" on the one hand, and hope for transformation through prayer, scripture, community, and solidarity on the other. But "escape" into the community of believers, gathered around the cross and the book, isn't escape at all. It might be retreat, or reinforcement, but we know that there is strength there, in the gathering, the story, and the shared meal. Starting with a "Kyrie eleison," we acknowledge the rule of the servant Christ, the crucified one, and seek the courage together to pursue the path that we cannot seem to take alone. The personal musing of "I will go..." again morphs into the "Let us go..." invitation. I hope that movement from "I" to "us" is psalmic, and brings you, and all of us, to a place where we can gather without fear, without violence, together with our enemies, and find common ground as we dine together on the Lord's mountain.

Click to audition or download the song Let Us Go to the Altar of God from the iTunes store.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Jesus and Constantine at the Cross-roads (Exaltation of the Cross)

Here I go again with the cross. Like it's important or something! It’s in all the gospels, it’s in all the letters, it keeps coming up on Sunday, we’re forever making the sign of the cross on ourselves and anything that moves (or doesn’t move). We make the cross with water and oil, thumbs and hands, we stamp it on our bread, embroider it on our clothes, carry it on Sunday, look at it over the altar, wear it around our neck. It’s everywhere. It's strange, too, like we would wear a gilded replica of a canister of cyanide around our neck, or wear a diamond noose brooch, or hang a picture of a firing squad over our living room couch.

Sunday, September 14, is the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. And we have to stretch a little bit to see it as a fortunate play on words, because the feast celebrates the paschal mystery, yes, like all Sundays do, but it particularly celebrates the finding of the true cross by the emperor Constantine. You know the story: in his quest to become the sole regent of the Roman empire, Constantine, son of one of the tetrarchs, marched on Rome to conquer it. The night before the Battle of Milvian Bridge, happily, for the victor, the anniversary of his accession to the throne as well, Constantine claimed (says the biographer Eusebius in one of two versions of the story he tells, and there are others) to have had a dream in which he saw a sign in the sky which he interpreted to be the chi-rho (the Greek letters X and P, the first two letters of Xpistos, "anointed" or Christ, with the words below it, “Εν Τούτῳ Νίκα”, often rendered in the Latin In hoc signo vinces, i.e., “in this sign you shall conquer.” Allegedly, Constantine had his forces paint the sign on their armor, and they won. And from the Crusades through (at least) the Second World War, the cross has been painted on weapons to guarantee the victory of the wearer. Thus do the innocent and guilty alike continue to perish by the cross. Eight years after the battle of Milvian Bridge, Constantine’s sainted mother, Helena, discovered the “true cross” of Christ in the Holy Land on September 14, 325. It is this discovery, and the cross’s veneration at the great shrines of Christianity in the east and west, that evolved into the feast we celebrate today.

There are a couple of things about which we might take heart here. Saint Helena was both a divorcee and a late convert (at 60) to Christianity. She’s the patron saint of archaeologists, by the way, even though there is evidence that it was not she who discovered the cross, but that she happened to be in the right place at the right time. Her son, the Emperor Constantine, in spite of all his bloodlust and ambition, and his deathbed baptism, is also a saint. How about that? What does that teach us? That sainthood is not about us, or what we do, or what we’re capable of, it’s about God’s love for us. Sinners today, take heed: you are the saints of tomorrow. That's what God does. (See today's gospel, John 3:16)

Fortunately for preachers and musicians, little of the imperial pomp and strategy of warlords has found its way into the liturgy of this feast, which, like Holy Thursday, begins with the Nos oportet antiphon: “We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, life, and resurrection” (Gal. 6:14). The second reading, as it is on Good Friday, is the kenosis hymn from the letter to the Philippians.  Taken with the title of the feast of the “exaltation” of the cross, we have what amounts to an amplification of the normal Sunday irruption of the paschal mystery, what feels like a little Easter in September. (It’s actually rather that Easter is a “big Sunday,” but you get my point!) Again, we are called to remember the cross itself as a sign of victory; not of imperial victory through force, but of divine victory through kenosis, creation, agape.

This week, as we recall our pain and shock on 9/11/01, we'll be surely be seeing those iconic beams from the Twin Towers that loomed in the aftermath, and became a flashpoint for controversy in the succeeding years. While it became identified with the selflessness and heroism of the many first responders who lost their lives in rushing to help those trapped in the towers before the unspeakable denouement of the tragedy, and helped to console some of the families of the victims and the nation, those twin beams quickly became a symbol of division, claimed by adherents of American civil religion and a vocal Christian plurality. As such, it became not a symbol of forgiveness but of revenge, not of the community of all peoples but of American exceptionalism. Enemies of the American state became "evildoers" even as it became clear that torture and the brutal collateral damage of "shock and awe" were part of the strategy of those Americans who invoked God's name between flag and cross.

Somewhere along the line, it never occurred to us that "crusade" and "jihad" were the same dynamic. Just depends on what puts the "holy" in "holy war."

I'll never forget that amid all the tears, shock, and anger of that terrible weekend in 2001, every Christian church using the Common Lectionary, including every Catholic church in this country, heard the words from Matthew's gospel that we won't hear this year because of the feast day, the command to forgive "seventy-seven" times, followed by the parable of the unforgiving servant. If the cross that bore the weight of Jesus, the cross that showed that "God so loved the world that he gave his only son, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him," if that cross can transform war into peace, prejudice into solidarity, violence into tenderness and care, then finally it will be the exaltation of the cross, and the transformation of its meaning will be complete. In place of exceptionalism, kenosis. In place of destruction, creation. In place of revenge, agape. In this world, Lord. Please. Soon.

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

Gathering: Glory in the Cross by Dan Schutte, of course, and we’ll sing the Easter verses, though it’s a tough call. He did a nice job on each set of verses he wrote for this song. He plays on the nos oportet text, and expands it so that we think about the whole mystery of God as we reflect on the Jesus and the cross. Last time this feast happened on a Sunday, I made a note to myself that it would have been fitting to have done a sprinkling rite, ritually and visually connecting the cross and baptism, reinforced with preaching. By a strange quirk of fate, I'm "preaching" (i.e., offering a reflection) this Sunday. My note from last time will become this time's reality. 
Psalm 138, "On the Day I Called," by Rory Cooney (OCP), with the antiphon "Faithful God, we praise you for your love; do not forget us now."  Since this feast doesn’t always fall on a Sunday (the last time was 2003), we don’t have a setting of Psalm 78 that we use very much. Since Psalm 78 is about not forgetting the mercy of God, I substituted Psalm 138 which we used last month on one of the Sundays of Ordinary time.
Preparation Rite: Faithful Cross, by Tom Kendzia, text by Rory Cooney. This song is my meditation on the meaning of the cross, to Tom's music. More on the song in this SongStories post.
Communion: May We Be One, music by Gary Daigle, words by Rory Cooney. Specifically, I chose this because of the words of the refrain which paraphrase one of the statements in the "mystery of faith," from 1 Cor. 10. "When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus..." 
Recessional: I originally decided to use Jesus Christ Is Risen Today for the closing song Sunday. Is this weird? I just thought, well, "exaltation of the cross." What says it better than this venerable Easter hymn that proclaims the victory of life over the gallows, where "the pains that he endured/Our salvation have procured." I used to like "Lift High the Cross," but there's just so much militaristic imagery in it, though the tune is uplifting and bold. Honestly, I've tried it at St. Anne's in the past, and people just never seemed to warm to it. Instead, after consulting with the choir, we opted to sing Jerusalem, My Destiny. People will really sing that, too, and it won't feel seasonally awkward. I'm sure I'm just a wuss.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Gospel (squirm uneasily) of the Lord

Sometimes it’s like whoever wrote the gospel reads your email.

O wait, never mind...

A quick reminder about yesterday’s gospel:

“If your brother sins against you,

go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.

If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.

If he does not listen,

take one or two others along with you,

so that ‘every fact may be established

on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’

If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.

If he refuses to listen even to the church,

then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.

Amen, I say to you,

whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven,

and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Again, amen, I say to you,

if two of you agree on earth

about anything for which they are to pray,

it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.

For where two or three are gathered together in my name,

there am I in the midst of them.” 

I’ve mentioned before John Shea’s first volume in the 3-volume Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels series. The Matthew book is called The Spiritual Wisdom Of Gospels For Christian Preachers And Teachers: On Earth as It Is in Heaven Year A . I suppose I could read it in preparation for Sunday, but generally I use it after the liturgical hearing, to help me focus what I’ve heard and reacted to. This week, one sentence jumped out at me from his reflection, and it kept haunting me all day. In discussing the first part of the gospel, Shea drops this bombshell, which at once obvious and in a way devastating:
“The onus is on the one offended to seek out the offender.”
As I said, it’s like someone up there is reading my email. How is this fair? For anyone who’s an introvert, the occasion of being offended is something that drives a person deeper into introversion. It’s like drowning in a way. What you think you need is someone to throw you a lifeline, a mediator to help bridge the divide, not a gospel that throws you a ten-foot line when you’re drowning twenty feet out and claims to be meeting you halfway. Jesus’s own “punchline” at the end of the passage seems to say this approach won’t work, “Where two of you agree about anything on shall be granted.” Clearly, in this area, there’s no agreement. Hence, no granting?

Of course, that’s not the end of the story. The passage ends, “For wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” Jesus’s presence, the divine life of the Holy Spirit, our sharing in the Godhead that is part of our baptismal character, is already active in us, even before we disagree. There must be an internal drive toward reconciliation that is not our idea, that is preconscious, that comes from the indwelling of God.

Back to the onus being on the offended. “How can God ask this of us?,” I kept asking myself. Isn’t God the friend of the offended, the one who casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly? How can God ask the offended person not just to turn the other cheek, but to reach out to the offender to seek reconciliation?

I think to do this requires rethinking God. The “power” of the indwelling Spirit, the “power” to reconcile, is from this God, and not Baal or some other god of armies and missiles. This God is agape, the God whose manifestation is kenosis. I suddenly recalled Paul’s words in the letter to the Romans (5:8) which we heard again just a few weeks ago: “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” As John reminded Christians forever in his first catholic letter, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” In other words, what I began to see on Sunday that we really have to act this way because that’s the only way we enter into the divine life of God. We can only do this because God empowers, and it is the only mode of reconciliation clearly empowered by God, because it is God’s very nature to act this way. It is who God is. (I can’t help but be embarrassed to write those words. I mean, who knows what God is like, let alone me, but it just seems that this is what God is revealing God’s self to be, not through me, but through the gospel.)

This would be why this path to reconciliation seems like death to me. Acting this way is participating in the paschal mystery. It appears to be death, but it is the only kind of life there really is, the only path that leads out of self-doubt, hatred, resentment, depression, and ultimately, violence. And I repeat, because I don’t want this to sound like “bootstraps” preaching, as though we just have to be tough and do it on our own: we cannot do it on our own, but we presume the power because of baptism, because being part of the Christian way wasn’t our idea, it was God’s. God is already present in the moment of loving confrontation as the possibility and offer of reconciliation. That is God’s nature; that is where God is. We (I) need to stop thinking that God will somehow, violently or not, “avenge” the wrong done to me. That’s not what God does. God invites, gathers, reconciles. And I’m invited to be part of that.

By way of anecdote, I've been reading the latest book by James Alison, called Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice. This book is a godsend, a transcript of a four-DVD set of lectures for regular parish churches and others who see that the old approach to redemption, substitution theology and so forth, just do not work in explaining life for modern people. Alison, a Dominican priest and theology professor, as well as a disciple of Rene Girard, begins this project by re-interpreting the Emmaus story with wondrous clarity. I haven't internalized it yet, so I am loath to share it, but he talks about how meeting Jesus on the road was different from seeing a ghost, how, though he was completely transformed and yet ultimately himself, he was risen and not just a spectral appearance. Alison talks about how ghostly apparitions are generally about revenge: "I'm dead! I'm deeeaaaad! Avenge me!", like Hamlet's father, and so on. But Jesus is not interested in what happened to him, or to the people who killed him, for the purpose of revenge. He is interested in helping the travelers get past their grief and disappointment to the truth that he himself came to understand. As Girardians have been saying for years, it was time for people to stop sacrificing to gods. It is God who gives. God sacrifices for people. We needed to get the story straight. So "beginning with Moses and the prophets," Jesus exposes the process of victimization and murder for what it is, and invites us into a new world of  life-giving, re-oriented toward the need and sorrow of the other.

See why we can’t lay the task of reconciliation on the offender? It is the wronged person who is, ultimately, the one who is most like God! Only the wronged person can invite the (apparently) more powerful one to lay down arms and reconcile. It is, however, possible for all persons, baptized or not, by virtue of creation, but in the baptismal character this divine “power” is made visible and sacramental. It is the exercise of domination and abuse that is ungodly. And what separates this Christian way from just absorbing the abuse and floating away is the inward pressure toward reconciliation. “The onus is on the one offended to seek out the offender.”

Thus, what appears to be surrender is actually participating in the “power” of agape, the outpouring of self in love, love which created the universe. I suppose I need to keep coming back to this, and practice it as often as I can, so that I can overcome my tendency to want to be right, to win, to bypass conflict through mediation. This seems to be the divine way, not to shrivel up and disappear nor to lash out in retributive self-righteousness, nor even, at least in the first place, to seek mediation from another authority or authorities. To approach reconciliation as a thirst, and the offender as another tired and thirsty traveler at Jacob’s well, this is the gospel way. It may be there, as in John 4, that one meets the Messiah, or a spouse, or both. At any rate, whatever the outcome, in the urge toward and practice of reconciliation we are never alone. Christ is in the very meeting, the epiphany and sacrament of God, transforming the chaos of our strife into a new universe of life and possibility. As we used to pray in one of the Eucharistic prayers (I can't bring myself to use the 2010 translation):
Father, all powerful and ever living God, we praise and thank you through Jesus Christ our Lord for your presence and action in the world.

In the midst of conflict and division, we know it is you who turn our minds to thoughts of peace.

Your Spirit changes our hearts: enemies begin to speak to one another, those who were estranged join hands in friendship, and nations seek the way of peace together.

Your Spirit is at work when understanding puts an end to strife, when hatred is quenched by mercy, and vengeance gives way to forgiveness.

For this we should never cease to thank and praise you. 

Say “Amen”, somebody!?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Can't We All Just Get Along? (A23O)

If you're anything like me, you have a love-hate relationship with the internet and social media. You see a lot of stuff that makes you cringe, that makes you want to leave it all, but social media also binds you to others, gives you hope, and lets you give and experience the compassion of others in ways that weren't possible all that long ago. But the down side can be really down, right? Pick out any story on CNN or any other news outlet, and then read the comments. Leave aside the few who want to discuss and disagree on principles with facts and interpretations of facts presented in an intelligent or meaningful way. There are people across the spectrum who just want to spew venom on others, cast wild aspersions on people they don't even know, attribute the worst of intentions to others, and it's all seemingly just for the thrill of the free publicity that trolling provides to their name or avatar. It's as though human discourse and interrelationship were a work of art, and the appropriate response to it were to vomit on it while slashing at the canvas with a knife. Generally, this all comes under the rubric of "freedom of speech," interpreted as "freedom to say or write whatever I can think of, however disgusting," rather than "freedom to speak a responsible truth with respect for my hearers." It is a parody of communication, and not in any way a legitimate form of it. It's relationship to freedom of speech is that of a sewer to a mountain stream. They both flow, and that's about it.

When you first start in with this social media thing, and engaging with news stories and e-zine articles in the comments section, you assume that other people are there for the same reason, to react to the article, give alternate points of view, praise or take issue with the writer. But you soon learn that that is not at all why some people are there. In the uncompromisingly democratic world of the internet, every word has exactly the same weight. What a constitutional lawyer writes about the constitution has no more heft than the rantings of a delusional sociopath, and the comments on an article about a tragedy in Ukraine are likely to include specious links to dangerous websites, philippics about the current administration, counter-diatribes about the previous one, come-to-Jesus exhortations and atheist responses about flying spaghetti monsters. It's nothing like dialogue, to which it bears the same resemblance as the cacophony of a trading floor bears to Shakespeare.

The reason that I know this, of course, is that I used to think that ideas mattered, and that internet dialogue could move things forward with light speed. Quickly disabused of that quaint concept, I leapt into the silicon cockfight myself, until I realized the absolute futility and self-destructiveness of it. Now, I just don't click the little "comments" arrow beside any article, with a few minor exceptions in my own field of interest, i.e., music and liturgy. But generally, the trolls are even there, and it's usually better not to look.

I suppose the gospel has something to say to us about all this. First of all, we are not citizens of this nor any other nation. Second, "put not your trust in princes" (or princesses), but in God alone (though this psalmic admonition is not in from the gospel proper). Third, "power" in the reign of God is not like power as we know it: loud, abusive, self-interested, and armed to the teeth. But I still have to live here, and still have to try to put a dent in the poverty, waste, and hopelessness of billions. I can’t do it alone. But in my heart of hearts, I also know that even with a nation full of conscientious civil servants we couldn’t do it by legislation and all the rhetoric in the world. Ultimately, it’s a matter of a change of heart, and that’s just something that we have to work on together. There’s enough evidence that a few, with hearts turned toward the reign of God, can make a difference.

Getting along in the church ought to be easier, right? But the evidence is tha there have been serious problems from the outset. Sunday’s gospel is about getting along. The passage is taken from the middle of a couple of chapters of Matthew about how communities, whatever shape they might take in a house, a neighborhood, or the world, might get along.
If your brother sins against you,

go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.

If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.

If he does not listen,

take one or two others along with you,

so that ‘every fact may be established

on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’

If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.

If he refuses to listen even to the church,

then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. 

Amen, I say to you,

whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven,

and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

I like that, taken with the first reading’s call to the prophet (thus to us anointed prophetically in baptism and confirmation) to be the watch for the behavior of the sister or brother; the call to be “my brother’s (or sister's) keeper.” The idea is that we’re not an aggregate of individuals, but rather we are constituted as a community. We are responsible for one another, not in the sense of running each other’s lives, but we have no right to put big fences around our private property with a “F**k You, Go Home!” sign hung on the electrified gate. There is no thread of individual salvation running through any of scripture, let alone the New Testament. This would have been unthinkable in the context of the culture which produced it. For them, separation from the family, the clan, the village spelled death. We’re all in this together, and we always have been. The first covenant and the second are with a people, not individuals, but together. Jesus taught us to pray "Our Father" with intention.

I also like that the words about binding and loosing, about pulling together and tearing asunder, are given to the whole community of disciples, not just to Peter, not even to just the twelve. This is borne out even in the sacrosanct, sacerdotal prayer of absolution in the Rite of Penance, when the priest absolves “through the ministry of the church.” Back for a second to the “brother’s keeper” thread in the first reading and gospel, answering the expected objections from libertarians, I hear the words of the famous overachieving American clergyman William Sloane Coffin,
“Am I my brother's keeper? No, I am my brother's brother or sister. Human unity is not something we are called upon to create, only to recognize. … If what we think is right divides still further the human family, there must be something wrong with what we think is right." (emphasis mine)
Somehow, I don’t think that Coffin would be giving the invocation in Congress these days, even if he were alive to give it.

Then, proving once again that scripture breathes with a single breath and beats with but one heart, there are the words of St. Paul in the second reading, from the letter to the Romans, coming around as randomly and cyclically as summer rain:
Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another;

for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.

The commandments…are summed up in this saying, namely,

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

Love does no evil to the neighbor;

hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.

“Doing no evil to the neighbor,” it seems to me, includes not taking his job, not paying him less than he’s worth, not dropping smart bombs on him, not torturing him, not selling him junk bonds, not raking in windfall profits on his misfortune. You know, things like that. Concrete things. “Loving one another” isn’t just having a prayer meeting with your business friends or Congressional caucus, then going out for the stick-it-to-’em business as usual day at work. “Love one another” means, “live as God lives.” Let your rain fall and sun shine on the good and back alike. No favorites. Life for everybody, not just people inside your protected borders. It’s not a feeling, it’s a way of being.

Sigh. I know. Physician, heal thyself. I’m quick enough to criticize anyone else who lacks “tenderness underneath their honesty,” to paraphrase Paul Simon. The one thing I can’t take is that arrogant American sense of entitlement that lets us categorize other people as “evil” while we torture, bomb, and economically and ecologically ruin whole nations. The word "evil," in fact, has taken such a hold in American civil religion that its semiotic field has nothing to do with God any more (who alone is good) and everything to do with American interests. America is "good," our enemies are "evil," no matter who in this country is preaching. But the gospel has news for us: we’re not the chosen people, and this is not the kingdom. If we believe that we are, we are no better than the radical religious “evildoers” we are threatening "pursue to the gates of hell," as Mr. Biden put it today.

But the gospel says: if you have a problem, talk it out. Go to the offending party, take a friend, do an intervention, whatever it takes. Then Jesus says, If none of that works, treat the person as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. This, I think, might be a hidden gem of gospel irony. It sounds like permission to ostracize the recalcitrant offender, but the whole thrust of the gospel moves the community toward welcoming Gentiles and tax collectors and other spurned outsiders into community. In other words, Jesus seems to say, Try A, B, and then C. If none of them work, go back to A. Do whatever it takes. However we read that text, it seems to preclude ridiculing those who disagree with  us, and particularly within the community of believers we should try to work within a framework of gentle, truthful confrontation and mutual respect.

The gospel passage climaxes with the Lord's declaration that
if two of you agree on earth
about anything for which they are to pray,
it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.
For where two or three are gathered together in my name,
there am I in the midst of them.
Jesus probably thought that it was safe to promise that if we could agree on anything it would be granted by God, since we so rarely agree on anything. It's comforting to remember going through these days of adversarial politics and the rhetoric of demonization that he himself got pissed off when those who were supposed to be ministers of God used their learning and position to make things harder for people instead of freeing them, or helping them see through the trees of restrictive law to the forest of God's covenant loving-kindness. Sometimes you can win an argument by lobbing truth in a parabola over the obstacle of prejudice, or by a counter-argument from the law that demonstrates God's broader way over the rigorous legalism of fundamentalists. Sometime, you just have to throw some furniture around and call a son-of-a-snake a son-of-a-snake. (And suffer the consequences with a forgiving heart.)

But, Jesus, it's hard to live on Monday that gospel we read on Sunday. We hear it on Sunday, and then go back to our “real” lives on Monday. Sabbath, rather than contextualizing our lives, compartmentalizes them, so that we can keep mutuality and loving-kindness in church where it belongs.

Well, in that compartment, then, here’s what we’re singing this Sunday.

Gathering: Eyes and Hands of Christ (Kendzia, OCP octavo) We’ve used this a few times this year, a very nice refrain for people to sing. Obviously, I’m trying to hook into the gospel, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” If Matthew’s gospel, which names Jesus Emmanuel in its first chapter and promises that he will be with us always in its last verse, is about answering the question “Well, if God is with us in Jesus, where is he, since he’s dead and risen?” then this is one of the verses, along with places like 10:40 and 25:40, where the question begins to get answered.

Psalm 95: Harden Not Your Hearts (Cooney, GIA)  This is an interesting choice in the lectionary; I’m not sure of the exact connection to the readings, but it seems to be just that refrain as the psalm harkens back to the Exodus and the grumbling in the desert. Or maybe it’s oriented toward the “wicked one” in the first reading to whom the prophet is sent. The refrain's admonition to open our heart to the voice of God and change is worth noting, especially since the imperative is directed at the people, the community, whose heart is hardened.

Gifts: God Is Love or Make Me a Channel of Your Peace. The so-called Prayer of St. Francis is a great choice for today; everybody knows it by heart, and it says what needs to be said about our participation in the work of reconciliation and healing. My song "God Is Love" on the other hand is relatively new, but it tries to reinforce our conviction that in God, being love and loving are the same thing, that loving (agape) is self-gift, self-emptying (kenosis), and that human love should strive to look the same. I think that's in the spirit of today's scriptures, which is why I chose it for today.

Communion: Faithful Family  “Faithful Family” is based on the ancient hymn “Ubi Caritas,” the verses being my own metric translation, while the refrain is adapted from Ephesians 4:32 - 5:2, and all that follows about the family. This song is standard repertoire for communion at St. Anne’s and often appears in the Triduum liturgy.

Recessional: I Am for You or We Are Called. "I Am for You" is a song that helps us identify as God's people by identifying with God's name, "I Am for You." If we can be reminded that God is for us, and all of us, always, at the same time, maybe we can be inspired to engage with one another creatively and positively, and move out of this vicious logjam of narcissism and loveless ridicule that tries to pass for conversation and relationship.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Definition of "a mixed blessing"...

The senior discount.

On Labor Day, Terry and I were scouting around for something fun to do after we had dutifully done a dumptruck load of laundry and then replenished the barren larders of Casa Donohoo-Cooney from the Starbucks-enhanced aisles of our local Jewel-Osco. We threw together a fab lunch of salad (with amazing 25-year-old balsamic vinegar and truffle-infused EVOO from Wisconsin entrepreneur The Oilerie) and a grilled fontina, tomato, and basil sandwich, and both knew we had to do a couple of hours of actual work before we could go anywhere, but we decided to go to the movies. 

Anyone who actually likes good movies knows that nothing of any value to an adult is released between Memorial Day and the end of August. But this year, three exceptions popped up a little early. At least, they appear to be exceptions, based on their trailers, and we've gotten pretty good at sniffing out emo crap and vampire flicks, maybe the way those special dogs can tell if you have diabetes. So it was going to be either the Irish psychological drama Calvary, or the Helen Mirren food porn flick The Hundred Foot Journey, or the ripped-from-the-NCR-headlines story of the fallout from the firing of a Catholic school teacher for his marriage to his partner of nearly forty years, who happens to be another man. This latter movie, Love is Strange, starring the sempiternally panicked-looking John Lithgow and the gorgeous, mellifluent Alfred Molina as the lovers and dishy Marisa Tomei as Lithgow's niece-in-law, was the one we chose.

In limited release, Love Is Strange was playing no closer than about 25 miles away in Evanston, but the pull was strong and we decided to make it to the rush hour (4:20) show and eat dinner somewhere in the shadow of Northwestern University. Downtown Evanston is a happening place, but we were able to park and get to the theater with a few minutes to spare. Not surprisingly, considering its release in only two theaters in all of Chicagoland, the theater was packed except for the three or four rows in front of the front aisle, the whiplash section. (In the OMG trailers department: the movie that looks like it might be the one not to miss this fall is the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything. The authenticity of the actors and action were breathtaking. I embarrassed Terry—not an uncommon occurrence—when I screamed at a scene when Hawking had an early attack of his disease and hit his head on the floor with a Skywalker-Sound-enhanced crack! I was still shaking when the main feature started.) Finally, our movie started.

I'm not going to say anything about the movie itself, except to say that it's a wonderful little film that is filled to its rent-controlled walls with thespian giants who love their subject matter and are completely believable in the agony and ecstasy of their roles. It is certainly my hope that art of this caliber will touch some hearts and help to pave the way for a relaunch of Catholic thinking about love, gender, and marriage. Its tenderness and pathos is enhanced by a musical score that features the music of Chopin, notably a Chopin nocturne and the "Berceuse" in D-flat. So that is enough about the movie, because one person's review is another person's spoiler, or worse, mood-killer. Please don't let anything I said about the movie keep you from seeing it!

But, as Arlo Guthrie put it, that is not what I came here to talk about.

See, when I looked at the ad for the Century Cinemark theaters in Evanston, it caught my eye that it was Senior Discount Monday, and upon further investigation, I was momentarily delighted to find that I qualified for the discount, which amounted to about 50% of the ticket price. Momentarily, I say, because really what had just happened was that Cinemark theaters paid me $6.50 to tell me that I was past the threshold of my dotage, and they were just helping me start to save to pay the deductibles on my Medicare coverage in a couple of years. The years of privilege, paying full price for things as a productive member of society, were over. I qualified, for the first time in my life, I think, for the Senior Discount.

Mind you, it's only one day a week, and it's a pretty low-ball age at which they let you into this Methusaleh club. Sixty-two. It's still a good five years before I can even think about actually retiring, and that's if I can manage to win the lottery between now and then, or the next president and Congress collude on forgiving both college loans and home mortgages, or by some twist of fate I write the next "On Eagle's Wings" or "Mass of Creation." I think I've been getting membership offers from AARP for seven or eight years, but I toss them into recycling, assuring myself they have the wrong address, or have suffered some other computer-generated delusion about me. 

However delusional on the vendors' part it may be, I think I'll take advantage of their liberality for as long as it lasts. If getting older can buy me a movie ticket, hotel room, or pizza for a few dollars less, who am I to argue? I'm saving for that midnight blue Jaguar X-type that I'll need when I hit my midlife crisis in a few years.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Misreading the cross

Back in the 80s, we were flabbergasted that kids didn’t know that Paul McCartney was in a group before Wings. Then, by the late 90s, it was like, “who was Wings?” It hasn’t, probably won’t for a long time, get to be “Who’s Paul McCartney?”, but that is the way things go. Human memory is short. Meanings evolve, change. In Britain, a flat is what we call an apartment in the States; flats in the states are shoes without heels, tires without air, or black keys on the piano. In Australia, a boot is the trunk of your car; in the US, you can put your boots in the trunk, or give someone the boot out of your car (into the trunk?), or put a boot on a car if it’s parked in an illegal space. Same symbol, “b-o-o-t,” but different meanings. We can probably figure out the etymology of each, find how the symbol-word came to have the meanings it has, by going back to uncover its origin in antiquity (probably the origin of “boot” inasmuch as it pertains to motor vehicles isn’t all that ancient!)

I was thinking about all this today as I listened to the gospel with its admonition about what we call the “cost” of discipleship:
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.”
I had been reading Sr. Mary Boys’s (of Union Theological Seminary's theology department) very insightful essay on the way that the meaning of the cross has changed across the millennia, to the point where it has been, at different times, a form of torture, a symbol of empire, a sword, a threat, and the focus of the charge of deicide against the Jews. While often explicitly rejected by the papacy, nevertheless, in the catholic “imagination” of the peasantry and countryside, the lamentable but pervasive justification for mistreatment, torture, and murder of Jews arose from the charge that Jews had killed Jesus of Nazareth. Her essay deals with the question of whether the cross ought to be laid aside as a symbol because of its history of misuse. Happily, she does not embrace an affirmative conclusion, but she treats the possibility with intellectual and emotional respect. It’s a good read.

It is unthinkable that, in the context of first-century Mediterranean life under the aegis of the Caesars and their heirs, that Jesus or an evangelist or anyone would use the term “take up the cross” in a psychological or privatized sense. The cross was a matter of almost unspeakable shame, terror, and ignominy. It was a form of punishment reserved for enemies of the empire. No Roman citizen could be crucified; only those in occupied nations, and only for crimes of treason, rebellion, or impiety against the god-emperor, were crucified. The two men crucified with Jesus, called “thieves” in some translations of the gospels, were in fact insurrectionists, fomenting public discord, disturbers of the sacred Pax Romana. To think that Mark or Matthew or any NT writer would use “take up the cross” in the personalistic sense we hear it used today (“caring for my mother is my cross”) is just not an option.

“Taking up the cross” is being aware of the cost of choosing to live in the reign of God. Living with Abba as one’s sole ruler will bring one into conflict with whatever powers claim that obeisance of us here, and will inevitably, in some way, if we are truly aware and faithful to the gospel, lead us to the real cross. It’s a kind of witness to how few people really live the gospel, and how many of them aren’t actually Catholic, that so few of us are killed. Me for instance. Like the victims of the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation, we have been completely assimilated. We think that being a good Christian and being a good citizen are completely compatible. We will even go off to war and kill other Christians, or vote for people who advocate same, or buy stock in companies that work people for slave wages and do violence to the ecosystems of earth and the economy of the world. Sorry. “Taking up the cross” doesn’t mean putting up with the a$$hole in the cubicle across the aisle. It means not putting up with the structures and strategies of human empires that keep people enslaved to each other, hopeless, homeless, hungry, and poor. It means rejecting “trickle down economics” in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It means all of that, and enduring the ridicule and even hatred and violence that befall prophets and whistleblowers who dare speak the word that the emperor has no clothes, nor morals, nor God.

It’s not new at all for Christians to misunderstand the cross, as we heard in Sunday’s gospel. Peter is an eyewitness, with the twelve, to the life, words, and work of Jesus. But it is Peter himself who, even on the very tail of his insight about Jesus’s identity, misses the meaning of it. He has his own way of seeing what "messiah" means. For just coming to that conclusion alone, Jesus has given him credit for insight beyond his own ability to know. But now, when he attempts to impose his meaning of "messiah" on Jesus, who himself has been growing into a meaning for that term and that calling, Jesus calls Kephas (the rock, Peter) a skandalon (stumbling-block), and worse, satanas, that is, someone testing his commitment to the path of God. Jesus, it seems, has come to identify messiah with the "servant of God" who brings good news to the poor, with the "son of man", a human being who restores divine justice to the world in God’s time, with the peaceful anti-king of Zechariah who rides into Jerusalem in humility on a beast of burden. Peter is still thinking “son of David,” a restoration of monarchy, a military victor, a king to stand against and vanquish Caesar with Caesar’s own weapons.

One of the reasons we imagine that Jesus’s calling Peter “satan” was actually ipsissima verba, the actual words Jesus spoke, is the "criterion of embarrassment." That is to say, it would not have been in Peter’s, who was the leader of the Christian community after the death of Jesus and James, best interest to have the text preserved. Likewise the story from two weeks ago of the pagan woman who changes Jesus’s mind about who his ministry was for, about how big God might be, and who should benefit from God’s goodness. This kind of truth-telling might be considered embarrassing or even scandalous in a community that values perfection or sinlessness as possible for human beings, or who imagine perfection does not allow for growth. (If it is natural for human beings, for any life, to “grow,” then is perfect humanity one who grows well, rather than one who just appears, or gets some special kind of map?) So I think we have to deal with this stuff, and not spiritualize it too much. Why do these two stories exist right in the middle of Matthew, and side by side? I think it all has to do with Jesus’s emerging self-identity, and the alignment of that messianic sense with the prophecy of Isaiah, the apocalypse of Daniel, and the natural outcome of facing down the powers of Rome and their Jerusalem collaborators. It wasn’t a mystic vision that allowed Jesus to predict his death: it was the natural order of things. It had happened hundreds of times before.
“Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you
and utter every kind of evil against you (falsely) because of me.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.
Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

So, I guess it’s OK for us not to be there yet, if it took his own disciples a while — maybe a lifetime — to catch on. That’s why St. Paul’s words in the second reading struck me, strongest at my fourth mass of the day. It’s all a matter of growth. Even Jesus had to grow into the meaning of metanoia, of a change of heart, of personality, so complete that it means turning away from Caesar and walking anew in the empire of God. Even Jesus’s heart had to expand as he wandered, prayed, ate, taught, and interacted with people. And so I heard, like you did I’m sure, St. Paul speaking to me from just twenty or thirty years after the death of Jesus with words that both push me along and console me in my slow progress:
Do not conform yourselves to this age

but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,

that you may discern what is the will of God,

what is good and pleasing and perfect. 

Have a good week. As John Shea suggests, don’t think of difficult people in your life as your “cross” — think of them as opportunities to live in love, to be like God, to enter into agape. Little by little, the cross will make itself known, and it will not be psychological or symbolic. Real wood, real nails, real death sentence, real death. No need to look for it. If we live in the reign of God, the cross will find us. Faith tells us that, when the moment comes, God will be in that moment, and we’ll have enough experience in kenosis and agape in our Christian life that the impossibility of anything but the fullness of life and light beyond the cross will give us the courage to take it up. We’ve been marked with that sign since before our baptism, it is branded on our soul. Seeing it, up close and personal, even horrendous, leering, and full of bravado, will seem somehow familiar, somehow like coming home.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Song for Labor Day: Do. Be. Do. Be. Do.

I published this last year for Labor Day. I've revised it a little bit and added some groovy work songs etal. in the iTunes playlist. 

So here I am, playing the opening hymn for mass this morning (Morning Has Broken) and pondering the irony of being one of two people on the parish payroll who were in fact “called in to work” on a national (and diocesan) holiday. From there, my thoughts broadened even further as I listened especially to Genesis and the homily.

Off topic: I wonder whether some of these hymnal have Farjeon’s words wrong for verse 3 of “Morning Has Broken.” Many seem to have, as the last line of the stanza,
“Praise with elation, praise every morning,
God’s recreation of the new day.” 
To me, “recreation of the new day” seems tautological; one can recreate the first day, or create a new day, but I’m not so sure about recreating the new day; it doesn’t reveal anything new. I wonder whether she meant “Gods recreation on the new day,” as though God’s rest, God’s play (recreation) were perceived in creation as she is experiencing it? IOW, is it re-creation or recreation? I guess it’s quite possible she meant the former, that this day, with its blackbirds, singing, new fall of rain and dewfall on grass, is a re-creation of the “new day” of creation. Thinking about this, it’s no wonder that I can’t remember how to play the song and lose my place in the middle of the second stanza.

Back on topic, such as it is: Labor Day. Was there ever a holiday so out of favor since the great Catholic working class of the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries became the dominant class in USA, and the labor unions which had been reluctantly but solidly championed by Leo XIII fell into disfavor because of their greed, corruption, and often violently monopolistic tactics? And I say that with love, because I’m a guy who would like to see the labor unions reemerge in this country as a force that Wall Street has to reckon with. Labor Day is a working day for the retail workers of the USA, and almost no one pauses to reflect on the dignity of labor, the meaning of work in the life of the country (and, to us, the church), or to celebrate the solidarity of labor unions, which was the origin of this great holiday in the first place.

We heard part of the creation story in Genesis, the creation of people “in God’s own image, male and female,” with the subsequent command to have a lot of babies and fill the earth and “subdue” it, followed by God’s sitting back on day seven in the cosmic La-Z-Boy and seeing that “it was very good,” and sipping a Godweiser and taking a nap. But hearing that story on Labor Day led me to recall that I learned long ago that biblical scholars believe that it was not the creation story that is the foundational myth of Israel, but the story of the Exodus. It was the story of the freeing of their ancestors from slavery that formed Israel and thus formed the creation myth. God rests on the seventh day and makes it holy to set a pattern for people forever. This nation of former slaves writes into its cultural constitution that no one, not even a slave, is to work seven days. Everyone gets a day of rest, because God rests. The corporate memory of the experience of slavery is transformed into the principle of sabbath, and by extension, jubilee.

The homily was about how doing what we love to do makes work not seem like work. This is a divine gift, what anthropologist Joseph Campbell used to call “following your bliss.” And it struck me that this is exactly what God does, if we just add “for the Other” to the formula: Do what you love to do...for the Other. Since it is God’s nature to be-do-for-others, God’s self-giving in creation is a manifestation of who God is. “Do” and “be” in God is one and the same. To the extent that we are able to “do” and “be” for others, so that our work and play are for the good and life of others, our work and play, all of our life, participates in agape, the divine nature of God-is-love.

So this is now yet another thing I shall add to my list of things to pray for for my children: that they will always find work that is more than just a paycheck, more than just a way to kill time. That they will always look for and find work that is both their bliss, something they love to do, and life-giving for others, whether it’s helping other people live happier and more productive lives, or writing a poem or story or song to edify them, or whatever it may be. That, and finding a partner and/or good friends to help see them through life, discern its mysteries and negotiate its bends and turns.

Anyway, nothing too deep there, just a sigh from a Catholic boy who doesn’t quite see the move from working class to middle class for the great-grandchildren of Catholic immigrants in America to have been a universally good thing. Seeing Labor Day go from a celebration of solidarity to a placid threshold between summer and fall doesn’t seem like a step forward. The day is not without its lessons to anyone with ears to hear, even if you are, like me, one of the ironic class summoned from sleep to the chapel office before the malls open or the grills are fired up in summer’s ninth inning.

Revised from 2013, with music and links added. Original post is here.