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Monday, January 28, 2013

Theological Tempests in Musical Teapots, Part 1

“Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”

The "today" part of the gospel can be a bone of contention. On the one hand, if God is, then God is patient. How else can we explain what appears to be the glacial pace of justice in the world? Some posit an omnipotent God who gave people free will, and this explains why evil so consistently triumphs. To me, this is like saying that human freedom is somehow the square circle that God has made, the box God has created from which God can't escape. I reject that notion of God, but it's out there. On the other hand, there is an urgency in the gospel itself for people like us to accept it now, because as long as we don't (and let's face it, we don't) then the march of civilization is away from God, no matter how pious and frequent our sacrifices. Everything depends on what we do NOW.

Vision (GIA, 1992) Link goes to iTunes, where you can hear an excerpt of "Now"
I have a song called "Now," and it's one of a handful of songs that some people just won't tolerate. (This is fine with me. There are a lot of songs out there, and you should sing whatever helps you save other people's lives. They don't have to be mine, and they certainly don't have to be "Now.") I'll occasionally get a letter or email from a distressed music director with parishioners or pastor who are just apoplectic about the lyrics.

Ref.: Now is the moment, now is the time,
This very day there is salvation.

1. Don't want a heaven after I'm gone:
I need a place to keep my family warm.
Don't want a vision of saints robed in white:
I want the blind to see the sweet morning light.

2. Don't want a future where God sets things right.
I need a neighborhood to walk safe at night.
Don't want a banquet in heaven above
'Til no one is hungry in this world that I love.

3. Don't want a kingdom, don't want a crown
'Til all the nations lay their angry weapons down.
No Armageddon, no thousand years,
No more tomorrows, only now, only here.
© 1992 GIA Publications Inc. All rights reserved.

A brief word about writing "Now" - I wrote it for a prayer service at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress in about 1991. We needed a song that could be sung by about 20,000 people with no rehearsal and in the dark, so there wouldn't be a worship aid. Brevity and repetition in the refrain were the order of the day, hence the refrain. Congress always happens in Lent, usually the first or second Sunday, hence the text.

The way I intend it, the verses just bring out the meaning of the admonition in the refrain. I mean, if everything is all right the way things are, why do we need salvation? But things aren't all right now, not for most people in the world. The idea, of course, is that you can't preach the gospel to a hungry person, the saints have told us that over and over. Feed someone first, then give them the gospel. Jesus certainly knew that. Talk about heaven and the afterlife is just cruel if there's injustice on the streets: it makes of religion what Karl Marx called an anesthetic, "the opiate of the people." We just anesthetize them to get through this life (mind you, while good religious people and their priests and politicians often live off the fat of the land), so that they can be with God forever in the next world. That's just insane. I don't want to be a part of a religion like that, a religion that says this world doesn't matter, that only the next one does. Fortunately, the Christian church doesn't believe that, not in its best tradition.

To do good works because we want a reward is not love. To act well because we want or need a reward or out of fear is acting out of the ego or superego, not the conscience. Love acts out of the will, out of the quest for what is good, whether or not anyone approves us, rewards us, or keeps us safe. Love acts like God-in-Christ: it is self-emptying, not clinging to the status quo, even if the status quo is being God.

I didn't make it up: it was St. Paul who said "The day of salvation is now." We just heard this yesterday, when Jesus gives his inaugural sermon at the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4). It is his message when he comes roaring out of the desert after John's death in Mark: "The reign of God is at hand!" "Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." It is if we take Jesus' word and begin to live in that reign, and make each other aware of just what is un-saved about the world and do something about it. We can either do that, or sit in our pews and take the opiates we're given so often.

Context is everything. It's not like anyone only sings "Now." Other songs flesh out the fullness of the message, along with the scripture proclaimed, the homily, and the texts of the liturgy themselves. But to deny the immediacy of the message, to say, however subtly, that the poor should just "take it" until the next world comes is to proclaim a cynical God of pain and disillusionment.

Having said all that, I feel I have to say that it's better not to divide a community over a given song. There are lots of ways to get to where we want to go. You and I may disagree over the specifics of one person's way of expressing the truth of God. I'm satisfied that mine clarifies one way of seeing the mystery of salvation as preached by Jesus. But you know what? It's still a mystery. This discussion, nor all the discussions, cannot exhaust it. If "Now" doesn't work for your priests, let it go. There will be other Lents and other priests. Find something they can live with, and go on from there. The song itself can be good or bad, but generally speaking, division in the community is always bad.