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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Competing covenants

Somebody has to bring this up every once in while. These thoughts arise when I see our Sunday bulletin with a flag on it, or some other national symbol, rather than a cross, or some Christian artwork. I don't make too much of it, because it's just a couple of times a year. People of immense good will and courage will disagree with me, but somebody's got to attempt to articulate the dissenting point of view. Here goes. It's about the separation of church and state, the part that the church hasn't learned yet.

On July 4, this is the first reading used at Mass. As I recall, there may be others from which to choose, but this is the one we have been using at St. Anne. It's from Deuteronomy, chapter 8.
The LORD, your God, is bringing you into a good country, a land with streams of water, with springs and fountains welling up in the hills and valleys, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, of olive trees and of honey, a land where you can eat bread without stint and where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones contain iron and in whose hills you can mine copper. But when you have eaten your fill, you must bless the LORD, your God, for the good country he has given you. Be careful not to forget the LORD, your God, by neglecting his commandments and decrees and statutes which I enjoin on you today: lest, when you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses and lived in them, and have increased your herds and flocks, your silver and gold, and all your property, you then become haughty of heart and unmindful of the LORD, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery; who guided you through the vast and terrible desert with its saraph serpents and scorpions, its parched and waterless ground; who brought forth water for you from the flinty rock and fed you in the desert with manna, a food unknown to your fathers, that he might afflict you and test you, but also make you prosperous in the end. Otherwise, you might say to yourselves, 'It is my own power and the strength of my own hand that has obtained for me this wealth. Remember then, it is the LORD, your God, who gives you the power to acquire wealth, by fulfilling, as he has now done, the covenant which he swore to your fathers. But if you forget the LORD, your God, and follow other gods, serving and worshiping them, I forewarn you this day that you will perish utterly. Like the nations which the LORD destroys before you, so shall you too perish for not heeding the voice of the LORD, your God.
Of course, those emphases are mine, to highlight passages that call on us "not to forget" or to "remember."

In the cosmology of the Torah, it is God's remembering that makes life possible and keeps the world going. As long as God remembers Israel and its faithfulness, things go well. When God remembers the sins of Israel, Israel is punished. When thing are going really badly for Israel, God has forgotten them, or fallen asleep, so that you hear things like "Awake, Lord! Save me, my God" (Ps 3:8); "Remember your mercies," (Psalm 25); "Remember the people you rescued long ago," (Psalm 74); "Remember your enemies"; "Remember your covenant" (Psalm 74). "Rouse your power, Lord, and come!" 

When God remembers, things happen. Similarly, God tells Israel and us to remember the covenant. Remembering in scripture and therefore in the liturgy (anamnesis, literally, "not not-remembering") is the kind of bringing-to-mind that creates change, makes covenant possible, and provokes solidarity. The way I think about it is this: once, a week before the Oscars, I was invited by Charlize Theron to be her escort to the Big Event, apparently, her usual goon was not available, or they weren't on speaking terms. I had to rent a tux, get airline tickets and all that, but knowing how Charley (I call her Charley) feels about me, I knew that it would be a Big Night. As the limo came to the house and the driver opened the door for me, I was about to climb into the car when I heard my wife say, "Hey!" I turned around, she gave me a kiss, and said, "Remember that I love you."

Unlike what we sometimes think when we use the word "remember," she isn't really asking me merely to do a mental exercise. Her request that I "remember" was a call to action, involving more than just my thoughts. Scriptural and liturgical remembering is like that: it's a call back to covenant, it's the "Hey!" and a kiss that make us stop and take a different way, call us back to a way that we promised a long time ago. When Deuteronomy calls us, believers in the USA or in any land, to "remember it is the LORD your God who gives you power", the Word of God is not asking us to do a mental recollection, or say a prayer. It means "act according to your memory." When it says "be careful not to forget the Lord your God," it means to remember who the God is whom we are remembering, a God of liberation, a God who delivers the weak from the mighty, a God in whose power it is to give and take away nations, and to act accordingly.

We've all heard the competing rhetoric of the American way, it doesn't really matter
which President, or senator, or court. The idea is that "freedom isn't free," that every generation has to fight for it. Rockets' red glare, martial music, displays of weaponry, these kinds of things exhort us on July 4 to "remember" a different covenant. This covenant also expects us to act a specific way. It has its own rhetoric of "evildoers being brought to justice," "prosperity," and the necessity of war. It makes statements like, "On this day when we give thanks for our freedom, we also give thanks to the men and women who make our freedom possible," (President Bush to U.S. troops at an outdoor speech at Fort Bragg, home of the 82nd Airborne Division, on July 4, 2006). 
Well, it can't be both ways. Either God makes freedom possible, or armies do. We've seen the failure of armies. If "freedom isn't free" and every generation has to fight for it, then we must be using the wrong ammunition.

I'm not making a Democratic vs. Republican statement here, I think. I am trying more and more to understand the truth in one of Michael Joncas's paradigms of the New Testament church, that is, that in the community of the twelve, the political spectrum was as wide as it was possible to be within Judaism. You have, in the twelve who surrounded Jesus, on the one hand Levi/Matthew, the tax collector, who was a Roman collaborator and made his living by adding on to Roman tolls and collecting tariffs for the hated occupation force, and on the other hand you have Simon, the Zealot party member, and Judas Iskarioth, "the dagger," the former being committed to a long-term guerilla war against the Romans, and the latter possibly an assassin, named for the weapon, a small concealable blade, that was used to murder the enemy. So we have, from the earliest times, very divergent political views within the Jesus community, William F. Buckley and Che Guevara breaking bread together. And since there's no evidence that any of their minds were changed politically, maybe all that is required is commitment to Christ, an allegiance that makes people of all political stripes "resident aliens" in any country, to use Stanley Hauerwas's memorable term.

What can be done? I don't really know, but we could start by telling the truth. We could start by acknowledging that the use of force in Iraq and Afghanistan and Palestine hasn't accomplished anything except the murder of a number of civilians that makes the 9/11 tragedy begin to shrink in comparison. That it was revenge on the wrong people. We could stop using God's name in vain as the source of our violence, and start asking for mercy from God in our national rhetoric for every soul killed in that conflict. We could acknowledge the evil of the war, at least, while we wage it, and be committed to ending it quickly with clearly defined goals. We could stop making it sound like we're doing God's work with our murderous weapons, our collateral damage, and lawless incarcerations.

As the de profundis groans heavenward from the suffering populace of the Middle East, let a miserere sound from the Christians of America. May the liturgy somehow enable us to remember, to stop ignoring and forgetting, and move onto a path of conciliation and peacemaking. May our hearts be turned from this unsustainable violence and counterfeit of justice, and turned toward the God who brings freedom to the slave and deliverance to the oppressed. Only by remembering that God, the one God of many names whose true image is Jesus Christ, is there any hope for lasting peace in this or any nation.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Triaging all that new music


It’s that time of year again. It’s amazing: some of my internet friends around the country, people who do the kind of work I do, are already planning, or have already planned, Advent and Christmas for this year. I know that at least some of these folks have a life, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out where they get the time or energy to be planning worship so far ahead. My natural inclination is not toward future planning. So much of what we do with liturgy and music has to do with what’s going on in the world. But when I step back and think about it, most of what’s going on in the world is what has always been going on, and we can pretty much count that this Christmas it will be the same s***, different year, if you know what I mean. 

But the time of year I mean, apart from summer and the blessed respite of the “season of the year,” is the time when music publishers send out stacks of music on approval to my office, often with one or more CDs for my listening pleasure, so that I can choose the Next Great Motet to have my choir sing for Advent, or Christmas, or Easter.

Their number is Legion, and the piles of notes are suffocating. Worse, when I listen to the CDs which are sometimes sung by professional choirs and sometimes by ad hoc groups of singers, the music pretty much sounds the same. It sounds like "church music," with those big air quotes around it. I have a friend who begins to listen to these demo CDs in his car, and then, when the music hits that nerve, like a fingernail on his artistic blackboard, the CD flies out the driver’s side window of his car. There is quite a library along that particular stretch of Interstate 90, if you’re interested.

As a writer myself, I want my songs to get a fair hearing by other music directors, but honestly, very few of the songs I use in church are used because I heard them on a demo CD. In fact, in the case of two, both by Bernadette Farrell (“Christ Be Our Light” and “O God, You Search Me.”), it was actually in spite of the recording that I was able to perceive the quality of the songwriting and the genuineness of the works, so they don’t really count. The recordings themselves seemed to me ponderous and self-important, again, trying to make a beautiful, simple melody into a church motet by a kind of reverse alchemy. Publishers may not use the artist's recorded version on a demo CD - they re-record the songs with the same group(s) of singers and instrumentalists to sort of level the playing field. I can understand that dynamic, but it homogenizes the recording.

Generally, the way I discover and use other composers’ best music is either by word of mouth (hearing someone I trust recommend a particular song) or singing it myself in the liturgy at a conference, or at a reading session, or workshop. Occasionally, a review (few as they are) in a publication like “Pastoral Music” will at least get my attention, if there’s some attention to the lyric and  some other link to my experience, like a composer or lyricist with whose work I am familiar. 


My publishers have done a creditable job publicizing my songs. Most recently, World Library has really done a number trying to get people to experience my song “You Have Built Your House” at several conferences over the last few years. But the amount of music being produced is so overwhelming that everyone gets about 5 minutes at these conventions if they’re really, really lucky. A lot of musical spaghetti is being thrown against the wall, and there's not much room for it to stick. If it weren’t for some inner necessity, I’d be better off finding something else to do. But I feel a vocation to this work, at least when I’m finishing something that I sense is necessary in some way. It really can’t be my job to make it popular. All I can do is try to find out whether other people, other artists who are in the publishing business, think that musicians and congregations in other places might feel the same way about what I’ve written as I do, and might find it attractive and useful for liturgy as well. Sometimes, we’re all wrong. Sometimes, we get it right.

But what I started to write about today was how I triage new music. Honestly, it’s a rapid process, or I would be buried, my office would be buried, in octavos and CDs. So, here we go.

A stack of new music arrives in my office from a publisher whose name to me evokes some of my favorite hymn text writers. The names of the composers in the enclosed packets reads like a Who’s Who of church music’s Tin Pan Alley. It’s music for Christmas. So what am I looking for? I’m looking for a song that doesn’t have the words “peaceful,” “lullaby,” “angel,” “shepherd,” “comfort,” or “baby” on the first page, for one thing. There is a TON of music already like that, people already know it, and love it, and sing it. I pretty much am convinced that no one can add another nuance to the Christmas repertoire unless they dig a little deeper into the meaning of the feast. I mean, how many birthdays of people you know are focused on the actual birth of the person? The meaning of a birthday is derived from the person as the person is now, not then. So I will not buy another piece of Christmas music with snow, bells, starlight, sheep, or drummer boys unless the writer surprises me with it in verse two. All of that has nothing to do with Christmas, especially the snow, if you happen to live about anywhere south of the tropic of Cancer.

So I’m looking for music, in general, that has a lyric expresses a faith in God with eyes that have seen the enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Vietnam, Palestine, 9/11, and maybe the Hadron collider. I’m looking for an appealing melody and harmony with gentle surprises that will grow on folks over time. Of course, I’m looking for music that fits the instrumental profile of my community, but if I find a song I like, I can make those adjustments. I’m looking for a song that comes from a heart that is grappling with the paschal mystery, with the fact that people and things suffer and die, and that even though that is true there might be meaning for us anyway. I’m looking for a song that makes me see that the writer has read scripture, and tried to begin to mine its riches of wisdom and meaning. I’m looking for a song from a writer who knows that Sunday is the Lord’s day, who believes in Sabbath and jubilee justice, who will help us remember from week to week God’s promise to the poor and broken-hearted, a promise that we have been baptized in order to help Christ keep it. I’m looking for music in which the virtuosity of the composer or songwriter is put to the service of those who will be playing and singing the song—in my case, a congregation and a medium-sized SAB choir and few talented musicians. 

Also, I’m looking for grammatical coherence. You wouldn’t think that this would be such a big deal, but you haven’t seen some of what I've seen coming out of the youth music movement, either. Not only does the theology scare me, the sentences often don’t make sense, with similes colliding and mismatched images followed by exclamation points. I'm not interested in paraphrases of the catechism or theology 101. Live for a while, then write about faith.

Maybe you are wishing I would name names, and quote lyrics, and give examples of what I consider bad material, but honestly, I just can’t bring myself to do that. Even though I may say crabby things, I know that all of these folks are writing what they feel they have to do in faith, and it’s more incumbent upon me to have those conversations in more intimate settings than the worldwide web. I don’t think any of us are well-served by poorly conceived lyrics that should have been rewritten or edited before recording or publication. Not every pious musical thought deserves its day in church; like everything else we do, our music needs some communal discernment. One element of that ought to be literary discernment, another scriptural and theological, and all of that before it ever gets to the musical level. The Christmas stuff I mentioned earlier was not an offering from an RC publishing house, so I don’t hold it to the same standards, but I had high expectations because of the name of the publisher. 

The point is, writers have to write. It's the publishers' job to publish. Discernment is part of everyone's job. The church can only make its musical choices for prayer from what is available to us, so I don't want to sound like I'm for self-censorship, either.

There's no need to introduce a lot of new music every year anyway - we know a lot of music already, and when you figure there is only time to sing about 250 songs a year (on Sunday), including repeated songs, well, you don’t really need all that many more than 100, or people will forget how the songs go! Most of those songs have to be ones people can sing from their hearts, so that they spend more time praying than figuring out notes or studying worship aids and hymnals. This is why I’m so careful about choosing new music for the choir and the assembly at St. Anne.

Leave a comment, even if you disagree with me! Try not to name names, or even say things like, “I don’t want to name names, but the jerk’s initials are ‘R.C.’”

You Have Built Your House - Christ the Icon

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Demonizing the enemy

Recently, one of the songs of the billions in my iTunes library that popped into my ears was "The Pusher," a Hoyt Axton song recorded by Steppenwolf from 1968. John Kay, the lead singer, is probably most famous for being the vocal energy behind their smash hit "Born to be Wild," but "The Pusher" and "Magic Carpet Ride" were well-known tunes by Steppenwolf in their day as well.

Axton (the songwriter) sets up the premise thus: "I've smoked a lot of grass, and I've popped a lot of pills," but I've never taken the kind of drugs that the pusher sells, the kind that make a person among the walking dead. This is 1968, so we're talking pre-crack days; heroin would be the drug being described here. Axton buys his drugs from "the dealer," but the the "pusher" sells drugs that will "ruin your body" and your mind as well. The pusher is "a monster...not a natural man." And over this insistent electric blues riff that pervade the tune, Kay rasps the chorus at the top of his voice:
God damn the Pusher!
God damn, God damn the Pusher!
I said God damn, God, God damn
The Pusher man
And just in case the language wasn't direct and strong enough, Kay channels Axton's outrage, and tells us just how to take care of the problem:
Well, now if I were the president of this land
You know, I'd declare total war on The Pusher man
I'd cut him if he stands, and I'd shoot him if he'd run
Yes I'd kill him with my Bible and my razor and my gun.

(© 1968 Irving Music BMI.)
Well, here's the reason I'm telling you all this. When I'm walking around, I'm thinking about how familiar all this sounds. The demonizing of the "enemy." The sense of moral outrage that is demonstrated, invoking God's name, as the damning agent, a couple of dozen times in the course of the song. As Kay and the band ground on and on with this great classic lament, I thought to myself a couple of things. One was, gosh, this is just the way the some politicians and pundits talk about hunting down the "evildoers," which to them means small subset of Muslims who Hate Our Freedom and show it by blowing themselves up in public places and waging a guerrilla war in whatever corner of the earth they can find a toehold. These pundits too invoke God's name, vow to hunt down the evildoers, only never admit (or fail to see) that they're buying their own violent behavior from the same supplier. What's missing from the super-patriot's song is the "dealer." We never admit to any evil ourselves, or to the evil which we perpetrate in the name of the national security. The "evildoers" are "the enemy," while we are "one nation, under God." 

Does it really escape them (us?) that the other guys are saying the same things about us, and they're just as right? They're certainly more convinced than our guys. None of US punditocracy, or as far as I know, anyone in the government, has ever felt so strongly about democracy that s/he strapped ten pounds of C4 explosives to his underwear and went to offer one hand to a Taliban commander with the other on a detonator. No, instead we sit in our "undisclosed locations" and bunkers and give orders that send drones flying their high-tech death sentences halfway around the world, and assess the "collateral damage" in human life. We send teenage boys and girls into the desert to do our killing for us. Worse than using the name of God in vain in a song, we use the name of the God of peace and charity to rain death upon innocent people and gouge the entire hemisphere for the profits from stolen oil.

God isn't on our side. God isn't on their side. God might be saying something like this: "Stop all your fighting, know that I am God. Come, let us reason together. You call me "our Father," so try thinking about every other person on the planet as your sister or brother. Try thinking that I care about every other person the way I care about you, and that I care about all the people who still have yet to be born in the same way." God doesn't use IEDs or drones or any other weapon: God is silent, God invites, God waits, God shows the way by the courage, solidarity, and the clarity of vision of a single human person who says, "Follow me." God isn't about "damning" anybody, or choosing certain "evildoers" to be destroyed while others collect seven-figure dividends from oil investments. Leave God out of it, America. Or else, really put God into it: study war no more, seek after peace, and do justice. Invest in unity, education, peacemaking, and healthcare, and make a smart bomb to obliterate hunger, prejudice, AIDS, slavery, and homelessness.

God is a conversation. God is shared power. God is life-through-self-emptying. I'm not making that up. That's what Christians mean by having a Trinitarian God. Some people choose to do evil, but that doesn't mean that they and everyone around them deserves to be obliterated. It may be that as a last resort they may need to be killed to protect others, but even then we shouldn't act like that killing is a good. Killing is always evil. Everyone needs the opportunity, over and over, like every one of us, to see the light.

What a classic! "The Pusher" got me thinking all that after over forty years! It's as though it were written for these days, in a sort of naive, Orwellian allegory. Still, on a bright summer morning, I was glad to exchange the dark underbelly of civilization that the song conjured, ruined lives, blasphemy, and murder, for the random play of the brighter if somewhat suspect strains of Mel Brooks' “Springtime for Hitler.”

Monday, June 24, 2013

Dr. Collins and the Children of Light


In my never-ending quest to confuse myself by reading up on all the things that don’t concern me, I read Dr. Francis Collins’s largely inspiring book, The Language of God. I bought both this work and Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, despaired of ever getting time to read them, and then bought the audio books and have now finished them both. Thank you, iPod and Audible.com, for making my higher education possible.

This all started with the article that appeared in Time in 2006, with an almost genial debate between these two august and articulate scientists. Of course, I think that the “God vs. Science” title is bogus, but that’s my prejudice, being who I am. I can no more imagine a God opposed to science as I can imagine a chef who hates food. Religion vs. Science would be a better way of putting it, and actually, that’s the dichotomy that Collins wants to address. Dawkins, a much-published biologist from Oxford, is one of the world’s best-known apologists for atheism, and to him, the battle is probably more aptly described as  “Science vs. God.” Collins, an American geneticist and head of the Human Genome project, is a Christian who believes that science and faith are not and cannot be opposed. Both men are passionate advocates for their viewpoints.

My argument with Dr. Dawkins, and I’m sure he would quake in his sterile lab booties, is in two parts. First, he is very smart, and earned his credentials and his right to preach to the scientific choir. But why does his tone have to have the condescending ring of a putdown? Christians ought to be embarrassed, are embarrassed, over how little has apparently changed in the world due to our presence, and at the great harm, divisiveness, even murder that has been done in the name of the cross. We ought to be held accountable for it. But tossing out Christianity because people who believe in it don’t measure up to our own standards is making the baby-and-bathwater mistake. Collins adapts a metaphor used by others, and is seminally heard in Paul: the truth of God is pure spring water, but it is conveyed in some rusty buckets. We shouldn’t blame the water for the poverty and pollution in the leaky conveyance. “We hold a treasure in earthen vessels.” I’m quite sure that Dawkins has had to endure some awful attacks from believers of different ilks. Atheism is at least as reasonable an approach to truth as theism is, but that is because faith lays outside the realm of logic and the empirical and experimental domain of human science. I don’t blame Dawkins at all for this. Christians have anthropomorphized God much more than we admit to. Necessarily, in Christ, and by virtue of creation and our scripture itself, we attribute certain characteristics to the divine. But these attributions are, at best, shadows and metaphors for a reality that clearly lies outside our ability to know. To say that God is a “person,” or three “persons,” for instance, is to use a human attribute to describe something that lies completely outside human understanding. Nothing we say about God reveals more to us than it hides, and we have to be happy with that, and live as much in the “cloud of unknowing” than with any silly human gnosis about the divine.

There is much in Dr. Collins' book and its revelations that is cause for gratitude and awe from all of us non-scientists. My quibble with it is that it may need to understand that there are people who have put as much of their lives and work into the art and science of scriptural research and study as he has into genetics, biology, and physics. Let them do the work of exegesis, and then examine their hypotheses the way you do your own science. Don’t write off some theology as “liberal” simply because it doesn’t see with the same lens that you do. The synthesis of history, literature, anthropology, and faith that is the work of other experts has the same kind of validity that his does in the work of science. Use that information in the crucible of truth. It may be that a revised imagination about Christ and the nature of God will help, and not threaten, one's synthesis of science and faith.

To me, the most compelling quotation in either tome turns out to be this quotation from The Language of God. One thing to me is absolutely necessary in this whole endeavor of finding a “unified theory” that incorporates this double helix of science and faith: it is the conviction that truth is one, and that all genuine paths must lead in the same direction. For religious persons, God cannot be a deceiver who creates blind pathways in order to mislead us in our search for the truth; for the scientist, rationality, logic, and evidence cannot lead away from the conclusion that God exists. There must be harmony, not that we must make it, but that it must already exist, and it is incumbent upon us to seek it out somehow. The burden really falls on believers, though, because it is in our ethic to believe that God is light, and that the universe is charged with divine presence, and revelation is everywhere. This is how it is put in Collins’s book, where he is quoting Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield, the American theologian of the late 19th and early 20th centuries:

We must not then, as Christians, assume an attitude of antagonism toward the truths of reason, or the truths of philosophy, or the truths of science, or the truths of history, or the truths of criticism. As children of the light, we must be careful to keep ourselves open to every ray of light. Let us, then, cultivate an attitude of courage as over against the investigations of the day. None should be more zealous in them than we. None should be more quick to discern truth in every field, more hospitable to receive it, more loyal to follow it, whithersoever it leads.

Now, there is a theology and a science that I can get behind.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

So you think you want to write liturgical songs? (Part 2 - the "other hand")


Musician friends between rehearsals at an ancient
Los Angeles RE Congress
My most-read post in this blog, now five months old and with over 26,000 page views
(thank you!) was one entitled "So you think you want to write liturgical songs." There's a link in the right hand column, if you haven't seen it yet. I did not mean for it to be upsetting, but it clearly was for some people. I answered them, sometimes privately, as best I could, to let them know it's worth the effort of trying to break into the field. But lest you think I was just all about negative experience as a songwriter in this genre in which I've chosen to spend my life, don't think that! Let me try to widen the perspective.


Kendzia, Cortez, and Warner misbehaving at dinner
I can honestly say that, through the many years I've spent in liturgical music, I've always been impressed by the care and integrity with which the current owners of the publishing houses have treated me. They have received a lot of bad press because of the competitive nature of the business; some specialize in hardbound hymnals, some in paperback subscription "missalettes," but they all take very seriously their calling to provide singable music to Catholic Christian assemblies. Not just that, but they treat me, and I assume other composers, with respect and collegiality, and on some level, over the years, some relationships there have developed into friendships. 

My original publisher (after the two I wrote about in earlier blogs, the Composers' Forumfor Catholic Worship and Resource Publications, who published my songs but not as recorded collections) was North American Liturgy Resources. It was there that I got to know people like the Bruno family, David Serey and his wife Jody (who co-authored the book of my musical, Lost and Found), Tom Kendzia, the irascible but hilarious Henry Papale, and Paul Quinlan, a dear man who as a Jesuit seminarian had written a number of energetic and excellent guitar versions of psalms. His "Brand New Day," "Sing to God a Brand New Canticle," and "How I Rejoiced" were three of my favorites in the early days of the guitar mass, and I'm talking 1969-1970 here. These songs of his appeared in the FEL Hymnal for Young Christians, which antedated NALR's Glory and Praise series by several years. Mark Mellis and Rick Hardy, longtime colleagues who worked with me at St. Jerome in Phoenix when I was the director of music and liturgy there (1983-1993) also were part of the staff at NALR.


Roc O'Connor trying to straighten us out at a recent
Composers' Forum dinner in St. Louis
Around 1990,  NALR and all its copyrights were acquired by Oregon Catholic Press, and Ray Bruno's son Bruce moved to Portland with his family to be vice president of marketing. Bruce's daughter Mandy had been in the children's choir at St. Jerome at the same time as my daughter Claire, and they were both cantors and leaders in the group.  Mandy made news in high school when she was un-cast as Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar because of fears of community backlash (I believe that they did, however, let her play the part of Judas!) Mandy has since gone on to be a regular in the daytime serial All My Children, and was nominated for an Emmy in 2006. Bruce and Diane Bruno still work with Oregon Catholic Press, and I always look forward to hearing about their family when we see each other at this or that conference during the year. John Limb, the president of OCP, is a very genial man who has gone out of his way on several occasions to ask my opinion on various matters affecting composers, and I am grateful for their continued support of my older material, and ongoing friendships.

The people at GIA have been really good friends with us for over twenty years as well. When, for a number of reasons, in 1989 our trio decided to publish our next collection of songs, Safety Harbor, with GIA, we couldn't have been happier with the freedom we were given to deliver the music in a way that we felt did it justice. I still keep a letter from GIA's then-marketing-director Michael Cymbala on the wall of my cubicle at work, written just before the release of the original Gather Comprehensive hymnal, in which he can barely contain his pride with the new book, while welcoming the three of us into GIA's group of artists and thanking us for our trusting them with the music. And it has been a mutually beneficial relationship over the years, one in which we've been treated fairly, as valued colleagues. The Harris family, Bob Batastini, Michael, longtime editorial honcho Kelly Dobbs-Mickus, and many others over the years, some of whom have moved on to other work and ministries have been and continue to be good friends. Kelly's crack editorial eye made every piece of mine that GIA has published better than when I sent it in, and I try to be sure she knows how grateful I am for that.

Most recently, I've become acquainted with the team of editors and folks at World Library Publications, though I have to say that when I came to know most of them they were doing different work, and all managed to emigrate to WLP over the years as the now-retired-but-ever-fabulous Mary Prete began to assemble a staff of well-known and talented musicians and liturgists to work with the great people already in place at JSP/WLP. Mary we had known for years when she was the manager of Alverno Religious Bookstore in Chicago, and she and Alverno were an ubiquitous presence at conferences around the country for as long as I was involved in this work. She joined WLP, and then, with Alan Hommerding, names like the late John Wright, Jerry Galipeau, Steve Janco, Mary Beth Kunde-Anderson, Lisa Bagladi, and many others made up the team that drove the company. I've never worked with a more attentive text editor that Alan. Generally, I have to say, I've been cut a pretty wide path in the area of text, but Alan has been tremendous in helping me make my texts better with his mind for theological nuance and his ear for musicality. The music editors, especially Keith Kalemba, have been so helpful in making sure that what's on the page is actually what I mean, so that the end user can have a chance to play the song the way I wrote it. Thanks to all of them for their enthusiasm and hard work on my behalf.

So what was the big deal in the first posting? Obviously, it's a big tent. There are lots of singers and songwriters. We don't see eye-to-eye on a lot of things. Resources are strained, time in constrained, the precariousness of the church economy is kind of a drag on everyone. I still think that we writers aren't all treated the same, that there are a few writers whose work gets green-lighted without the rigorous processes to which most of us are subjected. A lot of teen-oriented music clearly doesn't get theologically or liturgically winnowed with as fine-toothed a comb as mine does for reasons that are still unclear to me. The publishers' investment is the same. The praise-chorus crowd doesn't need texts that make sense, or music that's appropriate to liturgy? Someone will no doubt explain it to me.

Those perceptions of mine might be mistaken, or dated, or just me turning into Abe (Grampa) Simpson. 

Still, it's such a privilege to be involved at all in the work of creating the music by which so many people in many places praise God, learn a vocabulary of faith, teach their children to pray, celebrate the paschal mystery, marry, and bury their dead. It's this reality upon which I try to focus when my pride and vanity threaten to sap my energy for the journey.

I got to a point with my last GIA project, Today, (2006) where I just said, "Whatever!" You know? The world doesn't need more Rory Cooney songs right now. When the time is right, nothing will stop their publication or people from singing them. When the time is wrong, no amount of cajoling or manipulation or conniving on my part will get them heard or into people's hearts. It's all in God's time; God, who works through human agents who have good days and bad days, who are over-worked, underpaid, and sometimes choose badly. It's better to keep friends than to worry about the traffic at the intersection of liturgical song and free enterprise. Help me remember that, Lord, and thanks for all the work that my friends at OCP, GIA, WLP, MorningStar, Augsburg-Concordia, and everyone else does to keep the song alive in the heart of your people.

As I mentioned in the original posting, I think we're ready now. We have good music to share. It's a matter of weighing options (like the various publishers' musical products and how they fit our target audiences) and realities (like our limited ability to concertize, and publishers' need to sell our product), making some decisions among ourselves (Gary and Terry and I) and then submitting a proposal to one or more of our publishers, and seeing what ensues. Maybe what we need is a "tribute" band to tour for us, like the "Fab Faux" do for the Beatles. Let's see, we'd need a beautiful woman with a voice to die for (like Terry), someone with a black belt in guitar, an unerring musicality, and no attitude (like Gary). Those would be hard enough. But where on earth would there be someone who could abuse the piano and sing as such a stranger to actual pitch than I? Feel free to send your application: you can always use an assumed name, and wear a fake nose and glasses.

Friday, June 21, 2013

What's your still point?


At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.

(from T.S. Eliot, "Four Quartets")
Parish life can be crazy. Everyone may be of good will, but we're an alphabet soup of Myers-Briggs types, and an enneagram bouquet that makes a Fellini movie look like 1984. And that's just the staff! People come from all over the theological map, with needs and assumptions about what the parish should be and do for them, and we have all these expectations of ourselves, and inevitably there are collisions, "differences of opinion" that are usually expressed in terms that include the word "pastoral need." As in, "I know that this isn't legal, but it's pastoral." And you know that, as a rigid legalist, I'm going to be simmering in my office, chanting my mantra, and trying to remember that not only is the fifth commandment one of the Big Ones, it's also a class one felony.

Of course I'm exaggerating, and none of this would never happen in your parish, but it does lead me to wonder about myself. What’s my still point? When peoples’ issues like this come to me, where do I go, ultimately, to discern them? The grieving widow who wants "The Halls of Montezuma" at her husband's funeral; the bride who wants "Phantom of the Opera" for her wedding; the associate who wants to consecrate two paschal candles so that we don't have to move one from the church to the chapel for funerals. I was joking above, but somehow, over the last twenty years, I've gone from being perceived as a rebel in one parish to being perceived a legalist in this one, and I don't think I've changed that much. Some colleagues seem to view me as one who has no pastoral care for people but only wants to satisfy the man-made laws of the Church. I don’t see myself that way at all, but I suppose I can understand that, compared to an anarchist, I could seem legalistic by comparison. Is law the place one goes to make decisions? Or is it some version of love-as-accommodation that makes people as comfortable as possible, trusting that everything will work out in the end?

Part of the answer, I think, is the way we look at law. I believe, in my heart of hearts, that church law and pastoral care do not constitute a dialectic. They are a false dichotomy, they are meant to be aspects of the same reality. I certainly have a love-hate relationship with discipline. I have tended to rebel against all kinds of control for as long as I can remember, probably stemming from all kinds of childhood and adolescent repressions of the Catholic school, home, and seminary environments. I’m not, by nature, a legalist. But at some point, I suppose I came to realize that most church law, at least, was not meant to be oppressive but to prevent oppression. At its best, all law is like that. It’s set in a kind of minimalist language that attempts to protect the weak while limiting the power of the strong. We all know that there are exceptions to this, but I really believe this about most Church law. Some vestigial archetypes are taking a longer time dying than they should, like the all-male celibate priesthood, but they are clearly vestiges of culture and not likely at all to endure more than another generation or two. Not that that makes them any less painful, nor does it strengthen my argument, but I still generally find liturgical law at least to be protective of the ritual contract among the people of God.

Richard Fragomeni once talked about Catholic sacraments in a talk I heard him give as “anti-ritual ritual.” I think what he meant was something that lies in the shade of the scripture in which Jesus says “the Sabbath was made for people” and not the other way around, that if you were bringing your gift to the altar and remembered that you had an issue with another person, that it was important to reconcile before your prayer. More profoundly, he meant that the Eucharist was an unbloody sacrifice, which, in ritual terms, is oxymoronic. It is precisely in exposing sacrifice, and the scapegoating mechanism that engenders it, as bestial behaviors that the Eucharist is unbloody; the God of Jesus is a God of life, not of death. But for purposes of this reflection, the insight that community, hospitality, and connection precede ritual is important. Rite and life outside of rite are intimately connected. Ritual symbolizes life; it expresses the life of the community and intensifies it, sending it out ready to continue to face life with a more deeply recognized self-image, a little more perfectly conformed to the image of the divine Christ. As all of the church’s sacramental life is tied to the Eucharist, not least by far in the rites of initiation, this insight is important to this discussion. 

Since I’m wary of anarchy, and not sure I’m really capable of true “love” in any spiritual sense, I suppose that in my weakness I do revert to the liturgy itself, including the scripture it proclaims, the Lord whom it remembers, and yes, its law, as the still point of the turning world of parish life. I’d like to think that I’m open to the opinions of others as I try to do discernment, but I also find some comfort in the fact that the wisdom of the church, across nations and times, in collaboration and community when it’s at its best, is better wisdom than I could bring to the situation anyway.

It may be true, in a “quantum” church, that all dichotomies are false, that, like mass and energy which were once thought to be different things, grace and law are two different vibrations of the same string. That’s also comforting, if a little new agey. If I’m just a little patient, and try to discern things from a still point, even if it’s just law, I might learn to love by getting in through the back door. I’ll take it any way I can get it.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

John Foley's best song that you never heard of

Looking toward this Sunday's gospel, I thought I'd share with you about a song I've used for well over twenty years that I'm pretty sure you haven't heard, even though its composer, John Foley, S.J., is one of the best-known liturgical songwriters of the last 40 years.

Toward the end of the NALR years, the St. Louis Jesuits produced a double album, à la Neither Silver Nor Gold, entitled The Steadfast Love, which was a mixed bag, as double albums tend to be, of well-written material and filler. For whatever reason, most of the songs in this collection never really caught the attention of the masses in the U.S. church. John Foley had a number of songs in this collection, including the title song and a moving setting of a text from the book of Lamentations called "A Song of Hope." It may be that their "user base" was largely the guitar-driven ensemble, and Foley had begun to branch out into more classical forms and instruments that were beyond the ability and interest of the many of us who were more accustomed to "One Bread, One Body" and "Come to the Water" than to the more angular harmonies that Foley was beginning to embrace.

But one song on that collection was a favorite of mine, and continues to be to this day. The title of it is, "The Christ of God." The text of the refrain is a praise text to Christ as the eschatological Lamb of God:
O You are the Christ of God, the Lamb of God,
Alpha and Omega, the Holy One!
You are the Lamb who is, who was, and who will be
Forever. Amen.
(c) 1986 John Foley, SJ
 
But what made this text work for me, with its almost foursquare anthemic tune, was the way it was set against two other musical ideas. The song begins and ends with a solo recitative on the question, "Who do you say I am?" And the verses, taking their cue from the Markan dialogue (Mk 8: 27ff, but also Mt. 16: 13ff), are also in recitative form, with beautifully constructed, almost operatic melodies, in which the Christ tells of his impending suffering, and urges the disciples to take up the cross as well. Each time, the assembly responds with the refrain, "O you are the Christ of God," and the song, when performed in its entirety, ends with the cantor singing the question again, "And who do you say I am?"

I think that our repertoires can always use a few more songs that really force the question about the paschal mystery, that keep the cross in front of our eyes, and that help us to ask ourselves what Christ means to us. "The Christ of God" is just such a song, and if you haven't given it a look, you might think about giving it an audition, with 21st century ears. You know, before it goes out of print.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Songstories 11: Like You (Mystery, NALR, 1987)

I have been crucified with Christ;
yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me...(Gal. 16:20)

If you're like me, then there are probably key passages in the New Testament that have stuck in you over the years and that shape your thinking, formation, and action as a Christian. Certainly as a songwriter, and one who has to think theologically when writing original lyrics, the section from Galatians read in Catholic and other Common Lectionary churches yesterday is one of those passages. Few passages capture as dramatically for me the transformation of the person created by baptism than Paul's assertion here. 

The idea that baptism transforms a person completely, and that life is a process of unfolding that transformation in the world, runs through a lot of my lyrics. It's a fine line to attempt to sing about this without sounding deluded on the one hand or triumphalistic on the other. One tries to keep in mind that whatever is done in us, baptized or not, isn't our doing, but God's. God enables our transformation by love. God sustains us in life. And through it all, God rescues us from the effects of our sin, a reality that causes setback after setback for us, and for good measure, blocks the response of others to the good news of the gospel by making it invisible to them.





In the late 1980s, Christian radio was coming into its own, and contemporary Christian music was a hot commodity. Breaking into that field was never really an option for Catholic artists (at least in those days) because the medium was controlled by Christian evangelicals, and they weren't interested in most Catholic artists. That didn't mean, however, that the influence didn't flow in the other direction, and music by contemporary Christian artists like Amy Grant, Sandi Patty, Steven Curtis Chapman, and Michael Card among many others found its way into the eclectic Catholic repertoire, and certainly has influenced the style of songwriters for the last quarter century.

In the days I was writing the music that became the CD Mystery, I wanted to try my hand at that kind of writing, mostly because Gary Daigle and his group at the Casa were so good at performing it, and I thought it would give Terry a change to sing in a little bit of a different style than most of what we had been recording. That's where "Like You" comes in. Gary's Casa band, with Jim Whitaker on keyboard, the late Bob Warren on drums, the amazing Matt McKenzie on bass, and Gary himself on electric guitar, laid down a great rhythm track for Terry to sing on. She sounds terrific on the track and...

...that's pretty much where it stayed! We rarely have done this song in concert, even more rarely at worship services. But still, when I hear it, it makes me smile for those younger days when it was OK to write songs, and create albums, of Catholic music that people might want to listen to, in addition to singing in their churches, with choirs and organs and ensembles. That's what I still want to do, but it's getting harder and harder in this time of transition to new media on one hand and suspicion of creativity in worship and music on the other. 

I hope I'm around when all of this resolves itself! Meanwhile, here are the lyrics, and the Soundcloud link above, to "Like You." The lyric takes off from the Galatians verse cited above, and includes a snippet of the Suscipe of St. Ignatius as well as of a prayer of Bl. John Gabriel Perboyre, a Vincentian martyr, one that I learned in my years of formation with that community.


Like You, by Rory Cooney


Now I live no longer for myself,
But Jesus lives in me.
Spirit, live in me.
Now I know the gifts I have belong to someone else.
Use me, Lord. Choose me, Lord.
Make me like yourself, make me like yourself.


I want to be like you,

Hope for the hopeless, bread for hungry lives.
I want to be like you,
Friend of the friendless, light for sightless eyes.
I want to be like you:
A child of the Spirit whose Father loves him/her well,
A word of calm against the storm whose winds blow out of hell.


Let my hands be your hands, Jesus, please.

Let my heart be your heart. Think your thoughts in me.
Lord, accept my freedom. Heal my memory.
Your loving touch is grace enough
And all I'll ever need. You're all ever need.


I want to be like you:

Joy for the captive, fire for hearts grown cold.
I want to be like you:
Voice of the story of love that won't grow old.
I want to be like you
And see that my dying will bring a bright new birth,
To end the reign of death and pain
And heal the heart of earth.


I want to be like you

And look for the promise that hides beneath the pain.
I want to be like you
And see in the sowing the golden fields of grain.
I want to be like you
And offer your people a chance to be made new.
Take me, Lord. Remake me, Lord.
I want to be like you.
I want to be like you.


 © 1989, North American Liturgy Resources. Assigned to Rory Cooney 2002.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Father's day


My dad was born on March 10, 1932. I suspect that the proximity of his birthday to the Irish national feast day was the reason his father named him Patrick. He was somewhere in the middle of six boys. I know that he had older brothers: Ted, Joe, and Jim, and I believe that Jake (Charles Jacob) and Bill were younger than he, and when his mother died and his father remarried (her sister), they had a daughter together named Mary Ellen. I know that Ted, Jim, Bill, and Mary Ellen preceded my dad in death, and as far as I know, Jake and Joe are still alive. I guess communication isn’t a strong point of the family!

Dad died in 1993, a couple of months before I moved from Phoenix to Chicago. He succumbed after a long battle with Pick's disease. All his life he had been the picture of health, and generally a man with a great sense of duty and a ready laugh. Both he and my mother were extraordinarily generous and sacrificing parents. I know that much of the time he was working two jobs to make ends meet, with seven children in the house in Phoenix. He was a lifer with the United States Postal Service, and also worked at a small grocery store some evenings and weekends. He and Mom would always have us lined up and ready for the 7:30 mass on Sunday mornings at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Phoenix.
Dad and I, in Ohio, probably 1955?

We had moved to the neighborhood of west Phoenix called Maryvale, near 51st Avenue between Thomas and Indian School Roads, in 1958 or so, my parents following my mother's parents to the Phoenix area. At the time, we lived on the edge of the desert, and it was not unusual at all to find horned toads, desert rodents and even snakes in the yard. Now, the old house is twenty miles or more from the western edge of the metropolitan area. On the positive side, I could pretty much throw a rock into the Milwaukee Brewers Spring Training facility on 51st Avenue from the old homestead, if only it had been built 50 years earlier.

Mom and Dad were founding members of St Vincent's; originally, we had been meeting at a Byzantine church on Sundays, which was little more than a quonset hut on 43rd Avenue and Indian School. But gradually, the community grew to a size where it could begin to support a building project, and they began to build a multi-purpose hall at what is now St. Vincent de Paul Church. My younger brother Terry and sister Cathy were in the school when it started. I started my career in the public system, and joined them there in the 5th grade. This is where I was profoundly influenced by the wonderful Daughters of Charity and the Vincentian Fathers, whose seminary I eventually joined in 1965 until leaving after three years of college in 1973.

My dad was a high school jock, so my younger brothers were more his kind of kids for most of his life, getting into football and baseball. I tried my hand at those things, but preferred not to get knocked out or, for that matter, run. I did find some athletic stride, eventually, in high school and college playing outdoor handball, but never got into the kinds of school sports that my brothers enjoyed. Later in his life, though, Dad became very interested in my writing, both my poetry and music. Often, he and Deedee, his second wife, would drive a lot more miles than they had to to come to church at St. Jerome or wherever I might be playing and have breakfast with my brother and me. When I was in college, he loved to read my poetry. I think he discovered that side of himself later in life.

It was very difficult watching disease waste him away for several years before the end. My brother David is a orthotist/prosthetist and has friends in the medical field who got Deedee to take him to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale. Pick's disease is rare and hard to diagnose. In fact, it probably wasn't certain until after he passed away that that is what killed him. But he gradually fell deeper and deeper into dementia. Through all that, his beloved Deedee tended to him with the amazing love and mercy of an angel, and he never spent a day in the hospital until just before the end, when a series of seizures led to his rapid death. My brother Terry was really there for them a lot through those months and years, going to the house and giving Deedee time off to get some space away for a few hours at a time. I helped a few times, too, and learned quickly how hard the life must be for long-term caretakers of dementia patients. Sometimes Dad was listless, sometimes agitated, sometimes almost communicative, sometimes almost violent.

What endures in me about Dad is his sense of humor. I remember him laughing with us, watching Huckleberry Hound, Quickdraw McGraw, and other goofy cartoons of the era; I also remember him resenting the humor in Hogan's Heroes, because he felt that there was nothing to laugh about in the stalags. When I think of the difficulty of working as a mailman 8 or more hours a day in the Arizona sun, then coming home and going to work at a grocery store, stocking shelves and whatever else needed to be done, to make ends meet in the house, I'm amazed at the amount of commitment and sense of duty required to meet his own expectations. Later in life, when I was away, Mom and Dad kept his father and stepmother with them as they gradually succumbed to diabetes. It was during this time that he and my mother divorced, in 1972 or 73. As hard as that was on all of us, especially my younger siblings who were there at the time, Mom's love kept everyone healthy and together. We eventually came to accept my Dad as adults, and I certainly grew to love Deedee and appreciate their mutual love and her unfailing faithful devotion to him in sickness and in health. Now she herself is in an assisted living facility in Phoenix, dealing with the beginnings of dementia herself. Life is hard for everyone.


I guess I just wanted to remember him today. God bless you, Dad. May you rest in peace, in the shade somewhere. We all miss you. Deedee always said she would rather have you here as you were than be without you. May God give her the consolation shown to the merciful, and let her know that you are safe in the everlasting arms.

Now I have to deal with the reality that I'm a father too, and all my brothers are fathers, and my eldest son is a father, which makes me...(erase erase). Too much for one day! (And mom - thanks for holding it all together! xo. Your eldest and handsomest son, Rory)

2008 Gathering, L-R Aidan, Desi, Jeremy,
Joel (with Lenora) , Decko (with Amelia) , Me (with Chrissie)

Graduation week last month, L-R Desi, Claire, me, Decko

Friday, June 14, 2013

Forgiveness empowering love (C11O)

Not that we needed any more “proof” about the uselessness of trying to “earn” God’s forgiveness by good deeds or by spiritual calisthenics, but look at those words in the second reading for Sunday, which, as always, are only serendipitously commenting on what we hear in the first reading and gospel:
We who know that a person is not justified by works of the law

but through faith in Jesus Christ,

even we have believed in Christ Jesus

that we may be justified by faith in Christ

and not by works of the law,

because by works of the law no one will be justified.

Game, set, and match for our dreams of self-justification. It’s all more wonderful than we pulled-up-by-our-own-bootstraps-sons-and-daughters-of-the-pioneers had imagined. God justifies. God forgives. God’s love is origin and source. We can’t do anything to deserve it. What a relief!

I had forgotten that the first reading for this Sunday was taken from the whole complex of stories about King David, this one a piece of the wonderful story of his desire for Bathsheba. OK, let’s face it, Michal wasn’t much of a bargain, they had nothing in common, she probably hated him, having grown up in the household of Saul, and then with the rivalry during the period when there were two anointed kings in Israel. He was a musician, she hated to see him carrying on with his music and dancing. His eye wanders a little, he sees the shiksa on the roof, she’s married to an aide-de-camp of one of his generals, David’s a king, a palace dalliance and a pregnancy, David sends hubby off to war, badda-boom-badda-bing, “so sorry, Miss, your husband is dead,” come here into my palace, &c &c.

Two things I love about this story. One is the great summer experience I had at Youth Sing Praise in about 1985 or so, when I was part of the youth ministry team (Lord, can you imagine that? What was I thinking?) during the week when Our Lady of Snows was producing a musical by Fr. Ron Brassard of Providence and Chris Brubeck (son of Dave, and the bass/trombone player in the Brubeck quartet) on the story of David up to his accession to the throne. Their musical was called Champion of Israel, and I always wished that it had a part two, maybe more PG-13, about David, Bathsheba, Absalom, and Solomon. Right around this time, too, Joseph Heller (of Catch-22 fame) had written a hilarious novel about King David called God Knows. It was a good time for 1-2 Samuel.

The other thing I loved was a book that was really a major part of our spirituality around 1970, the year I was in novitiate, Louis Evely’s poetic and memorable meditations contained in the book That Man Is You. As you may recall, the title is taken from the story of the confrontation between Nathan and David that happens just before the first reading at today’s liturgy. (It’s all in chapter 12 of 2 Samuel. Today’s first reading starts at verse 7, the parable of Nathan starts at verse 1. The rest of the story - wink, wink; nudge, nudge - is in chapter 11.)

The whole thing in Luke about who’s a sinner and who’s not, who is kosher and who’s not, who’s in and who’s out, that all seems to me to be about what we call prejudice. “Prejudice” is the act of judging another person (or race, religion, country, etc.) before actually knowing that person, walking the mile in their shoes. Prejudice is, literally, pre-judging. Sometimes prejudice is obvious, as in the case of racial or ethnic prejudices. Sometimes it’s more personal and sinister, like the religious prejudice in Sunday's gospel, which was “justified” by the “good person” seeing a “bad person” in front of him. Simon in the story doesn't see the woman who was in his house, he saw a sinner, a person with a bad reputation. He saw the sin, or what he thought was the sin. Focused on that, he is unable to see the similarity between her and himself.

In another story later in Luke (19), a tax-collector named Zacchaeus, also reviled by the good people of the town for being a collaborator (and maybe, also, being short, had a Napoleon complex, trying to make up in bluster what he lacked in altitude; maybe you know the type?) He too invites Jesus to a meal, and all the good people at once say of the Lord, “He has gone to stay in the house of a sinner.” This prompts Zacchaeus to protest - "Master, I give away half my income to the poor—and if I'm caught cheating, I pay four times the damages." Some translations miss the nuance here: there is no indication in the story that Zacchaeus is actually guilty of corruption, only that he has been pre-judged as one because he is a tax collector, and therefore a thief like all other tax collectors. Zacchaeus, however, is aware that he is not God, and knows that he is a sinner; he simply refuses to be prejudged as someone who is dishonest, and Luke holds him up in contrast to the Rich Man in the earlier parable. Zacchaeus gives half his income to the poor. He is a just man. Once again, by pre-judging with hospitality and love, Jesus has enabled the reaction of Zacchaeus, and exposed the prejudice of the town’s religious elite for what it is. (Side note - this gospel is one of the ones used for the dedication or anniversary of dedication of a church. “He has gone to eat in the house of a sinner.” Isn’t that the coolest?)

This is why it’s important to keep focused not on our sin, but on the one who is all-forgiving. We risk missing the really good news about a God who has pre-judice for us, who has judged us “not guilty by reason of humanity." We’re busy with our tiresome Pelagian agendas about “getting right” with God, all our self-help talk, when what we really need to hear is that we’re beloved of a God who does not judge like we do, and has in fact spoken the words of pardon before we were even aware we needed it.

Don’t we know all this stuff from our own experience? Isn’t it true that nothing we actually do about ourselves ever makes us truly lovable or even prepared for what happens when love hits us unexpectedly? Especially when we feel that we’ve acted in so reprehensible a way that the bonds between us must be irreparably damaged, doesn’t the forgiveness of another person stun us, reduce us to tears, fill us with both the purpose of amendment and, to the extent possible, make reparation? This is completely aside from the forgiveness itself, which is gift, no strings attached. It is the forgiveness itself that enables us to act better, to make a change in direction, and to show by our actions our gratitude for the gift of forgiveness.

Having experienced forgiveness as a reality in our own lives, we can become the word of pardon and forgiveness to others. Christ revealed God’s forgiveness to us in the world. Now, as St. Paul went on to say in Sunday's happy second reading, “I live now no longer as myself; it is Christ who lives in me.” We didn’t earn it, we didn’t deserve it, we were called and baptized into it by the election of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. As the Easter song by Michael Kelly Blanchard put it,  referring back to the “debt” forgiven in the gospel parable yesterday:
Oh, Be Ye Glad, Be Ye Glad
Every debt that you ever had

Has been paid up in full by the grace of the Lord,

Be Ye Glad, Be Ye Glad, Be Ye Glad.

To me, that’s reason enough to keep focused on God’s action in our lives and in the world, and to let go of our narcissistic, self-important navel-gazing. It’s time to put the beautiful, winged horse out in front of the cart. Maybe if we do, we’ll finally get somewhere?

Check out Glad’s version of “Be Ye Glad” on iTunes. Be Ye Glad - Glad Collector's Series

Thursday, June 13, 2013

"Simon, I have something to say to you..." (C11O)

Note to self - if, at the final judgment, Jesus begins by putting his arm over my shoulder and saying, “Rory, I have something to say to you,” it will be my cue to take off running in a southerly direction, since I will surely be headed there anyway.


"Master, Say On" by Angela Johnson
Sunday's gospel from Luke 7, the story of the the meal at the house of Simon the Pharisee, with its famous story of the woman with a bad reputation washing Jesus’s feet with her tears. The story of the meal at Simon’s house goes something like this. Jesus is invited to dine, but the man who invites him doesn’t really like him, he just wants to keep an eye on him for his buddies. So when Jesus arrives, he ignores the normal hospitality shown to diners, and offers neither a foot bath nor a ritual anointing, amounting to an insult before the dinner even starts. Enter the woman with a bad name. She enters weeping, sits at Jesus feet as they recline at table, lets down her hair, and washes his feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, and anoints them with precious nard from an alabaster jar. The Pharisee, seeing an opportunity to further slight Jesus, notes that if he were a prophet he’d know what kind of woman was touching him.
"Master, Say On" sculpture, detail

This is where Jesus replies, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” Simon should have left while he had the chance. Jesus tells him a little story about two debtors, one who owes two years’ wages, another who owes a couple of months’. Both debts are forgiven by the creditor. Jesus asks Simon, “which, do you think, will love him more?” Simon replies, “Obviously, the one who was forgiven the higher amount.” This is where Jesus lets him have it, recounting the slights he has received since walking in the door, and comparing the reprehensible behavior of Simon, a religious leader, to that of this woman with a bad reputation, showing her behavior to be more in line with acceptable Jewish practice than his. 

This is where the essential part of the story, the “punchline,” comes: Luke records Jesus
"Master, Say On" sculpture, detail
as saying:

“I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown such great love.”
Before the original sense of the scripture was corrected for us, the translation said:
“I tell you her many sins were forgiven because she has shown such great love."** (see endnote)
See, the difference is that they mean the exact opposite. In the first case, following the logic of the parable, the forgiveness precedes and enables her act of love, which is why Jesus is able to tell that her sins have been forgiven. The second rendering, following the logic of a mistranslation that has been replaced for at least 20 years, suggests that forgiveness follows her act of love, that somehow she has “earned” it by her actions and repentance. This is neither the fact, nor our experience, nor church teaching about grace! Grace precedes and enables repentance. Jesus sees her actions, her love, her tears, her atonement for Simon’s lack of hospitality, and knows that her sins are forgiven. He knew that anyway; his intimacy with God has already taught him that God’s love is infinite and forgiving and not dependent on human religious calisthenics of any kind. It is God’s love that makes repentance possible. God loves us when we are still sinners, and forgives us and dies (pours self out) for us. God is not like us. God is not vindictive, jealous, or hurt by our stupid self-destructiveness. 

The story was told wrong for a long time. It was the New Jerusalem Bible that finally got it right, and other translations have come along as well. The translation that imagines that the woman's good works were the cause of her forgiveness misses the point of the parable! Jesus just got finished with a story about forgiveness enabling love, and the translators, as full of our phony sense of "justice" as we are, don't even see the disconnect. We want to believe that we can make ourselves all better and that God gives us the medals at our spiritual Olympics by finally forgiving and loving us once we’ve run the course, jumped the hurdles, and made ourselves squeaky clean. 

But if we can do that, make ourselves squeaky clean, we don’t need God. We need someone to emulate, someone who loves without waiting for a return of love, someone whose love is irrational and doesn’t care what we look like when we get up in the morning. Any of us who is lucky has had that experience more than once in our lives, the experience of a friend or lover who sees past all the junk that blocks our being able to see ourselves as God sees us, someone who loves us with surprising ferocity no matter what we think of ourselves. Their love enables us to make changes in our behavior or our appearance or whatever, but never requires that change as a condition for love. There’s nothing we can do to make the other person love us - love is a gift, it wakes us up and empowers us to be something even greater than we thought was possible.

How sad that, for so long, instead of hearing the scripture message, we get the Pelagian opposite. Instead of grace and wonder, we get the pragmatic Bauhaus dullness of self-
important human exertion. Instead of forgiveness, barter. Instead of love, stoicism. Sorry, but that God is too small for me.

We don’t know anything more about this woman or Simon. I’d love to think that Simon’s heart was changed, and that drawn toward the same flame, the two of them found their way to dance together in the newfound exhilaration of freedom and love. Maybe at the same time next year they both enjoyed a bad reputation and couldn’t have been happier about it, eating and drinking with their friends of ill repute, breaking bread, washing feet, and telling the story over and over again of that supper. Their sins, many though they are, must have been forgiven; hence, they’ve shown such great love. May it be so for all of us sinners.

****************
Endnote: (NB: One can barely make the case that the second version, using the conjunction "because," means the same as the first translation. The sense of the phrase to the translator might have been, 'I can tell that her sins have already been forgiven because (I can see that) she has shown...." But I don't think that's what any of us hears when we hear "because." We think of causality between the closer verbs, "forgiven and shown," rather than between the more separated "I tell you" and "shown.")