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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Jousting with humility (C22O)


Humble yourself the more, the greater you are,
and you will find favor with God. (Sir. 3:18)


...when you are invited,
go and take the lowest place... 
For every one who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted. (Lk. 14:10-11)


Where do people find the time to write every day? Is there some literary sugar-daddy society out there that doles out cash for people to wonder in words? If so, I'd like the email address, which I will also forward to my daughter Claire who, sadly, caught her father's penchant for cybergab in the helical G-U-A-C-amole of the genetic lottery. Last week, I so wanted to follow up on that business about prophets with some real-life stuff, but have not had a moment this week, being a tad under the weather myself and riding the tsunami of the late summer transition to parish autumn chaos. Rather than let that happen twice in one week, I thought I'd try to finish with a few thoughts on this Sunday's readings and music, and maybe I can get around to part two of the prophet thing one of these days. It's not like it only comes up occasionally in the gospel! (I offered a few thoughts in my last post, here.)

Humility is one of those religious words, church talk. It's rarely invoked in secular hagiographies, except as an antonym for hubris, which is bad. I don't think we Americans see humility much as a virtue, maybe just less a vice than its opposite. That's certainly the meaning that Guinevere has in mind when she asks Lancelot, in the scene in Camelot in which they meet at a castle picnic, "Have you jousted with humility lately?" Lance sees his knightly prowess as self-endowed, as exhibited in his introductory song "C'est Moi," and she finds his boasting, accurate as it might be, tiresome and unattractive. We don't like our celebrities to be too full of themselves, either, and we're careful not to toot our own horn too much except at job interviews and other times of dire necessity.

But I don't think that the gospel is interested in humility as the opposite of hubris. I think the gospel sees humility as a virtue in itself. As a virtue, it must share something of the nature of the divine, or at least imitate the divine. How can we see God as humble? Looking at the churches in which we worship, the vesture of our shamans, and the curricula vitae of many powerful Christians in business and government, that might be a difficult question to answer.

Most of us have heard at one time or another in a homily or English class that the etymology of the words "humility" and "humble" hearken to the Latin humus, the word for earth (in the sense of dirt, not the planet, which hadn't been invented yet.) So maybe being called "humble" was a mild pejorative, seen to be "low as dirt," or even "dirty", as in, "Gee, that's a humble little crib you bought, dude" or "Cripes, a Rambler? Humble wheels." I like to think of it, though, in the humus context, as self-aware, as cognizant of mortality, knowing that we are "dust." When we take our mortality seriously, have a sense that we do not ultimately control our own destiny, let alone that of the cosmos, we have taken a significant step in the journey of learning humility. Humble means knowing that none of us is self-made, which is a virtue even in an atheist. Secular humility might be the sense that we have had a mortal beginning, will have a mortal end, and that all that we are or will be is the product of luck, genetics, and maybe, maybe a little motivation or cooperation. Such humility might lead one to a life of excellence and altruism, even make true love possible.

For Christians, though, it seems to me that the only way that we can see humility as a virtue is that it is first a characteristic of God. The only way that Jesus could say, "Whoever humbles himself will be exalted" or "whoever wishes to be the greatest must serve the rest" or "love your enemies" or anything else that is insanely hard for mortals to do, is if God does those things, and therefore they are imitable by us as virtue. If we see God as king, lawmaker, Lord of Lords, ruler of armies, any of that lot, it stands to reason that over time we will want to be like God, imitate God. Having more, being rich and powerful, is godlike. But the gospel, and certainly St. Paul's interpretation of the meaning of Jesus in the letters, is quite different. For Paul and the evangelists, the greatness of God is shown in kenosis, in the pouring-out of godliness, and in agape, the total self-gift of God whose perfect manifestation is the Holy Spirit.

In the unfolding biblical story of God's humility, God "makes a home for the poor," as our Psalm 68 says today, by taking the Hebrews from their slavery and establishing them in a country of their own. As they develop their law, special protections are put in place for the poor, for orphans, widows, and aliens, so that they are not forgotten. Israel is admonished to keep in mind what God did for them, "making a home for the poor," and to treat other people the same. In the age of the kings, the enthronement psalms often did the same, reminding the kings to "govern the people with equity, and the lowly with kind judgment," and to "have pity on the afflicted and poor," to "rescue the poor when they cry out."

The humility of God is an invitation to solidarity with everyone. Joining in that downward and outward movement of faith, so remarkably embraced and preached by Pope Francis, is the path to the end of envy, consumerism, and violence. Once our vision has changed from accumulation and striving for some kind of opulent "best in show" in life, it is possible for us to change the fractured path of humanity from a story of envy, mistrust, and violence between "haves" and "have nots" to a new Way of mutuality and shared wealth, where all may or may not have the same, but all have enough for meaningful and secure living. And all this because, as the letter to the Hebrews says, "You have not approached that which could be touched and a blazing fire and gloomy darkness and storm and a trumpet blast," but a rather a God who did not deem godliness itself something to be grasped, but emptied himself and took the form of a slave.

This is a first stanza of a song I wrote last year that is about some of these things, which we sang for Holy Thursday and Christ the King, and which we will sing for our masses tomorrow. It's called, "To You Who Bow."


To you who bow, to you who bend,
To you who do not cling to heaven,
But unto us descend,
You who summon us as servants,
And call your servants "friends,"
To you we lift our song, Love ever new,
O God who bows, we sing our song to you. 
(© 2014 GIA Publications)


Thursday, August 29, 2013

We are with whom we eat (C22O)


Sunday's gospel, set at a meal in the house of a prominent Pharisee, includes these lines:
..When you are invited (to a banquet),

go and take the lowest place
so that when the host comes to you he may say,

‘My friend, move up to a higher position.’

Then you will enjoy the esteem of your companions at the table.

For every one who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” 
Then he said to the host who invited him,

“When you hold a lunch or a dinner,

do not invite your friends or your brothers

or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors,

in case they may invite you back and you have repayment.

Rather, when you hold a banquet,

invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind;

blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.

For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” 


Lots of important things happen at meals in Luke. Later this month, we’ll hear all of Luke 15, the three parables of the lost things, and each of them has at its rhetorical heart a meal of celebration. The whole scene is composed around a challenge thrown against Jesus’s honor by his enemies: “This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.” From the placing of Jesus in a manger in the infancy narrative to the meals of Emmaus and the upper room of Luke 24, Jesus is portrayed as someone for whom mealsharing is very important. To dine with people outside one's social caste was, besides being an act of human solidarity, perceived as an act of political theater. Jesus was “acting out;” he was starting to live in a world where God ruled, and not Caesar, and not Herod, and not Caiaphas. In the empire of God, whom Jesus described as a loving father, there is enough for all, and people are equals around the table. By eating with those outside the cultic boundaries of acceptability, Jesus was rejecting the cult. By doing so, and at the same time claiming a (non-unique) filial relationship with God, he was, in the eyes of these same leaders, committing sedition or blasphemy, depending upon who your god is. When your god is the emperor, it’s the same crime. And in the Roman empire, there was one form of capital punishment reserved for seditionists of any kind: crucifixion. The more I read about the "historical Jesus," mealsharing may have been the important thing about his ministry, something that endured in the missionary strategy of St. Paul and the apostles. The Jesus meal, the open table to which all were invited, might have been their entree (ha ha) into local communities, as well as a means of establishing and communicating the core values of the Way, evolving more formally into what we know as the Eucharist.

At any rate, at this meal with the distinguished Pharisee, a party of wealthy Jews with whom Jesus would have held many similar religious views, Jesus tells him to “take the lowest place,” and makes on of his famous (and, in the eyes of the Jesus seminar, authentic) reversal statements, foreshadowed in the Magnificat: those who exalt themselves shall be humbled, and those who humble themselves shall be exalted. 

What struck me about this was that the divine dynamism of agape is always exactly this: taking the lowest place. As I never get tired of saying (however tired the listener may get of hearing it), Jesus did not cling to equality with God, as Paul says in Philippians, rather, he emptied himself, and became a slave. God, then, in agape, took the lowest place to show us how to find the way to life. If that weren’t clear enough, at the last meal of his life, one that certainly had enough inner weight to be remembered in all four gospels, though with different emphases, he took off his clothes, taking the position of a servant (and lower than a Jewish servant—unthinkable), and washed the feet of his disciples. We don’t really get that, because we use the word “disciples” in an almost religiously exclusive way to mean the his band of twelve inner circle members. But this word describes a relationship between a master, who is above, and others, who are below. And it is the master who becomes the servant of the rest. This act, described only in John at the last supper, mirrors the action of the Logos in the Prologue to John in chapter 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be…And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Equal to God, dwelling with God and in God from the beginning, because of God’s agape, the Word became flesh.

But then Jesus goes on to tell the Pharisee to do as he does, that is, when he throws a party, invite the outsider, anyone who can’t pay him back. That got me wondering about us in 21st century America. We’re not much even for eating with our friends or even our family. Many of us have lost the habitual rhythm of our parents’ and grandparents’ lives that revolved around dinner time at home, and almost ritual “Sunday meals” around tables that told stories in times like the Great Depression. (Remember that great movie, Places in the Heart? Was there ever a better “secular” tale on the meaning of Eucharist, table-sharing, and reconciliation? Well, maybe Babette's Feast, but still…) In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan avers that one in three Americans eats fast food every day, from an outlet like McDonald’s or KFC. Unless the same people are eating out every day, we could extrapolate that well over half of us eat out, maybe in our cars, several times a week. It’s hard to be inviting people to dinner when we’re eating in a two-seater, or an SUV full of teenagers.

I don’t know that a campaign to get American Christians to eat dinner together at home every night has much chance of succeeding. But even if it is an impossible dream, it doesn’t free us from the gentle demands of the gospel to invite those who are “poor, crippled, lame, and blind” to our tables. I guess we could just think about this as being justice-oriented in our donations of money to charity and relief organizations, but I wonder. If the dinner table was the scene of political and religious “street theater” for Jesus, what would be the scene today? Where and how would committed American Christians make a stand against the tyranny of habitual neglect of the poor, the elderly, orphans, the homeless, and so on? I suppose if I were one of them, I’d know better. 

One possible answer that strikes me is: in our leisure time. And I don’t mean by that whatever time is left over after all our goofy activities—I mean whatever time we use to waste on all our goofy activities. You know, sports, dance, golf, reading, watching television, writing blogs. We spend a lot of time and money on ourselves, and we really could be doing other people a lot of good. Most of us try to do something for other people; we’re not completely oblivious to the suffering of others, but our activities on behalf of the poor are more a bandaid for our own guilt than anything to heal the injustice of the world. I’m as guilty as the next person. But just once, some Sunday, I’d like to hear a priest actually say that there’s a gospel boat out there, and we’re missing it, and if you want to jump on it today, meet me at the corner of such-and-such at 4:00 and we’ll see what we can do. Wouldn’t that be better than all the self-help bullsh*t we hear week after week?

Sigh. I’m trying to keep my ears open.

So, where do you think the stage of the political theater of God’s realm is to be found in the USA in the 21st century if it’s not around the dinner table (and it probably isn’t)? Who are the main players? And isn't it strange that I even have to ask this question?

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Lessons in Congregational Singing from Wrigley Field, and other rants


It hasn't been a good baseball year in Second City. Not even for the smarmy southsiders.

But for the kids who play in the Friendly Confines at Ashland and Clark, it's been particularly abysmal. True, last night we beat the highly vaunted Los Angeles Dodgers and their ace Clayton Kershaw, in their own ballpark, but it's hard to get too excited even about that. I only got to one game this year, and hope to get to one more with a choir friend next week, but it's more for the atmosphere than the baseball. The worst day at Wrigley is better than the best day at work.

So, since bragging about the Cubs is just an absurd thought this year, let's talk about singing at the ballpark. Let's put aside the whole thing about the unsingability of the national anthem for just a moment, because what I’d like to say about it applies to any song that’s not “The Star Spangled Banner” which Congress might on some future day dub to be the national anthem. As a matter of fact, it probably applies with even more force. I am so sick of divas and divos taking the national anthem, a song which belongs not to
Some wag's graphic depicting SSB
as performed at sporting events
any singer but to all Americans (and not to “every” American, individually, but to all of us collectively), and turning it into a cascade of guttural pops and fifty-note melismas, and the de rigueur rise of the fourth on the word “free” in the “land of the free” phrase. UGH! Go back to Star Search or America’s Most Wanted Idol, and give me back the National freakin’ Anthem.


Let’s just say that SSB should always be in the key of Ab, except when it’s being played at Vassar or Wellesley, when a special dispensation can be given to sing it in G. The song has the same range as “I Am the Bread of Life,” which we already know can be sung by the Normal Human Person. SSB’s ascent to its apogee is, to a lesser extent perhaps than Toolan’s little masterpiece, a study in vocalization, with the notable and throat-catching exception of the rise of the 10th (what the hell were those ale-soaked British lushes thinking?) between the end of the 2nd quatrain (on the low tonic) and the first note of the 3rd quatrain, on the mediant an octave higher. Cripes. There is no way to get ready for that, but it does make you stand up straighter to try and get the tone. Speaking of standing up straighter, ahem, the original lyrics to "The Anacreontic Song,"called "Anacreon in Heaven," are suggestive of other battles and victories...


The Yellow-Haired God and his nine lusty Maids,
From Helion's banks will incontinent flee,
Idalia will boast but of tenantless Shades,
And the bi-forked hill a mere desert will be.
My Thunder no fear on't,
Shall soon do it's errand,
And damme I'll swing the Ringleaders I warrant,
I'll trim the young dogs, for thus daring to twine,
The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's Vine."


We ought to be able to raise some kind of a stink about this. I’m no fan of the martial imagery in the SSB, especially in the third stanza with its “manifest destiny” clause, 
Then conquer we must

When our cause it is just,

And this be our motto:

In God is our trust.

Let’s all agree that this quatrain is not a great piece of poetry - the “it” in the second line is redundant and added just for the sake of the meter, which is a Bozo-No-no in writing. No appeals to poetic license accepted, in fact, license revoked, Mr. Key. But the first stanza, with it’s dramatic irony as the smoke and haze lift on the morning after the sea-battle at Fort McHenry, is a masterpiece, with its lingering question all the more dramatic when the song is sung in its usual one-verse fashion:
O say! Does that star-spangled banner yet wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?


So I don’t want Brittany “Whitney-channeling-Celine” Cowell-Abdul hooting the national anthem at a public event. This is a ritual moment, and it ought to be a moment where we all participate, however terribly, in singing the national anthem. So, all of you all over the country, just stop it. Meanwhile, if the national anthem is a musical free-for-all featuring the star-of-the-moment, then don’t criticize the Roseanne Barrs of the nation for taking it over and doing it themselves. Don’t kid yourself that these singers are singing SSB with four or five times the notes that were written for it out of some exaggerated sense of patriotism - this is for them and for us a moment of sheer narcissism, of letting a professional do something for us that we ought to be doing ourselves, and patting ourselves on the back for it.

And now that I’ve got that off my chest, all you other goofy ballclubs stop with the “God Bless America” debacle in the seventh inning. Stop taking your emo patriotism so seriously and start doing what we still do at Wrigley, in the land of the free and home of the hip, and sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Why? Because that’s how it’s done. It’s a baseball game, not a recruitment poster.

The experience of shatteringly good ritual singing, like an assembly of 40,000 being led by an organist and a tone-deaf trio of basketball players from Northwestern, is something to which all church musicians ought to aspire. We can learn a few lessons from this experience, to wit:

  1. If the assembly knows the song, it doesn’t matter how bad the cantor is.

  2. If you don’t change the song all the time, people learn it by heart, and teach it to their kids.

  3. Rhyming can be good

  4. Concrete language is good (e.g., “peanuts and crackerjack,” instead of “snacks and candy”; “Cubbies” instead of “home team” ☺)


I might just be cranky because the Cubs' season reads like a compendium of 20th century French military victories, and whatever game I see next week will be a meaningless study in beer consumption. At least I know three things right now: Wrigley Field will be amazingly beautiful; I’ll sing the Star-Freaking-Spangled Banner no matter what the Idina Menzel wannabe on the 3rd base line is doing, and everyone will be singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the 7th inning stretch. You can’t ask much more out of life on a workday afternoon in September, unless maybe it’s singing “Go, Cubs, Go” after the 3rd out in the visitors’ ninth, and seeing the blue and white “W” flag yet wave o’er the ramparts of Waveland Avenue.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Another interlude: "Lazarus in Phoenicia"

Lazarus in Phoenicia by Rory Cooney


Floating days and nights, then
a dream of triremes sailing away
for days there is nothing but wind and sun,
the sea lifting us,
swells soft as a woman’s belly.
I am astern and ashore, I watch me
standing, leaving.
(I say to me, You have everything, I nothing.
But there is an abyss in my everything, I say,
an oasis of me in your nothing)

Those were fevered times You ask me,
Where did you go? What did you see?

Light and darkness I remember, but
no hot nor cold persists there.
Only that each moment stretches
between the hands of consciousness
like the purple yarn of Tyre’s looms.
Only the voice, full of tears and music,
that called for a miracle from me,
as though i were the last Jew,
as though suns would blink out
did i not return.

Now I dream of warm seas,
I watch me leaving, staying.
I know that i was dead,
That I lay with crawling things,
stink and darkness lay their eggs
upon my vanished breath,
went in and out of me.
Dead and alive, i am one:
in this wind, these waves, I listen
for the song that called me out,
the voice that bade me live,
then went off to die.

I am born a second time.
These tiny men are no world to me.
I have caught a dream,
and their threats have no sting.
(© 1993)

Friday, August 23, 2013

Adventures in Liturgy Planning - 1. Iphigenia in Gilead

You really have to start reading this today by reading the first reading from yesterday's daily scriptures, from the book of Judges (Jgs 11:29-39A). It's the story of Jephthah and his daughter, and let me tell you, if you don't remember it, reading it again will put a chill down your spine.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. It's been a great joy for me this summer to play music for retreat masses some weekdays at Bellarmine Jesuit Retreat Center in Barrington, a beautiful, quiet place where in fact my old friend Fr. Michael Sparough, S.J., hangs one of his many hats. Attending daily mass there is a soothing experience for me generally. The well-read, experienced, and compassionate priests who work there celebrate the liturgy and preach with a humble, good-natured simplicity that vectors well from my Sunday experience. Some weeks ago, I prepared the music and worship aids from notes I received from one of the priests there, and the office staff always has things ready to go in the morning.

Yesterday's mass was a memorial of the Queenship of Mary, a relatively recent (1950s) feast instituted by Pius XII on the octave of the Assumption. Now, I don't want to be a liturgy geek here, but a little background is required. In the weekday cycle of readings, the readings are in the book of Judges for the first reading, and Matthew for the gospel. The readings for the memorial are quite different: the familiar beginning of Isaiah 9 and the annunciation narrative. Let's face it: you can hardly get a greater contrast than that between Judges 11 and Isaiah 9. It's perfectly all right, in the case of a memorial, to use either set of readings. On days like today, in order to accommodate daily mass attendees, it's frequently a good idea to continue the sequential readings to keep the narrative flow intact.

But I assumed, when I was told that the house would celebrate the memorial, that they would use the readings of the memorial, that is, Isaiah 9 and the annunciation, and so I picked the music, including the responsorial psalm, which was selected to reflect back on the first reading as well as, often, look forward to the gospel. In this case, a very different first reading, and a very different gospel.

So what happened, you're wondering as I prattle on?

Well, the lector got up and beautifully read the story of Jephthah smiting the Ammonites, making a vow
to God that if God would just let him kick the crap out of his enemies (twenty-four towns, if I remember right from my shock) he would offer the first person who stepped out of his house on his return as a burnt offering! Now, you could hope for a mistranslation or some kind of ambivalence here in the pronouns...maybe he meant an animal? But as I recall, animals inside the household were against the Mosaic law, so it appears that Jephthah indeed meant a person. The trouble is, when he got home happy and victorious and oh so righteous in the eyes of the Lord, it was his daughter, his only child, who came out of his house, dancing and playing the tambourine. Talk about a kick in the toga.

And you can hope for a happy ending, you know, like the one in the story of Abraham and Isaac? Deus ex machina, or maybe Agnus ex machina, and a surrogate quadruped shows up in the last act to take the heat, as it were. But no. Jephthah keeps his vow.

Now, it's bad enough that this reading memorializes this atrocity, legendary or not, every two years in the mass, but this story doesn't end well even today. See, the psalm chosen to go with the reading tries (in vain, I would say) to spiritualize the reading by having us sing psalm 40, "Here I am, Lord, I come to do your will," as though to say, "Yeah, it's grisly as hell, but at least the guy knew how to keep a promise." But the psalm chosen for the memorial, the one I prepared with the cantor and the one in the worship aid, was a hallel psalm (113), and I had chosen Michael Joncas's setting of it from "On Eagle's Wings," with it's bold triple-alleluia refrain. So here's what happened:

  • A narration of a filicide atrocity that left us all slack-jawed and, I hope, outraged.
  • The closing dialogue that follows the horror: "The word of the Lord!" "Thanks be to God!"
  • The responsorial song in a (somewhat corraled) Dorian mode 6/8 rhythm, "Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!" "You servants of the Lord, bless the Lord, blessed be his name forever."

I'm telling you, there has to be a better way to make a living.

What did I learn from this? Never, never, never take anything for granted. Never never never never NEVER!

The lovely Jesuit, Father Paul, who ended up having to preach today made a point, after his homily, of saying "Note that I didn't preach on the first reading." 

But in fact, his entirely homily was on the theme of surprise. The motif was, "If someone asked you to describe your life in one word, what would it be?" Celebrating his 50th jubilee this year, he had in fact been asked that question for a Jesuit publication, and he told them, "Surprising." The gospel parable of the king's banquet was a springboard, and you can see that. Parables, all of them, if they're heard with the ears of Jesus's audience, are full of surprises, many of them unpleasant. Fr. Paul said that his life, and his life as a retreat leader, demonstrated that as often as not God is to be found in the surprises, in the bends in the road, the detours, the events that interrupt life as we had it planned or the way we expected it. As long as you forget about Jephthah's daughter burning on a funeral pyre, that works.

But the premise, that life is surprising, is pretty undeniable. You can't prettify that story from the book of Judges. It's there in all its wrenching irony, playing out like a Greek tragedy. But for Christ's sake, even Euripides found a way to save Iphigenia. Surely some inspired author might have found a goat or ram or a damn lhasa apso to step in and take the knife. 

Really, Lord? Really

Thursday, August 22, 2013

SongStories 13: We Will Serve the Lord (1985, Do Not Fear to Hope)

Just one of those coincidences, I guess. This past Sunday, as a post-gospel reflection on the cost of following God's way, about being prophetic and all, I had programmed my song "We Will Serve the Lord" to be sung during the preparation of the gifts. Of course, I do all of that weeks in advance. But I just happened to be at daily mass on Saturday morning that week, and what was the first reading, but most of Joshua 24, the reading and renewal of the covenant at Shechem as the Hebrews entered the "promised land," followed by a brief summary of the death of Joshua at the ripe old age of 110.



I was trying to think about the mix of emotions the Israelites must have felt in that story. Most of those who had come out of Egypt, forty years before, as the story goes, would probably have been buried in the desert along the way. They had endured the ravages of hunger, thirst, and homelessness, been attacked by marauders, scorpions, and snakes, eaten whatever the desert offered them, including quail and the miraculously delivered manna, all for the dream and promise of "a land flowing with milk and honey." They drifted in and out of faithfulness to God and Moses. And here, they arrive in the land flowing with milk and honey, and not only does it look a lot like the desert they just came out of, it's already occupied by people none too willing to leave it. Some things, apparently, never change.

And yet, in that moment of arrival, with the stress and memory of freedom gained and family lost behind them, they listen to the challenge of Joshua, and with eyes opened to the local tribes and their gods, choose to continue to follow the God of Moses and the covenant that had been offered to them. Nothing is going to be easy, at least for a few centuries before the first kings come onto the scene, and it goes downhill pretty quickly after that again, in a matter of three or four generations. We really know how to tell a story.

In my last job at St. Jerome in Phoenix, I played at least as much guitar as I did piano, or at least a lot more guitar than I do now, which amounts to sitting in my living room on those rare occasions when some of my kids or musical friends are over and we get into singing like hippies or canaries or other endangered species. However, not long after I put out my first recording, I think I was feeling that I was trying to do too much musically with my limited musical knowledge, that my songs were getting too complicated for my ability and certainly for everyone else's taste. I felt that my strength was more in the simplicity of songs like "Psalm 40: Here I Am" and "Yours Today" than in the more complicated pieces I was trying to write. So I intentionally went to the guitar, which forced me into simplicity, because I was even a more terrible guitar player than pianist.

There's no doubt in my mind that either preparing for or reacting to the Joshua pericope that pops up in year B of the lectionary at the end of the John 6 irruption of late summer. That verse, "Choose for yourself this day whom you shall serve.... As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. (Jos. 24:15) Though we don't have to choose among the Baals and their various sacrificial demands and rites in our own time, we still do have to choose which god we will serve. There are a lot of gods competing for our allegiance: nationalism, wealth, corporate success, perpetual youth, the sports industry, immersion in technology, hedonism. Lots of gods. And the One who keeps inviting us into covenant, into the "glory" that is presence to one another, the "glory" that is mutual respect, interdependence, and non-violence, keeps calling us home like the scent of fresh bread baking in a nearby kitchen. 

That's the God who is at the heart of "We Will Serve the Lord." I confess that I would probably write the lyric a little differently at 61 than I did at 35 or so, and that maybe the language is a little too purple and hyperbolic and the music a little too martial than I have a taste for today. I just hope that the faith it contains is more transparent, and since it's not the only song in the hymnal, it might still have a place, or at least not lead anyone too far off the path. Sometimes simplicity cuts too many corners and becomes oversimplification. I don't know. They tell me no one listens to the words anyway!

There are four different versions of this song on iTunes now. Ours is from the recording Change Our Hearts, made in 2000, remaking the anthologized songs from the first three NALR albums after the company was bought by Oregon Catholic Press, now OCP. My friend, evangelist, and fellow composer Tom Booth did a wonderful version on his popular CD Find Us Ready, and there are a couple of other versions recorded by other artists as well. Check them out below in the iTunes window. 

The post on the album Do Not Fear to Hope has more information on the production and performances. "We Will Serve the Lord" has appeared in all the editions of Gather since Gather Comprehensive was introduced in the mid-1990s, and in some youth-targeted hymnals as well. Thanks for reading. More again soon!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The problem with prophets (C20O)

In your struggle against sin
you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood. (Heb. 12:4)


The Yoke, byMichael Buesking
The word "prophet" gets thrown around a lot these days. Almost anyone with an ax to grind against anyone else, anyone who claims to foresee the future, anyone who dares to be disobedient and can garner a sympathetic audience can be named a prophet by somebody. I was trying to figure out what kind of insight this weekend's scripture might bring to this phenomenon.

Jeremiah has a problem. His faith in the covenant leads him to preach against the king and the temple, who have turned to idolatry after the death of the king's father, King Josiah. Jeremiah is preaching a bleak future for Israel, and he turns out to be right, of course. The thing is, he wasn't the only prophet in town. There were other prophets who called him a liar and a fake, and he called them the same. From the fortunate vantage point of 2500 years of history, we can see that Jeremiah's name is remembered as a great prophet, both by Israel and by the Christian world, and his enemies are forgotten.

Put yourself in the position of the everyday Israelite, trying to make a living, under siege by Babylon in Jerusalem. The king and his prophets have thrown their hope in with Egypt, which is suspiciously invisible when things get dicey in Jerusalem. Jeremiah has been preaching against resisting Babylon. He wanders the streets of Jerusalem wearing a yoke over his shoulders, From their point of view, Jeremiah is undermining national security. He is "demoralizing the soldiers," as the reading says. Other prophets in Jerusalem are preaching about peace, Jeremiah is preaching about destruction and captivity as a result of Israel's idolatry and forgetfulness of the covenant. Whom would you believe?

In Luke's gospel, Jesus is not much passed the transfiguration, which is set between predictions of his passion and death. He has a problem like Jeremiah's. His point of view is that the temple leadership has settled the nation into a comfortable (for the leaders) policy of accommodating Rome, but that the god of Rome is not the true God. There is a different kingdom, a different empire, a different God, a different economy, a different peace, and they are unreachable through the religious and political channels of the temple and Rome. It must have seemed an insurmountable problem at times, the great numbers of people for whom survival depended on obedience, the religious practices that held the borders in place between the clean and unclean, the saved and lost, the temptation to employ the doomed shortcuts of revolution and violence, the profound imbalance of power and wealth, and the seduction of believing that power and wealth are what they seem.

And Luke's gospel is, of course, written from the distance of decades of church life, after the Christian diaspora, after the siege and destruction of Jerusalem, after the passing of many of the eyewitnesses to the events recorded therein. The gospel vision and hope for its arrival are still quite alive in the community, but along the way there has been disappointment and disillusionment, accommodation, even apostasy, as new apostles, prophets, and martyrs took on the mantle of those whose names populate the gospel narrative.

People today get called prophets, too. Some prophesy peace, some destruction. Some are pro-government, some anti-. Some are in the church, or a church, and some are outside. Some are inside and act outside. Prophets, we say, speak for God. That's what the meaning of "prophet" is. It's not that they necessarily see the future, it's that they interpret present behaviors as leading to predictable outcomes from God's point of view. So how do we know who is a real prophet, and who's a phony? Who is Jeremiah, and who Hananiah? Who is Elijah, and who the prophets of Baal? Who is Christ, and who is, well, Pilate? or Caiaphas?

"True" and "false" prophets are judged by just one principle: who your god is. If one's god is, for instance, American exceptionalism, then one might rightly call Glenn Beck or Ted Nugent a true prophet, and by the same token judge Pope John Paul II or Daniel Berrigan a phony. If one's god is the infallible and unerrant Roman Catholic Church, then one might think of John Donaghue or Pope Benedict XVI as a prophet, and think of Sr. Simone Campbell or SNAP or the press investigating clergy abuse as false prophets. The question is, which god, and therefore, which future, concerns the prophet? Who "wins" in the eschatology of the prophet?

For me, I don't think Caesar needs any help. Whoever is in power is there to stay, and history overwhelmingly supports the view that the few powerful and rich have no intention of being anything other than the few powerful and rich. By threats, violence, and manipulation, they act like gods on their own behalf, substituting occasional altruism for justice, letting excess wealth "trickle down" to give the occasional illusion of beneficence.

If someone is accused of being a prophet, I ask myself, of which god? If the prophet is right, who wins? As far as I can tell, the God of Jesus is for everybody. The God of Jesus is "our Father," the head of the universal household, who wants for all the children in all the worlds unity and peace, equality and freedom, as a birthright bestowed on all and which we owe to one another in love. There is no coercion with the genuine God. There is no place for violence and threats of death, no superiority of race, nation, caste, or class. There's also no shortcut to unity by way of law, to peace by way of war, or to equality by way of violence. Everyone just needs to be persuaded by the story, by the importance of the needs of the other, and opt into the equality of the empire of God.

Just.

Maybe that's what a true prophet is, for someone who believes in the God of Jesus. Someone who believes the God is for everybody, and not just for those who can help themselves, or even those who can help others because of position, birth, or money. We may not believe as Jeremiah did that God needed to exact retribution for Israel's infidelity, but a prophet knows, and needs to say, that human actions have consequences, and no alliances with force can long delay the echoes of violence in the world. As I say, a person's god(s) will qualify the prophets s/he believes in. That's the one that I believe in. The one who is for everybody.

And the forces of the other god(s) will not sit by idly while their world is torn down. They will strike back in all the ways that they know how, and we have seen that again over and over again in our own lifetimes. Prophets know that that violence is coming, and can be confused or unsettled by God's silence. Jeremiah himself cried out to God that God had seduced him, raped him even, and he wanted to run away from his calling, but it came back to him like fire in his heart. I thought of Jesus in the gospel yesterday, longing to set his fire upon the earth, seeing with the evangelist's eyes the division that was caused by the gospel of unity and love, and trembling at his calling. Trembling both with some premonition of the violence that would be done to him by the other god, and trembling with desire for the peaceful empire of Abba that was so close he could touch it and even share a taste of its abundance in Caesar's world. Moving that mountain into the sea might have seemed like a challenge even to his experiential, solid faith.


Some critics say that Bob Dylan's most acerbic songs, the ones where every phrase is thrust and twisted like a dagger into the flesh of some unknown target, songs like "Just Like a Woman" and "Idiot Wind" and "Positively Fourth Street", are really songs about which he himself is the subject, his powers of analysis and self-observation resulting in these musical masterpieces of recrimination and parody. I wonder whether Jesus, encouraging his apostles a few chapters from today in giving themselves over more completely to faith in Abba, might have been talking as much to himself facing the last weeks of the Jerusalem journey. "If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you." For Mark's Jesus, it was a whole mountain that would fly into the ocean. It was probably an apt comparison to the task of turning humanity around 180°, and setting course by the star of a different pole. 

The Letter to the Hebrews, finally, speaks of the struggle against sin. I think the author here means "sin" in the sense that Jesus means it when he opens up the campaign for the soul of humanity in the opening verses of Mark: "The reign of God is at hand. Turn away from sin, and believe in the gospel." In other words, "Turn away from the empire of the god of violence, lies, and slavery, and believe in the victory of this other God I'm telling you about, the God of love, truth, and freedom. A new world is really close by. All you have to do is turn around. All of you. Stop believing the lies, and turn around." In the struggle against sin, Hebrews says, the struggle against cooperating with Caesar and being faithful to Abba, you have not yet had to shed your blood, like the master did, and like many others have done. 

Jesus, God's true prophet, did shed his blood. As though in a bit of cosmic, eschatological theater, his death was like a grain of wheat, a seed from the garden of God's empire planted in Caesar's field. That act of faith-filled subversion could overrun Caesar's field as its seeds multiply over the ages. We will all look up from the ground together some day, turn around, and then the mountain will fly away.


Monday, August 19, 2013

Where Wakened Beauties Go

An old poem. Something different, because the right words aren't there today.


Fairy tales and other gospels
are not about heroes,
for in them, heroes pass into shadows.
They are for children,
but only adults weep to hear them.
For us, anonymity must be the goal,
the happily-everaftering to be sure,
but heroism is the doorway there.
It is the work of children,
the way adolescents are healed
of the fever of isolation, independence,
losing self to find self.
War can teach us to be heroes,
but too many die there, suspended,
fruit surprised by late frost, flood.
Love teaches most of us.
This expedition lasts most of our summers,
graduating us from smaller dragons
to larger ones,
letting us remain children
until we walk the enchanted forest
of our own children, face their giants.

Even Jesus had to disappear;
there was never room for him.
After the great abandonment,
when nails tore his flesh like wolves,
and dragons of shame and derision breathing fire
burned his nameless signature “X” upon the roiling sky,
first the tomb ate him, saying,
—Lie here with the fox, the birds will wake you.—
Then the clouds swallowed him up, saying
—Here there is room, little one,
at last, an inn.
Finally, he disappeared into human story,
where truly, finally, he lives.

At the moment of choosing,
we breach the darkness like dolphins
and dance in another world.
We return in oblivion, for
our true self is a unison of awareness;
we are not islands, but a sea;
not heroes, but a people.
Giants are slain so that houses can stand;
witches baked so that fathers can repent.
Sleeping beauties awaken to politics and factories;
they do not wait on their princes,
but share their tiny redeemed board
with bent people of tears and rough hands,
feeding them light from teacups,
spreading hope on their bread like strawberry jam. 

(by Rory Cooney, 11/92)


Friday, August 16, 2013

Love means never having to hear "I'm sorry"


Remember when Erich Segal’s book Love Story first came out, it had to be in the late 1960s or early
70s, and how crazy we all thought that tag line was from the book and the movie: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” It still sounds crazy, and you wonder how someone who had lived for very long, who cared about another person, who had stumbled his or her way through more than 24 hours of a relationship, could ever have thought that that phrase was true. And still, true or not, that movie and book were incredible hits, ubiquitous for a year or so each, and, apparently, still read and remembered with treacly nostalgia.

I think we’re all pretty clear, those of us who actually have tried to get along with another person as equals, to share a house or a ride or cubicle or adjacent seats at the movie theater or ball park, that love means constantly saying you’re sorry if you want the relationship to last. Do you ever stick up for what you believe in? Sure. Especially when you’re young, and you think you’re right all the time, or middle aged, when you think that being right is important. Gradually, wisdom begins to teach us, and even more gradually do we actually learn, that being right isn’t all that important most of the time, and things can find their level if we can find a way to live in peace and mutual respect. This state of peace is cultivated by the judicious and frequent use of the words, “I’m sorry.”

I have often been a terrible father, and was worse when my older kids were younger, and I remember sometimes being insanely angry and saying or doing things that make me wince and wonder if it was really me, as I look back at pictures of them when they were such beautiful and vulnerable (yes, and maddening, parroting, and precocious) little kids. But I do remember, and it may or may not be the one saving grace of my miserable fathering, that I tried to say “I’m sorry,” and really mean it, when I was an ogre, and I tried to change my ways and learn from my mistakes (and/or, as Terry has told me at times, unlearn the things imprinted on me from my childhood.) I only hope that, in the course of all that, when I was mean, small, loveless and bitter in times of stress that somehow my genuine penitence, my expression of regret, attempts at redress, and purpose of amendment expressed to them explicitly, will help them in their relationships as they grow. They seem much better adjusted than I was or am already, so maybe there is indeed such a thing as grace.

What occurs to me now is that love doesn’t mean never having to say “I’m sorry,” but love does mean never having to hear “I’m sorry.” In other words, forgiveness is certainly a gift, that much is clear, but so is repentance. It can’t be forced on another person. The genuinely loving thing for us, as sharers in agape, the highest love that does not require anything in return, is to give forgiveness in its purest form, the kind that does not need to be preceded by any expression of sorrow. Forgiveness does not depend on the other person, it depends on us. Forgiveness is an invitation and an empowerment to be sorry. We can’t expect it from another person: that would be a form, it seems to me, of manipulation or tyranny. But everyone makes mistakes. To live in the compassionate awareness of that reality is to let forgiveness come out of us without the expression of regret from the other person, before they’ve even had the opportunity to reflect on their words or actions and regret them. This kind of love is agape, it is a sharing in the paschal mystery, the kind of life that is so rich that it is undiminished by death. Agape bears the pain of rejection because bearing it helps to break the cycle of revenge that makes the world noisy and tense with suspicion and nascent violence.

So, I can hear myself wishing (out loud) in the past that people I've been with would learn to say “I’m sorry” because that would make my way so much easier, but now I understand, as hard as it is to take, that it’s just not my place to expect other people to apologize. How old are you supposed to be to realize this? How out of touch must I be not to be aware of how often I’ve screwed up and have been forgiven, and how insignificant being “right” is most of the time, and especially at home and in church work? As I’ve said before here, if Jesus did not cling to equality with God and became like us, in other words, if he chose to "be sin" rather than staying in the “right” of god-ness, then how silly is it to insist on being right when I’m already utterly human, and full of the arrogance and (tragic, sometimes) buffoonery of error? 

Ah, well. Luckily, life is frequently less a tragedy than a comedy of error. Time to get busy on the novel that will make me rich, I guess, with the memorable tag line, “Love means never having to hear ‘I’m sorry.’” But I suppose that book has already been written.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The first thousand miles was easy...

At 6'2", I'm fairly tall, and through my life until i was 30 or so I was pretty slender, I mean, I didn't get up to 170 pounds until my 30s. I was actually skinny in college. But as my life got more sedentary and I stopped noticing, I put on some weight. Over the next 20 years, about a hundred pounds.

I don't know if this is true of most people, i didn't really notice it until I hit 50. I noticed it in pictures, I suppose, but not as a problem of gravity. In fact, I remember exactlywhere I was when I decided to start some kind of regimen of exercise after two decades of tiramisu and Heath Bars. I was with my family at Disney World on the 4th of July. Now, any day at Disney World (Orlando) is an excursion into barely controlled mayhem, but July 4 was insane. It was hot. And humid. And it rained, as it is wont to do in Orlando in the summertime. But most of all it was crowded. And, it seemed to me, it was crowded with obese people who were eating junk. It finally dawned on me that I was one of them, and I have to say I didn't like what I saw. It was a picture of excess. Mind you, I don't think about other peoples' weight, everyone has to find their own level, make their own decisions, based on their psychology and metabolism. But it had never really dawned on me, in spite of my doctor's subtle use of words like "morbidly obese" and "infinitely off the avoirdupois scale", that I was fat, because in my mind I was a skinny guy. A priest had once told me that I looked like a plucked chicken. I knew it wasn't a compliment, but I think he meant that I was skinny. (I was just 11 or 12; I hope he wasn't hitting on me...)

So, after a few more weeks of backsliding, I bought a pair of inexpensive walking shoes, and started using them. Barrington is a pretty town, and soon I had mapped out two routes of about four miles each, one that goes north through a park area and one that goes south through the village. Each could be shortened to about three miles easily if that was necessary, so I learned to like walking. (In emergencies, the southerly route is preferable, as it passes by a Starbucks, a Baskin-Robbins, and a Dunkin' Donuts.)
Migrating sandhills, one of dozens of waves

I got some great pictures on those walks. Or at least, the pictures I took remind me of how good I felt. Pictures of spring and autumn, especially, with crocuses popping through snow, or patches of tulips and daffodils, wild yellow dreadlocks of forsythia, summer fields of dandelions, the autumn fire of sugar maples, all of these with the earth and sky as backdrop were part of my daily routine. At least three times I witnessed the gathering circles of thousands of migrating sandhill cranes, probably half a mile high, but as noisy as though they were in the yard next door. I saw a lot of people from church, gave directions to lost cityslickers.

Since my 50th birthday, I had an iPod to take along with me, and wore out another one or two over the next 8 years or so. I almost always bring it unless I'm walking during a Cubs game, when I might opt for a cheap AM radio, cheap, so that when they lose, I'm not mad at myself for buying the radio to make matters worse. Sometimes, I put the iPod on and the earbuds in, but don't turn on any sound. That way, if I want to be alone with my thoughts, people will think I'm deep into my music and won't bother me. I've listened to dozens of recorded books that way, including many that I might not otherwise have picked up off a shelf to read.

I've gotten some good ideas for songwriting while on my walks, and fulfilled several commissions with ideas that came to me after percolating for several days on earbud-silenced ambulations. I know that at least three songs on Christ the Icon, including the title song, came to me while walking, as did the lyric for New Jerusalem, the text based on Revelation 21 that is sung to the tune of Shenandoah.

In 2004 I had cancer surgery, which slowed me way down for a few months, and somehow I developed a problem with my foot that kept me off the streets. I'm not too big of a sissy, but this was more than I can "walk through" consistently. My GP wasn't too helpful. It was a vicious circle: to lose weight, you have to exercise, but it's too painful to exercise, so I didn't. I sat around and fretted about it, writing, and if possible, eating Oreos.

I thought about getting a bike, or some kind of low-impact machine until I could get back on my feet again. I knew that I didn't want to gain another 100 pounds, or there would be a stability problem with the earth's crust as I walked to work, not to mention my throwing off scientific calculations of stellar distances by bending light around my substantial girth. I knew I needed to do something differently. I figured that, after walking almost every day for a year and then 3-4 times a week after that, I must have walked a thousand miles since I turned 50. But a more radical approach was required, even after my foot healed and I got back on the walking routine.

In late 2008, my doctor told me that Lipitor and Lisinopril had done all they could do, and my cholesterol and blood pressure were still too high. The only way I was ever going to get healthy would be to lose weight. She has some expertise in weight loss, so I committed to a program of a low calorie diet and exercise. She helped me for a few months with B-12 injections and an FDA approved appetite suppressant that tried to trick my ravenous brain into thinking that 1600 calories a day was more than enough for anyone. Through the comical period beginning in early 2009 when Terry was spearheading our campaign to buy a home, I was grousing to everyone, Woody-Allen-like, that all my meals were completely pleasureless experiences, like dining on loam, but the pounds did fall off. As they did, I was able to graduate from walking to alternating walking-running on the treadmill, and finally to jogging, which I took outside. I scoped out 3, 4, 5, and 6 mile routes from our house that I could choose based on how much time and energy I had for my daily exercise. By Christmas of 2009, I had lost about as much as I could stand, 80 pounds or so. I was off of the appetite suppressants. By spring, I was also off of Lisinopril, and on a maintenance dose of Lipitor. That Lent, Terry and I decided to try giving up meat for the season, and by Easter decided there was no reason to go back to it; we've been lacto-ovo-pisci-vegetarians ever since. 

Cuba Marsh, where I often go for a more bucolic five-mile run

About the time we moved to Lake Zurich in mid-2009, I got the kind of iPod that was able to use apps like Nike+, which uses GPS to track your mileage and time. Since I started keeping track with Nike+, I've done over 500 (tracked) runs, and over 2,300 miles. I say that with astonishment, not hubris, because it's nothing like I ever imagined I would be able to say about myself. At (a modest) 700 calories per 5 miles run, that's, let's see, about a million pounds that I don't weigh right now. But mostly it just amazes me that somehow I got the motivation and help to change my behavior so radically, both in exercise and diet, so that I could be healthier for my life and family. A journey toward healthier life that started with a single step stretched to a thousand, then twenty-three hundred more miles I wouldn't otherwise have walked. No reason that that road can't go ever on and on, like a hobbit's journey, or like a blog entry, looking for a happy ending, that final metaphor.