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Thursday, March 13, 2014

TBT - 1997 Keynote on liturgical art, faith, and prayer

Today, I'm sharing a talk I gave called "With Open Hearts, Hands, and Voices," for a ministry conference in 1997. The talk incorporated songs that Gary, Terry and I performed with the audience, and they are referred to in the talk. I've added the SoundCloud link to where we sang "You Alone," and there is an iTunes playlist of the other three songs. 

“With Open Hands, Hearts, and Voices”

by Rory Cooney

Copyright © 1997

...I am speaking to you about myself as a human being, as a believer, and as an artist. I am going to speak to you about “Open Hands, Hearts, and Voices,” (I thought we should add “open minds,” but thought it might be too much of a reach for a church conference), about the experience of common prayer, from my own viewpoint, which can be described as unique in that I’ve stolen it from different places than you have. Partly, I will have to tell this story through the music I’ve made with these two fine people, my wife Theresa Donohoo and my friend Gary Daigle. I think that you may hear your own voice in this talk, too, because my music comes from the desire and hope and openness of you and the hundreds and thousands of other Christian folk among whom we minister, who look to us to shape a voice and a song that will echo true in the heart and soul.

So our conference theme, “With Open Hands, Hearts, and Voices.” It suggests a posture....open hands, open hearts, open voices. “Abre el corazón”. I thought a way we might approach the topic is this: first, let’s investigate what it means to be ‘open.’ What other values are in conflict with openness (like perhaps infallibility)? After we spend a little time there, then we might look at how the posture of openness makes prayer possible, and see how our own experience as human persons in relationship to one another teaches us about openness as a people to God. Finally, we will look briefly at how openness makes the dominion of God possible in this world, how Jesus kept trying to open us to that possibility through his prophetic art, and how prophetic art can be in today’s world, preparing it for a breakthrough of God’s justice as we make our way toward a jubilee in the new millennium. Throughout all of this, we will make use of a little music to keep our brains open to oxygen in case my words are less than persuasive, or in case there wasn’t a Starbucks between your house and this place this morning! We’ll begin with the song “If/Si” on your songsheets.

Here we sang IF/SI - a couple of refrains, a verse, a couple of refrains..

“To the tiny wind and the voice of the hurricane, open up my heart.”

What does it mean to be open? Before we try to investigate any religious meaningl, any meaning that binds us together as people and binds us to God, we ought to investigate what we mean by the words in our everyday speech, and see what mysteries lie there in our idioms. We talk about “open air” meetings, being open-minded, having open borders, being open-jawed, open for business, eyes wide-open, open windows and open-door policies, and wide-open spaces. What is common, what are the characteristics of the openness we so describe? By open, we mean inviting, even waiting for the unexpected. We mean fertile, acknowledging the possibility of growth, not finished. We mean inclusive, expansive. Open is the feminine word, it means fecund, accepting, receptive, vulnerable by choice. Open means aware of one’s surroundings, being in awe of them. Open means exposed to the elements, wind in one’s hair, daylight on one’s face. Open means aggiornamento, no more closed windows and dark places. Open is a question, a possibility, the answer “may/be.” And what is the opposite of open? Closed. Boarded up. Go away. Closed-minded, tight, tense, dark, coercive, fixed, dogmatic, clenched like a fist, exclusive, oppressive, keep-out, rigid, set in one’s ways, answered. Yes and no.

Here, we sang verse/refrain/verse of If/Si.

You probably can think of a person in your life who is characterized by the words I’ve used from our common vocabulary to describe open. It might be a woman or a man, but I will wager that this person, for all their faults, is a joy to be around, a good person to have a conversation with, a traveler, a journey-maker, with varied interests. The person probably makes a lot of mistakes and is able to laugh at them and learn from them. The person sees the pain and hurt in the world, and accepts responsibility as a human person for ameliorating that suffering in whatever ways are possible. You’ve probably caught yourself wishing on some days you were more like that one, with their eyes, their heart, their charming ability to be a fool and not be foolish.

And on the other hand, you may know someone more characterized by closed-ness. This one also might be a man or a woman. But I suspect that this is the person with whom you’re most likely to discuss sports and the weather, and politics and religion rarely come up in your table talk. Everything is a problem for this one, and the blame for the problem can clearly be placed on others. If only everyone believed what this one believed, if they voted like I do, if they went to this church, if they’d just go out and get a job. If we’d just build more prisons, if there were more capital crimes and hanging judges; if we’d close the borders, make that a sin, bring back the Baltimore catechism.....well, you get the idea. You know this person. Ralph Cramden, Archie Bunker, Homer Simpson, Jesse Helms. Lampooned in every generation, and they just won’t go away.

And it’s not easy to be open. We’re born open, but it’s hard to stay that way. We have to grow back into it, and it’s not easy. It’s comfortable and safe in the dark womb of exclusivity and self-preservation. The narrow birth canal is a lonely place, we can only guess what life will be like out of the darkness we have inherited, but we are pushed there by a need to breathe new air, by a need to breathe that grows within us as the tiny confines of our selfishness threaten to kill us in that monstrous womb.

As hard as it is for a person to grow into openness, it’s harder for a society. Our societies are made for protection and defense; they are by their very nature closed. The are an accumulation of all our faults, our walls, our prejudices, and our borders. If it weren’t for the indwelling spirit of God, if it weren’t for the voice of that spirit speaking out of the tradition of Israel that the earth and all who live there belong to God, if it weren’t for the voice reminding us out of the Torah that “you shall not oppress the alien and the stranger, for you yourselves were once aliens in the land of Egypt” and its implied threat to do unto us like God did unto Pharaoh, then an open society would be impossible. Praise be to God for the word that calls us out of darkness into light.

Openness makes true community possible. Only by recognizing that abundant life and not merely my survival is the goal of the universe, only by daring to break down the walls I’ve been taught to build around my treasures, my heart, and live in the open expanse of a creation charged with God’s presence, only by accepting the alien and the stranger who is the other as my equal in the sight of the transcendent One who made us both, can community be possible. An open heart allows the truth to dawn on me that was already true, objectively true, in my prior closed, rigid, introverted state: the truth is that we belong to one another. I’m responsible for everything. It really does take a village to raise a child. Europe really is the less when a clod is washed into the sea. The bell does toll for me. And whatever you do to the least of people, you do to me. I do to you. We do to Christ.

Openness makes justice possible. Only openness can enable the flow of life that, when pent up behind dams of greed, fear, and isolationism, keeps the few artificially, even criminally, oversupplied with the hoarded abundance of the earth. Only with eyes opened by the light of truth can we comprehend that the earth is made for the benefit of all her children, and that we are called to steward earth’s treasures and distribute them equally for the benefit of all. Only openness can expose what we call charity for the thing that it is: a bucket of water thrown over the dam to the desert on the other side, a bucket that salves the conscience of the ‘haves’ while it makes beggars of the ‘have-nots.’ No. Openness can make us see that it is the dam itself that has to come down, so that the rivers of God’s justice can flow over the whole land, and make it green again.

The spirit of God makes openness possible, and openness is what makes prayer possible. Open up my heart, we cry, but only God’s word, breaking into the closed world that is my life, enables that prayer. The human soul is not a place out of which God can be locked. The hound of heaven has built a doggie door into every entrance, and when we retreat into that last closed, dark room to escape, the logic of divine love and the story of Jesus himself make it clear that not even locked doors are relevant. The surrender of the heart to God’s spirit makes it possible for the eye to see and the ear to hear. Into that heart, God can enter with the possibility of a new world. As the gospel of Thomas has it (77), ‘Split the timber, turn a stone, I will be there.’ To the heart awakened to the new boundless world, prayer is possible everywhere and at any time, because, in the words of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘the world is charged with the grandeur of God/It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.’

“With open hands” is a way we have of talking about prayer. I am cowed by the idea of prayer. It seems more likely that an amoeba be able to communicate with me than that I should be able to communicate with God. My soul will not let me believe so easily in an anthropomorphic God, a God who thinks, who loves, who acts, in fact, in a God who exists according to the way I can understand it. For God to be God, says my open heart, God must not even exist as I fathom existence. If I can even hold a thimbleful of Godness, then God cannot exist, because God must be completely other than I. And so I go on in my chutzpah, trying to rid myself of idols before I settle down to prayer.

I am a disciple. I am a songwriter. I am a husband and a father. I believe in God and I believe in this world. I believe that Jesus came to change this world, not to tell us to suffer and wait patiently for another one. I believe that, because God made this world and lives in it, that because God’s presence ‘flames out like shining from shook foil,’ that my life, my relationships, my knowledge, even my sin are of immense value because they teach me about what God might be like. God is invested in the reality that we know, in fact, all that we know of reality we believe is made ‘in the image and likeness of God.’ Especially people.

So it seems to me that I ought to be able to learn about praying, about facing God with open hands, by looking at my life and relationships in the world in which I live. Something about the way I live and communicate in the covenants of my daily life must be teaching me something about how God is, and maybe how God isn’t. (music begins here for “You Alone.”) And so I am honest and say: in this world, as I am today, I cannot make myself. I am damaged. And even so, in my hope for my future, for my children’s future, for the future of the world, I have great desires, desires that utterly exceed my grasp, my reach. My emptiness, what I am not, what I can’t make myself, my powerlessness and the sense I have of my own complicity in the evil that chokes the world, this very sense of the hollowness of life teaches me how to pray if I am open to the possibility of it. My restless heart teaches me over all these years that nothing can quench the thirst of it. With St. Augustine, I confess, ‘you have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

(Here, Terry Donohoo sang "You Alone")



Prayer, like the prayer that this song is, is a kind of communication. My human relationships teach me that it is communication that feeds and strengthens the covenants among us. These relationships teach me that communication depends on me only in a very secondary way. If there is not first the other, the outstretched hand, the open heart, the listening ear, if there is not first love, then all my communication, whatever it is, is a clanging cymbal, empty, harsh noise. The surrender of the other to my heart must come first. It is the foundation of communication. Trusting in the openness of the other is a leap of faith. Well, I say, God might be like that. Prayer might be like that. Not my work, but God’s.

Communication takes all kinds of forms, of course. We’re not all musicians here, not all liturgists or readers or artists. We use different media to express ourselves. And the colors on the canvas of human intercourse are equally varied, aren’t they? When we are in covenant with others, we communicate by word. We share memory and hope, need and gratitude. But we also communicate, and this is more important maybe, by deeds. I was remembering as I wrote this the book that came out about 20 years ago called Sex Starts in the Kitchen. It sounds kinky, and well, it was the 70’s. But the idea was true. In our covenant relationships, the kind, sweet words, the strong words of support, well, they’re all just words. What really matters, sometimes, is who takes out the garbage, makes supper, changes the diaper, washes the dishes. These deeds of covenant love communicate the depth of our commitment to each other. Hey, I say to myself, prayer might be like that. Not all talk, but action.

There is the communication of silence too, the communication of absence, of waiting and desire. While we may deal for a week, a year, or a lifetime with the silence or absence of our covenant-partners, Scripture is convinced that God’s silence will be broken. “It is good to wait in silence for the Lord,” writes the author of Lamentations. And Isaiah urges about God’s appearance: ‘if it delay, keep waiting for it.’ Because Scripture assumes that God, the greatest of all the Gods, must come to the assistance of God’s people, otherwise God would be a laughingstock among the other gods. So they pray, “Rouse your power! Wake up! O that you would tear the heavens apart and come down.” The horror of the holocaust, of Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Vietnam, Cambodia, the West Bank, and Bosnia-Herzegovina call upon us to deal with the silence of our covenant partner. Prayer might be like that. Empty, hard, silent sometimes. Our open hands are empty.

The love that eludes us, the unquenchable thirst within that can only be slaked for a time by accumulation and addiction, it is this emptiness itself that is God’s calling card and invitation to the dance of conversion. “The open palm of desire,” sang Paul Simon in his song “Further to Fly”, “wants everything, wants everything, it wants soil as soft as summer, strength to push like spring.” We want it all, but even all of it isn’t enough. Our hearts are made for the Holy One, they are restless until they find their rest in God.

Briefly, allow me to say that just as our human communication is characterized by words, deeds, silence, waiting, desire, memory, and gratitude, so is the communication of families, tribes, and groups. It is in this other sphere of communication, public communication, that we function as artists with open hands, hearts, and voices. In other words, though it may be my voice, my pen, my hands, my creative intellect and will that do the work, the faith and values, the deeds, silence, gratitude, waiting, desire, and memory that I am attempting to name (impossible) and communicate with my art are not my own primarily but the community’s. It is liturgical art that is our concern here today. It is the public expression of corporate belief that is behind the sound, light, and color of our craft. Still, I think it is imperative to remain rooted in what we actually experience in human relationships, whether love, silence, betrayal, solidarity-to-death, whatever, when we create. Otherwise, we chance crossing the line from real mystery, the mystery of personhood, consciousness, and self-gift, into the realm of magic. We risk trafficking in a counterfeit currency: not awe and wonder, but cheap thrills. That is a slippery slope upon which to stand, because soon the temptation will be not to express the mystery that is, but to create one that is not. We would redefine mystery to be not the depth of being that cannot be fully penetrated, and make it instead the smoke and mirrors and razzle-dazzle of whatever a gullible, transcendence-hungry public will buy. The difference is clear in the story of Elijah and the guild-prophets. Both are artists. Only one was ever in touch with real fire.

This world of the obedient trust of creation symbolized by the grass in the meadow and the lilies of the field, this world of the transcendent presence, and the world of our senses and all of our experiences, the bridge between these two worlds is the bridge of art and metaphor. This may most clearly be seen in the art of Jesus as we glimpse him both in the parables recorded in the gospels and in the prophetic street theater of his meal-sharing. As much as we try to tame the parables with our structures, as much as we try to say ‘this means this and that means that,’ our study of them renders their meaning much more elusive. Rather than teaching morals like Aesop’s fables or presenting allegorical situations, the parables lure us into a world that looks familiar but where suddenly we ourselves are thrust into unexpectedly decisive roles. Furthermore, they point us to a world of possibility wherein all of our treasured assumptions about right and wrong, about in and out, about clean and unclean are thrown out and replaced by a new, clear, open vision of possibility charged with the presence of God.

Similarly, Mark’s gospel, which we have been hearing over the past several months again, uses the metaphor of place and time to mark the great battle between God and the forces of the unholy kingdom, the ‘strong man’ that holds God’s people captive in God’s own house. It is in the wilderness, in the regions to the north and outside of the walled city of Jerusalem, in the wide-open spaces reminiscent of the pre-kingly days of the twelve tribes, that the beginning of a gospel is announced to the world. While the powers of the unholy kingdom conspired behind the walls of the temple, the city, and the fortress Antonia, in the wide-open wilderness a new enterprise is beginning that will end by tearing the curtain of the temple in two and throwing a gauntlet at the feet of the Roman empire. Mark’s tale of healing, exorcism, and solidarity introduced the world to a Jesus who saw things the way they could be and was not satisfied with an oppressive, infallible status quo. The world of rulers and subjects, of laws and rubrics that oppress, of a religion that trafficked in castes and made a commerce of piety preached to the poor, this was not the vision of the God of Moses. Jesus proclaimed that the tiniest faith, (because faith is first God’s work, remember), could say to the daunting mountain of skewed church and terrifying state: “Get up, and throw yourself into the sea.” The open table, the abundance of God’s providence, a community where the last are first and the first last, where those who lead would be servants to the rest, these are the images by which Jesus weaves a world that is still waiting to be born even as 2000 years later we keep his memory alive at our many tables.

(Begin music for Walk in the Reign) Even before Jesus broke onto the scene, there was the timeless voice of the prophet Isaiah writing about an open temple and an open world conversing with God. Writing not from the penthouse of the Jerusalem Hilton but from among the people living the horror of captivity and in the chaos of its aftermath, Isaiah dreams Israel into a new world built in the wilderness along a highway paved by God. Not to be limited by the walls of a temple or the birthright of wealth or power, this new Jerusalem would be on a mountain accessible to all, where there would be a surfeit of food and drink for all, and every tear would be wiped away. There, in the dominion of Emmanuel, God-among-us, we might finally live together in the promised land of God’s freedom.

Here, we all sang the song "Walk in the Reign"

We are privileged to straddle the worlds as we prepare for the prayer of many by means of the liturgical arts. Using the gifts of color and metaphor, cloth and sound, hospitality and voice, we suggest, tease out, collaborate, proclaim, invite, whisper with the tiny wind and roar like the hurricane that within the very substance of things and in the heart of every person there burns the fire of divine presence. Far from being a call to a quietistic adoration, however, the presence of the God of Jesus and Isaiah, the God of Moses and Miriam and Abraham and Sara, the presence of this God is a call to action. It is a call to tear down walls, to put more chairs around the table, to cajole, seduce, invite, lead, call back from the dead and if necessary go into the tomb ourselves to get all of those who are clenched in the fist of the darkness or sitting in caves with eyes closed. On behalf of the rest of us, who sometimes ourselves act like the unsighted or like sleepwalkers, we are here to rouse from sleep with a flash of color, an image, or a melody that might help us cross between the worlds. Not to leave one for the other, no, there is no need for that in a world that is already full of the Holy One. No, our task is to help us to see this world in a new light, the light of the dominion of God.

Ultimately then, what is it to which we hope to be open, and to which we aspire to being a part of opening the world? It is the new world of God’s justice, the world in which every nation is led out together from slavery to territory and racial purity and into a land flowing with the milk and honey of God’s bounty and the common human spirit. It is the world of the sabbath, in which all labor stops so that we can be filled with a renewed sense that all things are full of the creator and belong to God, and we have been entrusted with the earth’s riches so that we steward the riches of earth toward an equal sharing by all. We are called to be open to the world of the jubilee, to the sabbath of sabbath years, in which every debt is erased, all slaves are freed, prisoners are released, and the earth lies fallow so that it too can be renewed and rest in the bounty of God. With open hands, hearts, voices, and minds we gather as God’s people today to celebrate the connection of the worlds right in the midst of our labor and inspiration. And as we begin to make our way to the several workshops that will help us refine our skills as artists in various disciplines, I invite you to welcome the jubilee trumpet that announces the new world that is emerging in our lives as we live out our calling, the trumpet that will call us not to ‘heaven light-years away’, but to a dawning in this world of the sun of justice. I invite you to raise your voices like “A Trumpet in the Morning.”

We ended by singing "Trumpet in the Morning"