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Monday, September 15, 2014

Something to Sing About

This was a surprise, the lovely "As One Who Serves"
award from the parish. (Don't worry. I know. Lk. 17:10) 
When this day was suddenly coming together last month, and the various Sundays options were being considered, once my colleagues saw that this feast, the Exaltation of the Cross was one of the options, well, the jokes started writing themselves. Having been a cross to them and to many of you at one time or another for two decades, it may be a while before I hear the end of it. So I am not going to talk about myself any more than I can help it. I’m going to talk about you, and about my experience of Christ and God, and how those two are the same thing. Then later, you can talk about how listening to me was like the cross, and we’ll have a homily.

All of this was precipitated by my 20th anniversary this past February as a staff member at St. Anne, and by the recognition I received this past summer from the National Association of Pastoral Musicians as their Pastoral Musician of the year, an honor I share with about 40 other people you’ve never heard of. Marty Haugen(1), another former recipient, told me to enjoy it - “Here’s your award. Now go away.”

But this is really all about you, of course, and also about St. Jerome in Phoenix where I served for 10 years before here. A pastoral musician without a congregation is like worse than the tree falling in the woods without anyone to hear it. The tree, at least, exists - the pastoral musician without a community doesn’t. I can say, at least, that I’ve been pretty consistent about showing up, and Woody Allen once said that showing up is 80% of success in life. Trying to inspire other people to show up is part of my job.

See, being a pastoral musician is about calling people to participation. Pete Seeger, talking about his career, is quoted in the documentary The Power of Song as saying, "I've never sung anywhere without giving the people listening to me a chance to join in. As a kid, as a lefty, as a man touring the U.S.A. and the world, as an oldster. I guess it's kind of a religion with me. Participation. That's what's going to save the human race.” At the concerts that my wife Terry, Gary Daigle and I have given, we always pass out programs with our songs so people can sing along, and we’re careful to say that the art of liturgical music isn’t what is written on the page, or how cantors and choirs can sing them, but how congregations can sing them and own them and internalize the gospel while expressing their lives of faith in those songs. Like that pastoral musician without a congregation, liturgical song doesn’t exist when it’s not actually being sung by the people of God at prayer. It might be music, but it’s not liturgical music.

But more importantly, participation in church music is a sacrament of participation in Christian life. What we like to say is that we sing when we have something to sing about. Win or lose, mostly the latter, the 7th inning stretch at Wrigley field is a good example of secular liturgical singing, as is the nearly forgotten but wildly fun singing of “Go Cubs Go” after a victory. We're together, it's a beautiful park, we're at a baseball game, we're not at work. That's something to sing about. Everyone participates. No one questions the virtuosity even of the celebrity "cantors," some of whom are pitiable in their tunelessness. It doesn't matter.

What we Christians have to sing about, win or lose, is that God is with us in the winning and the losing, especially in the losing. In our loss, God is there in a particular concrete way when we are there for one another. So the call to participation is wider than just getting people to sing. It's a vocation to invite people into gospel life.
Terry came to three of the masses, and
Gary Daigle and Marcy Weckler-Barr played Sunday evening.
It's no secret that Terry's the "secret" to whatever success I can claim.

So the success of music in this parish or any parish isn’t the size of the choir, or the virtuosity of the cantors or instrumentalists, or how few wrong notes are played (thank God). Not that virtuosity is in any way a bad thing. It’s just that success in worship is not about the music at all, or the vestments, homily, or building. The “success” of liturgy is judged by what’s going on the other 167 hours of the week in the neighborhood, in our households, and businesses. It's about you, us, and what we do, and what we are becoming, and whom we are helping. That’s the kind of God we have, the God we worship. Not interested in praise, the God of Jesus is interested in agape, how we love one another.

I believe that I came to this ministry here as a result of my baptism. It’s as simple as that. God put me where I needed to be to learn what I had to learn, and sometimes I paid attention. I just kept showing up. In my life I’ve been surrounded by good teachers, holy women and men, great and generous musicians and singers, many of whom are here in this parish.

I firmly believe in the model of Church that St. Paul extols in 1 Corinthians. If there is a need in the church, there’s somebody out there with a charism or a gift from God that will fill that need. That’s why I always say, If you need something in here, ask for it. I think we needed each other in 1993, and the Holy Spirit saw to it that we found each other, 1500 miles away. That the Holy Spirit did it through Courtney Murtaugh(2) proves that God works in mysterious ways.

I said I was going to talk about you. Thank you for welcoming me here in the coldest, snowiest winter this desert dweller could have imagined back in February 1994.  Thank you, Courtney Murtaugh, for seeking me out at NPM in St. Louis and introducing me to Fr. Jack and Clem Aseron and Jim Condill (3). If I keep naming names, it will only make things longer and increase the distance between us and the Eucharist and the carbohydrates, both simple and complex, that await us afterward. Thank you to my colleagues for calling me out on the Catholic sin of needing to be right all the time, though I come by it honestly after 12 years of Catholic school and seminary, because I’m not right all the time, and I don’t like even saying that out loud but it’s true and I’m trying to get used to it. Thank you for the example of your faith, your faith in suffering, your commitment to the poor, your open hearts and homes. Thank you to the choir, cantors, and musicians who make you think I'm better than I am, and who prove that the "whole is greater than the sum of the parts we’re made of." Thank you for your kids in the choirs who are now doctors and actors and teachers and MBAs and lawyers. Thank you for your generosity of time and talent and money. Thank you for St. Gelasius, St. Columbanus, St. Frances of Rome, House of Hope, the food pantry in Carpentersville, the Christians of Uganda and Congo and India and Guatemala(4) and God knows where else where your worship is transformed into real life for real people. Thank you for showing up, thank you for singing, thank you for believing that the dwelling place of God is with the human race, that on this mountain, this little mountain in Barrington, Illinois, a block north of Main Street between US 14 and US 59, on this mountain the Lord of hosts will provide a banquet of rich fare for all peoples. (5)

If, as we celebrate today, love can change the cross from a symbol of terror,  torture, treason, shame, and death into a symbol of healing, forgiveness, community, and life, think what love can do with us. We have been marked with the cross, over and over, from baptism to the grave. Let us glory in the cross of Christ. God so loved the world that he sent his only son, and God sends us, his adopted daughters and sons, that it might have life.That’s a magnificent vocation. Let’s keep showing up for that. Let’s participate in that, both in this assembly and in the rest of life.

God is here, God is love. As impossible as it sounds, God is saving the world through us.

That is something worth singing about.

(1) Bob Hurd and Paul Inwood made almost identical comments.
(2) Courtney is my friend and the former director of liturgy at St. Anne, a great colleague for many years.
(3) Fr. Jack Dewes was pastor, now emeritus, of St. Anne. Clem Aseron was associate director of liturgy, and Jim Condill a deacon and longtime resident of Barrington.
(4) These are a few of the ongoing ministries and outreach projects the parish has taken up and sustained, some for decades.
(5) This verse from Isaiah is on the book held by Jesus on the icon that dominates the sanctuary and worship space in the church.