Search This Blog

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

More markings

It was just about a year ago that I started this blog. I kept one from 2006 to early 2009, but it was small, and I kept it in an Apple proprietary format called iWeb. By some combination of user error and useless upgrades to the application, it got to a point where I couldn't edit old posts anymore. Ultimately, Apple's nascent cloud service, called iDisk, went off-line, and so did my blog. Needless to say, hardly anybody noticed. I barely did!

As I looked over what I'd written then, I realized it through the intervening years I've change my attitude about a lot of things. Then, I was writing mostly for myself, and venting a lot of frustration about my work and some of the people who made life difficult for me, or so I thought. Now, I hope what I'm doing is trying to share some of the insights I've had through the years, not from some inner font of wisdom, but because I've had such generous access to the wisdom of others. In my church work, I've been extraordinarily privileged to have worked with and learn from some truly great people. I've had the friendship of wise and profound theologians. It doesn't seem right not to at least attempt to share what they've shared with me. Also, my own insight and experience for so many years in this work, a vocation and gift from God, may be of benefit to others who are on the same path. Hence my start-up again of this blog in January 2013, and I admit it's been great fun, interacting with you, having guest voices occasionally, and just opening up the experience of ministry in liturgy to more people.

So that marks one event of 2014. As I was thinking about that, I realize the 2014 is a marker year for me in a lot of ways. It's the 30th anniversary of our first recording, "You Alone." It's the 25th anniversary of our first recording with GIA, "Safety Harbor," which we think of as a kind of a milestone for us. On a personal note, Terry and I will celebrate 20 years married this November.

And, I realize with a sigh, that this weekend Saturday, February 1, I will celebrate 20 years at St. Anne Parish in Barrington, as music and liturgy director. That's quite a milestone for me, it's the longest I've ever held any job! In fact, it's nearly as long as the previous two full-time jobs I had put together, as I was a travel agent from 1974 to 1983, and then worked at St. Jerome in Phoenix as music director from 1983 to 1994.

I remember arriving at St. Anne's on Friday evening, probably January 31, 1994, and there was a memorial service going on in the chapel that night. There was snow everywhere, something I didn't really know what to do about being from the desert. I had my few possessions in a small rental truck, and needed to move in. The next day, I was to direct the music at the parish for confirmation, which was being held in the gym. That winter was all quite an adventure. I had to learn to drive all over again, on ice, with a stick shift, wearing boots. But I had a new home, among generous, kind, faithful people and it's been my home now for 20 years. For making me a part of their community, I will be forever grateful to the people of St. Anne's in Barrington.

All those dates and numbers don't mean much. 62 is kind of a weird year, not really a milestone of any kind in itself. But I have a new book out, I'm getting a special recognition from my professional group, the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, this July in St. Louis,
And it looks like Gary, Terry, and I will have a new collection of music in some form by the middle of this year. Of course, I'm excited to share with you and others some of the work I've done since our last recording came out in 2006.

So it looks like a busy year, even if it's not numerologically auspicious. Who knows what God has in store for us while we're making our plans? I'll keep the blog going, so check in once in a while and see what's happening in the church in Barrington and beyond. And thank you for taking me in for a part of your day.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014


The great Pete Seeger died this morning. His name is been part of the music landscape for as long as I've lived, and for most of a generation before that. He niggled at our nation's conscience with his songs, songs about peace, labor, solidarity, equality, commonsense, and what good fun it is to be alive. He served his country with great honor, and was lied about and calumniated by powerful men without honor. Still, he kept his sense of humor, he kept a song on his lips, and kept coming back for more until his friends, his perseverance, and his inner light restored his good name in this country. 

He brought music front and center to the labor movement, to the peace movement, and to the ecology movement, over the span of seven decades. He was an activist from his youth, but in his heart he was a musician with a song to sing, and the burning conviction that we all belong together, that we are all one, and that we ought to be singing about it. He always seem to be right at the middle of whatever was happening in this country, with the guitar in his hand, a smile on his face, and an invitation to join in the song.

If you haven't seen the documentary, "The Power of Song," about his life and career, then you really ought to take the time to do so. I was so moved by it, that I was moved to transcribe part of what he had to say about participation. I'd like to catch a little spark of that fire. What Pete felt about music, peace, community, and life are part of what I'd like to pass on to the world myself.

I've used that quote as my email signature for years, and I just want to close this little entry in honor of Pete using his own words: "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."

"Yes, to everything turn, turn, turn, 
There is a season, turn, turn, turn....
A time to be born, the time to die, 
the time of love, a time of hate, 
a time of peace, I swear it's not too late."

Thank you, Pete Seeger, for the music, the inspiration, and the conscience.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The art of liturgical song

I received a lot of compliments and "thank you"s last Sunday for a setting of Psalm 40 that I wrote
over forty years ago, "Here I Am". People I don't know sent me emails or posted on my Facebook page or sent me messages about their experience singing and praying with that song at Mass. I played it myself five times, twice accompanying my wife, Terry Donohoo, as she sang it in the early morning hours of the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time. I taught the refrain in four parts to my small-but-mighty youth choir last night before mass, and to Olivia, a high school student just barely older than my eldest granddaughter, who cantored it with grace and some lately discovered confidence. Some of the notes I got made me think that for some, the song was a new experience, whereas for me, I play it with memories of having written it (at least) two lifetimes ago.

As I was driving home that night it made me think again about what makes a liturgical song a good liturgical song. We talk in our business about some different "judgments" we make when writing, evaluating, and choosing songs for worship. There are very helpful guidelines in Sing to The Lord and its predecessor documents. We're instructed to make a judgment about suitability based upon three criteria: whether the song is musically "good", whether it meets the needs and suits the structure of the liturgy, and whether, if suitable musically and liturgically, it's right for a particular assembly. Those judgments are referred to as "musical, liturgical, and pastoral" judgments, and with them, says the USCCB document Sing to The Lord, we make a single evaluation about the inclusion of a piece of music into our repertoire.

Sing to the Lord, like its predecessors Music in Catholic Worship and Liturgical Music Today, is careful to distinguish between artistic worthiness and style, and is explicit about saying that the church welcomes many different styles of good music into its repertoire. A concerto and a folk song can be authentically beautiful, and the style of a song, aside from its suitability to a particular assembly, is not a judgment that makes or breaks a song's entry into the music of a parish.

Whenever we have the opportunity to do a concert, one of us, often it's Gary, takes the time to make the point that the art of liturgical music isn't really the lyric or the music. It's not the creativity of the composer or the technique of the singer or the virtuosity of the instrumentalists, though all of those things, in the wonder they arose in us, can be a window into God's goodness and bounty.
Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, Steve Warner, and Jaime Cortez
at the Composers' Forum a few years ago.
Ultimately, it's not even whether people at the concert can sing our songs well, which we encourage and try to enable them to do. The art of liturgical music is a song's ability to lead a group of people who have come to pray the church's prayer to a place that the Spirit of God has already prepared for them. It is a place of the discovery of our own identity, the place where we awaken to the people God has made us to be. I would suggest it is both familiar and a surprise, like most art, because we have a sense of who we might be, but we're never really at that place, and as much as we want to go there, there are plenty of other spirits competing for our time and attention, and who want to tell us we belong to something or someone else. We might be thinking of the presence of God as a sense of arrival, of home, of comfort, of victory, and then discover instead that presence to be a sense of departure, of journey, of change, and of compassion: suffering-with. In any case, it is the actual singing of the liturgy when the song discovers its true self, much as bread and wine in the liturgy, suffused with the Spirit of God and full of divine presence, finally become their true selves, and can feed and gladden the whole human person, body and soul. The song, in the liturgy, may become the song of the Spirit, by which God reveals Godself to the world in Christ as servant, healer, exorcist, friend, and companion.

Liturgical music becomes itself when it is finally sung at liturgy. It really isn't liturgical until then: it might be a good guess, but that's it. I know, over and over again, my best guess about this is rarely right. Sometimes you realize that trying to introduce a new piece of liturgical music is trying fit a square peg in a round hole. Sometimes the song you thought was just another attempt at filling out an album turns out to be the right thing at the right time: that happened to be with Marty Haugen's Mass of Creation. On paper and recording, it did nothing for me. But when I heard it sung in a parish in St. Louis one year when I was traveling and doing a concert, my mind was immediately changed. The music lived, it had God's life in it, when God's people were singing it, and there was no substitute (for me, at least) to being part of that singing assembly in order to discover that.

All these things might be in my mind because I'm off next week to the annual gathering of a few dozen Catholic songwriters/composers for a week of networking, study, and prayer that has been going on for a couple of decades now each January. There's plenty of goofing off, too. I suppose I shouldn't mislead you about that. I'm looking forward to it: this year, the great Walter Brueggeman is giving us some presentations, and we're doing our first "benefit concert" at the end of the week.

That's enough for today, I think. I'm grateful, again, that my "Psalm 40: Here I Am" that NALR published over 20 years ago, when it was already 20 years old, still seems to touch people of many ages and backgrounds. We songwriters write when the Spirit says "write," we Christians sing when the Spirit says "sing," and sometimes, blessed be God, the Spirit says to sing one of our songs.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

SongStories 21: "Be Perfect", from Christ the Icon (2005)

Writing a song is one thing. Generally, you write a song because you have to. It's actually already there, in a way, by the time you realize you have to write it, and you just have to harvest it. It's true that work goes into its creation, of course, but the essential thing is finding the song. But liturgical song doesn't even really exist, I would say, until it's actually sung in the liturgy, in an assembly praying the prayer of the church. That's worth pursuing in another blog post, but I want to get on with this one first!

Songwriters who do a lot of concerts have the opportunity to have people hear, sing, even pray with their songs more than we who are generally homebodies working in a single community. With liturgical song there's the matter of being able to sing it, finding appropriate times to use it for congregational prayer, when the scriptural milieu and lived experience of people suggest that one song is more appropriate than another. A big part of this are the texts of the liturgy of the word at Sunday mass. The song I want to say a little bit about today is based on the Sermon on the Mount, and really the end of the Sermon on the Mount, which comes in Year A, on the 6-7th Sundays of Ordinary Time. So there's the rub: we don't get those Sundays very often. Here's why.

2014 is an "A" year in the lectionary, a year when we primarily read Matthew's gospel on Sunday. The way that the Sundays of Ordinary Time are laid out goes something like this: the feast of the Baptism of the Lord is also the "first Sunday of Ordinary Time," though it is rarely referred to in that way. It's just that the following Sunday is the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time (OT), and folks tend to wonder if they missed mass the week before, or what happened to the first one. The Sundays of OT pass in "order" (hence, they are "ordinary") until Ash Wednesday, when the Lent and Easter seasons begin. Ordinary Time returns after Pentecost and the feasts of Trinity Sunday and the Body and Blood of the Lord.

CD at WLP  •  print octavo at WLP • click-and-print octavo at WLP

When the Ordinary Time Sundays return, usually in June, they start up not from the next numbered Sunday from where we left off, though. The rest of the year's Sundays of OT are counted backward from the end, that is, from the feast of Christ the King, which is the 34th or last Sunday in OT. There are, thus, thirty-four Sunday masses for Ordinary Time, but we (almost) never hear the readings for all of them, even though the number of Sundays every year is almost always the same (52 or 53). This year, for instance, we end with the 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time on March 2, and take up again in July with the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time. This year, the Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul also falls on a Sunday, where the 13th Sunday would have come in most years.

This is all a roundabout way of getting to the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus in Matthew's narrative, the Sermon on the Mount, in chapters 5-7. For the first time in many years, we actually get to hear almost all of this beloved discourse at Sunday mass over the span of four Sundays. Ironically, we do not hear the Beatitudes this year, the beginning of the discourse, because the feast of the Presentation of the Lord also falls on a Sunday. That gospel comes up every year on All Saints' Day, but this year that feast falls on a Saturday, so most people will not hear it. (No offense, but most people didn't hear it last year either, when it fell on a Friday.)

Rene Girard
For the last three lectionary cycles when Year A came up, we got no further than the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time. We have not had eight Sundays of Ordinary Time before Ash Wednesday since 1990, though through the 1990s there were 6 or 7.In the early 2000s, I was mesmerized by Catholic anthropologist and philosopher RenĂ© Girard and his theories about the origins of violence and religion. As I tried to explore more of his work, I came across the writing ofthe writing of James Alison, who has explored the implications of Girard's insight for Christian living in the twenty-first century and beyond. While challenging and dense, the work of these two giants was inspirational to me, making the whole of Christian life and liturgy make sense to me in ways I had not understood before. To use a phrase of Jesus that Girard glommed onto for one of his books, "things hidden since the foundation of the world," my world, at least, suddenly fell into place and became clearer.

These new insights, along with my rediscovery of Dominic Crossan's newer work, affected my writing as well, which had necessarily slowed down as more and more good music entered the liturgical music repertoire. Several songs on our 2005 collection Christ the Icon bear the imprint, for better or worse, of this inner movement in my heart, notably the title song, "Christ the Icon," "Let Us Go to the Altar of God," which was further catalyzed by my 2004 diagnosis and treatment for cancer, and "Be Perfect," which is the song I'm writing about today.

Girard and Alison see the problem of violence as a problem of escalating desire. We live in
James Alison
communities, from families to villages and churches to cities, nations, and planet. We learn to desire in community: we learn to want what other people want. We compete for our wants and needs at times. When people desire the same thing and it's only available (or seems to be only available) to one or some, things can escalate into violence. So in addition to imitating the desire of other people, we imitate their violent behavior as well. Girard goes on to postulate the origin of religion, particularly sacrifice, as a response to violence. Rather than letting violence upon one another run the everyday commerce among our race, religion substitutes a scapegoat for sacrifice, placing the anger, frustration, loss, and (apparent or not) scarcity of things on a person or thing, so that the violence of the community can be focused and released. Sometimes the scapegoat is driven out, sometimes killed and eaten, but in any case the expanding balloon of escalating violence is punctured until the next time. Girard's further contribution is to demonstrate Christ as God's answer to human violence, a scapegoat who is not just murdered and completely innocent, but uniquely the Son of God. This revelation exposes the mimetic violence, and therefore the mimetic desire, for what it is: a spiral into hell.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explicitly gives us the remedy for mimetic violence: imitate God, who lets the rain fall and sun shine on the good and bad alike. Give goodness to everyone. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. Jesus not only reveals a new pathway for humanity here, but reveals God as God actually is, a God of agape and not a vengeful, jealous idol of our making, one who justifies our imitation of him in our violence and meting out of retributive "justice." "Be perfect," Jesus says, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Agape will transform our lives.

Don't you think this is an important part of the teaching of Jesus? And it is definitely under preached, but in a sense that is because this part of the Sermon on the Mount is so rarely heard on Sunday - in our case, it has been nearly a generation, twenty years, since it has been heard. Not so much for the next few cycles, as Years A of 7 OT Sundays are a little more frequent for the next decade, but it's been a while.

So today, I offer you a little clip of my song "Be Perfect," yes, with its off-putting name for self-help psychologists and manic overachievers. Perfection is not attainable, of course, but to choose to act in a way that imitates the life of the God who is revealed to us in Christ is possible, and saints we know and don't know have pointed the way for us. I would suggest to you and to me that we need "Be Perfect" in the repertoire of our hearts, at least, and maybe my little song can help keep it there! These are the lyrics. Have a wonderful day.

Be Perfect
lyrics by Rory Cooney
Copyright © 2005 World Library Publications, Chicago, IL.

Be perfect as God is perfect,
Who makes the rain to fall on good and bad as well,
Who makes the sun to shine
Alike on cruel and kind.
Love your enemies.
Be perfect. 
Come and follow me.

(Be salt and light) Forgive as you have been forgiven.
(Be salt and light) Leave the altar, make peace with all your foes.
(Be salt and light) Do good to those who seek to do you harm.
Be like God, and shine upon the world.

(Be salt and light) Do not resist the violent.
(Be salt and light) Do not seek revenge, but turn the other cheek.
(Be salt and light) Pass no judgment, and you will not be judged.
Be like God and shine upon the world.

(Be salt and light) Love God with all your mind and heart and strength.
(Be salt and light) Love your neighbor the way you love yourself.
(Be salt and light) Give joyfully to all who need your help.
Be like God and shine upon the world.

Be perfect as God is perfect,
Who makes the rain to fall on good and bad as well,
Who makes the sun to shine
Alike on cruel and kind.
Love your enemies.
Be perfect.
Love your enemies. Be perfect. 
Come and follow me.

Be Perfect:

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Better than the best day at work (A03O)

Jesus would have had to be a heck of a salesman to pull me away from fishing with a “follow me.”
But I guess I’ve always been a reluctant disciple anyway.

What was I pulled away from to be a church musician? Steve Earle has a song about John Walker Lindh, "the American Taliban," that tries to give a more compassionate look at a person who might take up arms against his own country. The song is called "John Walker's Blues." It starts like this:
I'm just an American boy raised on MTV
And I've seen all those kids in the soda pop ads
But none of 'em looked like me
So I started lookin' around for a light out of the dim
And the first thing I heard that made sense was the word
Of Mohammed, peace be upon him
Refrain:A shadu la ilaha illa Allah
There is no God but God...
For Peter, James, and John in the first century, and for you and me in the twenty-first century, we know deep down that there's something seriously wrong. We also know that there's almost no way to extricate ourselves from the morass, and that even "moral" structures like the church are complicit in sinful structures. Somebody like John the Baptist, and then Jesus, proposes an alternative reality. For John Walker Lindh, it was "the word of Mohammed," a violent version of which he took to heart as an alternative way. The difference between the paths is the difference between life, peace, and non-violence on the one hand, and on the other the use of the structures of the oppressor (war, threat, and sanction) to replace one status quo with another. Scripture is pretty clear, as the gospel unfolds, that the disciples were imagining a political movement, possibly a violent one, that Jesus would lead. Jesus gradually revealed a different path, a replacing of power structures with service, as the core of his movement. Peter, James, and John left their careers as fishermen to follow Jesus, I think, because they had also heard John the Baptist, and knew something was wrong and wasn't going to get better. They saw a different way that pulled them into a new life.

What was I pulled away from to become a church musician and prayer leader? I guess I wouldn’t be so much like one of the apostles as maybe a scribe or someone who had been brought up in the “system” and then found that Jesus made the system itself make more sense. His teaching was more consistent, helped me see my life in the context of the cosmos better than I had experienced before. I heard his “follow me” in the joy of music, and pursued him there, where he had sought me, I guess. And I got music and, apparently, if occasionally, fishing, to boot.

I’m aware that some of us won’t hear those words in Sunday’s gospel, as time-frugal deacons and presiders will end the gospel pericope with the stunning if familiar words of Jesus’s first message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The section about the call of the first disciples is optional, but it certainly helps flesh out the beauty of the scriptures’ evocative imagery. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” that is to say, freedom is afoot. Freedom is on the march right in the land of slavery. Something new is bubbling under the noses of the fishermen at their nets, scraping to make enough to pay the taxes imposed by Roman occupiers and temple authorities. A different empire is calling for their and our allegiance, and the amazing thing is, it’s right before our eyes. Or rather, all we have to do in order to see it is turn around, and walk in a different direction.

Music for this Sunday (2014):
gathering:  Christ Be Our Light (Farrell)
resp. psalm:  Psalm 27: The Lord Is My Light (Haas)
prep rite:  The Summons (Bell)
communion:  Lord When You Came (GabarĂ¡in)
closing: We Are Marching (Siyahamba) (arr. Bell)

gathering: The Summons
psalm 27 - Haas
prep rite: Turn Around
communion: Christ, Be Our Light
closing: We Are Marching

Most of this Sunday's songs were pretty obvious: “The Summons” is John Bell’s brilliant little text and tune that explores the lanes and byways of the road down which Jesus beckons us in a series of questions. “Lord, When You Came” is the English version of “Pescador de hombres” (Fisher of Men), whose gentle tune and humble text so warmly invite the participation of the singer into the life it describes.

I suppose it's mildly ironic, maybe sad, that like Peter, James, and John at the end of the fourth gospel (John 21:3ff), I find myself today in Jesus's post-resurrection narrative, beset by the encroachment of "real life" upon the world I had hoped for, and thinking to myself, "I'm going fishing."

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Behold, the Lamb – Here Am I (A02O)

gathering:  Lead Us to the Water (Kendzia) or Songs of Thankfulness and Praise
resp. psalm:  40 Here I Am (Cooney)
prep rite: Lord, When You Came or Wade in the Water
communion: Come to the Water
sending forth:  Abide, O Spirit of Life or All the Ends of the Earth

The readings this weekend will sound like reruns to some people, but the confusion is definitely understandable. It’s harder to point out differences than it is to say that there is one.

The John version of the baptism of Jesus is told as though it has already happened. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary tells us that the early Church was so scandalized that Jesus would submit to a baptism “for the forgiveness of sins” that each successive gospel makes the event a little more distant. Mark, writing in about 70, tells the story quickly and matter-of-factly. John baptizes with a baptism of repentance, we read in chapter 1, and then, “It happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John.” Just like everybody else. And Mark moves on from there, sending Jesus into the desert at the Spirit’s urging to be tested. Luke concentrates, as he does, on Jesus praying and the coming of the Spirit; Matthew, as we heard last week, almost makes the baptism sound like a charade: “Do it this way for now...” John doesn’t even have the baptism, just that the Baptist points to Jesus as the Lamb of God. This is important because in the Johannine passion narrative, Jesus is killed at the very hour that the paschal lambs are slain, on a Passover feast that fell on the Sabbath.

As we read through the scriptures for Sunday yesterday at staff, though, what I heard in the readings was a sort of linking between the servant in Isaiah and the Baptizer's strange eponym for Christ, the "lamb of God." No matter that the name is lain upon Jesus most of a century later by the evangelist putting the words into the mouth of John; the name is still spoken with inspired faith. In Isaiah, the servant's destiny is to restore the unity of all the people of earth. For John, it is the lamb of God who is to take away the sin of the world. This recognition of the lowly as the instrument of God is worth our consideration, because in the inspired words of the responsorial psalm, as the assembled and aware body of Christ in this place and time, we sing together, "Here am I, Lord, I come to do your will." Hearing God's word, using God's word, we submit to becoming God's word in the world. We. Us. We who don't think we're good enough, holy enough, connected enough, smart enough to do God's work. But we're called to be the servants of God, the lamb of God, not to do what we want, but what God wants with God's strength; not to wrest the world violently from its dream of self-actualization and autonomy, but to be the light and health (salvation) of the whole planet, and the cure for the pathology of its sin.

This is a dangerous vocation. It was lethal for John the Baptist, it was lethal for Jesus, it was lethal for the prophets and apostles and for martyrs from apostolic times into the present day. (It was lethal for Dr. King, whose birthday we celebrate today, peace be upon him). Human habits of sin are so ingrained and systemic that they seem personal, have their own spirit, even divinity. Little gods, powerful gods, seem to be in charge of nations and economies and belief systems, circumscribing strategies of power, wealth, and privilege with fearsome, almost impenetrable auras. Yesterday I came across a list of "nineteen theses for living and dying" by the great scripture scholar Walter Brueggeman. The whole article is here, but I just want to summarize because it crosses into these thoughts about Sunday's peaceful opening salvo in this year's negotiations for the human heart. Brueggeman describes the Christian message as a "counter-narrative" in the human narrative of "technological, therapeutic consumer militarism." The key character/actor in the script is the God of the bible, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He describes the counter-narrative as "ragged and disjunctive" precisely because the character is God, by definition, undefinable, unknowable as Godself. Most tellingly, he says that those of us in ministry, I should say, those of us who find ourselves among the baptized, are ambiguous about adopting the counter-narrative as a way of life. We don't want to give up our participation in the dominant narrative, what I would say Sunday's gospel calls "the sin of the world," which the lamb is called to erase. His theses are an honest assessment of the mess that scripture can be, and a warning against too easily reconciling the embarrassingly violent and "irascible" God who dwells there with our pacifist fantasies. I'm not sold on that kind of language, but it's similar to what Dominic Crossan's conclusions are, and both of those guys are much more immersed in the culture of scripture than I.

Our music for this Sunday echoes some of the themes that run through the scriptures: that the Messiah is for the whole world (“All the Ends of the Earth” and “Come to the Water”), that the baptism of Christ is a manifestation of God’s presence (“Songs of Thankfulness and Praise”), and that our participation in the baptism of the Messiah and his mission has ramifications for us in relationship to one another (“Psalm 40: Here I Am” and “Abide, O Spirit of Life”). “Wade in the Water” is a spiritual that is a metaphor for liberation, and just plain fun to sing - the youth choir loves it (well, so do the rest of us.)

This thing about decisions, though, about realigning ourselves with the gospel, and identifying and rejecting the social pathologies that, in Brueggeman's words, are the "dominant script" that we rejected at baptism, our entry point into God's counter-narrative, well, those songs need to be written. I'd like to work on them, if I only knew how they should go, and if I could let go of my own ambivalence about surrendering to the gospel's bright, dangerous narrative.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Meet J. Michael Thompson, musician, teacher, colleague, and friend

Things My Friends Are Doing - Entry #1

The world of music and worship has opened so many doors to me, doors behind which there are cookies, lunches and dinners, bottles of wine, and lots of great conversation, laughter and insight, that I realized it might be good to share on occasion as events demand the work some of my friends are doing, especially as it relates to music and publishing.

One such friend is a longtime colleague in the Pittsburgh area, James Michael Thompson, whom I call Michael, or JMT. Originally from the St. Louis area, Michael is a liturgist, musician, theologian and teacher to whom many have looked for kind advice and from whom many, myself not the least of whom, has received equally kindly fraternal correction when being wrong (which is understandable) or uncharitable (which, in our line of work, really isn't.) He's the genuine article. JMT has been a pastoral musician since 1967, as well as a teacher (grade school, college, seminary), author, composer, and workshop leader, with many years' experience as a "bridge-builder" between the western and eastern Churches.

For many years, Michael lived in Chicago and directed the Schola Cantorum of St. Peter's in the Loop, a Franciscan institution whose liturgical ministry to Chicago's working Catholics is largely year-round and round-the-clock. The Schola Cantorum has made a couple of trips to St. Anne's to help us celebrate our parish feast day with solemn vespers through the years.

Michael has written a book recently of which he is justifiably proud. He called me to tell me that that he was thrilled that an Amazon reviewer had written parenthetically that he intended "to use copies of both works in RCIA classes as supplemental material for catechumens/candidates!" The book is entitled Lights from the East: Pray for Us, and it is a wonderful spiritual introduction for many of us whose knowledge of and appreciation for the Eastern life of Christianity is a serious gap in our grasp of the tradition.

By way of introduction, I asked Michael to write a few words of his own to invite you to read his book. He has obliged us thus:

January 19 is the memorial of St. Macarius the Great, one of the "desert fathers" famous for his ascetic life and for his ardent defense of the orthodox faith against the Arian heresy which denied the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. You might not be aware of that, because St. Macarius is not on the "General Roman Calendar."  He is, however, one of the saints listed on that date in the "Roman Martyrology," a catalogue of the saints and blesseds recognized by the Catholic Church.  Each day has multiple listings: St. Macarius the Great is #4 out of the twelve saints listed for January 19. Why do I mention this? 
My book, Lights of the East, Pray for Us! has been recently published by Liguori Publications.  It is an attempt to open up for readers (both Western and Eastern Christians) the immense and marvelous riches that the saints of the Eastern Churches can provide.  The fifteen saints span in time from the time of the Babylonian Captivity through the middle 20th century.  Yes, you read that correctly---one of the things that the book points out is the liturgical observance of the holy ones who antedate the coming of the Messiah.  Twelve of these fifteen are on the calendars of both the Eastern Orthodox and the Eastern Catholic Churches; the last three in the book are members of Eastern Catholic Churches who were martyred by the Soviets in Central and Eastern Europe after the Second World War.

The book is more than a collection of hagiographies.  Each chapter contains a brief biography with some historical detail, a scripture reading from the feast day of the saint; a liturgical text from the Byzantine books for that saint; a reflection whose intention is to connect the saint's life with the reader's life; and, in conclusion, a hymn text written by me, using the folk melodies of the Galician and Carpatho-Rusyn people of southwestern Ukraine. (The music is there, too.)
There is an excellent introduction to the Eastern Christian concept of personal holiness, written by the Rev. Dr. Peter Galadza. Fr. Peter teaches liturgy at the Metropolitan Andriy Sheptitsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies at St. Paul University in Ottawa, Ontario.  The introduction is worth the price of the book ($14.95), but the rest of it won't hurt you, either!

Here's what I can say: I've learned a lot about Christianity from Michael over the years, but more importantly, I've learned how to live as a better Christian from his example and guidance. His love shines out in the music he prepares, writes, and conducts, and shines out when he writes about Jesus Christ and his church, East and West. Take a look at his book and his music—of which this is only a small selection on iTunes.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Second Thoughts: Seeking the servant's vision

Today I want to take a quick mystagogical look at yesterday's liturgy of the word. You cannot
imagine my chagrin at what happened in my church instead of homilies yesterday on this major church feast, but I'm trying not to quench the smoldering wick here, and just want to accept what I cannot control while helping, I hope, to "move the deal forward."

I find that actually experiencing the liturgy of the word is often quite different from preparing it. After Mass, I often have new insights, heard different things, or concatenated the same things differently, from the way I had heard those passages and thought about those traditions before. This is the way it's supposed to work, of course, and it's why catechesis is built upon the same root as the word echo: you can't have an echo before the sound. Certainly there is good preparation and prayer to be experienced before the liturgy, but what happens because of the liturgy is, explicitly, the word of the Lord. That word proclaimed in the assembly of believers does God's work, rattling around inside of us, banging off of our inner walls and hallways, throwing light on the shadowy places and elating the places where our best selves cower, waiting for some affirmation or the arrival of a hero.

First reading
...he shall bring forth justice to the nations,
not crying out, not shouting,
not making his voice heard in the street.
a bruised reed he shall not break,
and a smoldering wick he shall not quench,
until he establishes justice on the earth (Is. 42, 1b-4a)

Psalm: The Lord will bless his people with peace. (Ps. 29, 11b)

Second reading: 
“In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.
Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly
is acceptable to him.
You know the word that he sent to the Israelites
as he proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all..." (Acts 10: 35-36)

And a voice came from the heavens, saying,
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Mt 3: 17)

Last week, I concentrated on the psalm, and didn't say much about the other readings. And I still think the psalm, especially as it reaches its climax in the refrain (which is the last part of the last verse of the psalm), holds a key to hearing the entire liturgy of the word. It's a valid question, I think, to ask, "What does it mean, that 'the Lord will bless his people with peace'? How does that happen? Where is the evidence? And what does it have to do with the Baptism of the Lord?"

What strikes me on first hearing is that there is nothing particularly "cozy" about the belonging implied by baptism as we hear so often in church. In these readings, the Spirit's messianic call to Jesus, and by extension to the Christian world, is announced on an international stage, most clearly expressed in Acts by Peter's speech in the house of Cornelius. Back to that in a minute. But the song of Second Isaiah is packed with language that speaks of the servant's peaceful mission that invites all nations to enter into the world of God's justice.

John's baptism, more than anything else, was a sign of cutting ties with the past, not augmenting them. It was an act of drowning the past in the sacred waters of the Jordan in order to live in a new way in the new order of God's realm, a realm which John himself did not clearly see but which he was given to know was imminent, definitive, and probably dangerous. His apocalyptic vision saw through the phony peace of Rome and the collaborating oppressiveness of the temple leaders, and in his baptism his disciples would wash away that world and rise envisioned by the nascent gospel. What was missing was peace.

We do not know what Jesus's mindset was as he went into the waters with John. Each gospel successively distances Jesus from the Baptizer, until by the time John is written there is practically an apology for the scandalous event. But Mark's narrative, told in just a few lines, leads to the desert experience from which Jesus emerges as the preacher. Jesus arrives, he is baptized, the dove, the voice, and the spirit "drove him into the desert." (Mark 1: 9-12) Whatever happened, the encounter with John, perhaps Jesus's kinsman (Luke says this, Matthew makes no mention of it), seems to have moved Jesus from a quiet life into a public one.

Peter's speech, in fact the whole narrative about Cornelius in chapter 10 of Acts, is one of the highlights of the New Testament for me. This little piece we hear on this feast is often heard during the Easter season as well. Hearing this bit should revive in us the memory of the whole story, a tale of Peter's unease and conservative fear as well as his openness to the gradual realization that Paul might be right about the Gentile question. Cornelius, remember, is not just a Gentile. He's a Roman centurion, a soldier. You might say, "Strike one, strike two, strike three." But God has other plans, and through visions sent to both men, the world begins to change. I urge you to re-read it, using the link above. It is a mini-gospel. The important thing for this complex of readings is the reconciliation of ancient enemies by the gospel, people whom the world has made enemies and slaves and masters become family in the empire of God.

"You are my servant/son, in you I am well-pleased." This phrase sandwiches the entire liturgy of the word, from the declaration to the Servant in Isaiah to the voice over the Jordan in the last verse of the gospel. What makes the servant beloved? God's favor, of course, but the servant's life is described as a mission of justice, that is, bringing things into right relationship with God. But not through threats or violence. The servant doesn't raise his voice, or break a bruised reed, but steadily, relentlessly, peacefully brings God's justice to all the earth. It seems to be this vision of the servant with which Jesus came to identify, or at least which the church came to identify with Jesus in the New Testament, as he offered an alternate way of peace, and alternate empire of justice to his time and every time. God will "bless his people with peace," the psalm promises.

At the outset of the year, with the song of the angels still ringing in our ears, with the mages from the East still on the horizon, we hear about the mission of the adult messiah. This beloved servant of God will bring glory to God in heaven by announcing peace to all people on whom his favor rests, which, he further announces by his word and deed, is all people. The icon of the baptism of the Lord is painted in a broken world; divine peace, justice, and service bind it up and restore it, transforming it into what it was always intended to be. Peter, that blockhead, that slow but steady learner, dreams of a picnic from heaven and moves the community of Jesus toward the edges of humanity, teaching us that nothing beloved of God can be unclean to the rest of us.

I don't know how hearing all this over and over every year can keep us from wondering whether, for Christians, baptism might be the new circumcision or kosher law. How do we keep a group alive, with a credal and moral center, so that there is a group to expand to the edges? I know that I keep asking that question, not because I have an answer, but because the question won't go away. We continue to tell our story and celebrate in a liturgy that has a boundary, an in-group and an out-group, and that liturgy and story keep telling us that the boundary is just in our imagination. Without the story and liturgy, is it possible to sustain such a counter-cultural vision? Can we stand against tyrannies like economic structures and majority rule, structures that always create insiders-outsiders and winners-losers, without an "inside" group that (peacefully, gently, by example) proclaims a God who created us to be otherwise?

And that God, casting god-ness aside, disappears into humanity. There's something about that, too, isn't there?

Just some thoughts about yesterday's readings, knowing that what's coming next week will keep the questions fresh, right?

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Albums 15: Change Our Hearts (2000, OCP)

Change Our Hearts Track listing

Change Our Hearts
Servant Song
Come to Us
Up from the Earth
Faithful Family
Thy Kingdom Come
Bread of Life
Yours Today
Glory to God (from Missa America)
As We Remember
We Will Serve the Lord
Do Not Fear to Hope

By 2000, a number of my songs from the NALR years had been introduced into the missalettes of OCP, which had purchased the assets of NALR in the early 1990s. As I wrote in my posting about Safety Harbor, we had parted ways with NALR after Lost and Found, and begun publishing and recording through GIA. At the same time, with a lot of new music suddenly part of their repertoire, OCP needed to streamline their assets, and my recordings from 1984-87 were scheduled to go out of print.

This kind of thing happens, but we came up with a strategy to keep those songs available to new listeners as well as to create what we thought of as definitive recordings for musicians who like to hear what the songwriters had in mind as they committed the song to paper. OCP let us record the anthologized songs from those earlier recordings onto a new CD, making entirely new recordings and adjusting the arrangements after a decade and a half of usage. The psalms from those recordings that had been anthologized, along with newly anthologized settings, were released as volume 2 of Cries of the Spirit. 

Change Our Hearts was recorded and mixed at Gary Daigle's new home studio in Gonzales, LA, "The Eagle's Nest" (d'aigle, get it?), with some of the tracks overdubbed in Barrington at Norwest Studios. Tren Alford, who had graced many of the Dameans' recordings with her playing, did the flute parts, and Gary's friends in his hometown supplied the rhythm tracks and choir parts, anchored by his childhood friend, drummer Randy Carpenter. In Barrington, too, we used our new friends Kari Lee (trumpet) and the Chicago Musical Connection for strings, with Breda King for a couple of songs, all really good musicians we had worked with in the years since our move.

Rather than write about each song again, I'll batch them by the albums on which they first appeared, and refer you back to those album postings with links. If you haven't noticed, by the way, I've tagged my album posts and "SongStories" posts so that you can use the sorting button on the upper right to see just those posts if you'd like to peruse them.

On the recording You Alone, there originally appeared these songs: "Change Our Hearts," "Thy Kingdom Come," and "Yours Today."
On the recording Do Not Fear To Hope, there originally appeared the title song, as well as "We Will Serve the Lord," "Come to Us," the Glory to God from Missa America, and "Faithful Family."
On the recording Mystery, there originally appeared "Servant Song," "As We Remember," "Up from the Earth," and "Bread of Life."

For me, the highlights of this recording are Gary's NOLA shuffle styling on the song "Thy Kingdom Come," featuring the sweet groove of Fred Forney's brass line. Terry's vocals shine as always, but are never better than on the new versions of the title song and "Do Not Fear to Hope." I'm still the biggest fan of my song called "Servant Song," and wish it had made it more into the repertoire. It continues to shine in concert usage. I'm sure it will be revealed to me in the next life what went wrong with it! The COH version includes orchestral parts I'd written in the intervening years since Mystery that I believe add to the piece's impact.

I'm working on the rewrite of Missa America, and hope to submit it this year, maybe with a different name. I liked the name at the the time, but now it seems a little presumptuous. The songs for gathering, communion, and closing that we're part of that suite were peace and justice oriented, marginally political, including a new melody for the text "God of the Ages (God of Our Fathers)", the national hymn. I was going for a mixed bag of American-style music asked on blues riffs and simple polyrhythms (here, variations on 7/8 time) that might be evocative for US congregations. Aside from the communion song "Seek after Peace" and the Glory, though, the music was never recorded, so never was well-distributed. In rewriting the mass, I am currently thinking of leaving the Glory out, or starting from scratch if I must. I feel that music directors don't really need the Glory to match the musical flavor of the Eucharistic prayer, and the amount of effort it takes to teach and learn a song of the Glory's length means they are reluctant to try new ones anyway. So I'll try to get away with it.

That's about it on Change Our Hearts, which is a really nice listening experience. Give it a listen, if it's not already on your library!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Baptism of the Lord, and Psalm 29

Music for Baptism of the Lord at St. Anne (2014).

gathering:  I Have Loved You (Joncas)
Sprinkling Rite
Glory to God: Mass of St. Ann (Bolduc)
resp. psalm:  Psalm 29 "While the Storm Blows On"
prep rite:   Advent Herald (Wren/Cooney) or You Have Anointed Me (Dameans) or Wade in the Water (trad.)
communion:  Here I Am, Lord (Schutte)
sending forth:  I Send You Out (Angotti)

We haven't had rehearsal for three weeks, and tonight the choir is partying to say goodbye to longtime member Mike Hawkins, who winters in Arizona but will be living in Iowa now instead of nearby Hoffman Estates. Mike's ministry in music antedates mine at St. Anne, so he's been active for more than twenty years. So add another rehearsal week skipped, except for the minutes we'll take to go through the responsorial psalm for Sunday, one that I wrote about six years ago.

So this year I opted to choose music that linked the feast day with Jesus's awakening to his mission, though I have no idea what that might mean. I just believe that he wasn't pretending to be beginning something new in his life, wasn't pretending to be turning to something new as he underwent baptism in the Jordan. Whatever is true of Jesus's divinity, for his humanity to be real, it had to have been a process of discovery and acceptance, just like we have to go through.

I like to think that one beautiful thing about this feast is about the transformation of water. I believe it is the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann who speaks about the Eucharist as not only transforming bread into the real presence of Christ, as we believe. He speaks about how Eastern thought thinks of the transformation in fact makes bread at last into real food. That is, it has always been able to feed the human body and give the body sustenance. But as eucharist, it gives food and sustenance to the soul as well. I know that in a sense this sounds like dualism, but if we just reject dualism as a principle, we can see what he's getting at through the image: the bread, by divine presence, becomes capable of feeding the whole, infinite person. It's a breathtaking thought. Well, in a similar way, I was thinking about how the baptism of Jesus might transform water into a cleansing and regenerative substance for the entire human person by its physical contact with the Savior. Always capable of giving life and death, always capable of cleansing and refreshing the body, when transformed by divine presence water becomes itself finally, and is capable of cleansing and refreshing, destroying and giving life to the whole person. It's probably a stretch, even for me, but it is at least an expansive stretch. Creation in and of itself suffuses water, wheat, the whole cosmos, with divine presence, and aside from humanity, as far as we know, creation never disobeyed the creator. But the incarnation makes possible the reconciliation of the people with the cosmos as well as with the creator, so that other created things can be for us sinful humans what they truly are, what they were created to be.

Psalm 29 is a poem that sounds like it describes a thunderstorm going on while the temple is at worship: “The voice of God thunders above the waters, the God of glory thunders, and in the temple all say ‘Glory!’” Of course, it could just be a metaphor linking inside and outside, robust praise sounding like thunder remembered, I suppose. The psalm calls upon the spirit world to join the temple’s laud of the Holy One: “Heavenly beings, give the Lord glory due his name.” My setting of this psalm is dialogical: choir and assembly interact like this with the cantor:
Choir and all: Glory to God!
Cantor: Let heaven’s spirits say it.
Choir and all: Glory to God!
Cantor: The glory due his name.
Choir and all: Glory to God!
Cantor: Within the temple pray it: let the people praise you while the storm blows on.
Refrain:     With a voice above the thunder,
                    In the roaring of the sea,
                    Though the storm should shake temple,
                    God will bless his people with peace.
The other verses are similar in form, though the acclamatory words change to “the voice of God!” and “the Lord shall reign!” You can probably tell that I am trying to work with the storm-temple image axis and reinforce the scripture’s witness that, no matter how bad things are, God is with us. We need to keep focused in faith, keep our center, which will help us make better decisions in the face of the storms that rage outside of worship, both in the temple courtyard (the church) and in the surrounding world. It's worth noting that the psalm imitates the psalms of the (defeated) Canaanites, whose weather-god Baal is ridiculed by the psalm's call that all should worship YHWH as master of storm and temple.

Monday, January 6, 2014

What does it mean to be a Catholic?

The papers and of course the internet news has been filled with news of Pope Francis, and how he seems to be single-handedly reshaping the
perception of Catholicism, and redefining belief as moral life rather than as belonging, or adhering to specific tenets of doctrine. Furthermore, he seems to be redefining morality in political and economic modes of solidarity and altruism, rather than along "traditional" Catholic lines covered by the sixth and ninth commandments. He has not, in fact, changed much at all, but rather than talk about his faith or apostolic faith, he broadcasts the gospel after the style of his namesake, Francis of Assisi, who admonished his little company of brothers to "preach the gospel; if necessary, use words."

Pope Francis, asked to define himself as a Christian, said just that he was a sinner. Good answer, Jorge! "A sinner" defines all other relationships, breaks down walls, makes dialogue and unity possible. "A sinner" means that Francis believes in the God of Jesus; that, like the rest of the world, the Pope has to "turn away from sin and believe in the gospel." There are no insiders and outsiders, because all have sinned, and all have been forgiven. "Sinner" means that God is God, and no one else, so there is no "me and God", just "we and Thou." Pope Francis defines himself spiritually as one sinner among billions, a brother to many sisters and brothers, with a message of forgiveness and mercy that he preaches with simple gestures of love and solidarity as well as with bold administrative moves to make the machinations of what we like to call "organized religion" synch more clearly with its message.

And there has been a certain amount of blowback, too, predictable only (so far) in its politeness and non-violence. Some rich and powerful Catholics feel Francis doesn't understand them and appreciate their gifts, it seems. Some are not comfortable with faith-as-choice, a choice between gods, a choice between empires, and not a game where one can straddle the abyss, or tango between church and board room in Armanis and Louboutins, praying for the poor while building up the very structures that make people poor and keep them that way.

It reminds me of how I felt in the middle of the hubbub a few years ago when Tony Blair, and later Newt Gingrich, “converted” to Catholicism. I mean, never mind that we gave up on that word "conversion" with respect from moving from one denomination of Christianity to another three decades ago. In the Catholic church at least, “conversion” refers to conversion to Christ, not from one Christian denomination to another. That in itself was irritating to me. God love him, Blair’s been through a lot, and as an Anglican held a high-profile job in a nation where Church and state are not quite independent of one another, while married to a Roman Catholic woman and raising their children Catholic, attending Mass with them weekly for years. I give the guy a lot of credit for that.

But I sure hope this doesn’t have too many of us thinking, Oh, what a nice feather in our biretta, a head of state makes a profession of faith in the Church of Rome. I mean, it is Tony Blair, after all, the George Bush of Downing Street, with his war rhetoric and commitment of British forces to the misbegotten war in Iraq. What value does he see in Roman Catholicism, if any, that he doesn’t have in Anglican Catholicism?

As for me, I cringe when I hear of people making the move from Canterbury to Rome, because it invariably means someone is discontented with the very things some of us have come to admire the English church for, namely, its accepting women as full partners in ministry, with priests and bishops who are women. Then there’s the whole relationship between the Church and gay community, much more open and accepting, at least on the ecclesial level, than in the Roman church. A move from Canterbury to Rome has more and more meant, “I don’t want anything to do with opening the doors to women and gays. Give me a good old church with only men running the show, no matter how despicably they’ve acted toward children or abused their power. And if I can get one, throw in an incomprehensible liturgy.” For some, the run to Rome may be an escape from change.

But wait a second. This question about what it means to be Catholic isn’t just about the Brits and their Prime Minister of happy memory. It is a question for the great bloc of American Catholics who used to be able to swing elections when we stood for something. Those Catholics remembered that their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were immigrants. They voted with FDR and the New Deal, they created the labor unions, social security, private schools and universities and hospitals. Most of us got rich(er) in the last fifty years and we’ve forgotten where we came from, and what made us different. And the nation is clearly the poorer for it, with a widening gap between rich and poor, an almost erotic fascination with violence, a contagious paranoia of entitlement, and obsession with personal freedom that is blind to our founding principle of common good.

There's a sense in which American Catholics, at least, are no different now from our Episcopal, or Methodist, or Lutheran brothers and sisters. This helps to demonstrate, I guess, as to why “converting” from one denomination to another is essentially meaningless. Conversion is something one does to Jesus Christ and the empire of God. Anyone can do it, including us Catholics who cheat on taxes, condone invasions and drone strikes and run illegal political prisons; we who contribute to the poverty, alienation, disease, and hunger of others, who charge exorbitant interest, or who mastermind or execute the mass murder of war, or who profit by the destruction of the environment. Or who vote for anyone who does. For us, there's money to be made in war and exploitation for the 167 (or 168) hours of the week we're not in church.

And then along come Christmas and Epiphany to remind me that the Catholic tent is really big, at least to the extent that it wants to be God's tent. The season comes to remind me that everyone in the tent is a sinner, that no one is to be judged by anyone else including me. We all sin differently, but we all sin. That's Pope Francis's starting point. This "Easter in wintertime" arrives to remind me that God loved the world so much that he sent his only Son, not to condemn the world, but that we might have life through him. God's Son came among us telling us that entering into that life is a choice: “Turn away from sin, and believe (i.e., act with love) in the good news (of the empire of God.)” That turning is conversion. Catholics like us can do it, too.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Epiphany's choice: From navel-gazing to star-gazing, to a new world

Nations shall walk by your light,
and kings by your shining radiance. (Is. 60:3, first reading)
All kings shall pay him homage,
all nations shall serve him.
R/ Lord, every nation on earth will adore you. (Psalm 72, responsorial) has now been revealed
to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: 
that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body,
and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (Eph. 3:5-6, second reading)
...behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 
“Where is the newborn king of the Jews?
We saw his star at its rising
and have come to do him homage.” (Mt. 2: 1-2, gospel)

Here's an epiphany for all of us: God is for everybody. Think you're being really, really good? God is for everybody. Think you're beyond hope and made so many false starts there's no starting over? God is for everybody. Run out of love, run away from love, ruled by love? God is for everybody. All that stuff about being nice, loving your family, supporting your friends, going to church, loving your kids, loving your parents, all of that is understood. Everybody is supposed to do that. Even the pagans do that. What is just too much for the good guys is that God is for everybody. What we think makes God happy about the way we act is just too narrowly imagined. This amazing God, who doesn't think heaven is any place for a lover to be and throws it all aside to become a child of generous peasant parents in an occupied country, is for everybody. It's a new idea about who God is, what power is like, what fuels the cosmos, what relationships should be like, who's inside and who's outside. And who likes the idea? Mostly the outside ones. The other kings, the kings of the status quo, want  him dead, and don't really give it a rest until they succeed in accomplishing another murder.

When I complain to some of my friends in the parish about my struggles listening to homilies, they tell me to tune it out, that I’m the only one who’s listening anyway. Has it really come to that? Because I can’t do it. Sadly, I guess, I think that what we do at Mass matters, not because God is happy or angry about it, but because as ritual it shapes who we are. It ought to be pointed toward a different world while its feet are planted in the reality we experience day after day. It ought to be guided by Scripture and tradition while completely convinced that the word of God is “alive and effective” in this world, now. And it ought to be, I think, oriented toward the world, the cosmos, and not an exercise in self-help, self-promotion, Dr.-Phil-think, or avuncular musings of the priests' childhood or ethnic family life.

Look at the readings for the feast of Epiphany. The first reading, from trito-Isaiah, is addressed to Jerusalem, a ruined city dragged ignominiously into exile, and tells a bedraggled and desperate people to “rise up in splendor, your light has come.” The gospel, the familiar story of the Magi’s journey, the treachery of Herod, the Magi’s worship and their circumventing of Herod’s plan, is Matthew’s foreshadowing of the division that Jesus’s life would cause for believers and non-believers alike, the violence that would erupt because of it, and the revelation that the gospel of the Messiah would be for all nations. Both readings play out on international stages with great political consequences. Great questions arise out of them as well, including the massacre of the innocents and just what it means to be a “chosen people” when you’re kicked around by every empire that rises or falls for one or two or three thousand years.

Even if we don't, the word of God takes itself seriously. The gospel, even this Christmas gospel, is framed in stories of life and death. This gospel is important: people move across national boundaries and death is visited upon the homes of all the male babies in the region. Modern scholarship posits that the feasts of Epiphany and Christmas were not created to counteract pagan solstice festivals, however much those festivals might have contributed to the accouterments of the nativity cycle. These feasts apparently originated from the dating of the crucifixion, thought to be April 6 by Eastern scholars, and March 25 in the west (which also became the feast of the Annunciation). There was a tradition that the Messiah would enter and leave the world on the same day, so the date of the crucifixion became the date of the Messiah's conception, making Christmas nine months later. So even the dates of these great feasts are blood-soaked and wrapped in the controversy that has divided the church, sometimes violently, for centuries.

Our worship and our mission at worship's end ought to be to proclaim "LIGHT!" to the ruined hearts of people who have been carried off into the Babylon of commerce and power, and help them sing. We, the church, ought to proclaim to them to “rise up in splendor, your light has come. The glory of the LORD shines upon you.” Don’t we sense the fear of people whose leaders in church and state have whispered their suspicion about anything that might change the status quo to benefit the hungry, powerless, stateless people in this and other countries? How are "the kingdoms of this world" working out for you? Anyone tell you about a God who doesn't cling even to heaven or godliness, but who throws self into the stench and blood and fleshy wonder of human love? Let's sing and proclaim about who lives in that house in Nazareth, and how divine light showed the truth to open-hearted outsiders, and how they found another way home. There seems to be plenty in which to rejoice and of which to repent in this feast. We may not hear it in church today, but there’s always next week. It’s a matter of life and death.
..were we lead all that way for

Birth or Death?
There was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt.
I have seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death. 
(T.S.Eliot, “Journey of the Magi”)

Friday, January 3, 2014

Resolved or not, 2014 is happening anyway!

It's been kind of a lazy week here in the Cooney house. Desi is home, Christmas is over, and aside from New Year's masses and a few funerals, there hasn't been much activity in the parish, largely due to the really active (snowy) cold weather we've been experiencing. Now, it's really passive cold weather, as we wake up today to negative temperatures and look forward to more of same over the next few days. So we catch up with phone calls, movies, and one another. It's easy to feel a little guilty about the lack of activity, but  really, what's a holiday season for? It isn't easy to be too reflective when we're all together, but at least the opportunity for conversation is there, and the quiet mornings will return too quickly anyway, given over to the school year's demands for pre-dawn rising with Terry, and Junior's absence to his curriculum at UNL.

But I don't want to completely lose the opportunities afforded by the new year, either.. What’s going to be different?

When I was younger, I would have said “nothing.” I wasn’t interested in any specificity in new year’s resolutions, mostly because I was convinced, even before January 1 rolled around, that they wouldn’t make any difference. Now, at 61, I really ought to make some changes. Can a person resolve to be happier? Can I figure out some way to intentionally surrender to my lot, knowing it’s far from perfect, but try to transcend my unease with aspects of my job with some kind of practiced generosity of spirit? Like, is it possible to say, “there are areas of life in which I’m incompetent, and somehow people let me survive my own lack of talent. Maybe I can cut certain colleagues some slack, and not just grit my teeth through Sunday, but relax into it and let it be whatever it is, and make my contribution to a larger whole.” Is that, ultimately, what agape and the body of Christ are all about? Sometimes the body has a cold, or a broken arm, or appendicitis. The rest of the parts pull together to make the best of it. Who knows? Tomorrow it may be a broken leg, or the flu, or clogged arteries. We all do our part, and we all thank God for white blood cells.

I don’t have any romantic illusions about this. I’ve had a lot of trouble trying to transcend my trouble with things at work. Things aren't in stasis, either, and generally are better than five, or three, or one year(s) ago. But I know that there aren’t many good ways for this to come out if I can't change my attitude, and if I don’t want to end up with an(other) ulcer, or become embittered and cynical, and end up working against the empire of God instead of for it, I have to do something.

At any rate, it would be easier than losing weight. I came across some new year's resolutions I was toying with for 2008, and I wrote this:
Already poised somewhere between the avoirdupois of a walrus and a blimp, a program of moderation is required. Yesterday, I bought a dang treadmill to give myself one less
excuse for lolling through the icy winter in the way to which I’ve become accustomed. I approached my doctor about helping me out with her program which is pretty successful. I only have to lose about a ton, i.e., about 20% of my body weight. I can do this. I just have to get over my self-help phobia, and do a few things that make me feel like a goofball (e.g., getting on a treadmill, stepping on a scale, eating less elephantine portions, &c.)
It ended up taking me most of 2008 to actually start to do something substantial about my weight, but in the fall I made some changes, and over the period of six months or so lost about 75 pounds. If only there were a pill you could take to help with the spiritual weight loss! 

It seems like a good time reevaluate my relationship with church music, too. There are a lot of significant anniversaries for me this year: 20 years at St. Anne, 25 years since Safety Harbor, 30 years since my first collection, You Alone. You've been reading about our wrestling with the music industry and working on figuring out how to distribute my newer songs. On the other hand, aside from a couple of anthologized songs, neither of my last two collections from 2005 (Christ the Icon) or 2006 (Today), ever attracted notice or review in Pastoral Music or any other periodical of which I'm aware. With that kind of silence, it's hard to know whether my style syncs with the church's needs. So I need to find a mission and make peace with all that.

I know that I really believe some of the wisdom that came out of conversations with Gary Daigle over the years. He believes you do your job, you do what you’re good at, live your vocation, and happiness and maybe success will follow. I need to do a good job in the parish, and out of that the music will flow. I guess the idea is that, if I think that a new piece of music I've written good for my parish, it might be good for other places. But the key thing is to do the right thing in my regular job, and everything else will fall into place. Maybe I can arrange a couple of "anniversary" concerts in the parish and nearby, give us a chance to get everybody together and sing through some of the songs we've written and express our gratitude for the opportunities we've had. This blog gives me the medium to express a lot of things I don't ordinarily get to share in my parish work, the way workshops and Forum institutes used to do, without worrying about the vagaries of air travel and arranging substitute musicians in the parish, and there's often vigorous feedback on Facebook about the topics that resonate with colleagues and friends.

Who knows where church music is headed in the next couple of decades? Maybe my songs were just for the last period of years, and helped get some of us through some kind of transition. I’ve always said that would be all right with me. Maybe that’s what I have to get used to thinking. 2014 will help sort it all out.

At any rate, friends, blessings and prosperity to you all in this new year. Somehow, may all of our little awakenings and contributions in our homes, neighborhoods, and churches rouse others to the empire of God. We could use a little peace on earth. Let it begin with me.