|St. Paul in Chains, St. Anne Church, Barrington IL|
It’s one thing, see, to feel you have a calling, to feel empowered by the Holy Spirit to do something different, to go a different way, or to exercise a charism that might put one at odds with with one’s peers, or those in church office. But it’s quite another to continue in that mode against the kind of tide that is often against one in the church. That’s not even to mention the inner voices that keep reminding you that you’re not special, that no one goes it alone, and that it is the same Holy Spirit that gives office and charism, and those things, while perhaps in tension in an imperfect world, are not in opposition or irreconcilable dialectic, either. It’s tiring to “rage against the night.” And there’s no lack of suspicion that your “vocation” is nothing more than recalcitrance or petulance, that you just have a problem with authority, or need attention.
I’ll never forget one thing that happened to me back in college. My class in the seminary included a number of very talented guys, way better musicians than I, but they were very supportive (and competitive in a healthy way) as we felt our way through the liturgical renewal and wrote our music. I wrote a setting of the mass commons in a very “pop” style, influenced by my heroes, like Jimmy Webb, Burt Bacharach, and probably a little Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, and “Take Five” by Dave Brubeck. So yes, it was a little “different” for 1971. To give credit where credit is due, both the students and faculty were supportive of me, and of all of our liturgical music, to a fault. But on this one particular day, we were singing some part of the mass, maybe the “Lamb of God” which was sort of turbulent riff in 5/4, and the seniors (yes, we all sat in “vocational order” in those days, by class and by alphabetical order) started surreptitiously pitching pennies into the music area from their pews. Those of us playing and singing, and I more than anyone else, were completely mortified.
I’m writing all this for a purpose, and believe it or not, it’s not looking for sympathy! These are things that the liturgy surfaces in me, that seem to ask me to evaluate my life and experience based on the word of God revealed in the experience of communal worship. Personally speaking, there have always been naysayers about my ministry as a songwriter and musician. As we gather again this week for the National Association of Pastoral Musicians national convention, I’m reminded of another one back in the late 1980s in southern California, when a friend of mine revealed to me that a very high profile priest had gone to NALR president Ray Bruno and bad-mouthed my music for some reasons I can’t even remember any more. This priest had told me to my face, several times, how much he liked what I was doing as a writer, but now I was learning that he was trying to sabotage my career with my publisher. I remember excusing myself, locking myself in the bathroom of the hotel room, and sobbing uncontrollably. My poor friend, I’m sure, was sorry he brought it up! As confident as I was that my songs, whatever else they were, were my vocation and necessary for me as a Christian to write and propagate, I was devastated that someone would actively try to keep them from being published.
How can we know we’re doing the right thing? How do we know the difference between, on the one hand, arrogance and presumption, and on the other, obedience and service? What’s the difference between self-promotion and vocation? These are some of the questions that the scriptures were provoking in me yesterday.
It’s clear that success is not the answer. As God said to Ezekiel in the first reading, “Hard of face and obstinate of heart are they to whom I am sending you. But you shall say to them: Thus says the LORD GOD! And whether they heed or resist…they shall know that a prophet has been among them.” You have to assume, of course, that Ezekiel didn’t “hear” from the Lord any more clearly than any of us do, but that his conviction that his message was from God was as clear as ours might be. Even Jesus himself is rejected by some who know him best, and by others who are the experts in his field. It must not be popularity or acceptance that is the key. I have a feeling it goes back to “by their fruits you will know them.” It’s not whether folks treat you right, or respect you, or do what you say; it’s whether or not they start acting differently, living justly, living in mercy and refusing to be part of sinful social structures. So for me, ultimately, the judgment about the rightness or wrongness of what I’ve written and how I’ve conducted myself at mass isn’t about whether my music or I is successful. It’s about whether I, and the assemblies who sing my music, are different at the end of the day; it’s about whether we’ve moved in the direction of the reign of God and away from the other empires that compete for our loyalty.
St. Paul talks about this a little bit too as he discusses his “thorn in the flesh” given him by the Lord. He is proud (too proud?) of the “abundance of the revelations” given to him by Jesus. Again, we have to assume that, however these were received and however convinced Paul was that they were of divine origin, that he received them in the same way any of us would, even as we might say we were blinded by a revelation, or knocked off our “high horse” by a truth. God introduces some humbling factor into his life; no one knows what it is. It doesn’t matter. Something tortures him in a way that helps him realize that it’s not his success or appeal that is what matters, it is the instrumentality of divine grace within him that is the crucial thing. “Power is made perfect in weakness.”
How can he say this? Because of the paschal mystery of God. Because the empire of God is not like the empire of this world. Because power is service. Because power is agape, self-emptying love, and not coercion, or threat of reprisal, or manipulation. Ultimately, “power is made perfect in weakness” because what most of us consider strength is diabolical, not divine. Surrender, peace-making, self-gift: these are the aspects of the dialogical, trinitarian God whose Spirit created the world and made Jesus messiah. Since it is the life of this God of truth and life, and not the god of empire, war, and victory, into whose life we are baptized and whose life we share in the heart of us, then it is those divine attributes of peace and mercy, dialogue and service to which our eyes are opened in the life of our parish and our neighborhood.
This is the gospel I want to preach to everyone who thinks that we have to force everyone to be Christian, or to live the way we want, or to do what we think is right. Jesus could have done that, and didn’t. Paul did do that, in his life as a Pharisee, but his conversion to Jesus changed him completely. Like Jesus, whatever the cost to us, we have to persuade by story and example, table-sharing and life-sharing, and “put away (our) sword.” Like Paul, we have to leave our summonses and sentences and swords in the desert, teach the truth of the Body, and know, somehow, that, because we are formed in the paschal mystery of God, “when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Three times I begged the Lord about this,that it might leave me, but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness."
(2 Cor 12:9)