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Monday, August 31, 2015

Second thoughts - Adding to and subtracting from the law

In your observance of the commandments of the LORD, your God,
which I enjoin upon you,
you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it. 

So, in this new "second thoughts" category, I want to offer when I can some thoughts from after experiencing the word of God in liturgy, rather than in preparation for it. It is so often a different experience, and I thought I might try to capture it on Mondays when I have time and memory.

I'm pretty clear about the "not adding to" the law part, at least that's what I was getting at when I wrote last week. Maybe because I'm an American, and thus a descendant of British jurisprudence, but in America we take our law pretty seriously. If you don't think so, count up the number of lawyers we have, the size of the legal code, the time it takes to become a lawyer, and, finally, the number of jails and prisons we build with public money to deal with the most serious of lawbreakers. I don't care about all that today, except that American approach to law is quite rigorous compared, say, to some older European nations like Italy. And we tend to put all laws on a very high plane of respect, whether they're constitutional provisions or local ones. And where I think we Catholics might get into trouble is when we make the transference from civil jurisprudence to ecclesial law. 

Worse, when we make God into a judge, enforcer, and executioner of the law, forgetting that Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God, and that "he who has seen me has seen the Father." If God wanted to be seen as a judge, Jesus could have looked a lot more like one. In fact, he even says in one gospel, "Friend, who made me your judge or arbitrator?" (Lk 12:14) (I write that with a smile: don't take that too seriously!)

But we do that, all of us do in our own way, those of us in positions of authority maybe especially so. We set up ways of working in our dioceses and parishes, ways of organizing worship or membership or sacramental preparation at home, and I think it's fairly often that our rules become laws and suddenly everyone is negotiating a maze of laws that, if not obstructing the great commandments to love God and neighbor, at least make them more difficult objects of focus. 

Which is not to say that structure isn't important. It's just that, like everything else in the church, it ought to be at the service of, well, service. The role of all church leadership is service, from the lowly parish musician to the pastor. I create structures, sure, to facilitate participation, to honor the guidance and discernment of councils, popes, bishops, and tradition, to maintain fairness and equality among church members, but when those structures and rules stop becoming ways of serving and start being a means of controlling people or enforcing a "one size fits all" kind of faith or worship, then I have to begin to wonder whether I've tread into territory where my mouth is full of religion, but my heart belongs to the Divider.

It gets confusing. I used the example of funeral music (wedding music is the same) in my Wednesday post about the weekend scriptures. We have traditions in the church about what is appropriate music for worship and what isn't. Those traditions are on a continuum, not everything is cut-and-dried by any means, but when they come into conflict with grief or with marginal or incipient faith, what then? The grieving widow who wants "Marine Hymn" for her husband's funeral, or the Catholic fiancé of an "inquirer" who has her heart set on a song from a vampire movie for their wedding? And before anyone responds too quickly, this in a church where bishops and pastors regularly defy (or disregard) church law regarding, say, the baptism of children of catechetical age, and withhold confirmation and even Eucharist until later, when the law is clear that the sacraments of initiation should all take place at the same time?

I think much of this goes back to a loss of communal identity in the church, which simply means that we haven't rediscovered who we are in an era when fundamental self-understanding of who God is and who Christ is and what difference it makes for the church is in flux. I think this is a good thing. It's uncomfortable to live in this cloud of unknowing, but it's where we belong. It gives us the opportunity to focus on the big issues that the gospel yesterday provides: people are hungry. Worry about feeding them first, then worry about the consequences and the law. "You disregard God’s commandment," Jesus admonishes us, "but cling to human tradition." 

We know that, at the time the second gospel was written, there were rivalries and divisions in the church that resulted from competing theologies of membership. Some Jewish Christians wanted non-Jewish converts to be subject to the Torah and undergo circumcision; others, Paul among them, were adamant that God's call to faith justified, and there was no need for compliance with other laws of Judaism. Some of this disagreement may have made its way into the animosity that appears in the gospels between Jesus and the scribes and lawyers. Whatever its origin, though, the experience seems to be endemic to religion: laws made by the community and its leaders tend to be taken too seriously, the forest of laws and traditions soon obscuring the light on the river, where the voice of Abba calls each one "beloved," and opens the heart to the realization that all are thus called, brothers and sisters of the Firstborn, Jesus. It may not be necessary to cut down the forest so much as to keep in mind that the voice, the light, and the river are still there, and that they are our goal. Staying together on the path with intentional compassion as the flock makes its way together to the glade is something to strive for, as well as trying to hold fast to just who is the good shepherd, and who are the sheep.

Friday, August 28, 2015

About the Eucharist - collection of "Gentle Reign" posts

I have gone back over the posts I've done over the past three years that specifically focus on one aspect of the Eucharist or another. Of course, many more speak of the Eucharist, but these are the ones most specifically about the sacrament. Whenever you see a strange-looking series of alphanumerics in a title, that's my shorthand for the Sunday it appeared. For instance, "B21O" means "the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B." I hope this makes things easier to search if you're looking for something specific.

You can see all of these posts at once in your browser by clicking the "Labels" link to the right that says, "About Eucharist."


Final thoughts 2—Bread of Life: Sign and foretaste of heaven

Final thoughts 1—Bread of Life: Looking beyond the manna and the man

Bread of Life—To whom shall we go? (B21O)

Bread of Life—Giving thanks, always, for everything (B20O)

Taken, Blessed, Broken, Shared: Being the Bread of Life (B19O)

Bread of Life—Liberation and transformation (B18O)

Bread of Life—The hand of the Lord feeds us

It takes a village to pitch a no-no (or feed 5000. or the world) (B17O)

Intimacy for Mission - my 'homily' for the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ

We proclaim the death of the Lord

Real Presence

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Thy true religion in our hearts increase (B22O)

The internet was abuzz a few months ago about the funeral of Vice President Biden's son Beau. There were lots of critics of the funeral liturgy celebrated because, aside from the celebrity of the deceased, his family, and the invitation-only attendees, it was as liturgically flawed and mawkishly homely as most of the hundreds of funerals I’ve attended over the years. We Catholics have a really, really good funeral liturgy. We just tend to be loath to impose it upon people in toto in their moment of grief. I’m not sure why, since we impose other laws and rites on them, but this just doesn’t seem the time. Or maybe we aren’t really sure about the resurrection, and this is just the time our lack of faith reveals itself. At any rate, let’s just say that the funeral may not have been our finest moment in really public worship. But it was not, by my estimate anyway, in any way worse than what most parishes do all the time. Focused on the accomplishments or personality of the deceased, we very often miss the opportunity to focus on the One who gives life to both the deceased and to us from the beginning of time to the end. It’s just the way we are. A memory of the beloved in hand is worth two anamneses in the theological bush.


But this Sunday's liturgy speaks, perhaps in an oblique way, to this issue. The equation set up in the gospel between true worship and just living brought this controversy to mind. I have encounter in my parish over the years a false dichotomy set up between the law (in contemporary usage, meaning the liturgical law guiding ritual and church law in general) and "real" Christianity, which is somehow loving everybody and doing whatever we want with ritual so that our freedom as Christians isn’t unnecessarily constricted by the pettiness of rubrics. Some see liturgical law as parallel to the pharisaic dietary restrictions being challenged in the gospel story yesterday, as though following the rite of the Church or insisting that participation in the Eucharist is for the baptized were a “mere human precept” that can be swept aside by anyone who wants to for the purpose of not being “exclusionary.” 


It’s certainly true that, built into the very fabric of Christianity, there is a tension between belonging (to an “in” group of those who have accepted the gospel) and mission (to serve and evangelize those not within the group.) The sense of baptismal belonging can easily degenerate into a mentality of “in” and “out”, a ghetto or parochial tunnel vision which segregates the Church from the world. The gospel has us keep reevaluating our vision, though, and helps us to see, when we have the courage to reflect upon it, that membership in the Church is a sacrament of the rest of life. As sacrament, it is a sign, a symbol with the weight of reality, of what our lives outside of the church milieu represent, and even more than that, of what God is doing in the world. God’s work is not restricted by the work of the Church, though to some extent the participation or non-participation of the Church in the enterprise of agape on God’s behalf can either promote or hinder the emergence of the empire of God.


Sunday’s gospel was set up by a passage from the Torah that assured us that observance of the law is wise and intelligent, a sign of our awareness of God’s nearness to us, and we are admonished that we in our careful observance we are not to “add to what I command you nor subtract from it.” Then, the responsorial psalm has us proclaim together the core of the law: “They who do justice will live in the presence of God.” The beginning of the letter of St. James, with characteristic practicality and directness, then said the following:

Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.

 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this:
 to care for orphans and widows in their affliction 
and to keep oneself unstained by the world.


This great letter, written by the leader of the Jerusalem church and possibly the "brother of the Lord" who knew Jesus and his message personally, proclaims that religion and action are inseparable; that the truth of faith, that is, of God’s saving presence in the heart of the believer, is not simply confessional, internal, or a matter of “belonging,” but is a matter of action, a matter of being like God, and risking one’s own livelihood for the sake of the powerless and afflicted. The gospel, then, goes on to admonish us about the way we want to condemn people who don’t follow our rules, like hungry people who eat without washing their hands:

“Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written:
 This people honors me with their lips, 
but their hearts are far from me;
 in vain do they worship me,
 teaching as doctrines human precepts. 
You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”


Jesus is always concerned that conversion precede discipline, that our desire to be “in” be informed by our commitment to God and the work of justice in the world. He does not, it seems to me, subscribe to the false dichotomy between law and love. He rather sees obedience to law as an outward expression of an interior reality, and that reality is the conviction, acted on in every aspect of life, that every other person is a beloved child of God to the very same extent that I am, and that my service of the other is my connection to the life of God. Agape is one. God is agape. As human beings, we keep order and pass on our beliefs about this very God through our rites and laws. But our adherence to them, and our way of passing on the laws, really must be informed by our conviction that others also already live in the all-encompassing sphere of divine favor, and that doing justice to others is underpinning truth of the Torah. And by justice, Torah means “the way God treats people,” or “the way things would be if the world were completely transformed into the reign of God.”


Getting back, then, to the Biden funeral: what does it say about some of us “Catholics” that we cannot do any better than criticize the music or the prayers at the funeral in a family whose public life has been devoted to the plight of widows and orphans and immigrants, whose passion is universal health care, education, and equality? As with the Kennedys, why does our conversation turn to the public “sins” of the man, the weakness, the apparent bad judgment or bad choices, rather than to the extraordinary way in which they used their prodigious talent and influence to do the very things the gospel of Christ urges us to do? Where is the mercy, the non-judgment, the appreciation of gospel life?


Inaction brings its own judgment upon itself, as we know from Matthew 25. Those who think that their religion and its rites alone will count them among the blessed are in for a rude awakening, if we are to believe that apocalyptic parable (Mt. 25: 31-46). Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deluding yourselves. There is no dichotomy between belonging and mission, between law and love, for those with ears to hear the gospel. Love precedes and informs law; belonging is for mission, which expands the circle of belonging. True religion is living in agape, the love-life of God, which only God makes possible. Those who live in love live in God, even sinners. Even Democrats.

Here’s what we're singing in the parish:

Gathering: Lead Us to the Water (Kendzia)
Psalm 15: Those Who Do Justice (Haas)

Preparation Rite: Change Our Hearts
Communion: Lord, When You Came (Pescador de Hombres)
Recessional: Let Justice Roll Like a River (Haugen)

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this:

to care for orphans and widows in their affliction... (Jas. 1:27)

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Final thoughts 2—Bread of Life: Sign and foretaste of heaven

Rethinking our idea of God, learning God’s ways based upon the Jesus of the gospels and not upon Baal or Zeus or the human emperors whose wealth and power we crave, will necessarily cause us to rethink our idea of what heaven is. It can help us get an idea of how the eucharist is a “foretaste of heaven,” since heaven, we imagine, describes the dwelling of God, or the realm or sphere of divine presence and influence. And I keep coming back to that hymn in Philippians that Paul quotes near the outset of that letter, “Though (Christ) was in the form of God, he did not imagine that equality with God was something to be hoarded. Instead, he emptied himself, and took the form of a slave.” Whatever else we say about God, it must include this central notion of our faith that God empties himself, does not cling to divinity, in order to love and serve. Clearly, already, heaven must be more like the kitchen than the banquet hall; more like the servants’ quarters than the throne room; in the image of the venerable British drama, more like downstairs than upstairs.


The god for whom Jesus was mistaken in the narrative of John 6 and in the other multiplication gospels enters history on a white horse to disrupt it, breaking the laws of physics, casting aside the harsh reality of laboring for daily bread, setting things right by giving everyone a winning lottery ticket and free meal pass. But Jesus had rejected that sort of messianic mission, as the stories of the temptations in the desert suggest. The God of Jesus is not like Pharaoh or Caesar, nor a magician who produces abundance by legerdemain. The true God enters history with all its unfairness, violence, and ungodliness, subverting it from within through solidarity with us, and showing us by example how the greedy and violent dynamics of history can be overcome by agape, the selfless solidarity of other-centeredness.


There is a familiar metaphor for heaven that works for me here. It’s an image in which heaven and hell are exactly alike, with people sitting across from each other at great banquet tables laden with rich food and drink. Angels bring plate after plate of wonderful dishes to the center of these tables. The trouble is, the forks are all three feet long. The people in hell are starving, the food is turning, because they can’t reach from their forks to their mouths to feed themselves. Those in heaven, on the other hand, are laughing and full, because they are feeding each other. They’ve learned the lesson of the kenotic Christ, who came “not to be served, but to serve.” He is the image of the invisible God.


In the letter to the Ephesians we heard during these Bread of Life weeks, St. Paul asks believers to “be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us.” To “live in love,” we have been shown by Jesus, is to serve the other person, to “enter history on behalf of the poor,” in Nathan Mitchell’s phrase, and not to cling to our correctness or status or imagined “goodness” if it gets in the way of solidarity with the other and putting the other’s needs above our own. Within the community, this means we ought to remove from our lives “all bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling...along with all malice.” Imitating God means living in agape, which is focused upon the needs of the other at our own expense: “be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.” To St. Paul, it doesn’t matter who is right and who is wrong, it only matters who does right, and doing right is a matter of imitating God, emptying ourselves into history “as Christ loved us and handed himself over to us.”

Solidarity with others at this level, being-like-God when God is a servant and not a despot, is a dangerous business. The food that strengthened Elijah in the desert came to him because he was in flight from the persecution of Queen Jezebel and her husband, Ahab. Jesus and his disciple Paul both experience capital punishment at the hands of the empire. That having been said, this political nature of eucharistic life and solidarity among us is not a coercive or violent movement, but a movement of people who choose life. It surrenders rights, rather than claims them; this is how God is, not even hoarding the status of divinity, but surrendering divine right and rightness to be God-among-us. I say this as a way of countering any claim that the Eucharist is essentially a “spiritual” exercise: it is, quite to the contrary, a sign of the integrity of humanity, body and soul.



Maybe that’s why we have the Eucharist, finally, as a meal. It is God emptied into bread and wine, but it remains real food for real people, bodies and souls, confronted by and then surrendering to a divine presence that transforms us into someone we could never become on our own: Christ. In Christ, humanity becomes divine. But this is not to say that we rise to some new kind of superiority or splendor: it is to say that we are more and more transformed by agape into servants of the world in the image of the God by whom we were created. The sign and foretaste of heaven brings us ever closer to the dwelling place of God: with the human race. We arrive at the beginning, in Eliot’s phrase, and discover it for the first time. Christ, as he did with Zacchaeus, has come to stay in the house of a sinner. Our house. Heaven, the dwelling-place of God, is with the human race.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Final thoughts 1—Bread of Life: Looking beyond the manna and the man

Buddhists talk of their teaching as a finger
pointing at the moon—we're meant to see
the goal, not the finger.
At the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, recorded in some form in all four gospels, there is a story about the John-baptized Jesus being driven into the wilderness for trial. In the more detailed narratives, the evangelists tell of dialogue between Jesus and Satan, who, in one case, tries to get Jesus to turn rocks into loaves of bread. In these lessons in “how to be a bad messiah,” Satan attempts to make Jesus into the very kind of messiah that people will actually want, will root for: one who can feed them when they get hungry, rule over their rulers, and manipulate God into answering whatever prayer might be on their lips at the time. In every case, Jesus not only rejects the suggestion of the tempter, but, using God’s own word, demonstrates that the kind of actions Satan suggests were never God’s idea in the first place. Satan, foiled in this attempt to divert Jesus from his calling and from his elevated status as God’s beloved, goes away to try again later. “Later,” we are to understand, is the darkness of the cross.


The cluster of sayings and dialogues gathered and redacted into the sixth chapter of John are dense and weighted with references to the feeding of the Hebrews wandering in the desert with manna, “bread from heaven.” What does “bread from heaven” mean? Is it like “pennies from heaven,” a kind of panis ex machina that is like winning the hunger lottery? I think to answer this question, we have to come to terms with what kind of God it is whom we worship. If “heaven” is the abode of God, or the sphere of divine influence, then the kind of God we worship will determine much about what heaven is like. For instance, if we believe in a God in the likeness of a human monarch, then heaven will be somehow like a castle, with royal attendants, rich fixtures, a throne, “golden crowns upon the glassy sea,” and so forth. But what if, as I have often been advocating here and in my music (not my own idea, but gleaned from other readings) that Jesus Christ “is the image of the invisible God,” and that our best glimpse of God, and therefore of heaven, is to consider Christ himself? Might not, in the end, this be something like what Jesus means when he says, in words laden with connotative references to the exodus narrative, “I AM the living bread which has come down from heaven”? In other words, My work is the work of the God of Exodus, the living God, the God of freedom and equality. Abba gives me to the world, as Abba gave the manna in the desert to your ancestors. To be fully alive is to take me inside of you, to take me to your heart, to become who I am. This, too, is the gift of Abba.”

Jesus keeps urging the crowd to “look beyond” Moses, and see that the wonder worker was doing the work of the One who led them out of Egypt. In the same way, he wants the crowd, along with both his disciples and detractors, to see that it is God who feeds them. And how did God accomplish this? Are we to believe that, after a miraculous multiplication of food in front of thousands of people, there would still be incredulity? Well, we are a tough crowd; I suppose it’s (barely) possible. But what kind of God would be revealed in such a miracle, a god who feeds this crowd, today, and another one? Not a hungrier one, for instance, of which there are plenty. Wouldn’t such a miracle reveal a god who breaks all the rules set up at creation for a moment of glory? Being this kind of messiah, wouldn’t Jesus just be doing what Satan had tempted him to do in the desert, when he reprimanded the Divider by saying, “People don’t live on bread alone”? Is it more likely, as some have imagined, that the preaching of Jesus about the empire of God, about an alternative to greed, gain-centered labor, war and competitiveness in the invitation to live in agape, might have moved the crowd to open its burses and pockets, stimulated by the sight of a boy surrendering his five loaves and two fishes, to share their food with one another?


What kind of bread, from what kind of “heaven”, might that be? What God might dwell in a heaven that is other people, that is a spirit of shared life, that is about acknowledged mutual value and equality as children of one family? Wouldn’t that kind of bread feed more than just the belly; yes, the belly, but also the heart and soul? 


The paschal mystery of God demands that kind of bread. It is not bread that changes our life like a winning lottery ticket, but it’s bread that changes our life like spring rain and sunlight, spread over the whole earth so that the earth itself brings forth enough for everyone. It’s bread that changes everyone’s life. The God whom we worship as a community of persons in eternal mutual surrender and service is revealed by a messiah who turns a crowd of hungry seekers into a table of plenty.


In the Buddhist parable, the seeker is warned not to miss the moon’s beauty by concentrating on the finger pointing at the moon. Jesus’s message to the crowds is much the same: it’s not the food that is so important, and it’s not even the one who brings it to the table. What’s important is the God who sends the bread from heaven. Knowing that God, knowing the divine economy of abundance that shines out when we stop coveting and hoarding and praying for a miracle and start opening our picnic baskets and sharing, that might be the important thing. Looking beyond the gift to the giver, sharing the bread from that heaven, we begin, in St. Augustine’s beautiful words, to become what we eat, not through any work of our own, but because the Holy Spirit fills the bread of agape with the very life of God.

Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled. (Jn 6:26)

Friday, August 21, 2015

Friday fol-de-rol—Fun with iTunes

Driving home from Lincoln, Nebraska, on Wednesday gave me the opportunity to listen to a good cross-section of my iTunes collection, at least the small part stored on my iPhone. One of the playlists that always makes me smile is one I call "AlphaOne." My parameters for creating it were simple: one song for each letter of the alphabet, and the title had to be just one word, only one song per artist. As I was listening to it, I kept thinking that I had to try to create "AlphaOne—II", but some of the letters will really be tough! This is my playlist...could you make another one without repeating any of these songs, right out of your collection? Or are you just wondering why I have Olivia Newton-John in my iTunes collection at all? :-)

Amie Pure Prairie League
Birdland The Manhattan Transfer
Conquistador Procol Harum
Dandelion The Rolling Stones
Everywhere Fleetwood Mac
Fernando ABBA
Goldfinger Shirley Bassey
Hallelujah Bono
Inside Sting
Jump Van Halen
Kodachrome Paul Simon
Lodi Creedence Clearwater Revival
Maniac Michael Sembello
Nobody Robert Randolph & The Family Band
One Three Dog Night
Peg Steely Dan
Question Moody Blues
Respect Aretha Franklin
Sitting Cat Stevens
Twisted Annie Lennox
Unwell Matchbox Twenty
Vehicle Ides of March
War Edwin Starr
Xanadu Olivia Newton-John
Yesterday The Beatles
Zanzibar Billy Joel


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Bread of Life—To whom shall we go? (B21O)

Finishing up (for now) with the Bread of Life discourse, I thought I'd just say a few more words about real presence, and recall Joshua's words and Peter's statement, "Lord, to whom shall we go?"

I've written a lot about "real presence" before, most thoroughly here. As I was reading about yet another homilist rail against the remnant about the bogus statistic that "only 40% of Catholics believe in the real presence," I was thinking to myself, well, Father, why don't you say a little bit about human experience of how food changes when we gather around it, and about the ability of God, being God, to change things completely? Yes, it's a mystery. But it's not incomprehensible. It's just too much to completely comprehend, ever. 

One example of this came to me as I read Nathaniel Philbrick's engrossing little book called Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. In this book, Philbrick, the historian of Nantucket Island and its whaling past, gives us a popular historian's view of the settling of Massachusetts by the Pilgrims, their encounters with the indigenous peoples of the area, the first Thanksgiving, and King Philip's War, all of which happened within the span of a single generation or so. The reference to Thanksgiving made me think about human presence and the way we are capable of transforming food. I mean, turkey is just turkey. But in 1621 when a group of sorry settlers already decimated by disease and hunger were befriended by a group of Pokanoket Indians and their chief, Massasoit, the blessing of the autumn feast at the end of their first year in Plymouth made turkeys enter the world of myth. Even though turkeys, indigenous to the New World, had been brought to Europe by the conquistadors and were introduced in England eighty years before the Pilgrims sailed from Holland, it was this singular feast, marked by a hesitant attempt at a cultural exchange, that made the roast turkey a symbol of a nation's thanksgiving.

But it was people, gathered around food, that changed food into something more than just, well, charred bird. I can't even look at a turkey, or smell a turkey cooking, at any time of year, without thinking of Thanksgiving, pilgrims, my mother, my family, and my country. The food was changed by presence; yes, the presence of pilgrims and Indians around food that first Thanksgiving, but also by the remembrance of that event in millions of households for nearly four hundred years. Is the turkey just turkey? Well, yes. Certainly a farmer from Mongolia, a schoolboy from Delhi, or a Masai tribesman from South Africa might only recognize the bird. But to many, including many who have only read about American history, folklore, and mythology, the roast turkey is more than just a bird. In an important sense, to Americans, the "accidents," that is, the sensible parts of the turkey, remain the same, but the "turkey-ness" of the bird, the essence, or what Aristotle would have called its "substance", has been changed, at least in a way that we can generally agree to on some level.

As I said in my previous post, the important thing that faith brings to the table, as it were, is that in the Eucharist, it is not just human persons gathered around the table. It is human persons baptized in the Holy Spirit, who are joined in mystical union as a body with the Lord Jesus as the head of the body, who are gathered. It is God who is gathered with us. If human presence can transform food in the way I tried to outline above and in my previous post, isn't it true that, when God is involved in the gathering and in the food, the food can be seen to have changed completely? It is God who is creator, by whose word the heavens and earth were made in all their parts. "God speaks, and it is done," says Psalm 33, a sentiment strongly echoed in Isaiah 55, when the prophet writes, in God's voice, 

"For just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down
And do not return there till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
Giving seed to him who sows and bread to him who eats,
So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth;
It shall not return to me void, but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it." 


God's word, God's Word, changes food completely, making it, and therefore those who eat it, a new creation. It's not our doing. Only God can do it, only God can invite to the table. "No one can come to me unless the Father beckon."
 The thing is, God invites everyone, and is waiting for us to spread the invitation. Again, that great line of Archbishop Desmond Tutu comes to mind: "We can't do it without God; God won't do it without us."
Finally, a word wrapping up some thoughts from last time. Joshua, in today's first reading, renews the covenant between God and people at Shechem. Again, the covenant with the God of life is renewed in the context of freedom. The new life that the former slave nation was to experience in Israel was a life of freedom, they were called to it by the God YHWH—"I am"—who had given them bread from heaven, manna. Jesus, in the discourse just concluded in chapter 6 of John, recalls that very God when he says to the crowd "I AM the bread of life," "I AM the living bread which came down from heaven." Jesus is the new manna, the bread of life, the bread of freedom, who reveals God as a God who wants freedom for all people. The meaning of this freedom Jesus will further demonstrate at the Last Supper, which is only represented in the fourth gospel by the washing of the feet (about which Jesus says, "as I have done, so you must do"). Further, in his appearance before Pilate, Jesus admits to being a king, but not in a kingdom like those of this world, where hordes of followers would put up a fight to prevent his trial and execution. In the kingdom of life and freedom, swords are sheathed, and life is freely given so that the freedom of others to choose is not thwarted. The bread of life, the bread of freedom, lets us enter into the very life of God, whose inner life is one of self-gift, shared power, and eternal dialogue. This, too, is a great mystery.



"Lord, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of eternal life." You alone have the words of utter freedom, you promise and make a world of peace, as hard as it seems sometimes to listen to your word. How often I have repeated those words to friends and family members when we get into the discussion about the Church, about how hopeless our leadership can be, how sinful we ourselves are, how nothing ever seems to change, how, some people see it, the world isn't about to turn, in spite of what my song says. Lord, to whom shall we go? We are part of a people, simul justus et peccator, as the old saying goes, both God-like and sinful. We have no dependable access to Christ other than through a community. Revelation requires discernment, discernment requires other people, if you want to be at least fairly sure that the voice you are hearing is not some food that disagreed with you, or a phlegmatic chemical in your brain, or your own wishful thinking. I may want to go it alone, but Christ has made a covenant with us as a people, not as individuals, but as a body. Like Groucho, I may not want to be part of any group that would have me as a member, but here I am, not here because I chose Christ, but because Christ chose me. I have a list of reasons as long as my arm for leaving this crazy church behind, but then I remember that God has a list as long as her arm about why I shouldn't be allowed to stay, and God's arm is much longer than mine. Irascible and still allured by the pretty but empty covenants of death, I have much of which to empty myself as I try to find the road, the truth, and the freedom who is Christ. I hope I never settle for anything less than transcendence, for a sense that what I am involved in and to whomever I am immediately and utterly present has a reality and a truth that goes beyond my ability to entirely grasp it, a meaning and finality that will endure beyond the grave. That is what Christ offers. I've seen it again and again in my life. 

Tomorrow we may ask ourselves again why we do what we do, why we seem to be the dance band on the Titanic, why we work so hard to have it all cut out from under us by a pompous cleric, or a bitter, fearful reactionary, or the carelessness of those who ought to care the most about the liturgy. And again, I'll try to remember those words, thankfully a little closer to the forefront of my assaulted memory: Lord, to whom can we go? You alone have the words of everlasting life.

I do believe, Lord. Help my unbelief.

This is our music for Sunday at St. Anne:

GATHERING:   Look Beyond (Ducote)
KYRIE/SPRNKLING: Kendzia
RESP. PSALM:   O Taste and See (Haugen)
PREP RITE:   We Come to Your Feast (Joncas)
FRACTION:   Notre Dame (Isele)
COMMUNION:   One In Love (Kendzia)
SENDING FORTH:   We Will Serve the Lord (Cooney)

Monday, August 17, 2015

Taste and See the Goodness of the Lord (reflection on B20O)

“[I]f you believe in God omnipresent, then you must believe everything that comes into your life, person or event, must have something of God in it to be experienced and loved; not hated.”
― Elizabeth Goudge, Green Dolphin Street

Yesterday, August 16, it was my privilege to give the reflection on the readings at my parish, St. Anne in Barrington. This is, more or less, what I had to say to my friends and neighbors at church.

As I was reflecting on the readings for this weekend, I thought it would be interesting to look at the "bread of life" discourse, and what Jesus says about the himself in John 6, through the lens of the psalm we have been singing for four weeks now. Just in those very short verses of Psalm 34, there is a lot to ponder as we "address one another in psalms and hymns and inspired songs, singing and playing to the Lord" in our hearts, as Ephesians said. But before I do that, I'd like to briefly look at some repeated words in those first two readings, and how they suggest a way to think about the word of God today.

Did you notice that both Proverbs and Ephesians start off with exhortations to "forsake foolishness"? What do they mean by that? I suspect we'd have a wide range of meanings for "foolishness." If there were a political debate, say, between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and each used the word "foolishness," they would probably mean almost universally different things, probably pointing to the other as they said it. But what is foolishness to the writers of today's readings?

It would help if we looked at all of Proverbs 9 today, because there are two women inviting people into their houses. Lady Wisdom's invitation is here, but Lady Folly's invitation doesn't begin for a few more verses. The whole of chapters 1-9 in Wisdom speak of the tug-of-war between wisdom and foolishness. The call to the simple and uncomplicated in today's first reading is an open invitation to experience the bounty of Lady Wisdom's house by obedience to the Torah, acting with justice toward the neighbor. Folly, on the other hand, does what it wants to do, without regard to the law and prophets. The path to each house and the outcomes of living in them are clear. They are the result of choices that we make in life. They are not rewards and punishments. They are consequences of our choices. Good choices, symbolized by the covenant or Torah, are made possible by God's invitation.

The teaching of Jesus is much the same, though Jesus also reveals for us the love behind the law. Jesus preached in Galilee, a Jew in a nation under the rule of the Roman empire. Rome, like every empire before and since, embraced a view of civilization that used military violence and threats to keep a version of peace. As long as people accepted Rome as their master and paid their taxes, they would have a measure of peace and security. And Rome had a god—Caesar—Octavian, later called "Augustus," the "majestic," who also had titles like "son of God," "God" "savior of the world”, LORD, and "prince of peace." Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, passed these titles on to his adopted son, Tiberius, and so on while the Caesars lasted. (Footnote: the word evangelion, the word we translate as "gospel," was a word used by the regional governors of the empire to commemorate the victorious Octavian's military victories which brought "peace" to the world. They used the word in the plural; the Paul and the NT writers use it in the singular to refer to the gospel of Jesus Christ: that is, his death and resurrection which are the peaceful "victory" over Caesar.)



That was the "gospel" of Rome; but Jesus, and later the church, preached a different way. He knew people knew that things weren't working, that people weren't happy, that they were suspicious and often jealous of each other, that they worked too hard, and were afraid of what terrors the next day might hold for them and their families. Of course, that was then, and this is now, right? Jesus wanted people to remember who they really were: God's chosen people. So we might hear his message as, "How's that Roman empire working out for you? How is that god 'Caesar' working out for you?" And he reminded them, and he reminds us, about who we were before Caesar and the rest of the civilizers showed up: Jew or non-Jew, we are the sons and daughters of a God who wants us to act like a family that takes care of each other. To make this as obvious as possible, he called this God "father, abba"—the head of the household of creation. He called for a world organized not by violence and threats but by justice, equality, and love.

Rome disagreed, and executed him as a disturber of the Pax Romana. But we know the rest of the story. Abba raised him up, the beloved son, the servant, on the third day. And his disciples continued to preach the message of the empire of the Father, a world organized by love and justice. So when the Church called Jesus “Lord,” or "Son of God" or "Prince of Peace," it was as a clear alternative to the "Lord" of Rome. At the heart of this new movement of healing, love, and reconciliation was a meal shared in equality in memory of Jesus. As Jesus had shared his table with everyone, the infant church gathered around a meal to remember Jesus and spread the word of the empire, the kingdom of God.

I want to say that this is what Jesus means by the "bread of life." Do you remember that these gospels began four weeks ago with the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, and that the whole event took place "near the time of passover"? The "bread that came down from heaven" is part of the passover story. Manna, the bread of exodus, the bread of freedom, is the bread that came down from God. Now Jesus says, "I am the bread that came down from heaven. I am the bread of life." We're meant to hear "I AM" as the name of the God of the Exodus, the god of freedom. Wisdom, freedom, joy, equality, and God are life. Whatever is not like this God, whatever belongs to the other god, Caesar, the one who civilizes by threats, violence, and force, that god is death. To choose that god is to choose death, to taste and see death. Just like the two women in Proverbs, there are two calls into two houses. Each comes with consequences. But only one call comes from God.

So when our psalm sings, "Taste and see the goodness of the Lord," we should try to keep in mind which Lord the psalmist is so enthusiastic about. It is the paschal God, the God of passover. We can taste and see that God because God created everything out of God's own goodness, so that everything created shines with the freedom and love that made the universe. This is the God who doesn't even cling to divinity, but pours self out to come among us when we lose our way to show us, in an utterly human body and soul in Jesus of Nazareth, what the real God is like. In Jesus, I AM shows us how to live with compassion and healing, and how the walls we put up between each other with money, power, property and greed are nothing but illusions that will dissipate when we just turn around from one god to the other, when we turn from death to life. So, in the words of our psalm,

When we bless this Lord at all times, the "lowly will hear and be glad."
When we seek this Lord, the paschal God, the god of freedom and love, then this Lord will answer, and deliver us from all our distress.
When we look to this God, the paschal God, our faces will not be ashamed.
When we cry out to this God, the paschal God, then the poor are rescued from distress.

It is this God whom we taste and see in the Eucharist. It is this God who says, in Jesus Christ, I AM. I AM the bread of life. I AM the living manna. And it is into this God, in Jesus Christ, that we are baptized, and whose life we share not through any good we do or any merit of our own, but because of the loving kindness and the call of God. It is this God whose spirit, in baptism, makes us into the body of Christ, to keep proclaiming by our lives the gospel of compassion and service. It is now our vocation to ask one another, to ask the fearful, jealous, unhappy, overworked world, "How's that other empire working out for you?" It's for us show by our lives a different way, not reinforcing "civilized" threats of force and violence, but demonstrating a way of living together based on service, compassion, freedom, invitation. That is the goodness that we can "taste and see" when we encounter this Lord in the body that is this church and in the body that is the eucharist. That is the goodness that we are, that enables us, that inspires, in-spirits us to sing,
I myself am the bread of life.
You and I are the bread of life,
Taken and blessed, broken and shared by Christ
That the world may live.
We begin to taste and see the goodness of the paschal God, of one another, of a world that God is bringing to be, when we live as the daughters and sons of Abba, and come together around the supper table of the Passover lamb.

So at communion today, let us say "amen" to who we are, the beloved children of God, committed to God's empire of peace, justice, and freedom, and "taste and see the goodness of the Lord," both at the table of the Eucharist, and at the table of the world.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Bread of Life—Giving thanks, always, for everything (B20O)

On to Sunday's readings, the fourth in the "Bread of Life" Sundays. I had a number of thoughts to share about this, but for today, I thought I'd start off with this thought, which I've used in a few workshops over the last dozen years since I came across Bill Bryson's great book of popular science, A Short History of Nearly Everything. To get into this a little bit, here is what St. Paul says in the passage we hear in the second reading Sunday from the end of the letter to the Ephesians:


...Be filled with the Spirit,


addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,


singing and playing to the Lord in your hearts,


giving thanks always and for everything.


Words like that make us pastoral musicians smile, of course, and affirms us in our ministry week after week. But in the context of these Sundays on which we hear proclaimed the words from John 6, which, from our historical vantage point, we associate with the Eucharist, the call to "give thanks" (in Greek, eucharistountes) is particularly poignant and ripe with meaning. The singing at Mass these mornings has been wonderful, even when I'm trying to introduce some new mass parts! Some days, it just seems to lift me up more than usual. These Sundays are like that.

So, I was giving thanks this morning for the last two weeks of my life as I was going over the couple of hundred pictures I took at MMA and on vacation with Terry's sisters in Keystone, CO. Meeting new friends and the youth participants at Music Ministry Alive, seeing old friends and laughing late into the night, being smitten again by Fr. Ray East ("love on legs") and Fr. Alapaki Kim from Hawaii, and Joe Camacho, and Bonnie and Tim and Lori and Kate and Matt and all the other folks who made the long work days not just bearable but blessed and magical. I'm giving thanks for the indescribable beauty of Colorado and the gift of being with the fabulous Donohoo sisters (most of them) and their families for a week, the "serenity of the clear blue mountain lake," the night sky crammed breathtakingly full of stars, the smell of the pines, the rush of the wind in the pines and aspens—it was all too much, over and over again. Then to come home to my beautiful parish, and the choir, and the young people who sing in the evening—it made the transition to reality a little easier!

You have your own list of gratitudes, I'm sure. And yet, that barely begins to scratch the surface of all that you and I have to be thankful for as we gather to break bread in the name of Jesus. The very bread and wine themselves are made from the energy that made the stars, fed by elements whose origin is hidden in prehistory and dust from the Big Bang, "fruit of the vine, work of human hands," sown, harvested, transported, ground, mixed, baked, packaged, transported again, and sold by human endeavor, all for the benefit of our blessing. And in a sense, when we gather at the Eucharist, this is bread's Big Moment, it is wine's Time to Shine. It's actually here, in the new creation that is the Eucharist, that bread and wine really become what they were created for. Now, at last, bread can really give life, can really nourish the whole person, body and soul, in time and for eternity. Now, finally, wine can warm the whole person, give gladness, health, and well-being to the whole body, mind, heart, and spirit. Both give themselves into the hands of Christ, who makes it possible for all humanity to come to a new awareness of itself as an organism that lives both in time and in kairos, not a collection of individuals adrift in a heartless cosmos, but part of a body whose life is the breath of God.


Now, that's not what Bill Bryson has to say, but he sure gets you thinking that way. This is from the first chapter of his book, and I offer it to you in the hope that you might enjoy it and be drawn to buy his book, or get it from your library, and gain a new or deeper appreciation of the universe that God has made, in one way or another. When we begin to realize the length of the hazardous journey that DNA has made to get to this day, and to the individuation that makes you you and me me, it's cause for a new kind of thanksgiving, and in a way, a kind of thanksgiving to which only science can give us a real entrèe.

For today, I'll leave you with the text. At the end of this blog, you'll see a link to the book on Amazon if you're interested in reading more. For now, enjoy this beautiful summer day.

I’m delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn’t easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize.



To begin with, for you to be here now, trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you. It’s an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. 



To be here now, alive in the 21st century and smart enough to know it, you also had to be the beneficiary of an extraordinary string of biological good fortune. Survival on earth is a surprisingly tricky business. Of the billions and billions of species of living things that have existed since the dawn of time, most, 99.99 percent—are no longer around. Life on earth, you see, is not only brief, but dismayingly tenuous. It is a curious feature of our existence that we come from a planet that is very good at promoting life but even better at extinguishing it.



The average species on Earth lasts for only about 4 million years, so if you wish to be around for billions of years, you must be as fickle as the atoms that made you. You must be prepared to changed everything about yourself—shape, size, color, species affiliation, everything—and to do so repeatedly…To get from “protoplasmal primordial atomic globule” (as the Gilbert and Sullivan song put it) to sentient upright modern human has required you to mutate new traits over and over….So at various periods over the last 3.8 billion years you have abhorred oxygen and then doted on it, grown fins and limbs and jaunty sails, laid eggs, flicked the air with a forked tongue, been sleek, been furry, lived underground and lived in trees, been as big as a deer and as small as a mouse, and a million things more. The tiniest deviation from any of these evolutionary shifts and you might now be licking algae from cave walls, or lolling walruslike on some stony shore or disgorging air through a blowhole in the top of your head before diving sixty feet for a mouthful of delicious sandworms.



You have (also) been extremely – make that miraculously—fortunate in your personal ancestry. Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth’s mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from it’s life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result—eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly—in you.


From A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson. Copyright © 2003, Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc. 



Here's what we're singing Sunday at St. Anne:

GATHERING:   Look Beyond
KYRIE/SPRNKLING: Kendzia
RESP. PSALM:   Taste and See (Kendzia)
KID PSALM: O Taste and See (Haugen)
PREP RITE:   Blest Are You (Haugen)
FRACTION:   St Aidan (A)
COMMUNION:   I Myself Am the Bread of Life
SENDING FORTH:   Table of the World (Nettleton/Alonso)

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Albums 18: Today (GIA, 2007)

Somehow, in all the excitement of getting our new collection, Like No God We Had Imagined, launched, I didn't realize that I never got around to publishing an "Albums" post about our previous CD, entitled Today. We had finished the 2005 recording of Christ the Icon, but still had a number of songs that we wanted to share. GIA had already published "Heart of a Shepherd" after I had made an inquiry about arranging the Gelineau Psalm 23 for the verses. As I explained in my SongStories blogpost on that song, this conversation began just at the time that Pope John Paul II was dying, and GIA liked "Heart" and wanted to make it available in the interregnum, as they say, for communities to pray with. We made a proposal to them based around that and some other GIA administered psalm texts and other material, and the collection took on the name of two of the songs, Today.

The order of songs tries to follow the order of the Church year a little bit, though it would have been most groovy to have begun and ended with “New Jerusalem.” We cut out an instrumental verse from the recording, and if we could have stuck it on the end, it would have been very Sergeant Pepperish, but we ixnayed the oovygray. So the CD begins with “New Jerusalem,” picking up the first Sunday of Advent's eschatological glimpse of the end at the beginning, then go to “The Wilderness Awaits You,” a song for the nativity cycle based on various biblical texts, but mostly an updating of the prayer that is Psalm 72, used both in Advent and at Epiphany. Both of those songs have entire posts written about them in the SongStories series, and you can use their links to read those if you wish, as well as the other linked SongStories posts in the text that follows.



In the Christmas series on this recording, there comes next “In the Stillness,” a choral  reworking of the Dameans' song. Gary Daigle and his Damean colleagues had produced an album of Christmas songs in the late 1980s entitled Light in the Darkness, and over the years in our concerts together we had used "Stillness" many times, often as part of a medley of songs that told the gospel story from beginning to end in song. When he was working with me at St. Anne, Gary produced this SAB arrangement of the song, and my choir grew to love it, so we thought we'd share it with the world. Gary's musical ear takes the melody of the verses from a beginning in A minor to end each time in C major, which is lovely enough, but he wrote a contrasting third verse which starts in C minor but diverges through B major, returning suddenly to Am for verse 4. 

What follows is the first of the "Today" psalms, my setting of Psalm 96 for Midnight Mass, “Today,” called that to translate "Hodie" as in, "Today is born our savior, Christ the Lord." Later on the recording, Psalm 118 for Easter bears the same name. There, "Today" translates Haec dies in Psalm 118—"This is the day." Of course, I hope that people will see the text connection and hear it in the musical motif, suggesting in an artistic way the connection between the incarnational and paschal celebrations, their union in the paschal mystery, and some insight into Christmas as "Easter in wintertime," at least in the northern hemisphere! The Dameans’ choral song “Light in the Darkness" follows, rearranged for a more modest church choir and orchestra, from the original version which was the title song of the previously mentioned  Dameans’ Christmas CD. Once again, my choir at St. Anne's considers this song a Christmas essential, and my hope is that many other choirs will try it and come to feel the same way. Michael Balhoff's poetic text uses a structure that employs repetition of similar elements that urge us to give glory for the light and for the darkness, while Gary's music and instrumental arrangement is lush and original, taking us from F to F minor and back again with a genuine freshness that is unmistakably Christmas.

My “Litany for the Scrutinies,” and “Psalm 22 for Passion Sunday” follow, both of which I really like and I hope other music directors do too. Again, both have SongStories posts linked above, and you can hear music clips and read more on those pages. These are followed by my Easter psalm 118, also called “Today.” As I alluded to earlier, Psalm 118 uses the same motif for the word "Today" as the Christmas psalm does, but aside from the key and time signature, that's where the similarity ends. These are two different psalms set differently, but which use a motif to suggest a theological connection. The "Today" of God's action in Christ, in the incarnation and in the resurrection, is "today," this very day, same God, same Christ, new day, thanks be to God.

Next up is a choir/congregation version of the Latin sequence “Victimae Paschali Laudes.” If you're not familiar with the sequence, it is a hymn that precedes the gospel acclamation on Easter and Pentecost (and, optionally, on Corpus Christi), based on medieval songs that trope on scenes or words in the gospel. Victimae is an Easter song exhorting Christians to praise the risen Christ. In my setting, I have retained the Latin plainsong tune and text, and interspersed it with the Alleluia from "O Filii et Filiae," all rendered in an Fm mode.


Let me confess right now that I know that I'm the last person anyone would expect to set a Latin chant, but the economy of words and juxtaposition of opposites in the text (e.g., innocens/peccatores; mors/vita; mortuus/vivus; sepulcrum/viventis) is without equal in any English translation I know of. But I'm also aware that this is lost on 98% of people in the pew. It is in the least idiosyncratic that I would do this, but I'm so spiritually smitten with this lovely chant that I thought I would try to arrange in such a ways as to preserve its beauty and also reverence the principle of active participation. In doing so, more may be made of a sequence than was the original intention, but these are preserved only on great solemnities, so some leeway might be assumed. I used some organum in the choral verses to suggest the medieval milieu of the song, which also allows for the movement between chant rhythms and time as we move between the sequence and refrain, which ultimately becomes the gospel acclamation.

The next cut on the CD is the Easter communion song, “Heart of a Shepherd," which like others has its own full SongStories page. The recording is rounded out with the Ascension psalm 47, "God Mounts His Throne." This setting has its origins in my college days, but it is simple and evocative, originally scored for organ, trumpet, cantor and assembly, I added SAB to the refrain for the recording, along with some text edits. There's not much one can do to dress up an enthronement psalm, though, and imagining a king being enthroned while the warrior God is evoked and people are urged to "clap their hands" and "sing a song of joy" makes me really uncomfortable in a culture where the commander-in-chief is all too often the high priest of the "God bless America" civil religion. Walter Brueggeman suggested in Israel's Praise that we should be wary of psalmic alleluias that want us to "praise the Lord" without specifying which Lord we are worshiping and why. The implication is that not all psalms are created equal, and when the "alleluia" says "praise the status quo" instead of "praise the God who lifts up the lowly, and raises the poor from the dust," we may be be part of the problem, and not the solution. But Ascension comes every year, and we have to rely on each other, and the homilist, and the rest of the liturgy, music, and life of the parish to help us interpret the scriptures, right?

The last song on the album is a collaboration with my daughter Claire on a wedding song called “Song of Songs, based upon verses from that biblical text whose verses sound like an erotic epithalamion but which may be some coded language about the end of the Babylonian captivity or some other literary form. In any case, its use at weddings makes it eligible for a musical setting, and I took Claire's paraphrase of the text and set it to what I hoped was a Randy Newman-ish melody and accompaniment. You can audition it, and the other songs on Today, on the GIA website, or using the arrow button in the iTunes window below.


This completes the list of albums we've done together so far, except for Terry's albums, for which I hope she will eventually write up her memories. She did the song selection for them, and she is a perceptive thinker and entertaining writer. It is for these reasons I have left the option to write about those recordings to her and her busy schedule. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy reading about the making of these recordings. If you want to see the list of album posts or SongStories posts on my blog, just use the "Labels" tool on the right column at the top of any blog page, and click on the "Albums" or "SongStories" link. You'll then see a complete list of whichever "Label" you selected.

Until late this year or early 2016 then, that's the story of Cooney-Daigle-Donohoo collaborations in recording. Thanks for reading!

For more information about the Today CD and music collection at GIA, click here.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Singing and making music—meaning beyond words at MMA2015


I am afraid to say too much about my experience serving among the 180 or so teens and adults who lived the Music Ministry Alive 2015 experience last week at St. Catherine's University in St. Paul. I don't mean that it's a secret like a kairos retreat, or that there's some gnostic experiential handshake I might inadvertently reveal. I just mean that I might damn it with faint praise, or by seeking to put it into words say too little or give the impression that an emotional jolt precipitated some florid prose.

My experience instead was of a community with a history of carefully imagined encounter around intentional polarities of spirituality, liturgy, leadership, music, and evangelizing service, gathering again and renewing its bonds while lavishing its loving attention on new members.

MMA core team: Matt, Tim, Lori, David, Jess
Among the many people who are the heartbeat and nervous system of this body, David Haas and Lori True have gathered some very talented multi-tasking professionals who not only radiate joy and mutual respect for each others' many gifts and talents, but many of whom have emerged spiritually and professionally from the matrix of MMA, now about a generation "old." Lest I leave out anyone important, I hope that you who are part of MMA will recognize whom I mean, and those of who you do not will forgive my reticence. In addition, dozens of adult staff members and chaperones see to the safety and happiness of the youth attendees, and adult track participants, all of whom have brought youth with them from their church communities, lend their considerable experience and (at least) another week of their lifetimes toward the optimal outcome for the youth participants.

What is really phenomenal, to anyone who takes the time to consider it, is the level of personal expertise and attention youth receive from spiritual and musical mentors in every aspect of these ministries. Composers getting personal attention from people like Marty Haugen and Lynn Trapp, keyboard players getting private lessons and advice from the amazing Tom Franzak, guitarists learning from Steve Petrunak and Jaime Cortez, and equally expert advice and lessons for string, trumpet, and woodwind players. Singers received group and individualized help from Bonnie Faber, Terry Donohoo, Anna Betancourt, George Miller and others, all under the energetic direction of Tim Westerhaus, an MMA alum and now professor and choral conductor at Gonzaga University. A handful of youth were given a leadership seminar led by Lori True.

But I want to emphasize that undergirding all the urging toward musical excellence is a liturgical spirituality and gospel love that pervades every aspect of life at MMA. Every day begins and ends in musical prayer, planned, rehearsed, and often led by the youth themselves in presidential, intercessory, cantor, choir, and instrumental ministries. There is an institute "pastor"—in this case, the ebullient and inspiring Msgr. Ray East, dubbed "love on legs" in a moment of improvised inspiration by a young participant this week. 

There is a level of integrity and rootedness provided by a perennially substantial contingent from St. Rita parish, located in the Hawaiian homelands on Oahu, led by the expansively kind and wonderful Fr Alapaki Kim. There were about 8 youth in the program from St Rita's, and as many adults. Some were in the adult track, others worked overseeing and ministering to the youth. Joe Camacho, from Volcano HI on the Big Island, was also at MMA lending his special spirituality with embodied prayer and music through hula. All of these folks, from a remarkably generous community of very little means, exude an active hospitality that reaches out with host-like generosity even when they are visitors, and everyone at MMA was a recipient of gifts of bone leis, flowers, candy, and lots of kisses and hugs. There was even a night when the Hawaiian contingent put on an evening for the rest of us, giving lei-making lessons, singing Hawaiian songs with ukulele, telling stories with hula, and lots of puupuu, including a homemade coconut custard-like dessert that was delish. But the overriding takeaway from being among the Hawaiians was of being the beneficiary of unconditional love that was as physical as it was spiritual; being in the presence of people of transparent benevolence, gifted with an inner warmth that they share without restriction.

I was busy with the adult track most of the time, and am not certain at all what the youth were up to beyond their music lessons and choral and instrumental rehearsals for the end-of-week concert. What was clear all along the way was the emergence of community among the participants, genuine care for one another, support for each other and desire for the individual and mutual success of the whole group. In the adult track, we spent time breaking open the movement of the eucharistic liturgy as articulated as the dynamics of Henri Nouwen's modern epistle to the secular, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World . I spelled that out in a little detail earlier this week in a blog post entitled, "Taken, Blessed, Broken, and Shared." This turned out, I think, to be a good choice by David Haas, this choosing of Nouwen's book to be the week's kerygmatic touchstone. None of us realized how much all of us, not just the youth by any means, needed to hear Nouwen's message about the non-competitive, universal love of God that is lavished on us all as it calls us to live for one another in a world that devalues the human person wants us to believe we can never be good enough, smart enough, rich enough, and pretty enough. Watching that message unfold during the week and dawn on the hearts of young and adult alike was quite a revelation.

All of that having been said, none of my words comes close to expressing what we experienced there in the the way that the pervasiveness of music itself brought the message home. From morning to night, in every aspect of our time together, sacred song helped us give voice to the transformation that was taking place in so many hearts and lives. It was a song sung in English, Spanish, Latin, and Kiswahili (at least), embodied in dance and gesture, begun in prayer but breaking out in all kinds of places from dormitories to dining room. Whether singing Lori's touching theme song, or Michael Joncas's heart-wrenchingly beautiful "Tableprayer: the Winter Name of God," or "Hamba Nathi Kululu wetu" from one of John Bell's world music collections, this group of no-longer-strangers found its voice to express the gospel truth over and over that "You are my chosen, the beloved, in you I am well pleased," in a remarkably inclusive and uplifting way.

I'm not sure how to end this, knowing that nothing I say can really communicate the essence of blessing that Music Ministry Alive 2015 became for the 100+ youth participants, 30+ adult track participants, and dozens of team members and support staff. I hope that they all experienced and will interiorize over time a prophetic church, a church conscious of its calling, conscious of its blessing, convinced that its weakness is strength in the hands of a God who creates from nothing and brings resurrection from disaster and shame, all in order to bring life to a world unconvinced of any power except the failed, miserable power of arms and greed. What I hope the participants come to realize is that service through music and art is a sacrament of participation, which is God's method of choice for saving the world. The great 20th century prophet of musical collaboration and the voice of the people, Pete Seeger, may not have known what he said when he said it best in a documentary interview before he died: "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." 

Participation in music reveals the truth that the whole of us is greater than the sum of the parts of our individual gifts. It turns isolation into community, introversion into ecstasy. When that music is put at the service of the God-who-bows, it begins to subvert the false authority of civilization and its Idol-atrous cult of virtuosity, stardom, and perfection. 

May I urge you, please, to investigate what MMA has to offer your students, your community, and you, and urge you to make a donation to their work? Next summer's institute is the last full week of July, July 26-31, 2016. Lives will be changed. The influence of the week will last a lifetime. Join Terry and me, please, in supporting the life and mission of Music Ministry Alive, for the life of the world. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Taken, Blessed, Broken, Shared: Being the Bread of Life (B19O)

Being given away is part of the eucharistic "deal."
Last weekend, we finished the week of music and mentoring that is MMA, Music Ministry Alive!, the wonderful work of David Haas and Lori True and many, many others that took place July 26-August 2 at St. Catherine's University in St. Paul. Part of my work there was a set of four sessions with the adult track participants on the four movements of the Eucharistic action that are generally identified from scripture as "taken, blessed, broken, and shared." In the short term, David suggested these movements as an outgrowth of his delight in Henri Nouwen's work, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World. Nouwen's little book is written as a love letter to a friend, a secular Jew who challenged Nouwen, a prodigious writer on spirituality, to write a book that young, secularized people like himself could use to make meaning out of their lives. Nouwen's principle was an attempt to invite people to understand themselves as beloved by God, and called to a kind of life that recognizes that belovedness and acts on it. To his friend, the work ultimately failed because of its presuppositions and assumptions about God and Christ, but the work still stands to anyone by whom Nouwen's assumptions are also assumed in the simple rigor of it message. As part of his entree into his subject, he tries to help the reader see the movements of being chosen (taken up, as it were), blessed, broken, and given away (or shared) as part of being God's beloved.

That's the call I got when I was asked to be a presenter/mentor at MMA. Of course, I'm not stranger to that fourfold template of spirituality. Those who know me know that one of my most well-known songs, "I Myself Am the Bread of Life," makes that dynamic explicit in the chorus, which sings,
I myself am the bread of life.
You and I are the bread of life,
Taken and blessed, broken and shared by Christ
That the world may live.
© 1987, OCP Publications, Portland Oregon. All rights reserved.
I'm quite sure that John Gallen, S.J., either planted that mantra in my head, or awakened it from its slumber since liturgy and New Testament classes in college, when Gary and I were taking classes with him those two years in Phoenix at the Corpus Christi Center, or I heard them from Mark Searle or Ralph Kiefer or one of the other giants of the liturgical awakening at one conference or another in the 1980s. But it's not the song I wanted to talk about the day so much as the dynamic itself,

When I entered "taken, blest, broken, and shared" into a web browser, I got half a million hits. Half a million. So this is no recent addition to the catalog of scriptural buzzwords. This one has been around the block, and I'm guessing that there's not much new to be said about it, however brilliant my insights might seem to me when I'm hyperventilating my way down the lanes of my hometown in the humid 80º morning sun. But one little possibility jumped out at me as I was thinking about it in preparation for the week.

First, just to be sure we have the same starting place, those verbs in that order possibly represent a catechetical code for the eucharistic meal. They appear in the first part of John 6, the feeding of the multitude, on the first of the five Sundays in year B that present the "bread of life" discourse, this year, July 26. It came like this:
Jn 6:11 Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted.
You will notice that the notion of "breaking" does not appear in this version of the story. In the first gospel, Jesus is always in control of events, and the mandatum to and commission to "feed my sheep" are associated with the passion and resurrection narrative, as the mission is passed on to the church. In his feeding narrative, John also uniquely introduces the idea that "the Jewish feast of passover was near," juxtaposing this event with the Last Supper and marking it as a significant moment in the Lord's ministry. But notice how, for instance, Mark, the earliest gospel writer, describes the same event (6:41)
Then, taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to [his] disciples to set before the people; he also divided the two fish among them all.
Now, the gospels were written late in the first century CE, into the second. However, the earliest  reference to the Eucharist in the Christian scriptures comes from St. Paul in the first letter to the Corinthians. He is addressing certain abuses in the community's way of life that are showing themselves in their celebration of the Jesus meal. So he tells them what the genuine tradition about the meal is, in this letter which predates John by three or four decades, and Mark's gospel by perhaps two.
1 Cor 11:23-24 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 
The sharing (giving) of the food seems to be understood here, since it is in the context of the meal.

Compare this rhythm to Mark's description of the Last Supper:
Mk 14:22-23 While they were eating, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take it; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it.
...and also to Luke's story of the meal at the end of the Emmaus story, a post-resurrection narrative:
Lk 24:30 And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them.
The NT writers use the same vocabulary each time to describe meals which have very different apparent context, but we have to conclude that using the same verbs to describe the action means we're supposed to hear them as a whole, describing something in the life of the community that is still finding its way, surviving now some twenty to seventy years after the death of Jesus. "Take, bless, break, and share" has come to describe the way that the community celebrates the meal that identifies them as followers of Jesus, the table-sharer, how they "do this in memory" of him. And we see from the letter to the Corinthians that the first thing we know about Christians in the Greek cities is that they are already doing it badly. They are not living in community in a way that expresses the meaning of the Jesus meal, and Paul is trying to correct that in this first and formative and invaluable letter.



Now the thing that occurred to me was that the servant songs in the book of Isaiah (really, in Second Isaiah, probably written in the late 6th century BCE at the end of the Babylonian captivity and redacted to its current state in the 3rd century BCE) trace this same pattern of God's taking, blessing, breaking, and giving the Servant for the life of the community. In Isaiah 42: 1-7, the first of the great Servant Songs, we hear language later used in the gospels to describe Jesus, but which is used here to describe the nation of Israel, or some of its people, as the Servant. And notice the language of "taking" or "choosing" and then blessing by God ("I have put my spirit"), all "for the people." Then in the later canticle, the fourth Servant Song in Isaiah 53, the missing piece, the being "broken," is told in all its painful and familiar detail, but ending in that new and surprising "givenness" of the suffering: that it is not in vain, but, somehow, "for our sins" and "our iniquity," and that by it we are made whole and healed.
Isaiah 42: 1-7 passim 
Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased.
Upon him I have put my spirit; I, the LORD, have called you for justice,
I have grasped you by the hand;
I formed you, and set you as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations,
To open the eyes of the blind,
to bring out prisoners from confinement,
and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.
Isaiah 53: 3-5  
He was spurned and avoided by men,
a man of suffering, knowing pain,
Like one from whom you turn your face,
spurned, and we held him in no esteem.
Yet it was our pain that he bore, our sufferings he endured. We thought of him as stricken, struck down by God and afflicted,
But he was pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquityHe bore the punishment that makes us wholeby his wounds we were healed. 
Just "how" we were healed by his wounds or it was our pain that he bore is beyond the purview of this article, but I would say two things. Insofar as we might apply the Isaian servant canticles to Jesus, we are seeing the concavity of the impact of the paschal mystery of God, that is, the utterly transcendent and beyond-our-understanding God directly acting in our world, revealing everything about the universe in the death and resurrection of Jesus. "No one has ever seen God," writes John, but the Creator leaves a big footprint, and this is the biggest, clearest one. At his baptism, Jesus heard the voice of God call him "beloved Son (with words that recall the "servant," note the parallel in Mk 1:9-11 to Is. 42:1-2 above). After wrestling with his vocation in the desert, Jesus accepted the call to proclaim a different way to "civilize" humanity, an empire based upon a universal awareness of our belonging to one family, sisters and brothers with one abba, and we're supposed to act like that. It is giving away that brings greater life, not hoarding. It is loving enemies that brings security and peace, not armies and organized murder. It is healing the sick and feeding the hungry that fulfill the law, not laws and rituals that restrict and impoverish the soul. And when Jesus was eventually rejected by "church" and state and subjected to capital punishment for his treason, he was so full of the creating, life-affirming presence of Abba that the grave could not hold him. In raising him from the dead, God again spoke from heaven, "This is my servant, whom I uphold. Listen to him."

What is really critical for Christians to understand is that definitively through baptism and confirmation repeatedly and normatively through eucharist we ourselves are made part of the body of Christ, of which Jesus is head and the Holy Spirit is the breath and soul of life. The belonging of being called into the family of God is transformed and completed by a mission, God's mission, the mission of the messiah (i.e., of Christ) to announce the alternate vision of civilization, the "peaceable kingdom," the empire of God. We rehearse that mission week by week, every Sunday, as we, with the gifts we offer, are taken, blessed, broken, and shared by Christ in the meal that is the Eucharist. We see ourselves in the eucharistic bread and cup—our history, our giftedness, our sense of vocation, our forgotten and forgiven sinfulness—we see ourselves, together, taken up by Christ, proclaimed as blessed with God's presence and beloved, broken into pieces and shared and consumed for the life of the world.

Then, we are told, "Now, darlings, go on. Get out of here. You have work to do." Being sent, given away, is part of the deal begun with being taken up with unconditional love and named God's "beloved," part of the same body of Christ that rose up sparkling from the waters of Jordan two millennia ago. To the extent that we are faithful to our calling to act as brothers and sisters, children of abba, to the extent that we practice enemy love, heal the sick, feed the hungry, and announce the good news of empire of God by our living, we participate in the mission of the Messiah. God is inviting humanity to join together in saving the world, and through us, through the the Holy Spirit, the world can finally become aware of that, by seeing us at our loving work.

Music this Sunday at St. Anne:

Gathering: Table of Plenty (Schutte)
Kyrie: Mass of St. Aidan
Psalm 34: Taste and See (Kendzia)
Presentation of Gifts: Faithful Family (Cooney)
Notre Dame (Isele)
Communion: One In Love (Kendzia)
Recessional: All Are Welcome (Haugen)