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Monday, March 31, 2014

Preaching Lent on St. Patrick's day

Click here to see the readings that are chosen for the second Monday in Lent.

This year, the second Monday in Lent also happened to be St. Patrick's Day. I happen to be giving a parish mission in the most Irish town in the United States, Sharon, Massachusetts, on St. Patrick's Day. I was prepared to talk about Lent, but was quickly made to understand that forgetting about St. Patrick's Day, especially with a name like Cooney, and especially being named Patrick, would've been a mistake of biblical proportion. So, if you've had a chance to look at those readings, take a look at what I had to say, and see if you think I pulled it off alright! At the morning mass, I gave this reflection as the homily.
So, how hard can this be, right? I have five or ten minutes to give a little telescoped version of the tonight's mission talk, and, you know, it's nothing too heavy...our participation in sin, the call of Lent to remember who we are, to remember our baptismal promises and the people they call us to be,
maybe start from the scriptures of the day so we have a place to hang all that as we go through the day today, and then (your pastor) Fr. Scott (Euvrard) says, "Oh, and we celebrate St. Patrick as the patron of the archdiocese today." So put another ring in the circus of my remarks! Here we go.

First of all, then, happy feast day to us. I'm a Patrick, and proud of my heritage, proud of the people from whom I come, who were both preservers of the faith and some of its most active missionaries, people of poetry and song, who produced saints great enough to imagine heaven as a party with Jesus and the three Marys at a Great Lake of  beer.

To remember all that as we start today is perfectly in sync with the theme of our mission, even though it didn't occur to me when I was originally preparing for it. We're considering our baptismal promises, and part of the baptismal promises is believing in the communion of saints, so it's perfectly fitting to remember Patrick and all the saints of Ireland, including the parents and godparents, bishops, priests, and sisters whose missionary spirit and love of God brought the church and the gospel to this side of the Atlantic, as well as the faith and selfless love of those ancestors who came across looking fr a better life and built the roads and railroads and sailed the ships, worked in the factories, and wore the civic uniforms that helped  to build this country into a strong and prosperous nation. And for all that, we thank Patrick, the patron of Ireland and the archdiocese of Boston, even if he was from an Italian family, because God does that kind of thing for laughs sometimes. "Do you believe in the communion of saints?" Well, we're wearing green, aren't we? And the whole state smells of corned beef and stout.

Now, about those readings and our mission. There is a sense in that first reading, from the book of Daniel, that things are going badly for Israel, and indeed they were, but there is this persistent memory that God has always been good to Israel and even though things look really bad, God is faithful. Israel blames itself, or rather, the author of the book of Daniel blames Israel, for its unfaithfulness to the covenant as the source of their troubles. I think we have a more nuanced way of thinking about this. Certainly Jesus didnt promote thinking that bad things happening to people was any kind of direct punishment from God.

But there is a sense that we all contribute to the evil in the world, the suffering of humanity, by the little things we do or neglect to do that are self-serving or make us happy at the expense of other people. We all help to poison the well, a little bit at a time, and eventually there's no escaping the fact that we all have to drink from the well. Injustice, bad stewardship, and oppressive behaviors come back to haunt us as crime, pollution, and violence. We take care of our own, even if it means making others unable to take care of their own. Our justice is retribution and intimidation and deterrent by force. It works for a while, but I think we see that there are forces arming both sides all the time, so the violence escalates, and while what we want is security, what we end up with is escalating fear.

French anthropologist Rene Girard proposes that we humans learn by imitation. Specifically, he says we learn to want things from watching what other people want. He calls this process mimetic desire. We see what others want, we see it would be good to have, and we start wanting it too. This inevitably leads to conflict when individuals or groups end up wanting the same thing, conflict when escalates toward violence in big and small ways. He reasons that religion enters into the picture by creating rituals that refocus the violence on a scapegoat,  asking god or the gods to remove the violence by the killing or driving off of an animal or even a person, to substitute for the violence or crimes of the people. The scapegoat ritual punctures the violence, which subsides for a time, but the ritual needs to be repeated over and over in order to deflate the violence. It works for a while, but not indefinitely. There is still war and violence in the world.

The gospel proposes another way. "Be merciful as your Heavenly Father is merciful." what Jesus wants us to do is change our desire. Jesus wants us to change whom we imitate. Instead of imitating the god "of this world," Jesus says, imitate the Father, who lets the sun shine and the rain fall on the good and bad alike. Instead of sowing fear, sow generosity. Instead of sowing condemnation and judgment, sow mercy and forgiveness. When we can break the cycle of retribution and pettiness and judgment, as surely as those things escalate when left unchecked, we will experience generosity, mercy, and forgiveness ourselves, and not in the future, as some reward after death, but here and now, in this life. Imitate MY god, Jesus says, put away your sword, sit down at table together, welcome the outsider, bend down and wash each others' feet. 

To finish this morning, I need to tell you that I believe that this path is the gospel, but this path is not easy. In order to do this, we have to believe it, and stick together. That's what baptism does, and that's what baptismal promises are for. As Chesterton said in the early part of the 20th century, "Christianity hasn't been tried and found lacking; it's been found difficult, and untried." My friend and mentor, the late Fr. Jim Dunning, always told us, "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly." Repenting, turning around from our habits of greed and violence, is hard. The very least we can do as Christians is not imagine that our participation in them is some version of good. We need to see evil for what it is, and stop it, turn around. I suggest to you that the only way out of the mess the world is in is through the gospel, and, necessarily, the cross. But like the Jewish author of the book of Daniel, we have hope, because God is always faithful, and God already does for us what God expects us to do for each other: forgive, bend low, be lavish and generous. Anything worth doing is worth doing badly. Let's do Christianity, Christians, even if we do it badly, and keep turning around until we are walking together in the reign of God.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

John 9:9 and the co-creation of light

Mary: I mean, we're just people. We're just human beings. You think you're God!

Isaac: I gotta model myself after someone.

(from Manhattan, by Woody Allen)

Between hearing the readings again today and reading John Shea’s commentary on them in his lovely book The Spiritual Wisdom Of Gospels For Christian Preachers And Teachers: On Earth as It Is in Heaven Year A, from the “Spiritual Wisdom” trilogy, the things that really jumped out at me were the clear associations between the gospel about the man born blind and the creation story in Genesis. First, there is the whole provenance of light. The first act of creation in the narrative is the simple statement, “God said, ‘Light!’, and there was light.” Second, there is Jesus’s act of making mud paste with dirt and saliva, which recalls the act of the creation of adama (the human being) from the clay. The cure of the blind man happens, as has I’ve written about before, on the Sabbath, which makes us aware that whatever is going on here is about the meaning of God, about who God is, what God does, and what God wants. For John and for us, Jesus is the truth, revealing the true identity of God. God thus is light, healing, and life first and foremost, and not a cosmic plenipotentiary looking for praise and sacrifice from satraps and subjects, nor a judge looking for slavish adherence to human laws of rite and religion. There is continuity between the work of Jesus on humanity’s behalf in the world and the work of creation.

But the biggest surprise to me, and I might be making more of this than I ought to, was John 9:9.  When I heard the text it struck me:
His neighbors and those who had seen him earlier as a beggar said,
“Isn’t this the one who used to sit and beg?”
Some said, “It is, “
but others said, “No, he just looks like him.”
(The formerly blind man himself) said, “I am.”

Now, remember that this story is about God first and foremost (see where I’m going?) Remember that it is one of the seven signs in John’s gospel, and in a great line of sayings by Jesus that includes “I am the bread of life,” “I am the light of the world,” “I am the resurrection and the life,” “I am the good shepherd,” “I am the sheepgate,” and, at the hour of his arrest, asked for his identity, just the words, “I am,” in Greek, ego eimi. Can it possibly be a coincidence in this gospel, so literary and careful in its construction, that here, touched by Jesus and part of new creation that Jesus came to begin, those words do not carry the full weight of God’s name? When this came to me, I looked it up in the Greek New Testament online. Even Jesus’s words above, ‘phos eimi tou kosmou,” “I am the light of the world,” do not as directly say what he says in other parts of the gospel. The words are emphatically stated here by the man himself: ego eimi, I AM, the words that represent the name of God in John. It struck me that the man born blind has become a visible sign of the invisible reality of God, that is, the man is now truth and light. It is he whose vision, both his inner vision and his sight, has been created again, and who embraces the truth of his experience and clings to it. “This is what is so amazing,” the blind man tells his interrogators, “that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if one is devout and does (God’s) will, (God) listens to him. It is unheard of that anyone ever  (me: that is, from the beginning of creation) opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.”

I published last year, and retweeted last week, a piece about about the mystery of sin, and how the intention of the three scrutinies is to “gradually reveal” the mystery of sin. And that is true. But they also reveal the mystery of grace. They have the dual purpose of purification and enlightenment. I wrote about how sin is able to derail religion, to turn it into a joyless series of hoops to jump through and formulas disconnected with our reality. But this gospel teach us to trust our experiences of God. If it feels like we’ve been cured, look for the place that the cure came from, even if it’s not on your religious radar. It reminds me of Steve Earles’s amazing song about the American Taliban, “John Walker’s Blues.” Unlike the knee-jerk hatred of the right-wing, the artist tries to probe what it is that would make a middle-class American boy join radical Islamists on the other side of the world. His answer is that it was a necessity, an “existential imperative,” because of the (perceived) truth of his religious experience:
I'm just an American boy raised on MTV 

And I've seen all those kids in the soda pop ads 

But none of 'em looked like me 

So I started lookin' around for a light out of the dim 

And the first thing I heard that made sense was the word 

Of Mohammed, peace be upon him. 

Obviously, there is more to be considered than just isolated experience of truth. There’s an aspect of discernment involved, and we believe that that discernment is a community project, not something one ordinarily undertakes on his own. As the proverb says, the person who acts has his own lawyer has a fool for a client; the same goes in spades for the spiritual life, at least insofar as the Catholic tradition sees it. Truth is communal, it’s not, generally speaking, the provenance of individuals. Revelation all too often turns out be conversing with strange aspects of the self, and involvement with others in a discernment can take some of the risk out of life. There might have been avenues other than violent revolution that Walker might have followed; the only point I’m trying to make is that experience matters, and that the truth of it is a powerful catalyst for action. And, as in the gospel story, sometimes community discernment can go awry when the community’s truth has been derailed by social structures that systematize sin.

Two final things struck me. One is that in all three of the scrutiny stories, it is divine initiative that gets the narrative rolling, divine initiative that a human being takes on, and at some kind of risk. Jesus asks for a drink from a woman in a hostile village; Jesus cures a blind man on a Sabbath against established religious law; Jesus defiles himself as he goes to the tomb of Lazarus when he is already under a death threat (John 11:8). None of this is our idea. But it would be good for us to keep awake to the offer of a better life whenever it comes, whether from an enemy, someone we can’t even see, or when we thought we were beyond the reach of life. The other thing is just that, as the light gets stronger, the shadows and darkness recede, but they deepen. That may just be a matter of perception: if physics can teach us anything about light, it’s that it is pretty much unstoppable, and that light particles penetrate just about anything. (Note to self - the theological problem posed by black holes will have to wait for another time and another thinker; it may be just a literary problem, a speed bump for the light metaphor.) But the man who was touched by Light was sent to wash in a pool called Sent. The man born blind saw light and became light, and his newly useful eyes became a gateway through which he was filled with the courage of truth, so that he could face the arrayed forces hostile to, or just ignorant of, the God of light, healing, and life. This is so true that John names him with the name of God: ego eimi. He is a sacrament of divine light, healing, and life. Just so might you and I be, sent to the pool of baptism, and sent from it as well, to be light for the world. Like Jesus, then, we are sent to bring that light, at great personal risk sometimes, to places of deepening darkness: nationalism and racism, religious fundamentalism, and the truth of human mortality. Thanks be to God, Jesus has preceded us and shown us that kenosis is life, and that the moment of risk is as full of the possibility of light and creation as the impossible singularity before the big bang.

Fiat lux. We “gotta model ourselves after someone.” He came looking for us, after all, and we can’t do better than God. As we prayed last week to be able to reach across the well and offer a drink to a thirsty stranger, let’s pray, with this week’s scrutiny, for the courage to look into the darkness, inside and outside of us, and, full of divine Spirit, walk into the darkness and declare, “Let there be light!”

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Presider Silencer: The Musical Gospel according to Mark (Karney)

21. The priest joins with the congregation in singing the acclamations, chants, hymns, 
and songs of the Liturgy. However, the priest does not join in the singing of the Memorial Acclamation or the Great Amen. To the greatest extent possible, he should use a congregational worship aid during the processions and other rituals of the Liturgy and should be attentive to the cantor and psalmist as they lead the gathered assembly in song. In order to promote the corporate voice of the assembly when it sings, the priest’s own voice should not be heard above the congregation, nor should he sing the congregational response of the dialogues. While the assembly sings, the priest should step back from a microphone, or, if he is using a wireless microphone, he should turn it off. (emphasis mine)

Once in a while, even the U.S. bishops get it right, and the 2007 document on music in the liturgy, called Sing to the Lord, pretty much gets it right from top to bottom. This is due to the fact that it was largely written by a team of actual musicians and liturgists and not by administrators; the document was, miracle of miracles, written by people who know what they’re talking about, who work in the field, and (2nd miracle of miracles) who did a large-scale consultation with other people in the field, including people from every theological and liturgical spectrum. What you see above is paragraph 21 of 259.

This new document is comprehensive, replacing and expanding the innovative Music in Catholic Worship (1972) and its more experienced successor Liturgical Music Today (1982), and is longer than both of those documents combined. Whereas the earlier documents spelled out a proto-theological vision of liturgical singing and advanced a theory of judging the worthiness of liturgical song along a triangulated structure of musical (formal and aesthetic), liturgical (structural and utilitarian), and pastoral (all the human considerations that come up in real life), Sing to the Lord covers that ground quickly, and applies its principles not only to the musical needs of the Eucharist but to the other sacraments and the Liturgy of the Hours as well, and even addresses cultural issues in the music of the American church.

But that’s just to situate it in history, and I’m not even interested in that except to give it as background to paragraph 21 above, which has to be music to a church musician’s ear. Why? Well, you work hard to pick good music and you get good musicians. A choir. You work hard with them, and they work hard with you, having invested their time and talent, at rehearsals. You have an enthusiastic assembly even, maybe, that really wants to sing. Then an inattentive priest shows up and wears his microphone while bellowing out the song at the procession or having conversations at the presentation of gifts, or joking with servers, all while the assembly and choir and cantor are singing, and your good work just goes for naught. This isn’t even (necessarily) egotism, it can be just forgetfulness, but there’s no cure for superloud clericalitis, the priest whose voice is unleashed into the lavalier.

No cure until now, that is.

Mark Karney, entrepreneur,
and electronic theologian
My good friend, Mark Karney, proprietor of the friendly and well-equipped Norwest Communications studio in the basement of the Starbucks Coffee in Barrington where I live, produced for me the little miracle shown above. His studio has engineered almost every album of mine and Terry’s since 1993, and now this crowning achievement, the Acme Mark 1 Presider Silencer, installed at the piano in the worship space. Stunning in its simplicity of design, proudly bearing the Acme brand and the grinning visage of Wile E. Coyote, the Presider Silencer has just one button on it. Press it, and the bellowing tones of priest (and deacon!!) singing overpoweringly over the better-rehearsed choir and struggling assembly are cut down to the happily absorbed decibels of a single human voice, unenhanced now by 800 watts of pre-amp power. One gentle pressing of a little red button and a grimaces all over the church turn into smiles. A warning light reminds me that the mute is on, lest I forget and some important catechetical morsel or homiletic gem be lost because of lack of amplification. Yes, gentle reader, this is the raison d’être for geekdom, the avatar of technology-as-ancilla Domini, the handmaiden of the Lord.

In days of the Roman empire, there was a title given to those who helped the cause of the emperor that was an honorific that accompanied the so-named wherever s/he went, and that title was “Friend of Caesar.” It may be time for such a title for the friends of art, worship, and pastoral musicians who make a Nobel-level contribution to orthopraxis and the mental health of music directors. Perhaps this could be called “Friend of Saint Cecilia.” Yes, Mark, you are a Friend of St. Cecilia. Your hard-wired balm of Gilead heals the ear-sick soul. Thank you a thousand times.

I’m sure Mark will make you one for a modest fee. Write to him here.

A few more words on the document Sing to the Lord which deserves a whole series of articles in a blog like this, but it’s too left-brain for me right now:  It was passed in the general vote of the US bishops at their November 2007 meeting by a vote of 183-22, with 3 abstentions. For it to become national law, it would have to have been passed unanimously, so it becomes an advisory document, which is good. It’s more detailed and less invigoratingly written than MCW, but what it lacks in dynamism it makes up for in detail. The document is not being submitted to Rome for approval, as the liturgy in the United States is in the provenance of its own bishops in these matters of adaptation. Where this new document quotes Musicam Sacram and other Roman documents with the force of law, it is legislative. In general, though, individual bishops can and will depart from it, like they can with virtually everything in the church. In a diocese, a bishop is a prince of a guy, and really can’t be overruled on anything by another bishop (or, to some extent, by the pope.) You can download Sing to the Lord here.

Those who come to St. Anne to play and substitute for me at times are rightfully jealous of this wonderful pushbutton innovation. I can’t wait to press the button again. The joy of it! One little button that restores lost equality, evening the aural playing field at the bodily cost of less than a calorie. I’m in heaven. Next, Mark promises a voice filter that will allow live editing of homilies and intersticial fervorinos. I can’t wait....I’ll be king of the world.   ☺

Friday, March 28, 2014

Scrutinies - the mystery of sin and grace

Scrutiny at St James Cathedral, Seattle
If you (or I) are looking for some thoughts about the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent, idea-
starters or whatever, I want to be able to find some things quickly. So today I'm just going to put all the blog entries I've written on the scrutinies and these gospels, and put them all onto this page, so that we can find them easily. I put the word "scrutinies" in the title so that we can find them easily enough with a quick search.

The First Scrutiny (3rd Sunday of Lent, Year A)

Where's your Samaria? Who's that at your well? (Mystery of sin, part 1)
Of wells, women, and song
(more general on scrutiny and sin):
The mystery of sin (2) - Achilles heel, kryptonite, and starry-eyed interns
The mystery of sin (3) - a way out of hell
Second Thoughts: Is the Lord in our midst, or not?
The element of surprise (A3L)
Christ at Jacob's Well and Emmaus

The Second Scrutiny (4th Sunday of Lent, Year A)

Believing is seeing (1) - the Man Born Blind
Believing is seeing (2) - the dark night of a liturgical soul
Believing is seeing (3) - turning can take a while
How were your eyes opened?
John 9:9 and the co-creation of light
Rejoice! The Second Scrutiny
Light, Love, and Responsibility

The Third Scrutiny (5th Sunday Lent, Year A)

The Last Taboo
I will open your graves, and have you rise from them
Do You Believe This?
God and Death and James Alison

Now, if I can just keep this updated as I add more to them through the years?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Diversity as true orthodoxy (Wednesday of the 3rd Wk of Lent)

Readings for the Wednesday of the Third Week of Lent.

The daily mass readings for today set off these thoughts inside me. As I have mentioned in talking about my recent book, the weekday readings of Lent are a sort of catechism for the elect, a diary of the Lenten retreat that is leading them to the baptismal water and the meal of Jesus. For us, too, whoever can be present, the Lenten weekday readings are a compendium of the faith, the sum of which we call the paschal mystery, and we too are led to accept anew the faith that is God’s gift, and submit to the promptings of the Holy Spirit who is bringing the reign of God among us.

So we have two familiar passages, one from Deuteronomy in which the divine law is praised for its wisdom and clarity, and held up as proof of God’s nearness to Israel. The passage ends with an injunction to keep the law well, and to teach it to our children. Then, in a brief Gospel pericope from the Sermon on the Mount, we have Matthew’s Jesus speak the familiar words that he has come not to abolish the Torah and the prophets, but to bring them to completion. There is also an injunction in the gospel to teach the law well. We generally understand this to mean that it is the heart of the Mosaic law that Jesus intends to preserve, which he states explicitly elsewhere–”Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, mind, soul, and wealth, and the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself.” Love of neighbor, in Matthew, is spelled out in parable in chapter 25, in Luke, it takes the form of the parable of the Good Samaritan.

This all made me recall the morning a few years ago when a parishioner, a really good guy who is very active in many aspects of parish life and who was involved with a small group of men influenced by au courant liturgical legalism, told me good-naturedly that he now feels there hasn’t been “an orthodox Catholic liturgy at St. Anne’s for the last eighteen years,” a time period roughly corresponding to the tenure of our previous pastor. It was the word “orthodox” that wouldn’t go away.

Never mind, first of all, that in that time we’d had several associate pastors who have been very conscientious in the way the exercise their priestly ministry at St. Anne. You already know, if you’ve read my blog for any time at all, that our liturgical practice has been all over the boards due to loosey-goosey presiding styles, ranging from fairly by-the-book to largely improvised presider parts within a structure that approximates Roman liturgy. So I had some sympathy with his point of view, even as I have kept the role of liturgy director (one that I may suggest my pastor just drop from my job description, since there seems to be no point in “directing” anything when the main actors don’t use the script.)

“Orthodox” means “right (i.e., correct, whole, integral) worship.” This parishioner’s issue du jour was the reading of the scrutiny gospels by a group of lay persons, but which includes the deacon (or priest, when there is no deacon.) This is against the letter of the law, which in this case is the General Instruction. Other liturgical law, however, allows for someone other than a deacon or priest to read the gospel when a large number of children are present (the Directory for Masses with Children) and the General Instruction itself makes an exception for the reading of the Passion, ostensibly because it makes a very lengthy passage easier to listen to when not read by a single reader. Against this background, with the greater good in mind that it is better that more people engaged with God’s word than to keep the letter of the law, we made a decision that we will continue to do the reading chorally as we’ve done for the last dozen or so years. So the question becomes, what does this have to do with orthodoxy, who gets to says what’s orthodox, and what criteria do we apply?

For me, it can be stated by quoting a few scriptural passages. Jesus certainly is in favor of the law, but only insofar as it furthers the values of the reign of God, which can be characterized as “the fullness of life for all.” Jesus says to the Pharisees, the good guys, the keepers of the Mosaic law and generally his philosophical allies, “Go and learn the meaning of this phrase: ‘It is mercy I desire, and not sacrifice.’” Jesus quotes this passage from the prophets (Hos. 6:6) not once but twice in Matthew, at  9:13 and 12:7. It echoes major passages in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, and Amos that have become the heart of the church’s counterculture in every age, trying to right the bark of Peter when it threatens to capsize under the weight of its own legalism:

  1. What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation-- I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. -- Isaiah 1:11-17

  2. For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them, "Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you." -- Jer. 7:22-23

  3. For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. -- Hosea 6:6

  4. I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. -- Amos 5:21-24

  5. "With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? -- Micah 6:1-4, 6-8

No one is advocating for the overthrow of ritual law, certainly not me nor any of the many, many people I know who have given their lives to the service of God and people as liturgists and pastoral musicians. We know the value of repeated behavior, we know that ritual embodies the equality of God’s reign when all submit to it equally. But we also know that rite is action, it is prayer of a specific people in time and place, and it is that whether or not it follows the letter of the law. Orthodoxy, it seems to me, is not proven by the perfect legalism of rite, but in the action of believers when the rite is over. And one cannot be shaped by word and gesture if one is not engaged by that word and gesture in the doing of the ritual.

One of the great critiques of my life by the insight of another person was my ex-wife’s telling me, probably 25 years ago, that I was “in love with love,” and not really a loving person. That really stuck with me, and looking back over my life, I can see the truth of it. And you know what? It’s the biggest problem that human beings have, in general, in all kinds of ways. In fact, it might be a pseudonym for idolatry, religious hypocrisy, and explain the void of integrity that allows generally good, intelligent, and proactively generous people to come up with lame-isms like, “it depends on what ‘is’ is.” We love the ideal and the idea of love, but we’re unable to actually give it, so we pay lip service to it (I do, I should say) in our songs, poetry, and rhapsodic prose. We long for agape but are only capable of eros. Similarly, some people, who knows, maybe most of us, let our church ritual actually substitute for gospel life. Catholics have been criticized forever for the practice, for instance, of letting prayers substitute for penance in the eponymous sacrament. The appearance is that, if one “goes to confession,” one can do, and keep doing, anything, and “get away with it.” Of course, we know that is not true, that sacraments are outward signs of inward realities. If the inward reality is not there, the sacrament doesn’t “work,” though the most significant aspect of the inward reality, God’s faithful, abiding presence, is always there. We tend to think that our participation, by which we generally just mean “showing up,” at Sunday mass is enough, that it fulfills any religious duty we might have. We have, in short, lost the connection between sacraments, which are symbols or signs of life in the world, and that life itself!

How does this connect with the “orthodoxy” of the liturgy at St. Anne or anywhere else? First of all, liturgy worships a specific God, the abba of Jesus, through a specific person, Christ, in their Holy Spirit. That God has a shaky relationship with ritual, and Jesus, whom we worship as the Son of God, makes that apparent in the gospel. This does not negate the value of rite, but it does relativize it. “Rend your hearts, not your garments” we were told by Joel on Ash Wednesday. “Show me the money,” God says, it’s not about what you do in the temple as much as it’s about what you do outside, the other 167 hours of the week. I always tell choirs and parishes in my concerts and workshops and evenings of reflection—the answer to the question about how good your music or worship is cannot be found in the participation on Sunday, or the beauty of your worship, or the volume of your singing. It can only be discovered in the streets, food pantries, retirement centers, and prisons of your community, state, and nation.

Life in Caesar's world is hard. Since the chaos of 9/11, a whole new generation of people has wakened to the kind of barely subconscious panic we elders experienced in the Cold War. We grasp at all kinds of things to hold us steady in a world that seems to want to spin out of control. One of the things people gravitate toward, sad to say, is fascism. It’s clearly evident in government, and it’s nearly as evident in church life. Maybe, we seem to think, if things in Church will just stay the same, if we all line up and do exactly what we’re supposed to do, some order will return to the universe. About this I can only say, right instinct, wrong god. Our God, whose outward sign is the diversity of creative handiwork, whom we know as a community of three-in-one, is not well served by rigid uniformity. God’s very nature, as well as we can understand it, reveals that unity is diverse, not uniform.

So I just submit that “orthodoxy” is diverse because God is diverse, and God made people diverse as well, in God's image. Our sacramental life is a visible sign of the invisible reality of this God, and of Jesus whom God sent, and their Spirit, and not the sign of some other monolithic god who must be fed specific rites and praises to appease his jealous godhead. Our God, apparently, does like a good shared meal, so we gather to eat a meal that God gives us, but then we go out of the building not so much to keep eating as to feed other people. As goofy as liturgy can be at my parish, what I keep seeing with clarity is that there is a lot of feeding going on, stretching from Ela and Franklin Streets in Barrington to service projects from Carpentersville to Cicero to Hyde Park, to Appalachia, New Orleans, Uganda, the Congo, and India.

Without saying that things couldn’t always be better, and that we might have fuller participation from more people, I’d say that that the liturgy is doing what liturgy is supposed to do, which is to reveal the richly diverse mercy of God made concrete in Christians, ordinary people. In that sense, the only sense that matters, our liturgy is absolutely, resolutely, orthodox.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Songstories 28: Be Thou My Vision (Vision, 1992, GIA)

There are a few songs that I think are slam dunks on the 4th Sunday in Lent: Christ, Be Our Light, for instance, and some incarnation of "Awake, O Sleeper." Certainly "Amazing Grace" qualifies, or has for most of my life until I started reading more about the origins of the song. Since grace does trump sin, I'm willing to keep indulging the sensus fidelium and programming Amazing Grace occasionally, but one song that I think hits the nail on the head as well any other song for Lent 4A is the Irish hymn "Be Thou My Vision," restored of late to a few RC hymnals after a few decades of being separated from SLANE, its boon companion tune.

When I was a grade-school choir boy, we never sang BTMV to the tune Slane, but rather to a tune devised by J. H. Desroquettes, culled from the pages of the revered Pius X Hymnal. No less a light than Paul Inwood knew of and was influenced by the composer, about whom Inwood wrote in an internet exchange, "Dom Desrocquettes was a monk of Quarr Abbey, in my diocese (Portsmouth, England). I have a few memories of him, though he died when I was comparatively young. He was one of the influences on me in Gregorian chant accompaniment." Dom Desroquettes was a monk of Solesmes abbey, later of Quarr on the Isle of Wight, and he influenced many US composers as well, including Alexander Peloquin and Richard Proulx.

The tune, which I have reproduced below from my memory, is hauntingly beautiful, and may have been more so when accompanied by the accompaniment in the hymnal, but my recollection is that we sang this and a lot of other music from the hymnal by heart and unaccompanied. The parish organist, Mahlon Gaumer, was really quite good considering that he was obliged to play on a Hammond B3 in the great cruciform structure that was St. Vincent de Paul Parish in the early 1960s.

When thinking about re-introducing this song to my congregation in Phoenix, I toyed with the idea of using the older melody that I remembered, but then along came Van Morrison and the Chieftains with their anarchic version on Van's album Hymns to the Silence, and that was the end of that idea. Van was probably doing what I did: remembering the words from his childhood, though in his case through a Guinness-and-Jameson's-induced fog, for which I envy him. As my friend Dennis Wells put it recently when I was posting about this on Facebook, "I'm glad you used the only part of the song in which he doesn't completely scramble Thy, Thee, Thou, Thine, as though they are interchangeable." I don't really mind: the guy who gave us "Brown-Eyed Girl" and "Tupelo Honey" as well as the Irish Heartbeat and Bells of Dublin albums, and plenty more, can do no wrong.

So what I ended up doing was arranging "Be Thou My Vision" for the tune SLANE, for unison or SB voices, flute, and string quartet with piano. On the recording, we also used a drum set with a little different take on the beat than Van used, but definitely clicked the tempo up from the often too-dreary pacing of that melody when one hears it used in church with other venerable texts like "Lord of All Hopefulness."

Wikipedia reports that the origin of the text may date to the 6th Century CE. The text was translated in 1905 from the Irish by Mary Elizabeth Byrne, and versified in 1912 by Eleanor Hull. Coupled with SLANE, it appeared in Anglican and Methodist hymnals beginning in the 1930s. This makes me wonder whether the Roman Catholic tune by Dom Desroquettes, lovely as it was, was written to set it apart from the Ulster version that had settled in with the Church of England! Who knows?

At any rate, both tunes suit the song well. The references in the text to God as the "high king" of heaven stamps it as wonderfully Irish, and the many references to armor and victory seem to ratify the drum cadences we used that stir the singer to "put on Christ" while s/he prays to be blessed with a vision of love that will carry through to the end of one's days.

We'll be singing "Be Thou My Vision" as we start off our Lenten liturgy on the 4th Sunday, when we will hear about the healing of the man born blind, and celebrate the second scrutiny of the elect. This song has been with me since in was in about fifth grade, and stirs me every time I sing it. I only hope that my arrangement and attempt to make it more accessible stirs people in this and other generations who make it their own.

Below the iTunes window, I will write out my adaptation of Eleanor Hull's text, which tries to make the text more gender inclusive, while keeping the flavor of the original. (See the Wikipedia entry for the Irish text, the translation by Byrne, and the original versification by Hull. There is also an OGG Vorbis file of the song sung in Irish to the tune SLANE which is VERY cool.)

Be Thou My Vision on iTunes.

Be Thou My Vision
tr. from the Irish by Mary E. Byrne and versified by Eleanor Hull
alterations by Rory Cooney, © 1992

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart.
Naught is all else to me save that thou art.
Thou my best thought by day and by night,
Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.

Be thou my wisdom, and thou my true word,
I ever with thee, and thou with me Lord,
Thou my heart's great love, and I am thine own,
Thou in me dwelling and I with thee one.

Be thou my breastplate, my sword for the fight,
Be thou my dignity, thou my delight,
Thou my soul's shelter, and thou my high tower,
O raise thou me heavenward, O power of my power.

Riches I need not nor vain empty praise:
Thou my inheritance now and always,
Thou and thou only the first in my heart,
High king of heaven, my treasure thou art.

Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my vision, O ruler of all,
Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart.
Naught is all else to me, save that thou art.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Of Wells, Women, and Song (First Scrutiny, A3L)

Rosetti's "Dante's Vision of Rachel and Leah"
What is there to say? Is there a greater love story in the bible than that of Jacob and Rachel? OK,
maybe the Song of Songs is hotter, and there’s always a ton of begattin’ going around, but the story of Jacob, the well in Shechem, the daughters of Laban, has more begattin’ with a fabulous menage à quatre between Jacob, Rachel, her elder sister Leah, and the apparently inexhaustible servant girl Bilhah. It’s steamy as anything between David and Bathsheba, and rivals the best of the late Jackie Susann, perhaps without all the detail work. See chapter 29 ff. of Genesis.

It is at this very well that Jesus meets the Samaritan woman in today’s gospel. We should not expect anything less than a marriage to be arranged here, after some preliminary discussions about water, politics, and religion. It’s almost too hot to be polite. Good day to meet your husband.

This isn’t a gospel about a wayward woman who has lost her moral bearings. It’s about  people like us who worship false gods, who are thirsty, who have the number of the beast (6) carved into our karma: we are so utterly unfulfilled that restlessness and craving have left their tattoo on our soul. And suddenly, here is the Prince (Charming) of Peace, waiting to knock our cosmic socks off, asking for a drink. It’s like we’re coked up at Studio 54 Samaria, and Mr. Perfect asks for a dance, and not only gives us his cell number, but proposes to us right there when we have powder on our nose.

I lived most of my life in the desert, and there’s not much more frightening than being lost in the desert with no water. I personally knew two people, knew them very well, who lost their lives wandering in the desert after becoming disoriented and separated from broken-down cars. Nothing brings one more face-to-face with the need for water, always, than the loss of a friend or family member to thirst. It’s not a metaphor, it’s a reality. We’re made of water and dust, and mostly water. In a very short time, without the life that water is, we’re back to dust.

God is water, like God is light, bread, and life. The message of Sunday’s gospel is that, to become part of God, to share God’s life, means to be water for all who are thirsty. It means we all have to keep asking ourselves, Who’s not at this well? Who won’t even ask me for what they need, because they feel like a Samaritan at Passover, or an Egyptian at the Easter vigil?

This Sunday is the first scrutiny of the elect. We believe that whatever is in them that keeps them from offering a drink to the stranger who is alien to them, in religion, or skin color, or nationality, for whatever reason, whatever keeps them from offering a drink across Jacob’s well to the goofball without a bucket is satanic. We perform an exorcism so that the living water of Jesus Christ, the living water of vulnerability and need expressed to the enemy that invites a response of grace, may flow freely and make brides and bridegrooms of the plain Janes and sad Brads who meet at this amazing well. According to Genesis 29, it takes (at least) two to tango. I’ll be there, singing something sexy and unforgettable (probably “Fields of Gold” or something hopeless like that) trying to get lucky with that thirsty Jew with the sea of Galilee in his eyes.

More on the Samaritan Woman gospel: The Mystery of Sin (1) - Where's Your Samaria?

Music for this weekend:

Gathering: Lead Us to the Water Kendzia
Psalm 95: If Today Haas
Gospel Refrain: I Long for You, O Lord Balhoff, Daigle, Ducote
Scrutiny: Litany for the Scrutinies Cooney
          refrain of Psalm 116: I Will Walk in the Presence Daigle
Preparation Rite: Wade in the Water  Spiritual
Communion: Come to the Water Foley
Sending Forth: Change Our Hearts Cooney

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Thoughts on today's readings (Tuesday, 2nd week of Lent)

Tuesday Reflection

Today's gospel comes from the end of Matthew, after the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, before the Last Supper. His work is in ruins, he and his followers are, for all practical purposes, fugitives. The author of the gospel begins using apocalyptic language to talk about the outcome: things are so bad, in other words, that God will have to sort this out in the end. His efforts at preaching the reign of God have been blocked by the very people whom he should have been able to expect as allies: the religious establishment. But he has not found allies in them, but jealousy, suspicion, and sabotage. 

One of the pervasive themes of the Lenten scriptures, the readings of the 40 days of Lent that serve as a kind of "crash course in Christianity" for the elect  who are waiting for baptism and for us, is religious integrity. Religious integrity is "practicing what we preach," not deluding ourselves that preaching is enough, or baptism, or ordination, or any other ritual act. Jesus himself, speaking through the gospel writers and apostles, notably in the letter of James, warns against any sense of religious entitlement based upon rank or birth or even deeds. From the time of John the Baptist's preaching, there seems to have been some resentment of the temple priesthood, whom John refers to as "viper's brood," poisonous snakes, and Jesus repeats that epithet, also calling them white-washed graves, men who "strain the gnat out their soup while swallowing the camel." In fact, the entire rest of the chapter from which our gospel today was taken is a series of seven "woes" or warning curses. That there are seven is significant: it is complete condemnation. 

But the trouble is, we think that those condemnations apply only to the old lawyers and enemies of Jesus and the early church. That sets the whole problem in the past, and makes it easy to avoid thinking about it as applying to us. I can hear the same condemnation of hypocrisy and false religion falling upon me and people like me. If Jesus were here today, he might just as angrily say to us, "baptized? saved? Catholics? God could raise up baptized catholics, even liturgists and musicians, right here out of these tiles." Then I realize what I just said: "if Jesus were here today..." Of course, Jesus is here today, alive in the scripture we have just heard, truly present in its proclamation in this assembly.

On the very first day of ancient Lent, the first Monday in Lent, the bottom-line lesson of Christianity reads like a blessing and a curse, and we need to be careful about which side we see ourselves sitting. In that gospel from Matthew 25, just two chapters later from today's gospel and part of this same discourse, Jesus gives an apocalyptic parable, a vision of the end of time, when God will finally set things right in a world that has gone amok for too long. People will be gathered into two groups that  look alike, until the king starts speaking. But what the king says startles everybody. The entrance into the "Son of Man's" kingdom isn't based on any creed, or birthright, or ritual, or even obedience to the law. (It's not even based on tithing. Remember the Pharisee and the tax collector? The widow's mite? Can you imagine a religious leader more concerned with service than tithing? It's not that tithing is not required; only that the heart matters more.) Welcome into the kingdom of the Son of Man is based only upon good deeds, deeds of compassion and mercy for the "least of my brothers (and sisters.)" And denial of entry isn't based on any great felonies, heresy, or lack of a baptismal certificate, marriage license or other credentials. It's simply: you didn't notice. I was out there, i needed you, and you didn't lift a finger.

This prophetic critique of worship and professional ministry was nothing new. Right in chapter one of Isaiah, of which we heard a section today, the prophet rails against the temple, referring to the king's priests and the temple caretakers as Sodom and Gomorrah. Why? For some reason, the verses that most clearly tell us are excised from the reading, making me wonder why. Is someone afraid we might misinterpret the prophet, or possibly apply them too literally to our present circumstances? Isaiah derides the religion of Israel for being letter-perfect about sacrifices and rituals while it abuses people. Enough with the music and incense and sacrifice, Isaiah says. Right the wronged, care for the widow, support the orphans. THEN, says the Lord, THEN I'll start listening to your songs and prayers again. 

The music, the incense, the community feeling, the colors and sounds of liturgy can make us feel like everything is  OK and God is on our side. But the feeling of belonging is just part of the baptismal reality. The other part is mission, is living eucharistic life, serving the world, washing feet, feeding the hungry, unraveling the web of injustice in which we've entangled ourselves. It may help us to remember that looking for the God whom we wish to serve, as we were reminded on day one of the first week of Lent, means looking downward toward those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, in prison, and not upward. God has made a choice to be with the poor. "Whoever wants to be first among you must serve the rest. Everyone who humbles self shall be exalted, and whoever exalts self shall be humbled." 

In the 17th century, St. Vincent de Paul told his congregation, "When you are called from your prayers or the Eucharistic celebration to serve the poor, you lose nothing, since to serve the poor is to go to God. You must see God in the faces of the poor." Our baptismal promises ask us, "Do you believe in God? Do you believe in Jesus Christ?" Today's scripture points us toward a way of discerning our answer, and moving toward belief in the right God and the real Jesus. We are not sent away from God and Jesus, away from worship, when we are sent to serve. We're sent into the temple into which God has already preceded us, and where service and ministry at the altar of human need sends sweet smelling incense and psalms of praise that will, finally, honor the true God who was made flesh, and has pitched a tent among us.

Reflection was given during a parish mission in Walpole, MA, in 2014.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Duit

Happy feast day to me. 

Random memories related to my Irishness. The story goes that my mother was reading a novel about Irish history when she was pregnant with me, and found the name Rory, and that's why I have this name. I like that story better than, say, being named after Rory Calhoun, which is what I've heard all my life from contemporaries, since no one else of my generation had my name in this country except a daughter of Robert F. Kennedy. The priest at St. Mary's in Delaware, Ohio, where I was to be baptized was taken aback that I'd be named Rory since it was the name of a pagan High King of Ireland and not of one of the (many) saints from the Auld Sod, so the legend continues that on my baptismal certificate I was named (Rory) Patrick Cooney, just like that, with the parentheses quarantining any pagan influences from my by-the-grace-of-God Christian name. 

Since I started working in Barrington,  I've met more people, mostly kids, named Rory than I have known in the rest of my life. The son of the woman who was my colleague and who connected me with St. Anne's is named Rory, and there have been half a dozen or so through the school since I've been there. It was mildly traumatic for me to have such an unusual name as a child. Now, there are Rorys and Aidans and Declans and Brigids, Maires, and Roisins everywhere you look. 

I've been to Ireland twice in my lifetime. Once, in about 1985 or so, Gary Daigle and I did institutes on reconciliation with a team from the North American Forum on the Catechumenate in London, at Strawberry Hill, and in Ireland, at All Saints College in Dublin. We took a few extra days in Ireland, and our wives joined us for a weekend in Galway. Since most of that trip was work, I don't remember all that much about it, though there were some nice moments, especially meeting Fr. Niall O'Leary and hearing him cheer through the choruses of "Canticle of the Turning," which was otherwise met with decidedly mixed reviews among folks whose associations with "Star of the County Down" were more from pubs and soccer games than church. Fair enough. Niall later became pastor of a parish in Malibu, where Gary went to be musician and liturgist for a couple of years. 

The second trip was in October of 2000, when Terry and I, through the machinations of some acquaintances abroad, went to Ireland for the entire month,  doing concerts and workshops in Carlow at St. Patrick's, at St. Munchin's in Limerick, and at a Redemptorist retreat house in Belfast. Along the way we spent a week at a lovely equestrian village in Wicklow, another in a thatched cottage near Limerick, in Murroe, and the last week or so in Belfast with the lovely Quinns. Brian and Catherine were members of the Irish liturgical ensemble called Solas, and an architect and biology professor respectively by trade. That was a lovely and unforgettable month. 

Once since I've been to Chicago, Bill Fraher invited me to sit in with Jimmy Moore and John Williams and the "bize," along with the great choir at Old St. Patrick's, for the liturgy that begins the St. Patricks' Day activities in this city. From the church the celebration becomes the famous parade led by the Mayor and other celebrities, at which they dump the green dye into the Chicago river. (Frankly, it's pretty green all the time. The dye must make it a lighter green.) I recall that at this particular Mass the late Fr. Andrew Greeley was the homilist, and one of the bishops, at least, attended. Old Saint Patrick's is the mother church of the Irish community here in Chicago, and it is a beautiful structure, full of original Celtic designs and Irish stained-glass windows depicting some of the saints of Ireland. The church was beautifully renovated and restored, and is a gleaming jewel to God's glory and the memory of the immigrant Irish Catholics who helped to make this city and country great. 

My grandfather, Jim Cooney, Sr., used to call me "pal o' my cradle days". I think he was still no closer to Ireland than 2 generations, but he had the irascibility of the ethnicity down pat. He was also hard-working and generous. My brother, T. Cooney, is much more of a hard-core St Paddy's day enthusiast than I. I can recall years when he and his buddies used to hire a limo to carry their beer-soaked bodies from bar to bar all day long and into the night. I never joined him, but I heartily approve of their foresight. T. Cooney is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, which, until brother David sullied the family name by attending the University of Southern California (just kidding, bro), was the de rigueur recipient of family football fealty on autumn afternoons. T. Cooney reported, as an alumnus, that he knew he had been at Notre Dame too long when he started pouring milk down the side of his glass so that it didn't get a head on it. 

We Irish are not known for our cuisine (remember the old joke: what's a seven-course Irish meal? A boiled potato and a six-pack.) At Trinity in Dublin when I worked there for the NA Forum we were subjected to a fish-and-cheese stew that defies rationality, though they did make a lovely brown bread, and the dairy products and marmalade should have songs written about them. I remember that, probably in the third or fourth grade, we read a story or novella in reading class about Ireland, and one of the extra credit projects was to make Irish soda bread. In those glory days, people actually cooked, so I used to see my mom and grandmother cook all the time. Mom was happy to let me try my hand at the soda bread. I can't remember whether anyone else liked it or not, but I made it several times a year for a number of years until my grandmother took over the baking of it. I think that my original recipe had caraway seeds in it (this might have been Jewish Irish soda bread), and they might have been edited out of the recipe in favor of more currants or raisins. Probably a good editorial choice. 

Favorite Irish musicians: Well, our friends Gerry Aylward and Fergal and Breda King, of course, but Van Morrison and the Chieftains are my famed faves, among many great Irish musicians from U2 to Sinead O'Connor to Flogging Mollie and the Corrs; Makem and Clancy, Elvis Costello, Mary Black. Favorite book about Ireland: it would have been easy to say Angela's Ashes. I'm going with one I read on my first trip to London, probably around 1978 or so: Trinity, by Leon Uris. Favorite Irish movie: This was a tough one, though I guess I have to give myself to that wonderful little bit of magical realism that was Into the West, with Gabriel Byrne and Ellen Barkin, though The Commitments is up there, along with Secret of Roan Inish and now Philomena. Favorite Irish whiskey: Jameson's, of course. Irishmen we can do without: Bill O'Reilly. Oh, and Michael Flatley.

A final PS: Mom now alleges the story related above about my name and the baptismal certificate goes with my brother Terry, who had to be baptized 'Terrence" because Terry wasn't a proper saint's name. This may be her memory failing, since she always liked him more anyway, or it may be, tragically, true. I like my version better. As the Irish say about their stories, if it isn't true, it oughta be. Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

God's "Mystic" assignment

So yesterday was a travel day for me. Getting to O'Hare reminded me how long it had been since I had been out of town: nearly a year! I stood in line at security for ten minutes or so before reaching the uniformed TSA guard who was at the entrance of another line that looked to be about 20 minutes long. She looked at my ID and boarding pass and said, "You're pre-checked. Go over to that yellow wall–the line's much shorter. I happily obliged. Not only was the line shorter, but I didn't have to remove my belt, shoes, and coat for the screening. The first of many surprises that day.

Well, not the first, really. That would have been that I was pre-organized enough to get out for a three-mile run before I rode to the airport at 11:00 a.m. This qualifies as the first surprise.

Things went very smoothly getting onto the little regional jet that was to fly us from Chicago to Providence. I was one of the last dozen or so to board, in Group W or whatever, and sat down in my customary right-side aisle, with an open seat in the window. As I got up to store my jacket and scarf in the bin, an older (than I) black gentleman said, "I'm in the window," and so I let him sit down, and put his jacket in the overhead bin with mine. We exchanged a few pleasantries about the weather and so on, like you do with strangers on a plane. 

My seat mate had on a herringbone suit with a shirt and tie, and I got the impression he was maybe going to visit, or had come from visiting, family, and still had the old-fashioned habit of dressing up for air travel. I noticed then that his suit was frayed at the cuffs—badly frayed, like a half to 3/4 inch of fray—and so my liberal bleeding-heart started making its judgments about his being forced to dress in old clothes by circumstances beyond his control etc etc. Old, poor grandpa going to visit home, or leaving from a visit. 

It was about then that he pulled out a digital camera about the size of my head, with a telephoto lens the size of a baguette. Pushing my eyes back into their sockets, I remarked, "Wow. That is some camera you've got there." He smiled benignly, like I was standing with my back to the pyramids, looking for them on a map. "It does all right," he said, "but nothing like (tapping his chest) the camera of the heart."

The camera of the heart? Who says that, I wondered. I smiled back and said, "You have spoken well." He proceeded to shoot some pictures out the window of the plane. 

I had brought a book from the office which looked like a quick read, yet another "parish renewal" book entitled Rebuilt - The story of a Catholic Parish with a subtitle as long as the names of some of the combined rites of the RCIA.  But the flight gave me time to read the first 200 pages or so before I set it aside, which is when I noticed he was reading in the current avatar of Bp. Ken Untener's Little Black Book which had some referent to yesterday being the anniversary (3/13/13) of Papa Pancho's accession to the throne of Peter. 

That was when he said to me, "So, do you have a big weekend planned?" The way he said it made me think that he had noticed I was reading a churchy book too, so I told him about going to Providence to do this parish mission with two parishes in Sharon and Walpole Massachusetts, and that I had taken the opportunity to spend a couple of extra days visiting my daughter in Westerly. Seeing that he was reading the LBB, I asked him if he was a Catholic, which made him smile again. The kind of smile that meant it was going to be a long story. "No," he said, "I'm a Methodist. But my friend Cardinal Bernadin told me I have dual citizenship." I clearly did a double-take. "My name is John White. I authored two books about Cardinal Bernardin, took photographs of him the last years of his life." 

He told me that he had met the Cardinal while covering the 1979 Papal Visit to New York. A colleague, said, had pointed out the cardinal to him in a crowd of bishops. "That guy," the colleague said, "is a holy man." "I know that. He's a bishop. They're all holy." The friend said, "No, this one is something special. You should get to know him." Later, at some social gathering which he was covering, the Bernardin walked over to him, and introduced himself to John, asking him about his work. John had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982 for his work on a book entitled Black Chicago. (A humble man, he neglected to mention this little detail, but I uncovered it on the page devoted to him on Wikipedia.) John documented Bernardin's battle with cancer in a book entitled The Final Journey of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin.

We continued our conversation until the plane landed at Providence. He asked me what I was passionate about, what keeps me going, and when I told him, he told me about his faith that God guided his daily life, where he should go, what he should see and shoot. What he actually said was, "I'm on God's assignment, God's syllabus." He told me about his friendship with the Felician Sisters in Chicago on West Peterson, and how they bake him cookies and pray for him. He was on his way to give a speech at the Press Photographers Association, and was struggling over what he should say to them. He's been working on a book entitled Keep in Flight, for which he gave me a little promotional button, but he said he was feeling like he needed to write a book about love, and he thought he might pursue it first, much to his publisher's chagrin. It was a conversation I hated to leave. I gave him my own copy of my book, Change Our Hearts, which he asked me to sign for him, after he gave me his Little Black Book for Lent. He also wrote down my email address, so I hope to hear from him again. I felt like a different person after talking to him, like I'd been in the presence of a holiness different from what I've felt in a long time.

There was more to come, the night was emotional and full, and ended with my panic that someone had taken my Irish tweed cap I'd bought in Donegal in 2000 (since found) and also lost the book he gave me (also since found), and I was stopped by a Connecticut trooper about three miles into Connecticut for driving (since leaving Claire's in Westerly RI) with no lights on. I was at emotional loose ends, but dinner with Claire and her visitors, fellow author Patty Templeton and musician Moosher, settled me a bit, though I was still a bundle of nerves, still shaken from my encounter. 

When I arrived back at my hotel, I looked John up to find out about the Bernardin books, which is when I discovered that he had won the 1982 Pulitzer for his significant contributions to photojournalism. I couldn't help but wonder about all this as I settled down for my first of two nights in a town called Mystic, ahead of a weekend that I'm sure will stretch me as I share my heart and faith with church communities in Massachusetts. I told Terry in a text message, shaking with emotion in the baggage claim area of Providence airport, "I don't know who's praying for me this weekend, but I wish they'd stop it." Tonight I'm thanking God for sending John into my life yesterday, for so brief an encounter, with a prayer that, like this remarkable man, I might also open my heart to take on "God's assignment." I think that's what I'm supposed to be talking about tomorrow, and trying to live, already.

White has also won three National Headliner Awards, was the first photographer inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame, was awarded the Chicago Press Photographer Association's Photographer of the Year award five times, and, in 1999, received the Chicago Medal of Merit.  (Source: Wikipedia article) Here is a link to an NPR interview (with slide show of his photos) after the Sun-Times permanently furloughed its entire photography staff, including him, as a cost-cutting measure.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Jesus, helping us lose our religion

“Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk

and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you…

Abram went as the LORD directed him.”

It seems to me that among the key things in the lectionary complex of readings for Lent 2A is the connection between trust in God's will and our experience of God's mercy in the past and thus our hope for experiencing God’s mercy again in the future. We need to hear the gospel story of the transfiguration in the context of all of Matthew, but also in the context of Abram and Sarai being asked to leave Ur, and the psalm which asks that God's "mercy be upon us" (because and therefore) we place our trust in (God.) There is a transformation of the very nature of God being suggested by the road that leads to the cross. The apostles have yet to be disabused of their expectation of a military messiah. The cross itself will be the only way they can come to understand this, and until it happens, they will want no part of that horror, and Peter has just tried to disabuse Jesus of his crazy vision of approaching death.

"Listen to him," the voice in the cloud is saying. The transfiguration narrative is always an inclusio between "predictions" of the passion, and really needs to be heard that way, even though the lectionary excises the pericope from its context. Lent becomes its context, and the cross and the mystery that it reveals have everything to do with baptism and the community that is marked with the cross. The possibility that the “human being (son of man),” the “servant of God,” and the “messiah” might be one and the same, and that they might not be anything like what was (or is) expected, had perhaps been internalized by Jesus between his baptism and the early days of his mission, and that reality had to be visited upon the twelve and eventually upon all the disciples, whose perception of Jesus must have been colored by their own expectations and prejudices.

The responsorial psalm’s refrain, “Lord, let your mercy be upon us; we place our trust in you” suggests to me that, when we are called to leave for a new place (the reign of God is exactly that; its geography is the same as the one we have now, but the "government" is radically different), or to face down those who opt for the Roman reign and who therefore oppose the establishment of God's reign, one needs all the strength that a community (e.g., Peter, James, John) and tradition (e.g. Moses & Elijah) can give us, and in that context alone one can hear the voice that reminds us of who we are, "beloved child.” Knowing that God is trustworthy is one thing—but death and the wrath of Rome are no less fearsome.

Before that gets sounding like I’m talking all about the past, let me just say that we in the Church need to be disabused about a few things religious also. I know I sound like a Johnny-One-Note about this, but we have been in bed with power since at least he time of Charlemagne. After it became legal and not lethal to be a Christian, once the Roman empire became our "friend," we were converted to it. In other words, the exact opposite thing happened to the gospel. The empire was still relentless, it still was a thing of barely controlled violence, it’s just that Christianity was wielding the sword, rather than being beheaded by it. The gospel, thank God, endures; the word of the Lord, the word of peace and justice, of equality and healing, of the cross and resurrection, cannot be put to death even by history. The gospel, and particularly Lent, in which those words, “Repent and believe the gospel” are enshrined in rite and spirit, keeps calling us to choose the reign of God over the reign of Caesar which is now (as it was in the beginning) so tight with religious leadership in this country and in the world.

In a real way, then, I think (and this is almost explicit in the 4th Sunday of year A, in the narrative of the Sabbath healing of the man born blind) that Jesus calls us to lose our religion, or, in a way of expressing it that might be more acceptable to some, to become practical atheists when the dominant religion of our culture is actually idolatry masquerading as truth. The name of God is still unpronounceable! God is still beyond our knowing, and the only insight we have into the nature of who God might be is Jesus Christ, and him crucified, the image of the invisible God. Like Peter, James, and John, we need to be disabused of god who is on “our side” and in whose name we can bomb “evildoers” in other lands back to the stone age. We need to be disabused of a god who lets us let certainty masquerade as faith. We need to be disabused of a god who lets walls and laws and suburbs to be built to keep other people out, down, and bound by poverty, disease, and disenfranchisement.

Listen to him. In short, I think that these readings are more about vision and solidarity than about the "retreat (peak) experience" we so often hear on Lent 2. Our experience of vision and covenant enlighten the cross, and give us insight into the paschal mystery of God, which is the mystery into which we are baptized, and into the depths of which this Lent wants to lead us. God is agape, God is life-given-away, life completely given away, which is the only way to life without boundaries. Rich and poor alike need to be disabused of our desire for what fails to satisfy, those elusive if tangible assets that take God’s place in our desire. Being in bed with power and money is not the same as succeeding in bringing the reign of God among us. It is the voice that calls us “beloved child”, that calls each and every person, all persons, ever, “beloved child,” and in that calling prompts us to treat one another as brothers and sisters, that is the true voice of God. If any other voice has us in its power, however suave, scripture-quoting, or comforting it may be, it is a satanic voice, the lie of an idol, and it’s time to lose our religion.

These are the songs we are doing at St. Anne’s on Lent 2:
Gathering: Be Thou My Vision (...and not because of St. Paddy's on Monday either. Coincidence.)
Psalm 33: Haugen (Gather)
Preparation: Covenant Hymn, or Open My Eyes (Manibusan, OCP)
Communion: Christ Be Our Light
Recessional: We Are Marching (Siyahamba), or Jerusalem, My Destiny

Thursday, March 13, 2014

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

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

“With Open Hands, Hearts, and Voices”

by Rory Cooney

Copyright © 1997

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Here, Terry Donohoo sang "You Alone")

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We ended by singing "Trumpet in the Morning"