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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Escaping from the freedom of a human Jesus (A21O)

I found it distressing a couple of weeks ago to hear so many people I know, including priest-homilists, bending over backwards to explain away what appears to me to be a fairly clear passage in Matthew's gospel (and a priori in his source, Mark), that one where Jesus experienced a change of heart as a result of the persistent faith and prayer of a pagan woman. Recall the story for a moment: a Canaanite woman's daughter is possessed by a demon, so she confronts the Jewish wonder-worker whom everyone's talking about, and he ignores her. She persists. His retinue grows tired of her clamoring, and asks him to send her away. They may have meant for him to do what she wants just to shut her up, because his reply is them, not to her: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." Undeterred, she asks again for help. Jesus parries her plea with an insult: to help her would be like throwing the children's dinner to the dogs. With the clarity of her fierce love, and, I like to think, with an instinct for the best of what Jesus might be, she turns his own metaphor on its head. "In my house, the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table." I unfolded this cultural piece a little more last week, but Jesus changes his mind at this point. What he recognizes in her is faith: what she sees in him is Abba, the God of everyone, who doesn't distinguish between Jew and Canaanite, because, Jesus must realize, Abba already lives in her. That's what faith is: the gift of God.
Jesus Christ, Superman?

With the possible exception of Mark, if it's read out of its NT context, the humanity of Jesus is not easy to discern in the gospels. Jesus always seems to be in charge of his surroundings, he sees his destiny, and is in control of  events with political and spiritual aplomb. That's because the gospels were written from the distance of decades, by people who only knew Jesus by faith, not as a human being. Jesus of Nazareth had already become Christ, Savior, Logos, Son of Man, Son of God, and all the other titles that are given him in the scriptures, titles which even then meant something different than they mean today. Furthermore, they see Jesus through the light of the resurrection, a perspective that was real for the disciples but is largely lost on us who only have the tools of biblical criticism with which to approach, carefully, the historical Jesus. Contemporary references to Jesus prior to his death and the emergence of Christianity in the Roman empire do not exist, so the Jesus of history not really recoverable. But the Christ of gospel faith is, and some insight to the Jesus of history is accessible through history, literary, cultural analysis. Those who say, as I heard about the Canaanite woman passage, that "Jesus knew all along he was going to heal the woman's daughter" or that "Jesus was just testing the twelve and getting them ready to expand their horizons" might be right, but I keep asking myself, Do we really want a savior like that? Do we really have a savior who knew all along what he was going to do? Or, more to the point, does being fully God preclude growth in faith and conscience as a human being?

My answer, of course, is "I don't know." But my desire is for the God I actually want, the Jesus I could believe in. The human one, like me, who doesn't know all the answers, ever, until he has died. I could use that kind of a savior. That one would be like me in everything except sin. I believe that Jesus is uniquely the Son of God (that is, unique in a way that I am not the Son, but a child, of God, like you), but I insist that Jesus is also fully human, and that means that he "did not cling to godliness but emptied himself," abandoned whatever pre-existed Jesus, and became human. I think that works as long as we're not concerned about the criterion of God-ness being omnipotence, the perfection of power, but rather perfection of love and service. It also means accepting "full humanity" not as always being right, but being open to new information, adapting with love, accepting our limitations while pushing our boundaries, escaping the instinctual fetters of self-preservation through love.

"Who do people say that the Son of Man is? What are they saying about me?" Luke's gospel says that Jesus "advanced in wisdom, age, and grace." Isn't it possible, then, to imagine that his awareness of being chosen and the shape of his destiny developed as he grew? Isn't is possible that, in the messianic fever of a nation occupied by the brutal Roman empire and its god-emperor, Jesus might have gradually come to see the futility of revolution and of violence as a response to violence, and, having experienced God as my Father and our Father, have come to see the realm or kingdom of God as a community of healing love, first as a revival among his own people, and then, after the death of John and more experience in his itinerant ministry, with flashes of universality that were later cultivated and amplified by the twelve, Paul, and others? 

We need a messiah who can change his mind. We need truth that adapts to new realities and isn't fixed by interpretations of itself from the past. We live in a vast, complex society, convinced of violence, set in a world where things change fast. We feel unrooted, torn from our foundation. We want to cling to something. But to cling to something when the sea is rising, something that doesn't float, may well be to doom ourselves. We somehow got the idea that truth is unchanging, and that somehow we already know it, have to get back to it. How did that happen? How did it get to be a virtue to never change one's mind, as a former president claimed when confronted with facts about his misbegotten war?

"The truth shall make you free." Genuine truth doesn't tie us down to anything—it enables us to choose to love in whatever way is possible and necessary to heal, reconcile, and move forward. The truth makes us free to choose, and also liberates us from ruts worn in the road by our past. The "truth" that Jesus seemed to embrace in the gospel, that his mission was only to Israel, had to give way to the reality that agape of God was visible in the unrelenting intercession of this Canaanite woman on behalf of her daughter. This "new" truth, or developing awareness of genuine truth in Jesus, allowed him to change, to make a decision for healing and love that, perhaps, found its gospel apogee in the great commission, "Go, and preach the gospel to all nations." From any perspective, this is a turnabout from the restrictions on his mission outlined earlier in Matthew. Taking hope and courage from our messiah, we too can change our hearts and minds (metanoia, or conversion).

The human Jesus, really human, making decisions in the half-darkness, can be a good role model for us. Who needs a savior who doesn't experience the self-doubt, loss, and frustration that we do? We don't need Superman—that's a comic book hero. We need a "son of man," i.e., a human being, one who learns from what life throws at him, who consults with his friends, seeks clarification in solitude, acts generously on behalf of others. That is a savior worth imitating. Tranforming freedom from restrictive law based on division and fear into a generous freedom to serve, to love, to unite, heal, and announce freedom to others really could be good news for a society that is fearing and threatening itself into a netherworld of shrinking boundaries of terror and open-carrying, hostile self-preservation. A world in which nine-year-olds practice shooting Uzis with terrifying, if predictable, results.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Vade retro satanas (A22O)

This Sunday’s readings are good ones. The motif that connects the first reading and the gospel is the motif of vocation, and the prophet's (justifiable) argument that being chosen by God, while at times undeniable and invigorating, is often a pain in the butt, and in a few other places as well. We're with Tevye yet again: "Once in a while," we pray, "couldn't you choose someone else?" So just a few words today about how I think about the scriptures before sharing the music we’re using at St. Anne’s this weekend.

The gospel follows last Sunday’s reading about Peter’s confession, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” It's of a piece, the same story, scene, and conversation. Matthew makes more of Peter's confession than does his source in Mark, but however you read it, whatever Peter says, he seems to mean something other than what Jesus is thinking, though Jesus, ever ready to cut us slack, sees the Petrine glass half full rather than half empty. In today’s gospel, Peter shows his true colors, that is, his predilection for a messiah who, rather than following the path of the Suffering Servant, is one who will fight his way, with God at his side, to the throne of David. Jesus tells the apostles that he’s going to Jerusalem, where he will suffer and die. Peter retorts, “God forbid! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” This is when Jesus turns on him with that chilling rebuke: Get behind me, you satan! You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” The same human beings, one thinks, who are going to kill him. This after last weeks affirmation from Jesus to Peter that “no mere human has revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” One minute, Peter is thinking as God thinks. The next minute, he’s Satan.

Admittedly, Satan has gotten a bad rap for the couple of millennia or so. In the Hebrew bible and the culture of Jesus time, Satan was less a prince of darkness and the master of evil and death than the “tempter” or, in legal parlance, the opposing counsel to God, the devil’s advocate. The name may come from the aramaic word for “the accuser” or it may mean something like “the wanderer” (Job 1:7). Satan is subject to the authority of God. In the narrative that begins the book of Job, he asks permission to put Job on trial for his righteousness.

Here, Jesus is saying to Peter: your place is behind me. Follow me. Learn what God wants, don’t try to show me. Jesus sees, at least through the gospel writer’s resurrection-enlightened eyes, that the path of the Messiah/Christ is the path of the Suffering Servant. He has experienced God not as overlord but Abba, and understands that those who live and rule by the sword will die by the sword. I  give Peter some credit. Satan, at least, is a member of the heavenly court. Peter may not be the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but he is by all accounts an instrument of God.

Somehow, being on God’s side feels like, in addition to making us feel really righteous, it ought to mean we’re going to 'win.' But I’m afraid that domination isn’t part of the outcome. Life is. That whole business about the keys to the kingdom of heaven and all that—we have to learn that the kingdom of heaven is “not like the kingdoms of this world.” It’s a kingdom where one rules by service, and where the master washes the feet of all. Even at the Last Supper, Peter doesn’t get it. It comes to him slowly; he starts to understand on the seaside in Galilee after the resurrection; he gets closer at the house of Cornelius in Acts. Maybe he doesn’t really get it until he’s crucified upside down outside of Rome and wakens with the fullness of the kingdom’s light in his eyes.

The first reading recounts Jeremiah’s rebuke of God for seducing him, for sweet-talking him into the life of a prophet and thus into a life of rejection, persecution, and misery. It is Jeremiah who will describe God in Lamentations as a bear lying in wait to tear his flesh from his bones, as lying in ambush to shoot him through with arrows from his quiver, capturing him and leaving him alone, chained the dark. He speaks like a jilted virgin lover, Cecile of Les Liaisons Dangereuses accusing Valmont, “you were stronger than I and you overpowered me.” Jeremiah’s vocabulary connotes sexual violence. But then the prophet confesses that when he most wants to run, to forget the overpowering one, his word becomes like a fire inside, and he can’t keep it in. He must fulfill the call within.

That’s what vocation is like, the holy longing that binds us to the Lover and gives the strength and hope to trust the path of discipleship even when, especially when, the road is  difficult and even dangerous. Thus the psalm has us sing together, “My soul is longing for you, my God.” It is agape that binds Jesus to Peter. Peter may be a rock or a blockhead, he may be incapable of agape at this
point on his path, but God will nurture in him, coax it like fire from the embers of his heart. So God will do for us, that’s what we pray for this weekend. Not to be dominant, not to win, but to be faithful in our love and discipleship.

Perhaps today’s patron saint ought to be Nikos Kazantzakis for his amazing portrait of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ , and for his suffering at the hands of the church. His portrayal of the vocation of Christ as experienced like the talons of an eagle carrying Christ off to the desert, and the blinding revelation that the “last temptation” is, for some, the choice between God and everything else, make him a good candidate for the saint of the day. Replying to the bishops who excommunicated him for his work, he reportedly said, "You gave me a curse, Holy fathers, I give you a blessing: may your conscience be as clear as mine and may you be as moral and religious as I.” His response to the Vatican’s putting his work on the Index was simply, "I lodge my appeal at your tribunal, Lord.” Kazantzakis understood the call, seduction, and the life-and-death, all-or-nothing nature of relationship with God.

You know, the way the rest of us ought to understand.

Gathering: Glory in the Cross (Schutte) Again, Dan Schutte’s insightful and accessible hymn that helps us celebrate the paschal mystery of God, that somehow, glory and cross are in the same moment, and not one following the other. We’re using the Good Friday text with this one.
Psalm 63: My Soul Is Longing (Cooney) My through-composed setting of this psalm is supposed to conjure both the lush and sere of holy longing. It’s kind of demanding for cantors, so usually we use the Dameans’ “I Long for You.” Just for today, though...
Gifts: To You Who Bow (Cooney, GIA) I won't say much about this, since I wrote about it recently in a SongStories post. I chose it because it's about understanding that God's perfection is about perfect love, perfect self-gift, not power and might. We might start trying to get at least that right, so we can model ourselves after the right One! or Only This I Want (Schutte) Dan’s gem from the St. Louis Jesuits' Lord of Light captures St. Paul’s vision of the cross: to know the Lord, to bear the cross, to wear the crown he wore. I think about this CD and the songs on it: “City of God,” “All the Ends of the Earth,” “Lift Up Your Hearts,” “Jesus the Lord,” and of course “Here I Am, Lord.” Yikes. It’s like the Sergeant Pepper of liturgical music.
Communion: Christ the Icon (Cooney) My litanic song that is a meditation on the meaning of Christ and the cross for understanding both ourselves and the nature of God.
Closing: The Summons (Bell) The call to discipleship spelled out in five verses by the prolific and insightful John Bell.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Identity and authority (A21O)

As I was thinking over the readings for next Sunday, especially the gospel, I heard them in the shadow of last Sunday’s gospel, for which I once heard an excellent homily from my friend and colleague Fr. John Durbin. He said that he lifted most of his ideas from John Shea’s book, The Spiritual Wisdom Of Gospels For Christian Preachers And Teachers: On Earth as It Is in Heaven Year Aabout the cycle A gospels in Matthew, but even if he did, they were ideas that really need to get out into the air, because they ring true, and people haven’t heard them enough.

Here’s the thing I was thinking, for what it’s worth. In Sunday’s gospel, we have the story of Jesus asking the disciples the question, “Who do people say that I am?” “What are people saying about me?” is another way of saying that. And I think that most of us have in mind that Jesus knows who he is, and he’s just sort of “testing” the apostles to see if they know, and of course, Peter answers with the big theological affirmation and gets the tiara. But what if Jesus doesn’t know the answer? What if he’s “advancing in wisdom, age, and grace” as the gospel of Luke put it, and figuring it out as he goes along, as one might expect a human person to do, as one of us might do? “Blessed are you, Simon son of John, because no human being revealed this to you.” That’s another way of saying, “Great is your faith,” which echoed last Sunday’s gospel, which got me onto this thing of identity. If no human revealed it, then it came from God. Faith is the gift of God. So those statements are very similar in meaning. What do Peter and the pagan woman that the apostles tried to shoo away last week have in common, and what do they have to do with Jesus’s emerging self-image?

The pagan woman who approached Jesus last week knew who he was. She was pouring herself out for her daughter, so she was “like God,” who is agape. She knew, better than Jesus, apparently, who he was too, calling him “Lord” (that is, one with power) and “son of David” (knowing him as both Jew and king). Jesus protests that his gift is only for his own, that, in the words unhappily sung since in the hymn “Ecce Panis Angelorum,” “the bread of the children shouldn’t be thrown to the dogs.” (Does anyone else find it woefully ironic that the only part of this dialogue that made it into the church's eucharistic sequence for Corpus Christi, the "Lauda Sion Salvatoris," is the line, "Vere panis filiorum/Non mittendus canibus"? In fact, in this case at least, Jesus was wrong about that!) The intrepid woman, overflowing with love for her daughter and knowing that God’s power would flow from this stranger, appeals to her milieu—“Lord, even the dogs eat what drops from the children’s table.” You see, in pagan households, the family dog(s) roamed the house freely, but in Jewish households, one had to go outside to take the scraps to the dogs, because the dogs were not allowed into the house itself. She’s saying in effect, “your house, or my house—you can take the food outside to me, or let me in to take it from you, I’ll do anything.” She sees, and he doesn’t, that God shows no favorites. In fact, Jesus says to her, “Woman, you have great faith,” which is to say, “I can recognize in your words the presence of God, a presence that I know well.” And he does what she asks. He changes. She changes him. It struck me, too, how this story is related to John’s Samaritan woman story, another story of the frontiers and borders between people, of risk, and of mutual life.

So in this Sunday’s gospel, we have Peter giving the answer to a question that Jesus himself doesn’t know the answer to, and Peter clearly doesn’t know what he’s saying, as we’ll see in next Sunday’s gospel. Peter doesn’t get what involvement with the God of Jesus means for leadership and destiny. Peter sees “son of the living God” and “the anointed (christos)” to mean that Jesus has a destiny like Herod’s or even Caesar’s. He misidentifies God with the emperor, a mistake multiplied over the centuries of the Church’s love affair with Constantine, Charlemagne, and the courts of Europe. Caesar is interested in borders; God’s interest is in reconciliation. Caesar rules by oppression; God rules by invitation and shared good. Caesar rules by victory; God rules by justice. Jesus realizes quickly that neither Caesar nor Herod is going to be interested in the reign of God, and that the powers of earth are going to line up against the God of life and justice. Jesus further knows and trusts that God is God, and Caesar is not, and not even the power of armies and death can staunch the flow of life into the universe.

But the link between rule and service is yet to be learned by Simon and the rest, and there is still time. It’s a new beginning, and Jesus changes Simon’s name to Cephas, or in Latin, Petrus. The new “Peter” will learn, over the period of a couple of decades, the lessons Jesus learned from the pagan woman on the frontier. He, too, will die at Caesar’s hand on a road outside the city, and in a strange reversal of fate that we have come to take for granted as a sign of divine favor, the humiliated Jew, crucified upside-down by the power of Rome, is remembered by a Basilica on the Vatican hill that is a symbol of the faith of billions of Christians who have followed in the faith of Jesus. Learning the way of the God who is agape, who teaches leadership through servanthood, will become the stumbling-block, skandalon, and school of discipleship for Christ’s followers as long as the sun shines. Maybe longer.

This Sunday at St. Anne -

  • Gathering: Dan Schutte's "Glory in the Cross." At some masses, we’ll use Tom Conry’s Psalm 23, “God alone may lead my spirit,” which translates well the Vulgate’s “regit”, “pastures me” or “rules me.” The shepherd-lord cares for me; nothing is lacking.
  • Psalm 138: On the Day I Called (Cooney) We’re using the refrain, “Faithful God, we praise you for your love; do not forget us now.” It’s a good prayer for today’s scripture - teach us, today, to know you as you are and not as we want you to be. Bend us, conform us to Christ the servant.
  • Gifts: Lead Me, Guide Me. "You are the Messiah, Son of the Living God." So I think it seems appropriate to sing "Lead Me, Guide Me" after making our confession of faith with Peter. If I weren't going to be away at a wedding this week, I think we could have also used Tom Kendzia's song, from the same collection, Change My Name,” his adaptation of the spiritual, so we could sing with St. Peter, “I told Jesus it would be all right if he changed my name!”
  • Communion: Heart of a Shepherd (GIA, Cooney-Gelineau) Ugh, I know, I don’t deserve to mentioned in the same sentence with the great Jesuit liturgist and musician who passed away on 08/08/08 at the age of 80 or so. But as I’ve mentioned before, I used his tune for the 23rd psalm verses with a new refrain that I wrote to celebrate my pastor’s, Fr. Jack Dewes’, 40th anniversary of ordination, a celebration of servant leadership. I hope, in the long run, my refrain and arrangement holds up well against Père Gelineau’s gorgeous and simple music.
  • Closing: We Will Serve the Lord. Enough said, I hope. “Ya gotta serve somebody,” says Bob Dylan. “It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but ya gotta serve somebody.” May we learn quickly and thoroughly, and be changed into Christ for the world.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

SongStories 36: Canticle of the Turning (GIA, 1989)

Neither Hannah nor the mother of Jesus, this painting
depicts the "other" Miriam's dance. (Sandra Pond)
2014 is the 25th anniversary year of the publication of our first GIA collection of songs, Safety Harbor. As the page views on my blog inexplicably approach the 100,000 mark (someone who reads this post will move Google's hit counter past that marker), I thought that it might be a good idea to finally write a little bit about the best-known song of mine from the GIA catalogue, which was the first song on that CD. I'm speaking about my 1988 (written) setting of the Magnificat, "Canticle of the Turning."

Advent of 1988 was the beginning of a Luke Year (C) in the lectionary, and as it approached I was thinking about how I might write a song that my parish, St. Jerome in Phoenix, Arizona, might use to tie together the themes of Luke's gospel through the year, and in a special way to begin it in Advent. At the time we already knew a handful of Magnificat settings, including the Dameans' version from their Remember Your Love collection, "My Soul Rejoices," and Michael Joncas's wonderful setting of the Oosterhuis paraphrase that appeared in the same rich collection that gave us "On Eagle's Wings" and "I Have Loved You," a responsorial-choral version entitled, "Mary's Song." The more I thought about the task I had set for myself, though, to craft a song that contained some of Luke's main evangelical themes that could be used through the year, the more I came back to the canticle of Mary from the end of chapter 1.

According to some scripture scholars, the songs in Luke's gospel might have been pre-existing Christian hymn that he was writing back into the story of Jesus as if to say, "Here's how our songs got started; see them again as part of the bigger story." This is not to say he was rewriting history, just that he may have wanted his community to read its own history, including the "new song" of the Lord that its faith engendered, through the lens of his narrative of Jesus and his mission. The song of Mary known by its first word in the Latin version, "Magnificat," (Lk. 1:46-55) celebrates that story in the even wider context of Jewish song, as the Magnificat itself parallels the Song of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, in 1 Kings 2. God takes action in the world on behalf of the powerless, the song goes, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry, tearing the mighty from their thrones.

So in setting this canticle for my parish, I decided that I wanted to use music that suggested the revolutionary spirit of the canticle, that cosmic tables are being turned over, as it were. And who has better songs of uprising than the Irish? "Star of the County Down" is not a revolutionary ballad, of course. It's a love song about a man who aspires to woo Rosie McCann, a brown-haired beauty from "the banks of the Bann" near Belfast. The lyrics most of us know were written in the late 19th century, but the tune is much older, and in fact had among its many incarnations a military connection, as there was a lyric called "The Fighting 69th" about the Irish Brigade in the U.S. Civil War. The tune dances a bit, and there's both joy and excitement in the melody that I think fits the spirit of Mary's song well. Like many folks songs (and in the spirit of Martin Luther), it is a self-teaching melody, with a two-line refrain whose melody is expanded and paralleled in the verses (AA1BA1-BA1), making the tune easy to learn and remember. I kept the in-rhyme of the familiar Irish text as another mnemonic device ((aa)B(cc)B etc.)

The idea of "turning" in the title was both a nod to the inner conceit of "revolution," (derived from the Latin "volvere," which means "to turn") and to the message of Jesus's preaching in all three of the synoptic gospels, the core message of which was, "Repent, and believe the good news." "Repent" translates a Greek verb the noun form of which is metanoia, that is to say, a complete change of the self, of mind and heart, which might also be rendered as "turn around." The idea, of course, is that we are all walking a particular course dictated by the gods of "this world," for Jesus and his countrymen, the god's name was Caesar. Jesus was saying, "Look, how is that working out for you? Happy? Well, I have good news: a God with another idea, and his name is Abba. Let's "turn around" and walk in another direction." So the "revolution" is both interior (a change of heart-self) and corporate and visible (a new way of living together). It is, in fact, against the prevailing set of values in society, a revolution. But I want to emphasize that it is a peaceful revolution, a revolution of action, persuasion,  and justice. In the spirit of Miriam of Egypt, Hannah, and Miriam of Nazareth "Canticle of the Turning" invites us to sing around the fire in the darkness while we await the new world's dawn. has a great page about Canticle of the Turning, which I was surprised to discover while ego-surfing as I researched this post. You can click on the title just above and go to the page yourself. In addition to the original arrangement published in the Safety Harbor collection, "Canticle of the Turning" is also available in two different arrangements for choir and organ, both by august arrangers and composers whose sandals I am unworthy to untie, Hal Hopson and John Ferguson.

Songs get a life of their own after they're written. I've said it before and I'll say it again, I'm sure: I write songs because I need to. I need a specific song to be written, because there's some nagging ember inside me that, either out of my ignorance or chutzpah, thinks that there's nothing else serving a specific need of which I'm aware. What happens after I finish that song and start to share it, and occasionally publish it, is way out of my control, and perfectly unpredictable. While I was encouraged and grateful by its reception, early in the days after I had written in, by its reception in Ireland when Gary and I were working there on a Forum institute, I still felt some hesitation and self-doubt for using a completely secular melody with as beloved and sacred a text as the Magnificat, no matter how well-intentioned I was. But the fact that, twenty-five years later, it appears not just in Catholic hymnals, but also in Lutheran, Mennonite, and Presbyterian hymnals, and has been used by such titans (certainly to me, and I think in my world, by reputation) as Hopson and Ferguson in their own arrangements, says to me that maybe, for now, this was a good choice, and has "moved the deal along" a little bit, as songwriter Greg Brown might say.

It was a bit of a revelation to me to see the number of covers of this song that appear on iTunes - about a dozen of them (with a couple of reissues), and the variety in feel and tempo is really remarkable as each artist or group feels the song with the freedom-soaked independence suggest by folk music and the lyric itself! Just click through the right-arrow-in-a-circle audition buttons in the iTunes window below and get a feel for the creative energy of the different artists' interpretations of the Irish tune.

Thank you to everyone who has prayed with, sung, recorded, played, or published "Canticle of the Turning." Terry and Gary and GIA, happy 25th anniversary!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Gentiles-R-Us (A20O)

Readings for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

So, who's your Gentile?

Everybody knows that "gentile" is derived from the Latin gentes which means "nations" or "peoples," and translates the Greek equivalent of the word we know from current Hebrew as goyim, which just means, "anyone with the misfortune of not being born Jewish." In the time that the Christian scriptures were being compiled, this was an increasingly important distinction. At the time of Jesus's death, there were, to the best of anyone's knowledge, no Christians at all, only Jews, some of whom came to believe in Jesus. Jews-who-believed-in-Jesus began to be seen as a threat to the limited resources of the community and to its leadership and orthodoxy, and ultimately were separated from the temple cult, at times with threats and other reprisals.

After St. Paul, also a Jew, and a pious proselytizer at that, had his famous encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, things got even more heated. Convinced by his encounter with the Lord and his own study and experience that the law of Moses had no power to save his people, a power that only faith in Christ had, he expanded his preaching of Jesus Christ as the savior of all humanity to some of the great cities of the Mediterranean, probably preaching in the vicinity of Jewish proto-synagogues.  His preaching targeting many of the same potential "converts," the "Godfearers," or Gentiles sympathetic to and interested in Jewish beliefs and moral life, upon whom local Jewish communities depended for financial and political support as well as socialization. So from the outer courts of the Jerusalem temple to the streets of Corinth and Thessaly, the stage was set for tension, mistrust, and conflict between Jews, Jewish Christians, and Gentile Christians within just a few years of the death of Jesus. It is entirely possible, in fact, that the gospels' near exoneration of Pilate and the Romans for the death of Jesus, a death for which they were almost certainly entirely responsible, was because of the animus between the fledgling Christian communities and their Jewish neighbors. If Acts (see Acts 6: 1-7) is to believed, there was even some dissent in the Jerusalem church itself between Jewish and non-Jewish factions, for instance, in the discrimination against the Greek widows, who were neglected in food distribution, leading to the creation of the first deacons.

All these fights about tradition, being right, who's in and who's out, are present in every stage of the church's development from the beginning of Jesus's ministry, through the New Testament times, and right up to the present day. We cannot know the mind of the historical Jesus himself, but in the hands of the evangelist Matthew, he is at least apparently conflicted. While other evangelists have Jesus preaching in pagan territory and interacting with Gentiles, Matthew's Jesus is clear, the great commission notwithstanding, that “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” having told the twelve, back in chapter 10, “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."

In Sunday's gospel, our hearts open to the possibility that Jesus had some lessons to learn as a teacher, even one who was the incarnate Son of God, and the lesson comes by way of a woman who doggedly (sorry, unintentional pun) wants what she wants on behalf of her possessed daughter. Note too, that this gospel passage is preceded by a condemnation of the substitution of rigorous law for right living (justice) on the part of some Jewish leaders, and is followed by a second miracle of the loaves. While this latter miracle is not apparently very different from the one we heard a couple of weeks ago, it is based on the structure of the two feedings recorded in Mark (chapters 6 and 8), the second of which (corresponding to this one) takes place in the pagan territory. Mark's Jesus does not confine his preaching and ministry to the Jews like Matthew's does, and yet it's the same Jesus. So there is also the possibility, at least, of a literary movement that corresponds to what might be the mind of Jesus: what begins with the condemnation of a rigid and narrow-minded approach to law, a legalism that saves by strict adherence, ends with a feast on the Gentile side of the lake, and arrives there by way of a storm in the boat and the plea of a Gentile mother for the benefits of Jesus's ministry heretofore being lavished only upon his own people. Talk about character development!

This gospel and the whole liturgy today touches on hot-button issues in our church and in every church; for that matter, between churches. What are our sacred cows? What are the matters about which we are so certain we are right that we're willing to push people away who ask for help? Parish registration? Baptism? A certain kind of music? Celibate clergy? Ministry only by straight people? Or expand this kind of thinking into the wider world, the world that we church people populate and in which we vote and do business. What about health care? How about border control and immigration?

What's the goal of religion, specifically, the goal of Christianity? For Jesus, it appears, from at least the point of view of the fourth gospel it was this: "that they all may be one, as you, Father, are in me, and I am in you, that they all might be one in us." The shattering truth that Paul's letter to the Philippians sings in its quotation from a first-century Christian hymn is that God wanted reconciliation, that is, unity among us and between God and us, so much that, the he "did not cling to godliness,' and became a human being like us, and suffered death on a cross. God, in other words, didn't think being right was worth it. Being God meant nothing if we weren't all together. So God left it behind, and emptied Self into humanity.

Today's gospel suggests—suggests, I say—that Jesus learned that from a Gentile mother who was desperate to save her daughter from the demons that raged within her. Her tenacious love "did not cling to Gentile-ness" but emptied itself and begged from an enemy, or at least, a stranger, for what was available to others. The "faith" that saved her, we know, and Jesus knew, was not her own doing, but was planted in her by God, the only source of that gift. The Giver is the same one who wants reconciliation of all people, and she acts like the giver in emptying herself, and in the process, just maybe, opened the eyes of the Messiah to who he really was.

The repeated metaphor in the scriptures for the diversity (or chaos) of the world is the division between the Jews, i.e., the people who wrote the scriptures, and the goyim, the Gentiles, the rest of us. That is an unbridgeable gap from our side, that is to say, from the side of the Jews. God created the gap. If the Gentiles can come to the Lord, and even serve as priests, Isaiah suggests, then all bets are off. Creation has begun again. If "all the peoples" can praise the God of Israel, then the covenant has been rewritten. The Jews aren't written out; it's that the rest of us are written in. We can't do that. The Jews can't do that. Only God can do that. If that can happen, anything can happen.

It may be a suggestion that it's time to stop throwing up walls, and start tearing them down. At least, it seems to me, all of us should keep in mind that the telos, the consummation, the final goal of all things, the dream of God, is "that they—we—all be one." Everything we do, every rule we make, every decision we make, every law we vote for, every candidate we trust, everything we invest our time and money in, should be oriented toward that goal.

So, who's your Gentile?

GATHERING:   Gather Us In (Haugen) 848
KYRIE/Gloria: St Aidan
RESP. PSALM 98:   All the Ends of the Earth (Haugen/Haas) 70
PREP RITE:   In Christ There Is No East or West or A Place at the Table 832 /812
FRACTION:   St Aidan (G)
COMMUNION:   One Bread, One Body (Foley) 932
SENDING FORTH:   Saving Power of God (O'Connor)

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Daily Double for Assumption: Two songs for Assumption (WLP, 2005)

The Assumption, from the chapel at my
alma mater, St Mary's of the Barrens,
Perryville MO
Anything worth doing is worth overdoing, right? On this underappreciated feast day, I thought I'd share the brief stories of two songs I have written specifically for this day. One is a setting of the responsorial psalm of the day, and the other a sort of antiphonal hymn. Both were published by World Library Publications in my 2005 collection Christ the Icon. The album post is here.

I wrote "Every Generation" as a commission for St. Mary’s Parish in Port Washington, Wisconsin, for their 150th anniversary in 2003. Their church is under the patronage of Our Lady of the Assumption. Drew Rutz, the organist there, commissioned the score for brass quartet, organ, oboe, and cello, but we scaled that down a bit for this recording to make it more accessible to more churches. The refrain text is an expansion of the communion antiphon for the Feast of the Assumption, taken from the Magnificat. Using two response texts, one placed on the lips of Mary at the Annunciation and the other on the lips of her Son in response to someone’s praise of his mother, the verses describe Mary’s blessing in her Assumption as foreshadowed in her life by her actions as mother and disciple. It is as mother and disciple, servant of God, that we remember Mary of Nazareth, remembering in her own words that it is “God who has done great things” for her.

Two parallel thoughts alternate in each couplet that the cantor sings. As an example:
Cantor: You taught the Son of God to eat and drink,
Choir and assembly: Here I am, the servant of the Lord,
Cantor: Now Christ takes you to eat his wedding feast.
Choir and assembly: Blessed are they who keep the word of God.
Cantor: You taught the Son of God to stand and walk,
Choir and assembly: Here I am, the servant of the Lord,
Cantor: He guides your steps on paths of paradise.
Choir and assembly: Blessed are they who keep the word of God.So the cantor first sings some imagined event from the family life of Nazareth or something from the gospels in which Mary gives something to Jesus as his mother, and then in a parallel text imagines Christ in glory "returning the favor," as it were, but in the glory of heaven in the act of the Assumption. Returning the antiphon each time, we may begin to see at least one sense in which "every generation calls you blessed," and how "God has done great things for you." Throughout, Mary's greatness is seen in her being "servant of the Lord" and disciple in her everyday life by keeping the Torah, raising her son in justice, and being formed in love as the image of God.

In preparing myself and trying to get ideas for the commission, though, I pored through some of the apocrypha about the Assumption, particularly the story as recounted in the Dormition of the Mother of God by pseudo-John, complete with the Virgin being taken up on a couch, and an angry "well-born Hebrew" trying to hold her back and having a seraphim cut his arms off, leaving them dangling from the couch. In spite of the presence of a lot of anti-Jewish polemics, Peter restores the man's arms to him. You can't make this stuff up. But it also doesn't belong in a hymn, right? The editors at WLP (rightly) decided that it would be a more useful song if the verses were about a cross-section of Marian mysteries, so I provided another set of verses of general use.

Psalm 45: "The Queen Stands at Your Right Hand" is my second "stab" at setting this psalm, though I have to say that this current version owes a lot to the former. There is no getting around the cultural milieu of the text of Psalm 45, which is a "A song for the Davidic king’s marriage to a foreign princess from Tyre in Phoenicia," whose florid text not only praises the king for his godly qualities but even calls him "god." But the section of the psalm cited for today's use is addressed to the queen herself, praising her beauty and reminding her that her past is history, she's now in the king's house and belongs to him. It's an epithalamion, applied in the Christian era to Mary, Theotokos, mother of God and queen of heaven.

I had hoped, for your amusement, to be able to find the original version of this psalm that I wrote 35 years ago or so, but have been unable to unearth the manuscript from my own personal Nag Hammadi, aka my office. Perhaps I can append it at a later date, should archaeologists succeed in recovering it. In the meantime, enjoy this clip from the current version, and if you like it and/or the song above, visit the World Library website and check it out. Below is a link to iTunes, whence the two songs may be purchased.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"No storm can shake my inmost calm" - second thoughts

So today (Sunday), like a lot of you may have done, I programmed and we sang the great old hymn "How Can I Keep from Singing." Often misidentified as a Quaker or Shaker hymn, it was actually written in the late 19th century by Robert Lowry, the minister who also wrote "Shall We Gather at the River?" (he apparently liked songs with title questions), to a set of pre-existing lyrics. 20th century singers from Pete Seeger through Ed Gutfreund and Enya to Jeanne Cotter to Eva Cassidy have put their own stamp on it, with Seeger notably adding, via his friend Doris Plenn, the politically shaded stanza about trembling tyrants and friends in "prison cell and dungeon vile." It was, as far as I can tell, Gutfreund, in his recorded version that became enshrined in Glory and Praise in the 1970s, who took the quatrain "No storm can shake my inmost calm..." and made it a refrain, editing some of the original stanzas into verses for the song.

On Sunday, though, as I sang it, I wondered about the sentiment when we sing it with those words as a refrain. Like this, you know?

Ebola virus death toll reaches 1,000.
"No storm can shake my inmost calm."
Riots after unarmed teen shot in Missouri.
"No storm can shake my inmost calm."
ISIS beheads enemies, rapes women, drives countrymen from their homes in Iraq.
"No storm can shake my inmost calm."
Dozens shot in weekend street violence in Chicago. (again)
"No storm can shake my inmost calm."
Schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria. Pro-Russian militia shoot down passenger jet in Ukraine.
"No storm can shake my inmost calm."
Three friends have cancer, son's off to college, work's kinda dicey, and I'm not very good at relationships.
"No storm can shake my inmost calm."

I wondered if anyone else felt like a liar when they were singing?

In the original text, those lines were just one of several stanzas in a lyric that make a song of eschatological hope, clearing skies and a rescuing savior; the absolute statement of "no storm can shake..." is just one line of eighteen, and thus can be seen in a certain context. When the later verse written by Plenn is added, it helps us to see a context of a just world coming into being, even from the perspective of unjust imprisonment. When "Christ is lord" becomes "love is lord," it gives to non-Christians the opportunity to express similar hope about a new world, and without rendering the song meaningless to Christians, for whom Christ, as God, is love.

These are just second thoughts, thinking out loud, after saying words, writing my blog, hearing scripture at liturgy, singing the text. This happens not infrequently, right? How many times have I heard one of my friends or colleagues say, "It just felt wrong to sing 'All are welcome in this place,' because I know damn well that all are not welcome, and I can name names." Or singing those Isaian claims in "Be Not Afraid," safety in arid desert, stormy sea, raging fire, at all those funerals.

The editors of Gather for some reason deleted the Plenn-Seeger stanza after the first edition of the hymnal in 1994. There is no question of copyright, though that stanza first appeared in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Since Ms. Plenn gave Pete Seeger the authorization to publish it in his folk music magazine Sing Out, and it appeared without a copyright claim, U.S. courts ruled that the Plenn verse, like the rest of the text, is in the public domain. The deletion, however, makes the song too short to sing during communion at our church, so I wrote a couple of verses that reflect the gospel story to flesh out the piece for Sunday. They were sung between verses 3 and 4 in the Gather Comprehensive Third Edition version. (You can use them next time around if you want.)

3b. The wind and rain may lash the night
While lightning fiercely blazes,
And though I slip into the deep
Christ's arm with power raises.

3c. There is no time to cower in fear
Though boiling sea may swallow.
When Christ says "Come!" across the waves,
Oh let us boldly follow.

But you might recall that the event that set in motion the stories recounted in Matthew 14 for the last two Sundays (the feeding of the multitudes and the storm on the Sea of Galilee) was the violent death of Jesus's kinsman John the Baptist, a prisoner of Herod, who feared John's influence with the crowds and the potential for an uprising hem feared John might lead. As I thought of (the grieving?) Jesus trying to find some solitude after hearing the news, and being pursued by the crowds, and as I heard again the story of the gifted prophet Elijah on the run from the lethal anger of Ahab and Jezebel, it occurred to me that another way to hear the word of the Lord was to learn that our calling to kenosis, to self-emptying love that attempts to mirror the divine life even as it is empowered by that life, endures through the worst that life throws at us. Our vocation, whatever it might be, matters. Whatever the threat or the sorrow, people need to be fed, to sing, to hear the truth. I need to hear the gospel as a disciple, yes, to know that whatever the storm may bring, the universe in which the storm resides belongs to Christ. But I also need to hear the story as a member of Christ's body, entrusted with his mission. 

So I was glad that the words of "How Can I Keep from Singing" caught in my throat Sunday. Life sometimes makes us want to do anything but sing, and to think or sing otherwise is a lie. But just maybe, in my inmost calm, that place claimed by Christ in baptism and fed every Sunday by the word of God and the bread of life, the song echoes. It is the song of a God whose power is not expressed by deliverance from the pain of life but through solidarity in it, not divine light at the end of the tunnel, but light, somehow, in the darkness. For me, the song that hit all the right notes this weekend was Tom Kendzia's "Stand By Me," which reaches back in its inspiration through Charles Tindley's gospel anthem to the spiritual of experience of former slaves.
When the storms of life are raging,
Lord, stand by me.
When the current pulls me under,
Lord, stand by me.
When the rising waters toss me
like a ship upon the sea,
You who rule the wind and water,
Lord, stand by me.
Refrain: Stand by me, stand by me.
Lift me up from the restless sea.
When I am lost, when love can't be found,
when no one cares, Lord, stand by me.
Sometimes, we need to be the rock to which those in trouble are clinging. Selfish swine that I am, I hope that I can remember this, and put aside my petty need for "personal space" and give someone else a reason to sing, and not just a song. It's a move from singing about love to actually loving, which is another way of saying, from singing about the cross to taking it up, and becoming Christ. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Moving from shock to compassionate action

Just a couple of thoughts on the passing of Robin Williams. 

Being almost the exact same age, and having experienced his work in television and movies over the years, I was as shocked as most people. I don't really follow pop culture much, so I didn't know, beyond a passing awareness, that he had a history with substance abuse and depression. His talent was a distraction to us, I guess, and maybe to his friends and family, even those who were aware of his personal demons.

I confess that as I saw that the cause of death was "suicide by asphyxia," I wondered at the irony of that as I recalled those times when we all laughed at Williams' manic comic performances until we couldn't breathe. That was near-asphyxia by an overdose of life and joy, having the incongruities of the ordinary rubbed in our faces like shaving-cream pies. And on this day, a master-seer of those incongruities with a mouth that could speak them more quickly than many of us could process them, died from asphyxia, choking off the very laughter and life he imparted to millions.

Being in church work, I've been a witness to the grief of many over the years in the wake of suicide. It is a colossal tragedy that rattles the community of those who are friends and family to the deceased. The sadness of it overwhelms everything else for a while. We're cut loose from the moorings of reason, and start to drift in the chaos in which, it has to be said, so many of these ordinary people have invisibly drifted while appearing to live normal or marginally quirky lives right before our eyes.

There is other stuff going on in the world. Other people are dying, too, just not famous people, rich people, people whom we think ought to feel good and people with whom we think, in our myopia, we might like to trade places. Most of them die not by their own hand but by the hand of violence. In the world of social media, there are those voices that are outraged by the focus on the attention to the dead superstar, whether Robin Williams, or Michael Jackson, or Heath Ledger, or whomever. And I understand their perplexity and indignation. But choice between absorbing our sorrow and seeking some new meaning in the loss of someone whom we know in our cultural household and facing into the horror of war, famine, disease, genocide, and natural disaster it's not a choice we have to make. While we might hope for some sense of emotional balance and equivalency of weight between our cultural sphere and the global or human family, there is room, it seems to me, for a search for meaning and engagement in both kinds of events. Some of what we see in the news media and social media is little more than self-indulgence and hyperbole when our individual illusions of life and control are disrupted by these tragedies. But if they can be refocused on the other, in this case, Robin Williams and people like him who suffer from depression and other mental illness, they can be a source of evolution for us, just as global suffering, when it moves beyond morbid fascination and a rush to quasi-religious or nationalistic judgment, and be a catalyst for acts of true compassion, intervention, and national self inventory.

So I suppose my feeling today is that I hope that some of the people who are shocked and saddened by the loss of Robin Williams will look into the state of our national response to mental illness in this country, and make demands of their representatives in government to reverse the decades-long retrenchment that has deprived depressed and mentally-ill people of adequate facilities and health care. I hope they will attempt to see that depression can't be "fixed" with an exhortation to "cheer up" any more than cancer can be cured by M&Ms. Depression isn't "not getting it," whether "it" is religion, or the sunny side of life, or how good we have it. Depression is a disease, and it's a disease for which there are treatments but not a cure. Wishing people would "have a nice day" and then voting for people who want to shrink research, treatment, and advocacy funds to the point where they can be "drowned in the bathtub" is disingenuous at best, calculatedly cruel at worst. And I hope, too, that we will open our hearts to other suffering, and not become hardened to the daily reality of violence, hunger, and disease that rips families apart in this and every land, and which, ignored, will only grow like the cancer it is in the body of the human race.

I saw a version of this story on someone's Facebook post early today, but could not relocate it to credit the person who posted it. I remembered enough of the story to Google it, though, and it's pretty easy to find. This is how it appears on the BBC's History site, with some background there as well as this, which is the crux of the issue.
In the year 1806, a well-dressed man in his twenties visited a doctor who was renowned throughout London for being able to treat what nowadays we'd call depression, but back then was called melancholia.
The patient explained that he felt overcome by a terrible sadness, that he didn't want to get up in the morning. He could not see any point in his existence.
"With your condition I would normally prescribe a course of my patent powders," said the doctor, "but it so happens that I have recently come across something which will alleviate your condition much more quickly.
"You must," he continued, "go to the Covent Garden theatre to see the pantomime, Harlequin and Mother Goose. This is the happiest thing I have ever seen performed on a stage, tears of laugher ran down my face. Why, sir, I can almost guarantee that watching Grimaldi the clown will cure you completely!"
"Ah, but doctor," said the man sadly, "I am Grimaldi the clown."
While we can trust that Robin Williams may rest in the peace he could not find in life, I hope that those of us who remain for a while might be provoked out of complacency and into action on behalf of others who suffer without the resources to help themselves.

1-800-273-8255 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Friday, August 8, 2014

The dance of presence and absence (A19O)

Cover of Safety Harbor, original artwork
by Gary Palmatier, Ideas to Images
When we pick up his story this weekend, Elijah is in some pretty deep dung as he cowers in the cave on Horeb.  Under a threat of death from King Ahab and his wife Jezebel, he escaped into the desert where he was miraculously fed by angels, and then hides out in the cave "on the mountain of God." The surrounding story is fascinating (see 1 Kings 18-20; today's first reading is from chapter 19.) To Elijah, the word of God comes as a question: Why are you here, Elijah? All he can do is respond that he has done God's work with all his heart and soul, and look where he has landed, a fugitive under a death sentence, hiding in a desert cave. Like every prophet before and since, he wonders, if God is his ally and strength and, well, God, why he is always on the run and fearful for his life.? With Tevye he wonders, "I know we are your chosen people, but once in while, couldn't you choose somebody else?"

I don't like us to forget this political aspect of these biblical narratives. Because the lectionary (necessarily?) truncates them in excerpting them, their larger narrative context is lost. But we should remember that we're not supposed to be hearing all this for the first time! These narratives are our story. Those who have compiled the scriptures into the sacred liturgy through the centuries knew the stories, and as they were put together in their current form certainly hoped, if not expected, that we would grasp the broader context as we heard them, aided by the trained preaching of deacons and priests. My point here is that Elijah is not on retreat in the sense of a silent eight-day vacation of spiritual introspection. He is on retreat in the sense of hiding out from an army after having attacked the guild prophets of the king and queen of Israel. It makes a difference, because after doing everything God told him to do, he's up to his loincloth in scorpions and rattlesnakes. And another little surprise that is excised from the story as we're read it today: after all we hear, up to the presence of God revealed in the absence of powerful signs, the voice comes to him in the cave again: Why are you here, Elijah? Hiding out, apparently, is not part of his vocation. Neither should we be able to hide from the political context of scripture in a cavern of pious introspection.

In that first reading, "the Lord was not in the storm." In the gospel, it's apparently a good thing he was. This parable about the storm on the lake, the fear of the experienced fishermen, and their rescue by the Lord who walks on the water may be a good example of what Crossan calls the dynamic by which the stories of Jesus became stories about Jesus. (See his book, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus.) In the decades following the death of Jesus and the emergence of the apostolic church, there were many different interpretations of the meaning of Jesus and who he was, many different "christianities" that were part of the landscape. Some we have some insight about, like the Jewish christianity that seems to have been directly descended from Jesus through James, Peter, and the Jerusalem church, and the "adoptive" christianity of the Gentiles that was preached by St. Paul, and which brought him into serious ideological conflict with Peter and James. Others we have some historical evidence of, or even scriptural reference, like the preaching of Apollos and other evangelists whose preaching Paul, at least, might tear the church apart, as thought the evangelists and apostles, and not Jesus himself, were the salvific center of the story. The destruction of Jerusalem and suspicion of Christianity as a rival religion within the Roman empire created a climate of persecution and challenge to faith that would have pervaded the church right up through the surviving apostles and disciples who had known Jesus in Galilee. How was the Christian "boat" going to stay afloat? Is Jesus in it with us, or not?

This may be the genesis of a narrative like the one in today's gospel, or it might have happened just like it says. I don't know. I think the story is true, I just don't know if it actually happened. For me, it's important to know who's in the boat with me, who is in charge of the storm, and who, when I'm  sinking, can pull me out of the impending briny (or freshwater) grave.

So this is all why Psalm 85 seems so wonderfully appropriate today, especially with its refrain interpreted the way I explained in my post earlier this week about my setting, "Your Mercy Like Rain." If we allow ourselves to sing, "Lord, let us see your kindness; grant us your salvation," we stand in line with the psalmist and Peter and all our ancestors in faith, especially the martyrs, who were, like Elijah, up to their loincloths in scorpions, and heard the voice of God in the silence whisper, What you still doing here? and then moved on fearlessly to fulfill their vocation. We know, in other words, what God did for David, and Elijah, and Peter, and Dr. King. Let us see your terrible wonder in our own lives, here, today. That is why we are singing "Be Not Afraid" and "Stand by Me" at mass this weekend. Even when the voice of God is a tiny whisper, we do well, we are impelled, to cover our faces lest we see what lies ahead. Life, unrestricted, boundless, and poured out all at once, must be an fearsome thing to behold.

My song "Mystery" attempts to deal with some of this, the questions about God present and absent, to be recognized, it seems, both in "lovers' whisper" and "eye of the storm." Thinking that we can know or define God is tricky business, by definition, I think, doomed to failure. Some of these opposites or paradoxes or dialectics are probably good for us just to hold in tension while we act on behalf of others as we are led by the gospel. We too are called out of the cave by the voice that says, Why are you here? The voice says to get back out on the road, and don't be afraid. Nothing, including life itself, is what it seems.

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

Entrance Song: Be Not Afraid (Dufford)
Kyrie and Gloria: Mass of St. Aidan (Cooney)
Psalm 85: "Your Mercy Like Rain" (Cooney)
Celtic Alleluia
Preparation rite: Stand by Me (Kendzia)
Mass of Creation (Haugen)
Lamb of God: May We Be One (Daigle)
Communion: How Can I Keep from Singing (trad., Footnote: I dislike the slavish literalism of the lyric change from Gather Comprehensive to Gather Comp 3. Really? "Love is Lord" isn't true enough?)
Sending forth: If/Si (Cooney) or Though the Mountains May Fall (Schutte)

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

SongStories 35: Your Mercy Like Rain (Vision, GIA, 1992)

In preparing to write the music that eventually became the collection Vision, I spent some time in Prescott Valley all by myself, with a portable keyboard, a Jerusalem Bible, and a yellow pad. One of the things I wanted to do was to set the two Advent common responsorial psalms, Psalm 25 and Psalm 85, in the way that I thought I had been fairly successful with the psalms I had written for AssemblyBook in the 1980s, that is, by writing a metric paraphrase of the verses. Encouraged by my classes with John Gallen, and through conversations with Gary Daigle and him, though, I also thought that the psalms might have more emotional impact if the refrains were paraphrase, too, or "translated into English."

In retrospect, of course, the paraphrase refrains made them less useful for most pastoral musicians who, with good reason, wanted to use psalm settings whose refrains (at least) matched normative texts. Others might say that rewriting a normative text is like playing tennis without a net—it's a lot easier. Actually, I agree with that thought. But on the other side of the scale, psalms are songs, or at least ritual poetry, depending on to whom you're talking. They're supposed to carry more emotional weight than just words do. And I think that includes the text. Is it even possible to connect emotionally with a text that says, "Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation"? There is just so much generality and religious jargon in that sentence that my spiritual eyes glaze over reading it. Departing from the ritual text is dangerous for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is heterodoxy. But using the normative text doesn't prevent us from discovering heterodox points of view in the church either, and as long as a normative text is available for study, proof, and reproof, I don't see how adapting the text to a more musical and emotional version for singing can do more serious harm than a bland one does.

So in looking at and studying Psalm 85, I saw that it was probably dialogical in its liturgical use in the temple, a prayer for rain and a song of trust that, in keeping with the covenant, God would provide that rain for the nation. As a desert dweller myself, I felt some kinship with my Hebrew forebears in faith. I know the desiccating heat of the desert, the scarcity of water, the fragility of agriculture. And I also know the heady incense of the desert's smells after a rain, the sweet pungency of wet creosote and the welcome cool humidity of those first hours after much-needed precipitation. Those were the emotions I wanted to connect to as I sought to help connect the ancient biblical words to the human hope for the justice and peace of the reign of God that we so ardently hope for in the Advent (and in all) liturgy.

As I prayed over and reflected on the words of the lectionary refrain, it finally occurred to me that the accents in the text theologically might be on the first person pronouns. Here's what I mean:
Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
In normal reading we might see this in a couple of ways:
Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
Probably in a primary way, we're taught to see the nouns first. And these are, indeed, important nouns. But they don't really reveal anything new to us if we accent them. Similarly, putting God first, we might read:
Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
But here again, there's not much new. We're here for God. Our prayer is always directed to God. It's more of the same: non-revelatory churchspeak. But what about this?
Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
Now, I think, we're getting somewhere. Now the antiphon sounds like an Advent prayer. We know what you have done for us in the past, we celebrate what you have done through Isaiah, John the Baptizer, Mary and Joseph, and certainly Jesus. But what about now? How about all the unfulfilled dreams and crooked highways that I'm walking down these days? Will you bring the good things you've begun in me to completion? In our families, in our parish, in our world?

This is the place from which I departed when I wrote the text and music that became "Your Mercy Like Rain." The first two lines of the refrain use first person singular pronouns, the last couplet utilizes the plural, moving the focus from "me/my" to "our." And there's a "This land was made for you and me" quality to the underlying belief system in the psalm text. It is the land itself, Israel's terrain, that is the delivery system for God's bounty. The blessing of God is made visible in the rain that waters the land, the animals that feed on the grass, and in the crops that spring up from that land. We might be a little more sophisticated in our consideration of the relationship between bounty and blessing, but these were simpler times. My musical setting was really an attempt to imitate the longing for relationship, the ache and plea for connection, that is at the heart of so much of the music of Stephen Sondheim, even when he's making us laugh with what he writes.

The choral setting of "Your Mercy Like Rain" is available from GIA, set for SATB voices, flute and oboe (or 2 C instruments) obbligato, and string quartet. It appeared in Gather Comprehensive, First Edition, but missed the cut for later incarnations. I feel the same about it now as I did when I wrote it, though—the music and paraphrased text help to make available some aspects of the psalms emotional  core, and allow us to pray to see the inbreaking mercy of God "with our own eyes," whether Advent falls in late autumn or early spring for barren hearts on this beloved planet.

Psalm 85: Your Mercy Like Rain - Vision (iTunes link)

Your Mercy Like Rain 
Paraphrase of Psalm 85, by Rory Cooney

Let me taste your mercy like rain on my face.
Here, in my life, show me your peace.
Let us see with our own eyes your day breaking bright.
Come, O Morning! Come, O Light!

What God has spoken I will declare:
"Peace to the people of God everywhere."
God's saving presence is close at hand:
Glory as near as our land.

Here faithful love and truth shall embrace,
Here peace and justice will come face to face.
God's truth shall water the earth like a spring,
While justice will bend down and sing.

God will keep the promise indeed:
Our land will yield the food that we need.
Justice shall walk before you that day,
Clearing a path, preparing your way.

©1992 GIA Publications, Inc.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

"Bring the children without might" - Mya, the border, and the loaves

Last week was a strange one at the parish, with a couple of very unusual funerals, one of which was celebrated yesterday (Sunday) afternoon in the chapel. There's not much to say about all that except that maybe from the business and emotion of the day I might have been more attuned to words than I am at other times, and I was struck by the words of the preface last night,
"...he always showed compassion for children and for the poor, for the sick and for sinners, and he became a neighbor to the oppressed and the afflicted."
as well as by the words of John Foley's song that we sang at a couple of the masses in the morning, "Come to the Water," with the long arc of its melody leading upward to the proclamation,
"And let all the poor,
Let them come to the water.
Bring the ones who are laden
Bring them all to the Lord.
Bring the children without might:
Easy the load, and light.
Come to the Lord."
John's song isn't strictly scriptural, but it echoes with scriptural themes, and the equation that it makes between Isaiah 55:1-2ff and Matthew 11:28ff, between the universal invitation to the messianic banquet in Isaiah and the Christ's invitation to the weary to come to him, the invitation to "come" and to "bring," really struck me as we listened to missionary preachers and celebrated the eucharist. And it made me think about Mya, the infant we buried this week, and the children who have become the target of political outrage and the target of the animosity of America's privileged class as they arrive at the borders of this country looking for help and a future.

See, Mya was an infant, a twin, who starved to death in her parents' house in Barrington this past winter. Her twin sister survived the neglect, and was placed in foster care. I do not know, in fact, cannot imagine, the circumstances that would have allowed this to happen in this town, but knowing that starvation happened just a couple of miles from places where sumptuous meals and banquets are commonplace gave me pause as I sang the words, "Bring the children without might," and heard the words of the gospel say, "Give them some food yourselves." None of us even knew.

And then there were the disturbing images of clearly well-to-do citizens of this country screaming hatred at busloads of bewildered children from Mexico and Central America being taken to holding centers in various communities. I wondered how many of those men and women with their hatred, their signs and screams, their fear and anger, felt no dissonance as they sat in their churches yesterday, heard the same scriptures, maybe sang the same songs. I was encouraged by intervention by Pope Francis and some US bishops, and more so by specific outreach from church and diocesan groups, on behalf of the refugee children.

But I realize, the more I read and reflect about what we "know" about Jesus and the development of the various "Christianities" from the first centuries through the most recent, that it is really hard to make any claim about "what Jesus would do" or, in fact, what Jesus did. We only know what a few people, out of many, wrote about him, generally decades after the fact. Paul's thoughts about Jesus the messiah were quite different from those of James and Peter and others who actually had known him. Ultimately, for us as for Peter, Paul, and James, it comes down not to what we say or think, but what we do. On that they seem to agree, as even Paul, who seemed sold on the idea that faith in Christ alone could save, wrote unforgettably that faith would come to an end, but the love would endure. And this love is not a feeling but an action, agape that is kenosis, self-emptying that is creative and life-giving. Finally, it's not even our actions that make union with God possible. It's only God's love that makes that possible. Good or evil, grace is a gift. There's no achieving it.

So I don't want to say that the people who go to church and scream at refugee children coming into this country without parents or any visible support system aren't Christian. That's not for me to say; there are a thousand ways not to be Christian, and I've probably tried nine hundred of them or so. I may find the behavior of some Christians dissonant with my view of Christianity, but there are systems of Christianity that made their behavior possible for them. It's no wonder atheists are having a field day. If Jesus's last prayer was, "that they may be one," it's a prayer that not only hasn't been answered for two millennia—it's a prayer that seems to have accelerated ecclesial entropy.

America is not the reign of God. In fact, the church isn't the reign of God. But the best we can do, as a people whom God has made, bound together by baptism and the Holy Spirit given to each of us, is to act like we are the reign of God. We need to act like we have understood the parables, the beatitudes, and the death and resurrection of Jesus. There is no one else but us. Caesar is out there saying, "This is my dominion. Money is power. Power is for the strong. Borders are there for a reason. Some are in, some are out. Some have, some don't have, and that's their problem." We can't live in that world and say to the Myas and the children at the borders, "Go to Jesus, he'll take care of you." We have to learn to say, "Come to us, we're in this together," and work out strategies of compassion and mutuality. We've got to take the gifts we have as a community, the loaves and fishes we can assemble, and bless them and share them out, risking their loss with faith that they will not be lost but multiplied for the good of all.

Click here to donate to Catholic Charities relief efforts on behalf of children at the US border. It may help you sing "Come to the Water" with a greater sense of solidarity and integrity than before. And you can donate here to the National Safe Haven Alliance, an organization that seeks to spread awareness of Safe Haven laws in your state that allow parents to drop off unwanted babies without interference at public safety places like police and fire stations. It's too late to help Mya, but not too late to be among the group of disciples who want to make the hungry multitudes go away, but hear Jesus's voice rolling down the hill, across the water, and through the ages, to "give them some food yourselves."

Friday, August 1, 2014

"Give them some food yourselves" (A18O)

So after a cluster of parables that begin, "The reign of God is like...", and trying to open up the ears and hearts of hearers to imagine a world other than the commercial, survival-of-the-fittest, might-makes-right world that Caesar sells as the only one available to us, it's like Jesus rolls up the sleeves of his tunic and says, "Let me show you how it's done."

Something important happens. All four gospels record this story, and they don't do that with any other particular "wonder" story. I don't have an explanation, just a point of view. Jesus encounters a crowd of people looking to him for a future, for leadership, for the "reign of God" that he keeps suggesting, and is moved to compassion. In Matthew's version of the story, the disciples tell Jesus to send the crowds home to get something to eat: they have missed the point of the parables. Jesus tells them, "Give them some food yourselves," and a boy comes forth with some barley loaves and couple of fish. Using language reminiscent of the earliest Eucharistic language, the gospel narrative describes the people reclining in the wilderness, as though at a formal meal, while Jesus took, blessed, broke, and shared the loaves (the fish are not mentioned!), and everyone eats their fill, with plenty left over.

The first reading from Isaiah "sets the table" for us, as we hear a vision for God's realm described as a rich banquet to which all are invited, regardless of nationality or wealth. Those who are hungry and thirsty are called simply on the basis of their desire. The proper psalm, Psalm 145, picks up on the lavishness of divine gifts as it has us sing, "The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs," paraphrasing a verse of the psalm which reads (somewhat more modestly?), "You open your hand, and satisfy the desire of every living thing." Nevertheless, it is a hymn to God's generosity and the bounty of creation.

The problem comes, doesn't it, when people (like us) enter the picture, and the gifts of creation are usurped by a few for profit and power at the expense of others. In the course of civilization, what the Christian scriptures call "the world" (we might say, "the way of the world") develops an economy of buying and selling, of commerce and ownership that does not allow all to share equally in access to happiness and security. The "world" becomes not the realm of God, the world of Abba, Jesus's "father" who wants a world of mutual care and interrelationship, but a world run by Caesar, which is to say all the other gods of power and control, status, violence, and hoarded wealth.

Everything Jesus has to say about the reign of God has been, is, to say, "You can make a choice together to turn around and go in another direction. You can be a little yeast in Caesar's dough that's going to corrupt this whole mess; you can be a mustard seed, you don't look like much now, but just wait. All you have to do is turn around. Stop walking to Caesar's drum, go the other way. Believe this good news."

So much of Jesus's ministry, as reported in the gospels, was focused around food and meals, that the memory the Church kept of him after the resurrection loosely followed the ritual dynamics of Jewish mealsharing; that is, food was taken up, blessed, broken, and passed around. Distribution of food to widows and other needy persons was part of the daily life of the New Testament church, and some scholars today suggest that this distribution of free food and the conversations that might take place around the food in the Greek-influenced Mediterranean world might have been the social, evangelical, and eventually liturgical practice of those nascent communities. As we heard in the first reading from Isaiah 55, and is apparent in other passages particularly in Isaiah, one of the enduring metaphors for the arrival of the reign of God was a rich banquet to which everyone is invited.

Furthermore, Hal Taussig, in In the Beginning Was the Meal: Social Experimentation and Early Christian Identity, suggests that one of the core values of Hellenistic mealsharing, the matrix of Christian evangelization, was, even apart from Christian use, fundamentally oriented toward democratic values of equality, philia (friendship), and koinonia (community). These democratic Greek values contrasted with Roman imperial values and so formal meals were therefore under suspicion, particularly in the occupied outposts of the empire. Shared Christian meals, in other words, were for the Christians a way to express their belief in the God of Jesus and the reign of God as sovereign over all others including the emperor's, while for the Romans the same meals were seen as opportunities for and occasions of sedition.

Whatever actually happened in the story described in today's gospel and in the other three gospel's narratives of mass feeding(s), what the church came to see in the miracle of the loaves was an inbreaking of the reign of God, God's bounty visited upon the hungry in so lavish away that not only was there bread for today, but bread for tomorrow as well; not labored for and bought, but given freely, but made possible through the generosity and risk of a few (or the one) who brought forward a few loaves and couple of fish. The time of miracles may or may not be over, but one thing is certain: the instrumentality of human faith, risk, and generosity is still the doorway through which God's reign breaks into the world. The Church's role is not to send the hungry away to fend for themselves, but to listen to the Master's admonition to "Give them some food yourselves." By embracing the risk of personal loss, this paschal meal-sharing may yet push aside the impoverishment and inequality of commercial eating, and make way for the worldwide meal on the hillside where each serves the other the rich wine and marbled meat of the Messiah's feast. As I wrote in one stanza of "One in Love," a song co-written with Tom Kendzia which we're using for communion this week,

As the manna fell, and all had enough,
So at the feast of the Savior all are fed,
As the thousands ate from two tiny fish
And a few shared loaves of bread.

One in heart, one in hope, one in hunger,
With our tears, with our dreams,
In joy and in fear,
Blessed with gifts from our God without number,
We have come to the banquet of life,
Come to the table of Christ,
That all may be one in love.

What we're singing this weekend:

Entrance song: Table of Plenty by Dan Schutte
Kyrie: Mass of St. Aidan
Psalm 34 Taste and See the Goodness of the Lord by Tom Kendzia
Celtic Alleluia O'Carroll/Walker
Preparation Rite: Mission Song  by Rory Cooney
Mass of Creation
Notre Dame Lamb of God Isele
Communion: One in Love Kendzia/Cooney
Sending Forth: I Send You Out Angotti