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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Catching (real) Fire - David Haas's vision for Music Ministry Alive!

A week from Friday evening, St. Anne Catholic Community in Barrington will host an historic concert, if history can be measured in the small world of Catholic liturgical music. In a rare conjunction of schedules between us and a church calendar that requires a spiritual crowbar and WD-40 to pry open, at 8:00 pm on Friday, October 10, David Haas, Fr. J. Michael Joncas, Marty Haugen, Gary Daigle, Terry Donohoo and I, along with a few dozen of our musical associates from St. Anne and St. Edna, will perform a concert to benefit Music Ministry Alive! (MMA).

MMA is David Haas's dream child, now sixteen years old, an annual study week for high school and early college age liturgical musicians, held on the campus of St. Catherine's University in Minneapolis. With a faculty comprised of nationally and locally recognized leaders in the fields of sacred music, theology, and liturgy, MMA embraces a model of apprenticeship and mentoring as it seeks to pass on not just the love of liturgy and music, but the treasure of the gospel and love of Christ from one generation to another. MMA spells out its mission as being "to engage and empower young people to serve as liturgical music leaders in the church." Over its sixteen year history, it has served 2200 young people with a staff of 550 adult leaders. The faculty represents a "who's who" in a wide range of fields that touch on the core area of faith transmission: theologians and scholars like Fr. Michael Joncas, Art Zannoni, Sr. Kathleen Harmon, Sr. Gertrude Foley, and Fr. Ricky Manalo, pastors like Ray East, and a wide range of musicians with expertise in a variety of instruments and disciplines, Lynn Trapp, Rob Strusinki, Rob Glover, Jaime Cortez, Tom Kendzia,  Bonnie Faber, Robyn Medrud, and many, many others.

David and co-director Lori True, campus minister at St. Catherine's, have developed a holistic curriculum for attendees that includes daily morning and evening prayer, workshops and lessons with time for music rehearsals, concerts, general presentations by staff members, faith sharing, scripture study, and a concluding concert open to the public given by the students and faculty together. A unique feature of MMA is an adult track held during the same week in which adult community members can participate with the proviso that there is a youth attendee from their parish attending. The musical requirement is dropped for the adults, so that the adult can participate in a range of topics from music and liturgy to scripture and ministry development.

With national financial support from the bishops' conference and others failing to keep Vatican II-mandated liturgical centers open, and with the loss of other formational efforts like the North American Forum on the Catechumenate, private efforts to form, mentor, and inspire future leaders need to be encouraged. Musical and institutional training alone cannot form liturgical leaders. Young people, and older ones, need to be brought along in a matrix of Christian love, nurtured by scripture and prayer, inspired and enthused by the charism of others and the ministry of the church. We are all called to be part of that effort. I cannot strongly enough support the work of Music Ministry Alive!, and hope that you will consider supporting them as well, whether by attending our concert, making a donation, or finding young people whose path in the Church might be shaped by an encounter like this. Thank you, David and Lori, and all who have given themselves to this project and others like it (I'm thinking of Youth Sing Praise! every summer at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, and I know there are others around the country as well.)

This is how "singing a new church" will happen, person-to-person, sharing faith, grounded in the Word and in prayer, attentive to the gifts and needs of the church and matching one to the other. God wants us to catch the fire from one another. Music Ministry Alive! is one beautiful way we can see it happening.

If you can't make the concert, donate to Music Ministry Alive anyway. Music Ministry Alive! is a non-profit foundation and donations to the program are tax-deductible. For more information, if you or someone you know might be interested in attending next summer, get more information here. Thanks, everyone!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Your word is a lamp unto my feet

If there is any encouragement in Christ,

any solace in love,

any participation in the Spirit,

any compassion and mercy,

complete my joy by being of the same mind,
with the same love,

united in heart, thinking one thing.

Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory;

rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves,

each looking out not for his own interests,

but also for those of others.

Have in you the same attitude

that is also in Christ Jesus,

Who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

something to be grasped.

Rather, he emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave...

Hearing these words in the second reading yesterday made me think about how often they have had an influence on me, and how they form a kind of breadcrumb path through my life from my high school seminary days to the present. There’s a kind of joke among us that the answer to any question in theology is, “It’s the paschal mystery, stupid!” And the only thing that makes it funny is discovering how, as I get older, it’s true, and how it renders a lot of pop psychology and goofy self-help rhetoric of secular theology moot and useless. Still, these are dangerous words, and there is great folly in them until one remembers that they are part of divine revelation, words of faith, and that they mark a path through other theologies and competing wisdom. Paul's words to the Philippians begin, for me, at least, to make sense of the world, and of everything else I know. I expect, for instance, that the pattern of God, life at the heart of what appears to be death, will be found stamped on any discoveries made about energy and matter at the Large Hadron Collider. If the paschal mystery is true, it is true of the quanta as it is in human history.

The place I find myself in my meditation on God and Christ and what that means in my life is right here in Paul’s kenosis hymn in Philippians, and in a sense it has been from about 1969 or ’70. It’s in this place where agape and kenosis meet, where being and doing are the same thing, that I find myself. Christ the Icon, one of my later CDs, is anchored between this thought and another great Pauline insight, that Christ is the icon of the invisible God, the visible reality revealing the invisible, his humanity a created and finite touchstone to the uncreated and infinite. Taken together with the inspired and breath-catching insight we find in Romans and First Corinthians about the community of believers as the mystical body of Christ, that is, the icon or visible representation of the invisible reality of the “glorified” Christ, these passages are the matrix of everything I’ve learned and tried to live, preach, and understand in my life.

It’s not that I know anything at all that everyone else doesn’t know, it’s just that these scriptures have helped me make sense of my life, and have a particular reality for me right now. I’ve come to appreciate the mystery of God as agape, and how that mystery is the same as the mystery of the kenosis of Christ. It is how creation and “redemption” (I don’t really like that word, but you’ll know what I mean, at least) are the same; how the emptying of God in creation and in Christ Jesus are the same. It is how John speaks of the incarnation of the Logos, the washing of the feet of the Twelve at the Last Supper, and the death and resurrection of Jesus with the sending of the Holy Spirit upon the church as all the same movement of God, outward, in self-emptying love, always, from before the first moment of time until beyond the last one.

All of this helps me understand why it’s so hard for me to do the loving thing when it’s so clear that nothing else will make me happy. It helps me invite people into the work and prayer of Christ and not use shame or other kinds of coercion to get them to do what I want. It helps anchor me in my liturgical work, and not get too discouraged when things don’t move the way I want, or quickly enough, because it’s clear to me that my own vision is clouded and everything that moves moves by interdependence and discernment. It helps me learn not to be so competitive, that winning and being right are way overrated, because, let’s face it, if, as Philippians says, “Christ Jesus...did not regard equality with God something to be grasped,” then being right must be pretty low on the cosmic totem pole. Love trumps correctness, kenosis trumps “power.” It helps me see how it is possible to go against the self-help wisdom of the age and agree with St. Paul that it’s all right to “regard others as more important than yourselves,” because that’s the way God is, and therefore it’s the only way to the fullness of life. No self-help book will ever tell you to do what Scripture tells you to do, because only the self-revelation of God lets us see so explicitly that all people have one Abba, all are given part of the family of God through the spirit of Christ, and therefore every other person is equal to me in God’s eyes. By being servant, acting as servant, to others, I am doing the very thing that God did when the Big Bang banged, and when Christ leapt from the divine milieu and “danced for the fishermen.” Ultimately, it helps me to stay focused on the empire of God, and not be fooled by the crazy violence of this world. It seems to me now that violence for violence will never, ever, lead to anything but hell, not because God made it that way, but because it’s the natural consequence of not choosing God, who is life. It also begins to explain divine non-intervention in human affairs except through the peaceful incarnation of Christ and the subversive movement of the divine counterculture represented by the parables: Christ, the thief in the night, coming into Satan’s house to rob him of what he has stolen, to take back God’s own.

I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to write about all that, about my reaction to hearing the kenosis hymn at the liturgy again yesterday. At first, I thought I was going to write a history of my ideas around the five or six moments that have really moved my thought and prayer along since the 1960s. But it seems to have just taken me to try again, as I have so many times already, to draw a map of the spiritual landscape in which I find myself wandering. The land is frightening but familiar; there are signs I’ve been here before and others pointing me in new directions. But there’s no doubt to me that this place is home, proof that the empire of God is very near, as near as the world behind me that I have to turn around to see. Or in Paul Simon’s captivating metaphor, like “a love you discover accidentally /... gently as a pickpocket brushes your thigh.”

Saturday, September 27, 2014

O morn of beauty

Is it you there,
a spirit in your hair,
veil wind-pressed across your eyes,
the desperation and reach of art
caught in the attitude
of your white parasol? 

Happy birthday, Terry. May there be more days as stunning and unforgettable as that one.

I love you. 


(verse from lost poem c. 1989)

Friday, September 26, 2014

Preaching to the choir (again)

Our song today is, "Get on board, little children!"

It’s getting to be CropWalk time again. This year the Barrington Area Crop Hunger Walk is being held on Sunday, October 19, kicking off at St. Paul's UCC, just across Main Street from St. Anne's.

It’s a fairly simple concept: community members of all ages walk the 10K village route, and get pledges from friends and families. Church World Service sponsors these walks all over the country. The money goes to various agencies around the world to support hunger relief, with 25% of the amount raised returned to the local area to help with local anti-hunger programs.

We who have enough to eat are the lucky ones, and I guess it just strikes me that being able to choose what to have for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (and more) is a luxury that a vast number of people in the world do not have. As a Christian, I can’t think out of a scarcity economy. There must be enough in a world created by an abundant God to feed everyone when we begin to understand that this is God’s will for us. It’s only by our ignoring the hunger of others that hunger continues to exist. 
So this is one way that I have of making a small contribution to the effort. If you can, please support the Barrington Cropwalk, or hunger relief in your own area.

If you’d like to make a pledge to my Cropwalk this year, you can visit my pledge page by clicking here.

Otherwise, do not give up hope or become cynical about the possibility, no, the necessity of eradicating hunger and poverty in our lifetime. The only certain failure is the death of hope, and if Christians do not believe in the possibility of the kingdom’s emergence from human solidarity, what good are we? What else can the miracle of the loaves mean, if not that in the reign of God all be fed, by God’s will, through human mediation?

St. Anne Choir Team page. Everybody has their favorite charities and causes, and Lord knows that the politicians and parties have their hands in our pockets this time of year as well. But if you are able and so inclined, please be part of this effort, or some effort, to help feed the hungry. If you can help sponsor the choir in this effort, we'll be there to do the walking, and we'll remember you at mass that Sunday to boot!

Do your little bit of good where you are; its those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.  (Desmond Tutu)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The trouble with change is... (A26O)

...that we think everyone else has to do it but us.

That’s basically Jesus’s issue with the Scribes and Pharisees this weekend. They want him to be quiet, to change his ways, because he’s preaching the reign of God. They want to know, “Where do you get this stuff? Who told you you could say these things?” And Jesus, rather than engage them, answers with a question of his own: “Was John the Baptist from God, or not?” Now, he has them in the quandary spelled out in story. If they say yes, they have to answer why they didn’t heed his call to repent and be baptized. If they say no, then people will rise against them, because as far as the people were concerned, John was indeed from God. So they have to tell him, “We don’t know.” This is a mistake too, because they’re supposed to know; they’re the religious leaders. They do know, I guess, they’re just afraid to say.

This is where Jesus’s dangerous little parable comes in, about the two sons and the father. The father asks them to do what sons are supposed to do: go out and work in the field. One says, “I will,” and doesn’t. He preserves the family’s apparent honor by speaking obedience to his father, but the family’s needs do not get met, because he doesn’t do his work. The second son refuses to go: “I will not,” he says, but later, “he regrets having said this, and goes.” Regret, the sense that the wrong decision was made, leads him to do what his father asked, and therefore do what the family needs.

Which one, says Jesus, did his father’s will? The funny thing is, in the tradition of Scripture, both answers come down in the bible, though only one makes it authentically. There are, in fact, manuscripts of Matthew which have the answer being, “the one who said yes, and did not go.” This is not a “wrong” answer except in the context of the parable. It shows, in fact, how strong the urge for honor and keeping the status quo intact is: for some, including some Christian scribes, it seems, it’s more important to say “I obey” than to do it. But for Matthew in the retelling of the parable, the meaning is otherwise: we want the family’s business to be done. It’s our own welfare that’s at stake. We don’t need someone who says he’ll go to bat for us, we need someone who steps up to the plate. No matter who it is, or what he’s said in the past, we need someone who will actually get out there and do the work.

Once we’ve made that decision, we’ve opened the doorway to change. We have to accept anyone who has said “no” to life before and now says “yes.” The Scribes and priests are trapped. They acknowledge that the one who did the work, even though he had to regret, change, and do other than he had said, is the one who did the father’s, and therefore the family’s, work. They deny themselves, thus, and the tradition that things always have to be the same in religion, mediated the old way through the old rites and persons, and acknowledge that it is changed hearts and new actions on behalf of the family that matter. And so, collaborators, whores, and outsiders of all kinds are going to come into the reign of God because they were given a new chance and said yes; the gatekeepers themselves will find themselves outside because the family’s work was too big for them, the father’s command to labor not in keeping with their plans. The really good news is that there’s time to change, even for us scribes and pharisees. Roll up your sleeves and get into the dirt.

"Turn around and believe in the gospel." It doesn’t have to be the way Caesar says. There’s a new empire in town, or a really, an older one that doesn’t want to oppress you like Caesar does. The emperor is dead; long live God.

Gathering:  Turn Around (Announce the Good News) (Rory Cooney) We actually are working on a new collection of songs, have been for about eight months now, but life keeps happening and we never seem to finish. That's no issue, as you know; there's so much music coming out all the time it's not like there's a dearth of songs. This song is one of the songs in this new batch, one I wrote a couple of years ago on a commission from JustFaith, and with which I'm really happy. I think the call to "turn around," to change, to do something differently, is at the heart of the gospel message today, so it seemed like a good place to start out.
Responsorial Psalm 25:  Remember Your Mercies (Rory Cooney) I wrote this song over 35 years ago, I like to say in my “Burt Bacharach/Carpenters” period. But over the years it has evolved, and I think it still captures the longing we feel for God’s mercy, as well as the confidence we have in divine generosity.
Preparation Rite:  O Beauty Ever Ancient (Roc O’Connor, SJ). Roc got a lot of votes for “the person I’d most like to date” on Facebook, which I find strange, since he’s a Jesuit priest. I suspect certain confreres of his doing this to drive him nuts. But he is a fun guy, and a caring thinker, who continues to bring his love of God and Christ to the music scene. He was on the campus ministry staff at Creighton University for some time, and was the superior of the Jesuit house there. Recently, he has become part of the Jesuit team at the Gesu, the church on the campus of Marquette University in Milwaukee, which makes him almost a neighbor!
Communion:  I Say Yes, My Lord (Donna Peña) I guess I feel that if there were ever a Sunday on which this song is perfect, it's today. Thanks, Donna, for this lovely "digo sí" to God's will.
Sending forth:  Change Our Hearts (Cooney) I think this song reflects the call to change which we hear in the first reading and gospel especially. That'll do it for September! Welcome, Autumn.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

This movie will "Fix You"

My colleague and friend Georgene was the one who introduced us to this movie back in the day when you picked up a CD from your local Hollywood Video, a million years ago, in 2008. Rarely has she gone out of her way to so highly recommend a film, and in this case, I’m happy to say she hit a home run. (This is the trailer on YouTube:)

The movie is called Young @ Heart, and it’s a sweet documentary about a group of septua- and octo- (and a nona-)genarians who started off a few years back as a vaudeville group, and went to rock and roll when one of their members did an improvised "Do Wah Diddy" at a concert. This documentary is about the lead-up to one of their concerts when they're practicing some new music, including "Yes We Can Can" by Allen Toussaint, "I Feel Good" by James Brown, and "Fix You" by Coldplay. Oh gosh, and "Schizophrenia" by Sonic Youth. You’ll see a few music videos of the group during the movie, their version of the Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere,” the Ramones “I Wanna Be Sedated,” and little pieces of “Purple Haze” and “Somebody to Love.” It is a SCREAM! And it's funny and sad and real life stuff. Most of all, it affirms the life-giving, life-sustaining power of music. Trust me on this - you will not regret the 100 or so minutes you spend watching this movie, and you'll think of at least 5 other people who should run out and rent it to. It's a no-brainer. Just do it.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Reclaiming Sunday

Original title: Learning to Unwag the Dog

This article appeared in the January 2014 issue of Pastoral Music, an issue dedicated to a discussion of the "state of the question" about the future of the RCIA and music's role in it.

My son’s girlfriend recently became a member of a sorority at the University of Nebraska where they are enrolled. She took part in the weeklong rush and all the Greek events that were part of that, and was accepted as a Tri Delta, and was ebullient about it. The sorority (L., “sisterhood”) is a social and philanthropic group to which one belongs for life, it appears. I was so struck at her joy in belonging, her pride in membership, and seriousness about their charity work on behalf of  Children’s Cancer research.

Of course, it made me start a mental “compare and contrast” with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). What’s the same about joining a church and a sorority or civic club? What’s different? What’s the same about the recruitment process? What’s different? A lot of that falls outside of the scope of an article about “what’s ahead” for the rites and music, but the answers, or the inquiry at least, will shape the way we approach the question. Ultimately, this is because the future of the rites, including the music, has less to do with what ends up in the book or even how that book is translated, and more to do with how we actually do them in the parishes. Liturgy is what we’re actually doing, not what’s in the book.

What is clear to me about the current state of the Rite is that there are a lot of Catholics out there who are passionate about its implementation, and who work very hard in their ministries of welcome, catechesis, and liturgy to keep traffic moving in both directions through the doors of the church: outward, to seek out and connect with people interested in coming to Christ or to pursuing the Catholic path of Christianity, and inward, welcoming those who come seeking Christ and apprenticing them with the gifts of the community in order to form the strong bonds that will be sacramentalized in the formal rites of initiation. At the same time, fiscal and cultural forces converged in a way that spelled the demise of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate in mid-2013, leaving a gaping hole yet to be filled in the church’s visioning and training of initiation ministers. Some, like Nick Wagner and Diana Macalintal of San Jose, CA, with their “” website and resources, have stepped into the breach, but a broad organization fueled by the single-mindedness and passion of the Forum has not yet emerged.

Most of us have first-hand success stories of initiation ministry. One of the most wonderful for me is Randy, a fellow whom I see every Sunday because he plays drums at the main choir mass at St. Anne’s. Randy was baptized the same year my son Desi was, and in addition to his weekly contributions as a music minister has served for the last several years as a sponsor for new Catholics himself. It’s those two connections, the connection to Sunday worship and the interpersonal connection, the commitment to be-with others as a manifestation of our awareness that we are an initiating community, that I would like to point to as the future of the RCIA for us in church ministry, particularly in music.

See, it’s not hard to provide music for the rites of initiation. We have a lot of specialized resources in a wide range of musical styles. We have the ability to adapt music we already know into shorter acclamations and refrains and litanies that can be used to foster participation in the rites of initiation. The critical issue, the issue that will make or break the future of the RCIA in our communities, is whether we can connect the parish community that does the singing on Sundays with the rites that we celebrate together. How can we learn to be what we sing? How can we help awaken one another to the reality that singing together is a metaphor, even more, a sacramental sign, of a way of being together in the world, working together, welcoming together, feeding together, learning together, supporting one another? It’s here that church, initiating church or worshipping church, will ultimately succeed or fail. We don’t exist as church to have a good time or even to offer what we imagine to be beautiful or meaningful worship. We’ve been gathered here to announce the reign of God, and renew the face of the earth.

Put another way, the question in the light of both the “new” and the original evangelization is: initiation into what? Or even more precisely for Christians, into whom? What kind of organism are we? Benevolent, like Elks? Altruistic and social, like a sorority? Secretive and elitist like gnostics? Territorial, counter-cultural, and committed to each other, like a street gang? The answer to that question will shape the way we initiate.

So the first step that we might want to start dreaming for the future might be remembering in our parish leadership groups who we are, who we have been called to be, in our Christian life. We might want to stop trying to find ourselves, as it were, and start losing ourselves in gospel life. For us musicians and people involved in parish liturgy, it means recovering Sunday as Sabbath, as the Lord’s day. Sabbath is not the day of just any Lord. It is the day of a God who wants to be known and worshipped and loved (i.e., lived) as Abba, as the head of a household of brothers and sisters who care for one another not as equals, but as people who try to outdo each other as servants. “Equality” is too timid a goal for us. We should pass “equal” on the way down, as it were, so that as God’s people, as people who imitate the one who did not even cling to equality with God as something to be grasped, we are willing to serve at the cost of equality and personal borders.

Sunday should be reshaped in this way. Preachers should focus on the core gospel message of an alternative offered by the reign of God to “business as usual” in the world. Music should suit the style of the parish but care should be taken that there is a prophetic and New Testament attitude in the texts that offers both comfort and challenge, that acknowledges the presence and absence of God, that proclaims both belonging and mission, and that humbly acknowledges that the manifestation of divine “power” in the world is not like the power of the age but is seen in acts of self-emptying love and service. Everything else, literally, has to go.

It is a different world from when folks of my generation were children, and I don’t want to go back there. But another place we should pay attention to is the infantilization of prayer, preaching, and worship. The gospel is for grown-ups. Yes, children belong in the mix. Formation for children is important to the church. But the way that children will get the message is by the behavior of adults. Bored adults, unengaged adults, non-participating, unchallenged adults, adults who don’t claim the gospel or mention it outside the walls of the church, will only block the growth of children in the gospel way. Recovery of Sunday means recovering the alternative life that Jesus invites: turn away from sin, and believe the good news. This does not mean that we should wallow in obscure, archaic language in prayer or fire and brimstone preaching. It means announcing, in plain language, story, rite, and music, the course of the reign of God and how it goes in the opposite direction of the way we, most of us, are going in life, caught in the flow of our culture and the gods that it really worships. Children will follow as children do. Adults have to lead the way.

So recovery of Sunday is the primary work that needs to be done, by musicians, liturgists, the ordained, and the people of God, to prepare a future for the rites of initiation.  Necessary for that are a reimagining of who we are and where we are going, shaping music and rite to foster that imagination, and beaming a clear signal by our gathering and life that will call people of good will to join us in the mission of Jesus.

This means nothing less than starting with the baptismal promises and working backward through the rites of initiation to prepare people to make them. And for those of us who have already made those promises and renewed them dozens of times at Easter, it will probably mean doing the same, and then triaging our praxis and habits to scrape away the personalistic bias of our American heritage and coming to a new appreciation both for communal grace and the weight of social sin. The baptismal renunciations and promises are nothing other than a response to the invitation of Jesus to “turn away from sin and believe the good news.” Being explicit about what that means will change the celebration of Sunday, of the liturgical year, parish ministry, allocation of time and other resources, and, of course, initiation practice.

In a stunning article in Worship (2007, Vol. 81, no. 5, pp 409-425), David Batchelder of West Plano Presbyterian Church in Plano, Texas, submitted an interpretation for the twenty-first century of those promises. Called "Baptismal Renunciations: Making Promises We Do Not Intend to Keep," Batchelder asks hard questions of our baptismal practice and the communities that are entrusted with passing on the faith:
Does the evidence show that the baptized and baptizing community is renouncing sin and evil or participating in it?
I worry that our communities have learned to practice a way of speaking ritually that not only permits false witness at the font, but establishes it as the norm. (page 411)
He urges us to “name names” as we approach those promises, and he begins to encase those names in the renunciations. I would suggest that this sort of thing might better be relegated to the celebrations of the scrutinies and tied by explicit catechesis (and/or mystagogy) to the baptismal promises, but his point is well taken. He doesn’t pull any punches, either, and asks questions not often posed in my church, nor, I imagine, in yours.
Do you renounce all attempts to equate the Gospel of Christ with the American dream?
Do you renounce the power of the economy to define human value by what you consume and produce?
Do you renounce the pursuit of national security at the expense of global security for this world God loves? (page 422)
I know. I’m not there either. But being worried about what songs to sing when these questions aren’t being addressed is just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We seem to have a Pope who understands that doxology (right worship) is more than fancy words and expensive vesture, but is rather the action of a people infected with the subversive joy of the empire of God. Forming that people, teaching them to pray, teaching them right worship, will require more of us than organ technique or guitar or vocal virtuosity. Even the pagans have those. Forming new Christians well means that us old Christians need to receive and live the gospel anew. Otherwise, we should leave the initiation to street gangs, fraternal organizations, and sororities.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

TBT (2008) - "At the Feet of the Master"

Looking through some old files, I found this little post I wrote for an earlier incarnation of a blog back in 2008. So much has changed in six years, but more about that after you hear about an evening with the great Gene Wolfe and friends at a nearby second-hand bookstore of happy memory...

Last evening I was at the bookstore my daughter Claire manages with her friend and empress, Katie Redding, for a reading from a new novel by local auteur celebré Gene Wolfe. Gene is a congenial and garrulous tree trunk of a man, a lover of words and a storehouse of fascinating and often delightfully useless information. His genre is fantasy and science fiction, and in that literary world, he is a god. Critics cannot find superlatives superlative enough to describe his novels and stories, so it does my heart no end of good that this lovely man, most of ten years ago when we did not know each other well, took my daughter Claire, a fledgling writer in the genre with dreams of being something like Ursula K LeGuin meets H. P. Lovecraft, as something like a sorcerer’s apprentice. As far as I can tell, this arrangement, for whatever literary effect it might have had upon Claire’s writing, has blossomed into a terrific friendship between the two of them and Gene’s delightful wife Rosemary, who worships the ground upon which Gene walks.

How does this fit into a liturgical musician’s blog, you might ask? I’m glad that thought crossed your mind, because I was just about to tell you. Gene and Rosemary are parishioners at St. Anne. They are almost always at the 9:00 mass on Sunday, almost always in the same general area of our church, seated across the aisle from the music ministry. Rosemary sometimes erupts into single-minded applause if she happens to like a song we sing at the preparation of the gifts. In 1999, when the parish was planning various aspects of a millennium celebration, Gene and I worked on a committee together to prepare a “midnight mass” on New Year’s Eve with a champagne celebration following, and it might have been during this time that we connected (as artists?) and became friends.

Well, what all this is leading to is this: Claire briefly introduced Gene to the modest group that huddled in a circle in the tiny open space at the front of the quaintly cluttered shop that is Top Shelf Books of Palatine. Then Gene informed us that, though Claire had suggested that he read chapter eleven of his new work, An Evil Guest, he intended to read chapter seven. I thought nothing of this; a disagreement among friends, and since one of the friends is the author and guest, he wins. But get this: he’s reading along in chapter seven when our heroine whose name seems to be Cassie Casey is asked to sing a song by her dresser. And what song does she break into? Well, don’t take my word for it: here’s the excerpt:

“I’ll try to get the tune right, Miss Casey. It’s such a lovely song, but I’m not good with tunes unless I have the music.” She sang, her voice quavering a bit on the high notes. When she had finished, Cassie applauded.

Smiling gratefully, Margaret said, “Now let’s hear you sing it, Miss Casey. You can’t help but be better than I was.”

Cassie stood and coughed to clear her throat: a soft, apologetic sound.

“As close as tomorrow the sun shall appear,

Freedom is coming, and healing is near.”

“Louder, Miss Casey!”

“And I shall be with you in laughter and pain,

To stand in the wind and walk in the reign,

 To walk in the reign.”

The song seemed to fill her, a host of angels caroling through the corridors of her mind.

“The sower is planting in acres unseen

The seeds of the future, the field of God’s dream.

Those meadows are humming, though none sees them rise.

The name of the sower is God of Surprise.

God of Surprise....”

    from An Evil Guest, by Gene Wolfe. © 2008 Published by Tor Books, NY, NY.
Gene had asked me over a year ago, I think, about using part of a song, and of course that’s not within my authority to do, since I don’t own those copyrights. However, I did ask my publisher for him, and Alec Harris, the president of GIA, was more than happy to give his approval, since he is a fan of Gene’s himself! But I never gave it another thought, right up to the moment when Gene started reading my lyrics in his book! How about that. I mean, I can see a sci-fi writer using a hymn or church song in his book with some irony in it, but this was about as clean and lovely as it could be, and Gene further explained at the reading that he settled on the text because of the element of “surprise,” which keeps popping up in the narrative.

So what can I say? Buy his book! Then come to Barrington and I’ll take you to his house, we’ll pick up him and the Mrs., and go have some lunch so he can autograph it for you. To buy all of his books, you’d need a couple of suitcases; Gene has been at it for many, many years. If it’s too dear to buy them new, we can stop in Palatine at Top Shelf, and Claire and Kate or their accomplices will scour the shelves for used copies, which he will gladly sign with the same flair, probably throwing in a quip or a story gratis.
Claire and Gene at our Barrington house, with Desi,
at Claire's 21st birthday, 2002.
Sigh. In the intervening years, both Gene and the irrepressible Rosemary had some health issues, which Gene was able to navigate, but Rosemary was not. To make her transition easier, Gene moved their homestead west to their native Peoria, where she died in December 2013, and was buried from the same church in which they had been married over five decades earlier.

Claire is hardly a "fledgling" writer now, with several stories, poems, and novellas published and anthologized and her own page on And Katie Redding sold Top Shelf Books in the interim, moved on with her life, and now Top Shelf is no more. So I have two fewer artists, at least, with whom to hobnob on (at least) a weekly basis, whose enthusiasm and cleverness was a source of inspiration and gratitude.

What I have is those words I wrote in those days, about one evening, to remember them by, and to kindle hope for a reprise. Just one night among the 7,000 or so I've had in Barrington and environs over the last twenty-plus years, crammed full of memory and longing, treasure and loss.

Time to get on with this Thursday. Enough throwing-back. Avanti!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Surprise of "Right and Just" (A25O)

The first reading this Sunday, a short piece of Isaiah 55, connects us back to the Easter Vigil where most of chapter 55 is read. Another snippet of this chapter was read a few weeks ago as the “firestarter” in the liturgy of the word whose gospel is the parable of the sower. Today, however, the emphasis is different, as the gospel will echo backwards to the word “generous,” and as always, when we encounter parables of the reign of God, the deceptively simple statement that
my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
As high as the heavens are above the earth,
so high are my ways above your ways
and my thoughts above your thoughts.
It would be great if we dealt with this reality a little more, if there were a little more preaching about the unexpectedness of the dominion of God. Virtually all of our instinctive reactions to one another: jealousy, revenge, punishment, competitiveness, even charity and altruism, are simply not a part of God’s nature or vocabulary.

Theological note: as I’m writing this, I am painfully aware of the inadequacy of anything I say to do any better to describe God than anything else. Even the best human statements, Rahnerian, Gandhian, Thomistic, are shadows of the reality, distant echoes of the truth. The best we can do is really grapple with the reality of Jesus, who is by faith the sacrament of the invisible God. Whatever we say about God cannot contradict that reality, which is why I think the liturgy is as remiss in continuing to call God “Deus Sabaoth” in the eucharistic prayer as in using the divine name “YHWH” in some of its songs.

Language just fails us in the description of God or even the trails the dominion of God leaves among us. Words like “lord,” “kingdom,” and even “right” and “just” are left in the dust because they have been used for so long to describe human enterprises and qualities that the baggage they bring to a consideration of the divine simply overwhelm the conversation. This is why the gospel says that the reign of God “is not like the kingdoms of this world,” and why St. Paul points, with the gospel, toward a crucified Jew when he means “lord,” and not to the only apparent “lord and god” of the time, Caesar Claudius (or Nero). Jesus, of all people, traveling the diaphanous boundaries between the “reign of God” and the lives of ordinary people, and somehow intuiting that he had to impart to us a way of re-imagining life without the restrictive categories of human judgment, value, and the whole patron-client / dominant-subject framework of human economy and intercourse, needed to find a vocabulary and semiotic system that would allow him to undercut the discussion. His life and teaching needed to sow the seeds of doubt about “the way things have always been.” In short, he needed a way of subverting the dialogue of civilization itself, of giving us a new way of discourse for an option to Caesar, a kingdom not like those of this world. And so he turned to story, and particularly to the parable.

Sunday’s gospel is one of those unsettling parables, one that sets God’s justice up not as we would have it, but as a way of invitation and equality. “What is right” in the parable turns out to be a place to work, a daily wage, and a beneficent vineyard owner who pays everyone who answers the invitation enough for their daily bread. But it’s the invitation and the response to it that matter the most; it is the vineyard owner who is at the center of the story. It is chilling to recall the last line of the parable, spoken to those who came earliest to work, and who demanded human “justice,” that is to say, less for those who worked less, more for those who worked longer, “take what is yours and go.” Justice, it turns out, isn’t enough. None of us has enough. It is the invitation into the vineyard that matters. To imagine that some of us should have “more” because we got there first, or worked harder, or said prayers in Latin, or prayed with guitars, or were good Catholics from childhood, or “got it” as adults: irrelevant. God matters, the kingdom matters. All else will be given to you besides. We can’t earn it.

The implication is that we need to begin to understand that our relationships need to be free-flowing and utterly generous and inviting, and not feeble “trickle-down” counterfeits of generosity and agape. When we stop inviting and start demanding, we stop living kingdom lives. When stop being glad for the motley crew in the vineyard and start grumbling about the ones who aren’t like us, we stop living kingdom lives. When we stop being grateful, and start imagining we have some kind of right to more than everyone else, we’ve stopped living kingdom lives. This is why, I’m sure, the proclamation that “the reign of God is close by” is always preceded or followed by, “reform your lives,” or “turn in the other direction,” and believe in the good news. It’s not good news unless it’s good news for everybody.

Here’s what we’re singing at St. Anne this weekend:

Gathering: Gather Us In, (Marty Haugen, GIA)
Psalm 25 "Remember Your Mercies". (Rory Cooney, OCP) This is the proper psalm for next week, and in the common psalter. With the Isaiah reminder that God's ways and thoughts are high above ours, we remind the Holy One, in his own words, to take it easy on us while we catch up.
Gifts: A Place at the Table (Music by Lori True, words by Shirley Erena Murray) I confess to having mixed feelings about this song, but I'm not the one who feels displaced, either, and feel that it might be best to put my own critique aside and see how it goes. The lyric goes to some worthy and daring places ("abuser, abused, with need to forgive") but sometimes too facilely for my taste. The chorus, "And God will rejoice when we are creators of justice and joy" may be true, but sounds a little pretentious with the effusive, optimistic melody. Still, de gustibus non (Anglo-Saxon expletive deleted) disputandis, and a lot of people around the country really like this song. We'll give it our best shot.
Communion: One in Love (music by Tom Kendzia, text by Rory Cooney, OCP)
Recessional: Canticle of the Turning (Rory Cooney, GIA) The parabolic motif of the day is the overturning of our expectations about God which, in turn, can overturn the world and "the way we've always done it." Can't beat the Magnificat for that kind of theology.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Something to Sing About

This was a surprise, the lovely "As One Who Serves"
award from the parish. (Don't worry. I know. Lk. 17:10) 
When this day was suddenly coming together last month, and the various Sundays options were being considered, once my colleagues saw that this feast, the Exaltation of the Cross was one of the options, well, the jokes started writing themselves. Having been a cross to them and to many of you at one time or another for two decades, it may be a while before I hear the end of it. So I am not going to talk about myself any more than I can help it. I’m going to talk about you, and about my experience of Christ and God, and how those two are the same thing. Then later, you can talk about how listening to me was like the cross, and we’ll have a homily.

All of this was precipitated by my 20th anniversary this past February as a staff member at St. Anne, and by the recognition I received this past summer from the National Association of Pastoral Musicians as their Pastoral Musician of the year, an honor I share with about 40 other people you’ve never heard of. Marty Haugen(1), another former recipient, told me to enjoy it - “Here’s your award. Now go away.”

But this is really all about you, of course, and also about St. Jerome in Phoenix where I served for 10 years before here. A pastoral musician without a congregation is like worse than the tree falling in the woods without anyone to hear it. The tree, at least, exists - the pastoral musician without a community doesn’t. I can say, at least, that I’ve been pretty consistent about showing up, and Woody Allen once said that showing up is 80% of success in life. Trying to inspire other people to show up is part of my job.

See, being a pastoral musician is about calling people to participation. Pete Seeger, talking about his career, is quoted in the documentary The Power of Song as saying, "I've never sung anywhere without giving the people listening to me a chance to join in. As a kid, as a lefty, as a man touring the U.S.A. and the world, as an oldster. I guess it's kind of a religion with me. Participation. That's what's going to save the human race.” At the concerts that my wife Terry, Gary Daigle and I have given, we always pass out programs with our songs so people can sing along, and we’re careful to say that the art of liturgical music isn’t what is written on the page, or how cantors and choirs can sing them, but how congregations can sing them and own them and internalize the gospel while expressing their lives of faith in those songs. Like that pastoral musician without a congregation, liturgical song doesn’t exist when it’s not actually being sung by the people of God at prayer. It might be music, but it’s not liturgical music.

But more importantly, participation in church music is a sacrament of participation in Christian life. What we like to say is that we sing when we have something to sing about. Win or lose, mostly the latter, the 7th inning stretch at Wrigley field is a good example of secular liturgical singing, as is the nearly forgotten but wildly fun singing of “Go Cubs Go” after a victory. We're together, it's a beautiful park, we're at a baseball game, we're not at work. That's something to sing about. Everyone participates. No one questions the virtuosity even of the celebrity "cantors," some of whom are pitiable in their tunelessness. It doesn't matter.

What we Christians have to sing about, win or lose, is that God is with us in the winning and the losing, especially in the losing. In our loss, God is there in a particular concrete way when we are there for one another. So the call to participation is wider than just getting people to sing. It's a vocation to invite people into gospel life.
Terry came to three of the masses, and
Gary Daigle and Marcy Weckler-Barr played Sunday evening.
It's no secret that Terry's the "secret" to whatever success I can claim.

So the success of music in this parish or any parish isn’t the size of the choir, or the virtuosity of the cantors or instrumentalists, or how few wrong notes are played (thank God). Not that virtuosity is in any way a bad thing. It’s just that success in worship is not about the music at all, or the vestments, homily, or building. The “success” of liturgy is judged by what’s going on the other 167 hours of the week in the neighborhood, in our households, and businesses. It's about you, us, and what we do, and what we are becoming, and whom we are helping. That’s the kind of God we have, the God we worship. Not interested in praise, the God of Jesus is interested in agape, how we love one another.

I believe that I came to this ministry here as a result of my baptism. It’s as simple as that. God put me where I needed to be to learn what I had to learn, and sometimes I paid attention. I just kept showing up. In my life I’ve been surrounded by good teachers, holy women and men, great and generous musicians and singers, many of whom are here in this parish.

I firmly believe in the model of Church that St. Paul extols in 1 Corinthians. If there is a need in the church, there’s somebody out there with a charism or a gift from God that will fill that need. That’s why I always say, If you need something in here, ask for it. I think we needed each other in 1993, and the Holy Spirit saw to it that we found each other, 1500 miles away. That the Holy Spirit did it through Courtney Murtaugh(2) proves that God works in mysterious ways.

I said I was going to talk about you. Thank you for welcoming me here in the coldest, snowiest winter this desert dweller could have imagined back in February 1994.  Thank you, Courtney Murtaugh, for seeking me out at NPM in St. Louis and introducing me to Fr. Jack and Clem Aseron and Jim Condill (3). If I keep naming names, it will only make things longer and increase the distance between us and the Eucharist and the carbohydrates, both simple and complex, that await us afterward. Thank you to my colleagues for calling me out on the Catholic sin of needing to be right all the time, though I come by it honestly after 12 years of Catholic school and seminary, because I’m not right all the time, and I don’t like even saying that out loud but it’s true and I’m trying to get used to it. Thank you for the example of your faith, your faith in suffering, your commitment to the poor, your open hearts and homes. Thank you to the choir, cantors, and musicians who make you think I'm better than I am, and who prove that the "whole is greater than the sum of the parts we’re made of." Thank you for your kids in the choirs who are now doctors and actors and teachers and MBAs and lawyers. Thank you for your generosity of time and talent and money. Thank you for St. Gelasius, St. Columbanus, St. Frances of Rome, House of Hope, the food pantry in Carpentersville, the Christians of Uganda and Congo and India and Guatemala(4) and God knows where else where your worship is transformed into real life for real people. Thank you for showing up, thank you for singing, thank you for believing that the dwelling place of God is with the human race, that on this mountain, this little mountain in Barrington, Illinois, a block north of Main Street between US 14 and US 59, on this mountain the Lord of hosts will provide a banquet of rich fare for all peoples. (5)

If, as we celebrate today, love can change the cross from a symbol of terror,  torture, treason, shame, and death into a symbol of healing, forgiveness, community, and life, think what love can do with us. We have been marked with the cross, over and over, from baptism to the grave. Let us glory in the cross of Christ. God so loved the world that he sent his only son, and God sends us, his adopted daughters and sons, that it might have life.That’s a magnificent vocation. Let’s keep showing up for that. Let’s participate in that, both in this assembly and in the rest of life.

God is here, God is love. As impossible as it sounds, God is saving the world through us.

That is something worth singing about.

(1) Bob Hurd and Paul Inwood made almost identical comments.
(2) Courtney is my friend and the former director of liturgy at St. Anne, a great colleague for many years.
(3) Fr. Jack Dewes was pastor, now emeritus, of St. Anne. Clem Aseron was associate director of liturgy, and Jim Condill a deacon and longtime resident of Barrington.
(4) These are a few of the ongoing ministries and outreach projects the parish has taken up and sustained, some for decades.
(5) This verse from Isaiah is on the book held by Jesus on the icon that dominates the sanctuary and worship space in the church.

Friday, September 12, 2014

SongStories 37: Let Us Go to the Altar of God

Since I'm writing this on the 13th anniversary of 9/11, I thought I'd share a song that reminds me of my conflicted heart whenever the winds of war start blowing, and politicians speak of evildoers, and the process of demonization begins. This song is more than that to me, of course, but in the way the life gradually exposes one's personal history as part of the story of the world, I connect it with the war with Iraq and all the ensuing trouble.

I wrote this song on a commission from the publisher, World Library Publications/J.S. Paluch. The company had offered a commission as a prize in a contest for parishes. The parish could choose the composer, and give some specifications about what kind of song they wanted to have. The parish was St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Columbus, Ohio, whose music director was Charlee Hathaway. This song appeared in the collection Christ the Icon, and I wrote a little about it already on that page, which is here.

The lyric came to me gradually as I walked through Citizens' Park and Barrington's back roads in 2004, and there were a lot of events that influenced its writing. As a way of getting into this, I think I'll write the lyrics a couple of verses at a time, and give some background as I go along. That's a different approach than I usually take, but it seems appropriate today.

Who will fight my fight
When the mob surrounds?
Who will be my light
When the sun goes down?
Who will be my song
When by death I’m bound?
I will go to the altar of God.

Who will find a way?
Who can rescue me,
Caught between the Pharaoh
And hungry sea?
Though I’m sick and broken,
Alone, unfree,
I will go to the altar of God.

Let us go, let us go,
To gather with friend and with foe.
On the mount ahead
There’s a banquet spread:
Let us go to the altar of God.

What I've done as the song starts out is say what's going on with me personally. In this case, I'm wondering about the process of scapegoating that arises from our violent nature, a motif that comes out of my spiritual reading of Rene Girard and James Alison. At the same time, I was dealing with a new reality in my life, a diagnosis of prostate cancer. I was writing this song in the late summer and early fall of 2004. In July, I had received the diagnosis, and we had set up surgery for December of that same year. This was a deeply felt, radically humanizing return-to-earth for me. Nothing quite disabuses one of any aspirations to immortality like a cancer diagnosis. But I felt it was all right to inject this into the text of a liturgical song. What I had discovered already was that I was not alone, and that people in my community were coming out of the woodwork in solidarity as cancer sufferers and survivors, surrounding me with the presence of Christ. "Sick, broken, alone, unfree" as I might feel, my community assures me that "alone," at least, was an illusion.

When the winds of war
Thru the land increase,
When they call your children
My enemies,
Where will I draw strength
To proclaim your peace?
I will go to the altar of God.

Though the fields of death
Lie the world about,
From the cross, Christ is breathing
His Spirit out,
Til the millions lost,
With the living, shout:
I will go to the altar of God.

Let us go, Let us go,
To gather with friend and with foe.
On the mount ahead
There’s a banquet spread:
Let us go to the altar of God.

Since 9/11/01, the United States had occupied Iraq and war there had been ongoing. Early in 2004, the CIA had admitted that there was in fact no evidence of "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq, which had been the premise for going to war in the first place. Our emotions as a nation had run high after the attack on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and perhaps an unsuccessful attempt at the Capitol. In a sense, battling an enemy without land, without a city, and with an incomprehensible (to us) ideology, our leadership had allowed itself to strike out blindly at clearer, if unrelated, targets. To me, as a Christian, the hubris and criminality of this seemed immense, especially with the accompanying civil rhetoric demonizing the opposition as "evildoers" with no admission of any national complicity in the problems that gave rise to al Qaeda and other anti-western movements. It's not that this emotional overreaction is unexpected. To me, it was just that it was a source of wonder that there wasn't a more moderated counter-reaction from my church, its leaders, and, I suppose, me. Christianity is hard enough. It's impossible if we don't stand together.

Send forth your light and your truth,
And lead us to your holy mountain.
O joy of our years and our youth,
O hear us, come near us,
And bring us to you!

And if I should stray
From all I hold dear,
And I’m left alone
With my shame and fear,
Where will sun shine warm,
Streams of hope run clear?
I will go to the altar of God.

Though I act in ways
I don’t understand,
Though my heart be dry
As the desert sand,
I’ll press on and sing,
Loving your command:
I will go to the altar of God.

Let us go, Let us go,
There to gather with friend and with foe.
On the mount ahead
There’s a banquet spread:
Let us go to the altar of God.

"Let Us Go to the Altar of God," by Rory Cooney. Lyrics copyright © 2005 World Library Publications, Franklin Park, IL.

At the end, after a prayer that harkens back to the first line's echo of Psalm 43, asking that God shine light on our wandering and lead us to the path to which we have all been called, I return to personal musing, aware that my inaction makes me as complicit as anyone else in the mess the world is in. It is a fine line between delusion and Marxian "opiate of the people" on the one hand, and hope for transformation through prayer, scripture, community, and solidarity on the other. But "escape" into the community of believers, gathered around the cross and the book, isn't escape at all. It might be retreat, or reinforcement, but we know that there is strength there, in the gathering, the story, and the shared meal. Starting with a "Kyrie eleison," we acknowledge the rule of the servant Christ, the crucified one, and seek the courage together to pursue the path that we cannot seem to take alone. The personal musing of "I will go..." again morphs into the "Let us go..." invitation. I hope that movement from "I" to "us" is psalmic, and brings you, and all of us, to a place where we can gather without fear, without violence, together with our enemies, and find common ground as we dine together on the Lord's mountain.

Click to audition or download the song Let Us Go to the Altar of God from the iTunes store.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Jesus and Constantine at the Cross-roads (Exaltation of the Cross)

Here I go again with the cross. Like it's important or something! It’s in all the gospels, it’s in all the letters, it keeps coming up on Sunday, we’re forever making the sign of the cross on ourselves and anything that moves (or doesn’t move). We make the cross with water and oil, thumbs and hands, we stamp it on our bread, embroider it on our clothes, carry it on Sunday, look at it over the altar, wear it around our neck. It’s everywhere. It's strange, too, like we would wear a gilded replica of a canister of cyanide around our neck, or wear a diamond noose brooch, or hang a picture of a firing squad over our living room couch.

Sunday, September 14, is the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. And we have to stretch a little bit to see it as a fortunate play on words, because the feast celebrates the paschal mystery, yes, like all Sundays do, but it particularly celebrates the finding of the true cross by the emperor Constantine. You know the story: in his quest to become the sole regent of the Roman empire, Constantine, son of one of the tetrarchs, marched on Rome to conquer it. The night before the Battle of Milvian Bridge, happily, for the victor, the anniversary of his accession to the throne as well, Constantine claimed (says the biographer Eusebius in one of two versions of the story he tells, and there are others) to have had a dream in which he saw a sign in the sky which he interpreted to be the chi-rho (the Greek letters X and P, the first two letters of Xpistos, "anointed" or Christ, with the words below it, “Εν Τούτῳ Νίκα”, often rendered in the Latin In hoc signo vinces, i.e., “in this sign you shall conquer.” Allegedly, Constantine had his forces paint the sign on their armor, and they won. And from the Crusades through (at least) the Second World War, the cross has been painted on weapons to guarantee the victory of the wearer. Thus do the innocent and guilty alike continue to perish by the cross. Eight years after the battle of Milvian Bridge, Constantine’s sainted mother, Helena, discovered the “true cross” of Christ in the Holy Land on September 14, 325. It is this discovery, and the cross’s veneration at the great shrines of Christianity in the east and west, that evolved into the feast we celebrate today.

There are a couple of things about which we might take heart here. Saint Helena was both a divorcee and a late convert (at 60) to Christianity. She’s the patron saint of archaeologists, by the way, even though there is evidence that it was not she who discovered the cross, but that she happened to be in the right place at the right time. Her son, the Emperor Constantine, in spite of all his bloodlust and ambition, and his deathbed baptism, is also a saint. How about that? What does that teach us? That sainthood is not about us, or what we do, or what we’re capable of, it’s about God’s love for us. Sinners today, take heed: you are the saints of tomorrow. That's what God does. (See today's gospel, John 3:16)

Fortunately for preachers and musicians, little of the imperial pomp and strategy of warlords has found its way into the liturgy of this feast, which, like Holy Thursday, begins with the Nos oportet antiphon: “We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, life, and resurrection” (Gal. 6:14). The second reading, as it is on Good Friday, is the kenosis hymn from the letter to the Philippians.  Taken with the title of the feast of the “exaltation” of the cross, we have what amounts to an amplification of the normal Sunday irruption of the paschal mystery, what feels like a little Easter in September. (It’s actually rather that Easter is a “big Sunday,” but you get my point!) Again, we are called to remember the cross itself as a sign of victory; not of imperial victory through force, but of divine victory through kenosis, creation, agape.

This week, as we recall our pain and shock on 9/11/01, we'll be surely be seeing those iconic beams from the Twin Towers that loomed in the aftermath, and became a flashpoint for controversy in the succeeding years. While it became identified with the selflessness and heroism of the many first responders who lost their lives in rushing to help those trapped in the towers before the unspeakable denouement of the tragedy, and helped to console some of the families of the victims and the nation, those twin beams quickly became a symbol of division, claimed by adherents of American civil religion and a vocal Christian plurality. As such, it became not a symbol of forgiveness but of revenge, not of the community of all peoples but of American exceptionalism. Enemies of the American state became "evildoers" even as it became clear that torture and the brutal collateral damage of "shock and awe" were part of the strategy of those Americans who invoked God's name between flag and cross.

Somewhere along the line, it never occurred to us that "crusade" and "jihad" were the same dynamic. Just depends on what puts the "holy" in "holy war."

I'll never forget that amid all the tears, shock, and anger of that terrible weekend in 2001, every Christian church using the Common Lectionary, including every Catholic church in this country, heard from Luke's gospel the parable of the two lost sons. If the cross that bore the weight of Jesus, the cross that showed that "God so loved the world that he gave his only son, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him," if that cross can transform war into peace, prejudice into solidarity, violence into tenderness and care, then finally it will be the exaltation of the cross, and the transformation of its meaning will be complete. In place of exceptionalism, kenosis. In place of destruction, creation. In place of revenge, agape. In this world, Lord. Please. Soon.

Here’s what we’re singing at St. Anne this weekend:

Gathering: Glory in the Cross by Dan Schutte, of course, and we’ll sing the Easter verses, though it’s a tough call. He did a nice job on each set of verses he wrote for this song. He plays on the nos oportet text, and expands it so that we think about the whole mystery of God as we reflect on the Jesus and the cross. Last time this feast happened on a Sunday, I made a note to myself that it would have been fitting to have done a sprinkling rite, ritually and visually connecting the cross and baptism, reinforced with preaching. By a strange quirk of fate, I'm "preaching" (i.e., offering a reflection) this Sunday. My note from last time will become this time's reality. 
Psalm 138, "On the Day I Called," by Rory Cooney (OCP), with the antiphon "Faithful God, we praise you for your love; do not forget us now."  Since this feast doesn’t always fall on a Sunday (the last time was 2003), we don’t have a setting of Psalm 78 that we use very much. Since Psalm 78 is about not forgetting the mercy of God, I substituted Psalm 138 which we used last month on one of the Sundays of Ordinary time.
Preparation Rite: Faithful Cross, by Tom Kendzia, text by Rory Cooney. This song is my meditation on the meaning of the cross, to Tom's music. More on the song in this SongStories post.
Communion: May We Be One, music by Gary Daigle, words by Rory Cooney. Specifically, I chose this because of the words of the refrain which paraphrase one of the statements in the "mystery of faith," from 1 Cor. 10. "When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus..." 
Recessional: I originally decided to use Jesus Christ Is Risen Today for the closing song Sunday. Is this weird? I just thought, well, "exaltation of the cross." What says it better than this venerable Easter hymn that proclaims the victory of life over the gallows, where "the pains that he endured/Our salvation have procured." I used to like "Lift High the Cross," but there's just so much militaristic imagery in it, though the tune is uplifting and bold. Honestly, I've tried it at St. Anne's in the past, and people just never seemed to warm to it. Instead, after consulting with the choir, we opted to sing Jerusalem, My Destiny. People will really sing that, too, and it won't feel seasonally awkward. I'm sure I'm just a wuss.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Gospel (squirm uneasily) of the Lord

Sometimes it’s like whoever wrote the gospel reads your email.

O wait, never mind...

A quick reminder about yesterday’s gospel:

“If your brother sins against you,

go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.

If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.

If he does not listen,

take one or two others along with you,

so that ‘every fact may be established

on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’

If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.

If he refuses to listen even to the church,

then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.

Amen, I say to you,

whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven,

and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Again, amen, I say to you,

if two of you agree on earth

about anything for which they are to pray,

it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.

For where two or three are gathered together in my name,

there am I in the midst of them.” 

I’ve mentioned before John Shea’s first volume in the 3-volume Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels series. The Matthew book is called The Spiritual Wisdom Of Gospels For Christian Preachers And Teachers: On Earth as It Is in Heaven Year A . I suppose I could read it in preparation for Sunday, but generally I use it after the liturgical hearing, to help me focus what I’ve heard and reacted to. This week, one sentence jumped out at me from his reflection, and it kept haunting me all day. In discussing the first part of the gospel, Shea drops this bombshell, which at once obvious and in a way devastating:
“The onus is on the one offended to seek out the offender.”
As I said, it’s like someone up there is reading my email. How is this fair? For anyone who’s an introvert, the occasion of being offended is something that drives a person deeper into introversion. It’s like drowning in a way. What you think you need is someone to throw you a lifeline, a mediator to help bridge the divide, not a gospel that throws you a ten-foot line when you’re drowning twenty feet out and claims to be meeting you halfway. Jesus’s own “punchline” at the end of the passage seems to say this approach won’t work, “Where two of you agree about anything on shall be granted.” Clearly, in this area, there’s no agreement. Hence, no granting?

Of course, that’s not the end of the story. The passage ends, “For wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” Jesus’s presence, the divine life of the Holy Spirit, our sharing in the Godhead that is part of our baptismal character, is already active in us, even before we disagree. There must be an internal drive toward reconciliation that is not our idea, that is preconscious, that comes from the indwelling of God.

Back to the onus being on the offended. “How can God ask this of us?,” I kept asking myself. Isn’t God the friend of the offended, the one who casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly? How can God ask the offended person not just to turn the other cheek, but to reach out to the offender to seek reconciliation?

I think to do this requires rethinking God. The “power” of the indwelling Spirit, the “power” to reconcile, is from this God, and not Baal or some other god of armies and missiles. This God is agape, the God whose manifestation is kenosis. I suddenly recalled Paul’s words in the letter to the Romans (5:8) which we heard again just a few weeks ago: “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” As John reminded Christians forever in his first catholic letter, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” In other words, what I began to see on Sunday that we really have to act this way because that’s the only way we enter into the divine life of God. We can only do this because God empowers, and it is the only mode of reconciliation clearly empowered by God, because it is God’s very nature to act this way. It is who God is. (I can’t help but be embarrassed to write those words. I mean, who knows what God is like, let alone me, but it just seems that this is what God is revealing God’s self to be, not through me, but through the gospel.)

This would be why this path to reconciliation seems like death to me. Acting this way is participating in the paschal mystery. It appears to be death, but it is the only kind of life there really is, the only path that leads out of self-doubt, hatred, resentment, depression, and ultimately, violence. And I repeat, because I don’t want this to sound like “bootstraps” preaching, as though we just have to be tough and do it on our own: we cannot do it on our own, but we presume the power because of baptism, because being part of the Christian way wasn’t our idea, it was God’s. God is already present in the moment of loving confrontation as the possibility and offer of reconciliation. That is God’s nature; that is where God is. We (I) need to stop thinking that God will somehow, violently or not, “avenge” the wrong done to me. That’s not what God does. God invites, gathers, reconciles. And I’m invited to be part of that.

By way of anecdote, I've been reading the latest book by James Alison, called Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice. This book is a godsend, a transcript of a four-DVD set of lectures for regular parish churches and others who see that the old approach to redemption, substitution theology and so forth, just do not work in explaining life for modern people. Alison, a Dominican priest and theology professor, as well as a disciple of Rene Girard, begins this project by re-interpreting the Emmaus story with wondrous clarity. I haven't internalized it yet, so I am loath to share it, but he talks about how meeting Jesus on the road was different from seeing a ghost, how, though he was completely transformed and yet ultimately himself, he was risen and not just a spectral appearance. Alison talks about how ghostly apparitions are generally about revenge: "I'm dead! I'm deeeaaaad! Avenge me!", like Hamlet's father, and so on. But Jesus is not interested in what happened to him, or to the people who killed him, for the purpose of revenge. He is interested in helping the travelers get past their grief and disappointment to the truth that he himself came to understand. As Girardians have been saying for years, it was time for people to stop sacrificing to gods. It is God who gives. God sacrifices for people. We needed to get the story straight. So "beginning with Moses and the prophets," Jesus exposes the process of victimization and murder for what it is, and invites us into a new world of  life-giving, re-oriented toward the need and sorrow of the other.

See why we can’t lay the task of reconciliation on the offender? It is the wronged person who is, ultimately, the one who is most like God! Only the wronged person can invite the (apparently) more powerful one to lay down arms and reconcile. It is, however, possible for all persons, baptized or not, by virtue of creation, but in the baptismal character this divine “power” is made visible and sacramental. It is the exercise of domination and abuse that is ungodly. And what separates this Christian way from just absorbing the abuse and floating away is the inward pressure toward reconciliation. “The onus is on the one offended to seek out the offender.”

Thus, what appears to be surrender is actually participating in the “power” of agape, the outpouring of self in love, love which created the universe. I suppose I need to keep coming back to this, and practice it as often as I can, so that I can overcome my tendency to want to be right, to win, to bypass conflict through mediation. This seems to be the divine way, not to shrivel up and disappear nor to lash out in retributive self-righteousness, nor even, at least in the first place, to seek mediation from another authority or authorities. To approach reconciliation as a thirst, and the offender as another tired and thirsty traveler at Jacob’s well, this is the gospel way. It may be there, as in John 4, that one meets the Messiah, or a spouse, or both. At any rate, whatever the outcome, in the urge toward and practice of reconciliation we are never alone. Christ is in the very meeting, the epiphany and sacrament of God, transforming the chaos of our strife into a new universe of life and possibility. As we used to pray in one of the Eucharistic prayers (I can't bring myself to use the 2010 translation):
Father, all powerful and ever living God, we praise and thank you through Jesus Christ our Lord for your presence and action in the world.

In the midst of conflict and division, we know it is you who turn our minds to thoughts of peace.

Your Spirit changes our hearts: enemies begin to speak to one another, those who were estranged join hands in friendship, and nations seek the way of peace together.

Your Spirit is at work when understanding puts an end to strife, when hatred is quenched by mercy, and vengeance gives way to forgiveness.

For this we should never cease to thank and praise you. 

Say “Amen”, somebody!?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Can't We All Just Get Along? (A23O)

If you're anything like me, you have a love-hate relationship with the internet and social media. You see a lot of stuff that makes you cringe, that makes you want to leave it all, but social media also binds you to others, gives you hope, and lets you give and experience the compassion of others in ways that weren't possible all that long ago. But the down side can be really down, right? Pick out any story on CNN or any other news outlet, and then read the comments. Leave aside the few who want to discuss and disagree on principles with facts and interpretations of facts presented in an intelligent or meaningful way. There are people across the spectrum who just want to spew venom on others, cast wild aspersions on people they don't even know, attribute the worst of intentions to others, and it's all seemingly just for the thrill of the free publicity that trolling provides to their name or avatar. It's as though human discourse and interrelationship were a work of art, and the appropriate response to it were to vomit on it while slashing at the canvas with a knife. Generally, this all comes under the rubric of "freedom of speech," interpreted as "freedom to say or write whatever I can think of, however disgusting," rather than "freedom to speak a responsible truth with respect for my hearers." It is a parody of communication, and not in any way a legitimate form of it. It's relationship to freedom of speech is that of a sewer to a mountain stream. They both flow, and that's about it.

When you first start in with this social media thing, and engaging with news stories and e-zine articles in the comments section, you assume that other people are there for the same reason, to react to the article, give alternate points of view, praise or take issue with the writer. But you soon learn that that is not at all why some people are there. In the uncompromisingly democratic world of the internet, every word has exactly the same weight. What a constitutional lawyer writes about the constitution has no more heft than the rantings of a delusional sociopath, and the comments on an article about a tragedy in Ukraine are likely to include specious links to dangerous websites, philippics about the current administration, counter-diatribes about the previous one, come-to-Jesus exhortations and atheist responses about flying spaghetti monsters. It's nothing like dialogue, to which it bears the same resemblance as the cacophony of a trading floor bears to Shakespeare.

The reason that I know this, of course, is that I used to think that ideas mattered, and that internet dialogue could move things forward with light speed. Quickly disabused of that quaint concept, I leapt into the silicon cockfight myself, until I realized the absolute futility and self-destructiveness of it. Now, I just don't click the little "comments" arrow beside any article, with a few minor exceptions in my own field of interest, i.e., music and liturgy. But generally, the trolls are even there, and it's usually better not to look.

I suppose the gospel has something to say to us about all this. First of all, we are not citizens of this nor any other nation. Second, "put not your trust in princes" (or princesses), but in God alone (though this psalmic admonition is not in from the gospel proper). Third, "power" in the reign of God is not like power as we know it: loud, abusive, self-interested, and armed to the teeth. But I still have to live here, and still have to try to put a dent in the poverty, waste, and hopelessness of billions. I can’t do it alone. But in my heart of hearts, I also know that even with a nation full of conscientious civil servants we couldn’t do it by legislation and all the rhetoric in the world. Ultimately, it’s a matter of a change of heart, and that’s just something that we have to work on together. There’s enough evidence that a few, with hearts turned toward the reign of God, can make a difference.

Getting along in the church ought to be easier, right? But the evidence is tha there have been serious problems from the outset. Sunday’s gospel is about getting along. The passage is taken from the middle of a couple of chapters of Matthew about how communities, whatever shape they might take in a house, a neighborhood, or the world, might get along.
If your brother sins against you,

go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.

If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.

If he does not listen,

take one or two others along with you,

so that ‘every fact may be established

on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’

If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.

If he refuses to listen even to the church,

then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. 

Amen, I say to you,

whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven,

and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

I like that, taken with the first reading’s call to the prophet (thus to us anointed prophetically in baptism and confirmation) to be the watch for the behavior of the sister or brother; the call to be “my brother’s (or sister's) keeper.” The idea is that we’re not an aggregate of individuals, but rather we are constituted as a community. We are responsible for one another, not in the sense of running each other’s lives, but we have no right to put big fences around our private property with a “F**k You, Go Home!” sign hung on the electrified gate. There is no thread of individual salvation running through any of scripture, let alone the New Testament. This would have been unthinkable in the context of the culture which produced it. For them, separation from the family, the clan, the village spelled death. We’re all in this together, and we always have been. The first covenant and the second are with a people, not individuals, but together. Jesus taught us to pray "Our Father" with intention.

I also like that the words about binding and loosing, about pulling together and tearing asunder, are given to the whole community of disciples, not just to Peter, not even to just the twelve. This is borne out even in the sacrosanct, sacerdotal prayer of absolution in the Rite of Penance, when the priest absolves “through the ministry of the church.” Back for a second to the “brother’s keeper” thread in the first reading and gospel, answering the expected objections from libertarians, I hear the words of the famous overachieving American clergyman William Sloane Coffin,
“Am I my brother's keeper? No, I am my brother's brother or sister. Human unity is not something we are called upon to create, only to recognize. … If what we think is right divides still further the human family, there must be something wrong with what we think is right." (emphasis mine)
Somehow, I don’t think that Coffin would be giving the invocation in Congress these days, even if he were alive to give it.

Then, proving once again that scripture breathes with a single breath and beats with but one heart, there are the words of St. Paul in the second reading, from the letter to the Romans, coming around as randomly and cyclically as summer rain:
Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another;

for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.

The commandments…are summed up in this saying, namely,

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

Love does no evil to the neighbor;

hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.

“Doing no evil to the neighbor,” it seems to me, includes not taking his job, not paying him less than he’s worth, not dropping smart bombs on him, not torturing him, not selling him junk bonds, not raking in windfall profits on his misfortune. You know, things like that. Concrete things. “Loving one another” isn’t just having a prayer meeting with your business friends or Congressional caucus, then going out for the stick-it-to-’em business as usual day at work. “Love one another” means, “live as God lives.” Let your rain fall and sun shine on the good and back alike. No favorites. Life for everybody, not just people inside your protected borders. It’s not a feeling, it’s a way of being.

Sigh. I know. Physician, heal thyself. I’m quick enough to criticize anyone else who lacks “tenderness underneath their honesty,” to paraphrase Paul Simon. The one thing I can’t take is that arrogant American sense of entitlement that lets us categorize other people as “evil” while we torture, bomb, and economically and ecologically ruin whole nations. The word "evil," in fact, has taken such a hold in American civil religion that its semiotic field has nothing to do with God any more (who alone is good) and everything to do with American interests. America is "good," our enemies are "evil," no matter who in this country is preaching. But the gospel has news for us: we’re not the chosen people, and this is not the kingdom. If we believe that we are, we are no better than the radical religious “evildoers” we are threatening "pursue to the gates of hell," as Mr. Biden put it today.

But the gospel says: if you have a problem, talk it out. Go to the offending party, take a friend, do an intervention, whatever it takes. Then Jesus says, If none of that works, treat the person as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. This, I think, might be a hidden gem of gospel irony. It sounds like permission to ostracize the recalcitrant offender, but the whole thrust of the gospel moves the community toward welcoming Gentiles and tax collectors and other spurned outsiders into community. In other words, Jesus seems to say, Try A, B, and then C. If none of them work, go back to A. Do whatever it takes. However we read that text, it seems to preclude ridiculing those who disagree with  us, and particularly within the community of believers we should try to work within a framework of gentle, truthful confrontation and mutual respect.

The gospel passage climaxes with the Lord's declaration that
if two of you agree on earth
about anything for which they are to pray,
it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.
For where two or three are gathered together in my name,
there am I in the midst of them.
Jesus probably thought that it was safe to promise that if we could agree on anything it would be granted by God, since we so rarely agree on anything. It's comforting to remember going through these days of adversarial politics and the rhetoric of demonization that he himself got pissed off when those who were supposed to be ministers of God used their learning and position to make things harder for people instead of freeing them, or helping them see through the trees of restrictive law to the forest of God's covenant loving-kindness. Sometimes you can win an argument by lobbing truth in a parabola over the obstacle of prejudice, or by a counter-argument from the law that demonstrates God's broader way over the rigorous legalism of fundamentalists. Sometime, you just have to throw some furniture around and call a son-of-a-snake a son-of-a-snake. (And suffer the consequences with a forgiving heart.)

But, Jesus, it's hard to live on Monday that gospel we read on Sunday. We hear it on Sunday, and then go back to our “real” lives on Monday. Sabbath, rather than contextualizing our lives, compartmentalizes them, so that we can keep mutuality and loving-kindness in church where it belongs.

Well, in that compartment, then, here’s what we’re singing this Sunday.

Gathering: Eyes and Hands of Christ (Kendzia, OCP octavo) We’ve used this a few times this year, a very nice refrain for people to sing. Obviously, I’m trying to hook into the gospel, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” If Matthew’s gospel, which names Jesus Emmanuel in its first chapter and promises that he will be with us always in its last verse, is about answering the question “Well, if God is with us in Jesus, where is he, since he’s dead and risen?” then this is one of the verses, along with places like 10:40 and 25:40, where the question begins to get answered.

Psalm 95: Harden Not Your Hearts (Cooney, GIA)  This is an interesting choice in the lectionary; I’m not sure of the exact connection to the readings, but it seems to be just that refrain as the psalm harkens back to the Exodus and the grumbling in the desert. Or maybe it’s oriented toward the “wicked one” in the first reading to whom the prophet is sent. The refrain's admonition to open our heart to the voice of God and change is worth noting, especially since the imperative is directed at the people, the community, whose heart is hardened.

Gifts: God Is Love or Make Me a Channel of Your Peace. The so-called Prayer of St. Francis is a great choice for today; everybody knows it by heart, and it says what needs to be said about our participation in the work of reconciliation and healing. My song "God Is Love" on the other hand is relatively new, but it tries to reinforce our conviction that in God, being love and loving are the same thing, that loving (agape) is self-gift, self-emptying (kenosis), and that human love should strive to look the same. I think that's in the spirit of today's scriptures, which is why I chose it for today.

Communion: Faithful Family  “Faithful Family” is based on the ancient hymn “Ubi Caritas,” the verses being my own metric translation, while the refrain is adapted from Ephesians 4:32 - 5:2, and all that follows about the family. This song is standard repertoire for communion at St. Anne’s and often appears in the Triduum liturgy.

Recessional: I Am for You or We Are Called. "I Am for You" is a song that helps us identify as God's people by identifying with God's name, "I Am for You." If we can be reminded that God is for us, and all of us, always, at the same time, maybe we can be inspired to engage with one another creatively and positively, and move out of this vicious logjam of narcissism and loveless ridicule that tries to pass for conversation and relationship.