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Friday, May 29, 2015

3 X 3 X 7 = the primes of life

You get to a certain age, you grasp at every numerological straw to break the fall of time. Next year will be 43, or 26. After that, it gets less glamorous, until 72 (23x32). 63 has the distinction of being the sum of the powers of 2 from 0 to 5, equivalently it is a repdigit in bases 2 (111111), 4 (333), and 8 (77). Somebody stop me.

Every year I want to be able to say something meaningful on my birthday, but find I have less and less time to reflect on it. Why? Because my birthday happens at the end of May, when, as everyone knows, all parochial Hades breaks loose: brides, first communions, confirmation, Mother's Day, Memorial Day, and this year, testifying at a dang trial.

What have I learned this year? Well, I'm still trying to interiorize a lot of things I've learned over the last 3-5 years. The "big two" for me have been important in re-forming my relationship with the rest of the cosmos.

  1. What isn't my best isn't necessarily bad. It can be OK sometimes just to be OK, especially when everybody else thinks that the not-best thing is better.
  2. What is my best isn't necessarily good. It's important for me to remember this, so that "I'm sorry" is easier to say. Just because I couldn't do any better doesn't mean I did good. I have to learn to love myself anyway, ameliorate the damage, remember who is God and who isn't, and get along with things.
I think these things have helped me learn to be a little more patient and tolerant of other people, too. It really takes a long time to evolve out of egocentricity for some of us, to just give in to the fact that the world was doing just fine before we came along, and will do just fine when we aren't around any more, and that time is coming sooner rather than later. The collapse of personal time helps us see ourselves more honestly, evaluate our value to the universe with more acumen, moving the decimal of significance a few more zeros to the left.

My mom, I know, has said about herself something that I feel too. Whatever our age is, and that number becomes unbearably large, best expressed in scientific notation (32x7, for instance), our inner self doesn't seem to age. There's a sort of inner mirror in which we (I?) experience ourselves as the same person we were at 12, or 22, or 40, that doesn't really care about which birthday we're passing. This might be a good defense mechanism against getting older, a way of transcending the downward arc of physicality, but for me, especially this year, it's been something I have consciously tried to moderate with a physical reality check. I try to look into that inner mirror and a real one at the same time. In conversations and in reflection, I realize that however 22 or 30 I might feel in there, I'm really in my 60s, and I can't keep acting on the inner mirror or I'm going to end up freaking people out, and be the creepy old guy no one invites to parties or dinner. I don't really want to be 22 or 30 anyway. Somebody pass me a laurel to rest on, and let me finally just be who I am.

So I've discovered that I don't have the stamina to do what I did, say, five years ago in the running department, and have had to accept that it's OK to jog 3 miles instead of five, and a lot slower. I have to check myself out of "geezer mode," when I start to resent more than necessary the amount of church and cultural attention paid to young people, as though being young were somehow of more intrinsic value than being older, that looks and strength were automatic qualifications for status. Not being particularly good looking or strong, I never felt entitled as a young person either, but I certainly was in intellectual rivalry with the entrenched status quo with which I associated anyone over thirty. Then forty. Then fifty. Now, with no regret but acutely aware of the creator's sense of irony, I have to concur with George Bernard Shaw that youth is wasted on the young.

I find myself worrying less and less about my children, who all seem to be getting along just fine, thank you, and more and more about my friends and our parents, who are coming up more and more quickly against the limits of our cells' ability to replicate themselves with quality and vigor. An optimist from my youth, I keep hoping that we'll all turn a corner together, and things will get better. Generally, they don't.  Instead, I'm grateful for the solidarity we've fostered with each other, the excellence and passion of individuals who refuse to cede the day to negativity and despair and who work patiently for human betterment in every field: politics, medicine, economics, resource management, and the arts.

My daughter wrote today on my Facebook page, "Darling popi! If you had not been born, why then, neither would I!" which makes me think that all of us, especially me, needs to try to be aware of the genetic and evolutionary miracle by which we're gathered around the electrons reading or writing (or oblivious to) these words. One man who put this into words in a way that I would never be able to approach was Bill Bryson in his wonderful book, A Short History of Nearly Everything. I cannot know God's mind in this context, or what it means that "God created the heavens and the earth" and that because of that, here I am. I celebrate the God of the naturally-selected who is also the God of the extinct and consumed, who has placed within us the counter-intuitive idea that "survival of the fittest" is not the law of the land, and who pitched his tent among us to show us exactly what S/He meant by "life more abundantly." Still, I want to leave you with Bryson's words, and thank you for honoring me with your eyes and thoughts today, as we make our way another year around this indistinctive star, in this solar system, on the edge of this ungraspably large galaxy, among more galaxies than we are able to number. Somehow, we found each other. Whether that is luck of the draw or blessing or curse we may not know, but I'm looking forward to the next orbit. Here's Bryson:

I’m delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn’t easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize. 
To begin with, for you to be here now, trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you. It’s an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. 
To be here now, alive in the 21st century and smart enough to know it, you also had to be the beneficiary of an extraordinary string of biological good fortune. Survival on earth is a surprisingly tricky business. Of the billions and billions of species of living things that have existed since the dawn of time, most, 99.99 percent—are no longer around. Life on earth, you see, is not only brief, but dismayingly tenuous. It is a curious feature of our existence that we come from a planet that is very good at promoting life but even better at extinguishing it. 
The average species on Earth lasts for only about 4 million years, so if you wish to be around for billions of years, you must be as fickle as the atoms that made you. You must be prepared to changed everything about yourself—shape, size, color, species affiliation, everything—and to do so repeatedly…To get from “protoplasmal primordial atomic globule” (as the Gilbert and Sullivan song put it) to sentient upright modern human has required you to mutate new traits over and over….So at various periods over the last 3.8 billion years you have abhorred oxygen and then doted on it, grown fins and limbs and jaunty sails, laid eggs, flicked the air with a forked tongue, been sleek, been furry, lived underground and lived in trees, been as big as a deer and as small as a mouse, and a million things more. The tiniest deviation from any of these evolutionary shifts and you might now be licking algae from cave walls, or lolling walruslike on some stony shore or disgorging air through a blowhole in the top of your head before diving sixty feet for a mouthful of delicious sandworms. 
You have (also) been extremely – make that miraculously—fortunate in your personal ancestry. Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth’s mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from it’s life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result—eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly—in you.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

An offer, with those John 6 weeks coming in July and August

Every three years, in mid to late summer, the lectionary in year B jumps back to the gospel of St. John from Mark for five weeks of reading the entire sixth chapter of the fourth gospel, which we commonly call the "Bread of Life" discourse.

I'm not going to say too much about that right now. If you're anything like me, though, you love-hate those weeks as you try to keep the music for the liturgy fresh without being overly repetitive. Maybe you wish the preaching would kick up a notch, but that's not going to happen in the middle of the summer any more than the congregational singing would, or the choir (where those souls are released from ministry for three months of the summer season) magically reappear to sing "Ego Sum Panis Vivus" each Sunday by a different composer.

But you might know that back in 1987 NALR published a (1985) song of mine called "(I Myself Am the) Bread of Life," which is currently published by OCP Publications and has been in print all that time, re-recorded in 2000 on our CD Change Our Hearts. I actually wrote that song for the Year B readings that year, while working with a group of young people at St. Jerome Church in Phoenix, and inspired by a number of my teachers, particularly John Gallen, S.J.

And yes, there has been controversy on and off in some quarters about it, which I wrote about in my blog in 2013 in a post entitled "Theological Tempests in Musical Teapots, Part 2." So I'm not going to defend the song any more. I've said what needs to be said, and if some folks don't like it, then they are certainly blessed with a torrent of good songs for communion that they can happily use.

If, however, you still use this song, or would like to use it (it's in Music Issue and Today's Missal,  Choral Praise, Journeysongs 3rd Edition, and legacy Glory and Praise and Gather editions), I have a proposition for you. Last time around, I wrote four new verses for the song that invoke imagery from other readings on the weeks of the John 6 gospels. My thought was it might both help those readings sink in, and also make the lyrics of the verses "pop" when they're sung by the assembly with allusions to texts and people that are heard in the other texts of the day.

I have made a ".tiff" file of these verses, which use the same tune as many of you already know, on my "freebies" page at, link here. There are instructions there for downloading the file. The download is free. I only ask that you continue to abide by the usual copyright rules, and if you use or reprint any of the material owned by OCP that you do the usual reporting protocols via These are available with OCP's blessing. I asked them to make the verses available to those who would like them free of charge, but the rigmarole of figuring all that out from contractual and electronic point of view was daunting, so they said I could make the verses available myself. So think of them as my birthday you!

These are the texts of those verses, if you'd like to see them standing on their own. Please feel free to circulate the link to this blog page to others who might be interested.

Thanks to all of you who have stood by "I Myself Am the Bread of Life" these thirty years. I have kids younger than this song!

additional verses, text copyright © 2012 by Rory Cooney

4. Full cup of blessing,
Free as the rain and sun,
Is passed among us,
Gathering all to one.
A living sign of God in Christ.

5. We, like Elijah,
Hunted, afraid, alone,
Receive in slumber
Food for the path unknown,
A living sign of God in Christ.

6. Taste Wisdom's table,
Spread with the richest fare.
The poor and simple
Dine at her calling there.
A living sign of God in Christ.

7. Sent from this banquet,
Strength in our hearts restored,
We go together,
Summoned to serve the Lord,
A living sign of God in Christ.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Singing Trinity (Trinity Sunday, year B)

The Scripture this weekend gives us an interesting and challenging approach to the mystery of God. Some will, as always, and as might be expected from a church that rightly values the efforts of the intellect in pursuing rational faith, make this feast into a celebration of doctrine. But faith isn’t in a doctrine, it’s in a person, or persons. In the case of the Trinity, this God whom we try to “define” as three-but-one, our use of the term “person” must necessarily remain a metaphor, an anthropomorphism we use to get at something about God’s nature from the revelation that we are made in God’s image and likeness. Something about God is something like being individuated, self-aware, and voluntary; that’s what we mean by “personal.” Yet, it is God about whom we’re talking, and all these words need to be voiced humbly and expecting correction and surprise. 

At the same time, with the same breath in which we say that something about this personal God is singular, we acknowledge that something about this God is trinitarian, communal, di- (or tri-)alogical. God’s very nature is not to be alone, but to be-with, as the rabbis used to teach as they suggested that perhaps a way of translating the sacred name of God in Exodus rendered as the Hebrew tetragrammaton (four letters) represented in English by the letters YHWH. In Catholic liturgy in the 1970’s, there was permission to use, among several translations of the bible, the Jerusalem Bible, which, as a scholarly work, was the first modern bible to use the anglicized word Yahweh where the name of God appears as such in the scripture. Generally, the word is replaced by the word Adonai, “the Lord,” which you often see in all capital letters (the LORD) when the name appears in the Hebrew scriptures. This is why, by the way, there had to be a Vatican decision about excising the word Yahweh from Catholic liturgical song and psalm texts. Those of us writing in those days, most notably Dan Schutte (“Yahweh, I know you are near...”) and Tim Manion (“to you, Yahweh, I lift up my soul...”) were using the liturgical texts as we had them, not trying to make any kind of political or religious statement. The current discipline about avoiding the speaking of the name in liturgy is an ancient practice, and a way of being “good neighbors” with our older siblings in the Jewish tradition, where among the orthodox, at least, the liturgical tradition of not speaking The Name lives. (In fact, they often don’t even write the name of God as “God,” opting instead for the unpronounceable metonym “G-d”.)

I think all of this is good: it helps us understand, if we deal with it and don’t avoid it, that we don’t ever really “know” God in a way that allows us to define God. The person that we are can be known by God; perhaps better, as a race we all can be known by God together, and describe that being-known as a discerning, collective, peacefully collaborative effort. For many of us, Christ is God’s word in our language about God’s self, an ultimate, unique, and perfect self-expression. We would like to convey that image to others; but if we’re genuinely convinced of Christ as God’s self-revelation, it means that persuasion by witness of life is the only means at our disposal for this endeavor. If God is revealed in Christ, and has revealed self through a human being who came from the peasant class in a dominated nation, and who was executed by the empire in collusion with his own countrymen, then it strains the imagination to think that it is all right to impose by force of law, threat, or arms that belief on any other person in the name of that God!

The scriptures Sunday reveal to us a God who “goes out,” who is somehow active and goes after us to change our destiny from destruction to life. This is the insight of Moses describing the God of the Exodus. It is the insight of Paul in the letter to the Romans, describing the Spirit of God as leading us out of fear into family, from intimidation to intimacy. And Jesus expects that, just as he says that the “full authority” of the divine nature is bestowed upon him, that the Church called out to continue God’s ministry on earth after Christ’s ascension should also “go out” like God does, and make disciples of all people of this outgoing God, just as he attempted to do by the example and witness of his days.

Expressing this reality in music has been a journey. My advice to music ministers over the years has been to celebrate this divine identity on Trinity Sunday by singing music that people love to sing, their “love songs” for God. For some, this is music like “How Great Thou Art,” or the great doxology of “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.” Those of us who write texts and music for worship have wrestled with new and old images to try to find new ways of singing our love for God. Some of these find their way into our celebrations as well. Here are a few examples that I particularly like: certainly leave your own favorites as comments, if you would like. Mine are in no particular order, just in the order about which I’m thinking of them.

Bernadette Farrell, “God Beyond All Names”

God, beyond our dreams, 

you have stirred in us a mem’ry; 

you have placed your pow’rful spirit 

in the hearts of humankind. 

All around us we have known you, 

all creation lives to hold you. 

In our living and our dying 

we are bringing you to birth. 

God, beyond all names, 

you have made us in your image; 

we are like you, we reflect you; 

we are woman, we are man. 

God, beyond all words, 

all creation tells your story; 

you have shaken with our laughter, 

you have trembled with our tears. 

God, beyond all time, 

you are laboring within us; 

we are moving, we are changing 

in your spirit ever knew. 

God of tender care, 

you have cradled us in goodness, 

you have mothered us in wholeness, 

you have loved us into birth. 

© 1990, Bernadette Farrell. Published by OCP. All rights reserved.

Brian Wren, “Stand Up, Friends”

Praise the God who changes places, Leaves the lofty seat, 

Welcomes us with warm embraces, Stoops to wash our feet. 

Stand up, friends! Hold your heads high! Freedom is our song! Alleluia! 

Freedom is our song! Alleluia! 

Praise the Rabbi, speaking, doing All that God intends, 

Dying, rising, faith renewing, Calling us his friends.

Stand up, friends!...

Praise the Breath of Love, whose freedom Spreads our waking wings, 

Lifting ev'ry blight and burden Till the spirit sings;

Stand up, friends!...

Praise, until we join the singing Far beyond our sight, 

With the Ending and Beginning Dancing in the light.

Stand up, friends!...

Text: Brian Wren, b.1936, © 1986, Hope Publishing Co.

Brian Wren, “God Is One, Unique, and Holy”

God is One, unique and holy, endless dance of love and light,

only source of mind and body, star-cloud, atom, day or night:

ev’ry thing that is or could be tells God’s anguish and delight.

God is Oneness-by-Communion, never single or alone;

all togetherness including friendship, family, and home,

common mind and shared agreement, common loaf and sung Shalom.

God is One through desolation, blindness, treason, blood and gall;

One, though torn by separation in the Son’s forsaken call;

One through death and resurrection; One in Spirit, One for all.

God is One, unique and holy, endless dance of love and light,

only source of mind and body, star-cloud, atom, day or night:

ev’ry thing that is or could be tells God’s anguish and delight.

Text: Brian Wren, b.1936, © 1983, Hope Publishing Co.

Of course, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of others – I simply chose these because they are
in our hymnal and I know them better. There are my most recent attempts, "To You Who Bow" and “O Agape,” which I’ve written about before. There’s also my song “Mystery,” from the eponymous and out-of-print NALR collection, also “You Are a Sacrifice” on that collection. “One Is the Body,” a sort of credo song I wrote for communion, summarizes for me, at least at that point in my life, what I had learned about communion with Christ as promise and reality of reconciliation.

Rory Cooney One Is

One is the body, one is the bread, 

one are the living, the unborn, the dead. 

One is the cup, one blood in us flows, 

one is the breath of the star and the rose. 

One is the Spirit with Maker and Son, 

just as the source and the river are one; 

one are the stranger, my foe and my friend.

To this I will say, “Amen.”

Gather, disciples, your master to meet. 

Learn to forgive from the bread that you eat; 

treasure the earth in the cup that is poured. 

Taste and see the goodness, the love of the Lord.

One is the body...

Now split the timber, now turn the stone; look where you will, you are never alone. 

High as the heavens, deep in the flood, 

all things are charged with the presence of God.

One is the body...

I am the hungry, you are the poor; God is the stranger who waits at the door. 

While any suffers, no one is free. Whatever you do, then, you do it to me.

Text: Rory Cooney, b.1952, © 1993, GIA Publications, Inc.

Here’s what we’re singing Sunday at St. Anne’s, along with some iTunes links. Have a good weekend.

Gathering: I Am for You 

(Gather 3)
Psalm 33: Happy the People You Have Chosen by Rory Cooney (OCP octavo)

Preparation rite: O Agape 

Communion: One Is the Body (Gather)
Closing: Glory and Praise to Our God (Gather)

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit 

that we are children of God,
and if children, then heirs,
heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, 

if only we suffer with him
so that we may also be glorified with him. (Rom. 8: 16-17)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

"I have much more to tell you" (Pentecost)

Seraph in flames
Just a few thoughts today on Pentecost. Something we learned at St. Anne from the late Fr. Jim Dunning (of happy memory) was a process called “echoing God’s word,” based on the ancient monastic practice of lectio divina. The idea was to read scripture together (generally, it has been the gospel of the approaching Sunday) and then we each repeat the word or phrase that we heard that spoke to us directly as we listened; we repeat that word or phrase three times. Of course, sometimes there is just one phrase or two that everyone seems to have keyed in on, but sometimes the response is remarkably varied. Since parish leadership has changed, our style of sharing scripture has too, but it doesn't really matter for the scope of this little blog post.

I find for myself that more often than not this practice in our staff meetings is a left-brain exercise for me; it doesn’t always engage me on the level  of affect. I tend to hear what I’ve been thinking about, rather than what might be speaking to my emotional or personal life. Not that thinking isn’t personal; it’s just the difference between loving and being in love with the idea of love. They’re both all right, but the latter is no substitute for the former..

But what catches me on Sunday is almost always personal, almost always a surprise, and almost always something I didn’t notice in the spiritual exercise of "echoing God’s word." The last time we had Pentecost with year B readings, with the optional gospel, I know that did not expect to hear the words, “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now” jump out at me from the gospel. It spoke to me as I was thinking that I tend to believe that the sudden change in the disciples on the feast of shavuot, what we call Pentecost, the feast of first fruits 50 days after Passover, was more of a metaphor than an actual event of wind and fire. I don’t know that at all. It’s just more like my reality. I don’t really want a God who does magic tricks, one who intervenes with tongues of fire and simultaneous translations, because that kind of God plays favorites, doesn’t come around for those who really need him, only lives in stories of old deeds done brilliantly, but who isn’t of much help to people in need today.

But I do have experience of true things working on me. I mentioned about how as the gospel story leaves the apostles on the mount of the ascension, they’re still talking about a restored kingdom of Israel, missing the point of Jesus’s entire time with them, including his suffering, death, and resurrection. But that missing the point is important to me, because I know that I miss the point all the time; my whole life is an exercise in missing the point. But things work on me. I’ve been cruel, but I’ve learned to change my behavior from being exposed to the gospel. I’ve been angry and self-important, but I’ve learned to see myself in a bigger picture, and tried to learn to behave more gently and gratefully. 

Remembering, re-membering, putting the pieces together, is what allows this to happen in us. We’re too busy or angry or just distracted by life to react to, let alone respond to, the gospel at certain times. But we keep hearing the word of God calling us to something new and really, really, different, calling us into the mystery of agape. It’s really different to wake up and be part of a family, God’s family, in a way we didn’t know before. It’s really, really different to think about how we fit into a world where every single person is just as important as we are. It’s really, really different to live not under the threat of punishment by a divine judge nor because of the promise of a deferred salary as “payback” in the afterlife, but to live for other people because we were made that way, because that’s the only life that makes any sense. 

We’ve heard the exact same stories since we were children, but Jesus said to our hearts, time and time again, “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.” 

Of course, it may be, it almost certainly is, that no matter what I/we think we know now, there is still more to learn from the Holy One than we can bear at any age or time of life. The story is told of the seraphim, the highest rank of angels, that they are made of fire, that they rise up out of the river of fire that flows in front of the throne of God in heaven. When they behold the countenance of the One who is beyond knowing or naming, they dissolve into fire again, returning to the river over and over again, and being reborn. We never know God completely; our knowledge and love dissolve with every morning, new insight supersedes our previous thought even as it builds on it.

So back to that Pentecost story in Acts. The flash of tongues of fire, the thrill of the mighty wind, these sound like metaphors for life-changing insight, the kind that (metaphorically?) may have knocked St. Paul down on the way to Damascus. The speaking in tongues, the hearing of the good news in many languages, this sounds like the development and growth of the Church in the Mediterranean basin as the story of Jesus was taken to every land. Did it happen fifty days after that awful Passover when Jesus was murdered? Fifty weeks? Fifty years? Fifty is a mystical number, too, remember: the perfection of seven multiplied by itself, mystery times mystery, plus one. The "twelfth of never," we might say, or "infinity plus one." In other words, it all happened at the perfect time. The right time, kairos, God’s time. Like the grain of wheat, after the right time in the ground, the plant is ready for the harvest. It took as long as it took for the apostles to begin to understand that God was not in fact going to intervene against Rome, but that God, made visible in Jesus, was claiming the world again as empire anyway. Only it is not an empire of coercion, violence, and the amassing of treasure and goods, but an empire of peace, dialogue, and shared resources. And the message is, choose your empire, and live there now. Augustus, who founded the Pax Romana, is dead, and food for worms. Jesus, the herald of God’s empire, is alive. Choose your emperor. Turn around and go in this new direction.

St. John, you’ll recall, sees all of this happening on the cross, when Jesus “hands over the spirit” as he dies. John reports the birth of the ecclesia, the community of believers “called out” the way that Abba called Jesus, by telling that “blood and water” flowed from the pierced side of Christ, the afterbirth of the newly born incarnate children of God. Like those children, the meaning of life, the reality of who we are and the mystery to which we are called, grows gradually inside of us, not so much with miracles and spectacles of power as with the flashes of insight that are the sparks that fly when the flint of the gospel strikes the hard rock of our lives.

One of these days, those sparks, enough of them, will set a fire to the earth. Aflame with agape, the Church will rise from that river, see the face of God everywhere, in every person and living creature, every quark and galaxy, and dissolve in the energy of love, to be raised again, over and over, to its destiny of self-sacrifice and loving service.

This is what we are singing this weekend at St. Anne:

Call to Worship: Pentecost Sequence (music by Rory Cooney) My setting is what I think of as a “jazz chant,” using Jesuit Fr. Peter Scagnelli’s poetic translation of the Veni Sancte Spiritus.

Gathering: Send Down the Fire by Marty Haugen
Psalm: Psalm 104: Send Out, Send Out Your Spirit by Rory Cooney
Preparation rite: This Very Morning (GIA octavo, Rory Cooney) I think I’ve said before, I don’t think that I can write any better than this, but it hasn’t exactly flown off the shelves. I wrote it for the ordination anniversary of a friend and colleague, which happened to fall on Pentecost a few years ago. YouTube video is below, right; the lyrics are here. 

Communion: May We Be One (GIA octavo, Daigle/Cooney)

Recessional: Over My Head (spiritual)
 or I Send You Out by John Angotti

Other Pentecost posts:
Urban Renewal in the City of God
The Fifty Hour Pentecost
From Babel to Pentecost
Christ and the Spirit (this is your brain on too much oxygen)

"I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. 
But when he comes, the Spirit of truth,

he will guide you to all truth.”

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

SongStories 45: Pentecost Sequence (Christ the Icon, 2005, WLP)

The Veni Sancta Spiritus is a masterpiece of late medieval poetry. The Latin sequence for the Feast of Pentecost is composed in ten tercets linked into sestets by a rhyme scheme AAB CCB. Jesuit Father Peter Scagnelli's translation, like others, maintains this scheme, and with perhaps even more masterful craft maintains the seven-syllable lines, an homage, one must imagine, to the sacrum septenarium, the "sevenfold gifts" of the Holy Spirit referred to in the ninth stanza (or fifth, depending on whether you're counting tercets or sestets!)

Sequences were songs that came into the liturgies of solemn feasts and other liturgies (like the Dies Irae, in masses of the dead). They were sung before the gospel until the revision of the Roman Missal in 2002, wherein the General Instruction places it before the Alleluia. Of the many sequences that had been used up until the time of the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, only four were retained in the Roman Missal of Pius III, and of those, only three were retained in the current Roman Missal, with two (the Easter sequence, Victimae Paschali Laudes and this one) being obligatory, and the sequence for the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, Lauda Sion Salvatorem, being optional.

I don't know about you, but it's not easy to negotiate music placement in liturgy in these days of resurging subjectivism with practice. As the iron-fisted "by the book" approach to rubrics and liturgy of the latter-day Pope St. John Paul II and his successor Benedict XVI fades away, and the less restrictive, pastoral attitude of Pope Francis suffuses the church, one side effect has been (for me) that it is virtually impossible to use the phrase "the rubrics say" or "we really ought to..." with regard to the liturgy any more. I'm not really complaining about this, it's just that there's no authoritative center of authority in these matters any more other than the desire of the pastor or presider at a particular mass. Since there is pretty general agreement among us on certain basics, for instance, that the readings are from scripture, we follow a general structure, there's a eucharistic prayer, a breaking of bread, and communion, it seems less important whether, for instance, we sing the Gloria every Sunday, use metal vessels on the altar, or sing the two sequences that are "mandatory" in the rubrics on Easter and Pentecost. Sometimes, this works to communal advantage, in my opinion, as when the strictures around "authorized translations" of the psalms aren't observed for singing responsorial psalms or adjusting the obnoxiously non-inclusive language of some of the NABRE readings. But it does call for some compromises and relaxing into "millennium mode" about other rubrics governing music and celebration. By "millennium mode," I mean taking a look at the importance of the disagreement over implementation from the vantage point of a thousand, or, when necessary, ten thousand, years into the future. Is it really going to matter to the future of the church and the reign of God if we don't sing the sequence this Sunday?

As for me, I've set both the Easter sequence and the Pentecost sequence with some success. Obviously, with such a specialized piece of music only used once a year, one has to decide whether the participation of the congregation is of value to the effort. For me it is, though I think for others it need not be. In a parish (or cathedral) situation where time isn't of the essence and a rubrical authenticity is desirable, a choral sung or chanted sequence would certainly be as acceptable as any option. But when I set the Victimae Paschali Laudes for Easter, I used the Latin text and music which are gorgeous in their immediate inaccessibility, but added the familiar Alleluias from O Filii et Filiae as a response by assembly three or four times during the chant, leading into the gospel acclamation using those alleluias.

With the Pentecost sequence, I opted to use the beautiful and really virtuosic translation by Scagnelli, bound to a chant like tune that actually starts on the seventh tone of the natural minor scale, adding another layer of metaphor to the seven-syllable lines of Scagnelli's translation. I named the tune "QUANDO ITA" because the melody bears a certain resemblance to the Bill Withers tune "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone." (QUANDO ITA is an approximate Latin translation of "when she's gone.") There's no symbolism (nor plagiarism) in the resemblance to the bluesy Withers anthem, it's just a motif that is easily singable, woven into a melody with inner repetition to make it memorable.

That's it for today, just wanted to get another song into the "Songstories" list that connects to the rhythm of the liturgical year. In case you're wondering, at St. Anne we will be singing the sequence as a "call to worship" before mass, rather than before the Alleluia. I'm trying to choose my "battles" these days, looking for some balance in my life, saving my energy for what, I hope, is more important than a song, however ancient and beautiful.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Gaining the whole world: Nixon, Cheney, torture, and Thomas More

That mounting cacophony we hear? It's the expanding field of candidates for the 2016 presidential election. For the most part they identify themselves as Christian (Bernie Sanders is ethnically Jewish but doesn't identify with any "organized religion") and for the most part their Christianity self-identifies around reproductive and gender issues: being against abortion and LGBT equality, and not so much around issues important to other Christians, like poverty, healthcare, peace, and immigration. Still almost eighteen months out from the actual election, the volume of chatter is rising as the candidates, at least one of whom is an ordained minister, try to preach their way into the unaffiliated Christian heart of middle America, hoping to knit together the magical plurality that will earn them four years in the Oval Office. Lord, I want to be a President in my heart, in my heart.

So far though, the United States of America is not a theocracy. The Constitution is not the Ten Commandments, much less the Sermon on the Mount. It’s patently absurd to think that any nation, ever, could represent Christianity at all, because the very nature of Christianity is to break down borders, not to set them up and defend them. So it’s all right for our leaders, Obama, Bush, Clinton, to say that they’re Christian. It’s not all right to do terrible things in the world and to end every speech with “God bless America” and refer to the United States as a Christian nation; that borders on blasphemy.

In the ongoing attempt of the previous Christian administration’s efforts to establish its legacy, Dick Cheney has been out recently defending their decision to allow “enhanced interrogation” techniques to secure information from detainees, some of whom have proven inimical  to our national interests. His justification for what the rest of the world defines as “torture” and harsh treatment of prisoners: the results. In yet another assault on Christian values, now Cheney, following a strategy conceived in the think-tanks of the Reagan era, alleges that for the USA, might makes right, and the end justifies the means. Winners write history; winners define the terms. So they write a new story with a new vocabulary, and go about the strategy of winning at all costs so that their definitions stick.

“What profit is there,” Jesus asks the disciples, “for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? What could one give in exchange for his life?” What might we lose in this wild grasp at history, at “gaining the whole world” for this moment of rightness, of victory?

First, don’t take my word for it: here are Cheney’s ipsissima verba from his speech at the American Enterprise Institute in 2009, and he hasn't changed his tune in the intervening years. If anything, he's less apologetic.

In top secret meetings about enhanced interrogations, I made my own beliefs clear.  I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program.  The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts failed.  They were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do.  (Emphases mine) The intelligence officers who questioned the terrorists can be proud of their work and proud of the results, because they prevented the violent death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people... And to call this (enhanced interrogations) a program of torture is to libel the dedicated professionals who have saved American lives, and to cast terrorists and murderers as innocent victims.   What’s more, to completely rule out enhanced interrogation methods in the future is unwise in the extreme.  It is recklessness cloaked in righteousness, and would make the American people less safe.

In other words, for Cheney, torture is justified because it was “successful.” The question thus becomes, if the good guys (us) become the torturers, what is it exactly that we’ve succeeded at? Without so much as a “may God have mercy on our souls,” the born-again bullies of Bush 42 set aside the rule of law and international convention to make our “Christian” nation a base of terror wrapped in the rhetoric of patriotism and justice.

But without law, without the imperfect and arbitrated negotiations of men and women of legislative and judicial vision over the years, where does a people stand against those who wish to impose their will upon history? Robert Bolt deals with this question in the person of Thomas More in his Pulitzer- and Oscar-winning work, A Man for All Seasons. In one famous scene, a confused and sycophantic courtier named Richard Rich comes to visit More at his home, and offers him his services in exchange for favors. More dismisses the pathetic Rich, who would become the official who would later perjure himself at More’s trial by giving false evidence. More’s son-in-law, William Roper, and More’s wife, Alice, see through the charade, and after Rich departs they urge the Chancellor to have him brought to justice.

ROPER: Arrest him.


MORE: For what?

ALICE: He's dangerous!

ROPER: For libel; he's a spy.

ALICE: He is! Arrest him!

MARGARET Father, that man's bad.

MORE: There is no law against that.

ROPER: There is! God's law!

MORE: Then God can arrest him.

ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication!

MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal.

ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's!

MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact—I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of the law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God . . .
(He says this last to himself)

ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after RICH) While you talk, he's gone!

MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law!

ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law!

MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on ROPER) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you—where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? (He leaves him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast—man's laws, not God's-and if you cut them down—and you're just the man to do it—d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.

ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god.

MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god . . . . (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle . . . I don't know where he is nor what he wants.

ROPER: My god wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else!

MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God? He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God —And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law!

As freshly as the late Bolt framed the question for the world of the 1960s and as immediate as his words sound today, more recently, director Ron Howard confronted some of these same issues anew when he looked at the interviews given by former president Richard Nixon to the British talk-show host, David Frost. Outmaneuvered and outclassed in the first three of the four sessions granted him by Nixon, Frost finally confronts Nixon with a series of readings from the transcripts of Oval Office tapes, cornering the former President by exposing the lie that he was unaware of the cover-up engineered by Haldeman and Ehrlichman before a specific date in the spring of 1972. Frost asks Nixon, if he knew, why didn’t he do something about it? Why didn’t he have the pair arrested by the FBI? This clip is from the movie Frost/Nixon. The entire script is available online here (see page 97 or so).

The very hubris that brought down the President in 1973 is being trotted out by Cheney and other apologists and conservative pundits as justification for torture, suspension of due process and habeas corpus, wiretapping of the phones of U.S. citizens, and whatever other means were necessary to achieve their stated (as well as their unstated and possibly more self-serving) ends. And, I regret to say, President Obama has brought about little meaningful change. The administration's stonewalling and obstructing the Feinstein committee's report on torture subjects President Obama, who campaigned on transparency and an "unwavering" commitment to the principle that torture is "always wrong," to a hermeneutic of suspicion on the subject. He has refused to talk about the accountability of those who authorized torture, and his CIA is not above suspicion on the subject of the transfer of terrorism suspects to US-friendly jurisdictions where torture is carried out by other governments on our behalf.
America, America,
God mend thine every flaw;
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.
This admonition from Katherine Bates’ beloved “America” is as cogent today as when it was first written. It serves as an intelligent and conscientious counterpoint to Keys’ “Star-Spangled Banner,” with its overreaching imperative that foreshadowed Manifest Destiny and the acquisitive exploitations of super-patriots ever since,
Then conquer we must
When our cause it is just.
And this be our motto:
In God is our trust.
In A Man for All Seasons, at More’s trial for treason, Richard Rich has been made the attorney-general of Wales, and wears the badge of his office while testifying against More on behalf of Henry VIII. After his perjured testimony, as he is leaving the stand, he passes by Sir Thomas, who addresses him:

MORE: I have one question to ask the witness. (RICH stops) That's a chain of office you are wearing. (Reluctantly RICH faces him) May I see it? (NORFOLK motions him to approach. MORE examines the medallion) The red dragon. (To CROMWELL) What's this?

CROMWELL: Sir Richard is appointed Attorney-General for Wales.

MORE: (Looking into RICH'S face, with pain and amusement) For Wales? Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world . . . But for Wales!

That’s the question for us, it seems to me. What is it that we seek to gain for this loss of our Christian soul that allows us to continue to use violence and threats of violence as the weapons of choice for our national will? What can the legacy of the Bush and Obama presidencies be, if they chose to set the values of the Constitution aside in their own defense? What world is it that we hope to gain by abandoning our soul? 
And if our soul is not confirmed in self-control, if our law is not undergirded by a human decency and ethic of interdependence formed by our exposure to the Golden Rule and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, teachings of the one for whom Christianity is named, won't our leaders continue to feel entitled to sidestep those laws with impunity, since we will have abandoned our spiritual accountability to the gospel?

Politically, in a pluralistic and fundamentally secular society, these are complex issues. But Christians, at least, need to ask and answer these questions. We can’t serve two masters. Once we’ve rendered our integrity, our soul, to Caesar, what is left that we can claim belongs to God?
We live in a political world

Where love doesn’t have any place,

We’re living in times where men commit crimes

And crime don’t have a face.

(Bob Dylan)

Thursday, May 14, 2015

RPM - "Rhythm Prayer Move" project

The word "salvation" derives from the Latin word for "health," salus, and without making too much of that point, as physical-spiritual beings there is benefit to seeking health of both body and spirit. While sickness is no blockade to God's love, and certainly never a sign of divine disfavor, the lack of health can block out ability to be of service to others, and by focusing our attention on our pain and causing worry and fear, it can impede our ability to focus within on meaning-making and  outwardly on service to those who need it..

It's tricky to figure out how to say this, and someone may have a better idea. I've known a lot of sick people, chronically sick, even mortally, who are a lot more other-centered than I will ever be. But by the same token, Jesus never un-healed anyone. Prophetic utterances in Isaiah never described the reign of God as bringing more death, or making people sicker. Restoration to wholeness, to salus, can be an outward sign of the integrity of community, as well as the importance of the individual. As a parent and spouse, I hope to be healthy enough to provide for my family, be of service to my church and to others, and to continue to find and share meaning with others through the gospel until my days are over. For now, it seems the best way to do that is to stay as healthy as I can, and be aware of and helpful to those who are unable to achieve physical health.

My friends Lisa Bagladi and Pedro Rubalcava have collaborated on a musical project to help us achieve mens sana in corpore sano cum spiritu sana. Their concept is "Rhythm Prayer Move," or "RPM," and they have produced together some downloadable music for us. I've known Pedro for more years than either of us cares to recall, but certainly it's three decades; Lisa I've known since the late nineties through our mutual friendship with Gary Daigle. For many years, Lisa graced our liturgical prayer at St. Anne with her beautiful flute playing that flows from an inner integrity as well as well-practiced chops. When I heard that they had been working on this project, I asked Lisa if they might want to share a little bit about the work on my blog, so I asked them some questions and they have answered them. I love these two!

How did you get the idea to do this?
Lisa: Starting as professional dancer, musician, and fitness enthusiast, I began to develop the practice of this method of praying well over 20 years ago. I remember 6 weeks after having my twins (the 3rd and 4th girls) trying to get back in dancing shape, but couldn’t go anywhere because I had 4 kids, four and under. I would find quiet time in the day, while they were napping, and I would have a great need to not only exercise, but truly center myself in prayer, to regenerate for the rest of my busy day. I would use ethereal meditation type of music to relax, then I would start moving in my small space, to work up to an aerobic type of pace. I would focus on a psalm or mantra and started to practice this. I found my experience of going into deep prayer while moving repetitively and rhythmically to be profound, and I just wanted to share it with people! I started to imagine the perfect music to support this, and was on a continuous search. Nothing quite met what I was looking for. Either tracks weren’t long enough, or the tempo had too many changes, or other people’s lyrics (while still beautiful and inspiring) got in the way of my silent listening to God, so I thought, well, I guess I should just create something. I played around with my flute and garage band and developed some ideas…..about 8 years later decided it’s time to make it so. I shared this concept with other musician friends, and while they liked the idea, it didn’t completely resonate, until one day, I shared it with Pedro, and he immediately shared in the vision. He let me know that he wanted to partner with me on it as he had some of his own ideas for something like this as well. We started to play around with the musical ideas and formulated them into our first volume.

With my professional background in dance, dance prayer, as well as continuous study in the area of the mind-body-spirit connection for health and wellness, I envisioned developing this into a lifestyle-type brand of music and method for people to use in their everyday lives. We developed a workshop format and are offering it to parishes, ministries, and groups that are interested in learning and incorporating this type of prayer and mind-body-spirit experience not only in their ministries, but personal life as well. There is a lot of exciting breakthroughs in science and our understanding of the value of prayer combined with moving and it’s effect on our biology, and we hope that this is a wonderful tool and aid to support people on this journey of health and holiness!

Pedro: Lisa is the one who interested me in the idea. However, in my own prayer experience for several years the idea of creating and singing short phrases taken from Scripture and from the Psalms in particular is something that I have used consciously  and unconsciously to accompany my prayer. In think I even began to call this “walking prayers” - chants and melodies that I could use as a focusing element and continuously repeat – not unlike what might be familiar to us through the Taizé prayer experiences.

What are your unique contributions to the project?
Lisa: I composed the Psalm 63 and Psalm 23 instrumental pieces of volume 1. I envisioned a middle-eastern longing feel to the Psalm 63 (My Soul Longs for You, My God) and for Psalm 23, (The Lord is my Shepherd, I Will Want For Nothing) I heard a sort of musical dialogue with God out in the woods, with a Native American feel to the music. (I especially like this piece for running, it has a good rhythmic tempo for breathing and moving) I play flute on the recording of all the pieces. In our workshop experience, I lead everyone in the movement, while Pedro leads our musical support and accompaniment.

Pedro: "Un ángel habló en el sueño" (An angel spoke in a dream) has two inspirational sources. One is the idea from the gospel of Matthew’s infancy narratives in which God speaks to Joseph through an angel appearing in a dream – three distinct times. To me these are wonderful stories of faith and how the Divine enters into our lives. For some reason the idea of an angel appearing to Joseph in the dream seemed like it should be in a flamenco rhythm who’s melody speaks in the voice of the angel telling him to not be afraid to take Mary as his wife, to flee to Egypt with Mary and Jesus, and then to “get up” and return to Nazareth after Herod’s death. The second inspiration was actually a dream that I had in which a mother and daughter were dancing a flamenco rumba and in which I was the guitarist that was providing the soundtrack for their beautiful dance. To me this song has a lot of breathing in it and movement. “Blessed Are They Who Believe” as a mid-tempo expression allows me to breathe more deeply and I imagine it as a cool-down or warm-up song that allows us to stretch. This was inspired by the “doubting Thomas” post-resurrection account in the gospel of John—“Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” The melodies actually came out of singing those words. After our conversations and reflection on the scope of the project I agreed to become the musical producer of sorts.

Who or what inspired your collaboration?
Lisa: I believe the Holy Spirit inspired our collaboration, as we both share in the desire of leading people into a multicultural deepened prayer experience. Our music is more in the genre of world music using rhythmic percussion and instrumentation. Working together on this has flowed very naturally. Also, Pedro’s gift of leading prayer through music and poetry has always been inspiring to me. In addition,we have teamed up with some wonderful musicians that share in our vision, Antonio Gomez - percussionist from Seattle specializing in latin, and middleastern rhythms and music, and Joseph Hébert, Cellist, professor of music and choir director from the Bay area, along with others that are able to join us in different settings, who will be contributing to our future volumes.

Pedro: Yes, ultimately it was the Holy Spirit  Several years ago, Lisa had asked me (and Peter Kolar) to listen to something she had put together on Garage Band that was a percussion track with flute and spoken word. That led us to have on-going conversations about “bodily" prayer and the idea of creating music that was intentionally religious that allowed people to pray while they moved exercised. Our conversations led to sharing of ideas surrounding this very concept and experimenting in live settings with groups of people, leading them in the prayer experience. These conversations led to further conversations with the folks that Lisa has already mentioned (Antonio Gómez and Joseph Hébert) about possible collaboration. I think we all share in the power of music to transform and integrate our prayer life.

What do you hope to achieve through RPM?
Lisa: Our mission is to help ordinary people (fitness buffs or the newly inspired to incorporate more exercise) in bridging their fitness and prayer life together, and offer ways to deepen their spiritual life through this higher awareness, leading with intention, and a surrender to the living God through Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Our workshop and retreat formats offer a unique, interactive, and engaging experience that provides an oasis from the traditional workshop format, employing the ability to learn through multiple intelligences. We find that the kinesthetic process of learning and praying through the body, in community, reaches and touches people on many levels. The feedback that we have received is that with the experience of live percussion, instruments, and voice to support the rhythm of breathing, moving, and praying together creates a unique communal bonding experience--truly praying as ONE. This experience allows people to connect with the divine through their very body, unifying body, mind, and spirit.  This type of praying is not new, but very old, and very alive in other cultures and religions around the world. Somehow this experience got lost in our U.S./western culture, despite the fact that this was a way of life for the native peoples of this land.  Catholics may be experiencing an element of it in their local yoga or zumba classes, but the unique opportunity to bring our Catholic imagination and theology to it provides inspiration and enrichment, besides that wonderful stimulating feeling of stretching and getting the blood flowing!

Pedro: Lisa expresses this very well. Providing folks with the opportunity to enhance their lives by connecting them with the experience of intentionally praying as they move, can only lead folks to deepen their prayer life. The more people pray and deepen their relationship with the Living God, the better our world is. I have a dream/vision of the transformative power of the Holy Spirit influencing one person exercising at a time, and moving from there to one more, and the next and so on. We know that music is a powerful gift and tool. Let’s use it to make a difference.

Any perspectives on how someone might jump into the world of danced prayer?
Lisa: While the RPM—Rhythm Prayer Move—recording is great for dancers, we also envision it being used by runners,walkers, bikers and anyone working out at the gym. We all use headphones and an iPod of some sort, and our music is important to keeping us pumped for the workout. Hopefully people will find this music as a wonderful alternative and option to help sustain them through their workout, and help them engage in a deepened prayer experience and connection with God!

Pedro: Even for folks who are not into heavy workouts, walking and simply breathing well and deeply is beneficial. RPM is hopefully a simple tool and way that people can enter into this bodily prayer experience and in time develop into more options for the way that folks are extending their prayer life into meditation and reflection using the musical prayer chants. It’s exciting.

In addition, we have a Facebook page:  or put "RPM Rhythm Prayer Move" in the search bar. We invite people to LIKE our page. Our aim is to include inspirational content around the subject of Prayer, Fitness, Health, Spirituality, and Wellness.  The music is available for download on iTunes, Amazon, and all the other digital music outlets.

To contact Lisa for more information, email her. You can sample the other songs from their CD on iTunes (links below) or Amazon (direct link above). Blessings and the very best of luck to Pedro and Lisa in this new enterprise and ministry.


Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Separation anxiety (Ascension)

When they had gathered together they asked him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6)

“The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.” (Mt. 28: 16-17)

I am so grateful that the gospel writers, and Mark in particular, did not too much romanticize the disciples and the Twelve. To have this motley collection of alternately courageous and perfidious, ambitious and deferential, insightful and thick-as-a-brick human beings be the foundation upon which the church is built is eminently reassuring. In a sense, the scandal of their humanity is proof of the Scripture’s fundamental veracity and consistency. In this book, in other words, and in the heart of its God, you don’t even have to be close to perfect. You can betray your friends, you can try to get a better position with the Boss than your companions, you can miss the point over and over again until the teacher’s exasperation is evident. It just doesn’t matter to the God of this narrative, for whom weakness is strength. God himself, in the matter of incarnation, chose to be a peasant artisan in a country dominated by a foreign military power, not a ruler, not a part of the ruling or dominant class.You want a revisionist gospel? Read self-help books, Left Behind, or watch Passion of the Christ. Here, at least, big losers can be bigger winners, runts become lions of faith, and political enemies become table companions.

Even now, at the end of the narrative, captured by Luke in the first chapter of Acts (above) and echoed in the passage from Matthew 28 that ends his gospel, even after the roads of Galilee and Judea, the feeding of the multitudes, his calming the lake, his healing the sick and even raising the dead; after Calvary, and Easter and numerous appearances, the meaning of Jesus and the new vision of God’s universal empire of mercy and equality is lost on the twelve, who ask aloud about the restoration of the political reign of David and the supremacy of Israel, and who even now, in Matthew’s terse, crashing verb, doubt.

Thanks, guys. You’re a good mirror in which to behold one’s Easter self each year. 

The going-away, the absence of Jesus, both in his exodus on the cross and his ascension to Abba, is an essential part of the paschal mystery. Necessarily, this absence, until the disciple has experienced the presence of the Lord in a new way, is a frightening prospect, but like all aspects of paschal life, including, apparently, the nature of Godself, it is life-giving to the full. As Jesus emptied himself on the cross and experienced the absence of Abba in his darkest hour, he was to discover the fullness of life because of the love that neither fears nor is enfeebled by the grave. It is the mystery of the grain that falls into the earth and dies. The disciple, while ever remaining a disciple of the one servant-master, the Messiah, is called to become servant-master, Messiah to others.

Jesus compares this separation anxiety the apostles feel to the birth pain of a woman in labor, an intense pain that will pass because of an as-yet undiscovered joy of new life. In the gospel of John, which does not have an Ascension narrative as such, the death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit seem to be aspects of a single reality. In John, when Jesus dies, he returns to Abba and sends the Holy Spirit at the same time, and yet, he continues to abide with the community of disciples. This is evident throughout the entire narrative of the three days, beginning with the supper and the farewell discourse, and continuing through the post-resurrection appearances. “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me, because I live and you will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.” The intimacy of Jesus with the band of disciples will endure, he says, after the pains of birth (16:21-22). 

As a liturgical musician, I’ve found it hard to find music that is other than representational (in this context, I mean music that paraphrases the scriptural narratives of the Ascension, e.g., “Hail the Day that Sees Him Rise”) for today. The second readings encourage us to see the return of Jesus to Abba as a sign of the divinization of humanity, in other words, of our own going-to-God as the completion of God’s will for us. It’s rarely touched upon in song, at least that I’m aware of. But there’s also the aspect of “why stand staring at the skies,” that refrain that points toward the work to be done and the command to await the Spirit and not lose our way either in grief, inertia, or bewilderment. This brings to mind a couple of lovely texts I’ve used in the past, but whose music is not particularly conducive to congregational participation or our architectural constraints. One is the great Oosterhuis-Huijbers round introduced to the U.S. church by Tom Conry, “Why Stand Staring”:

Why stand staring at what has gone before?
Don’t get lost in things of the past.

I, says he, will begin something new;

It’s beginning already. Haven’t you heard?

The other is Conry’s own lovely “Our Life and Our Song,” which was in Glory and Praise 3 but has been edited out of more recent incarnations of that anthology. Though it’s syncopated folk style would not suit some congregations (and organists), its text is well worth remembering:

Jesus, Son of Mary, was a carpenter’s child

And he knew what it was

To be lost and forgotten

Like the tiny seed before it grows and changes,

Strong as the wind, but near as our breathing.

He is our life and our song.

And, like the wind, gone away.

Word and silence,

He is our life and our song. 

© 1985, Team Productions, Published by OCP.

Preparing for a wedding the other day, I was realizing that my own song, “Mystery,” touches on some of the same Ascension vocabulary and prayer:

Where shall we seek you? Not in the oceans,

Not in heaven, angels have said.

Where shall we find you? Not in our history.

Why seek the living in haunts of the dead?

Why seek the living in haunts of the dead?

© 1987, North American Liturgy Resources

Like “Our Life and Our Song,” “Mystery” isn’t anthologized either. Unlike Conry’s song, it never was. C’est la guerre des chansons liturgiques.

Well, here’s what we’re doing at St. Anne’s for Ascension. Seems like this is an aspect of the paschal season that might use some more attention by poets and songwriters?

Gathering: A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing or Be Not Afraid (Gather) “I go before you always.” A song about assurance in those times when one feels the absence of God. This is a song about mission, for missionaries. Like us.

Psalm 47 Psalm for Ascension (GIA octavo, Cooney) This is an enthronement psalm, and it’s hard to reconcile with other aspects of Jesus’ preaching about leadership-as-service without some preaching, which no one ever does. When “God mounts his throne to shouts of joy,” God is carrying a bowl of water and a towel; when “all peoples clap their hands,” it is with joy and relief that our slavery to ambition and greed has come to an end, because our God gives everything away without price.
Preparation rite: I Am for You (Gather) In the scriptural story of God’s solidarity with us, and the Spirit of God prompting us toward and enabling our solidarity with one another, the name of God becomes an analog of that ongoing energy. The Exodus name of God, YHWH, whose full meaning, if there is one, is lost in history, was sometimes translated rabbinically to mean something like, “who I am, I am for you.” This insight, from the Jerusalem Bible, was part of the inspiration for this song.

Communion: I Am the Bread of Life (Gather, Toolan)
Recessional:  I Send You Out (Gather, Angotti)
 or Marcy Weckler Barr's adaptation of "Thula Sizwe," a South African liberation song, entitled He Is Living, He Is Risen.

...You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. 
(Acts 1:8)

Monday, May 11, 2015

Mystagogy for Dummies (like me) - Easter 6B - God Is Love - so what?

God is love. So what?

No one is born loving in agape. Most of us learn the hard way, the long way. We journey through the ages of humanity, the stages of development, the path toward “self-actualization” and ultimately transcendence. We learn to love from eros and philia, from the thrill and pleasure of loving, from the security and acceptance and transparency of presence to one another, from the fierceness of a mother’s defensive love, a father’s laughter, the often indefatigable and unalienable devotion of brothers and sisters, or grandparents. 

Somewhere along the line, if we’re lucky, it strikes us that we’re not the center of any universe but our own, and that to become part of the truth of the universe we have to turn outward toward others. We hear the obvious truth of the life of the grain of wheat. It’s not at all that there’s anything wrong with eros and philia. It’s just that they are there to lead us to the Source, the love that is pure life-giving, that is independent of feeling, reciprocation, or even belonging, because it participates in life itself, and finds the source of its joy from its dissipation on behalf of the Other.

Honestly, I’ve been so selfish for so long that I don’t even know how little I do for other people. It’s just in the last ten years, really, that I’ve consciously stopped ignoring the things that I don’t do because I don’t feel like it. It’s like it dawned on me, in my mid-fifties, that to love other people isn’t about feeling anything, it’s about doing. It doesn’t matter what I feel, only what I do. Eventually, with some reflected living, some feelings might catch up, but if they don’t then somehow the actions themselves, if they are for another, and selfless, are part of the paschal mystery, and are life-giving in and of themselves to me as well as to whomever I might have served. It’s hard to imagine it’s taken me so long to even begin to grasp this. And don’t misunderstand me — it’s not like I’ve suddenly become Mother Teresa or Mia Farrow. Just a little bit less Falstaff, or Oscar Wilde.

It’s so obvious, but sometimes it’s just words. Like, I remember Tom Conry once laying one of his famous dictums on me, “Liturgy isn’t about making people feel good; it’s about making people feel like doing something good.” And on the level of drama alone, that’s a world of difference. It’s a movement from the self and eros toward the other, and agape. When that other stands outside the circle of friend and family, that’s the purest form of agape. It’s certainly true that real love is like the river; it doesn’t matter where you drink from, the river is the same. One can be truly, completely selfless with a lover, or with a son, or daughter, or parent, or friend. But Jesus, it seems to me, wants to make a point about this in his culture, which is already loyal to a fault to its own. In the Sermon on the Mount, making a point about loving those who love us, he tells us, “Don’t even the pagans do that?” So the real test is loving our enemies, doing good to those who hate us. As any of my friends in liturgy preparation would tell you, be specific about enemy-love in the general intercessions some time, and see how fast the good Christians shoosh you out the door. “For the safety and well-being of al-Qaeda, let us pray to the Lord.” “For ISIS, the Taliban, the Sendero Luminoso, the Crips, the Bloods, the 18th Street Gang, let us pray to the Lord.” And praying for them is hardly dying, or living, for their good.

For the believer, this relentless divine love is at work even in those who have not heard the Name of God, or who have heard it and rejected it. Every moment of longing and alienation is a doorway to the infinite. God’s life is invitation, the available experience of accepting, unconditional love. The question becomes, who will discover the path of the love that “lets the rain fall and the sun shine on good and bad alike” in the search for meaning in life? Whose Church will be a safe harbor like that, whose preaching of the gospel will be the way it lives and worships and serves the neighborhood? 

Maybe that’s the “so what” question that follows the proclamation that “God is love,” the one that Paul asked just a few decades after the death of Jesus (Romans 10).

But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed?

And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard?

And how can they hear without someone to preach?

And how can people preach unless they are sent?

Belonging, in Christ, ultimately means being sent. Love, like God, is not satisfied with itself, it is by its nature outward bound. If this “here comes everybody” party is ever going to get underway, we’re going to have to get the word out. Into every cozy upper room, into every lakeside breakfast, into every comfortable Christian’s life, a little fire must fall. Love is mission. Easter, the paschal mystery of God, is Pentecost.

This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.

Friday, May 8, 2015

θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν (1 Jn. 4:8 - Part 2) B6E

(Read Part 1 here)

Maybe you feel that all these words about agape, about divine love, are a boring, repetitive drone of platitudes that everyone already knows? You may be right. I certainly confess that, for many years of my adult life, probably into my forties even,  I did not look forward to lectionary year B, when, like this year, the gospel of John in passages from the Last Supper discourse was matched to a second reading from 1 John, creating what seemed to me to be an indistinguishable one-trick pony of a goulash, a bland “all you need is love” for four or fives weeks of preaching. It has only been in recent years, as I have come to appreciate the startling gravity of agape and kenosis, as they reveal themselves in the incarnation as the pulsating heart of the paschal mystery, that I have come to love and joyfully anticipate celebrating these Sundays in an adult way.

Consider in the light of what I was talking about last time, the kosher-breaking vision of Peter as he prepared to visit the house of the centurion Cornelius, the meaning of John’s amazing statement that everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. The words do not say, as we might expect, that “everyone begotten by God (in the sense of ‘all who are baptized’) loves God and knows God,” but rather, the text says that everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. That is, those who act for the good of others come to share in the life of those who are the children of God, and live in a state of intimacy with the Holy One. To me, this is as wondrously liberating a credal statement as the parable of Matthew 25, in which the surprising criterion on the last day is not orthodoxy, membership, the correct sexual orientation, ordination, or even confession of the name of Christ. In Matthew 25 as in I John 4, it is agape, that is, disinterested service on behalf of others, not related to ideology, that brings one, startled for even being recognized and unaccustomed to and unprepared for reward, into intimacy with the servant-emperor of life. 

Bear with me a few minutes more as I ask you to read with me again the words of the gospel from Sunday in this pure radiance of God’s love.

"As the Father loves me, so I also love you.

Remain in my love.

If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love,

just as I have kept my Father's commandments

and remain in his love.

I have told you this so that my joy may be in you
and your joy might be complete.

This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.

No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one's life for one's friends.

You are my friends if you do what I command you.

I no longer call you slaves,
 because a slave does not know what his master is doing.

I have called you friends, 
because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.

It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you

and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain,

so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you.

This I command you: love one another."
This word “remain” - in Greek, the verb μένω (menō), has the sense of “staying in the same place.” It has often been translated as “abide,” a word which is beautiful but possibly suffers from being a kind of religious archaism. But the unmistakeable sense of the word is intimacy; of lodging in another person’s home, and all of the openness and hospitality that that implies. Jesus says in this gospel passage that the intimacy that he shares with Abba, an intimacy that can be described as in-dwelling, living together in one house, is the same intimacy that the disciple can expect from him, and the same intimacy that his commandment compels us to live in with one another. The “commandment” of the “friend” Jesus thus is not a burden laid upon the believer, but the blessing of a lover who only wants the very best for the beloved, as if to say, “I can’t say anything better than this, there’s no other life in the universe, there’s nothing that will ever satisfy any of you, ever, more than being like God, and that is to serve one another’s needs no matter what.” The “commandment”, then, is rather like telling the disciple not to “fall up” or not to stop breathing. Surrender to agape. Float in this divine current, and finally be yourself. Finally, find complete joy by forgetting to pursue it.

Why is it so hard then? Why do we get stuck so often in eros, love that pays us back with good feelings, and philia, the mutual love that’s altruistic enough but shared among the related and like-minded? I reject the possibility that we’re fundamentally oriented toward sin, because the revealed truth is that all of God’s creation is fundamentally good, and breathes with God’s own breath. It must then, be some issue of mistaken identity, substituting other loves (eros and philia), which are also good, for agape, which is divine. Can God possibly be patient enough to wait us out on this, individually and as a race? 

Here, I just want to diverge to another passage in John, chapter 21, verses 15-17. This is the famous dialogue between Jesus and Peter on shore of the lake after the resurrection, one which looks backward to the threefold denial by Peter of Jesus in the courtyard of the High Priest the night before Jesus’ execution by the Romans. In this passage, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Simon bar-Jona, do you love me more than these?” Each time, Peter answers affirmatively, and Jesus charges him to love his flock by nurturing them. But what we miss in every English translation of this passage is the subtle shift in the question of the Lord. The first time, Jesus asks, “Simon bar-Jona, do you agapas me more than these?” He is asking Peter if he has thrown himself completely into the ring of holy fire, the love that gives itself completely for others. And Peter responds in an equivocal way: “Lord, philo you.” I love you like my own family. The second time, it is the same, "Simon, agapas?" "Lord, philo." But the third time, when we might expect Peter to respond to Jesus’ question in kind, John shows us the kenosis of the logos again, as at creation, as at the incarnation, as at the washing of the feet, as at the last breath on Calvary. It is Jesus who changes the question to Peter: "Peter, philos?" Peter responds, "Lord, you know it. Philo!” Jesus then makes what might be thought of as a prophecy “about the sort of death Peter would die,” that is, as a young man he goes where he wants, but as an older man, he’ll be led where he’d rather not go. But you know what? That sounds to me an awful lot like Jesus is saying to him, “Today, you can only offer philia. But things are going to change. Agape is going to grab you around the heart and take you where you can’t go today. I can wait for that.”

God can wait. That’s the way of agape: it is the faithful “remaining,” or “abiding” that empowers love in others by loving, that gives and gives and gives no matter what, if anything, is flowing in the other direction. It is the very first thing on Paul’s list of the qualities of agape in 1 Cor. 13: Agape is patient! The word in Greek means something like, “can endure the injuries of others for a really long time.” Thank God for that. 

...Everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.

Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.

Purchase "God Is Love" by Rory Cooney, sung by Theresa Donohoo, on iTunes.