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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Like a child: learning to walk, talk, and live in the reign of God (B27O)

On Monday, my usual day off, I try to look at the readings for the following weekend to see what I might like to post here about the connections between the liturgy and life that the readings suggest to me. Sometimes it's easier than other times. One would think, with all the hubbub about the International Meeting of Families in Philadelphia and the visit of Pope Francis last week there would be a lot to be said, but the truth is, it already has been said, and there's not much new or engaging in the conversation. One might say, I guess, that the pope's focus on such a huge stage on human kindness, mercy, and social consciousness is news insofar as he did not, like so many of his American bishops, use the media as a bully pulpit to push a narrow moral worldview on an intentionally pluralistic society. Like Jesus, Pope Francis was focused on the moral code of the reign of God, but another activity took me in a slightly different direction.

The other thing I do on Monday is try to get my first look, for my weekly presentation at parish, at the piece of James Alison's video series that accompanies his four-volume book of essays on theology called Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice. If you haven't heard me speak of this before, it's a series of essays and videos intended for small group discussion on a theological system based on Rene Girard's mimetic theory, but re-imagined in such a way that it can be of great benefit to normal Christians like us who have a little trouble reconciling a vengeful, retributive God with the Father of Jesus, who have come to realize that the whole business of bible reading and interpretation is a little more complex than reading a newspaper or a novel, and who are looking for that experience like the Emmaus experience, wherein someone we know and love takes our lives, the very ones we have lived and thought we knew so well, and reinterprets them in a way that changes us and moves us outward with love.

What happened to me was the discovery in Alison of a metaphor that opened up part of Sunday's gospel for me in a way I hadn't imagined before. It's this section, near the end, which echoes last Sundays as well, with its language about the attitude Jesus had for children.
And people were bringing children to him that he might touch them,
but the disciples rebuked them.
When Jesus saw this he became indignant and said to them,
"Let the children come to me;
do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to
such as these.
Amen, I say to you,
whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child
will not enter it."
Then he embraced them and blessed them,
placing his hands on them.
Most of the time when I've heard these words, about becoming like children, or accepting the kingdom like a child, the words "meekness" and "obedient" get used, and pretty soon the whole thing just loses me. Of course, I blame myself for being jaded and such a hopeless "sophisticate" that I don't want to hear any of that churchspeak. Ched Myers' book Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus helped me a little by suggesting that children in the world, especially in agrarian and vassal state economies before the Victorian era, occupied the lowest social strata possible, with slaves, and so the championing of their cause by Jesus was a challenge to the power structure, making the case for the equality before God of children with parents, just as he did for other kinds of outsiders like prostitutes, the lame and mute, and those "possessed by demons."

But James Alison presents an image of the child-as-receiver, as imitator, that seems to me right in line with what Jesus is talking about. In fact, it is receiving the reign of God that is at stake here, not the image of the child as such. Let me see if I can summarize a bit, because this really helped me. As far as I can tell, it has nothing to do with meekness or simplicity. It has to do with imitation, and relaxing into who we are meant to be by way of being loved by someone, Someone, who wants our greatest good.

Humans are mimetic creatures. Alison uses a phrase that, I believe, originated with Girard, that "we desire according to the desire of the other." Babies learn to walk and talk not by sitting with a computer course or being left alone in a room full of balls and rattles. They learn to walk and talk by other human beings, parents especially, but siblings and grandparents and caregivers too, who look after them closely, watch for their safety, help them get onto two legs and do dancing leg bends, facilitate their creeping along couches and tables, take them by two little hands for a few steps, then for longer and longer assisted perambulations, stand a step away with outstretched arms while the child takes her first step into a future of forays, and then keep watch along the way with encouraging sounds and occasional rescues from unforeseen obstacles. It's a process into which we are inducted into a habit of acting (walking) by people who love us and want to see us succeed. It would be impossible to do without imitating someone; we start crawling, perhaps, to get around a bit, but we wouldn't imagine getting onto two legs without knowing that other people do it, and we don't have the leg muscle strength to do it without the gradual strength built up by practice over time.

The same goes for speaking. Language is a gift that we receive from others. Language, like the other, preexists us. We receive it over time, being introduced gradually into the sounds that match the objects we desire, those things we need or want to satisfy our appetites and needs, or that we want to grasp for their sparkles, or that otherwise pique our curiosity. A child's first word is usually something truly basic: mama, dada, yes, no. We graduate to other necessities quickly: more, juice, up, remote, crême brûlée. We learn what to want by seeing it in others, we learn how to ask for it by other people teaching us how that goes.

"Whoever does not accept the reign of God like a child..." What I heard this meaning this time around, thanks to Alison's analogy about how Jesus is trying to teach us what faith is, is that we have to stop thinking that we can learn to be holy, good, clean, righteous, by following some kind of manual, whether divinely inspired or of our own device. Our idea of goodness is almost certainly idolatrous, some extension of our idea about what would be best for us and the human race, probably including the exercise of force to get others to agree to our ideas. God, and faith, isn't like that. What Jesus came to show us about faith is that God loves us, has always loved us, right in the mess and the misery that we make for each other, right in the midst of our violence and scapegoating, our fear and denial of death, and all the ways we have of trying to insulate ourselves from its reality. The ministry of Jesus, healing, reconciling, uniting, and the death he endured as a result, and the act of God raising him from the dead, are all a way of saying, "I'm not like what you imagined. I not only have seen how bad you can be, but I am here among you, I've experienced you at your worst in my own body, and I love you anyway." Look at me, says the God-parent, take baby steps my way, I'll catch you if you fall. Say "our Abba."

The gospel, the announcement of the reign of God, the evangelion of God's victory over death, is a call to listen to a parent trying to tell all of us at once to say, Mama, Papa, Abba, and to begin to allow a habit of loving imitation, without rancor, rivalry, or exclusion, of Jesus, because "whoever has seen me has seen the Father."

The idea of scandal, skandalon, a stumbling block, that entered the discourse last week and caused the litany of amputations, is the suggestion that bad example, offering a model for imitation that is not like God and therefore destructive of the human race, will result in catastrophe. In a brilliant homily last weekend given at her increasingly famous little Denver church, Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber described accepting rescue by grace from our many addictions is indeed like having a part of us cut off. If you haven't seen that yet, you can read it online on the Patheos blog.

I think I'll leave it there. It's a simple insight, but I'm grateful for it, for the strange confluence of Alison's essay and the gospel for this weekend, and for the chance to share it with you.

What we're singing at St. Anne this weekend:

Entrance: I Have Loved You (Joncas), or Let the Children Come (Cooney, WLP)
Psalm 128: All the Days of Our Lives
Presentation of Gifts: New Families 
Communion: Covenant Hymn
Recessional: Lover of Us All (Schutte)

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Frenemy love—beyond rivalry (B26O)

I am a Christian, and I believe that I need some diversity training.

Step inside my rivalrous heart for a few moments. This won't take long. Any of this sound familiar?
My meditation:
Who are these Catholics who think Pope Francis is a communist?
Why isn't the Catholic majority in Congress doing something about the death penalty, about guns, about war, about helping refugees and immigrants? Don't they have ears?
Why was I so relieved at the "retirement" of Pope Benedict? Why am I so angry about virtually everything about EWTN?
"Those idiots, those craven politicos, those religious fascists are teaching, healing, doing good works in your name. Stop them!"
Gospel response:
"Whoever is not against us is with us."
There is a marvelous chapter in Rachel Held Evans' endearing Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church in which she describes her ongoing struggle to reconcile herself with her roots in evangelical Christianity, having moved into a more diverse vision of Christianity, embracing the Episcopal tradition. She tells of working as a blogger to get the word out about the work that World Vision is doing for children around the world. Acutely sensitive in her religious heart to church prejudice against women and gay marriage, she rejoiced when, as reported in Wikipedia, "on March 24, 2014, the United States branch of World Vision announced that it would no longer bar employees from being in same-sex marriages." The rub came two days later, when "facing protests from donors and the larger evangelical community after the announcement, World Vision reversed the policy change…." It felt to her like "a punch in the gut," she reports, that "using needy kids as bargaining chips in the culture war had actually worked." (Kindle Locations 2929-2930). The chapter is entitled "Evangelical Acedia," that is, apathy or spiritual not-caring. She is at war with herself over her feelings, her (justifiable, in my opinion) outrage, and finds these actions of other Christians cause her to sink into deep spiritual depression and cynicism. She knows it's not a healthy path, because, she concludes, "We have to allow ourselves to feel the pain and joy and heartache of being in relationship with other human beings." Faith is a relationship with other people who are as crazy and fallible as we are. We have to embrace those differences, without allowing them to crush us or participate in ecclesial behaviors that offend our conscience, "even if it means taking a risk and losing it all." (ibid, Kindle Locations 2987-2988).

Turning the jewel of contemporary gospel wisdom a bit, I was also reminded as I reflected on this Sunday's gospel (and the first reading from Numbers) of a story in Nadia Bolz-Weber's Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, in which she speaks of encountering at a conference a Lutheran blogger who ridiculed her, calling her a heretic for being a female pastor, having gays in her church, etc. etc. He showed up at a talk she gave and introduced himself, which put her into a panic, evoking "fight or flight" mode, and causing her to say a prayer for deliverance. But, she said, they "proceeded to have a conversation about our need for God’s grace, forgiveness of sins and the Eucharist." He wept during their conversation. Twice. And they talk by phone every couple of months now. She still "can't stand the guy," she said, but the opportunity for reconciliation and the conversation itself "could only flow from the heart of a forgiving God."

One more story, this one from Malcolm Gladwell, in an article from New Yorker back in May of 2015. In discussing the tactics of the DEA and other covert operatives, Gladwell refers to a 1964 essay by Richard Hofstadter, that offers some insight into the process of demonization of the other, idealizing the enemy as a master of his craft, and then imitating him:
Hofstadter observes, “It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts a projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him,” and he goes on:
The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through “front” groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy. Spokesmen of the various fundamentalist anti-Communist “crusades” openly express their admiration for the dedication and discipline the Communist cause calls forth.
The paranoid crusader is not disdainful of his enemy. He is in awe of him. Hofstadter quotes that staunchest of cold warriors, Barry Goldwater: “I would suggest that we analyze and copy the strategy of the enemy; theirs has worked and ours has not.” 
People we disagree with aren't always our enemies, of course. The prophesying elders in Leviticus and those outside Jesus's immediate circle who were preaching and healing in his name were, from all we can tell, doing good. And yet, for those on the inside, like Miriam and Aaron, like the Twelve, the represented a challenge to their status as insiders, as people close to the heart of some kind of real, experienced "power," and therefore they present as rivals. Our instinct is to circle the wagons and bring out the guns.

But as Gladwell sees in the activities of black ops in the government, what we generally are doing in situations like this is fashioning projections of ourselves. We want the same power, recognition, freedom to act that our rivals have shown that they have. And here's the thing: they must want that because we have it, and there's not enough for all of us. Therefore, "Tell them to stop!" That counterfeit of light inside of us that wants to win, that wants to have the power, that wants to be known as the friends of the powerful god-who-is-really-an-idol, we project that upon the other, and make the announcement that God must put an end to their falsehood.

But the thing is, there is no rivalry in God. God works in all kinds of ways, through all kinds of means and people, and in ways that are unfathomable to us, completely unbound by our categories, expectations, or even by death. So Moses is able to say, "If only all people were prophets!" And Jesus is able to say, "Whoever is not against us is with us."

I'm only too willing to project my own vile pettiness onto, say, Pope Francis's detractors, or people who disrespect the "Nuns on a Bus" movement and the LCRW, or Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, John Boehner, or any of the Catholic Supreme Court justices who gave us the Citizens United ruling. What I need to do about that is not participate, I think, in the ad hominem attacks, not use the name calling and trolling tactics that I despise, and acknowledge the possibility that in a pluralistic world and a pluralistic church it's quite possible for us to come to different conclusions about the same data. I need to remember the political differences around the table of Jesus, where the zealot and the collaborator both found a place, and who both became saints.

Mostly, I want to be grateful for people like Nadia Bolz-Weber, Richard Rohr, Brian McLaren, Rachel Held Evans and even Pope Francis who bravely work inside and outside of their traditions and continue to tell the truth even when other Christians who ought to take their side try to break their hearts and spirits with words of derision and attempts to marginalize them as irrelevant. That isn't my particular sin, because I agree with them. What I need to do is to try to act on what I believe, and not try to deride or marginalize others within the Christian fold who want to pray in Latin, or champion a celibate male priesthood, or demonstrate against gay marriage. By acting on my faith, speaking my truth without rancor, advocating for diversity with love, I will promote what the gospel of Jesus by my life, by persuasion, example, and enthusiasm and not by tactics that imitate those of my "enemies." That's what God does for me; shows me that, in spite of how I feel and how I act, I am not a rival or an enemy but a beloved if recalcitrant child, just like every other person who ever is, was, or will be. How did God do this? By coming into my world and teaching me to love my enemies, even my "frenemies," by saying, "whoever is not against us is with us."

It's not easy to opt out of rivalry in such a competitive society. But to "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" means trying to do just that, to recognize, with the servant Christ, that there's nowhere worth going but down.

What we're singing Sunday:

Entrance: A Place at the Table (True)
Psalm 19 Your Words, O God (Cooney, OCP)
Presentation of Gifts: In Christ There Is No East or West (MCKEE, arr. Cooney)
Communion: We Are Many Parts (Haugen)
Recessional: Send Down the Fire (Haugen)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Letting our light shine--St. Anne's Hope Ministries

In my last post, about the Crop Hunger Walk next month, I mentioned that for the first time our music ministry team of walkers and fundraisers is partnering with Hope Ministries and House of Hope, our parish's cluster of social outreach ministries and its shining light, the resale shop. I wanted to introduce you to the woman who is coordinating all those efforts, Marie Jochum, who came to us in 2014 from Catholic Charities Refugee Program in Chicago. There are, quite literally, hundreds of volunteers who work year round in St. Anne's many outreach ministries, and Marie came onto the scene after the death of Sr. Lorraine Menheer, SSSF, the beloved founder of House of Hope and the woman who had dreamed and built "Annie's Attic," a parish-wide garage sale that benefitted the poor, and that over a two week period collected, sorted, and sold donated items that covered every square inch of the campus, raising money for their work, making really good used items available for resale at excellent prices, and filling trucks with the unsold items for the warehouse and donation to other Chicago charities. It was a sight to behold.

Over the last year three new hires (excluding the parish school) have, as they do not tire of reminding
us geezers, brought the average age of the parish staff down a couple of decades. With assistant faith formation director Jeffrey Joseph and pastoral associate Michael Beard, Marie brings a new generations vision of the gospel to our parish life. I asked her a few questions about her life, and I'd like to share a bit of her response with you so you can see the reason we are so excited to be working with her, to have her in the parish. Then, I'd like to share with you the brief talk she gave at the 2015 appreciation dinner for the House of Hope volunteers, which filled the dining room at our local Pinstripes last month. It will give you a glimpse of the scope of what Hope Ministries is doing in the parish for the Barrington area. For me, it's a moment of doing what Jesus asked us to do in the Sermon on the Mount, letting the community's "light shine for all the world to see, so that others may see the good you do, and give praise to your Father in heaven."

Me: Marie, can you tell me a little bit about your background, how you got interested in social work, and what led you to St. Anne?

MJ: I went to college at Catholic University of America in (Washington) DC. I have a Masters in Social work from DePaul. I wanted to be a sociologist (among other things…I also wanted to be a princess named Princess Dream for awhile too). I was interested, still am, in war and the movements of people in response to war and genocide. In high school (Loyola Academy) and in college I did a lot of volunteering (Catholic Worker House, immigrant rights group, Guatemala, etc.) and those experiences led me to be more interested in the lived, daily experiences of people beyond just studying them.

Me: What work did you do with Catholic Charities Refugee Program before you came to St. Anne?

MJ: I’ve worked primarily with refuges and immigrants. I loved that work and still do. I’ve done lots of different types of social work with this population. I am really interested in how a community can respond in better and bigger ways to the needs of our neighbors…meaning program expansion and development.

Me: This is the thing, isn't it? I've always felt that it was important for any church to open up pathways for people to exercise their calling to work for the gospel. People really seem to want to help, but often don't see any clear access to various ways to work for social justice. I know that when Sr. Lorraine and others began the food pantry in Carpentersville, it was an opportunity for my family to begin work together, and after all these years I still love doing that.

MJ: Yes, we are creating space for all of us to serve in the ways we are best equipped to do and allowing opportunities for engagement so that we can learn from the marginalized in our communities. 

Me: Can you tell us about any "conversion moments," times in your life when you knew that this was the kind of work you wanted to do?

MJ: A conversion moment, I have them twelve times a day and usually they are more like me being dragged kicking and screaming by the Holy Spirit (hello! …that’s how I ended up in Barrington). I am not sure I can pinpoint one moment; more a series of moments that led me to believing that Jesus wasn’t joking about serving our brothers and sisters. I love Matthew 25. Not the judgment part in terms of me being included or the idea that I could deserve somehow to be included in the group on the right…I’ve a far way to go for that. More like when he says that whatever you did for the least you did for me, and what you didn’t do, you didn’t do for me. To me this isn’t something sweet, this is real. If I claim to be a lover of God, then how can I not serve God? 

To me serving means the dirty work. It’s more in the ugly, hard moments that I learn about God’s love than in sweet songs (uh, no offense...) or platitudes. It's in the interactions I have had with the refugee, the homeless mother, the substance user, the angry drunk, the abuser, the undocumented, the mentally ill, that I have met God. That for me the incarnation is made real. That God came to us as Jesus and that it mattered. It should change the way we deal with the “other.' 

All of this is hard though, I can’t say that I am  “good” at it or that I always do it lovingly…thus the dragging, kicking and screaming of conversion. Especially as this intersects with my professional role as a social worker and setting boundaries and discerning what is best for a client and for an organization (or ministry as it is here). I just know that my own personal brokenness has been responded to with such love and grace by God and by God made manifest in my tribe of people. My hope is that as a ministry we do this for others, and I think we do, we provide hope and more importantly we tell people that they matter,that their life is valuable and that they are loved by a God that’s bigger than any brokeness or any of the shit life throws at them. 

Me: OK, and to follow up with hipper interview questions–favorite color? 
MJ: Yellow
Me: Celebrity crush?
MJ: Gary Daigle.
Me: If you only knew how many times I've heard that! Any last thoughts?
MJ: Well, yes...I also I blame my mother for tipping my life toward this work. We had "solidarity with the poor" nights….she would make a very simple meal (rice and beans) and we would talk about how better to serve the poor in our communities. Yup. Mama Jokes. 

Maybe, friends, you can begin to understand why I look forward to having Marie on staff with us at St. Anne for many years to come. It's hard not to catch her fire for her work even while being a little intimidated by she exposes how much closer we really are to tremendous suffering than maybe we had imagined. But there is hope in the solidarity of a community that faces that suffering together. That's what I hope to catch. Hope.

Now, as promised, this is the text of Marie's talk to the House of Hope volunteers at the 2015 appreciation dinner from last month. Even I, who work at St. Anne and know a lot of these people as my friends and neighbors for over twenty years, was amazed at what they are able to do in the community on behalf of the poor. I leave you with Marie's words:

Tonight we celebrate you. You the volunteer who works long hours in House of Hope, sorting
through bags of clothing, moving furniture, working with a family as they move from despair to hope. This year brought our ministry many changes and joy.

This year, we were called to serve in increasingly bigger and bolder ways. You responded to this call the way you do all things…with joy and hard work.

This year we fed 6,200 people. 6,200 of our neighbors in need who came to us for help in keeping their families fed and healthy. Even more than food you offered hope.

We worked with 1700 households in our community that were in need of rental assistance, help with prescription medication, school supplies for their children. You kept lights on and homes heated. You repaired cars. You kept people employed and self sufficient. But even more than that you offered hope.

You gave out $170,000 in grants to 14 local organizations that feed, house, and counsel those in need; extending our reach in the community further than the Project Hope walls. But even more than that You offered hope to our community.

In order to do all of this you worked long, hours in the food pantry, Project Hope office, on the grant committee, on the Board of Advisors and at House of Hope.

House of Hope: This year we had another record breaking year. You just can’t stop yourselves……For the first time in our history, House of Hope brought in over one million dollars in revenue. One million dollars to serve God’s people. Thank you. Thank you. Our clients thank you, our community thanks you, I thank you.

A special thanks goes out to our (donations truck driver) Jim. I literally begged him to come. We all did. So perhaps we can show our gratitude to Jim even with him not being here.

From polishing silver, to keeping our pantry stocked, answering phones, sorting and pricing shoes, linens, clothing, household goods, sporting equipment, stationery, the welcoming of customers & Clients alike …. All of these moments you are offering grace and mercy. You offer this mercy to each other, to our clients, our customers

One of the many things I am continually impressed with is the way that we minister and are ministered to by one another. This is a community of friends, neighbors, and family. Nowhere was this more apparent then in the passing of our dear friend and manager Caryn. Many of you walked with her in her final weeks, visiting, praying, and supporting Jim and Peggy as they cared for Caryn right up to the end. It was beautiful to see this community come together to support one another.

Caryn remained deeply committed to Hope Ministries to the end of her life. She shared with our ministry some of the financial gifts of her life for which we are extremely grateful. As you know, One of the things Caryn was most passionate about was serving families who faced a housing crisis such as a fire, flooding, or transitioning out of homelessness. She loved putting together the things that turn a house into a home. We will specifically be using these funds from Caryn to serve families in a housing crisis. Continuing to pass on the gift of mercy and love that Caryn was to all of us.

The book of notes and memories you shared with Caryn near the end of her life was full of stories of hope. Stories that demonstrate the many ways you are a community of the faithful. Faithful real people.

Some days the thought of yet another bin of clothing might be enough to put you over the edge. Or hearing of yet another tale of substance abuse or family disintegration may be enough to hang up your Project Hope hat. Sister Lorraine’s vision of working together to serve the poor is a hard one. She did not intend that this work was to be done by one person. Her vision was and our vision remains to do this work together, as a community….a community of the faithful who are real people. This life of service within a community challenges us to be together in the tough parts of life and the hard parts of serving. The tough conversations, the tough decisions-it is not easy to do this work.

And yet You demonstrate, that it’s worth it. The call of the faithful is answered daily by each of you, to serve, to love in the hard times and through the hard moments.. As a community You demonstrate an openness to learn, to grow, and to think in new ways about old problems. You are a group of people open to God’s call. Open to listening to the Holy Spirit as lived in our real lives. In the smelly, ugly bits, just as much as in the times of rejoicing.

As we continue to grow in all parts of our ministry, change is inevitable. We know Peggy will be retiring as our General manager next June. She and I along with the Board of Advisors and ministry leaders have been working closely to ensure our long term sustainability, I am confident in all of you to continue to do the work of serving the poor because this call was not reserved for Sr. Lorraine, for Peggy, for Diane, for Jim. This call is all of ours. Those of us in this room and the many others we invite to join us. As we continue to evolve, I want to share my awe for each of you as you serve God’s people with love and mercy. Your brave, generous, open, and humble response to the call to serve is an inspiration. I can’t wait to see what next year brings us.

So while I am in awe of the money we’ve made, the people we’ve fed, the grants we’ve given and I am certain we have the best "upscale" resale shop in the state….I am convincd that what we do best is this; being in community with one another. Ministrering to each other, offering hope to our community, and growing in faith together. 

 This is who you are, this is who we are.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Plant peace, harvest justice - Crop Hunger Walk 2015

In one month, on October 18, 2015, our village churches (and others) will take part in the Barrington Area CROP Hunger Walk. For many years now (I've lost count!) music ministry and I have raised money by walking the 10K route with dozens of other citizens. Church World Services, sponsor of the Crop Hunger Walk movement around the country, has its headquarters in West Chicago, and is rated and listed by Charity Navigator with a 3-star (of four) rating, funneling 86¢ of every dollar raised directly to those whom it serves. In 2014, over 65% of its funds went directly to refugee settlement and assistance.

The autumn walk in Barrington is generally delightful, with the trees offering a brightly-lit course through the village for participants. On those rare occasions where we experience a rain-out (many of us will walk on a drizzly day, but for some it's dangerous for health and walking), we'll walk the course another day when the sun is out. The entire route is 10K (about six miles) through and around the village, and there is a "golden mile" for those unable to the entire route. This year, we start at SALEM UNITED METHODIST CHURCH on Lincoln, west of Hough Street (Rte. 59), with check-in beginning at 12:30 and the walk beginning at 1:00 p.m.

Sara Miles runs The Food Pantry, a ministry of 
St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. 
She is the author of the book Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead
Every Friday more than 500 people line up for the free food the pantry serves. 

You can join us in fighting hunger by walking with us and raising funds for the team (follow link, click "join team"), or just by making a donation (follow link, click "donate now.") To our Barrington friends especially: not only does CROP Hunger Walk help relieve the suffering of the hungry in other places around our nation and the world: every year, for the last several years, some of the money raised has come back to Barrington, in fact, right to our own food pantry at St. Anne. So we are making a difference everywhere, including our own back yard.

I'm going to write more next week on this blog about what St. Anne's House of Hope is doing in and around Barrington. For now, let me just say that just in the ministry of feeding the hungry, the parish runs a food pantry on the premises that is open five days a week, and another monthly pantry at the Public Works building in Carpentersville with the Northern Illinois Food Bank that gives groceries to nearly a hundred families, and we're looking to start this on a second day every month. I'm proud of what my fellow parishioners are doing for the love of Christ and the gospel to make this happen. It is the goal of our liturgical and music ministry to inspire this kind of living in one another, so that by receiving the bread of life on Sunday, we can feed others with the bread that is our own lives the other six days of the week. Over and over, like your church too, I'm sure, this is what happens.

Marie Jochum, the wonderful and energetic director of Hope Ministries, has continued and begun to expand on the rich legacy of Sr. Lorraine Menheer, SSSF, who began House of Hope in the parish many years ago and who passed away in 2010. Her legacy lives on in the life of the parish in the consciousness and work of St. Anne on behalf of the poor in our area and in ministries in Latin America and Africa. Sister Lorraine inspired me, many years ago, to get involved with Crop Hunger Walk and in our food pantry, and it has been something I have loved to do with her and now in her memory, with our wonderful community.

So, please, if you are able, join our team and/or make a donation. And I'll see you on October 18 at Salem! Beloved child of God, let gratitude fill your heart, and say "me too!" to what this realtor's sign said, which I snapped along the route of Crop Hunger Walk last year:

It was a sign from God (and ReMax) along the 2014 route.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Sometimes, the word alone (B25O)

Where do the wars
and where do the conflicts among you come from?
Is it not from your passions
that make war within your members?
You covet but do not possess.
You kill and envy but you cannot obtain;
you fight and wage war.  (Jas. 4: 1-2a)

Taking a child, he placed it in the their midst,
and putting his arms around it, he said to them,
“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me;
and whoever receives me,
receives not me but the One who sent me.” (Mk 9:36-37)


All of these charities use more than 90¢ of every dollar to actually help those in need.

When peacemakers plant seeds of peace, they will harvest justice. (James 3:18, CEV, the last words of the 2nd reading for Sunday)

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Set list MMA 2015 Benefit Concert at St. Edna's

What a wonderful time we all had last night singing and playing music with the wonderful community gathered at St. Edna's. Gary Daigle and his team of wonderful and hospitable collaborators made it a day to remember from the on-site meals for us artistes with our incessant demands for Perrier at 42° and blue M&Ms to the well-rehearsed choir and general set-up. It was clearly a lot of work, but done with such transparent efficiency and apparent grace that we were just caught up in the joy and faith of the community. Thanks to Lisa, Lara, Diane, Lorie, and the entire St. Edna team.

So this was the playlist from the concert last night, and as many iTunes versions as I could find.

Remember that all this was in service of Music Ministry Alive, which I've written about before. It is David Haas's and Lori True's summertime "camp" at St. Catherine University in St. Paul for high school and young college age liturgical musicians. You can read more about it here and here, and see more on their website. Last year's setlist is here, so you can see that we didn't completely do a rerun—certainly the happy addition of Lori True to the list of performers brought another dimension of passionate, pastoral song to our gathering.

Our concert was, obviously, on the 14th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, and in the shadow of the refugee crisis in Europe (and, as Mike Joncas pointed out, here at home along our southern border.) Lori's song "Who Is the Alien?" and Michael's "A Place Called Home," a new text for the beautiful "Finlandia" melody of Jean Sibelius, gave us opportunity for prayer and reflection on those realities, and Marty's new song for the Year of Mercy, "Be Merciful," was also a reminder to imitate God in our treatment of one another.

Set list:
All seven of us together:
A Place at the Table (True)
Joyfully Singing (Balhoff, Daigle, Ducote)

Local contingent
I Am for You (Cooney)
Psalm 23 (Daigle)
Too Many Walls - Theresa Donohoo
Trumpet in the Morning (Cooney)
In the Bleak Midwinter (Holst/Rosetti, Cooney)
Covenant Hymn (Daigle, Cooney)

All seven of us:
Canticle of the Turning (Cooney)
We Come to Your Feast (Joncas)

Visiting Team:
I Have Loved You (Joncas)
You Are Mine (Haas)
Within the Reign of God (Haugen)
Light a Candle (True)
I Will Live On - David Haas
Shepherd Me, O God (Haugen)
A Place Called Home (Joncas)
Who Is the Alien? (True)
Be Merciful (Haugen)
Watch, O Lord (Haugen)

All seven of us:
Blest Are They (Haas)
On Eagle's Wings (Joncas)
Encore: We Are Called (Haas)

MMA alumna Olivia Guntin from St. Anne sang with Terry on "In the Bleak Midwinter," and also performed the first verse of "Blest Are They" with the seven of us.

Here are the songs on iTunes - the two that wouldn't fit are linked above.

Friday, September 11, 2015

With death all around, a living God (B24O)

...(F)aith of itself,
if it does not have works, is dead.
Indeed someone might say,
“You have faith and I have works.”
Demonstrate your faith to me without works,
and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works. (Jas. 2: 17-18)
"Paul sets Jesus, the Anointed, and Abraham, the father of many nations, in parallel. Both faced a shameful situation, Abraham’s lack of a son and Jesus’ death by crucifixion. Both despite that shame were faithful to God’s promise. Both are life giving: Abraham by the birth of Isaac and Jesus by the resurrection. Both stand in a line of spiritual paternity. Abraham is the father of the nation of Israel through Isaac and of all the nations through Jesus. As John White in his study of Paul’s use of Abraham notes, 'Faith is only an appropriate response to what is the true source of Paul’s theology, his recognition of God’s benevolent power as creator to procreate life out of negative situations, even out of death itself.'" (xxvi). (Scott, Bernard Brandon (2015-04-12). The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge (Kindle Locations 2322-2327). Polebridge Press. Kindle Edition.)
I will walk in the presence of God in the land of the living. (Psalm 116) – footnote–using the perhaps less-precise previous NAB translation here because of the apparent clash between "walking before the Lord" and the rebuke of Christ to "get behind me" in the gospel. I'm sure that the translators expected the homilist to straighten that out for us, and I'm sure that almost none of them will. If I have to choose between obeying Christ and the homilist, I'm generally going for the former.
It's September 11, Friday before Sunday, and I'm still struggling to put the pieces of what I want to say together.

The "#neverforget" hashtag is ubiquitous today. I'm sure that for many good souls it's shorthand for remembering the goodness of the human toll of the day, the innocent lost in a few horrible moments, the unquestionable selflessness and courage of the first responders who lost their lives in a desperate attempt to help as many endangered souls as possible. And it's also clear that embedded in the hashtag for many is a vow for retributive "justice," vengeance, upon the perpetrators, and apparently upon anyone who looks like them, worships their God, or speaks in the same language group.

But every time I say the Lord's Prayer with my community of worshippers, and by that I mean my small-c church of those who claim Jesus as God's anointed, it's like a prayer that goes off to God with hashtag "#forchrissakeforget", forget the fear, laziness, treachery, and violence of my life—and as a gesture of desperate faith, I'm imitating in advance the forgetfulness I desire from you. I'm forgetting the debts and slights and sins of those who sin against me. And by me I mean all of us, my small-c church and me, and everyone else I know.

I can only use one hashtag or the other. They're mutually exclusive, at least in the secondary way described above, the one that implies vengeance. "'Vengeance is mine' says the Lord," (Rom. 12:19, ref. Deut. 32:35), but the thing is, in Christ, vengeance is forever revoked. The "God who is not like the other gods" is doing something new. Taking all the horror that people impose upon one another in religion, politics, and war upon himself to the grave, God raised Jesus from the dead with no word upon his mouth except "Peace." Forgiveness, seventy times seven times, to an exponent of seventy. God is out of the vengeance business, and into the business of mercy, dialogue, healing, invitation.

Israel saw it coming in the stunning Servant Songs in Isaiah, the third of which is today's first reading. Was there ever so striking a poem about God's favor upon the victim of violence, a God whose power to create ex nihilo could show through the suffering of one the path to freedom for all? James Alison says it best for me:
This is where Isaiah develops the unparalleled and to this day deeply mysterious “servant songs” by which a separation between God and human victim-making, and yet a generous process of being able to occupy the victim space on behalf of others, begins to become imaginable. This leads, in the final part of Isaiah, now called Third Isaiah, to devastating critiques of the religious culture of those who, after the return from exile, were rebuilding the Temple and setting up a new purity religion, full of exclusions. Isaiah is key to understanding the way in which the utter vivacity of the apparently atheist God who is not-one-of-the-gods removes all religious justification from victimizing. Isaiah’s vision is the most central to the development of New Testament Judaism which sees itself entirely within the same working out of the same insight. (emphasis mine) (Alison, James [2013-11-11]. Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice [pp. 151-152]. DOERS Publishing LLC. Kindle Edition.)
It is the cross, the gallows of the Roman empire used almost exclusively to make an example of those who challenged the pax Romana, that becomes, by way of Jesus's death, the "sign of contradiction" branded upon the soul of Christianity of God's rejection of violence and embrace of peace and reconciliation as the true civilizing energy of humanity. It is this cross that Jesus took up, refusing to participate in revolution, king-making, or the mechanics either of empire nor collaboration with it. And it is this cross, the cross of faithfulness, of peace, of healing, of enemy-love, of "our Father," to which the gospel, the "good news for the world" of God's peaceful victory, calls us again today and every day.
He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them,
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake
and that of the gospel will save it.” (Mk. 7: 34-35)
I guess all I have left to say about that is: #neverforget.

What we're singing this weekend:

Entrance: The Christ of God (Foley, OCP) or Lead Me, Guide Me
Psalm 116: I Will Walk in the Presence of God (Daigle)
Prep Rite: Only This I Want (Schutte)
Communion: Christ the Icon
Recessional: Glory in the Cross (Schutte, Easter verses)

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Second thoughts: Je m'accuse (B23)

James of Jerusalem. Icon by
Br. Tobias Haller
1. Jesus and that spitting thing
This morning I was reading Rachel Held Evans' wonderful book Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church when I read this sentence in one of her chapters in the section called "Baptism": "In some Orthodox traditions, the convert literally spits in the face of evil before going under the water." She quotes Alexander Schmemann in other places in this chapter, who was an Orthodox liturgical theologian, and it makes me think she may have read this in one of his books as well.

When Sunday's gospel had us imagining the scene with Jesus and the deaf man with the speech impediment, groaning, spitting, and touching his tongue, I'm guessing a lot of people were wondering what the hell was going on with the spitting. But one homilist mentioned something very similar to RHE's observation, and it made me sit up and take notice. I'm guessing that what's going on here is exactly that. Part of what Jesus is doing in the act of healing is "spitting in the face" of the sickness, making an outward act of disgust and revulsion at the disorder that caused the pain and difficulty of this man's, and so many others', life. Maybe the groaning was part of it too, a belly-roar of sadness and regret to begin to open the man's closed-off hearing and speech.

2. James's letter and the meaning of faith
I'm fairly certain that I've told you about how Reza Aslan's book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, while not convincing on every level in its portrayal of Jesus as one political "messiah" in a long line of many who tried and failed to rouse the populace, even if peaceably, against Rome, really did speak to me about the early church conflicts about who Jesus was and what his ministry meant to the apostles and how his memory should shape the future of the community of believers. This played out largely in the tensions between factions in Jesus's all-Jewish band of apostles and evangelists. Some, like Paul and Barnabas, were looking for ways to bring the "adopted" children of God, the gentile Christian believers, into the community without making them adopt the rigors of the Torah, particularly the dietary proscriptions and circumcision. Others, like James and, at least for a time, Peter, thought that being brought into Judaism was essential to being part of the Way. Famously, in the "council of Jerusalem," some accommodation was made, though it's not entirely clear, between Paul's own version of what happened and Luke's in Acts of the Apostles, what the nature of that was. Nevertheless, on the question of faith and works, a question where Paul seemed to say that works (like the works of Torah, including circumcision and diet) were dead and could not save, James, "the brother of the Lord" and one who, unlike Paul, had been with Jesus during his ministry, said that works, and specifically works of justice, that is, acting in life the way God acted on behalf of people, were a necessary outward sign of inward conversion to Jesus and the way.

This is so brilliantly brought forward in the Letter of James in these few weeks we get to hear it read in the liturgical assembly. When I think of it as the word of a man who perhaps knew Jesus, was possibly a close relative, even a brother, and how in the face of rebellion and the pending siege of Jerusalem he would insist that justification by faith had to be evidence in an egalitarian attitude, care for orphans and widows, and active help in relieving the suffering of the hungry and poor, it gives me a new appreciation for Jesus's preaching and life and death. It feels true to me. I know that I might be mistaken, but for now, I take it as true. There's that great line where James is using Paul's own icon of faith, Abraham, to make his argument about works, calling the person he is addressing an "ignoramus. (2:20)" Could he have meant Paul? A perverse part of me wants to think these titans might have escalated their argument to the ad hominem level for all eternity, but I'm also willing to believe James was correcting a misinterpretation of Paul. That's nowhere near as fun, though! What's the old saying? Two rabbis, four opinions?

3. Finalment, je m'accuse.
In the light of all that, in the light of James's admonition that our works show our faith, in the light of the psalm we sang that gave praise to God who "upholds the stranger and orphan" and "gives bread to the hungry," I was hoping for some rousing preaching about doing something positive, especially in the light of the humanitarian crisis in Europe because of the influx of Syrian refugees. But it was not to be. And then, our beautiful pope, leading by example, announces that beginning with the parishes under his jurisdiction in Rome, monasteries and parishes in Europe should each to adopt a Syrian family. That was something. That was worth an "alleluia."

But then I realized I hadn't done a damn thing myself, so I did some quick searching for entities that were already on the ground and working there, and found some that used over 90 cents of every donated dollar to actually helping people. Terry and I sent some money to Medical Teams International. UNICEF and CRS are also highly rated charities already helping. Will you join us? You have to hear James one more time this Sunday, if you know what I mean.

Donate here to Medical Teams International
Donate here to Catholic Relief Services

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Can I get an "Alleluia," somebody? (B23O)

The responsorial psalm Sunday is Psalm 146, a Hallel, one of the psalms that begins with the word "Alleluia," a word meaning "praise the Lord," or "holler to Yah" or something like that. There is so much to like about Psalm 146, especially for a musician. Unlike its more famous neighbor, Psalm 150, it cites specific reasons for which the praise of God is required, which is good, because otherwise, we might get the idea that whatever "blessings" we may have received ourselves, health, a mortgage or two, a relatively functional family, a job that pays more than minimum wage, citizenship in a country that isn't actively trying to kill us, more cars than will fit in our two-car garage, enough discretionary cash to pay for a personal trainer, all of those things that constitute the status quo, is enough of a reason to say, "Praise the Lord."

Psalm 146 has a different idea. Like a pre-exilic foreshadowing of the beatitudes, it sings—sings!—that God should be praised because it is
  • God who is faithful forever
  • God who secures justice for all the oppressed
  • God who gives bread to the hungry,
  • God who sets prisoners free,
  • Our God who gives sight to the blind,
  • God who raises up those who are bowed down,
  • The Lord who protects the stranger,
  • God who upholds the widow and orphan.
And as if all that weren't enough, it was a songwriter who had the idea, who got so excited about a God who was in there with the poor, in the thick of it with the least powerful people on earth, that the troubador vows, in an ecstasy of thanksgiving, to "give praise to YHWH all my life, make music to Elohim while I live." I know that I have two published versions of this psalm, and I may have written another one back in times of yore, before I kept records. Not LPs, just any written evidence. Just getting in line with my ancestor in faith to keep the word alive, you know. Praise the Lord, and lose the ammunition.

Do you see what a marvelous act of faith it is, in a God who is truly distinguishable from all the other gods of earth, to sing about a God who not only is not aligned exclusively or primarily with the ruling class and priesthood but who is personally involved with the weak and wretched? This kind of spiritual groundbreaking in the Jewish scriptures made it possible for Jesus of Nazareth to suggest that "Blessed are the poor, the meek, the hungry, the sorrowful," announcing in his first "sermon" that the empire of God was gathered around him on the hill, tired, overtaxed, dressed for labor, stressed out worrying about where tomorrow's bread might come from. Not far away, not meritable, not a consequence of birth, not visible by way of the blessing of health or money, but already among you, close enough to grasp. 

These are the right words to sing this Sunday as Jesus crosses into the Gentile territory and heals a deaf man with a speech impediment, using, if the Revised New American Bible's footnotes can be believed, the same gestures and groanings that other healers of his time used. But this kind of healing was a sign of the God of Psalm 146 drawing near, the God of Isaiah, whose approach would be signaled by the healing of the desert and the bodies of those whose broken bodies are stumbling home from exile.

The letter of James, the "just," the "brother of the Lord," the leader of the church in Jerusalem, is a warning to anyone in the church (or out of it, or in any church) who thinks that the signs of God's favor and blessing are anything other than the ones delineated in the psalm or, to the point, in the teaching of "brother" Jesus. Showing partiality to the rich and entitled over the poor is roundly condemned, specifically because that's not what God is like. But (sarcasm alert) no need spend too much time analyzing James here, because we certainly don't have that problem in our time or in this country. Or in our church.

A friend of mine wrote on Facebook yesterday that he loved Pope Francis because "he makes me want to be a better person." Why do you think that is? Maybe it's because Francis mirrors for us God's predilection for the poor. Unafraid, he frequents prisons, embraces the sick, walks in the barrios and slums, inevitably with a smile on his face, radiating love, except in those moments when you can see anger flash across his face about the scandalous inequalities of modern civilization.

Maybe the "so what?" question remains. So what if Jesus healed a man who with a speech impediment a couple of millennia ago? What has he done for us lately? That's a fair question. So I'm saying thank you today to all my friends and colleagues over the years who have worked in hospitals and clinics, healing the sick and bringing the presence of Christ into the pain and fear that sickness brings. Thank you to Christ in the speech therapists, and I'm thinking of one particular one today, helping a musician maintain the ability to sing in spite of an illness. Thank you to Christ in the junior high school singer in my youth choir who gave a concert with her voice teacher at an eldercare facility, and who started playing "You Are My Sunshine" on her guitar, and was overcome with emotion as the residents took up the refrain with her, and brought the little house down.

Thank you to all of you, Christ in the alleluia-makers, Christ in the musicians, who week after week sing a word of healing to people who are told by "civilization" that they can never be good enough, that they're not beautiful, that they don't hate the right people; to you whose hands and breath intone the music of Ephphetha, and invite the chosen of God into the song that heals the universe. "Be strong: fear not! Here is your God, he comes to save you!" You and I may not always "do all things well," but God is strong in our weakness. May our song of God's gentle reign break the spell of greed and rivalry to which all are subjected through the week, and lead the world, one assembly at a time, into an "alleluia" for the One who raises up the lowly, and secures justice for the oppressed.

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

Entrance: Open My Eyes
Psalm 146: Praise the Lord, My Soul (Cooney)
Prepration of the gifts: Turn Around
Communion: You Are Mine (Haas)
Closing: Over My Head or Healing River

We're also debuting these weeks at the choir mass a new (partly revised) mass setting called Mass of Christ the Servant. This is always nervewracking for me, not because I don't think it's singable or worthy, but because you just never know, as a songwriter, how other people will react to your music. It's utterly unpredictable. Nevertheless, "I will praise the Lord all my life, make music to my God while I live." Or die trying.