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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Second Thoughts: Transfigured by prayer—C2L

St. Anne was privileged to have Bishop Joseph Tyson of the diocese of Yakima, Washington, present with us for the Second Sunday of Lent. Our parish's Lenten almsgiving targets a specific charity each year. We've recently partnered with a parish in the Congo, for instance, or with Nuestros Piqueños Hermanos, an organization that builds community-schools for orphans around the western hemisphere. This year, after a visit with Fr. Jack Wall to Yakima, our pastor chose the Catholic Extension Society as our communal almsgiving focus. Yakima is one of ninety-four dioceses in 37 states that benefits from CES.

Bishop Tyson preached at three of our five masses, so I was able to assimilate his message better than usual, even after having a particularly late dinner with him on Saturday evening and getting up to provide music for mass at the (literally) ungodly hour of 7:15 a.m. (God: "Enough with the racket. We're trying to sleep up here.") It was the way he articulated one aspect of the particularly Lucan transfiguration story that caught my ear and helped me to connect it with other ruminations through the week, particularly James Alison's about prayer, which was the focus of our Thursday evening gathering to hear and discuss Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice. Bishop Tyson reminded us that Luke's account was the only one in which Jesus goes to the mountain to pray.
Jesus took Peter, John, and James
and went up the mountain to pray.
While he was praying his face changed in appearance
and his clothing became dazzling white. (Lk. 9: 28b-29)
While "coming down from the mountaintop" has become almost synonymous with "getting back to work" after an elating time of respite, the bishop reminded us that Luke 9 begins with Jesus turning from his Galilean ministry and "resolutely setting his face toward Jerusalem," the verse that originally inspired my song, "Jerusalem, My Destiny."

If you read my "Second Thoughts" piece for Ash Wednesday (The Pantry), you remember that Alison was teaching that "going to your inner room" was a process of disconnecting from the "social other," the voices of family, friends, political parties, nations, advertisers, and the whole matrix of reality that shapes our identity from the outside to create us for its own good. Prayer, he says, is a kind of detox from all those voices that want to keep us from being what we really might be, that is, part of God's recreated world, part of God's project of universal reconciliation and unity, in which we reject every attempt to define ourselves over against the weak or create scapegoats for our problems. In that "inner room," the larder or pantry Jesus refers to in Mt. 6, we disconnect from those voices and allow God to speak through our own inner longings, as St. Paul puts it in Romans, the Spirit prays for us. Alison, in fact, uses the example of the desert sojourn of Jesus as a specific example of this kind of "detox." The risk Jesus runs by his use of his marvelous gifts and transparently attractive persona is that he will come to want what the crowd wants for him. He will come to be run by their desire, rather than the desire of the One who calls him "my beloved son, my chosen servant." The story of Jesus's encounter with Satan in the wilderness is exactly about this kind of inner struggle for the self-identity of the Messiah.

My thoughts, then, this Sunday went to how prayer enables transfiguration. If we imagine that, in prayer, by finally disconnecting all those other influences (over time, of course) that want to run our lives and keep us bound into the competitive, ever-escalating rivalry of human desire, we are actually able to be "possessed" by Another who is deathless, beyond all rivalry, who only wants what is the very best for us, who loves us in our arrogant, sloppy, disaster-prone humanity, and who, right in the face of our hoarding and insurance-buying desperation against imagined scarcity, declares (Alison again, invoking Genesis) "Something wonderful out of nothing! Something wonderful out of nothing!", what might become of our visage, our age, our place in time, even our geography? If we were to encounter and be possessed in prayer by the Holy One, might transfiguration not only be possible, but inevitable?

And more important, don't we already know this? Aren't our lives full of encounters with people whom we call "holy," who radiate an inner light, and whose presence evokes memories of heroes and prophets from other times and places? The last two novels I've read, which can in no way be thought of as "Christian" or even specifically religious, contain just such characters both monks, one in The Glass Bead Game, by Hesse, and the other in the more recent Ishiguro effort, The Buried Giant. I met a man like this on an airplane flight two years ago, and was so moved by the experience that I wept in the airport after he left, or, really, disappeared. I wrote about it in "God's 'Mystic' Assignment" here. We instinctively know when a person's true self is shaped not by the adulation or scorn of the crowd, but by the loving desire of the Holy One that always creates in its own image, creating desire for the good of the other in each one who opens self to that possibility.

Until Jesus, God had approached us obliquely, as the author of Hebrews put it at the beginning of that letter:
In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets;
in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory,
the very imprint of his being,
and who sustains all things by his mighty word...
For us who believe that the very human Jesus was somehow, mystically, the incarnation of this loving God, it is not hard to imagine that such a breakthrough in prayer, at this critical juncture of his life, after the baptism by John, after the voice from the clouds, after wonders of healing and exorcism, after fasting, after a turn toward Jerusalem and the opposition he fully expected to face from powers fully invested in another god named Tiberius and in the mechanism of temple sacrifice and accommodation to Rome, that such a breakthrough in prayer might cause a physical change, light, and the conjuring of ancient memories and cosmic allies. But even for Jesus, whatever happened on Mount Tabor, the experience was, however intense, momentary and relegated to the continuum of his days. The journey to Jerusalem continued for Jesus. For Peter, James, and John, as well as the other disciples, the journey to Jerusalem was not to be the end but another beginning. The encounter with Jesus, transformed by the prayer-encounter with the Holy One, while a future-shaping event that reordered their lives, did not cure them of doubt, nor did it give them clarity about the nature of this leader or the direction in which he was leading. They still saw him as Satan had desired, a charismatic wonderworker who might lead an overthrow of oppressive outsiders and clean up oppressive Jewish insiders. Like us, they too were plugged into the desire of the crowds, of their own families and their history. They too, though breaking bread with Jesus and sleeping around the same fire, needed to "detox" in the pantry, needed their own prayer and time away, in order for the Holy One to break through when they would, finally, open the door to a new story about themselves.

The same for the boy Saul, at the feet of the rabbi Gamaliel, burning with zeal for a shadow of the God he did not yet fully encountered. Paul, that missionary Jew who opened up the scriptural covenant of God's love to all nations along with the Jews, was ultimately able to write about faithfulness to another empire, about being a colony in Caesar's world of God's empire, awaiting change to its true self:
But our citizenship is in heaven,
and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
He will change our lowly body
to conform with his glorified body
by the power that enables him also
to bring all things into subjection to himself.
Those were my "second thoughts" on the transfiguration this Second Sunday of Lent. Encounter with a bishop can do that to you, especially one who does Sunday mass on Wednesday in the migrant camps with the obreros and their families, filling them with God's word, and being a sign of God's love through tacos and rice, and the sweet laughter of children crackling through the air like candy out of a piñata.

I recorded Bishop Tyson's homily, which was very powerful, with his permission. There are two versions. The 9 a.m. version is about three minutes shorter, but the 11 a.m. version is a little more passionate. Both are excellent. Somehow my camera missed the last few seconds of the 11am homily, but you can hear he is winding down, saying some "thank yous" to the parish. Enjoy.

Bishop Joseph Tyson, 9 a.m. homily, 2/21/16 - Second Sunday of Lent
11 a.m. homily, same day.


You may also find this passage from Jesus the Forgiving Victim helpful in understanding how our general understanding of prayer (i.e., I somehow tell God what I am and what I want) is different from what prayer actually is (i.e., God inviting us into a project bigger than ourselves, that is way better than what we actually think we want.) I will never stop encouraging you to try Alison's wonderful "Introduction to Christianity for Adults."

"I remember standing on a hill overlooking Lake Titicaca and watching the local Yatiris, shamans or priests, plying their wares. You could go to them, and for an appropriate offering, they would then light candles around little portable shrines, burn incense, and say the requisite prayers or incantations, which were in an amazing mixture of Latin, Quechua, Aymara and Spanish. The prayers or incantations were for a fairly repetitive list of things: protection from a neighbour’s evil eye, quick riches, death of a troublesome mother-in-law, to get an unwilling prospective love-match to fall for me, various forms of vengeance. 
The pattern seemed to be simple: God, or the gods, are a sort of celestial Las Vegas slot machine, full of amazing bounty, but inclined to be retentive. So prayer is the art of conjuring this capricious divinity, by exactly the right phrases, repeated exactly the right number of times, into parting with some of its treasure. As if the priest were a particularly expert puller of the slot-machine handle, one who could ensure that three lemons, or five bars, line up and so manipulate the divinity into disgorging its riches.
What this presupposes is a pattern of desire where we are subjects who are in control, and God is an object who must be manipulated: we are back to the blob and arrow picture of desire.  
What Jesus is teaching is exactly the reverse of this. In Jesus’ picture it is God who is the subject, who has a desire, an intention, a longing, and who knows who we are and what is good for us; and we who are capricious and somewhat inert slot machines who are always getting our handles pulled by the wrong players. In this picture it is precisely because our Father knows what we need before we ask him that we must learn to pray: our Father’s only access to us, the only way he can get to our slot-machine handle, is by our asking him into our pattern of desire." 

Friday, February 19, 2016

Second thoughts - Remembering and Election (C1L)

Then you shall declare before the Lord, your God, 
‘My father was a wandering Aramean 
who went down to Egypt with a small household 
and lived there as an alien. (Deut. 6:5)

"Now I think of it, Axl, there may be something in what you're always saying. It's queer the way the world's forgetting people and things from only yesterday and the day before that. Like a sickness come over us all..."

"I see for myself what you are saying is it's a shameful thing we can't receive a stranger with kindness any more." (both quotes are from The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.)

On Sunday I have this awkward feeling about taking a note or two during the liturgy of the word. Where I sit in the community feels exposed, but I'm at the opposite end of the sanctuary from where the readings are being proclaimed, so I suppose most of the being exposed is just in my head. Trusting my memory, or being Mary-like and "pondering these things in my heart" until later, would be the same as pouring water through a sieve. So I make a few notes on my phone and look at them later, trying to see if I can make sense of them.

You see above the lines from Deuteronomy that struck me when I heard them on Sunday, and I believe it was during my second mass that I wrote them down. It was this sense of remembering, of "keeping in mind," that I kept hearing. And not just us, right? The psalm is a cry out that God remember us, "Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble." Remembering makes things happen. Remembering is re-connecting with something true in us. By the time Deuteronomy was written before and after the Babylonian captivity, Moses had been dead for centuries, but in the crisis of exile and its aftermath, remembering the Torah was critical for the identity and unity of Israel. Hear, Israel, the Lord your God is one. Deuteronomy spells out in practice what that means to Israel. In Sunday's first reading from chapter 26, it tells Israel, once the land is possessed and things are good, to remember where they came from, and whose loving-kindness had made their new life possible. They are to remember and celebrate that memory with both kinsman and resident aliens.

It seems to me that remembering was also implicitly a part of the gospel drama in the desert. Here, the Tempter is trying to suggest to Jesus what it might mean to be the Son of God, the messiah. Now, Jesus, at his baptism, had already heard a voice telling him who he is and what that means: "you are my Son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased." The words from the Holy One are laden with memory, echoing out of Isaiah, where it is the "servant" who is loved and who pleases God, and upon whom God places "spirit" (Is. 42:1). So the Tempter says something to the effect of, "Son of God, act like a Son of God: stones to bread, rule the nations, be superman." But it's like Jesus doesn't even hear him, he already knows that to be like God, to be God's son, is to be for others, to live in love, in solidarity; not to rule, but to serve. Jesus has been elected and submitted to his "role model," the subject of his desire is the desire of the Father, to which he submits with generosity and joy.

Jesus is remembering where he comes from, whatever that might mean. I'm not suggesting he remembers "being God," but rather, like a true son of the Torah, he remembers that he is a child of a God who has led Israel from the beginning, who holds Israel in an unshakeable covenant love, who is able to bring "something out of nothing," the creator and liberator. All of the verses of Torah that Jesus quotes to the Tempter in the story are from within a few verses of the sh'ma in Deuteronomy 6, they explain what it means to be faithful, to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength," and to "be careful not to forget the Lord," that is, to remember.

So while I'm hearing these things, I'm also in the middle of reading Kazuo Ishiguro's newish novel, The Buried Giant, and loving its language, characters, and strange extended metaphors and ruminations. Among these are thoughts about remembering and forgetting, two of which I've quoted above. There seems to be an epidemic of forgetting going on in (early medieval) England, and it is causing people to act in unpredictable and undesirable ways. They aren't acting in a Christian, way, the protagonists muse. "We can't receive a stranger with kindness any more." As they continue on the journey to visit a son, a journey that makes the novel's structure, they imagine even more dangerous forgetting: "...(I)t might be God himself had forgotten much from our pasts, events far distant, events of the same day. And if a thing is not in God's mind, then what chance of it remaining in this of mortal men?...We're each of us his dear child. Would God really forget what we have done and what's happened to us?"

It's a lovely magical book, but it brings me to my takeaway from Sunday, about remembering and forgetting, about being "God's dear child," God's chosen, like Jesus, God's elect, and what that means and doesn't mean. It doesn't mean privilege and pride of place. Jesus absolutely rejects that in the desert. It means remembering who we are and where we came from: My father was a refugee Aramean who went down to Egypt and lived there as a resident alien. It's like a soundbite from tomorrow's newscast, an interview with any of millions of people around the world, where we swap out "Aramean" and "Egypt" for dozens of other nations. Then the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and outstretched arm, with terrifying power, with signs and wonders, and brought us to this place, and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. The proper response to this memory is hospitality and care for the other. As I like to tell people at concerts, "That whole 'do unto others' thing in the Sermon on the Mount? God's been doing that for a long time." To open ourselves to God's desire for the world is to tear down walls of privilege and segregation, and invite a new world into being in which people live as the sons and daughters of the God of rescue, and the sisters and brothers of Jesus "who welcomed sinners and ate with them."

This Sunday, the second Sunday of Lent, may well be a story of God remembering Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem, and blessing him with a memory of the remembered, of Moses and Elijah who had also been filled with the spirit of God and surrendered to God's seemingly impossible will for confrontation with the powers of the world. God's project might require my surrender, too, our surrender, to a future that we will not see ourselves. But the "punch line" is that we will be held through any failure or disaster by the love of One for whom death is nothing, and who carries memory for us with such utter reality that past, present, and future are as a single moment.

My community at St. Anne is blessed that this weekend Bishop Joseph Tyson of Yakima, WA, is speaking at all the masses about his diocese's ministry to migrant obreros. He and his staff bring the church to the fields from which the laborers cannot be dismissed on Sunday, and they offer worship and formation, as well as faith-informed communal celebration, to them. He will ask us for our help in doing this ministry, and our Lenten almsgiving is going to him this year. You who read this will hear similar calls, and respond with similar generosity. Let it come from a heart that remembers who you are, and to whom you belong, children of foreign refugees, saved from disaster for this day, for this opportunity to take what God has given you, and offer it back as a memory into the future of people you may never know, but each one a sister or brother of Christ, and of you, all the beloved children of God.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Second Thoughts: Ash Wednesday - the Pantry

But when you pray, go to your (ταμει̑ον) inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

In all the years of working with the North American Forum on the Catechumenate, especially when we were doing workshops around the country about reconciliation called "Remembering Church" and later "The Reconciling Community," I celebrated three or four Ash Wednesdays a year in addition to the ones that started Lent. So I'm pretty familiar with these texts, and have heard them preached on by some fine preachers. And because of the historical and theological connections between Lent and initiation, I've heard and reflected more on them when doing initiation workshops, and then when writing Change Our Hearts, my book of reflections on Lent and the baptismal promises. But there never seems to be an end to new insights, mostly because our liturgies and homilies get their authority from the scriptures, and as we learn more about what the actual language of the scriptures says, the literary, political, and theological matrices of its authors and editors, the meaning shifts as we go through life, sometimes subtly, sometimes more emphatically, and that's why "second thoughts" is important to me. It gives me a chance to share those insights I've heard since "the last time around," which give new depth to my appreciation of the gospel, and challenge me to assess my habits, good and bad, and make adjustments as necessary.

Well, what was strange this year was that on "Ash Thursday," the day after the long work day, I was leading the first installment of our last series of talks on James Alison's "Introduction to Christianity for Adults," called Jesus the Forgiving Victim. This fourth book of the series is sort of the "so what?" part. Part one starts us out from the ground: who are we, as human beings? It introduces us through our experience to our own nature as mimetic beings who receive our desire from others, for all the good and bad that does to us as a race. For me, at least, it helped to disabuse me of the idea that there is such a thing as a "self-made" individual, that there is an "I" whom I have made and whom I claim, and replaced it with an appreciation that who "I" am has rather been given to me through others. Part two introduced us to a new way of hearing the scriptures, understanding that the development of the bible was not historically linear, and we aren't receiving the Hebrew scriptures as a lesson in "salvation history" in any linear sense, but that it starts from its divine center and radiates outward from a point somewhere between the return from the Babylonian exile and the development of the Septuagint in about the 3rd-4th century BCE. The third book is "The Difference Jesus Makes," introduces the idea of a new reality in which people don't define themselves against others, but as much room as possible is made for everyone to be together, which Jesus called the "kingdom of God," and which, after the events described in Acts 10, James calls the arrival of "universal Judaism."  Part four calls us "unexpected insiders," and through various gospel passages and stories invites us to see what it might look like to imagine ourselves on the inside of God's project, aware of the influences the "social other" has upon our self-image, the damage that mimetic desire and scapegoating cause in every society, and seeing ourselves as receiving a new, real self from a God who is approaching us from beyond the social other, and not in rivalry with anything that is.

The weird "Ash Thursday" thing about this first class was that, by the karmic luck of the draw, the passage Alison was setting out to talk about was the very passage from Matthew 6 that we had heard the day before at our ashes services, the one that causes so many people, inside and outside the liturgical tradition of ashes, to wonder, "why are they/we doing exactly what Jesus says not to do, and practicing our piety in public?" Since I have been through this book twice, and am now on my third time, I was aware of Alison's viewpoint on it, and so brought his unique wisdom to my hearing - four times, on Ash Wednesday.

Rather than framing the passage simply either in anti-ritual or anti-clerical rhetoric ("it's just you and God, religious leaders and rituals are poison") or even in "intention" as we so often hear it (i.e., "God wants you to do pray, fast, and give alms, but do them privately"), James comes at it from the angle of mimetic desire. The identity that we receive from the social other is for its own good—we learn to want what we want because others want it too. René Girard's phrase describing this phenomenon is "we desire according to the desire of another." The person whom we come to know ourselves as is a creation of others, whether it is parents, family, friends, political party, social caste. Who we are, what we like, who we like and who we hate, all comes to us from outside. This is also true when it comes to "religious behavior," what the "good" people around us consider to be good. The praise of others and their desire for us can become the only voice we hear, and thus the reason we do or don't do religious things. The trouble is, we receive what is "good" from them too, and it might or might not be good in the plan of God, and, generally, it is not, because it is a product of the anthropology of desire which sacralizes violence in its ritual, and achieves unity within its social groups through identification of others as "bad," "outsiders" and "evildoers" and so on. Within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, however, the hermeneutical key to "good" and "bad" is, as Jesus puts it, from the words of the prophet Hosea about God's desire: "It is mercy that I desire, and not sacrifice (Hos. 6:6, Mt. 9:13, Mt. 12:7)."

So Jesus's identification of the problem of some of his fellow Pharisees is not that they need affirmation in their righteousness. Everybody needs affirmation. It's that they're getting it from the wrong place, and it's not righteousness. They're actually "receiving their reward," getting what they asked for, and thus their desire to be truly righteous is short-circuited. By letting the adulation of the crowd seduce them (or us, or me—I have nothing on the Pharisees), they are not allowing themselves to be open to the one voice, the voice of God, the voice that calls from within all of creation, to a new kind of righteousness not based on rivalry at all. It is a generosity of heart and spirit so great and deathless that it leads Jesus right to the darkest place there is, the death as an innocent victim of a crowd's desire, and leads him right back back into life. His resurrection is without rancor or accusation, just exposing the lie for what it was, and the offer of his life and word as an invitation to a new world, a "different game," in which we don't define ourselves over and against others, but define ourselves as neighbors by choosing to care for the victim and take the side of the oppressed.

So in the Ash Wednesday gospel, quoted at the beginning of this post, Jesus says, in so many words, "stop listening to all those people telling you how good you are. They don't know what they're saying, and you shouldn't be listening anyway. Go into your inner room and your Father, who sees in secret, and already knows the righteousness and affirmation you desire, is already waiting there." James says it much more eloquently, letting us in on a bit of exegesis of the Greek for us who thought that "Your room" meant "your bedroom." It's not like that at all. The Greek word tameion means "larder" or "pantry," an enclosed room inside a house (where there is no "bedroom," and all the sleeping quarters are quite exposed) where food is kept in darkness and in as much protection as possible from extremes of heat and cold. You are completely isolated from everyone there, and the voices of your fans can't get to you, nor can they see your pantomimes of righteousness. In Alison's own words:
...the word ταμει̑ον is more accurately rendered “storeroom”, larder or pantry.…(Jesus) is saying, “You are addicted to being who you are in the eyes of your adoring public, or your execrating public, it doesn’t matter which, since crowd love and crowd hate give identity in just the same dangerous way. So, go into a place where you are forcibly in detox from the regard of those who give you identity so that your Father, who alone is not part of that give and take, can have a chance to call your identity into being.”
Alison, James (2013-11-11). Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice - An Introduction to Christianity for Adults (p. 411-12). DOERS Publishing LLC. Kindle Edition.
The Forgiving Victim course challenged us to identify the larder of time or the pantry of location that might prove the place where we can go to be isolated from the voices from which we derive our identity, in the hope that over time we might receive our true identity from the one who loves us for who we might be and who we might become that we have not even imagined. So I'm trying to do that. I'm trying to do that even as I type these words and get ready to unleash them on you, Legion that they are, in the hope that they might ring true for you.

The gospel of this Sunday, the first Sunday of Lent, is a great example of Jesus in "detox," someone who has a habit of getting away from multitudes who want to make him their kind of messiah and listening for the one voice that is true, that calls him Beloved, and has shown him his own life in a way unimagined before, a messiah who will finally put an end to sacrifice and the cycle of imitation and violence that has ruled the world for ages. All the temptations of divinity, all the masks of human gods, those anthropomorphic monsters that stand for our desire to control, to have everything we want, to make people happy, to be immortal, the Great Divider who will cheer for us and give us everything as long as we worship his habit of pitting one against the other and blaming victims. In that moment, Jesus in his desert experience lets himself rest in the voice of the one who calls him Beloved, and accepts his destiny as God's servant, knowing that whatever might befall him, God has nothing to do with death, and that the life that created the universe is both his origin and his destiny.

That voice is the one I want to hear. My life, as much as anyone's ever has been, is poisoned both with praise and rebuke, I'm as damaged by one as the other. What might it mean to know fully what God wants from me, and to have the courage to move in that direction even though I might not ever clearly see the destination? I'm sitting with that as Lent begins, and as I listen to the story of Jesus and Satan vying in the desert for the soul of humanity. Who knew that the name of God was not Power or Riches or Indestructibility, but rather vulnerability, solidarity, and invitation? Looking around me, at the best of my friends and the hope and vision to which we cling, we might not be far off the path after all.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Songstories 27: Create Me Again (Psalm 51) (Vision, 1992, GIA)

Psalm 51: Create Me Again (sample on iTunes)

A couple of writing binges in the late 1980s and through about 1992 produced many of the songs that came to be the CD called  Vision, which we released through GIA in 1992. I went to Prescott Valley twice for a few days at a time, once alone, and once with Gary. All I took was my guitar, a notebook, and my Jerusalem Bible. For a change, the problem was less having writers' block than it was having no time to develop ideas for songs that I had. Feeling no possibility of finding the psychic space to do the kind of reflection that might ultimately lead to a completed song, my wife arranged to let me go to my mother-in-law's house to see what might develop.

I wrote about some of those songs in my post on the album Vision.   A few thoughts today about one of my favorites, "Create Me Again." Actually, they're all sort of my favorites. Vision is the CD which I think hangs together as a listening experience better than any of the other CDs. I mean, I love the music of every collection, and I really think they show a progression in both thought and songwriting so that I'm always very proud of what we put out as a CD, but Vision is sort of my Sergeant Pepper. The songs are really good, and it makes a kind of journey from "Be Thou My Vision" to "Spirits Seeking Light and Beauty," twin poles of my Irish heritage with a lot of spiritual oases along the way.

As a young man in college, I had already written a setting of Psalm 51 which I have thought about resurrecting over the years but can't quite bring myself to do it. It was a verbatim (or almost so) setting of the Jerusalem Bible text of the entire psalm with several lectionary antiphons that I thought might make the musical setting more useful. There were three different melodies for the verses, so they could be arranged in different combinations of stanzas and still make sense. But as I look back on it, though there are some good ideas in there, it's pretty clearly a product of my decades-long Cat Stevens period, and would probably sound a little dated in the arena-rock era of praise choruses. If I can hold out another ten years, who knows? The Cat Stevens sound might become hip again. ;-)

I was fascinated by the story of David and Bathsheba, having recently read God Knows, Saul Bellow's imaginative faux memoir of an aging David looking back over his life. As a young seminarian in the novitiate (1969-70) I was introduced to Louis Evely's spiritual classic, That Man Is You, which takes its title and launches from Nathan's parabolic indictment of David's murderous plot against Uriah in order to have easier access to Uriah's wife. You might recall that story, so vividly told in 2 Samuel 11-12, in which David unwittingly passes judgment on himself and is led to realize the full scale of the injustice he has wrought in his household. He is deeply repentant.

What is truly amazing is that God continues to love and favor him in the story, even with the revelation that David has committed both adultery and murder. Of course there are political reasons for reporting the story in this way, and there are perceived repercussions throughout the rest of the historical books of scripture for the monarchy in Israel, which was always suspect and not unanimously favored in Israel at any time, even when the kings acted justly, but in the story itself, God's love stays with David in spite of his treachery. Psalm 51 is a kind of testament to that, and has become the primary psalm of repentance in the church's arsenal of prayer. I guess we figure, if it worked for David, maybe it will work for us?
God, create a clean heart in me
Put into me a new and constant spirit. (Ps. 51:12)
This verse, to me, is the heart of the psalm, and my point of departure for the spirit of my setting. I learned from the commentary in the Jerusalem Bible that the verb "create" in this verse in Hebrew is never used unless "God" is understood as the subject of the sentence. In other words, the psalmist is asking God to be God, and to create again. A "clean heart" isn't about the pump beating in the body, about which there was no clear knowledge anyway, but rather about the center of the person, whatever it is that makes me me. I'm broken, the psalmist says, I'm damage goods, and I can't fix myself. You create, you made me. Create me again. This sense is amplified in the second half of the verse, in which "spirit" actually means "breath" (the word is the same in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.) Again, in Genesis, it is God's breath that gives life to water and dust in creation. "Give me that breath again that is the beginning of life," the psalmist is saying.

Clearly, my setting of the text is more, shall we say, in the nature of "dynamic equivalence" than formal, and ventures into the suddenly verboten waters of paraphrase. I get that. On the other hand, it follows the arc of the lament from confession of sin to profession of faith and forgiveness, and announces the intention to change. And underneath the adoration in verses 13-17 there is the promise that more songs and psalms will follow the sign of God's forgiveness, with the barely unspoken caveat that if the blackness endures, songs will cease, and then where will God be?

Maybe that's wishful thinking, or maybe that's the kind of bargain a troubadour makes for his life when he's desperate. In any case, I guess it works for me.

You fashioned the heavens, you gathered the seas;
Can you create a new heart in me?
God of compassion, you servant has sinned.
Breathe out your spirit. Create me again.

1. You are God, you alone. "Faithful love" is your name.
Let your rivers of mercy wash me of my shame.
Lies and betrayals haunt me like my grave.
Are you not their master? Can you not save?

2. Turn away, turn away, turn away from my sin!
Can you not see my anguish, my torment within?
Broken by sorrow, I bring you my heart.
Do not reject me, but show who you are.

3. Give me back the joy that comes from salvation,
Teach me to live life anew.
Make this broken heart a new creation,
And I will lead sinners to you, I will lead sinners to you.

4. Set me free, great savior, do not let me die,
For how shall I sing if in ashes I lie?
Let your judgment be mercy, my sentence forsworn.
Let all praise your justice when I am reborn:

Create Me Again (Psalm 51)  lyrics and music by Rory Cooney
Lyrics copyright © 1992 GIA Publications Inc., Chicago IL.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Second Thoughts: No excuses (C5O)

Harmony, Hope, and Healing choir at gospel brunch,
directed by Marge Nykaza
There was a lot going on at the parish yesterday. Looming large in my mind was the fact that it was the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, what we used to call Quinquagesima Sunday. Our elect and candidates (that's how we roll in the archdiocese of Chicago) were not with us because they were at the Rite of Election at Holy Name Cathedral. Of course, the good part of the approach of Ash Wednesday is that tomorrow is Mardi Gras, and I have reason to expect there may be either king cake or paczki in my future. Maybe both, because God is good.

The other big thing going on was that the wonderful women and men of Harmony, Hope, and Healing were with our choir at 11. This group, formed by Marge Nykaza almost twenty years ago, is made up of residents and alumnae of the Martin de Porres Center in Chicago, a recovery house for abused and recovering women and their children. St. Anne has partnered with and sponsored the center for a couple of decades at least, and this was the second time the choir has been with us for mass which we follow with a gospel brunch downstairs.

So those two factors were part of the larger context from which I was hearing the readings yesterday, and we had some really good readers, which either means that I (and others) were being set up to hear something we were really supposed to hear, or that we were just lucky, and I prefer to think the former is true. Amy Florian, whom we are blessed to have as one of our regular readers at the morning mass that Terry cantors at (how amazing is that combination?) read Isaiah with a combination of naïveté and wonder that was, literally breathtaking, as she described the vision of the throne of God, the flying seraphim and the burning coal, and the booming voice that wondered above the celestial liturgy, Who will go for us? Whom shall I send? It got as quiet as our church ever gets as she said in a voice both childlike and intrepid, hesitant and resolute, "Here I am, I said." It was almost a question, as though the prophet were not only just discovering a voice, but just waking up to being alive. And so it was like hearing the reading for the first time, calling for some kind of response.

Of course, that reading was followed by the long passage from Corinthians wherein Paul testifies about his calling to apostleship and the mercy of God that transformed his vision from a violent defender of the Torah to one whose imagination was broken open, allowing him to see that God neither needed to be defended nor was God's call exclusively to Jews, the same reformation and insight that shaped the preaching and ministry, the suffering and death of Jesus. And we heard the gospel in which Jesus calls Peter, James, and John away from their suddenly successful fishing venture, inviting them to follow him on his mission to catch people.

What I kept hearing at first was nothing stunning at all, just that God is love, and as Corinthians said last week, love is patient, and so God's call is always an invitation, even when the one being called is standing in front of a river of fire and being wooed by Angel song and purified by crackling coals and sizzling resins in the unseen hands of flame-eyed seraphim. Who will go for us? Isaiah, Paul, and Peter in their liturgical turn all protest their incompetence or unworthiness. I'm unclean, and everyone I know is unclean; my past is a mess, I'm going in another direction, I'm singularly unqualified to do the kind of thing you're apparently so good at. But underneath it all, there is thing mission. It is something about God being inside of creation and pushing humanity toward a different telos, and knowing that it cannot be done except by invitation and the participation of humanity, not by threats, demands, and laws, but only by joyful surrender and cooperation in community.

But then I heard the witness of one of the women of Harmony, Hope, and Healing who told her story at the choir mass. It was a story of abuse, loss, and alienation, a story of potential squashed and addiction and escape into oblivion, and while it sounded personal and unique I could only imagine it was repeated a million times a day and too often without the rescue in the end. But this woman, in a moment of destitution and addiction so terrible that few people in my circle have ever experienced it, heard some echo of that divine wooing that St. Paul called "grace" and got help. And after years of recovery, she not only got her life back, but she found her joy again in education and spirituality, and is helping to teach and guide women all over the country on the journey back from abuse and addiction. That story is repeated over and over again in the stories of HHH and the Martin de Porres and allied shelters.

For me, see, my excuses pile up. I'm too old. It's too big, I can't do anything about that. No one else is listening. And all that gets broken down when this seraph from the southside flies into our Holy of Holies with a story that burns like a glowing coal, and opens my heart again to that invitation: Who will go for us? I have my addictions too, I suppose, but nothing like heroin and cocaine; I enumerate my excuses, but none approaches the debilitating poverty and abuse these women and men have fought since their childhood.

I had thought that, in the matrix of the other scriptures of the day, the psalm refrain, "In the sight of the angels I will sing your praises, Lord," was rather lame, and didn't get at the heart of call to participate in God's project. But it dawns on me now that when I was singing with those sweet people from Harmony, Hope, and Healing, I was, in fact, singing God's praise among the angels, the angels of the evangelium, the choir that announces the good news, who instantiate and announce the presence of God, wherever that may be. In the ICEL collect we used for mass, our pastor asked God before we heard those readings, "Enlarge our vision, that we may recognize your power at work in your son, and join the apostles and prophets as heralds of your saving word." Be careful what you ask for, I guess, because that's pretty much what happened yesterday, when my vision was enlarged by the visitors "from the margins" whose song transformed the morning.

In the concert at the gospel brunch, the choir sang a little piece that repeated a chorus that echoed a sentiment that really rose out of yesterday's gospel, something like, "Follow me, follow me to place where we can all be free." As they encouraged us to join in the song (even with coffee and/or really inappropriately decadent varieties of french toast in our mouths!), we would repeat the refrain, "follow me to a place where we can all be free," and the soloist interjected between lines, looking at us both playfully and with a prayerful admonition, "before we get to heaven, that is!" This whole patient project of the God who sees us counting our money or injecting heroin into our arm, demonizing and even murdering our enemies, making our excuses about being unfit for the peacemaking, life-giving mission of Christ, is meant for the transformation of this world, and not just to save us from it after we're dead. We're not called to survival, we're called to life, no matter how desperate we are, or the condition of our lives.

That seems perfect for Quinquagesima, within spitting distance of Ash Wednesday. After another year of seduction by the quick-fix strategies of the Great Divider, the one who is so convincing about the effectiveness of force and threats, borders and walls, insurance, savings accounts, and overstuffed closets and pantries, it's time to have our ears open again to that voice that pierces heaven with its cry for participation: Who will go for us? Whom shall I send? Maybe this can be the year for the turnaround, for being caught by the deathless grace that changes everything. Out of the smoke and chaos, the lies and excuses and practiced ineptitude of our isolationist resumés, maybe the touch of a "southside seraph's" voice will give us the courage, like a re-visioned Isaiah, to choke out with a voice that hardly believes it is saying, Here I am.

Interested in learning more about Harmony, Hope, and Healing? Click here, where there is more information, and a way to contribute to the important work of HHH and Martin de Porres Shelter.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Second Thoughts - "Cliff" notes, Catechumens, and Corinthians - C4O

… they got up and threw him out of town. They dragged him to the edge of the cliff on which the town was built, because they wanted to throw him down from there. (Luke 4:29)

When the Iʾsh ʿItti (the man prepared for the time) reached the cliff, he pushed the goat over it backward and it hardly reached the halfway mark in its descent before it was completely dismembered. (described in the Mishna, Yoma 6:2–6).

Listening to the readings Sunday, remembering some of James Alison's description of the rituals of the Day of Atonement which echo through other parts of Luke and the rest of the gospels, it was among other things the "cliff" that caught my ear. Commentaries also call attention to the passage because of the strange notion that Nazareth was built on a cliff, which it certainly wasn't. This leads me to conclude that Luke might have been interested in something other than geography here, which of course he was. He was interested in more than history, more than biography even. Luke was interested in the meaning of what had happened to the apostles (and to him?) as they walked with and experienced who Jesus was, what had happened in the four decades or so since his death and resurrection among both Jewish and non-Jewish Christians.

Besides the echoes from the "cliff," I was also thinking about the words Paul wrote to the Corinthians about agape, and their problems with rivalry and injustice that precipitated Paul's letter. In addition, we celebrated the Rite of Sending to Election Sunday, so there was an overlay there celebrating the profound consequences of God's initiative in our lives. They all inform each other.

The way I'm understanding James Alison's "introduction to Christianity," which has been a revelation to me, and a genuine turning-around into which I believe that God has been lovingly inducting me, is that the story of the world is, anthropologically speaking, a story of imitation and rivalry that constantly escalates within social groups small and large into violence. Social groups, whole societies, are held together by transferring or projecting the violence onto "scapegoats." This transference, whether ritually within a religious framework of gods appeased by sacrifice or politically by mob action, allows us to believe that victims were responsible for the rift or trouble in the community. That way, we can all get back to work and pretend things are all right. But we are mimetic beings, and we desire according to the desire of the other, in Rene Girard's phrase, and so we cannot help ourselves from wanting what others have, and then we figure out a way to get what we want by collusion with others, choosing a scapegoat, and repeating the cycle. Furthermore, the cycle of violence itself gets repeated because we learn from the social milieu that this process of separation and victim-making is the way things work.

How this all plays out in the story of Israel, in the story of Jesus, and therefore in us is the subject of four (small, but dense) volumes of his thought, but it can be said that within the story of Israel there is the constant question about whether there might be some other One out there who embodies an alternative reality, who imitates no one and who is beyond all rivalry, a God "who is not like the other gods," and whom we say is embodied in the Yahwist tradition and who becomes flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is the "word of God," the sensible reality of who god is, who occupied the place of the victim in the scapegoat scenario and came back from the dead to expose victim-making as the empty lie that it is. Rather than creating further rivalry among "good people" and "bad people," Jesus shows in the paschal mystery that, well, all people participate in bad things, but that God doesn't really care about all that, because God's approach toward humanity is unconditionally, without any exceptionalism, utterly loving. God's approach in Jesus says, in effect, "Look at the misery you have been inflicting on each other by defining yourselves against others, and learning those tricks of separation and rivalry on the knees of your parents! It doesn't have to be that way. There is a different way to live, letting the rain fall and the sun shine on good and bad alike, because that is the way of God. You mustn't be afraid of anything. God is for you, and death means nothing to God. That's the meaning of everything. Follow me."

All right, I'm not sure that that little synopsis helps your understanding any more than it expresses what is inside of me. But I think there is a lot in yesterday's (4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C) scriptures that illustrates it. We can start with the gospel narrative, the second part of the story of Jesus's "inaugural sermon" at the synagogue in Nazareth.

People who heard Jesus speak about the jubilee that day (in the story) liked what they heard. They thought of him as home-grown, one of their own. But there was also rivalry in the ranks, people said things like "Why does he get to talk like this, isn't he a laborer?" and "why won't you do for us what you did for the folks the next town over?" If there were signs that the jubilee was starting, or of a messianic appearance, they wanted tickets and backstage passes. Jesus, though, fresh off his baptism and desert experience, remembers that he is beloved of the One who is beyond rivalry, the one whose "new idea" had come to life in him through the Spirit. So Jesus continued his exegesis of Isaiah 61 by reminding people of their own tradition. This is key: the "new idea" of the empire of God is not new at all, but an idea God has been introducing over time. Jesus is handing to his countrymen their own tradition, reframed in a way they didn't often hear it. The jubilee isn't just for them. It's for everybody, and it always has been. The good news is for the poor of every nation, not just Israel. Healing and bread are for everyone, not just for Israel. Jesus, in his homily, is showing them that a new way to universal health and safety (i.e., salvation) is available right in their own tradition, but this trips the self-protective rivalry mechanism. "We're invested in being the only chosen people. That's how we read the book. You must be bad, because the good people all read it the same way." The crowd turns against him, and is about to "cast him off a cliff" upon which Nazareth was apparently built (it wasn't, but it's a literary device, not a history book). The cliff might be important for another reason, though. Sure, it's a convenient location for a near lynching, but it also resonates with an aspect of the Rite of Atonement. You guessed it: the scapegoat.

In the rite of the Day of Atonement, two identical goats are brought to the Holy of Holies. Lots are cast, and one is identified with YHWH, the other with Azazel, a spirit associated at the time of the creation of the Septuagint with evil. The goats are identical; they are to be twin aspects of a single reality. The high priest sacrifices one of those identical goats and gives the entrails to the temple priests to consume, sprinkling its blood throughout the Holy of Holies and upon the people. This goat represents the life and love of YHWH, coming toward the people in love, and giving his life for them. The other, upon whom the guilt and evil of the people is ritually projected, is driven to the brink of a cliff, and pushed over by the temple worker. I could not help but hear in the language of Luke's narrative a reference to this action, described in Leviticus. In Luke, the crowd was determined to destroy the one who challenged their preconceptions and prejudice about God's favor. But this was not the time or place for that "sacrifice," and Jesus "passed through their midst," and went away.

Why is it that, when we're confronted by unconditional love, someone who, like Gandhi in the eponymous 1982 movie, we somehow feel the need to destroy that person? Over and over in history, we do the same thing. It's because we get invested in the structures that seem to work, the rules that make good people good and bad people bad, the borders and laws that keep strangers away, the neighborhoods and institutions that separate the haves and the services they enjoy from the have nots. We don't know about any new, "fairer" system. We just know that the one we have now works to our advantage, and someone who wants to call that into question, particularly the social, military, and economic order into question, in short, the power structure, can only be a trouble maker, causing civil unrest and discontent, and so has to be marginalized, and when necessary, destroyed. The difference that Jesus makes, and that Christianity might yet make, is that Jesus exposes that mechanism as false, reveals the victim to be "one of us," and having gone into that place of shame and alienation, he is able to say from within and yet outside of history, "let's try something new." Something new is the sermon on the mount: enemy love, bread for everyone, care for the other, even the stranger, with the care we give our families and ourselves. "Something new" is a human family with God as father and all of us in relationship with one another.

The Corinthians were no different, and Paul's letter was written as a corrective to their reverting to class distinctions, hierarchies, and elitism in their gatherings for the Lord's Supper. Then as now, however, the Lord's Supper was a sacrament, a ritual, that is, it was a means of rehearsing, or acting out together, core values of a group, core values that are to be lived as part of everyday life. Paul had heard about bickering over whom the Spirit favored over others in prayer, had been told that the rich met separately or early so that the best food and drink was available to them and not to the poor who were part of the community. He tries to remind them that Christ is a body, it cannot be separated, everyone matters, all contribute to the well-being (or the sickness) of the whole. He instructs them about the way gifts are to be exercised and regarded in the assembly, again with the admonition to consider that all the gifts are given by one Spirit for the good of the whole body, and not for the glory of the individual. Finally, he says, all those gifts are well and good, but one thing matters more than all of them: agape. Agape is the very life of God, it was given to the church by Christ, and it is the starting point and the goal of all the other gifts. Agape is the "new idea," life in the empire of God.

That new life, life without rivalry, freedom, fearlessness because of participation in a life that has nothing to do with death, is the life into which catechumens have been attracted. The awesome declaration of the bishop at the Rite of Election will be that God has chosen them to live that life, to be baptized into the death and resurrection of the Lord, and to begin living a new life, without borders, in complete, fearless freedom. In these days of prickly political candidates and caucuses, our corner of the world needs nothing more than people who can speak fearlessly to the rhetoric of blame, segregation, isolation, and doom. We need people who live in and invite others into the "new idea," a world of real Judaeo-Christian values. That would be a world in which a God of unconditional love, who needs no protection and who cannot be placed in rivalry with anything that is, gently calls every person into selfless care for every other person. It is a world where enemies turn out to be our salvation, where traitors are welcomed home with open arms, and where the crowd's condemned victim turns out to be just like me, and not a threat at all. It is a world where death has no power, threat is abandoned as a motivation to change, and we are all committed to everyone getting the same chance. That is the jubilee Jesus was proclaiming in the synagogue that day in Nazareth. We can join the procession, or throw him off a cliff. If we're going to move in the direction of God's empire, sign me up.

What we sang Sunday:

Call to worship: Change My Name (spiritual, arr. Kendzia, OCP)
Entrance: Turn Around
Psalm 71: I Will Sing Your Salvation (Cooney, OCP)
Gospel Acclamation: Mass of Christ the Servant (unpublished)
Calling forward candidates: Who Calls You By Name (Haas, GIA)
Signing the Book of the Elect: Sign Me Up (Yancy & Metcalfe)
Intercessions: Mass of Christ the Servant
Gifts: God Is Love (Cooney, GIA)
Communion: Here I Am, Lord (Schutte, OCP)
Sending: If/Si (Cooney, GIA)