Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Creed: Oh God, Finally, The Epilogue

Do you remember yesterday when I said I just had one more thing to say about the Creed, and that it would be short...and then it went you know, a little longer than short. And you thought, well, Ok, that was that. At least it's over now.

It's not. But don't give up quite yet. Just one more to go.

Yesterday we were talking about how the Creed is like a shorthand for church history. Well, there's something to be learned from all that, and that is that the church has a history! That is, that the church as a body didn't sort of appear on the scene full grown after Jesus died -- bloop! -- but rather developed in both its mission and in its understanding of God over time, through new questions and conflicts. It's funny, actually, if you study that first 350 years, in which the fundamentals were slowly established, every time they thought they had it all worked out, someone showed up and said, hey, what about this? Which threw light on whole different questions that now had to be worked out. And so on and so on.

It was like a cosmic game of Jenga. Pull one piece, and a whole other section started to wobble.


Now, as of the middle of the 4th century, some things were ruled pretty much definitive. For instance, we'll never go back and say, well, maybe Jesus wasn't resurrected. We might freely grapple with a lot of other questions, like what exactly did he know when, for instance, or struggle to understand what certain things mean, but the statements in the Creed are essentials. You might struggle with them, but dismiss them and you're outside the borders of what can be considered "Catholic".

(Ok, maybe not this far outside. You get the idea.)

But beyond those essentials, the same basic dilemma/debate/new theology cycle has continued for the last 2000 years. How to celebrate the liturgy, whether a given act is right or wrong, the relationship with other religions, what happens when you die -- if you looked at the church from the year 400 and compared it to the church of today, it would adhere to the same creed, but it would also look different in a million significant ways, because it has continued to respond to the questions and needs of the worlds in which it finds itself.

That's not to say it's all been lollipops and beach parties. Our history shows that both individually and institutionally we're quite capable of resisting change, of trying to avoid keeping a question open or the conversation going, sometimes to devastating consequence. We are a "pilgrim" church, according to Vatican II, always on the road, never "there" yet, externally or internally.

And that's part of why we're at Mass in the first place.

Travel day tomorrow. Have a great New Year's. I'll be back on Monday!

Sunday, December 27, 2009


So, I have this feeling that at this point anybody reading is thinking, my God, enough with the creed already. I get it, it's interesting (although it still doesn't really seem that way when I say it). If that's your take, bear with me just one more day. I have just one more little nugget to share, and I promise to be short(ish).

You know when you go on Wikipedia (or any website for that matter) and you see that every sentence has parts that are actually links to other things? Totally random example, which has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that my vision of heaven involves flying an X-Wing fighter, this page.

Well, the Creed is actually just like those hyperlink pages. Every single phrase of the Creed, every single one, has a whole hyperlink-style history behind it. That is to say, every phrase is actually a conclusion to a debate that had taken place sometime during the first 340 years of the church about what exactly it is we believe.

Three examples: 1) Some people believed that the God who created earth was totally different from (and, based on things like death and mean people, far lamer than) the God who saved us. The first God, they said, was Yahweh, the guy we meet in the Old Testament; he throws temper tantrums and creates people who park in handicapped spots.

Also, scary-looking mimes.

And the other God is the Heavenly Father that Jesus talks about. Him, we like.

The results of that debate are all over that first line: We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen. "CAN YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT I AM SAYING TO YOU?"

2) Some people said, if Jesus is God's son, then he can't be coeternal with God -- that is to say, he can't have existed as long as God the Father, but rather is God's creation. Which sounds logical, but ends up causing a lot of trouble. Either Jesus is therefore NOT god (he's created and not eternal, how can he be God?), or we have more than one.

So in the Creed we find the very repetitive "eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in being with the Father."

Now ask me what "eternally begotten" or "begotten, not made" mean concretely, and I'll point one way and run away the other. I googled the term "eternally begotten"; here's what came up:

The Crucifixion.

The staff of Microsoft in 1978. (I kid you not.)

And a weird endless circle (which is what conversations on the topic generally feel like).

But still, from the term you get the generally idea. Jesus and God, somehow the same as well as different.

3) I could go with the Holy Spirit. Just the phrase "who proceeds from the Father and the Son" caused the final separation between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. (For more info, click here.) But instead, let me take just one more phrase from the section: "he suffered, died and was buried." Some people, intent on Jesus' divinity, insisted that he couldn't really suffer or die. Gods don't do those things. But even as the church insisted that Jesus was one with GTF (God the Father for a texting generation; I want it to catch on like LOL), it refused to give up his humanity. Hence that phrase, which ends with the burial just to make it clear, he's really, really dead. It's not like the Black Plague:

So, when we read the Creed, we're giving not only the Cliffs Notes story of our salvation, but the shorthand story of our early church history.

Maybe it's just me, but I find that oh so cool.

The Never-ending Story

Fun Fact: Most ancient cultures had a creation story that involved a god killing another god, or a god-like monster, and then forming things like the earth, human beings and the universe out of its dead body.

In ancient Babylonian mythology, the earth was formed by Marduk (right) out of the body of Tiamat (left).

Norse God Odin and his brothers create the world out of the body of frost giant Ymir.

Each year in the days surrounding their New Year's Eve, these ancient cultures would reenact that story. And they did so because they believed that it recreated that original act in the present, that it reinstated the order that had been instituted in the past. Creation was not something that happened just once, nor simply an act of building, but something salvific and ongoing.

If you read the first five books of the Old Testament, or sit with the Psalms for that matter, you will find the Jews regularly recalling the story of their salvation. And the rationale is much the same -- to retell the story is to bring it back into life in the present. So today at a Passover seder, practicing Jews reenact the events of the original Passover, eating matzoh and bitter herbs, and retelling the story of Passover, again with a belief that what they're doing is not simply recollecting a past event, but allowing it to happen to themselves. It is they who are being liberated, now.

Last year's White House seder. You fill in the blank what they're praying for liberation from...

Perhaps that sounds sort of cuckoo. But it's sort of like when a married couple is asked by their children to tell again the story of how they met, their dating, their engagement. They're nice stories, yes, but they aren't just that. Something in the telling reaffirms the relationship, feeds the fires.

According to Merrian-Webster's Online Dictionary, a creed is "a brief authoritative formula of religious belief" or "a set of fundamental beliefs; a guiding principle." And what are the first two words of the creed Catholics profess: "We believe." Yet if you take a look at what follows, you'll note the creed is not only a statement of our beliefs -- it's our version of this ancient practice of retelling the story of salvation. If you look at the Creed below, you'll see, in just 226 words, it provides a thumbnail version of the Christian story of salvation.
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in being with the Father. Through Him all things were made. For us men and our salvation He came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit, He was born of the Virgin Mary , and became man. For our sake He was crucified under Pontius Pilate; He suffered, died, and was buried. On the third day He rose again in fulfillment of the scriptures: He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son, He is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The first paragraph: God the Father creating. The second paragraph: Jesus -- who he is, what he did in creation, in his life on earth and in the time to come. The final two paragraphs: the Holy Spirit, which proceeds from God and from Jesus to inspire and sustain the church and its saints.

This is not simply a set of principles. It's the story of our faith. And in making our profession, we're asking God to bring that story into existence again today. Order our world, enter into our lives, and send us forth to build the kingdom.

Kinda nifty, isn't it?


Welcome to the Christmas season! Hope you all had a great holiday. We've had about a foot of snow here in Chicago over the last 48 hours. It's that great dry kind that drifts down silently and crunches under the soles of your shoes. I've got about 5 more days here until I return to New York. I'm going to try and post most days this week. We'll see how it goes.

Two other pieces of business. First, if you check the comments from the last entry (for Christmas -- Shine On, You Crazy Diamond), you'll see that St. Conleth's Catholic Heritage Association, in Ireland (!) wrote to publicize their blog. If you're in the hunt for blogs, you might want to check them out.

Also -- some might remember that I had in fact said I would write about parts of the Mass until Christmas. Little did I know that by Christmas I'd only be about halfway through... Me and my big mouth!

Anyway, I'm going to keep plugging away at that. We'll see how it goes.

It all puts me in mind of a poem...

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.

My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.

Seamus Heaney
Back to the Creed tomorrow...

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Shine On, You Crazy Diamond

About a week ago I realized that as I went through the parts of the liturgy, I had skipped one of the great moments -- the Alleluia. It seemed only fitting to go back to that today, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus.

(And let me say in advance, most of what I have to say here comes from this great post. You might enjoy it.)

We say Alleluia, but the original form of the word is Hallelujah, which consists of two Hebrew words: Halal (the verb) and jah. Generally we translate halal as "to praise"; it's an imperative. That is to say, hallelujah is a request -- everybody, get up there and get with the praisin'.

And this isn't the pat-on-the-shoulder, nice-going, kid form of praise, but something much more exuberant. You know those services you see on television where people start crying "Amen" and you realize you've suddenly started holding onto something a little too tightly? That's the kind of joy we're talking about when we use the word hallal, something a little bit crazy. According to The Hebrew and Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament, hallal involves acting madly or foolishly.

Now, lest that sound like yet another extrovert trying to run the world, halal can also mean "to shine". It was a word sometimes ascribed to the stars.

And jah is the first half of the name God told Moses -- Ya-H, as in Yahweh. I am who am.

So, Hallelujah can mean "praise God" or -- a nice alternative, especially at Christmas -- "shine with (or perhaps like) God". And maybe then the life of Jesus gives us an example of what that means, what shining with God looks like.

For those of you whose Christmas looks less than fabulous, one more little point you might like. According to some interpretations, there's a reason the word hallelujah doesn't use the whole name of God, namely, because the world still has problems and burdens and troubles and evil lurking around. It's incomplete. As long as that's the case, so is God's name.

Some day, we'll offer some other, more perfect kind of praise. For now, we celebrate what grace our world has experienced already, the ways in corruption and prejudice and malice have collapsed. And the expectation of something more, the expectation we relish in Advent, continues....

Have a Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Creed: Hocus Pocus

"I Love You". Do you use that phrase very often with important people in your life? Some do and some don't.

But if you do use it, maybe you've had the experience of realizing it's gotten kind of commonplace, it's become more a reflex than something you actually think about and put some oomph into you. And how could it not, really? End of a phone call, on your way to work, before bed -- not exactly peak experiences. Or, at least not all the time. (Imagine someone who tried to make everything they said saturated with meaning every time. Could be a great SNL skit. Or a description of the work of Charlton Heston.)

Or both.

Here's the thing -- just because you're not thinking about saying "I love you" every time you say it doesn't mean it's not having any impact. It's like watering a plant -- you don't have to know you're doing it for it to nourish the roots, do you? No, you don't.

I can't say I believe in magic spells. But all of those fairy tale witches and wizards had an insight that I think we all get behind, which is this: for good or for ill, words have power. What we say out loud has effects. it makes a difference. I saw the negative side of that all the time as a high school teacher. One kid would share a little gossip with another, and before you know it you'd have this hugely escalated situation in which no one knew the truth or where the rumor started, but if something wasn't done there was going to be huge explosion.

"I love you" is a positive form of that. And so, I think, is the creed. Its words knit us together and form our hearts. It's not just a statement of commitment, in fact maybe better it's a statement of intent. This is what I want to believe. This is what or who I want my life to be centered around. And perhaps part of the reason we say it every week is because making that desire a reality, breaking down my heart of stone into a heart of flesh, is not a one-shot deal, but the work of a lifetime.

Come to think of it, maybe that's why some of us say "I love you" so much, too...

I've got a little more to say on the Creed, but for Christmas, I think I'll try something a little bit different...

May the gentle light of Christ shine on you these days.

The Creed: Mouth Wide Open

When my brother and sisters and I were growing up, my parents always began dinner by asking us to hold hands and say together this short prayer: "Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty through Christ our Lord. Amen."

After doing it for a while, at some point we didn't even listen to the words; we just opened our mouths and out they came. Like human pez dispensers.

And it turned out the same was true for our parents, at least a little. I can remember being away from home for a while and then coming back for a vacation, and realizing someone in my family was so "in the zone" when they said the blessing they really only said about every other syllable. "Bless Lord these gifts bout ceive bounty Christ Lord Amen." And they didn't even know it.

For as much listening as the congregation does during Mass, even so there are a couple prayers so familiar that they are easily overlooked. I can't tell you how many times I've said the Our Father during daily Mass only to wonder when it's over, wait, did we just do it, or is it still to come? For some reason I was distracted...

And then there's the Creed -- a longish text with some pretty abstract language and difficult concepts. What exactly does it mean to say that Jesus is "eternally begotten from the Father", for instance? Or to say he was "begotten, not made"? Or to say he's "true God from true God"?

Plus, it's not a prayer. Maybe that doesn't seem like that big a deal, but if you think about it, a prayer immediately establishes a relationship. We're talking to God. It's personal.

A profession isn't like that. It's not a direct address to God. It's not the language of personal relationships at all, but something more formal, veering toward the contractual. The Creed presents the fundamental tenets of the faith, the things you have to agree to in order to consider yourself a Catholic. In stating them aloud, we affirm that yes, we have accepted these principles. We're on board.

You know when you're watching a foreign film and the speaker goes on a very long time, and then the translation comes up and it's something really short, like "Indeed"? There's a way in which the Creed is like that -- it's a very very long way of saying "Amen" (which literally means, "so be it" or "truly" -- in other words, "I believe").

So why do it? (And more importantly -- why is it TOTALLY AWESOME?) More tomorrow.

Monday, December 21, 2009

One More Day

One more day and I'll be back with ... THE CREED!

You know you can't wait.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

( )

Why is it that the last shot of a movie is often such a long shot? Luke and company receiving their medals. The long shot of all the real-life survivors whose lives were depicted in Schindler's List. The guy riding into the sunset. Why do that?

According to one prof I had for screenwriting, the answer is -- the really important moments of a film, like the ending, or a significant change, are payoff moments. You've been building to them, in one way or another the audience has been anticipating them. Once you hit them, you need to give the audience a little time to let it sink in.

The moments right after the homily ideally are like that, a time for the congregation to simply sit back and take in what's been said, or what's been going on inside of them. (Or, if it's been a long one or a hard one, it can be just a few moments to sort of take back your life. The hostage situation has passed. Did we all make it? >Phew!<)

I've said it before and I'll say it again -- as a presider, some of the most important moments are the ones you're not paying attention to -- the opening comments, for example, or this pause for station identification. So many times I myself have blown right through this moment and move on to the Creed. And it's not the end of the world, but it's a huge lost opportunity. And as a result, everything all sort of tumbles together, and the congregation is like a bag getting blown in the wind, first this way, then that.

A Mass is like a recipe. Not only does it have some specific ingredients, but some of them have to be added at exactly the right time and sometimes in a very specific way. Done different, well, it's still Mass. But the effect is ... less than it could be.

(I've got a wedding this weekend. You can check back, but I probably won't post until Monday. Have a good weekend.)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Homily Suprise

Ok, so I want to share one other thing about homilies. Before I got ordained, I was scandalized at the poor quality of some of the homilies I heard. 15 or minutes long -- I don't care if it is Sunday, Danny, that's way too long. 3-5 separate points -- dude, you freaking lost me at hello. And above all, boring boring boring. Dead inside. I would get more out of listening to Charlie Brown's teacher. In fact, maybe that guy was Charlie Brown's teacher.

(Do we even need to mention the homilies that are trying to pick fights, lecture or command?)

"It can't hurt you if you don't listen to it."

So here's the twist of the knife. I've been preaching for about 7 years now, and you know, one thing I've discovered is that it's really NOT that easy. I swear to you, there are weeks that I work my tail off on a homily and it is an embarrassment. I spend the eucharistic prayer swimming through waves of shame, and I have to force myself at communion not to look into each parishioner's eyes for a glimmer of affirmation.

Other weeks, I stand up without an ending -- really, no clue how the thing should end. Heart pounding, clammy skin. And it all comes together out of freaking nowhere.

The Jesuit Bob Purcell used to do this thing called a one-minute retreat.
It went like this: Who's big?
Then we'd point up at the sky.
Who's small?
We'd point at ourselves.
Who's strong? Sky.
Who's weak? Yo.
Who's smart? Sky.
Who's not? Here I am.

And that's basically the experience of preaching, in a nutshell. It's wondrous. Also pretty darn humbling.

The Homily: Ouch.

Have you ever read Flannery O'Connor? If not, when you get that Borders card for Christmas, do yourself a favor and buy a book of her short stories -- A Good Man is Hard to Find or Everything that Rises Must Converge. Very short stories, totally worth it.

And totally shocking. Like "The River", a baptism story in which a kid drowns. Or "A Good Man is Hard to Find," where the moment of real wisdom comes for the main character about 3 seconds before she gets murdered. (And if she didn't get murdered, it wouldn't have happened.) Or, my personal favorite, "Revelation", where somebody realized what a jerk they are after they get smacked with a science textbook.

Yeah, the stories are a tad bit violent. And that's because O'Connor's basic insight is that we human beings, we don't like to really look at ourselves. In fact, we're so uncomfortable with the prospect that at this point the only way to break through our illusions is by completely disrupting our expectations. "Religion is interruption," wrote the great Catholic theologian, Johann Baptist Metz.

When I preach, I am often trying to disrupt and to make the familiar strange. I will regularly take a reading and try to peel away layers until I get to something that is unsettling or just plain weird. (Sometimes you don't have to go very far.) I've done some pretty wacky things, too -- you know the reading where Jesus stands and reads the passage about "I've come to bring good news to the blah blah blah..." and then says "This reading has been fulfilled in your hearing" and sits down? Well I've done that as a homily -- read that passage from Isaiah again, said it's been fulfilled, and then sat down. Homily over. Long silence. Uncomfortable stares. (And afterwards, one parishioner: "Are you OK?" Me: "Oh yeah, absolutely." Her: "REALLY?")

I don't think the homily is a moment for performance, but I think it should unsettle. I mean, come on, we believe in loving enemies. Lord, we believe that God walked among us, and rose from the dead. And we're members of a religion that uses images of a crucified man as decoration.

Seriously. That's unsettling.

And don't EVEN get me started on the whole eating Jesus' body and drinking his blood.

Pop culture stream of consciousness soup.

So yeah, I think a good homily often leaves us a little off balance. Because often, despite all our good intentions, God still needs that leverage to sneak in.

But having said that, let me just add one thing. I'm reading this book Wondrous Depth by Ellen F. Davis. It's a book about preaching the Old Testament. And she has this insight -- if the scripture is supposed to surprise us in some way, the first person it should surprise is the homilist. Which is to say, preacher man or woman, you best take the time to let them readings work their mojo on you.

And if you don't -- and most of them most of us don't -- what the congregation gets instead is just you. Not that that's bad. Look at that kid -- how can you not love him?


But let's be honest. People came here to encounter God, not Jim. (Even if Jim is awesome, and available for weddings and bar mitzvahs.)

Also, Wheel of Fortune.

They say that every priest has about 3 homilies and they keep getting recycled. I'd say for me it's 5 or 6, and each of those represents some key revelations of God in my life. Which is great.

But God keeps on coming. There's always more. And when I'm repeating myself, it could be because I've stopped listening. Maybe it's me that needs unsettling.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Homily: Daydream Believer

So, two little thoughts about homilies, one today, one tomorrow.

Have you ever daydreamed during a homily? Maybe it's just me.

But just in case you have, did you feel bad? Like, OMG, I completely ignored what the priest was trying to say. Guess I better stick around and go to the next Mass.

Ok, so maybe you didn't stick around but you had that little twinge -- "Bad Catholic! Bad!" No treat for you.

But then one day in my preaching class our teacher gave a whole different take. He told us, as homilists your job is to help people come into contact with the Word of God. And once that happens for them, their job isn't to keep listening to you anyway, to understand your argument or the scriptures or agree with you, but to follow the direction in which their imaginations are being drawn. Maybe the invitation of the Word for them this week is to bring to God a relationship they're in, or to sit with some agitation or grief, or to savor their first kiss. When you consider that most people probably don't take a lot of time for quiet prayer during the week, shoot, their need for that time then for spiritual daydreaming is all the more significant.

The homily, in other words, is meant to be a set of offramps.

So if you're looking for a little greater insight, each week after Mass take a minute or two and note where you got off, and where you ended up. It might very well be that somewhere in there is where God is leading you...

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

Nothing today; paper due tomorrow. Sorry! See you Monday!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Word of God 3: Waiting

So, what if you sit there and try to listen and nothing happens? What if you just end up restless and distracted?

Well, when that happens to me (which is... a lot), two different perspectives strike me.

First, maybe that's just the way it is. Maybe today, this mass, these readings, there was nothing there for you. Maybe your job today was just to try and pay attention, or just to wait.

I know, God forbid we actually just sit there. I could be problem solving my latest crisis! Or choosing what I'm going to have for brunch! Or texting myself my list of groceries! You don't want to forget the meatloaf!

But you can't go get it now anyway, can you? No. Not unless your church is also a Target Greatland. (And what a great idea that is. Receive communion and get a 10% discount! Yikes.)

Often for me when I am sitting there super-restless, not wanting to wait, what's really going on is a resistance to truly being in God's hands and letting things happen as they will. Why do that, when I could be in control! It makes me UNCOMFORTABLE.

Welcome to the spiritual life.

No one said it would be easy...

And my other thought is this: is there perhaps something I could be doing different before Mass that would help me be more receptive? Sometimes, probably not. But maybe sometimes there is. Like for instance, I notice if I am going going going literally until the moment I walk into church, then it's going to take me pretty much until the homily to really start to hear. Really, it takes that long for me to slllloooowwww down.

So I've been thinking maybe I need to introduce a little time before I go to mass in which I stop doing some of the things that tend to hyperstimulate/absorb me -- a.k.a the computer, the TV and the cell phone -- and try instead to do some things that help me get in touch with myself, like taking a walk (or even just standing outside a bit and taking some great deep breaths), or reading a little poetry. What things you might need to add or subtract might be different, but the goal's the same -- to become a little more present and in touch. A modern day version of the pre-Mass fast.

The Word of God 2: Let it rip(ple).

[ARGH! I wrote this Wednesday night and thought I posted it, but I guess I just saved a draft. Sorry! I owe you one!]

So, my dad is pleased to be on the blog, and my friend John emailed to say he thinks my dad is great. So apparently the whole "thou shalt not steal" thing... not so big a deal when it comes to church property.

But I guess it's better than my brother-in-law, who stole a tabernacle because he "wanted to be close to Jesus". Given the fact that the guy in the top bunk of his cell was actually named Jesus, I guess it all sort of worked out. But still, I don't really recommend it.

But anyway... we were talking about the word of God and wondering what the added value of the whole speaking thing is. Here's what I was thinking: it makes the readings into events. That is, each reading is something that happens, literally an event that happens to me, here and now.

Which I think -- and maybe I'm wrong -- is a little different than the act of reading. Reading something can have a huge impact on you, as I rediscovered a few weeks ago bawling my eyes out on a plane as I read the amazing The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold. (Go get this book now.) But still, when you're reading, you're the one in control -- you're the one turning the pages, or stopping, or skimming because my God I didn't buy a John Grisham novel to read descriptions. You are the boss.

Something read aloud is almost more like a movie, or like an unexpected visit from a friend -- rather than take control, you are to sit back and be open to whatever may happen. If there's a grace to be asked for as the readings begin, it's to let go and let things in.

If you want a very poser-Buddhist visual: you are the still lake, and the reading is a stone dropped in. Let it ripple.

Or you're a bell and the readings are the hammer. Listen for where you ring.

This is not easy. First of all, most of us don't spend much of our time listening to people read. So, not an easy task. Plus, most of the readings we've heard a hundred times before. And being super-familiar, they're super-hard to actually hear. There's no surprise there. They're the Old Testament version of Captain and Tennille, Christian elevator music. (Except after you hear "Love Will Keep us Together", you can't get it out of your head, whereas the readings usually don't seem to stick around too long.)

See. Now I can't get "Love will Keep us Together" out of my head.

Damn you and your crazy eyes, Captain!

I think in the ideal what we hope for going into the readings is that instead of audio wallpaper, we'll be surprised. That something unexpected will happen or hit us, such that we're sent off on a little journey of our own -- a memory bubbles up, or a feeling, or a question, or just a word.

And when that happens, our job is to treat it, whatever it is, like a special gift -- like the last lifesaver in the roll. Like a Tootsie Roll Pop. Don't chew it up, grind it out trying to understand it. Just savor it. Enjoy it. Let it make its ripples.

I know, I know it sounds crazy. Plus, you're still humming Captain and Tennille, aren't you, so you're distracted. But try it sometime. Just sit there and try not to be in control. See what happens.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Word of God 1: My Dad the Sinner

My dad steals missalettes.

There, I said it. It's the deep, dark secret in my family. My father goes to that most holy of places, and leaves with a pilfered prayer book.

OK, maybe not always, but he has done it on occasion in the past. Maybe the distant past. At least once.

The issue: my dad likes to read along. He doesn't just want to hear the readings, he wants to read them as they're being read. And his pastor was not a fan of this practice (which of course was not just my dad's habit but that of many in the congregation -- so many that the lector would get to the end of the page and you'd hear from all around the rustling of the page turning). So for a time he banned missalettes.

And hence the pilfering.

Personally, I like to read along myself. Maybe you're the same? But stepping back, let's ask the question -- why do we bother proclaiming the readings at all? Why not just give everyone a couple minutes to read the first one, have the psalm and response, and then do the same with the second reading? At the risk of diluting the liturgy to the horror that is business-speak, what's the "value added" in having the readings read aloud?

Think on that. More tomorrow.

P.S. It's been brought to my attention that, contrary to my assertion, Ms. Garland would never open a show with Somewhere Over the Rainbow. That was in fact, always her closing number.

Miss Garland, about to reach out and shake me.

To the Garland estate, the Minnelli estate, Rufus Wainwright, the cast of Wicked and that guy from Glee who sang Defying Gravity a couple weeks ago, my most sincere apologies.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Wait, Is Today about Jesus or Mary?

Last week, a phone call: It's my mom. She's got a friend who has to give a talk the next day about the Immaculate Conception. And she wanted to make sure -- we're not talking about the conception of Jesus here, are we?

Nope. The feast of the Immaculate Conception celebrates the conception of Mary. The doctrine is that given the holiness of Jesus, Mary must have been born without sin.

Right. That's what she thought. Bye, hon.

Five minutes later, she calls again: Ok, so, she was also wondering, does that mean Joachim and Anne never had sex?

You'd think so, since in olden times (i.e. 1959) we seemed to think that original sin was transmitted somehow through sex. But no, it's not a virgin birth. Anne and Joachim were more than really good friends.

But it's immaculate, she asks.

Yep. Without sin.

A long pause.

Ok.... Well, thanks, hon. I'll tell her.

She hangs up. I go back to work.

Isn't this a great version? Check out more art by this artist.

And then a couple minutes later, I get this visual of her talking to her friend, and each of them is sitting on their end of the phone, shaking the head and saying, "Yeah, I don't get it either."

So I stopped to think about it. What is it we're really talking about? It's not about sex. (OK, of course it's about sex, and the church's association of sex with sin. Of course it's about that. But it's not just about sex.) It's not a celebration of something that we find in the scriptures. Nowhere do they talk about Mary as being without sin, let alone being immaculately conceived. Nowhere. This idea came out of the community of believers, long after Mary was gone.

Though it's phrased a lot more wacky than we would today, I wonder whether what that community was saying was not that unfamiliar to our own experience of life. Think of when you meet a really great kid -- he's thoughtful, he's polite, he's helpful, he's sweet. What do you say? Well, first of all you say, that's one great kid.

But also -- that kid must have great parents.

That's what I think we're saying today. We're saying, based on how her kid turned out, that Mary, boy, she must have been some lady. She must have been something special.

I called my mom to tell her this. I could hear her writing it down. "Oh, I like that."

A pause.

So, then, she conceives without sexual intercourse, but her parents don't, but both conceptions are without sin.

And that's why they call it a mystery.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Penitential Rite: God, not Me

I always thought of the penitential rite as strictly a sort of mini-confession. Like, Ok, before we get this party started, I'd better come clean about some stuff I've done. And there certainly is that movement in there -- we are saying Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy. And if you do the form of the rite known as the "confiteor" -- "I confess to almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters...", well, there it is, a confession.

Confiteor: sounds like meteor, but better for you.

But then while studying theology I noted a number of my profs talk in passing about the rite as not primarily directed at our sins but God's action. So, I went back to the rite, and you know, that's there, too. Listen to one of the typical forms of the prayer and response: "You were sent to heal the contrite, Lord have mercy. You came to call sinners, Christ have mercy. You plead for us at the right hand of the Father, Lord have mercy." The first element in each prayer -- the italicized bit -- is a statement of how Jesus acts for us.

Other versions are similar, if not talking about Jesus in terms of his action, talking in terms of his identity: you are mighty God and Prince of peace;" "you are Son of God and Son of Mary;" "you are Word made flesh and splendor of the Father." But don't be fooled, those titles are also a veiled reference to his action. Every title for Jesus derives from our experience of his action in history. We call him the Son of God because of how he has intervened for us (both 2000 years ago and now). So, too, mighty, prince of peace, even splendor of the Father. It all emerges from his revelatory, salvific action. And in calling him those things, we're actually asking for that action again. It's like, if your kid came up to you and said, "Oh Mom, you are the awesome one" -- what would that mean? Maybe ... maybe... it's just them saying thanks. MAYBE. (And if so, thanks for something you did, some way you've been with them.)

Probably, though, they want something.

Hey, Dad, you are so awesome. By the way, you know that car you love?

And that's what these prayers are about: us wanting something. God's mercy. It's really the Eucharistic prayer in miniature -- we begin by telling God who he has been in history, and then say, do that again now. We need you.

So, we're not negating the "confession" interpretation of this moment. What's that passage from Scripture -- before you come to the table of the Lord, you should go out and reconcile. But what are we doing is shifting the focus, from me/us, my badness, to God.

Maybe that sounds like semantics; it's definitely subtle. But it's a hugely important distinction. The focus on me is what we might call a well-intentioned solipcism. It seems like the right thing, because hey, I did wrong. But it's solipcistic, or narcissistic --AKA I'm focused on me! In which case it's a lot harder to let God in. It's like being in a conversation where the other person just talks and talks about their problems. You can sit and listen and that's a real service at times, but if they never listen -- even if it's just to the silence -- they ain't getting free.

Is that a venial sin I see?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Liturgy, Day 4: The Greeting

So, here's a little "inside baseball" for the celebrant. As a novice presider, I found my attention during Mass fell to two things: the homily and the eucharistic prayer. Do I have my act together on something meaningful to say (and note to self: if I'm asking this during the Mass, the answer is probably not). And, do I lead the eucharistic prayer in a way that allows the words to breathe and speak, to be the poetry that they are. If these two things are in place, then all shall be well.

What I discovered is that a third moment requires attention and preparation, and that is the greeting. How do I welcome the congregation into the liturgy? If it's done well, it's not even noticed, it's seamless. But if it isn't... well, it leaves everything a little bit "off." The greeting is what helps us change gears and get comfortable. We've all just dashed in from who knows where with maybe kids or spouses or partners, and then we've gotten all revved up singing out the gathering hymn. And now we're going to be asked to listen to readings. We need something to aid that transition, something that allows us to settle down and breathe.

And it's a real tightrope walk. Think of things you've seen at this moment: an initial foray at the homily (God save us); a folksy story or gag; what Father did this week -- as though the liturgy is about Father. Because it's so early in the mass, you can often get away with a lot of this sort of stuff, because you have people's good will. But what you're doing needs to serve the liturgy. It’s a Mass, not a talk show. Personally, I don't even like to get into the readings (e.g. "In today's readings we hear..."),but the fundamentals: Who are we gathered here? What does God offer us as a people? Just something simple, a couple gentle sentences, said with warmth and ease, maybe a little silence, that might yield some space for us to gather ourselves and breathe. To feel welcomed.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Liturgy, Day 3: Gather Us In

What you call something is important, as I was reminded this week, when I was on the phone with a customer service agent and she began to call me "Jimmy".

Suffice it to say, that did not go on for long.

Sorry, Jimmy.

Another example: Australia of late is dealing with a lot of refugees coming from Sri Lanka. And there's been a big political debate about what to do with them. And depending on your position, these players talk about "asylum seekers", "illegal immigrants", "people smuggling," "refugees." Each term highlights a different tack and angle.

What do you call that first song at Mass? My usual inclination is "the opening song", but I've also heard it called "the processional" and the "gathering hymn". These three terms might sound less loaded than the Australian example, but still, each has an orientation. The opening song is about chronology, obviously. But it might also have a bit of Judy G. in it, too, as in she opened with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". There's a certain concert feel, and a certain, but not to be overstated, focus on the singer.

"Processional" is all about the action. This is what we do while the celebrant and company are walking down the aisle. And note, here, there's a focus on a particular group -- the ministers.

"Gathering" is all about the purpose. It's the only one of the three, in fact, that accurately tells us why the heck we're singing at all. We're not singing because that's what you do at the beginning of religious ceremonies (though that's often true) or at the beginning of all major events (although wouldn't it be fun if that were true? "Well, let's begin our office meeting today with David Bowie's 'Space Oddity.'").

Ground Control to Father Tom.

We're also not singing because we need something to distract us while people walk. No, the song is an act of drawing us together, of knitting us once again into a community. It's the end of that process which began with us coming in, maybe saying some hellos, maybe doing some quiet prayer. And it's the culmination because it's something we all do -- strangers, friends, enemies -- together.

Last week I was at Mass at St. Francis Xavier church in the Village. At the end of the Mass they sang "Soon and Very Soon", that old spiritual. And someone in the choir began clapping, which the song sort of naturally invites, but this isn't an African American congregation, it's all us white folk, and few of us are demonstrative like that. Especially if it seems like posing -- as in, hey, I can do "black". To its credit, the choir did not push the point, and it died a quiet death.

What was striking to me, though, was the power the congregation has in the moment of the song. We can refuse to participate, no one's going to stop us, and it will kill the whole dynamic. Makes sense: if we won't gather, then there ain't no gathering.

And on the other hand, maybe we've had the experience of a group really singing out, and it's like something else takes over, a bigger spirit than the group of us put together. Maybe it even sounds like there are more voices singing than there are people in the church. It's like we're all part of something. A gathering, indeed.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Liturgy, Day 2: The Thing Before the Thing

My very first weekend in New York -- my third day in the city, in fact -- another Jesuit very kindly invited me to St. Ignatius Parish, the Jesuit parish on the Upper East Side, as a sort of welcome to the city. And he had done some work at the parish, so lots of people knew him, there were lots of hellos.

We sit down, near the front, with about 10 minutes before Mass. The older couple in the row ahead of us look back, exchange a very warm, friendly greeting with my friend. Then we continue our conversation.

A few minutes later, the man looks back again. He does not look happy. "Are you guys going to shut up?" he says. And I laugh, as does my friend, thinking, he must be kidding. A point he clarified when he looks directly at me and says, "Oh, you think this is funny?"

Stunned silence.

Me, directly after the church shut up.

I was actually quite pleased, on a certain level. A classic New York experience, and I had had it my very third day in the city. And at a church.

Still -- welcome to New York, indeed.

There are two basic operating principles that people about the time between when they enter church and Mass begins -- the thing before the thing. The first is, sit quietly and pray. This time is to settle yourself down and put yourself in the presence of God.

The other is, "Hi!" Time to check in with people, say hello, reconnect. Which can be actually another form of settling down -- the Mass is a communal celebration. Visiting beforehand is people re-forming the community. To quote the prophet Pink, "Let's get this party started."

And while they seem to contradict each other, both of those instincts are important. Regarding the desire for silence: this isn't brunch. We're here to be open to the Lord, and silence is a key movement into that. And at the same time, we're not here alone. We might want to be, but I think that desire is something to be challenged. Look simply at the way the space is arranged -- we don't each have our own pew or individuated cubicle. We sit with one another. And when we talk about where the Lord is to be found at Mass, we talk about not just in the Eucharist, but in the Word of God, in the priest and in the people. La gente, mis amigos, la gente.

Perhaps right before Mass starts, we should invite the congregation into a long moment of silence, preparation. And then the expectations would be clearer. (Plus, when a large group prays quietly together, it can be a profound experience of the Spirit and of that sense of us all being here together.)

On the other hand, I recall my ethics teacher in theology studies, Fr. Jim Keenan, who said one of the fundamental dynamics of the Eucharist is to reveal the ways we're not quite there yet, to uncover the roads we still have yet to walk. In which case, maybe our different expectations rubbing up against one another and revealing our inner, dark RAGE is a gift of the Spirit, is exactly what God wants us to receive. Maybe my friends Mr. and Mrs. Shut Up actually had a religious experience. (And I'm a freaking mystic.)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Liturgy, Day 1: Surprise

So, during Advent I've decided to try and write a short reflection each day, starting today. Hi. My focus each day is going to be on a different part of the Mass, starting with... Getting in the door.

I was thinking about all the things that keep me away from Mass. I'm very busy. It doesn't fit in my schedule. I'm going to be bored, or distracted. I can't stand the priest. Fill in the blank. And there's some merit in those answers.

But then there's David Hume, philosopher (left, wearing just a little something he threw on.) David Hume was famous for saying, just because gravity works the way it does today, and has done so every other day, doesn't mean it has to, tomorrow.

And his peeps were like, boo, you trippin. But the man has a point. Not that this Mass will kick butt when every other has sucked rocks. We're not that naive. But that there might be something there for me. God is alive and active in "broken vessels"; I know it's true - I saw it on a macrame wall hanging in the 1970s!

My life -- how much of it has gone as planned? Well, let me see -- I'm not Spider-Man (dammit). I'm a Catholic priest. I spent three years working on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. I lived in Australia. I'm applying to film school. Yeah, pretty much nothing has gone as planned. My most important relationships, from high school to today, all surprises. If I had steered clear, "stayed on target," I'd have missed out on everything.

One of the weird things about New York: you're walking down one of the main avenues, and it seems like just a normal day. Nothing out of the ordinary. But then, walk just two avenues over, and you can find yourself in the middle of a huge parade, a million people lining the streets. No joke.

What if somewhere in all the blase and the dreariness, God is waiting?

Jeez, I hope he's not holding a battleaxe.
(I googled images of God -- this is what I got. Nice, google. Really nice.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Hi all! Sorry I haven't posted anything about Vern -- quite a cliffhanger, isn't it??? But I am tied to a chair working on grad school applications due Dec 1st.  The circus is definitely in town.

Just wanted to wish everybody a Happy Thanksgiving.  The New York Times did a fantastic piece a week ago about the craziness of family around Thanksgiving. Thought everyone would enjoy the laugh. Here's an excerpt:
It gets rude in there. Just how rude is exemplified by the story of a teacher from the Midwest who was pregnant with her first child when she attended a large Thanksgiving celebration at the home of her husband’s parents. 
For months, the teacher’s mother-in-law had been saying that she wanted to be in the waiting room when the teacher went into labor, and the teacher, who recounted her story on the Mothers-in-Law Anonymous section of Grandparents.com, had been politely rebuffing her. 
So at Thanksgiving dinner, with the family gathered around the table, the mother-in-law (referred to on this site as “MIL”) took the matter into her own hands. 
“MIL announced to me and the entire family the following,” the teacher wrote. “ ‘I WILL be in the waiting room while DIL is in labor, and all of you are welcome to come too. MY SON will come and give me updates every hour on the hour.’ ” 
The teacher told this reporter, “I wanted to scream: ‘Are you serious? I’ve told you that I don’t want anyone there and you invite the entire family! Who do you think you are, taking over my first birthing experience?’ But what could I say and remain tactful?” 
Her violent impulse is not uncommon at family holiday gatherings. Indeed, there are those who claim that there exists, in the archives of The Saturday Evening Post, a Norman Rockwell painting that is entitled “Throttling Granny,” in which a New England farmer has one calloused hand on the throat of a gray-haired lady whose grandchildren cheer him on.
 Click here for the full article.

Starting Dec 3rd, I'm going to try and post a short spiritual reflection every day during Advent.  I know, I know, can he do it -- actually post two days in a row! I'm going to try.

Gobble gobble.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

"Written by God, best selling author of all that you behold."

So, when we're talking about the authorship of the Bible, an obvious answer that you hear a lot is  -- well, God.  We do consider the Bible the word of God, after all.  So, uh... duh.

Now, there's something important in that answer.  But let's start with the problem. God, as far as we know, is not corporeal.  Or if he is, he's really sneaky, because as far as I know, he's not ever been identified walking down the street.  Until Jesus, anyway, and he wasn't an author. Our savior, yes; a writer, no.

Another way of putting this might be that the whole corporeal category doesn't fit for God.  Like most categories for God, really.  I heard someone give a talk recently where they said, you can't say God exists.  Not because he doesn't, but because that whole idea of exists/doesn't exist is too small and limited for God.  It's a category for us, for the created, not the creator.

Have I got your head spinning?  Sorry.

Back to God as author.  So -- if we agree that he has no body in the way that you and I do, he can't literally be the guy who wrote the text.  He needed someone else to do it for him.  So he had human author or authors.

But maybe those human authors were really just God's mouthpieces?  In the Catholic church we say the texts were divinely inspired, and this is a common interpretation of that -- certain people (i.e. my neighbor Vern, whom we'll talk about in the next post) sort of channelled God.   They received his dictation.  And therefore, every single word in every single text is actually literally word for word what God intended to say.

The problem is -- well, let me give you two.  First, have you ever played telephone?   You see where I'm going...  even if someone listens really really well, eventually, they miss a word or two here or there. Unless, God actually "takes over" the person, makes them the "vessel" of what he wanted to say.  Which sounds like a lot of creepy movies, yes?  Talk about head spinning...

Now, maybe we'd say, hey, if Linda Blair was writing hopeful words instead of levitating and groaning, we'd be good with that.  But either way, you're talking about an end to free will, and that is not really the way we believe God works.

Sorry, Linda.
(And Lord, put something on those pores, you're really breaking out.)

So, what we're talking about ultimately is some sort of a collaboration between God and human beings.  God, maybe understood best here as the Holy Spirit, inspiring the skills and imagination of human beings in such a way as to create these rich, spirit-filled stories.   And this can take different forms, hence on the one hand the relative dictation of the 10 commandments to Moses to the songs King David creates out of devotion to the Lord, which we call the Psalms.

All of which leads us to Vern.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Together Again -- Who Wrote the Bible?

So... I'm Back! It's been a whole month since my last post, and really longer still since anything regular. And I can't really guarantee this will be much more regular, either. I really want to share things from China, and Halloween, too, but I have a lot on my plate right now. Hopefully soon.

But something happened yesterday, and it's been driving me batty, so I decided I better write about it. I was at a movie screening for a new film called "Oh My God". "OMG" is a documentary of a semi-agnostic filmmaker wandering the world asking people "What is God" and the answers he got. The film is in some ways very provocative; one way or another it asks all the big questions, from what is God to why do religious people kill so many people to why does God allow horrors like war and sick kids. It offers no answers of its own, either, but rather allows other people to talk about how they see things.

And afterwards I was on a panel to talk about the film. And someone asked the filmmaker, in your travels did you discover who wrote the Bible? Because I've always wondered that.

In the conversation that followed this is how I felt:

Yes, I felt like a crazy bearded muppet.  It's not the first time.  Grade school hero:

Come on, he could fly and had a cool helmet.  Plus -- he's cute, too.

What drove me crazy in a sense was the question.  Dozens of books, written over centuries, but we're looking for "the" author... trust me, I've ridden that merry-go-round, and it'll only get you dizzy.   The fact that our filmmaker responded by saying that "the Bible" was written hundreds of years after Jesus was also somewhat less than pleasing...

So, inspired by that question of the pretty lady in the fifth row with the big smile, here are my answers to, Who Wrote the Bible?

1)  God (sort of but also not really).
2)  That guy Vern who lives down the street (and a hundred others like him).
3)  Amazon.com (see, it's even still available)!

And if that piques your interest, come back tomorrow and I'll tell you more.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

It Just Keeps Getting Weirder

My sister has made a second Halloween video, this time with my great aunt Denny, my parents, me...and my parents' dog. FREAK.

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Monster Mash, Pontow Style

Halloween came early this year. But just as scary.... My sister just sent out an eCard featuring her entire family. Enjoy.

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Monday, October 5, 2009

Don't You Talk to Me That Way

At the end of the day today I called a good friend, and kvetched and complained for about 20 blocks -- I measure phone calls now in terms of blocks walked while talking, rather than minutes. Then I hung up...and felt as though I had just vomited all over upper Manhattan.

Now I know, that would put me in an elite group of about 16 million living. But still, it was a nasty feeling. Talking in person or by land line it seems like I say somehow less. A certain anything-goes let-your-hair-down-and-tell-it-like-it-is freedom/ok, rabidness seems to take over when discussing problems on a mobile phone.

And so I've begun to wonder whether talking on a cell phone is like karaoke at a bar on a Friday night -- your performance is likely to be remembered for its volume, its solipsism and its lack of inhibition, and not its quality.


Sunday, October 4, 2009

For Every Season

I'm back from a couple months away. Had a great trip to China -- hope to share it in the coming months. Been thinking about the blog. There may be some changes ahead. We shall see.

But today, I write inspired by my godson Jimmy. Jimmy is 10 years old, in fifth grade at the same school that his dad and aunts and I went to. And on Friday he was elected the President of his student council. I know, awesome, right?

And as I sat with that over the weekend, what struck me was, there comes a point when your children (or relatives) become mysteries to you. That is to say, they have desires and dreams that are entirely their own. You didn't put them there, you couldn't have achieved them, you might not even understand them.

It's a good thing. But also a rite of passage, not just for the kids but for everybody else.

I had no idea it could happen as early as 10. (And perhaps I'm late to the party at that.)

Friday, July 31, 2009

Gone Fishing

I'll be away from the blog for the month of August.  Check in occasionally and maybe I'll post a picture suggesting my whereabouts...  and I'll be back around Labor Day. 

For "Lost" fans, a little entertainment to tide you over until then...