Sunday, September 27, 2009

Moving Body Parts

The 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Word:
Numbers 11:25-29 (Moses: "Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets")
Psalm 19:8-14 (Lord, cleanse me from my unknown faults)
James 5:1-6 (Come, you rich, and mourn over your ultimate losses)
Mark 9:38-48 ("If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off!")

Both of the priests whom I had the pleasure of hearing today were quick to comment that this difficult quote of Jesus in Mark's Gospel is not meant to be taken literally. But is it really? What else could explain the number of deliberate maimings and mutilations that have occurred since Mark put this one down in the books? Hey, folks, nobody can deny this sort of thing doesn't happen, even in this day and age. When we hear of such in the present, our first thoughts are that the person really needs psychiatric help (and prayer).

I got to thinking along a somewhat related tangent while singing with the choir today.

For the first time in God knows how long, the men outnumber the women this season. (The reason: the three top women in the choir have secular job in semi-pro show biz; their schedules, along with another couple of working women, suddenly rule out their general availability for Sundays.)  Among my God-given gifts as a musician are the ability to sight read fairly well, a slightly better than average vocal range, and the ability to adapt on the fly - so our director this morning asked me to become a "bargain" counter-tenor (inside joke) and sing the alto part. This reminded me of the stories of the castrati in the boys' choirs of antiquity. Makes you really wonder just how seriously people took Mark's text. (For the curious, I'll explain it at another time. For now, console yourself with the belief that we've managed to get smarter since those days.)

I am generally convinced that God has a sense of humor. The first person I heard say this was the comedian/actor Robin Williams, who then offered as proof the evolution of the platypus. I don't have to go that far. Father Damien, in his take on Mark's text, took a "what you don't know can hurt you" bent - mentioning that in our (generic) attempts to have personal space, many a child has a TV set and/or computer in their bedroom; thus introducing the concept that lack of a modest degree of vigilance may lead our kids into temptation with the plethora of who-knows-what that's part of cyberspace and mainstream home entertainment today. Then he went on to say that at 70, he doesn't even know how to turn the thing on.

Sounds like my Mom.

On that subject, Mom made it to my niece's wedding last weekend. It was great to have her there; it was her first activity anywhere since the end of July when she was hospitalized briefly. Since then, due to her condition aggravated by Parkinson's Disease, she's been in a convalescent care center. She was given the green light to go home this past Wednesday...but at the last minute both she and Dad agreed that it would be best if she remained in the nursing home for a bit longer. How long, nobody's saying yet. This is a very big decision that they agreed to, since the costs aren't minor and Medicare won't cover them. However, I can't argue against the decision. To go home at this point would put my parents back in the position of having to fend a bit more for themselves. Among other things, this means they'd go back to eating mainly microwaved meals - something not really healthy for anyone, let alone the two septuagenarians I know and love most.

My dearest wife Diane, who has been plowing through meal plans, calorie counts, and nutritional information for a good chunk of her life, told me that she would really like to be able to help them. I, too, feel it's important to honor my mother and father by helping them in their old age. The logistics are difficult but not insurmountable - but they'd be easier to manage if we lived a little closer to them than we do presently. Other opportunities, cut off by time, distance, and the lack of public transit, could become available - and will be needed to help Nick make the jump into the bigger world.

So...the big decision we've made here is to move closer to where clearly two-thirds of where/how we interact takes place. By the end of next spring we hope to have found a new place to live - a place closer to where we conduct most of our business, where we're better able to care for each other as well as my parents. It's a tall order, but not doing so seems wrong on so many levels. May we be blessed with the resources we will need to get there.

Move it...or lose it. It's that important, and that serious.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The KPIs of Music in Worship

The Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Word:
Wisdom 2:12-20 (Let us beset the just one, for he is obnoxious to us)
Psalm 54:3-8 (The Lord upholds my life)
James 3:16 - 4:3 (The fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace)
Mark 9:30-37 ("If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all")

(NOTE: The book of Wisdom is not included in most non-Catholic editions of the Bible. To read the excerpt, as well as the other selections of the day, go to this link:

I've been a pastoral musician for forty years now. That and five bucks will get you a Pumpkin Spice Latte at Starbucks (for a limited time only).

Having said that, though, I've come to understand some of the nuances about this vocation. I won't admit to being an expert as it would automatically discount my experiences. But I want to share just a few thoughts in this area of service.

I might draw some ire from a few, yet it's my belief that the people who serve as pastoral musicians, especially the volunteers, fall in the definition mentioned by Jesus and recorded by the evangelist Mark. I cite as some evidence of proof for this a quote from (Saint) Augustine of Hippo, who wrote that a person who sings "prays twice." (Some of the perfectionists among us like to add the word "well" as an adverb.)

Forty-five years ago, the Second Vatican Council defined the place of music within the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Mass, and the importance of developing and maintaining a repertoire of works, as well as the personnel and attitude required to complement the action of prayerful worship. (At present the Catholic Church in America is on the cusp of establishing a 'universal' hymnal for use in the US, as most of the other Christian Churches already have in place.)

John Wesley, who co-founded the Methodist Church, found it appropriate to write some "Directions for Singing" in 1761:
"IV. Sing lustily and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard..."

"VI. Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature.
In order to do this, attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven."

John had not to worry about musical content, as his brother Charles would write more than 200 hymns over the course of his life. On the other hand, neither John nor Charles were likely concerned about the potential for burnout from having to plan and execute multiple services on any given Sunday, let alone Christmas or Easter.

As a forty-year veteran, multiple services are part of the territory. It would be great if enough people were to volunteer to permit musicians to serve only once a week. However, it pleased God to allow the faithful to have diverse talents and levels of ability. It also pleased God to invite, rather than demand, that participation in worship include the use of the wide variety of styles presently found in the repertoire of sacred music.

Pastoral musicians are (or should be) constantly aware that there's a fine line between music as worship and music as performance, and that line is often blurred or difficult to see. People in this vocation can actually be overqualified, if you catch my drift.

All this weighs in on the person ultimately responsible for putting together the selection of music for any given service. This person is usually directly responsible to the pastor or church council to see that what's chosen is appropriate for use in worship, doesn't ruffle any doctrinal or theological feathers, and is singable by the congregation as well as the other pastoral musicians. It is not as easy as it sounds. I've been close enough to people who do it, wanted to do it, and then thanked God that it's not my job. Still, I have a certain respect and admiration for those who take up this mantle. That's the reason for this week's devotion.

When you're used to having only one service to work on (with the multiples occurring only at Christmas and Easter), and then have to ramp up to two (or more) per week, it gets appreciably tougher. Even though the services may be identical, there's usually something about them that won't be. In my Catholic circles, one of the services will be led by a visiting priest who has no idea to the way the pastor makes the other services flow. There has been disaster in the making on more than one occasion.

What's common to all traditions, though, is that those involved - who have already given up more time due to setup, warm up, take down, and comments good or bad from anyone, including the pastor - are adding that much more time. Frequently, for those in charge there's no time to decompress from one service to get ready for the next. I'm acutely aware of this and what it can do. Every moment is precious and sometimes you just have to try to simply disappear for a few minutes. Your "time alone with God" ends up being elsewhere and at odd times, and that's if you work hard to remember that and don't have a weekday job.

If this sounds remotely like you, know that I am praying for you and your families. You can use as much prayer as you can get.

I have found connections through prayer while moving/walking that helps me reset my focus. More often than not, however, I've found that the very music I sing (and some I listen to) provide much needed ministry to me. In particular, I have three texts I'd like to share as launching points. The first is a bit more traditional in nature and style:

When in our music God is glorified,
and adoration leaves no room for pride,
it is as though the whole creation cried

How often, making music, we have found
a new dimension in the world of sound,
as worship moved us to a more profound

So has the Church, in liturgy and song,
in faith and love, through centuries of wrong,
borne witness to the truth in every tongue,

And did not Jesus sing a psalm that night
when utmost evil strove against the Light?
Then let us sing, for whom he won the fight,

Let every instrument be tuned for praise!
Let all rejoice who have a voice to raise!
And may God give us faith to sing always
Alleluia! Amen.

--When In Our Music
Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000)

The second I listen to frequently, have sheet music and actually got to sing once:

He has brought us together
Each of us a different gift to bring.
We’ll serve Him forever
Even if the cost is everything.
He has called us to be faithful,
So with one heart we give this offering.

The reason we sing,
The reason we lift our voice,
Is more than just making harmony.
The reason we sing
Is to praise the one who gave His Son to be
The reason we sing.

It's more than just an emotion,
His spirit gives us joy that we can't hide.
We will not be silent,
We've got to let the world hear what's inside.
And as we praise Him with our music,
Jesus is the one we glorify.

(REPEAT CHORUS 2x with modulation and tag)

--The Reason We Sing
Melodie Tunney (First Call)

Inevitably, though, that blurred line occasionally gets crossed, whether real or imagined. When that happens, I am thankful for being introduced to this last offering:

When the music fades
All is stripped away
And i simply come
Longing just to bring
Something that's of worth
That will bless your heart

I'll bring you more than a song
For a song in itself
Is not what you have required
You search much deeper within
Through the way things appear
You're looking into my heart

I'm coming back to the heart of worship
And it's all about you
It's all about you, Jesus
I'm sorry, Lord for the things I've made it
When it's all about you
It's all about you, Jesus

King of endless worth
No one could express
How much you deserve
though I'm weak and poor
All I have is yours
Every single breath

I'll bring you more than a song
For a song in itself
Is not what you have required
You search much deeper within
Through the way things appear
You're looking into my heart

(Repeat chorus )

--The Heart of Worship (1998)
Matt Redman

Finally, I constantly remind myself (and occasionally others) that the Holy Spirit is present - and being conscious of this, try not to worry as much about imperfections in the aspects of performance. Our imperfections can be made perfect through God's grace, and we may not even be aware of it.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Pop Quiz

The Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Word:
Isaiah 50: 5-9 (Third Song of the Servant: The Lord God is my help; who will prove me wrong?)
Psalm 116:1-9 (I will walk before the Lord, in the land of the living)
James 2:14-18 (James explains further that faith without works is like a screen door on a submarine)
Mark 8:27-35 (Jesus to Peter: "Get behind me, Satan!")

Over the last few weeks I've written stuff here that is for the most part general in nature. If you got the impression that I was getting preachy, you're probably right. As a minister I am charged to do that.

Having said that, though, the best preachers (in my opinion) somehow manage to weave the fabric of their own life into their preaching, and make it a bit more personal. Probably a bit more real, too. To rely on a gimmick of sorts (my recent "Signs for Our Times" series), while well-intended, doesn't lend itself well to getting personal - and possibly misses an opportunity to be an example of "living" faith. I hope to correct that this time. It may not quite reach the standard set in the epistle of James, but it's substance. That is what counts.

Apart from the psalm, this week's selected readings ask many questions; this has inspired the "Pop Quiz" subject line. I'll try to answer a couple of these - just don't be surprized if the answers come in the form of more questions. And no, this isn't some gimmick-like attempt to tie-in with the Jeopardy! game show - although it might be interesting if Alex Trebek put forth the clues.

Isaiah asks Question #1: The Lord God is my help; who will prove me wrong?
That begs these questions - Is God my help? Do I see the hand of God extended to me through help and assistance from others?

This is tough right from the start. I can feel the sweat on my brow just thinking about it! While I could rationalize much of my sense of peace and security through deliberate thought and careful planning (yes, these are important), it's incomplete without recognizing God's major part in it. Some thoughts are but a snapshot. Plans often have to change on the fly. The two most consistent things about this life are human inconsistency (in which I do well) versus God's consistency (in which He excels). That a divine constant exists is what enables me to work through it all.

James puts forth several questions, best summed up as Question #2: Is your faith one that works? Do your actions echo your beliefs?

These guys don't make it easy, you know? I mean, sure; your actions echo your beliefs whether or not you profess them verbally. And if your faith works only for you, some further inner research may be in order. It seems to be an inevitable part of everyone's personal regime. When I try to be constant, I inevitably get too narrow a focus. That's worked great for a short time. Maybe I put too much emphasis on our human inconsistency.  When I learn from my weaknesses, they can be overcome. But if I just sit there and stew over them, nothing good can come from it.

Jesus asks the big one, Question #3: Who do you say that I am?

Oh, this one is easy, right? Or is it?

Sure, as believers and disciples we can all answer just as blustery as did Peter: You are the Christ! The Son of God, the Messiah, the Savior and Redeemer of humankind! But is that answer from head knowledge, or from deep within the heart and spirit?

I can readily identify with Peter. Who else can say something so profound, and then in the next breath say something that irritates Jesus to the point of saying Shut the hell up!

You're reading him. I've done it - I've behaved like that many times in direct contact with people I love dearly; my family who looks up to me for leadership and support. The good news is I'm much better at spotting that behavior than I was earlier in my adult life. The bad news is that I realize it about a second and a half after those irritating things leave my mouth.

With all that, what sort of score should I expect to receive?

Thank God this isn't among the sort of quizzes I find all over Facebook and elsewhere in cyberspace. Optimistically, I hope for an A-, but practically, it's more like a C+. If I listen to the doomsayers and the fire & brimstone people, I could even be looking at a D- or even worse. Happily, God's justice is more balanced; and his mercy, love, and grace is priceless extra credit. God invites us to participate in much more, and that's the stuff that gives everyone the chance to shine.

That's why I'm going to let go of many less-significant issues and questions tonight. There will be no sounding off on the plight of the merry misfits with whom I keep company away from home; no harping on the seemingly endless jumping through hoops to merely get things done. Besides, my dear wife gets much more done in a day than me. She'd be the first to put me in my place if I bluffed my way through life.

If you aren't sure about where you are with God, you've likely scored higher than many who know answers. May that be a springboard for a life at peace from within, a peace only God can give.

Just don't let it go to your head.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Day Late and $1.0380 Short

The Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Labor Day Weekend

The Word:
Isaiah 35:4-7 (Say to those who are frightened: Be strong, fear not!)
Psalm 146:7-10 (The orphan and the widow the Lord sustains, but the way of the wicked He thwarts)
James 2:1-5, 14-17 (Faith without works is like a screen door on a submarine)
Mark 7:31-37 ("Ephphatha! Be opened!")

Observations on this holiday that once marked the end of summer (that seems to have been taken by "National Night Out") and is supposed to honor our work and labor (yet to enjoy it generally forces somebody to work all the more):

More and more it appears that the places you once enjoyed that cost very little have become unaffordable. Case in point - on a beautiful day a lot like those we've enjoyed lately, on something of a whim, my wife and I introduced ourselves to the beauty that is the Chicago Botanical Garden. It is indeed a great place to visit, and I would recommend it to anyone - provided you don't take your own car. There is no admission charge to the park itself, even though there are fees to a number of seasonal exhibits. But the parking charge, controlled by the Cook County Forest Preserve District, has increased from $8 per car (when we first visited maybe five years ago) to $20 now. You can't picnic on the grounds  - you can in the parking area and there is a smattering of tables; but this time of year picnicking is not that great an idea due to the onslaught of the hornets. So add another $20 - $30 for a meal out, and suddenly a nice inexpensive outing becomes cost prohibitive.

have to say - thank God that at least in most of Illinois, the state, county and municipal parks do not charge simply to walk and enjoy the scenery. I know that in many places such is not true. We were able to change our plans and enjoy a great walk at a lovely forest preserve not far from home. It seemed that many other couples and families had the same idea.

For lunch, we headed to a place we hadn't entered in years - Chuck E. Cheese.

Now, dear readers, I sense your snickering. Hear me out.

The not-so-great pizza place with an act has been something of a refuge for my wife and I. Our son heads off to game land with his cup of tokens (reminder to self - never take him to a riverboat casino), and we get uninterrupted privacy; a chance to talk, plan, get an indication of what's on each other's minds and such. Even though he's now 17-1/2, there are still a number of games and attractions that appeal to him.

It was wonderful to observe on this visit that my son has become much more judicious in his decisions of what games to play, effectively stretching out the time it takes to spend the tokens. When he was younger, he'd exhaust his supply within the twenty minutes prep time for the pizza, and then be looking for more with only a scant glance at the food.

Another breakthrough was apparent in the way his social world has expanded . This time, he was more observant of our reaction of what he was doing. Further, he included other kids in his playtime. As an autistic, he has at times been completely engrossed in game play to the point that anyone nearby is completely oblivious to him.

Lastly, the place still does everything they can to give a family a safe place to enjoy a meal and entertainment at a reasonable price. Can't complain about that! So...I think maybe son will get a return pass a couple more times. Maybe even a party with Mom and Dad on his 18th birthday.

We got home and caught the last couple of hours of Jerry Lewis' MDA fund-raising telethon. This has been an annual Labor Day staple for 44 years. Lewis, now in his eighties, is struggling to maintain a stage presence. A lot of the big name talent of his time have died over the years; the most recent being Ed McMahon, who acted as Master of Ceremonies for many years. The telethon has lost much of its punch and appeal over the years, yet Lewis still manages to tag his corporate buddies to the tune of $60 million. A tough act, given the recession we're in.

Thinking about it this morning, I was prompted to consider how charitable I am. I prefer to do things at the local level, as I am fully aware that there are people suffering in my own neighborhood. I know there are homeless; I know people are hurting, and I try my best to meet that first. It's not that I don't appreciate the need to find treatments for people with catastrophic illnesses; we all deal with one or another of them. Some deal with more than one at a time.

What I observed that bothers me the most is the depths that people will sink to in order to appeal to your sense of guil...umm, charity. A local business pledges to match the total contributions received in a three-minute period. But when the clock gets down to ten seconds, it's suddenly reset for another three minutes...then four more, then five more, and another three, and still another two. This went on at least eight times during one local break.

If you participated in that, would you feel that you were living your faith, as the apostle James exhorts us? I am not sure.


I had planned an educational field-trip to Chicago with my son tomorrow. The main objective was to see how commuter trains operate; to read a timetable and schedule of fares, to know how to find your train in a big terminal like Union Station (not unlike finding Platform 9-3/4 to get to Hogwarts, if you've read Harry Potter). However, Oprah Winfrey has other ideas. She's managed to close down three blocks of the Magnificent Mile (the posh Michigan Avenue business district) to tape the first show of her new season in front of fifty thousand adoring fans. Among her guests - the hottest act currently in pop music, the Black-Eyed Peas (21 straight weeks at the top of the charts) with a troupe of 2500 (reported) dancers. Where are they going to put them all? And what about the people who have to actually, say, work in that area? Is this another ploy that says We know how to throw a party! in order to secure hosting the 2016 Summer Olympics?

We'll make another stab at public transportation closer to Christmas...taking the free trolley between shopping centers at the regional shopping mall.


The other day, I heard a news story about a series of TV ads that the three local Catholic dioceses will run in December. Developed by a ministerial group named Catholics Come Home (website at same, without the spaces, plus 'dot org'), they're mission is to return 'wayward' Catholics to Sunday Mass.

As clergy, I should be fully supportive of this. Like the fund raising for "Jerry's Kids, " however, I'm sensing a mixed-message.

I can't say these folks didn't do their homework. They report all kinds of statistics designed to make everything look appealing, welcoming, even sympathetic. Let's face it though. If you're in their target audience, you're a big-time sinner. They may not say so outright, but then they don't say anything about sins the Church may have committed to drive the disenfranchised away. Also notably lacking is any comment about issues facing the Church at large; issues that the Magisterium, the teaching body of the Church, has had no problem asserting its position in no uncertain terms. So, to some otherwise faithful people, the place to which they're being urged to come home is no different than the place they left. That just isn't enough.

I hope and I pray that each person sincerely seeking Christ will encounter him. I know it will be enhanced by finding a vibrant faith community. But that encounter doesn't always happen "in church." It didn't for Paul of Tarsus or Francis of Assisi.

And that, at last, brings me to the last of the "Signs for Our Times." As the traveling season ends and the patterns of life keep us closer to our dwellings, it is time to set aside our journey from that perspective and leave you with two thoughts. First, the sign:

And with all the confusion, to whom should we go for directions?

I surely hope for that.

Wherever you are on your spiritual journey, however rough the road may be, know that God is near.
Be open to God's presence, always.