The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

New Blog Address!

Wake up and take notice! My new blog address will be:

"roots-n-shoots" with the rest of the address the

I'll make the switcheroo in a couple of days, allowing those people who subscribe via a reader to download this post.

I think that Google will let me just rename the URL of this entire website in one fell swoop, and eventually after a period of time it will a little more difficult to find this blog using my name in Google searches.

I make this switch with a little bit of unease. It is mostly for professional considerations. Some of my opinions might not go over too well and might be a barrier to positions I may want to hold. I worry about a culture where there is fear and repression of opinions and the free exchange of thought. But I also know that people in leadership and ministerial capacities can exert an unfair influence on others. There is a time and a place for sharing opinions, and the internet is simply too broad and clumsy to adequately distinguish or in any way filter that out. There is no filter, in fact.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Composed By, But Not Composed

One of the things that is very exciting about my new job is the chance to play some of my original music at church. I've been a closet liturgical composer for years, rarely showing anything to the light of day. I'm very happy to share, and lately I've been burning the midnight oil rattling off a new group of pieces.

Over the years, I've actually worked on several Masses, Psalm settings and other songs.

I'm always uncomfortable unveiling it, though. Today, I printed off an insert for the bulletin with 3 new songs we are introducing, among them being one of my compositions. It felt awkward to put "written by ..." at the top. It seems to put attention in the wrong place. I'd rather folks enjoy it (or not), and let them interact with it naturally. Knowing the person who penned it is sitting at the piano may turn it into a showpiece and get in the way of an authentic experience. Folks might feel pressure to be polite and make a remark to me, and I don't want them to feel any awkwardness around me.

It also seems rather egotistical to put my own name at the top.

However, not putting anyone's name could raise eyebrows as to copyright infringement!

Granted, when I put the name of a fellow choir member at the top of a tune that she had made, I had nothing but pride in announcing it to the world. But when it's for myself, it is another thing entirely.

However, a couple weeks ago we played another one of my Psalm settings. I didn't tell anybody in the congregation, at first. I finally told the cantor a couple days afterwards. It didn't seem humble to guard this information. It felt like I was hiding myself from the people around me. It felt cold and empty.

Perhaps putting my initials at the top and saying no more about it is enough.

It could also be that I just need to take more time to get to know folks more as a person. How can I write something that lives and breathes the life of this congregation without getting to know it better first? And then if folks see my name at the top of a piece, well, our relationship would have more of a foundation and a little thing like a song wouldn't become the focus because we would something else to build on.

I don't want to obsess, but I want to be tasteful and appropriate. Maybe it's just the Midwestern farmer in me. Deciding whether or not to put my name in 8 or 12 point font, just initials or not at all, should not have the equivalency of a moral dilemma, but there is a cost to not being careful here. It is fun to celebrate and receive attention, but art needs to come before the artist. I don't want to get in the way of folks having an authentic relationship with the music or with me as a person.

Maybe all this talk of humility is really just a decoy. Maybe I'm just scared of exposing myself. Sharing my music means sharing a deep part of myself. If the music is rejected or not liked, does that mean I'm rejected and not liked? Can they be separated? And it's not really about rejection, it is really about me saying this is who I am, this is what I bring to the table, I'm happy to share it! Like it or not, this is who I am. I am present and accounted for and not hiding behind a curtain.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Emotional Responsorial Psalms

Fr. Pat said something in his homily at the Catholic Worker that has stuck with me. He said that the Responsorial Psalm is a time to reflect emotionally on themes found in the other readings. That day it was particularly true of the first reading, as the hopeful Psalm was a much needed answer to the burden of the Jeremiah reading.

Along the same lines, there is in line in the GIRM (General Instructions of the Roman Missal), which states that the Responsorial Psalm "fosters meditation on the word of God." (Yes, it really is pronounced like "germ.")

If the goal is to foster meditation on the word of God and reflect emotionally on the other readings, are we actually doing that?

I have to admit that most Reponsorial interpretations I have heard have left me empty. We usually have a melodic refrain and the verses are done in a kind of plain song. Plain song is a way of singing that is less rhythmic and chant-like. This is where you sing a single note for most of each line and the last few syllables you either ascend or descend to the next chord change. You would think this would give the cantors the freedom to let the words drip from their mouths like poetry. However, it seems that all too often the cantor is more focused on just getting the syllables right, knowing when to bring it back to the ending notes or such. Many cantors get too strict on the technicalities, and the notes seem to rise or fall regardless of which words are involved.

To my ear, cantors simply jam the words of the psalm into the plain song motif whether they fit in an emotional sense or not.

Hearing someone chant the Psalms in plain song is a beautiful thing to hear. What I mean is: It is a physically beautiful sound, and the sound itself has atmosphere, drama and depth. However, it is often detached emotionally from the words, for me. It can be a great way to get a whole congregation singing that hasn't had time to practice together. People can chant the Liturgy of the Hours together with no preparation. However, if the chant melody enhances the words of the Psalm it is almost purely by accident. Often, it is downright awkward. They could be chanting "blah blah blah" and the effect would probably be the same.

I suppose in my heart of hearts I'm a folk singer. I approach music the way a folk singer would. What that means is that the "holy trinity" of melody, words and chords needs to be in equal balance. Each compliments the other and they all feed into the essence of a song. The melody has to fit the words and the chordal structure, and none of them is arbitrary. That is in sharp contrast to the approach of plain song chants.

I enjoy "plain songing" the psalms in a kind of folk style. This involves using chord changes that are more modern, and I often try to keep a steady rhythm. This means that the plain song starts to sound more and more like a distinct melody, and it requires rehearsal as each line needs to be interpreted slightly differently. Many of the chant features are still present, though. It is my way of making the Psalms real to me and letting the words resonate through me.

In planning the music for Masses, I wanted to give my choir not just a list of songs but some sort of direction or focus for each liturgy. I thought about having a one-line theme. I debated whether this was appropriate to do or whether the words of the liturgy should just speak for themselves. I reasoned that there are many who interpret the liturgy, such as the words of the homily, the selection of music or the intentions, and even the decor of the surroundings factors in, so I decided it is not misleading to suggest a focus this way. A music minister is, after all, a minister and as such should be a guide.

Actually, it is in discussion, reflection and hearing others' interpretations that I feel the "communication" that is meant to happen in liturgy actually happens for me. Simply hearing someone proclaim the readings often doesn't do much for me, until I sit back and try to reflect or discuss them with someone afterwards. I feel very connected to the liturgy in planning the music, because that, of all things, surely fosters meditation! I see how the pieces of each Mass fit together, and I am often just amazed. It can all whiz by me so quickly during Mass that it is easy to miss how well put together each Mass is.

What I discovered is that in nearly all circumstances, the Responsorial refrain is the best one-line theme for each Mass that I could think of. There is rarely a need wrack my brains to try to scope out the essence for a Mass. If you need to boil a Mass down to a one-line theme, look no further.

I later learned that a former professor of mine holds this same opinion, so whether I heard him say it or whether I came up with this on my own, I don't know. In any case, this is powerful enough and obvious enough (once I saw it) that I'm sure many folks have made the same connection time and again.

I am often amazed at how modern the Psalms can sound. Sure, there are times when too-literal translations or archaic references can cause a distancing. Quite often, though, I find myself saying that these words could have just as easily come from Woodie Guthrie or Jim Croce as from some psalmist 2,500 years ago. They just as easily could have come from me or you. We should sing them as if they do.

Perhaps this is just a matter of personal genre preference. Maybe there are many out there who are emotionally moved by the way Psalms are typically done in Catholic churches. I find them to be very beautiful, which can be moving in a certain way, but if the goal is to be emotionally moved by the words which cause a deeper meditation, then that's not happening. I'm much more likely to be emotionally moved by the stand-alone songs (which are often based on the Psalms), but rarely through the Responsorial interpretation. I bet I'm not alone in this.

It would seem that there could be more variety from parish to parish to appeal to people who connect in different ways, in much the same way that we do for the other songs we select for Mass. We freely select songs that match the age, culture and temperament of the congregation. It would seem that the Responsorial Psalm could and should be handled the same, ESPECIALLY since it plays such a strong role in the Mass itself.

The Psalms are deeply moving. Their words are as true today as they were when they were written. The Responsorial is a cornerstone for the Mass. It should be sung in a way that brings this out more to the congregation. It is the job of the music ministers to take those words from 2,500 years ago and show that they are alive and present now.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Liberals and Conservatives in the Church

Liberal and conservative trends in the Church often have a yin/yang relationship. One can give rise to the other.

Some liberal communities have a tendency to dissipate. The freedom to experiment is at first wonderful. People search for an authentic interaction rather than something scripted. But soon enough, things lose meaning. People go separate ways down undefined paths and end up just floating along. What are we about? People get mad at repressive policies in their church, so they leave and end up going to no church whatsoever. The baby can get thrown out with the bathwater.

Conservatives have a tendency to hyper-focus. Put a bunch of conservatives together and suddenly you have 10 pages of rules and a cult-like atmosphere. There is a need to breathe. God is bigger than your little rules. There's a lot of ugliness mixed in to the message, but at least there is a message, and the wonderful Good News of the Gospel can be passed along to the next generation, perhaps even unbeknownst to the messenger, in the most clumsy way possible.

There are all sorts of ways of finding God. Some seek God through the amazing freedom and radical justice promised in Scripture. Others seek God in stability, the Rock, the Cornerstone you can build on, also promised in Scripture. Our large Church can hold all of this together.

It is my belief that as long as liberals lose focus and throw the baby out with the bathwater, we will be continually cursed with subsequent generations of conservatives to bring the baby back, along with all the toxic bathwater.

Chesterton argued that Medieval Europe was not ready for the nature-loving Francis until it had deeply purged the essence of paganism from its psyche. Once people got the right relationship of God and nature, then the beautiful love of Creation could flower. We weren't worshipping nature, we were seeing the Revelation of God in and through nature, which is also wonderful and praiseworthy but it's not the same thing as actually worshipping nature. You can't go around talking about "brother sun and sister moon" until you know what you mean by that. The problem is that in order to establish this, Europe paid a hefty price. It wasn't a pretty sight re-orienting once-pagan Europe, and people did some very un-Christian-like things to encourage this to happen. A lot of good things got repressed in order to get this one idea across. I'm not sure why they couldn't have found a better method.

Some liberal theologians, activists and leaders may be ready to move the Church along. Some, however, think they are ready, but they aren't. In any case, the rank and file congregants may not be ready, and so we have to wait. The Catholic Church has a strong intellectual tradition, but we are not a church solely of intellectuals. We are a whole people, which is one of our most attractive features.

Liberals have in some ways let the Church down. Granted, conservatives have made it unquestioningly difficult for them. But at the end of the day, you can't blame someone else for why you have no faith. It's not good to have an answer for no reason. But it's not very attractive to just have questions, either.

I don't think liberal Christianity (of any denomination) has a message right now, which is why out-dated fundamentalism is so strong--when the choice is between having a clumsy, out-dated fundamentalism or having no faith at all, many choose the former. Perhaps they intuitively understand that it is better to have a faith with some very rough edges than to have no faith at all. For lack of a better term, you're damned if you do, damned if you don't. (Or maybe it's a question of frying pan vs. fire, but that's not a better metaphor, either!)

I do think Vatican II-era Catholicism was still in the sweet spot, but it perhaps broke down too many walls without giving enough clues as to what the alternatives can be. As Raymond Brown argued, you can give all sorts of well-founded reasons why some Bible stories may not be literally true, but if you don't offer at least some morsel of direction as to how you can still have faith in light of that, you will be doing a disservice to your audience. Something like that unintentionally happened in the fallout from Vatican II. However, I do think if the Church just kept the conversation going we would have gotten there.

Everything has a history. You can't understand the experiments of the 60s and 70s (beer and pizza Mass) without knowing the stagnant repression that it came in response to. And you can't understand the tightening of the reigns of modern times without admitting that in some important ways the experiments may be at risk for losing the baby with the bathwater. And so the powers that be clamp down--this is an exercise in fear, but maybe it is more than just fear? Maybe it is just an amazingly clumsy way of addressing the fact that something deep and important is at risk. I would like to think there were a better way of addressing this risk, but for whatever reason this seems to be what happens.

The logical, intellectual mind can move faster than the heart. You can intellectualize your way out of your faith before the rest of you has time to catch up. Whenever the Church as a whole does this, we run the risk of being smacked back two steps to try again.

If the pendulum swings too far one way, we can expect it to swing back eventually in the opposite direction. Perhaps this should be a warning to both liberals and conservatives.

Vatican II is to us what Francis was to Medieval Europe: The doors and windows swung open with a tremendous breath of fresh air. We recovered something important that we had previously lost. But if we can't move forward without unraveling something important, some people will come along (such as the modern young conservatives) to tighten up the clamps once again until we get it right.

Friday, September 17, 2010

My Guitar

I have always said that there no possessions that I would really miss if I ever lost them--except my guitar.

The loss of the sum total of all my childhood mementos would probably be an emotional hit, but I wouldn't fret so much over the loss of too many individual items--except maybe my world class newborn photo. Being out on the streets, cold and penniless would be very bad, but I don't have to be in that house, those clothes or that furniture.

From the moment I first played it I knew. I just knew. It was the most magical sound. I loved playing it just to hear that sound. I could just sit there and strum the same chord over and over just to hear that sound. However, I didn't expect, or even want that guitar be "the one."

It arrived on Christmas morning sometime during college, maybe I was 20 or 21. Out from nowhere my mom and dad brought out a new Yamaha acoustic guitar. They said they shopped around quite a bit and had a salesman try out numerous models while they sat and listened. Knowing them, they probably gave that salesman quite a workout! They said it wasn't even expensive, but they liked the sound.

I met that salesman later, a big black guy who told me, "you know, your parents really love you."

I had been putting off buying a guitar for some time. The only guitar I had was a $5 garage sale special that Andy dropped off one day. It was dusty and clunky, couldn't make a sound beyond the 7th fret, and it had a strange smell. It was a good starter guitar, though, I learned on it and once it served its purpose I handed it off to the next generation, the brother of a previous girlfriend--perhaps it is somewhere in western Pennsylvania right now or maybe Minnesota. Buying my own guitar was an intimidating process--I wanted it to be just right, and it was such an agonizing process that I just kept putting it off.

I had some expectations for the guitar--it just had to have a knob to attach the strap around the drum. I didn't want to tie it around the neck. I didn't like how that looked and thought it would be awkward to play or damaging to the guitar.

My parents were more than happy to exchange it and go shopping with me for another. They just wanted something for me to open on Christmas morning. I always feel guilty when they make a large purchase like this, and even more so I felt it was wasted effort because I know how picky I am about the sound of a guitar. I felt it was silly for them to be spending to much time and energy on a near-impossible mission. On top of that, when I opened it up and saw that it didn't have a knob for a strap, I immediately ruled it out. "Ah, this one will have to be thrown back for sure," I said to myself. They are pretty comfortable with just having fun shopping without expectations and don't see making exchanges as being negative, but still I didn't want to hurt their feelings.

Then I played it.

I couldn't believe that sound. It was just magic.

Later, I have come to understand that the sound of that guitar has color. That seems to be rare in guitars, especially acoustic. I think that many guitar players even prefer it that way with a plain, grey, almost harsh sound. I'm not talking about a superficial, flashy sound, but rather a color with depth. That is rare. Other folks who have played it have also remarked that there is something special about that guitar, a real good sound.

I also learned that tying a strap around the neck isn't such a bad thing at all, and I got used to it. It might not be the best for the wood of the guitar, but it wasn't a really big issue at all.

That guitar and I went everywhere. I took it to the inner cities and mountains on mission trips. I stayed up endless nights playing it, sleeping beside it. I played it in churches, in basements, for friends and family, on hot afternoons and gentle nights. It is soaked in my sweat from nervous performances and as I vented every emotion you can think of alone in my basement. To this day, it is sprinkled in my blood. I know it is cliche, but truth be told I literally would play until my knuckles bled and there are still splattered droplets on the inside of the drum. It is covered with paint marks on the outside as I would often clumsily bump into walls, "like a goofy dog with a big ole tail" as Leah recently told me.

In many ways, the sound of a guitar improves with playing. Every reverberation goes through the wood and leaves a trace of itself. There is something fuller and richer about the sound of a guitar that has been played over and over for years. You just can't buy that, it must be earned. The sound of the wood deepens and you can hear the echoes of every song that has come before. It is like the difference between a well worn favorite pair of pants compared to something new and stiff from the store. The good news is that I liked the sound of this guitar in all its phases--from the newness of Day 1 to the depth as it got played more and more.

I originally bought a deep blue Tye-dye guitar strap at Woodsy's, thinking it would be the perfect accompaniment to my blue paisley electric guitar--but together they clashed, what do I know about putting colors together? It was, however, a perfect fit for my wood acoustic.

I didn't always treat that guitar the best, and it has periodically lost some of the quality of its sound and has needed adjustments. But that was part of the magic of this guitar--I didn't baby it. It was appropriate for either top-notch performances or campfires. It could be banged around and played with every emotional expression--bent and twisted, wrenching every note out of it, or softly strummed in the gentle quiet late at night. It wasn't the kind of guitar to be left on a shelf and admired from a distance or played with white gloves. This one could go the distance, wherever I was or whatever I was going through.

I wrote hundreds of songs on that guitar, in fits of euphoria and utterly gut wrenching, sobbing expressions. It was there through it all. I purged every emotion on that guitar--good, bad and everything in between. I've even been bored with that guitar and sometimes wouldn't play it for months--and even that was important as this was a very full and authentic relationship that ran the gamut of emotions.

It wasn't a showy piece, it was a tried-and-true, every day and special day guitar. For a brief moment I had a flirtation with some Larivees--their sound was charismatic and catchy, but after a while I realized they were too strong for me. My ear would get tired of their flashiness. My guitar didn't have a dull sound, either. It was just right. It was like a favorite cassette tape that you could listen to for hours and hours, days and weeks and years, and never grow tired of it.

For a guitar with this history, it may be sad to know that it didn't go out with a bang. I simply left it on the trunk of my car while dumping recyclables and didn't remember to put it back in as I drove away. A man told me he saw it fall off my car and saw someone push it to the curb, but when I went back to that area it was long gone. I've been to some pawn shops, had some signs up, but no trace of it. My parents have the model number but not the serial number (the latter pawn shops can trace).

Since then, I've had all sorts of offers and gifts of guitars. Our neighbor Jean gave me her 30-year old nylon stringed guitar. The case was mildewy but the guitar sounds just fine. Leah from the church told me I could "borrow indefinitely" her like-new Fender acoustic. It has beautiful wood and a strong, clear and warm sound. Mary from the church also offered her classical guitar. Like before, I don't look forward to making a purchase, but I feel that will come in time.

Guitar: I wish you well! I hope you find your way to the hands of someone who will cherish you as much as I have. I hope you don't end up abandoned in a closet. I've been all around, I've heard lots of guitars, but I've never heard any one quite like you. I can choose to be sad, and I am, but I can also choose to take this moment to celebrate a really wonderful relationship I have had with a really wonderful instrument!

Thanks for many good years and many, many good memories!

Sunday, August 8, 2010


My Sunday debut as Music Director started this way:

A near-complete disaster on the opening hymn!

Seriously, I flubbed my way through the piece missing every other chord, then after two agonizing verses I just stopped, hoping we could just end there. I wasn't even sure I was at the end of a verse or somewhere in between.. The priest led everyone for an accapella verse. Then another . . . Then another! Later, I learned everyone was good natured and laughed through it, but at the time I was too embarrassed to look up.

The rest of the Mass went well, with no major mistakes, just some timing errors and a few better-disguised mistakes. I really had a strong urge to run screaming out the side door at various points. I was hoping that I'd build confidence this weekend and put the stage fright behind me. That may take a little longer.

Looking on the bright side, I suppose this was a true confidence builder as holding myself together and recovering from such a dismal start is an important, if not essential, skill as a performer. All those hours and hours practicing these past weeks helped push me over the hump.

I played for the Saturday Mass yesterday and everything went quite well. Today was merely the first time playing for the much larger congregation with the full choir.

This is a wonderful parish and folks are truly laid-back and accepting. I really don't want to make my own performance such a focus, but when one is nervous it is hard to avoid that. I look forward to times when we can work together to lead the congregation is prayer, celebration and deeper spiritual reflection through music.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Why the Garden is My Happy Place

Don't garden with a condom, folks! A medical study states that microbes in topsoil have been shown to boost serotonin levels in humans. This is simply through contact with the skin, so take off those latex gloves!

Perhaps this is why the garden is my "happy place." Low serotonin is linked with all sorts of health issues, including depression, anxiety, etc.

While I don't profess to judge the scientific validity of this study, it doesn't surprise me in the least. In fact, it supports something I've been hypothesizing for a while.

Right now, there is a mad dash among nutritionists and amateur foodies to figure out the so-called "paleo diet." This is the holy grail of human nutrition. Based on the theory of evolution, it purports that the diet and lifestyle that humans beings experienced through most of our history would be the healthiest for us. This would be the diet and lifestyle we evolved around and are therefore best adapted to. For a number of reasons, most people are looking at the paleolithic era for the most representative diet and lifestyle.

I see no reason to limit this to merely food or exercise, though.

It is amazing to ponder the effects on human health from simply living out in nature--touching trees and grass regularly, drinking "dirty" water, breathing fresh air. The human body is much more permeable than we think--so much gets absorbed through the skin and lungs.

We try so hard to secure "clean" drinking water nowadays. Certainly, excessively dirty water can lead to all sorts of disease, especially in our extremely congested cities. But our ancestors regularly drank river water, pond water, water in puddles. To think that we somehow improved upon human health when we started sterilizing water might be an overstatement. What did we lose?

To our paleolithic ancestors, insects and microbes were everywhere and got into everything. Insects "dirtying" food also brought in beneficial vitamin B-12 and protein, the very items you need to sustain yourself on a mostly vegetarian diet. Modern methods of food processing often strips those factors out. We reduce the risk of disease, but are we also reducing essential components for health? Vegan who lived quite well in India develop nutritional deficiencies when they moved to England, as "improved" food sterilization stripped out essential components of their diet.

I am sure there are numerous environmental factors that affect our human health and happiness. They may impact not only nutrition but also metabolism. Too often, we in America think that diet just relates to the simple intake of chemicals into the body in the form of vitamins, minerals, calories, fats and oils, proteins, you name it. Other cultures intuitively understand that the way food is eaten and the environment in which it is eaten can affect the quality of a meal. Those may not simply be incidental or mere ambiance--if they affect metabolism, they have a real chemical impact on food and may affect the quality of digestion (hence the nutrients we are able to extract).

In other words, if you frantically buy up everything at Whole Foods, go home and stuff it down in isolation in a desperate attempt to ward off cancer, you may offsetting the very gains you are trying to get! Your body may process the foods better (and thus get more nutrition out of it) in a relaxed atmosphere among friends and laughter.

People in Crete love a good seafood meal. People in Crete also believe that a seafood bake on the beach in the company of good friends is the best way to experience it. This is perhaps a component to the Mediterranean diet that gets overlooked.

The French say that in America "the cheese is dead!" This refers to the way we sterilize cheese and pack it in airtight plastic wrap, thus killing off all the beneficial microbes. It makes you wonder when you consider that obesity is much lower in France, despite the diet rich in carbs and cheese. And even so-called lactose intolerant Americans often do very well on a diet of French cheese.

We are only beginning to understand human nutrition itself and have only barely begun to even speculate about things like the way food is prepared, the containers in which it is stored, and how it is processed and sterilized. The role of a good feast or fast (common among human history) probably also has some huge role to play. Just like fires are a part of the essential life cycle of a forest, I would also imagine there is a role of occasional fasting on human health, as well, especially since our ancestors experienced cycles of feast and famine on a regular basis.

People often think about the toxicity of the modern environment--toxins from upholstery, industrial exhaust fumes, plastics, pesticides, you name it. But not only have we added potential health hazards, but we may have also taken away other health benefits--the microbes and chemicals we used to be in contact with but now aren't. I believe there's going to be a lot of research into this in the future.

It is easy to see why there is a focus on the health effects of food right now. When we take something entirely into our body, it would seem to have a more dramatic effect than simply touching something with maybe trace amounts permeating the skin. However, if working in the garden can elevate one's mood, then perhaps the impact is far greater than we would otherwise think.

Think of all we touch--clothing with trace amounts of detergent, perfumes and deodorants (I don't wear any commercial deodorant), carpeting and tabletops with traces of soap and polish. They may be having a far greater impact on our physical and emotional health that we might otherwise think.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Stage Fright

My gig as Music Director at a local church is underway!

I really have to thank the previous music director for being more-than-generous during this transition. I have been profoundly nervous and scrambling to hone up on my all-too-rusty piano skills. I sat in on guitar last week, and this week I was the sole accompanist on the Responsorial and Alleluia on piano. She has continued to be involved as I slowly take on more of the responsibilities. Perhaps that sounds a little too much like hand holding, but like they say, some of us just take a little longer to mature. In 3 weeks, it won't matter how we get there, it will only matter if we get there.

This might all sound like baby steps, but to me they were huge. The music ensembles I've led have been almost exclusively for college audiences and/or small Masses among friends, so playing in an "official" church with like, ya know, grown-ups and everything, is a big step! I’m no perfectionist, just trying to avoid the major train wrecks.

I lent out my mandolin more than a year ago to Barry, and he returned it last night. I brought it out on a couple of old timey tunes today—"Abide With Me" and "Come, We That Love The Lord." More than a few people have remarked that I sound hesitant, so that’s it, next week it’s on full bore.

What an emotional roller coaster. I sat at the piano moments before the Responsorial so nervous I was practically having an out of body experience. Afterwards, you couldn’t drag me off that piano with a cane. It is such an amazing transformation to go from wanting to shut down and hold back to then do a 180 degree flip and now find myself seeking out opportunities to share more and more and more. The good thing about being nervous is that it reminds me how essential it is to practice and focus. I can never forget that, even if/when it gets more comfortable.

Monday, June 28, 2010


Truth be told, I have an extensive collection of original music compositions. The creative floodgates opened about 10 years ago, and I've been writing consistently--with occasional breaks--since then. In recent years, the focus of those compositions has been liturgical settings, particularly for Catholic Masses.

I have also shared virtually nothing with no one.

Sure, there have been a few times when I have gathered a few friends to share a few tunes or hand out some kind of demo, but those have been awkward affairs and few and far between.

What makes it so hard to share? Firstoff, I'm not that great of a singer. Sometimes, I can't carry a tune in a bucket. Add to that limited instrumental skills which bring me to churn out inspired but thoroughly rough and mistake-ridden recordings using some technological dinosaur, like a 4-track tape recorder. I always intend to record those again and get them right . . . someday.

Of late, I've been composing madly using computer notation software. I refuse to use the train wreck known as Finale. It can do anything--as long as you bend to its terms. I much prefer the simple and wonderfully intuitive (and cheap) Noteworthy Composer. It can function as a scratch pad that doesn't interfere with the flow of creative sap. In Finale, by the time I fight with the program and figure out how to use it, the inspiration is gone.

The tentative plan has always been to transcribe my creations to Finale when they are ready for sophisticated playback features or better printouts, but that is an unspeakable drudgery and as a result, it just doesn't get done. Sequencers are another option that I just haven't gotten around to, either.

The downside is that my creations come off in cheesy MIDI computer sounds. To me, I hear a symphony. But to you, it is like serving steak on a garbage can lid, to quote The Cosby Show. Those plinky-plunky sounds are supposed to be a string ensemble with wind accompanyment!

Or you can say those are just excuses to cover the fact that I'm horribly afraid of rejection.

Fast forward to last week. Our Catholic Worker community celebrated a Catholic Mass in our very own chapel. This was the first time we have done so since moving to this location a year and a half ago. The last thing I wanted was play the music for this, as there were lots of other tasks to be done, including preparing for an event right afterwards that we were hosting. Besides, my musician skills have been terribly rusty lately. Other musicians were contacted--again, and then again--all to no avail. By default, I ended up as the primary musician.

This was a weekday Mass and as such, it is not like there were music settings popping out of the woodwork and easily found. I didn't exactly look for them, either, though. I just started tinkering with the readings and before I knew it I had set the Responsorial Psalm to music. Then the wonderful reading from Isaiah 49:1-6 provided a bounty of inspiration. This was the Feast of the Birth of St. John the Baptist, so we had accidentally--or providentially--picked a holiday on the Roman calendar (click link for readings).

I dashed off a jumpy tune that we used for the entrance and closing, with verses taken from all of the readings for the day. I have to admit it is one of my favorite pieces, very simple but with coherent and snappy verses and refrain. Erin helped a lot with the cadence of the verses.

Why stop there?

I tapped into my experience playing music for Mass, and I tried to do what I could to prepare the congregation for the music. Having well-rehearsed singers and a congregation with printed music in front of them makes a big difference when teaching new music. It helps to know how much time people need to learn music, especially singers and people like me with limited skills. All those years in Mass ensembles paid off as I finally got it right, and we weren't scrambling at the last minute to pull it together or flubbing our way through it hoping not to screw up.

I used the melody of the entrance song as the Alleluia. I went back into my files and pulled out the first Holy, Holy I had written. It seemed like a good choice--simple, easy to learn, easy to play and not too avant garde. Most of all, it was do-able and teach-able on short notice. Erin suggested I take the Holy, Holy and set the Agnes Dei to the same tune--it worked quite well and came together effortlessly. We played a popular song for communion, but the others were mine.

I intentionally didn't share with anyone (aside from Erin) that this was my music. I like to hear the genuine reactions of people and not add any unnecessary focus or pressure in the wrong place. We were there to pray and celebrate the Eucharist, after all. She did announce after Mass that these were my compositions, and I did appreciate that.

There is nothing quite like hearing a congregation of people singing your own songs back at you and finding in those songs an appropriate vehicle for celebration and prayer. It was great hearing the singers join in on the refrain of the entrance and closing song with tambourine and maracas, and then with an a capella closing.

As a Catholic liturgical composer, there is something unfinished about a song that is never used in worship. The use of that material, and the response of the people to it, is an essential part of the music. Most publishers don't even want to see submissions of music that has not been tried out in worship already--like somehow it only exists in head-space until then. The validation of the people (for lack of a better word) is an important component for liturgical music in the Catholic tradition. Aside from a couple ditties I used in prayer services several months ago, I've never shared my music in a group setting like this before. I have to admit that hearing people singing those songs back at me seemed to affirm them or complete them in a way that I can't quite describe, as if they put the final brush strokes on a painting, or at least weather-sealed it. Having been sung at Mass, perhaps they are now joined to that "unending hymn of praise" that goes way back in time, all around the world and hopefully will go far into the future. That is humbling, and quite frankly a little scary!

What breaks my heart the most is that music publishing houses have not been accepting new submissions for Mass settings for quite some time. They are all awaiting the final revised English translation of the Mass to come from Rome. I have taken a look at some of the preliminary versions, and at first glance some of my songs simply won't survive the transition. However, I have tried not to dwell on this. With every tragedy there is an opportunity. When the revised words come out, it may create a window for new music. Some of my songs may be adapted quite well--or even better--with the new translation. I'll reserve judgment until then.

It also means that if I want to play these songs at Mass as is, I better get on it. Like Paul Simon reminds, there's not much worse than "writing songs that voices never share," as we bow to the false God of silence--that false God of insecurity, fear, and self-doubt, that false God that says we have nothing worth sharing, as if silence were a better sound that what comes out of our hearts and souls. I'm willing to dare disturb the sounds of silence. Come sing with me!

Friday, June 11, 2010

The New Diet

After subsisting on little more than coffee and potato chips for the past year, and having lost 12-14 lbs (not on purpose), I'm starting to take take stock of my health once again. The timing is right, as the garden is starting to offer forth its fruits, and I have two new housemates to cook with and for.

With new produce starting to come in, I noticed we still have some of last year's garden veggies in the freezer! There is also some dry rice and beans that have been sitting probably as long as they should. This demands a string of everything-in-the-cupboard-must-go recipes. Usually that means soup, and I've made two this week.

Today it was a crazy fried rice concoction, really hot and full of garden greens, last year's peppers and crispy rice. I could have passed it off as having come from some hidden region of Korea, it was quite exotic. It was not just food but rather a full mind, body and soul experience. I could feel my thirsty body absorbing the bursting nutrients of the just-picked greens and my environmentally sustainable, financially frugal mind appreciated putting all this leftover frozen stuff to good use with it. I'm sweating on this hot, muggy night, and loving it as the steamy, spicy rice mixture permeates my body.

I generally cook exclusively with olive oil, but it doesn't seem as conducive as other oils, so I try to use a cheap vegetable or canola oil to crisp it up nicely.

Monday, June 7, 2010


It is often said that there are two things you never want to see: How sausage is made and how a bill becomes a law.

To that list I would like to add a third: You never want to see the inner workings of how a church operates.

It is enough to appreciate the end result: Come to Sunday services and join in parish events. But don’t ask how it all got put together. It is not a pretty sight and it is not for the faint of heart.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Lesson in Love

I wrote the following for my final class in the MA in Theology program at Ohio Dominican University. The assignment was to reflect back upon my goals and aspirations in my admissions essay and also to discuss growth in the following areas while attending the program: personal and spiritual maturity, vocational identity, pastoral praxis, theological formation and professional development.

* * *

In my graduate admissions essay for the MA in Theology program, I discussed the importance of picking a single goal to pursue, even if I was not sure if it was the right one or not. For many years, I had postponed plans to do many things (including going to graduate school), because I felt I had not properly discerned whether it was entirely the right time, place or circumstance to do it. I would wait until I was more certain.

In this, there was a fear of making a decision. I had a profound awakening when it occurred to me that waiting to make a decision actually is a decision itself—it is a decision to do nothing and let life happen by default. I realized that being on the journey may be the best mode to properly figure something out. I can do a better job of discerning while I am actively trying something out. Sitting on the sidelines does not give a person the best perspective to know whether something is right for them or not. This is the spirit that prompted me to begin the Masters in Theology program at Ohio Dominican University.

I am surprised I did not learn this lesson years ago. One summer, I got a notion to start fishing as a hobby. My mother knew a local boy who was an avid fisher. Our mothers were friends and there was the chance that I would begin to spend time together with this kid, so I figured it made sense to start fishing. I spent a summer looking through fishing catalogues, comparing prices on poles and looking for just the right tackle box. This boy and I were going to be the best of friends, I just knew it. Months later, I actually met him and tried out fishing for the first time. After about 5 minutes, I caught a bluegill. It tugged on my line, and then got away. It was exciting but also disappointing, as it was hard to enjoy a hobby that injured another animal, especially when I was not planning on eating the fish. It also turns out that I did not get along very well with this boy once we actually met. After 5 minutes of actually trying it out, I knew that fishing was not right for me, despite spending a full summer pursuing it from the sidelines and being so sure it was what I wanted.

I have made significant progress on most of my vocational goals during the past few years. In my admissions essay, I listed the following possible career goals: University professor, retreat coordinator, director of an outreach agency, published author of scholarly work or spiritual reflection and composer of liturgical music. Through my Masters program, I have taken strides toward a teaching job. I will consider possible PhD work or an adjunct position in the future. My work at the Catholic Worker has strengthened my skills in conducting retreats, as we have hosted many. I have maintained the Catholic Worker’s online blog, and look to expand its reach by sending submissions to local publications. Last year, I participated in (and was a substitute leader) in the music ensemble of Mass on campus at ODU. I helped the ensemble of piano and voice turn into a stronger group with drums, banjo, guitar and trumpet. I did this by incorporating my own skills as well as encouraging fellow students to stretch out and showcase their own hidden talents.

I did not make significant progress composing liturgical music during this time, but in the future I may still work on that (it does not help that the leading publishers have had an indefinite moratorium on new submissions for Mass parts as the new translation of the Mass is being reviewed).

The Columbus Catholic Worker community formed about three and a half years ago. I joined because I had previously been involved in other communities in Akron, OH, and Worcester, MA. The Catholic Worker movement has always impressed me as a beautiful and deeply insightful approach to Christian service in the way it blends direct outreach to the needy with involvement in global issues of justice. Being involved in direct service has a grounding effect, as people know others who are suffering on a personal level. In a likewise manner, being involved in social justice work gives a vision to the direct service, so that it is not just random acts of kindness but rather has an underlying vision and direction. In addition to that, the Catholic Worker movement is about turning one’s very lifestyle into an act of service--my normal rent contributions and housekeeping responsibilities turn into acts of service in this environment. This is done by using one’s own home as a place to conduct this service. Some claim that intentional communities like the Catholic Worker are part of a new movement in community living, often dubbed the “New Monasticism.”

I got involved in the community in Columbus and dug right in. I eventually moved with two other people into the former Dominican convent at St. James the Less Catholic Church. The foundation of our community is a group of people who live together in a faith-based way. We pray together and through our living in community try to be a light for the neighborhood, the city and the world.

We facilitate numerous ministries, based on the expressed needs of the world around us. There is a large and well-organized St. Vincent de Paul food pantry that shares the building with us. We run a free clothing store (which is an ideal partner to the food pantry). We have a thriving community garden which is not only a wonderful community builder, but it also produces bushels of produce for the food pantry. Knowing English is worth more than gold to the immigrant, and so based on the recommendations of the local Latino Apostolate, we offer ESL classes. On top of that, there is much work for peace & justice efforts. Most notably, that has taken the form of opposition to the death penalty, militarism and support for immigration reform. We helped form a new local chapter of Pax Christi, the international Catholic peace movement. We also open our space for retreats and workshops and host numerous other ministries: Spanish language legal clinic, nutrition classes, canning & food preservation classes, H1N1 inoculation clinic, Bible study and Taizé prayer.

In the spirit of Benedictine hospitality, sometimes the best way to help a movement is to provide the support, encouragement and structure for it. For example, not only do I vigil and write against the death penalty, but we have opened our Catholic Worker house to be a warm and inviting (and free) meeting space for groups working against the death penalty. A Catholic Worker house is often a gathering place for activists to learn from each other and support each other.

Taken together, the Catholic Worker tries to help out the world in big and little ways. There are direct Works of Mercy, such as feeding the hungry and clothing those who are cold—if someone needs a fish, we give them a fish. We also take it to another level and educate people how to build community and grow their own organic food through the garden and also provide education through ESL classes—by teaching someone to fish, we can feed them for a lifetime. We then look at the underlying social justice issues—we ask why they need fish in the first place. We try to be good neighbors and partners with other organizations—we trade fishing supplies with other fishers.

At a point early in the first year, I had a realization. I remember the moment: I realized that I truly love the Catholic Worker movement, and, more specifically, that I love the Columbus Catholic Worker community. For one of the first times in my life, I loved something enough to put it first. I was not as concerned about making a name for myself, getting credit or winning ego battles—I am truly willing to do whatever it takes for the community to succeed. This is not to say that I have been totally immune from those human frailties and temptations, though. What it does mean is that once I was grounded in love, then everything else took second place.

I am also learning a lot about the entrepreneurial spirit through this process. In reflection, I realized that my parents and grandparents were very entrepreneurial. It has taken me many years to see that, since at first glace it may seem like they worked ordinary blue collar jobs. However, behind all that, they were always making and selling things, such growing vegetables and going to flea markets and other sales. They were opportunistic in the way they used the resources and environment around them. They knew how to network.

As an entrepreneur, it is important to take an active role in the job market. There are many folks who graduate with BA and MA degrees in Theology (or some related degree) from Catholic and other Christian institutions in the Columbus area. However, the sad reality is that there are only a handful of job openings within the diocese. While many of those graduates already have jobs or are not looking for employment within the Church, there is no escaping the grim mathematical scenario of the job market.

I decided that the best way to get a job is to create one. Yet, I did not set out to do that at first with the Columbus Catholic Worker. Like I mentioned before, I was spurred on by love, and the rest fell into place. While we began as a community, I soon discovered that my sense of commitment was different that many others, and little by little some people stepped aside or moved on for one reason or another, and I was forced to take on more. It was not simply a question of taking on more work, but rather taking on the responsibility. Someone had to make sure things got done, even if that meant staying until 2:00 am to finish something if others did not show up. In all this, I felt I was being shaped and formed in this work. Thankfully, there is now with me a dedicated team that also shares a strong commitment to the mission, but there was a time when I felt alone. I have cared for the Columbus Catholic Worker like a parent to a child. I am rooted in a sense of commitment. Perhaps this is the conversion of the heart that Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day talked about.

Despite the additional responsibility, I was also overjoyed at the opportunity: One of my primary talents is strategic planning. I like to take a bird’s eye view of an operation and put the pieces together from this vantage point. I created partnerships with other groups that met certain objectives. I put different ministries together in the hopes of generating synergy. Unlike other jobs and activities in the past, there were few people standing in the way. In any group of people, there are the ‘nay sayers’ and folks who create roadblocks for one reason or another, but in this case they were not as invested as someone who is in love.

Despite the fact that there was tremendous work involved, I also saw how feasible it was. I was part of a small group of community volunteers who put a structure together—I shepherded our group to incorporate as a non-profit organization. We are currently applying for 501C3 tax exempt status. I am the primary person forming partnerships with other organizations and negotiating with the host parish and diocese, maintenance and utilities companies. We have developed numerous ministries and outreach efforts. I realized that forming a completely new organization out of scratch is not an inaccessible, lofty goal, but rather something to be seized and tried. There are other options in life besides passively apply for jobs that are posted—we also have the option to go out and create our own. This has been a profound awakening.

The irony is that there is no shortage of job openings in the Church—if one is willing to wear a collar or habit. A priest is specifically ordained and stands in persona Christi. At the same time, we are all called to be co-workers in the vineyard, and we all share a common priesthood. The question is where the Catholic Church is willing to lean in this distinction. There is quite a bit of theology that the Church has to work through in order to shift the balance to include the laity more in matters once reserved for the ordained. The shift is not just administrative, because it requires a theological shift, as well. However, I believe that the groundwork for this shift has already been laid, most specifically at Vatican II.

Other religious orders have in some cases centuries of infrastructure and financial support for their work. The problem is that there are fewer people today taking lifetime vows of poverty, chastity and obedience than in previous generations. The result is that much of this infrastructure is left to sit idle—convents are closing down as orders consolidate.

New movements like the Catholic Worker show a different way for people to live in faith-based communities that resonate in the current culture. The three traditional, lifetime vows are not a requirement. Many communities are ecumenical. They allow men, women and families. They also allow for transition. People can either work outside jobs or not. It is a great experiment to see whether modern intentional communities will have the longevity of the Benedictines, Mendicants and others, but there is every reason to believe that these new movements are part of something substantial within the Church.

Traditional orders could benefit by trying to adapt to the modern culture. The ancient “order of widows” is coming back in fashion, as older people who are widowed or divorced with grown children are seeking out religious orders at that phase of their lives. There are also more third orders and “internship” type programs in place, but there could be more.

The Columbus Catholic Worker has a Catholic identity, but it is also ecumenical. Both are true. From the beginning, the thing that most impressed me by the founders of the Columbus community was the desire to work in concert with the institutional Catholic Church right from the beginning. We are a part of the Church, even though we do not report to the hierarchy. Many Catholic Worker communities have an adversarial relationship with their local parish or diocese. It is our desire to stay in relationship, even when we disagree, as that is the best context for true peacemaking.

My studies in theology have been extremely helpful in my leadership of the Catholic Worker. It is good to know what the hot button issues are in the theological world, so that we are careful about what we say publicly. It is important to represent what we want to say and not cause any unexpected responses—taking a controversial stand only when we want to and not by accident. I use readings from class in our group prayer and reflection time.

As Director of the organization, I am the “go to” person when difficult matters arise. People come to me to air out grievances about other people or the organization. I am the one called into difficult meetings when expectations have not been met or problems arise. My value is to be open and honest with people and carry myself in a measured way. I feel like I am in the public view 24/7, and I watch what I say and how I say it. At the same time, I have had to be mindful of my health. Finding appropriate people to confide in and vent to is critical, and I have learned that by experience: I developed a stomach ulcer last year, because I was walking this high wire act without creating enough space for my health.

Prayer is also critical. As a faith-based organization, we live on prayer and see the ministries as truly the fruit of the Holy Spirit and not directly our own efforts in isolation. Studying the Augustine vs. Pelagius debates in the Masters program have helped me to better understand the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives this way. I have a fuller appreciation for the orthodox view than I did before, as I used to lean a lot more to the Pelagian side before beginning the program.

I learned a great deal about Catholic Christian theology in the Masters program. It is valuable to have faculty who between themselves have different opinions and approaches to scholarship. I have truly come to understand the notion of God as Trinity in a way I never expected. I see the relationship between nature and grace, and our ability to explain it, as forming the dividing lines between many denominations. I see the foundations of Catholic Social Teaching in what Richard Sokoloswki calls “The Christian distinction”—that gratitude is the only appropriate response to creation, as creation is a pure gift from a God who does not need us but wants us. While I have never focused on sacramental theology, it becomes evident quickly that in systematic theology all of the fields are intricately related. I got to a point in my education where I had taken courses in eschatology and theological anthropology, and I touched up upon Trinity and Christology as part of other courses, and I knew that I had to study sacramental theology or else I would risk missing a vital link.

I am ultimately fascinated by ecumenism, and in my spare time I read up on ecclesiology. I read Avery Dulles’ Models of the Church the way some people read fiction for spiritual enlightenment. To me, systematic theology and spirituality are the same things. Notions of the Catholic, analogical imagination, as described by Andrew Greeley, have also had a strong impact on me. I have often struggled with people who hold that being a Catholic or Christian means affirming a set of beliefs—one is either in or out based on answers to certain questions. Both Dulles and Greeley describe ways to be Catholic that do not reduce the faith to meeting a short list of criteria. I struggle with many dogmas, magisterial pronouncements and the role of the pope. Yet, I know I am Catholic. Other denominations have never been a real possibility for me, even if I have had a hard time explaining why. My theology, the way I see grace in the world, is wholly Catholic through and through. This lumbering caravan of saints and sinners described by Dulles, the description of the Church as a great, big Renaissance Fair that never ends, described by fellow Catholic Worker Miki Tracy, are all part of the Catholic story.

I was deeply moved by the theologian Gerald W. Schlabach who envisions his own Mennonite Church more as a charism of the larger Church, rather than a separate denomination. The future of ecumenism may lie in a shift of definitions like that, as we are coming to see divisions in softer terms.

Inspired by Hans Küng, I long for a Catholic Church that is more conciliar in the way it makes decisions. Instead of emphasizing a strict monarchy of the pope, we should instead move back to an early Church approach that leans more on councils of bishops and grassroots decision making. An Orthodox friend has told me I should consider her Church, as they do not recognize papal authority in the way that Catholics do. I would simply say that I am rather a conciliar Catholic, and there is enough support for that approach to Church in our tradition to keep it as a vital possibility. In addition, inroads by Liberation Theologians, particularly at the Medellín Conference in 1968, give promise to a more bottoms-up approach to authority. The sensus fidelium--the sense of the faithful--has a role to play in magisterial authority, as the combined insights of all the faithful is theologically significant and is a force in the life of the Church. A rigid, papal-based system of authority is not the only tradition we have, even though it often gets the most attention.

I loved the Scripture courses as much as I thought I would. I began taking Hebrew language courses at the Methodist Theological Seminary, but with an outside job and other class responsibilities I was only able to complete a single semester. I am most impressed with some of the papers I wrote in those scripture courses. My technical mind came into play doing a word study on the book of Qohelet, and my final paper included a number of charts and diagrams of word usage and frequency. I loved taking the psalms apart and looking at them from various angles. My paper exploring literary devices in the Gospel of John stands as one of my proudest accomplishments.

The future is still up for grabs. I would love it if my work at the Columbus Catholic Worker could turn into full-time, paid employment. That would involve a development of more funding sources and administrative infrastructure. It would also challenge the charism of the organization, as Catholic Worker communities usually do not have paid staff and instead operate in Franciscan poverty. However, as the mission evolves, there is a possibility that we might move in that direction. I would like to continue my writing on community, theology and justice, and look for a larger audience. My passion for teaching is strong, and I have skills to share in both theology as well as writing/editing. I do not have other plans at the moment, but there is a limit to how long I will be able to continue without some kind of outside employment.

For the moment, my plan is to stay in Ohio, near my parents, friends and girlfriend. I realize that decision severely limits professional options, as ministry jobs are often available if one is willing to move. For the time being, I cannot imagine doing anything other than continuing with the Columbus Catholic Worker, and I want to see it through.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Whatsoever You Do

I grew up liking the song "Whatsoever You Do" by Williard F. Jabusch. It was often sung in Church. I always liked songs with themes of service and social justice.

It is an almost word-for-word adaptation of Matthew 25:

Whatsoever you do
to the least of my people,
that you do unto me.

When I was hungry, you gave me to eat;
When I was thirsty, you gave me to drink.
Now enter into the home of my father.


The difficulty is the last line. It has been hard on me the last several years, and it has affected my enjoyment of the song--Now enter into the home of my father.

I don't like thinking of Christian service in a rewards-punishment relationship. You do this service, you get this reward. If you help the poor, you'll go to heaven.

Nevertheless, there are consequences to our actions. Whatever we do will have a consequence, good, bad or indifferent. It is just hard to do the right thing for the right reasons when there are direct rewards and punishments in the way. I think it stunts our spiritual growth to dwell on that and to do good deeds in hopes of a reward or fear of the punishment.

Today, I had an insight that has helped me think about this differently. We the readers are the ones who are making this out to be about some kind of eternal rewards in the afterlife. The Gospels say the kingdom is now. You help the poor, you'll be living in God's home now. The joy is now. The quality of relationship is now. The impact is now. The prize is the gift itself, not (necessarily) some kind of pirate's treasure later on in heaven. The joy of participation in God's kingdom is the reward.

And maybe that is no different than the joys of heaven. Maybe my perception of heaven is that it is framed like the ultimate tropical vacation of feasting and good weather and non-stop parties. Cities of gold and all that. Heaven is sold to us like the ultimate drug trip, just constant euphoria. Maybe the Gospels are telling us not just how to get to heaven, but what heaven actually is.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Move it!

Your money, that is:

Move Your Money

Move it out of large, predatory banks and into smaller banks or credit unions with a better track record of managing money and treating customers.

Take the pledge. Watch the video. Move yer bucks.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Prayer as Petition

One of the most hotly contested issues in theology is the idea that humans can petition the Lord God in prayer.

It raises questions as to the nature of God. What kind of God do we have who is omniscient (and thus knows our thoughts in the first place) and all-powerful (who can do good in the world if He wants to), is all-loving, and yet allows suffering in the world, and yet will ease some of that suffering if people pray to Him and beg Him to do something different. Whew!

Many argue that praying changes the person praying more than it commands God to do anything. St. Augustine sees petitions as fanning the flame of our desires--the more we allow ourselves to thirst and yearn and beg and plead for something, the more our own energies of desire are strengthened, and they can become transformative.

Yet, many have also attested to the power of prayer and can speak of many miracles and certainly uncanny coincidences. They feel the presence of God in their lives. Prayer seems to have an effect that goes beyond simply changing the behavior of the praying person. I can attest to this, as well.

My take on it is this: I see it more energetically. The Spirit of God is like a river, flowing in and through the universe with a strong current. We are all a part of this, but sometimes in greater or lesser ways. When we pray, we orient ourselves to God, like a flower following the sun. We tap into this current of God. As a result, we flow with God and thus can tap into the creative energies of God better. We resonate with God better. The current of God is thus more alive in our lives because we are tuned in. God can work more through us and ripple off to the others in our lives who are connected to us.

Prayer does not simply command God. Prayer also does not simply change ourselves. Prayer orients us to the current of the Spirit, allowing us to breathe more in the Spirit and manifest the Spirit more in our lives. It puts us into a good groove.