Thursday, August 23, 2012

Come, Luke . . .

SPOILER ALERT: If you have not seen the Star Wars movies and want to be surprised if you do, please read no further. This blog reveals a major plot twist. You have been warned.*

And now for something completely different! The temperature hit 100 degrees in Portland last week. As per my custom when the summer heat gets unbearable, I pop The Empire Strikes Back into my DVD player and am instantly cooled off by the awesome opening scenes on the ice planet Hoth.

There has been much discussion on which of the six Star Wars movies is the best one. Let me weigh in on that now, to get it out of the way: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back towers over the others, hands down. Let me tell you why.

First, it was not directed by George Lucas but by Irvin Kershner, a serious movie director noted for his fine work on spy thrillers and quirky independent films. Empire was his first foray into science-fiction, and his selection as director for the sequel of Star Wars, the most popular movie of all-time (at least back in the 1970s), was surprising. But, as audiences quickly learned from the opening scenes, Kershner was the perfect choice because of his focus on character development. That leads to my second point.

Empire was an actor’s movie, not just a special effects blamorama. In Episode V, the characters and the actors playing them really shined in a way that is sorely lacking in the other five Star Wars movies.** Empire is the movie in which Harrison Ford became a star. Even the non-human characters like Yoda possessed a humanity that very few subsequent science-fiction movies have been able to duplicate successfully.

Thirdly, Empire is my favorite Star Wars film because of the plot twist that would forever change the saga. I will never forget the audience reaction in that Westwood theatre in Los Angeles when the shocker was revealed. My friend and I had waited in line for several hours to see the first showing. This was in 1980. As the movie unfolded spectacularly, we felt our long wait was more than justified. Now we were at that iconic scene on the ledge in the cloud city of Bespin, with Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker locked in mortal combat with their lightsabers.

Vader: Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.

Luke (slowly backing off, with right hand severed): He told me enough! He told me you killed him!

Vader: No. I am your father . . .

The audience reeled! You could hear a collective gasp! I covered my open mouth in disbelief. This is probably the single most shocking audience moment in cinematic history. It will never happen again, for there will probably never be another universally acclaimed pop culture saga like Star Wars.

That first-showing audience walked out of the theatre in silence! I have never seen that happen before or since except, perhaps, at a funeral. We were down the block before my friend and I started to talk.

“What did we just see?” I asked.

“I don’t know, man,” my friend replied. “I wasn’t expecting that at all! I wanted a happy ending, like in the first movie.”

“Well, life is not just a happy ending,” I said. “This changes everything.”

“You’re telling me! And you know what really sucks? We have to wait three more years to find out what happens next!”

We laughed and both agreed that Empire outdid the first movie in almost every aspect: acting, special effects and, most importantly, story development. This wasn’t just a retread of the original Star Wars. For the next three years, it seems like a whole generation of fans was debating the ambiguity of good and evil.

In the first movie, the characters were drawn in broad brushstrokes of black and white. Luke Skywalker was the good guy; Darth Vader was the bad guy. Simple, easy to follow. Now, in the sequel, we find out that Luke is the son of this monster who routinely crushes and kills enemies and allies like so many flies at a family picnic. Say what? I remember well the discussions my friends and I had about this. Even Joseph Campbell, the great American mythologist and writer, chimed in:

The monster masks that are put on people in Star Wars represent the real monster-force in the modern world. When the mask of Darth Vader is removed, you see an unformed man, one who has not developed as a human individual. He’s a bureaucrat, living not in terms of himself, but in terms of an imposed system…

- from The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell, page 144, 1988 edition

All this came flooding back to me as I watched The Empire Strikes Back on that hot August night. I miss those long philosophical discussions with my old friends. The Star Wars saga was a fun romp that gave many people a chance to think about morality and mythology. It’s too bad that George Lucas’ later attempts to revisit his universe were not as successful. But that is another discussion for another blog.

More reading: Mythology of Star Wars

* It is difficult to think that there might actually be people out there who have never seen Star Wars but, as the years go by, the series has certainly diminished in its pop culture influence. It had a good run. Hopefully, a new generation will discover it — or, better, create their own contemporary mythology.

** By the way, am I the only one who finds it tedious to have a discussion about the confusing order of the Star Wars movies? Star Wars: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Return of the Jedi are numbered as Episodes IV, V and VI, but are really movies 1, 2 and 3. Meanwhile the prequels — The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith — are numbered as I, II, and III but are really movies 4, 5 and 6. Pass the aspirin, please.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Panis Angelicus: The Eucharist through the Ages

The Sunday Gospel during August 2012 is from John 6, Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse. It provides an excellent opportunity for homilists to preach on the Eucharist. On August 12, in support of the theme of his homily, my pastor, Father Dave Gutmann, requested “Panis Angelicus,” composed by Cesar Franck in 1872.

Franck was a 19th century musician and composer who was a contemporary of Franz Liszt and Camille Saint-Saens. Renowned for his influence in France on the development and performance of the pipe organ, Franck’s compositions are considered classics that laid the foundation for the French symphonic organ style. Although his body of work is considerable, Franck is perhaps best known today for his motet setting of “Panis Angelicus,” a text originally composed by Saint Thomas Aquinas as part of his Corpus Christi hymn, “Sacris Solemniis.”

“Panis Angelicus,” was a popular hymn for the World War II generation and, during the 1940s and 1950s, it could be heard at almost every wedding. As this generation has aged, the hymn has made a resurgence as a devotional song for funeral liturgies. Its stirring melody and harmonization perfectly capture the heart of Cesar Franck’s devout Catholic faith. Here is a duet performance by the great tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, and rock star Sting — of all people!

Several generations have been inspired by “Panis Angelicus” but, because of the Latin text, they might not be fully aware of its meaning. There are many loose English translations but few that match the nuances of the melody. This translation attempts to do just that:

O Bread of Heaven*
To mortals given,
Come fill our hungry souls,
Give strength and make us whole.

O Most Miraculous,
You have come down to us,
Lowly, lowly,
Though we your servants be;
Lowly, lowly,
Though we your servants be.

*Although “Panis Angelicus” literally means “Bread of Angels,” it is translated here as “Bread of Heaven” to preserve the rhyme scheme.

My parish, Holy Trinity Church in Beaverton, Oregon, is known for its leanings toward contemporary liturgical music, but we do take care to respect and incorporate the music of all eras in the Church’s history. For example, our choirs (both adult and youth) sing Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Our Desiring” and Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” during the Easter season. We also sing the chant “Agnus Dei” during Lent and “Pange Lingua Gloriosi” on Holy Thursday, among other such traditional pieces.

I am a firm believer that the richness of the Church’s repertoire needs to be handed on to the next generation. If young people think that liturgical music only consists of the current contemporary style, then we have done them a great disservice. I also believe that traditional music can coexist beautifully with contemporary music at the liturgy. I know that might be an awkward pairing for people who prefer one style or the other. But why does it have to be either/or? Why can’t it be both/and? For a great model of that, just look at Pavarotti and Sting!

On the weekend of August 11-12, for the Presentation and Preparation of the Gifts, Mark Nieves, our parish Director of Music Ministry, sang “Panis Angelicus” as a solo while I accompanied on piano. Mark is a brilliant tenor, and his moving realization touched the hearts of all who were at our liturgies. I felt privileged to accompany him on the performance of this song.

There is a theory in music that a performer or composer taps into a deep well and draws sweet water for the audience to drink. In sacred music, I believe this is the deep well of the Holy Spirit. Last Sunday, as I played “Panis Angelicus,” that water was very sweet indeed. I became prayerfully engaged in the struggles and devotion of Cesar Franck. I thought about the poetry of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and how he so eloquently expressed the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. I thought about Jesus who, in his humility, became human and accepted death that we might live. And, in an amazing act of divine imagination, he humbled himself again in the signs of bread and wine to become the nourishment of our souls.

As I performed the exquisite final outro to “Panis Angelicus,” I felt a deep connection with the Eucharist through the ages. It was an emotional and prayerful experience, and it awakened in me a deeper appreciation for God’s love. The Bread of Angels has nourished humanity for over two millennia. O res mirabilis!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Word of the Lord

Before you start reading, here's a caveat. The news link below is from the New York Post, a publication owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch. The Post “enjoys” a reputation as a tabloid oriented newspaper that bends and stretches the truth for the sake of sensationalism.

This story caught my eye today. Alec Baldwin, star of the television series 30 Rock and well known for his all-too-public encounters with the paparazzi, is a practicing Catholic who serves as Lector at his parish, Most Holy Trinity in East Hampton, New York. Apparently, some of his fellow parishioners are taking issue with Mr. Baldwin’s proclamation of the Word.*

Catholic Parishioners Protest Alec Baldwin as Lector

It is not my intention to pass judgment on Mr. Baldwin for his admittedly colorful public persona. Certainly, there are two sides to every story, and I have no idea what the parishioners of Most Holy Trinity Parish actually experience when Mr. Baldwin proclaims the readings at Mass. That said, there are two issues here that I feel compelled to address.

First, ANY baptized Catholic, with the proper ministry training, has a right to serve as Lector: prince or pauper, saint or sinner, actor or average citizen. Unless Mr. Baldwin has publicly violated Church law or policy, there is no reason why he can't proclaim God's Word at Mass.

Secondly, those parishioners who “turned their backs” on Mr. Baldwin as he proclaimed the readings are in the wrong for creating a scene at the sacred liturgy. Their actions are drawing attention to themselves and distracting their fellow worshippers from hearing the Word of God. What exactly are they protesting? According to the Post, it might be a disagreement with Mr. Baldwin’s politics, something which has no place at Mass. Or, worse, it might be simply because they don’t like him, which flies in the face of being a Christian.

Jesus said it best in John 8:7 —

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone . . .

* Be forewarned: Some of the comments after the news article are on the “salty” side, which is typical for Internet comments.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Few Words

I have been involved in funeral ministry for over 35 years, mostly as a pastoral musician. This is a solemn and holy time for any family, and it is an honor to be of service.

One aspect of funeral ministry is listening to eulogies. Yes, as a liturgical minister, I am fully aware that eulogies are not officially a part of Catholic liturgy. The documents are quite clear on this.

A brief homily based on the readings should always be given at the funeral liturgy, but never any kind of eulogy.
- Revised Order of Catholic Funerals (27)
(Published by the Vatican for the United States in 1989)

And before my non-Catholic readers cite this guideline as yet another reason to despise the Catholic Church, please take a moment to read a bishop’s explanation:

Sincerely in the Lord
A pastoral letter by Archbishop John Myers of the Archdiocese of Newark

With that out of the way, let me get back to eulogies. Just about every parish I have been associated with allows them in one form or another, calling them “reflections,” “memorials,” or simply, “a few words.” I am making no judgment on the pastors and pastoral staffs with whom I have served. In fact, I admire the way they compassionately balance the guidelines with pastoral reality.

Over the years, I have witnessed the following funeral reflections:

The Scolder
I think the speaker was a brother of the deceased, who apparently suffered a very long illness. Said speaker spent ten minutes scolding his relatives for their alleged thoughtlessness during his sister’s illness, asking “Where were you when (insert name here) needed you?” Relatives either stared straight ahead or cast their eyes downward.

But wait! There’s more! Said speaker then went to the piano to play and sing an uplifting song. What a finish!

The Salty Storyteller
It was a beautiful Rosary service in the mortuary, led by the son of the deceased. I was asked to play his mother’s favorite hymn as part of the service. He then asked mourners to feel free to come up to the lectern and share a few words. His brother accepted the impromptu invitation and proceeded to tell stories about their mother’s off-kilter sense of humor. I don’t want to repeat what he said in this family-oriented blog but “salty” would be a polite way to describe it. Relatives gasped and one older lady looked like she was going to faint. Thankfully, this was not at Mass, but still . . .

The Long-Winded Hagiographer
The deceased was a beloved matriarch, with many children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. She lived a long and fulfilling life, and the speaker, one of her adult grandchildren, kept hammering that point home.

The reflection began with the grandmother’s childhood, during which she rose above her family’s financial hardship and excelled academically. Five minutes later, the speaker went on: “During high school . . .”

After ten minutes, the story was just warming up. “Grandma’s college years were a time of fun and fulfillment . . .” People in the pews were glancing at their watches. I was trying to fight the urge to check the email on my cell phone.

Twenty minutes later, when the speaker said “In conclusion,” the look of relief from the assembly was palpable.

The Emotionally Overcome Relative
Oh, the poor man. He obviously had all the best intentions but just three minutes into his reflection, he became so overcome with emotion that he could no longer continue. Compassionately, an older relative walked up to the ambo, put his arm around his sobbing brother, and said into the microphone, “Mom was the best! Thank you all for coming. See you at the reception.”

These are extreme but typical examples that many of us have witnessed at one time or another. But, for the most part, the funeral reflections I have experienced are touching memorials that truly shine when then they don’t canonize the deceased as a saint (that’s the responsibility of the Church) but, rather, share a story on how their dearly departed was an example of God’s love for their family. The best reflections make me think, “I wish I had known this person when he/she was alive.” And it is my privilege to be a part of the prayer for that person’s soul.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon them.
May their souls, and all the souls of the faithful departed, rest in peace. Amen.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Evil's Dark Heart

Like most of America this morning, I woke up to the horrifying news of the movie theatre massacre in Aurora, Colorado. I’m in shock as I watch the reports on television. I have so many friends who love going to these midnight showings of the sci-fi and comic book movies. My heart grieves for those suffering from this tragedy.

I’m trying to post a new blog everyday to get back into the practice of writing. It starts with theme ideas that I jot down before I go to bed. Then, early the next morning, I jump onto my computer and begin writing.

Last night, with the excitement of the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises swirling in my head, I prepared for a blog entitled “Of Course, Superheroes Aren’t Real.” Sadly, super-villains are.

Once again, evil has raised its dark heart in our world. When something like this happens, many people look to the heavens and ask “Why?”

There is no answer to the question. Evil just happens, indiscriminately, any time, anywhere. Ours is an open society. We like to feel that we can safely enjoy ourselves at movie theatres, concerts, sporting events — any public gathering. Today we can only shake our heads and perhaps shudder from the cold chill of this darkness.

Comic books are today’s mythology. Our Dark Knight and Man of Steel are the Hermes and Hercules of the Greco-Roman pantheon. As mythology, we are enthralled by the fantastic stories that revolve around these amazing characters who teach us metaphorically about the hero’s journey.

By its very nature, comic book violence is cartoonish. Unfortunately, when it becomes real as it did in that Colorado theatre, there is no superhero to come to the rescue.

The media is already looking for connections and answers, and I will leave that to the news commentators. In fact, I’m going to turn off my TV right now. I’m not sure if I can take much more of this non-stop event coverage.

Instead, I turn to God in prayer. Yes, despite the apparent omnipresence of evil, I still believe in God. Why does God permit such horrifying evil to happen? It’s not a question of whether God “permits” evil, or whether God is powerless against it, or if there is even a God at all. Evil in our world is related to our freedom of the will, which is one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity. Unfortunately, by granting us this gift, God takes the risk that some people will abuse it and choose evil. Let us remember that evil also touched Jesus. God’s Son was falsely accused and put to death for no apparent reason.

I wrote about this a few years ago on a Spirit & Song blog that I am going to link here: The Problem of Evil

There is no easy answer to all of this. I’m not even trying to offer one. But I do know that this is a time to come together in support and prayer for the victims and their families. As the President just said in a televised address, “Our time here is limited and precious. We will never know fully what causes somebody to take the life of another. We do know what makes life worth living.”

Amen. Won’t you please join me in prayer?

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven . . .

May God’s kingdom someday be fully realized.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Come, Let Us Go Before God

Christianity has been criticized as being outdated and out of touch with today’s world. Historians argue that the Church’s heyday may have been during the Middle Ages, before the Protestant Reformation. In those Dark times, life was a challenging routine that was centered on hard work in an agrarian economy. Because of disease, famine, and generally poor hygiene, one’s life expectancy was short and fleeting. A band of marauders might sweep through an unsuspecting village at any time, bringing mayhem and murder. Death was a daily companion. 

Here is a website that paints a detailed picture of those times: Medieval Life 

In the midst of this insecure world stood Jesus Christ, around whom the calendar was recalibrated to reflect his centrality in human history. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:6-11). 

Or, as Saint Irenaeus expressed it, “God became human so that humans could become like God.” 

Christianity was a haven for the medieval person. Sundays offered rest from the drudgery of work. Holy days brought celebrations and festivals. Christ’s suffering and cross gave meaning to the ills and uncertainties of life. His resurrection gave hope and strength when friends and family were dying — or when one was personally at death’s door. 

Those were simpler times, but one did not need education to enter into the mysteries of the Incarnation or the Trinity. The great stories of faith were celebrated year after year at liturgy and became interiorized in the medieval soul. And in the Eucharist, one had intimate union with Christ himself. 

Of course, there was much disparity in lifestyle between serf and feudal lord, between the faithful and the clerics on the altar. Nevertheless, Christianity offered a spark of hope that could lift up a believer from the trials and misery of everyday life. 

In our time, we have seen how modern science and medical advances have pushed us forward in ways the people of the Middle Ages could not even imagine. Life expectancy has increased with each passing generation, from 30 years in the medieval world to 80-plus in the 21st century. Many of the plagues and diseases that wiped out whole populations are now eradicated. In countries with a system of law and order, anarchy no longer reigns. Democracy has empowered the people to take ownership of the policies that govern their lives. At least in the First World, common folks have access to a wealth and lifestyle that would make them seem like lords to the medieval serfs. 

In short, we no longer have to die to experience “heaven.” Have modern times rendered Christianity obsolete? 

Such is the fallacy of the modern rationalist. While it is true that, for the most part, we no longer fear hunger or disease or anarchy, we nevertheless are still marching toward death, no matter how long we stretch out our life expectancy. We can be struck unexpectedly by cancer, ALS, or any number of debilitating illnesses. Accidents and natural disasters do happen. As anyone who travels by plane can attest, the threat of terrorism looms. Most glaringly, not everyone is fortunate enough to live in the First World. For a multitude of people, poverty, backbreaking work and oppressive governments force them to still live the medieval lifestyle. 

The temptation of today is to become deluded into thinking that we have already become like God and are now in absolute control of our destiny. We’re not. I believe faith can give us the perspective to avoid that delusion. But we have to take care to not filter Christianity through the lens of political ideology. As Saint Paul says: “We preach Christ crucified — a stumbling block for Jews and utter foolishness to the Gentiles.” (1 Corinthians 1:23) 

If we’re going to be Christian, let our focus be on Christ. His teaching transcends cultures and historical eras, helps us cope with the uncertainties of life no matter where we live and, for those who believe, offers the gateway to eternal life. 

+ + + 

"Come, Let Us Go Before God" is a song from my DOXOLOGY album (2009). With a medieval-style melody that shifts between minor and major modes, Benedictine Sister Genevieve Glen’s beautiful hymn text sings of the compassion of God, who creates us, redeems us, and sanctifies us in a loving Trinitarian embrace. 

Click here to listen.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Dear Younger Self . . .

A lot of people are making videos to their younger selves. You see it on Twitter or Facebook. Interesting concept, so I thought I would try it in this blog:
a letter addressed to my 15-year-old self.

Dear Kenny,

You are young and bright and so full of potential. Why are you so uptight and wound up? Lighten up! It’s not a perfect world; never has been and never will be. It's not all black and white.

You have latched onto the Church and joined a seminary to give your life some sense of structure. That’s all fine and well but in the process you are losing touch with your family. I think you may have left home a tad too early.

For heaven’s sake, don’t keep it all inside. Confide in a mentor. Broaden your friendship circle. Take a risk and let people get to know you. Why so serious? Laugh more!

Go out and have fun! Do some mischief; get into trouble sometimes. It’s okay. Read Catcher in the Rye. Yes, there is more to life than what you are experiencing in the seminary. Be open to other possibilities.

Truth to tell, all your inhibitions are only going to come back to haunt your older self. But one thing I do admire about you is your faith. Where did that come from? There is an earnestness in your relationship with God that is unusual for someone your age. I wish I were half as dedicated to prayer in my old age as you are at 15.

By the way, keep up the good work in music. All that practice you are doing on the piano and guitar might seem tedious but, believe me, it’s going to pay off big time!

Your Older Self

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Lord, Send Out Your Spirit

When “Alleluia! Give the Glory” and Mass of Glory were released in 1992, Bob Hurd and I had no idea how these works would be received. Bob made his name composing heartfelt liturgical ballads that really caught on in the 1980s with their deeply scriptural lyrics and compelling blend of choral and folk sensibilities. I had a collection of folk-rock songs that was released by FEL Publications in 1978 during that company’s decline, so my music was never really promoted or exposed.

The Alleluia! Give the Glory album featured gospel-style music by Bob Hurd and Ken Canedo, a white dude and a Filipino. Say what??

That collection was released right at the beginning of my “prodigal” years, so I never really knew (or cared) how it was doing nationally. It was only after I had my conversion experience and returned to the Church (see Fly Like a Bird) that I began to realize how Mass of Glory was catching on.

In the mid-1990s, I started going to the conventions of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM). My first convention was in 1996 (I think) in Cincinnati. Bob prepared me by letting me know that our Mass setting had become very popular. But I was totally surprised by the following comment when people at the convention saw my nametag and shook my hand:

“I always thought you were Black!”

I consider it the highest compliment as a liturgical composer that people think I am African-American. I have always loved gospel music and am grateful that I seem to be able to compose in that genre. But I am Filipino-American. Where does this facility come from?

I have a couple of ideas. First, I grew up in a housing project in Los Angeles in the 1960s. Most of my friends and classmates were African-American. Motown music was blaring out of every apartment, and I couldn’t help but to absorb the stylings of Smokey Robinson, the Supremes and the Temptations as their awesome songs filtered through the thin walls. I remember one children’s Christmas party in the projects where a gospel choir sang in the community center. They left a deep impression on me.

The 1960s was also the heyday of the Folk Mass and one of the biggest liturgical composers of the decade was Father Clarence Rivers, the pioneering Black priest-musician from Cincinnati who made a breakthrough by composing Catholic songs in the style of African-American spirituals. I loved his songs: “God Is Love;” “Glory to God, Glory;” Mass for the Brotherhood of Man. I listened to his records and learned from them. And then I had the privilege of meeting him in 1971 at a concert at Mount St. Mary’s Doheny campus in Los Angeles!

Father Rivers was so gracious to me when I went up to him backstage after the concert. I told him I was an aspiring liturgical musician, and he gave me advice that changed my life: “Ken, love the Mass with all your heart! And study music with all your heart!”

Father Rivers had an awesome gospel choir and jazz ensemble at his concert. I was thrilled to hear Father Clarence sing his songs in his beautiful and uplifting voice. But his piano player also caught my ear. I was a college freshman and this was my very first exposure to live jazz. I sat near the front and could see the pianist’s every move: His blues notes! His chord comping! His improvisation! My life would never be the same.

As I grew up as a composer, I would experiment with various styles and genres, mostly folk and rock. I would sometimes try writing a song in gospel style but would always dismiss my early attempts. I wasn't ready yet.

Then came Alleluia! Give the Glory and Mass of Glory. Since then I have composed more songs in gospel style, most notably Love Never Fails, “God’s Love Is Everlasting,” and “Lord, Send Out Your Spirit.”

“Lord, Send Out” was born out of a need in my parish for a compelling setting of the prescribed Responsorial Psalm for Pentecost. I composed the song in 2005 when I first arrived at Holy Trinity Parish in Beaverton, Oregon.

Psalm 104 is a powerful psalm. It has to follow the dynamic First Reading from the Acts of the Apostles, when the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles as Jesus promised and empowered them to overcome their fears and preach the Good News. They eventually changed the world!

This exciting reading needs an equally exciting Responsorial Psalm. I studied and prayed the text as I noodled on my piano. I suddenly hit the classic I-IV-V chord pattern in the Key of F and realized that I could set this text to a Baptist hymn motif. The song practically wrote itself after that.

There were three components to making this song successful. First, the verse needed to be interpreted by a singer who would be able to come out of himself/herself with the best possible vocal interpretation. Secondly, a choir would need to support that singer with “oohs” and “aahs,” and harmonies that would make the song soar. Lastly, the piano part needed to be simple, pronounced, and utterly gospel. I am happy to say that at Holy Trinity Parish, we fulfilled all three components!

I just played this song again for Pentecost liturgy and found myself totally absorbed in the performance/prayer. The simple chords make it easy to comp and improvise, and our cantors and choirs truly rose to the occasion. Happy birthday, Church!

We recorded the song for my 2009 Doxology album and were blessed to have as our soloist Dorcas Smith, a terrific Portland gospel singer. Her soulful performance far exceeded my expectations! Thank you, Dorcas!

They say a composer brings to his music all the elements that shaped him. I am grateful for the myriad paths that brought me to this song: growing up poor in the projects; Motown; Father Clarence Rivers; jazz and gospel; the sacred liturgy; the Holy Spirit.

Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth!

Listen to the song on

Get the song on iTunes.

Downloadable Octavo

Friday, April 6, 2012

Garden of Agony

Basically, it’s Gethsemane all over again. That’s how I approach the Altar of Repose on Holy Thursday. We’ve just journeyed through Jesus at his Last Supper, when he took bread and wine and said “This is my Body. . . This is my Blood. . . Do this in memory of me. . .” When we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim his death on the cross.

Jesus washes our feet. The meal means nothing unless we go out and love other people as Jesus loved us. When we wash others’ feet we are washing the feet of the Lord himself. What a beautiful way to remember his love for us!

And that procession! Pange lingua gloriosi . . . It’s the ancient Eucharistic hymn composed by Saint Thomas Aquinas and sung by the Church for centuries on this night. The melody haunts me and strikes a deep chord within me. I remember singing this very hymn at a very young age in the children’s choir of my home parish. I draw a deep connection with generations of Catholics before me who have sung that hymn on Holy Thursday night.

The Eucharistic presence of Jesus is taken away from the church, just as he was arrested and taken away from his disciples on that night. The power of ritual!

As mentioned, the Altar of Repose for me is my sharing in Jesus’ agony in the garden. After seeing to the details of tonight’s liturgy, it takes me a while to settle into deep prayer at this altar. I am affirmed by the faith of the many people who fill our chapel, each person bringing their own memories of Holy Thursday night, their own prayer intentions, their own struggles.

Lord, I am not worthy. That’s all I can think of tonight at the Altar of Repose. I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, that you have called me to be your light to the world, that you have chosen to be my friend. Try as I might, I cannot fathom why you even bother with me, a sinner. I am imperfect and inadequate, impatient with myself and with the world around me. It’s a fractured world, isn’t it? So divided and polemic. Our leaders seem to excel only in pointing fingers, and even those who call themselves Christians are seemingly driven by a spirit contrary to the commandment of love that we remember on this holy night.

Lord, I am not worthy.

I am distracted, so I pray for my mother. I remember my late father and my brother Tops, both gone from this world. I pray for all my family and my friends. I remember those who have asked me to pray for them, for the sick and the depressed and the directionless. And yet it still comes back to five words:

Lord, I am not worthy.

What do you want of me, Lord? Is this the same confusion you felt at Gethsemane? You knew what your Father wanted. You knew full well that you would die the next day. You, the Son of God, would taste death itself in the most excruciating way. The mystery of the Incarnation became very real in that garden of agony, where your divinity was almost overshadowed by your deep and very real humanity.

“Take this cup away from me,” you prayed ardently. Those closest to you couldn’t even stay awake and join you in this prayer, a first hint of the abandonment to come.

Lord, in your agony, I feel your very human doubts. In some strange way, I feel affirmed by your doubts because that means you understand where I am coming from. How can I conquer my doubts, Lord? Give me a sign!

Tonight, I only see the Sign of the Cross. Is that how my doubts will be dispelled? Lord, the cross is too much for me. Take this cup away from me!

And yet, despite your own doubts, you eventually say to your Father, “Not my will, but yours be done.” That submission, that surrender and trust, carried you through the next several hours as that heavy cross was forced upon your shoulders.

I think I get it, Lord. Help me! Help me to surrender!

Not my will but yours be done.

Matthew 26:36-46

Friday, March 2, 2012

Radio Silence

"In telecommunications, radio silence is a status in which all fixed or mobile radio stations in an area are asked to stop transmitting for safety or security. . .”
- Wikipedia

“Turning On” has become such a routine part of our everyday existence: wake up; plug in iPod; turn on TV; start car and turn on radio; muzak in the elevator and at the office. I believe we have forgotten how to live with silence. What are we afraid of?

Is there some kind of insecurity that is gnawing at our souls? Is it loneliness? Despite our amazing technological interconnection, I think fear of being alone still permeates our collective millennial subconscious. We need to fill up the silence with the frenzied cacophony of our modern world. In the process of turning on, we are turning off a window to God.

I’m a Catholic vegetarian, so I am sometimes asked what I abstain from on the Fridays of Lent. This year, I thought I would try something new: radio silence. Please understand, as a freelancer, I do most of my work at home alone. First thing in the morning, without giving it any thought, I turn on television sets in several rooms around my house as my iPod plays continuously throughout the day. I suppose this helps to give me an illusion that I am not alone in this world. After all, look at all the talking heads yammering away on those screens!

I admit this was more difficult than I expected. On Ash Wednesday, I went cold turkey with radio silence, and the temptation to flick on the switches was great indeed. But within the enforced silence came an unexpected gift: the gentle urge to pray.


Here is a prayer I wrote anonymously for Spirit & Song-2 (on page 273). I need to listen better to myself!

Be Still

I searched for God
in my avalanche of
emails and voicemails,
IMs and txts,
TVs and MP3s,
but the Lord was not in the electronics.

I searched for God
in the drone of endless conversations
that permeate the hurried pace of
my daily routine,
but the Lord was not in the clatter.

I could not find the Lord,
though I searched in vain
through all that surrounded me!

And then, I heard a gentle voice.
“Be still.”

There, within the silence
of my own inner peace,

I found God.