Passion of the Lord

Originally published by GIA Quarterly, Winter 2012
– PDF version –

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord

Every month a group of people from the Portland area gathers at our parish for a day of retreat concerning the issues of urban poverty. After lunch we walk the neighborhood speaking about the agencies that befriend people in poverty. We explore the conflicts with the city and the police. We sort out people’s attitudes about other people who are surviving poverty. We pray in front of the nonprofit groups that were started by Catholic groups. The procession becomes a stational liturgy, walking from building to building, a pilgrimage of how the Church has helped people overcome issues of addictions, hunger and the ongoing challenges of mental illness.

Before one of our tours, after the noon Mass, one of our longtime parishioners sat on a chair outside of our chapel and chanted, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” He yelled it over and over again. His singing stunned the group of retreatants. They realized the procession of Christ into Jerusalem is still going on. We did not wave palms but had conversations of about neglect, poverty, racial divides, the lack of healthcare and the horrific effects of long-term mental illness. The group realized on that Friday afternoon that Holy Week would begin for them on that very afternoon in November.

As you prepare the liturgy for Palm Sunday, remember the processions of life and death. Remember the gurney that carried the young father from an accident scene. Reflect on the victims of the natural disasters that claim people in your area of the country. Sort out how people are trying to make ends meet, running from job to job in order to raise a family. Remember the young, single mother crying out in the night for her sick child as she races to the hospital. Remember the processions of people walking for issues of cancer and Alzheimer’s, running races for cures, change of attitudes and caring banners to raise consciousness about human dignity. Listen to the Psalm over and over from the cry of people in poverty, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?

Holy Thursday Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper

Last year one of our parishioners told the story of the emotional abuse he experienced from his father. We were gathered as lectors and Eucharistic ministers to reflect on the Triduum. He told us that his father would not allow him and his sisters to run around the house with bare feet. They grew up ashamed of their feet. The father would tell the children how ugly, not only their feet were, but also how ugly they were. When our parishioner decided to become Catholic as an adult, he was so nervous that he would be asked to have his feet washed in public on Holy Thursday. Without realizing his story, the priest at the parish he had attended had asked him to have his feet washed during the Triduum before being initiated into the Church.

He told us that he presented his feet reluctantly and fearfully before the priest and the congregation on Holy Thursday.  He told us with tears in his eyes that the priest washed away more than his foot odor. The act of extending his feet, the vulnerability of his naked foot, began a healing process with his past and gave him courage to extend his love and his life beyond his own hurt and even selfishness. That gesture of love changed his past and opened a new life of service for a man who had been ashamed of his body as well as his voice in the world.

Prepare the liturgy of Holy Thursday with the assurance that washing feet extends the Eucharist far out the doors of the church. We claim Christ who offered us bread to eat and wine to drink and the gesture that challenges us to love beyond our own lives. The goal of the Eucharist is not just to adore the power of God’s presence, but also to take that love into the lives of those who are starving for relationship, communion and justice. Remember that to extend our feet to the community is a vulnerable posture. We extend not only our feet but also the source of all life, the Eucharist of Christ Jesus.

Good Friday of the Passion of the Lord

Last year I gathered a group of women to process with me down the aisle to lift high the cross for veneration. We gathered a widow and a volunteer from our hospitality center. We gathered a woman who earned a Masters of Divinity degree and a woman who is wheelchair-bound because of a car accident. We gathered a pious woman wearing a Mantilla and an elderly woman with severe mental illness. We limped, walked, strode and wheeled ourselves up the aisle. The images of these women represented so many issues of our community and neighborhood. I lifted high the cross, but the reality of suffering was on the faces of these holy women representing so many other people surviving daily struggles.

We all journey to the cross, because we all live the reality of suffering every day. The cross that is presented in the liturgy reminds us that we live facing suffering and death. We grieve for our friends and relatives. We grieve the losses of our dreams. We let go of jobs, financial security and the ideas of how we wanted to live our lives. The cross is ever in our midst and the procession to reverence the cross reminds us of all of life.

Prepare the liturgy with a deeper understanding of what you bring to the wood of the cross. Remember your suffering, your misunderstandings that have yet to be resolved or mended. The cross in every community must be unveiled, reverenced and kissed with honesty about all the issues that people face. No person is left out of life’s suffering and no person is left out of the procession to touch and kiss, to kneel and adore, to love and cherish the wood of the Crucified. We all walk together toward the suffering Christ so to rise with him in resurrection.

At the Easter Vigil in the Holy Night

Years ago, a young student prepared for full initiation into the Church. She was rather short and wore her hair pulled tightly back into a bun. Her blouses were always buttoned up including the top button and her skirts were long, well below her knees. She attended sessions of preparation throughout the year, her brow furrowed with intensity and earnestness. However, on the night of her baptism, in the well-lighted church, she appeared with her hair hanging down on her shoulders. She wore all white and her smile replaced the furrows on her brow. She was stunning. Everyone who knew her could only smile with delight. When I poured the waters of new life on her head, she calmed down and breathed deeply. She woke up from her worry. She was awakened to a new life within her and her external appearance became as dazzling as light.

The sacraments of initiation are also sacraments of change and gladness. We prepare people to fully live the gospel stories, images and values. We delight when people turn from drugs and alcohol, finally reconcile with family and find adequate employment. We are beside ourselves when people find a home within the sacraments of the Church. We are transformed into believers when people take hold of the grace offered them. We are spellbound when their courage takes them to the font, when mystery is poured on their heads and runs down their cheeks and when hope nudges them to the altar table.

Prepare the Easter Vigil with the assurance that liturgy is about people. The grace of the night is all we need. This grace is fuel for integrity and beauty within the liturgy. Prepare the Vigil as if your faith depends upon it. Believe in what you are organizing and singing about. The liturgy consumes the wayward into belief, the lonely into communion, the worried into grace filled and beautiful lives.

Christmas 2012 (Cycle C)

Originally published by GIA Quarterly, Fall 2012
– PDF version –

The Nativity of the Lord, December 25, 2012

I minister among people who have been silenced by generational poverty. Their voices have been stripped of dignity. A man asks softly for clothing and to use the restroom. Another person asks for hygiene products as he signs up for our morning hospitality center. People arrive from the cold and dark nights of the streets into our warm building looking for dignity more than clothing, for purpose more than food, for companionship more than another cup of coffee.

The voices I hear in the Christmas season are shy and hesitant. A woman speaks softly with her eyes cast to the floor because she blames herself for her childhood abuse. A man who just cheated on his wife whispers his sin to me beyond a screen in the confessional. A woman who misses her children and grandchildren murmurs her loneliness to me on Christmas Eve. A young man who recently graduated from college repeats to me the voices he now hears because of his mental illness. The voices tell him to leave his job and to hurt himself. The voices in our urban chapel celebrating the birth of Christ are powerful and yet reluctant.

Plan the Christmas liturgies remembering the voices that cry out in the silent night of Christ’s birth. Remember the people in your parish, neighborhood and city that need to hear from your ministry, “Do not be afraid.” Be a voice of peace and an angel of consolation in presiding, preaching and sharing hymns of familiarity and love. Be the voice of hope for people who will hear only fear and hatred in their marriages or in their workplaces. Remember that the sound of your music will rest in the ears and hearts of people who long for the healing balm of Christmas Mass. People long to ease the wounds that December raises in so many people. Allow God to be born among the voiceless with a herald of joy and earthly peace.

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, December 30, 2012

Our parish serves many people who are lost to neglect, chemical dependency and past abuse. We have only a few traditional families who worship in our urban chapel. Most people in our community are alone. People live in single-room occupancy hotels or under cardboard. Single adults travel from the distant  suburbs. Families who want their children to know that Christ is in all people attend our Mass. Single men come to our daily hospitality center, Veterans, former prisoners and recovering heroin addicts. No one
is looking for the people in our parish, except the occasional parole officer or the local police.

Mary and Joseph are looking for Jesus. They discover him in the Temple. Mary holds the mystery of suffering and love in her heart. The families in our community are non-traditional. They are families of friendly bonds trying to look out for one another’s needs. There used to be an entire row of people at Mass who were recovering from heroin. They have all disappeared; some are using drugs again and are back on the streets, one is married, another has moved on. We still search for them. We look out for families lost in the issues of life, suffering from violence and neglect and we hold them all in our hearts.

As you plan the liturgy celebrating the Holy Family, remember the people on the margins of your parish family, those you search for in faith. Remember the widow who does not attend Mass anymore, and see that no one has noticed her disappearance. Remember the father who is lost now in Alzheimer’s. Remember the young woman whose child was stillborn. Remember the gay couple in the corner of the last pew. Remember the families that will never be reconciled. Remember the children who resist the commitment to attend Mass. The Holy Family becomes the place where Christ is born in all relationships, among all who care for one another in poverty as well as in prosperity.

Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, January 1, 2013

There is a deep desire in our human condition to begin again. We make resolutions of personal change that falter as the year progresses. We proclaim a day of peace amid the wars that rise up among us. We claim Mary’s role in our salvation after a night of parties and belief that new will be different than the old. In our parish community the first day of the year may not be different from what has come before. People still do not have sufficient health care or a place to sleep. Their plans and dreams remain as cold as the winter days. We cling to the message that the poor shabby shepherds first heralded among the people, the proclamation that Jesus was born of Mary.

Mary encourages us to see that life can be different. The ponderings in her heart teach us that life is more than our weariness, more than our daily suffering. In our parish community we all hold the suffering of our people in our hearts during prayer. Poverty strips people of dignity and washes hope away. Today, we all begin with the unkempt shepherds to proclaim Christ is the way to new life and healing. We carry in our hearts the desires of new housing, new sobriety, new companionship and new healing.

Prepare this liturgy with a desire that all things might be possible. Remember in music and preaching the deepest human longing to be new again. Mary is our model as she cradles her Son and cherishes within her heart the hope for all humanity.

The Epiphany of the Lord, January 6, 2013

I witness people following the darkness in our neighborhood. Some people claim they will find their way through drugs and alcohol. Another man holds on to his reluctance to take his prescribed medication for his mental illness. He claims he will find his way on his own. A young woman thinks that selling her body will be her way into a new life. I see the darkness claim young addicts and old veterans. Our parish community struggles to reveal a light of hospitality, healing and hope. Searching in only the darkness for new life seldom brings reward.

The magi searched for the child following a star and a hunch. They were drawn to the light that seemed unbelievable and otherworldly. They searched diligently and carried with them earthly gems and valuables. The discovery of the child put into perspective the entire journey. Once we discover the living Christ within our journey everything else is put into perspective. Christ is the only light. This Light is generative, loving and engaging.

As liturgists, musicians and preachers, follow the living Christ within your own life. Reflect on how people in your parish need the Light of Christ. Pray about the hidden suffering among your people when they follow the lure of darkness. Plan the Eucharist realizing that the Light of Christ is among your people, open their eyes with sacred preaching and their ears with sacred music. Allow everyone to acknowledge their gifts to serve others. Step away from darkness and offer Christ the gifts of love and renewed hearts.

The Baptism of the Lord, January 13, 2013

People share the deepest desire to belong. Our relationships form our identity. I witness on our urban sidewalks people being stripped of their identity when their wallets and identification are stolen in the night. I see how our society strips people of their identities by labeling people as “those poor people” or ‘the homeless” or “those faggots” or “those whores”. We are all searching within the deserts of our lives for a new identity, a new purpose in life and to be known for our gifts, talents and real identities.

The baptism of Jesus unites us with the Trinity. We witness our real identity when we follow John into the Jordan and see for ourselves the living Christ. This identity as a follower of Christ sustains us in journeys when we become lost on our own paths. We are the baptized longing for Christ to be the source of our identity. The waters of baptism break open our hearts into the mission of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection.

Prepare this liturgy of the Baptism of the Lord reflecting on the many identities people carry with them: parents, friends, lovers, spouses, workers, parishioners, artists and musicians. We die to our selves and rise with Christ in baptism. Our old identities are washed away in the Jordan and we rise with new eyes for mission and new hearts for love. Our baptism claims us in Christ, and God is well pleased.

Jesus of the Streets, Remember Me

Originally published by GIA Quarterly, Fall 2007
– PDF version –

Our parish community prays the taize chant “Jesus, Remember Me” as an antidote to loneliness and fear in our neighborhood. In the past five years, two young men were murdered in separate incidents at the entrance of our church. The forces of violence and isolation killed Wallace and Daniel, and the two crimes may never be solved. ‘As a faith community on this corner of Sixth and Burnside in Portland, Oregon, the violence that surrounds us compels us to take our voices from the safety of the sanctuary into the chaos and uncertainty of our streets.

Two weeks after Daniel’s murder, I took the risk of asking Daniel’s family and our parish community to pray together on the street at 3:00 A.M., the exact time of his murder. I woke up myself to the reality of the neighborhood and the call for the parish to stand amidst the violence. I wrote a prayer service and composed a sung litany for the occasion, but it was the song “Jesus, Remember Me” that I relied on to move the mourners from our warm lobby into the cold and unforgiving street that night.

We gathered in our small lobby and were led outside under the banner of a processional cross. Slowly our voices merged into the simple chant of “Jesus, Remember Me,” and I could feel our souls clinging to the music and to the message. We did not want Daniel to be forgotten, and we did not want death to win out. The song flooded our hearts and began to wash away our fear on the bloodstained streets.

Our community of the Downtown Chapel of Saint Vincent de Paul Parish now responds to murder beyond our red doors. When a homicide occurs within our neighborhood, we carry our faith and our song deeper into our fearful community. After celebrating Sunday Eucharist, we process out of the chapel and into the streets singing “Jesus, Remember Me.” We stand firmly on the place of death and pray for peace. Our voices merge into support and encouragement so the families and neighborhood can move beyond hatred. Our singing bears witness to our own community that power comes from faith even though we live in the midst of mental illness and homelessness. For just a few minutes our collective praise of God erases the loneliness that makes a home in our addictions and poverty.

“Jesus, Remember Me,” from the French monastery of Taize, especially voices the ache of the human condition within the love and passion of God. Jacques Berthier’s melodic chant opens every community to the longing of the repentant thief from the Gospel of Luke (Luke 23:39–43). The combination of text and musical accessibility makes this song one of the most profound liturgical and ritual pieces of music available in any pastoral setting.

The healing balm of “Jesus, Remember Me” continues to guide my human and sacramental response to people in need. I bear this song in my heart well after the choir rehearsals are over, the altar candles are snuffed out, and the church doors locked. This mystical chant carries my priestly ministry into the darkness where fear, loneliness, and despair overwhelm people. Berthier’s music companions me when I am helpless in the center of desperate moments and worried that words will not satisfy in circumstances of chaos and violence.

I carried this mantra again one rainy night from the warmth of my bedroom to the deathbed of a newborn baby. Walking into the small hospital quarters, I was confronted with nurses, aides, and doctors huddled around the premature infant. Sounds of life-sustaining machines filled the silence of the room. The exhausted mother sat nearby, suffocating in her grief. She desperately wanted someone from the church to be present for the decision to turn off the respirators, and to end the life of ner firstborn boy. I quietly, fearfully, leaned against the doorway, waiting to speak with her.

The doctors decided to turn off the respirator and let the infant breathe on his own power. The hospital staff and the baby’s mother all looked to me for assurance and approval. I felt so inadequate, so naked, and so unable to speak any words of consolation. So, I sang, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” The nurses and their aides joined in praying with soft voices of support. The baby’s breathing lasted just a few minutes.

The mother carried her dead child to an oversized rocking chair in a darkened corner of the room. She asked me if I would sit with her for a while. I squeezed into the chair and put my arm over her shoulders as she held the body. We rocked and sang. We rocked away the cold night and sang the song we could hold on to, the only prayer that could comfort us. We rocked on the margins of this world and the Kingdom.

My pastoral experience teaches me that we are all afraid. Fear crushes us when the fragility of our existence takes over our daily lives. This is simply being human. However, a faithful and pastoral response to life cannot be based on denial, sugarcoating painful circumstances or avoiding the truth. Music brings us closer to the release of fear, to the understanding that Jesus’ passion-death-and-resurrection is also for our own lives as well. Ritual song does not take suffering away, but it bonds us in faith with those in sorrow and those who cling to the new life only Christ can bring.

Berthier’s music gets to the heart of faith. This simple chant, sung together in congregations, or anywhere two or three are gathered, demonstrates our earthly desire for God’s assistance and remembrance. The hypnotic melody helps us rest in the assurance of Christ’s passion to bring everyone into the love and forgiveness of the Kingdom. His music helps us to leave our self-sufficiency and cling to God.

Singing “Jesus, Remember Me” along the margins of the church and culture brings me to a deeper faith. Carrying this gift of song into people’s suffering helps me realize that worship is built upon people who need God through daily human turmoil and struggles, Opening people up in song when they are most closed down in sorrow invigorates my faith when I rerum to the worshiping assembly. This chant goes far to unite individual suffering to the prayer of the entire congregation.

Musicians and pastoral leaders can only witness to faith if we believe what we are singing. Singing along the margins of life means we also leave behind comfortable aspects of our ministry and images of ourselves. Singing among those who suffer the most means we leave behind the mandatory rehearsals, our performance egos, and professional liturgical correctness. Believing what we sing is a gift of faith.

We are called to bring this gift of faith into the lives of wounded veterans and the uncertainty of their families. We carry this faith with us as we listen to people crying out in despair over losing homes and security in floods and storms. We offer the song of faith to those suffering from debilitating depression and the shunning of those with mental illness. We sing in unity when people are torn apart by job loss, the end of a marriage, or the death of a parent. It is into all these situations we bring a song of presence, remembrance, and hope.

I sing in the midst of sorrow so I will nor forget people. Music keeps my memory alive and my life prayerful. I will never forget the widow’s grieving, the mentally ill parent, or the child with cancer. I still pray for the mother of a son dying of AIDS who taught me to overcome my fear of touching her son. My memory prays for the family walking to the gravesite on a cold windy day to bury their grandfather. I cannot forget the ache of those who cry out for help and assurance.

I also learn from all these fragile circumstances that people cannot be manipulated or controlled. Reaching out beyond our safe sanctuaries does not guarantee that tragic situations will change or that people will be comforted. I cannot bring with me pat answers, stale rubric, or a fixed pattern of responding to people’s needs. I still learn about my temptation to judge people and my desire to control conversations when I am afraid and lonely.

Not everyone is ready to move out of fear. When life is raw and hurting, some people cannot immediately receive the invitation for God’s remembrance and love. Fear is an incredible beast to tame even with music and prayer. I learned this again one night when I responded to a phone call requesting a priest for a twelve-year-old boy dying in an emergency room.

I proceeded slowly into the corner of the hospital room where the boy was hooked up to multiple monitors. The clicks, sighs, and rings of the life-giving equipment overwhelmed me. I was prepared with the sacramental oils in hand, but I was not ready for the anguish of the boy’s mom. The loudest sound in the room was her voice as she leaned over her son and screamed into his face. “Don’t you die!” she yelled. “If you die I will be so angry!” she shouted above all the screeching monitors. As she yelled I noticed the graphs and lights on all of the machines attached to the boy’s body popping up and down. The more she screamed at him, the louder the buzzers and alarms sounded around the boy’s bed.

I watched the boy’s body become rigid and resistant. The sound of her yelling made me nervous and anxious about how to respond to both of them. She finally invited me close to her son’s bed. I approached him from the opposite side where the mother sat on the bed. I could hardly speak. His fear filled me with tears. I slowly began to sing, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” When the boy heard my voice, he started to relax. His face lost its frown and his shoulders let loose. All the graphs and lights on the monitors began to even out.

The mother’s face became red and tight. Her mothering instincts became another kind of monitor. She stared at the machines and became unraveled. She verbally threw me out of the room and told me never to come back. I still pray for her years later because recovering from a child’s death is in God’s hands alone.

“Jesus Remember Me” continues to echo throughout my sacramental ministry, in my memory of those who felt forgotten by illness, aging, or fear. I have sung this refrain in every possible ministry setting. Many times it connects people’s longing to God’s love, and sometimes people are not yet ready to receive that invitation. No matter how people respond I am always changed by people’s courage to face life as it is. I am always brought to profound prayer even when pain divides people from their loved ones. Even when people cannot relate to this song at the time, I always come back to our parish assembly confident that the words of the man who hung next to Jesus still spoke of hope and consolation.

Leaving the safe confines of our communities of worship and taking prayer and music into daily life is never easy. Ourcommon worship depends, however, on people feeling connected to faith and the support of the church in times of profound fear and uncertainty. This is where real music ministry opens us all to reliance on God and the love of people who remember others in good times and in bad. The sung Scripture verse from Taize, “Jesus Remember Me,” helps us all pray through our sorrow and leads us to rely on and praise God. No matter how far into the inconsolable suffering of people this chant may take us, Jesus will no doubt remember us all.