Mercy in Music

As part of our Adult Faith Formation programming in connection with the Year of Mercy, Our Lady or Lourdes’ Organist and Choirmaster Chris Ganza gave a talk this morning on Music of the Church: Mercy in Music.

After talking generally about types of church music and the issues involved in selecting music for liturgy, Chris used three pieces to illustrate the theme of mercy: Frederick Faber’s There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy, Robert Vaughan Williams’ setting of George Herbert’s poem Love, and Ola Gjelo’s version of Ubi caritas et amor.  His talk addressed the both the theological and musical themes of each.

Perhaps because it is already a favorite of mine, I particularly enjoyed his discussion of the Herbert poem, which is such a beautiful expression of God’s forgiveness and mercy.  In the face of all of our protestations of our unworthiness, God keeps saying – join me, enjoy my feast.

I’ve posted Herbert’s poem here before, but it is worth posting again in this Year of Mercy.

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.

Change of Heart

I posted the other day on the subject of Lent reading.  Here is another one to add to your list: Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy and Making Peace with My Sister’s Killer, by Jeanne Bishop.

Jeanne is a dear friend of mine and so I was treated to reading the manuscript of this book before it was published.  I was thrilled to open the mail earlier this week to find my signed copy of the actual book.  I immediately sat down and read it again.

The story begins twenty-five years ago, when, after a family dinner celebrating the pregnancy of Jeanne’s sister Nancy, Nancy and her husband returned home.  An intruder was sitting and waiting for them, gun in hand.  He shot and killed them.

As the title and subtitle of the book reveals, this is the story of how Jeanne moved to forgiveness and, even more, to compassion toward the man who murdered her beloved sister.  How she moved from not even being able to speak the killer’s name, to writing to him and visiting him in prison.  From being an advocate for life without parole for juveniles to advocating against such a punishment.  (The killer was a junior in high school when the murders took place.)  Her story is one of restorative justice and of Christian love.  It is also a story of the cost of discipleship, as some of Jeanne’s actions (such as testifying in favor of reducing the life without parole sentence of people like this killer) sometimes put her on the other side of the aisle of other family members and generated harsh (and sometimes vicious) criticism from others.

Jeanne says this in the opening chapter of the book:

This is the story of how God rolled away that stone [the stone over her heart], loosened the fingers that gripped that rock [the rock she wanted to throw at the perpetrator], till it thudded in the dirt – and grew in its stead the green shoots of transformation and new life, renewal and change.

It is my story, but it is also yours, because God who loves us all and wrought this miracle in my life has the power to transform yours as well, to lead you into places you never dreamed you would go

Jeanne is wonderful model of Christian discipleship.  I admire her greatly and am honored to call her a friend.

I don’t doubt you will find this a compelling story and one of amazing grace.  It would make for good reading during this Lent.

The Primary Confessor

One of the books I am currently reading is Freedom and Forgiveness: A Fresh Look at the Sacrament of Reconciliation, by Fr. Paul Farren. Since even many Catholics who don’t regularly avail themselves of the sacrament of Reconciliation do so during the Lenten season, it seemed a good book to pick up for my flight to Philadelphia yesterday.

Many people view Reconciliation as an unpleasant duty that must be undertaken from time to time, or a required appeasement of a judging God, thinking of it as something that makes God feel better, something we do for God. Something that gets us back into God’s graces.

That misconceives the real nature of the Sacrament. As Fr. Farren observes

The sacrament of Reconciliation is primarily that sacred place and moment when God confesses. The primary confessor in the sacrament is God. What does God confess? God confesses his love, his forgiveness, his gratitude, his confidence, his trust and his belief in us. It is God’s confession that enables us to confess. God’s attitude creates a safe and non-judgmental environment for us to be true to ourselves and to be true to the one who loves us most.

We see the truth of this observation several times in the Gospels.

We see it, for example, in the story of Zacchaeus. Here is Zacchaeus – a short man who couldn’t even see above the crowds. He is unpopular, not what we think of as a good person. This is not someone who was on the guest list of most people’s dinner parties. Most people wanted nothing to do with him. Those who didn’t think he was vile simply thought he was unimportant. But Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house – effectively saying: Zacchaeus, it doesn’t matter to me that you are a tax collector and that you are unpopular. I still want to be with you. I want to be your friend. And it is Jesus’ greeting Zacchaeus with joy that is the cause of Zacchaeus’ promise to give half of his possessions to the poor and make recompense to all he has cheated. God loved Zacchaeus first, and that allowed him to respond back in love.

Michael Himes makes the same point when he write that Reconciliation “is not about how wicked I have been but rather about how good God is. Like all sacraments, reconciliation is not primarily about my action, whether good or bad, but about God’s action.” Himes observes that this makes Reconciliation a source of joy as the community (in the form of the priest to whom we confess) acknowledges that all have sinned and all are forgiven because all are embraced by the love of God….What is being celebrated is not the depth of our sin but the height of God’s love.”

What we are really asked to do in the sacrament of Reconciliation is to accept the loving embrace of God. To accept that, in Fr. Farren’s words, “God believes in us far more than we will ever believe in God. God believes in us far more than we will ever believe in ourselves.”

Fields of Forgiveness

Our speaker at Weekly Manna this week was Laura Gilbertson, Program Director of Christian Ministries at Bethel University and a teaching pastor at Westwood Community Church. Her subject was “How does one remember violence today in a way that fosters reconciliation in the future.” She focused on the thought of Miroslav Wolf in The End of Memory to make the point that how we remember wrongdoing matters; Wolf speaks of the need to remember wrongdoing through the lens of redemptive forgiveness.

She began her remarks by distinguishing three levels or fields of forgiveness: forensic forgiveness, therapeutic forgiveness and redemptive forgiveness.

Forensic forgiveness is transactional: one party agrees not to exact what the law and justice require. Someone owes me $10 and I forgive that debt. That is the most surface level of forgiveness, although Gilbertson suggested that there are some people who view God’s forgiveness those limited terms.

The next level of forgiveness is therapeutic forgiveness, which she describes (and she takes these descriptions from from Shults and Sandage’s Faces of Forgiveness) as the psychological process of reducing one’s motivation for avoidance and revenge, and increasing one’s motivation for goodwill toward a specific offender. This is the kind of forgiveness that frees us from the pain associated with failing to forgive, and while deeper than forensic forgiveness, is still not as deep as Biblical forgiveness.

Finally, there is redemptive forgiveness, which manifests and shares divine grace. This forgiveness is fostered by empathy and humility, both of which require letting go of a sharp divide between oppressor and oppressed. Empathy in this context means understanding that the wrongdoer has a story. It does not excuse the wrong, but seeks to understand where it came from. Humility means recognizing that I, too, have the potential to do awful things. Our ability to engage in redemptive forgiveness requires seeing myself as a forgiven sinner. I can forgive because I have been forgiven.

I have not read Volf’s book, but Gilbertson’s description suggests that what he asks of us is challenging. He asks that in time of conflict I remember that I stand at the foot of the cross as a forgiven sinner, that I remember that the wrong done to me has already been atoned for by Christ, and that I remember the wrongdoing through the lens of future reconciliation, even if currently we remain scarred by pain of enmity. And that all of this shapes (or should shape) how I remember past and current harms inflicted on me.

Remembering in this way, protects us against resentment and vindictiveness. I found thought-provoking Volf’s definition of resentment as “seeking to reaffirm my own power and goodness and to ensure my security by disparaging and injuring others.” The definition raises the important challenge of how we find wholeness and fullness other than at the expense of others.

I am grateful to Laura for sharing with us today, and to my friend and colleague Joel Nichols for inviting her to be with us.

Forgiving God

I just read Forgiving God, written by John Boyle and one of my dear friends (and inspirations), Jeanne Bishop.

Each of the authors has had good reason to think about the question of whether we need to forgive God for permitting evil. As a young American soldier in World War II, Boyle was among those who helped liberate Dachau. “The sights and smells that engulfed [him] upon entering the camp initially stunned [him] into a stupor of disbelief that anything so horrible, so brutal, so obscene could have happened at all, much less have been perpetrated by human beings upon other human beings. Corpses of inmates of the camp lay strewn on the ground, in railroad boxcars, and stacked helter-skelter in piles. Before [him] in a panoramic display of carnage was bitter proof of the end result of anger, prejudice and hatred, when pushed to their logical conclusion.” Having been profoundly disturbed by my visit to Dachau this past summer, it is hard to imagine what it must have been like to see what Boyle saw when he walked in there in 1945.

Jeanne Bishop’s encounter was a more personal one. In 1990, her 25 year-old sister (then three months pregnant) and her husband were murdered. The murdered was waiting for them when they returned home after a family gathering. Jeanne’s brother-in-law was killed first, leaving Jeanne to “imagine [her] sister seeing the horror before her eyes: her husband’s body slumping to the floor, her dream of having children together and growing old dying with him. Then, seeing the gun turned on her. The killer fired into her body twice, in her abdomen and side, and fled.”

Each of the authors describes their experience in greater detail than I have done here in the course of sharing how they have grown and how they have grappled with their pain and anger. There is much in both of their narratives that is worth reflecting on and this is a book I would encourage anyone to read. (I was going to write “anyone who has grappled with the subject of God and evil – but I suspect that is most, if not all, of us at one point or another.)

Let me here just share one of the things each of them writes. John Boyle writes in talking about why even understandable outrage over injustice can become dangerous:

If my outrage or my anger is the only thing I have, am I in danger of becoming the embodiment of the only thing I have? Does it not then become the “god” around which I organize my life? And do we not ultimately become what functionally we worship?

I share it because there are so many circumstances where we persuade ourselves that our anger is justified, allowing us to feed it. I’m not saying anger is never an appropriate response, but anger easily moves from something that can lead to positive action to something that spirals out of control. And many who have endured tremendous suffering (especially at the hand of another) use their anger as a way of coping with their pain. They run great risks in doing so.

Jeanne Bishop shares the first step in getting past her anger with God, what she describes as her starting point. She writes

But all the time I was shaking my fist at God, questioning, I knew three things: first, that God existed; second, that God loved me, loved Nancy and Richard and their baby; and third, that they were somehow safe with God. That was my square one, my starting point.

If that is our starting point, we will be able to get past our anger and do what Jeanne was ultimately able to do: unclench our fists, uncurl our fingers and reach our hands into the “strong, loving hand of God.”

Like Simon or the Sinful Woman?

In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, Jesus is dining at the home of Simon, a Pharisee, when a “sinful woman, ” who has learned of Jesus’ presence there, “stood behind him at his feet weeping and began to bathe his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment.”

Simon is aghast that Jesus is allowing this, assuming Jesus does not recognize the “sort of woman…who is touching him.” Jesus, of course, knows exactly who the woman is and what she has done, and he chides Simon, saying:

Do you see this woman?
When I entered your house, you did not give me water for my feet,
but she has bathed them with her tears
and wiped them with her hair.
You did not give me a kiss,
but she has not ceased kissing my feet since the time I entered.
You did not anoint my head with oil,
but she anointed my feet with ointment.
So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven
because she has shown great love.
But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.

The Simon’s of this world think they have it all. They live lives that (in their eyes) are blameless; they don’t feel they owe anyone anything and they do not believe they need anything (certainly not forgiveness, since, after all, they live such blameless lives).

The woman know her failings, her weaknesses. And she knows she is in need for forgiveness. She comes in her weakness and offers what she has in humility.

For us the question for reflection is, are there times when we behave like Simon? How do we approach Jesus?

Forgiveness and Restoration of Dignity

I’ve talked a lot about forgiveness over the last year, both in retreat talks and in blog posts. But the conjoining of two things prompt me to say a few more words on the subject.

My friend Jeanne Bishop recently sat down face to face with David Biro, the man who murdered her sister, her sister’s unborn child and her sister’s husband twenty-three years ago. (At the time, Biro was a juvenile.) In a recent post, Jeanne shared what led to that meeting.

Jeanne had waited years for Biro to admit his guilt and apologize, something he would never do. She writes that it finally struck her that “I had spoken publicly about forgiving him, but I never told him. I never communicated that forgiveness directly to him.” She wrote to him to say she was sorry for that, telling him she had forgiven him. Her apology resulted in him writing her a fifteen page handwritten letter in which he confessed to the murders and apologized for committing them.

As I reread Jeanne’s powerful post, I recalled something Fr. Damien Halligan said in his sermon on the Prodigal Son parable at Mass at St. Ignatius Retreat House this past Sunday. Damien talked about the father’s response when the profligate younger son comes home. Rather than accepting the son’s offer to be as one of his father’s servants, the father calls for a robe to be put on his son’s shoulders, a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. In Damien’s words, the father “restored dignity to the son.” Of all of the words in his sermon, it was those that stayed with me – the father restored dignity to the son.

Often we forgive grudgingly or partially. We mouth words of forgiveness, but still in little ways, withhold something.

In a sense what Jeanne did in writing to Biro was the equivalent of what that father did in the parable of the Prodigal Son: in telling him she forgave him, in apologizing to him for failing to do so before, she restored dignity to David Biro. I suspect (actually I’m fairly confident) that without that restoration of dignity, he would not have been able to confess his guilt and apologize for the wrong he had committed.

Jeanne forgave as God forgives. And her act became gift to her – giving her the confession and apology she longed for. But it was also enormous gift to David Biro, a restoration of dignity that allows for the possibility of real growth on his part.

I am grateful for the model of forgiveness Jeanne has given for me and for all of us.

Can’t You Trust Him?

This week I attended a beautiful parish penitential service at St. Thomas Apostle church in Minneapolis. I was deeply moved by both the penitential litany that aided in an examination of conscience and the healing laying on of hands that was a central part of the service.

The opening song for the service is one we’ve sung at St. Thomas Apostle during Wednesday evening prayer services during Lent, titled Somebody’s Knocking at Your Door, the text of which comes from an African-American spiritual.

Over and over the songs asks, “O sinner, why don’t you answer? Somebody’s knocking at your door.” The four solo lines introducing the repeated refrain are simple, but they touch me:

Knocks like Jesus, Somebody’s knock-in’at your door.
Can’t you hear him?…
Jesus calls you,…
Can’t you trust him?…

It is the last one that stops me every time we sing the song. “Can’t you trust him?”

It is a good question to sit with.

Jesus is calling. Constantly. Over and over. Wanting us to say yes to deepening our life in him. Wanting us to “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel,” as we hear on Ash Wednesday.

What prevents us from answering? Is it a lack of trust?

Don’t you trust him? If yes, what’s stopping you from answering? If not, how do you need God to be with you to increase your trust?

Learning to Forgive

Last night I gave a Lenten Retreat Evening at Church of Christ the King on the theme of Learning to Forgive.

I began by talking about forgiveness as a value shared by all faith traditions and as something beneficial even for those who are not religious. Failing to forgive harms us as well as those around us.

After that introduction, I then focused on four points that I thought would be helpful in our effort to learn to forgive: First, out need to acknowledge our resentments; second, accepting God’s love and forgiveness; third, Jesus as our model for forgiveness; and fourth, letting go of our existing framework for thinking about forgiveness. In the last, I talked about power, justice and process.

After my reflection, I gave the participants time to engage in some silent reflection, after which we had a discussion and quesion and answer period.

You can access a recording of the talk I gave here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 38:25.

The Love That Converts Us

Today is the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle. This is an event with which we are all familiar. Paul (then Saul), a persecutor of Christians, is on his way to Damascus when “a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him.” At that, Saul falls to the ground and hears a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” When he asks who is speaking to him, he hears, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Jesus continues with instructions, which Saul follows.

What is it about the appearance of Jesus that converts Saul from his life of persecuting Christians to becoming one of the great preachers of Christianity. Heather King offers this thought,

Christ never cuts us down with a gun or sword. He looks at us with love….He looks us in the eye with love and says, “Why are you persecuting me?”

To be forgiven when we know we don’t “deserve” to be forgiven is radically transformative in a way violence can never be. To be forgiven does another kind of violence: to our whole tit-for-tat notion of crime and punishment. To be forgiven makes us realize that, unbelievable as it may seem, God needs us for something. We have a mission.

In Jesus words, Paul hears, not condemnation, but love and forgiveness. And in that look and voice of love and forgiveness is invitation – invitation to conversion, to transformation. Invitation to mission.

As it was for Paul, the invitation is there for each of us.