Shepherd Me, O God

The psalm at Mass tonight was Psalm 23, and we sang a paraphrased setting of it by Marty Haugen. I’ve sung it dozens of times before, but this time the refrain took my imagination somewhere new.

Shepherd me, O God

We’re used to seeing shepherd as a noun, “the Lord is my shepherd” and all that. But shepherds actively shepherd the flock. Sheep are not exactly the brightest animals on the planet… and when it comes to following the LORD, well, we’re all sinners who need to be shepherded.

Beyond my wants

So I had this image of myself wandering aimlessly… well, no, not aimlessly exactly: headed in a general direction, but easily distracted. Very easily distracted. Super duper easily distracted.

A sheep might stop for a lovely browse on a yummy bush, or some extra luscious looking grass. Sheep get lost by following those distractions, one leading to another, until they’ve wandered away from the flock off in another direction entirely.

What are my wants, my distractions? The latest novel from my favorite author, when there are other things that need my attention. A videogame, endless games of solitaire, sleep or food even tho I’m not really tired or hungry. That feeling of outrage, of righteous indignation, the rush of “I’m right”, the fascination of scandal. The easy path.

Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants.

Beyond my fears

What do sheep fear? Things that are really dangerous, and things that are not. Wolves and other predators, and scary looking but harmless critters. Paths to safety that look unstable.

How do you get sheep past those things? My first thought involved a sheepdog, snapping at the heels of the sheep to make them more scared of him than they are of the ScaryThing. “Chivvy me, O God”??

(If the Lord is my shepherd, then perhaps the Holy Spirit is his sheepdog. “The part of God that noodges you”, noodging you past things, keeping you going when you want to stop.)

But religion that relies on fear of something worse has never made sense to me, so I started thinking of other ways shepherds coax their sheep past scary things. They stand in front of the scary thing, hiding it, perhaps. They talk to the sheep, keeping its attention on them instead, keeping a hand on it, soothing it, always keeping it moving.

Shepherd me, O God, beyond my fears of failing, of doing it wrong, of not doing enough, of offending, of being talked about, of being ignored, of being abandoned.

Shepherd me, O God,
Beyond my wants,
Beyond my fears,
From death into life.

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Signs of the Times

“Why don’t you just say all lives matter, ma’am?”

I was holding a “Black Lives Matter” sign at the side of the road when the white man pulled up in front of me and rolled down his window to ask a question. I didn’t have an answer ready, but some of the other protesters did. He didn’t find them satisfying, though, and the exchange ended in mutual disgust as he drove off. We protesters commiserated with each other, and I practiced some answers for next time, as the demonstration dispersed.

As I was driving home, though, I thought about that encounter again. The man hadn’t seemed angry, initially; he’d looked disappointed, or as if he felt it wasn’t fair. Maybe he had stopped in front of me because I looked like a nice white lady — maybe I reminded him of someone that he knew. He sounded like he couldn’t understand why I would be holding a sign like that.

As I drove down the road, I tried to imagine what the world might look to someone who didn’t think it was fair for people to be saying “Black Lives Matter”, who felt left out by signs like that — and I think I caught a glimpse of it.

It’s a world that doesn’t see white. Continue reading

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“And for many”: a Lectionary Reflection

One of the most glaring changes made in the recent English translation of the Roman Missal was the words of institution. In the ICEL translation I grew up with, the phrase Jesus spoke over the wine was translated as “for you and for all.” I recall the catechesis given at the time: one of the principles of translation was that the liturgy should be self-catechizing, without the need for additional explanations. The literal translation, “for you and for many,” might easily lead the faithful to believe that Christ did not die for the sins of all humankind, which is heretical.

When the new missal came in, I tended to internally translate the Latin “pro multi” as “for the many”, because, I had been taught, it was an idiom that basically meant “for all.”

A few months ago, though, I heard the phrase with new ears, through the interpretive lens of Christians caught up in rivalry with each other over whose way of following Jesus was more pure, more correct — both today, and when Jesus walked among his first disciples.

And through those ears? “For you, and for many” doesn’t sound like a deep theological pronouncement about universalism or predestination. It sounds like Jesus pointedly reminding his rivalrous disciples, “You’re not so special.”

Today’s readings from Exodus and Matthew build on that theme. The LORD’s exhortations to treat the marginalized justly are implicitly an exhortation against scapegoating, but the manner of it conveys “You’re not so special.” Aliens – you were once aliens in Egypt. Widows and orphans – if you die, your own wife will be a widow and your own children will be orphans. There but for the grace of God, basically: you yourselves are no different from the alien, the widow, the orphan. It’s a commandment grounded in empathy, which defuses scandal and mitigates against scapegoating.

Given this mimetic lens, the gospel reading from Matthew sounds like a teaching about desire. “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul and mind” is another way of saying “Your whole self shall be oriented towards God,” which is another way of describing desire.

After that, “And the second is like it” caught my ear. Because, depending on how your tradition divides Exodus 20 into ten commandments, one can read the first commandment as “I am the LORD your God, you shall have no other gods besides me” and the second as “You shall not make for yourself an idol of anything in the heavens or the earth.”

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” puts “your neighbor” and “yourself” in the same category as each other, and decidedly not in the same category as the LORD your God to whom all your desires should be directed. You shall love your neighbor as yourself, because you’re not so special.

We normally think of “idol” as “false god”, a thing that is worshiped as a god. But thinking in terms of desire, idols are those things that distort our desires away from God. The fascination of scandal, and of mimetic rivalry, lead our desires away from God, because we are caught up in defining ourselves against the source of scandal, or as better than our rival, rather than pacifically receiving our identity from God and defining ourselves as in Christ.

We are mimetic creatures. We receive our desires from those around us, and those desires constitute who we are. We learn to love ourselves only after we are first loved by others. We love ourselves because we see ourselves through God’s eyes, as beloved by God. I cannot love my neighbor as myself unless I see my neighbor, too, as beloved by God.

I’m not so special.

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Lectionary Reflection for the Day After Charlottesville

We are blessed on this nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time with readings that are very apt for the day after a white supremacist rally filled with rhetorical and literal violence.

The first reading is from the book of Kings: the beautiful telling of how Elijah found God not in the violent storm, not in the violent earthquake, not in the violent fire, but in the tiny whispering sound, the still small voice. We do not find God in violence.

Psalm 85 reminds us what the reign of God looks like: kindness and truth, justice and peace, truth shall spring out from the waters of the earth, and justice shall rain from the heavens. This is what we’re here for. This is what we’re pledged to. This is what God promises us, and what we promise to each other.

Romans 9 reminds us who the Jewish people are: an important reminder, given that we saw Nazi flags and slogans in Charlottesville, too:

theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants,
the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises;
theirs the patriarchs, and from them,
according to the flesh, is the Christ,
who is over all, God blessed forever.

Finally, the gospel gives us the story of the disciples in a boat on a storm-tossed sea, when Jesus comes walking to them over the water. They are quite understandably freaked out: well, wouldn’t you be? With the winds and the waves and the darkness, the apparition looks like death.

And, aren’t you? I know I am.

Jesus says, Take courage. It is I. Do not be afraid.

Peter, dear Peter, impulsive Peter, asks for proof: if it’s really you, command me to come to you on the water.

And Jesus says


Peter hears his voice, amid the storm and the wind and the waves,
and because Peter is never one to do anything by halves,
he steps out of the boat, gaze fixed on Jesus, and starts walking
actually walking
on the water
despite the storm, the wind, the waves
Peter walks on the water
to Jesus.

Hold that moment in your thoughts, right there.

Peter saw something impossible,
discerned that it was Jesus,
answered Jesus’ call to come to him,
and did the impossible thing, too.

Doesn’t it feel impossible, to counter hatred and white supremacy, when it comes in a storm of hateful chants and waves of hateful violence? When it is treated with kid gloves by law enforcement, the same law enforcement that brings out riot gear and sonic weapons and sniper rifles in response to protests by black people and native people? When the casual racism or dogwhistles or complicit silence burns through our lives?

It’s Jesus calling us. If we keep our gaze and minds and hearts fixed on him, we can do the impossible thing, too.

…at least for a while. Because the story goes on from there: Peter realizes just how frightening and impossible a thing he is doing, and loses his spiritual balance, and falls.

And then he calls to Jesus. Who responds, and lifts him up.

I don’t know if Heather Heyer was Christian, but I know she showed up to counter-protest the white supremacist rally, to do the impossible-seeming thing, to speak out for kindness and truth, justice and peace. And she died there, when a white supremacist deliberately drove his car into the crowd.

I don’t know if she was Christian, but as Christians, we believe that Jesus will raise us up, as he raised Peter up out of the water, as God raised him up on the third day. When he calls us to do the impossible thing, then like Peter, we should respond.

Of course we’re afraid. Who wouldn’t be?

But if we keep our gaze fixed on him, if we set our whole mind and heart and soul and strength on him, if we listen for his voice in the storm saying Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid, then we, too, can get out of the boat and walk on the water into the storm.

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Conjugal Friendship? Works for Me.

Maria Gwyn McDowell at WIT engages vigorously with Giacamo Sanfilippo’s post at Public Orthodoxy, and I agree with a great deal of what she says, particularly the non-remarkableness of a man who is a husband and father finding “ultimate satisfaction” with another man:

Same-sex theorizing rooted in Plato and Aristotle ought to recall that the beautiful satisfaction of male-male relationships (sexual or not) stood in direct contrast to the typically dissatisfying relationships with (supposedly) intellectually and ethically inferior females that were required for societal stability. Tying Aristotle and Plato to David and Jonathan does not help: David was married to multiple women whom he won as trophies and then spurned when they no longer served his purposes. Seriously, his relationship with Bathsheba was not his only problem.

I can see her point that “conjugal friendship” can be read as ambiguous, and will likely be constructed to mean “deeply intimate friendship without sexual congress” by those who are already persuaded that a sexual relationship between two persons of the same gender is and always will be inherently immoral. But given that “conjugal” almost invariably connotes “sexual” in colloquial English, I think it requires a willful refusal to avoid that meaning, similar to the willful insistence that “man” means “human” that plagues the official Vatican translators. And I’m done arguing with those people. (But it’s a good thing that not everyone is. Thank you, Maria!)

Instead, I want to dwell on Sanfelippo’s thesis itself, ignoring the both the language games and the weaknesses of his supporting arguments that Macdowell so ably points out.

To the question, “Can two persons of the same gender ‘have sex’ with each other?” we hear from Holy Tradition a resounding no. Yet if we ask, “Can two persons of the same gender form a bond in which ‘the two become one?’” the scales begin to fall from our eyes.

The reframed question breathes a life-giving word to this Catholic, attuned as I am to the uneasy union of the “relational” and “procreative” ends of marriage in Catholic magisterial teaching, and persuaded as I am that the relational must be constitutive of marriage as procreation obviously cannot be. “Conjugal friendship” beautifully describes the relational telos of marriage to my ears, embracing the possibility of procreation without insisting that it is essential. “Conjugal friendship” might, indeed, equally well describe a faithful same-gender relationship that partakes of the nuptial imagery between God and humanity. What lovely possibilities it opens up.

I realize that I’m plucking the opening of a conversation within Orthodoxy and adapting it to my Catholic context, and I make no claim that my comments apply to the Orthodox context. But I do like it in my own!

For readers who are scandalized by any departure from magisterial teaching on the essential nature of procreative (PIV) sex, I heartily recommend The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology, by Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler, which draws attention to some of the peculiarly narrow concerns of this teaching.

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Do you understand what I have done for you?

“What I am doing, you do not understand now,
but you will understand later.”

Jesus had gone on to explain that he was giving them an example, and that they should wash one another’s feet, so they had almost forgotten that promise of later understanding. Until it happened.

It happened differently for each of them, but it happened to all of them. Peter, Andrew, James, John — each of them, sooner or later, visited the home of a friend, and was offered the customary welcome of a guest.

John was conversing amiably with his friend when the servant came in to wash his feet, but broke off in mid-sentence. He couldn’t disregard the servant and keep his attention on his host, as good manners required. How could he? The last time anyone had washed his feet, it had been Jesus. The memories washed over him: Jesus, his beloved friend and teacher… Jesus, who was seized from them, beaten, and crucified. Jesus, whose death was the death of all their hope… whose resurrection was the astonishing confirmation of it. Jesus, the Lord, the Anointed One, the Son of God. Had washed his feet.

John touched the servant lightly on the arm, interrupting his ministrations, and the youth looked up, startled. “What’s your name?” John asked, meeting his gaze.

“M..Matthias, my lord,” he stammered

“I am not your lord,” the apostle replied gently. “My name is John. Thank you for washing my feet.”

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Elizabeth on Mary, Dorothy on Therese, Ramona & Ingrid on Clare: Book Fair Finds for Women’s History Month

My church library had a used book fair this past weekend, and I came home with three books:

Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Com800337munion of Saints by Sr. Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, which she wrote more or less together with Friends of God and Prophets. I’m most excited about this one, because I’ve been meaning to get it for years, and my interest was rekindled when I read FOGAP with a small online group last year during Easter season. Maybe we can do Truly Our Sister the same way – anyone interested?

203984Therese, by Dorothy Day: This was not quite the book I originally thought it was, because all I saw was a slim white volume with Dorothy Day on the cover and that was enough for me to pick it up, because I don’t own anything on Dorothy Day. I was a bit disappointed when I saw it was actually about Therese of Lisieux, because I’ve heard rather a lot about “the Little Flower” since I was a little girl. But then I got to wondering… what would Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement have to say about this young woman who is normally portrayed with such cloying sentimentality? Hmm! So I decided it’s a better find than I first realized.

Praying3609776 with Clare of Assisi, by Ramona Miller & Ingrid Peterson: This is part of a series Companions for the Journey, about praying with the saints. I picked it up because I think Clare typically gets overlooked: everyone knows Francis of Assisi, but I never really learned much about Clare until grad school, and was keen on the fact that she was the first woman who wrote a Rule of monastic life for nuns that was accepted — all the previous communities of women lived according to a Rule that was written by a man. (Why did I have to go to grad school to learn this??) And because it is Lent, a book on praying with Clare seemed very timely.

What are you reading for Lent, or Women’s History Month, or both?

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Asking for Better Homilies: A How-To Guide

Some of us were dismayed and disappointed at the preaching we heard this weekend, which expounded on the Beatitudes without making even a veiled reference to the Muslim ban (aka executive order prohibiting entry to citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries, even refugees).  I generally try to engage with clergy when something like this happens, privately after the service is over.

Glad you asked, Kevin! So here’s a little how-to guide.

(Note: This post is written from my Catholic perspective, but much of it will be applicable for readers of other traditions as well. In most cases, Catholics hear homilies/sermons at Mass from priests, who are male, although deacons (also male) may also preach and sometimes do.)

First of all, the standard guidelines for giving constructive criticism apply: do it in private, do it respectfully and calmly. (If you’re not calm enough immediately afterwards, maybe go home and write an email later instead.) Talk about the thing, not the person, and talk about this specific instance.

Good: I was troubled by the homily today

Bad: I can’t believe you didn’t even mention refugees – you never talk about what’s happening in the world when you preach!

Always lead with praise for what you can. Was there anything in the homily that you liked, or made you think? Was there anything else during the service that you can comment on appreciatively?

Then, especially if your feedback has to do with anything that is remotely political or controversial in your congregation, be sure to express sympathy for the difficult position that he’s in. It’s hard to preach to a large congregation of people that need or want different things from the preaching they hear, especially in parishes with diverse political views.

I think the best approach to the actual feedback is to frame it as a pastoral matter. Most clergy take pastoral care seriously, so share the spiritual needs you had that were not met by the homily that you got.

Good: With everything in the news and the Muslim ban this weekend, I’ve been very distressed and afraid about what is going on in the country. I came to church hoping for some clear guidance and encouragement to do the right thing [especially after I heard X in the readings], because it’s not always easy to put my faith into action. Even when I’m pretty sure what the right thing is, it helps to hear it from the pulpit, and to see others in the congregation nod in agreement — it helps me realize I’m not alone.

Bad: This text is so clearly applicable to the current situation, I can’t believe you didn’t preach on it. You should have said X, Y, Z, and tied in this element of the first reading, too.

Pro Tip: Do not, repeat, do not engage in exegetical or hermeneutical critique. Resist the urge to describe the sermon you would rather have heard. Go home and write it on your blog instead.

Regardless of how he responds to you, be sure to end by thanking him for his ministry and all his hard work. Priests work hard, and as the priest shortage worsens and parishes get larger, they work harder and harder. People are often quick to criticize and rarely praise, so this can go a long way.

For the same reason, make a point of always thanking the priest after mass for things that really helped you, or spoke to what you needed, or that you really liked. Do it every time – it only takes a minute. Not only is this worth doing for its own sake: it builds up evidence of good will over time and establishes a basically positive relationship, so when you do offer criticism, he’ll be more likely to be able to hear and consider it, instead of going instantly on the defensive, or immediately dismissing it on the grounds that you can’t please everyone.

In fact, if you’ve never given feedback to this priest before, don’t start by bringing up something negative. Wait until you’ve been able to say something positive a few times first — and then wait for the next negative thing, don’t rehash this one.

So, to recap:

  • Be calm, respectful, and specific
  • Lead with praise for what you can
  • Sympathize with his difficulties
  • Frame your concern in terms of your own spiritual needs
  • Sincerely thank him for his ministry
  • Take every opportunity to express appreciation and develop a basically positive relationship

And one last thing — don’t forget to pray for your priests. As we depend on them for pastoral and spiritual care, so they should be able to depend on us for intercessory prayer. Pray that God will strengthen and sustain them in their ministry, console them in their difficulties, enlighten them with wisdom to discern how best to care for their flock, and fortify them with whatever graces they may need.

Readers, do you have any additional advice to share, or stories about how giving feedback worked out well for you? Would any preachers among you like to weigh in? Please share!

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Today, Christ is born!
Today, Salvation appears!
Today, on earth, angels sing,
archangels rejoice,
the just exult,
Glory to God in the Highest,

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Phrases and Shapes in Two Languages: Hail Mary, Ave Maria

maria_gravida_or_mary_at_the_spinning_wheel_from_nemetujvar_c-1410_hungarian_galleryThe other night, I got to praying/playing around with the Hail Mary in both English and Latin, and found some interesting differences in shape.

Here’s the traditional text, as every English-speaking Catholic child learns it:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death,

The line breaks represent the typical phrasing when it is recited.

Most Catholic children learn this prayer when they are very young. It may not be until later that we learn to recognize the scriptural origin of the first half of the prayer.

The angel appeared to Mary, and said to her:saint_gabriel_-_stained_glass_window_in_the_cloisters_of_chester_cathedral

Hail Mary, full of grace: the LORD is with you.

Her cousin Elizabeth, who was great with child in her old age as the angel had foretold, greeted her and said:

Blessed are you among all women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.

Because of the last phrase of the prayer, many Catholics say a Hail Mary when they hear a siren or see an ambulance; and of course it is traditional to pray at the bedside of someone who is dying.

Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death,

So I’m starting to see this shape, here: downward (angel from God), parallel (Elizabeth to Mary), upward (soul to heaven).

And then I decided to start praying it in Latin.

I had a couple of years of Latin in high school. It gave me enough background in the language that the Latin texts I sang in choir are reasonably comprehensible to me, so I’m actually reading the Latin, not just sounding it out. Here’s how it reads in Latin, with line breaks again indicating the phrasing that is natural to me when I recite it.

Continue reading

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