Name it and claim it!

“Name it and claim it” is a common refrain in historically African American churches. It refers to any one the many blessings God has in store for us every day.  It also refers to the type of attitude a faithful one must have in order to receive a blessing from the Lord.  The Holy Scripture says that, “If any of your lacks wisdom, ask it of the Lord who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly.  But, that person must ask in faith. For the person without faith is like the wave, tossed and driven by the wind, erratic in all things. Such a person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord.” – James 1:3

“Prosperity Gospel”

I have heard this refrain used poorly, especially by a few preachers that appear on television.  They have a theology, often referred to as “prosperity gospel” that suggests that this refrain can be used for material gain – Claim a luxury car and God will give it to you.  I have never been motivated by the refrain for material reasons.  Furthermore, a humble Christian does not order God around.  Rather, like Christ taught, we say, “Your will be done.”  “Name it and claim it” should help me focus on the spiritual blessings of God such as wisdom, faith, hope and charity.  My material needs will take care of themselves – And I don’t NEED a luxury car!

This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

At my school we use this refrain and this scripture to encourage each other and to help one another focus on Christ.  For example, when I am dreading a certain meeting or a possible negative encounter, I am tempted to say to myself, “This is going to be a horrible day!”. It is at this moment that I must remember to “Name it, then claim it!” If I name my blessing as “This is a day that the Lord has made” then I can claim it.  In other words, God’s blessings are always before us.  It is just that sometimes, we cannot see the blessing and thus, we fail to claim it.

Name it and claim it!

As you read this, name and claim a blessing.  If nothing more, you have the blessing seeking a relationship with God.  Sometimes, that alone is enough!

I’ve Got A Mom, She’s Long and Tall, Sleeps in the Kitchen With Her Feet in the Hall

There’s a line from vintage Jazz songs that says, I’ve a got a girl, she’s long and tall, sleeps in the kitchen with her feet in the hall. You can see I have a adapted it for this blog post.

The “mom” I am talking about is Holy Mother Church. There is just something wonderfully universal, and catholic, about our mother. She sleeps in the kitchen because she is always feeding her children with the Holy Eucharist. She’s  “long” in the sense that she stretches all the way back to the time of Jesus.  She’s tall in that her numbers keep growing. Here in the West we lament the decline of the Church. But worldwide, the Church is growing and in many places is both vibrant and rich in vocations. We in the West need to remember this from time to time.

In his recent book  The Light of the World, Pope Benedict and Peter Seewald have the following conversation regarding this matter:

Peter SeewaldAccording to the Annuario Pontificio, the almanac of the Catholic Church, you erected in the year 2009 alone nine episcopal sees, an apostolic prefecture, two new metropolitan sees, and three apostolic vicariates. The number of Catholics increased by seventeen million, as many as the population of Greece and Switzerland combined. In the almost 3,000 dioceses you appointed 169 new bishops. Then there are all the audiences, the homilies, the journeys, the great number of decisions—and besides all that you also wrote a major study on Jesus, the second volume of which will be published in the near future. You are now eighty-three years old: Where do you get your energy?

Pope Benedict:  First I must say that the statistics you list are a sign of the Church’s vitality. Viewed exclusively from the European perspective, it appears that she is in decline. But that is only one part of the whole. In other parts of the world she is growing and thriving, she is quite dynamic. The number of new priests worldwide has increased in recent years, also the number of seminarians. We on the continent of Europe are experiencing only one particular side but not the great dynamic of a new beginning that is really present elsewhere and which I encounter again and again on my journeys and through the visits of the bishops.

Yes, despite things looking at times bleak from a Western perspective, things are vivid and vital elsewhere. The Church, after all, is a bride, not a widow. She reaches every land, every culture, and speaks every language.

She has a history and memory not only encompassing today’s diversity but also stretching back over 2000 thousand years. She has seen cultures rise and fall: The Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, The British Empire, French, Portuguese, Spanish Empires and their vast networks of colonies. Both the Chinese and Japanese have had multiple dynasties and empires come and go, the Nazis rose and fell, the Soviet Union rose and fell, the Muslims too have waxed and waned in their power and scope and …..well….you get the point.  The Church has stood while all this maelstrom, all this rising and falling took place.

Clearly the Church is a miracle and would not have lasted 20 minutes if she depended on human beings. As it is, the Holy Spirit indwells her and the promise of Christ that the gates of “Hell would not prevail” protects her. She may not always be numerous and popular in every region but she will continue, she will prevail by Christ’s promise.

The Western World, especially Western Europe, and to a lesser extent, America may insist on committing suicide. But to quote another old (and somewhat irreverent) Jazz line: One monkey don’t stop no show.   The Church will teach and warn for she loves all her children, but if the West insists on suicide, the Church will still go on. God does not lie and his promise still holds, the gates of hell itself cannot prevail. Satan may try (spare us O Lord!) but he will always and ultimately loose.

We do well to keep our sights on the bigger picture. For the Church continues to thrive in many places, often despite all odds and against poverty and persecution. Yes, indeed, I’ve got a mom, she’s long and tall, sleeps in the kitchen, with her feet in the hall. Our mother’s reach is vast and wide and she is alive. She is bride, not a widow.

The First Martyrs of Rome and the Cost of Our Faith

Many martyrs suffered death under Emperor Nero. Owing to their executions during the reign of Emperor Nero, they are called the Neronian Martyrs, and they are also termed the Protomartyrs of Rome, being honored by the site in Vatican City called the Piazza of the Protomartyrs. These early Christians were disciples of the Apostles, and they endured hideous tortures and ghastly deaths following the burning of Rome in the infamous fire of 62 AD.Their dignity in suffering, and their fervor to the end, did not provide Nero or the Romans with the public diversion desired. Instead, the faith was firmly planted in the Eternal City. The Blood of Martyrs is the Seed of the Church.

Many people today think little of the faith that has been handed on to them. Only 27% of Catholics even go to Mass. Many too consider any suffering due to the faith intolerable. So, when reminded of basic moral norms against things like fornication, contraception, assisted suicide, or requirements such as weekly Mass attendance, frequent confession, occasional fasting etc, many consider such things too demanding or unreasonable. But all of us should consider how precious is the faith handed on to us. Many died for the faith because they would not compromise with the demands of the world or deny Christ. Many too were imprisoned and suffered loss of jobs and property because they witnessed to Christ. Others were rejected by family and friends. It is remarkable to consider that the martyrs even to this day were willing  to suffer death but many Christians today  are not even willing  to risk some one raising an eyebrow at them or any unpopularity. Pray for the courage of the martyrs! And never forget the cost of the faith handed on to us.

This video depicts the suffering of the First Martyrs of Rome. Careful! It is a graphic video which quite accurately depicts death by lions and the cruel and sadistic glee of the crowds who found it entertaining to see other humans torn apart and eaten. This clip is from the 2002 Movie “Quo Vadis” a Polish Production available at Amazon I added some music over the top that is a dramtic hymn: Once to Every Man and Nation. I listed the Words in the comments section.


Welcome to”Ordinary Time”

It is a rather sad sounding description isn’t it? “Ordinary Time” hmm… The Latin title for this time period isn’t all that impressive either: Tempus per annum (Time through the year). But maybe there IS some inspiration here after all. The faith is not just something reserved for extraordinary moments and seasons. It is meant to be lived in all the ordinary moments of life too, it is meant to be lived through the year.

The liturgical readings and prayers of Ordinary Time emphasize discipleship. What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus in matters such as decisions, money, use of time, priorities, etc? How to do we encounter the Kingdom of God and perceive it in our daily lives? What are the conditions of discipleship? How will we ultimately be judged? These are some of the themes of Ordinary Time.

So, encounter God in the “ordinary” in the time through the year, even on vacation this summer. There is no vacation from our vocation. Do miss what God is doing, even in the ordinary.

The Church is A Miracle

If the Church were depending on human beings to exist and stay unified how long do think she would have lasted? Probably about twenty minutes, max!

There are no governments or nations that have lasted 2000 years. Very little else in this world can claim such antiquity and even if it does can it claim to have remained essentially unchanged in its dogma or teaching?

The Catholic Church is one, even after 2000 years. An unbroken line of Popes back to Peter and an unbroken line of succession for all the Bishops back to the Apostles through the laying on of hands. Not bad. Our history is not without some pretty questionable moments, in terms of the human elements of the Church. That the gates of hell would never prevail against the Church certainly suggests they would try again and again. But here we are, a miracle. Still standing after all these years! Christ is true to his promise to remain with us all days unto the consummation of the world.

We, the human elements of the Church may not live teachings of Christ perfectly, but the Church has never failed to teach what Christ taught even (as now) when the world hated us for it. At times we are tepid and struggle to find our voice, but Christ still speaks and ministers even in our weakness. St. Paul once wrote regarding himself and his fellow clergy: But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us (2 Cor 4:7). When I think of the human weakness of the Church whether in the clergy or in the laity, I am absolutely struck by the truth that the continued existence of the Church all these centuries is a true miracle, right before our very eyes. Yes! A miracle.

When going to Church hurts

After Mass a few weeks ago, I encountered a parishioner who was feeling very hurt by the Church and specifically, a comment that made her feel unwelcome in the parish.

Her story made me recall many years ago when I was starting my career as a high school teacher.  I attended a small parish in the town where I was living and teaching. I was one of the few African Americans living in the town and it seemed like I was one of the only African American Catholics for hundreds of miles. Having said that, I never felt entirely welcome in the parish. I thought I was a fairly active member of the parish (Knights of Columbus and lector ministries were my favorites). Nonetheless, I often wondered if the pastor considered me a joy or an intrusion in his little church.

On leave – Not missing in action!

As a teacher, I often spent my summers traveling, visiting family and teaching at a summer program in another part of the country. So, though I attended Mass faithfully during the summer months, I rarely attended Mass in my parish of registration. Furthermore, I would inform the parish secretary of this each June and ask her not to schedule me as a lector until I returned in September. Year after year, she would accommodate my request in the spring and welcome me back to town warmly in the fall.

Well, one fall, I returned and was told that I would have to talk to the pastor in order to get back into the lector ministry. When I approached Father, he chastised me for my “sparse attendance at Mass.” Furthermore, he told me that I had no business on the altar if I did not bother to come to Mass regularly.

Judge not

Needless to say I was livid! Once I explained my circumstances, I think he understood and almost apologized. But, I was livid still. I told him, “What if I were sick, or lost my job and couldn’t come to church? Worse yet, what if I had actually lost faith as you suspected and did not find Mass important? As a pastor, couldn’t you have made a phone call before you removed me from the lector schedule?!”

Almost a lost sheep

I walked out and vowed never to return to that parish. Every Sunday, I drove an extra 15 miles to the next Catholic Church until I moved back to Washington a year later.  Furthermore, that is certainly not the only time in my life I have been hurt by the Church.

Now that I am older, wiser and more grounded in my faith, I wonder how many others have walked away not just from a parish but from the entire Catholic Church because of a negative experience such as the one I described. On the other end of the spectrum, I wonder about those who have experienced far worse than a judgmental pastor and how impossible healing may seem to some of them.

A step toward healing

Consider the following poem that was given to me a few years ago after a hurtful experience with our beloved Church. What do you think about it?

How much I must criticize you, my church, and yet how much I love you!

You have made me suffer more than anyone and yet I owe more to you than to anyone.

I should like to see you destroyed and yet I need your presence.

You have given me much scandal and yet you alone have made me understand holiness.

Never in this world have I seen anything more compromised, more false, yet never have I touched anything more pure, more generous or more beautiful.

Countless times I have felt like slamming the door of my soul in your face—and yet, every night, I have prayed that I might die in your sure arms!

No, I cannot be free of you, for I am one with you, even if not completely you.
Then too — where would I go? To build another church? But I could not build one without the same defects, for they are my defects.

And again, if I were to build another church, it would be my church, not Christ’s church. No, I am old enough, I know better.”

– Carlo Carretto

The ultimate gold medal

Now that’s a Gold Medal!

My wife has a wonderful devotion to the Blessed Virgin. As a convert to the faith, she often credits the Mother of God with drawing her closer to her Son, Jesus Christ. As part of her devotion, she almost always wears a Miraculous Medal given to her as a gift when she was received into the Catholic Church. For Lent, she asked me to say the prayer on the Medal daily and to think of her while I pray it.

I am victorious!

As we were watching the Olympics recently, we enjoyed witnessing the joy on an athlete’s face when they put the medal around their necks symbolizing their respective victories.

Brothers and sisters, Our Lady’s Miraculous Medal symbolizes victory as well. It symbolizes a victory over sin and death. And unlike an Olympic medal, it is available to anyone who seeks victory over death through Jesus Christ. Also, unlike Olympic medals, the glory of this victory will never fade but only increase. If you have one, put it on. If not, buy one. Few things say, “I believe in Christ!” like a Miraculous Medal.

Take your place on the medal stand!

Let God and your faith in His Only Son, Jesus Christ, put you on the platform and place the ultimate gold medal around your neck!

“O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.”

The Music of the Spheres and a Bach Fugue in the Sky! The Fascinating Connection between Cosmology and Church Music

There are some pretty fascinating connections between cosmology and the music that has predominated in different ages of the Church. Now I said cosmology, not cosmetology. Cosmetology is the art of beautifying women, the beauty shop owner is a cosmetologist. But cosmology is the understanding of the universe (cosmos) in which we live. How do we see andunderstand the universe in which we live and our relation to it? And what does all this have to do with Church music?  Hmm… let’s see.

Chant and the Unity of All Things- In the earliest days of Church music plainsong and chant predominated.  A melody was sung unaccompanied and with no harmony. In fact there is early Church legislation  that frowned on use of harmony seeing it too strongly connected with paganism. There was also a cosmology among early Christians that stressed the unity of all things. That everything, no matter how  varied was ultimately from God and was united in God. The Patristic Fathers (eg Ignatius of Antioch et al.) imagined in heaven the angels and saints and yet despite myriads of them singing they all sang as if with one voice.  This patristic  teaching found its way into the prefaces of the mass sung or recited just before the Holy, Holy. There it is said that we join our voices with that of the angels who with one voice (una voce dicentes) say: Holy Holy, Holy Lord…. Thus unaccompanied, unharmonized chant reflected a cosmology of the day that all things and all people were ultimately one, united in God and sustained by Him.  St Augustine imagined that, in the end, when Jesus finally handed over the kingdom to his father that there would be unus Christus amans seipsum (One Christ loving himself).  Gregorian Chant exemplified through unison singing the cosmology of the oneness, the unity of all things (cf Quasten: Music in Pagan and Christian Antiquity).

Polyphony and the Music of the Spheres – But moving forward into the middle ages and toward the Renaissance we begin to discover rich and extended harmonies introduced into Church Music. Here too a cosmology is lurking just beneath the surface. As the ancient Greek Philosophers began to be “rediscovered” the ancient cosmology of the “music of the spheres” began to re-emerge. The ancients pondered the planets and stars as they swept through space. Each planet was thought made a perfect circle around earth. As they made this perfect circle they each rang out a different tone or note. These different notes rang out as a beautiful celestial harmony. Now harmony in church music began to be seen as reflective of the celestial harmony. Such cosmology and celestial harmony reached its apex and perfection in Renaissance polyphony (see video below).

Mathematical Baroque and the Ellipse of the Planetary Paths – Another change in cosmology is reflected another form of music.  In the 16th Century Copernicus discovered that the planets orbited the sun, not the earth.  Studies of the planets by Kepler and others at the same time revealed that planets do not orbit in perfect circles but in elliptical orbits, in a kind of a mathematical progression. This is really the insight of a musical form perfected at the time called the “fugue” A fugue introduces a musical theme and then develops the theme in a kind of mathematical progression. Much music of the Baroque period exhibits a kind of mathematical. If you’ve ever heard the famous Canon in D by Pachelbel you will note that it begins with a simple theme that builds mathematically as the as the half notes become quarter notes, then eighth notes, then sixteenth and even 32nd notes at the high point. Math as music reflecting the mathematical progression of the planets sweeping out their ellipses! So again, music and cosmology inter-relate.

Modern dissonance and relativity –  In modern times, the theory of relativity has come to predominate. Most people interpret relativity to mean that truth varies (it does not) and that beauty and perfection are ultimately indefinable (everything is relative). Of course this is not what the scientific theory of relativity really holds but most people have allowed this interpretation of the theory to affect their cosmology, their interpretation of the universe. Thus in modern music dissonance and chaotic rhythm often predominate. The music reflects a kind of uncertainty with the truth and order of things and in an almost iconoclastic way many modern composers radically reinterpret harmony, melody, and rhythm. Much modern art also bespeaks this “relativistic” cosmology.

So there is a quick tour of how cosmology and music are linked. Our Church is very old and we have lived through many shifts in cosmology. Our music reflects this journey. Below are two videos that illustrate the music of the spheres and the art of the fugue.

This first Video represents the “music of the spheres wherein the ancients saw the planets and stars sweeping though the heavens and each sounding a musical tone that added up to a beautiful celestial harmony. This cosmology is beautifully reflected in the Renaissance polyphony of the Church. This piece is Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium and is translated: “O great mystery and wondrous sacrament that animals would see the birth of Christ. O blessed Virgin whose womb merited to carry Jesus Christ. Alleluia!” Listen and imagine the planets sweeping through the heavens in celestial harmony!

This video is of a Fugue in D Major by JS Bach (BWV 532.2). Notice how the organist announces the main theme in her right hand. The left hand answers, then the feet. The basic theme is then taken through a series of “mathematical” progressions. The fugue reflected the cosmology of the day which saw the planets as sweeping out an ellipse (not a perfect circle) around the sun in a kind of  mathematical perfection and progression: a Bach fugue in the sky! If you’ve never seen a fine organist play get ready for an experience. It is said that the organist is the greatest virtuoso and you’ll see why as our lovely and gracious organist shows forth the incredible skill needed to play the great Bach organ works. Her hands and feet will amaze you as they fly through the notes, never missing one!