True Grit

My post this week is tied to a film I'm behind the curve in discovering:  True Grit.    God's Gonna Cut You Down (lyrics) and Leaning On The Everlasting Arms (lyrics) are the songs whose lyrics frame this film, the former through the film's website, the latter as the credits roll.  God's Gonna... can be played at the right.  Leaning can be heard on YouTube.

          The wicked flee when none pursueth... 

So begins the film with a half quote of Proverbs 28:1.  So begins the story of Mattie Ross and her pursuit of justice for her innocently slain father.  Mattie Ross stands for all those who seek justice and right relationship, indeed:  for all of us.  Sometimes our desire for justice becomes so strong, we pursue it as if we were God.  As Maggie does.  If the wicked flee, then we pursue.  With determination and grit we give notice to those who cheat, lie, steal, oppress, and victimize that sooner or later, God will cut you down.  Of course, by God we mean us.  God sometimes takes too long. God appears too willing to let the wicked prosper.  Some find that the lyrics of God's Gonna Cut You Down give a literal echo to their pursuit of justice.  Others might find the lyrics distasteful, a limping metaphor at best.  Both seek justice and a restoration of right relationship:  here and now.

Mattie Ross - Production Still
Author Unknown
The lyrics framing True Grit are challenging.  When Mattie finally reaches the end of her pursuit of justice:  she is knocked off her feet into a pit and bitten by a snake.  (A biblical image if there ever was one!)  It is easy to apply this toward the violent pursuit of justice.  The hangings and multiple shootings in the film suggest this.  (View a commentary here.)  But, could it be that the very pursuit of justice and the good returns us to Eden?  That the pursuit of justice and right relationship is by itself biting off more from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil than we can chew?
The full quote from Proverbs is:  The wicked flee when none pursueth, but the righteous are bold as a lion.  This is not a call to pursue the wicked and enforce justice.  It is a piece of wisdom saying that the wicked are forever looking over their shoulder, even when there is nothing there, but that the just can stand before God and others confident and sure. 

Leaning On The Everlasting Arms
True Grit Production Still - Author Unknown
True Grit suggests that no one can stand firm when good and evil are concerned.  No one can make a claim to be righteous.  Every character in this film finds themselves pulled down, dismounted, or knocked off their feet.  Every character falls, even in the very pursuit of justice.  The only innocent "character", the only one who finds Eden's fruit to be a treat, is Maggie's horse:  prone in the end, sacrificed to restore her to life.

The final lyrics framing this film are filled with mystery.  Leaning on the everlasting arms is all that even the righteous can hope for.  This is a challenging message for one whose vocation seeks justice and peace.  I do not find this vocation challenged, but the message is that God's peace is only found when we are carried, wounded.  Are we all Maggie?  Could it be that the best justice we can hope to find is when we are wounded, and in need of healing and redemption?  In need of mercy?

I consider the Sacred Heart.  The only one of us who could rightly claim innocence in the pursuit of goodness, justice, and right relationship found himself wounded.  How can it be different for those of us who, like Maggie, are children of Eve?


Firework II: The Video

Ever play the game of "If Only?"  I bet you know how it goes.  If only I were thin, then I would be lovable.  If only I had hair and was a normal kid, then I would be lovable.  If only I did what my neighbors and friends thought was cool, then I would be lovable.  If only I were straight?  If only I could change this one thing about myself...

From a decidedly secular source, we hear a response to this question that is surprisingly, radically Christian.  (Watch the video here, be inspired by the lyrics.)  This song and video is inspiring to me, not just because it has a good beat and is empowering, but because it is so profoundly Dehonian.  There is something here to reflect on in prayer.  (And, as a Catholic, I was surprised to see such a profound statement of the value of all human life from such a mainstream source:  did anyone else notice the fireworks coming from the unborn child?)

4th of July - 2010 - Photo By Author
The question is not "If only?"  For Fr. Dehon the starting place in our relationship to God was his love for us.  As we are.  And that is just the start.  There is no need to change who we are to receive God's love.  Stay with that.  It is hard for us to hear.  We are so used to people who try to change a little bit here, or a little bit there in an attempt to help us fit in, to make us lovable.  It is worth writing and reading a second time.  There is no need to change who we are to receive God's love.

The question is not whether God loves us as we are.  The question is:  how do we respond to God's love and be the person, the firework, that we were meant to be?  As a Dehonian, it is my life's calling to learn how to do that, to witness to that, or, to use the language we Dehonians use:  to make my life an offering to reflect the great richness of love contained in the Heart of Christ.

I'm reminded of a woman I knew who was overweight and thought she was ugly.  Because of this, she had a tough time accepting the fact she was going to be a beautiful bride.  She resigned herself to being a "Plus Bride".  (!)  Who decided that a such a "special" adjective is needed, anyway?  (Not God, that's for sure.)  Of course, the message is clear:  lovable brides are not plus sized.  Well, she got over it and rocked the reception!  My favorite moment was when she took to the dance floor with her new husband as a song began to boom, both hands joyfully raised in the air.  Talk about booming and even brighter than the moon!  (Even the moon was sick and pale with grief...)  I enjoyed simply basking in the light of her witness to the beautiful person and firework God had made. 

Moments such as that, and videos such as Firework, are excellent reminders that every person is original and not to be replaced.  Both invite us to consider the fundamental dignity of the human person.  (For more on this:  see previous post.)

There are two things about the video which give me pause, which I guess is another way of saying that they give me something to think and pray about.

First of all, and most importantly, I noticed the boy shoving an adult man twice his size to protect his mother and sister from violence.  That is an inspiring scene for a video, but in reality it is very dangerous.  Anyone in a similar situation who sees this video:  let it inspire you to find a way to intervene that doesn't put yourself at risk of getting hurt.  There are adults you can trust.  Seek out a trusted teacher, minister, nurse, or doctor.  Simply to talk to them takes great courage.  They know that and will find a way to help you that keeps you as safe as possible.

Two other scenes provoked a great deal of discussion among my friends and colleages.  For me, the scenes are related to each other:  the young woman joining her friends in the pool, and the two young men kissing on the dance floor.  For both the woman and young men I'm worried that the potential for finding their firework might get lost in conformity. 

I saw the young woman as being confident enough in herself not to care what others think.  She chose not to conform by ignoring what her peers might think and jumping in the pool.  I think that is good and holy.  In a related way, I acknowledge those women who choose not to conform by refusing to be objectified.  A woman I work with put it this way:  "So, what, I'm only liberated and free if I show my body to everybody?"  In the end, I think it is the mark of good art when contrasting points of view are surfaced. 

In a like manner, the two young men kissing prompted much disscussion, and I've spent some time reflecting about that scene.  Nobody should conform by hiding or denying the person God created them to be.  This video captures that well.  There are too many young men and women who commit suicide because they are constantly told there is something wrong with them, that something is broken, that are are loveable if only

The danger is a society that tells them that a dance floor hook up will satisfy their need to love and be loved.  I can't help it.  I was raised in South Dakota, with what many would call old fashioned values.  Heck, I'm a Catholic.  It doesn't matter if it is two men, two women, or a woman and a man:  bodies are to be reverenced and belong to a person who deserves dignity, not being treated like a piece of meat.  Too often, that is what the dance floor becomes:  the proverbial "meat market."  And, it doesn't matter who the couple is, the true firework of sex is the result, just as is shown so well in the video:  a baby about to be born, sparks everywhere, lighting up the room, and saying to the world:  I am here, I am a firework of God.

Regarding both scenes of the video, I am reminded of the words of a priest I once heard:  God created us, and God doesn't create junk.  So, let's not reduce a person to their junk.  In fact:  it isn't junk, and has a purpose:  to produce the firework of life.


Firework I: The Lyric

Blue Fireworks by Neurovelho

First, I was inspired by the lyrics to this song.  Then, I noticed it climb Billboard to the number one position.  Finally, Firework got me thinking about French history, the Catechism, Fr. Dehon, and the Sacred Heart.  No, really.

The first job of Fr. Dehon was at St. Quentin.  Not the prison, but the town in northern France.  At the time, roughly 140 years ago, the town was in the throws of the industrial revolution, textile factories.  The work day:  12 hours (minimum), seven days a week.  (Children would get a break, and only have to work half a shift.  They got to start full-time at about age 15, and they often did;  their family needed the cash.  Pensions, worker's comp, health insurance:  nope, nada, uh-uh.  If you were crushed by the textile machines, the factory didn't even offer to help bury your body.  Don't even start to think about equal pay for equal work.  Life was pretty dismal.  On the plus side, there were plenty of bars and brothels in town to provide, uhm, distractions of all sorts.  Conditions were pretty much the same throughout the industrialized Western world.

What on earth does this have to do with going boom, boom, boom, like a firework or the firework-like heavy base beat to this song?  Right about this time, Pope Leo 13 had enough of how workers were being treated, and decided the Church should break its silence.  (By the way:  the Church was silent and very worried that any talk of worker's and/or human rights would appear similar to some words by a guy named Marx.)  Anyway, Pope Leo asked Fr. Dehon, personally, to preach his encyclicals (fancy word for letter) about the rights of workers.  Their words were a boom that caught attention.

Basically, the Church began to hear the screams and preach that people were not meant to drift through the wind like a discarded plastic bag.  Their lives shouldn't be a house of cards, human lives should not get buried six feet under the needs of the marketplace.  Their needs and interests are important.  Their families and relationships are important.  Their commitments to neighbor, community, and God are important. 

Why?  For the first time in response to industrialization, she began to articulate principles of justice and speak out.  People, each individual man, woman, and child, are not things.  A person is someone.  People are capable of knowing and loving themselves and freely entering into relationship with others, and into relationship with God.  The dignity and worth of the human person isn't in some generic qualities we all have, it is in the unique qualities each person has as a creation of God.  We have some something unique to offer that nobody else can.  Though these principals are certainly not exclusive to Catholics, I'm paraphrasing Number 357 of the Catholic Catechism here, not the lyrics to the song.  It can be difficult to tell the difference.

Fr. Dehon's devotion to the Sacred Heart picked up on that last part.  Simply put, God wants us to live in a world where we can respond by being that unique person, by offering our unique self back to God and to neighbor.  That person, that response, is meant to light up the sky.  That is the firework the Creator intended and loves to see.

Or, in better words:

           ...there's still a chance for you...
          'Cause there's a spark in you.
          'Cause baby, you're a firework
          Come on, show 'em what you're worth.

(Next Tuesday:  Firework II.)


Country Strong

          Cause I'm country strong
          Hard to break:  like the ground I grew up on.

I haven't had a chance to see the movie.  I will see it, for two reasons.  I enjoy almost every genre, but being from Dakota country:  country music is the music of my people.  Secondly, I'm often entertained when actors I enjoy suddenly display a talent I never knew they possessed.  Gweneth Paltrow, somewhere, found field cred!  She sings country music with all the heart, soul, and earthiness of someone born and raised with the Opry.  But, this blog isn't about singing the praises of country music and rural life.  (Though there are such praises to sing.)  This blog is about the crossroads of music, lyrics, and fatih.  

Read the lyric.  Hear the beginning of the song on the playlist on the right.  Watch Gweneth.

Photo by Georg Slickers
What is powerful about the above lyric isn't what is said, so much as what is happening in its creation:  reflection, imagination, experience, and implications.  This sounds like prayer to me.  The singer finds herself in a situation where she feels like she is breaking, and makes an imaginative leap.  Break.  I'm breaking.  Farm land is broken for planting.  Farm land is hard to break.  I'm like that land.  Life might be tough, but I'm tough to break.

This is prayer at its creative, imaginative, metaphoric best!  To link what is going on in our heart and soul to what we see, smell, hear, touch, and taste.  If you think it may be a bit faddish to get tips for prayer from the example of country song lyrics:  the imaginative leap the singer takes is similar to another we know well.  When Jesus was having his last meal with friends, he looked down at the food, took the bread, blessed it, and broke it.  This bread is my body, broken for you.

What is going on with you right now?  Do you soar like an eagle?  Skip like a rock?  Move with the wind?  Do you burn like fire?  Are you stretched like a rubbar band?  Broken like glass?  A content kitten full of cream? 

Country Strong is a call to spend some time making imaginative connections.  A call to spend time in prayer.

Metaphores be with you!


Hanukkah Blessings

Source:  www.kochivibe.com
Artist Unknown

To enjoy this wonderful song:  gaze to the right and click "play".  Read the lyrics. 

For years, this catchy song has held pride of place in my Christmas Playlist.  Always in the top three of songs to play, it speaks of ancient traditions in ways fresh and new.  I like that.
I also like to celebrate Christmas by tipping my hat to the faith and traditions that Jesus would have been celebrating this time of year.  Jesus would have been remembering how, thanks to God, one day's worth of lamp oil kept the temple alight for eight days.  Striking, isn't it, how easily the lyrics of this song relate to Christmas?  God lifting us out of darkness.  Light and peace coming to a world that often finds itself in darkness and anxiety.  Freedom from slavery, from sin.  Taking darkness and casting joy.  God exceeding our plans and expectations.

These lyrics strike me in a different way each year.  This year, I'm questioning the temptation to let Christmas be December 25.  Come the 26th, it is too easy to let "normal" life resume.  Night after night, one by one, the candles are set alight.  Maybe joy and light are like that.  Maybe light, freedom, and peace require more than frenzied weeks of preparation for one night and day.  (After all, it is the twelve days of christmas, isn't it?)
I don't know about you, but I feel called to continue enjoying the lights of Christmas.  I'm perfectly willing to let the jingle bells, TV shows, and the noise of Christmas pass.  After one day, I've had my fill.  But, let the lights linger.  Nature supplies dark evenings that allow me to reflect on an ornamented tree that is a sign of God's activity in the world, bringing light to darkness.  There is an invitation in our very orbit about the sun to turn off our overhead electric lightbulb suns, let nature's darkness be, and let the natural light of candles cast their light. 

God is at work in the darkness around us.  God turns the fear and darkness in our lives into mystery, and -with time- illumination and joy.  Reflecting on such things takes more than a day.  It takes repition. 

Twelve days of Christmas?  Then it isn't even half over! 

I hope you have only begun to see the light!


Silent Night

For a refresher, you can find the lyrics to Silent Night here.   To listen, look to the right and click "play".

Have you ever have a Christmas song that ...just ...gets ...on ...your ...nerves?  That one carol that rubs you the wrong way?  A Christmas song that even Stevie Nicks can't fix?  I usually reflect on songs I have a postive response to, but sometimes it is worth reflecting on lyrics that provoke a strong negative reaction.  Silent Night is my yearly dose of fingernails on a chalkboard.

The lyric is just so much wishful thinking!  Like a mirage, it is an image of what we wish the birth of Jesus was like:  a lush image that, ultimately, is not rooted in the reality of incarnation.  Calm and bright?  Tender and mild?  Heavenly peace?  Silent radiant beams of glory?

Give me a break!  First of all, I was raised in farm and ranch country.  Mangers and stables are NOT silent and peaceful.  Sheep are neither clean nor quiet.  If Jesus' first bed looked like our popular, rustic, and ultimately romantic images:  well, let's just say that stable hay is a less than sanitary choice of bedding for a newborn. Secondly, the lives of too many people look like the reality of what stables are.  I think of the lives I've met as a Priest of the Sacred Heart:  at risk children, immigrants, victims of abuse, those struggling to find a place in society, workers concerned for their economic future.

Battle Of Shanghai Baby - Retouched
Photo By Bellhalla;  Original by Office Of Emergency Management
I can't help but believe that Christ's incarnation was more, well, carnal.  That is the word we use:  incarnation.   We are talking about taking on flesh, of choosing a life that, all too often for far too many, means suffering.  Pain.   

Was the night of Christ's birth a silent night?  Did Mary smile down upon a peacefully sleeping baby?  We wish that for newborns, but that image is not incarnate.  

I ask you:  what is the reaction of babies who find themselves in the last place one would choose for a child?  And, I believe that Fr. Leo Dehon would ask us all:  if this a season of light and redemption, what is our response to a world too often filled with darkness, cries, and screams?


Thank You For Loving Me

Read the lyrics.  Watch the video on YouTube.  Listen by clicking "play" on the playlist to the right.

Every once in awhile, even celibates contemplate marriage.  At least this one does. (Especially when a great picture of a married couple arrives in my email.)  Marriage reveals something of the mystery of Christ's love for us.  Well, not quite.  Maybe it would be more accurate to say marriages:  marriages are that window into Christ's love.  I'm not talking about some abstract ideal.  What reveals divine Love is actual marriages.  The marriages of family, friends, the couple at the next table, in the next pew.  You get my drift.

What makes this song by Bon Jovi stand out is that it isn't about the usual youthful fare that mistakes desire, longing, or fire for love.  The love in Thank You... is centered on commitment and action.  Sure, there is an element of passion in seeing a new sky in blue eyes and having one's dreams and world collapse in the gaze.  (It is a bit scary to think that this might reveal something of God's love:  that God might want us that completely.)

Photo by Mary Lou Griffith
What makes this song stand out is that the passion is an undercurrent for a deeper, more lasting commitment.  In this lyric, love is an action:  it reveals what is hidden, it resuscitates, is for better and worse, it rescues, risks, and gives wings.  Of course, the video centers on a young couple, but it doesn't stay there.  It simply can't.  This kind of love is best revealed through the wisdom and experience that only time offers.  The young couple's hope is fully found in the commitment of the mature couple.  (And, isn't the group of nuns that the bride passes on the way to the wedding an interesting visual choice?  Are they merely a prop on Roman streets, or is the video suggesting that this sort of love is, in its own way, found in the commitment of celibates to their life of service to others?)

Maybe when we next see a mature couple dancing together, sharing laughter, eye's locked together, we are getting a glimpse of Divine Love.  (As a Dehonian, I would call it a glimpse of the love contained for us in the Sacred Heart of Christ.)  At such times, there is no choice other than to say to God:  "Thank you for loving me..."