MLK Prayer

Fr Josh.

After I finished some work today, I took some quiet time and wrote a ‘prayer for racial harmony’. I sent it to a priest friend, Fr. Josh Johnson, and he graciously sent it back to me as a prayer, in rap. Something I could never do! He graciously gave me permission to share it.

O God, Lover of the human race,
we raise our hearts to plead this grace:
heal our division, outpouring reconciliation
in homes, neighborhoods, and our nation;
for Jesus Christ, your Son, our brother
came living, proclaiming: love one another
tearing down walls of race and creed,
tending the fallen, all those in need
of mercy’s balm, healing compassion
understanding, generosity without ration.
So send now your Spirit, that unifying Gift
who bears salvation, mending every rift
that your Church only uplift and inspire,
casting out upon earth your Refiner’s fire
only to your glory, O Father and Son,
with Spirit blest: Thy will be done.

MLK and the Cappadocian Fathers

Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese
and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Re-post from 2014

I am a huge fan of the scholar of religion, Dr. Albert Raboteau, whose work on African slave religion in America had a deep impact on me in my grad school years. When I taught a course in the history of Christian thought/culture at Florida State University, I would use his collection of essays  on the history of the African-American religious experience, A Fire in the Bones, to think about the intersection of faith and culture. He is a convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and you can read the enlightening story of his journey to Orthodoxy here.

Professor Raboteau

In honor of MLK Day, I will share with you a selection from an essay he wrote on Martin Luther King.


Martin Luther King Day memorials tend to celebrate King the Civil Rights leader, stressing his activism on behalf of interracial equality and reconciliation. We slight his emphasis on the link between racism and poverty and so neglect King the advocate of the poor. At the time of his assassination King was participating in the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ struggle to achieve a decent wage while simultaneously planning the Poor People’s Campaign. King’s sermons, speeches and writings echo ancient Christian teachings on poverty and wealth, which may still serve as a resource for the contemporary struggle to overcome economic inequality. He was a 20th century exemplar of a very old tradition.

Princeton Historian Peter Brown argues convincingly that “a revolution in the social imagination occurred between 300 and 600 C.E. closely associated with the rise to power of the Christian bishop. For the Christian bishop was held by contemporaries to owe his position in no small part to his role as the guardian of the poor. He was the ‘lover of the poor’ par excellence.” The 4th century bishops, St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus elucidated this novel virtue and its centrality to the community life of Christians. In 369 a severe drought followed by famine prompted Basil to preach a sermon on the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:16-18), the man who decides to tear down his barns and build new ones to hold his surplus grain. “But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” Basil elaborates:

“Who, then, is greedy? — The one who does not remain content with self sufficiency. Who is the one who deprives others? The one who hoards what belongs to everyone. Are you not greedy? Are you not one who deprives others? You have received these things for stewardship, and have turned them into your own property! Is not the one who tears off what another is wearing called a clothes-robber? But the one who does not clothe the naked, when he was able to do so — what other name does he deserve? The bread that you hold on to belongs to the hungry; the cloak you keep locked in your storeroom belongs to the naked; the shoe that is moldering in your possession belongs to the person with no shoes; the silver that you have buried belongs to the person in need. You do an injury to as many people as you might have helped with all these things!”

Basil enacted the Christian social vision he preached by establishing a hospice and soup kitchen for the famine victims and later developed a large complex to house the poor, tend the sick, and where the poor who could work were employed or trained in various trades. Around 369, St. Gregory of Nyssa preached on almsgiving: “Do not look down on those who lie at your feet, as if you judged them worthless. Consider who they are, and you will discover their dignity: they have put on the countenance of our Savior; for the one who loves humanity has lent them his own face, so that through it they might shame those who lack compassion and hate the poor.” In a sermon on the Last Judgment scene in Matthew 25:31-46, in which care for the poor is the standard of judgment “for in as much as you did it [or did it not] to the least of these you did it to me.” St. Gregory of Nazianzus warns that we should fear condemnation if we “have not ministered to Christ through those in need … Let us take care of Christ, then, while there is still time: let us visit Christ in his sickness, let us give to Christ to eat, let us clothe Christ in his nakedness, let us do honor to Christ in his needy ones, in those who lie on the ground here before us this day.” .

In 1956, King preached a sermon that echoed Basil’s condemnation of greed: “God never intended for a group of people to live in superfluous, inordinate wealth while others live in abject, deadening poverty. God intends for all of His children to have the basic necessities of life, and He has left in this universe enough and to spare for that purpose. So I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth.” In 1962, King preached, “I see hungry boys and girls in this nation and other nations and think about the fact that we spend more than a million dollars a day storing surplus food. And I say to myself ‘I know where we can store that food free of charge – in the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of people in our nation and in this world who go to bed hungry at night.'”

In 1961, preaching on the same text from Luke as Basil, King linked racism and poverty, “You see this man was foolish because the richer he became materially the poorer he became spiritually…. This man was a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on others… Now this text has a great deal of bearing on our struggle in race relations… For what is white supremacy but the foolish notion that God made a mistake and stamped an eternal stigma of inferiority on a certain race of people; what is white supremacy but the foolishness of believing that one race is good enough to dominate another race?…And there was a final reason why this man was foolish. He failed to realize his dependence on God…because he felt that he was the creator instead of the creature.”


Aborting the Image

Maria Gravida The Pregnant Virgin (circa 1410), Hungarian National Gallery.

Looking ahead to 1/22, here are a few spontaneous theological thoughts I wrote several years ago on the unspeakable crime of abortion. While abortion is an irreducibly complex issue, faith provides a fundamental vision that should illumine a Christian approach to the debate.

+ + +

From the moment of conception, the life of every human being is to be respected in an absolute way because man is the only creature on earth that God has “wished for himself” and the spiritual soul of each man is immediately created by God; his whole being bears the image of the Creator. Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. —  Vatican Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation

I have always found this theological argument to a compelling way of thinking about the Church’s approach to abortion. It is, you might say, a contemplative approach that requires openness to seeing the grandeur of human life at its very beginning. Aquinas defines contemplation as a “simple gaze on truth,” an intuitive grasp that precedes cold analysis.

Seeing in this instance means to become aware of the truth that, in the “event” of conception, God creates ex nihilo, “out of nothing,” a singularly unique, immortal and spiritual soul. In this act of creation, God imprints the “stamp” of His image in our clay and transforms a new instance of life into a new person. The Divine Persons beget human persons, a face made to behold a Face.

Every newly conceived human is an absolutely new creative event, something utterly novel, singular and incommensurable. Literally a new creation. This immediate divine action, that takes place unseen in the body of the mother, is a recapitulation of the beginning of creation when God called all things into existence out of nothingness. In a mother’s womb, God re-utters the words He spoke at the genesis of human life. No, better, at conception the mother’s womb becomes present to God’s timeless Trinitarian resolve, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26).

Every human being is a microcosm, a “little cosmos,” for whom God created the entire cosmos. This is the sense behind the ancient Jewish proverb found in the Talmud:

Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.

One could also say that the womb of a mother, as with the Virgin Mary, is a temple in which God draws so near to creation that He leaves behind the imprint of His image in our clay. Jesus Christ, the Incarnation of God in the womb of Mary, is simply the in extremis, “in the extreme” of God’s repeated act of creating each of us in His image and likeness.* Think of the intimate proximity between the divine Archetype and His image. We are the “apple of His eye” (Psalm 17:8). God becoming human (John 1:14) spotlights, seals, crowns, elevates and consummates the infinite dignity of every human life, as the eternal Image of the Father (Col. 1:15) joins to Himself forever His created image. Magnificent! This is why whatever we do to His image, He considers done to Him (cf Gen. 9:6; Prov. 19:17; Matt. 25:40).

Pope Benedict put this poetically: “Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.” In the woman’s womb, regardless of the circumstances of conception (as God can even bring good out of evil), God wills into existence a new and wholly unique person whom He has thought of – dreamt of – from all eternity. God creates each new person as an unrepeatable “word” spoken to creation, tasked with a specific mission, and calls each to union with Himself in an existence that will never cease. As the Vatican document above says it, once conceived each man and woman “remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator.”

This is the “white hot core” of what is assaulted in an abortion, which is carried out beneath the rapt gaze of the Father.

How unique is His love for each human life! “O Good One, who so cares for every one of us, as if you cared for him only” (St. Augustine).

Pregnancy is not just a biological datum, a genetic mass, but a fathomless mystery that contains the singularly focused attention of the infinite God who loves every person into a new existence. A person who alone, in all of creation, is capax Dei, “capable of [union with] God.” But only in a sacramental universe, seen as shot through with the action and presence of God, is such a perspective comprehensible. Yes this is the universe Catholics are called to discover, to uncover, to reveal to the rest of humanity so that all can see the glory of God teeming with splendor at the very beginning of the story of every human person. Be in awe of every human being, qui conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto, “who was conceived by the Holy Spirit” from all eternity as the masterpiece of the Father, created for the Son to be His mystic Body to the eternal glory of the Triune majesty unto the ages of ages. Amen.

St. John Paul II:

I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. To the same Father and to his mercy you can with sure hope entrust your child. With the friendly and expert help and advice of other people, and as a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone’s right to life. Through your commitment to life, whether by accepting the birth of other children or by welcoming and caring for those most in need of someone to be close to them, you will become promoters of a new way of looking at human life.

*Θ caveat: though I wish to emphasize the radical continuity of God-becoming-man with our being created in the divine image, the Incarnation is a wholly unique event, as Jesus alone is God-in-the-flesh, His union of natures in one divine Person being different not only in degree but in kind from that all of other human beings. We are not pantheists.

Bearing Baptismal fire

Parents and Godparents, this light is entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly. This child of yours has been enlightened by Christ. She is to walk always as a child of the light. May she keep the flame of faith alive in her heart. When the Lord comes, may she go out to meet Him with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom. – Rite of Baptism for Children, §100

The Church does not dispense the sacrament of baptism in order to acquire for herself an increase in membership but in order to consecrate a human being to God and to communicate to that person the divine gift of birth from God. ― Hans Urs von Balthasar

A dear friend shared with me this absolutely remarkable music video by the very Catholic contemporary sacred music composer and performer, Audrey Assad.

The video, accompanied by the song, Be Thou My Vision, is an allegory of the perilous journey of life from baptismal innocence to eternal life. It is filled with rich symbols of faith, but the most prominent one is the “flame of faith” that is lit at baptism and entrusted to our parents/godparents when we are children, but then to us as adults.

The key, according to the baptismal rite, is to keep the flame burning throughout life. Life, however, is filled with innumerable distractions and threats to that flame; to the resolute journey toward the Kingdom of God in the Age to Come. Both colorful and dark threats confront God’s pilgrim people, as we are tempted by both seductive beauties and fearful horrors to abandon the Way that leads to life and allow the flame to dim and die.

Audrey reminds us, throughout this allegorical tale, that the most important element for “success” on the journey is prayer. Listen carefully to the song’s words that accompany the woman’s journey, addressed directly to God. Faithfulness is not possible apart from this divine-human colloquy of personal prayer. God wishes to walk with us along the Way, but always awaits our responsive opening to His offer; awaits our unfolding in prayer like flowers to the Sun above the canopy.

The woman’s final act before fully entering the spacious land of Paradise is to cast the fire, the whole of her life of faith, into the sacrificial Wood by which the whole cosmos was redeemed. “The Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done” (1 Cor. 3:13).

Watch when you have a free 4 minutes. Lyrics below.

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;
naught be all else to me, save that thou art –
thou my best thought, by day or by night;
waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.

Be thou my wisdom, and thou my true word;
I ever with thee and thou with me, Lord.
Thou my great Father; I thy true son,
thou in me dwelling and I with thee, one.

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise;
thou mine inheritance, now and always;
thou and thou only first in my heart,
high King of heaven, my treasure thou art.

High King of heaven, my victory won,
may I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heaven’s sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
still be my vision, O Ruler of all.

Ever Ancient, Ever New


Sunset taken from our backyard 1/9/17

As I was watching this sunset, I sang the 1800 year old Christian hymn, Phos Hilaron, “O Radiant Light,” that was composed to accompany the liturgy that ends the day. I learned it years ago. All three stanzas sing to Christ, who is the Light of Light. It’s a remarkable thought, to realize I am singing words that have been sung for that many years by Christians all over the world. That’s the gift of liturgy’s enduring character.

O radiant light, O sun divine
Of God the Father’s deathless face,
O image of the light sublime
That fills the heav’nly dwelling place.

O Son of God, the source of life,
Praise is your due by night and day;
All happy lips must raise the strain
Of your proclaimed and splendid name.

Lord Jesus Christ, as daylight fades,
As shine the lights of eventide,
We praise the Father with the Son,
The Spirit blest and with them one.

The Baptism of the Lord, and Mrs. Neal singing

“Baptism of Christ,” Andrea del Verrocchio, 1475, taken from

Today is the Feast of the Lord’s Baptism in the river Jordan. It’s a feast of great theological density that, among other things, celebrates the first “public” manifestation of the mystery of the Holy Trinity to Israel.

As the spotless Lamb of God wades into the muddy waters of the Jordan river, the voice of the Father thunders with joy over his beloved Son in whom He is well-pleased. St. Mark offers us the most graphic image of the heavens being “torn open” as the Spirit descends to anoint the Body of Jesus for his mission to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the jubilee “year of favor” from the Lord. The dove of peace Noah once released from the Ark has finally returned to herald the coming of the Prince of Peace into our violent world to be slain.

In the Eastern Church this feast is called the Theophany, the “manifestation of God.” Jesus, by stepping into the filthy river waters, shocks John by accepting the baptism of repentance. The Author of Life, the new Joshua, is soaked in the waters that empty into the Dead Sea in order to turn the Jordan river back on its course (Psalm 114:3; Jos. 4:18). Jesus reveals to us a God ready not only to pardon humanity’s sins, but to “take away” the “sins of the world” as a scapegoat Lamb (cf John 1:29). How fitting, then, that the Spirit’s first action after Jesus’ baptism is to drive Him into the desert to face the ancient Tempter of humanity (Lev. 16:21-22; Mark 1:12).

By stepping into the sin-laden waters of the Jordan, Jesus sanctifies all waters, rendering them capable of communicating the cleansing flood of God’s limitless mercy. The baptistry in the 6th century A.D Lateran basilica in Rome has an inscription that extols the power of these waters in which we have been baptized:

Here is born in Spirit-soaked fertility
a brood destined for another City,
begotten by God’s blowing
and borne upon this torrent
by the Church, their virgin mother.
Reborn in these depths they reach for heaven’s realm,
the born-but-once unknown by felicity.
This spring is life that floods the world,
the wounds of Christ its awesome source.
Sinner, sink beneath this sacred surf
that swallows age and spits up youth.
Sinner, here scour sin away down to innocence,
for they know no enmity who are by
one font, one Spirit, one faith made one.
Sinner, shudder not at sin’s kind and number,
for those born here are holy.

Every time you dip your fingers in the holy water font to receive a fresh splash of grace, remember how they first got holy.

During the Mass of the Baptism of the Lord in 2015, my wife Patti, who was then the music director at St. James Major parish in New Orleans, sang a duet of the Negro spiritual, Wade in the Water, with local musical artist Cornelius “CC” Celestine. I caught them rehearsing before Mass in the church stairwell, and quickly pressed record on my phone. One member of that parish once said to her, “You don’t sing with your vocal chords, you sing with your soul.” And an African American woman, who is also a jazz, blues and gospel singer, once told her, “Every time you sing the ‘Lamb of God,’ I am converted all over again.” That is her gift, and I try to teach like she sings. When she finds a parish to serve in again, they will discover it as well.


Word Made Flesh, in rhyme

“O eternal, infinite Good! O mad lover! And you have need of your creature? It seems so to me, for you act as if you could not live without her, in spite of the fact that you are Life itself, and everything has life from you and nothing can have life without you. Why then are you so mad? Because you have fallen in love with what you have made!” — St. Catherine of Siena

“The Self-revealing of the Word is in every dimension – above, in creation; below, in the Incarnation; in the depth, in Hell; in the breadth, throughout the world. All things have been filled with the knowledge of God.”― St. Athanasius of Alexandria

In many people Christ lives the life of the Eucharistic Host. Our life is a sacramental life. This Host life is like the Advent life, like the life of the Child in the womb, the Child in the swaddling bands, the Christ in the tomb. It is a life of dependence upon creatures, of silence and secrecy, of hidden light. It is the life of a prisoner.” ― Caryll Houselander

And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly. God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.” ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“For me it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws. I am always astonished at the emphasis the Church puts on the body. It is not the soul she says that will rise but the body, glorified.” ― Flannery O’Connor

Here’s a poem I wrote last year on the Feast of Epiphany, reflecting on the wonder of the Incarnation. As I wrote it, its archaic language, coined words and uneven meter and rhyme were meant to communicate the unsettling, ancient-novel character of God becoming flesh. At least that was the idea!

It came to me after praying over this text by Fr Aidan Nichols, O.P.: “Christ is, then, the perfect art work because he is infinite meaning, life and being perfectly synthesised with finite form.”

O God enfleshed, ensoulèd,
The descending One of Three,
In Thyself, my image enfolded:
I adore, O stunning Trinity!

— Thou art revealed in Thine outpouring! —

All-Impregnating our aliving
In her, our nature’s fullest striving,
The Woman wrought most-bright
Virgin womb all-kindled, Alight
By unimaginably beautiful Light.

— Thou art all, by a crazed love, restoring! —

Lo! Thou art now a God humanly thriving,
Recklessly ordered whilst finitely diving
Down lowest, our Godded nature reviving;
A High God falling, madly self-depriving,
Risen Bridegroom, our flesh ever-wiving.


Yes, He Who Knows Us came to save us goners…