Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Big Week

Several times over the years, something good happened to me but also, thereby, several things in my life fell into place and I discerned God’s guidance over a period of time. Prior to the time when the blessing came, I struggled and felt badly that things aren’t going well. Likely, I also felt hurt about some aspect of the situation. Then when the blessing came, it occurred in a way so interestingly timed that I could affirm God’s providence---and, likely, a divine sense of humor.

This happened to me again this past week, after I’ve struggled with feelings of spiritual dryness and low-level discouragement for quite a while. (Some of my blog posts over the last couple years refer to these feelings, more than I realized.) I wish I could say that, from now on, I’ll trust God more consistently. At least I know the limits of my trust, confess my weakness to God, and continue to pursue spiritual disciplines while I’m feeling badly.

I’m being a little hard on myself, because part of my struggles stemmed from the deaths of my mother and my wife’s mother within a fourteen month period in 2012 and 2013. That pain will be ongoing. But still, I’m happy when “God’s serendipity” becomes clear, in my life and family members'  and friends’ lives.

This past week, I also got good medical tests results in response to a health scare. I'd had one symptom from a routine blood test, which was likely nothing but could have indicated something serious. My doctor wanted to be sure, so we did more tests. Now I have a clean bill of health. But, of course, this whole situation required four or five weeks to make appointments, get the tests done, and worst of all, to wait for the test results. One's mind spins crazy, "what if" scenarios.

While not secret, I never put all this on Facebook, because I’ve friends who really do have serious health problems, whereas I was only mired in anxious, “what if” thinking. The tricky thing about praising God for blessings is that, just as life is unfair for everyone but in different ways, so blessings and answered prayers don't happen the same way for each person, and that can cause sad feelings. I wanted to affirm God's goodness in public yet I didn't want to imply that God isn't good to my friends who are undergoing treatment.

When the possibility of a health situation arises, a person does think seriously: what if this is truly serious? We all have to face those situations, sooner or later; maybe this is the time. If so, a lot of life will change, both for ourselves but also our families.

I always love the story of the Ebenezer in 1 Samuel 7. The Philistines had defeated the Israelites years before in the same place (1 Samuel 4), but in this battle the Israelites prevailed. “Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah, and named it Ebenezer; for he said, ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us’” (1 Sam. 7:14). (That Hebrew word, transliterated "Eben ha-Ezer", means "stone of help").

I believe God helps us constantly and continually. We can’t always see it. Some people face situations in which it’s very difficult to see divine presence: the situation is just uniformly awful. But what a blessing when the light pops through the dark clouds and we get a sense of the divine presence. Then that blessing becomes a reminder to which we can look back, like a permanent indicator of God's help, and hopefully we can feel confident again.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Gott sei Dank, es ist Freitag

When I took German in college, way back in 1976 and 1977, that phrase "Thank God it's Friday" was the first thing we learned, which I think is funny. The prof wanted to break the ice with us, I suppose.

Sometimes I refer to that class to my own college classes. While our prof was very good, he tended to keep teaching after the designated end of the class. He wanted to finish his point, but the rest of us were putting our books away so we could get to the next class. I tell my own students about this, because I always end class on time, knowing that any more teaching that I'll do past "quitting time" won't be heard.

Sometimes I also refer to another college course, which I liked a lot less. It met three days a week in the mid-afternoon (3 to 4, I think), and that Friday afternoon class was hard to get to. Motivation to learn was low, so close to the school week's end. I grumbled that the prof took attendance, but now I see that the prof was smart to do that. Otherwise, since the course wasn't so compelling, the students might skip the Friday class.

Writing all this makes me look forward to teaching. The semester starts a month from today. Usually I have a period during the summer when I'm happy not to be teaching so that I've more time for other projects, but then by August I look forward to the semester again. This summer, though, I've consistently looked forward to the fall semester.

I've quoted this passage on this blog before. It's from Gloria Durka, The Teacher's Calling: A Spirituality for Those Who Teach (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2002), page 57, emphasis in text:

"Everything we do as teachers has moral implications. Through dialogue, modeling, practice and the assignment of best motive, a caring teacher nurtures the ethical idea. What we reflect to our students contributes to the enhancement of that ideal if we meet our students as they are and find something admirable in them. As a result of this confirmation, our students may find the strength to become even more admirable. We leave them with an image that is lovelier than the one they had of themselves. We do not need to establish a deep, lasting, time-consuming personal relationship with every student. What we must do is to be present to each student as she or he addresses us.

"In sum, to teach morally, we need to care."

In just a month, I'll be happy to meet a new group of students! Only one of my courses meets on Friday---and in the morning, "Gott sei Dank"!  

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Beloved Inner Joy: Bach's Cantatas for the 6th Sunday after Trinity

Onward to Bach’s cantatas for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, this coming Sunday. After this weekend, there are just 17 weeks in the liturgical year. Advent will begin before we know it!   

Bach's grave at St. Thomas' Church,
Leipzig (from classicfm.com)
There are two surviving cantatas for this Sixth Sunday: “Es ist das Heil uns kommen her” (BWV 9, “Salvation has come to us”), and “Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust” (BWV 170, “Contented rest, beloved inner joy”). Included on the CD (#32) is a motet attributed to Bach, “Der Gerechte kommt um” (“The righteous perish”). The photo is of an older woman in Llasa, Tibet.

In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner comments that, in BWV 9, Bach and his text provide “a narrative thread between reflections on the Law, man’s puny attempts to give up the ‘bad habit’ of sin (‘der Sünden Unart zu verlassen’) (No.2), his need for salvation and justification by faith (No.4), and the power of the Gospel to strengthen that faith, and finally his reliance on God to determine the hour of his death (No.6).” All the recitatives are sung by the bass, in order to provide continuity to this narrative thread. Gardiner describes in some detail how Bach takes serious and somewhat abstract theological subjects and writes in a way that is comforting to the listening and even “fun-loving” in his musical inventiveness.

For BWV 170, “Bach is searching for ways to insist on spiritual peace as the goal of life, and for patterns that will allow him to make passing references to sin and physical frailty.” The mood of the cantata, to me, is peaceful but pensive until the cheerful alto aria at the end. The text by Georg Christian Lehms uses the two lessons, Matt. 5:20-27 and Romn. 6:3-11, to depict the sinful, difficult world and the protection of Christ. Christ’s love, in turn, provides peace and joy and (a theme in both cantatas) a longing for Heaven’s rest. The thought of Heaven, in fact, gives us peace as we struggle through sin and difficulty.

I am dismayed to live further,
thus accept me, Jesus!
I cower before all sins,
let me find that dwelling place
where I myself am at peace.

The narrative thread of the first cantata, following our ordo salutis, the pattern of our salvation, may be abstract, but it is also the reality of our lives. The triune God's work on our behalf is the reality on which we place our trust and have confidence in our destiny. But we don't always feel deeply that reality; we're too weak, distracted, forgetful, sunk into our everyday pressures and regrets. How wonderful that Bach used his abilities to place that salvation-drama into music, to help people rely upon and trust the Lord. 

This summer I had a health scare, which I'll write about later. It was not an illness, it was one symptom that required a diagnostic test. But that meant a period of tremendous anxiety as I awaited test results. Now, with that worrisome time just past, I listened to BWV 170 with new interest. 

I am confident in my salvation, which means that I'm humble, happy, and relieved in God's vast love and mercy. I really do believe that, if I was facing certain and imminent death, I would be joyful to be soon with the Lord. But I'm also happy in my life which, right now, I've no desire to leave. So Bach's text, with its Weltschmertz and sorrow about sin, seems so different from the happiness and gratitude I feel about my life, loved ones, work, and daily pleasures.

As I say, I'll write more about this later. But I'm thinking about how we can look forward to Christ's promised rest while also loving the lives that we have. Actually, for me, music creates a kind of arc between this life and the life to come. Music helps me experience that "beloved inner joy" of the title. Bach did his work too well: wanting us to feel confident in God's salvation, he wrote music that makes me want to stick around this life as long as possible. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Those Franklins!

In our basement store room, my childhood stamp collection is stored in a box. I had fun with that hobby for a few ears, around when I was eleven or twelve. At that time, my parents and I shopped in the downtown St. Louis department stores, which now run together in my mind, but either Stix, Baer & Fuller or Famous Barr had a counter with collectible stamps for sale. Dad bought me an album and helped me pick out interesting stamps.

I liked then-recent stamps like the half-cent pictured here. In my album I had stamps of different amounts from a half-cent up to ten or twenty cents, and quite a few commemoratives. Dad was touched when he told me the story of the Four Chaplains, honored on a 1948 3-cent stamp. The half-cent had our founding father's balding, deep-eyed and placid expression familiar on the hundred-dollar bill.

Funny to think of the prices of things. A letter required a 5 cent stamp until 1968 when the price went up to 6 cents. When I was collecting, the first two U.S. stamps from 1847 were for sale for $50 and $125. Dad was generous with me but didn't want to spend that much money, and I don't blame him. At that time, $50 represented three or four major trips to the grocery store for our family of three. Today, if I wanted those 1847 stamps, they're each going for $500 and up on eBay. Now, that's also three or four major trips to the grocery! Get your Franklins ready.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Bread to the Hungry: Bach's Cantatas for the 1st and 2nd Sunday after Trinity

For the past nearly eight months, as part of a spiritual "journey" for the year, I’ve been listening to Bach’s sacred cantatas on the day (or more generally, the weekend) of the Sundays for which they were written. This is the big 56-CD set by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner; the cantatas were recorded as a "Bach Pilgrimage" during the 250th* anniversary year of Bach's death.

When my family and I were on vacation in June, I missed two Sundays and a special feast day (John the Baptist, which I discussed in yesterday’s post). I’m going to feel dissatisfied until I catch up, and so I’m listening to the cantatas for the First and Second Sundays after Trinity Sunday, which were June 22 and 29 this year. As it turns out, the two sets of cantatas have common themes.

Disc 27 has the cantatas for the first Sunday: “Die Elenden sollen essen” (BWV 75, “The meek shall eat”), “Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot” (BWV 39, “Deal thy bread to the hungry”), and “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort” (BWV 20, “O eternity, O word of thunder”).The CD photo is of a man from Ladakh, India. For the second Sunday (disc 28): “Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein” (BWV 2, “Ah, God, look down from heaven”), “Meine Seel erhebt den Herren” (BWV 10, “My soul magnifies the Lord”), and “Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes” (BWV 76, “The heavens declare the glory of God”). The cover photo is of a child from Kashmir.

Yesterday I mentioned that the Feast of John the Baptist creates a liturgical connection with the Annunciation in March and Christmas in December. Trinity Sunday marks the end of the first half of the Christian year in a lovely manner: we have worshipped Christ in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and at Pentecost we worshipped God the Holy Spirit who makes Christ forever present and loving in our lives. Concluding this portion of the liturgical year, we explicitly worship all three persons of the Trinity. We also transition to these Sundays after Pentecost (which will take us all the way to Advent) when we think about our Spirit-led Christian lives and how we can grow in the “fruit of the Spirit.” In the CD notes for the First Sunday cantatas, Gardiner notes that these are large-scale worships that build upon trinitarian themes. The three cantatas also are based on the Gospel lesson of Dives and Lazarus, so the music and texts consider good spiritual gifts: the love for other people that trumps the love for money.

Gardiner also writes that BWV 75 was Bach’s first cantata for Leipzig. Displaying his vast expertise in Bach, Gardiner comments that the score is even written on paper from Köthen, Bach's previous city.  The piece contrasts money and poverty, heaven and earth, the joy one finds in the Spirit instead of worldly accumulation. BWV 20, which is much more hellfire, focuses more upon God’s judgment toward those, like the coldhearted rich man of the Gospel lesson, who neglect God’s love and grace. BWV 39, which begins with a memorable and long chorus, has as its theme the need to care for the poor.

Moving to the Second Sunday after Trinity cantatas, I read in the CD notes that BWV 2 also has a theme of the plight of the poor, now within the overall context of the loneliness and affliction of the faithful. The biblical theme of refinement brightens the mood toward the end: suffering and persecution can, rightly understood, “purify” our faith as fire purifies precious metals. As obvious from its title, BWV 10 brings us back to Mary, whose Magnificat teaches the topsy-turvy priorities of God: the poor and lowly are exalted, the rich and powerful are not. Finally, BWV 76 reminds us of this mid-point in the liturgical year: as Gardiner writes, it is “the crossover from ‘the time of Christ’ (Advent to Ascension) to ‘the era of the church’ (the Trinity season dominated by the concerns of Christian believers living in the world without the physical presence of Christ but under the guidance of the Holy Spirit).” The conductor shows how the composer Heinrich Schütz (who wrote a motet with the same title: “Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes”) influenced Bach.

God's values challenge our values: the lowly and hurting are held in high esteem, while the successful and well-to-do risk losing their souls. It's hard not to think of people who are hurting in our current time: people on both sides of the Israel and Gaza conflict, immigrant children trying to get to and stay in the U.S., those who suffer amid the growing wealth disparity in the world, people are mourn the loss of loved ones on either or both of the Malaysian flights. How is God at work in our world? Where, indeed, is God, when tragedies are so great?

Matthew 25:31-46 answers the question "Where is God?" God, in God's triune fullness, is with the suffering and those in need. God calls us to be there, too. We ourselves may not be needful and meek, but we can stand beside those who are, and take their side.

The weeks after Pentecost are good times for us to freshly seek those spiritual gifts of love, kindness, generosity and others. As our hearts are changed, we respond with love and concern to those around us. That's always a small, good thing. We won't solve the world's big problems. But the love that we show---the way in which we seek to live according to God's priorities---can have an amazing reach.

(In the CD set, all English translations of Bach's texts are by Richard Stokes.)


* Out of curiosity, I looked up the word for "250th anniversary," and there really aren't terms as common as "bicentennial" and "sesquicentennial" that people would readily understand. Sestercentennial, semiquincentennial, bicenquinquagenary, and quarter-millennial are all possible terms. It seems easier just to say "250th anniversary."

Monday, July 21, 2014

Extol God's Love: Bach's Cantatas for the Feast of John the Baptist

Jacopo Pontormo, "The Birth of John the Baptist," 1526.  
While we were on vacation, I missed writing about Bach’s cantatas for the Feast of St. John the Baptist, which is June 24th. That date is three months after the Feast of the Annunciation, because in the Gospel story Gabriel told Mary that Elizabeth was six months pregnant with John, and also June 24th is six months before Christmas. As one source that I read indicates, the purpose is not to pinpoint exact dates but to interrelate these scriptural narratives in a liturgical way. This feast is also notable because it honors John’s birthday rather than (like nearly all other feast days) the day of the remembered person's death.

Bach wrote three cantatas for this day, “Ihr Menschen, rühmet Gottes Liebe” (BWV 167, “Ye mortals, extol God’s love”), “Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam” (BWV 7, “Christ our Lord came to the Jordan”), and “Freue dich, erlöste Schar” (BWV 30, “Rejoice, O ransomed throng”). The CD photo is of a smiling, bearded man from Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that in BWV 167, “[t]o illustrate the way prepared by John for Christ’s entry into the world (so fulfilling God’s ancient pledge), Bach inscribes a modulatory arc through the five movements of this cantata, curling downwards from G major via E minor to A minor, then up again to G.” A striking part of the cantata, which also considers Zechariah’s muteness and the pioneering quality of John’s ministry, is the duet between the alto and soprano in praise of God’s faithfulness.

The word of God does not deceive,
what He pledges, comes to pass.
What He promised in Paradise

so many hundreds of years ago

to our fathers,
 we have,
praise God, experienced.

Gardiner calls BWV 7 “is a monumental piece, especially its opening chorale fantasia, a stirring setting of Luther’s baptismal hymn with the melody in the tenors over a French overture for two oboes d’amore, solo violin and strings, replete with grandiloquent baroque gestures to suggest both the processional entrance of Jesus and the powerful flooding of the River Jordan.” In some sections the music depicts the movements of the water, in another the circling movements of the Holy Spirit dove above the waters. The text praises God for faithfulness to the ancient covenant with the ministry of John the Baptist and, now, the advent of the baptized Messiah. The final chorale:

The eye can only see the water, as humans pour it,

only Faith understands
the power of the blood of Jesus Christ,
and is before Him a sea of red,

coloured by the blood of Christ,

which heals well every wound

that Adam has bequeathed us,

and those that we ourselves committed.

(I think of a line from an old hymn: "There is a fountain/drawn from Emmanuel's veins/and sinners plunged beneath that flood/lose all their guilty stains." That hymn, though, doesn't interrelate the blood of Christ with the baptismal waters of the Jordan, which is a striking image here.)

BWV 30, writes Gardiner, is filled with interesting things that like syncopated rhythms and elements of dance that live up to the theme of praise and thanksgiving. It's a joy to listen to!

And even though inconstancy

is linked with weak mankind,

let this be said here and now:

For as often as day dawns,

for as often as one day follows another,
so long shall I live, resolute and firm,
my God, through Thy spirit
for Thy sole glory.

It's helpful to me to think about John the Baptist at this mid-summer point (a month after his feast day). We think of him as a witness to Christ, a preacher of repentance who was startled at Jesus' request to be baptized by him. He was a witness both as a preacher and prophetic sign but also as one who died for his faith. In Bach's texts and music, John is praised as an sign and fulfillment of God's faithfulness. Amid the post-exilic faith of Israel, John appeared as God's malak (messenger), Isaiah's voice in the wilderness who prepares for and announces the Christ.

The New Testament teaches the fulfillment of the Old Testament in the life and work of Christ. It can be difficult today to talk about fulfillment in ways that aren't at least implicitly anti-Jewish. Today, were liable to forget the fact that the New Testament authors were nearly all Jews writing about their own tradition. I am against Christian supersessionist theology: the belief that Christianity has superseded and replaced Judaism. But we have to take care to understand the scriptures in their historical situation.

For the New Testament authors, the advent of John the Baptist and then Jesus were occasions for rejoicing in the fulfillment of God's promises to Israel. The apostle Paul doesn't mention John in his letters, but Paul understood this fulfillment as an opening up of amazing blessings for Gentiles who otherwise wouldn't know the true God, the God of Israel. In Bach's music, John becomes a picture of reassurance for the struggling person: God is always loving and faithful. God always calls to us and gives us a chance.

As indicated in the CD notes, all English translations of Bach's texts are by Richard Stokes.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

"Twelve Great Sayings of the Mystics"

The other day on this blog, I thought about Thomas Jefferson’s passion for book collecting. This past week I’ve been thinning my library so that I can have more shelf space, room for new discoveries. I keep books that I’ll continue to use, and others that have personal value or are collectible.

When I was a divinity school student in 1979-1982, I loved to drive out into the Connecticut countryside and shop at Whitlock’s Book Barn. They still operate and have this site. I've a few books purchased there, and likely I'll never donate them because they remind me of those trips that made me happy amid the stresses and difficulties of student life. (Generally speaking, theological books published in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s feel assuring to me. They were recent books at the time of my degree program, and something about the fonts and jacket design speak to me of that era of theological discussion. D. M. Baillie's God Was In Christ from 1948 is one such book, and also the 1950s Laymen's Library series.)

Sorting my books, I rediscovered these and another favorite, Twelve Great Sayings of the Mystics by W. Mauleverer, M.A., published by Arthur James, LTD in 1955. I bought it at Whitlock’s in 1980 or 1981 for 50 cents and, whenever I notice it again on my shelves, I love to look at it. It gave me such basic hope and happiness while I was trying to figure out God’s will and direction for my young life. I can’t find much about Mr. Mauleverer online, except that his first name was Wyons--Wyons Marmaduke Mauleverer--and he wrote a few other religious books. As I've written elsewhere, you never know how far your influence spreads.

Mauleverer writes in the introduction that he enjoys reading books of the Christian tradition and collects sayings that particularly speak to him. In this short book, he shares his favorite sayings and reflects upon their meaning. The sayings are:

“O God, Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.” (Augustine)

“By love may He be gotten and holden; but by thought never.” (The Cloud of Unknowing)

“The sun meets not the springing bud that stretches toward him with half the certainty as God, the source of all good, communicates Hismelf to the soul that longs to partake of Him.” (William Law)

“God WILL HAVE righteousness.” (George Macdonald)

“His love is single, but not private; alone, yet not solitary; shared, but not divided; ... growing no less by sharing, failing not through use, nor growing old by time.” (Hugh of St. Victor)

“Pay your debt. Love the Love that ever loves you.” (Jan Van Ruysbroeck)

“LIft up thy heart to God with a meek stirring of love, and mean Himself and none of His goods.” (The Cloud of Unknowing)

“I am nought; I have nought; I covet nought but One.” (Walter Hilton)

“Let God act.” (François de Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon)

“I would fain be to the Eternal Goodness what his own hand is to a man.” (Theologia Germanica)

“Well! my poor heart, here we are, fallen into the ditch which we had made so firm a resolution to avoid.” (Francis de Sales)

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” (Julian of Norwich)