Sunday, February 7, 2016

A Year's Music: Pēteris Vasks' "Distant Light"

Here is a piece that I only heard for the first time yesterday: Pēteris Vasks' Violin Concerto, "Distant Light." The St. Louis Symphony performed the piece this weekend, with violinist Anthony Marwood as soloist.

Vasks, I learned, is a Latvian composer forn in 1946. He was a double-bass player for the Latvian Symphony for nearly ten years and began to compose in the 1970s. Inspired by the music of Arvo Pärt, his music has been associated with that Estonian composer's mysticism. The STLSO program notes, by Paul Schiavo, describe "Distant Stars": 'asks cast his concerto in a long single movement with several distinct sections. In addition there are several extended, dramatic soliloquies for the solo violinist... Vasks has explained the concerto's title only in vague personal terms. 'Distant Light,' he says, 'is nostalgia with a touch of tragedy. Childhood memories, but also the glittering stars millions of light-years away.'... Baiba Skride, a Latvian violinist... says that the music 'really makes you feel the atmosphere and what people felt in those hard years during the Soviet Union, the desperation and the hope behind the desperation.'" Here are the full program notes (pp. 29-30 of this pdf file).

Here is piece with the same soloist:

Saturday, February 6, 2016

What's the Thing with Coloring Books?

My daughter and I went over to the fabric and craft shop the other day. While she shops, I look at the how-to books. To my surprise, most of the how-to selections had been supplanted by coloring books for adults. I knew that these were "a thing," but I hadn't realized how much so.

Later, I found an article in The Atlantic, about the current craze, "The Zen of Adult Coloring Books" by Julie Beck (found here). Read her whole article, but she writes, for instance, "Several trend pieces about adult coloring books lump them in with other “childish” activities that grown-ups are apparently engaging in to regress back to their simpler youth, like adult preschool and adult summer camp. But I think they fit better into the trend of meditation and mindfulness that’s been going for some time now, one response among many to the high levels of stress many adults are living with....

"There are plenty of studies on the effectiveness of art therapy in reducing stress, and coloring seems to offer some similar benefits... Coloring offers that relief and mindfulness without the paralysis that a blank page can cause.'

My problem is, I'm one of those people who loves the work I do, and to do my work at home (writing, class preps) is satisfying. Why don't I let down a little bit and color?---especially since part of my work is facing that blank page. Perhaps I should!  

I've a lighthearted, mostly-kidding thought: give adults coloring books for church, similar to the way children get to color simple biblical scenes as they sit in the pews. Since doodling has been demonstrated to help a person focus, maybe we need something similar to do while the preacher is giving the message. We might remember and apply more of the sermon later!

Landscape: Klee

Paul Klee, "Temple Gardens" (1920).

For All the Saints: 26 Martyrs

The Roman Catholic and Episcopal Church calendars honor today the 26 Catholics who were executed in Nagasaki in 1597. A Catholic mission had begun in Japan in 1549 and was accepted at first. But the government and the shogunate began to see the church as a potential colonial threat. The church was persecuted, and these Catholics were crucified and then killed with spears. The martyrs included twenty Japanese, four Spaniards, a Mexican, and an Indian.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Moving Toward Lent

This year, January 24 was Septuagesima Sunday, the third Sunday before Ash Wednesday. Most churches no longer observe that Sunday, Sexagesima Sunday (the second Sunday before Ash Wednesday), and Quinquasima (the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, which is coming up). The words mean 70th, 60th, and 50th respectively, but technically only Quinquagesima is mathematically correct, truly the 50th day from Easter, while the other two are 57 and 64 days from Easter.

The 9th century liturgist Amalarius of Metz wrote that Septuagesima can mystically represent the 70-year Babylonian Captivity. (I have an informal blog post about the biblical theology here.) What's special about the captivity---otherwise known as the Exile?

In a way, it's what the whole Bible is about. The Bible begins with humankind being exiled from paradise. A few chapters later, God promises Abram (Abraham) that his descendants would live in the land of Canaan. The story of the Bible continues from there, through several books to the end of 2 Kings, to tell the story of God's people occupying the land, establishing a nation there, and finally losing the land when the Babylonians conquered them and destroyed Jerusalem in about 586 BCE. When the people return to the land about fifty years later, the Old Testament narrative concludes with the establishment of the Jewish religion and the future of God's people. For Christians, the story takes a turn with the life of Jesus, who addressed the post-exilic hope of the people with his life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension.

Connecting all this to Lent, it is the time when we think about our post-Eden mortality and our need to return to God. For instance:

* The liturgical traditions of the church have been language of exile: our longing for heaven as we struggle in the world.(1)

* Jesus’ death and resurrection happens in the connect of Passover, which points back to Egyptian slavery and that earlier “exile” of the Hebrews of Moses' time.(1)

* The exile functions in contemporary theology in postmodernism (the uncertainty and absence of God, theologies of liberation (the struggle of oppressed people for freedom), and peace churches (the theology of whole reliance upon God rather than violent means: the error of Israel and Judah in relying upon foreign powers). But ecumenism itself echoes exile-language within theological in discussions of the church and the world (the church as an eschatological community in “exile” in the world), hospitality (caring for others who are in exile in different ways), healing broken relationships, being “wounded healers” of others, and so on.(1)

The biblical Exile connects us to themes such as God’s continual concern for Israel and his continual work of redemption. The Exile was interpreted not as God’s abandonment of his people, but as one side of God’s righteousness which continues to express itself in mercy, restoration, and love. Although the church no longer stresses these three pre-Lenten Sundays, those themes of God's mercy, love and restoration are certainly part of our Lenten journey.


(1) These points are made by Peter-Ben Smit, in “Ecumenism in Exile,” World Council of Churches website,

For All the Saints: Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams

On the Episcopal Church calendar, Roger Williams (c. 1603 – 1683) and Anne Hutchinson (1591 - 1643) are honored today as prophetic voices. Williams was a colonial proponent of religious freedom and separation of church and state. When Puritan leaders exiled him from Salem, he established a settlement that he called Providence, which would be a place for dissenters seeking "liberty of conscience." For the first time in history, religion and citizenship were separate. Williams was also a forerunner in the Baptist Church in the colonies, advocated for good relations with Native Americans, and was a forerunner in calling for the prohibition of slavery in the colonies.

Anne Hutchinson was another colonial proponent for religious freedom and was also a pioneer for women in ministry and church leadership. Questioning the theology of ministers of Massachusetts Bay Colony, she was exiled from the colony and excommunicated. Hutchinson and her followers established the Portsmouth settlement with the encouragement of Roger Williams. As her Wikipedia page indicates, "She challenged the authority of the ministers, exposing the subordination of women in the culture of colonial Massachusetts. She is honored by Massachusetts with a State House monument calling her a 'courageous exponent of civil liberty and religious toleration.'"

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Landscape: Corot

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, "Meadow with Two Trees" (1870).