Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Hotter in Heaven than Hell?

Another hot day where I live, although two summers ago we had these kinds of temperatures and worse nearly all summer.

My daughter's birthday is coming up. She was born in Arizona, and I remember the heat wave that year: the low 120s in Phoenix, the lower 90s in usually cooler Flagstaff. I see 100-year-old pictures of Phoenix people, in their suits and long dresses, and wonder how they lived through each day.

I read somewhere (a person's lighthearted calculations) that Heaven is actually hotter than Hell. The Isaiah passage (30:26) that depicts the sunlight in heaven as seven times brighter, implies a certain level of heat in Heaven, greater than the burning point of the brimstone that fuels Hell's flames (e.g., Revelation 19-21). Always good to recognize when the Bible employs metaphor.

I've posted this Ernest Moeran piece before, but it's a favorite: a way I can go to the side of cool waters in a peaceful place and meditate. Excuse me while I put in my ear buds and imagine the water as I cross campus in this August heat.  

Monday, August 25, 2014

Leonard Bernstein

Today would have been Leonard Bernstein's 96th birthday. Like many of my generation, I watched his 1960s TV programs on classical music, although I didn't listen to them intently. They did make an impression and helped fuel a later love for music. During my college years I had his own recording of Mass, a theologically and musically stunning piece, and I played it till the vinyl became crackly and the box broken. (I've written about this piece elsewhere on this blog.) During the lonely, rewarding years of my first parish position, I loved another LP set, pieces by Richard Wagner, as well as an LP with the Chichester Psalms. I enjoyed his then-recently published book of occasional writings, Findings. The "Brainy Quote" website gives some memorable quotations from him:

"To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time."

"Music can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable."

"This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before."

Friday, August 22, 2014

Bless Our Town: Bach's Cantatas for the 10th Sunday after Trinity

My journey through Bach's sacred cantatas continues. This week I'm listening to CD 36 of this set, with a CD photo of a boy from Afghanistan.

Sunday is the Tenth Sunday after Trinity. People in St. Louis have been pulling together this week to help out in Ferguson, MO, the city in St Louis County that has been through a lot since the Aug 9th shooting by a white officer of an unarmed black teenager. Local news reports are dominated by events and stories there, and pastors of our area (and other leaders) have been calling people to help in different ways. This coming Sunday, the prayers and help will certainly continue.

The first cantata for this coming Sunday is “Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgendein Schmerz” (BWV 46, “Behold, and see if there be any sorrow”). You might say, this cantata is about a community in crisis. The text concerns the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, which, according to conductor John Eliot Gardiner in the CD notes, might have reminded some of Bach's families of the destruction of so many German towns during the Thirty Years War. We should not say that God’s wrath causes the destruction of communities, as the scriptures attribute Jerusalem’s troubles to God’s judgment. But the cantata skillfully moves among images (both textual and musical) of God’s anger and God’s mercy, within the context of Jerusalem. The listener is left hanging a bit at the end, holding to the hope of God’s grace.

The second cantata is “Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott (BWV 101, “Take from us, Lord, Thou faithful God”), has the same gospel lesson, Christ’s tears over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-48), and the same theme of God’s anger and mercy. Using two Luther hymns, the cantata is similarly disturbing. Gardiner writes, “Clearly, the wages of sin, the overwhelming power of retribution visited upon those tempted to stray from the Lord’s path, prompted Bach to subject his first listeners to a twin-barrelled doctrinal salvo and to compose what Robert Levin described to me as ‘the most crushing work of Bach’s career’.” These words are fearful but also hopeful:

Take from us, Lord, Thou faithful God,
the grave punishment and great distress
that we with countless sins

have truly merited.

Protect us from war and famine,
contagion, fire and grievous pain...

Lead us with Thy right hand

and bless our town and our country;

give us always Thy holy Word,

protect us from Satan’s guile and murder;
grant us one single, blessèd hour,

that we may forever be with Thee.

The third cantata is “Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben!” (BWV, 102, “Lord, are not Thine eyes upon the truth!”). Gardiner goes into detail about how the music depicts the fearful text.

In waiting danger lurks;

is it your wish to lose time?

The God, who was once so merciful,

can lead you with ease to His seat of judgment.

Today you live, repent today;

before the morning dawns, all may change.
He who today is healthy, ruddy-faced, thriving,
will tomorrow be sick, or even dead.

This week, I've followed the local news and tried to do my small part. As the week moved toward the weekend, I listened to these cantatas and considered Bach's themes. How does the righteous Lord hold us accountable for sin, in this case the racism so imbedded in our hearts and in our economic and social structures? How do we see God’s anger and grace at work in a social crisis?

Spiritual repentance, arising from a fresh sense of God's righteousness, has many social implications, including a greater appreciation of the social and economic dangers into which people fall, and from which people die. Some mornings we do, indeed, awake to hear what has changed overnight, to learn from the dawn news who has suffered and died. But we also learn of people who had put themselves in harm's way in order to be at God's right hand, sharing God's love.

We continue to pray for this local situation and other tragic situations in the news.

(As the CD notes indicate, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Coffee and Work

Off to the coffee shop this morning to do some writing. I like the place, which is a national chain, but I miss the independent coffee shop that operated in our town for a while. Eventually I may branch out to an independent shop that I've heard about in nearby Maplewood, MO.

When we lived in Akron, OH, I loved going to the Nervous Dog Coffee House. I wrote there a lot, sometimes a couple hours a day if I was in the midst of a writing project. One of my books contains an acknowledgment to that coffee shop, though at that time it was called Coco's under earlier management. When I'm back visiting friends, the coffee shop that was a different kind of friend is a fun stop.

It is wonderful that some pastors whom I know are doing office hours in coffee shops and similar places. To me, that's being out there were the people are. Just hanging around the coffee in case someone dropped by seemed, to me, a less effective approach to ministry.

One of J.S. Bach's cantatas is "Schweigt stille, plaudit nicht" (BWV 211, "Be still, stop chattering"), also known as the Coffee Cantata. Essentially a short opera, the piece tells of a father, Schlendrian, who is trying to get his daughter, Lieschen, to stop drinking so much coffee! She says, "Without my morning coffee, I’m just like a dried up piece of roast goat.” Poor Lieschen!

Apparently an outcome of the Turkish invasion of Vienna was the popularization of coffee. The Turks had coffee houses before Europeans, and soon coffee houses were popular throughout Europe. I found a website that tells of famous people's addiction, like Voltaire who drank 40 cups a day, Rousseau and Pope who sang its praises, and Jefferson, who considered it "the favorite drink of the civilized world."

So I'm dressed and off with my laptop!  A strong brew awaits with my name on it.  

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ferguson This Week

I live in the St. Louis area, where the local news has been dominated by events in Ferguson. Community groups have been pulling together to help within the community, and some groups have been collecting donations for Ferguson persons who haven't been able to get to stores because of the discord during several recent evenings. This article from one of the local TV stations describes the kinds of protesters in the community: Pastors have been working toward reconciliation: The New Yorker has an interesting article about the movement that is growing as an outcome of Michael Brown's shooting. US Attorney General Eric Holder has arrived in town, and meanwhile a grand jury Holder's visit came as a grand jury has begun to gather evidence about whether Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson should be charged in Brown's death. Let's continue in prayer.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Interfaith Prayers

Continued prayers for the situation in Ferguson, MO, where more violence occurred Sunday night. Now the Missouri National Guard has been called in. An autopsy on Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager who was killed by a police officer on August 9, shows that Brown was shot six times.

Local people have been traveling to Ferguson to show solidarity to Brown's family and to witness to the need for justice. Earlier I found a site that recommended what items local Jews, Christians, and Muslims could donate to persons in the area who are struggling for basic needs.

Churches are called upon to engage Brown's death with interracial understanding, listening, and prayers for reconciliation and justice. See, for example, this piece: Prayers that we will, indeed, listen to one another in the days ahead, learn things we can do from the many articles and blog posts, and seek the Lord's grace that can do more than we can think or ask.

Prayers for Iraq as the U.S. has expanded its air campaign there. Continued prayers for the situation in Israel and Gaza, as well as Syria, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka. Prayers for Pope Francis during his Far Eastern tour, and for positive results from his visits. Also, prayers for those in Africa still suffering from the Ebola outbreak, not to mention the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic in Sub-Sahara Africa.

Prayers for those (including me, writing this amid a sleepless night) who are struggling with distress and sorrow over the events of the past several days, including Robin Williams' death.

Prayers for young people who have already started school in many places, and for college students who will soon be starting classes.

Hear our prayers, O God.

Friday, August 15, 2014

What Care I for the World: Bach's Cantatas for the 9th Sunday after Trinity

Sunday is the Ninth Sunday after Trinity. Fourteen more weeks of cantatas, after this week. The news this week is dominated by the death of Robin Williams, a little less so by the death of Lauren Bacall, and by awful Middle Eastern news, as well as racial and social tensions here in St. Louis. “The world resembles smoke and shadow,” is a line from the first of this week’s cantatas, and the streets of some of our neighborhoods are filled with the smoke of tear gas. We pray for God’s help for our struggles and sadness.

BWV 92 is titled “Was frag ich nach der Welt” (“What care I for the world”). The text contrasts the transitoriness of the world, both of its treasures and sorrow, with the permanence of Christ who is our only reason for rejoicing. The themes remind me both of Isaiah 40:6-8 and Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” The world is filled with pride and wonderful things, but with hardly a warning we could die. All the more reason to cling to Christ and his promises. So the cantata with a somber theme begins with a spritely flute and continues with numerous happy moments---happiness in Christ.

BWV 168 is “Tue Rechnung! Donnerwort” (“Give an account of thyself. Thundrous words”). The theme is simlar to 92 but while that cantata serves as a pensive reminder, 168 is more urgent and penitential: the time to get right with God, over against the world’s transitory pleasures and worries, is now!

Burst the bonds of Mammon, O heart,
hands, scatter good abroad!

Make soft my death-bed,

build for me a solid house,
that will last in heaven forever,
when all earth’s goods are scattered.

BWV 105 is “Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht mit deinem Knecht” (“Enter not into judgment with thy servant, O Lord”). Here, too, the fears of the believer, mired in the sin of the world, are comforted by the promise of Christ’s redemption.

Fortunate though is he who knows his guarantor,

who redeems all his debts.

Thus will the handwriting of ordinances be blotted out,
if Jesus sprinkles it with His blood.
He Himself then nails it to the cross.

He will, at your death knell,

Himself hand to His father

the record of your goods, body and life,

and though your body be carried to the grave
and be covered with sand and dust,
your Saviour will open for you the everlasting mansions.

In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner comments that Bach really did live this teaching. In his early career he had risen in his field and gained salary increases, but when he moved from “his court position in Cöthen to a civic appointment in cosmopolitan Leipzig,” his salary would drop. This might be a problem, since his family was growing, and the cost of living in Leipzig was higher. Essentially, he saw the Leipzig position as a closer one to his sense of calling. As it turned out, his work in Leipzig included long additional hours, and some of his extra work was unremunerated. Plus, persons in authority who could have helped him obstructed him, instead. These things, and the extravagant wealth of some of the Leipzig congregational members, makes the themes of these cantatas rather personal.

Fortunately, Bach had excellent financial sense, gained by being orphaned at a young age, and he found other ways to assist his income. Gardiner traces these interesting biographical details. He writes, Bach “was aware that by staying in Cöthen he could have had a more comfortable lifestyle and a larger income with which to make provision for his family after his death. But he also knew that, ultimately, true inheritance lay elsewhere, as is expressed in the final chorale of Cantata 94: ‘Die Güter müssen fort, und alle Lust verfällt; bleibt Jesus nur bei mir: Was frag ich nach der Welt!’ (‘Its goods must go, and all pleasures perish; if but Jesus stays with me: what care I for the world!’).”

(As stated in the CD notes, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

I found the Monteverdi Choir's website, which gives the list of each cantata by BWV number, on the particular Sundays and feast days: As I've said before, I started my listening with CD 52 on the First Sunday of Advent, so that I could listen in conjunction with the liturgical year.