Saturday, August 30, 2014

Inwardly, Outwardly the Same: Bach's Cantatas for the 11th Sunday after Trinity

We’re up to the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, and a young man from Omo Valley, Ethiopia looks out from the CD picture on the next disc of Bach’s cantatas.

“Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut” (BWV 199, “My heart is bathed in blood”). The text is in the first person which, hopefully, gives the listener a sense of being part of the drama of salvation. The author of the CD notes writes: “The eight movements rehearse the stages of redemption: an acknowledgement of the abomination of sin, the discomfort of remorseful tears, a plea for mercy, a confession of guilt, the blessed relief of casting sins onto Christ, and the peace and joy of reconciliation with God.”

I, Thy afflicted child,
cast all my sins,
as many as there are in me
and which terrify me so,
into Thy deep wounds,
where I have always found salvation.

“Siehe zu, dass deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei” (BWV 179, “See to it that they fear of God be not hypocrisy”). We’ve heard other Bach cantatas in which the theme of hypocrisy before, and although Bach felt his calling to write cantatas to God’s glory was well fulfilled in Leipzig, he faced many difficulties in the city, including self-serving leaders and other difficult people. In the CD notes, we read, “One can imagine the Leipzig gentry, sitting in the best pews, becoming increasingly uncomfortable as the shockingly direct words hit their target: the strident tenor, above obbligato oboes and violin, ringing through the cathedral proportions of St. Thomas’s like a prophetic crow.”

He who is inwardly and outwardly the same
can be called a true Christian.

Such was the tax-collector in the temple,
who smote his breast in humility;
he did not look on himself as a saint.
Let him be, O man,
 a glorious example
in your own penitence...

“Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut” (BWV 113, “Lord Jesus Christ, thou highest good”) is not as dramatic about hypocrisy as 179 but confronts the listener with the sorrow for our fallen nature---as well as the joy of Christ’s love and grace.

My piteous heart

beholds now, after many tears of pain,

the bright glow of Jesus’ eyes of mercy...
Gnawing conscience can no longer torment me,
now that God has pledged all His grace

to feed the faithful and the righteous

with heavenly manna,

if we but with contrite souls

come to our Jesus.

The story of the Pharisee and the Publican captures our imagination because the reversal: the good, blameless person (the kind of person most of us strive to be) actually has it all wrong, and the person who is blameworthy, lost, and distressed gets it right. (I dislike the way we use "Pharisee" as a pejorative term; the historical Pharisees helped save Jewish faith for the ages. But this particular Pharisee is Jesus' example of a certain approach to religious faith.) Sometimes I think I have the self-critical heart of the Publican but, nevertheless, I strive to live like the Pharisee, respected and accomplished. Do I really have my heart wholly directed to God?

The answer is no. Even my "good works done in secret" are, to some extent, motivated by my need to be liked and affirmed. But we can take our inconsistencies and offer them to God in the spirit of distressed repentance that permeates this week's cantatas. Like many psalms, the cantatas bring us back to the relief we experience in knowing God's love.

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, Excuse me while I put in my ear buds, walk across campus to my next class, and imagine myself resting and praying beside peaceful water on a hot day.  

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.