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
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 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)

Friday, July 18, 2014

God Will Have Us Searched For: Bach's Cantatas for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity

Here are four cantatas for this weekend, one (BWV 71) which was on CD 30 from last week, and the other three on CD 31. Conductor John Eliot Gardiner includes this cantata (“Gott ist mein König”, “God is my King”) and “Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir” (BWV 131, “Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord”) with the two Fifth Sunday after Trinity cantatas, “Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten” (BWV 93, “If you but permit the Lord to prevail”), and “Siehe, ich will viel Fischer aussenden” (BWV 88, “Behold, I will send for many fishers”). The CD photo is of a wide-eyed young man from Bamiyan, Afghanistan.

The cantatas 71 and 131 come from his single year when the 22 year old Bach worked at Mühlhausen in his second professional post (June 1707 to 1708). From there he went to Weimar and later Leipzig, but Gardiner notes that at Mühlhausen Bach committed himself to write “a regulated or orderly church music to the glory of God.” BWV 131 is a penitential piece using Psalm 130, but Gardiner writes that Bach avoided simple stylistic devices and instead conveyed the emotions of the psalm and the occasion in genuine and moving ways, harkening back to works by Heinrich Schütz and Johann Christoph Bach. BWV 71, in turn, is a piece for the Mühlhausen town council elections. Gardiner writes that the piece is “laid out on such a grand scale in terms of its deployment of four separate instrumental ‘choirs’, set against a vocal consort of four singers, an optional Capelle of ripienists and an organ.”

Of the two Fifth Sunday after Trinity cantatas, Bach uses for BWV 93 the 1641 hymn by George Neumark, “Wer nun den lieben Gott lässt walten”. Gardiner discusses how Bach uses a “catechismal question-and-answer formula” to structure the cantata. The text raises anxieties about God’s mercy and patience toward us, and then responds with affirmations about God’s blessings and favor, even to the point of searching for us when we’ve left the true path.

BWV 88 also has the structure of anxiety and fear answered by God’s mercy and love. The cantata’s text is Jeremiah 16:16, wherein God send out search parties of hunters and fishermen to gather God’s people. Then in the second part, the text brings in the Gospel lesson where Jesus calls Peter the fisherman, providing a new context for the Jeremiah text.

The conductor writes, “[I]t is perhaps an early example of that ‘dialectic of modernity’ to which scholars are so partial: Bach’s way of cultivating memory on the part of his listeners."

No, God is always eager
that we be on the right path,
sheltered by the light of His grace.
Yea, whenever we have strayed
and abandoned the proper path,
He will even have us searched for.

As I listen to and think about Bach's works this week, what strikes me is the observation that Bach gained his lasting sense of purpose at Mühlhausen. This site gives more information about his brief but significant time there. Even though Bach's months there were not altogether satisfactory, his work there began a long-time commitment.

Is there a place in your life that is that kind of place for you? Do you look back to a location or situation where you felt a commitment to something significant in your life? Where did you commit yourself to something for the glory of God?

If you have such a place, it can be a spiritual anchor for you, as you look back on your life and discern God's guidance across the years, "sheltered by the light of His grace". (To change the metaphor, you can think of such a place as the one where God set your compass and thereafter you knew where to go.) In turn, you can gain confidence in God's eagerness to search for us, keep us, and steer us.

(According to the CD notes, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Sir John Templeton

During the 1990s, I made many trips from Louisville, KY to southern Illinois to visit my elderly parents. A favorite road trip break was the antique mall at Burnt Prairie, IL (exit 117 off I-64). No longer traveling that part of the highway, I hadn’t visited the mall for several years. But we finally passed that way again recently and stopped by. Browsing the shop, I was pleased to discover Robert L. Herrmann’s Sir John Templeton: From Wall Street to Humility Theology (Templeton Foundation Press, 1998). Somewhat aware of the foundation's work, I plan to read more of the book in the weeks ahead.

John Templeton (1912-2008) grew up in Tennessee, attended Yale and (as a Rhodes Scholar) Oxford. Shrewd and pioneering in his investments, he became a billionaire. But he was also a noted philanthropist. Among the results of his generosity are the John Templeton Foundation and the Templeton Prize for Progress toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities. The foundation supports and funds efforts to explore “into the laws of nature and the universe, to questions on the nature of love, gratitude, forgiveness, and creativity." (See their website, The Templeton Press publishes scholarly and trade books in four core areas: Science and the Big Questions, The Virtues, Health and Spirituality, and Freedom and Free Enterprise.

Herrmann interweaves the man’s business and financial successes with accounts of his philanthropy and his spiritual interests. He describes Templeton’s hope to encourage religion-science interaction and to gain ongoing knowledge of spiritual information. Templeton points out that science, technology, and economy have made tremendous advancements in our contemporary time, but he believes also that human beings progress in our spiritual nature. Unfortunately, he argues, egotism in religion has impeded our progress in our knowledge of God and spirituality and hampers a humble quest for an increase in spiritual information. Thus, part of Templeton’s work has been also to encourage a "humility theology." Humility to God should result in an appreciation of learning and an eagerness to advance our spiritual and religious knowledge, just as we progress scientifically and economically. (See, for instance, Templeton's 2000 book, titled Possibilities for Over One Hundredfold More Spiritual Information: The Humble Approach to Theology and Science.)

Herrmann's book is no longer in print but copies are available at used book sites.