Monday, December 31, 2012

New Year's Eve

Gas station calendar
from my hometown, with a
New Year's theme.
I don't usually "do" New Year's Eve. Years ago, I was invited by Sunday school friends to their party, but I didn't know anyone but them, and at that time I was too shy to strike up conversations with strangers. So I thanked them for inviting me, went home, and called a friend----who was crabby with me because she was already in bed. Oh, well. The only other time that I remember intentionally doing New Year's Eve was 1999, when the year turned to 2000 (still technically the 20th century, but cool nevertheless), and we hoped all our technology wouldn't suddenly end at the stroke of midnight----an apocalyptic, Cinderella catastrophe. That evening, my wife and daughter and I enjoyed the company of friends at their house. I think we watched Finding Forrester before turning to the televised Times Square celebration.

Since I’m a teacher, I think of the autumn months as the beginning of my life’s yearly rhythms. I started kindergarten in September 1962, and thereafter, except for two years, late summer has been for me the start of a school year, either as a student or an instructor. It's a familiar and reliable pattern: teachers and students return to school after the summer; the fall semester progresses, winter arrives, and then the spring (not only a season but a semester). After spring, the year rounds out with the renewing months of summer before school starts again. No one sings “Auld Lang Syne” in the autumn, unless they really like that song, I suppose…. but still, I do love the fall-through-summer pattern of life.  

The pattern works in a more formal religious way. The first Sunday of Advent—falling in late autumn and traditionally marking a time of introspection and renewal—is the beginning of the Christian calendar. Jews begin their year with the ten-day period of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur earlier in the fall. During those “Days of Awe” (Yamim Noraim), a person does honest soul searching, corrects the previous year’s wrongs if possible, and starts fresh. The year’s cycle of Torah readings draws to a close. The brand-new year brings opportunities for good deeds and renewed devotion—a much better orientation than the ephemeral New Year’s resolutions that many of us try.

Even though my birthday is in early January---and so my own years and the calendar years are virtually the same----I still tend to think of January 1 as just another ol' winter day----a holiday for businesses---in the middle of a three-week pause between the first third of the actual year (fall semester) and the second third (spring semester). Alternately, January 1 is about a month into the actual Christian year----the 7th day of Christmastide.

These are just my feelings----a teacher's feelings. Fortunately the world didn't end on December 21st, at the Mayan calendar supposedly predicted. Otherwise, I wouldn't be blogging this....

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Sacrament of Snow

I always resented the song “White Christmas,” just a little bit. It’s a lovely song, vastly popular, of course. But I thought it set up the yearly, often disappointed expectation of snow on Christmas day. (The seldom-heard introduction refers to the usually snow-free Beverly Hills which elicits nostalgia for snowy holidays past.) What does it matter if snow falls on Christmas or not?

But I realized there is much more to the expectation of a snowy Christmas! The Christmas 2012 issue of BBC Music magazine has an interesting article, “A Christmas Carol” (pp. 27-34) by David Owen Norris. The author writes that, in pre-Victorian England, harvest season was poised to be a more beloved time of year than Christmas; harvest time rather than Christmas had an appealing narrative of well-being, plenty, and human relationships, while Christmas was just a cold winter holiday that elicited painful longing. However, Norris states that Christmas carols began to make a comeback during the early Victorian period, eclipsing harvest-related hymns. Consequently, Christmas grew in popularity during the 1800s, partly on the basis of this musical appeal.

The real innovation, though, came from Rev. John Mason Neale (1818-1866). He and a colleague produced hymn books for churches. A 16th century Finnish song concerning spring and flowers inspired Neale to write new lyrics, which became “Good King Wenceslas.” What was so innovative about Neale’s song, is that it is the first time a Christmas song links the holiday with snow (p. 31)!  You would think someone would have associated snow and Christmas, but according to Norris, other songwriters (even Scandinavians) had made reference to Christmas cold weather (“The First Noel” is an example) but not to Christmas snow.

Neale's association of snow and Christmas was brilliant and influential. From the publication of “Good King Wenceslas” in 1853, other poets and songwriters found inspiration in the image of Christmas snow, notably Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter,” but also many others (pp. 31, 33).

The religion-science debates of the era provided a different kind of inspiration for the theme of Christmas snow. The Darwinian debates that threatened to erode religious belief necessitated new metaphors for spiritual truth. Snow---peaceful, beautifying, and descended from above---became a perfect metaphor; as Norris writes (p. 34), “If science was concerned with facts, religion with miracles, then the Victorians found a snowy bridge between them.”

Furthermore, that affirmation of miracles was better expressed through song than prose. “Only song could convey these new meanings of Christmas snow... The familiar yet fundamentally irrational human act of singing together was the perfect medium. (Irrationality is important to us in matters of the spirit: look at the idea of carols by candlelight, which could only become truly symbolic once electricity had made the candles pointless.)....

“The very mirage of a white Christmas... became a new way of thinking about miracles, allowing snow to become the outward sign of an inward grace---a secular sacrament. Snow imagined, snow longed for, makes space for a Christmas miracle” (p. 34).

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Karl Barth on Christmas & Easter

Nativity and Chippewa St. traffic
at the Catholic Supply Store 
“'The Word became flesh,' εγενετο, we read in John 1:14….'The Word became'---that points to the centre, to the mystery of revelation, the happening of the inconceivable fact that God is among us and with us. If there is any synthetic judgment at all it is this one, that ‘the Word became.’ But can or will the Word of God become? Does He not surrender thereby His divinity?....’The Word became’---if that is true, and true in such a way that a real becoming is thereby expressed without the slightest surrender of the divinity of the Word, its truth is that of a miraculous act, an act of mercy on the part of God…..

“Now it is no accident that for us the Virgin birth is paralleled by the miracle of which the Easter witness speaks, the miracle of the empty tomb. These two miracles belong together. They constitute, as it were a single sign, the special function of which, compared with the other signs and wonders of the New Testament witness, is to describe and mark out the existence of Jesus Christ, amid the many other existences in human history, as that human historical existence in which God is Himself, God is alone, God is directly the Subject, the temporal reality of which is not only called forth, but is identical with it.

"The Virgin birth at the opening and the empty tomb at the close of Jesus’ life bear witness that this life is a fact marked off from all the rest of human life, and marked off in the first instance, not by our understanding or our interpretation, but by itself. Marked off in regard to its origin: it is free of the arbitrariness which underlies all our existences. And marked off in regard to its goal; it is victorious over the death to which we are all liable. Only within these limits is it what it is and is it correctly understood, as the mystery of the revelation of God. …

"In Jesus Christ God comes forth out of the profound hiddenness of His divinity in order to act as God among us and upon us. That is revealed and made visible to us in the sign of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, but it is grounded upon the fact signified by the Virgin birth, that here in this Jesus God Himself has really come down and concealed Himself in humanity. It is because He was veiled here that He could and had to unveil Himself as He did at Easter.”

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. I, The Doctrine of the Word of God, Second Half-Volume (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956), 156, 182-183

Monday, December 24, 2012

Laute nacht, heilige nacht

This evening, my family and I are all participating in our church's Christmas Eve service. I anticipate that we'll sing "Silent Night." 

Last year, when we attended the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's Christmas concert, which ended with a brief sing-along.  We sang the verse, "the world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing," and shortly, we also sang "Silent Night" and its line, "all is calm, all is bright." That set me thinking. The image of a calm, reverent world surrounding Jesus' birth is appealing, but what if the city was busy and noisy as Jesus was born? Bethlehem had no guest rooms available, for instance, in Luke's account. What if Mary gave birth amid noises of the street beyond the stable area, and no one noticed (except the angel-guided shepherds) because too much was going on in town? What if Christ's birth was a "noisy night, holy night"?

I could make a point that a noisy, crowded Bethlehem would be in keeping with our busy, cluttered lives each December. But then I think: even the shepherds were busy! From what I've read, shepherds had many responsibilities with their flocks, including continual surveillance. The great gift was that God interrupted the shepherds' lives and helped them see and understand. We may seek to prepare ourselves spiritually during Advent, but God's initiative is still everything.

Thus, the images of "silent night" and "solemn stillness" are apt poetically: when God does something, we have to pause and catch up in amazement and relief.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Elizabeth the Prophet

Today is the Fourth Day of Advent. The Gospel lesson was Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. Several things we can gain from this story, including the lovely words of the Ave Maria, Benedicta tu in mulieribus et benedictus fructus ventris tui, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

When I wrote a lesson on this passage a few years ago, I focused on the role of Elizabeth. In those days before the first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit empowered only certain people to prophesy, and when Elizabeth heard Mary coming, she was “filled with the Holy Spirit” (verse 41). By the Spirit’s power, Elizabeth preached the Gospel of Jesus before his birth! She recognized Mary as Jesus’ blessed mother. She interpreted her own physical discomfort as God’s sign.

Elizabeth was a prophet, in other words! She was a prophet for this purpose, in a long line of Hebrew prophets which, most believed, had ended centuries before. My question is: If the Spirit came to a person who previously had been perceived as disfavored by God (as childlessness was then believed to be), doesn’t the Spirit now comes to all kinds of persons, whether favored or disfavored in society? What might the Spirit be up to in our present world that might startle us?  

Blue Christmases

My mother passed away on September 30th, and during the subsequent weeks I wondered how the holidays would be. While I had autumn days of feeling horrible, I haven’t done too badly in December. I think that’s partly because I’ve been busy with the semester’s end, and also I’ve tried not to fight the sad feelings when they come; I’ll take a walk (or a nap, LOL), and pace myself through a rough day. Fortunately my work allows for this; if I were still in a job where I had to be "on" all the time, I'd be struggling. I also paced the holidays. For instance, for the first and probably last time, I worked on Christmas cards in November, so that I wouldn’t have that pressure in December. (We send about 120 cards each year.)

But an empty feeling stops me a few times each day. Something interesting happens during the day and I automatically think that I’ll tell my mother----but, no, I won’t. Also, I think about when we can drive over and visit her during the holidays, and I remember again that I'm in a habit of thinking that no longer reflects reality. This morning, getting ready for church, I felt blue and edgy, not wanting to see people very badly. Later, I felt draggy and clumsy, but rallied by the evening.

The fact that Mom has gained the promises of eternal life helps me stay oriented on the religious hope, which is a vast source of comfort. Mom was 93 and very frail. I freely admit that if I were suffering a different kind of grief this season----like the loss of a much younger person, etc.---I would also be struggling spiritually. In fact, a friend has been dealing with "stuff" this month, which in turn has made me wonder to God why some of us have to face adversity. God's promises are true, but much about life we don't understand, and struggle is part of our journey.    

I figured that the internet would have resources on grief and loss during the holidays. Sure enough, there are many. This piece has several ideas for acknowledging your loss and helping yourself during this time.

This piece also concerns ways to deal with grief and loss over the holidays.

This piece was interesting because it concerns congregations that have “Blue Christmas services”  It’s good to work on grief within a religious context, but when you’re down, a very upbeat church service can feel hurtful and exhausting. An intentional effort of congregations to address the needs of the grieving, as these congregations are doing, can be so helpful.

With Christmas Day fast approaching, I need to think of a few, creative ways to interweave the loss of Mom with the holiday. One thing I’ve already done is to mostly avoid the popular Christmas music---and the sometimes painful nostalgia of loved ones and home---with classical religious music that focuses on Advent and Christmas hope. I think I’ll also make an effort to call some friends tomorrow and Tuesday, especially those for whom the day may be lonely or distressing. Some kind of informal ritual in remembrance of both my parents would be good to incorporate into the observance.

What are some things that help you when you're feeling grief, especially over the holidays?

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Discovering New Seasonal Music

Something I love to do during Advent and Christmas is to play seasonal music at home. This year I’ve tried to explore some new (to me) and interesting repertoire, like John Tavener’s “Ex Maria Virgine,” recorded on the Naxos label. The 2005 piece is a 10-part work for choir and orchestra and reflects Tavener’s Orthodox faith in the series of words on Mary. It’s not your usual Christmas music! He uses beautiful melodies but also discordant and dark music, for instance, the sequence when the choir jarringly repeats Ave, Rex!

More meditative but still thought-provoking is a CD “Puer Natus Est” on the Harmonia Mundi lable. The British ensemble Stile Antico performs several Tudor-period works, like Thomas Tallis’ seven part mass, “Puer natus est nobis,” along with several pieces by William Byrd (for instance, “Ecce Virgo, “Rorate Caeli”), John Taverner (“Audivi vocem de coelo”), John Sheppard (“Verbum caro factum est”), Robert White’s Magnificat, and the anonymous piece that is the CD’s title work.

This season I’ve also been listening for the first time to Heinrich Schütz’s “Christmas Story” (“Historia der Geburt Jesu Christi”) which premiered in Dresden for the 1660 Christmas Day vespers. Narrated by the tenor Evangelist, Schütz’s oratorio takes us from Christ’s birth through the return of the holy family from Egypt.

The Christmas 2012 issue of BBC Music magazine has a review of the better recordings of “Christmas Story,” and that issue also has a nice article about Ralph Vaughan Williams, who is always my favorite composer. Although his pieces aren't new to me, I like to think about discovering his “Fantasia on Christmas Carols,” “Hodie,” and “The First Nowell” back in the 1980s, and more recently the ballet “On Christmas Night,” which had its premier on CD on the Chandos label just a few years ago. The author calls RVW a "Christmas loving agnostic" who always had fresh ideas about Christmas music; in fact, “The First Nowell,” a nativity play, was the piece he was working on when he died in 1958.

Another interesting piece for this season is Oliver Messiaen's organ work, "La Nativité du Seigneur," premiered in 1936.  Honoring the birth of Christ via nine pieces (which in turn honors Mary's maternity), the piece is also revolutionary in organ music for Messiaen's tonal and rhythmic innovations.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Fields and Floods, Rocks, Hills and Plains

Do you have a favorite Advent or Christmas hymn? Usually, mine would be "Joy to the World," in a close tie with the Wexford Carol... although I also love "O Come, All Ye Faithful," and others...

Driving home from teaching classes the other day, I was listening to the Sirius XM "Holiday Pops" channel. "Joy to the World" joined other pieces--choral music, instrumentals, hymns, and carols. Like so many hymns, I sing the verses and know what they say, but I don't always think about them. This time, a line stood out: "Let men their songs employ; while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy."

People sing praises to the newborn Jesus, and then Creation repeats the praises. What an interesting image! I connected this verse in my mind to Psalm 19:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

In other words, Creation praises God with a "voice" that does not use words and speech, but that "voice" is very clearly heard and understood as praise.

The psalmist continues:

The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.

As Creation praises God for his care, the psalmist praises God for crucial aspects of God's care for humans: his redemption, teachings, commandments, and guidance.

Psalm 104 is a classic psalm of this kind, too. For thirty-two verses the psalmist praises God for his creation and sustenance, and then in the last few verses, the psalmist joins the praise of Creation and humbly rejoices in God.

Then I thought of Colossians 1:15-20.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

The psalmists praise God's creation and redemption alike, while the author of Colossians writes a kind of "psalm" that connects creation, redemption, and Christ. The New Interpreter's Bible commentator on Colossians notes that "Christ is not simply to be seen as the firstborn of all creation (1:15); rather, all things were created in, through, and for him (1:16). God is the Creator, but Christ is both an agent of creation and, more than that, its goal...he is also the one to whom all creation is directed, the very purpose of its existence. Not only so, but all things hold together in him (1:17); their integrity and coherence depend on his role." Creation is also "in need of reconciliation," since evil and dark powers still pervade the world (1:13), nevertheless, "Through Christ the powers have already been pacified and reintegrated into God's purposes, and believers can already appropriate this achievement, but the full recognition of their new situation by the powers themselves awaits the eschaton." (p. 570).

I suppose the popular image of animals gathering around Jesus' manger is a way of conveying the connection of Jesus' birth with human salvation and with Creation's praises to God.

As I listened to "Joy to the World," the word "flood" stuck in my mind. The things that "repeat the sounding joy" are positive things in the way a flood is not. Floods are destructive, although in an arid region, an overabundance of water could be a good thing. But floods (and any manifestation of weather) are part of God's creation, too, although we rightly lament the destruction and personal and economic hardships resulting from bad weather. This was a key point in Annie Dillard's classic book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, that the hideous and inexplicable aspects of Creation force us to offer praise to God, too, although in much more difficult ways than the praise we offer when we're happy and things are orderly.

Advent is traditionally a penitential period in the church's liturgical calendar, and if snow falls in December, the landscape takes on a pretty bleakness in keeping with Advent solemnity. Snow, in turn, is beautiful but also potentially destructive.  But still, amid all the positive and negative aspects of the month, we can increase our sense of joy and wonder at Christ's birth by looking around us: at Creation, which in its own way is singing (Ps. 19:4).

(A post from 12/15/10)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Late Autumn Trees

During the Advent season and after, the trees have a wonderful softness and faintness. The normal perspective of distance makes trees look ill-defined, but in late autumn and winter, the mostly leafless trees take on a pretty half-transparency. To me, the color looks like a watercolor artist mixed brown and green, or brown and purple, and used a lot of water to get the pale, barren appearance, like these trees beside the railroad tracks near our home. Maybe they’re not “happy trees,” as Bob Ross would say, but they’re beautiful in a different way than the other seasons.

I found an old postcard on ebay, probably intended as a generic scene, but it captures some of the faded timber beyond the evergreen trees and the cold stream. When you walk in woods in late autumn, brown leaves cover the ground, eventually becoming soil. It’s pleasant to walk through nature during this time of year, as long as you’re bundled up.

Snow brings substantiality to that faintness, as in this photo of trees around the lake in Akron, OH by which we used to live. Enough brightness is added to the tree branches to bring details into view.

A while ago, I did a lighthearted search for “trees in the Bible.” I was struck by the connection of trees with God’s relationship to us: the Trees of Life and of Good and Evil in Eden, the cypress wood that formed the saving Ark of Noah, the acacia wood used for the Ark of the Covenant as well as the Tabernacle and its various components (Ex. 25, 30, 36-39), the Lebanon cedar and other woods used in Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 5-7, 2 Chr. 2-4), the wood of Christ’s manger, the cross (the “tree” on which Christ took our curse: Deut. 21:22-23; Gal. 3:3) and finally the restored tree of life of Revelation 22:2. Some of those are examples of wood being used, not trees per se, and the Bible has many references to different kinds of trees.

Today, I’ve been thinking about Advent as the beginning of the Christian year, a season of remembrance of Christ’s birth and of expectation of Christ’s return, and I've been thinking of the way the trees outside look. Perhaps the half-transparent timber of December is a way to think about Christ’s return, too: life is beautiful now but expectant for a greater beauty, yet to come.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Christmas Carol Rebellion

I love holiday music, although because of way they elicit nostalgia, I can only listen to carols for about an hour before I have to switch to some other kind of music for a while. I've a CD called "Celtic Tidings" (unrelated to "women" and "thunder") that we like, and Mannheim Steamroller and Canadian Brass collections. Classical music, like Bach’s Christmas Oratorio or Handel’s Messiah, and music by Mendelssohn, Torelli, Schuetz, Vaughan Williams, etc., are favorites in December.

Here are some "bah humbug yet lighthearted" thoughts: What is your least favorite holiday song----or songs that annoy you? Of course, there are all kinds of odd Chritsmas songs, like “I Want Eddie Fisher for Christmas,” “I Farted on Santa’s Lap (Now Christmas is Gonna Stink for Me)”, “Leroy the Redneck Reindeer,” “Santa’s a Fat Bitch” by Insane Clown Posse, and numerous others....

I’ve really disliked “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” this year. It’s stuck in my head too much. I always think the lyrics are positive and thus need a more upbeat melody. Sure enough, when I looked up the song, it originally had a rather downbeat lyric (written for the sad situation in the movie Meet Me In St. Louis. The author changed the words at the urging of Judy Garland and others, but the melancholy melody remained.  

“We Need a Little Christmas” has also been irritating this year. "A little Christmas"?----I’m on sensory overload already! The words make sense in the song’s original context, the musical Mame, where the family is struggling.

I never like the artificial-sounding lyrics of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland”: snowman/No, man, conspire/fire. That song benefits from its original setting, too: times when country parsons traveled among communities to do weddings for couples who didn’t belong to a church, like the song’s couple who built a snowman and, somehow, thereby decided to get married.

"Santa Baby"---cute the first few times, less so later (although Eartha Kitt is awesome). I learned "Little Drummer Boy" as a kid and thought it was so moving! Now, it's performed so often.... Interestingly, an online source indicates those two songs are the only Christmas "hits" written by women.

I don't care for “I Wonder as I Wander” because I've heard it too often in church settings, not always with skillful singers. I thought the same about “O Holy Night” for a while, but I got a reprieve from hearing so often and so I began to like it again. "Do You Hear What I Hear?" is a similar song: my daughter said she'd had enough carols that day when she listened to a bad arrangement of that one.

I love “The First Noel” but it’s melody goes up and down all the time. It has the same time signature as a waltz, and I don't care for waltz music. (Johann Strauss makes me scream.) By the end of verse 5 of "The First Noel," I’m swaying a little to the beat and thinking, “This tune is so tedious!”

I liked "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" as a kid, until I thought about the premise---he's bullied because he's different, then he's promoted ahead of everyone else, and somehow that increases his popularity? …

I like “White Christmas” but it has set up that foolish yearly expectation that Christmas Day “should” be snowy to be a proper Christmas---which, of course, it may or may not be. The seldom used introduction to the song has the singer feeling wistful because he lives in snow-free Beverly Hills.

All this has to do with taste, preferences, and memories. I love Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride," and also the song "Silver Bells," because I connect them with the holiday decorations in my small hometown when I was a kid. But my daughter doesn’t like “Sleigh Ride” because her high school band played it so often, and she finds “Silver Bells” maudlin. I totally get it. Which Christmas songs are your favorites? Which do you avoid if possible?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Beethoven's Birthday

Happy Beethoven’s Birthday! His baptism on December 17, 1770 is documented, and scholars assume his (undocumented) birthday was December 15 or 16, because babies were typically baptized at a day or two old. When I was little, I loved the Peanuts comics and enjoyed getting paperback collections of the strips. Nearly every December 16, the story concerned Beethoven’s birthday and Schroeder’s celebration of it. Of course, Schroeder also performed Beethoven sonatas and other works on his toy piano.

Thus inspired by a favorite comic strip, I liked certain Beethoven compositions when I was young. In those days, the Huntley-Brinkley evening news on NBC concluded with the scherzo from Beethoven’s Ninth. I wrote NBC to find out the title and got a letter back! Subsequently, I found a used recording of the symphony at our hometown library’s annual book sale. Eventually, I also found LPs of the fifth and seventh symphonies and some of his named sonatas. I took piano lessons, but somehow never managed the spontaneous, unpracticed skill of Schroeder.

Our library acquired a copy of George R. Marek’s Beethoven: Biography of a Genius (Funk & Wagnall’s, 1969) when it was published or perhaps the following year. I didn't read the whole book but I enjoyed checking it out. I was 12 in 1969, and at 13 and 14 I had unrequited crushes on a couple of girls, which unfortunately aggravated some childhood depression I’d had even earlier. Feeling scarily hopeless at such a young age, I found comfort in the fact that, as Marek discussed, Beethoven struggled for acceptance, too!

Marek’s chapter on “The Immortal Beloved” is interesting. Beethoven's letter to his “Unsterbliche Geliebte,” dated July 6-7 and later analyzed to be 1812, was found among his effects after he died. But who was the woman, to whom Beethoven wrote with such passion? Was the letter returned to him, or did he never send it? Reviewing the numerous women important to Beethoven---like Josephine Brunsvik, Guilietta Guicciardi, Antonie Brentano,, Amalie Sebald, Bettina Brentano, Dorothea Ertmann, and Therese Brunsvik---many scholars argue for Josephine Brunsvik. Marek builds an interesting circumstantial case for Dorothea Ertmann. From time to time I still leaf through my own copy of Marek's thick book, which gives an excellent sense of the composer’s era and life.

This next birthday of mine, I'll be the same age as Beethoven when he died (56). My mother just passed away at age 93, though, and I hope that I live into old age like most of my family has. The cause of his death is disputed, possibly liver disease related to drinking or some other source of hepatitis, or to lead ingestion from wine containing the metal used to sweeten cheap wine, or to syphilis or other diseases. My daughter has seen the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's performance of their opera, "Beethoven's Last Night," which draws upon the drama of Beethoven's life and the element of fate so famously depicted in the beginning notes of the Fifth Symphony.

In a funny way, Beethoven sticks to my childhood Christmas memories, I suppose because of the Peanuts paperback collections, some of which I received as presents. And, of course, December 16 was, at least for the prodigy Schroeder, a significant day just nine days from Christmas, with a gladness all its own.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Advent and the End of Time

Picture from
As our pastor introduced Advent on the first Sunday, this season isn't so much a time of waiting for Jesus' birth----which has happened----but of expectation of Christ's second coming. Advent marks time to Christmas but also calls on us to be faithful, reflect on our relationship to God, and place our hope in God's final victory.

According to Hebrew 9:28, Christ “will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” At that time he’ll be king over all earth and heaven (Rev. 11:15), will completely destroy the power of death (1 Cor. 15:25, 26), will bring about the resurrection of the dead (1 Thess. 4:16-17) and the final judgment (Rev. 20:11-13). He will come suddenly (Mark 13:36). Some people expect Jesus to return in our lifetime. Others point to the fact that Jesus discouraged speculation about the timetable of his return (Mark 13:32). Paul told people to stay alert (1 Cor. 16:13, 1 Thess. 5:1-11), but also warned that we shouldn’t become idle and neglect our daily responsibilities (2 Thess. 3:6-13).

Whenever Jesus returns----however you fit that expectation into your faith---one thing is for sure: we will all die someday. God will reward us by his free grace, whether we came to faith early or late in life (Matt. 20:1-16).  but we do need to be ready (Mark 13:33-37)! We need to commit to the Lord, however small and inadequate our faith-steps may be. Readiness incudes believing in him, following him, trusting his power … and trusting his merciful desire to save us regardless of all our sins and failures!

Here is perhaps an odd pair of books to connect: Deuteronomy and Revelation. Deuteronomy concludes the Torah with a stirring call for Jews to keep faithful to the laws and commandments (reiterated for many chapters) and to remind future generations of God's mighty works of salvation. Meanwhile Revelation concludes the New Testament with arcane and impenetrable symbols that invite all kinds of wheel-spinning speculation about the end times. They seem like such dissimilar books.

And yet Revelation also calls future generations to faithfulness. Revelation proclaims God's mighty work of salvation, too (7:10, 11:15, 19:6), and so, in an analogous way to Deuteronomy, we know that there is no ultimate reason for us to lose heart—or to lose our faithfulness, however meager Although Christ’s coming lies in the future, he has already guaranteed God's victory. Thus we have reasons to stay faithful, with God's help.

The past couple years I’ve been renewing my personal Bible study, especially focusing upon the Old Testament. Many of us Christians aren’t as literate in the Hebrew and Jewish traditions of our faith as we might be, and some Christians I’ve met are largely indifferent to the Old Testament.

Francis Danby, Opening of the Sixth Seal," 1828
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin
But the Book of Revelation----which some Christians do find fascinating----contains more references to the Old Testament than nearly any other New Testament book: I read that there are nearly 200 references, allusions, and images. I’m still not keen on interpreting its arcane and violent symbolism to gain knowledge of our present times. But I appreciate the book all the more as the concluding portion of Christian scripture, which ties together many theological strands from the whole of the Bible.  If you really want to dig into Revelation, you might first spend a year or so reading the Old Testament and books about biblical theology. Then, you can appreciate how Revelation reaches deeply into the Old Testament and connects those scriptures (and therefore the whole of God's saving activity since ancient times) to Christ and his final victory.

I found an interesting article, “The Old Testament and the Book of Revelation” at the site. I liked the article because it gave straightforward biblical references without the speculations and polemics that one finds in some analyses of Revelation. Perusing that article as well as the notes in my study Bibles, I developed a very incomplete list of references to Old Testament passages that one finds in Revelation. These are just my notes from these sources, written down so I can study them more later. That online article gives many more references and other research about John's compelling visions and style of writing.  

The image of “the son of man” in Daniel 7:13-14 connects to Rev. 1:7.

The image of “the kingdom of priests” in Exodus 19:6 an Isaiah 61:6 connects to Rev. 1:6.

Ezekiel’s vision of four living creatures and four wheels in chapter 1, and also Isaiah 6:1-4, connect with Revelation chapter 4, wherein the living creatures give God honor and glory.

The dwelling of God in the new heaven and earth in Isaiah 65:17ff connects to Rev 21:1-2. Also,

Michael the archangel (Dan. 12:1) connects to Rev. 12:7-12.

The condemnation of Deuteronomy 29:19-20, with the image of being blotted out of the book of life, connects to Rev. 21:19. In fact, that article indicates: “Revelation 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15, 21:27 are based on Exodus 32:32-33; Psalm 69:28; Daniel 12:1,” and also Ps. 56:8 and Malachi 3:16. All these have to do with the them of God writing a book containing the names of the faithful.

The differently colored horses of Zechariah 1:7-17 and 6:1-8 connect to Revelation 6:1-8.

The eating of the scroll in Ezekiel 2:8-3:33 and Jeremiah 15:16 connect to Rev. 10:8-11.

Much of Joel 1-2, with its descriptions of plagues, droughts, and the coming day of the Lord, connects to the various events in Revelation: e.g., the locusts in Rev. 9.

Some of Ezekiel’s images of the restored temple in chapters 40-48, as well as Zechariah chapter 4, connect to Rev. 11:1-6 et al. Also, the restored Jerusalem in Ezekiel 48:30-35 connect to Rev. 21:12-14.

Genesis 49 lists the twelve tribes of Israel, in the context of Jacob’s death: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Gad, Asher, Dan, Naphtali, Joseph, and Benjamin. Jacob adopted Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, and thus they became heads of tribes. Rev. 7:1-8 describes how angels sealed the number of God’s servants out of “every tribe of the people of Israel,” and then lists the twelve tribes.  Instead of the tribe of Dan we have the tribe of Manasseh, and the tribe of Joseph rather than that of Ephraim is mentioned.

The cities of refuge are described in Numbers 35:9-34. They were places where a person who had accidentally killed someone could flee and when the high priest died they could return home without fear of being killed out of revenge.  The cities were Kedesh, Golan, Ramoth Shechem, Bezer, and Hebron. Although Rev. 12:6 doesn’t mention “cities of refuge” per se, the concept of a safe place prepared by God is there: for instance, the woman with child (representing God’s people) flees to a safe place in the wilderness where she will be nourished for 1260 days.

Daniel has a vision of four beasts in Dan. 7:1-8, which connects to Rev. 13:1-7, where beasts emerge from the sea. As that article indicates, the fourth beast represents Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the terrible Greek ruler of the Maccabean period.

Ezekiel 38-39 describes the prince Gog of the land of Magog. In Rev. 20:7-10, Gog and Magog become nations who are enemies of God’s people.

The famous story of Balaam and his donkey (Balaam's ass, as we Sunday school kids laughed about) is found in Numbers 25:1-9, as well as 31:16.  This story is echoed in Rev. 2: 14 where God scolds the church at Pergamum.

Rev. 14:14-20 tells of the angel reaping a grape harvest with a sickle and putting the harvest into the winepress of God’s wrath, producing copious blood.  Of course, this is the reference for a line in “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as well as the title of the novel, The Grapes of Wrath.  We find the earlier image in Joel 3:13 and Isaiah 63:1-6.

As that article indicates, Isaiah 65:17, 66:22, refer to the blessings of God upon the exiles who return from captivity in Babylon. These promises connect to a passage near the conclusion of Revelations, 21:1.

The Exile----the 6th century BCE destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the deportations of Judahites to Babylon----is a very key event in the Bible. Although the Bible isn't exactly “about” the Exile, the Bible is about the history of God’s people on the land in the centuries before the Exile, and then their post-exilic hope in God’s redemption. The exilic experience pervades the Bible in many, perhaps unappreciated ways. The psalms, for instance, which so many of us esteem for our daily faith, deeply reflect the post-exilic hope of God's people.

For Christians, Christ's first coming answers that post-exilic hope, but as the awful shootings yesterday and other daily tragedies remind us, the hoped-for complete fulfillment of peace and well-being still lies in the future. "That glorious song of old" over Bethlehem gives much-needed hope; "when with the ever circling years shall come the time foretold/when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling,/the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing."

Friday, December 14, 2012

Coventry Carol and Sandy Hook

When I heard the news of the Connecticut school shootings, I posted on Facebook that my unedited emotional reaction was laced with profanity. I thought most about those poor families who have to face Christmas without their children, or with traumatized children----not to mention the law enforcement personnel who saw awful things.  

Then I thought: although anger and outrage are human responses to such news----including those of us (like me) who could scarcely hurt a fly----our society is so filled with rage. Among other religious groups, we Christians can model harmony and good-will and ministry to one another----but we don't always. I’ve known so many angry Christians over the years. I get loud-angry, too, about things I perceive as political and social hypocrisy. I don't mean to turn these thoughts into a political statement. But we're in a very angry time, with outbursts of violence, perhaps the worst since the 1960s and early 1970s, though the violence is expressed in different ways than back then. As we feel honest indignation and sorrow, we need to pray urgently for the healing of those families, that town, and our country on several levels---and to ask God to help us clarify whether anger motivates our own hearts.     

Guns are "the elephant in the room" in our national conversation, as a news commentator put it earlier (what little TV news I could stand to watch). I also think that suitable access to mental health care is another major challenge that we need to keep discussing nationally----and how to pay for such care, in our current situation of a high national deficit and other economic challenges. But we also need a lowering of the national temperature, so to speak, a sense that we're all in this together. Tragedies such as this tend to pull us together---but that "togetherness" is so short-lived, it seems. I'm ashamed that I'm starting to think, "oh, another public shooting," when I hear the news---they're happening so frequently lately. Today's shooting, though, was so horrible. 

Only a tiny minority of people will take out their rage against others with weapons, and perhaps that’s a sign that God’s mysterious providence is holding back a hideous tide of those whom I was earlier calling [expletive] idiots, out to harm others because of their private anguish and evil. My religious Facebook friends are calling upon God for mercy and healing, and I know this will be addressed in prayer services and upcoming religious services around the country. My non-religious Facebook friends are also calling for national healing and reasoned, suitable solutions.  

I saw that someone posted this website, of helpful and unhelpful things to say to children (and others) in such a circumstance:

My mind turned (in honest anger toward God) to the story of the slaughter of the innocents in Matthew 2. Why would God (assuming the historicity of the story) allow babies to be killed, by a despot reacting to Jesus’ birth? Christ's birth resulted in an orgy of horror? The gospel author didn’t disguise the fact that horrible things do happen under the watch of a good and loving Lord, who sends his son to be born in a something terrible world. The hard questions are raised and left open in the gospel narrative. 

In turn, my mind connected to the Coventry Carol, which laments and mourns the death of the innocents by a king motivated (as the gunman today presumably was) by madness and evil. 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Ed Ruscha

A while back, I saw a feature on "CBS Sunday Morning" about the artist Ed Ruscha. I was surprised I hadn't noticed his art before---my own fault.  Born in 1937, Ruscha (pronounced roo-SHAY) is an LA-based artist, photographer, filmmaker, and printmaker. As this article from a recent exhibition in Stockholm indicates, Ruscha has been identified with both pop art and conceptual art, and his work has commonalities with surrealism and Dada, but, according to this article, Ruscha's art isn't wholly identifiable with a particular movement (  He is a contemporary of artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein, was influenced by artists like Jasper Johns and Edward Hopper, and was featured in very early exhibitions of pop art. His West Coast subject matter makes him an interesting artist in the pop and conceptual art traditions.

After the "Sunday Morning" report I ordered the heavy retrospective history, Ed Ruscha by Richard D. Marshall (New York: Phaidon Press, Inc., 2003). Leafing through the book, I loved the quality of his art explained in the above Moderna Museet article, "Ruscha’s overarching theme is words and their constantly shifting relationships with context and message. In all his paintings there are tensions and frictions at play: between foreground and background, between text and image, and between how words look and what they mean."

Unfortunately, the print in Marshall's Ruscha is small, and gray rather than black---a strain for this middle-aged person---so I'm still dipping into the text as best as I can while enjoying the many reproductions. I'd love to have a print of paintings like "Standard Station, Amarillo Texas" (1963) or "The Canyons" (1979) or the graphite "Twentysix Gasoline Stations" (1964) (or the photographic book), or the painting "Noise, Pencil, Broken Pencil, Cheap Western" (1963), and others. Taking my time with the Marshall text, I meanwhile enjoyed an article by Laura Cumming ( Cumming notes how Ruscha "painted words out of context, giving them a non-verbal life of their own as figures in a landscape; and he pictured words as images." "His humour is perennial but it coexists with profundity."

I found another article, an interview with Ruscha by Martin Gayford ( Gaylord writes that Ruscha's work "gives one the feeling of being on an endless road through an immense landscape, interrupted by puzzling messages on billboards, at once folksy and mysterious, a journey through a wide space the only features of which are logos, gas stations and parking lots. Joan Didion – another literary admirer – wrote that Ruscha’s works 'are distillations, the thing compressed to its most pure essence'. They are also sometimes surprisingly funny, in a laconic, Marcel Duchamp-meets-Clint Eastwood sort of way. Ruscha invented an entire artistic genre – one of several in his repertoire – that consists of nothing but words and phrases, floating in vaguely defined space: All You Can Eat, ½ Starved, ½ Crocked, ½ Insane, Chicken Rivets, Girls Girls Girls, Defective Silencer Units, Etc, and – especially ironic in the current circumstances – I Don’t Want No Retro Spective, a pastel from 1979."

As with these other referenced articles, that whole essay and interview are worth reading, with many more insights and discussions that I can summarize. I was interested that Ruscha's friend, with whom he drove Route 66 to California in the 1950s, was the musician Mason Williams, whose pieces "Classical Gas" and "Baroque-a-Nova" are long-time favorites of mine.

In still another article,, the author writes this: "Born and raised Catholic, Ruscha readily admits to the influence of religion in his work. He is also aware of the centuries-old tradition of religious imagery in which light beams have been used to represent divine presence. But his work makes no claims for a particular moral position or spiritual attitude." As I continue to read about Ruscha, this theme is worth considering.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Santa Took the Train

My hometown has a wonderful railroad history. The Vandalia Line was established in 1847 as the western line of the Terre Haute and Indianapolis Railroad, and the Illinois Central was completed to Vandalia in 1854. By 1905 the Vandalia Railroad Company had combined several different lines, including the St. Louis, Vandalia, and Terre Haute R.R., and the Pennsylvania Railroad  held a majority control therein. The railroads made Vandalia a popular stopover for traveling salesmen--the best accommodations, people said, between St. Louis and Indianapolis and between Chicago and Cairo. The first picture shows the former path of the Illinois Central past the downtown grain elevators, and the other two pictures look north and east, respectively, from the intersection of the PRR and Sixth Street.

My parents (born in the 1910s) grew up on Fayette County farms. They remembered that Vandalia was a bustling place to "come in to" during their younger days, as the "Spirit of St. Louis" rumbled into town. My railroad memories are very different, since the trains no longer stopped in town. I recall how we waited and waited in the family car as the lights of the striped railroad crossing guards blinked bright red, and I'd count the passing box cars marked with the interlocking PRR symbol. I also remember a spectacular local train wreck in Vandalia in August 1962, when I was only five.

All this history makes me think of .... Santa Claus. When she was little, my daughter was never keen to visit Santa. We have only one Santa's-lap picture of her, when she was three months old. That day, Santa greeted children in a Sedona, AZ outdoor shopping area, during a 60-degree day. When I was little, I was an eager believer in Santa and looked forward to giving him my "wish list." But strangely I don't remember visiting department store Santas, although I must have.

My fondest Santa memories date from my young but post-belief days, when Santa came to Vandalia and set up shop in the caboose beside the Illinois Central tracks downtown! The caboose was across the street from the track-side grain elevators in the first picture. Though I was too old and too "cool," I loved the idea of going to a caboose! Perhaps the caboose had been used for that purpose during my earlier childhood but I just don't remember now. Still, in my nostalgic adult mind, the idea of Santa taking the train holds more sentimental appeal than even his airborne, caribou-powered sleigh.

Another year, Santa jumped from a small plane (probably from the little local airport), parachuted onto the Vandalia high school football field, and visited children gathered for the event. There is a Jean Shepherd-type story in that, somewhere.

(From a 2010 post)

Friday, December 7, 2012

"See 7 States from Rock City"

I love seeing the old Rock City barns that still stand along many two-lane roads. They advertise the 10 acres of rock formations atop Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga, Tennessee. The park opened in 1932, and the project of painting barns to attract visitors began a few years later.

The other day I saw this old thermometer on eBay and successfully bid on it. It will soon join my small collection of antique advertising and highway signs. According to this website--- ---the thermometers were among the promotional items (and in some cases a small monetary payment) given to people who consented to having their barns or sheds painted. Thus placed in a nostalgic mood, I pulled from the shelves an old favorite book, David B. Jenkins’ Rock City Barns: A Passing Era (Chattanooga: Free Spirit Press, 1996).

Jenkins provides small photographs of all the known Rock City barns (and also sheds, garages, and at least one small store), and larger color photographs of particularly beautiful or unusual examples. Jenkins spent a long time and drove many thousands of miles to locate and photograph the quaint places. Some photos join with stories of people who own the barns: for instance, an older farmer who lived along U.S. 41 in western Indiana. I loved to see that particular barn during all the years I drove from Kentucky to Illinois to visit my parents in the 1990s (pp. 26-27).

Jenkins’ book includes the story of Clark Byers, the barn painter himself. He and his crew used 4-inch brushes, first painting the roofs black. Then he freehanded the white letters on each barn, using a variety of slogans like “See Rock City,” “Bring Your Camera,” “Beautiful Beyond Belief,” “When You See Rock City, You See the Best,” and of course, “See Seven States.” According to Byers, he was paid $40 a barn.

Jenkins writes that there are extant barns in fourteen states. See Rock City, Inc. had file cards about each barn, dating from the 1960s, but Jenkins found other barns not represented in the company’s records. Of course, he discovered that many barns no longer existed. He sadly writes that their quaintness, deterioration, and (for some) demolition indicate the passing of vital eras of American family farming.

Leafing through the book, you might find photos that you particularly enjoy. Jenkins himself is proud of a photo of a small Louisiana barn; just as he took the photo, a train passed across the nearby field (pp. 42-43). There is only one extant Rock City barn in Texas, and it gets a color photo. One barn in Alabama---painted “Fun for the Family See Rock City” faces a graveyard (pp. 122-123). As he writes, the fading barns seem most quaint and attractive.

My own favorite Rock City barn does not get a full color photo but is included in the back of the book (p. 138). This barn sits along U.S. 51 a few miles south of Vandalia, Illinois, my hometown. (The book mislabels it as being along U.S. 67.) It was one of the many rural sights I noticed whenever we made the half-hour drive to the next larger town, Centralia, where we shopped sometimes and where my orthodontist’s office was located. I have not driven that way for a while but the last time I did, the barn was still there but the once-white letters on the roof had completely oxidized and were no longer recognizable.

The very first family vacation that I recall was a visit to Rock City and Lookout Mountain. This was before the interstates. We began the vacation by traveling Illinois route 185 across Four Mile Prairie, the familiar way to my grandma’s house----the road pictured in the header photo for this blog. Then I assume we connected to Illinois 37 and then drove down to U.S. 50. from which we connected to U.S. 41 that would’ve taken us all the way to Chattanooga. Although I was very young, I do remember walking atop Lookout Mountain and seeing Ruby Falls. Dad said he had to spank me to keep me from running toward the edge of the mountain. That would’ve been 1961 or 1962, a time when Clark Byers was still on the road somewhere, free-handing his signs.

"To miss Rock City would be a pity."


As I was writing this, I remembered two other favorite books. One is by William G. Simmonds, Advertising Barns, Vanishing American Landmarks, St. Paul, MN: Motorbooks International, 2004. Simmonds' book depicts Rock City barns and also those advertising Mail Pouch tobacco, Meramec Caverns, particular products and stores, and the Ohio Bicentennial barns.

Also the noted historian Martin E. Marty and his photographer son Micah published Our Hope for Years to Come: The Search for Spiritual Sanctuary, Reflections and Photographs (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1995), which combines meditations with photos of old, interesting American churches.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Returning to the Center

In my book, You Gave Me a Wide Place: Holy Places of Our Lives (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2006), I wrote: “The word 'repentance' (in Hebrew teshuvah) means to turn around or to return. Repentance is a synonym for regret and restitution. But [repentance can also have] a more positive meaning: of aligning one’s priorities in order to remain true to one’s values. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson writes that, 'The beginning place, as with any return, is of having a place from which we start, a home base, a point of origin, a beginning.' But Rabbi Artson also notes that turning/returning includes 'finding our essence…our core.' He asks, 'What is your core? What is your center? What is that part of yourself that you cannot abandon without walking away from who you truly are? Is your life balanced, centered? This kind of turning is not a turning to get back to some earlier time; it is a turning to remain true.'” (1)

Advent is traditionally a period of solemnity, repentance, and fasting. You may be thinking, Yeah, right, as you think of the un-solemn busyness, shopping, crowds, and holiday feasts that are typical of contemporary life, although in churches, the purple color of church vestments conveys solemnity (according to ancient church traditions).

How might we think of Advent repentance in the way that Rabbi Artson writes: not just sorrow for sin but a rediscovery of our true nature? One way might be to reassess the “truth” of who we are and where we are in our lives. Are we involved in activities that give us a sense of satisfaction and service? Are we anxious, which can reveal old sources of distress in one's heart (my own struggle)? Are we engaged in unhelpful activities (gossip, maneuvering for position, etc.) that bespeak a core of unhappiness and selfishness? Do the words we speak sound like the person we want to do--or like some angry, dispirited, unsettled person?

Rabbi Artson’s questions, posed for an Advent season, can inform a meaningful time of reflection: “What is your core? What is your center? What is that part of yourself that you cannot abandon without walking away from who you truly are? Is your life balanced, centered?”

1. Bradley Shavit Artson, “Turning,” in Tikkun, Sept.-Oct. 2002, pp. 66-67 (quotation from p. 66).

(A post from 2010)

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

News of Great Mirth

In my 2009 Advent study book published by Abingdon Press, I noted that we display poinsettias in our churches at Christmastime, but maybe we ought to intermingle Easter lilies among the poinsettias to remind us that Jesus’ whole life--birth to death to resurrection--was for our benefit.

In communicating the Gospel, balancing justification and sanctification (that is, salvation and holiness) can be tricky. Salvation is unearned, God’s love is constant and undeserved, Christ’s death covered all our sins “not in part but the whole” as the hymn goes---all these are wonderful, freeing aspects of the Gospel message.

On one hand, growing in grace, and loving and serving one another, are essential aspects of Christian living: “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life ….For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin….So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:4-7, 11). Paul is clearly thinking of a personal, ongoing effort on our part to “own” and live our salvation: our salvation is a reality which, nevertheless, we could neglect.

On the other hand, nothing we do in our Christian living is Gospel, strictly speaking: the Gospel is still Christ’s person and work which saves us and gives us the Spirit. The Gospel is what God does, not what we do. The things we do are important in so far as they are results of the ongoing work of the Spirit in our lives--which, again, is included in the wonderful things God does for us, not our own feeble efforts to screw up our courage, force ourselves to love jerks, overcome our psychological defects, and so on.

Unfortunately, many people don’t get the message, or they get it and lose it. The Ligonier website, which I discovered from a Facebook friend, discusses the problem of “sad Christians.” I very much empathize with laity (and maybe clergy, too, but we hesitate to admit such things) who sometimes feel more lost than fulfilled in church. I worry that we pastors try to motivate and pep-talk our congregations into serving and giving and, as an unintended consequence, we thereby underemphasize the basic message of the Gospel (or, at least, we "bracket" it) and substitute works-righteous messages that would shame or inspire people to do more and be more.

Another way of encouraging people to serve is simply to preach love. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley stressed “holiness of heart and life.” As many people have lamented over the years, he used the word “perfection” to describe the cleansing that we can experience from impure motives so that we are characterized in all our relationships by love. Consequently, he spent a lot of time qualifying what he meant by perfection instead of focusing on his main idea: the fullness of Christ’s love in our hearts. Perhaps he should have used a phrase like that one instead of a single word that required explanation and qualification.

In his book, Housing Heaven’s Fire: The Challenge of Holiness (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2002), John C. Haughey, S.J., calls attention to the fact that, in the Bible, we are holy because we belong to God. We’re holy before we do anything good and admirable; we’re holy by association, holy because God already loves us. Think about the experience of being loved and accepted by someone you think is fabulous: you feel happy and proud of your association and want to do things that please the person. That’s an imperfect analogy for our relationship with God: we need to realize deeply how much God loves us, and to hold fast to that unchanging and guaranteed reality. Holding fast to God’s unchanging love may not shield us from discouraging church experiences, but we can keep in mind that church people and preachers are, like us, human and fallible, but God’s Gospel is always wonderful and life-changing.

Which brings me finally to the hymn, “On Christmas Night All Christians Sing,” set by R. Vaughan Williams to a folk tune. The line “news of great joy, news of great mirth” is wonderful. How many Christians do you know who are joyful and characterized by “mirth”? I’ve certainly dealt with “the blues” over the years; it's an ongoing thing with me. I can think of some who are sad Christians as described above, others who were glum and disapproving because they have faith but also sour personalities. How do we stay joyful?

The answer is to hold to the promise of God’s unfailing love, and to assume (correctly) that it‘s the only reliable thing in our lives. Christmas is “news of mirth” because God has made us his very own and won’t let go!

(A post from 2010) 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

"Von Himmel hoch"

To help my spirits stay upbeat during the first holiday season without my mother, I ordered a 10-CD set of Mendelssohn’s complete Sacred Choral Works (Geistliches Chorwerk) on the Carus label. Hurray! ---the second CD had a Christmas cantata with which I was unfamiliar. “Von Himmel Hoch” is from 1831 and is just sixteen minutes long.  Some of the words:

From heav’n on high I come to you:
I bring you joyful news and true.
The joyful news I bring this day
I now shall sing and I shall say.

For you this day a child is born,
Born of a virgin pure and fine.
This beautiful and winsome boy
Shall be your gladness and your joy.

He is the Christ, our blessed Lord,
And he will keep you from all want.
Your King and Savior he shall be,
and from transgression make you free.
He brings you all the blessedness
That God will give you in his grace...

And if the world were great indeed,
Adorned with precious stones and gold,
It still would seem too small to be
A cradle fit to give to thee.

And therefore, Lord, it pleases thee
To manifest this truth to me:
All worldly honor, power, and wealth
For thee are of no help or worth.

Praise God upon his heav’nly throne,
Who sends to us his only Son.
The angels greet us with good cheer
And sing us all a bright new year.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Advent's Beginning

Some words from St. Charles Borromeo, a controversial church leader who lived 1538-1584, and is namesake of nearby St. Charles, MO where my parents were married:

“Beloved, now is the acceptable time spoken of by the Spirit, the day of salvation, peace and reconciliation: the great season of Advent. This is the time eagerly awaited by the patriarchs and prophets, the time that holy Simeon rejoiced at last to see. This is the season that the Church has always celebrated with special solemnity. We too should always observe it with faith and love, offering praise and thanksgiving to the Father for the mercy and praise and thanksgiving to the Father for the mercy and love he has shown us in this mystery. In his infinite love for us, though we were sinners, he sent his only Son to free us from the tyranny of Satan, to summon us to heaven, to welcome us into its innermost recesses, to show us truth itself, to train us in right conduct, to plant within us the seeds of virtue, to enrich us with the treasures of his grace, and to make us children of God and heirs of eternal life. ...

“The Church asks us to understand that Christ, who came once in the flesh, is prepared to come again. When we remove all obstacles to his presence he will come, at any hour and moment, to dwell spiritually in our hearts, bringing with him the riches of his grace....”

(From The Liturgy of the Hours, I, Advent Season, Christmas Season [New York, Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 1975], pp. 152-153.)

For several years I’ve tried to make Advent a genuine beginning to the year: a time of reflection and resolution. Our best-laid plans to grow spiritually are often thwarted amid the busyness of the season (including, for me, wrapping up a semester). My own typical struggle is to rejoice more deeply in the “riches” and “treasures” of God’s grace (as St. Charles writes here, echoing Ephesians), since my emotional disposition is often toward worry and blue self-dissatisfaction. This season, I no longer have my mother to visit, which adds a new layer of emotional struggle to the time.

Our pastor’s sermon yesterday called attention to the fact that Advent is a liturgically enacted remembrance of Christ’s first coming and an anticipation of his second coming. That's always a good thing to remember: in a way, the nativity sets that we display in homes and churches orient us to the present and future, and not just to the distant Bethlehem past.

While the parousia is a vivid Christian doctrine, I like to think of the ways Christ can be return to our hearts, over and over again, as we struggle in our spiritual lives and “get back on track” when we’ve been blue or busy or distracted for a time.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Christmases Long, Long Ago

On my bookshelves, I’ve this toy that’s over fifty years old. Two other examples (the toy inside the original box) are currently selling on Ebay, one for $400 and one for $950. Those look to be in better shape than this one. I doubt that mine runs, but I’ve not tried it.

This was a toy Dad purchased for me for Christmas when I was four or five years old, that is, the early 1960s when The Flintstones were first on television. I loved the show. I even remember the end credits of the first season (1960-1961), where the camera panned out to show other houses in the Bedrock neighborhood, as Fred banged on his own door to be let in.

For some reason, however, I hated this toy. Something about the bronto-crane frightened me. I must’ve felt okay about the box, which has my crayon marks on it. Dad’s feelings were hurt; though not in a mean way, my parents tended to attach love with gifts and appreciation of gifts, and they also tended to hang onto hurts and slights for a very long time. The toy was something Dad mentioned, maybe once every five or ten years or so.  “Paul didn’t like that toy,” he’d say. But it had been stored in the attic with many other belongings of theirs, seemingly beyond the ken of man.

When Mom’s house was eventually cleaned out, though, the toy reappeared amid all the things that had been in the attic. A “D” battery, now very corroded, was still in the bronto-crane. I’ve kept the toy and box on display in my own home, not as a reminder of a childhood misunderstanding but of my parents'  generosity and our Christmases together.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

"Jerusalem: The City of Two Peaces"

With all the news from Israel and Gaza recently, I listened again to a set of SACDs (with accompanying book) called "Jerusalem: The City of Two Peaces." A couple years ago I saw the set reviewed in Gramophone magazine, but I forgot to to seek it out until a subsequent issue (November 2011) featured the Spanish early music specialist Jordi Savall on the cover, reminding me of the "Jerusalem" project.

Savall and his wife Montserrat Figuera (who passed away in 2011), and their ensemble Hesperion XII have produced several sets on their own label, Alia Vox, some of which I hope to explore in the future. For this Jerusalem album and book, the groups Hesperion XII and La Capella Reial de Catalunya as well as Jewish, Christian, and Muslim musicians from among both European and Middle Eastern countries. perform a homage to Jerusalem.

The project attempts the “enormous and almost impossible challenge to evoke some of the key moments in the history and music” of Jerusalem. All the material invokes Jerusalem’s history from the point of views of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim heritage, the city’s heritage as both a “city of pilgrimage” and a symbol of exile and refuge,” as well as the ever-present concern for peace.  The music and words include recitations from the Qur’an, Psalms (121, 122, 137), Talmudic reflections, the sound of shofars, dances, songs from the Crusades, songs of Jews, Palestinians, and Armenians, pleas for peace in Arabic, Hebrew, Armenian, and Gregorian chant, as well as anonymous songs.

All this music and text is given historical context (pp. 110-120, 128-143), and this material is provided in eight languages: French, German, English, Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Hebrew, and Arabic.  Included are not only standard pictures of the musicians but also interesting art from different cultures relating to Jerusalem.

The introduction’s author notes that one etymology of the Hebrew name for Jerusalem is “city of two peaces,” that is, the “heavenly peace” promised in prophetic texts, and the “earthly peace” sought by the city’s political leadership over the past five millennia.  “Sanctified by the three great monotheistic religions of the Mediterranean, Jerusalem soon became the focus of prayers and longing. Desired by all, she has been the goal, aim and destination of pilgrims of all persuasions who flock to her gates in peace, but also the objective of soldiers and armies in pursuit of war, who have besieged and burned the city, bringing ruin and devastation more than forty times throughout her long history” (p. 101).

The project aims not only to trace Jerusalem’s political and spiritual history through texts and music, but also to invoke peace. “A peace born out of a dialogue based on empathy and mutual respect is, despite the enormous difficulties involved, a necessary and desirable path for all concerned” (p. 1). The artists see Jerusalem as a “symbol of all mankind,” and thus a symbol of the urgency of peace in the 21st century (p. 21).

Witnessing to peace comes out of Savall's artistic credo: in that Gramophone article (p. 37), he comments, "We musicians sometimes forget how powerfully what we do can act on people's lives, how it can heal them."

Monday, November 26, 2012

Abandoned Landscapes

My photo of an abandoned
gas station near Pana, IL 
The start of the holiday shopping season made me think again about some of the cultural-environmental impacts of our habits, in which I'm part of the problem, too. A few years ago I wrote an issue of FaithLink, “Just Shopping” (Nov. 27, 2005). We raised the issue of box stores that expand to larger facilities but leave behind empty buildings that sit vacant for years. (My hometown has a Wal-Mart super store but the former store has been unoccupied for years.) A difficult issue! Economic well-being sometimes involve facility expansion, but what happens to the disused place? Earlier I researched a similar theme for the FaithLink issue, "Saving Main Street" (June 11, 2000).

The topic is larger than just box stores. Drive through many small towns and you’ll encounter vacant store fronts in the business district. If the stores become occupied, the business may be just a shadow of the place’s former self, for instance, a nice small-town clothing store that had sold good brands for an appreciative clientele becomes a thrown-together antique mall. That's not always the case, and some amount of commerce may be better than a completely disused store. You also see deteriorating commercial buildings in many communities; they’ll never house anything and will someday be torn down.

Several months ago I purchased and studied two books, Vanishing America: The End of Main Street: Diners, Drive-Ins, Donut Shops, and Other Everyday Monuments by Michael Eastman (New York: Rizzoli, 2008) and Approaching Nowhere by Jeff Brouws (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2006). Both books of photographs document disused and abandoned landscapes, including buildings in disrepair, deteriorating signage, and ugly landscapes of urban, small-town, and rural areas. Approaching Nowhere begins with a variety of photos of empty parking lots, empty store fronts, fading motel signs, neon signs on restaurants and filling stations, and wide spots on the interstate. His chapter “Franchises” depict current types of businesses, like Wal-Mart and McDonalds, while “Discarded Landscape” portrays abandoned and decaying commercial buildings and lots filled with rubble. In a concluding essay, Brouws reflects on the meaning of these landscapes, while William L. Fox in his essay discusses the way that the American impulse for mobility doesn’t always lead to success and, in fact, as Brouws’ photos show, can lead to ruin.

Eastman’s book, meanwhile, provides series of photographs of “main street”: theaters, churches, hangouts, doors, signs, stores, services, automobiles, hotels, and restaurants. Many of the depicted places and things are representative of the forlorn small towns through which you pass if, like me, you enjoy traveling the two-lane roads when you can. (If you love those forlorn small towns, you’ll certainly enjoy Vanishing America!) But not all of Eastman’s subjects are fading relics; some are functioning places in good shape.

Abandoned alignment of
U.S. 51 in Fayette Co., IL 
I remembered a book I purchased years ago in a used bookstore in Flagstaff, David Plowden’s The Hand of Man on America (Riverside, CT: The Chatham Press, 1971). Plowden, a long-time observer of the American Landscape through his black and white photographs, similarly depicts both pleasant and ruined, bypassed landscapes in his travels. He also decries the environmental and cultural wreckage to which our love of mobility brings us. What he calls (in the last long essay in the book) “the great sorrow of the automobile age” is that we ruin the land by constructing more and more roads to see the land’s cherished sights.

There is a lot of food for thought in these books. Right now, Douglas Brinkley’s introduction to Vanishing America includes a strange attractiveness in such landscapes: the photos “are like field reports from Main Street, dispatches meant to trigger our frayed historical imagination. You could view these photos as valentines of goodbye.” Poet William Carlos Williams saw “beauty in the refuse” of his native Paterson, NJ; the broken bottles of the tenements he described as “gems... It’s a matter of your eyes looking at them right” (p. 11). It does seem odd that someone (like me) would leaf through the sad landscapes of Approaching Nowhere and feel a deep sense of nostalgia, an eagerness to return to the road and embrace the sorrow of which Plowden writes.