Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Merton on Love and Service

Some good words, about which I'll continue to reflect in 2014.

"Do not depend on the hope of results.... [S]tart more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. ... In the end... it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything....
"The big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen and we can share in them; but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important.
"The next step in the process is for you to see that your own thinking about what you are doing is crucially important. You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work and your witness.... That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God's love.
"The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free of the domination of causes and just serve Christ's truth... [t]he real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see."

         ---Thomas Merton to James Forest, 2/21/66, quoted in Thomas Del Prete, Thomas Merton and the Education of the Whole Person (Religious Education Press, 1990).

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Cling to Christ: Bach Cantatas for the Early Christmas Season

from http://www.sequenza21.com/
Continuing my listening to Bach's sacred cantatas, performed by the Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloist, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner … Over the next several days I'll be listening three CDs for the Christmas season. They were recorded in 2000 at St. Bartholomew's Church, a favorite stop whenever we visit Manhattan. Although I'm beginning my year-long "journey" with the First Sunday of Advent, these three CDs are actually the last ones in the original pilgrimage.

CD 54 contain the cantatas "Gelobet seist du, Jesus Christ” (BWV 91, "All Praise to you, Jesus Christ") and “Unser Mund sei voll Lachens” (110, "Let our mouth be full of laughter") for Christmas Day, and then “Christum wir sollen loben schon” (121, "To Christ we should sing praises") and “Dazu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes” (40, "For this purpose the Son of God") for Boxing Day, the second day of Christmas. On the CD's cover is photograph of a child in Amdo, Tibet. According to the notes, “Gelobet, seist du” is full of expectation and danceable-rhythms, with its emphasis on praise of God’s work in Christ---the small way in which the creator of the universe appeared for our benefit.

"Christum wir sollen" is based on a 5th century Latin hymn is similar in its content: “God, who was so boundless, took on servile form and poverty.” "Dazu its erschienen" has several contrasts of darkness and light---and the admonition that we should not be anxious and fearful for the “ancient serpent,” for Christ has conquered Satan. “Unser Mund sei voll Lachens" is, for Gardiner, the “most festive and prilliant” of these four with an “irresistible swagger” “Let your mouth be full of laughter and our tongue of singing. For the Lord has done great things for us.”

CD 55 contain the cantatas for the third day of Christmas, also recorded at St. Barth's: “Sehet, welch eine Liebe hat uns der Vater erzeiget” (BWV 64, "Behold, what manner of love"), "Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kömmt" (151, "Sweet comfort, my Jesus comes"), "Selig ist der Mann" (57, "Blessed is the man"), and a cantata for the second day of Christmas, "Ich freue mich in dir" (133, "I rejoice in thee"). The cover is photo of a baby in Zigaze Tibet.

Gardiner calls attention to the trombone choir in "Sehet, welch eine Liebe", which I look forward to hearing. He notes that this cantata connects thematically to the theme of Christus victor in the previous day's cantata “Dazu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes”, as well as the Christmas cantata "Sehet, welch eine Liebe." Gardiner writes that Bach uses the trombone to depict the “vertical and horizontal” dimensions of faith: Christ’s descent to the world to save us and our eventual ascent to heaven to gain the full divine promises.

"Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kömmt" is an “intimate and beguiling” cantata has, among other things the use of oboes and violins “in praise of the spiritual riches to be found in Jesus’ spiritual poverty.”

His wretched state reveals to me
naught but salvation and well-being,
yea, His wondrous hand
will weave me naught but garlands of blessing.

In "Selig ist der Mann," we find a kind of dialogue between Christ and the soul, and thus a connection of Christ’s love with the soul of the suffering believer. In the arias and recitatives, Jesus promises his heart to the believer---and his hand to strike the believer's enemies and accusers. Meanwhile, the believer declares that he/she has nothing to count on but Jesus.

Finally, "Ich freue mich in dir" is an exhilarating cantata which connects to the believer’s need for Christ seen in "Selig ist der Mann" and the other cantatas.

…. I shall,
O Jesus, cling to Thee,
even if the world
were to shatter in a thousand pieces.

The last CD of pre-New Year Christmas music is the actual last CD of the entire set, also recorded at St. Bartholomew's. The cover photo is a child from Sarif, Afghanistan.These cantatas are for the Sunday after Christmas: the motet "Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied" (225, "Sing unto the Lord a new song"), "Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn" (152, "Tread the path of faith"), "Das neugeborne Kindelein (122, "The newborn infant child"), "Gottlob! nun geht das Jahr zu Ende" (28, "Praise God! The year now draws to a close"), and "
Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied" (190, "Sing unto the Lord a new song").

Gardiner notes that the BWV 225 "Singet dem Herrn" “distances itself from the mode of the incarnation and anticipates Christ’s coming Passion, crucifixion and death” with a small ensemble, a soprano and basis and six instruments). He also notes that the motet invites believers to the path of faith, as does" Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn," which is “as close as [Bach] ever got to the traditional Christmas carol-like image of the infant Jesus.” "Gottlob!" takes us into the area of the end of the year’s journey, while the BWV 190 "Singet dem Herrn" reminds us continually of Jesus (in this case, the lesson is his circumcision and naming). Gardiner notes that the cantata begins and ends in D major, creating a little circle with the journey of the past year and the new one to begin.

All good interrelated themes to ponder in our hearts: the weakness and poverty of the circumstances of Jesus' birth, contrasted with the strength of Christ's grace on which the believer relies. That strength, in turn, is that which we must turn to again and again through the journeys of our years---and the upcoming journey of the new year.  

English translations by Richard Stokes

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Joy

"Sadness should have no place on the birthday of life. The fear of death has been swallowed up; life brings us joy with the promise of eternal happiness.

"No one is shut out from this joy; all share the same reason for rejoicing. Our Lord, victor over sin and death, finding no person free from sin, came to free us all. Let the saint rejoice as he sees the palm of victory at hand. Let the sinner be glad as he received the offer of forgiveness. Let the pagan take courage as he is summoned to life.

"In the fullness of time, chosen in the unfathomable depths of God's wisdom, the Son of God took for himself our common humanity in order to reconcile it with its creator. He came to overthrow the devil, the origin of death, in that very nature by which he had overthrown humankind.

"And so at the birth of our Lord the angels sing in joy: Glory to God in the highest, and they proclaim peace to his people on earth as they see the heavenly Jerusalem being built from all the nations of the world. When the angels on high are so exultant at this marvelous work of God's goodness, what joy should it not bring to lowly hearts?

"Beloved, let us give thanks to God the Father, through his Son, in the Holy Spirit, because in his great love for us he took pity on us, and when we were dead in our sins he brought us to life with Christ, so that in him we might be a new creation. Let us throw off our old nature and all its ways and, as we have come to birth in Christ, let us renounce the works of the flesh... Do not forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of God's kingdom."

(From a sermon by Pope Leo the Great, quoted in The Liturgy of the Hours, I, Advent Season and Christmas Season, pp. 404-405. I made the language inclusive in three places.)

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Hump Day Christmas: Bach's Cantatas for Christmas Day

from United Methodist Memes
I found this meme on Facebook. The recent Geico insurance commercials (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWBhP0EQ1lA) have newly popularized that old expression "hump day," meaning that Wednesday is middle of the typical world week.

This year, Christmas is additionally a high point of the week by happening midweek!


Continuing my "journey" through Bach's sacred cantatas, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner…. today I'm listening to CD 1 in the 56-CD set, the cantatas for Christmas Day. The cover photograph is of a child in Hardiwar, India.

The first CD is “Christen, ätzet diesen Tag” (BWV 63), “Christians, etch this day in metal and marble.” Gardiner’s notes that this was first concert of the year-long pilgrimage (see my December 1st post). This concert happened in Weimar, a city of notable cultural history. But eight kilometers away, lies the notorious place Buchenwald. For Gardiner, this contrast reminds us, among other things, that “Bach’s music is overwhelming testimony to the strength and resilience of the human spirit,” with its need to find meaning and its endurance through life's horrors.

It makes me think, too, of the sometimes jarring contrast each Christmas when we sing "peace on earth" in a world that has never known lasting peace. And yet the day is etched permanently in human experience. One thinks of the famous, unofficial "Christmas truces" that happened along the Western Front in 1914, mocking the supposed need for nations to go to war.

This BWV 63 cantata has a symetrical form and contrasting moods, for instance Bach’s transition from E minor to A major when moving to Jesus’ birth. Among the several numbers, the singers declare, “O blessed day! O wondrous day on which the Saviour of the world, the Shiloh promised by God in paradise to the human race.”  “Call and implore heaven, come, ye Christians, come to the dance, you should rejoice at God’s deeds today!”

The other cantata is “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (BWV 191), the words and song of the angels which, in Bach's hands becomes (as Gardiner puts it) "a celebration of dance as well as song.”

Are we dancing with joy at the Good News of Christ? On Christmas Day the three of us will open presents, have lunch, and see part 2 of "The Hobbit," plus I'll go to our church's half-hour morning worship. It's a happy day, for sure. I don't want to become chiding about our Christian experience----as if we all "should" be dancing with joy at the Savior, and if we're not we're substandard Christians. But sometimes we do feel so positive about the Good News that, even if we don't dance, we can't sit still. If we think deeply about the Gospel promises, we can feel an even greater excitement than "hump day"!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Forms of Christ in the Old Testament

Robert Zund, “Road to Emmaus,” 1877
The various Old Testament lessons from the Advent services at our church reminded me of these notes I took a couple years ago for another blog…. One of my seminary professors was R. Lansing Hicks (1922-2008), whose obituary can be found at : http://www.yale.edu/opa/arc-ybc/v36.n16/story21.html He was my prof in spring semester 1980, after I had Brevard S. Childs for a class.

Over the years I appreciated more and more Prof Hicks' lectures on the Christian use of the Old Testament. A few years ago, I emailed him stating this. I forgot about my note until Hicks’ son-in-law emailed me, stating that Hicks had been ill during his last year and hadn’t read his emails, but the son-in-law had found my note and communicated it to Hicks shortly before his death. The moral of this story is, IF YOU WANT TO EXPRESS GRATITUDE TO SOMEONE FOR SOME KINDNESS OR HELPFULNESS, DON’T DELAY, DO IT NOW. This was the third or fourth time in my life that I sent a thank-you note to someone who died not long thereafter.

The moral of the rest of this post is: if you want to deepen your faith, finding connections and insights in the Bible is an excellent way. A few months ago I found a short book by Hicks: Forms of Christ in the Old Testament: The Problem of the Christological Unity of the Bible, the William C. Winslow Memorial Lectures of 1968 at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary. Several years ago I read Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture by Graeme Goldsworthy, and at about the same time, something at our church reminded me how little many of us know or appreciate the Old Testament and how it relates to the New. Consequently I’ve been interested in renewing my own Bible reading, and in helping people discover themes and passages that unify the testaments.

Again: these are simply my notes from an interesting book: find a copy on interlibrary loan for more insights! At the beginning of the book, Hicks quotes Gerhard von Rad’s question: “how far can Christ be a help to the exegete in understanding the Old Testament, and how far can the Old Testament be a help to him [or her] in understanding Christ?” (p. 6) Hicks offers a form-content approach which, by the end, also give us a stronger appreciation of the Old Testament and provides ideas for ecumenical dialogue.

First, we look at form, specifically the forms of words, actions, and a coalescence of both. (p. 9).

Forms of words. There are “words of suffering” (Job 16:18-17:2, 23; Ps. 22:1-2, 6-8, 14-18; 69:4-21; 116; Isaiah 53:3-9; Lamentations 3:1-24; and cf. Zechariah 12:10f), in which Christians perceived the form of Christ’s suffering (Matt. 8:17; Acts 8:32-35; 1 Peter 2:24f). There are words of forgiveness (Isaiah 40;2; 51:5f; Jer. 31:34; Hosea 14:4-7; Micah 7:19f; Zech. 13:1), in which Christians perceive the form of Christ’s pardon (Mark 2:5; Romans 10;5-13). There are words of salvation (Isa. 43:14-; 61:1-4; Jer. 23:5f; 31:2f; Ez.34:11-16; Zech. 8:13; cf. Ps. 20:30f), and words of life (Deut. 30:15-20; Isa. 25:6-8 [cf. Matt. 27:51; heb. 6:19; 10:20]; 26:19; Isa. 55:3; Amos 5:14); in which Christians perceive Christ’s power, too (Luke 20:37f; John 10:10; 11:25f; Heb. 11:17-19) (pp. 9-10).

Forms of action. There are forms of intercession: Abraham’s prayers for Sodom (Gen. 18:20-33), Moses’ prayers for the Israelites (Ex. 32:11-14, 31f), and the Servant’s actions (Isa. 42:2; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:13), in which Christian’s perceive the form of Christ’s self-oblation and intersession. There are forms of sacrifice, especially the binding of Isaac (Gen. 22:1-18), certainly a text readable as a very Christological text. There are also forms of God’s self-limitation: God’s covenant with Noah never to flood the earth again (Gen. 9:8-17); God’s covenant agreements with Israel (Ex. 34:10-28); God’s selection of a place where God can be met (Ex. 25:8f, 17-22; Deut. 12:10-14; 1 Kings 5:3-5; 8:20f, 29; Ps. 132:14; Ez. 37:26f). In all of these examples of divine self-limitation, Christians perceive the divine self-emptying in Christ (John 1:14; Phil. 2:6f; Col. 1:19f.) (pp. 10-11).

Coalescence of words and actions. Hicks cites Ex. 3:7f as a good combination of God’s verbal promises and God’s saving activity (pp. 11-12) We also look at content. It’s not always the case that the Old Testament provides the form and the New Testament the content. There are reciprocal movements between the testaments:

1. It is Christ’s nature to expose sin, and thus, whenever the Old Testament exposes sin (e.g., Micah 3:8, or the law as understood by Paul in Rom. 7:7-12), “it shares in the work of Christ. “

2. It is Christ’s nature to forgive sins, and thus the Old Testament “knows Christ” where there is forgiveness of sins (Lev. 16:29f; Micah 7:18-20; Isaiah 55:6).

3. Similarly Christ’s suffering for sin, and the Old Testament knows this kind of suffering (Ex. 32:31-32; Jer. 20:7-18; 37-38; Isa. 53:4-6).

4. And also Christ’s redemption from sin (Isa. 40:1-4; 53;12; Ps. 22:30-31; 130:7-8).

5. We also see the Old Testament providing the content of redemption, as in Hosea 3:1-3, in which we see the form of Christ’ s work (pp. 11-14).

Forms of intention. In the Old Testament, we see God’s intention of salvation: Cain (Gen. 4:15ff, Noah (5:29; 8:21f), Abraham (12:1-3, 15:7-21; 17:1-8), as well as the Exodus and Sinai covenant, and God’s many promises like Isa. 1:16ff and 43:4. The divine intention of salvation of course continues into the New Testament as a mutual binding of the two testaments. “And where salvation is offered, there is Christ.” (pp. 15-16). Intention cannot be separated from certain other forms, such as the offering of the innocent for the salvation of the guilty (p. 16).

Forms of Coordinates. Hicks gives the example of Isaiah 45:21f, where “a just God” and “a saving God” are not contrasted but yoked as co-ordinates: God is both just and saving. God’s justice and righteousness, in fact, are showed in Isaiah’s several depictions of the Lord as comforter, vindicator, healer, preserver, and sanctifier (pp. 17-18).

Other examples of coordinate terms are Moses’ writings and Christ’s words (John 5:46f), “the way, truth and life” of John 14:6, the “Son of God” and “life” in 1 John 5:15; and the perfection and gifts of the law in Ps. 19:7-9. All these are coordinates which are also perceived in Christ (Matt. 11:28, John 1:4-9; 8:12; 11:25f) (pp. 19-20).

In an interesting second half of the book, Hicks makes several points. One is that “When reading the Old Testament, early Christians recognized in its words and acts forms of the divine salvation and knowing that there is one salvation, not two, confidentially believed them to be forms of Christ.”As the New Testament affirms the life given through Christ (Romans 10:9, John 14:6), so the Old Testament affirms the living giving power of God (Deut. 30:15; 32:39, Amos 5:6). “[T]he Jew of the Old Testament… was saved no less lovingly or fully than those Jews who encountered Jesus ‘in the days of his flesh’ or we today who profess the Christian faith. In these Old Testament affirms we meet ‘soteriological content.’ The form of each passage quoted differs from the others just as each differs from the form in which Paul makes his declaration [in Romans 10:9]. But the content is the same, and so is the intention—the gift of life abundant; and that life, wherever or whenever offered, is life with Christ and in Christ” (pp. 26-27).

Another point: “Recent editions of Nestle’s Greek New Testament offer an index of Old Testament verses either cited or alluded to in the New Testament which runs to more than 1400 items. Not only the number of citations but their scope also is noteworthy: the list contains all the books of the canonical Old Testament with the exception of four–Ruth, Ezra, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. This is not to imply that the New Testament authors saw Christ in virtually every book of the Old Testament; but these impressive statistics for the frequency and range of Old Testament quotations do indicate beyond reasonable doubt that early Christian writers found material of specific value to them as Christians in every section of the Old Testament…” (pp. 30-31).

These are not “proof texts” and not all are what we would call “Old Testament prophecies”: for instance, Zechariah 9:9 is not a prophecy or a proof-text when used in Matthew 21:4f. But this is part of a drama in Zechariah, in which Matthew found a form for elucidating Christ. Likewise using in Zech. 11:12-13, 12:10, and 13:7b, Matthew could “delineate the form of divine action in Christ’s passion and show its intention” (pp. 33-34, quote on p. 34). Similarly Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1, which is not a promise but a form of the divine action (pp. 35-36). And also: Matthew’s use of Jeremiah in Matt. 2:17f, a word of sorrow which connects us with the divine words of salvation and restoration in Jeremiah 31 (pp. 32-33).

Hicks sees this form-content approach as helpful in Jewish-Christian conversation. We can better understand the variety and intentions of God’s works in both testaments, and we can affirm the uniqueness of Christ without denigrating God’s other works as somehow lesser, or simply preliminary to Christ. Hicks quotes James Sanders: “The Christian will not, even privately, ask why the Jew does not accept Christ as Messiah, and the Jew will not, even privately, ask why the Christian does not accept the Old Testament as Jewish. Each will respect the historic claim on the Bible the other represents….” Hicks adds that the purpose of conversation “is not merely to encourage Jews to converse with us for their own profit but to bring us Christians to ‘the point of such a full and genuine encounter that we are lead into the depth of the Christian Presence amid Judaism’” (p. 38). [Here, Hicks quotes P. Schneider's The Dialogue of Christians and Jews, who continues: "Is it not possible that we have been blind to the further depths in which Jesus is made manifest in the travails and triumph of the Jewish people and faith throughout the ages? This is a dimension of the Lord Christ that Christians have yet to discover" (p. 177, in note 50 of Hicks, p. 45).]

Another way to put it is by N. T. Wright in his article “Paul’s Social Gospel: In Full Accord” (Christian Century, March 8, 2011, 25-28), where he writes, “There’s a swath of Western thought which…has said in effect that since the first plan has gone wrong, God has decided to do something quite different, to send his own Son to die for sinners, so we can forget about all that Israel stuff….That is to misread Romans and to misunderstand Paul at his very heart. Instead, Paul declares in Romans 3:21 that God’s covenant faithfulness has now been revealed through the faithfulness of the Messiah for the benefit of all those who are faithful. He, the Messiah, is ‘Israel in person’” (p. 29).

Altogether, Professor Hicks, writes, “Herein the identification of Old Testament forms can contribute significantly to our understanding of the scope of Christ’s work through space and time. It widens the perspective through which we are helped to view the totality of Christ’s work. Does this not open further doors of understanding today? … Should not we extend this same affirmation to all works of redemption and deliverance? If so, we face the future of ecumenical discussion of with both confidence and anticipation and we turn eagerly toward dialogue with ‘secular [person]‘ in our ‘post-Christian’ age” (p. 39).

Sunday, December 22, 2013

"Rest a While in God"

A psalm-like reading from St. Anselm’s Proslogion, appropriate for the "seeking" quality of the Advent season.

"Insignificant [person], escape from your everyday business for a short while, hide for a moment from your restless thoughts. Break off from your cares and troubles and be less concerned about your tasks and labors. Make a little time for God and rest a while in him.

"Enter into your mind’s inner chamber. Shut out everything but God and whatever helps you to seek him; and when you have shut the door, look for him Speak now to God and say with your whole heart: I seek your face; your face, Lord, I desire.

"Lord, my God, teach my heart where and how to seek you, where and how to find you. Lord, if you are not here where shall I look for you in your absence? Yet if you are everywhere, why do I not see you when you are present? But surely you dwell in ‘light inaccessible.’ And where is light inaccessible? How shall I approach light inaccessible? Or who will lead me and bring me into it that I may see you there? And the, by what signs and under what forms shall I seek you? I have never seen you, Lord my God; I do not know your face.

"Lord most high, what shall this exile do, so far from you? What shall your servant do, tormented by love of you and cast so far from your face? He yearns to see you, and your face is too far form him. He desires to approach you, and your dwelling in unapproachable. He longs to find you, and does not know your dwelling place. He strives to look for you, and does not know your face.

"Lord, you are my God and you are my Lord, and I have never seen you. You have made me and remade me, and you have given me all the good things I possess, and still I do not know you. I was made in order to see you, and I have not yet done that for which I was made.

"Lord, how long will it be? How long, Lord, will you forget us? How long will you turn your face away from us? When will you look upon us and hear us? When will you enlighten our eyes and show us your face? When will you give yourself back to us?

"Look upon us, Lord, and hear us and enlighten us, show us your very self. Restore yourself to us that it may go well with us whose life is so evil without you. Take pity on our efforts and our striving toward you, for we have no strength apart from you.

"Teach me to seek you, and when I seek you show yourself to me, for I cannot seek you unless you teach me, nor can I find you unless you show yourself to me. Let me seek you in desiring you and desire you in seeking you, find you in loving you and love you in finding you."

From The Liturgy of the Hours: I, Advent Season, Christmas Season (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Corp, 1975), 184-185.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Sin and Hypocrisy: Bach's Fourth Advent Sunday Cantatas

Many people have heard of the "Bach Cantata Pilgrimage." The year 2000 was the 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach's death. To commemorate the occasion, John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir, and the English Baroque Soloists performed all of Bach's extant sacred cantatas (186 in all) in over sixty churches---in one year. To perform the cantatas each week in different locations was of course a complicated and relentless task, but the pieces were also recorded. Deutsche Grammophon was willing to release only a few of the cantatas so Gardiner established his own label, Soli Deo Gloria, to release the rest. Those words, "to the glory of God alone," were Bach's dedication of each cantata.

The cantatas have been released in sets over these years and feature photographs by photojournalist Steve McCurry of people from around the world. (His famous picture is that of Sharbat Gula, "the Afghan girl," although that particular photo is not used on these sets.) The photos give a sense of the universality of the music of Bach and its themes. When all of the cantatas were released this fall as a 56-CD box set, I purchased it from arkivmusic.com.

I like to find ways to provide structure and variety to my weekly devotional life, since I'm so prone to become busy and harried and to forget. So I decided to do my own pilgrimage (less complicated than Gardiner's!) and listen to the cantatas on the days represented by each. I'll try to write about the cantatas throughout the upcoming liturgical year.

On December 1st, I began with Disc 52, cantatas for the First Sunday in Advent. Now I'm continuing with Disc 53 for the Fourth Sunday in Advent. The picture on the disc is a man from Rajasthan, India.

The first cantata is "Wachet! betet! betet! Wachet!" (BWV 70). It captures the Advent theme of expectation for the Second Coming: “Watch! Pray! Pray! Watch! Be prepared at all times till the Lord of Glory brings this world to an end.... When will the day come, when we leave the Egypt of this world? Ah, let us soon flee Sodom before the fire overwhelms us! Awaken, souls, from your complacency and believe; this is the final hour.” In the notes, Gardiner points out that Bach alternates orchestra and choir to conjure “the terrifying moment ... when ‘the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat’.”

Advent reminds us of the future final hour of Christ's coming---though we must also be mindful of our own deaths as well. But those who pray and watch have consolation: “Lift up your heads and be comforted, you righteous ones, so that your souls might flourish! You shall blossom in Eden and serve God eternally.”

“Beretet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn!” (BWV 132) is next. “Prepare the ways and level the paths of faith and life for the Highest; the Messiah draws nigh!” The person of faith has great promises: “Through the springs of blood and water your clothes have been cleansed, that had been stained by sin. Christ gave you new clothes, dressed you in crimson and white silk, such is a Christian’s finery.” According to Gardiner, Bach assigns an aria to the bass soloist as well as bass instruments “to express all that the text implies: the vigorous declamatory denunciation of sin and hypocrisy.” Advent is a time for us to reflect upon changes we can make in our lives.

Sin and hypocrisy are themes in all three cantatas. The third, “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben” (147), begins, “Heart and mouth and deed and life must give witness of Christ without fear and hypocrisy, that He is both God and Savior.” Jesus is our joy and comfort, strength and treasure, and so the believer should not let Jesus out of heart or sight. The familiar tune, "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," is used in the song "Wohl mir, dass ich Jesum habe." The faithful person holds to Jesus amid distress and grief, though his/her heart might break, for Jesus is faithful and loving and provides rest and help.

As we consider our own sin and hypocrisy---as well as our griefs and troubles---how great to hold onto God's promises for us. Though the scriptural words of judgment are frightening, those who trust in the Lord find tenderness and faithfulness.

(The English translations in the CD notes are by Richard Stokes.)

Friday, December 20, 2013

Christmases Long, Long Ago

On my bookshelves, I’ve this toy that’s over fifty years old. Two other examples on Ebay (the toy inside the original box) had asking prices of $400 and $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 dino-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 dino-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 (now deceased) parents' generosity and our Christmases together.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The "Script" of Jeremiah

Last Advent I did an informal study of Isaiah, especially how that book's contents (with material spanning the 8th through 6th centuries BC) fit together. I posted some informal notes to guide my ongoing reading (http://changingbibles.blogspot.com/2012/11/interconnections-in-isaiah.html, and my December 6 "Journeys Home" post this month). Jeremiah is another long book that resists a reader’s efforts to see connections. Here are a few personal notes about Jeremiah for this Advent season.

If you've ever read or browsed Jeremiah, you know that the book is complex, lacking chronological order and with different genres, styles, voices, and theological perspectives. John Bracke, recently retired from Eden Seminary where I’m an occasional adjunct, notes that the book's form “is the result of a very complicated process that occurred over a long period of time.”(1)

Writing in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Vol. 3, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008), Louis Stulman writes, “Despite the enormous influence it has exerted on the history of Jewish and Christian interpretation, Jeremiah is one of the most difficult books in the BIble to read” (p. 220; the whole article is pages 220-235). Even the prose material alone is written in different styles. Some of the material is likely from Jeremiah himself, other material from Jeremiah’s scribe, Baruch. The book has also been edited, and reflects a theological outlook in keeping with the "Deuteronomistic history."

Thus, to start with, I found very helpful an outline that Stulman has sketched, showing the basic grouping of theological themes within Jeremiah. He argues that the book has two sections, 1-25 and 26-52, forming a “two-part prophetic drama,” each with five acts (p. 221).

He calls the first part, “Dismantling Judah’s cherished social and symbolic categories.” This part’s five acts are:

Introduction (1:1-19)
1 The basis for God’s judgment (2;1-6:30)
2 Dismantling the Temple (7:1-10:25)
3 Dismantling the Covenant (11:1-17:27)
4 Dismantling “insider privileges” (18:1-20:18)
5 Dismantling the monarchy (21:1-24:10)
Conclusion, “the world under divine judgment” (25:1-38)

The second part is “Restoration and hope amid the wreckage: a survivor’s manual.” The five parts are:

Introduction, on hope (26:1-24)
1 “Conflicting theologies of hope” (27:1-29:3)
2 “The book of hope” (30:1-33:26)
3 “Moral instruction for the new community” (34;1-35:19)
4 “Traces of hope amid the wreckage” (36:1-45:5)
5 “God’s reign on earth signaling hope for Judean refugees in Babylon (46:1-51:64)
Conclusion: “Jehoiachin’s restoration as embryonic hope” (52:1-34)

The book addresses the fall of Jerusalem and Judah to the Babylonians in 587 BC, including the destruction of the temple. Bracke notes that there are three important perspectives about God of special importance:

1. God is sovereign. “God’s word changes history through judgment---plucking up and pulling down---and through restoration---building and planting” (p. 7). The people who had been rescued from Egypt and given a precious land had broken God’s covenant and strayed from God’s law, and therefore they must go into exile. But God is also faithful and merciful and will restore the land and the temple and will establish a new covenant (pp. 7-8).

2. Along with the anguish of the people of Judah, God “also experiences hurt and disappointment” (p. 8). God is a rejected husband and a rejected parent. Although God punishes his people, God is also in tremendous pain because of their pain and anguish (p. 8).

3. God is ultimately interested in “building and planting” (1:10), although at the end of Jeremiah this is promised rather than fulfilled (p. 9).

One of Shulman’s summary statements is interesting: “Jeremiah is ‘guerilla theater,’ a text of resistance that reimagines symbol systems and reframes and social realities. It reenacts or performs the fall and rise of Judah as well as the defeat of the geopolitical power structures responsible for Judah’s mistreatment. it attempts to convince Jewish refugees in Babylon that economic-military domination is not the final word and that God is an unflinching advocate for those devastated by war and exile. In effect, the book of Jeremiah is a liturgical act that creates a quite particular world, one that stands in stark contrast to ‘other worlds’ where absolute power, autonomy, and economic exploitation reign... [T]he text ennobles those on the margins to protest and dissent, ridicule and revel, and imagine a counter ...world order. The prophetic script empowers broken people with the will to survive and the resolve to act with courage And ultimately Jeremiah functions as a dangerous ‘weapon of hope’ that will not knuckle under to political aggression, military might, or relentless despair” (pp. 234-235).

Clearly the hope of Jeremiah dovetails well with---and presages---our Advent hope.  I'll record a few more notes here soon.

1. John M. Bracke, Jeremiah 1-29 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000).  See also his book Jeremiah 30-52 and Lamentations (same date and publisher).

Hump Day Prayer

Dear Lord Christ, you came to bring us salvation,
                                             to show us the straight path,
                                             to show us the heart of God,
                                             to bring us the Holy Spirit,
                                             to provide us grace and strength for our needs;
help us to wait your arrival through our prayers,
                                           through our service,
                                           through our patience in difficult times,
                                           through our kindness to others,
                                           through our worship;
grant us answers to our prayers, or signs of answers in process, as we pray
                                           for our leaders,
                                           for our families and friends,
                                           for ourselves and our tasks,
                                           for persons we don't like or with whom we're estranged,
                                           for those whom we know are suffering in some way,
                                           for persons we casually meet or pass on the street and in the
                                           stores and restaurants.
Lord, grant us your blessings and help as we seek to be ready to receive Christ, and to share in the banquet of heaven, where he reigns and lives with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one Lord God, for ever. Amen.

(The idea of "Hump Day Prayers" came from my college friend's blog "Le Padre Ver Livre," http://jimkane.wordpress.com.)

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Meme for Advent 3

Funny meme (if you're a Monty Python fan) on someone's Facebook page.  Ni!  

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Second Term Prospects

I’ve posted several “news roundup” blogposts, like my piece called “That Hope and Change Stuff” (http://paulstroble.blogspot.com/2011/10/that-hope-and-change-stuff.html). Lately I’ve felt tired of politics and have been doing other kinds of research. But recently I found an interesting article in the November 23-29, 2013 issue of “The Economist.” I’m just now finding time to read it.

The title article is about the president, “The man who used to walk on water” (pp. 15-16). The writer notes that Obama certainly inherited difficult problems: two awful wars, the worst economy in decades, and congressional Republicans who are largely to blame for the American political mess. Nevertheless, blaming others only gets you so far, and the president is not using the “bully pulpit” of the presidency in ways that command domestic and international respect.

For instance, although the ACA is the major domestic reform of his presidency, no one seems to have been in charge of its implementation, and the website has been terrible to use. The insurance system in Massachusetts works well, and the basic idea of the ACA (according to the writer) is sound. But Obama’s lack of “interesting in details and a disdain for business” has been disheartening (p. 15).

The debacle has also caused people to doubt the presidents honesty, considering that he has promised repeatedly that people who liked their insurance could keep their policies, but that just hasn’t been true, and people are losing their policies.

The president's vision is great but his apparent disinterest in details, as well as his failure to build relationships, may cost him his legacy. The article writer continues that he really does little effective relationship-building, even with his own party leaders, nor with international heads of state.

On the other hand, the president can be decisive, as with the attack upon Osama bin Laden and the recent efforts in the Philippines. He could still tackle immigration reform and help fix for the long haul America’s financial situation. “Fixing those problems would require Mr Obama to discover both Clintonian skills of triangulation and some Republicans who don’t hate him” (p. 16). The article in this issue “Emergency surgery” (pp. 31-32) goes into more detail about these various challenges.  

Friday, December 13, 2013

Friday the 13th Again

From http://annyas.com/screenshots/
This is a special Friday the 13th because it's the last day of fall semester classes at my university. Woot!

This has been a very good semester, but the past few weeks I've been blue and unmotivated following my mother-in-law's death in November. So beginning today, I look forward to a few weeks off, which I'll spend grading, writing, getting ready for the spring semester, and having extra family time.

A few years ago, I looked up the long words for the phobias associated with Friday the 13th. Tristadecaphobia is the fear of the number 13, and paraskavedecatriaphobia is the fear of this particular day.  

I was thinking about phobias recently. My own mom died fourteen months ago, and that old saying "things happen in threes" came to mind. What if something else bad is upcoming? That is foolish, post hoc thinking, but when a person is feeling emotionally sensitive, it's easy to become anxious.

We speak informally of things like luck, fate, jinxes, and karma. We don’t always stop to think that, if God is our Lord, we are not subject to such things! We may still have serious questions about why things happen the way they do. But God cares for us and guides us across our years. God calls us not to lose heart at life’s hazards but, instead, to focus on his love and care. God's Holy Spirit teaches and matures us. God’s plans and purposes may not always be clear, and sometimes we may feel quite "unlucky." But even those awful times may become seasons across which God provides.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Painted or Stained

My former neighbor, Pastor Dick Williams, has daily devotions called "Early Word," which you can receive if you contact him at prw610@att.net. His devotion from yesterday really spoke to me. He says that they've recently been staining and painting wood.

"When wood is painted the wood features are lost.  The paint covers all and the paint can be a bright and glossy or dark and flat as you wish.

"Staining wood always leaves visible some of the wood qualities, like knots and grain. Different woods stain take stain in different says. Hard woods mostly reject it; soft woods absorb it.

"So how about you? Are you hard or soft when it comes to being 'stained' by God’s love? And do you prefer to be painted so that the real you is hidden, or stained, absorbing God’s love while letting some of the real you be visible to others?

"Like soft wood and receptive to God’s 'stain' would seem to be the ideal? The best place to nurture those qualities would be the presence of the Word and the sacraments and other “stained” believers.

"Will you have your stain renewed this week?"

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Hump Day Prayer

Dear Lord, we offer special midweek prayers for students who are wrapping up this portion of their school year. They are writing papers, preparing for exams, completing projects, rehearsing for recitals or concerts, and otherwise are busy and anxious. Some will experience the failures of computers or printers at the most inconvenient moments. Some are experiencing difficult times in their lives apart from school-related pressures. Uphold students during this time, so that they might feel a good sense of accomplishment and then enjoy a time of relaxation following the semester's end. For all your good gifts we pray. Amen.

(The idea of "Hump Day Prayers" came from my college friend's blog "Le Padre Ver Livre," http://jimkane.wordpress.com.)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Advent Excitement

Like many people, I enjoy the movie The Shawshank Redemption and its theme of hope. Of the two major characters, Andy has hope (symbolized in his love of music and chess) but his friend Red believes that hope is deceptive and prevents a person from accepting reality as it is. After the movie has taken you through several despairing circumstances, the last five or ten minutes of the movie (with Thomas Newman's beautiful score) are so uplifting. Red arrives at a point where he does feel hope. He’s so excited “I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head.”

I had insomnia as a kid, which makes me think I had mild depression as early as grade school. But one morning I couldn't sleep because, as of midnight, it was Christmas Day! I recall that I awoke at 1 AM and begged my parents in the adjacent bedroom to let me get up and open presents. I tried again at 2 and 3, and then at 4 they finally relented. My poor parents!  I was so excited I couldn't lay still.

The Bible scholar William Barclay writes that Christians should be people “in a permanent sate of expectation.” [1] We can live in hope about the fullness of Christ’s presence. This isn't the same thing as wishing our physical lives were over. It means that, as long as we do live, we feel happy and hopeful at God’s steadfast love, and confident in the blessings God bestows for this life and the next. Amid life's difficulties, we might even feel restless excitement at the great love of God that never lets us go.

1. The Daily Study Bible Series: The Gospel of Luke, by William Barclay (The Westminster Press, 1975), page 261.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Struggling during the Season

Religious store window, reflecting traffic 
My wife Beth and I have lost our mothers within a fourteen-month time, my mother in September 2012 and Beth's mom last month. After my mother died, I struggled through the semester. I tried not to fight the sad feelings when they came; I paced myself through rough days. Fortunately my work allows for this; if I were in a job where I had to be "on" all the time, I would have struggled more. Beth has been pacing herself through rough days as I did last fall. I imagine that Christmas Day will feel really lonely, because being with or calling our parents were always aspects of the holiday, and now Beth and I have no more parents (our dads passed away in the 1990s).

The fact that our parents have gained the promises of eternal life helps us stay oriented on the religious hope, which is a vast source of comfort. 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. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/22/grief-and-loss-holidays_n_2346372.html#slide=1912741

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” http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2012/12/21/blue-christmas-grief/1785833/  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.

A person has to find creative ways to interweave the loss of a loved on with the holiday season. One thing I did last fall was is to mostly avoid the popular Christmas music---and the sometimes painful nostalgia of loved ones and home---and substitute it with classical religious music that focuses on Advent and Christmas hope. (I like classical music, so this was an easy choice.) I made an effort to call some friends around Christmas, 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. This year, I'm also helping our pastor with checking on shut-ins.

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

Friday, December 6, 2013

Interconnections in Isaiah

Some Bible study notes that I took last year…. I’ve started to listen to favorite Christmas music---not carols yet, but Handel’s “Messiah”, Vaughan Williams’ “Hodie” (and his other Christmas music), Bach’s oratorio, a CD with hymns by Mendelssohn and Byrd, and others.

"Messiah" inspired me to delve into sources about the book of Isaiah, and to study the book during the upcoming Advent season. Some of Handel’s wonderful music are settings of Isaiah texts. (This article provides all the biblical references in “Messiah,” and you can see that Isaiah is used most often among Bible books: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Structure_of_Handel%27s_Messiah). Of course, several Advent lectionary texts are Isaiah passages, too. I forget which of my three seasonal study books for Abingdon Press contained a meditation on one of Isaiah’s servant songs.

So.... a few notes about the book of Isaiah, which will help me study the book during this season.

from http://annchapin.com/
I found a website that indicates that Isaiah is the second longest biblical book in terms of chapters (after the Psalms, if consider each psalm a “chapter”), the fourth longest in terms of verses (after Psalms, Genesis, and Jeremiah), and the fifth longest in terms of words (after Psalms, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Genesis). I’m not taking the time to verify this information, LOL. The point is, Isaiah is a long book! Like other prophetic books, it can be difficult reading. The New Testament letters can be difficult because you don’t always know what circumstances the author is addressing. That problem is heightened with the prophetic writings. A good commentary is essential.

Also---honestly---you don’t always know whether a prophetic writing is relevant to you today. For instance, when the prophet is addressing a situation like national military alliances being negotiated 2700 years ago, what if anything are we to draw from that? Have I understood a word of judgment (or promise) properly, considering the overall context of judgment and promise of the whole book? Again, that’s where a good commentary can help you clarify and understand the text and its potential meaning for our own time.

Isaiah himself lived in the 700s. He was called in the year of the death of King Uzziah (Isaiah 6), or about the year 740 BCE. According to one source, the Mishna and Justin Martyr give us the traditions that Isaiah was killed during Manasseh’s reign (which began about 699 BCE), perhaps by being sawed in half. Hebrews 11:37 may or may not be an allusion to his death. If Isaiah died during Manasseh’s reign, he thus survives Senacherib’s siege of Jerusalem in 701 BCE.  

The author of that same online source (bibleencyclopedia.com) states, “For versatility of expression and brilliancy of imagery Isaiah had no superior, not even a rival. His style marks the climax of Hebrew literary article Both his periods and Genius and descriptions are most finished and sublime. “He is a perfect artist in words. Beauty and strength are characteristic of his entire book. Epigrams and metaphors, particularly of flood, storm and sound (1:13; 5:18, 22; 8:08; 10:22; 28:17, 20; 30:28, 30), interrogation and dialogue (6:8; 10:8, 9), antithesis and alliteration (1:18; 3:24; 17:10, 12), hyperbole and parable (2:7; 5:1-7; 28:23-29), even paranomasia, or play upon words (5:7; 7:9), characterize Isaiah's book as the great masterpiece of Hebrew literature. He is also famous for his richness of vocabulary and synonyms.... Jerome likened him to Demosthenes; and a poet: he frequently elaborates his messages in rhythmic or poetic style (12:1-6; 25:1-5; 26:1-12; 38:10-20; 42:1-4; 49:1-9; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12; 60-62; 66:5-24); and in several instances slips into elegiac rhythm, e.g. in 37:22-29 there is a fine taunting poem on Sennacherib, and in 14:4-23 another on the king of Babylon. As Driver observes, ‘Isaiah's poetical genius is superb.’”

The distinguished biblical scholar Brevard S. Childs was my Old Testament prof during the fall semester 1979, just when his book Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture appeared (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979). I had him autograph my copy. This week I pulled the book from my shelves to recall his canonical approach to Isaiah.

I also took down my Harper’s Bible Commentary (New York: HarperCollins, 1988), and studied it for a while. The author Gerald T. Sheppard notes something well known: that 1-39 and 40-66 are noticeably different sections. During the 8th century when Isaiah prophesied, Assyria and not Babylon was the major threat, but those later chapters of the book deals with the situation of those who have been in exile following the 6th century Babylonian conquest---exiles for whom “new things” can be announced (40:21, 41:4, 27, 42:9) (Sheppard, p. 543). In other words, 40-66 are not only stylistically different from 1-39 but also concerns a situation 150 years after the historical Isaiah died. Childs notes that the theory of dual authorship of Isaiah dates to the work, of Doederlein and Eichhorn in the later 1700s. By the 1900s, there was wide unanimity in the acceptance of a break between chapters 39 and 40 (Childs, pp. 317-318).

Sheppard, however, writes that after many years of scholarly study of the two sections, biblical scholars have more recently been interested in how the sections make a whole (for instance, the way Isaiah 13 and 21 connect to the Babylon judgments later in the book), and the fact that 40-66 does not seem to have ever existed independently of 1-39 (p. 543). Also, chapter 66 return to themes of chapter 1, God’s word to his people and to Jerusalem (Sheppard, p. 544).

Childs writes that Duhm’s 1892 commentary showed that Isaiah 1-39 was itself not a historical or literary unity. For instance, it is divided into sections like 1-12, 13-23, 24-27, and so on, with some writings as late as the Maccabean period (p. 318). Childs summarizes the work of Mowinckel, Scott, and others who detailed the different sections of 1-39 and postulated the origin and layering of traditions, including “an Isaianic core” of material, with nevertheless both pre- and post-exilic material (Childs, p. 319).

So it is not a straightforward issue of 1-39 originating from Isaiah's time and 40-66 originating 150 years later in the exilic and post-exilic years. The whole book contains writings from different periods and has been skillfully edited.

Duhm was the scholar who isolated the oracles 42:1-4, 49:1-6, 50:4-9, and 52:13-53:12, the “servant songs,” and it was who referred to chapters 55-66 as “Trito-Isaiah,” because the focus of those chapters was the post-exilic community in Jerusalem, with references to sabbath and sacrifice. Childs notes that many scholars agreed, though not whether 55-66 is a unified or edited composition (Childs, pp. 322-323).

Childs view is that although chapters 40-66 seem to be addressed to the exiles in or returning from Babylon (and those were from an unnamed prophet 150 years after the historical Isaiah), “the present canonical shape of the book of Isaiah has furnished these chapters with a very different setting. Chapters 40ff. are now understood as a prophetic word of promise offered to Isaiah by the eighth-century prophet, Isaiah of Jerusalem” (Childs, p. 325). Thus, the “the canonical editors of this tradition employed the material in such a way as to eliminate almost entirely those concrete features and to subordinate the original message to a new role within the canon” (Childs, p. 325).

For instance, chapters 40-66 have no special attribution to another prophet, nor historical situations (other than references in Cyrus in 44:28-45:1) compared to the specific circumstances to which Amos addressed his message. Even the famous opening of chapter 40 can be read, within this new context, as a general promise and not specifically to the returning exiles (Childs, p. 325). Consequently, the promises of forgiveness and redemption have a new theological context for Israel following the oracles of judgment that we find in the earlier chapters (Childs, p. 327, 330). The “former things” of Second Isaiah now refer to the earlier prophecies of judgment in First Isaiah, thus confirming the truth of the latter (p. 329-330: for instance, notes Childs, we can connect 1:7ff and 62:4, 11:6, 9 with 65:25, 13:17 with 41:25, and so on. The plan announced in 28:24ff becomes clear in Second Isaiah).

Further, Childs notes that the editing of Isaiah 1-39 provides theologian meanings through the skillful connection of oracles. For instance, the oracles against the nations (chapters 13-23), which date from different time periods, are interpreted by the oracles of a redeemed community in 24-27, where the nations are said to be able to worship together at Jerusalem. Further, the oracles of 34-35 portray a future redemption from the judgments proclaimed earlier----and the idiom of 34-35 connects forward to that of Second Isaiah (Childs, p. 332).

Sheppard shows how the work of 2-39 has been edited so that promise oracles frame judgment oracles, like the promise oracles 2:2-24 and 4:2-6. The parable of chapter 5 precedes a section of oracles related to the Syro-Ephraimite war (7:1-9), but these oracles have been fitted and edited within a longer set of oracles (6:1-9:7). Following these we have a new set of “promise oracles to Judah and judgments against  Assyria” in 10:5-11:16, and then a transitional “song” in Isaiah 12 which includes a motif of “comfort” that, of course, we see again in Isaiah 40. That song is a transition into the oracles of judgment against the nations in chapters 13-23.  In turn, those oracles are followed by “a group of promissory eschatological oracles” in chapters 24-27, which “take up a number of themes and motifs from the first part of the book and project them into a vision of future restoration,” i.e., connecting to 40-66. Isaiah 28-32 in turn contain more judgment oracles against Zion and Judah, and then more promise oracles in 33-35. Chapters 34 and 35 in particular anticipate material in 40-66 (Sheppard, p. 545). In turn, the narrative material of 36-39 refers to the Assyria siege of Jerusalem, in 701 BCE several years after the earlier war. This historical material connects with the narrative of 2 Kings 18 and 2 Chronicles 32, and here, the material appears “remarkably suitable to the larger purpose of the book of Isaiah, with its concern for the restoration of Jerusalem. They explore the way in which human responses move God to leave a blessing when one might expect only a curse” (Sheppard, p. 569).

The “suffering servant” songs of Second Isaiah raise other exegetical issues, because (Childs argues) the figure does not seem to be connected (by the canonical editors) to the royal figure of 9:1ff and 11:1ff, nor to any particular historical individual. He argues that the text is even silent on whether the figure represents Israel as a whole; the canonical editors have allowed the questions and tensions to remain and perhaps “to receive its meaning from the future” (Childs, pp. 335-336).

Interestingly to me, the great messianic text Isaiah 7:14 falls within the oracles that concern the unrest in Judah in 735-733 BC and the Syro-Ephraimite War. “Occasionally, ordinary public activities of prophets could carry extraordinary significance... Just as Hosea’s marriage constituted a symbolic act of prophecy, so Isaiah’s children by their very names, carried a message throughout their lives” (Sheppard, p. 555). The child Emmanuel, about whom no other historical information is given, is the sign Isaiah gives when King Ahaz says he does not want a sign at all. Within that section, the Northern Kingdom will fall and later disaster will also eventually happen to the Southern Kingdom, but the name of the child, “God with us,” provides ongoing hope (Sheppard, p. 555).

Sheppard writes about how this messianic texts also tie together the times of Isaiah with the post-exilic faithful. “The unusual name ... now harbors in it prophetic implications for the destruction of Judah as well as Syria and Ephraim (8:6-8) and, finally, for the nations in the future that will so threaten Judah (8:9-10). The ‘child sign’ seems to continue in 9:1-7, where the birth of a child (9:6) portends a comparable claim of God’s presence with Israel (9:4) in the period after the Exile, when ‘the people walked in darkness’ (9:2). Even if the original tradition of 9:1-7 was once an independent, nonmessianic ‘royal psalm,’ its present context in the book invites a messianic interpretation. So too Isa. 7:14 has similarly engendered messianic expectations among both Jews and Christians, expectations based on the warrants of the text’s ‘scriptural’ context in 7:1-9:7” (Sheppard, p. 556).

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Hump Day Prayer

Dear Lord, I am reading in my old Bible in Ephesians. Beside 3:10, I’ve noted that the original Greek word for “manifold” (poluroikilos) means “many-colored.” I like to think how you splash and splatter us with great colorful heaps of wisdom and blessing. Earlier, in 1:7-8, I read how you "lavish" your grace upon us. You pour your grace to us. You ladle you grace to us in huge, generous servings, and we come back for more and more. And in 3:8 I read that your grace is "boundless riches", and in 3:20, the author promises that you "accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine." Your grace is abundance, riches, and excess.

Especially (but not only) for those of us who are struggling with different challenges during this Advent season, we ask for that ladling, that splashing and splattering of grace to and for us, in ways that we can discern and claim and share.  We ask these are all blessings in Jesus' name. Amen.

(The idea of "Hump Day Prayers" came from my college friend's blog "Le Padre Ver Livre," http://jimkane.wordpress.com.)

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Kids in Leaf Piles

In my hometown, Randolph Street is one of the major streets. It connects U.S. 40 on the west side of town to U.S. 40-51 on the east side. But when I was young, Randolph St. hadn't yet been extended to the west and became a quieter street in the Coles Street area, safe for a kid to cross. A grade school friend lived along Randolph (he's still a Facebook friend). Sometimes I'd walk home with him after school and we'd have adventures at his house before my mom picked me up for supper.

I remember one autumn when we played in the fallen leaves in the little park across the street, along Cook Street. One day, my friend buried me in leaves as I lay face down in a ditch. What fun to look around and see nothing but brown and red leaves! My mom was displeased, because I'd gotten so dirty.

One of my devotional guides (Living Faith, Nov. 28, 2013) has a nice image of children and autumn leaves. For adults, the shed leaves are a sign of death, and a chore to rake and discard. Children, on the other hand, see the signs of death as a chance to be happy and to live more fully. The devotion writer noted that we live in the season of end times since Jesus' Ascension, but faith in Jesus gives us the chance to live more fully and to "leap"happily into faith analogous to the way children leap into piled-up leaves.

That's a great image for Advent, which we're beginning this week. Many late-autumn days are gray and most of the trees are barren. But there is a beauty in this chilly season. Death and life belong together, no matter how much we'd like to forget that. But death does not have the last word: new life is to come. We can feel great happiness during this season of transitoriness and promise.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Lincoln and Vandalia

Yesterday (December 1st) was the anniversary of the convening of the Ninth Illinois General Assembly at my hometown, Vandalia. That was the session in which Lincoln served his first political office. When the Association of Lincoln Presenters had their annual meeting in Vandalia in April 2004, I gave the following short talk about Lincoln’s time in the former capital. This speech was subsequently published as a 200th birthday commemoration in Springhouse magazine.

Abraham Lincoln first arrived in Vandalia on November 29, 1834, after a thirty-hour stage trip from Springfield. He was a newly elected representative from Sangamon County, ready to serve in the Ninth Illinois General Assembly. The statehouse at that time was Vandalia’s second capitol building that stood along Fourth Street near Gallatin, now marked with a plaque.

I grew up in Vandalia and knew, very early in my life, of his associations with the town when it was state capital (1819-39). Around the time I entered college, I began researching early Vandalia and enjoyed discovering information about Lincoln’s time there. He served in four terms in the state legislature. During Lincoln’s first session (1834-36), the House of Representatives met in the large downstairs room of the statehouse. Colleague Jesse K. Dubois recalled, “Lincoln didn’t take much prominence in the first session of the legislature in 1834. [John T.] Stuart at that time quite overshadowed him…. But the next session Lincoln was very prominent. He had by that time become the acknowledged leader of the Whigs in the House. Stuart had gone out and left him a clear field.” Thus Lincoln took his place as a leader in the Tenth General Assembly, in the newly constructed third Vandalia statehouse during the winter of 1836-37 and also the following summer. Lincoln served two more legislative terms, the Eleventh General Assembly (1838-40), which met first at Vandalia and then in Springfield, and finally the Twelfth General Assembly in Springfield (1840-41).

Paul Simon called Vandalia “a fascinating new world” for Lincoln and noted that the state government provided for Lincoln an eye-opening cross section of humanity. John Stuart helped him learn political procedure, which Lincoln used with his well-known sense of honesty and integrity. This crucial experience for Lincoln is still overlooked. I show my students excerpts from a wonderful 4-hour PBS program on Lincoln from 2000. As the voice-over tells of Lincoln’s election to the state legislature in 1834, the photos go from a scene of New Salem to the old capitol in Springfield, bypassing the Vandalia Statehouse altogether. The narration mentions Vandalia only in connection to Lincoln’s work in moving the capital to Springfield; the town becomes the foil for the great man’s early political experience. Later, the program gives a quick, unidentified picture of early Vandalia’s Charter’s Hotel at Fourth and Gallatin, but that is all.  (Most documentaries that I’ve seen on Lincoln also bypass Vandalia and the statehouse.)

Lincoln roomed in Vandalia for a period of about 10 months altogether. Oral traditions indicate that he lodged at a small cottage on Johnson Street near Sixth, and at the Globe Hotel on Gallatin Street near the statehouse. Vandalia historian Mary Burtschi records two oral traditions about Lincoln’s local experiences. In one story, Lincoln felt cold in the newly constructed statehouse, and a friend teased him about his big feet, “It’s no wonder that you are so cold, there is so much of you on the ground.” She also relates the story that Lincoln danced with a young local woman, Matilda Flack, at the Vandalia Hotel. Unfortunately he tore her dress when he stepped on it. We know more about Lincoln’s experiences in the legislature, well treated by Senator Simon in his 1965 book: Lincoln’s growth in leadership, his handing of issues important both to the state and his home county, his confrontations with Vandalian William L. D. Ewing concerning the seat of government, his protest against slavery, and others.

Lincoln did not describe his experiences at Vandalia. In a Dec. 1836 letter to Mary S. Owen he said “I really can not endure the thought of staying [at Vandalia] ten weeks,” but he also said his spirits were low for several reasons. He was also depressed when he lived in Springfield! Later in life he also noted that he met Stephen A. Douglas at Vandalia in 1834. But Lincoln’s friend John T. Stuart did have these words:

The whole country was entirely new and there were but few accommodations to be had. I remember that one of the objections that were urged against keeping the seat of government at Vandalia was that they did not feed us on anything but prairie chickens and venison. A piece of fat pork was a luxury in those days—we had such a longing for something civilized.

Mary Burtschi was the first Vandalia historian to challenge the notion that Vandalia was a primitive place of log cabins, and she was correct. The New Gazetteer by Bishop Davenport noted that Vandalia had “many handsome brick buildings” about 80 to 100 houses. Another book of the time, Illinois in 1837 reported that Vandalia had Methodist and Presbyterian churches, a school, two printers, four taverns, eight stores, two groceries, a clothing store, two schools, four lawyers, four doctors, two mills, and about 850 citizens. The two printers were William Walters, who published the democratic newspaper Illinois State Register, and William Hodge (buried the old state cemetery) who published the Whig Free Press. Vandalia also had a bookshop and a barbershop on Gallatin, a jewelry store and a tailor in stores across from the public square, and other interesting places. The bookstore carried stationary, sealing wax, flutes, thermometers, and money belts. Moses Phillips, the grandfather of local historian Robert W. Ross, had a furniture store. As a side note, people sometimes wonder whether Vandalia’s Main Street was not at one time the primary thoroughfare. Gallatin Street evolved into the “main” street very early in the town’s history, as early as 1821 or 1822. One notable exception, however, was Capps’ Store at Fourth and Main, renowned for its wide variety of goods. This Main Street store was frequented both by local citizens and legislators. In 1839 Capps advertised medicines that cured “dyspepsia, cholics, lowness of spirits, palpitation of the heart, and diseases resulting from a disordered condition of the stomach and liver.” There are stories of legislatures running up very high bills for liquor and party items from Capps’ store.

Vandalia did lack for certain things. People complained it was isolated. In the preface of his collection of Illinois Supreme Court cases, jurist Sidney Breese complained that the capital had no regular law library. More pressingly, although Vandalia had at least thirteen hotels and boarding houses in the mid 1830s, if we take the recollections of people like John T. Stuart seriously, Vandalia accommodations were insufficient for everyone attending the legislative sessions: not only state officials but also observers and others, a few hundred visitors piling into a town of only 850. By the mid 1830s Vandalia was no longer posed for local prosperity in the same way as communities like Springfield and others in the growing central and northern portions of Illinois. People who complained of Vandalia’s isolation and accommodations assumed the town could never offer anything better.

And yet, contemporary observers unanimously fail to mention a crucial fact about Vandalia: it was only by the initiative of Vandalians that the state of Illinois had a state capitol building! Of the three statehouses in Vandalia, only the first, which burned in 1823, was constructed by direct state authorization. Although the second capitol was hastily completed upon low ground and ultimately unsound, Vandalians stepped forward to construct the building when the first burned, and Vandalians also stepped forward to construct the third capitol, our Old State House, in 1836. (One of my ancestors participated in that 1836 building effort.) Since Vandalia was designated capital for only twenty years, the state legislature was never inclined to appropriate money for the town, even for suitable government buildings, although one should add that the government did later reimburse townspeople for materials and labor for both the second and third statehouses.

His legislative terms were not the end of Lincoln’s Vandalia associations. According to documents in the collected works of Lincoln, he stayed at Vandalia four days in July 1844 for a Whig convention, a very festive occasion with an estimated crowd of 5000 men and 1000 women on hand for a Friday barbecue “at the west end of town.” He also visited Vandalia on two occasions for political meetings during the 1856 campaign. One wonders what Lincoln remembered of the town. Perhaps he recalled how his horizons were broadened and his political skills honed as a young state representative in a town where citizens truly outdid themselves.

Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln by Douglas L. Wilson. Knopf, 1998.

Lincoln. Produced and Directed by Peter W. Kunhardt. Warner Home Video, 2000.

Lincoln’s Preparation for Greatness: The Illinois Legislative Years, by Paul Simon. University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.

Reminiscences of the Early Bench and Bar of Illinois, by Usher F. Linder. Chicago Legal News Co., 1879.

Vandalia: Wilderness Capital of Lincoln’s Land, by Mary Burtschi. Little Brick House, 1963.

High on the Okaw’s Western Bank: Vandalia, Illinois, 1819-1839 by Paul E. Stroble. University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

My Bach Devotional Pilgrimage: Bach's First Advent Cantatas

from patheos.com
Many people have heard of the "Bach Cantata Pilgrimage." The year 2000 was the 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach's death. To commemorate the occasion, John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir, and the English Baroque Soloists performed all of Bach's extant sacred cantatas in over sixty churches. To perform the cantatas each week in different locations was of course a complicated and relentless task, but the pieces were also recorded. Deutsche Grammophon was willing to release only a few of the cantatas so Gardiner established his own label, Soli Deo Gloria, to release the rest. Those words, "to the glory of God alone," were Bach's dedication of each cantata.

The cantatas have been released in sets over these years and feature photographs by photojournalist Steve McCurry of people from around the world. (His famous picture is that of Sharbat Gula, "the Afghan girl," although that particular photo is not used on these sets.) The photos give a sense of the universality of the music of Bach and its themes.

When all of the cantatas were released this fall as a 56-CD box set, I purchased it from arkivmusic.com. Then I decided to do my own pilgrimage (less complicated than Gardiner's!) and listen to the cantatas on the Sundays represented by each. I like to find ways to provide structure and variety to my weekly devotional life, since I'm so prone to become busy and harried and to forget. I'll try to write about the cantatas throughout the upcoming liturgical year, on the Sundays they represent.

I'm starting with Disc 52, which is the First Sunday in Advent---today! (The next CD, disc 53, is the Fourth Sunday in Advent, so I've some time until the next installment) The photo is of a Tibetan woman. These are two cantatas both named "Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland" ("Come now, Savior of the Gentiles"), which are BWV* 61 and 62, and also "Schwingt freudig each empor" ("Soar joyfully aloft to the sublime stars"), which is BVW 36. The notes indicate that all three used a famous Advent chorale, "Nun komm, der Heiden Heildand," Martin Luther's use of an Ambrosian Advent hymn 'Veni redemptor gentium."

Gardiner's notes indicate that these chorals would have been welcome for Bach's Leipzig and Weimar churches after "all those self-absorbed feelings of guilt, fear, damnation and hellfire that dominated the final Sundays of the Trinity season." Not only was Luther's hymn popular but Bach's festive music would have given worshipers a happy sense of "having at last turned a corner."

Interestingly, in the BWV 61 cantata, Bach switches themes a little after the aria "Komm, Jesu" (with its repeated prayer "Komm"), from the praise of Christ's appearance to the presence of the Lord in the believer's heart.

Open up, my whole heart,
Jesus comes and enters in.
Though I be but dust and earth,
He shall not despise me,
but takes delight
to see that I become His dwelling.
Oh, how blessed shall I be!

In BWV 62, Christ becomes a "mighty hero" with the tone of the messianic psalms (and Isaiah's messianic poems) characterizing the texts (by Luther and an anonymous writer), with joy and praise concluding the cantata. In BWV 36, Bach sets the words "Even with subdued, weak voices God's majesty is revered" with a soft soprano and a muted violin. We also have the theme in this cantata of Christ as the bridegroom of the soul---and, of course, the joy analogous to a wedding.

Pray the strings in Cythera
and let sweet Musica
sound out with naught but joy,
that I may with little Jesus,
this exquisite groom of mine,
pilgrimage in constant love.


According to the CD notes, the English translations are by Richard Stokes

*If you're new to Bach: "BWV" means "Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis" ("Bach works catalogue"). It's the standard numbering and identification of Bach's works, according to themes and genres rather than chronology.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Beginning of Advent

A slightly updated post from last fall… Here are 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.)

Advent begins tomorrow, Dec. 1st. For several years I’ve tried to make Advent a genuine beginning to the year: a time of reflection and resolution. My best-laid plans to grow spiritually are often thwarted amid the busyness of the season (including, for me, wrapping up a semester, and this semester runs a little later in the month than usual). 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 [2013], I am struggling with the deaths of my mother last year and my mother-in-law this year, which adds a new layer of emotional struggle to the time.

Our pastor calls 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.

Interfaith Prayers

December 1 is World AIDS Day. This community in Texas will commemorate the day with an interfaith service: http://amarillo.com/lifestyle/faith/2013-11-29/interfaith-service-commemorates-world-aids-day

The Jewish festival of Hanukkah continues. This past Thursday was also the Baha'i commemoration of the Ascension of 'Abdu'l-Baha.

The holiday shopping season has begun!  This Muslim article contains nice reflections on the wholeness of heart that we crave, but which we can't fill through "things." http://omidsafi.religionnews.com/2013/11/28/black-friday/

Muslims complain of negative treatment in Angola. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/28/angola-accused-banning-islam-mosques

Continued prayers for the Philippines following the typhoon there.

According to this article, the killing of Christians in Syria is a story ignored by Western media. http://www.worldtribune.com/2013/11/26/report-islamis-slaughter-of-syrian-christians-ignored-by-obama-liberal-media/

The crash of a police helicopter in Glasgow is tragic news on a day (St. Andrew's Day) when Scottish Christians would be celebrating the day of their patron saint.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Folks in Long Lines

I don’t remember when that term “Black Friday” began to gain popularity, but I do remember being confused at first. I teach American history, and I knew that Black Friday was the day in September 1869 when the U.S. gold market collapsed. I kept hearing news people refer to “black Friday” and I knew they weren’t referring to President Grant’s administration!

Our family is not shopping today, but other years we’ve shopped on this day. A few years ago we needed to replace our Christmas tree so we visited one of the local malls.  It was so difficult to maneuver through the large crowds in each store, especially at the store where we’d purchased the tree----in a heavy, four-foot long box, awkward to carry. 

One of my Facebook friends commented that people were not going “bat**** crazy” at stores. He thought that the media likes to focus upon people’s insanity and rudeness, which is probably true. In fact, he said, people were being pretty polite and were even chatting with strangers and empathizing about the long lines and difficulties. 

It's true that people make temporary friendships, so to speak, in times of stress, for instance, in long lines. I remember an Australian couple with whom my family and I kept standing in the same long lines to see Washington, D.C. attractions like the Capitol. Before the day ended, we got to know one another!  

Another common, stressful circumstance are at airport gates when flights are delayed. I recall many chats with total strangers as we waited for weather to clear, for pilots to arrive, and so on. We’re all stuck in the same predicament together, and so we all might as well converse about things.

What happens to people, whom you like but aren’t in a situation where you’d ever resolve to stay in touch? 

I’m always trying to think of ways to improve my prayer life, which (like many people) happens in and among the aspects of my busy life, fraught with spiritual lapses. If I happen to think of barely-remembered strangers with whom we conversed during tedious lines and annoying delays, I’ll try to recall them and then to say a little prayer for them. God has kept track of them, even if we haven’t.