Wednesday, December 31, 2014

"Be Not Afraid"--Seriously?

meme from the internet
As we stand at the beginning of a new calendar year, what would you change about yourself if you could?

In my case, I would love to stop having such anxious reactions to certain things. I can go into fearful, “what if” kind of thinking so easily and spin in my mind the most hopeless scenarios. Generally speaking, I’m a decent problem-solver, I can be very adventurous, and I’m not afraid of change and readapting to circumstances. As a teacher, I'm happy and quick-thinking, hard to "rattle." But when something kick-starts my anxiety, I can’t think very clearly. And if someone is looking to me as an example of faith and trust, I can display pretty good "head" faith but my heart is often filled with care.

My first memory of a panic attack is from first grade, so this trait is likely rooted in events I can’t remember. I was the only child of sometimes unhappy parents, who looked to me even at a young age to bring happiness to their lives, but even at a young age I knew my parents’ unhappiness was far beyond my personal ability to solve. It’s easy for my emotional meter to go into “what if” mode or a self-critical mode.

If your emotional traits are too deep to “let go” definitively, whether by therapy or will power, at least you can know yourself. In my case, I know not to mistake anxiety for a definite danger signal. “Don’t believe everything you think,” is a meme that was going around social media this past year. Just because I’m feeling distressed doesn’t mean that the situation is dire. Plus, none of the fearful “what if” scenarios I’ve emotionally concocted over the years have ever come true, nor has worry ever solved a problem. The most difficult situations are those that came out of left field (and then worried-about, LOL).

My mom was a worrier, and unfortunately she eventually gave up on certain things that gave her pleasure, like reading and travel. “It just makes me too nervous,” she’d say. On the other hand, she met life's challenges with remarkable perseverance and courage, adapting to difficult circumstances in spite of her struggles with anxiety. I hope and pray I’m always inspired never to give up. A few years ago I spent our UK-Ireland vacation period in a mood of very high anxiety, but it was because I was driving a British car for the first time. That’s typical of me: jump in and try things, help get things done, live with few regrets, but worry worry worry all the while.

I would love to be a person who meets all challenges with an upbeat optimism, which are qualities of my wife and daughter. I’ll keep working on it, just as I hope you (who is reading this) will work on your inner “stuff” during this upcoming new year. Some resolutions are things that we'll work on year after year, with God's help.

On one of my other online sites, I compiled Bible verses that have always helped me. Just as a child needs demonstrations of love from a parent, or as a lover requires reminders from the beloved, so we need expressions of God's love, like these words originally addressed to God's people, which we may now read for God’s assurance:

When you pass through the waters I will be with you;

and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;

when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,

and the flame shall not consume you. (Isa. 43:2)

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid; you are you are of more value than many sparrows (Luke 12:6-7).

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? (Matt. 7:9-10).

Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you (1 Pet. 5:7)

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:6-7).

For if we have been united within him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his (Rom. 6:5).

For the Lord will not

reject forever.

Although he causes grief, he will have compassion

according to the abundance of his steadfast love;

for he does not willingly afflict

or grieve anyone (Lam. 3:31-33).

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4:14-16: also Heb. 5:2).

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind (Phil. 3:12-15a).

I’m often amazed at how many times the scriptures tell us not to be afraid. In Luke 2:10, the angels tell the shepherds, Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of a great joy… In Matthew 28:10, Jesus tells the disciples, Do not be afraid… In Luke 24:38-39, Jesus tells the disciples, Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet, see that it is I myself … In John 20:19 and 26, Jesus declares, Peace be with you… Earlier in John, Jesus says, Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid (John 14:27). I have said these things to you, so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete (John 15:11).

Nothing in there about panicking and freaking out….

Monday, December 29, 2014

"Be Blessed by Your Past"

I was chatting on Facebook with three different people, all of us in a kind of post-Advent slump.

Traditionally viewed, Advent is a time of longing for Christ. We symbolically anticipate his birth but look toward his second coming. Then at Christmastide, we celebrate and honor his birth as well as the revelation of his divinity (Epiphany, or Theophany in the eastern churches).

But in actuality, we expend our celebratory energies during Advent, culminating in the multiple Christmas Eve services. Afterward, many of us begin to take down and box up our holiday decorations, and many pastors (at least in my own circles) take well-deserved time-off during some portion of Christmastide. Right in the middle of Christmastide are New Years Eve/Day, a pair of secular holidays mixing festivities with resolutions for self-improvement.

Rather than feeling guilty about not keeping Christmastide more festive, I wonder if we should simply recognize that our holidays have evolved to this point. Advent and Christmas are, already, a complex assortment of traditions: Christian, non-Christian religious, and secular/economic. The Christian liturgical year begins on the first Sunday of Advent with the anticipation of a big, festive season, and then we can move into our new year with a fresh sense of Christ, even if we're a little tired  and let-down for a while. 

*****

Yesterday's post had to do with the grief and tragedy evoked on Holy Innocents' Day. Looking through some of my books for blog ideas, I found some good thoughts in a favorite text, The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality by Ronald Rolheiser (New York: Doubleday, 1999). In one section, Rolheiser talks about the grief of recognizing life's unfairness. 

We know that life is unfair, but sometimes we have to "process" that fact. We had dreams but they didn't work out, we're disappointed, we don't feel as valued as we'd like (p. 163). The prodigal son's older brother is an example. His circumstance is not dire like the younger son's. The older brother's life seems pretty good! Yet he feels bitter, let-down, and left out. He feels no joy (p. 163). 

How many of us can sympathize with the older brother! Life is unfair, but it is unfair in different ways for different people. We wish things were different in the way life has been unfair for us, while someone else may wish he/she had our lives!    

Rolheiser suggests that we go ahead and grieve, because grieving helps us eventually to let the old things go. He calls this "letting the old give us its blessing" (p. 164). "We face many deaths within our lives and the choice is ours as to whether those deaths will be terminal (sniffing out life and spirit) or whether they will be paschal (opening us to new life and new spirit). Grieving is the key to the latter" (p. 164). 

In John's gospel, when Mary Magdalene encountered the risen Jesus, Jesus tells her not to cling to her. Rolheiser suggests that Mary is trying to cling to what she has known and loved about Jesus--to cling the past. When she can grieve the Jesus she has known and open herself to the new circumstance, then she can receive a new spirit (pp. 164-165). (My own thought: you can see similarities of these ideas with the Buddhist teachings about attachment and non-attachment.) 

I'm a very slow griever, unfortunately. But letting the past bless us, even the painful and/or abusive experiences, is to recognize that what has happened has happened, to accept the unfairness, to grieve, and then, hopefully, "to "attain the joy and delights that are in fact possible for us" (p. 164). Good things to think about, as we consider our goals for the upcoming year.



Sunday, December 28, 2014

Rachel and Holy Innocents Day

Twenty years after the Srebrenica Children Massacre, two years after Sandy Hook, two weeks after the massacre at the school in Peshawar…. although the historicity of the massacre of the innocents (Matthew 2:16-18) has been disputed, we're sadly able to know that such a thing could happen. These last several months we've been lamenting the deaths of individual young people, too.

"When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
   wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
   she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’"

Holy Innocents' Day is December 27 in the Marionite Church, December 29 in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and December 28 in the Church of England, the Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholic Church.

The story in Matthew parallels yet another Gentile persecution: Exodus 1:15-22. Studying the Matthew scripture for a writing project, I wondered about the role of Rachel in this passage. She was Jacob's beloved wife among the four women with whom he had children. Rachel was mother of the youngest, Joseph and Benjamin, but she died giving birth to Benjamin. So I wanted to dig deeper into Jeremiah's passage.

I got online and found the Jewish Women’s Archive Encyclopedia. There, Tikva Frymer-Kensky writes, “Rachel, who died young, becomes an image of tragic womanhood. Her tomb remained as a landmark (see 1 Sam 10:2) and a testimony to her. She and Leah were remembered as the two ‘who together built up the house of Israel’ (Ruth 4:11). Rachel was the ancestress of the Northern Kingdom, which was called Ephraim after Joseph’s son. After Ephraim and Benjamin were exiled by the Assyrians, Rachel was remembered as the classic mother who mourns and intercedes for her children. More than a hundred years after the exile of the North, Jeremiah had a vision of Rachel still mourning, still grieving for her lost children. Moreover, he realized that her mourning served as an effective intercession, for God promised to reward her efforts and return her children (Jer 31:15–21). After the biblical period, 'Mother Rachel' continued to be celebrated as a powerful intercessor for the people of Israel.”(1)

I found another article that reflects upon Rachel, and the fact that she was buried along the road to Bethlehem. Please read this article by Simon Jacobson, which is a heartfelt piece about human dignity and Rachel's concern for sufferers, very apropos for this day. http://www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/1414106/jewish/A-Mothers-Tears.htm

Notes:

1. Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. "Rachel: Bible." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 14, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/rachel-bible>.

2. Jacobson, Simon, "A Mother’s Tears: Rachel weeps for her children." The Jewish Woman: Chabad.org. (Viewed on December 28, 2014)
<http://www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/1414106/jewish/A-Mothers-Tears.htm>

Friday, December 26, 2014

Jesus Off-Road?

Very random connections, ending with a sweet wish by a little child. As Emily and I drove down to her dentist the other day, we passed Annunciation Church. Outside was a small sign, “Catholic Radio, AM 1410” or whatever the number was.

“Catholic Radio,” I thought…

Since I'm a fan of 80s music, the term make me think of the song “Mexican Radio” by Wall of Voodoo. The tune stuck in my mind for a moment…

Then, as we drove along, I thought of Radio Free Europe and Cold War-era TV commercials that urged Americans to support it. When I was a very small child (worried even then about the Soviet threat), I got Radio Free Europe mixed in my mind with the Iron Curtain. So I pictured the latter as a big metal wall with a section that contained radio dials--and that was the only radio station available in Eastern Europe, I thought, because otherwise the countries were “radio-free.”

Then, this scrambled thinking reminded me of a relative’s comments on Facebook--another, sweeter example of young children's thought-processes. My relative's young niece had engaged her in this conversation:

“Did the Wise Men bring Baby Jesus gifts?”
“Yes, they did.”
“Did they give him a rattle?”
“I’m not sure…”
“Did they give him a dirt bike?”

Poor Jesus didn't get a dirt bike for his birthday! Wouldn't it have been sweet, though, if the children who gathered around Jesus (Luke 18) had asked him about his birthday.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Birthday of Life

"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 23, 2014

Dealing with Holiday Blues

Catholic book store window,
reflecting holiday traffic
Every Advent is hectic and, in some sense, filled with care. Finishing a very busy semester, which included sometimes emotional discussions in our classes concerning the events in Ferguson and the nation, plus the work I'm doing on a manuscript with a 5/1/15 deadline, have made me neglect this blog compared to previous years, when I had a little more mental space for Advent blogging.

On the other hand, my wife Beth and I feel like we have been successfully "processing" the deaths of our mothers. Her mom passed away in November 2013 and my mom died in September 2012. The emptiness and grief that filled the past two Christmases have lessened a bit.  

But helping people with sad holiday feelings has always been a concern for me. A couple years ago I looked online for 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.
http://www.newswise.com/articles/handling-grief-during-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/  This piece is from two years ago, and I've noticed more church services in my immediate area of this kind. 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 helpful resource recognizes that grief is a response not only to death but to breakups and divorce.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-kessler/4-solutions-for-holiday-g_b_6360774.html

Another resource helps us not only deal with grief and loss but also how to be a good supporter for something going through a difficult time. http://depression.about.com/od/griefcomfort/a/holidaygrief.htm This year, I plan to make an effort again to call some friends, if not on Christmas Day itself perhaps the day or second day afterward.

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

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Sacrament of Snow

I always resented the song “White Christmas,” just a little bit. It’s a lovely song, vastly popular. 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. Norris continues: “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).

Friday, December 19, 2014

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.



Saturday, December 13, 2014

Twelve Thirteen Fourteen

Today is 12-13-14, on the Gregorian calendar (although elsewhere in the world the date would be rendered 13-12-14).

These kinds of sequences happen occasionally. I worked at my hometown library during college, and one day, as I typed something at the counter, I realized the day was 5-6-78. Woo hoo! The last such sequence was 11-12-13, but The Today Show reported just now that this won't happen again until 1-2-34.

Why do such dates give us satisfaction? They aren't serendipitous or providential, like the way I hear unexpectedly from a good friend when I'm struggling with something. But they're still a pleasing example of found order. No one says, "Oh, hey, two plus two is four." That's no surprise. But you can feel a small sense of peace when you realize, "How fun, it's twelve, thirteen, fourteen."


Cutting Down the Salt

I had a good medical checkup the other day, except for my blood pressure which is high again. I've not been careful lately about my salt intake. So I stopped by the local grocery store and bought some fruit and low-sodium snacks.

I've a longtime love of salty snacks, however. When I was just a few years old, I wanted pretzels, but I said it "pet wows," and my grandmother who was babysitting me didn't know what I wanted, and I became more and more upset. A caregiver's nightmare!

Grandma would've been proud that I came interested in Bible study. I looked up "salt" on the online Jewish Encyclopedia. (All of the following references are from that site). Salt was abundant in the land, with the proximity to the Dead Sea (Gen. 14:3, Josh. 3:16; I've a stone from the Sea in my office), and the salt pits of the area (Zeph. 2:9, I Macc. 2:35). Newborns were rubbed with salt (Ezek. 16:4). Salt was necessary at the sacrifices (Lev. 21:22, Ezra 6:9, 7:22), and covenant ceremonies (Num. 18:19, 2 Chron. 13:5). Salt was also necessary to remove blood from meat, to fulfill the kosher requirement.

The article's author goes on to write: "Salt is considered as the most necessary condiment, and therefore the Rabbis likened the Torah to it; for as the world could not do without salt, neither could it do without the Torah (Soferim xv. 8). A meal without salt is considered no meal (Ber. 44a). Still, salt is one of the three things which must not be used in excess (ib. 55a)." So true!

Unfortunately, there is a holiday bag of chocolate covered pretzels that calls out, maybe as a treat after a low-sodium meal. Nothing in excess!


Sunday, December 7, 2014

(Re)Turning to the Center

from patheos.com
I forget when Advent became a particularly meaningful time to me. With the purple vestments symbolizing solemnity, Advent calls us to repentance at the beginning of the church's liturgical year. But at the same time, the candles and the joy of the season brighten the late autumn, during the frantic (though still enjoyable) lead-up to Christmas.

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)

These quotations from Rabbi Artson has always inspired me. 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 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 person?

Rabbi Artson’s questions inform a meaningful Advent 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).

(Thoughts adapted from a previous post.)

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Feast Day of St. Nicholas

Today is the feast day of St. Nicholas. I’ve been thinking of him, because my wife Beth recently traveled to Belgrade and purchased for me a beautiful Orthodox icon of Nicholas, which now hangs in our home. (Actually she was going to purchase it but her host there paid for it for her.)

I started to do a little research on Nicholas but discovered a site that gives comprehensive information about the beloved saint, specially associated with the protection of children. http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/who-is-st-nicholas/ He’s the patron saint of many different persons and occupations, including pawn brokers, whose symbol evokes Nicholas.  http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/people/

This same site also explains why he’s a good saint and reminder for Advent. Although Advent is a time of longing and reflection rather than fulfillment, Nicholas bids us to show God’s love in tangible ways and to stay happy. “Celebrating St. Nicholas on his day in Advent brings a bit of fun and festivity into homes, churches, and schools. His small treats and surprises help keep the spirit of good St. Nicholas, especially when stories of his goodness and kind deeds are told and ways to express his care for those in need are sought. Saint Nicholas helps us remember Christmas is a feast of love, hope, kindness and generosity” (http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/advent-saint/)


Sunday, November 30, 2014

Kids in Leaf Piles

In my hometown, Randolph Street is one of the major streets, from the I-70/U.S. 40 interchange on the west side of town to U.S. 40-51 on the east side (and it continues a couple blocks east). But when I was young, Randolph St. hadn't yet been extended west and was a quieter street in the area near Jefferson Primary School, 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 begin today. 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.

(A post from last year) 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

"What Does Justice Look Like?"

Good piece on justice and Ferguson, written by the treasurer of the city of St. Louis

http://m.stltoday.com/news/opinion/article_d69415f9-2a8b-5d39-adbb-6562fef0a9d2.html?mobile_touch=true


O Janky Tree

My daughter wrote on Facebook that she gets nostalgic for our old Christmas tree. The artificial limbs of different lengths were color coded by layer and lettered A, I, J, K, O, P, and Q, or something like that. But the colored tape wasn't differentiated well---black and dark brown, two shades of yellow. As the tape faded and became worn, the letters (in white, even on the yellow tape) became indistinct. Is this branch an O or a Q? An I or a J? Each year was a small adventure of figuring out which layer was which.

As my daughter said, she doesn't want to go back to that, now that we've a new tree. But she feels nostalgic for the process. That made me think of the way we dream about former times. My parents had a tacky tree: a little silver one with an accompanying rotating color wheel that made the tree brighten with different colors. I wouldn't want one now, but it's a Christmas memory.

"Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often" (Luke 2:19, NLT). Sometimes the memories we ponder aren't amazing events, as were Mary's, but simple things that also connect us to Christ's birth.



Thursday, November 27, 2014

Snow Light in Darkness

Yesterday we had a lovely snowfall, big snowflakes falling straight down with no urgency. In my afternoon class, we ignored the day's reading and talked about Ferguson instead, about what business owners could do to rebuild, to get insurance in the future.

Attending kindergarten in my hometown in 1962, I stood outside the school, waiting for my mother to retrieve me after the afternoon session, and I watched snowflakes fall upon my dark glove. I studied the six-point design, which I must've learned in school but hadn't yet observed in real life.

A "real life" quality of snow, that I didn't appreciate then, is the difficulties it causes for travel. My mother is gone now, and although it feels strange and sad that I'm not traveling to visit her for Thanksgiving, I'm also sadly relieved not to be going anywhere far today.

Along with snowflakes, I enjoy seeing light (the moon, or ambient light from the neighborhood) reflected from snow in the nighttime. The thin blinds on our bedroom windows glow as we fall asleep.

"[E]ven the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you," praises the psalmist (139:12). "I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I will do, and I will not forsake them" (Isa. 42:16).


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

"Models and Authorizations"

Good interview with Walter Brueggemann about Ferguson and the place of protest and prophecy in our faith.

https://medium.com/theology-of-ferguson/models-and-authorizations-an-interview-with-walter-brueggemann-3ab5ecd96c20


Monday, November 24, 2014

Prayer for This NIght

"Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, harmony;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

"O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life."


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Snow falling on leaves

A Facebook friend posted a picture of new snow atop fallen leaves. During an errand that same day, I took a picture of leaves along the curb, at the little park up the street. The once yellow leaves were curled and brown, and the day's snow flurries partly covered the autumn color.

I've grown to love the contrasts of November. Everyone loves the beauty of October autumn, but by November the leaves are further along in the process of eventually becoming soil. That is a precious gift of the leaves. Some November days are warm, even warm enough for shorts. Other days remind us that we're nearly to winter.

People fuss about those contrasts, but our fussing is often cheerful conversation about something we can't help, which brings us together.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Wake Up, Cries the Watchmen: Bach's Cantatas for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity

Christ the King 
This coming Sunday, November 23rd, is the final Sunday of the liturgical year!

As I've written before, I purchased this 56-CD set of Bach's sacred cantatas last fall. I listened to CDs 52-56 first (cantatas corresponding to Advent and Christmas), and then listened to 1 through 51, and so I've reached the end of my "journey" of listening this week as I arrive at CD 51, the cantatas for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity. The CD photo is of an old woman from Rajasthan, India, and the cantatas are: "Wohl dem, der sich auf seinen Gott" (BWV 139, “Happy is he who can trust his God”), "Nur jedem das Seine!" (BWV 163, “To each only his due”), "Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht!" (BWV 52, “False world, I do not trust you!”). Added to these is the cantata for the seldom-occurring 27th Sunday: "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" (BWV 140, “Wake up, cries the watchmen’s voice”).

This coming Sunday, the last Sunday before Advent, is also Christ the King Sunday. The theme of the three 23rd Sunday pieces is the question posted to Jesus concerning paying taxes to Caesar. One can stretch that meaning to affirm that Christ is our true ruler above all others, whether emperor, premier, or fussy Congress. BWV 139, which Gardiner writes exists in parts that have to be augmented rather than a complete score, is filled with contrasts between the sincere trust of the believer to the raging of the devil to assurance in God’s care for the believer. Satan also figures in BWV 163, wherein the writer of the text, Salomo Franck who was a frequent librettist for Bach, connects the money of Caesar symbolically with the counterfeit currency of the devil.

BWV 52 returns to the theme of some earlier cantatas: the "false world" that cannot satisfy.

False world, I do not trust you!
Here I must dwell among scorpions
and false serpents.
Your countenance,
though outwardly so friendly,
secretly plots ruin....

For the opening sinfonia Bach uses a previous draft of the first movement of the first Brandenburg Concerto. Because the theme of the cantata is the disappointment of the world (compared to the true peace of God and Heaven), Bach seems to be drawing a connection between the everyday pursuits in which we’re all involved, with the assurance and lasting joy of “God’s companionability” (Gardiner).

Because Easter usually doesn’t fall so early to allow for a 27th Sunday after Trinity, it's sad that Bach's cantata for this day was thus seldom heard in his churches during his own day. BWV 140, "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” is a long-time favorite and one of Bach’s most famous. “a cantata without weakness, without a dull bar, techincally, emotionally and spiritually of the highest order,” writes a musicologist quoted by Gardiner. In the CD notes the conductor describes several of Bach’s techniques, including a sense of telescoped time---in this case, the always necessary need for watchfulness. And since the theme is the coming of the Bridegroom in Jesus’ parables, “Bach has no compunction in stealing the clothes of contemporary operative love-duets” in his sacred music.

Statue at Bach's birthplace,
Eisenach, Germany
Listening to all of Bach's sacred cantatas, on the weeks of the Sundays (or feast days) for which they were written, has been a lovely experience. I've an old 6-LP set of Bach's Advent and Christmas cantatas, and I used to have a 2-LP set of popular cantatas like "Ein Feste Burg" and "Wachet Auf." I've played these often over the years, and now I've listened to nearly 180 more. It's difficult to wrap one's mind around the lifetime accomplishment of Bach, for he wrote a LOT more music than this.

I'm having a difficult time writing concluding words for this "journey" of listening, because I'm not really done. Now, I want to go back and re-listen to pieces that were particularly beautiful and meaningful. I'm also reluctant to stop a project that has been helpful during a year of bereavement, a health scare, and some ongoing challenges. How wonderful to pause during the middle of each week, listen to beautiful music in the early morning, read the CD notes, glance at the birds outside, and let my mind and heart wander a bit. I want to find a comparable habit for the upcoming liturgical year.

Racial and social issues have been in the news of my community, St. Louis, during the past several weeks. As I write this, no one is sure what is going to happen next, but a grand jury announcement is imminent. (Thus I've posted this a little early.) I found words from the cantata "Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied!" (BWV 190, on CD 56), that offer hope for times ahead.

Now Jesus grant that with the new year
His anointed one too may flourish;
may He bless both trunk and branches,
that their fortune rise to the clouds.
Let Jesus bless both church and school,
may He bless all true teachers,
may He bless those who hear His teaching;
may He bless both council and court;
may He pour over every house
in our town the springs of blessing;
may He grant that once again
both peace and faith
may embrace within our borders.
Thus we shall live throughout the year in blessing.


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


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Grace Much Greater than My Sins: Bach's Cantatas for the 22nd Sunday after Trinity

Knowing that there were only two CDs in my "journey" to go, and with late-semester busyness at hand, I decided to listen to these last cantatas a little early. So the weekend of November 8-9 featured a lot of Bach music for me! Listening to Bach is a wonderful way to spend any day, however.

Bach's cantatas for this coming weekend, the 22nd Sunday after Trinity, are: "Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht" (BWV 55, “I, wretched man, a slave to sin”), "Was soll ich aus dir machen, Ephraim?" (BWV 89, “How shall I give thee up, Ephraim?”), and "Mache dich, mein Geist, beret" (BWV 115, “Prepare yourself, my soul”). The cantata for the 24th Sunday, included in this concert, is: "O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (BWV 60, “Eternity, O word of thunder”). This is CD 50 of the set, and the photo is of an older man, with a beautiful red beard, from Srinagar, Kashmir.

The Gospel lesson for the 22nd Sunday is Matthew 18:22-35, the story of the unjust steward. Conductor John Eliot Gardiner notes that BWV 89 is Bach’s only (extant) cantata for solo tenor, and traces the journey of the steward back to his master. The steward is sorrowful and fearful about his situation. But the concluding chorale gives confidence to any of us who may be downcast about our sinfulness; grace and peace will come to us, thanks to the merciful Lord. BWV 55 makes a similar journey:

Even if hell had a bed
for me and my sins,
the wrath of God would still be there.
The earth does not protect me,
it threatens to devour that monster that I am;
and if I soar to heaven,
God is there, who judges me.

Yike! But as in Hosea, God wavers in executing judgment; Gardiner writes, “the music comes to a temporary halt at the end of each anguished question posed by the bass singer, representing God’s divided mind.” At the end, the believer has assurance:

I do not deny my guilt,
but Thy mercy and Thy grace
is much greater than my sins,
which I always find within me.

The beautiful BWV 115 concerns "the believer trusting and refusing to be blown off course by ‘Satan’s cunning’ (conveyed by a vigorous semiguaver bariolage figure) or the sounding of the last trump.” The singers take the roles of the “slumbering” sinner, the friend who is giving confidence, and the one (represented by the bass) making sure the sinner does not become complacent.

God, who watches over your soul,
detests the night of sin;
He sends you the light of His grace
and desires, in return for these gifts,
which He promises you in abundance,
but openness of spirit.

In 2000, when most of these cantatas were recorded, there were 23 post-Trinity Sundays (because of comparative lateness of Easter that year), but the season can have 27 Sundays, so as on some of the other CDs of the past few weeks, Gardiner and his musicians include other cantatas. This Sunday, the additional cantata is BWV 60 for the 24th Sunday after Trinity. Gardiner writes that Bach called this cantata a “dialogue between Fear and Hope.” The alto and tenor represent “the divided soul, the one wracked by fear of death and shaken by the terrifying sound of eternity’s ‘word of thunder’, the other sustained by simple trust in God’s mercy...” Gardiner discusses in some detail Bach’s technique for depicting this “dialogue. As one would expect, Bach gives victory to hope.

As I listen to these pieces, I think of a topic that we've been discussing in one of my classes: social justice. Ferguson has been in the local and national news. In our class, we're focusing upon God's distress over systemic sins like racism and poverty. If we were writing the texts of Bach's pieces, we might be calling cities and national leaders to cease their slumbering and awaken to God's judgment.

It's a balance to walk: too great a stress on personal repentance risks neglecting social problems, and vice versa. Although the upcoming Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year, it's the end of the calendar year, when we can take stock of the previous months and contemplate next steps. How are we growing in our personal relationship with God? What about that relationship includes social service of some kind?

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


Friday, November 7, 2014

Help My Unbelief: Bach's Cantatas for the 21st Sunday after Trinity

Three Sundays to go before Advent. My family and I have not started anything related to the holiday season, other than some early scheduling of events. In fact, our Halloween decorations are still up…

November 9 is the 21st Sunday after Trinity this year. Bach’s cantatas for this Sunday (CD 49 in this set) are “Ich glaube, lieber Herr, hilf meinem Unglauben!” (BWV 109, “Lord, I believe, help Thou mine unbelief!”), “Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir” (BWV 38, “Out of the depths I cry to Thee”), “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan” (BWV 98, “What God doth, is well done”), and “Ich habe meine Zuversicht” (BWV 188, “I have put my trust”). The CD photo is of a colorfully dressed young woman from Tibet.

The Gospel lesson of all four is John 4:46-54, the healing of the nobleman’s son, but the title of BWV 109 is Mark 9:24. Conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that Bach “sets up a wonderful series of antitheses to articulate the inner conflict between belief and doubt, and the way that faith is granted only after a period of doubt.” The conductor writes of the ways Bach musically sets up the conflict among the various numbers. For instance, in the third number, Bach depicts “the fearful quivering of the soul by means of jagged melodic shapes, unstable harmonies headed towards anguished second inversion chords, and persistent dotted rhythmic figures.” The cantata is a tempestuous journey toward faith and belief. For instance, the third number echoes Isaiah 42:3:

How uncertain is my hope,
how my anxious heart wavers!
The wick of faith hardly burns,

the almost broken reed now snaps,
fear constantly creates fresh pain.

But Christ knows that we are needful of his grace.

Compose yourself, doubting heart,
for Jesus still works wonders!

The eyes of faith shall witness

the healing power of the Lord;
though fulfilment seems so distant
you can rely on his promise.

BWV 38 continues the theme of the granting of faith, using the anguished Psalm 130. This cantata, too, “delays the provision and granting of help until the last possible moment,” after we have been through “signs and wonders” of sorrow and faith.

Though my despair, like chains,
fetters one misfortune to the next,
yet shall my Saviour free me suddenly from it all.
How soon will comfort’s dawn
succeed this night of woe and sorrow!

BWV 188, like two other cantatas from this late post-Trinity season, has a sinfonia drawn from a harpischord concerto. It is q quieter work, as is BWV 98, but likewise centering around the soul’s plea for faith and salvation.

God has a heart that brims with mercy;
and when He hears us lamenting...
His heart then breaks,

that He has mercy on us.

He keeps His word;

He says: Knock,

and it shall be opened unto you!
So let us from now on,

when we are in sore distress,
lift our hearts to God alone!

What things do you struggle with in your faith? I feel very fortunate that I've never felt so disappointed in or questioning of God that agnosticism, let alone atheism, were ever options. That's partly because my childhood experiences with religion were mostly positive and thus provided a good foundation, and also, I worked on my faith and incorporated (even if haphazardly sometimes) prayer book readings, devotional reading, weekly worship, and reflective projects like this one into my weekly routine. I also ask other people for their prayers when things get rough. Busyness and "blues" would likely lead me off into spiritual dullness or deadness if I didn't have these things. Other people have different or similar ways of nourishing their faith.

One of my struggles---although I think of it as an interesting quest---is to think of Christian faith in more universal terms. I love the idea that there are many paths to God, and thus I meditate on the similarities among world religions, while also affirming the uniqueness and power of Jesus Christ. For some people, this is a wavering of my faith, a contradiction. But I don't see it that way.

My personal witness is that I see evidence of God's guidance in my life over the long haul. Things in my life that were emotionally horrible and disappointing made sense in time (sometimes ten or twenty years later). Or, these difficult things that never made sense led to good things. I believe that the arcs and "story lines" of my life and my family's demonstrate the truth of Romans 8:28. But I empathize with persons who don't see such a thing in their own experience; plus, I acknowledge that there has been privilege in my life that made painful times never entirely devoid of hope and possibility. We should be careful not to assume that our own example should be normative for others.

The difficulties that Bach's music explores are always timeless: life has struggles, temptations, grief, difficulties that we create and difficulties that are forced upon us. Faith can be very hard, especially when we have to be patient and wait for God when things are falling apart. Like the parent in Mark 9, we've just enough faith to ask for help. Knowing that God's own heart breaks for us is a beautiful image, full of comfort and promise.

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

Sunday, November 2, 2014

"Why the GOP Must Modernize to Win"

Near the upcoming election, I was interested in an article in the September/October 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs: “Crashing the Party: Why the GOP Must Modernize to Win” by commentator David Frum.  I've taken notes for this blog before concerning politics, national narratives, and conflicting ideals. Frum notes that three trends have defined the GOP during the last several years, but these trends complicate the party’s prospects. First, the party relies upon the votes of the elderly, a demographic that relies upon the government---but reducing government is one of the party’s goals! Second, the donors of the party have become more extreme ideologically, “encouraging congressional Republicans to embrace ever more radical tactics.” And third, the party’s process have become more rigid, making it difficult for the party to adapt to change (p. 37).

An interesting aspect of #1 is that aging baby boomers are becoming more conservative in economics. But they are demanding cuts in programs that don’t affect them. Also, they are liberal in terms of social issues like women’s and gay rights (p. 38).

On #2, party donors feared the inflationary consequences of low interest rates, and they also feared the future high taxes necessary to pay for a large deficit. Thus, Republicans opposed meansures that would lower rates and also opposed stimulus spending for airports, roads, and briges, and also opposed unemployment benefits. These were measures that Republicans had past supported, but during the recent economic recovery they could not find commonality with the unemployed---because, along with these things, the party was stuck in a narrative against government dependency (the “47 percent”) (pp. 39-40).

On #3, the rigidity of the party has also meant difficulties like the 2011 sequester. Yet those who had voted against changing the debt ceiling were some “established Republicans... who got much of their campaign money from businesses that would have faced disaster in the event of a government default” (p. 40).

An additional challenge is the Hispanic vote, which is growing---and on crucial economic issues, Hispanics are very liberal. Another significant group is Asian Americans, predominantly university graduates (a constuency for Republicans in years past) but who don’t ascribe to the “sectarian [Christian] religiosity” of many Republicans (p. 44).

Another challenge is the fact that the country is actually in a very good period, which is at odds with the often dismal portrayal of America painted by contemporary conservatives. Frum points out that the national crime rate is down, as are road fatalities, acid rain-causing emissions, the abortion rate, and consumption of alcohol and tobacco, and meanwhile, according to Frum, more African Americans are graduating from college over the past several years (p. 46). A noted conservative writer, Frum believes that conservatism might be doing well in American right now, but the “angry, insurrectionary mood of the past half-dozen years is as unjustified as it is dangerous to the stability of American government” (p. 46).

What do you think?

All Saints' Day

1908 postcard of my home church 
Today is All Saints' Day. Beth's parents died in 1995 and 2013; mine died in 1999 and 2012. I'm thankful that, unlike me, Emily knew all four of her grandparents, although her grandfathers died when she was fairly young.

I think of lots and lots of people who are now gone--relatives, teachers, pastors, acquaintances, friends---and I'm grateful I knew them as the years have gone by. It's hard to talk about this without sounding sad or downbeat, and sadness is part of it, but also gratitude.

"O blest communion, fellowship divine! We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine."

(My thoughts on All Saints' Day from last year: http://paulstroble.blogspot.com/2013/11/a-holiness-day.html)

Saturday, November 1, 2014

O Great Wedding Feast: Bach's Cantatas for the 20th Sunday after Trinity

It’s the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity tomorrow!  Don't forget to turn your clocks back an hour tonight.

As conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes, the Gospel lesson for this Sunday is Matthew 22:1-14, the parable of the wedding feast, which “prompts many figurative references to the soul as bride, to travel, to clothing and to food, such as Jesus as the ‘bread of life’.” The CD photo is a girl from Manang, Nepal. The wedding theme is used in all three cantatas. They are upbeat pieces to which I'll return again.

In “Ach! ich sehe, itzt, da ich zur Hochzeit gehe” (BWV 162, “Ah! I see, now as I go to the wedding”) Bach’s text gives us the dire consequences of being on the wrong side of the “wedding,” that is, failing to put on the clothing of righteousness that signals our belonging to Christ. It is all about preparedness: when Christ comes (or when we die), we need to be ready.

“Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen” (BWV 49, “I go and seek with longing”) begins, as did BWV 169 two weeks ago, with a sinfonia that is also a movement in Bach's BWV 1053 harpsichord concerto II in E major. Beautiful piece! This cantata is musically and lyrically more lush since the words are a loving dialogue between the Christ and soul (between bass and soprano: Magdalena Kožená is the soprano here). As Gardiner points out, the language and situation evokes the love-language of the Song of Songs.

“Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele” (BWV 180, “Adorn yourself, beloved soul”) is picturesque in different ways but, in keeping with the wedding theme, remind us of journeying to the wedding, the sight of the bride, the dancing and the feast. This is another occasion where Bach shows no concern for separating "sacred" and "secular" styles but instead writes dance music for a church service. But the key is not a wedding per se, but the need for the believer to be ready for Christ, to love Christ with one’s whole heart.

Rouse yourself: your Saviour knocks,
ah, open soon the door of your heart!
Though you in your rapture can
utter only broken words of joy to your Jesus.

How precious are the gifts of the sacred supper!
Nowhere can their like be found.

The things the world is wont

to deem precious are but glittering trifles;

a child of God desires to have this treasure and says:

Ah, how my spirit hungers,

friend of man, for Thy goodness!

A personal-Bible-study project that I keep meaning to do, is to gather commentaries and study Song of Songs. I've read the book but not in depth. It intrigues me that medieval monks dearly loved the book for its allegorical meaning of Christ and his church. For instance, many sermons by St. Bernard of Clairvaux are based on Song texts and extol the truths of Christian doctrine. To me, it's beautiful love poetry between two people, but the symbolic reading has a long tradition.

I admit that it's difficult for me sometimes to think of God's love as affection. For all of the Apostle Paul's epistolary expressions of love and concern, he also fusses and prods his congregations a great deal---and because my own parents could be fretful and scolding, it's easy for me to think of God's love for me tinged with disapproval. As downbeat as some of these post-Trinity cantatas can be, they also evoke God's unconditional love for which the believer hungers.

(As the CD notes indicate, all English translations of Bach's texts are by Richard Stokes.)
  

Friday, October 31, 2014

A Mighty Fortress is Our God: Bach's Cantatas for the Feast of the Reformation

Luther window in Wehrli Chapel,
Eden Theological Seminary,
where I'm an adjunct instructor.
With only five posts to go, I'll recap my year-long project one more time…. The English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner performed all of Bach's extant sacred cantatas in over sixty churches. Happening primarily in 2000, this "pilgrimage" commemorated the 250th anniversary of Bach's death. The CD notes testify to the logistical challenges of moving a choir, orchestra, and recording equipment around to different cities, every single week.

During ensuing years, the cantatas have been available on 2-CD sets (first on Deutsche Grammophon and then on Gardiner's own Soli Deo Gloria label). They are still available that way, and also as a 56-CD box set (available at this link). All the cover photos are of people from around the world, symbolizing Bach's universality. Last fall, I purchased the box set and decided to listen to the cantatas in conjunction to the liturgical year. I began with the First Sunday of Advent and have stayed with the "journey" pretty faithfully all year.

October 31 is Reformation Day, and these cantatas were appropriately performed in the university church of Luther, the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg. The CD cover photo, of a wide- and dark-eyed little girl, is from Kandahar, Afghanistan. One cantata is a long-time favorite on LPs, “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (BWV 80), based on Luther’s hymn.

The first piece is the festive “Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild" (BWV 79), “The Lord God is sun and shield”). The pageantry of this commemorative piece even includes a drum beat that (as Gardiner writes) could imaginatively echo the hammering of the 95 Theses upon the church door. Gardiner describes the numerous techniques with which Bach creates a profoundly moving piece.

Now thank we all our God

with heart and voice and hands,
who doth work great things for us
wherever we may be,

who since our mother’s womb
and from our infancy

hath favoured us so many times
and continues so to do.

“Now thank we all our God” is the title of the second cantata (BWV 192, “Nun danket alle Gott”), a much smaller work with “modest instrumentation that nevertheless “provides an attractive contrast, an alternative and less bombastic approach to the celebrations.”

Back to “Ein feste Burg” (BWV 80, “A mighty fortress is our God”). In the CD notes, Gardiner writes that Bach revised the cantata three times before this late version, which he “constructed a stupendous and elaborate new contrapuntal opening movement,” without instrumental prelude. He points out that Bach uses Luther’s hymn in three different numbers of the piece, with the last number being closest to the tune with which we're familiar. For a long time I had difficulty singing this hymn in church, because it had been sung at the funeral of a Lutheran pastor who had been a mentor. Bach's setting of the hymn helped me move toward healing.

We can do nothing with our own might,
all too soon we are lost.

It is the righteous man,

chosen by God, who fights for us.

We who at baptism swore loyalty
on Christ’s bleeding banner,

his spirit conquers evermore.
Do you ask who He is?
He is called Jesus Christ,
the Lord of Sabaoth,
there is no other God,
He must hold the field.

But I owe a greater debt to Luther himself. Writing in my last post about New England, I thought to myself about days in the Yale library, where I loved to read from Luther's works. I was a divinity school student, feeling lost and inadequate, struggling to find my way. Luther's themes of sola fide, sola scriptura spoke deeply to me. I filled dozens of index cards (which I still have) with quotations and citations from his works. I wanted to learn his theology but most of all I wanted God's unconditional love to "sink in." Luther was a perfect teacher.

I read an article online (and unfortunately didn't bookmark it) that raised the question of whether Reformation Day should be celebrated. After all, there is greater theological concord between the Roman Catholic and many Protestant churches than in Luther's day, and even Bach's day. Plus, there have been several historical moments when the church experienced a reformation or a course-correction when it had strayed from the Gospel in some way. I believe that the way many dominations are addressing LGBTQ inclusion is a kind of contemporary reformation, and so is the hard work of churches (in my own community of St. Louis and others) to address the tragedies of racism. Reformation goes hand in hand with repentance and renewal.

So we could speak of "reformation days" that have happened and, by God's grace, will continue to happen.

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


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

"Visions of Belonging": New England and the Sense of Place

Childe Hassam, "The Ledges, October in
Old Lyme, Connecticut", 1907 
When I arrived Yale Divinity School in the fall of 1979, I fell in love with New England, in the sense of an instant, overwhelming emotion of belonging. That love was bittersweet, because I knew I’d likely not remain beyond the three years of my program. I wrote about those years here.

Given my feelings about New England and my interest in “place,” you’d understand why I grabbed a book I saw in a bookstore this summer: Visions of Belonging: New England Art and the Making of American Identity, by Julia B. Rosenbaum (Cornell University Press, 2006). I had been unfamiliar with the book but the themes of New England and of place made it a necessary purchase.

Rosenbaum is associate professor of art history and director of the American Studies Program at Bard College. Her introduction is an excellent summary of the whole book. Focusing upon the late 1800s-early 1900s, a prolific period for artists associated with New England, she writes about the way New England held deep significance for many Americans. She aims to understand “the regionalist impulse animating artistic production at the turn of the century” (p. 1), and the related debates about regional and national identity. She argues that New England and its artistic representation “provide a case study, a means to apprehend nationhood and the forging of a common culture it provides” (p. 2).

Thomas Hovanden, "Breaking Home Ties," 1890.
By the 1890s, Frederick Jackson Turner had declared the end of the American frontier (p. 2, 152-153), and the 1893 Word’s Fair celebrated the nation’s regional diversity. Historically, the U.S. was in a period of postbellum sectionalism, immigration, and industrialization. In this context, Americans looked for a sense of belonging and of roots that could stand for the whole nation, and New England fit the bill, for interrelated reasons (p. 2). It represented the colonial beginnings of the nation. Writers like Yale’s Timothy Dwight had celebrated New England’s benefits (pp. 5-6). Its places and characters had a secure place in the national art and literature, and the region’s architecture and furniture were esteemed.

Interestingly the World’s Fair---with its many displays featuring different states and regions---was the catalyst by which New England newly inspired Americans (pp. 6-7, 26-31). A few posts ago I discussed the new biography of Norman Rockwell, an artist so associated with New England and whose painting Breaking Home Ties is one of his most popular. It was a painting of the same name, by Thomas Hovenden, that captured people’s imaginations at the Fair and helped spur a discussion about national identity (p. 7, 32-36). Artists associated with New England sought to represent the region’s character and ideals via paintings and (especially in the case of Augustus Saint-Gaudens) statues of historical worthies. The works of Childe Hassam and Willard Metcalf articulated visually “a sense of home and belonging with New England” and “helped to consolidate what I have termed an ‘iconography of belonging’,” notably beloved images of pleasant villages, churches with staples, and attractive landscapes (p. 7). The author also discusses the work of artists like John Twachtman and Julian Alden Weir, and the range of artistic styles used by the several artists.

The book contains color plates of four key works: Hovenden’s Breaking Home Ties (1890), Weir’s The Laundry, Branchville (c. 1894), Hassam’s Church at Old Lyme, Connecticut (1905) and Marsden Hartley, The Last of New England--The Beginning of New Mexico (1918/1919). Other reproduced painintgs include works by Metcalf, Twachtman, Saint-Gaudens, Frederick Edwin Church, Thomas Cole, Theodore Robinson, Wallace Nutting, more paintings by Hassam and Weir, and other artists.

By the 1920s, artistic energy and art criticism shifted to other regions. For instance, artists like Georgia O’Keeffe were associated with the Southwest, the Ash Can School focused upon poorer sections of New York City, and Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood were associated with the Midwest. New England lost its cultural prominence but not the abiding appreciation of many Americans. Rosenbaum’s book shows us how crucial to a nation's identity are art and culture, how a sense of place can inform national unity.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Strolling in Warm Autumn


The source of this picture is F.A. Seiberling Nature Realm via Facebook, from the site
http://www.movoto.com/akron-oh/things-people-from-akron-have-to-explain/ I love this place, a suspension bridge on a hiking trail at the F. A. Seiberling Nature Realm park in Akron, OH.

When we lived in Akron, this trail was spread with mulch and thus was soft enough for me to hike shoeless. On a recent visit I noticed that the mulch hadn't been replaced, which I understand; that stuff's expensive. But I've nice memories of feeling the trail as I walked and then strolling across this bridge (with its cool, smooth beams) to take the alternate "loop" pathway. As long as I can avoid acorns, going barefoot on autumn days has always been a simple pleasure for me.

I think of all this because the weather is so warm this weekend, 80s yesterday and again today. I love autumn because of the colors but also the varying temperatures. Changing weather can be hard on one's allergies, and planning your wardrobe can be a problem. But I like the variety between seasons, weather trying to make up its mind what to be.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Whither Shall I Flee: Bach's Cantatas for the 19th Sunday after Trinity

The 19th Sunday after Trinity is coming up! Next is Bach’s Reformation Day cantatas, and then the 20th through 23rd Sundays of Trinity in November. Advent is fast approaching. My family brought home some Christmas cards from the Papyrus store yesterday; soon I'll be starting on that late-November job. The CD for this Sunday features a girl from Herat, Afghanistan.

In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that the themes of this time (the last few weeks of the post-Trinity season) include “the thorny and intractable issues of belief and doubt, “the rejection of the world by the faithful and the prospect of eventual union with God – or the horror of exclusion.” But “Bach both softens and humanises the severity of the words while in no way diminishing their impact: he has an unfailing knack of being able to vivify the doctrinal message and, when appropriate, of delivering it with a hard dramatic kick, yet balancing this with music of an emollient tenderness.” Overall, the pieces for this Sunday are more pensive (though beautiful), in contrast to those coming up for October 31.

Right on cue, the title of BWV 48 is “Ich elender Mensch, wer wird mich erlösen vom” (“O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me [from the body of this death]”, which is from Romans 7:24). The first part of the cantata depicts the healing miracle of Matthew 9:1-8, with all the misery both of illness and of sin-sickness. But the second part, as we’ve seen so often before in Bach’s works, turns to the praise of Christ, who (in answer to the misery of Romans 7:24) alone can save and heal us. Similarly, the second cantata focuses upon the healing of Christ for the misery of infirmity and sin. But here, the theme is the blood of Christ. This cantata is called “Wo soll ich fliehen hin” (BWV 5, “Whither shall I flee”). Gardiner writes that the viola obbligato reminds us of “the gushing, curative effect of the divine spring” of blood.” His likening of the power of Christ’s blood to agricultural preparations for crops makes me remember something I read quite a while ago: that Gardiner maintains a farm in addition to all his musical work.

The third cantata is “Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen” (BWV 56, “Gladly shall I bear the cross”). The piece is for orchestra, chorus, and solo bass. As Jesus occasionally crossed the sea of Galilee, all of human life is like a voyage across seas. The music carries us through waves and calm to affirm God’s ultimate salvation once we reach journey’s end.


Like last week, the cantatas for this Sunday are joined with cantatas for post-Trinity Sundays that could not fit on the 2000 liturgical calendar. A cantat for the 25th Sunday after Trinity is called “Es Reisset such ein schrecklich Ende” (BWV 90, “A terrible end shall sweep you away”). Not so calming as BWV 58, this cantata gives us the horrors of damnation, sung in arias for the men’s voices. What a relief when we cross the terrible threats and hopelessness faced by the unredeemed and affirm God’s rescue of those who believe.

When I hear the phrase "blood of Christ," particularly as a stream that washes us, I often think of that old camp meeting song that I learned in childhood.

Would you be free from the burden of sin?
There’s power in the blood, power in the blood;
Would you o’er evil a victory win?
There’s wonderful power in the blood.

Would you be free from your passion and pride?
There’s power in the blood, power in the blood;
Come for a cleansing to Calvary’s tide;
There’s wonderful power in the blood.

Refrain
There is power, power, wonder working power
In the blood of the Lamb;
There is power, power, wonder working power
In the precious blood of the Lamb.

A very different kind of music than Bach's, but a similar expression of hope that Christ's power is sufficient for this life and that to come.

But the image of life as a sea voyage is another appealing theme from this week's music. Bach's music carries the text by Johann Frank for a lovely assurance for our faith.

My life on earth
is like a voyage at sea:
sorrow, affliction and distress
engulf me like waves
and daily frighten me to death;
my anchor, though, which sustains me, is God’s mercy,
with which He often gladdens my heart.
He calls out to me: I am with you,
I shall never leave you nor forsake you!
And when at length the raging foam is calmed,
I shall step from my ship into my own city,
which is the kingdom of Heaven,
where I with all the righteous
shall enter out of so great tribulation.

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

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Norman Rockwell, "American Mirror"

In the early 1960s, my parents subscribed to The Saturday Evening Post. Dad’s shed was my “club house,” and sitting out there on summer days, I’d look through copies of the weekly magazine, stacked up in the corner. The magazine’s covers and articles were illustrated by artists. I was a decent sketcher and wondered if art might be a good career. I looked at the magazine’s website just now and found the names of illustrators of that era: not only Norman Rockwell, but also Richard Sergent, John Clymer, Robert G. Harris, Gilbert Bundy, and others. I still have a few of those old copies as childhood keepsakes. 

Browsing the Webster Groves Bookshop a few weeks ago, I purchased the new biography, American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell by Deborah Solomon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013). An art critic and journalist, she had the weekly column “Questions For” in the New York Times Magazine for several years.

Rockwell (1894-1978) won Americans' devotion with his art. Saying Grace---a painting of an older woman and a boy praying over their food in a restaurant, with curious patrons looking on---topped a poll among people's favorite Post cover. Rockwell’s Four Freedoms series is also popular, as well as works like Breaking Home Ties, Boy with Baby Carriage, Rosie the Riveter, The Problem We All Live With, The Gossips, Tattoo Artist, Girl at Mirror, Shuffleton’s Barbershop, Jockey Weighing In, Triple Self-Portrait, Stockbridge--Main Street at Christmas, and others. He painted several portraits, including Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. LBJ preferred Rockwell’s painting of him to the official portrait. Rockwell even did a rock album cover for Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield, and David Bowie approached him for a portrait (but he needed it sooner than Rockwell could provide). He produced over 4000 works: magazine covers, book illustrations, posters, murals, illustrations for advertisements, and others. He never aspired to sell his paintings to collectors or to display in fine-art galleries. His meticulous technique (realistic but not photo-realistic), his ability to tell a story in a single picture, and the care with which he set up the situations in his paintings, add to his works’ appeal.

Rockwell was born in New York, attended Chase Art School and the National Academy of Design, and sold his first illustration when he was eighteen. The same year (1912), he became staff artist for Boys’ Life. He was 21 when he sold his first cover to The Saturday Evening Post. Until 1963, he painted 323 covers for that magazine. He continued to provide paintings for Boys’ Life in addition to other magazines. His later paintings for Look dealt with topics on poverty, civil rights, and space exploration.

Rockwell married three times. His first marriage to Irene O’Connor was from 1916 till 1930 and ended in divorce. Living in California, he met Mary Barstow. They married and had three sons. They lived in New Rochelle, NY and then Arlington, VT, and later Stockbridge, MA. It was in Vermont and Massachusetts that Rockwell painted some of his popular depictions of small town themes. The family moved to Stockbridge so that Mary could have her alcoholism addressed at the psychiatric hospital there, but Rockwell himself also benefited at the hospital; he received treatment from psychologist Erik Erikson. After Mary died in 1959, he married “Mollie” Punderson in 1961. She survived him.

Solomon writes about the dismissal Rockwell suffered from art critics. “Rockwellesque” became a pejorative term for sentimental depictions of life. His painting The Connoisseur, depicting a man gazing at a Jackson Pollock-like painting, is for Solomon a masterpiece, and contrasts Rockwell with the abstract expressionists with whom critics compared him so unfavorably. But in recent times his work has been more honored. Solomon writes that the Guggenheim and other museums have had an exhibitions of his work, Rosie the Riveter sold at auction for nearly $5 million, and Breaking Home Ties was auctioned for over $15 million. After this biography was published, Saying Grace sold at auction to an anonymous buyer for $46 million.

"Election Day," 1948.
Solomon considers Rockwell’s complicated psychology. Especially when he was a young painter, he
was known for painting boys much more often than girls, and some of his behavior would cause accusations today, such as hanging around grade schools, looking for kids who might be models for his illustrations. But there is no evidence that Rockwell acted inappropriately with any boy. He was, however, cold to one boy whom he no longer needed for modeling, which had ill effects on the boy’s psyche. The boy's tragic death seems to have weighed on the artist.

Rockwell was compulsive about cleanliness and his food preferences. He was also extremely modest, refusing even to consider himself an artist. Women made him insecure. Throughout his life he searched for brotherly, masculine companionship; yet he was not close to his own older brother. His wives were discouraged that he preferred spending time in his studio than with his family. Rockwell never mentions his wife Mary's death (or much about his family) in his 1960 autobiography. The artist emerges from Solomon’s account as a person of considerable self-caused loneliness, who found more personal happiness in depicting family life, in the emotional safety of his studio, than he ever did in his own life. Interestingly, he was not particularly nostalgic about his own childhood.

Solomon considers him a postmodern artist who “shares with the current generation a historically self-conscious approach to picture making” (p. 11). The book’s title refers to Rockwell himself, “his work mirrors his own temperament---his sense of humor, his fear of depths---and struck Americans as a truer version of themselves...” (p. 10). He wasn't all positivity. In the jarring work The Problem We All Live With, a little black girl is escorted to school accompanied by faceless law enforcement figures, with tossed fruit and racial slurs prominent against the wall by which she walks. Even in Election Day, Rockwell depicts a humorous yet sad situation: a young couple is angry at each other, divided by the Dewey-Truman presidential campaign, as the child sits, crying and ignored. But good spirits and a tenderhearted view of life prevail across his oeuvre. She writes:

"Where, in his work, are disease and death? Where is his sense of existential dread? I would argue that angst is probably overrepresented in modern art. Surely we can make room for an artist who was more interested in running toward the light. Unlike his fellow realist Edward Hopper, whose work abounds with the long shadows of late afternoon, Rockwell prefers the light of morning; his work can put you in mind of that sunny, hopeful moment right before lunch" (pp. 10-11).

Although aspects of Rockwell's personality leave us sad, Solomon interprets his art with a civic vision---a sense of the common good---that I find admirable.

“The great subject of his work was American life... a homelier version steeped in the we-the-people, communitarian ideals of America’s founding in the eighteenth century. The people in his paintings are related less by blood than by their participation in civic rituals, from voting on Election Day to sipping a soda at a drugstore counter. Doctors spend time with patients whether or not they have health insurance. Students appreciate their teachers and remember their birthdays. Citizens at town hall meetings stand up and speak their mind without getting booed or shouted down by gun-toting ragaholics. This is America... before searing divisions in our government and general population shattered any semblance of national solidarity” (pp. 4-5).

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Cy Avery, "Father of Route 66"

Route 66: The Highway and Its People (1988) has always been my favorite among the many histories of the fabled highway. I purchased my copy in Sedona, AZ in 1989, during the years when my family and I lived in nearby Flagstaff. The photographer Quinta Scott and the historian-writer Susan Croce Kelly researched the highway and interviewed many people associated with the road. Scott took photographs, Kelly wrote the text, and the book was published by University of Oklahoma Press. I used the book in my “American Highways and American Wanderlust” colloquium at University of Akron.

Now, Kelly (Susan Kirkpatrick) has written a wonderful biography of Cyrus Stevens Avery (1871-1963), the “Father of Route 66," also published by University of Oklahoma Press. What a fascinating life! Born in Stevensville, Pennsylvania, young Avery and his parents and siblings journeyed to Indian Territory and then Missouri. He went to college in Missouri, married Essie McClelland, then moved back to Oklahoma where he was an insurance agent, moved into real estate loans, and established the Avery Oil and Gas Company. In 1907, he and his wife and children moved to Tulsa.

Automobile travel at that time was new but growing rapidly. Roads were dirt and gravel, poorly suited for cars. Consequently, the Good Roads Movement in the 1910s was an effort to improve and eventually to pave highways. Avery became interested in this effort, which would benefit Tulsa and Oklahoma. He became a leader in the movement. Among his several roles, he joined the Oklahoma Good Roads Association, was president of the Albert Pike Highway Association, and was president of the Associated Highway Associations of America.

Avery was also appointed to the Joint Board of Interstate Highways, the task of which was to designate and mark a new system of federal highways. Prior to that time, roads had names, like the Lincoln Highway, the National Old Trails Highway, the Jefferson Highway, the Dixie Highway, and many others. But as the designation of named highways had been controversial in the 1910s, with towns vying for a place on major routes, similar controversies occurred in the laying-out of federal roads. One dispute was fateful. Boosters proposed a route from Virginia Beach to Springfield, Missouri and eventually to Los Angeles, and proposed number was U.S. 60. Avery, though, pressed for a major road from Chicago to Los Angeles, also via Springfield, MO, that would pass through Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Such a road would benefit his town and state, unlike the proposed U.S. 60 which, under the original plan, would not enter Oklahoma.

Something from my own collection:
a delegate's ribbon from a meeting
in my hometown to promote paved roads.
In the layout of federal routes, the west-east transcontinental highways would end in 0, and the principal north-south highways would end in 1. (My hometown Vandalia, IL, which Susan mentions as the terminus for the pioneer National Road, is on two of these routes: 40 and 51.) Avery wanted his route through Tulsa to be U.S. 60, identifying the road as a major route. Kentucky leaders, however, balked at that idea, since the proposed U.S. 60 would (and still does) serve that state. The number 62 was suggested (U.S. 62 is now the highway from El Paso to Niagara Falls). Avery disliked that number, but he and his associate Frank Page discovered that the euphonious number 66 had not yet been assigned to a road. Thus was born the Chicago-Los Angeles highway that became famous.

The federal highway system of numbered routes became reality in 1926. The work of improving and paving those roads continued for many years. Avery was instrumental in the formation of the U.S. Highway 66 Association and its work of paving and promoting U.S. 66. As a member of the American Association of State Highway Officials, he was also involved in the approval of the signage with which we’re all familiar, including shields for highways, octagonal stop signs, round railroad signs, yellow diamond-shaped caution signs, and rectangular speed limits signs.

Other aspects of Avery’s life are also noteworthy: his work for a Tulsa airport and for a water pipeline to the city, his tireless handling of political disagreements, his travels, and his efforts to improve race relations. During his life, he earned the animosity of the Ku Klux Klan and eventually lost his job as a state highway commissioner because of Klan manipulation. In her readable style, Susan discusses these and many other aspects of Avery’s long career in business and public service.

Avery died in 1963. He is honored in Tulsa with several memorials, and nearly any highway history will mention his work for Route 66. It’s fortunate that now he has a history of his own!