Friday, January 31, 2014

Calming Storms: Bach's Fourth Sunday of Epiphany Cantatas

Over this weekend I’ll be listening to two discs in the set of Bach’s sacred cantatas. The theme of Disc 7 is Bach’s cantatas for the fourth Sunday of Epiphany (Feb. 2 this year): “Ach wie fluechtig, ach wie nichtig” (BWV 26), “Ah how fleeting, ah how trifling”), “Jesus schlaeft, was soll ich hoffen?” (BWV 81, “Jesus sleeps, what hope is there for me?”), “Waer Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit” (BWV 14, “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side”), Jesu, meine Freud” (BWV 227, “Jesus, my joy”). Actually the first two are Bach’s only cantatas written specifically for this Sunday, while the others two fill out the disc well with common themes. The photo---all the cover photos depict people around the world, symbolizing the universality of Bach's music---is of a young person of Omo Valley, Ethiopia.

As the title indicates, 26 concerns the shortness of life and all its hopes. As I wrote last week, Bach had tragedy in his life: the death of his first wife and several children. I’ve read elsewhere that his parents died when he was young. For this theme of life’s shortness, Gardiner indicates that Bach’s writing “create a mood of phantasmal vapour” and also of a mountain river (symbolizing life and its hopes) rushing away. The words express sorrow at all the supposed pleasures, accomplishments and splendor of life. “All things, all things that we see shall fall at last and period. Who fears God shall live forever.”

BWV 81 is concern with another “aquatic” image, that of Jesus calming the storm. Gardiner notes that Bach uses recorders with the strings to depict the fear of God’s abandonment (in the image of Christ sleeping while the disciples are fearful). Gardiner comments that the dramatic quality of this cantata (with the long silence of Jesus, the disciples’ fear, the  storm itself) gives a sense of what a Bach opera might have been like. “Though lightning cracks and flashes, though sin and Hell strike terror, Jesus will protect me.”

Bach does not repeat the water imagery for BWV 14, but the text does grapple with life’s (and Satan’s) threats to the community of believers, and the assurance of God’s protection and care. BWV 227, an eleven-movement motet included with this Sunday’s cantatas, includes those images---“Beneath Thy shield I am protected from the raging storms of all my enemies”---while more geneally affirming the sweetness and protection of God amid life’s storrow, pleasures, and honors.

How well do we look to Christ amid the metaphorical and actual storms of life? Over the years I’ve tried to sustain my faith (persistently if not consistently) through good times so that I’m less distressed when trouble comes. (As an aside, I’m a terrible worrier, but trouble that has come usually was not what I worried about but something unexpected.)

Fortunately, Christ does not wait until he is suitably impressed with the quality of our faith before he steps up to help us. The disciples were fearful and fussy amid the storm (as I would have been), and although Christ sighed at their fearfulness, he calmed both the storm and their anxieties. For some of us, that is two great miracles in one!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Hump Day Prayers

Dear Lord, a big thing on the minds of many people is the winter weather in many parts of the country. Protect us as we travel on slick highways. (In particular we remember those who drive professionally.) Help those who have to be outside in the very cold temperatures. Protect workers who clear roads, repair downed power lines, fight fires, provide emergency medical care, and otherwise are on emergency duty. Watch over children who are playing outdoors on "snow days." Protect those who are struggling without power, and those who are using potentially dangerous things like space heaters in order to keep warm. Help parents find options when they have to juggle work and childcare on snow days; give employees a sense of common sense and compassion toward their employees on such occasions. Help people who have been stranded on highways and those who have had to stay in facilities like schools because they've been unable to get home. Also help airplane travelers as they face canceled flights, missed connections, and travel delays. For these and other favors, we ask for your care and refuge, in Christ's name. Amen.

(The idea of "Hump Day Prayers" came from my college friend's blog "Le Padre Ver Livre,"

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Finding a Spiritual Balance

Revisiting some thoughts from last spring…. Finding a good balance in my life is essential on practical basis. I’ve a tendency toward mild depression, which for the last few months has nagged more deeply than is typical. But I do better when I maintain a right proportion of work, family, exercise, diet, and recreation. Sometimes, a person's attitude can get awry: I tend to compare myself unfavorably with others, for instance, which is an awful and self-defeating habit. So finding balance can also mean getting one's "head" in a good frame of mind when, for whatever reason, we're mentally and emotionally stuck. Recently, I've found a good overall balance again and I feel happier.

Balancing life's aspects can be challenging for all of us, especially those times when we must focus more attention on family issues or work or whatever. One's spiritual life has to be in balance, too. A good book that I purchased a few years ago is Ronald Rolheister’s The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality (New York: Doubleday, 1999). Rolheister, of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, notes that the quantity of spirituality-related books available, with different approaches and themes, is staggering (pp. 51-52). But given this abundance, he asks: what are the essentials of a Christian spirituality? Interpreting the example and teachings of Jesus, he gives four “nonnegotiable pillars of the spiritual life”: “a) Private prayer and private morality; b) social justice; c) mellowness of heart and spirit; and d) community as a constitutive element of true worship” (p. 53).

Rolheister goes on to discuss characteristics of each, especially what happens when a person deemphasizes one or more (pp. 54-69). Thinking along with him, I speculated that many of us are pretty faithful on A and D but tend to neglect B and C. That is, we go to church, participate in its life; we pray, and we follow a moral code in our lives.

What about B, social justice? This can be tricky. I read somewhere about a lady who, whenever her church study group or her pastor began to discuss social issues, responded, “What does this have to do with John 3:16?” For her, personal belief in Christ that gains one the gift of eternal life, as expressed in this verse, was the most important thing. After all, that is a precious message of the Gospel!

But there are many social teachings in the Bible: justice for the poor, feeding the hungry, supporting the imprisoned, taking the side of the disadvantaged, gaining justice and advocating for groups of people who are marginalized. Even if we worry about the church becoming involved in “politics,” we know that the church is called to minister to the world in Christ’s name as the Spirit gives guidance. So if we are faithful about A and D, we can prayerfully seek ways to support the church’s work in bringing healing and justice to the world.

Some of us have a different challenge: we're so passionate about certain social issues, we emphasize "B" and neglect other aspects of spirituality. Why should God care about one’s personal prayer life or everyday behavior as long as one is feeding the hungry, etc.? But this is a temptation to have an imbalanced spirituality.

Another side to that: Sometimes I hear people complain that the church is too fixated on buildings, building projects, and facility upkeep; therefore, the argument goes, we should be using that money on the poor. This, too, is a way that social justice issues neglect other aspects of spirituality: in this case, the nurturing of people’s prayers and lives (A) and the cruciality of community and worship (D). I serve on our church’s board of trustees and can see first hand the many needs and costs in maintaining a building for the congregation----but this is the way things are supposed to be! After all, your home, which protects and nurtures you and your family, require regular maintenance, and so does a church home that protects and nurtures a worshiping body.

On to “C,” mellowness of heart and spirit. This area interests me a lot because I’m a terrible worrier, and I feel that my anxieties betray an immature faith---or at least a faith where I’m calm in my “head faith” but emotionally fussy. Also, I’m inspired by Buddhist teachings that explicitly aim at serenity of heart, kindness, mental discipline that aims at inner peace, and so on.

These teachings are not at all different from Christian teachings, but some of us fall short on them. The other three aspects of spirituality can certainly help nurture inner tranquility and gratitude.

Interestingly, an overemphasis on both A (private prayer and personal morality) and B (social justice) can lead to a lack of inner peacefulness. On one hand, a person is so focused on the personal quality of faith and life, that pride has slipped in to his/her spirituality. (Alternately, a person has so emphasized the personal salvation of John 3:16 that she never quite pursues a transformed life.) On the other hand, a person who is very focused on some justice issue can become angry and strident---accusing people of inadequate faith if they disagree on that issue---rather than mellow, loving, and peaceful.

Our very partisan politics enters into this, too. We become angry in our political views, we become frustrated with friends who disagree with us, and soon, instead of a honest and friendly exchange of opinions, a spirit of division has been created.

And finally D, community and true worship. Many people are personally devout and moral, concerned about social issues, and peaceful of heart----but they don’t go to church. Perhaps they’ve been hurt by a congregation, or they’re annoyed when the bureaucratic and otherwise “human” qualities of churches seem to get in the way of the true message. Perhaps they simply prefer solitary time, such as walking in nature and listening inwardly for God’s guidance. The individualism of our contemporary society----this is what works for me, and you can find what works for you---can make us neglect the benefits of belonging to a religious community, and thus part of a religious heritage.

Most of us do indeed know what we need spiritually, and churches do indeed fail and disillusion people. My advice is always to keep looking for and praying for a community, and to keep a healthy perspective about the humanity of churches. There are bad people in churches, people who let you down, people who don’t get things right, but also people who are struggling like you and me and are humble in their struggles. They’re people who can be friends and cohorts in the spiritual journey. Not only that, but God works powerfully in the midst of congregations, and discovering God’s presence in a congregation is a vital part of the spiritual life.

Another side to D: some pastors love to see "worker bees" around the church, volunteers who are constantly doing things. Volunteer church ministries can consume one's time, getting people's lives out of balance, if the pastor is not sensitive to the needs of people to use their time sensibly. It's important that a pastor with high expectations of service teaches people the importance of the other three aspects of spirituality.

Rolheiser rightly points out that “balance is not the ultimate goal of spirituality” (p. 69), but rather, our spirituality is an aspect of fulfilling our vocation as members of the body of Christ in the world, to help bring God’s redemption to the world (which includes the planet) (pp. 69-70). Thinking and praying about our spirituality, though, helps us draw closer to God and become clearer about the ways God calls us to live and serve.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Interfaith Prayers

Today (January 27) is the UN-designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Here is a news report about the day's events and importance:

And here is the American Jewish Committee's statement:;_ylt=A0oG7lmwu.ZS7nYA7WJXNyoA;_ylu=X3oDMTBybGhkdDRqBHNlYwNzYwRjb2xvA2FjMgR2dGlkA1VJQzFfMQ--

It's a day to bring back to mind those who perished in Nazi atrocities---primarily Jews but also mentally ill, Roma and Sinti, and homosexuals---to remember the continuing problems of racism, prejudice, intolerance, and violence, and to seek the Lord's guidance in bringing about peace and justice in our time and for the future.

Warm Globally, Freeze Locally

Everybody’s talking about the snow and unusual cold this winter. The TV news just now reported that this is the coldest January "this century." Schools are closing because of the cold. University of Akron, where my wife Beth and I used to work, closed in advance for Monday and Tuesday. A friend who flies a lot has had challenges getting where he needs to go. Humor abounds about global warming; weather is not the same thing as climate change, but you hear plenty of bleak jokes like my subject heading.

Snow, with its potential to change the daily routine, drifts in our memories. What are your personal stories of snow, whether prosaic or exciting?

* I don’t remember the year, but during the mid 1960s, when I was in grade school, a foot or two of snow fell, and I experienced my first snow day! What bliss! I spent a good part of the day in both the front and back yards, building a snowman and flying my model space ships into the drifted snow. (The aliens were thus stranded into a snowy planet in a far galaxy.)

* I think about a winter day in the early 1970s when I was in junior high. I’d been visiting a friend how lived on Jefferson Street in my small hometown; he had the most impressive LP collection: Mountain, The Who, Black Oak Arkansas, Humble Pie, and others. His collection was “heavy,” in the slang of the time. I’m not sure why I walked home along the Illinois Central tracks--because the railroad was a bit out of the way--but maybe the snow along the streets was deep. I remember how cold the day was: minus 10 wind chill. When I came home, my mother made me hot chocolate.

* During the blizzard of the winter of 1978-79, a truck slid off I-70. I drove by after the accident; the trailer was on its side, and the cab was pointing straight up into the air. The driver must’ve had an adventure getting out. I could imagine a tow truck driver saying to him, "Well, there's yer problem!"

* A few years later, I drove my station wagon down the hill to the store to buy some snacks, and my car slid into a parked car, scraping the passenger-side door. Ever since, I’ve been superstitious about running errands in the snow: how essential is that, for instance, bag of pretzels? Can the trip wait?

* In 1994, a forecasted three-inch snow became sixteen inches, halting the routine in our community. Daughter Emily was not quite four, but she remembers playing in the snow that was, in drifted places, waist-deep for her. Of course we made a snow person!

* We lived in Flagstaff, AZ for a while, where the annual snowfall is about 100 inches. Snow was such a daily reality, but I remember the scary drives on I-17 from Flagstaff till about 40 minutes south, where the Mogollon Rim ended and the landscape descended into the lower and warmer elevations. Most of the drive to and from Phoenix was easy except for that winter weather along the rim.

* My daughter is one of the few people who doesn’t like Handel’s Messiah at all. We took her to two Friday evening concerts at Severance Hall in Cleveland in consecutive years--wonderful events, one featuring the coloratura Laura Claycomb and the baritone Sanford Sylvan. Unfortunately, in mid-December in northeast Ohio, snows can be unpredictable, so we drove back to Akron in frightening snowstorms both years we attended. Our attempts to introduce her to a beloved oratorio only gave it an association with dangerous weather conditions.

* Emily and I used to go sledding on our backyard hill in wintertime. Sometimes we speed all the way down; sometimes we get bogged down in heavy, wet snow and tumble over. When life gives you bad snow for sledding, make snow angels. I’m well into middle-age; I looked silly on a sled; I didn’t care.

I leaf through my Bible for references to the white stuff. Here are my two favorites. Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command! writes the psalmist (Ps. 148:7-8). In a similar vein, God asks Job rhetorically, Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail...? (Job 38:22)

No, Lord, we haven't...But we sure do see the results when those storehouses empty out!

(An updated post from 2010)

Saturday, January 25, 2014

One Foot in the Grave: Bach's Third Sunday in Epiphany Cantatas

Continuing my "journey" through Bach's sacred cantatas… As I began to listen to this 56-CD set that I described in earlier posts, I started with disc 52, which are the cantatas for the First Sunday of Advent, so that I could follow the Christian liturgical year from the first Sunday. Now I've listened to discs 52-56 and then 1-5 as I follow the Sundays in order, and this weekend I'm listening to disc 6, the cantatas for the third Sunday in Epiphany (which is tomorrow, January 26). The sleeve photo is of a child at Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Burma.

Next Sunday, February 2, is Epiphany's fourth Sunday but this year it's also Candlemas. So I'll be listening to and thinking about discs 7 and 8. Bach seems to have not written a Groundhog Day cantata….

The third Sunday cantatas are “Alles nur mach Gottes Willen” (BWV 72, “All things according to God’s will), “Herr, wie du willt, so schick’s mit mir” (BWV 73, “Lord, deal with me as Thou wilt”), “Was mein Gott will, das g’scheh allzeit” (BWV 111, “May my God’s will always be done”), “Ich steh mit einem Fuss im Grabe” (BWV 156, “I stand with one foot in the grave”). Musically these are more generally upbeat than last Sunday's, but the themes are still difficult. Imagine telling your choir that Sunday's music is called "One foot in the grave."

In the CD notes, Gardiner explains that the time period of 72 was difficult for Bach, who must have counted on God’s mercy particularly. He and his second wife, Anna Magdalena, lost three children during that 1726-1728, and 28-year-old Anna herself was ill. (Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, was only 36 when she died unexpectedly in 1720.) In this situation, Bach set to music words like, “[w]hen affliction and suffering frighten you, [your Savior] knows your distress and frees you from affliction... if [one] is filled with faith, my Jesus will do it!”

When Bach wrote 156 in 1729, the title line, “I stand with one foot in the grave” was a reminder of life’s tragic transitory quality. But the text (and the opening oboe music) affirms (as Gardiner writes) “the believer’s desire for God alone, whether in life or in death.” In the cantata, which begins with a pretty sinfonia, the believer beseeches God for rescue, but also affirms that God’s will is best, for only in God can one find solace and salvation. I love the sound of the oboe in works by Mozart, Vaughan Williams, and others, and it's a perfect instrument to carry this message.

Gardiner notes that in 73, “Bach’s musical setting reinforces the thetorical structure and underlines the message of faith in the sovereingty of God’s will.” The soprano and tenor represent the anxiety of the believer while the chorus and the solo bass provide assurance. Trust in God’s will, and submission thereto, helps us deal with sorrow and distress, for Christ’s grace and the Holy Spirit’s rule “leads us into heaven’s kingdom” and banishes the “pangs of death, the sighs from my heart”

In contrast, 111 is from 1725, when things were happy in the Bach’s lives, although the cantata balances a happpy faith with the awareness of death at the end where the believer seeks to stay brave at life’s evils.

In my philosophy class this past week, we talked about the inevitability of death, and the fact that there are no guarantees how or when we will die, nor any assurance that a certain time or mode of death is more "fair" than others. But it will always seem so to us: it wasn't fair that this person died when and how s/he did. No amount of coldly objective thinking about the reality of death unpredictability will convince us otherwise. (That being said, I think my father died in a good way, collapsing with an aneurysm while doing things that he loved around the house.)

Yet tombstones once carried "memento mori" epitaphs, admonishing the passer-by to be reminded of death's inevitability and to prepare as best as one ever can. In our family cemetery in Illinois, the tombstone of a local blacksmith who died in 1855 warns, "Remember friends, as you pass by/as you are now, so once was I/as I am now, so you must be/prepare for death and follow me."

As I think about Bach's cantatas, I'm struck by how the texts and music struggle with those feelings of dread, distress, and grief that are part of mortal life---and how these themes are prominent here in January, still the first part of the new year, during the season of Epiphany that by its very name is about a new and hope-filled appearance of God among us.

And that consolation and promise amid the dread and reality of mortality is of course one of the most precious aspects of the Gospel message. Sometimes we preachers are careful to say (following John's gospel and other New Testament passages) that God's eternal life begins now and not just at death. We don't want people to become too "pie in the sky" in their faith. On the other hand, when a person is facing death (or when a person simply wants to accept death's inevitability prior to it becoming an issue), the power and grace of Christ becomes even more clearly the foundation of everything, and the only thing one can count on. All of these cantatas "preach" that very message.

English translations by Richard Stokes.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Hump Day Prayers

Dear Lord, a friend refers to being a "persistent" more than a "consistent" Christian. We acknowledge that consistency is not our strong suit. We may even fear that claiming consistency will make us seem holier-than-thou and more "together" than we really are. But "persistency" means that, frail and forgetful as we are, we do know your blessings, we do know the right way, and we strive to walk in it. Keep doing as you do, reminding us of our discipleship, sending good (or perhaps annoying) people into our lives to teach us, forgiving our sins (which may be both persistent and consistent!), and showing in our lives your deep love and compassion and mercy and patience as we make life's journey the journey of faith and witness. In Christ's name we pray. Amen.

(The idea of "Hump Day Prayers" came from my college friend's blog "Le Padre Ver Livre,"

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Postcards and the Sense of Place

My review of John A. Jakle and Keith A. Sculle, Picturing Illinois: Twentieth-Century Postcard Art from Chicago to Cairo (University of Illinois Press, 2012). This review was just published in Springhouse magazine, 30:5.

Postcards are wonderful to collect. Ebay, antique stores, and flea markets provide plenty of opportunities to purchase antique cards. I’ve been collecting postcards from my hometown, Vandalia, IL, for many years: the business district, the Vandalia Line railroad, local highways, the town’s two major hotels, local churches, and motels. One postcard, of a train passing over the Kaskaskia River railroad bridge, is postmarked 1907. Publishers include H. H. Bregstone (a St. Louis photographer), Curt Teich (discussed below), an early 20th century Vandalia photographer named McLeod, and some 1950s postcards by my photographer cousin Don Jones. When I saw this new book Picturing Illinois advertised, I immediately preordered a copy, not only because of the subject but also I appreciated yet another important contribution to cultural history by these two authors.

John Jakle and Keith Sculle have coauthored several books like their "Gas, Food, Lodging" trilogy----The Gas Station in America (John Hopkins University Press, 1994), The Motel in America (John Hopkins University Press, 1996), and Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age (John Hopkins University Press, 1998)--- as well as Signs in America's Auto Age: Signatures of Landscapes and Places (University of Iowa Press, 2004), and Motoring: The Highway Experience in America (University of Georgia Press, 2008). They also contributed articles to The National Road and A Guide to the National Road (both published by John Hopkins University Press, 1996). Sculle, whom I’ve been pleased to know for several years, is the recently retired head of research and education for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, and Jakle is prefessor emeritus of geography at the University of Ilinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Postal cards” were cards sold by the U.S. Postal Service beginning in the 1860s and were used as advertisements. But “postcards” as we think of them---a photo or artwork produced and sold by companies other than the USPS, on which one could write short messages and then mail---began in the 1890s (p. 17). These cards quickly became very popular, not only to be sent but also to be saved. Many people kept postcards in albums and trunks, making possible their later abundance (in good condition) on the antique market (p. 20). The authors point out that early cards accentuated the positive: “images that spoke in superlatives of technical prowess, of economic prosperity, and, as well, of the cultural accoutrements of highened civility that seemingly derived therefrom” (p. 2). The images of business districts were depicted artistically, emphasing visual perspective; sometimes, to reduce visual clutter, the power lines and telephone lines were removed from the photo (p. 3). Several postcard publishers dominated the market (pp. 16-19). For instance, anyone familiar with mid-century postcards will recognize the name Curt Teich and Co., which popularized a linen texture to the cards (p. 18). Not only the postcards themselves, but the messages that people wrote provide a slice of life (e.g., pp. 185-186).

The authors provide an interesting history of Illinois via its depiction in postcards.  The book is a handy chronicle of the state from post-Civil War days to recent years. Part one is titled, “Chicago and Its Suburbs: The Metropolis” (pp. 23-113). “No other American city, save perhaps New York City, attracted more attention from postcard publishers than Chicago,” and also, Chicago was a major producer and distributor of postcards (p. x). The authors discuss several aspects of the Chicago area: the major stores, hotels, the stockyards, the lake and river, railroads and factories, ethnicity and race, religion, and other aspects of the city and metropolitan area. About a hundred different postcards are reproduced, reflecting these aspects of the history.

Part two is “Illinois beyond the Metropolis” (pp. 115-184). That is the term the authors prefer, rather than “downstate.” Nearly a hundred more postcards depict business districts, neighborhoods highways and bridges, court houses and churches, farms, lakes, institutions like hospitals and colleges, and other aspects of different places. “Egypt” is discussed on pages 178-179. Of course, Abraham Lincoln is a powerful presence in Illinois’ legacy, and postcards reflect this connection.

The authors provide a good representative sample of Illinois’ towns and postcards. Of course they have to omit many, many Illinois towns that had postcard views. Here are the places they discuss and depict. The downstate cities are: Springfield, Peoria, Rock Island and Moline, Rockford, Bloomington-Normal, Champaign-Urbana, Decatur, East St. Louis, Alton, Quincy, Danville, Jacksonville, and Galesburg. The authors also provide postcards from smaller towns: Bunker Hill, Monmouth, Lincoln, Savanna, San Jose, Vandalia, Niles Center, Pana, Hoopeston, Bridgeport, Union, Cullom, Chrisman, Genesco, Havana, Metamora, Lena, Merna, Harrisburg, Tuscola, Shawneetown, Galena, Pittsfield, and Cairo. (Figure 170  on p. 168 is a postcard of the First Trust & Savings bank in Harrisburg, from about 1930, while figure 172 is the old national bank in Shawneetown from about 1900.) Also included are farm postcards from McLean and Vermilion Counties and the Homer, IL area, novelty postcards from Boody and Magnolia, and cards from Starved Rock State Park. The authors include four Vandalia
postcards including one of my favorites, a view of the business district (figure 152B), published by Benke in Salem, IL.

In the epilogue, the authors contrast life in Illinois’ two great areas. Cards from Chicago emphasized the energy and bustle of the city, while cards from other Illinois places emphasized small-town charm, business districts more modest than the city’s, and farming regions. Thus, postcard companies “helped perpetuate the notion that Chicago and Illinois beyond the metropolis were two distinctive social spheres” and “tended to negate the ways in which Chicago and its downstate hinterland were, in fact, closely related” both culturally and economically (p. 188). And yet, the regions of Illinois were also “places where common lifestyles were possible” (p. 188). Ironically, people later in the 20th century tended to gravitate to “the idealized values of the small community, and a preferred iconography of places rooted more in a romanticized small-town pastoralism” (p. 189), the aspects of place that the early postcard publishers of Chicago had valued less.

The translation of history into geography is an important aspect of the cards. “What was emphasized in postcard views was history translated into material culture---especially history as implicated in things architectural or, perhaps better said, at the scale of landscape... Each postcard publisher’s array of images created an iconography in which depictions of the built environment (and sometimes the natural environment as well) combined to visually represent localities. Publishers also sought to picture important events or ongoing activities---history in the making, so to speak. But mainly it was history hardened into geography---places viewed as deriving over time through one or another process of change” (p. 21). Postcards also give people an excellent and positive sense of place, “remembered landscapes and places” that “fulfill actual geographies in interesting ways” (p. 189).

Finding postcards from your favorite communities and places will give you a wonderful and handy look at local history. Jakle’s and Sculle’s book not only give you the background of postcards but an excellent history of the past 140 years or so of Illinois history, with the benefit of showing how Illinoisans themselves viewed their state.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Small Market Memories

Like many communities, my hometown once several small neighborhood markets. I remember one near my grade school, another on Fifth Street, and the McCormick's store on Randolph and Third Streets. I was a very small child when I walked with another little friend to the McCormick's store for candy on summer days. Vance McCormick was a distant cousin, but I'm not sure I was aware of that at the time.

I had faint memories of the interior of the store, which was eventually closed and razed, and no memory of the exterior. On our hometown Facebook page, however, a friend posted a photograph of the store, which thoroughly warmed my heart and elicited other folks' hometown memories of getting not only candy there but sodas, bologna sandwiches, and the like. I asked if I could share the photo here.

During my post-secondary student days, I was glad to have small markets within walking distance. When the weather was nice, I loved to stay barefooted for my walks: so relaxing amid studying stress. One market owner was glad I went barefoot because she liked to, too, but customers gave her dirty looks. I became a cohort in the joys of going shoeless. I'm glad to see (online) that these little stores still operate, for my student days were quite a few years ago now.

Many small businesses can be a wonderful blessings if you're a regular customer and the store folks know you and greet you. Places like McCormick's shine in memory as small, good places that became part of our lives. You feel like your life would've missed something crucial without those memories of baloney sandwiches, your hands in the candy bins, your change rattling upon a welcoming counter.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Weighed by Sorrow: Bach's Cantatas for the Second Sunday of Epiphany

Continuing my "journey" through J. S. Bach's sacred cantatas performed by the Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloist, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner…. On disc 5 of this set, the cantatas for the Second Sunday after Epiphany (today) are “Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange?” (BWV 156, “My God, how long, ah! how long?”), “Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid” (BWV 3, “Ah, God, what deep affliction”), and “Meine Seufzer, meine Traenen” (BWV 13, “My sighs, my tears”). The Scriptures are Romans 12:6-16 and John 2:1-11. The cover photo (all of them likenesses of persons around the world, symbolizing the universality of Bach's music) is of a man (wearing a bright red hat) from Lhasa, Tibet.

I listened to the CD before I studied the notes, and I was taken by the overall somber quality of the cantatas after some of the joyful numbers of the previous Christmas and Epiphany pieces. Sure enough, Gardiner comments in the notes that even the sad titles of the cantatas seem out of place for the happy quality of the lessons and Epiphany season. But the texts describe journeys “from mourning to
consolation.” Similarly, the Gospel text from the Cana wedding calls attention to the then-unfulfilled ministry of Jesus (“My hour has not yet come”), which connects to the not-yet-fulfilled journey of the believer, who still looks forward to faith’s fulfillment in Heaven.

In the first cantata, for instance, the believer is assured that God does not delight in sending afflictions but that God wants the joys of Heaven to become all the more precious as we struggle through difficulties. In the second cantata, Jesus is most certainly the one who helps us bear our crosses and keeps our hearts in faith through “mortal fright and torment.” The third cantata is particularly filled with references to tears, sorrow, grief, distress, and bitterness, including feelings of abandonment from God. But all the while God promises to “turn bitterness into joyful wine” and to console us with the promises of Heaven.

Gardiner notes the music devices Bach uses, like the six notes in chromatic descent that symbolize grief in BWV 3, which Bach tranforms into chromatic harmonies that represent the movement from grief to hope. In that same cantata, in the soprano-alto aria connects the cross of Christ to the believer’s troubles, resulting in joy. But in the last cantata, in the fifth movement, Bach uses the bass soloist with recorders and violin to depict our present life as bleakly as possible.

"Hope" in the sense of Christian hope is not only anticipation that something will happen but also trust that it will---and trust in the promiser. I hope that we get a nice tax refund this year, but it would be foolish to trust that we will. I'll just have to get our taxes done and find out. Christian hope, though, is confidence that God's promises of comfort and blessings are part of our lives now, as well as in the future. Heaven is in the future, but God has given us the divine life and the divine power today.

So we really live in two circumstances, so to speak, one temporary and one permanent. Our temporary circumstances are filled with things like distress, sorrow and uncertainty (as well as joy and accomplishment). But our permanent circumstance is the life with God which is already accomplished by Christ and is real and powerful. Looking to Christ's complete fulfillment, however, is that which helps us stay grounded in the divine promises while other things in our lives weigh us down--or nearly crush us.

English translations of the texts by Richard Stokes.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Interfaith Prayers

Let's pray for one general thing this week (and beyond): concerning the increasing religious intolerance and violence in the world. Pew researchers announce a six-year high in religious violence:  The Christian Science Monitor also reports that globalization and immigration may be root causes but also may be reasons for future tolerance:

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

An Epiphany Memory of Scrooge

Rebecca Romney, the book expert who is a frequent guest on the History Channel show "Pawn Stars," wrote this interesting piece about Dickens' A Christmas Carol  How fascinating to learn of Dickens' commitment to the work compared to his publisher's hesitation. Christmas was considered a "second tier" holiday, and Dickens' sales at the time were sufficiently iffy to make his publisher skittish about the work.

When I was a kid, my mother loved to shop for cloth and sewing products at a fabric store in Vernon, Illinois. Vernon is a small village on U.S. 51 about ten miles south of my hometown, near the larger town of Centralia. During my childhood we often had errands in Centralia, including my visits to orthodontist. The little store in Vernon was a convenient stop.

The trouble was, waiting for my mother to shop was like watching paint dry. She took forever, and she became put-upon if you tried to rush her. During our Saturday family trips to downtown St Louis, my dad and I would wait for Mom to return from shopping, sometimes an hour and half after our agreed-upon meeting time.

So ….if Mom wanted to stop at the Vernon fabric store, I was smart if I brought a book along. One evening, I sat in the car and started to read A Christmas Carol. I don't think I finished the whole book that evening, but I came close as the day's light faded to twilight.

That is my memory of reading A Christmas Carol for the first time. Several months ago, as I drove around home places in a nostalgic mood, I took a photo of the long-closed fabric shop and remembered my mom, her quirks, and her sewing skills that my daughter now has. Ghosts of road trips past.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

"In Bed We Laugh, In Bed We Cry"

When my family and I visited a museum in Ireland this past summer, we passed an exhibit of historical bedroom furnishings. The description included a quotation from poet Isaac de Benserade: “In bed we laugh, in bed we cry; And, born in bed, in bed we die. The near approach a bed may show Of human bliss to human woe."

I thought of that quotation again this past week. I’ve had a terrible cold and have slept a lot. Weak, I took five short naps during one of the worst days.

We say a lot about Christian discipleship, and it usually focuses on things to do, attitudes to develop, ways we fall short of Christ-like love, and so on. But a very large portion of our lives (and a large range of our emotions) revolve around the privacy and vulnerability of the bedroom.

There, we sleep for a third or a fourth of our 24 hour days. Add another hour or two hours a day (or thereabouts) getting ourselves ready for the day or ending the day. Typically, people have sex in the bedroom. When we're sick…. we're in bed even more. And at the beginning and ending of our lives (as de Benserade puts it) in bed is where many of us will be. My mother, in fact, was not ambulatory at the end of her life and spent most of her final years in bed if she wasn’t in her wheelchair.

When I was in school, I studied on my bed, with my books spread over the covers. That was the way I did my first committed Bible study, working on my college courses in Bible content, New Testament Greek, and other classes. I still study that way sometimes.

God, who is never absent from any portion of our lives, is our caregiver and sustainer as we lay, sick or asleep, or sexual, or reading a book. Many of us carry our problems into bed and we lay sleepless worrying about things. Psalm 6 expresses this kind of sorrow and distress:

I am weary with my moaning;
every night I flood my bed with tears;
I drench my couch with my weeping (Ps. 6:6)

God sustains us whether we are distressed or whether we are sick:

The Lord sustains them on their sickbed;  
in their illness you heal all their infirmities (Ps. 41:3)

Sleep is even a divine gift:

It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,

eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives sleep to his beloved (Ps. 127:2)

Psalm 63:6 is another good verse:

....when I think of you on my bed,  
and meditate on you in the watches of the night…

In the book I posted about yesterday, Joyce Rupp speaks of the moments before she drifts off to sleep and the moments between waking and rising. She considers these as wonderful prayer times when she can fall asleep mentally communicating with God in trust and peace, and then when she wakes up, God is in her first conscious thoughts and she can give her day to God. Our daily discipleship is sustained by prayers offered in our PJs to the Lord.

Monday, January 13, 2014

"Feeling Scabby"

A favorite book of mine is Joyce Rupp’s Inviting God In (Ave Maria Press, 2001). In one of her devotions (p. 69), she writes that as she read a Thomas Merton journal, she appreciated Merton’s image of “feeling scabby” that day. Rupp explains, “It’s when we pick at ourselves, it’s when we don’t like that ‘protrusion’ on our spiritual skin.” We're impatient at our rate of healing and then we self-defeatingly "scratch" at our old wounds.

I’ve been feeling that way lately. All of us have certain emotionally unhealthy ways with which we react to certain life situations, or to certain kinds of people who, for whatever reason, upset us. Feeling emotionally vulnerable lately anyway, I've also felt spiritually and emotionally discombobulated.

From the experience of years I can recognize my own emotional habits and “name” them. But I become tired of my same old inner struggles, and of my (apparent) need to return to those habits. And so I “pick at” my faults and wish I was making better spiritual progress.

Rupp notes that if we long to feel more whole, that longing itself is a gift and the result of prayers for renewal. God wants to help us. “When we feel scabby, it is important to continue to love ourselves as God loves us, to keep welcoming ourselves home as God welcomes us.”

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Losing the Lord: Bach's Cantatas for the First Sunday After Epiphany

I've spent this past week dealing with an energy-sapping head cold that kept me home and unproductive. School starts tomorrow, though.

This weekend I'm listening Bach’s cantatas for the Sunday after Epiphany, which is CD 4 in the box set of Bach's sacred cantatas. These three cantatas are: “Mein liebster Jesus ist verloren” (BWV 154, “My dearest Jesus is lost”), “Meinen Jesum lass ich nicht,” (124, “I shall not forsake my Jesus”), and “Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen” (32, “Beloved Jesus, my desire”). The lessons for this Sunday are Romans 12:1-6 and Luke 2:41-52.

All three cantatas surround the Luke passage wherein Jesus was accidentally left behind at the temple, and his family backtracks to find him. In these cantatas, the distressed believer speaks for the family: I am a sinner, I am in distress and grief and pain, and I need to be with Jesus. But Jesus is lost! Thankfully, God does not

As Gardiner writes in the notes, Bach’s skill makes his cantatas more dramatic than operas of his time; for instance, “in the bass recitative (No. 4) Bach forms a chain of seven successive notes of the chromatic scale in the continue line to emphasize the question, ‘Will not my sore-offended breast become a wilderness and den of suffering for the cruellest loss of Jesus?’” In contrast, though, the subsequent soprano-alto duet is “constructed as a gigue with a joyful abandon... that celerates release from all things worldly.”

When I feel “meh” or lost, I tend to go to the psalms, several of which express anxiety when God seems missing. Most of these psalms proceed into thanks and praise as the psalmist recovers a sense of closeness to God. The Luke story is also a wonderful scripture when one feels spiritually lost and distressed.

Have you ever felt spiritually panicked? The Luke story (and Bach’s cantatas) reminds you of a spiritual feeling that you might also sense in the psalms: that feeling of agitated distress and disorientation at losing God, as Jesus’ family panicked when they couldn’t find him.

Jesus was not really lost, of course. God is really never far away at all.  But at our own spiritual and emotional levels, we may have little or no sense of God. It might take us some time to feel close to God again. What a good reminder of the happiness that await us when we get to that place.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

All We Have in Life: Bach’s Cantatas for Sunday After New Year and for Epiphany

Continuing my enjoyment of Bach’s cantatas on the Sunday and special days for which they were written.... It’s a snowy morning in St. Louis, with more snow to come. I'm feeling terrible because of a cold; tomorrow I'll call our doctor and get some advice. Plows haven’t been on my street yet, so I won’t go to church, which is about two miles away. According to our local news, two people about my age or slightly older died shoveling snow and working their snow blowers. (Prayers for their families.)

This morning I’m listening to Disc 3 of the 56-CD set, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, of all of Bach's extant sacred cantatas. Today is the Sunday after New Year, and tomorrow is Epiphany, and this CD (featuring a photo of a Kabul man with frost in his hair, eyebrows and eye lashes and beard) features two cantatas for each day. Disc 4 will be cantatas for the Sunday after Epiphany.

The first two, for the Sunday after New Year, are “Schau, lieber Gott, wie meine Feind” (BWV 153, “Behold, dear God, how mine enemies”) and “Ach, Gott, wie manches Herzeleid” (BWV 58, “Ah God, what deep affliction”). “Schau, lieber Gott” begins and continues through several anguished pleas for help. By the second choral piece, "Und ob gleich alle Teufel", with familiar tune “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” the piece lyrically turns to hope: “even though all the evils were to oppose you, there would be no question of God retreating.” Like several of the biblical psalms, the first half of the piece is all anguish and pain while the second half affirms God’s faithful care even in very difficult circumstances.

“Ach, God,” a dialogue between the soprano and bass, is a dialogue between a troubled and beleaguered soul and an assuring angel. By the end, the soul (the soprano) declares assurance in an upbeat final aria: “Be consoled, consoled, Oh hearts, to reach Thee in heaven’s paradice... the joy of that day for which Thou hast shed Thy blood outweighs all pain.”

Then the next two cantatas on this disc are those for Epiphany: “Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen” (BWV 65, “All they from Sheba shall come”), and “Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen” (BWV 123, “Dearest Emmanuel, Lord of the righteous”). As Gardiner indicates in his notes, the first cantata opens with a sense of procession, antiquity, and Near Eastern ambiance to depict the arrival, not of the Queen of Sheba, but of the Magi who brings the Christ child gifts. A theme familiar to this holiday--what gifts can we figuratively bring the Christ?---is answered: “Jesus would have your heart. Officer this, O Christian throng, to Jesus at the New Year!” Christ, in turn, gives to us more precious gifts than the Magi’s: Christ gives us the gift of himself, and with him the “wealth” of promised Heaven.

“Liebster Immanuel” has dance-like rhythms as it, at first, urges Jesus to return quickly, for Jesus is the believer’s delight and most dear gift through life’s “bitter nourishment of tears.” Gardinar comments that the bass aria “Lass, o Welt,” is one of Bach’s most lonely pieces, as the singer declares, “Leae me, O scornful world, to sadness and loneliness!  Jesus...shall stay with me for all my days.” Yet, in one of Bach’s many wonderful techniques, lets a solo flute accompany the lonely singer with more assuring music, as if the flute were the singer’s consoling angel.

I'm struck by the sorrowfulness of some of the pieces. I don't know if people in Bach's time made "New Year's resolutions," but now that the new year has gotten started, people are back into the difficulties and challenges of life.

But the cantatas are psalm-like in their honesty of pain, loneliness, and people's scorn, contrasted with the promise of God's unfailing love, power, and eternal promises. Something I want to keep thinking about this coming year, is the theme of several cantatas so far: God in Christ is, really, all we have in life, the only permanent reality, the only sure promise. All other things, both good and bad, are ephemeral. I admit that I don't really "feel" that promise often enough as I go about my daily life.

English translations by Richard Stokes

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Interfaith Prayers

Prayers for persons celebrating a variety of holidays right now. Tomorrow (the 5th) is Twelfth Night, the close of Christmastide. Monday (the 6th) is Epiphany, the Christian commemoration of the manifestation of Christ's divine nature, and it is also the Feast of the Theophany in Orthodox Christianity: the feast to recall the revelation of the Blessed Trinity in Christ's baptism. Tuesday the 7th is Christmas in the Orthodox Christian tradition. Tomorrow (the 5th) is also Guru Gobindh Singh's birthday in Sikhism. Guru Gobindh Singh was the founder of the Khalsa, the collective body of all initiated Sikhs. He affirmed the sacred text, the Guru Granth Sahib, as his successor and the text has ever since been Sikhs' sovereign active living Guru.

We have another tragic news story involving end-of-life issues, this one concerning Jahi McMath, the 13-year-old whose entire brain has ceased to function following routine surgery. Prayers for all those involved, and for ongoing ethical clarity concerning these tragic issues and decisions.

Christian leaders in Nigeria are expressing concern about the threat of rising, radical Islam in that nation, including the violent anti-Christain Boko Haram sect.

Violence continues in Syria.;_ylt=A0oG7kmZt8hSqzcA4GVXNyoA;_ylu=X3oDMTB0NHNmOXFqBHNlYwNzYwRjb2xvA2FjMgR2dGlkA1ZJUDM0NV8x

There has been violence between Christians and Muslims in Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic Muslims have also experience violence recently in parts of India:

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year Hope: Bach's Cantatas for New Year's Day

Continuing my listening to Bach's sacred cantatas, performed by the Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloist, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner … this morning I listened to the Christmas Season cantatas for New Years Day (disc 2 in this 56-CD set). The cover photo (all of them likenesses of persons around the world, symbolizing the universality of Bach's music) is of a child in Amdo, Tibet, wearing an appropriately warm-looking hat.

All these cantatas contrast the year's ending and the new year's start: we praise God for the protection and blessings of the past, and we trust in God's care amid life's uncertainties and the devil's traps. The first cantata, “Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele” (BWV 143, “Praise the Lord, O my soul”) is (according to Gardiner, in his commentary notes) of questionable authenticity; it may be a much earlier piece of Bach’s own reused at a later date, or a student’s work composed under Bach’s direction. The piece has an aria that considers grace amid life’s troubles:

Thousandfold misfortune, terror,
sadness, fear and sudden death,
enemies littering the land,
cares and even more distress
are what other countries see---
we, instead, a year of grace.

But the believer still must trust in Jesus as “our refuge in the future, that this year may bring us good fortune.” The believer knows to remain watchful everywhere for the Lord’s guidance. The music itself, composed (as Gardiner writes) when horrors of war and death pale in comparison to the 20th century’s, inspire in us a universal longing for blessing and care amid the particular distresses of our times and places.

A more mature work (according to Gardiner) than 143, the next cantata, “Jesu, nun sei gepreiset” (BWV 41, “Jesus, now be praised”) seeks the same favors from Christ: that Christ’s goodness that has kept us safe through the outgoing year may keep us protected in the new year, since “the foe both day and night lies awake to harm us.”

“Herr Gott, dich loben wir” (BWV 16, “Lord God, we give Thee praise”) is (as Gardiner puts it) ebullient and concise compared to the more expansive 41. As the previous cantata had beseeched Christ’s care in both “town and country” (Stadt und Land), this cantata request blessing for both “church and school” (Kirch und Schule), because Satan’s wickedness lies in wait there, too.

"Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm" (BWV 171, “According to thy Name, O God, so is Thy praise") asks the believer to complete the year in praise of God, with the name of Jesus being the new year’s first word and the believer’s final word.

Probably many people wonder, as do I, what a new year will bring. Think of how differently the world looked at the beginning of 2001 than it did at year’s end. 1914 is another year of that sort. Think of years in your own experience when some event changed the character of the whole year and beyond. 1999 and 2012, when my parents died, are personal examples. I also think of a Facebook friend who lost a loved one on January 1; this friend’s year changed dramatically on the very first day.

Bach’s cantatas give us lovely experiences of hope. We are human and recognize the perils and capricious qualities of life, but we place our trust and hope in God to guide us through. For Bach and his lyricists, God is really the sole source for confidence and happiness. In today's cantatas, Christ’s is the overarching name that begins a calendar year, ends it, begins the next.... and finally closes our lives as we are ushered into everlasting life.

English translations by Richard Stokes

New Year Prayer

Dear Lord, the Bible speaks of the circles of repentance: the ways we stray, backslide, return, stray, return, and through it all, you are always faithful. You are our keeper, our place of protection, our source of strength.

Whatever are the circles of our individual lives, we ask for your blessings for the upcoming year.

We pray that we may be spared from sickness and bad trouble.

We pray for times of happiness that make for longtime memories.

We pray for the well-being of our families, our friends, the people we know on social media, the people with whom we work, and the people who work in the stores we frequent.

We pray for success in our ventures and projects, but also we pray to seek first your righteousness, for even pursuing goals in your service, we might gain the world but lose our souls.

Help us to be faithful and busy instead of just busy.

Help us to find a "style" of spirituality and daily cross-bearing that gives us a sense of joy and anticipation, rather than being a chore we dread.

We pray for opportunities to reconcile and start fresh with people whom we have hurt or who have hurt us.

You are a God of new beginnings and innumerable new chances. But so often we struggle with things we cannot quite relinquish: difficult feelings, regret, betrayal, grudges and sorrow. We even grow a sense of personal identity around such negative things. We pray for your healing and awakening insight.

We pray that we might be kind and thoughtful to one another, to be sensitive to other people's unspoken pain, to be empathetic and supportive.

We pray for opportunities for service that make other people's lives better.

Help us to be interested in politics and social issues, but remind us to be kind and humble rather than snarky and thoughtless in our opinions.

Help us to stay aware of problems in the world and the sufferings of others. Rather than thinking "'they' are always fighting" and "'they' are always in poverty" and "'they' are always on welfare", give us a new sense that we are all in this together.

We speak informally of things like luck, fate, jinxes, "trouble happens in threes," and karma. We don’t always stop to think that, since you are our our Lord, we are not subject to such things! You care for us and guide us across our short years.

Help us in the times ahead that these are seasons of our lives across which you provide. In Christ's name we pray. Amen.