Friday, February 28, 2014

Journey to Jerusalem: Bach's Quinquagesima Cantatas

Bach in 1715
My "journey" through Bach's sacred cantatas continues…. Quinquagesima is the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday, or the fiftieth day (hence the name) before Easter. This year, the Sunday is March 2. The three named pre-Lent Sundays have been eliminated from the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, although a few Anglican provinces still mark these days.

CD 11 of this set of Bach’s sacred cantatas contain four for this Sunday. As conductor Gardiner writes in the notes, Bach seems to have wanted his church (St. Thomas in Leipzig) to have good music before entering the solemn Lenten season.

(The music on CD 12 of this set will be Palm Sunday, so this year-long feature of my blog will be back on April 13. That's good, because I've a ton of grading to accomplish in March!)

These Quinquagesima cantatas are: “Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe” (BWV 22, “Jesus took unto Him the twelve”), “Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn” (BWV 23, “Thou very God and David’s Son”), “Herr Jesu Christ, wahr' Mensch und Gott” (BWV 127, “Lord Jesus Christ, true man and God”), and “Sehet! Wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem” (BWV 159, “Behold! We go up to Jerusalem”). The sleeve photo is of a woman from Gao, Mali.

Gardiner points out that in the Gospel lesson for this Sunday, Luke 18:31-43, Jesus predicts his passion to the disciples and also restores a blind man’s sight. Gardiner discusses Bach’s use dance rhythms and “a skittish fugal chorus to point up the disciples’ incomprehension.” He notes that Bach’s Leipzig audience was that way themselves: neither dissatisfied nor very appreciative or enthused about Bach’s 26-year efforts on their behalf. The cantata does end with comprehension, however:

My Jesus, draw me on, and I shall come,
for flesh and blood cannot comprehend at all,
like Thy disciples, the words Thou didst utter.

This cantata and BWV 23 were written to precede and follow the sermon, with 23 to be performed during the Eucharist. They are also his “audition” pieces when he applied for the cantor post at St. Thomas. More solemn than 22, this “Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn” “emphasises the way in which Jesus actively sought out the sick and handicapped---and therefore social outcasts---and healed them." An opening duet that pleads to Christ for compassion is followed by an aria in which the oboe plays the Lutheran Agnus Dei, which in turn is echoed in the setting of Psalm 145: “The eyes of all, O Lord, Theou almighty God, wait upon Thee...” In the final chorale, the singers beseech the Lamb of God, “have mercy on us!’

BWV 127 is (according to Gardiner) “arresting in its musical presentation of the dualism of God and man and the relationship of the invidiual believer to Christ’s cross and Passion.” Among other things, the cantata leads the believer (aware of death’s inevitability) along the path of Christ’s crucification. Anyone having the notes for this cantata (which is Volume 21 of the original release) can follow Gardiner’s several indications of the theological and artistic complexity of 127; it's all interesting to me, but too much material to quote here. Cantata 159 continues the believer’s journey with Christ; for instance, Bach has a “walking” bass line in the first number, and overall communicates the pathos and pain of the journey to the cross, similarly to Bach’s two passions.

Ah, do not go! 
The cross is already prepared for Thee,
where Thou must suffer bloody death...
But if Thou wert to remain behind,
I myself would not have to journey to Jerusalem,
ah! but regrettably to hell.

As we imagine the scripture lesson, most of us would probably visualize ourselves as the sinners and the sick, in need of Christ's outreach. I did so, as I thought of all my weaknesses and sins (grudge-holding, wavering faith, and the like), my hope that Christ will have pity on me. Then I thought: that's a little disingenuous, because in my position in life I'm much more like the comfortable upper-class and the religious authorities of Jesus' time---people he by no means snubbed, but he was definitely critical of us. Nevertheless, we too need Christ's mercy and, in our comfortableness, we need to seek it all the more.

Bach was no outcast, either. As I quoted in one of my recent posts, Gardiner points out that Bach struggled to be paid what he was worth and to gain professional respectability, as he meanwhile poured out musical glories of religious imagination that were, often enough, penitential and hopeful. So many of Bach's cantatas thus far have focused upon Christ's work---the salvation which is the only lasting treasure amid life's sorrows and struggles.

Christ's journey toward Jerusalem will be a theme of upcoming Lent. But I'm still connecting that journey with something I talked about two weeks ago: the approximately 70-day period between Septuagesima Sunday and Easter can symbolically stand for the 70 years of the exile of the "Babylonian captivity."

A World Council of Churches essay by Peter-Ben Smit (found here) makes several interesting insights about the Exile.

*  The entire Bible is, in important ways, about being in exile and longing to be redeemed from exile. The Bible begins with the exile from Eden, of course.

*  Smit notes that Jesus’ death and resurrection happens within the framework of Passover, which of course points back to Egyptian slavery and that earlier “exile."

*  The liturgical traditions of the church have been language of exile, too: our desire for heaven (the home we long for, analogous to the way the Judahite exiles longed to return to the Land) as we struggle in the world.

*  Smit also notes that exile functions in contemporary theology in postmodernism (the uncertainty and absence of God, theologies of liberation (the struggle of oppressed people for freedom), and peace churches (the theology of whole reliance upon God rather than violent means: the error of Israel and Judah in relying upon foreign powers). But he argues that ecumenism itself echoes exile-language within theological in discussions of the church and the world (the church as an eschatological community in “exile” in the world), hospitality (caring for others who are in exile in different ways), healing broken relationships, being “wounded healers” of others, and so on.

I don't want to "bracket" the Jewish experience of God's redemption and thoughtlessly appropriate it only in Christian terms. But it's instructive to link the powerful Jewish experiences of Passover and Restoration to the work of Christ in Christian experience. Think about Lent's 40 days as fitting within a 70-day envisioning of the ways we are in "exile." Think about Jesus' journey to Jerusalem not only as a trip for his little group of students, but also the way Jesus' work connects to God's Passover salvation, God's post-exilic Restoration promised by the prophets, and the way those prophetic teachings speak both to post-exilic Restoration and to the person and work of Christ.

(All English translations are by Richard Stokes)

Monday, February 24, 2014

A Disagreeable Guest

Here is a good story from Rabbi Dosick's book, from which I quoted yesterday. This is from page 69. This speaks to me in two or three ways!

“The story is told of the patriarch Abraham, who invited a traveler into his tent for a meal.

“As soon as the traveler learned of Abraham’s devotion to God, he began to curse God and revile His name.

“Livid with anger and indignation, Abraham banished the traveler from his tent.

“When he was at his prayers that night, he said to God, “Today, I defended Your honor and Your glory by sending away a blasphemer who cursed you.

“And God replied, ‘This man has cursed me for fifty years, and yet I have given him food every day. Couldn’t you have put up with him for one meal?’”

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Being a Friend

I cherish a copy of Wayne Dosick’s Golden Rules: The Ten Ethical Values Parents Need to Teach Their Children (New York: HarperPaperbacks, 1995). During a course on Judaism that I taught in 2000, using Dosick’s book on that faith (1), a student gave me a copy of Golden Rules with the rabbi’s autograph to me!

Looking through Golden Rules the other day, I was moved by this story on pages 158-159.

““My friend is not back from the battlefield, sir,’ one soldier said. ‘Request permission to go out and get him.’

“‘Permission denied,’ said the officer, ‘I don’t want you to risk your life for a man who is probably already dead.’

“Disobeying orders, the soldier went anyway. An hour later, he returned, carrying the corpse of his friend, but mortally wounded himself.

“The officer was filled with grief. ‘I told you he was dead,’ he said. ‘Now I’ve lost both of you. Tell me, was he worth going out there to bring in a corpse?’

“‘Oh, it was, sir,’ the dying man replied. ‘You see, when I got to him, he was still alive, and he said to me, “Jack, I was sure that you would come.”’”

Do you have a friend like that? Are you a friend like that?

Over the years I’ve counted on several friends who, it turned out, weren’t “there” when I needed them. Probably all of us have. I had a particularly painful friendship once, with a person who often asked me for favors but was testy and even down-putting when I needed help. I’ve let people down, too. Sometimes we cherish our friendships but we’re not truly tuned in to certain friends' needs, or our own needs are too pressing at the time the friend wanted support.

I will keep this story in mind, however. Maybe someone is in pain---dying inside, figuratively speaking---and is waiting for someone to reach out. Perhaps that person is waiting for you or me specifically.

1. Wayne Dosick, Living Judaism: The Complete Guide to Jewish Belief, Tradition, and Practice (HarperOne, Reprint Edition, 2010).

Friday, February 21, 2014

As Rain Waters the Earth: Bach's Sexagesima Cantatas

Continuing my journey through Bach's sacred cantatas…. As I wrote last week, Sexagesima Sunday is the second Sunday before Ash Wednesday, or (approximately) the sixtieth day before Easter. This year it's February 23rd. The three named pre-Lent Sundays have been eliminated from the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, although a few Anglican provinces still mark these days.

Before a busy weekend, I spent some quiet time yesterday with this Sunday's three cantatas: “Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel faellt (BWV 18: “For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven”), “Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister (BWV 181, “Frivolous fibbertigibbets”), and “Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort” (BWV 126, “Uphold us, Lord in Thy Word”). This is CD 10 of the 56-CD set. The sleeve photo is of a wide-eyed little girl in Mumbai, India.

Gardiner comments that these three cantatas are among “Bach’s most original and startlingly different pre-Lenten cantatas,” “characterised by his vivid pictorial imagination, an arresting sense of drama, and by music of freshness and power.” All three are focused upon “the overwhelming power of the Word... in the process of faith,” via the parable of the sower. The first, BWV 18, “has unusual orchestration like four violas and basso continuo, bringing a “dark-hued sonority” that for Gardiner represents “the warm topsoil, fertile and well irrigated, forming an ideal seed-bed in which God’s Word may germinate and prosper.”

For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth... so shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth.... 
My soul’s true treasure is God’s Word
all other treasures are mere snares...

BWV 181 also takes the parable as a text. The word Flattergeister means the fickle and shallow people in which the Word does not germinate but is stolen by birds. And Bach orchestrates this aspect of the parable with staccato tempoes and trills, like flighty birds. Some measures are so jumpy, I become edgy listening to them! Maybe that’s a good reminder that we shouldn’t be the kinds of folk to whom Jesus refers in this parable.

BWV 126 is not connected to this parable but does emphasize the power of God’s Word. It’s a robust and dramatic cantata that harken to the threat of the Turks against Catholic Christendum in Luther’s day. Gardiner comments that this threat was long abated by Bach’s time, but the strength of God’s blessings amid perilous times is a timeless subject.

Man’s favour and might shall be of little avail
if Thou wilt not protect Thy wretched flock,
God, Holy Ghost, dear comforter...
Make Thy people to be of one accord on earth,
that we, members of Christ’s body,
may be one in faith and united in life.
Stand by us in our extremity! 

I thought about the parable of the sower as I listened to the music. A conscientious and prayerful believer hopes very deeply to be “good soil” for God’s word. The human heart has a tremendous capacity for self-delusion; the “frivolous fibbertigibbets” probably think they’re the best Christians ever. But a longing to be “good soil” is a sign that the Spirit is working in your life.

But a conscientious believer can feel discouraged if his or her witnessing and faithful behavior doesn’t seem to be successful. However, the parable teaches that sewing seed IS the act of faithfulness. Whether the seed thrives is really up to the other people: they’re the good or poor soil and they need to figure out (with God’s help) which one they are.

Some of the previous cantatas have had to do with trust and faith amid life’s difficulties. That theme is present here, too: the only treasure worth having is God, and all else is ephemeral and unreliable. If we want to be “good soil” and faithful sowers, how can we use trouble to grow spiritually? (To be crude about it: remember that old saying "s*** happens." How can that “s***” be turned with the soil that is our lives and be rich for God’s word?) Trouble makes a lot of us bitter, grumpy and fearful of the future---but that makes for hard, rocky soil. Bach’s cantatas show some ways toward faith, richness and depth.

English translations of Bach's librettos are by Richard Stokes

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

"God's Name is Jealous"

In my seminary class this evening, we'll be briefly discussing this topic, in the context of marriage, sexuality, fidelity, and the biblical teachings. Originally I posted these notes at my other blog, here.

Elsewhere, I also posted my notes about the exile. The biblical exile----more broadly, the conquest of the northern kingdom Israel by the Assyrians in about 722 BC, the conquest of the southern kingdom Judah by the Babylonians in about 586 BC, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple at that time, and the long period of exile in Babylon before many Judahites were allowed to return to the Land following the Persian defeat of Babylon----is a story that shapes the Bible both explicitly and implicitly.

The exile happened because (in the prophetic interpretation) God executed judgment against his people for faithlessness. But in spite of the vivid and immediate threats of the writing prophets, the exile does show the extraordinary patience and love of God. After all, over six hundred years separate the death of Moses and the beginning of Joshua’s conquest, with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in about 586 BC. Imagine a history beginning in the mid or late 13th century–St. Thomas Aquinas, the Mongol conquest of Russia, the completion of Dante’s Divine Comedy, etc.—and ending in the present day. So this long history shows how committed God is to “hang in” with people; God, too, forgives seventy times seven.

And …. the subject of the exile make me think more about God’s selection of and love for Israel as God’s own people. One particular word, though—jealousy—raises lots of questions I’d like to explore.

The book of Deuteronomy (with its "deuteronomistic" outlook, after all) promises God’s love but also “foreshadows” God’s judgment, thus anticipating the history of the people on the land for the subsequent 600 or so years:

For the Lord your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God. When you have had children and children’s children… act corruptly by making an idol in the form of anything, thus doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, and provoking him to anger, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to occupy; you will not live long on it, but will be utterly destroyed. The Lord will scatter you among the peoples; only a few of you will be left among the nations where the Lord will lead you. …From there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find him if you search after him with all your heart and soul (Deut. 4:24-29).

Here is another passage:

When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you… and when you have eaten your fill take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear. Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you, because the Lord your God, who is present with you, is a jealous God. The anger of the Lord your God would be kindled against you and he would destroy you from the face of the earth (Deut. 6:10-15).

And another:

It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and who repays in their own person those who reject him. He does not delay but repays in their own person those who reject him. Therefore, observe diligently the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that I am commanding you today… (Deut. 7:7-13).

Earlier in the Torah, in the second commandment, God is identified as a “jealous God.” Later, in Exodus 34:14, God’s name is Jealous!

What does it mean for God to be “jealous”? Alan N. Winkler, writing in the Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible (Baker Academic, 2001), argues that when jealousy is named as one of God’s qualities, “it is obviously used in a positive sense” and, although an anthropomorphic term for God, it does reflect “the relationship of husband and wife and is frequently associated with Israel’s unfaithfulness to God.” (This and the following references are from that book, p. 388).

Winkler notes that the Hebrew word is qãnã’ and the Greek word is zêlos. In addition to Exodus 34:14 and Deuteronomy 4:24, Winkler points out other passages: Joshua 24:19-22, where Joshua challenges the people to serve God, who is holy and jealous. God’s jealousy is also referred to in Ezekiel 8:3, 1 Kings 14:22, and Psalm 78:58 as a threatening quality.

God’s jealousy and pity are two connected aspects of God’s nature in Joel 2:18, where God displays mercy for the people. Winkler also calls attention to Zechariah 1:14-16, which links God’s jealousy for Jerusalem and Zion, and the divine anger against the goyim, the nations. All the while, “jealousy” is also a human quality, as in Numbers 5: 14-30, Prov. 6:34, Song of Songs 8:6 (“jealousy is cruel as the grave,” RSV).

Winkler also finds the word used in Romans 10:19 (a quotation of Deut. 32:12), Romans 11:11 (where Paul hopes to reach more of his fellow Jews through his ministry), 1 Cor. 10:22 (referring to God’s reaction to Christians attending idol feasts), and 2 Cor. 11:2 (Paul’s possessiveness for the Corinthians,
who are listening to the “super apostles” more than him).

Winkler concludes “[T]o arouse the jealousy of God is a very dangerous action on our part. On the other hand, God’s jealousy is based on his love and concern for us.” (p. 389)

I agree, but that’s also what I’m struggling with! In human beings, jealousy is a cruel and obsessive character flaw. At my university, on the bulletin board of the criminal justice department, I noticed the title of an article about abused women: ” ‘He Said If She Left, He’d Kill Her.’” Doesn’t God sound like that in some of the biblical passages? Abusive husbands do love their wives, in a sense, but those husbands are warped and destructive, no matter how much they profess love. Just because jealousy is a biblical attribute of God, should we automatically assume it is thereby a good quality?


In “The Book of Numbers” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Volume 2, Abingdon Press, 1998), Thomas B. Dozeman writes that God’s jealousy is the theme of the speech Num. 25:10-13. God’s qãnã’, in this context, “conveys qualities of vigilance, intolerance, and absolute devotion.” (p. 199). This speech is preceded by the story of an Israelite man, Zimri, who brought a Midianite woman, Cozbi, into the group of Israelites, against God’s desire that the people not have relationships with foreign peoples. (This is one of “those” Bible stories that isn’t taught to children.) Phinehas killed both Zimri and Cozbi with a single spear thrust, which in turn halted the plague (sent because of God’s wrath at the Israelites) which had already killed 24,000. Interestingly, as Dozeman points out (p. 200), Phinehas and his family are recipients of an “unconditional and permanent” covenant similar to the one made to David.

Dozeman notes that “Jealousy is about divine passion. It stresses that Yahweh is not indifferent to Israel or to their relationships in this world. It conveys strong imagery of intolerance for any allegiance outside of the relationship to God. Commentators tend to water down the violent and suspicious characteristics that accompany a description of God as being jealous. But the content of the stories in Numbers 25 suggest just the opposite. God is fanatical in demanding exclusive allegiance—so fanatical, in fact, that punishment is enacted indiscriminately. The jealousy of God is an important message to preach. God is not casual about our commitments” (p. 201).

But he goes on to say that the Phinehas story shows that God’s desire to limit “punishment to the guilty.” God had been wrathful and wanted to “destroy indiscriminately,” but the intercession of Phinehas (as well as Moses in the preceding section) cut short the divine wrath (p. 201).

This is an “interesting” side to God, to say the least! Is God liable to become irrational, so to speak, and tremendously destructive until someone intervenes to calm him down? (That’s a question I’ll look at in “part 3″). Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” sometimes criticized for its harsh and scary portrayal of God, is nevertheless faithful to some biblical passages! (His text is from Deuteronomy, after all.)

God’s jealousy is depicted in other ways that are disturbing to us. Two of the most horrifying come from Ezekiel. Ezekiel 16 depicts Judah’s relationships with other Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon, as well as the people’s idol worship, as harlotries committed by a wife in betrayal of her husband. But the sins of the “wife” Jerusalem ends in her mutilation and murder, so that God can “satisfy my fury on you, and my jealousy shall turn away from you; I will be calm, and will be angry no longer” (16:42). But this violence “returned your deeds upon your head” (vs. 43), that is, the people are culpable for their punishment: the conquest of the land by Babylon. (See, for instance, the failed efforts of Zedekiah to mediate between Egypt and Babylon, against Jeremiah’s advice and also depreciated in the next chapter, Ez. 17.)

Ezekiel 23 is an even more violent and vulgar text, presenting Samaria and Jerusalem as two nymphomaniac women, Oholah and Oholibah. Oholah is stripped and killed. Oholibah, lusting for foreign men with huge penises and orgasms (verse 20), is punished for her lust by being stripped and mutilated. Yet again, the punishments are described as being fitting to Judah’s sins: i.e., the kingdom’s political and religious relationships with foreign nations, depicted here as adultery and harlotry, and thus are contrary to a relationship of trust and worship to Yahweh.

My classmate Julie Galambush, in her study of Jerusalem as Yahweh’s wife (Scholar’s Press, 1992), also notes the strangeness that, for all of the language and metaphors of savage judgment against Jerusalem, the idea of the city as God’s wife subsequently falls away in Ezekiel. But this prophet is one of the Bible’s most complex and perplexing writings, ranging from crude parables like these, to strange “performance art,” to the unforgettable parable of hope in chapter 37, apocalyptic images, and deep moral theology which challenges other biblical writings.

Conjugal and sexual language to describe the relationship of God and Israel—along with the metaphors of God as a furious, vengeful husband punishing his unfaithful wife—isn’t new or limited to these terrible Ezekiel passages. Read several chapters of Hosea, who lived in the 8th century (Ezekiel was 6th century), and you see how Hosea’s experience of marriage to a prostitute informs God’s pronouncements of judgment and mercy upon Israel. Also read Isaiah 3:16-4:1 and you get a similar (and to our sensibilities, misogynistic) image of God’s people as a lewd woman, showing off her “bling,” who will eventually be punished, afflicted and humiliated. (Interestingly, this section is next to God’s condemnation of Israel for neglecting the poor, another sin which evokes God’s furious judgment.)

We see some of this language as well in Jeremiah 2-10, in the prophetic oracles against the people—God’s threats of punishment and exile—in which God’s people are portrayed as an unfaithful wife. Interestingly, Jeremiah himself complains that God has been to him like a predator–a sexual predator at that; “enticing” and “overpowering” connote seduction and rape—forcing him into the humiliation and derision of the prophetic role (20:7- 12). God’s faithful prophet suffers, along with his people, punishment of an angry deity.

But God also struggles with tenderness, as in Hosea 11, although here the language changes from conjugal to parental. Still, God seems horrified at his own wrath and his own need to display wrath.

How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.

Of course, we have many passages in 2 Isaiah. After the divine fury that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the people, God is now calm (to echo Ezekiel 16:42 above), and speaks tenderly and comfortingly to the people. Language of conjugal relationship is there, but God also addresses the people as a people and a suffering servant. God promises that the divine glory—-there is that theme again—shall not be removed again.

For my name’s sake I defer my anger,
for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you,
so that I may not cut you off.
See, I have refined you, but not like silver;
I have tested you in the furnace of adversity.
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it,
for why should my name be profaned?
My glory I will not give to another (Isaiah 48:9-11).


The prolific scholar Walter Brueggemann comments (in his Theology of the Old Testament) that our theological reflection would be easier if passages like Ezekiel 16 and 23 were not in the Bible! But they’re there. What kind of love does this God show? Does John 3:16 have an ominous quality in light of God’s possessive rage? Brueggemann writes: ‘This is no “sweet” love, but a fierce love that demands much both from God and God’s people.’

Brueggemann quotes Deuteronomy 7:7-8a and 10:15, and comments, “This is no casual, formal, or juridical commitment [to Israel]. This is a passion that lives in the ‘loins’ of Yahweh, who will risk everything for Israel and, having risked everything, will expect everything and will be vigilant not to share the beloved with any other. This is no open marriage. The outcome of a passion so intensely initiated has within it the seeds of intolerance, culminating in violence. There is indeed a profound awkwardness in this presentation of Yahweh, but Israel does not finish in its testimony. The God who has been madly in love becomes insanely jealous, which is Israel’s deepest threat and most profound hope… This is [the God] who goes wholly overboard in passion, to Israel’s great gain and then to Israel’s greatest loss… It is worth nothing that in the Johannine witness in the New Testament, there are those familiar words, ‘God so loved the world…’ So loved! How loved? In what way? To what extent? So loved….to give all…and demand all.”(25) Walter Brueggemann,Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), pp. 384-385.
This quote is from the section “Yahweh’s Capacity for Violence,” one of the three of Israel’s “countertestimonies” about God’s nature. Brueggemann writes, “In the end, a student of the Old Testament cannot answer for or justify the violence [of God], but must concede that it belongs to the very fabric of this faith” (p. 381).

One is the violence of sovereignty. Any government has to use a certain amount of force, and this is true of the Lord as well. We see it in the pre-exilic prophets and the destruction of Jerusalem in 587, as Brueggemann points out (p. 381). He notes that God uses force against other nations: Egypt in Exodus, Assyria (Isaiah 10 and 37), Babylon (Isaiah 47 and Daniel 4), as well as other nations (Amos 1).(p. 381-382)

There is also the violence of the conquest of the land. Brueggeman calls this a countertestimony in distinction to the testimony of God’s goodness and compassion: his example is Ps. 145:9). In the stories of the conquest, God is “good to Israel at the expense of others” (p. 382).

Brueggemann sees a third countertestimony, “Yahweh’s profound irrationality,” which we see in images of God as an “authoritarian husband and Israel as “the easily blamed, readily dismissed, vulnerable wife” (p. 383). See his footnote there. The stories of Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel depict “a Yahweh who is out of control with the violent, sexual rage of a husband who assaults his own beloved” (p. 383). We do see the return of tenderness and restoration in the poetry of Second Isaiah. Brueggemann notes “There is indeed a profound awkwardness in this presentation of Yahweh, but Israel does not flinch in its testimony. The God who has been madly in love becomes insanely jealous, which is Israel’s deepest threat and most profound hope” (p. 384).

As I still thought about this issue, I found another Brueggemann piece, this time in “The Book of Exodus” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Volume 1, Abingdon Press, 1994). There, he notes that God is jealous because God is faithful. An idol, or image, is a way to domesticate and control God, which cannot be done (p. 842). But how we try! Brueggemann notes that we do live in a “world of options” which can and does lead us astray: “In pursuit of joy, we may choose Bacchus; in pursuit of security, we may choose Mars; in pursuit of genuine love, we may choose Eros. It is clear that these choices are not Yahweh, that these are not Gods who have ever wrought an Exodus or offered a covenant” (p. 843).

The reason for God’s jealousy, is God’s “deep moral seriousness who takes affront at violations of commandments.” But God is jealous because of God’s “massive fidelity (hesed) to those who are willing to live in covenant” (p. 842). Hesed, of course, translates as “fidelity,” or “steadfast love” or “lovingkindness”: the kind of love that is faithful and (ultimately) tender, that which reaches into human existence, becomes involved in our pain and struggles, and remains more committed to us than us to God.


The theme of God’s jealousy is—to me, at least—distressing because the word (and some of the biblical testimony) depict God as having qualities that we deplore in people---or are criminal. We long for God to be “God and no mortal” (Hos. 11:9). But on the other hand, the word denotes God’s desire to keep his people as his own, and includes the protectiveness and commitment that we show for our own families.  Since the Greek word is zêlos, we can think about meanings of the word “zealous” as pertaining to God: an online dictionary lists several definitions and synonyms, like ardently active, devoted, diligent,  eager, passionate, warm, intense, and fervent.

Two more writings are worth noting as I finish this subject for now. One is a Jew and another from a Christian. At the beginning of Rosh Hashanah this year, I noticed a fascinating article tweeted from Huffington Post, “G-d’s Struggle to Repent” by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald (  His thoughts dovetail well with the Hosea 11 passage and others.

“The Talmud, in Brachot 7a, reports two similar stories about prayer. Rabbi Yohanan asks in the name of Rabbi Yosi: How do we know that the Holy One Blessed Be He says prayers? He answers: because the verse in Isaiah 56:7 states: ‘I will bring them to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer.’ It does not say ‘their house of prayer,’ but ‘My house of prayer.’ Hence, we learn that the Holy One Blessed Be He prays.

“The Talmud then asks: What exactly does G-d pray? Rav Zutra the son of Tobia said in the name of Rav: G-d’s prayer is, ‘May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger and that My mercy prevail over My [other] attributes, so that I may deal with My children in the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice.’”

Rabbi Buchwald gives further Talmudic stories of this type. God “reveals His inner desire that His mercy suppress His anger, even though the anger may be justified. We are told that it is the Almighty’s fervent wish that His mercy prevail over His other attributes, which usually mete out justice on the basis of strict retribution that fits the offense and give His people the benefit of the doubt, rather than accord strict justice.” After discussing traditional interpretations, Rabbi Buchwald says that, in his opinion, “the Talmud here informs us through these intriguing tales, that G-d needs help as well. It is through such anthropomorphic tales that the Talmud and the Aggadot teach us that G-d ‘struggles,’ so to speak, to overcome His anger against those who betray Him and break His trust. It is as if the Immortal truly needs the blessing of the mortal, which, of course, is unfathomable.

“The message, then, is directed to us, to humans of flesh and blood. We mortals must be humbled and inspired by G-d’s behavior. Just as G-d seeks out others to help Him and bless Him, so should we seek out others who may help us and bless us. Just as G-d prays that His quality of mercy should overcome His anger, so too must we pray that our quality of mercy should overcome our anger. “That the most powerful Being in the world is depicted in the Talmud as needing help, is a message of hope, rather than despair. Just as G-d needs to work on His qualities so that He can overcome His anger, so too must we, mortals, struggle to do the same.”

He goes on to discuss these passages with reference to the High Holy Days, that our human mercy, too, may prevail over our anger and other qualities, and that we may be inscribed in the Book of Life.
The Talmudic passages and Rabbi Buchwald’s comments give us some clues–and some comfort—concerning God’s jealousy when we’re looking specifically at the Tanakh passages! As Brueggemann puts it, we have testimonies and countertestimonies concerning God’s lovingkindness and God’s sometimes irrational jealousy: but thinking of God’s characteristics as not only being toward us but also engaging and including us in fellowship, we can feel positive and hopeful—and, indeed, more loving—toward God who shares with us, through the biblical testimony, God’s desire to show mercy rather than anger.

Then I turned to a book I purchased quite a while ago but currently have on my iPad (and thus I’ll have to locate the following references in the printed book): Jack Miles’ Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God (Vintage, 2002). Miles notes how interesting it is that God easily won the battle against Egypt at the exodus, but he seemed to be defeated against his people’s enemies the Assyrians and Babylonians. These defeats were, however, judgments against the people’s sins. And yet his people were eventually conquered by the Romans; did God suffer defeat this time? As Miles put it at the end of the last chapter (before the epilogue), this time God “joined them, suffering in advance all that they would suffer, and creating out of his agony a way for them to rise from the death with him and return to paradise, bringing all nations with them.”

In the epilogue, Miles makes an interesting comment that since Jesus is God Incarnate, “all of God’s earlier words were Jesus’ words as well and may–indeed, must–be taken into account as evidence about his character.” But this implies a “transformation of the divine character” which happens by the time of the Incarnation. “God’s power was such that, in his prime, he annihilated in minutes the mightiest army in the world. More than once, he compared himself to a great marauding beast. Why does he become a defenseless peasant who, when the authorities sentence him to death, offers no resistance and ends his life as a convicted criminal?” God is a jealous God and uses divine power to hold his people accountable and to punish them. Now, Miles notes that “God the Son is not at all the kind of man one would expect God the Father to become.”

“The Lord of All the Earth, to use the grandest of all his Old Testament titles, arranges to have himself put to death as the King of the Jews not to destroy hope as he destroys himself but only to replace a vain hope [a military victory against the people's oppressors, or a mighty salvation similar to the exodus] with one that can still be realized…Defeated by Rome, God thus accomplishes what he tried and failed to accomplish when defeated by Babylonia: He turns the defeat into a triumph, the humiliation into an exaltation….God, shattered, can descend to death; and when he rises to eternal life, he can lift his human creatures up with him.”

I’m not aware that the Ezekiel 16 and 23 texts have ever been connected to Jesus; his sufferings are more easily connected to the Suffering Servant poems of Second Isaiah, after all. But if those Ezekiel parables are the most awful passages about God’s jealousy, they nevertheless remind of the mutilation, public shame, and public death of Jesus (though without the crude sexuality of those parables). Can we say that the Incarnation is not the end of God’s jealousy, and is in fact is the supreme sign of his overwhelming love—God’s desire to be our God? Can we say that in Jesus, God heaped his own anger at faithlessness—and opens for us the promise that God forgives and forgets all our sins as we trust in God’s goodness? Or should we rethink these ideas of jealousy because they carry too many implications of revenge, violence, and irrationality to be to be theologically appropriate?

Monday, February 17, 2014

Notes from "Biblical Literacy"

Every so often I like to find a favorite Bible-related text and take notes of interesting things that stand out. I did this several times at my old "Changing Bibles" blog (for instance, some of these posts). Focusing on some other writing projects---and, honestly, being somewhat stuck in an energy-sapping "blue" period for a while---I haven't done this kind of meditative "leafing" for several months (although this past year I did do several informal studies of Jesus' parables and posted them on this "Journeys Home" site). So it was high time to take down a favorite book and browse its pages: Rabbi Joseph Telushkin's Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible (William Morrow, 1997). This past weekend, several interesting things stood out.

The burning bush

The rabbis of the Talmud speculated on why God spoke form a thorn bush rather than another kind of tree. Rabbi Joshua ben Korchah said, “To teach you that no place on earth, not even a thorn bush, is devoid of God’s presence” (Exodus Rabbah 2.5). Although this passage in Exodus is the first explicit time that sacred space is encountered, the place is not (as some religions might teach) inherently sacred, but only because the holy God has spoken there (p. 104).

The Amalekites

This tribe causes the Israelites grief in the desert (Exodus 17:8-16), when they attack from the rear (where the weakest Israelites were). Enmity toward the Amalekites remains through the Bible. Although the Jews are forbidden to hate the Egyptians (Deut. 23:8), they are enjoined to never forget the Amalekites’ attack (Deut. 25:17-19).

The enmity continues in 1 Samuel 15:2-3, where Saul battles the Amalekites but spares the king, contrary to the commands of Deut. 25:17-19). This failure costs Saul the kingship. Apparently others survived, however, because David attacks them later (1 Sam. 27:8, and also 1 Sam. 30:1-2).

The story doesn’t end there! Haman, the arch-villain in the book of Esther, was an Agagite, a descendent of the king whom Saul had spared. So, according to Rabbi Telushkin, the Deuteronomy 25 section, condemning the Amalekites, is always read prior to Purim (pp. 113-115).


In Numbers 25, we have an awful story where Moabite leaders seek to alienate the Israelites from the Lord by sending beautiful Moabite and Midianite women into the Israelite camp, which works!  When an Israelite man, Zimri, and his Midianite woman Cozbi appear, Aaron’s grandson Pinchas (Phinehas) kills them both. This causes God’s anger against the people to subside.

Rabbi Telushkin quotes Jacob Milgrom’s work on Numbers: although Pinchas is praised in the biblical account, he is never held up as a model for behavior and, in fact, he had circumvented Moses who was seeking to dispense justice via the proper means. Only God’s decree in this specific situation makes him a hero---and thus Pinchas’ actions should never be upheld as a model or example (pp. 142-143).


Speaking of murder: Telushkin writes: “Executing murderers is so basic a cornerstone of biblical justice that it is the only law repeated in every one of the Torah’s five books” (p. 405). Why is this? One reason is that “the Bible regards innocent life as being of infinite value... one who murders an innocent person has committed an infinite evil. Therefore any lesser punishment than death would not fit the crime” (p. 407).

Also the Bible implies that the death penalty is a deterrent (Deut. 19:20).

Earlier, in Genesis, innocent blood cries to God (4:10). As blood is spiritually unclean, so shed blood “pollutes the land, and the land can have no expiation for blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who sheds it” (Numbers 35:33) (p. 407).


Famously, Jonah called upon the Ninevites to repent, and to Jonah’s chagrin, they did. As Telushkin writes, “Jonah preaches about God and his moral message to the world, and his message influences people for good. That is one reason why on Tom Kippur, the Jewish people’s holiest day, thsi short book si read in its entirety during the afternoon Mincha service... The very mmodel that is offered Jews on Yom Kiuppur of how to repent is based on the behavior of the gentles of Ninevah” (p. 324).

Daniel and Esther

King Darius of Persia forbids people from paying homage to any man or god except for the king himself. Daniel, one of his officials, goes ahead and prays to the Lord, prompting Darius to punish Daniel in the famous way: sending him into the lion’s den. Yet this distresses Darius greatly, since he was fond of Daniel. So why could he not rescind his own law?

In Perisan law, a king cannot abrogate a law he has issued. Telushkin points out that this is the same predicament faced by King Ahasuerus in the book of Esther: the king has decreed the murder of all Jews in the kingdom, but now he has discovered that his queen Esther is a Jew. But he cannot abrogate his own law and instead issues another law that has the effect of saving the Jews (pp. 382-383).


Over a hundred Torah laws deal with sacrifices of different kinds (p. 451). What did Jews do after the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE? "[M]any Jews despaired of every gaining forgiveness of their sins… Yet, after the Temple's destruction, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai revolutionized Jewish thinking with his pronouncement that acts of loving-kingndess now supersede sacrifices as the preferred way of attaining God's forgiveness. In addition, the Talmud alter taught that 'studying of Torah is a greater act than bringing daily sacrifices' (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 3b). Indeed, from Judaism's perspective, Christianity's emphasis on the atoning sacrifice and blood of Jesus is regarded as a throwback to human sacrifice" (pp. 452-453).

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Story of Martin Scrote

During these days of Civil War sesquicentennial, here is a story of a distant relative who, unlike my two direct ancestors who fought in the war, didn't make it home.

When I was in high school in my hometown of Vandalia, IL, I used my grandma Crawford’s notes and my own research to trace the history of our Crawford family. My great-great-great-grandmother Susan Straub Crawford, a widow, had moved from central Ohio to Fayette County, IL in about 1849 with her eight children. My project was the history of the descendants of these eight children, of which my great-great-grandfather Andrew was the third.

But the first of the eight was named Mary Ann, and she died at the age of thirty in 1856. Buried in the same country cemetery as her mother and six of her seven siblings, she has a broken tombstone, and a Find-a-Grave memorial here. Her husband's name was Martin Scrote, and at the time I knew some relatives of him and his second wife Caroline (buried in Vandalia's main cemetery and memorialized here). I included Caroline's and Martin’s descendants in my family history, too.

What happened to Martin Scrote (who would be my great-great-great-uncle-by-marriage)? At the time, I never found out. But not long ago, a hometown friend named Betsy Brannon Mills and I, chatting on Facebook about genealogy with another friend, put two-and-two together, and we realized we both had a family connection to Martin. She was a distant niece of Caroline. Betsy had done better than me and found information about him: he died in the Civil War. Here is her material:


Company “I”, 97th Illinois Infantry
SCROTT, Martin
Sep 8, 1862
Killed at Ft. Blakely, Ala., Apr 9, 1865
The 97th Illinois led the assault on Fort Blakely on the afternoon of April 9, 1865, the last battle of the Civil War, six hours after Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Martin Scrote was one of the 80 men of the 97th killed or wounded during the siege. This is from the Adjutant General's report of the 97th at the battle:

On the 9th of April, at 4 o'clock, the general commanding had decided to storm the rebel works and the Ninety-seventh was selected to lead the assault. Promptly the men were in the rifle pits with rifles instead of with pick and shovel. It was a quarter to five when the commanding ofiicer of the Ninety-seventh gave the command, FORWARD NINETY-SEVENTH! CHARGE! and the whole Regiment, as one man, with a deafening hurrah, rose above the works, and with a gallantry seldom equalled in the annals of war. started on their dangerous mission.

Twenty minutes afterwards they were in Blakely and five thousand rebels and thirty-five pieces of heavy artillery, still hot of their deathly work, were captured. Eighty (80) killed and wounded in the Ninety-seventy were the human price of the victory, besides the losses of other Regiments that followed the Ninety-seventh.

The same night the Regiment slept in the main fort and General E. R. S. Canby, commanding the military Division of the Gulf, sent the following note to the commander of the Regiment: "Thank you! May God bless you and your brave boys."


My friend hometown found the Adjunct General's roster of the 97th:

She also found information about his likely burial place:


Mobile National Cemetery
1202 Virginia Street
Mobile, AL 36604

Mobile National Cemetery was established in 1865 after the Port of Mobile fell into Union hands under the assault of Rear Admiral David Farragut during the Civil War. .... When Union forces first took Mobile, they interred their casualties in portions of the city-owned Magnolia Cemetery, but following the Army’s request for additional burial space, Mobile provided the Union troops with three acres. The first interments were remains from surrounding military sites and forts. An inspector’s report of the cemetery, dated February 1871, states that of 841 burials only 124 were identified. ....
Mobile National Cemetery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.

Monuments and Memorials
The 76th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment Monument was erected in 1892 by survivors of the Battle of Port Blakely, Ala., in honor of their fallen comrades. ....

841 Civil War dead, which includes 628 Union soldiers, 23 civilian employees of the U S Army, 112 Unknowns, and 78 US Colored Troops representing 10 Infantry regiments from various states. There are also 4 Confederate soldiers interred in the cemetery.


This was all interesting information---and, of course, very sad. I couldn’t help thinking about the narrator-character Paul in All Quiet on the Western Front, killed when the war was nearly over. Our hometown kin Martin had the distinction of perishing on the very day Lee and Grant met at Appomattox.

Another sad thing is that Caroline Haley Scrote, his second wife, was not quite 38 when she was widowed (actually the second time), and she lived to be 95. As my hometown friend Betsy, who found all this information, comments, one wonders what kind of information she may have received, if any, about Martin's death and burial. But one of the Scrotes' granddaughters married a prominent local attorney and another married the owner of a local clothing store. Though Martin is buried in an unknown grave, his and Caroline's descendants became part of the fabric of our common hometown.

Friday, February 14, 2014

"I Am Content": Bach's Septuagesima Cantatas

Continuing my "journey" through J. S. Bach's sacred cantatas performed by the Monteverdi Choir and
The English Baroque Soloists, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner…. this weekend I'm listening to CD 9 in this 56-CD set of Bach's sacred cantatas, having begun with the first Sunday of Advent. I'm a fourth of the way through the set!

CD 9 contains the cantatas for Septuagesima Sunday, which this year is February 16. I did some research about these next three Sundays, which are the Sundays immediately preceding Lent. They are Septuagesima Sunday (the third Sunday before Ash Wednesday), Sexagesima Sunday (the second Sunday before Ash Wednesday), and Quinquasima (the Sunday before Ash Wednesday). The words mean 70th, 60th, and 50th respectively, but technically only Quinquagesima is mathematically correct, truly the 50th day from Easter, while the other two are 57 and 64 days from Easter. Since 1970, the Roman Catholic Church has not included these Sundays on the liturgical calendar. Nor do most provinces of the Anglican church, except those provinces that still use the 1662 and 1928 prayer books.

The 9th century liturgist Amalarius of Metz wrote that Septuagesima can mystically represent the 70-year Babylonian Captivity. In my other blog writing, here, I’ve thought about the importance of the 6th century BCE Exile, a truly key event in the entire biblical history and one that still shapes our religious imagination whether we realize it or not. This year I’m inspired to meditate more about the meaning of the Exile, and perhaps introduce an additional spiritual discipline of some sort, as we approach Easter from this earlier vantage point.

Bach wrote cantatas for all three of these Sundays. Bach’s cantatas for Septuagesima are “Nimm, was dein ist, und gehe hin” (BWV 144, “Take that thine is, and go thy way”), “Ich bin vergnuegt mit meinem Gluecke” (BWV 84, “I am content with my good fortune”), and “Ich hab in Gottes Herz und Sinn (BWV 92, “I have surrendered to God’s heart and mind”). The sleeve photograph (all of which are of international people, symbolizing the universal message of Bach's music) is of a smiling girl from Afghanistan.

In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that the text for this Sunday is the parable of the laborers in the vineyard in Matthew’s gospel. (I wrote more about this parable here.) The librettist to cantata 144 takes this message to heart and urges us to be satisfied with the things of our lives. Bach’s music also takes it to heart: in the opening, for instance (writes Gardiner), Bach repeats several times the figure “gehe him” (“go thy way!”), urging the believer to “take whatever life has to offer on the chin.”

I love Gardiner’s exposition of BWV 84, where he calls attention to Bach’s career-long concern for being paid according to the current rate for his work. At Leibzig, though, he was often torn between doing his work for the glory of God, “and the need to put up with ‘almost continual vexation, envy and persecution’.” It’s nice to know that Bach, too, struggled with everyday feelings of resentment----and with the need to be paid what he was worth. But meanwhile, the text of the cantata is the same as 144: be content with what you have.

Yet this cantata (writes Gardiner) isn’t the uniform placidity of contentment but is “dynamic and fluctuating” with moods “wistful, resigned, elegiac even” to “sheer high spirits.” I love the peppy middle movement, for instance. In the text, the believer finally arrives at the place where “I live meanwhile content in Thee/and die, all sorrow laid aside.”

BWV 92 is a nine-movement chorale not specifically assigned to the biblical readings but has the same theme of surrender to God.

It is only because He wishes to test me
to see whether I remember Jonah,
whether, like Peter, I shall remember him...
See, see how all things snap, break, fall
that are not held by God’s own mighty arm...
Let Satan rage, rave and storm,
our mighty God will render us invincible…
I shall remain true to my Shepherd
Though He fill my cup of pain
For after weeping,
the sun of Jesus will shine again.

A few things strike me this week as I listen to this music and think about these words. The fact that Bach struggled to be paid fairly for his hard and difficult work shows us that humble contentment needs to be connected to the Serendity Prayer. Some things in life we can change, some we cannot, but we seek the wisdom that helps us discern.

On the other hand, many of us have plenty (in terms of money and possessions) but still we're not content; we'd like just a little more and we'd feel more secure. Then we have a little more, and we're still not secure-feeling…. and so on. This, too, is a matter of growing in wisdom and discernment. Seeking trust, gratitude, and contentment for our hearts helps us have perspective upon our lives and resources.

Many things in life cannot be changed: loss, chronic illness, and different kinds of trouble. In these cases, learning resilience and courage goes hand in hand with faith in God. Satan may rage, but Satan is not all-powerful. In fact, Satan's final defeat is already guaranteed. Knowing this means holding to Christ whose light shines amid our struggles.

English translation of the cantata texts by Richard Stokes

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Lincoln Motels

At the University of Akron, I taught colloquia for the Honors College called "Life and Times of Lincoln" and "American Highways and American Wanderlust." I enjoy the subjects of Lincoln, his life and career, and the Civil War. I also enjoy the subjects of American roads, highway businesses, road-related commercial architecture, and signage.

I've published a few things on these subjects, but nothing like my friend Keith Sculle, who has (with John A. Jakle) authored an excellent "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 the books Signs in America's Auto Age: Signatures of Landscapes and Places (University of Iowa Press, 2004), Motoring: The Highway Experience in America (University of Georgia Press, 2008), and most recently Picturing Illinois: Twentieth-Century Postcard Art from Chicago to Cairo (University of Illinois Press, 2012). I reviewed this last book this past month.

As I was thinking about Lincoln's upcoming 205th birthday (tomorrow), I still had postcards in mind and thought: are there many motels that carry Lincoln's name? I knew of a few, and I assumed there were (or had been) many more. And I knew that many motels were depicted upon postcards.

I searched eBay and collected a small sample of postcards of motels named for Lincoln. These cards nicely show the variety of architectural styles and motel signage that typify eras of highway travel. I didn't take the time to look online to see how many of these places still operate. There are many other such motels, and surely many more that have carried the man's name because they were on the old Lincoln Highway/U.S. 30. I remember the A. Lincoln Motel on Route 66 in Springfield as much larger (as depicted here) than the older postcard below. The sign outside was notable.

So …. here is my quirky way of commemorating Lincoln's birthday this year. On frigid winter days like these, pictures of old motels can elicit a nice feeling of summery nostalgia for the open road, family trips and vacations past, and in this case, a sense of Lincoln's heritage. What a treat it might be, to relax and sleep at a place named for Honest Abe!

I remember another Lincoln Motel, in my own hometown of Vandalia, Illinois. It stood on St. Louis Avenue (part of the original alignment of U.S. 40). When I was a kid in the 1960s the motel still operated and had a sign along the street, but the sign was removed long ago and, sometime during the late 1990s, the place was razed. It wasn't much larger than 10 or 12 rooms or so and seemed out of place in what was, by then, just a residential neighborhood no longer along a transcontinental highway. The motel was a remnant of earlier days of travel, one of those hometown places you remember when you were little.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Anxiety with Uncertainty

My wife Beth sent me this article from the site "Brain Pickings", "Stop Making Plans: How Goal-Setting Limits Rather Than Begets Our Happiness and Success" by Maria Popova.( ) Popova reviews the book by British journalist Oliver Burkeman, titled The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. She writes that this is "a fascinating look at how our conventional approaches to happiness and success tend to backfire as our very efforts to grasp after such rewards generate a kind of anti-force that pushes us further away from them. This counterintuitive, counterproductive proclivity is particularly palpable when it comes to plans and goal-setting." She quotes Burkeman:
"What motivates our investment in goals and planning for the future, much of the time, isn’t any sober recognition of the virtues of preparation and looking ahead. Rather, it’s something much more emotional: how deeply uncomfortable we are made by feelings of uncertainty. Faced with the anxiety of not knowing what the future holds, we invest ever more fiercely in our preferred vision of that future — not because it will help us achieve it, but because it helps rid us of feelings of uncertainty in the present."

I'd like to read this book, because, over the years, a major source of my own anxiety and "blues" has been exactly what he writes about. Yes, I do trust the Lord and surrender my will to the Lord's, and I do this daily. In fact, that's what has helped me make fewer dumb decisions like the ones Burkeman writes about. But spiritual surrender doesn't always assuage one's anxieties. Clarifying their meaning and source, however, does help. So if you're emotionally geared similarly to me, read this article and check out the book!  

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Meeting of Our Lord

I enjoy studying the Orthodox prayer book The Festal Menaion (1). A former student recommended the book for the beauty of the prayers' language. I quoted from the book in my January 12, 2013 post, concerning Christ's baptismal waters. This year, because of illness, I neglected to study again the services for the Theophany of Our Lord (January 6). But this weekend I've been studying the services for The Meeting of Our Lord (February 2).

I love how the prayers, tones, and canticles bring together images from the scriptures in (to me) interesting and meaningful ways. Here are several from today's services (pages 406-434):

"Simeon received in his embrace the Word uncircumscribed and supreme in being, who is borne on high in glory upon heavenly thrones; and he cried aloud: ‘Now lettest Thou thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word, O Saviour, salvation and delight of the faithful….'...

"The Ancient of Days, who in times past gave Moses the Law on Sinai, appears this day as a babe. As Maker of the Law He fulfils the Law, and according to the law He is brought into the temple and given over to the Elder. Simeon the righteous receives Him, and beholding the fulfilment of the divine ordinance now brought to pass, rejoicing he cries aloud; ‘Mine eyes have seen the mystery hidden from the ages, made manifest in these latter days, the Light that disperses the dark folly of the Gentiles without faith and the Glory of the newly-chosen Israel...'...

"Today He who once gave the Law to Moses on Sinai submits Himself to the ordinances of the Law, in his compassion becoming for our sakes as we are. Now the God of purity as a holy child has opened a pure womb, and as God He is brought as an offering to Himself setting us free from the curse of the law and granting light to our souls...

"Him whom the Ministers at the Liturgy on high entreat with trembling, Simeon has now received below in his earthly arms, and he proclaims the union of the Godhead with mankind. Seeing the heavenly God as mortal man, he makes ready to withdraw from earthly things, and raises his cry in joy: ‘Glory to tree, O Lord, who hast revealed to those in darkness the Light that knows no evening.’….

"The Creator of heaven and earth is carried today by holy Simeon the Elder in his arms: and he said in the Holy Spirit: ‘Now am I set free, for I have beheld my Saviour…’...

"He who is borne on high by the cherubim and praised in hymns by the seraphim, is brought today according to the law into the holy temple and rests in the arms of the Elder as on a throne. From Joseph he receives gifts fitting for God: a pair of doves, symbol of the spotless Church and of the newly-chosen people of the Gentiles; and two young pigeons, for He is the originator of the two Covenants, both Old and New....

"In a figure Isaiah saw God upon a throne, lifted up on high and borne in triumph by angels of glory; and he cried: ‘Woe is me! For I have seen beforehand God made flesh, Lord of the light that knows no evening and King of Peace.’ The aged servant of God, seeing before him the Word held in the arms of His Mother understood that this was the Glory made manifest of old to the Prophet... ‘Isaiah was cleansed by receiving the coal from the seraphim’, cried the old man to the Mother of God. ‘Thou does fill me with light as thou doest entrust to me, with they hands as with tongs, Him whom thou holdest...’

"Mary, thou art the mystic Tongs, who has conceived in thy womb Christ the live Coal.... O God, who wast before all things began, of Thine own will Thou hast become man and art carried, a child forty days old, into the temple... Illuminate my soul and the light of my senses that I may see Thee in purity; and I will proclaim that Thou art God…"


1. Translated by Mother Mary of the Orthodox Monastery of the Veil of the Mother of God, Bussy-en-Othe, France, and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware of the University of Oxford. Published in South Canaan, PA by St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1998.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

"It Is Enough": Bach's Candlemas Cantatas

No Bach cantatas for Groundhog Day…. but these cantatas (and the ones in yesterday's post) are for February 2 commemorations.

This year, the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany also falls on Candlemas (which in turns falls this year on a Sunday). Candlemas is also called the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, or the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, or the Meeting of the Lord. It is the fortieth day following Christmas, a good halfway point between Christmas and the spring equinox. In the Gospel lesson for the day, Luke 2:22-40, Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the Temple forty days after his birth, to complete Mary’s purification and to perform pidyon haben, “the redemption of the first born” (Exodus 13:12-15, Leviticus 12). Because Simeon calls Jesus a light to the Gentiles (Luke 2:32), the festival became known as “candle mass.”

The next Bach cantatas will be for the Third Sunday Before Lent (Septuagesima), which is February 16 this year.

Bach’s cantatas for the Feast of the Purification of Mary (disc 8 in this set) are “Erfreute Zeit im neuen Bunde” (BWV 83, “Joyous time of the new order”), “Ich habe genung” (BWV 82, “It is enough”), “Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin” (BWV 125, “In peace and joy I now depart”), and “Bekennen will ich seinen Namen” (BWV 200, “I shall acknowldge His name”), although only one movement of this cantata survives. The cover photo is a boy from Afghanistan.

Gardiner notes that “Erfreute Zeit” “contasts the old order of the law and the new order in Christ,” with Bach using the solo violin to emphasize the joy of the wors erfreute” and “freudig” (“joyous” and “joyful”). The second movement, symbolizing the “old order” uses “archaic musical forms... for the Nunc dimitiis,” while the upbeat tenor and a return of the solo violin regains the sense of joy of Christ.

BWV 125 returns us to the Nunc dimittis theme: the servant of God who is ready to leave this life because the waited-for salvation has come. By the second aria, Christ’s light reenters the formerly somber music and the believer looks forward to the prospect of being with Christ, “O unexhausted store of kindness, that has been revealed to us mortals.” The surviving movement of BWV 200 (such a pretty and assuring 4-minute piece, I wish there were more) also uses the theme of Luke 2:29. “I shall acknowledge His name, he is the Lord, He is the Christ... No death robs me of my trust: the Lord is the Light of my life.”

“Ich habe genug” is a well-known cantata, which I’ve also heard with Hans Hotter and with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as the bass soloists. It is an emotional cantata but “Bach’s interpretation (writes Gardiner) contains no trace of spiritual sentimentalism, or glib triumphalism... Might the lullaby of the third movement represent a father watching helplessly as his daughter falls into death’s sleep, and the joyful dance of the final movement anticipate the healing romp of familial reunion in eternity?” The cantata premiered six months after the death one of the Bach’s children. “It is enough... that Jesus should be mine and I His. In faith I cling to Him, and like Simeon, I already see the joy of that life beyond.”

This is a day for honoring Mary. I found a website ( that quotes Pope John Paul II: “Simeon's words seem like a second Annunciation to Mary, for they tell her of the actual historical situation in which the Son is to accomplish his mission, namely, in misunderstanding and sorrow.” The site author goes on to say: “The archangel’s announcement was a fount of incredible joy because it pertained to Jesus’ messianic royalty and the supernatural character of His virginal conception. The announcement of the elderly in the temple instead spoke of the Lord’s work of redemption that He would complete associating Himself through suffering to His Mother.” So in concluding the stories of Jesus‘ infancy on this fortieth day after Christmas, we approach the end of the overall Epiphany period and come within sight of Lent and its emphasize upon suffering, renunciation, and repentance.  

These cantatas also lead me to think about Simeon and Anna. Yesterday (January 31st) was the birthday of Thomas Merton, a man who has inspired so many of us with his dedication to prayer, reflection, and contemplation. Although not much is related about Simeon and Anna in the Gospel, their dedication to vocations of prayer are scriptural inspirations for us. Analogous to the appeal of a Walden Pond-like retreat, what is it about a life completely devoted to prayer that holds appeal to many of us---including those of us who really enjoy our present lives?

My own struggle is how to maintain a faithful prayer life amid the busyness of life. These Candlemas cantatas remind me yet again to step up my efforts. But what if, in the midst of faithful prayer, God calls us to a deeper kind of prayer life, wherein we might have to give up some of the hard work, hopes for professional recognizing, and even hectic ministry work that we enjoy?

But maybe that's making things too complicated when God's grace is really more simple. After all, Bach set these words: “It is enough... that Jesus should be mine and I His. In faith I cling to Him, and like Simeon, I already see the joy of that life beyond.”

English translations by Richard Stokes