Friday, April 25, 2014

Cedars Before the Tempest: Bach's Cantatas for the First Sunday After Easter

The church year moves along, and now we're into the Easter Season and look toward Pentecost. The first Sunday after Easter is sometimes called Octave Day of Easter, and also St. Thomas Sunday, Divine Mercy Sunday, and Quasimodo Sunday (or Quasimodogeniti). The latter comes from the Latin "Quasi modo geniti infantes," "like [or in the manner of] newborn infants," which is the text of the Introit from 1 Peter 2:2

We have two cantatas for Quasimodogeniti and two others (150 and 158) that are thematically related. The four are “Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich” (BWV 150, “Unto Thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul”), “Halt im Gedächtnis Jesum Christ” (BWV 67, “Remember that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead”), “Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats” (BWV 42, “Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week”), and “Der Friede sei mit dir” (BWV 158, “Peace be unto you”). This is CD 15 in the set. The photo is of a turbaned man from Balochistan, Pakistan.

In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that BWV 150, with its prominent chorus, is generally agreed to be Bach’s first church cantata. (The BWV numbers---short for Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, or “Bach Works Catalog”---is a thematic rather than a chronological ordering, so low numbers don't necessarily mean earlier compositions.) Gardiner comments, however, that in this early piece Bach already writes well about the favorite theme: “the need to hold on to faith amid the doubts that assail us.” The text alternates between prayers and the 25th Psalm.

"Yet I am and shall remain content,
though cross, storm and other trials
may rage here on earth,
death, hell, and what must be…
Cedars must before the tempest
often suffer much torment….
do not heed what howls against you,
for His word teaches us quite otherwise."

BWV 67, from twenty years later, depicts “the perplexed and vacillating feeings of Christ’s disciples... and to maintain the tension between Thomas’ legitimate doubts and the paramount need to keep faith.” The piece does have sections that make a listener feel unsettled! Among Bach’s interesting devices is a transition from dramatic writing for the strings, showing the nervousness of the disciples, into a slow passage depicting the appearance of Christ to the disciples in their room. The text expresses praise and relief for Christ's help as one faces the foes and difficulties of life.

BWV 42 also has the theme of Christ’s appearance to his distressed followers, with an added dimension of Christ’s protection of the church within the difficulties of the world. The disciples in Jerusalem are an example of what happens when evil attacks God's people.

"Do not despair, O little flock,
though the foe is disposed
to destroy you utterly….
Jesus shields His own people,
whenever persecution strikes them."

The last cantata, BWV 158, may be a fragment and premiered on an Easter Tuesday, according to Gardiner. Its theme is the risen Christ's greeting of Peace to the disciples, only in this case Christ's greeting is directed to the distressed conscience.

"Your intercessor stands here.
He has annulled and torn up
your book of guilt…
My heart, why are you so downcast,
since God loves you through Christ?"

I always think that St. Thomas gets a bum wrap as "the doubter." After all, his honest questions, as well as his openness to have them answered, gained him special attention from Christ. Faith is not the absence of distress and questions. Otherwise, we would not need frequent reminders to hold to Christ and count upon his help. These texts and their music don't scold us for having struggles in faith. Instead, they affirm God's trustworthy help when we're in need---and we'll continue to be in need up to and including physical death, as Bach's cantatas frequently affirm.

These may be some of my favorite cantatas yet, not just their beauty but also the theme of confidence in Christ's help. The disciples in Jerusalem had abandoned Christ---and yet Christ did not give up on them and bolstered their faith with his presence. I have not abandoned Christ, but I let a thousand things bother me, cast me down, and irk me like a stone in a shoe, especially in times of distress and uncertainty. Then I berate myself for my poor faith. My troubles fall far short of persecution, after all.

But Christ has "torn up your book of guilt"---and, in fact, he does not count any of our sin and weakness against us. We can and should remind ourselves of this truth again and again and again.

(All translations of Bach's texts are by Richard Stokes, as credited in the CD notes.)

Monday, April 21, 2014

Abide with Us: Bach's Cantatas for Easter Monday and Tuesday
My weekly journey through Bach’s sacred cantatas resumes!

Today is the Monday after Easter, and we have two cantatas for that day. One is the last selection on CD 13: "Erfreut euch, ihr Herzen" (BWV 66, “Rejoice, all ye hearts”). In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner comments although Bach may have been creatively weary following the production of his two Easter passions, he still gravitated to the joyfulness of Easter celebration and was able to adapt now-lost birthday serenatas for “Erfreut euch.”

Rejoice all ye hearts,
begone, all ye agonies,
the Savior lives and governs in you.
You can dispel the grieving,
the fear, the anxious trembling,
the Saviour revives the Kingdom of the Spirit...
The grave is rent asunder, and thus our woe is ended...

The other Easter Monday cantata is on CD 14, "Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden" (BWV 6, “Abide with us, for it is toward evening”). The sleeve photo is of a boy in Nuristan, Afghanistan.

Gardiner writes that this is an “Emmaus” cantata that shares a mood with the St. John Passion, although this cantata lacks necessarily lacks the lamentative aspects of the Passion. “It manages to be both narrative (Evoking the grieving disciples’ journey to Emmaus as darkness falls) and universal at the same time (the basic fear of being left alone in the dark, literally and metaphorically).” Bach “paints” the theological affirmation to hold onto Christ in the Word and sacrament even though Christ is soon to depart.

Ah, abide with us, Lord Jesus Christ,
for evening now has fallen,
Thy holy Word, the bright light,
let it not cease to shine on us!

In this final, dismal hour,
lend us constancy, O Lord,
that we Thy Word and Sacrament
keep pure until our end is nigh.

CD 14 is filled out with the two cantatas for Easter Tuesday: "Ein Herz, das seinen Jesum lebend weiss" (BWV 134, “A heart that knows its Jesus to be living”), and "Ich lebe, mein Herze, zu deinem Ergotzen" (BWV 145, “I live, O heart, for your delight”). Gardiner comments on the joyous quality of 134 and 145. Music from that earlier set of birthday serenatas have been "recycled" for this new purpose.

How fortunate are you, God has thought of you,
who are God’s hallowed property;
the Saviour lives and conquers with might
to bring you salvation; to His glory
Satan must now fear and tremble,
and hell itself be shaken
(from BWV 134)

I have my receipt here,
signed with the blood and wounds of Jesus.
And it holds good:
I am redeemed, I am set free
and live now with God in peace and unity...
(from BWV 145)

I've not participated in the Walk to Emmaus program for over twenty years. But the Emmaus story itself in Luke 24 has always been dear to me, as I write here. Although Bach's texts admonish us to remain faithful to Christ and not grow lax in our discipleship, the Emmaus story reminds us that Christ seeks us whether we are righteous or not. In fact, the disciples in the story had given up and were moving on. Christ chose them to console and teach. Christ is ever compassionate to those who are afraid and uncertain. He helps them make all the connections, so to speak, and he gives them all the time and companionship they need.

The image of "God's hallowed property" is a pleasing complement to the imagery of the Easter Sunday cantatas, of "holding to (the risen) Christ" amid temptation and trouble. When we experience difficulties, what a great thought that Christ holds onto us, so to speak, even as we seek to hold onto Christ. This is Pauline theology ("you are not your own, you were bought with a price," 1 Cor. 6:19-20) that defines our value and embraces our particular sources of value.

(As stated in the liner notes, all English translations in this set are by Richard Stokes.)

Sunday, April 20, 2014

"....Thee to know, thy power to prove..."

Christ the Lord is ris'n today, Alleluia!
Sons of men and angels say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, ye heav'ns, and earth reply, Alleluia!

Love's redeeming work is done, Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!
Death in vain forbids Him rise, Alleluia!
Christ has opened Paradise, Alleluia!

Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
Dying once He all doth save, Alleluia!
Where thy victory, O grave? Alleluia!

Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!
Foll'wing our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like Him, like Him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!

Hail the Lord of earth and heaven, Alleluia!
Praise to Thee by both be given, Alleluia!
Thee we greet triumphant now, Alleluia!
Hail the Resurrection, thou, Alleluia!

King of glory, soul of bliss, Alleluia!
Everlasting life is this, Alleluia!
Thee to know, Thy power to prove, Alleluia!
Thus to sing, and thus to love, Alleluia!

---Charles Wesley

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Heavens Laugh: Bach's Cantatas for Easter Sunday

Statue of Bach near his
birthplace in Eisennach
(from Wikipedia)
Back to my “journey” through Bach’s sacred cantatas!

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

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

When all of the cantatas were released this past fall as a 56-CD box set, I purchased it from Then I decided to do my own pilgrimage (less complicated than Gardiner's!) and listen to the cantatas on the Sundays represented by each. I like to find ways to provide structure and variety to my weekly devotional life, since I'm so prone to become busy and harried and to forget. Disc 1 of the set is for Christmas Day, but I began with Disc 52, the cantatas for the First Sunday of Advent, and thus started my project at the beginning of the Christian liturgical calendar. I listened to discs 52 through 56 for Advent and Christmas, and then I began with disc 1 and have been  pretty faithful to listen to each set of cantatas on the represented Sunday (or generally that weekend). I'm not quite a third of the way through.

Without many cantatas for the Lenten season, my “journey” has had a few weeks off. (It was a good time to listen again to the St. Matthew Passion, as I did last year.) Now, this weekend I’m listening to Bach’s cantatas for Easter Sunday, CD 13. The photo is of a girl in Peshawar, Pakistan. The cantatas for Easter Sunday are "Christ lag in Todesbanden" (BWV 4, “Christ lay in the bonds of death”), and "Der Himmel lacht! die Erde jubliliert" (BWV 31, “The heavens laugh! The earth rejoices”)

All of the Gardiner-conducted cantatas were originally released on two-CD sets over the past several years. The cost has been around $30 per set. Hoping that the cantatas would eventually be released together, I had purchased only one---these cantatas for Easter Sunday and Monday---because they were performed at the Georgenkirche in Eisennach, Germany. My family and I had visited Bach's birthplace in that town in 2007, during my daughter’s choir tour.

In the CD notes, Gardiner notes that BWV 4, like Luther’s hymn of the same name on which the cantata is based, calls the believer “to become a character in the play of redemption, casting aside his doubts and meeting the ephemeral Christ in tangible form.” It is one of Bach’s earliest cantatas (from 1707, when he was 23), setting all the verses of Luther’s hymn and beginning and concluding in E minor.

The minor-key cantata, filled with alleluias though it may be, focuses upon Christ’s death and the corresponding life-and-death drama of redemption.

It was an awesome battle
when Death and Life struggled.
Life won the victory
and devoured death;
the scriptures foretold it so,
how one death gobbled up the other
and made a mockery of death.

In the notes, Gardiner discusses the musical techniques that Bach uses to give mood and nuance to Luther’s hymn. For instance, in one section, the bass singers must hold a D for several beats on the first syllable of “Wuerger” (“strangler”) to emphasis the whole line, “the strangler can no longer harm us.”

Just listening to the music on my computer, without following the text, I was struck by the contrast between the minor key “Christ lag in Todesbanden" and the other surviving Easter cantata, BWV 31, where the music is much brighter from the ouset. Even the next-to-last verse of “Christ lag”, with its dance rhythms, isn’t as cheerful as the opening of the subsequent cantata:

The heavens laugh! The earth rejoices,
and all she bears within her womb.
The Creator lives! The highest triumphs
and is freed from the bonds of death.

He who has chosen the grave for rest,
the Holiest One cannot decay.

The text continues to contrast the incorruptibility and victory of Christ with the need for us believers to die spiritually to our sins and “dead works” so that Christ can live in us and be reflected in us. The suffering, as well as the difficult spiritual renewal that is necessary in this life will eventually end so that, in our final hour, we will “behold Jesus’ radiant joy and his bright light.”

Last Sunday our pastor pointed out that contemplation and celebration go together during Holy Week: we can't celebrate Easter without first contemplating what has happened before. I thought of that as I listened to the contrasting moods of these two Easter cantatas: the second more upbeat than the first. While the second makes us feel more spontaneously happy, the more subdued alleluias of the first remind us of the themes of sin and death which, though now defeated, still give us sorrow.

The message of Easter is the victory of Christ. Part of that victory is our ability to hold to Christ and embrace the renewal available through the Spirit. At different times of my life, "holding to Christ" seemed like another difficult obligation among many. It's easy for some of us to berate ourselves that we have not done enough for God, that we haven't devoted ourselves to spiritual disciplines sufficiently well, etc, etc. The trick is to understand "holding to Christ" as a wonderful opportunity---to be loved and accepted, rather than burdened. Holding to Christ means trusting someone who is truly on our side.

Peter Gomes remarks that the modern European traditions of biblical interpretation, while valuable, are different from traditions of black preaching, which “endeavors to remove as many barriers between the thing preached and those to whom it is preached as quickly as possible, so that the ‘objective’ story becomes with very little effort, ‘our’ story, or ‘my’ story.”(1) In placing us within the drama of salvation, Bach's cantatas achieve a similar result. Maybe Bach places us even more quickly into the story of salvation, since it is beautiful music and not merely the uttered Word that places us there.


1. Peter Gomes, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 340-341, which I quoted in my book What About Religion and Science (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 106.

English translations of Bach's texts are all by Richard Stokes, according to the CDs' notes.  

Friday, April 18, 2014

"Beneath the Cross of Jesus"

Beneath the cross of Jesus
I fain would take my stand
The shadow of a mighty rock
Within a weary land.
A home within the wilderness,
A rest upon the way,
From the burning of the noontide heat,
And the burden of the day.

Upon that cross of Jesus
Mine eye at times can see
The very dying form of One
Who suffered there for me.
And from my stricken
Heart with tears,
Two wonders I confess,
The wonders of redeeming love
And my unworthiness.

I take, O cross, thy shadow
For my abiding place.
I ask no other sunshine than
The sunshine of His face.
Content to let the world go by,
To know no gain nor loss.
My sinful self my only shame,
My glory all the cross.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

"A Ransom for Many"

My very first teaching job was as a teaching assistant at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, CT. That was 1981, when I was 24. I assisted the professor in a course called the Gospel of Mark. The pages of Mark in my old Bible are REALLY marked up (no pun intended) with notes from that course.  It was a fascinating journey through the shortest and possibly the earliest gospel.

I remember that the professor pointed out what he considered the key verse of this gospel, 10:45, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The shaping of Mark’s text is interesting. In 10:32-34, Jesus cautions the disciples what would happened to the Son of Man once they reached Jerusalem, the place to which they were traveling. In the next pericope, James and John get into trouble for wanting a place of honor when Jesus is in glory. Jesus instructs them, and then instructs all the disciples that greatness has to do with service. Thus 10:45: even the Son of Man offers his life in service and ransom to others. The next section is the healing of blind Bartimaeus, and the apparent positioning of stories contrasts the physical blindness of Bartimaeus with the figurative blindness of the disciples.

The word “ransom” brings to mind adventure stories wherein a kidnapped person will be released if the kidnappers are paid a designated sum of money---not incommensurate with some theories of the Atonement where Christ's blood buys us back from the captivity of sin and death. This morning I happened to pick of an older paperback of mine, Karl Adam’s The Christ of Faith (Pantheon Books, 1957), which concerns Roman Catholic christology. His thoughts on ransom (pp. 350-357) are placed in context with Catholic teaching but are not solely Catholic.

Fr. Adam makes a variety of connections with the word---the Greek is lutron---and with the whole verse, Mark 10:45. The service of the Son of Man connects us back to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52:13-53:12, and in turn the section 10:32-34 where Jesus describes his brutal sufferings that (without Mark specifically quoting Isaiah) are in keeping with the Suffering Servant’s abuse.

Interestingly, Matthew uses that ransom saying in chapter 20, where we find similar positionings of stories of suffering, greatness, and blindness. In keeping with the Synoptic practice we might expect Luke to use the saying and the stories similarly as Matthew. But (Fr. Adam points out) Luke does not use the ransom saying. Instead, and significantly, Luke uses the pericope about greatness in a different context: within the story of the Last Supper (Luke 22:24-30), where Luke also has Jesus specifically quote from the Suffering Servant passage of Isaiah (Luke 22:37).

This ties together several things among the three gospels: Jesus’ suffering as a “ransom for many,” his suffering as a fulfillment of the Isaiah passage, and this suffering expressed in the Eucharist where Jesus’ blood is poured out “for many” (Matthew and Mark).

But the Last Supper passages also connect us to the Torah: the phrase “blood of the covenant” used first by Moses in Exodus 24:8) where he sprinkles the blood of sacrificed calves upon the people. Now the blood of Jesus rather than the blood of peaceful calves is shed for the people called to covenant with God.

Fr. Adam also connects “ransom” to various statements of Paul concerning Christ’s redeeming work. Paul does not use that word but his teachings about redemption (i.e., buying back from danger, for instance 1 Cor. 1:30, Rom. 3:24, Col. 1:14), and “bought at a great price (1 Cor. 6:20), are similar and related though not identical. Fr. Adam notes that Luke (Paul’s associate) does not use “ransom,” nor do either Paul or Luke use the words “for many” in their respective eucharistic passages. Fr. Adam argues that Luke’s citation of Isaiah within the Last Supper passage was sufficient to make the point concerning Jesus’ abuse and death for our sakes.

I checked both my old Interpreter’s Bible and the New Interpreter’s Bible. Those authors make the same point in different ways: that “ransom” in Matthew and Mark is certainly a resource for but is not yet a fully developed doctrine of the Atonement. However you understand the theological meaning of Christ’s sufferings, we are certainly focused upon them today, Maundy Thursday, and through Good Friday and Holy Saturday until we can celebrate Christ’s resurrection on Sunday morning. That "key verse" of Mark is filled with meaning, darkness, and light during these final hours of Holy Week.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

"When the students are ready…"

There is a proverb, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear," or sometimes, "When the student is ready, the teacher is ready." According to this site, the proverb is not Buddhist but is from 19th century Theosophical writings. I always like the proverb because that really is the way of teaching: you can talk to students and explain things to them, but they won't understand until they're ready. Teaching has an aspect of kairos: we learn at the right time. Many times, students make comments about a subject that help me see something differently, and learning happens in a reciprocal way.

The other day, I commented that it's customary for us during Holy Week to point out the catastrophic drop in Jesus' "approval rating" during Holy Week. A pastor friend calls our Holy Week experience "liturgical whiplash."

Another customary thing to notice is the failure of the disciples to stand by Jesus. Jesus even predicted their behavior. Matthew 26:31 reads: Then Jesus said to them, ‘You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written [Zechariah 16:7],
“I will strike the shepherd,
   and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.”

I'm thinking of their desertion of Jesus in light of that proverb. Clearly the disciples (and the word means "students") weren't ready to understand the teacher!

But since Jesus already knew what they would do, what if their desertion was a way for them to be ready for the teacher's appearance: literally the appearance of Christ resurrected? For all their time listening to Jesus, they still needed the power of the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit for them to be really ready. Their readiness took a lot of time and regret---but Jesus was there and, in fact, had brought them along.

That's good assurance for all of us when we feel we are slow to learn. The Teacher is patient and hangs in with us in our own circumstances.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Worse Messiah Ever

It's customary to point out that Jesus' high "approval rating" on the first Palm Sunday plummeted by Thursday and Friday. A pastor friend calls the effect "liturgical whiplash."

It's hard not to point out the quickness of the people to reject Jesus, after they had greeted him with palm branches and enthusiasm. There is anti-Judaism in the account, unfortunately, for which Jews have suffered over the centuries.

But there is also a lesson about a difficulty in religious belief generally: how quick we are to misidentify (or miss) signs of God's grace. How impatient we are when the Lord comes to us in a way we don't recognize.

We tell the Palm Sunday story from the standpoint of knowing the ending. We know that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his followers during those Easter Season days. We know how Jesus' resurrection validated his teachings and identity.

But try to imagine Palm Sunday without thinking of Easter: Jesus was an eloquent and insightful teacher-healer connected to the long-delayed expectation for Israel's redemption. He spoke of the necessity of his death, but his words were upsetting and confusing to his hearers, not filled with positive meaning. Of course we know now, he was Jesus Christ. The folk he encountered had no benefit of hindsight for such baffling words, no understanding of the truth of his call to discipleship. As the events of Holy Week unraveled, the crowds (and the disciples) seemingly had insufficient validation to convince them of Jesus' identity.

Among the many enjoyable, loquacious cab drivers in Dublin, Ireland, we met a cabbie one summer, who joked about American politics. Mimicking people's shifting, fussy opinions, he said, "Barack Obama? Worst president ever! George W. Bush? Worst president ever! Bill Clinton? Worst president ever! George Bush 41? Worst president ever!"

You could say: after the enthusiasm of Palm Sunday, people began to look at Jesus and think, "Worse Messiah ever!"

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Henri Nouwen Wisdom

A good Nouwen quotation for Palm Sunday, from a Facebook friend's status this morning. I'll get the page reference shortly, but the quotation is from The Path of Waiting:

"In a way, [Jesus'] agony is not simply the agony of approaching death. It is also the agony of being out of control and of having to wait. It is the agony of a God who depends on us to decide how to live out the divine presence among us. It is the agony of the God who, in a very mysterious way, allows us to decide how God will be God. Here we glimpse the mystery of God's incarnation. God became human not only to act among us but also to be the recipient of our responses. . . And that is the mystery of Jesus' love. Jesus in his passion is the one who waits for our response. Precisely in that waiting the intensity of his love and God's is revealed to us."

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Holy Week and Passover Prayer

Dear Lord, I offer prayers for church leaders---pastors, musicians, liturgists, worship participants, teachers, worshipers---who will be involved in Holy Week services and activities beginning tomorrow. It is a busy time for church people. Pastors know that they have opportunity to reach people who are not usually in church during other times of the year, and that can be a daunting prospect. Let your Spirit provide help, inspiration, confidence, and all good gifts during this most sacred week of the Christian year.

I also ask your blessings for Jewish leaders and worshipers during the upcoming Passover season, whose prayers and words include the blessing: "Blessed are You, L‑rd our G‑d, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and has brought us to this special time."

Historically, the Christian Holy Week has been a very difficult time for Jews in the face of Christian antisemitism, and I ask your blessings for those many people who today seek fellowship, respect, love, and understanding between these two and other religious faiths.

In Your holy name. Amen.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Five Years of Blogging

IL 185 at the Brownstown Road
in Fayette County, IL. My mother's side
of the family has lived in this "Four Mile Prairie"
area since the 1820s.
I realized just now that my first post on this blog was five years ago, April 9, 2009. "Journeys Home" was the title of a 1995, self-published book of mine that contained previously-published essays about my hometown and family, and the title seemed apropos for this project, too. To use Frank Zappa's phrase, connection to home places and home people is my "conceptual continuity," uniting and grounding the most diverse elements of my life and career. Two of my several published books are about my hometown, one was explicitly inspired by hometown days, and in my most of my other books (church-related books for Abingdon Press in Nashville), I included at least one reference to my hometown area.

For this blog I had the modest goal, followed ever since, of uniting a variety of topics like discipleship, Bible reflections, the sense of place, everyday moments, and topics that interested me. Meanwhile, I thought I'd do more issue-oriented reflections at my Wordpress blog, similar to the curricular writing I was doing at the time. But that blog, too, soon combined a variety of topics.

By taking a generalist approach to blogging, I probably missed the chance for a wider readership. Many blogs are, of course, dedicated to commentary on particular themes and to providing information and instruction for many followers. This blog is all over the place. But I'm pleased that it receives about 3000 page views a month among several countries. This post is the 740th so far. My most popular post continues to be my piece about the ecologist Anne LaBastille, here. But thoughts about music, spiritual growth, going barefoot, and other topics have gotten many views, too. My 2014 project of listening to Bach's sacred cantatas on the designated day has received interest among readers. Those posts, like others on religious and biblical topics, reflect my desire to include ongoing spiritual reflection and structure amid life's many responsibilities (although, unusually, this Lent has flown by without many Lent-related thoughts here).

In April 2009 we were ending our nine years in Akron, OH and preparing to move to St. Louis, MO. Some of those early posts considered aspects of downsizing one's belongings and changing locations. As a "trailing spouse," my life has often required a certain amount of career reinvention (and trust in God's guidance) as we settle into a new place. Without getting into specifics, these past few years have had some very difficult aspects, including two major family deaths. Beginning and continuing a blog during this time of my life has been a good thing, and I'm happy that folks have responded positively. I pray that I'll be able to continue this ongoing "journey" in the years ahead!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


This video made the rounds on social media recently: a woman who can do the accents of different languages without actually saying anything.

It reminded me of this toe-tapping song from 1974, which the singer wrote to mimic the way American English sounds to an Italian.

And, in turn, all this reminds me of a verse of scripture that I had heard in childhood but learned more about in divinity school.

For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
line upon line, line upon line,
here a little, there a little (Isaiah 28:10-13, RSV)

In the original Hebrew, the words are probably nonsense syllables, mimicking a child’s talk, the way God’s Word would figuratively sound to a sinful people.  "Blah blah blah, yada yada yada," we might say.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Vote for Austin

A hometown friend/former classmate asked me to post this!

"Please post help for my grandson Austin. He can't walk or talk and he is in a free contest to win a free wheelchair van. I am his grandma and my name is Jodie Carnes Weaver. He needs people to sign up and vote everyday. Would you please post this to help him get the votes he needs?

"I would very much appreciate it so he can be transported easier as his time is limited with us on earth. Thanks for listening.

"Please sign up to vote and when you sign up you need to use a user name nobody else has used. When you login do do not hit vote at the top. If you look at the top of the ballot you can answer a question to get an extra vote and then you scroll down and click on being a friend and then answer a math question to let them know you are not computer generated vote and check the rules box and then click vote. If anyone has any trouble signing up please call me at 618-283-1314. Austin is 12 and needs us. Sincerely Austin's grandma. Please vote everyday until May 9th."


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Musical Taste

The theologian Karl Barth, on whom I wrote my doctoral dissertation, was adamant that no knowledge of God was possible other than God’s triune self-revelation. Somewhere in his vast Church Dogmatics (I’ll have to remember where), Barth even criticizes the use of organ preludes in worship as potentially a false “point of contact” between God’s grace and the believer. Yet Barth listened to Mozart every day, found that music essential for his theologizing, and spoke glowingly of Mozart’s ability to understand and communicate divine mysteries. Barth’s own aesthetic sense contrasted (I would say clashed) with his epistemology.

The relationship of religion and art/music is a fascinating one. One would not want to judge a person’s spirituality based on their artistic and musical taste, but on the other hand a growth in taste and appreciation can accompany spiritual growth. I’ve been reading about this subject in an interesting book by Frank Burch Brown, Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste: Aesthetics in Religious Life (Oxford University Press, 2000).

Among several topics, I was interested in Brown's reflections on new Christian music, or “Next Music.” He comments that the music is “club-style soft rock” which leaves out a broad range of “morally daring” music such as the Indigo Girls, Paul Simon’s Graceland, U2’s The Joshua Tree, “just to mention a smattering of widely accessible, equally white, and mostly middle-class alternatives” (p. 233). He also mentions composers whose religious music is quite profound but would likely never be heard in either megachurches or smaller suburban churches: Arvo Part, John Tavener, John Adams, not to mention Olivier Messaien, James MacMillan, and others (p. 234).

Brown also discusses ideas of the church consultant and author William Easum. I appreciate Easum’s passion for evangelism and mission but his pronouncements are imperious and (I worry) thus potentially misused by church leaders who fail to prayerfully adapt his ideas to the needs of their own congregations. (As another author puts it: Saul’s armor fit Saul, but it didn’t fit David, therefore church leaders need to understand the Spirit’s will concerning that congregations’ special circumstances and ministry needs: but that’s a topic for another blog entry).

Easum believes music that attracts the most vital (to church growth) generations is soft rock. Traditional church music and classical music are not for Easum culturally relevant to church growth. “Quality” music is the well-provided, synthesized music used by praise teams. Easum implies that if music in churches is good if it brings people closer to God, but in his view, older and traditional styles of music belong to aging and perhaps dying congregations (Brown, pp. 235-236).

I’m glad that Brown writes, “many readers will find that [Easum’s] assertions regarding church music are not only uncompromising but also discordant and at points uninformed and misleading“ (pp. 238-239). In criticizing the perceived (and perhaps actual) elitism of professional church musicians, he himself is musically elitist: “The music that wins his contest is bound to be the music of those churches that grow the fastest” (Brown, p. 240). Among other arguments, Brown points out things that Easum misses: the growing (although still small in sales figures) audience for classical music, including opera, and also the significant influence of classical music in film music (Brown, pp. 242-243). “[T]he range of ’culturally relevant’ music in general is altogether more diverse than many promoters of church vitality recognize” (Brown, p. 244).

Not to personalize, but as one who listens to Part, Tavener, Messiaen, and many of the older masters while I write church-school curriculum (to help church people grow spiritually), I hate to think I’m against church growth and evangelism just because I like a range of different styles of music than Easum approves--although he's talking about music at worship. But I’ve worshipped at churches wherein the music program is good but a balance of contemporary and traditional styles is missing, which is frustrating to me. I was once on staff at a church where, in fact, a balance of traditional, classical, and contemporary music made for an overall program that was a dynamic part of a growing congregation. If Brown’s book doesn’t make it into the hands of many church staffers, I do appreciate his thoughts.

(A post from 2009) 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Little Towns

The other day I noticed on ebay an antique highway sign for sale, for Ohio state route 274. A former Ohio resident but not a native, I looked up the highway to remember where it is. The Wikipedia site included a photo of Rushsylvania, OH, population 516.

I've never visited Rushsylvania, but this photo warmed my heart. I've approached and then passed through many villages of this kind. Little communities (1000 or less) are an important part of my growing-up years. A two-story building that had once served a function (a hotel, perhaps) which now has a small market or a pizza place or antique mall on the first floor…. a church along the highway and others on side streets… an American flag outside a public building or military memorial… a brick building that is the post office or the bank or the library… houses both old and new along the highway and the side streets… a gas station, perhaps with a convenience store… brick buildings that had once been older filling stations or automobile repair places, and now they're either closed or being used for other functions (a flower shop, an antique store)…a children's park down the street... power lines … road signs… a business sign with replaceable letters….

I like living in larger communities, but part of me thinks a home in a very small town would be nice. I've seen enough parochial thinking in larger cities to know that little towns don't have a monopoly on that and similar aspects of human nature. The drawbacks of small towns and rural areas include the distance from important services, and many cultural events. You have to put a lot of miles on your car. The benefits, though, include the closeness of community, the possibility of warm neighborliness, the heritage readily to hand, and the quiet peace of the few, familiar places.

Here is the little town where my parents and I lived in 1959, when I was two, the only year of my childhood not in Vandalia, IL:,_Illinois

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Nordic Journey, Volume II: Organ Music

In my September 21, 2013 post, I shared my enjoyment of James D. Hicks’ CD “Nordic Journey", where he performs 19th through 21st century Nordic repertoire for organ.

Hicks is a long-time friend, and his new CD, Nordic Journey, Volume II, is just out and available from Pro Organo), which can also be linked from his website.

His website has this summary: “The musical exploration of northern climes continues with Nordic Journey, Volume II, The Nordic Symphonic Tradition. This disc continues the series by featuring late-Romantic repertoire of the early twentieth-century.  Recorded on the historic organ of St. Johannes' Church, Malmö [Sweden] in August 2013, the church's Åkerman & Lund instrument, originally built in 1908 and restored in 2008, is an ideal vehicle for the performance of this repertoire. Researched over the course of over two years, the disc includes several world premiere performances of unpublished music in a program that demonstrates the Nordic affinity for drama and lyric expression.”

The track lsting:

1. Niels Gade (1817-1890), from Tre Tonestykker, Opus 22, III- Allegro con fuoco (1851)

2. Páll Ísólfsson (1893-1974), Introduktion Og Passacaglia (c. 1917)

3. Fredrik Isaacsson (1883-1962), Melodia, Opus 32/2 (c. 1920)

Yngve Sköld (1899-1992)
4. Preludium och Fuga h moll (1932)
5. Larghetto (1939)
6. Passacaglia ur Kyrksymfoni (1939)

Viljo Mikkola (1871-1960), Sonaati uruille (1916)
7. I- Maestoso
8. II- Adagio, ma non troppo
9. III- Allegro molto

10. Patrik Vretblad (1876-1953), Elégie

Erik Alvin (1902-1992)
11. Fantasia "In Antico Modo"
12. Lamentoso
13. Symfoniskt Orgelstycke

Total Playing Time: 79:26

I enjoy the eight symphonies of the Danish composer Gade and also track 1 here. As with Nordic Journey 1, I found favorites among the tracks: the pensive Larghetto and the Passacaglia by Sköld, a Swedish composer.

If you love organ music and repertoire, you'll enjoy these discs and the accompanying spirit of discovery.