Thursday, June 19, 2014

Blog Returns in Early July

Because of upcoming manuscript submission deadlines, I won't write here for a couple weeks. I'll catch up with Bach's cantatas (and other thoughts) soon.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Grace and Evolution

The other day I purchased a fairly new book by Richard Rohr, Yes, And….Daily Meditations (Cincinnati: FranciscanMedia, 2013). I loved this meditation on page 170: "Incarnation makes evolution inevitable."

Rohr writes: "St. Bonaventure, who lived shortly after St. Francis… , and John Duns Scotus a little later yet, both observed as intellectuals what St. Francis was seeing and doing intuitively. They saw that he, exactly like Jesus, found the transcendent not 'out there' but 'in here'---the transcendent was largely revealed at the depth and 'inner' of things." He goes on to say that the contemporary author Walter Wink argues that angels "are the transcendent with things." Rohr notes, "Grace is not something you invite into the world as if it's not already there."

Rohr continues, "This is why a Christian should never have the least trouble with evolution." If you have trouble with evolution, you think of grace as "extrinsic to the universe" and thus grace (God's love) "is not organic to creation."

Friday, June 13, 2014

God of Eternity: Bach's Cantatas for Trinity Sunday

Salvador Dali, "The Ecumenical Council"
Trinity Sunday (June 15 this year) is celebrated on Pentecost Sunday in the Eastern church but on the First Sunday after Pentecost in the Western church. The Sunday honors this fundamental doctrine of Christianity: the tri-unity of God revealed in the incarnation of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit, defined by the 4th and 5th century councils of the church and affirmed in the creeds. In the tri-unity of God, God shares the divine life with Creation, gathers us into a saving relationship, and cherishes us forever.

Bach has given us four cantatas for this Sunday (CD 25 of this set): “Höchsterwünschtes Freudenfest” (BWV 194, “O greatly longed-for feast of joy”), “Es ist ein trotzig und verzagt Ding um aller Menschen Herze” (BWV 176, “There is something stubborn and fainthearted about the human heart”), “O heil’ges Geist- und Wasserbad” (BWV 165, “O sacred spring of water and the Spirit”), and “Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott” (BWV 129, “Praised be the Lord, my God”). The CD photo is of a thoughtful-looking bald child from Bagan, Burma.

BWV 165 is, according to conductor John Eliot Gardiner, “a true sermon-in-music, based on the Gospel account of Jesus’ night-time conversation with Nicodemus on the subject of ‘new life’, emphasising the spiritual importance of baptism.” Filled with images of water, the cantata flows both musically and thematically.

O sacred spring of water and the spirit,
which admits us to God’s Kingdom
and inscribes us in the book of life!

O stream that drowns all evil deeds
through its wondrous power

and bestows on us the new life!

O sacred spring of water and the spirit!

BWV 194 contains “one of those spacious, pastoral 12/8 movements (for oboe and strings) which Bach devised from time to time to convey the reassurance of God’s protective care (here it is his ‘light’)”, while another movement is “a spirited gavotte
for strings to celebrate the purifying effects of Pentecostal fire.”

Holy Ghost enthroned in heaven,

as God of eternity

with the Father and the Son,

the joy and comfort of the distressed!
All the faith that I possess
hast Thou kindled in me;
govern over me with mercy
and never let Thy mercy falter.

BWV 176 returns to the subject of Nicodemus but sets up a number of interesting musical and thematic contrasts between Christ and his nighttime visitor. Rather than subjecting Nicodemus to criticism, the cantata helps us to take his place, so to speak, in approaching the Christ in weakness and shame.

So do not marvel then, O Master,

that I should question Thee by night!

I fear that by day

my weakness would not stand the test.
Yet I comfort myself: Thou shalt accept
and exalt my heart and spirit,

for whosoever believes in Thee,

shall not perish.

BWV 129, in turn, is a “genial, uplifting work” that lack the recitatives and de capo arias of other cantatas but is filled with melodies and fanfares setting an 1665 text by Johann Olearius.

Praised be the Lord,

my God, my comfort, my life,

the Father’s priceless Spirit,

given me by the Son,

who quickens my heart

and gives me new strength,

who, when I am in distress,

counsels me, comforts and helps me.

Here are some thoughts of mine from an earlier post, about why this doctrine is filled with comfort, instruction, and love for us:

As indicated in the CD notes, all English translations of Bach's texts are by Richard Stokes.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Comfort of Thy People: Bach's Cantatas for Whit Monday and Tuesday

Bach wrote four cantatas for Pentecost, and also five for Whit Monday and Whit Tuesday. I listened to these over the weekend (CDs 23 and 24 of the set). The CD photo for Whit Monday is of a girl in Jaipur India, and the other photo is of a child in Ghazni Afghanistan.

The Whit Monday cantatas are “Erhohtes Fleisch und Blut” (BWV 173, “Exalted flesh and blood”), “Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt” (BWV 68, “God so loved the world”), and “Ich liebe den Hochsten von ganzem Gemute” (BWV 174, “I love the Almighty with all my heart”). Conductor John Eliot Gardiner describes ways that BWV 173 was transformed from earlier music written for a former employer, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. The happy dance music of some of the earlier music becomes music for the granting of the Spirit of God to the Gentiles and the love of God who gives his blessings to us.

A sanctified soul

sees and tastes the goodness of the Lord.
Praise, sing, tune your strings,

to propagate God’s goodness!

BWV 68 has a text by a writer Bach turned to on other occasions, Christiane Mariane von Ziegler. Although the title is from the happy John 3:16, Ziegler's text continues with John 3:18 and “the chilling choice between salvation or judgement in the present life,” as Gardiner writes. “The second day of Pentecost may have been a time of rejoicing... but in postulating this bald division of the world into believers and sceptics, Bach left the congregation with food for thought.”

Bach makes use of the first movement of Brandenburg Concerto #3 (BWV 1048) as prelude for BWV 174, apparently (according to Gardiner) to make use of good instrumentalists available for the original occasion and giving the Whit Monday a wonderful celebration.

I love the Almighty with all my heart,
He loves me also exceedingly.
God alone 
shall be the soul’s treasure,

where I have the eternal source of goodness....

And even if my heart should break,

you are still my trust,

my salvation and my heart’s comfort,

who hath redeemed me through His blood.

For the Whit Tuesday performance, Gardiner augments the two surviving cantatas with that same concerto. He comments that the three violins, three violas, and three cellos of the concerto provides a trinitarian association that Bach perhaps didn’t realize when he wrote the piece.

In the cantata “Erwünschtes Freudenlicht” (BWV 184, “Longed-for light of joy”), Bach (and his unknown librettist) combined images of the Good Shepherd in John 10 with the granting of the Holy Spirit in Samaria in Acts 8. We gain a vision of Christ’s eternal presence for us with an overall pastoral beauty.

Good shepherd, comfort of Thy people,
grant us only Thy life-giving word!
Let Thy gracious countenance shine brightly,
remain our God and refuge,

who through almighty hands

shall guide our steps to life!

The title of the other Whit Tuesday cantata, “Er rufet seinen Schafen mit Namen” (BWV 175, “He calleth His own sheep by name”) alerts us that the music will also have a bucolic atmosphere. But we also experience the unhappiness of the “sheep” when the Shepherd seems to be missing.

Where can I find Thee?

Ah, where are Thou hidden?

O, show Thyself soon to me!

I long for Thee.

Dawn, O long-awaited morning!

In the notes for Whit Monday, Gardiner comments that Bach re-used some of his own previous works for later cantatas---not always, but he did so with these pieces. "Secular" music written earlier for the rulers of Weimar (the Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt) and Köthen became used for church cantatas. Some scholars have fussed about this, but for Gardiner, it was a way that "Bach could express homage to a prince and homage to God in essentially the same way. Music – his music – was there to bridge the divide between worldly and divine glory."

A few years ago I listened to an interview with The Who's Peter Townshend, who said he was intrigued with the idea that the meaning of life could be expressed by a musical note. I thought of that again in this context: the meaningful bridge between divine and secular sovereignty is…. music.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

O Eternal Fire: Bach's Cantatas for Pentecost

Shavuot, or Pentecost, is the Jewish festival celebrating the giving of Torah on Sinai. That holiday is described in, among other places, Exodus 23:14-17 and Deut. 16:16-17, and is referenced in 1 Cor. 16:8 and Acts 20:16. In Acts 2, it was the day the Holy Spirit descended upon followers of Jesus, as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel 2:28-29, where God’s spirit would be poured out to all people. The gift also fulfilled Christ’s promise in Acts 1:8. Thus Pentecost (“fiftieth day”) is sometimes called “the birthday of the church.” In England especially, the festival is also called White Sunday or Whitsunday, after the color of the garments worn by persons to be baptized on that day. Pentecost is the fiftieth day after Easter, and the tenth day after Ascension Thursday.

Bach’s Whit Sunday cantatas are “Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten” (BWV 172, “Resound, ye songs, ring out, ye strings!”), two entitled “Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten” (BWV 59 and BWV 74, “If a man love me, he will keep my words”), and “O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der Liebe” (BWV 34, “O eternal fire, O source of love”). The CD photo is of a young person, covered in red powder, from Mumbai, India. It's one of the more striking of Steve McCurry's many photographs. I looked online and discovered that the red powder signifies the Ganesh Chaturthi Festival in Mumbai.

These cantatas are more celebratory and upbeat than the more somber and anxious pieces of last Sunday, when the disciples were waiting uncertainly between Ascension and Pentecost. Some of this joy stems not only from the celebration of the Holy Spirit but also the joyfulness of the harvest festivals that lay in the background of Shavuot. Even the “first fruits” language of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 seems (as conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes) to be an allusion to the holiday’s agricultural origins. Gardiner continues, “Bach often brings to the surface pre-Christian aspects and forgotten connections which mirror the turning of the agricultural year. Now...he comes up with music of unalloyed optimism and exuberance in celebration of the first gifts of newly-awakened nature, as well as the miraculous ignition of the divine Pentecostal spark which allows human beings to communicate across the language barrier.”

For instance (as Gardiner writes), BWV 172 contrasts the life-giving breath of God into the newly-created Adam with the different kind of life and breath of the Spirit at Pentecost. The cantata has several combinations of three---”three trumpets, a tripartite form, a theme moving in steps of a third and a triple address to the ‘mighty God of honour’”---providing a trinitiarian structure that also links creator God (Lord of life and harvest) with God the Spirit of Pentecost.

The first cantata entitled “Wer mich liebet” makes use of an 1524 Luther hymn, calling upon the Spirit.

Come, Holy Spirit, O Lord God,

and fill with Thy most precious grace

the heart, will and mind of Thy believers.
Ignite Thine ardent love in them.

O Lord, through Thine own brilliant light,
Thou hast assembled to believe

people from every tongue and clime;

for this, O Lord, may we sing praises to Thee...

The second cantata with that title is based on a text by Christiane Mariane von Ziegler, which as Gardiner writes is constructed “on three main themes: the paramount need for love, and the need to be in a state of readiness to receive the spirit... Jesus’ announcement of his Ascension and return, and its joyful implications for humankind.... and his triumph over Satan, freeing the believer from condemnation.”

BWV 34 is a later work of Bach’s (from the 1740s), adapted from a wedding cantata and now used for Pentecost. Gardiner writes that it is filled with picturesque writing, evoking the pastoral aspect of the harvest as well as the Temple of the Lord and the flames of the Holy Spirit, all leading to a joyful conclusion.

As Bach tied together several themes for Pentecost, we can see how the narratives and promises of Christ's Ascension and Pentecost interconnect. In chapter 14-17 of John, Jesus teaches his disciples  that he must leave (die, rise, and ascend to the Father) in order to fulfill God's plan of salvation. So Good Friday, Easter, and Ascension are part of the same divine work. But although Christ ascends and leaves the disciples, the Spirit will come and will remain with the disciples forever. In fact, the Spirit is how we have a relationship with Christ today; we may wish we'd known Jesus in the flesh but we're actually closer to him today!

One thing we forget, is that because Christ is one with the Father and the Spirit in their trinitarian unity, we are closer to one another, too. We understand ourselves to be in unity with one another, not because we share a God-soul as some religions understand it, but because the love of Christ (in his death and resurrection, and in the advocacy of the Holy Spirit) broke down barriers between us and God and between other people. The Spirit, in turn, provides us the divine gifts of love, gentleness, kindness, and other "fruit" that help and heal our relationships with one another. God gives us the gift of eternal life and the gifts of love for God and for one another.

All English translations of Bach's texts are by Richard Stokes. 

Friday, June 6, 2014


Today is the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. It's also the 46th anniversary of the death of Robert F. Kennedy. Three days ago, and 150 years ago from that day, the worst day of fighting of the Battle of Cold Harbor occurred. I wrote last summer about the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg battle.

My grandfather's birthday was yesterday. His name was Josiah Crawford, he was a farmer in the Brownstown, IL area, and he was born June 5, 1886. He died a couple years before I was born, but I was very close to his wife, my grandma, and I heard all about him. This coming September 16 will be both the 15th anniversary of my dad's death and what would've been my father-in-law's 90th birthday. I'll remember the second anniversary of my mother's death two weeks later. Ten years ago, in 2004 but on no particular date, I became acquainted with two people who became "BFFLs," with whom I still interact weekly though we live in different places. They were the first non-family members I told when my mom passed. And…. my wedding anniversary is coming up!

Dates roll around, some significant, some nearly forgotten, some of mostly personal significance. This year I've been focusing on the Sundays and festival days of the Christian liturgical year, and thinking about the significance of each within our overall theological understanding of our faith. This has been tremendously helpful to me as I seek (imperfectly but persistently) to draw closer to God. Anniversaries and particular days can be difficult, but some are wonderful, strengthening. Little wonder that a Jewish writer has called the weekly Sabbath "a sanctuary in time."

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Anniversary of Cold Harbor

Here is an interesting article about the Battle of Cold Harbor, in which the most significant fighting was 150 years ago yesterday.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

"By the Rivers of My Memories"

I read an article this morning: singer Glen Campbell has been transferred to a facility because of his Alzheimer's. A few years ago he had announced he has the disease and scheduled a tour before his symptoms worsened.

Now I've had his hits in my mind all day. It's trite to say, but songs like Jimmy Webb's "Galveston" and "Wichita Lineman" and John Hartford's "Gentle on My Mind," and others are part of the soundtrack of my late childhood/early adolescence. Hearing them brings me back to hometown landscapes. The power lines along U.S. 51, seen on weekend drives with my parents, reminded me of Webb's song about the lonely lineman and, in turn, made me wish I could find love in my life. (I was only fourteen or so, but that's a painful age.) John Hartford's song is so poetic and wistful, about a kind of commitment to a person that's different from having a life together.

We keep in thoughts and prayers Campbell and his family, and also a singer I loved a few years later: Linda Ronstadt, who recently retired because of Parkinson's.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Spelling Bee Stings

This must be spelling bee season, because I've seen several reports lately of competitions. I found an article indicating that two co-champions had been declared in the national competition, after they exhausted the word list and both spelled "feuilleton" correctly.

When these news reports come on TV, I usually lunge for the remote to turn it off as I would an annoying commercial. My single experience of spelling bees wasn't very happy, though it was nearly fifty years ago and I seldom remember it until reminded.

My mom invested a lot of her emotional well-being in me and my accomplishments, and sometimes she got it into her head that I should do more, ostensibly to make her more proud. Up till the last year of her life, she lamented aloud that she wish I could've taken art lessons, because I was such a good drawer. I didn't want to take art lessons, but that was never the point; I should've wanted to because she wanted it.

Anyway, when I was in fifth grade, she got me into a regional spelling bee because she thought I was such a good speller. I was a good speller. But I'm not a competitive person, generally, and I felt like she was spoiling something I liked to do on my own. (I read something recently about a person who, as a kid, liked to drink tabasco sauce, which became so exaggerated in importance that family members started giving her tabasco sauce as gifts and wanted to see her drink. The person wished the subject had never come up.)

The spelling bee was at the memorably named Raccoon District School near Centralia, IL. I practiced and practiced and did the best I could, but I didn't get far into the competition. Mom was disappointed, but my fifth grade teacher thoughtfully made sure I felt like I did my best.

Fortunately, unlike art lessons (and some other topics), it was something on which Mom didn't fixate as the years went by. She had unhappiness in her life. I feel like, if I dwell on things like this, I'm making the same mistake as she did: focusing too much on the things you wish were different about a loved one, and not celebrating the wonderful things. We feel our loved ones' shortcomings more keenly because they're so close to us, and those shortcomings may be our own, too.

The spelling bee nonsense gave me a preview of later lessons: celebrate and do the things you're good at; you can still value the things you're not good at; value people's opinions but don't follow them to the point that you get into an awkward situation; don't think that someone can make up for the happiness that you lack in yourself; sometimes the people who drive you the craziest are the ones you miss the most when they're gone. "Life" is an easy word to spell, but a long, rich process to figure out.