Wednesday, July 30, 2014

35 and 40 Years Ago

The other day I drove 100 miles up to Sangamon County, IL to visit the graves of ancestors buried there. Most of my family is buried in Fayette County, IL: my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, and eighteen other ancestors among 2-, 3-, 4-, and 5-great-grandparents. I've always been grateful for Fayette County as a place of such family heritage! But one family branch, the Colburns, were early settlers of the area of Sangamon County that became the village of Loami, southwest of Springfield.

Traveling north on I-55 (following nearby alignments of old U.S. 66), I exited and drove west on IL 104, then turned north on County Road 45 and drove through undulating countryside. Having visited the graveyard in the early 1990s, I easily noticed the white obelisk of my 3-great-grandparents, William and Achsa Colburn. Since my last visit, a plaque has been installed at the base of the stone, commemorating William’s father Paul. The family arrived in Sangamon County in 1821. That county was established in January of that year, and the first settlers of what became Springfield arrived in the spring of 1821. So the Colburns were among the first white population of the area, recently ceded by the Kickapoo tribe. (That tragic and racist element of my family history is something I feel I should acknowledge.)

My roots in Fayette County are so strong that I’d never really connected emotionally to this area of Sangamon County, but I did so on this trip. As I’ve often done in Fayette County, especially the Four Mile Prairie area where my mother’s side of the family lived, I tried to imagine the land as it might have looked in 1821: prairie grass, old-growth timber, streams from which one could drink.

Forty years ago this summer, when I was seventeen, I spent numerous happy mornings transcribing the 200 or so grave inscriptions in our family cemetery at Four Mile, about ten miles out into the countryside from Vandalia. (I wrote about that summer in a post here.) I loved being able to drive on my own, in my seen-better-days ’63 Chevy that had been my dad’s step-father’s. Usually I stayed barefooted, reasoning that summer mornings spent copying tombstone inscriptions in the soft grass really didn’t require shoes. During those summer days, I had an early sense that I would always love this place, Four Mile as well as the whole county, as an anchor and "sacred place" for whatever my life would be like. That has certainly been the case. The header photo of this blog, for instance, is a scene from Four Mile.

Thirty-five years ago this summer, I made almost daily trips to the state historical library and archives in Springfield, IL to research my first book, a history of my hometown Vandalia when it was the state capital. I had small grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund my work. I remember thinking that I-55 was so tedious: flat farm land for miles and miles. I knew that the Colburns were buried nearby but at that time I didn’t get off the interstate to investigate my family roots. From childhood, I knew that Lincoln and his colleagues were instrumental in getting the state government moved from Vandalia to Springfield, and so as a native Vandalian, it was a little difficult for me to work up a lot of love for Springfield, though I didn't resent the town, either.

Now, I've warmed belatedly to the Sangamon countryside, and I look forward to my next visit to little Loami. Bible readers may recognize the word as one of the prophet Hosea's symbolically named children, meaning "not my people." My new sense of emotional connectedness to the place is just the opposite: here is a place of "my people." The village even has a Colburn Park.


I write more about the Colburn family here.  But the following account (quoted, along with others, in that post) is worth including here, too. From the 1876 Early Settlers of Sangamon County (p. 211), we learn about the difficult and tragic journeys of the Paul Colburn family:

“In 1809 the family moved to the vicinity of Hebron, Grafton county, N.H., where they remained until Sept. 1815, when Paul Colburn and his wife, his son Isaac with his wife and two children, his son William and his wife, they having been married but a few days, and his unmarried daughter, Isabel, started from Hebron in wagons to seek a new home in Ohio, at that time the ‘far west.’ On reaching Olean, at the Alleghany river, they found the river two low to bring all their goods on boards, as they had intended. They sold their wagons and teams, put the remaining good sand their families on a raft, and started down the river, reaching Pittsburg on the evening of December 24, 1815. ice was forming in the river, and they were compelled to stop there for the winter. While they were in Pittsburg, Paul Colburn was joined by his son Ebenezer, who had been serving in the United States army in the war with England, then just ended. In the spring of 1816, Isaac and Ebenezer went up the Alleghany river and made a raft of logs suitable for making shingles, and partially loaded it with hoop poles. They expected to have gone down the Ohio river in June, but the whole season was one of unusual low water, and December arrived before they reached Pittsburg with their raft. The whole party went down on the raft to Marietta, O., where they engaged in farming and other pursuits. Ebenezer was married in Marietta, and in the spring of 1820 Paul Colburn and his wife, Isaac and his family, and Ebenezer and his wife, embarked on a raft, leaving William to close up the business at  Marietta. They landed their raft at Louisville, Ky., and left Isaac there to work up and sell their lumber. The other members of the family continued down the river to Shawneetown; Paul Colburn, his wife and daughter remained there. Ebenezer and his wife went on to join some relatives of her’s in Monroe County, Ill., about fifty miles south of St. Louis.

“In August of that year Isaac Colburn and his wife died at Louisville within days of each other, leaving six children among strangers, and on the first of November Mrs. Mehitibel Colburn died at Shawneetown. About the time of her death William Colburn embarked with his family on a boat at Marietta, floated down to Louisville, and took on board four of his brother Isaac’s children, one having died, and another been placed in a good home. He went to Shawneetown and joined his bereaved father and sister, arriving Dec. 24, 1820.

“In March, 1821, Paul Colburn, his daughter isabel, William Colburn, wife and three children, the four orphan children of Isaac Colburn, and a Mr. Harris, started in a wagon drawn by four oxen for Morgan county. They traveled through rain, mud and unbridged streams for about five weeks, which brought them to the south side of Lick creek on what is now Loami township, where they found an empty cabin. From sheer weariness they decided to stop, and Mr. Harris, the owner of the wagon and oxen, went on to Morgan county.

“Soon after their arrival Wm. Colburn gave a rifle gun for a crop of corn just planted, and in that way began to provide food. He secured a team and went after his brother Ebenezer, and brought him and his wife to the settlement, arriving in October, 1821.

“Having succeeded in bringing so many of his descendants to the new country, and witnessed their struggles to gain a foothold and provide themselves with homes, Paul Colburn died Feb. 27, 1825, near the present town of Loami.” (The source then lists his children and their information.)

Power's "Early Settlers of Sangamon County" from 1876,
and the 1881 Sangamon County history, rich sources
for these and other families. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Big Week

Several times over the years, something good happened to me but also, thereby, several things in my life fell into place and I discerned God’s guidance over a period of time. Prior to the time when the blessing came, I struggled and felt badly that things aren’t going well. Likely, I also felt hurt about some aspect of the situation. Then when the blessing came, it occurred in a way so interestingly timed that I could affirm God’s providence---and, likely, a divine sense of humor.

This happened to me again this past week, after I’ve struggled with feelings of spiritual dryness and low-level discouragement for quite a while. (Some of my blog posts over the last couple years refer to these feelings, more than I realized.) I wish I could say that, from now on, I’ll trust God more consistently. At least I know the limits of my trust, confess my weakness to God, and continue to pursue spiritual disciplines while I’m feeling badly.

I’m being a little hard on myself, because part of my struggles stemmed from the deaths of my mother and my wife’s mother within a fourteen month period in 2012 and 2013. That pain will be ongoing. But still, I’m happy when “God’s serendipity” becomes clear, in my life and family members'  and friends’ lives.

This past week, I also got good medical tests results in response to a health scare. I'd had one symptom from a routine blood test, which was likely nothing but could have indicated something serious. My doctor wanted to be sure, so we did more tests. Now I have a clean bill of health. But, of course, this whole situation required four or five weeks to make appointments, get the tests done, and worst of all, to wait for the test results. One's mind spins crazy, "what if" scenarios.

While not secret, I never put all this on Facebook, because I’ve friends who really do have serious health problems, whereas I was only mired in worry. The tricky thing about praising God for blessings is that, just as life is unfair for everyone but in different ways, so blessings and answered prayers don't happen the same way for each person, and that can cause sad feelings. I wanted to affirm God's goodness in public yet I didn't want to imply that God isn't good to my friends who are undergoing treatment.

When the possibility of a health situation arises, a person does think seriously: what if this is truly serious? We all have to face those situations, sooner or later; maybe this is the time. If so, a lot of life will change, both for ourselves but also our families.

I always love the story of the Ebenezer in 1 Samuel 7. The Philistines had defeated the Israelites years before in the same place (1 Samuel 4), but in this battle the Israelites prevailed. “Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah, and named it Ebenezer; for he said, ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us’” (1 Sam. 7:14). (That Hebrew term אבן העזר, transliterated "Eben ha-Ezer," means "stone of help").

I believe God helps us constantly and continually. We can’t always see it. Some people face situations in which it’s very difficult to see divine presence: the situation is just uniformly awful. But what a blessing when the light pops through the dark clouds and we get a sense of the divine presence. Then that blessing becomes a reminder to which we can look back, like a permanent indicator of God's help, and hopefully we can feel confident again.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Gott sei Dank, es ist Freitag

When I took German in college, way back in 1976 and 1977, that phrase "Thank God it's Friday" was the first thing we learned, which I think is funny. The prof wanted to break the ice with us, I suppose.

Sometimes I refer to that class to my own college classes. While our prof was very good, he tended to keep teaching after the designated end of the class. He wanted to finish his point, but the rest of us were putting our books away so we could get to the next class. I tell my own students about this, because I always end class on time, knowing that any more teaching that I'll do past "quitting time" won't be heard.

Sometimes I also refer to another college course, which I liked a lot less. It met three days a week in the mid-afternoon (3 to 4, I think), and that Friday afternoon class was hard to get to. Motivation to learn was low, so close to the school week's end. I grumbled that the prof took attendance, but now I see that the prof was smart to do that. Otherwise, since the course wasn't so compelling, the students might skip the Friday class.

Writing all this makes me look forward to teaching. The semester starts a month from today. Usually I have a period during the summer when I'm happy not to be teaching so that I've more time for other projects, but then by August I look forward to the semester again. This summer, though, I've consistently looked forward to the fall semester.

I've quoted this passage on this blog before. It's from Gloria Durka, The Teacher's Calling: A Spirituality for Those Who Teach (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2002), page 57, emphasis in text:

"Everything we do as teachers has moral implications. Through dialogue, modeling, practice and the assignment of best motive, a caring teacher nurtures the ethical idea. What we reflect to our students contributes to the enhancement of that ideal if we meet our students as they are and find something admirable in them. As a result of this confirmation, our students may find the strength to become even more admirable. We leave them with an image that is lovelier than the one they had of themselves. We do not need to establish a deep, lasting, time-consuming personal relationship with every student. What we must do is to be present to each student as she or he addresses us.

"In sum, to teach morally, we need to care."

In just a month, I'll be happy to meet a new group of students! Only one of my courses meets on Friday---and in the morning, "Gott sei Dank"!  

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Beloved Inner Joy: Bach's Cantatas for the 6th Sunday after Trinity

Onward to Bach’s cantatas for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, this coming Sunday. After this weekend, there are just 17 weeks in the liturgical year. Advent will begin before we know it!   

Bach's grave at St. Thomas' Church,
Leipzig (from
There are two surviving cantatas for this Sixth Sunday: “Es ist das Heil uns kommen her” (BWV 9, “Salvation has come to us”), and “Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust” (BWV 170, “Contented rest, beloved inner joy”). Included on the CD (#32) is a motet attributed to Bach, “Der Gerechte kommt um” (“The righteous perish”). The photo is of an older woman in Llasa, Tibet.

In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner comments that, in BWV 9, Bach and his text provide “a narrative thread between reflections on the Law, man’s puny attempts to give up the ‘bad habit’ of sin (‘der Sünden Unart zu verlassen’) (No.2), his need for salvation and justification by faith (No.4), and the power of the Gospel to strengthen that faith, and finally his reliance on God to determine the hour of his death (No.6).” All the recitatives are sung by the bass, in order to provide continuity to this narrative thread. Gardiner describes in some detail how Bach takes serious and somewhat abstract theological subjects and writes in a way that is comforting to the listening and even “fun-loving” in his musical inventiveness.

For BWV 170, “Bach is searching for ways to insist on spiritual peace as the goal of life, and for patterns that will allow him to make passing references to sin and physical frailty.” The mood of the cantata, to me, is peaceful but pensive until the cheerful alto aria at the end. The text by Georg Christian Lehms uses the two lessons, Matt. 5:20-27 and Romn. 6:3-11, to depict the sinful, difficult world and the protection of Christ. Christ’s love, in turn, provides peace and joy and (a theme in both cantatas) a longing for Heaven’s rest. The thought of Heaven, in fact, gives us peace as we struggle through sin and difficulty.

I am dismayed to live further,
thus accept me, Jesus!
I cower before all sins,
let me find that dwelling place
where I myself am at peace.

The narrative thread of the first cantata, following our ordo salutis, the pattern of our salvation, may be abstract, but it is also the reality of our lives. The triune God's work on our behalf is the reality on which we place our trust and have confidence in our destiny. But we don't always feel deeply that reality; we're too weak, distracted, forgetful, sunk into our everyday pressures and regrets. How wonderful that Bach used his abilities to place that salvation-drama into music, to help people rely upon and trust the Lord. 

This summer I had a health scare, which I'll write about later. It was not an illness, it was one symptom that required a diagnostic test. But that meant a period of tremendous anxiety as I awaited test results. Now, with that worrisome time just past, I listened to BWV 170 with new interest. 

I am confident in my salvation, which means that I'm humble, happy, and relieved in God's vast love and mercy. I really do believe that, if I was facing certain and imminent death, I would be joyful to be soon with the Lord. But I'm also happy in my life which, right now, I've no desire to leave. So Bach's text, with its Weltschmertz and sorrow about sin, seems so different from the happiness and gratitude I feel about my life, loved ones, work, and daily pleasures.

As I say, I'll write more about this later. But I'm thinking about how we can look forward to Christ's promised rest while also loving the lives that we have. Actually, for me, music creates a kind of arc between this life and the life to come. Music helps me experience that "beloved inner joy" of the title. Bach did his work too well: wanting us to feel confident in God's salvation, he wrote music that makes me want to stick around this life as long as possible. 

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

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Those Franklins!

In our basement store room, my childhood stamp collection is stored in a box. I had fun with that hobby for a few ears, around when I was eleven or twelve. At that time, my parents and I shopped in the downtown St. Louis department stores, which now run together in my mind, but either Stix, Baer & Fuller or Famous Barr had a counter with collectible stamps for sale. Dad bought me an album and helped me pick out interesting stamps.

I liked then-recent stamps like the half-cent pictured here. In my album I had stamps of different amounts from a half-cent up to ten or twenty cents, and quite a few commemoratives. Dad was touched when he told me the story of the Four Chaplains, honored on a 1948 3-cent stamp. The half-cent had our founding father's balding, deep-eyed and placid expression familiar on the hundred-dollar bill.

Funny to think of the prices of things. A letter required a 5 cent stamp until 1968 when the price went up to 6 cents. When I was collecting, the first two U.S. stamps from 1847 were for sale for $50 and $125. Dad was generous with me but didn't want to spend that much money, and I don't blame him. At that time, $50 represented three or four major trips to the grocery store for our family of three. Today, if I wanted those 1847 stamps, they're each going for $500 and up on eBay. Now, that's also three or four major trips to the grocery! Get your Franklins ready.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Bread to the Hungry: Bach's Cantatas for the 1st and 2nd Sunday after Trinity

For the past nearly eight months, as part of a spiritual "journey" for the year, I’ve been listening to Bach’s sacred cantatas on the day (or more generally, the weekend) of the Sundays for which they were written. This is the big 56-CD set by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner; the cantatas were recorded as a "Bach Pilgrimage" during the 250th* anniversary year of Bach's death.

When my family and I were on vacation in June, I missed two Sundays and a special feast day (John the Baptist, which I discussed in yesterday’s post). I’m going to feel dissatisfied until I catch up, and so I’m listening to the cantatas for the First and Second Sundays after Trinity Sunday, which were June 22 and 29 this year. As it turns out, the two sets of cantatas have common themes.

Disc 27 has the cantatas for the first Sunday: “Die Elenden sollen essen” (BWV 75, “The meek shall eat”), “Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot” (BWV 39, “Deal thy bread to the hungry”), and “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort” (BWV 20, “O eternity, O word of thunder”).The CD photo is of a man from Ladakh, India. For the second Sunday (disc 28): “Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein” (BWV 2, “Ah, God, look down from heaven”), “Meine Seel erhebt den Herren” (BWV 10, “My soul magnifies the Lord”), and “Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes” (BWV 76, “The heavens declare the glory of God”). The cover photo is of a child from Kashmir.

Yesterday I mentioned that the Feast of John the Baptist creates a liturgical connection with the Annunciation in March and Christmas in December. Trinity Sunday marks the end of the first half of the Christian year in a lovely manner: we have worshipped Christ in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and at Pentecost we worshipped God the Holy Spirit who makes Christ forever present and loving in our lives. Concluding this portion of the liturgical year, we explicitly worship all three persons of the Trinity. We also transition to these Sundays after Pentecost (which will take us all the way to Advent) when we think about our Spirit-led Christian lives and how we can grow in the “fruit of the Spirit.” In the CD notes for the First Sunday cantatas, Gardiner notes that these are large-scale worships that build upon trinitarian themes. The three cantatas also are based on the Gospel lesson of Dives and Lazarus, so the music and texts consider good spiritual gifts: the love for other people that trumps the love for money.

Gardiner also writes that BWV 75 was Bach’s first cantata for Leipzig. Displaying his vast expertise in Bach, Gardiner comments that the score is even written on paper from Köthen, Bach's previous city.  The piece contrasts money and poverty, heaven and earth, the joy one finds in the Spirit instead of worldly accumulation. BWV 20, which is much more hellfire, focuses more upon God’s judgment toward those, like the coldhearted rich man of the Gospel lesson, who neglect God’s love and grace. BWV 39, which begins with a memorable and long chorus, has as its theme the need to care for the poor.

Moving to the Second Sunday after Trinity cantatas, I read in the CD notes that BWV 2 also has a theme of the plight of the poor, now within the overall context of the loneliness and affliction of the faithful. The biblical theme of refinement brightens the mood toward the end: suffering and persecution can, rightly understood, “purify” our faith as fire purifies precious metals. As obvious from its title, BWV 10 brings us back to Mary, whose Magnificat teaches the topsy-turvy priorities of God: the poor and lowly are exalted, the rich and powerful are not. Finally, BWV 76 reminds us of this mid-point in the liturgical year: as Gardiner writes, it is “the crossover from ‘the time of Christ’ (Advent to Ascension) to ‘the era of the church’ (the Trinity season dominated by the concerns of Christian believers living in the world without the physical presence of Christ but under the guidance of the Holy Spirit).” The conductor shows how the composer Heinrich Schütz (who wrote a motet with the same title: “Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes”) influenced Bach.

God's values challenge our values: the lowly and hurting are held in high esteem, while the successful and well-to-do risk losing their souls. It's hard not to think of people who are hurting in our current time: people on both sides of the Israel and Gaza conflict, immigrant children trying to get to and stay in the U.S., those who suffer amid the growing wealth disparity in the world, people are mourn the loss of loved ones on either or both of the Malaysian flights. How is God at work in our world? Where, indeed, is God, when tragedies are so great?

Matthew 25:31-46 answers the question "Where is God?" God, in God's triune fullness, is with the suffering and those in need. God calls us to be there, too. We ourselves may not be needful and meek, but we can stand beside those who are, and take their side.

The weeks after Pentecost are good times for us to freshly seek those spiritual gifts of love, kindness, generosity and others. As our hearts are changed, we respond with love and concern to those around us. That's always a small, good thing. We won't solve the world's big problems. But the love that we show---the way in which we seek to live according to God's priorities---can have an amazing reach.

(In the CD set, all English translations of Bach's texts are by Richard Stokes.)


* Out of curiosity, I looked up the word for "250th anniversary," and there really aren't terms as common as "bicentennial" and "sesquicentennial" that people would readily understand. Sestercentennial, semiquincentennial, bicenquinquagenary, and quarter-millennial are all possible terms. It seems easier just to say "250th anniversary."

Monday, July 21, 2014

Extol God's Love: Bach's Cantatas for the Feast of John the Baptist

Jacopo Pontormo, "The Birth of John the Baptist," 1526.  
While we were on vacation, I missed writing about Bach’s cantatas for the Feast of St. John the Baptist, which is June 24th. That date is three months after the Feast of the Annunciation, because in the Gospel story Gabriel told Mary that Elizabeth was six months pregnant with John, and also June 24th is six months before Christmas. As one source that I read indicates, the purpose is not to pinpoint exact dates but to interrelate these scriptural narratives in a liturgical way. This feast is also notable because it honors John’s birthday rather than (like nearly all other feast days) the day of the remembered person's death.

Bach wrote three cantatas for this day, “Ihr Menschen, rühmet Gottes Liebe” (BWV 167, “Ye mortals, extol God’s love”), “Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam” (BWV 7, “Christ our Lord came to the Jordan”), and “Freue dich, erlöste Schar” (BWV 30, “Rejoice, O ransomed throng”). The CD photo is of a smiling, bearded man from Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that in BWV 167, “[t]o illustrate the way prepared by John for Christ’s entry into the world (so fulfilling God’s ancient pledge), Bach inscribes a modulatory arc through the five movements of this cantata, curling downwards from G major via E minor to A minor, then up again to G.” A striking part of the cantata, which also considers Zechariah’s muteness and the pioneering quality of John’s ministry, is the duet between the alto and soprano in praise of God’s faithfulness.

The word of God does not deceive,
what He pledges, comes to pass.
What He promised in Paradise

so many hundreds of years ago

to our fathers,
 we have,
praise God, experienced.

Gardiner calls BWV 7 “is a monumental piece, especially its opening chorale fantasia, a stirring setting of Luther’s baptismal hymn with the melody in the tenors over a French overture for two oboes d’amore, solo violin and strings, replete with grandiloquent baroque gestures to suggest both the processional entrance of Jesus and the powerful flooding of the River Jordan.” In some sections the music depicts the movements of the water, in another the circling movements of the Holy Spirit dove above the waters. The text praises God for faithfulness to the ancient covenant with the ministry of John the Baptist and, now, the advent of the baptized Messiah. The final chorale:

The eye can only see the water, as humans pour it,

only Faith understands
the power of the blood of Jesus Christ,
and is before Him a sea of red,

coloured by the blood of Christ,

which heals well every wound

that Adam has bequeathed us,

and those that we ourselves committed.

(I think of a line from an old hymn: "There is a fountain/drawn from Emmanuel's veins/and sinners plunged beneath that flood/lose all their guilty stains." That hymn, though, doesn't interrelate the blood of Christ with the baptismal waters of the Jordan, which is a striking image here.)

BWV 30, writes Gardiner, is filled with interesting things that like syncopated rhythms and elements of dance that live up to the theme of praise and thanksgiving. It's a joy to listen to!

And even though inconstancy

is linked with weak mankind,

let this be said here and now:

For as often as day dawns,

for as often as one day follows another,
so long shall I live, resolute and firm,
my God, through Thy spirit
for Thy sole glory.

It's helpful to me to think about John the Baptist at this mid-summer point (a month after his feast day). We think of him as a witness to Christ, a preacher of repentance who was startled at Jesus' request to be baptized by him. He was a witness both as a preacher and prophetic sign but also as one who died for his faith. In Bach's texts and music, John is praised as an sign and fulfillment of God's faithfulness. Amid the post-exilic faith of Israel, John appeared as God's malak (messenger), Isaiah's voice in the wilderness who prepares for and announces the Christ.

The New Testament teaches the fulfillment of the Old Testament in the life and work of Christ. It can be difficult today to talk about fulfillment in ways that aren't at least implicitly anti-Jewish. Today, were liable to forget the fact that the New Testament authors were nearly all Jews writing about their own tradition. I am against Christian supersessionist theology: the belief that Christianity has superseded and replaced Judaism. But we have to take care to understand the scriptures in their historical situation.

For the New Testament authors, the advent of John the Baptist and then Jesus were occasions for rejoicing in the fulfillment of God's promises to Israel. The apostle Paul doesn't mention John in his letters, but Paul understood this fulfillment as an opening up of amazing blessings for Gentiles who otherwise wouldn't know the true God, the God of Israel. In Bach's music, John becomes a picture of reassurance for the struggling person: God is always loving and faithful. God always calls to us and gives us a chance.

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

Saturday, July 19, 2014

"Twelve Great Sayings of the Mystics"

The other day on this blog, I thought about Thomas Jefferson’s passion for book collecting. This past week I’ve been thinning my library so that I can have more shelf space, room for new discoveries. I keep books that I’ll continue to use, and others that have personal value or are collectible.

When I was a divinity school student in 1979-1982, I loved to drive out into the Connecticut countryside and shop at Whitlock’s Book Barn. They still operate and have this site. I've a few books purchased there, and likely I'll never donate them because they remind me of those trips that made me happy amid the stresses and difficulties of student life. (Generally speaking, theological books published in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s feel assuring to me. They were recent books at the time of my degree program, and something about the fonts and jacket design speak to me of that era of theological discussion. D. M. Baillie's God Was In Christ from 1948 is one such book, and also the 1950s Laymen's Library series.)

Sorting my books, I rediscovered these and another favorite, Twelve Great Sayings of the Mystics by W. Mauleverer, M.A., published by Arthur James, LTD in 1955. I bought it at Whitlock’s in 1980 or 1981 for 50 cents and, whenever I notice it again on my shelves, I love to look at it. It gave me such basic hope and happiness while I was trying to figure out God’s will and direction for my young life. I can’t find much about Mr. Mauleverer online, except that his first name was Wyons--Wyons Marmaduke Mauleverer--and he wrote a few other religious books. As I've written elsewhere, you never know how far your influence spreads.

Mauleverer writes in the introduction that he enjoys reading books of the Christian tradition and collects sayings that particularly speak to him. In this short book, he shares his favorite sayings and reflects upon their meaning. The sayings are:

“O God, Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.” (Augustine)

“By love may He be gotten and holden; but by thought never.” (The Cloud of Unknowing)

“The sun meets not the springing bud that stretches toward him with half the certainty as God, the source of all good, communicates Hismelf to the soul that longs to partake of Him.” (William Law)

“God WILL HAVE righteousness.” (George Macdonald)

“His love is single, but not private; alone, yet not solitary; shared, but not divided; ... growing no less by sharing, failing not through use, nor growing old by time.” (Hugh of St. Victor)

“Pay your debt. Love the Love that ever loves you.” (Jan Van Ruysbroeck)

“LIft up thy heart to God with a meek stirring of love, and mean Himself and none of His goods.” (The Cloud of Unknowing)

“I am nought; I have nought; I covet nought but One.” (Walter Hilton)

“Let God act.” (François de Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon)

“I would fain be to the Eternal Goodness what his own hand is to a man.” (Theologia Germanica)

“Well! my poor heart, here we are, fallen into the ditch which we had made so firm a resolution to avoid.” (Francis de Sales)

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” (Julian of Norwich)

Friday, July 18, 2014

God Will Have Us Searched For: Bach's Cantatas for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity

Here are four cantatas for this weekend, one (BWV 71) which was on CD 30 from last week, and the other three on CD 31. Conductor John Eliot Gardiner includes this cantata (“Gott ist mein König”, “God is my King”) and “Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir” (BWV 131, “Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord”) with the two Fifth Sunday after Trinity cantatas, “Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten” (BWV 93, “If you but permit the Lord to prevail”), and “Siehe, ich will viel Fischer aussenden” (BWV 88, “Behold, I will send for many fishers”). The CD photo is of a wide-eyed young man from Bamiyan, Afghanistan.

The cantatas 71 and 131 come from his single year when the 22 year old Bach worked at Mühlhausen in his second professional post (June 1707 to 1708). From there he went to Weimar and later Leipzig, but Gardiner notes that at Mühlhausen Bach committed himself to write “a regulated or orderly church music to the glory of God.” BWV 131 is a penitential piece using Psalm 130, but Gardiner writes that Bach avoided simple stylistic devices and instead conveyed the emotions of the psalm and the occasion in genuine and moving ways, harkening back to works by Heinrich Schütz and Johann Christoph Bach. BWV 71, in turn, is a piece for the Mühlhausen town council elections. Gardiner writes that the piece is “laid out on such a grand scale in terms of its deployment of four separate instrumental ‘choirs’, set against a vocal consort of four singers, an optional Capelle of ripienists and an organ.”

Of the two Fifth Sunday after Trinity cantatas, Bach uses for BWV 93 the 1641 hymn by George Neumark, “Wer nun den lieben Gott lässt walten”. Gardiner discusses how Bach uses a “catechismal question-and-answer formula” to structure the cantata. The text raises anxieties about God’s mercy and patience toward us, and then responds with affirmations about God’s blessings and favor, even to the point of searching for us when we’ve left the true path.

BWV 88 also has the structure of anxiety and fear answered by God’s mercy and love. The cantata’s text is Jeremiah 16:16, wherein God send out search parties of hunters and fishermen to gather God’s people. Then in the second part, the text brings in the Gospel lesson where Jesus calls Peter the fisherman, providing a new context for the Jeremiah text.

The conductor writes, “[I]t is perhaps an early example of that ‘dialectic of modernity’ to which scholars are so partial: Bach’s way of cultivating memory on the part of his listeners."

No, God is always eager
that we be on the right path,
sheltered by the light of His grace.
Yea, whenever we have strayed
and abandoned the proper path,
He will even have us searched for.

As I listen to and think about Bach's works this week, what strikes me is the observation that Bach gained his lasting sense of purpose at Mühlhausen. This site gives more information about his brief but significant time there. Even though Bach's months there were not altogether satisfactory, his work there began a long-time commitment.

Is there a place in your life that is that kind of place for you? Do you look back to a location or situation where you felt a commitment to something significant in your life? Where did you commit yourself to something for the glory of God?

If you have such a place, it can be a spiritual anchor for you, as you look back on your life and discern God's guidance across the years, "sheltered by the light of His grace". (To change the metaphor, you can think of such a place as the one where God set your compass and thereafter you knew where to go.) In turn, you can gain confidence in God's eagerness to search for us, keep us, and steer us.

(According to the CD notes, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Sir John Templeton

During the 1990s, I made many trips from Louisville, KY to southern Illinois to visit my elderly parents. A favorite road trip break was the antique mall at Burnt Prairie, IL (exit 117 off I-64). No longer traveling that part of the highway, I hadn’t visited the mall for several years. But we finally passed that way again recently and stopped by. Browsing the shop, I was pleased to discover Robert L. Herrmann’s Sir John Templeton: From Wall Street to Humility Theology (Templeton Foundation Press, 1998). Somewhat aware of the foundation's work, I plan to read more of the book in the weeks ahead.

John Templeton (1912-2008) grew up in Tennessee, attended Yale and (as a Rhodes Scholar) Oxford. Shrewd and pioneering in his investments, he became a billionaire. But he was also a noted philanthropist. Among the results of his generosity are the John Templeton Foundation and the Templeton Prize for Progress toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities. The foundation supports and funds efforts to explore “into the laws of nature and the universe, to questions on the nature of love, gratitude, forgiveness, and creativity." (See their website, The Templeton Press publishes scholarly and trade books in four core areas: Science and the Big Questions, The Virtues, Health and Spirituality, and Freedom and Free Enterprise.

Herrmann interweaves the man’s business and financial successes with accounts of his philanthropy and his spiritual interests. He describes Templeton’s hope to encourage religion-science interaction and to gain ongoing knowledge of spiritual information. Templeton points out that science, technology, and economy have made tremendous advancements in our contemporary time, but he believes also that human beings progress in our spiritual nature. Unfortunately, he argues, egotism in religion has impeded our progress in our knowledge of God and spirituality and hampers a humble quest for an increase in spiritual information. Thus, part of Templeton’s work has been also to encourage a "humility theology." Humility to God should result in an appreciation of learning and an eagerness to advance our spiritual and religious knowledge, just as we progress scientifically and economically. (See, for instance, Templeton's 2000 book, titled Possibilities for Over One Hundredfold More Spiritual Information: The Humble Approach to Theology and Science.)

Herrmann's book is no longer in print but copies are available at used book sites.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Thomas Jefferson's Books

Years ago, a clergy colleague exclaimed, “I just don’t understand how people get into credit card debt.” Well, Sherlock, it’s easy: you’re having financial difficulties, possibly through circumstances beyond your control, and you still need to buy things. Some of those things you need---like professional clothes for your work---and some things brighten your day and ease your worries, like books. Spending beyond your resources may not be admirable, but it should be easy to understand why it happens.

Thomas Jefferson had a lot of debt, well over a $1 million in today’s money. (The figure when he died in 1826 was $107,000.) He was wealthy in property (sadly, including slaves), but farming brought an inadequate income, plus he had inherited his father-in-law’s debts, was forced to take on a deceased friend’s unpaid debt, and others owed him money. Adding to these and other factors, he loved buying wine, working on his large home, and furnishing it. He spent beyond his means and resources. He also loved books and bought them by the hundreds throughout his life. Famously, he sold his library of over 6700 volumes to Congress after the British burned the Capitol in 1814, destroying the congressional library. Then, Jefferson bought more books, just as he did when his first library was destroyed when his childhood home burned in 1770. When you understand Jefferson's passion for learning and studying, it's easy to understand his passionate acquisition.

When my family and I visited Monticello this summer---the first time ever for my daughter, and the first time in many years for my wife and me---I picked up a monograph in the gift shop, Jefferson’s Books by Douglas L. Wilson. I already admired Wilson’s 1998 book Honor’s Voice about Lincoln’s early years.

Jefferson is such a fascinating, perplexing person to study, and if you love having books, reading about Jefferson’s bookbuying is actually kind of thrilling! It made me so happy to read about Jefferson's drive to collect books. He craved knowledge and he also wanted to build a really comprehensive library that would serve “the public weal” (p. 45). One of his slaves remembered that Jefferson would have open books laid out around the floor (p. 28). Wilson recounts how Jefferson wanted to keep abreast of agricultural techniques, to preserve legal information, to collect material on Native Americans, and many other subjects. In fact, in 1783 Jefferson developed a complex classification table “classed from the Faculties of the mind,” and organized his books, which included history, religion, agriculture, chemistry, surgery and medicine, zoology, botany, minerology, law, mathematics and geometry, physics, and other sciences, as well as gardening, the arts, music, poetry, oratory, and criticism (pp. 37-41).

He sold his many books to Congress for $23,950 in 1815. Wilson notes that about a third of Jefferson’s donation survived an 1851 Capitol fire, but his contribution became the nucleus of “a great national library, one of the finest and most accessible in the world” (p. 52). After his major library was shipped to Congress, he continued to buy books for his “retirement library,” reflecting his current interests. Although Monticello and his contents were sold after his death, the house has several of Jefferson’s books on display.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Time Since the Arab Spring

Browsing an airport shop this past weekend, I picked up the July 5-11, 2014 issue of The Economist. The cover story, “The Tragedy of the Arabs” caught my eye. The issue contains some respectful, interesting articles about the Middle East. When I teach Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, my class and I often think about current events in the Middle East, not just Jews, Arab Christians, and Arab Muslims, but other groups as well.

The author of the cover story writes, “A thousand years ago, the great cities of Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo took turns to race ahead of the Western world. Islam and innovation were twins. The various Arab caliphates were dynamic superpowers---beacons of learning, tolerance and trade” (p. 9). But today, war, despotism, and religious extremism plague different countries of the region, and the “Arab spring” has not lead to charge. The article discusses several aspects of the interrelated troubles faced by Arab nations. But the values of “pluralism, education, [and] open markets” of the past could “still make up a vision of a better future” (p. 10).

Another article, “Tethered by history” (pp. 20-22) considers the legacy of the democratic movements of a few years ago and similarly considers the interrelated problems and challenges in different areas of the region, from the despair of Syria and Iraq to the economic opportunities of the Gulf monarchies.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Monsanto and GMOs

Browsing an airport store the other day, I bought a copy of the July 7-13, 2014 Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, with a cover story by Drake Bennett about Monsanto and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and GM foods. Bennett noted that a Harris Poll puts Monstanto’s reputation near the bottom of companies, just above BP and Bank of America. The company has a reputation for suing organic farmers. (The claim is exaggerated, as it turns out, although the company is very vigilant about “seed piracy”: of the 250,000 farmers who buy Monsanto seeds, only 145 have been sued, and those were farmers who tried to use the seeds without paying the extra costs. See the article, pp. 54, 57, and here.) Other false rumors include the supposed merger of Monsanto with a private military contractor, and the supposed development of a gene that makes plants sterile (p. 54).

The company is a very profitable one, however, its stock market value is high, and its products are widely used. Bennett cites the Department of Agriculture that 93% of American soybeans planted last year, and 90% of the cotton and corn, were genetically modified (p. 54). In the last twenty years, GM plantings were in nearly 700,000 square miles around the world (see the interesting charge concerning different foods and plans on page 56, and here). Several studies have determined that GM foods are not unsafe for consumption (pp. 54-55). The term “genetic engineering” has connotations, writes Bennett, of work “that plant science has not yet attained. Mostly, the process involves taking bits of genetic material, inserting them into the DNA of a seed, seeing what sort of plant results, and repeating the process thousands of times until something happens (p. 57).

Bennett's article is an interesting place to learn about Monsanto’s work, the popular anxieties about GMOs, the challenge of global food production, and related topics of sustainability and health.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Belial's Brood: Bach's Cantatas for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity

from Eric Whitacre's
Facebook page 
My "journey" through Bach's sacred cantatas continues. … This coming Sunday is the Fourth Sunday after Trinity Sunday. The cantatas for this day are: “Ein ungefärbt Gemüte” (BWV 24, “An unstained mind"), "Barmherziges Herze der ewigen Liebe” (BWV 185, “Merciful heart of love everlasting”), “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” (BWV 177, “I call to thee, Lord Jesus Christ”). This is CD 30 of the set; the photo is of a young man in Haridwar, India. One more cantata on this CD is for next Sunday.

Conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes in the CD notes, “Whatever one’s own beliefs, how can one doubt that a sense of God’s grace was manifest to Bach in all the music he was composing, rehearsing and performing – always assuming that it was done in the spirit of devotion? Christoph Wolff refers to Bach’s ‘never-ending musical empiricism, which deliberately tied theoretical knowledge to practical experience’, and suggests that his compositions ‘as the exceedingly careful elaborations that they are, may epitomise nothing less than the difficult task of finding for himself an argument for the existence of God – perhaps the ultimate goal of his musical science’ (J S Bach, The Learned Musician)."

The text for BWV 24 is Luke 6:24-30, “judge not that you be not judged.” The text and music take up the themes of hypocrisy and honesty, which he are also themes of his Fourth Sunday of Advent cantatas. For instance, here in 24, Bach uses strings and a bass accompagnato to make a strong point about hypocrisy, which he follows by gentler measures for the tenor and oboe for penitential and then pastoral effect.

is a brood concocted by Belial.
Those who wear that mask

dress in the devil’s livery.

What? Do Christians

covet such things too?

Alas! Honesty is difficult to achieve.

Although the text beseeches God for a clear conscious, the cantata's more pastoral atmosphere is much less sorrowfully penitential than the previous Sunday’s cantatas.

Let constancy and truth
be the base of all your thoughts,

may the words of your mouth

be the thoughts of your heart.
Being good and virtuous
makes us like God and angels.

In the CD notes, Gardiner explains in some detail how, in BWV 185, Bach took a comparatively uninspired text that paraphrases the same Gospel lesson and took it to beautiful places.

Forgive, and you shall be forgiven;

give in good measure during this life;

store up a capital
which there one day

God shall repay with ample interest;

for with the same measure that ye mete withal,

it shall be measured to you again.

BWV 177, meanwhile, contains no recitatives but is a setting of a Johann Agricola hymn. Gardiner writes about the way Bach opens with concertino violin and two oboes, then full strings, then he introduces three lower voices to create a penitential effect. The arias are contrasted with moments in turn happy, poignant, and anxious.

Grant that I, from the depths of my heart,
may forgive my enemies,

forgive me also at this hour,

give me a new life;
let Thy Word always be the food
with which to nourish my soul, and defend me

when misfortune draws nigh

and threatens to sweep me away.

What is the difference between hypocrisy and inconsistency in one's faith? To me, hypocrisy denotes intentional falseness and dishonesty, while inconsistency denotes human weakness. I've known lots and lots of people who, like me, aren't consistent in their faith, but I would hate to be judgmental and call even the most obnoxious among them "hypocrites." Like me, they may have just been immature and poorly self-aware, saddled with personality traits and weaknesses not yet matured through the Spirit. We pray for constancy and truth, goodness and virtue, and a consistent faith.

I wonder if a really consistent kind of faith is something like what Christoph Wolff (above) writes: an ongoing effort to draw closer to God and to increase in the understanding of God. In our faith pilgrimage, we seek to "argue" so to speak for the existence of God, in the sense that we grow in faith in a God in whom we, through our experiences, trust----but also, we hope to prove God's existence to others, not only through our words but also the authenticity of our struggles and the honesty with which we live our faith.

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

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

"Gaslight Square Illuminated"

In yesterday’s post, I thought about abandoned buildings and urban landscapes. That reminded me of a book that’s been on my “to-read” pile.

When I was a kid, my parents were avid antiques collectors. Though I was bored at the time, I remember fondly the trips we made around central and southern Illinois antiques stores, looking for treasures.

When I was 12 or 13, in 1969 or 1970, we visited Gaslight Square in St. Louis. St. Louis was "our" big city to visit, just seventy miles away. My folks had heard about the antiques stores at the square. I’m not sure they had ever been there, or whether they had visited the place years before. But the square had an unmistakably run-down feeling, not Victorian-quaint as Mom and Dad had expected, and sloppy-looking hippies sat around on walls and benches. One clerk offended us: I was interested in an old book on Russia, for a school report, and he responded, “Oh, that’s too advanced for you,” and then quoted a $10 price. At the time it was probably worth a dollar or two. All around, a disappointing trip.

After twenty-five years of living around the country, we live in St. Louis now, and I enjoy revisiting places my parents and I knew years ago (although I’m still too acrophobic to go up into the Arch). Today, the old Gaslight Square buildings are all gone and the area has been renewed with condominiums and other places, as shown at this interesting website:

But Gaslight Square had once been a special place, and I was happy to purchase the book to which I referred: Gaslight Square Illuminated: The Rise & Fall of St. Louis' Premier "Hot Spot" by Rich Fuegner an David Roth (St. Louis: Virginia Publishing Co., 2010).

Gaslight Square is/was the area around Olive and Boyle Street in St. Louis. Today this area is on the eastern side of the flourishing Central West End and is near the also-flourishing Grand Center theatre and arts district. The area got its name from the Victorian style buildings and the gas lit street lamps. Not only antique stores but restaurants, dancing places, clubs, and theatres characterized Gaslight Square in the 1950s. The roster of entertainers who performed there include Barbra Streisand, Jackie Mason, Phyllis Diller, the Smothers Brothers, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and others, as well as noted jazz musicians like Miles Davis. In the 1960s, the square became somewhat more counterculture, visited by writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

A 1959 tornado devastated the Central West End, but the square recovered, and property values were very high in the early 1960s. "White flight" to the suburbs and urban difficulties proved more devastating than a tornado, beginning in the mid 1960s. Two murders in the square in 1964-1965, followed by reports of other crimes in the area, gave the square a scary reputation that it ultimately could not overcome, although crime in the square itself was lower than in nearby neighborhoods. People were fearful of coming. Over time, businesses closed, and efforts at redevelopment and rejuvenation of the area were unsuccessful. My parents and I unwittingly visited the square in this time of decline. Eventually, buildings grew more ramshackle and were razed.

Feugner and Roth's book gives many interesting details of the square, of individual businesses, a map of "hot spots," and information about both the glory days and the years of decline. Many black and white photos and a collection of color photos in the book's center give a wonderful sense of the square's  vitality. Today, the pillars that had once been part of Smoky Joe's Grecian Terrace are all that remain and form part of a memorial to the square.

Here is another site that provides vintage photographs of the square:


After I posted this review, a friend on Facebook alerted me to a local PBS feature on Gaslight Square:

Monday, July 7, 2014

Tong Lam's "Abandoned Futures"

Recently I came across the term “ruin porn” in a New York Times article. I know this kind of non-erotic but addictive pleasure: the fascination with decrepit buildings and ugly landscapes. In fact, when I was a little boy, I loved the sign of automobile “junk yards” along highways as my parents and I traveled. (My parents dashed my fascination by reminding me that each wrecked car represents someone injured or killed.) I’ve also recently discovered the concept of urban exploration, or Urbex, the practice of discovering and documenting places that are in decline or abandoned, or unseen because they’re part of the urban infrastructure.

I’ve written about abandoned landscapes in a short post here: The other day, as my daughter and I browsed the local Art Mart, I discovered among the book selection a new book by Tong Lam, Abandoned Futures (Carpet Bombing Culture, 2013).

Lam is a visual artist and historian who, according to his website, uses cinematographic and photographic techniques “to explore and document industrial and postindustrial ruins from around the world, as well as China's hysterical transformation.” He researches “modern and contemporary China and East Asia, technoscience, media and spectacle, ruins, colonialism, and nationalism.” He is an associate professor of history at the University of Toronto. His websites are and

This interesting book captures a variety of abandoned and decaying landcapes. As the blurb on Amazon indicates, the despairing and apocalyptic images do contain hope, in the way trees and other flora return to the human-built scenes and begin to thrive.

I hate to use the word “haunting,” which seems overused, but it’s the word that comes to mind as I leaf through Lam’s photographs: futuristic UFO-shaped vacation homes in Taiwan, a factory, the abandoned island-city Hashima in southern Japan (used in the James Bond movie Skyfall, a “non-place” of thousands of discarded cars and vehicles in the Mojave Desert, buildings in ruined sections of Detroit, an empty carnival, a closed Bible college and seminary in southern Arizona, and others.

Lam’s commentary is important and thought-provoking, and should be taken to heart. For instance, he writes, “in many liberal democracies, government deficits and the retreat of the welfare state have resulted in service cuts and hospital closures...the most curious type of medical ruins are those highly specialized facilities that are suddenly rendered irrelevant as a result of paradigm shifts in medical science.” (The book has no page numbers; this is from chapter 9, “Maximizing Life”). Other kinds of ruins happen because they were made cheaply with no intention of long lives, and so buildings are discarded sometimes before they were completed; consequently, decline happens not over centuries but in a few decades or a few years (chapter 1, “Time Speeds Up”).

“Financial capital may be abstract, but the ruins it created are real. From the Global North to the Global South, the tsunami of financial capitalism sweeps away job security and certainties, destroying cities and lives... it turns out that Capitalism 2.0 has not gotten any smarter” (chapter 8, “Bubbles”).

"The Way"

I inherited my father's interest in highways and their locations. During our vacation this summer, we were in Chattanooga, driving U.S. 27 around the area of Lookout Mountain and the downtown. But route 27 also goes through Richmond, Indiana, where we often stop for the night when we have a long trip on Interstate 70. Not too long ago I'd stood barefoot in line at the Dairy Queen in Richmond to get a cone before I retired to the motel for the night. Earlier in our vacation, passing through Virginia's Richmond, I noticed an exit for U.S. 33 and felt curious, because I knew that 33 went through Columbus, OH. Looking at a map, I hadn't realized that 33 has a very diagonal route.

I always liked the early name for Christianity found in the book of Acts, "The Way." I wonder if the name "Christian" can be used like a proud label, an indication that you're better than other people, or that you hold to some political or social position that's "right" (never mind the variety of such positions that we find among Christians). "The Way" sounds more like we're in process (which we all are), still devoted to God (like the term used in the Qur'an, "the straight path"), but on the route that God has shown us. We know we're imperfect, needy, and not yet at our destination, but we're oriented (and led) in the right direction.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Faces of the Crowds

On vacation these past two weeks, we visited places filled with people: two aquariums, a renowned zoo, and towns that are popular tourist destinations.

I don't like crowds and walk through them in a kind of defensive daze. I don't often look up at people's faces, let alone feel inspired by them as did Ezra Pound in his famous poem "In a Station of the Metro."

But I thought about that: when I do look at people's faces (without trying to make eye contact), I wonder how the people are doing, what are their experiences, whether or not they're happy, what kind of understanding they have of God.

John 9 is a famous story of Jesus healing the blind man. The crowd’s reaction is interesting. “‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some said, ‘It is he’; other said, ‘No, but he is like him’” (John 9:8-9). People had seen the man every day as a beggar. But even granting that miracles elicit incredulity, some of the people had not, apparently, paid enough attention to him to know. (A similar story is the man in Acts 3 who seeks financial help, but apparently he is accustomed to people treating him anonymously, for Peter and John told him, “Look at us.”)

Crowds of people in tourist destinations are, necessarily, anonymous to us. But still we can occasionally look up, look at people, and long for their well being. I love this quote by Oswald Chambers: “The real business of your life as a saved soul is intercessory prayer. Wherever God puts you in circumstances, pray immediately, pray that His Atonement may be realized in other lives as it has been in yours. Pray for your friends now; pray for those with who you come in contact now.”

Saturday, July 5, 2014

A Deeply Troubled Heart: Bach's Cantatas for the Third Sunday after Trinity

In June I faced the pleasant but enormous task of preparing and submitting a manuscript to publishers. (Anyone who has done that knows what I mean. The proof-reading, revising, and re-proof-reading seem to go on indefinitely, and one feels badly about performing other tasks until it’s finished.) Then my family and I went on a driving vacation of over 2500 miles. Not being able to spread myself so thin as I did when I was younger, I put my traversal of Bach’s cantatas on hold until now. So I’ve missed the first and second Sundays after Trinity and also the Feast of John the Baptist, but I’ll catch up with those before the summer’s over.

As I've written before, these posts represent a year-long "spiritual journey" through Bach's extant sacred cantatas, performed by the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner, and available on a 56-CD set from I'm now over halfway through the cantatas, and thus halfway through the Christian liturgical year.

There are two cantatas for the third Sunday after Trinity (disc 29 on this set): “Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis” (BWV 21, “My heart was deeply troubled”) and “Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder” (BWV 135, “O Lord, do not punish a poor sinner”). Conductor John Eliot Gardiner rounds out this concert (CD 29 on the 56-CD set) with Bach’s BWV 1044 concerto for flute, violin, and harpsichord. The cover photo is of a young woman from Omo Valley, Ethiopia.

In the CD notes, Gardiner comments that he has always considered BWV 21 as one of Bach’s “most extraordinary and inspired” vocal works. From the beginning it has a “poignancy” and “pathos” that continue as the difficulties and struggles of the sinner-believer are depicted. Gardiner writes in detail of Bach’s many beautiful and skillful ways of depicting the longing for salvation.

What use to us are these heavy sorrows,
what use is all this grief and woe?

What use, that we each morning

bewail our hardship?
We only increase our cross and pain
through our unhappiness....

Rejoice, my soul, rejoice, my heart,
give way, sorrows; vanish, pain!
Transform yourself, tears, into pure wine,
my moaning shall turn to cries of joy!
The purest candle of love and comfort burns
and flames in my soul and heart,
for Jesus consoles me with heavenly joy.

BWV 135 is a shorter cantata that contrasts well with 21. The instruments that begin the piece provide “a slow, ritualistic portrayal of a penitential sinner seeking reprieve and is deeply affecting.” All the texts focus upon the believer’s struggles with temption, sin, and anguish at separation from God, but like the penitential Psalms, the cantata ends with words of joy at God’s salvation and compassion.

After tears and after weeping
[Jesus] makes the sun of joy to shine again;
this gloomy weather changes now,
suddenly our enemies must fall
and their arrows recoil against them.

Musically, though, 21 concludes with fairly joyous music, which 135 ends with the pensive tune used in the hymn "O Sacred Head Now Wounded," and which Bach uses in the St. Matthew Passion.

Both cantatas are deeply penitential, occupying the same theological world as psalms like 51. One of my "best friends forever" reminds me that I'm hard on myself and give myself insufficient credit for things. I wonder if those of us who err on the self-doubting side are often in the "penitential" mode because we will approach God feeling poorly about ourselves and our best efforts. The  spontaneous mental prayers that I offer throughout the day happen from a rather "blue" point of view: unsure of myself, I ask for God's kindness, for forgiveness for my weakness and typical struggles, for God's mercy for me and the people I know, for the power of the Spirit to use me and my "circle" and multiply the worth and range of our efforts (and I often feel that my efforts are inadequate).

Put that way, prayer and repentance may sound rather anxious and and depressed. It occurs to me that even very humble, penitential prayer (like those reflected in Bach's texts this weekend) should also have that element of joy, the way even the very sad psalms conclude on very upbeat, confident tones. We approach God for mercy, compassion and kindness, in a humble and contrite mood, because God will indeed show us those things, and in fact God's compassion and kindness toward us is beyond our comprehension and is utterly trustworthy. A regretful, uncertain inner attitude is joined with a considerable joy of living because of God's lovingkindness.

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