Saturday, August 30, 2014

Inwardly, Outwardly the Same: Bach's Cantatas for the 11th Sunday after Trinity

We’re up to the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, and a young man from Omo Valley, Ethiopia looks out from the CD picture on the next disc of Bach’s cantatas. These cantatas feature the Czech mezzo Magdalena Kožená.

The text of “Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut” (BWV 199, “My heart is bathed in blood”) is in the first person. Like some of Bach's other cantatas with a similar kind of text, the listener is thereby placed within the drama of salvation. The author of the CD notes writes: “The eight movements rehearse the stages of redemption: an acknowledgement of the abomination of sin, the discomfort of remorseful tears, a plea for mercy, a confession of guilt, the blessed relief of casting sins onto Christ, and the peace and joy of reconciliation with God.”

I, Thy afflicted child,
cast all my sins,
as many as there are in me
and which terrify me so,
into Thy deep wounds,
where I have always found salvation.

“Siehe zu, dass deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei” (BWV 179, “See to it that they fear of God be not hypocrisy”). We’ve heard other Bach cantatas in which the theme of hypocrisy before, and although Bach felt his calling to write cantatas to God’s glory was well fulfilled in Leipzig, he faced many difficulties in the city, including self-serving leaders and other difficult people. In the CD notes, we read, “One can imagine the Leipzig gentry, sitting in the best pews, becoming increasingly uncomfortable as the shockingly direct words hit their target: the strident tenor, above obbligato oboes and violin, ringing through the cathedral proportions of St. Thomas’s like a prophetic crow.”

He who is inwardly and outwardly the same
can be called a true Christian.

Such was the tax-collector in the temple,
who smote his breast in humility;
he did not look on himself as a saint.
Let him be, O man,
 a glorious example
in your own penitence...

“Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut” (BWV 113, “Lord Jesus Christ, thou highest good”) is not as dramatic about hypocrisy as 179 but confronts the listener with the sorrow for our fallen nature---as well as the joy of Christ’s love and grace.

My piteous heart

beholds now, after many tears of pain,

the bright glow of Jesus’ eyes of mercy...
Gnawing conscience can no longer torment me,
now that God has pledged all His grace

to feed the faithful and the righteous

with heavenly manna,

if we but with contrite souls

come to our Jesus.

The story of the Pharisee and the Publican captures our imagination because the reversal: the good, blameless person (the kind of person most of us strive to be) actually has it all wrong, and the person who is blameworthy, lost, and distressed gets it right. (I dislike the way we use "Pharisee" as a pejorative term; the historical Pharisees helped save Jewish faith for the ages. But this particular Pharisee is Jesus' example of a certain approach to religious faith.) Sometimes I think I have the self-critical heart of the Publican but, nevertheless, I strive to live like the Pharisee, respected and accomplished. Do I really have my heart wholly directed to God?

The answer is no. Even my "good works done in secret" are, to some extent, motivated by my need to be liked and affirmed. But we can take our inconsistencies and offer them to God in the spirit of distressed repentance that permeates this week's cantatas. Like many psalms, the cantatas bring us back to the relief we experience in knowing God's love.

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

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Hotter in Heaven than Hell?

Another hot day where I live, although two summers ago we had these kinds of temperatures and worse nearly all summer.

My daughter's birthday is coming up. She was born in Arizona, and I remember the heat wave that year: the low 120s in Phoenix, the lower 90s in usually cooler Flagstaff. I see 100-year-old pictures of Phoenix people, in their suits and long dresses, and wonder how they lived through each day.

I read somewhere (a person's lighthearted calculations) that Heaven is actually hotter than Hell. The Isaiah passage (30:26) that depicts the sunlight in heaven as seven times brighter, implies a certain level of heat in Heaven, greater than the burning point of the brimstone that fuels Hell's flames (e.g., Revelation 19-21). Always good to recognize when the Bible employs metaphor.

I've posted this Ernest Moeran piece before, but it's a favorite, Excuse me while I put in my ear buds, walk across campus to my next class, and imagine myself resting and praying beside peaceful water on a hot day.  

Monday, August 25, 2014

Leonard Bernstein

Today would have been Leonard Bernstein's 96th birthday. Like many of my generation, I watched his 1960s TV programs on classical music, although I didn't listen to them intently. They did make an impression and helped fuel a later love for music. During my college years I had his own recording of Mass, a theologically and musically stunning piece, and I played it till the vinyl became crackly and the box broken. (I've written about this piece elsewhere on this blog.) During the lonely, rewarding years of my first parish position, I loved another LP set, pieces by Richard Wagner, as well as an LP with the Chichester Psalms. I enjoyed his then-recently published book of occasional writings, Findings. The "Brainy Quote" website gives some memorable quotations from him:

"To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time."

"Music can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable."

"This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before."

Friday, August 22, 2014

Bless Our Town: Bach's Cantatas for the 10th Sunday after Trinity

My journey through Bach's sacred cantatas continues. This week I'm listening to CD 36 of this set, with a CD photo of a boy from Afghanistan.

Sunday is the Tenth Sunday after Trinity. People in St. Louis have been pulling together this week to help out in Ferguson, MO, the city in St Louis County that has been through a lot since the Aug 9th shooting by a white officer of an unarmed black teenager. Local news reports are dominated by events and stories there, and pastors of our area (and other leaders) have been calling people to help in different ways. This coming Sunday, the prayers and help will certainly continue.

The first cantata for this coming Sunday is “Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgendein Schmerz” (BWV 46, “Behold, and see if there be any sorrow”). You might say, this cantata is about a community in crisis. The text concerns the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, which, according to conductor John Eliot Gardiner in the CD notes, might have reminded some of Bach's families of the destruction of so many German towns during the Thirty Years War. We should not say that God’s wrath causes the destruction of communities, as the scriptures attribute Jerusalem’s troubles to God’s judgment. But the cantata skillfully moves among images (both textual and musical) of God’s anger and God’s mercy, within the context of Jerusalem. The listener is left hanging a bit at the end, holding to the hope of God’s grace.

The second cantata is “Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott (BWV 101, “Take from us, Lord, Thou faithful God”), has the same gospel lesson, Christ’s tears over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-48), and the same theme of God’s anger and mercy. Using two Luther hymns, the cantata is similarly disturbing. Gardiner writes, “Clearly, the wages of sin, the overwhelming power of retribution visited upon those tempted to stray from the Lord’s path, prompted Bach to subject his first listeners to a twin-barrelled doctrinal salvo and to compose what Robert Levin described to me as ‘the most crushing work of Bach’s career’.” These words are fearful but also hopeful:

Take from us, Lord, Thou faithful God,
the grave punishment and great distress
that we with countless sins

have truly merited.

Protect us from war and famine,
contagion, fire and grievous pain...

Lead us with Thy right hand

and bless our town and our country;

give us always Thy holy Word,

protect us from Satan’s guile and murder;
grant us one single, blessèd hour,

that we may forever be with Thee.

The third cantata is “Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben!” (BWV, 102, “Lord, are not Thine eyes upon the truth!”). Gardiner goes into detail about how the music depicts the fearful text.

In waiting danger lurks;

is it your wish to lose time?

The God, who was once so merciful,

can lead you with ease to His seat of judgment.

Today you live, repent today;

before the morning dawns, all may change.
He who today is healthy, ruddy-faced, thriving,
will tomorrow be sick, or even dead.

This week, I've followed the local news and tried to do my small part. As the week moved toward the weekend, I listened to these cantatas and considered Bach's themes. How does the righteous Lord hold us accountable for sin, in this case the racism so imbedded in our hearts and in our economic and social structures? How do we see God’s anger and grace at work in a social crisis?

Spiritual repentance, arising from a fresh sense of God's righteousness, has many social implications, including a greater appreciation of the social and economic dangers into which people fall, and from which people die. Some mornings we do, indeed, awake to hear what has changed overnight, to learn from the dawn news who has suffered and died. But we also learn of people who had put themselves in harm's way in order to be at God's right hand, sharing God's love.

We continue to pray for this local situation and other tragic situations in the news.

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

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Coffee and Work

Off to the coffee shop this morning to do some writing. I like the place, which is a national chain, but I miss the independent coffee shop that operated in our town for a while. Eventually I may branch out to an independent shop that I've heard about in nearby Maplewood, MO.

When we lived in Akron, OH, I loved going to the Nervous Dog Coffee House. I wrote there a lot, sometimes a couple hours a day if I was in the midst of a writing project. One of my books contains an acknowledgment to that coffee shop, though at that time it was called Coco's under earlier management. When I'm back visiting friends, the coffee shop that was a different kind of friend is a fun stop.

It is wonderful that some pastors whom I know are doing office hours in coffee shops and similar places. To me, that's being out there were the people are. Just hanging around the coffee in case someone dropped by seemed, to me, a less effective approach to ministry.

One of J.S. Bach's cantatas is "Schweigt stille, plaudit nicht" (BWV 211, "Be still, stop chattering"), also known as the Coffee Cantata. Essentially a short opera, the piece tells of a father, Schlendrian, who is trying to get his daughter, Lieschen, to stop drinking so much coffee! She says, "Without my morning coffee, I’m just like a dried up piece of roast goat.” Poor Lieschen!

Apparently an outcome of the Turkish invasion of Vienna was the popularization of coffee. The Turks had coffee houses before Europeans, and soon coffee houses were popular throughout Europe. I found a website that tells of famous people's addiction, like Voltaire who drank 40 cups a day, Rousseau and Pope who sang its praises, and Jefferson, who considered it "the favorite drink of the civilized world."

So I'm dressed and off with my laptop!  A strong brew awaits with my name on it.  

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ferguson This Week

I live in the St. Louis area, where the local news has been dominated by events in Ferguson. Community groups have been pulling together to help within the community, and some groups have been collecting donations for Ferguson persons who haven't been able to get to stores because of the discord during several recent evenings. This article from one of the local TV stations describes the kinds of protesters in the community: Pastors have been working toward reconciliation: The New Yorker has an interesting article about the movement that is growing as an outcome of Michael Brown's shooting. US Attorney General Eric Holder has arrived in town, and meanwhile a grand jury Holder's visit came as a grand jury has begun to gather evidence about whether Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson should be charged in Brown's death. Let's continue in prayer.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Interfaith Prayers

Continued prayers for the situation in Ferguson, MO, where more violence occurred Sunday night. Now the Missouri National Guard has been called in. An autopsy on Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager who was killed by a police officer on August 9, shows that Brown was shot six times.

Local people have been traveling to Ferguson to show solidarity to Brown's family and to witness to the need for justice. Earlier I found a site that recommended what items local Jews, Christians, and Muslims could donate to persons in the area who are struggling for basic needs.

Churches are called upon to engage Brown's death with interracial understanding, listening, and prayers for reconciliation and justice. See, for example, this piece: Prayers that we will, indeed, listen to one another in the days ahead, learn things we can do from the many articles and blog posts, and seek the Lord's grace that can do more than we can think or ask.

Prayers for Iraq as the U.S. has expanded its air campaign there. Continued prayers for the situation in Israel and Gaza, as well as Syria, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka. Prayers for Pope Francis during his Far Eastern tour, and for positive results from his visits. Also, prayers for those in Africa still suffering from the Ebola outbreak, not to mention the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic in Sub-Sahara Africa.

Prayers for those (including me, writing this amid a sleepless night) who are struggling with distress and sorrow over the events of the past several days, including Robin Williams' death.

Prayers for young people who have already started school in many places, and for college students who will soon be starting classes.

Hear our prayers, O God.

Friday, August 15, 2014

What Care I for the World: Bach's Cantatas for the 9th Sunday after Trinity

Sunday is the Ninth Sunday after Trinity. Fourteen more weeks of cantatas, after this week. The news this week is dominated by the death of Robin Williams, a little less so by the death of Lauren Bacall, and by awful Middle Eastern news, as well as racial and social tensions here in St. Louis. “The world resembles smoke and shadow,” is a line from the first of this week’s cantatas, and the streets of some of our neighborhoods are filled with the smoke of tear gas. We pray for God’s help for our struggles and sadness.

BWV 92 is titled “Was frag ich nach der Welt” (“What care I for the world”). The text contrasts the transitoriness of the world, both of its treasures and sorrow, with the permanence of Christ who is our only reason for rejoicing. The themes remind me both of Isaiah 40:6-8 and Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” The world is filled with pride and wonderful things, but with hardly a warning we could die. All the more reason to cling to Christ and his promises. So the cantata with a somber theme begins with a spritely flute and continues with numerous happy moments---happiness in Christ.

BWV 168 is “Tue Rechnung! Donnerwort” (“Give an account of thyself. Thundrous words”). The theme is simlar to 92 but while that cantata serves as a pensive reminder, 168 is more urgent and penitential: the time to get right with God, over against the world’s transitory pleasures and worries, is now!

Burst the bonds of Mammon, O heart,
hands, scatter good abroad!

Make soft my death-bed,

build for me a solid house,
that will last in heaven forever,
when all earth’s goods are scattered.

BWV 105 is “Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht mit deinem Knecht” (“Enter not into judgment with thy servant, O Lord”). Here, too, the fears of the believer, mired in the sin of the world, are comforted by the promise of Christ’s redemption.

Fortunate though is he who knows his guarantor,

who redeems all his debts.

Thus will the handwriting of ordinances be blotted out,
if Jesus sprinkles it with His blood.
He Himself then nails it to the cross.

He will, at your death knell,

Himself hand to His father

the record of your goods, body and life,

and though your body be carried to the grave
and be covered with sand and dust,
your Saviour will open for you the everlasting mansions.

In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner comments that Bach really did live this teaching. In his early career he had risen in his field and gained salary increases, but when he moved from “his court position in Cöthen to a civic appointment in cosmopolitan Leipzig,” his salary would drop. This might be a problem, since his family was growing, and the cost of living in Leipzig was higher. Essentially, he saw the Leipzig position as a closer one to his sense of calling. As it turned out, his work in Leipzig included long additional hours, and some of his extra work was unremunerated. Plus, persons in authority who could have helped him obstructed him, instead. These things, and the extravagant wealth of some of the Leipzig congregational members, makes the themes of these cantatas rather personal.

Fortunately, Bach had excellent financial sense, gained by being orphaned at a young age, and he found other ways to assist his income. Gardiner traces these interesting biographical details. He writes, Bach “was aware that by staying in Cöthen he could have had a more comfortable lifestyle and a larger income with which to make provision for his family after his death. But he also knew that, ultimately, true inheritance lay elsewhere, as is expressed in the final chorale of Cantata 94: ‘Die Güter müssen fort, und alle Lust verfällt; bleibt Jesus nur bei mir: Was frag ich nach der Welt!’ (‘Its goods must go, and all pleasures perish; if but Jesus stays with me: what care I for the world!’).”

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

I found the Monteverdi Choir's website, which gives the list of each cantata by BWV number, on the particular Sundays and feast days: As I've said before, I started my listening with CD 52 on the First Sunday of Advent, so that I could listen in conjunction with the liturgical year.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Interfaith Prayers

Here are some interfaith, international prayers for the week.

Sri Lanka has seen a wave of communal violence following a recent rally by hardline Buddhist nationalist monks, whose group is called Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force). The violence has upset the peaceful relationship between Buddhists and Muslims that has enduring for many years, not only in Sri Lanka but also in Myanmar. "Violence" and "hardline" are not often used in connection with Buddhists and Buddhism!

VIolence has been increasing in Iraq in recent days. The Islamic extremist group ISIS is a terrible threat in the Middle East and is causing death and suffering among on Shi‘ite Muslims, Christians and the Yazidis.

Missionaries were recently jailed in North Korea.;_ylt=A0LEVzLX..pTDF0AkmNXNyoA

We continue remember the situation in Israel and Gaza. We also remember the persons affected by the upsurge of Ebola cases in Liberia, and the families of those who have already died. We also continue to remember the situation with Russia and the Ukraine. Also, I've not heard any news about the kidnapped Nigerian girls for quite a while.

I live in the St. Louis area, and we keep in hearts, minds, and prayers the family of the young man shot by police in Ferguson, MO, the officer himself, the investigators, and those who seek justice for the community.

And… in the aftermath of Robin Williams death (which was devastating news), we uphold persons who are struggling with depression and/or addictions.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Traveling Mercies

I met the Old Testament professor Walter Brueggemann the other day. I was working on a new writing project at our nearby coffee shop, and he came in for coffee because he was in town for a local event. I was a little starstruck as I introduced myself and told him I used his books in some of my classes.

A few days later, my project took me into his commentary on Exodus (1), and I was intrigued by his thoughts about the tabernacle. All of the following are simply my notes.

Here is the concluding paragraph (NRSV) of Exodus:

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Whenever the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on each stage of their journey; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey.

Brueggemann contrasts the presence of the Lord in the tabernable, with the fact that the tabernable by its nature is portable for the Israelite’s journey. Sometimes it is the Ark of the Covenant that “contains” the presence (as in Numbers 10:33-36). In this Exodus text, the presence is contained in the cloud and the fire. “One can see that, in the collage of ark-cloud-fire-glory, Israel struggles to articulate presence that is powerfully known and confidentally trusted but that has not been made directly available for administration” (p. 979).

This articulation of presence has its dangers, as in priestly elitism, and overstatement concerning presence. Nevertheless, the presence of God in the tabernacle shows “God’s own resolve and commitment” to the community, to limit God’s freedom as it were to accompany the community journeying “in a world of emptied, one-dimensional profanation” (p. 979).

The dual themes of “abiding presence” and “traveling fidelity” continues in the New Testament, with Jesus abiding with his people (e.g., John 14:23) and journeying “on the way” with the disciples---and authorizing them to journey and travel, too, as he is promises to be “with you always” (Matt. 28:19-20) (p. 980). It's not just a matter of God's omnipresence (God is, wherever we go), but of God's accompanying.

In this passage there is also the powerful theology of “traveling mercies.” Brueggemann points out that the promises of God’s presence has already been seen in Gen. 28:15 and 46:4), and see see it here, as well as the psalms. (p. 980).

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil (Ps. 23:4a).

Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling-place, 

no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent. 

For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways. 

On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. 

You will tread on the lion and the adder,
he young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot (Ps. 91:9-13).

The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand. 

The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night. 

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life (Ps. 121:5-7).

Our dearest theological ideas have to come from somewhere, and the promise that God accompanies the faithful is rooted here in Torah.


1. Walter Brueggemann, "The Book of Exodus," in The New Interpreter's Bible, vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994).

Friday, August 8, 2014

When Our Enemies Rage: Bach's Cantatas for the 8th Sunday after Trinity
This coming weekend, we worship on the Eighth Sunday after Trinity. If you want to listen to Bach’s cantatas for that Sunday, they are: “Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält” (BWV 178, “If God the Lord is not on our side”), “Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz” (BWV 136, “Search me, O God, and know my heart”), and “Es ist dir gesagt, Mensch, was gut ist” (BWV 45, “He hath showed thee, O man, what is good”). The cover photo is from Jodhpur, India.

In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner calls BWV 178 an “astonishing cantata” that is demanding to perform. With the theme of Christ’s warnings against hypocrisy (from the scripture lesson, Matthew 7:15-23), some of the cantata brings to mind a storm, difficult to perform and chastening to listen to (although, to my ears, also lively and uplifting). The opening section is mostly a “continuous stream of semiquavers trafficking to and fro from instrument to instrument and voice to voice.” The scheming of evil people, including those who call themselves Christian, contrasts with the perseverence of the faithful and especially the reliability of God’s protection.

If God the Lord is not on our side
when our enemies rage against us,
and if He does not support our cause
up there in Heaven on high,

if He is not Israel’s protector,
thwarting the enemy’s cunning,

then all is lost for us.

As always, we need to persevere and trust in the Lord. Our reason tells us one thing, but we need to tell our reason to "be quiet" (that word "Schweig" is repeated several times in the next to last number) and have faith that God will vindicate us.

The themes of BWV 136 are similar, though the overall tone is less tempestuous. The faithful of God seek to be good fruit but they just thrive within “thrones of sin” and “thistles of iniquity”. But hypocrites and all their schemes and outcomes will face the judgment.

Though we be stained by the sins

that Adam’s fall has brought on us,

if we have found refuge in Jesus’ wounds,
that merciful stream of blood,

we shall be purified anew...

Thy blood, that noble sap,
has such force and strength
that even the merest drop can purify
all the world, yea, even set it free
from the devil’s jaws.

In BWV 45, too, the faithful know what is God---thus the title from Micah---and the hypocrites and false prophets will get their reward. Bach musically contrasts the destiny of the faithful with those who cause trouble.

Whosoever acknowledges God
from the very depths of his heart,
God will acknowledge also.
For he shall burn forever
who merely with his mouth
calls Him Lord.

In our time (and surely in any time) the idea that "God is on our side" can be a scary slogan justifying all kinds of terrible things. But if we affirm that God sides with us against all the things that could hypothetically separate us from God (Romans 8:37-39), then the saying is comforting. Though forces of evil are strong (often hiding in misguided zeal to please God), God is stronger still.

These cantatas have hypocrisy as a theme. I hesitate to judge people as "hypocrites," and I especially hesitate to wish upon anyone hell fire! Many of us are inconsistent, exasperatingly so, because we're still growing. Yet we all know people who are consistently unreliable, acting differently depending on why they're with, and acting destructively when they do. Being lied about and/or misrepresented behind your back is particularly painful. (Famously, the Greek word hypocrisis means "play-acting".) I'd rather hope for such people what we informally call "karma," something that will figurative knock them in the head and help them become better people.

But instead of karma, perhaps we should be talking about the healing blood of Jesus, another theme in this week's cantatas. It seems a theologically old-fashioned concept, biblical but different from contemporary efforts to conceptualize a non-violent Atonement. Still, instead of wishing karma upon our enemies, we could wish for a dynamic work of God to wake them up and (as my mom would've said) straighten them out. Think of people who oppose you and wish you ill, and if you can, claim for them Christ's healing power. The triune Lord loves even the most awful and two-faced among us.

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

The Edge's Birthday

During the past several months, just to do something different with my Facebook updates, I've posted birthdays of people who, for whatever reason, interest me. Today is the 53rd birthday of The Edge, guitarist for U2.

I wasn't very aware of U2 until 1987, when my wife Beth and I traveled to Flagstaff, AZ, where Beth had accepted a teaching position at Northern Arizona University, and where I had gained a part-time teaching position. We were there in early July to find a house to rent or purchase. We stayed in one of the numerous motels on old Route 66. Cell phones weren't yet common, so we asked our realtor to call the motel and leave a message. But the fellow at the front desk was unreliable. Sometimes he told us if we had a message, other times he just didn't exert himself to let us know.

It all worked out, but I felt homesick and distressed. Flagstaff was so far from my parents in Illinois, and I worried about the unknown future. The motel wasn't awful but wasn't great. Adding to my blues, there was nothing on television except the Oliver North hearings. We did get MTV, which back then was fresh and wonderful. The network played U2's video "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" quite a bit. So different from the 80s synthpop that was my usual favorite, I loved the song and the video, with the band walking along the Las Vegas street. 

The song's sincere message of spiritual longing, and the bright sound of Edge's guitar, soothed my feelings of worry and uncertainty, and stayed with me as I sought God's guidance and enjoyed the warm presence of my beautiful wife as we napped and talked and planned. Once we moved to Flagstaff in August, I visited what became my regular shop on South Milton Road and purchased The Joshua Tree. Although I don't listen to it as much these days, it really became one of my life's most important albums, in a way that a group hadn't warmed my heart since high school days.  

Beth and I wouldn't have dreamed in 1987 that our beautiful daughter would eventually be born in Flagstaff. We moved away in the early 1990s but still return on occasion. What fun, a few years ago, when we three visited Dublin and saw U2's recording studio on the waterfront, although I've read that The Joshua Tree was recorded at another place. I thought back on the days when Edge's bright guitar first cheered me, one state over from the Joshua Tree Park. Happy birthday to him, wherever he might be today. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Donating My Books

An essay that originally appeared in Springhouse magazine…

Recently, Stanley Fish, noted author and professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, wrote a piece for the New York Times called “Moving on.” He wrote about selling his books, because he was moving from a house to a smaller apartment. Although I kept several books that he needed, “the books that sustained my professional life for 50 years — books by and about Milton, Spenser, Shakespeare, Skelton, Sidney, Herbert, Marvell, Herrick, Donne, Jonson, Burton, Browne, Bacon, Dryden, Hobbes — are gone (I watched them being literally wheeled out the door), and now I look around and see acres of empty white bookshelves.”

He continues that a deeper reason for the relinquishment was that “it was time.” He had been engaged in conservations with fellow writers and now, he felt he no longer had the energy to continue those conservations as they developed among other writers in different ways. It was time to face the fact that he was not going to be continuing his work forever--and indeed, he isn’t going to go on forever, either---and now his books deserve book homes where they will be used by others.

I’ve relinquished books at different times of my life. The most drastic downsizing was in 2009, as we prepared to move. My books had lined the walls of our finished basement on ten maple shelves that I’d purchased at Bed, Bath, and Beyond. They weren’t really designed to be filled with books, and the shelves bowed a little beneath the weight of some texts, but they were pretty and served the purpose of holding what I estimated was over 1000 books. In spite of that large number, I felt like these were the books I needed for my work.

But as moving day approached, I thought twice about that. Many of the books were ones I hadn’t used for several years. What is the difference between thinking I’ll use a book, and feeling nostalgic about it because I purchased it for a certain now-completed purpose? (For instance, I had several books from my doctoral program, but I hadn’t cracked those books in several years.)

So I straightened my back and made drastic cuts in my collection. I took them to the local library to donate to their annual book fair.  I thought, Now, I have my collection to the size I need.

But no, as moving day grew nearer, I became harder-hearted and removed four or five boxes-full of more books. Even then, after we had arrived in our new location, I decided to go through the collection again and donate more. A half-dozen more boxes of books (and some LPs, too) moved onward to the local book fair.

I still have lots of books! But they’re a more manageable number. Since online used book sites became so helpful, there is no longer the fear that, if I relinquish a text that I realize I still want, I can order another copy rather than perhaps never finding it again in book stores (although I still love actual book stores, like John Dunphy’s in Alton, IL.)

Still, giving up books can be an emotional process. A few years ago, Springhouse editor Gary DeNeal asked readers to share their top five or ten most precious books. Many of us do have books that we need. But you also do come to the point where a book you once cherished needn’t be kept any longer. Books, like anything else, can be kept too long. Just like household items given to Good Will or the Salvation Army, you have a sense that your belongings could be going good for someone else.  But meanwhile, you’ll still have other books that you read, you enjoy, and you retain as keepsakes you’d hate to part with.

At our last house, repairpeople would traipse through the basement, look at my shelves, and say, “Wow, have you read all these?” It’s kind of a foolish thing to say to people: as if you don’t deserve to own a book if you haven’t read it. In my case, a lot of my books are reference books that aren’t supposed to be read cover to cover, and many more are texts that I use in my teaching. I also have antique books that relate to early Illinois history, and I don’t read them so that I can keep the old bindings in good shape. Some of them were books I used when I was writing my first book, about my hometown when it was state capital. But now I cherish these books as kinds of heirlooms---although heirlooms I myself purchased.  

Several years ago I enjoyed Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, “Unpacking My Library.” I went to look for the anthology in which the essay appeared. But (appropriate to this essay’s subject, I guess), I realized I had donated the book containing that piece. But I looked online and remembered what I’d read. Benjamin was the German literary critic who died tragically in 1940. In the essay, he goes through his boxes of books, stored for two years, and took great pleasure going through the books and reflecting on the wonderful benefits of a personal library. He thinks about the periods of his life associated with his books and the circumstances when he acquired each book.“Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories,” he writes, adding that books don’t come alive in the owner, but “it is he who lives in them.”

That’s certainly true with my books.  In what books do you live?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

I'm FDR's Cousin

… because we share a common 17th century ancestor. (The ancestor was no slouch; he was a Mayflower passenger and singer of the Mayflower Compact.) But as I did some genealogical reading over the weekend---resuming a hobby after many years of neglecting it---I felt sentimental for my grandmother, who was a strong FDR democrat. She would've been thrilled to know of the family connection via her mother.

Here are some of my genealogical notes posted to my other blog over the weekend: Although she died when I was fifteen, Grandma was a huge influence on my subsequent religious journey that began in earnest when I was in college. She also helped me always to lean toward the liberal side of the political spectrum, although I'm much more open to different viewpoints and political philosophies than she was. I remember when Mom and I told her we'd visited with an outspoken Republican back in her little town (Brownstown, IL), she told us not to talk to him again! We did, but we didn't tell her, LOL.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Journeys Home to God: Hosea

Researching the Bible for a writing project, I was intrigued by Gale Yee’s commentary on the book of Hosea (The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume VII, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996). Our Sunday school class in Ohio had studied Hosea for a time, became downhearted by the many prophetic warnings, and switched to something more cheerful: Lenten scriptures! But I enjoy reading about how the seemingly random and difficult texts of any of the Prophets fit together, in ways that you're likely to miss unless you have a good commentary in hand. In this case I also enjoyed learning that there are “journeys home” motifs in Hosea.

1. The book has three sections chapters 1-3, 4-11, and 12-14. Chapters 1-3 concern Hosea’s relationship with his adulterous wife, Gomer, and their three children. But the people of Israel worship false Gods, which is “adultery” to God. God wants to reconcile with his “wife,” as Hosea does so with Gomer (ch. 3) (p. 198). As Gomer loves many men, the Israelites love the Canaanite fertility gods, the baals (p. 200).

2. Chapters 4-11 change the metaphor of God and Israel to parent and child; here, the child is rebellious. As with an adulterous wife, a rebellious child could be punished (p. with death but God does not want that, as summarized in the well known chapter 11 (p. 198). In 12-14, the two metaphors are interwoven, again with a good ending as land is restored to beauty and bounty (p. 198).

3. Within each section are important structures, as illustrated by the way chapters 3, 11, and 14 conclude the sections. The sections tell part of a story: of Hosea and Gomer, of God the husband and Israel the wife, of God the parent and Israel the child. Each section also has a “journey motif”: of the wife/son making a journey back to the huband/parent, and of the people journeying from exile back to the land (p. 198). For instance, as the earlier israelites journeyed from Egyptian exile to the land, so will the “son” (the people of Hosea’s time) journey back to and enjoy the good land, if they repent (11:10-11) (p. 235).

4. With these journey’s of repentance to faith and of exile to home, there are also journeys from barrenness to bounty, with the fertility of the wife (a theme elsewhere in scripture) symbolizing the fertility of the land (p. 198). “Hope” passages (5:15-6:3, 10:12, 11:10-11) are included in order to help motivate readers, too, to repent (p. 234). In chapters 4-11, the journey from barrenness to fertility begins at 6:1-3 (p. 250). Needless to say, Hosea believes that fertility does not come from the baals who are gods of the rain, but from the true God who is creator and lord of all creation (p. 200).

5. Interestingly, too, the worship of baals was an intrinsic part of worship of the Lord, as reflected in Hosea (3:4, 4:11-19, 10:1-2, 5, 8, 9:1-3, 13:2, 14:8). The baal worship was itself a “journey” of barrenness and death toward newness of life, and although the exact nature of this combination of Israelite and Canaanite worship is now difficult to reconstruct, the Israelites would not have thought such practices inappropriate. Hosea, of course, strongly condemned Baal worship as adulterous and rebellious (pp. 202-203).

6. Also interesting is the relationship of the 8th century Hosea and 6th century deuteronomistic history. The condemnation of idolatry is a strong theme of both, and Yee discusses the possible influence of Hosea upon the later history as well as redaction and editing of the Hosea material (pp. 204-206).

7. Memory is a component of the journey. Hosea connects the people of his time back to the earlier Israelites who journeyed from Egypt to the land (9:10, 11:1, 11:3-4). Of course, the faithfulness and provision of the Lord is the key thing to remember and reclaim (p. 279).

8. Unfortunately, the people of Hosea’s time were, indeed, cast into exile when they were defeated by the Assyrians. As Yee writes, "the Hosean text challenges us to reckon seriously with the religious and political choices before us… Hosea warns us that we, too, can ‘return to Egypt,’ if we turn a blind eye to racial/ethnic tensions and hostilities in our midst” (p. 279).

Friday, August 1, 2014

Fret Not, O Soul: Bach's Cantatas for the 7th Sunday after Trinity

Feeling chicken?….
from Pinterest 
This weekend’s celebration is the Seventh Sunday after Trinity. Bach wrote three cantatas for this Sunday: “Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht” (BWV 186, “Fret not, O soul”), “Was willst du dich betrüben” (BWV 107), “Why are you distressed [O my dear soul]?”), and “Es wartet alles auf dich” (BWV 187, “These wait all upon Thee”). The cover phone (disc 33 in the set) is of a woman from Gao, Mali.

In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner comments that a criticism of Christianity of Bach’s time was the humble, suffering aspect of Christ, compared to a more pallitable vision of a heavenly, powerful Christ. The “fretting” of the title has to do with anxiety about God’s strength to save and help us, if “God’s true gleaming image, is concealed in a vassal’s form.” The two-part cantata is filled with assurances of God’s mercy and understanding: the weakness and poverty suffered by Christ is by no means an indication that Christ is any less merciful and available. If we lose heart amid our own suffering, we become like the Israelites who became consumed with anxiety and angry when they were in the Wilderness.

In 107, Gardiner comments that Bach uses all seven stanzas of a Johann Heerman chorale and somehow manages not to be repetitive and rigid in his music as he fits the structured hymn lines into beautiful music. The theme is similar to 186: we must not fret and have fear, because God forsakes no one and is stronger than all of Satan’s rage. Gardiner describes all the interesting things Bach does musically before concluding with an assuring chorus.

Grant, O Lord, that all my living days
I may sincerely 
increase Thine honor
and give Thee praise and thanks!
O Father, Son and Holy Ghost,
Thou, who with purest mercy
dost avert want and harm,

be praised for evermore!

BWV 186 combines the scriptures of Psalm 104 and the story of the feeding of the thousands by Jesus. As God provides for creation, God certainly provides for us as well. We may worry about our lives, but God knows what we need. As the soprano sings in a recitative:

If I but cling to Him with childlike trust

and gratefully accept what He apportions me,

then never shall I be bereft of help,

no matter what He may have in store for me.

All grieving is in vain, it avails the despondent heart
nothing to worry about its needs;

God has taken upon Himself these cares,

and so I know that He has set aside my portion for me.

Serendipity: I had just written in Tuesday's post about my experiences of fretfulness concerning God's help, experiences that are always followed by some amazing blessing from God that is not only a gift for that time but also causes other things to fall into place. This has happened several times in my life. I'm glad that God puts up with me---and all of us. The words of that soprano recitative are so true.

We can also cling to him with "weak, faltering steps," as the texts reads in an upcoming cantata ("Jesu, der du meine Seele," BWV 78). But then we still struggle with worry and care, which help nothing.

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