Monday, September 29, 2014

O Prince of the Cherubim: Bach's Cantatas for Michaelmas

Michaelmas, or (as titled here) the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, is a Western festival on September 29, near the fall equinox. (In the Eastern church, the archangels are honored on November 8.) Michael was the Archangel who defeated Lucifer and is one of the greatest angelic protectors. Conductor John Eliot Gardiner notes that Michael figures in both testaments, the Apocrypha, and the Qur’an as well. In Christian tradition he is “venerated both as the guardian angel of Christ’s earthly kingdom and as patron saint of knights in medieval lore, and, significantly, as the being responsible for ensuring a safe passage into heaven for souls due to be presented before God.”

In the CD notes, Gardiner points out that Bach took seriously the Book of Revelation, the concept of angelic armies, and “a cosmos charged with an invisible presence made of pure spirit, just beyond the reach of our normal faculties. ...The concept of a heavenly choir of angels was implanted in Bach as a schoolboy in Eisenach, when even the hymn books and psalters of the day gave graphic emblematic portrayal of this idea; the role of angels, he was instructed, was to praise God in song and dance, to act as messengers to human beings, to come to their aid, and to fight on God’s side in the cosmic battle against evil.”

Not surprisingly, then, we have four pieces for this day: “Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft” (BWV 50, “Now is come strength and salvation”), “Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir” (BWV 130, “Lord God, we all praise Thee”), “Es erhub sich ein Streit” (BWV 19, “There arose a war”), and “Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg” (BWV 149, “The voice of rejoicing and salvation”).

BWV 50 is just over three minutes but is nevertheless (in Gardiner's words) “breath-taking” and majestic. Not specifically for Michaelmas, the piece dovetails with the cantatas because the text is based on a portion of Revelation 12, where we read the defeat of the dragon by Michael and the angels.

Now is come salvation and strength,
and the kingdom of our God,
and the power of His Christ:
for the accuser of our brethren is cast down,
which accused them before our God day and night.

BWV 130 depicts the archangels in procession and in battle. The battle against the forces that vex us is not only in the past, but is ongoing. Gardiner writes, “Though there is brilliance aplenty in the steely glint of Michael’s sword (fifty-eight consecutive semiquavers for the principal trumpet to negotiate – twice!), this is not an episode in a Blitzkrieg. Bach is more concerned to evoke two superpowers squaring up to one another, the one vigilant and poised to protect the ‘kleine Häuflein’ against assault (cue the tremulant throbbing of all three trumpets in linked quavers), the other wily and deceitful (one wonders whether the kettledrums and continuo are perhaps intended to be on the dragon’s side?).”

The ancient dragon burns with envy
and constantly devises new pain

to break up that little flock....

Grant, O Prince of the Cherubim,
that this high host of heroes

may evermore
 tend Thy believers;
grant that the angels on Elijah’s chariot
may bear them up to Thee in Heaven.

As in 130, Bach uses trumpets to dramatic effect in BWV 19, along with intense writing for both the orchestra and the singers, to depict angelic protection of the faithful against the fury of Satan (the serpent, the dragon).

Praise God! The dragon is laid low.
The uncreated Michael

and his angelic host

have conquered him.
There he lies in the darkness,
fettered with chains,

and he shall no longer
dwell in heaven’s realm...

Let us love the countenance

of righteous angels,

and with our sins

not banish or even sadden them,

that they may be,
when the Lord commands us
to bid the world farewell,
to our great light,
our chariots to heaven.

BWV 149, meanwhile, is “festive rather than combative,” while using the same orchestral forces.

Ah Lord, let Thy dear angel

bear this soul of mine, when I die,

into Abraham’s lap,

and let my body sleep in its resting-place
most gently, free of torment and pain,
until the Day of Judgement!

And then awaken me from death,

that my eyes may behold Thee

in sheer joy, O Son of God,

my Saviour and my throne of grace!

Lord Jesus Christ, hear me, O hear me,

I will praise Thee eternally!

Tomorrow is the second anniversary of my mother's death. I admit that angels are less a part of my spirituality than for Bach. As I work and rest, I think of the Holy Spirit as the closeness of God to me. But I love the image of the "safe passage into heaven for souls," as well as the image of Heaven being filled with music and dance. A lovely quotation that I found online suggests that angels reassure us when our loved ones die, that they are safe now. I like that a lot. Perhaps I need to be more open to the idea of God's presence expressed via divine advocates who, importantly, are also beautiful singers.

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

Friday, September 26, 2014

What God Does is Well Done: Bach's Cantatas for the 15th Sunday after Trinity

The cover photo for this week’s cantatas features Sharbat Gula, “the Afghan Girl,” not the famous picture but another wherein she covers the lower part of her face with her shawl. Those enormous green eyes of hers are recognizable. Photographer Steve McCurry, whose 1985 shot of Gula first appeared on a National Geographic magazine, took the pictures of the all CD covers in this set.

Conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that some of Bach’s sacred cantatas contain “more darkness than light,” which is the case this week, too. There are four cantatas for the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity: “Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz?” (BWV 138, “Why are you troubled, my heart?”), “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan” (BWV 99, “What God doth, is well done”), “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen!” (BWV 51, “Rejoice unto God in all lands!”), and BWV 100 which is also entitled, “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan.”

BWV 138 “charts the beleaguered Christian’s journey from profound distress of mind and soul, punctuated by (choral) injunctions to hold fast, to an eventual solidity of faith.” We've so often seen in Bach's cantatas that distress: the believer's confrontation with his/her sinful unworthiness, the believer's heartache at the difficulties of life. As in the psalms, distress is more than matched by affirmations of God's love and care. For instance, midway through this cantata, the struggling soul is assured of God’s providential care.

How can I calmly discharge my duties,
when sighs are my meat and tears my drink?

He can and will not forsake you,
He knows full well what you lack,
heaven and earth are His!

BWV 51 is generally a brighter cantata that “seems never to lose its glitter and charm – provided, of course, that there is a soprano and a trumpeter equal to its ferocious technical demands.” There is more of an emphasis here upon God's blessings and greatness.

Rejoice unto God in all lands! Every creature
in heaven and the world must exalt His fame,

and we would likewise bring our God an offering now,
for that He has always stood beside us in affliction and distress.

BWV 99 and 100, with the same title and the same author of the texts, were written about a decade apart. (The “Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis” numbers reflect themes rather than chronology.) Gardiner discusses the similarities and differences between the two, both of which affirm God’s care, guidance, and faithfulness as we struggle through trials and our own faults. In the text of 100, the title repeats at the beginning of each number.

What God doth, is well done,
He will not deceive me;

He leads me on the proper path,
and so I am content
to enjoy His favour

and show patience.

He shall avert my misfortune,
He has the power to do so.

Given the cover photo, I thought of the 2002 National Geographic article about the photographers reunion with "the Afghan girl." Her life has been very difficult, like millions of others in that part of the world. But she affirms that it was God's will that she could be alive and located by the photographer. God has the power to avert misfortunate, but we also affirm that God stands by us if we remain in affliction and distress. We have to remain constant---and strong---in faith whether or not our adversity is removed. And who knows how God will surprise us with signs of providential care?

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

Friday, September 19, 2014

Weak but Diligent Steps: Bach's Cantatas for the 14th Sunday after Trinity

We’re halfway through September, with October and November to come in this post-Pentecost season. I miss the season of Kingdomtide, which was still observed in United Methodist churches when my family and I joined our local congregation in the mid 1970s. It added extra themes to the long period of ordinary time, and the name itself was pretty!

This Sunday is the 14th after Trinity Sunday. The cover photo of this CD, number 40 in the set, is from Tahoua, Niger. I had looked forward to listening to BWV 78, “Jesu, der du meine Seele” (“Jesus, who hast wrested my soul”), because my daughter’s choir in Ohio used to sing the aria “Wir eilen mit schwachen.”

We hasten with weak but diligent steps,
O Jesus, O master, to Thee.
Thou seekst to help the ailing and erring.

Ah, hearken, as we 
raise our voices,
to beg Thee for help!

May Thy gracious countenance smile upon us!

Wonderful memories of the choir’s performances in Ohio and also central Europe! The choir director noted that the melody is springy, to connote eagerness, but the continuo plods, connoting feeble steps that require divine help. The soprano-alto aria conrasts with the more serious themes and numbers of the cantata which, appropriate to the Lutheran theology of this season, emphasizes the dire human condition.

In the notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner comments that, although Bach’s Trinity Season cantatas are full of Lutheran doctrine about sin and the fall and redemption, there is also a humanism in Bach’s consideration of the human condition. For instance, in “Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe” (BWV 25, “There is no soundness in my flesh”) the text is a little depressing in its depictions of sin and estrangement as a horrid sickness.

The entire world is but a hospital
where countless human beings
and even children in the cradle
lie gravely ill.
The one is tortured in the breast
by raging fever’s wicked desires;
another lies ill
with his own honour’s odious stench;
lust for gold devours a third
and hurls him into an early grave.

Christ alone can heal us of the leprosy of sin, but Gardiner goes into detail about how Bach's music (including some extra instruments like recorders) depicts the healing process, giving listers an audible connection to the help they gain for their human struggles.

The third cantata of this Sunday, “Wer Dank opfert, der preiset mich” (BWV 17, “Whoso offereth praise glorifieth Me”) has more of an emphasis upon the Lord’s goodness, although always in contrast to the human distress that urges us to seek and praise God’s surprising mercy. Gardiner particularly praises Bach’s music of the final chorale.

As a father has mercy

on his little children,

so the Lord does unto us wretches,

if we fear Him with pure childlike awe.
He knows this feeble race,

he knows we are but dust.

Just as grass from the rake,

a flower and falling leaves,

the wind only has to pass over it

and it is no longer there:

so man too passes,

his end is always near.

Autumn, when grass and leaves will indeed be gathered and discarded, is a time of meditating upon the transitory quality of life. The words of this chorale echo (perhaps intentionally) Isaiah 40, where we are assured that although "all flesh is grass," the Word of God never dies.

This week, that image of "hospital" stays in my mind: the world as a hospital, and all of us "sick" in some way thanks to the human condition. To extend the metaphor, Christ is both physician and patient: one who has experienced the infirmity and sickness of human being, and the only one who can heal us as we need.

But I also love that image of "weak but diligent steps". A couple years ago, I wrote on this blog about a CD of Arvo Pärt's music, "In Principio," on the ECM Records label. The liner notes describe the piece called "Mein Weg" ("my path"): "The title was inspired by a short poem from 'Livre des Questions', the magnum opus of the poet Edmond Jabès ... My path has long hours,/jolts and pains./My path has peaks and sea-troughs,/sand and sky./Mine or thine... The image of life's portentous sea-troughs seems to have found an echo in the work's compositional fabric with its constant, dynamically differentiated upward and downward motion."

The paths of life--including the spiritual path--filled with ups and downs, steps forward and back. Given the human condition, how could it be otherwise? So we look to the Lord, who never stops being compassionate toward us in our journeys.

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

Thursday, September 18, 2014


A quiet little day with no classes, so I'm working at home on writing projects. This weekend is Webster University's homecoming, so my wife (the WU president) and I have some school functions to attend, especially alumnal events. Beth has infinity more energy than I do, so I have to pace myself a bit when the week is particularly busy.

I've never participated in any homecoming weekends of schools I attended, but Beth and I enjoyed visiting our daughter when she was in college in Pennsylvania. Since she was in the minority as an out-of-state student, we made sure she didn't feel left out when other students' families descended upon the college town.

When I was a county pastor, years ago, I liked the custom of church homecomings. They're services set on or around the date of the congregation's founding. People who grew up at that church return, and the occasion becomes a family reunion both of literal families and the body of believers. Also, church members who have passed on are remembered and acknowledged. The potluck food was always delicious and the fellowship happy.

I've tossed some church-growth books aside when the authors criticized churches that are too past-oriented. I do agree that a church took preoccupied with "how things have always been done" is not a healthy congregation. A popular biblical story in that regard is the Israelites' longing for Egypt while they trudged through the wilderness, uncertain about the Lord's ongoing provision.

And yet a congregation that does not acknowledge the past contributions of people, and the heritage of that church, can be unhealthy in a different sort of way---snobbish toward the past while pursuing a vision for the future.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Found Chord

We've lived in St. Louis just over five years. In our first house, we lived a mile or so from Interstate 64/U.S. 40, and now we live about the same distance from Interstate 44.

In both our houses, if the day was still, every so often I could hear a kind of chord made by the indistinct but audible sound of interstate traffic and the hum of neighborhood lawn mowers in the distance. I don't want to equate an industrial sound with the Hindu idea of "om," the primordial sound of the divine, universal consciousness, intoned in prayers and mantas. But there was a strange peacefulness at hearing a tone in the air on a bright morning, especially when the more natural sound of birds accompanied it.

I'm sure the sound has been different each time, but yesterday (now that our piano is tuned), I approximated the chord. I apologize for not knowing enough music theory to name this chord, but in the treble clef it is the B-natural below middle C and up to F-sharp, and in the bass clef it is the D below middle C and down to F-sharp. I thought of my dad, who provided for our family with his life work as a truck driver. He liked the sound of traffic on highways, for him a familiar euphony.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Anniversaries, Birds

My father died 15 years ago today, and today would have been my father-in-law's 90th birthday. Two weeks from today, my mom will have been gone two years. I'm the one in the family who remembers dates, which sometimes is a dubious talent.

Wondering where I was going to go with this post, other than noting the day, I looked up and saw four finches on one of our back porch columns. It's one of those columns that has a hollow place at the top, and birds discover this place and make their nests there or just "hang out" together. I think this group was pausing in their daily efforts. But watching them brightened my morning and, I anticipate, the whole day.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Cold Hearts of Steel: Bach's Cantatas for the 13th Sunday after Trinity

TheMetaPicture, via Pinterest
“Sure enough, after the breezy pleasures of last week’s celebratory pieces – a brief reprieve – came the cold shower of our man’s resumption of the earnest process of musical exegesis.” Thus writes conductor John Eliot Gardiner (in the CD notes) of these cantatas for the thirteenth Sunday after Trinity Sunday. (This is CD 39, with a cover picture of a woman from Tibet.) Gardiner goes on to write that Bach sought to “forge audible links” between the scriptures and “the spiritual attributes of the texts.” This week, the texts are the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s gospel, and also Galatians 3:15-22 which concerns faith and the law. But human beings are liable to evade both their responsibilities to the neighbor and to fail to keep God’s law.

During a 100-mile drive to Springfield, IL this week, I listened to these cantatas without first reading about them in the CD notes. I was moved by the wonderful opening to “Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben” (BWV 77 “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God”). Sure enough, Gardiner writes, “Here is one of those breathtaking, monumental opening choruses that defy rational explanation: how an over-worked, jobbing church musician, locked into numbing routines, could have come up with anything so prodigious and not, aswe have seen, in an isolated work, but as part of a coherent cycle of weekly works." He goes on to describe in considerable detail the wonderful structure and musical devices used by Bach in a cantata focused upon the two great commandments: Love the Lord with everything you have, and love your neighbor as yourself.

My God, I love Thee with all my heart,
all my life clings to Thee.

Let me but know Thy law

and be so kindled with love
that I can love Thee forever.

And give me too, my God,
a Samaritan’s heart,
that I may love my neighbour...
that I may not pass him by

and abandon him in his extremity...

“Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ" (BWV 33, “In thee alone, Lord Jesus Christ”) is more penitential concerning our inability to be obedient to the Lord.

My God and Judge,

if Thou shouldst question me upon the law,
I would be unable,

because of my conscience,

to answer one in a thousand questions.

I am weak in spirit and devoid of love

and my sins are grave and vast...

But (in an solo that Gardiner calls one of Bach’s most beautiful ones for the alto), in Christ there is mercy and salvation.

...Jesus hears my supplication
and proclaims me to His Father.
The burden of sin weighed me down,

but Jesus helps me anew with words of comfort:
He has done enough for me.

“Ihr, die ihr euch von Christo rennet" (BWV 164, “Ye who bear the name of Christ”) begins similarly with an assertion of the hardness of the human heart toward God and other people. Gardiner notes that this “dualism” between the divine compassion and human failure permeates all three cantatas. But the divine compassion can break through and make us like the Samaritan.

Ah! melt through Thy radiant love
the cold heart of steel,

that I may daily practise,

my Saviour, true Christian love;
that my neighbour’s misery, whoever he may be,
friend or foe, heathen or Christian,

may affect my heart as much as my own suffering!

I admit that I dislike the story of the Good Samaritan, though it's a beautiful story with which I agree. But if I think, "Oh, I should pick up that hitchhiker; the Good Samaritan story compels me to," I'm putting myself at risk. Yet the story invites soul-searching. Whom can I help, in my everyday circumstances? How can I put my faith into practice, in a powerful if not foolhardy way?

Part of it may be simply slowing down our pace and stopping to take time with people. I hesitate to make myself an example of anything, but the other day someone approached me to talk as I was standing by the elevator. The elevator arrived and I missed it, because it was more important in that moment to talk to the person rather than hurry to my next engagement. Through the mercy extolled in these cantatas, the Lord can show us ways to "be available" to persons as we go about our daily lives.

I had just been studying Luke 10 for another writing project. The writer of the commentary that I was reading pointed out that the lawyer's question to Jesus (how he could gain eternal life) is coupled with the affirmation of the two great commandments, which in turn is coupled with both the Good Samaritan story and the subsequent story about Mary and Martha. The commentator noted that the Samaritan and Mary showed complementary sides of faith: being caring and merciful in an everyday circumstance, and being quiet and attentive to the Lord's teachings.

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

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Nine Eleven

Something I wrote a few years ago…. The news has been filled with 9/11 remembrances. Many news stories have updated us on the families of victims and the dreadful events of the day. My wife Beth and I are attending two different events this weekend. Many communities, colleges, and universities are holding remembrance events.

Beth was in Manhattan on business that morning. With no Tuesday classes, I was home watching a VHS tape of the movie “Finding Forrester,” so I didn’t know what was happening until Beth’s secretary called and asked if I’d heard from Beth. By that time, both towers had fallen. Unbeknownst to me, Beth had actually seen the second tower fall as she and her colleague stayed at their hotel several blocks away. Of course, phone service was dodgy but we finally got through to each other. Beth and her colleague left the city on Saturday, when the LaGuardia flight that had been optimistically scheduled was, in fact, cancelled, and the two of them rented a car to drive out of the city and across New Jersey and Pennsylvania, finally to our home in Ohio. It was a bad week, but so much worse for many, many people.

The evening of 9/11 I did something well-intentioned, which was to take daughter Emily to the animal shelter to look at cats. We had already discussed the possibility of adopting a second cat, and I thought that merely looking at cats would be pleasant for her as we both worried about Beth’s situation. Of course, we found the perfect cat, a little 8-year-old part-Siamese, black and white kitty named Domino. I should’ve waited, but in my distress I decided we could adopt Domino. Unfortunately, our cat Odd Ball—one of the most patient and placid cats on the planet—reacted very negatively to the interloper, and I was up most of the night dealing with the situation. It wouldn’t have been a restful night anyway. I can imagine that very strict British woman on the show “It’s Me or the Dog” sharply criticizing me for the situation. Happily, Domino settled in, Odd Ball settled down, and we loved Domino for four years until he suffered a disease and had to be put to sleep. Emily wrote a contest essay (which though excellent didn’t win) for “Cat Fancy” magazine about our 9/11 friend.

Beth and were going to lead a community project this year, including interviews of people about how 9/11 changed their lives. The project never developed amid the many other, good projects happening around our community, but the question is still pertinent: how did 9/11 change your life? I think for Beth and me, our normal efforts to try to promote inclusiveness and understanding increased. I was privileged to write a short study book on world religions which also promoted understanding and mutuality. My editors hoped the book would be well-timed following 9/11, and the book went on to sell over 20,000 copies.

I always wonder what happened to a student enrolled in my European history class that semester. He had gone to Manhattan to help with efforts. When he returned, he was quite shaken up and asked if I’d give him some leeway with his assignments. Of course I told him to take care of himself. But then he stopped attending class altogether and made no further contact. I hope he found help for his difficult experience.


Not surprisingly, both Time and Newsweek and other magazines feature cover stories this week on 9/11. I picked up a USA Today issue called “Remembering 9/11: A Tribute to Heroes.” I was interested in the article therein, “Good News in America,” which tries to balance our current gloomy mood with positive things: a record number of foreign students attended American colleges in 2010; employment is up in Silicon Valley and the tech sector; there are more jobs in clean energy than ever; farm exports are up; we have a growing number of national parks; there are more women entrepreneurs; and although he’s controversial, Obama is of course our first African American president, significant amid our legacy of slavery and racism.

Looking for a balanced analysis of our national policies of the past ten years, I found an article in the journal Foreign Affairs (Sept.-Oct. 2011). Melvyn P. Leffler of the University of Virginia reflects on “9/11 in Retrospect: George W. Bush’s Grand Strategy, Reconsidered.”

He concludes that “It seems clear now that many of [Pres. Bush and his advisers'] foreign policy initiatives, along with their tax cuts and unwillingness to call for domestic sacrifices, undercut the very goals they were designed to achieve” (p. 37). Their goal of U.S. primacy, analogous to the expansion of U.S. global policy after the Korean War, was hurt by other things. One was the flawed efforts in both Afghanistan and Iraq which, in combination with America’s support of Israel, caused increased hostility toward the U.S. in the Muslim world, while the cost of both wars—now well over $1 trillion—also hurt American primacy in the world, added to the increase in domestic spending, and increase in U.S. debt held by other countries, as well as Bush-era tax cuts. Thus, both American position in the world as well as its economic strength have declined since 9/11. Unfortunately, too, the U.S. war on terror, including our two long wars, have possibly increased the number of jihadists (pp. 37-39).

However, the war on terror has had positive outcomes, too: it has possibly thwarted new attacks, gained successes in Libya (e.g., its abandonment of a nuclear program), kept ties strong with India, China and Russia, and, as Leffler puts it, “reformed and reinvigorated foreign aid, exerted global leadership in the fight against infection diseases, tried to keep the Doha Round of trade talks moving forward, and raised the provide of democracy promotion and political reform in ways that may have resonated deeply and contributed to the current ferment across the Middle East” (pp. 39-40).

Leffler helpfully goes on to show how the Bush Administration’s strategies were not at all something new and unprecedented but were rooted in strategies, presidential rhetoric, and bipartisan national policies going back to the Monroe Doctrine. Even our unilateral policies after 9/11 are rooted in Americans’ “instinct to act independently, and to lead the world while doing so,” going back to Washington’s farewell address” (p. 42). I recommend this article for anyone thinking with these issues.

Our current partisan atmosphere in the U.S. isn’t new, either, but it is still lamentable, especially in light of the commonality and mutual care following the 9/11 attacks. As I watched the NBC news this morning, Doris Kearns Goodwin remarked that our time of political goodwill changed into an extended time of political rancor; in another interview, she also regretted the "recklessness" which characterized some of the political, economic, and foreign policy actions of the 00s, leaving us with a sense of "what might have been."What I wish for is, unfortunately, not going to happen, because it’s not the nature of politics: a kind of soul-searching and bipartisan problem-solving among our elected leaders regarding the plusses and minuses of our recent foreign and economic policies.

For instance—-to go on a tangent for a moment—I supported recent efforts at health care reform, as well as the use of stimulus funds to help the faltering economy. (This is a debated point among economists and columnists, but writers in The Economist magazine have argued that these funds did save the country from potentially disastrous economic depression and, in fact, additional stimulus money might have hastened an economic recovery). But unfortunately the timing and the way the efforts were handled by the administration and Congress (while not unlike the way the Medicare prescription drug legislation was handled several years ago) created a “vacuum” of public discussion that has resulted in the posturing and lack of cooperation among national leaders who do share responsibility of addressing economic mistakes and advancing beneficial economic policies. I go on this tangent because one big issue right now, seemingly lost amid the rhetoric about cutting domestic spending, is the plight of injured and troubled veterans of our recent wars—as well as the circumstances of the poor and the struggling middle class, who continue to be stigmatized in political rhetoric about “entitlements.” But our economic challenges include not only domestic “cushions” but also foreign aid, major military expenditures for our long wars, and the current need for tax reform.

What we need is a very strong injection of a sense of shared responsibility into our political discussions and into our everyday thinking as citizens. 9/11 has, after all, become a powerful symbol for American resilience, mutual help, and hope for the future.

As I thought about these topics, I found a discussion of Thomas Friedman’s new book, That Used to Be Us: How American Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back (by Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum). The authors argue that America’s turning point came not with 9/11 and its aftermath, but a decade earlier, when the Cold War ended. Friedman states that “[w]e shifted from [the] greatest generation that really operated on what we call in the book ‘sustainable values’ — saving and investing — and we handed power over to the baby boomer generation who really lived by ‘situational values’ — borrow and consume.” One wonders if this is one reason why we, as a country, did not mind so much when we did not have to make many domestic sacrifices at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were waged. He also notes that, with globalization, American-based companies are no longer contributing as much to the well-being of society. Friedman notes that “We are missing the voices of those CEOs in our discussions — national discussions on education and infrastructure — because if they can’t get the workers, the infrastructure, the opportunities that they need here, they can just go somewhere else… And that’s a huge problem.”

Friedman continues, “We’re having an economic crisis and the politicians are having an election and it’s like they don’t even overlap in many ways. The incentives of politics today — money, cable television, gerrymandered districts — are so misaligned with the needs of the country that they become like a closed circle, operating on their own,” he says. “What we argue for is an independent, third party that actually can show that there is a huge middle in this country that demands different politics.”[1]

Recently, I was the principal writer for a lesson series about “faithful citizenship.”[2] In those lessons, we cited the noted author Robert Bellah who has commented that contemporary conservatism, with its strong free market component, and welfare liberalism both tend to focus upon individual rather than the common good; both outlooks stress that “[t]he purpose of government is to give individuals the means to pursue their private ends” and differ only “about the means by which to foster individual self-reliance, not about the ultimate value of fostering it.”[3] Furthermore, we tend to lose sight of our commonality–as individuals, families, and workers–when we frame stories in terms of individualism. Researching the lessons I found a wonderful comment by columnist Ellen Goodman, who takes the current slogan of the Home Depot company, “You can do it. We can help,” and says that, in our current moment of overpaid CEOs, individualism, and misplaced stress on “personal responsibility,” we’ve lost the second half of that slogan, “We can help.”[4] We Americans want to help each other, but somehow we often lose sight of that when we discuss broader economic and foreign policy issues.

If conservatives tend to emphasize personal responsibility and discipline (and underemphasize circumstances where discipline and responsibility are insufficient), the liberal answer of providing government relief to the needy also misses a huge sense of what the ethicist Eric Mount calls “shared membership in a national community or a global community.”[5] What Americans still need is a “story” of shared national and global membership wherein we do not frame our view of one another as “us and them,” but rather of “being in this together.”

Mount writes: “Learning to tell better stories about ourselves as Americans and as members of the global community will not occur if we cease to remember the stories that we tell around the tables of our familial and religious communities and of our various voluntary associations and fail to advocate the virtues embedded in these stories. Nor will the better stories emerge if we lack the willingness and ability to hear the stories of other…The virtues of faith as openness to the other, love as affirmation of the other and compassion toward the other, hope as the expectant patience to keep public discourse alike, and generous public-spiritedness as the manifestation of gratitude are essential to the process of table talk that sustains civil society. If our covenantal religious traditions are worth their salt, they will season civil discourse to make it more inclusive, more respectful of difference, more attentive to the well-being of the entire community, and more constitutive of shared identity that does not subsume all other identities.”[6]

Can politics be loving and inclusive? It’s hard to imagine! Do we need a new, third party that can better articulate the needs of the political and economic “middle”? We’ll see how such an idea plays out historically. But for now, the legacy and heroism of 9/11—powerful in its tragedy, as well as its commonality among our families, religious communities, and organizations—can be a reminder to us that Americans’ first reaction to a crisis is to pull together and bolster one another. I’ve low expectations about writing letters to national leaders, but we can at least pray that some of our common spirit of mutual care can extend to the vision of our national leaders as well as to our personal political and economic opinions.[7]


1. “Thomas Friedman on ‘How American Fell Behind,’ NPR Books, Sept. 6, 2011,

2. “Faithful Citizen,”

3. Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkley: University of California Press, 1985), 262-266.

4. Ellen Goodman, “Bob the Un-Builder, The Washington Post Writers Group, January 11, 2007.

5. Eric Mount, “Storytelling and Political Leadership,” The Progressive Christian, 182:5 (Sept.-Oct. 2008), 19.

6. Eric Mount, Jr. Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1999), 156.

7. We Christians aren’t always as careful as we should be in communicating Christ’s love and Christian kindness while also communicating our political opinions. I admit that I rage (and swear) in private while watching the evening news, although I try to be kind while discussing politics with others. Feeling angry and discouraged about politics is entirely normal; it’s a sign that we’re engaged citizens! But then we church people need to be careful that we don’t sound like certain angry, divisive political commentators when we talk politics, otherwise we might fail badly in sharing the Gospel of God’s love.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Out and About Barefoot

The past few years, I’ve had an end-of-summer-post about going barefoot. I like having at least a few times during the summer when I’m out and about without my shoes on. Often, these are neighborhood walks. In our previous neighborhood, for instance, the relatively new sidewalks were smooth and warm. I loved to set out on a nice day for a stroll. A few neighbors were similarly inclined, like the neighbor who liked to kick off her shoes before walking her beagle. The sidewalks along our streets are older and rougher, but I took some pleasant walks over the summer's course.

A few years ago I found a website about how to cheer up when you’re blue, and among bits of advice, the website encouraged “taking humor risks.” “When you are stuck in your own thoughts, do something just a little wild to get out of it. And do the same thing to help a friend who needs a good laugh.” ( That’s a good way to think about my occasional forays without shoes. Even if I’m not so blue, it’s a cheerfully foolish little thing to do that can get me out of the doldrums, or add some humor to whatever I’m doing.

Sometimes during a road trip, if I'm down or homesick, I like to tiptoe shoeless into a crafts store or gift shop in a small town. My sandals are kicked off in the car and I feel reluctant to put them back on. Surprisingly perhaps, I nearly always get very warm service, and I always purchase something at such stores. I love these kinds of places, so much so that the scent of decorative candles and potpourri remind me of nice-weather drives. I ventured into one such place this summer and got some gifts for friends who have fall birthdays.

This summer I found a purchase from a couple summers ago that I’d misplaced, a plaque with an image of John Wayne and a saying, “Courage is being scared to death, and saddling up anyway.” I had stopped in a small town to take a break from a long drive, and decided to stroll among the antique malls without my shoes. Browsing in one nice shop (where the AC seemed to be underfunctioning, so I was glad I stayed cool), I noticed the plaque at my feet. I bought it and later did an internet search about the quotation. Apparently Wayne never said that in any of his movies, but it’s still an apt quotation: a simple reminder to not let our fears get the better of us.

I thought of the quotation again this summer as I was deeply worried about something (a symptom that turned out to be nothing). This summer, as the family chilled out in our motel, I decided to take a walk to the shops of the popular mountain town where we were staying. Using my worry as a reason (as if I ever needed one) to cheer myself with a shoeless walk, I kicked off my flip-flops and loved the feeling of the warm sidewalk as I padded down the way. Stopping at some shops, I found items for myself and for a few more gifts. One clerk approvingly said she took off her shoes off in the store but her feet still gets dirty from people traipsing in from the street all day.

Another cheerful thing about going barefoot, is that sometimes you meet other people who also like to, the way you discover someone else with a common interest, for instance someone who likes Monty Python and can recite humorous lines from the Holy Grail movie.

Something I haven’t done for a long time, but will have to think about for next summer, is to plan a short-term project that doesn’t require shoes. Forty years ago this summer, for instance, I copied the inscriptions in our family cemetery, and for summer mornings spent wading in the grass, I figured shoes were unnecessary. Sometimes during student days, I’d tiptoe to the library with my sandals in my book bag and do research; my feet felt wonderful and I was highly productive. My wife Beth and I have done household projects (like wallpapering a bathroom, oy) for which I skipped putting shoes on because I needed to stay cheerful for difficult work. I may jumpstart my old interest in urban and landscape photography and, for the field trips, stay barefoot.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

All Things Well: Bach's Cantatas for the 12th Sunday after Trinity

We’re rolling along with the long season after Pentecost (or after Trinity, if you count from that Sunday, as Bach does). We’re beginning to enter autumn and are up to CD 38 of this Bach set; a man from Mumbai, India looks to us from the CD photo, all by the noted photographer Steve McCurry. After this weekend, we have eleven more Sundays till Christ the King Sunday (that is, the last Sunday before Advent), plus two feast days.

I’m listening to these cantatas for enjoyment and as a spiritual discipline for this year. But I was glad to read (in the CD notes by conductor John Eliot Gardiner) that this week’s cantatas are more celebratory than the previous weeks’, which had been heavy with themes of repentance, hypocrisy, and sorrow for sin (as Gardiner puts it, “the grim doctrinal preoccupations of the Trinity season”). Though suitably conscious of my own shortcomings of faith and life, I was beginning to wonder how I was going to get through several more weeks of penitential or scolding themes. But there will probably be more.

“Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele” (BWV 69a, “Bless the Lord, O my soul”) opens with (in Gardiner’s words) an “exultant” opening chorus and continues “to press all one’s emotional buttons” with the “sheer zest and rhythmical élan to lift one’s spirits.” With all three cantatas Gardiner goes into some detail about Bach’s musical techniques to convey a sense of joy this Sunday.

Ah, that I had a thousand tongues,

ah, that my mouth

were devoid of vain words,

ah, that I said nothing at all,

except that which was meant to praise God,
then would I proclaim the Highest’s goodness;
for all my life He has done so much for me
that I cannot thank Him in eternity.

The title of “Geist und Seele wird verwirret” (BWV 35, “Spirit and soul become confused”) continues in the first aria, in which the alto songs of the soul’s confusion at the miracles of God. All God’s marvelous works on our behalf amaze and enliven us, even renders us speechless.

God has done all things well.

His love, his faith

are new every morning.

When fear and sorrow oppress us,

He hath always sent us ample comfort,
for He watches over us each day.

"Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren" (BWV 137, “Praise the Lord, the mighty King of honor”). Gardiner comments that this cantata is in C major and is based on a thanksgiving hymn by Joachim Neander. The tune is familiar to many of us as that of the hymn “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation.” Bach finds all kinds of ways, from “jazzy” to festive, to convey the joy of the hymn without being constrained by the preexisting form.

Praise the Lord, who has adorned you so exquisitely,
who has given you health, and guides you kindly;
how often in your distress
has merciful God
not spread His wings over you?

Writing of the opening chorus of BWV 69a, Gardiner writes, “This type of chorus makes one aware of how fine is the membrane (if indeed it exists at all) between Bach’s sacred celebratory music and his music for secular festivities: the birthday odes, or even the quodlibets sung by his family at their annual get-togethers.” This week I’m thinking about that, in connection to a discussion we had in our Evangelism class last night at the seminary where I teach part-time: How do we live in ways that show Christ, without hitting people over the head with our message? To put it another way, how do our sacred and secular activities flow together, so that in us, there is little or no “membrane” between the two?

Coincidentally, this morning a Facebook friend posted a comment by one of her colleagues, which also seems apropos. "Imagine if we viewed every activity as a holy, or potentially holy activity.”

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