Monday Morning Music Ministry

Start Your Week with a Spiritual Song in Your Heart

Not a Hallmark Holiday

12-25-17

I want, as I am wont to do sometimes, to offer a different point of view on topics. Sometimes we, as Christians, need a reminder that matters of faith are more joyful than we realize. When I was a young boy, it struck me how worshipers reciting prayers or the liturgy, or singing hymns, spoke “Hallelujah” as if it were a funeral dirge. No smiles, nor louder voices.

And sometimes we need to realize that things that we celebrate – or observe – and about which we prepare in festive modes… are far more serious than we think, or don’t think. I am not saying they are grim; but are worthy of spiritual contemplation. Those second thoughts, deserving of meditation, is what I aim for here.

So. Not a “downer,” not at all. But if we realize some things about Christmas, for instance, that we seldom think about, we might appreciate the day in a new way.

It is interesting to note that Christmas – “Christ’s Mass” – was not a major holiday in the church for most of its history. Yes, it was observed; it was a holy day (holiday); but it did not eclipse the other church holy days as it does today, with the exception of Easter. Ascension Day, marking the absolute confirmation of Christ’s divinity, scarcely is observed in most Christian churches, and is more significant. Despite the Magnificats and Christmas oratorios, Christmas had not the dominance it does today.

Cards, children’s activities, and commercialism changed a lot of this beginning about 175 years ago. I have a dear friend who works for Hallmark Cards, and I truly appreciate the role of greeting cards, seasonal cheer, and the “sentiments” they generate in Kansas City… but they and Norman Rockwell and Haddon Sundblom, illustrator of the Coca-Cola ads, likely have shaped peoples’ impressions of Christmas as much as the angels and shepherds did.

Do we realize that the birth pangs of the first Christmas were not Mary’s alone? Herod believed the Prophecy of the Savior’s birth – even if people today are more indifferent – and decreed that all baby boys in a wide perimeter of Bethlehem be slaughtered? Historians’ numbers vary wildly on the number of slaughtered sons – from triple digits to multiple thousands, mostly based on population estimates and the area stipulated in Herod’s sweeping decree – but it was a frightening time, whether mothers hid in fear or mourned. Birth pangs that accompanied the Nativity.

The haunting Coventry Carol is not a beautiful lullaby but a mothers’ lament for their slaughtered babies… what history records as the Slaughter of the Innocents.

I have made the point (my own imagining, really) that Bethlehem surely had rooms during the Census, but were told, as the Bible relates, that there were no lodgings. I have a suspicion that that couple were denied rooms because Mary, likely still unwed and at any event a young teen very pregnant, were not respectable to innkeepers. The manger, despite the fluffy, antiseptic setting in Hallmark cards, was a trough of straw from which animals ate, therefore full of bugs and spittle.

Mary and Joseph had to escape the slaughter by fleeing ignominiously to Egypt. Christians seem little concerned about that escape or the subsequent years (although Anne Rice has written interesting speculative fiction about Jesus’ boyhood there). Much in the Bible is symbolic, even down to numbers (3, 7, 40 – you must notice), certain metals and woods, and of course symbolic places: the Promised Land, Crossing Jordan, and the Land of Egypt. The world Moses left and where Jesus found escape.

And so forth. Other symbolism we might draw ourselves, without being in Bible concordances or commentaries. For instance, we might – I say we must – consider more carefully the Slaughter of the Innocents.

We can look at the symbolism to the Slaughter of Innocents today. The abortion nightmare kills babies too – in a scenario crueler than under Herod. Today, mothers sanction the murder of their own babies. Today, these deaths occur not to accompany the birth of a Savior, but to reject His saving power, His miracles, His ability to bless in the face of hopelessness. I am in no way callous to the angst of these mothers when they make tortured decisions; believe me I am specially tender, but always opt for life.

Can that view of the widespread slaughter of babies not be a learning experience from the Christmas Story when we stop, in this busy world at this busy time? To open (metaphorically speaking) the greeting card, beyond the pretty manger scene, and think of the many other implications of the Christmas story? …what really happened back then? …and what can happen in our hearts today, seriously, because of that Birth?

Look to the Bible, friend; not to greeting cards.

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The lyrics Coventry Carol were written in 1534 for the Pageant of the Shearman and Tailors Guild in the English town of Coventry. The mother’s soothing words over a sleeping baby, “Lully, Lu Lay,” are the basis of “lullaby.”

Click: Coventry Carol

Advents

12-18-17

This the Advent Season in Christian churches. In ancient rites its observance actually began four or six weeks, or 40 days, before Christmas. And some contemporary churches today might be surprised that there is such a thing – feasts or fasting or celebration or contemplation, looking forward to the birth of the Savior. Christmas is just another day?

“Advent” comes down to us as a word related to “Coming.” Jesus is coming: this is the promise of the Messiah that was seized upon by the faithful for generations. It became real to Mary when the Holy Ghost came upon her and she was told by angels that she had been chosen to bear the Incarnate God, the Messiah, God-with-us, coming to save humankind from its sins. The “Magnificat” is her humble, holy, awesome prayer.

There is an odd fact – so strange that we seldom think of all its meaning – about the Christmas story. Its clarity is not helped by the limitations of language… or, frankly, the limitations of our ability to fully understand or describe certain things.

In the Advent of generations’ hopes and devotions, Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem (plus other, uncountable bits of prophecy). But believers watch and wait, too, for His Second Coming. He will come again with glory, in the twinkling of an eye; the dead in Christ shall rise first to meet Him in the air… you know the verses: the Rapture of the saints, in which we shall share.

“Jesus is coming soon.” Another Advent we observe.

No less solemnly or hope-filled did the followers of Jesus welcome Him to Jerusalem before Passover. “Jesus is coming!” Advent.

When they laid Him in the tomb, those few disciples who had not lost their faith remembered His promise that He would rise from the dead after three days – as, of course, He did. “Jesus is coming!” Advent.

After the Resurrection, He roamed the land for 40 days, preaching, affirming that He was alive, and ministering. I am sure that, just as in most places and some times during His three years of ministry before Crucifixion, the word spread among multitudes, especially the sick, sinners, and the forlorn… to see Him, hear Him, touch His garment. “Jesus is coming!” Advent.

Today, His remnant church knows He will return for us. The New Jerusalem will be established; the devil and his minions will be defeated; and, crossing Beulah Land, we look expectantly to spending eternity with Him around the Throne, evermore singing “Holy, holy, holy.”

“Jesus is coming soon! Maranatha!”

They are all Advents, hallelujah. Here is where I referred to the sorry limitations of understanding and of language. A thousand years is as a moment to God. Jesus came… and He is to come… and He is here, with us. At the same time. The facts of history are real; and the spiritual realities are facts too.

We think of the Babe in the manger, and cannot help but see the Man of the Cross. We learn of prophecy that came before, and cannot help but see the promises ahead. One God, the Three-in-One – food for thought at the Feast of Christ’s Mass next week.

After Christmas, keep those Advent thoughts going. Advent is more than calendars with chocolates behind the little doors. It must be a way of life.

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This is a Gospel traditionally sung to remind believers of the Rapture of the church – Christ returning in the clouds. But it is rock-solid appropriate in this season, too! Recorded in the great lobby of the lodge at Billy Graham’s “Cove” retreat in North Carolina.

Click: Jesus Is Coming Soon

Women in Society, and in the Church, 350 Years Ago

12-11-17

Sometimes we plan for something, and when it happens it seems anticlimactic. When surprised by something special, however, we usually are more impressed. That happened to me in one of the great moments of my life – the cultural-me, anyway – when I first visited Venice.

I anticipated uncountable sites and sights. Indeed I was rewarded with the many canals; the obligatory, and necessary, gondola rides; San Marco Square and the basilica’s gleaming face; Giudecca, by legend the Jewish quarter on an island across from the city; the Murano glass works; and I even rented the famous Room With a View (which is nothing to write a postcard home about, either as a room or for its vistas).

Not on my bucket list or its Venetian equivalent was anything related to Antonio Vivaldi, the great composer of the Baroque period. So I was surprised when walking along a canal-hugging sidewalk (yes, they exist) I turned a corner and was face-to-face with a sign marking the birthplace of Vivaldi; a modest sign on a modest house.

I almost dropped to my knees, animated by the unexpected encounter, in reverence.

Vivaldi is one of history’s great composers. He was a major influence in the music of his day. He absorbed and in turn influenced the characteristics of the Italian school, and the Middle-European and German schools (indeed, it was in Vienna where he died). His music made its way far north to Saxony, where no less a figure than Johann Sebastian Bach transcribed several of Vivaldi’s works.

A major contribution of Vivaldi was his codification of the Concerto Grosso and its trademark construction – solo-and-orchestra; three movements, fast-slow-fast. He wrote more than 500 such concerti in addition to many other compositions. Detractors say that, rather, Vivaldi wrote one concerto 500 times.

But letting yourself be bathed in his music chases away that idea; and you will be joined by Bach and others in your admiration. Leonard Bernstein helped fuel the Vivaldi revival in America.

The reason for this little historical tour is related to our title: like strolls through Venice, I cannot stray far. Vivaldi was a composer, but he was a priest first – nicknamed “The Red Priest” for the vivid color of his hair. He served as the director of music in a Venetian church, the Pieta; and very specifically was teacher and concert-master at the church’s Orphanage. In starker reality it was a home for wayward girls, as society once described unmarried pregnant women.

Women, many of them “girls” in terms of their tender ages, were cared for and housed by the Pieta, and they were educated in various arts and letters. And they learned to read, sing, and perform music. Through the 1700s’ first decades, they were the charges of Fr Antonio Vivaldi. Hence, a voluminous catalog of compositions, and many concerti that showcased solo instruments for talented young women.

Again, there is point beyond general history I wish to share. It resonates at Christmastime, and has relevance in this season of discussions (and scandals) related to women, of their relative subservience or assertion of rights, and their dignity. An extreme extension of a male-dominated society in Vivaldi’s time was not allowing women to perform, sing, play instruments in church; and soprano parts were supplied by castratos – castrated boys whose voices remained as boys’ sounded, even into their adult years. This was especially prevalent in France and England. At the other end was Germany, where its churches, even before Reformation, broke ranks by mixing German with the Latin, and sometimes employing women as singers. Bach did.

Vivaldi had to do so! As Director of Music in an all-women institution, exceptions were granted. The Red Priest must have been as good a teacher as he was composer, because the female musicians and singers of the Pieta were renowned.

There are many pieces of church music associated with Christmas. The Magnificat, many chorales, hymns, and popular carols. The Gloria is not, specifically, Christmas music, but that is because its spare and sweet words – “Glory to God in the highest” – are appropriate, and appropriated, throughout the church calendar. But it is performed and sung, within the church service or independently, with particular meaning during this Advent season.

Following are the English words of the Gloria. And if you are able to click on the video, you will see Vivaldi’s Gloria – possibly the most joyful and profound of the many written by many composers – performed in Vivaldi’s church, the Pieta. And, as in his day, the musicians and singers are all women (in period dress, playing period instruments, to assist our imaginations).

You will notice that the singers are arrayed in the balconies, many of them behind wrought-iron facades. This was the era’s compromise with keeping women “separated,” supposedly to keep worshipers from being distracted (ancestors of senators and movie moguls in the congregation?). OK… at first glance they appear to be in cages, but as I have explained, those women were actually liberated. To sing, perform, praise. Men, too, often were in such locations in churches – simply a practice of the time. In fact, in many churches the organ loft, with singers and musicians, was behind and above the congregation. The focus was forward, to the altar, symbols, Host, etc.

In the context of their time, Vivaldi and his female charges were iconoclasts, pioneers in the free, and equal, and of course welcome exercise of talent and worship.

If the female performers at the Pieta had commenced a tradition that continued and spread elsewhere, women might have had more freedoms, sooner won, and more broadly exercised, across the West. (Remember that, except through the influence of guilds and arcane means, even the men of 1715 Venice did not vote, either.)

Can we agree that the point of social progress is less about unfortunate timing, and more about ultimate justice? In spiritual perspective, it is not whose voices sing praise, but what they sing. And to Whom they lift their voices in that awesome church – “Glory to God in the highest!”

Glory be to God on high And in earth peace, goodwill towards men, We praise thee, we bless thee, we worship thee, we glorify thee, we give thanks to thee, for thy great glory O Lord God, heavenly King, God the Father Almighty.

O Lord, the only-begotten Son, Jesu Christ; O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.

Thou that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. Thou that takest away the sins of the world, receive our prayer. Thou that sittest at the right hand of God the Father, have mercy upon us.

For thou only art holy; thou only art the Lord; thou only, O Christ, with the Holy Ghost, art most high in the glory of God the Father.

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You will notice something besides the floral ironwork behind which the choir sings in the Pieta. The performers are dispersed, widely around the great basilica’s perimeter. This was not an uncommon practice of the time. I noted in my biography of Bach that many churches had their anthems and choruses performed this way: in Salzburg the great early-Baroque composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber wrote several pieces for as many as 40 “parts” – singers, choirs, musicians scattered here and there, high and low, seen and hidden. For worshipers in the congregation, it must have seemed like prototypical Surround Sound!

Click: Gloria

St Patrick, Relevant To Us

7-17-17

Sent from Ireland this week, revived while visiting my daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren.

Unlike some saints of trinkets and wall-hangings, Ireland’s Saint Patrick was real, and is real.

St Patrick knew persecution. There understandably is some obscurity about a man who lived in the late 400s, but two letters he wrote survive; there are records of his deeds; tremendous influences surely attributable to him are still felt; and he did die on March 17. These things, and more, we do know.

He was born in western England and kidnapped by Irish marauders when he was a teenager. As a slave he worked as a shepherd, during which time his faith in God grew, where others might have turned despondent. He escaped to Britain, became learned in the Christian faith, and felt called to return to Ireland. On that soil he converted thousands, he encouraged men and women to serve in the clergy, he worked against slavery, and quashed paganism and heresies. Among his surviving colorful lessons is using the shamrock to explain the mystery of the Trinity, the Triune God, to converts.

He was an on-the-ground evangelist – possibly the church’s first great evangelist/missionary since St Paul, planting churches as far away as Germany – and he preceded much of history: living more than a hundred years prior to Mohammed; 500 years before Christianity split into Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy; and a thousand years before the Reformation.

I am not Irish; I am American. And my background is not at all Irish; it is German. But propelled, I am eager to admit, by a remarkable book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill, I have learned about a gifted people. Not unlike other ethnic groups, the Irish endured persecution through generations, but in many ways in special ways. I have learned about a land that was repository of many tribes, not least the Celts, until its craggy Atlantic coast became the last European stand against pagan barbarism. Those tribes became a people, and their land virtually became, for quite a while, the defiant yet secret refuge of literacy and faith, in lonely monasteries and libraries. You know, the “Dark” Ages. Which were not all that dark. Plumbing was neglected, perhaps; but faith thrived.

As Lori Erickson recently wrote in a series on St Patrick for Patheos, “In the eighth century, Celtic Christians created a masterpiece of religious art called the The Book of Kells, whose vividness, color, and artistic mastery reflected Christian traditions laced with Celtic enchantment. The Book of Kells is an illuminated Latin manuscript of the four Gospels. While scholars don’t know for certain, it was likely created on the remote island of Iona off the coast of Scotland, and later brought to the monastery at Kells, Ireland. Made from the finest vellum and painted with inks and pigments from around the world (including lapis lazuli from Afghanistan), the book is almost indescribable in its loveliness, with designs that are convoluted, ornate, sinuous, and dreamlike in their complexity. Some scholars have called it the most beautiful book in the world,” she wrote. I can add that it can be seen as an early graphic novel.

It is on display at the magnificent Trinity College Library in Dublin – whose famous, cavernous, multi-balconied library room is akin to heaven for bibliomaniacs like me – surrounded by back-lit photos and displays of enlargements. It sits in an environment-controlled case, one page at a time turned every few months. To behold that book, so magnificent in its reproductions, in its reality, was one of the great experiences of my life.

The Book of Kells is awesome for what it is, surely one of the greatest artistic achievements of the human hand, head, and heart. A majestic monument to faith, all the more remarkable for being anonymously produced, unlikely by one person; possibly by a virtual army of creative souls. The Book of Kells is significant, too, for what it represents:

The tenacity of faith; the triumph of trust; the assumption of lonely devotion in the face of worldly temptations and the world-system’s persecutions; the joy of creativity; and obedience to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Knowing Him; making Him known. Not incidentally investing artistic beauty along the way… and having obvious, visceral, evident fun in the process.

Back to Saint Patrick. When the ancient masterpiece we behold as The Book of Kells was created, the man Patrick who bravely and no less tenaciously fought for the Gospel on that beautiful soil was already, himself, 500 years in the past. Our faith has been blessed with famous noted saints like Paul and Augustine; and those who touched souls for Christ but never were designated saints subsequently, like Martin Luther and J S Bach; and many, many saints who mightily served Christ in obscurity, like the monks who made The Book of Kells, and uncountable missionaries and martyrs.

Saint Patrick, born a pagan, made a slave, once a fugitive, was transformed by a knowledge of Christ. He taught us how to overcome challenges, listen to the Holy Spirit, formulate a vision, and change the world. Not just his world; but the world ever after.

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For more than a millennium a hymn, set to the haunting Irish tune “Slane,” and using St Patrick’s teaching in the words of the 6th-century Irish poet Saint Dallan, has spoken to the hearts of believers and non-believers: God is our All-In-All: Be Thou My Vision. It is performed here – with obvious and profound extra layers of meaning – by the blind gospel singer Ginny Owens.

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Click: Be Thou My Vision

Preachers in Aprons, Saints in Curlers, Ceaseless Forgivers

5-15-17

One of the pathologies of contemporary life – a sure sign of the culture of death that has subsumed Western civilization – is the assault on motherhood.

Feminism was a harbinger that was perverted; “women’s liberation” was a movement birthed in economic justice that has, currently, extended to a futile but aggressive war on biological imperatives. Now we are awash in euphemisms like “gender identity” that would turn upside-down simple assumptions of all cultures from all lands and all ages.

But we in the 21st-century West know better. If boys somehow wish they were girls, we should yield to their fantasies. If women desire to be fathers, we change laws to re-define families. The prerogatives and standards of parents, and the sensibilities of the children they raise, are denied in order to accommodate statistically infinitesimal numbers of biological or emotional outliers.

Majoritarian traditionalists and Christians are sanctioned and stifled, yet the New Wave of moral nihilists – those who hate the natural and the immemorial – compose lists of proscriptions and Hate items of thought, attitudes, and speech.

These comments are not choleric, but are laments occasioned by Mother’s Day. Our thoughts should go to the institution of Motherhood, as much as to our own mothers. Theodore Roosevelt once said that “Equality of right does not mean equality of function.” He was the first major politician in America to be an advocate of women’s right to vote – even when his wife herself dissented – yet he revered the institution of motherhood: the role of women in the scheme of life. Toward women and mothers he was almost worshipful, regarding their work and responsibilities as more difficult, and perhaps more valuable, than men’s.

“Equality of function” to him did not imply mere functionality, but addressing roles – where life finds us; where we confront life; where we assess God’s will for our lives – and doing our work honorably.

The humorist Jean Shepherd (possibly the first time he will be paired with Theodore Roosevelt in any essay) devoted a lot of his radio monologues in the 1960s when I was a young addict of his wit and wisdom, to what he called the “Great Role Reversal.” He made many observations, frequently inspired by news items. Minor, everyday occurrences seemed, as often the case in the world of Popular Culture, more dispositive than academic papers and scholarly statistics.

Shep milked chuckles from the effluvia of such reports… but mainly he ruminated on the enormous cultural shift underway in the US. Indeed, the trickle became a tsunami. The nuclear family is under attack. Traditional gender roles are ridiculed. Legal reshuffling for cohabitants is insufficient; the dictionary must contort itself to re-define “family” and “mother.” Male predators must be allowed to enter girl’s rooms. New genders, and names for them, are being invented by the dozens.

I never have had the privilege of being a mother. As closely bound as I was to fathering, fatherhood, being present at the births, then nurturing and rearing my children… I am aware it all is a far-distant second. The special relationship of mother and child, among all species, in fact, is a unique and precious blessing.

A birthright, in fact.

For all the good feelings engendered by Mother’s Day, I reserve a portion of contempt for those creatures who denigrate the institution of Motherhood; who deny the privilege – to others, not only for themselves – of sanctifying the foundation of the family; for hating what we love.

I reserve a portion of pity, too. I must. What I call the Culture of Death extends beyond the trashing of motherhood and women’s traditional roles. Biologically, homosexuals cannot naturally procreate (pro-create). Abortion fanatics crusade for death – disguising their advocacy as convenience for the mothers. And so on. They are to be pitied, and prayed for.

In the meantime, my Mother’s Day is filled with memories of the Mom I knew. I loved her, and love her. She was an example whose nurture appears stronger through the years: seeds, planted, and growing in my life. A servant’s heart, making silent and willing sacrifices. Was she perfect? Smoking and drinking were regrettable but did not affect her salvation. Big deal. We prayed for Jesus to turn the wine back into water. Of vital importance is that she knew Jesus, was active in churches, and related almost every question I ever had to the gospel.

A preacher in aprons. A saint in curlers. An invariable Forgiver.

I believe God created Woman not only as a helpmeet to Adam, but as an Assistant to Himself. As Mothers, to show unconditional love; to bond in unique ways with their children; to bear the essence of comfort, understanding, acceptance.

I admired my Dad, oh yes; I still finish every project wondering if he would approve; to be a good professional. But Mom? If I can be as good a man as she was a mother, I will die grateful and content.

There are some women who, by circumstance or infirmity, sadly cannot become mothers. Most women whom I have met from those groups have hearts even more tender for families and for children.

However, sorry to tell all of you radical harridans who hate, you have disinvited yourselves from family reunions – not at ballparks on summer afternoons, or Grandma’s house on Winter evenings – but from that mystical, privileged, and sacred Family that truly is a gift of God.

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Does this essay seem to dwell on old-fashioned things? I plead guilty! There are too many old fashions that we are losing. Here is one: a tender lullaby, a mother’s song, written by Stephen Foster 150 years ago. Sung by Alison Kraus.

Click: Slumber, My Darling

What If the Easter Story Were True?

4-17-17

And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?

Easter is complicated enough in its significance without us poor humans festooning it with spiritual irrelevancies and celebratory ornaments like bunnies and painted eggs. The early church, which practiced forms of marketing, perhaps named it Easter after pagan fertility rites (Springtime; the rising sun in the east; the fecundity represented by rabbits and eggs); perhaps after the Egyptian fertility goddess Isis or Mesopotamian fertility goddess Ishtar; perhaps the Anglo-Saxon tribes’ goddess of the dawn, Eostre. Names, not substance, of course.

Easter is at once the densest theological concept, its history and meaning easy to reject by the skeptic; and the easiest message to accept by the lost, the hurting, the confused, the hungry, the searching souls of humanity.

That is to say, the truth of the gospel is audacious in its simplicity. Too good to be true, we are tempted to think. It is welcomed, and has been for 2000 years, by all but the hard-hearted and stiff-necked.

It takes more hatred and more hostility to dismiss the gospel, than it requires an open mind and an open heart to believe.

It requires more skepticism to reject the incarnation, Jesus’ ministry and atonement as concentrated in the events of Holy Week, than the faith required to believe it – the countless prophecies precisely fulfilled; the accounts of many eyewitnesses; the life-changing testimonies… Well, I am not writing to convince skeptics today, but rather to be persuasive with those who identify as Christians.

The world asks, “What if the Easter story is not true?”

To contemporary Christians, I ask:

What if the Easter story IS true?

Can people see a change in your life?

Do you go into the whole world – even just your neighborhood – proclaiming the Gospel?
Are you a “fisher of men,” as Christ commended we become?

Can the world clearly see you as “born again,” living a new life?

Because there are laws, we render unto Caesar those things that are Caesar’s… but do you render unto God the things that are God’s?

Do you display the Fruits of the Spirit? More, do you seek the Gifts of the Spirit? Do you pick and choose among Christ’s commands and God’s blessings?

Do you love?

Do you forgive?

God became flesh and dwelt among us. He taught wisely, but did not come to earth primarily to teach. He performed miracles, but perhaps largely to confirm His divinity. The details of His life, as we have said, fulfilled prophecy to levels of mathematical improbability… confirming to a doubting world that He was indeed the Messiah.

Jesus did mighty works modestly and He did loving acts mightily. He performed miracles, raised the dead, healed the sick, read minds, walked on water, produced food for the hungry, calmed the wind and troubled waters. What manner of man was this?

As Emmanuel – God-with-us – He emptied Himself of His divinity when He chose. He wept for the lost. He allowed Himself to be ridiculed, rejected, betrayed, persecuted, accused, tortured, jailed, humiliated, killed.

Sacrificial lambs never did have an easy time of it.

We should see the events of Holy Week not as rituals Christ had to endure, as pages of a script. They were the mightiest of His miracles! To do all that for us – when He could have waved away enemies and soldiers, even Satan – were mighty miracles. Even mightier, to a lowly observer like me, was forgiving those who did these things during His last earthly days. Forgiving me, like Paul, chief among sinners; dying for us all while we were yet sinners.

Indeed, What manner of man is this?

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Click: He Lives

Let Us Go Forward To the First Century

3-13-17

There are rhythms to all things in life, and in life itself. Cycles. In Ecclesiastes chapter 3, they are called “seasons.”

“To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven: A time to be born, And a time to die”… Later, “A time to break down, And a time to build up; A time to weep, And a time to laugh; A time to mourn, And a time to dance”… Condensing the chapter’s long list of dichotomies, Byrd-like, “A time to tear, And a time to sew; A time to keep silence, And a time to speak; A time to love, And a time to hate; A time of war, And a time of peace.”

To everything there is a season, indeed; we all know this by intuition and experience. But most of us do not notice a huge qualification to this wisdom and poetry… later in the same chapter:

“I know that whatever God does, it shall be forever. Nothing can be added to it, and nothing taken from it. God does it, that men should fear before Him.”

In other words, one thing does not change. Truth is immutable. Truth does not depend upon cycles, nor rely on “times” or seasons, nor wait upon our opinions. God’s Word is unchanging; God Himself is eternal. Jesus came once, for all.

There have been cycles of reform in the church of Jesus Christ. As inspired by the Holy Spirit, faithful servants of the Word have seen the need for renewed fidelity to scripture, and acted – often at the peril of scorn, rejection, ostracism, persecution, and sometimes death at the hands of fellow… Christians.

2017 marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses – complaints – to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. It is a convenient numerical commemoration, but no less worthy of recognition for it.

Change is not needed in the body of Christ every 500 years. Sometimes it urgently is needed more often, and has been throughout history. Councils and creeds were plentiful in the battles against errancy and heresy. The Truth of God does not need defense in the realm of ideas; but it does need protection “under this inverted bowl we call the sky, whereunder crawling, cooped, we live and die.” Hence, apologetics and evangelism. And reform.

Every 500 years? Every generation? No, every day.

Some of the greatest persecution of believers has come, and is coming, from fellow “Christians.” Yes, we face opposition from Muslims, the secular culture, governments, the world, the flesh, and the devil; but we also have Error and counterfeit Christianity as foes of our own household. In the Last Days, even the saints will be decieved. And we now are at a crisis point in spiritual history.

God has never needed the dilution, or perversion, of His Word in order to “attract the lost.” Just the opposite. Steel sharpens steel, as Proverbs reminds us! Today, the church in America, in the West, is conforming itself to the world instead of being transformed, instead of having others be transformed by the Holy Spirit to the renewing of minds. It is doomed to failure. Not of God, it is hellish.

In the many stresses of daily life in the 21st century, our paths to spiritual comfort ought to be clearer, not more complicated, than they have become… easier to embrace, not inaccessible. The church, itself in its blind flailing of good intentions, is a prime offender.

Relativism – substituting our logic for God’s Truth – is rife. The contemporary gospel would create God in mankind’s own image.

Religious imperialism – missions outreach that imposes our sort of Christianity on the third world – is offensive. And counterproductive: as the spread of the gospel explodes south of the Equator, even outpacing Islam, missionaries from Africa and South America now see Europe and North America as mission fields.

The deadly “works doctrine” – holding that we can earn our way to Heaven, or buy God’s favor – sparked Luther’s outrage but unfortunately did not die with him. Indulgences have new names, and they are not all Romish. Pentecostalism has been perverted by the Prosperity Gospel. “Seed faith” and “faith offerings,” paired with assurances of God’s material payback, are a stain on the church.

Mega-churches; uncountable “versions” of the Bible; Christian 12-Step programs; retreats and seminars; encyclicals; media ministries… do you notice a pattern? They all tend to be about selves, about each other. Abstractly, not horrible in such a hurting world. But. How many of them are about God? About meeting, knowing, loving Jesus? This should be the “first step” in any “12 Step” program that addresses our challenges.

Our problem – a sin, really – in the contemporary church is this: Too many programs, and Not enough Jesus.

The church has become fluent in identifying needs and creating programs to help alleviate stressors. But the Church itself should be discipled in such a way that these programs need not exist!

We are to bear with one another, not reflexively direct each other to a local church’s ministry program. We ought to shoulder each other’s burdens, umbrella each other when we can, in order to protect and love them. We are not only God’s children, but His witnesses as well. What more could we witness to others than the love, care, and protection that a Father offers? 

In the first century, when the Church was new and exciting and vital, before cathedrals and media ministries, believers met in small circles. Families and extended families. Neighbors. People who knew each other, and wanted to. Brothers and sisters who cared, and served. No microphones and rock bands and back-screen projections or gold-encrusted crowns and robes, or bingo games or mega-anythings…

“Yes, but…” missions? Youth trips? Building programs? Let the dead bury the dead. When Jesus looked down from the cross, he looked into our eyes, each of us, mysteriously, separately. He did not say that He came for programs and ministries. He certainly did not die for Denominationalism that parsed His word into irrelevancy.

He came for you, and your soul. You can take it from there… or, actually, the Holy Spirit can: it is the reason the Paraclete was sent to us.

God sent Jesus to save our souls, and the Spirit to be our Umbrella, our inspiration to overcome the vicissitudes of an evil and false generation. “For me and my household…”

We have been blessed to visit sites of the First-century church. In Roman catacombs (whose primary functions were as places of worship, not hiding) and Irish fields. The goal of Christian pioneers was to withdraw to intimate fellowships; not to expand so as to boast of unmanageable numbers and programs.

Do you yearn for the spiritual comfort and true fellowship of the first-century church?

Rick Marschall and Emily Joy McCorkell

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Click: Faith of Our Fathers

“Hey – I Know That Guy!”

2-6-17

This is something of a continuation of last week’s essay. I seldom attempt this, reckoning that for most people, one week’s worth of my opinions is quite enough on any subject. But circumstances, and some feedback, illuminated the reflections, so to speak, about friendship. I hope that all the flavor is not chewed out of this gum.

At the risk of revealing some repellant form of insularity I might suffer, I have the opinion that despite increased travel, more frequent communication, easier social interaction… the average person has fewer friends – true, intimate, close friends – than ever in years past. I suppose there is way to ascribe logic to this state of affairs, a reasonable explanation, but that is not to avoid regretting it.

The Pace of Life must bear a large share of the blame, if this is true; so the contemporary world’s cornucopia of blessings surely is mixed. In fact it is on almost matters.

These little bubbles we create for ourselves – last week I referred to the temptation for believers, for example, to grow more insulated from the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, as the Bible lists – these bubbles seem to us secure, womb-like. But bubbles burst. All the time.

This week I was reminded of the urge – no, the necessity – of Christians to engage the World. It is frequently our lot; and we can never be sure whether circumstances are orchestrated by God, or not, to test our Witness.

A friend (though casual) on Facebook (where else?) commented (in 2017, many of us seldom converse, but we frequently Comment) on a political thread (what else?). To some perceived outrage by a president I will not name, she commented, simply, “Jesus.” By her own subsequent admission, she is not a Christian, and I perceived of what she wrote to be a curse. (By her subsequent attestation, she said she uttered it in the same manner a Christian might. I was not persuaded that she was praying; and, besides, I have heard plenty church-goers take the Lord’s name in vain. In any event, obviously there was no reason to continue, in private or public, without voicing skepticism about her intention being reverent.)

I yielded to the temptation to refer to her own faith tradition, which I had suspected but did not know, and cite the Second Commandment. But that hinges on the technicality of whether the utterance “Jesus” in that context is an imprecation. A further technicality (not in my friend’s case, but among many people) might be the loophole – “Those shalt not take the Name of the Lord the God in vain”… but taking the name of another person’s Lord or God in vain is okay.

It is not an irrelevant matter, because it leads us to wonder (have you ever wondered?) why people do not yell, “O Buddha!” when they are angry; or “Con-fucius!” when they stub a toe. Never “Mohammed damn it!” when frustrated or disappointed. “By Jove!” is the nearest I can think of.

Why? Inching ever more relevant, for Christians, is the implication of this matter, which is more consequential than we are apt to realize. My lifetime is replete with many Jewish friends, which I happily stipulate despite the snide comments that the concept of “some of my best friends…” always inspires. And I have heard uncountable numbers of them over the years use Jesus’ Name as a curse. Or the formal title Jesus Christ, which seldom sounds more pious in those contexts.

We Christians invariably take it in stride. No – “in stride” is an insufficient term. If my own experience is a standard, we “wimp out,” try to ignore it, take the offense on our Savior’s behalf, and, usually, attempt not to offend the person.

Shameful we are, rather.

We shut up when the Creator of the Universe, the Savior of our Souls is made into a curse in our presence. Because we are too timid; or because not offending an acquaintance is more important than being complicit in an offense to the Son of God.

“Whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:33 NLE translation).

By the way, my use of NLE means “No Loophole Edition” of the Bible. From the Commandments to Jesus’ own Words, to the Epistles, God Almighty requires respect. No loopholes, sorry. He actually asks little of us… but respect is one things. A defense is another.

Through the years I have done certain things – may God forgive me, not often enough – but when I have heard a supermarket shopper or fellow office-worker utter “Jesus Christ!” as a curse, I sometimes tell them that they are insulting my Best Friend. Being rhetorical, I have asked, “Do you know Jesus that well? Do you want to continue… and talk to Him in prayer together?” When I discern that I ought to be serious, I will ask if the person realizes that the Incarnation of God Almighty became Jesus in the flesh, and loved us both so much that He became the sacrifice for our sins. In other words… show some respect.

It is easy to be rebuffed. Be scorned and perhaps insulted. To be spoken about as nosy, or worse (?), as a religious nut.

So what? You have stood up for a Friend. You probably would do so in defense of your spouse or child. Why not your Savior? Your Best Friend.

Jesus stood up for you. He laid Himself down. He scrambled up that cross, virtually, to bear your sins. To suffer and die. Defending His Name – and then sharing His love – is the least we can do.

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Click: Do You Know My Jesus?

Thinking About Thanking

11-21-16

Thanksgiving approacheth.

Oh, good! (or, “Oh, no!”) – Turkey. Trimmings. Leftovers. Football games. Black Friday sales. Take down the Indian corn and gold-and-orange decorations quickly, and put up pine wreaths and red-and-green.

I wonder, and I hope, about the number of people who remember the “real” origin of the holiday. Not the Pilgrims and Indians in casting-call costumes… but remembering our blessings and their Source.

I am wondering about a couple other things this season. As in past years, I note how few people say “You’re Welcome” anymore. Have you noticed? Take a survey – listen to interviews on TV, or how store clerks respond. “You’re welcome” is an endangered phrase.

Notice, it has been replaced by “No problem,” or “No prob.” Or “Sure thing.” Or “You betcha.” Or “Thank YOU.”

Curious.

This is not a moral failure; just a conversational tic of the sort that enters the language. Similar to so many people larding their sentences with “y’know,” or beginning conversations with “So…”

But I have a serious thought whose way-stations are observations like this.

The first American Thanksgiving celebration was organized specifically to give thanks to God for bountiful harvests, safety, and peace with neighbors and environments.

“It is meet, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to You, almighty Father, everlasting God, through Jesus Christ our Lord…” So reads the ancient liturgy preceding the Sanctus.

We give thanks to the Lord, for it is good; we present offerings; we make joyful noise unto the Lord.

It has occurred to me that God covets our thanks, because it shows our hearts are mindful of His many blessings, and this is proper. But have you ever thought that sometimes we should say “You’re Welcome” to God?

“You’re Welcome, God”???

When we think on this, we better appreciate the unique relationship God has – and wants – with us: He does thank us. Often. Humble servants that we are. He thanks us abundantly.

When you receive answers to prayer, the sovereign Lord is also thanking you for faithfulness.

When you are blessed, it is a Thank You from God for seeking His face, and praying earnestly.

When a loved one is healed, or saved, or in some way moved, it may also be in some small way God thanking you for having faith, witnessing, sharing Christ.

Like prayer itself, Thanks is not a one-way street. God honors our faith; the Bible reassures us of this many times. And what is that except a “Thank You” from the Lord of Creation? Can that humble us?… but remind us, too, of how we are loved.

“For God so loved the world that he gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” Back to football! – these are the words of the “John 3:16” signs you see in the stands.

Some people like to refer to Jesus’ birth as God’s Christmas present to humankind. Yes. But we also can see Jesus – God in the flesh to dwell among us – as God’s Thank-You note. The best Thank-You note possible… while we were yet undeserving. But He thanks His children who have open hearts and pure spirits.

When you pray, pray literally: “You’re welcome, Lord: You are welcome in my heart.”

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Click: Thank You

The Sweetest Songs I Know

9-5-16

I have told this story before. It is about a holiday far away from home… but very close to my heart. It happened on a Fourth of July years ago, and was duplicated virtually unchanged two months later, on the Labor Day weekend.

A number of years ago I was working on a book, a three-part biography of rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis; evangelist Jimmy Swaggart; and country-music superstar Mickey Gilley, all first cousins to each other. My good friend Maury Forman offered me his unused condo in Montgomery, Texas to get away for a bit of a personal research and writing one summer. Since Lewis lived in Mississippi, Swaggart in Louisiana, and Gilley in nearby Pasadena Texas, it made geographical sense.

Once settled, I took out the Yellow Pages (remember them?) to chart the location of Assembly of God churches for all the weeks ahead, intent on visiting as many as I could. East Texas was in every way new to me, and I wanted to experience everything I could.

Well, the first one I visited was in Cut and Shoot, Texas. That’s a town’s name; you can look it up. A small, white frame AG church was my first – stop that summer… and I never visited another. For one thing – coincidence? – I learned that a member of the tiny congregation was the widow of a man who had pastored the AG church in Ferriday, Louisiana, the small town FOUR HOURS AWAY where, and when, those three cousins grew up in its pews. She knew them all, and their families, and had great stories. Beyond that, the pastor of the church in Cut and Shoot, Charles Wigley, had gone to Bible College with Jerry Lee Lewis and played in a band with him, until Jerry Lee got kicked out. Some more great stories.

But there was more than that kept me there for that summer. In that white-frame church and that tiny congregation, it was, um, obvious in three minutes that I was not from East Texas. I was born in New York City. Yet I was treated like family as if they had known me three decades. A fellow named Dave Gilbert asked me if I’d like to go to his farm for the holiday where a bunch of people were just going to get together and “do some visitin’.”

I bought the biggest watermelon I could find as my contribution to the pot-luck. Well, there were dozens and dozens of folks. I couldn’t tell which was family and who were friends, because everybody acted like family. When folks from East Texas ask, “How are you?” they really mean it. There were several monstrous barbecue smokers with chimneys, all slow-cooking beef brisket. (Every region brags about its barbecue traditions, but I’ll fight anyone who doesn’t admit low-heat, slow-smoked, no sauce, East-Texas BBQ the best) There was visitin,’ surely; there were delicious side dishes; there was softball and volleyball and kids dirt-biking; and breaks for sweet tea and spontaneous singing of patriotic songs.

I sat back in a folding chair, and I thought, “This is America.”

As the sun set, the same food came out again — smoked brisket galore; all the side dishes; and desserts of all sorts. Better than the first time. Then the Gilberts cleared the porch of their house. People brought instruments out of their cars and trucks. Folks tuned their guitars; some microphones and amps were set up; chairs and blankets dotted the lawn. Dave Gilbert and his brothers, I learned, sang gospel music semi-professionally in the area. Pastor Wigley, during the summer, had opened for Gold City Quartet at a local concert, playing gospel music on the saxophone. But everyone else sang, too.

In some churches, in some parts of America, you are just expected to sing solo every once in a while. You’re not expected to – you want to. So into the evening, as the sun went down and the moon came up over those farms and fields, everyone at that picnic sang, together or solo or in duets or quartets. Spontaneously, mostly. Far into the night, exuberantly with smiles, or heartfelt with tears, singing unto the Lord.

I sat back in the folding chair, and I thought, “This is Heaven.”

I have grown sad for people who have not experienced the type of worship where singers and people who pray, do so spontaneously. From the congregation. Moving to the front. Sharing their hearts. Crying tears of joy or conviction. Loving the Lord, freely. If you have not… visit a church where this is commonplace; even witnessing it is an uplifting balm to the soul. Where there is freedom and joy in singing spontaneously.

I attach a video that very closely captures the music, and the feeling – the fellowship – of that evening. A wooden ranch house, a barbecue picnic just ended, a campfire, and singers spontaneously worshiping, joining in, clapping, and “taking choruses.” There were cameras at this Gaither get-together, but it took this city boy back to that holiday weekend, finding himself amongst a brand-new family, the greatest barbecue I ever tasted before or since… and the sweetest songs I know.

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Click: The Sweetest Song I Know

Dad’s Day – “Daddy!”

6-20-16

Father’s Day. A bit of an ersatz holiday started, actually in fits and starts, about a century ago, mostly as an answer to the more successful, and sentimental, Mother’s Day. Calvin Coolidge was one of several presidents and officials to resist any formalization – on grounds that would be antithetical to our contemporary standards: fearing it would become too commercialized. It was only President Johnson who issued the first proclamation, in the 1960s; and President Nixon a few years later signed the observance of Father’s Day into law.

We need a law to honor our fathers? Well, manufacturers of socks and ugly neckties did. Do we have stronger impulses to honor our distaff parental units? Perhaps so, instinctively, aided and abetted by Hallmark and florists.

This weekend we can suspend the cynicism, however. I honor and miss my father. He has been gone more than 15 years yet I still reach for the phone, sometimes, to share something with him. When I finish writing a book, or discover a piece of classical music, my first impulse is to think what he would say about it.

This is proper. The “scarlet thread” is not solely of Redemption in our lives: we are, or should consider ourselves, members of a continuum that is stronger than blood. Family traditions, the fabric of memories, shared experiences – these are truer resemblances than overbites or freckles.

You will expect me to enlarge the topic to our Heavenly Father, and so I shall.

It is a cliché, or a chestnut, to say that, regarding God Almighty, every day should be Father’s Day. But like most clichés it is true. The sheer magnificence of God can sometimes be overwhelming… similar to when we try to think of the size of the universe. How big, how far… and what is beyond the farthest reaches we can imagine? How old is the universe? Forget the Big Bang… what came before the Big Bang (or, to use the Bible’s parlance, Creation)?

The Lord is one God but present through the Trinity; manifested in one Incarnation but with uncountable attributes; the One True God, the “I Am,” yet with endless aspects; and so forth. The “God of the Old Testament” is often an appellation for a God of Vengeance and Justice. The “God of the New Testament” is described as a God of Love and Mercy. Yet, of course, these attributes – and more – are consistent, frequent, and immutable. Not changeable; just faceted.

Then there is “Abba.” Don’t worry. I am not going to discuss the Swedish pop group ABBA. Many Christians use “Abba” in addressing God, relying, whether consciously or not, upon three passages in the New Testament:

“And [Jesus] said, Abba, Father, all things (are) possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done” (Mark 14:36).

“And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father” (Galatians 4:6).

“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:15).

A little etymology for a moment. These are the only times in the New Testament that “Abba” appears. It is an ancient Aramaic word for Father, adopted and adapted into Hebrew, probably through the Syriac or Chaldee tongues. The Greek texts use it, always follow by “Pater,” father, emphasizing the respect implied in addressing a father, or Father God. In turn the Romans made the word “Pater” their own – the Greek and Latin root giving us “paternal,” paternity,” and so forth. It exists, of course, in Arabic too, and survives in forms like “Abu” in kunya (honorific) names; for instance, the President of the Palestinian State Mahmoud Abbas has the honorific “Abu” Mazen – father of Mazen. “Abba” is possibly the root of Ab-raham, Ahab, Joab, et al. In English it lives in descendent words like “Abbot.”

It is everywhere, once you start looking. Just like our Heavenly Father.

In recent Christianity, “Abba” has been taught and urged upon worshipers as a form of “Father” that actually means something close to “Daddy.” Most recent scholarship debunks that interpretation, asserting that Abba – especially “Abba, Father” as Jesus prayed and Paul wrote – is, by doubling down, a term of heightened respect, not familiarity.

To be formal one last moment, it appears that Abba, especially in prayer, is neither symbolic nor diminutive. Not baby-talk (like Mama, a common utterance in many cultures) as some Christians maintain – a primal vocative. “Father” is a translation; “Abba” is a transliteration. These scholars even tell us that “Abba,” when people in prayer cry it out, is irreverent.

But. Words are tools. Most of us are not linguists or semanticists. And, frankly, if people intensely are praying, we can dispense with a nit-pick about a term being obscure, or irreverent, or deeply sincere. God reads our hearts, anyway.

I have witnessed, and been in the place myself, where someone is under intense spiritual anguish. Conviction, guilt, helplessness, yearning, need. Or joy unspeakable, thanksgiving, praise. People with addictions. Challenges of health or finances. Wives distraught over their marriages; fathers worried about their children; teens fighting bondage.

You pray. You remember biblical models. You seek the prayer-language of angels. And then you get to the point where you just want to say – to cry out! – “Abba!!!”

Yes, “Daddy.” We want to run to Him, hug and be hugged, feel forgiven, and know that we are loved. That’s what Daddys do.

Happy Father’s Day. And say hi to Dad for me when you pray.

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This relevant song is not Christian, but very spiritual – those family threads I wrote about. Steve Goodman, who also wrote “City of New Orleans,” sings about his father who died and inspired this emotional song. This is only for people who have had fathers; everyone else may pass it by.

Click: My Old Man

+ + +

Real Clear Religion, on whose site many readers have followed Monday Music Ministry, has been for many people an indispensible part of their daily fare. It is going through changes right now after almost seven years.

For those who have followed us on RCR, please be sure to continue receiving our weekly essays by Subscribing to Monday Morning Music Ministry. (See link under “Pages” at right.)

What Is Beauty? Where Is Truth?

5-16-16

I don’t know if this is proper horticultural protocol, but I have long defined weeds as flowers and plants that are ugly or inconvenient. After one springtime battle with pretty purple crownvetch that misbehaved – seeming to grow four feet along the garden every night as I slept, choking delicate and expensive plantings – I decided on this definition.

In the same way, there are things in life that have elusive dictionary definitions, but are commonly accepted by humankind. “Beauty” is one of these things. Classic episodes of “The Twilight Zone” aside, we humans all pretty much agree with what is beautiful. In appearance, music, art, sunsets, and buffet tables. (A Supreme Court justice made the same point in a very different way when he stated he could not define pornography “but I know it when I see it.”)

There is a popular saying that did not originate (as 90 per cent of popular sayings seem to) in the Bible or Shakespeare. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is from the novel “Molly Bawn” (1878) by Margaret Wolfe Hungerford. There’s a trivia question, or answer, for you. We hear it all the time. It is not true; but it rings true.

I say this because there are certain innate perceptions and instincts, and an elemental sort of consensus about what constitutes beauty. Not without exception, but largely. Once upon a time, but… less and less it is the case.

People Magazine has an annual issue announcing its “Sexiest Man Alive” (Esquire claims the distaff honors) and it is revealing of our sorry age. First, we see that “Sexy” has replaced “Beautiful” in our estimation. And it is dismissive of almost anyone other than Hollywood stars. Where are the Africans, Asians, Semitics, Martians? Beauty has been debased. I usually disagree, actually, with their coronations… but who am I to argue with supermarket checkout-line pronouncements?

One of the first philosophers, Plato, had beauty, and other things, figured out when he celebrated harmony in music. Why chords and harmony please our ears he did not ascertain, and neither have we; but he theorized that harmony on earth – in music, poetry, debates, colors, fashion, relationships – is a reflection of heavenly harmony. Heaven? The pagan Plato? Yes, he believed that there is such a thing as abstract truth.

Abstract Truth might be unknowable, Plato thought, but humankind ennobles itself by striving for it; to try to know it; to manage to practice it. Unlike his rival Aristotle, he was on to something. In fact it is why the early Christian fathers considered themselves Neo-Platonists. The Bible, and the Person of Jesus Christ, embody Absolute Truth.

Harmony: the goal of artists, composers, musicians, poets for millennia. Today, a lot of music employs dissonance. Literature dwells on chaos. Art depicts the sordid and degenerate. Drama and movies are obsessed with conflict and disaster. These tendencies do not vitiate our conception of Beauty and Harmony, or Plato’s postulation, no. They confirm the fact that people who love beauty and seek harmony are seeking, consciously or subconsciously, Absolute Truths in their lives. And a world turned ugly is reflected in the arts.

Where is Beauty? We have replaced the concept with many perverted versions. Where is Harmony? It has been drowned out by the cacophony of self-indulgence and hate in contemporary life. God planted these instincts in us! He programmed His children to love and seek Absolute Truth and the beautiful, harmonious things of God.

A lost generation cannot cherish beauty, harmony, and truth, when it believes those qualities do not beckon them in wonderful ways, abstract but attainable. They think, if there is no such thing as Absolute Truth in a Heaven that does not exist, how can it have relevance on earth? Hence, everything is polluted, from art to treatment of our fellow man.

If beauty and harmony are good things, there is a universe that is home to them.

If Abstract Truth exists, giving us all a conscience and a sense of justice, then something… some One… has placed them within us.

With history’s exceptions (let us call them people yielding to sin) like war and persecution, we all seek lives and hope for a world of beauty and harmony. We sense, and we know, that Creation, uncorrupted, is what once we collectively shared, and what innately we seek.

Beauty, harmony, and Truth must have authors. And so, if there is a Creation, there must be a Creator. Why people fight against this self-evidence is a mystery, but no more so than people who temporarily go mad and choose today’s things we listed above: dissonance, chaos, the sordid and degenerate, conflict and disaster. Hate. Sin.

The God of the Universe – the God of the Bible, author of Salvation – exists. And He grieves at our current course. Jesus was and is our substitutionary payment, suffering death that we deserve before a Holy God, so that we might be free to commune with the Author of Beauty, Harmony, and Truth, forever.

Like the man with the muck-rake in “Pilgrim’s Progress,” let us take our eyes from the slop we live in every day, somehow getting muddier and muddier. And look upward. “Abstract” does NOT mean “non-existent.” It means of a different substance. Manifested in different ways, through other ways. Like Truth, and in beauty and harmony.

Jesus, recorded in Mark 21, said that “our hearts incline toward evil.” A desperate condition. But our souls seek beauty, harmony, and Truth, and on that path with Him lies our redemption.

+ + +

Real Clear Religion, on whose site many readers have followed Monday Music Ministry, has been to many people an indispensible part of their daily fare. It is going through changes right now after almost seven years.

For those who have followed us on RCR, please be sure to continue receiving our weekly essays by Subscribing to Monday Morning Music Ministry. (See link under “Pages” at right.)

+ + +

Click: Beauty and Harmony: Grimaud plays Beethoven
The second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto. Helene Grimaud; The Hessicher Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester, Frankfurt; Paavo Jarvi, conducter.

The Simplest Prayers Are the Most Sincere

5-2-16

The great composer Johann Sebastian Bach, who lived between 1685 and 1750, universally is regarded as one of the great music-makers of the human race; certainly on almost every critic’s list of the great composers of all time.

Bach received additional plaudits when in 1977 the Voyager spacecraft was sent to nowhere in particular except up, with the hope that, hurtling beyond the solar system and maybe the galaxy, it might some day intersect some civilization in a remote part of the universe. Perhaps, it was hoped, aliens would discover and understand something of mankind from the spacecraft’s unique payload – a copper and gold alloy disk with images and music, estimated by its designers “to last a billion years.”

Among the playlist of global music, Bach was the only composer represented thrice: the Second Brandenburg Concerto, first movement, performed by Karl Richter and the Munich Bach Orchestra; the Gavotte from the Violin Partita No. 3; and the Prelude and Fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2 were chosen to represent humankind’s creative profile.

At the time, biologist Lewis Thomas was asked what he would have nominated for this message to unknown civilizations about humankind. “The complete works of J.S. Bach,” he suggested. “But that would be boasting.”

Such are the sorts of tributes due to Old Bach, among countless heartfelt tributes when trained musicians and common laymen and everyone in between have their hearts melt and their souls stirred by his music.

Bach himself saw his music – and his entire life – as a tribute, instead, in all humility and with his priorities straight, to God Almighty. He was aware, but not vain, about his music-making gifts, gifts from God. Therefore his talents deserved to be raised up to God. In his life, he was first a Christian; second a family man; third, a man who made music. He made music, wrote music, composed music, taught music, was an innovator of music, breathed music, as did his family tree of 40-odd Bachs before, during, and after his own lifetime.

More than half of his approximately 1800 compositions (1200 of which survive) were of Christian focus: cantatas and chorales, motets and masses, Passions and Oratorios.

Yet for all his mighty “secular” works of keyboard and organ pieces, suites and concerti, songs and fugues (whew!)… he viewed all of them, too, to be written as unto the Lord. He knew the Source of his inspiration, and the One to whom credit was due.

Bach began virtually every composition, even his secular music, with a blank paper on which he wrote, Jesu, juva (“Jesus, help me”) on the upper left corner of the first page; and Soli Deo Gloria (“To God alone the glory”) on the bottom right corner of the finished ending.

His was a personal relationship with the Savior, not a professional duty even when he was employed by churches.

Such “bookends” were as anointing oil over all of Bach’s creative work. So did he begin and end his days – and his life – with such petition and praise: “Jesus, help me” and “To God alone be all the glory.” With or without the mode of music, such dedication speaks to us through the years.

The “S.D.G.” (his occasional abbreviation) should have a special meaning to us today. Most people of the 21st century, understand “God,” and understand “glory.” But it is hard for us, in contemporary times, to understand how a man like Johann Sebastian Bach could say, and mean, “alone” in that Credo. Can we?

Emerging cultures and emerging churches have compartmentalized every aspect of life, including God, and arguments are made that God would have it that way. Not so! “Personal fulfillment” is the artist’s goal in today’s world. But to Bach’s worldview, such an idea was an offense.

God “alone” is the source, the content, and the goal of artistic expression. Alone.

These prayers, and the prioritization of “ALONE” when we thank God, is how we should live, and how we should pray. Not (virtually) “thanks for helping me in this way or that way, God”; but “Thank you for being my inspiration, my helper, my right hand, my goal… my all in all.”

When we are too busy to pray, we are… too busy. We all know this, yet it happens. But if – at least – we start every day with the brief “Jesus, help me” as Bach began his compositions; and if we ended every day with “To God alone be the glory,” we will be in appropriate frames of mind.

We will start dwelling on the profound and proper life-truths of those simple prayers. We will not escape from their gentle but deep implications. We will expand on them in our active thoughts, and in our subconscious moments. We will hide those words and their implications in our hearts.

The truths spoken to our lives will become like… tunes we cannot get out of our minds. Like many of Bach’s themes. Musical and spiritual.

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Real Clear Religion, on whose site many readers have followed Monday Music Ministry, has been to many people an indispensible part of their daily fare. It is going through changes right now after almost seven years.

For those who have followed us on RCR, please be sure to continue receiving our weekly essays by Subscribing to Monday Morning Music Ministry. (See link under “Pages” at right.)
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The second movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite:

Click: Bach’s “Air”

Earth Day and “My Father’s World”

4-25-16

I noted the annual observance of Earth Day. And right about now I am making ready for my annual pilgrimage to the top of that earth.

Not quite Mount Everest or Mont Blanc or Mount McKinley, but high enough: Rocky Mountain High. Not a holy trek… although it is associated with the annual Greater Colorado Christian Writer’s Conference (attendance at which I urge on all aspiring writers, published authors, casual readers, and everyone in between). Is it a true pilgrimage? Yes, it is.

Many pilgrimages have been undertaken by pilgrims (obviously) to sites of holy or historical significance; sometimes in celebration or in observation of dates or past events. They can venture to the unknown (think the New World) or to very familiar places (think Jerusalem or Lourdes).

Or they can serve to re-charge one’s battery, so to speak. To savor the sustenance one expects to be waiting. To commune in a way unavailable elsewhere.

I will re-create the experience for those of you not from bumpy lands. I was born in New York City, where all the peaks are of stone, but piled up by man, not God. (Ask me about trips to Bavaria and Switzerland and Austria sometime, too.) You arrive in Denver, nestled in mountains a mile high. You drive to Estes Park, a frontier-flavored town half again as high above sea level. Local landmarks are the Stanley Hotel and the sprawling YMCA retreat and conference center, which hosts the writers’ conference. And, of course, 360 degrees of mountains, snow-capped year-‘round.

Every year after the conference a few faculty members and friends make the trek upward – so it seems, straight up! Past the Theodore Roosevelt National Forest, into the Rocky Mountain National Park, passing scattered cabins and lazy elk and deer, we climb farther, into thinner air. The deciduous trees disappear; we are above the pine line. Soon, even the pine trees can grow no more, and there are only strange scrub plants, jagged rocks, and frozen snow.

At summits you stop to walk – carefully and slowly, because the thin air ensures that you easily become winded. If the temperatures are cold, even when you see your breath, you still shed jackets and sweaters because the sun strangely compensates. At these levels, discreet signage informs you of the height; of the fact that nearby snow scarcely melts and might be many years old; and strictly warns against stepping on the only discernible vegetation: lichens and moss. The organisms, actually not related to each other, form greenish shadows on rocks, and – as the signs warn – can take hundreds of years to reestablish themselves if stepped on and destroyed.

As high as I and my friends have ever ventured, there are always peaks not far away (probably many miles!) that reach higher. Birds with magnificent wing-spreads float above, not having to flap their wings, seemingly ever, as they catch the upward wind drafts. We stand at cliffs’ edges and look down, down, down, seeing four-legged animals we can hardly distinguish, gaily leaping between precarious peaks.

One year, in glaring sunlight and amidst unearthly silence, our group beheld these scenes and someone started singing the old hymn, “This Is My Father’s World.” One by one, everybody joined in.

“This is my Father’s world, And to my listening ears
All nature sings, and ‘round me rings The music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas; His hand the wonders wrought.”

Perfect-seeming. A natural setting, an appropriate response, a love song to God as He has revealed Himself. Who would not have the same reaction?

Very few of us, that’s who. Yet God, I think, would have us remember that such glorious scenery can be seductive; pristine nature is only part of the Father’s world. I believe God would have us remember two categories of truths that easily elude us, especially after we plan pilgrimages or encounter the stunning beauty of Creation.

The first category of truths – reminders, I will call them – is comprised of realities that are as hard and sharp as those of mountains. We can occasionally drive away from, but not escape, the concurrent existence of sickness and disease; of hate and sorrow; of wars and rumors of wars; of crying mothers and crying orphans; of abused women and aborted babies; of poverty and injustice; of persecution and oppression; of pollution and waste; of prejudice and corruption; of slums and poverty; of greed and envy; of empty hope and no faith. All around us.

THESE are also parts of my Father’s world. Just as much as pretty landscapes and joy-filled nature.

The second category of reminders, no less significant in God’s plan, tells us that the first category is not a random list of uncomfortable truths. Rather, they are God’s checklist of matters we must address. Christians are familiar with forebears who knew about the Promised Land. All of Creation once looked like the snow-capped Rockies. The Garden of Eden we know. The Land of Beulah was sought in Old Testament days as representing a virtual marriage feast, preparing for fellowship with the Lord.

Heaven has been described to us: The land of milk and honey, where sorrows shall cease, where joys will never end, where the buildings shall be as mansions prepared for us. If it were not so He would not have told us.

But the pathway there requires all of us to climb down those mountains, often to dwell in dark valleys. Vales of tears, usually. Valleys of the shadows of death. We will not merely encounter unpleasant things in life: we must confront and do battle with them. God’s work must be our own. We must wrestle with more than flesh and blood “but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12).

Not a warning; not an option; more like a prediction; in fact a promise from God. These are not assignments to win God’s favor. They are simply the duties of a follower of Christ.

In fact, they are privileges.

To care for those who hurt, to minister to their souls as well as their bodies, is what Christians do. Not often enough, maybe… but it is what we do. To comfort, to feed and clothe, to sacrifice and serve, to share Christ and to BE Christ; to love. To love.

Marlene Bagnull, Director of the conference in Estes Park, always remembers among the hubbub of seminars and programs and fellowship, to highlight two missions programs each year; one at home, one overseas. Truly, it is meet and right so to do. The work God gives us is as likely to be halfway around His world as across our hometowns.

And surely those tasks are also in our neighbors’ houses; in our schools and offices; in the hallways and bedrooms of our own homes. These places, these people, these problems… are all squarely in “My Father’s World,” too. As we redeem His people, we redeem His planet. His world. Let us all remember every corner of creation; pleasant and – for the moment – unpleasant. By the way, Earth Day is not a celebration of Mother Nature but Father God, Creator.

“This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world. The battle is not done.
Jesus who died shall be satisfied, and earth and Heaven be one.”

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Click the embedded link to learn more about the Colorado Writer’s conference.

Real Clear Religion, on whose site many readers have followed Monday Music Ministry, has been to many people an indispensible part of their daily fare. It is going through changes right now after almost seven years.

For those who have followed us on RCR, please be sure to continue receiving our weekly essays by Subscribing to Monday Morning Music Ministry. (See link under “Pages” at right.)

Click: This Is My Father’s World

After 1500 Years the Man, Not the Myth, Endures

3-21-16

St Patrick’s Day is over, a mini-holiday in the commercialized America that likes to observe at least one holiday a month. The truth is, the American economy might collapse if it were not for our periodic celebrations, three-day weekends, and “holiday” sales.

Approximately one-fourth of all retail sales are in the Christmas season. When you consider the hoopla and commercials built upon Presidents’ Days and Easter Bunnies and Halloweens, you can believe that without formerly Christian holy days and once-patriotic commemorations, our economy would collapse.

Where, once, Christian observances and patriotic anniversaries inspired us, now their superficial and counterfeit shades prop us up.

St Patrick’s Day is in that category. Bins of discounted green plastic hats, and the few remaining posters for green milk shakes, confirm this. Sic Transit gloria mundi. Until next year. Until the next holiday – bunnies and peeps hot on the trail this season. Some Americans even assume that “Saint Paddy” was one of the fictional or dubious Catholic saints, like St Christopher and St George.

But Saint Patrick was real, and is real.

St Patrick knew persecution. There understandably is some obscurity about a man who lived in the late 400s, but two letters he wrote survive; there are records of his deeds; tremendous influences surely attributable to him are still felt; and he did die on March 17. These things, and more, we do know.

He was born in western England and kidnapped by Irish marauders when he was a teenager. As a slave he worked as a shepherd, during which time his faith in God grew, where others might have turned despondent. He escaped to Britain, became learned in the Christian faith, and felt called to return to Ireland. On that soil he converted thousands, he encouraged men and women to serve in the clergy, he worked against slavery, and quashed paganism and heresies. Among his surviving colorful lessons is using the shamrock to explain the mystery of the Trinity, the Triune God, to converts.

He was an on-the-ground evangelist – possibly the church’s first great evangelist/missionary since St Paul, planting churches as far away as Germany – and he preceded much of history: living more than a hundred years prior to Mohammed; 500 years before Christianity split into Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy; and a thousand years before the Reformation.

I am not Irish; I am American. And my background is not at all Irish; it is German. But propelled, I am eager to admit, by a remarkable book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill, I have learned about a gifted people who, not unlike other ethnic groups, endured persecution through generations; and learned about a land that was repository of many tribes, not least the Celts, until its craggy Atlantic coast became the last European stand against pagan barbarism. Those tribes became a people, and their land virtually became, for quite a while, the defiant yet secret refuge of literacy and faith, in lonely monasteries and libraries.

As Lori Erickson recently wrote in a series on St Patrick for Patheos, “In the eighth century, Celtic Christians created a masterpiece of religious art called the The Book of Kells, a book whose vividness, color, and artistic mastery reflect Christian traditions laced with Celtic enchantment. The Book of Kells is an illuminated Latin manuscript of the four Gospels. While scholars don’t know for certain, it was likely created on the remote island of Iona off the coast of Scotland, and later brought to the monastery at Kells, Ireland.

“Made from the finest vellum and painted with inks and pigments from around the world (including lapis lazuli from Afghanistan), the book is almost indescribable in its loveliness, with designs that are convoluted, ornate, sinuous, and dreamlike in their complexity. Some scholars have called it the most beautiful book in the world,” she wrote. I can add that it can be seen as an early graphic novel.

It is on display at the magnificent Trinity College Library in Dublin – whose famous, cavernous, multi-balconied library room is akin to heaven for bibliomaniacs like me – and surrounded by back-lit photos and displays of enlargements, it sits in an environment-controlled case, one page at a time turned every few months. To behold that book, so magnificent in its reproductions, in its reality, was one of the great experiences of my life.

The Book of Kells is awesome for what it is, surely one of the greatest artistic achievements of the human hand, head, and heart. A majestic monument to faith, all the more remarkable for being anonymously produced, unlikely by one person; possibly by a virtual army of creative souls. The Book of Kells is significant, too, for what it represents:

The tenacity of faith; the triumph of trust; the assumption of lonely devotion in the face of worldly temptations and the world-system’s persecutions; the joy of creativity; and obedience to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Knowing Him; making Him known. Not incidentally investing artistic beauty along the way… and having obvious, visceral, evident fun in the process.

Back to Saint Patrick. When the ancient masterpiece we behold as The Book of Kells was created, the man Patrick who bravely and no less tenaciously fought for the gospel on that beautiful soil was already, himself, 500 years in the past. The church has been blessed with famous saints like Paul and Augustine; and those who touched souls for Christ but never were designated saints subsequently, like Martin Luther and J S Bach; and many, many saints who mightily served Christ in obscurity, like the monks who made The Book of Kells, and uncountable missionaries and martyrs.

Saint Patrick, born a pagan, made a slave, once a fugitive, was transformed by a knowledge of Christ. He taught us how to overcome challenges, listen to the Holy Spirit, formulate a vision, and change the world. Not just his world; but the world ever after.

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For more than a millennium a hymn, set to the haunting Irish tune “Slane,” and using St Patrick’s teaching in the words of the 6th-century Irish poet Saint Dallan, has spoken to the hearts of believers and non-believers: God is our All-In-All: Be Thou My Vision. It is performed here – with obvious and profound extra layers of meaning – by the blind gospel singer Ginny Owens.

Click: Be Thou My Vision

Stop.

2-29-16

Just for a moment, stop. Savor the good; calculate the not-so-good. We must live our lives, even as the culture tells us to put on costumes and spout lines, letting our selves go past our eyes as if we were spectators, not the players. We, all of us, go around and around and around in our worlds, always meaning to start, or finish, something or other.

Parents know: running kids from here to there and back again. Activities. They’ve got to enjoy themselves, right? But how often do they enjoy talking to their parents… talking with their parents? How many times have you returned from a vacation, feeling that now you REALLY need a rest; whew!?! Even leisure has become an industry.

A while ago I wrote an essay based on Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God,” in which I suggested that great wisdom comes from a deliberate parsing: “Be.” “Be still.” “Be still and know.” “Be still, and know that I am.” “Be still, and know that I am God.”

Profound wisdom in each portion, each inviting deep contemplation – maybe a lifetime’s! Yet the essence that we of the 21st century take away is the admonition to be still. It is hard to hear God above the noise. It also is difficult to hear ourselves above the noise.

And when that happens, we stop even trying to listen to ourselves. In the next step – a downward step on a spiral staircase, I’m afraid – we finally stop talking to ourselves. Not talking to ourselves like mad people do, but conversations with the “inner selves” God has placed in our make-ups. Our creative selves. To stop that, I believe, is a sin.

When God created mankind, He made them in the likeness of God. (Genesis 5:1)

The question of listening to ourselves, to responding to the “creative spark,” is something that long interested me. My father, a polymath and omnivorous reader, encouraged me to draw and paint and write; to love music and art and history. But I came to realize that our earthly fathers and mothers only can cultivate such interests. It is our Heavenly Father who plants the seeds.

For a while, as a baby Christian, I was persuaded by some people that we are rebellious if we claim to create anything – that Only God can create, and that nothing can be created that is not of Him already. Pretty soon I realized that this is only a word game; and, when that game is played, it would rob the Lord of one of His great joys. He is Creator-God, yes; but when creating us in His image, He puts creativity within us!

If we are to be “imitators of Christ” in our standards and actions, so we can be imitators of God, and seek to create in His spirit; to dream and imagine, and dare. Attempting the likeness of God’s very creativity, we can seek perfection, look for beauty, and bless others.

We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10).

I humbly suggest that in God’s eyes, “good works” are more than sharing Christ and being charitable. It is good work indeed to be all that God intended you to be, to fulfill the creativity wherewith He graced you. To me, it comes close to insulting God to dismiss the talent and imagination you have – and Yes, you have gifts; we all do.

If you doubt, this is when you should stop and be especially quiet, and listen for the Holy Spirit, and to the voice of your creative self. My daughter Emily is tenfold more talented than I, and she draws and paints and writes, beautifully. She has proposed collaborating on a children’s book with her Pop – can anything honor a father more? She has dreamed, lately, of opening a restaurant. When life intrudes, as it will, creativity just sprouts elsewhere, like the pretty shoots and buds and reeds appear every spring, sometimes in the most surprising places. Emily now is designing a website about cooking and baking and serving others through kitchen-fun.

Another Hero of Creativity, and a poster child for quietly listening, obeying, and sharing God’s spark in her life, is Eva Cassidy. I only learned of her from friends in Ireland, where her acclaim commenced after her death. A singer born in the Washington DC area, she played in local clubs and made only a few recordings, partly because she loved so many genres she was hard to categorize; partly because she was intensely shy. But… she was warmed by that creative spark.

Her performances were astonishing. Just past 30 years of age she died, suddenly, of melanoma cancer. After a few years her tapes made it to England, where, played on the BBC, her songs suddenly topped the charts. Eventually her music sold millions, in the UK, Ireland, throughout Europe, and back in the USA.

I cannot listen to her without getting teary. Not just her voice and interpretations. But her example. She stopped and savored life, with the stereotypical obsession to be a superstar; but she sang to please others, where she was, with what she had. She listened; she loved God; she dared to step out. She sang because she loved to. She mastered her craft and surrendered to her heart – when, today, most of us try our hardest to do the opposite, often failing at both.

“How lucky am I,” she once said, “to just do what I love: play the guitar and sing songs.” How many of us can savor the satisfaction of doing what we really love… and really loving what we do?

There’s the pursuit, and often the attainment, of happiness. That is one way to please God. It is not selfish: it is doing what He has prepared you to do. Go thou and create!

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Eva Cassidy died in 1996. The Georgian/Northern Irish/British singer Katie Melua is about as old now as Eva when she died; they never met. However through the creative use of technology, they have performed duets, sensitive and powerful in their beauty. Eva’s “half” is from a serendipitous video-cam capture of a performance 20 years ago. Stop and watch and listen.

Click: What a Wonderful World

A Revolutionary Way To Do Church

2-1-16

First, I want to state that I generally do not like phrases like “doing church”; I might prefer “being church,” but that debate is for another essay. “Doing church” is in the parlance of many of the people I want to address here.

Our two previous essays have enabled me to vent (I hope not rant) about trends in contemporary American churches. Worship music that is neither, as I put it; styles that are alien to many church-goers; abandonment of hymnals, songsheets, and printed music to follow; lyrics that often are “me-oriented” and not praising God. The subsequent message criticized services that have no form or structure; and how “spontaneity,” otherwise a worthwhile goal, has itself become a paradigm as rigid as the dogmatism it rejects.

I here will close those subjects, or least my prescriptions, because I do not want merely to be a scold, but rather a man in the arena on a topic I consider vital to Christendom today. A third aspect.

In America, parts of Christianity suffer from the seduction of… well, America. I mean the American character as it has evolved: sound-bite attention spans, instant gratification, an affection for glitz and multi-media entertainment. As churches worry about losing members, attracting new ones, and serving youth, there are inducements to throw out old bath water. Without recalling the second half of that cliché.

Our culture has engendered a pick-and-choose approach to worship and music styles… and, not ironically but tragically, a similar theological menu. Pick and choose the verses to obey. Have your religion conform to your attitudes. Justify your problems, and your family’s challenges, by selecting the right Bible passages. Presume to know what Jesus thought, despite what He said. These attitudes are very common in America today.

If Christianity has moved “outside the box,” and free-form worship is the symptom, I will suggest that we can get things in order… make sense of faith by making religion be sensible again… return to the comfort, security, and spiritual value of meaningful worship practices.

So: Some suggestions for “doing church” in a revolutionary way, and, I think, potentially very interesting for all shades of the religious spectrum.

* Design services so that, as they unfold, every aspect of Jesus’s life and ministry be represented. That is, by prayers, readings, music, perhaps dramatic presentations or testimonies, part after part of the service would be a reminder of Old Testament prophesies, the Incarnation, Jesus’s teaching, His persecution, suffering, crucifixion, death and resurrection; all – in various ways – informing meditations, prayers, and worship.

* Be intentional about the music during the service. Some can be performance, but also value the spiritual joy in congregational singing. Mix the old and new. Encourage artistry and creativity – even to drama, poetry, special art. Remember that “worship” is derived from “worth-ship.” God is worthy of praise; everything we do should be worthy of Him. Revolutionary: invite Him to speak to us through worship.

* Speaking of art, re-fit the worship area with symbols of Christianity. Many contemporary churches behave like the stern, churchy iconoclasts of old. Celebrate the cross! Resurrect (ha) the meaningful symbols of the church – the rose, doves, a flowing river, Trinitarian designs. Be colorful, as stained-glass windows were!

* Of course, retain the sermon; but too often these days, except for holidays, sermons are random messages amid random music. Make everything integrated, and complementary, and thematically unified. Have the soloist or worship band (who I don’t want to banish; just be focused) write or perform other songs germane to the theme of the season or the sermon. The same with music while worshipers seat themselves; between parts of the service; during communion… all intentional as to the spiritual topic.

Does this sound revolutionary? Certainly a change from the services in a lot of contemporary churches! More exciting? More meaningful? More chance for involvement, from the pews to the worship? Closer to what church should be. Yes.

But, as some of you might recognize, I have not described anything new, or even Post-Modern, but something very old – the basic forms of worship, orders of the service, and worship environment, of churches going back almost 2000 years. It worked, it was cherished, it was valuable. More than mere corporate fellowship, it traditionally was a fulfillment of planned meditation, worship, prayer and petitions, joy and spiritual renewal. Too often, in too many places, it has been lost.

If believers want to gather with friends to share, follow no special forms of praise or songs, they can join in home fellowships and small groups. The first-century Christians did. If Christians want to listen to a concert of Christian music, they can go to concerts or buy CDs. Church – the “doing,” not the building – is indeed a “service.” We serve God, and in Liturgical traditions, it was believed that in a mystical way, God meets and serves us through organized worship.

That is what I have meant by “the Logic of Liturgy.”

The traditional parts of the service, in their Latin names, meant specific things, reminders of Christ. Exactly like the Creeds remind us, point by point, of the essentials of our faith. Through the centuries (and surviving in some liturgical traditions) the parts of the service included these – their Latin names, although no longer sung in Latin, and what they celebrated:

Introit (Entrance); Kyrie Eleison (Lord, have mercy; asking to be blessed); Gloria (Praise to God, recalling Jesus’s birth); Allelujah; Sanctus (“Holy,” with special emphasis in Communion services); Pax Domini (“The Peace of God”); Agnus Dei (Lamb of God, focusing on Jesus’s sacrifice); Nunc Dimittis (“Now we dismiss,” with words quoting Simeon, “We have seen Thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people”); Benediction (“Now let us Thy servants depart in peace”).

With a few variations between faith traditions, these parts comprised the worship services of Christians wherever they gathered across the world for most of two millennia. Throughout, of course, at appropriate places, are the three readings (Old Testament, Epistle, Gospel); a Creed; hymns; the sermon or homily; the Lord’s Prayer; and offering with offertory music.

In addition, throughout history’s churches, every image, every symbol, every color represented something in the story of Christ or the church calendar. Literally, every wall and corner of churches shouted and sang the Gospel message! Worshipers understood all this. Stained-glass windows were not mere colorful decorations: they were graphic novels of spiritual content.

I profoundly believe that a return to this blueprint of worship would unite various faiths and trigger a revival in today’s church. John Paul II said that the future starts today, not tomorrow. In my essay I suggest that today can only have validity if we recognize that it started yesterday. We can honor strict customs, or be innovative within the boundaries. We can be mystical, “contemporary-sounding,” or in ethnic traditions. We can dance in the Spirit, or kneel in the pews. No matter if we fold our hands or lift our arms. There has to be nothing lockstep about the walk down this path! Old hymns or modern songs; strict readings or creative new wording; traditional spoken sermons or multi-media messages – why not? But… staying accessible to worshipers helps God be accessible to our yearning hearts.

Returning to my first thesis, that a lot of contemporary worship music is neither: in such a back-to-the-basics shift that I suggest, worship leaders would not merely be kids in the church who have talent and volunteer to perform. The position of Worship Leader should be restored as a vital component of a church staff, a pastoral responsibility. Someone who not only performs, but ministers.

The American Syndrome is that we tend to reject the past because it is over. We cheat ourselves and defy history’s lessons – our DNA, so to speak; cultural and spiritual. We need to cherish what is good in the past. We must build on it. It is the basis of wisdom. And a means to connect, or re-connect, with the Heart of God.

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Our vid clip this week is not a commercial! It is a documentary explaining the devotion of one American church that has embraced “ancient” liturgy. Even more than many liturgical churches, Grace Lutheran Church, Tulsa, practices “high-church” traditions – the sign of the Cross, incense, votive candles. But the faces of the young and old congregants, and the pastors’ explanations of liturgy, sum up what we have been saying in these messages.

Click: The Logic of Liturgy

Christianity’s Towers of Babel

1-25-16

Last week’s essay on “worshiptainment,” Worship Music That Is Neither, excited quite a bit of notice and debate across the spectrum. It was picked up by many websites and newsletters, posted and re-posted on Facebook, and promises to be, I am told, the subject of sermons and small-group discussions.

In the essay I addressed the form of musical worship that has overtaken many mainstream-denomination, independent, and “mega” churches. Worshipers singing hymns have been replaced by performance musicians; organs and pianos by guitars and drums; hymnals and songbooks by words roughly projected on screens. Worshipers now are audiences. Congregational singing is optional, effectively discouraged.

I have been in uncountable churches where MCs tell everyone when to smile, when to clap, and to repeat “Good Morning!” if not yelled loudly enough. Dissent from such was the thrust of my essay.

The problem – my point – is that what is represented as free-form worship, in their own way, is more regimented than Medieval chants or sitting under Jonathan Edwards sermons. Congregants do not feel parts of a congregation, communicants cannot commune, and some people who go to church to find their still, small corner… find no corners. Some people yearn for church not for pep rallies, but needing to weep quiet, sincere tears; or to lay on their faces, as it were, at the altar. Not smile on cue, wave, and jump in place. To go out and face the world refreshed, not to see face-painters and cappuccino stands in the parking lot.

We should be discomfited by more than music and worship paradigms in large swaths of today’s church, however. A virtual Tower of Babel within the church it seems, but is not necessarily bad, nor unprecedented. In ancient times, the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity developed along local preferences and traditions. Resistance to Papal authority actually began centuries before Luther. During the height of the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and, yes, the Counter-Counter-Reformation, churches affixed themselves to varying worship modes.

… but, within Christendom, they were modes and styles – very seldom, aside from the role of the Pope, dissension about basic doctrine. Luther, in fact, did not want to leave the Catholic Church. J. S. Bach, the “Fifth Evangelist,’ hymnist of the Protestant Affirmation, was proudest among his 1800 works (approximately 1200 of which have survived) of his B-minor Mass – a Catholic mass.

And so forth. With few exceptions (Salem, the Inquisition) the internal battles of Christendom – the Thirty Years’ War; Tudors vs. Stuarts in England; the “Troubles” in Ireland – are tattooed with religious arguments and justifications in history books. But almost all of these were political or economic or military or geographical or personal wars, fought under the convenient banners of Christian exegeses.

I have been to Northern Ireland. I have spoken with many who survived the Troubles. Many who are now reconciled, many who buried relatives killed by those they now call friends. Virtually none fought over transubstantiation vs. consubstantiation, back in the day. People simply preferred to hate. Christ’s love covered all… when it was accepted.

My point is that all these groups, over history, that I have named (including the Orthodox communities, about we in the West know little) were remarkably similar in worship settings. The peripheral things (hate, politics, rivalries) clearly and ironically were separate from the central spiritual core.

That is, worship was to the same God, the same Savior, using the same Bible… and virtually the same worship. The early “Church Fathers” met, and prayed, and fashioned creeds – to codify the basics of Christian belief; to combat heresies, and to spread the Word. Similarly, they designed a template of worship – to, likewise, have the worship service address, in its part after part, the essentials of the faith.

There is a Logic to Liturgy.

Liturgy is the order of service, designed to address and remind worshipers of the essential doctrines of faith. You can listen to recordings of recreated services of the 5th-century churches, and identify the orders, and even the (translated) words of the service, if you were reared in a 20th-century liturgical church. The orders, words, chants, prayers, invocations, responses of the Catholic Mass of 500 years ago, are substantially as today (or pre-Vatican II); substantially as services in Lutheran, Anglican, and High Episcopal services.

I have visited churches throughout Europe where I did not know the local language, yet I knew the liturgical melodies, and the order within the services, as if I did. I knew what was being prayed, celebrated, petitioned. That is how it has been… and, I submit, should still be.

In liturgical churches these traditions survive, even if sometimes barely. In Evangelical churches, there might be free-form worship, but usually in a prescribed format each Sunday. Quakers have had their own traditions. And Pentecostals frequently invite the Holy Spirit to move over a service.

So, I understand, and I hope readers do, that my unease with contemporary worship music is not based on reactionary devotion to ancient and dry music (which traditional music of the church is not!). We see that, for 2000 years, Christians at all times and in all places have inherited and exercised the essence, if not the forms, of worship.

What is new in our times, in Post-Modern services, is content (or, today, the dearth of content) – has changed or disappeared in many churches. To many observers, it honors God less, and “self” more; it is less about the message of Jesus and more about the massage of ego.

I know the complaints about traditional church music, about liturgy. About dry sermons. About “everything from the book.” I know the complaints because I shared them. When I was young, I noticed that grownups in pews around me droned through the Settings – the printed orders of service. Those routines seldom changed; virtually only on Communion Sundays or a few holidays intruded.

Everyone could recite the long petitions in their sleep. I know. I saw it on Sunday mornings. I still can myself, never setting out to memorize the passages. Just like ministers and priests (you see it on TV, maybe when the Senate is called to order, or a president is buried) reading prayers. Shouldn’t they be familiar enough with God by now to pray extemporaneously?!?

So. I concluded, and many still might, to reject ordered tradition, to conclude that rites can become rituals can become rote. Empty repetition. Spiritually empty. Sure: that is the danger.

But, today, my argument is – and it has taken us a generation or two to recognize this – that spontaneity can grow just as empty.

“Free form worship” can become as programmed as printed liturgy.

“Forced spontaneity” is an oxymoron. It is what we bring, not what we receive, that makes for worship.

Contemporary “praise music,” un-programmed services, and the Post-Modern church can grow just as cold as anything. Colder, when Jesus is absent from the Focus as well as the Form.

If many parts of the contemporary church have morphed from hymns to concert performances, I fervently pray that those talented musicians simply would perform in concerts! Many of them do; more of them should. Worship in church is different than attending a concert, no offense meant. There is a Logic to Liturgy.

And there is a 2000-year-old tradition to resume.

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No organ, no church pews. But, performance that is inclusive. Worship and praise that worships the Lord and praises Him… and uplifts musical worshipers. The great gospel song of Fanny Crosby. Blind nearly since birth, she began writing hymns at age 40, and wrote approximately 8000 before she died. Her music has blessed worshipers in church… and concert-goers in great auditorium like London’s Royal Albert Hall. A BBC concert.

Click: To God Be the Glory

When Worship Music is Neither

1-18-16

My wife and I were a little late for church one Sunday in San Diego about 10 years ago. In the lobby we saw an elderly lady, frail and looking lonely, sitting against the wall. We paused to ask if she needed assistance.

“No,” she explained, “I always wait out here until that awful rock and roll stops. It’s always so loud, and I still can’t hear the words or sing along.”

That poor lady’s reply encapsulated something I had felt, myself, for a long time; and even more so in subsequent years. I have groused before friends and in speeches. I have listened to laymen and argued with pastors and worship leaders. These are not the words of a cranky music critic, but from someone who is concerned that church music in America has morphed from Worship to Watching; from Praise to Performance; turning the congregational worshippers into concert audiences.

It is not even a matter of wanting arbitrarily to preserve ancient music and traditional hymns – my readers know that I enthusiastically offer up Christian music from chants of the Middle Ages to Southern and Black gospel. Rather, the transformation of church music says something about the culture in general – not just our expressions of spirituality. It reveals something that should have us troubled.

The transformation of church music across the American landscape (not in every church; but every Christian will know what I mean) has been rapid and fundamental. It goes to the notion of corporate worship. It is essential to our identification as believers in God and followers of Christ. It is a manifestation of the nature of our faith, the validity of faithfulness, the object of our faith.

Well before I encountered that “orphaned” elderly lady a decade ago, I was talking about this general topic to Dr Bill Bright, founder of the mighty organization Campus Crusade for Christ. Agreeing with my critique, he referred to “7-11 music,” which I assumed meant the ubiquitous Muzak we hear in stores and elevators. But he said he meant church music that repeated the same seven words 11 times. That states the formula.

In formal terms, hymns are sermons in song, stating biblical themes or exhortations. Look at the words of traditional hymns: they describe the situation of the world and the position of Christians in it; challenged, threatened, but hopeful. The difference with songs – gospel songs, revival tunes, camp-meeting music – is more than the simpler harmonies and popular melodies. Gospel songs that live today in white Southern Gospel and Black Spirituals feature choruses to which singers return between verses.

The “contemporary” “worship” music we refer to here is similar to the earlier forms… but far different. Some of it purports to praise God, but its praise is diluted by the lack of focus or substance, characterized by those endlessly repeated lines. In truth, much of it is “me” oriented. Examine lyrics and see how often the first-person pronoun “I” is used. The emphasis is on the singer (more than God?), on how we feel (instead of worshiping or understanding Him), or what we receive from the musical experience.

None of these impulses is wholly bad. Of course. But the up-ending of church music does not end there.

In the Apostolic days of the young church, music was not particularly encouraged. Saint Cecilia reversed that attitude (and is honored as the Patron Saint of Music) and for a thousand years or so, music accompanied worship. Sometimes somber, sometimes joyously, eventually in certain liturgical orders. In Luther’s time the congregation was encouraged to sing, in ever-expanding portions of the service; beyond chanting and the liturgy, to hymns. For almost half a millennium, church music has included settings of the service; cantatas; anthems; choruses; and hymns. And it has been inclusive of worshipers… an integral part of our service, our worship.

But the new music that has overtaken traditions so quickly has done more than supplant Luther, Wesley, and Fanny Crosby with Pop, Folk, and Rock ‘n’ Roll. It has changed the essence of music’s role in Christian worship.

Plugging in the amps has unplugged the purpose of musical worship.

From that AG church in San Diego to my daughter’s Lutheran mega-church in Michigan, from “Seeker-Sensitive” churches in the heartland to evangelical churches in the South, the stages are set the same:

Worship leaders who instruct the listeners when to smile, when to clap, when to stop and hug their neighbors;

Musicians who wear casual, even dirty, clothes;

Solo singers who attract the spotlight, musicians who take “hot licks” between the choruses;

Words sometimes projected on screens – never the music, never the music, which leaves newcomers confused and makes the words confusing;

Hymnals are almost regarded as toxic relics, and printed songsheets without music are worthless… but they would serve futile purposes anyway, because few people sing in their seats (or, when instructed to do so, standing);

Audiences – because that is what they literally have become – seldom sing. They might clap and sway; and, in some churches, raise their hands. But they are audience members of Sunday-morning concerts, plain and simple.

Do you disagree? See how often these audiences applaud after each performance’s song (it used to be anathema to applaud in a church). Take note of the elaborate (if deceptively sparse) staging and sets; the lighting, the video effects, the close-ups where cameras “kiss” the soloists. Listen to your neighbors’ comments about the singer’s voice or the guitarist’s solo riffs (compared to the comments on the sermon).

Too many of us are going to shows, not church. We savor presentations, not prayers. We are presented with performers, and we are less concerned with seeking the Savior. People are encouraged to love the worship… but how often to love Jesus?

Yet the formula is followed as rigid dogma would be: drums, loud solos, emotional effects, a concert atmosphere, sloppy dressers, regimented applause. Who needs those old hymns? OK, they touched people and turned souls to Christ for 500 years? But… this is the 21 century!

These churches reveal a Post-modern mindset about eternal standards: they regard few things as eternal, and standards can shift with the times. Heretical, really.

The churches are saying that they will change almost anything in order to be “relevant.” No matter if those kids visiting the pews are bored by the Contempo Lite up on the stage. Even youngsters realize that today’s American church has few standards, and is willing to stand on its head – even to offend lifelong Christians like that old lady in San Diego – to put on a good show. “How sincere are they,” that young visitor might ask, “about their theology, too?”

Good question. Bad music. The Gospel message itself is sweet enough – sometimes hard enough, yes – to draw all people unto the Savior. Traditional musical, mighty hymns, persuasive songs, support the Good News preached to all men. “Music” that drowns it out… works against the Message people need to hear. The Church’s one foundation… is cracked?

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In the world… of the world. Post-Modern, Post-Christian. What’s the difference?

Click: The Church’s Worshiptainment

An American President Tells Why We Should Attend Church

10-19-15

Later this month we will observe the 157th anniversary of Theodore Roosevelt’s birth. One of the greatest presidents of the United States; the “Most Interesting American”; and, often forgotten, one of the most devout and observant Christians to have served as Chief Executive.

TR frequently quoted Bible verses (and titled two of his approximately 50 books from Biblical passages); he volunteered to teach Sunday School while a student at Harvard; he often delivered impromptu sermons when requested at churches he visited (and seldom missed Sunday worship throughout his life, whether in the wild west or in the White House); and, despite higher-profile and more lucrative offers after he retired from the presidency, he became Contributing Editor of The Outlook, a modest weekly Christian opinion journal.

His faith, of course, was “manly,” in the parlance of an earlier age – bold, unapologetic, encouraging. He once said, in an address to the newly formed Gideon Band: “The Christianity that counts is the kind that is carried into a man’s life. The man who does ordinary work well is working for the Lord. I do not like to see a slack man…. If you do not find in a man any outward manifestations of the Spirit, I am inclined to doubt if it ever has been in him. I like to see fruits…”

In the same manner he also spoke at a church dedication: “In business and in work, if you let Christianity stop as you go out of the church door, there is little righteousness in you. You must behave to your fellowmen as you would have them behave to you. You must have pride in your work if you would succeed. A man should get justice for himself, but he should also do justice to others. Help a man to help himself, but do not expend all your efforts in helping a man who will not help himself.”

Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite Bible verse was Micah 6:8 – “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Imagine this today, but in 1917 Roosevelt wrote an article for the Ladies’ Home Journal magazine, and the subject was “10 Reasons Men Should Go To Church.” Imagine a president of our time writing for magazines as diverse as Ladies’ Home Journal, The Outlook (and National Geographic and the children’s magazine St Nicholas and The American Historical Review and Cosmopolitan and The New York Times and American Museum Journal and…). And imagine a president today exclaiming Christian faith. Frequently. But to TR every venue was a pulpit, and a bully one at that.

Words for then, words for now: here is his article on Why men should attend church.

In the actual world, a churchless community, a community where men have abandoned and scoffed at or ignored their religious needs, is a community on the rapid downgrade.

Church work and church attendance mean the cultivation of the habit of feeling some responsibility for others and the sense of braced moral strength, which prevents a relaxation of one’s own moral fiber.

There are enough holidays for most of us that can quite properly be devoted to pure holiday making. Sundays differ from other holidays, among other ways, in the fact that there are 52 of them every year. On Sunday, go to church.

Yes, I know all the excuses. I know that one can worship the Creator and dedicate oneself to good living in a grove of trees, or by a running brook, or in one’s own house, just as well as in church. But I also know as a matter of cold fact the average man does not thus worship or thus dedicate himself. If he strays from church, he does not spend his time in good works or lofty meditation. He looks over the colored supplement of the newspaper.

He may not hear a good sermon at church. But unless he is very unfortunate, he will hear a sermon by a good man who, with his good wife, is engaged all the week long in a series of wearing, humdrum, and important tasks for making hard lives a little easier.

He will listen to and take part in reading some beautiful passages from the Bible. And if he is not familiar with the Bible, he has suffered a loss.

He will probably take part in singing some good hymns.

He will meet and nod to, or speak to, good quiet neighbors. He will come away feeling a little more charitably toward all the world, even toward those excessively foolish young men who regard churchgoing as rather a soft performance.

I advocate a man’s joining in church works for the sake of showing his faith by his works.

The man who does not in some way, active or not, connect himself with some active, working church misses many opportunities for helping his neighbors, and therefore, incidentally, for helping himself.

Think about Theodore Roosevelt on October 27… and then think about the things one of our greats president thought about!

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Judy Collins and the Boy’s Choir of Harlem, at the U S Capitol:

Click: Amazing Grace

God Forgets Our Sins. We Forget His Blessings.

8-31-15

When I was a “baby Christian” I had been familiar with scripture verses and Bible stories, but was new in the personal knowledge of the salvation message and a relationship with God in Christ. When “born again” I often prayed in a certain way that I thought was appropriately humble.

I began my prayers – and sometimes filled them and ended them – with confessions of unworthiness. I was conscious of my lowly status before God. A sinner who felt presumptuous to approach the Throne of God. This realization was humbling, and I thought was a step forward in my proper relationship with God. A spiritual breakthrough.

In fact, it is just the opposite. The pilgrim’s progress on the way to Heaven, to the presence of God for eternity, certainly has way-stations of setbacks and also, yes, those of clear realizations. It is hard to move to the next spiritual step until we approach, appreciate, and pass by the stages that include, say, the overwhelming understanding that the gulf between a Holy God and us, lowly sinners, is enormous.

The consciousness of sin, and the awareness that we cannot save ourselves, is essential in our walk. Likewise the full knowledge of God’s awesome holiness. But…

… these steps come during our journey, not after we are assured of Heaven and the security of forgiveness and acceptance. When we achieve Heaven there will be no shadow of turning, no doubts, no anxiety about past transgressions, no nervous feelings that we have sins yet to be dealt with.

In fact we can know that peace now. No Pearly Gates, no giant book with ledger-sheets of good and bad.

When we are saved, we are saved. The Bible speaks of judgments, yes, and also crowns and treasures delivered after we are in Heaven. Whether we can “lose” our salvation before Heaven is occasionally debated by theologians… but not that we can lose it in Heaven. These are all mysteries that fill us with joy, but not with dread or even insecurity. God does not issue counterfeit entrance passes. There will be no U-Turns once you get to Glory.

The Joy Unspeakable we can know now is because of a simple fact. When we invite Jesus into our hearts, where He lives and reigns after our happy surrender to Him, God looks at us and… sees Jesus. He sees the “new” us. And the Bible tells us that when we receive Him, and receive the forgiveness He promises, we are forgiven indeed.

He casts our sins over His shoulder into a sea of forgetfulness. God can do anything, but in that mystery He forgets our sins: He chooses not to remember them. Not only in Heaven, but now, He remembers our transgressions no more. A neat trick. Thank God. Literally.

And that means those prayers couched in abject humility as a sinner, groveling in guilt and unworthiness, are out of place in the life of a born-again, saved and redeemed believer. Once upon a time, appropriate – even necessary – but no more! We stand on our feet, washed and covered by Jesus’s Atonement, and approach the Throne of Grace! He looks at us, and sees the Blood.

There is another side to the coin. Just as we tend, unnecessarily, to remind God of sins that He has forgotten, how often do we forget our prayers that He has answered? How often do we neglect the Source of gifts and good things? How often do we fail to thank Him for uncountable blessings?

In my case, I’m afraid the answer is “often.” Probably with you, too.

Those items of Neglect are sins. God is the author of all good things, and whether we rudely fail to acknowledge His move in our lives, or simply (?) ignore the grateful responses due Him, we horribly fall short. Salvation is not free – the sacrifice paid by Jesus made God cry, not only Mary – but it is easy, and it is eternal.

Surely, after He has forgotten our sins forever, we can occasionally remember His forgiveness, His blessings, His love.

We have traded our dirty clothes for shining robes, and a crown, and diamonds in that crown. Remember what awaits. We have foretastes even now. Let us act like we know it!

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Click: A Diamond in My Crown

Imitating God

5-11-15

And Moses said to the children of Israel, “See, the Lord… has filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom and understanding, in knowledge and all manner of workmanship, to design artistic works, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting jewels for setting, in carving wood, and to work in all manner of artistic workmanship. And He has put in his heart the ability to teach… He has filled them with skill to do all manner of work of the engraver and the designer and the tapestry maker, in blue, purple, and scarlet thread and fine linen, and of the weaver – those who do every work and those who design artistic works” (Exodus 35:31-35).

There are some Christians who write to correct me when I refer to creativity, creative accomplishments, creators of prose and poetry and painting, of drawings, sculpture, and dance. Of course we know that God created all things, that nothing was created that was not created by Him. Or, technically, can be created. They say, “Only God can create.” Of course this is true for physical elements, for resources – a reminder that is either sobering or revelatory to extremists who think we might run out of water or oxygen or soil or minerals. We might indeed squander resources, spoil or misuse the earth’s treasures, and pollute the environment. But under this inverted bowl we call the sky we cannot add to God’s resources or make any disappear: the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof… all of it.

Having parsed those terms, I believe it is not unscriptural to say that God’s children can create. Not in terms of alchemy, but to create stories from the mysterious depths of our imaginations. To create ethereal music where silence once reigned. To create images – paintings, drawings, sculpted figures, movies, graphic novels – by that magical process that exists between blank pages or canvasses and finished works of art, attended by simple speculation or profound genius as midwives.

We hear the clichés about what separates us from animals – laughter, compassion, intelligence – but I think the principal distinction, beyond having souls, is that we humans are creative beings. Not only created, but creative.

And I believe God endowed us with this spark of creativity. It is neither a theological “stretch” nor blasphemy to see ourselves this way. If we are to be “imitators of Christ,” in matters of relationships, forgiveness, discipleship, then surely we may be imitators of God, the Creator. In fact it is true, not suggestive but affirming, that most generations of humankind’s history, including in other faith traditions than our own, the majority of artistic expression has been exegetical of religious beliefs, expressing praise in unique ways, simply glorifying God. (That much artwork of the 20th and 21st centuries has been secular or anti-God, inimical to tradition and rejecting inherited values, is evidence, I think, of the cultural nihilism that infests our age. Do artists reflect their culture? Then yes, we have a proven case of societies tragically adrift. The contemporary arts tell us that we do not merely hate traditional standards; we of this age hate the very concept of there being standards.)

I have noted recently in this space that because of family matters I am in Ireland for month, and missing the Colorado Christian Writers Conference, an annual event where I endeavor to counsel aspiring writers and where (dirty-little-secret alert) I am replenished by fellowship with other creative types. I hasten to add that in God’s providence I am finding time, and making new friends, with writers and artists in Dublin, Ireland. And this is today’s context of the message I compose about once a year on creativity.

Dublin has a great literary tradition. I have already been to a few of the sites where Leopold Bloom “visited,” still marked as real locations and attractive to literary tourists. I will visit the Dublin Writers Museum, Trinity College Library, and the Chester Beatty Collection to see rare manuscripts and literary relics. The International Writers Festival will be held next week. Just to look upon the Book of Kells, the illuminated manuscript whose display turns one page each day – to realize that I look upon an astounding work of art, and a manuscript representative of monastic traditions that kept Christianity alive during the bleakest years of the barbarians’ dominance of Europe – floods the soul.

I have met, by chance or because of my daughter Emily’s affinity for the arts, writers and artists who are particularly gifted. Stacey Covell deconstructs and reconstructs poems, collaborating with visual artists who contribute to the new morphological creations, published in a revolutionary format of loose pages in an envelope, to be read, rearranged, spread out, and itself reconstructed. Another new friend is Martin McCormack, an artist whose invented medium is turf – mixing iconic Irish peat with glue and acrylics, applying the substance to boards and then scraping away negative portions of Irish cultural figures’ faces to produce portraits that are arresting.

There is in Dublin a fledgling group called the Creative Collective. Founded by James and Laura Pettit (he a musician, she a painter), it is a gathering-place where “we explore what creativity is and encourage every person to understand why imagination, beauty and truth matter in life. Everyone has imagination and ability to create, and everyone is welcome. We are involved in visual arts, music, theatre and performing arts, design, new media, literary arts and film.” Those who attend the meetups are from many different countries, all ages. The motivators and hosts of the Creative Collective are Christians, but wide-ranging, free discussion of the arts and creativity is the only “liturgy.”

Recently James formed a spin-off community, Art & Faith Together, to encourage those who wanted to explore the nexus of the disciplines. His own manifesto described the community: “Passion for creativity. My encouragement for everyone to understand how they are particularly made to create. Helping people understand what that means in their lives.” He said, “I love how any discussion about any art can have applications to another.”

I attended a meeting of Art & Faith Together in Dublin’s unique coffee shop Third Space last week. I was very impressed with James’ views of the arts and creativity (himself, among things, a classically trained trombonist who espied jazz and blues) but especially his views as a Christian artist. The American church community, with pockets of exceptions, I think tends not to encourage artistic expression and creativity. I hope I am mistaken. Too often, people of faith equate the arts with iconoclasm (in itself, not necessarily a bad thing), scatology and worse.

To the extent that Christian nay-sayers have any point, our response should not be to withdraw from creative communities and artistic expression, but to embrace them… reclaim them… redeem them.

James Pettit was firm in this view the night I met him at Art & Faith in Dublin. It was a commitment to something I had not fully considered: that Christians in the arts were not merely expressing their creativity; not only praising God in unique ways; but can fulfill themselves and in so doing, attract the world to the Word by the beauty, singularity, complexities, simplicity, fragrance, and elemental attractiveness of God-inspired, God-honoring art. I would add, as above, perhaps even be reverently God-imitative.

A few nights after that session in the Third Space Café in Dublin’s Smithfield district, James Pettit died of a massive heart attack. I, who knew him but a few hours, was as shocked and saddened as those who knew the transplanted American for years. This essay is a tribute to him, and the values this gentle giant of a man gently but firmly embraced.

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Click: Sweet Is the Melody

Passionate About the Passion

4-3-15

Some non-Christians, and many Christians, are a little confused about the term “Passion” when describing the final week of Jesus’s earthly life, the pre-risen Savior. Normally, being passionate is a good thing, something we all seek or endorse.

In fact Passion is from the Latin, patere, meaning to suffer. It describes an emotion at the extremities of enthusiasm or sorrow. Diderot, father of the modern dictionary concept, described Passion as “penchants, inclinations, desires, and aversions carried to a certain degree of intensity, combined with an indistinct sensation of pleasure or pain.” The fine line between joy and aversion, desire and rejection. (The passion fruit is not a putative aphrodisiac; when sliced in half, the pulp encases seeds bundled in the shape of a cross.)

Advising students, “Be passionate about what you pursue,” and Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ are different sides of the very same coin.

And so, on Holy Week, we may pause at the supernal St Matthew Passion of Johann Sebastian Bach. Listen to it. Learn from it. For Holy Week vespers services, Bach wrote the St Matthew Passion, performed in Leipzig’s St Thomas and St Nicholas churches on alternate years, for decades. He periodically made improvements to this, possibly his most favored of approximately 1800 works he composed.

Bach employed a “surround-sound” structure in the St Matthew Passion:
stereophony. At St Thomas Church, certain movements were performed from the
east organ loft, the “swallow’s nest” opposite the main musician’s gallery at the
west end of the church, a double-choir structure “that produced a splendid and
festive effect.” Smaller groups of musicians and singers performed from the church’s many corners; worshipers heard music coming from every direction.

The structure of Bach’s Passions were strictly traditional; he changed little of the form he inherited. The straight biblical narrative was distributed among soloists (evangelists and various soliloquentes, or individual speakers including Jesus, Peter, Pilate, et al) and choirs (various turbae or crowds: high priests, Roman soldiers, Jews, etc). The Passion’s flow was dotted by narration, hymn strophes, and contemplative lyrics, “madrigal pieces” of free verse, mainly delivered as arias. One can begin to appreciate the spectacle that audiences beheld: a combination of church and theater, Greek-style drama and opera, music and voice, costume and acting.

Bach revised the St Matthew Passion several times through the years (his best works were repeated in his churches, and performed elsewhere, just as he occasionally performed works of esteemed contemporaries), and, of his manuscript scores that survive today, none bears such respect as St Matthew. In 1736, at least, he considered it his most significant work. His autograph score shows loving attention, written in red or brown inks according to the biblical and dramatic libretto sources; calligraphy in careful Gothic or Latin letters; and preserved as an heirloom. In fact it appears that a later accident, perhaps a spill, damaged portions of some pages, and Bach lovingly repaired those sections with paste-overs.

For half a century after Bach’s death his musical style was out of style, and he slipped into relative obscurity. Eventually, however, the floodgates opened. The great German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe discovered Bach’s music and described it: “Eternal harmony carries on a dialogue with itself on what God felt in his bosom shortly before the creation of the world.” The composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, a Lutheran converted from Judaism, was awestruck by the St Matthew Passion and staged a legendary performance on Good Friday, 1829. Its revival was repeated, and Mendelssohn brought his enthusiasm for Bach to England, where Felix was a favorite of the German-descended Queen Victoria (of Saxon and Hanoverian royalty).

Since then it is performed regularly, everywhere and at any time through the year. However, it is most appropriate during Holy Week. Its parts were performed on
separate nights of daily services between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, each re-creating the events of Holy Week – Jesus’s entry to Jerusalem; the contention with the Jewish Sanhedrin and Roman authorities; the Last Supper; His betrayal; the trials and persecution; the Crucifixion.

… The Passion that Christ endured for us, willingly taking on Himself the punishment and death we deserve as sinners who have separated ourselves from God.

As I have recommended before, if you are a person who listens to traditional hymns or Handel’s Messiah at Christmastime, or even if you are not, you will profit from setting some time aside and listening to Bach’s St Matthew Passion, and absorb its musical grandeur, its setting, its cultural history… its meaning. No less today than when it was first performed 275 years ago. Or when events took place, 2000 years ago.

Bach took the same care that the early evangelists, or recipients of their Epistles, might have shown to ancient events and texts. It is notable that history came to call Bach “The Fifth Evangelist,” the accolade bypassing even his spiritual mentor Martin Luther.

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A performance of the Passion based on St Matthew’s Gospel. The great Bach interpreter Karl Richter conducts the Munich Bach Orchestra and the Munich Bach Choir. With English subtitles. This production is a work of art in itself: an appropriately bleak but very expressive setting. The cross, overhead the performers, grows lighter and darker responding to the dramatic narrative.

Click: Bach’s “St Matthew Passion”

One Thousand Years of Easter Music

4-1-15

I recently have quoted St Augustine, from more than 1500 years ago, to the effect
that “He who sings, prays twice.” In the early days of the church, it was music
that helped attract worshipers… and was, naturally and powerfully, an irresistible
means to praise God and express joy.

Before the church fathers (and mothers; St Cecilia becoming the Patron saint
of Music) Plato identified not only music but harmony as capturing – as best
humankind could – the abstract but Perfect Good that reigns over us. Plato did not
particularly ascribe it to the manufactured Greek gods, but he believed that there
existed an Absolute Truth; and that, even if we could never fully know it, humans
are ennobled by seeking it. Although he lived 300 years before Jesus, the early
church recognized his philosophy in some ways as proto-Christian; and many of
them were neo-Platonists.

So the musical impulse, in many ways, was concurrent to the institution of
worship, formal and informal. Plainsong and chants predominated, and in the
evolution of corporate worship, the trends moved from singing individuals to
ensembles and choirs. In the Gothic era, polyphony – “many sounds,” part-
singing, basic harmony – entered church music. There was actually a time when
the Roman church considered banning harmony as rebellion against tradition, but
the impulse of reformers from Luther to Bach opened the floodgates of glorious
harmonies, attractive melodies, the regal organ, full organs, and the resumption of
congregational singing.

This is a brief introduction, in Holy Week, to a brief introduction to the history of
church music. Linked here is a 90-minute BBC-TV documentary on sacred music,
using Easter themes as the touchstone.

It covers approximately a thousand years of Western church music, from Plainsong
to Polyphony, simple chants to the complex but captivating musical expression of
J. S. Bach. The setting is St Luke’s in London, staged as a reverent mixture of the
ancient and modern. There is tasteful narration between numbers. It ultimately is
a concert, not a church service, and I hope the occasional audience applause is not
disconcerting.

If you are a person who enjoys listening to the Messiah at Christmastide, or even
if you are not, sometime during Holy Week you should find this interesting.
The church’s heritage; musical history; the sweep of cultural changes; artistic
expression of another time, almost another world, are here. And, by the translation-
subtitles of chants, songs, choruses, and motets, the essence of the Easter story is
told.

… as, maybe, only music can bring it to our souls.

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Click: An Easter Celebration

Welcome to MMMM!

A site for sore hearts -- spiritual encouragement, insights, the Word, and great music!

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About The Author

... Rick Marschall is the author of 74 books and hundreds of magazine articles in many fields, from popular culture (Bostonia magazine called him "perhaps America's foremost authority on popular culture") to history and criticism; country music; television history; biography; and children's books. He is a former political cartoonist, editor of Marvel Comics, and writer for Disney comics. For 10 years he has been active in the Christian field, writing devotionals and magazine articles; he was co-author of "The Secret Revealed" with Dr Jim Garlow. His biography of Johann Sebastian Bach for the “Christian Encounters” series (Thomas Nelson) was released in April, 2011. Read More