Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Words on Wednesday: Wendell Berry

Excerpt from "Sabbaths 2005" by Wendell Berry


If we have become a people incapable
of thought, then the brute-thought
of mere power and mere greed
will think for us.
If we have become incapable
of denying ourselves anything,
then all that we have
will be taken from us.
If we have no compassion,
we will suffer alone, we will suffer
alone the destruction of ourselves.
These are merely the laws of this world
as known to Shakespeare:
When we cease from human thought,
a low and effective cunning
stirs in the most inhuman minds.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Music On Monday: Where Charity and Love Are, God Is There

Yesterday, our associate pastor preached a strong sermon on the passage from Matthew 5:38-48 where we are told to turn the other cheek, hand over a coat as well as a shirt, travel two miles with someone who would compel one, and love our enemies. It made me think of the ancient hymn text Ubi Caritas. Some think that this text predates the formalization of the Mass and is from the early Christian church. It can be sung any time, but one of its traditional uses is at the washing of feet on Maundy Thursday. This is a beautiful setting by contemporary Norwegian-American composer Ola Gjeilo.

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor.
Exsultemus, et in ipso jucundemur.
Timeamus, et amemus Deum vivum.
Et ex corde diligamus nos sincero.
Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Simul ergo cum in unum congregamur:
Ne nos mente dividamur, caveamus.
Cessent iurgia maligna, cessent lites.
Et in medio nostri sit Christus Deus.
Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Simul quoque cum beatis videamus,
Glorianter vultum tuum, Christe Deus:
Gaudium quod est immensum, atque probum,
Saecula per infinita saeculorum. Amen.
Where charity and love are, God is there.
Christ's love has gathered us into one.
Let us rejoice and be pleased in Him.
Let us fear, and let us love the living God.
And may we love each other with a sincere heart.
Where charity and love are, God is there.
As we are gathered into one body,
Beware, lest we be divided in mind.
Let evil impulses stop, let controversy cease,
And may Christ our God be in our midst.
Where charity and love are, God is there.
And may we with the saints also,
See Thy face in glory, O Christ our God:
The joy that is immense and good,
Unto the ages through infinite ages. Amen.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Tower of Babel and God's Design For Human Flourishing

The Tower of Babel Destroyed by Phillip Medhurst

What a wild time the last couple of weeks have been! If you are, like me, someone who enjoys novelty over the same old routine every day, then you have been excited by the political storm of late. I admit, I've spent too much time reading news sites and twitter. I am having to discipline myself to read other things and stay engaged in my immediate, local life. The silver lining to all of this wildness is that it prompts me to consider things I've never thought about much before. This morning, I woke up thinking of the Tower of Babel.

I have a fondness for bible stories and characters that aren't preached on much. I've never in my life, that I can remember, heard a sermon on the Tower of Babel, yet, I think this story is highly appropriate to the political problems of our day.

I'm not going to retell the story. Read it here. There is an interesting examination from Oxford Biblical Studies here, and a good article by Peter Hong here. John Piper has a sermon on it here. I think our failure to fully understand this story is a failure of Christian formation, and one of the failures of American Christianity as we grapple with the problems of the moment in regards to nationalism versus globalism.

What was the sin of the people in constructing the tower? They wanted to make a name for themselves -  pride. They wanted to stick together in a safe, homogenous culture - fear. They wanted to avoid God's command to multiply and occupy the whole earth - disobedience. You might think that a safe, homogenous culture where everyone believes the same way and speaks the same language (whether literally or figuratively) would help the cause of Christ. After all, we are supposed to be unified, right? Yes, but God turns man's logic on its head. God instituted diversity - at creation (did we really need so many kinds of insects?) and at the tower. At Pentecost, the Spirit confirmed that God is never thwarted by diversity by speaking through the apostles in languages everyone present could hear. Man's desire to maintain superficial unity is a desire born in self-sufficient pride. God doesn't need our conformity to do his work.

It was part of God's plan that mankind be scattered abroad speaking different languages, but man was resistant to that command. Why would they resist speaking different languages and living in different places? Man's logic says that we are safer and stronger when we circle the wagons and stay within the confines. But, God's logic doesn't see things that way. The tower story tears down the idea that human-created cultural oneness is in keeping with God's plan for humanity. The theologian Walter Bruggeman says this about the Tower story:
The fear of scattering is resistance to God’s purpose for creation. The people do not wish to spread abroad but want to stay in their own safe mode of homogeneity. They try to surround themselves with walls made of strong bricks and a tower for protection against the world around them. This unity attempts to establish a cultural, human oneness without God. This is a self-made unity in which humanity has a ‘fortress mentality.’ It seeks to survive by its own resources. It is a unity grounded in fear and characterized by coercion. A human unity without God’s will is likely to be ordered in oppressive conformity.
A "cultural, human oneness" without God - what would that look like? In its worst form, it would look outwardly Christian and so fool people into believing themselves to be disciples. Satan always disguises himself as an angel of light. In our country today, many people who support Trump seem to wish for a return to a time when Christianity was a strong cultural force, a sort of 1950s culture where church-going and school prayer was the norm. Unfortunately, this was also a time of racial exclusion and deep suspicion of those who were "other," and that in complete opposition to the way of Christ. Was there really less sin in those days, or were we just better at covering it up? I'm not so convinced that the culture we are nostalgic for was really rooted in faithfulness.

The ideology of Trump and his aides such as Steve Bannon is one of nationalism, and they tell us they want a nationalism based on strong "Judeo-Christian values." First, though, I believe the Tower of Babel shows us that God is a globalist. He deliberately broke up man's efforts to create a homogenous culture, and by doing so, to reach heaven. He wanted man to be scattered and different. He expects us to respect the laws and government we are placed under, but his kingdom, the one we should be loyal to above any earthly one, is global. Secondly, I think we need to have some healthy suspicion towards a culture which espouses Judeo-Christian values and the protection of our rights but seldom mentions the hard path of discipleship which often requires that we sacrifice our "rights." External conformity to Judeo-Christian values separated from discipleship = white-washed tombs. Satan would like nothing better. We need to guard against creating a towering nation with a strong name for itself based on self-sufficiency, a common "language," and the outward espousal of "Judeo-Christian values" when our inward values make idols of power and wealth and neglect justice, mercy, and faithfulness which Jesus tells us are the "weightier things of the law."

The human argument is that a strong, nationalistic culture preserves a flourishing society. I don't believe that man's definition of flourishing society is God's definition. We say that when we are powerful and wealthy with a strong name for ourselves, we are more able to help others, and so justify our prideful ambition. But God teaches us that his power to communicate is greatest when ours is weakest (the tongues at Pentecost), his power to help others is greatest when our power to do so is weakest (the feeding of the 5,000), the power of his kingdom is greatest when our empire is weakest (the Jewish empire during Christ's incarnation). The more we try to protect ourselves, and the more our tower of power, wealth, and cultural conformity is built, the greater my belief that God will scatter and confuse us for the sake of displaying his own glory. I wish we would listen to our better angels and understood that we are God's nation when we embrace discipleship with its incumbent denial of self, wealth, and safety. Easier to put a camel through the eye of a needle. There's a reason that God has allowed the story of the Tower of Babel to persist from ancient times all the way to 2017. It's because it is still relevant.

What can we learn from God's "scattering and confusing" the human race? What kind of unity is it that God wants us to have instead of the superficial kind?  I think that serious Christians need to think hard on those questions.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Music On Monday: Fishy Laundry

Last week's Music On Monday selection featured a rather chaotic-sounding piece by Eliot Carter, and my week immediately fell into chaos. I was rear-ended in a car accident the same day and had unrelated minor surgery at the end of the week. My car is probably totaled, but all of the humans involved were okay. Still, I'd prefer not to have another week like that, so today's selection is one of the most tonal, upbeat pieces of classical music I could think of just in case my music selection has some bearing on the week's events!

A few years ago, my husband and I finally upgraded our slowly dying washer and dryer to new, front-loading Samsung models. Little did we know that the folks at Samsung are fans of Schubert. His piano quintet in A (nicknamed "The Trout") contains a happy tune that is meant to suggest a trout swimming in a stream. It's arguably the most famous piece of classical chamber music.

I've enjoyed discovering videos of other proud Samsung owners dancing to and playing along with their appliances. Here are three funny videos followed by a serious performance of The Trout.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Words on Wednesday: Quotes That Speak To Me This Week

“Authority without wisdom is like a heavy axe without an edge, fitter to bruise than polish.”
― Anne Bradstreet

“Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast.”
― William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Self-love is often rather arrogant than blind; it does not hide our faults from ourselves, but persuades us that they escape the notice of others.
----Samuel Johnson

It is a sign that your reputation is small and sinking if your own tongue must praise you. 
-----Matthew Hale

“People who have so much of their personality invested in the Internet can’t really survive as whole individuals without it.”
― Mark A. Rayner, The Fridgularity

Monday, February 6, 2017

Music On Monday: Elliott Carter And The Hazards of Democracy

Photo by Justin Ormant

Music on Monday is a weekly series featuring music that connects with the current events of my life in some way and that might be interesting to those who would like to learn more about classical music. 

Today, we're going to venture into the realm of the musical avant-garde. Don't be afraid!

Elliott Carter was an American composer who died only a few years ago, and of all of the modernist, non-tonal music that came about in the 20th century, his is the stuff I like best. Yes, I actually listen to it. It's an acquired taste, but the more you learn about it, the more you get it. You just have to change your expectations. This is not soothing music.

For today's Music On Monday selection, I chose Carter's composition A Symphony For Three Orchestras. In a great article published by Matthew Guerrieri in the Boston Globe shortly after Carter's death, Guerrieri connects Carter's vision of America with his music, and that view is strongly reflected in the political chaos of the moment.

Carter's musical output can be seen as always straddling the line between "faction and unity." Guerrieri quotes James Madison: “The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice.” The dangerous vice he refers to is "the violence of faction." Consider the riots and protests we've seen so far in only two weeks of President Trump's administration. We are alarmed for the character and fate of our government. Carter made that concern musically his own: As Guerrieri says, "faction and unity would become the latitude and longitude of his musical map."

If you listen to Carter with this in mind, you can hear the very individual character of each instrument going its own way, even when many instruments are caught up in a sweep that heads in a similar direction. Each instrument is it's own, yet it also works in concert with the others.

As we watch the federal court rulings fly in response to President Trump's travel ban, we are watching our three branches of government in action, exercising the checks and balances designed by our country's founders. The piece I'm showcasing today, A Symphony for Three Orchestras, was composed in honor of the American Bicentennial in 1976. It divides the musical forces into three separate, contentious groups. Coincidence? Maybe not.

How to listen to this? First of all, don't bring romantic expectations to the table. This is not music to soothe or to suggest beautiful, pastoral scenes. It's intellectual and visceral. Don't expect melodic or rhythmic patterns that will stick with you (although you might discover a few if you listen very closely). Keep your mind open and let the music tell you what it will. Listen for jagged vs. smooth, coordinated vs. uncoordinated, bright vs. dark, hurried vs. not hurried. Can you hear the individual trajectories of the individual instruments? Can you hear the three separate groups? This is music as ideology, not music as emotion. It may spark emotion in you, and that's a valid experience, but if it's a completely intellectual experience, that's okay, too. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Words on Wednesday from the BCP

From the Book of Common Prayer:

For Our Country

Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage: We humbly beseech thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of thy favor and glad to do thy will. Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to thy law, we may show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.