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…Blessed be the name of the Lord

November 3, 2018

My husband is a gift from God; a man of great faith; and patience. Ed had polio as a young child and for some time now has had post-polio syndrome. It greatly impedes his walking and his balance, and causes fatigue, among other things. It gradually seems to worsen. He never complains. Ever. He sees every single day as an opportunity to walk in faith, and in that, to be a public witness for his Savior.

Now it’s my turn. Though for many years I’ve had chronic illness (Crohn’s disease and its compromising of my immune system), and that has often been difficult, now I’m confronting a different faith test, one I wasn’t at all expecting: I’m not “old” (I’m 66), but yesterday the partial vision loss in my right eye that I’ve been experiencing for the last week or so was diagnosed as age-related macular degeneration (AMD): something “old people” get (I thought).  There are two kinds, dry and wet: I have dry in the left eye, wet in the right.

That shocked me. I wasn’t expecting something quite so serious. There’s no “cure.” And as the name says, it’s a degenerative condition, the leading cause of vision loss in the U.S. I’m a church organist and a freelance write and editor. I need my vision for those things and for countless others every day (as do we all): things that need doing; things I’d like to do.

It’s possible (and common, I think) to react in fear; and then in anger — at the circumstances, but really at God. Anger at God having laid this additional thing on me, this thing that feels very much like a burden.

But that can’t be my response.  Being Reformed (and a daily Bible reader — Ed and I read the entire Bible every year)  I wholeheartedly believe that God is the Sovereign Lord of the Universe who controls and governs all things, down to, as Jesus says, numbering the  hairs on our heads. He’s not just disinterestedly sitting back and watching Satan wreak havoc. He has a purpose in all things. Including in what he has now sent me. And, yes, Scripture makes clear, over and over, it is God who sends such things. Satan is not omnipotent.

Once I knew the diagnosis I immediately began remembering (nudged by the Spirit?) Job’s astonishing confession of faith and trust in the Lord in the midst of the sudden and complete devastation (including the loss of all his children) that God allowed Satan to inflict on him:  “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21). Job’s confession is preceded by this amazing statement: “Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head [in sorrow/mourning] and fell on the ground and worshiped.” Worshiped?  I admit that worshiping God was not my first reaction yesterday when I got my bad news (and my bad news doesn’t begin to approach Job’s). Job’s confession is then followed by this telling verse: “In all this Job did not sin, nor charge God with wrong.”

The Lord gave me my sight (spectacular gift that it is!). Now the Lord appears to be taking (at least some of) it away. He may allow it to return. We’re praying for that. But that may not be his purpose. One thing I am sure of, though, is that he does have a purpose in this. What that is is not entirely clear to me, though its strikes me that, first of all, it is a test: Will she (continue to) trust Me? Really trust Me? Will she blame Me, “charging me with wrong”? Or will she give Me glory in it, and testify of My goodness to others?

A number of the Psalms, particularly, show us that we can be angry, or at very least frustrated, with God without being unfaithful to him. God understands, he “knows our frame and remembers that we are but dust” (Ps. 103:14): he made us; he knows far more than we do ourselves how fragile we are. But we also cannot, must not, hold on to such anger. Continued anger with the circumstances in which God puts us and/or the burdens he lays on us, can — and usually does — turn into bitterness towards God. (Nor does it do much for the fellow human beings close to us.) That bitterness is sin, I believe. It will begin to consume us. And it assumes that God is wrong; that we don’t “deserve” any suffering; that we know better than he what is good for us.

We don’t.

Jesus’ words in The Lord’s Prayer also teach a lesson in all our difficult circumstances. He told his disciples, and tells us, to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” He means: ‘”Ask the Father today for what you need today.  Don’t worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself” (Matt. 6:34). The truism “take one day at a time” is Jesus-approved. But it’s not just common sense. Relying wholly on God when in distress (as well as in joy), for whatever we need each day, demonstrates that we trust his goodness and faithfulness, that we love him above all. That’s a kind of “perfect love,”  Spirit-enabled. And “perfect love casts out fear”  (1 John 4:18).  And that allows me to say — as Job in essence did, as the suffering 19th c. hymnwriter Horatio Spafford did, and as countless Christians since have said —  “It is well, it is well with my soul.”

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God: ‘My Word will not return to me empty’

October 23, 2018

I’ve been ill, thus the lack of posting here for a bit. That is giving me time to think, even while trying to press on with things that absolutely need to get done.

One of those things that needed doing was meeting a deadline to write program notes for an upcoming performance of Johannes Brahms’ Ein Deustches Requiem (“A German Requiem”).  The requiem, of course, in Catholic liturgy and practice is a Mass for the dead. But Brahms’ Requiem is quite different from conventional musical requiems.

Brahms (1833-1897) was one of the true musical giants of the 19th century. His works are exquisitely crafted, with amazing, succulent harmonies. He wrote symphonies, chamber works, works for piano and piano-four-hands, vocal works, a few organ chorale preludes, and his great choral work, the Requiem.

The Requiem has a text that Brahms himself took straight from Luther’s German translation of the Bible. The great irony of that is that Brahms had discarded the Lutheran Christianity he grew up with and had become an agnostic, or more probably an atheist. Despite its biblical text, Brahms saw his Requiem to be a “humanist” work, not a Christian work; one from which non-believers, particularly, could take comfort.

So Brahms doesn’t specifically mention Christ by name. Yet Christ looms over, yes, entirely inhabits, the biblical texts Brahms chose. For example: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord” (Rev. 14:13). And the famous passage from 1 Corinthians 15 which Handel so memorably set in Messiah: “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible…. O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?”

Somehow, Brahms wanted those texts, and the rest of his seven-movement work, to be interpreted apart from Christ and his resurrection. And he wanted  — assumed —  his listeners would take comfort in his requiem in some other manner, including, presumably, in the exquisite beauty of the music (and it is beautiful). I confess I don’t think I’ll ever understand just how it works that so many listeners can find comfort in this Requiem despite deliberately ignoring the clear biblical message of its text.

For my program notes I would not be writing for a specifically Christian audience, so I had to be careful, in a sense, what I said. While I tried to be evenhanded, initially, the conductor felt my notes were “too Christian”; it was too obvious that I myself am a Christian, he said.  I pointed out to him that Christian listeners and non-Christian listeners would be approaching this biblically-texted work from two quite different places, and would take comfort in it in two very different ways.

It is utterly, profoundly, sad that Brahms himself missed the life-giving message and enduring comfort in his own finely crafted work. He also missed (and would have denied) this one great truth: that because of its straight-from-the-Bible text, Ein Deutsches Requiem, through the Spirit’s work, has been affecting and altering, as God sees fit, listeners’ hearts ever since Brahms’ final version premiered in 1869.

I know that for sure. I know because God himself assured his prophet Isaiah, and assures us who also believe: “My Word that goes out from my mouth will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

Lift High the Cross

September 22, 2018

“Lift High the Cross!” That’s the title of what is, in my view, one of the best hymns of the late 19th/early 20th centuries (text by George W. Kitchin, 1827-1912; modified in most hymnals by Michael R. Newbolt, 1874-1956).

At first glance, “lifting high the cross” may seem a strange activity. But, as with other hymns that seem to glorify the Cross (I’m thinking particularly of “In the Cross of Christ I Glory”),  it is not the cross itself — that ancient, horrific means of torture and death — that is important, but Christ’s incomprehensible sacrifice upon it.

Christ’s suffering, abandonment by God, and death —  for us — is what makes possible “lifting high” the cross, and even “glorying” in it.

Many liturgical churches have a procession to begin worship on Sunday mornings. The procession consists of clergy, sometimes other ordained participants, and a choir — all led by a person called the Crucifer. The Crucifer leads the procession while “lifting high the cross”: he or she carries high a gold cross on a pole (in Catholic churches, a crucifix). That’s why Sydney H. Nicholson (1875-1947) named his tune for Kitchin’s text CRUCIFER.

The cross on the pole makes us think of Moses’ lifting high a brass serpent on a pole (Numbers 21), to which Israelites who had been bitten by snakes God had sent in judgment on them could yet look and be saved.

Centuries later, that bronze serpent became a type for Christ’s cross. Jesus told his disciples, about himself: “ Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him”  (John 3:14-15). Then Jesus culminates his thought what has perhaps become the best-known of all Bible verses: “… For  For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Jesus also told his disciples, and tells us, ““Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). So me must “lift high the cross.” Daily! And not just symbolically. Doing so may actually bring suffering; but the resulting ultimate glory will be incomparable and indescribable.

Refrain:
Lift high the cross The love of Christ proclaim,
Till all the world Adore His sacred name!

1.Come, Christians, follow where our captain trod,
Our king victorious, Christ, the Son of God.

Refrain.

2. Led on their way By this triumphant sign,
The hosts of God In conquering ranks combine.

Refrain.

3. All newborn soldiers Of the Crucified
Bears on the brow The seal of Him who died. 

Refrain.

4. O Lord, once lifted On the glorious tree,
As Thou hast promised Draw the world to Thee.

Refrain.

5. So shall our song
Of triumph ever be:
Praise to the Crucified
For victory.

Refrain:
Lift high the cross
The love of Christ proclaim,
Till all the world
Adore His sacred name!

 

 

September 2, 2018

This morning in church we opened the service with “Oh, That I Had a Thousand Voices,” and before we sang it I played a prelude by Paul Manz based on it. The service ended with another Paul Manz setting of this exuberant chorale. Text and tune deeply wedded, it has weathered more than three centuries. German Lutheran poet Johann Mentzer (1658-1734) wrote the text. Johann Konig wrote the music.

Mentzer writes in intimate first person singular. But then — he enlists the praise of “all you powers that [God] implanted,” “you forest leaves,” “meadow grasses,” and ultimately “all creatures that have breath and motion.” He mentions “summer air,” which where I live we’re still feeling strongly on September 2. The last stanza addresses God directly, humbly asking him to listen to the praises of the singer, now and through eternity.

Mentzer’s poem was soon paired with a sturdy, easy-to-sing tune by Johan Kőnig (1691-1758), and the two have been together ever since.

It’s a prayer, really. And is an exhilarating way to begin worship. On Sunday or any day. Thanks be to God that his creation includes poets and composers who help us praise him!

Oh that I had a thousand voices 
to praise my God with thousand tongues!
My heart, which in the Lord rejoices,
would then proclaim in grateful songs
to all, wherever I might be,
what great things God has done for me.

O all you powers that He implanted,
arise, and silence keep no more;
put forth the strength that He has granted,
Your noblest work is to adore!
O soul and body, join to raise
with heartfelt praise our Maker's praise!

You forest leaves so green and tender,
that dance for joy in summer air;
You meadow grasses, bright and slender;
You flow'rs so fragrant and so fair;
You live to show God's praise alone,
join me to make His glory known.

All creatures that have breath and motion,
that throng the earth, the sea, the sky,
Come, share with me my heart's devotion,
help me to raise God's praises high.
My utmost powers can never quite 
declare the wonders of his might!

Creator, humbly I implore you
to listen to my earthly song
until that day when I adore you,
when I have joined the angel throng,
and learned with choirs of heaven to sing
eternal anthems to my King. 

The version of the prelude I used:

And the postlude:

‘You will be hated by everyone because of Me’: Jesus

August 31, 2018

“You will be hated by everyone because of Me,” Jesus told his disciples (and tells us; Matt. 10:22). This is an emphatic reiteration of something he had told them earlier, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Matt. 5:11, “Sermon on the Mount”). And he later emphasized again, “You will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me” (Matt. 24:9).

I dare say that to those of us who live in North America all that seems pretty grim. I admit, it does to me. I’m writing this on a lovely end-of-summer day as the sun shines brightly, a couple of our cats our lounging near me and my husband is taking advantage of the fine weather by sitting on our deck, reading.

While the screws are tightening in various ways for Christians in the U.S. and Canada — including about the nature of some of the things we may say publicly about what we believe — we’re still free to erect church buildings and worship in them as we please. While some may insult us for our beliefs, we’re not being physically harmed, much less tortured. And we’re not being called on to die for Christ’s sake.

But Christians in other parts of the world, in ever greater number, are, as Jesus said they — we who follow him– would be.  The stories of their intense suffering and, frequently, the almost unimaginable viciousness of their martyrdom, are difficult to read. But we’re only reading about their persecution and dying for Christ — and then, only if we deliberately follow or seek out sources that tell us of that suffering. The mainstream media is rarely interested in stories of Christians suffering for their faith, suffering perpetrated on those Christians by adherents to other faiths (the majority, by far, being Muslims).

Recently Fulani militants in Nigeria burned alive a Christian pastor and his family in village raids. In all, seven people died; horrifically.

In India, in the rural state of Madhya Pradesh, Hindus are the persecutors. A pastor tells of losing 15 families from his church: they were told they would be beaten, then killed, if they continued to attend church. Some Christians just aren’t able to withstand that kind of pressure and real threat. (Could I? Could you?) Those are just two of literally hundreds of situations in which Christians are suffering.

Reporting such things just isn’t considered politically correct these days. But we must pay attention. All of us who confess Christ’s name are part of his Body on earth. We are (must be) in this together.

And there is something we can do: we can financially support one or more of the excellent ministries that provide succor to the persecuted and their families, and to the families of the martyrs. And perhaps even more: WE CAN PRAY.  When persecuted Christians are asked how we Christians who are free can help, invariably the first thing they say is: “Please pray for us.”

There is a prize in the end. I don’t say that flippantly. Many longingly toward it. Jesus, for whom they are suffering, and for whom God may one day ask us to suffer, concluded the statement I began with, from Matthew 24, by assuring his disciples (us):  “…But the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matt. 24:9).  And James gives the early church (and us) this wonderful promise:  “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.

https://www.persecution.org

 

 

‘It is the LORD who makes the storm clouds’

August 21, 2018

It’s been a gratifyingly warm summer here in the Niagara Peninsula, but for nearly a month now high humidity has made being outside quite unpleasant, especially for my fellow asthma sufferers and me.

Today, the sky is gray and the humidity even higher than it has been the last weeks. Earlier today — twice —  tremendous downpours lashed our windows, soaked our yard, the flower gardens and vegetable plots to the point of sogginess, and filled the goldfish pond to the very brim. A bit ago I went outside to throw some food into the pond for the seven fish (they come up to me when I call them). Being outside just those few minutes was enough. The air felt oppressive.

My dad taught us five kids we must never complain about the weather, as it is God who sends it, good or bad, whether we like it or not, and whether it coincides with our plans or not. Throughout my childhood I recall him needing to reiterate that thought to us all-too-often whiny kids.

My dad was absolutely right, as the Bible attests to in surprisingly many places. The Bible also makes clear that “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Psalm 24). Or, as the King James Version says, “… and the fulness thereof; the world and they that dwell therein.” I like that phrase, “the fulness thereof.”  Everything.  Nothing escapes God’s notice; nothing exists apart from him. He owns, and governs, it all.

This is an area of vineyards and orchards. The Niagara River runs swiftly (very swiftly, often dangerously) through its nearby gorge. Numerous animal species live along and in the gorge, and in the nearby state park, mostly unseen by us human beings. Alas, sometimes they’re seen more often as roadkill than live, having come up to cross a road during the night for their own reasons: a fox, a woodchuck, raccoon, opossum, skunk, a squirrel or chipmunk, or even mice and voles; and the occasional deer.

I know that foxes live in the gorge, but I had only ever seen a couple that had paid with their lives for showing their faces along the road at dark. Until a couple of weeks ago. The phone rang early one afternoon. It was our neighbor kitty-corner across the street. “Look at Sanderson’s front yard,” she said. “You’ll enjoy what you see.” Sanderson’s live directly across the street. I did, and there, frolicking together like sibling puppies or kittens were two fox kits. Old enough to be on their own (at least while Mom was hunting?), but not yet adults.

I was enchanted. I went out with my camera and quietly edged down our driveway, nearer and nearer. But they weren’t stupid, nor too young to be inattentive to possible danger. One saw me and froze, as did the second immediately after. I stopped, standing very still in place. They stared for a while, then continued their game as I didn’t move. I began to edge closer again. The first one again immediately noticed. He or she dove into the safety of the culvert near where they played; its sibling dove in after. I was actually happy to know that they were afraid of me and weren’t about to let me get too close.

A block away there is a walking/bike path along the river that affords fine views of its  beautiful but treacherous water (we’re some seven or eight miles downriver of the Falls, and a mile-and-a-half from where the river empties into Lake Ontario). On very hot days, cool breezes rise from the gorge providing respite as well as beauty.

IMGP5569 (2)

There are dozens of species of trees along the shores, deciduous and evergreen, tall, shrubby and in-between, and when they are in full leave, like now, they display a gleeful variety of greens and yellows. There are wild flowers too, in spots. And besides those mammal species which sadly sometimes end up as roadkill, there are numerous songbirds and even birds of prey: osprey, red-tailed hawks, even bald eagles (though I myself have not seen one). There are fish and frogs of who-nows-what kinds, and the insects they and the birds feed on.

Where you live you may experience these or other signs of God’s faithfulness to his creation, repeated annually. All that rain is making me think of Noah! I’m remembering God’s promise to him, and us, after the flood: “As long as the earth endures, seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease” (Gen. 8:22). The yearly cycle of the seasons (and animals life cycles within them, too) is a fundamental sign that God has been faithful to that promise and will remain so. According to God himself through the prophet Jeremiah, all who rely on his faithfulness should “say to themselves,” “Let us fear the LORD our God, who gives autumn and spring rains in season, who assures us of the regular weeks of harvest” (Jeremiah 5:24).

Jesus himself also tells us we should not worry about food, or clothing; or anything. Why? Because God “clothes” and cares for even the birds and flowers. Do you think he won’t do the same for you? (See Matthew 6:25-30.)

My husband and I are preparing for a big move in the spring, 500 miles from here. That’s exciting, but it is not without its apprehensions and, yes, some worries. But when or if I’m tempted to worry — about that, or anything else — and when I catch myself getting bogged down in trying to control my life myself, I remind myself of Jesus’ words; and of God’s words to Noah; and Jeremiah.

Those are gracious reminders that God deeply loves and cares for, and always will love and shepherd me, you, and all of his creation. “Ask the LORD for rain in the springtime,” he says — and for whatever metaphorical “rain” you need. “It is the LORD who makes the storm clouds. He gives showers of rain to men, and plants of the field to everyone” (Zechariah 10:1). As I came to this paragraph the sun came out. It is shining brilliantly and the treetops are swaying in a stiff, fresh breeze.

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….

 This is my Father’s world, why should my heart be sad?

The Lord is King, let the heavens ring! God reigns; let the earth be glad.

Text: Maltbie D. Babcock, 1901

Communion musings

August 12, 2018

Our church — the Lutheran church where I’m the music director — celebrates Communion every week. I grew up in a Reformed church (Christian Reformed) that took Communion quarterly; yes, just four times a year. Those who argue for the former say that participating in the weekly Eucharist is vital to their faith. Those who prefer it much less often say Communion means more and is more profound each time when it doesn’t occur so frequently, and one is not in danger of feeling like he or she is “going through the motions.”

In either case, the music which accompanies the taking of the bread and wine, is vital to the celebration, I believe. There is a very fine body of Communion hymns, from the present and going back to the 16th century Reformation.

We sang one of those today, one that came from Lutheran Germany in the 17th century. The tune, even with its atypical rhythm, is wholly suited to the meditative text. It is known as SCHMÜCKE DICH for the first words of the original German text. From then until now, much organ music has been written using this tune, a couple of which pieces I also played this morning.

SCHMÜCKE DICH has been set to several texts in English. Today we sang an English rhyming version of Johann Franck’s original text, “Soul, Adorn Yourself with Gladness” (also known as “Deck, Thyself, My Soul, with Gladness”) . It’s deeply related to the Communion liturgy, yes; but it’s broader. It’s a from-the-heart confession of faith in Christ as our dearest treasure; and an acknowledgement of the life-expanding joy and peace beyond understanding that He brings to our lives. The chorale is really a prayer, both quieting and exuberant simultaneously.

Tune (text below):

 

1 Soul, adorn yourself with gladness,
leave the gloomy haunts of sadness.
Come into the daylight’s splendor,
there with joy your praises render.
Bless the one whose grace unbounded
this amazing banquet founded;
Christ, though heavenly, high, and holy,
deigns to dwell with you most lowly.

2 Hasten as a bride to meet him, 
eagerly and gladly greet him. 
There he stands already knocking; 
quickly, now, your gate unlocking, 
open wide the fast-closed portal, 
saying to the Lord immortal: 
“Come, and leave your loved one never; 
dwell within my heart forever.”

3 Now in faith I humbly ponder 
over this surpassing wonder 
that the bread of life is boundless 
though the souls it feeds are countless; 
with the choicest wine of heaven 
Christ’s own blood to us is given. 
Oh, most glorious consolation, 
pledge and seal of my salvation.

4 Jesus, source of lasting pleasure, 
truest friend, and dearest treasure, 
peace beyond all understanding, 
joy into all life expanding: 
humbly now, I bow before you, 
love incarnate, I adore you; 
worthily let me receive you, 
and so favored, never leave you.

A four-part choral setting, with a slightly different text version: