Saturday, July 31, 2010

Dinner for Schmucks

Today I decided to look at the movie showtimes and see if anything looked good. I have done this on at least a weekly basis for my entire adult life, but in the last five years there has been a growing number of weekends when I said, "Hmm. Nothing looks good. I guess I'll stay home and read a book instead." Today I actually knew what I wanted to see: Sorcerer's Apprentice, a new Disney feature that, apparently, coalesced around an attempt to make a live-action version of the Mickey Mouse scene in Fantasia.

When I surfed to my favorite multi-plex's website, however, my eye was struck by another title: Dinner for Schmucks. And that was a sale! I went to see it, halfway promising myself that I would see Sorcerer's Apprentice right afterward, but then I decided I was movied out. So that was my movie of the week. Doesn't it sound great?

Actually, it's pretty cute. A remake of a French movie, it features the comedic team of Paul Rudd (a rom-com leading man type) and Steve Carrell (who is lately getting the sort of roles Jim Carrey used to get). Together with Zach Galifianakis (the plump bearded guy from The Hangover), Bruce Greenwood, and other gifted cut-ups, they put on a hilarious buddy movie about an ambitious financial analyst and an IRS drone who makes anthropomorphic dioramas out of dead mice as a hobby. The "straight guy" invites the "schmuck" to the company dinner, which is actually an excuse to collect and make fun of idiots. But then, having convinced the schmuck that they're now friends, the straight guy can't shake him off. All kinds of slapstick mayhem ensues, reducing straight guy's love life and career to a shambles, but that's all right because along the way he realizes that the schmuck has become a true friend. Awww.

OK, it's a little sloppy, but the comedy is fairly clean (mostly) and the freaks turn out to be the most sympathetic characters (mostly). And it has perhaps the most squirm-a-licious scene I have witnessed in a long time. I won't spoil it, but it involves an engagement ring, a stalker, and some of the best rubber-faced mugging the world has seen since Jim Carrey fell off the planet... and the face in question belongs to Paul Rudd! Don't let anyone tell you this movie sucked. I know what "suck" looks like. I have walked out of Paul Rudd movies, and Steve Carrell movies, that sucked. This one was fun. Not a great movie that we'll be talking about at the end of the year. But it brought a needed and appreciated moment of laughter to a cinematic dry spell. And that's got to be worth something.

Seeing God As He Is

Tomorrow's sermon, coming to a St. Louis LCMS pulpit, is based more or less equally on all three lessons for Ninth Sunday after Trinity: 2 Samuel 22:26-34; 1 Corinthians 10:6-13; and Luke 16:1-9. My prayer, as always when I preach, is: "Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight, O LORD, my rock and my Redeemer" (Psalm 19:14).
Today’s first lesson was a portion of the song of David, thanking God for delivering him from his enemies. In this song, David describes God in a way many of us might find troubling. God appears merciful only to the merciful; He appears blameless only to the blameless; He appears pure only to those who are pure; while to the twisted, God appears to be twisted (2 Samuel 22:26–27). On David’s lips, this somehow comes across as praise. But we are troubled to hear that God chooses to appear evil in the eyes of evil men. In a similar way, we are disturbed to hear Christ compare God to a rich man who praised the shrewdness of his dishonest servant. In today’s Gospel, Jesus makes this shocking and confusing statement: “The master commended the unrighteous steward because he had acted shrewdly. For the sons of this age are shrewder in regard to their own kind than are the sons of light. And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an eternal home.”

Isn’t that weird! Jesus said some strange-sounding things in His time, things that can only be understood after careful study and reflection, and even then only in part. In Matthew 11, Jesus said: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.” What does that mean? In John 6, Jesus said things like: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” As a result of this speech, many of his followers said: “This is a hard saying; who can understand it?” and they stopped following him. In John 8, Jesus declared: “Before Abraham was, I am”—with the result that his audience picked up stones to throw at Him. And that’s because they understood what He meant! So as we wrestle with this strange parable in Luke 16, we must remember where it came from.

Let’s start by shaking off a misconception. We think of parables as “earthly stories with a heavenly meaning,” illustrations from human experience that help us understand the mysteries of God. But there’s more to them than that. Some parables are more like ingenious riddles that can lead to enlightenment, but can also lead to confusion and misunderstanding. In Luke 8, Jesus gave His disciples this explanation for why He taught in parables: “To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is given in parables, that ‘Seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’” Here Jesus is quoting Isaiah 6:9, where God announces a terrible judgment against His people. Not to be able to understand God’s Word is a dire punishment for unbelief, compounding it, hardening it, ensuring that one will not be saved from it. So when Christ speaks in parables, He isn’t just using picture language to make the meaning clear. At least sometimes, He speaks in a strange and puzzling way, so that those outside the faith will not understand.

As we approach this parable, we need to start with the humbling realization that we are not entitled to be enlightened by it. The temptation to take the wrong meaning away from it lies before us, no less than anyone else. Consider the children of Israel, as Paul described them in our lesson from 1 Corinthians 10. They were God’s chosen people. God had visited ten plagues on Egypt, sparing only the Israelites, in order to deliver them from cruel bondage. God killed the Pharaoh’s firstborn son, drowned his army, and led the Israelites dry-shod across the Red Sea. God led them by a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night to Mount Sinai. He even revealed Himself to 70 elders of Israel, enthroned on a pavement of sapphire. Yet as soon as Moses went up into the cloud that concealed the mountain, the Israelites turned away from God and began to worship the golden calf. This is what it means that “the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.” At Moses’ command, three thousand Israelites were put to death that day. On another day, twenty-three thousand fell because of sexual immorality (Numbers 25). When they tempted God, they were destroyed by serpents (Numbers 21). When they grumbled against God, they were destroyed by the destroyer (Numbers 16).

Paul concludes: “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” This is to say, do not think you have attained to a clearer revelation than the Israelites did. You have not achieved a closer walk with God than they had. Your heart is not more pure, your works are not more excellent, your faith is not more praiseworthy than theirs. We have no privilege or advantage over them. On the contrary, we have it in ourselves to be just as twisted and perverse as they were. We grumble when we don’t get our way. We hold our faith hostage by waiting for visible, countable blessings, though if we won’t listen to God’s counsel or do what He asks, we are merely tempting God. We sin in our hearts and minds, with our mouths and with our bodies, not just sins of sexual uncleanness but every kind of immorality. And while we find it hard to forgive others, we have learned to forgive ourselves so easily that we no longer seriously fear God or seek His forgiveness.

Stubborn, stiff-necked, fickle, we set more stock on how we want to worship than how God wants to be worshiped. We take such delight in our possessions, our lifestyle, our food and drink and entertainment, they could easily become our idols. Even in church, we may have our own manner of golden calf: perhaps our beautiful building and sanctuary, perhaps our synod and the programs we take part in, perhaps our structure and governance, rules and procedures, offices and officers…could these become a stumbling block to hearing and believing what God gives us in His Word? The bottom line, says Paul, is this: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”

There is comfort in this, but it is not the Gospel. For even bearing Paul’s words in mind, we must still admit that we don’t always escape temptation. God may not allow us to be tempted beyond what we can resist, yet often enough we don’t resist. Sometimes temptation does overtake us. And the result is sin. You have sinned. I have sinned. We have sinned together. We have sinned against each other. Each and every one of us has run up more debt than we can possibly repay. There are secret sins only you know about. There are sins that poison your relationships with others. There are sins they have committed against you, which you cannot forgive. There is so much shame within us. There is so much bitterness between us. And the worst of it is that we are all hopelessly in debt to God—who has the right to hand us over to torture and imprisonment until the last penny is repaid. That is to say, forever!

In Jesus’ parable of the unrighteous steward, the rich man’s debtors are in this very predicament. They owed the rich man a lot of money. Have you ever been in debt up to your eyeballs? I have. At one point I was trying to make car payments, mortgage payments, school loan payments, and payments on two maxed-out credit cards at the same time. My interest rates were so high that, even when I paid twice the minimum payment and didn’t spend anything, my balances went up. Earning a good salary, and spending just enough to keep food on my table and fuel in my car, I kept falling further behind. And that was before I lost my job and had to take a pay cut to keep working. I was the miller who owed 1,500 bushels of wheat. I was the oil merchant who owed 600 gallons of olive oil. I needed help. I needed mercy and forbearance. I needed to hear that I could make smaller payments, or fewer payments, or pay less interest. Eventually I had to sell my house and use the equity to pay off the other debts. God was very kind to me, because the house sold in no time and everything worked out. But sometimes you get in debt so deep you don’t even dare ask for help.

The miller and the oil merchant were like that. They didn’t come to the rich man, or even to his steward, asking for help. It was, at last, the steward who went to them. He was in enough trouble of his own. He was about to lose his stewardship, his authority to manage his master’s assets, over charges that he had misappropriated them. He was given only a little time to get his books in order. So he took his books to his master’s debtors. He used his authority to make deals in his master’s name—deals the rich man could not back out on without damaging his good name. And so the miller and the oil merchant got the help they needed to relieve some of the pressure of their debt. And the steward got himself into their good graces, knowing that he would soon need their help in return. It worked out for everyone except the rich man. He lost money on the deal. And yet, what does the rich man do? He praises the dishonest steward for acting sensibly.

Perhaps you see where this is going. Perhaps now you can almost glimpse the reason this parable does not paint a disturbing picture of God. In fact, it’s a comforting picture. It’s a picture of the God to whom you and I and everyone in world are so deeply, hopelessly in debt. This picture does not show God carrying a legal notice and a locksmith’s kit in his hands, coming to foreclose on us and change the locks. Nor does it show Him wearing a loupe in His eye, opening our books to examine the accounts. Rather, this parable shows a merciful Lord who throws his head back with a bark of laughter when He hears how His most unworthy servant used the power of forgiveness to secure his future. He does not begrudge the debts we forgive on His behalf. In fact, He so delights in forgiveness that He particularly promises to forgive us when we forgive each other! He praises us for using the authority to forgive sins on earth, even though we ourselves need forgiveness.

He allows us to forgive sins in His name, and stands by His Word. So when a servant of God declares you forgiven in the stead and by the name of Jesus, you can take that forgiveness to the bank. You need not doubt this even if God’s servant is unrighteous. For all of us fall short of perfection. Any of us may lie, cheat, steal, or sin in even more twisted ways. Yet God does not lie. His promise is His promise. His name is His name. His Word is His Word; and once pledged to you, it can never be withdrawn.

When the dishonest steward traded on his master’s mercy, the two debtors took that mercy to the bank. The steward was legally empowered to carry out business transactions with his master’s property and in his master’s name. So the two debtors innocently relied on the blameless honor of the rich man’s name. He could not go back on his steward’s agreement to forgive their debts and still keep his good reputation; so, in order to remain blameless, he had to hold his steward and his debtors blameless. God is like this rich man. We are like the debtors and the steward in this parable.

This shines a new light on David’s words about God. For if we are twisted by unbelief and sin, we can see God as only twisted and unjust. But if we are pure in heart by faith, we will see His purity. If we are justified by faith, we will recognize that He is both blameless and the one who declares sinners blameless. If we know His forgiving mercy, we will also mercifully forgive. Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall see mercy; blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:7–8). Jesus was merciful and pure. He showed us God’s mercy and purity of heart by His blameless death on the cross. He died to erase our debts and forgive our sins. He said as much on the night before his death, declaring that His blood is poured out for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:28). He said as much when He begged forgiveness for the people who nailed Him to the cross, when He promised Paradise to the robber crucified nearby, and when He spoke compassionately to Mary and John in the midst of mortal agony.

Jesus was merciful, blameless, and pure in heart to the bitter end. Therefore God shows Himself merciful, blameless, and pure of heart to you. He considers you to be all these things. By the power of His Spirit at work in Word and Sacrament, God is fashioning you more and more in the likeness of His merciful, pure, and blameless Son. The more you know Him as He is, the more you will be like Him—and not just in a hidden way, deep down in your heart, but out in the open where you have debts to forgive and to be forgiven for. If you know His merciful forgiveness, little children, be merciful and forgive one another. If you know His blameless honor, then when His servant declares your debts forgiven, give that pledge all the credit due to His holy name and Word. If you know your Lord’s purity of heart, particularly as revealed in Christ, then learn to look past the illusion that God is crooked or cruel or corrupt, and let your heart and mind be fashioned anew in the pure image of His Son.

Receive His forgiveness, little children. Forgive one another. And be purified by the operation of His Spirit through Word and Sacrament. In this way you will grow in the likeness of Christ. It may be a painful process, like being scrubbed by a rough brush, like metal being tested by fire, like muscle being strengthened by hard exercise, like a child being disciplined by its father. It may mean risking the idols we cling to, the mammon we hoard. It may mean making friends with people we don’t want to see. But the outcome is eternal life, where we will join David in singing: “You are my lamp, O Lord; the Lord shall enlighten my darkness. For by You I can run against a troop; by my God I can leap over a wall… God is my strength and power; He makes my way perfect… and he sets me on my high places.”

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Walmart Parable

To what shall I compare the kingdom of God?

It is like a Walmart store, where any on-the-clock employee who sees a spill on the floor immediately becomes responsible for it. It doesn't matter if he or she is a custodian, greeter, or even the store manager. It doesn't matter if he or she works in management, security, or human resources. It doesn't matter if he or she works on the loading dock, at the register, in food or lawn & garden or sporting goods or women's wear.

Whoever they are, wherever they were headed, whatever may have caused it, when a Walmart associate sees a spill he or she is expected to stand over it, point at it, and warn others not to walk through it--at least until a second employee comes along. Then the two of them can set up a hazard sign and clean up the spill.

Let him hear who questions whether Christians should point out false doctrine...

Thursday, July 29, 2010

14. Sacraments Hymn

Text: written today by Yours Truly.
Tune: "Song 1" by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625).
O Father, who once claimed me as Your child
By washing me in water and the Word,
Do not reject me, though, by sin defiled,
I need each day, each hour, to be restored.
By my baptismal cross, creed, prayer, and name,
Forget not me; remember not my shame!

O Christ, who gave Your body unto death,
The same my hungry lips as food receive;
How stronger than the stone You lay beneath—
Your promise, sworn and solemn, I believe.
By this put off from me the corpse of sin
And feed the new, immortal life within!

O Spirit, breathed out by the Crucified,
Breathe over me, the fire of faith ignite;
And with the blood and water from His side
Daub me; Your threefold witness now unite
That with the Church, His body, I shall be
One flesh, one blood with Christ, eternally!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

NST 10

Further to "Norwegian Style Tackiness No. 9," we continue with our hit parade of spiritually and artistically questionable hymns from the nominally Lutheran Ambassador Hymnal. Today's laugh-attack is limited to hymns 501-525...

This segment gets off to a tacky start with Hymn 501, I have decided to follow Jesus. I don't think any song in Christendom says "decision theology" with more shrillness than this hymn, attributed to an Indian prince and arranged (by Norman Johnson, b. 1928) from an Indian folk melody. We're talking about Indians from India, now, just so we're clear. The part-song music presupposes a congregation (or choir, or solo quartet) singing in none-too-sophisticated four-part harmony, particularly where the tenors have an echo effect at the words "no turning back." The text consists of three very repetitive stanzas and a short refrain which amount to a very simple expression of discipleship--with the fateful difference that it all starts with the individual's decision for Christ. If what this hymn says is true, what need have you of church or ministry, sermon or sacrament, forgiveness or fellowship? It's all on you, and there's no turning back! (Or is there?)

502 is I'm pressing on the upward way, with words by Johnson Oatman Jr. (1856-1904) set to the tune "Higher Ground" by Charles H. Gabriel (1856-1932). The part-songy music is a truth-in-advertising fail, occupying the middling ground between "tooth-gnashingly tedious" and "nothing special." The lyrics, meanwhile, focus relentlessly on sanctification. And though they thoughtfully mention several realistic obstacles to one's heavenward hike, they don't offer any serious help. Sure, there's the prayer that God would "plant my feet on higher ground," but how do you think He'll do it? Then there's the part that says "Faith has caught the joyful sound, the song of saints on higher ground..." Exactly how has "faith" managed that? I can't help but wonder if the author is serious when he asks God to lead me to "heaven's tableland, a higher plane than I have found," when he seems aware of no means of doing so.

504 is Jesus only, with words and music by Samuel M. Miller (1890-1975). The musical arrangement is peculiar in that the melody is hidden in the bottom note of each chord in the right-hand part. At least it seems to be an actual melody for once: a melody set to an inordinately pianistic accompaniment in the six-flat key of G-flat major. Other than keeping Grandma Wurlitzer on her toes, I can't think of one reason the key with C-flat in it (!) would be preferable to good old one-sharp G major, one half-step higher and written on the same lines and spaces; but smarmy hymns are often perverse that way. The words are a little perverse, too. "Jesus only on the mountain" makes sense, in reference to the aftermath of His Transfiguration; but the first stanza follows this with a long string of "Jesus only here" and "Jesus only there" phrases culminating in the line, "All things else are empty dross." Dross, mind you: because it rhymes with "cross." And of course Jesus was alone on the cross; that's sort of a two's-a-crowd situation. Stanza 2 starts talking in full sentences. One thing I'll say for this text is that it nails the "Christ alone" concept--or rather, pounds it into submission. That it does so to music that sounds like it came from the saloon scene in an old western movie is just weird enough to make the experience worthwhile.

505 is Even me, also known by its first line "Lord, I hear of show'rs of blessing." The words are by Elizabeth Codner (1824-1919), the tune "Even me" by the frequently-mentioned William B. Bradbury. The opening stanza carries imagery of sprinkling the thirsty ground (Refrain: "Even me, even me, Let Thy blessing fall on me"). After that it's another round of "Pass me not" sentiments. Stanza 3 coins the incredible word "Witnesser," but then it goes on to ask the Spirit to "speak the word of pow'r to me"--veering surprisingly close to a theology of the efficacious Word. When stanza 4 includes "Blood of Christ so rich and free" among the things of which we pray, "Magnify them all in me," somehow I doubt that we're talking about the Lord's Supper. No more am I convinced that stanza 5's "While the streams of life are springing, blessing others, O bless me" was intended as an allusion to Baptism. Rather, I am dumbfounded that a spiritual tradition that draws its hymnody from the Baptism-soaked and Eucharist-stuffed Scripture can, at the same time, remain oblivious to the Biblically-revealed power of the sacraments!

506 is Living for Jesus, with words by Thomas O. Chisholm (1866-1960) and the tune "Living" by C. Harold Lowden (1883-1963). I'm simply speechless. I know: you can't tell the difference. But since I'm writing this, and not talking aloud, I stand by my word: speechless! The music is nothing if it isn't a piano rag, particularly during the refrain. I haven't the heart to pick on the lyrics, which express devotion to Christ in response to His atoning work. But a ragtime hymn!! Don't that just beat all?

509 is To God be the glory, another Fanny Crosby/William Doane double-act which, without a doubt, you'll recognize from the daily recitals of the neighborhood church carillon. There's nothing particularly pernicious about this classic hymn. I just include it on this list because, without any particular claim to musical or poetic inspiration, it shows up a great host of nondescript mediocrities and paler imitations. Someday I would like to listen to a panel debate the merits of Stanza 2, which emphasizes that Christ's atoning work applies "to every believer the promise of God; The vilest offender who truly believes That moment from Jesus a pardon receives." Does this make one's faith a cause of salvation? To what degree does this imply limited atonement and/or synergism? I love stirring up hornets' nests like that. What better to poke it with than this overrated artifact of American quasi-folk art?

510 is How great Thou art, translated from Carl Boberg's (1850-1940) Swedish original and set to the Swedish folk tune "O Store Gud." I haven't been able to listen to this hymn with a straight face since someone pointed out its similarity to the Horst Wessel song of Nazi Party fame. Yes, indeed: speed the Swedish folk-tune up to a brisk marching tempo, and it's virtually indistinguishable from the Third Reich's heroic hoopla! Lyric-wise, it's mostly a "First Article" song of praise, particularly when sung by memory (since most people don't remember more than the first stanza or two). There is a decent confession of Christ's atoning work in stanza 3 before the last verse's climactic ascent toward heavenly glory. But the shmaltziness of the hymn is far from the sort of awe these considerations ought to inspire; and what's more, the music exacts rhythms from the singers that are difficult for a congregation, accompanied by a keyboard instrument, to pull off accurately.

511 is Blessed assurance, with words by Fanny Crosby and music by Phoebe Knapp (1839-1908). This hymn is the reason my flesh crawls whenever I hear a Lutheran pastor play the "blessed assurance" card out of his never-full deck of stock phrases. To me, that phrase carries all the baggage of this hymn, a portmanteau crammed with religious catch-phrases, all juxtaposed in an impressionistic way that seems to make more sense while you're caught up in singing it than when you read it seriously. Stanza 1 doesn't have a full sentence until the Refrain ("This is my story, this is my song..."), whose words are repeated twice per stanza and thus, in four stanzas, a total of eight unbearable times. Stanza 1 wraps up with "born of His Spirit, washed in His blood" but doesn't assert that this took place in Baptism. Stanza 2 admits that "Visions of rapture now burst on my sight" in which "Angels...bring from above Echoes of mercy, whispers of love," but doesn't explain the context in which this happens. Stanza 3 depicts "I and my Savior" as a happy couple, just married; but then, in a textbook example of "misplaced modifier," it goes on without an explicit change of subject to say: "Watching and waiting, looking above, Filled with His goodness, lost in His love." Who, both of us? Or just me?

513 is Jesus! what a Friend for sinners, J. Wilbur Chapman's (1859-1918) rip-off of the "greatest hits" of American Evangelicalism's "old-time religion" label. Stanza 1 is a riff on "What a Friend we have in Jesus"; stanza 2 echoes "Rock of Ages" ("Let me hide myself in Him"); stanza 3 steals from "My Anchor Holds" ("While the billows o'er me roll"); stanza 4 epitomizes "Jesus, Savior, pilot me"; and stanza 5 rhymes "More than all in Him I find" with "I am His and He is mine." As to what the hymn says, it's all right though it's been said better (and more originally) elsewhere. I find it odd to hear some of these lines with a third-person pronoun referring to Jesus -- "Him" instead of "Thee," etc. And, of course, there is a possibility that today's young scamps may read this hymn's frequently repeated theme of "Jesus! what a..." in an impious manner. It's amazing this hymn's popularity has endured for so long.

514 is Wonderful words of life by Philip Bliss (first line: "Sing them over again to me"). It's another one of those hymns that talk endlessly about the gospel, but hardly proclaim it at all. The last stanza does mention "pardon and peace," but other than that it's a lot of empty talk about "wonderful words of life" that doesn't actually tell you what those words say. Or else, perhaps, it's confused about the difference between the real wonderful words of life (the forgiveness of sins) and a moralizing message of sanctification: "Teach me faith and duty... Sanctify forever...." As for the music... it has two chords in it. Enough said?

515 is Room at the cross for you by Ira F. Stanphill (1914-93), a multi-talented musician whose instruments included ukelele and accordion(!) and whose songs were performed by no less than Johnny Cash(!!) and Elvis Presley(!!!). Musically, "Room at the Cross" would fit right in with a playlist of country-pop-gospel standards of the 1940s or '50s. Full of sticky sentimentality and a style of harmony that I like to call "smarmony," it goes perfectly with Stanphill's lyrics. These, meanwhile, are full of head-scratchers, such as the idea of the cross (made out of solid wood) containing "a shelter in which we can hide" and a "fountain as wide as the sea." There's an inappropriately whimsical quality to such phrases as "the sins they have sinned." And the whole concept of coming to the cross, and staying there, is sufficiently fuzzy that it can fit into anyone's ideas (or lack of ideas) about where one locates Christ and the benefits of His cross.

516 is There shall be showers of blessing, with words by Daniel Webster Whittle (1840-1901) and the tune "Showers of Blessing" by James McGranahan (1840-1907)--an evangelistic songwriting team associated with Dwight L. Moody. Musically, this hymn is a mediocre part-song. Spiritually, it serves mainly as an invocation for a tent revival. "Mercy-drops round us are falling, But for the showers we plead"--Come on, God! Hose us down! Don't just tinkle on us! Super-soak us with your blessings! It's the kind of hymn that would probably work in the context of a charismatic/neo-Pentecostal church. Why is it in a Lutheran book?

The streak continues with Hymn 517, Trust and Obey, with words by John H. Sammis (1846-1919) and music by Daniel B. Towner (1850-1919), the composer of "Standing on the Word of God." Towner's tune dares to reach for a slightly higher level of musical subtlety than the average part-song of its species. Sammis's lyrics, on the other hand, succeed mainly in carrying off five stanzas in an AABCCB rhyme scheme and turning Law into Gospel. Which is not really the Gospel, by the way. Even if you know only the title of this song, you probably have its number. Sammis evidently wrote numerous hymns which were collected, after his death, into two groups: "Song of Trust" and "Songs of Obedience." This hymn must have been his theme-song.

519 is Fanny Crosby's Redeemed--how I love to proclaim it, with the tune "Redeemed" by William Kirkpatrick. The part-songy music is notable mainly for the shlurpy "scoops" on the word "redeemed" in the last half of the Refrain. The text has its awkward phrases, such as "His child, and forever, I am." And though the hymn repeatedly mentions (in exactly the same words) that one is "redeemed by the blood of the Lamb," it dwells more on one's personal feelings it than on the fact itself or its implications. So, when it finally describes Jesus as "the King in whose law I delight," it tips the balance of the hymn away from depicting Jesus the Savior who brings us forgiveness and toward the moral example who "guideth my footsteps." Hmmm. Is that Law or Gospel?

519 is For God so loved the world, a one-stanza paraphrase of John 3:16 by Frances Townsend (b. 1906), with music by Alfred B. Smith (b. 1916). Since you only get to sing it once at a sitting (unless you choose to do the whole thing over and over), it's sort of a hit-and-run tackiness. The music is pure, matching-blazers-wearing glee-club material, with barbershop harmony transposed into SATB. And though it borders on unforgivable to criticize John 3:16, I have to say this isn't a very faithful paraphrase of that well-loved verse. For starters, it dispenses with the universal language of "all who believe in Him" and makes it all about "me."

520 is Jesus saves (first line: "We have heard the joyful sound"), with words by Priscilla J. Owens (1829-1907) and music by William Kirkpatrick. The music has a certain part-songy quality to it (e.g. extremely static harmony, essentially consisting of three chords and their inversions), but Kirkpatrick blows several opportunities to insert choral echo effects, say, during the numerous repetitions of the words "Jesus saves!" Except for that motto, most of the hymn is in the imperative mood: "Climb the steeps... Waft it on..." Stanza 3 at least has a little comfort in it: "By His death and endless life Jesus saves! Sing it softly thru the gloom, When the heart for mercy craves; Sing in triumph o'er the tomb--Jesus saves!" Other than that, it is musically and poetically of the character of a triumphal march that instills more of a sense of patriotic duty than of comfort and assurance.

521 is Thank you, Lord by Bessie Sykes (b. 1905) and Seth Sykes (1892-1950). Their lyrics almost make it sound wrong or at least wasteful to thank the Lord for "friends and home, for mercies sure and sweet... for the flow'rs that grow... for the stars that shine," etc., when--in the words of the Refrain--I "thank the Lord for saving my soul." The music is part-songy with a music-hall twinge.

522 is Grace greater than our sin (first line: "Marvelous grace of our loving Lord"), with words by Julia H. Johnston (1849-1919) and part-song music by Daniel Towner. Again, Towner draws on a wider musical vocabulary than the typical composer in this genre, but that doesn't prevent the piece from coming across as a light-weight, sentimental ditty. The text has the merit of stressing forgiveness that "exceeds our sin and our guilt," but it frames it in such a way that there seem to be strings attached. For example: "Whiter than snow you may be today"--may be, mind; that depends entirely on you. Or how about this line: "Freely bestowed on all who believe"--which, though not far from the truth, seems to backpedal from the brink of unconditional forgiveness and, in the space of six words, make it contingent on faith. And so, finally, it comes down to a personal decision: "Will you this moment His grace receive?" Well? Will ya, punk?

523 is Wounded for me, a one-stanza hymn by W. G. Ovens (1870-1945) combined with four additional stanzas by Gladys Westcott Roberts (b. 1888). The music, besides being smarmy and having an atrociously uninspired opening phrase, is simply, mercifully, forgettable. The five stanzas reduce Jesus' passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and expected return to the main points of a simplistic, Sunday School ditty. And in at least one case, they miss the point: "Living for me, living for me, Up in the skies He is living for me..." Is that where Jesus is since His ascension? And is praying on my behalf all He does for me? Anyone who has reflected for any length of time on the distinctive teachings of Lutheranism will want to hear something a bit more encouraging than this caricature of the ascended Jesus lighting a candle for us in some side chapel off the Dwingeloo 2 galaxy.

524 is I will sing of my Redeemer, a hymn by Philip Bliss with the tune "My Redeemer" by James McGranahan. The music is an extreme example of part-song harmony, with ridiculously extended echo effects in the men's parts and such a variety of note-lengths (tied notes included) that you can't seriously expect Joe & Jill Sixpack to sing it with any approximation to rhythmic accuracy. Set to another tune, it might actually be a good hymn, focusing on the atonement.

And finally (for now), Hymn 525 is I know whom I have believed (first line: "I know not why God's wondrous grace"), another Whittle hymn with a McGranahan tune (named "El Nathan" in honor of Whittle's pen-name). The text, which the previously cited Wiki quotes in part as a sample of Whittle's work, actually has some merit--the refrain is even a quote from 2 Timothy 1:12--though the hymn does not provide much help in interpreting what Paul means by "that which I've committed unto Him against that day." The key phrase "I know whom I have believed" makes a very powerful counterweight against a laundry-list of things that the hymn's five stanzas correctly confess that "I" know not, such as why God chose me and redeemed me, how He created faith in my heart, how the Spirit goes about "revealing Jesus thru the Word," what's going to happen to me in this life, and when Jesus is going to return. All this is good. But for all the positives about this hymn, I still suspect that it's persistent "I" language suits it for someone's private devotions (perhaps a minister's in particular) rather than corporate worship. And the music is definitely not something I would want to hear in church. It sounds like something that would be sung into a microphone at the type of dance where at least one member of the band is playing an accordion.

I don't have any general observations to close this epic chapter of "Norwegian Style Tackiness." I'm just exhausted. The tackiness wouldn't let up!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Jeff vs. the Volcano

Recently I was invited to investigate a fire. As a fan of crime dramas, I might sometimes wish I were talking about the Fire Department calling on me to sleuth out a suspicious blaze. But actually the conflagration is an exegetical one. And although I didn't expect to find any evidence of foul play, I'm now feeling very suspicious...

First, let's go to the scene of the crime. John the Baptist is in the wilderness, preaching that Messiah is about to appear. And now he knows who it is. According to the other John (the apostle), John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and declared:
"Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is He of whom I said, 'After me comes a Man who is preferred before me, for He was before me. I did not know Him; but that He should be revealed to Israel, therefore I came baptizing with water... I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God" (John 1:29-34).
The last part of this testimony is also quoted by the other three evangelists. For example, Mark quotes John as saying:
"There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose. I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (Mark 1:7-8)."
Matthew and Luke, however, include a provocative detail that Mark and John passed over--the word "fire." The first evangelist places these words in the heart of a dramatic sermon rebuking officials of the temple and synagogue who came to John's baptism:
"Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Matthew 3:7-12).
Luke includes some of the same speech, but depicts it as part of an answer John gave to some who thought he was the Messiah:
"I indeed baptize you with water; but One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather the wheat into His barn; but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire" (Luke 3:16-17).
This is a sketchy illustration of one of the problems that supposedly bedevil interpretation of the Bible, especially of the New Testament: the "Synoptic Problem." Basically the "problem" boils down to two questions: (1) Why does the New Testament include four separate accounts of the same history of Jesus' ministry, death, and resurrection? (In a narrower sense, this question really only applies to the three "Synoptic" Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Their accounts, although far from identical, appear very similar when placed alongside the maverick account of John.) And then the obvious second question is: (2) Why aren't they exactly the same?

My aim, in this edition of my off-and-on "Hermeneutics Thread," isn't to settle the Synoptic Problem once and for all. I believe these questions are worth discussing at greater length than I have time to give them today. However, they can also be answered very briefly and simply, as a stopgap, so we can move on to the main event.

The short answer to Question #1 is that, according to Old Testament law: "By the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall be established" (Deuteronomy 19:15, Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1). This principle must certainly apply to a claim as cosmically significant as that made by John the Baptist in the passages quoted above. To the degree that John himself is regarded as a true prophet of Israel, his testimony about Jesus being the Promised One of Old Testament prophecy must shake the convictions of every godfearing soul who hears it--provided that it is supported by multiple, corroborating witnesses. Did John the Baptist really say this? That is what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John affirm; and not just sufficiently (the requisite two or three witnesses), but abundantly! Four witnesses testified to all that Jesus did and suffered for mankind; and these authors were themselves backed up by other eyewitnesses named in their accounts, at least while those individuals were available to be questioned!

So the reason for the multiple witnesses, from that point of view, is pretty clear. They complement each other. They corroborate each other. And sometimes--well, I won't quite say they correct each other. Rather, they correct misunderstandings that we, in our weakness, could conceive by isolating any one voice from the chorus of evangelists. I'm not in favor of harmonizing the gospels into a homogeneous, best-of-the-best account. I think each one presents a fascinating point of view that should be preserved and cherished, but that also needs to be interpreted in light of all the others. Each gospel account is coherent and useful by itself, but we must also remember that the Holy Ghost is His own best interpreter, that for every dark word in His Book there is another that sheds light on it.

So, in a sense, we have already answered Question #2 under the "Synoptic Problem": If this is God's Word, and if God does not lie or err, how can these four accounts be so different? Shouldn't they rather be identical in every detail? Well, they wouldn't be four accounts then, would they? To be sure, the Holy Ghost breathed the Scriptures, and moved the pens of its writers, but not like a mechanical facsimile machine. We owe the unity of Scripture to the fact that the Holy Ghost authored every word of it; and again, God does not lie. But within that unity, there is a diversity of human authors through whom He operated. We should therefore read the complementary accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John with implicit trust in Jesus' promise that "the Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35). We need to take it on faith that, while the four evangelists may differ in their selection and ordering of material, and even in their precise wording of direct quotes -- which, in those days, were more on the order of paraphrases anyway -- nevertheless, they do not contradict each other. And therefore we can and must rely on each of them, without preference, to help us interpret the others.

So, if a verse in Mark throws you for a loop, interpret it alongside its parallel verse in Matthew or Luke. Or, if John (most likely via a given interpreter) seems to be laying a trail leading straight off the reservation, take counsel from the Synoptics. Separated from the others, you may find one of the evangelists to be an obscure mystical guru pointing you towards dubious paths of enlightement. Taken together, you will find they are more like a quartet of wise tribal elders who know how, with one word quietly spoken, to keep any village idiot under control. And they bear witness to Christ with a harmonious diversity more beautiful and fascinating than virtually any other set of comparable writings -- if, indeed, any are comparable.

Case in point: The Concordia Commentary series. This is a superbly designed set of book-by-book Bible commentaries, currently being produced by the Concordia Publishing House. Their contents strike an intriguing balance between scholarly exegetical work and theological analysis that a reasonably bright layman could follow. And yet, within this one externally homogeneous commentary, authored by confessional Lutheran scholars who (one would presume) walk together in the same Spirit, there is nothing like the beautiful harmony one sees between the Gospels.

For example, take the parallel passages from Matthew and Luke quoted above. In his commentary on Luke (vol. 1, p. 154f.), Arthur Just has this to say about the portion of Luke 3:16 that I set in bold type:
One of the more challenging statements John makes is that Jesus is the “more powerful” one who will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (3:16). That raises this question: When does Jesus baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire? “Baptism,” “Spirit,” and “fire”—two of these three elements are found together at Jesus’ baptism, in 12:49-50, and at Pentecost. At the baptism of Jesus, he is baptized and the Holy Spirit descends upon him. In 12:49-50, Jesus speaks of fire to be kindled, alluding to the wrath that must consume the world and that will be absorbed by him in his “baptism” with the “fire” of wrath on the cross. Finally, on the Christian Pentecost in Acts 2, the Holy Spirit comes and tongues of fire rest on the apostles.

Thus by Pentecost, Jesus has been baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire. He has undergone this baptism as the substitute for all. After Pentecost, Christian Baptism is based on Jesus’ baptism and crucifixion. The post-Pentecost baptizing by Jesus’ apostles incorporates people into Christ, his death and life. In this, Christ may be said to be the Baptizer. Those baptized into Christ are baptized with the Spirit and fire with which he was baptized. John’s baptism cleanses with water, but Jesus’ baptism cleanses with the Holy Spirit and fire, alluding to Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan (the Holy Spirit) and his “baptism” on the cross, where God’s fiery wrath is laid upon him (12:49-50). Jesus’ own baptism and atoning death make possible the baptism in the Spirit and tongues of fire at Pentecost. Jesus is the more powerful one, and his baptism in Spirit and fire initiates the people into God’s end-time kingdom....
Now, I've never counted myself among the number of Art Just's disciples, though I was in the section on Luke that he taught at Concordia Theological Seminary at the time his CPH commentary was first printed. I will be the first to admit that he often speaks in terms dyed with an excess of purple, and with a serendipitous excitement above and beyond the merits of his ideas. Nevertheless, I am quite convinced by his interpretation of "spirit and fire." It doesn't take a shyster to sell the idea that the baptism of "Spirit and fire" John speaks of is a reference to Christian Baptism. The only surprises are how well Just sells it and the powerful christological argument he brings to bear on it.

Out of curiosity, however, I also consulted the Concordia Commentary on Matthew, written rather more recently by St. Louis's own Prof. Jeffrey Gibbs. Here is his take on the portion of Matthew 3:11 likewise highlighted above (vol. 1, pp. 172f.):
The terms “baptize” and “Holy Spirit” make us think of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism that Christ instituted soon after his resurrection (28:19-20). The context here, however, has the Last Day firmly in view, and John’s words about what Jesus will do look to the Lord’s activity on the Last Day. The promise “He himself will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” refers directly to the final salvation and judgment that Christ will administer when he returns in glory. Now, to be sure, there is an unbreakable relationship between Christian Baptism, which bestows the forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit upon the baptized person now during this present age, and the full baptism that Jesus will administer on the Last Day . . . But here we should not confuse those two baptisms, and John is not referring directly in 3:11 to Christian Baptism. John is looking to the End.
Shocked? I was, when I first read this passage. A glance at the context shows that Matthew 3:11 and Luke 3:16 are parallel verses. From the standpoint of John the Baptist, they are essentially the same statement. And yet, according to Gibbs and Just, authors writing from the same confessional tradition and within the same series of high-gloss commentaries, they mean entirely different things. Gibbs does not just veer off at an angle from Just's line of argument; he contradicts it head-on. It's not at all about Christian Baptism! It's not even about the pouring out of the Spirit in the wind and fire of Pentecost! In Gibbs's view it's all about, and only about, the "final salvation and judgment...that Christ will administer on the last day."

I think I understand the reasoning on which Gibbs based his eschatological understanding of John's words. But I am simply not convinced by it. Nowhere else in Scripture do we find such a use of the word "baptism" in the sense of an end-times act of divine judgment, punishment, or destruction. And although John the Baptist speaks of "fire" in the next verse (both in Matthew and in Luke) in a judgment-related sense, both grammar and rhetoric exclude this sense of wrath and doom from the word "fire" in Matthew 3:11 and Luke 3:16. Lutheran theology, formed by the full testimony of Scripture, does not speak of "two baptisms," or of a second and "final baptism." Confessional Lutheran theology, in particular, does not shy away from rectilinear interpretations of prophecy (such as one that would finger the first Pentecost after Jesus' ascension as the key fulfillment of John's prophecy). Confessional Lutheran theology does not customarily shy away from clear and obvious references to the sacraments instituted by Christ (such as, in this case, Baptism). And Confessional Lutheran theology does not shy away from Christological interpretations (such as Just's analysis of how Jesus' personal baptism by Spirit and fire is the basis for both Pentecost and Christian Baptism).

Don't just take my word for it. Take Martin Luther's. I think we can trust him to represent the hermeneutical approach of confessional Lutherans. If not him, then whom? Writing on John 1:32-34 in the American Edition of his works (vol. 22, pp. 179f.), Luther opines:
Christ, of course, accepts John’s Baptism of water, but He adds the fire. That is, He imparts the Holy Spirit, who kindles His virtues in us. And thus our Baptism in Christ, in which He gives us remission of sin, baptizing us with the Holy Spirit and with forgiveness, remains and continues to be effective.... For our Baptism is not, as John’s was, one that points to Him who is to bring forgiveness of sin; but our Baptism is Christ’s Baptism, which has already brought forgiveness. Christ wants to say: "I baptize and call you to repentance. But at the same time I confer on you the spiritual fire, that is, the Holy Spirit, so that you live under the forgiveness of sin, repenting daily and purging and cleansing the evil flesh, which strives against the Spirit."
Again, Luther writes on Psalm 68:2 (vol. 13, pp. 3f.):
Here we find two beautiful similes. Smoke is dissipated by the wind, wax is melted by fire. This is an allusion to the Holy Spirit, who is a fire and a wind (Luke 3:16, 17). For “spirit” means a wind with which God fans and converts us into spiritual beings. This wind and this fire came from heaven to earth after Christ’s resurrection and now converts the world through the Gospel...
Luther apparently treats "Spirit and fire" as a hendiadys, not two different things but one thing designated by two names: or rather, one Person. And, says Luther, that Person comes to us now, in this life, through Baptism and the Gospel, with a fullness that was withheld until after Jesus' ascension into heaven--though, to be sure, the preaching and baptism of John were also of the Spirit's doing. Which author in the Concordia Commentary series, Just or Gibbs, more closely reflects Luther's approach to this Word?

E. W. T. H. Hengstenberg also, in his commentary on John (vol. 1, p. 86ff.), seems to agree that when John speaks of Jesus' Baptism with the Spirit (fire or no), he is talking about something that happens in our time, in the "messianic age" between the first and second coming of Christ. Hengstenberg draws a syllogism from John 1:33...
The Spirit coming down and resting on Christ, is the source from which He baptizes with the Holy Ghost.... The expression, baptize with the Holy Ghost...has its foundation in the passages of the Old Testament which speak of the pouring out of the Spirit in the times of the Messiah: Joel 2:8, “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out My Spirit upon all flesh.” Isaiah 44:3. He who pours out, is in these passages God; and, in fact, the baptism with the Holy Ghost is far above the sphere of man—being a Divine prerogative: nowhere in Holy Scripture is there such a declaration with regard to a man. The Berleb. Bibel remarks, with perfect correctness, “He baptizes in the Holy Ghost—therefore must the Holy Ghost proceed from Him also, and He must be the Son of God.”
R. C. H. Lenski, who single-handedly wrote a massive commentary on the entire New Testament, showed both an economy of effort and a wise policy of agreeing with himself from one volume to the next. In this instance, at least, his comments on Matthew 3:11 and Luke 3:16 are almost word-for-word identical. Lenski points out that the distinction between John's baptism with water unto repentance and Jesus' baptism with the Spirit and fire is "before the actually completed work of redemption the limited preparatory work of the Spirit" vs. "after that the superabounding fullness of the Spirit." He goes on to cite Jesus' own interpretation of John's comment, as noted in Acts 1:5, 8--"John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence... Ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you." In other words, Jesus Himself processes John the Baptist's prophecy as a direct prediction of the first Christian Pentecost! Lenski continues:
Also Peter reports how the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and the Gentiles with him "as on us at the beginning," i. e., Pentecost. He adds: "Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized with water, but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost," Acts 11:16. The miraculous outpouring of the Holy Ghost at the time of Pentecost is the supreme work and thus the final great mark of the Messiah...

Judgment is never conceived as a baptism with fire or with another element; baptism and baptizing always imply cleansing and not destruction. [Lenski discusses the view] that "fire" is always a symbol of judgment and destruction. But see the refiner's fire in Mal. 3:2, 3, fire as an image of purification in Zech. 13:9; Isa. 6:6, 7; 1 Pet. 1:7, and the "spirit of burning" taking away filth in Isa. 4:4. Pentecost, the fulfillment of John's prophecy, has the two combined in the clearest manner: the Spirit and cloven tongues of fire as the visible manifestation of the Spirit. Thus the church, too, has never had the least trouble with this fire. She sings:...
Here Lenski goes on to quote several Christian hymns in which "fire" is used in the sense of the cleansing, purifying action of the Holy Spirit. And while their evidence (including a verse by Luther) is probative, what really seals the deal is Lenski's close study of the original Greek grammar and his bravura demonstration of "letting Scripture interpret Scripture."

I should think the editors and publishers of the Concordia Commentary series ought to feel a little embarrassment (or maybe not a little) about the "Synoptic Problem" between their own commentaries on Luke and Matthew. Their gifted and highly qualified authors do not bear witness to the unity of their source material nearly as well as the four evangelists do. At least one of them has an axe to grind and he trails chips and shavings all over the text. At least one of them puts an impression of the verse's surrounding context ahead of its clear, grammatical meaning (though Lenski gives cogent reasons to choose otherwise). Well might one lament with St. Paul, "For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare himself for battle?" (1 Corinthians 14:8). But one might also, perhaps, take solace in the fact that, by their discordant interpretations, Doctors Just and Gibbs provide an ironic example of how exceedingly, divinely harmonious is the fourfold testimony of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Plaza Cafe & Grill

I was heading home from an LCMS church's "going out of business" giveaway with a trunkload of antique books and a piece of Jesus kitsch to hang above my piano, when I spotted a nice-looking restaurant I had never noticed before. It's called the Plaza Cafe and Grill, and it's situated on Morganford about three blocks south of Tower Grove Park.

It has its own parking lot, a lot of big windows, and a nice-looking, roomy dining area where, at the stroke of noon on a brutally hot Saturday, you can choose either lunch or breakfast. The waitress also lets you choose where you want to sit. I picked a booth with a nice view of the street-side windows, which in turn provide a pleasant vista of the entire street corner. So far, so good.

My drink order was raspberry iced tea. It was refreshingly cold and came in a very big plastic tumbler with a faded "Pepsi-Cola" logo on it. Although I quickly found out that the drink was too sweet for my palate, and that it tasted like neither raspberries nor tea, I quickly drained it to the bottom because I was that thirsty. I gladly accepted an offer of a refill on the condition that it was just plain, iced tea. This turned out to be a huge improvement. I sucked down about three tumblers of that stuff by the end of lunch.

I had a good deal of time to contemplate my neighboring diners, my view of the street-corner outside, and the faded Pepsi logo on my tumbler before my soup arrived. Actually it was a cup of red chili, liberally topped with stringily melted shredded cheese. This was also good, as midwestern cups of chili go, though I was a little surprised that a packet of crackers didn't come with it. I've never known a waitress to omit that small courtesy before, but I thought I would let it pass in hope of better things to come.

Unfortunately, what came was not better but worse. I had ordered a regular hamburger, cooked medium-well, with fries. After another very long wait (which I can't explain, because the joint wasn't very busy and there were more than enough waitresses to serve everyone), my plate arrived. The only good thing on it was the bun. I'll give credit where due. The bread part of the burger was excellent, convincingly like a freshly-made roll and toasted just so. But the meat on the bun was the size, shape, texture, and flavor of a charcoal briquette. I was as hungry as I had been thirsty, so I forced it down with the lubricating assistance of ketchup, but I can't say I thought much of the chef's idea of "medium-well." It looked pretty sad on the bun, too, with all that space around the edges and nothing on it--NOTHING--not even a pickle!

The plate was garnished with a big, limp, wilted lettuce leaf that I wasn't about to eat. Apart from that, I was served a large mound of the nastiest french fries I have ever encountered. EVER. They weren't just disappointing; they were loathesome. They had the color of french fries that had been allowed to cook too long, and the texture of french fries that had been refrigerated overnight and reheated the next day. They were flaccid, spongy, clammy things that not even ketchup could help. I ate about two and a half of them (because, by golly, I was paying for them), but in this case I couldn't finish them. Besides, by the time I gagged down the last of my cinderburger, I frankly wasn't hungry enough to bother.

The waitress asked me in passing if everything was OK. I shook my head, but she ignored me and kept going. Later, when she noticed that I wasn't eating my fries, she asked me a more pointed question and I admitted that I thought they were no good. She offered me something else. I opted for my check. I gave her a decent tip, though perhaps not one extravagant enough to remember me by. Unless she moonlights at a place that serves decent food, it'll be the last tip she gets from me. So I guess I owed it to her to make it a nice one.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Thank You, David Lynch

I thank American cinematic auteur David Lynch for inspiring the thoughts below. It's been a while since I have either watched his 1984 film Dune or read Frank Herbert's novel, on which it was based. So forgive me if my memory is faulty, but it seems to me that the following parables owe their verisimilitude more to Lynch's film than to Herbert's book.

To what shall I compare the kingdom of heaven? It is like the cat who owned poor Thufir Hawat (pictured here, as played by Freddie Jones). When the evil Baron Harkonnen captured Thufir, he forced a deadly poison on the not-so-faithful Atreides family retainer. At the same time, the Baron gave Thufir a female cat that had been inoculated with the antidote. The Baron gleefully informed Thufir that he must drink this cat's milk every day for the rest of his life. For without a daily dose of the serum in the cat's milk, Thufir would die a horrible death. Let him who has eyebrows... whatever.

Again, to what shall I compare the kingdom of heaven? It is like the "weirding way" depicted in David Lynch's movie Dune (which, by the way, is totally different in the book). A small group of well-trained resistance fighters, armed with a hand-held device called a "weirding module," managed to overthrow an entire empire. All they had to do to make the module work was speak a certain word, and the device would convert it into enough kinetic energy to kill a man. The resistance fighters' most exciting breakthrough was discovering that their leader's name was a "killing word," a word so powerful that the weirding device could use it to blow up a whole building! Let him who has seen this movie try to avoid being caught saying "Muad'dib!" to the TV remote...

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Solar Tackiness

This week's ELCA lighted-sign tackiness is short and to the point:

SHINE, DON'T WHINE.

That's easy for you to say! You're a lighted sign! I suppose, apart from that, that this is good advice.

On the other hand, most light bulbs require more than good intentions to make them shine. What this slogan-of-the-week fails to deliver is a mention of the power source that will fill the body with light, and how the body can get plugged into it. Now that would really be good news!

Monday, July 19, 2010

NST 9

As explained where this thread left off, NST="Norwegian Style Tackiness." And for the benefit of those tuning in late, this is a whimsical series of posts devoted to the "perfect storm" of doctrinally, poetically, and musically inferior, mushy, subjective hymns displayed in the 1994 Ambassador Hymnal. And there is still lots and lots of evidence yet to be viewed, evidence that pietism knows neither denominational nor ethnic boundaries. For although AH is the songbook of an alive-and-kicking, Minnesota-based, Scandinavian-derived Lutheran church body, its repertoire is primarily that of the English and American Methodist, Baptist, and Pentecostal churches of the 19th century. Go figure!

Hymn 477 is My Jesus, as Thou wilt! This hymn actually comes from a German Lutheran hymn-writer (Benjamin Schmolck, 1672-1737), albeit a pietistic one. His hymn of resignation to the will of Christ is very touching, and it would be just plain mean of me to pick on it, if it weren't for Carl Maria von Weber's tune "Jewett." Actually, I wonder whether Weber would have sanctioned its use as a hymn. The tune comes from his opera Der Freisch├╝tz ("The Sharpshooter"), the first great German Romantic opera. Both its musical character and its association with a secular opera raise questions as to whether this tune is properly used in church. On the one hand, I wouldn't wish the associations of a tacked-on hymn text on this fine opera music; and on the other hand, not everything that sounds beautiful in the concert hall is really suited to be sung as a hymn. This use of Weber's music could be the most striking illustration of these principles, though I would apply them equally to tunes by Handel, Haydn, Beethoven, Pleyel, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Holst....

478 is Search me, O God, a paraphrase and elaboration upon the last two verses of Psalm 139, written by J. Edwin Orr (1912-1987), one of the founders of Campus Crusade for Christ. After the first stanza and its appeal for cleansing from sin, the text increasingly develops into another self-surrender ditty. Meanwhile, the tune "Maori," arranged by Norman Johnson (b. 1928) from an alleged Maori melody, sounds for all the world like a slow Barbershop song. Is that the kind of music the aboriginal people of New Zealand traditionally make? If so, the coincidence is amazing... yet tacky!

479 is God leads us along, words and music by G. A. Young (b. 1903). I used to wonder why so many tunes of this type were written in black-note keys like D-flat major (this hymn's key). Lately I've come to the conclusion that musicians faced with a book full of such tunes would soon grow bored without the gratuitous challenge of five flats. I've been playing Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier for over half of my life, so the key signature has no such effect on me. Young's music is gratingly, aggressively tedious. And the text is the worst of all possible paraphrases of Psalm 23, stripping the beloved "Good Shepherd" psalm of its most essential metaphor (shepherd/sheep), as well its most precious promises. How do I even know it's based on Psalm 23? Because it opens with "shady, green pastures" and "water's cool flow." Its refrain is true but banal: "God leads His dear children along, some thru the waters, some thru the flood, some thru the fire, but all thru the blood; some thru great sorrow, but God gives a song, in the night season and all the day long." Apart from this refrain, there are four brief stanzas that convey very little specific meaning.

481 is Take time to be holy, a hymn by William D. Longstaff (1822-94, not to be confused with the artist by the same name) set to George Stebbins' tune "Holiness." I wonder if this might be an artifact of the Holiness movement? It seems so likely that I wonder how it got into even a nominally Lutheran hymn-book. Stebbins' tune is a pleasant bit o' nothin' from the "lowest common denominator" school of music. Longstaff, for his part, penned lines such as: "Spend much time in secret with Jesus alone." Huh? How do you do that? And where does Jesus promise to bless that kind of spirituality? "By looking to Jesus, like Him though shalt be..." This is a recipe for holiness? Or is it the "Christ as moral example" theory of atonement? Every stanza begins with the line "Take time to be holy," and if it doesn't put it all on you to accomplish this, it asks Jesus only to be our "guide." And though it also mentions being "led by the Spirit," it doesn't say how we find Him either.

482 is Out of my bondage, sorrow and night by William T. Sleeper (1819-1904), with additional credit given to "Jeff Redd, alt."--whatever that means. The tune, titled "Jesus, I come" after a refrain that runs throughout this hymn, is again by Stebbins. Musically, it lies on a slightly higher plane of sophistication than "Holiness," but it's mainly the difference between a part-song ditty a beginner-level choir could sing and a number for solo quartet. Textually, whole hymn is a series of prepositional phrases building up to "Jesus I come to Thee." By the end of four stanzas, this gets pretty old. Still, it does have some good, complete thoughts in it, compared to, say, "Now the silence." But it remains an altar-call song, from the point of view of the convert warning Jesus: "Brace yourself, Lord! I'm coming!" [EDIT: In case you're not up on my sense of humor, that last line was not a direct quote.]

484 is Frances Havergal's I gave My life for thee, pretty much the same hymn as "Thy life was given for me" except with the persons switched around. And here I was ready to give ALH credit for omitting the "Jesus as a Jewish mother" version of this guide to being guilted by the Gospel. Philip Bliss's tune "Kenosis" requires us to repeat portions of each stanza, as if once through isn't already enough; and this becomes doubly ridiculous when you repeat the last line of each stanza to the same identical music. What can we deduce from the fact that both versions of Havergal's hymn made the cut? Perhaps the constituency of the AFLC hymnal committee was sharply divided over which version was better. If this hymn is so precious to them that a compromise was necessary... Uff da! That's just sad.

485 is All to Jesus I surrender by Judson Wheeler Van de Venter (1855-1939). The tune "I Surrender All" by Winfield S. Weeden (1847-1908) is a part-song with echo effects built into the harmony. The text is very light on content, with the same first line to all four stanzas and a refrain that repeats much the same sentiment three or (counting the echoes) five times per stanza. That leaves three lines of verse per stanza, lines whose highlights include "Take me, Jesus, take me now." Hey! I heard that thought! Wash your brain! And then there's "Let me feel the Holy Spirit, Truly know that Thou art mine." Hubba, hubba! And again: "Lord, I give myself to Thee; Fill me with Thy love and power, Let Thy blessing fall on me." Yikes! These words open up so many wrong paths to the mind, you have to wonder about the author's intentions. Is this straight-faced parody, or the type of mystical language that, accidentally or not, can be interpreted erotically? Meanwhile, if you wonder why your kids refuse to go to church with you, maybe it's because they're embarrassed to sing this stuff!

487 is Yield not to temptation, words and music by Horatio Richmond Palmer (1834-1917). Again, the tune is of negligible merit, appealing only to musicologists chronicling the mediocrities of that era and to devotees of a moralistic type of Christianity. In this religion, there are no mysteries or doctrines, no atoning blood applied through Word and Sacrament, not even a serious discussion of sin and forgiveness. It's all a matter of working hard, and Jesus' key contribution is that he is "willing to aid you" and "carry you through." You wouldn't have to believe much of anything to be able to sing this hymn.

494 is With God in grace I'm dwelling, translated from the Norwegian hymn by Hans Nielsen Hauge (1771-1829). Elevated to the equivalent of sainthood by the ELCA (which commemorates him as a "renewer of the church" on March 29), Hauge was a lay revivalist whose ministry, to say nothing of his measures, triggered a caustic controversy on the nature of the pastoral office. He left a profound imprint on both the church and the political structure of the "old country," and his followers formed at least three American church bodies that are now non-geographical synods of the ELCA. At the risk of exposing myself too much, I'll go on the record and say that I think Hauge's individualistic ideology and self-appointed ministry had a baleful influence on generations of Lutherans after him. His name still rises with the gorge in my throat whenever I hear someone say that he abandoned this or that vocation because he "felt called" to start a "ministry" in a place and form of his own choosing. In fairness to this hymn, it's got a good chorale tune and the lyrics aren't particularly subjective. Their five stanzas seem to be a pep talk by the leader of a persecuted and repressed sect, encouraging his followers not to be shaken by their trials. I just can't help thinking, as I read through these lines, that Hauge and his followers brought this repression on themselves by taking a dump on historic Lutheranism. The "persecution" they describe was, from a Lutheran point of view, an attempt by the faithful to correct error in their midst. What message do "Lutherans" send by adopting these sentiments as their own?

495 is Only one life to offer, with words by Avis B. Christiansen (1895-1985) and the tune "Only One Life" by Merrill Dunlop (b. 1905). The tune is solid barbershop with a veneer of blues, and one phrase per stanza where the alto and tenor parts have extra text, such as "Thy will I now obey (my Jesus)..." This hymn's theology of worship flows strictly in one direction: upward from us to Jesus, with at least a suggestion that our efforts "count for eternity." All right, there is one line in stanza 2 that mentions "the message of Calv'ry's redemption," and stanza 3 says in part: "Thou who hast freely given Thine all in all for me..." But this is a historical fact removed from the hour of worship with its upward-tending form of worship. And yes, it really says: "Only this hour is mine, Lord--May it be used for Thee." Not quite the stewardship theology which sees the hour of worship as giving back to God what really belongs to Him (including time), and what He has entrusted to us; this speaks of worship as what we willingly offer. Is it a fine distinction? Perhaps. But the bluesy barbershop music doesn't make the hymn less tacky.

498 is I must tell Jesus, with words and music by Elisha A. Hoffman (1839-1929). The tune attempts to be gag-me sentimental and only succeeds in being bore-me-to-death bland, apart from one really weird chord progression (repeated in the Refrain) which functions like an augmented-sixth chord, but lacks the crucial interval of the augmented sixth. With 5 flats in the D-flat key signature and some of the few double-flat signs in the hymnal repertoire, this hymn is consistent with the warm, mushy, boring subjectivity of a certain subgenre of navel-gazing non-hymn. Again, its small musical challenges give the musician something to divert his mind from a growing desire to bang his head on the keyboard. Or somebody's head, at least. Text-wise, the hymn repeats "I must tell Jesus!" ad nauseam: "Jesus can help me, Jesus alone."

I pity people who live under this blighted religion. They might not feel so lonely if they realized they were part of a church whose members bear one another's burdens; when one mourns all mourn, etc. But at least they have prayer, for whatever it's worth in an anti-sacramental religious movement whose Jesus is separated from you by cosmic distances, and to whom any nearness is, at best, a trick of your fevered imagination. As for me, if I didn't believe Jesus' promises regarding His powerful presence and activity in Word and Sacrament, I'm not sure I could rely on Him to hear my prayers either. I suppose it can't be an awfully exacting religion if that distant, sympathizing friend-type Jesus is sufficient to help me bear my sorrows and resist the temptation to sin. But I wonder what Hoffman means when he says, "If I but ask Him, He will deliver" when it's evident that the entire spiritual culture represented in these first 500 hymns rejects the very things Jesus promises to deliver.

And finally (for now), Hymn 500 is I'll go where You want me to go, stanza 1 by Mary Brown (1856-1918), stanzas 2-3 by Charles E. Prior (1856-1927), and tune by Carrie E. Rounsefell (1861-1930). The two poets are united in putting forth a song of upward-directed worship and obedience fueled by the individual's heroic devotion. Miss Carrie's music merges into the great, nondescript mass of virtually indistinguishable tunes, full of smarm and not much besides, and written inevitably in a key with multiple flats (3). Someone should write a dissertation on the reason sentimental hymns gravitate toward the flat side of the Circle of Fifths, and what role their influence has played in developing the tendency among self-taught organists to be allergic to keys on the sharp side. I have personally known church pianists who habitually sight-transposed tunes in A major (3 sharps) into A-flat (4 flats) because they felt it was easier to play that way. There are exceptions, of course. (I shudder to remember the organist who, on her own initiative, switched the middle verse of the Te Deum from B-flat minor (5 flats) to B minor (2 sharps), a switch no one would have noticed if it hadn't played Harry with their key-relationship to the surrounding B-flat major verses.)

Anyway, I only bring up this esoteric idea because I sense a wild, irresponsible analogy to the way people brought up on the spirituality of hymns like this are hard to transpose into the keynote of Lutheran hymnody, with its objective (and thereby all the more comforting) promises of forgiveness, daily renewal, and bodily and spiritual healing throughout this life and into eternity. It may be easier to convert a complete pagan to faith in the full, free promises of Christ than to correct the jarring dissonances and sever the elastic religious habits of those whose minds have been tuned to the key of these hymns. Like all true tragedy, it has irony loaded into it. And the irony, in this case, is that this particular "perfect storm" of Arminian-Holiness-Pentecostal hymnody has stalled over a church body that sincerely identifies itself as a bastion of conservative Lutheranism.