Thursday, May 31, 2007

How Lutheran was Koehler?

Sometimes reading theology, even on the level of a book of instruction for children, can be like peeling an onion. There are layers upon layers of explanation and interpretation.

Take Luther's Small Catechism, for example. To begin with, the word "catechism" referred to the three basic texts that should be learned by heart by every Christian child and convert: the Ten Commandments, the Apostles' Creed, and the Lord's Prayer.

In 1529 Martin Luther, deploring the ignorance of of both the pastors and the parishioners of Saxony, published this catechism, together with an "enchiridion," or short book of explanation. These brief, simple questions and answers based on the three chief parts of Christian doctrine, plus Baptism and the Lord's Supper, became known as Luther's Small Catechism.

From at least 1615 forward, various authors and committees set their hands to explaining Luther's explanation. Or at least, they added additional questions and answers explaining Christian doctrine in a more "systematic way," and published them together with Luther's Small Catechism. My informant at the Concordia Historical Institute tells me that one can trace a line of descent from Dietrich's catechism of 1615, through the Missouri Synod's German catechism of 1857, Schwan's German catechism of 1896, its English translation in 1912, and synodical updates in 1929, 1932, 1935, and 1938, culminating in the LCMS's adoption in 1941 of the familiar "old" synodical catechism, published by CPH in 1943. This, in turn, was considerably updated in 1985, and again in 1991. For what it's worth.

Koehler was one of the people involved with the revisions of the synodical explanation between 1929 and 1941. A version of the catechism with his annotations was published in 1926. The 1972 book from NPH was apparently a reprint of the 1943 CPH catechism together with Koehler's annotations. And it is from the 1972 edition that I draw the following cautious observations about the theology of E. W. A. Koehler. I hate to ask it of someone whose Summary of Christian Doctrine was required reading in my undergrad religion classes, but...was Koehler really Lutheran?

All right, I'll give him this. On the big questions, such as the the "real presence" of Christ's body and blood in the Lord's Supper, renegerative baptism, and justification, he apparently held to the Lutheran position. But what I'm really asking is whether Koehler basically does theology like a Lutheran, or even (dare I ask) like Luther; and whether it is therefore fair to Luther to filter his thoughts not only through a committee (of which Koehler was a member) but, in addition, through Koehler's own unsparing criticism.

I didn't read all of Koehler's annotations. I skimmed through certain parts where I expected to see red flags popping up, and pop up they did. I looked at the parts of the synodical explanation that explain the Lutheran doctrine of Scripture, Baptism, the Keys, and the Lord's Supper, and at what Koehler had to say about them. Here are some of the things I found.

In the following notes, "Q" refers to the question number in the LCMS explanation, to which Koehler's remarks were addressed.

A. On pp. 26-27, Q. 5, Koehler says: “In the study of Baptism we learn of the covenant we made with God in our infancy.” This is amazing, coming from a Lutheran theologian: a one-sentence summary of the doctrine of Baptism that has nothing to do with what God does.

B. On p. 30, Q. 11, Koehler quotes part of 1 Thess. 2:13 to prove the authority of God’s Word, but ignores its efficacy. He quotes Paul as far as: "We also constantly thank God that when you received from us the word of God's message, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God." But he snips off the end of the verse, "...which also performs its work in you who believe." This betrays a different emphasis than Luther had when it came to God's Word.

C. On p. 30, Q. 12, Koehler says the Bible is “sufficient to accomplish its purpose” (that is, no further revelation is needed), “clear,” and “true”; but again, he makes no mention of efficacy.

D. On p. 259-260, Q. 245-B, Koehler rejects the LCMS text that says: “Baptism is not simple water only, because water is applied in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and is thus connected with God’s word.” Koehler’s reason for rejecting this wording is bizarre, and he entirely misses the point that the Triune name connects Baptism with the power of God’s Word. He replaces the offending text with: “...because in Baptism the promise of the Triune God is connected with the water,” and later comments (p. 260): “These words connect with the power of Baptism the most glorious promises.” The difference is, instead of Baptism being plugged into the efficacy of the Word, Koehler’s wording teaches that Baptism is connected to reassuring promises from God’s Word.

E. On p. 260, Q. 248, Koehler again discusses the “covenant relation between the Triune God and us, into which we enter by Baptism.” This sounds just a smidgen synergistic.

F. On p. 265, under the topic of “Blessings of Baptism,” Koehler is (as always) very careful to state that God “offers to all” His grace, blessings, forgiveness, salvation, etc.; but only believers receive them. He reasons: “Since faith is the means through which we apprehend this salvation, Baptism must be the means through which it is offered.” Koehler insists that God’s blessings/gifts are not given, but only offered; faith is required to make the offer a reality for you. This suggests a kind of halfway-synergism – God goes so far, and you meet him the rest of the way (faith).

G. On p. 266, Q. 253-A, Koehler says that in Baptism we get “God’s promise and assurance of forgiveness.” Here (as always) Koehler is careful to say that God promises, assures, and seals forgiveness to us in Word & Sacrament, distinguishing this from actually forgiving us. His reasoning is based on Jesus’ once-for-all atonement, and on Christians being instantly & completely forgiven through faith. This is all true, but because Koehler reasons like a Calvinist, he can’t imagine how it can also be true that God forgives us repeatedly.

H. On p. 266, Q. 253-B, Koehler correctly points out that Rom. 6:3 “does not prove what it is supposed to prove” (the CPH catechism used it out of context.) But he never objected to the way John 5:39 was used (again, out of context) on p. 31, Q. 13. Clearly it bothered Koehler's conscience to use Scripture the way our Reformed adversaries use it (as a compendium of isolated statements that can be used to support anything you choose to prove). If only it had bothered him a bit more!

I. on p. 269, Q. 257, Koehler stumbles on a truth when he says that the power of Baptism is “God acting through His Word.” But he passes rather lightly over this thought.

J. On p. 270, Q. 258, Koehler again hits on the truth when he says: “The Word of God not only puts these great things into Baptism for us to take by faith, but through that Word God also operates on our hearts and works the faith, by which we take these things.” What Koehler says in this paragraph could redeem all his blather about a “covenant relation” and “promises” and “seals,” that seems to leave a great deal up to the believer to accomplish by faith. But this clearly was not the keynote of Koehler’s theology.

K. On p. 278, Q. 270, Koehler comments on Christ giving the Keys to “all true believers,” i.e., “the Christians gathered in a local congregation.” He points out one weakness of defining “church” as “local congregation”: hypocrites who belong to a local church do not actually possess the Keys. Perhaps if Koehler had given this more thought, he would have said Christ gave the Keys to His Church, and that by exercising the Keys each congregation shows itself to be the local embodiment of the one holy Church.

L. On p. 280-281, Q. 275, Koehler’s description of the Office of the Ministry deserves some study. It may or may not have contributed to the WELS-ELS troubles on the Ministry. Koehler does correctly describe how God calls men into the ministry through the local congregation. I also like the way Koehler says: “It is the call and the acceptance of this call that makes a man the minister of a congregation, not ordination and installation, which are not divinely commanded.” But Koehler’s words, “perform the duties of this office in their midst” and “performs the functions of the Office of the Keys,” could be interpreted in light of the “functionalist view” of the ministry.

M. On p. 281, Q. 276, Koehler reasons that the validity and certainty of the Keys is conditional on the pastor being faithful to God’s Word. He actually states that a heterodox pastor’s “teaching and practice is not valid.” Not only does this not mention the efficacy of the Word, but it actually contradicts it. While it is true that the sacraments must be done according to God’s Word, this would have been a good place for Koehler to point out that the validity of the Means of Grace is based on “God acting through His Word." Koehler’s theology clearly does not have much room for the concept of God working through, and hidden within, means.

N. On pp. 287-288, under the heading of “Absolution,” Koehler says the absolution doesn’t actually forgive sins, but “offers, applies, and assures” to believers the accomplished fact of the Gospel. This is more of what I was talking about under F and G above.

O. On pp. 288, Q. 288, Koehler is forced to admit that when pastors forgive sinners, their sins are forgiven. Again, but I think in a correct way, Koehler limits this forgiveness to the “penitent” sinner who “believes these words of absolution.” Luther and Scripture do teach that this forgiveness is only given to the penitent & received through faith. Koehler also helpfully adds that “As our faith often weakens, we should again and again receive absolution to strengthen our wavering faith.” This paragraph may help put faith, repentance, and forgiveness in their proper relationship. But in the context of Koehler's preoccupation with forgiveness being "offered" but not "given" in Word and Sacrament, it might be easy to miss this point.

P. On pp. 297, Q. 301, Koehler throws fuel on the "Loeschmann heresy" that we receive only Christ's body and blood, but not the whole Christ, in the Lord's Supper. Koehler asserts that the Catholics teach that the Lord’s Supper offers “’Christ whole and entire,’ including his humanity and divinity.” He condemns this teaching, concluding: “According to the words of Christ, we do not eat Christ ‘whole and entire’, but we eat and drink only His body and blood . . . ” Koehler asserts this novel distinction without even trying to demonstrate it from Scripture.

In this, Koehler seems to have some support from Luther (LW, vol. 40, p. 221). However, if you read further, you see Luther only condemned the Catholic teaching that, by receiving only the bread, you received “the whole Christ under one kind” (LW, vol. 34, p. 349; vol. 40, p. 173-174), and the Sacramentarian teaching that interpreted “the whole Christ” to mean “the kingdom of God” rather than Christ’s body and blood (LW, vol. 40, p. 220-221). Koehler does not seem troubled by the fact that Luther says quite plainly: “No one can drink the blood of the Son of God without drinking the whole Christ” (LW, vol. 30, p. 223. See also vol. 35, p. 60; vol. 36, p. 340-341; vol. 24, p. 182; vol. 25, p. 238).

Q. On p. 298, Q. 301-B, Koehler throws fuel on the receptionist controversy that divided the ELS in the 1990s. Koehler never clearly says that the cause of the Real Presence is the efficacy of Christ’s Word. In fact, he stresses that the words of institution “do not work like magic, as though by their mere recitation the communion of the bread and wine on the altar were effected with the body and the blood of Christ.” Koehler says “this was done by the words Christ spoke at the first Supper.” Where the efficacy of the Word comes into the Real Presence is not clear from Koehler’s statements. Koehler adds that this communion only applies to the bread we actually eat & the wine we actually drink, not what is spilled or left over. This seems to imply that the Real Presence (a term Koehler doesn’t use; he prefers “communion”) is based in part on the reception by the communicant.

WELS-ELS history would go on to show consequences of this approach to the Lord’s Supper: statements making room for receptionism were enshrined in synodical doctrine, and B. W. Teigen was persecuted for teaching that God’s Word effects the Real Presence. In this way Koehler and WELS-ELS laid out a welcome mat to foes of the Formula of Concord (see Epitome, Article VII, paragraphs 4 and 14), though the synods alone bear the responsibility of waging a polemical and political campaign against the Formula's friends.

R. On p. 303, Q. 303, Koehler rejects the LCMS wording of the answer, which says that God’s pledge of forgiveness is “given” to every communicant. Koehler’s reasoning, again, is that only believers receive forgiveness (see F above), and even to them God only “offers and assures” the forgiveness that they already have by faith in Jesus’ atonement. Again, Koehler’s somewhat Reformed habit of reasoning doesn’t permit him to think that God can actually give forgiveness over and over, or that he can give it to unbelievers whose lack of faith cheats them out of what they have been given. But Koehler does not quite fall into crass receptionism (in which only believers receive the body & blood).

I wish I could ask Koehler, "Which is greater: to say that even unbelievers eat Christ’s body (though it does them no good), or to say that every communicant receives forgiveness (though it runs through an unbeliever’s fingers like sand)?"

S. On pp. 304-305, Q. 315-A, Koehler again says in the Sacrament “full forgiveness is emphatically assured and confirmed to us personally.” As in F & G above, Koehler carefully explains that God really only forgives us once: “Nor do we receive a new supply of forgiveness every time we go to the Lord’s Table; for remission of sins is not offered in parts and portions . . . we either have forgiveness for all our sins, or we have none at all.” Here Koehler shows a persistent habit of using reason to explain away clear teachings of Scripture, Luther, and the Confessions.

T. On p. 305, Q. 315-B, Koehler explains how the Sacrament gives us strength for a holier life. “Being assured of the grace of God, our hearts are filled with gratitude . . . and our spiritual life is invigorated, which gives us strength and willingness to serve God in holy works,” etc. Nothing is directly stated about the efficacy of the Word, or Christ living in you.

U. On p. 307, Q. 317, Koehler throws out a whole Q&A from the LCMS explanation and substitutes his own. He doesn’t like the LCMS’ implication that the Sacrament “imparts” and “seals” forgiveness to communicants, including the unworthy. He speaks of “these blessings,” including “forgiveness, life, and salvation,” instead of focusing on forgiveness. He buries the LCMS’ simple, direct statement that “Christ has placed forgiveness of sins into the Sacrament” in a pile of additional thoughts like “the body and blood being the seal of His promise.” He also waters down the sentence that very clearly attributes the power of forgiveness to Jesus’ Words. So, instead of saying that Jesus’ words “given and shed for you for the remission of sins” give the Sacrament the power to forgive you, Koehler says the power to give you spiritual blessings “lies in” those words, which are a “promise” “sealed” by eating and drinking Jesus’ Body and Blood.

V. On pp. 307-308, Q. 318, Koehler says: “Faith is the hand that takes what the words of Christ here offer.” There’s that semi-synergism again; see F. It’s difficult to see why Koehler has such a problem with the synodical explanation saying “God gives you this and that through Word and Sacrament” when it says, right there in Q. 318, that “We receive this benefit only by believing in these words . . . ” It looks as if Koehler has trouble distinguishing between the gift itself and its use or benefit. It also looks as if Koehler wants to describe faith as a cause of the gift or promise (forgiveness, etc.) being valid.

The problem is, if God offers you something that isn’t real or valid unless you first believe, how can you believe in it? It’s like telling someone on a sinking ship: “If you jump overboard and trust I have sent boat to catch you, it will be there. But I won’t send the boat if you don’t believe.” Would you jump based on a “promise” like that, knowing that until you believe it, nothing is promised? And if you believed, jumped, and were saved, who would you have to thank for it – the person who sent the boat, or yourself for believing it?

Hosepipe Absolution

For some years now, some of my pastoral brothers have used the illustration of a hosepipe to express doubts about the practice of "corporate confession and absolution." They put it somewhat like this: the pastor declaring absolution to the whole congregation (for example, at the beginning of Divine Service) is like spraying them with a forgiveness hosepipe. It's shooting all over the place, soaking everybody with a general remission of sins, without taking any care to examine the congregation individually. So, with this absurd picture in mind, it seems natural to doubt that this should be done. The next step is to use a corporate "announcement of grace" that does not rise to the level of absolution, and to urge members of the congregation to come to individual confession & absolution.

For the most part, I have tentatively agreed with this view. I still think individual confession should be encouraged as a remedy for people afflicted with guilt and terrified consciences (I have known such people in my ministry). I also think it is something Christians with an average sense of their own sinfulness should experience from time to time, because it teaches them to rely more and more on God's forgiveness, and perhaps also to watch their behavior a bit more. Besides this, we should all watch for the tendency to search for an "inner forgiveness" (e.g. in our silent, private prayers before God) rather than the external Word that alone can make us certain of God's forgiveness.

But a huge hole in the hosepipe analogy opened up before me today. I don't know how I missed it before, but I will never again be able to listen to talk about spraying down parishioners with a fire hose. It's simply this: if you're a penitent believer, your faith is rooted in Christ, and you need to be sprinkled with his cleansing, nourishing Word of forgiveness, just as an ear of corn in a dry, dusty field needs to be fertilized and watered. If you are a hypocrite, an unrepentant sinner, or an unbeliever, the same words of forgiveness wash over you, but since you have no roots, they do not refresh you.

So yes, the same forgiveness splashes on the worthy and unworthy, just as the same body and blood of Jesus feeds both worthy and unworthy communicants. I don't know whether this should discourage pastors from pronouncing a general absolution. Perhaps those who don't mean to confess their sins and receive forgiveness should not be there for this rite. Or perhaps the words "Upon this, your confession" address the absolution that follows them specifically to those who have truly confessed their sins. Or, again, perhaps the general absolution means the parishioners themselves must carry the burden of preparing themselves to receive the Lord's gifts. Those who come unprepared, unexamined, and unrepentant must take responsibility if they leave the Lord's house unforgiven.

Stay tuned, in the next few days, for some musings on the theology of E. W. A. Koehler, which partly prompted me to make these observations. I welcome your correction or remarks on my thoughts above.

Hoctuine Tackiness

The ELCA church sign down the road from my place now declares:


I find this sentiment nauseating on two grounds. First, it is neither an accurate definition, nor a constructive one. If you want to encourage people to serve courageously, you need to recognize that a true hero serves whatever the urge. Otherwise, you are telling people that if they don't feel an urge to do the right thing, even at risk of personal sacrifice, they don't have what it takes to be a hero. Rather the courage of people who fought back against their urge to run, hide, please themselves, etc., should be held up as an example of true heroism. That picture is a mirror in which all of us can see ourselves, a pattern we can all follow, given the right kind of encouragement.

The second reason this sign makes me want to hurl is far more serious. It is a sign that this "Lutheran" church has given up the very thing that distinguishes Lutheranism from all other faiths. It is a hint that what prevails at that ELCA church is a teaching of morals and pointers for living, rather than the gifts of God that set us free from guilt, death, and the devil. It is a sign of a religious outlook that generates good works by telling people what to do, rather than filling them with Christ and making them His vessels of lovingkindness.

Lutheranism offers something unique and precious to the world. It is therefore easy to understand why it is slandered, hated, and disdained everywhere, and why so much effort is expended on pushing it out of the picture or changing it from within. Only Lutheranism delivers the free gift of total, unconditional forgiveness. Only Lutheranism instills a comforting, complete assurance of God's grace and salvation. Only Lutheranism is truly Christ-centered, locating every act and decision relating to our salvation in Christ alone. Only Lutheranism teaches that the Word and Sacraments are God at work, giving us His gracious gifts, from our rebirth as God's children in Baptism to our precious, life-giving communion with Jesus' true body and blood. Only Lutheranism subjects all things, including our own interpretation of Scripture, to the living voice of God in His Word.

Lutheranism gives freedom where every other faith adds bonds and burdens. Lutheranism breathes the Word of God in humble faith, where every other belief-system sniffs at God's revelation with varying degrees of doubt and superiority. Lutheranism tirelessly confesses what man-centered theologians angrily deny. Lutheranism holds its peace where other systems multiply useless definitions and rules of their own making. To walk under the yoke of historic, Lutheran doctrine is to bear a sweet burden, knowing that every oft-tested and -contested article is Christ's own gospel, and knowing with what long pains it has been saved for us. I would not give up a single article of the Lutheran faith, any sooner than I would give up the whole Gospel; because I sincerely fear that to lose one may be to lose all.

And so, whatever my urge may be, I pray the Lord will give me the courage to stand firm in Lutheran theology to the very end. But I will not ask to be recognized as a hero. My hero is Christ Jesus, who died for me, and who lives in me; who forgives me when I fail in my duty, and who strengthens me to serve at whatever cost. Heroism comes from Him, not from me. And so, if He grants me the opportunity to preach, I will preach like a Lutheran - not like that ELCA sign - and point people to true hero: Jesus.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Composers I missed

I've remembered a few more composers from those sets of LPs I listened to pieces, mentioned in yesterday's post. There was, of course, Dvorak, whose Carnival Overture was on my regular play-list long before I had heard anything else by him. He wrote tons of beautiful music that should be introduced early in the formation of any young fine-art-music fan. Another was Bizet, who contributed a very brief overture to my listening pleasure, years before I heard Carmen as a whole and found out just what it takes for a one-hit composer to reach the very highest ranks of "great composers." (Bizet was so disappointed with the critical reception of his masterpiece that he died. Shortly afterward it became the most popular opera ever. Some people are so hasty!)

My early musical friends also included the sole Symphony by Franck, a piece I never heard performed better than in that second-hand set of vinyl discs. I had ample opportunity to contemplate the piece's shortcomings, but if played with care it can have a good effect. And of course, I mustn't forget Debussy, whose Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is a gorgeous introduction to a musical style akin to the paintings of Monet. And I also enjoyed Liszt, a legendary pianist whose symphonic poem Les Preludes is full of well-known tunes.

And now, here are some more composers whose names should be well-known to young music buffs. Bartok was a collector of middle-European folk songs, some of which found their way into his book of beautiful, easy piano pieces titled "For Children." Borodin, a full-time chemist and self-styled "Sunday composer," is best known for the thrilling Polovetsian dances from his opera Prince Igor, and a kick-*** Second Symphony. Would that I got as much creative work done on Sundays!

Britten's numerous fascinating works include a piece specifically aimed at teaching young people how to listen to symphonies: The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. Today no one knows Clementi better than young piano students, who often play his charming Sonatina in C. Another crowd-pleasing piece is the Enigma Variations by Elgar, also famous for the "Pomp and Circumstance" marches, including one you have probably heard playing at a high school graduation.

An English composer whose works are just beginning to get the attention they deserve is Gustav Holst. Until recently, if you hadn't heard The Planets, you hadn't heard Holst. That's beginning to change, though The Planets is still required listening. If you listen carefully, you can try counting the number of movies that have stolen musical riffs from the piece. Every kid who studies music in school owes a big thanks to Kodaly and/or Orff, whose methods are widely used in the music education field. If you want to meet them directly, you may have trouble finding more than one work by each of them: Kodaly's Dances of Galanta and Orff's Carmina Burana.

While we're talking about one-hit wonders, you probably enjoy at least the famous intermezzo from Mascagni's one-act opera Cavalleria Rusticana, though some day you will probably declare yourself sick of hearing it. And the composer of Mickey Mouse's masterpiece, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, is the otherwise obscure Paul Dukas.

While we're talking about composers you're going to love for a while and be sick of later, why not mention Rakhmaninov and Ravel? The former is best known for his second and third piano concertos, some piano preludes, and a really excellent set of Symphonic Dances. His Vespers (a massive piece for unaccompanied choir) is breathtaking. The memory of Ravel, on the other hand, is plagued by a horrid piece called Bolero, which plays incessantly even though everybody hates it and has always hated it, including Ravel (who called it a "piece for orchestra without music"). You will probably find more to love in his next-most-popular piece, Le Tombeau de Couperin, or in his famous orchestral arrangement of Mussorgsky's piano piece Pictures at an Exhibition.

Another Frenchman with occasionally tiresome tendencies is Saint-Saens. Nevertheless his Third Symphony, the one with the organ in it, is magnificent. More recent symphonies that should be early favorites for newly-formed aficionados include the First, or "Classical," Symphony by Prokofiev (composer of Peter and the Wolf), and the Fifth by Vaughan Williams (that's two last names there). Another exceptional Fifth Symphony belongs to Shostakovich, who wrote loads of pieces combining wit and sparkle with the kind of expressive power teens especially go for.

If you like composers whose music paints pictures with sound, you will find pleasures old and new. Vivaldi (the old) was an 18th-century composer whose oodles of concertos hum along like a sewing machine, including the famous set titled The Four Seasons. And Respighi (the new) was an early-20th-century composer best known for his symphonic poems about Rome (Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome, Roman Festivals) and his suites based on Renaissance lute pieces titled Ancient Airs and Dances. He was also, in my opinion, one of the loudest composers of all time, which should go over really well with the teen crowd.

That still leaves a LOT of composers I am excited to share with you. But if you don't want to wait, make use of the lists of composers in this post and the previous one, and get started on discovering some great music!

IMAGES: Left column, from top: Dvorak, Franck, Liszt, Borodin, Elgar, Kodaly, Orff, Dukas, Ravel, Prokofiev, Vaughan Williams, Respighi; right column, from top: Bizet, Debussy, Bartok, Britten, Clementi, Holst, Mascagni, Rakhmaninov, Saint-Saens, Shostakovich, Vivaldi.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Where pounding on a toy piano can lead you

I enjoy listening to all kinds of fine-art music, including opera, chamber music, organ and piano works, choral music, and art songs. I enjoy concertos, overtures, and suites as much as the next orchestra lover. But the symphony has always been a very special form of music to me. Listening to one, especially if I can follow the score with my eyes, gives me a kind of satisfaction similar to what I feel when I read a very well-crafted book. I would like to share some of that satisfaction, in small doses, in this blog. But first, a few words on how I came to be a symphony lover.

When I was in 12th grade, my high school choir director made me write a paper on a music-related topic of my choice. I chose the nine symphonies of Beethoven, partly because at that time his were the only complete "cycle" of symphonies I had listened to. I popped a CD of each symphony into the player, one after another, over a series of afternoons, and listened to them attentively. I then wrote a paper recording my observations and impressions. My choir director, in turn, observed my paper and was impressed. Something he said or wrote to me about it planted a seed that eventually bore fruit in my becoming a music major in college.

Of course, that wasn't when my interest in music began. My Dad tells me that I had a toy piano with nail-wire strings when I was a baby. I taught myself to stand by pulling myself up against it. I don't suppose I played anything noteworthy on it. Nevertheless, many of my favorite childhood toys were musical. I had a one-octave glockenspiel that I played with a wooden mallet. I had a slide-whistle. I had a primitive toy electronic keyboard, probably crammed with transistors, that had little color-coded buttons on it and an accompanying book telling you which buttons to push to get various tunes out of it. I even had a sort of wind-up phonograph, only where the needle should have been it had a metal brush. It came with a set of plastic disks on which the music was recorded in raised bumps. When you cranked up the toy, and put the brush thing down on the rotating disk, the bumps made contact with bits of the metal brush, which somehow caused notes to come out of a grille on the side of the box. It played little, lightly accompanied melodies, like a music box, majoring in the tunes to mother-goose songs.

When I started taking piano lessons, somewhere around age 8, I wasn't one of those kids who had to be forced to practice. I practiced more than willingly. I made such progress that, within three years or so, one of my piano teachers told my parents that I could sight-read better than she could. The same teacher was the one who started putting classical music in front of me, instead of the mindless kids' stuff and the tunes from movies and popular music that most children my age played at recitals. (My own first recital piece was an arrangement of "Home On the Range," which I played in full cowboy costume. Ouch! It hurts to remember stuff like that!)

The more I played classical pieces, the more I liked them and took an interest in classical music. I can't say I picked up the interest from my family. Dad was, and still is, a country-western buff. Mom rode, and still rides, the wave of whatever is popular at the time. Even my musical stepfather was only encouraging to the extent that he could hear foreshadowings of his precious blues in the music I listened to. The only classical music "snob" in my family was an artist uncle who, instead of sharing my enthusiasm with me, made me feel like an idiot because I hadn't progressed past the respectable "old guard" of composers to the "avant garde" he preferred. I didn't care. I could listen to a Mozart symphony or a Schubert song cycle over and over, all day long, and still discover things about it that made my heart rejoice. Contemporary songs only seemed to hold my interest for at most one or two hearings.

My first set of classical records was a set of about 12 LPs, accompanied by a booklet, titled "Music of the Great Composers." It was a Readers' Digest product and I got it second-hand. Nowadays that sounds pathetic, but for several years that was all I listened to. I read the booklet to tatters and made tape recordings of my favorite movements and stole every possible moment of solitude to listen to them. I regret that I ever allowed my parents to sell the set at a garage sale. Even though I "replaced" all of those LPs with CDs, I have never been as happy with some of my new recordings as I was with the magical performances captured on those vinyl discs.

Later, my artist uncle handed down to me a similar set of LPs that, miraculously, contained entirely different staples of the classic repertoire. Between the two sets, I became acquainted with many of the pieces that I still greet as "old friends"--sometimes with tears in my eyes--when I hear them today. They included Brahms's and Beethoven's 3rd symphonies; Mozart's 40th, Haydn's 94th, and Schubert's Unfinished; piano concertos by Grieg, Tchaikovsky, and Schumann; Mendelssohn's violin concerto and Italian symphony; Bach's Brandenburg Concertos and Handel's Water Music; tone poems and overtures by Berlioz, Verdi, Rossini, Sibelius, Wagner, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Richard Strauss; waltzes by Johann Strauss and Chopin; Stravinsky's Rite of Spring; and even Bach's enormous B-minor Mass.

The tide turned toward CDs when I was still in high school. I ordered my first CD player out of a catalog that also offered two sets of classical CDs, 62 discs each. My collection was off to an explosive start. With all this new music to listen to, I also gained a new spirit of curiosity about what I was hearing. At school, I spent every study-hall period either practicing a piano or ransacking the library for every word it contained on fine-art music. I studied biographies of the composers. I pored over essays by Leonard Bernstein. I even muddled through Walter Piston's Harmony, somehow. (I didn't understand a word of it until I studied music theory in college.)

I was also increasingly involved in making music in public. This was an important step for the shy boy I was. I poked my head out of my shell first in ninth grade, when a kind friend of the family asked me to be the rehearsal accompanist for her choir of preschoolers. The next year I moved on to working with the kids in the next age bracket upward; and I may even have accompanied them when they sang in church services. By eleventh grade I was playing with the junior-high choir at my school, and accompanying my classmates when they sang vocal solos in music competitions. I even started singing in the choir the next year. Imagine little old me, the guy who was only too happy to hide behind the piano, opening his mouth and croaking out notes in front of folks! I even sang a contest solo myself!

Singing led to acting in a school musical. By the time I made it to college, I was a regular ham, appearing in more plays on my college's stage than anyone else in my class. I was never a lead actor, but I couldn't stop trying. Singing, acting, and forensics together helped me become the clown I am today, never happier than when I am in front of a group of people, with or without a script, and apt to depart from the script if I have one. It led me, the shy guy who often tripped over his own tongue and sometimes showed signs of developing a slight stammer, to the point where a seminary classmate told me he was amazed when I preached, because "the question mark that's usually in your voice, totally went away." It led me, the bottomless fount of sartorial disaster, to feel great in a tux on a brightly-lit stage in front of 3,000 people. (Hot maybe, but great.) And where did all that tinkling around on a nailwire piano get me? To an audition for a third season with the St. Louis Symphony Chorus which I hopefully didn't screw up too badly this past Saturday....

Even if I did screw it up that badly, there is still the Symphony itself with its abundant opportunites to meet great music up close and personal. There is a terrific classical radio station in my city, that I listen to at least ten hours a week, driving to and from work. And there is still a shelf-full of CDs full of a rich variety of fine-art music, in which I could immerse myself (when I'm not immersed in a book) for years. As I enjoy these blessings, I will always thankful for parents who didn't lose their patience with the sound of my pounding on that toy piano or, later, practicing on the real one. And in some future posts, I will also share my thoughts about what I am hearing as I listen to various symphonies - and what beautiful stories you too might be able to read with your ears!

IMAGES: From the top - the composers I specifically remember discovering in my first set of "classical" LPs: Bach, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Grieg, Berlioz, J. Strauss, Brahms, Haydn, Chopin, Handel, Wagner, Verdi, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, Rossini, R. Strauss, Schubert, Sibelius, and Schumann. Plus, the last two are, in my opinion, the greatest composers who definitely weren't included in that set: Mahler and Bruckner.