Sunday, November 27, 2016

Isaac Watt, Father of English Hymnody

Our God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come, Our shelter from the stormy blast, And our eternal home. -- Isaac Watts, hymn writer, (1674-1748).

Today we commemorate a man who certainly has had an impact on the music of Protestantism, and even those of us who are Anglican or Episcopal. Isaac Watts is not exactly a household name, but over the course of his life he wrote hundreds of hymns and Psalms, many of which we still sing today and which have become standards in church music.

The music of the church, insofar as the laity was concerned, consisted of Biblical poetry such as was found in the Psalms and prophetic places. Watts believed that the time had come for the inclusion of "experience" based music in the church, and over the course of his life, he wrote between 600-750 (the number varies depending on which resource you use) hymns, many of which we still use today. His prolific output and his use of poetry outside the scriptures opened the door for something new in worship. He became known as the Father of English Hymnody.

One of his most well-known hymns is one of my very favorites. I've talked about it before, but "O God, Our Help in Ages Past" (also known by its tune name, St. Anne) has been a hymn I look to when  I feel I need an extra shot of comfort and strength. Based on Psalm 90, it talks about God being an eternal refuge, a source of hope, a shelter. And that's just in the first verse! I've found myself thinking of it more and more often in these past few months, when things have seemed to go from somewhat solid to very very wobbly, politically as well as in other ways. That hymn has helped me keep my head on straight, so to speak. I wonder if Watts ever knew it had that effect on someone?
"Come, Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove," "I Sing the Mighty Power of God," "Jesus Shall Reign," "Joy to the World," "This Is the Day the Lord Hath Made," "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," are just a few of his hymns of religious experience, but they span the church year and are sung by various denominations. They speak of experiencing the members of the Trinity in various ways, and promoting an emotional reaction to not only the event but to the hymn itself.
Although I love to read, poetry has never really been my "thing."  Music, though, has always been part of my life, and hymns have always been there. For me, they are the voice of the church. Yes, the music of composers like Bach, Byrd, Tallis, and many others, usually sung by choirs, have been balms to my soul and wings for my heart, but the hymns of the congregational singing is a joining together of myriad peoples all together. The hymns reflect the times and conditions of human beings, and spiritual messages that we can carry with us throughout our daily lives. And the poetry often helps make the messages more easily remembered than prose often does.

It would be heard to think of Lent without "When I Survey The Wondrous Cross," or Christmas without "Joy to the World." The words might be a little archaic, but somehow we seem to understand them and their meaning.

That's what St. Anne does for me. It's a prayer that I don't have to compose myself, or fumble around to try to find the right words. It's easy to let the music and Watts' words take care of that for me. For others, different tunes or hymns might do the trick, and that is fine. It would be a very dull world if we all were alike enough to all like the same hymn. We all have different experiences, different needs, different tastes. I think Watts understood this, and wrote accordingly.

I've got St. Anne running through my head right now and I feel more peaceful. It always helps to have a good song as an ear worm when a body needs cheering up, calming down, thinking, or walking through perilous times.

Which ones do you know that you use at specific times? Perhaps it may be time to learn a few new oldies but goodies from our friend Isaac Watts.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 26, 2016.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

A Question of Condemnation

But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
 ‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.’ --
Luke 6:35-38  (Gospel from the commemoration of Elizabeth of Hungary)

There are times when  a reading assigned for a given day just doesn't seem to have a lot of commonality with what's going on in the world or in my life. It's a struggle to try and figure out what the lesson is supposed to mean, and then applying it to daily life that I try to live. And then there are days like this where I find the reading from Luke. Given the recent events that have been going on in the country  and in the world, this one seems to cut almost too close to the bone to be comfortable. Comfortable? Jesus probably didn't intend for there to be any comfort in that, because it is a tough lesson.

Starting at the very beginning, "Love your enemies," honestly is like being hit with a baseball bat. Unfortunately, a lot of people are being hit with baseball bats, and bullets, and punches, and gunfire, and graffiti, and racial slurs, and 100 other things that are becoming more and more common with every passing day. The people who commit those crimes? Love the people who delight in hurting other people? Surely Jesus didn't mean to love those people. Honestly, it's almost un-human to even suggest such a thing. But, un-human or not, Jesus said it, so I am supposed to try to live to it.

The next paragraph is almost harder to do than the first. One can love abstractly, I think, but the condemnation,? That is an entirely different kettle of fish. Are we supposed to love someone who abuses children, or commits atrocities against those who are poor, or defenseless? Are we supposed to love people who seem to reflect everything that we don't believe in, that we feel is wrong, or that is hurtful to others? What does Jesus mean when he tells us not to condemn, not to judge? How can we do that, because every day we judge and condemn things and we feel justified in doing so.

 Honestly, this passage is like a burr under my saddle blanket. I know I'm supposed to do one thing and not do another, and yet it's so hard not to reverse them. It's not that I hate the people who are causing so much pain and distress, it's the acts that they commit and the harsh and hateful words they toss about. Do not condemn their actions of hate and disrespect? Do not condemn the acts that harm others? Is that what Jesus wanted us to do?
Sometimes I wish I had never heard this passage. It's too hard; it's asking too much. It's asking us to be like Jesus himself, and Lord knows, that's not an easy act to follow. Jesus didn't condemn the people who hung him on the cross, but he certainly had a few things to say about them when he was walking on the earth

Sometimes he was downright scornful, and sometimes more than a little rude. We don't emphasize that a whole lot, because we look at this paragraph and we're supposed to love and not condemn. Jesus did. He condemned those who tried to get the best of others using power and privilege and position. We would rather think about gentle Jesus meek and mild, holding up little children and healing people who were not even Jewish. He did have some judgmental things to say to those who didn't understand the difference between obeying God and caring for others.
This week it's going to be hard to try and love some people. Honestly, I can't say that I will ever love them. I just can't. What they do is against every Christian belief that I have, and I just can't let that go. So am I going to do? That's very good question. It's probably going to take more than a week for me to sit down and figure this one out. Still, I have to pay attention to the lesson, and I have to try to understand what it's trying to teach me.
In the meantime, I wish all the people of the world, not just this country, would be kind to each other and let us all catch our breaths while we try to figure out how to do the best we can with what we are given, and how to bring about the kingdom of God on this earth and which is so sorely needed.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 19, 2016.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Stamp of Persistence

The most interesting thing about a postage stamp is the persistence with which it sticks to the job -- Napoleon Hill, motivational writer.

It's been quite a week. Personally, the high of the Cubs winning the World Series was followed by the results of the election just the other day. It has been a roller coaster and as such, hasn't always been easy to get through. Still, putting one foot in front of the other is about the only thing to do, it seems.

I ran across this quote from Napoleon Hill and, if you'll excuse the pun, it has sort of stuck with me. Granted, a postage stamp is becoming more uncommon item almost every day. People send emails, tweets, make phone calls, and it seems like the only people who use postage now are those who have bulk rates to send me junk. I do have a few friends, however, who have not forgotten that there is a post office, and that sending a letter or card does require a postage stamp that comes in various sizes, colors, themes, and denominations. 

Stamps can be beautiful, tiny works of  mass-produced art and only occasionally appreciated and treasured. But the thing about the stamp is once you stick it on, it usually stays stuck.  Put the wrong stamp on the wrong envelope, and the stamp does what it's supposed to do;  it sticks to the job until it gets the letter or whatever to its appointed recipient.

I was thinking about the story from Luke (18:1–18) where Jesus uses the parable about a very stubborn, persistent, irritating woman whose perseverance was phenomenal. She had a complaint against an opponent, but the judge didn't want to hear it. So she kept coming before him, demanding justice for something that she felt strongly about. Like the stamp, she stuck to it until she actually reached the point where the judge had the choice of either having her return again and again, or hearing her complaint and judging in her favor. Like water dripping on a rock, eventually the rock will give way. The woman received her justice.

Persistence is something just about every parent knows intimately. From "Me want a cookie!" to a very emphatic "No!", to "Mommy, buy me this!", to "But everybody else is doing it!", there seems to be a prerecorded message that kids learn quickly to use repeatedly to obtain whatever it is they want. Long before they ever know what the word persistence means, they are masters at its use.

Persistence often flies in the face of convention. Many times it is described as a "Go get'em" attitude that often is considered to be meritorious in some people but not in others. It seems to depend on what it is the persistence is being used to do.  There is an old saying about burrs under the saddle blanket, meaning someone or something being persistent even to the point of pain, but the humble stamp just hangs on and keeps trying to move forward come hell or high water, as Mama used to say. Sometimes it's a very  difficult thing to do. Just ask the Cubs fans who waited 108years for a world championship.

Jesus encouraged us to be persistent in prayers and to not give up even if they aren't answered immediately or the way we wanted to go. Here's a time to be a postage stamp. Our prayer is like a letter to God, or a Hallmark card if you prefer, and our persistence is the stamp that gets it there. Granted it's a cute metaphor, but I think it also begs us to look at it in a little different way. Not as a tax or a price to be paid to get something from A to B, but also as a symbol of persistence and trust.

The stamp will hang on persistently, and we trust that whatever it's affixed to will get where it's supposed to go in a reasonable amount of time. Sometimes that doesn't happen: mail trucks get wrecked, or any one of a number of things that would prevent that stamp on that letter from being delivered. Same thing with our prayer lives. Sometimes we hit a rough patch, and even though we think we have stuck that stamp on firmly and have launched it successfully towards God, we probably need to follow up with a second letter or second prayer, or third, or maybe 35th attempt. Is not to say God's always going to say yes, but by focusing on being persistent in prayer, were focusing our trust and also our hope and faith in God.

The widow and the judge were a lot like political candidates in this election. Everybody wanted our vote  and they often hammered away at the same complaints, promises, claims, or even epithets towards the other candidate in order to get our attention and keep it focused on the message they wanted us  to get. Sometimes at church, it feels like we hear the same messages over and over again, messages about loving our neighbor, helping those in need, standing for justice and righteousness, being honest, and living a life that is directed towards others and not just for our own satisfaction. They're persistent messages, letters stamped and sent to us for our attention.

Bless that persistent woman. This week I have seen a lot of persistence, a lot of it negative, but also a lot of it positive, and that's the good part. There have been acts of outright hatred, violence, and pain, but they're also been acts of healing, calming, and persistence in continuing to try to make this world better, not just for one widow but for every single person.

This week I need to think about where I can be a postage stamp, persistently stuck to a task that needs to be done to bring maybe some joy or happiness or light into someone
else's life when they need it most. I won't ask to be a pretty stamp, just a very tenacious one.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 12, 2016.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Money and Faith

And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.  ‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’
 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.  -- Luke 16:9-15

Money.  No matter where you look, you run into something related to money. It pays for not only the necessities of life, but also a lot of unnecessaries or extravagances to prove that one is better than one’s neighbors, business rivals, or anybody else.

It is said that money is the root of all evil, but in truth this saying is really that the love of money is that root. In the biblical world, they operated on a system of limited resources. The more you had, the less there was for someone else. And if someone else had more than their neighbor down the street, that was just the way it was. In our modern world, we generally recognize that people don’t necessarily live in a place of limited resources. We believe that if you work hard, you can make life better for yourself and your family. That means working hard to earn more money and using it wisely. Unfortunately, this is not a one size fits all world.

This seems to be a world run by a small minority of people with money who don’t really seem to care a lot about people unlike themselves. For years we’ve been hearing about the 1% versus the 99%. Don’t get me wrong, there are some in the 1% class who are immensely concerned about the state of the world and the problems that exist in it, and who put their money where their mouths are to help address that imbalance. But then there are those who use their money to make themselves more money, and the heck with the rest of the world.

Cheating one’s neighbor was one thing that Jesus spoke about in this reading from Luke. He was talking about those who deliberately cheated workmen of their full pay for work performed, who increased taxes and rents on the poor in order to make themselves more money. We’ve heard this story in church many times, but somehow it seems the message hasn’t gotten out.

It’s true that you can’t serve two masters, although a lot of folks try. It’s difficult to understand why people who make tens of thousands of dollars an hour begrudge paying employees a living wage that would enable them to have a better life. It’s difficult to understand companies running roughshod over sacred ancestral lands and risking the fouling water that hundreds of thousands of people depend upon, just for the sake of increased profits and more product to sell. It’s even more difficult to understand those who allegedly represent other people are paid very well and with lots of benefits while cutting benefits for those who need them the most. What’s even more galling than that is that these representatives spend time and money that is not theirs to further their own ends and positions. They do practically nothing to deserve what they are getting, and they are loath to part with any of the power that might redress some of this.

We are taught in church to look for Jesus in every person but how many of us really do that? Is the homeless man on the street so much less worthy of attention then some millionaire standing up in front of a crowd and belittling those who are not like them? Is this something Jesus would do? Or even consider? I don’t think so, at least, the Jesus I have read about, studied, and look to.

The election will soon be over one way or the other. Things will get better or things will get worse. We will choose well or we will choose badly. We will cast our ballots for those whom we feel represent the best that America can offer to the world, and those who will work to make our country and this world better for all of us.

Jesus is telling the story for us, and for us at this particular point in time. Perhaps it is our opportunity to look below the surface to the heart of the messages we are hearing and look for Jesus in those words. Then go and look for him in the world.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 5, 2016.