Archive for October, 2011

So here it is, almost Reformation Day, and in fact, it is Reformation Day.  This day celebrates the day that Martin Luther dressed up as an Augustinian monk on Halloween and went down to the local bulletin-board—on the door of the church, as it happened—and tacked up a bunch of questions for the guys to consider the next time they got together for beers.  Well, more or less.

In fact, that is not so very different from what happened, though there are a great many party-poopers—who professionally work as historians—that question whether Martin nailed anything to a bulletin board, or anywhere else.  But, to be sure, a number of questions were proposed for academic disputation, and things steamrollered on from that point.

From this you could take any number of lessons, I suppose.  You could observe, piously, that there is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come.  You might say, thoughtfully, that an honest question has tremendous potential to disturb everybody’s peace and quiet.  Or, angrily, that he should have kept his damn mouth shut.

That last was never going to happen, ever.  But for the rest of his life, Luther remained amazed that so much should have happened from such a small beginning, and from such a man as he.  By the side of his deathbed, decades later, was a paper on which he had scratched, “Wir sind bettler, das ist wahr.”  “We are beggars, this is true.”  One of the great proofs of the power of God for Luther was that He had taken the voice of a beggar, and made it loud enough to shake Popes and Emperors.

In the process, he took young man Luther—gaunt, ascetic, burning, driven—and transformed him into fat Doctor Luther—eyes placid, fat now padding those ascetic bones, belly full of beer and home-cooking.  You can see no greater reversal of medieval values than the transformation of the monk Luther, anxious for God’s grace, into Doctor Luther, Katie’s husband, content now to live a simple life within the hands of a gracious God.

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Danse Macabre by Bernt Notke (15th Century)

Really there’s no point writing about Halloween.  The origin of the holiday is covered elsewhere in more detail than you can ever possibly desire.  (Just google it.)The debates within Christianity about whether Halloween should Christians should celebrate Halloween is covered elsewhere in more detail than one can possibly desire. (Ditto with the Google). And pretty much everyone knows how to celebrate Halloween if they are celebrating it ; and how not to if not.

The only thing worth noting about Halloween is its name. Halloween is the  contraction for “All Hallow’s Eve,” which is to say the night before All Hallows/Hallow Mas (Holy Mass) All Saint’s Day.  As the evening before a major festival in the Church, most people prepared their souls by coming to church and making confession, which is why  a young, frustrated professor  chose that date to tack up a notice on the bulletin board of a church near his University.  He figured, if he posted it then and there, a lot of people would read it.

He got that right.

Martin Luther Posting the Ninety-Five Theses


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I don’t know a lot about Simon and Jude, but then nobody does.  They seem to be the forgotten apostles, so forgotten that they have to share a feast day rather than each getting one of his own.  The justification for “sharing” is that tradition asserts they served as a ministry team during their lives and were martyred together in Beruit or Persia. The truth is that in death they’re lumped together as they always were as in life: the almost end of the Apolostic roll call, one position ahead of Judas Iscariot.

Jude doesn’t even get a clear designation in all of the roll calls. In some, his position is taken by  a Thaddeus.  This has caused some scholars to say they are one in the same; and other to say not.  Perhaps this confusion is why Jude is the patron saint of lost causes.  He’s hoping someone will figure out who he was.

Or perhaps it’s because how the Lord answered his question for no one who loves Christ will be lost for Christ will dwell within him.

Simon makes it onto all the roll calls, but that’s all Simon does in the Bible.  He’s not mentioned in any other context. He does and says nothing.  As a result of this meager fodder, a lot of speculation has gone into his appellation “Zealot.” Some assert the designation indicates  that he was a member of the Zealot party, which was dedicated to ending Rome’s occupation of Judea. Others argue the appellation references Simon’s pursuit of, his zeal for, the Law.  I rather like both thoughts. The one so zealous for an earthly kingdom found instead a heavenly one; the one so zealous for the Law followed the fulfillment of the Law to become zealous for Grace.

I also like that we know little about Jude and Simon apart from their being apostles. We know from that designation alone that Jesus loved them.  They were men after his heart.  He chose them to be his representatives in the world, and they surely were. After all, Christ promised Jude that he and the Father would come within in anyone who loved him. And that indwelling allowed Jude and Simon to lead lives of faithfulness and service beyond martyrdom even unto being almost forgotten.  They are the Dorothea Brookes of the Apostles:

[Their] full natures, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent [themselves] in channels which had no great name on the earth.But the effect of [their] being on those around [them] was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.*

 Is it not so with most of us? Let Him into your heart then you can start to make it better.

(*Yes, Rome claims the remains of Jude are in St. Peter’s and hence they are remarkably well-visted, but several other places make similar claims. So let’s not get into the relic wars with Jude, and even the Catholic Encyclopedia, always well up for a requilary ruck, admits no one knows where Simon was buried.)

Traditionally the Feast of Simon and Jude was the date when people started gathering ingredient for their soul cakes.  This is most sensible.  No every day can be a baking day.  There have to be some days of preparation.  So start cornering the market on flour, but if you really need a baked good to tide you through why not a venn pieagram to celebrate the forever-joined saints of Simon and Jude?

A pumpkin and sour cream pear Venn Pieagram in honor of Simon and Jude. Simon says, "It's delicious!"

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“Music I have always loved.  He who knows music has a good nature… And before a young man is ordained into the ministry, he should practice music in school.” Martin Luther

Lutherans like to receive their theology straight up with a shot of four-part harmony, which is why its hymnody is one of the great glories of the Lutheran church. I’m biased by birth, but I don’t care: note for note, word for word: I’ll hold out that Lutheran hymnody can take down any other competitor and not a few ostensibly theological texts as well.

I love your stuff, Mr. Wesley and Mr. Watts, but  even your work (and your stuff is great, kids, great. Am very much looking forward to belting out “Lo He Comes on Cloud Descending” very soon.) can’t compete with the hymns written by today’s three contenders: Johan Heermann, Paul Gerhardt, and Phillip Nicolai. Yes, if you didn’t grow up accustomed to their complex rhythms, Lutheran hymns can be hard to sing. They are not the music of the modern church: You have to concentrate when you sing a Lutheran hymn. There’s a lot going on; there’s a lot to think about. As befits their Germanic origins, Lutheran hymns are the meat and potatoes of Christian hymnody (and occasionally the most intoxicating wine). Like soft foods and candy, praise songs have their place, but when you want meat, you want to turn not to the the fortunate and the happy (and we are all pretty fortunate and happy in our day) but to those  who have suffered.

And Johann Heermann (1585-1647) suffered. Even by the standards of his day, which had high suffering standards, Heermann suffered. Starting with a severe childhood illness, which caused his mother to vow to God that if Johann survived she would have him educated, Heerman endured a lifetime of physical suffering.  From an eye disease that ended his university career to a lung disease that appears to have killed him slowly over 25 years, Heerman was intimately acquainted with affliction. Add to that that he was a pastor during the Thirty Years War so around him he saw plenty of other suffering, death, and destruction.  His acute awareness of man’s lack of control over his life come through with poignancy and beauty in his great Lenten hymn, “Ah, Holy Jesus.”

Ah, holy Jesus, how hast Thou offended,
That man to judge Thee hath in hate pretended?
By foes derided, by Thine own rejected,
O most afflicted.

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon Thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone Thee.
’Twas I, Lord, Jesus, I it was denied Thee!
I crucified Thee.

Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered;
The slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered;
For man’s atonement, while he nothing heedeth,
God intercedeth.

For me, kind Jesus, was Thy incarnation,
Thy mortal sorrow, and Thy life’s oblation;
Thy death of anguish and Thy bitter passion,
For my salvation.

Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay Thee,
I do adore Thee, and will ever pray Thee,
Think on Thy pity and Thy love unswerving,
Not my deserving.

Compared to Heermann, Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676) had a soft life. He only had to endure the vicissitudes of the Thirty Years War, get thrown out of jobs and into exile due to his theological beliefs, and watch four of his five children die before the age of 10. A cakewalk.

Born near Wittenberg to a prosperous middle class family, Gerhardt was educated at the University of Wittenberg beginning in 1628 and graduating in 1642 (and you thought five years is a long time to get your degree).  From his ardent Lutheran profesors, Paul learned that hymnody could be a useful, nay necessary tool, of pastoral care and instruction.  And he took that lesson to heart, writing over 100 hymns, many of which are still in use.   Despite the turmoil of his life, his hymns are notably for their serenity and trust as exemplified in the beautiful “Nun Ruhen Alle Walder” (“Now All the Woods Are Sleeping”).

Now all the woods are sleeping,
 And night and stillness creeping
, O’er city, man, and beast;
But thou, my heart, awake thee,
To prayer awhile betake thee,
 And praise thy Maker ere thou rest.

My Jesus, stay Thou by me, 
And let no foe come nigh me,
 Safe sheltered by Thy wing;
 But would the foe alarm me,
O let him never harm me,
 But still Thine angels round me sing!

My loved ones, rest securely,
 From every peril surely 
Our God will guard your heads;
 And happy slumbers send you,
 And bid His hosts attend you,
 And golden armed watched o’er your beds.

Gerhardt has been called the Charles Wesley of Germany ( Sorry, Chuck. I love you, but Paul is better.) and  been compared to the great English metaphysical pastor poet  George Herbert…Sorry, Paul: you just got outclassed. But there is  German pastor hymnodist who could stand toe-to-toe with George Herbert: Phillip Nicolai (1556-1608).  If you think this is an unfair comparison because Nicolai is famous for only two hymns written after he had watched the plague kill 1300 of his parishioners whereas Herbert wrote close to 70 poems, you must also take into consideration Nicolai wrote his own tunes.

Indeed Nicolai is one of the last hymn writers in the Meistersinger tradition, where, ignoring all that comparative advantage chat, you were supposed to write, words, melody, and harmony.  In Phillip’s case however, he was so good at his work that  comparative advantage almost was his, except that some years after Phillip’s death  a Lutheran musician came along who thought, “This stuff is good, but I can make it better.” And by golly he did:

And here is Nicolai’s other great hymn, “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern”, in more simple performance. (Though I suspect Papa B. is still in here playing about with the harmonizations.  It’s hard to escape Papa B.’s harmonizations.)

Partake of the food of love: go forth and sing!

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“But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Luke 2:19

St. Luke

One of the best listening experiences I ever had came from a physician.

Medical guides tell you that when you visit a doctor to compose a list of questions and unroll your concerns up front.  “Take charge!” they trumpet. “You need to communicate to your doctor directly your needs and concerns! Be forceful!” Doubtless this is good advice, but it is a little hard to be forceful when within seven hours you have been jettisoned from the world of the thoughtlessly healthy into the one of testing, surgery, treatment, and a parade of physicians of all sorts, sizes, and temperaments and you are running low on oxygen.

The chief physician assigned to my case was a wonderful man, who would tell me what was going to happen next and then ask if I had any concerns and issues. He was sincere in wanting to answer questions, but I always felt that I did not want to disturb the high priest with my unfocused questions: he might be waiting for a communiqué from God.

One day, though, hours before I was to be released from the hospital at the end of a bit of a rough run, as the chief physician, having consulted Urim and Thummim and pronounced all good, swept out of the room followed by the retinue, one of the doctors stayed behind. He asked again, “Do you have any questions?”  I, being in good patient mode and wanting to get the heck out of the hospital, assured him I was completely up to date and had no concerns. He smiled, came over to the side of the bed, pulled out a chair, sat down and said “You can ask anything, you know.“ and then sat there in smiling silence, waiting.

In my mind St. Luke is a blond, blue-eyed Hungarian.

Of course, St. Luke wasn’t a Hungarian, but he was a good listener. His bedside manner must have been fantastic.  A Greek (possibly Greco-Syrian) born in Antioch in present day Syria, Luke was an early convert to Christianity. Some traditions hold that Luke was among the seventy sent out by Christ.  Others say it can’t be so because Luke states upfront in his Gospel that he did not see any of the events told.  He is merely relating them.

I rather hope the latter position is the accurate one, because while Luke’s Gospel would be pretty marvelous if he had been one of the 70, it is even more extraordinary as a complete work of hearsay.  Having not seen the acts he describes in the Gospel, he has to rely upon the stories of others, which meant he had to listen.

One person to whom Luke seems to have listened very closely was Mary, the mother of Jesus.That text you may hear once a year,

St. Luke drawing the Virgin by Rogier van der Weyden

“In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world was to be taxed…” comes from Luke.  It’s Luke who gets into the nitty-gritty of the nativity and tells all the lovely stories beginning with the Gabriel’s apparition to Zacharias through to twelve year old Jesus teaching in the temple. Most of what we know about the early life of Jesus comes from Luke, whom tradition supposes got it from Mary…because who else was there for those events?

It probably wasn’t easy to get the story from Mary. Sure, mothers like to talk about their children, and I’m sure Mary liked talking about her boy, but Luke writes a telling phrase about Mary: she “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” That phrase indicates a long practice of introverted contemplation, and information locked into the heart of an introvert is hard information to obtain.  The only person who can get to it is an extremely good listener.

It is also clear from the writings that Luke listened well to another, very different personality.  Luke is often credited as the author of Acts as well (scholarship agrees that the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were likely written by the same author) and the main character of Acts, Paul, gives Luke several shout-outs in his writing.  Paul had a lot to say.  Luke apparently listened. Sometimes its even harder to listen to the never-ending talker than it is to one who speaks rarely.  That Luke could listen so well to both is to his credit.

I eat Greek! Souzoukaklia and some fixins.

How to celebrate this extraordinary listener? Go listen to somebody.  You don’t even have to cook, just go listen.  But if you want to cook, invite someone over for Souzoukaklia in honor of St. Luke and listen as you eat.

Vital Stats

Name: Luke

Origin: Greek/Syrian

Symbol: a winged ox (Luke’s gospel emphasizes the sacrificial nature of Christ)

Patron: artists (Luke is credited in the East as the first icon writer for writing an icon of the Virgin as the above painting shows he gets credit in the West as well), physicians, surgeons, students, butchers (whether this is because of the winged ox or the origin of surgeons I cannot say)

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If one doesn’t spend much time in the world of saints, I think one tends to see them as a plaster cast world.  All these perfect, plaster people: they were so very, very good and so very, very holy and always did what is right under very, very difficult circumstances (and always with a beatific moue) that you should be ashamed that you are not so very, very good as they, who did such remarkable things. After, what have YOU done? And can you even make a moue look beatific?

Certainly I always saw them that way. So for me the great thing about poking around in the world of saints is that it confirms the Lutheran view on the matter: all members of the Church are saints and there isn’t a plaster person among them. You know that person whom you really can’t stand who is so vociferously active in your church? Saint. That person who is quiet and humble and simply serves? Saint.   That member who insults you-–quite inadvertently you tell yourself grimly– every time she open her mouth? Saint. The person who sits and listens to everyone’s woes? Saint.  The member who pontificates on matters theological to all and sundry as though everyone, except himself, has the intelligence of the backward member of phylum Myxomycota? Saint. The harried mother? Saint.  The person who doesn’t seem to do much? Saint. We aren’t saints because of what we do, because what we do is sin. We are indeed spectacularly good at being sinners. We are saints because of what was done for us.

How do I know this?  Meet Wilfrid.

Plaster Pastor Wilfrid

For those who require plaster saints, Wilfrid presents a challenge.  He’s no Francis, humbly living in poverty and loving all.  Born in 634, Wilfrid came from a noble family in Northumbria and liked to live in the matter to which he was accustomed with lavish retinues turned out with the glorious finery a Saxon could muster. He’s no Ivo, so good that those under his authority want to be even gooder.  Wilfrid doesn’t seem much into humble service or into learning.  And he’s no John the Baptist outright ordained by God to preach in the wilderness the coming of the Savior in the face of hostile authority.  Though in some ways Wilfrid gets a little closer on this mark. Not into the desert or poverty mind you, but he does seem to have enjoyed cheesing off authority.

Wilfrid’s chief claim to fame is that at the Synod of Whitby in 664, he convinced the English church to celebrate Easter on the Roman calendar rather than the Celtic calendar.  This seems like an abstruse and curious distinction, because the important fact is not the fact, but the facts underlying the fact.

The conversion of England happened from two flanks.  From Ireland in the West came monks who owed much of their religious practices and understanding to the efforts of Columba, and from Rome in the east under the auspices of Augustine who had been sent by Gregory the Great to get those Angles turned into angels. Somewhere in the middle, these two forces ran smack into each other, and instead of saying “Hurrah! Christ reigns!” They began arguing about which sect was right.  The most tangible issue about being right was when do we celebrate Easter?

That issue was particularly tangible because it directly affected the royal court.  The King followed Celtic Christianity.  The queen Roman, and because the calendars differed what happened was that one could be celebrating Easter while the other was still in darkest Lent. Apparently, this was not on, and so a synod was called to settle the matter.

Now, the Easter date thing is vexing and all, but it’s not unusual (See Eastern orthodox vs. Western calendar.) And it really wasn’t the issue…the issue really was who is in charge: the King or the Pope? Under Celtic Christianity, the King was the head of the church, under Roman, the Pope.  And the church that won the calendar won the authority. Because if the king worshipped on Roman time, then he was no longer in charge.

Well into the ruck: Wilfrid at Whitby

And the upshot of the Synod of Whitby was that Wilfrid, a dedicated Romanist despite his having been raised in Celtic Christianity, and no slouch at the arguing, convinced the king to worship on Roman time, thereby setting into motion the martyrdom of another English saint some 506 years later.

It didn’t do much for Wilfrid either.  It didn’t get him martyred, but it didn’t lead to a quiet life. Kings are curiously resistant to giving up power, and Wilfrid’s continued persistence in asking them to do so, led to him getting thrown out of bishoprics and kingdoms with exciting regularity.  Well up for a ruck, Wilfrid generally fought back against these changes and was usually vindicated by Rome. His hopping about the countryside however had a beneficial effect as he worked at converting the Saxons in the south and even ran a quick missionary trip to his pagan brethren over in Friesland. By 703 though even Wilfrid had had enough fighting and retired to a monastery in Ripon, the site of his original bishopric.  He died there in 709.

In Ripon to this day, they celebrate their homegrown saint with a pastry that features homegrown apples.  They make it August when Wilfrid apparently managed to make it back to Ripon after all his exiles (and they have a parade to celebrate the occasion), but it is I think equally appropriate on his October feast day.

Wilfra Apple Cake

They call it cake.  I call it pie/pastry, but I’m not going to get excited by specificity.  Essentially you do this.

Roll out a piecrust in a large rectangle/ square put it into a shallow rectangular/square pan.  Put on top a thick layer of peeled, cored, and sliced apples tossed with demara sugar (sufficient for your tastes), then sprinkle the apples with grated Wensleydale cheese (If you can’t get Wensleydale cheese, a good cheddar will do.) over the top.  Top with another piecrust, which if you are feeling fancy you can brush with milk and sprinkle with sugar, or not if you aren’t.  Bake at 375 until done.  Cool.  Cut into squares. Eat.



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The Organizing German

On October 7, most of the Lutheran bodies in America (of which there are a marvelous variety) commemorated the life of Henry Melchoir Muhlenberg (1711-1787), who has claim to the the Great Organizer of American Lutherans.

He was not, it must be quickly added, the founder of the Lutheran church in America.  By the time Muhlenberg arrived in 1742, the Lutheran church was off and running, founded by lay people and lay preachers, first from Sweden (there’s a story there for another day) and then Germans settling in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and the Carolinas.  From about 1732, American Lutherans began sending letters to various and sundry organizations asking if they would be so kind as to send over a minister.  Finally, after about ten years, Muhlenberg arrived.  He was a good choice.

For one thing, he seems to have been tireless.  When he wasn’t preaching, he was doctoring with medicines sent over from Germany, or he was writing in the diary which by his death has assumed massive proportions.  This he did from his home in Trappe, Pennsylvania–just north of Valley Forge–or in his many journeys throughout the thirteen colonies.  Other than the missionary George Whitefield, Muhlenberg has a claim to be the man who traveled more often and through more colonies than any other man prior to the Revolution.  Wherever he went, he preached, ordained, doctored, wrote in his diary, and urged the German immigrants to be more organized, efficient, clean, benevolent, and altogether thoroughly Teutonic.

If that wasn’t enough, he married the lovely and strong-minded Anna Maria Weiser, the daughter of one Conrad Weiser (one of the most remarkable men in the history of Colonial America), and together they birthed and nurtured a remarkable family of whom I could write a lot, but then I would use up all the material that I plan on using next year.  He also organized the Ministerium of Pennsylvania, the oldest Lutheran organization in America, and the direct ancestor of the modern Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  All this, and he also compiled the larger part of a hymnal.

In short, Henry Melchoir Muhlenberg was one of those guys whose life and activity makes you feel tired and inferior, and he seems to have been invented by mothers to make their children have an example to live up to, except that he was real.  It is doubtful that he had much time to eat, but if he did, he probably supped a hot bowl of Chicken Pot Pie, Pennsylvania Dutch style.  You may make it yourself–I personally can’t stand the stuff–but when you do, please avoid the cornstarch and yellow food coloring so beloved of the gourmands of the Delaware Valley who pack away this stuff by the gallon, and put some sage, chervil and other herbs into the sauce, to make it taste like something.

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