Saturday, April 10, 2010

nose to the grindstone, or however the phrase goes

I have stalled in a few spots on the work at hand but I am still composing preludes and fugues for solo guitar. I certainly won't manage to finish all 24 in less than a few years but I do believe I should be able to get to the halfway point before this year is out. It took Rekhin five years to compose his set so I won't be surprised if it takes me five years to complete mine. It took roughly ten years to finish the four duo sonatas in the cycle for guitar and woodwinds and those are considerably larger works.

Yet it also bears repeating that fugues are among the most complex musical works to write and the guitar is an exceptionally unforgiving instrument for contrapuntal music. Chris Kachian is correct to observe that sustained three-voice counterpoint is impossible on the guitar (composers who are not guitarists should go pick up his Composer's desktop guide to the guitar) There is no trouble, however, with sustained two-part textures that convey the effect of multiple textures.

This two parts in place of three or more brings with it other challenges.Even in works like Bach's fugues for violin stripping everything down to a single line punctuated by chords means you have not sacrificed the implication of thematic development throughout your piece. But I don't feel like getting into all the details of that now.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

the sound of Internet Monk

I've been lurking (as I have for years) on the Bht and Bill's comments about the sound of Michael's voice are funny. The backpedaling about saying that Michael read much smarter than he sounded and Bill having to explain that he's not from the American South is funny. :)

I am not from the Southern United States. I was born and raised on the "left coast" in the Northwest nearly all of my life. But half of my family is of Okie stock (they came over during the Depression period, if memory serves) and another part of my family has roots in Arkansas. So while a significant chunk of my family is as not-Southern as possible (Northwestern American Indian) a decent chunk of my family has roots from the southern regions of the United States. All that is to say that I knew Michael was in Kentucky and I've heard enough music from the South and enough voices from the South that all of that felt, if not natural, unsurprising.

It was that he had nice things to say about the band Rush that completely mystified me. For years I imagined that Geddy Lee was somehow living proof that the tradition of producing castrati had somehow not died!

Link: Fearsome Tycoon on the passing of Michael Spencer

I said that I couldn't add anything meaningful beyond what other people have said and it's true (it's certainly true for the time being at any rate). As an example, here's a link to something Fearsome Tycoon wrote recently on the passing of Michael Spencer.

Michael's own words seem appropriate:

"If Christianity is not a dying word to dying men, it is not the message of the Bible that gives hope now."

I think about death almost every day. Statistically I'm half-way there for life expectancy. Even in my twenties I considered often the possibility of death. It's easy to die at the hands of someone driving a car. I don't think about death in the way that some would advise you to think about death,in the sense of living life in such a way that at the day of your death you imagine that all these people will be sad that you are gone. Living your life forward toward some imagined legacy for yourself is not exactly what I mean. That is the opposite of what I mean because those sorts of legacy-living Christians have fooled themselves into thinking that Koholeth is wrong.

Or they may persuade themselves that on the day of their death they will stand before God and think that they have built a legacy that God can be proud of. He won't be because it's silly to take credit for the work that God has done through you. Again, these sorts of legacy Christians have fooled themselves into thinking Koholeth was just kidding around when he said that when you die your legacy is forgotten and there is no memory of godly or wise men in the generation to come. We imagine to ourselves that Koholeth is wrong but the truth is borne out in the millions of people whose names we cannot even recognize or conceive of who were living lives with such legacies in mind. If you don't believe me I'll get to examples of the sorts of legacies we REALLY remember and discuss in our time.

As Fearsome puts it, death still wins. We live in an era in which notoriety comes more from being notoriously wicked and cruel than notoriously kind and just. On the basis of Godwin's law alone more people are likely to know about Hitler or Stalin than about some saint who helped the downtrodden or innovated something positive for society. We can go find out about who helped bring the atomic bomb into the world but who were the people who developed the first viable plastics? Canyou name them?

But did Walter Semon ever imagine that his invention would be used to adorn Kate Beckinsale in vampire movies? Heh, dollars to doughnuts he probably never thought of that application. Of course my point is you have to go look this stuff up. The names of people who have made positive and taken-for-granted contributions to society are entirely forgotten while the names of tyrants and armchair philosophers and demagogues who are, in the grand scheme of things, mostly useless remain legends. We remember novelists and entertainers who deigned to tell us how to live our lives ranging from Mark Twain to Huxley to Orwell to Rand to Dostoevsky to Dickens.

Even Christians who talk about legacy can end up talking about the legacy of Marxism or Stalinism or Freudian thought or Darwinism. A lot of Christians talk more about the negative legacies of men they don't admire than about the legacy of Christ. Perhaps that is because though we pay lip service to the legacy of the living Christ which has not yet been formed in us we find it more glamorous and politically compelling to talk about the legacies of people whose ideologies we oppose. A lot of Christian blogging can be about the legacies we want death to remove than about the legacy of the One who has conqured death itself. But this legacy is what makes our prospective legacies count for nothing. Paul sacrificed an unblemished legacy as trash for the sake of Christ. We have the legacy of Paul's writings because he forsook every other legacy he had been working toward his whole life up to that moment of meeting Christ in favor of considering Christ his legacy. The more I reflect upon the cross of Christ the more I believe we fool ourselves into thinking we understand the mystery of it. Our understanding of the scandal of the cross is to put it at the level of a scandal involving Tiger Woods, ostensibly offensive but easily forgotten while we go work on our legacies. The scandal of the cross is the scandal of Christ's death revealing what our legacies are apart from trusting that His legacy alone is sufficient to give life.

I find it no coincidence that it has been from pastors who have daily actually faced death that the most useful warnings have come. Michael's words about death and Matt Chandler's words about how serving Christ will involve staring failure and death in the face to be more compelling than a lot of sermons I have heard in the last ten years. These are men whose legacies will survive because Christ lives and not because God has somehow told them in any other way that they will have a legacy.

Consider those to whom Yahweh promised a lasting legacy,Abram and David. Those legacies were fulfilled in Christ. Consider every other part of the legacies of these men and you will see how miserable, brutish, and sin-riddled those legacies of Abraham and David are. Their descendents went into slavery, exile, idolatry, banishment, war, and suffering. But when we come to Christ, the second Adam, the legacy is fulfilled. Our faith is that Christ Himself is the fulfillment of whatever legacies God may (or may not have) promised to us and our ancestors and our descendents.

But we don't really believe that, do we? Why else would we work toward legacies in which our names are even remembered? This is not simply an allure for people in the arts but also in preaching. And why not? Who among the arts would object to having a literary and pastoral legacy on the order of John Donne? I admit that I find the idea appealing even though I have no desire to be a pastor and am at best only able to say that I am a competent and rather boring poet. But consider Donne's passion for moments and we'll see that his passion was not directed at his legacy as such. In Christ those who are remembered are remembered for considering Christ more worth remembering than their own names. If we remember their names we are blessed with the opportunity to live out the Psalmist's advice to make the godly men and women of the land our heroes to emulate regardless of the era in which we live.

Yet we don't even know who wrote the letter to the Hebrews yet that author's words speak across millenia to challenge us to perservere in the faith. We have scholars debating about who Koholeth even was and yet Koholeth's words have been preserved for us in the scriptures. A name like Obadiah is common enough that we have trouble saying who he was.

I am glad to have read Internet Monk for these last eight years. His work has been a blessing and an encouragement to me. As I have said before I owe my being at the church I am at to Michael linking to a great sermon on Psalm 41. It can be popular to cite John the Baptist's words, "He must become greater and greater while I must become less and less." Do we really remember where that trajectory of less and less ended? It ended in execution because a power-hungry king felt he couldn't break a silly promise he made to a dancing girl. This is the trajectory of a man who sent disciples to ask Jesus, "Are you the one we have been waiting for or should we seek another?" Even a man as great in the faith as John struggled at the end of his life with a panoply of doubt and discouragement in the face of both death and uncertainty that the one he baptised was the one who was promised.

It is fitting that the pastors who have faced death and the one who has been taken by death are the ones whose sermons and writings stick with me now because they in that have shared supremely in the death of Christ and will at the end of all things share in that life.

Link: No Voices Inside My Head (Bill MacKinnon)

Out of consideration of iMonk's passing this week I wanted to link to one of the more memorable, enjoyable, and useful entries in his blog by a friend of his. Bill's comments and jokes ring especially true for me because I have a Pentecostal background and because I have been around a few people who claim to have gotten IM's from the Almighty about any number of things without explaining how they just know they heard these things or got these emails.

Even preachers who say we should not expect these sorts of missives to be normative can still manage to talk as though those things are normative ... for them. The most honest comment I ever heard about hearing from God and reading the scriptures came from an AG youth pastor who told me that, for real ninety percent of the time he read the scriptures and didn't feel like he was getting anything out of it. He was studying to make sure he knew what the Lord said through the scriptures. On the other hand, that ten percent of the time where the Lord used scripture to potently speak to his circumstances would get larger the more time he spent studying the scriptures and, in any case, even that ten percent is something to be grateful for as a gift from the Lord.

It is ironic that in my life an Assemblies of God youth pastor did the most important work in demystifying the process of studying the scriptures to appreciate that in most of your life God won't seem to be talking to you at all and that even in your private study of scripture you shouldn't expect to read the Bible and have some pointed personal message for YOU that day. The older I get the more I realize I was blessed to have an exceptional, unusual Assemblies of God youth pastor as a mentor in my teens. He was one of the first people to tell me that God generally never speaks to you through voices inside your head and that it is good to be grateful for the relatively few times when Scripture, if you will "comes alive". It is alive even if it doesn't seem to be alive "for you".

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

A champion among stupid theological statements: God won't give you anything you can't handle

Over the years I have heard any number of theological aphorisms that on closer inspection turn out to be false. The whole book of Ecclesiastes is best read as a reflection on the limits of the best wisdom human experience has to offer. Rather than see it as the book of some guy who cynically disobeyed God and whose judgment can't be trusted we should remember that every word of the scriptures is inspired and consider that if one of the authors of scriputres throws up his hands in exasperation at the limits of even the best wisdom we should be wary of simplifying what is complex and remember that that which is crooked cannot be made straight.

Yet we always want to simplify and straighten. Among stupid simplifying and straightening statements in theology none seems more perncious to me now than the axiom "God won't give you anything you can't handle." Now if by that statement someone just means to say "there is no temptation but is common to man", okay. But if the idea is that God won't give you a mission you can't accomplish, well, then that's grossly mistaken.

Not one of the saints in scripture met the end of their lives saying "mission accomplished". Moses died outside the promised land with the knowledge that an entire generation of God's people would die in the wilderness due to their faithlessness. Joshua did not really complete the conquest of Canaan. None of the judges managed to secure more than a temporary reprieve on injustice and war. The kings were generally mitigated disasters. Even Elijah, arguably greatest among the OT prophets, failed to accomplish two things God explicitly and directly commanded him to do (annoint Hazael king of Aram and annoint Jehu king of Israel). Abraham was commanded to sacrifice Isaac and then stopped. God promised Abraham that his descendents would be enslaved in a foreign land for centuries and THAT came to pass long after Abraham was dead.

The pioneers of our faith are failures through and through. Luther did not manage to reform the western church. It splintered. The Puritans failed to reform the church of England and pioneered Presbyterianism. Our best attempts with what we are sure are the most God-given reasons end in failure. There are those who would say this is a sign that God is not really on our side because you can't argue with success and failure is the most compelling argument for God's disfavor. The kingdom divided because of wicked kings but did that mean that Israel stopped being God's chosen people? Did that nullify the promises God made to Abraham or David? By no means!

Yet we are people who like to believe that when it really matters our failures are the surest proof of God's disapproval. We still have a kind of spirituality where we pay lip service to the idea of considering God before men but still believe that we can manage to hold our heads high in front of others because if God is really on our side no one can stop us. We don't really rejoice when we feel we are persecuted for the sake of Christ. Our idea of persecution is that unbelievers think Christians are jerks who believe God approves of them by giving them awesome parking spots going to the mall or that their favorite athletics team won the series. We think of persecution as the neighbors speaking poorly of our church for eating up local real estate and seeming bent on altering the fiscal and political landscape through subculture-wide breeding programs. We consider this persecution? While Michael Spenser was alive I believe he rightly called this sort of thing out as a particularly obnoxious form of self-pity.

Now if God actually only ever gives you no more than you can handle then some saints have aptly joked that it would be nice if God thought less of what they could handle! Let us consider the greatest pioneer of the Christian faith, faith in the power of the coming Christ. Let us consider the one who is often rightly called the first Christian. Why is Mary most blessed among women? For being constantly under the suspicion of being a lying adulteress whose bastard son was executed because he was yet another rab-burrough Palestinian anti-Roman terrorist in waiting? Jesus was our pioneer in death and failure even though He has the words of life. I can say that it's always a temptation to want a resurrection without crucifixion but it is also a huge temptation to still see crucifixion as a sign of failure.

If we tell someone like Mary "God won't give you anything that you can't handle" what do we mean by that? What can we mean by it? If we tell Christians that God won't send you on an impossible mission we don't understand the Lord or ourselves. The Lord saw that after generations upon generations the mission was impossible. In fact Yahweh tells Moses in the most potent terms possible that Israel was GOING TO FAIL! The mission was going to be a complete disaster. The team was going to give up, sell out, and go home. God called Abraham out of the realm of Babylon and he willingly went but after centuries of recalcitrance Israel was sent by war and exile back into the very land of Babylon out of which the great ancestor of the faith had been called. What Israel as a whole did with Yahweh and His appointed prophets, priests, and kings Jesus' own disciples did to Him at Gethsemane. Christ Himself knows what it is like to face unanswered prayers and to be sent on a mission that ends in death. Christ embraced a failure greater than any we fear so as to give us the gift of a victory we cannot obtain, a victory that is beyond what we are really capable of fully imagining.

Yet why, after all of this testimony in the scriptures and the lives of the saints do we persist in supposing that God does, in fact, somehow have this rule that He won't give us anything we can't handle? Do we not remember that the Lord is the first inventor of impossible missions? God tells Noah to build a boat when it had not rained. God comes to Abram and says that through his descendents a great nation will be made. Abram rightly says that that is impossible because he is an old man and his wife is barren. Moses is sent to be the human agent of rescue for a people whom God will spend a generation crushing in the wilderness for their unbelief and disobedience, their unwillingness to trust in His goodness. God comes to the ancestor of our faith with an impossible mission and yet we delude ourselves and each other into thinking that God won't give us anything beyond what we can handle?

A small parable about the history of prophetic literature

Of course that's not literally what it is about but the observations are applicable to anyone with a thorough knowledge of prophetic literature and how people have responded to it in its time.

Transfiguration and failures

This is not quite an Easter reflection but it is a sort of Easter reflection. The resurrection of Christ is the ultimate demonstration that Yahweh uses what is considered of no account to bring to no account those things and people that are considered great in this age. God was pleased to use those things that are nothing to bring to nothing those things that are. This is not merely true of Christ Himself, it is also true even of those who were with Him at the transfiguration.

Consider the life of Moses. As Matt Chandler so ably expounded in a sermon, Moses' ministry ended in abject failure. He saw God declare that an entire generation of His chosen people would die in the wilderness because of their disobedience. Yes, Moses received the stone tablets and the law and it was that law that revealed not only how fully God's people had failed to be God's people but the law itself came full of the promise of inevitable failure. I do not think that evangelicals in America in particular appreciate how fully and inevitably the Mosaic law comes with the predction of failure not onloy for Israel in some abstracted historical sense but also as a warning to us, as Paul takes some pains to explain.

Moses was God's appointed man, a chosen one, a man annointed with the task of leading Israel out of Egypt. Moses, through God's power, did that ... sort of ... but not really. They merely went out of Egypt through God's divine power but they died in the wilderness under God's wrath. Yet Israel's failure was not credited to Moses. Moses failed on his own terms, in anger striking the rock when he merely needed to speak to it. Now a pastor could explain that since the rock that is Christ had been struck once before there was no need to strike the rock a second time.

I would propose that a less allegorical reading that still gets to this weakness is that Moses had been so accustomed to being the conduit of God's laws and God's words to Israel he presumed upon both the content and necessity of his mediation and did not realize that his responsibility was a gift to be considered a gift. If you will, we could describe it as a privilege rather than a right. He had the responsibility to lead them out of Egypt but Israel's entrance into the promised land, clearly, was a privilege that could be revoked. Moses died a failure who saw from far off what he could not enter into. Yet by faith Moses trusted in the goodness of God and in God's promises. Moses knew that the Lord spoke the truth in predicting the failure of Israel to keep covenant and the need for covenant renewal.

So if Moses' ministry ended in failure what about Elijah, considered the greatest among the prophets for raising the dead and destroying kingdoms? Elijah fled as soon as Jezebel declared that he would die. He was restored to his ministry by the Lord and went forth in power ... yet two things God specifically commanded Elijah to do Elijah did not, in fact, ever do. Annointing Hazael as king of Aram Elijah left undon and that task was accomplished by Elisha. The annointing of Jehu as king was handed off by Elisha to another, which means Elijah's failure to annoint Jehu is literally twice removed since not even his prophetic protege accomplished the task on his behalf in obedience to God's command.

We must appreciate here that if the law-giver failed in his administration of the law because of the hardness of the people; and if the prophets served the role of challenging the people to recognize their failure to uphold the law; that just as the law itself is unable to give life then just as terribly the prophet is unable to convince people to follow the laws they are already not following. In Christian preaching and teaching we can persuade ourselves that even if people do not desire to follow the laws of God that if you just scream at them prophetically enough that they will be induced to become obedient because they feel bad about being failures. Now this failure is very real and that is why we need Christ as our mediator and the Lord as our sustainer ... but we should be reminded that Elijah as well as Moses ended his life a failure, as one who explicitly had NOT done the things that God had explicitly commanded of him.

And then there were the kings, those predicted by both the laws and the prophet. Moses revealed on God's behalf that one day there would be a time and a place for a king. We know from the entire line of Samuel through Kings and Chronicles that these kings were perhaps the greatest failures. If the law failed to convict and quicken life in its hearers; and if the prophets failed to challenge God's people to be obedient to the law; then the kings went seveeral steps furhter and actively encouraged the people through boththeir precepts and actions to run AWAY from Yahweh. The significance of this cannot be overemphasized because when we speak of these things we are talking about the Lord's chosen people.

We are not told what Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah about at the mountain during the Transfiguration. We know that after this moment Jesus began to speak more plainly about the necessity of His death and of the coming resurrection. At the risk of speculating based on what the scriptures reveal as the failures of both Moses and Elijah I imagine that Jesus, as God the Son, had an opportunity to explain to Moses and Elijah (who had been taken up in a fiery chariot and had not tasted death) that where they had failed He would now succeed. He would succeed in accomplishing the aim of the Law that Israel and its human mediator in law-giving could not do. He would succeed in challenging God's people to consider the scope of that law from the heart as even the greatest of prophets, Elijah, had failed to do. Furthermore, Jesus as the Christ would accomplish as king the defeat of enemies that waylaid every previous king in Israel, the enemies of sin and death.

Yet to obtain this victory would entail embracing a failure greater than any failure known by Moses the law-giver or Elijah the prophet. Jesus would embrace death on a cross on charges of blasphemy and anti-Roman terrorism. Jesus would be summarily executed for being, in our contemporary terms, some Palestinian sectarian religious terrorist who was presented as a threat to the liberties of contemporary Western society and enlightenment. He was seen as yet another upstart Palestinian attemping to foment a revolution that would revive the glory days of a long-lost pathetic rabble of a bygone Middle Eastern petty empire.

Ever since swine had been offered in sacrifice to Zeus on the altar from the days of Antiochus there had been an abomination that desolates and signs of it everywhere. The failures of God's people were not only present but these failures could be seen as signs of God's continuing lack of favor. Israel was still languishing in a mixture of failure and violent attempts to obtain success.

Christ announced the acceptable year of the Lord but with it came an announcement that Israel had failed and failed at every level. The cursed fig tree, the unharvested harvest, the Gentiles who would one day be part of the harvest, Jesus announced all these things and announced that there was greater faith outside the chosen people than within it. Jesus also declared that those most eager to get "back to the Bible" were the worst offenders. It can be easy to domesticate this criticism as that of the "religous" in Jesus' day without seeing the implications of it for our own time. Jesus would have a stern rebuke to those who want to get back to "biblical" Christianity. Jesus would also have a rebuke to those who want to get back to "biblical" manhood and womanhood. I am not particularly an egalitarian, mind you, but when Jesus said to Martha that Mary had chosen the better part and it would not be denied her that involved letting Mary ignore that societal limitations of what was expected of her as a woman in that age.

Consider the mother of the Lord, Mary. She went her whole life being considered by at least some to have been a liar and a fornicator at best. She went through life a nobody and constantly under the suspicion of being an adulteress, a liar, and a freak. She could have, in our most pious reconstructions, known that Jesus was going to die but since the annunciation would have happened while she was still a teenaged girl possibly as young as twelve it is not likely that she had a category for the kind of warrior her son would grow up to be. She saw her son dying on the cross and the gospels attest that in some cases Jesus' family thought He was beside himself, possibly not even in His right mind.

The good news of Jesus' life and death as the Christ is arguably the most horrific experience any mother could ever have. So in every respect she is our forerunner in the faith, witnessing firsthand the ways in which Jesus was seen as stricken by God. Mary saw her son so transfigured by crucifixion as to seem not even human. By this time she must have lost her husband as well, because it was John to whom Christ entrusted the care of His mother. Mary was then like Naomi but did not take for herself the name Mara because of the bitterness of losing both her husband and her son, the loss of the son being quite literally more excruciating for her because she was losing her son to a cross.

Jesus' adversaries said, "We are not born out of wedlock. We know who our father is." Jesus was seen as a bastard by his religous opponents in every possible sense of that term, from its most literal to its most figurative interpretation. Christ embraced a level of shame and degradation and failure that we spend our entire lives running from, avoiding, convincging ourselves we have not attained or cannot possibly attain.

The Transfiguration functions as both fulfillment and tacit rebuke. In it we get a glimpse of the Christ we hope Him to be and see that He communes with the greats of the past both in giving laws and in speaking with prophetic power. Yet these greats are still ultimately failures and this is a sobering lesson I must continually revisit and learn anew each step of my life. As Matt Chandler put it, lots of people go into ministry wanting the victorious stuff of deposing kings and raising the dead and putting armies to flight, not hiding in caves or wearing animal skins and being derilect. We want the glory now and not to see that to have it said of us that the world was not worthy of us also really means that we were not considered worthy of the world. We do not believe, really, that God has truly chosen to use those things that are nothing to make nothing those things that are.

The Transfiguration makes the scandal of Jesus' death on the Cross all the more unbearable and His apparent failure all the more complete. It is the Transfiguration we hope for without the path to the Cross. We do not see that even in the Transfiguration the path of the Cross is still there in the failures of those men who were permitted to speak with Christ on the mountain. Moses failed and Elijah failed and Christ was about to go forward to a failure even more scandalous and horrifying than the failures of either Moses or Elijah. They failed as prophets who were recognized as truly serving the Lord, Christ would fail to be recognized even as a prophet and would be killed as a blasphemer and a bastard. Moses and Elijah were never considered guilty of the emblematic failures of the people they spoke to, Christ was considered stricken by God and possessed by devils. Moses and Elijah proclaimed the Lord's warning and desires to the people, Jesus was executed as a man leading the people astray from the mission given to them by Yahweh.

It is so perilously easy to want the path of Transfiguration without realizing that it leads straightaway into Golgotha. The path of Transfiguration is what people invoke, whether they know it or not, when they parrot "If my people ... " as a way to revive the fortunes of America little knowing the import of the scriptures they happily distort for the sake of the same national glory Jesus' adversaries sought to preserve in their own time. Paradoxically to surpass the failures of Moses and Elijah Christ had to embrace failure and defeat more scandalous than either those failures had ever known. Yet it was through this miserable, horrific failure Christ purchased on our behalf both peace and victory.

Though the misery is real it is still better to be counted among the losers with Jesus than the winners of earth.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Michael Spencer (aka Internet Monk) has died

I can't really add anything that has not been said effectively by others. I'll miss his writing.