July 28 — Johann Sebastian Bach

Image result for bach

Today’s Bible reading

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad,because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. – Matthew 5:11-12

More thoughts for meditation on J.S. Bach (1685-1750)

The Bach Archive researcher, Michael Maul, was looking through a shoebox that had only narrowly escaped a fire in the Anna Amalia Library a few months before. Inside lay more than 100 letters and poems dedicated to the 52nd birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach’s patron, Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Saxe-Weimar. Maul had hoped to find a greeting from the composer himself, who in 1713 was the court organist. What he found instead was a two-page hand-written aria for soprano and harpsichord, the first Bach vocal work discovered in 70 years.

The text is a 12-stanza poem by Johann Anton Mylius, beginning, “Alles mit Gott und nichts ohn’ ihn” (Everything with God and nothing without him). The music, British conductor John Eliot Gardiner told The Guardian, is “a reflective, meditative, soothing piece, as Bach’s church music so often is.” The Bach Archive asked Gardiner to record and perform the piece and the aria’s first recording can be heard at NPR.org.

J.S. Bach is still influencing people with his faith expressed in his music.

When he was 48, Bach acquired a copy of Luther’s three-volume translation of the Bible. He pored over it as if it were a long-lost treasure. He underlined passages, corrected errors in the text and commentary, inserted missing words, and made notes in the margins. Near 1 Chronicles 25 (a listing of Davidic musicians) he wrote, “This chapter is the true foundation of all God-pleasing music.” At 2 Chronicles 5:13 (which speaks of temple musicians praising God), he noted, “At a reverent performance of music, God is always at hand with his gracious presence.”

Bach was a Christian who lived with the Bible. Besides being the baroque era’s greatest organist and composer, and one of the most productive geniuses in the history of Western music, Bach was also a theologian who just happened to work with a keyboard.

He was born and schooled in Eisenach, Thuringia (at the same school Luther had attended), part of a family that in seven generations produced 53 prominent musicians. Johann Sebastian received his first musical instruction from his father, Johann Ambrosius, a town musician. By age 10 Bach was orphaned, and he went to live and study with his elder brother, Johann Christoph, an organist in Ohrdruf.

By age 15 Bach was ready to establish himself in the musical world, and he immediately showed immense talent in a variety of areas. He became a soprano (women weren’t permitted to sing in church) in the choir of Lüneburg’s Church of Saint Michael. Three years later, he was a violinist in the chamber orchestra of Prince Johann Ernst of Weimar. After a few months, he moved to Arnstadt to become a church organist.

In October 1705, Bach was invited to study for one month with the renowned Danish-born German organist and composer Dietrich Buxtehude. Bach was so enamored with his teacher, he stretched the visit to two months. When he returned to his church, he was severely criticized for breach of contract and, in the ensuing weeks, for his new organ flourishes and harmonies that accompanied congregational singing. But he was already too highly respected to be dismissed.

In 1707 he married a second cousin, Maria Barbara Bach, and went to Mülhausen to become organist in the Church of Saint Blasius. After various moves and prominent jobs, he finally settled down in Leipzig in 1723, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Maria died in 1720, and the next year he married Anna Magdalena Wilcken, an accomplished singer. She bore him 13 children, to add to the seven he’d had by Maria, and helped copy his music for performers.

Bach’s stay in Leipzig, as musical director and choirmaster of Saint Thomas’s church and school, wasn’t always happy. He squabbled continually with the town council, and neither the council nor the populace appreciated his musical genius. Some said he was a stuffy old man who clung stubbornly to obsolete forms of music. Consequently, they paid him a miserable salary, and when he died even contrived to defraud his widow of her meager inheritance.

Ironically, in this setting Bach wrote his most enduring music. For a time he wrote a cantata each week (today, a composer who writes a cantata a year is considered ambitious), 202 of which survive. Most conclude with a chorale based on a simple Lutheran hymn, and the music is at all times closely bound to biblical texts. Among these works are the Ascension Cantata and the Christmas Oratorio.

In Leipzig he also composed his epic Mass in B Minor, The Passion of St. John and The Passion of St. Matthew—all for use as worship services. The latter piece has been called “the supreme cultural achievement of all Western civilization,” and even the radical skeptic Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) admitted upon hearing it, “One who has completely forgotten Christianity truly hears it here as gospel.”

After Bach’s death, people seemed glad to wipe their ears of his music. He was remembered less as a composer than as an organist and harpsichordist. Some of his music was sold, and some was reportedly used to wrap garbage. For the next 80 years his music was neglected by the public, although a few musicians (Mozart and Beethoven, for example) admired it. Not until 1829, when German composer Felix Mendelssohn arranged a performance of The Passion of St. Matthew, did a larger audience appreciate Bach the composer.

In terms of pure music, Bach has become known as one who could combine the rhythm of French dances, the gracefulness of Italian song, and the intricacy of German counterpoint—all in one composition. In addition, Bach could write musical equivalents of verbal ideas, such as undulating a melody to represent the sea.

But music was never just music to Bach. Nearly three-fourths of his 1,000 compositions were written for use in worship. Between his musical genius, his devotion to Christ, and the effect of his music, he has come to be known in many circles as “the Fifth Evangelist.”

More?

10-minute video biography

Sheep May Safely Graze with period instruments

A capella boy choir Libera sings an Air

Suggestions for action

It should not surprise us that a Christian musical genius was left unpraised and even abused in the flower of his talent. Yet it is still shocking. Maybe it should encourage us to keep on serving whether we are  appreciated or not. Whatever genius we offering is just that, an offering, not our part of a transaction for which we expect a profit. As Jesus keeps saying, “What does it profit us if we gain the whole world and lose our souls? What can we give in exchange for our souls?”

Revisit what you think it important. What had God given you to give and how are you making it a priority? Is some power trying to undermine your devotion?

July 17 — Peter Waldo

Today’s Bible reading

Read Deuteronomy 33

This is the blessing that Moses, the man of God, gave the Israelites before his death.

St. Alexius

More thoughts for meditation about Peter Waldo

Nobody knows the day Peter Waldo died. But we do know that his faith was warmed when he listened to a sermon about Alexius of Rome. So it seems appropriate to celebrate him on St. Alexius Day. Let’s start with a bit about what made Alexius a moving example of faith:

Alexius was the only son of a wealthy Christian Roman of the senatorial class. He fled his arranged marriage to follow his call to holiness. Disguised as a beggar, he lived near Edessa in Syria, accepting alms even from his own household slaves, who had been sent to look for him but did not recognize him, until a miraculous icon singled him out as a “Man of God.” Fleeing the fame that resulted, he returned to Rome, so changed that his parents did not recognize him, but as good Christians they took him in and sheltered him for seventeen years, which he spent in a dark cubbyhole beneath the stairs, praying and teaching catechism to children. After his death, his family found writings on his body which told them who he was and how he had lived his life of penance from the day of his wedding, for the love of God.

While Peter Waldo was listening to this story, he was moved to also become a man of God. Like others in his day, he embraced the value of poverty, giving away his wealth and property in 1170. Specific details of his life are largely unknown. Extant sources relate that he was a wealthy clothier and merchant from Lyons and a man of some learning.

The church of 12th Century Europe was powerful and impressive. The emerging Gothic architecture shows the devotion of the people and the wealth of the bishops. The developing scholastic theology shows the intellectual dominance and refinement of thinking among academic theologians. The Crusades against Islam in Jerusalem and heretics at home show the coercive strength of the church in cooperation with the state.

The church’s success, however, alienated many people. To the dissatisfied, the church seemed greatly corrupted by its power. To them, the church seemed to have forgotten Christ’s call to otherworldliness, poverty, and humility. In various, often quite divergent movements, a reaction of Christian simplicity was raised against the wealth and power of the church.

The established church managed to contain some of this unrest, particularly through the asceticism of the monastic movements. But even these movements tended over time to be corrupted by wealth and immorality. Some of the unrest moved outside the church and orthodox teaching. For instance, the Cathari, also known as the Cathars or Albigensians, adopted a spiritualistic religion that rejected the material world so radically that it left no place for the incarnation. This movement attracted many followers, particularly in the south of France, and it was viciously persecuted by church and state.

A similar critique against the church was initiated by Peter Waldo (sometimes Peter Valdez). He was inspired by a series of events: 1) as noted, a sermon on the life of St. Alexius, 2) his rejection of transubstantiation when it was considered a capital crime to do so, 3) the sudden and unexpected death of a friend during an evening meal. From this point onward he began living a radical Christian life, giving his property over to his wife, while the remainder of his belongings he distributed to the poor.

His followers were sometimes called the Poor Men of Lyons. But his critique of the church adopted neither the radical love of poverty in itself as St. Francis later adopted nor the radical spiritualizing of the Cathars. Instead, they turned to the simple vision of Christianity that they found in the Bible. Waldo saw to the translation of the Bible into the language of the people. He and his followers went about preaching a simple understanding of the word.

Waldo preached and taught publicly, based on his ideas of simplicity and poverty, notably that “No man can serve two masters, God and Mammon” accompanied by strong condemnations of Papal excesses and Catholic dogmas, including purgatory and transubstantiation, picturing the Church of Rome as the harlot from the book of Revelation. His followers spread this word  disguised as peddlers.

For a time, the movement spread widely into parts of Germany and Austria, as well as Northern Italy. Persecution by the church, however, was severe and eventually reduced the movement to a remnant in the valleys of Northern Italy. Efforts to eradicate them through the centuries failed. It was only in 1870 that the Waldensians received full civil rights in Italy. Pope Francis recently asked their forgiveness.

Waldo and his followers have sometimes been listed among the forerunners of the Franciscans and the Reformation. When the Reformation began in the sixteenth century, contact was established between the Waldensians and the Reformers. Ultimately the Waldensians accepted the spiritual connection between their movement and Protestantism. Unfortunately, this connection led to even greater persecution.

The Waldensians were witnesses to the presence of Christ’s word and Spirit in the church through the centuries. They expressed to aspects of Apostolic faith that were threatened with extinction in the dominant church. They remind us that in every era, Christ fulfills His promise: “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).

Suggestions for action

It is always exciting to see a relatively normal group of people come to faith, against all odds, and then give witness to the powers that deprived them of faith to begin with!

Does Peter Waldo embolden you? What have you heard, lately, that, if you took it to heart, would cause some revolution in you and your environment?

July 11 – Benedict of Nursia

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read 1 Peter 3:8-9

Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing.

benedict-icon-full1More thoughts for meditation about Benedict of Nursia

Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-547?) was born in North Central Italy (the Umbria province) when the Asian hordes were pulling much of the region back into violence with their war and pillaging. His biographer, St. Gregory the Great (Pope from 590 to 604), does not record the dates of his birth and death, but he certainly refers to the famous Rule he wrote to organize the communities he founded.

According to Gregory’s Dialogues, Benedict’s parents sent him to Rome for classical studies but he found the life of the city too degenerate for his tastes. He fled to a place southeast of Rome called Subiaco where he lived as a hermit. There he was discovered by a group of seekers who prevailed upon him to become their spiritual leader. His rule soon became too much for his lukewarm followers so they plotted to poison him. Gregory recounts the tale of Benedict’s rescue; when he blessed the pitcher of poisoned wine, it broke into many pieces.

Benedict left these wayward men and established twelve monasteries with twelve monks each in the area south of Rome. Later, perhaps in 529, he moved to Monte Cassino, about eighty miles southeast of Rome; there he destroyed the pagan temple dedicated to Apollo and built his premier monastery. It was there that he wrote the Rule for the monastery of Monte Cassino, though he envisioned that it could be used elsewhere. Gregory presents Benedict as the model of a saint who flees temptation to pursue a life of attention to God. Through a balanced pattern of action and contemplation, Benedict reached the point where he glimpsed the glory of God.

Gregory recounts a vision that Benedict received toward the end of his life: In the dead of night he was enveloped by a flood of light shining down from above more brilliant than the sun; it chased away every trace of darkness. According to his own description, the whole world was gathered up before his eyes “in what appeared to be a single ray of light” (ch. 34). St. Benedict, the monk par excellence, led a monastic life that reached the vision of God.

Benedict is considered to be the father of Western Monasticism—coming a few centuries after Monasticism began in Egypt, Asia Minor, and Palestine. His genius was to put the forms of the East into an accessible format that was warm and flexible. He was mostly the leader of a community, not a scholar. The Rule is the sole known example of Benedict’s writing, but it shows his genius to crystallize the best of the monastic tradition and to pass it on to Europe. The Benedictine vows are basically “obedience, stability, and conversion of life.” He helped formalize a movement of the Spirit into “a school of the Lord’s service, in which we hope to order nothing harsh or rigorous.” These “schools” that soon dotted Europe were centers of light and stability for centuries. Benedict, and the subsequent monks in his tradition, are known for both prayer and labor (ora et labora).

Some of the stories about Benedict told by Gregory can be found here [link].

Quotes from the rule of St. Benedict:

  • The first degree of humility is prompt obedience.
  • Listen and attend with the ear of your heart.
  • Prayer ought to be short and pure, unless it be prolonged by the inspiration of Divine grace.
  • He should first show them in deeds rather than words all that is good and holy.
  • Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God, and our ears to the voice from that every day calls out…What dear brothers, is more delightful than the voice of the Lord calling to us?
  • We must know that God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction,not our many words. 
  • [About the abbot] He must show forethought and consideration in his orders, and whether the task he assigns concerns God or the world, he should be discerning and moderate, bearing in mind the discretion of holy Jacob, who said: If I drive my flocks too hard, they will all die in a single day (Gen 33:13). 19 Therefore, drawing on this and other examples of discretion, the mother of virtues, he must so arrange everything that the strong have something to yearn for and the weak nothing to run from.

More on Benedict of Nursia:

Catholic Encyclopedia bio [link]

Christianity Today bio [link]

Order of St. Benedict bio [link]

Monastery of Christ in the Desert  bio [link]

The Benedict Option: Circle of Hope Daily prayer entries

Italian high schoolers made a nice bio:

Suggestions for action

Benedict lived in a violent society. His solution was to trust God and act out his faith in a radical way. This inevitably resulted in a community he needed to lead. Spiritual depth and community go together. We never escape the duties of love to seek our own connection with God. Benedict challenges us to go deeper and go wider, to flee the world but also to save it. If you look at your own life, what vision does it appear to follow?

July 6 — Jan Hus

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read Matthew 10:16-31

On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say

Hus Memorial -- Prague
Hus Memorial — Prague

More thoughts for meditation about Jan Hus

Jan Hus was born in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) in about 1371. By 1400 he was a priest and about to become part of the university in Prague.

He helped launch a vigorous reform of the church in a particularly difficult time in Europe’s history. It was in the middle of what is known as the Great Schism. The King of France moved the seat of the Papacy from Rome to Avignon. Rival popes were elected. Sides were taken and battles were fought. The Council of Constance from 1414 to 1418 was called to solve the issue.

In the middle of this Jan Hus denounced various church practices in his sermons, taking his lead from the famous John Wycliffe of England (the “morning star of the Reformation”). For instance, Hus thought it was unbiblical for the wine of communion to be reserved for the priest. He wholeheartedly accepted the practice of the church worshipping in the Czech language, rather than in Latin. He argued that “laypeople” had an important role to play in the administration of the Church and that Christ was the true head of the Church, not the Pope. He thought church officials should not be earthly governors.

After the death of Pope Alexander V (an “antipope“), a crusade against the practices of granting indulgences started, of which Hus was also a part. He produced writings that are said to be directly taken from Wycliffe’s writings, notably: De ecclesia (The Church). In them he argued that no Pope or Bishop had the right to raise a sword in the name of Church. He insisted that people attained forgiveness only by repentance, not Papal indulgence. His followers publicly burned Papal communiques (“bulls”) and believed that Hus’ sayings should be followed, rather than those of the Church hierarchy. As a result, in 1412 Jan Hus was excommunicated for insubordination.

Diebold Schilling's Spiezer Chronik (1485)
Diebold Schilling’s Spiezer Chronik (1485)

In 1414 he was summoned to the Council of Constance, with the Emperor guaranteeing his personal safety even if found guilty. He was tried, and ordered to recant certain heretical doctrines. He replied that he had never held or taught the doctrines in question, and was willing to declare the doctrines false, but not willing to declare on oath that he had once taught them. The one point on which Hus could be said to have a doctrinal difference with the Council was that he taught that the office of the pope did not exist by God’s command, but was established by the Church so that things might be done in an orderly fashion. The Council, having just narrowly succeeded in uniting Western Christendom under a single pope after years of chaos, was not about to have its work undermined. So it found him guilty of heresy, and he was burned at the stake on July 6, 1415.

Hus’ approach to being the church was human, Bible centered, and spiritual.  To partisans on both sides of the Schism, his views seemed idealistic at best, and at worst a dreamy anarchism or heresy. Throughout all the controversy that followed his teaching he maintained a creative loyalty to the church while challenging its pathologies. His death helped give birth to the Moravian Church. That group held the light out for his prophecy to be fulfilled: it is claimed that he said, “In one hundred years, God will raise up a man whose calls for reform cannot be suppressed.” In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his famous “Ninety-five Theses of Contention” to the church door in Wittenberg. Before he died in flames, Hus is said to have stated: “It is better to die well than to live wickedly … Truth conquers all things.”

More on Hus?

Biography

Suggestions for action

It takes faith to see beyond one’s present time and to act for generations yet to be born. We are prone to saving our lives, meaning we are out for ourselves in the present, rather than losing our lives for Christ’s sake, and so gaining a true life. Hus lived for something that was true to Jesus and big enough to be important for the people he loved—something worth risking his life to bring about. It is worth asking the question, when I die, will people remember my faith? Will I leave them a vision of the world that is beyond me?

July 1 — Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher StoweToday’s Bible Reading

No, that’s not your experience at all. You’ve come to Mount Zion, the city where the living God resides. The invisible Jerusalem is populated by throngs of festive angels and Christian citizens. It is the city where God is Judge, with judgments that make us just. You’ve come to Jesus, who presents us with a new covenant, a fresh charter from God. He is the Mediator of this covenant. The murder of Jesus, unlike Abel’s—a homicide that cried out for vengeance—became a proclamation of grace. — Hebrews 12:22-4 (Message)

More thoughts for meditation about Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)

When President Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1863, he is reported to have said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin may not have caused the Civil War, but it shook both North and South. It declared the profound value of a human soul and pictured emancipation as inevitable. Susan Bradford Eppes wrote, after her state of Florida seceded, “If Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe had died before she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this would never have happened … Isn’t it strange how much harm a pack of lies can do?”

Harriet was the seventh of 12 children of Lyman Beecher, Congregationalist minister, noted revivalist and reformer. When Harriet’s mother lay dying, Lyman repeatedly spoke words to her that the family embraced as their life text, often repeating it to one another: “… Ye are come unto Mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, … and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.” The essence of words energized the unanswerable argument in Uncle Tom’s Cabin: if a slave can come to Mount Sion and to Jesus and to the company of saints in the New Jerusalem, how can you set him up on an auction block and trade him from one white man to another?

In 1832 her father moved the family to the frontier city of Cincinnati, where he became president of Lane Seminary, soon a center for abolitionists. At 25 Harriet married Calvin Ellis Stowe, professor of Biblical literature at Lane.

Harriet was often morbid while growing up as she struggled with issues of faith. But when she was fourteen, she cried to her father that she had given herself to Christ. Later in her marriage to Calvin Stowe, she would plead with him to seek Christ with the same burning devotion with which he sought knowledge. “If you had studied Christ with half the energy that you have studied Luther … then would he be formed in you … ” When he turned to spiritualism, she pleaded with him, the Biblical scholar, that it was unbiblical.

During her child-rearing years, she read to her seven children two hours each evening and, for a time, ran a small school in her home. She described herself as “a little bit of a woman, just as thin and dry as a pinch of snuff; never very much to look at in my best days and very much used-up by now, a mere drudge with few ideas beyond babies and housekeeping.”

But she was not a mere drudge. She found time to write, partially to bolster the meager family income. An early literary success at age 32 (for a collection of short stories) encouraged her, but she still worried about the conflict between writing and mothering. Despite privation and anxiety, due largely to her husband’s precarious health, she wrote continually and in 1843 published The Mayflower; or, Sketches of Scenes and Characters Among the Descendants of the Pilgrims. Her husband urged her on, predicting she could mold “the mind of the West for the coming generation.” That she did with the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly at 40.

She had lived for 18 years in Cincinnati, separated only by the Ohio River from a slave-holding community in Kentucky. She gained firsthand knowledge of fugitive slaves and about life in the South from friends and through her contact with the “Underground Railroad” there. The secret network was started in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act (severe measures that mandated the return of runaway slaves without trial) to help escaped slaves reach safety in the North or in Canada. Stowe herself helped some slaves escape.

But Stowe still brooded over how she could further respond. Then, during a church communion service, the scene of the triumphant death of Tom flashed before her. She soon formed the story that preceded Tom’s death.

In 1850 her husband became professor at Bowdoin College and moved his family to Brunswick, Maine. In Brunswick, Stowe wrote the story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin for serial publication in the National Era, an antislavery paper of Washington, D.C., in 1851 and 1852 in 40 installments, each with a cliffhanger ending. Her name became anathema in the South. But elsewhere the book had an unparalleled popularity; it was translated into at least 23 languages. When it appeared in book form, it sold 1,000,000 copies before the Civil War. The dramatic adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin played to capacity audiences. Stowe reinforced her story with The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853), in which she accumulated a large number of documents and testimonies against slavery.

Its publication also inspired a reaction from the South: critical reviews and the publication of some 30 anti-abolitionist Uncle Tom novels within three years.

By literary standards, the novel’s situations are contrived, the dialogue unreal, and the slaves romanticized. Still, Stowe communicated the absurdity of slavery through Tom’s triumph over the brutal evil of Simon Legree.

“‘How would ye like to be tied to a tree, and have a slow fire lit up around ye?’ asked Legree. ‘Wouldn’t that be pleasant, eh, Tom?’

“‘Mas’r,’ said Tom, ‘I know ye can do dreadful things, but’—he stretched himself upward and clasped his hands—’but after ye’ve killed the body, there ain’t no more ye can do. And oh! there’s all eternity to come after that!'”

Until her death in July 1896, Stowe averaged nearly a book a year, but Uncle Tom’s Cabin was her legacy. Even one of her harshest critics acknowledged that it was “perhaps the most influential novel ever published, a verbal earthquake, an ink-and-paper tidal wave.”

She thereafter led the life of a woman of letters, writing novels, of which The Minister’s Wooing (1859) is best known, and many studies of social life in both fiction and essay. Stowe published also a small volume of religious poems and toward the end of her career gave some public readings from her writings.

Harriet Beecher Stowe quotes:

  • Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.
  • The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone.
  • Women are the real architects of society.
  • Most mothers are instinctive philosophers.
  • It’s a matter of taking the side of the weak against the strong, something the best people have always done.
  • Human nature is above all things lazy.
  • The truth is the kindest thing we can give folks in the end.

Suggestions for action

Stowe came from a skilled and disciplined family, but even then she was still a woman trapped in the day-to-day of a patriarchal society. Her life suggests that conviction counts, if it is followed up by deeds.

What is God moving you to do? What should you be sticking with until it is done?

June 29 – Peter and Paul

El Greco — 1587-1592. In the Hermitage in St. Petersburg (once appeared on a USSR stamp).

Today’s Bible reading

There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection.  Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins,destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. — Hebrews 11:35-40

More thoughts for meditation about Peter and Paul

The feast of these two great spiritual ancestors is celebrated on the same day, June 29th. Tradition holds that Peter and Paul were martyred in June of the year 67 A.D. (in some traditions, on the very same day), while living and ministering in Rome during the reign of the infamously brutal Emperor Nero.

This day became an important feast on the Christian calendar to solemnize the memory of their martyrdom. It was highlighted in the 4th century when Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. According to tradition, Romulus and Remus were the hero-twin founders of pre-Christian Rome. The rise of Christianity in the 4th century inserted Peter and Paul in their place.

The two great leaders of the first church do not appear to have had a consistently harmonious relationship (like most of us!). On the one hand, there was a confrontation between them at the Syrian city of Antioch over whether a community of both Christian Jews and Christian non-Jews (Gentiles) should all observe Jewish kosher food rules or not. Here is Paul’s report on the dispute:

Until certain people came from James, he [Peter] used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. — Gal. 2:12-13 NRSV

This is strong language. Paul accuses Peter of being two-faced: abiding by Jewish dietary laws when pressed by his fellow Jews but freely ignoring them when in Gentile company.

On the other hand, Peter made mildly negative comments on Paul. They are not as harsh in terms of name-calling, but they criticize Paul’s letters in a sweeping manner:

So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. — 2 Pet. 3:15-16 NRSV

Lamp from the Medici collection belonging to lamp originally given to Valerius Severus, a member of a powerful Roman family, in honor of his conversion to Christianity
Early 5th century ivory belt buckle discovered beneath the cathedral of Castellammare di Stabia, a city near Naples, Italy.

How did fourth-century Christians reconcile Peter and Paul to become the hero-twins of Christian Rome?

The two fourth or fifth-century artifacts above show how Peter versus Paul became Peter and Paul. The objects correlate with the efforts of Pope Damasus I, who sought to raise the profile of the Church (and the papacy) in fourth-century Rome.

The first item is a bronze hanging lamp in the shape of a ship under sail. It shows Paul standing in the prow piloting the ship, with Peter seated in the stern at the tiller. Together, they are guiding the church through the sea of life. Who is more important, the one piloting or the one steering?

The second is an ivory belt buckle. It shows Paul to the viewer’s left and Peter to the right rushing toward one another and into a full embrace. Peace, reconciliation, and apostolic harmony are fully established.

The New Testament does not record the deaths of Peter or Paul, or any of the Apostles except for James the son of Zebedee (Acts 12:2). But their martyrdom is clearly anticipated. From an early date it has been said that they were killed at Rome at the command of the Emperor Nero, and buried there. As a Roman citizen, Paul would probably have been beheaded with a sword. It is said of Peter that he was crucified head downward, upon his request. Their churches, St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Paul Outside the Walls, in Rome were built on the respective locations of their martyrdom and burial.

Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) writes in Sermon 295:

Both apostles share the same feast day, for these two were one; And even though they suffered on different days, they were as one. Peter went first, and Paul followed. And so we celebrate this day made holy for us by the apostles’ blood. Let us embrace what they believed, their life, their labors, their sufferings, their preaching, and their confession of faith.

Want more?

Reflections on the day from the Franciscans.

The 80’s movie.

PBS documentary.

Suggestions for action

Martyrdom is a spiritual gift which few desire. But the church was founded and continues to stand strong because of people who give their lives of for the cause, regardless of the opposition.

Appreciate the brave people who have safeguarded and delivered the faith to you.

Ponder the opposition that threatens you and how Jesus will strengthen you to stand in the face of evil.

 

June 18 – Vernard Eller

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read John 10:14-18

I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.

More thoughts for meditation about Vernard Eller

Vernard Eller, who died this day in 2007, was an Anabaptist scholar, author, and teacher during some of the most trying eras for peacemakers and simplicity practitioners—the latter half of the 20th Century. He was part of the Church of the Brethren (“cousins” to the Brethren in Christ) and most of his presence was in the West Coast part of that family.

His most famous works are The Mad Morality and Christian Anarchy: Jesus’ Primacy Over the Powers. He was known as an effective and practical interpreter of radicals like Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, and Jacques Ellul. Eller was an open critic of materialism and nationalism in the Church as well as a vocal advocate for simplicity, reducing possessions, radical sharing of wealth, and nonviolent conflict resolution.

“The primary thrust of my life has been to try to bring into focus four different elements not often seen as even being compatible: a strong Christian commitment; solid thought and scholarship; clear and powerful communication; and true wit and humor,” said Eller in a 1980 issue of Messenger magazine.

“To put the matter simply the problem with today’s congregations is that they are usually far more concerned to ‘be’ somewhere than to ‘get’ somewhere; to establish and consolidate a secure position, rather than to push on toward a goal. But according to the New Testament, stability and security are precisely ‘not’ what God intended for the church. Instead, Eller believes, the church should be a do-it-yourself, de-institutionalized, de-professionalized people in a caravan – a community of the outward bound”—from The Outward Bound: Caravaning as the Style of the Church

Want More?

The MAD Morality: An Expose [link]

A short article “The Lord’s Supper is Not a Sacrament” [link]

Wikipedia article for Christian Anarchism [link]

Suggestions for action

Much of what Eller was pioneering for our age we have have summed up in the word “alternativity.” We are not only opposed to the misguided attachments of the church’s past, we are resisting the “mad” morality of the new world order. Resistance is not enough, of course, we want restoration. It takes some thinking to be a Jesus follower! Take one aspect of this post and write a paragraph about it in your journal. Title it: the gift Vernard Eller gave me. Make sure to add how you expect to use the gift.

June 9 — Pentecost

Image result for pentecost

Today’s Bible reading

All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. — Acts 1:14

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. — Acts 2:1-4

More thoughts for meditation about Pentecost

Pentecost Sunday is a commemoration and celebration of the receiving of the Holy Spirit by the early church. It is the birthday of the church.

John the Baptist prophesied that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Matthew 3:11). Jesus confirmed this prophecy with the promise of the Holy Spirit to the disciples in John 14:26.

Jesus showed Himself to his followers after His death on the cross and His resurrection, giving convincing proofs that He was alive. During this period, he told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the Father’s gift of the Holy Spirit, from whom they would experience His abiding presence and receive power to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:3-8).

After Jesus’ ascension, the disciples returned to Jerusalem and joined together in prayer in an upper room. During the Jewish festival of Pentecost (Shavuot), just as promised, the sound of a great wind filled the house and tongues of fire came to rest on each of them and all were filled with the Holy Spirit. They experienced ecstasy and were given the power of communication, which they used to begin the ministry for which Jesus had prepared them. After the coming of the Holy Spirit, the disciples burst out of their fear, out of their room to tell the world. This was the beginning of the missional community of Jesus, the church.

Suggestions for action

Christian churches celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, realizing that God’s very life, breath and energy live in believers. John 20:19-23 may be the core of the message about our risen Savior supernaturally appearing to the fear-laden disciples. Their fear gave way to joy when the Lord showed them His hands and side. He assured them peace and repeated the command given in Matthew 28:19-20, saying, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” Then He breathed on them, and they received the Holy Spirit (John 20:21-23).

The celebration of Pentecost Sunday reminds us of the reality that we all have the unifying Spirit that was poured out upon the first-century church in Acts 2:1-4. It is a reminder that we are co-heirs with Christ, empowered to suffer with Him that we may also be glorified with Him. the day reminds us that the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7); that we are all baptized by one Spirit into one body (1 Corinthians 12:13); and that the Spirit which raised Jesus from the dead lives inside believers (Romans 8:9-11). This gift of the Holy Spirit that was promised and given to all believers on the first Pentecost is promised for you and your children and for all who are far off whom the Lord our God will call (Acts 2:39).

The Wind section in the Way of Jesus is all about taking further steps in the Spirit.

Receive the gift.  This video suggests a variety of ways you might be touched.

 

June 9 – Columba

Today’s Bible reading

Praise the Lord from the earth,
    you great sea creatures and all ocean depths,
lightning and hail, snow and clouds,
    stormy winds that do his bidding,
you mountains and all hills,
    fruit trees and all cedars,
wild animals and all cattle,
    small creatures and flying birds,
kings of the earth and all nations,
    you princes and all rulers on earth,
young men and women,
    old men and children.

Let them praise the name of the Lord,
    for his name alone is exalted;
    his splendor is above the earth and the heavens. — Psalm 148:7-13

More thoughts for meditation about Columba

Columba is a “saint” who still appeals to our imaginations almost fifteen hundred years after his death. He is credited with bringing Christianity to Scotland. He was not only a great leader, he had a big imagination that resulted in an outbreak of Celtic art we still celebrate. He also had a big voice and might have sang his own version of today’s psalm, since the Celtic church had a deep respect of God’s presence in creation and Columba, no doubt met the Lord on his many daring sea voyages and missionary journeys.

He was born in Ireland, on December 7, 521 A.D. to Fedhlimidh and Eithne in Donegal (Northern Ireland). He was of “royal blood,” and might have become High King of Ireland had he not chosen to be a priest.

As a young man, Columba soon took an interest in the church, joined the monastery at Moville, and was ordained a deacon by the famous and influential Finnian. After studying with a bard called Gemman, Columba was ordained a priest, then bishop of Clonfad. Columba entered the monastery of Mobhi Clarainech and trained with the others who became “the twelve apostles of Ireland.” When disease forced the disbanding of that monastery, Columba went north and founded the church of Derry.

Tradition has it that after founding several other monasteries, Columba copied Finnian’s psalter (Or was it a precious copy of the Latin Vulgate? Sixth century history was not fastidiously stored). He did this without the permission of Finnian, and thus devalued the book and broke with common decency. When Finnian took the matter to High King Dermott for judgment, Dermott judged in favor of Finnian, stating “to every cow its calf; to every book its copy” (the first copyright law!). Columba refused to hand over the copy, claiming that his converts deserved the scripture. King Dermott forced the issue militarily. Columba’s family and clan defeated Dermott at the battle of Cooldrevny in 561.

Tradition further holds that Molaisi of Devenish, Columba’s spiritual father, ordered Columba to bring the same number of souls to Christ that he had caused to die as penance.

For his theft and the deaths it caused, Columba ended up in exile from Ireland. He settled at the first place where his homeland could no longer be seen across the sea. With twelve companions he started a new life, founding a monastery on the island of Iona in the year 563. They lived as Celtic monks in a community of separate cells. But Columba and his companions combined their contemplative life with extraordinary missionary activity.

Among his many accomplishments, Columba was a splendid sailor. He sailed far among the islands of Scotland and traveled deep inland, making converts and founding churches. In Ireland, it is said, he had already founded a hundred churches. In Scotland he is credited with converting the Picts, including a journey to witness to the King during which he thwarted the Loch Ness monster.

Of all the Celtic saints in Scotland, Columba’s life is the best documented, because manuscripts of the Life of Columba, written by Adamnan, one of his early successors as abbot of Iona, have survived.

Columba was a poet as well as a man of action. Some of his poems in both Latin and Gaelic have come down to us, and they reveal him to be very sensitive to the beauty of his surroundings, as well as, in Adamnan’s phrase, “gladdened in his inmost heart by the joy of the Holy Spirit.”

He died on June 9 in the year 597.

More?

Columba the Creative Sufferer [link]

YouTube history on Celtic saints [link]

The impact of Columba lives on in Scotland [link]

Columba (and others) and the Book of Kells [Part 1 link] [Part 2 link]

Suggestions for action

Columba might have been king if he had not been serious about Jesus. He might have been a powerful church man in Ireland if he hadn’t put himself on the wrong side of the law and started a war! Maybe you wish you had never followed Jesus. Maybe you wish you had not done those wrong things. Maybe Jesus can use you anyway, starting on whatever little island you find yourself today, despite the desires that threaten to dominate your life. Consider what would happen if your future were in God’s hands (since it is).

June 3 — Hudson Taylor

Today’s Bible reading

Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.

But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me, for I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast. For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. — 1 Corinthians 9:13-17

More thoughts for meditation about Hudson Taylor

In 1853 a small boat left Liverpool with Hudson Taylor on board, a gaunt and wild-eyed 21-year-old missionary. He was headed for a country that was just coming into the European/American Christian consciousness: China. By the time Taylor died a half-century later, China was viewed as the most fertile and challenging of mission fields of all and thousands volunteered annually to serve there.

Taylor was born to a Methodist couple fascinated with the Far East who had prayed for their newborn, “Grant that he may work for you in China.” Years later, a teenage Hudson experienced a spiritual birth during an intense time of prayer in which, as he later put it, life stretched out “before Him with unspeakable awe and unspeakable joy.” He spent the next years in frantic preparation, learning the rudiments of medicine, studying Mandarin, and immersing himself ever deeper into the Bible and prayer.

His ship arrived in Shanghai, one of five “treaty ports” China had opened to foreigners following its first Opium War with England. Almost immediately Taylor made a radical decision (as least for Protestant missionaries of the day): he decided to dress in Chinese clothes and grow a pigtail (as Chinese men did). His fellow Protestants were either incredulous or critical.

Taylor, for his part, was not happy with most missionaries he saw: he believed they were “worldly” and spent too much time with English businessmen and diplomats who needed their services as translators. Instead, Taylor wanted the Christian faith taken to the interior of China. So within months of arriving, and the native language still a challenge, Taylor, along with Joseph Edkins, set off for the interior, setting sail down the Huangpu River distributing Chinese Bibles and tracts.

When the Chinese Evangelization Society, which had sponsored Taylor, proved incapable of paying its missionaries in 1857, Taylor resigned and became an independent missionary; trusting God to meet his needs. In 1861, he became seriously ill (probably with hepatitis) and was forced to return to England to recover. In England, the restless Taylor continued translating the Bible into Chinese (a work he’d begun in China), studied to become a midwife, and recruited more missionaries. Troubled that people in England seemed to have little interest in China, he wrote China: Its Spiritual Need and Claims. In one passage, he scolded, “Can all the Christians in England sit still with folded arms while these multitudes [in China] are perishing—perishing for lack of knowledge—for lack of that knowledge which England possesses so richly?”

Taylor became convinced that a special organization was needed to evangelize the interior of China. He made plans to recruit 24 missionaries: two for each of the 11 unreached inland provinces and two for Mongolia. It was a visionary plan that would have left veteran recruiters breathless: it would increase the number of China missionaries by 25 percent. He was wracked with doubt about the dangers his plan presented. But at the same time he despaired for the millions of Chinese who were dying without the hope of the gospel. While walking along the beach on day, his gloom lifted:

“There the Lord conquered my unbelief, and I surrendered myself to God for this service. I told him that all responsibility as to the issues and consequences must rest with him; that as his servant it was mine to obey and to follow him.”

His new mission, which he called the China Inland Mission (CIM), had a number of distinctive features, including this: its missionaries would have no guaranteed salaries nor could they appeal for funds; they would simply trust God to supply their needs; furthermore, its missionaries would adopt Chinese dress and then press the gospel into the China interior. Within a year of his breakthrough, Taylor, his wife and four children, and 16 young missionaries sailed from London to join five others already in China working under Taylor’s direction.

Taylor continued to make enormous demands upon himself. He was accused of being a tyrant and people left for other missions. Yet by 1876, with 52 missionaries, CIM constituted one-fifth of the missionary force in China. Because there continued to be so many Chinese to reach, Taylor instituted another radical policy: he sent unmarried women into the interior, a move criticized by many veterans. But Taylor’s boldness knew no bounds. In 1881, he asked God for another 70 missionaries by the close of 1884: he got 76. In late 1886, Taylor prayed for another 100 within a year: by November 1887, he announced 102 candidates had been accepted for service.

His leadership style and high ideals created enormous strains between the London and China councils of the CIM. London thought Taylor autocratic; Taylor said he was only doing what he thought was best for the work, and then demanded more commitment from others: “China is not to be won for Christ by quiet, ease-loving men and women,” he wrote. “The stamp of men and women we need is such as will put Jesus, China, [and] souls first and foremost in everything and at every time—even life itself must be secondary.”

Taylor’s grueling work pace, despite poor health ended in a breakdown in 1900. He also lost a wife and four of his eight children by living like the Chinese. Between his work ethic and his absolute trust in God (despite never soliciting funds, his CIM grew and prospered), he inspired thousands to forsake the comforts of the West to bring the Christian message to the vast and unknown interior of China. Though mission work in China was interrupted by the communist takeover in 1949, the CIM continues to this day under the name Overseas Missionary Fellowship (International).

More?

OMF biography 

Chinese people in Manchester take a Hudson Taylor pilgrimage.

Suggestions for action

What do you think of Taylor’s passion for evangelism? In some ways he was strikingly anticolonial. In some ways he was self-destructively obsessive. What do you do with that? What do you think God thinks of Hudson Taylor?

The Lord’s mission also ended in Jesus’ “untimely” death. Do you think we are called to imitate him in some way?

Are you aware of a people group who need to hear the truth about Jesus? Are you called to do anything about that?