Adagio For Three-Year Olds

For Mother’s Day I bought lawn tickets to see Itzhak Perlman perform the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in August with the Chicago Symphony at Ravinia.  Ravinia is the outdoor home of the CSO and a wonderful place to see (or just hear) a concert.  The “Ravinia Experience” for us is picnicking on the lawn as a family and getting to hear the world’s greatest musicians being accompanied by one of the world’s finer orchestras.  This is our first year back at Ravinia since 2008 and we are going twice, once also with our friends, the Magnesses.

A number of years ago, when our daughter Emily was 3 (probably 2005), we were at Ravinia when Samuel Barber’s Adagio For Strings was on the bill.  I love the work, but I had come to dread hearing it since Oliver Stone planted images of burning Vietnamese villages in my head through his movie, Platoon.  In that movie, Stone used the Barber Adagio at a point when American soldiers are leaving villages they have ransacked and set on fire for suspicion of being VC strongholds.  Such a lovely work had been coopted into my visual memory and now this wonderful work was associated with images that I would much rather not remember.

When the CSO started in with their rendition, I grabbed Emily and left the grassy area to walk up to the back of the seats and watch the orchestra.  With Emily in my arms I watched Christoph Eschenbach conduct the CSO as if he had left this temporal plane and was caught up only in the music and, for a brief time, the visual associations from the movie were not there.  Listening to the Adagio again just for the joy of listening, I found myself getting emotional.

“Daddy, why are you crying?” Emily asked.

“I don’t know.  It’s just that it’s so…so perfect,” I answered.

“I like it.  It’s beautiful” Emily answered.

(The philosopher in me was marveling at her 3 year old use of the word/philosophical concept “beauty” rather than merely “nice” or “pretty”).

It dawned on me that for her this piece had none of the visual associations it had for me.  Oh, to have the mind of a three-year old (!), less stained by the world and its utter fallenness.  I suspect this is part of the reason why children are such a blessing to us.

For me, Barber’s Adagio is a standout piece in the career of an otherwise average American composer.  I’m no fan of Samuel Barber, but his Adagio touches me at the level of the soul.  I resonate with Barber.  I feel as a person and as a pastor that I am always striving for perfection but have never attained to it.  Barber’s Adagio was one of those moments where a hard working composer got it not only right, but hit the defining work of his career, the closest to perfection he would ever get.  I don’t know if Barber ever saw the Adagio as God’s gift to him, but he should have.

Barber was not Mozart, whose easy way with composing leaves one wondering why God gifts some with talents so extraordinary that they cannot handle them.  One gets the feeling from Barber’s music that composing is not easy.  It is hard work.  Part of the reason we fail at our own attempts for perfection is that we are always striving so hard for it.  I feel that this is true for most of us in whatever vocation we find ourselves.  Our best performances in life are often unrehearsed and totally unplanned for.  If we tried any harder, we would surely mess it up.

And yet, all the world today seems to be able to tell people is “try harder.”  Productivity, productivity, productivity.  And so, many American Christian churches tell their people that as well.  It’s popular, but I must say, it has no creativity whatsoever.  It doesn’t see things the way God in His Word sees them.

The Gospel of Christianity is uniquely wired, it seems to me, toward explaining why this is true.  Just as you cannot work your way to heaven, you cannot simply set a goal of perfection, or even excellence or beauty, and attain it simply through hard work.  Even the old canard of 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration belies the truth that there can be no beauty without that 10%.  (Mind you, I am not reducing Christianity itself to a game of percentages.  “Nothing in my hand I bring…”).   There is no beauty, no joy, no perfection that is not first a gift of God.  I have nothing in my hand except that which God has placed into it.  When I lose sight of that and fall back on my own efforts, beauty, perfection, excellence, all of it goes away like so much garbage.  All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away (Isaiah 64:6 NIV).

For one moment in his career, God had uniquely blessed Samuel Barber with the composition of a work which, it seems to me, transcended his own abilities as a composer.  Beauty from above.

“God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does,” seems to sum up Luther’s teaching on good works.  God didn’t need Barber’s Adagio, but He graced a lot of people’s lives through that work and its ability to penetrate down to the core of human emotion.  Perhaps he knew how much that work would come to mean for a lot of people.  We need beauty, just as we need all those other gifts God alone can provide, the most important of which is salvation itself.  He doesn’t need you to strive for perfection for His name’s sake.  He grants you His “perfect (complete) law” in Christ Jesus (James 1:25).  He sees Christ’s perfection in you through the forgiveness of sins.  And your neighbor?  He sees that perfection (Christ) much the same way I have learned to recognize God in works of beauty like Barber’s Adagio.

Emily didn’t know what deep thoughts her little comment began in me that day.  All she knew was that it was beautiful.  Now, 8 years later, she sits at her cello and shows us beauty every day.  Yes.  She works hard at it.  She is a wonderful worker.  But those talents are a gift to her and, much like David soothing Saul with his harp, Emily brings much joy to her family through her music.  I am blessed to have a cellist in the house,  “soothing the savage beast.”  Our other children do too, but there is something about a cello.

And now I am able to listen to Barber’s Adagio and leave my visual memory in the dust.  Beauty is a gift from God, for our meditation and for our appreciation of the One who grants it.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.  (Phil. 4:8 NIV)

God grant you some beauty for your meditation and your appreciation of His good gifts.

Pastor T.

Mother’s Day

From the Synod’s WMLT Blog.  An excellent and brief posting from Rev. Dr. Ray Hartwig, Synod Secretary.  I resonate all too well with the sentiment he voices.  For all who quietly suffer on the “parents days.”

Pastor T.

Mother’s Day

This will be brief.

Certainly contrary to the intention of its founders, this has again been a painful day for many. I recognized this early on as a parish pastor, from whom was expected at least a token mention of the day–if not in the sermon, then in the announcements or while greeting worshippers after the service. While a happy and pleasant day for many women and families to be sure, I also knew it to be only a perfunctory-at-best or often painful day for others, because I knew a little about the lives of those women and families in those pews and how this day was once again resurfacing heartbreaks and opening emotional wounds that would never entirely heal.

In short, I knew as a pastor that I had to be especially well-prepared on this Sunday each year, to preach the Law without driving to despair, and to preach the Gospel in a manner that would be truly good news to all–especially those coping with a less-than-happy Mother’s Day.

We are a sinful lot, that’s for sure. But thanks be to God who has redeemed us at an amazingly great price.

Ray Hartwig

Doing The Perfect Law?

James 1 22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

Martin Luther harshly criticized the book of James in his preface to it in the German Bible as an “epistle of straw and hay.”  He wrote that he could not find Christ in it and this was why he felt the book confused salvation by works and salvation by grace through faith.

To his credit, Luther was only trying to read James through the highest principle of Biblical interpretation, the principle that Christ is the center of the Scriptures.  Still, it is possible that Luther misunderstood James.  He, like all of us, still had a sinful nature and he, unlike many of us today, would have been the first to tell you that.  (See 1 Tim. 1:12-17 for why all Christians should do this).

Perhaps I’m walking out on a limb here, but I have been wondering over the years if some of the more curious and unique phrases in James are Christ-centered in character.  Case in point, James 1:25:  But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

The terms “perfect law” and “law of liberty” are both curious and somewhat unique.  While Galatians 5 reveals a Paul who is able to connect the law and Christian liberty, the expression “law of liberty” still sounds like a stretch to the Biblically-trained ear.  What is this “perfect law/law of liberty?”

I think it’s Christ.  In fact, I am all for translating the terms with capital letters (“Perfect Law/Law of Liberty”).

One can look into the mirror of the law (vv. 23-24) all day long.  Indeed he should!  But he will soon forget what he looks like thanks to his own sin.  The mirror of the law reveals someone who looks like you and I do when we stop and stare into the mirror during a midnight run to the bathroom.  It’s not pretty.  Sin is not pretty, and yet, we are quick to forget our sinfulness in the vain attempt to suggest nothing is wrong and that we have been perfectly righteous.

But look into the Perfect Law (Christ Himself) and the images of Christ in the Scriptures come to mind.  He is the spotless Lamb of God, sinless in all His ways, the Law made perfect.

Looking into the Perfect Law in the Gospels means looking into the perfection that comes by grace, what Christ is properly speaking of when He instructs “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).  Looking into the Perfect Law means looking into the forgiveness of sins and the spotless righteousness of Christ given to us in such a precious gift.

“Looking into the perfect law” probably also means studying the mind of Christ in His interactions in the Gospels.  Christ embodies this perfection in His own behavior.  That being said, while Christ as “model of righteousness” is not the Gospel and, as such, should not be taught as a way to salvation, Christ is still a model of righteousness.  Understanding that His righteousness comes first by way of a gift, we can look to Jesus in the Scriptures as teaching us how to show this righteousness toward the Pharisees, the experts in the Law, the tax collectors, the anxious, in our own lives as well.

This explains why the “Perfect Law” is mentioned in a section that encourages Christians to be not merely hearers of the Word, but doers of it.  Christ grants the righteousness as a gift.  Christ shows the way to how we show it to our neighbor and to the world.  He is the Law made perfect.  He grants His perfect keeping of it to us.  Instead of looking at ourselves in the mirror of the law, James invites us to stare into the mirror of the Perfect Law and see Christ staring back at us.  Sounds a little bit like “dying to self” and “living for Christ.”

Does Luther miss Christ in the book of James?  Far be it from me to judge so great a theologian and Bible scholar as Martin Luther!  Still, I think it far more important for all Christians, rooted in the Scriptures, to seek Christ in them.  The one who looks into the Perfect Law, the Law of Liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing (James 1:25).

God grant you ears to hear, and the righteousness that does, His Word, the Word made flesh.

Pastor T.



Luther On Christian Love Over Against Anger

From his Sermon On Soberness And Moderation Against Gluttony And Drunkenness (1539).

In Christianity it must not happen that one person should hurt another, in the same way that the members of the body, the teeth, tongue, toes, fingers, hands, eyes, touch each other without hurting each other. It is true, of course, that even among Christians life does not go on without offenses being committed. You have only to look at husband and wife in the family. Some times a word is uttered or something is done which angers the husband or the wife. But when this is done to a neighbor, then gestures are made which make people angry and the man’s relatives Come seeking revenge and are not satisfied until the offense has been repaid tenfold. So you must have a strong love, which is best able to cover up sins.

Also consider what Solomon said: “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses” [Prov. 10:12]. This is how you should deal with your neighbor. If you do not do this, He will remove his cover. This is what Paul means when he says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” [Gal. 6:2]. But the Holy Spirit has sanctified you through faith and given you love, in order that you may bear with others. Christ has borne your sins, in order that you may bear with the sins of others.

So in worldly affairs, too; one rubs against the other. Here, too, you must not become angry and be ready to do harm. Rather be content if someone possesses the same thing you have and do not be envious. If anybody speaks against you, you say: May God forgive him. If you are a Christian, your neighbor will not make you so angry that you would do him injury. If you do, then there is no love.

Luther, M. (1999). Vol. 51: Luther’s works, vol. 51: Sermons I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.) (297–298). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Proverbs Sunday–Proverbs 1:20-33

Prov. 1  32  For the simple are killed by their turning away, and the complacency of fools destroys them; 33  but whoever listens to me will dwell secure and will be at ease, without dread of disaster.

Wisdom speaks in v. 20.  She is an equal opportunity proclaimer, which is to say she is an equal opportunity curser and blesser.  For those who will not hear her, will not regard her counsel, will trust their own ways and mechanisms, there is a curse.  For those who hear, there is security, ease, joy.  For those who do not, there is destruction and death.

The themes of Proverbs 1 strike me as very simple.  Run with God and God blesses.  Run with the world and destroy yourself in the process.

But this is not as academic as some sort of decision we make to go with God or not go with God.  Indeed, I hear a very quiet “No” to that sort of thinking in this verse.  You and I cannot decide to do that.  What comes first is not us and our answer to the question of which way will we go.  What comes first is in v. 20.

Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice.

Christ speaks first.  His words save.  They don’t bring us to make a decision.  They compel those who hear them to repentance.  V. 23:  If you turn at my reproof, behold, I will pour out my spirit to you; I will make my words known to you.  The only thing the one having a sinful nature can do is choose not to hear the Word.  If we hear, then it must be that the Word spoken first found its way into our ears.  Otherwise we are praising ourselves and not glorifying God.

He who does not have ears to hear invites destruction.  He in whom hearing is worked by the Spirit through the Word has safety, rest, and peace.  He who gave the ear is also the One who causes it to hear.

Lord, open our ears to hear your Word and to shut out the world’s noise.  In Jesus’ name, AMEN.

Proverbs Saturday–Proverbs 1:1-19

1 Cor. 2 16 “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

In our family devotions, I am starting a new series rooted in the concerns I mentioned in my last post about the loss of vocation and the fact that I have youths growing up as Christians in a world increasingly hostile to Christianity.  This series is a read-through of the Book of Proverbs in our Saturday morning and Sunday evening studies.

Of course, good Lutherans will comment that the Book of Proverbs is a lot of Law.  To them I would say, does this mean we should not read it?  I am still concerned that my children learn to read Proverbs in the light of the Gospel.  Proverbs reveals to us the mind of Christ, from its opening dictum, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” to its closing words we read the book as revealing the mind of Christ and what so often lacks in our own minds.  In short, we ask the question how does this speak to Christ, address the Gospel, and then move back to the implications for our own living as “little Christs.”

Connected also to this is a topical series I am doing at St. John’s this summer on the Mind, Body, and Spirit of Christ.  In our Bible Study, starting in June, we will be especially stressing the mind of Christ through a thorough study of the Book of Proverbs.  Because of its applicability to youths, I see the distinct possibility of this Bible Study being open to all ages.  Indeed, I encourage the idea.

So here’s what we read today and some of the thoughts in capsule form which came out of our discussion.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 1:7).  So often today the word “fear” is dumbed-down to the idea of a healthy respect for the Lord.  Nevertheless, we should probably hear that term in all its force.  After all, we do have the wrath of God to fear for the life of foolishness and our sins.  To remember every day in all our doings that our lives are lived out before the Lord is to make a beginning at true wisdom.  Christ, as Wisdom Incarnate, bore the fearful wrath of God on the cross and, thus, brings out the full force of a term we are emasculating in our day and age.  Indeed, the terms “fear” and “faith” come close to being synonyms in the Bible.

One of the purposes of the Proverbs is listed in v. 3, to receive instructions in wise dealing.  The wise person may be innocent in the Lord’s salvation, but he/she is not naive.  The Christian who hears Christ’s “Be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” should learn that a shrewd dealing with the world is an unapologetic part of our lives as Christians.  Shrewd does mean dishonest.  The term in the original language suggests a worldly wisdom that we all should have even if we are not “of the world.”

V.8 begins a section written as a loving father teaches his child.  Indeed, the suggestion here is that the father who does not teach his child does not love his child.  The father’s instruction and the mother’s teaching is gloriously described as a graceful garland for your head and pendants for your neck.  It is a treasure, but only if it is rooted in the Word of God.

The world lies in wait, enticing us with the intention of devouring us.  Solomon is emphatic that to give in is to destroy one’s self.  He is also emphatic that the world will destroy itself. Consider the words of verses 17-18:

17  For in vain is a net spread in the sight of any bird,18  but these men lie in wait for their own blood;they set an ambush for their own lives.

The converse of this argument is that the forgiven Christian is, as Paul told the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, “innocent of the blood of all men.”  Or as he stated quite forcefully in the closing words of Galatians, “Let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the wounds of Christ.”

The world is destroying itself.  As Christians, we are called to differentiate from the world’s self-destruction.  The unrighteous slip off the righteous like fried eggs off teflon.  Hey!  My own little proverb!

Lord, grant us wisdom and open our ears to the source of all true wisdom.  AMEN.

Pastor T.

“Career” And Vocation

An Excellent Book!

I had been reading Gene Veith’s God At Work recently and, while the whole book is a real gem, I found what he had to say about “finding your vocation” to be the most insightful part of the whole book.  I credit this to having two children who are now teens and one about to become one soon.  Like any parent, I’m growing more interested/concerned to see how their ideas of what they want to do with their lives are sharpening.

Of course, I just used the very language that betrays the problem with this discussion in our modern age.  The typical question of “What do YOU want to do with YOUR life?” has two problems with it.  One, vocation as it is taught in the Bible is about God’s will in the life of the Christian, not yours.  Second, this life we have is not ours; it belongs to God.  (Therein lies the whole secret of Biblical “stewardship”).

As American society has grown more and more professional, the Biblical doctrine of vocation has all but evaporated in the American church’s teaching and discussion.  The professionalism of our age seems to be tied to the basic selfishness of our age.  Morality, for instance, is declining because, as the Animals sang back in the 60s, “it’s my life and I’ll do what I want.”

The same can be said for how we talk about careers.  “What do YOU want to do with YOUR life?” reflects the same self-centered attitude that is killing our morality in society.  Moreover, it seems to me to be at least part of the reason why so many Americans are more anxious and unhappy than ever.  “You make a pretty small package when you’re all wrapped up in yourself.”  By following our own desires in morality or life in general, we seem to be forcing ourselves to be happy.  We think this actually will work.  We couldn’t be more wrong.

A number of years ago, in my earliest years as a pastor, I was invited by a brother to attend a pastors breakfast with Tony Campolo, the Christian sociologist and former “spiritual adviser” to President Clinton.  I went, even though I was not a fan of Campolo.  He was the hot thing in American Christianity at the time and I thought I would assuage my curiosity by attending the breakfast.

As a sociologist, he did have some interesting things to say.  What still sticks with me was his observation about how America had changed in the 20th century.  He mentioned that in the first half of the 20th century:

  • America was still an agricultural society.
  • Farmers were having lots of children and getting rich (cheap labor).
  • Parents would have told you that what they wanted most for their children was to be successful.

In the second half of the 20th century, Campolo stated:

  • America was moving off the farm and becoming a more professional society.
  • Family size was declining as the “nuclear family” was on the rise.
  • Parents would have told you that what they wanted most for their children was to be happy.

He then pointed out how much of an increase there has been in depression and the rise of counseling and let us draw our own conclusions as to whether or not these developments were really good for our country.

Everything in the world today is geared to ME and what I want…and we are all the unhappier for it.

I do want my kids to be happy, but what I am figuring out is that the best way for that to happen is for them to “die to self” (to borrow shamelessly from Luther) and to strive to be successful doing whatever it is that God has in store for them.

The question is not “What do I want to do with MY life?”  Instead, consider how the following questions totally reframe the discussion.

  1. To what vocation is God calling me?
  2. How will my vocation be a blessing to me and a benefit to others?

I seriously thought, when I was in high school, that I was going to be a professional musician, despite little testings which were pointing me to the ministry.  After realizing that I could go to the best music schools in the world and still not be successful, I rerouted my college plans to Concordia Wisconsin, mad at God and totally unwilling to be a pastor.

The good news is that God didn’t care how I felt at the time.  I am glad to be one of His servants, albeit reluctantly and purely by the grace of God.  Had I not matriculated the way I did, I would not have met my wife whom I love.  I would not have had my children who teach me far more than I could ever teach them.  I would never have known the joys of being Christ’s instrument in helping someone apprehend God’s grace.  In short, I’m not so sure I would ever be happy.

Indeed, because God did the calling of this reluctant soldier, I am happier than I ever would have been if I had followed my own devices.

I just thank God now that I got to learn this hard lesson earlier in life.  The Lord blesses in His ways and according to His time.  His ways are always better than ours.

We in the Church really need to get a stout teaching of vocation back.  Our unhappy society is crying for it.

Lord, have mercy…