Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Remembering Confirmation

Tis the season of Confirmation, which likely sparks memories for a lot of people who have been confirmed themselves.

As I sat through confirmation this past Sunday, I was reminded of how many details I’ve forgotten about my own big day. I remember the examination, and later standing in a line after confirmation, shaking hands with people in the congregation. But the rite itself? The sermon? The cake? The gifts?

Very fuzzy there. (Sorry, Mom. I’m sure the party was amazing.)

One thing I do remember, though: my confirmation verse, Romans 1:16.

 I heard that passage again this Sunday, as it was the chosen verse for a confirmand named Chris: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”

Or in the King James Version lodged in my memory: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.”

When my daughter Ingrid heard the verse in church, she leaned over and said, “That’s your passage.”

Funny she knows that. The verse isn’t displayed anywhere in our house—I dont even think I have a record of it—but I suppose Ive mentioned it a time or two, maybe when Ingrid was going through confirmation. Whatever the case, it’s been a favorite since it was chosen for me.

But I’ve always been curious: why that verse?

The assignment could have been random, I suppose. If you look at lists of confirmation verses, all of the passages seem like they would be fitting for pretty much everyone.

I ran this question by my husband, since he was recently in “verse-choosing” mode with our newest confirmands. He said they have lists of suggested verses on file, but he tries to find passages that are particularly fitting for individual confirmands.

“In your case,” he said, “your pastor might have given you Romans 1:16 because you were leaving Immanuel and going to a public high school.”

Ah. Makes sense.

At the end of the day, the reason probably doesn’t matter much. What’s important is the passage itself, and what it’s meant to bring to mind.

That comes through clearly when you read a comment like this one from Nancy Schneider, who identified her favorite Bible passage in an old issue of Forward in Christ (September 2002). Her favorite passage: Isaiah 43:1—Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name, you are mine.  

This was my confirmation verse back in 1957. I’m sure the Holy Spirit was guiding my pastor when he chose this verse for me because I have relied on it so many times over the years.

I’d say the same for Romans 1:16. 

ART: Konfirmationsschein der Kirchgemeinde Leipzig-Kleinzschocher, 1924 (Confirmation certificate from the Congregation at Leipzig-Kleinzschoch by Stegruen (from the private collection of Stegruen). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, April 24, 2015

Organists in Training

Here’s a story that might sound familiar: Millie, 85, has been playing the organ for her church for the past 50 years. She’s been talking about retiring, but there’s no one to replace her.

What next? Will anyone step in, or will Millie be replaced by Hymnal Plus, the digital hymn solution?

I’m not sure about Millie’s situation, but I saw a ray of hope recently when my daughter, Ingrid, asked if she could take organ lessons.

“Elizabeth and I were talking to Bev, and she said she’d teach us. I think it would be fun.”

Their organ adventure is now underway. For this month’s guest post, I asked the two students and their teacher to share a few thoughts on playing the king of instruments.

The Students: Elizabeth Lange and Ingrid Bruss

Elizabeth and Ingrid are both busy students at Topeka High School. Elizabeth, a junior, has been taking piano lessons for around 10 years, and Ingrid, a sophomore, has been studying piano for 7 years.

What got you interested in organ lessons?

E: I've always been a little interested in at least trying organ out. I think having Ingrid also want to try it, as well as Bev who was willing to start us out without being too committed—it was just the right time, and the opportunity presented itself. 

I: Organ has always been part of my life in church, so I’ve always been interested in it. A few months ago I started thinking seriously about organ lessons. Church is close, Dad’s right there, and Elizabeth is interested, as well. It’s easy here in Topeka, where it would have been hard anywhere else we’ve lived.

How have the first lessons gone?

E: So far the transition hasn’t been as bad as I thought it would be. The hardest part is reading yet a third line and playing it with your feet in addition to your hands, while trying not to look at any of them. 

I: Learning to play has been harder than I thought it would be. Piano helps some. The keyboard is the same, and reading music is the same, but there are some habits that are interfering. One thing that’s hard is there’s no pedal to sustain the notes. With the organ, you have to hold down a key, or the sound will disappear. You can use the pedal for that in piano. Also, with piano, you use more wrist motion—with the organ, your fingers have to do more work.

What are your goals with organ?

E: For now my goals are to just see if I like the organ enough to continue. If I do continue I could see myself using it as a side job in a church to keep it up and to stay involved with music as well as the church. 

I: I’d like to be able to know enough to play a hymn or some other piece. I’m not sure about playing for church. I’m not really an accompaniest type—I'm more comfortable playing in concerts and recitals.

But if there was a need…maybe.

Bev, Elizabeth, and Ingrid at the first lesson
The Teacher: Bev Sparks

Bev recently joined St. John’s Lutheran, where she regularly contributes her organ talents.

When did you start learning the organ?

I started when I was 17. Two high school friends asked me to play for their weddings. We had exceptional organists, but they wanted me to play and I was honored to be asked. I used music that had really simple pedal parts or just played the keyboard parts. I’ve been playing the organ now for just over 40 years and have significantly improved with practice.

What inspired you to teach?

I was inspired to teach because two young ladies approached me and asked me if I would teach them. I was delighted they were interested and felt that they were really serious about wanting to learn. I also liked that they approached me and not their parents so I knew they weren't being pushed into it. Motivation is an important ingredient for learning the instrument.

How long does it take to be able to play a piece in church? To do a whole service?

Anyone who is technically skilled on the piano can play for a service on the organ after about a month of consistent practice at a very basic level. The touch of the keyboard is different but is easy to learn with a weekly practice session. There are degrees of technical skill needed to play for a service. A high order service will require not only technical skill for the hymns and other musical selections but also the ability to think and react “on the fly.” The first church I ever played for regularly had a small electronic organ and they were just happy to have someone who could read music, play hymns and liturgy. I obtained a lot of valuable experience playing there.  

Beyond the keyboard skill, playing for a service requires leading the congregation and not following them. The congregation is always singing just a little behind the organ. But the accomplished organist doesn’t slow down to let them catch up but keeps playing at the appropriate tempo and leads the congregation on.

Today, I always practice before playing for a divine service or matins. I look over the hymns and give thought to musical expression of the hymns to enhance the worship experience. I go over psalmodies several times to make sure the rhythm is correct. I think about and select any music needed before or during the service and try to make selections to fit the theme. I read through the assigned scripture to further understand the the theme for the Sunday. Because I was always a part-time organist, I think it took me about 10 years to reach a more advanced skill level for leading worship.

At this point in my life, I am happy to say that I continue to advance in several area:  difficulty of music played, hymn improvisations, ad lib playing, and yes.....teaching.  I am truly blessed to be able to play on a magnificent pipe organ and fulfill the dreams of a young lady who really listened to the music being played in Emma, MO many years ago.

To all the church organists (and other musicians) out there, THANK YOU! And to budding organists, hang in there. We need you.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Making the Familiar Unfamiliar: Chesterton’s Everlasting Man

A couple of months ago, I ran across the following quotation from English writer G. K. Chesterton: “Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”

So true. And so well-said, isn’t it?

I understand why Chesteron’s Orthodoxy is typically included in lists like the Huffington Post’s “25 Books Every Christian Should Read.”  The quotation I mentioned, though, isn’t from Orthodoxy. Rather, it’s from a book called The Everlasting Man (1925), which is another of Chesterton’s works on Christian apologetics.

It’s a good book. But don’t just take my word for it. C. S. Lewis, in one of his letters, described The Everlasting Man as “the best popular apologetic I know.”

The book, which is in part a response to H. G. Wells’ The Outline of History, describes the unique spiritual journey of humankind, focusing in particular on the central role of Christ incarnate—the Everlasting Man—in that journey.

Its filled with sharp, imaginative, witty insights—so many that I had to abandon my original plan for this post, which was to compile a list of “Top 10 Quotable Quotes” from the book. After highlighting over half of the introduction, I realized that wouldn’t work.

Instead, I’ve opted for the more moderate task of highlighting just a few quotations—not a top 10, but a few memorable lines that convey the spirit of the book (and of the writer). All quotations are from the Kindle Edition of The Everlasting Man, Angelico Press.


It is the contention of these pages that while the best judge of Christianity is a Christian, the next best judge would be something more like a Confucian. The worst judge of all is the man now most ready with his judgements; the ill-educated Christian turning gradually into the ill-tempered agnostic, entangled in the end of a feud of which he never understood the beginning, blighted with a sort of hereditary boredom with he knows not what, and already weary of hearing what he has never heard. (p. 4)


I cannot imagine how he [H. G. Wells] can possibly know that the prehistoric ruler was called the Old Man or that court etiquette requires it to be spelt with capital letters. He says of the same potentate, ‘No one was allowed to touch his spear or to sit in his seat.’ I have difficulty in believing that anybody has dug up a prehistoric spear with a prehistoric label, ‘Visitors are Requested not to Touch,’ or a complete throne with the inscription, ‘Reserved for the Old Man.’ (p. 46)

Because I wish I could write/think like this:

They [Darwinians] talk of searching for the habits and habitat of the Missing Link; as if one were to talk of being on friendly terms with the gap in a narrative or the hole in an argument, of taking a walk with a non-sequitur or dining with an undistributed middle. (p. 32)

Theologically powerful:

A mass of legend and literature , which increases and will never end, has repeated and rung the changes on that single paradox; that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle. Upon this paradox, we might almost say upon this jest, all the literature of our faith is founded. (p. 145)

Makes me think:

I must try to imagine what would happen to a man who did really read the story of Christ as the story of a man; and even of a man of whom he had never heard before. And I wish to point out that a really impartial reading of that kind would lead, if not immediately to belief, at least to a bewilderment of which there is really no solution except in belief. (p. 160)

And just one more: In the introduction of the book, Chesterton says: “It is almost impossible to make the facts vivid, because the facts are familiar; and for fallen men it is often true that familiarity is fatigue (p. 10).

If you’re looking for an original defense of a familiar story, The Everlasting Man is a very good bet.

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Friday Figure: Isocolon

Time for a quiz! Can you complete these statements?

“I came, I saw, . . .”

“government of the people, by the people, . . .”

“conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, . . .”

These are all examples of the figure of the month, isocolon (and more specifically, tricolon, but we’ll get to that in a minute).

Isocolon, from the Greek isos (“equal”) + kōlon (“member”) features a series of clauses or phrases roughly equal in length and parallel in structure. The figure creates a sense of rhythm that makes ideas memorable, as in this example from Aristotle’s Rhetoric (3.9; 1410a): “Some of them miserably perished, and others were shamefully saved.”

The number of members in an isocolon can vary. A bicolon (like Aristotle’s example) has two parallel elements, a tricolon has three, and a tetracolon has four. Here are examples of each:

Bicolon: lex orandi lex credendi (“the law of praying is the law of believing”)
Tricolon: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” (Rom. 12:12)
Tetracolon: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Cor. 13:7)

Isocola (or isocolons; both are acceptable plurals) can also stretch beyond four elements. The apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, for example, contains several examples that are longer, including this comment about gifts of grace:

Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in his generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (Rom. 12:6-8).

Isocolon works well in varied forms, but tricolons are particularly appealing, maybe because of that old Latin phrase omne trium perfectum: “everything that comes in threes is perfect.” (Kind of like the Holy Trinity, no?)

If ever there were a perfect isocolon, it may well be veni, vidi, vici (“I came, I saw, I conquered”). Perfectly parallel in length, perfect in number.

I flipped through the pages of Luther’s Small Catechism, and the 3s came tumbling out. We should fear, love, and trust in God. Pray, praise, and give thanks. Acknowledge Christ’s righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. Beware of sin, death, and the power of the devil.

You can no doubt think of other examples of the “Rule of 3” at work (and not just in the realms of religion and rhetoric).

In the meantime, here’s a tricolon challenge for you. Can you name the source (speaker/text) of the following examples? Hint: The speakers are all American presidents. (You can click the links to check your answers.)

“Our nation, this generation, will lift the dark threat of violence from our people and our future. We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.”
With malice toward none; with charity for all; withfirmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in . . .”
“The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed on from generation to generation:  the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Good Sermon: Originality Required?

If your church follows the historic One-Year Lectionary, you’ll hear the following readings on the Third Sunday in Easter:

First Reading: Ezek. 34:11-16 (“I myself will search for my sheep…”)
Psalm: Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my Shepherd…”)
Epistle: 1 Peter 2:21-25 (verse 25: “For you were straying like sheep…”)
Gospel: John 10:11-16 (“I am the good shepherd.”)

Churchgoers: how many sermons have you heard on the Good Shepherd? Pastors: how many times have you prepared a sermon on this theme?

The One-Year Lectionary, with its annual repetition of core texts, provides a strong sense of structure to the church year, but it also creates a significant preaching challenge in terms of invention. 

The topic is assigned. It’s important. Hearers are already familiar with it (oftentimes very familiar).

How important is originality?

If we were talking solely about public speaking, the answer would be “very important,” a perspective that has ancient roots. Here, for example, are the words of Isocrates, a well-known Athenian rhetorician (436-338 B.C.) and rival of Plato:

He is accounted most skilled in [the art of speaking] who speaks in a manner worthy of his subject and yet is able to discover in it topics which are nowise the same as those used by others. [. . .] Oratory is good only if it has the qualities of fitness for the occasion, propriety of style, and originality of treatment.” (Against the Sophists 13, trans. G. Norlin)

When it comes to speeches, listeners don’t want to hear the “same old, same old” topics, examples, and arguments. But is preaching different?

Here’s one viewpoint from The Lutheran Observer—an old periodical described as “A Religious Family Paper.” In an article called “Preaching—Difficulties and Methods” (October 14, 1904; p. 1324), the editor reports the words of Bishop James Welldon of the Church of England, who points out two challenges preachers face.

The first challenge: Familiarity/indifference

From the editor: “The first [difficulty] is the familiarity with the gospel on the part of church-goers—not the familiarity of deep personal piety, but that which tends to beget indifference—familiarity with the letter of the message. From Bishop Welldon: “No doubt there have been times when the gospel came to men as something new. It was so, of course, in apostolic days. It has been so when an age of religious enthusiasm has succeeded an age of religious indifference. Luther and the other great reformers arrested attention as much by the novelty as by the fervor of their convictions. Wesley and Whitefield, in the era of Methodist revival, enjoyed the advantage of preaching the terrors of the law and promises of the gospel to people who welcomed the message as strange and startling, something which they had never heard before or had wholly forgotten.”

The second challenge: Frequency of preaching

From Bishop Welldon: “Not the most richly endowed of human beings could preach well as often as the most ordinary clergyman is, in modern times, expected to speak.” The editor’s follow-up: “This is an aspect of the matter that is often lost sight of by hearers in their remorseless demand for freshness, variety, originality in the pulpit.”

Thus said clergy in 1904. How have things changed, if at all, in the past 111 years?

Whatever the answer to this question, I’m actually surprised that, given the constraints, I’m NOT walking away every Sunday saying, “Sin and grace, sin and grace. So predictable!”

This is likely due, in part, to the fact that pastors (in my experience) do value originality and work hard to discover new insights about the texts on which they’re preaching. This effort, I’d guess, is not so much about displaying rhetorical creativity as it is doing justice to the topic and adapting to hearers, who tend to pay more attention to novel ideas.

Acts 17:19-21. Hearers love what's new and different

Circumstances change from year to year, too. Our daily concerns are different, life circumstances are different, world events are different. Our spiritual situations may even be different.

All of these factors can make old messages sound new.

Not that those messages need to be new. The “same old, same old” message is exactly what we need to hear, every week.

I don’t even remember what I heard last year about the Good Shepherd, but I’m betting it had everything to do with sin and grace.

If I hear the same thing this year—good sermon.

ART: Good Shepherd by Bernhard Plockhorst [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons