Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Stories in Stained Glass

On any given Sunday in church, I might see a kingly lion stabbing an alligator through the head, or a wolf writing the name of Jesus, or maybe a hen, sitting on a cluster of eggs.

Such are the images captured in stained glass around St. John’s. We have 28 large windows  surrounding us on all sides, and every one tells a different story (or maybe more precisely, they tell a different piece of a larger story).

The windows are beautiful, yes, but more importantly, theyre educational. They’re also rhetorical. There’s a message in those window, and that message becomes more detailed and persuasive with every Google search for a name or symbol.

On the pulpit side of the church, there are 10 windows featuring the following cast of characters:
Noah, 3000 BC
Abraham, 1870 BC
Apostles, 30
Martyrs, 100-300
Polycarp, 270 (Hmm…Polycarp died in 155)
Constantine, 325
Ulfilas, 341
Martin (of Tours), 400
Hus, 1450
Huguenots, 1572
Some of these figures are obvious enough, like Noah and the martyrs. But Ulfilas? (If you know who Ulfilas is, I’m thoroughly impressed by your knowledge of the history of Christianity.)

Ulfilas (also Wulfilas, “little wolf”) is the wolf I mentioned earlier, who is pictured writing the name of Jesus on a scroll. He’s important primarily for his work as a missionary to the Goths. As part of his effort to spread Christianity, Ulfilas translated the Bible into Gothic with the help of a Gothic alphabet he created. (Interestingly, Ulfilas also espoused the “Arian heresy,” which denies the divinity of Christ.)

On the lectern side of the church, the story continues, represented by the following figures:

Luther, 1517
Gustav Adolf, 1632 (the king spearing the alligator)
Francke, 1727
Muhlenberg, 1787
Saxons, 1838
Wyneken, 1876
Walther, 1887
Pieper, 1931
Here, too, we have a mix of familiar and maybe not so familiar names as the story moves from the Reformation to American Lutheranism.

Luther, the Reformer? Yes.

Walther, first president of the Missouri Synod? Check.

Muhlenberg? Well, I know there’s a college called Muhlenberg, but there has to be more of a story about that little guy in the window, riding a horse.

And indeed there is. Muhlenberg, a German Lutheran pastor sent to Pennsylvania, is credited with starting the Lutheran Church in America; he is thus known as the “Patriarch of American Lutherans.”

Fascinating stuff, in every window. And when those stories come together, the message is clear:

Christianity has been around for a long time. It has marched on in the face of persection (e.g., apostles, martyrs, Saxons), language barriers (e.g., Ulfilas, Luther), war (Huguenots, Gustav Adolph), and uncertainty (e.g., Muhlenberg).

The stained glass version of the story at St. Johns ends, symbolically, in 1931, but the faith marches on.

And it will keep marching, with God’s help.

In the words of Lutheran hymnwriter Paul Gerhardt:

If God Himself be for me,
I may a host defy;
For when I pray, before me
My foes confounded, fly.
If Christ, my head and master,
Befriend me from above,
What foe or what disaster
Can drive me from His love? (LSB 724)
Is it any surprise that Gerhardt, too, is in stained glass at St. Johns? 

* A note on the window count: Those who have seen St. John's may be thinking, "28 windows?" Its 28 by my count, but what I count as 10 windows, others may count as 5 two-panel windows. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Book of the Month: Living By Faith

Today’s post from A.Word.A.Day (Wordsmith.org) includes this “Thought for the Day, from writer Richard Bach: Its like, at the end, theres this surprise quiz: Am I proud of me? I gave my life to become the person I am right now. Was it worth what I paid?

Hmm. That’s one perspective on life, anyway.

The Lutheran view is very different, as Oswald Bayer explains in the book of the month, Living by Faith: Justification and Sanctification (2003). The book is short (86 pp.), but it’s packed with weighty, important ideas (as well as straightforward reminders of things worth hearing again and again). 


I wasn’t sure Id like the book, initially. I’m not a big fan of philosophy, so when I hit chapter 2, with its overview of the ideas of Hegel, Adorno, Kant, and Marcuse, I was concerned that the entire book would be filled with observations like this:
Although with an anti-metaphysical intention, the negative is again reshaped into a metaphysic. It is shaped into the concept of the “deepest essence” of total negativity that is antitypical to a “highest essence.” (p. 12)
While the book IS philosophical, it’s also pretty accessible. In the chapter “Faith Comes by Hearing,” for example, Bayer talks about the hymn “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice” calling it “the most telling and appropriate confession of the triune God that I know.” If you know the hymn, Bayer’s claim will resonate, especially if you can recall all ten verses. (And if you can’t, no problem; Bayer includes them in the book.)

Here’s verse 8:  
“Though he will shed my precious blood,
Of life me thus bereaving,
All this I suffer for your good;
Be steadfast and believing,
Life will from death the vict’ry win;
My innocence shall bear your sin;
And you are blest forever.
That’s justification in a nutshell, and a sharp contrast to the aforementioned “Thought of the Day,” isnt it?

Put simply, it’s not what I do for myself; it’s what God has done for me.

Faith is about believing that message, believing in God’s promises. According to Bayer,
Faith orients itself to the ultimate goal, the resurrection of the dead and eternal life, and in so doing it relies only upon the one who justifies the ungodly. First and last it is “a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake his life on it.” (p. 33)
Bayer reinforces teachings like these throughout Living by Faith, drawing heavily on the writings of Luther (as in the previous quotation). That alone makes the book worthwhile, but what really stood out for me is the unique framework in which Bayer locates the question of justification.

When I think about justification, I usually think of it as a defining characteristic of the faith, consistent with Luther’s words in the Small Catechism:
Why must we firmly hold to this teaching of justification by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith? 
We must firmly hold to this teaching because A. it is the most important doctrine of the Christian religion; B. it distinguishes the Christian religion from false religions, all of which teach salvation by works. (ESV, p. 167) 
This view is accurate, but justification, as Bayer argues, is a much more expansive concept, “neither merely an event in the interior of the believer nor one among many ways to express what the Christian faith is about” (xiv). It encompasses the creation and the last days and everything in between (including the philosophical arguments detailed in the book).

Our very existence, Bayer points out, involves questions about justification: “I am constantly trying to ascertain others’ judgment about me and my own judgment of myself; I arrive at some point of calm, and then become unsure of myself again” (p. 3).

Our justification by grace counters all of that. In Bayer’s words,“The passive righteousness of faith tells us: You do not concern yourself at all! In that God does what is decisive in us, we may live outside ourselves and solely in him” (p. 25).

Bayer calls this the “gift of self-forgetfulness.”

Nice. Gems like this more than justify that march through chapter 2.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Friday Figure: Litotes

Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (1963) tops the list of 100 most significant American speeches of the 20th century. (For the full list, check out AmericanRhetoric.com).
Beyond its political significance, the speech is a stylistic masterpiece, full of figured language.

There’s anaphora (“I have a dream…”). Metaphor (“America has defaulted on this promissory note”). Antithesis (“every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low…”). Isocolon (“to work together, to pray together, to struggle together…”).

The speech even features this month’s Friday Figure: litotes.

The name may not ring a bell, but the form is no doubt familiar. I’m betting you speak in litotes (LIE-toe-teez or lie-TOE-teez) yourself, at times when “going negative” makes sense.

Litotes (Gk. litot─ôs, “plainness, simplicity”) is a form of understatement in which you express a thought by negating its opposite.

In “I Have a Dream,” for instance, King says, “I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations.”

Not unmindful = mindful, well aware.

So why not just say “mindful?”

Using the negated form of an idea often has the effect of emphasis, as in the King example. Paul’s statement in Acts, included in the image above, also falls into this category: “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no obscure city.”

While emphasis is a major function of litotes, the figure can also be used to soften statements in the interest of kindness (e.g., “he’s not unattractive”; she’s not the sharpest tool in the shed”) or for expressing an quality that’s somewhere between two ends of a spectrum (e.g., not infrequent; not uncommon; not unlikely, not without risk, no small thing, not bad).

The meaning of litotes sometimes varies depending on context and tone of voice. Consider, for instance, “not bad.” You might read a book or watch a show that’s not great but not a complete waste of time and say, “Not bad.” On the other hand, your sister might call you and tell you she’s been offered her dream job with a $50,000 signing bonus, and you might say, “Not bad!”  

Here are a few examples from the Bible. What’s the effect of expressing these ideas in the negative?
Jer. 30:19—I will multiply them, and they shall not be few; I will make them honored, and they shall not be small.
John 6:37—All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.
Acts 14:28—And they remained no little time with the disciples.
Acts 15:2—And after Paul and Barnabus had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabus and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.
1 Cor. 15:10—But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.
Heb. 6:10—For God is not unjust in so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do.
And a curiosity question: Is it still litotes if the negative expression is followed by its positive counterpart?
 Isaiah 55:11—So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose.
Matt. 6:13—And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.