Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Review: "Uncertain Times: Martin Luther's Remedies for the Soul"

From the October 20 Sounds of St. Francis

Designing an exhibition to commemorate the Reformation’s 500th anniversary is a fairly heroic task for any gallery.  Far more art was destroyed than created in the sixteenth century in those European lands that embraced the teachings of Luther, Calvin and Cranmer.  But the Walters Art Gallery has made a humble but probing attempt in its single-room exhibition, “Uncertain Times: Martin Luther’s Remedies for the Soul,” on display until October 29 at the museum in downtown Baltimore.

Fittingly, many of the most significant pieces on display are not paintings, but books.  The personal prayer book of Luther’s close associate Philip Melanchthon is there, worn from heavy use, annotated in the margins.  There’s a handsome early edition of Luther’s Tabletalk, the collection of theological rejoinders and moral advice dispensed by the aged master in his later years over the daily bread and beer, carefully recorded by his students.

Words are also the medium of a mesmerizing eighteenth century German folk art piece featured centrally in the exhibition.  The anonymous artist has scripted the many lines of Luther’s Small Catechism as a globe around the rose and cross of Luther’s coat of arms, a loyal tribute to the way in which the theologian has most often been encountered across the centuries—in this careful summary of Reformation teaching, written to be memorized by children as they prepared for their confirmations.

Monday, October 16, 2017

He Remembers We Are But Dust

Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves;
they have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them.  Exodus 34:7-8

Last week, the University of Chicago’s Richard Thaler was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics.  Thaler will go down in history as the man who slew homo economicus

If it’s been awhile since Econ.101, you might not remember that homo economicus was that mysterious creature that sprung fully formed from the brain of classical economists: the person who made all his decisions based on careful calculation and enlightened self-interest.  Homo economicus would plan carefully for retirement by setting aside savings early to benefit from compound interest.  If the price of gasoline dropped, he would use the discount in other areas of life instead of buying more expensive gasoline. He will value his own possessions accurately and sell them if there is an opportunity for gains. 

Richard Thaler suspected that many people were not quite so logical.  So he started asking them, conducting studies.  What he found is that people are predictably irrational about their economic decisions.  They make different choices when they are afraid, or when they have developed attachments.  They maintain habits even when they are destructive. They spring for the quick pleasure and ignore the long term need.

Human beings are not as strong, wise or noble as economists had expected they were.  

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Abundance and Want

From the Sounds of St. Francis, 12 October, 2017
We are now into the third week of Stewardship-Tide at Saint Francis, when we are asking you to consider your financial support for the ministry of our parish in 2018.  Our vestry will also need to decide on a pledge in the next few months, how much we plan to contribute to the ministry of our diocese in the coming year. With God’s help, both pledges will increase, so that together we may all be more faithful and effective in serving Christ and sharing His Gospel.  

The pledge we make to the diocese, like the gift you make to Saint Francis, testifies to the fact that our faith is communal, that a relationship with Jesus draws us into mutual dependence on other brothers and sisters.  Because we follow the apostolic model of church governance, we must have a bishop, our chief teacher and minister of those sacraments that connect us with the universal body of believers.  Our gift to the diocese first supports her ministry.  

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Strip his sleeve and show his scars

“I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.”  Galatians 6:17

Like a number of you, Allison and I have been watching the recent Ken Burns series about the Vietnam War.  Like so many of his other documentaries, it carefully weaves together the story of that troubled era, placing each major leader and event in its proper place.  It also has that human touch that marks Burns’ storytelling, breaking the wide narrative to focus on the experiences of ordinary people who patrolled the jungles, marched in protest and captured it all behind the lens of a camera.  

In his Civil War epic, Burns was restricted to diaries and letters, but for this series, he and his crew interviewed dozens of people, American and Vietnamese, about what they had seen and felt.   It was striking how vividly these men and women could recall the events of a half century ago: the sounds of exploding shells, the feel of boots sloughing through the rice paddies.  Several of them pulled up a pantleg or unbuttoned a shirt to reveal the traces of old wounds.  I can remember that day because I see it every day. I am marked forever.  

My mind goes immediately to King Henry’s words in the English camp before the Battle of Agincourt:
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Ponder: the majesty of the God of the immaculate present

"The modern no longer knows what a throne is, how one sits on a throne, how one thrones.  Looking back, we encounter the mighty throning depicted in Egyptian sculpture.  We find it again in early Greek art, and (Christianized) in the mosaics of the first Christian centuries and in the stone figures of the opening middle ages.  Then it vanishes.  Personages no longer throne--they merely sit.  And even the sitting becomes more and more restless.  The ancient throning was not stiff--its movement lay in the potential power of the figure, in its stillness, intensity...Sitting has become careless, a flighty interim between coming and going.  Something at the root of our lives has changed.
When we ask a man today what he considers life, the answer will always be more or less the same: Life is tension, flinging oneself toward a goal; it is creation and destruction and new creation.  It is that which rushes and foments, streams and storms.  Thus the modern finds it difficult to realize that also the omnipresent present is life; intensity of gathered forces; powers that vibrate in stillness.
When he considers God, he thinks of the restlessly creative one.  Indeed, he is inclined to see the Maker himself in an unending process of becoming that arches from an infinitely distant past to an infinitely distant future.  The God of the pure present, immutable, realizing himself in the reality of his existence, does not appeal to him.  And when he hears of an eternal life in which all meaning is to fulfill itself, he is likely to grow uncomfortable: what does one do with an existence in which 'nothing happens'?  The throne stands for the majesty of the God of the immaculate present.  It stands for him who lives in eternal stillness, who in all the timeless simplicity of his will created, sustains, and reigns over all things.  Before his countenance, earthly toil and struggle is but passageway, and their claim to be genuine life superlative nonsense."

Romano Guardini, The Lord (1954), 487-488

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

In Remembrance

“This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord.”
Exodus 12:14

The Exodus story is one of the Bible’s most vivid and dramatic narratives.  The wickedness of Pharaoh, the steadfast courage of Moses, the horrors of the plagues, the spectacle of the the Red Sea’s high waves, frozen in place—they almost seem, to us to demand a screenplay.  There have been plenty of Exodus movies, from Cecil DeMille’s great 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, to the animated Prince of Egypt, a favorite in our household.  Earlier this week, I asked my sons if they knew about the ten plagues, and was very impressed when they could reel off all ten of them.  “Did you cover that in Sunday School?” I asked.  “No dad,” came the response—"it’s in the movie.”

I didn’t ask them if they had been reading about the Exodus directly from the Bible. But if they had tried, they would have found a story paced quite differently from any film I’ve seen.[1]  It’s not that the filmmakers need to invent lots of episodes.  All the powerful stuff comes right off the pages.  It’s that they usually leave out much of what the Book of Exodus actually says. 

Friday, September 8, 2017

Ponder: "whatever you are drawn to in following God's will"

"A brother asked a hermit, “Tell me something good that I may do it and live by it.” The hermit said, “God alone knows what is good. But I have heard that one of the hermits asked the great Nesteros, who was a friend of Antony, ‘What good work shall I do?’ and he replied, ‘Surely all works please God equally? Scripture says, Abraham was hospitable and God was with him; Elijah loved quiet and God was with him; David was humble and God was with him.’ So whatever you find you are drawn to in following God’s will, do it and let your heart be at peace."
From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, qtd. in Stephen Freeman, "Having then Gifts Differing."  (2010)