". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Monday, March 28, 2011

An Incremental Kind of Weekend

It has been quite a weekend. One for the family history book, in fact. I spent most of it in Skokie, Illinois, where Trevor was making his fourth and final ever appearance at the Illinois state qualifying round of the national Denker high school chess championship. Trevor has been invited to the state round every year of his high school career. As a sophomore he won and represented Illinois at the national tournament, where he tied for fourth place. (My husband and I blogged our way through that amazing experience, which is why "Denker" has its own category in my sidebar!)

Well, history repeated itself this weekend as Trevor again won the Illinois state high school championship! Out of five games played he was the only player to score four wins, giving him a clear claim to the title, no tiebreaks necessary. Trevor will go on to represent Illinois once again at the national tournament, which will be held this year in Orlando.

I think the best word to describe this tournament is "tempestuous." It was quite a wild ride! Last year's Illinois Denker champion, junior Eric Rosen, was upset in the first round by freshman Sam Schmakel, who went on to upset Trevor in round 2. But both Eric and Trevor recovered nicely, however, and ended up playing each other in the final round. It was definitely a deja vu moment, as these two have sparred many, many times over the years. Sometimes Eric wins, sometimes Trevor, but it is always interesting! Here they are a few years back, getting ready to face off in another state championship tournament. I can't believe how little they used to be: Here they were yesterday before the final round on the top board. Some things never change, but obviously some things do. The game was quite a nail-biter. I did not watch for the first several hours. Chess makes no sense to me, so there is no point torturing myself. But finally I went back into the playing room to see how things were going. At the point I started watching, Eric had somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 minutes on his clock and Trevor had 1 minute. Yikes! (One way to lose a chess game is for your clock to tick down to nothing.) The time control for this tournament, however, also used a 30-second increment. What this means is that each time a player moves he gains 30 seconds, so if he has not used more than that amount of time to think, he will break even on time. If he has used less time than that to think, he will come out ahead. For something like an hour I watched Trevor's clock tick down as low as 25 seconds and go as high as a minute and a half as he alternately used up time and got it back. Talk about pressure! I don't know how he can stay so cool, much less how he can think in that situation. (Trevor is renowned among his peers for thinking for incredibly long periods of time and ending up in "time trouble"--short on time--at the end. Obviously, he was true to form in this game.)

As Trevor's clock was doing its manic depressive thing, Eric's clock slowly ticked down a little at a time, until he was in the 6-minute range. With the game dragging on, the tournament director joked to me, "These two players should never be allowed to play with increments." In other words, "We could be here all night." But we weren't. Finally, over four hours after the game started, Eric resigned and Trevor claimed victory. Here is a photo of the board and clock immediately following the game. It's hard to see, but I think Eric's time is 6:16 and Trevor's is :49. Phew!

Serious players rarely immediately get up from the board. There is always something to talk about, and here are Trevor and Eric doing just that.

The thing that always impresses me about chess and those who play it is the absolute passion for the game as well as the camaraderie of the players. The above picture shows the 2010 Illinois Denker champion (Eric) immediately after losing to the 2009 Illinois Denker champion (Trevor). It had to be a tough moment for Eric. Nevertheless, he smiled, congratulated his opponent, and proceeded to join that opponent in some post-game debriefing. And I know if Trevor had lost he would have done the same.

This will be Trevor's last year to play high school chess. He starts college this coming fall. We are thrilled that he will wrap up his high school chess career with another shot at the national championship. Next year we will be rooting for Eric to have that chance again during his senior year. Trevor and Eric will not play each other again in high school competition, but I have no doubt that they will play each other again. The question is only, when?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Church Supper

Each Wednesday during Lent my congregation holds a soup supper. Various groups of people--office staff, teachers, elders, etc.--take turns hosting. Tonight was the adult choir's turn, which meant that the four of us who are in the choir needed to be there to help. But even the one of us who is not in the choir did his part. His assignment? Take the water bottles out of their wrapping and "line them up neatly on the table." As you can see, he is very good at following instructions. Well done, Evan!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Perchance to Dream

Pastor Peters' post today strongly resonated with me. He writes of being told that his is a "special" congregation. Not understanding what was meant by that, he sought clarification and was provided with a list of features that he was told caused the other person to come to that conclusion. The list included things like the upholding of the liturgy, the placing of a high value on worship and music, the preaching of Law and Gospel, a functional and attractive facility, and a strong sense of mission. Pastor Peters concludes:

In the end, I find myself more and more mystified with his comment. He gets around to a lot of Lutheran (nearly all LCMS) parishes across the states and for him to suggest that our parish is "special" is less a compliment to us than, perhaps, a cause for concern about the others. For we are not extraordinary but rather ordinary. We use the hymnal, we preach the lectionary, we invest in worship as the primary activity of God's people in this place, we care about those outside our parish and our community, and we use the Confessions and Catechism as the documents that both inform and norm our parish teaching and practice. I would expect that every Lutheran parish would do so. In fact, I would hope that we are ordinary, normal, and fairly typical for Lutheran parishes out there.

I can relate to this post, not (obviously) as a pastor, but as someone who has also been told that I belong to a "special" or "exceptional" parish. It is a viewpoint I don't understand because I think if you were to ask my pastors they would say that our church is only doing what Lutherans have always done. Maybe some of the externals are different from those in some other parishes, but at the core, we are just being Lutheran. That is not to say that other solidly Lutheran churches will look exactly like ours. They won't. Each congregation has an identity that is the result of its unique gathering of souls at a particular spot on the space/time continuum. But to be Lutheran means to share certain essentials. Or it should. And being faithful to those essentials shouldn't make you "special."

More from Pastor Peters:

The more I think about it, the more this whole thing bothers me. I know that there are strange Lutheran incarnations out there but I have always believed that they were a distinct minority. My hope, prayer, and, maybe, my private illusion, is that the vast majority of Lutheran parishes were not so different from mine. I do not believe that I am more than your average Lutheran Pastor and I do not believe that we are special or unusual in all that many ways. If it is true, then it is not a compliment to me or to my parish but a cause for serious concern about the health of Lutheran congregations and their Pastors. So let me say it again. I am an ordinary Lutheran Pastor and Grace Lutheran Church is a typical Lutheran parish. Or it should be. I cannot wish for more Pastors to be like me (believe me, I know my faults and weaknesses more than most of you readers). But I do wish and pray that more Lutheran parishes would be like us in that their worship and teaching flowed seamlessly from their Confessional identity, that it was powerfully evangelical and faithfully catholic, that it was unashamedly and unabashedly Lutheran, and that it was deliberate and determined to be not only a Lutheran island where the parish is located but a Lutheran mission to shape, encourage, and live united with other Lutherans -- not as some minority splinter group but as the essential core and typical expression of our Lutheran identity within the congregation. If I am wrong, please do not tell me. Allow me this small waking dream of hope . . . .

Pastor, I don't think you're wrong. But if you are, I hope you hang on to the dream, because it's the right one, and you are not alone in praying for it to become a reality.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Love, Thus

I love it when the study of language leads to an increase of understanding.

The Gospel reading for today includes that most famous passage of John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life." The Office Hymn is Lutheran Service Book 571, "God Loved the World So That He Gave." Here's the first stanza:

God loved the world so that He gave
His only Son the lost to save,
That all who would in Him believe
Should everlasting life receive.

Note that both the reading and the hymn use the word "so." Now, I think when most people think of the word "so" we think of it as an intensifier--a type of adverb that emphasizes the degree or strength of another word. Some examples of intensifiers are "very," "extremely," "quite," "really," "hardly," and "so." Grammar handbooks generally condemn intensifiers as wasted breath and space, but that doesn't stop most of us from using them, and "so" is one of our favorites: "I'm so hungry . . . ." "She's so beautiful . . . ." "He's so smart . . . ." "That is so frustrating . . . ." "I love you so much!" So in John 3:16 and in the hymn above we may similarly interpret that "so" as a simple intensifier: "God loved the world how much? SO much."

But that's not what either the text or the hymn is saying. Because there's another use of the word "so," actually a more historical one. "So" means "thus," which means "in this or that manner or way." It's not that God loved the world so much; it's that He loved the world thus--in this manner--by giving His only begotten Son. It's not merely that His love made Him do this thing; it's that He loved us BY doing this thing. The giving of His Son is not just an expression of His love; it IS the love.

Not that my opinion matters. But I can't help wondering if a better translation of John 3:16 wouldn't be something like this:

"For this is the way God loved the world: He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life."

HT for this blog post to my husband, whose sidebar note on the hymn in our bulletin started me to thinking.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

With Boots and Singing

My husband visited a dying woman this week. She was a long-time member of our church, having belonged to our congregation for many years before we ever came. She loved music and encouraged my husband in his role as Cantor many times over the years. He relates her telling him on more than one occasion that one or more of her friends was complaining about some aspect of worship or music. She would smile at my husband, pat him on the arm, and say, "But don't worry; I set them straight."

A few days ago this saint of God went to meet her Maker. My husband was blessed to be the last visitor she had. He spent about 45 minutes with her in the nursing facility, talking to her and singing hymns ("Now Rest Beneath Night's Shadow" and "Abide With Me"), liturgy (the Nunc Dimittis), and psalmody (Psalm 121). He told me she was basically unconscious but at several times during his visit seemed to be struggling to say something and that when it came to the Doxology in the Nunc Dimittis she seemed to start singing, matching pitch a few times. Afterwards, she made a grand effort and briefly opened her eyes. Phillip got in front of her where she could see him and she tried valiantly for about half a minute to say something, whereupon she closed her eyes and then lay back very peacefully. My husband later found out that she died within 15 minutes of his departure.

This lady had struggled with her health and chronic pain for many years and her eyesight was failing (she had to use a magnifying glass with the large-print hymnal). She survived an MSRA infection about 10 years ago. She had lung cancer but she was in church as recently as two weeks ago. Her photo in the most recent church directory shows an impeccably groomed lady with a vibrant, clear-eyed, cheerful expression, tall posture, and elbows bent with chin elegantly balanced on the back of her gently folded hands. You would not know from her photo that she had been through so much.

My husband and I have seen a lot of people die or come close to death in the last few years. This is purely anecdotal, but we have been struck by a pattern in which it seems that those who continue to live to their fullest capacity, doing as much as their bodies allow them to do, are in the end taken from this world with a merciful quickness, whereas those who decide to quit this life early, in spirit at least, waiting for death to come, seem to linger on in their misery for a very long time. Last week my family and I watched a movie called Secondhand Lions. I bet many of you have seen it (we tend to be always behind the times in the movie department). It depicts two men who lived life to the full and who, when they died, died with their "boots on." They didn't stop. They didn't surrender. They went out still embracing all that life has to offer.

So did Marg. Oh, to leave this world as she did! She lived up until the very end, until she was absolutely made to stop. And then she ascended to the Father with His Word ringing in her ears. May each of us be likewise thankful for the days our Creator grants upon this earth and fortunate to depart those days in such a beautiful and blessed way.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Tree of Life

Last week I posted a video of my large, suburban Chicago congregation singing Graham Kendrick's "Shine, Jesus, Shine" accompanied by piano and brass choir. Although my church has a top-notch organ which is prominently featured in our worship services, we are also blessed with many musicians who desire to use their talents in the service of God's Word, and the Cantor tries to make full use of them.

There are many churches out there, however, who do not have either organ or organist at their disposal. Does that mean they have no recourse but to sing a cappella, or perhaps, to resort to a recorded accompaniment?

No. While I personally love a cappella singing and think it to be a worthy sacrifice of praise, I also love instrumental music and understand the desire to use it to lead and adorn corporate singing. So I am edified by this video from a Lutheran (LCMS) mission congregation outside of Detroit. The congregation is small and worship attendance numbers less than 50. They currently meet at a school, so having no building of their own, they also have no organ. That does not prevent them from singing hymns and liturgy with only the voices and instruments in their midst. You will hear on the video a lovely rendition of one of my favorite contemporary hymns, Rev. Stephen Starke's "The Tree of Life." The small "orchestra" consists of a guitar, flute, oboe and violin.

I hope you will listen, enjoy, and be blessed. You will note that the balance in the video is not ideal--the microphone was placed so that it is instrumentally heavy. You can rectify that, however, by picking up your Lutheran Service Book and singing along!

More details on the video and those behind it can be found here.

Twenty-Four and Counting

(Rerunning this post, updated, from three years ago.)

Once there was a little girl named Cheryl . . .

. . . and a little boy named Phillip.

Cheryl lived in Texas. Phillip lived in lots of places--Virginia, Malta, Maine, Nebraska--until one day, he too came to reside in the Lone Star State.

Cheryl & Phillip both loved playing the piano--so much so that they ended up majoring in music at the same school. When Cheryl was a freshman and Phil was a sophomore, they met and became friends.

Then they became more than friends. . .

. . . and the day came when they invited all their loved ones to come to a wedding! First was the rehearsal . . .

. . . then the wedding. Phew! We did it!

It was a grand day, with cake, punch, music . . .

. . . and lots of friends and family.

When the festivities were over, Cheryl and Phil made a quick getaway . . .

. . . and drove off to start their new life.

In time there was a baby . . .

. . . and another . . .

. . . and another.

Phil and Cheryl lived happily ever after, turning one year of marriage into five, ten, fifteen, twenty, and as of today, twenty-four.

Happy anniversary to the one and only love of my life, the one who completes my days, and without whom I can't imagine living. As we stand on the threshhold of the next twenty-five years, I can't wait to see what lies ahead.

"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you." (Jeremiah 29:11-12)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

And Finally, This

This is a concert version of the Kyrie Eleison that can be heard at the end of last week's "Shine, Jesus, Shine" video.

Kyrie Eleison from Cheryl on Vimeo.

And Here's Another

A little more lively than the first! My daughter is playing the claves (pronounced "klah-vays").

Cantate Brasillia! from Cheryl on Vimeo.

Cantate Domino canticum novum. (Sing to the Lord a new song,)
Cantate Domino omnis terra. (Sing to the Lord all the earth.)
Cantate Domino, et benedicte nomini ejus. (Sing to the Lord, and bless His name.)
Annuntiate de die in diem salutare ejus, (Proclaim His salvation from day to day,)
Annuntiate inter gentes gloriam ejus. (Declare His glory among the nations.)


A few years ago I wrote a blog post in which I referred to a poem entitled "Barter." The poem was written by Sara Teasdale. I mentioned how much I liked the poem but added that I think the reason I like it so much is because of the way I came to know it. It has been set to music a number of times but my favorite version is one composed by Frank K. DeWald in 2001. Below is a video of the junior high high chorus at our Lutheran day school singing this song at a choir festival yesterday. They got a first division, and you will see why! There are only 23 students in this group but they love to sing. The robust sound you hear coming from the baritone section is created by just three singers.

I hope you have time to listen to the whole song. But if not, fast forward to the last stanza. This is a young group (6th, 7th, and 8th grade), but they obviously know what they're singing about.

Here's the text:

Life has loveliness to sell,
All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
Soaring fire that sways and sings,
And children's faces looking up
Holding wonder like a cup.

Life has loveliness to sell,
Music like a curve of gold,
Scent of pine trees in the rain,
Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
And for your spirit's still delight,
Holy thoughts that star the night.

Spend all you have for loveliness,
Buy it and never count the cost;
For one white singing hour of peace
Count many a year of strife well lost,
And for a breath of ecstasy
Give all you have been, or could be.

Barter from Cheryl on Vimeo.

Monday, March 7, 2011

"And His face shone like the sun"

Yesterday at my church we joined many liturgical Christians around the world in celebrating the Feast of Transfiguration. Here's the Biblical account from yesterday's Gospel reading, Matthew 17:1-8:

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah." He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him." When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Rise, and have no fear." And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.

Following is a video of yesterday's processional hymn. Some of my confessional Lutheran friends don't like this song. We sing it once a year at my church, on Transfiguration, because it fits the theme of a radiant Jesus so very well. I post the video because I think the reason some people don't like the song has more to do with its associations and the way it is sometimes done than with the song itself. It is possible to sing the song in a churchly way, a way that keeps the focus on the object of worship and not on the worshiper. Notice that there is no drumset here, no backbeat, no amplifed songleaders standing up front, no screen, no hand clapping or arm waving. Instead there is piano and brass and congregational singing. (By the way, if you listen to the end you will hear the processional hymn followed by our junior high choir singing a 16th-century setting of the Kyrie by Leonhard Lechner.)

Procession for Transfiguration Sunday from Cheryl on Vimeo.

I thought about posting a video of how NOT to do this song, but I decided that would be counter-productive and cruel to your ears. :-)

By the way, I'm not suggesting that every church should sing this. It may not be suited to your parish. But it works well for us as a Transfiguration hymn. And while I think a church body should share the bulk of its hymnody and liturgy and have a generally uniform practice that reflects its doctrine, I also think there is room for some variance from one congregation to another. Congregations are different; the people in them are different; it is not surprising that there will be some minor differences in practice from one to the next. So just because my congregation embraces this song doesn't mean yours will, and that's okay. It also doesn't mean that my congregation is embracing Contemporary Worship or its theology, any more than our singing of a hymn with Methodist roots means we are embracing Methodism.

The new president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Rev. Matt Harrison, is proposing (and I think moving forward) with something called the "Koinonia Project" that has at its goal helping "brothers and sisters talk with each other about our theology and how our theology works out in practice" (source). I guess you can consider today's post one of my tiny little drops in the "koinonia" bucket.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Take Up Your Cross

"And he said to all, 'If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.'" - Luke 9:23-26

Christians love to make their salvation about themselves: their decision to pursue it, their choice to accept it, their works to earn it. Thus when we hear this well known passage our gut reaction is to think of the taking up of one's cross as something we do to earn God's approval--to prove ourselves to Him. We look at the ways we suffer in our everyday lives and congratulate ourselves for persevering in the face of that suffering: "See, Jesus? See? I'm suffering but I'm not giving up. I'm following you. I'm remaining faithful. Aren't you proud of me?" We are perhaps tempted to buy into the Roman Catholic view of our suffering as something we can "offer up" to Jesus, adding our suffering to His so as to help Him in his redemptive work.

Here's what Father Luther has to say about that:

"Illness, poverty, pain, and the like must not be called a cross; they are not worthy of that name. . . . This is finding the cross: to know your own self, or to know the cross. Where do you find that? In your heart. Unless you find it there the finding of it outwardly is of no avail. 'Whosoever willeth to come to me, let him take up his cross and follow me.' You must come to the point when you say, 'My Lord and my God, would that I were worthy of it.' You must be as joyful about it as were the dear saints." (Martin Luther, Day by Day We Magnify Thee, Sermons from 1527)

So much for smugly patting ourselves on the back for enduring all that this world throws at us. None of that can even qualify as a cross. "This is finding the cross: to know your own self . . . ." In other words, finding the cross is looking within and seeing the sin that is responsible for our Saviour's taking up His cross and then being brought to repentance and wanting nothing more than to follow that Saviour in the way of the cross because that is where hope, forgiveness, and new life are to be found.

Jesus doesn't ask us to take up our crosses so that we can help Him. He asks us to do it so that He can help us.