Convention or conventional?

After my cataract surgery, I was told that reading might be hard, but that I should be able watch TV.  As if that was supposed to make me feel better!  So while convalescing I caught up on Netflix and then finally slipped back into my long-held tradition (or is it betrayal) of watching the political conventions.  (My custom, engrained into me from childhood, is that I should watch both of them.)  So last night I tuned into the GOP speeches.

Quick review, because I can’t see very well to type:  The speech by Ohio’s Rob Portman was not very good–he would have been a disaster as the vice presidential candidate, as he was widely expected to be.  Mike Huckabee did well.  Then Condoleeza Rice gave an outstanding seminar on our foreign policy woes.  Followed by New Mexico governor Susana Martinez, the Hispanic woman who acquitted herself well as a rising star in the Republican party.  Finally, vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan gave an outstanding speech, showing strong promise as a campaigner, as well as an intellectual bright light.  (The vice presidential debate between him and Joe Biden should be especially fun.)

Are any of the rest of you watching the convention?  Or do you have to be laid up from an operation to do so?  What observations do you have?

Rudy Giuliani has said that Republicans have a better and deeper “bench” than the Democrats do.  Do you agree?  Who are the upcoming potential stars?   This will be a good thing to watch for in the Democratic convention also.  Who are the upcoming Democratic stars?  Are they centrists, leftists, or do they  have some new ideas?

Cataracts

Things started looking kind of blurry, so I figured it was time for some new glasses.  It turns out, I have cataracts!  I have surgery this morning.

I had assumed that they just peel the cloudy film off.  It turns out that they take out the lens inside the eye.  But then, these days, they replace it with a lens implant that actually corrects vision!  The doctor told me that after all of this is over I might not even need glasses!  Which would be for the first time since around seventh grade.  I am astounded and kind of excited about it.

The operation is reportedly no big deal to go through, nothing to worry about.  My only concern is my vision between the first surgery and when it is all over–three weeks later, they’ll do my other eye, and then it takes a few more weeks to heal and for the brain to get used to the new optic signals–so I may have some visual limitations for a month or more.

I’m thinking that after today I’ll have one really good eye, adept at distant vision, but my other eye will still be bad and my glasses will be useless.  Will I be able to read?  Fool with the computer?  Later my other eye will get a new lens for close vision and all will be well.  (Realistically, I might need glasses for reading, though those reading glasses you buy at the drug store may be all I’ll need.)  But what to do until then?

I’m pretty sure I’ll find a way to function.  I’m not supposed to do anything for a couple days after the procedure, which I’m looking forward to also, an enforced rest without guilt.  I’ll probably keep up the blog–that surely doesn’t count as “anything”–though I might have trouble seeing for a day or two.  So if I miss some days of posting, you’ll know why.

Tradition & Betrayal

Pastor Douthwaite gave a great sermon on Sunday, on Mark 7:1-13, in which Jesus chastizes the Pharisees for replacing God’s  word with the “traditions of men.”  The whole thing is very much worth reading, but I would like to focus on a curious fact that he brought out:  the Greek word translated as “tradition” is also the word translated as “betrayal.”  The verb form is paradidomi, meaning, literally handed down (as in a tradition) or handed over (as in a betrayal).  Pastor Douthwaite then plunged us into a fascinating word study, ringing the changes on all of those senses in a Law & Gospel kind of way.

He began by citing traditions we have (turkey on Thanksgiving, wedding customs), which can end up displacing the true meaning of what the traditions are supposed to be about (Turkey Day as opposed to giving thanks to God; white dresses and the bride’s perfect day as opposed to marriage as the one flesh union between a man and a woman that is an image of Christ and the Church):

Those are examples of when tradition becomes betrayal. And I put it like that because in the Bible, in the Greek of the New Testament, tradition and betrayal are the same word – paradidomi – which means to hand down or to hand over. When something is handed down (paradidomi-ed) from one generation to the next, it is a tradition. When Jesus is handed over (paradidomi-ed) by Judas, it is betrayal. And so traditions – all those things I mentioned before – are good, as long as they do not become betrayals; as long as they do not betray their original meaning and purpose. . . .

You see, because you and me are as we are – sinful and unclean – therefore, the wonderful thing God will do is Jesus. He is (literally) the tradition of God. For He was handed down (paradidomi-ed) to us, the Father handed down His Son to us, that He be handed over (paradidomi-ed) into death for us – death on the cross for our sins – that raised from the dead (for us), we who once walked in darkness (or inside-out and upside-down, as Isaiah also puts it) now live a new life in His light. Living not because of what we do, but because of what our Lord does for us. For you.

Living by what He does for you in Holy Baptism, where Jesus’ cross becomes your cross; where Jesus joins you to Himself and raises you with Himself from the death of sin to a new life in Him. In that water you were born from above to a new life with a new Father and a new heart and a new Spirit. In that water all your sins, all your betrayals, were washed away – the old is gone, behold the new has come. That’s what your Lord hands down and hands over (paradidomis) to you there.

And living by what He does for you in Holy Communion, where Jesus – on the night when He was paradidomi-ed (betrayed) – before He was paradidomi-ed first handed over (paradidomi-ed) His Body and Blood to His disciples and said: keep doing this, keep eating and drinking this, keep remembering and receiving this, for the forgiveness of your sins. That the new life and faith only your Lord can give be fed and strengthened by the food only your Lord can give. 

And living by what He does for you when you hear the Word of God – the Gospel of all that Jesus, the wonderful one, has done for you – whether it’s in the sermon or in the words of absolution or in the consolation of a fellow Christian, it is the voice of Jesus you hear, that is being handed over (paradidomi-ed) to you. Not advice, but good news. Not instruction, but the very Word of the Lord that opens the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf, that changes hearts of stone to hearts of flesh, and which has done all that for you.

That why St. Paul calls Jesus the good and perfect bridegroom who came to hand over (paradidomi) His life for His dirty, sinful bride, that she – that you and me – may be dirty and sinful no more. It’s all about what He has done, that we may be. It’s all about His cross, His death and resurrection, that we who are born dead in sin may rise with Him. It’s all about His love that we may love. It’s all about His washing that we may be clean. It’s all about His tradition that we may be traditioned; that we receive what He has come to hand down and hand over to us.

And then, having received all that, there is a new tradition, and we begin to see others, those around us – our husbands and wives, our families, our friends and neighbors – as those our Lord has handed over to us, that we not withhold or “Corban” them, but hand down to them, what we ourselves have received. For that’s what tradition is all about, isn’t it? Handing down to others what has been handed down to us. And so the care and love and forgiveness and mercy and word we have received doesn’t stop with us, but is traditioned, paradidomi-ed, handed down. That’s good tradition, right tradition, godly tradition.

And – to turn Jesus’ words around just a bit – and many such things you do. Yes, you. As a Christian. A sinner-saint, forgiven and new. Not perfectly, to be sure. Always repenting and receiving forgiveness. But in Christ, made new. In Christ, handing yourself over – traditioning yourself – for others. That they too may receive what you have received. For that is the tradition we have received from Him.

via St. Athanasius Lutheran Church: Pentecost 13 Sermon.

From playing music to collecting records

I remember when I was little–this would have been the late 1950s when television sets were still novelties–my parents would have friends over for dinner.  Afterwards, the adults would all gather around the piano, with my mother playing, and they would all sing.  I recall going through the mountain of sheet music that my mother had bought over the years.   Lots of big band and what are now labeled “standards,” but also boogie-woogie, jazz, and blues.  I should have  realized how cool she was.

Readers of old books will notice how people way back then entertained themselves home-grown concerts in the parlor.  And Patrick O’Brian
got the period detail just right, as he usually did, when he has Captain Jack Aubrey playing the violin with Stephen Maturin on cello as a way to relax before a big sea battle.  In the 19th century, people would go to concerts, but they would often take a copy of the score with them.  Through the first half of the 20th century, songwriters made most of their money not from recording royalties but from sales of sheet music, such as my mother would buy.

Charles Rosen, in Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature, points out that most classical music was written for people to play, not just to hear.   In a review, book critic Michael Dirda makes his point:

In several essays Rosen emphasizes how much of our older serious music was never meant to be presented in a concert hall. Most of the early keyboard repertoire was intended for private or semi-private delectation. “Only two of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas were played in Vienna in public during his lifetime.” Similarly, “Few members of the musical public today know that if we wish to experience Schubert’s song cycles as Schubert’s contemporaries would have heard them, we must imagine them as being sung to a few friends.” Certainly the deepest pleasure of music derives from an engagement with its making, by working through a printed score. One might argue that Bach’s “Art of Fugue” gives more satisfaction to those who play it than to those who hear it.

As Rosen stresses, up until the 20th century, many people in a concert audience would have learned a musical instrument, usually the piano, and thus might have already played the program on their own. Even symphonies were widely available in piano reductions for four hands. Such listeners were consequently grounded in an active understanding of the score. Alas, “learning to sing and learning to play the piano have been supplanted today by collecting records.” In short, a once-informed audience has gradually been displaced by those who fetishize virtuoso performances but don’t actually understand or fully appreciate the music.

via Charles Rosen, ever refining our approach to the arts of the past – The Washington Post.

I judge the superhero movies

Well, to celebrate our anniversary and to catch up with our fast-disappearing summer, my wife and I constructed a “double feature” (anyone remember those?) by seeing BOTH Spiderman and Batman:  The Dark Knight Rises on a single Saturday, with a late lunch in between.   We had a good time despite the Batman movie.

The Dark Knight Rises is pretentious, ponderous, ludicrous, and lugubrious.  It makes me miss what I thought I was tired of–namely, irony.  The movie was so serious, so full of itself, even while its main characters were putting on silly costumes.  A super-hero movie can be philosophical or angst-ridden, but it needs to have at least some element of fun.

As the Spiderman movie shows.   (Normally, one waits several weeks or months between superhero movies, so seeing them side-by-side makes the comparisons stand out.)  The best part of that movie was the part I didn’t expect to like, yet another version of the origin story.  But this time the origin made much more sense even than in the comic book (I write and criticize as a fan), picking up on the motif of interspecies genetic engineering.  What the movie did especially well was in showing high school nerd Peter Parker gradually learning about his new superpowers.  What science fiction and fantasy can do at their best is give us a sense of wonder.  Juxtaposing the spidey powers (super strength, agility, ability to climb and hang upside down and swing on webs, sticky hands and feet) with the ordinary routines of school and family life was an effective way to stimulate the imagination.  Later we get to the obligatory and conventional friend-turned-monster, but that’s all right, given the genre.

So what about any political themes in the Batman movie, as we discussed on this blog?  It does pick up on the Occupy Wallstreet threat of an uprising against the wealthy and privileged, such as millionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne living in stately Wayne Manor (to use the comic book language).  And it comes out decisively against the mob.  (The best scene was the sight of thousands of police officers coming out of the ground to restore social order.)  So the movie managed to be pro-rich, while still blaming the wealthy for  economic and social disintegration.  It presents the point of view of the wealthy-but-guilt-ridden-over-their-wealth.  That is, the new base of the Democratic party.

(That’s not why I disliked the movie.  That’s a perfectly defensible position and appropriate in many cases.  I disliked the movie for the reasons given in the second paragraph.)

The St. Ambrose Hymn Writing Contest

Who says conservative Lutherans don’t like contemporary Christian music in church?  We do.  It’s just that we want the contemporary Christian music to be, you know, hymns, as opposed to pop ditties.  And we do need new hymns.  Towards addressing that need, I am happy to announce that some twenty-somethings in our congregation, St. Athanasius Lutheran Church in Vienna, Virginia, have organized a major hymn-writing competition.  They have raised a $1,000 prize and have arranged for publication.  For details and for just learning about what the big deal is about hymns, check out the website:  St. Ambrose Hymn Writing Contest.

Here are the parameters of the contest:

The Challenge:

Many of the Gospel readings throughout the historic Church Year lack hymns which properly exposit their true sense. It is the purpose of this contest to provide profound and artistic hymns for such unaddressed pericopes (that is, a set of readings given for a certain day). Therefore, the challange of this contest is as follows: to compose a hymn which discerns and declares the meaning of the chosen lectionary texts and properly expresses the congregational response to the work of our Lord in the Word.

The Texts:

The hymn should concern itself with the following texts, with a focus on the gospel reading:

Zephaniah 1:7-16
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

The Prize:

The winner of the contest shall be awarded $1,000. The winning hymn will be publised by Liturgy Solutions, which will be granted first right-of-refusal to the hymn upon acceptance of the prize money.   The author/composer royalty to be paid by Liturgy Solutions will be 50% of all receipts from sales and any other profitable uses of the hymn (public performance for profit, radio broadcast, etc.).”

So the texts the hymn is supposed to elucidate deal with the Day of the Lord, Jesus coming back like a thief in the night, and the Parable of the Talents.

Yes, I have been asked to be one of the judges, but I will show no favoritism to the tunes of Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, or other artists that I can go on and on about on this blog.  (Well, if Bob Dylan enters the contest with a lectionary hymn, he might have an edge with me.)

But, seriously, you can use an existing hymn tune, if you like, or you can compose your own.  The words will be key.  You know those numbers at the bottom of each page in a hymnbook?  7.7.7., 8.6.8.6, 10.10.10.10.  Those are the number of syllables in each line.  That’s important to know in writing words to go with a particular tune.

Anyway, enter!  Try it.  You need not be Lutheran to win.  There is a thousand dollar prize!  The deadline is December 1.  Maybe your hymn too will be sung in future centuries.