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Music Notes for Worship

One of the good things that has happened because COVID changed the way we worship at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia, is the weekly Music Notes that our music director shares. She had been sharing them with the choir, but more recently has also shared them with the church community. When you read the notes you recognize how seriously Dr. Mary McKee takes choosing music for each worship service. The music is not the main thing, but it has to relate and enhance the worship.

Here are the notes for this week:

Two organ preludes will begin at 9:55 a.m.  The first is an arrangement by Lani Smith of “For All the Saints” which will be sung as the opening hymn. The original hymn tune is by one of England’s most acclaimed composers, Ralph Vaughan-Williams.  In Sunday’s arrangement it is presented three times, each time with a more elaborate accompaniment. The second prelude is an arrangement by John M. Rasley of “Evan” by W. H. Havergal.  For those familiar with the hymn, Rasley keeps every note of the tune but alters the rhythm making it almost unrecognizable yet creates a piece that beautifully sets the tone on a Sunday when we remember those who have died.

After Gene sings the first hymn, “For All the Saints,” he will next sing “Psalm 84” adapted by David G. Preston and recommended by Diane Tracy.  The Irish tune, “Londonderry Air”  will be familiar and an enchanting setting for the psalm which begins “O Lord of hosts, how lovely is Your dwelling place.” 

After the sermon, Ben Cork will play Adagio from Sonata No. 1 in G Minor by J. S. Bach, one of three sonatas for unaccompanied solo violin in which Bach explores and expands the limits of the violin while taking the listener on a spiritual journey.  Ben, originally from Atlanta, is in his final year at Georgia Southern University pursuing a BA in Music Performance. He is the concert master of the Georgia Southern Symphony and the first violinist of the Honors Magnolia String Quartet. He teaches violin and viola to middle and high school students in Brunswick as well as to all ages in the Statesboro area.

During communion, a piece for piano and violin will be played titled “Spiegel im Spiegel” by Arvo Pärt which means “mirror in the mirror,” an infinity mirror in which images reflect unto each mirror and become smaller and smaller into infinity. Pärt employs his own compositional creation called tintinnabulation in which there are two simultaneous voices, the first in the piano that plays tonic triads meditatively throughout the piece and the second voice in the violin that plays fragments of slow scales. Pärt defines tintinnabulation as “an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers – in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises – and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this. . . . The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation.”

The closing hymn is “Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ,” words by Fred Kaan and music of a Jamaican folk melody. Kaan, who died in 2009, was from the Netherlands and committed to working for peace and justice.  A phrase in the first verse sums up the music and message after communion, “reaching out with a shout of joy.”

The postlude, “Light Eternal” by Lani Smith carries on the spirit of hope and joy from the final hymn and the message of eternal light that lives on in death.

Conversion Means Change

A final entry about the book Disturbing the Peace:

I’ve heard that you converted to Catholicism. If this is true, does it mean that you’ve had that mystical experience which you refer to in your letters from prison as the probably condition of inner conversion?

It depends how we understand conversion. As I understand it I would prefer to say no, I haven’t converted. I have certainly not become a practicing Catholic: I don’t go to church regularly, I haven’t been to confession (I mean the institutional variety) since childhood. I don’t pray and I don’t cross myself when I am in church. I took part in secret masses in prison, but I did not take communion. There are some things that I have felt since childhood: that there is a great mystery above me which is the focus of all meaning and the highest moral authority; that the event called the “world” has a deeper order and meaning, and therefore is more than just a cluster of improbably accidents; that in my own life I am reaching for something that goes far beyond me and the horizon of the world that I know; that in everything that I do I touch eternity in a strange way. But I never gave any of this any coherent thought until I was in prison, where I tried to describe and analyze my fundamental experience of the world and myself.
But that doesn’t mean that I’ve changed—and conversion, after all, means change…genuine conversion, as I understand it, would mean replacing an uncertain “something” with an completely unambiguous personal God, and fully, inwardly, to accept Christ as the Son of God, along with everything that that entails, including the liturgy. And I have not taken that step. I’m no longer so certain I have to have that mystical experience: some deeply devout friends of mine tell me they had no such experience, nor had any need of it for their faith or conversion.
Whatever the case may be, I consider myself a believer only in the sense in which I used the word in my letters: I believe that all of this—life and the universe—is not just “in and of itself.” I believe that nothing disappears forever, and less so our deeds, which is why I believe that it makes sense to try to do something in life, something more than that which will bring one obvious returns. But a lot of people could fit inside a faith so defined, and I don’t suppose it would be responsible (and not even most progressive theologians do it) to consider all such people believing Christians. I can try to live in the spirit of Christian morality (not very successfully it’s true), but that doesn’t mean I’m a genuinely believing Christian. I’m just not certain that Christ is the Son of God, and a god-man, not just figuratively (as a kind of archetype man), but in the profound and binding way that it holds true for a Christian.

This interview occurred in 1986.  Havel had a better grasp on the meaning of Christianity than many Christians and “progressive theologians” in 2020.  I pray he did come to believe.  This segment of the interview reminded me of the poem, “The Hound of Heaven”, and of C. S. Lewis speaking of the “unrelenting approach” of God in Surprised by Joy.

You Can’t Make a Pact With the Devil

I am finishing reading Havel’s book, Disturbing the Peace,  I admire him and his honesty.  I think his answer to this question displays his character and intent:

How would you relay to those who criticize your plays, and Temptation in particular, for being thoroughly pessimistic, offering no way out, not a scrap of hope?  Would you concede that the world of your plays is somewhat in conflict with your civic stance and your life?

The role of theatre, as I understand it and as I have tried to practice it, is not to make people’s lives easier by presenting positive heroes into which they can project all their hopes, and then sending them home with the feeling that these heroes will take care of things for them.  To my mind, that would be doing the lion’s share of the work.  I’ve already talked about how each of us must find real, fundamental hope within himself.  You can’t delegate that to anyone else.

    My ambition is not to soothe the viewer with a merciful lie or cheer him up with a false offer to sort things out for him.  I wouldn’t be helping him very much if I did.  I’m trying to do something else; to propel him, in the most drastic possible way, into the depths of a question he should not, and cannot, avoid asking: to stick his nose into his own misery, into my misery, into our common misery, by way of reminding him that the time has come to do something about it.  The only ways out, the only solutions, the only hopes that are worth anything are the ones we discover ourselves, within ourselves, and for ourselves.  Perhaps with God’s help.  But theatre does not mediate that kind of help; it is not a church.  Theatre ought to be–with God’s help–theatre.  And one way of helping people is by reminding them that the time is getting late, that the situation is grave, that it can’t be ignored.  Seeing the outlines of horror induces the will to face up to it.  As Ivan Jirous wrote about Temptation: the hope in the play lies in the observation that you can’t make a pact with the devil.  But this is an observation the viewer must make himself–I can only help him to come to that conclusion by demonstrating what happens when you do make a pact with the devil.  I repeat what Glucksmann said: our mission is to warn, to predict horrors, to see clearly what is evil.  Face to face with a distillation of evil, man might well recognize what is good.  By showing good on the stage, we ultimately rob him of the possibility of making such a recognition himself–as his own existential act.

Beyond Politics: A Paradox



Reading a memoir of Vaclav Havel, this written in 1986:

“I think the reasons for the crisis in which the world now finds itself are lodged in something deeper than a particular way of organizing the economy or a particular political system.  The West and the East, though different in so many ways, are going through a single, common crisis.  Reflecting on that crisis should be the starting point for every attempt to think through a better alternative.  Where does the cause of this crisis lie?  Vaclav Belohradsky puts it very nicely when he writes about this late period as one of conflict between an impersonal, anonymous, irresponsible, and uncontrollable juggernaut of power (the power of “mega machinery”), and the elemental and original interests of man as a concrete individual.

    I too feel that somewhere here there is a basic tension out of which the present global crisis has grown.  At the same time, I’m persuaded that this conflict–and the increasingly hypertrophic impersonal power itself–is directly related to the spiritual condition of modern civilization.  This condition is characterized by loss: the loss of metaphysical certainties, of an experience of the transcendental, of any super personal moral authority, and of any kind of higher  horizon.  It is strange but ultimately quite logical: as soon as man began considering himself the source of the highest meaning in the world, and the measure of everything, the world began to lose its human dimension, and man began to lose control of it.

    We are going through a great departure from God which has no parallel in history.  As far as I know, we are living in the middle of the first atheistic civilization.  This departure has its own complex intellectual and cultural causes: it is related to the development of science, technology, and human knowledge, and to the whole modern upsurge of interest in the human intellect and the human spirit.  I feel that this arrogant anthropocentrism of modern man, who is convinced he can know everything and bring everything under his control, is somewhere in the background of the present crisis.  It seems to me that if the world is to change for the better it must start with a change in human consciousness, in the very humanness of modern man.

    Man must in some way come to his senses……He must discover again, within himself, a deeper sensSe of responsibility toward the world, which means responsibility toward something higher than himself.  Modern science has realized this (though not the proprietors of “the scientific world view”), but it cannot find a remedy.  The power to awaken this new responsibility is beyond its reach; such a thing can be resolved neither scientifically nor technically.  It may seem like a paradox, but one I think will prove true, that only through directing ourselves toward the moral and the spiritual, based on respect for some “extramundane” authority–for the order of nature or the universe, for a moral order and its super personal origin, for the absolute–can we arrive at a state in which life on this earth is no longer threatened by some form of “megasuicide” and becomes bearable, has, in other words, a genuinely human dimension.

Continue reading Beyond Politics: A Paradox

Mixing Church and Politics

From a 2009 address by John Lennox, in answer to a question about what he thought about mixing church and politics:

“I would ask you to think about what history shows us and what it actually involves following Christ.  Because there is a sense here…where thoughtful Christians have come to different opinions… It seems to me that one of the tragedies is, well there are two tragedies, and they are related.  One of them is getting it into our heads that there somehow is an ideal form of political government that we have reached. (You need to read the book of Daniel, chapter 2 to understand that political systems have different values.)  Some are better than others, but to make one of absolute value and deem it Christian can be a very dangerous thing.  It’s a bit like denominationalism, isn’t it?  And my concern is for the gospel.  And so the question I would ask back at this whole kind of context, just in my own situation, is this: “Is what I am doing and the action I am taking making clear what the gospel is, or is it muddying it?”

A Plague is Not Just a Medical Event

Eight months into this pandemic, we sometimes seem to be no nearer to knowing what’s going on than we were at the beginning.

Lockdowns vs. no lockdowns; masks vs. no masks; hydroxychloroquine vs. remdesivir; opening schools vs. closing schools, etc., etc. Every day, top-level experts express significantly divergent viewpoints on each of these questions. One study published one day concludes one thing; another study published the next concludes the opposite, and critics attack both. One newspaper analyzes the latest data and claims that things are getting better; another newspaper, looking at the same data, laments they have never been worse. Meanwhile, fundamental and simple questions, such as how this virus is transmitted, or where it originated, are still the subject of ongoing research and intense debate.

All of which is to say, science is operating exactly as it always has.

…Most people seem to agree that the pandemic is a scientific problem that needs a scientific solution. This is true, but only partially. To view the plague as purely a scientific problem is reductive. As Andrew Sullivan noted in a recent essay, a plague is not just a medical event. It is also a “social and cultural and political” event. Plagues “insinuate themselves into every nook and cranny of our lives and psyches—from sex to shopping, from work to religion, from politics to journalism—and thereby alter them.”

…We may not know everything we would like to know about this virus, but we do know much more than we did before, and certainly more than the human race has ever known when facing a similar crisis. We have to move, and in order to move, we must select a starting point. We must make decisions based on the limited information we have, and then execute those decisions with conviction, hoping that they turn out as planned.

On the other hand, we should be aware of the sorts of errors that may cloud our judgment.

Read it all here:

A Work of Art

From “Music That is Art For the Eyes and Ears”  Wall Street Journal, June 27-28, 2020:

Felix Mendelssohn wasn’t only a great composer and virtuoso organist; he was also a trained draftsman, a skill he put to use in his elaborate handwritten scores.  “A Mendelssohn manuscript is a work of art in itself,” says his biographer R. Larry Todd, professor of music at Duke University.  “The calligraphy is stunning.”

The composer’s curvaceous clef markings and arabesque lettering are on display in a newly discovered manuscript from 1842, a version of his song “Im Fruhling” (“In Spring”) that will be sold next month by Sotheby’s  London.

It is beautiful:

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Blessed Hope

Quoting Charles Hodge in an excellent podcast on “Blessed Hope”:

“Our duty, privilege and security are in believing, not in knowing, and trusting God and not our own understanding.  They are to be pitied who have no more trustworthy teacher than themselves.”

Biblical hope is not wishful thinking, but based on the promises of God in Christ Jesus.  All of them.

Noting the influence of relativism not only in our culture, but also in Christianity, this comment by the late Dr. R.C. Sproul was shared:

“I’m afraid that in the United States of America today the prevailing doctrine of justification is not justification by faith alone, it’s not even justification by good works, or by a combination of faith and works.  The prevailing notion of justification on our culture today is justification by death.  All one has to do to be received into the everlasting arms of God is to die.”

Fatally sad.