Saturday, July 6, 2019

Notre Dame Cathedral: The Importance of Gothic Architecture

The fire that ravaged the Notre-Dame de Paris in April 2019 was a devastating loss from many perspectives. At least one firefighter and two police officers were injured in the attempt to rescue the building. While most of it was indeed saved, important parts were lost, including the entire roof. The damage was emotional as much as physical, since the building serves as a national symbol for France. The reason for this pride has to do with the building's history—it was one of the first to be built in the Gothic architectural style.

The construction of Notre Dame began in 1160, at a time when architecture was changing from an older Romanesque style, so called because it borrowed heavily from the designs of ancient structures of the Roman and Byzantine empires. Sanctuaries were a simple rectangle design, with a the nave (the place where the worshipers congregated) stretching out from a rounded apse that stood at the eastern end of the room. Over the 300 years or so of the Romanesque period, churches began to add wider cross-sections just west of the apse, making the sanctuary into the shape of a cross. These portions of the sanctuary, extending to the north and south, were known as transepts. Gothic churches would continue this basic layout of the building, but they would sometimes extend the transepts out even wider than the floor plan shown here:

Gothic cathedral floor plan. From

Romanesque churches were also noted for the arches and columns that supported their high ceilings. In the 12th century, however, architects discovered that pointed arches (rather than rounded or semi-circular ones) could support even higher buildings. These new arches allowed for Gothic churches to be taller, creating a more vertical perspective to the overall worship space.

Rounded arches of the Romanesque style. From

Gothic pointed arches in Notre Dame. From

In order to keep these stratospheric Gothic walls from falling over, designers came up with another innovation: the flying buttresses. These exterior supports were first used at Notre Dame, and they transferred a significant amount of stress from the walls themselves, allowing them to be thinner.

Drawing of a flying buttress at Notre Dame. From
14th-century flying buttresses at Notre Dame. From

The higher and thinner walls allowed for more windows, which let in more light to the church building. Gothic churches, therefore, were able to experiment with new techniques in stained glass. One of the most striking designs is the rose window, which is a characteristic of the Gothic style.

Rose Window at Notre Dame. From

Higher ceilings, thinner walls, and more light meant that Gothic churches took advantage of the worshipers' visual capacities more than their auditory ones. Christian worship would mirror the adaptations to the designs of the buildings, changing into an event that is seen more than heard. Priests would say the mass, but parishioners who gathered many yards away would not be able to hear what was said. They instead watched intently for the moment when the consecrated host was lifted up to be gazed at. Just like today, when churches are designed to be more functional than beautiful, Christian worship has always adjusted itself to match the values that are reflected in its buildings.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Sing the Psalms: Contemporary Settings

My previous posts about singing the psalms outlined ways of setting these important scripture passages to music by using a metrical psalter and chanting psalm tones. There is, of course, another way to bring musical settings of the psalms into your worship services: compose new tunes to fit them. Thankfully, there composers out there who are willing to share their songs with the rest of us, doing the difficult work of putting their new melodies to ancient verses. Here are a few of the artists who are hoping that new musical settings of the psalms will revitalize our worship:

Richard Bruxvoort Colligan runs the site, where he offers his own settings of various psalms. Some even have more than one setting to choose from—take Psalm 126, for instance. Colligan's songs are meant to be used, and he clearly explains the licensing agreements on his page. He provides both recordings and sheet music, the latter of which can be purchased and downloaded from the site.

Cardiphonia works at the intersection of contemporary music and liturgical worship. Their site provides several newly composed settings of the psalms. Check out their many compilations, including more than psalm-based compositions, at:

Hal Hopson has composed settings for church groups, sold as a collection titled The People's Psalter. Settings range from simple unison melodies to more advanced four-part choir pieces. The publisher also sells downloads of the individual scores for each psalm for just $1.00.

As a final note on this three-part series on the psalms, let me also recommend the following sites:

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Sing the Psalms: Chanting Psalm Tones

In my first post about singing the Psalms, I discussed metrical psalms, which are translations that allow these scripture verses to be sung to standard tunes. Another way to guide a congregation in singing the psalms is by using psalm tones. These simple melodies provide a way for congregations to sing any set of words, no matter how they are translated or arranged. By using these simple tones you can sing any passage of scripture—or even lines from a novel or a cookbook (not that you would want to).

The basic requirement for chanting psalm tones is a song leader who can guide a congregation in a simple melody. The United Methodist Hymnal, which borrows from the Lutheran Book of Worship, provides five of these melodies on page 737. In the psalter section that follows that page, the psalms are printed with red dots above the third-to-last syllable in each line. For all the syllables that precede this dot, the song leader (and the congregation, if they are joining in) chant the words to the same note. When they reach the red dot, this signals them to begin the final sequence of the tone's melody.

This is a very simple way for a congregation to sing the psalms, but it is admittedly an acquired taste. Not every church is going to embrace this style. Check out one of these short video clips from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to hear a chanted psalm.

An extensive and detailed description of how to sing psalm tones, using the resources of the United Methodist Hymnal and its companion Keyboard Edition, can be found here:

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Sing the Psalms: Metrical Psalms

We know that the Psalms are songs, originally meant to be sung in Hebrew by worshipers in ancient Israel and Judah. Some of the original performance instructions still remain in the current manuscripts. For example:
  • Psalm 6  begins with a heading: "To the Leader" and indicates the use of stringed instruments. 
  • Psalm 22 was meant to be sung to the tune of "The Deer of the Dawn."
  • Psalm 32 is called a "maskil," which is apparently some kind of musical style.
These days we don't know what "The Deer of the Dawn" sounded like or how to perform a maskil,  but modern composers have come up with a variety ways for us to sing the psalms. One involves translating the words into English, carefully arranging the syllables so that they can be sung to well-known tunes. These translations are known as metrical psalms.

Psalter: a book of singable psalms
One of the most well-known metrical psalms is called the "Doxology." It begins with the line: "Praise God, from whom all blessings flow"—a setting of Psalm 134 which is sung to a tune called "Old 100th." (It's actually more than just a translation—it is an adaptation of the original psalm, adding Trinitarian language that was not in the original Hebrew text.)

Singing the psalms together as a congregation can revitalize a worship service while simultaneously offering a way to engage more deeply with scripture. Here are a few examples of metrical psalm texts available in English: 

Seedbed offers metrical settings of all 150 canonical psalms, set to popular meters (that is, syllable arrangements). For example, Psalm 113 is set in a 87.87D meter, which means that it has alternating lines of 8 syllables and 7 syllables. This number is important when looking for a tune; most good hymnals will provide a metrical index showing which tunes fit each specific syllable count. Seedbed's site actually provides musical notation for popular hymn tunes. So for Psalm 113 there are four tune suggestions, including HYFRYDOL, which most people know as "Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus." Seedbed offers these settings freely for use in worship.

The Free Church of Scotland publishes a psalter called Sing Psalms, offering its full text online, along with its meters and suggested tunes. Some psalms even have more than one metrical setting. The Common Meter (86.86) is used for many of these psalms, which provides many options for singing, such as AZMON ("O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing") and "Amazing Grace."

Pastor Dale Shoening has also translated the psalms according to meter, which he also offers free of charge to houses of worship. is a companion site to help you use a number of psalters. It is helpful for finding a tune that fits the meter of a given metrical psalm.

Here's a short Youtube clip that explains how to match a metrical psalm text with a tune that fits the words, using the psalter from the Free Church of Scotland:

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Worship Ways: Worship and Mission

Tom Bandy and Lucinda Holmes's book Worship Ways: For the People Within Your Reach got my attention when I read, in a sidebar on page 4: "Worship is the purest form of God's mission, and God expects our collaboration to make it happen." I've spent most of my adult life trying to make worship and mission fit together, so this statement immediately put me on the side of the authors. While searching online for more information about this book, I became even more excited. I saw a recent blog post by Bandy that criticizes the "church growth leadership model," warning that it results in worship that is too focused on the performance of a few key leaders. This subject, too, is close to my heart. Recently, while researching the growth of contemporary praise and worship music in the 1990s, I found that many pastors sought to replace "traditional" worship, not so much as a mission strategy, but as a way to exert their leadership in the congregation. This book seemed to have it all: worship's integral relationship to mission, paired with a caution for centering worship around one strong personality.

Indeed, Bandy and Holmes, both clergy and leadership consultants, want to shift the conversation away from how we worship to why we worship. That necessarily means paying attention to the worshipers themselves. I'm guessing that the very title of the book—Worship Ways, just a letter off from the phrase "Worship Wars"—is intentionally calling readers to look past the battle lines of worship styles that were so rigidly drawn and defended in the 90s and 00s. Often those "wars" were more about exercising a pastor's personal leadership, and less a desire to reach new people. This book wants to give tools to a current generation of church leaders that will help them focus on the needs of those very people.

Bandy and Holmes lay out seven worship options for churches, with each one addressing a specific set of needs that might be found in a given congregation:
  1. Coaching worship, for those who are lost and seeking direction
  2. Educational worship, for the lonely who are looking for relationships
  3. Transformational worship, for those who feel trap and need deliverance
  4. Inspirational worship, for the dying who need renewal
  5. Healing worship, for those who are broken and need restoration
  6. Mission-Connectional worship, for the abused who need vindication and justice
  7. Caregiving worship, for those who are discarded and need compassion
In describing these seven styles worship, the book's chapters list specific categories of people who are most likely to respond to each one. It was quite surprising to me to learn that these categories were created from identification codes used by the credit-reporting agency Experian. For instance, Healing Worship services (#5 above), which are focused on restoring the sick and broken, tend to resonate with this category of people:  the "M45: Diapers and Debit Cards" crowd. These are people who are "young, working-class families and single-parent households living in small, established city residences." Similarly, Mission-Connectional Worship (#6), designed for those seeking to correct injustices, is a good option for "younger, up-and-coming singles living big city lifestyles located within top capital markets." These folks fit into category G25: Urban Edge.

The categories are so numerous—more than 70, that I could tell—that the descriptions have to get quite creative: "A02: Platinum prosperity"; "H27: Birkenstocks and Beemers"; and "I32: Latin Flair." (By the way, these are all considered good fits for worship option #1: Inspirational Worship.

I have mixed feelings about applying consumer categories to worship programming. On the one hand, the sheer number of categories is overwhelming and confusing, and none of these Experian lifestyles fit any categories described as spiritual gifts in the New Testament (see Romans 12:6-8 or 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 or Ephesians 4:11). The apostles built their first-century congregations around these gifts of the Holy Spirit, not on consumer preferences.

On the other hand, it is a good thing to examine the motivations and desires behind our worship designs. If we are really thinking about the missional impact of our worship services, then we ought to consider ways to really get to know our neighborhood. For instance, designing a high-church, Anglo-Catholic service with choral anthems and weekly Communion might not be a good idea if you are trying to include people who have never been inside a church building before. Similarly, we would not want to focus on teaching and education if the community actually needs to work on healing and reconciliation. If these Experian categories can indeed help us think through the needs of others, then maybe they can point us in the right direction.

I imagine that people will respond to Worship Ways in the same way that they see the Myers-Briggs typology or the Enneagram. I know many people who have been helped by these tools, using them to work through their own personality tendencies, showing why they react to certain people and situations the way they do. Bandy and Holmes offer this same kind of assessment, bringing a different set of lenses for looking at a community. If you are looking for something grounded in scripture, this book is not for you. If you need to shake up your programming staff, forcing them to think about worship as a mission, Worship Ways might work.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

What is Epiphany?

The Christmas season reaches its final conclusion on the day of Epiphany. After the twelve days of Christmastide, on January 6 the Christian church remembers that Christ was revealed to the entire world as the Son of God. Some people call this Three Kings Day, signifying the account from Matthew 2 when the magi arrived in Bethlehem to worship the infant Jesus. In honor of these first Gentile worshipers of the Messiah, some parts of the world use this day for giving gifts, imitating the wise ones who brought gold and incense. It is appropriate to sing The First Noel and We Three Kings on the Sunday closest to January 6. The refrain of that latter song so beautifully and succinctly links the light of the star with the light that Christ himself bore.

Most scholars agree that Epiphany is actually an older holiday than Christmas. It was established as a way to mark the beginning of the world's awareness of Jesus's sonship. For that reason, Epiphany has also been linked with Jesus's baptism in the Jordan River (read Luke 3). At that moment the voice of the Father and the presence of the Holy Spirit acknowledged who Jesus is, launching his public ministry throughout Galilee and Judea.

On Epiphany we live into the global nature of the Christian faith, acknowledging how God's plan for salvation has been revealed to both Jews and Gentiles. In Matthew's gospel it took both Gentile astrologers and Jewish teachers to find the Christ's birthplace. Today we have our own cultural categories that must be transcended by the Word, and the church is constantly working to overcome barriers of language, status, gender, race, and age. In this season we remember that the gospel message should never be so much at home in a society that it fails to agitate. When the truth is revealed, it takes on cultural forms in order to be meaningful, but at the same time it also works against social norms to drive out sin and oppression. 

Saturday, December 15, 2018

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is one of the oldest songs in our hymnals. The words are translated from seven Latin antiphons—that is, responsive prayers—that date back to the 8th century. Together these verses are known as the "O Antiphons" since all seven begin with the word "O":
    The Annunciation to Mary
O Wisdom (Sapientia)
O Lord (Adonai)
O Rod of Jesse (Radix Jesse)
O Key of David (Clavis David)
O Dayspring (Oriens) - also "Morning Star"
O Ruler of All Nations (Rex Gentium)
O Emmanuel -- which we keep in the English and means "God with us"
The first letters of those seven Latin verses, arranged backwards, spell ERO CRAS, which means "Tomorrow, he is coming." 

We don't know how those verses were sung or chanted for the first thousand years of their use in the church. The tune we sing to today (called VENI EMMANUEL) came much later. Although its melody goes back to the 15th century, it wasn't harmonized and wedded to these verses until 1851. As we find with many of our most-loved hymns, such as Amazing Grace, the lyrics and melody had distinct histories before ending up together.

The O Antiphons are a wonderful guide to prayer for the of the week prior to Christmas day. Starting on December 17th, work through one image per day for the remaining days of Advent. Each one is rooted in at least one scriptural theme:

December 17: O Wisdom
– John 1:1-3

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. 

December 18: O Adonai – Exodus 3:13-14

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” 

December 19: O Root of Jesse – Isaiah 11:1-3

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

December 20: O Key of David – Revelation 3:7

And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.

December 21: O Dayspring – Habakkuk 3:3-4

His glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise. The brightness was like the sun; rays came forth from his hand, where his power lay hidden.

December 22: O King of the Gentiles – Ephesians 2:13-14

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 

December 23: O Emmanuel – Isaiah 7:14

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

Check it out: Here is an excellent 8-day devotional based on this hymn from Bellweather Arts. It takes an antiphon for each day, coupling devotional thoughts with reflections on visual images. It is a resource that will excite you mind, heart, and soul as you prepare for Christ's coming.

I hope you have the opportunity to sing this hymn with a congregation during this Advent season. Here is a traditional choir performing it:

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Wesley's Directions for Singing

Methodists are people who sing together. If you open the front cover of a United Methodist Hymnal, flipping through just four pages of introductory material, you will come to a page with the heading "Directions for Singing." These are a set of seven instructions from John Wesley, included in one of his hymn collections from 1761, for how Methodists should sing. Below is an edited list of those directions, with some of the longer explanations cut down for the sake of readability (but you can read the full statements here):

I. Learn these tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please.

II. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.

III. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.

IV. Sing lustily and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength...

V. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony...

VI. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind it... it is high time to...sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.

VII. Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself...

Wesley's instructions for worshiping fits with his perspective on salvation; congregational singing provides a lens on the nature of our relationship with God. Individual decisions and commitments to follow Christ are necessary in our justification and sanctification, but these works of grace are supported and sustained in a community of other Christians. In an essay on Wesley's directions for singing, Martin V. Clarke writes that all seven are infused with Methodist theology, especially the main instruction in point III: "Sing all." Each person, individually, needs to join in the singing, just as each individual believer needs to make a commitment to join a congregation. It is not enough to sing alone, just as it is an oxymoron to consider someone a "solitary Christian." Just as there is no way to sing the four-part harmony of a hymn with just one mouth, so the church is necessarily made up of a number of voices. Wesley taught that there was no way to be holy by oneself: "There is no holiness but social holiness."

The Methodist revival was all about meeting together for mutual fellowship and encouragement. All Methodists were required to meet in small groups called "classes" and "bands." Wesley knew that the Christian journey is difficult—there are too many traps and snares to waylay the lone traveler. Singing together is more than a reflection of the inherent mutuality that infuses our relationship with God—it is a way to encourage the very act of gathering, an non-negotiable component of our faith.

For great insights on Wesley's rules for singing and a fun graphic depicting John and Charles as modern-day church leaders, check out this article by Charlie Buber, cartoonist and blogger who created the Wesley Bros.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Liturgy Journals

As a doctoral student in liturgical studies, I am becoming acquainted with journals that publish the most up-to-date scholarship on worship. These journals highlight the contributions of scholars who work on historical and theological details from two millennia of Christian worship practices across the world. Here is a short, non-exhaustive list of some of the most important ones (not ranked in any particular order):

Liturgy is the journal of The Liturgical Conference, an ecumenical organization that was founded in 1940 to encourage church unity through liturgical renewal. The journal publishes four issues a year, each one with about six articles around a central theme. The articles are fairly short, usually around 5 to 10 pages. The range of topics is quite broad, with interests extending beyond the mainline Protestant denominations that originally founded the organization. Some recent themes include Pentecostal Worship, Worship and Mission, and Worship for Rural Churches.

The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada publishes The Hymn: A Journal of Congregational Song. The Hymn Society advocates for and encourages congregational singing, and articles in this journal tend to focus on the history and current use of printed hymns: biographies of hymn writers, histories of specific hymn collections, and the development of hymnals in various societies around the world. The Hymn is published four times per year, and each issue includes about four articles (each about 7 pages or less), along with updates from the Hymn Society, columns and features about the use of hymns around the world, music and text of newly-composed hymns, and reviews of hymnals and hymnology-related scholarly works.

Worship is produced by members of the Order of Saint Benedict at St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, and is distributed by Liturgical Press. The journal was first published in 1926, and despite its Roman Catholic roots, it takes an ecumenical approach to the study of liturgy and liturgical renewal. A quote from the website describes that the work of the journal is "to reflect on the role that the various theological disciplines, as well as the arts and social sciences, play in shaping Christian worship and the lives of worshipping Christians in the world." Worship comes out six times per year, and each issue contains about four articles, each around 20 pages, that cover a wide range of worship-related topics. A glance over the last few issues reveals quite a spectrum: where Roman Catholic priests should face while presiding at Mass, the history of Sunday as the standard day of worship, and the how the breaking of a single loaf of bread shaped the historical practices of Communion. Like most other academic journals, each issue of Worship also has a series of reviews of book on related topics.

Societas Liturgica produces the journal Studia Liturgica, which launched in 1962 to promote ecumenical efforts at research and liturgical renewal. This organization is more global in its scope than the others listed here, with most of its members coming from outside of North America. The range of topics is similar to those covered in Worship and Liturgy, but they include a broader range that corresponds with its European and Asian readership. Recent articles include standard fare such as revisions of Anglican prayers since 1950, as well as a study of inculturation on Lembata Island in Indonesia and the eucharistic theology of the Three-Self churches in China.

Other journals of note, which are not necessarily focused on liturgical studies:
  • Journal of Ritual Studies. Published since 1987 as a forum for study of ritual of all kinds. The scope here includes all ritualized aspects of human behavior, of which liturgy is a part.
  • Faith & Form is an interfaith forum for religious arts and architecture, honoring work from all faiths.
  • Sacred Music is the official journal of the Church Music Association of America. It is aimed almost exclusively at Roman Catholic liturgists and musicians.
  • Global Forum on Arts and Christian Faith is produced online by the International Council of Ethnodoxologists. Each issue features a range of articles, working papers, and reviews on topics related to the expressive arts in Christianity around the world. The topics consider a broad spectrum: music, dance, drama, visual arts, and storytelling. (Full disclosure: I am the Reviews Editor for GFACF.)

Saturday, July 7, 2018

The Annunciation

"No woman has ever taken a pregnancy test without saying a prayer—one way or the other." One warm Friday in June, in the village of Nazareth while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, a fellow pastor made this remark about the anxiety that comes from waiting for pee-stick test results. 

Remnants of a cave under the Basilica of the Annunciation
We were walking between the two churches in Nazareth that commemorate the Annunciation—that moment when the angel Gabriel revealed to Mary that she would bear a son out of wedlock. The first is the Church of St. Gabriel, a site run by the Greek Orthodox which is built over the only spring in the town of Nazareth. The Orthodox faithful believe that the angel came to Mary while she was drawing water, and so they built a church there to mark this event. The second site is the Basilica of the Annunciation, maintained by the Roman Catholic Church, built over caves that residents of Nazareth used to inhabit. One of those caves may or may not have been Mary's actual home, but she almost certainly lived in a place very similar.

This angelic birth announcement from Luke 1 is one of my favorite passages in the Bible, and I've read it as least every Advent season for the past 40 years. Yet when I entered the sanctuary of that second church, after hearing my friend's reminder about the anxiety that comes with any potential pregnancy, I carried a new understanding of how troubling that moment was for Mary.

Stained glass window in the Basilica
If you read Luke's account closely, you will see that Mary's initial response was not one of passive acceptance. I wonder if our English translations downplay her emotional response by saying that she was "much perplexed" (1:29). Her first words of response to this news are: "How can this be?" (1:34). No one asks Mary if she wants to carry this burden, risking life and reputation to bear a son she didn't plan. Instead, she is given a promise: "The Lord is with you" (1:28).

We often pray for God to fix things, to get us out of jams by making our difficulties go away. But God's ways of resolving our difficulties—that is, how God heals and reconcilesare different than our ideas about fixing. To fix something means that the problem is removed. But God usually heals instead, and healing still involves the initial pain and memory of the accompanying difficulty. Consider how Jesus's resurrected body still bears the scars of his torture and crucifixion. (See John 20:24-29) Mary still had to bear the risk and shame of carrying a child who was conceived before she was properly married. Thank God that she didn't try to "fix" the problem of her pregnancy.

Everything that God touches in creation is troubledfallen and corrupted by sin. If God were to deal with us by "fixing" everything, then there would be no choice but to dissolve us and make us go away, wiping out all evidence of the mess. But God is greater than that, and God's power is such that it is possible for God's holiness to heal us without wiping us out. In Jesus—both in his birth and his death—we see that God's mighty power to heal means that good can come from trouble. Praise God that none of us have been "fixed."

The well at the bottom of the Church of St. Gabriel

Saturday, May 26, 2018

A Letter to my Daughters

Dear Catherine and Maddie,

On this day of your high school graduation, I would like to share some wisdom about navigating the rest of your life. You have each grown into fine women, demonstrating that you can and do make wise decisions. But even as the my days of influence over your life are waning, I hope you will take these words to heart.

Today at your commencement exercises you will be encouraged to leave behind the old and strike out on a new path into unknown territory. I will not be surprised if we hear someone say these very words: "Face the future without fear."

But the problem is that we don't really face the future. You may be moving into the future minute by minute, but you certainly can't see into it. There is much that is true about the Maori proverb:

"We walk backwards into the future, our eyes fixed on the past."

You are indeed walking backwards, and you are only able to see with certainty those things that have already happened. For the rest of your lives you will constantly be faced with those things that have happened in your past, both good and bad—the family who raised you, the teachers who instructed you, the pastors who prayed for you; as well as the mistakes you made, the accidents that you encountered, and the abuses that you suffered. All of those events and people create a complicated fabric of memories and relationships that cannot be changed. If you think those things can be left behind and forgotten by running away from your past, then it will only be more difficult on that day when it all finally catches up to you.

Consider this charge from the New Testament: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us." (Hebrews 12:1) On the surface, this verse looks like the standard graduation speech, urging us to leave behind our past and plunge ahead into the future. But consider the words that begin that verse: "we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses." The writer of Hebrews spends the previous chapter describing the saints of old—people like Abraham and Moses, along with David, Samuel, and the prophets. This means that even as you venture into the future you are accompanied by a host of those who lived before. There are generations of people who have gone before you, testifying to God’s saving work in history, who are cheering you on into the unknown. You can walk backwards into the future because they did. God was with them, and you can know that by looking back to see the evidence of their lives that God is with you, too.

Walk boldly into the future, girls. Just remember that you are walking backwards.

Notre Dame Cathedral: The Importance of Gothic Architecture

The fire that ravaged the Notre-Dame de Paris in April 2019 was a devastating loss from many perspectives. At least one firefighter and two...