Sunday, February 23, 2014

Nice and Pretty

It is my observation that many middle-class American Christians think, subconsciously, that the gospel is “nice” and “pretty.” We sing songs about the love of God, we have decorative art pieces in our kitchens and offices, and we Like and Retweet short statements celebrating how awesome God is.

As C.S. Lewis might say, all well and good. But the gospel is not “nice.” It is not “pretty.”

The gospel is scandalous. It says that the most corrupt, cruel, self-centered human being can be washed clean and stand before the throne of Almighty God.

The gospel is also terrifying, because it says that you and I are corrupt, cruel, and self-centered, unworthy to stand before a holy God, except for the blood of Jesus that washes us clean.

The gospel is not nice or pretty because we are not nice or pretty. We are broken, messy, fallen creatures, and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. We are in a hole so deep we can no longer see the light of day.

But the grace of God is greater. The grace of God, in the form of Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, the Word made flesh, has come down into our low estate, redeemed us, washed us clean with His own blood, and made us worthy to stand before the throne of God.

It is difficult, sometimes, to recognize the depth of one’s own depravity when one has a comfortable middle-class lifestyle, with clean running water, a paycheck every other Friday, and the police a quick phone call away should you hear a weird noise in the alley at two in the morning.

It is difficult, sometimes, to recognize how stained we are when we take a shower and put on clean clothes every morning, and arrive in our offices and classrooms to find that someone has come to sweep, mop, and take out the trash during the overnight hours.

But that depravity and those stains are real. The gospel is the lens through which it all becomes shockingly, horrifyingly real.

But the gospel is also the purifying, cleansing river of blood that flows from Calvary. The scene at Golgotha was not nice or pretty. But it was there, on that terrifying, scandalous night, that a way was made for us to be reconciled to our Creator. That night, the world experienced a cosmic shift in the war against sin.

And a few mornings later, the world experienced a cosmic shift in the war against death as well.

Lent begins next week, and in April will come Holy Week, and then Easter. Please resist the tendency to see these occasions as “nice” times to reflect on the story of those days. Instead, see them as occasions to celebrate the gospel.

The gospel. The beautiful, glorious, precious gospel of the grace of God. 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Concert Review: Muti Conducts Schubert Mass (Chicago Symphony Orchestra)

Last night, I attended a performance of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at Symphony Center in downtown Chicago. On the podium was one of the international stars of classical music, CSO Music Director Riccardo Muti (I could go on and on about the maestro, who recently signed a five-year contract extension through 2020, but I will spare you, dear readers). It was my first time seeing him conduct in almost two years. Caleb Widmer, my worship pastor and boss at Calvary Memorial Church, joined me for the concert.

The program was part of an exploration of the works of Franz Schubert that stretches the entire second half of this season. All of the works on this weekend’s program were unfamiliar to me yet all ones I was very interested to hear.

The program began with Schubert’s Overture in the Italian Style in C Major, a “tipping of the hat” to Gioacchino Rossini, with whose work Schubert was quite taken at the time, and I definitely heard the Rossini-inspired musical energy.

Second was Ennio Morricone’s Voices from the Silence, a piece written some twelve years ago (with Muti’s encouragement) in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This piece surprised me. I had been expecting something along the lines of Barber’s Adagio for Strings – a very meditative, cathartic tone poem. Instead, the piece was something of a sound picture tracing various occasions of human oppression. There was a brief narration and prerecorded sounds (of voices from oppressed cultures, as I understand it) added to the mix of orchestra and chorus. I want to look for a recording and listen again – as Caleb said, there was almost too much happening in the piece to properly absorb it all.

After intermission was Schubert’s Mass No. 5 in A-flat Major. Muti and the musicians dedicated this weekend’s performances of the Mass to the memory of the recently departed Claudio Abbado, Muti’s fellow Italian conductor and a frequent collaborator with the CSO.

Schubert was one of the least religious of the major Western composers to write settings of the Latin Mass, but musically speaking, the work was profound. My favorite portions of this setting are the “Cum Sancto Spiritu” (from the Gloria) and the “Dona Nobis Pacem” (from the Agnus Dei). Program annotator Phillip Huscher noted that this particular Mass was not written for any particular occasion or commission; rather, one could say Schubert wrote it for himself. My knowledge of Schubert is limited, but I would not necessarily put his A-flat Mass in the “intimate” music category (compared, for example, to his Mass No. 2 in G Major, which I studied in college). The orchestra and chorus – and soloists – delivered a compelling, brilliant performance.

Another interesting note: this weekend marked the first CSO subscription concert performance of the Schubert overture, and the first CSO performance of any kind of the Morricone piece and the Schubert Mass. Three of the four soloists in the Mass were making their CSO debuts, and the fourth soloist and the Morricone narrator their CSO subscription concert debuts. It was a satisfying evening of music. My congratulations to Maestro Muti, Chorus Director Duain Wolfe, the soloists, orchestra, and chorus – and my thanks as always to Phillip Huscher for the excellent notes on the program.

This program has one final performance, TONIGHT at 8 PM at Symphony Center – I highly recommend it if you do not already have plans!

P.S. Here is Chicago Tribune classical music critic John von Rhein's review of the Thursday performance