Monday, November 28, 2011

I forgave you a long time ago...

"I forgave you a long time ago..."

I pray that I never forget those words as long as I live. They were a gift spoken by a friend I had hurt, unintentionally, by my words many months before. It had taken me some time to recognize the offense I had caused, some more time to accept that she had a reason to feel offended, some more time to stop building arguments in my defense, and some more time still before love won out and I worked up the courage to seek forgiveness. I dreaded her rejection. I feared this treasured relationship would be lost forever.

But instead of the rejection I feared, she gave me this gift. She not only forgave me, she loved me, and continued on as though the whole episode was barely worth mention, nothing but a little bump on the road to the continued sweet fellowship and mutual encouragement we had always shared. There are many things I may before have considered to be marks of true godliness, but I none can hold a candle to this:

"I forgave you a long time ago..."

The fear of being unforgiven looms large in my life. It is at the root of all the depression and fear I've ever experienced. I've lived much of my life in the sometimes-paralyzing fear that I will offend, and with the ultimate dread that I won't be forgiven when I do. Experience has given me good reason for this fear. I never set out to be offensive. On the contrary, I try my best to be kind. But no matter how hard I try to do right by my friends, I still manage to sin against them and cause them pain. I've proven myself very good at offending, and though at times I've pleaded with tears, I have had forgiveness withheld and relationships lost.

As a result, over the decades I developed ways of coping with this fear - ungodly ways. One of the first instincts of my mind is to get busy building a case against the one who feels offended, and a case in defense of myself. It is easy to make excuses for myself - I'm naturally inclined to be on my side. It is easy to blame my friend for taking offense when none was intended. It is always easy to divert blame, because we are all sinners. Since that ancient day when mankind fell, there has been as much blame to go around as there has been sin. As a fallen woman I've certainly spread my share of both sin and blame, but I've found that none of my blame-shifting can keep me from shuddering when I am reminded of the words of Christ: 
"...if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." Mt. 6:14-15
God's rejection is the deepest of all my fears; His forgiveness is my deepest need. My heart's greatest desire and hope for joy is to be loved and accepted by Him. This gets to the heart of why I finally became a Christian, and now that I am I find in myself this impossible yearning to be like Christ, to be loved by Him and to love like He does. But I also find that this soft and still-growing heart He has given me is at loggerheads with the survival instincts of my old, cold, defensive, hardhearted, and unforgiving self.

As I take this struggle to prayer, His Holy Spirit reminds me of the words of Scripture:
"For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive,
And abundant in lovingkindness to all who call upon You." Ps. 86:5
"Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." Eph. 4:32

 "I forgave you a long time ago..."

God forgave me in Christ long, long ago....long before I had ever sinned...long before I even considered repenting...long before I was even born.  God's forgiveness is in Christ ready and waiting for me.
" the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive." Col. 3:13b
And just how has the Lord forgiven me?  I sinned against Him in countless ways.  He absorbed my many offenses along with all the hurt and insult of them - the ones I've repented of, and all the rest: the ones I don't even remember, or recognize, or realize I've committed - and carried them to the cross where they died with Him.  He did all this to open the door of reconciliation with God, and there He stands waiting, even calling to me to come to Him...

"I forgave you a long time ago..."

So much like Christ, my friend had forgiveness ready and waiting for me when I came looking for it!  In bold living strokes she painted for me a portrait of God's love, more powerful than sin, tenderly welcoming the sinner who comes sorrowfully to Him. My friend gave me love; she gave me forgiveness; she gave me hope, she gave me the Gospel.

She held open for me the door of reconciliation. No realization has ever has such a profound effect on me.  God wants us to forgive others as He forgives us. Only when we do, can we truly get at the heart of what it means, really means, to be a Christian.
"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.  All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." 2 Cor. 5:17-21
God is not counting our trespasses against us! He is holding open the door for reconciliation, and He is calling us to do the same. This is the person God is calling me to be. This is God's will for my life. By His grace I want nothing more than for now and evermore to be ready and eager to forgive, to admit when I've offended and be quick to apologize; to build no more cases and no more defenses; to rehearse no more wrongs and to hold no more grudges; to let nothing in my heart stand in the way of forgiveness; to put no stumbling block in the way of God's grace; to allow no root of bitterness to spring up; to forgive in advance those who cannot or will not forgive me; to be ready for relationship if ever they are; and to always share and never lose the freedom, joy, and peace with God that the gift of forgiveness has given me.

May I always be ready to say from the depth of my heart, "I forgave you a long time ago."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Song of Thanksgiving

Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
   and his courts with praise!
   Give thanks to him; bless his name!
  For the LORD is good;
   his steadfast love endures forever,
   and his faithfulness to all generations.
Ps. 100:4-5

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Melancholy, my friend

I don't think I will or should ever like it, but I'm learning to be thankful for my depressions. It is for me as C.S. Lewis so famously put it in The Problem of Pain,  "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world."
When I look back I see many times during my years as a Christian when a deep depression has led to a renewal of faith in my heart. Jesus Christ is the source of whatever peace and joy I am capable of, so when I drift away from Him these begin to slip away, along with my hope for the future.  I slip into despair.  The pain grows louder. Eventually none of my usual distractions can drown it out, and in desperation I remember Christ and cry to Him for rescue.

Through my sorrow He gently guides me back to His word and His promises, and through them (along with much prayer) renews my faith and restores my hope in His goodness and my future with Him. I'm so thankful to Him that He won't let me wander happily away.  I'm learning and praying to be sensitive to the first wispy dark clouds, to recognize that trouble is brewing, and instead of looking for various ways to take the edge off the pain to run quickly to Him for solace.  He is the only help that is genuine, the only help that gets to the heart of the problem, the only comfort that is strong enough, and the only hope that is eternal.

Before I was afflicted I went astray,
   but now I keep your word.
You are good and do good;
    teach me your statutes.

It is good for me that I was afflicted,
   that I might learn your statutes.
The law of your mouth is better to me
   than thousands of gold and silver pieces.
Psalm 119: 67-68,71-72

I never thought, or really ever wanted, to echo David's words, "It is good for me that I was afflicted."  But today those were the very words I found pouring out of my heart.  I'm thankful that God uses my afflictions for my good and that, in Christ, even melancholy has purpose.  My new hope and prayer is that I will learn once and for all to keep clinging to Him even when I begin to feel better, to remember I'm still in desperate need even when I feel just fine, to never stop looking to Him as my source of life, joy, peace, hope, purpose, and blessing.

"Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
    whose trust is the LORD.
He is like a tree planted by water,
   that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
   for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
   for it does not cease to bear fruit."
Jeremiah 17:7-8

Monday, November 14, 2011

Translation Tidbits

This Saturday past I posted a little article about translating hymns, so imagine my surprise at lunchtime today when NPR's Talk of the Nation aired an interview with the author of Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything.  A fascinating discussion! I bet you can guess what just got added to my Christmas wish list.  If you're curious, you can listen to the segment or read a transcript here

Also related to my last post, a friend of mine informed me in the comments that Bach had composed a cantata of Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is Our God/Our God He Is a Castle Strong).  I went straight to find a recording of it.  I thought this one was very lovely:

Finally, I thought you might enjoy hearing Ein Feste Burg sung in German.  I certainly did!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Our God He Is a Castle Strong: on translations of hymns, among other things

"Our God He Is a Castle Strong"

Our God he is a castle strong,
A good mail-coat and weapon;
He sets us free from ev'ry wrong
That wickedness would heap on.
The old knavish foe 
He means earnest now;
force and cunning sly
His horrid policy,
On earth there's nothing like him.*

Perhaps you recognized this first stanza from a very famous hymn.  Or perhaps, like me, you didn't.  I happened upon it one evening as I was searching through our copy of Luther's Works: Liturgy and Hymns checking to see if a certain hymn I like happened to have been written by Martin Luther. It did not, but while I had the book open I noticed that it provided commentary on each of the hymns.  Excited, I decided to look up my Lutheran favorite: A Mighty Fortress is Our God.  It was nowhere to be found.  I knew that was impossible, so I kept looking until the light-bulb came on.... A "mighty fortress".... a "castle strong"...

A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing;
our helper he amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
doth seek to work us woe;
his craft and power are great,
and armed with cruel hate, 
on earth is not his equal.

Comparing all the verses carefully, it gradually became clear that I was indeed looking at the same song.  And so I became very curious as to why a modern (1965) collection of Luther's works and hymns would have selected such an obscure and, well, clunky translation.  So I began to investigate. 
The popular translation, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, I learned, was rendered by the Unitarian minister, Transcendentalist, and teacher of German literature, Frederick Hedge.   As happens, though, all of the hymns in my volume were translated by a near contemporary of Hedge's, George MacDonald (yes that George MacDonald).  Thankfully, the collection's editor, Ulrich S. Leupold, explained his choice:
"Unfortunately little of the original ruggedness of Luther's poetic style survived in the translations of his hymns that have found their way into modern English and American hymnals.  With the mighty resurgence of English hymnody during the nineteenth century, many poets tried their hand at rendering Luther's verse into English.  But most of them took considerable liberties with the originals.  Frequently they changed irregular verse forms into more accepted meters.  Usually they aimed at a more polished and elegant style than was really justified in view of Luther's angularity.  They tried to make him speak in the mellifluent accents of a Victorian churchman, with the result that both the literal sense and the original style often were lost.
"...In this edition faithfulness to the original wording, style, and meter seemed more important than a completely idiomatic English rendition.  Perhaps the most felicitous attempt to translate Luther's hymns without loss of their original ruggedness was made by the Scottish theologian and writer George MacDonald (1824-1905).  MacDonald's translation, used in this edition, has been completely passed by in common use, presumably because he consciously, and often successfully, tried to express Luther's robust lines in an English idiom of similar character.  Obviously he took for a pattern the older English verse.  He sought to preserve the vivid metaphors, metrical irregularity, and folk-song quality of Luther's hymns.  He imitated Luther's preference for monosyllables by using mostly Anglo-Saxon words. Due to the prevalence of feminine rimes in German poetry and their scarcity in English with its lack of suffixes, many hymn translations from the German suffer from a tedious repetition of rimes on "-ation." such as creation, salvation, foundation, and justification.  These words tend to make the English style more academic and pompous than the German.  MacDonald almost completely avoided them." **
Additionally, referring specifically to Our God He Is a Castle Strong, Leupold adds:
 "He did not write it to express his own feelings, but to interpret and apply the 46th Psalm to the church of his own time and its struggles...."
Suddenly I found I'd gained profound respect for that clunky rendition!  Now I read it fondly, and yet, truth be told, I don't think I would like singing it. Which led me to begin puzzling, "What are the characteristics of good translation?"  After much consideration, I'll say, "It depends on what you mean by "good".  

In undertaking the translation of a document, whether it be a hymn, a work of literature, or even the Scriptures, any serious translator begins with a set of principles by which he or she operates, and a set of priorities and goals for what he or she is hoping to accomplish. In short - a philosophy.  Whether this philosophy is carefully delineated, or merely intuited, it is there like a conscience, guiding decisions, providing a sense of direction.  It, along with the skill of the translator, determines the nature of the finished product, not only whether it is "good" or "bad" but how those terms are defined.  It will also dictate what, as is almost inevitable, will get lost in translation. 

A Mighty Fortress is Our God, our case in point, is considered an excellant translation according to one philosophy, and yet is found lacking by another.  One standard values its poetic beauty, rich language, and melodic flow.  Another appreciates these qualities and is yet disappointed that some of Luther's original attitude, style, simplicity, and scriptural parallels were sacrificed on the altar of euphoniousness.  The fact that we find A Mighty Fortress is our God and not Our God He Is a Castle Strong in most of today's hymnals testifies to a certain set of values which prevail in modern hymnody.  This is not, I would argue, a necessarily bad thing. Hymns, after all, are meant to be sung.  It would be a greater loss, in my opinion, to produce an awkward translation - one that is difficult to sing or understand - and see it lost to history or fade into obscurity simply because nobody liked to sing it, than to produce a lovely one but without a bit of its original oomph.

I think MacDonald's translation stands beautifully as poetry, and provides a priceless glimpse into the heart and soul of Luther - that rough-hewn tool forged by God to hammer a message of reform into the doors of the medieval church.  In this sense I and the editor of Luther's Works, Vol. 53, wholeheartedly affirm it is a good translation. I am glad it exists and delighted that I own a copy of it.

A good translation, I think most would agree, captures not only words but feeling.  If the original is  gentle, or harsh, or graceful, or boisterous, that should not be lost.  If  it is clumsy but full of heart, then it would be best to preserve that special charm. If it is intended to be educational factual, specific, and precise, then it is best rendered so. Imagery, allegory, and metaphor should be clung to for dear life. 
So then, translation is both a skill and an art, which is guided by a philosophy which may differ from person to person based upon a number of factors, one of which is the nature of the work being translated.  A hymn, we've seen, may be translated in different ways based upon various priorities, and the same is true for just about any other written work.  It is true for literature, which can be rendered sublime or soporific by translation. Perhaps most significantly, it is true of the Holy Bible.  One might think the belief that the scriptures are the inspired Word of God would simplify matters, but in fact it only complicates them, as the hundreds of translations and versions currently available in English will testify.

The background and goals of the translator are also considerations.  Leupold, for instance, compiled his edition with an eye toward students of the works of Luther whose limited abilities in German and/or Latin would prevent them from reading his work in the languages in which they were written.  Since his focus was on Luther, the man and his message, it makes perfect sense that selected the MacDonald translations.  The editors of the Trinity Hymnal, on the other hand, were looking to edify the church at large.  In order to accomplish this, the hymns they chose had to be not only meaningful, but  embraced.  Similarly a translator cannot help but be influenced by his or her own intellectual or spiritual biases, goals, natural tendencies, areas of expertise or enjoyment, etc.  Whether a translator is a musician, a historian, a poet, a theologian,  or a linguist, his translations will undoubtedly be colored by the strokes of his particular art.

So my word of encouragement for today is to take notice of translations.  Remember that for most foreign works there are more than one. Surround yourself with them when you can. Compare them. Appreciate them as art and critique them as well.  When you find a work difficult, there is hope.  Look for another translation!  Learn about the translators of your favorite editions, and your least favorite ones as well. Discern their motivations, passions, and philosophies.  Occasionally this may illuminate some unexpected motivation.  Certainly it will enrich your understanding and appreciation of their work.

* For the piqued curiosity I've included the full text of MacDonald's translation below:

"Our God He Is a Castle Strong"

Our God he is a castle strong,
A good mail-coat and weapon;
He sets us free from ev'ry wrong
That wickedness would heap on.
The old knavish foe 
He means earnest now;
force and cunning sly
His horrid policy,
On earth there's nothing like him.
Tis all in vain, do what we can,
Our strength is soon dejected.
but He fights for us, the right man,
By God himself elected.
Ask'st thou who is this?
Jesus Christ it is,
Lord of Hosts alone,
And God but him is none,
So he must win the battle.

And did the world with devils swarm,
All gaping to devour us,
We fear not the smallest harm,
Success is yet before us.
This world's prince accurst,
Let him rage his worst,
No hurt brings about;
His doom it is gone out,
One word can overturn him.

The word they shall allow to stand,
Nor any thanks have for it; 
He is with us, at our right hand,
With the gifts of his spirit.
If they take our life,
Wealth, name, child and wife - 
Let everything go:
They have no profit so;
The kingdom ours remaineth.

** Leupold explains at greater length:
"To the modern ear Luther's verses sound awkward, if not uncouth. They lack the rich emotional overtones, the mellow flow of words, and the metric regularity that we commonly associate with poetry.  Some of them sound more like prose than poetry....The hymns of the nineteenth century that form the bulk of today's hymnals were written according to the artistic canons of Romanticism.  They use beautifully polished phrases and dance or march rhythms to create a certain mood and to give an ornate expression to personal religious feelings.  But Luther's hymns were meant not to create a mood, but to convey a message. They were a confession of faith, not of personal feelings.  That is why, in the manner of folk songs, they present their subject vividly and dramatically, but without the benefit of ornate language and other poetic refinements.  They were written not to be read but to be sung by a whole congregation....
"The language and vocabulary are therefore simple and direct.  Like the ancient Hebrew poets he knew so well, Luther used few adjectives and formed brief pungent lines consisting almost exclusively of verbs and nouns. Most of the words are monosyllables.  The thought is condensed and concentrated. Frequently every line forms a sentence of its own....A crowd sings a verse at a time, and so each verse must make sense as a unit.
"Again, our modern hymns are iambic, trochaic, or dactylic, i.e., they observe a regular succession of metrical feet.  The rhythmic structure, i.e., the succession of accented and unaccented syllables, is the same from stanza to stanza and often from verse to verse....But this tramping or tripping of metrical feet was foreign to Luther and was not in fact made a law of poetry until one hundred years later....Luther counted syllables, but the accents vary from line to line....Instead of fitting sentences into the rigid mold of metrical feet, Luther was able to stress certain words irrespective of the tyranny of 'light' and 'heavy' accents....Also in the matter of rime, Luther's hymns are much freer than those of later centuries.  Often there is more of an assonance than a proper rime. On the other hand, there are many alliterations."

Saturday, November 5, 2011

On Singing Hymns

"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God."  Col. 3:16

"And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart..." Eph. 5:18,19
Have you ever noticed the parallel between these separate passages from two of Paul's letters? Years ago a pastor called it to my attention when I asked what being filled with the Holy Spirit meant, or what it looked or felt like. He showed me the connection between the statements, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly..." and " filled with the Spirit..."  Aha! Paul equates being filled with the Spirit with letting "the word of Christ dwell in you richly". This is helpful!

More recently my current pastor followed the parallels a bit further. In the Ephesians passage Paul begins by explicitly commanding the church to abandon drunkenness and to instead be filled with the Spirit. (His use of the imperative tells me that this "being filled" is something we can determine to do, that being filled with the Spirit is an intensely practical matter and not merely a passive experience.) He goes on immediately to tell us how to do it: through speaking and singing. To be filled with the Holy Spirit is to be full of the word of Christ, which comes to us through teaching and admonishment, which come through both the spoken word and music. 

There are a couple of the clear implications here. The first is that the indwelling of the Spirit of God is not merely an individual matter; it is a corporate one. The second is that the music we are to sing with and to one another is to be full of God's Word and wisdom. It's purpose is to teach and admonish us - to fill us with sound doctrine. God intends for music to play a key role in both the education and corporate life of His people. Music, it seems, is essential to the building up of God's church.

This is why the greatest and most timeless hymns are full of teaching. Much like sermons, hymns are often meditations based directly upon a particular passage of Scripture, and sometimes upon the applications of key teachings of Scriptures to our lives. This makes a hymn a unique gift to the church. It is sermon put to music, but in a way it is better than a sermon. How many sermons, after all, do you know by heart?  How many can you fall asleep singing and wake up humming? Songs have a way of burrowing permanently into our souls. What better way to embed the Word of Christ into our hearts?

For this reason, I believe the church should be fighting to maintain and build upon her ancient tradition of hymnody. The hymns that have stood the test of history tend to be those that fill exactly this purpose. They teach us; they admonish us; they fill our hearts and minds with wisdom from God and with thanksgiving to Him. With them we worship Him with our lips. With them we strengthen His body, the church, educating her, warning her, encouraging her. All of this glorifies Him. God is not only glorified by sounds coming from our lips. He is glorified in the strength and beauty of His church as His Spirit indwells her.

These past several decades, the church in America seems to have lost much of her interest in hymnody.  Following the musical tastes and popular music of the day she has focused nearly exclusively on what I would characterize as "spiritual songs". While such music also plays a vital role in the church, it should never do so to the exclusion of psalms and hymns. I have two big hopes: one is that the musicians of this and upcoming generations of the church will embrace the church's greatest historical hymns, perhaps creating new and innovative arrangements for some of them; the other is that new hymns will be written - hymns that will continue to build a foundation of faith, that will fill the church with wisdom and the word of Christ so that she may filled with the Holy Spirit of God.

"Oh sing to the LORD a new song,
   for he has done marvelous things!
His right hand and his holy arm
   have worked salvation for him." Ps. 98:1

I'm not a musician, but overwhelmed in contemplating the great doctrine known as the hypostatic union, even I was once moved to attempt words for a hymn.  Perhaps one of you, one more talented than I, will consider doing the same.

So let me leave you with a beautiful modern rendition of one of my favorite hymns.  It is over two hundred years old and rich with scriptural truth - a meditation on the faithfulness of God to uphold His people through the most difficult times.  It is everything a Christian hymn should be, full of reminders of the character of God and the strength He is and gives to all who hope in Him. 

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said—
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?

“Fear not, I am with thee, oh, be not dismayed,
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by My gracious, omnipotent hand.

“When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
For I will be with thee thy trouble to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

“When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not harm thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.

“The soul that on Jesus doth lean for repose,
I will not, I will not, desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”