Sunday, October 14, 2007

My constant flame

Many of the most beloved of Lutheran hymns come from the pen of Paul Gerhardt. This year, 2007, marks the 400th anniversary of his birth. Gerhardt's biography is full of the tribulations brought upon ordinary people by the Thirty Years' War--disease, famine, destruction, death. His hymns radiate joy, confidence and peace rooted in the love of Christ. Here's a stanza:

Jesus, thy boundless love to me, No thought can reach, no tongue declare.
Unite my thankful heart to thee, And reign without a rival there!
Thine wholly, thine alone, I am; Be thou alone my constant flame.

Gerhardt's repeated declarations that Jesus' love overcomes death and gloom are hard for me to comprehend, and harder still when I try to think my way back to what it must have been like to live in Germany in a time when armies tramped back and forth across the land, leaving hunger and contagion behind them. This is the setting for Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage, and that post-World War II play inspires more cynicism than rejoicing.

Paul Gerhardt lived out the words of Paul the apostle: "Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice!" Paul wrote these words to the Phillipians from a jail cell, most likely in Rome. The entire letter to the Phillipians overflows with rejoicing, as if confinement and the threat of excution have pushed Paul into a higher level of consciousness, one where he can be content and rejoice with whatever he has. Was Gerhardt given the same gift? The same transforming faith in Christ?

Maybe it was that giant picture of the ascending Jesus that loomed over me in the church where I worshiped as a child. Maybe it's because the Jesus of the Bible lived far away and long ago in a culture I understand even less than that of 17th-century Germany. It's hard to admit this, as a committed Christian, but the thought of Jesus does not necessarily flood my heart with joy. Remembering that Jesus died for me does not make my head rest any easier on my pillow at night.

However, singing "Awake My Heart with Gladness," a Paul Gerhardt text, does make me glad (even if all those ascending melodic passages also make my voice tired). And not just glad, but hopeful, unafraid, certain of some kind of resurrection--many kinds of resurrection! "Now Rest Beneath Night's Shadow," with "Lord Jesus, since you love me" as the second stanza, calms my fears about my family and my future.

Gerhardt uses darkness and sunshine often as images in his hymns. The bright light comes from Jesus. Me--I don't see the sun rise very often. I start most days by cowering in bed until the clock says I absolutely must get up and then rushing around to pour cereal, make orange juice, pack lunches and drink coffee. The sun coming up every morning must have meant something different to people for whom it was pitch dark at night. Here I sit, working at the computer at 11:15 p.m., in flourescent light that is too bright, too tiring.

So where do I see Jesus? While singing "Jesus, thy boundless love to me" at this afternoon's Gerhardt festival at my church I thought of the ladies who cared for my husband, Lon, in the nursing home in the months before he died, and who were with him as he departed finally to be with God. This nursing home was full of African-American women who radiated faith in Jesus. There was a receptionist who listened and gave me a hug on a day when I was frazzled and needing to be anywhere but there. There was the director of the Alzheimer's floor who emphatically supported my decision to put Lon into hospice care. And there were these women who were with Lon when he died, and who told Lon's mother and me about it later. Oh, my Savior--yes, there in them.

Jesus surely lives in life's lesser moments, too, transforming anger into mercy, or frustration into patience. Jesus is there when Christians gather and sing, when they eat together, talk and lift one another up in prayer and celebration.

I must remember to name Christ in these moments.

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