Wednesday
Jan022013

Latest Perspectives Now Online

A new issues of Perspectives: A Journal of Reformed Thought is now available online.

Take a look at this month’s offerings, including:

Subscribers, watch for your copies in the mail very soon.

Wednesday
Jan022013

Lamentation

From Jennifer Holberg

Two weeks ago, I was finishing the work of the semester and preparing for holiday travel, so I gladly yielded to the request from our editor to give my space to a guest blogger. That means I haven’t written a blog since the beginning of December. Maybe that’s why I’m still thinking about the old events of 2012 here in the new days of 2013.

Two weeks ago, I was still processing the Newtown massacre. I am still processing it. To be honest, I’ll probably never fully process it, at least in the sense of processing as “resolving.” “Evil,” as Flannery O’Connor once observed, “is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be endured.” Endurance certainly seems to have been strenuously called upon of late.

I suppose that’s why it bothers me so deeply that so soon after this tragedy (an inadequate word here to be sure, even in a hyperbolic age) that the press is full of pronouncements by self-identified Christians as to the reasons behind it.

Tuesday
Jan012013

Resolutions

From Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Happy new year! I suppose that makes it a bit late for resolutions. I’ve never been a big fan of them anyway—dubious as I am of self-improvement and willpower.

The whole idea of new year’s resolutions and their worth is a sort of subset of a larger, theoretical discussion of which I never tire. Can people change? I’ve gone round and round with friends and colleagues on this one. And I can pretty much argue either side, depending on which team is shorthanded.

On one side we have: “How you can you be a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and not believe that people can change? And anecdotally, we all have seen people whose lives and character have changed drastically.”

On the opposing side: “The human heart is a pretty stubborn and stable thing. Our warped nature is not easily trued. And anecdotally again, while people do change incredibly and dramatically, their deepest character, their secret wounds, seem just to be rearranged. Their needs are simply met in different ways. Saul/Paul was a combative, insecure guy both pre and post the Damascus road.

Discuss and debate among yourselves. It never gets old.

My skepticism about new year’s resolutions notwithstanding, I also share that today marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of a resolution I have kept, more or less.

Monday
Dec312012

Farewell, 2012, and farewell, Dr. Arthur Caliandro 

From Jessica Bratt



I was musing over some vintage images of Father Time and Baby New Year when I saw on Facebook (source of breaking news, for better or worse) that Dr. Arthur Caliandro, senior minister emeritus of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, has died. My thoughts turned to the ecclesiastical passing of time, and the handoff of leadership from one generation to the next. I felt it would be fitting to close out the year with a nod to Dr. Caliandro and the legacy his ministry leaves. I didn’t know him personally, but I know he was beloved by many; I trust that others who did know him will share memories and tributes in comments here and elsewhere. I hope that the confluence of his passing and the passing of one year to the next might give us occasion to reflect on the sweep of history in which God has seen fit to bless the the ministry of the body of Christ in New Amsterdam/New York, and on the sweep of time in which each of us lives our sacred journey.

Sunday
Dec302012

All-Night Wrestling

Prayer for the New Year: O Thou who art from everlasting to everlasting, and whose years have no end, look in mercy on us thy servants, whom thou has brought to the beginning of another year. Forgive the failures and sins of the year that is past; and establish the work of our hands, so far as it has been wrought in thee. Guide and strengthen us in the duties and trials which in thy providence await us, that whether we live, we may live to the Lord, or whether we die, we may die to the Lord. Prepare us by thy Holy Spirit for that which thou hast appointed us, and grant that in all things we may be accepted of thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.

This is the first prayer “For the New Year” in The Liturgy and Psalter of the Reformed Church in America, 1968. As it has no attribution, I assume it was written for the book. It is sober and scriptural (with echoes from the Order for Burial!) and it’s about as Calvinist as a prayer can get—which is not a bad thing, I should add. It’s a very good prayer evoking a mature sort of spirituality.

For the hymn this week, I offer you a hymn which is suitable for a Watch-Night Service on New Year’s Eve. The Watch-Night Service was a Wesleyan practice which came to adopted by many other Protestants, especially by the pietists and evangelicals within the Calvinist and Lutheran churches. The service offered a sober alternative to the New Year’s Eve revelry of the worldly. The suitable hymn is Charles Wesley’s “Wrestling Jacob.”

1. COME, O thou Traveler unknown,
      whom still I hold, but cannot see!
My company before is gone,
      and I am left alone with thee;
with thee all night I mean to stay
and wrestle till the break of day.

2. I need not tell thee who I am,
      my misery and sin declare;
thyself hast called me by my name,
      look on thy hands, and read it there.
But who, I ask thee, who art thou?
Tell me thy name, and tell me now.

3. In vain thou strugglest to get free,
      I never will unloose my hold;
art thou the man that died for me?
      The secret of thy love unfold;
wrestling, I will not let thee go,
till I thy name, thy nature know.

4. Wilt thou not yet to me reveal
      Thy new, unutterable name?
Tell me, I still beseech thee, tell,
      to know it now resolved I am;
wrestling, I will not let thee go,
till I thy name, thy nature know.

5. ’Tis all in vain to hold thy tongue
      or touch the hollow of my thigh;
though every sinew be unstrung,
      out of my arms thou shalt not fly;
wrestling I will not let thee go
till I thy name, thy nature know.

6. What though my shrinking flesh complain,
      and murmur to contend so long?
I rise superior to my pain:
      when I am weak then I am strong,
and when my all of strength shall fail
I shall with the God-man prevail.

7. Contented now upon my thigh
      I halt, untill life’s journey end;
all helplessness, all weakness I
      on thee alone for strength depend;
nor have I power from thee to move:
thy nature, and thy name is Love.

8. My strength is gone, my nature dies,
      I sink beneath thy weighty hand,
faint to revive, and fall to rise;
      I fall, and yet by faith I stand;
I stand and will not let thee go
till I thy name, thy nature know.

9. Yield to me now—for I am weak
      but confident in self-despair!
Speak to my heart, in blessing speak,
      be conquered by my instant prayer:
speak, or thou never hence shalt move,
and tell me if thy name is Love.

10. ’Tis Love! ’tis Love! thou diedst for me,
      I hear thy whisper in my heart.
The morning breaks, the shadows flee,
      pure Universal Love thou art:
to me, to all, thy mercies move—
thy nature, and thy name is Love.

11. My prayer hath power with God; the grace
      unspeakable I now receive;
through faith I see thee face to face,
      I see thee face to face and live!
In vain I have not wept and strove—
thy nature, and thy name is Love.

12. I know thee, Savior, who thou art,
      Jesus, the feeble sinner’s friend;
nor wilt thou with the night depart,
      but stay and love me to the end:
thy mercies never shall remove,
thy nature, and thy name is Love.

13. The Sun of Righteousness on me
      hath risen with healing in his wing:
withered my nature’s strength; from thee
      my soul its life and succor brings;
my help is all laid up above;
thy nature, and thy name is Love.

14. Lame as I am, I take the prey,
      hell, earth, and sin with ease overcome;
I leap for joy, pursue my way,
      and as a bounding hart fly home,
through all eternity to prove
thy nature, and thy name is Love.

This hymn about all-night wrestling with God serves well as a congregational Watch-Night hymn. We Protestants don’t do All-Night Vigils in the way that the Orthodox do, and even our occasional Easter Vigils don’t last all night. But many of us do know about the struggle of prayer, and to make music about our own experience of that struggle is a very Protestant way to go about it.

I can remember, from my childhood, that I used to see my father wrestle with God in prayer. I would see him in the living room as I passed by in the hallway. He was a pastor in a challenging situation: the ghetto of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, New York, during the 1950’s and early ’60’s. I’d see him on his knees, leaning into the seat of an easy chair, his head buried in his hands. It was not just for five or ten minutes, either. My pastorates were never so objectively challenging, but I am subjectively weaker, and so I’ve had my own nights when I couldn’t sleep, and have wrestled with God in prayer. I must admit that, weak as I am, I would give up praying and try to find a book to distract me. I never made it to the dawn which Wesley writes about in stanza 10.

The hymn, of course, is based on the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis 32:22-32, with particular emphasis on verses 24, 29, and 30. The Biblical text is intentionally ambiguous on the identity of Jacob’s opponent. He’s called an angel in traditional Jewish and Christian interpretations which are jealous against a Holy God doing something like this. But then Jacob calls the place “Peniel”, which means “the face of God.” In Martin Luther’s commentary on Genesis, he suggests that, yes, Jacob’s opponent is God (not only here, but his whole life long), and that the wrestler is actually the Son of God, before the Incarnation. Matthew Henry’s commentary follows Luther here, and that’s where Charles Wesley got it from. The Unknown Traveler was the only and eternal Son of God, foreshadowed in the Old Testament, but fully revealed in the New Testament.

Many consider this hymn to be Charles Wesley’s greatest. It was read at his funeral by his brother John. A typical Wesley touch is the opening lines of stanza 13 (“Sun of righteousness” is also in stanza 3 of Hark! the Herald Angels Sing). Another favorite Wesley theme, in stanza 2, line 4, “Look on thy hands, and read it there,” is based on Isaiah 49:16, “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands,” but of course Wesley is also referring to the crucifixion wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet (which image is more fully worked out in his hymn Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending).

Like other Wesley hymns, the very first word is “Come.” The genius of the hymn, I think, is revealed in the succession of the last lines of the fourteen stanzas:

1. and wrestle till the break of day.
2. Tell me thy name, and tell me now.
3. till I thy name, thy nature know.
4. till I thy name, thy nature know.
5. till I thy name, thy nature know.
6. I shall with the God-man prevail.
7. thy nature, and thy name is Love.
8. till I thy name, thy nature know.
9. and tell me if thy name is Love.
10. thy nature, and thy name is Love.
11. thy nature, and thy name is Love.
12. thy nature, and thy name is Love.
13. thy nature, and thy name is Love.
14. thy nature, and thy name is Love.

If we compare a hymn like this to modern scripture choruses, we see the weakness of such choruses (though they have their place). While choruses have the virtue of getting actual scripture quotations inside us, they fail to make the connection with real human experience in the way that a good hymn does. Scripture choruses are like raw vegetables, and a good hymn is like my mother’s scalloped potatoes. A good hymn uses poetry (not just rhyming, which is only “verse”) in order to evoke a whole experience, and a great hymn does it with scriptural imagery, and brings the Bible home. And yet, as Erik Routley used to point out, the best hymns are not overly poetic, or they don’t wear well. Their poetry is under¬stated, in the way that the poetry of folk-songs is understated. This hymn is too rich as poetry to sing frequently. But it deserves to be sung occasionally.

Wesley wrote this in an uncommon folk-song meter, 8.8.8.8.8.8. (the same uncommon meter as And Can It Be). English Methodists sing it to SURREY. Using ST. CATHERINE (Faith of our Fathers) makes it dreary, while SUSSEX CAROL makes it lighter. You might try singing it to VENI EMMANUEL (O Come, O Come, Emmanuel). Routley wrote his own tune for it, WOODBURY, which is number 46 in the RCA hymnal, Rejoice in the Lord.

Daniel Meeter is pastor of the Old First Reformed Church of Brooklyn, New York. His most recent book is Why Be A Christian (If No One Goes to Hell).