Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Fleeing from God's Wrath?

Last weekend, I sang the Verdi Requiem with Back Bay Chorale, and it was quite the experience! I recommend you start the (rather long) YouTube video I embedded now so you can get a taste of that experience as you read.

For those of you unfamiliar with Guiseppe Verdi, he was an Italian opera composer, so his work is very dramatic and bombastic. He wrote the Requiem for an opera great who had died the year before, and used the stark contrasts of operatic music to show depict fear of hell and hope of peace in the next life. I felt the bombastic music very acutely because, as a first soprano, I was placed directly behind the bass drum and three timpani! We had eight (!) trumpeters, which also contributed to the "wall of sound" effect the audience experienced.

My conductor is a lifelong Christian. He observed that while Verdi was a secularist, his Requiem places a lot more emphasis on fear of hell and God's wrath than other requiem settings in the Western musical corpus. He theorized that Verdi might have been more afraid of God's judgment or the afterlife than some of his more devout fellow composers because he did not have a personal relationship with God.

Verdi might have been interested to read about the recent discussion around Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins, if he had been alive today. The existence and nature of hell is still a widely debated issue in the Church today, and for good reason. On the one hand, we want to see those who perpetrate injustice get their comeuppance. On the other hand, what kind of loving God sends God's own special creations to a place of torment? My take on it is that hell may not necessarily be in the afterlife; sometimes that "eternal death" and torment can be a part of our existence here on earth.

As a Methodist, I must heed John Wesley's admonishment to "flee from the wrath to come." We don't know how Wesley thought about hell, but we know he had a healthy respect for God's judgment of evildoers- including us! He was motivated to be sure of his salvation by fear of what might happen if he was not forgiven of his sins. Sometimes I think that Methodists today take our salvation for granted, more often considering the "free gift" element of God's grace than our deep need for it.

Singing the Requiem last week gave me an appreciation for our need to flee from God's wrath. I was called upon to depict the coming of God's anger and to beg for God's mercy (Kyrie Eleison) and God's liberation from sin and death (Libera Me). That music is seriously scary!

When I sang, "Liberate me, O God, from eternal death," I thought about how Paul said that the earth is crying out in labor pains as we, God's people, birth God's Kingdom of peace and love in the world. We still need to be liberated from sin; God's Kindgom is coming, but it's not all the way here yet. Likewise, I myself have been forgiven, yet I have not yet reached Christian perfection. I still sin, and need to be constantly made more holy through the work of the Holy Spirit in my life. When I sang this piece, I cried out to God to save me from my sins now and the sins I will commit (or omit) in the future.

We as Methodists must "flee from the wrath to come" ...but we run right into the arms of our Savior. Our God is both just and merciful. Although we continue to sin, God welcomes us with open arms every time we come running back. That is what Verdi didn't know. Because he saw God as a one-dimensional judge, he didn't realize that God's love contains both God's justice and mercy. I certainly hope that at some point before his death, he experienced God's love and forgiveness. If he did, he probably had a deep appreciation for his salvation. May we all appreciate our salvation as deeply as Wesley.

UPDATE 6-29: I just found an article by Rev. Larry Hollon on this very same topic: John Wesley and the idea of hell on earth. It describes JW's Industrial Revolution context, and I think all Methodists should know this!

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