Roundup: Four talks and an interview

Hi friends. I’m preparing for a trip to Bangalore, India, later this month, to meet an artist whose work I admire, Jyoti Sahi [previously]. I apologize for being slow to respond to emails lately, but I do appreciate each and every message I receive from my readers! I read them all and will try my best to respond just as soon as I get the chance. Please note: email is the best way to get in touch with me, as I’ve found that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter messages tend to get buried under a slew of notifications and are harder for me to tag and track. Thank you again for your support of Art & Theology, and for all your questions, encouragements, personal introductions, invitations, and art recommendations.

In this roundup I want to share a few recorded lectures that I’ve listened to in the past month and have really enjoyed; I hope you will too. The first two are by art historians speaking to secular audiences at museums about the (Protestant) art of the Dutch Golden Age—which I saw a lot of this spring during my visit to the Netherlands! The second two are by Christian professors speaking at Christian academic institutions, from different angles, about prophetic art. And lastly, Biola University interviews Krista Tippett, one of my absolute favorite podcast hosts.

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“Dutch Art of the Golden Age, 1600–1675” by Dr. Eric Denker, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, July 14, 2019: In this hour-long lecture, Eric Denker discusses some of the highlights from the National Gallery of Art’s seventeenth-century Dutch art collection: paintings by Emanuel de Witte, Jan van der Heyden, Salomon van Ruysdael, Aelbert Cuyp, Ludolf Bakhuizen, Hendrick ter Brugghen (of the Utrecht Caravaggisti), Frans Hals, Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck, Judith Leyster, Thomas de Keyser, Rembrandt, Jan Steen, Pieter de Hooch, Willem Claesz Heda, Johannes Vermeer, Ambrosius Bosschaert, and Adriaen Coorte. These include scenes of everyday life (such as church and domestic interiors), landscapes, portraits, and still lifes.

Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam by Emanuel de Witte
Emanuel de Witte (Dutch, ca. 1616–1691/92), The Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, ca. 1660. Oil on canvas, 31 11/16 × 39 3/8 in. (80.5 × 100 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

I especially appreciated him pointing out details from de Witte’s Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, which brings together death (a burial plot has just been dug up under the stone floor, with a skull visible in the upturned dirt heap) and life (a woman nursing her infant on a bench at the right). Unlike the French and Italian painting of the time, Denker says, in Dutch painting “there is nothing too vulgar . . . to portray. They felt that they inhabited God’s world, and that everything that existed in that world was necessarily of God’s making.” Hence the dog relieving himself on a column!

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“Food for Thought: Pieter Claesz. and Dutch Still Life” by Dr. John Walsh, Yale University Art Gallery, September 25, 2015: The Dutch coined the word “still life” (stilleven) to describe pictures of things that are incapable of movement or that lack a soul. In the Dutch conception, such paintings weren’t just for looking at but also for meditating on; the aim, in other words, was visual pleasure and moral edification. John Walsh outlines various categories: vanitas paintings, breakfast pieces, kitchen still lifes, pipe-smoking pieces, arrangements of food and wares on a table, fruit pieces, compositions of dead game and weapons, and flowers.

Walsh discusses many different paintings in detail, by many different artists (not just by the premier one in the lecture title), including a few examples of contemporaneous still lifes from Italy and Spain. He really made them come alive for me! The feasts of meats and cheeses, fruits and vegetables, for example, with all their subtle richness of texture and color, are a celebration of God’s goodness. In honor of Thanksgiving in a few weeks, here’s Pieter Claesz’s Still Life with a Turkey Pie:

Claesz, Pieter_Still Life with a Turkey Pie
Pieter Claesz (Dutch, 1597/98–1660), Still Life with a Turkey Pie, 1627. Oil on panel, 29.5 × 51.9 in. (75 × 132 cm). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

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“Practicing the Prophetic: Liturgy, Formation, and Discernment for Public Life” by Dr. James K. A. Smith, Seattle Pacific University, October 16, 2019: James K. A. Smith has made a name for himself writing about worship, worldview, and cultural formation, through such books as You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit and his Cultural Liturgies series. The first half of this talk, which starts at 6:15, is a good introduction to his work in that arena, as he discusses the liturgical nature of public life—how “the rhythms and rituals of public life aren’t just something we do; they are also doing something to us.” Cultural forces can de-form us, he says, in often insidious ways, such that we don’t even realize the deformation. Smith is all about getting us to take stock of what we’ve been conscripted to want, to love, to hope for; to perform a “liturgical analysis” on the social imaginary that we’ve absorbed through our culture’s images, stories, myths, rituals, practices, etc. And for a toolkit, he offers St. Augustine.

The second half of the talk (starting at about 33:40) is devoted to “the art of prophetic hope,” which “requires both the renewal of the Christian imagination and an outward offering of a Christian imagination for the sake of the world.” He continues: “What’s at stake in our liturgical formation is really a restorying of the imagination. It’s a restoring of the imagination because it’s a restorying of the imagination. And if Christianity has something to offer our neighbors, I think that will be most powerfully and prophetically embodied in the arts, which meet people on the register of the imagination.” I am always so compelled by Smith’s words; they’re all so quotable. But particularly germane to the Art & Theology project I have going here, and also to the upcoming Advent season, is what he says about a truly “Christian” art being that which holds together hurt and hope:

There is nothing more scandalous than Christian eschatology, I realize. And yet nothing speaks more directly to a hurtful and fearful world. This eschatological orientation, which is at the heart of the prophets, fuels art that is suspended between the already and the not yet. The unique imaginative capacity of the arts speaks to this ineffaceable human hunger for restoration even while honoring the heartbreak of our present pilgrimage. A Christian eschatology nourishes a distinct imagination that refuses to be constrained by the catalog of the currently available and instead imagines a world to come breaking into the present. Art that is infused with this eschatological imagination at once laments and hopes. In its lament, it honors our experience of brokenness, the heartbreak of the now. And in its hope, it gives voice to our longings. It neither wallows in romanticized tragedy nor escapes to sentimental naivete. Such eschatological art is like an embodied form of the Lord’s Prayer. Each such work is its own requiem, such that what Jan Swafford says of Mozart’s Requiem could be true of all such eschatological art. He says, “It’s full of death and hope, lacerating sorrow and uncanny beauty.”

I like this “uncanniness” metaphor. Uncanniness is an apt descriptor of such art that paints beauty with ashes, that can walk the soul through the valley of the shadow of death on the way to a feast in the wilderness. Such art stops us short in its uncanny, even paradoxical, ability to embody both hurt and hope.

By way of example, he discusses the Tomb of Maria Magdalena Langhans (1723–1751), who died in childbirth, along with her baby, on Holy Saturday; the Memorial to Fallen Workers in Hamilton, Ontario; and Sugar and Spice by Letitia Huckaby [previously].

Nahl, Johann August_Tomb of Madame Langhans
Johann August Nahl (German, 1710–1781), Tomb of Mme. Maria Magdalena Langhans, 1751–53. Sandstone. (This is an 18th-century replica; the original is in the village church of Hindelbank in Bern, Switzerland.)

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“Turn and Face the Strange: Thoughts on Ergonomics and Artistry” by Jeffrey Overstreet, Sacrament & Story conference, Brehm Cascadia, Bellevue, Washington, April 5, 2019: “This is a presentation about the courage that artists must have in order to behold, and then bear witness to, new visions of beauty and truth,” says film critic and professor Jeffrey Overstreet [previously here and here]. He teaches his students at Seattle Pacific University (a Christian institution) to ask, like Miles Morales, “What’s up, danger?” To go outside the walls, to the wild edges, and be still, and then to report on that encounter. Films he discusses, whose characters (or director) “go to the edge of the water,” so to speak, include Babette’s Feast, The Secret of Kells, The Fits, Moonrise Kingdom, and 24 Frames.

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An Interview with Krista Tippett by Jonathan A. Anderson, Biola University presidential luncheon, La Mirada, California, February 22, 2017: Journalist Krista Tippett is the most talented interviewer I know—time after time initiating open, hospitable, genuinely mutual conversations with a range of subjects. (It’s no wonder she’s won a Peabody Award and a National Humanities Medal! The latter for “thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence.”) Here Jonathan A. Anderson, the director of Biola University’s Center for Christianity, Culture, and the Arts, interviews her, and it’s so rich!

After graduating from Brown in 1983, Tippett became a foreign correspondent in divided Berlin. After years of that, she earned an MDiv from Yale. In 2003 she created the NPR show Speaking of Faith, which, despite initial skepticism from many corners, became wildly popular and evolved into On Being. Her upbringing was Christian, but she interviews people from all different faith traditions—poets, clergy, scientists, doctors, historians, activists, etc.—always opening with the question “What is your spiritual background?” The show’s tagline is “Pursuing deep thinking, social courage, moral imagination and joy, to renew inner life, outer life, and life together.” Again and again, On Being brightens my outlook, builds my compassion, and gives me hope and inspiration, and I’m so grateful to Tippett for creating that space.

In her interview at Biola, Tippett describes what it was like to discover theology as “one of humanity’s great disciplines,” as “carrying questions and virtues and substantive riches that should be able to find a way in public life true to their depth and their wisdom.” She discusses her desire to be true to the intellectual and spiritual content of faith—the latter almost absent in public talk; how she responds to the criticism of being “soft” on religious voices; and she gives tips for conversing with those you disagree with. When Anderson opened up the Biola project to critique by asking her the problems and possibilities with their approach to Christian liberal arts education, she had this beautiful response: “Whatever our particularity is, that is our gift to the world.” To immerse oneself fully in a particular religious tradition is not a narrowing but a deepening, she said; being deeply who you are and having convictions and seeking truth is not incompatible with living lovingly and peaceably in a pluralistic world!

Tippett is the author of Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters—and How to Talk About It (Penguin, 2008) and Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living (Penguin, 2016). Her radio show / podcast, On Being, has a vast archive, and I only just became a listener two years ago, but here are some episodes that I remember particularly enjoying:

Tell the Story (Artful Devotion)

Lawrence, Jacob_Harriet Tubman and the Promised Land
Illustration from Harriet Tubman and the Promised Land by Jacob Lawrence (New York: Windmill Books, 1968; repr. Simon & Schuster, 1993). © Simon & Schuster

Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised,
and his greatness is unsearchable.
One generation shall commend your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.
On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.

—Psalm 145:3–5

Young Harriet Tubman (born Araminta Ross) was shaped, among other things, by stories of the mighty acts of God in history, especially his bringing his people into freedom. Her parents, who were devout Methodists, and others in her Maryland slave community fired her imagination with stories of the Red Sea crossing, Pharaoh overthrown, and a land flowing with milk and honey. Harriet craved that kind of freedom for her people and, as we all know, later led many into it.

In the 1960s, Windmill Books founder Robert Kraus commissioned the famous New York artist Jacob Lawrence to paint a series of pictures on any subject in American history to serve as the basis of a new children’s book. Lawrence chose Harriet Tubman (whom he had also painted a series on in 1939–40, The Life of Harriet Tubman [previously]). After Lawrence completed seventeen new paintings, Kraus wrote rhymed verse to go along with them, and the book was published in 1968 as Harriet and the Promised Land. (It was reissued in 1993 by Simon and Schuster; Kraus’s contribution is uncredited by choice in both editions.) It was the first children’s book to be reviewed in the Art section of the New York Times. The book emphasizes Harriet’s faith in God and his provision along the Underground Railroad, and Harriet’s role as a Moses figure.

Jacob Lawrence is one of my favorite artists, and I particularly love this painting of his that shows little Harriet sitting on a rock in rapt attention as an elder woman gives a performative telling of the biblical exodus story, recounting in detail how God brought his children up out of Egypt. In this nighttime scene, abnormally large bugs creep around on leaf and ground as the North Star shines bright above, a light that beckons and that will come to guide Harriet and others in a nineteenth-century exodus. Kraus’s text for the painting reads,

Harriet, hear tell
About “The Promised Land”:
How Moses led the slaves
Over Egypt’s sand.

How Pharaoh’s heart
Was hard as stone,
How the Lord told Moses
He was not alone.

Harriet Tubman is also the subject of a new dramatic film directed by Kasi Lemmons, currently in theaters. I haven’t seen it yet but plan to.

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SONG: “I Love to Tell the Story” | Words by Kate Hankey, 1866; refrain by William G. Fischer, 1869 | Music by William G. Fischer, 1869 | Performed by Emmylou Harris and Robert Duvall, on The Apostle soundtrack, 1998

Arabella Katherine Hankey (1834–1911) was a contemporary of Harriet Tubman’s (ca. 1822–1913), but she grew up in a much different context, as the (white) daughter of a wealthy English banker. Her family, though, used their wealth and influence to serve others. Her father, Thomas Hankey, was a leading member of the Clapham Sect, a group of evangelical Anglican social reformers whose avid campaigning, in society and in Parliament, led to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833. Though the group was waning as Kate was growing up, social justice (alongside personal conversion) remained a key aspect of the gospel her parents taught her, which impelled her to embark on ministry to young female factory workers in London, teaching them the Bible and, I presume, advocating for better working conditions, as her father had a generation earlier.

In her early thirties, a serious illness left Kate bedridden for a year. During her convalescence she wrote a long poem in two parts that she called “The Old, Old Story,” which tells the story of redemption, from the Garden of Eden to Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection to the Spirit’s outpouring, in fifty-five quatrains. “I Love to Tell the Story,” as well as her other famous hymn, “Tell Me the Old, Old, Story,” are derived from this longer work.

I like the paradox of “old” and “new” in Kate’s hymn, underscoring the enduring relevance and impact of Jesus’s self-giving. His sacrifice for sin was planned since the foundation of the world and accomplished in first-century Palestine but continues to resound anew today as it’s received into countless hearts and lives. It reminds me of Augustine’s famous exclamation to God in his Confessions: “O Beauty, so ancient and so new!”

“I Love to Tell the Story” features in the 1997 movie The Apostle, starring Robert Duvall as a charismatic preacher, with many flaws, who starts a church in the Louisiana bayou. Jeffrey Overstreet writes that it “may be the most unapologetic, intimate portrayal of a religious man in the history of American cinema.” Duvall wrote, directed, and, since Hollywood wasn’t interested, produced the movie himself. He said it was important to him to show Sonny as a complex character with a genuine faith rather than as a caricature of southern Christianity.

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Sunday’s reading from Psalm 145 celebrates the “wondrous works” of God, told down through the ages. Whether it’s God’s work through Moses or Harriet or the Clapham abolitionists to bring people out of literal enslavement, or God’s salvation of an individual soul from the bondage of sin, these are wonders to proclaim, stories that are part of God’s story, that we should love to tell.

Read the whole psalm.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 27, cycle C, click here.

How Long? (Artful Devotion)

Guayasamin, Oswaldo_The Cry
Oswaldo Guayasamín (Ecuadorian, 1919–1999), El Grito [The Cry], 1983. Oil on three canvases. Fundación Guayasamín, Quito, Ecuador.

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see iniquity,
and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law is paralyzed,
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
so justice goes forth perverted.

—Habakkuk 1:2–4

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SONG: “How Long, O Lord?” by Justin Ruddy, July 13, 2016

About this song, Ruddy wrote,

I haven’t really known what to say about the violence in our nation and around the world. There are specific events that I’m grieving, and then there’s just the toll of senseless violence stacked on senseless violence. I’m exhausted, and I’m not even a member of any of the affected communities. Lord have mercy. This lament just kind of poured out of me last week. How long O Lord?

Justin Ruddy is the founding pastor of Resurrection Church in East Boston, which just launched this fall. As a former minister at Citylife Boston, where I attended for five years, he has been influential in shaping my faith—especially my appreciation of liturgy and my practice of lament. When he wasn’t preaching or singing/playing music in worship, he often served as “presider” over the service, connecting together the various liturgical elements, weaving a narrative through line that illuminated the gospel for me week after week. When he spoke theology, he did so in such thoughtful and relevant ways. He also occasionally led us in responding to national or global tragedies or crises. His prayers in the wake of such events, such as the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, have taught me a way to pray through suffering. His song “How Long, O Lord?” exemplifies his approach—a biblical one—of bringing pain, grief, anger, exasperation fully before God.

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A theology that has no place for lament is left only with thin, inadequate murmurings. The covenantal relationship is reduced to a mere shell, maneuvered about with smoke and mirrors rather than serious and faithful engagement. . . . A theology which takes our covenantal relationship with God seriously must then also take the laments seriously. One cannot happen without the other.

—Logan C. Jones, The Psalms of Lament and the Transformation of Sorrow

Guayasamin, Oswaldo_El Grito I
Oswaldo Guayasamín, El Grito I
Guayasamin, Oswaldo_El Grito II
Oswaldo Guayasamín, El Grito II
Guayasamin, Oswaldo_El Grito III
Oswaldo Guyasamín, El Grito III

This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 26, cycle C, click here.

Forever Blessed (Artful Devotion)

Kussudiardja, Bagong_Christ and the Fishermen
Bagong Kussudiardja (Indonesian, 1928–2004), Christ and the Fishermen, 1998. Oil on canvas. Source: Ron O’Grady, ed., Christ for All People: Celebrating a World of Christian Art (Asian Christian Art Association, 2001), page 67

But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever.

—Daniel 7:18

And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.

“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets. . . .”

—Luke 7:20–23

Christians believe that the forever kingdom foreseen by the Old Testament prophet Daniel (in the vision that precedes the above verse) is the same kingdom that Jesus inaugurated in the New Testament. As Jesus preached the Beatitudes, he described those who would possess said kingdom: the meek, the merciful, and so on.

Daniel’s vision was of “one like a son of man” who was given, by the Ancient of Days, everlasting dominion over all peoples. Jesus uses the title “Son of Man” for himself all throughout the Gospel of Luke. He is the ruler of that expansive kingdom that had been prophesied about centuries earlier. It’s a kingdom that extends across the realms of earth and heaven, which will one day be joined back together. Its citizens are the saints of old (who trusted in God’s promises) and the saints of today.

On All Saints’ Day (November 1) we remember the powerful spiritual bond we have with our fellow “citizens” in heaven. We celebrate the examples they have left us, giving thanks for their lives.

Below is a song by a living saint that invites us into God’s kingdom and to “see with new eyes,” paired with a painting by a saint who has passed on, which shows Jesus building the kingdom.

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SONG: “Behold Now the Kingdom” by John Michael Talbot | Performed by John Michael Talbot and Terry Talbot, on The Painter (1980)

Grammy Award–winning singer-songwriter John Michael Talbot came to faith in 1975 while rock-’n’-rolling and shortly after joined the Jesus Movement. He converted to Catholicism in 1978 and two years later founded the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, an integrated monastic community with celibate brothers and sisters, singles, and families. He now lives at St. Clare Monastery in Houston, where he is still writing and producing music, donating all his proceeds to charities. On the album The Painter, he sings with his brother, Terry.

John Michael Talbot

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Bagong Kussudiardja (1928–2004) [previously] was a well-known dancer and choreographer from Indonesia who combined classical Javanese dance with modern dance, the latter of which he studied under Martha Graham in the 1950s. He was a Christian, and several of his dance-dramas were based on events from the life of Christ: the Nativity, the Crucifixion, and the Ascension, for example. He was also a visual artist who pioneered batik painting in Indonesia, although he worked in oils too. In 1958 he founded Pusat Latihan Tari Bagong Kussudiardja (Bagong Kussudiardja Center for Dance), followed by Padepokan Seni Bagong Kussudiardja (Bagong Kussudiardja Center for the Arts) in 1978, which is still flourishing. He was honored with a Google Doodle on his birthday in 2017.

Bagong Kussudiardja

Kussudiardja’s Christ and the Fishermen shows Jesus on an Indonesian beach (notice the traditional fishing boats in the background) wearing modern dress: a blue bathing suit, a white tank top, and yellow-rimmed sunglasses. He gestures expressively as he preaches to his new disciples who, in their contouring, are reminiscent of shadow puppets (wayang).

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For All Saints’ Day devotions from the previous two lectionary cycles, see:

  • “Sky World,” featuring a song in Mohawk by Theresa Bear Fox and a fancy dance by Apsáalooke hip-hop artist Supaman
  • “Around the Throne,” featuring an early Renaissance altarpiece from Italy and a late Renaissance motet from Spain

For other thematically related Artful Devotions, see:

  • “Shine Like a Star,” featuring a contemporary Ukrainian icon and an American folk song from the 1953 Ruth Crawford Seeger songbook, American Folk Songs for Christmas
  • “Cloud of Witnesses,” featuring a Paduan dome fresco of heaven and a hymn by Brian Wren and Gary Rand

This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for All Saints’ Day, cycle C, click here.

Roundup: “Say Yes!” Advent video, “Neighbor Songs,” poetry prescriptions, global art history, and more

ADVENT RESOURCES: Advent is just over a month away, and once again, SALT Project [previously] has produced some wonderful new devotional resources: (1) a customizable “Say Yes!” video for churches (see below), (2) a set of five unique “Say Yes” placements in three different color schemes, including black-and-white to be colored in by you and/or your family (note: these are sold as a digital download, so you will have to print and laminate them yourself), and (3) “Advent and Hygge: The Art of Coziness,” five devotional table tents, one for each week of Advent and a fifth for Christmas Eve/Day (promo video below).

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NEW ALBUM: Neighbor Songs by The Porter’s Gate Worship Project: Released October 25, an album themed on loving our neighbors across lines of difference. Contributing artists include Urban Doxology, Josh Garrels, Audrey Assad, Paul Zach, Casey J, Leslie Jordan, Zach Bolen (of Citizens), Diana Gameros, Latifah Alattas, Lauren Goans (of Lowland Hum), and others. Below is a promo video, followed by two songs from the album, “Blessed Are the Merciful” and “The Earth Shall Know.”

“The Porter’s Gate is a sacred ecumenical arts collective reimagining and recreating worship that welcomes, reflects and impacts both the community and the church. The group was founded in 2017 by Isaac and Megan Wardell with a mission to be a ‘porter’ for the Christian church—one who looks beyond church doors for guests to welcome. It started as a group of 50-plus songwriters, musicians, scholars, pastors and music industry professionals from a variety of worship traditions and cultural backgrounds who gathered to discuss challenges in the church and write songs in response.”

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ARTICLE: “The Best Christian Albums of the 2010s”: Three of my choices for top Christian albums of the decade were selected for this Gospel Coalition article—and I got to write about them! Liz Vice (whom I saw in concert this year), Psallos, and Poor Bishop Hooper are creating excellent, exciting, soul-nourishing music that every Christian should know about; these albums of theirs that I’ve blurbed make a good entryway into their fuller body of work.

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POETRY COLUMN: “Poetry Rx,” The Paris Review: Launched in March 2018, “Poetry Rx” is a column in which “readers write in with a specific emotion, and our resident poets—Sarah Kay, Kaveh Akbar, and Claire Schwartz—take turns prescribing the perfect poems to match.” Some letter writers need hope or forgiveness; others, self-motivation or courage. Others want to feel love, or want to know how to express immense gratitude, or joy. Schwartz writes, “When I sit down to answer these letters, I often find myself reflecting on the purpose of my response. What should the poem offer? Challenge? Company? Direction? Language for an old feeling? A way toward new possibility?”

I’ve so appreciated not only the prescribed poetry but also the vulnerability of the letter writers, who present complex cocktails of feelings that show the multifariousness of being human. For example, the September 5 write-ins were: someone who is terrified of forgetting little pieces of a loved one who has died; a college student experiencing a growing apart from her childhood BFF and who is therefore lamenting the loss of “the magic that is young female friendship”; and a novelist who is hurt that her boyfriend and mother are not interested in reading her latest book (“I am destroyed that those who urged me to chase my dreams now cannot be bothered to witness them. . . . Do you have a poem for me that can ease the loneliness of being a writer? Of creating a world that those you love will not step into?”). How to be optimistic for your partner, how to work through feelings of restlessness, how to deal with a loved one’s addiction, how to manage the inevitable losses inherent to the medical profession, how to navigate the disorientation following a loss of faith, how to make last an ecstatic moment in nature, how to persevere as a schoolteacher who is pouring all her intellectual passion into a seeming void (bored students)—these are all situations for which poetic wisdom or solace is sought.

One woman wrote in looking for a poem “for a mother’s love.” (“My love for my daughter sometimes feels terrible and desperate and weighty with responsibility. But also sweet and tender and silly.”) Kay prescribed “Saying Our Names” by Marianne Murphy Zarzana, which begins,

Notice how just one syllable—
say Jack—can expand and become
the world, round and whole,
when it is a child’s name
being formed by a mother’s mouth.

For someone who is “unfamiliar with the geography of joy” and wants to learn how to navigate that space, Akbar recommends “So Much Happiness” by Naomi Shihab Nye, which begins,

It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.

But happiness floats.

I got a kick out of the poem Kay prescribed to a “patient” who is experiencing loathing for the first time and doesn’t know what to do with it: “Grief, Not Guilt” by Jeanann Verlee. Its first three lines are

I wish you a tongue scalded by tea.
A hangover. Burnt toast. Stubbed toes. A lost job.
I wish you weeping in the shower. Salt in the sugar bowl.

For the death of a loved one, Schwartz prescribes W. S. Merwin’s “Separation,” which reads in full,

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

If you’re feeling discouraged by the onslaught of terrible news reports, try “Self-Portrait with No Flag” by Safia Elhillo, which begins,

i pledge allegiance to my
homies      to my mother’s
small & cool palms     to
the gap between my brother’s
two front teeth      & to
my grandmother’s good brown
hands       good strong brown
hands gathering my bare feet
in her lap

Introducing the column, the “doctors” wrote,

No, I don’t think that poetry will save us. And yet, and yet . . . The “and yet” is what this column is for. And yet, maybe we can find poems that vibrate at the same frequency that your heart is humming. And yet, maybe we can find a poem you can escape inside of for a few minutes. And yet, maybe you just needed an excuse to share the vulnerable parts of yourself, and what better way to honor that courage than to offer you the poems that carry us through our own vulnerable times.

If you’re feeling something that you want to see reflected back to you in poetry or through which you want poetry to guide you, write in!

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TV SERIES: Civilizations: Released last year and available on Netflix, Civilizations is a global art history series in nine episodes that “examine[s] the formative role of art and the creative imagination in the forging of humanity.” It expands on Kenneth Clark’s 1969 landmark series, Civilisation, which was criticized for covering only Western art history. Its three presenters are Simon Schama, Mary Beard, and David Olusoga.

As with any project of this scope, criticisms are bound to arise (several are mentioned, for example, in the mixed review from Hyperallergic), especially in how cultural interaction and exchange are discussed. But this focus on said interactions is, in my opinion, a hallmark of the series, and I think it was handled well overall. Rather than showing cultural production happening all over the globe in isolated pockets, it shows a mutual influencing in various directions. Episode 4, “Encounters,” is particularly dedicated to this theme, though it recurs throughout. Narrator Liev Schreiber opens that episode:

From the moment they meet, civilizations begin to influence one another’s art. During the 15th century, European sailors embarked on a new age of exploration. Cultures that previously were vast oceans apart now met for the first time. But before this became a story of conquest, plunder, and empire, there was a forgotten era of discovery. And for many, this was a golden age, when curiosity, mutual respect, and the exchange of goods and ideas were recorded in the art of countless human encounters.

So yes, you can see from this quote that the series does tend toward Westocentrism—but given that it was produced by Nutopia for PBS and BBC, I’d say that was unavoidable. This episode highlights, among many other artworks, Benin bronzes from modern-day Nigeria (whose artists acquired their raw materials from Muslim merchants crossing the Sahara and, later, the Portuguese); namban screens from feudal Japan; the folk art associated with Day of the Dead in Mexico (a fusion of Aztec beliefs and Catholicism), as well as the Aztec influence on the gory religious art of the Spanish Baroque; and zoological and botanical illustrations, including Dürer’s famous rhinoceros woodcut (based on a written description of a rhino that was sent to Lisbon as a diplomatic gift from India) and the revolutionary drawings of naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian, a woman from seventeenth-century Holland who traveled unaccompanied to Surinam in South America to document the plants and insects there.

In episode 5, “Renaissances,” I learned that at the same time Michelangelo was building St. Peter’s dome in Rome, the famous Turkish architect Mimar Sinan was building Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, both men vying for world’s biggest dome, to eclipse the Hagia Sophia. Michelangelo was aware of Sinan’s building projects through diplomatic and commercial reports. The East was also aware of the West—the Ottoman sultans invited Michelangelo and Leonardo in the early 1500s to build bridges in Istanbul.

Religion, of course, is a major through line, and there’s a whole episode (number 3), “God and Art,” devoted to it.

I also really enjoyed episode 6, “Paradise on Earth,” about landscape art around the world. It covers, among others, Chinese ink brush paintings, carpet weaving in Pakistan and Morocco, Jacob van Ruisdael and other Dutch landscape painters, J. M. W. Turner and Romanticism in England, the Hudson River School in America, Anselm Adams, and Hubble Space Telescope photography.

The whole series is beautifully shot and presented, and I recommend it. It enlarged my vision of the beauty of other cultures.

Highways to Zion (Artful Devotion)

Choumali, Joana_Ca Va Aller 54
Joana Choumali (Ivorian, 1974–), Ça Va Aller #54, 2018. iPhone photograph printed on cotton canvas and hand-embroidered with cotton, lurex, and wool thread, 9 2/5 × 9 2/5 in. (24 × 24 cm).

Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.

—Psalm 84:5 ESV

Alternate translation (NKJV):

Blessed is the man whose strength is in You,
whose heart is set on pilgrimage.

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SONG: “Marching to Zion” | Words: Isaac Watts, 1707, and Robert Lowry, 1867 (adapt.) | Music: Traditional black gospel | Performed by The Long Walk Home Gospel Choir, led by Dr. Clifford Bibb, on The Long Walk Home original motion picture soundtrack (1991)

I first heard this song years ago in the end credits of The Long Walk Home (1990), a historical drama film about the impact of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott on a black maid and her white employer. I was so moved by the spirited communal singing of this song about the people of God heading confidently through the fray of this world toward heaven, which alludes to the literal ascent of ancient Jewish pilgrims up the hill to Jerusalem. I looked up the song afterward to find that it is a gospelized adaptation of the Isaac Watts hymn “Come, we that love the Lord” and the nineteenth-century refrain added by Robert Lowry, which goes, in 6/8 time,

We’re marching to Zion,
Beautiful, beautiful Zion;
We’re marching upward to Zion,
The beautiful city of God.

Writing during the rise of American revivalism, Lowry also gave the hymn the tune by which it is commonly known and sung today, reproduced in many hymnals. Despite my being raised Baptist, I never recall having sung this hymn before.

The version of the song used in The Long Walk Home has a completely different meter (4/4) and tune, and it also foregrounds this revised refrain:

We’re marching, marching up to Zion
That beautiful city of God
We’re marching, marching up to Zion
That beautiful city of God

Despite extensive searching, I’ve not been able to find the composer of this version. The soundtrack liner notes credit it as a “Traditional” arranged for the movie by Bernard Sneed, who’s on piano, and Dr. Clifford Bibb, the song leader. The version they’ve arranged almost surely originated in the black church in America and appears to have risen to popularity in the late 1940s. Some early recordings include the Roberta Martin Singers, feat. Eugene Smith (1953); the Blind Boys of Alabama (formerly the Happyland Singers), feat. Clarence Fountain (1954, 1971, etc.); Rev. James Cleveland; the Swan Silvertones; and the Ward Gospel Singers, feat. Viola Crowley (1963). These are all great—but I think I still like the Long Walk Home Gospel Choir recording the best. The intro and outro, which use other musical motives from the film, were composed by George Fenton, who wrote the score not only for this film but also for Dangerous Liaisons, Groundhog Day, You’ve Got Mail, Anna and the King, Sweet Home Alabama, Hitch, The Lady in the Van, and others.

The song also appears under the titles “We’re Marching to Zion,” “Marching Up to Zion,” or “Marching On to Zion.”

If you have any info on the history of, or piano music for, this particular version of the song, please do share! Black churches, from what I can tell, sing both versions, but all the hymnals I’ve consulted use Lowry’s version.

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Joana Choumali from Côte d’Ivoire is doing beautiful mixed-media work that combines photography and embroidery. The above work is from her series Ça va aller (“It will be OK”). She began this series three weeks after the 2016 terrorist attack in Grand-Bassam, a historic southeastern seaside town where she used to spend peaceful Sunday afternoons on the beach. With her iPhone, she took photos of residents going about their daily business in the aftermath of this traumatic event, bearing their melancholy quietly. She said that adding the colorful stitches to the printed photographs was healing for her and an act of defiant hope. View more on her website.

In Ça Va Aller #54, a man walks a dusty road that erupts before him into a spectacular upward whirl of tiny cross-shapes that evoke a flock of wild birds or flower blossoms. I see joy, I see hope. I see a man stepping into and being led forward by these virtues.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 25, cycle C, click here.

Visio divina with Aaron Douglas’s “The Creation”

On September 15 I was invited by North Decatur Presbyterian Church in Georgia to lead a visio divina exercise during their morning worship services. Visio divina, or sacred seeing, is the practice of gazing on an image and opening yourself up to receive the gift that it holds. I approach images this way all the time, and while some people formalize the practice with a set of steps to follow, timed silences, restrictions, and such, my approach is a bit looser.

Because Pastor David Lewicki was preaching on Genesis 2, I chose Aaron Douglas’s painting The Creation. The leadership had already programmed in a reading of the James Weldon Johnson poem that directly inspired the painting, so introducing this visual corollary seemed particularly appropriate.

Note: I disagree with the popular notion, perpetuated by Johnson, that God created humanity because he was lonely; because he is in himself a loving community of Three, he did not lack companionship. Lewicki addresses this concern somewhat in his sermon and rightfully notes how the Genesis 2 creation account presents a God who is closer to humanity and the created world (he digs in the dirt!) and more vulnerable and improvisational than the God we meet in Genesis 1. I don’t believe Johnson’s beautiful poem should be scrapped because of those two (in my opinion) theologically problematic lines, but discretion should be used before presenting it in a worship context. For example, this wouldn’t fly at my church. The NDPC congregation, however, is more welcoming of imaginative engagements with the biblical story that might challenge traditional readings, so those lines were not for them impediments to worship, and I appreciated that Lewicki commented on them in his sermon, wondering about the “holy longing” the Creator must have felt for us.

Below are Johnson’s poem, Douglas’s image, and the transcript of my contribution, which I peppered with substantial pauses. To promote a better visio divina experience on your computer, I’d recommend right-clicking the image and selecting “Open link in new window,” then split-screening that window with this one; that way, you can more easily reference the image while you read. (In the future, I will try to produce audio for exercises like these.)

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Douglas, Aaron_Creation
Aaron Douglas (American, 1899–1979), The Creation, 1935. Oil on Masonite, 48 × 36 in. Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

“The Creation” by James Weldon Johnson

And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’m lonely—
I’ll make me a world.

And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.

Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That’s good!

Then God reached out and took the light in his hands,
And God rolled the light around in his hands
Until he made the sun;
And he set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
Then down between
The darkness and the light
He hurled the world;
And God said: That’s good!

Then God himself stepped down—
And the sun was on his right hand,
And the moon was on his left;
The stars were clustered about his head,
And the earth was under his feet.
And God walked, and where he trod
His footsteps hollowed the valleys out
And bulged the mountains up.

Then he stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren.
So God stepped over to the edge of the world
And he spat out the seven seas—
He batted his eyes, and the lightnings flashed—
He clapped his hands, and the thunders rolled—
And the waters above the earth came down,
The cooling waters came down.

Then the green grass sprouted,
And the little red flowers blossomed,
The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,
And the oak spread out his arms,
The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground,
And the rivers ran down to the sea;
And God smiled again,
And the rainbow appeared,
And curled itself around his shoulder.

Then God raised his arm and he waved his hand
Over the sea and over the land,
And he said: Bring forth! Bring forth!
And quicker than God could drop his hand,
Fishes and fowls
And beasts and birds
Swam the rivers and the seas,
Roamed the forests and the woods,
And split the air with their wings.
And God said: That’s good!

Then God walked around,
And God looked around
On all that he had made.
He looked at his sun,
And he looked at his moon,
And he looked at his little stars;
He looked on his world
With all its living things,
And God said: I’m lonely still.

Then God sat down—
On the side of a hill where he could think;
By a deep, wide river he sat down;
With his head in his hands,
God thought and thought,
Till he thought: I’ll make me a man!

Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in his own image;
Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Amen. Amen.

This poem was originally published in The Book of American Negro Poetry, ed. James Weldon Johnson (1922), and subsequently in God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse by James Weldon Johnson (1927).

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We are filled with the divine breath; we breathe God.

Take a moment to meditate on Aaron Douglas’s painting The Creation, made in response to the James Weldon Johnson poem that was just read.

What colors do you notice? What shapes? What movement? What shimmers for you in this image? Whatever it is, fix your eyes there. Now expand your gaze to encompass the whole image.

For me, what shimmers are the purples and blues, and especially the hand of God that reaches through the undulating atmosphere. In this image, creation swirls and dances, rises and rolls—the colors river every which way. Eight spheres—the planets, perhaps—float playfully like bubbles. It’s all a wondrous, dynamic, primordial burst of life, and we’re a part of it.

At the bottom, man emerges plant-like from the shadows, his face extending into an arc of light, the light of God. His feet are planted in the soil of earth, but heaven blazes all around him. He is an amphibious creature, belonging to both worlds, which here are united.

The poet uses maternal language to describe God’s ultimate creative act, saying that he knelt down at a riverbank and gently scooped up clay from its bed—then, like a mother coddling her baby, he formed humanity. Majesty stooping down in tenderness.

“Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Amen. Amen.”

Wrestling Jacob (Artful Devotion)

Jacob Wrestling by Walter Habdank
Woodcut of Jacob wrestling with God by Walter Habdank (German, 1930–2001), from the Habdank Bibel (Augsburg: Pattloch, 1995)

The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.

When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.”

But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

And he said to him, “What is your name?”

And he said, “Jacob.”

Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”

Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.”

But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.

So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

—Genesis 32:22–31

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SONG: “Wrestling Jacob,” aka “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown” | Words by Charles Wesley, 1742 | Traditional Scottish melody (CANDLER / BONNIE DOON), from The Hesperian Harp, 1848 | Performed by Tim Eriksen, on Soul of the January Hills, 2010

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.

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.

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.

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.

’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.

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.

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.

Yield to me now, for I am weak,
But confident in self-despair;
Speak to my heart, in blessings speak,
Be conquered by my instant prayer;
Speak, or Thou never hence shalt move,
And tell me if Thy Name is Love.

’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 bowels move;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

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.

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.

The Sun of righteousness on me
Hath rose with healing in His wings,
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.

Contented now upon my thigh
I halt, till life’s short 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.

Lame as I am, I take the prey,
Hell, earth, and sin, with ease o’ercome;
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.

In “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown,” Charles Wesley merges his own faith struggle with the story of Jacob’s literal wrestling with God at the Jabbok river. Holding on with a fierce resolve, the speaker demands to know the name and nature of the elusive being with whom he grapples, and midway through the poem, both are revealed to him as Love.

This story from Genesis has always compelled me—the strangeness of it, Jacob’s tenacity (“I will not let you go until you bless me!”), God’s naming act. I wrote about it in my very first contribution to ArtWay, back in January 2013, in relation to a painting of the subject by the Jewish artist Arthur Sussman. I see in it an invitation to wrestle with the unknown. If Jacob’s story can be taken as paradigmatic, then that means our persistence will be rewarded with divine revelation. In his striving with God, Jacob comes to see God truly, and he is forever changed.

Wesley brilliantly captures the essence of Jacob’s middle-of-the-night encounter in “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown.” I discovered the hymn years ago through Americana artist and musicologist Tim Eriksen’s moving a cappella rendition, which appears on his album Soul of the January Hills. (You can watch him singing it to a fiddle accompaniment at a Baroque church in Poland in this video.) Though it circulates with various tunes, Eriksen uses the one known as CANDLER, which originated in Scotland but first appeared in the US, in written form, in The Hesperian Harp in 1848, a shape-note tune book compiled by the Rev. Dr. William Hauser of Jefferson County, Georgia.

Hesperian Harp title page
Title page from the 1874 edition of The Hesperian Harp

I’m an amateur pianist and a church music leader, so when I encounter hymns I like, I try to find the four-part piano score to print, play, and archive. I found “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown” with CANDLER as #386 in the United Methodist Hymnal. (As for online availability, see a similar hymn sheet here.) The two-page version with notation includes only four verses (stanzas 1, 2, 8, and 9 of Wesley’s original fourteen-stanza poem), but it is followed by a lyric page, #387, that reproduces Wesley’s full text. A note follows:

John Wesley ended his obituary tribute to his brother Charles at the Methodist Conference in 1788: “His least praise was his talent for poetry: although Dr. [Isaac] Watts did not scruple to say that ‘that single poem, Wrestling Jacob, was worth all the verses he himself had written.’”

For more on this hymn, see the “History of Hymns” article from the UMC’s Discipleship Ministries, and the outline by Rodney Sones from the 2008 symposium on Charles Wesley at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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To visually illuminate Genesis 32:22–31, I’ve chosen a woodcut by the late Walter Habdank. It is one of eighty interpretive woodcuts he made (some black-and-white, some color) for the Habdank Bibel, an illustrated German-language Bible published in 1995. His works are technically and exegetically skillful. Here the “unknown traveler” is a shadowy figure whose hands on Jacob’s head and back seem gently placed rather than combative. It almost seems as if the two are embracing.

The image recalls the scene of Isaac bestowing blessing on his son, a blessing Jacob “stole” from his slightly elder twin brother, Esau, from whom he is now on the run. Habdank links the two episodes to emphasize that ultimate blessing, ultimate validation, come from God, who condescends to engage our grappling and who names us. God never does tell Jacob his name, but Jacob eventually recognizes who he is, as he exclaims afterward, “I have seen God face to face!” And he commemorates the momentous occasion by naming the place Peniel, “the face of God.” Our struggles, too, afford us the opportunity to encounter God—to experience through our weakness and our brokenness, as Charles Wesley would say, a deep realization of “pure, universal Love.”


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 24, cycle C, click here.

A Spacious Place (Artful Devotion)

Kravchenko, Olya_Landscape
Landscape painting by Olya Kravchenko, 2016

. . . you have brought us out to a spacious place.

—Psalm 66:12 RSV

I will be glad and rejoice in your love, for you saw my affliction and knew the anguish of my soul. You have not given me into the hands of the enemy but have set my feet in a spacious place.

—Psalm 31:7–8 NIV

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MUSIC: “Restoration Sketches” by Daniel Martin Moore, on Stray Age (2008)

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God has brought us out to “a spacious place,” the psalmist says in Sunday’s lectionary reading from Psalm 66—also translated as “a wealthy place,” “a watered place,” “a wide open place,” or “a place of abundance.” I love that phrase, “a spacious place.” In our English Bibles, it’s used also in Psalm 31 (though the Hebrew words are different).

Psalm 31:7–8 first stood in relief for me when, spurred by a loved one’s cancer diagnosis, I read Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ by J. Todd Billings. He opens the book with a meditation on these two verses:

One thing about the experience of being diagnosed with cancer is that it feels like a narrowing, a tightening, rather than “a spacious place” to dwell. . . . It feels a bit like the lights in distant rooms are turning off or, rather, flickering. They were rooms that you were just assuming would be there for you to pass through in future years. The space starts to feel more constricted, narrowed. . . .

In light of all this, it is important to remember a distinctive entryway that Christians have into this Psalm—that through God’s victory, our feet have been placed in “a spacious place.” Ultimately, to be and to dwell in Christ is to dwell in the most “spacious place” imaginable. In our culture, to focus one’s trust and affection on one hope—Jesus Christ—strikes many as narrow or risky. But because of who Jesus Christ is [the Alpha and Omega, and the One in whom all things hold together], to dwell in him is to occupy a wide, expansive place. (5)

This word, merchâb—“spacious place” or “large room”—is also found in 2 Samuel 22:20, Psalm 18:19, Psalm 118:5, and Hosea 4:16, where it denotes a place of openness, safety, and freedom.

Since reading Billings’s personal take on Psalm 31:7–8, whenever I feel like walls are closing in on me, whenever I feel pressed down by circumstances, I visualize a wide-open space and myself standing smack-dab in the middle of it, to remind myself that in Christ, there is freedom, there is freshness, there is an infinitely wide ground to stand on. However constricted we might feel in the moment, we must remember, as our spiritual forebears have testified in scripture, that our huge God leads us out of constriction and into a spacious place. Our circumstances might not change, but our spirits, through the Spirit, can know rest and relief.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 23, cycle C, click here.

Roundup: Roger Lowther on “all things new,” Lord’s Prayer song playlist, and more

If you live in the Baltimore-Washington area, I hope I’ll see you at one or all of the Eliot Society events this fall! For “Heaven in a Nightclub” on October 26, we’re bringing in jazz pianist Bill Edgar from Philly to give a combo concert-lecture highlighting the spiritual roots of African American music. “The Art of Feasting” will kick off our Living Room Series on November 8, as Heidi Stevens, who teaches art at a local K-12 classical Christian school, will guide us in looking most especially at food table still life paintings from the Dutch Golden Age. On December 13, we’ll gather together again for more food and drinks and to collectively read Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol in character. Reserve your spots at https://eliotsociety.org/!

Heaven in a Nightclub

Art of Feasting.png

Christmas Carol event.png

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CONFERENCE: The 2019 Madeleine L’Engle Conference: Walking on Water: I just caught wind of this great opportunity taking place November 15–16 at All Angels’ Church in New York City, where L’Engle was a member. “In celebration of Madeleine L’Engle’s centenary year, this inaugural conference brings together a diverse group of artists and seekers to explore, challenge, and deepen our creative lives. . . . The conference has a combination of keynote addresses, panel discussions, and workshops that will be of interest to people across faith traditions who are interested how faith and art inform each other. There will also be sessions on the works and influence of Madeleine L’Engle, and opportunities for alumni of her workshops to reunite and share stories.”

The conference is co-directed by Sarah Arthur, author of A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle (book trailer below), and Brian Allain, owner of Writing for Your Life. The headline speaker is children’s author Katherine Paterson (Bridge to Terabithia; The Great Gilly Hopkins).

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LECTURE: “Defining the New” by Roger Lowther: In this sixteen-minute talk from the Community Arts Tokyo International Arts Festival in June [previously], Roger Lowther draws out the festival’s theme of “All Things New” through piano music—namely, Bach’s Prelude in C Major and Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude. Both start out prettily, move through a section of dissonance, and then find a new and richer beginning on the other side. “In this world full of sadness,” says Lowther, “we can find a new beginning.” He tells the story of a church piano in Kamaishi City that took on water in the March 11, 2011, tsunami. Rather than throw it out as beyond repair, the church spent much time, effort, and money fixing it up, even though it would have been much easier to just buy a new one. In doing so, they demonstrated the gospel hope of “all things made new.”

Lowther and his wife, Abi, are the directors of the MAKE Collective, “a network of artists [under Mission to the World] who, like Bezalel, have been called by name, by God, and have been filled with the Spirit of God in wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and all kinds of craftsmanship (Exodus 31:2-3). They have embraced their gifts and accepted their unique opportunity and responsibility that the holistic, prophetic, and pastoral expression of those gifts affords in their participation in the evangelical/cultural mandate—God’s reconciliation of all things to Himself, in the context of global church planting movements.” Their values include listening, questioning, experimenting, challenging, generosity, transparency, inclusion, and excellence.

I had lunch with the founder of MAKE, Berenice Rarig [previously], last year and am always encouraged by the thoughtful content of the organization’s bimonthly e-newsletter—some of which can be viewed on their new website, https://themakecollective.org/. Their September newsletter pointed me to a new video of five missionary artists, including the Lowthers, discussing art as community building, as storytelling, and as therapy, as well as beauty in brokenness:

VIDEO: “Can Arts Also Be Missions?” [transcript]

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PLAYLIST: Philip Majorins of Liturgy Letter curated an excellent playlist of various settings and performances of the Lord’s Prayer by artists ranging from jazz greats Duke Ellington and Vince Guaraldi to gospelers Aretha Franklin and the Staples Singers to contemporary folk rockers Sandra McCracken and Gungor to Serbian Orthodox singer Divna Ljubojević and even the Byzantine darkwave band Anastasis. And more!

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CROWDFUNDING CAMPAIGN: Earlier this year I participated in the Art Stations of the Cross pilgrimage/exhibition in Amsterdam. One of the stops was Mozes en Aäronkerk, which housed Masha Trebukova’s Anywhere, Anytime. This series of paintings on glossy magazine pages raises awareness of human suffering around the globe, providing visual prompts for prayer and action. The artist is seeking to reproduce the images in a standard print-book format for mass production, and she needs help funding the project. Donate at https://www.voordekunst.nl/projecten/9400-anywhere-anytime.

Anywhere, Anytime