“Jis’ Blue” by Etta Baldwin Oldham

 

Glory by Elizabeth Catlett
Elizabeth Catlett (American, 1915–2012), Glory, 1981. Cast bronze, 35.5 × 24 × 25.5 cm (14 × 9 1/2 × 10 in.). Edition of 9. Muskegon Museum of Art, Muskegon, Michigan. Head of dancer, educator, and civic activist Glory Van Scott (1947–), whose cousin Emmett Till’s murder in 1955 ignited the civil rights movement.

Jis’ blue, God,
Jis’ blue.
Ain’t prayin’ exactly jis’ now—
Tear-blind, I guess,
Can’t see my way through.
You know those things
I ast for so many times—
Maybe I hadn’t orter repeated like the Pharisees do;
But I ain’t stood in no market place;
It’s jis’ ’tween me and You.
And You said, “Ast” . . .
Somehow I ain’t astin’ now and I hardly know what to do.
Hope jis’ sorter left, but Faith’s still here—
Faith ain’t gone, too.
I know how ’tis—a thousand years
Is as a single day with You;
And I ain’t meanin’ to tempt You with “If You be . . .”
And I ain’t doubtin’ You.
But I ain’t prayin’ tonight, God—
Jis’ blue.

As far as I can tell, this poem was originally published in the July 1927 issue of The Forum, a magazine published from 1890 to 1950, and is now in the public domain.

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African American teacher, poet, and children’s book author Henrietta (“Etta”) Oldham (née Baldwin) was born September 21, 1888, in Big Spring, Texas. With husband Charles Oswald Oldham, she bore a daughter, Babette, but Charles died in 1922 at age thirty-three, and Etta never remarried. After Charles’s death, Etta spent seven years in Panama doing research for her book Pedro’s Pirate. She then returned to Texas, where she lived until her death in 1975.

Writing in African American Vernacular English, Etta gets real with God in her poem “Jis’ Blue,” laying all her frustration out on the table before him. The poem exemplifies the biblical practice of lament, of prayed sorrow. “Moving in our grief, confusion, and protest toward trust and thanksgiving in God and his promises” is the direction of biblical lament, writes J. Todd Billings in his book Rejoicing in Lament (46). While humility before God is a virtue, demureness is not. God wants us to be forthright with him. He much prefers honest emotional expressions to pasted-on smiles or disengagement.

Although its language can be sharp (Etta’s poem is much milder than most of the Bible’s lament psalms), lament is actually a form of praise, because it arises from the conviction that the Lord is a God of hesed, of “loving faithfulness”:

A conviction that God acts as the Lord who has bound himself in covenant love is at the theological center of the book of Psalms. . . . Because of their faith in God’s sovereignty, the psalmists have high expectations of God; because they take God’s promises seriously, they lament and protest when it seems that God is not keeping his promises. . . . The psalmists blame God in the interrogative, with raw, unanswered questions that cling to the hope of God’s covenant promises: Why am I in this crisis if the Lord’s covenant promise is true? In the context of covenant fellowship, God’s people can cry out to their covenant Lord—in complaint, even in protest and open-ended blame—until God shows his faithfulness according to his covenant promise. (50, 58–59)

Lament throws God’s promises back at him, says Billings. The promise that Etta calls God to account for is “Ask, and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7; cf. 21:22). I’ve asked and I’ve asked, she says, but still nothing. What’s the deal, God? Has my repetition become vain, invalidating my request [Matthew 6:7]? Come on, God, I’m praying discreetly, just like you taught [Matthew 6:5–6]! Because she’s tired of asking and therefore refrains from doing so in this prayer, we don’t know what it is she’s seeking. We don’t know the object of her lament. But that enables the poem to speak more broadly into different contexts.

When we’re hurting in some way (physically, emotionally, or spiritually) and we grow weary of praying over and over again for relief, it’s perfectly acceptable to stop short of entreaty and simply tell God, “I’m just sad.” Jis’ blue. “So blind with tears, I can’t see straight.” That in itself is a prayer—an openness to God. Although Etta says she “ain’t prayin’ tonight,” she has done just that. Not in supplication mode but in lament mode. It’s how Christians pray their suffering.

Her Wilderness Like Eden (Artful Devotion)

Bloom Within by Daniel Nevins
Daniel Nevins (American, 1963–), Bloom Within. Oil on wood, 20 × 18 in.

Isaiah 51:3:

For the Lord will comfort Zion;
he will comfort all her waste places,
and will make her wilderness like Eden,
her desert like the garden of the LORD;
joy and gladness will be found in her,
thanksgiving and the voice of song.

To view all the RCL scripture readings for Proper 16, cycle A, click here.

“The Comforter” by Thomas Moore (1779–1852):

Oh! thou who dry’st the mourner’s tear,
How dark this world would be,
If, when deceived and wounded here,
We could not fly to thee!

The friends who in our sunshine live,
When winter comes are flown;
And he who has but tears to give,
Must weep those tears alone;

But thou wilt heal that broken heart,
Which, like the plants that throw
Their fragrance from the wounded part,
Breathes sweetness out of woe.

When joy no longer soothes or cheers,
And even the hope that threw
A moment’s sparkle o’er our tears,
Is dimm’d and vanish’d too;

Oh who would bear life’s stormy doom,
Did not thy wing of love
Come brightly wafting through the gloom,
Our peace-branch from above.

Then sorrow, touch’d by thee, grows bright
With more than rapture’s ray;
As darkness shows us worlds of light
We never saw by day.


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“Aaron’s Beard” by Eugene H. Peterson

A song of ascents comprising just three verses, Psalm 133 is assigned as this upcoming Sunday’s lectionary reading from the book of Psalms. It contains two colorful similes that liken brotherly unity to (1) oil running down the beard and (2) a heavy dewfall. The first one offers an especially sensuous picture of consecration, of divine blessedness, referencing the anointing ritual for priests practiced in ancient Israel (see Exodus 30:22–33). Attracted to the poetic quality of this image, Eugene H. Peterson wrote his own nine lines around it, imagining God’s blessings, like oil, dissolving the rust that had accumulated over his belief.

Nude Old Man in the Sun by Mariano Fortuny y Marsal
Mariano Fortuny y Marsal (Spanish, 1838–1874), Nude Old Man in the Sun, ca. 1871. Oil on canvas, 76 × 60 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

“Aaron’s Beard” by Eugene H. Peterson

. . . running down the beard,
Upon the beard of Aaron . . .

—Psalm 133:2

Aaronic blessings
Run down my red beard
Refracting sun warmth
In oil ooze
 loosening
Ironic curses
Flecks of stubborn rust
Corrosive unbelief
Cynic stuff.


“Aaron’s Beard” is published in Holy Luck by Eugene H. Peterson (Eerdmans, 2013) and is used here by permission of the publisher. Reproduction of the poem without express permission from Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company is a violation of copyright.

One sonnet vs. shouted prose: Lady Liberty, Emma Lazarus, and Trump

Statue of Liberty

“The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

This poem makes me emotional. Embossed on a bronze plaque inside the Statue of Liberty’s base in New York Harbor, it articulates a beautiful ideal for the US: we are a welcoming refuge for the “wretched refuse” of the world, and therein lies our strength. The first lines of the sonnet contrast Lady Liberty with the Colossus of Rhodes, a 109-foot statue of Helios, the Greek god of the sun. One of the seven ancient wonders of the world, it was erected in 280 BC to celebrate a military victory. True to its purpose, it was given a fearsome, “Behold our power!” sort of stance.

Liberty has an imposing presence as well, but it’s tempered with “mild eyes” and the epithet “Mother of Exiles.” Maternal love is her stance. I care nothing for riches and glory, she tells the other nations. Send me, instead, the weak, the destitute, the hurting. My light is always on, inviting them to enter in and stay.

Lazarus’s poem is thoroughly in line with biblical values—which is no surprise, because she was herself Jewish. Here are just some of the verses in the Hebrew Bible that prescribe care for immigrants and affirm their rights. (The word “immigrant,” ger, is sometimes translated in scripture as “sojourner,” “stranger,” “foreigner,” or “alien.”)

Exodus 23:9: “You must not oppress foreigners. You know what it’s like to be a foreigner, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.”

Leviticus 19:33–34: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”

Deuteronomy 10:17–19: “The LORD your God . . . loves the immigrant, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are immigrants, for you yourselves were immigrants in Egypt.”

Deuteronomy 14:29: “The immigrant . . . within your towns shall come and eat and be filled, that the LORD your God may bless you.”

Deuteronomy 24:17: “You shall not pervert the justice due to the immigrant.”

Deuteronomy 27:19: “Cursed be anyone who withholds the justice due to the immigrant. . . . Then all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’”

Jeremiah 7:6: “Do not oppress the immigrant.”

Jeremiah 22:3: “This is what the LORD says: ‘Do what is just and right. . . . Do no wrong or violence to the immigrant.’”

Ezekiel 22:4, 7: “You have brought your judgment days near and have come to your years of punishment [because] . . . the foreign resident is exploited within you.”

Zechariah 7:10–11: “This is what the LORD Almighty says: Administer true justice, show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the . . . immigrant.”

Malachi 3:15: “‘I will come to you in judgment. I will be quick to testify against those . . . who refuse to help the immigrant and in this way show they do not fear me,’ says the LORD who rules over all.”

The immigrant belongs to the “quartet of the vulnerable”—along with widows, orphans, and the poor—whose cause God takes up over and over again throughout the Bible and commands his people to do likewise. “The mishpat, or justness, of a society, according to the Bible, is evaluated by how it treats these groups,” writes Tim Keller in his book Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. “Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity, but a violation of justice, of mishpat. God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. That is what it means to ‘do justice.’”   Continue reading “One sonnet vs. shouted prose: Lady Liberty, Emma Lazarus, and Trump”

A Steady Hand (Artful Devotion)

Peter sinking by Sharon McGinley
Painting by Sharon McGinley

Lectionary reading, Matthew 14:29b–33 (The Voice):

Peter stepped out of the boat onto the water and began walking toward Jesus. But when he remembered how strong the wind was, his courage caught in his throat and he began to sink.

Peter: Master, save me!

Immediately Jesus reached for Peter and caught him.

Jesus: O you of little faith. Why did you doubt and dance back and forth between following Me and heeding fear?

Then Jesus and Peter climbed in the boat together, and the wind became still. And the disciples worshiped Him.

To view all the RCL scripture readings for Proper 14, cycle A, click here.

Poem by Arthur Hugh Clough (1819–1861):

It fortifies my soul to know
That, though I perish, Truth is so:
That, howsoe’er I stray and range,
Whate’er I do, Thou dost not change.
I steadier step when I recall
That, if I slip, Thou dost not fall.

“Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand,” text by Jennie Wilson (1857–1913) and music by Franklin Lycurgus Eiland (1860–1909), performed by Angela Primm:


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Roundup: Contemporary santos; singing grace with knives; Auden interprets Bruegel; “The Old Churchyard”; pyrotechnic ladder

“The Cosmopolitan and the Campesino: The Sacred Art of Luis Tapia” by Dana Gioia: I first learned about the pioneering Chicano artist Luis Tapia from the book Crafting Devotions: Tradition in Contemporary New Mexico Santos. His work was memorable, so when I saw it on the cover of the latest Dappled Things issue, I was eager to read inside. Dana Gioia’s essay introduces us to work that is “both strikingly original and deeply respectful of its origins” in the Hispano religious folk art tradition established in New Mexico in the seventeenth century. Pushing the art of polychrome wood sculpture to new levels of craftsmanship and social and political commentary, Tapia “has enlarged his tradition to make it capacious enough to contain his imagination and the complexities of contemporary Latino experience.”

The art world is more accustomed to disruption and transgression than to transformative renewal. (What is more normative in art nowadays than transgression?) It is easier to renounce or mock the past than to master and reshape it to new ends. Assimilating the past, however, allows new work to carry powerful formal and cultural resonance, such as Tapia’s adaptations of New Mexican Catholic folk subjects and symbolism into new secular and social contexts. Tapia does not approach the past with the distanced irony and intellectual condescension of artists such as John Currin or Jeff Koons. Tapia remains invested in the forms, themes, and techniques of the New Mexican Latino Catholic tradition.

(Related post: “Religious art highlights from New Mexico”)

Pieta by Luis Tapia
Luis Tapia (American, 1950–), Pietà, 1999. Carved and painted wood, 20¼ × 14½ × 9½ in. Collection of John Robertshaw. Photo: Dan Morse, courtesy The Owings Gallery, Santa Fe.

Renaissance-era cutlery engraved with musical notations: The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has in its collection a rare “notation knife” from sixteenth-century Italy, whose blade contains on each side a line of music expressing gratitude for a meal. The inscription on one side reads, “The blessing of the table. May the three-in-one bless that which we are about to eat,” while the other reads, “The saying of grace. We give thanks to you God for your generosity.” The knife, which contains only a tenor voice part, belongs to a set. Art historian Flora Dennis, whose background is in musicology, tracked down the other three in the set and, with the help of the Royal College of Music, transcribed the voice parts into modern notation, then had the benediction and grace from the knives sung and recorded (listen below). Click on the link to hear curator Kirstin Kennedy discuss the knife’s possible uses, to view footage from the recording session, and to listen to two alternate recordings.

Notation Knife
Left and right views of an etched, engraved, and gilded steel knife with ivory, brass, and silver handle, by an unknown maker, Italy, 1500–50. Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Benediction, Version 1

Grace, Version 1

“‘About Suffering They Were Never Wrong’” by Kevin Antlitz: This essay about human indifference to others’ suffering centers on W. H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” which is itself a response to two paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Census at Bethlehem and The Fall of Icarus. Insights from Mark Twain, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Elie Wiesel, Nuremberg prosecutor Benjamin Ferencz, novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and St. Theophan the Recluse add to the commentary, which is personalized by the author’s reflections on his visit to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. The indictment is sobering: we are all of us guilty of evil—the enabler just as much as the perpetrator.

The Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel
Nobody notices the need of the pregnant couple—the Holy Family—making their way into town. Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Dutch, 1525/30–1569), The Census at Bethlehem, 1566. Oil on panel, 116 × 164.5 cm (46 × 64.8 in.). Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel
The plowman, shepherd, and angler continue with their work, indifferent to the upside-down, flailing legs in the sea beside them, and “the expensive delicate ship” at the crash site “had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.” 1560s copy of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Dutch, 1525/30–1569), Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, ca. 1558. Oil on canvas, 73.5 × 112 cm (28.9 × 44.1 in.). Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.

Offa Rex records spiritual folk standard “The Old Churchyard”: Olivia Chaney has teamed up with the Decemberists under the name Offa Rex to record an album that pays homage to British folk music. Released this month, The Queen of Hearts features a beautiful rendition of “The Old Churchyard,” a song about the pain of death and the hope of resurrection. It invites you, first, to come pay respect to loved ones who have passed out of this world over the years, then entreats you not to feel sorrow for them, “for sweet is their sleep, though cold and hard their pillows may be.” The song acknowledges that words are insufficient to comfort those left behind but nonetheless offers the reassurance of peace and rest for the deceased, and a glorious rising on the last day. (Thanks to Paul Neeley for this find!)

Come, come with me out to the old churchyard,
I so well know those paths ’neath the soft green sward.
Friends slumber in there that we want to regard;
We will trace out their names in the old churchyard.

Mourn not for them, their trials are o’er,
And why weep for those who will weep no more?
For sweet is their sleep, though cold and hard
Their pillows may be in the old churchyard.

I know that it’s vain when our friends depart
To breathe kind words to a broken heart;
And I know that the joy of life is marred
When we follow lost friends to the old churchyard.

But were I at rest ’neath yonder tree,
Oh, why would you weep, my friends, for me?
I’m so weary, so wayworn, why would you retard
The peace I seek in the old churchyard?

Why weep for me, for I’m anxious to go
To that haven of rest where no tears ever flow;
And I fear not to enter that dark lonely tomb
Where our saviour has lain and conquered the gloom.

I rest in the hope that one bright day
Sunshine will burst to these prisons of clay,
And old Gabriel’s trumpet and voice of the Lord
Will wake up the dead in the old churchyard.

Sky Ladder documentary (2016): This Netflix original directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) profiles the world-renowned contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang (pronounced Tsai gwo chi-ONG), who is best known for reinventing the possibilities of the firework, opening its purpose up beyond mere entertainment. Through interviews with the artist and his family, friends, and critics, the film tracks Cai’s rise from childhood in Mao’s China to global fame, addressing the cultural influences on his work, his desire to effect social change, and his struggles to maintain integrity and artistic freedom (his acceptance to design the fireworks display for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics was controversial).

The documentary shares its title with Cai’s decades-long obsession and most ambitious work to date: a pyrotechnic ladder that rises up over a quarter mile into the sky, as successive explosions etch each new rung and rail segment into place. “I want to connect the earth to the universe,” Cai said. It was fascinating to be let in on his process for this, his working through all the technical details and other hurdles. Three previous attempts to realize Sky Ladder were canceled—in 1994, due to bad weather; in 2001, due to the 9/11 attacks; and in 2012, due to a revoked permit. It wasn’t until 2015 that the project finally succeeded, in a small Chinese fishing village before an audience of a few hundred. It lasted approximately two and a half minutes. Cai’s Sky Ladder reminds me of “Jacob’s ladder” from Genesis 28:10–19, burning bright, connecting two worlds.

Sky Ladder by Cai Guo-Qiang
Sky Ladder rising. Photo: Lin Yi & Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio.
Sky Ladder by Cai Guo-Qiang
Cai Guo-Qiang (Chinese, 1957–), Sky Ladder. Realized at Huiyu Island Harbour, Quanzhou, Fujian, June 15, 2015, at 4:49 a.m., approximately 2 minutes and 30 seconds. Photo: Lin Yi & Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio.

Shine Like a Star (Artful Devotion)

Saints by Olya Kravchenko
Icon by Olya Kravchenko (Ukrainian, 1985–)

“And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”
—Daniel 12:3

“On that day the Lord their God will save them,
as the flock of his people;
for like the jewels of a crown
they shall shine on his land.”
—Zechariah 9:16

“Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”
—Matthew 13:43

Matthew 13:43 belongs to the Gospel lection for July 23, 2017 (Proper 11, cycle A). To read the passage in full, along with the week’s three other RCL scripture passages, click here.

“Shine Like a Star in the Morning” is an American folk song adapted by Elizabeth Mitchell from a string trio arrangement by Ruth Crawford Seeger. It appears on the 2013 Smithsonian Folkways album The Sounding Joy. Though passed off as a Christmas song, it seems to me especially fitting for All Saints’ Day (November 1), as it draws on those biblical passages that equate righteousness with resplendence.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his poem “The Starlight Night,” makes the same connection:

Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in the dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes!
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

 


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Roundup: Hebrews album; flags in church; God the Plowman; digitized prayer book; lively praise hymns

Psallos: The Hebrews Album (Kickstarter): You have the opportunity to help finance a musical adaptation of the book of Hebrews for folk rock band and chamber orchestra. Cody Curtis, the composer behind Psallos, has already written the music; now he needs your help to pay for the recording and production. Curtis has already proven his skill at capturing the varied tones and trajectory of an epistle with his setting of Romans, released in 2012 (read my review here), and Thomas Griffith and Kelsie Edgren are returning to lend their beautiful vocal interpretations. I have full confidence that Psallos’s second epistle-based album will be nothing short of amazing! Besides a copy of the CD when it’s released, tiered reward options include the chance to sing on the CD as a choir member, the choice of any passage of scripture for Curtis to set to music, and a Psallos concert at your church. Also, the team is looking for a videographer and donated instruments, so get in touch with them if you’re able to help out in either of those areas.

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Should Patriotism Have a Place in Church? I really appreciate John Piper’s response to this question in last week’s Ask Pastor John podcast episodes. (Listen to part 2 here.) “I have been in several churches,” he says, “where on the Fourth of July the focus”—on each of the military branches and patriotic songs and flags and marches and decorations in red, white, and blue—“seemed to me uninformed, unshaped by the radical nature of the gospel, and out of proportion to the relationship between America and the kingdom of Christ.” He advises that American flags not be displayed in the sanctuary, and pledges of allegiance to the USA not be recited in a worship service, because church is where we acknowledge the absolute authority of Christ and no other.

As Christians, Piper says, we have “no unqualified allegiance to any political party, any nationality, any ethnicity, any tribal identity, or any branch of the armed service. It is all qualified. It is all secondary. It is all relative to the will of Christ. We should not say anything or do anything that looks as if that were not true. . . . The recitation of a pledge to a human authority”—and/or the display of a symbol of national identity—“in the setting of the worship of divine authority does not provide for the kind of Christian qualifications and nuances that are so necessary precisely in our day.”

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“Process” by Charles L. O’Donnell: I selected and wrote commentary on a short poem over at Literary Life on the theme of God as plowman of the heart. It begins,

The seed, Lord, falls on stony ground
Which sun and rain can never bless—
Until the soil is broken found—
With harvest fruitfulness.

Spring Ploughing by John Constable
John Constable (British, 1776–1837), Spring Ploughing, 1821. Oil on panel, 19 × 36.2 cm.

Run by Rick Wilcox, “Literary Life is a celebration of the Word. Leading with a discussion of modern and classic literature, we seek to tease out eternal truths which may be illumined by fiction, poetry, art and music.” The blog recently finished walking through Karen Swallow Prior’s memoir Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me; before that, it was Malcolm Guite’s The Word in the Wilderness: A Poem a Day for Lent and Easter. Each post is a treat!

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Mary of Guelders prayer book now online: In the early fifteenth century, while the Limbourg Brothers were hard at work on the Très Riches Heures de Duc de Berry, Duchess Mary of Guelders (John of Berry’s niece) commissioned an extraordinary 900-plus-page book that would become the high point of the late medieval book industry in the Northern Low Countries. Due to its condition, it has been stored away for the last few decades at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, inaccessible even to most scholars. But a crowdfunded project led by Johan Oosterman is bringing the hidden treasure to light, allowing for extensive research, restoration, and (next October) public exhibition.

To keep the public informed of progress, a new website has been launched, with blog posts, videos, and tabs on “Mary’s World,” “The Prayers,” “The Decoration,” and more. And best of all, just last month a full digitization of the book was added to the site so that anyone with an Internet connection can browse through its hundreds of prayers and 106 miniatures. The miniature that stood out most to me is the one on verso page 132, illustrating the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. It shows Dives on his golden throne being swallowed by a hell-mouth, while from heaven Abraham denies his request for a drink of water.

Lazarus and the Rich Man (Mary of Guelders)
“Lazarus and the rich man from the mouth of hell,” from the prayer book of Mary of Guelders, ca. 1415. Fol. 132v. Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin-Preußischer Kulturbesitz.

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New arrangement of “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” and “Come, Thou Almighty King”: The music at last month’s General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, convened in Greensboro, North Carolina, was fantastic. With permission, I’m posting a video excerpt from the evening worship service held on June 14, 2017. The first hymn, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” was written by Henry Van Dyke in 1907 to a tune from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; this version was arranged by Joel Littlepage (the musical director and keyboardist with the bowtie; assistant pastor of worship at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Winston Salem) and Michael Anderson (the pianist; composer-in-residence at Redeemer) and was orchestrated by Joel Littlepage. The first verse is sung very traditionally—in strict time to a chorded piano accompaniment—but then at 1:05, it gets real lively! The orchestra kicks into full gear, expressing the brightness of the hymn text.

Then just when you think it couldn’t get any more joyful, the praise team launches into a second hymn at 3:36 to ululation (celebratory cheer sounds), this one Caribbean-flavored. Composed by Felice de Giardini in the eighteenth century, “Come, Thou Almighty King” is a Trinitarian invocation: “Come, Thou Almighty King” (verse 1), “Come, Thou Incarnate Word” (verse 2), “Come, Holy Comforter” (verse 3). This particular arrangement is by Joel Littlepage, with orchestration by Michael Anderson. The musicians are as follows.

Vocal section (left to right): Kyle Dickerson; David Gill; Mary Higgins; Melissa Littlepage; Nikki Ellis, choir director
Rhythm section: Joel Littlepage, keyboard; Michael Anderson, piano; Daniel Faust, drums; Larry Carman, hand percussion; Kevin Beck, electric guitar
Horn section: Christian Orr, trumpet; Tim Plemmons, saxophone; Ben Nelson, trombone
String section: Heather Conine, violin; Violet Huang, viola; Adi Muralidharan, cello; Julie Money, harp
Wind section: Suzanne Kline and Lydia Wu, flute

Roundup: Liturgical video installation; Mynheer profile; SYTYCD; natural-world mystic poetry; lament song

“Mark Dean Projects Stations of the Cross Videos on Henry Moore Altar,” exhibition review and artist interview by Jonathan Evens: On April 15–16 St. Stephen Walbrook in London hosted an all-night Easter Eve vigil that featured a fourteen-video installation by artist-priest Mark Dean. Inspired by the Stations of the Cross, these videos were projected, in sequence and interspersed with readings and periods of silence, onto the church’s round stone altar by the famous modern artist Henry Moore (Dean wanted his work to be presented as an offering). The vigil culminated with a dance performance by Lizzi Kew Ross & Co and a dawn Eucharist. Evens writes,

Mark Dean’s videos are not literal depictions of the Stations of the Cross, the journey Jesus walked on the day of his crucifixion. Instead, Dean appropriated a few frames of iconic film footage together with extracts of popular music and then slowed down, reversed, looped or otherwise altered these so that the images he selected were amplified through their repetition. As an example, in the first Stations of the Cross video, a clip of Julie Andrews as the novice Maria from the opening scenes of The Sound of Music was layered over an extract, from the Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho, of a car arriving at Bates Motel where Marion Crane would be murdered by Norman Bates. The blue of the sky and the innocence suggested by Maria’s religious vocation was in contrast with the footage from Psycho, which was indicative of the violent death to which Jesus was condemned. [Read more of the review, plus an interview with the artist, here.]

Stations of the Cross by Mark Dean
Mark Dean, “I. The Royal Road,” from Stations of the Cross cycle. Video projected on Henry Moore altar at St. Stephen Walbrook, London, April 15–16, 2017. Photo: Jonathan Evens
Stations of the Cross by Mark Dean
Mark Dean, “VIII. Daughters of Jerusalem,” from Stations of the Cross cycle. Video projected on Henry Moore altar at St. Stephen Walbrook, London, April 15–16, 2017. Photo: Jonathan Evens
Stations of the Cross by Mark Dean
Mark Dean, “IX. In Freundschaft,” from Stations of the Cross cycle. Video projected on Henry Moore altar at St. Stephen Walbrook, London, April 15–16, 2017. Photo: Jonathan Evens

Sounds like an exemplary integration of art and liturgy! You can read the catalog essay and watch the videos on Dean’s website, tailbiter.com. See also the interview with curator Lucy Newman Cleeve published in Elephant magazine.

“Featured Artist: Nicholas Mynheer” by Victoria Emily Jones: This month I wrote a profile on British artist Nicholas Mynheer for Transpositions, the official blog of the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. (There’s a glitch with their publishing tool that is preventing all the artworks from displaying, but all the ones I discuss in the article can be found at www.mynheer-art.co.uk.) A painter, sculptor, and glass designer, Nick works almost exclusively on religious subjects, in a style that blends influences from medieval, primitive, and expressionist art. I met him in 2013 and got to see his studio and his work in situ in various Oxford churches. His love of God and place was obvious from my spending just one afternoon with him. Other articles I’ve written are on Nick’s Wilcote Altarpiece, Islip Screen, and 1991 Crucifixion painting (which I own).

Harvest by Nicholas Mynheer
Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), Harvest, 2010. Oil on canvas, 70 × 70 cm.
Michaelmas Term Window by Nicholas Mynheer
Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), Michaelmas Term Window, 2012. Fused glass. Abingdon School Chapel, Oxfordshire, England.
Corpus of Christ by Nicholas Mynheer
Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), Corpus of Christ, 2010. English limestone, 85 cm tall.

Season 14 of So You Think You Can Dance premiered last Monday (the only TV show I never miss!). Watching dancers draws me into a deeper awe of God, as I see all the creative potentialities of the human body he designed. Here are my two favorite auditions from episode 1. The first is husband-wife duo Kristina and Vasily performing ballroom. The second is a modern dance number performed by Russian twins Anastasiia and Viktoriia; they gave no comment on the dance’s motivation or meaning, but it’s clear that it represents trauma of some kind.

“Why we need Mary Oliver’s poems” by Debra Dean Murphy: “Oliver is a mystic of the natural world, not a theologian of the church. . . . Her theological orientation is not that of orthodox Christianity. Nevertheless, Christians have much to gain from reading Oliver . . .” Her poems are “occasions for transfiguring the imagination and a summons to wonder and delight”; they remind us “of what it means to attend to what is before us in any given moment,” teach us to adopt “a posture of receptivity that Christians sometimes speak of as part of our vocation—the calling to live more fully into our humanity as persons bearing the imago dei, to mirror the divine dance of mutual presence, mutual receptivity, mutual love.” Some of my favorite Oliver poems are “Praying,” “I Wake Close to Morning,” “Messenger,” “The Summer Day,” and “How the Grass and the Flowers Came to Exist, a God-Tale.”

NEW SONG: “Weep with Me” by Rend Collective: Written last month in response to the Manchester Arena bombing, “Weep with Me” is a contemporary lament psalm in which the speaker asks God to do what the title says: weep with him. To feel his pain and respond. It’s introduced and performed acoustically by band member Chris Llewellyn in the video below.

On the video’s YouTube page, Rend Collective writes,

Can worship and suffering co-exist? Can pain and praise inhabit the same space? Can we sing that God is good when life is not? When there are more questions than answers? The Bible says a resounding yes: these songs are called laments and they make up a massive portion of the Psalms.

We felt it was fitting to let you hear this lament we’ve written today as we prepare to play tonight in Manchester. We can’t make the pain go away. We refuse to provide cheap, shallow answers. But hopefully this song can give us some vocabulary to bring our raw, open wounds before the wounded healer, who weeps with us in our distress. We pray that we can begin to raise a costly, honest and broken hallelujah. That is what it means to worship in Spirit and in Truth.

ESSAY: “A Plan of a Peace-Office for the United States” by Benjamin Rush

Blogger’s Note: One of the first three departments created in 1789 in the new executive branch of the United States government was the War Department—now called the Department of Defense. Having witnessed the evils of war firsthand while serving as surgeon general of the Middle Department of the Continental Army, founding father Benjamin Rush published an essay in Banneker’s Almanac in 1793 advocating for the formation of a cabinet-level Department of Peace to promote a counterethic. Among other things, his proposed Secretary of Peace would be responsible for abolishing capital punishment; dissolving state militias, including getting rid of military uniforms and titles; and providing every family with a Bible by which to become educated in Christ’s law.

His plan even provides for the interior decoration of the Peace Office—which must include lamb, dove, and olive branch imagery; biblical inscriptions; and a collection of plowshares and pruning hooks cast from swords and spears—as well as its sonic environment: the daily singing of peace hymns. The War Office, by contrast, should display images of death and destruction and bear cautionary inscriptions.

Literary satire, maybe. Then again, maybe not. Rush was an uncompromising champion of many causes throughout his lifetime, including, besides nonviolence, public education, prison and mental health reform, the abolition of slavery, mass distribution of Bibles, and temperance. While his proposal for a U.S. Department of Peace may sound airy-fairy and ridiculous, he very much believed in its practicality, and his confidence has been matched by twentieth- and twenty-first-century politicians: since the publication of Rush’s “Plan of a Peace-Office,” almost a hundred bills have been introduced in Congress proposing the creation of such a department, most recently in 2015.

The following essay is rekeyed in its entirety from Benjamin Rush’s Essays, Literary, Moral, and Philosophical (Philadelphia: Thomas & Samuel F. Bradford, 1798).

Swords into Plowshares by Scott Erickson
Swords into Plowshares by Scott Erickson

“A Plan of a Peace-Office for the United States”

Benjamin Rush

Among the defects which have been pointed out in the Federal Constitution by its antifederal enemies, it is much to be lamented that no person has taken notice of its total silence upon the subject of an office of the utmost importance to the welfare of the United States, that is, an office for promoting and preserving perpetual peace in our country.

It is to be hoped that no objection will be made to the establishment of such an office, while we are engaged in a war with the Indians, for as the War-Office of the United States was established in time of peace, it is equally reasonable that a Peace-Office should be established in the time of war.

The plan of this office is as follows:

I. Let a Secretary of the Peace be appointed to preside in this office, who shall be perfectly free from all the present absurd and vulgar European prejudices upon the subject of government. Let him be a genuine republican and a sincere Christian, for the principles of republicanism and Christianity are no less friendly to universal and perpetual peace than they are to universal and equal liberty.   Continue reading “ESSAY: “A Plan of a Peace-Office for the United States” by Benjamin Rush”