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

Rivers of Babylon (Artful Devotion)

Lilien, Ephraim Moses_By the Rivers of Babylon
Ephraim Moshe Lilien (Austrian, 1874–1925), On the Rivers of Babylon, 1910. Etching and aquatint, 28 × 55 cm.

By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy!

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
down to its foundations!”
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!

—Psalm 137

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SONG: “Rivers of Babylon” | Words and music by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton of The Melodians, 1970 | Covered by Linda Ronstadt, on Hasten Down the Wind (1976)

In Psalm 137, a communal lament, Israel remembers with sadness the Babylonian captivity and, in the infamous final line (v. 9), wishes violence against her captors’ children. The Kingston, Jamaica–based reggae group The Melodians set Psalm 137:1–4, along with Psalm 19:14, to music in 1970 as “Rivers of Babylon.” (Unsurprisingly, the controversial imprecation is excluded.) The song became a sort of anthem for Rastafarianism, an Afrocentric religious movement that laments the exile of Africans to the West Indies and the Americas—“Babylon”—through slavery and expresses longing for the homeland, Africa, “Zion.” Boney M.’s 1978 disco cover popularized the song in Europe. I’m not a fan of this famous rendition, because the bright, bouncy style doesn’t fit the tone of the lyrics. In fact, I even prefer Linda Ronstadt’s cover to the original Melodians recording. She gives it more of a bluegrass gospel vibe and, appropriately, sings a cappella:

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The etching above is by Ephraim Moshe (Moses) Lilien, an Austro-Hungarian art nouveau illustrator and a member of the Zionist movement. He helped found the Bezalel Art School in Jerusalem. Click here to see other religious-themed prints by the artist.

I first encountered this image in a challenging blog post by theologian W. David O. Taylor, who, addressing the oft-expunged vindictive sentiments of Psalm 137’s third stanza and citing Miroslav Volf, claims that our rage belongs before God liturgically. Taylor has contributed a very fine trio of visual commentaries on Psalm 137 to the Visual Commentary on Scripture project, where he discusses an English Romanesque manuscript illumination, a mosaic by Marc Chagall, and an Abu Ghraib prison series triptych by Fernando Botero in light of the psalm.

Psalm 137 VCS

An assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, Taylor has done much work on the Psalms, especially for popular audiences, including interviewing Eugene Peterson and Bono on the topic, compiling an excellent list of Psalm resources for the church, and writing Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life, due out from Thomas Nelson next March.


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 22, cycle C, click here.

Dives and Lazarus (Artful Devotion)

Lazarus and the Rich Man (11th cent.)
“Lazarus and Dives,” fol. 78r from the Codex Aureus of Echternach, ca. 1035–40. German National Museum, Nuremberg, Germany.

There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” And he said, “Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.” But Abraham said, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” And he said, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”

—Luke 16:19–31

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SONG: “Dives and Lazarus” | Traditional English ballad | Performed by Cooper, Nelson & Early, on Love & War (2004)

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The illuminated manuscript page above tells visually, in three sequential strips, the parable of the rich man (“Dives”) and Lazarus. (The personal name Dives is not given in the scripture text but is traditionally used as shorthand for the rich man, as dives is Latin for “rich.”) The top register shows Lazarus, a sick homeless man, dying at Dives’s door; the middle, Lazarus’s soul being carried off to paradise by two angels and seated in Abraham’s bosom; and the bottom, Dives’s soul being carried off to hell by two devils and tortured.

This is one of four full-page miniatures that preface the Gospel of Luke in the Codex Aureus (“Golden Book”) of Echternach, a Vulgate edition of the four Gospels produced at the Benedictine Abbey of Echternach in Luxembourg in the eleventh century shortly after the Ottonian dynasty came to an end. It is a preeminent example of the Ottonian style.


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 21, cycle C, click here.

Roundup: Sketch notes from “Seeing the Story,” worship music for Spanish-speaking immigrant children, and more

Last weekend I was in Atlanta giving a talk on art and theology at North Decatur Presbyterian Church as part of the church’s “God’s Creative Story” program, enabled by a Vital Worship Grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. One of the attendees, Ross Boone (aka Raw Spoon), a local artist, took “sketch notes” of the talk, which I am so delighted by! I am posting them here with his permission. He does a lot of faith-inspired digital illustration, often in partnership with churches; you should definitely check him out.

"Seeing the Story" Sketch Notes by Raw Spoon

For “Seeing the Story: Visual Art for the Liturgical Year,” I used fifteen artworks, a mix of historical and contemporary, to chart a way through the church calendar, showing how art opens us up to the beauty of God’s story and helps us to see ourselves as participants in that story.

I really enjoyed getting to meet and worship with the folks at NDPC, and to continue the art conversation with them over the weekend. There was lots of engagement, which was really encouraging. Ellen Gadberry showed me some of the projects made by the liturgical art group she leads at the church. Many involved repurposed bulletins, which I love! One that’s currently in progress picks up on the lozenge shape present in the church’s architectural design, drawing on its symbolic use in Celtic art. Ellen also brought me to the High Museum of Art to see the new Romare Bearden exhibition and, at my request, the Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, where three new exhibitions, curated from the museum’s wonderful permanent collection, opened Sunday afternoon. (The museum was closed when we were there on Friday, as the art and signage were still being hung, but the curator graciously let us in for an unofficial preview!)

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CALL FOR RESEARCH PROPOSALS: Through its new Art Seeking Understanding initiative, the Templeton Religion Trust anticipates granting $12 million in funding over the next five years to research projects that connect art and spirituality. In particular: “Is there an empirically demonstrable connection between art and understanding? And if so, what distinctive cognitive value does engagement with the arts (production and/or consumption) generate? Under what conditions and in what ways does participation in artistic activities encourage or stimulate spiritual understanding, insight, or growth (meaning- or sense-making)?

“We’re bringing together writers, poets, painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers, filmmakers – artists of all kinds – as well as art historians and musicologists with philosophers, theologians, and scientists from a variety of sub-disciplines within the psychological, cognitive, and social sciences to conceive and design empirical and statistical studies of the cognitive significance of the arts with respect to spiritual realities and the discovery of new spiritual information.”

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POETRY BOOK CONTEST: Paraclete Press invites poets to submit a book-length (unpublished) manuscript for consideration of the inaugural Paraclete Poetry Prize, with a deadline of January 30, 2020. Two winners will be selected by a three-judge panel and announced April 1, 2020. Both prizes involve cash and book publication. Paraclete, the publishing arm of the Community of Jesus, publishes some of today’s best spiritual poets, including Scott Cairns, Paul Mariani, Jeanne Murray Walker, Luci Shaw, and Tania Runyan.

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ALBUM FOR IMMIGRANT CHILDREN: Somos Ovejas del Señor by Alabanzaré: Jared Weatherholtz is the director of a South City Church Latinx ministry called Refugio, through which he teaches the Bible, develops worship resources, invests in relationship, and helps immigrants navigate life in St. Louis. He said US immigration policy has been taking a toll on the community he serves, especially its children, who fear going to school not only because of the bullying they encounter (“Go back to where you came from!”) but also because they could come home to no parents (detained by ICE).

As “a way to care for [the kids] and show them God’s goodness and promises to them through music,” Weatherholtz wrote the song “Somos Ovejas del Señor” (We Are the Sheep of the Lord), based on Psalm 23. The kids really took to it, and it became the seed for an entire album, recorded last year in Mexico City under the moniker Alabanzaré (“I Will Praise”). To learn more about the inspiration behind and making of the album, watch the half-hour documentary below. For English subtitles, click the “CC” button on the video player.

“I want immigrants and children of immigrants to hear and to know that they are important, that they have worth in this life, that they bear the image of God,” Weatherholtz said. “God is present, taking care of them.”

The album gives children a language of prayer and praise that they can sing amid their present circumstances. The opening track, “Espíritu Santo, Compañero Fiel,” celebrates the Holy Spirit as a faithful companion in good times and bad, accompanying us at school, when we play, and when we sleep. In “Como Niños,” Jesus invites boys and girls to “come closer,” tells them they’re small in size but big in faith—they’re wise and revolutionary. “Necesito Tu Ayuda, Oh Dios” is a prayer for protection, beginning “I need your help, oh God / Great sorrows I bring today / I feel sad and I don’t know what to do / Come to me soon, Protector.”

Somos ovejas del Senor

Stream or purchase Somos Ovejas del Señor on Bandcamp. Also available is an instrumental edition, released this summer.

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ARTICLE: “The Hidden Life of a Forgotten Sixteenth-Century Female Poet” by Jamie Quatro, New Yorker: Quatro writes about her distant relative Anne Vaughan Lock, a poet, translator, Calvinist religious figure, and, significantly, the first writer to publish a sonnet sequence in English. A gloss of Psalm 51, Lock’s “A Meditation of a Penitent Sinner” comprises twenty-six poems, published in 1560, thirty-one years before Philip Sidney’s “Astrophil and Stella” (long held to be the world’s first English sonnet sequence). “Lock’s cardinal place in the history of the sonnet cycle may not be news to scholars. But for me—a poetry-loving, feminist, conflicted Protestant English-Ph.D. dropout—it was an endorphin-surge of a discovery.” [HT: ImageUpdate]

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DANCE: Last month I posted a dance number from my favorite television dance show, So You Think You Can Dance, and now I’m going to post another one—from September 2’s episode. Choreographed by Talia Favia, “Amen” is danced by Ezra Sosa, Gino Cosculluela, and Bailey Muñoz to a song by Amber Run. It’s not a religious song, but it does use the language of prayer (and is performed with a choir), which the choreography and set design highlight. The speaker of the song is presumably talking to his recently deceased lover, trying to come to terms with his grief, to accept the painful loss. An anguished “Amen”—“Let it be”—repeats throughout. The dance routine expresses rage in the face of death and the struggle to submit to what is. It’s a phenomenal performance by these three young men.

I do wish the video were available without the cheers and whoops from the audience, as it’s a barrier to the viewer’s becoming completely absorbed.

When I post dance videos here, they tend to be emotionally volatile, but dance can be joyous and fun and sassy too, and SYTYCD has the full spectrum! Season 16 just wrapped, but if you want a taste, check out the final episode, which reprises a lot of my favorite routines of the season—sweet ones like “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Slide,” and “The Girl from Ipanema”; comedic ones like “Mambo Italiano” and “Long Tall Sally”; and sexy ones like “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” “Tempo,” “Need You Tonight,” and “I Can’t Stand the Rain.”

Balm in Gilead (Artful Devotion)

Hirsch, Joseph_Lynch Family
Joseph Hirsch (American, 1910–1981), Lynch Family, 1946. Oil on canvas, 35 × 33 in. (88.9 × 83.8 cm). Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. [zoom in]

My joy is gone; grief is upon me;
my heart is sick within me.
Behold, the cry of the daughter of my people
from the length and breadth of the land:
“Is the Lord not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?”
. . .
“The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.”
For the wound of the daughter of my people is my heart wounded;
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold on me.

Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of the daughter of my people
not been restored?

—Jeremiah 8:18–22

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SONG: “There Is a Balm in Gilead” | Negro spiritual | Arranged and performed by Archie Shepp (tenor sax), feat. Jeanne Lee, on Blasé (1969, reissued 2009)

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In this coming Sunday’s lectionary reading from the Prophets, Jeremiah grieves over the suffering of his people. “Is there no balm in Gilead?” he cries. Gilead was a region in ancient Palestine, east of the Jordan River. Now it is known primarily as the fictional locale of two famous contemporary novels, but back then it was known for the soothing, aromatic plant resins produced there, which were used medicinally. In Israel’s desolation, though, they could feel no balm—not even in the place where it was said to abound.

The anonymous writer(s) of the slave song featured above knew communal suffering well. He or she taps into Jeremiah’s poetic grief, extracting the “balm in Gilead” expression but bending it toward hope. There is a balm, the song attests, albeit wearily, through tears. And this balm makes the wounded whole. Archie Shepp’s soulful arrangement, with vocals by Jeanne Lee, express that woundedness and yearning for deliverance so poignantly.

As a visual point of focus, I’ve chosen Joseph Hirsch’s Lynch Family, a forward extension of the history of African American oppression. The gallery label for the painting reads,

Joseph Hirsch painted Lynch Family as a response to racial disturbances in the South in 1946. That year the number of lynchings rose from an all-time low in January to a fevered pitch by August. Citizens across the country urged President Truman and Congress to end the horrors. To capture the tragedy of Lynch Family, Hirsch presented a mother with her baby, presumably survivors of a lynching victim, in abstracted surroundings. The painting focuses on the mother’s intense yet restrained hold on her defiant child while she turns to hide her anguish. The blue background floats around the figures. It both highlights their pain and contrasts with the sheer beauty of Hirsch’s painterly technique.

Though painted in the 1940s, this work bears strong relevance for today. The figures could be any black mother and child left to grieve the loss of husband and father—to prison, or to death by shooting.

For another painting by Hirsch from the blog, see “Stations of the Cross at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.”


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 20, cycle C, click here.

The Lost Lamb (Artful Devotion)

Good Shepherd (Chinese)
Chinese scroll painting of the Good Shepherd, 1966. Collection of the Church of the Good Shepherd, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’”

—Luke 15:4–6

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SONG: “The Lost Lamb” by Abigail Washburn and Jingli Jurca | Performed by Abigail Washburn, on Song of the Traveling Daughter (2005)

Zai na yaoyuan de guxiang
Wo shiluo liao yi ge gulao de meng
Yi ge youshang de meng
Zai na yangyu wo de defang

Wo fenbian buliao muse he chenguang
Wo yanjuanliao chenmo he sixiang
Feng nanchui you zhuanxiang beifang
Jianghe ben hai, hai que bu zhang

Wo xin manliao choucheng
Yu lai you shi qing bu jiuchang
Fuzu tianbuman linghun de kewang
Zhihui dangbukai yongsheng de shuangjiang

Wo
Wo shi
Yi zhi
Mitu de gaoyang

Shei neng ying wo zouchu mimang
Nar you wo chongsheng de xiwang
Oh, muyangren ah
Ni zai hefang?

In that far distant land I call home
I lost the ancient dream
A sorrowful dream
In that place that raised me

I cannot discern the growing shadows of dusk
And the first faint rays of the morning sun
I’ve wearied in the silence and searching
Wind blows south and turns again north
River flows to the sea, yet the sea does not rise

My heart is filled with melancholy
The rains come, clear skies will follow soon
Even fortune and good blessings
Cannot quench the soul’s thirst
Wisdom cannot relieve us our eternal lot

I am a lost lamb

Who will lead me from this haze?
What will bring me hope again?
Oh shepherd
Where are you? [source]

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Before Abigail Washburn (previously featured here) became one of America’s most acclaimed folk musicians, she was a college student majoring in East Asian studies and Mandarin, traveling intermittently to China and ready to pursue a degree in international law at Beijing University. But before her planned departure, she heard at a party one night a recording of Doc Watson singing “Shady Grove,” and she instantly fell in love with American bluegrass music. She bought herself a banjo and traveled Appalachia, learning the instrument and developing a repertoire. Her skill and enthusiasm soon landed her at a recording studio in Nashville, the city where she now lives with her husband, Béla Fleck.

Although Washburn decided not to pursue a law career in Beijing, her love of Chinese language and culture has continued. In 2011 she embarked on a Silk Road Tour, where she collaborated with Chinese musicians at each stop along the way. That year also marks the founding of The Wu-Force, a self-described “kung fu-Appalachian avant-garde folk-rock” trio consisting of Washburn, guzheng (Chinese zither) virtuoso Wu Fei, and multi-instrumentalist Kai Welch. As her website says, “her efforts to share US music in China and Chinese music in the US exist within a hope that cultural understanding and the communal experience of beauty and sound rooted in tradition will lead the way to a richer existence.” Learn more by watching her 2012 TED talk, “Building US-China Relations . . . by Banjo,” or by listening to her (and Fleck’s) 2015 interview with Krista Tippett, “Truth, Beauty, Banjo.”

“The Lost Lamb” is one of several songs that Washburn co-wrote with her friend Jingli Jurca, a poet from Beijing. Washburn says it was inspired by one of the Chinese students she was teaching English to in Vermont in the early 2000s. He had come to the States to earn money to send back home, but four years later he received a letter from his wife saying that she and their daughter were going to start a new life without him. This mournful ballad gives expression to his feeling of exile, of rootlessness, of being far from home and unable to return to what was once a place of joy and connection.

The first time I heard this song, I was incredibly moved. Having no knowledge of Mandarin or the context of the song’s composition, I looked up a translation, finding that the lyrics have a beautiful resonance, whether intentional or not, with Jesus’s parable of the lost sheep, where he likens himself to a good shepherd who seeks out and restores those of his flock who have wandered off. I hear it as very psalmic, a grasping after God through pain. It’s hard to tell dusk from dawn, the speaker says. My soul thirsts. It ends, “Oh Shepherd, where are you?” Shepherd, who promises to lead us through dark valleys and bring us to still waters. The speaker is readily confessing that he’s lost; “come find me” is essentially what he pleads.

In the spirit of the biblical psalmists, the speaker appears to take God to task, questioning whether he will show up as he said he would. “Who will lead me from this haze? / What will bring me hope again?” It’s an earnest reaching, through tears and uncertainty, for something stable that he or she once knew.

Whether you want to interpret the song as lamenting a felt distance from one’s home country or culture or family or faith, it rings so true, so beautiful.

I’ve paired it with a visual artwork and scripture reading that fulfill its longing, showing a being found.


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 19, cycle C, click here.

Clay (Artful Devotion)

Photo by Alejandro Maestre Gasteazi
Alejandro Maestre Gasteazi (Spanish, 1979–), Untitled, 2010. Printed ink on cotton paper, 40 × 40 cm. Edition of 20.
Photo by Alejandro Maestre Gasteazi
Alejandro Maestre Gasteazi (Spanish, 1979–), Untitled, 2010. Printed ink on cotton paper, 40 × 40 cm. Edition of 20.
Photo by Alejandro Maestre Gasteazi
Alejandro Maestre Gasteazi (Spanish, 1979–), Untitled, 2010. Printed ink on cotton paper, 40 × 40 cm. Edition of 20.

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do.

Then the word of the Lord came to me: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.”

—Jeremiah 18:1–6

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SONG: “Have Thine Own Way, Lord” | Words by Adelaide A. Pollard, 1906 | Music by George C. Stebbins, 1907 | Performed by Johnny Cash, 1973, and released on Bootleg, Vol. I: Personal File, 2006

It is not you who shapes God, it is God who shapes you.
If then you are the work of God, await the hand of the artist
Who does all things in due season.
Offer God your heart, soft and tractable,
And keep the form in which the artist has fashioned you.
Let your clay be moist,
Lest you grow hard and lose the imprint of God’s fingers.

—Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.39.2

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The three photographs above by Alejandro Maestre Gasteazi are from a cycle of twenty portraits of the artist’s friend Julián Cánovas-Yañez, which show his mud-lathered form gradually taking shape—an effect achieved, in part, in digital postprocessing. Credit goes to Philip Chircop for first pairing these photographs with this quote by the second-century Greek bishop Irenaeus.


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 18, cycle C, click here.

Roundup: A sign of the times; multifaith art exhibit; Hildegard of Bingen musical; and more

After nudges from several readers, I’ve decided to join Instagram! Follow me @art_and_theology. I’m still trying to settle on how I’d like to use the platform, but in the meantime, I’ve been sharing photos I’ve taken on visits to art museums and spaces that house sacred art. (And in case you don’t already know, Art & Theology is also on Facebook and Twitter.)

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DANCE: “Sign of the Times,” choreographed by Travis Wall: Premiering August 19, 2019, on Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance (season 16, episode 11), this contemporary dance piece is choreographer Travis Wall’s response to the gun violence epidemic in America. It’s a communal lament through movement, really—an expression of fear, sadness, pain, anger, frustration, and defiance. It is performed by this season’s “top ten”: Benjamin Castro, Gino Cosculluela, Eddie Hoyt, Madison Jordan, Anna Linstruth, Bailey Muñoz, Sophie Pittman, Mariah Russell, Ezra Sosa, and Stephanie Sosa.

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FEATURED POET: Marjorie Maddox: The latest installment of Abbey of the Arts’ Featured Poet series is, as usual, wonderful! I’ve read some of Maddox’s poems in magazines and anthologies but haven’t yet gotten my hands on one of her collections. This feature has incentivized me to request a copy of Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation through my local library.

“The work of poetry,” Maddox writes, is “empathy and epiphany. The process of writing and reading allows us to better understand this world and the next. Poetry connects the local and universal, the mundane and the miraculous. It gives us those ears to hear and eyes to see that we might, then, head back into the turning world sustained, nourished, and willing to learn more. And will this not lead us to the Sacred? Yes, I say. Yes.”

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ESSAY: “Acts of Attention: On Poetry and Spirituality” by Robert Cording: I really enjoyed this essay from Image journal about the importance of attending to the world. “Attention is simply a loving look at what is,” writes Cording, a poet and birdwatcher. He discusses seeing not as a physiological act but as perceiving the fullness that exists in each moment. “Seeing is impossible without love or reverence,” he says. Along the way he engages with Marie Howe, Aristotle, Emerson and Thoreau, Tolstoy, Ruskin, Heidegger, Hopkins, Czesław Miłosz, and Marilynne Robinson. He also walks us through three poems: Robert Frost’s “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” Wallace Stevens’s “Man on the Dump,” and Seamus Heaney’s “The Pitchfork.” So much goodness here!

If you enjoyed this essay as much as I did, be sure to also check out “Cloud Shapes and Oak Trees,” also by Cording, from 2017.

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EXHIBITION: Abraham: Out of One, Many, curated by Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler of Caravan: Caravan is an international nonprofit that uses the arts to build sustainable peace around the world. “Our peacebuilding work is based on the belief that the arts can serve as one of the most effective mediums to enhance understanding, bring about respect, enable sharing, and facilitate friendship between diverse peoples, cultures and faiths.”

Caravan’s current exhibition is built around Abraham, a key ancestral figure shared by the world’s three major monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Caravan commissioned three Middle Eastern artists, one from each of these faith traditions, to each create five paintings on these subjects: Living as a Pilgrim, Welcoming the Stranger, Sacrificial Love, The Compassionate, and A Friend of God. The exhibition of resulting works opened May 3 at St. Paul’s Within the Walls in Rome. From there it has traveled to Paris and Edinburgh and, starting September 8, will be in the States, touring through 2021 with stops in Boston, Atlanta, Houston, Washington, DC, Chicago, and more (see schedule). There’s an excellent digital catalog available, which contains full-color reproductions and descriptions of all fifteen paintings.

Hussein, Sinan_Living as a Pilgrim
Sinan Hussein (Iraqi, 1977–), Living as a Pilgrim, 2019. Mixed media on canvas, 45 × 60 cm. Part of the “Abraham: Out of One, Many” exhibition organized by Caravan.
Sindy, Qais Al_Welcoming the Stranger
Qais Al Sindy (Iraqi, 1967–), Welcoming the Stranger, 2019. Oil and collage on canvas, 60 × 45 cm. Part of the “Abraham: Out of One, Many” exhibition organized by Caravan.

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MUSICAL: In the Green by Grace McLean: Lincoln Center Theater’s LCT3 produces shows by new playwrights, directors, and designers, and for this summer, they commissioned a musical about the twelfth-century German mystic Hildegard of Bingen. (It finished its run on August 4, so I’m late in publicizing it—sorry!) A Benedictine nun and later abbess, Hildegard was also a composer, poet, dramatist, theologian, botanist, and healer—a true polymath. In the Green focuses on her relationship with her mentor, Jutta, just six years her senior.

Here’s Grace McLean, the show’s lyricist, composer, playwright, and player of Jutta, performing “Eve” (which uses looping technology!), followed by a short conversation between her and one of the other cast members. [HT: Still Life]