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.

Keys (Artful Devotion)

St. Peter with the keys to heaven
Ink drawing with color wash from the Liber Vitae of New Minster and Hyde, England, ca. 1031. Stowe MS 944, fol. 7r, British Library, London.

Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

—Luke 12:32

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SONG: “Keys to the Kingdom” | Traditional gospel blues song, performed by Abigail Washburn (lead vocals), Kai Welch (trumpet, backing vocals), and friends (I can’t find the names of the upright bassist and percussionist—anyone know?)

I’ve got the keys to the kingdom, the world can’t do me no harm

Go Gabriel, get the trumpet, move on down to the sea
Don’t you sound that trumpet, ’til you hear from me

I’ve got the keys to the kingdom, the world can’t do me no harm

Take ol’ John on the island, place him in a kettle of oil
Then the angels came from heaven down, told him that the oil wouldn’t boil

I’ve got the keys to the kingdom, the world can’t do me no harm

Take ol’ Paul and Silas, place ’em in jail below
Then the angels came from heaven down and unlocked that prison-house door

I’ve got the keys to the kingdom, the world can’t do me no harm

When I get in trouble, I know I done no crime
Wake up central in Glory, and Jesus come to the phone

I’ve got the keys to the kingdom, the world can’t do me no harm
I got the keys to the kingdom, the world can’t do me no harm

Abigail Washburn is a Grammy Award–winning clawhammer banjo player and singer and one of my favorite musical artists. Here she sings a traditional song from the American South, which, as is typical of such songs, exists in many variations. Her version, she says, is based on a performance by Lillie Cogswell Knox, recorded a cappella on a porch in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, in the 1930s. You can listen to this historic recording on Deep River of Song: South Carolina—Got the Keys to the Kingdom, from the Alan Lomax Collection.

Washburn has performed “Keys to the Kingdom” at many concerts, each performance unique. You can find a handful of these on YouTube; I particularly like the smoky jazz version she did at the Berkeley Café in Raleigh, North Carolina, in January 2011, embedded above. She also recorded the song on the 2006 EP The Sparrow Quartet, the album title a reference to the cross-cultural folk music group consisting of herself, husband Béla Fleck (banjo), Ben Sollee (cello), and Casey Driessen (fiddle). The album version has a banjo accompaniment (by Fleck) and an overall brighter tone.

While Matthew 16:19, Jesus’s metaphoric handing over of the keys to Peter and the church, is the more direct inspiration for the refrain, I love reading the gentle saying of Jesus from Luke 12:32 in relation to this song.

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The drawing above is a detail from one of the pages of the eleventh-century Liber Vitae (“Book of Life”) from New Minster in Winchester, a medieval Benedictine monastery that moved to Hyde after the Norman Conquest. The book contains a list of names of the members of the community and its associates and benefactors, living and dead, along with pictures, grants, historical accounts, material for church services, prayers, and other devotional material.

This drawing is part of a spread toward the beginning of the manuscript that shows St. Peter unlocking the gates of heaven as he welcomes in a queue of the saved from the facing page. Inside the celestial city, Christ is adored. The page’s middle band shows Peter fighting a devil for a man’s soul. The man’s victory is secure, as his name is recorded in the Book of Life, which the angel flashes open, over against the devil’s faulty document. Amusingly, to cinch the victory, Peter delivers a mighty whack to the devil’s head with his oversize key!

We’ve got the keys to the kingdom—we’re heirs with full access, granted us by our loving Father. The world can’t do us no harm.


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 14, cycle C, click here.