Wade Right In (Artful Devotion)

Naaman
Plaque from an altar retable showing the cleansing of Naaman, made in the Meuse Valley, ca. 1150–60. Gilt bronze and champlevé enamel, 10 × 10 cm. British Museum, London.

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master and in high favor, because by him the Lord had given victory to Syria. He was a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper. Now the Syrians on one of their raids had carried off a little girl from the land of Israel, and she worked in the service of Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord, “Thus and so spoke the girl from the land of Israel.” And the king of Syria said, “Go now, and I will send a letter to the king of Israel.”

So he went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing. And he brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Naaman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” And when the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Only consider, and see how he is seeking a quarrel with me.”

But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent to the king, saying, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come now to me, that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and stood at the door of Elisha’s house. And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.” But Naaman was angry and went away, saying, “Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage. But his servants came near and said to him, “My father, it is a great word the prophet has spoken to you; will you not do it? Has he actually said to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.

—2 Kings 5:1–14

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SONG: “The River of Jordan” by Hazel Houser, ca. 1959 | Performed by the Louvin Brothers, on Satan Is Real (1959)

First recorded by the Louvin Brothers in 1959, “The River of Jordan” is now a country gospel standard that has been covered countless times, especially at bluegrass festivals. Just a note: the song’s second verse mistakenly identifies Namaan as a king (he was the commander of the king’s army, in fact), and Ira Louvin seems to mispronounce Elisha as Eliza—an error that I hear repeated in a lot of other recordings (either that, or Elijah).

Anyway, there are a few good covers of this song online that feature strong female vocals, like this one by The Tuttles with AJ Lee, from 2014:

And I love Colby Crehan’s voice, from the now dissolved Bluegrass Gospel Project:

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The inscriptions on the medieval plaque above are as follows:

FAMULI = servants
CURATIO NAMAN = The Curing of Namaan
IORDANEM = Jordan


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 9, cycle C, click here.

Wash Me Clean (Artful Devotion)

Serenity by Sergio Gomez
Sergio Gomez (Mexican American, 1971–), Serenity, 2016. Acrylic on canvas, 30 × 30 in.

Psalm 51:1–2, 8 (two translations):

KJV: Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. . . . Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.

The Message:

Generous in love—God, give grace!
Huge in mercy—wipe out my bad record.
Scrub away my guilt,
soak out all my sins in your laundry.

. . .

Tune me in to foot-tapping songs,
set these once-broken bones to dancing.

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SONG: “Wash Me Clean” by Page CXVI, on Hymns IV (2011)

Wash me clean
In the warm sun dry me
Cleanse my heart
From all iniquity
Baptize me
In the Holy Spirit sea
Renew my mind
That wickedness may flee

In those days
His Son will save
His Spirit will pour
On all who call on the Lord
In those days
His Son will save
His Spirit will fill
Empty jars of mud and clay

In these days
Barren fields will sprout trees
The deaf and blind will hear and see
The dead will rise, begin to breathe
The dead will rise, begin to breathe
The earth will groan in pain to see
The sons of God declared to be
His full and glorious family
The beautiful, perfect bride of Thee

New Beginnings 3 by Sergio Gomez
Sergio Gomez (Mexican American, 1971–), New Beginnings 3, 2016. Mixed media on canvas, 40 × 54 in. Available for sale via the ACS Gallery, Chicago (click on image for more info).
Healing Series by Sergio Gomez
Sergio Gomez (Mexican American, 1971–), Healing Series, 2016. Mixed media on canvas, 82 × 42 in. Available for sale via the ACS Gallery, Chicago (click on image for more info).

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 the Fifth Sunday of Lent, cycle B, click here.

MUSIC VIDEO: “River” by Leon Bridges

A song of confession and cleansing, “River” is from the Grammy-nominated debut album Coming Home (2015) by retro-style soul singer Leon Bridges. The music video, set during the 2015 Baltimore race riots and filmed on location less than a year later, brings together three separate redemption narratives that culminate in a neighborhood baptism via rain and water hose.

The story lines are very allusive, giving a wide berth to viewer interpretations, but here’s what I see. Three different families: a father who has perpetrated some act of violence, fleeing the site of the crime to be with his infant son; a grieving mother and her preteen boy, who lost a family member to violence; and an overworked single mother struggling to make ends meet, whose daughter longs for a better life for them both. Outside these story lines are Bridges and Brittni Jessie, who meet in a motel room after a long car ride to lift up this plea on behalf of the hurting. Into all these situations, they trust, God will bring forgiveness, healing, and hope.

At the end of the video, Bridges too enters the shower of divine grace, lifting his head high in wonder, then bowing it in humility.

Been traveling these wide roads for so long
My heart’s been far from you
Ten thousand miles gone
Oh, I wanna come near and give you
Every part of me
But there’s blood on my hands
And my lips are unclean
In my darkness I remember
Mama’s words reoccur to me:
“Surrender to the good Lord
And he’ll wipe your slate clean”

Take me to your river
I wanna go
. . .

“The river in my song is a metaphor for being born again,” Bridges told Uncut. He elaborates on his Facebook page:

A river has historically been used in gospel music as symbolism for change and redemption. My goal was to write a song about my personal spiritual experience. It was written during a time of real depression in my life, and I recall sitting in my garage trying to write a song which reflected this struggle. I felt stuck working multiple jobs to support myself and my mother. I had little hope and couldn’t see a road out of my reality. The only thing I could cling to in the midst of all that was my faith in God and my only path towards baptism was by way of the river.

When thinking about how to best visually represent this universal battle, I reflected on the depiction of black communities in our media and particular experiences within my own life. This video showcases the unique struggle many black men and women face across this country. However, unlike the captured images which tend to represent only part of the story, I wanted to showcase that through all the injustice, there’s real hope in the world.

I want this video to be a message of light. I believe it has the power to change and heal those that are hurting.

The speaker of the song acknowledges the personal guilt that separates him from God: “I wanna come near . . . but there’s blood on my hands” and, referencing Isaiah 6:5, “my lips are unclean.” But he also acknowledges the One who alone has the power to wash away sin, and to him he surrenders.

The actor with blood on his shirt in the video is Genard “Shadow” Barr (I recognized him from the recent HBO documentary Baltimore Rising) with his real-life son, Jaylin. He’s a former gang member, now community activist, whom Baltimore Police commissioner (at the time) Kevin Davis reached out to after the riots to better understand the needs and frustrations of the black community. “I got a bullet hole in my head, Chief, and that will not happen to my children,” Barr said in one of their meetings. “I will die doing this”—that is, advocating for the betterment of the city, which, as another on the film said, is underserved and overpoliced.

When asked how cops can help diffuse tensions and build the trust of the people, Barr and others suggested as a starting point a flag football game—cops versus the residents of Penn North and Sandtown-Winchester. Billed as the “Unity Bowl,” the game took place on November 29, 2015, the eve of the first trial for Freddie Gray’s death, and helped both sides get to know each other in a different light.

Besides facilitating conversations between police and Baltimore’s black community, Barr also works as a peer advocate and referral specialist for Penn North Recovery Center, which provides intensive outpatient treatment for substance abuse.

I’m not sure whether the other actors in “River” have personal connections to Baltimore—do you know?

(Related posts: “‘Stephen Towns: A Migration’ exhibit”; “From my private collection: ‘Wailing Wall: Song for Quin’ by Steve Prince”)

This music video has received over 17.5 million views on YouTube and lots of mainstream playtime—a rare feat for new gospel songs. “River” is essentially an invitation: Are you ready to be washed? Then come to the river. Experience the new birth offered through Jesus Christ.

For a live performance of “River,” see this excerpt from Saturday Night Live’s December 4, 2015, episode:

For another original gospel song from the same album, check out “Shine.” And consider catching Bridges somewhere on his world tour this year.

Coming Home album cover

Click on the album cover to preview and purchase. [Note: This is an Amazon affiliate link, meaning that a percentage of purchases made through it will go to support this blog.]

Voices in the desert—whose blessing will we heed?

Temptation by G. K. Hajarathbai
Gulap K. Hajarathbai (Indian), Temptation, 20th century. Oil on canvas, 18 × 20 in. Source: Herbert E. Hoefer, Christian Art in India (Chennai, India: Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research Institute, 1982)

“Tempted” by Eugene H. Peterson

Mark 1:12–13

Still wet behind the ears, he’s Spirit-pushed
up Jordan’s banks into the wilderness.
Angels hover praying ’round his head.
Animals couch against his knees and ankles
intuiting a better master. The Man
in the middle—new Adam in old Eden—
is up against it, matched with the ancient
Adversary. For forty days and nights
he tests the baptismal blessing and proves to his dismay
 the Man is made of sterner stuff than Adam:
 the Man will choose to be the Son God made him.

This poem was originally published in A Widening Light: Poems of the Incarnation, edited by Luci Shaw (Wheaton, Illinois: Harold Shaw, 1984), and is reprinted here by permission of the editor. www.lucishaw.com

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Mark dedicates a spare two verses to this initiatory event in the life of Christ: the forty days of temptation he endured immediately following his baptism: “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him” (Mark 1:12–13, ESV; cf. Matthew 4:1–11, Luke 4:1–13).

I’m intrigued by Mark’s use of the word driven (ekballō) to describe the manner in which the Spirit imparts motion to Christ. Whereas Matthew and Luke use the gentler led (anagō), Mark implies something more forceful: ejected, cast forth, hurled. In his idiomatic translation of the Bible, The Message, Eugene H. Peterson uses push: “At once, this same Spirit pushed Jesus out into the wild” (emphasis mine).

So the same Spirit who had just alighted on Jesus in the waters of the Jordan, presiding over God’s pronouncement that “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11), now pushes Jesus into the Judean desert, away from civilization. Why? So that in the quiet, he could get to better know himself and God, to better discern the task to which he had been called. This process necessarily involved doing battle with the prospects of other paths, other identities.

“Turn these stones into bread.” “Jump; let’s see if God saves you.” “Worship me; I’ll give you the kingdom of earth.”

Satan tries to draw Jesus from a messiahship of self-sacrifice to a messiahship of power. Performing miracles for his own self-benefit, to avoid any discomfort or pain in life; performing miracles for show, like a magician, to impress the masses; becoming an earthly king, with political control and dominion—these are all temptations Jesus would face again. Here he has the opportunity to confront them head-on in preparation for his imminent ministry to the Israelites. Over this period of forty days, Jesus solidifies his mission, rejecting the vision of himself and his life that Satan lays out for him. Instead of gratification, pride, and riches, Jesus chooses purity, humility, and poverty.   Continue reading “Voices in the desert—whose blessing will we heed?”