VISUAL COMMENTARIES: Elijah’s Ascent by Victoria Emily Jones: My latest contribution to the Visual Commentary on Scripture was published this month. It’s a mini-exhibition on 2 Kings 2:1–12, featuring a seventeenth-century Russian icon, a 1944 painting by African American artist William H. Johnson, and a 1985 painting (a Jewish chapel commission) by Polish-born Israeli artist Shlomo Katz. (For more context on the Katz painting, see here.)
NATIONAL MOURNING:Washington National Cathedral tolled its mourning bell four hundred times Tuesday evening in remembrance of the 400,000 lives lost from COVID in the United States thus far—each ring representing one thousand dead. I spent the thirty-eight-minute livestream lamenting this enormous loss, praying for all those who are grieving and for patients and health care workers, and pleading with God for an end to this virus.
The origami paper doves you see in the video are part of the Les Colombes installation by Michael Pendry [previously], erected in December in the cathedral’s nave to symbolize hope and the Holy Spirit.
MUSIC VIDEO: “For the Sake of Old Times” (Auld Lang Syne): Directed by Tyler Jones of the narrative studio 1504, this short film premiered December 30, 2020, by NPR. “From the pews of a church where white deacons once refused to seat African Americans, a group of Black singers in Alabama reminds us why preserving our memories of this historic year is vital—even if we’d rather just leave 2020 behind.” [HT: ImageUpdate]
“To me the piece is a personal encouragement going into the future,” Jones says, “that we hopefully strive to work together for a kinder future, especially at a time where we are so distanced.” Read about the making of the film at https://n.pr/3n6d8Ct.
ARTICLE: “On the Gifts of Street Art” by Jason A. Goroncy, Zadok: The Australasian Religious Press Association awarded silver prize for “Best Theological Article” to Jason Goroncy [previously] for this piece. (How cool that it won in the theology category!) Like all art, street art can function as a form of civic dialogue, protest, play, hope, remembrance, etc., but Goroncy discusses how some of its particular qualities uniquely position it to perform those functions: its (usually) unsanctioned and interventionist nature, its fragility and impermanence, its celebration and development of culture, its inseparability from place, and its redefinitions of proprietorship. [HT: Art/s and Theology Australia]
“Among the many gifts that street artists offer,” Goroncy writes, “is a proclivity to bear witness to how things are and not merely to how they might appear to be. Such a proclivity involves a telling of the truth about those largely-untampered-with and untraversed spaces of our urban worlds, about what is present but underexposed or disregarded; and even, as Auden hints, to lead with ‘unconstraining voice’ the way toward healing and toward a renewed sense of enchantment, freedom and praise beyond the pedestrian and clamorous. Such a proclivity is also a form of urban spirituality. It can even be a form of public theology.”
The Christmas–Epiphany 2020/21 edition of the Daily Prayer Project [previously], a publication I work for part-time, released this week! The cover image is from the sanctuary mural at Holy Angels Catholic Church in Chicago, by Cameroonian artist-priest Engelbert Mveng. (See the full mural here.) Also in this edition are images of Grace Carol Bomer’s From Strength to Strength, showing Light stepping into darkness, and the Piper-Reyntiens stained glass window in Coventry Cathedral, with its yellow sunburst amid an abstract pattern of reds, blues, and greens. We include visual art as a supplement to the prayers, scripture readings, and songs with the understanding that it, too, can promote spiritual development and a deeper communion with God.
You can purchase a digital copy (PDF) of the Christmas–Epiphany edition (December 24–February 16) through the website, and if in the future you’d like to receive hard copies, starting with Lent 2021, you can become a monthly subscriber. Part of the money goes to supporting artists.
On a related note: My colleagues at the DPP have curated an excellent Spotify playlist, “DPP Advent Songbook,” that is reflective of the types of music featured in the prayerbooks (in the form of simplified lead sheets, typically four songs per edition). Check it out!
Unburden: A Virtual Interactive Exhibit, December 4, 2020–January 8, 2021: The Gallery at W83 is part of a 45,000-square-foot cultural center built by Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan’s Upper West Side as a service to the city’s artists and larger community. W83 Events and Programming Director Eva Ting has curated a virtual exhibition of photographs and stories from Kristina Libby’s Floral Heart Project, a series of living memorials to those lost to or suffering from COVID-19. Libby initiated the project in New York City in May, partnering with 1800Flowers.com to place floral heart garlands all around the city to create space for ceremony and to invite the community to process and mourn. The project has since grown nationwide.
“Many of us are carrying burdens of loss, anxiety, and uncertainty as we move towards the end of 2020,” Ting writes. “We have all been impacted in some way by the events of this year, and we bear fatigue weighed heavier by the inability to gather as a community to collectively grieve. In this interactive virtual exhibit Unburden, the Gallery at W83 invites you to participate in an unburdening of the load we carry.”
The exhibition webpage invites you to release personal burdens by writing down any grief, fears, loss, or anxiety you wish to let go of (can be submitted anonymously if desired). These words will be incorporated into a new floral heart laying on December 20 at Fort Tryon Park, an event that will be livestreamed. You can also ask for prayer, and members of the W83 team will pray for your requests. “Through these individual and collective acts of unburdening, may we imagine what it would look like to truly let go of these burdens.”
I enjoyed attending the virtual “Songs of Hope: A TGC Advent Concert,” featuring music and spoken-word performances from a variety of artists (see YouTube description), interspersed with Advent readings. It was a truly meaningful worship experience.
I’m sure there are many more virtual Advent/Christmas concerts and other online events coming up. What ones are you most looking forward to?
One that I’ll probably be tuning in to is “We Three Queens Holiday Show” by Pegasis, a sister trio, on December 17, 8:30 p.m. EST (7:30 p.m. CST). It will be live on Facebook and and Instagram. (Update, 12/17/20: View the performance here. My favorite two songs are probably “Poncho Andino” at 19:04 and “Mary Had a Baby” at 45:24—such a unique arrangement!)
POEM: “Harlem” by Langston Hughes: This is a brilliant poem—its sensory images, its rhythm, its rhyme, its multivalence (especially the last line). I loved it so much when I first read it in ninth grade that I memorized it unbidden. When writer and podcaster Joy Clarkson posted a reflection on the poem for her Patreon community in October, resulting in a lively conversation thread in the comments section, it reignited my enthusiasm for and got me thinking more deeply about “Harlem.” She opened by quoting Proverbs 13:12: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, / But desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”
“What happens to a dream deferred? // Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?” Written in 1951 as part of a sequence of poems exploring black life in Harlem, “Harlem” is inextricably tied to the civic discourse of the contemporary American moment, writes Scott Challener in Poetry Foundation’s guide to the poem. The “dream” he refers to is the so-called American Dream, unattainable for so many due to racial inequalities and oppression. (Also assigned in the ninth-grade English curriculum is Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, which takes its title from and addresses the questions of “Harlem.”)
While not wishing to strip the poem of its specific context, I have been thinking about all the dreams that have been deferred this year—put on hold, or even irretrievably lost, because of COVID-19. Hughes posits a string of descriptive similes for a deferred dream: a dried-up raisin, a festering sore, rotting meat, a crusted-over sweet, a sagging load. One commenter on Joy’s Patreon observed how a raisin can’t turn back into a grape, rotten meat can’t be made fresh again, and an overcooked dessert can’t be cooked back down (though perhaps the burnt bits could be scraped off), but a sore can heal and a load can be lifted.
The final suggestion—“or does it explode?”—can be read in myriad ways. In one respect it could refer to the explosion of cultural output, of creativity, that results from deferred dreams—i.e., the Harlem Renaissance. I’ve definitely seen this happen this year, as people, in the face of crushing personal and professional disappointments, have found unique ways to come together and produce and share works of beauty within the restrictiveness of health and safety protocols. One example—speaking of Harlem—is the Dance Theatre of Harlem, a groundbreaking neoclassical ballet company founded at the height of the civil rights movement in 1969 and still active today. Bans on gatherings of certain numbers have meant that dancers and other performers have had to find alternative ways of reaching their audiences, so DTH artists Derek Brockington and Alexandra Hutchinson created “Dancing Through Harlem,” taking choreography from Robert Garland’s “New Bach” out into the streets and capturing it on video for people to enjoy from home. To help support the DTH during this time, you can donate easily through the fundraising sidebar on the video’s YouTube page or through the company’s website.
SONG: “400 Years” by Sarah Sparks: This original song, sung with Kate Lab, appears on Sarah Sparks’s new album, Advent, Pt. One. It’s about how the centuries-long silence of God between the ministry of Malachi (ca. 420 BCE) and the appearance of John the Baptist in the early first century CE was broken with the birth of Jesus—the Word made flesh. Its refrain, “For the first time, not a silent night,” cleverly turns on its head the sweet, familiar carol “Silent Night.” Through the incarnation, God spoke to all who would listen.
From March 28 onward, Melbourne-based creative nonfiction writer, oral storyteller, and arts educator Julie Perrin has been writing and publishing collects (short prayers, pronounced KÄ-lekts) for anyone to freely use and republish (with credit) in this time of pandemic. I’m so grateful for her giving us this language to voice our anxieties, sadness, and pleas to God, and for reminding us of who God is. (And thanks to Art/s and Theology Australia for alerting me to this collect series.)
The photographs, posted here with permission, are by Ian Ferguson, a minister at Brunswick Uniting Church in Melbourne. They were taken in East Gippsland in February and March, following the Australian bushfires.
God of those who are numbed,
stunned by loss,
enfold us in a gentle darkness,
a hidden sleep, a long stillness.
Re-member us to ourselves,
awaken the courage we’d forgotten we had. [source]
God who knows chaos,
Who creates in darkness,
makes life from mud.
Give us back to ourselves
dissolved and helpless
may we feel ourselves forming
know our own shape. [source]
Fierce Lover of life,
give strength to our arms and our resolve.
Critical is this time for cleaning, swabbing, scrubbing
and washing our hands again.
And again, and again.
Let us join ourselves to the task
with readiness, steadiness, clarity.
Because we too love life,
our own and our neighbour’s. [source]
Who hovers over the waters,
Remain with us, for we are stranded on tiny islands of fear.
Draw a circle around our solitude,
hold us back from bringing danger to ourselves and others.
And where touch can no longer reach,
let love spin light across dark waters,
a thread of sweetness for small songs we might sing. [source]
God who speaks the word ‘Beloved,’
Keep watch on those who give voice to care,
Who speak trenchant truths,
explaining, instructing and chiding without blame.
Let us hear the warmth and strength in voices that stir response
and nourish hope in thoughtful action.
Give us ears to listen without fear. [source]
God of the frail in body and mind,
be a companion in loneliness,
a consolation in absence,
a balm in mystified sorrow.
When doors, through dire necessity, must stay shut,
Let love arise in memory of gesture and embrace. [source]
God of Shadows,
give shelter to hollow, shaken humans
bewildered by sudden closure.
Sturdy structures shattered, hopeful trade ended,
meaningful work gone.
In the shocking silence where nothing can be said,
let birdsong be heard. [source]
Holy One who fears no fracture,
Lend your clarity to us for we are full of fear.
Already the abyss appears
Cracks in the earth, shifts in the ground we took for granted,
Now there is rupture
We do not trust our capacity to live.
That which is holy, divine, beyond us
frightens and allures us.
Call us to the mystery of the holy. [source]
God of the despondent,
Who sees our tiredness at futile effort,
Who knows that fear breeds phantoms,
help us we pray.
We are weary, and everywhere we turn
another impediment rises.
Our shoulders sag, the breath goes out of us.
In this stripped-back bareness, give us breath,
May we delight in human kindness, meet holiness anew. [source]
God of the harried,
Help us in the tension of these days,
for we are crushed by too many tasks,
nervous of new skills and tools in the too-much of this moment.
May we give heed without collapse,
restore our trust in longer spans of time – beyond the urgency of now. [source]
Lover of all, Who watches through the night,
draw close to those who are dying,
and to those who mourn.
Calm our terror of abandonment.
Let us hold faith with one another
that love reaches beyond death. [source]
God who weeps,
comfort those who are dying,
may they die without fear.
And while they are yet living
give us courage to tell our love and trust in yours. [source]
This final prayer is not strictly a collect but rather a litany of things to love:
Great God who calls us to belonging,
Who delights in curiosity, invention, ingenuity:
Praise be for minds that bend and flex despite restriction,
for bodies that signal love by staying apart.
Praise be for neighbours talking across fences,
calling from balconies, waving through windows,
for greetings that cross the space between us.
Praise be for strangers, careful on footpaths,
for children asking their questions,
for truth tellers who earn our trust and speak to our fear.
Praise be for friends who warn and chide and encourage,
for human warmth in time of distance.
Praise be. [source]