Roundup: Art and the Psalms, “We Americans,” the Walking Roots Band, and more

“Psalms in Dialogue: Psalms 22, 23, and 24,” presented by Duke University Chapel: This multidisciplinary video presentation brings together dancers, musicians, a theologian, a painter, and (other) members of the Duke community to draw out the meaning of, or respond to, these three sequential psalms through art, prayer, and conversation. The livestreamed event aired October 17 and will be available for viewing for a limited time. Several of the segments, which I’ve time-stamped below, are intercut with photos from the streets in 2020 (showing the impact of the pandemic and racial unrest), of artist Makoto Fujimura in his studio and of his three finished paintings, and of Ekklesia Contemporary Ballet dancers in training. I wish more university chapels and well-resourced churches would offer experiences like this! Thank you to my friend Peggy for telling me about it. Read more about Duke Chapel’s multiyear Psalms project here.

1:51: “How do we name the impossible mystery?,” a theological reflection by Morley Van Yperen

6:02: Organ: “Jésus accepte la souffrance,” from La Nativité du Seigneur [previously] by Olivier Messiaen, performed by Christopher Jacobson

10:58: Psalm 22 by Makoto Fujimura, 2020, oyster shell on Belgium canvas, 48 × 48 in.

11:09: Reading of Psalm 22:1–22 by Luke A. Powery, with balletic responses by Paiter van Yperen, Elijah Ryan, Heather Bachman, and Sasha Biagiarelli

15:40: Lament, ballet solo danced by Paiter van Yperen (music by Max Richter, choreo by Elisa Schroth)

18:10: Psalm 22:22–32 chant by Zebulon Highben

21:09: Conversation on the Psalms with Makoto Fujimura and Ellen F. Davis, moderated by Amanda Millay Hughes

29:32: Organ: “Christus, der uns selig macht,” BWV 620, by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by Christopher Jacobson

32:00: Prayer by Nathan Liang

34:11: Recitation of Psalm 23 by Julia Hendrickson

35:22: 6IX, a tap dance by Andrew Nemr

37:10: “The 23rd Psalm,” text adaptation and music by Bobby McFerrin, performed by the Duke Chapel Staff Singers (*this was my favorite!)

40:42: Prayer by Jonathan Avendano

42:39: “The Lord Is My Shepherd,” music by Howard Goodall, performed by the Royal School of Church Music in America Choristers

46:13: Psalm 24 remix produced by Andrew Nemr

48:21: Prayer by Jordyn Blake

49:45: Recitation of Psalm 24 by Julia Hendrickson

51:32: Conversation continued

1:11:49: “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” African American spiritual arranged by Mark A. Miller, performed by the Duke Chapel Choir

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POEMS: This week’s edition of ImageUpdate includes two poems that I really appreciated. The first, which was new to me, is “America” by Claude McKay, a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Originally published in The Liberator in 1921, it expresses the pain of living in a country where you’re hated for your race and yet remains optimistic, beginning, “Although she feeds me bread of bitterness, / And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth, / Stealing my breath of life, I will confess / I love this cultured hell . . .” The second poem is “Making Peace” by Denise Levertov, one of the best-known Christian poets of the twentieth century. “The poets must give us / imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar / imagination of disaster,” she writes. Poets can help us feel our way toward shalom—give us a vision of its permeating the world that inspires us to live out its rhythms, its metaphors, its structure, its grammar, our lives like poems.

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MUSIC VIDEO: “We Americans” by the Avett Brothers: I’m so moved by this song from the Avett Brothers’ 2019 album Closer Than Together—its grappling with the historical legacy of the US, its greatness and its guilt, with a mixture of heartache, empathy, and hope. It’s one of the healthiest expressions of patriotism I’ve ever come across in a song. We need to see America as the complex entity that she is, which means in part not ignoring her flaws but with love exposing them so that they can be remediated and we can move forward together more faithful to her celebrated ideals. “We Americans” is both confession and supplication, an “I’m sorry, God” and “God, help us to do better.” The final chorus:

I am a son of God and man
And I may never understand
The good and evil
But I dearly love this land
Because of and in spite of We the People
We are more than the sum of our parts
All these broken bones and broken hearts
God, will you keep us wherever we go?
Can you forgive us for where we’ve been?
We Americans

I was reminded of this song in the September 17 episode of the RTN Theology podcast, “You Shall Know the Truth and the Truth Shall Unsettle You.” Chris Breslin interviews Mark Charles, a Native American activist, public speaker, Christian leader, and independent candidate in this year’s US presidential election. He is the coauthor, with Soong-Chan Rah, of Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery. Charles enters at 12:40 with a discussion of the lack of common memory.

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SONGS:

“Whatever Comes Next” by Drew Miller: This song came out of “Hutchmoot: Homebound,” a virtual arts gathering organized by the Rabbit Room that took place earlier this month. In writing the song, Drew Miller [previously] was inspired in part by Shigé Clark’s new poem “Grateful” (see her perform the poem here).

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One Friday back in March, when we thought quarantine would last about six weeks tops, Kelsey and I raised our Old Fashioneds up for our weekly Pizza Night toast, each of us wearing that 😬 sort of face reserved for when we have no idea what’s about to happen (we’ve been making that face a lot this year).⁣ ⁣ And then, as our glasses clinked, she said, “To whatever comes next.”⁣ ⁣ This is my post-Hutchmoot (and as 2020 would have it, pre-election) song. And as such, it steals shamelessly from—well, really, from all over the place, but mostly from Shigé Clark’s staggering poem “Grateful:” “Father, the world is on fire.”⁣ ⁣ Go read that poem. And then, if you have any emotional capacity left, come back and listen to this song.⁣ ⁣ Lyrics:⁣ ⁣ Father, your world’s on fire and⁣ Every day I wake up tired and⁣ Afraid of what’s required of me⁣ ⁣ But your daughter filled my cup, said⁣ “Look at me and listen up,” said⁣ “A toast to all we’ve yet to see”⁣ ⁣ 𝘛𝘰 𝘸𝘩𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘴 𝘯𝘦𝘹𝘵⁣ 𝘞𝘩𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘴 𝘯𝘦𝘹𝘵⁣ 𝘓𝘦𝘵’𝘴 𝘳𝘢𝘪𝘴𝘦 𝘢𝘯𝘰𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘳 𝘨𝘭𝘢𝘴𝘴⁣ 𝘛𝘰 𝘸𝘩𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘴 𝘯𝘦𝘹𝘵⁣ ⁣ So this world’s the one I inherit⁣ It takes the best of me just to bear it⁣ While the rest of me wants to tear it down⁣ ⁣ I’ve got no choice in the matter⁣ But to let illusions shatter⁣ And scatter like seeds on the ground⁣ ⁣ 𝘍𝘰𝘳 𝘸𝘩𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘴 𝘯𝘦𝘹𝘵⁣ 𝘞𝘩𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘴 𝘯𝘦𝘹𝘵⁣ 𝘓𝘦𝘵’𝘴 𝘳𝘢𝘪𝘴𝘦 𝘢𝘯𝘰𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘳 𝘨𝘭𝘢𝘴𝘴⁣ 𝘛𝘰 𝘸𝘩𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘴 𝘯𝘦𝘹𝘵⁣ ⁣ 𝘈𝘯𝘥 𝘐 𝘸𝘰𝘯’𝘵 𝘳𝘦𝘨𝘳𝘦𝘵⁣ 𝘞𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘐 𝘤𝘢𝘯𝘯𝘰𝘵 𝘬𝘯𝘰𝘸 𝘺𝘦𝘵⁣ 𝘐’𝘮 𝘨𝘰𝘯𝘯𝘢 𝘴𝘵𝘪𝘤𝘬 𝘢𝘳𝘰𝘶𝘯𝘥⁣ 𝘍𝘰𝘳 𝘸𝘩𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘴 𝘯𝘦𝘹𝘵⁣ ⁣ Father, your world’s on fire⁣ And look at how it shines⁣ Father, your world’s on fire⁣ ⁣ I have often wondered⁣ A sister grieves for her brother⁣ She can’t conceive of another ending⁣ ⁣ For all that hope she carried⁣ Only to see it buried⁣ Then, through her tears, she hears⁣ “Mary”⁣ ⁣ So what comes next?

A post shared by Drew Miller (@drewmillersongs) on

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“Bring Your Peace” by the Walking Roots Band: This song was written this year by Seth Thomas Crissman and Greg J. Yoder of the Walking Roots Band as part of a collection of fifteen songs for Shine, a children’s Sunday school curriculum published by MennoMedia and Brethren Press. It appears on Everybody Sing: Worship Songs for Children, released in June as a double album with Everybody Sing: Songs for the Seasons (which comprises ten original songs by The Many). The song asks God to bring his peace into our fears and into the storms we face, and to make us instruments of that peace to others.

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“Rest Assured,” sung by the Walking Roots Band: TWRB learned this song from a bandmate’s parent (original authorship unknown) and recorded it a cappella in their separate locations at the start of quarantine in March. The chorus goes,

Rest assured, He’s not forgotten
Rest assured, He’ll take care of you
Look at the times He’s been there before
He’ll be there again, rest assured

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“Let Justice Roll Like a River,” sung by Eric Lige: Bobby Gilles and Rebecca Elliott of Sojourn Music wrote this song in 2017, inspired by Amos 5. In this lyric video from July 5, it’s performed by Eric Lige and Paul Lee of Ethnos Community Church. The singing starts at 1:33. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

Roundup: Advent art, songs, poems

So much to share today! Be sure not to miss “Psalm 126” by Drew Miller (a new favorite Advent song) and Matthew Milliner’s excellent presentation on the Virgin Mary in art, which opened an exhibition that’s running in Southern California—both below. (If you only have time to take in a few items from this post, those are the ones I’d recommend.)

PODCAST EPISODE: “A Time for Wanting and Waiting: An Advent Conversation with W. David O. Taylor”: In this recent episode of The Road to Now, hosts Bob Crawford and Chris Breslin interview liturgical theologian David Taylor [previously] about the season of Advent: what it is, its history and how it fits into the wider church year (see especially 43:29ff.), the canon of Advent and Christmas songs, and the gift the Psalms offers us during this season. Referencing his 2015 Washington Post article, Taylor says our picture of Christ’s coming, especially as expressed through our hymnody, tends to be unidimensional and far too sanitized:

We should permit the Nativity stories to remain as strange and bizarre and fantastical and difficult as they in fact are, rather than taming and distilling them down to this one nugget or theme of effusive joy. There is effusive joy in that—it’s simply that that’s not the only thing that characterizes these stories. Unfortunately, most of our canon of Christmas carols or hymns tends to focus on what I would argue is only 50 percent of the Nativity stories. Everything that begins with Elizabeth and Zechariah and goes all the way to, say, Anna and Simeon and the visit of the Magi and the flight to Egypt . . . it really is one whole story that is being told with these subplots.

I would love to see us create . . . new music that either retells portions that we are already telling but not the whole of it, or we need to tell parts that have not yet been told. . . . Let’s ask ourselves how God is at work in all the minor-key or difficult or dissonant parts of the Nativity stories, not absent from—those are not extraneous to God incarnating himself in Jesus Christ. Those are essential parts of it. And so how can our hymns become ways of praying ourselves into these stories so they can sink deeply into the fibers of our hearts and minds and bodies, and for us to say, “Oh, all the weird and difficult and dissonant parts of our lives are part and parcel of God’s good work,” not, again, on the margins of it, or things we should eschew.

To help deepen and expand the church’s repertoire of Christmas music, Taylor founded, along with a few others, the Christmas Songwriters Project. The Psalms are an inspiration in this task, as they express a joy that is at times quiet and at others raucous, as in the Nativity narratives, and that exists as part of a dynamic constellation of emotions and postures that praise can encompass. Most of us don’t recognize the pure, undistilled happiness that is marketed to us throughout December, Taylor says, and we shouldn’t force ourselves to try to feel it but rather should take a cue from the Psalms and also see the same emotional complexity at work at the beginning of the Gospels:

The Psalms, and I think Christian faith at its heart, can make space for joy and sorrow to exist alongside each other in a way that happiness, as we commonly understand it, cannot, or only with great difficulty. . . . What the psalms of praise do . . . is that in one movement, there’s this effusive joy or a shouting joy or a convivial joy, and then it segues to a quieter joy or a contemplative joy or a yearning, painful kind of joy. . . .

So in the season of Advent, when we look at the characters in scripture—you know, Mary and Joseph and Zechariah and Elizabeth and the shepherds and Anna and Simeon—every one of them has this moment, perhaps, of which we could say, “That sounds like joy.” . . . But immediately before or immediately after, it transitions to something else. So does that mean that joy is negated? Is joy squashed? Is joy extinguished? Or is joy able to continue to exist side by side, to subsist, with a continued experience of longing or a sudden moment of sadness?

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ART BY SCOTT ERICKSON: This month Portland-based artist Scott Erickson has been posting on Instagram Advent-themed images he has made, along with thoughtful meditations. Some emphasize the bodiliness of the Incarnation, which often gets overlooked, presumably out of a sense of propriety. But “grace comes to us floating in embryonic fluid . . . embedded in the uterine wall of a Middle Eastern teenage woman,” Erickson writes about With Us – With Child, to which one Instagrammer responded, “This is trajectory changing. Thank you for this. Nipples, vaginas, and Jesus CAN coexist!” Another mentioned how she had never seen Mary with a belly button and a linea nigra before. The image reminds us that Jesus was indeed “born of woman” (Gal. 4:4).

Erickson, Scott_With Us, With Child
Scott Erickson (American, 1977–), With Us – With Child, 2016 [purchase as poster]
Another imaginative image suggests that Christ came to set the world on fire, so to speak. God, who is of old, gives himself to earth as a Jewish babe (“Love has always been FOR GIVENESS,” Erickson writes), sparking a revolution.

Erickson, Scott_Advent
Art by Scott Erickson

View more art by Scott Erickson @scottthepainter.

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LECTIONARY POEMS FOR ADVENT: This year Englewood Review of Books launched a new feature on their website: a weekly post of four to six poems that resonate with the Revised Common Lectionary readings for that week. “We will offer here a broad selection of classic and contemporary poems from diverse poets that stir our imaginations with thoughts of how the biblical text speaks to us in the twenty-first century. We hope that these poems will be fruitful not only for preachers who will be preaching these texts on the coming Sunday, but also for church members in the pews, as a way to prime our minds for encountering the biblical texts.” I’m really enjoying these stellar selections, several of which are new to me.

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