LOOK: Jesus, John, and a Neighbor Boy Playing by Cody F. Miller
American artist Cody F. Miller’s body of work deals with themes of journeying, grace, self-offering, and hope amidst suffering. Many of his mixed-media pieces are keyed to specific biblical texts or to lines of spiritual verse, offering imaginative interpretations. In the work pictured here, he shows the boy Jesus engaged in a ring dance with his cousin John and another playmate, while Mary and Elizabeth peek at them over a clothesline in adoring delight.
Describing his technique, Miller says, “I work with cut paper and paint because I enjoy the interplay of the known and unknown. For the known, I work out many variations of a sketch until the design I’m looking for is finally realized. The unknown comes from my files full of patterns and objects waiting to find a new home. I am repeatedly fascinated when I find that some odd cut-out works better than my original intention.”
I commend to you the set of Christmas cards he offers through his website, which includes three different designs: the Adoration of the Shepherds, the Journey of the Magi, and the Holy Family Asleep.
LISTEN: “A Child Will Lead Us All” by Drew Miller, 2017; on Consolation, 2019
The following video performance is by the Orchardists, with the song’s writer, Drew Miller, on guitar and lead vocals, Janie Townsend on background vocals, Lincoln Mick on mandolin, Kevin Gift Jr. on bass, and Camille Faulkner on violin. The recording on Spotify, released two years later, is from Miller’s solo album Consolation.
The kingdom’s coming as a seed Smaller than the eye can see From wanting eyes to set us free Kingdom come
The kingdom’s coming as the rain To wash away our castles vain And cleanse the burdened heart from stain Kingdom come
The kingdom’s coming as a word The wisest man has never heard And foolish lips will speak the cure Kingdom come
The kingdom’s coming as a song Mournful dirge and anthem strong To cheer the ones who sing it wrong Kingdom come
A child will lead us all home
The kingdom comes from far away The kingdom has no place to stay To you who open up the door Kingdom come
The kingdom’s coming to the poor Sons and daughters of the Lord And all that’s lost will be restored Kingdom come
The kingdom’s coming as a feast The finest wine for all the least We’ll taste the broken bread of peace Kingdom come
The kingdom’s coming slow and true Till every inch has been made new And it will ask your life of you Kingdom come
A child will lead us all home
A brilliant piece of songwriting, “A Child Will Lead Us All” is full of poetic verve and biblical allusiveness, bringing several of Jesus’s parables into conversation with ancient Jewish prophecy and John’s Apocalypse. Christ’s kingdom is coming as seed, rain, a word, a song, a feast, from far away and to the poor. The refrain “A child will lead us all home” is derived from Isaiah 11:6, which describes the messianic kingdom, where heaven and earth join again as one. We are led into that reality by the One who came to us first as an infant, small and vulnerable.
“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
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
POEMS: This week’s edition ofImageUpdate 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.
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
“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.
“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
“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 EricLige and Paul Lee of Ethnos Community Church. The singing starts at 1:33. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
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.)
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?
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).
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.
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.