Love, My Shepherd (Artful Devotion)

Good Shepherd (sarcophagus fragment)
Sarcophagus Fragment with the Good Shepherd, Rome, early 4th century. Marble, 13 9/16 × 21 5/8 in. (34.5 × 55 cm). Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

God, my shepherd!
I don’t need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows,
you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word,
you let me catch my breath
and send me in the right direction.

Even when the way goes through
Death Valley,
I’m not afraid
when you walk at my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook
makes me feel secure.

You serve me a six-course dinner
right in front of my enemies.
You revive my drooping head;
my cup brims with blessing.

Your beauty and love chase after me
every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of God
for the rest of my life.

—Psalm 23 (MSG)

The King James Version’s translation of Psalm 23 from Hebrew into English is unsurpassable in terms of sheer poetic beauty, but since I’ve featured it here before and the words are so very familiar, I thought I’d shake things up a bit by giving Eugene Peterson’s contemporary translation.

The relief carving in this post is from a gallery of early Christian art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, one of my favorite local hangouts. The museum label reads,

This fragment comes from a small Early Christian sarcophagus that was probably made for a child. At the right is a young shepherd, who carries a lamb over his shoulders as two sheep gaze up at him from below. The image of the Good Shepherd originated with the pagan Greek figure of Hermes (the gods’ messenger and ram-bearer) and was later transformed into Jesus as the Good Shepherd who watches over his flock.

[Related posts: “Sheep May Safely Graze (Artful Devotion)”; “The Lost Lamb (Artful Devotion)”]

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SONG: “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” | Words by Sir Henry Williams Baker, 1868 | Music: Traditional Irish tune (ST. COLUMBA) | Arranged by Paul Terracini and performed by the Ars Nova Vocal Group, on Hymns of Our Forefathers, 2000

 

The King of love my shepherd is,
whose goodness faileth never.
I nothing lack if I am his,
and he is mine forever.

Where streams of living water flow,
my ransomed soul he leadeth;
and where the verdant pastures grow,
with food celestial feedeth.

Perverse and foolish, oft I strayed,
but yet in love he sought me;
and on his shoulder gently laid,
and home, rejoicing, brought me.

In death’s dark vale I fear no ill,
with thee, dear Lord, beside me;
thy rod and staff my comfort still,
thy cross before to guide me.

Thou spreadst a table in my sight;
thy unction grace bestoweth;
and oh, what transport of delight
from thy pure chalice floweth!

And so through all the length of days,
thy goodness faileth never;
Good Shepherd, may I sing thy praise
within thy house forever.

I chose this intricate a cappella SATB arrangement as the feature track for today, but for a solo female vocalist on acoustic guitar, see Taylor Tripodi:

Though “The King of Love” is most associated with the traditional Irish tune ST. COLUMBA, it is sometimes sung to a handful of others. Below you can hear it with a different traditional Irish tune (MCKEE), arranged by Harry T. Burleigh in 1939. Performed by Tyler Anthony (of Cereus Bright) and the musicians of Redeemer Knoxville, this peppier version appears on the 2011 Cardiphonia album Songs for the Supper:

 

Contemporary retunes of the hymn include those by I Am They and Sarah Hart and Sarah Kroger. (Update, 6/26/20: The Gentle Wolves has just released one too.)

Good Shepherd (sarcophagus fragment)
Photo: Victoria Emily Jones

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 Fourth Sunday of Easter, cycle A, click here.

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.

“I Leave You My Peace” (Artful Devotion)

Osborne, Mary Ann_Paths of Peace
Sister Mary Ann Osborne, SSND, Paths of Peace, 2005. Linden wood, glass, brass wire, gold leaf, and paint, 36 × 27 × 1 in.

Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.

“These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you before it takes place, so that when it does take place you may believe.”

—John 14:23–29

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SONG: “I Leave You My Peace” | Music by Maxime Kovalevsky, French Orthodox Church, Paris, 1940s–50s | Arranged by Josef Gulka, Holy Cross Orthodox Church, Medford, NJ | Performed by the St. Symeon Orthodox Church Choir, Birmingham, AL, on Fire and Light (2010)

You can download free sheet music for this song from the Liturgical Music PDF Library of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

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The mixed-media artwork above is by Sister Mary Ann Osborne, a Minnesota nun in the order of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. The Good Shepherd figure references a Christian fresco from the third-century catacomb of St. Callixtus in Rome, where the shepherd carries a sheep over his shoulders, securing it with one hand while carrying a milk pail in the other; it’s an image of care and protection derived from scripture. Sister Mary Ann has added two open-palmed hands rising up behind, or perhaps emerging from, the shepherd, a posture of prayer (orans) but also of benediction (see, e.g., Lev. 9:22; Luke 24:50).

Christ is pronouncing a blessing—it could be the words of peace and promise from his farewell discourse, excerpted in Sunday’s lectionary reading. We, his people, receive it. He has forged “paths of peace” for us to follow, as Sister Mary Ann’s work suggests, with road markings at the bottom left inviting us to set off where Christ has trod. And he goes with us in the Spirit.

He has called the world to a new order, signified by the shofar at the right, which announces Jubilee. As one of seven, the trump also carries connotations of the day of the Lord.

See more of Sister Mary Ann’s wood carvings at http://sistermaryannosborne.com/.


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 Sixth Sunday of Easter, cycle C, click here.

Sheep May Safely Graze (Artful Devotion)

Landscape, Cornish, N.H. by John White Alexander
John White Alexander (American, 1856–1915), Landscape, Cornish, N.H., ca. 1890. Oil on canvas, 30 3/8 × 45 in. (77.2 × 114.2 cm). Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul . . .

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff,
they comfort me.

—Psalm 23:1–3a, 4

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MUSIC: “Sheep May Safely Graze,” from BWV 208 | Composed by Johann Sebastian Bach (1713) | Performed by London Symphony Orchestra, on Night in Berlin (2001)

The aria “Schafe können sicher weiden” (Sheep May Safely Graze) comprises the ninth movement of Bach’s Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd (The Lively Hunt Is All My Heart’s Desire)—known informally as the Hunting Cantata. Written for the thirty-first birthday of Duke Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels, the cantata was performed as a surprise at a banquet at the ducal hunting lodge, and it’s full of flattery. The text of “Sheep May Safely Graze,” written by Solomon Franck, praises Christian for his wise, protective leadership (in actuality, he was a lousy ruler):

Sheep may safely graze and pasture
In a watchful shepherd’s sight.

Those who rule, with wisdom guiding,
Bring to hearts a peace abiding,
Bless a land with joy made bright.

At 1:31 in the above recording, you can hear potential danger lurking nearby, but the attentive shepherd neutralizes the threat, keeping safe his flock.

Bach originally scored this piece for soprano with two recorders and continuo, but it has since been transcribed for orchestra and countless other combinations of instruments and is most popular without words. I enjoy playing Egon Petri’s transcription for solo piano, performed here by Alessio Bax:

Its pastoral mood, befitting Psalm 23, and its celebration of a good shepherd’s care have led it to be applied to the Good Shepherd and performed in church services. I’ve even come across some piano arrangements that interfuse it with “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us” (for an intermediate arrangement of such by Cindy Berry, see Classical Hymns).

(Related post: “The evolution of ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring'”)


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 11, cycle B, click here.

“Stephen Towns: A Migration” exhibit

On September 12 my husband and I attended a reception at the Rosenberg Gallery at Goucher College in Baltimore County, where mixed media artist Stephen Towns discussed the work in his solo show “A Migration.” The twenty-three paintings curated by Laura Amussen continue Towns’s exploration of the African diaspora and related issues, including slavery, resistance, and the loss of ancestral roots. He wants to tell history, he said, and to make beautiful images.

Stephen Towns
At the opening for “A Migration,” artist Stephen Towns talked about his new series, “Sunken,” inspired by a trip to Ghana in May. Photo via the artist.

Towns is not a Christian (he said he is ambivalent about religion), but he draws extensively on Christian iconography, most notably the halo, which he uses to denote the sanctity of black life. When I met him Tuesday I told him I can’t help but read his work through a Christian lens, and he said that’s great, that he welcomes diverse and particularized readings.

Joy Cometh in the Morning

The most conspicuous wall in the exhibition space is the blank one where blue-tape outlines demarcate the spots where six paintings used to hang before a controversy led to their removal. From the series “Joy Cometh in the Morning,” these absent works are head-and-shoulder portraits of unnamed participants in the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, which was inspired by his reading of scripture and his discernment of God’s voice. Each figure is noosed around the neck, harking to the method of their execution, but clenches the rope in a raised fist, staring straight ahead at the viewer with a look of defiance. While shadows of violence flare behind them, a butterfly alights on the knot of their rope, and a silent blue moon forms a halo around their head.

What Profit Is There in My Blood by Stephen Towns
Stephen Towns (American, 1980–), What Profit Is There in My Blood?, 2016. Acrylic, oil, metal leaf, Bristol board, canvas, and paper on panel, 24 × 18 in. Photo via the artist.

Just prior to the show’s opening, an African American employee at the gallery complained that these paintings made her work environment feel abusive and uncomfortable. Out of sensitivity, Towns decided to take down the paintings and instead present photos of them in a binder for optional viewing. An artist’s statement is displayed next to the empty frames, which says, in part,

The original intent of the work was to honor the countless black men and women that fought against slavery, with the knowledge that their very fight may end their lives. . . . Though I am saddened to see the work go, I value Goucher’s Black employees’ concern. The intent of my work is to examine the breadth and complexity of American history, both good and bad. It is not to fetishize Black pain, nor to diminish it.

The overwhelming response to this action among viewers at Tuesday’s reception was frustration: commending Towns’s empathy but questioning whether self-censorship was the right way to go. Both white and black attendees spoke about how one of the powers of art is precisely to make us uncomfortable. Art awakens us to reality, even if that reality is painful. Removing offensive work prevents people from having meaningful encounters with it. Towns expressed his mixed feelings about not wanting to trigger trauma but also wanting to shine a light on hard truths. He said he was intentional about not making the images graphic.

To paraphrase his comments, his aim is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable—and when his work has the reverse effect of afflicting the afflicted, he feels guilty.   Continue reading ““Stephen Towns: A Migration” exhibit”