By awesome deeds you answer us with righteousness,
O God of our salvation,
the hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas;
the one who by his strength established the mountains,
being girded with might;
who stills the roaring of the seas,
the roaring of their waves,
the tumult of the peoples,
so that those who dwell at the ends of the earth are in awe at your signs.
You make the going out of the morning and the evening to shout for joy.
You visit the earth and water it;
you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
you provide their grain,
for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with abundance.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.
Psalm 65 is a such a magnificent praise song, and I especially love the expression in verse 12: “the hills gird themselves with joy” (ESV). Other translations have “the little hills rejoice on every side” (KJV), “the hillsides blossom with joy” (NLT), and “the hills [are set] to dancing” (MSG). The picture extends into the final verse, where, along with pastures, meadows, and valleys, the mountains “shout and sing” to their Creator. Last year when I saw Paul Klee’s Joyful Mountain Landscape at the Yale University Art Gallery, I instantly thought of this psalm—of how nature sings praises to God simply by being itself.
Human beings are called to join in creation’s joyful song.
SONG: “I Sing the Mighty Power of God” | Words by Isaac Watts, 1715 | Music (tune: ELLACOMBE) from Gesangbuch der Herzogl, Württemberg, 1784
I sing the mighty power of God
that made the mountains rise,
that spread the flowing seas abroad
and built the lofty skies.
I sing the wisdom that ordained
the sun to rule the day;
the moon shines full at his command,
and all the stars obey.
I sing the goodness of the Lord
that filled the earth with food;
he formed the creatures with his word
and then pronounced them good.
Lord, how thy wonders are displayed,
where’er I turn my eye,
if I survey the ground I tread
or gaze upon the sky.
There’s not a plant or flower below
but makes thy glories known,
and clouds arise and tempests blow
by order from thy throne;
while all that borrows life from thee
is ever in thy care,
and everywhere that man can be,
thou, God, art present there.
For a fairly traditional rendition of this classic hymn, here’s a three-part a cappella arrangement performed by the Ball Brothers in 2012:
If you prefer a more modern sound, check out the version by Ben Thomas on the 2015 album Bring Forth. Thomas wrote a new melody for the song and recorded it under the title “I Sing the Goodness” (using the language of verse 2 instead of 1).
The whole Bring Forth album is great, which takes as its basis thirteen hymn lyrics dating from the fourth through twentieth centuries—“all seeking to find the Divine in the everyday elements of our existence,” Thomas says. Thomas adapted and retuned the hymns and released them in three movements that echo the cycle of time: Dawn, Day, and Dusk. To guide you through your listening, there is a meditation and prayer for each movement published on his website.
Other favorites of mine from the album are “Creator God, Creating Still,” “Tell Me the Old, Old Story,” “Lord of All Being,” “Peace, Troubled Soul,” and “Bring Forth.”
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 10, cycle A, click here.
Save me, O God!
For the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying out;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God.
. . .
My prayer is to you, O LORD.
At an acceptable time, O God,
in the abundance of your steadfast love answer me in your saving faithfulness.
from sinking in the mire;
let me be delivered from my enemies
and from the deep waters.
Let not the flood sweep over me,
or the deep swallow me up,
or the pit close its mouth over me.
Answer me, O LORD, for your steadfast love is good;
according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.
Hide not your face from your servant,
for I am in distress; make haste to answer me.
INTERVIEW:“Singing the Songs of Injustice” with David Bailey: David Bailey is the director of the reconciliation ministry Arrabon and founder of its music-making and liturgical resource arm, Urban Doxology. In this interview conducted by W. David O. Taylor, Bailey shares how “biblical, angry, congregational worship can help transform our hearts and churches.” “God has given us the psalms to be an ‘anger school’ for us and I’ve discovered that when we skip class, we aren’t emotionally equipped to deal with difficult stuff we’re experiencing now,” Bailey says. “The extraordinary gift of the psalms is that they show us how to pray angry prayers without being overcome by our anger, how to hate without sinning (to borrow from Saint Paul’s language), or, as Eugene Peterson once put it, how to ‘cuss without cussing.’”
Bailey discusses the constant simmer of race relations in America, faithful versus unfaithful expressions of anger, the language of “enemy” in the Psalms, the importance of lament in Sunday gatherings and the need for language that expresses the horizontal aspects of what it means to be a Christian, and leading without moderation during turbulent times.
Interviewer David Taylor’s latest book, Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life, contains a chapter on “The Psalms of Anger.” Read an excerpt here, or view this video talk. To coincide with the release in March, he and his wife Phaedra created a set of fifteen prayer cards. His prayer on the “Anger” card reads, “To the God whose holy anger heals, to the Messiah whose righteous anger overcomes evil, and to the Spirit who keeps our angers from turning violent and destructive: receive our wounded hearts, take our burning words, protect us from the desire for revenge. May our faithful angers become fuel for justice in our fractured world and for the mending of broken relations in our communities. For God’s sake—and ours. Amen.”
“I Just Wanna Live” by Johnnetta Bryant, performed by Keedron Bryant: Twelve-year-old gospel singer Keedron Bryant posted a video on Instagram last week of himself singing a song his mom wrote in response to the killing of George Floyd. “God gave me those lyrics” for Keedron, she said in a joint interview on Today. Keedron said he prayed the song, meditated with it, then hit record. It’s a heart-baring, heartbreaking lament, a plea for divine protection in a world that is especially dangerous for young black males.
“It Is Enough!” by R. DeAndre Johnson: R. DeAndre Johnson is the pastor of music and worship life at Christ Church Sugar Land outside Houston. He wrote the lyrics for “It Is Enough!” in July 2016 following the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile but hadn’t set them to music until now. The nine verses bear the refrain “Kyrie eleison” (Lord, have mercy!), or “Christe eleison” (Christ, have mercy!), a common cry of lament. “There are no words that can contain / The depth of sorrow, grief, and pain / That mothers, sons, and all exclaim: / Kyrie eleison!” Johnson sang the song for his church’s livestreamed service on May 31. A lead sheet is available on his Facebook page. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
“I Want Jesus to Walk with Me”: Sharon Irving is a singer-songwriter, spoken-word artist, and worship leader from Chicago who was also a semifinalist on season 10 of America’s Got Talent. In this video from 2015 she sings a spiritual that expresses deep sorrow—“When my strength is failing,” “When my heart is aching,” “When my life feels like a burden”—but also trust in the companionship of Christ, who walks with us through valleys of death. Having likely originated as an improvisation, the song has several lyrical variations and can be easily adapted to voice a range of feelings: “In my rage,” “In my frustration,” “In my exhaustion,” “In my confusion,” etc.
“O This Night Is Dark” by Tom Wuest: Last Sunday my congregation sang Isaac’s Wardell’s setting of Psalm 126 [previously], whose refrain is “Although we are weeping, Lord, help us keep sowing the seeds of your kingdom . . .” Seeds of love, truth, justice, hope. I just learned that Wardell’s song was inspired by Tom Wuest’s “O This Night Is Dark,” released in 2008 on Rain Down Heaven. In addition to Psalm 126, Wuest’s song also references 1 Corinthians 15, Isaiah 2, Amos 9, and Isaiah 65.
And this week as I was listening to the song, the following image by Scott Erickson showed up on my Instagram feed, with the caption “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it” (1 Cor. 12:26).
Erickson painted the image in July 2016 in response to the fatal shootings of Sterling and Castile. It suggests that tears of grief can be generative, that new life can rise out of death. That’s not at all to say that death is good because it catalyzes a movement of change, but that our mourning the evils of racism and murder, our publicly crying out “Enough!,” is not fruitless, though it often seems so. Growth will come.
VIDEO ART: Weight by André Daughtry: “Weight is an attempt to visualize societal projections on the black male body,” writes André Daughtry, a Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary photography and media artist, writer, and performer. The piece is from 2014, and last year PBS’s AllArts station commissioned Daughtry to restage it in New York City as part of a larger video work. [HT: ImageUpdate]
Daughtry has a master’s degree in theology and the arts from Union Theological Seminary and serves as community minister of the arts at Judson Memorial Church, which has a long history of nurturing artists. “We believe that artists have the potential to serve as our modern-day prophets,” the church website reads. “They show us where we’ve been, who we are, and what we can become.”
PODCAST EPISODE: “The SPU Conversation About Spike Lee Films,”North by Pacific Northwest: In this Seattle Pacific University conversation released April 11, 2019, two cinephiles, Jeffrey Overstreet and Josh Hornbeck, discuss some of the films of writer-director Spike Lee, “the boldest and brashest auteur in American film” (Guardian). The first several minutes, though, are spent decrying the then recent Oscar win of Green Book, which popular audiences loved but critics were generally sour on because it perpetuates the simplistic and ultimately false notion that to solve racism, white people just need to realize that “we’re all the same” and find a black friend.
Best known for Do the Right Thing (1989), Lee is one of several filmmakers they cite who deals with race in more complex ways, and while some people dismiss him as an “angry black man,” many celebrate him for forcing audiences to reckon with the problem of racism. “I think there should be rage inside of every conscious human being in the world, because there’s stuff that’s just not right,” he said in a 2000 interview. “Anger can be constructive.” Lee’s films are heavy-handed, in-your-face; they shout and unsettle. Heavy-handedness usually makes for bad art, but Overstreet and Hornbeck show how the approach works for Lee.
Starting at 16:44, they focus on the satirical comedy-drama Bamboozled (2000), which joined the prestigious Criterion Collection just this March. (It’s also been the subject of much scholarly study across fields, one instance I’ve come across being an essay by art theorist W. J. T. Mitchell, titled “Living Color: Race, Stereotype, and Animation in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled,” in What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images.) “Under pressure to help revive his network’s low rating, television writer Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) hits on an explosively offensive idea: bringing back blackface with The New Millennium Minstrel Show. The white network executives love it, and so do audiences, forcing Pierre and his collaborators to confront their public’s insatiable appetite for dehumanizing stereotypes.”
From 25:54 onward, Overstreet and Hornbeck discuss more generally their passion for cinema and the importance of revisiting films.
People have been expressing frustration that The Help, a civil rights era drama that sidelines the perspectives of its black characters, is the number one most-streamed movie on Netflix right now. Film critic Alissa Wilkinson gives a list of fifteen movies to watch instead on racial injustice and being black in America. A mix of dramas and documentaries by such filmmakers as Barry Jenkins, Ava DuVernay, Spike Lee, and others, these are black-centered stories that help illuminate where we’re at right now. All are available for online streaming, and Wilkinson provides links to her reviews.
EVERYPSALM: Over the next three years, indie-folk duo Poor Bishop Hooper (whom I blurbed here) will be writing and releasing one biblical psalm setting per week, sequentially from Psalm 1 to Psalm 150. And they are very graciously making all these songs available to download for free! They’ve already released the first three, and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying them. To sign up to receive a weekly download link in your inbox, visit https://www.everypsalm.com/. You may also want to consider giving to the project.
PHOTO SERIES: Un-Daily Bread by Gregg Segal: For his latest project, US-based photographer Gregg Segal has been photographing Venezuelan immigrants with the entirety of their belongings lying around them. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an organization that Segal is collaborating with, the number of people in Venezuela forced to leave their homes due to violence, insecurity, threats, and/or lack of essential services keeps increasing, with more than 4.6 million refugees and migrants from the country living around the world, mostly in South America. In the photograph below, you can see a young mother and her two children surrounded by a few changes of clothes, a doll, a baby bottle, medicine, diapers, arepas, and a Bible. The three traveled over six hundred miles from Maracaibo to Bogotá, hitching rides and catching buses.
Un-Daily Bread it is an offshoot of Segal’s Daily Bread series, in which he photographed images of kids from around the world surrounded by what they eat each day.
LITURGY: Impelled by the various antagonisms that have been on the rise both domestically and abroad, Aaron Niequist has written and compiled a ten-page Liturgy for Peacemakers, which includes a call to worship, two songs, a confession of sin and assurance of pardon, scripture readings, and prayers, including one minute of holy space each to pray for a global enemy, a local enemy, and a personal enemy. The liturgy, which focuses on shaping us to be instruments of God’s peace in the world, is free for you to use in your living rooms and/or churches, and to adapt in any way you wish.
EXHIBITION: Andy Warhol: Revelation, October 20, 2019–February 16, 2020, Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh: Ever since reading Jane Daggett Dillenberger’s illuminating book The Religious Art of Andy Warhol(1998), I’ve been interested to explore more deeply the Byzantine Catholicism of Andy Warhol and how it influenced his art. (I was surprised to learn, for example, that although he had a complicated relationship with Christianity, Warhol regularly attended Mass, wore a cross around his neck, carried a pocket missal and rosary, and prayed daily with his mother in Old Slavonic over the forty years he lived with her.) A pioneer of the pop art movement best known for his silkscreen prints of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s soup cans, Warhol also made giant cross paintings as well as screen prints of famous Renaissance religious paintings in full or in detail (by Piero della Francesca, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci)—especially The Last Supper, his last and largest series. Jesus is surely a part of American pop culture, so Warhol’s use of such imagery is not all that unusual in light of his larger oeuvre. But is there anything more to this choice of subject?
I’ll be driving to Pittsburgh next weekend, where Warhol grew up, to see an exhibition of his religious works curated by José Carlos Diaz from the Andy Warhol Museum’s permanent collection. I’ll also be attending a lecture at the museum given by Jonathan A. Anderson, titled “Religion in an Age of Mass Media: Andy Warhol’s Catholicism.” (It’s January 25 at 6 p.m.) In and around Pittsburgh is also where Fred Rogers (of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood fame) spent most of his life, so I’ll be visiting a few key spots related to him as well!
EXHIBITION: Scott Avett: INVISIBLE, October 12, 2019–February 2, 2020, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh: “Internationally recognized as co-founder of the band The Avett Brothers, Scott Avett has been a working artist, focusing on painting and printmaking, since he earned a BFA in studio art from East Carolina University in 2000. But until now this art-making part of his life has been a secret and a more solitary creative pursuit in comparison to his life as a musician, singer, and songwriter. This solo exhibition features Avett’s large-scale oil paintings. These are psychologically charged and emotionally intense portraits focused on his family and himself—often intimate, vulnerable, and sometimes uncomfortably truthful portrayals. Like his songs, Avett’s paintings speak to universal issues of spirituality and struggle, love and loss, heartache and joy, as well as more personal stories of career, family, and living in the South.”
As an Avett Brothers fan, I made it a point to see this exhibition in December when I was visiting family for Christmas, and actually, it exceeded my expectations. It was endearing to see portraits of Avett’s three children tumbling around, swinging, engaged in deep thought at the dinner table, playacting as monsters, wailing—and he and his wife in the middle of it all, experiencing both the joys and stresses of parenting. My favorite pieces were probably the companion paintings Motherhood and Fatherhood, which show the messiness of those callings.
Fatherhood is one of several self-portraits in the show. The one that’s most prominently displayed, right at the entrance, is Black Mouse, White Mouse, which references Leo Tolstoy’s personal essay “A Confession,” about an existential crisis. In it Tolstoy recounts a fable of a man who falls into a well with a dragon at the bottom. On his way down he grabs hold of a branch growing out of the wall, but it’s being nibbled by two mice, and his fall to death is imminent. This scenario is representative of where we all find ourselves: finite beings in an infinite world, dangling over the abyss. There are four possible ways to respond, says Tolstoy: ignorance, epicureanism, suicide, or hanging on to life. He thinks suicide the most logical but says he lacks the nerve to carry it out.
Tolstoy then launches into metaphysical musings, grappling with the question of God’s existence, when suddenly, he has an epiphany that “God is Life,” and that “I live, really live, only when I feel Him and seek Him.” He continues, “I returned to the belief in that Will which produced me and desires something of me. I returned to the belief that the chief and only aim of my life is to be better, i.e. to live in accord with that Will. And I returned . . . to a belief in God . . .”
Avett’s spirituality isn’t overt in any of the paintings, but it’s been interesting to hear him open up more about that aspect of himself in artist talks and interviews. In an October talk, for example, he said, “I’m a true believer that every single one of us is a beloved son or daughter of God, period. I know that for certain. And because of that, this [pointing to himself] isn’t the only bright shining person in this room. It’s insane how true that is. . . . I’ve just always lived like that—like someone was watching. It was God the whole time; he was right there with me and in me, the whole time. When I was younger it was so much easier to access that. And now growing older, it’s about opening up to access that again.”
SONG: “Offertory” by John Ness Beck, performed by Future:Past: Micah 6:8 has, for me, functioned as what some would call a “life verse”: a guiding principle that I return to again and again to reorient myself to the divine will. I long to be the kind of person the verse describes: one who does justice, loves mercy, and walks humbly with God. Thanks to Paul Neeley at Global Christian Worship, I’ve just been made aware of a beautiful musical setting of this passage, which happens to be one of the Revised Common Lectionary readings for February 2 this year.
“With what shall I come before the LORD,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
The music was composed in the second half of the twentieth century by John Ness Beck and was adapted for TTBB (tenor-tenor-bass-bass) by Craig Courtney—performed here a cappella by Josh Adams, Davis Gibson, Jon Kok, and Matthew Reiskytl of the Christian music and media ministry Future:Past. To purchase sheet music for “Offertory” (available in SATB, SSA, and TTBB voicings, with keyboard and optional string quartet), click here.
I waited patiently for the LORD;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the LORD.
SONG: “Oh, He’s Taken My Feet” | Early American folk hymn, performed by Lucy Simpson, with Rock Creek (Bill Destler, Wally Macnow, Tom McHenry), Mary Alice Amidon, Peter Amidon, and Caroline Paton, on Sharon Mountain Harmony: A Golden Ring of Gospel (1982, 2002)
Lucy Picco Simpson (1940–2006) was a prodigious collector of old hymns, amassing four hundred hymnals, mostly from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, over her lifetime. From their pages she would dig out old gems and help revive them—such as “Oh, He’s Taken My Feet.” After recording the song for Folk-Legacy Records in 1982, it was picked up by folk singers Jean Redpath and Lisa Neustadt in 1986, and thenceforth by others.
Sharon Mountain Harmony, where Simpson’s simple rendition appears, is one of my favorite albums. In his 1983 review for the Washington Post, Richard Harrington wrote,
On “Sharon Mountain Harmony” the inspiration is the particularly rich motherlode of gospel song, both black and white traditions. Rock Creek [the vocal trio comprising Wally Macnow, Tom McHenry, and Bill Destler] shares the album with Lucy Simpson of Brooklyn, and Mary Alice and Peter Amidon of Vermont. Simpson and Rock Creek alternate leads while providing a constant, thick backing of informal and earthy harmonies with heavenly aspirations. The singing is comfortable, unhurried. No matter which voice leads – Simpson’s ethereal and soft soprano, Bill Destler’s gentle tenor or Wally McHenry’s persuasive baritone – it’s the richness of the ensemble, the entrancing vocal weaves, that make this album a quiet gem. Another plus is the choice of material. All 16 songs are deeply rooted in prayer meetings, crusty hymnals and songbooks, revival tents, amen corners, rural radio programs; they come from the land and they’ve been well-used. There’s the clipped bluegrass harmony of “Glory Bound,” the shape-note urgency of “There Are Angels Hovering Round,” the exuberant Baptist release of “Oh, He’s Taken My Feet” and “Trouble So Hard,” the spiritual grace of “Blessed Quietness” and “Time Has Made a Change in Me,” the calming reassurance of “I Will Arise.” These are all wonderful songs, beautifully displayed. They reflect intensely personal convictions and a tremendous respect for the grace of unadorned voices singing from the heart.
Folk artist Sam Amidon, one of the sons of Peter and Mary Alice Amidon (who sing on Sharon Mountain Harmony), learned “Oh, He’s Taken My Feet” from Lucy Simpson, a family friend. Music critic Ryan Foley calls Amidon a “clever re-inventor, overly ambitious re-animator, whiz-bang music folklorist, fusty archivist . . . disassembling and then reconstructing antiquated sacred songs, secular ballads, and folk tunes.”
That’s what he does with this song on his 2013 album Bright Sunny South. “Brimming with unexpected shifts and subtleties,” Amidon’s arrangement of “He’s Taken My Feet” “begin[s] with a spare guitar and voice, [then is] slowly joined by hints of trumpet, understated fretless bass, and other elements until the song, very gradually, grows to a burning climax of dissonant guitars, synths, and explosive drums” (Fred Thomas). The sonic chaos at the end lasts almost a full two minutes and represents “the mire and the clay”—all that pulls us down, gets us stuck.
The melancholic tone that culminates in clashing is not what you’d expect from a psalm of testimony about the rock-solid stability God provides. But when the song is taken in context of the whole biblical psalm on which it is based, which vacillates between praise and lament, it makes perfect sense. Psalm 40 opens by celebrating the deliverance God has wrought in the past, but then it moves into the miry present, where the psalmist is in need of another deliverance:
For evils have encompassed me
my iniquities have overtaken me,
and I cannot see;
they are more than the hairs of my head;
my heart fails me.
Be pleased, O LORD, to deliver me!
O LORD, make haste to help me!
. . .
You are my help and my deliverer;
do not delay, O my God! (vv. 12–13, 17b)
Amidon’s arrangement of “He’s Taken My Feet” captures the believer’s struggle through adverse circumstances to find firm footing once again on the “Rock of Ages.” From within the fray the speaker remembers God’s faithfulness, sings God’s faithfulness, and that weary song creates anticipation for yet another act of divine rescue.
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 Second Sunday after Epiphany, cycle A, click here.
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.
God has brought us out to “a spacious place,” the psalmist says in Sunday’s lectionary reading from Psalm 66—also translated as “a wealthy place,” “a watered place,” “a wide open place,” or “a place of abundance.” I love that phrase, “a spacious place.” In our English Bibles, it’s used also in Psalm 31 (though the Hebrew words are different).
One thing about the experience of being diagnosed with cancer is that it feels like a narrowing, a tightening, rather than “a spacious place” to dwell. . . . It feels a bit like the lights in distant rooms are turning off or, rather, flickering. They were rooms that you were just assuming would be there for you to pass through in future years. The space starts to feel more constricted, narrowed. . . .
In light of all this, it is important to remember a distinctive entryway that Christians have into this Psalm—that through God’s victory, our feet have been placed in “a spacious place.” Ultimately, to be and to dwell in Christ is to dwell in the most “spacious place” imaginable. In our culture, to focus one’s trust and affection on one hope—Jesus Christ—strikes many as narrow or risky. But because of who Jesus Christ is [the Alpha and Omega, and the One in whom all things hold together], to dwell in him is to occupy a wide, expansive place. (5)
This word, merchâb—“spacious place” or “large room”—is also found in 2 Samuel 22:20, Psalm 18:19, Psalm 118:5, and Hosea 4:16, where it denotes a place of openness, safety, and freedom.
Since reading Billings’s personal take on Psalm 31:7–8, whenever I feel like walls are closing in on me, whenever I feel pressed down by circumstances, I visualize a wide-open space and myself standing smack-dab in the middle of it, to remind myself that in Christ, there is freedom, there is freshness, there is an infinitely wide ground to stand on. However constricted we might feel in the moment, we must remember, as our spiritual forebears have testified in scripture, that our huge God leads us out of constriction and into a spacious place. Our circumstances might not change, but our spirits, through the Spirit, can know rest and relief.
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 23, cycle C, click here.
By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy!
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
down to its foundations!”
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!
SONG: “Rivers of Babylon” | Words and music by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton of The Melodians, 1970 | Covered by Linda Ronstadt, on Hasten Down the Wind (1976)
In Psalm 137, a communal lament, Israel remembers with sadness the Babylonian captivity and, in the infamous final line (v. 9), wishes violence against her captors’ children. The Kingston, Jamaica–based reggae group The Melodians set Psalm 137:1–4, along with Psalm 19:14, to music in 1970 as “Rivers of Babylon.” (Unsurprisingly, the controversial imprecation is excluded.) The song became a sort of anthem for Rastafarianism, an Afrocentric religious movement that laments the exile of Africans to the West Indies and the Americas—“Babylon”—through slavery and expresses longing for the homeland, Africa, “Zion.” Boney M.’s 1978 disco cover popularized the song in Europe. I’m not a fan of this famous rendition, because the bright, bouncy style doesn’t fit the tone of the lyrics. In fact, I even prefer Linda Ronstadt’s cover to the original Melodians recording. She gives it more of a bluegrass gospel vibe and, appropriately, sings a cappella:
The etching above is by Ephraim Moshe (Moses) Lilien, an Austro-Hungarian art nouveau illustrator and a member of the Zionist movement. He helped found the Bezalel Art School in Jerusalem. Click here to see other religious-themed prints by the artist.
I first encountered this image in a challenging blog post by theologian W. David O. Taylor, who, addressing the oft-expunged vindictive sentiments of Psalm 137’s third stanza and citing Miroslav Volf, claims that our rage belongs before God liturgically. Taylor has contributed a very fine trio of visual commentaries on Psalm 137 to the Visual Commentary on Scripture project, where he discusses an English Romanesque manuscript illumination, a mosaic by Marc Chagall, and an Abu Ghraib prison series triptych by Fernando Botero in light of the psalm.
Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever!
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
whom he has redeemed from trouble . . .
For he satisfies the longing soul,
and the hungry soul he fills with good things.
Some sat in darkness and in the shadow of death,
prisoners in affliction and in irons,
. . .
they fell down, with none to help.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death,
and burst their bonds apart.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wondrous works to the children of man!
. . .
And let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving,
and tell of his deeds in songs of joy!
Image journal subscriptions are 50% off through the summertime—only $24 for four full-color issues! This is the magazine I most look forward to receiving in the mail. So much great poetry, art, essays, and more.
NEW POEM: “They Too Go Round” by Paul Mariani: This poem from the current issue of Image journal (no. 101) brings together Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Wedding Dance with Fra Angelico’s Last Judgment at San Marco, gesturing toward a vision in which the terrestrial is taken up into the celestial. Bruegel’s Dutch peasant dancers “pound” and “rollick” with beer foam on their faces and general bawdiness; the saints from the Fra Angelico painting, by contrast, step lithely and with reverence in their round dance on the very grasses of paradise. Disparate though they are in tone, Mariani connects these two images, playing with the idea of circling. Just as the wedding guests dance round and round, so too does time; so too the spheres. And at the center of this cosmic round dance is praise: humanity linked hand in hand with the angels, not closed in on themselves but opening up into the glory of God.
The last stanza quotes an excerpt from a famous medieval Catholic prayer: “Sinning daily, and not repenting, the fear of death disturbs me, for there is no redemption in Hell. Have mercy on me, O God, and save me.” The speaker’s anxiety has been building up as he reflects on the empty pleasures to which he has been so long devoted and the imminence of death. This anxiety, however, is swept away in one turn as he catches a glimpse of God’s abundant salvation and its final consummation—a “sea-changing moment, now and forever.” Christ, the fulfillment of all desire, sits on his throne at the center of this turning world, beckoning us into the dance of the redeemed.
CHURCH ARCHITECTURE: Known for his work in concrete, Spanish architect Fernando Menis designed the new Holy Redeemer Church in Tenerife, Spain, consecrated May 12. I’m digging the minimalism. Learn more and view more photos on the architect’s website. [HT: ArtWay]
CHORAL ARRANGEMENT: “Dios es Nuestro Amparo” (God Is Our Refuge), arr. Alfredo Colman: I love this traditional setting of Psalm 46 in Spanish, recently arranged by Alfredo Colman and performed by the Coro del Seminario Internacional Teológico Bautista (Choir of the International Baptist Theological Seminary) in Buenos Aires, Argentina. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
I was curious about the history of the song, so I wrote to Colman; he said he first encountered it in Paraguay, where he grew up, but doesn’t know its country of origin. The song, he told me, has been well known in Latin America since the 1970s. While this particular arrangement of Colman’s has not yet been published, you can find a simpler arrangement for congregational singing in the bilingual hymnal Santo, Santo, Santo: Cantos para el pueblo de Dios / Holy, Holy, Holy: Songs for the People of God, released just this month. Edited by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW) in partnership with GIA Publications, it contains over 700 songs in Spanish and English.
For a vision and resources for singing together in Spanish and English, see this recorded CICW workshop, led by Colman and five others, and also the article “Expand Your Church’s Bilingual Music Repertoire.” Introducing bilingual music to a church congregation is “like introducing a new vegetable to toddlers,” says María Eugenia Cornou, the CICW program manager for international and intercultural learning. “Some kids love it, but usually it takes time. It’s a new flavor.”
CULTURAL DESTRUCTION: “A Regime Conceals Its Erasure of Indigenous Armenian Culture” by Simon Maghakyan and Sarah Pickman: An investigative report published in February exposed Azerbaijan’s destruction of thousands of medieval Christian Armenian artworks and objects at the necropolis of Djulfa in Nakhichevan. The cemetery at Djulfa contained the world’s largest collection of khachkars, ornately carved memorial steles with crosses, characteristic of Armenian Christianity; 2,920 were documented clandestinely by native Argam Ayvazyan from 1964 to 1987, half of the 5,840 he documented in Nakhichevan as a whole. But, other than the dozen that were removed from the region during or before the Soviet era into church or museum collections, all these were demolished by Azerbaijani soldiers in 1997, 2002, and 2005–6, expunging the region’s last remaining traces of Christianity. (This was in addition to the demolition of 89 Armenian churches and 22,000 tombstones in Nakhichevan.)
“Unlike the self-publicized cultural destruction of ISIS, independent Azerbaijan’s covert campaign to re-engineer Nakhichevan’s historical landscape between 1997 and 2006 is little known outside the region. . . . While some Azerbaijanis have embraced their government’s vandalism as either righteous revenge or a national security measure against potential Armenian territorial claims, other Azerbaijanis . . . have mourned the destruction.”
Here is a short video posted in December 2005 by Nshan Topouzian, the leader of north Iran’s Armenian church, who was tipped off to the destructive activity taking place at the Djulfa cemetery by an Iranian border patrol. (Djulfa is located at the border of Azerbaijan and Iran.)
Hyperallergic pointed out the “cruel irony” and “insult” of Azerbaijan hosting UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee session earlier this month. UNESCO not only avoided a public condemnation of the destruction of Armenian Christian artifacts and churches in Nakhichevan but also praised Azerbaijan (one of its biggest donors) as a “land of tolerance.”
ARTICLE: “6 Works of Classical Music Every Christian Should Know” by Jeremy Begbie: Theologian and pianist Jeremy Begbie is a superstar in the field of theology and the arts. Most of his books, published for academic audiences, are pretty dense, but this article that he wrote for The Gospel Coalition is wonderfully accessible. It opens, “Why bother with classical music? On the face of it, it seems like a serious indulgence to give time and attention to something so trivial as music—classical or otherwise. Yet the fact remains that no human society, however impoverished, has yet managed to do without music in some form. The impulse to sing, to blow air through wooden tubes, and to draw hair across strings seems ineradicable. What’s more, it’s long been recognized that people pour their deepest longings and passions into music-making. Music can be a remarkable index of the profoundest impulses and stirrings of a culture—impulses and stirrings that are often theologically charged.”
He then recommends six works of classical music to spend time with, highlighting the best recordings and musical guides available. From the “bubbling, joyful abundance” of a Mozart piano concerto (“a fresh iteration of creation’s hallelujah”) to the “aching beauty” of Rachmaninov, there’s variety here. Find out what Begbie considers to be “the greatest Christian musical achievement of the early modern era,” and which symphony contains, from its penultimate to final movement, one of the best transitions in Western music.
Begbie is the founder Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts, and the program is throwing a big symposium in September to celebrate its ten-year anniversary. I’ll be there! Join me? If you can’t swing the registration cost but live in the Triangle area of North Carolina, consider coming out on Saturday night to “Making All Things New: The Sound of New Creation,” a concert featuring a range of music, “from Bach to Bernstein, Rachmaninov to Latino, medieval to jazz, concert music to film music,” as well as a reflection by N. T. Wright. I attended a similar Begbie-led concert at Duke two years ago, and it was phenomenal.
FILM: Ida (2013), dir. Pavel Pawlikowski: This Oscar Award–winning film about identity and faith is a great watch, especially for its stunning cinematography by Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski. Shot in high-contrast black-and-white in the classic 4:3 format, it is almost entirely made up of static frames, exquisitely composed. I really just can’t get over the visuals. Watch the trailer and film clip below, and you’ll get a sense of what I mean. The movie is available on Kanopy, an on-demand streaming service provided for free by many public libraries.