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Almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.

Now My Raptured Soul Has A Song Stuck In My Head

The opening lines of “At Calvary” will always remind me of morning chapel at the private religious boarding school I attended my senior year of high school.  All those teenagers in their uniforms, not quite awake yet singing in harmony.  It’s a wonderful song to be nostalgic about, because it’s an ideal hymn in many ways.

I think that the wonderful old timey piano arrangement has such a beguiling tune.  It’s a tune suited for a music box, catchy and pleasing to sing and to listen to.  The four verses are short, to the point, and the rhymes are not forced as one finds in some classic hymns. Written by a Moody Bible Institute staff member on the back of an envelope (the guy’s name was William Reed Newell), it’s a song that touches deep and yet does not weary.

It’s a testimony to the tune that attempts to freshen it up with an updated tune (which has been used to great effect with other hymns), results in a really depressing overworked slog (sorry, Casting Crowns).  Daniel Brink Towner, the composer of this and many other hymn melody, had such a gift (and training, the guy had a doctorate in music) for getting a song caught in your head.  Once you sing “At Calvary” in the morning at school, every time you are bored in class you will hear “Years I spent in vanity and pride, caring not my Lord was crucified”.

Here’s a great jam out of this classic hymn, as a break to my rambling:

I haven’t dug to see if Newell was doing his city wide verse by verse bible classes at this time, or if he was Superintendent of MBI yet. Some sources say that he had just begun to teach there, but I’m not sure how much it matters to me.  The verses of At Calvary express in wonderful brevity a testimony of redemption.  I look at the photo of Newell that is on every site that bios him and I see those sparkly eyes and think, that man had wit about him.

In fact, the power of such well turned lines means that I’m going to be seeking out Newell’s study materials. I’ve found some online, and I have been truly enjoying them.  I have such appreciation for a male writer who does not seem in love with his own words, and he may just fit the bill!

“Mercy there was great, and grace was free, pardon there was multiplied to me, there my burdened soul found liberty, at Calvary”

 

Social Media Blues

I wanted to write about devotional spaces and art spaces today, but I just don’t have it in me.  I’m working really hard to not care so much about external forces on my thoughts, but once you put them out in the world, it is difficult not to care how they land.

Sometimes I wonder if Social Media has ruined me for sharing art.  The biggest problem with Social Media is that I always seem to find out something sad and dark and disappointing about someone I love. But it leads me to question,  if they can say such vile things, how did I ever trust them with my thoughts or heart or company?

It starts to affect everything I put out there.  I tailor my Facebook statuses to not attract that kind of exchange, and it feels vapid… and still they come. The pedantic, the ignorant, the blindly political, the angry.  How come it’s harder to love someone on Social Media?  Does it bring out our worst, or does it break through our carefully constructed facade?

Yet, there’s all sorts of creative release in Social Media too.  Artists can share directly with their fan-base,  there are good thoughts and discussions to be had.  So it feels as if I would throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater to eschew the platform completely.

And yet it makes me weary.  I start to question if there’s a point to Art and Beauty in such a world, where people who have chosen to befriend each other engage in such rabid egotistical written pummeling.

Sorry guys, I wanted Monday to be cheerful and well researched, but sometimes that is just not something I can work up, even though I spent a lot of time on the groundwork for it.  I probably need to spend more time in my devotional spaces and art spaces to mitigate the social spaces.  I just feel like I do that an awful lot as an introvert already.

 

Wesley and White-ness

Oh Charles Wesley, I sort of love you and dislike you deeply all at once.  Though I tend toward Wesleyan and Methodist congregations out of preference, I always come to little bits of un-comfort in the writings of the Wesley brothers.

I wanted to write about “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing” because I love the build up in the song,  it is just a really triumphant sounding piece especially if you are at a church with an organ and an organist who really knows how to jam.  Wikipedia tells me that this tune is by Carl G. Glaser, and the one they sing in the UK is a different tune… which if Wikipedia is to be trusted makes me wonder how much I’d like the song with a different tune.

Doing my research on this piece, it seems it was written by Wesley to commemorate the year anniversary of his renewal of faith.  I had no idea it was a 10 verse poem originally, or that it had the  verse with the very problematic imagery of:

Awake from guilty nature’s sleep,
And Christ shall give you light,
Cast all your sins into the deep,
And wash the AEthiop white.

See, this is what I’m talking about.  I’m all into the triumphant nature of the song and the freedom of belief… and Wesley uses the imagery of washing an Ethiopian white.

Now, I get that he lived in a time that was super racist.  I get that the missional statement of the time was that brown people needed God because they were savages.  I get the socio-political and cultural context of the poem.  It still makes me upset.  It still makes me feel like it alienates a bunch of people from the song.  Most hymnals agree, and don’t include that verse… in fact, you usually get only 4 to 6 of these verses (and if you are Wesleyan you probably only sing the first and the third anyway, haha).  But now I know it’s there.  You might say to me that the imagery is saving an African, not whitewashing them, but I think you will find that contextually that’s Saving An African, not sharing the gospel with a human who happens to be from Africa, and has way more whitewashing than a poem with imagery of whitewashing, and oh man I’m not sure how equipped I am to really address that level of Patriarchy all throughout recent Christian history in a quick blog about a hymn.

And here is where we approach the hymn as a piece of art,  a religious poem as a poem.  Is it good to just throw out the part that is racist to save the rest of the piece?  Have we missed an opportunity to talk about religious leaders as fallible people? Should we address the idea of being Clergy as a career path and the pitfalls that come along with that?  Why should it get a free pass because of time and place? Am I holding it to a higher standard than I would another piece because of it’s use in worship and is that a good thing?

As a poem, I find it fascinating to delve into.  As a hymn, I find the truncated version beautiful. As a human, I find the inherent racism troubling.  As a Christian, I find the historical context embarrassing.  As a white person, I have the privilege if I want to skip the verse, pretend it never happened as my place in the song’s internal world is secure… but I don’t think that is a good use of my privilege. What do we do with the huge swaths of our culture that were inherently passively racist?  I mean, I’m asking.

Honoring The Natural World

February is the month where it has been winter too long for me.  I find myself feeling cold and fatigued and my creative outlook bleak.  I think that one of the things I forget to do in this part of the year is to connect with nature and contemplate the created world, and I suppose that is terribly fixable.

All of the Psalms that I find most passionate, most inspiring have that wonderful wildness about them that only being intimately acquainted with the creation can bring.  “The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD thunders over the mighty waters…”  Psalm 29 goes on to talk of cedars, calfs, oxen, lightning…. oaks twisting, forests stripped bare.  It may seem like a hallmark of a book written in an ancient world, but the connection of the Word to the earth is as intentional as the Word creating the earth.  God put considerable work into this piece of art, and put it into our care, and I just completely forget about it sometimes.

In my comfy modern cave I forget to be stirred by the natural world.  I can be found under piles of soft blankets, laptop in front of my, cup of tea in my hand, and perhaps a cat nearby.  Sometimes I forget to look at the cat and marvel that an animal lives in the house with me, and become mildly annoyed that it is blocking me from watching “My Unfortunate Boyfriend” on Hulu.  By no means are these bad activities, but just like you can’t live on takeout alone and be truly well fed… one cannot live in their cocoon of constructed comfort and have one’s spirit fed in a holistic way.

I have planned out my February with the goal of going to museums and feeding my sense of wonder, but I have to re-assess and ensure that I’m also feeding my sense of awe and wonder of the Master Creative One. I shall never write a poem as lovely as a tree, I see the stars and hear the rolling thunder and proclaim How Great Thou Art, I shall listen to the declaration of glory from the heavens.  In other words, I hope you will join me in bundling up, and going for a walk.

Activist, Social Worker… Hymn Writer

Fanny_Crosby
Fanny Crosby, (Photo Public Domain)

 

“Blessed Assurance” is not a hymn that I think of often.   I mean, can you think of another hymn off hand with as archaic language, or which can be half as deadly in a church service when sung horribly slow for some unknown reason?  I guess it depends on what kind of church you went to.  And yet, it endures…

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!

Oh What A fore-taste of glory divine!

It’s unfortunate how interpretation can take a vital work and make it dull.  Look at those exclamation marks!  When put with the tune, those words bloom.

Fanny J. Crosby knew a little something about writing a lyric and pairing it with a tune.  Blind from the age of 6 weeks, she was a prolific songwriter, penning over 2000 songs of spiritual and secular lyric.  She also wrote cantatas, books and poetry.  She was so prolific that she had to write under literally hundreds of pen names for her songs to make it into hymnals.

It can be easy to sing this song and find it mawkish or boring. I mean, even for Crosby every song can’t be a winner, right?   A first, superficial glance at the lyrics and they seem trite and self serving… “Perfect submission, all is at rest, I in my Savior am happy and blest”… well good for you honey.  However, I think that there is something very important in the concept of this song that I personally forget to honor and it is right there in the title.

A pet peeve of mine in religious song is an over abundance of focus on meeting the Lord in the afterlife.  I mean, it’s a great thing.  It’s an amazing beautiful wonderful thing.  But I live in there here and now.  There is something to acknowledging that Jesus is mine as I serve and love right now.  I’m an heir right now, and how easy it can be to forget.  Yes, I am his but he is mine…! 

In her time, Fanny Crosby lived in the here and now as well.  I look at her photo and think of her story and song of praising her Savior (all the day long).  That woman was the first to be heard on the senate floor (reading poetry, but still).  She lived in poverty to work in the inner city of her day.  Some accounts have her struggling with the balance between socio-political reform and love/service.

For Fanny Crosby to write of delight and “visions of rapture now burst on my sight”… the idea of that kind of joy is transformative.  The photos of her make her look like an unfeeling old woman, not an innovator of the turn of the century with a strong artistic voice and passion… which is what she was.  “Blessed Assurance”, when sung with understanding, becomes a song of heirship, of power, and of daily promise of the here and now reality of an Eternal service.

Look at Fanny Crosby again… there’s something a little punk rock about her now, admit it. I’ve read so much about her legacy, and yet I don’t know that any of it conveys what it must have been like for her at all as an artist, as a Jesus lover, as a social activist, as a “rescue missionary”, as a blind woman… she left her life’s legacy to words and her soul to the assurance that Jesus was hers.

 

 

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

This last weekend I’ve been thinking about the process of going from Planning A Thing to Doing A Thing.  I’ve been in a season of planning for a while now, and getting the swirl of ideas from my brain, to paper broken down in actionable steps to execution has been a weirdly overwhelming experience.

It used to be that the big impediment to a project was a material component.  I needed some art supply or piece of equipment that I couldn’t afford and for what ever reason could not seem to find my way around, and often this issue would stop whatever plan completely.

Later, when I could Afford A Thing, the stumbling block becomes Time and Space.  I never seem to have the creative space I need, and even if I did I’m aware that I don’t have the glorious chunks of time I had back when I had little money to afford supplies since I wasn’t working the way that I work now.

For some reason (namely, that my brain is used to self-sabotaging and will scramble to cover up my insecurity and laziness with Reasons), I’m pretty sure that someone could come and give me a studio and pay me for my time tomorrow and I would see some other stumbling block that I never anticipated to keep me from Doing The Thing.

 

Planner

I worked with a really great therapist last year, and she started to get me back in the habit of journaling and journaling in different ways.  I started to break my ideas down into small, tasty, actionable steps.  I started to have a written record to keep me accountable to what I needed to accomplish.  I became one of those Planner Ladies that you see on Pinterest who lay out their goals on a timeline, and keep to do lists, and manage their time.  (If you are curious my journal is just a spiral bound sketchbook, and my planner is a MAMBI Happy Planner that I got on sale at Michael’s).  I felt like a fraud.  We will talk more about feeling like fraud another time, suffice it to say that I did not understand how to marry the side of my brain that works in office administration with the side of my brain that likes to make small mythological creatures out of clay and ink.  In fact, part of me really believed that they were antagonistic skills to each other, instead of realizing that they are vitally important parts of a whole.

 

Supplies

I’ve also realized that it is important to address some of these ideas that keep us from Doing, and that as in most things, these ideas are not unique to my own experience.  So I decided to go back to doing workshops/art meets using the kind of supplies you’d find in most kid’s schoolbags.  My big issue with that idea was… Space!  My friend Kiki mentioned we could use the big table in her tarot shop, and I immediately recoiled… I’ve been thinking about the parellels of art space and devotional space deeply for an upcoming post so working in a space where Tarot readings happen was not an easy idea for me.  But as I started praying about it, and looking for other options it became clear… an answer had been provided.  Not in a comfortable way for me, not in the way I expected, but I had opportunity.

So this weekend we made ATC’s at RockStar Tarot.  With crayola supplies and the leftover scraps from my collage work and papercraft.  And drank tea.  And had a good time. And no one “caught” paganism, we all just made art.  And the fraud police did not show up to call me a bad Christian or a fake artist.  So, I mean, I’m just saying… if you Did The Thing, that probably wouldn’t happen to you either.

Sondheim and Psalms

I was having lunch with my friend Kiki and we started to talk about the nature of religious art.  I love getting Kiki’s views on such things, she’s a pastor’s kid who is now a Buddhist/Pagan practitioner so she can offer a perspective I rarely consider.  She asked me why I thought that modern religious art of all kinds allows in any positive image even if it is mediocre and shies away from perhaps “darker” themes.  I see it in Christianity, she sees it in Buddhism but especially in the pagan world.

I told her that from my religion I can for conversation’s sake narrow it down to three things. First, I think we take Phillipians 4:8, which says:

     Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

and we make it into “Think of only nice things”.  Which is not what it says.  As Sondheim has pointed out to us “Nice is different from good”.  I think that we also take the “I will set no worthless thing before my eyes” and make value judgments based on how something makes us feel instead of how it is.  Comfort and Art don’t always go together, and yet it is nearly a requirement in modern religious work.

I also think that perhaps as a people who follow the Father of heavenly lights who does not change like the shifting shadows feel that anything that is part of the human experience and less than divine is not good to contemplate.  I am not sure if this is something left over from the marks of transcendentalism on mainstream religion or is part of legalism that thinks that we are totting up good and bad marks to be reviewed by a judging god.  There’s some idea (that I want to explore in another post some other time) that anything earthly and of this existence is intrinsically poisoned, and I just don’t believe that about a creation that was called “good”.

Last, I think that we have (sweeping generalization ahead) lost a couple key skills that are important in interacting with art in the faith community.  There are few churches where one may amicably disagree or change one’s mind without feeling that you are breeding strife.  Small issues become giant issues.  People’s salvation is called into question.  It’s a volatile place to view art from.  I also think that as a culture we are disinclined to interact with anything that requires us to analyze or defend in a real way… and effective Art almost always requires both things.

I don’t think any of these issues are insurmountable.  It’s like the way generationally we’ve realized that maybe the line between “Christian artist” and “believer who makes art” shouldn’t be so defined.  It was encouraging to me to hear that these are not issues unique to Christianity, which leads me to believe that these are tendencies of humans and not just Believing humans. Sometimes I forget that there are humans in that odd ritualistic amalgamation of church that is also Church.

There are so many believers out there that make art, and yet our access to them is so poor.  Walking into a Christian bookstore, or the Christian section of a bookstore, cruising the Christian section of iTunes or looking through faith based magazines tells us that as a movement we haven’t cultivated and valued that. And yet we exist, we are out there… so let’s keep questioning this.  Let us keep this Great Conversation going because it is good.