A poem I wrote last year

The Sermon on the Mount, James Tissot

 

A People Blessed
A Meditation on Matthew 5:1-16

A people blessed the kingdom seeks
Disciples gather on the hill
To see their rabbi’s words and will
Illuminate their path and feet

He turns our world upside down
A people blessed the kingdom seeks
Not rich but poor, not strong but meek
are those who learn to wear the crown

The greatest sermon ever told
Are these the words our savior speaks
A people blessed the kingdom seeks
Fulfilling prophets’ words of old

Praise to the God of heaven’s peaks
And to the Son who went below
And when the Spirit overflow
A people blessed the kingdom seeks

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Great post on infusing corporate worship with experiences of art

Artist and pastor in North Carolina (and a Regent alum!) shares his thoughts about the current difficulties congregations have with art, and steps to overcome such difficulties.

If we offer good teaching and expose our congregations to good examples of art, over the time there is a good chance that the culture of our churches will mature and that the gospel will be deepened. We might even have a small-scale revolution of culture-making on our hands. My prayer regardless of the practical outcome is that our corporate worship would irradiate the glory of God.

read the full post here:
A Landscape of Church & Art Questions: Part 2: Corporate Worship & the Arts

My first sermon(ette)!

For my course on christian worship I get to prepare a short worship service for class including a homily (umm…that’s high-church for sermon).  Here it is!  Also, for the record, I keep my word

Sermon: “Immersed,  Refreshed, and Engulfed”

Through the rudimentary elements of water and oil, baptism is firstly a physical act.  We get wet, it’s cold, it’s refreshing.  I think God designed the sacraments this way, using our physical senses to reveal a part of his infinite nature to us.  Though we will not, in this body, fully comprehend the significance of communion, when we bite I into the bread it is dense and filling, and we remember the trials of Jesus on the way to the cross.  When we take a gulp of wine – and notice I say gulp and not sip – the aroma is pungent and the flavor stays with us for a while after.  We remember Christ on the cross, the pierced side.  We don’t need doctoral degrees to understand that. It’s visceral, and yet at the same time, so mysterious.  In the same way baptism gives us a physical manifestation of a divine reality.

I was baptized just over 5 months ago, on a sunny summer evening at Santa Barbara Community Church.  Ever present ocean air filled the sanctuary.  Unfortunately for the maintenance crew, the sanctuary was also being filled with water from the baptismal font.  During the opening worship time, the pastor had left the water on, and it began spilling out over the rim and down to the carpet below!  While one pastor tried to stall for time, the other had to run behind and shut it off, grab a bunch of towels and a shop-vac, and attempt to clean it up before the stage area was damaged.  Fortunately there were no outlets or cables running awry and things were straightened up without too much fuss, but I’ll never forget hearing the slow trickle of water as I realized what was happening on the day of my baptism.

Despite that, the baptism itself went along without a hitch, and it was wonderful (though slightly scary) for me to share my testimony and profess my faith in front of the congregation I had been a part of for over 4 years.  During my baptism, I distinctly remember three physical sensations that have left profound meaning to me.

1) I was immersed.  The water came up to my waist, and I was dunked completely under water.  At that moment I felt the water come over my entire body and caught a glimpse of second-birth.  Alexander Schmemann, a Russian Orthodox author says this of baptism:

“Water is the ‘prima material,the basic element of the world.  It is the natural symbol of life, for there is no life without water, but it is also the symbol of destruction and death, and finally, it is the symbol of purification, for there is no cleanness without it.”

In that same way, as we pass through the water of baptism, we emerge as a new creation, united in the death and resurrection of Christ.

2) I was simply refreshed.  Though summers aren’t humid like Boston in Santa Barbara, the cool waters of the baptismal font were still nice against the mid-afternoon heat.  This is yet another purely somatic sensation.  The spirit, in the same way, should refresh us.

3) Finally, I was engulfed.  You might be thinking, “isn’t that the same as immersed?” Yes and no; It’s that and more.  I specifically remember after the baptism, drying off, changing clothes, and sitting in the pews, only to be thinking,  “gosh there’s water in my ear…”

In the same way the Spirit engulfs us.  It reaches the deepest places in our life.  The places we don’t want anyone to see, the places we sometimes forget exist ourselves.  C.S. Lewis likens this holistic treatment to the dentist visit.   We have a toothache but would prefer not to see the drill.  He says, “Our Lord is like the dentists. Dozens of people go to him to be cured of some particular sin. Well, he will cure it all right, but he will not stop there. That may be all you asked; but if you once call him in, he will give you the full treatment.”

Returning to Shcmemann’s orthodox liturgy, the priest anoints the newly baptized with oil in a similar holistic gesture.  The anointing is “on the brow, and on the eyes, and on the nostrils, and the lips, and on both ears, and the breast, and on the hands, and on the feet…the whole man is now made a temple of God, and his whole life is from now on a liturgy.  It is here at this moment, that the pseudo-Christian opposition between the ‘spiritual’ and ‘material,’ the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane,’ the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’ is denounced, abolished, revealed as a monstrous lie about God and man and the world”

The water in my ear reminds us of this character of God’s Spirit, engulfing our very being and pouring into places we’ve perhaps neglected or left to dry.  We all have these parts of our life.  Come to the water and be made new.

To close I would like to turn to a time of reflection using a poem by Anglican priest and poet George Herbert that is printed in your bulletin.  The words speak for themselves.  After I read, take a few moments to reflect on how the Holy Spirit has and is continuing to make you new.

As he that sees a dark and shady grove,
Stays not, but looks beyond it on the sky
So when I view my sins, mine eyes remove
More backward still, and to that water fly,
Which is above the heav’ns, whose spring[1] and rent[2]
Is in my dear Redeemer’s pierced side.
O blessed streams! either ye do prevent
And stop our sins from growing thick and wide,
Or else give tears to drown them, as they grow.
In you Redemption measures all my time,
And spreads the plaster equal to the crime:
You taught the book of life my name, that so,
Whatever future sins should me miscall,
Your first acquaintance might discredit all.
“Holy Baptism” (1633) – George Herbert

[1] Spring: to spend, to pay for
[2] Rent: cause great emotional pain to, wrench violently

Wilfred Owen – Maundy Thursday

British poet and soldier, Wilfred Owen is famous for his war poetry undoubtably evoked by his service in the First World War.  Britten’s War Requiem (1962) may be considered an homage to the poet, as Lt. Wilfred Owen was famously killed in action on November 4th, 1918, just one week before the Armistice that declared the end of the war.  His pre-war poetry is often overlooked, but is particularly poignant in showing his aversion to conventional (in this case orthodox) religion.

MAUNDY THURSDAY

Between the brown hands of a server-lad
The silver cross was offered to be kissed.
The men came up, lugubrious, but not sad,
And knelt reluctantly, half-prejudiced.
(And kissing, kissed the emblem of a creed.)
Then mourning women knelt; meek mouths they had,
(And kissed the Body of the Christ indeed.)
Young children came, with eager lips and glad.
(They kissed a silver doll, immensely bright.)
Then I, too, knelt before that acolyte.
Above the crucifix I bent my head:
The Christ was thin, and cold, and very dead:
And yet I bowed, yea, kissed – my lips did cling.
(I kissed the warm live hand that held the thing.)

Wilfred Owen

Setting a really great poem

Last Wednesday (my birthday!), a friend of mine gave a brilliant and poignant talk on the sacred poetry of George Herbert.  To call it profound and beautiful would be an understatement.  The talk focused around three poems, so we heard a small survey of his work, and (with the help of my friend) got to dig deep into some of Herbert’s enigmatic verbage and introspection.  It was an odd mix of grad students from different departments, housemates, clergy, and professors.  Coupled with decadent desserts and tea served in fine china, it was altogether an awesome way to spend my birthday.

One of the many things that stirred my soul that evening was the idea of God’s upside-down economy.  A kind of economy where one need not pay with works and good deeds to earn God’s blessings and gifts, but receives them in grace simply for being God’s son or daughter.  The story of the prodigal son was discussed, as was this passage from Isaiah:

. . .you that have no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. . .Why spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me and eat what is good, and delight yourself in rich food. –Isaiah 55:1-2

These two vignettes illustrate the fact that we are incapable of earning God’s favor, gifts, and ultimately, His love.  I won’t attempt to recreate the talk that my friend shared, and instead share one of the poems from the evening: Herbert’s “Love (III)”

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat

I got really excited when I saw this poem on the works discussed because I had sung a setting of this poem by John Tavener with my old church choir  (sorry no youtube recordings).  Though I didn’t care too much for the choral piece, I was puzzled by the poetry and was interested in the other poems of Herbert.  When my friend read the poem aloud during her talk, I realized that the words alone – without musical setting – were so much more powerful than the setting of them by Tavener.  I fell in love with the text in a way that the choral piece had never shown me.  The ambiguity of the speaker of each quotation (especially stanza 3 line 4) is troubling when we read it aloud, and I think that is Herbert’s intention.  Is “Love” telling the speaker that it will serve, or is the speaker requesting to serve “Love”?

In Taverner’s anthem, each stanza is broken into 3 sections, each with expanding vocal range and tonal complexity, starting from a simple unison for the first two lines, then dissonant 2nds and 3rds for lines 3 and 4, and concluding each stanza in a 4-part tonal style.  I think this expanding form works beautifully for the third stanza; beginning with shame, then reassurance, and the ultimately a direct command to sit and eat.  Mapping the same exact music to each verse of this poem, however, doesn’t accurately capture the meaning of each line.  In the second stanza the shame of the reader is illustrated in lines 3 and 4, for example.  Strophic text does not  necessarily call for strophic music.

Yet another setting of Love (III) is by Vaughn Williams.  I love Vaughn Williams’ tonal language, and he treats each stanza differently, complete with triumphant orchestration and unison choir.  Here’s a program note from a performance of the cycle i’m stealing from the internet:

Of the five settings, Love bade me welcome is perhaps the most enigmatic, reflecting both Herbert’s and Vaughan-Williams’ pre-occupations with the inner nature of Man.  The rapt stillness at its centre – the Act – at which point in the traditionally Edenic key of E, wordless voices intone the O Sacrum convivium, is one of the great moments in Vaughan-Williams

But is this glorious concert setting what Taverner had in mind when writing such an intimate poem as Love (III)?  does it accurately capture the inner dialogue between the speaker and the character of “Love”?  Does it adumbrate the question of who is speaking or serving? Does it have to?  I don’t mean to sound negative, but a poems value is not always elevated by the addition of music.  Many texts are brought to new light and given fresh understanding when set to music by a skilled composer, but poetry on its own can have a simple beauty that allows us to intensely focus on language.  Music can obscure or detract from its inherent beauty.  Kudos to Sir Vaughn Williams for setting them though…egads.