My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
Perhaps you heard the news. Students staged a seven-day occupation at University of California, Berkeley to protest tuition hikes. The already inflated tuition rates at what used to be one of the best funded state college systems in the country will, once again, be raised. UCB is no longer a "great deal." It's an expensive investment on par with some of the most expensive private school educations in the country.
Perhaps you are saying, "Yes, we know, but have you seen the news in Ferguson? Who cares about their tuition?"
Of course. People held rallies here in Oakland to support Ferguson. And they rallied on campus and downtown in Berkeley. Even the local seminaries gathered together in downtown Berkeley.
Black lives matter.
What I have not seen, however, is anyone making the obvious connections about the increasing cost of such social goods as higher education with the increasing obfuscation of racism in our country. There is a correlation at work in this that I believe demands our attention. But our efforts are divided. Our attentions scattered.
It seems to be a season of protest. Advent is a protest time.
How do I know? Well, the soundtrack, of course. For me it all begins with Mary's song. Every Advent I have to listen to this song.
So, I muster up the courage to listen to her again. She is a prophet echoing other prophets. Luke remembers her song for us, some scholars argue. Others suggest that this is the beginning of the defense of Mary's place in the leadership of the early Christian community. Do you want to know what Mary thought about Jesus' ministry? Well, Luke would have you listen to this song.
I, of course, want to contemporize it in some way. I want to turn it into a protest song, a folk song. “Folk music...requires you to live it if you’re going to sing it.” But that would be an anachonism that might cause some undue harm to Mary's legacy.
If the stories are worth telling, Mary is not some disenchanted first century suburbanite. No, she's poor. She's disenfranchised in ways that I cannot begin to understand (though not in the typical ways that get bandied about). So, comparing her to Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell isn't what I'm after. It's such challenging music.
So, like I do with a lot of challenging music, I listen. I listen deeply. I listen to it again and again. And I just let it sit there. Or, more accurately, I sit there in my silence as the musician sounds in my presence. I listen to Mary sing.
My protest is to be in silence while Mary's song reverberates across the cosmos.
So, I sit this Advent season in silent protest.
No one needs my voice in this. We need to listen to Mary. I brought my banjo if she needs it. Otherwise, it too can stay in its case.
My protest this Advent is my silence.
I want people to hear Mary's song, not mine. I want people to hear Ferguson's song, not mine. I want people to hear Eric Garner's song, not mine. I want people to hear Emmet Till's song, not mine, Rosa Park's song, not mine, Nelson Mandella's song, not mine.
Your song, not mine.
I simply need to keep silent vigil while the world sings, while Mary sings.
It is Advent. An angelic choir approaches.
This blog is one of the #staywokeadvent series of blogs. Learn more here.
Filed Under: Advent
The grand daddy of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, once proclaimed, "Here I stand, I can do no other." It has been offered again and again as a proclamation of faith, of the immovable certainty of what one believes. I want to offer it an apophatic utterance, a statement of uncertainty, the certainty of uncertainty. Cogito ergo dubito?
Hell, I dunno.
I need to get back to my reading of John Smyth. I should probably eat lunch, too. But I am wondering what I believe. Why is it that I despair about my work so easily? Do I not believe that Jesus is present in this process somehow redeeming me?
Whatever that means this week...
The answer is clearly, "No, Jesus is not present in this." That's what I'm experiencing and what I am proclaiming in my actions. Jesus is in no way present in this process. He's not even in the seminary debating Midrash with me. He's not standing next to me with his double bass offering up some slap-kick jam. Nope.
Jesus is high upon some throne somewhere deaf to my cries because my cries are drowned out by a sycophant quire singing, "Holy! Holy! Holy!"
The sun is out. After several days of rain, it's a friendly face hovering in the sky. Our drought is by no means over, but the generous rains have been graciously received even if they did flood some underpasses.
I am sitting at my dining room table trying to motivate myself to get at these two comprehensive exam questions on liturgical history. There's a latte beside me that promises assistance, but I hold no hope in such things these days.
My friends have been generous and kind, so encouraging. I cannot express my gratitude for your ongoing support, y'all. Truly. My own psyche would never allow me to finish this process. By allowing me to borrow yours, even if on Facebook, you are empowering me to continue. I would never do this on my own. I don't have that kind of strength.
Never have, really.
This is one of the great realizations of my life. And it is one that I am constantly re-encountering. I can do nothing alone. Nothing. This dependency is a gift. It undermines my false sense of accomplishment and ability. It undermines my ego.
Well, sometimes it undermines my ego. Ha! I'm not a consistent person. My ego oft gets in front of my best intentions to receive the gifts of support and encouragement. Shocking, I know.
So, today the exam begins. That's the thing about comps. I have framed these questions, beginning to answer them in the process of creating them. And, though the exam is timed (four hours on a Wednesday morning), the truth is that I am writing the damn things in my head as I work through these books. The post-it notes are a technicolor draft of what I will finalize in the four-hour exercise on Wednesday.
Right. Here we go. I hate this.
You can correct me with your calendrical fundamentalism until you are Advent blue in the face. I really don't care.
Christmas is upon us once again. It looms on the horizon, a clove-scented spectre festooned with ribbons and baubles. I am, as always, become the Scrooge, the Grinch. It must be the second week of December and I must be feeling the stress of the church calendar combined with comprehensive exams and office deadlines.
Please know that I know before you read the rest of this.
I know. I am aware.
Still, I find this time of year to be burdensome. The complexities of managing All The Things in order to make room for All The Other Things has never been joyful for me. I try to let the joy in. I make time for family and friends. I make room for my wife and I to get the greenery and festoon the apartment as best we can. I do my best to not let the season get to me so that I am pleasant company. There is always a Christmas pizza on December 6.
But once a year I have to let it free. I have to vent a little and share how much the present disconnect between the lives of some congregations and the prevailing culture create a tension that is painful for me to manage.
You see, Advent is a time of year when the church keeps me away from my family. To be at church is the loneliest thing in the world during Advent and Christmas. I used to like it. No longer.
Yes, I'm whining.
I take no pride in my spiritual tradition this time of year. I take no joy from it. It is laborous. Cruel. The spiritual riches of a season of preparation is a sword and not shepherd's staff.
Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. (Mt. 34-36)
Somewhere in the liturgical nostalgimania around Advent and Christmas we forget the eschatological promise of division and estrangement. The great eschatological reveal also reveals our divisions. The eschaton is a time for decisions.
Religion doesn't bring people together any more or less successfully than music or a good Thai restaurant. And Christianity may well be designed to pull people apart.
Have you considered that in your eschatological musings this season? What follows in the wake of the birth of the Christ is not peace and prosperity, sugar cookies for small boys and girls, but civil unrest, Herod's war crimes, a life of struggle, execution, and the dissolution of the Jewish state in the first century.
Why is it that we insist on enshrouding the story with cherubic choirs and friendly camels? Why is it that we sing the liturgical equivalent to "Shiney Happy People Holding Hands"?
Okay. This is an inarticulate mess. Bring the eschaton. I am by no means ready, but whatever.
Woah. So much woah.
Once again I am overbooked. It's odd, really. I never see it coming. One would think that after so many experiences of doing too much I would begin to recognize the symptoms long before the actual thing happened. But no. And there's really no room to give away, either. None. Zero. Zilch. Nada.
Woah. So much woah.
We are old people. Okay, I am an old person. My wife does not think she is old. She has always been wiser than I. This kind of age is a state of mind in the general, but every so often my body likes to remind me that I am no longer twenty-five. The physical stress of a full-time job, spending time musicking at the church, and preparing for comprehensive exams has me, well, tired.
I have been sick for the last month. This will likely not let up any time soon. The illnesses have ranged from diverticulitis to a nagging cough. Yay.
I am trying not to whine. I do not feel that this is unjust in some way. This is not a tale of woe, but more a tale of woah.
Woah. So much woah.
I am aware that as a desk-sitting, vitamin-avoiding, middle-aged white guy, I am not in the appropriate shape to keep up this mad pace.
I am also convinced that adding exercise to the list of things that I do would also be disastrous. One more stress upon my body, even one that will, in the end, improve my body, just doesn't seem wise.
I am dumb. I know. But there it is.
People want to know how comps are going, and I really cannot say. I am doing them. I have no metric for self-evaluation. I don't know if my answers are any good. If it weren't for peer review, I would never know the value of what I write. This is not a reflection of my sense of self worth as a scholar. It's not that at all. I simply cannot tell when I do good work. I just work and let the chips fall where they may.
Sometimes this is problematic. Now is one of those times. I am flying blind.
The white is the paper. The black is the notes. Now, sing! ~ Dr. James Erb
The man who taught me to sing has died. Word came through social media last night. A beautiful obituary or two are circulating around. I've posted a link to my Facebook thread below. I'm still searching for the words to express my grief and gratitude. Jim was an astonishing musician and a singular personality. I will miss him.
To say he taught me to sing is not an exaggeration. I was encouraged by a friend during my Freshman year to audition for the University Choir. I knew nothing. I had not sung in a choir since seventh grade. There was a brief stint on stage in a High School production of "Grease," but we try not to discuss such things in public.
I arrived that first evening of rehearsal the second semester of school in 1989. Erb sat me in the bass section (I didn't know I was a bass; I knew that little) between two veterans and I held on for dear life. I could not read the music in front of me.
My audition with Erb consisted of mimicing everything he did...rhythmic patterns and pitches. He took a chance on me in spite of my ignorance cursing my lack of musical education all the while.
I spent the remainder of my college career singing in the University Choir, had a stint or two with the Schola Cantorum, the chapel choir, the a cappela group on campus, and the occasional impromptu gathering. He took us to a competition in Toronto, Canada where we won the gold, apparently impressing the judges with the maturity of sound. This was not a choir of music majors, but it was a choir of intelligent, passionate, choristers.
After graduation, I sang for him in the Symphony Chorus. I also found my way into professional choral gigs in Richmond and later Chicago.
The rest is history and I owe him everything. Everything. He was insane, an occasional tyrant, incredibly playful, and so very talented. He held nothing back.
It was "Mr. Erb" or "Jim" and not "Doctor Erb" or anything of the sort. Why? "Any idiot can get a PhD." He would preach on the virtues of memorizing the score. He would say time and again that he could, if we were ready, simply walk off the stage and we would finish the piece. He would make us sing without his immediate direction to compell us to listen to one another. He would not hesitate to call you out if you were off pitch or not blending. He wanted us to be fearless. Fearless.
There are few people on this planet that I have ever wished to emulate. Erb was one of them. I will miss him greatly. He shaped the lives of countless students. He made the world a better place and, as my college roommate Rich Miller said, "spread all the beauty he could on to a coarse world."
Filed Under: hymns
Tags: Jim, James Erb, choir, music, eulogy, love, passion, mandodoxy, mandoguru
It's really rather simple despite all the eventual complexities that emerge. The Bible is a bound collection of texts, a book of books if you will, and there is more than one way to read it. Let me explain.
We can dive into the middle of it, say, by reading that first collection of liturgical "greatest hits," The Psalms. Or maybe you are the kind of reader who likes to know the ending before they begin. So, you start with Revelation. Of course, now you are really confused and in turning to the beginning (Genesis) you wonder what the hell it is you have gotten yourself into because Genesis is no comfort at all. Strangeness abounds as well as fratricide.
Maybe you open the Bible looking for your favorite verse. There's that way of reading it, too. There's this devotional thing going on for some people that's potent. People find answers and comfort in the face of some of life's greatest challenges.
Some people read the Bible to find rules. Lots of rules. Governmental kinds of rules. And sitting there next to Hammurabi's Law Code in the great histoy of Legal Stuff is Leviticus. Have at it, counselor.
Maybe you are a historan, a linguistic historian and you want to know if there really are Sumerian roots to some of the Psalms. So, pulling out your various ancient texts and your favorite English translations, you sit down and get to work. Linear A, Linear B, how is your Ugaritic? Let's find out!
Or, maybe, like me you first open the book because you hear tell of some powerful stores and a powerful story lights you up like no other thing. So you read about Eve and Adam or Sarah and Abraham. Or, even more fun, you start reading the various tales about the notorious King David and his warlike fascination with his neighbor's wife. Good grief, but there are some stories. And if all that's not enough, John of Patomos has a vision of a new heaven and a new earth that puts anything that Marvel Productions has imagined to shame. You can keep "Ultron." Give me The Lamb That Was Slain. That's serious heavy lifting. Dude has a sword for a tongue and fights dragons and stuff. Insane!
There are lots of ways to read the Bible and the new book Disquiet Time edited by Cathleen Falsani and Jennifer Grant is a great collection of primers for how you might want to take a crack at reading it. Candid, creative, and quirky, this collection has much to offer. I have an essay in it about feet and angelic netherbits. Again, more good stories abound than I can share with you here. But if you like a good story and are looking for a collection of stories about a collection of stories, Disquiet Time is the book for you.
Buy it online at Barnes and Noble or Amazon or pick it up at your local book monger. And, if you are in the Bay Area, stop by American Baptist Semiary of The West Saturday, November 8 at 7:00pm for a conversation with Jennifer, Cathleen, myself and some amazing readers of the Bible.
Filed Under: scripture
Tags: Disquiet Time
Surprising no one who reads this blog, I listen to a lot of old time and bluegrass music. I also listen to their parent and sibling styles as well such as English ballads and Irish folk music. Artists such as Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile, Mark O'Connor, Aiofe O'Donnovan, and The String Dusters frequent my playlists. Americana in all its forms intrigues me sonically and lyrically. There's something of a historical accretion at work in these musics that I just cannot let go.
It may surprise you to know, however, that I feel similarly about 15th and 16th century polyphony. I could listen to and sing Gibbons and Byrd all day. And, as things go, I'd rather explore earlier forms of the art rather than the later. The baroque forms lose me for some reason. I've never been able to connect to Bach, for example, as I do to Tallis.
I share all this in the continued effort to get my own head around how I listen to music. What are for forms, the artists, the communities that attract my attention? Why do these attract my attention and not others? Where are the commonalities and where are the juxtapositions?
I am only just beginning to get a handle on all of this.
As I do, however, it occurs to me how much wealth this reflects. I'm not talking about cash money, though that's part of it, and I'm not criticizing the weath, per se. I'm simply noticing it. There is an affluence here that needs to be addressed as well. I have access to a great deal of music. I have access, if one believes the great proponents of YouTube and Spotify, to all the world's music if I wish it. A grandiose statement or not, it's worth considering.
How is a musical consciousness formed in the vast plurality of expression available to one? What is the identifying musical practice of a person who has such access? Is it the accessing of said music itself that is the identifying musical expression? Rather than learning close harmony singing, does one learn how to navigate search engines? Is this the identity practice that needs my researcher's eye?
I don't know. None of these practices or expressions are exclusive of one another. Hardly. If I want to know a bluegrass tune, I google it. If I want to know more about an artist, I search it. If I'm having trouble with the fingering of a complicated run on my mandolin, I can often find a lesson online. Then I can slip on by my favorite Senegalese hip-hop artist's web page for a distraction.
So, Tallis, Byrd, O'Donnovan, Thile...where do I reside? How do I reside everywhere at once?
It was unavoidable now that I think about it. I arose this morning and turned on the tablet computer. Opening my Facebook app, I was very quickly sucked into a conversation about politics. Oh. No.
I really should have seen that coming. Let's blame the recent illness on such shortsightedness, shall we? Indeed. Let us.
It is enough to drive me to superstition.
O God, listen to my prayer,
Let my earnest petition come to you,
for I know that you are hearing me
As surely as though I saw you with mine eyes.
I am placing a lock upon my heart,
I am placing a lock upon my thoughts,
I am placing a lock upon my lips
And double-knitting them.
Aught that is amiss for my soul
In the pulsing of my death,
May you, O God, sweep it from me
And may you shield me in the blood of your love.
Let no thought come to my heart,
let no sound come to my ear,
Let no temptation come to my eye,
Let no fragrance come to my nose,
Let no fancy come to my mind,
Let no ruffle come to my spirit,
That is hurtful to my poor body this day,
Nor ill for my soul at the hour of my death;
But may you yourself, O God of life,
Be at my breast, be at my back,
You to me as a star, you to me as a guide,
From my life's beginning to my life's closing.
The above is from Carmichael's Celtic Prayers. I like these little prayer because so many of them could be paraphrased, "please don't let the universe $%@& with me today." It's a sentiment I can get behind.
The people who offered these prayers understood how tenuous our lives really are, how vulnerable we are at all times no matter what our estate. Other people, strange spirits, ideologies, and wild beasts are all in the world with us and our interactions with them are risky without exception.
Today is election day in the United States and I am aware of this truth about life. It is more apparent on this day than others. We are messing with things, interacting with ideas, spirits, if you will. We are tinkering with things we barely understand, that is, one another.
Today we all need wards of protection, locks upon our hearts, thoughts, lips, double-knitting from the dangers that abound.
Where did my prayer life go again? It just slipped away a little over a year ago. Somewhere. The little rituals, the words, and the music all just slipped away. Sundays are, occasionally, an opportunity to pray, but more often I simply observe others as a guest in a nice hotel might observe others passing through the lobby. I wonder. I'm curious.
Where are they headed? Why are they here?
Prayer, it seems, has once again become untenable. Mixed with a healthy portion of unbelief, my motivation dwindles.
I'm not picking a fight. And I'm not offering a detraction. I am, however, suggesting that my so-called spiritual life is a shambles.
Why pray? I can find no reason.
Let's see...a post about theological education and UNCO is the first thing I need to write. And then there's a post about music and faith and the "semiotic snowballing" of old hymns. How does music take on meaning and for whom? Then, what the hell is a pastor to do when the same hymn offends one person and consoles another?
It's not the lyrics that offend or console. It's is the associations that do this work.
So, there's stuff to write.
Also, Catherine Bell, the ritual theorist, is haunting me.