Everything has a past, or at least a precursor. Before there was a blog, or even email, I wrote a Lenten Journal to a specific friend as my spiritual practice during the season. When I got an email account, I started sending it to more and more friends, mostly because I could. The email list grew, Gordon Atkinson explained what a blog was to me, and two days after Christmas two years ago, don’t eat alone was born. I’ve continued my practice of writing everyday during Lent; last year I did the same during Advent. The discipline for me is less about the frequency that it is the focus. During these two seasons, I’m intentional about choosing two or three books for the journey and using my writing more specifically as theological and devotional reflection while, hopefully, not losing sight of the things that are my usual subjects.
I started thinking about books a couple of weeks ago, though the ones I’ve chosen found me rather than me them. Over the past couple of years (mostly since I’ve been blogging), I’ve read bits and pieces about the “emergent church,” without knowing much about what it was or who was writing about it. About the time I would begin to think I had a little bit of a handle, I would find something that would make me wonder. This Advent season seemed like a good time for me to become more intentional about learning about it. Based on the buzz I’ve read, I thought I would get one of Brian McLaren’s books, since he seems to be at least one of the most prolific emergent writers. Another blog lead me to McLaren’s own site where I was a bit put off by his article against consumerism that suggested one of the ways to fight back was to buy his book and give one to a friend. (I’m not trying to pick on him; he’s certainly not alone. Springsteen’s first single off his new album is called “Radio Nowhere,” decrying the loss of local radio and everything else, yet his website announces a satellite radio station; the Eagles’ new CD, full of protests against globalism and capitalism run amok was available exclusively at Wal-Mart in its initial release.)
About the same time, Ginger received an email note inviting her to hear Samuel Wells speak on his book, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics. The connections made in the title intrigued me and I decided to let McLaren wait for another day. I wanted one more book and let Amazon do some searching for “emergent”; they provided me with Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church by James K. A. Smith. I punched a couple of buttons and both books showed up at our new house on Friday. The third book for the journey (one for each of the Magi?) is one I’m rereading: David Jensen’s In the Company of Others: a Dialogical Chistology.
An Advent season doesn’t pass that I don’t go back to Meister Eckhart’s words:
What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the son of God fourteen hundred years ago and I do not give birth to the son of God in my time and in my culture?
Neither does an Advent season pass that I am not aware of the difference in giving birth and using birth as a metaphor, whatever the discussion. I’m a straight white male who has no idea what it feels like to have your body writhe and clench and ache, or for a new life to come bursting out of your belly. Several years ago, when our first godchild was about to be born, we were in the hospital with the mother to be. The nurse walked in and said to her, “It’s about time to herniate you membrane.” As I stood up to leave, the nurse assured me I could stay.
“Oh, no,” I said, “I make it a point to leave the room anytime someone says, ‘It’s time to herniate your membrane.’”
I will be the first, therefore, to say I am not an expert on childbirth, postmodernism, literary theory, the emergent movement, or theology, for that matter. My hope is my journey through the season is kin to the shepherds following the angel chorus, or the magi chasing the star: I’m just trying to get to the manger in my time and in my culture, which means, for me, it’s time to break some stained glass and let some different light seep into what has become an all too sanctified barn.
Yesterday morning my phone rang and the voice on the other end identified herself as someone who reads this blog and lives here in Durham. She called to invite me to a lecture on Sacred Harp shaped note singing and, she hoped, some singing as well. I drove to the Watts Street Baptist Church where the event was to take place. When I walked into the foyer of the church, there was a poster delineating some of the highlights in the church’s history, one of which was it was the first Southern Baptist church to ordain a woman in 1964 (four years after it integrated). As I read a little more about the church, I realized they, like me, had Southern Baptist roots that had sprouted into a tree of a different sort, if you will. As I said, everything has a past.
Shaped note singing was designed to do at least two things: one was to help people learn to sight read without having to read music. The shapes on the scale helped the singers learn the notes. The second thing was it was designed to be participatory. The singers sang to one another – together – rather than for an audience. They sang as a community of singers, or perhaps better said, a communion of singers, getting their pitches from one another, listening to one another, following the shapes, and creating rich, evocative harmonies. By the end of the 19th century, shaped note singing was losing ground because, as they handout I was given said,
pianos and organs had become more abundant, and printing techniques more economical. The old song books lost favor to modern hymnals and their completely different arrangements with the melody in the top line and harmonies more easily rendered on a piano or organ.
Then came my favorite line:
“Clearly,” according to the introduction in The Social Harp, “the pleasure of the singer has been sacrificed to the ineptitude of the pianist.”
The obvious bias of the statement notwithstanding, I came away from the quote with a question: what will it take for me to unleash the enthusiasm of the shepherds in me this Advent, or the tenacity of the three kings, to go into a labor of Love in these days, rather than to allow myself to be one of those slouching toward Bethlehem, or worse, one sitting silently while others give birth to Christ this year?