Midweek singing with lesson on texts, Feb. 24, 2016Posted: March 1, 2016
Annotations, additions, and exhortations are welcome. (Most welcome would be the names of leaders where I missed noting them.)
MIDWEEK SINGING WITH LESSON ON TEXTS
Wednesday, February 24, 2016
Theological expertise from Jason Steidl and Gary Ryan
Jason started by proposing that, to members of the community, the Sacred Harp (that thing within the red covers) stood as an “authoritative text” with songs expressing a broad range of “different thoughts and feelings;” that, in a way, it was almost “a sacred text” itself. Like the Bible, he said, it offered us many perspectives, in part because (like the Bible) it was collected from many times and sources. He opened the lesson with one of the earliest tunes in the book:
49t OLD HUNDRED (“O come loud anthems let us sing”). Its text (and indeed the setting) comes from the Anglican/Genevan side of our tradition and is a paraphrase of a psalm. Jason contrasted it with 531 DURA (“Dear Lord, forgive my sins, I pray”) and its first-person plea. Gary agreed that there is considerable variation but most texts have an “evangelical slant” — not Catholic, not Episcopal, generally the “less formal” denominations.
Gary mentioned a few frequently mentioned themes that might need explanation, including: Zion (i.e., Jerusalem, both actual and figurative) and Bethel (“house of God”). He said that he had a sense of the tradition as focused on “longing,” longing for “a better life and a better world,” but with different angles and emphases.
Moving on to favorite Bible stories, Gary told the story of King David and his vain, handsome son, Absalom, caught in a thicket by his hair during battle, and we sang
268 DAVID’S LAMENTATION
Reviewing the questions that had been asked on Facebook, Jason explained that the “Ebenezer” was a “stone of help” marking a victory of the Israelites over the Philistines, as told in I Samuel 7, 7–13, which he read for us. We sang:
135 OLNEY (“Here I’ll raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy strength I’m come” [v. 2])
Next was the frequently-asked question, What are “Mary’s or Manassah’s stains?” Jason drew out a connection between sin and stain involving blood-stained cloth that proved a little graphic for some of the more squeamish members of the class. He said that Mary here is probably the Mary of Magdala associated with a prostitute who follows Jesus and that Manasseh is a notoriously corrupt, idol-worshiping, altar-profaning, extremely bad king of Israel. We sang:
569b SACRED THRONE, led by Jamie. (“And Mary’s or Manasseh’s stains, Or sins more vile than they” [v. 3]).
The first verse of this text prompted a question about the sacred geography involved in the river that flows from “beneath the sacred throne of God.” Jason identified this as a quotation from Revelation 22 and its description of the City of God. The river, the “sacred flood,” is then made equivalent to Jesus’s sacrificial blood. Gary spoke of the ancient Jewish tradition of animal sacrifice and particularly of the two goats sacrificed on the Day of Atonement, one killed and one, the “scape-goat,” sent away to the wilderness bearing the community’s sins.
Emma asked about the text of, and led:
317b JACKSON (“I am a stranger here below, / And what I am is hard to know / I am so vile, so prone to sin/ I fear that I’m not born again”), as it seemed to her very different from the Wattsian type. Gary agreed and referred to its “direct expression of personal anxiety” as associated more with the Wesleyan (Methodist) style of “experiential” religious writing. A distinction was drawn between the Calvinist/Baptist/Presbyterian and the Wesleyan/Methodist perspectives classically represented by Watts and Wesley, roughly associated with predestination on the one hand and free choice on the other. Jason complicated the matter by noting that the text expresses “a fundamental uncertainty as to salvation, whether Calvinist or Arminian.” Along the same line of doubt, Gwen led:
287 CAMBRIDGE verses 1&2 (if I recall correctly) (“The Lord will happiness divine / On contrite hearts bestow; / Then tell me gracious God is mine / A contrite heart or no.”) Its lack of positive resolution Jason compared to that of many of the psalms, and commented that it did stand out in American Protestantism, which “looks for a happy ending.” Mary Jane compared the speaker to St. Paul, talking of doing the things he ought not to have done, and Aldo told us a bit about the poet, William Cowper, who was a depressive.
47b IDUMEA (“Waked by the trumpet sound / I from my grave shall rise”)
asking “Why am I getting woken up when the sky is on fire?” Indeed, said Jason, this touches on different views of the great question of death. Christianity generally believes in a general resurrection in the flesh and day of judgement. But, meanwhile, what? Is it a kind of sleep? Or is the spirit alive with God while waiting for its body to join it? The prime texts on this question, like I Thessalonians 4 (verses?), come from a period when the big day was expected very soon in which the trumpet of God raises the dead and the living. Aldo added that Idumea, the place name, was another way of saying Edom,
Gary told the story of Jacob and Esau, leading to an explanation of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel and getting a new name: instead of Jacob,”heel-grabber,” he was now to be known as Israel, “wrestler with God.” We sang:
95 VERNON (“Wrestling, I will not let thee go / Till I thy name, thy nature know”)
Aldo mentioned the ongoing mystery of the little Scripture quotations, added to the SH in the 1911 and later editions, and how they often seem to have little to do with the song texts.
49b MEAR (“Will God forever cast us off?”) and it was identified as a paraphrase of Psalm 74 and another tune of doubt. Aldo told us that Isaac Watts texts dated 1719 were all psalms. Gary observed that, like many psalms, it asks, Why do the people of God suffer? And Jason noted that it was a Jewish text here taken for a Christian situation.
114 SAINTS DELIGHT (“When I can read my title clear / To mansions in the skies”), a 1707 Watts text and so not a psalm, but a free standing hymn.
448t CONSECRATION (“Mold as thou will my passive clay / But let me all thy stamp receive”) and Gary noted that potters’ stamps were reserved for the good pots; the failures, unstamped, would be thrown back into the clay.
Merv had asked about the “third heaven” and we sang
299 NEW JERUSALEM (“From the third heaven where God resides”). Gary said the layering and labeling of heaven was a Hellenistic concept adopted into Christianity.
297 CONVERSION (“My tongue broke out in unknown strains”) and we discussed its relation to the day of Pentecost, to a more general “speaking in tongues,” and possibly to “strains” of music. Gary related its use here to “outbreaks of pietism” around the turn of the 19C.
Gary took a moment to offer a few more identifications. The GOSPEL POOL (see 34t) was a real place, the pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, of which it was said that from time to time an angel would pass by and stir the waters, and whoever bathed in the waters so disturbed could be healed. Mention of BABEL’S STREAMS (see 126) signals a song of exile, JUBILEE (144) speaks of the every seven-, or every fifty-year sabbath and forgiveness of debt, NEW TOPIA (215) is a pun on the utopian hopes and communities of the period, and the MERCY SEAT is specifically the golden lid of the Ark of the Covenant, between angels’ wings. LABAN (147b) was Jacob’s deceitful father in law, and MARS HILL in Rome was where St. Paul taught that the “unknown god” was the god of Abraham. Emma led
517 MARS HILL (“How shall the young secure their hearts / And guard their lives from sin?”), suggesting it was a kind of “meta-song” (“That holy book shall guide our youth / And well support our age”). led
391 SOUNDING JOY (“Oh, may I never read in vain”) as another meta-song (and another Watts 1719 psalm text, presumably)
Paul tested us with a reading from MOBY DICK and led us in
66 JORDAN (“Could we but climb where Moses stood / And view the landscape o’er”)
and Mary Jane made the connection with Mt Pisgah as Moses’ scenic overlook and led
60 DAY OF WORSHIP (“Dear people, we have met today / To sing, to hear, to preach and pray; / It is our Father’s great command / The road that leads to his right hand. / But oh, the sad and awful state / Of those who stand and come too late, / The foolish virgins did begin / To knock, but could not enter in”). Those hopeful virgins waiting for their Bridegroom! Gary alluded to the “romance” of the soul, connecting it to the Kabbalistic theme of love between God and the Spirit and even to Sufism.
We finished with
229 IRWINTON, Merv
67 COLUMBUS Stina (“My God has me of late forsook,” but concluding, “When I’m tried sufficiently / I shall come forth as gold”)
Closer: 464 SHEPPARD (“How beauteous are their feet / Who stand on Zion’s hill) Gary and Jason.
Thanks to everyone who asked a question or offered a comment, and particularly to Jason and Gary for their thoughtful responses.