Tuesday, July 31, 2012

No Apology Necessary

Working at a library is like storm watching in West Texas.  You wait and wait and wait for things to happen, and suddenly a thunderstorm pops up out of nowhere and you go from relaxed to "go mode" in a split second.  Well, that's exactly what happened last Friday.  And, at the center of my mini-thunderstorm was my husband.

It had been a deceptively quiet day, a few patrons in and out checking out books, but nothing of great consequence.  A fellow student came in to discuss planning for the Justice in Action committee. No big deal, seeing as we had no more than 5 patrons in the entire building.  Then, in walks the Dean of Perkins with a group of 40 scholars and visitors on campus for some very important Dean-related event.  In the midst of the Dean's tour, the buzzer goes off at the north door and there sits my husband, waiting for us to unlock the door.  As I sit at the computer buzzing him in, I watch in the camera as Justin goes to open the door, an action he does for himself almost every day.  But this time, Justin has an ill-timed palsy moment that, instead of leading his chair through the door, sends him crashing into the corner of a brick wall.  Panicked, I run from the front desk, throw open the north door, and in the process trip the alarm.  At this point, nothing can be done but hold open the door and help Justin get inside.  As I help Justin get to the front desk, here's the Dean's group dealing with the blaring of the alarm, Justin holding one side of his face and me trying to navigate us through the confused crowd of 40 visitors. 

Seeing as one of my goals growing up was to be very quiet and put as little attention on myself as possible, you can imagine that even at the ripe old age of 25, I was incredibly embarassed by this sudden commotion centered on none other than me and my husband.  I've come a long way, but blaring alarms, bruised faces and staring from 40+ people is more than my introverted self could bear.  And you know what my instinctual response was?  To apologize.  To apologize for myself and for my husband.  But, thanks be to God, before I could grovel at the feet of my supervisor for creating such a racket, something stopped me. 

You see, there was a time when I would have apologized for sneezing too loud because I saw myself as a disruption to other people.  As I grew more into myself and a realization of my identity in God, I came to understand (very slowly, I might add) that this gives no credit to the worth that God places in me as a child of the King.  Yet, this need to apologize whenever I might even slightly disturb someone else returned when Justin and I started dating, and fully blossomed after our wedding.  Because, let's face it, a man in an electric wheelchair dating, much less marrying, an able-bodied woman disturbs a lot of people's sensibilities.  Thus, the many questions I would get concerning whether I was Justin's sister/nurse/physical therapist.  So, any time Justin got in someone's way or made people push in their chairs to let him get by or knocked over a display in a store (and trust me, he never runs into displays with soft, fluffy things), I would feel this need to apologize effusively.  Never mind that the person was talking on a cell phone and ran into Justin because he wasn't paying attention; or that restaurants stuff so many tables in a room without every giving a thought to someone needing mobility assistance; or that middle of the walkway displays leave very little room for a wheelchair to get by.  There was a feeling that because we were the different ones, our presence--much less the commotion it caused--needed to be explained and excused. 

As I study disability theology and speak with others with disabilities, I have gained the courage to stop this excessive need to apologize.  Justin has a palsy; things are going to happen.  I will apologize and help when those mishaps make someone else work harder, but I will not apologize for Justin's physical condition.  I will not apologize for being different.  So, even though I wanted to melt into the floor as we passed the Dean and his visitors, I did not apologize for my husband's presence.  These are the little mishaps I live with every day, and if Justin and the life we have together are ever going to be seen as anything but an anomaly, then it's time to stop apologizing for the disability.  Justin is who he is in the fullness of who God created him to be, disability and all.  For that, there is no apology necessary. 

DISCLAIMER:  There were no husbands seriously hurt in this story, only slight bruises to the face and to the ego. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Blood Hymns, Part II

As promised, Part II of the debacle on blood hymns.  I don't assume that my thoughts cover everything that might be said on the subject, but perhaps they will feed further thought and discussion in this and other areas.  Let me begin with a story:

Once upon a time, really only a few hundred years ago, there was a man in England who suffered from a weak constitution and deep emotional pain.  Having lost his mother at the age of 9, this man felt his grief keenly and, driven by his bodily weakness, remained even more removed from society.  However, he had a quick mind and studied the law, eventually being offered a post as Clerk of the Journal to the House of Lords.  Unfortunately, before he could take the job, he was required to sit for a public examination.  The stress of a public examination proved to be too much for this man, and he suffered a mental breakdown disastrous enough to send him to an asylum.  In the midst of his break, the man attempted suicide multiple times, each time being royally unsuccessful.  After this first mental break, the man went to live with a clergyman and his wife, who removed with him to Olney, a small town in Buckinghamshire.  Here, this man, William Cowper, met a man who would become his lifelong friend and confidant, John Newton, curate of Olney and former slave trader.   Cowper struggled his whole life with his fear of God's damnation for his attempts to take his own life, a fear only compounded by his continued mental illness.  Cowper also produced some of the most famous and beautiful poetry of his day, and put his skills to use in helping Newton compile a hymn book published in 1779 called Olney Hymns

After his recovery from his first mental break, Cowper wrote the following hymn:

There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.
Lose all their guilty stains, lose all their guilty stains;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.

The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day;
And there have I, though vile as he, washed all my sins away.
Washed all my sins away, washed all my sins away;
And there have I, though vile as he, washed all my sins away.

Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood shall never lose its power
Till all the ransomed church of God be saved, to sin no more.
Be saved, to sin no more, be saved, to sin no more;
Till all the ransomed church of God be saved, to sin no more.

E’er since, by faith, I saw the stream Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die.
And shall be till I die, and shall be till I die;
Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die.

Then in a nobler, sweeter song, I’ll sing Thy power to save,
When this poor lisping, stammering tongue lies silent in the grave.
Lies silent in the grave, lies silent in the grave;
When this poor lisping, stammering tongue lies silent in the grave.

Lord, I believe Thou hast prepared, unworthy though I be,
For me a blood-bought free reward, a golden harp for me!
’Tis strung and tuned for endless years, and formed by power divine,
To sound in God the Father’s ears no other name but Thine.

In these verses, we see numerous attributions and descriptions of the Blood of Christ:
  • a fountain (indicating abundance) under which sinners are plunged (not a tiptoe or a smattering, but fully enveloped) and are cleansed of all sins
  • power through which the Church is won and claimed by God and under which the Church is called to sin no more
  • a constant stream, a living reminder of the redeeming love that beats in the hearts and accompanies every breath of the saved sinner
  • a payment, a ransom bringing full eternal communion with God, enabling and empowering God's people in unending praise
The Blood is infinitely more than all of these descriptors, and yet is simple enough to be summed up in the evidence of the life of William Cowper: the Blood of Christ is a means of grace, painfully spilt and freely offered for all eternity.

So, why would we not sing about the Blood?

At this point, I could go into a whole other blog on modern humanity's lack of attention to the frailty of the human condition, our negligence of the poor and disabled, our unwillingness to identify with the suffering of Christ because we fear suffering for ourselves.  But, I won't, though those would all be pretty decent arguments.  I'll let you think about those things, struggle over them, ask questions. 

What stands out to me as a basic problem at this moment is this: the lack of brave honesty to hold together the suffering of Christ and His Blood freely given, to feel the guilt of human brokenness and sin along with the deep joy of true and abundant forgiveness and reconciliation. To focus on suffering alone is depressing and overwhelming, but to focus solely on grace and joy leads to a thin theology that does not hold up to the difficulties of human existence.  As a foundation of our faith, the blood Christ shed and the theology we sing into people's hearts (thank you, Charles Wesley!), then the hymns we sing should reflect the [painful and paradoxical] complexity of the content of our faith. 

So, sing of the Blood, of the joy,of the sorrow, of the grace!  And don't stop, because love calls us to comfort and sharpen one another in the faith with eyes fixed on the Almighty God who longs for deeper and fuller communion with the Church ransomed by the Suffering Servant.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Blood Hymns, Part I

Blood hymns are a touchy subject.  Whether a church culture approves of their use or not, if a church musician tries singing a "blood hymn" on any given Sunday morning, you'll know by Monday morning the popular opinion on the subject.  If you perform a search of the word "blood" at hymnary.org, 2648 results appear, so obviously it has been a subject of great worth in the history of hymnody.  Some of the more well-known blood hymns include "Nothing But the Blood," "There Is Power in the Blood," and "There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood." 

Whether it was my church experience as a child or my Grandmother's endless supply of hymns that accompanied her daily actions, I'm not sure.  But, by my teenage years, blood hymns were very familiar musical companions (at least the ones found in the Baptist and Methodist hymnals).  So, it was a bit of a surprise upon entering my first church pianist position when the singing of blood hymns was met with opposition by several parishioners.  In this particular church context, I came in contact with the polarizing, and even devisive, effect blood hymns can have.  On the one hand, there were people who are disgusted by the thought of blood, much less gruesome depictions of Christ's crucifixion.  Whether the hymn specifically speaks of the crucifixion or not, discussion of Christ's blood raises such images in this camp's head(s), images that do not seem conducive to the worship situation because of their shocking quality (more on that particular opinion later).  Interestingly, the other side of the argument seemed to support the singing of blood hymns on the basis of tradition.  We've sung about it before, why not sing about it again?  There's nothing wrong with singing about blood, though it probably wouldn't be good to do it all the time; we don't want to get so obsessed with the blood that we forget about Jesus.

If we rewind the story of Christian history a few hundred years, the controversy (yes, I say controversy, because there are churches out there where whole worship committee meetings are spent discussing this very issue) surrounding the mention of Christ's blood in worship is virtually non-existent.  In the Medieval Church, the devout longed for visions of Christ's Passion.  They believed if they could in some way look upon or participate in Christ's pain, suffering, and crucifixion, they would gain a deeper faith and closer union with God.  The Revelations, a seminal text from the 14th century written by the anchorite Julian of Norwich, recounts Julian's own such spiritual encounters, or showings as she calls them, of the Passion of Christ and the understandings of God and God's relation to humanity which come out of the visions.  Julian spends several chapters describing her visions of the "dearworthy Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, as truly as it it is most precious, so truly it is most plentiful."   For Julian, at least as I read her, the power of the blood of Christ stems from its sure connection to the Incarnation--Christ fully God and fully man, the Divine Being who bleeds and dies in the manner that all men would, but with a purpose far beyond what any human could imagine. 

The imagery Julian applies to the fulfillment of this purpose is magnificent:

The precious abundance of His dearworthy Blood descended down into hell, and burst their bonds and delivered all that were there who belonged to the court of heaven.  The precious abundance of His dearworthy Blood flows over all earth and is quick to wash all creatures from sin who are of good will, have been, and shall be.  The precious abundance of His dearworthy Blood ascended up into heaven to the blessed Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, and there it is within Him, bleeding and praying for us to the Father.  --The Revelations, chapter 12

As beautiful as Julian's description of the Blood is, it is the understanding given to her by God that solidifies the real and true purpose of the Blood.  In reference to her visions of the Passion, God "formed in [her] soul these words: 'With this the Fiend is overcome.'" (Chapter 13)  The Blood of Christ is a healing agent, a cleansing fountain, a lifegiving element through the death and resurrection.  But most of all, it is a weapon of grace which shatters the Fiend's (devil's) hold and frees the captives to a fuller, more abundant life in worship, service, and companionship with the Most High God. 

Therefore, why would we not sing about the Blood of Christ?