Friday, December 19, 2008

Merry Christmas

This is Henry Ossawa Tanner’s 1898 painting “The Annunciation.” Tanner was the son of an African Methodist Episcopal minister.

I will be devoting my creative energies toward the celebration of Christmas at my church (and if you are reading this and looking for a place to worship, join us Christmas Eve at 4 p.m. or 10 p.m.), so will take a brief break from blogging. May you find joy and peace at Christmas.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, December 13, 2008

My wife Julie and my two daughters really enjoy Christmas music. Julie looks forward to November 1 each year, because that’s when she begins playing the music of the season – in her car driving to and from work, in our home when we have music on. Last year, I put together a CD of Christmas music that I especially enjoy (and wrote about it in this blog). One CD does not a season of Christmas music make, so this year I burned another. Last year I tried to have a diverse group of songs that I enjoy. This year I used only music from a few of my favorite Christmas CDs – CDs by Louis Armstrong, Chicago, Vince Guaraldi, Diana Krall, Sarah McLachlan, and James Taylor. I purposely burned multiple versions of some of the same songs because I like the song so well and it is often interesting to hear how different artists render the same song. It reminds me that music, like the Scriptures which contain the Christmas story, can be interpreted differently and we are enriched by hearing differing views. Emily Dickinson: Tell all the Truth but tell it slant (poem 1129).

So here is my “new” Christmas CD, with commentary.

What Child is This, Vince Guaraldi Trio: I love this tune (Greensleeves), and I love Vince Guaraldi’s work on the Charlie Brown Christmas CD. It is one of my favorite Christmas CDs, and the Charlie Brown Christmas Special is also a favorite.

What Child is This, Sarah McLachlan: This rendition of the song is marvelous. Sarah McLachlan’s voice is splendid.

Winter Wonderland, Chicago: The song is o.k., but the arrangement is what does it for me. Chicago has been a favorite band for a long time. Maybe listening to this band reminds me of younger days. Chicago was one of “the bands” when I was in high school.

Christmas Time Is Here, Vince Guaraldi Trio – instrumental: As you will see as we go on, this is one of my absolute favorite Christmas songs. There is a peacefulness, a quiet joy and a tinge of wistfulness. All of those are a part of Christmas for me. The song invites a reflectiveness – “but Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Yes, this is a secular song, but The Charlie Brown Christmas special has the gospel story at its heart. The message of Christmas is one that blurs “sacred” and “secular” anyway. God comes near, touches human life and history in the person Jesus. God will be found in the midst of life, incarnate in unlikely places.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, James Taylor: Here is another quiet song filled with simple joy and wistfulness. There are troubles aplenty, but we may wish each other the simple joys of this time of year. We may wish for others lighter hearts in a world that often makes our hearts heavy.

I’ll Be Home for Chirstmas, Diana Krall: Yet another song with a decidedly wistful feeling. It, too, celebrates simple Christmas joy, even when that may have to be experienced from a distance. I guess, for me, Christmas joy is quiet joy, and a delight in simple pleasures. There is a place for a more raucous celebration, to be sure. However, a sense of peacefulness is important for me. I also want a celebration of Christmas that acknowledges that the world has not yet grasped the peace and goodwill proclaimed in the story – we still yearn for a better world.

Christmas Time is Here, Sarah McLachlan: Beautiful voice, and wonderful song. If you don’t like this song, you would not like this CD. There are more versions to come.

White Christmas, Louis Armstrong: When I hear Louis Armstrong, I smile. His music brings joy. I have the faintest memories of seeing him on variety shows when I was a kid. I think I remember thinking this person with the gravelly voice was certainly unique. I wasn’t sure whether I liked it or not. All doubt has been removed.

Christmas Time is Here, Chicago: Here it is again, and the Chicago treatment of it is very nice.

I’ll Be Home for Christmas, Sarah McLachlan: Sarah McLachlan’s Wintersong may be my second favorite Christmas CD after the Guaraldi CD. Every song on it is worth listening to. She renders this one with beauty and feeling.

Christmas Time is Here, Diana Krall: Diana Krall is an exceptional jazz singer, and she offers another worthy version of this tune.

River, James Taylor: This Joni Mitchell tune is not technically a Christmas song, just set in the Christmas season. It found its way onto both James Taylor’s and Sarah McLachlan’s Christmas CDs (and on to this one). The song is about the desire to get away from things for awhile, something we might all feel now and again. To touch that sadness inside can lead us make changes in our lives and our world. At least that’s what it does at its best.

Christmas Time is Here, Vince Guaraldi – choir version: One final rendition, Guaraldi joined by a children’s choir.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Diana Krall: O.k. I have a high tolerance for listening more than once to songs I like.

River, Sarah McLachlan: Ditto. McLachlan sings this beautifully. I really feel the song.

Christmas Night in Harlem, Louis Armstrong: This CD has a lot of reflective songs filled with quiet joy and wistfulness. It is good to have one that swings and who better to swing with than Louis Armstrong.

Baby It’s Cold Outside, James Taylor and Natalie Cole: From sheer joy to a plea for romance. It’s cold outside, so why don’t you stay a little longer. A little light entertainment is a good thing.

In the Bleak Midwinter, James Taylor: This is another favorite “sacred” Christmas song. It acknowledges a difficult world and invites us to give our hearts to one who will inspire us make a difference.

In the Bleak Midwinter, Sarah McLachlan: One good version deserves another.

Silent Night, Sarah McLachlan: Christmas does break down the sacred/secular divide in many ways. In American society, however, where we are willing to risk losing the sacred dimension entirely in the hustle and bustle and buying frenzy, I find it good to listen to the explicitly sacred songs celebrating the birth of Jesus. Again, Sarah McLachlan offers a stirring version of a familiar song.

So that’s what I am listening to this Christmas season. I hope you are finding music to touch the heart and stir the soul.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Christmas Time is Here from The Charlie Brown Christmas Special

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Today is Emily Dickinson's birthday. I could not let it go by without a word of celebration.

Click on the link to the Writer's Almanac to hear a little bit about Emily Dickinson and about William Faulkner's Nobel Prize speech.

With Faith and With Feathers,


William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work - a life's work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will some day stand here where I am standing.

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

Friday, December 5, 2008

There are a number of female poets whose works are among my favorites. I mention Emily Dickinson in my profile. Her poem – “Much madness is divinest sense” was one of the first poems I memorized. I read it first not in a book, but on a paper bag given by a book store on the West Bank of the University of Minnesota – Savran’s Paperback Shop, if memory serves me. The name of this blog is inspired by her poem, “hope is the thing with feathers/that perches in the soul.” Last blog I cited a poem by Lisel Mueller. Jane Kenyon is another favorite. I also love the poetry of Mary Oliver, and in this I am not alone. Mary Oliver may be the best-selling poet currently writing. Her most recent book is Red Bird, and I have been reading a poem a day from it (most days, anyway).

Here is a poem from the book that displays a wonderful combination of thoughtfulness and humor. Only because it is brief does quoting it in its entirety make sense. I encourage you to buy a copy of Red Bird and enjoy its full contents.

Watching a Documentary about Polar Bears Trying to Survive on the Melting Ice Floes

That God had a plan, I do not doubt.
But what if His plan was, that we would do better?

One might offer lengthy theological commentary. I will refrain from that. I will only say that I would prefer God not necessarily be a male pronoun and that whatever God’s original intent, it is clear to me that God is also a God of second chances (though we humans may exhaust those chances here on planet earth if we don’t take better care of it and of each other).

With Faith and With Feathers,