The People Who Walk in Darkness

The People Who Walk in Darkness
6th and San Pedro
Midnight Mission on the left. Central City Community Church of the Nazarene on the right.

I finally got around to reading Alex Ross’ piece in The New Yorker entitled, “Handel’s ‘Messiah’ On Skid Row.” I almost missed it. As is apt to happen with a relentless subscription to that weekly magazine, one day you set an issue by the reading chair with good intentions only to come home from work to find next week’s edition in the mailbox. This morning’s providence allowed me to pick up the January 1 edition rather than the January 15.

The article begins by telling the story of Brian Palmer, a formerly homeless man, who would sing “The People That Walked in Darkness” with the Street Symphony. The Street Symphony is a group of professional musicians who work with homeless, mentally ill and incarcerated people. They annually perform an abbreviated version of George Frideric Handel’s oratorio, “The Messiah” at the Midnight Mission at 6th and San Pedro, on Skid Row, Los Angeles, CA.

The People That Walked in Darkness” is a bass aria from “The Messiah” named from a line in Isaiah. “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” —Isaiah 9:2 (KJV)

Several years ago I had an opportunity to attend Karaoke Night at Central City Community Church of the Nazarene which meets directly across 6th Street from the Midnight Mission (see the photo above). I’ll not write much specifically about that experience here. I will say that it remains one of the 5 or 6 spiritual touchstones in my life continually returning to mind to anchor my journey and focus my call. (Watch this video about Karaoke Night. It’ll be the best thing you see all day. It might as well have been filmed on the night we visited. The memories of that evening nearly a decade ago all come flooding back to me when I watch it. I recognized many of the people featured.

Ross observes something we should all recognize in ourselves: “Spiritual homilies, whether in the form of venerable religious texts or recovery literature, have a way of seeming corny until a crisis arrives, at which point they take on the force of breaking news. That explains why line after line of “Messiah” felt especially acute on Skid Row.” Our world and the ways we engage with it form us to be cynical. Often, it’s our only defense mechanism. So if we hear something that sounds too sweet or perfect or warm, we often write it off as “corny.” But there are times when the still small voice of actual truth finds its way through the noise of our self-centered and overly protective cynicism. Our hearts melt when exposed to the living and breathing presence of God in a stranger. Epiphany! And it is difficult to unsee what we just saw or un-experience what just changed our lives.

Ross’ entire article is an account of such an epiphany. But it closes with lines that point to what I think to be a common and critical mistake. The writer confesses that “The spell dissolves when you leave the Midnight Mission. The people that walked in darkness are still there. Hard stares greet you as you proceed to your car. This feeling is, if anything, even worse than the one that hits you going in. The entire experience is at once exalting and crushing, luminous and bleak.” What Ross fails to recognize is that the residents of Skid Row aren’t the only ones walking in darkness. Ross seems to assume a return to the vehicle and the real world is a return to the light.

What had actually happened was that Ross stepped out of the darkness of routine, selective attention, and pretensions of enlightenment into the light shining forth at Midnight Mission in the heart of Skid Row. Suddenly Handel’s “Messiah” was transformed from a mere seasonal cliche into a glorious proclamation of the gospel of the Kingdom of God sung by a heavenly choir. It was a light that dismissed the shadows of class and racism and addictions for a moment allowing human beings to see other human beings. And when we see each other, our natural inclination is to lift each other up. We are all in it together. Common good. Common humanity. Love.

I am fully aware of the real and complex problems we much confront in our fallen world. Addictions are debilitating whether they be chemical, physical, material, or emotional. Racism deforms all human beings: the victims and the racists. Darkness blinds us all regardless of our address or lack thereof.

On this day we’ve set aside to remember the work of Martin Luther King, its good to recognize that we are celebrating just such a proclamation of the news of God’s intentions for God’s creation. All of us who walked in darkness saw that great light in Dr. King’s prophetic announcements of justice and peace. And on this day, we can recognize just how easily and quickly we return to the darkness of injustice and inequality. This is a day to remind us of the great light and how quickly we turn away from it.

Vijay Gupta is a violinist with the LA Philharmonic and the founder of Street Symphony. He commented on Ross’ observation about how leaving felt worse than arriving. “We get to leave,” Gupta said. “That’s the source of our shame. The only way to deal with it is to go back.” The reason we celebrate a day like Martin Luther King day is for us to go back and remember. But its more than mere remembering. Its opportunity to see that great light again. And once we see it, we can choose to live in that light. It illuminates everything. It is, in fact, the place we were created to live.

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Mumford and Sons and the Gospel

I’m reading Sarah Vowell‘s book Unfamiliar Fishes which was recommended to me by a college friend.  He and his wife (also a college friend) and daughter spent the weekend with us at Bonnaroo.  The book is a brief history of the evangelization and annexation of Hawaii and its eventual adoption as a state.  I haven’t read or even heard of Vowell before but she’s evidently on the Daily Show a good bit and also on NPR.  I love the way she writes (very dry sarcastic humor as well as very interesting historian).

The book spends some time on the missionary enterprise spawned from the revivals at Yale in the early 1800s and the “haystack prayer meeting“.  Vowell is pretty cynical toward religion (from what little I know about her background, that would be understandable).  Take this gem of a quote about the spread of Christianity around the Pacific:

Mills, Dwight, and the other men of faith who founded the [American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions] would use the empirical data and maps of European explorers like Cook and LaPerouse to fan out evangelists across the Pacific to spread the fear of God as far and wide as Cook’s men had spread the clap.

So…to my actual point and question…Vowell tells the story of Henry Obookiah’s journey from Hawaii to New York and his eventual conversion to Christianity and subsequent call to return to his home to win his people to Christ.  She writes about his arrival in New York like this:

In New York, Obookiah disembarked with Thomas Hopu, a Hawaiian shipmate he had met on board.  As the missionary Hiram Bingham described their first night in Manhattan, “Like the mass of foreign seamen who then visited our cities without being improved in their morals, [they] were for a time exposed to the evil of being confirmed in vice and ignorance, and in utter contempt of the claims of Christianity.”  That is how a missionary describes the fact that the Hawaiians went to the theater.

She goes on to talk about the differences between western enlightenment understandings of truth vs. a more respectful approach of some of her encounters with Hawaiian culture (which might have led to their openness to conversion when the missionaries finally arrived…but I haven’t read that far yet).  The black vs. white approach of western Christianity comes firmly out of the enlightenment…absolute truth can be known and/or observed.  Armed with the arrogant notion that they knew absolute truth, off the missionaries went.  Vowell has a great line about this arrogant and myopic view of other cultures:

In America, on the ordinate plane of faith versus reason, the x axis of faith intersects with the y axis of reason at the zero point of “I don’t give a damn what you think.”

So…I found myself at Bonnaroo this past weekend.  On Saturday, I drove by some descendants of the very missionaries who had “spread the fear of God as far and wide as Cook’s men had spread the clap.”  I was heading home for a “real” shower and these missionaries were heading into Bonnaroo dragging crosses and [what I assumed to be] King James Bibles and sandwich signs condemning the satanic rock-n-roll being spewed out of Satan’s Hell there on that little farm in Manchester, TN.  Upon my return, my camp-mates confirmed my fears and recounted their experiences of being preached at.

Later that afternoon, we found ourselves at the Mumford and Sons show at the Which Stage along with 50,000+ others who were drawn to their sincere and fresh brand of folky rock-n-roll.  What we witnessed was a group of very serious lyricists who were almost uncomfortably humbled by the prospects of performing for such a crowd.  They returned for an encore with a good number of musician friends and led the gathered throng in a deeply moving and spiritual rendition of Amazing Grace.  I saw one young woman projected on the video screen beside the stage weeping.  As a follower of Jesus, I absolutely sensed God moving among those people.  And I was at church.  More precisely, I was with the Church.

Meanwhile, those other more obvious followers of Jesus were driving people away from Christ with their brand of condemnation and hate completely missing the gospel being proclaimed by some of the very profane musicians they were denouncing.  How do we (the church claiming the name of Jesus) totally fail to “get it”?

It’s very easy for me to cast stones at this judgmental and hateful brand of religion.  But, upon reflection, I need to try to recognize when I’m guilty of the same in the name of my own particular brand of “absolute truth”.  That’s what I’ve been thinking about this morning…  Peace!

Question, – by Son Volt

Just for the fun of it…a friend posted this little Facebook game…it was fun.  Try it.  Post your answers below if you feel like it. I’d love to see the songs that pop up.

Instructions:
1. Put your media player on Shuffle.
2. For each question, press the next button to get your answer.
3. You must write down the name of the song no matter how silly it sounds!
4. Put any comments after the song name.

______________

If someone says, “Is this okay?” You say?
Gone, Daughtry (a little embarrassing, but…YES, I HAVE DAUGHTRY ON MY IPOD!!! there…I said it…no David Archuleta however!)

How would you describe yourself?
Bach(JS): Cello Suite #5 In C Minor, BWV11011-2. Allemande, Yo-yo Ma (got that)

What do you like in a guy/girl
Communication, The Call (Michael Been’s Call)

How do you feel today?
Horse to Water, R.E.M.

What is your life’s purpose?
The Trawlerman’s Song, Mark Knopfler

What is your motto?
Cry from the Street, David Gilmour

What do your friends think of you?
Vivaldi Concerto In C: Allegro Non Molto, Malcom Messiter

What do you think of your parents?
Down Home with Homey, Wynton Marsalis

What do you think about very often?
Last Dance, Sarah McLauchlan

What is 2 + 2?
The First Noel/What is this Fragrance, Windham Hill Artists

What do you think of your best friend?
Moses-Journey, Yo-yo Ma

What do you think of the person you like?
Melting Alone, Sixpence None the Richer

What is your life story?
Armor and Sword, Rush

What do you want to be when you grow up?
The Hole, Glen Phillips

What do you think of when you see the person you like?
Kid Things, Counting Crows

What will you dance to at your wedding?
I Can’t Stand It, Eric Clapton

What will they play at your funeral?
Closer To The Light, Bruce Cockburn (spooky!  good choice!)

What is your hobby/interest?
Angel, Fleetwood Mac

What is your biggest fear?
Comfortably Numb, Dar Williams

What is your biggest secret?
Dirty Little Girl, Elton John

What do you think of your friends?
gods’ dice, Pearl Jam (sort of fatalistic.)

What will you put as the title?
Question, Son Volt

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Information R/evolution

Very interesting…

I was helping my daughter set up her Ipod touch. The more we got into the process, the more we were amazed (those of you who already have an iPhone or iPod touch…excuse us). Click a song, press “genius” and a new playlist appears…let me check out youtube for the video…web for lyrics, iTunes for other music by this artist…”this is cool, let’s post it on Facebook”(from the iPod), her friend replies…”if you like that, check this out”…you get the idea. All this ON her ipod…a unit the size of a cell phone.

I realize how differently I think about listening to music.  It was once a physical object on my shelf.  I have a wall of CD’s in my home office (probably 700 to 1000…I started collecting CD’s in 1985). I have a shelf full of old vinyl records that my daughter now uses to decorate her room…we have nothing on which to play them). I was the music geek that read the liner notes inside the big album cover.  I was a little bumed about CD’s because the jewel case was not as satisfying as the large album cover (go find the vinyl version of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, or Pink Floyd’s The Wall for example).

Now, my music is not on a shelf…it’s not a physical entity.  I’m sitting at my computer…I have over 6400 songs…1,000 albums by 550 artists on my hard-drive.  I can find lyrics, tour schedules, reviews, videos, interviews, causes that inspired the music, art…you get the idea.  Music is now a multi-sensory experience.  I think about it, visualize it differently.

This was a quick ramble.  Check out the video below. Give it a chance, and then let me know your thoughts…  The video is not merely about the convenience of technology…it’s about thinking differently.   Interact with this post…this is not merely a publication…it’s a conversation!

Pearls Before Breakfast – washingtonpost.com

Pearls Before Breakfast – washingtonpost.com
This is a VERY good article from the Washington Post Magazine.  It won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for Gene Weingarten.  The experiment was to place one of the worlds greatest violinists playing some of the world’s greatest music on one of the world’s finest and most rare violins in the entrance of a train station to play the part of a street musician.  Weingarten’s story and observations are found in this piece.  I would love to read your responses to the story.

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