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Pain is the Shape of our Healing Voice
Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

As I write this post, we’re just a few weeks from the start of fall classes. For faculty, many of us (myself included) bring a certain amount of regret for not getting as much writing and research done. The season is changing from the contemplative to the pragmatic. It’s exciting to see how the former is coloring the latter as I design my syllabi. This term will be marked by the combining of thoughts on technology and ecology for me.

As I concluded my morning devotion, I listened to a talk by Brennan Manning, one of the most poignant and moving voices on the nature of God’s love that many of us have heard. Last year I spent some time with an acquaintance of Brennan’s who remarked about how he never felt like Brennan was ever able to completely accept the love of God that he spoke and wrote about so powerfully. That the damage from his mother whom Brennan described as “like a dragon, but not the first dragon,” in his final memoire, had indelibly separated him from accepting God’s love fully. I don’t know how true this observation was. It’s impossible to know to what extent anyone fully accepts the love and grace of God. However, as I listened to Brennan on YouTube this morning, I was struck by the beautiful power that arose from the deep pain of Brennan’s past, and it made me reflect on my own scars and how they might be similarly redeemed. 

There is a scene in Jaws, the first night Quinn, Hooper, and Sergeant Brody spend on the boat, I think. They are comparing scars and the stories about how they received them. If you’ve seen it, you know Quinn’s final story about a removed tattoo closes the scene. I mention this because I’ve been in a lot of those kinds of conversations, both in person and through online forums, where the “sharks” were from church or religious perspectives. The scars described were inflicted by judgmental, legalistic, or (more and more) consumerist voices. Having grown up in the church and among religious organizations, my own stories may not have rivaled Quinn, but they were worth hearing. These stories of pain are vast and growing, and if God’s character is how I understand it to be, these stories break his heart as much as the people sharing them. It’s never been lost on me, a preacher’s kid, that the evil God allowed to convict his Son was from legalistic religious leaders. If you know the scene in Jaws, the cross is the ultimate USS Indianapolis.

As I listened to Brennan this morning, there was a point where the voice of God and the realization of His love gripped me so profoundly that my stomach tightened and I dropped to my knees crying tears that were a long, long time in the making. And as I gathered myself and stood up, I heard God ask me how I would steward the pain I have felt and will feel throughout my life. During a particularly painful season in my life two or three years ago, I developed a mantra of sorts, “don’t waste the pain.” This morning, I believe I heard God call me beyond that to do more than just avoid being wasteful, but to embrace how the shape of that pain can, and for me it should, shape the healing and redemption God has called me to voice and share.

One of the enduring perspectives that has emerged from my studies of ecology this past year is the unavoidable requirement that things must die in order for me to live every day. The price of my life is the pain and death of other lives, and the deep realization of their sacrifice should inform my worship and the stewardship of the earth as a follower of Christ. Cultures have sought to honor this cycle of life throughout human history. I’m more and more convinced of the indelible link between food and worship and how our attitudes about both inform one another. This is the profound wisdom of the incarnation.

How will you steward the inevitable pain that is required of others for your life?

How will you steward the pain that you will feel as part of being alive?

Will you numb or ignore the pain, or will you embrace the redemption and healing that grows from its rich, decaying soil?

I believe God loves us in ways we will never fully grasp on earth and feels our pain more profoundly than we have the capacity to ever know. My hope for you and for me is that we will steward that well.

Monday Morning Thoughts on Prophecy, Liturgy, and Idolatry
Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

Today is the first day back fro spring break, and I’m fighting the urge to focus too much on the practicalities of reentry with writing. Reading Amanda Palmer’s book has me thinking about how artists connect dots and see the inherent connections between things others miss. If this is true, and I am in fact an artist, then this is both a blessing and a curse, really. The blessing is clarity and a sense of God speaking to you through everything. The curse is seeing so vividly how the world around us is in desperate need of redemption and light. In those times, ignorance seems like it would be bliss. It’s a curse I suspect dogged David Foster Wallace, a man who so clearly saw through the ills of society while being seemingly incapable of confronting them in his own life. Last night’s Facebook thread by a friend around “This is Water” quotes from Wallace’s famous commencement address probably helped spark the inspiration I’m referring to as well.

The next piece of inspiration was from my Monday morning ritual of watching John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight. Many people are fretting the loss of Jon Stewart by the Daily Show, and while I never miss an episode and think he is a vital voice in the American conversation about cultural issues that matter, John Oliver reminds me that every moment in history has produced the voices needed at the appropriate time. Oliver’s skewering of bullies has me amening, and this morning, even tearing up at his exposing of the modern day debtors prison of municipal fines. I love to see a prophet at work.

Next came a new TED talk exploring how great companies manage collective creativity by Harvard professor, Linda Hill. She spoke about how various leaders at companies like Pixar and Google facilitate creative problem solving. After watching it, I couldn’t help but think of our collective calling to sing to the Lord a new song, to create liturgies as works of the people, and Paul’s suggestions about what to do when we meet as the Body. Come to think of it, I also read a brief excerpt from Jimmy’s Carter’s book about his faith that described an Amish house church (where everyone came ready to preach and no one was the designated pastor) during break, and that had to find its way into this gumbo too.

Then I thought about music training and how we so often struggle to reward the entrepreneurial in our classrooms, despite the fact that they end up shaping the marketplace of ideas outside of academia; that real world for which we prepare students. For a student who was good at assuming the role of a round peg, I have grown into a teacher with a strong penchant for the square ones. I also thought about how we can tend to reward and reinforce idolatry. Lives lived out of balance and with unhealthy focus. How we can embody Gerhard Richter’s sad but all too often true quote, “Art is not a substitute for religion, it is a religion.” How we can celebrate the prophet and ignore the prophecy, even when we ourselves are the prophet in question. We value the how and who at the expense of the why.

Then I listened to four minutes of Patton Oswalt’s interview on NPR’s Bullseye that opened with his quote, "Replacing life with art, whether it's art you create or art you pursue, makes you less of a person...and can cause your personality to flicker." I know that flicker all to well, and I have worshipped all too often at the cathedral of art. I know what it is to pursue power when I should pursue love. If we’re honest, we all do. May we all surrender to our role in the liturgy, humbly accept when we are privileged to give voice to truth, and turn away from confusing the truth teller with the truth’s source.

The Physics of Love and Power
Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

Some topics succeed at being both a fool’s errand and the fascination of a wise man. They reside on the razor’s edge between the deepest, most enigmatic truths and the shallowest, most Hallmark-friendly platitudes. As is the case with this one, the word love is involved. Has their ever been a word whose truth hid in plain sight like the truth of love?

It seems as though most of what I am choosing to think and write about is very much in process these days. Reconciling Wendell Berry’s thoughts to worship practices, rethinking embodiment and Christian ritual, these are further from the safety of my dissertation than I’d ever have imagined I’d stray when writing it ten years ago. On the other hand, the issues Mozart had with Enlightenment thinking and mass settings are more related than you might think.

The cement around today’s post is just as wet as others of late. It stems from the suspicion, borne out of anecdotal evidence, that love and power (or perhaps the pursuit of them) cannot inhabit the same space. That one must make a fundamental choice between the two. Not to say that one who chooses love cannot be granted great favor and influence, perhaps even what one would call power. But still, the fundamental choice was love, not power.

The wisdom of Scripture stands ready here. The love (or pursuit) of money is the root of all evil. One cannot love God and love money, for to do so is to serve two masters. One can have money while loving God. No one can have God, but one can have love, which is the stuff of God. John tells us that “one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” In several places we read that God is love, while in others we read that love comes from God. Regardless of the exact nature of the relationship between God and love, we are safe to conclude that the line between the two, if it does exist, is wonderfully murky. It seems safe to conclude that the pursuit of love will inevitably bring us closer to God.

As to the question of power and love, I am more and more convinced that while the two may reside in one place, for what is more powerful than love, the individual is faced with a fundamental choice of pursuit. One cannot pursue power and love simultaneously. One cannot serve both. To be sure, we can cheat on one with the other, but we cannot serve both simultaneously. It seems reasonable to conclude that this cheating results in the loss of or at least further distance from the one neglected.

Where this impacts artists is not only in their motivation, but in their concept of success and calling. Artistry that flows from a pursuit of love and connection is fundamentally different from that which flows from a pursuit of power. Plainly put, I can’t hope for power over those who I hope to love. So the questions this begs are,

What does it look like to be an artist who pursues love of those around her?

How does that look differently from an artist who pursues power over those around her?

What does artistry fueled by the pursuit of love look like?

What do you think?

Reflections on Wendell Berry and the Industrialization of Worship Practices
Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

I’m reflecting on the new set of essays Wendell Berry has just published and moved more and more to consider the effects of industrialization on worship. Berry’s assertion is that at its core, the intent of the revolution was to replace people with machines. While I have a deep sense that there is a meaningful conversion of his observations of culture and my perceptions of worship practices, I must admit that this post represents just an early sketch of some possible corollaries.

First, to the matter of machines replacing people, one can certainly follow the obvious path, citing franchising of practices and media, most of which is created in distant centers and “shipped” to local venues. Here, locations scarcely realize just how monochromatic their practices have become. Just as blatant is the use of technologies for amplification and projection that fill the room with a single source of sound and project virtual intimacy onto massive screens. Granted, this amplification is grandfathered by acoustics of hard surfaces and reverberant airspace, and these images are the offspring of cave paintings and stained glass windows, all of which represent a metaphorical reality. However, one rightly differentiates between the photograph and the painting, I suppose. But what of those earlier, deeper correlations between industrialization and modern worship practices? Consider Berry’s early paragraph: 

Or here is a passage, by the poet and critic John Crowe Ransom, pointed more directly at our specialist system, which he identified as a phase of Puritanism that began in religion: “You may dissociate the elements of experience and exploit them separately. But then at the best you go on a schedule of small experiences, taking them in turn, and trusting that when the rotation is complete you will have missed nothing. And at the worse you will become so absorbed in some one small experience that you will forget to go on and complete the schedule; in that case you will have missed something. The theory that excellence lies in the perfection of the single functions, and that society should demand that its members be hard specialists, assumes that there is no particular harm in missing something (The World’s Body, 71) - WB

Berry goes on to differentiate between the anatomist who dissects or undoes, while the poet or composer is the necessary opposite as creator. Theologians observe this in the systematic dissection of Scripture, often resulting in little more than deconstruction with a simplistic, Frankenstein recreation that reduced the poetic, consummate whole to a much littler thing that most certainly misses something. In this case, one can’t help but wonder if that something is, in the end, everything Scripture was intended for in the first place.

Consider too the dissection of sacred space and time, separated into manageable bits that become the trees blocking one’s view of the forest. Reducing a constant, all-nature encompassing life of worship to a dissociated moment in a room. The very moment we created shelter for worship, we began a process of ignoring the cosmic worship chorus reverberating all around us. Is it any wonder that we so often hear the critique of post-modern worshippers that they know only how to deconstruct, not how to create anew?

Just as dissociated is the worshipper herself. Marketed and individualized. Surrounded by massive numbers of others, all with unnecessary voices (replaced by the mechanical sounds of worship technology) unaware of the stories to her right or her left. Here, self-help has left us all both selfish and helpless to change. Or are we? If the only way out is backward, we are surely doomed. Turning back the clock is both an impossible and unnatural solution. But which way forward? How do we reclaim the lost transcendence that once surrounded us with every atom of nature? Thankfully, the same air first breathed by Adam is waiting to fill our lungs. May we breathe deep and sing the new song we were made to compose.

C’mon in boys, the water is fine.
Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

Recently I was in a conversation about a worship service I’ve been asked to help rethink. Its problems probably sound familiar. The service is a contemporary one held in a large, windowless room with an electric-driven band that suffers from low attendance and even lower participation. It’s one that is following 1970’s technology that has proven to be so individualistic that it’s produced disconnected groups of consumers with little or no expectations on their own engagement or response to the experience beyond judging it by its impact on them, not their impact on it or their lives in response to it.

When I suggested a more intimate space, vocal/acoustic-driven music, and a more intentional connection to tradition, a striking but typical response came back from an influential voice among the leadership. She said that while she knew it wasn’t right, she didn’t want to be in a small space so close to people. She preferred the space she had in the big room and felt like having a contemporary service in such a small, traditional space felt like a failure.

I suspect part of why this felt like a failure was the model of success these services have, namely arena-inspired big-boxes. That’s the ideal of the rumspringa from which these gatherings have to awaken or risk surrendering to a kind of zombie existence, aimlessly meandering in search of an increasingly elusive “feeling” that the brochure promised. Here, the little child (ironically holding the hand of grandpa) can actually lead them. Millenials, raised on fog machines and anthem rock are less and less likely to respond to this style in favor of something more like their grandparents or great-grandparents would have embraced. It’s part of the generational crisis facing contemporary worship today. While some hoped that emergent worship styles were a market-friendly fix Boomer-generation megachurches could coopt, they weren’t. On the other hand, those who thought the kids would come around once they got tired of prayer stations were just as wrong. If the students I teach are any indication, they may be in the room, but they know there must be more than what they are experiencing.

At the risk of being very “one note” as of late, this keeps bringing me back to connection. Embodiment. Vulnerability. Seeing and being seen. Worshippers seek true transcendence (not euphoria) that not only engages with the Divine, but leaves the worshipper with a deep sense of how fundamentally connected all of creation is and with an abiding desire to live life from that awareness. So let’s stop running like we’re going to get somewhere, because there is no there, there. Let’s wake up. Open up. Find something deeper and more real. “C’mon in boys, the water is fine.”

I Have A Question
Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

“It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.”

                                                                                    - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 Sometimes a chain of events converge that so clearly point in the same direction, we’re compelled to respond. This month was that for me. It began with the captivating interviews Selma director, Ava Duvernay has been giving that leave any reasonable person with the epiphany, “How are there no women of color directing movies and television?” Next came discussions about variety in chapel worship music. It’s not only a fair critique of our little gathering, it’s one writ large on worship music nationwide.

After this came the lecture I gave on the chapter of David Stowe’s book No Sympathy for the Devil entitled “Soul on Christ.” The book is a study of the formation of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM). In it, Stowe explores an obvious but overlooked question about why, if so many black musicians were creating amazing Christian Music, much of which fell outside of what powerful Motown labels would have carried, why was gospel not integrated into CCM from the beginning? At the risk of generalizing, one can logically deduce that as the inclusive, “in the world” openness of the hippies of the Jesus Movement (who birthed what would become the CCM movement) was overtaken by the powerful institutions that would come to control and mass-produce the trend through the 1970’s and beyond. These institutions gave the music a platform, but they also imposed their racial ideology on it. Not until they aped the secular industries marketing of hip hop to white kids in the 1990’s did any meaningful integration occur. Still one could rightfully argue that this was still marketing to white consumers. It was a point that hit home when I first taught this course two years ago and the white students in the course were amazed to find that their fellow black students had never heard of Lecrae. Bluntly put, it was jus more black music for white kids.

This would be troubling, but not insidious if it weren’t for the recurring mis-messages the CCM industry and supporting organizations have given about diversity that date back to its very inception. The very first CCM festival (Explo 72 in Dallas) billed itself as a “technicolor gathering” of some 180,000 believers while, in actuality, it included just 3% African American delegates. How sad to know that had CCM not imposed these racial attitudes, the first punk band in America would have been three talented black men from Detroit in a band called Death, the subject of an incredible documentary that opens with the most effusive praise by Questlove and other major artists I’ve heard in a long time. What a different, more Christ-like story CCM would have told if it led congregations instead of following them in this instance.

The final event that demanded a response was meeting with the president of the Association of Black Students on campus this week and learning from her that a large percentage of black students at UMHB don’t attend church. If they do, they either attend predominately white churches or drive to Killeen. Those without cars are especially unlikely to attend. Is this true? If so, that means that for many black students, the only regular worship experience they have on campus is chapel, where we include essentially no music that would reflect the gospel, blues, or R&B styles that permeate their home churches. It’s made me rethink how I view cell phones in chapel. True, worship is not a commodity to be accepted or rejected by a consumer, but it is a personal conversation with our Creator. Are we making the conversation personally reflective of the entirety of the community? While we are not in the business of starting churches (although if a church were planted near campus for the purpose of reaching this population and more, consider me a resource), we are most definitely in the business of supporting the faith informed discernment of our student body. This obviously stretches beyond this particular racial divide. How do we serve Hispanic, Asian, Indian, and all students?

This brings me back to MLK’s convicting quote, strikingly illustrated by this picture of his own congregation. Here’s how we are different and how we have an opportunity to model something beyond what we see in the congregations around us. Unlike the local church, attendance at chapel is mandatory and by that virtue, integrated. So what does integrated worship look like? How do we reflect the diversity in our community without tokenism or disingenuousness? I don’t know. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I’m not the sage with the answers, just a faculty member with a question. 

Noisy Gongs and Clanging Cymbals
Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

First, an apology. It’s been too long since I blogged, and as much as I’d like to say it was because I was devoting time to the text I was writing for my worship design class, the truth is, I haven’t felt like putting myself out there lately. It probably stemmed from a mixture of not wanting to be vulnerable by sharing my thoughts and just not feeling inspired to write. How inspired this post is remains to be seen, but the time felt right to write.

There is a convergence among the thinking of three women (Brene Brown, Amanda Palmer, and Rachel Held Evans) who have really shaped my own thinking this past year. One of the common themes they share is connection, and surprisingly, how Christian rituals strengthen our connection with one another. Rachel is the likeliest source, and her talk about the importance of keeping church “weird” centers on a call to hold true to the sacraments that are a part of our liturgy I order to keep Millenials engaged.

Brene, famous for her TED talks about vulnerability and shame, has recently spoken about the return to church that accompanied what she called a breakdown during her research. She describes wanting church to be an epidural, but finding it out it was more like a midwife, led by a Jesus who weeps (and fully accepts her when she does the same). Amanda Palmer, the least likely source of perspective on Christian ritual among the three, is also known for a famous TED talk about the art of asking. In it, she talked about her days as a street performer who played a living statue who would give passersby a flower when they dropped money into her hat. It was the need for connection and the vulnerability of asking that has fueled the most exciting chapter in her artistic career, including a $1.2 Kickstarter campaign and a best-selling book about the topic. This is what she wrote about the flower exchanges:

When a stranger put money into the hat, I would try to emanate an immense amount of gratitude for this savior who had momentarily freed me from my frozen pose. I wouldn’t look at the donor immediately. I would be coy. I would look at the sky. I would look at the crowd. I would look at the street. I would look at my vase. And then, once I had selected the perfect flower with as much graceful fluidity as possible, I would finally gaze at my new friend, never smiling with my mouth but always with my eyes, and lean my body forward ever so slightly, holding out the flower delicately clutched between my thumb and forefinger.

This always reminded me of the act of communion: that small, quiet, intimate moment when the priest proffers the wafer, intimately instructing you to ingest the
body of Christ. (I was pretty bored in church as a kid, but I always loved that ritual. I also liked the singing bits.)

So, a dollar into the hat. I would gaze lovingly at my new human friend, my head filling up with a little silent monologue that sounded something like this 

The body of Christ, the cup of salvation.

Regard this holy flower, human friend.

Take it, it’s for you. A gift from my heart.

Oh, you want a picture? Okay! We can take a picture.

I’ll just hold this flower and wait while your girlfriend gets out her camera.

The body of Christ, the cup of salvation. The flower of patience.

Oh. I see your girlfriend’s camera batteries are dead.

Now your other friend is getting his camera out.

This is all fine. Because I am the picture of Zen and in the moment.

The body of Christ, the cup of salvation, the flower of forgiveness.

So come to me, human friend! Nuzzle into the folds of my white gown, we will pose

together. With love.

Oh, new human friend, your friend with the camera is drunk, isn’t he?

May he find peace. May he find solace. May he find the shutter button.

Okay. Now you finally have your picture and you have high-fived your drunken friend.

Now please take this flower I have been holding out to you. My sacrament. The body of Christ, the cup of salvation, the flower of oneness and joy and… HEY.

Why are you walking away?

I have a flower for you!

A gift! A holy token of love!

The body of Christ!!

TAKE THE FLOWER.

For real, dude… you don’t want my flower?

Jesus okay fine.

I will just hang my head in sorrowful shame for all that is wrong with the world.

 

As he walked away, I would hang my head in sorrowful shame for all that was wrong with the world.

                                                                        Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking


All three, in their own unique ways, are telling us that worship, like life, without vulnerability and connection is false and ultimately adds pain when it should assuage it. They remind us that transcendence is more than a connection with a spiritual force beyond ourselves, it’s the resulting awareness of how intimately connected we are to one another and how the love of God opens those pathways and allows us to be who we were made to be, both as individuals and as a human race. Regardless of whether your worship this weekend will involve a Christian ritual like communion, we will all live out the observation of David Foster Wallace that, “there is no such thing as not worshiping.” So ask yourself, does your worship embrace the transcendent experience that opens you to true connection with God and his creation?

Disembodied Worshipers
Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

A common thread in the history of worship is the continual loss of the wisdom of worship design, a steady move away from balance. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the role of the physical body in worship. Presumably, the earliest lives of worship were led without established houses of worship. The establishment of grand centers for gatherings developed over time, and with this development, the progressive distinction that life outside of the worship center was either far less than or not worship at all. The sacredness of daily life was challenged by a hierarchy of experiences that placed the gathering at the top of the order. It might be fair to say that since that progression, worshipers have struggled to regain the sacredness of their daily lives. I understand that this is based on the assumption that this awareness was present, but worship is consistently described as the most natural, perhaps even unavoidable human act. As we were made to worship, one can assume that we always have and always will. The question, then, is only one of consciousness and awareness.

This early life of worship would have, at its best, infused every movement of the day and every movement of the body with the sacredness of a worthy offering to God. Worship was fundamentally embodied. Since then, one could trace a steady removal of physicality in worship through the Judao-Christian divide, the Great Schism that separated the Eastern and Western Church, the Protestant Reformation, and even the recent evangelical megachurch movement.

Judaism espouses a much deeper embrace of the body and sensuality in the picture it paints of a follower of God. Congregational participation was stifled, reducing the Body to spectators as early as the fifth century. This reduction came despite the fact that participatory engagement was the very basis of the liturgical design. The litanies and physical progressions of the Eastern Orthodox Christian liturgy were removed throughout the tenth and eleventh centuries in what would become the Western Church. The processions, pilgrimages, kneeling, and other physical movements of worship were rejected by Protestant Reformers, though some would argue that the intent was to reclaim the sacredness of daily life. With the dawn of megachurch arena worship, physical movement within worship is limited to a very orderly filing in and out, and perhaps some hand-raising.

I’m struck by the central use of the image of the body in the Christian faith, despite the denial of it being so central to personal piety throughout the modern age. The very name for Christ’s Bride, the Church, is the Body. Our most central sacrament is the eating of the body of Christ. Our second most sacred act is the cleansing or baptizing of the body. Yet we are increasingly disembodied in our worship. No doubt this is a function of a broader cultural trend, poignantly illustrated by Sir Ken Robinson in his 2006 TED talk. This disembodiment is a byproduct of our evolving perception of truth. Where once we combined right and left brain, intuition and intellect, and the connection between mind, body, and spirit in our understanding of truth, we now confine it to the area above the neck and slightly to one side, as Robinson points out.

Given this, what are the effects of this disembodiment? One can only speculate, but it is worth considering that being fully embodied and present awakens one to the very time and place in which they exist. The higher achievement isn’t so much the progression to a new place as it is the embrace of the here and now. With this comes the renewed awareness of the sacredness of that gift, and of the gift of those with whom it is being shared. Presence, consciousness, and open eyes are fundamental characteristics of a person who sees people as Christ sees them and serves accordingly. The starting point of worship and following Christ is a death to self and an embrace of service. Worship is an act of service and is appropriately labeled worship service. I suspect that this understanding will more firmly root us in time and place, intimately connected to the metanarrative within which we play a unique role. I also suspect that the further we allow ourselves to be disembodied, the more difficult it will be for us to embrace these things and to empathize with those whom we are called to serve.

Places in the Heart
Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

I don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience, but three years ago I moved to the place where one of my favorite movies was set and filmed. It ranks up there with To Kill A Mockingbird for me. My front porch channels my inner Atticus Finch on a good day. But the dusty, hot, dry landscape of Central Texas says to me, and always will say, Places in the Heart.

The story is set in Waxahachie, Texas during the Depression. The inciting incident involves a young black boy who drinks a hefty bottle of whiskey and accidentally shoots and kills the beloved sheriff and husband of the main character, played by Sally Field. This sets in motion a chain of events, the first of which is the boy’s lynching, his dusty dead body dragged to the widow’s doorstep as her husband’s body lies on her dining room table so that she can clean and clothe him for burial. The struggle to keep her cotton farm plays out in the face of drought, depression, a tornado, and a collection of unscrupulously powerful men hoping to take advantage of her vulnerability and procure her farm. It weaves a string of characters through the film, many who betray or are betrayed.

The final scene takes place on Sunday, just as the first one had. But this time, all characters, even those who have died in the film, are present and serving one another communion. The mystery of the Eucharist is portrayed by these returns from death. The message of the Eucharist is portrayed by the closing image that frames the sheriff serving his murderer. After drinking from the all-to-familiar communion cups, they stare quietly forward as the film fades to black.

Here, communion plays the same role in the film that it does in the liturgy. No matter what has been said and done throughout the story. No matter what disagreements we may have. We gather around the table and serve one another the cup that none of us deserves, and Christ grants to all who will accept it. It is a cleansing of the soul that nothing else on earth can offer.

I am no doubt in a long line of people to point out the fact that Judas and Peter sat around the first table in the upper room. But I find myself drawn more to scenes that, to all but Christ, seemed like meaningless little moments that played out countless times before. Not so much the headlining scenes that made the movie of Christ’s life, but the forgotten, mundane little moments and exchanges between him and the one who would deny and the one who would betray. The mornings when the cock crowed as they awoke, foreshadowing Peter’s denial. The greeting kisses from Judas’ lips to Jesus’ cheek.

I think Christ lived with and loved these men with his whole heart. Imagine what it was like for Peter and Judas to realize after their deeds were done, that Christ knew all along. Did they replay all of those meaningless moments? Did they remember him washing their feet? Calming the storm in their fear at sea?

I think this is one of the most profound and compelling examples of what it is to follow Christ. Though we are at once the betrayed and the betrayer. The denied and the denier. We feel both the pain of injury and the remorse of our deceit and destruction. Still, we live in our small town. We pass the gossiper in the grocery store. We have lunch across the restaurant from the liar. We are reminded of our lack of compassion when we see those we refused to help fallen and broken by the wayside. We sit in meetings with the coworker we betrayed when we should have confronted in love. We hear the church bells where we were told Christ’s love didn’t extend to us.

As we experience these moments that to the unknowing seem meaningless and mundane, may we embrace their sacred significance. May we see them as David Foster Wallace describes, “on fire with the same force that lit the stars.” Because when we do, we walk in the very steps of Christ Himself.

The Essential Extravagance of Beauty
Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

As the school year begins, I tend to read pretty vigorously about the role of the arts and beauty in culture, and this year is no exception. Former C3 guest Mako Fujimura’s newest book is on generative culture and the importance of beauty to human flourishing. He opens with a story about how he was upset with his wife for bringing home flowers one afternoon because of how little money they had and the uncertainties of their finances. Her response was, “We need to feed our souls too.”

I suspect that some of my motivation for reading the “why” of art is probably because I am confronting the uncertainties of a culture of scarcity that questions what it perceives as the extravagance of art and beauty. Artists are asked to justify their existence every day. Regardless of my finances, be they strong or weak, there isn’t a day that I am not thankful to make a living solely by the creation of art. When I speak to parents of potential music majors, I almost invariably tell them of the 100% job placement of our music education and church music majors. While that isn’t wrong, in and of itself, I am beginning to suspect that it might be worth reconsidering.

The reason I am reconsidering this isn’t because it’s wrong to reassure parents that their child can get a full-time job with this degree. The problem is that if you choose to make art to make money, you will never be satisfied. If you make art because it is essential to human flourishing, whether you have a full-time job as an artist or not, you will only be dissatisfied by having too little time to create. This is a healthy dissatisfaction. Besides, history often sides with the one facing adversity, when it comes to creative breakthroughs.

As I write this, the August heat, though not as cruel as most years, is bearing down on us. Each day, as I walk past my newly planted flowers to my front porch, I can almost feel the struggle they face in weathering the intense morning sun. Very few blossoms are growing right now, with the exception of the old rose bushes I cut back. Their deep roots are serving them well.

As I’ve thought about the story being played out in my flowerbed, it occurs to me that while there may be seasons of fewer blossoms, without them, the plants will never reproduce. To put it in the context that Mako writes, without generative culture, there would be no possibility of generational culture.

So many areas of the arts have been faced with “summer heat” lately. Faced with the adversity of technological advancement, television has been forced to reinvent itself. Ten years ago, television was a stale art form that barely served as a farm team for feature film. Today, we are experiencing a Golden Age of Television that has many in the industry declaring that film is a shadow of the small screen. The music industry would do well to learn from television, as it has yet to reinvent itself in the same way. Opera in the U.S. is grabbing a lot of headlines with public failures and contract disputes in the most respected houses. European houses have long since given up their $100,000 poppy fields (one of the famous extravagances from a recent Met production), but there is a vibrant community of opera that transcends high or low art labels and sees nothing strange about mixing electronica and baroque instruments or number arias and the Olsen Twins. These works don’t replace Puccini, but the shade that sustains such blossoms may not be found today.

We may have decisions to make about the size and scope of blossoms, but their existence is every bit as essential for our future and flourishing as the leaves and branches that support them. As arts administrators, we are confronted with decisions about what we water and tend, what will withstand the season and some day see old growth, and what new life is needed to insure that beauty is preserved and protected. At the risk of pushing this analogy too far, it’s worth considering that we may have to redefine beauty in some instances. I’m reminded about how TED Prize winner and architect Cameron Sinclair saw the expensive, prized jewels that his field so valued as less beautiful and less capable of bringing about human flourishing than the open-sourced, sustainable structures his TED wish could bring about. Maybe it’s like the way living in Central Texas has changed my concept of beauty from what I had in the San Francisco Bay Area or growing up on the Florida coast. Regardless, as daunting as the task of decision-making can be, I’m thankful that my task is to simply commit to beauty and grow in understanding of how the Creator both challenges and sustains life.