‘My Backpack is My Office’

From Reed’s latest blog post:

Lately people have been asking me “Where will you be operating Street Hope?” I tell them that my backpack is my office. I carry my planner, a notebook and pen, my Bible and my Kindle, with my phone in my pocket I’m all set.

There are many days when I long for that sort of simplicity! I often tell people that when I moved to Arborfield in October 1979, the most complicated piece of technology in my office was a rotary dial telephone. My letters were all written by hand and they all took at least a week to reach their destination, so no one got bent out of shape if they didn’t get a return email from me right away. I was very busy, but the deadlines were few, so ministry was relational.

There are lots of things I appreciate about our modern connectedness (hence this blog post!), but I think I need to rediscover some of that old simplicity as well…

Matty Groves

To finish our ‘Daily Traditional Folk Song – Summer 2012’ series, we return to the work of the late great Doc Watson. Here Doc sings a folk song known in North America as ‘Matty Groves’ (it’s from his 1966 album ‘Home Again’); in the British Isles it is usually known as ‘Little Musgrave’. There are excellent recordings of the British variant by Planxty, Martin Simpson, and Nic Jones; Jean Ritchie also recorded the song as ‘Little Musgrave’, which goes to show that these songs can’t be neatly divided into ‘British’ and ‘American’ versions! But, as one of the YouTube comments says, there is not the tiniest bit of pretension in Doc’s voice, and so I’m very pleased to have him bring our summer home with this old song.

This song is very old; there’s a version of it on a broadside ballad sheet in the Bodleian Library in Oxford dating back to 1658. Mudcat has a good discussion of ‘Little Musgrave’ on this thread (and there are many links). Wikipedia will give you the Coles Notes version here!

I’ve already mentioned Doc Watson in our posts from July 20th and August 13th; there are very few musicians for whom I have a greater respect and admiration. Rest in peace and rise in glory, Doc.

And since this is the final post in our ‘Daily Traditional Folk Song – Summer 2012’ series, can I just say how much I’ve enjoyed searching out the posts and doing the research about the songs; many of them I knew anyway, but some I didn’t, and I’ve learned a lot in the process. And thank you to all who have started following my blog and have left comments on the songs; I’m glad you enjoyed them.

Clyde Water

Continuing our Nicfest, today we have a song that appeared on his famous 1980 album ‘Penguin Eggs’ – but in my opinion, this live solo version is much better (Nic says on the sleeve notes to one of his live albums that even Julia, his wife, didn’t like what he’s done to Clyde Water – under the title of ‘Drowned Lovers’ – on Penguin Eggs). Once again, it comes from Nic’s collection of live recordings ‘Game, Set, and Match’.

Nowadays this is often thought of as an English folk song because the versions by Nic Jones, Martin Carthy, and Kate Rusby have become so well-known. However, it has in fact never been collected anywhere other than Scotland, and all the traditional versions are written in Scots brogue; Nic Jones may have been the first to Anglicize the lyrics, and Kate Rusby certainly got her version from him. One interesting change that Nic introduced is that the earlier versions all state that Willie’s nose began to bleed (apparently an old superstition that your lover was being unfaithful to you), but Nic changed this to ‘He’s doubting on fair Margaret’s love, and his heart began to bleed’.

This song, under the name ‘The Mother’s Malison’ (i.e. curse) appears as Ballad #216 in Francis J. Child’s ‘The English and Scottish Popular Ballads’, and the earliest version he quotes dates back to 1802. However, Child collected written texts, not oral songs from singers, and the oral versions no doubt considerably predate the written texts. A discussion on various versions of the song appears on Mudcat Café here, and Mainly Norfolk has its usual summary of British recordings here.

By the way, Kate Rusby’s version is available on YouTube here. Martin Carthy also has a very fine version, sung to a completely different tune, but I can’t find it on YouTube; it’s available from Amazon.com here.


‘Once again it’s a matter of humility – one of James’ primary lessons, as we are realizing. Don’t imagine that our timescale corresponds to God’s timescale. Think of it like a farmer. Some weeks ago I watched a local farmer ploughing his field and sowing his crop. I can see the field as I write this: nothing seems to have changed (except for the fact that the seagulls that followed the plough are no longer there). The soil looks just as bare as it did when he went to work. So was he wasting his time? Has the crop failed? Of course not. It just takes time, more time than we might like. Farmers learn to live with the rhythm of the seasons. Our frantic modern society, which wants to have every vegetable in the shops all year round and so brings them in by plane from far away, has done its best to obliterate the need for patience. It’s all the more important that we who follow Jesus should learn it and practice it.’

Tom Wright, Early Christian Letters for Everyone: James, Peter, John, and Judah. From the comments on James 5:7-12.

Seven Yellow Gypsies

I’m strongly tempted to have a Nic Jones Fest in the last couple of days of this series! Whether or not we do that, it was unthinkable that we could have a summer of traditional folk songs without including at least one version of ‘Seven Yellow Gypsies’. So here we have a live recording of Nic Jones singing the song; this recording is found on ‘Game, Set, and Match’, which is one of the collections of his live recordings.

I’m not entirely sure of the history of ‘Seven Yellow Gypsies’, but I know that it is one of the most widely-known songs in the tradition. There are several different sub-families of it, including ‘Raggle-Taggle Gypsies’ (which I first heard on a Planxty recording, and have also heard to a completely different tune from Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson), ‘Black-Jack Davy’ (which I think is an Irish/American variant), and ‘Gypsy Laddie/Gypsy Davy’.

Mainly Norfolk has a summary of the British recording history of this song here. There are numerous discussions of the history of the song on Mudcat Café; this is a good place to start. I’ve been wondering for a while if Bob Dylan got his ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ song title from a line in this song, but of course I have no way of knowing.

I should add that this variant of the song is customarily sung in the minor key; I don’t know if Nic transposed it into the major, or if he tapped into another version of the tune. I suspect the former.

Preliminary sermon explorations on James 1:17-27

This is not a sermon – it’s the preliminary notes I’ve made today as I’ve been thinking about the passage I’ll be preaching on this coming Sunday – James 1:17-27.

As this is the first in a series of Sunday readings from James, I offer some general thoughts about the letter as a whole.

This letter comes to us attached to the name of James of Jerusalem, the brother of Jesus. The family of Jesus had not believed in him during his lifetime, but after the resurrection there seems to have been a change, and James and Jude at least became believers. James emerges in the book of Acts as the acknowledged leader of the Jerusalem church, although he is not one of the Twelve. Certainly at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 he speaks with authority on behalf, not only of the Jerusalem church, but of the whole Christian movement, articulating policy with regard to the conditions on which Gentiles can be admitted to the Christian Church. This note of authority appears in this letter too; a large proportion of its teaching is in the form of unapologetic commands. There are also many clear echoes of the teaching of Jesus.

Did James the brother of Jesus actually write the letter? Some scholars deny any link. Others (exemplified by the introductory notes to the New Oxford Annotated Bible section on James) posit an original sermon by James just before his death in the early 60s, which was later edited by his followers and circulated to Jewish Christian congregations ‘in the diaspora’ – i.e. beyond the borders of Israel. On this reading, while the sermon is early, the letter itself is late. Other scholars accept James’ authorship of the letter as we now have it, thus giving it a relatively early date.

Christian reading of this letter has been influenced by Reformation debates about faith and works; Paul is seen as the defender of ‘justification by faith alone’, while James takes the opposite view, that faith alone is not enough – you need to do good works as well. However, the two may have been using the same vocabulary but different dictionaries. It seems fairly clear that when James talks about ‘faith’ he means a simple intellectual assent to the existence of God (2:19), whereas to Paul it is a relationship of trust founded on the promises of God. ‘Works’ to Paul usually seems to be connected to ritual works such as circumcision, Sabbath observance, and the food laws, whereas to James it means caring for widows and orphans and keeping oneself unstained from the world (1:27) – something Paul agrees with in Galatians where he talks about the importance of ‘faith working through love’ (Galatians 5:6).

The likely context of this letter, I think, is persecution against the young churches James is writing to ‘in the dispersion’ (1:1). He kicks it off with an exhortation to his readers to ‘count it all joy’ when they face trials of any kind (v.2), which can be a good thing because ‘the testing of your faith produces endurance’ (v.3). So it is in the context of these trials, testings, persecutions that James writes to help his hearers remain faithful to the way of Jesus as they have received it.

The letter seems to jump from one subject to another in much the same way as Old Testament wisdom literature. However, there are a number of themes that recur in a circular manner, rather like the arrangement in the first letter of John; James obviously feels that if he keeps coming back to the same basic ideas in different contexts, the points he is trying to make will be reinforced.

After an introductory greeting in verse 1, James begins by introducing the subject of ‘trials’, encouraging his readers to count them all as joy, since the testing of their faith produces endurance and makes them mature and complete (1:2-5). If they need wisdom, they should ask God for it – but be sure to do so with faith, not doubting (1:6-8). And they should have a proper Christian perspective on riches, remembering that God will bring the rich and powerful low and will lift up the poor and needy (1:10-11).

The subject of testing (this time in the sense of ‘temptation’ (NRSV) returns in verses 12-16. Some Hellenistic Jews believed that God had created both the good and evil impulse in humans, but James opposes this idea; God does not tempt anyone, but it is our own desire that entices us and leads us into sin, which in its turn leads to death. Because this is the ultimate destination of those who sin, we should resist temptation and so receive the crown of life promised by God.

And now to today’s text…

17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18In fulfilment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

The theme of God’s generosity has already been mentioned in verse 5 in connection with wisdom: ‘If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you’. But in this context it means not just God’s generosity, but ours as well, and so is perhaps in contrast with the subject of temptation in the previous verses. Certainly, to James, the Christian life (in contrast with the sinful life to which we are tempted) is a life of generosity and caring for the needy (1:27). James is rooting this generosity in the action of God; when we resist temptation and live the life of love and generosity, we are expressing the nature of God himself and living out the new life he has put within us. ‘He gave us birth by the word of truth’ refers to the new birth in Christ, which has come to us through the preaching of the gospel. Peter, with whom James was of course closely associated, has a similar thought:

‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…’ (1 Peter 1:3)

‘You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God…That word is the good news that was announced to you’. (1 Peter 1:23, 25b).

This is a very important point. Throughout the letter James is not shy about bringing before us the moral imperatives of the Christian life, but we can only obey them because of what God has done in us. On the one hand, it is God who has brought us to new birth by the message of the gospel, or good news; we did not bring ourselves to new birth. But on the other hand, we are responsible for living out this new life he has planted in us by obedience to the teaching of Jesus as James expresses it.

James has a lovely title for God here: the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change’. The title ‘Father of Lights’ is used of God in some of the Jewish inter-testamental literature, but it is his constancy and reliability that is stressed here (perhaps in contrast to the ‘double-minded person’ of vv.6-8).

So this passage starts with a gospel message: the Father of lights, who is totally reliable and consistent, is a thoroughly generous giver. As part of that generosity, he has given us the gift of new birth through the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that new birth creates in us a new life which is modeled after the life of its author – a life of generosity and love.

But this new life is not just an idea – it has practical consequences. James spells out a few of them in the verses that follow.

19 You must understand this, my beloved [brothers & sisters]: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

One characteristic of the new life is its basic humility. The mind set on the flesh (to use Paul’s language) is full of its own opinions and longs to inflict them on others at every opportunity. If others don’t agree, and resist, the natural sinful reaction is to get angry with them. “Can’t these people see that I’m only thinking of their own good? Don’t they understand that I know best on this point?”

Maybe we think we’re going to change the world – for good – by inflicting our opinions on others and by exercising our righteous anger, but James assures us this is not so. ‘Your anger (literally ‘human anger’) does not produce God’s righteousness’ (v.20). This word ‘righteousness’ (dikaiosune) is customarily understood in individual terms, especially in Reformed and Protestant Christianity – the righteousness God requires of individuals, the demand to live a holy and righteous life. Of course, some Protestant and Reformed circles believe that this righteousness is impossible for us, even as newborn Christians, and all we can do is rely on the ‘imputed righteousness’ of Christ – a sort of sanctified legal fiction whereby God counts us righteous by counting Christ’s righteousness as if it were ours.

No matter – I don’t think the issue is relevant to James. He is the heir of the Old Testament prophetic tradition in which ‘righteousness’ is primarily a community thing – very close in meaning to ‘justice’ – a righteous world. What James is saying here is ‘You don’t achieve justice – that is, a better world for everyone – by getting angry with those who you disagree with (politically? theologically? morally?) and imposing your ideas on them. Rather, you start on the assumption that your first responsibility is to listen to the Word of God yourself: ‘Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls’ (v.21).

As the saying goes, ‘Everyone thinks of changing the world; no one thinks of changing themselves’. Curious, since the only person we can really change is ourselves. And even that can’t be done on our own steam – it needs the guidance of the implanted Word of God and the indwelling Spirit of God. Our focus must be on rooting out our own sinfulness, receiving the word of God, and putting it into practice in our lives. And this leads to the next part:

22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

Nowadays, of course, there are mirrors all over the place. Not only that, but everyone has a digital camera and is snapping photographs by the dozen, posting them online; some of my friends have dozens of alternative ‘profile pictures’ on Facebook! If I were to forget what I looked like, and didn’t have a single mirror in my house, all I’d need to do would be to look at Facebook and I’d remember right away!

By contrast, in the time of Jesus, mirrors were quite rare; only the richest houses would possess them. Glass windows, too, were almost unheard of. Most people only saw their own reflections if they happened to be on the shore of a lake on a windless day when the surface of the water was very still. In that society, it was very possible that a person might forget what they looked like!

In the same way, James says, it’s possible to forget what the Word of God tells us about our own spiritual state. We might listen to the Word of God and recognize what it says to us about what God wants from us, and our own shortcomings. We might even feel really bad about our own spiritual state and cry out to God to forgive us and help us to be different. But none of this is of any use whatsoever unless we actually do something about it.

Here, of course, James is reflecting the teaching of his brother.

‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’ (Matthew 7:24-27).

I sometimes think we’ve made a serious liturgical mistake in the Anglican Church of Canada in our prayer of confession, in which we say to God, ‘We are truly sorry, and we humbly repent’. Why is this a mistake? Well, real repentance is not a matter of words but of actions. Perhaps it’s not for me to say, “I humbly repent”; rather, it’s for me to actually repent, by doing things differently, and then God will nod in approval and say, “Good – Tim is humbly repenting”.

So the question for all of us, week by week, as we hear the Bible read and the sermon preached, is this: ‘What am I actually going to do differently in my life as a result of what I’ve heard today?’ James is teaching us that this is the way to true freedom. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing’ (v. 25). Note carefully how that phrase is worded. It’s not the language of reward – if it were, it would be ‘they will be blessed for their doing’. But what it actually says is ‘in their doing’ – that is, as we do it, we will find it to be a blessing to us. The good deed will be its own reward, because we will find ourselves to be in harmony with the way God has designed us, and that is the way to true freedom.

26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

We’re back to speaking again, and our tendency to spray the universe with words – often angry, hurtful, unhelpful words. Perhaps James is remembering something else his big brother once said:

“I tell you, on the day of judgement you will have to give account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37).

Careless words – thoughtless words, words that hurt and wound and sting and condemn – are here contrasted with care-full actions: caring for orphans and widows, reaching out to the needy and doing what we can to make their lives better. Of course, James is standing squarely in the prophetic tradition again here, and in the teaching of Jesus as well. True religion is not about rituals and liturgies and elaborate churches; it’s about ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’ – which is all about community, and equality, and everyone having enough and no one having too much.

That’ll do for now. Time to check the commentaries and see what others have said about the passage.

Prayers for our friends on the American Gulf Coast as Hurricane Isaac approaches – UPDATED

From CNN:

As of Tuesday afternoon, Isaac’s maximum sustained winds were at 75 miles per hour, just strong enough to give it hurricane status, as it churned northwest through the Gulf at about 10 miles per hour, the National Hurricane Center said.

Forecasters expect Isaac to gain strength before it makes landfall, which could be as early as Tuesday evening.

“Hurricane conditions are expected to reach the coast by late afternoon,” and the storm’s center “should reach the coastline of southeastern Louisiana as early as this evening,” the hurricane center said.

Isaac’s forward movement is expected to slow down, and if it slows enough that it makes landfall after midnight, it will strike on Katrina’s seventh anniversary.

Read the rest here.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Louisiana, and especially with Grandmère Mimi, a faithful reader and commenter on this blog, and her husband Tom, who live in Thibodaux, not far from New Orleans.

UPDATE: Mimi says on her Facebook page this morning that they are all OK. Thanks be to God.

Sí Bheag, Sí Mhór

We haven’t had much in the way of instrumental music in this series, so here is one of my favourite instrumentals, ‘Si Bheag, Si Mhor’ by the blind harpist Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738), arranged and played by William Coulter.

Wikipedia says of O’Carolan,

(he) was a blind early Irish harper, composer and singer whose great fame is due to his gift for melodic composition. He was the last great Irish harper-composer and is considered by many to be Ireland’s national composer. Harpers in the old Irish tradition were still living as late as 1792…but there is no proof of any of these being composers. Ó Hámsaigh did play some of Carolan’s music but disliked it for being too modern. Some of O’Carolan’s own compositions show influence from the style of continental classical music, whereas others such as Carolan’s Farewell to Music reflect a much older style of “Gaelic Harping”.

‘Sí Bheag, Sí Mhór’ is said to have been Carolan’s first song – the piece he wrote after he was urged to take up composition at the first house he ever visited. The title translates as “The little fairy hill and the big fairy hill” and is said to be based upon a local legend about a war between two fairy armies.

William Coulter is a well-known American guitarist (amongst many other things, he was the guitarist on Eilis Kennedy’s CD ‘A Time to Sail’, mentioned in the previous post). His website is here.