God Rest Ye Ornery People

Music can be one of the many joys of this season as we hear familiar songs and carols.  Some were composed by highly trained composers and others have more humble origins. 

One of my many favorites is “I Wonder As I Wander.”  As the story goes, a scholar of folk music, John Jacob Niles, found himself in the small Appalachian town of Murphy, North Carolina, in 1933.  He came upon a modest evangelistic gathering on the outskirts of town. Onto the small platform stepped an unkempt young girl who smiled shyly as she sang:

I wonder as I wander out under the sky,

How Jesus the savior did come for to die,

For poor ornery people like you and like I,

I wonder as I wander out under the sky.”

Moved by the song’s haunting beauty, he paid the girl to repeat it several times so he could transcribe it.  He took it with him, extended the lyrics and stanzas, gave her credit, and published it in 1934 in Songs of the Hillfolk.  Since then, it’s been recorded by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, Julie Andrews, Barbara Streisand, Joan Baez, Leontyne Price, Andy Griffin, Linda Ronstadt, Chanticleer, and many others; it’s included in countless hymnbooks and seasonal playlists.

            I am drawn to it partly by its melancholy mood and simplicity.  Composed by an untrained person living at the fringes of society, it’s like the blues – an expression of life’s hardships created by people who are living hard lives.

            And my favorite line is, “…how Jesus the savior did come for to die, for poor ornery people like you and like I.”  I love the word ornery.

            There are two possible meanings of “ornery.” Some say it’s just the Appalachian pronunciation of “ordinary,” and many published versions use that option.

            That may be correct.  But I’m biased toward the other possibility — that it means “ornery” the way I heard that word used as I was growing up.  Merriam-Webster’s definition: “Having an irritable disposition: cantankerous; difficult to deal with or control… (as in) ‘an ornery mule’…”

My dad would talk about people being “ornery,” and we knew what he meant.  And when you sound it out, it sounds defiant, grumpy, and stubborn. Ornery.

            I sometimes feel ornery.  We are not supposed to feel that way. We are supposed to always be civil and kind, generous of heart, and looking out for the interest of others.  But sometimes we don’t feel like we are supposed to feel.  And the carol puts it right out there: the world is full of “poor ornery people like you and like I.”

            Thinking about this message and mood led me to page through hymnals looking for other carols which suggest how living in this world can be disheartening:  

  • “Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight…Bid envy, strife, warfare cease..” (O Come, O Come Emmanuel)
  • “From our fears and sin release us…” (Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus)
  • “…And still their heavenly music floats o’er all the weary world…above its sad and lonely plains they bend on hovering wing, and ever o’er its Babel sounds, the blessed angels sing.”  (It Came Upon a Midnight Clear)
  • “…and ye beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who will along the climbing way with painful steps and slow… “ (It Came Upon a Midnight Clear)
  • “No more let sin and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground…” (Joy to the World)
  • “’Fear not,’ said he – for mighty dread had seized their troubled minds…” (While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night)
  • “Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom, sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.”  (We Three Kings)

If you collect these phrases and line them up, you get this: there are times when life can feel like we are living under “gloomy clouds of night,” haunted by “death’s dark shadows,” often having to deal with “envy, strife (and) warfare” as well as “fears and sin;” the world can be a “weary” place” as we make our way on “sad and lonely plains” hearing all these different voices with their “Babel sounds;” under “life’s crushing load” we can feel like our “forms are bending low,” that any progress we make is made with “painful steps and slow;” we have days when we are convinced that “thorns “infest the ground” we walk on, moments come when “dread” seizes our “troubled minds,” and we know that life, at its most difficult, includes times of “sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying” all leading to “a stone cold tomb.”

            Not exactly Christmas Cheer.  But life can be tough.  No surprise that we get ornery.

            Hard as life can be, and no matter how “ornery” we may feel, the gift of Christmas comes to us anyway. That’s what the young girl who created this song knew, and that’s what allowed her to sing it with a shy smile under her sorrows. 

            “God does not love as we love. God loves as an emerald is green.”

Image: “Sky Over Big Bear,” Shutterstock Photos

The Nativity: A Hospital Epiphany and Three Works of Art

            In September of 2017, I went to Cottage Hospital to see our newborn grandson.  This was during the first year of our former President’s time in office.  I must have heard some distressing news item as I drove to the hospital — I remember walking down the hallway toward “Labor and Delivery”, feeling despondent.  I came to the nursery.  There were seven or eight newborns snug in their blankets, sleeping in basinets.  I took a moment to look at each one.  I remember hearing these words: “Steve, you may feel discouraged about the world right now, but get over it. These innocent children deserve a chance in this world.  Stop moping and do your part.”

            In a recent post I included a comment from a friend of David Brooks.  As she held her infant for the first time, she realized “I love this child more than evolution can explain.”
            Endless songs, carols, poems, sermons, Christmas cards and works of art have been inspired by the story of the birth of Jesus.  There are three images I want to share with you today – two photographs and a painting. 

            In 2009, the Guardian asked nine artists to reimagine the nativity in contemporary society. The photographer Tom Hunter submitted this piece.  The lighting and pose reflect classic manger scenes, especially from the Renaissance. But Jesus was born in a perilous time, and his parents had to flee their homeland to preserve his life.  Having the mother and child be Somali refugees makes the social context of the birth clear.

“Nativity,” Tom Hunter, 2009

            This “Nativity” was created in 1865 by Julia Margaret Cameron.  She began her artistic career at age 48 when her daughter gave her a camera; she became a pioneer in portrait photography.  Some critics thought she was overly sentimental, but I like her work.  This “Nativity” isn’t staged as a manger scene, but simply portrays a working-class family with an infant.  And who is the mother embracing?  A sibling? A cousin?  Or an angel?

“Nativity,” Julia Margaret Cameron

            We close with the visionary “Mystical Nativity” by Botticelli, created in 1501.  Here’s the scene at the center of the canvas:

Boticelli, “Mystical Nativity,” close-up, 1501

Joseph may be sleeping, the baby is reaching for his mother, and Mary is adoring her child as animals stand quietly in the rear.  But Botticelli imagined a scene beyond ordinary sight, where the meaning of the birth is celebrated:

Boticelli, “Mystical Nativity,” 1501

Angels are everywhere…embracing each other at the bottom, drawing close to the manger in the center, and joining hands in a circle dance at the top.  There’s no suggestion that Joseph and Mary can sense their presence in this moment, but, as viewers, we are invited to see it all.

            Botticelli apparently painted this at a time of great anxiety in Florence.  Political leadership was in an upheaval and some prophets proclaimed the end of the world was near.  Perhaps this is the message: no matter what challenges we face in the world, the birth of this child represents the appearance of light amid darkness, and is reason for great rejoicing.

            “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it.”

            May we honor the birth of every child as a sacred event, and accept the responsibility of creating a better world on their behalf.