What is ordinary time? And what are hemlandssånger? Why this blog?

Welcome to my new weblog, which I’m tentatively calling Hemlandssånger — a Spiritual Journey in Ordinary Time. Here’s some background, along with a couple of definitions — and a confession …

First of all, the definitions. Ordinary Time is the liturgical season in the common lectionary, used by mainline Protestants and Catholics, that comes between the celebration of Pentecost, in May or June, and the end of the church year in November. It corresponds to the season we call Pentecost in Lutheran churches. On St. Andrew’s Day, around Nov. 30, the cycle begins anew with the first Sunday in Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter … and ordinary time, or Pentecost, again. I like the name because it’s so, day-to-day and, well, ordinary — it reminds me of the focus in Zen Buddhism on mindfulness in daily life.

But I like it for another reason. In his lovely modal carol “I Wonder as I Wander”(which I associate with Advent and Christmas), John Jacob Niles sings:

I wonder as I wander out under the sky,
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die.
For poor on’ry people like you and like I —
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

“On’ry,” in the southern Appalachian dialect Niles heard in the 1930s when he was song-collecting around Murphy, N.C., can mean either ordinary or ornery. That I can relate to. Both ways.

Hemlandssånger is a Swedish word (plus or minus a little circle over the second “a” that changes the pronunciation from ah to oh) meaning songs of the homeland. I chose it, very frankly, because all the English words I wanted for the web address were already taken when I signed up with WordPress. But it holds several layers of meaning for me.

Hemlandssånger was a very popular Swedish-American gospel songbook of the 1800s. And since I retired from college teaching, I’ve been researching Swedish immigration and the old Augustana Lutheran Synod, writing real page-turners like “‘How Newness Enters the World’: Cultural Creolization in Swedish-American Hymnals Published at Augustana College, 1901–1925” for the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, as well as more accessible stories like “Pastor Esbjorn’s Box Zither: Reinventing a Swedish Immigrant Tradition” in Dulcimer Players News.

(That’s the kind of thing aging academics do in their free time.)

The picture in the header, by the way, shows the Rev. Lars Paul Esbjorn’s chapel, established in 1850 and later named after Jenny Lind, in Andover, Ill. It’s considered the mother church of the old Swedish-American Augustana Synod, and it’s part of my spiritual geography.

Another term I should define — spiritual geography. I got it from Kathleen Norris, a poet, Presbyterian lay minister, Benedictine oblate and author of a 1993 book titled Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. “At its Greek root,” she once told an interviewer for her publisher, Houghton Mifflin Co., “geography means ‘writing about a place,’ and the vast, almost sculptured landscape of the western Dakotas has a spiritual quality that I couldn’t ignore. ‘Spiritual geography’ also describes the way a place shapes people’s attitudes, beliefs, myths.”

My spiritual geography has been all over the map — literally — from the Episcopal church of my childhood and shape-note singing conventions in East Tennessee and Georgia, to Sweden, Copenhagen and a Lutheran church (ELCA) and a Catholic liberal arts college in downstate Illinois.

All of which gives me a decidedly ecumenical, rag-tag accumulation of beliefs from all over.

So why a confession?

A couple of reasons. The main one is I have no clear direction where I want to go with this. Instead, I’m fighting a growing sense I’m not developing my gifts to full potential, I’m 75 years old and I just got out of the hospital — do the math. These gifts, the kinds of things the Ursuline sisters sometimes called charisms, include:

  • Music. An old, old story (and one that’s shared by many). I don’t practice. All the way through high school, I was stuck playing second chair third trombone because I didn’t practice. Now I coordinate slow jams for amateur folk musicians, and I present scholarly papers on music history. But I still don’t practice. Says Philip Toshio Sudo in his book on mindfulness and practice for musicians, “There is a zen saying, ‘Paths cannot be taught, they can only be taken’.” Good advice. But there’s a bookmark in my copy of Zen Guitar that makes me stop and think. It’s a sales slip from a Winn-Dixie store in Roswell, Ga., dated April 13, 1998, at 3:08 p.m., and it’s a reminder that I read the book 20 years ago, but I never took the path.
  • Writing. Frankly, I’ve been spinning my wheels for more than a year now. Before the 2016 election, I was heavily engaged in research on music history, Swedish immigration and the old Augustana Synod. But after what I consider a divisive national government with authoritarian tendencies took office, my historical research seemed almost frivolous, and it largely went on the back burner. I use my writing and editing skills now in “resistance” groups on social media, but that takes maybe 45 minutes a day. The rest of the time I tend to surf websites, and get into online flame wars about “fake news,” porn stars, libtards and snowflakes with people I don’t know. So it looks like I’m stuck there, too.

But, of course, there’s more to it than that. I guess there is for most of us.

I have another blog. It’s called Hogfiddle (a slang name for the mountain dulcimer), and it’s kind of a research blog. I once compared it to an electronic filing cabinet. It quickly morphed into a teaching blog, where I’d post items for class discussion, but I still use it as a combination research blog, writer’s journal and platform for songs I want to take up at the amateur jam sessions I coordinate. However, I’ve been dealing lately with spiritual issues that don’t fit the Hogfiddle format, the kinds of things you think about when you’re 75 years old, you’re in the hospital and you wonder how much longer your run of mostly good luck will last and how much time you have left to do all the things you wanted to do with your life.

All of this came to a head just about the time I went to the hospital, when I was trying to fit an image from a biography of Kierkegaard about “the infinite, eternal God … standing before you now with greasy hair and a bit of fish in his beard, bidding you who are weary to come to him and he will give you rest” into the Hogfiddle format. For reasons that had nothing to do with Kierkegaard, I wound up in the emergency room on a Saturday night, with cops waiting in the hallway outside the treatment bay next door to mine. To make a long story short, I was admitted and I spent the next four days effectively off the internet, with a Sp02 pulse-ox strapped my finger. That limited my keyboarding, and it gave me time to think.

The upshot: I decided I need a new blog. Hence Hemlandssånger/Ordinary Time. So what’s going to be in it? That’s where the confession comes in. I don’t exactly know.

I suspect it will have a Lutheran flavor. I’m a Lutheran, and I haven’t completely abandoned my interest in Swedish Lutherans and their hymnody. I’ve discovered I actually enjoy reading Martin Luther’s sermons, and I’ve been taken with Martin Marty’s comment that the Reformation started with “a revolt of a revolt of the junior faculty” at a provincial university — that’s something I can relate to on several levels since I was on the faculty at a provincial university. Even the quotation about the infinite, eternal God with fish in God’s beard that I was wrestling with before I went in the hospital comes from a book about Søren Kierkegaard, who was — or most assuredly was not (depending on who you talk to) — a good Lutheran.

But I’ve always been kind of a spiritual mutt, and I’ve always liked the way Zen dharma teacher, 12-step recovery coach and Beat Generation scholar Mel Ash draws inspiration from a “motley crew of flea market gods and museum wanna-be’s” in his office, including several statues of the Buddha, a bust of Jesus, a lawn statue of the Virgin Mary, pictures of Bob Dylan and Yoda from Star Wars, a dreidel, a menorah and “much else that defies description.” In turn, I drew inspiration from Ash’s book The Zen of Recovery, which was important to me when I was first reorienting my life around spiritual principles some 25 years ago.

But you’d probably also have to call me an agnostic. I especially draw inspiration from Ralph Vaughan Williams, the English composer who edited the 1906 Anglican hymnal and composed some of the most affirmative religious music of the 20th century in spite of a lack of “any deep religious feelings,” according to his biographer Michael Kennedy. “It is important to realize,” says Kennedy, “and it cannot be over-emphasized, that the religion of Vaughan Williams’s life was music. … The atheism of the undergraduate was replaced by a more mature Christian agnosticism.” And by music. My life has followed a similar trajectory, and I think it’s time for me to explore it.

So if I’m a Lutheran, I’d like to think of myself as a sanctified Zen Lutheran who taught at a Catholic college after he got clean and sober (provisionally, one day at a time), and whose faith was formed in the liturgical traditions of Anglican plainsong, the Lutheran chorale, Swedish immigrant songbooks, early American shape-note folk hymnody and a cappella bluegrass gospel.

All of which brings me back to Kathleen Norris. “I still value music and story,” she says in Dakota, “over systematic theology … we go to church in order to sing, and theology is secondary.”

But writing, if I’m understanding Norris right, is primary.

“I used to think that writing had substituted for religion in my life, but I’ve come to see that it has acted as a spiritual discipline, giving me the tools I needed to discover my religious heritage,” she adds. “It is my Christian inheritance that largely defines me, but for years I didn’t know that.”

I’ve followed that trajectory, too. Hence my new blog.

— Eastertide, April 2, 2018

Works Cited

Ash, Mel. The Zen of Recovery. New York: Tarcher/Perigree, 1993. 215.

Michael Kennedy. The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams. London: Oxford University Press, 1964. 42.

John Jacob Niles. “I Wonder as I Wander.” Hymns and Carols of Christmas https://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/i_wonder_as_i_wander.htm.

Norris, Kathleen. “A Conversation with Kathleen Norris.” Reader’s Guide: Dakota (Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000). Quoted in Peter Ellertsen, “Faith, Hope and Poetry: Science and (Pre-)Postmodern Ways of Knowing in the Poetry of Kathleen Norris,” Springfield College in Illinois, March 9, 2000 https://hogfiddle.blogspot.com/2010/08/kathleen-norris.html.

__________. Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993. 91-93.

Philip Toshio Sudo. Zen Guitar. New York: Fireside, 1998. 16.

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