“Oh the Glory”: Following the Spirit’s Song into the World

Written by Daniel Tidwell : June 17, 2008

Editor’s Note: Below is the 2nd Prize winner in the aesthetics category for the Stepping into a Violent Wind Writing Competition:

I have heard it noted that we Pentecostals don’t write our theology in books, rather, we write it in songs.

Somehow, that seems appropriate. Pondering how best to speak of the Holy Spirit; of Pentecost; of my personal experience with both the Holy Spirit and Pentecostalism, I am left with too few words to communicate the glory of encountering God at work in the world.

The old songs of my childhood would tell one story of the fiery holiness of the Spirit, but I believe that God’s Spirit, while at work in those songs is also leading us to step out of the church into the violent winds of our culture. The Kingdom of God that we are seeking to live into is not contained by arbitrary borders of the church. Instead, the body of Christ lives and moves inside the Kingdom of God which finds its being in the Spirit who is everywhere at work and play in the world.

In attempting to give voice to who the Holy Spirit is, what The Spirit is doing, and how we are to follow, Pentecostals have often found that binding words to music offers life and breadth beyond the limits of either element’s individual expression. Music adds elasticity to the meaning of words by preventing us from solidifying our definitions of God, while words name the places where we are invited to participate in the Life of the Holy Spirit in and for the world.

One example where I see this happening and where I find myself hearing God at work in the wider world is in the music of Sufjan Stevens. In “Casimir Pulaski Day” (the song that got him into the top 50 on Paste Magazine’s 100 Best Living Songwriters list) Stevens delves into questions of relationships, death, God, and our (in)ability to shape our own world. Virtually every stanza of the song speaks to some aspect of humanity, loss, and redemption. There is so much in how this song weaves together words and music, from the way the music tells the story, how the cycles of lyrics shift repeating words to fall on different parts of the melody causing us to consider them anew, to the disintegration of words into inarticulate sounds into silence. Often, the struggle of Pentecostals and all Christians is attempting to articulate what is meant to be experienced and lived. While the Song speaks for itself, I believe that as a follower of Christ I hear themes that the Holy Spirit reveals in this song that are worthy of noting.

Attempting to be a good listener to both the Spirit and this song, I am drawn to several of the recurring lines that Stevens employs and how they shape the way I understand myself, God, and the world. One of the devices that Stevens uses throughout the song is to open specific scenes by locating the listener in the context of the story. He repeats the phrase, “In the morning…” several times and also couches almost every stanza within a physical locale. This emphasis on location seems to be an essential theme to understanding what it means to follow the Holy Spirit in the world. Too frequently we who claim to be Spirit-led have not followed the Spirit into the locale of our neighborhoods, societies, and the world at large.

Another recurring phrase in the song describes key characters with “shirt tucked in” and “shoes untied.” This description reveals a state of being halfway presentable. These characters find themselves in the crucibles of life and are not prepared. This picture is so true of all of us. We want to face the problems we see in the world, but we can barely hold ourselves together. We desperately need the glory of the Lord to shine into our brokenness and illuminate our lives. It is this glory that Stevens celebrates throughout the song-the glory of the Spirit at work in relationships, in heartache, in solidarity within our brokenness, and in speaking through the world around us.

The mystery of the Holy Spirit is not easy to understand. We cannot always follow where the Spirit is going. Though the Spirit promises us life, we face the reality of loss and death. This juxtaposition of faith and doubt in the struggle with the Spirit is evident in Casimir Pulaski Day. Early in the song about a girlfriend dying of cancer, Stevens says,

Tuesday night at the bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens

Later, after her death, he goes on to describe a moment of grief and redemption by saying:

Oh the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications when I see His face
In the morning in the window

Oh the glory when He took our place
But He took my shoulders and He shook my face
And He takes and He takes and He takes

In the context of the song, these last stanzas seem to say it all. We revel in the glory of the redemption of Christ, and we feel the complications of seeing his face. The last line captures so much of the complexity of trying to follow Christ and listen to the Spirit lead us in the difficult way of humility and love.

Stevens doesn’t explain this closing line but leaves it open for interpretation. This complexity of meaning and openness to participate feels like the invitation of the Holy Spirit to join in the complexity of how God is at work bringing a sometimes visible and often invisible Kingdom into this world. It seems that God takes so much away from us; takes so much on behalf of us; takes so much of our questions and fears and our doubts. If the Spirit has anything to say through the music of this song perhaps it is in the way this last line fades into something intangible, transcendent, yet located in the story being told.

Daniel lives with his wife Jocelyn in the Belltown neighborhood of Seattle. He is an occasional blogger, poet, artist, baker, and student. He hopes to have a few kids, plant a few gardens, teach a few students, live in a few countries, and learn how to live hospitably before he reaches his 75th birthday (a lot to do in the next 52 years).

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    That song gives me the shivers.

    The song a little before that, John Wayne Gacy Jr., is even more moving (for me), and I'm amazed how Sufjan takes the minutiae of life and instills in it a power and a presence that moves people's spirits.

    And comparing alien sitings to the second coming? Can you say awesome?


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