Holiday Blessing: Samin Nosrat, Good Tidings, and "Feuch"

The holidays are here, and with them are all the familiar sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. Between last weekend’s pre-Thanksgiving hosted lunch with my parents (lemon chicken, roasted potatoes, green beans, cranberry relish, herb rolls, and pumpkin pie), the bags of aromatic delectables from Apple Hill sitting here on the counter (fritters, donuts, and Fujis), and Jess and Kathy brainstorming potential dessert and vegetable options online (I believe a pumpkin pie à la Zoe Bakes is in the works), I’m feeling the love. Because I’m off from work this week, my mind seems particularly open, and I made a wonderful connection about three seemingly unconnected things.

Samin Nosrat

Jess and I have been enjoying Berkeley-based chef Samin Nosrat immensely. Jess has her cookbook, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, on the shelf (which strives for a freeing sense of wabi-sabi through Wendy MacNaughton’s hand-drawn illustrations), and the Netflix documentary of the same name provided a beautiful, inspiring, and informative investigation of her four foundational cooking concepts. She contends that mastering salt, fat, acid, and heat is not merely a matter of following a recipe, but part of a larger practice of learning to hone and trust your senses.

Samin Nosrat cooking while smiling! Yum!

Samin Nosrat cooking while smiling! Yum!

An interview she gave on Discourse entitled “Engaging the Senses” extend this idea into her philosophy of cooking, in which she sees the kitchen as a place where all people can be welcome because everyone can use their senses.

I think it’s about engaging the senses. That’s something my cooking really focuses on: using your senses to become a better cook. Cooking really does engage all of your senses — at least, good cooking does — but for the most part, I feel like I’ve spent the last fifteen years honing, above all, my senses of taste and smell. —S.N.

Because everyone has the capacity to improve their senses, Samin contends that anyone can cook. This viewpoint transforms the kitchen from something potentially shameful to a place where humanization and amateurism invite participation from all. I love this idea and see many parallels to the ways that I understand musicology, language learning directing choirs…

Good Tidings

My Providence School choirs are in full Christmas music tilt. I’ve taken the traditional “Nine Lessons and Carols” service that has been done in the past and changed it to allow for more instrumentalists and different choral repertoire. I’m calling it “Come to the Cradle: A Service of Lessons and Carols”, and the great majority of the music focuses on various aspects of the postpartum manger, especially the visitation of the shepherds.

Christina Saj,  Shepherd

Christina Saj, Shepherd

This had me reading through the second chapter of Luke for inspiration; if you’re familiar with Linus’ King James monologue from the Peanut’s Christmas Special, one scene goes something like this:

8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

However, I tend to read the Bible in different translations, especially non-English ones; I find that this sort of alienated reading is a practice that breathes new life into old stories in humbling and challenging ways. As I read through Luke 2:9-11 in my Scottish Gaelic translation, a certain word popped out at me…


The Gàidhlig translation that I own, Am Bìoball Gàidhlig 1992, is written in a somewhat archaic style (both ABG and KJV begin almost every sentence with the word “and”/“agus”), and the imperative verb “feuch” (pronounced IPA: [fiax]) pops up twice in that section of Luke 2, corresponding to the KJV “lo” and “behold” that I underlined above. I looked the word up in the LearnGaelic Dictionary and found that it is particularly rich in meanings:

1 feel! (test by feeling)
2 taste! (test by tasting)
3 try, attempt!
4 test!
5 behold, look, lo!
6 reconnoitre!
7 rummage!

The spirit of this word extends far beyond the observational (and archaic) sense that I get from “lo” and “behold”. “Feuch” is dynamic! It involves the senses of touch, taste, and sight; it is messy and exploratory; and it implies a learning curve without any actual guarantee of success.

An illustration by Scottish-born artist Jessie Marion King (1875–1949) from the book  The Fisherman and His Soul .

An illustration by Scottish-born artist Jessie Marion King (1875–1949) from the book The Fisherman and His Soul.

The angel commands the shepherds to “feuch”, to engage deeply and bodily with the good news of the Savior’s arrival, pushing the boundaries of the known and hoped for. Luke the narrator challenges his readers to “feuch”, to rummage and reconnoitre through their minds to understand the palpable intensity of a supernatural encounter that entered reality from seemingly nowhere. And Samin reminds us to “feach”, to seek our way towards a sensitivity to the smells and sounds of cooking and the human connection that such an activity brings.

This holiday, may we all be present to what is immanent, simple things, true things.

Winter's Lullaby

Yesterday the stillness of Santa Barbara, wrapped in the brisk and earthy air that follows a bout of rain, was punctuated by the sound of the pounding rotors of military helicopters. Every hour or so one would thunder across the blue, winter's sky. And every time we were brought back to the present reality of shock at the terrifying events that have come to call this season.

In the first weeks of December, California's largest wildfire on record came plundering across several counties, engulfing homes, causing massive evacuations, and sending up sun-choking clouds of smoke that descended upon our cities with ghostly blankets of ash. From San Louis Obispo where we escaped to keep our children out of the fumes, we received word that the evacuation zone had reached our house; I drove back that day, the yellow-dead sky thick with quiet urgency, and loaded the car with a hasty selection of valuables, closing the door on the rest for perhaps the last time. The smoke followed us north and eventually we decided to seek hospitality from relatives further afield, ending up in Roseville, above Sacramento, checking the news compulsively only to hear that the fire would likely burn on until Christmas.

Our house survived. We returned from a month spent in other people's guest rooms to a home that seemed odd in its familiarity. We spent the holiday in Pasadena, driving past hills that looked moon-blasted, charred trees blackening both sides of the coastal 101 highway. When we returned to Santa Barbara I spent an hour in a breathing mask with a push broom, scrubbing away the soot that covered our walkway and carport as we moved towards life shaken and hopeful.

Two days ago it rained. In the middle of the night avalanches of turgid mud tore through the hills of Montecito. Houses, streets, cars, people, gone, replaced by wreckage and sludge. Highway 101 closed. Westmont College evacuated. The sight of first responders and rescue dogs and muddied survivors and devastation vivid on the news. And helicopters, rumbling piercingly through the sky, bringing in supplies, transporting the injured, and seeking out those still stranded before the chill night. 

Those are streets I have walked many times, now impassable wastes. Those are people I have conversed with, now drenched with devastating loss. Those are people I have known, now missing in the dark.

This was not how I envisaged this season. The warming, lulling carols of Advent and Christmastide were conspicuous in their absence, save in the form of the Quadriga Consort's two winter albums as the soundtrack to my solitary return to Santa Barbara. Late at night in northern California I found myself mulling over one of my favorites, a Scottish Gaelic carol sometimes known as Tàladh Chriosda or Christ's Lullaby. Its melody rises and falls with a comforting ease and stark beauty. Its words describe Jesus from the point of view of his mother, Mary. This imagined mother's perspective is conspicuous for its unremitting combination of intimacy with awe, circling around the mystery of the incarnation just as Mary cradles and fondles the Holy One of Holy Ones in her arms. But she also expounds upon the experience of the Holy Family, a harrowing story of tumult: a mandatory relocation issued by the ruling colonial authorities, rejected from familial hospitality, Mary delivering her first child alone and friendless in a barn, and later a midnight escape from the genocidal soldiers of a malicious tyrant. This is no idealized cherub-Jesus, no placidly docile, haloed caricature of infancy. This is a baby born to the life-threatening and heart-breaking challenges of human existence.

"O hard-hearted Herod / Your plan will not be victorious / Many are the mothers you left wretched / When you vehemently pursued the death of my little one."

This is a mystery to me. I walked around the block today with 3.5 month old Felix in the front carrier as black helicopters fly desperately and purposefully in the distance.  I thought about Jesus born to the rush and tears and pain of homelessness and rejection and devastation. Of the fragility of his existence, the vulnerability of mortality, the tears and words and sighs and laughs and cries that would accompany his short life. I picture him walking beside me, hand shielding the wintery sun from his eyes. Or him knee deep in mud, keenly following a rescue dog into the wreckage of a house. Or him at a counseling center, anguished people haranguing him for news, screaming directly into his face until they are hoarse, or crumpling into sobs across from him at a card table.

Not One Is Alone / Shepherded by Beth Allen.  Her stirring art can be found here.

Not One Is Alone / Shepherded by Beth Allen. Her stirring art can be found here.

I do not know if this is comforting to me. Perhaps it is too soon for comfort. I do know that it is something deep and close and fervent. I cling to that.

"Neither holy angels nor men will understand / Until the last day of the world / The extent of your mercy and love / Coming to take a human body."

Illiteracy in Worship

In my work as a music director at a Protestant church here in Santa Barbara, congregants or choir members will every now and again forward me articles or blog posts that they think I might find interesting. The other day I was sent 15 Reasons We Should Still Be Using Hymnals. The title pretty much says it all. The author, a chap named Jonathan, describes himself as "bothered by the pervasiveness of commercial contemporary music and the arrogance with which tradition is discarded and ignored." I read it. Then I read A Response to "15 Reasons We Should Still Be Using Hymnals", a rebuttal by a guy named Brad who heads his post with a smokey black and white photo of circling birds with the words "Worship Wars" written across it. I read that one too.

I don't usually engage in online debates. But these articles got me thinking about what I see as the central idea of Christian worship, which neither of these authors get to the heart of. Read them first if you care to know where I'm starting from.

The Rejection of Illiteracy in the Context of Worship

Let me give two examples of what I mean by illiteracy in the context of worship. The first is pro-hymnal and the second pro-screen.

1. Perhaps there's a person used to the safety and familiarity of hymnals is put in the position of having to aurally pick up an unknown praise song that they find rhythmically challenging (lots of syncopation), formally ambiguous (verse, chorus, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge... huh?), and devoid of any of the visual/aural cues that hymnals provide (those open-ended I-IV-I-IV vamping intros). Add to that the idea that this person's ears may be unused to amplified instruments, their eyes unused to following words on screens and catching cues from the lead singers, and their bodies unused to dancing and hand raising even as everyone around them starts jumping and clapping. They stand there silent and overwhelmed. "This is not worship!" they say to themselves. They are, in this context, illiterate. And they reject it as worship.

2. Perhaps there's a person who is used to the suggestiveness and abandon of praise songs and screen-projected lyrics who is put in a position of having to look up a song in a hymnal (the red one, not the blue one!) and to quickly get to the right number as the organ (an instrument they only associate with horror movies) starts bellowing. They finally find the hymn, only to be faced with an accusatory page filled with staff notation that they have little idea of how to read ("Let's see... Every Good Boy Does Fine..."). Everyone around them is plowing on (it's verse 2 now, so keep up!), and this person settles down to silently reading the words or checking the bulletin to cue up the next hymn so they aren't behind next time. "This is not worship!" they say to themselves. They are also, in this context, illiterate. And they too reject it as worship.

Both of these people are out of their elements. The unfamiliar contexts in which they find themselves feel foreign, and as foreigners they become confused, lost, and embarrassed.

And that's ok.

The Acceptance of Illiteracy in the Context of Worship

It's ok because illiteracy and worship are not mutually exclusive. Quite the contrary. Instead of signaling the failure of worship and the rejection of discomfort, these uncomfortable experiences offer worshipers an opportunity to get to the heart of who they are, who God is, and how worship is the language that binds the two together. Maybe it goes something like this:

"This is not worship! Everything is unfamiliar! I feel like I don't belong with these people! I feel like an idiot! It hurts that I can't do it with the ease, confidence, and joy that usually accompanies my weekly acts of corporate worship!


"And God is here.

"He loves me when I am strong and when I am weak, comfortable and in distress, smart and stupid, happy and sad. His loving presence through the Holy Spirit is not contingent upon any earthly context. He loves me even in this strange and imperfect place. And this discomfort I feel is an opportunity, not to reject this experience, but to recognize that the desire, even the frustrated desire, that I have in my heart to give my best self to the God who made me is proof of my longing for Him, a longing he planted in my heart and has tended all my life.

"God is indeed here... 

"I will make a choice and worship! Perhaps I will rest quietly in the thought that His presence is ever present and ever calling out. Perhaps I will gaze in detached wonder at those around me who are fluent in this style of worship and rejoice in their joy. Or I will redouble my efforts and focus my ears to grab hold of the slippery melody or I will ask my neighbor for help in following the notation. Or I will kneel. Or cover my face with my hands. Or dance. Or clap. Or cry. Or laugh. Or breathe.

"God is here.

"And his presence is all that is needful for worship. Indeed, my own discomfort works to make me all the more aware of him."

Issues at Stake

This seems right to me. It seems more productive and profound than a surface-level battle over the relative worshipfullness of PowerPoint. But it also reveals why these debates over music-making are so volatile and why they have torn churches apart. Here are three issues that I believe emerge from this discussion on illiteracy in the context of worship.

Worship is an active and individual choice. In the end, it is not about hymnals or screens, old songs or new, pipe organ or cajón, choir director or music leader, technology working or technology failing (by "technology" I mean everything from projector screens to microphones to organs to paved roads to writing systems to mental signification—think about it)... In the end, I say, it's about nothing more or less than the question God has been putting to us all from the beginning: "Where are you? Are you hiding from me, thinking that uncomfortable circumstances or unintended failures separate us? Or are you searching for me just as much amidst the rubble as you do amidst security? Because I will never rest until we are together." Don't blame the hymnals and don't blame the screens. Be present and choose.

Churches should be places to learn together. Going back to my two uncomfortable and fictional examples, if familiarity does not eventually come and the barrage of newness in unremitting, they are liable to become overwhelmed. Familiarity is a process of learning. Learning is about coming to grips with our limitations, trying, failing, trying again, and failing. It comes down to the teachers (the leaders, both musical and otherwise) and the peers (the literate congregation) creating an environment of acceptance and patience. (In my experience, churches can be notoriously bad at this.) I would go so far as to say that this bumpy road toward learning is holy. Jesus came to earth as an illiterate and helpless infant (from the Latin "infans" = "the voiceless one") and went through all the ups and downs of learning throughout his time on Earth. His entire life was a life of worship. So to are ours.

Maybe Western Christianity would not be so afraid of the discomfort of illiteracy if we dealt with our unhealthy issues with emotion, particularly negative emotion. For all the hymns and praise songs that are based on the Psalms (a perdurable argument for both sides of the fence), there is a definite paucity when it comes to themes of rage, despair, or grief. These are raw expressions of a worshiping soul that is in the midst of struggling with what one could call an illiteracy with human existence. Few churches dare to allow these thoughts into their hallowed doors. The Man of Sorrows (a frightfully passionate person who felt the entire gamut of human feelings) might be frustrated by our emotionally narrow view of "praise". (On the other hand, depression and self-abnegation are not Christian virtues. This is a very easy path for religion to take, but it ends up, in my opinion, replacing looking for God and being honest with our present state of being with ignoring Him in favor of licking old wounds and focusing on failure, both ours and that of everyone around us.)