Rejoicing in Repetition

Rejoicing in Repetition

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“And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” – 1 Thessalonians 2:13

My current favorite song—“Shape of Love” by Passenger—keeps popping up in my Spotify playlists and I never skip it. Its opening chords make me smile no matter how many times it has played today already. Similarly, as I said in a previous post, I eat the same breakfast every day and have not yet grown entirely tired of porridge.

Often I run the same trail, and my legs rejoice at cresting its hill, no matter how many times I have done it before. Likewise, I have been known to pick a favorite café and show up every day in pursuit of a honey oat latte. (If you are ever in Gilbert, AZ, do visit Mythical Coffee, or Enchanted Coffee Bar in La Mirada, CA.)

And yet, while there are these things which I seem never to tire of, I am perpetually restless in my devotional life. From flipping open my Bible at random to reading straight through without really taking in its words, I am guilty of every single sin of inattention. For a theology student, this is an area of weakness, but for a Christian, this is critical. It should be deeply concerning to any Christian who grows bored in his or her engagement with the Word since it is that very Word which promises eternity. Yet, even knowing this, I never fail to fall behind in those “read through the Bible in a year” plans, and my hodgepodge hoping-the-right-passage-will-fall-open-in-my-lap plan is even less effective at holding my focus.

“And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”

– 1 Thessalonians 2:13

For two summers as an undergraduate student, I did a study abroad trip in Cambridge, England, and was required to read the books of Ephesians and Colossians, respectively, every day for three weeks. This immersion method sounded tedious at first, but after only a few days, my natural craving for regularity kicked in and I found myself delighting in the Scriptures in a way I had been missing for years. Soon, I was memorizing passages without meaning to, finding new insights with each reading, and even discovering the value of comparing various translations and reading the books themselves in different orders.

Recently, however, I went through another Scriptural-drought. In bored surrender, I decided that I would just reread 1 Thessalonians every day, as well as pray my way through the great Puritan Prayer Book, The Valley of Vision. And, while the repetition at first seemed as bland as having my morning porridge without heaping spoonfuls of honey, I am slowly realizing the truth of the Psalms:

“How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through your precepts I get understanding;
therefore I hate every false way.”

-Psalm 119:103-104

Not only am I finding that I crave the sweet familiarity of the Word with each new day, but I am also rediscovering its nourishment. Each rereading, beyond merely bringing delight, grants new understanding which then develops into practical application, just as the Psalm proclaims.

Savoring a tenth rereading of Thessalonians this morning, I wondered why more believers do not practice this method and, indeed, why I was so initially resistant. I am now reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s words:

“Children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged . . . grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

– Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland”

We are told by Christ that we must become like the little children to inherit the kingdom of heaven (Luke 18:17). Perhaps we must repossess that childlike love for repetition without boredom in order to truly inherit the Word as well. Indeed, Chesterton attributes this virtue of children—to delight in apparent monotony—to their “fierce and free” spirit. Even and especially as grown-up Christians, however—as little children adopted by God through Christ Jesus—we ought to live in this Spirit of such ferocity and freedom, such strength and grace.

Indeed, this is the maturity of believers, that we experience afresh the joy and confidence of children, all while growing deeper and truer in our faith and understanding. We cannot grow in these without Scripture, and so, just as the sun insists on rising each day, we must steadfastly return to our morning routines—our daily porridge and honey lattes—and to our regular re-immersion in the Word, one book, over-and-over, at a time, all the while learning to pray:

“Form my heart according to the Word,
according to the image of thy Son,
So shall Christ the Word, and his Word,
be my strength and comfort.”

The Valley of Vision, “Christ the Word”

 

Question and Answer: Anticipating Christ in the Book of Job

Question and Answer: Anticipating Christ in the Book of Job

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In rereading the Book of Job, I once more find it both wonderful and troubling. Job is, at its core, a terrifying book: a man is selected for the worst trials imaginable (loss of family, livelihood, and health) not because he is wicked but, indeed, because he is faithful.

The Book of Job is, in this sense, a 40-chapter refutation of “prosperity preaching.” However unfair this seems, it reveals the justice of God; as supreme in goodness and the Creator of all, even apparently righteous men are unworthy of His favor. In recognizing this, Job reveals the true source of his righteousness as his faith in a Redeemer and Mediator.

Before declaring this faith, though, Job first presents a case in his own defense. It is important to note that, while Job does question God, he never curses Him. To engage authentically in prayer and lamentation is a marvelous privilege of God’s people and, throughout, Job seeks to “speak to the Almighty” and to “argue [his] case with God.” (13:3). While God does respond to Job’s cries, the ultimate answer to his charges and the resolution of his suffering is ultimately found in the Incarnation of Christ. If Job is an agonizing question regarding God’s justice, Jesus is the final answer proving God’s grace. 

In the ninth chapter, Job laments that due to God’s infinite perfection and power, not even the righteous can justly stand before Him and, in the tenth chapter, Job asks the following of God:

“Does it seem good to you to oppress
to despise the work of your hands
and favor the designs of the wicked?
Have you eyes of flesh?
Do you see as man sees?
Are your days as the days of man,
or your years as a man’s years,
that you seek out my iniquity
and search for my sin,
although you know that I am not guilty,
and there is none to deliver out of your hand?
Your hands fashioned and made me,
and now you have destroyed me altogether.”

– Job 10:3-8

Job asks what anyone would in such a situation: How can you—You who are immortal, and all-powerful—understand what it is to be human? To suffer? To submit to the will of another? And yet, while God does not directly answer these questions in this book, He responds conclusively in His Word become Flesh: the Incarnation of Christ.

Job continues on to describe the care with which God brought him into being, which seems contradictory to his current suffering:

“You clothed me with skin and flesh,
and knit me together with bones and sinews.
You have granted me life and steadfast love,
and your care has preserved my spirit.”

– Job 10:11-13

This parallels Psalm 139, in which David writes of the Lord’s constant care from the moment of his conception and both Job and David declare this a mystery “too wonderful” to truly comprehend, although both also question God in lamentation. These descriptions of God’s personal care for His creations also foreshadow the incarnation, in which Christ—the fullness of God knit together with human flesh—is miraculously conceived of the Virgin Mary. Like Job and David and every other human being, Jesus is clothed in skin, flesh, and bones. When Job asks, then, whether God has “eyes of flesh,” the initial answer is that God, as the creator of flesh, has proper authority over it. However, Job’s question foreshadows and is fulfilled in the Son of God made flesh: human eyes born of divine sight. 

Job does not stop there, though, but further qualifies his question, asking whether God’s time is as that of man. This, too, receives the answer of the Creator, who reminds Job that He created the days of man and holds them under His proper power. Again, the Psalms provide further insight:

“For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.”

-Psalm 90:4

In short, then, the eternal God is beyond the temporality to which mankind is subject. However, the Incarnation serves again as the consolation and answer to this cry. Christ’s life on earth marks the intersection not only of divinity and humanity but of eternity and temporality. Luke writes in the second chapter of his account that “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.” In this, we find that the Gospels not only proclaim Christ’s birth but mark his growth according to normal human physicality and aging. In being born, Christ consents to live according to human time, including its mundanity, growth, suffering, and—ultimately—its end.

Continuing to contemplate death, Job laments in the fifteenth chapter, “If a man dies, shall he live again?” Now, this appears to be a rhetorical question and its answer is obvious to Job; nobody who dies lives again. And yet, a completely opposite answer is also obvious to those of us living today: Jesus Christ, who suffered, died, was buried, and yet rose again on the third day. More so, Christ’s followers are promised future resurrection as well. Although Job is caught in a seemingly hopeless situation and has not yet been provided the full answer to his suffering—the Incarnation of Christ—he yet anticipates this resolution by faith:

“For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shal see God,
whom I shall see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
My heart faints within me!”

– Job 19:25-27

Job knows and hopes in a Redeemer who has yet to be born on earth and yet is the Word that spoke from the beginning. Job, crying and questioning from the depths of his suffering, yet looks toward the redemption and resurrection that will ultimately be realized in Christ.

When God speaks in the later chapters, He responds in questions that parallel those posited by Job. When Job asks how God can empathize with man, God demands that Job rightly express what it is to be God.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—
surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

-Job 38:4-7

Of course, in the face of such enormous questions of authority, Job can do nothing but declare God’s supremity as Creator and his own lowliness as creature. However, Job looks in hope toward a “witness in heaven” who “testifies for [him] on hight.” (16:19). Again, we find glimmers of anticipation, of hope in an intercessor who will speak for both man and God. We find then, that both Job’s questions of God and God’s questions of Job are answered and fulfilled definitively in Christ the Mediator.

Even these apparently rhetorical questions find their solution in the person of Jesus Christ. Only Christ, the Son of God, can answer that He was not only there with God in the beginning, but He was the Word that sang the stars into being. Indeed, He is the Morning Star and Cornerstone Himself, the Mediator through whom all that is made was made. Christ can truthfully answer that He not only took on flesh and endured the hardships of time and suffering but that He was and is and will ever be, for He is One with the Creator.

“But he knows the way I take;
when he has tried me,
I shall come out as gold.”

– Job 23:10

Consumption

Consumption

I fear we are dying of consumption…

It’s 2019 and it seems that everyone seems has some sort of food sensitivity. (Someone recently suggested that I cut gluten, which nearly made me cry as I reached for another slice of bread.) Our nutritional awareness is becoming more and more acute and, on the whole, I’d consider this a generally good thing. The fact that we have the information and ability to choose what will best nourish our bodies is a blessing we ought not take for granted.

However, it is sadly ironic that this nutritional awareness only extends so far; what we choose to eat is important, but our discernment must not stop at physical consumption. Mankind, created in the Image of God, is rational, imaginative, and decisive. We are more than mere flesh. While it is vital that we steward our physical wellbeing, our consumptive wisdom cannot cease there.

In the Gospel of Matthew, when the Pharisees saw that Jesus’ disciples ate with unwashed hands, they were flabbergasted. (Finally, I get to use the word ‘flabbergasted!’) Calling the people together, Jesus says:

“Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” (Matthew 15:10-11, ESV)

And when his well-meaning but thick-headed disciples (sound familiar?) do not understand the meaning of these words, He continues to explain:

“Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” (Matthew 15:17-20, ESV)

There is obviously a wisdom to washing one’s hands before eating, just as it is advisable to pursue bodily health. However, the greater weight of morality lies in what pours from our lips, revealing what is digesting in our hearts. What and how we eat is a minor issue; what we contemplate and communicate is much more dire. 

Due to one fateful bite of fruit (ironic, since we are discussing nutrition…), our hearts have a great propensity for evil all on their own. However, as with dietary choices, what we choose to feed upon has an incredible impact on what we crave. After all, I cannot have a cookie or cup of coffee without immediately wanting another.

These habitual cravings have potential for benefit or detriment. For instance, when I am daily in the Word and worshipping weekly with the people of God, I find that I am more prone to speak and live in truth and grace than when I forgo devotions for sitcoms and skip church on account of some other occupation. Not to be nasty, but anyone with a food allergy knows that eating that offending ingredient will lead to quite terrible, pungent results…on the other end… and it’s the same with our hearts as it is with our stomachs.

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Psalm 1914, ESV)

How we speak and act is determined by what we hold in our hearts. Therefore, if we desire to proclaim the wonders of our Lord, serving as instruments tuned to His most glorious song, we must be cautious about what we choose to consume and contemplate. A devoted athlete will eat only what aids his ability. Just so, if we are to “press on toward the goal…of God in Christ Jesus,” as Philippians reads, we must be discerning about what we feed our souls. We must, like John the Baptist, be “filled with the Holy Spirit” above all else (Luke 1:15, ESV).

Philippians not only offers the charge to pursue Christ as an athlete pursues a prize, but a list of ingredients, if you will, to help in this aim. To best glorify our Lord in word and deed, we must train our hearts to crave whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8, ESV).

My brother is allergic to nuts and, as such, my family has become hyper-sensitive to ingredients. Even seemingly harmless dishes such as a green bean casserole have been subject to scrutiny— and for good measure, as that dish nearly sent him into shock! As Christians, we are liberated from the law, but called to live in accordance with our recreation in Christ. That said, while it is not inherently wrong to enjoy aspects of culture, media, etc., we are expected to engage with heightened discernment.

Ultimately, the deciding factor for anything is: does this hinder or help my heart in its relationship with Christ? 

I recently saw an article about a celebrity who claimed something along the lines of: “My faith in Jesus is not a religion, but a relationship, so I can do whatever I want and He will still love me.” But, in actuality, the fact that the Christian faith is relational elevates it to an even higher standard.

The church and its members, as the bride of Christ, are united in the exemplar of marriage, and, as the only one worthy of complete and utter devotion, Christ has every right to be a jealous husband. While a Christian’s relationship with Christ is not a marriage of legalism, neither is it one of licentiousness. If we truly love and know Him, we will earnestly desire to keep His commandments. This is not because we must earn our salvation, but because, having experienced His love, we realize that He is deserving of our fullest affection. Being in love with Christ necessitates forsaking all hinderances. 

We love my brother, so we watch for foods that could be his undoing. If we love Christ, we must be constantly vigilant, ensuring that what we consume will pour forth in witness rather than worldliness. In all areas, what we choose to consume must not become a stumbling block to our devotion or to the consciouses of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

It is so easy to become complacent, to pursue relevance rather than righteousness. However, if we truly love our Savior, we must dwell on that which is glorifying to Him and will prepare us as His witnesses. In a culture ironically fixated on physical consumption while ignoring spiritual malnourishment, we must actively choose to satisfy our hearts in the Lord and to desire that which is pleasing to Him.

Cross Training: A Lenten Reflection

Cross Training: A Lenten Reflection

I am a runner and, although I’m not going to win for speed any time soon, I am satisfied in my steadily-increasing pace. As odd as it sounds, I credit much of this consistency to my shoes. A devout patron of Brooks, I am more than a little happy with my pairs of their “Ghost” model, follow the Brooks hashtag #RunHappy, and always feel the itch to hit the track when I see their logo.

Of course, I was a runner before I converted to Brooks, but now I feel like part of a team. (Seriously, props to the Brooks PR folk for fostering such a remarkable community of runners.) The logo on my shoes not only inspires me to run, but almost convicts me. My shoes were a gift from my parents and Brooks are not cheap… When I look at them, I am motivated to run when I remember the cost as well as the benefit; I want to train so as to be justified in this gift, as well as to reap the joy that comes with finishing a race well.

Running in itself is a good thing and I desire to do it for my own health. However, a logo for a company I support and a community I am eager to be a member of are, on a low-motivation day, more compelling reasons to continue training.

Often when I run, the following passage comes to mind:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 12:1-2

Perhaps it’s corny to think of running the race of faith as I jog a few miles around the park, but I cannot ignore that the Christian faith is often expounded and experienced through physical representations of spiritual realities. Running around the park is not a race of cosmic endurance, but it can certainly be a reminder. Indeed, if we sharpen our perception, there is an edifying theology to be found in all things…but that is a much longer, later article.

As I ran today, I wrestled within myself— does that count as an extra workout? You see, yesterday, I provided music for my church’s Ash Wednesday service. Having grown up nondenominational, I never much considered the importance of Ash Wednesday or the church calendar aside from Christmas and Easter. However, as the pastor drew the sign of the cross on my forehead and said the following, something moved within my soul.

Ryanne, you are dust and to dust you will return.

I had heard the “dust to dust” phrase before, but when my name was added, I was convicted. Lent is not just a time of extra church services and trying (and failing) to give up chocolate or Netflix; Lent is a time to remember my identity as dust created and recreated in the likeness of my Savior.

But what was I to give up for Lent? The sign of the cross on my forehead was an emblem more powerful than any shoe logo. If I am encouraged to run because of the cost of my shoes and my desire to represent as a Brooks runner, how much more ought I to be compelled by the sign of the cross on my face and — when the ashes have faded — my heart? Did not that emblem come at a price much dearer than any other? Shouldn’t I constantly be considering how I am representing Christ’s name above all else?

As I lapped the park this morning, I was unsure what to do as I did not feel called to give up or change any one thing in particular for Lent. It feels trite to give up something as trivial as dessert and, admittedly, I doubt I have the self-control or will to do so. With each step, I debated what (if anything) I should do and, ultimately, realized that just as a strong runner will implement multiple training techniques to achieve holistic health, I ought to have a cruciform approach to Lent:

I need to Cross train.

The Christian faith is holistic and the cross itself demonstrates this as yet another physical representation of a spiritual reality. Consider its very shape: it stretches up to heaven and down to earth, across lands and tongues and tribes, back through generations and testaments, forward to modern believers and posterity. The cross, so often a focal point in our lives as Christians, reminds us that in our Savior’s death and resurrection, all things are reconciled and we are to seek him in every age, area, and activity:

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight, making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Ephesians 1:7-10

Lent is a time of preparation and reorientation. I did not want to give something up during these forty days just for the sake of giving something up, for while my body might be grateful for a bit less sugar or my mind for a bit less television, these alone will not commend me to God, nor will they truly develop me as a person. When a runner is training, he or she must not focus just on good breath, stride, hydration, etc., although all of these are essential to a successful run. The difference between athlete and average is a holistic attitude.

Now, I do not pretend to be an athlete, but I aspire toward that mentality in my areas of calling. For instance, when I practice piano, I strive to consider technique, musicality, comprehension, and communication in equal temperament. A musician without imagination is a mechanic, but a musician without technique is a disaster; the whole person must be engaged to achieve a level of genuine artistry, just as the whole person must work to achieve true athleticism.

Christ, man and God, is the epitome of this completeness. In this season of Lent as I prepare my heart for Holy Week, I cannot in good conscience forsake a cruciform, comprehensive contemplation in favor of giving up something trivial. Just as in running, I desire that gradual, steady change of heart and health, both physically and spiritually.

But what does this look like practically?

Well, it is no accident that the sign of the cross in ashes is visible. Yes, it washed away with the aid of baptismal waters (and some makeup remover), but it still burns in my mind and heart. It reminds me of my membership in the church, the body of Christ, and influences even my tiniest decisions. This morning, I was tempted not to go for a run because it was oh-so-nice to sit on the couch with a second cup of coffee, but I purposely had left out my Brooks the night before, knowing that if I saw them, I would be reminded of the value of a good run.

In the same way, for Lent (and beyond), I am committed to keeping the sign of the cross ever before my conscience. In doing so, I am finding that those little things I might have given up (certain foods, TV shows, etc.) are no longer appealing. And those things I might have added (longer daily devotions, more prayer time, service for others), are more attractive than ever. When I opened my phone to find something to listen to on my run, I instinctively swiped to a pop workout playlist. But something gave me pause. Would listening to these songs honor the Lord who died for me? It would not necessarily be wrong, but would it be edifying?

Knowing I might not run as fast, I chose to listen to a sermon instead, only to find that I ran farther and better than I expected. This is not because the sermon had a catchy beat, but because it engaged my soul and I felt the reality of this spiritual race as I set forth on an earthly one. I found that even in this simple choice, I was practicing “laying aside every weight” so that I might “run with endurance.”

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.

Hebrews 12:3

The reasons I’ve never stuck to Lenten resolutions is because they did not genuinely force me to consider Christ crucified. This year, I am actively considering “him who endured” that I might endure and grow. This is not a burden, believers! This is a resolution we might count all joy, for it is training us as active followers of Christ as we “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14).

As a runner, sometimes what keeps me moving is keeping the end goal in sight. Let us in this season of Lent keep our most glorious End ever before us, that we might rightly sing:

Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light

Irish tune and text
On Prayer: 1 Peter 5:5-7

On Prayer: 1 Peter 5:5-7

This is probably the first year since I could hold a pen that I didn’t make New Year’s Resolutions. After recently taking the enneagram and discovering myself to be the “Reformer” (wing “Achiever”) this is rather surprising. I love goals and lists and plans and I work, practice, study, and exercise consistently. However, while I did not set any specific goals and am continuing along more or less as usual, I did realize a few areas in which I need greater consistency.

The first of these is prayer.

My morning devotions center on the reading and rereading of scripture. (I highly recommend picking an epistle or passage and reading it daily for a month.) Although I love digging into the Word and pondering its truth, I fear I sometimes err on the side of intellect rather than faith. Recently, I was accepted to pursue a master’s in “Theology and the Arts” at St. Andrew’s in Scotland, so I am thankful for my ability to read scripture as an academic. However, as I enter the final semester of my undergrad, new friendships and relationships, and look to a future that’s both terrifying and exciting, I’m confronted with things that go beyond academic analysis.

A week ago, as I tossed and turned at that dreaded hour (see “Three o’Clock in the Morning”), I realized that what I needed was (and is) prayer and, being at a loss for the words to properly express myself, I turned to the Psalms: the most honest, broken, beautiful, truth-bound poetry ever written.

I am not the best at expressing my emotions; as a generally happy person, I try to avoid showing any other side of myself. When I pray aloud with others and even in private prayer, I find myself trying to reason myself to happiness. While I am quick to worry within my own mind and heart, I am slow to present these anxieties to the One who will listen and heal. In reading the Psalms, it became so obvious that prayer, while so often comprised of and resolving in praise, is also manifested in lament.

Lamentation is a concept I’ve been turning over in my mind for several years, but ultimately it’s something that cannot be solely rationalized. It’s a deep expression of incomprehensible emotions, yet it is not all chaos. As an artist, the psalmist begins with broken materials but eventually shapes them into order through poetic exploration. Wrestling with terror and enemies and uncertainty, psalms of lamentation reorient to faith and praise, for they and their writer are upheld by truth.

Why, then, should I be afraid to pour forth even the most confusing feelings of my heart? After all, Romans 8:26 assures us that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” Expressing emotion is not separate from studying and living truth; when even the most anxious of feelings are anchored in truth, they may be safely explored when in conversation with God.

Recently, I purchased a new journal (see “New Year, New Journal…But how to choose?”) and am finding it the perfect place to express and explore in prayer. Immediately upon writing and praying over the words (some of which made very little sense at all when put down) I felt a rush of relief. Worries are overwhelming when swarming in a sleep-deprived brain, but often once they are written in bright-colored ink, they seem silly. And they seem even tinier when presented before a sovereign God who promises to hear and help.

Before I set to journalling, one verse presided in my thoughts, but I feared I was misapplying it like some cliché cross-stitch pillow. But when I looked it up, I was struck to find it more applicable to my situation than I could have imagined:

“Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him because he cares for you.”

– 1 Peter 5:5-7 (ESV)

“You who are younger.” 

Hey, that’s me! I’m 22 and I have to admit that Taylor Swift had it just about right when she sang that “we’re happy free, confused and lonely at the same time / it’s miserable and magical.” But here in 1 Peter are words written not only to capture how it feels to be young, but to hold my hand through it. Indeed, it promises that the might hand of God will uphold me and provide in his perfect timing.

“Humble yourselves.” 

I do not know everything. Part of my problem with prayer is that it requires me to admit this. It requires me to beg, to acknowledge that from God all blessings flow and that I can do nothing to earn them. As I journaled through this passage of scripture, I used this command to humility to write out my uncertainties and admit my limited vision in submission to the omniscience of God. It’s amazing how kneeling relieves one’s burdens. 

“The mighty hand of God.” 

Remember his providence. I love journaling because it allows me to read back through the arc of my life. Worries that once seemed insurmountable are now laughable. Hopes I once exalted were disappointed and replaced with much better things. Reader and Friend, praise God for his faithfulness. Admit your anxieties, but never forget that an authentic prayer is not only honest to your situation, but to that of a God who is constant and caring. Prayers without acknowledgement of God’s worthiness and faithfulness are sorely one-sided. The lament Psalms decry man’s state, but ever return to the power of the Lord’s hand.

“Casting all your anxieties on him.” 

I made a list as I contemplated this line. I dumped ever single “what-if-worry” that flapped about in my brain like moths. It was a bit like a game of “Worst-case scenario” where my hypothetical fears got progressively more and more ridiculous, but by the time I was finished, I was laughing instead of worrying. With my Savior carrying my burden, I felt able again to “laugh without fear of the future” (Proverbs 31:25).

“He cares for you.” 

This. This is blessed assurance. I’m a logical person and need to be rationally convinced of most things. I’m not sure how to respond to compliments sometimes because of this, let alone respond to a letter that speaks so plainly of God’s providential love for me. I am overwhelmed, no longer with fear, but with awe. 

What amazing, never-failing grace. How can I keep from praying?

I will fail (over and over and over again) to go to my knees. However, I have a God who cares for me so personally and perfectly, that I am responding to that love by committing to more regular prayer. It’s difficult: I have to humble myself, admitting that I am not always in control, not always perfectly happy, and don’t always know what’s going to happen. But, as my choir director so often says, “practice doesn’t make perfect, but it does make permanent.” 

That said, I am committing to practicing prayer, using study and scripture as a guide for expressing that which cannot be put into prose and turning it to praise.

An Advent Poem

An Advent Poem

Empty, the sanctuary waits
beneath a tree, beneath a cross—
the branches a burden and trough
to bear body and newborn king.

White wails of a storm without
are vespers whispered warm within,
And yet echo infant, age-old cry —
of beginning and of end.

In the lonely silence, all is dead,
yet all holds living breath:
awaiting — fearful, wonderstruck —
marriage of birth and death.

The tree below soon will glow
while carols sung, bells rung,
but only to light the waiting night
for the ghastly promise hung
above the tree, upon the beam—
O! Lift your eyes and see!

In the fullness of both fear and cheer,
Gather quiet, waiting here:
beneath the cross and truest tree
topped by the Morning’s darkened beam:
Born to die and yet in death,
taking that first all-blessed breath.
And as that storied star must rise,
Cradle cross bears Christmas skies.

Art courtesy of Rebecca Tyler (oppositeendsofthescale.wordpress.com)

Preeminent Performance

Preeminent Performance

In my “Redeeming Culture through Music” class, we were asked the following question:

“Which is most important in music: the composer, the performer, or the listener?”

The class more or less unanimously expressed that the three persons are equally important. After all, if there is no composer, there is nothing to perform and if there is nobody to perform, why bother to compose? Furthermore, without either of these, there is no reason or even opportunity to listen. In fact, these three roles are so remarkably interrelated that it is difficult to define or even discuss one apart from the other two and often an individual musician may (and should) practice more than one of these roles.

It seems, however, that although there is an almost triune relationship between the composer, performer, and listener, it is worth realizing that the composer and listener are mediated by the performer and, indeed, the performer ideally acts as both composer and listener. In performing a piece, a musician is interpreting and expressing with a unique intention, thus co-composing while also being the mode by which the original composer is sharing his ideas with an audience. Without the performer, these “ideas” would be limited to the mind of the composer; after all, notation is not truly music any more than words are truly that which they describe. The composer relies upon the performer to breath life into the form of his work and, through the performer, the music is made.

The performer is also the most active listener. It is immediately clear when a performer is not listening to his music and it is rightly said that while a musician might hear the note as he plays, the true artist hears it before. To play well, to bring to life a work in collaboration with the composer, the performer must also be the greatest of listeners.

Communication too must be mentioned, for without the performing artist to produce the sounds imagined by the composer, listeners or audience members cannot experience and participate in the music. As Madeleine L’Engle writes in her beautiful devotional book, Walking on Water: 

“Art is communication, and if there is no communication it is as though the work had been stillborn.”

A piece of music might exist conceptually in the mind of the composer, but without the performer as its communicator, those who are mere listeners will not be able to hear, enjoy, and ponder it. The performer, then, is not only the embodiment of both composer and listener, but the mediator between the original composer and the awaiting listeners.

At this merely human level, it seems that of composer, performer, and listener, the performer (if we are forced to choose one) is the most vital, for he is both of the others, as well as a communicative mediator. It becomes apparent through scriptural synthesis that this answer is consistent theologically as well.

Here is where I must clarify: I do not mean to suggest that the relationship of composer, performer, and listener is a perfect parallel to the Trinity. (I have laughed at too many #AlsoNotLikeTheTrinity posts to risk it!) However, I will venture to suggest that music, like all arts, is incarnational, and that the composer, performer, and listener wonderfully image the intermediary work of Christ between God the Father and His creation, mankind.

“To paint a picture or to write a story or to compose a song is an incarnational activity.” – Madeleine L’Engle

First of all, what do I mean that “art is incarnational”? The production of art is to put ideas into a sensory, communicable form. Books are ideas set in words; painting or sculpture are visual and tangible expressions of the artist’s idea; music differs slightly in that a person, rather than a medium such as a book or canvas, is needed to produce the audible product. But even (and perhaps especially) in this case, the music is an idea made actual through the performance; music is an idea incarnate as organized sound.

Already, there is an echo of Christ in the word “incarnate,” and rightly so. The idea that music is brought fully into being by the mind of the composer and through the performer as co-composer is reminiscent of John 1:1-3:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made.” (ESV)

God (the Father) creates as a mind imagines, while the Son manifests as the Word communicates. Ideally, a composer would be also performer, thus imaging the perfect unity of the Trinity. Even with a separate composer and performer, though, the reflective relationship is present: the composer creates conceptually and, through the power of the performer, communicatively.

This brings us to the listeners. Controversial composer, Arnold Schoenberg, believed that:

“A real composer writes music for no other reason than that it pleases him. Those who compose because they want to please others, and have audiences in mind, are not real artists.”

Theologically, based on the parallels I seek to draw, there is some truth here. God creates out of His overflowing delight and the Genesis narrative immediately reveals God’s pleasure as He deems each piece of creation “good.” However, this delight indicates that God formed all things also in order to share this wondrous joy. When God crowns His creation with His own image, mankind, He pronounces it finally, “very good.”

Here and throughout Scripture (consider the Psalms as one such vast example) it is apparent that God in His infinite goodness and love made all that there is for His own right pleasure, but also with the gracious desire to communicate Himself and His creativity with His image bearers: mankind, the listeners.

This brings us back to incarnation. Consider Colossians 1:15-17

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities— all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (ESV)

Christ, the Son of God who took on flesh, is fully divine and fully dust, fully God and fully man. By Christ all things were made and in him all things are held together; he was the means by which all is made and remade, but also is the true image of the God we cannot see. He is the Word that speaks of the Divine Mind, making manifest what is “too wonderful” for mankind (Psalm 139:6, ESV).

Christ is the mediator, the co-creator who yet condescended in mercy to listen and to teach. He is the Word, incarnation, and — in this instance — the truest of performers, for through Him we receive reconciliation and understanding, for though Christ walked in flesh among us, He is one with our Creator.

“He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” – Colossians 1:18-20 (ESV)

Although composer, performer, and listener are each necessary and impossible to isolate from each other, we find that the performer is ideally both composer and listener, as well as the mediator between an unhearing audience and the seemingly-incomprehensible ideas of the composer. Within the context of Christianity, we find parallels that reveal the incarnational aspect of the performer’s work and resonate with the truth of Christ’s manifestation and mediation. Performers, then, in their practice, image the preeminence of Christ as they bring music to life.