Half Cadence

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Performing in the beautiful St. Salvator’s Chapel, St. Andrew’s

An audio recording of this article is available here:

As an accompanist, one of my favorite things to do when a rehearsal needs some comic relief is to begin a cadence but stop before the final chord. Hearing a dominant chord ringing without resolution drives my fellow musicians insane. I revel in this small rebellion.

Usually, though, I cannot handle the aural discomfort either, and I surrender to the tonic chord. Especially with the added suspense of the unresolved preparatory chord, it is lovely when every tone settles at last into consonance. It’s like a period at the end of a sentence, a bow on top of a present, a fitting simile at the conclusion of a quippy blog post.

Unfortunately, a lot of times life is like an unresolved cadence. The more entrenched in adult life I become, the more complicated the world seems. As an aspiring poet, I allowed myself to lament this in verse. However, I am also a pragmatic soul who recognizes that, while angsty poetry can be beautiful, existential crises can only go on for so long and don’t generally make things better. Eventually, we simply must lay aside our journals and return to our work and relationships, no matter how uncertain we may feel.

Several times before, I have drawn on the two constants in my life—faith and music—to make sense of my situation, and this is perhaps why an unresolved cadence became such a striking idea. Musical analogy often makes clear to me what otherwise seems overwhelmingly complex. Well, right now, I am living in an unresolved cadence.

I cannot rush ahead to the resolution as, this time, I am not the one in control of the keys. Still, as dissonance strains toward resolution, I, too, must move forward in anticipation. Although many things are uncertain, I can sound out possibilities as I continue to work, pray, and hope toward my next steps.

I remember, too, the reality that there will always be tensions and unfinished cadences. Indeed, all of life—and especially the Christian life—is lived in the rest between chords and in the expectation of a final, perfect, triumphant cadence. For now, I suppose, just realizing that I am in a time of not-yet resolved tension is enough to sustain me.

Now, how about some poetry?

I rest in preparation of the final chord,
In the echo of a tonic held within—
Unresolved, hearing not what I strain toward,
Riding inverted waves again, again, again. . .

I rest in the plague of an unsung Amen,
A half-writ chorale lacking its last word.
Unsure of the tune, I struggle through the hymn,
Hoping against harmony for a radiant risen third.

I rest in a cadence not yet concluded,
Awaiting consonance beyond my skill,
Unhearing, all my practiced art denuded,
Trusting deafly to my own Composer’s will.

I rest in accented anticipation:
Untempered dissonance awaiting revelation.

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

Jesus is King: A reflection on the man and the music

It is impossible to go on social media without seeing posts, arguments, and even memes about the latest revelation in the music industry: Kanye West’s conversion and the subsequent release of his latest album, Jesus is King. 

Many Christians (and perhaps even more non-Christians) are skeptical: has Kanye really changed? Christians worry publically that this transformation is not what it seems, that Kanye is faking faith to reach a wider audience and increase media attention. Ironically, non-Christians are on the offensive, frustrated that a big-name is not only claiming Christianity but is actually living it, as evidenced by a mocking article declaring that Kanye is “hell-bent” on his new faith.* This article indicates that if this is indeed a career move for Kanye, it is a very poor one, for it risks losing a large part of his typical audience. (Luckily, he seems to have caught the ears of enough families, moms, and grandparents to make up the deficit!) 

“Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.” 

-Isaiah 30:18

I’d like to focus on the negative Christian response. While I cannot expect those who do not share my faith to respond kindly to Kanye’s conversion, I would have hoped that Christians would treat his professed faith (whether or not they believe it is genuine) with hope and prayer. If justice operates on the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” why shouldn’t we consider a man’s profession of faith right and true until proven otherwise? Would not that be the just—or, at least—merciful and gracious response?

To see Kanye speaking out about the sanctity of human life, the importance of family, modesty, and other more conservative values is remarkable and ought to be as celebrated by Christians as it is bemoaned by seculars. I have had quite a few “Amen” moments while scrolling through Facebook and seeing various pastors and theologians calling out Christians for bashing West’s born-again faith. They remind readers that Paul’s conversion was likely met with even more astonishment. I believe that we would do well to also recall the following parable: 

“The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 

‘But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to the heavens, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

– Luke 18:11-14

We have seen Kanye exalt himself, but now we see him in a posture of incredible humility. Who are we to look down our noses and comment, “well, he had to do something for his career” or “hard to believe this will last…”? We might as well say outright, “Thank goodness that we are not like him.”

No, we aren’t like Kanye West because—let’s face it—we are not celebrities. Honestly, I’m not sure I’d look particularly righteous and faithful if my entire personal life were broadcast in the media, and I came to the faith as a child. Are there some terrible things in Kanye’s past? Of course. But what matters is his present posture, which is more similar to the heart-broken tax collector than the pharisee.

“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you
will not despise.” 

– Psalm 51:17

There is more at play here, though, than a mere skepticism regarding Kanye’s personal conversion. Along with a prejudice based on a hypocritical self-righteousness, there is an aesthetic judgment occurring, perhaps unconsciously. Many of those expressing doubt regarding Kanye’s conversion are also demonstrating a deep-seated suspicion toward not merely the artist, but the entire genre that he represents. 

Rap music and the church have a complicated history and I am far from qualified to delve into it.** However, as with most prejudices, it seems that opponents of the genre single out its most profane and most jarring products and form their judgment based upon these. I suggest that if we allowed ourselves to look only at the best and brightest of any genre, we would find little room for such blanket-statement biases.*** For years, I have claimed a dislike for rap based on my understanding of it as incapable of expressing anything other than the profane and worldly. However, I was wrong and admit my bias was formed without enough diversity of information. 

Kanye’s music prior to the release of Jesus is King is not, morally, something that I can endorse, nor, it seems, can Kanye. Still, to judge the entire genre on one particular example is also to overlook its potential for beauty and goodness. For instance, due to my high-brow conceptions of music, I somehow managed to grow up as a youth-group teen without ever listening to Lecrae, a Christian hip-hop artist who has done truly amazing things, both artistically and altruistically, for the Kingdom. In my conception of classical music as the exemplar, I remained in willful ignorance, unaware of the quality contributions of more diverse genres and artists. 

In Jesus is King, I found myself convicted of my prideful judgment of both the man and his music. In fact, Kanye recognizes and predicts the reluctance of Christians to both accept his conversion but also to listen objectively to his music:

“If they only see the wrongs, never listen to the songs
Just to listen is a fight, but you booked me for the fight
It’s so hard to get along if they only see the slight.”

-“Hands On,” Jesus is King

Not only does this album demonstrate remarkable aesthetic development within the genre but it reveals a humble willingness to engage with both the Christian gospel and also contemporary Christian culture. Fusing hip-hop/rap and gospel music, the album demonstrates a transfiguration of Kanye’s typical genre, maintaining the integrity of his artistic background yet becoming strongly evocative of gospel music. 

To judge rap and hip-hop, then, as incapable of gospel work or expression, is a great disservice and only strengthens the stubborn refusal to welcome the artist himself into fellowship. Kanye recognizes this and describes it poignantly: 

“Said I’m finna do a gospel album
What have you been hearin’ from the Christians?
They’ll be the first one to judge me
Make it feel like nobody love me” 

-Hands On, Jesus is King

The lyrical content, too, has undergone a total transformation, preaching the gospel clearly and cleverly without being ironed out into a kitschy Wow Hits album. This has led many (especially Christians) to listen who would not ordinarily choose Kanye’s music. Kanye’s faith, then, is altering his art, but still allowing him to continue within his genre, transfiguring it into a glorious means of praise without losing touch with its unique style. Isn’t this the heart of Christian sanctification? That, as we are remade in Christ’s image, we become more like him and, paradoxically, grow into our best and truest selves? Kanye may only have “half-read Ephesians,” but it seems he read far enough to understand this!  

More than simply an aesthetic adjustment, though, Kanye’s new album shows a humble and even humorous move to engage contemporary Christian culture. The most catchy example is the refrain of “Closed on Sunday, you’re my Chick-fil-a.” The interspersing of serious lyrics describing what he has learned during his discipleship with Pastor Adam Tyson with the almost cheesy refrain of “Chick-fil-a” demonstrates not only a true willingness to learn (even to humbly begin at the basics of Christian doctrine) but also an openness to joining in the culture of contemporary Christians. After all, we love our Chick-fil-a and Kanye, being a good sport, jumps right in on these jokes about chicken cravings and Sunday closures. Who are we to deny him this fellowship, from the serious to the silly, when he approaches it with humility and repentance? (Not to mention a wholesome need for a chicken sandwich!)

Christians are the first to judge when we ought to be the first to celebrate. We are like the Pharisee, holding a man’s past against him without truly believing he can change. We sing “Amazing Grace,” but if John Newton were to walk into our Sunday service and pound his chest in repentance, we would likely look away, embarrassed, and murmur amongst ourselves, “well, we hear he did some nasty things…” 

But more than simply having a prejudice against a fellow sinner-turned-saint, Christians are revealing a lack of graciousness when it comes to genre. I am not asking anyone to give up moral convictions or aesthetic taste and listen to Kanye’s previous albums, but simply because they continue to exist does not mean that they still reflect his heart. As he said in a recent interview, “When you walk into the Apple Store, you don’t see no iPod 4.” Just because his past is downloadable does not mean that it is unforgivable. 

“As far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” 

-Psalm 103:12

Furthermore, we must be careful that we do not perpetuate the assumption that those particular songs represent the genre as a whole. Kanye’s conversion is not only revealing deep-seated hypocrisy within our hearts as believers but prejudice toward an entire artistic genre. However, the release of Jesus is King offers the remedy to both biases, for it demonstrates the possibility, through Christ, of a transformed person, as well as a transfigured genre: the secular restored to the sacred through the power of the Gospel. 


*https://www.tmz.com/2019/10/26/kanye-west-jesus-is-king-old-music/

**The following offers a case for a more “prodigal” (i.e. more open and gracious, especially to genres discounted by religion) consideration of secular music’s sacred potential (Brown, David, and Gavin Hopps. The Extravagance of Music. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.)

***Chapter 7, “Form and Funk: the Aesthetic Challenge of Popular Art” and Chapter 8, “The Fine Art of Rap” are of particular interest and offer an aesthetic (rather than moral or religious) argument in favor of these genres. (Shusterman, Richard. Pragmatist Aesthetics Living Beauty, Rethinking Art. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000.) 

Radical: A Reflection on 1 Corinthians 10-11

“Radical” is a risky word to apply to scripture; it often signals controversy, anticipates antagonism, and puts hearers on edge as they consider the violence associated with many forms of radicalism.

But to be radical is not necessarily to be selfish, violent, and angry. In fact, in this turbulent age, it might just be to be the opposite. By definition, “radical” means simply:

“Advocating or based on thorough or complete political or social change”

Lately I have been dwelling in 1 Corinthians and I realized as I read chapters 10-11 that the only word I could think of to properly describe this passage was, simply: radical. However, the lifestyle expounded by Paul to the Corinthians is hardly a demanding or individualistic radicalism. Neither is it fanatic or aggressive. Rather, it is a radical humility, deference, and submission such that this culture can only — Nietzsche-like — mock. And yet, this great humility leads to glory… What wondrous mystery is this, that glory would shine from quiet deference! And yet how simple this truth and calling, for it reflects the Redeemer and redeemed nature of the Christian faith.

The final verses of chapter 10 feature one of the most commonly-quoted passages in the Bible and one that is dear to my heart as well: 

“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (10:31, ESV)

Often this verse is used to inspire believers in their various vocations: Whether you manage finances or play music, do all to the glory of God. Whether you teach high school or run marathons, do all to the glory of God. I do not think, considering that this is both an edifying and encouraging use of this verse, that it is a wrong application. However, I do wonder if this is the correct interpretation. Yes, scripture elsewhere certainly supports seeking God’s glory in all of our pursuits. Here, however, something more nuanced is at stake. 

The passage which this verse concludes is not discussing vocation at all. Rather, chapters 8-10 address something much more controversial, both in the Corinthian church and our modern age. The church in Corinth was suffering conflicts of all kinds; indeed, the racial, moral, and financial divisions were severely hindering the body of Christ. Sound familiar?

What Paul addresses here concerns both moral and even dietary divisions in the church. The question before the church members is: How are they do deal with meat that has been offered to idols? To eat or not to eat? It is important to note that this is a doctrinal grey area; freed from the dietary restrictions of the law, Paul wants believers to know the following comforting truth: 

“Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” (8:8)

However, Paul does not reassure the church in Corinth of its freedom without providing the following warning: 

“But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”  (8:9) 

In this particular instance (which we will continue to refer to as a “grey” area because there is not a command one way or another) believers are freed to eat or not eat as their own conscious dictates. However, if one member (perhaps a younger Christian) is uncomfortable with eating meat previously offered to idols, those who dine with him ought to abstain as well so that he is not led to dwell on old sins or confronted by associations which he is not yet mature enough to overcome. It is not wrong for this brother to not eat the meat before him; whichever choice will best keep his heart focused on Christ and the service of his fellow members is the correct choice. Should one person at a gathering decide not to eat for reasons of personal conscious, history, temptations, etc., the other believers are called to an active fellowship with this sibling in Christ, abstaining in solidarity so that this weaker member might not be hurt. 

Paul discusses the parallels between membership in the church and the members of the body in the following chapters, but the analogy expresses the same idea. If one part of the physical body is hurting, the other members must compensate and work to prevent or alleviate the pain. The eye cannot say, “Well it’s too bad that you’re broken, foot, but I can carry on quite well with my business.” Rather, the eye must work harder to support the foot, looking ahead so that the it might avoid treacherous roads. In this way, the weakened foot is saved from further damage and the whole body is upheld as it grows stronger.

In a culture of liberal autonomy, this is a radical thought, but one that the church must ever seek to uphold. The secular person is quick to ask the same question Paul presents: 

“Why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience?” (10:29)

However, Paul answers this question with simply: the Glory of God. As Christians, “little Christs,” we are to emulate our Redeemer and the head of our church body in all that we do. Christ, the Lord of the Law, fulfilled the law that we might be freed. He was under no obligation but his own and yet, we know from the gospel that he who had and has the right to rule all things yet came in injury-prone flesh that he might serve and save us. And the marvelous mystery revealed in this is that in this greatest humility achieved the greatest glory. 

“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (11:1)

So too, we are no longer are under the obligation to the law, but as new creations and grafted members of the body of Christ, we are to live according to the wisdom of our Lord. As “imitators” of Christ and his servant Paul, we are called to glorify him not by parading our freedom, but by submitting it before the consciences of others to build them up. It is true that we have a “right” bought and given through Christ, but it is a right won by a divine humility and ought to be exercised with such. 

“‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” (10:23-24)

We might be quick, as the Corinthians were, to claim that “All things are lawful,” for especially in our current age of individualism, we are tempted to value our autonomy and opportunity to the point of idolatry. However, we will grow stronger together not when we realize our freedom, but when we realize our helpfulness. It is by this countercultural submission and service that we best build up our fellow believers, whatever their backgrounds and struggles. And it is in this counterintuitive way that we glorify the God who became as one of us. 

“…not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” (10:33)

By choosing to eat or not to eat for the glory of God, we will not only build each other up as a unified body, but bear witness to the wondrous grace of our Lord. We are quick to think of what we can do for the glory of God, but so often slow to realize that restraint might be equally impactful.

One quick story and I’ll wrap up this post: 

I go to a rather conservative Christian college and, upon enrollment, students are expected to sign a code of conduct. This contract is not burdensome, but often I hear students complain about its restraints, especially when it comes to drinking. Yesterday, my boyfriend cooked me a lovely, late Valentine’s dinner at his house and, as we sat down to eat, one of his roommates commented:

“Aw, no wine tonight?”

“No, just La Croix in fancy glasses,” laughed my boyfriend, who proceeded to pray for our meal.

I didn’t say anything just then, but it meant a great deal to me. My boyfriend is a strong, faithful man, but his school does not have the same strict code that ours does and I know that he probably would have liked a glass of wine to complement the food he so thoughtfully prepared. However, he knows that I am committed to abiding by my contract and so he too abstained. This not only makes following the rules easier for me, but it is comforting to know that the man I care for so deeply is committed to caring for my conscience in even these seemingly little things. Indeed, isn’t this the essence of the Christlike love described only a page later in chapter thirteen? 

“Love is patient and kind…It does not insist on its own way.” (13:4-5)

So then, beloved reader, can we consider together what it might be like to love each other in this way? Not selfishly, but in quiet selflessness? As 1 Corinthians 10:30 implies, it is easy to “partake with thankfulness,” but there may be greater reward for deference; whether we eat or drink or — more powerfully, perhaps – abstain, our decision must be guided by a commitment to honoring our Lord by honoring the consciences of our brothers and sisters. Only by radical humility can we demonstrate the radical glory of the Christian gospel. 

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.

Eating Disorder, Reordered

In many previous blog posts, I have alluded to it. I have used it as an example of the dangers of perfectionism, as evidence of my own prideful nature, and as a point of reference to show how I’ve grown.

The “monster,” as my journal refers to it.

The eating disorder.

It’s something I can only really recognize in foresight and hindsight.

I remember Googling “symptoms of eating disorder” or “am I anorexic” as a frightened sixteen-year-old. However, while I was frightened by my sudden aversion to the healthy-sized portions of a growing teenager and by the falling number on my bathroom scale, I was also fascinated.

There is (or, at least, was) a romance to an eating disorder. It’s wrong that this is the case and I hate to think that I was not only drawn in by it, but desired it. Being thin became part of my self-adopted identity. Being able to function on an unrealistically low amount of food became a point of pride. Being able to wrap my hands more than completely around my thigh was a source of security.

The media’s portrayal of the female ideal was possibly a factor, but I can’t solely blame magazine covers or fashion models. It was my perception. It was what I chose to exalt that I then chose to embody. And it was not just magazines. In fact, I could care less about magazines. It was about my image, sure, but it was also about my whole person; I was not necessarily trying to be the same measurements as Taylor Swift, but I was trying to have the control that celebrities and models seemed to represent. Sure, I wanted to be thin, but on a deeper level, I wanted to be in control.

This struggle was made worse by what I chose to focus on not just in media, but in my own area of passion: literature.

Scarlett O’Hara’s “seventeen-inch waist, the smallest in three counties” became an obsession, regardless of whether organ-damaging corsets were the true cause of her tiny size.

Erik, Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera, was another odd ideal. If the genius artist only needed one meal a day, why should I need more?

Worst of all was a book called Wintergirls. It is literally about characters battling anorexia and I secretly consumed chunks of it every once in a while in the school library. First, I read it with intrigue, then disgust. I vowed I’d never let my eating get as bad as those characters. And I suppose I didn’t. But oh, how close I came, I fear that my mindset was no better than theirs.

I could go on incriminating book characters, actors, and even ordinary people from my day-to-day life who happened to be naturally thin, but ultimately it was not a matter of their sizes or eating habits, but my own skewed perspective. This I can recognize in hindsight. At the beginning of the slippery slope, I knew something was off, but the intrigue and distractions lead me further down the hole.

Not only was I curious to see if I too had the makings of a petite Southern Belle or angsty artist, but I was able to hide this temptation toward disordered eating behind distractions. Literature and music, my two loves, became curtains to obscure what was taking center stage in my attention. If I was hungry, I would take a meagre portion to my room and read as I nibbled slowly, hoping to escape far enough into a story to forget that I was still hungry. Or, worse maybe, I would not allow myself food until I’d finished my allotted practice time. By then, I’d be past knowing how hungry I was and would be contented with another tiny meal.

But I knew I had a problem. I just went about fixing it in all the wrong ways.

Instead of realizing worth apart from my external appearance, I would search “healthy-sized celebrities” and continue to compare myself as if adding “healthy” to the Pinterest search made it rational and helpful. I would bring extra snacks to school to reassure my parents…which I would force my friends to share with me. I would take quizzes to self-diagnose myself with the disorder as if by accepting that I had one it would take care of itself or, worse, be a valid part of my identity.

I was always hungry and always balanced on the edge between total control and loss of control. In fact, I found that in trying to have complete control in my life, I lost control. I was never a rebellious teenager in the traditional sense, but I lashed out at my family. I would make a point of ordering “healthy” foods when we went out to eat as if that made me better than those eating burgers. I would retreat to my room or the park where I liked to walk more and more frequently.

I started to recover only with time and I know that I will never stop battling the “monster.” I do not aim to offer a step-by-step recovery manual, nor to I really know if I have any advice worth sharing. But what really started me thinking toward recovery – seriously considering and beginning to act – was talking to people who had either 1) been through a similar struggle and/or 2) worked with those who had.

I was lucky. My parents, so concerned for my well-being and tired of fighting the monster that I had allowed to take over, nearly sent me to a rehabilitation center. That was my wakeup call and I agreed to go to a nutritionist instead. To this day, I remember her as one of the kindest and most helpful people I have ever had the joy to meet. She explained how common this problem is and prescribed a healthy, nourishing diet to help me slowly gain weight. I was scared. By this time, I had zip-lined over the rainforest, held a tarantula, given speeches in front of large crowds, performed in competitions, etc. But this– the mere thought of gaining ten pounds –was a challenge I didn’t know if I could face. And I didn’t, not really.

My parents did. And the nutritionist did. And, though there were many nights where I suffered setbacks (for instance, once I sobbed over being “forced” to eat a scoop of ice cream), slowly I gained weight.

And then lost it.

But, though I had only gained half of what I needed to be at the bare minimum weight, I was happier. Simply eating a normal amount and eating with people was starting to work a physical change, which was a step toward a general change for the better. Have you ever been hangry? You can’t make decisions and happiness seems an annoyance when you’re hangry.

Imagine begin hangry for two years. Now, imagine it’s your own fault that you’re hangry, adding self-disgust to the irritation. But, do you know how good a bite of food makes you feel after too long without it? Instant relaxation.

As I returned to a normal eating habit, I did not gain the weight back all at once, but I felt a peace. I could think more clearly. For someone who loves nothing more than deep thought, I hate to think of the time I wasted in a cloudy state.

And, as I grew more comfortable with myself (honestly, I just needed time and nourishment, like any living thing), I started spending more time with friends. I stopped retreating, started going out for ice cream randomly with my best friend, as all high schoolers should. I stopped comparing my body to others and instead focused on developing friendships with them. This isn’t to say I didn’t have friends before, but those relationships became so much more wonderful when I got out of my own head and realized that the beauty of others does not detract from my own, but that we are more beautiful when we come to appreciate each other without comparison.

The freshman fifteen in college really did the trick, I think. In a land where donuts are inescapable, I was terrified I would gain weight. But, when I inevitably did, I found that instead of being depressed and ugly, I was happy. As a music major and honors scholar, my schedule was and is ridiculous and I have a million commitments every day. And, you know what? Without even meaning to, I prioritized those commitments over my image.

For a year or so, I definitely still curled my hair and I still believe firmly that a swipe of lipstick can make all the difference. However, going away to college and pursuing new studies and relationships and jobs, I realized in reality what rationally I knew all along: There are far more important things than my pant size and than how little I can eat.

I also started running which, in itself, could have been a disaster. It could have turned into exercise bulimia. I could have tried to run off anything I ate. But I was not running alone, just as my family and friends had not let me travel the path of recovery alone. Right away, I told my running friend about my struggle with eating and body image and he to this day asks me how I am doing. When we set out for a run, he would (and sometimes still does) ask me how I had eaten that day and if I was doing alright.

Running brought me a new support system in this friend. It also alleviated the anxiety that had lead me to seek control over eating. Also, it helped me learn to be more focused on taking care of my actual body than my body image. It is so much better to have muscular legs from regular exercise than to have a thigh gap from avoiding food. I used to hate these strong legs, but now I am thankful every time I lace my running shoes that they are built to endure the race I am bound to run.

In hindsight, I can say that I have overcome a lot of this issue and the mindset behind it, but I cannot say that I have overcome it fully.  I will battle this monster daily, though now it is tamed and nearly forgotten. I might be healthy and have the hearty appetite of a 21-year-old, but I am still a perfectionist.

I am still tempted to pride.

I still desire control and hold myself to standards I know I can never achieve.

But, looking back, I am realizing that in this struggle, I have been purged (no pun intended, I swear). I have been brought low in seeking to make something higher of myself and, in hindsight, I can see how far I have come, but also that it was not of my own efforts.

By grace alone was I saved from sin and death and by grace alone I am being continually restored in the Image of my Lord. Only now can I look back and see that while I was striving to make myself into an image I had deemed desirable, I was in fact being unmade. I was being stripped of my pride and brought to a point of devastation so that I could be remade in an image, not of myself, but of the One who had saved me so many years before and continues to shape me day by day.

In the depths of an eating disorder, God brought forth order. He reordered me, bringing me from my self-made chaos into the calm assurance of His promise. I yet stumble and am tempted, but I know that no image I might mistakenly pursue can compare to the one which, through His death and resurrection, He has and is recreating in me.

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.