The Word Kept: a reflection on John 1:1

“IN PRINCIPIO ERAT VERBUM”

The Latin for “in the beginning was the Word” is inscribed on the gates of my college at St. Andrew’s. Each day, I was reminded as I walked beneath them why I was studying, why I am a writer, and why I was in that particular place. After all, what is my vocation of writing and reading if not to better contemplate and communicate the Word Himself?

Now, far from the gates of St. Mary’s College, these words call out to me with a stronger voice. Even here, far from the libraries and authors I loved, the Word remains my companion and guide. Even in this dark season, the Word continues to illuminate my path, to be present in my thinking and my speaking. The darkness can not overcome Him, nor the noise drown Him out.

Amidst a continuous newsfeed of conflicting perspectives, in the heartbroken lines of my journal, and in the straining sentences of papers I no longer want to write, the Word endures as He has from the beginning and ever shall.

More beautiful yet, this Word is not separate from our confusion and suffering; He is not some divine-yet-impractical platitude nor a hollow prayer. Instead, He became flesh, entering into the world of noise and broken trusts to recreate it through proclamation and compassion, to suffer alongside us as assurance made action.

He is the first and final Word, the eloquence I cannot achieve and the work I cannot perform. Best of all, He is a promise of love fulfilled.

Two Poems for St. Andrew’s

When I moved to St. Andrew’s, Scotland to pursue my master’s degree, I was convinced that I would love that little town of stone and sea with my whole being. I was sure that falling in love with its historic ruins, its adorable streets, and its rain-purified air would be simple. Yet I found myself struggling to feel that the town loved me in return; I felt that it was too old and beautiful and historic to care much about insignificant little me and so I composed this lament in the darkness of its second winter:

Under your fast-burning, crystallised veil
I was convinced for a moment
That I was—
I am
—the only one you’ve ever loved.
But you sucked premature kisses
From my chapped lips
In cold plumes which vanished all-too-fast.
Ah. So you’ve been loved before.
All who came before and beside me
Have felt the same,
And you have been too-oft beloved
To love me alone
Unique.

And yet, one morning, the voice of the sea called me to the crumbling altar of the cathedral and forced me to my knees. In an instant, I fell into a long-sought love. In a sudden sunburst, St. Andrew’s sang its love to me in the dawning of a longed-for spring:

I followed a gentle roaring east
And, warmed by the first true morn in months,
I slowed my walk from its rushing stride
To the timid tread of a spring-time bride.

For this one moment,
Wind-rocked and still,
I felt the touch of an unseen warmth
And the strengthening sun
Burned bright my veil away…
And an untied shoelace brought me low
And made me a muddy homage pay.

 

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.

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

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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

Lineless Living

As I wrote last year, I am incredibly particular about my personal journals. I am perhaps even more picky about the notebooks I use for schoolwork. To my absolute horror, at the beginning of this semester, I purchased a beautiful teal Moleskine . . . without lines.

I opened it in my first class and was shocked. Opening its covers, I was confronted by the most beautiful yet terrifying sight know to writer-kind: a blank page.

I am a disciplined and regimented person. I write along lines to prevent disordered notes or random doodling. I follow schedules to maximize my productivity. I have my regular breakfast down to a science (complex carb + nut butter + fruit + black coffee, in case anyone was wondering). If I had my way, my entire life would follow the same hourly, bell-governed schedule of my high school years.

However, the lineless pages of this notebook came to symbolize my first semester of graduate school: beautiful and terrifying in its unscheduled unfamiliarity.

My undergraduate years, in their insanity, kept me sane. 18 unit semesters (plus 0 unit courses), constant rehearsals, several part-time jobs, a regular exercise schedule, and church engagements meant that almost every second of my time was regulated. And, as much as I complained, I thrived in this environment of deadlines and determinants. (Does “Deadlines and Determinants” sound like one of Jane Austen’s less-popular works?) This semester, however, not only did I find myself in a foreign country with a completely different academic system, but I was permitted a daunting amount of free time.

I kept busy working music jobs and studying organ at a gorgeous local church, and my coursework was challenging enough to keep me occupied. However, with class only two days a week, I had to construct routines when previously they were thrust upon me by necessity. For my regimented soul, this became depressing, for I came to realize that I depended on my busy schedule to keep me motivated, as well as to provide a regular social life. Living alone in a new country with a surprising lack of time constraints, however, I found that I had to seek these things out myself.

Taking notes on blank pages was nearly the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. It aggravated me when my handwriting slanted diagonally, or when I doodled coffee cups among my reading notes. It caused physical discomfort to see the varying sizes of my notes. The freedom was too much for me.

However, something began to happen as I doggedly continued filling that void of a notebook. I began to realize that I loved being able to draw in it when my mind wandered and that I actually liked that I could take notes in different styles. I learned to enjoy the potential of crisp white pages, just as I learned to see the loveliness of late-morning frost despite my hatred of the cold.

I learned to adapt, though I cannot say it was with pleasure. I learned to let myself doodle and to be gracious when my handwriting was not a perfect font. In life beyond the notebook, I grew accustomed to freedom. I certainly enjoyed being able to go on long runs without worrying about being late for rehearsals, for instance. Still, it was overall an uncomfortable semester without the comforting tethers of a set schedule.

Throughout my undergraduate, I rose early and worked late. I was filled with a sense of purpose every day. Perhaps I was tired from launching into another degree so quickly. Perhaps it was that the sun barely makes an appearance during the Scottish winter. Perhaps it was the loneliness of having to make all new acquaintances and no longer living with my best friends. More likely, though, it was the “lack of lines” that caused me to feel a sense of unsettled ennui throughout my first semester abroad.

But I am grateful for the lineless living. Even in this uncomfortable freedom, I accomplished more than I realized. I have learned so much new music. I have written several large papers (not without some tears), each better than the last. I can now use unnecessarily complicated words like “apophatic” in a sentence. I learned how to make some pretty killer soup. And, despite my initial anxiety and continual discomfort, I finished the blank journal.

Every.

Single.

Page.

It is filled with lecture notes, as well as the frustrated outlines of academic papers that did not go according to plan but ended up much more interesting for that. If flipped upside down and read backward, it is also filled with story drafts, poetry fragments, and whistful doodles of my favorite SoCal café.

It is perhaps my most marvelous notebook and, although often filled with the resounding emptiness of a frosty morning, this semester became a thing of great beauty. The best words to describe the growth I experienced are perhaps found in my old sonnet “To Travel.”  I am grateful for the blank spaces I experienced, and for the work and words that filled them.

To my great relief, though, my next notebook has lines.

A Little Paper Reflection

IMG_3205Look at that massive stack of books with your little pink notebook on the top, open like the bud of a daisy and crawling with notes. Even those huge volumes by writers with high-brow names like Humphrey and Sacheverell did not grasp everything, nor succeed in having the last word on the subject.

Yes, even the most pompous, satisfyingly-thick, black-bound biographies have gaps in their scholarship and may fade into dust-gathering anachronisms. “Of the making of many books, there is no end,” after all.

But isn’t that comforting, in a way? And wonderfully liberating? If those authors you so admire could not write everything in 500 pages, why do you feel the pressure to do so in 20? Or 30? Even 60?

No, do not worry about saying everything. After all, your paper is only a small daisy in a vast forest of former trees, books upon books upon books that you can traverse by footnote but never fully explore.

But isn’t that exciting? After all, forests need flowers too, and you will never run out of trails to investigate, paths to forge.

So write what you can. Tend to your small bit of knowledge and watch it grow up among the leaves of books and the dust of authors past.