He is Going Before You

“Is Daddy going to be ok?”

At 10:30 p.m. on December 23, one of my children was brave enough to utter the burning question that I didn’t have the courage to ask. I was scrambling to get out of our house and follow the ambulance to the emergency room. Only minutes earlier, my healthy, strong, full-of-life husband had suffered a stroke. I had no idea what the next hours and days would hold. But the question demanded an answer.

How does a parent offer hope and comfort when the reality of circumstance is a dangerously wild animal—unpredictable and threatening to destroy more than we could bear to imagine?

We plan and read parenting articles and labor over decisions that we think will define our kids’ lives, but the truest tests of parenting (and of life) arrive unannounced and unanticipated. Pop quizzes turn out to be final exams, revealing the truest truths about what we believe.

Every fiber of my momma-being wanted to reassure my children that everything would be ok. That they had nothing to worry about. I wanted that same reassurance for myself. But somehow, we all would have known that I was offering a shiny pink band-aid to cover the gaping wound inflicted by the children in the Garden.

“I don’t know,” I responded. “But we’ll pray that he’ll be ok, and no matter what happens, the Lord loves us and will provide what we need.”

In the days and weeks that followed, my hopeful declaration proved to be true. The Christ we’ve read about and talked about and sung about is, indeed, alive and with us. He loves us and provides, even in the most unthinkable circumstances, all that we need.

The Gospel of Mark assures that “He has risen…he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you” (16:6-7 ESV).

Eugene Peterson offers a tangible, real-life application:

In every visit, every meeting I attend, every appointment I keep, I have been anticipated. The risen Christ got there ahead of me. The risen Christ is in that room already. What is he doing? What is he saying? What is going on?. . . I have taken to quoting before every visit or meeting: ‘He is risen. . . he is going before you to 1020 Emmorton Road; there you will see him as he told you.’ Later in the day it will be: ‘He is risen . . . he is going before you to St. John’s hospital; there you will see him, as he told you.’ When I arrive and enter the room, I am not so much wondering what I am going to do or say that will be pastoral as I am alert and observant for what the risen Christ has been doing that is making a gospel story out of this life.

The promise is true.

“He is risen. . . he is going to the bonus room before you, where you’ll tell your children goodbye and answer hard, hard questions.”

“He is risen. . . he is going before you to the emergency room.”

“He is risen. . . he is going before you to the neuro-intensive care unit.”

“He is risen. . . he is going into your children’s bedrooms, steeped with fear and tears on behalf of their beloved daddy, before you.”

“He is risen. . . he is going before you to every speech therapy and cardiologist and neurologist appointment.”

“He is risen. . . he is going before you to all the places where you’ll be faced with unknowns—about health and work and life in the future.”

It’s the answer to all the pop quizzes that life will spring upon you and upon me:

He is risen.

And he is going before you.

Tell it out with joyful voice:

He has burst His three days’ prison;

Let the whole wide earth rejoice:

Death is conquered, we are free,

Christ has won the victory.

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New Year’s Eve 2015. May we never forget.

_ _ _

Given all that has transpired in our family through these past months, I haven’t written anything since before Christmas. It was my great honor to write this piece in collaboration with other artists from my church community as part of an Easter devotional series, Out of the Depths. Take a few minutes to listen to Christ is Risen. Words by Cecil F. Alexander. Music by my friend, Stewart Fenters.

Said the Angel, He is Risen (Lyric Video) from Church at Charlotte on Vimeo.



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The Lingering Scent

A few weeks ago, our family read the story of Mary who, in an act of extravagant love, anointed Jesus with expensive perfume. In Behold the King of Glory, Russ Ramsey writes, “As the scent electrified the senses of everyone present, Jesus called it beautiful. Creation testified to a Maker who delighted in beauty for beauty’s sake… Jesus said to Mary’s critics, ‘She has given me this gift because she is preparing me for my burial, and history will never forget her act of beauty.’”

Our reading left me wondering. What would Mary’s beautiful act look like in our current culture?

Within days, I was given an answer.

* * *

Later that week, we had friends visiting from out of town. They were only here for a few days, and most of that time they spent exploring and enjoying the city. At the end of their trip, we were grateful to have them join us for church. As we sat side by side, I was conflicted. I love these friends and was delighted to have them step into our community for a few hours. But during the service, I was distracted. As the guitar strummed and the room swelled with song, I scanned the rows of chairs and saw not flesh and blood, but rather story after story. We’ve walked and crawled and danced among this community for twenty-one years. We’ve witnessed devastation and miracle. Heartbreak and redemption. I wanted to lean over to my friend and whisper hints of those holy narratives. For her to catch a glimpse of the beautiful, messy, struggling, transformed saints covered in flesh and cloaked in their Sunday best. I wanted her to hear the significant ways in which God had touched and changed lives. For the Father to reach down from above and kiss her forehead through the stories of his people.

The service ended and the spell was broken. We moved from the worship service to our adult Sunday school class. The leader announced that we’d be taking a break from our current teaching series, as we did once every month, in order for members of the class to come up and share a bit of their journey. The couple who took the seats up front had been acquaintances for years, but we hadn’t known them well. They were engaging and honest as they shared about coming from very different backgrounds, struggling to reconcile creative calling to the realities of limited job opportunities, and growing to find God’s provision in the most unexpected places. Yet in the span of the forty minutes they’d been given to talk, there was one particular moment on which the eternal and the temporal hinged.

The wife had been recounting the arduous journey of adopting from Liberia. After more than a year of preparing for and growing to love two children as their own, they learned that one, their new son, wouldn’t be able to return to America with them. In an honest moment of desperation, the mother cried out to God. A God who she trusted to be both good and sovereign. How could their situation possibly be His best?

While journaling her thoughts during the flight headed to Africa, something in her heart shifted. Or perhaps it was awakened. Just as her heart was gripped with anguish on behalf of her son, the Father of all aches – even more deeply – for every last one of his children. Through her excruciating pain, a young mother had been given a glimpse of the beautiful heart of God.

My friend soaked up the mother’s words, said her goodbyes, and returned to Tennessee to resume life as normal. Only something was churning inside her. The Lord’s faithfulness in the midst of unspeakable pain had purpose. It was a reminder that she needed, and that we all need, to hear. Being true to her beautiful, gracious, creative nature, she began to scratch lyrics to the song sung from the heart of an aching parent. She called upon her friends – world-renowned musicians, whose immense talent is surpassed by their humility and devotion to the Creator. Within days and across hundreds of miles, they had composed and recorded a song. My friend, who had never met the mother, had poured out her talents in response to the glimpse of Glory she’d been given. She quietly offered the final product, a video containing the lyrics, as a gift. It was an extravagant, spontaneous act of worship like few others I’ve experienced.

“Art, like Jesus’ tears and Mary’s nard, spreads in our lives, providing useless beauty for those willing to ponder. Many consider the arts to be the “extra” of our lives, an embellishment that is mere leisure. Yet how many hours of sacrifice go into being able to play a sonata by Chopin? Or a dancer’s flight on stage at the Lincoln Center? What many consider extra, and even wasteful, may come to define our humanity. That evening at Bethany, in that aroma that Mary spilled, there were Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings and Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantatas floating in the air as well (thanks to James Elaine, curator and artist, for this observation). Every act of creativity is, directly or indirectly, an intuitive response to offer to God what He has given to us.” Makoto Fujimura

 

To God Be the Glory.

 



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Every Valley

"Every Valley" by Sam Silander, 9 yrs.

It’s a strange thing to be making cookies and wrapping presents,
When wars are raging,
When families are crumbling,
When parents are burying their children.

The news is hard to watch this week.
Tears come easily, yet so does relief…
Which brings with it a twinge of guilt.

How do we reconcile the great cosmic chasm –
Our world has more than its share of darkness, pain, and evil,
Yet we move in and breathe the reality of Starbucks, Amazon, and Buddy the Elf.

Perhaps it’s more of a dual reality to be acknowledged than a chasm to be crossed.

This year during Advent, we’ve been working our way through listening to Handel’s Messiah (schedule found here). Each day, we’ve been listening to a few of the songs after reading the corresponding passages of scripture.

We’ve read, then listened, then listened again. I’ve heard the music of the Messiah throughout much of my life, yet this year, it’s as if I’ve really heard it for the first time. As we’ve listened intently to each song, a divine magic has transpired. Handel’s music, echoing its ancient truths and promises, has become our own. To enjoy, to discuss, to savor, to absorb.

The children composed poems in response to several of the songs.  I’ve woven a few of them together as a memorial stone for this Advent season. This is Handel’s Messiah, as seen through the eyes, heard through the ears, and experienced in the hearts of my young ones:

Heaven kissed earth
He came as a whisper, a snowfall, a spark

 He was born in a manger
Dingy
Dirty
Dusty

 Heaven crawled through the dust
He played in the garden
He healed the sick,
Yet his work was not done

 He was beaten and whipped
Crushing
Cruel
Cold

He wore a crown of thorns on his head
Stinging
Sharp
Steel

He let himself be hung on the cross
Piercing
Painful
Perfect sacrifice

He rose from the dead
Amazing
Awesome
Awestruck

He will come again victorious
Blinding darkness with light,
Death will gasp its final breath
Evil forever defeated,
Then all the wrongs through history
Will finally be made right

 Ribbon will wind through
The hot dry desert
Rainbow to straighten curves

 Every mountain will become low
Every valley high
Every mansion will become small
Every cottage will grow

 The hungry shall have banquets laid out before them,
The imprisoned shall have their chains dashed to the ground

The large rocks will shrink
Pebbles will grow to boulders
All will be even

The valley will rise
Mountains will disintegrate
All will be even

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

 

We spent days contemplating the implications of twelve words uttered by the prophet Isaiah, “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low.”

Every valley.

Do we really believe it? Down deep where our core beliefs compose the background music that sets the tone for our everyday lives?  Even when wars rage and children are murdered? When evil rears its head and seems to be winning? When our lives, our plans, our dreams are crumbling?

Every valley.

That’s what He came to do, after all.

To heal the blind.

To bind up the brokenhearted.

To make all the wrongs right.

For in this, we can place our hope.

So bake your cookies,
and wrap your presents,
and sing the carols for the world to hear.

Through each small hopeful act,
You’re shining a light into darkness,
Taking part in raising valleys and lowering mountains,
Preparing a way in the desert
For the One who was,
And is,

And is to come.

 

 

Artwork by Sam Silander, 9 yrs.

 

 



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Of Maps and Shadows

me

Many thanks to my friend (and partner in crime), Carrie Givens, for wrapping up our reading of Breath for the Bones by Luci Shaw. Carolyn Clare Givens works in Communications at Church at Charlotte in North Carolina and does freelance writing and editing. A displaced Northerner now exploring the foreign ways of the south, she has previously bumped around the world, both as a missionary kid and as an adult. She revels in good stories, good music, and wrestles with the intersection of faith, art, vocation, and culture. Online, she hangs out at her website, carolyncgivens.com, on Twitter, and at her page on Facebook.

I once had a haphazard, twenty-minute lesson in orienteering. I’d never seen an orienteering compass, so I asked my friend Ben to show me how it worked. He began to demonstrate, lifting the compass to eye level, finding a mountain peak through the trees, and turning the map into alignment.

One of my pastors, Dave Huber, was recently teaching about the concept of wisdom in Scripture. He noted that the Bible doesn’t give us a map for life, but rather teaches us the fixed points of truth and trusts us to navigate life based on them.

As I stood in the woods with Ben and the orienteering compass, I quickly learned the value of fixed points. Three more steps to the left and we wouldn’t have been able to see that mountain peak. Without that fixed point, it would have been easy to be overwhelmed by the darkness of the trees, the confusing paths between them. Even with our map, without the fixed points, we may not have been able to find our way home.

Walking through life, there have been plenty of moments when I’ve been more surrounded by the trees than in sight of the fixed points of truth. Sometimes God, and His truth, seems invisible. Luci Shaw, in her book Breath for the Bones, writes of this feeling:

The God who is not there. Or, the God who is there but not here, except for occasional momentary visitations. I have often felt, in reflective moments as well as at the raw edge of experience, that I have a now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t God, a chiaroscuro God, some of whose features are highlighted in the manner of the Italian renaissance painters who employed that technique, but whose being exhibits such mystery, such inscrutability, such otherness, that it can only be represented by deep shadow, which might as well signify absence as obscurity, it is so unknowable. (p. 151)

It often feels that we have more shadows than light in our story. We wander in the woods with the lengthening darkness and we cannot glimpse the mountains.

In Breath for the Bones, Shaw speaks of the role of art in these times, and of the difficulty Christians often encounter when faced with the shadows. Not only is there the tension of authenticity—presenting through our art the struggles as well as the joys and peace of life—but as Christians, we strive to speak truth in our art. Unfortunately, as Shaw points out, truth isn’t always perfectly clear, nor is it always pleasant to face. She writes,

Christians who practice art must not always feel bound to produce sweetness and light. We have to recognize the darkness and shadow as well as the light, and realize that God allows shadows into our lives. God is not dark and evil, but he embodies mystery. (p. 161)

She goes on to say that the contrast between darkness and light is valuable—for you cannot see one without the other. “Contrast highlights, as it were; it allows meaning to be seen and experienced” (p. 161). The part of the journey lost among the trees may be dark and frightening, but we would not fully understand what it means to be lost unless we also had some understanding of having the fixed point in our sights and navigating toward it. But to get through the trees, we must sometimes walk through areas where we cannot see the mountain peak. And to do so, to step onto the confusing paths among the trees and away from the glimpse of alpenglow, requires a certain faith. “All mystery feels like a fog,” Shaw writes. “It presents hiddenness. It demands strong faith to walk into it believing that one day it will be demystified” (p. 162).

And this, I think, is the moment where the Christian artist comes into his own. I had a professor who used to say, “The writer is the one who points and says, ‘See.’” She knew the power of art to help navigate the darkness. It’s a wild and dangerous profession, one that the artist shares with the men and women through the ages whom God called to speak the truth. To do so, He asked them to lay on their side for a year, to marry a whore, to be sawn in two. It’s never been an easy life. “Christian poets stand with the seer and prophet,” says Shaw, “one foot in heaven, one on earth, perpetually torn by that duality of focus as the divine dream is channeled through their human voice or pen” (p. 164). We glimpse the light on the mountaintop and we point to it as we walk through the darkness.

Another pastor at my church, Jim Kallam, spoke recently about the final words of Jesus in Scripture—not His words to His disciples before He ascended, but His words in the twenty-second chapter of Revelation. Jesus describes Himself one final time in that chapter, saying, “I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star” (Rev. 22:17 ESV). Jimmy said, “The morning star appears in the night sky when the night has reached its greatest degree of darkness…and what that signifies simply to me is this: though it may still be dark, it will never again be totally dark.”

Andy Gullahorn, in his song “Grand Canyon,” sings,

I can’t sleep
There’s too much weighing on my mind
But there’s a bird out there
Still singing in the dead of night
Like it knows there’s a season
when the sun’s gonna set
But the story isn’t over yet

The artist, the poet, the writer is the one who points and says “See.” The faithful artist is the one who navigates the dark, shadowy mystery by the Bright Morning Star, and is singing with the bird in the dead of night, saying that though we can’t see them through the trees, the mountaintops are still there, awaiting our approach to a break in the branches when we can lift up our orienteering compass to eye level and continue to find our way forward.

– – –

This post was written in response to reading Breath for the Bones by Luci Shaw. You can catch up here:

Graffiti Art and Repentance (Intro, Chp 1-2)
Tell Me a Story (Chp 3-5)
Pressing Into the Quiet (Chp 6-7)
A Musing on Divine Love (Chp 8-10)
Of Maps and Shadows (Chp 11-12)



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Ten Reasons to Support the Slugs & Bugs Kickstarter

Randall Goodgame Slugs and Bugs

In the past year, I’ve had the great privilege of getting to know Randall Goodgame as we’ve dreamed, schemed, and planned for the future of Slugs & Bugs. Prior to working with Randy, I had been a big fan of his music. Yet after hours of conversations in which I asked a million questions about business practices, goals, and mission, I’m even more passionate about supporting his endeavors. The Slugs & Bugs team is a rare and beautiful phenomenon where talent, passion, and vision are fueled by the spirit of servanthood.

For more on the Slugs & Bugs story, you can visit here.

* * *

Slugs & Bugs is embarking on their next endeavor – an all-Scripture CD. Everyday, we are given endless opportunities to support good things. I commend to you the following reasons you should consider supporting the Slugs & Bugs Kickstarter Campaign:

10. You may not paint, compose, write, or “create” in the way the world traditionally defines the word, but you can play a meaningful part in creating something beautiful. Without the Medici family, there may not have been a Renaissance. Help us make this happen.

9. Randall Goodgame has the unique ability to create quality music which is loved as much by adults as it is by kids. This proclamation comes from a parent whose fifth child never saw Barney or heard The Wheels on the Bus (I couldn’t take it anymore), but who is as likely to put Slugs & Bugs on the day’s playlist as are the kids.

8. We hear plenty about the brokenness of our world. This is an opportunity for you to help bring light into the darkness. Thy Kingdom come.

7. You’ll get to hear Sally Lloyd-Jones (of The Jesus Story Book Bible fame) read Scripture. Imagine joining Peter Pan for story time in the Darlings’ nursery. Delightful.

6. It’s always a good idea to keep presents on hand to be used for birthdays, baby showers, Christening or baptisms, Easter baskets, Christmas, and the list goes on and on. In supporting the project, a stack of cd’s (and other treats) can be yours. And you don’t have to go to the store.

5. The average American spends $1,000 per year on coffee. Skip a few cups and support Slugs & Bugs.

4. You’ll get to hear and support the African Children’s Choir. Visit here for a preview.

3. In addition to Randall Goodgame, The African Children’s Choir, and Sally Lloyd-Jones, Andrew Peterson will be joining the gang yet again. The only thing that’s better than listening to great music – is listening to dear friends making great music (not to mention clever antics and general tomfoolery) together.

2.  Community is created when like-minded folks work toward a common goal. Consider inviting your book club, small group, Bible study, MOPs group, play group (you get the picture) to pitch in and contribute to one of the higher-level options. You may be the beneficiaries of a house concert tailored specifically for your group, or even a LIVE SLUGS AND BUGS CONCERT (the crowd goes wild)!

1. When I asked my youngest son why he thought people should support the Slugs & Bugs Scripture cd, he said, “To spread God’s Word to all the nations.” I can’t top that one.

* * *

Grab your kids, or your spouse, or your friends, and make a few minutes to watch the Slugs & Bugs videos on the Kickstarter page. You’ll get a taste of the vision for the new CD as well as the heart behind its making.

You can make a difference in less than five minutes. Support the Slugs & Bugs Kickstarter campaign by visiting here.



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On Tiptoe

child on tiptoe

When my daughter was a toddler, she would stand on tiptoe beside the kitchen counter. Eyes twinkling with expectation and chubby fingers gripping the edge, she would strain to see what culinary adventure was unfolding. Her habit developed through time. It was reinforced with every loaf of bread kneaded, cake baked, and carrot chopped. She didn’t want to miss out on the action. Or the leftover cake batter on the beater.

Time passed, and the plump toddler legs grew long and thin. Words were spoken more clearly. Clumsy waddles were replaced by graceful pirouettes. One bright spring day, I was preparing dinner and felt a warm arm wrap around my waist. Beside me stood my girl. Tall enough to easily see the surface of the counter, yet still standing on tiptoe. The gesture had become habit. Expectation had become a posture.

Next week, our brood will be making the journey to Duke to attend Engaging Eliot: Four Quartets in Word, Sound, and Color. The exhibition will be a combination of music, art, and poetry – a perfect storm of the best kind. I’ve been a fan of T.S. Eliot since high school and have more recently become an admirer of the writings and artwork of Makoto Fujimura.  Despite my anticipation of the event, I’m very aware that I’ll be in a bit “over my head.” My degree is in business, not English. My experience of fine art was one of dancing on stage, not of painting on canvas. Although I’ve been reading The Art of T.S. Eliot with a group of folks, I’m probably in the bottom quarter of the class in regard to poetic experience and knowledge.  Or more likely the remedial group. Yet I look forward to gleaning what I can during the exhibition – even if it’s a stretch for me. You might say I’m standing on my tiptoes.

Just as the evening will stretch me, it is even more true for my children. They will most likely “understand” only a fraction of what they will see and hear – just a sliver of the goodness that will be present. Yet a sliver of beauty refracts as it passes through the eyes and finds its way to the human soul. It may seem foolish to take those so young to an evening that is “out of their reach.” But they are learning to stand on their tiptoes. To strain and catch a glimpse of something wonderful and worthy of experiencing. My deep hope is that through time, the gesture of standing on tiptoe will become more deeply ingrained. That the gesture of expectation will become a more permanent posture.

Beauty and truth surround us. At times, we see it clearly without effort.

But if we’re willing to stretch,
To live with an expectant and teachable heart,
To believe that more goodness exists than that which is directly in front of us,

We may be surprised
By the joy discovered
While living life on tiptoe.

**************************

In discussing the exhibition with my children, I found myself struggling to convey the beauty and power of collaboration between the artists, musician, and (unbeknownst to him) poet. I floundered while attempting to describe the complementary nature of abstract and realistic art.  On a whim, I asked the children to listen to one of my favorite pieces of music and paint in response. The only parameter given was that they were to paint what they felt. What stirred in their imaginations and emotions. More abstract and less concrete. I was asking them to stretch beyond their comfort zone.

Last Train Home by Pat Metheny

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No doubt,
We’ll be surprised
By the joy discovered
While living life on tiptoe.



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You are the Music

music swirling notes

In the upcoming weeks, a few folks from the Greener Trees community will be sharing their personal responses to The Art of T.S. Eliot. I’m grateful for the opportunity to peer through the eyes of others. We have so much to learn from one another.

The following post was written by Chris Yokel, who is a poet, musician, and writer on art, creativity, and music. Chris lives in Massachusetts.  Drop by and visit his blog to explore his writings and music.

The Art of T.S. Eliot – Week 2: The Music of the Four Quartets

You are a creature bound by time. This is probably the most important element governing your life, and yet it is one of the most mysterious. Do any of us understand it? We attempt to measure it out, with our seconds, minutes, hours, and years. We try to manage it with our day-planners and calendar apps and alarms. But in the end (which is an indicator of time), it is as mysterious as the One who created it.

Once upon time, there was a time when there was no time. And then Spirit moved, rapah in the Hebrew, vibrated, like the string of a violin struck by a bow. And time began playing the symphony of its Author, moving, flowing in melody. And in the image of its Maker, seeds sprouted, pushed through earth, climbed to the sun, brought forth fruit, faded, and sprouted again. Children were born, opened their eyes and arms to the world, grew into maturity, fell in love, and begat their own children. Spring gathered its strength into the virility of summer, which matured into fall and then settled into the sleep of winter, until awakened again. Rhythm, recurrence, pattern, without exactness, because no child is a copy of their parent, and no autumn like the one before it.

And yet within these notes of time there seems to be something that is not of time. We are constantly trying to freeze time, especially in our art. The photographer, the painter, the sculptor are all combatants of time. But all of us, “artistic” or not, at certain points want to just suspend the moment, when the end of the day sets the trees on fire, or when the golden hour of summer casts our dancing children in angelic haze. There is something eternal in the heart of time, for its Mover is timeless.

It is the musician alone who embraces time, for without it, music could not exist. Music is the art of time. As Roger Scruton says in The Aesthetics of Music:

“In musical experience, we are confronted with time: not just events in time, but time itself, as it were, spread out for our contemplation as space is spread out before us in the visual field. . . . Music is not bound by time’s arrow, but lingers by the way, takes backward steps, skips ahead, and sets the pace that it requires.”

Music plays with time, and yet in it, too, is something of the eternal. What stills us in the sound of a Bach cello suite, or makes us weep at Ralph Vaughan William’s “A Lark Ascending”? It is something more than the mere combination of wood, metal, hair, and the principles of physics. The Spirit vibrates once again, echoing down through time to us. An intersection of time and the timeless.

It is in this vein, with the ear of the musician and the poet, that T.S. Eliot meditates upon this mysterious intersection in his Four Quartets. He begins in Burnt Norton: “Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future,/And time future contained in time past.

Or in East Coker: “In my beginning is my end.”

Or in Little Gidding: “Here, the intersection of the timeless moment/Is England and nowhere. Never and always.”

Variations on a theme, rhythm and recurrence. But more than just addressing time directly, Eliot develops his ideas through symbols, as Helen Gardner points out: “The ‘thematic material’ of the poem is not an idea or a myth, but partly certain common symbols. The basic symbols are the four elements, taken as the material of mortal life” (44).

As Gardner identifies them, Burt Norton is about air, East Coker is about earth, The Dry Salvages is about water, and Little Gidding is about fire. She concludes: “We could then say that the whole poem is about the four elements whose mysterious union makes life, pointing out that in each of the separate poems all four are present; and perhaps adding that some have thought that there is a fifth element, unnamed but latent in all things: the quintessence, the true principle of life, and that this unnamed principle is the subject of the whole poem” (45)

I would argue that the quintessence is the Spirit, for the Spirit is seen in all these elements. The Spirit is air, wind, the ruah who breathes life into us, and blows where He will. The Spirit’s medium is earth, bringing us from dust and back to dust again. The Spirit is water, purifying, cleansing, raining down and refreshing us, making the wasteland bloom, the river within us. And finally the Spirit is fire, empowering us, purifying us, cleansing us, redeeming us from fire by fire.

It is also in the Spirit that time and the timeless intersect. Douglas Jones says in “Music as Spirit” “Rhythm and tempo lie at the heart of musical expression, and history lies at the heart of the Spirit’s work.” The Spirit’s work is time, and in time, yet the Spirit is eternal. And because the Spirit is in us, creatures of time, we who are in time have eternity set in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and thus we feel the sense of the divine and the timeless at moments in our lives, as Eliot himself explores in the Quartets.

But finally, the Spirit, taking the elements and taking time, makes a melody of it all. Eliot constantly talks about “pattern”, “movement”, and “dance” in the Four Quartets. In doing so he evokes an idea that we are not that familiar with in our modern scientific age, but that the medievals and ancients believed. C.S. Lewis in The Discarded Image refers to it as the harmony of the spheres. They believed that “space is not dark, so neither is it silent. If our ears were opened we should perceive, as Henryson puts it, ‘every planet in his proper sphere/In moving makand (sic) harmony and sound’”. The Spirit is the conductor, the elements are the obedient music. The Spirit is the still point, the creation is the dance. And as Eliot says in Burt Norton:

Except for the point, the still point,

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

Now, this is all very interesting and a bit academic, but what does it mean for us, creatures of time? Is Eliot telling us anything useful? It is at this point that I am struck by Gardner’s last lines in the chapter:

“The whole poem in its unity declares more eloquently than any single line or passage that truth is not the final answer to a calculation, nor the last stage of an argument, nor something told us once and for all, which we spend the rest of our life proving by example. The subject of Four Quartets is the truth which is inseparable from the way and the life in which we find it” (56).

That is, the Four Quartets accomplishes what any piece of good art should accomplish, which should be to make us live more clearly, more deeply, and more truly. Eliot ends both the Quartets and Little Gidding with these lines: “We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” That which began with God will return back to Him again. What began in the garden will end in the garden-city. In our beginning is our end.

And so I think the questions Eliot would leave us with are these: “How shall we live in time in light of the timeless? How shall we keep in step with the dance of the Spirit?”

In the power of the Music-Maker, “You are the music, while the music lasts.”  Make it sing. Make it dance.

 

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Thoughts from Week 1: On Shoulders of Giants
Overview of plan (and link to Eliot reading Four Quartets): From Telescope to Microscope


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