The Heart of Existence

Bench by the water

Without Sabbath rest (menuha in Hebrew) the universe would be incomplete. Afterall, it took a special act of creation to bring it into being. Why are we afraid of it?

Ruth Ellen and I recently returned from a wonderful Christmas holiday. We decided to splurge and rent a condo in Playa del Carmen for a week and a half. We splashed about in the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean Sea, enjoyed food at local taquerias, and barely thought about schoolwork. The evening we returned home I remember driving through the Massey Tunnel and suddenly panicking. I don’t know if it was the enclosed space, or if it was the pulsating sensation of tunnel lights whirring past me at regular intervals as we drove, but I got really anxious really fast. “So much to do, so little time,” I thought to myself as I tried to breathe slowly. As soon as we exited the tunnel I saw the vast and starlit sky and my perception of speed all but disappeared. Unlike the tunnel lights, the moon and the stars seemed anchored in the sky as we continued to travel the highway toward home. It’s interesting how proximity changes my perspective.

Abraham J. Heschel was a Jewish rabbi and theologian who thought a great deal about rest and time. I’m reading his book about the Sabbath and it is messing with my head (in a good way). In it he laments our civilization’s preoccupation with subduing and controlling things of space. He argues that we tend to think of power in terms of conquest and consumption yet find ourselves powerless against the invisible grip of time. All of our attempts to ignore it, reverse it, or make a commodity out of it belie the dread we feel at time’s inevitable hold on our lives.

“The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel

Why are we so afraid of time? Perhaps it is because we think of time as a thing (you can read Neil Postman’s critique of public discourse for more on that) and we like to control things. In Genesis the first thing God makes holy is not a thing but a day; the seventh day, Sabbath. Unlike other religious festivals, Sabbath is not attached to seasons, lunar cycles, or particular places. Instead it is attached to the creative work of God. Heschel calls time the heart of existence. This is not to say that things are not important, but again and again throughout scripture priority is given to time, to relationships. Sabbath and the great Jewish festivals are attached to sacred events in time. Holiness itself is seen in relation to time. In other words, time as well as space can be hallowed.

This poses a problem for those of us who are driven by (thoroughly modern) concepts of efficiency and productivity. Rest appears to be the antithesis of control. It is. And that’s the point. In time there are no shortcuts. To quote Heschel, [t]he more we think the more we realize: we cannot conquer time through space. We can only master time in time. The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments. If control is our highest aim this truth is a serious problem, but if communion with God and one another is our highest aim, this truth is a profound relief. We are invited not to conquer time but dwell in it, to face sacred moments, to sit awhile with the One who says “I Am.”

My IPIAT performance is now 7 weeks away. I’m trying to breathe slowly. I’m learning to abide with Christ so that my proximity to Him will change my perspective. He is unshakeable. He is. He.

Photo courtesy of Jon Eckert

375 Words on Words

Handwriting

You’ve probably experienced this feeling before. You are trying to articulate something important, something that has shaped you in a significant way, maybe something profound.

Is it complex? Not really. It’s more that the nuance is hard to get right. A simple explanation should suffice but simplicity is elusive. So you spout more and more words to make sense of it for your sake and the sake of your listener. Even more fundamentally, you elaborate for the sake of the thing itself, for to describe it poorly feels tantamount to denying or defacing it. You begin by teasing out its shape. Then you dance (more likely stumble) around the essence of the thing. Then finally, just as it starts to come into focus, it vanishes. The frustrating thing is that it’s really quite simple. Or is it? Either way, what you’re left with at the end of the whole exercise isn’t a profound picture of the thing, but a tangled mound of verbiage instead. Do you know that feeling?

Every time I can’t put two words (or notes) together for my grad project I’m reminded of this simple reality: language is slippery. So is music. Both come up short. Maybe this is by design (on this side of the veil anyway), to remind me that while my efforts are always inadequate, while some things are beyond description, the Living Word still speaks. He is always sufficient, and we live by His Word (and His Music?), not our own.

On many days the limitations of language – and even more so, my own limitations as a composer – cause me frustration and even fear. Will I distort others’ picture of God rather than enhancing it? What if my songs are fluffy, boring, or disjointed? Fortunately on other days I see these limitations as an opportunity to thank God for His limitlessness. It’s impossible for anyone, much less me, to fully describe the mystery and beauty of God, yet God lovingly invites me to explore His bigness so I can understand my smallness is of little consequence. So I reach for words, I reach for music, I reach for something that will illuminate a small sliver of the Beauty I long to behold. Today a sliver. One day the whole.

Photo courtesy of Robert Aichinger

Music in Time

Wristwatch parts

How can we serve a God we have forgotten? Perhaps we cannot. Or at least not well.

Remembrance: A Biblical Priority

In my last post I talked about the importance of remembrance. The biblical writers seem to think quite highly of it. More than that, when they talk about remembrance, they usually talk about the real-life consequences associated with remembering or forgetting. Psalm 106:6-7 tells us that the Israelites failed to remember how God delivered them from slavery they began to rebel. Conversely, Psalm 22:27-28 links right remembrance with a return to God. This makes sense, for how can anyone serve a God they have forgotten? Remembrance profoundly shapes our thoughts and our actions.

Music: A Timely Gift

Have you ever been so transfixed by a piece of music that you lose all sense of time? Have you ever felt music so deeply that you feel as though it is inhabiting you, or you it? For me, in that moment, music arrests all of my senses (not just my hearing) and demands all of my attention. I savour each moment as it arrives and passes away in the ebb and flow of musical time. Such experiences for are not like floating away on a timeless cloud as much as they are like sinking into the rich soil of temporality. These experiences are spacious, mysterious, and alluring – some might even say mystical – not because they somehow allow us to escape time, but because they allow us to abide peaceably with it. This is some of what Jeremy Begbie explores in his wonderful book Theology, Music, and Time. Music helps us to remember that time is not our enemy.

Contentment: A Fruit of Being Present

If you have ever felt like time is against you let this be an encouragement. Time is part of God’s good creation. Without time, there would be no music. Without time, there would be no remembrance either! At all points of the music-listening and music-making process memory is at play– yet we do not dwell in the past or the future when we experience music. Instead we learn to live – if only for a few moments – entirely in the present, remembering what has been and anticipating what is to come, but always appreciating what is. Our God is the God of history. He is working out His redemptive plan in time and lovingly invites us to participate in it. God’s work within time reminds me that I don’t have to be anxious. I can breathe.

Do you have a song that captivates all of your senses, a song that you love to “sink” into? Please tell me about it. I would love to hear it and to learn more about why it is meaningful to you.

Photo courtesy of Aleksandra P.

Remembering and Doing

Quail in the desert

Throughout scripture God’s people are told to remember. This seems like a simple command, until we realize that how we remember is just as important as what we remember.

In the Old Testament, when Israel forgot (which happened regularly) the results were rarely pleasant. Remember how, in Numbers 11, the Israelites pined away for “the good old days” of slavery after they got tired of eating manna and quail in the desert day after day? Were they really equating eating bland food with being submitted to forced labour? Probably not. Rather, because of their stubbornness in the present they profoundly mis-remembered their past.

“It wasn’t that bad in Egypt,” they probably muttered to themselves.

Fast forward to the early church all the way up to the present day. As followers of Jesus, we are called to remember Jesus’ death and resurrection by participating in the communion meal, or the Eucharist. This celebration is central to our lives as disciples of Jesus. All of this suggests that remembrance is vital to our Christian lives. I am guilty of mis-remembering all sorts of things. It’s often what turns frustration into bitterness or anger into resentment. Generally it’s what turns little problems into big problems. Like the Israelites in Numbers 11 I need to repent of my ingratitude. I also desperately need to recover my memory.

Are there certain things we should make an extra effort to remember? Are there right and wrong ways of remembering? When we remember, are we simply looking back at something or are we participating in it in some way? These are some of the themes and questions I am pursuing in my integrative project. I hope you’ll join me on the journey!