Renewing the Ruined City

My reading today, Isaiah 61, beautifully describes God’s Servant coming to reconcile God’s people to himself. Jesus explicitly names himself as this Servant in Luke 4:16-21. He is the one who has come proclaiming good news, showing compassion to us – the mourning, brokenhearted, poor, imprisoned. It is He who, in his life, death, and resurrection is redeeming all things. He has set the new temporality of his kingdom in motion now, and even though it is only in the process of being fulfilled and overlaps with the temporality of sin, there will ultimately be a new earth and new heavens in which sorrow and despair and sin have no place.

And in his mercy, he has bestowed on us “a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair” (Isaiah 61:3a). Our grief at the horror we may experience in this world is replaced with the joy that Christ has conquered death and sin and that he is already making us new, for his glory. It is said of us in v. 3b:

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They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.

What follows, though, is the most profound part of my reading today:

They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
that have been devastated for generations.

In the context of Israel’s history, this refers to the return from Babylonian exile and the rebuilding of Jerusalem. But in the context of the preceding verses, we can also recognize these words as referring to us, our role in the world now, and our ultimate place in the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21).

Are we merely passing time as we live here, citizens of God’s kingdom, sojourners on earth? Is not our very understanding of our future hope that it breaks into our lives now? Are we rebuilding those things that have been ruined by sin? Are we agents of restoration in broken places, relational, physical, spiritual? Are we renewing the ruined cities in which we live with the reality of redemption, through relationships, through study, through art, through life?

Am I?

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The Goodness of Time

If in Christ ‘all things’ have found their fulfillment, then, presumably, the same is to be said of time as an integral dimension of the created order. (Theology, Music and Time, p. 71)

Jeremy Begbie’s book Theology, Music and Time (which I have briefly mentioned here) explores the connections between the interactions of music and time and a proper theological understanding of time. In Chapter 3, “In God’s Good Time,” Begbie sets out to use properties of music to suggest that time is intrinsic to creation and that time is essentially a positive part of God’s “good ordering” of the world (p. 71).

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To support the first assertion, namely that time is intrinsic to creation, Begbie draws on earlier arguments in the book, suggesting that music is necessarily made up of time in the very way it operates – that in music, time is seen not as a container, backround, or mental construct but as absolutely inherent to the “interrelationship between the physical entities involved in the production and reception of sound” (p. 80).

To support the second assertion, that time is good, Begbie presents four ways in which music demonstrates that a “link between time and fallenness” is not necessary:

  1. In music, change and order are seen to coexist; “change need not imply chaos” (p. 85). Tonal music (at least) is by nature subject to persistent change and yet embodies dynamic order.
  2. Music takes time not only to be created but to be. The implication is that the created world takes time to be, and that in music we can see that the fact that creation can only reach its fulfillment through time is not necessarily a negative, fallen characteristic of creation. Thus patience and waiting become potentially positive and enriching rather than empty. Music demands patience and waiting, the trust that there is something worth waiting for, and the realization that the “something” is not detachable from the music. (pp. 86-87)
  3. Different entities have different “time-structures,” different rates of coming into being, reaching a peak, returning to non-being. In musical works, multiple different temporal operations occur concurrently, often with irregularities (for those in the music world, an example is multiple layers of hypermeter, in which irregular hyper measures might occur), and these fluctuating and simultaneous layers of temporal action are crucial to the integrity of the piece. These differences and varieties should be seen not as signs of corruption but as signs of the diversity God has given his creation for good (pp.89-91).
  4. Finally, music challenges the assumption that finitude – boundaries and temporal limits – is by nature a fallen characteristic (p.91). As a result, Begbie suggests (with Barth) that limited duration in human life is “fundamentally beneficial and advantageous” (p. 94). A quote seems clearest here:

Music depends heavily for its meaning on finitude at every level… Musical continuity emerges from transience, from the coming into being and dying of tones, for in this way and only in this way can their dynamic qualities be sensed. The fact that music never solidifies or coagulates to form a thing or substance is critical to its intelligibility…(p.92)

Implicit in our finitude is an invitation and direction to through ourselves upon the divine graciousness…creation praises God in its very finitude and thus shows what authentic praise is…[T]he universe is suspended between nothingness and the infinity of God – music can exemplify and embody just this suspension. (pp.95-97)

As Begbie suggests, these characteristics of music in conjunction with the doctrine of Incarnation (Christ’s entering into the created order as God and man) should waken in us the conviction that temporality is an intrinsic dimension of God’s creation and that our interaction with it should recognize it as a gift, as an opportunity to recognize not only our limitations but also the divine goodness of our creator, as something with which we can work and live peacably, working in “the stream of God’s wisdom” (Rowan Williams, qtd. on p. 97).

An Advent Hymn

As we near the end of Advent and face the present darkness of the world – especially in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy, the prayer expressed in this song becomes ever more urgent to my heart. We do not merely remember the first coming of our Savior in its unexpected humility; we also long for his return, when all things will be made new.

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O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny.
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
In ancient times did’st give the Law,
In cloud, and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

God’s Workmanship

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.  ~ Ephesians 2:8-10 (NIV)

Much of my energy on this blog has been spent defending and trying to justify in my own mind the legitimacy of artistic and musical vocation in a Christian worldview. Tonight (or, unfortunately, this morning) I am thinking in the opposite direction; that is, recognizing myself as of value because of my God, not because of my musical vocation.

As an undergraduate piano student, I struggled with self-criticism and self-deprecation any time I performed in studio or departmental recitals, and, not infrequently, after lessons that were middling to poor.  As a graduate student in music theory, I sometimes struggle with feeling inadequate to grasp or explain the material at hand, and, consequently, I am tempted to feel worthless because I cannot do what I am supposed to be doing.  As musicians, we tend to place our sense of worth in what we do, and I think we feel so strongly about this because music demands not only our mental agility, but also our emotional and physical agility and perfection… it demands so much of our whole persons.

One day in studio class, my piano professor stopped me and said something like: “Emma, you are not your hands.  You are not the music.  When I criticize your playing, I am trying to help you be a better musician, but that does not reflect on your worth… that is found in God alone.”

What is so awe-inspiring about this is that the very God who calls us to good work, who gives us vocations, who equips us to do them, and who desires us to do them to the best of our ability for his glory, reminds us not to boast in our work or find our identity in it, because he has given us – his workmanship – value in himself alone, through Christ, by his grace and not by our works.  So while we care and toil to do our work well, we can rest and find peace even when it does not go well by trusting that ultimately our worth is not up to us.  We can’t make ourselves any more or less worthy or valuable, because it is only by God’s saving grace in the blood of Christ that we are his – and there is nothing we can be that is of more value than a child of God.

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing! ~ Galatians 2:20-21 (NIV)