Lent III – A Firm Foundation

One of the reasons I started this blog seven years ago was that I have long grappled with the legitimacy of the calling to be a classical musician within the kingdom of God. I also doubted the godliness of spending 6+ years working toward my PhD, when many of my classmates from college were either going into missions or beginning jobs that clearly served others. However, I have come to believe deeply in the importance of a Christian presence in the music world, and in the arts and culture more broadly, because of the present reality of God’s kingdom, launched in the Incarnation and the Resurrection, and our role as livers of and workers in the “already” of that kingdom (anticipating the “not yet,” the decisive return of Jesus, the rending of the curtain between heaven and earth, and the remaking of all things). And it is clear to me that the legitimacy of my work as a musician, researcher, and teacher is assured when it is built solidly on the foundation of Jesus Christ–that is, when all my work is informed by who Christ is and by the reality of his new kingdom.

11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

~ 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 (ESV)

This Lent, I find myself staring down some demons. I am not doing much music, much research, or any teaching, and I find myself feeling less myself, and far less valuable, because of it. The majority of my time is spent loving my two small children and keeping house, and while this is a temporary situation, I have trouble keeping that in perspective. But today I am encouraged by the grace of God, that all my work, both the visible work of my professional life and the invisible work of my personal life, is valuable not because it is my work but because it is founded on the Lord, Jesus Christ and set before me by him. And I am also chastened, reminded that if I do the work set before me merely because it is my duty, having a poor attitude and valuing it less than I should, that yes, I will remain a child of God, but that my work may in fact count for very little in the kingdom.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
    and the son of man that you care for him?
~ Psalm 8:3-4

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:

Photo credit: Inspirational Storytellers

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?

Grace in the Raw

Review of Les Misérables (2012)

This review was written for Chesterton House and can be found here on their website.

Before attending Les Misérables, I heard from a friend – a long-time fan of the stage musical – that she found the rawness of the cinematography distracted her from the music. Armed with this observation, I did not expect to be as ravished by the film as I was. Most captivating is the way in which the musical and filmic elements work together to create a deeply engaging experience of the narrative and its characters that spills over into life, especially through the portrayal of grace.

Photo credit: NCR online

Film settings necessarily contrast with the expectations established by stage dramas. Many film interpretations of musicals retain a relatively theatrical setting and the perceptual distance of a stage drama.  To say that Les Misérables abandons any theatrical effect would be to entirely mistake the film, but nevertheless, the film takes advantage of the medium’s capabilities. The city is shown in various states of disarray: the prostitutes appear ill, the poor look starved and cold, the inn is chaotic, the streets are dirty. Aerial shots are juxtaposed with extreme close-ups to create a continuum of varied perspectives on the story. The close-ups are especially raw, introducing us to the vulnerability of the characters in an intimate way that is downright uncomfortable. Les Misérables thus eliminates the lens of ironic distance common to popular postmodern perception, much to the chagrin of critics. Put differently, it dares to “treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions with reverence and conviction” (Stanley Fish; NY Times).

Trained musicians tend to disparage the quality of the vocals in this film. Although Anne Hathaway presented a stunning performance as Fantine, other leads have come under some severe criticism. However, with the possible exception of Russell Crowe, I think the vocal issues are balanced and even, perhaps justified, by the circumstances in which the characters find themselves; the raggedness of the physical and emotional states of the characters is much more pronounced in this film than it could be on stage, and the rough edges in the vocals are generally appropriate to the dramatic situation. This trained musician finds that the vocal imperfections contribute to the film’s powerful effect.

Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

One might think a film offers little advantage over a staged production with respect to large ensemble numbers, usually staged as a colorful choreographic spectacle. Yet this film production of Les Misérables balances the spectacle and the underlying character of the events portrayed. Take, for example, “Lovely Ladies,” in which shots of the whole group of prostitutes dancing are juxtaposed with disorienting footage of Fantine as she winds her way through the chaos and is swallowed up by it. The scene becomes grotesque and disturbing–the crude humor of the lyrics offset by Fantine’s desperation. We are not supposed to laugh and the film makes laughing impossible.

Consider also the intriguing contrast between musical time and the “real” time of the narrative. In Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream” and Jean val Jean’s “Bring Him Home,” all else comes to a halt. No other characters hear these songs; they are reflections, prayers, asides. This feature is not unique to musical dramas but is perhaps most pronounced in them because words take time to sing and are often repeated in a way that would be nonsensical if unaccompanied by music. The realism of the film setting is what makes these pauses in the narrative so emotionally striking. Combined with improbably close-up cinematography and realistic expression, these “slow” moments drag us into the characters’ inner reality.

Many reviewers have remarked on the pervasive theme of grace in Les Misérables. Here again, the film’s interwoven cinematographic and musical elements provide a suitable lens. The grace of Les Misérables is visceral rather than philosophical. We cannot distance ourselves from the ragged horror of the characters’ circumstances and experience, but are rather invited – even compelled – to empathize with and extend grace to Fantine and val Jean, Marius and the young rebels, even Javert. These are sinners all, yet desperately craving mercy. Freed of ironic distance, do we recognize our own desperate need for grace? Are we not also inspired to empathize with, extend grace to, and even act on behalf of our fellow image-bearers who are suffering in the world around us? The epilogue articulates what it might mean for grace to be extended, for all things to be reconciled, at the moment when Jean val Jean steps into death and encounters the prior dead from the story singing a revised version of “Do you hear the people sing”:

Do you hear the people sing? Lost in the valley of the night.
It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light.
For the wretched of the earth there is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.

We will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord.
We will walk behind the plough-share, We will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward! 

(To start the clip below at the above lyrics, skip to 4:25. However, the whole clip is worth listening to.)

Epilogue (Val Jean’s Death/Do You Hear the People Sing Reprise)

Other reviews of interest:

“Les Misérables and Irony” (Quoted above; Opinionator Blog, NYT)

“Two Cheers for Javert” (Cardus blog)

“Law and Les Misérables Revisited” and “Les Misérables Review” (CT)

Re-created

One of the blogs I follow is A Holy Experience (author Ann Voskamp, of One Thousand Gifts). Today, I read this journal post, in which she suggests to her husband that they leave the farm on which they live for a real vacation, and he quietly comes back with the suggestion that they go somewhere where they can serve rather than be served. At the end of the post, she muses on the beautiful ways in which God uses us, broken and insignificant though we are, to bring and become his kingdom.

And sure, we may all want anywhere other than suffering and ashes. But this is a dust-crushed world and Christ didn’t avoid it but chose to come to it. And the Farmer knows it. Why embrace dust and ashes? Because it’s out of dust and ashes, God grows the impossible.

Photo credit: Reigning Wanderer
reigningwanderer.blogspot.com

Because God exchanges dust and ashes for beauty and miracles and He cares so much that He doesn’t care that it’s not fair.

Because God raises whole people out of ashes and He writes mysterious grace in dust, and with Him, dust and spit and muddied things can still help us see.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Because though you are dust and will return to dust, though everything you know may be burnt to ashes, memory scattered to the wind — there is a God who can re-collect you, remake you, resurrect you and revive you with eternity.

When Lent & Valentine’s Collide 

I’m currently revising a review of Les Misérables (which will be posted here soon – hopefully next week). But Ann’s phrase “and with Him, dust and spit and muddied things can still help us see” is at the crux of my conclusions about the film – a muddied thing, how it can help us to truly see grace, to live it – to be new creations now.

Stay tuned.

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.

candlelight

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.

A Brief Reflection on Humility

Sometimes everything goes better than I could have expected or planned, and in such cases I am often struck by the omniscience, the beauty, the graciousness, and the humor of God.

At Rest

At Rest

On the other hand, sometimes nothing goes quite right… and on the other side of it (or perhaps during it), I am struck by the grace and mercy of my Lord and Savior, who knows my pain, having suffered more than I could imagine, who loves me in spite of myself, and who shows his love not least through the body of Christ around me…

After Turner's Tree in a Storm by Helen Nock

After Turner’s Tree in a Storm by Helen Nock

In this way, I am made humble – for I have nothing to claim for myself, nothing to boast about. All that by which I define myself fails me at some time or other… but God never fails. His Word remains true, his Spirit active in me, his Son interceding on my behalf.

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (NIV)

Ephesians 2:4-10

A Prayer of Praise

Inspired by my study of Isaiah 7:1-9:7 and my current struggles with pride and lack of trust.

If you do not stand firm in your faith,
you will not stand at all. ~ Isaiah 7:9b

The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy,
he is the one you are to fear,
he is the one you are to dread,
and he will be a sanctuary… ~ Isaiah 8:13-14a

O God, I am ashamed of my fear and unbelief.

How can I be afraid?

You are with your people,
more now than ever before.

How can I lack faith?

Your promises are always kept,
and even my life shows it.

O God, thank you for your act of self-sacrifice.

How can I be proud?

Your saving work is yours alone;
Your call to me effectual and sure.

How can I be anxious?

You saved my soul from eternal death;
You equip me to do your will.

O God, you are holy, beyond all praising.

How can I exalt you enough?

Your Son and Spirit exalt you,
transforming my inadequacy into exquisite melody.