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

God’s Patience

When God’s Mercy Sounds Like Bad News

Sometimes God’s patience seems pointless–isn’t the world getting worse? shouldn’t he just come now and wipe the slate clean? are my apparently fruitless endeavors for the kingdom failures? aren’t atheistic, consumeristic, and secular agendas destroying the church (in the West)? But God’s patience is mercy, and we should act in that mercy, trusting him to be present in the making of history and being faithful in our work for him.

In light of the Resurrection, Paul encourages the church to “stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58). His command is not a bizarre non-sequitur but the practical application of everything that’s come before: Resurrection is coming, so don’t give up!

This is my comfort in my affliction,
that your promise gives me life.
~Psalm 119:50

Lent II – Do Not Forget the Giver

Wedding at Cana by Louis Kahan

~ Wedding Feast at Cana, Louis Kahan

11 “Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, 12 lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God…

17 Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ 18 You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day.

19 And if you forget the Lord your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. 20 Like the nations that the Lord makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the Lord your God.

~ Deuteronomy 8:11-20

I have heard the phrase in v. 18, “It is [the Lord] who gives you power to get wealth,” used several times in justification of the pursuit of wealth, which may then enable work for the Lord. While that is not necessarily a poor conclusion to draw, it seems tangential to the larger point of this passage: our wealth–or our talents, abilities, possessions of various kinds, opportunities, etc.–are a gratuitous gift from God. They are unmerited and not guaranteed; and if they become ends in themselves, matters of pride, or idols, they will lead to spiritual deadness, not the resurrection life of abundance, fruitfulness, and joy.

I believe that the pursuit of cultural good, cultural renewal, is a calling for all Christians, part of the redemptive work set in motion with the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. But this passage is a stark reminder that all such pursuits–be they business ventures or artistic ones–must not displace the one they ought to glorify. As at the Wedding Feast at Cana, where the miraculous best wine put Jesus’s glory on display publicly for the first time and became a metaphor for Jesus himself, our redemptive endeavors should point to the glory of the One who is redeeming the whole world; our remaking and reshaping work in the culture a metaphor for God’s remaking of all things.

Because I Have To | Comment Magazine | Cardus

Because I Have To | Comment Magazine | Cardus

Interview with Ned Bustard, writer, and owner of an illustration and graphic design firm called World’s End Images, on “making art to the glory of God.”

Music as “Hard, Bodily Work”

In his book Rainbows for the Fallen World, Calvin Seerveld draws attention to the possible misappropriation of the creative nature of God as the straightforward model of our creative nature (26).  While I’m not sure I agree with him that the relationship between God as Creator and man as creative is always so misleading that it over-spiritualizes and individualizes the nature of artistic activity, he brings up the excellent point that it may lead us to “overlook[] the limited, serviceable, craftsmanship character of artistic activity” (26).  He proceeds to explain that a healthy understanding of art recognizes it as hard work that can be a legitimate vocation that must be embedded both in a community of artists and in the community of saints.

Although many of the performers around me seem to find themselves most at ease in a community of musicians, it can be tempting to consider oneself an autonomous agent, acquiring skills for one’s own, individual creativity.  I think this temptation may be strongest for composers, who are trying to create something entirely new.  But Christian performers and composers (and theorists) should not spiritualize their creative “genius” as only coming as a gift from God and needing no additional development; we all need the training and sharpening feedback of a musical community.

Musicians know that what they do is very difficult.  We are no strangers to long, late hours of practice, rife with muscular, mental, and often emotional fatigue.  But the end result at many a given performance appears effortless, almost like magic.  It is thus tempting for many to imagine music as an otherworldly field only comprehensible to and attainable by a select few.

We struggle when we feel that the body of believers around us has this attitude, or does not understand the energy and richness of what we do – i.e. if they ask us to leave off the complicated “classical” stuff and play something a little more in tune with the times, or if they assume that music is something we should just do in our spare time or should only do in church, etc.  At these moments, we find ourselves tempted to emotionally separate ourselves, or at least our musical selves, from the church, only expecting to grow musically in a community of musicians.

Certainly, the church needs to support artists; they function in a critical capacity, redeeming the culture through hard work and God-given talent, pouring out blood, sweat and tears into yet imperfect work that still hopes to acknowledge the turmoiled, sinful world around it and redirect it to the joy and hope of God’s saving work (Seerveld, 34-41… more later).  But we, as artists, cannot abandon the church either.  As difficult as it can be, we need to find ways to embed our whole selves in the church, to ground our thinking, our practice, our art in the solidity of the word of God and in the fellowship of the body of Christ.  We need to reach out and in love show our brothers and sisters more of what we do and why.  It seems to me that it is worth it to explain some of the difficulty we experience and some of the joy and beauty we encounter in our “classical” repertoire… why we think it gives glory to God in specific and unique ways.  So let us not separate any part of ourselves from Christ’s body, and let us work hard.