Archive for creation

Christmas from the Chronicles

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 30, 2018 by timtrue

John 1:1-18

1.

The Gospel of John is different: John does not begin by telling the story of the human person Jesus.

Recall, the Gospels of both Matthew and Luke begin with stories of the birth of Jesus—in vivid, nitty-gritty, even messy detail. A son is to be born of a virgin, an unmarried maiden. How scandalous!

Luke expands the story to relate that this maiden, Mary, visits her older cousin Elizabeth in some backwater part of the Empire—just two women, laughing and singing—marveling, really—that God should show them such favor at opening their wombs.

The Gospel of Mark is a little different. It begins not with Jesus’ birth but with his adult ministry: John the Baptist sets the stage and all at once Jesus is defeating the devil, proclaiming repentance, and healing the broken.

And so, no matter what else is going on in the wide world, these three Evangelists remind us that God is in the nitty-gritty details of our lives.

But the Gospel of John is different: John does not begin with the human person of Jesus; John begins, instead, with divine Jesus: the logos, the Word.

And in using this phrase—in the beginning—John connects us not to the other three Gospels but to the very beginning of the Bible, to the creation of all things.

Today, then, we’re not going to focus on little Jesus, meek and mild; baby Jesus, Christmas child. Instead, we will marvel with John on this first Sunday after Christmas—marvel at the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us.

And we will marvel together not just through the Gospel of John; but to help us I’m enlisting another, modern evangelist who also marveled at the Word made flesh: C. S. Lewis; and, more particularly, through his beloved children’s book series, The Chronicles of Narnia.

2.

So, to start us off, most of you know that I’m a fan of The Chronicles of Narnia. I’ve read it aloud to my kids—all seven books in the series—so many times I’ve lost count.

The first book in the series is called The Magician’s Nephew.

In it, two children fantastically end up in a faraway world, Narnia, on the very day of its birth. What they witness—C. S. Lewis’s explanation of “in the beginning”—is creation through song.

At first all is darkness and silence. Then the children become aware of an almost inaudible music all around them. It’s nothing like any music we’ve ever heard on earth; but there’s no other way to describe it. It’s music.

Almost immediately stars begin to appear in the sky. As more and more celestial bodies appear, the music increases in volume and intensity; and the children realize that the music and the appearance of the stars are connected: the music reaches a sustained note for a time just before a star appears; then it changes pitch, sustains, and another star appears.

Loud and strong now, the children realize that this isn’t just any old music, but song: these are words they are hearing, sung words; in some language—some beautiful language—they don’t know.

And all at once, as if in response to the loud and strong song, a moon appears in the sky; followed by a still louder and stronger song and the sudden appearance of the sun.

Dazzled by such a bright, young sun, the children look away; and in the distance see a figure approaching. As their eyes adjust, they realize with fear that the approaching figure is a lion (whose name, they will soon learn, is Aslan). But they do not retreat, for their fear is overcome by wonder: the lion is singing too; and its voice is loudest of all!

At the creation of Narnia, Aslan sings all things into existence: Aslan, an allegorical Jesus Christ.

In the beginning was the Word. And God said—or, maybe, and God sangLet there be light. And there was.

This is how C. S. Lewis imagined it.

But why not? John’s Gospel is highly poetic. Why not build on John’s image of poetry by imagining all things being sung into existence?

The Word was with God. And the Word was God. And the Word—spoken, written, sung, does it matter?—the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; and we beheld his glory, full of grace and truth.

3.

Next, a prominent theme we find in today’s passage—indeed, throughout the Gospel of John—is light:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. . . . The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

This is another creation connection. For what was the first thing God spoke in the creation account? The earth was formless and void; and darkness covered everything. And God said, “Let there be light.”

And—would you know it?—a stark contrast between darkness and light shows up in the seventh and final book of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle.

Here the reader witnesses the final day of Narnia, as it is snuffed out forever.

All creation is summoned to Aslan. And by all I mean all: sun, moon, stars, people, animals, plants, even mythical beasts who have long lain dormant awaiting this final day. All creation came into being by the Word of God; now all creation must answer to its Creator.

And at last, after days or weeks or maybe somehow only a few minutes, all of creation has passed by Aslan and looked into his face; all creation has gone on either to Aslan’s left or his right. And the reader gets one last glimpse through a doorway of the old Narnia.

But the reader sees nothing, only blackness. For through the doorway there is only absolute darkness—no more sun, no more moon, no more stars, no more life of any sort whatsoever—can you imagine?

And with absolute darkness comes absolute zero. The world of Narnia that once thrived is now dead. There is no source of heat, no source of light, no source of life.

At creation, light did away with darkness. It provided heat. It provided life.

At Christmas a new light shines forth. Christmas brings new life to this old creation, shining far brighter than all the Christmas lights in the world ever could!

4.

One more: another theme we find in John’s prologue, and thus another connection between creation and Christmas, is life. Marvel of all marvels, the Word of God, the light that enlightens the world, the source of new life, has actually become flesh and dwells among us! Amazing!

But where? Where does the logos of God dwell among us today? Where do we expect to encounter Jesus today? Isn’t it right here, in the church?

But in The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan shows up in every book. And it’s not always as people expect—it’s not even always in the flesh. He shows up on the page of a book; a person sees him briefly out of the corner of her eye; or he’s there in someone’s dream; or, in one book, he appears as a lamb.

He’s not a tame lion, you know. In other words, we cannot predict when and where he’ll show up next.

But that’s just John’s point—and C. S. Lewis’s! Jesus might show up where we expect him to, right here in church. Then again, he might not. Haven’t you ever felt that way, that you went through all the Sunday motions but still he never came?

But then there are those days—ah, marvelous!—when and where we’re not looking for him at all; yet there he is, right in our midst—in a conversation with a stranger, at the dinner table laughing with friends, or at a wedding when the host has just desperately run out of wine for the guests.

Sometimes Jesus doesn’t show up when and where we expect him to; and sometimes we don’t expect him to show up at all but he does anyway!

We can’t put a box around Jesus. He’s not a tame lion.

 

Well, that’s it; that’s all I have for you today. No practical take-home lesson—no quick-and-easy three steps to eternal happiness or whatever. Instead, today we simply marvel together.

The very logos of God did show up at that first Christmas, so long ago; in a way that no one expected—in a backwater part of the Roman Empire. And he continues to dwell with us today in ways we can’t even begin to realize.

The Word is flesh and dwells among us. We have crossed the great threshold. The old is passing away; the new is here!

God as Choirmaster

Posted in Homilies, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 1, 2018 by timtrue

Geoff Ward

Job 38:4-7

1.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

Why?

According to one well-known evangelical leader, “God created the world for His glory”;[i] yet another answers, God created the heavens and the earth out of love.[ii]

I suppose either answer sounds reasonable enough, especially to modern evangelical Christian ears, which have been taught that God is perfect, immutable, and sovereign. We lowly humans can’t understand God’s purposes; so, I suppose, we just shrug our shoulders and get on with life.

But are these two the only possible answers? Could it be that God created the heavens and the earth for another reason?

According to the Jewish mind, the answer is yes.

A creation myth from the Midrash relates that, before creating our heavens and earth, God created a thousand other worlds, one at a time; yet none pleased God. God would make a world, decide it wasn’t right somehow, destroy it, and—clean slate—try again; until, with ours, at last, God got it right.

God did not create the world to glorify God’s self; nor did God create for love. Instead, according to this Jewish account, God created the heavens and the earth for the sheer pleasure of it.[iii]

Does this make God an artist? Did God create the heavens and the earth as an artist creates a composition, as an expression of beauty?

It’s an intriguing idea.

To explore it, we know from Genesis that one of God’s art forms is voice: the word of God goes forth from God’s mouth, “Let there be light,” and there is light.

Moreover, in the book of the prophet Zephaniah (3:17), God’s voice sings over Israel. It’s not the heavenly angels; and it’s not the people. It’s actually God who sings, who makes music.

Thus God is an artist; more specifically, God is a musician.

Maybe the creation account ought to go something more like this: “And God composed and sang, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”

But the picture is not yet complete, not quite. For over in Job God mentions a celestial choir. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth,” God asks; “when the morning stars sang together?” (Job 38:4-7).

When God sang, “Let there be light,” right there alongside God, the morning stars sang too.

It’s not enough, then, to say God is a musician; or even that God is a singer and composer. The full image here is God as choirmaster.

2.

I wonder what those pre-creation choir rehearsals looked like—before that first day. I mean, when the celestial choir sang the earth into being, I’m sure they didn’t just take the stage, decked in their heavenly gowns and tuxedos, without first rehearsing—lots and lots of rehearsing.

After all, this wasn’t going to be just any old performance, just another Sunday. No! This was to be the first performance ever, the world premiere!

Not to mention, the choirmaster was, is, and will be only the greatest choirmaster ever, world without end, amen! (Don’t be nervous!)

What would the morale have been like in these rehearsals?

Maybe some of the morning stars only recently joined the celestial choir. Understandably, they’re insecure. Regardless of how inherently gifted and talented they may be, they come to their first rehearsals lacking the confidence necessary to perform as their choirmaster desires.

Other morning stars come to these rehearsals with the necessary confidence but—let’s face it—they just aren’t the best musicians. They regularly sing sharp or flat; they can’t seem to get the tune even after the umpteenth time through, even after the choirmaster places them next to someone who can sing; they clap on one and three.

Still other morning stars—not too many but there always seem to be a few in every choir—let me just say the word: ego. They’re here in God’s celestial choir too, thinking they’re God’s gift to this choir, singing out louder than everyone else around them, wanting to be heard, too confident in their abilities. Divas!

And then there’s the grumbling. The choir has failed a thousand times already! How in the world will they get it right this time? It’s the choirmaster’s fault, some of them whisper; he’s too much of a perfectionist!

But these grumblers keep it very quiet, for fear of losing their cherished places in the choir—like that guy Lucifer and the others, who lost theirs.

Anyway, first and foremost, as you can see, the choirmaster must concern himself with establishing and maintaining community. Somehow he must bring all these diverse individuals together as a team that will sound as a single instrument. This is the choirmaster’s primary goal: community.[iv]

Making music is secondary.

3.

So, let’s turn now to consider this aspect of the choirmaster’s task: making beautiful music—in other words, performance. What goes into a good performance?

First, as has already been mentioned, is lots of rehearsal time. The choirmaster and choir work, work, work until the individual choristers sound together as one—musical elements such as rhythm, timbre, and dynamics have to be precise—all must clap on two and four.

Also important is individual pitch. For a choir to be a true musical community, harmonies—even discordant harmonies—are necessary. But woe to the individual who can’t hold a pitch, who sinks flat or rises sharp even a little bit! That’s the quickest and most sure-fire way for a morning star to lose its luster.

How does the choirmaster accomplish all this—tight musical elements and precise pitches?

I recently had a conversation over coffee with Geoffrey Ward, the University Choirmaster at Sewanee. He tells me about a warm-up he does with his choir.

At his signal, his hands cupped together, the choir sings “ah” in unison. Again, at his signal—he moves his hands apart—each chorister goes to a pitch of his or her own choosing and holds it. Of course, every note of the scale, and maybe even every accidental, sounds; dissonance dominates. But it is purposeful; and it works. Finally, again at his signal—hands come back together—the choristers return to the unison.

“At first the students had trouble with this,” he explains. “They wanted to stay on the original pitch or go to the third or fifth, thus making a major triad. And they had a difficult time returning to the unison. But in time they learned to find the tri-tone, the fourth, the sixth, the minor third, or even the major seventh—and come back to the unison successfully.”[v]

Tight musical elements and precise pitches, achieved through many rehearsals.

4.

And then, maybe most important of all, a choirmaster must teach his choir to improvise. And here I don’t mean jazz!

Improvisation has been part and parcel to music for its entire history. We tend not to associate improvisation, however, with the western classical tradition because so much of its music is written down. But improvisation is there; especially when it comes to performance.

Countless decisions must be made before and during every performance—the level of dynamics at any particular point, how long to hold a fermata, when to breathe, which voice to bring out above the others, and so on. Listen to recordings; or do a YouTube search. Each ensemble performs the same piece quite differently.

What is the source of this diversity but improvisation?

In fact, prior to western notation, it was normal for court choirs largely to improvise. Polyphonic performances were based on a melody line called a cantus firmus. The choirmaster would sing this melody while the other singers would improvise their own lines from it.[vi]

This is how I imagine God the choirmaster singing with the morning stars as they set the foundations of the earth into place: God singing the cantus firmus and the morning stars improvising around it.

C. S. Lewis imagined it this way too, in The Magician’s Nephew. As Aslan sang at the founding of Narnia, one morning star improvised and an elephant rose out of the earth; another sang and a small shoot grew up rapidly to become a towering cedar; and so on.[vii]

5.

Now, here’s the best part: God’s celestial choir continues today; and we are members of it.

Creation wasn’t just a one-time, seven-day event; but is ongoing. We know this. God continues to be at work reconciling all the cosmos to God’s self through God’s people—through us, the members of God’s celestial choir.

And so, what does the image of God as choirmaster mean for us?

Two things.

One: we live in community.

Some of us are new at this, maybe lacking confidence, maybe insecure. Others of us may be surer of ourselves than we should be. Still others act like we’re God’s gift to the church—divas! Some of us might even grumble now and then. Nevertheless, God calls us to work as a team. We each keep our individual voices, but use them together, for the common good.

And two: we improvise.

The Bible is our cantus firmus, the melody from which we generate our harmonies and dissonances; just as many other voices before us have generated theirs.

We have great freedom here—to improvise and create. But, likewise, there are constraints. We don’t have the liberty to compose a new cantus firmus, or to deviate from the established rhythms, dynamics, and other musical elements we’ve been practicing together in our many rehearsals, Sunday after Sunday.

Our job is simply to sing: with each other; with the morning stars; with God. Sing.

_____________________________________________________________

[i] John Piper, “Why Did God Create the World?” last modified September 22, 2012. https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/why-did-god-create-the-world

[ii] Dawson McAllister, “Why Did God Create Us? He Doesn’t Really Need Us, so Why Did He Create Anything?” no date given, accessed June 24, 2018. https://www.christianitytoday.com/iyf/advice/faithdoubt/why-did-god-create-man.html

[iii] Cf. Howard Schwartz, “From Book Two, Myths of Creation: 90. Prior Worlds” no date given, accessed June 24, 2018. http://www.umsl.edu/~schwartzh/samplemyths_2.htm. Schwartz retells this story in modern English. He lists the Midrash sources from which he draws at the end of the retelling.

[iv] Cf. Lynn A. Corbin, “Building a Positive Choral Attitude,” Music Educators Journal Vol. 81, No, 4 (Jan., 1995): 24-26+49; Mary L. Cohen, “Writing between Rehearsals: A Tool for Assessment and Building Camaraderie,” Music Educators Journal Vol. 98, No. 3 (March, 2012): 43-48; Elizabeth Cassidy Parker, “The Process of Social Identity Development in Adolescent High School Choral Singers: A Grounded Theory,” Journal of Research in Music Education Vol. 62, No. 1 (April, 2014): 18-32.

[v] Geoffrey Ward (University Choirmaster) in discussion with author, June 18, 2018.

[vi] Bruce Ellis Benson, “Improvising Texts, Improvising Communities: Jazz, Interpretation, Heterophany, and the Ekklēsia” in Resonant Witness: Conversations between Music and Theology, ed. Jeremy S. Begbie and Steven R. Guthrie (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 295-319.

[vii] C. S. Lewis and Pauline Baynes, The Magician’s Nephew (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1955), chapter nine.

Smack Dab in the Middle

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 25, 2015 by timtrue

FatherTim

John 1:1-14

The book of John is one of four Gospels in our New Testament: one of four books in the Bible that specifically proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.

Yet John begins not by connecting his Gospel to the other three Gospels.

The other three Gospels start with the human person Jesus.

The Gospels of both Matthew and Luke begin with stories of the birth of Jesus—in vivid, nitty-gritty, even messy detail.  A son is to be born of an unmarried maiden.  How scandalous!

Luke goes on to relate that this maiden, Mary, visits her older cousin Elizabeth in some backwater part of the Empire—just two women, laughing and singing—marveling, really—that God should show them such favor at opening their wombs.

The Gospel of Mark—a little different—begins not with Jesus’ birth but with his adult ministry: John the Baptist sets the stage and all at once Jesus is defeating the devil, proclaiming repentance, and healing the broken.

And so, no matter what else is going on in the wide world, these three Evangelists remind us that God is in the nitty-gritty details of our lives.

But the Gospel of John is different: John doesn’t begin with the human person of Jesus; John begins, instead, with Jesus the divine: the logos, the Word.

And in using these words—in the beginning—John connects us not to the other three Gospels but to the very beginning of the Bible, to the creation of all things:

  • In the beginning was the Word;
  • In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

So, for a little while anyway, let’s set aside what we normally focus on throughout this day—little Jesus, meek and mild; baby Jesus, the Christmas child—and spend some time together contemplating just how these two cosmic events are connected.

Just how is Christmas connected to creation?

Well, for starters, John says, “In the beginning was the Word.”  But in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void; and darkness was everywhere.  So, where does the Word fit into creation?

Just here: God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.  God also said, “Let there be dry land”; and there was dry land.  And God also said, “Let the waters teem with life”; and it was so.  And so on.

God spoke.  God used words.  And through God’s words—through God’s Word—all came into being that has come into being.

Most of you know by now that I’m a fan of C. S. Lewis’s children’s book series, The Chronicles of Narnia.  There are seven books in this series.  The first is called The Magician’s Nephew.  In this book, two children fantastically end up in a faraway world, Narnia, on the very day of its birth.  What they witness—C. S. Lewis’s description of creation—is creation through song.

At first all is darkness and silence.  The children become aware of an almost inaudible music all around them.  It’s nothing like any music we’ve ever heard on earth; but there’s no other way to describe it.  It’s music.

Almost immediately stars begin to appear in the sky.  As more and more appear, the children realize that the music and the appearance of the stars are connected: the music reaches a sustained note for a time just before a star appears; then it changes pitch, sustains, and another star appears.

Abruptly the music grows loud and strong.  The children now realize that this isn’t just any old music, but song: these are words they are hearing, sung words; in some language—some beautiful language—they don’t know.

All at once, in response to the loud and strong song, a moon appears in the sky; followed by a still louder and stronger song for a time and the sudden appearance of the sun.

Now, dazzled by the sudden appearance of such a bright, young sun, the children look into the distance and see a figure approaching.  It is the singer of this wonderful song: a lion, Aslan (they will soon learn his name).  Aslan is singing all things into existence.  And Aslan, if you know anything about the story at all, is an allegory of Jesus Christ.

In the beginning was the Word.  And God said—or, maybe, and the Word sang—Let there be light.  And there was.

This is how C. S. Lewis imagined it.  But why not?  John’s Gospel is highly poetic.  Why not build on John’s image of poetry by imagining all things being sung into existence?

The Word was with God.  And the Word was God.  And the Word—spoken, written, sung, it doesn’t matter—the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; and we beheld his glory, full of grace and truth.

Another connection between creation and Christmas: in Genesis we read that God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light; and in John we read, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

What did light do at creation?

Before light was spoken into existence, the earth was formless and void; and darkness covered everything.

Darkness covering everything shows up in another book from The Chronicles of Narnia: in The Last Battle, the seventh and final book.  Here the reader witnesses the final day of Narnia, as it is snuffed out forever.  And, of course, this book relates the final judgment.

All creation is summoned to Aslan.  And by all I mean all: sun, moon, stars, people, animals, plants, even mythical beasts who have long lain dormant awaiting this final day.  All creation came into being by the Word of God; now all creation must answer to its Creator.

At last, after days or weeks or maybe somehow only a few minutes, all of creation has passed by Aslan and looked into his face; all creation has gone on either to Aslan’s left or his right.  And the reader gets one last glimpse through a doorway of the old Narnia.

But the reader sees nothing, only blackness.  For through the doorway there is only absolute darkness—no more sun, no more moon, no more stars, no more life of any sort whatsoever—can you imagine?  And with absolute darkness comes absolute zero.  The world of Narnia that once thrived is now dead.  There is no source of heat, no source of light, no source of life.

At creation, light did away with darkness.  It provided heat.  It provided life.

At Christmas a new light has shone forth.  Christmas has brought new life to this old creation.

One more connection between creation and Christmas: the Word of God, this new source of life, has become flesh and dwells among us.

Think back to creation.  Where was God’s dwelling place?  Where did God dwell among us?  Wasn’t it in the Garden of Eden, right alongside the Tree of Life?

And where does Jesus dwell among us today?

In The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan shows up in every book.  And it’s not always as people expect—it’s not always in the flesh.  Occasionally he shows up on the page of a book; or a person thinks she sees him briefly out of the corner of her eye; or he shows up in another person’s dream.  He’s not a tame lion, you know.

But that’s just John’s point.  Jesus shows up where we would expect him too, right here in church—the Garden of Eden for the new age.  But he also shows up when and where we don’t expect him—in a conversation with a stranger, or at the dinner table when we’re simply laughing with friends.  He is the Word, after all.

On the flip side, sometimes he doesn’t show up when we expect him too; or he shows up in a different way than we ever expected, and only later we realize we missed him.  We can’t put a box around Jesus.  Aslan’s not a tame lion.

Christmas, then, is not just the story of God coming into the world in some backwater part of the Roman Empire.  Today we don’t just remember that God is involved in the intimate details of each of our lives.  Looking at Christmas through the eyes of St. John the Evangelist—and with some help from that modern evangelist, C. S. Lewis—today we see that Christmas is much more.  Today, we see clearly that Christmas is smack dab in the middle of the grand sweep of salvation history.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  And thus we’ve crossed the great threshold of time.  The old is passing away; the new is here!

Merry Christmas!