Radical: A Reflection on 1 Corinthians 10-11

“Radical” is a risky word to apply to scripture; it often signals controversy, anticipates antagonism, and puts hearers on edge as they consider the violence associated with many forms of radicalism.

But to be radical is not necessarily to be selfish, violent, and angry. In fact, in this turbulent age, it might just be to be the opposite. By definition, “radical” means simply:

“Advocating or based on thorough or complete political or social change”

Lately I have been dwelling in 1 Corinthians and I realized as I read chapters 10-11 that the only word I could think of to properly describe this passage was, simply: radical. However, the lifestyle expounded by Paul to the Corinthians is hardly a demanding or individualistic radicalism. Neither is it fanatic or aggressive. Rather, it is a radical humility, deference, and submission such that this culture can only — Nietzsche-like — mock. And yet, this great humility leads to glory… What wondrous mystery is this, that glory would shine from quiet deference! And yet how simple this truth and calling, for it reflects the Redeemer and redeemed nature of the Christian faith.

The final verses of chapter 10 feature one of the most commonly-quoted passages in the Bible and one that is dear to my heart as well: 

“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (10:31, ESV)

Often this verse is used to inspire believers in their various vocations: Whether you manage finances or play music, do all to the glory of God. Whether you teach high school or run marathons, do all to the glory of God. I do not think, considering that this is both an edifying and encouraging use of this verse, that it is a wrong application. However, I do wonder if this is the correct interpretation. Yes, scripture elsewhere certainly supports seeking God’s glory in all of our pursuits. Here, however, something more nuanced is at stake. 

The passage which this verse concludes is not discussing vocation at all. Rather, chapters 8-10 address something much more controversial, both in the Corinthian church and our modern age. The church in Corinth was suffering conflicts of all kinds; indeed, the racial, moral, and financial divisions were severely hindering the body of Christ. Sound familiar?

What Paul addresses here concerns both moral and even dietary divisions in the church. The question before the church members is: How are they do deal with meat that has been offered to idols? To eat or not to eat? It is important to note that this is a doctrinal grey area; freed from the dietary restrictions of the law, Paul wants believers to know the following comforting truth: 

“Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” (8:8)

However, Paul does not reassure the church in Corinth of its freedom without providing the following warning: 

“But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”  (8:9) 

In this particular instance (which we will continue to refer to as a “grey” area because there is not a command one way or another) believers are freed to eat or not eat as their own conscious dictates. However, if one member (perhaps a younger Christian) is uncomfortable with eating meat previously offered to idols, those who dine with him ought to abstain as well so that he is not led to dwell on old sins or confronted by associations which he is not yet mature enough to overcome. It is not wrong for this brother to not eat the meat before him; whichever choice will best keep his heart focused on Christ and the service of his fellow members is the correct choice. Should one person at a gathering decide not to eat for reasons of personal conscious, history, temptations, etc., the other believers are called to an active fellowship with this sibling in Christ, abstaining in solidarity so that this weaker member might not be hurt. 

Paul discusses the parallels between membership in the church and the members of the body in the following chapters, but the analogy expresses the same idea. If one part of the physical body is hurting, the other members must compensate and work to prevent or alleviate the pain. The eye cannot say, “Well it’s too bad that you’re broken, foot, but I can carry on quite well with my business.” Rather, the eye must work harder to support the foot, looking ahead so that the it might avoid treacherous roads. In this way, the weakened foot is saved from further damage and the whole body is upheld as it grows stronger.

In a culture of liberal autonomy, this is a radical thought, but one that the church must ever seek to uphold. The secular person is quick to ask the same question Paul presents: 

“Why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience?” (10:29)

However, Paul answers this question with simply: the Glory of God. As Christians, “little Christs,” we are to emulate our Redeemer and the head of our church body in all that we do. Christ, the Lord of the Law, fulfilled the law that we might be freed. He was under no obligation but his own and yet, we know from the gospel that he who had and has the right to rule all things yet came in injury-prone flesh that he might serve and save us. And the marvelous mystery revealed in this is that in this greatest humility achieved the greatest glory. 

“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (11:1)

So too, we are no longer are under the obligation to the law, but as new creations and grafted members of the body of Christ, we are to live according to the wisdom of our Lord. As “imitators” of Christ and his servant Paul, we are called to glorify him not by parading our freedom, but by submitting it before the consciences of others to build them up. It is true that we have a “right” bought and given through Christ, but it is a right won by a divine humility and ought to be exercised with such. 

“‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” (10:23-24)

We might be quick, as the Corinthians were, to claim that “All things are lawful,” for especially in our current age of individualism, we are tempted to value our autonomy and opportunity to the point of idolatry. However, we will grow stronger together not when we realize our freedom, but when we realize our helpfulness. It is by this countercultural submission and service that we best build up our fellow believers, whatever their backgrounds and struggles. And it is in this counterintuitive way that we glorify the God who became as one of us. 

“…not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” (10:33)

By choosing to eat or not to eat for the glory of God, we will not only build each other up as a unified body, but bear witness to the wondrous grace of our Lord. We are quick to think of what we can do for the glory of God, but so often slow to realize that restraint might be equally impactful.

One quick story and I’ll wrap up this post: 

I go to a rather conservative Christian college and, upon enrollment, students are expected to sign a code of conduct. This contract is not burdensome, but often I hear students complain about its restraints, especially when it comes to drinking. Yesterday, my boyfriend cooked me a lovely, late Valentine’s dinner at his house and, as we sat down to eat, one of his roommates commented:

“Aw, no wine tonight?”

“No, just La Croix in fancy glasses,” laughed my boyfriend, who proceeded to pray for our meal.

I didn’t say anything just then, but it meant a great deal to me. My boyfriend is a strong, faithful man, but his school does not have the same strict code that ours does and I know that he probably would have liked a glass of wine to complement the food he so thoughtfully prepared. However, he knows that I am committed to abiding by my contract and so he too abstained. This not only makes following the rules easier for me, but it is comforting to know that the man I care for so deeply is committed to caring for my conscience in even these seemingly little things. Indeed, isn’t this the essence of the Christlike love described only a page later in chapter thirteen? 

“Love is patient and kind…It does not insist on its own way.” (13:4-5)

So then, beloved reader, can we consider together what it might be like to love each other in this way? Not selfishly, but in quiet selflessness? As 1 Corinthians 10:30 implies, it is easy to “partake with thankfulness,” but there may be greater reward for deference; whether we eat or drink or — more powerfully, perhaps – abstain, our decision must be guided by a commitment to honoring our Lord by honoring the consciences of our brothers and sisters. Only by radical humility can we demonstrate the radical glory of the Christian gospel. 

Advertisements

On Prayer: 1 Peter 5:5-7

This is probably the first year since I could hold a pen that I didn’t make New Year’s Resolutions. After recently taking the enneagram and discovering myself to be the “Reformer” (wing “Achiever”) this is rather surprising. I love goals and lists and plans and I work, practice, study, and exercise consistently. However, while I did not set any specific goals and am continuing along more or less as usual, I did realize a few areas in which I need greater consistency.

The first of these is prayer.

My morning devotions center on the reading and rereading of scripture. (I highly recommend picking an epistle or passage and reading it daily for a month.) Although I love digging into the Word and pondering its truth, I fear I sometimes err on the side of intellect rather than faith. Recently, I was accepted to pursue a master’s in “Theology and the Arts” at St. Andrew’s in Scotland, so I am thankful for my ability to read scripture as an academic. However, as I enter the final semester of my undergrad, new friendships and relationships, and look to a future that’s both terrifying and exciting, I’m confronted with things that go beyond academic analysis.

A week ago, as I tossed and turned at that dreaded hour (see “Three o’Clock in the Morning”), I realized that what I needed was (and is) prayer and, being at a loss for the words to properly express myself, I turned to the Psalms: the most honest, broken, beautiful, truth-bound poetry ever written.

I am not the best at expressing my emotions; as a generally happy person, I try to avoid showing any other side of myself. When I pray aloud with others and even in private prayer, I find myself trying to reason myself to happiness. While I am quick to worry within my own mind and heart, I am slow to present these anxieties to the One who will listen and heal. In reading the Psalms, it became so obvious that prayer, while so often comprised of and resolving in praise, is also manifested in lament.

Lamentation is a concept I’ve been turning over in my mind for several years, but ultimately it’s something that cannot be solely rationalized. It’s a deep expression of incomprehensible emotions, yet it is not all chaos. As an artist, the psalmist begins with broken materials but eventually shapes them into order through poetic exploration. Wrestling with terror and enemies and uncertainty, psalms of lamentation reorient to faith and praise, for they and their writer are upheld by truth.

Why, then, should I be afraid to pour forth even the most confusing feelings of my heart? After all, Romans 8:26 assures us that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” Expressing emotion is not separate from studying and living truth; when even the most anxious of feelings are anchored in truth, they may be safely explored when in conversation with God.

Recently, I purchased a new journal (see “New Year, New Journal…But how to choose?”) and am finding it the perfect place to express and explore in prayer. Immediately upon writing and praying over the words (some of which made very little sense at all when put down) I felt a rush of relief. Worries are overwhelming when swarming in a sleep-deprived brain, but often once they are written in bright-colored ink, they seem silly. And they seem even tinier when presented before a sovereign God who promises to hear and help.

Before I set to journalling, one verse presided in my thoughts, but I feared I was misapplying it like some cliché cross-stitch pillow. But when I looked it up, I was struck to find it more applicable to my situation than I could have imagined:

“Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him because he cares for you.”

– 1 Peter 5:5-7 (ESV)

“You who are younger.” 

Hey, that’s me! I’m 22 and I have to admit that Taylor Swift had it just about right when she sang that “we’re happy free, confused and lonely at the same time / it’s miserable and magical.” But here in 1 Peter are words written not only to capture how it feels to be young, but to hold my hand through it. Indeed, it promises that the might hand of God will uphold me and provide in his perfect timing.

“Humble yourselves.” 

I do not know everything. Part of my problem with prayer is that it requires me to admit this. It requires me to beg, to acknowledge that from God all blessings flow and that I can do nothing to earn them. As I journaled through this passage of scripture, I used this command to humility to write out my uncertainties and admit my limited vision in submission to the omniscience of God. It’s amazing how kneeling relieves one’s burdens. 

“The mighty hand of God.” 

Remember his providence. I love journaling because it allows me to read back through the arc of my life. Worries that once seemed insurmountable are now laughable. Hopes I once exalted were disappointed and replaced with much better things. Reader and Friend, praise God for his faithfulness. Admit your anxieties, but never forget that an authentic prayer is not only honest to your situation, but to that of a God who is constant and caring. Prayers without acknowledgement of God’s worthiness and faithfulness are sorely one-sided. The lament Psalms decry man’s state, but ever return to the power of the Lord’s hand.

“Casting all your anxieties on him.” 

I made a list as I contemplated this line. I dumped ever single “what-if-worry” that flapped about in my brain like moths. It was a bit like a game of “Worst-case scenario” where my hypothetical fears got progressively more and more ridiculous, but by the time I was finished, I was laughing instead of worrying. With my Savior carrying my burden, I felt able again to “laugh without fear of the future” (Proverbs 31:25).

“He cares for you.” 

This. This is blessed assurance. I’m a logical person and need to be rationally convinced of most things. I’m not sure how to respond to compliments sometimes because of this, let alone respond to a letter that speaks so plainly of God’s providential love for me. I am overwhelmed, no longer with fear, but with awe. 

What amazing, never-failing grace. How can I keep from praying?

I will fail (over and over and over again) to go to my knees. However, I have a God who cares for me so personally and perfectly, that I am responding to that love by committing to more regular prayer. It’s difficult: I have to humble myself, admitting that I am not always in control, not always perfectly happy, and don’t always know what’s going to happen. But, as my choir director so often says, “practice doesn’t make perfect, but it does make permanent.” 

That said, I am committing to practicing prayer, using study and scripture as a guide for expressing that which cannot be put into prose and turning it to praise.

Carol Contemplation (Part 1: The Text)

My favorite carol this year is one that few people have heard of and I myself did not know until this advent season. It’s title alone sets it apart from the more popular carols, which I love as well. Can you guess which it is?

Joy to the World

O Come, All Ye Faithful

O Little Town of Bethlehem

All I Want for Christmas is You

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

Angels We have Heard on High

The First Noel 

Alright, alright. Admittedly, there are two songs here that don’t quite seem to be like the others. (*Two of these songs just don’t quite belong!*) One, of course, is not a carol at all, but a song that I objectively don’t like, yet can’t seem to skip…it’s like some sort of disease spread by Mariah Carey’s catchy riffs, as demonstrated by my roommate’s latest Tumblr quote:

FullSizeRender

But I digress. The other title that seems at odds with all of the angels and joy and faithfulness is “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” This doesn’t sound like a typical Christmas carol at all; in fact, it’s sort of spooky. Honestly, though, as much as I adore the other carols on this list (Mariah Carey aside), I feel that both the lyrics AND the music of this hymn best capture the advent attitude to which we are called as believers, as mortal flesh awaiting our salvation.

First, let’s take a look at the title.

“Let”
To let is a permission, invoking the graceful giving of a higher power. But it is also an invitation. In carols such as “O Come, all ye Faithful,” we are not praising or invoking God directly, but singing truth to our fellow believers. To “let all mortal flesh keep silence” is to pray for contemplative, anticipatory silence, as well as to call each other to rest in this silence. I think this is one reason that calm quiet at the end of a candlelight service is so magical; it is rare, silent fellowship and, in itself, an act of worship.

“All Mortal Flesh”
In the emphasis on the supernatural and divine that so often (and so necessarily) surrounds the Christmas season, we forget the gross, gory messiness of being mortal. Of being flesh. “All mortal flesh” refers to all of humanity, past and present and future. Dust to dust: flesh and bone.

More so, though, “all mortal flesh” calls to all life that was and is and is yet to be. All mortal beings, from the lambs sacrificed on the altars of old to the pets that now snuggle beneath glowing Christmas trees. The beasts that fed where Christ lay, the sheep grazing beneath the heavenly hosts. Let ALL mortal flesh await. As Romans reads, all creation is groaning with the birth pangs of the coming kingdom, just as the virgin mother with the first advent.

But how can we speak of “mortal flesh” without considering the Incarnation? Indeed, how can we speak of Christmas without the Incarnation? In these two words, we find also our Lord and Savior: immortal God in mortal flesh. From the very title of this hymn, we see the scope of the narrative it tells; not only does all creation suffer under mortality, but the Creator who enters into this messy, painful, shivering mortality. We cannot forget that, Christ was born to die, so that, as another carol declares, “man no more may die.” This counterintuitive gospel is at the heart of this carol; Easter and Christmas are not kept to their separate seasons, but held together in Christ.

“Keep Silence”
Keeping silence is a weakness of mine. I love to sing and talk. Christmas is a favorite time of year for me because everyone seems to be singing, dancing, and wishing each other good tidings. I honestly feel guilty if I don’t listen to Christmas radio nearly 24/7. Silence, especially this beautiful-but-noisy time of year, is something that takes great discipline. And yet, before the angels sang, there must have been a stillness in the air, rent only by cries of pain, animal sounds, and — at last — a baby’s first cry…the first cry of the Firstborn of Creation.

But if we keep our silence, we will learn to listen. The distant roaring of a still winter’s night. The twinkling of the stars like the jingle of bells. The singing of choirs instead of the blasting of the radio. This silence is not the absence of noise, but the noticing of sounds other than ourselves. It is to await something other than our ordinary daily race. It is a disciplined contemplation of the world around us and the creator of this world, who, though he deserved the fanfare of the heavens, entered first with quiet humility.

The Verses
If the title was not already loaded with insight, the rest of the text for this carol is absolutely astounding:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in His hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture –
in the body and the blood.
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the pow’rs of hell may vanish
as the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six-winged seraph,
cherubim, with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the Presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry,
“Alleluia, alleluia!
Alleluia, Lord most high!”

How many Christmas carols speak of “fear and trembling”? And yet this is vital, for it calls the faithful not only to come and worship, but to reorient their minds (as so often depicted in the Psalms, which also feature the “fear and trembling” motif) toward not only the hope of Christ, but His fearsome righteousness and grace.

It also alludes to Philippians, where we are told to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” This speaks of an active contemplation; although keeping silence, we are actively engaging with what it means for Christ to be born unto us. And as we read on to find that “Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand,” we might again be struck with fear and trembling. If a righteous God is descending to our realm to demand the payment of our debts, Oh Lord who can stand?

But the hymn does not stop here.  We might fear and tremble before the coming of a God we have wronged, but the second verse reveals that He came not to demand his recompense from us, but from himself. Christ, “In the body and the blood…will give to all the faithful, His own self for heavenly food.” In these lines, we make the journey from Christmas to Holy Week, finding that Christ’s birth and death are not separate at all. Just as the Infant Jesus was placed in a feeding trough, he is the sustenance for his flock. In His birth, our “Lord of Lords in human vesture,” prepared the way for salvation and communion. He descended not to demand payment, but to ransom us of His own eternal and infinite, yet mortally-clothed, worth.

Verse three is in a more typical Yuletide spirit, though its language is remarkably strong. “Rank on rank” and “vanguard” are more warmongering words than the usual “herald angels” (“Who’s Herald?” as the Peanuts might ask.) But we see here that although Christmas brings a newborn, in the words of C.S. Lewis: “he is not a tame lion.” Our humble, baby Jesus is not at all separate from the conquering Savior who will clear away all darkness and vanquish the powers of hell. Perhaps this Revelation Christ does not seem compatible with tender Nativity scenes, but this hymn reminds us that they are one and the same.

In the final, powerful verse, the supernatural reappears as the “six-winged seraph” and “cherubim, with sleepless eye” hide their holy eyes from the Divine Presence. The scriptural descriptions of these beings are, frankly, terrifying, so it is no wonder that the angels atop our Christmas trees are more friendly entities. However, the sheer majesty of our Lord is expressed here; even the most glorious of creatures cannot bear to look upon Him, yet this same Lord clothed himself in mortal flesh to redeem his fallen images. How terrifyingly beautiful? How wondrous and yet how fearsome?

This hymn’s text begins with mortal silence, but ends with divine and ceaseless cries of “Alleluia, Lord most high!” This advent, although it is nearly at its end, let us first contemplate in silence and then join in rejoicing as we remember the truth of the gospel, of Christmas and Easter and Revelation bound together in the person of Jesus Christ.

Eating Disorder, Reordered

In many previous blog posts, I have alluded to it. I have used it as an example of the dangers of perfectionism, as evidence of my own prideful nature, and as a point of reference to show how I’ve grown.

The “monster,” as my journal refers to it.

The eating disorder.

It’s something I can only really recognize in foresight and hindsight.

I remember Googling “symptoms of eating disorder” or “am I anorexic” as a frightened sixteen-year-old. However, while I was frightened by my sudden aversion to the healthy-sized portions of a growing teenager and by the falling number on my bathroom scale, I was also fascinated.

There is (or, at least, was) a romance to an eating disorder. It’s wrong that this is the case and I hate to think that I was not only drawn in by it, but desired it. Being thin became part of my self-adopted identity. Being able to function on an unrealistically low amount of food became a point of pride. Being able to wrap my hands more than completely around my thigh was a source of security.

The media’s portrayal of the female ideal was possibly a factor, but I can’t solely blame magazine covers or fashion models. It was my perception. It was what I chose to exalt that I then chose to embody. And it was not just magazines. In fact, I could care less about magazines. It was about my image, sure, but it was also about my whole person; I was not necessarily trying to be the same measurements as Taylor Swift, but I was trying to have the control that celebrities and models seemed to represent. Sure, I wanted to be thin, but on a deeper level, I wanted to be in control.

This struggle was made worse by what I chose to focus on not just in media, but in my own area of passion: literature.

Scarlett O’Hara’s “seventeen-inch waist, the smallest in three counties” became an obsession, regardless of whether organ-damaging corsets were the true cause of her tiny size.

Erik, Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera, was another odd ideal. If the genius artist only needed one meal a day, why should I need more?

Worst of all was a book called Wintergirls. It is literally about characters battling anorexia and I secretly consumed chunks of it every once in a while in the school library. First, I read it with intrigue, then disgust. I vowed I’d never let my eating get as bad as those characters. And I suppose I didn’t. But oh, how close I came, I fear that my mindset was no better than theirs.

I could go on incriminating book characters, actors, and even ordinary people from my day-to-day life who happened to be naturally thin, but ultimately it was not a matter of their sizes or eating habits, but my own skewed perspective. This I can recognize in hindsight. At the beginning of the slippery slope, I knew something was off, but the intrigue and distractions lead me further down the hole.

Not only was I curious to see if I too had the makings of a petite Southern Belle or angsty artist, but I was able to hide this temptation toward disordered eating behind distractions. Literature and music, my two loves, became curtains to obscure what was taking center stage in my attention. If I was hungry, I would take a meagre portion to my room and read as I nibbled slowly, hoping to escape far enough into a story to forget that I was still hungry. Or, worse maybe, I would not allow myself food until I’d finished my allotted practice time. By then, I’d be past knowing how hungry I was and would be contented with another tiny meal.

But I knew I had a problem. I just went about fixing it in all the wrong ways.

Instead of realizing worth apart from my external appearance, I would search “healthy-sized celebrities” and continue to compare myself as if adding “healthy” to the Pinterest search made it rational and helpful. I would bring extra snacks to school to reassure my parents…which I would force my friends to share with me. I would take quizzes to self-diagnose myself with the disorder as if by accepting that I had one it would take care of itself or, worse, be a valid part of my identity.

I was always hungry and always balanced on the edge between total control and loss of control. In fact, I found that in trying to have complete control in my life, I lost control. I was never a rebellious teenager in the traditional sense, but I lashed out at my family. I would make a point of ordering “healthy” foods when we went out to eat as if that made me better than those eating burgers. I would retreat to my room or the park where I liked to walk more and more frequently.

I started to recover only with time and I know that I will never stop battling the “monster.” I do not aim to offer a step-by-step recovery manual, nor to I really know if I have any advice worth sharing. But what really started me thinking toward recovery – seriously considering and beginning to act – was talking to people who had either 1) been through a similar struggle and/or 2) worked with those who had.

I was lucky. My parents, so concerned for my well-being and tired of fighting the monster that I had allowed to take over, nearly sent me to a rehabilitation center. That was my wakeup call and I agreed to go to a nutritionist instead. To this day, I remember her as one of the kindest and most helpful people I have ever had the joy to meet. She explained how common this problem is and prescribed a healthy, nourishing diet to help me slowly gain weight. I was scared. By this time, I had zip-lined over the rainforest, held a tarantula, given speeches in front of large crowds, performed in competitions, etc. But this– the mere thought of gaining ten pounds –was a challenge I didn’t know if I could face. And I didn’t, not really.

My parents did. And the nutritionist did. And, though there were many nights where I suffered setbacks (for instance, once I sobbed over being “forced” to eat a scoop of ice cream), slowly I gained weight.

And then lost it.

But, though I had only gained half of what I needed to be at the bare minimum weight, I was happier. Simply eating a normal amount and eating with people was starting to work a physical change, which was a step toward a general change for the better. Have you ever been hangry? You can’t make decisions and happiness seems an annoyance when you’re hangry.

Imagine begin hangry for two years. Now, imagine it’s your own fault that you’re hangry, adding self-disgust to the irritation. But, do you know how good a bite of food makes you feel after too long without it? Instant relaxation.

As I returned to a normal eating habit, I did not gain the weight back all at once, but I felt a peace. I could think more clearly. For someone who loves nothing more than deep thought, I hate to think of the time I wasted in a cloudy state.

And, as I grew more comfortable with myself (honestly, I just needed time and nourishment, like any living thing), I started spending more time with friends. I stopped retreating, started going out for ice cream randomly with my best friend, as all high schoolers should. I stopped comparing my body to others and instead focused on developing friendships with them. This isn’t to say I didn’t have friends before, but those relationships became so much more wonderful when I got out of my own head and realized that the beauty of others does not detract from my own, but that we are more beautiful when we come to appreciate each other without comparison.

The freshman fifteen in college really did the trick, I think. In a land where donuts are inescapable, I was terrified I would gain weight. But, when I inevitably did, I found that instead of being depressed and ugly, I was happy. As a music major and honors scholar, my schedule was and is ridiculous and I have a million commitments every day. And, you know what? Without even meaning to, I prioritized those commitments over my image.

For a year or so, I definitely still curled my hair and I still believe firmly that a swipe of lipstick can make all the difference. However, going away to college and pursuing new studies and relationships and jobs, I realized in reality what rationally I knew all along: There are far more important things than my pant size and than how little I can eat.

I also started running which, in itself, could have been a disaster. It could have turned into exercise bulimia. I could have tried to run off anything I ate. But I was not running alone, just as my family and friends had not let me travel the path of recovery alone. Right away, I told my running friend about my struggle with eating and body image and he to this day asks me how I am doing. When we set out for a run, he would (and sometimes still does) ask me how I had eaten that day and if I was doing alright.

Running brought me a new support system in this friend. It also alleviated the anxiety that had lead me to seek control over eating. Also, it helped me learn to be more focused on taking care of my actual body than my body image. It is so much better to have muscular legs from regular exercise than to have a thigh gap from avoiding food. I used to hate these strong legs, but now I am thankful every time I lace my running shoes that they are built to endure the race I am bound to run.

In hindsight, I can say that I have overcome a lot of this issue and the mindset behind it, but I cannot say that I have overcome it fully.  I will battle this monster daily, though now it is tamed and nearly forgotten. I might be healthy and have the hearty appetite of a 21-year-old, but I am still a perfectionist.

I am still tempted to pride.

I still desire control and hold myself to standards I know I can never achieve.

But, looking back, I am realizing that in this struggle, I have been purged (no pun intended, I swear). I have been brought low in seeking to make something higher of myself and, in hindsight, I can see how far I have come, but also that it was not of my own efforts.

By grace alone was I saved from sin and death and by grace alone I am being continually restored in the Image of my Lord. Only now can I look back and see that while I was striving to make myself into an image I had deemed desirable, I was in fact being unmade. I was being stripped of my pride and brought to a point of devastation so that I could be remade in an image, not of myself, but of the One who had saved me so many years before and continues to shape me day by day.

In the depths of an eating disorder, God brought forth order. He reordered me, bringing me from my self-made chaos into the calm assurance of His promise. I yet stumble and am tempted, but I know that no image I might mistakenly pursue can compare to the one which, through His death and resurrection, He has and is recreating in me.

Preeminent Performance

In my “Redeeming Culture through Music” class, we were asked the following question:

“Which is most important in music: the composer, the performer, or the listener?”

The class more or less unanimously expressed that the three persons are equally important. After all, if there is no composer, there is nothing to perform and if there is nobody to perform, why bother to compose? Furthermore, without either of these, there is no reason or even opportunity to listen. In fact, these three roles are so remarkably interrelated that it is difficult to define or even discuss one apart from the other two and often an individual musician may (and should) practice more than one of these roles.

It seems, however, that although there is an almost triune relationship between the composer, performer, and listener, it is worth realizing that the composer and listener are mediated by the performer and, indeed, the performer ideally acts as both composer and listener. In performing a piece, a musician is interpreting and expressing with a unique intention, thus co-composing while also being the mode by which the original composer is sharing his ideas with an audience. Without the performer, these “ideas” would be limited to the mind of the composer; after all, notation is not truly music any more than words are truly that which they describe. The composer relies upon the performer to breath life into the form of his work and, through the performer, the music is made.

The performer is also the most active listener. It is immediately clear when a performer is not listening to his music and it is rightly said that while a musician might hear the note as he plays, the true artist hears it before. To play well, to bring to life a work in collaboration with the composer, the performer must also be the greatest of listeners.

Communication too must be mentioned, for without the performing artist to produce the sounds imagined by the composer, listeners or audience members cannot experience and participate in the music. As Madeleine L’Engle writes in her beautiful devotional book, Walking on Water: 

“Art is communication, and if there is no communication it is as though the work had been stillborn.”

A piece of music might exist conceptually in the mind of the composer, but without the performer as its communicator, those who are mere listeners will not be able to hear, enjoy, and ponder it. The performer, then, is not only the embodiment of both composer and listener, but the mediator between the original composer and the awaiting listeners.

At this merely human level, it seems that of composer, performer, and listener, the performer (if we are forced to choose one) is the most vital, for he is both of the others, as well as a communicative mediator. It becomes apparent through scriptural synthesis that this answer is consistent theologically as well.

Here is where I must clarify: I do not mean to suggest that the relationship of composer, performer, and listener is a perfect parallel to the Trinity. (I have laughed at too many #AlsoNotLikeTheTrinity posts to risk it!) However, I will venture to suggest that music, like all arts, is incarnational, and that the composer, performer, and listener wonderfully image the intermediary work of Christ between God the Father and His creation, mankind.

“To paint a picture or to write a story or to compose a song is an incarnational activity.” – Madeleine L’Engle

First of all, what do I mean that “art is incarnational”? The production of art is to put ideas into a sensory, communicable form. Books are ideas set in words; painting or sculpture are visual and tangible expressions of the artist’s idea; music differs slightly in that a person, rather than a medium such as a book or canvas, is needed to produce the audible product. But even (and perhaps especially) in this case, the music is an idea made actual through the performance; music is an idea incarnate as organized sound.

Already, there is an echo of Christ in the word “incarnate,” and rightly so. The idea that music is brought fully into being by the mind of the composer and through the performer as co-composer is reminiscent of John 1:1-3:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made.” (ESV)

God (the Father) creates as a mind imagines, while the Son manifests as the Word communicates. Ideally, a composer would be also performer, thus imaging the perfect unity of the Trinity. Even with a separate composer and performer, though, the reflective relationship is present: the composer creates conceptually and, through the power of the performer, communicatively.

This brings us to the listeners. Controversial composer, Arnold Schoenberg, believed that:

“A real composer writes music for no other reason than that it pleases him. Those who compose because they want to please others, and have audiences in mind, are not real artists.”

Theologically, based on the parallels I seek to draw, there is some truth here. God creates out of His overflowing delight and the Genesis narrative immediately reveals God’s pleasure as He deems each piece of creation “good.” However, this delight indicates that God formed all things also in order to share this wondrous joy. When God crowns His creation with His own image, mankind, He pronounces it finally, “very good.”

Here and throughout Scripture (consider the Psalms as one such vast example) it is apparent that God in His infinite goodness and love made all that there is for His own right pleasure, but also with the gracious desire to communicate Himself and His creativity with His image bearers: mankind, the listeners.

This brings us back to incarnation. Consider Colossians 1:15-17

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities— all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (ESV)

Christ, the Son of God who took on flesh, is fully divine and fully dust, fully God and fully man. By Christ all things were made and in him all things are held together; he was the means by which all is made and remade, but also is the true image of the God we cannot see. He is the Word that speaks of the Divine Mind, making manifest what is “too wonderful” for mankind (Psalm 139:6, ESV).

Christ is the mediator, the co-creator who yet condescended in mercy to listen and to teach. He is the Word, incarnation, and — in this instance — the truest of performers, for through Him we receive reconciliation and understanding, for though Christ walked in flesh among us, He is one with our Creator.

“He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” – Colossians 1:18-20 (ESV)

Although composer, performer, and listener are each necessary and impossible to isolate from each other, we find that the performer is ideally both composer and listener, as well as the mediator between an unhearing audience and the seemingly-incomprehensible ideas of the composer. Within the context of Christianity, we find parallels that reveal the incarnational aspect of the performer’s work and resonate with the truth of Christ’s manifestation and mediation. Performers, then, in their practice, image the preeminence of Christ as they bring music to life.

 

 

Three Principles

As I was practicing piano the other day, I wrote a series of three questions to ask myself as I worked on each detail:

  1. Is it clean?
  2. Is it beautiful?
  3. Does it mean something?

First, I work technically, listening even to exercises to discern if they are played with clarity and precision. Are they clean? The same attention to purity must be given to all other passages, even (perhaps especially) the most Romantic. The greatest pianists play beautifully, but do so over the canvas of excellent technique and clear sound.

Secondly, is it beautiful? Is there a way I could shape this phrase to make it more lovely? Is the sound of the individual note rich and pleasing? How could I voice this to make it even more musical? A great pianist can set audiences to gasping at his exquisite turn of a single phrase. How can I make this phrase such a moment of beauty?

Finally, does it mean something? I was working diligently away on the first two (clarity and beauty) before I was caught by this third principle. I played a phrase surprisingly well and it conjured an image in my mind. It was nothing profound, just a little glimpse of a boat spiraling in a current, but it was enough to give a newfound meaning to the line that I was practicing.

Without meaning, what does it matter if music is beautiful? What does it matter if it is clean if it is not beautiful and, further, does not have meaning? These principles build off of each other not only in music, but in the creation of any art. The artist might (and should) begin with an idea of what he wants to communicate, but he must execute it with technical precision and aesthetic appeal in order to properly convey this meaning. Bearing this constantly in mind as I practice has revived my approach: I am not just playing rote repetitions, but am working with the goal of achieving accuracy so that I can then focus on beauty and, finally, communicate the meaning governing those two.

Being an over-the-top Torrey Honors Institute nerd, I realized that these three principles of effective artistic practice can be aligned with the overarching ideas of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

  1. Is it good? Are the notes or strokes or words placed with commitment to good technique, adherence to structure, etc.? Is the art made with a spirit working toward excellence? This is convicting, is it not?
  2. Is it beautiful? Once technical excellence is established, it naturally gives the freedom for elegance, color, and expression! The “good” allows for the “beautiful” to be made with greater potential to be both achieved and understood. If our technique is helter-skelter, the likelihood of playing a natural-sounding and well-shaped phrase is extremely low. Artists should take chances, but trying to generate beauty without technical awareness seems a foolish one to take.
  3. Is it true? Clean performance practice and beautiful sound build upon each other to, ideally, generate meaning. Think about writing. We follow the rules of grammar, only breaking them when it serves an intentional purpose, because these set standards promote elegance of expression and clarity of intent in even the most unskilled writers. In the same way, poets often follow structural rules because it gives shape to not only their beautiful lines but also makes their meaning more accessible.

As I was reading through Ephesians this morning, I was struck by a note I made in the margin a couple of years ago: “Art of Faith.”

These three principles are not only for the practice of artists, but for the life of believers. Indeed, the walk of faith is perhaps the greatest art. We are restored Images, saved by the Word, called to worship in song. We are redeemed works of art and as we “practice” our obedience and gratefulness, we might find in these three simplified principles helpful guidelines for making our lives shine as art that is pure, lovely, and truthful.

In all aspects of our lives, whether or not we would consider ourselves “artistic,” we ought to be thinking as co-creators and, indeed, works of art. Before purchasing, making, doing, or saying anything, we should ask ourselves: is this thing good, useful, quality? Is it beautiful and lovely? Is it true, helpful, and honest?

Imagine how our lives might be transformed if we asked ourselves these questions. I doubt I would own as much clutter. I would likely speak with greater thoughtfulness. I would spend so much less time being frustrated with the repetitiveness of practice– of the everyday– because instead of just going through the motions, I would be considering even the tiniest details of my life in relation to the three greatest ideals: the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

A Poem to the Church of St. Edward King and Martyr

The words that lie written beneath our feet,
Titles of saints, these graves in graven stones,
The echoes of reformers’ gracious tones
Which once and still all sinners here would meet.

And still these words evoke fascination
Of both pilgrim and poet’s seeking hearts,
Quickening with the spirit each their arts,
Knowledge grown into Imagination.

And as the lighted panes of color sink,
The sun behind their beauty surely must
Rise as the divine out of the dust,
Drawing all to come and deeply drink.

Great voyages were here put out to sea
And brought by mercy’s gift more safely back,
Lifted, purged and saved by utter wreck
Foretold in written art-turned-prophecy.

Come feel the place preparéd by the Word,
Too vast, too true for human reason’s reach.
Though past, the sermons said yet seem to preach;
Freeing the soul to pray and thus be cured.

-Cambridge, July 2nd, 2018