Friday, October 17, 2008

Sorrowful Songs

For a few minutes, I sat in my car, parked in the ramp across from the hospital, staring at the car radio. From it was coming a strange piece of music, so very sad and yet so strangely beautiful. Remembering the soundtrack to a recent PBS series about the Holocaust, I recognized bits of what I was hearing. I would’ve listened to the rest of it but I needed to make a hospital call and I saw someone—I hoped he was a security guard—looking my direction. Upon returning to the church, I checked the radio station’s playlist. Very sad, indeed. What I was hearing is called the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. It was written by a Polish composer named Henryk G√≥recki. I ordered a copy.

These sorrowful songs are prayers. There are three of them. One of these prayers was scratched by a Polish woman into the wall of a Gestapo prison cell. As I listen to these songs, these sorrowful prayers, I cannot help but think of a few verses of Romans 8, verses that have fascinated me for decades.

I remember having read Romans when I was in high school. I had grown up hearing bits and pieces of Paul’s letter being used in various schemas of salvation. I had heard that “all had sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” and that “the wages of sin is death” but that “Christ had died for the ungodly.” I had heard that in his death on the cross Christ took upon himself the punishment I deserve for my sins so that I might have eternal life in heaven above rather than eternal life in the fires below. Thinking that the mystery of my salvation must be in there somewhere, I was determined to read Romans and understand how these bits and pieces all fit together. And so I read and studied as best I could. While I failed to understand how its parts followed one from the other, I did read it. And so it was when I was in high school that I first read these words of the eighth chapter: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly.” I read that the Spirit helps us to pray. Because we do not know exactly for what we should pray, the “Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”

These verses fascinated me. They had a kind of power over me. As a religion major in college, I wrote about them for my senior paper. I wrote about the difference, the distance, between what now is and what surely ought to be, between what now is and what it is for which human beings hope. I mean the best and highest of human hopes and longings. I mean human desire purified into love. So high and fine are these hopes and longings—so high and fine is this desire, this love—that we cannot even say what it is exactly for which we are hoping, longing, and praying. These hopes and longings are so high and fine as to be divine, divinely inspired and given by God.

But the distance between what is and what ought to be is oftentimes great and the difference, painful. Caught between this difference, this distance causes a person to groan inwardly and to sigh. This groaning and these sighs too deep for words are prayers, prayers unto God. So says the Apostle Paul. And it is not just human beings that so pray, that groan and sigh, but all of creation, says Paul. All of creation is filled with this prayer. It is a sad prayer, even sorrowful. However, while sad and sorrowful, it is not an expression of despair, but of deep hope and longing, the expression of a deep love. It is this hope and longing—this love—that gives this prayer, sorrowful and wordless, its definite beauty.

It was during my divinity school years that I became very interested in the Gospel of Mark. Not a few scholars think that Mark was written some forty years after the death of Christ, soon after the year 70. It was written in dark and dangerous times. In the year 70, the Romans violently quelled a Jewish uprising and destroyed Jerusalem and its temple. They destroyed the very dwelling place of the presence of God. “Where is God now?” would have been the urgent question asked not only among Jews, but also among Christians, most of whom still considered themselves Jews or in some way “Jewish”. Indeed, it was at noon, according to Mark, as the sky darkened strangely, that Jesus cried out from his cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

These words of Jesus from his cross are the opening words of Psalm 22, which scholars classify as a lament, a lament being a sad and desperate prayer unto God. Reading the first half of Psalm 22 and Mark’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion, it seems that Mark structured his account of Jesus’ death with Psalm 22 before him. Now, whether Jesus, in fact, said these words just before his death and whether things, in fact, happened just as Mark has set them out, we can never know. But that is all entirely beside the point. What Mark wants to tell us is that Jesus’ death is, itself, a prayer.

Jesus’ death is a prayer offered on behalf of the entire world. The crossbeam of Jesus Christ’s cross extends in one direction into the past, to the time of the person who wrote Psalm 22 and beyond. In the other direction, it extends into the future, to the dark and dangerous time some forty years after the death of Jesus and beyond to the time of that woman who scratched her prayer into the wall of that Gestapo prison cell and beyond even that time. Through his cross, Jesus Christ fills the world.

Jesus’ death is a prayer offered unto God on behalf of the entire world. The upright of Jesus Christ’s cross extends from earth to heaven and reaches across that chasm—the distance and difference—between what is and what surely ought to be. From the darkest and furthest most point of this side of that chasm, which is the God forsaken-ness of the very Son of God, does it reach across to God. Through Jesus Christ, God fills the world.

And there is now nothing in all creation, says the Apostle, that “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Neal Kentch
Summer 2007

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Beauty of the World

Mary and I had a nice vacation. After a good visit with my family in Iowa, we drove down to Missouri to spend five days in the Ozarks. Where we like to go is some 150 miles east of Branson, in Shannon County, an isolated part of the Ozarks. To give you some idea, the town of Eminence, the county seat, has a population of a little more than 500 people.

We went there for our vacation last year, too. And we went camping there, at Alley Spring, twice when we were first married. Come to think of it, all of the “real” vacations Mary and I have taken have been to Shannon County, of all places. Why is this?

Well, one reason is that it feels like home to me. My parents grew up, and my grandparents are buried, some 30 miles to the west, in the next county. So I’ve been there many, many times. And so, since I’m not what anyone would call an adventuresome traveler, it feels like a safe trip to me. That would be another reason.

But the real reason we go is because the rugged hills, the rivers, and the springs are so very beautiful. There is a quiet beauty all around. Unlike the bold beauty of the Rocky Mountains or Yosemite’s Half Dome, the beauty of Alley Spring, the Current River, and the St. Francois Mountains sneaks up on you to take you by surprise. And I find myself often saying quietly to myself, “Oh!”

On a cool, drizzly morning and in low gear, we drove down the hill to Big Spring, one of the largest springs in the world. The water comes roaring and thumping—the water makes a thumping sound, like it’s bumping up against itself—from the base of a sheer, limestone bluff, from the bottom of a gray rock maybe four or five times as large as the courthouse. The water then surges—a pile of water pushes—and spreads into a blue pool. From there, the spring water flows clear over the gravel bed of the spring branch to the Current River beyond and out of sight. Beautiful.

A few days later, the clouds having removed themselves to the eastern horizon, an autumn sun shone on red and yellow leaves. We went to Alley Spring. Alley isn’t a small spring, but it’s quieter than Big Spring. The water pushes upward from the bottom of a deep, blue pool. The pool is of such a bluish hue it makes one wonder if someone hasn’t thrown some kind of strange dye into it. If you look closely, you can see the surface of the pool barely disturbed by the power of the upward movement occurring below. But then the water rushes out of the pool through the dam of the old, red mill on one side and over some rocks on the other. Down the spring branch it hurries toward the Jacks Fork River, catching the sun as it goes. The water plants growing below the current of the branch are greener than any plant has a right to be. Beautiful.

The beauty of the world. The beauty of the world’s order. You want to put some of it in your pocket or put it in a box to take home. But you can’t; it isn’t something that can be possessed. Neither is this beauty something useful; to use it, to make something out of it, is to disturb or mar it to one degree or another. It is just there. It is there to be loved. And we do. We love the beauty of the world, the beauty of its order.

It is this love that causes us to desire and to possess things. It is this love that compels us to build and to create beautiful things, things that mimic, or imitate, the beauty of the world. This love for the beauty of the world’s order is the reason we desire to control, to exercise power, to order things and people. We can’t help it. This love can get us into all sorts of serious trouble, can cause us to make all kinds of grave mistakes, but we can’t help but love the beauty of the world.

We make mistakes and get into all sorts of trouble because the beauty of this world cannot be possessed. It cannot be used. It is simply there for us to love. In this way is the beauty of the world “telling the glory of God”. In this way does it whisper of what is beyond it, of what cannot be seen. God cannot be possessed. God cannot be used. God is simply there for us to love. And, one way or the other, we do. Really. We can’t help it. It is how we have been made.
Neal Kentch
October 2007

Rocky Falls

As Rocky Creek flows through Shannon County on its way to the Current River, it falls. Rocky Creek suddenly trips and falls this way and that over a huge rock. This rock is of a reddish color and is much harder than the gray limestone through which Rocky Creek otherwise flows and which its waters easily dissolve and erode. All of a sudden there is this huge, hard, reddish rock. Sitting on it and watching the water cascading—such a beautiful sight—a person has to wonder what in the world this rock is doing here.

Geologists call the kind of rock over which Rocky Creek falls rhyolite. Rhyolite is an igneous, or volcanic, rock. As it turns out, this particular chunk of rhyolite is very old. It is ancient. When one sits on it, one is sitting among the St. Francois Mountains. These mountains, though they now look more like hills, are much older than the Appalachians and far and away older than the Rockies. Geologists think these mountains were formed in the heat and pressure of two landmasses ever so slowly grinding against each other, one sliding over and the other slipping beneath. (The New Madrid Fault to the south and east is thought to be the seam between these two landmasses.) In the heat below rock melted to liquid and the pressure squeezed that liquid rock to the surface where it cooled and hardened into mountains of rhyolite and granite, into the St. Francois Mountains.

But that isn’t the end of the story. An ancient sea inundated the area making islands of the St. Francois peaks. Over a span of time difficult for us to comprehend, the shells of creatures that lived and died in this sea fell to the bottom of it. Layer upon layer of seashells, dissolved and compressed, became rock, became limestone. The land then rose. The sea receded. And Rocky Creek began making its way to the Current River, scouring deeper and deeper into the limestone, scouring down to this ancient chunk of rhyolite. And there it is: Rocky Falls.

Thus does the geologist, the scientist—thus does the human mind describe the order of the world, or this part of the world, this part of the Missouri Ozarks. The human mind pays attention to the world around; the mind pays very careful attention and observes what is outside of and resists it. It observes the differences between things, pays attention to cause and effect, notes changes. It numbers and measures what is observed. Our mind takes its measure of the order of the world and we are then able to comprehend and understand it. Though our comprehension be limited and that understanding fragmentary, we still understand and comprehend something of the world’s order. We can describe it. And this makes us happy. To understand and comprehend something of the order of the world, that order which we find so very beautiful, delights us. And the world appears to us just that much more beautiful and wondrous.

Something of the order of the world is also understood and comprehended in the first thirty-four and a half verses of the Bible. Careful attention is paid to the world around in the first verses of Genesis. Observe. Observe the difference between light and darkness, day and night. Observe the different kinds of plants, each producing seeds according to its kind. Observe the differences between the animals that live in the air and those that inhabit the deep and those that creep upon the earth. The order of the world, which is exactly what these differences constitute, is observed and measured.

These verses revel in that order. Their order, the pattern these verses form, mimic and measure the order observed: On the first day, light comes to be and, with it, night and day. And lights come to populate the sky three days later, on the fourth day; the sun rules the day while the moon and stars shine in the night. On the second day, the waters above and below are separated and sky and sea come to be. And the sky and sea are populated on the fifth day, three days later, with birds and sea creatures. On the third day, the waters of the sea are gathered together allowing dry land to appear. And, sure enough, three days later, on the sixth day, the land is populated with animals of every kind and with human beings. Something of the order of the world is understood and comprehended. That order is beautiful and delightful. “It is good,” is God’s joyful refrain, and we, understanding and comprehending something of that order, cannot help but agree.

Our means of observing and measuring the order of the world are much keener and much more sophisticated these days. Our science is keener, more sophisticated, but the results of our ever keener observations and ever more sophisticated measurements can be unnerving. As we measure, we find that we are measured in turn. The scale by which we now measure is beyond us. The spans of time we measure, like the time it takes solid rock to dissolve, are so much longer than the span of one’s life they can barely be imagined. We can never feel the temperature at which rock melts; we wouldn’t survive the experience. How many seashells did it take to make that limestone bluff? We can perhaps calculate and estimate their number, but to count them one by one we could only begin. The scale is beyond us; it is no longer a human scale that we use. We are measured as we measure. We are small and frail. Our lives are very brief. To understand and comprehend this can be unnerving.

Sitting on that ancient rock watching the water cascading this way and that—such a beautiful sight—a person has to wonder. The beauty of the world, the order of the world, and the scale by which we measure that order, all of it makes a person wonder: “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?” (Isaiah 40.12) A person has to wonder. The beauty of the world, the order of the world, and even the scale by which we measure that order, all of it whispers of what is beyond, what is beyond us and beyond the world. It all softly whispers of what is beyond any measure, of what can in no way be measured. And a person can only wonder. A person can only wonder if it isn’t that we so much comprehend and understand than it is that we are comprehended and understood, if it isn’t so much that we measure but that we are, indeed, measured. You have to wonder if even the hairs on your head aren’t numbered somehow.

Neal Kentch
November 2007