Some years ago, I was introduced to a remarkable piece of music composed by JS Bach—the fifth movement of his Partita in D minor for solo violin (called the Chaconne). As with so many of Bach’s works, the Chaconne easily captures your heart; it has a way of lodging itself in mind and imagination. The piece is by turns pained and playful; dissonant and melodic. It sometimes rushes on almost to the point of stumbling and at other times strides smoothly towards its resolution.
At the heart of the Chaconne is a mystery that may go some way to explaining its compelling nature. The German musicologist Helga Thoene has suggested that it contains a hidden numerical code that references Bach’s wife (Maria Barbara) and the year of her unexpected death. Also, that the piece is built on an intricate musical scaffolding of eleven hymns that all reference the death and resurrection of Christ and invite us to put our trust in God. The Chaconne seems to be bookended by musical echoes of a chorale by Martin Luther and the phrases “Christ lay in death’s bonds” and “Hallelujah”.
As we think about the Chaconne it is important to acknowledge that we are all Romantics—we see artistic expression as tied up with our personal lives and our internal emotional landscapes. We have placed ourselves at the centre of our imaginations and it is difficult for us to conceive a world that is not self-focused in this way. Since Bach predates the Romantic period, however, it is more likely that his music points to something outside of or beyond himself; something universal, rather than something merely personal. The glory of God, the compassion of God, and the hope that is found in Christ. Continue reading →
Stones of all kinds were a feature of my family’s vacation this past month – a vacation that included two weeks on the West Coast. We spent time in and around Vancouver, and then up the coast into Alaska. Everywhere there were stones.
With the tide out, wandering on rocky beaches – more stones than could be counted.
On a Sea-to-Sky hike and climb near Squamish – scrambling across rock falls and around boulders.
Along the coast and inland, too, mountains and massive outcroppings of rock – Mount Baker, The Chief, Grouse Mountain.
Near Juneau, Alaska.
Rocks define our world, the earth, so why would they not define a summer holiday, also?
You are an individual. And from your particular body – from your particular time and space – from your unique set of experiences – you look out onto the wider world. How big is your world?
You are not the centre of the world (most of us know we are not the centre of the world) but at the same time, from some kind of centre you take in the world around you:
You see the world looking out from where you are.
You relate to the world and to others from your body.
You identify people and institutions that are important to you.
You pay attention to certain things and ignore other things.
You may not be the centre of the world, but you are at the centre of something. And from that kind of centre, what do you see? What are the things that register for you? How far does your gaze reach? How big is your world?
As we think about who we are and what matters to us, perhaps we think about our past – perhaps we think about grand parents and great grandparents and their influence in our lives – or about the towns or cities or countries that our recent ancestors came from. Continue reading →
When you read through the proverbs, you very quickly discover that many of them offer a choice between stark alternatives. Always a choice – an either/or, if you will:
either wise or foolish
either hard working or lazy
either righteous or wicked
either upright or devious.
Looking at these either/ors in the book of Proverbs reminds us of words we read in Deuteronomy chapter 30 – words of God through Moses:“This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live, and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.”
Again, a stark choice is set before us:
either life or death;
either curses or blessings.
This way of thinking about life and decisions may feel pretty heavy to us – and not only heavy. It will feel almost impossible for us human beings to apply this way of thinking to all of our decisions or actions. These either/ors are too stark for us. In the first place, if we thought about every decision and action as a choice between life and death, between light and dark, between wisdom and folly, we would probably be like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights – we’d be trapped and unable to move or make a decision. If every decision carried the weight of good and evil, light and dark, then with every little decision we would be wrestling with ourselves and the situation: “O my goodness, is this decision light or darkness – is this decision good or wicked – am I giving life or dealing in death?” If every decision we made carried that kind of weight, it would be a recipe for immobility and exhaustion on our part. Continue reading →
Today I went down with Becky and the kids to take in the Chihuly exhibit at the Musée des beaux-arts. It is a good-sized, though not huge exhibit – though regardless of its size it represents a cornucopia of colour and shapes and light. Chihuly has the capacity to create enchanting pieces of glass – and astonishing larger pieces made up of multiple piece of glass. More than enchanting, his pieces are remarkable for their colours and patterns and the ways that light is used to set them off as a feast for the eyes.
Another important aspect of these pieces is that they could never have been created by one person. The level of physical effort that goes into blowing, or otherwise creating, pieces of glass of this size requires a team of creators, with Chihuly at the lead.
I can only imagine that there is, out there, an fairly vast literature about the significance of Chihuly’s work and, more specifically, on the question of whether it is mere “decorative arts” – that is, whether it offers some statement on the nature or meaning of human life and community or is simply intended to add colour and beauty to the background and foreground of our daily life. At a minimum, the display I saw today suggested that we are drawn to his work because we are drawn to light and colour and beauty – symmetry and organic shapes and a diverse but generally bright palette. Here are a few of the pieces.
But after these photos I took this morning, and after the jump, I also want to briefly consider (and contrast with the work of Chihuly) a painting I saw in another section of the gallery today.
I’m working on a short teaching series I’ll be leading this fall – it’s on the subject of Sabbath. I was reading in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s beautiful book The Sabbath: It’s meaning for modern man and came across this quotation, which fits nicely both with what Jesus has to say and with the broad message that I would hope to convey. Heschel highlights Aristotle’s view that “we need relaxation, because we cannot work continually. Relaxation, then is not an end.”
But Heschel turns this on its head when he replies:
To the biblical mind, however, labor is the means toward an end, and the Sabbath as a day of rest, as a day of abstaining from toil, is not for the purpose of recovering one’s lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labour. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life. Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work. “Last in creation, first in intention,” the Sabbath is the “end of the creation of heaven and earth.”
The Sabbath is not for the sake of weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living.