In the great fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings, near the beginning of the first book, the wizard Gandalf tells the young hobbit Frodo Baggins, who will in the end be the great hero of the story, about the dark times in which they live, and the great challenges that lie ahead. Frodo, understandably, says he would rather live in happier times, times that aren’t fraught with such darkness; to which Gandalf responds, “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
The time that is given. In modern Christianity, it’s almost an article of faith that C. S. Lewis was a very wise man; but it’s too easy for us to forget that his great friend J. R. R. Tolkien, the man who played the most important role in leading Lewis to faith, was also a very wise man—because we mostly know him for his fantasy stories. But there is very great wisdom in that line, wisdom rooted deep in Scripture, and particularly in the creation account. We are limited creatures. We are limited in our abilities—good at some things, bad at others—and while we can grow and develop, we’re limited in our ability to do so. We’re limited physically—I’d love to be able to play shortstop in the majors, but that was never even a vaguely plausible dream—and limited mentally as well. We’re limited by our gender, and to some degree by the societal expectations that go along with it. We’re limited in our ability to control or influence the world around us—we can only reach so far, and what is beyond our reach eludes us; our bodies stop at the edge of our skin, and everything beyond that is not-us, carrying on its existence apart from us.
And most fundamentally, we are limited by space and time—we are creatures of place, and of the time we have been given. We are creatures of the places we live and have lived, and we are creatures of our place in human history; we will never know the life of an English knight who fought with Henry V at Agincourt, or of a Russian revolutionary in October, 1917, or of one of the shoguns who ruled Japan in the 1800s. We were each born at a particular time, in a particular country, and have lived through a particular set of experiences; we know our life and no other.
This is how we are; and as Genesis shows us, we were created so. When God created the first human, he didn’t just drop him off to wander around, homeless; rather, he placed the human in a garden which had been created to be his home. God gave him a location, a home address, a neighborhood, even if his only neighbors had either four feet or wings, and he told the human, “Do your work in this place.” Today, he tells all of us the same: “Do your work in this place, the place where I have put you; follow me in this community, in the home where you live, in the family of which you are a part, in the relationships you have now.” As Eugene Peterson put it in his book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, “All living is local: this land, this neighborhood, these trees and streets and houses, this work, these people,” and thus it is as locals that we must live out our faith, placing the word of God in the concrete reality of “this land, this neighborhood, . . . this work, these people”—and bringing it alive in our life in response to all the concrete frustrations, irritations, and problems that “this neighborhood, . . . this work, these people” bring us. It is this place on earth that gives our lives their shape.
It is also this place in time—and, more generally, time itself. As Genesis also tells us, we are creatures of time, our lives shaped and formed in every respect by time in its passing. We can see this in our bodies, which are a collection of rhythms—the rhythm of our breathing, in and out, in and out; of our pulse, the twofold beating of our hearts, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM; of sleeping and waking, as day succeeds night and night follows day in turn. We can see it in the rhythm of the seasons, spring-summer-fall-winter and spring again. We can see it in the music that threads its way through our lives, providing an ever-changing soundtrack to our existence, and in the flow of our movements as we walk, or run. And we can see it most fundamentally in Genesis 1, which shows us God creating the universe in time, in the flow of time, and shaping a rhythm: and God said, and God said, and God said, in six-part harmony—six parts to creation, and then a seventh part, the seventh day, the day of rest.
This is, by the way, true even if Genesis 1 isn’t talking about six 24-hour days; the point isn’t counting hours, it’s that this is the rhythm God built into creation, the rhythm for which we were created, of work and rest. Both are part of his design for our lives, and both are necessary if we are to live as he made us to live. Whether you’re still working for a living or you’re retired, God has work for you to do in this place; whether it’s necessary for you to support yourself or not, it’s a part of God’s plan for you, both for your sake and for the sake of others. He also has rest for you in this place, time set aside in his schedule for you to set work aside, during which we gather to worship him as one people; and together, together, they make up the base rhythm of life, the meter to which the poetry of our days is to be set. I should note, I am indebted to Cambridge theologian and musician Jeremy Begbie for that way of putting it, and more generally for his use of music to illuminate Christian theology.
The problem is, the world tries to convince us that limitations are a bad thing, and specifically that this limitation is a bad thing; but it isn’t. Think of our music, and I think you’ll understand, because in our Western musical tradition, meter is one of the standard limitations that gives shape and character to the work of composition. Think of 4/4—the time signature of a Sousa march, and many of our great hymns. “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.” Or 3/4—I remember being told in elementary school that this was waltz time. I was, what, seven years old, I didn’t even know what a waltz was, but that’s what stuck with me—3/4 is for waltzes and Irishmen. “Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart.” 6/8 is always fun—beat it in two, sing it in triplets. “In shady green pastures so rich and so sweet, God leads his dear children along.” And so on. The meter isn’t a straitjacket; you can vary the rhythms, throw in changes of time signature, whatever you will. But the meter provides the structure, the necessary base rhythm within which, and against which, all those other things can work to produce their desired effects. As another great Christian novelist, Flannery O’Connor, said, art transcends its limitations by remaining within them.
In the same way, God has given us this sevenfold rhythm of work and rest, of work and worship, to be the base rhythm of our lives. You don’t see too many songs written in seven, because that extra beat throws things out of the typical patterns, but I actually learned one this weekend. “What we have heard, what we have known . . .” It’s a setting of Psalm 78, and I don’t know if that’s why Greg Scheer wrote it in 7/8, but the time signature gives it a real sprightliness; the extra beat breaks it out of ordinary time into something else quite again. The same is true in our lives of the Sabbath, of the day of rest—it breaks us out of the ordinary time that our world and its economy would dictate, a straitjacket rhythm of work, work, work, work. That’s the driving beat of money and accumulation and more, more, more; it is, if you will, the meter of a life governed by nothing but material concerns and the desire for things. Think of it as 4/4 with never a change in tempo or stress and nothing but quarter notes in sight. But the Sabbath—the mere fact of this God-ordained day of rest throws us out of that meter; it fatally disrupts the profit-driven, consumer-driven, one-who-dies-with-the-most-toys-wins, all-about-me rhythms of this world, and shows us another way to live.
This is important, because as Genesis will show us in chapter 3, human sin disrupted the music for which God created us, and so the rhythms of our culture are now very much at odds with his will for us, and with the life for which he made us. As Dr. Begbie puts it, in calling us to focus on God and God alone, worship sets up a cross-rhythm in our lives—the rhythm of the cross, which runs counter to the pounding beat of our culture. God calls us to live very much across the grain of that culture, and we can’t just do that by main effort; our culture is too powerful. It’s like the big black SUV stopped next to us at the light with the bass cranked so high it’s shaking our car from the tires up. To overcome that overwhelming sound, we need consistent, steady exposure to the cross-rhythm of worship—to what Eugene Peterson, in his translation of the Bible, rendered as “the unforced rhythms of grace.” We cannot work our way into a truly Christlike life, because we learn to work from the world, and we learn to work in its way; but if we cannot force it, we can let God’s unforced rhythms of grace carry us along, as we learn to worship. We can focus our minds and hearts on him, opening our lives to his rhythm, and in so doing, allow him to transform us. Instead of trying to beat our own time, we can accept the time our great Conductor has given us, and let him direct us on.
(Cross-posted from Of a Sunday)