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Thinking Out Loud

Behold the Beauty of the Lord

by Michael Jinkins | Jan 10, 2016

Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!

TOLImage010816The cotton fields that once lined the roads of East Texas between Lufkin and Dallas looked like row upon row of popcorn bouquets by late September, not long after which defoliating would begin. The crop dusters soon would come spraying their defoliants, and leaves would drop to expose the cotton for harvest. I remember the stark beauty of the cotton crops, the thick white tufts set in green foliage against a field of rich black earth.

One particular drive along these fields stands out from the many. My grandfather and I were in his car. I can't recall how old I was, but I couldn't have been more than eight. We had delivered my grandmother to Dallas to stay a few weeks with her mother (Big Momma), and we were returning home. The little bronze Ford Falcon flew along the two-lane road, windows down. This was the early 1960s BCA (Before Conditioned Air). On the front seat between my grandfather and me lay a sheaf of music with a rock on top to keep the pages from blowing out the windows. There was music from all our favorite collections: Golden Steps, Stamps Baxter Quartet Specials, Happy Haven Radio Songs, and pages of sheet music for hymns and choir anthems. My grandfather, Bonnie Corley Fenley, directed music for the Redland Baptist Church, a nonpaid position in those days. He had a fine tenor voice and never met a musical instrument he couldn't master in an afternoon. He taught me to sing harmony.

The indelible imprint of that hot September day is of an old man and a boy singing their hearts out, the laughter blending with music. I remember the wind and the love and the songs. I would have stayed in that front seat singing forever if I could have. I would have built three tabernacles right there if I'd known how. It was the house of the Lord on wheels with a standard transmission and dicey brakes.

I suspect that the reason the highly technical theological doctrine of perichoresis, inherited in Orthodox Christianity from fourth-century theologians like AthanasiusBasil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa, made perfect sense to me intuitively the first time I came across it in seminary was because of my childhood experience of singing with my grandfather. This doctrine can appear, at first blush, so abstract, the idea that three persons of the divine Trinity are in such a relationship of mutuality that they almost seem to flow into one another. Yet each person possesses full integrity, the Father as Father, the Son as Son, the Spirit as Spirit. This doctrine, for all its intricacy and sophistication, resonates with my simple childhood experience of love: The singers, a grandfather and grandchild and the music they sang together bear striking similarity (though the dissimilarities are striking too, of course) to the divine Giver, the Gift and the eternal act of Giving; the divine Lover, the Beloved, and the Eternal Love they share; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Here is an "analogy of being" that never stopped holding true, even in the Barthian deluge of seminary. Hans Urs von Balthasar's soaring tribute to the mystery of the triune God, which I would not learn about until I was a graduate student, was fully prefigured for me that day as we drove along singing in that old Ford. Von Balthasar wrote about the primal reality of God's Being, which is not a "statically self-contained and comprehensible reality, but one that exists solely in dispensing itself; a flowing wellspring with no holding trough beneath it ... the pure act of self-pouring-forth." [Von Balthasar, Credo: Meditations on the Apostles' Creed (Spring Valley: 1990), p. 30]. Pouring forth, singing out, joy and love reverberated into the hot Texas breeze that flowed through that car and out over the cotton fields participating in the mystery of God's creative love that will never be contained.

This reality, the reality of Reality itself - that God's being is in communion, that God's being is in becoming - seemed to me (then and now) concrete and personal and anything but abstract. The church's halting attempts to make sense of the living God as Trinity made sense to me because of the lived approximations of the God in whom I had participated (though imperfectly and unconsciously and after a creaturely fashion "through a mirror in a riddle") as a child. After all, I had sung with my grandfather. I had experienced deep in the marrow of my bones something of the truth of that life and love and trans-cosmic music that is the Spirit shared by God the Father and God the Son caught up in adoration, joy and mutual love.

Others have done a fuller and more profound job of theologically reflecting on this reality, Eberhard Jüngel and John Zizioulas, among them; and at least one theologian, Jeremy Begbie, has performed a far more subtle and sophisticated analysis of how music and the arts reflect and give expression to God's being.* All I am really qualified to do is bear witness to what I believe I have experienced of this reality. And this experience began early for me.

Years later, when I performed in jazz, blues and rock groups in high school and college, I discovered the deep magic of musical improvisation. Playing with small bands of musicians who created something among themselves at once practiced, disciplined, but also utterly new and unexpected every time we performed, I felt as though I was tapping into a reality at the heart of creation - this otherness, this beauty, this transcendence, this something indefinable and real woven into life by a prodigiously talented God who enjoys sharing with us and invites us to participate in creation. In many ways, I have always felt like a child trying to tap into the perichoretic wonder that I experienced while singing harmony with my grandfather. Recently, it occurred to me that my lifelong spiritual harmony has also always been an aesthetic journey, whether acknowledged at the time or not, a quest to behold the beauty of the Lord.**

Sometimes my memories skip like a stone over the surface of the past, and I recall an evening when our youth choir played and sang for church campers on the banks of the Frio River in the Texas Hill Country. I recall the exultation, pure and sublime, that I experienced when playing piano for them. I remember the afternoon on a visit home from college, sitting in a darkened room playing blues guitar with my friend Ben, just before he joined the Navy. We traded riffs back and forth in a musical conversation. Remembering these and countless other moments, I realize that there is no way under heaven to express the deep rightness, the in in-sync-ness, I sensed in those moments. In those moments and hundreds of others, playing music with others, it was as though we were tapping into something beyond ourselves, some rhythm, some harmony or melodic line, some reality at the core of creation, something perfect and real and good.

The stone skips across the surface of something deeper than we can imagine. It is the weight of the depth that makes the stone stay airborne, skipping again and again, before it takes its final plunge and disappears into the darkness waiting below. In those moments as the stone dances across the water, I know, every place we play becomes thin.


*Eberhard Jüngel's Gottes Sein ist im Werden (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1965, 1986), and John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion (Crestwood: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1985, 1997) helped renew an awareness in theological circles of the dynamics of God's being as Trinity. Jeremy Begbie's engagement of Trinitarian theology with the arts is simply extraordinary, Voicing Creation's Praise (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1991) and Theology, Music, and Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

**This blog is extracted from a much longer essay of mine by the same title, which was published in A Spiritual Life: Perspectives from Poets, Prophets and Preachers, edited by Allan Hugh Cole, Jr. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011). Used with permission.

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