As I learned it from the Sacred Harp.
I knew that Tuesday is free day at Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden, and all around I was seeing the Rhododendrons blooming, so last Tuesday I decided to make my way over to the garden between classes at Portland State University. The day was sunny, the garden 15 minutes from school, the break between Music History and American Musical Traditions was from 12:00 to 2:00; all in all a good scheme. There was one problem – during this break I usually hole up in a dark fluorescent lit practice room and try to improve my Violin skills, but the sunny garden called! And I with Christina Rossetti said –
“I’ve half a mind to shake myself
Free just for once from London,
To set my work upon the shelf
And leave it done or undone;
To run down by the early train,
Whirl down with shriek and whistle,
And feel the bluff North blow again,
And mark the sprouting thistle
Set up on waste patch of the lane
Its green and tender bristle”
More than half a mind really – my London of course being Portland State University, my Highlands Crystal Springs, and my Thistles Rhododendrons. Perhaps too much of the time I choose to leave my work upon the shelf, and run down by whatever early train I can hop on, but this time I really wouldn’t have bothered leaving my London had I not advertised the night before on Facebook that I was going be at the garden between noon and 2. It helped me follow through with going, but the reason I posted aforehand of my planned movements is because I figure advertising on Facebook ups the chance that I’ll run into a friend when I’m out and about.
The reason I have the desire to run into someone when enjoying natural beauty can be explained by those philosophical words of the the BeeGees: “Everything is nothing, if you’ve got no one”.
In Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White he expands upon the difference between our sympathy for physical creation and our interest in ourselves and other people. He exaggerates this truth, but not without some perception:
“Admiration of those beauties of the inanimate world, which modern poetry so largely and so eloquently describes, is not, even in the best of us, one of the original instincts of our nature. As children, we none of us possess it. ….Our capacity of appreciating the beauties of the earth we live on is, in truth, one of the civilised accomplishments which we all learn as an Art; and, more, that very capacity is rarely practised by any of us except when our minds are most indolent and most unoccupied. How much share have the attractions of Nature ever had in the pleasurable or painful interests and emotions of ourselves or our friends? What space do they ever occupy in the thousand little narratives of personal experience which pass every day by word of mouth from one of us to the other? All that our minds can compass, all that our hearts can learn, can be accomplished with equal certainty, equal profit, and equal satisfaction to ourselves, in the poorest as in the richest prospect that the face of the earth can show. There is surely a reason for this want of inborn sympathy between the creature and the creation around it, a reason which may perhaps be found in the widely-differing destinies of man and his earthly sphere. The grandest mountain prospect that the eye can range over is appointed to annihilation. The smallest human interest that the pure heart can feel is appointed to immortality.”
I don’t agree about children and natural beauty. I have spent hours as a child and with children admiring leaves, ladybugs and sunsets. And though he says that in the poorest prospect earth offers, we can be equally satisfied in our minds as in the richest, I doubt he would disagree with me that our minds and spirits naturally thrive better when we walk in the fragrance and beauty of a blooming garden, rather than amid concrete rubble. But he definitely has a point about the thousand little narratives of personal experience that we pass to one another every day; the great weight of our interest is in the feelings of the heart of a man.
While walking about the garden thinking, my brother called and said “Are you here at the garden?” Hooray, my invitation had worked – someone had come! We walked around and talked together . I was late back to class, but I was glad to have spent some time neath the blooming rhododendrons talking with my brother.
Can anything be made ‘normal’? This whole Trump fiasco has brought to my attention that I actually believed that there were limits on how strange of things could be treated as acceptable and normal. There are unchanging truths in the metaphysical, but are there limits on what our society will treat as okay?
If you had told me a year ago that the chair of the RNC would say we all need to unite behind the candidate who accuses his opponent’s dad of being involved in the Kennedy assassination, I would have thought “This cannot be!”
But I guess in a country that has treated as normal the slaughter of babies for the last 40 years, I should not be surprised at any wild new normal.
“Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at thy presence, As when the melting fire burneth, the fire causeth the waters to boil, to make thy name known to thine adversaries, that the nations may tremble at thy presence!” (Isaiah 64:1-2)
What must be the potency of the One at whose presence the mountains flow down! To give ourselves a sliver of knowledge of how great God is, let’s just try and take in what it is for the mountains to flow down.
Here’s a description of the power of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens:
“The explosion, on May 18, was initiated by an earthquake and rockslide involving one-half cubic mile of rock. As the summit and north slope slid off the volcano that morning, pressure was released inside the volcano – where super hot liquid water immediately flashed to steam. The northward-directed steam explosion released energy equivalent to 20 million tons of TNT, which toppled 150 square miles of forest in six minutes. In Spirit lake, north of the volcano, an enormous water wave, initiated by one-eighth cubic mile of rockslide debris, stripped trees from slopes as high as 850 feet above the pre-eruption water level. The total energy output, on May 18, was equivalent to 400 million tons of TNT – approximately 20,000 Hiroshima-size atomic bombs.”(Austin, S. A. 1986. Mt. St. Helens and Catastrophism. Acts & Facts. 15 (7).)
I’ve queued up this video to be to where it has a time lapse of the photgraphs taken by Gary Rosenquist of the landslide and eruption.
Reading this passage from Isaiah 64 it’s as if I see that which had seemed so solid, so imposing, so immovable, melting away. As if what we thought was real was not; it melts away in the presence of something really real.
I see the water rise in huge columns of of steam, giant heralds of the terrible strength that has made the mountains to flow down. The rising steam is seen in awe by people from far in every direction. Trembling, we are all stripped of our usual complacency and confidence.
The response I imagine is like what I once heard in a video of the World Trade Center’s south tower collapsing. All around you can hear a wailing, and while usually the words “Oh my God” are said casually and vainly, in these videos it doesn’t sound like that standard flippant sacrilege. After writing this I went and watched it again, and realized I had totally fallen short in remembering the power of those screams of grief and astonishment.
I remember a time when complacency was snatched from me while driving to school. I was thinking about the class I was going to and the people I would see there when I spun out of control on I-5. I cried out to God. That change of velocity was like the world I knew melting. Immediately thoughts of the class were spun away from me and the core of myself was left alone where I think perhaps it always is. With only one relationship.
“Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down”
This prayer for His coming will be answered. “For he cometh to judge the earth: he shall judge the world with righteousness, and the people with his truth.” (Psalm 96:13)
“Hear, all ye people; hearken, O earth, and all that therein is: and let the Lord GOD be witness against you, the Lord from his holy temple. For, behold, the LORD cometh forth out of his place, and will come down, and tread upon the high places of the earth.And the mountains shall be molten under him, and the valleys shall be cleft, as wax before the fire, and as the waters that are poured down a steep place.” (Micah 1:2-4)
A comparison comes to my mind; if His presence makes the real solid earth seem unreal, how much more will the One who judges the people with His truth make our lying truth seem unreal? The other day I was listening to a sermon and the preacher pondered why certain embarrassing incidents in the lives of the patriarchs are included in the Bible. My first thought was, “I know why the stories are included; they are there to let us know who people really are. Muslims hate stories like that of Lot and his daughters and they also greatly underestimate the evilness of the human heart.” Then I felt lucky, “Whew, my sins got missed in the writing of the Bible” and this banking on luck is a very familiar feeling. I congratulate myself when things get overlooked and I get a ‘lucky break”, and feel angry when I don’t.
Don’t we all live our lives hoping that we will be lucky in this way; that others won’t hear when we play a wrong note, but that they will hear when we play a particularly beautiful note, that the day we didn’t prepare we won’t get called on but when we know the answer the teacher will ask the question? (Probably the highpoint of my academic career was when my Roman History teacher was talking about Queen Teuta of Illyria and said “To this day she is a hero in Albania, but who else do they have to choose from?” he said dismissively. “Can anyone think of any Albanian general?” he said, as if no one could. “Skanderbeg” I answered). In romance we hope for this luck all the time; “I hope she’s sees me when I’m heroically saving a child’s life” and, “It’s not fair that she should walk in just when I was yelling at grandma.”
(Queen Teuta of Illyria) (Skanderbeg’s helmet.Wikimedia)
Besides all this, after “things” happen we edit our memories so that all in all, we can feel like our failings aren’t significant. We kind of slide them under the rug, and then hide the rug. We don’t want to see the tape, but rather believe that the record stored in others’ minds of their impressions of us, and our own memory card of our lives, have become the truth about our lives. Did you notice how well I remember knowing the answer about Albanian hero? I could run that reel over and over to the exclusion of other memories.
But there’s no possibility of that style of luck with God. Or that kind of reshaping of the facts. Though not included in the Bible like the Patriarch’s lives, He knows the life of every living thing. How could he not? “[O]f him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.” (Romans 11:36)
Not only did he speak the universe into existence, Jesus keeps this whole thing existing with the word of His power (Hebrews 1:3). If Jesus but removed his upholding word, all of this would be gone. How could he be unaware of that which is totally inside that which he makes to exist? God is not the author of sin, but for now he does allow it to happen in his creation. He could make the heart that is about to hate his brother fail. He could make the hand that is about to strike dissolve. Every thieving hand has been reliant on the power of God for its continued existence even as it stole, insulting its maker. Every blasphemy breathed out, was only able to be said because God at the moment granted a breath to that man. Every evil thought is only possible because God upholds the minds of men in existence.
How could he not be aware of every point of our lives for “In him we live, and move, and have our being”? (Acts 17:28) Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, as David said –
“O LORD, thou hast searched me, and known me. Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off. Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether.Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it.”
Oh, how should be in awe the One who knows all our ways and at whose presence the mountains flow down!