Wednesday, October 17, 2012

"Through a glass, darkly..."

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
1Corinthians 13:12

The verse has troubled me for some time.  Or rather, I should say, its common use in contrast to its true import has troubled me.

Culturally, among Christians, it is quoted often with the ennui of a common truism and dressed up with the sparkle of interest and a butterfly that identifies references as “inspirational” and worthy of featuring on a Hallmark Card.  Read sonorously at uncountable weddings, it becomes the part of tradition which we hear without once bereft of any but superficial meaning and tied up with the perfunctory bow of an enigmatical concept called love.

In any case, one gets the vague impression that being really known would be uncomfortable, so this verse must be referring to that best-buddy kind of knowing that makes you feel “understood” without baring more than a few select extracts from the heart censored for security of pride.  After all, if someone really knew us what room could there be for love?  There we often let the verse lie.
I remember vividly the day I understood.  For perhaps the first time, I was consciously remembering and it frightened me.  A circumstance, itself inconsequential, settled a new yoke of responsibility on my seven or eight-year-old self and because I could recall a time when I was free of it, I was unaccountably terrified of going any further in my short lisp of a life.

Every child comes to this time...where childishness becomes conscious, even while it has yet to become maturity.  A mother mourns that first loss of the baby lisp, the stumble over a word.  Then others will watch in vain for childish communication with all its frank, winsome naiveté and haphazard rambling.  The three year old hardly knows what he means when he presents his three chubby digits for your smiling inspection, and no one grudges him the privilege of ignorance on that score.  Soon enough the five year old will be proud to tell you how big he has grown and you will almost unaccountably miss the unpretentious baby in the self-conscious boy.

To our dying day, every one of us has the same insatiable desire to understand, and a dread of what will happen when we do.  The thought of knowing brings with it the shrinking of our childhood from the brink of understanding because we only know in part.  Our human heart, peering through the grand score of God's Word as an amateur musician, struggles to trace out the infinite scope of power and complexity with finite eyes seared by the burning glory of it.  The indwelling Spirit leans over our shoulder and points out the feeble lines of our own parts with surety and love, humming the music until it fills our being with its beauty.  Shut the score, though, and the thought of remembering your part in the symphony with all its intense import and and excellence can cause any one of us to throw aside our sheets of music in despair.  

This is the knowing in part.  But partial knowing carries a heavy responsibility.  The reflection in the glass, dim though it may be, was never meant to be a high thought set aside for moments of euphoric reflection on the swing at sunset.  Jarring as the thought may be, far from moving us to apathy and futility, 1 Corinthians 13:12 is an imperative call to maturity.  The Father did not give us the promise in His Word and send us His Spirit to bear witness to the fulfillment of His promises so that we could languish in the waiting.

 For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer,
he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass:
For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.
James 1:23-24

To be in the midst of assembled believers and shudder over the raw grating dissonance and muddiness of the collected notes is to look in the glass and see the shadow of our natural face with all of its flaws and scars.  What natural man wouldn't wish to forget that natural face?  How easy it is to say then, “I saw the music once, and that is enough.  It is in my heart, and this is all that matters.”  How great a travesty is the secret of the eternal song carried about as a shadow in the depths of Christian souls and never learned or played simply because we all knew that in this life we could never perfect it.

The truth is, we are so concerned with the natural face peering out of the glass at us, that we forget the glass itself.   If we are honest, our sin, when held up to the light, fascinates us; not always, we can flatter ourselves, with the hardened inclinations of a dead conscience, but with the secret pride that says, "Mine is truly ugly."  The rehearsal is full of discordant sounds, and the first one to look up from the jungle of notes before him and say, "I can't possibly do this, it is too horribly difficult," has essayed to raise his "I" to a higher level than the symphony.  There is a great measure of pride in the one who indulges in self-deprecation by believing the music must stop because he has deemed his part to be beyond help or recall.

“For as the rain comes down and the snow from heaven, and do not return there, but water the earth, and make it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
"So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it."
Isaiah 55:11

The perfect law of liberty was not composed for our especial benefit.  The divine artist writes to His own pleasure and glory, and His work does not exist merely so we can enjoy its sublime beauty on the mirror in our closet.  It is not the kind of symphony that can be made futile merely because we prefer not to participate, or play our part in secret so that no one may observe the wavering our touch makes in the reflection.

Any student of music can tell you that it does no good to dabble in music with self-fulfillment in mind.  There is no place for neutrality or, ultimately, the expressing of your own will.  In the same way, you must rest in the assurance that you can only begin to know your life-part because you are already fully known by Him.  Your heart must so submit to the hand of the master that you no longer know your hand to be pulling the bow, but you are at once certain of His hand pulling yours.  The beating of your own time must cease to wander stumbling off the steady rhythm of His music and instead be bound to it by His sure hand. 

This is to look into His perfect law of liberty, to see the reflection of true freedom in very submission and to continue in it.  
The compelling reality about the music of the perfect law of liberty is that one must not only hear, but listen... and not forget, but play.  
The overpowering weight of the score, after all, does not rest in our hands, nor even is the completion of our part given into our keeping. 
The secret to playing a symphony is to simply play the notes before us in obedience and 
trust the author to make the symphony.

In the waiting for completion we cry out with Paul:

“O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”

A girl of especially stormy passions and vivid imagination, I cried the day I knew what I could never forget again.  I told my mother with an almost pettish desperation that I wanted to go back to being a little girl.

My dear mother...from my earliest memories the sensible, sympathetic constant that anchored my tempestuous emotions.  I will never cease to be grateful that she was usually undaunted by the wild outbursts of joy or sorrow that rocked my self-aware little world.  That day my tears brought a quiet smile to her face, not unlike the smile I imagine God harbors over our knowledge-bereft wailings.  Before she said a word, I knew she understood, and then she spoke comfort that I didn’t entirely understand, but accepted with the faith that children have in good mothers.  “When you have grown up, you will be glad that you were never able to go back.  You will learn to love growing older.”  And of course she was right.
To this day she still reminds me early and late of the words another wise woman, Elizabeth Elliot drew from this poem, “Do The Next Thing:”

"At an old English parsonage down by the sea,
there came in the twilight a message to me.
Its quaint Saxon legend deeply engraven
that, as it seems to me, teaching from heaven.
And all through the hours the quiet words ring,
like a low inspiration, 'Do the next thing.'
Many a questioning, many a fear,
many a doubt hath its quieting here.
Moment by moment, let down from heaven,
time, opportunity, guidance are given.
Fear not tomorrow, child of the King,
trust that with Jesus, do the next thing.
Do it immediately, do it with prayer,
do it reliantly, casting all care.
Do it with reverence, tracing His hand,
who placed it before thee with earnest command.
Stayed on omnipotence, safe 'neath His wing,
leave all resultings, do the next thing.
Looking to Jesus, ever serener,
working or suffering be thy demeanor,
in His dear presence, the rest of His calm,
the light of His countenance, be thy psalm.
Do the next thing.
The little girl in me no longer casts longing glances over her shoulder.  There can be no mourning for imperfections done away when every look into the mirror is a brush with the perfection that we long for.

But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
1 Corinthians 13:10

The time darkened glass, serene and expansive, unerringly casts back shadows of the light from timelessness.  The fading of it as it shifts away from a touch awakens the painful longing for it to be still it forever.  Here stands the briefest sliver of time, yet this space, thin enough to shatter at a brush from eternity, stands yet adamant before the mortal, an impenetrable testimony to a sure fulfillment...fulfillment that will engage the whole being un-impaired by sin.  At last to know as we are known, to truly commune with God, face to face.  What joy it will be to no longer reach out over the deep waters of His glory and see the muddying of our sin-tainted hearts obscuring them.  So into this glass, “this substance of things hoped for and evidence of things not seen,” we look again and again.

"But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty,and continueth therein,
he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work,
this man shall be blessed in his deed.
James 1:25

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