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On These Our Works Being Works We Will Not Finish

Over a decade-and-a-half stint as a lyricist I began to notice a pattern: The songs that mattered most to me tended to also be the ones that record labels had no interest in. At a certain point, I quit even trying to pitch those sorts of lyrics in industry settings. Instead I wrote them for my own reasons and tucked them away.

One of those was a song I called “North Atlantic.” The lyric voiced the unfolding, final thoughts of a man on a ship going down in frigid waters without hope of rescue. He speaks to his wife words she will never hear:

Nothing flashed before my eyes but my thoughts were all on you, and on the children left behind. God knows what you will do. I counted up the days I’d seen as I felt the ship descend.

Oh, we never really finish, do we? We simply reach the end.

We never really finish. We simply reach the end.

Don’t you suppose that’s how it will be? Each of us will reach the end of life with some unfinished business: a novel half-written, a friendship never fully cultivated, dreams unrealized, a journey incomplete, still struggling to learn to love, still fighting to forgive, still battling a besetting sin, still hoping to heal from old wounds.

If life was a course taken for credit, we would all exit the semester with an incomplete.

But maybe that’s all irrelevant.

Because maybe the deeper truth is that life isn’t about finishing something.

It’s about becoming something.

It’s about day-by-day surrendering to the redemption that is already at work, so that our own hearts gradually become ever more conformed to the likeness of Christ.

This life isn’t about attaining perfection, it’s about being shaped by grace.

Or, to put it another way, grace isn’t a destination that we by our hard work and determination might eventually arrive at. It’s a thing already present with us that we learn to abide in, that we learn over and over again to say yes to. And in that long obedience, our hearts and minds are shaped.

That’s why the proverbial rat race with its focus on material acquisition and the pursuit of that magical unicorn dubbed “the good life” is in the end a futile endeavor. There is no “there” at which we can arrive and secure peace and meaning via physical or financial prosperity. And the goal is equally as elusive if we view “the good life” in purely spiritual terms. We don’t suddenly wake one morning to find we’ve arrived, attained enlightenment, leveled up, reached our destination.

Not in these days of inbetween.

When a man walking along with the knot of disciples gathered his courage to declare to Jesus “I will follow you wherever you go,” our Lord’s response seems to contain some sort of gentle corrective. “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

The call to the disciples was never Follow me to power, or Follow me to prosperity, or Follow me to the revolution, or Follow me to achieve your full potential. It was simply Follow me. Doug McKelvey

Perhaps he was just saying that following him is going to involve hardship, but I have long wondered if what he sought to communicate was something more along the lines of, “It is not about a wherever. You are not following me to some place. There is no ‘to’ in the sense that you imagine it. You are simply following me. Or not. I am both the journey and the destination.”

If that is true, it would further confirm that our spiritual journeys in this life are not about arriving somewhere. They are about following. Which is the same as to say they are about being. Being with Jesus. Abiding in the vine. Practicing the presence of God. The man along the road might have done well to cut off his bold statement after the fourth word, simply to say I will follow you. That would have been enough. That, in fact, would have been everything. The call to the disciples was never Follow me to power, or Follow me to prosperity, or Follow me to the revolution, or Follow me to achieve your full potential. It was simply Follow me.

We go wrong when we labor under the delusion that we can arrive at places that cannot be arrived at or complete things that cannot actually be completed. At least not perfectly. At least not now. At least not by us.

It is after all the same in sanctification as it is in marriage as it is in ministering as it is in vocation as it is in art. By faith we are becoming something or shaping something that we will not finish in this life. Not on our own dime. Not in our own time. We long for the perfection and the completion we were created for, and we hope for it and reach for it in our lives and our relationships and in our prayers and our creative endeavors, but in the end we give voice to our own part of creation’s groaning chorus, for even while we can see that a thing is in some ways good, it is never as good as it might have been. It is never as good as we know it should be. The best thing you or I have yet accomplished or produced is still marred by the inward curvature of our souls. It is not yet fully liberated from the temporary futilities of a broken creation.

Who knows where and how our halting efforts might be met by a God who inhabits our weaknesses, whose pleasure it is to take our meager and imperfect offerings and to multiply them unto the meeting of needs and the spread of his kingdom? Doug McKelvey

And while this might at first seem discouraging, there’s actually a deeper freedom that comes from acknowledging and accepting this humbling truth. To bow to the realization that our best works will always be imperfect can become the key that frees us from the impossible tyrannies of pride and perfectionism. And once freed from those cruel taskmasters, who knows what wonders we might witness in our lives simply by seeking to be faithful stewards of our gifts? Who knows where and how our halting efforts might be met by a God who inhabits our weaknesses, whose pleasure it is to take our meager and imperfect offerings and to multiply them unto the meeting of needs and the spread of his kingdom?

Even our good works, we are told, are things God has prepared in advance for us. If so, then he alone can bring them to completion. And such completions might not happen during the fleeting spans of our brief lives. We cannot control the flow of history or even of our own days, so it is vital that we learn to be less invested in the outcomes of our efforts. We can only be faithful. We can only follow. And if we cannot control the storyline or assume the destination, then we would do well to make some sort of peace with the perpetually unfinished nature of our works and even of our selves.

One of my college English professors had hanging over his mantle what I would like to think was an early Makoto Fujimura painting. I remember it as stylistically similar to Fujimura’s works. I also remember that it was from an emerging, somewhat-known painter with Japanese roots. But at the time the painter’s name wouldn’t have been familiar and as I have a habit of losing names as soon as I hear them anyway, almost three decades later I simply can’t remember. Here is why I still remember that painting, though: In an effort to gently encourage me toward the habit of a more painstaking crafting of my poetry, this professor related the story of how—when he had selected this painting—the artist had lifted it from the wall, considered it a moment, and then declared it unfinished. He had never been satisfied with it. He grabbed a paintbrush and paints, and went to work on it again, further shaping an already-sold painting in those last moments before it went out the door.

Maybe you should look at your poems as things that are never finished, my professor told me, as things that could always be further crafted.

It would require a hard process of years before I would begin to grow into and understand that professor’s sage advice. First, writing would have to become a struggle so that for years I despaired of my ability to create anything meaningful. I would have to slog through a morass of my own insecurities and fears and disappointments with myself before I finally came to the end of any real confidence in my own ability. But in that emerging doubt and trepidation, a new possibility surfaced, an inkling of an idea that maybe I had gone about this all wrong. That maybe whatever creative talent I had at my disposal was never supposed to be about me anyway. I had been trying to write because I wanted to be a writer. Maybe that’s where I had gone wrong. What if writing was meant instead as a means of serving the community around me?

One must first be rooted in community and dependent upon community...if one is to create anything useful to community. Doug McKelvey

Maybe the work before me was to write things that might build up, or nurture, or stir hunger and wonder sufficient to incline hearts in some small way toward their Creator and his kingdom and his eternity. And when one recognizes that any gifts one has are given to serve the needs of the Body of Christ and of the community and of the world, it is not much of stretch from there to recognize that one must first be rooted in community and dependent upon community and in some real sense submitted to community, if one is to create anything in its proper context, which is to say, if one is to create anything useful to community.

These thoughts of creativity and community and of the unfinished nature of our endeavors are swirling in my head afresh because of the newly-arrived second printing of Every Moment Holy. More than any other work I’ve participated in, that book has been a project born of community. The concept had its genesis around Hutchmoot 2015. There, the voices of community first responded to the idea, collectively affirming the value of it. Still, it would have been an impossibly daunting project for a small press to undertake, financially and logistically. So a year later the possibility was set before community and the question was asked, Is this a thing we, together, want to make possible? Is this a thing we want to collectively birth? The community responded and made the theoretical possible. The first printing was financed by donations from hundreds of individuals and families.

But it wasn’t just about funding. During the creation process that same community helped to brainstorm liturgy topics. Input from dozens of people shaped the direction of the book, especially in those last couple of months as the manuscript deadline loomed. I was working through a much longer list of topics than I could conceivably write liturgies for (at least for Volume 1), but I had a short list of twenty or so remaining liturgies I expected to complete. Still, I tried to keep such expectations at arm’s length so as to remain consciously responsive to any real needs that emerged in the community around me.

Every step of the way, the project was affirmed and shaped in real time by the joys, sorrows, and needs of community, by all the collective voices saying Yes, this is something we need and want. Doug McKelvey

When the Ivesters’ beloved house burned, they asked if I had a fitting liturgy. A Liturgy for Those Who Suffer Loss from Fire, Flood or Storm was not on my short list, but I saw the tangible need as direction and turned my attention to the writing of that liturgy. As a sidenote, shortly after Every Moment Holy went into print, wildfires ravaged parts of California, and flooding ravaged Houston, and that liturgy was employed by families and churches suffering devastation and loss in both places. How humbling that our own work as a community to comfort and encourage one another in our griefs has already spilled outward as a grace and a comfort to so many others. Similarly, when a family member was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I eschewed the liturgies on my short list to write A Liturgy for Those Who Suffer the Slow Loss of Memory. When a friend’s faithful dog died tragically, I wrote A Liturgy for the Loss of a Living Thing. When someone asked for a liturgy for their wedding celebration dinner I wrote A Liturgy for a Gathering On the Eve of a Wedding. That list goes on.

Every step of the way, the project was affirmed and shaped in real time by the joys, sorrows, and needs of community, by all the collective voices saying Yes, this is something we need and want.

I love this line from Havergal’s hymn:

Take my hands, and let them move at the impulse of Thy love

As I wrote, I fought my tendency to become rigidly set in the path of my own plans and expectations. If Every Moment Holy didn’t ultimately serve the community that was breathing life into it, then it really had no reason for being. I prayed to remain fluid throughout the process.

And here’s where I’m going with all of this. It seems to me an artificial and even dangerous logic that would say a thing is unalterable once it is made “officially” available. Just because the book has now seen a first printing doesn’t mean that process of shaping must necessarily end. Just because the book has begun its journey doesn’t mean it’s not still in some ways a work in progress. It doesn’t mean subsequent printings can’t become truer and clearer, or more thoughtfully formatted for the uses of community. It doesn’t mean that—like that-painter-who-might-or-might-not-have-been Fujimura—each time a new printing is going out the door we can’t be further shaping it. As people integrate various liturgies into their lives, families, and churches, if the wisdom of community suggests changes that would streamline the book for better service, I want to remain attentive.

This time around, because several voices (all ministers, as it turns out) spoke the same word of caution about a particular line in one of the liturgies in the first printing, I gave careful consideration, discussed it with the folks at Rabbit Room Press, and ultimately decided for the sake of clarity to make a small revision rather than to risk misinterpretation by some readers.

The last liturgy in the book was also the last one I signed off on in August 2017, around midnight on the night before the manuscript was due at the printer. I was pleased with where A Liturgy of Praise to the King of Creation had landed, but I also felt a certain hesitancy about it, a certain tension that I didn’t quite know how to interpret.

The refrain “Our names for you, O Lord, have been too few,” was poetic. It had an internal rhyme, and a nice cadence. It was a figurative, poetic way of saying “We have not fully considered the outworking of Christ’s Lordship over all creation as it filters down into the countless specifics of all created things.”

As poetry, it worked pretty well, I think. Poetry after all can create epiphanies of understanding through juxtapositions of novelty and ambiguity, forcing a reader to perform feats of abstraction, connecting dots that previously were not connected, so that in the tracing of that line between those two dots a new sort of understanding emerges. There is a certain real power in that, forcing us to see an old thing in a new way.

But Every Moment Holy is not primarily a book of poetry.

It is a book of liturgies and prayers for use by individuals and families and churches. And a more formal prayer or liturgy requires more rigor and preciseness of expression than a poem. It rightly should be held to a higher standard of specificity and clarity.

My purpose in penning that liturgy was simply to call us to a deeper consideration of what it means that Christ is the King of all creation through whom all things were made and in whom all things are held together and by whom all things will be redeemed. I wanted to unpack those abstractions, to put some flesh on them. I hoped it would be an exercise of the theological imagination that might lead us to a more engaged doxology.

But to express those truths in terms of “Our names for God,” rather than as the implicit corollaries of his names for himself, might have left the waters too theologically muddied. I didn’t want to create a statement open-ended enough that some might interpret it to mean that we have the right or the authority to name God, to shape him into images of our own making, or to interpret his divine nature however we see fit, as opposed to how he has revealed himself in scripture.

I see all of these edits as small evidences of the notion that even our best works are incomplete. Doug McKelvey

So when those three ministers each made the same observation, their cautions confirmed the tension I was already feeling. If this is a book built to serve the church and to shape theology and to train our hearts towards a mindfulness of God at all times, then it matters that it not have expressions so hazy they might be interpreted in ways opposite those intended.

So for this new second printing of Every Moment Holy, I changed the line that read:

“Our names for you, O Lord, have been too few,”

to now read:

“Our thoughts of you, O Lord, have been too small, too few.”

I expect there are some who will lament the re-write of the “Our names for you” lines. I hope this explanation will help smooth over any aesthetic misgivings. I believe the edit is a reflection of the ongoing work of community together shaping a thing that will better serve the church now and hopefully in later generations as well. Truth is worth safeguarding.

On a functional note, I also reworked the parts distribution of the final liturgy so that “the people” are much more involved in speaking significant portions of it, rather than only weighing in on the refrain. That was another comment I heard from some who used that liturgy in corporate settings: We want to be more involved in the declarations of Christ’s authority and glory. Don’t let the leader have all the good lines!

I see all of these edits as small evidences of the notion that even our best works are incomplete. Sanctification is an outworking of grace that refines and shapes our thoughts, our theologies, our relationships and yes, our artifacts as well. All of our lives are unfinished works in the process of becoming, of straining forward, of yearning, of reaching for something more like what they were intended to be. We keep crafting, but our crafting can only shape a thing so far. What we long for it to be, a true artifact of eternity, is not something we can achieve. Not now. We will not taste glorification in this life. Neither will our offerings. Perhaps at the redemption of all things we will see our labors refashioned or unveiled incorruptible. In fact, I have no doubt it will be so.

But still, for now, not yet. Only glimpses. We are, and for this life will remain, a people in process, purveyors and inhabitants and curators of the unfinished, a community of grace called to this business of becoming together.

You can pick up the second printing of Every Moment Holy right here in the Rabbit Room Store.


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