Missing Nothing

When Johann Sebastian Bach died in 1750, he wasn’t thought of as an especially brilliant composer, and within a few years of his death, he and his music were largely forgotten. But in 1823, seventy-three years after his death, a German woman named Bella Salomon presented a birthday gift to her fifteen-year-old grandson, Felix. The gift was a manuscript score of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, which put to music the story of the death, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ. Although essentially unknown at that time, the music so captivated young Felix that he dreamt grandly of its performance.

It took Felix Mendelssohn the next five years of his young life to arrange, organize, and prepare the Passion to be performed at Berlin’s Singakademie on March 11, 1829. To say it was well received would be an understatement. It led not only to a revival but to a complete reevaluation of Bach’s works, first in Germany and then in Europe, until Bach’s significance was recognized not just as genius but as virtually unparalleled in history the world over. Even now, some of our greatest musicians like the cellist Yo-Yo Ma rightly ask, what power did Bach possess that, even after 300 years, his music continues to help us through troubled times?

I want to suggest an answer—an answer that may help us navigate not just this challenging season but any subsequent period of trial and difficulty ahead. For as the world rediscovered Bach, it also saw that before writing even a single note of a new composition, at the top of the first page Bach would first write the letters “JJ,” which stood for Jesu Juva, Latin for “Jesus, help.” The music would then begin to pour from his soul until, at the end of each composition, he’d write at the bottom of the score the letters “SDG,” Soli Deo Gloria, Latin for “Glory to God alone.”

What if we prayed these two phrases or even wrote them down at the beginning and end of every day? What if we asked for Christ’s help every morning and then sanctified the day’s work to God’s glory every evening as we close our eyes? And what if, between these two moments of devotion, we asked God for the eyes, the ears, and the heart to see, hear, and feel what genius, what comfort, and what beauty we might be missing all around us? Like Bach’s music before Mendelssohn had rediscovered it, what richness might we be missing simply because we’re not paying close enough attention, not looking the right way, or have simply forgotten it?

God is all around us, broadcasting wisdom, solace, grace, and love in all the ways an invisible God can. Through open lines of prayer. Through the guidance of conscience. By tapping us on the shoulder with the close connections of family and friendship. With the revelation of all sorts of Scripture—stories, songs, poetry, history. God is in the sonic architecture of music, in the colors of the rolling sea, and in the ripples of wispy clouds at dawn. In the bonding of teammates contending fairly on the field of sport. In the contours of soaring buildings. In the color and genius of art and artists. In the drama of film. In the lessons of literature. In the wholesome feeling we get when we cross the street and serve those in need. In the sacred. In the mundane. In the profane.

Let’s take some deep breaths. Listen for God cutting through the “whirlwind of these days” (to quote The Killers). What is it that we might have forgotten, overlooked, or just plain missed? Don’t turn away. Eternity is broadcasting.

This post originally appeared in Let It Be Said We’ve Bourne It Well: Following God in the Time of COVID-19 by Gregory Funderburk.

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