MUSIC: When The World Falls Apart by Thomas H. Troeger

The Theology and Practice of Church Music

When The World Falls Apart by Thomas H. Troeger

From: Music As Prayer

If you were to look through the door of my study, you would know at a glance that I am well acquainted with the chaos monster.  Books are piled upon books; papers upon papers; and stacks upon stacks on the desk, the filing cabinet, the floor, and the couch.  The chaos monster is always threatening to get the upper hand.  What about you?  Sooner or later, most of us do battle with the chaos monster, if not in our study, then simply in the course of living.  We think we have our day organized and know when and where we have got to be.  Then suddenly a text message comes in or the phone rings or the computer dings with an emergency we never foresaw.

Most of us are adept at dealing with the minor intrusions of the chaos monster, but there are other eruptions that shake the foundations of our being: the relationship we assumed would last a lifetime comes to a bitter end, we lose the job we love and have had for years, a beloved friend dies.  As if personal crises were not enough, the chaos monster also wrecks havoc with nations and with this planet.  Systems break down, political compromise fails, violence spreads, solid ground trembles.  What do we do when the world falls apart?

Our ancient forebears knew all about the chaos monster.  It was a major figure in many of their mythical accounts about the creation of the world.  They had various names for the monster: Tiamat, Rahab, Leviathan.  Sometimes when their lives were violently disrupted, they would cry out to God and recall how God had vanquished the chaos monster at the beginning of all things.  Consider, for example, Psalm 74.  Enemies have destroyed the temple in Jerusalem: “At the upper entrance they hacked the wooden trellis with axes.  And then, with hatchets and hammers, they smashed all its carved work.  They set your sanctuary on fire; they desecrated the dwelling place of your name, bringing it to the ground.”

The destruction takes down more than wood and stone.  It topples the house of meaning in the human heart, for there is no one around who can interpret what has happened: “There is no longer any prophet, and there is no one among us who knows how long.”  How do we deal with devastation that great?

In the midst of his fierce lament, the psalmist turns to a hymn that recalls how God conquered the chaos monster at the beginning of creation: “You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters.  You crushed the heads of Leviathan.”  The Hebrew word for divided is the same word Moses uses when he raises his staff to part the Red Sea, (Exodus 14:16).  In one word the poet brings together the conquest of primeval chaos and political oppression.  But the hymn does not simply recount what God accomplished in the past.  The poet goes on to celebrate how creation still belongs to God: “Yours is the day, yours also the night; you established the luminaries and the sun.  You have fixed all the bounds of the Earth; you made summer and winter.”  In the midst of chaos the poet sings a hymn.  The hymn does not overcome the chaos – the poet briefly returns to his lament in the conclusion of the psalm.  But the hymn stabilizes the poet’s shaken heart by putting it in touch with the rhythms and structures of God’s creation.

I wonder how many people contending with the chaos monster have come to concerts, services, or recitals and found the music like the hymn in the midst of the psalm.  It does not vanquish the chaos monster, but the pulse and timbre of the music put people in touch with the rhythms and structures of creation that belong to God and that resonate in the heart, providing them with a renewed sense of divine presence and the strength to endure when the world falls apart.

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