Face Down

By

[Note: Today is Johann Sebastian Bach’s 326th birthday which brought to mind this piece that Lanier wrote last year referencing, in part, Bach’s use of the letters S.D.G. If you’ve read it before, it’s worth re-reading. If you missed it last year, you’re about to experience an extraordinary essay.–Pete Peterson]

And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.  —Nehemiah 8:6

dore-ezra2I was a Christian, and I was a dancer. A ballerina, as I liked to avow with all the solemnity of seventeen. Studying classical ballet three and four days out of the week, showing up early to stretch before class, wrestling against all the opposing forces of aching muscles and tight tendons to add a fraction of a degree to my arabesque or half an inch of height to my grande jete’. I loved it, and I worked hard, both of which I owe almost exclusively to the much greater fact of a superlatively excellent teacher. She drew me out of the back corner of regional ballet school indifference and she scraped grimly away at an acquired layer of sloppiness and mimicking conformity, down to the very bones of my so-called technique. We spent untold class time spread out on the floor with anatomy books and I was made to perform all manner of ridiculous maneuvers in order to find and feel the muscles we were talking about. I danced for months without any shoes at all, and marched across the floor, en pointe, holding chairs over my head. She would call for sixty-four changement at a time and then call for them again, and drill me on the names of the famed “Eight Positions” as I assumed them in rapid succession.

In short, she taught me how to dance.  She set something free within me; something longing for expression, but something equally desirous—even dependent upon—the limitations of form and structure that make classical ballet the art form that it is. I loved it more than ever; the more that was required of me—the more I experienced the essential freedom of the form—the more lovely it became. The restlessness and joy and angst and elation of youth found voice and wing in that simple studio, all alone, under the eye of a fiercely loving taskmaster. And I was happy. And I read in the Bible about ‘doing all things as unto the Lord’, and I was happier still.

But I had no idea what it meant, that majestic little verse and the worlds of possibility it suggested. I had never gotten my mind and heart around the concept of art as worship.

Never, that is, until the day we began working on our piece for the recital. There were three of us at that first rehearsal: my sister and another friend and myself. We were stretching out, whispering and giggling, and speculating inwardly, if not outwardly, about the diaphanous costumes the occasion would doubtless require. (It didn’t, by the way—plain white tunics and single silk flowers softening harsh little buns turned out to be the order of the day. And nothing could have been more perfect or appropriate to accompany Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze, though not-too-distant memories of Nutcracker performances and pink net made it hard for me to see it that way at first!) We were talking—but suddenly our voices dropped and we looked around us a little awkwardly. Where was our teacher? She had been there a moment before, watching us stretch or cuing up the CD player. We hadn’t even noticed when she’d left, and it was odd that she’d disappear so soon upon the start of the rehearsal, being the stickler for time that she was.

I looked around the open studio, beyond the marley floor which delineated our classroom, past the piano and chairs and shelves of music. And I saw her—in a heap in a back, dark corner of the studio. She was on her knees and her face was to the ground. And she was praying.

At first I was frightened—had something terrible happened, or had she just learned of some disaster that had catapulted her into such a desperate, un-self-conscious attitude of prayer?

But as the mists of my dullness gradually cleared, the truth broke with a light that pierces to this day: she was praying for inspiration, for the choreography and for the execution of it. She was entreating the favor of God upon this endeavor and imploring His ability to procure it. She had the spiritual vision to see that this was not just a workshop recital for families and friends at a little performing arts school—it was a chance to honor the God of the universe. To love God with the heart, soul, mind and strength. To create something beautiful out of love for Him and to lift it up as an offering of praise.

That moment changed everything for me, in the way that small, seemingly trifling moments often do. All my loves—writing, music, dancing, homemaking, gardening—have since been charged with the influence of it. And not only by the ‘glory’ side of the equation; by the appeal, as well, if not more so.  I have in that memory of my beloved and respected teacher, face down before the God she adored, an image of the creative process that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Creativity is a giving, an offering to others and a glory to the Creator-God. But it is also a receiving. And the courage to create and not valuate our offering by the market standards of the world is, I believe, a gift in itself, and one to be sought most earnestly by the likes of such frail co-creators as we humans prove ourselves to be.

I used to love to tell my ballet students and piano students what we all probably know and already admire about Bach, namely, that he ever signed his scores and compositions with the letters S.D.G. at the end: Soli Deo Gloria. But of equal insight to me is the way that he opened them: J.J. Jesu Juva.

Jesus, help.

Jesus, help me to make something beautiful for You. In this poem. In this bit of earth. In this story. In this cake or loaf of bread or painting or song. Not only can I not do it truly, essentially, without You. I can’t do it for You without You.

The very acknowledgment is an act of worship, and I see the humility of the ‘great ones’ in this practice. Madeleine L’Engle underscores that writing—or any art form—is an act of faith. Not a blind fumbling in the dark but a reaching towards what we know is there. She loved to image artists as midwives, assisting in the birth of some bright gleam from heaven upon our world. I smile at the thought of C.S. Lewis by his study fire, musing patiently over the mysteries of God to the good of us all. And I read, with, O, what joy, of Sheldon Vanauken praying “daily, almost hourly, that God would speak through [his] two typing fingers” as he fulfilled his vocation to write A Severe Mercy.

It’s a beautiful thing, this holy desperation, and liberating in the extreme. God is not going to magically make me write like Elizabeth Gaskell or Jane Austen or George Eliot just because I ask Him to. But He is going to enable me to write from the burden of love He has laid upon me, to the end that He desires, which is more desirable than all to me. And the desire and the desiring draw me irresistibly into the heart of Love itself.

It’s one of the lovely paradoxes of this pilgrims’ way: we pour out our hearts in worship and find them filled in the very act. We stumble under our weakness, our grasping at words and colors and notes, and just when we think we’ve fallen we find the grip of a mighty embrace lifting us with wings like eagles’. We imagine we know the end of our art—where our ambitions lie—and we make our plans accordingly, only to discover we’re being propelled merrily along in some kind of crazy empowered helplessness towards a dream we’d likely have laughed at in our saner moments.

I found myself toward the end of last year under a big writing deadline, the enormity of which I hadn’t the least idea until I had assumed it. To say that I spent most of November with my head down upon my desk asking God for help would not be too far off the mark. (I wish I could say that I spent as much time thanking Him for it when it came.) I have never felt so out of my league and over my head. And, as I told my husband, the joy of it was an almost incandescent thing. I wished that I could always live with such intensity, such dependence upon God and awareness of His help. Exhausting as it was, it was one of the shining seasons of my life.

It was a glimpse, I think, small but lucid, of the great antiphonal exchange of prayers and praises, giving and receiving, with which art greets worship and worship quickens art. A snatch of the music of the spheres.

A hint of what it’s going to mean to love God face to face. I think there’s only one thing I’m going to be able to do then:

…And they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.  —Revelation 7:11, 12

dore-paradise

Lanier Ivester is a “Southern Lady” in the best and most classical sense and a gifted writer in the most articulate and literal sense. She hand-binds books and lives on a farm with peacocks, bees, sheep, and the governor of Ohio’s leg. She loves old books and sells them from her website, LaniersBooks.com, and she’s currently putting the final touches on her first novel, as well as studying literature at Oxford.


48 Comments

  1. Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    Hey, Lanier–so good to see you on the Rabbit Room. This essay is a gift to all of the sub-creators who frequent this website. It has renewed my sense of calling. So thanks. This is the first I’ve heard of Bach’s ‘Jesu juva’ prayer. What a great reminder.

    Pete, can we see more Lanier on the Rabbit Room?

  2. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Lanier, thank you. I really needed to read that; it gives me inspiration and direction, vision and purpose, and encouragement when I most need it. I need to write this on my eyelids, tattoo it on my arms, and post it above the door of my basement studio. PETE: Good call.

  3. Paula Shaw

    Thank you, Lanier. Exactly, exactly what I needed to hear. Thank you, Pete. I’m exceedingly grateful that you found this and posted it in the Rabbit Room. “Breathtaken” is exactly right! Wow!

  4. Harris Kendrick

    In a world obsessed with success and personal accomplishment, this is a beautiful reminder of the TRUE source of creativity, god discipline over self discipline!

    Thanks Lanier!

  5. Tony Heringer

    With Jason Gray’s “Everything Sad Is Coming Untrue” playing all the while, I really enjoyed this post — especially as the father of a dancer. Thanks for sharing your heart and using dance as a focal point. Having seen my daughter go from a little girl to a young woman all the while working at her art and being taught by women like your teacher is such a blessing. It sounds like your are following in her footsteps and giving back to another generation of young ladies who will benefit greatly from it.

    I concur with Mr. Block, good call Pete!

  6. kelli

    thank you, Lanier. this is beauty, simplicity and truth…too often overlooked.

    i had not heard of Bach’s ‘Jesu Javu’ prayer either. it, combined with S.D.G. encompasses life as it should be lived.

    wow…much to meditate upon in this post. thank you, again!

    (and thanks, Pete!!)

  7. Cherie Heringer

    Thank you Lanier. What a beautiful portrait of how we should offer our gifts. The picture of the teacher is etched into my mind now. I am the wife of Tony – who wrote above. We have a daughter who is a dancer and I am the director over the Academy of the Arts at Perimeter Church where she dances. I forwarded this on to all of our teachers as inspiration. So Rabbit Roomers you may have some more interesting subjects added to your musings!

  8. Dieta

    I was taking a break from cutting out my latest quilt when I read this. It made the process seem so much lighter, holy and inspired. Thank you.

  9. Brenda@Coffeeteabooksandme

    Lanier has been one of my favorite writers for a long time. I am so glad she is regularly blogging again on Lanier’s Books.

    She is also the reason I’ve been reading here (but never commenting before was of my own busy-ness). 🙂

  10. Jeff Taylor

    What Ron Block said! Amen!!

    Thank you for this brilliant post. I am out on the road somewhere making music and I will be reading this for the next several days to remind me of why I do this, and Who it is really for!
    This post is yet another example of why this website is one of the few worthwhile stops on the world wide web!

  11. Lanier Ivester

    Hey, everyone (waving over at Jonathon!), and thank you for all the kind words. I feel like a very welcomed guest.

    God bless, and here’s, ‘Hail! to the Rabbit Room!’

  12. Peter B

    Lanier, thank you for this long-overdue reminder. Often I wonder if I should be doing something with more eternal weight than software development (hey, Van Gogh never had to worry that his painting wouldn’t be able to run on the latest canvas). Ultimately, however, this isn’t my decision; my primary job is to give glory to my Creator in whatever vocation He leads me to pursue.

    What’s truly amazing is that the all-powerful God is fully capable of making my deliverables a reflection of His glory; how that can happen, I may never know, but with encouragement like yours, I might someday find out.

  13. sem

    I’ve been going through a difficult season . I’ve never doubted that staying home with my children and picking up jobs here and there was what I was supposed to be doing. Our Lord is faithful to give us what we need for the journey and I have to say, THIS is what I needed. It’s easy to start resenting the everyday chores and start to take on the role of martyr. This post did two valuable things: disabused me of the ridiculous notion that I am in anyway a martyr and reminded me that everything I do must be dedicated to Him. Each day should be started face down, asking God to use my everyday to bring Him glory.
    Thank you for your faithfulness in using the Gift He has given you to bless others.

  14. Joy C

    Hey Lanier,
    I experience this same flow of moment-to-moment seeking God’s supernatural guidance and presence in ongoing Bible study outreaches I do at a small state prison. It’s like an art form: to reach and win the new women, sort out the housing shifts of those whom I’ve already met, engage the disheartened, quiet the chaotic, encourage the strugglers, hear the unheard, and present the Word in a way that the Spirit may overshadow and instruct our tiny hearts… all in little half hour slices of time per group, every couple of days. By the grace of God, the Spirit comes present more often than one would think.
    I’ve not been able to explain it before, but it’s like your article… it’s a creative art form, in service to the Lord! thanks.

  15. Pracades

    Not only an inspiration to those of us who pursue art as “Sub-Creators” (as Ron so simply puts it) but those of us who pursue the joy of creating in everyday life, as my husband, the engineer, so humbly pointed out to me this week. He creates through math and science, as I create through homemaking and raising our two beatiful children. May all we do bring glory and honor to the Creator God, knowing full well that we do none of it without him. Great post!

  16. Jim Rohde

    Lanier, many thanks for writing and sharing this. To say I am speechless is only a start; this encouraged and touched my spirit. Thank you.

  17. JWitmer

    Numbed by the rush of life, the soporific rhythm of daily pressures. Then, a reminder of truth like a shot of adrenaline, and my soul startles fully awake for just a moment.
    Thank you, Pete. Thank you Lanier.

  18. Jon HIMknotmeasles Slone

    Beautiful!! It reminds me of the scripture, For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things! Romans 11:36

    I love the imagine conjured up of the woman face down in the shadows, extolling her Father and asking Him for help.

    Wonderful about Bach as well…like many others, I did not know that he did that with the, “Jesus. Help.”

    Pulchritudinous!

  19. SarahN

    “Not only can I not do it truly, essentially, without You. I can’t do it for You without You.”

    Thank you for this beautiful essay. I lose this perspective too often.

  20. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    I had this essay printed out and laying on my desk for a long time. I love it just as much again.

    Going through those intense creative times brings a lot of joy – there’s a joy in being completely taken up in the work, no way out because there is a deadline. I’m working on a project like that now, 12-14 hours on some days and it seems like 4, something I’ve not done in a long time. Creating is really godlike; there is a joy and spontaneity and freedom in creating that really doesn’t come in any other way. Thanks again for writing this reminder.

  21. KRF

    I am wondering just how many more times I’ll have to read this before I can fully grasp the lesson given… so far four, and counting…

    Lanier, thank you…

  22. JAM

    Wow. This has given my overwhelmed spirit the starting point I needed – face down at my desk. Thank you for aligning my thoughts today!

  23. Jen

    Lanier, this is amazing. Pete, thanks for bringing this essay back a year later. Just as resonant as it was a year ago, like reading it for the first time.

    Especially encouraging, because I’m finding myself in a creative dry spell, and it’s been painful, really getting me down lately. This was such a beautiful reminder why it matters in the first place. Thank you!

  24. Lanier Ivester

    “And the courage to create and not valuate our offering by the market standards of the world is, I believe, a gift in itself, and one to be sought most earnestly by the likes of such frail co-creators as we humans prove ourselves to be.”

    Wow, nothing like being nailed by your own words. Driven to prayer yet again…

    Thanks, all, for the encouraging comments. S.D.G., y’all.

  25. Stephen

    My sisters are ballarinas for Dramatic Truth School of the Arts, a Christian dance and music school and this really reminded me why they do it. It really gives me joy to watch them praise the Lord with their abilities. My little sister is even teaching herself to paint and sculpt and she praises God with theses skills too. About a week ago she put on one of her paintings, “My God is marvelous, wonderful, mighty, great, worthy and majestic. My God is holy. I can not find words to describe my God.” This article reminded me of this painting she did, it takes more than words to describe God, and it takes even more than that to praise Him for it. For all of us who aspire to be authors, artists, dancers, or musicians, that is something we must not forget.

  26. Amber Leffel

    Thank you, Lanier. I’m currently in the process of writing a sermon for this Sunday… And am so discouraged. I feel so uninspired, so lacking creativity — so careful to make sure that everything points to Jesus that I’m getting worn out.

    I think HE’s the One that points to Himself, anyway… And uses me…

    Anyway, I stumbled onto the Rabbit Room to look for encouragement. I don’t know how I’ll do with the rest of writing this sermon, though I hope for creativity and inspiration… But I am hoping that even though I don’t know how to be sure to give all the glory to Him, that HE will be faithful to do it, anyway.

    Isn’t that our God?

    Thanks,
    Amber

  27. Lanier

    Yes, that is exactly Him, Amber–“He’s the One that points to Himself.” Sounds like a sermon in itself. 🙂

    Praying for inspiration and creativity to wash over you like rain and gladden your heart like wine.

  28. Amber Leffel

    He said to me:

    “Daughter, ‘blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God'” (which is the portion of my sermon that I am working on right now and kind of stuck in). “Do you want to see Me? Don’t you want to see ME revealed in your sermon? Use your story, Amber… I have given it to you on purpose, I have written this story with Poise & Grace so that it may be SHARED, to CONNECT OTHERS with ME and with EACH OTHER, which has meant SO MUCH to you. It changes your life. I’m gonna change lives through you, too.”

    Mmm. So very amen, Lord Jesus. Grateful.

    * Please forgive the caps-for-emphasis… And, yes, I guess God DID say “gonna.” 😉

  29. Marissa

    I always find such encouragement here towards this: creative nature of God, pouring through us as love. Thank you for that. Jesu juva. Soli Deo Gloria. Amen.

  30. Chris C

    Hi, Lanier. I just finished reading this piece for the first time.

    Your teacher’s willingness to go before the Lord at such an occasion really impacted me. I’m sure she never thought she would influence lives of people she would never meet.

    For most of us, much of our lives, our Christian walk, does not need new revelations (though, God does open our eyes from time to time), but rather reminders and examples of what we know to be true. To God be the glory – we all want that for our lives, yet we forget sometimes or get it a little out of focus. This article helps to keep that focus and remind me of those good things – Jesu Juva and Soli Deo Gloria.

    One of the instruments I play is cello, and I love playing Bach’s Solo Cello Suites. Bach’s music is wonderful and I’ve seen the S.D.G. before on his music (reminds me of that old Watermark song), but have completely missed the J.J. How encouraging. Bach’s music glorifies God to be sure. He used great efforts and the gifts God gave him to create beauty in imitation of his Father and in full acknowledgement of his Father.

    This article of yours encourages me again how music and all art is at its best when God is acknowledged in it and He is also sought for help for it. It reminds me of a passage in “The Great Divorce”:

    “There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to Him and bad when it turns away from Him.”

    For my part, I believe it wholeheartedly. Jesus help me to look to You more and more.

    Thanks, Lanier!

  31. Jenn C

    Oh, how beautiful. Thank you! What an encouragement to pursue that which God gives my imagination. To know that He’ll carry it along as He chooses, and carry it along wonderfully if I ask and respond, and that one day all of the art will come together in praise when we see God face to face!

  32. Marsha Panola

    Thank you, Lanier. The truest and most beautiful art (whether “cake or loaf of bread or painting or song”) is born just as you describe it here–it’s hearts and minds and eyes and fingers and voices all offered to God for His use. And it’s one of the greatest joys we can have on this earth that God would choose any of us to help birth some “bright gleam from heaven upon our world”. What a joy that our Creator God would bend down to whisper beautiful things into our hearts, not only for our own hearing, but also to pass on to others. This is a blessing and encouragement today, and a fine example of what you wrote about here!

  33. Jenn H

    These words ring so very true and serve as needed encouragement in this moment. Thank you so much for sharing, and thank God for placing this on your heart.

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