I have a bad habit of walking out of the house with my shoes untied.
I don’t do this for any aesthetic or political purpose; I’m not trying to make a statement about needing to be liberated from whatever ties us down (though that sounds pretty good). Rather, I am simply too lazy to bend down the six feet required to tie my shoes. I generally get to the task around mid-morning, after more than a few people have seen my laces flopping around in the breeze. People who know me are aware of this aspect of my laziness; they have warned me about my untied shoes once or twice before and have been surprised when I’ve told them “I know.” In general, people will stop pointing out my loose laces after a few of these interactions.
One of my good friends from seminary, however, would warn me every single time he saw me with my shoes untied. For him it was never a casual reminder, either. Untied shoes seemed to be a matter of life and death to him. Even after I told him explicitly about the nature of my shoe-related laziness, he would still drop everything he was doing to say, “Whoa buddy! Your shoes are untied! Be careful!” The funny thing is that this guy is not the most effusive man in the world. He has his moments of melodrama, but for the most part, he is very measured and not inclined to outbursts of any kind, particularly when it comes to other people’s business. Yet, for whatever reason, my friend reserves a special compassion for people whose shoes are untied. His warning is an emblem of a deep love that he has for his fellow human beings, one doesn’t appear in all situations, but is abundantly clear when the circumstances are right.
I think that there are times when we feel overwhelmed by the need for compassion in this world. Everywhere we turn, there seems to someone who is hungry, thirsty, persecuted, or desperate to know love. One possible response to this is to up our hands and say, “There’s no possible way that I could do anything to alleviate all the suffering in this world, so I’ll just try to forget about it.” But as my friend demonstrates, we can let our compassion reveal itself in particular situations. We can try to alleviate the suffering of people we have relationships with; we can devote our energies to dealing with a particular issue. Above all, we can trust that every act of love we perform in this life is a way of building for God’s reign of justice and love.
This past Sunday, Heavenly Rest hosted a concert that featured pianist Leslie Spotz, who blew away the audience with her rendition of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Many of you are probably familiar with the orchestral version of Pictures, a programmatic suite that depicts Mussorgsky’s stroll through a museum that housed a collection of engravings by his late friend Victor Hartmann. The most famous movement of the piece is “The Great Gate of Kiev,” which has been adapted for orchestras, concert bands, and 1970s jam bands (I’m not even kidding). The majestic and thrilling music is meant to depict Hartmann’s drawing of a memorial gate that commemorated Czar Alexander II’s narrow escape from an assassination attempt. When one hears Mussorgsky’s music, one assumes that the gate must be absolutely spectacular, one of the jewels of the Russian Empire. But in spite of the exciting musical depiction, plans to build the actual gate were abandoned; there is no Great Gate of Kiev in real life. The structure survives only in Victor Hartmann’s design and Modest Mussorgsky’s music.
As a music fan and a history nerd, I found this revelation incredibly disappointing. Gone were all of my fantasies about visiting Kiev, stopping by the Great Gate, and running into someone who was also whistling the tune from the final movement of Pictures at an Exhibition, thus finding a transatlantic pen pal. There is no Great Gate to visit; it is a figment of some long-dead artist’s imagination. Or is it? For everyone who has ever played or heard the final movement of Mussorgsky’s most famous work, the Great Gate of Kiev is very real indeed. Anyone who has participated in a performance of Pictures has experienced the Great Gate of Kiev in a profoundly real way. While there is no physical structure, the genius of a Russian composer and the devotion of musicians and music lovers through the years means that the Great Gate of Kiev is something completely tangible and timeless, something we have the privilege of experiencing whenever we hear the music performed.
There are times in our lives of faith when we are plagued by doubt. There are times that we are uncertain about the presence of God in our lives. It would be easy to think of these moments of doubt as proof that God is not there or that God does not want to have a relationship with us. Yet, the Great Gate of Kiev demonstrates that we can have a profoundly real experience of something even when we doubt that it is there. Churchill Gibson, the chaplain at Virginia Theological Seminary for a number of years, was fond of saying, “Pray without ceasing, and when you can’t pray, say your prayers.” I think this is the perfect illustration of how we are called to nurture our relationship with God. God wants us to experience a relationship with God even in the midst of our doubts. In response, we are called to trust that this experience is real.