Just Below the Surface

In music there’s something called “harmonic rhythm.” We’re all generally familiar with the basic idea of rhythm, but usually as a property of what’s happening on the surface of the music. Rhythmic designs and differences in the relative length and positioning of notes in a piece help lead us to perceive and understand for example whether it’s a march, a waltz, a polka, or a mokhtar samba.

Harmonic rhythm is more about what happens beneath the surface. It’s more structural. It focuses attention on segments or architectural areas of harmony. It helps define larger or broader swaths of musical movement and direction.

This sub-surface movement is typically slower than what’s happening up top. We can remember when we got to go to the pool as kids how we would sometimes put on goggles and go underwater. Down there was like another world. We were surrounded by smooth, gentle quietness, aware of but away from the splashing, screaming, choppiness, and gleeful noise of our playmates.

Or think of the most raging storm at sea violently tossing great ships like so many matchsticks. All the while, only a few feet beneath that mortal peril, again can be found another world relatively unfazed by the turmoil and tumult above.

If you’re a surface sailor, storms really get your attention. You could be fighting for your life pretty much at a moment’s notice. Being prepared is an essential element of survival. Surface sailors do all they can to avoid that “sinking feeling.”

Submariners on the other hand experience submerging as a natural part of their professional habitat. They must like it down there in the dark and the quiet. They train hard and well, in the common parlance, to “run silent, run deep.” They learn to be in touch with a whole different set of sounds, rhythms, and senses upon which their own effectiveness and survival also depend. Their skills in navigating the world beneath the waves also work together to give them a window on the world above for tactical or strategic reasons.

In terms of Christian patterns, this is not to suggest that we seek a retreat from surface realities of our lives to an insular alternate reality of denial or protective self-deception. It is to call us to awareness that deeper understanding and fundamental meaning can be found in what undergirds or underflows us at any given moment.

One of the earliest heresies that first challenged Christians essentially argued that Jesus came to relieve or remove us from turbulence, to help us rise above the 24/7 challenges of our everyday lives to a different existential place or plane where we could become privy to some sort of special spiritual knowledge or understanding. It’s easy to imagine the attractiveness of such an offer then or now. Life is often difficult. But Jesus didn’t lower a rescue ladder from heaven so we could climb up and out of our circumstances. He climbed down to join us in their midst where he could redeem them and make all things—including us—new.

The last year has been a tumultuous and disorienting time for many or most of us. The metaphors of stormy seas or jarring music may seem all too apt. Safe harbor or soothing harmony for us may momentarily be undetectable. We find ourselves seeing or hearing only what confronts us—towering swells or rhythms of life that seem to be at cross purposes.

Yet by God’s grace we can seek meaning—indeed identity, security, and destiny—just below the surface of the turbulence facing us, trusting by faith in the purposes of the Eternal One who loves us, and of his Son our Savior standing with us in our small, vulnerable boat sovereignly declaring to the waves and to our hearts, “Peace, be still!”    

                                                                                                            Michael Denham

Author: expositionalvision

Michael Denham has served many years as Director of Music Ministries at The National Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC.

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