God’s Rhythms and 76 Trombones
By JIM NICHOLS
My brain is odd because it remembers single phrases that seem to be just the right statement at the right time.
Professor Harold Hill was a shyster. He was the “Music Man” from the same-named musical and he traveled from small town to small town (“You Really Ought to Give Iowa a Try”) and duped the townsfolk into buying musical instruments and paying him to start a city band. This never materialized, but he would successfully escape from town with his money.
Things began to unravel for his trickery in one town where spinster Marian the Librarian ran the city library. She, and a few others, doubted Harold’s sincerity. Marian had a young brother, Tommy, who was a “true believer” in Harold, but was innocently clever enough to ask Harold revealing questions. To distract Tommy, Harold convinced him to try to perfect a perpetual motion machine. This became Tommy’s temporary goal.
At one point, Harold asked Tommy how he was doing on his task and Tommy replied, “I almost had it a couple of times.” Clearly, Tommy did not understand much about physics nor the impossibility of a human-made perpetual motion machine, but that one line stuck with me as a light-hearted truth about humans reaching for goals possible only to God.
With a science background, I have always been interested in nature’s rhythms since they are essentially perpetual motion events. Amid an uncountable number of illustrations, one of my favorites appeared on a trip my wife and I took to Scotland. In ways, this was an unimpressive illustration of a rhythm, but my mind can take me back there easily and I am confident that what I remember from 12 years ago is still occurring.
This adventure began in Edinburgh and took a whole day of traveling that included two train trips, a large ferry ride, a long bus ride, and finally a short ride on a much smaller ferry. The goal was the island of Iona off the northwest coast of Scotland. About 100 permanent residents occupy this three-mile by one-mile island. There are five shops, a few cars, a few small hotels, and many sheep.
Iona is what many Christians refer to as a “thin place,” a point on the earth where one seems to be especially close to God and God’s concerns. Historically, in 563 AD Columba came from Ireland to Iona and introduced Christianity to Scotland. It subsequently spread to northern England. Columba founded a monastery that has morphed into a beautiful Benedictine abbey plus many other accessory buildings and artifacts witnessing to the continued presence of Christianity on Iona.
We walked the island for several days. One trip to the south was particularly memorable. The gravel crunched under our feet and we passed small houses with rock fences. Women were hanging up clothes to dry in the cool air. Sheep roamed freely and were generally tame enough to touch. We passed a small cemetery and one headstone read, “Here lies all that could die of Bruce Henrick, Pastor. 1920-2007.
As we neared the coast of the island, the lush grass blended into rocks that became progressively larger. At the coast itself, some of the rocks were large enough to climb. Shore birds populated them. Since the rocks were right at the water’s edge, however, there were gaps that allowed the water to flow between them in a rhythmic pattern. There was the perpetual motion that captured my attention.
We were not observing the tides nor crashing waves on the shore. There were waves farther out, but here at the shore the water had lost most of its energy. All that remained was a gentle flow forward followed by a retreat followed by a gentle flow forward. Within a 60-second span, this cycle would occur perhaps four times. The rocks were near enough to each other that the rivulets were only a few inches wide, just enough for the water to move with a swoosh to-and- fro.
Frederick Beuchner suggests that one does not know for sure why a place is holy; its recognition comes with training. As I watched and listened to this predictable water movement, I imagined that this had been occurring, perhaps, since the beginning of the earth. In this place basically uninhabited by humans, a simple and holy rhythm or perpetual motion repeated its pattern whether I was present to see it or not.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain