Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Arvo Part and Daniel Barenboim for Advent...

NOTE: Here are my worship notes for the Second Sunday of Advent - December 5, 2010. This is part two in my series exploring the peace-making through music work that is happening all over creation. Last week I lifted up the importance of group singing and the experimentation of the "Playing for a Change" people. This week I highlight both Arvo Part and Daniel Barenboim. Then it is on to U2 and Sarah McLachlan and the Pittsfield Jazz Ambassadors! Stop by if you are in town on Sunday at 10:30 am.

Today we are asked to wrestle with and reconcile the message of two ancient Israeli prophets: the poetic peace-maker Isaiah, and, the social agitator John the Baptist. Both men are committed to God’s shalom – that marriage of the heavenly with the human so that all of creation can rest and prosper – but they come at it very differently, yes?

Isaiah speaks of the great reversal that takes place when we are open to God’s spirit within and among us: (The Messiah) shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness – that is, justice and peace – he shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth… Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

Not so much gentility and grace comes from John the Baptist who also speaks of the consequences of the presence of the Holy Spirit but with a very different flavor when he tells us: As you prepare for the Messiah, watch out – no phonies allowed – this is serious business. And if you think you can fake being ready – or rely upon your family or business background – forget it: Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

Do you grasp this contrast – and the challenge – that we face in trying to reconcile these two very different approaches to peace? It is my hunch, and I’ve been working on this for most of my professional life, that we need both Isaiah and John if we’re going to be open to God’s shalom.
At one point in my life, my earlier hot-headed days, the Baptist was my man: he was kicking theological and political butt and taking names and I was certain that he was the spiritual paradigm necessary to help move us into God’s peace.

• I suspect most young preachers think that way – that’s just how we’re made – we have a unique insight into the mind of the Lord and are going advance the kingdom of God come hell or high water.

• John the Baptist, you see, is the archetypal wild man: a model for how to harness male aggression in a healthy and constructive way – a warrior who loves deeply – and cares for both the weakest in his community as well as the environment.

And men – as well as women – need to be in touch with what healthy and passionate energy for justice and compassion looks like; for without a constructive focus for this energy you wind up with youth gangs and their random acts of violence as well as fear and abuse in the home.

But in time it hit me that Jesus chose a path very different from that of his cousin John; in fact, while he borrowed some of the Baptist’s passion and perspective, his life’s work was much more like that of the poet Isaiah who was less of a rabble-rouser and more of a bridge builder.

• Think about it: if you know the John the Baptist story it ends with the wild man in prison where he has some of his helpers go to Jesus and ask: Are you really the Messiah? The one we have been waiting for?

• He is confused because Jesus pays NO attention to the armies of Rome in his ministry – all his attention is given to the poor and lame, the broken and maimed – and that concerns John enough to think that maybe he was wrong about Jesus. Do you recall that story in chapter 11 of Matthew?

Eventually Jesus tells the disciples of the Baptist to look at the fruit of his work and judge for himself: Go tell John what you see and hear. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised and the poor are given hope. Jesus closes that chapter with the words that have become the core of my ministry for the past 15 years – words that are almost the polar opposite of John’s – when he says: Come to me, all ye who are tired and heavy laden and I will give you rest. Come to me and learn the unforced rhythms of grace. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me and I will show you the way to true life.

But Advent asks us to hold BOTH prophets together – maybe in tension or maybe in tandem – because maybe God’s shalom is NOT an either/or proposition? Maybe there are parts of our world – as well as our hearts – that NEED to be shaken up by John so that we do our part. And, at the same time, it is likely that there are other parts of each and all of us that ache for God’s comfort and joy?

Enter the peace-making activities of two men working in the world of contemporary music: Arvo Part and Daniel Barenboim. Do you know them? If not, becoming familiar with both their music and their witness would enrich your world and give you another window into how Christ is being born in the world often beyond our comprehension.

• And that is part of the Advent challenge, yes? To become quiet and attentive enough to see where God’s light is breaking into the darkness.

• Most of the time, you see, this is happening in obscure and often mysterious ways that we will not notice unless we are awakened to searching out the forgotten and hidden places.

Take the Estonian composer, Arvo Part, who has become one of the most important advocates of what I call the “inner journey” working in the world of classical music. He grew up and was educated in Soviet Russia in the 40s and 50s which meant that he was cut off from developments in Western music. So, when he began to compose, he was heavily influenced by both Shostakovich and Prokofiev – both brilliant 20th century Russian artists – but not those tuned into the musical experimentation and innovation of the 1960s.

So, after a decade of uneven recognition – and sometimes being banned outright by the Soviets for his sacred compositions – Part entered a time of self-imposed silence. He experimented – and prayed – and by the end of the 1970s started writing new music grounded in the old sounds of church bells and Gregorian chant.


Do you hear the meditative quality of this music? How peaceful it is at the level of the soul? This is part of the Advent truth – nourishing the soul and cultivating an inner peace – because “you can’t give what you ain’t got.” Or as they used to say on the streets: you can’t talk the talk if you don’t walk the walk! Sometimes John the Baptist types degrade the importance of quiet and beauty in pursuit of peace. Arvo Part shows why it is essential.

So does Daniel Barenboim who is more like John the Baptist in his more assertive pursuit of peace in the Middle East. He is an Israeli citizen, born in Argentina, who is a pianist and conductor. In addition to being a brilliant interpreter of Beethoven and Mozart, Barenboim formed the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra with the late Palestinian intellectual, Edward Said, to combat ignorance. Barenboim put it like:

The Divan is not a love story, and it is not a peace story. It has very flatteringly been described as a project for peace. It isn't. It's not going to bring peace, whether you play well or not so well. The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance. A project against the fact that it is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it. I'm not trying to convert the Arab members of the Divan to the Israeli point of view, and [I'm] not trying to convince the Israelis to the Arab point of view. But I want to ...create a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives.

So every summer in Seville, Spain – a place that once honored the peaceful presence of Jews, Christians and Muslims – he gathers some of the best young Egyptian, Iranian, Israeli, Jordanian, Lebanese, Palestinian, and Syrian musicians to practice and eventually perform together. He is certain that by learning to play and listen to one another – and create something of beauty and depth in the process – that potential enemies will learn how to become people of trust.


What’s more, every year he performs in Gaza as a commitment to opposing the ever expanding settlements of Israel that are the stumbling block for peace. In 2004, when Israel awarded him the Wolf Prize, he used the opportunity to criticize his government publically for their human rights abuses. In 2008, after a musical performance in Ramallah, he was given – and accepted – an honorary Palestinian citizenship as a further critique of the violence that Israel wages in the name of peace and national security.

Both musicians – in very different ways – have come to know profoundly what both Isaiah and the John Baptist mean when they say there will come a time when the whole earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord. And it has nothing to do with personal salvation – or private notions that we are God are chosen – not at all. The full knowledge of the Lord has to do with what James Alison calls “the intelligence of the victim.”

• What it looks like, what it feels like and what it means to make another our scapegoat. To blame others for our failures – to curse others for our woes and bad luck – to lash out in violence because of our fears or confusion.

• Because, the prophets tell us, whenever we do that it results in Christ being crucified – the innocent betrayed and punished – for our fear and anger and rage.


No wonder the Advent readings ask us to wrestle with both Isaiah and John the Baptist, yes? The peace-making commitment requires BOTH the inward journey of resting in God’s love AND the outward journey of challenging and transforming injustice. So here’s what the witness of these two musicians say to me:

What are you doing to nourish your soul? What inward practice do you cultivate that reconciles the hopes and fears of all the years? What regular spiritual practice do you follow that fosters inner peace?

And what do you do with that inner work in the wider world that advances shalom and beauty? Not shrill carping – or politics as usual – but compassion and justice and beauty?

The way into the Jesus life demands we figure this out – for in this new unity is the good news for today.

6 comments:

Black Pete said...

Lots to think about here, James. And I liked Daniel Barenboim's hard-headed yet compassionate assessment of the Divan.

RJ said...

I think he is amazingly humble and clear, yes? And prophetic, too.

Black Pete said...

This just in, James: check this url out. It will impress. http://www.ceasefirechicago.org/

RJ said...

this is wonderful, Peter, thanks for the link.

Philomena Ewing said...

Being set apart from the mainstream allowed Arvo Part to develop his unique style and talent. There is such beauty in the music.
Great choice as always and many thanks .
Hope you are feeling better !
Blessings

Anonymous said...

nice opinion.. thanks for sharing.

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