Thursday, August 4, 2016

music, awe, trusting God and finding a heart to love...

WORSHIP NOTES:  Becoming Wise IV (for Sunday, August 7, 2016)

One of the wisest elders in contemporary American Christianity is Frederick Buechner.  He just
celebrated his 90th birthday and since the 1960s, has published over 30 books:  some theological interpretation, others creative fiction as well as a few brilliant spiritual memoirs. Each holds rich, nuanced prose, saturated with sacred revelations and earthy insights. Like both Father Abraham and our Lord Jesus in today’s readings, Buechner grasps that listening to our lives is one of the best ways of hearing the word of the Lord in our generation.

In Genesis, Abraham asks God:  how will I know that the meaning of your love for my life without interpretation and God has him look up at the night sky. Jesus tells his bewildered companions:  Do not be afraid, little flock, rather trust your Father’s kingdom and you will come to know that where your treasure s – and where your treasure is where you will discover what matters most to at this moment in time. Buechner speaks this truths like thisIf I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a writer and a preacher, it would this:  Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and the pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments and life itself is grace.

Our ordinary, quotidian, walking around, getting up, going to work, making supper, making love and falling asleep lives are the best places for us to listen for a revelation of God’s love in our world, and, experience God’s clarifying interpretation of that love: where your treasure is, there is where your heart will be also.  Not, where your heart currently resides – and never what you convince yourself your feelings to you in the moments – but always what you give the most energy, attention, thought, concern and time to will is where honest revelation occurs. Your true core is what the heart means in ancient Jewish spirituality. It is the distillation of your intellect, your will as well as you emotions and deepest concerns in life.  Americans like to romantically invert Christ’s wisdom, saying if you follow your heart you will discover a treasure.  But that is sentimental slop – and Jesus is remarkable blunt in today’s confession – instructing those with ears to hear that if we are to be honest with ourselves, we must examine what we actually do in life. THAT will reveal where our heart is in actuality. How we spend our time and resources always renders a verdict.  So listen to your life – not you words or private thoughts but your life – and this testimony will show you where your truly heart is.

Krista Tippett in her book, Becoming Wise, writes something similar: “What is love?”  The answer is best revealed in the story of your actions.  She joins Abraham, Moses and the Hebrew prophets along with Jesus, Magdalene, St. Paul and Buechner in urging us to listen to our lives that we might hear the still, small voice of the Lord calling to us through the static and frenzy of our activity towards that which is true, beautiful and loving.

In the Genesis story, Abram asks the Lord about the specifics of his pilgrimage:  outwardly he wants to know about progeny:  how will a child come to pass from Sarah and myself in our old, old age?  We left our families behind in modern day Iraq to wander in the wilderness as you commanded, Lord, but where does this story end?  The deeper question, however, seeks assurance of God’s providence and protection.  It is the same concern articulated in St. Luke’s text when Jesus says:  do not be afraid, little flock, be nurtured by the unfailing treasure of heaven. On the surface of these stories, you might expect me to reinforce the old gospel song that tells us to, “Trust and obey for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but trust and obey.” But at this stage in my life, I am not into sloppy agape aphorisms that vow sentimental piety to be the heart of faith in the midst of hard living. That’s why I usually take greater care to go deep into the promise of our Scriptures and tease out the treasures that often exist beyond the obvious and simplistic.

And if you pay close attention, two broad clues begin to emerge about how to construct adult lives built upon God’s providence. In the sixth verse of Genesis 15, after God shows Abraham the night sky filled with stars and asks him if he can count and quantify the enormity of heavenly lights, the One who is holy says:  this symbolizes what you can expect from me – mystery, awe, a love greater than your imagination and a power that is terrifying but equally tender. God doesn’t give Abram a security blanket, or a quick fix; the Lord offers Abram a vision that embraces heaven and earth suggesting that sacred love in all its holy magnificence is awesome.  Look into the night sky, man, and THAT is what you can count on:  the mysterium tremendum

And no sooner does THAT happened then the text tells us Abraham believed the Lord - aman in Hebrew means trusted, confirmed, believed and verified with a trust that is deeper than doctrine or mere intellectual assent.  That is, in that moment of reverent awe, Abram knew in his core at that God’s love was vast.  And, here’s my favorite part in this story, as soon as aman filled Abraham with clarity, the Lord reckoned Abraham’s trust as righteousness – tzedekah – meaning justice or the essence of ethical living. Are you with me? Honoring the mysterious encounter of God’s magnificent love in the night sky defines the heart of Abraham from that time forward. It is now the core of what he devotes himself to in life: fortifying right relationships in public. This existential mystical trust in God’s love is gives birth, shape, hope and form to right living in the real world.

When we listen to our encounters of awe in our flesh – the times we’ve experienced our insignificance standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon, our powerlessness watching a loved one pass from this life into life eternal, our sweet but fragile impact upon those whom we cherish, the exuberance and ecstasy of blessings in our flesh as we revel with our lover – when we listen to our lives, God interprets for us where and how our trust must become embodied so that love might be strengthened.  When I have done this, observed and listened to the trajectory of what inspires my time, blood, sweat and tears, it will come as no surprise that music has been my mentor.  One advisor I trust is Leonard Cohen: a Jewish, French Canadian Buddhist poet and artist devoted to both the prayers of his Hebrew heritage as well as the discipline of advancing truth and beauty in a world too often rendered cruel and debased.  Since I was called to serve God in community with you nine years ago, a mature composition that took him over 10 years to construct, “Anthem,” has repeatedly spoken my name – and never more soberly than during this election cycle.

This song is like standing on the age of the Israeli desert with Abraham and looking up at the
night sky for me: it is the ultimate song of God’s never-ending grace. The verses are a tender lament that sobs over the mess we’ve made of things:  sing again, beloved, knowing that our wars will be fought again, life will pass away, killers in high places will pray their prayers out loud and even the dove of peace will never truly free.  This part of the song is sung like the Paris chanteuse, Edith Piaf, bemoaning the loss of hope and purpose during the Nazi occupation of Vichy France in the 40s. Dianne’s vocal tones are extended in a plaintive and lonely style while the instruments pulse with an agonizing slowness designed to evoke the plodding of enduring despair. 

But then the chorus penetrates the darkness with light. RING THE BELLS THAT STILL CAN RING – not all things work but some can still summon us towards the light – JUMP OFF THE TREADMILL OF DESPAIR AND GROW UP – don’t sacrifice the good in service of the perfect even with your offerings – FOR THERE IS A CRACK, A CRACK IN EVERYTHING:  that is how God made creation and through the crack the light of hope, love and resurrection break through the darkness.  This is a song for our generation that wonders what the HELL is going on:  it is a call to rally together and allow even our failures and fears to lead us towards the light. Like Abraham before God, the song invites us to reclaim the awe that breaks through everything if we are open so that we too can renew lives of justice, awe and ethical integrity.

Trusting the beauty and awe of the Lord empowered Abraham to give his life to strengthening right relations in his era.  That is one take away I urge you to consider. The second asks us to let awe lead us from trust into love: Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is God’s good pleasure to give to you the kingdom.  In Tippett’s book, one of my favorite interviews comes from John Lewis, congressman from Georgia. Not long ago he held a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives calling out the cowardice of his Republican colleagues for not bringing a vote on common sense gun control to the floor.  You may recall that Lewis was one of the original freedom riders who helped integrate the south during the early 1960s. And he told Tippett that the only way we can advance loving kindness and justice in our world is to believe that the love of God’s kingdom is already happening. Hold on to a vision of what should be – the kingdom of peace and justice born of the Lord he said – and you will begin to see it take shape.

You have to train yourself in trusting that love is truly greater than hate. .. When someone is attacking you, beating you, spitting on you, you have to think of that person:  what happened to the innocent baby they started out as?  Did something go wrong? Did someone teach that person to hate, to abuse others? You must appeal to the goodness of every human being and never give up on anyone…. Like Dr. King said at times, life is hard, as hard as crucible steel. In spite of the darkness of this hour, however, we must not lose faith in our white brothers (and sisters.) This takes training and preparation – hard work inside us and in community – but it is all built on trusting that the love you are moving towards is already done. It’s already happened.

That’s kingdom conversation, beloved – sacred imagination fueled by radical, bold and holy trust in God’s love.  And like Lewis said – and Jesus taught today – such disciplined love doesn’t happen automatically or accidentally. It must be nourished with prayer and conversation, study, practicing acts of trust and regular evaluations of our accountability. I think that’s what our second song, Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” conveys to me:  it is brilliant, humble and wise in its differentiating between sentimental, idealistic love – which is self-absorbed– and genuine, life-changing compassion that can change the world.  It is a call to trust God’s love in helping us mature. St. Paul once put it like this Ephesians: Now is the time to grow up and stop being infants who are tossed to and fro by every wind of competing doctrines and ideas. I don’t know about you, but I’ve known people in congregations who have not learned one new thing about love since they were confirmed in the 6th grade.  At 80 they are still as bigoted, opinionated, cranky and mean-spirited as when they were kids. What’s up with that?

This song starts with all the “bows and flows of angel hair - (some) moons and Junes and Ferris wheels, too” as these are the innocent words of love. But Joni Mitchell wants us to journey deeper into love know that this will cause “old friends to start acting strange, they shake their heads and say I’ve changed, well something’s lost, but something’s gained in living everyday because (you see) I’ve looked at life from both sides now…” From the awe as well as what’s cracked and broken, from the hard times and the good times, the deaths and the births that are a part of the story of our lives – all of it can help make us mature and tender agents of compassion IF we’re paying attention.  Like the old preacher in Ecclesiastes said last week: there is a season for everything when we see BOTH sides now.  So we share this reflection quietly:  it is a bittersweet truth to be savored slowly. It needs a pure voice without judgment like Elizabeth’s beautifully embodied singing. The complexity of its insights calls for a simple yet rich accompaniment so that supports the blessings without obscuring them. And then, at the close, we give you a little time to simply drift along in the music and see where it leads…
Today in music and prose, silence and song, we’ve asked you to listen: listen to your life, listen to the Lord, listen to sounds that cut deeper than simple entertainment, listen for the call of God in awe and reverence that leads to love.  We have also asked you to listen beyond your comfort zone because listening complacently can cause us to miss the crack – and that is where and how the light gets in.  Ours is a dark time yearning for light, a frightened time aching for hope.  Please, for God’s sake as well as for our common good, listen to your life…


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