Music, Spontaneity, and Spirituality (a sermon delivered on the occasion of dedicating a Steinway Baby Grand Piano, a gift to the church)

I.

When I was a seminarian taking a certain pastoral care course, there was a group counseling experience required as a part of the overall course requirements.  The professor who turned out to be one of the A-List professors in my seminary experience expected us to treat the group counseling component of the course as if he were the therapist and as if we his students were his clients in a group counseling context.  

I found that awkward for several reasons, one of which was that he was not my therapist; he was my professor, and we were going to get a grade out of the “learning opportunity” as he had devised it.  I have found it a good idea across the years not to engage one of my professors as my mental health provider in the same way that I have found it a good practice not to ask my therapist to give me a grade on how well I was maintaining mental health at any given moment.  

There I was at Southern Seminary and enrolled in a course that made me uncomfortable, but got me closer to graduation; I felt stuck.  I finally figured staying was my best option, and I’d have to come up with a way to survive.  I decided that as long as I showed myself to be engaged in the process, though my heart wasn’t in it, I could manage to keep my grade point average unblemished.  I did OK grade-wise, but things didn’t work out the way I’d hoped, the way I’d planned.

It seemed that Professor Rowatt, though I think he may have denied this when someone made the accusation, managed to get one member of the group on the hot seat each week.  The object appeared to be to poke and prode that week’s guinea pig until a sensitive spot was found.  Having made the discovery the professor wanted to be sure the student owned feelings related to having had that soft spot uncovered.  I hated that process. I hated watching one of my poor colleagues have her or his vulnerability exposed, and I hated knowing each week that, while I’d been off the hook that day, my turn was coming.

 

 

Image

Professor G. Wade Rowatt, Ph.D.

 

 

 

Sometimes we dread an impending event to the extent that the dread is much worse than the experience, but in this case my dread wasn’t half as painful as having my day on the hotseat.  I had determined not to sell my soul for a grade by pretending to feel something just because it was Thursday morning, our regular weekly meeting time, and because I knew Dr. Rowatt wouldn’t leave me alone until I emoted on cue, as it were.  Again, if he were here, I he would deny what I’ve just accused him of–not that these events took place but how and why.  Nonetheless, I wasn’t the only one in the group who had this weekly guinea pig perception of what was going on.  

Well, the day came when my esteemed professor decided it was my turn to be on the hot seat.  I experienced anticipatory blushing the night before in the event he uncovered some deep struggle within me that I didn’t want my sister and brother seminarians to know about.   

 

 

Image

 

 

Once the soft spot had been revealed in answers to a series of questions that only psychologists and God knew how to ask and interpret, tears were expected or terror so deeply felt it made peers on the other side of the circle quake with the poor soul who had been terrorized by whatever life event had created the secret scar.  The only other suitable alternative for course survival, as some of us saw it, was an angry outburst to prove we’d been treated inappropriately somewhere along the way, and instead of leaving us pained it had left us irate. Anger was a good thing. But, we were seminarians, and anger didn’t come easily for most of us.

I tired of the emotional interrogation that day but held my cool in the southern gentlemen’s way according to which I had been bred.  When he realized I consistently refused to emote on cue, though, the professor said something like this, “Well, it seems that Farmer has made it to this point in life emotionally unscathed, and for that we would have to be thankful.  He’s nice, isn’t he?  He really is.  He’s so nice he makes me sick since I know under all that southern gentleman facade is someone living in denial about the pain that rips the rest of us apart.”  See what I went through to get to be your pastor?

What he said did make me angry, and I couldn’t keep it in. I was angry for real; I’d had enough. I said so, and I added that my emotions were appropriately in tact so that I was authentic enough not to push myself to feel something just because it happened to be Thursday morning.  About that time, he began to applaud and said, “Well, will you look at that!  Farmer isn’t always Mr. Nice Guy after all.  He can even get angry.  Maybe he’s a real person after all.”  I had nothing else to say that day. 

I made it through the course, and Dr. Rowatt ended up on my doctoral committee of instruction.  By the time I graduated, he was the Associate Dean who gave me my first job as a professor.  That course may be the primary reason I’ve lasted in the pastorate all these years.

 

 

Image

 

Emoting on cue is a bad thing unless you’re an actor, and you have to cry when the director screams out, “Tears!”  I am proposing to you today that praising God and praying are in the same category.  They can’t be done because someone else tells you it’s time.

 

 

II.

I have been thinking for some time about a typical church’s, if there is such a thing, a typical church’s perspective on praise of God. As conceived in several places in Judeo-Christian scripture, praising God is a joyous thing to do; and yet, bottom line, it’s expected of those who want to honor God.  I fear that it is an extension of appeasement attempts.  That is to say, if I don’t praise God, I’d have been taught to believe, there will be a higher probability of having some tragedy befall me and my people so I’m going to join in with a community of worship and praise God to the best of my ability.

 

 

Image

 

 

It’s hard to say precisely what praise of God is.  There’s a whole lot more to it than saying, “God is great, God is good,” or, “God has done marveous deeds.”  If Silversiders were concerned with praising God as so many of our hymns prompt us to do, the fact is that just because we are here in this place, singing those hymns Sunday mornings at 10, by no means guarantees that God is praised.  

If we praise God authentically, we praise God because we can’t help it, because something wells up within us that is a combination of amazement and gratitude and spills out of us in spite of ourselves.  If you think as I do that God is the life-source and the life-force then perhaps when the nurse of doctor first put your newborn into your arms then you may inadvertently have thought to yourself, “Life is miraculous,” or with Louis Armstrong you may instead have thought to yourself, “What a wonderful world.”

The point is, you didn’t have to wait for someone to tell you what to feel.  You absolutely couldn’t help feeling what you felt.  No one could have kept you from feeling what you felt.  

Same thing with prayer.  Let’s rule out as “real prayer” what Tru Dee Burrell calls a “begging prayer”–pleading with God to give us something or to cause something to happen that we really think needs to happen.  Tru Dee’s spirituality is so evolved that prayer for her is seeing or visualizing the unquestionable good for which she longs as already accomplished.  

Many of us have grown up as part of traditions in which praying at certain times of the day or week was presented as an exemplary spiritual practice.  If that is meaningful for anyone, I would in no way be critical, but I have to tell you that since prayer at its core is communion with the Divine I don’t think it can typically be timed or performed on cue.  

 

Image

 

 

If you tell your significant other every single day that you love her or him, that can be a sweet and wonderful thing.  But if you have it on a calendar as a task to be performed at a set time every day as the reminder on your cell phone tells you to do, chances are some of the punch could be lost.  Ritual “I love you’s” are better than no “I love you’s,” but expressing love–often without words–because you can’t help yourself is likely to be more joyously received by the one whom you love.

I was pondering how much I love my kids a couple of days ago.  At a distance I couldn’t show them, so I texted each one.  The text read–and, no, I didn’t copy my words of love to one and send them to the other also–“I love you so very much.”  As if he hadn’t heard that from me with some frequency, my older son texts back asking, “What brought that about?”  

 

 

Image

 

 

I text-answered, “Uhm, your birth.”  He hasn’t communicated with me since.  Geez!  

If I pray on a schedule–on cue, fine I guess.  But if I celebrate out of the blue the Love that is God because I can’t help opening my heart to the Love, that I think is profound prayer.

III.

This gift piano has brought many of us unavoidably to aesthetic ecstasy today, and my prediction is that it will do so time and again in the future.  

 

Image

 

 

Perhaps it will be a part of having us sing in the midst of real world stuff when we can’t help ourselves a song the choir sings from time to time (along with Enya among others).  Whoever penned these words has never been publicly identified:

My life flows on in endless song;

Above earth’s lamentation

I hear the sweet though far off hymn

That hails a new creation:

 

Through all the tumult and the strife

I hear the music ringing;

It finds an echo in my soul—

How can I keep from singing?

 

E’vn though the tempest round me roars

I know the truth it liveth

E’vn though the darkness round me close

Songs in the night it giveth

 

No storm can shake my inmost calm

While to that rock I’m clinging.

Since Love is lord of heaven and earth

How can I keep from singing?

 

Some related readings from our Gathering today:

1) Plato once said, “Philosophy begins in wonder.” Building on that thought, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg says, “Meditation happens. It happens spontaneously on long walks; it happens during focused episodes seated on a cushion; it happens in packed synagogues. For me, meditation is about awareness. I don’t push away thoughts. I simply keep on breathing. If I don’t grab on to my thoughts they’ll eventually fall away of their own accord.”

2) From Amy Sullivan: “Sometimes I think God shows up in places that smell of bleach and Hamburger Helper. Places that house women in red, fuzzy slippers and children in sleeveless pajamas. Beyond banging doors and crackly announcements God sits in an uncomfortable kitchen chair that rocks but isn’t supposed to.”

3) From Fred Pratt Green:

When in our music God is glorified,
and adoration leaves no room for pride,
it is as though the whole creation cried
Alleluia!

How often, making music, we have found
a new dimension in the world of sound,
as worship moved us to a more profound
Alleluia!

Let every instrument be tuned for praise!
Let all rejoice who have a voice to raise!
And may God give us faith to sing always
Alleluia! Amen.

Advertisements

Comments are closed.