Sunday, April 25, 2010




I.
There’s a huge difference between having a song in the back of your mind somewhere that sort of springs into consciousness every now again as you work or between spurts of work and, in contrast, listening with great focus and intensity to a symphony in which you intend to appreciate the whole as well as the intricacies of the musical composition.  The one, for all practical purposes, seems mindless, though it probably isn’t at all. The other is intentionally mindful; in the latter, I want to take in all my thinking capabilities will allow me to understand and absorb.  Singing music is similar. There are songs I’ve long since memorized, and others if I tried to sing them again and again I’d still be sweating over my score and staring at the conductor just to contribute my one little bit to the oratorio.   
The Apostle Paul had two levels of making music in mind when he wrote to the Christians in Corinth--not exactly mindlessly and mindfully, with the mind unengaged and the mind engaged, but rather listening to music or making music with the spirit on the one hand and with the mind on the other.  In other contexts, one in particular, Paul contrasted praying in the spirit with praying intellectually.  Praying in the spirit wasn’t praying with the mind disengaged; instead, it was praying with an awareness that words got in the way of the most profound prayers.  If I try, if I force myself, to articulate every thought I’m feeling and pondering something will get lost in translation; no question about it.  So, Paul said, when you are communing with God at those most profound moments, don’t be a geek!  It is unnecessary to verbalize everything for God’s hearing.  God gets it better than we can express it even when we are at our best with our well-chosen words.
At life’s deepest moments, both the most joyous of those as well as the most painful of those, words get in the way.  My tear is my prayer.  My smile is my prayer.  My belly laugh is my prayer.  My pride at what someone dear to me has accomplished is my prayer.  The hug is my prayer.  The gratitude that takes over all of me is my prayer.  That is praying with the spirit or in the spirit.  I’d sound like a bumbling idiot if at one of those moments I tried to force my brain to produce suitable words.  
I tired to tell my older son, once, as he was about to fly back to Ireland--not as a student this time, but as a graduate returning to build on the love relationship he’d found and begun there--about how all moments in a child’s life regardless of how old the child is are interconnected in a parent’s mind.  I see a young man walking to the checkin counter to claim his seat on a plane, but I also see--at the very same moment--the little boy walking into school for the first time after he’s let go of my hand at furthest door to which parents could walk; and further back even to the first ride he ever took by himself even though it was just to other side of the carousel.  It was completely the wrong time to try to explain something like that, not that at the moment it made any sense to anyone but me anyway.  If he ever fathers kids of his own; he’ll get it.  
I was telling someone the other day how much more my father and I had in common after I became a dad than beforehand.  Dad and I weren’t very much alike except that I inherited his workaholism, but in terms of hobbies and such, all those genes got passed onto my younger brother.  They loved their spots events and their fishing expeditions.  They loved the scramble to get from one game to the next, even when seasons overlapped, and my brother had to change from a football mentality to a basketball mentality during a brief car ride.  
Dad worked on top secret, atomic energy projects for the government most of his career, and he couldn’t talk about work.  I wasn’t into sports.  He hated my choice of television shows--though I never knew how anyone could hate “The Monkees,” “Batman,” and “The Carol Burnett Show.”  When I became a dad, though, the whole landscape of our conversations changed.  He was interested in every detail of how both boys were getting along in day to day life, how effectively their teachers were recognizing their obvious brilliance, and how well I was doing at being less demanding of them than he’d been of me.  Before there were so many words to share, I still knew that Dad loved me through hardly ever articulated with words.  If someone loves me, I like to hear that spoken, but we all know that without seeing love lived out words are painfully empty.  Because of his generation and culture, it was tough for Dad to say to me, “I love you, son.”  But it wasn’t tough at all for him to say, once with boys were with me, “I love you all!” as a phone conversation concluded.
Not having a Roman Catholic background and not having grown up in a predominantly Roman Catholic part of the world, I was surprised and ill informed when a stranger tapped at my office door at my church in New Orleans, and asked, “Father, can you give me a prayer for good luck?”  
I said, “I don’t pray for or about luck.   Is there some specific something you need that I can help with?”
“No,” he said as he stomped off.  I later asked one of my Catholic pals who told me that the guy meant he wanted me to give him a written prayer that he could pray a couple of times a day.  He left thinking I was a dunce or a cheapskate.  In his tradition, the words to prayers were very specific and very important.  In my tradition, words can help things along or not.  Words can be hit or miss, and if they’re miss it doesn’t matter.  God gets it better than my best words can convey anyway.
If a loved one is sick, should I pray for her or his recovery?  That’s kind of a silly question.  Regardless of what my head says, my heart is hoping for restoration of heath.  It would be ridiculous for me to act like I didn’t care one way or another, so even though my words aren’t shaped around a specific prayer petition, in my heart, in the powerful nonverbal part of how I think and reason and hope, I’m not willing to give up my loved one to the realm of statistics.  I’m not willing to be stoic about her or his suffering.  As liberal as I may be, my heart, is hoping for health and recovery, and while in no way begging God to perform magic my consciousness is reaching out to a place where the health problem is resolved and where my life may continue with this dear one as it had before illness intruded.  
Paul told his fellow faith seekers in Corinth that when he prayed, he prayed with mind and spirit.  I take that to mean that he did the best he could do with words since as a writer and preacher just the right words were very important to him, but he also knew when words had done all they could do.  After all, it’s not the words that make a prayer a prayer anyway.  What makes a prayer a prayer is the communion with God that takes place.  At best, at most, words help me to approximate what I’m trying to communicate, but what is going on in my spirit is always the true prayer; it’s not an approximation.  That’s the real thing, which, as I’ve said, words may or may not help along.
As I understand Paul here, I think he’s saying that he realized a point came in his communing with God where he knew if and when he had to let go of the words--as hard as that was for him to do.  We wordsmiths love our words.  We live in little worlds we create with our words, and without our words we feel at a loss.  But that is what praying in the spirit is about; I have to trust that the God who loves me and the others for whom I care reads my deepest feelings, and what happens is that I find God and I share care and concern for my dear one.  
If I try to talk about it, at that moment anyway, I’ll botch it up.  What I feel in my depth takes over, has to take over.  This does not make words pointless, but secondary.  Maybe they have helped me focus, and maybe they will again; maybe not.  I’ve fallen into praying in the spirit, and I’m sharing a sense of God’s concern for me and the one I love who is presently in need or in pain.
I realize in that moment how much God’s love embraces me and the one for whom I care.  Letting go of my words got me to a much better place than I could ever have gotten to if I insisted on using them as my crutches and curtains.  That is praying in the spirit.
I didn’t consult with Annie Duch, our liturgist today about this, but as a physical therapist I’m sure there are times when she has to say to her patients, “OK, this time without the crutches.  I’ll be here to catch you if you stumble, but the crutches stay over there this time.”
II.
Paul dealt with one controversy in the early church that was never settled, and the issue still comes up fairly frequently somewhere in the world from time to time.  I’m talking about what Paul called “speaking in tongues or unknown tongues,” officially designated by linguists as “glosslolaia.”  There is some possibility that when Paul makes reference to signing in tongues as he writes to the Christians in Corinth that this is what he’s referring to, ecstatic utterance in song.  This is not my take on his intent, but it deserves attention.
I doubt if many of you have ever been in a worship service where participants were speaking in tongues.  The thing is, no one can understand what is being said; yet, it’s supposed to be a prayer language.  Even the people themselves who are speaking in tongues don’t know what they are saying; according to Paul’s theology, God had to appoint someone with the gift of interpretation to tell the speaker and the other listeners what had been said.
Now, I know that something like this goes on every Saturday night/Sunday morning in Trolley Square where after too much to drink, and I’m not talking too much communion wine from hitting several late-night masses in the area.  Someone says something; he or she has no idea of what was said, and often no memory that there was any speaking at all, so it’s up to friends or those strangers standing nearby to make sense of the utterance.   
Paul himself claims to have had the gift of tongues; he could and did speak in tongues, but he had to wait for an interpreter to tell him what he said.  Similarly, in certain hypnotic states, the subject has no idea what she or he said or did while hypnotized and has to be told later.  
In your readings about life in the ancient Greek world, you might have read about the Oracle at Delphi.  “Oracle” in this case is very complex word.  It might refer to the person delivering a message and be an oracle in that sense; the same word might refer to the message itself.  It can also refer to the shine at Delphi were the oracles were spoken.  In any case, they tie in to what we’re speaking about here because they were ecstatic utterances, and in order to know what the oracle said, an interpreter had to be employed.  You have to wonder about kickbacks, don’t you?
All the oracles as far as I know were priestesses in service to the god Apollo who was believed to be able to see into the future in part because of his vantage point of doing his daily job of strapping the sun to his chariot and driving the sun across the sky.  From up there he could see everything so these priestesses, called pythia, had their full time jobs going into traces so they could find Apollo and ask him on behalf of one who had come to Delphi the answer to all sorts of important questions such as should I marry her or him, should I invest in that product, should our nation go to war with this other nation, will my son ever return from battle?   
Out of body via trance, the pythia would contact Apollo and come back with his answer spoken ecstatically, in tongues, in the language of a deity.  The customer may have paid a hefty price for the wisdom of Apollo, but unless an interpreter was called in, no one there would have any idea what the message was.  Honestly, it wasn’t a whole lot more reliable than the eight balls we used shakeup and read when we sought answers to our complex life questions down in Halls Crossroads.  You know those eight ball toy things I’m talking about, don’t you?  The answers were about as definitive as fortune cookies.  So once I wanted to know if I should marry Patsy Stooksbury.  I thought I wanted to marry Patsy Stooksbury.  Who wouldn’t?  Who didn’t?  But only one of us was going to get her, and I was in the wrong crowd of popular to get her attention.  She liked the athletically popular.  I was popular for being responsible with Student Government, Yearbook, and school newspaper, a Clark Kent with absolutely no Superman alter ego.  
Even so, once I braved asking the miraculous eight ball if I should marry Patsy Stooksbury, and the answer came back confirmed by all four of my friends with me that night that I should definitely marry Patsy.  The answer from the eight ball was, “You will make the right decision!”  Never mind that the eight ball had answered the last seven questions with the same answer including my goofy friend who asked the eight ball if he should dress up as the study hall teacher for the Halloween Party.  
Patsy was a good friend who didn’t want to hurt my feelings, but we were no match.  I can’t remember how she gently let me down, though breaking my heart, when I’d told her about the unquestionable wisdom of the eight ball.  I still love her to this day, but, alas, the eight ball had been wrong.  I shouldn’t have married her or even tried.
I have a sneaking suspicion that many of those who traveled to Delphi to get a word on a critical issue got a generic word back from one of the pythia’s interpreters that was no more conclusive than what the eight ball told me.  Examples:  “Better to understand little than to misunderstand a lot.”  “You deserve special treatment; enjoy desert!”  “Today is a lucky day for those who remain cheerful and optimistic.”  Well, DUH!
I think singing in the spirit is having a strong idea of what you feel and what you’d say if you could, but you know words will get in the way.  You don’t need anyone to tell you what the music means to you or for you.  You know the message it conveys within you, and so you sing it. 
Sometimes I think singing in the spirit involves the song we sing with words; it’s just that the connection is so profound it’s way beyond mere intellectualism.  When we hear it, whether with someone sining it or as in instrumental arrangement, our spirits are captured, and we’re drawn immediately to something profoundly spiritual for us.  
I was a little kid when I first heard Ethel Waters sing as part of the televised Billy Graham Evengelistic Crusades that were often watched in our home, and the great Broadway performer and singer made be a believer when she sang all over her range but ended up in her deepest chest voice.  
Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heav’n and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant Friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
Refrain:
I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
Then on the last sing through, Ethel would alter that last word:
For His eye on the sparrow, and I know He watches WE.
With that song, I sing in the spirit, no matter who sings it though no one has ever sung it better than Ethel; no matter if singing is absent altogether.  The song takes Jesus’ parable about not worrying and touches me profoundly; it doesn’t keep me from worrying altogether, but it makes a dent.
In my young adulthood, Reagan and Cynthina--Reagan Courtnryand Cynthia Clawson--made my soul sing with much of their music.  Reagan usually wrote the words.  Buryl Red typically set them to music, and Cynthia most always sung them.  Mercy, mercy, mercy.
He's the wind I soar on; He's the grass I run through; He's the one I turn to when I have to laugh or cry. He's the light of my world; He's my priceless pearl; He's my answer to why, He's my friend even after I die. He's the sun I sing in; He's the sea I swim in; He's the mountain I climb to when I want to reach a new high.
If God is the wind, I’m soaring on God’s wind.  If God is a huge field of soft green spring grass, I’m running barefoot through that field.  If I need light, God is my light.  If I wonder what my true treasure in life is, it’s God.  If God is the sea, I get to swim in it.  If I’m climbing toward my potential, God is the mountain I’m climbing.
If someone started plucking that song out on a piano even with just one finger, my heart would rush back to this song that made me feel I was soaring in and singing in and swimming in God as Jesus conceived of God.  That to me is signing in the spirit--words or no words the music drives me into most of God I know and feel.
I need a broader repatorie; indeed, I need songs I sing with my mind too, songs that make me think every time I sing them, but a handful I can sing in the spirit serve me well.
I’ve been at many nursing home facilities and heard an older resident play a song to perfection at the piano, tuned or not.  That resident couldn’t tell you a thing about that song, but she or he was, without a doubt, singing profoundly in the spirit.
III.
I have been wondering about the potential impact the Mozart Effect has on or may have on spiritual development.  If I combine a little research on the Mozart Effect with some of Howard Gardner’s theories of multiple intelligences, two of which are musical intelligence and spiritual intelligence, I start wondering about a new well-deserved appreciation of music for spiritual seekers.  
With plenty of skeptics, the researchers on the impact of some of Mozart’s music on a fair number of young listeners is seriously impressive.  Skeptics notwithstanding, however, the results are astounding.  
Generally, musicologists and composers say that Mozart’s music conveys a feeling of ease, grace, and spontaneity as well as balance, restraint, and proportion.  Yet mysterious harmonies contrast with lyricism, and the compositions fuse elegance with power.  Not only do many of his compositions sound effortless, but also they were created with miraculous ease and rapidity; for example, he completed his last three symphonies in only six weeks.
Many of Mozart's concertos are among his greatest works; his piano concertos--composed mainly for his own performances--are particularly important. He also wrote concertos for violin,  French horn, flute, bassoon, oboe, and clarinet.  His musical gifts will probably never be comprehended or duplicated. 
Mozart was able to write out the parts of an orchestral score or actually compose while he was talking to or joking with someone else.  His life was full of extreme hardship and often sadness, but his music almost never betrays this fact.
The so-called Mozart Effect is an inclusive term signifying the transformational powers of music in health, education, and well-being.  The Mozart Effect represents:
  1. The use of music and the arts to improve the health of families and communities;
  2. The general use of music to improve memory, awareness, and the integration of learning styles;
  3. The innovative and experimental uses of music to improve listening and attention deficit disorders;
  4. The therapeutic uses of music for mental and physical disorders and injuries;
  5. The collective uses of music for imagery and visualization, to activate creativity, and reduce depression and anxiety.
Research with the impact of Mozart's music began in France in the late 1950’s when Dr. Alfred Tomatis began his experiments in auditory stimulation for children with speech and communication disorders.  By 1990, there were hundreds of centers throughout the world using Mozart's music containing high frequencies, especially the violin concertos and symphonies, to help children with dyslexia, speech disorders, and autism. 
In the 1990's experiments were begun at the University of California in Irvine with Mozart's music and spatial intelligence assessments.  As recently as 2001, new studies in England use Mozart’s music to study its effect on epilepsy.
Sound is the vibrational field that makes up language, music, and tone; when it is organized, we communicate words, ideas, feelings, and expressions. In its disorganized form, it creates noise.
Sound, whether we are in the womb or even in a coma, reaches our brain and our bodies through skin, bones, and ears.
Every person listens in different ways.  When rhythm, melody, and harmony are organized into beautiful forms, the mind, body, spirit, and emotions are brought toward harmony.
Music helps release the stress of being ill; it can vitalize, inspire, and reduce pain.  Music is not an instant cure for disease, although there is much research on the importance of auditory stimulation in health.  Music and rhythmic patterning are used extensively before and after surgery and for patients who have had strokes and head injuries.
•There have been many studies about how, and probably a hundred different ways, to measure intelligences.
•We know certain music brings us to greater attentiveness, allowing for better focus and concentration.
•Studies show that playing music early in life helps build the neural pathways that allow language, memory, and spatial development to take place.
•We know that stimulating linguistic rhymes, dances, movement, and play in the early years are essential to the foundation of bringing the emotions, mind, and body together.
•Music can be effective in study and assist in concentration.
A popular study into the use of music, dating back to the early 90’s, showed that students who listened to Mozart prior to testing scored higher marks in an intelligence test.  Another study showed that college students who listened to ten minutes of Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major before taking an IQ test scored nine points higher than when they had sat in silence or listened to relaxation tapes.
The most profound effects take place in young children, while their brains literally are growing.  Researchers at Irvine’s Center for Neurobiology of Learning and Memory found that preschoolers who had received eight months of music lessons scored 80 percent higher on object-assembly tasks than did other youngsters who received no musical training.  That means the music students had elevated spatial temporal reasoning--the ability to think abstractly and to visualize physical forms and their possible variations, the higher-level cognition critical to mathematics and engineering.
Music has been and remains vital to most all religious ceremonies.  Music engages the speaker or the worshiper at many levels.  It didn’t just stumble into a spirituality gathering one day and stay.  Where has music taken us spiritually?  Where has it yet to take us?

Sunday, April 18, 2010




I.
A few years ago, preachers who were pastors took it on the chin by some church growth research; it turns out, said the researchers, that people who are looking for a church are more likely to join a church based on their feelings about the music they hear when they visit than based on how they feel about the sermon or sermons they hear while they are prospective members.  Ouch!  
I don’t know of any research out there that tells us about retention.  If the sermons are bad, are members likely to stay in the church anyway as long as they keep on liking the music?  My guess is, it’s a mixed bag on that one.  There have always been people who joined a church and participated faithfully in that church even though they never liked the sermons--or the preacher, for that matter.  There will be no time given for testimonies today; thank you very much.
Music definitely should never be in a spiritual gathering simply as “mood music,” the way music is supposed to function at a skating rink.  Music is its own unique contribution to a spiritual gathering; it doesn’t play second fiddle to the sermon, pun intended.  In the end, neither the music nor the sermon is offered for critique.  Both, instead, are offered to draw us away, if just for an hour, from the spoken and sung messages the non-spiritual world throws at us incessantly during all the hours we are away from our place of communal spiritual gathering.
Furthermore, there should never be a competition between music and sermon as to which made any given service or gathering of value.  Music and preaching are companions in the great ongoing tasks of the church, to proclaim and to inspire.  Not a few churches have died emotionally if not numerically when the pulpit ministry decided to make the music ministry its enemy rather than its peer.  Indeed, there have been preachers and there have been church musicians known to possess egos larger than the sanctuaries or cathedrals in which they each worked--presumably to the glory of God and not for self-edification.   
The last time I made a decision to join a church as a listening congregant and not as the pastor, which must have been about 1984, the church I joined had fantastic preaching overall as well as fantastic music at all levels.  The congregational singing was great.  The choral music was great, and the instrumental music was great as well, thanks to Paula Snodderly Roberts.  I wouldn’t want to be in a church without excellence in both areas, preaching and music; and I certainly wouldn’t join a church with good music and rotten preaching.  But I very well might join a church with strong preaching and rotten music.
My sense here at Silverside is that almost everyone in the congregation enjoys and appreciates the music as much as I do.  Two people have told me across the years here that the musical part of the service doesn’t matter to them; neither of them was critical of our music, but one person said that he just wasn’t a musical person and didn’t listen to much music in any area of his life.  The other person said that when she comes to a gathering, she’s coming for an intellectual experience so she said her brain is ready to wrestle, and she doesn’t need the music, she said.  Again, no criticism of it whatsoever; it’s just that she doesn’t need it.
There probably are those think that preaching is something they can live without, at least as it is typically offered--with one person expressing ideas and others given no opportunity to interact or raise questions.  And, naturally, there are those who don’t dislike all sermons, just bad sermons.  Maybe some of you have actually heard a bad sermon or two in your life.  Again, there will be no time given to testimonies in today’s Gathering.
Under the best of circumstances, I think the most beneficial spiritual gatherings affect most of us both intellectually and emotionally.  Both the sermon and the music contribute to those ends, which is to say it’s not just the preaching that has us working intellectually, and it’s not just the music that touches us emotionally.  The words the choir sings bring us a message complemented by the melodies, and the sermon should, at least at times, engage us emotionally by asking us to grapple with matters of the heart.  
What I don’t think should happen with either music and/or preaching ever is the creation of a purely emotional service with no intellectual content whatsoever; that is the foundation for a service of manipulation.  When I talk about intellectual engagement with the sermon, I mean that you should be thinking critically about what is being spoken.  The sermon is most beneficial when it causes you to think through and claim your own values and positions on the topic or topics being discussed by the preacher; the last thing any preacher should want in a sermon she or he preaches is congregational dumbing down and uncritical acceptance of the preacher’s position.  Now, you and I both know very well that there’s an abundance of preachers who preach precisely to indoctrinate, and they have no intention of encouraging sermon hearers to think for themselves.  Those preachers are preaching what they believe their hearers need to believe so in such contexts, sermons are for indoctrination, not for intellectual stimulation or engagement.
An interesting intersection for intellect and emotion to meet in a sermon is at the place of pastoral care.  Long ago, Harry Emerson Fosdick suggested that preaching, at least some preaching, should be something like a group counseling session.  The failure of his comparison is that only one person is doing all the talking; if a therapist did all the talking in a group therapy session, and none of the clients said a word, almost everyone would consider that session a failure.  Still, we get the pastoral emphasis Fosdick believed much preaching should have; he believed that people needed to be lifted up and encouraged by preaching--not put down, diminished, or frightened.  We would thank the late Fosdick for that if we could because he certainly struggled against those who wanted to make preaching--and, by the way, worship music--vehicles for demeaning people by having them wallow in self-hatred and uncertainty about whether or not God could love them in this world or the next.  His opponents more often won out in that sad battle.  Indeed, church music has been just as guilty as preaching of wanton manipulation of worshipers who are willing to leave their brains at home when they come to church.
Dr. Thomas Troeger is Professor of Preaching at Yale Divinity School.  Not only is he a preacher, but also he is a hymn writer.  Many great preachers also wrote hymns; Fosdick was one of those too.  While Troeger was still teaching preaching at Illif School of Theology before he began at Yale, he wrote a piece about how preaching and music should often come together to provide pastoral care to those who come to spiritual gatherings.  In that article, Troeger said:  “When we sing we perceive our intended wholeness with all that God has made.”  What a magnificent goal!  He then quoted some hymn words he had written to be used on the occasion of a pipe organ dedication:  

Articulate with measured sound
the song that fills all things
for even atoms dance around
and solid matter sings.
Let healing harmonies release
the hurts the heart compiles
that God through music may increase
the grace that reconciles.
The names I’m about to speak will be mostly, not altogether, names of people you don’t know, but they comprise my spiritual music hall of fame; they are people who taught me and/or inspired me in a lasting way with the music of faith, and they are more or less in chronological order.

Mildred Newman
Linda Lakin Hart
June Hubbs
Ethel Waters
George Beverly Shea
David Davis
Ruth Davis
Professor Mary Charlotte Ball, my LONG-suffering organ professor
Dr. Louis O. Ball
Paula Snodderly Roberts
Don Nixon
Dr. Linda Shipley
Elizabeth Huling
Ronnie Myers
Sandra Skeenes
Michael McKnight
Robert Hale
Dean Wilder
Cynthia Clawson
Mona Bond
Ed Broussard
Dr. Bill May
Dr. Leslie Jones
Alexander Todd
Dr. John M. Yarborough
Ronald J. Gretz
Klaude Krannebitter
Jennie Ritter
Dickerson Crook
John Siegfried
Melissa Heieie
II.
Psalms.  Hymns. Spiritual Songs.
  • The Psalms we read from the ancient Hebrew scripture collection were originally all sung in corporate worship at the great Temple in Jerusalem. 
  • Hymns are pieces to be sung based on scripture other than the psalms.
  • Spiritual Songs are musical pieces about spiritual truths with words that come from sources other than scripture. 
One of the most highly regarded church historians in the last half century has been Kenneth Scott Latourette; he called the book of Psalms the anthology of ancient Israel’s worship music.  Professor Latourette said that the writers of the psalms agreed with the prophets that God continues to be actively at work in the world; in other words, there is no basis for Deism in the prophets and the book of Psalms.  In light of the teachings of Jesus, some of the theology of the various psalmists is disturbing.  By the way, King David may have written a few of the psalms, but he was not the author of the whole compilation.  It’s a serious misreading, or missinging, of the psalms to imagine that King David is behind each one.  Remember, they were communal songs--not specifically the experiences of Israel’s most famous and most mentally unbalanced king put to music.  
The psalmists wrote songs inviting the worshipping community to sing to and about God with high praise and embarrassing honesty.  The majesty of God is addressed, but the psalmists aren’t above singing about their anger toward God as well as their blatant criticisms of what they believed God had done or left undone.  If you have a theology of providentialism, my word for it, then you believe God commands or causes everything that happens in the world to happen--from war wins or loses to summer showers and starvation-causing droughts.  If your enemy wins, this kind of theology tells you that God caused the win to teach you a lesson.
Plenty of folks in Judaism and Christianity find the psalms highly inspiring and deeply consoling.  By far, the two most famous and most loved psalms are the twenty-third psalm and the hundredth psalm.
Psalm 23.  Hear it as if a massive congregation were gathered singing these words, not as if a single voice were speaking it:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
God makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters; God restores my soul and leads me in right paths for the divine name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you, God, are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long (Ps 23, NRSV adapted for inclusive language).
One of the great musicians in our congregation, Brent Grant, dislikes Psalm 23, and the primary reason, if I may dare to speak for Brent, is that he finds the fundamental perspective of the psalm entirely self-serving.  The congregation in ancient Israel was singing about all God did for them without any mention whatsoever of what they, as God’s people, should be doing for others.
Here is Psalm 100.  Again, an enthused congregation of perhaps hundreds of people are signing in their most beloved worship site.  One person is not standing before the congregation reading as would have been done with Torah and the Prophets:

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness; come into God’s presence with singing.
Know that the Lord is God. It is God who made us, and we are God’s; we are God’s people, and the sheep of God’s own pasture.
Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving, and God’s courts with praise. Give thanks to the Lord, bless the divine name.
For the Lord is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever, and God’s faithfulness to all generations (Ps 100, NRSV adapted for emphasis and inclusive language).
As far as I know, Brent has no particular problem with this psalm, but a pastor I heard in my growing up years wondered why so many people like this psalm.  He said that if you pay close attention to its words, there’s not a very high view of humanity in it.  God, indeed, is great, but sheep are really dumb.  If we are the sheep of God’s pasture, said Alton McEachern, then God has to be unnecessarily busy keeping us from our own low-level intellectual functioning.  For example, sheep have been known to become so enthralled with their grazing that they’ve grazed to the edge of cliffs and fallen off.  The psalmists and their psalms were embarrassingly honest, as I said.
An example of a hymn, a song based on scripture outside the book of Psalms, would be an anthem from the book of 1 Chronicles.  Here’s an excerpt from a much fuller anthem; in fact, this is the conclusion of that anthem.

Save us, O God of our salvation,
   and gather and rescue us from among the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name,
   and glory in your praise. 
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
   from everlasting to everlasting (1 Chron 16:35-36 NRSV).
Many people in the past who have seen themselves as God’s people have also seen themselves as passive and destined to suffer or be in trouble unless God comes to their rescue.  There are plenty of people today who agree with that notion absolutely.  A better overall reading of humanity’s role in relationship to God is that we’re supposed to use the thinking capabilities innate to human beings to save ourselves, as it were.
The best thing always is not to get ourselves in situations from which we need to be saved in the first place, but we have a way of ignoring that and hoping that God will overlook the fact that we grazed to the edge of the cliff and fell off and, instead, miraculously catch us before we hit the hard ground in the valley below the cliff.  Example:  practically the whole western world got itself into really severe financial trouble, and middle and lower income people in most western nations have really been suffering the fallout of that unnecessary plight.  Numerous congregations believed the answer to the problem was to ask God to save us from our greed and irresponsibility instead of taking the painful steps necessary to check it ourselves.  
When ancient Israel sang songs about salvation, they, yes, were hoping God would get them out of a mess they’d created for themselves.  One complication after another found them scattered and spread out from each other; they realized they were at their best, and at their strongest, when they were gathered rather than scattered.  Coming back together as a whole was precisely their salvation as some saw it, and so they sang out their longings when they gathered for worship.  They sang to God with the promise that they wanted salvation, restoration, as a nation not just for national preservation but so that they could intensify their praise of God, which could happen if their unity were restored, but not, as they sang it, if they remained cut off from each other.  
Much that we long for and pray for, in our spoken prayers and in the ones we sing, is already within our power to accomplish.  Of course, some discourses we call prayers are really divine dares.  Some prayer requests we have are nothing more than selfish wishes, not prayers at all.  Some customers pray before they buy their Lotto tickets.  Some fans pray as they drive to the stadium to see their favorite team play.
There are those for whom prayer is nothing more than a quick and easy way to have a wish come true instead of working long and hard to make it happen.  The only reason we’d need to pray to ask God to make something obviously good for us and others happen would be if we were providentialists caught up in the notion that the bad we have to endure was willed by God and can’t be changed unless God changes it; therefore, our efforts are useless.  Sad, but that has long been sung.

III.
In Christian scripture, we run across excerpts from musical compositions all the time, but because they’re written and typically read in a worship service, we don’t recognize them as having originally been songs.  Preachers and writers on spiritual subjects still today frequently quote songs in sermons or articles.  This is because, obviously, the poets who pen the words the musician will set to song can often capture a truth that pure prose cannot.  
Here’s one that Paul used when he wrote to the Christians in Philippi, and it would count as a “spiritual song” since it’s not based on any known scripture.  The theology of this hymn, if the words are literalized, disturbs me, but it went right up Paul’s alley.  

Let the same mind be in you that was in Jesus, the anointed one, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus, the anointed one, is Lord, to the glory of God. 
Scholars call it “the Kenotic Hymn” because of Paul’s use of a form of the word “kenosis,” which pictures self-emptying.  The writer of this hymn, who was not the Apostle Paul, was in clear agreement with the writer of the hymn that opens the Gospel of John, a Gospel that would be written some forty years after Paul wrote Philippians.
The theology of both of those hymns indicates that Jesus was a divine being, and not only a divine being but one who existed with God/as God before deciding to become a human being for a little while to kind of see what this humanity business is like.  As with the church as a whole throughout its history, we have many views on that issue here in our congregation, and by no means does everyone in the congregation agree with my view.  But I do want to tell you what my view is, since I’m here in the pulpit and all.  I think Jesus was a fully human being, and if he had any divinity in him it was the same spark of the divine that is in every human being.  If Jesus were really God masquerading as a human being, then his life was kind of a hoax, and what he did was not particularly remarkable.  If Jesus were one of us and managed to stay as focused on God and serving God’s people as he did, then that is remarkable!
Nonetheless, the spiritual song quoted by Paul dared to wrestle with the issue that many in her day or his day and ours have wrestled with.  Given the fact that Jesus was such an amazing man, what was the nature of his relationship to God?  One poetic way of answering the question, which some literalized, was to think of Jesus as God Godself, having existed forever, long before there were heavens and an earth.  At some point, God decided to reveal Godself as a human being, and when God carried out this plan, according to the song Paul quoted, God, of all things, came to Earth as a peasant, not as a sovereign.  He came as a struggling carpenter, not a king, and he devoted his earthly life to serving others rather than to demanding service from others.
So, Paul told the Ephesian Christians that part of what could help them live as they should, including in times that were particularly challenging, was by keeping the music of faith on their tongues and in their hearts:

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus, the anointed one (Eph 5:15-20 NRSV, adapted).
At the foundation of this bit of advice from Paul is a call to be wise.  There is no need to ask God to think for us when we’ve been gifted with the ability, most of us, to think for ourselves.  Prayer isn’t supposed to be a substitute for what we can accomplish through our own efforts.  Some really smart people, deeply spiritual, believe that prayer isn’t supposed to be about making requests of God at all.  Prayer is a way of thanking God, a way of acknowledging, that before we thought to ask for God’s loving involvement in whatever our complicated situation is, God was already at work promoting wholeness of whatever sort through the power of divine love, which is consistently at work in the world.  
You’ve got brains, Paul said.  Use them!  If you live in times when evil seems to prevail, then you have to work twice as hard to overcome evil because of how powerful and pervasive it can be.  
Getting drunk to forget your problems won’t solve your problems.  A better shot for dealing with those problems is to stay spiritually-focused; that’s easier said than done, especially when evil seems to prevail, but it can be done, Paul said, and one of the best ways of all is to keep the music of faith alive in your spiritual communities; then carry those songs with you between times when you can gather as a community.
For me, I’d say the spiritual songs of today are the musical sources that encourage me the most, and I don’t think they have to be framed in traditionally religious language or primarily sung in churches.  Truth is real wherever we find it, and the church has never held the only key to truth.  Encouragement is a wonderful gift wherever we can find it.
An old spiritual song--not to be confused with the Negro spirituals, which were for the slaves and other oppressed persons of color sources of great encouragement--that encouraged me in the midst of some of my struggles had a chorus that insisted:

No, never alone.
No, never alone.
God promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.
Years later, I’d hear the music from the production, “Carousel,” written by two Jewish guys for a serious contralto, not naming God at all, but giving me exactly the same kind of encouragement:

When you walk through a storm
Keep your chin up high
And don't be afraid of the dark.
At the end of the storm
Is a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark.
Walk on through the wind,
Walk on through the rain,
Tho' your dreams be tossed and blown. Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you'll never walk alone,
You'll never walk alone.
Why is it that music makes this message more believable to me than the spoken word alone?

Sunday, April 11, 2010




I.
“Fool” was not a word I heard used much in my growing up years; we had plenty of other words we used to let someone know that we thought she or he lacked a brick having a full load.  “Idiot” may have been the most popular of our words in that particular collection--at least the most popular that I can say in church.
Once, after I’d heard the word, “fool,” and understood its meaning, I thought I’d try it out a few times on my little sister.  Our parents weren’t into name calling, but my use of the word, “fool,” brought an especially angry warning from my Mom that she wouldn’t tolerate such language especially because the Bible said that anyone who called another person a fool was in danger of hell’s fire.  That seemed an awfully harsh penalty just for getting angry at a pesky kid sister, and I could think of a whole slew of boys my age, most of whom were in my Sunday School class, who also were in danger of hellfire for the same reason I evidently was--for calling another person, namely a little sister, a fool.
What Mom was referring to, and she may or may not have realized it, was a passage from, of all people, Jesus himself.  We have this bizarre passage, now collected with what some call his Sermon on the Mount, in which he is intentionally distancing himself from a literalistic interpretation of a host of the ancient laws while stressing the utter importance of what the ancient laws were trying to preserve and protect; he does this by juxtaposing a literal reading to a nearly absurd real-life situation in which the spirit of the law is applied.  Here are words attributed to Jesus by the writer of Matthew’s Gospel:
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.”  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the [fiery garbage dump].  So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.  Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.  Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
So, the example is the issue of murder, and you can be sure that most of the people listening to any one of Jesus’ teaching and preaching sessions were not murderers and did not see themselves as on the verge of becoming murderers.  That, perhaps, was precisely why Jesus included it; most of his hearers would have thought, “I might have made mistakes along the way, but I’m surely no murderer.”  True enough, Jesus was saying, but are you violating, nonetheless, what that old law was concerned about.
Most all societies have laws against murder, although the definition or proof of just what murder is often has to be argued by lawyers and judges.  Was it meditated or premeditated?  Yes, someone is dead at the hands of another person, but did that other person do whatever it was on purpose, or was it an accident?  Was that other person in her or his right mind or, at least temporarily, out of her or his right mind?  Mothers Against Drunk Drivers say driving while under the influence and taking someone’s life while, thus, operating a vehicle is murder, but the defense attorney says that it was nothing more than being what it means to be a college student in modern American culture.
For our Roman Catholic friends, this passage has nothing in the world to do with abortion, but it does have to do with the concern of a sane society to preserve the lives of its citizens.  What Jesus realizes and brings to the table for analysis is the process of what it takes to get to a place where you can loathe another person so much that you’re willing to take steps to harm the person’s body so traumatically that death overtakes that body.  What Jesus realized, and what a minority of people in our society are slowly realizing, is that murder doesn’t typically happen as a knee jerk, one time reaction.  Obviously, there are exceptions, and there are crazed lunatics who go on shooting sprees or other sprees of random violence with the sole intent of killing as many random people as they can without awareness or concern at all of who the victims are or any details about the lives of the victims they are taking--including their ages.  Killing sprees, though, are rare in comparison to premeditated, cold-blooded murder, and Jesus taught that usually a murderer doesn’t instantly become one; rather, she or he becomes one over time, and what ends up as murder began as mismanaged anger.
Jesus is not teaching in this passage or in any of the rest of this teachings, which have been passed down to us that anger is sinful or unnatural.  As a matter of fact, anger is quite natural, and even those who love each other with profound intensity generally become angry with each other from time to time.  Couples who become angry with each other haven’t stumbled upon a sign that their marriage is on the verge of ending or that it should be over; they’ve simply discovered what anger is, and the loving thing to do is to deal openly with the anger.  Then it can dissipate, and love can keep on growing.  Anger that is not dealt with can build up over time and eventually become hatred, and hatred can build up over time and become rage; murderers generally are enraged people.  
Pressing further back, Jesus preached that we are less likely to desire to deal maturely and healthily with anger directed against those people about whom we care so little that we want to write them off.  We don’t mind insulting them; we don’t mind thinking of them as or even calling them fools or any other dismissive word that says, “The world would be better off without people like you; people like you don’t add anything to the world, and all you do is take up space.”  
Turns out there wasn’t and there isn’t anything magical about the word “fool.”  Any word we use to describe people that we want to write off is subject to the same development.  Jesus taught that a murderer begins the journey toward becoming that when he or she has special disdain for people that becomes so intense those people have no value whatsoever and, thus, no reason to remain in this world.  
The “n” word would have been a word equivalent to “fool” in the southern culture in which I grew up.  Most of the people who used that word filled it with hatred, and it meant that any one person of color if not the whole lot of them should be taken out.  The Ku Klux Klan championed that mentality.
The “q” word is an equivalent “fool” word for homophobes.  “Gay bashing” became a while back the description of choice for all violence directed against gays and lesbians just because they were gays and lesbians and ranged from roughing up to beating up to murdering. 
Jesus knew that he had lots of “religious” folks in most of his audiences so he gave them in particular an example of what he meant by letting go of anger before it becomes destructive.  He said, if you’re on your way to worship to offer your sacrifice, as most of his Jewish contemporaries did, and you happen to remember that someone you know and at some point have cared about has something against you--not that you recall all the things you may hold against others--you stop heading toward worship instantly, and you make a beeline to the person who has something against you.  If it’s a legal matter, you get that cleared up before it gets to court; this must have been where settling out of court got its beginning.  If it’s not a legal matter, but an entirely personal issue, you get that cleared up the best you can before you get back on your way to worship.
We can’t force others to forgive us; we can seek forgiveness, and whether or not it’s offered is up to the person from whom we seek it.  Jesus said at least we have to seek it instead of sitting back and letting the anger build up until a relationship is damaged beyond repair and maybe becomes a part of the process of creating a dynamic much worse than just being mad at another person.
I’m pretty sure Mom wasn’t worried that I’d do physical harm to my sister, but she was concerned that her children could grow up to become siblings with no regard for each other, siblings who lived as if it didn’t matter if the other were living or dead.
II.
In 1647, Baltasar Gracian wrote, The Art of Worldly Wisdom, and in that book filled with practical advice, he said:
The wise do sooner what fools do later.  Both do the same; all that differs is the when. The former act at the right moment, the latter at the wrong....There is only one good way to see the light: as soon as possible. Otherwise, you do out of necessity what you might have done with pleasure. The wise size up immediately what has to be done, sooner or later, and do it with pleasure, enhancing their reputation.
This advice seems akin to the homespun proverb:  A stitch in time saves nine.
I had a wonderful visit recently with Else and Bob Miller in their lovely new home at Forwood Manor.  Bob was telling me that the time to move into a senior facility is before you need to, before you have to.  I file that bit of wisdom for my future reference and pass it along to anyone else who needs to contemplate such a decision.
One of the smartest folks I’ve ever known, and I’ve known many really smart people in the churches I’ve served--the smartest ones of all here of course, used to wait to file his income taxes until late at night on April 15.  He was certainly no fool in any respect, but he would get in line at the main post office in downtown Knoxville at 11 p.m. on April 15 to have the postal clerk hand stamp his submission as he watched.  The thing was, there were piles of other people doing the same thing, and my friend would become irritated if he had to wait too close to midnight to get those taxes on their way to the IRS.  Now, I’m not much of a financier, but I don’t think he could have made that much more interest on the money siting in his bank account by mailing his return at, say, 8 p.m. instead of 11 p.m., and there was always a much greater chance of getting the return postmarked “April 15” by getting in line at 8:00 instead of 11:00.  
The wise do sooner what fools do later.  When is the right time for those reared in a religious tradition that tries to stifle their ability to manage their own spiritual journeys to move out where there’s some fresh spiritual air?  As soon as you realize you’re being suffocated, that’s when!  Some people, though, hang on and on until their spirituality is killed off, and there is no sense of God left within them at all.
Charles Colton said that the mistakes of the fool are known to the world, but not to himself and that the mistakes of the wise man are known to himself, but not to the world.  I have the feeling that Tiger Woods prays every day lately giving thanks to God for Jesse James.  I’m speaking of the Jesse James who is married to the terrifically talented actor, Sandra Bullock.  James’s multiple mistresses are big news now, and Woods’s aren’t.  In a media controlled culture, the only way to take the heat off of one fool is by finding a newer one or a more foolish one.  Both men were living as if cheating on a spouse was perfectly acceptable as long as no one knew; when the news began to spread, and who knows when the final story will be told on either guy, each one seemed shocked but not particularly sorry.  By Colton’s wisdom, these men should have realized their wrongs and dealt with them before the world began looking over their shoulders.  Given their celebrity, there was no way to keep their indiscretions secret like others of us who are mere mortals might have had the chance to do, but up front dealing is the only way to go.  Be proactive, not a victim.
There’s an African proverb, which points out that only a fool tests the depth of the water with both feet.  Moving with caution in life is a good trait; this is not to say by any means that spontaneity needs to be nixed, but if we’re really going to jump in with both feet it should be into something with which we have at least a little bit of experience.  This is why investors, especially novice investors, diversify, isn’t it?  This is why engagements are recommended for most couples before marriage; there is that occasional couple who knows from first glance that the eyes into which they are peering are the only pair into which they want to look for the rest of their lives.  Engagements give a couple time to see if the love they feel for each other is live-together love.  There are many kinds of love and many levels of love; it’s entirely possible to love another person with a relatively high intensity and still not be able to live with that person day in and day out for the rest of a lifetime.  Given divorce laws in many US states it’s very wise to be rather well convinced that the kind of love you’re in, if you are in fact in love, is the live-together love and not the I’d-like-to-see-you-most-weekends brand of love.  
One of the kind of humorous facts about being a clergyperson is that there really are a number of people who think just because we’re called and ordained God holds us both nearer to God and in somewhat higher esteem than non clergy types.  Plenty of clergy love this role, but I don’t.  I used to like my clergy status because I got free and preferred parking at hospitals, but these days it’s every visitor for self.  The degree to which clergy status has dropped off at health care centers has something to do with where you are, and it has something to do with the times too.  There was a big shift when I came from Baltimore to Wilmington almost ten years ago.  
The first time I went to a Philadelphia hospital to visit a Silverside member, I pulled into the hospital’s parking lot and did what I did when I entered the lot at some of the Baltimore hospitals.  I said to the parking attendant, “Clergy,” and he looked at me like a nut case and said, “Parking Attendant.”  
Thinking it was just a misunderstanding, I said, “I’m clergy, and I assume there’s no charge for clergy parking.”  He said, “Look, pal, if you plan on leaving your car here, you’d better pay me the lousy four bucks.  [Remember, this was a decade ago!]  It’s the same rate I charge my mother.”
Still, there are people who think clergy people are a little closer to God than non-clergy, and it’s often evident at the first meeting with a couple I don’t know when we sit own to plan a wedding.  Those who are inclined to believe that way somehow imagine that I know their secrets, and they rush to tell me what I don’t need to know and don’t care to know.  One guy had barely gotten himself seated when he said, “Father, I just want you to know that we’re already living together, but we didn’t have sex until we’d been living together for six months.”  
I said, “Bless you, my son.”  Not really, but I thought about it.  I mean, if everybody around here is going to think I’m a Catholic priest because they think all clergy are Catholic priests somehow, I should get to use a little Catholic approach now and then, don’t you think?  
What I did say to him was, “I appreciate that you want to be honest with me, but you’re entitled to your privacy, especially about your sex life.  I’ve never been sure of why celibate priests and a good number of conservative Protestants want to know the details of the sex lives of the couples they marry.”  I didn’t ask him what the six month wait was about, but I’m relatively sure it was some kind of indication that there was more to their relationship than sex.  The only reason I don’t think he was lying about that fact was that he seemed convinced I had divine gifts of mind reading.
I have to tell you that I don’t have any strong feelings one way or another about living together before marriage, with or without sex.  I do believe that it’s an effort by some very thoughtful people to be as sure as they can be that theirs is a live-together love so that there’s less chance divorce will be in their future.  Statistics aren’t backing that up that assumption about the value of living together, but that’s why most couples make this choice.  I do wonder sometimes when the bride starts walking down the aisle why she’s wearing a white veil; then again, I never understood why only the bride had to wear a sign of her presumed virginity.  Why didn’t the groom have to wear some proof of his sexual innocence as well?  Maybe a tassel that gets moved from right to left or something like that.
Most couples who go through a planned marriage ceremony, not one of those drive through quickies in Vegas, want their marriage to last, and if they live together before I sign the papers telling the state that they promised in my hearing and before other witnesses to be committed to each other, I can’t criticize an effort to be carefully wise by taking things a step at a time.
III.
Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad.  The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.  It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools.  For like the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of fools; this also is vanity (Ecclesiastes 7:3-6 NRSV).
If we read through this passage quickly and carelessly, we will miss its point for sure.  Let me try a paraphrase that may help the writer’s intent to become clearer:
Somberness is better than giddiness, for it is in a state of somberness that we can contemplate the reasons we have to be truly glad.  The heart of the wise will face the reality that not all of life is about happiness, but that life also brings with it sadness and loss.  The heart of fools dwells in the house of giddiness as if life is nothing more than one big laugh.  Therefore, it is better to hear the rebuke of wise people than it is to hear the silly songs of fools.  When we set branches on fire to heat up our food or drink, those branches with thorns crackle, which doesn’t help in any way with the process at hand.  The giddy cackling of fools adds nothing to life either; in fact, their preoccupation with wanting to entertain themselves at all times is a kind of vanity.
OK, let’s be clear on this right now.  The passage isn’t against laughter and fun; nor is life supposed to be only concerned with what is heavy and sad.  There’s a difference between happiness and silliness; there’s a difference between healthy laughter and giddy giggling.  The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes who was called by people in his day “Preacher” or “Teacher” was on a mission to discover the meaning of life.  He concluded that life is going to bring you a little bit of everything, good and bad.  He believed that we shouldn’t take the hard turns to mean that life is bad, but he did believe that there’s enough rough stuff in life that the smart person really does grab for the gusto.  We balance the sadness over which we have no control by intentionally latching onto all the fun and happy stuff we possibly can.  This did not mean for the Preacher of Ecclesiastes that we lose sight of the difference between true happiness and real fun over against silliness and stupidity.  I think that’s good advice.
Religion in our day usually comes down on one of the extreme ends of the continuum; it’s either so series that it’s scary, or it’s so silly that nothing of real value is added to the life of the person who practices that particular brand of religion. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes was a true centrist in this regard.  He believed that if you get bogged down with too much sadness or seriousness you’ll miss out on life no less than if you treat life like it’s one big laugh with no time or attention for the parts that demand a serious response.
Fred Ebb who wrote the words to the songs of the musical “Cabaret” seems to me to have been in concert with the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, and Liza sang the theme song so perfectly:
What good is sitting alone in your room?
Come hear the music play.
Life is a Cabaret, old chum,
Come to the Cabaret.
Come taste the wine,
Come hear the band.
Come blow your horn,
Start celebrating;
Right this way,
Your table's waiting
No use permitting
some prophet of doom
To wipe every smile away.
Come hear the music play.
Life is a Cabaret, old chum,
Come to the Cabaret!
This is not the pessimism that Peggy Lee sang about in the song by
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing
Let's break out the booze and have a ball
If that's all there is....
Back, though, to the songs of fools.
This is a sermon series on the most important biblical passages about music.  We began last week with the passage from the book of Revelation on harps and a new song, and we had unforgettable music of all sorts to help us celebrate--including the music of five harps!  It was wonderful.
Today, we’re in a completely different place--emotionally and in scripture.  The Preacher of Ecclesiastes had a thing against the songs of fools; for that writer, a fool is someone who doesn’t take life seriously.  Unless we take life seriously, which doesn’t mean being sad and dreary all the time, we can’t appreciate life in its depth and profundity.
A wise person, in contrast, has life in balance.  She or he is willing to be serious when life circumstances call for seriousness, but not overcome with sadness despite the fact that life is going to bring some really hard times for almost all of us.  
The Preacher says that we should take our cues from wise folks--those who live and understand life as balanced, those who know how to mourn when it’s time to mourn and how to kick it up a notch when it’s time to party.  We should not listen to any would-be wisdom in the songs of fools--the silly, the giddy, those who think nothing serious or sad in life is worth our attention and our respect.  I think of a Maya Angelou quote here, though her songs are certainly not the songs of fools:  
My life has been one great big joke, A dance that's walked, A song that's spoke, I laugh so hard I almost choke, When I think about myself.
Dr. Stanton Peale is a lawyer and a psychologist, a frightening combination!, who wrote an article on taking life with appropriate seriousness in the December issue of Psychology Today.  By my read, the article culminates with a section in praise of thinking.  According to Peale, not to be confused with Norman Vincent (Peale) for whom thinking wasn’t always so important, people who take life seriously, unlike fools, make consistent decisions to think--to think about life, to think through life.  In his own words, 
Taking ownership of your mind is like following the maintenance procedures for your expensive new automobile or espresso machine. Only now you are dealing with the greatest gift life has given you--what makes you a sentient, constructive, immortal human being.
Dr. Joan Marques echoes Peale’s advice.  She says that we take life with appropriate seriousness in three ways:
  1. By scrutinizing our true feelings about every thing we posses and everyone with whom we share a relationship.
  2. By respecting the institutions with which we associate, but regularly evaluating the degree to which they add something constructive to our lives.
  3. By keeping new experiences worked into our lives so that we keep ourselves from living according to a philosophy that all the good decisions and all the right decisions have already been made.  She suggests that every person do at least one substantially new thing a year whether that’s going to a new vacation spot or changing something about our style or learning some brand new skill such as an exercise approach or a reading genre.  
What do the three above mentioned ways of freeing ourselves from indoctrination have in common?  They all represent an awakening. And being awake means, being aware. And being aware means, freeing ourselves from pressure and silly influences. And the only way to free ourselves from pressure and silly influences is to learn to think for ourselves.
Amen.