1. We’ve Still Got A Lot To Learn About Transitions
In the corner of a dank barn, a brown spider climbs upon one of the dusty rafters. Many of the domesticated animals feed upon the straw and the grain that’s been provided by the farmer. Among them a lonely pig lays down in the dirt. And then, from out of the cobwebs and the crevices comes the voice of the arachnid: “Greetings and Salutations.”

Now whether or not you believe in talking spiders is irrelevant to E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web. What matters is not the scientific veracity of the children’s classic tale, but the transition. We’ve still got a lot to learn about transitions. We always have a lot to learn about transitions. Every greeting, no matter how small, alters our individual perspective. Each Hello and each Goodbye makes us different than the moment before.

Consider a warrior from the dwindling Sioux nation. The English translation of his name is Wind In His Hair. In full native regalia he bestrides a noble white horse. He lifts his spear into the air with his right hand and begins to shout. The winter encampment of his tribe gathers and listens below his granite perch. “Dances With Wolves,” he bellows to the white man who had once been called, John Dunbar. “I am Wind In His Hair. Can’t you see that I am your friend? Can’t you see that I will always be your friend?”

I’d like to focus this morning on the exhilarating cycle of Hello and Goodbye. Think about this: in Philippians, chapter 4, the apostle Paul begins to wrap up his correspondence with the church in Philippi. He desperately wants to leave them with a good impression, and to that end, he refers to the congregation as “my joy and my crown.” That’s a lofty way to tie up loose ends; and it’s rather eloquent, isn’t it? But then, in verse two, we stumble upon
“I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women…”
You see, implicit in the cyclical nature of Paul’s apostolic greetings are the claims that he makes upon others and the claims that others will make upon him. And just think about how these claims are accentuated when we recognize the presence of God within them.

For example, when the twin cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, are destroyed in Genesis 19, there is a transition during which the family of a man named Lot may escape. By the grace of God, they do escape. But when Lot’s wife looks back she not only fails to say Goodbye, but she fails to acknowledge the claim that’s being made upon her by God; and according to verse 26 she’s turned into a pillar of salt. Lot’s descendents become known as the Moabites, and centuries later, the two sons of Naomi inter-marry with some Moabite women and relocate to the country of Moab. Everything’s fine until the two sons die, and Naomi is left with two clingy daughters-in-law—one by the name of Orpah and the other, Ruth. Naomi then makes her way back to the land of Judah and tries to convince to say Goodbye. Orpah listens and leaves, but Ruth won’t go. That is, having realized the claim made upon her by Naomi’s God, she says,
“Your people shall be my people and your God, my God” (Ruth 1:16).

2. Gather Up The Past and Affirm What’s Happened
You see, we still have a lot to learn about transitions. And one of the things we have to learn is to gather up the past and to affirm what’s happened. Let’s not ignore what’s happened—even if, in the moment, we can’t see the sense of it. Let me clarify. Based upon a close reading of Philippians 4, it’s clear that Paul doesn’t want to wax on nostalgically about the glory days. He doesn’t want to live in the past. But he does want very much to gather up the events of the past into what he calls “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (v. 18).

As a small child, Tom Long got a whiff of this same sacrifice as he stood in the sitting room of his grandmother’s South Carolina home. Among the genealogy of photographs that hung on the wall of that room, he pointed to the portrait of a man dressed in the Union uniform of the Civil War. “Who is that man?”

“I’ll tell you when you’re old enough to understand,” replied the grandmother. And then, years later, during the transition of her dying days, she did just that.
“In May of 1862, after the smoke had cleared from the field of battle at Williamsburg, Virginia, this chaplain rode out onto the field on his horse to see if there were any wounded troops who had been left behind, and he came across a nineteen year old Confederate soldier, lying wounded and terrified in a ditch. The boy had taken a bullet that had practically severed his leg at the knee, and he was slowing bleeding to death…”

But “feeling compassion,” the man in the picture gathered up the wounded enemy and carried his broken body to the Union medical tent. His nineteen year old leg had to be amputated. Yet the bleeding stopped. The boy survived and grew stronger, transition after transition, into Tom Long’s great-grandfather (Preaching From Memory To Hope, p. 22).

You see, it may sound strange, but I believe that part of faith in Christ Jesus is to affirm that stuff. What happened? What actually happened in between the big battles and the epic struggles that are written down in the history books, and that appear now on Cable Television? What happened? What choices did others make to produce the person and the persons that we’ve become? Into what ditches of the past did God send his compassion so that you and I could be alive and well today? What sacrifices did others offer that still waft in the wind?
“I know what it is to have little and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry; of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me…”

And if we could possibly interrogate Paul on how—how has he “learned the secret”—I think he would tell us about his transitions, about the times that he had to gather up all that’s happened to him, through him and around him.
Anna Akhmatova is a poet who once stood in a long line outside a Leningrad prison. She stood there, in the freezing cold, awaiting the release of some family members. Another person, with blue, trembling lips, recognized her and whispered, “Can you describe this?” “I can” is the answer that Ann Akhmatova gave, and the poem, published in 1967, is called Requiem, which means peace.

3. Greet The Spies Who Love Us
You see, when we read words and phrases like “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (v. 7) I’m not sure that we appreciate how these syllables correspond to all the Hello’s and the Goodbye’s given to us by God. Take, for example, Philippians 4:22:
“All the saints greet you, especially those of the emperor’s household.”

Now, the chances are not very good for Paul (while in prison) to have made friends with the immediate family of Caesar. “Caesar is Lord” pledge the Romans while saluting the flag. “Caesar is Lord,” they declare while paying their income taxes. “Caesar is Lord,” they shout while taking in a gladiatorial bout at the Forum. And so, it seems highly unlikely that Paul, who contradicted these remarks, would stand a chance of rubbing shoulders with the likes of Emperor Nero, Emperor Trajan or Emperor Domitian. And yet, what biblical scholars will say is that among the thousands of officials and slaves who worked in Caesar’s administration, there were bound to be some who secretly said, “Jesus Is Lord.” And in closing I want to emphasize the subversive nature of this exchange.

Eugene Peterson suggests that Christians in the world today are like spies. And until the coming of God’s Kingdom we will always function like spies. We are like spies who have infiltrated a foreign country, a country whose ways and customs often run contrary to the Crucified and Risen Christ, a country that doesn’t realize that its days are numbered. So, say hello to the emperor and don’t be afraid. Say hello and have the courage to say goodbye.
Over the years I’ve had the chance to greet some of the spies who love us in Christ. And do you know how you can tell a spy has come into your midst? You can tell a spy by the scent of sacrifice that lingers in the air after she’s gone. A spy is someone who gathers up the events of his past and who learns from every transition that life throws down.

Before his assassination, Arch Bishop Oscar Romero introduced the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. He said,
“May this Body immolated and this Blood sacrificed for Mankind
nourish us also, that we may give our body and our blood over to
suffering and pain, like Christ — not for Self, but to give harvests
of peace and justice to our People.”

He was a spy.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo for preaching against Nazi policies. On the day he was sent to the gallows he said, “This is the end, but for me it is the beginning…” And he was a spy.

And there are other spies, I have no doubt. Even around Spokane. And who knows? Maybe even you’ve been turned. And the only way we’d know is by the way you give yourself like Christ again and again.




July 19, 2009

1. Who Has Confidence In The Flesh Today?
I-Robot’s founder forecasts a day when a child will say to his parents, “I’d like to upgrade my ears…” That is, instead of asking for a new stereo system, or an I-Pod or the chicest cell phone, Colin Angle anticipates elective surgery—a procedure in which specially trained doctors will permanently implant neuro-transmitters within the organic framework of a person’s flesh. And I guess I’m not so sure I like the sound of that. It will be the equivalent, says Angle, of students coming to class with their own pocket calculators. And when it comes time for the test, the teacher will simply have to tell the students to disconnect or disengage their neuro-transmitters, lest they download the pertinent information without thinking things through themselves.

Now, I hate to be a stick-in-the-mud and stand in the way of progress. But, based upon today’s passage in Philippians 3, I’m skeptical about these advances—and by skeptical I don’t mean to imply that they won’t happen. These and many other technological advances are probably well on their way. It’s just that a merging of human and robotic body parts is not the kind of transcendent goal for which, I think, we’ve been created.

Consider the word, flesh, which Paul employs often in his letters—sometimes positively and sometimes negatively. Today’s text is weighted heavily on the negative side of the spectrum. And the reason is that the Philippian congregation has been split down the middle. One faction says that for a Gentile to be a good Christian he must first be circumcised like a good Jew. The other faction declares rather emphatically that it’s not necessary to be circumcised. And what’s interesting is that although Paul has been circumcised (see verse five) he is among those who don’t think it’s necessary. “Beware of those who mutilate the flesh,” he inveighs. We “boast in Christ” and “have no confidence in the flesh,” he adds proudly.

And so, if you’re out there, wondering how robotic implants could possibly be a bad thing (since it means less flesh and more robot), let me clarify. By flesh or sarx in the Greek, Paul doesn’t mean to refer to the epidermis or to any part of a person’s anatomy. By flesh he means the whole compulsive matrix of impressing people with external advantages. Flesh might then include a person’s level of income, a person’s status, position or pedigree, a person’s set of skills—or frequently the way by which we brand one another as buyers of certain consumer products. Who is confident in the flesh today? Believe it or not, The Rolling Stones once sang a response to this question in this way:
When I’m drivin’ in my car
And that man comes on the radio
He’s tellin’ me more and more
About some useless information
Supposed to fire my imagination
I can’t get no, oh no no no
Hey hey hey, that’s what I say

I can’t get no satisfaction
I can’t get no satisfaction
‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try
I can’t get no, I can’t get no

When I’m watchin’ my TV
And that man comes on to tell me
How white my shirts can be
But he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke
The same cigarettes as me
I can’t get no, oh no no no
Hey hey hey, that’s what I say

You see, what Mic and company croon about is the same theme that we touched on last week. There is a song that’s being sung in the universe—a song that’s true and life-giving. But in the meantime we contend with the perversions and the distortions of that original song. We do battle with all kinds of delusional commercials that make all kinds of promises in terms of health, wealth and prosperity, but in the end, what Mic sings is true. “I can’t get me no satisfaction… No… No… No…” And yet, hang on.

2. For Faith That’s More Than Skin Deep, Discern Between “The Prize” and “The Rubbish”

What if our very search for satisfaction “in the flesh” is actually the bread crumb trail back to Christ? What if, after getting lost in the forest of the flesh—of trying to get an advantage over other—you and I can boldly turn and retrace our steps? “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh I have more,” Paul writes…
“Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ… I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”

You see, for faith that more than skin-deep, we have to discern between the “rubbish” in verse 8 and “the prize of the heavenly call of God” in verse 14. And if you estimate that process to be relatively easy, you’re in for a big surprise. Paul checks himself by saying, “Not that I have already obtained this, or have already reached the goal” (v. 12)—but straining forward…

In Herman Melville’s classic story, Billy Budd, there’s a surgeon who prides himself on being quite accomplished and adroit with the scalpel. Coincidently, a shipmate falls ill, and the surgeon has the opportunity to exercise his skill. So, as the patient lies prone and unconscious on the table, the surgeon cuts into the flesh and exposes the internal organs. He even takes the time to offer a running commentary on his work and then sews up the incision and basks in the glow of a job well done. The only problem, of course, is that the patient has died. He is no longer living. And therefore, when the crew realizes this terrible result, they trade the esteem in which they once held the surgeon for disdain.

You see, I don’t mean to make a bad comparison here, but it seems to me that many of our churches are in danger of dying on the table. And it’s not that they’re unskilled or incompetent when it comes to worship. It’s not that they don’t know how to impress people with all kinds of cool programs.
It’s that while people are being impressed, the very reason for gathering as the body of Christ—the forgiveness, the transformation and self-giving service—fades into the background and dies. “For many,” says Paul in verse 18,
“live as enemies of the cross of Christ… and now I tell you even with tears.”

An actor, named Bruce, once played the part of Jesus of Nazareth in a performance of The Gospel of Matthew. He did well. And following the death of his character on the cross, the other actors took him down from the prop, representing the crucifix and placed his body on the floor of the stage. The performance, as you well know, goes on from there to the hope of the resurrection. But this actor, as he’s laid out on the stage, trying to be dead, notices a ball of fuzz and dust about four feet from his face. And as he’s breathing, but attempting not to breath, the dust ball is being drawn toward him. It’s a very awkward moment. And, you see, what occurred to Bruce the actor, as he watched this piece of garbage come closer and closer to the sensitive skin of his actor’s face is that he could not have done what Jesus historically did. He could not and would never achieve the prize on his own. The Spirit of the real Jesus would have to implant into his heart, into his mind and into his body the sheer hope of the prize being given to him.

3. Where & How We Belong Will Determine Our Toughness
“Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory” (20—21).

Finally, the thing that will determine our toughness is not necessarily what we believe, but where and how we belong. Have we given our bodies to belonging in heaven? Have we allowed the confidence that we may have in the flesh to be subsumed by our citizenship in God’s future kingdom?

Brian McLaren, in his book, A Generous Orthodoxy, writes about the dialogue that once took place between a commissioner of Indian Affairs, sent by President Ulysses Grant, and the Nez Perce Chief Joseph:
“Why do you not want schools?” The commissioner asked.
“They will teach us to have churches,” Joseph answered.
“Do you not want churches?”
“No, we do not want churches.”
“Why do you not want churches?”
“They will teach us to quarrel about God,” Joseph said.
“We do not want to learn that. We may quarrel with men sometimes about things on earth, but we never quarrel about God. We do not want to learn that.”

Now the great irony of this exchange is that the person who advocates for the establishment of school and churches understands less about the reason for belonging to those institutions than the person who doesn’t want them. Listen: if Paul is correct in declaring that “our citizenship is in heaven and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior,” then every affiliation on earth has been demoted and reduced in stature. But now consider what that shift in expectations does for our toughness. Now, when family problems arise, we don’t have to bury our heads in shame; we belong to heaven. When our colleagues at work disappoint us, the solution isn’t necessarily to get a better job; we belong to heaven. When our churches teach us to quarrel about God, forget all that you’ve learned and start over; we belong to heaven.


Read Mark 2:1–12

1. The Front Door Is No Longer Adequate, If It Ever Was
The front door is no longer adequate. I’ve been pondering verse two of tonight’s gospel reading, and it seems quite evident that the house that Jesus calls “home” in Capernaum may require a few renovations. That mud and thatch structure may be in need of a home make-over. Something like the residence of Cornelius would be nice. Cornelius, in Acts 10, invites Peter into his Caesarian home, and in Acts 10:27 the apostle discovers that “many had assembled” only after getting inside. The accommodations of a centurion, it seems, are more than adequate. But, alas, Mark’s gospel doesn’t have time to wait for the blueprints to be drawn up. He doesn’t have time to improve on the Galilean architecture. And so, it would seem that Jesus and his disciples have to make do. They have to live and proclaim their message and perform their healings within the four walls and the roof that has been provided. And maybe, if need be, some of their activities can spill out the front door. But, you see, if the foment at the front door means that a few vagrants can’t make it inside, well, we’ve done everything that we can do.

I want to welcome you to Latah Valley and this beautiful site, but before we go any further I want to ask you to pardon the renovations. I want you to pardon the renovations and to appreciate other renovations which are still to come. You see, as Presbyterian followers of Jesus Christ, you and I have walked in the front door; and the renovations of the future will depend largely upon those who come to us from alternative thresholds, somewhere other than the front door.
“Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay.”

In Walker Percy’s apocalyptic novel, Love In the Ruins, the crowds of North America no longer press against the front doors of any home, or any public structure—and that includes the buildings once known as churches.
“Beyond the empty shopping plaza,” says the book’s main character:
“rise the low green hills of Paradise Estates. The fairways of the golf links make notches in the tree line. Pretty cubes and loaves of new houses are strewn among the pines like sugar lumps. It is even possible to pick out my own house, a spot of hot pink and a wink of glass under the old TV transmitter. By a trick of perspective, the transmitter tower seems to rise from the dumpy silo of old Saint Michael’s Church in the plaza” (12).

You see, what we may not notice from Walker Percy’s tone is a subtle point of access to the healing of God in Jesus Christ. “By a trick of perspective,” he writes, “the transmitter tower seems to rise from the dumpy silo of old Saint Michael’s Church…” And this is the place that he later refers to as “the thread in the labyrinth,” where, once upon a time, “the priest announced the turkey raffle and Wednesday bingo and preached the Gospel and fed me Christ…” (p. 241).

Something is happening here. Instead of depicting the institutional church as front and center, prominent and prosperous, Percy insinuates the healing of Christ on the top of its ruins. Instead of lauding innovation and flashy techniques as hallmarks of the church’s future, he portrays the same desperation—the same fly-by-the-seat-of-their-tunics desperation of the outsiders in Mark 2. And, by a trick of perspective…
“when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’”

2. Jesus Questions The Questions of The Insiders In The Company of The Outsiders

In a Presbytery that shall remain nameless a prominent official attended a meeting that we hosted regarding the construction of a new ministry facility.
Sitting there in his gray suit he said the following to a group of new church pioneers: “Whatever you do, built it to look like a bank. That way, if the church fails, we can always sell it.” This statement, of course, came well before the most recent collapse of the economy, before the bail-outs and the bonuses to AIG. And my point is this: Why do we assume the reliability and the wisdom of the insiders? Why do we adopt the agenda of the front door?
“Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy… At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves…”

And that’s precisely when he brings everything out in the open. In fact, according to the text, Jesus goes on to question the questions of the insiders in the company of the outsiders—the outsiders who have dug their way down through the roof. Point of Order, shouts one of the scribes as the debris from the roof comes crashing down. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

I’ll tell you who. It’s the same one who drove Market Square Church out of business. In its heyday, Market Square Presbyterian Church hosted a worship service of approximately eight-hundred men, women and children. I know this because I received permission to enter through the steel, pad-locked gates of this dilapidated sanctuary and to plunder some of its wares. We carted off one communion table, one baptismal font and assorted old pews. And then, as we were leaving, I noticed twenty folding chairs in the midst of a fractured fellowship hall. The custodian told me they had been left there from the last day of worship. I shook my head and headed out to the pick up truck parked on this suburban street. And then, I saw in a flash what had happened over forty or fifty years. The Market Square Presbyterian Church had gone from 800 or so white people to twenty because the community of Germantown had changed ethnically. And, by God, instead of letting those outsiders, set the agenda for their congregation, those inside the structure would rather die, which they did. Although, listen for this caveat. A black pastor walked passed me as I secured the stuff that we had plundered. Suspiciously I asked who he was, and he told me that they were going to rent the building out. I said, “Have you seen the broken windows and the animal infestation?” He said that he had, and the next time I saw that man’s face I was watching a cable channel, and the sanctuary from which I had pilloried so much woodwork had been filled with a swaying crowd of outsiders.
The point, you see, is not to fill us with regret and resignation, but to suggest that Jesus has known this dynamic for quite a while. Jesus has known about the inadequacy of the front door. And Jesus has questioned the questions of the insiders for quite some time; and what if he intended his churches to be places of permeable boundaries and backdoor agendas?

I love the remark he makes in verse nine. He says, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? And later, in verse eleven, Jesus will add this phrase to the face to face conversation he has with the paralytic, “go to your home.” In other words, don’t stay inside, among the scribes for very long. Go home. Go to your context and contextualize. And, you see, what amazes everyone inside and outside that house in Capernaum is not simply the healing. What they, and what we, rarely have seen before is the embodied authority of grace.

3. What Has Never Been Seen Is The Embodied Authority of Grace
Grace must be embodied. By its very definition, the forgiveness received by the paralytic comes to him in flesh and bone. If it’s not going to be apprehended through the front door—if the crowd is going to inhibit its demonstration—grace cannot remain abstraction. We’re not talking about being nice. We’re not talking about doing things decently. We’re embodying the grace that comes upon the insiders and outsiders as co-equal partners in a face to face dialogue.

There’s a film, directed by Sean Penn, about the life and the death of a graduate of Emory University in Georgia. After receiving his diploma, Christopher McCandless forsakes further studies at Harvard and hits the road for the wilderness of Alaska. He is determined to find himself, or perhaps lose himself as he ventures further and further Into The Wild.

But what’s most intriguing about his journey is that once he gets there, making a home out of an abandoned bus, where wolves and bear and caribou roam, once he gets there, he reflects back upon one particular human encounter. Near O My God Hot Springs, in Northern California, Chris meets up with an old man, played by Hal Holbrook. Holbrook (who interestingly enough had been cast as Deep Throat in All The President’s Men) in this film pours himself into the role of a lonely widower. Mr. Franz befriends Chris McCandless and in one of their conversations, this is what they say to one another:
“You gotta get out of that lonely house of yours and get out into the world… The core of man’s spirit comes from new experiences. God’s placed it all around us… in anything we can experience.”
Mr. Franz:
“I’m gonna take stock of that. I am. I am…. But from the bits and pieces I can put together—you know about your mother and your father and I know you’ve got your problems with the church too… But there’s some kind of bigger thing that we can all appreciate. And it sounds like you don’t mind calling it God… But when you forgive, you love, and when you love, God’s light shines on you.”

I remember hearing that exchange in the film and then reflecting on the host of other conversations that we might have in places like this. With and Among those who shun and flaunt every manner of institutional authority, there is finally an appeal that we can make. But it’s going to mean some impromptu renovations on the fly…


July 12, 2009

1. The Mind of Christ Is Not Mind Control

It’s hard to know the difference between good music and mind control. After listening to an Oscar Myer commercial, for example, you and I may find ourselves dangerously entrapped and entranced by the jingle whose sole purpose is to compel us to want to be Oscar Myer wieners. Likewise, if you’ve ever traveled to Disney World or Disney Land or Euro-Disney, you’ve probably heard a certain punishing ditty that takes no prisoners. We will not now mention the name of the song directly, but suffice to say, despite reports to the contrary, it is a large world after all. The world is massive, multi-layered and mysterious. And if you’ve been brainwashed to the contrary—if you’ve even, for example, found yourself repeating, “it’s a small world after all,” allow me to recommend a good detoxification or therapy program.

Music is like a drug, claims Oliver Sacks, the author of Musicophilia. And whether it’s Country, Rock N Rock, Hip Hop, R N B, Disco, Jazz, Heavy Metal, Opera or any of the classical symphonies or composers—the songs that we sing manipulate and move us emotionally. Music can be made to advocate for any cause and to endorse every product—from the political agenda of Adolf Hitler to the type of ketchup we put on our hamburgers. But here’s the question: Why? Why does music control us so easily? And, could the fact that music has this effect be an indication of something deeply primordial, but not so sinister? Could it be that, beyond all the commercials and CD’s, we are listening for the original song, a harmony that has long been deprived us, a melody for which we’ve been made?
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited…”

What we may not realize as we stumble from Philippians 2:5 to 2:6 is that we’ve been enveloped by a song. The apostle Paul is quoting a song, or at least a poem with musical qualities to it.
Every Greek syllable, from verse six through verse eleven, refers to an ancient hymn that would have been recited out loud by many of the followers of Jesus and probably very well known to the Philippians. So, allow me to simply blurt out the point that I’m trying to convey: this song, unlike the manipulative jargon of the mass media, is meant to give us the mind of Christ, and the mind of Christ is not mind control. The mind of Christ—with its heroic humility and its highly exalted dreams for the world—will set us free.
Tony Cicoria was forty-two, very fit and robust, a former college football player who had become a well-regarded orthopedic surgeon in a small city in upstate New York. He was at a lakeside pavilion for a family gathering… It was pleasant and breezy, but he noticed a few storm clouds in the distance; it looked like rain.
This is how Oliver Sacks begins the first chapter of his book, which deals with the effects that music has on the human brain. He tells the story of Tony Cicoria, a story that had been told to him by a man who had been struck by lightning:
He went to a pay phone outside the pavilion to make a quick call to his mother (this was in 1994, before the age of cell phones). He still remembers every single second of what happened next: “I was talking to my mother on the phone. There was a little bit of rain, thunder in the distance. My mother hung up. The phone was a foot away from where I was standing when I got struck. I remember a flash of light coming out of the phone. It hit me in the face. Next thing I remember, I was flying backwards.”
But that’s not all. After his near-death experience, Tony Cicoria began to crave piano music. He craved listening to Chopin–the Military Polonaise, the Winter Wind Étude, the Black Key Étude, the A-flat Polonaise, the B-flat Minor Scherzo. And then, in the middle of the night, he began to hear music in his mind—his own original musical score—being played in his dreams. “It never runs dry,” says Cicoria. “If anything, I have to turn it off… I came to think,” he said, “that the only reason I had been allowed to survive was the music.”
2. In Order To Hit The High Notes of Faith, We Must Truly Hit The Low Notes

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who… did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited…”
You see, suppose somewhere deep within there plays this original score—some resonating rhythm or some sequence of sacred chords—that’s been given only to you. And suppose the amazing purpose of that song is to get us through—to get us from these tedious days to the Day of Jesus Christ. What would it be like to tap into that song?

“In the darkness something was happening…” In The Magician’s Nephew, by C.S. Lewis, an entire world has reverted to dark chaos. Everything is in ruins, when Digory and his companions begin to hear a voice:
“sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep engouh to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it” (p. 106).

Then, as you may have guessed, the young boy and the others discover the source of the music on the new-found horizon.
“It was a Lion. Huge, shaggy, and bright, it stood, facing the risen sun… The Lion was pacing to and fro about that empty land and singing his new song…. And as he walked and sang the valley grew green with grass. It spread out from the Lion like a pool. It ran up the sides of the little hills like a wave” (p. 112).

Now if you were to ask me what C.S. Lewis is driving at in these pages I would say Creation. I would say that that the singing Lion symbolizes the mind of Christ, which is present in Creation. And for me to say that, and for us to believe that God creates by singing a song, is not to discount the theory of evolution or to argue with the scientific accounts of how the Universe came to be. But it does declare that Creation has relational value. Things have value. People have value. Events have value. Not based upon what we can get out of them, but based upon what the mind of Christ has sung into them. And if anything is clear from Philippians 2 it is that in order to hit the high notes of faith, we must truly hit the low notes:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus… who emptied himself.”
3. Make Every Song A Time of Self-Emptying

You see, I don’t know about you this morning, but I am tired of songs and pop culture messages which place more value on what I can control that on what and on who I’ve been given. Christ has given me his mind. Christ has given me his sacred song. And so, why do I waste my days on music that trivializes that gift? Remember that song. That song is about God’s Passionate Give Away. And that song exhorts you and me to give ourselves away too.

Marva Dawn once went to the Oregon Symphony with her husband. She later wrote about her experience, saying,
“I watched intently as the symphony’s music director, James DePreist, conducted and Nadja Salerno-Sonnernberg played Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor. Actually, Nadja doesn’t play the violin. She dances, dreams and discourses with it; makes it sing, cry and laugh; exults, romances, and grows angry through it; soars, leaps, flits, and floats with it; aches, rejoices, laments, yearns, lambastes, jokes and frolics through it. Her feet never stand still; her fingers scamper; her face constantly in motion. With eyes closed in supreme concentration, she appears usually to be overwhelmed by the immense beauty she is creating” (A Royal Waste of Time, p. 136).

In other words, Nadja empties herself. She makes every song a time of self-emptying. And so, here’s what I wonder. I wonder what it might mean for us to be a church in the same way that Nadja plays the violin.

Last Sunday we hosted worship and had about 31 people here. And I went home and sat outside and prayed. And as I prayed, the winds kicked up and the clouds rolled in and I could tell a storm brewed in the distance. So, as I tried to listen for God in the breeze, a bird landed on the tallest point of this birch tree that we have in our backyard. This is the same tree that the tree expert told me was dying. I said, “How could it be dying? Look at all the leaves on it.” And he replied, “I know that it’s dying because at the crown of the tree, at the very top, those branches have no leaves.” So, upon this tall tree with a death sentence hanging over it, a bird perched and began to sing.
It sang in the midst of the fiercest wind. It sang as the tree nearly bent sideways. And then, just as it started to rain, I heard the lilting voice of another bird in the distance. It sang almost in counterpoint to the song that I heard from the dead branch on the crown of the birch tree. And then, without warning, the first bird flew off, presumably to join the one that had called to it.

And I have no illusions about the purpose of that song. I know that birds perch themselves and sing out of instinct. But I guess I’m wondering if you and I have an instinct to listen—and to listen to another song. I want to remember that song. I think Latah Valley—and all of its men, women and children—might like to remember that song. And I believe, with all of my heart and mind and soul, that Jesus is like that bird, singing upon the dead limbs of a tree, and that he’s not going to stop singing until we sing back to him.



July 6, 2009

1. The Lazy Days of Summer Anticipate The Day of Jesus Christ
The summer, as you know, is full of many diversions. The Lake, The Fire-works and The Movies are among them. And, of course, all of these leisure activities are worth the effort that we can devote to them. It’s rejuvenating to lounge at the lake. It’s thrilling to watch the night sky light up in a blaze of colors. And it’s cool, literally cool, to side-step the heat for a couple hours and be absorbed by a good drama, romantic comedy or action adventure flick. In so many ways, the lazy days of summer are ready-made for these diversions. But let me suggest to you this morning an alternative pursuit for the months of July and August and that is what Philippians 1:6 refers to as “The day of Jesus Christ.”
“For I am confident that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion on the day of Jesus Christ.”

In other words, we’re not done yet. We’re like a hamburger on the grill that’s still raw inside. We’re like the potato salad that hasn’t been mixed yet with the mustard and the mayonnaise. We’re like the ice cream in the freezer that’s frozen solid and still needs to thaw out in the sun. “The day of Jesus Christ” is something that is coming toward the Philippians and toward you and me in the future. Long before he became the object of carbon dating by Vatican archaeologists, the apostle Paul exuded this confidence: “The day of Jesus Christ” will be that time beyond all time when Jesus’ life, death and resurrection will become spectacularly obvious and radiantly apparent to everyone in every place and in every time. “The day of Jesus Christ” is what the rock group U2 means when Bono sings, “I believe in kingdom come; then all the colors will bleed into one, bleed into one…” But it’s not here yet. What we have now are the ingredients or the makings for that day. In fact, the lazy days of summer anticipate the day of Jesus Christ, and what I’d like to recommend to you as a pursuit is not the chasing after your own elusive happiness, but the contemplation of those ingredients, which include other people and suffering.

I went to a baseball game, during which a video camera roamed around the stadium and took pictures of various couples. During the seventh inning stretch, for example, Citizens Bank Park did this thing, called the Kiss Cam, and if you found yourself on the big screen, next to your spouse or your significant other, over 50,000 sports fans would exhort you to kiss. Fun, right? Anyway, we were there, when the Kiss Cam found a man and a woman in the 500 level, sitting next to each other, and we heard the roar of the crowd as these two love-birds looked at one another. But there was a problem that the crowd couldn’t quite understand, and it related to the woman who sat on the other side of the man, just outside the frame of the picture and beyond the focus of the camera. So, after a few minutes, the man pointing to his left, finally got the camera man to maneuver in that direction where the true object of his affection, and it turns out his wife of over 20 years, came into view.

Now, the reason that I’m relating this episode from the ball game is to illustrate this point: in our rush to be entertained this summer we may miss out on the larger relationships upon which God would like us to reflect. There is something beyond the pursuit of happiness. Just this week Andrea and Haitham hooked me up with a World Relief program in which recent immigrants to this country, subsistence farmers, are caught in between worlds. So, Latah Valley has a garden that needs weeding. They have the skills and the experience of growing food in harsh terrain. And over two thousand years ago, from his prison cell in Rome or Ephesus, Paul indicated his confidence in three inter-related aspects of the Christian faith:
• “the one who began a good work”
• the ingredients with which God is in process “among you,” or among us
• and the completion, “the day of Jesus Christ.”

And my suggestion is that we use up the summer days and nights reflecting on the people, the places and events which are beyond the frame.
2. Selfish Ambition Is Not The Best Reason, But God Can Still Use It
Of course, one of the ironic impediments to this kind of reflection is the fact that other people are often selfish. Rather than encouraging us to slow down, Paul notes, for example, that,
“Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry… others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment.”

So, how are we supposed to slow down? You see, there’s something happening behind these verses that could potentially be very troubling for Paul and for us. Some, it seems, are trying to frame the story of Jesus without Paul’s preaching and teaching being included in the picture. They’re excluding the one who helped to start the church in Philippi; and while Paul is in prison, he can do nothing about it. That must have been frustrating.

I remember these kids at the beach who were building competing sand castles. One of the structures had a mote around it so that as the tide came in, the water would be channeled around its wall and tunnels. This was the castle that I happened to be working on with my friends. Next to us, however, stood this amorphous lump of seaweed and debris, and to protect this rival structure from the waves, these kids from North Jersey had spent most of their time, constructing a thick wall of sand and shells. So, I want to emphasize the differing styles of construction: one castle had a mechanism through which the surf could pass through and return to the ocean while the other had an obstruction to keep the foam and froth of the wave from passing through at all. It was, in my opinion, a futile and “shellfish” effort. Anyway, here’s what happened. When my Mom forced me to take a break and rest on the blanket, those kids from North Jersey moved into our carefully created castle.

Now listen again to Philippians 1:18:
“What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true and in that I rejoice…”
While the Roman government has essentially forced Paul to slow down, he observes the “selfish ambition” of those who haven’t given him any credit. And yet, instead of letting that situation gall him, he realizes that the ocean of God’s love in Christ is still coming. The waters of baptism are still going to flow. The day of Jesus Christ is still going to inundate anything that we start or fail to start. And so, when we reflect upon what we perceive to be the “selfish ambition” of others, or even ourselves, consider this: God can still use it.

3. Do Not Seek “Suffering” For Christ, But If It Comes, Look For Ways To Communicate What You Feel

But, you see, the other scenario that may deter our reflection is suffering. One of the reasons that we try to pursue our own external happiness instead of reflecting upon the day of Jesus Christ is the suffering of people close and people far from us. Philippians 1:29 speaks to this circumstance in the following way:
“For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well—since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.”

Now, my initial response to Paul’s words here is visceral. How can suffering of any kind be considered a “privilege?” I do not have an easy answer. But I do understand that when we experience physical, emotional pain and psychological pain, God sometimes gives us the space and the time to reflect even more deeply upon where we’re going. We’re forced to slow down, and that’s good.

In the movie clip that I played earlier, you may have observed some ordinary people trying to take pictures of one another. It’s supposed to be a happy occasion. But there’s something beyond the framing of these photographs that needs to be spoken and heard and perhaps even prayed through. Maybe it’s grief. Maybe it’s anger. Maybe it’s the grace to forgive. Maybe it’s reconciliation. Maybe it’s hope beyond all hope reflection, when we’re forced to slow down and when we anticipate the day of Jesus Christ.
I’m going to show that brief clip from Ordinary People again, but this time I’m going to offer you this context. Timothy Hutton plays Buck’s little brother, Conrad. Buck, however, is not there for the holiday; he’s died in a boating accident, leaving the family in turmoil. Conrad actually blames himself. He was there, in the middle of Lake Michigan when the storm came up and capsized boat. He stayed with the boat; his brother did not. And now, the boys’ mother refuses to reflect deeply on what’s taken place. She’s in a hurry, running to work, running to play, running until Conrad has the courage to slow down. [Play Clip]

Like most of you, I take in that story and identify with the ordinary family and thank God that it hasn’t happened to me and to my family. But maybe that’s related to what Paul writes to the Philippians. “Among you,” he says, God will complete a great work and things which seem to be now unrelated and disconnected all will come together. So, we reflect upon ourselves and the way we frame our lives. We reflect upon our relationships and the castles that we build and finally we reflect upon our suffering. Whatever it is that slows you down, embrace it. Become a person who reflects upon the day of Jesus Christ. And let’s become a community of men, women and children who are confident of its coming.