Scholars believe that the little book of First Peter was written in a time when Christians were being persecuted. It was addressed to people in a troubled time. It is a peculiarly pastoral letter, gentle in tone, avoiding threats of judgment and damnation. The writer seemed to understand that the communities to which he wrote needed to hear an encouraging word. They needed to have their hopes lifted and they needed to be reminded that their future was in God’s hands.
The remarks of certain dissemblers aside, I doubt very seriously that Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world today. In fact, far too often in more modern times, practices of those claiming to be Christian have been highly persecutory, doing more damage than good in the world. Yes, we know there are places in the world today where Christians are paying a heavy price for their faithfulness, cruelly persecuted and even killed for their beliefs. But I would bet that most of us have not suffered greatly for our faith. To the degree that that is true, it may be difficult to get the full impact of this little letter to the early church.
What does God require? Well, really, who cares? We’re free, independent people, right? We get to live our own lives however we please. What does God have to do with it?
“Who cares?” might be the cynical response of one who finds the “God question” irrelevant and believes he is on his own in this world. Even if there is a god, where is he? What has he done for me lately, let alone what has he done for this poor old world? Looking at the state of the world today, even people of faith may question God’s presence, let alone God’s relevance.
To ask the question, “What does God require?” And to care about the answer, of necessity, means that there is a relationship with God on which to ground the concern. If I am not God’s person, if we are not God’s people, then concern for God’s requirements is meaningless. I suppose I am stating, maybe overstating, the obvious, but I don’t think it hurts to be reminded that, for the most part, we gather here week after week because we are or want to be God’s people. And if that’s true, what God requires of us is critical, perhaps even a life and death matter. Continue reading On Being God’s Person (7/17/2016)
“We are the people of God, come to this hallowing place. We are the body of Christ, bonded together by grace.” We will close our service today with this lovely hymn, written by David Bartlett and John Landgraff for another beloved congregation, Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland. I especially like the lilt of this refrain which helps set the tone for our theme for this year – “To Be God’s People.”
In one sense, of course, we are God’s people because all of creation comes from God and returns to God. We are beloved children, made in the image and likeness of God, the same God who made the “blue sky, the delicate flowers of the tulip poplar tree, the distant blue hills, the sweet-smelling air full of brilliant light, the bickering flycatchers, the lowing cattle and the quails that whistle over there.” Still, as did Jesus himself, we also grow and mature into a deeper understanding of what it means to be God’s people. We are both blessed and called to be God’s people.
The text that I’ve selected to support the theme is 1 Peter 2:9-10: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of the shadows into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” What a great gift and rich responsibility – to be God’s people. Obviously the audience to which the letter is addressed knew a time when they did not see themselves as God’s people nor did they know God’s mercy. There was a time when they lurked in the shadows but now they live in God’s glorious light. They are called together in order to proclaim the mighty acts of God as they grow into their understanding of what it means to be God’s people.
The risk in this text is that “chosen” is a loaded term. The Hebrew people, as well people of other lands and cultures, including the one in which we live, have believed themselves to be God’s chosen people. This belief has caused a lot of grief when people were convinced they had “God on their side.” It is important to remember that when God calls on any of us to carry responsibility for spreading God’s light and love, goodness and grace, righteousness and mercy over the face of the earth, we must be careful not hear this call as an affirmation of superiority. To be chosen is not to be elevated, rather it is to be beloved. It is a call to humble service for God to others of God’s family everywhere, especially those who still dwell in the shadows and have not known mercy. We may be set aside to do a certain task but it never makes us any better than any other member of God’s family. The very essence of grace is God’s unconditional love and compassion for all that God has made. It is always gift and never merited.
This is essentially the word and the way that Jesus came to teach. Brian McLaren writes that “Jesus truly was a master-rabbi, capable of transforming people’s lives with a message of unfathomed depth and unexpected imagination. But what was the substance of his message? What was his point? Sooner or later,” McLaren claims, anyone who came to know Jesus would hear one phrase repeated again and again: the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, pp. 103-104). It seems to me that claiming the kingdom of God is the primary work of the people of God. This is the task to which we have been called.
In today’s Words of Preparation, McLaren makes it clear that “for Jesus the kingdom of heaven wasn’t a place we go up to someday; it was a reality we pray to come down here now. It wasn’t a distant future reality. It was at hand, or within reach, today.” It is not something we merely hope for; it is something we commit our lives to bringing about in the here and now. I know kingdom language is not as meaningful now as it has been in the past. To claim the God’s reality as a kingdom was a direct challenge to the kingdoms of this world. It was a shocking reversal of accepted reality. God rules a kingdom to which all the kingdoms of the world are subject, to which all earthly power is beholden.
For contemporary ears and minds, McLaren suggests some alternative terms – “nation [of God], state [of God], government [of God], society [of God], economic system [of God], culture [of God], superpower [of God], empire [of God] and civilization [of God]…global commonwealth of God, God’s regenerative economy, God’s holy ecosystem, God’s sustainable society or God’s movement for mutual liberation.” I have sometimes used realm or reign of God though those also have kingdom overtones. I experimented with culture for a while, but Betsy Koester took offense at that term. You can experiment with these, see if any of them trip off the tongue and stick in your consciousness. Each captures at least a significant part of what Jesus came to teach. Or come up with a creative phrase of your own. Of all the ones McLaren suggests, I like “God’s beloved community” best. It seems to me the right goal toward which God’s people might aspire. Don’t be surprised to find me trying on that expression moving forward.
Friends, God’s beloved community is at hand. “God’s beloved community is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground…” “With what can we compare God’s beloved community, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed…the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” To be God’s people and live into God’s beloved community, this is what the Teacher came to teach us.
Jeremiah proclaims that God is making a new covenant with the beloved community, a covenant in which God says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” God’s rule of right living, God’s way of compassion and grace, God’s way of peace and justice…these will be written on the hearts of God’s people and be so familiar that they shape their way of living. Jesus, the teacher, was steeped in this tradition. I can’t believe that Jeremiah’s great promise of the new covenant, the renewed relationship with the Holy One, would not have echoed in the Teacher’s consciousness as he taught about God’s beloved community.
Truly, to be God’s people and to commit ourselves to the fulfillment of God’s beloved community, may this be the focus and purpose of our life together in the year ahead. Amen.
Somewhere along the way I got on the email list for the Children’s Defense Fund. Undoubtedly, I signed an online petition which gave them my email address. I will confess that I do not always read the long, thoughtful postings by the founder, Marian Wright Edelman, but when I do, I am rarely disappointed. Edelman is a remarkable woman of insight, passion, wisdom and courage. Maybe it was synchronicity or maybe the Spirit, but this week’s posting was titled, “From Hardship to Hope.” Given the sermon title, I had to read it didn’t I?
I’m not going to quote the whole piece, but I want to highlight some of what Edelman has to say. I made of a few copies for those of you who would like to read the entire reflection. The focus of this piece is foster children. Edelman writes, “Foster care is intended to be a temporary solution during one of the darkest times of a child’s life, but the average length of stay is nearly two years, and every year more than 23,000 youths ‘age out’ of foster care at age 18 or older without being connected to a forever family. These vulnerable young people are at huge risk of dropping out of high school and ending up unemployed, homeless, or in the criminal justice system.” In her column, she highlights three remarkable young people who have made their way through the system to success and a passion for helping others in that same system.
The first is Amy Peters, a 24 year old law student at the University of Nebraska. Amy entered the foster care system at age 12 and remained until she “aged out” at 19. Amy says, “Foster care is no fun for anyone,” but, because she excelled in high school and was accepted to the University of Nebraska, she was eligible for a state program that provided housing, health care and financial assistance until she was 21. Edelman writes that “Amy knows very well she was one of the lucky ones.”
Sixto Cancel was taken into the system at 11 months after his drug-addicted mother proved unable to care for him. He had been subjected to poverty, neglect and abuse. He was briefly adopted at age 9 by a woman who eventually abandoned him. Somehow Sixto found a remedial education program that inspired him and today he is a junior at Virginia Commonwealth University. Edelman reports that “He’s not complaining when he says that unlike most of his peers he has no parental safety net to fall back on when the going gets tough.”
Though she only spent 4 months in Idaho’s foster care system, Ashley Kuber grew up in a poverty-stricken family. She went to work at an early age to buy clothes and help her family with the rent. I’m sure each of these stories is reminiscent of tales told by thousands of young people in foster care. What is remarkable about these three, though, and why Edelman highlights them is that they all have become active advocates for foster children, working at the state and national level to improve the lot of others still in the system. They did not let the system destroy them and now they are dedicated to improving the lot of others.
In each situation, the story is inspired and informed by hope held and hope fulfilled. Edelman concludes her column with these words, “A common thread among many of these young child welfare leaders is that they found the courage to speak up after being encouraged by an adult and told that they—and their story—were important. By simply opening up your heart, looking a young person in the eye, and speaking an encouraging word you might change the trajectory of that child’s life and give them hope for a brighter future” (Marian Wright Edelman, “From Hardship to Hope,” childrensdefensefund.org).
This is an example of accounting for hope, of sharing those experiences in which hope is held and realized. It seems to me that this is also what the writer of First Peter is asking of us, that we recognize our hope as people of God and followers of Christ; then live into that hope. Of course, the challenge of living with hope was greater for those who first received this letter. They lived with threat of humiliation and persecution for the hope they held. As people of privilege, living in a land in which Christianity is part of the dominant culture, hope may seem less significant.
We talked a little about this in Bible study on Tuesday. We, in the church talk a lot more about faith and love than we do hope. James Boyce writes that “Every reader of the New Testament is familiar with Paul’s triad of faith, hope, and love, and his remark that the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13). But for the audience of this letter, the more important of these gifts is hope; hope is at risk for those who have difficulty keeping hope alive in the midst of their troubled lives (James Boyce, “Commentary on 1 Peter 3:13-22, May 25, 2014,” workingpreacher.org).
What do we know of hope, how do we hold it, when do we account for it? Hope – “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen; a feeling of trust; to want something to happen or be the case; to want something to be true and think that it could happen; the state which promotes the desire of positive outcomes related to events and circumstances in one’s life or in the world at large” (Google search for “hope”). What do you think? What insight, understanding, story comes to mind when you hear hope? Would anyone be willing to share?
It’s hard to hope when times are tough. That is part of what is remarkable about Edelman’s witness and Peter’s admonition. When the shadows overwhelm and the way through seems impossible, when the despair descends and the future fades, how does one hold hope and keep on keeping on? We sang the old hymn this morning, “All my hope on God is founded” and we will end the service singing, “Hope of the world, O Christ of great compassion.” This is the hope for which we are called to account. We claim to believe in a God who holds the future and to follow a Christ who, in compassion, leads the way into that future. We exist in hope that there is more to life and living than we have known and that we will eventually find our way to “God…who seeks to claim [our] heart[s] as home.”
What would it take for us, you and me, to “make…an accounting for the hope that is in you”? For many, hope is a fragile thing. To share one’s hope is an exercise in vulnerability. You can hear the voices. “Don’t be ridiculous. You know that’s never going to happen.” “Come on. Get real.” “That’s the silliest thing I ever heard.” “Science has shown…” “Tradition teaches…” “You’ll never be anything but…” “Give up.” “It’s just foolish to hope for anything more, anything different, anything better.”
Except, remember a couple of weeks ago when Doug shared with us just the power of such foolishness? Perhaps there is more power in hope than we know. In today’s Words of Preparation, William Sloane Coffin claims, “It’s hope that helps us keep the faith, despite the evidence, knowing that only in so doing has the evidence any chance of changing.” There is such wisdom here. It is in holding hope that we begin to believe that things can be different – different now, not just in some sweet bye and bye. And it is in accounting for hope that we begin to make a difference in this world.
The great black, lesbian poet and essayist, Audre Lorde, facing breast cancer, wrote, “In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light, and what I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid? To question or to speak as I believed could have meant pain, or death. But we all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will either change or end. Death, on the other hand, is the final silence…”
So, she continues, “We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired. For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us” (Audre Lorde, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” in Sister Outsider). Hope unaccounted for, unnamed, unspoken will die a certain, strangled death. We hold our hope. We name our hope. We work, in gentleness, reverence and with clear conscience to make our hope real.
This is the legacy of those early Christians who held their hope through thick and thin, who accounted for it at personal peril, who lived it until it became reality for them. This is the testimony of Amy and Sixto and Ashley who are out to change the world, borne on wings of hope. This is the life work of Marian Wright Edelman, William Sloane Coffin, Vincent Harding, who died last week, and a whole host of those whose accounting for hope has been in the knowledge “that only in so doing has the evidence any chance of changing.”
I know I am looking to others to help me today. Maybe I have my own struggles growing into the hope I have for myself and for us as people of God, body of Christ, fruit of the Spirit. But given that this week was the anniversary of the birth of Harvey Milk and a postage stamp was issued in his honor, I can’t help but conclude with his best known quote. “I ask this…If there should be an assassination, I would hope that five, ten, one hundred, a thousand would rise. I would like to see every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out. If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door…And that’s all. I ask for the movement to continue. Because it’s not about personal gain, not about ego, not about power…it’s about the “us’s” out there. Not only gays, but the Blacks, the Asians, the disabled, the seniors, the us’s. Without hope, the us’s give up – I know you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. So you, and you, and you…You gotta give em’ hope…you gotta give em’ hope”
(Quoted in Randy Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk,, p. 275).
When I was seven years old, I walked the aisle of the First Baptist Church of Chula Vista at the invitation of the visiting evangelist to give my life to following Jesus the Christ. Did I understand what I was doing? I understood enough to claim that as the beginning of a faith journey that continues today. Was I saved that day? Some said so; some would still say so today. But what does it mean to be “saved?”
We’re familiar with that phrase from common use. Maybe it makes you cringe to be asked or to hear the question asked of others, “Are you saved?” When I was growing up that was a key question we were supposed to ask of others. “Are you saved?” That question was the entrée to personal evangelism. Sometimes you might use the variant, “Have you been born again?” I imagine that question must sound as strange to non-Christians as when Jesus first raised the subject with Nicodemus 2000 years ago. Born again? Saved? What are you talking about it?
So when the writer of 1 Peter talks about “growing into salvation,” what does he mean? To what is he inviting those who first received this letter? To what is the letter inviting us today? We don’t talk a lot about salvation around here these days. But I wonder, what does that term mean to you? Maybe some of you would be willing to share.
Growing into salvation…I remember my doctoral advisor taking offense at a book by a colleague that claimed salvation and health were synonymous. Of course, this would depend on how you defined health, but we have all known saints with physical, mental and emotional limitations. Sometimes I think wholeness is a suitable synonym, again depending on what you mean by wholeness. Some people who appear torn apart have rich, deep relationships with the Holy. Carter Heyward argues that salvation is something akin to the power of love in human relations. It is giving ourselves over to the love that draws us to one another and to God and binds us there. Last week we sang about “love that will not let us go.” Is our salvation in yielding to the lure of that divine love?
That unimpeachable authority, Wikipedia says salvation is being saved or protected from harm or being saved or delivered from some dire situation. In religion, salvation is stated as the saving of the soul from sin and its consequences.” Webster’s says it is “deliverance from the power and effects of sin; liberation from ignorance or illusion; preservation from destruction or failure; deliverance from danger or difficulty.” And something called “theopedia” offers this definition: “Salvation refers to the act of God’s grace in delivering his people from bondage to sin and condemnation, transferring them to the kingdom of his beloved Son (Col. 1:13), and giving them eternal life (Romans 6:23)—all on the basis of what Christ accomplished in his atoning sacrifice.”
The lectionary Psalm for today, Psalm 31 contains these words,
In you, O Lord, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me.
Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me.
You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge.
Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God. (Psalm 31:1-5)
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus proclaims that “’The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). And Paul writes to the church at Ephesus, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:4-10).
There are some views of salvation. It appears to be a rich and complex phenomenon, an event that grasps our lives and a process which we pursue over a life time. It is surely something that links us to the heart of God and draws us ever nearer. We “grow into salvation” as Peter proclaims. We begin as infants in need of pure spiritual milk and hopefully we progress to eating solid food and then onto the banquet that God has prepared for those who love God and willingly accept the invitation to dine at God’s table.
I’ve been reading and writing about the great fourteenth century scholastic and mystic, Meister Eckhart. Among the key elements to his thought was the notion of grunt or ground. Bernard McGinn says that grunt is the “master metaphor” for Eckhart’s mysticism. He also calls it an “explosive metaphor” and argues that “…it breaks through previous categories of mystical speech to create new ways of presenting a direct encounter with God. When Eckhart says, as he frequently does, ‘God’s ground and my ground are the same ground,’ he announces a new form of mysticism” (McGinn, The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart, p. 38). Grunt is the origin or source of the thing. It is its essence. It is this ground from which we come, moving out into the world; it is this ground in which we grow; and it is to this ground we will return.
Since seminary, I have been attracted to Tillich’s notion of God as the “ground of being.” I’m not sure if this is exactly Eckhart’s point of view, but it seems related. We come from a common source or ground or, rather, we spring from that ground while we remain rooted in it. It is our source of nourishment, the origin of our existence, the essence of our lives. This must be what Paul means when tells the Athenians that is in God that “’…we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:28). Salvation has something to do with being rooted in common ground with God or to be securely centered in God.
One important aspect of “growing into salvation” is building the church, the beloved community in which all are welcome. We have sung, “Come build a church with soul and spirit, come build a church of flesh and bone, come build a church of human frailty, come build a church of flesh and blood. Jesus shall be its sure foundation. It shall be built by the hand of God.” And today we sang, “Let us build a house where love can dwell…where prophets speak…where love is found…where hands will reach…where all are named. Let this house proclaim from floor to rafter, all are welcome in this place.”
Daniel Deffenbaugh writes of this passage that there are “four fundamental features of what it means to be ‘called out’ as church. First,” he says, “the household of God is a place where Christians can attain spiritual nourishment.” It is a place where we come to be fed, nurtured, held and encouraged as we grow into salvation. It’s a place of good healthy food – think potlucks and cook-outs, along with study and worship. It’s a place where we cultivate fertile soil, even throwing in a little manure now and then. It is a place all about spiritual growth and learning to care for one another and for God’s creation, deepening our relationships with one another, with God and God’s in-breaking reign.
“Second,” he says, “the household of God is where those nourished on Christ will ‘grow into salvation’ through the formation that takes place in community through the work of the Spirit. Here is where the metaphor of being built into a spiritual house reaches its fullest expression and serves as a guiding principle for what follows.” With the destruction of the temple, “…the traditional dwelling place of God is gone [and] a new house has in fact arisen in its place with a royal priesthood in attendance. While the old stones appear to be dead, the living stones of the church, founded on the cornerstone of Christ, will now be the light that overcomes the darkness.”
Third is the “often overlooked aspect of what it means to be God’s house in a hostile world.” For some, who are under stress and being persecuted, the hope of a better world to come becomes their touchstone, their only hope. But Peter is not just focused on the new day a-coming. He sees the church focused as much in the present as the future. Deffenbaugh writes that “…the revelation of Christ was destined to happen in the midst of creation itself, and it was here that Christians were called to be a priestly community in anticipation of the event.” So, he continues, “…the church – whether then or now – like ‘living stones’ must in all things resist the temptation to disparage this present world for some heavenly realm yet to come. The household of God is at once built on the spiritual cornerstone of Christ and rooted deeply in God’s good creation.” That means our lives and our ministry are focused on the here and now at least as much as on heaven. Salvation is much more than “pie in the sky bye and bye.” Christ is as much at work in the world today as he was two millennia ago, especially when we function as “living stones,” the very body of Christ.
“Finally,” he writes, “the church is a spiritual community whose fundamental vocation is the proclamation of good news, not only in word but also – and perhaps primarily – in deed” (Daniel G. Deffenbaugh, “Commentary on 1 Peter 2:2-10, May 22, 2011,” workingpreacher. org). You and I, friends, we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order to proclaim the mighty acts of the One who called us out of the shadows into marvelous light. It may be that once we were not a people, but now we, together, are God’s people; perhaps there was a time we had not received mercy, but now we have received mercy and known God’s great compassion for us and all creation. The truth that not only are we growing into salvation but we hold that that hope, that possibility for all the world is good news that needs to be shared indeed. Amen.
When The Choral Project (the choir in which Afan, Dan and I sing) had its dress rehearsal in the sanctuary last Wednesday evening, I shared with whomever would listen my experience of the afternoon. iSing Silicon Valley Girlchoir was rehearsing in the Fellowship Hall, Silicon Valley Boychoir was rehearsing in the Sanctuary and the New Mozart Musical School was going full blast upstairs and I was overcome with joy. I know all that “noise” would not be everyone‘s “cup of tea,” but you know how much I love music.
For me it is sheer joy to have this old building full of singing and playing with the footsteps and shouts of children, their parents and teachers. This is one of the reasons that person after person who comes into this facility recognize it as a special place, dare I say a “sacred space.” We have been blessed with this resource and I believe we are using it well, in responsible stewardship, even when the exigencies of all the activities drive you a little crazy – like moving chairs and overflowing toilets and burned out lights. Perhaps one might even find God hovering over, around or in the blessed chaos.
Sunday we will complete mini-series in worship and Adult Spiritual Formation. This will be the last session of Pastor Tripp’s study of Phillip Kenneson’s book, Life on the Vine. This week’s session will continue the discussion of “Cultivating Joy in the Midst of Manufactured Desire.” This has been an interesting series and Sunday will be our last Sunday to enjoy Pastor Tripp’s leadership in this area – at least for awhile. We will definitely be inviting him back.
The theme for worship is once more drawn from the little book of 1 Peter. In this Sunday’s passage, the writer addresses how these small, struggling churches, spread throughout Asia Minor might account for the hope that shapes their life and draws them toward God’s future. In the same vein, we might ask what is our hope? How do we embrace it? How do we live into it, working to make it reality in the here and now? This is especially important as we prepare for the Special Business Meeting on June 1 when we will be asked to act on a hopeful vision for the future of our congregation.
I will repeat the reminder that if you have questions or concerns about the revised Renewal Proposal, we want to hear from you so that we can be in conversation before the special business meeting on June 1 to vote on the Proposal. You may contact me, Carolyn, or any member of the Task Team or Council.
Personally, I hope you will all be here at 10 AM on Sunday for worship and then stay for Adult Spiritual Formation.
God grant us more light, more love, more life as we journey together.
When I was a teenager, maybe 15 or 16, Boise, Idaho, got an exciting new radio station, one that featured what were billed as “light classics.” For a young musical snob this was a very significant and exciting addition to the local scene. It seems to me the beginning of this radio station coincided with the advent of the transistor radio, which allowed you to carry your music with you everywhere.
One of my favorite singers, whom I first encountered by way of this radio station, was the wonderful American baritone, Earl Wrightson. He must have been a favorite of the station’s program manager because his deep, rich voice was heard often on the station. Among the Wrightson interpretations that flowed forth from my tiny radio was the late 1920s Vincent Youmans tune, “Without a Song.” It was written originally for a Broadway show as a kind of stylized work song, like “Old Man River.” The original lyrics referred to “darkies” though that term was expunged from later renditions. Anyway, the song made a big impression on me – for the beauty of the Youmans tune, for the strength of Wrightson’s interpretation and for the powerful sentiment of the lyrics –
Without a song the day would never end
Without a song the road would never bend
When things go wrong a man ain’t got a friend
Without a song
That field of corn would never see a plow
That field of corn would be deserted now
A man is born but he’s no good no how
Without a song
I got my trouble and woe but, sure as I know, the Jordan will roll
And I’ll get along as long as a song, strong in my soul
I’ll never know what makes the rain to fall
I’ll never know what makes that grass so tall
I only know there ain’t no love at all
Without a song
No friends, no good, no love, none at all, not without a song! In some sense I believe this is true. I hope I’ve learned to be less snobbish about music. There is such an amazing variety of musical tradition and style to inspire us and shape us, to move us and shake us. Over and over again the song carries us along, gives voice to what we could never say without the music, lifts us up and gives us wings to soar above the exigencies of daily life – the good, the bad and the indifferent. We know that spirituals helped get bound folk through the evils of American slavery and freedom songs carried South Africans through the bitter oppression of apartheid. We have marched into battle on the strength of patriotic songs and fallen on our knees to sing our prayers for peace. Many a lovers’ pact has been sealed with a song and, of course, what would worship be without music. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul encourages his readers to “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 the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:18-20).
A woman ain’t got a friend, a man is no good, I only know there ain’t no love at all without a song. Oh yes, “I got my trouble and woe but, sure as I know, the Jordan will roll and I’ll get along as long as a song, strong in my soul.” The writer of First Peter understands this. Addressing a group of young churches spread throughout Asia Minor, he is committed to bringing them a word of hope that will sustain them through challenging times, including threats of persecution for their faith. Here the song is hope and it is one of rejoicing. “In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.”
This writer must have been a student of appreciative inquiry. There is beautiful, affirming imagery in this blessing that opens the letter. The genuineness of one’s faith is more precious than gold, gold which by the way is typically refined by fire. In the darkness of the night, in the face of adversity, under the burden of oppression, when pain seems unbearable that song of faith will carry us through and bring us to joy.
As an Easter people we are blessed by God who “has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” A new birth into a living hope! What is the song of hope that we receive as a result of the resurrection? It is surely hope for a better day to come but it is also a hope that lives with us and shapes our lives in the here and now. Robert Hamerton-Kelly writes of this passage “…ordinary hope for this world must always be modest and pragmatic, the arena of neither pessimism nor optimism but of sober perseverance.” But, “…what is ‘living hope?’” He says “It is simply the living Jesus present to us after his resurrection and available to our faith, to which he gives the grace of a supernaturally based hope. This supernatural grace of living hope anchors our lives in heaven and thus enables us to persevere and from time to time even to triumph amidst all the failures of ordinary hope and all the fragments of broken dreams. We endure as those who see the living Christ and know that he rose from the dead, and for that reason no longer fear death. Without the fear of death we feel as if we had been born again into a new world of living hope” (Robert Hamerton-Kelly, “A Living Hope” quoted in Paul Neuchterlein, Second Sunday of Easter, Year A,girardianlectionary.net).
Perhaps it is challenging, as well as liberating, to claim for yourself this song of living hope, but isn’t that where our faith leads us, to a place where resurrection reality becomes operational in our own lives? There is always more to which we can look forward, always more possible – more good, more friends, more light, more love, more life, yes, even life that carries us beyond death.
But not without a song will we make this journey. I have always loved Robert Lowry’s song, “My Life Flows On,” that sings the story this way:
My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation
I hear the sweet though far off hymn
That hails a new creation:
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?
What though my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Savior liveth;
What though the darkness gather round!
Songs in the night He giveth:
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that Rock I’m clinging;
Since love is Lord of Heav’n and earth,
How can I keep from singing?
“I only know there ain’t no love at all without a song.” Not without a song will we be able to make this journey through life. Not without a song will we know living hope. Not without a song will we sustain our faith, returning to God in the fullness of time. Not without a song will we make any difference in this world, because our song is death denied and love made real. And this is our song, that love is Lord of Heav’n and earth. How can we keep from singing?