The musical performance

“You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus tells his followers.[1]

What does it mean, ‘to be a witness’ to all that happened around Jesus over two thousand years ago? How can we be a witness to these things with which we haven’t had a direct experience, when we haven’t seen with our own eyes and met with our own bodies the living, Lord Jesus?

The weather this weekend is a joke. There’s no other way of putting it, to my mind. It is the season of baseball not snowball! But sometimes when things don’t go our way, humour can be a good antidote. So, here is a music joke.

Last week I gave an example of a double bass player to illustrate how we need to go from the head to the heart. But we don’t always trust that movement from head to heart because it feels like we are losing control.

Imagine a picture of several double bass players standing at the back of an orchestra playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The bass players are swaying to the majestic sounds and rhythms; their bodies are into it. It is nearing the end of the epic masterpiece, and the caption at the bottom of the comic strip says:

“It’s the bottom of the ninth, and the bassists are loaded.” Hmmm. Maybe too much heart?

How do we live a life of faith that is heart-centred? At same time, how do we deal with our performance anxiety, worried about how people will perceive us when we do our thing, as Christians? We do put a lot of pressure on ourselves to perform to perfection and make a good impression. Unfortunately, this kind of self-talk keeps us from being the best we can be. That’s why, unfortunately, too many musicians have too much to drink prior to a performance.

We need not be too hard on ourselves. Easily 50% of the population make decisions based on fear.[2]The annual “Back to Church” movement creator, Michael Harvey, claims that there is only one socially-accepted sin in the church today: fear.[3]

Yet, none of the Gospel accounts of the risen Jesus condemn the fear. It is to be expected. Jesus meets the disciples, and meets us, where we are even in our uncertainty. Jesus’ initial purpose, after all, is to bring peace. “Peace be with you,” are Jesus’ first words to his disciples after the resurrection.[4]

But Jesus calls us, as he called his disciples, to move beyond our fear, move beyond the fearfully locked doors of our hearts.

The ultimate purpose of the Gospel is not just to allay the fears of Jesus’ followers. It is not to convince us of the miracle of God. In other words, ultimately, who and what we’re about leads us beyond ourselves. The point of the bodily resurrection of Jesus is not the miracle per se, but that it becomes the engine of the proclamation of Jesus Christ to all nations.

Brother Curtis Almquist of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist noted recently that, “Jesus’ resurrection was indeed a miracle; however, Jesus’ resurrection needs to be more than a miracle. It needs to be normal, everyday, how we live and breathe: with resurrection power.”[5]

God’s grace finds expression in flesh and blood – in our bodies. First, as we experience it coming through the Eucharist, the presence of God is made manifest in humanity. And today, in the power of the Holy Spirit, that means, in us and all our brokenness and despite our imperfections.

How can we say this? Because in Jesus’ resurrected body, his scars were still visible. His humanity was still intact – in some mysterious way, in an mysteriously enhanced body to be sure. But the fact that Jesus bodily resurrection is so defended and argued by Paul and Luke and other early Apostles suggests, does it not, the crucial importance of the earthly, human manifestation, and receptivity, of God’s grace and presence.[6]

This is the power of the resurrection. That in the midst of our fear, Jesus comes to stand among us. In the midst of all that is wrong, broken, suffering in our lives, Jesus comes into the locked doors of our hearts and bodies. And then, calls us out.

How do we ‘proclaim’ Christ to all the nations? Again, nothing spectacular, here. Through our ordinary, simple selves, reaching out.

Leonard Bernstein, 20thcentury musician and famous conductor of renowned orchestras around the world – the Berlin Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic – once said: “The only way I have of knowing I’ve done a really remarkable performance is when I lose my ego completely and become the composer. I have the feeling that I’m creating the piece, writing the piece on stage … making it up as I go, along with those hundred people [in the orchestra] who are also making it up with me.”[7]

Working together, like in an orchestra, we are playing the music of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world, and in the world. Even though the music was first created a long time ago, we are making it alive and real for us and for the world, today.

We do so, using the gifts and grace and resources given to us from the Composer of the whole experience. We do so, through our own bodies, minds and spirits. At the same time, we let go of our ego, because it is not about us; it is about something much bigger than all of us.

Order of Canada recipient for his work in fostering Christian unity and inter-religious dialogue, Father Laurence Freeman said: “…grace works on nature. The grace of God that enters into human existence doesn’t come from out of space; it comes through nature. That’s why it is very dubious to talk about supernatural things. We are always interested in the supernatural, but what’s much more real and interesting is the real meaning of the natural. It is through nature, through the natural, through our own nature, our own psychology, our own physiology, our mind and body – through our human nature – that grace touches, emerges and transforms us …”[8]

So, it is our ordinary selves through which the grace and purpose of God works. What does this mean? First, it means we have to believe in ourselves. We have to trust that God has given us what we need to do God’s work, to be God’s instruments and vehicles through which God accomplishes God’s purposes.

Then, we need to perform the music, so to speak. And, it doesn’t need to be perfect, complicated or anything spectacular. Just simple, ordinary. We have to start somewhere.

One of our members asked recently a neighbor to describe what happens on and around our property on an average day in the Spring, Summer and Fall. And the neighbor reported that between 2:30 and 3:30pm every week day, about 30 kids on average, children of all ages, walk across our property from the bus stops along Meadowlands to their homes in the City View neighborhood. Thirty.

With presence of mind, our member asked the neighbor: What do they do when they walk across? Is there anything in particular that stands out in their behavior?

The neighbor said many of them like our benches outside the front doors. They like to sit and visit. They like to rest for a few minutes before continuing on their walk home.

When the member and I reflected on this, we realized there aren’t many, if any at all, public places in the neighborhood where people can sit awhile. Not only do we fill a need providing a place to sit, we encourage community-building, relationship-building right outside the doors to the church. How appropriate!

And for so many young people who are turned off the church, or at least afraid to enter into a church building these days, providing benches for children and young people to sit and visit sends a positive if subtle message about our identity and purpose as a church. It also sends a subtle yet real message of welcome.

This example is simple, ordinary, unspectacular. Yet, it is a first step in the right direction. As a community. Not as individuals doing our own thing. But, together, as a church, an orchestra playing together.

And isn’t that what the walk of faith is all about? We can only do what we are able to do, together. And then, when we take the first step, we watch as the Spirit of God can surprise and delight in us. All because we began by simply using what God has given us. Giving from ourselves, for the sake of others, for something larger than all of us.

That is, being faithful witnesses to these things.

[1]Luke 24:48, NRSV.

[2]Richard Rohr & Andreas Ebert, “The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective” (Crossroad, 2001).

[3]Michael Harvey, “Unlocking the Growth: You’ll Be Amazed at your Church’s Potential” (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2012), p.52.

[4]Luke 24:36; John 20:19-21, NRSV.

[5]Brother Curtis Almquist, Society of Saint John the Evangelist, “Brother, Give us a Word” on April 10, 2018.

[6]Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church is a testimony both to Jesus’ bodily resurrection, and to our bodies being the imperfect vessels for the transmission of God’s grace and wisdom.

[7]Cited in Barry Green with W. Timothy Gallwey, “The Inner Game of Music: The Classic Guide to Reaching a New Level of Musical Performance” (New York: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1986), p.95.

[8]Laurence Freeman, OSB, “Finding Oneself 2” transcript (Singapore: Medio Media, 2017), p.29.

The cost of invitation? Still, love.

A preacher I heard once illustrated the Gospel text (Luke 9:51-62) by giving his farming community the analogy of tilling straight rows in a field. When Jesus says, you can’t plow a field by looking backwards, the challenge is put to keep looking forward. Good advice, especially if you are interested in making your rows straight.

But, you can’t be looking just in front of your feet, the preacher went on to say. You look at a tree or fence post at the opposite end of the field you are tilling, and aim for that. The trick is, you have to keep your eyes set on that tree in the distance — without wavering — while you make your way across. This is the best way of making sure your lines are straight. A good illustration for living the Christian life, right?

But, I’ve wondered, what happens if the fog rolls in or the heat of the late day causes the horizon to shimmer? What happens when the goal in the distance is blurred by climatic circumstances you have no control over? What to do when you can’t see or experience the ‘goal’ even though you know what that goal is supposed to be?

I’m no farmer. But I remember in my first parish in southern Ontario, I was immersed in the farming culture of working the land. Most of the farmers in the region between London and Stratford worked on large swaths of land.

The farmers in the area also worked hard to introduce me, a city-boy at heart, to their pastoral lifestyle. And they were very patient and loving about it. Once I was invited to sit for hours in an air-conditioned, hi-tech cabin of a gigantic tractor as we traversed the rolling fields tilling the land.

One aspect of following Jesus that jumps out in the Gospel text (Luke 9:51-62) is the cost of being a disciple. It’s hard, because attachments to material security are jeopardized in the mission of Jesus — “Foxes have holes and birds have nests” but Jesus has no place to call home. Jesus implies that those who would risk following him must expect and count on losing something of value to them. Are they up for it?

Last week when Michael Harvey spoke to a large group of Lutherans and Anglican in Ottawa, he put it out there that he didn’t know how Canadians — who are so concerned about offending everyone and apologize for everything — would deal with the challenge to invite people to church. He said that we’re so worried that we might lose a friend, our reputation, or upset someone.

Consequently, we lock ourselves into un-healthy and un-Gospel patterns of uninviting. And he challenged us to consider not so much our IQ (a quotient signifying intelligence) but our NQ (our ability to deal with rejection when people respond, ‘no’, to our invitation).

He also reminded us that the challenge is to invite — and not worry or be concerned about whether or not people respond positively to our invitation. That’s God’s bit, he said. It’s not about us — whether people come to Christ or the church or ‘arrive’ at their spiritual awakening. Our job is simply to invite and remember we are part of God’s larger plan that we can’t fully see right now.

The disciples want to bring the fire of God down upon the Samaritans who rejected them. Recalling the prophet Elijah’s act of vengeance when he called upon fire from the heavens to usurp his enemies (1 Kings 18:36-40) and eventually destroy them, the disciples of Jesus feel justified in their request. Good on them, right?

But Jesus turns the impulse on its head. God’s thoughts are not human thoughts; God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). This Lukan Gospel reminds us again, and again: The way for Christians to deal with detractors is not revenge and violence, but a ‘letting go’ kind of love. “Love your enemies,” Jesus says (Luke 6:27-35). This is what we’re about, as followers of Jesus. In case anyone was wondering.

Moreover, the table-turning, rug-pulling response of Jesus gives us a clue to the character of God, and God’s kingdom.

Under God’s reign, even when we don’t get it right, we need not fear the fury of God. God’s response to our misdeeds and disobedience is not punishment and vengeance. God will not send down fire to incinerate us and our evil ways.

God will heal us by the ‘no strings attached’ method of love. Not forced upon us nor coerced out of us by obligation, guilt, slick marketing or manipulation, Jesus’ approach is nevertheless uncompromising. Jesus ‘sets his face to Jerusalem’ amidst the conflicts of his earthly journey.

In Jerusalem awaits the Cross — the place of his self-giving, costly love for us. We need not fear God. Only an opportunity missed for extending the message and gift of hope and the experience of unconditional love. Do we bind ourselves in our sin? Do we lock ourselves into patterns of self(ish)-preservation? Or, do we freely give of ourselves in acts of hospitality and generosity towards others?

Even though southern Alberta suffered greatly in the wake of the floods there, what has astounded so many is the generosity of people there and across Canada to help. So many invitations to find shelter in other people’s homes not affected by the flood rendered some of the temporary shelters irrelevant. In the time of crisis, people just helped where they could. The gifts of hospitality were given by invitation to those who had no place to lay their heads.

What we do in worship is a sign and symbol of what we do in the world. For example, in the Christian ritual and sacrament of Holy Communion, the gifts of bread and wine are brought to the altar by the people gathered. Later, the consecrated food comes back from the altar to be served to those who first brought it forward.

Whenever we are willing to give and hand over for the sake of others, is returned to us as the gift of Jesus Christ in us. I am sure that many affected by the floods in Alberta experienced the loving presence of Jesus through the invitation of others in their act of generosity.

In the early grades especially, when my kids brought their scribbles and drawings from school, they showed and offered us parents their artwork. We put their work on the fridge door for all to see. I noticed how much pride they had, brimming with satisfaction and delight.

The gift (not perfect), when given, is returned, hundredfold; when we exercise some courage and risk-taking to share the gift of Christ with others (not alone), we will be blessed to receive Christ’s loving, forgiving, gracious presence in us — and people will notice.

I don’t know what motivated my farmer friend in southern Ontario to invite me to ride with him in his tractor. It can be a lonely job, farming, all by yourself on acres and acres of fields. He was proud to tell me the tricks of his trade, tilling the earth row upon row. It was a gracious exchange, a friendly encounter and ultimately affirming for both of us. Out of that invitation and experience together, I believe, we both were encouraged on the ways of our unique and separate lives.

Whatever challenges we face or losses we endure on the field of life and on our journeys towards the goal, when we take those risks and do it together, I believe we will experience the affirmation of our journey and be blessed by the steadfast, uncompromising love of God in Christ Jesus.