Monthly Archives: May 2019
Giving Voice to Creation
“Giving Voice to Creation”
Sermon preached by Andrew Kukla
First Presbyterian Church, Boise
May 19, 2019
(You can find the live recording of this sermon here)
I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.
As we pause before our second text I want to recall what is going on in this story of Saul and David and Jonathan and the people of Israel. Saul is the rightful King of Israel at the time. We know – because we are privy to a private moment that David has been anointed as the next king. David does a lot bad but does some things that are utterly amazing. One of those is his great respect for Saul as the anointed of the Lord and his unwillingness to do anything to bring harm to Saul. And that is amazing because Saul has been trying to kill David for quite a while now. We may recall that David had become the musician of Saul’s court. Saul had come to suffer some form of either mental illness or physiological issue that causes Saul pain and distress and what gets named as madness. And David’s music soothes Saul’s pain. But Saul grows to be jealous of David – both of his music that soothes him and his prowess in battle (being the apparent true measure of a king) and the refrain, “Saul slays his thousands and David his tens of thousands”. This does not sit well with Saul so he is trying to kill David, but David never loses the sense that Saul is his rightful king. Meanwhile, Jonathan is the friendship, the deep and abiding friendship, that helps David navigate life and sustains him. So these are the words that will come to him when he learns of Saul and Jonathan’s death and the conflicted feelings going through him. Their family is a mess, and I know that ours are all prefect but theirs are not. So here is David’s profound reaction upon hearing this news.
2 Samuel 1:17-27
17David intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan. 18(He ordered that The Song of the Bow be taught to the people of Judah; it is written in the Book of Jashar.) He said: 19Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen! 20Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon; or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice, the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult.21You mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew or rain upon you, nor bounteous fields! For there the shield of the mighty was defiled, the shield of Saul, anointed with oil no more. 22From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan did not turn back, nor the sword of Saul return empty. 23Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. 24O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you with crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel. 25How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle! Jonathan lies slain upon your high places. 26I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women. 27How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!
David’s lament for Saul always reminds of a favorite poem, which – if not inspired directly by David’s lament – is most certainly inspired by the same feeling as David’s. The poem is by W.H. Auden and is called Stop all the clocks and I want you to hear that connection between the sentiments of this poem and David’s desire that even dew should stop forming and raining stop falling because no good should happen in this moment. David laments not only for himself but for all Israel and creation itself. Hear that sentiment here in Auden’s poem as well:
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum,
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead,
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
In poetry we express delight and our despair, we can give voice to ecstasy and heartache… we give voice to our emotional world. And a good poem sticks with you forever. You say after you hear it, ‘that person gets me’. You know what I mean: you can read a line, or hear a verse and think: that person gets me. And its often in a way you feel few others get you… and maybe, until this moment, you didn’t even understand about yourself.
One of my favorite poets who “gets me” and gets a lot of us is Mary Oliver. Mary died this year and is a renowned poet of wildlife and spirit and brokenness and peace and healing… my all-time favorite poem of hers is about a loon, in the midst of all of the loons dying. I like dark poetry, its just a thing I do, but I particularly love the way she ends this poem.
I tell you this to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.
I want to break your heart… that is never close again… to the emotional world of everyone.
These various words always come to mind when their subjects come to mind. This is what powerful words do for us, they name our life and reality, but they also shape our vision – they form what we are able to see and be in the world. Mary Oliver doesn’t just want to name a hurt you are feeling but she wants to change the way you experience the world and she will. That’s why we must take such care with them… that adage, “sticks and stone may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?” yeah… it’s wrong. Word shape the reality around us limiting what we can see or expanding our horizons.
David hears that Jonathan and Saul are dead and doesn’t just evoke his personal lament – though that is there – he gives voices to the grief of a nation and gives voice to “the daughters of Israel” … stop the natural world from functioning and just… grieve. Something our culture doesn’t much do anymore. One of the things that we note in pastoral circles is that where once upon a time not too long ago the death of a loved one was cause for a quick and immediate gathering of family in lament and celebration and worship as we grieved and broke up and shared our emotional world with each other. Now… it means in about 2 and a half months we will do some of those as our busy schedules allow. We do not stop. For anything or anyone.
David breaks open the heart of Israel. And we all stop to feel the pain.
But while we read his words, we also recall at this point that this is not simply a poem – for all it is that, it is not simply the grief-stricken words of a lyricist. It’s a song. The text calls it The Song of the Bow and tells us that David commanded all of Israel to learn the song. Its meter and measure, tones and chords are lost to us… but in its origins it didn’t simply speak lament – it sang a lament. For all that our words powerfully emote and shape and name our world sometimes life goes further… and sometimes we can’t even get that far. And in the spaces before words and after words… we find music. I’m reminded of Romans 8 when in the moments that we have no words the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words… music.
I grew up a child of musicals. I grew up watching them on VHS tapes… yes I’m VHS tapes old. I can sing every word of Music Man, and South Pacific, and West Side Story… I know the exhilaration of a surrey with the fringe on top, and I most definitely know that the hills are alive with the sound of music just as I know that every time you go to watch that the first tape won’t have been rewound because it was a two VHS tape musical and when you got to the end of the first you never stopped to rewind it, you had to put the second tape in right away and continue the story.
As much as I have always loved musicals I do at times find them humorous. I mean where do these people live that everyone sings everything. I mean this seems so fake.
Have a conversation: break out in song.
Get in a fight: sing about it.
Fall into unrequited love: surely there is a song for that…
Dream a dream of time gone by… I won’t tell you, I will sing it out for you.
These words set to music are scripted into my life. Even more so than the poems that give voice to love and heart-ache that which is set to song captures, even more, our spirit. The very notes imprint on our memories and the music can drone and sail and even fly where we cannot go. And at its most powerful music can express even that which words will fail to capture. And there are two stories that describe that ability of music to speak beyond our words poignantly for me.
The first is the story behind the anthem that the choir sang for us today. Total Praise, by Richard Smallwood. It is a great gospel song, and interestingly he wrote it in about an hour and a half as he plunked it out on a keyboard recording it on cassette players and playing it back to himself so he could hear it as someone listening would hear it. Smallwood describes the time that he wrote the song when he was a caregiver to two people: his mother and a godbrother who was terminally ill. And he was their primary caregiver and he felt very inadequate in what he was able to do for them. This is what was going on with him when he sat down to work on the song and he says that the song was pulling him in two different directions. He was writing a praise song but he kept turning into a pity-party song. So these two movements pulled at each other. “I lift my eyes to the hills,” he said, “and I know that this where my help comes from… but I wasn’t feeling it.” And this is pulling him and his song in two different directions. It was pulling to praise and to lament. And he wanted the praise to win. And what I, and I’m speaking for myself now, what I – Andrew – love about that is you can feel that tension in the song. This is the gift of a song that is a meeting of music and of words. Smallwood creates a palpable tension between the words and the music where the words speak one thing and the notes say another. You have to not simply hear that but feel that. The best demonstration of that is the last line before the Amen chorus. He writes “I lift my hands in total praise” but while the words are lifting up the notes successively go down. (sing: I. Lift. My. Hands. In. to-tal. Praise.) You feel that? He is talking about going up but he is singing about going down. So Praise / Lament. Praise… lament. And he holds these in tension within the music. Something you cannot do with mere words.
I lift my hands in total praise…. And then! What’s the Amen mean? Exactly: so-be-it. He is going to respond to what seemed like a statement but was essentially a question and the response is what he needs to hear – the affirmation to believe what he wants to believe and make it so!
I lift my hands in total praise? Yes, so bet it.
And then Amens go back up. It lifts us up and then the sopranos and tenors almost shout an Amen at us. Because this thing that we didn’t feel was true and is true and he conveys that with music in a way he could not with words alone… and that sets us free.
The other example of this that I really like is from the movie Shawshank Redemption.
The main character Andy has been building a library and he gets all these donations and he is sorting them and it includes music. And he finds a record of the Marriage of Figaro by Mozart and he starts playing the opera and then he gets inspired by this gift of music and he locks the door of the prison office and puts the music over the loudspeakers so everyone in the prison is hearing it. And everyone stops to listen to these two beautiful voices. And his friend Red, played by Morgan Freeman, reflects about the experience:
I have no idea to this day what them two Italian ladies were singin’ about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singin’ about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it.
I tell you, those voices soared. Higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away…and for the briefest of moments — every last man at Shawshank felt free.
Andy got two weeks in the hole for that little stunt. (Andy smiles and leans back as he is locked in solitary) When Andy gets out they ask him if its worth it.
Andy: I had Mr. Mozart to keep me company. Hardly felt the time at all.
RED: Oh, they let you tote that record player down there, huh? I could’a swore they confiscated that stuff.
ANDY (taps his heart, his head): The music was here…and here. That’s the one thing they can’t confiscate, not ever. That’s the beauty of it. Haven’t you ever felt that way about music, Red?
RED: Played a mean harmonica as a younger man. Lost my taste for it. Didn’t make much sense on the inside.
ANDY: Here’s where it makes most sense. We need it so we don’t forget.
ANDY: That there are things in this world not carved out of gray stone. That there’s a small place inside of us they can never lock away, and that place is called hope.
RED: Hope is a dangerous thing. Drive a man insane. It’s got no place here. Better get used to the idea.
ANDY: (softly) Like Brooks did?
Brooks was their friend who when released from prison couldn’t bear life outside the structure he had known most of his life and ended his life.
The world teaches us to lock a lot up in our hearts and minds. The world teaches us it is not good or safe to be vulnerable and it’s dangerous to have hope and imagine a better world.
Music. The vibrations of music get in there and breaks down our defenses. Music gives voice to hopes and nightmares; despair and dreams. It is the gospel which is meant to come and set us free. Music is the gospel in felt experience. The gospel freeing us from that which binds us up – even ourselves. And broken open for to the world we will be free: free to feel, to express, to hope, to dream.
To shape our world in tune to God’s heartbeat. This is the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God.