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St. Luke Presbyterian Church

Midnight Song

One of my favorite sections of the NY Times in something called Metropolitan Diary which are very short snippets of life on the streets of Manhattan. This one was titled; Not Alone.

Dear Diary:
I was in Midtown, heading to my office on the East Side. It was summer, and I was in the back of a taxi with the windows down. We were idling in midday traffic, waiting for the light to turn.

The opening piano notes of “Alone” by Heart came on the radio. The cab driver, a man in his 30s, nudged the volume knob ever so slightly. Not a lot, but enough that I took notice. Then he did it again, and the music got a little louder.

I leaned forward. “I love this song, too,” I said. “Turn it up!”

He did. And then, with no prompting whatsoever — and to the apparent delight of many pedestrians nearby — we belted the chorus out in unison at the top of our lungs.

We were having so much fun that we carried that tune together straight to the end of the song. The final notes coincided with the end of the ride.

The cabby pulled over to let me out. He turned around and said that the song was his favorite of all time and that the ride would be a favorite memory. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Psalm you heard this morning is the last psalm in the Bible.
Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with clanging cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!

On my last Sunday at Westminster, one of the Pastors chose that psalm to describe what happens in the sanctuary when I gave the Children’s message. I’m not sure it was entirely a compliment.

But that’s ok. We are as a Presbyterian breed, often referred to as God’s frozen chosen, meaning we don’t move very much, we don’t speak out of turn, we rarely spontaneously yell out Amen. This psalm calls on us to praise God loudly and freely. John Wesley, the father of the UMC, describes just how freely in his #4 rule on singing printed on the inside cover of the UMC hymnal. 

Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep, but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, then when you sung the songs of Satan. 

I love that last line. I don’t know what a song of satans is…I imagine Wesley's version of a song of Satan being the ones sung on top of a table at the local pub after midnight. 

~~~~~

Two Sunday’s ago now I had the pleasure of giving the charge to the new Pastor at the Presbyterian Church of Novato. I was pleased with what God wrote because that’s how it feels when something you’ve written flies out of you and 4 hours feels like 4 minutes as you get lost in the creative process. All artists know about the creative process, and because the new Pastor has a degree in music and occasionally writes songs of his own, I built the charge to Adam around the idea of ministry being a creative process and he should enter into it as an artist, a songwriter…

But the charge could be for all of us because we’re all in this ministry together.

And all creative processes begin with a lot of listening….listening for what’s longing to be created… 

It’s too long to read the whole thing, but here’s a taste- 

May you begin by listening for who these dear people are, learning their names, learning about where they’ve been before. Celebrate their history and their traditions that led them to be here now. Let that be a part of every new song and poem you write together. 

Then listen some more, for what’s still yearning to be created. They’ll be plenty of talk about yearning for more people in the pews and attracting younger families, but in my experience, artists don’t look for results, but trust that the results will take care of themselves, whatever they may be, as they focus on the work of loving others.

May you listen for what’s being said in-between verses, in those places without lyrics, where broken hearts are longing to be healed, over coffee, over phone calls, even over texts. Sometimes hearts heal best without words. 

May you listen even when it’s hard to hear. Let God lead you into the prophetic places of the heart. Let the truth be told even when common sense tells you someone in the pews won’t like it. 

Hildegard of Bingen once asked, Who is the Trinity?” and to her own question she answered, “You are music, You are life.”

So let this congregation take you deeper into life, perhaps most meaningfully as you witness the end of those lives that you’ll come to love so dearly. Let those sorrowful tones resonate so deeply that they bring you closer to Jesus Christ and inspire you to hug your wife and kids just a little longer. 

And let those less profound moments, like the broken sewer pipe, and the leaky roof, and the annoying email, and the bickering moments between staff members resonate as dissonance. Even when the brain can’t find the beauty in the sound, hand it over to God who will resolve it back into some kind of harmony.

And then there are the people, who are like a series of notes. Some notes will become your favorites to play, some will make you laugh, others will challenge you and there may even be a few notes you wish weren’t so loud, but you love and appreciate them anyway because, without them, the church wouldn’t reflect life, which is filled with every note known to God who created them in the first place. 

And like all creative processes, there’s perhaps the most important part of the process of all. It’s the time we walk away, and pause, and thank God by being with God, with no agenda at all, other than to just be, with God.

~~~~~

Paul and Silas, as you heard in scripture, knew this last part all too well. 

Paul and Silas are arrested for performing an exorcism. The servant girl was making money for her masters by telling fortunes, so when Paul heals her from this bondage her masters call for their arrest. Paul and Silas are arrested and severely  beaten, and then the jailer “put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.”

So imagine that for a moment, severely beaten, an innermost cell, chained up….

that’s what makes this next verse so striking…

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.

Or as one commentator said, Paul and Silas are holding a hymn sing in at midnight in prison.

That’s hard for us to imagine because we’re so accustomed to music and singing being reserved for celebration. That’s an easier one to wrap our heads around. Just as we sang in our opening hymn, sing of good things not bad, sing of happy not sad. I’ll confess, I don’t like that line. Pastors call that spiritual bypassing, when we skip over the sad and difficult stuff, like skipping Good Friday and going straight to Easter.

That’s what makes this scripture so profound. From an innermost cell, with no windows, no light, chained up, at midnight-they sing. They bring from their depths of their own being that which no one can touch, their own connection to God and Christ expressed in song.

Claudionei and Eliane gave me a book of daily reflections and Claudionei sent me May 30th’s reflection knowing it would be perfect for today-

The reflection speaks of certain songs that can only be learned in the valley. That is only in the dark days of our life.

Therefore, dear soul, in this life you are receiving a music lesson from your creator. You are being trained to sing in a choir you cannot see, and there will be parts in the chorus that only you can sing….Your creator is training you to sing what the angels cannot sing,  in his conservatory school of sorrows. Others have called sorrowful times a test, but they’re wrong, it;’s an education, providing you the proper training, In the darkest night, he is composing your song. He is tuning your voice. In the storm clouds, she is deepening your range. In the rain showers, she is sweetening your melody. In the cold, he is giving your notes expression, and as you pass at times from hope to fear, God is perfecting the message of your lyrics.

This week, Babette sent me a perfect illustration for just this kind of song-

It’s a story about a Holocaust victim

Etty Hillesum who kept diaries that were later found and published. Etty didn’t strive for ecstasy but longed to meet the depth of her own interior and life itself. In the concentration camp of Westerbork, she had unusual experiences of spiritual awakenings and insight: She wrote "Those two months behind barbed wire have been the two richest and most intense months of my life, in which my highest values were so deeply confirmed. I have learnt to love Westerbork". Hillesum addressed God repeatedly in her diaries, regarding him not as a saviour, but as a power, we must nurture inside of us: "Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold You responsible. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last."

"The sky is full of birds, the purple lupins stand up so regally and peacefully, two little old women have sat down for a chat, the sun is shining on my face – and right before our eyes, mass murder... The whole thing is simply beyond comprehension." 

"Everywhere things are both very good and very bad at the same time. The two are in balance, everywhere and always. I never have the feeling that I have got to make the best of things; everything is fine just as it is. Every situation, however miserable, is complete in itself and contains the good as well as the bad."

On 7 October 1943, several days before her murder, she threw a postcard with her final words out of a train:

"Opening the Bible at random I find this: ‘The Lord is my high tower'. I am sitting on my rucksack in the middle of a full freight car. Father, Mother, and Mischa are a few cars away. In the end, the departure came without warning... We left the camp singing... Thank you for all your kindness and care.” 

We left the camp singing. Paul and Silas are having a hymn song at midnight. Praise God with clanging cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! 

Whatever your song may be, your sentiment may be, praise your creator by being schooled in the peaks and the valleys, and sing your heart out. 

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