Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water - Rev. Brian Moodie
In His 2018 book, “When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend: Reflections on Life and Ministry with Depression”, Mark Maynell wrote the following words on friendship -
Some years ago, a British newspaper invited readers to submit their best definitions of friendship and friends. Thousands of suggestions flooded in. Some of the best included: One who multiplies our joys, divides our griefs and whose honesty is inviolable. One who understands our silence. Friends are like good health: you don’t realize what a gift they are until you lose them. Prosperity begets friends; adversity proves them. Friends do their knocking before they enter, instead of after they leave.
C. S. Lewis was someone who deeply understood and appreciated friendship. He knew how vital it was, but also how it gets forged: ‘Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art . . . It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.’…But Lewis’s most famous insight on the subject is even more relevant: ‘Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, “What! You, too? I thought I was the only one.”’
Indeed, there is a wonderful joy when we discover that someone else shares our own interest and who sees the world in much the same way as we do. Friendships born of common interests and a common outlook to life help us all to feel that we are not alone…
I’m not so sure though about CS Lewis’s assessment that friendship is not necessary for survival… Evidence from studies suggest that social isolation leads to earlier mortality? And indeed there are many people who might say that without a special friend or perhaps a special group of friends, they might never have made it through a particularly dark and difficult part of their lives.
Today we come to explore another well-known song by Simon and Garfunkel which speaks of the kind of friendship that stands by someone else even in through the darkest of times. In the end it is only these kinds of friendships that have deep and lasting value. And so we come to explore the song: “Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water”.
The song was written by Paul Simon, and was inspired by an old southern gospel song, by the southern gospel group Swan Silvertones’. It was their 1959 song “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep.” And one line in particular stood out for Paul Simon,— I’ll be your bridge over deep water / If you trust in my name—.
Paul Simon said, “It was the music that was in my mind most of the time, and every time that I came home, I put that record on, and I listened to it.” He went on to say that he thought that song must have subconsciously influenced him, as I started to play around with gospel chord progressions in his songs.
And so out of those gospel song lyrics, “I’ll be your bridge over deep water / If you trust in my name—,” Paul Simon wrote the song “Like a Bridge over Troubled water”, that itself has a decidedly religious feel to it.
Paul Simon says that though he himself wrote it, and it all came together quite quickly, for some reason he says that he couldn’t completely identify with the song himself and so asked Art Garfunkel to be the one to sing it. The song became one of Simon & Garfunkel’s biggest hits and one of their signature songs, topping the U.S. and U.K. charts and picking up five Grammy awards in 1971
And the central theme of the song is about the kind of friendship that sticks around when times are dark. And the central line of the song, found in the chorus “Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down” is a metaphor that expresses the willingness of a friend to lay down their lives like a bridge to enable another to cross over the troubled waters of life in order to get safely to the other side. It has echoes of those familiar words from John 15:13 “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.”
Whatever else friendships may be, friendships at their most valuable, are like bridges that help one to cross over to the other-side of a difficult, dark or particularly turbulent time.
I find it interesting that the ancient Latin meanings of the word priest is to be a bridge-builder. The idea was that a priest should be one who helps to build a bridge between people and God. This suggests that when we are involved in building or being bridges in this world, we are playing the sacred role of a priest. It was the conviction of the early Protestant reformers that we are all meant to be priests – they referred to the priesthood of all believers. And I believe that this song by Paul Simon shows us that when we stand by a friend in hard and difficult times, we are playing a priestly role. There is something sacred about being the kind of friend who becomes a bridge over troubled water for a friend.
And so in verse 1 we hear these words:
When you're weary
When tears are in your eyes
I will dry them all
I'm on your side
Oh, when times get rough
And friends just can't be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Wendy was listening to the radio recently and they were talking about grief. One man phoned in and told of his experience that when he lost his child, he also lost half of his friends. They just vanished. They didn’t have it in them to stand with him in the pain. Perhaps they felt awkward, didn’t know what to say or do? Their solution was to abandon him. But the true friends are revealed when the times get rough and many other so-called friends can no longer be found.
In verse two:
When you're down and out
When you're on the street
When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you
I'll take your part
Oh, when darkness comes
And pain is all around
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
It is a verse that reminds us that everyone goes through hard and difficult times, when we feel down and out and metaphorically ‘on the street’. And often the most difficult time, is at night. Paul Simon captures it so well in the second half of the verse:
When evening falls so hard...
Oh, when darkness comes
And pain is all around...
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
A true friend is willing to sit with us and simply be with us even in the darkness. And the darkness may come to us in different forms: as weariness, sadness, grief, depression, or heartache. And the hope and reassurance that comes in the chorus is that ones struggles are seen and understood by someone. It reminds me of Hagar in that Old Testament story when the angel of the Lord comes to comfort her after she and her son Ishmael have been sent away into the desert by Abraham and Sarah. In response to the angel of the Lord, she says:“You are the God who sees me,… for I have now seen the One who sees me.” Friends are often Angels of the Lord through whom our struggles are seen and understood by the God who sees us.
The last verse is an interesting one. It seems that it was only added a little later after the initial part of the song was already written. The words read as follows:
Sail on silver girl
Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
Oh, if you need a friend
I'm sailing right behind
And they are followed by a slightly reworded chorus -
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
Apparently, Paul Simon had been unsure as to whether to include this verse. He says that his girlfriend at the time was feeling particularly down upon finding a few grey hairs in her hairbrush, lamenting that she was getting older. And in response he said that he wrote that lyric as a tribute and inside joke to her because after that incident, he began to call he his ‘silver girl’, taking something that was worrying her and turning it into a term of endearment and even encouragement, “Sail on by, your time has come to shine, and if you need a friend, I’m sailing right behind”.
The song would have been incomplete without those words, because a friend is not only someone who gets us through troubled times, a friend is also someone who stands on the sidelines of our lives, cheering us on, helping us to shine, encouraging us to be all that we can be.
This is a love song, but a love song with a difference. When we think of the word love we have been conditioned by modern society to equate the word with romance. But this song reminds us that love comes in different forms and one of the most beautiful forms is friendship. And the truth is, once the fuel of romance has burned itself up, the real test is whether a romance can become a long lasting and deep friendship. When the fireworks have begun to die down is there enough in a relationship to become a friendship that is willing to be like a bridge over troubled water… I will lay me down?
Last week, I quoted Nick Cave who said that every love song is ultimately a song for God… God, the Infinite, is the true goal of all our deepest longings. And that is true of this song too I believe. Any true friendship is ultimately an expression of a love much greater than our own, a Divine Love that promises to be with us even to the end of the age, a Divine love that promises to carry us when we are unable to make it on our own, A Divine Love that wills the best for us and Whose deepest wish for us is that we should shine, a love revealed in Christ that journeys with us even through the valley of the shadow of death, and which is willing to lay itself down, for the life of the world.
I end with a few moving words from Isaiah 43
43 ...“Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you.
I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you go through deep waters,
I will be with you.
When you go through rivers of difficulty,
you will not drown.
When you walk through the fire of oppression,
you will not be burned up;
the flames will not consume you.
For I am the Lord, your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.
"Into my Arms" (An Interventionist God?) - A reflection on Nick's Caves song - Rev. Brian Moodie
(Scripture texts - Mark 9:24; Song of Songs 8:6; Psalm 22:1-2; 1 John 4:16)
The first time I heard Nick Cave’s song, “Into my arms” was only a few weeks ago. It was suggested to me by two people in response to the sermon series we’ve been doing exploring the lyrics and meaning of various secular songs.
The story of Nick Cave is an interesting one that unfortunately we don’t have time to explore fully here. He was born in Australia in 1977. At age 9 sang in the local Anglican Cathedral choir. In more recent years has lived in the UK. He has been deeply influenced by Leonard Cohen’s music after his girlfriend in his teens introduced him to it.
His life has also not been without its struggles and tragedies. At the age of 21 his father died in a car crash in what he described as the most confusing time of his life. He also struggled with a heroin addiction for 20 years. In addition, he has experienced the tragic loss of two of his sons. 8 years ago in 2015, his 15 year old son Arthur slipped and fell from a 60 foot cliff near Brighton, dying a few hours later of his injuries. And then just over a year ago in May 2022 his 31 year old son Jethro died from causes that haven’t been disclosed. The pain of losing his first son in 2015 affected him so deeply that he felt he had to move away from the UK and settled in Los Angeles.
In terms of his song writing, like Leonard Cohen, many of his songs reflect the influence of Biblical themes, most especially themes and imagery from the Old Testament, often giving them a sense of a religious feel. And this is true of his 1997 hit song “Into my arms” which we come to reflect on today. It is a hauntingly beautiful song filled with love and longing, doubt and faith.
In the opening line, Nick Cave makes a controversial statement “I don’t believe in an interventionist God” and in the second verse he writes that he doesn’t believe in angels. But he then goes on, almost in a way contradicting those sentiments, expressing his longing for God to direct his beloved back into his arms. In the chorus he seemingly addresses God directly, “Into my arms, O Lord, Into my arms, O Lord,” sounding almost like a hymn.
In a very real sense, the song was, and perhaps is an expression of Nick Cave’s own struggles with faith and doubt. The impression in that opening line is that Nick Cave was declaring himself an atheist, but that is not actually true. In 2011 he said that, although he has never been an atheist there are periods when he has struggled with the whole thing. He said, “Belief in God is illogical, its absurd. There’s no debate. I feel it intuitively, it comes from the heart, a magical place, but I still fluctuate from day to day. Sometimes I feel very close to the notion of God, other times I don’t. I used to see that as a failure. Now I see it as a strength, especially compared to the more fanatical notions of what God is.” A year earlier he said that he believes in God in-spite of religion, not because of it.
Interestingly the song itself was apparently written just after he had been to church at a time when he was in rehab. As he was walking back from church through the fields, the tune came into his head, and when he got back to the facility, he sat down at the cranky old piano, wrote the melody and chords, and then went up to the dormitory, sat on his bed and wrote the lyrics.
In his recorded lectures on music and songwriting, Nick Cave said that any true love song is a song for God, (in other words it points beyond itself to a longing for the Transcendent), and he ascribed the mellowing of his music due to a shift in focus from the Old Testament to the New. Despite the tragedies in his life, losing his father at age 21 and more recently two of his sons, in his 2022 book Faith Hope and Carnage he writes that he regularly now goes to church, saying that he characterises himself as not being a Christian, but acting like one.
And so, getting back to the song, in a very real way it expresses his own fluctuating struggles with faith and belief, an experience I believe shared by many people. And perhaps that is part of the power of the song. People can identify with his religious struggles.
And getting back to that opening line, “I don’t believe in an interventionist God”, we find that it is not in fact a statement from someone who considers himself an atheist, but rather a statement of someone who believes in the existence of some kind of God or Transcendent Reality, but has come to the conclusion that this Transcendent Reality does not intervene miraculously or supernaturally to change the course of events in life.
The belief in a non-interventionist God is not a new one. It goes right back to the 1700’s with the rise of the Enlightenment and what has been called the Age of Reason. With its emphasis on rational and scientific thinking, undergirded by Newtonian Physics, the idea of an interventionist God seemed less and less plausible to many people. And yet for many of this period the idea of atheism was not an alternative being regarded as a kind of descent into meaninglessness. Instead what arose was a movement called Deism. Deists continued to affirm the existence of God or a Transcendent Divine Reality, but did not have any expectations of God intervening supernaturally in the affairs of the world. Using the newly emerging mechanistic world view, inspired by Isaac Newtons scientific theories, God was conceived as having been the cosmic clock maker who in the beginning created the world or the universe, and then let it run its course, leaving it to run according to the laws by which it was made.
For some this provided a helpful middle ground. They maintained a sense of a Transcendent Divine Reality and their sense of obligation to acknowledge a Higher Wisdom and Authority, while no longer expecting this Divinity to intervene supernaturally in the lives of human beings. To live in harmony with God required for human beings to live in harmony with the laws of nature, physics and the laws of morality as they perceived them.
For such people who remained within the Christian fold, Jesus came to be seen primarily as a great spiritual or moral teacher but not as a miracle worker. The miracle stories were regarded either as later inventions attributed to Jesus to enhance the spiritual aura around him or as symbolic devices not intended to be taken literally.
And for some, this remains the only notion of God that makes sense to them. Some have found themselves reaching this point in their lives partly on the one hand because of the scientific world view which seemingly makes no room for what has traditionally been called the supernatural. Others have found themselves driven to this point by a struggle to come to terms with the question of Theodicy. If God is good and all-powerful, how is it that God allows terrible things to happen in this world? For some people, who still feel compelled by a religious sensibility and for whom atheism makes no sense, the answer that comes is that God is not an interventionist God. This appears to have been the point that Nick Cave had reached when writing this 1997 song.
In the end, all of us will have our own opinions on whether we believe in an interventionist God or not. Does God intervene in the day to day working out of life? Some Christians will answer this in the affirmative believing God to be intervening in their lives on an almost daily basis. Others will be far more sceptical of such interventions. They might say that if God can intervene in the smaller stuff of life then why doesn’t God intervene in much greater matters like preventing experiences of abuse, or wars or natural disasters? Still others might live in between these views with a sense of mystery and in a place of unknowing, for there are times when it has felt like certain events in life have been guided by a hand bigger than their own, and yet other times when they have struggled to navigate through what feels like a sea of confusion.
Even people who have given up formal religion, who do not like the term God, which might carry with it a whole lot of negative baggage for them, often instead, speak of “The Universe” seemingly conspiring at times to bring about something in their lives that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do themselves, the sense that life at times feels directed by some greater current.
And then you have also, the most confounding stories of people seemingly being miraculously saved from certain death or perhaps experienced an inexplicable healing.
Wendy told me a story she had read in a book by one of her favourite authors, Martha Beck a contemporary self-help and spiritual teacher. It is the story of a couple who were engaged to get married. They went on a hike in the mountains and before they knew it found themselves on a slippery slope that they could not keep their grip on. Within seconds they found themselves hanging on to a rock with their finger-tips trying unsuccessfully to pull themselves up. The young man could not keep his grip and before his fiances eyes he tragically slipped away and fell to his death. The young women told how, almost at the same time, she felt as if someone or something had taken hold of her waste pulling her up to safety, and yet when she gathered herself there was absolutely no-one around her. There was no doubt in her mind that someone or something had intervened to bring her to safety but she had no explanation for it, and even beyond that no explanation why she had seemingly been the recipient of this assistance and her fiance not.
Stories such as these are not so uncommon. There may be people in this congregation who might be able to tell a similar story. What is confounding is not so much whether strange and mysterious things happen, but why they happen in some instances and not in others. And it is not always a question of faith.
Bernie Siegel, a medical doctor has come across enough miraculous or unexplained healings to believe that they do happen. But he says, because they go beyond sciences ability to explain, such unexplained events are not included in the medical statistics, which raises the question how accurate these medical statistics are?
Does God intervene in this world beyond the laws of nature? Is God outside of life and from time to time makes a miraculous appearance and then disappears again? Or is God / Divine woven in and through life, constantly at work as the wisdom and intelligence of life itself, constantly at work and bubbling up from the inside? Are some of the things we call miracles or supernatural interventions simply beyond our current framework of understanding and one day humanity may come to a deeper understanding of how and why at least some of these things happen?
Do you believe in an interventionist God? Or perhaps have you rejected such an understanding of God and yet still hold on to some conception of God as the greater Wisdom or that Greater Good that embraces empowers and inspires us? Perhaps you have witnessed or experienced enough tragedies in life to no longer expect God to intervene and yet perhaps still have a deep sense of the reality of God and the sense that one day we will no longer see as through a glass darkly, that there is a wider perspective yet to be known in which some of the mysteries of life will make more sense.
I find it interesting that in the third verse of the song Nick Cave also names that which he does believe in. “I believe in love”, he says. And from the perspective of quite a number of passages in the New Testament, to believe in love is to believe in God, for as the writer of 1 John says, God is Love and to live in love is to live in God (1 John 4:16).
Whether we believe in an interventionist God or not is a conclusion each of us have to reach on our own. But ultimately I believe it is not the heart of true Christian faith. I believe that true Christian faith is ultimately to tenaciously hold onto believing in Love, despite the difficulties, trials and tragedies that we may experience in life, and to believe, as the writer of the Song of Songs puts it, that “Love is stronger than death”. And I wonder if that may just be what the story of the Resurrection might be about, whether one affirms it literally or symbolically, it points to the indestructibility of Love, that somehow the deeper we journey into Love the more we will discover a Reality that transcends the narrow perspective of our brief lives lived in these bodies in this world and discover a Life and a Love that goes beyond even birth and death. Amen.
May God bless you as you think upon and contemplate these things more deeply. Amen.
That's how the light gets in - A reflection on Leonard Cohen's Song "Anthem"
Mark 10:17-19 & 2 Cor 4:6-12
Today we come to reflect on a song by the Canadian artist Leonard Cohen. He is most well known for his song Hallelujah, but today I would like to reflect on a different song entitled Anthem which in a way is like an anthem or theme tune for his life. It contains that very insightful line that I have often heard quoted by a number of different people: “There’s a crack, there’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Unlike John Lennon’s song Imagine, in Leonard Cohen’s perspective, it will never be possible for this world to be perfected. He sees this world as somehow inherently flawed, “...the wars they will be fought again…”. And yet despite this, his experience is that light, and love and beauty and a deep sense of the sacred can still be found in this world, and that paradoxically it is often through the broken cracks of life that the light shines through.
Before we dive into the song itself, a little background might be helpful on Leonard Cohen himself. He was born in Canada in 1934 to his two very well-to-do and very well-connected Canadian Jewish parents.
At the age of 9, his father passed away which must have been devastating and destabilising for him as a little boy. Around this same time, he would have had a growing awareness of the horrors of world war two and the genocide of his own Jewish people in Germany. In addition, his relationship with his mother has been described as having been an ambivalent one. While on the one hand his mother encouraged his literary pursuits as a writer, she was not the most emotionally nurturing of mothers and could be quite emotionally distant.
Upon leaving school his hope was to become a professional writer and poet, but he only had rather mixed success. Inspired by Bob Dylan, he decided to use his poetic skills in a new way, as a singer/songwriter. And very quickly his musical career began to take off.
Leonard Cohen however had some of his own struggles in life, especially in his relationships with women. Although he craved female company and female attention, he found he could not commit himself in a relationship. Like his mother he was quite emotionally ambivalent in his relationships and could as a result be quite uncaring and even emotionally abusive at times.
Leonard Cohen also struggled with depression for a large part of his life and it seems it was only in his later years that this depression began to lift. He described depression as being a constant backdrop to his life and being like an ocean that he swam in on a daily basis.
Leonard Cohen also had a deeply religious side to himself. He never abandoned his Jewish faith, remaining a practising Jew for his whole life.
But he was also a religious seeker beyond the boundaries of Judaism. He had a deep appreciation for other faiths and especially Christianity as well as Zen Buddhism and the spiritual traditions of India. Regarding the person of Jesus, in an interview he once said:
"I'm very fond of Jesus Christ. He may be the most beautiful guy who walked the face of this earth. Any guy who says 'Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek' has got to be a figure of unparalleled generosity and insight and madness... A man who declared himself to stand among the thieves, the prostitutes and the homeless. His position cannot be comprehended. It is an inhuman generosity. A generosity that would overthrow the world if it was embraced because nothing would weather that compassion.”
It is difficult to know if it was a mid or even a late-life crisis, but in the 1990’s, in his 60’s, Leonard Cohen became a Zen monk, and for almost 6 years lived in a Zen monastery. He took on the Japanese name Jikan, which means “Silent One” immersing himself in Zen Buddhist practice, which included silent meditation, mindfulness, and rigorous and disciplined daily routines and spiritual exercises.
He was clearly searching for something. Perhaps hoping to resolve his own inner conflicts and brokenness, perhaps aware of his own propensity for inflicting pain on the people he loved? Perhaps seeking a spiritual enlightenment experience to help himself escape from himself or at least the sea of depression in which he swam. But after almost 6 years of living a rigorous and disciplined life as a Zen monk, he left the monastery, coming to the conclusion that he had no gift for spiritual matters.
I get the sense that his leaving the monastery was in a sense a coming to terms with his own imperfection, an acceptance that he was imperfect and that he didn’t have the capacity within himself to change this. This is actually quite a profound insight. It takes enormous courage to admit one’s faults and imperfections to admit that we are not the people we would hope or aspire to be. It bring with it a greater sense of humility as well as a greater sense of softness and compassion towards other people’s frailties and imperfections.
And it would seem that somehow accepting life as it is with all its imperfections and perhaps accepting himself with his imperfections began to bring a change in him that enabled the depression in his life to begin to lift in the years that followed and for him to begin to experience a little more of the joy in life, a greater sense of a light and a love at the heart of life that was embracing him.
And that brings us back to the song Anthem which expresses in a very poetic way something of his own struggles of living as an imperfect person in an imperfect world and yet still finding in the midst of that imperfection a light and a beauty shining through:
Firstly the opening lines of the opening verse we see that this is a song of hope and redemption:
The birds, they sang
At the break of day
I heard them say
Don't dwell on what
Has passed away
Or what is yet to be…
Every day, every morning with the dawning of the sun and with first chirping of the birds we hear an invitation to start over, to make a new beginning.
Don’t dwell on what/has passed away or what is yet to be.
For many of us the past especially can weigh over us like a heavy burden: Things we should have done but didn’t do, things we did do, that we shouldn’t have done. And I guess that it is one of the gifts that people found in the presence of Christ in the Gospels. Those who encountered Jesus and who were aware of their own imperfections found in his presence a warmth and a light and a compassion in which they found an invitation and an opportunity to make a new start, a new beginning.
Secondly, in the song we read the opening line of the chorus: Ring the bells that still can ring. Despite living in an imperfect world of war, deceit and conflict, Leonard Cohen affirms that there is still beauty to be found. In the midst of the imperfection, he perceives that the sacredness of life still exists. And so we hear the invitation… ring the bells that still can ring.
We can live our lives cursing the darkness or we can light a candle. We can live our lives bemoaning the imperfection around us and in other people, in the government, in ourselves, or we can ring the bells that still can ring.
Thirdly, the line that follows: Forget your perfect offering. In other words, there is no such thing as a perfect offering. None of us are capable of true perfection while living in this world. As Jesus said, there is only One who is Good... and that is God, the Most High, the Divine Mystery at the heart of life. And so we offer what we can to others, to God, to life. We do what we can, as best we can, and we leave the rest to God to that Higher Wisdom, that Higher Power, that Greater Love that is our Origin and Source.
Fourthly, “There’s a crack, there’s a crack, that’s where the light gets in…” When we can’t see or admit our faults, we become defensive at the first sign of criticism. But when we are able to admit our faults and imperfections, Divine grace is able to shine through us. We can laugh at ourselves and not take ourselves quite so seriously. We can catch ourselves as we are making our mistakes. We can quickly admit it and offer our apologies. We can deal more graciously with other people’s faults and imperfections. In 2 Corinthians 4:7-9 Paul writes that we each have the treasure of God’s life within us, but it is held in jars of clay. This jar of our earthly human life is imperfect and fragile, but still capable of allowing the treasure within to shine through.
And this reminds me of the Japanese art of kintsugi. It is the art of taking broken pieces of pottery and ceramics and putting them back together again. But in putting broken pottery and ceramics together again, kintsugi artists don’t try to hide or cover over the cracks. Instead, they accentuate the cracks. They make the cracks a feature of what becomes a new work of art. And the way they do that is to line the cracks with with gold plating. In the process, they take something that most people would discard, thrown away on the rubbish dump as seemingly worthless, and then transform it into an incredibly valuable, unique and beautiful work of art.
That I believe is the promise expressed in Leonard Cohen’s song. It is also the promise of the Divine Grace we encounter in Christ. When we bring our brokenness and allow the Divine Wisdom and Compassion to shine upon it, so we can become a new creation, a new piece of art. It is not that the cracks and the imperfections are erased and done away or carefully tucked away and hidden. Rather as we present them with openess as our imperfect offering, so God, the Goodness at the Heart of Life, through the working of great compassion within us, can line our broken places and our cracks with the gold of Divine love becoming places of unexpected beauty and where the Light and Grace of the Divine can now shine through. Amen.
SONG & LYRICS BELOW
Everything I Own - A reflection on the song by Bread (David Gates), by Brian Moodie
(Matthew 13:44-46, Mark 9:2-8, Psalm 91:1-2)
Today we come to explore another well know song from the past, called “Everything I own”. The Song was first released in 1972 by Bread. It very quickly climbed to the top of the charts in the US and other parts of the world, but only reached number 32 in the UK. It was however redone in 1974 by the Jamaican Reggae artist Ken Boothe and very quickly reached number 1 in the UK charts as a result.
The Song has been covered by numerous artists since then including UK artists Rod Stewart and Boy George.
The song is mostly interpreted to be about romance and a broken relationship. It appears straightforward: boy loses the love of his life, expresses deep regret, longs for her return. But, there is a lot more to the song than that.
The intention of David Gates was in fact much more specific when he first wrote it. In an interview after the song became a hit, he revealed that in fact the song was written in memory of his father who had died in 1963 before David Gates had achieved success in his musical career with the band Bread.
According to the book 1000 UK No. 1 Hits by Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh, at his father's funeral, a friend took David Gates aside and said, "Your dad was so proud of what you were doing." David agreed saying, "My success would have been so special to him as he was my greatest influence.”
And so it was that the song 'Everything I Own' came to be written and recorded in honour of his father. The songs lyrics take on a whole new meaning when read or listened to in light of this:
You sheltered me from harm
Kept me warm, kept me warm
You gave my life to me
Set me free, set me free
The finest years I ever knew
Were all the years I had with you
And I would give anything I own
Would give up my life, my heart, my home
I would give everything I own
Just to have you back again
You taught me how to love
What it's of, what it's of
You never said too much
But still you showed the way
And I knew from watching you
Nobody else could ever know
The part of me that can't let go
And I would give anything I own
Would give up my life, my heart, my home
I would give everything I own
Just to have you back again
Is there someone you know
You're loving them so
But taking them all for granted?
You may lose them one day
Someone takes them away
And they don't hear the words
You long to say
I would give anything I own
Would give up my life, my heart, my home
I would give everything I own
Just to have you back again
Just to touch you once again
As for the title of the song, this also had a very specific reference, this time to his Mother. David Gates shared that before his father died and before David had any real musical success, when he was still struggling financially, he had sent an orchid to his mother for her birthday at a time when he could barely afford it. Writing back to David, his father told him just how much his mother appreciated the gift and that she had said that he could have “anything she owned” in return for his gift to her.
And so despite the fact that the song is often interpreted as a romantic love song about loved found and lost the song is in fact a very personal expression of David Gate’s love and affection for both his Father and his Mother.
It is a song that has some beautiful and moving themes:
It is a song of gratitude – gratitude for the memories of his father (and clearly also of his mother). Gratitude for what his father had taught him about love, even though his father was clearly a man of few words.
It is a song that expresses people’s experiences of grief, battling to let go, experiences of regret wishing he had spoken words to his father that he didn’t get to say.
It expresses the deep longing to be with his father again and to touch him once again. The feeling like he would be willing to give up everything he owned in order to see his father again. Suddenly in the light of death, what is truly valuable can be clearly seen.
These are universal experiences of love, grief and loss that apply to all manner of relationships.
There are other themes that go beyond just the experience of grief:
The first is the experience of finding a place of solace and shelter in life. “You sheltered me from harm… kept me warm, kept me warm”. This reminds us of all thing things, people and places where we find a safe space, a place of belonging, a place of peace, a place of refuge where we feel safe, warm, held, a place where we can let our guard down and just be ourselves without worry or concern for being judged.
The second experience in this song that goes beyond simply the realm of grief and loss, is the idea that there are things in this life that are worth more than the things we own. “...And I would give anything I own, Would give up my life, my heart, my home...”
And in a way this was an essential part of the message of Jesus, that there are treasures in life that are greater than anything you can own, greater than your life or your home.
Jesus spoke of a realm in which God could be known and encountered, that could become for us a true shelter, a true place of inner security, a place within the human heart that can’t be touched by impermanence of this fragile world in which we live where moth and rust eat away and where there is always the danger of thieves breaking in and stealing. There is a realm that is more steadfast and trust-worthy than the outward world of form. It is the realm of the spirit, the formless in which we discover what the Buddha called the deathless, that dimension of life that is immortal never born and never dying, eternal, serene, enduring, tranquil, always at peace: the realm of the Divine… that is also our true nature. In English we translate this Realm of the Divine, that Jesus spoke of as the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of heaven.
The apostle Paul for all his faults and ragged edges had also touched this realm of the Kingdom of God, or rather, it had touched him. Of this realm of the Spirit he said: For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking (in other words, not about outward pleasures in the world of form), but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, in other words about living in alignment with the Divine (that which is ultimately true and real) that brings peace and joy.
Jesus said that to find this realm of God this Kingdom of Heaven that resides within, is to find the greatest treasure of all. When we have found it we will be willing to give up everything else we have for it.
He describes it like a treasure in a field Matthew 13:44-46. The field in the parable is the field of the heart. When we find this treasure within us we find we have discovered something that is even more valuable than life itself, more valuable than all the outward things in the world of form. This treasure is our true nature the spark of the Divine, or the Spirit of God within. Most of us are unaware of this hidden treasure is within us. At other times we have an intuition that it is there, but we haven’t dug deep enough yet to discover it fully or to experience this treasure in its fullness.
And so this song, which speaks of the very human emotions and experiences we all have, especially around grief and loss, is also a song that invites us to discover that which transcends, and goes beyond our normal human experiences. It invites us to find that deeper love at the heart of the Universe that is our true shelter. It invites us to discover the hidden spiritual treasure that resides within each of us that is worth more than anything we own in this fragile world of change and impermanence.
Getting back to the theme of grief in this song.
For the last two hundred years or more, as westerners we have been schooled more and more in what can be referred to a scientific materialism based primarily on Newtonian Physics. Science would tell us that the only things that are real are things that can be measured and weighed. Because the world of the spirit, the inner life cannot be measured and weighed, even though many of us still come to church, we live with this horrible sense that we are actually just a body. The body is the only thing that is truly real from this perspective. And so when we are faced with death it feels like death is the annihilation of life. We feel that the death of our loved ones is the end of their existence which magnifies our grief a hundred or thousand fold.
But what if the perspective of popular scientific materialism, because it focuses on a very limited dimension of our existence has in fact become a lie, a lie, not because science is untrue, but because it hasn’t told us the whole truth of our existence. In fact Quantum Physics is beginning to open new fields of dialogue between science and spirituality as it discovers more and more that what we think of as our physical bodies is in fact just energy vibrating at a very low frequency. The more you dive into the world of physical matter with a microscope, the less and less physical it is.
What if we and our loved ones are far more than just our bodies. What if we are not physical beings trying to have a spiritual experience, what if we are in fact spiritual beings who for a short time have chosen to have a physical experience, and that when we die we are simply taking off a costume, an outer garment and that beneath it we will discover that all of us are in fact beings of light and love who have simply forgotten who we and our loved ones really are. That actually, we are all immortal that our loved ones who have passed away are not really gone at all, but simply live in another dimension that we cannot see with our physical sight and that there is in fact no question that we will see them again in that more subtle realm of light, love and peace.
What if the story of the transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17:1-9,, Luke 9:28-36) for example was not meant to show Jesus as someone different and superior to us? What if the story of the transfiguration is actually meant to help to reveal to us our true nature, that we are not first and foremost human beings, that in fact we are first and foremost spiritual beings, beings of light and love who are temporarily experiencing the wonder and gift and challenges of living life in the flesh.
But in the meantime, we are here on earth having our human experiences that enable us to discover and experience life in a different way. And in while this world of physicality, this world of form we continue to see as though through a glass darkly, then, when the veil is removed, we will see each other face to face. For we will have come home to our true home and discovered our true shelter under the shadow of the Wings of the Divine (Psalm 91:1-2). Amen.
Imagine - A Reflection
Today’s song is a little more controversial than last weeks song by Simon and Garfunkel. But it is a song worth reflecting on because according to the latest Watch and Listen magazine poll from the 9th July 2023, John Lennon 1971's hit Imagine is now considered to be the Greatest Song in the History of Music. I guess different polls give different results, but it certainly shows that it has been hugely popular and has inspired people all over the world.
Growing up as a teenager, I couldn’t help being drawn to the simplicity and beauty of the song… but I was also a little conflicted about it. As a fervent young Christian should I have been enjoying it at all when it’s lyrics appeared to be anti-religion and seemingly promoting an idealistic atheism.
Before we examine the song itself, the background story to the song is quite interesting in itself.
While John Lennon took full credit for writing the song for almost 10 years after it was first released, a year or so before his death he admitted that his wife Yoko Ono should really have been credited as the co-writer of the song because some of the lyrics had in fact been inspired by some of her poetry that went back as early as 1964. For all the idealism expressed in the song, he had to admit 9 years later that in “...those days I was a bit more selfish, a bit more macho, and I sort of omitted to mention her contribution”. It is another example in history of a man taking credit for something where at least part of the credit belonged to a woman.
Another source of inspiration for the song was interestingly a Christian book on prayer that was given to John Lennon by Dick Gregory an American comedian, civil rights leader. In an interview with David Sheff, John Lennon spoke of how in that prayer book he was quite taken with the concept of what he calls ‘positive prayer’, for example, that if you can imagine something you can bring it into being, if you can imagine a world at peace…. then it can be true.
That is quite a powerful statement. It reminds us of the power of imagination. Before anything can become a reality in this world, it begins as an idea in the imagination of someone. What if we had to all begin to imagine a world at peace with itself? That in a sense is the first step in what might actually be a long and hard journey to making it a reality… but if it is going to begin anywhere, it first has to become a seed in the imagination.
In the 1800’s in Victorian England, it took inspired Christians to imagine a Britain without poverty, to begin to advocate for political and economic changes that would help to make that vision a reality. Without the possibility having been planted as a seed in some-one’s mind, (positive imagination one could call it), the kind of grinding poverty that Charles Dickens wrote about might still be a part of life in the United Kingdom today. Social change begins with an imagining of how life might be different?
And that is what John Lennon seeks to do in his song “Imagine”… He invites the listener to imagine with him a world living in peace and harmony. It is filled with a sense of idealism and a sense that this could actually be achieved if enough people are able to imagine it with him.
And I think that this is a large part of the power of the song – it taps into a universal human longing for a life of greater peace and harmony in this world. In the depths of almost every human heart, there is a longing for some kind of ideal world where things are peaceful and harmonious.
There is almost something religious about this longing. We long for peace… Peace on earth and good will amongst humanity.
And that is perhaps one of the ironies about John Lennon’s song “Imagine”… it imagines a world without religion, and yet there is almost something religious about his idealism. In fact some of the imagery in the song could be said to be almost thoroughly Biblical echoing ideas expressed in book of Revelation,, where the author in the last few chapters likewise invites us to imagine a world made new, a new creation.
The parallels are striking:
Firstly, in Revelation, the final vision is not of people getting beameded up to heaven, but rather a vision of heaven coming crashing down to earth, heaven and earth somehow becoming one in a cosmic marriage. In the final vision of Revelation, ironically, it also seems that there is a doing away with religion, for the author of Revelation sees a new creation in which there is no temple… The Divine Presence is everywhere and so there is no need for a Temple. In other words, no need for religion.
Secondly, in Revelation, the final vision is also of a new creation in which the boundaries and borders between people have been erased. It is a vision of people coming from all corners of the earth, from different nations and countries and all living in a new harmony with one another. In the New Jerusalem the city gates are left open for people to come and go… no border posts.
Thirdly, John Lennon imagines a world where people are free from their attachments to possessions suggesting the people of the world living lives of greater simplicity in which everyone has free access to the necessities of life. This is echoed in Revelation with the idea that the fountain of the water of life is freely available to anyone who thirsts. People’s needs are freely met.
For anyone who has read the Gospels with any degree of seriousness one can see echoes of these themes in the life and teaching of Jesus. Jesus repeatedly calls his followers to a life of greater simplicity rather than living for the accumulation of possessions. He calls us to be rich in spirit rather than having large back accounts. Jesus, by his own actions, also demonstrates a life lived in which the divisions caused by race and nationality are transcended. He crosses the boundaries that keep Jews separated from Samaritans and Gentiles. All people appear to have equal value in Jesus eyes, and not just the people from his own Jewish nation.
And so, it is quite ironic that John’s Lennon’s vision of a world living in peace and harmony, a world without religion, without borders and without materialism or the hoarding of unnecessary stuff is in fact a vision that is in fact echoed in various parts of Scripture… The Bible also invites us to Imagine, to imagine a new heaven and a new earth.
What are perhaps some of the difficulties with John Lennon’s song -
Firstly, the song gives the impression that John Lennon was advocating and idealistic atheism...
Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us, only sky
But the truth is that John Lennon was not an atheist. Just two quotes can help to clear that up:
John Lennon said: “I believe in God, but not as one thing, not as an old man in the sky. I believe that what people call God is something in all of us. I believe that what Jesus and Mohammed and Buddha and all the rest said was right. It's just that the translations have gone wrong.
He also said: “Christ said, "The Kingdom of Heaven is within you." ...We all have everything within us and the Kingdom of Heaven is nigh and within us, and if you look hard enough you'll see it.”
And so John Lennon was not anti-God. In truth he was in fact rejecting is an outdated world view. In a pre-scientific world, the idea of God living up there somewhere beyond the sky was an acceptable and an understandable idea. For people today, schooled in Newtonian physics and having a faint conception of Quantum Physics, this is a view of God that makes very little sense to many people today. I think it is one of the reasons that many people no longer see value in coming to church. The churches conceptions of God or the Divine as up there as and old man sitting somewhere up there above the sky just doesn’t connect with a lot of people any-more. But there are other conceptions of God or the Divine that can make more sense to modern people. For example the idea that God is the very Wisdom and Intelligence of Life itself and that to live in harmony and in relationship to the Divine is in fact to live in harmony with the Wisdom and Intelligence of Life itself.
The conception of a hell below us where God condemns people to an eternity of suffering is another concept that many modern secular people cannot relate to any-more and in fact find repulsive. If a human parent couldn’t conceive of throwing their own child into a lake of burning sulphur how on earth are we to believe that God could do such a horrendous and barbaric thing and on top of that, keep people in that state of suffering for all eternity. To paraphrase words of Jesus, if we as human beings, as self-serving as we are know how to give good gifts to our children how and why do we believe that God’s love is less than that of imperfect human beings.
Is it possible that the conception of God that John Lennon rejects in this song might well be a conception of God that we too might do well to consider rejecting as well, because there are in fact better and more inspiring conceptions of God or the Divine that are not simply projections of our frail imperfect humanity onto some Big Controlling Man in the Sky.
Secondly, John Lennon said he was not actually anti-religion but in this song I think he may have expressed a one-sided view of organised religion. It is true that over many centuries, religion has at times been divisive, and responsible for many terrible atrocities, and this includes all the major religions.
While fundamentalist religions of various creeds have been responsible for fuelling many atrocities and conflicts in the world over the centuries, it is also true that at other times, religion has been the inspiration and impetus behind some of the greatest acts of love and compassion, the establishment of hospitals and schools and also the inspiration behind eradicating poverty and creating more just and equal societies. The problem is not religion per se, but what direction our religion motivates people… CS Lewis believed that religion could either make us much worse than we already are, or make us much better than we are… In what direction is our religion taking us? Is it making us more hard-nosed and bigotted or is it making us more humble, open, kind and compassionate?
Those who believe that religion is the source of all the evil in the world, forget that the atheist states of Communist Russia under Stalin, and Communist China under Mao Zedong were responsible for far more deaths than perhaps all the religious wars of Europe combined. Atheism has it’s own dark shadow that is not always acknowledged by those who espouse it as the saviour of the world.
But there is also a realism that needs to temper our idealism. John Lennon gives the impression that if we just did away with countries and religion everyone would suddenly live in peace. It is a naive view that doesn’t take into account that not everyone across the world shares the same values and that cultural differences can even at the best of times be a challenge to navigate quite apart from the selfishness that often lurks within most human hearts. Sometimes it is difficult enough just getting along with one’s family members with whom we hold much more in common.
But admitting the reality of our cultural and national differences shouldn’t mean that we give up on the idea of trying to foster greater understanding and co-operation between different people. It is right that we be inspired by John Lennon’s vision of a world living in peace and harmony, just as we should be inspired by St Paul’s statement that in Christ there is no more Jew or Gentile… but our idealism needs also to be held in dialogue with the reality of the world in which we live.
In the book of Revelation, the new earth is only possible after the people have passed through the purifying fire of Divine Love, and I believe that God still has some work to do on all of us yet! A new earth is not going to be possible without the purifying of people’s hearts and minds, and this is spiritual work.
But by the same token, we should not allow the reality of our human imperfections to make us give up completely on the vision of a world of peace and harmony. The word needs a few idealists and dreamers to help us imagine a better world, which is why, for all its imperfections, I personally still find John Lennon’s song inspiring. I don’t take all its phrases at face value, but I still value they way it encourages me to play my part in building a world that is a little more loving, a little more peaceful and a little more harmonious. It might be said that Jesus was a bit of a dreamer too when he taught us to pray: “Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” Your Kingdom of Love, Joy and Peace and sharing come, here on earth. Amen.
The Sound of Silence
Today I would like to explore the lyrics and the meaning of the Simon and Garfunkel song “Sounds of Silence”
The story of the song is quite fascinating. It was first recorded in 1964 by Simon and Garfunkel, but the song and the album was initially a commercial failure, which led to Simon and Garfunkel disbanding and going their separate ways in that same year.
The following year, the song’s producer, Tom Wilson decided to give the song a bit of a revamp, and without the knowledge of Simon and Garfunkel he remixed the song, adding electric instrument and drums to the original. It was released as a single in September 1965, and by January 1966 it had become a number 1 hit in the USA and soon after all around the world.
Very quickly, Simon and Garfunkel got back together as a duo to record their second album to capitalise on this unexpected success. It is quite something to think that almost 60 years later the song is still listened to by millions of people all around the world on radio stations and over the internet.
What is it about the Sounds of Silence that has helped it to remain such a success over this period :
The answer list in the fact that it touches on universal human experiences and emotions. :
1. The experience of times of darkness coming over us, when life doesn’t go our away, or experiences of grief and sadness, it is all summed up in those simple words: Hello Darkness my Old Friend… there is almost something Biblical about that phrase. It is almost a paraphrase of Psalm 88:18 “Darkness is my only companion”.
2. Similarly we all have experienced the Sound of Silence… in our dark times when we cry out looking for answers, often it feels like we are met with a wall of silence. Again we see this experience reflected by the psalmist in Psalm 88:13-14
But I cry to you for help, Lord;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
Why, Lord, do you reject me
and hide your face from me?
In the face of his cries, it seems like God is silent.
3. Thirdly, the song has a melancholic feel about it that touches on our universal experiences of loneliness… we reach out sometimes, but we battle to connect with those around us.
4. Fourthly, in the lyrics there are religious allusions, which means that the song appeals to our deeper human longings for meaning and purpose.
I think often when we listen to popular music we listen in an impressionistic way… we don’t always know all the lyrics. It is often the feel of the song, and particular phrases that speak to us, but we don’t always explore the song lyrics in their totality. And so today I would like to spend a few minutes exploring a possible meaning of the song as a whole. This is not the definitive guide to the song, but ultimately an interpretation as would often be the case even with many of our interpretations of Scripture.
And so, reading through the lyrics as a whole, what might the meaning be of “The Sounds of Silence”?
Like many folk songs of the 1960’s it would seem that the lyrics of the song are really a form of social commentary. The post war period of the 1950’s and early 60’s was a period of rapid change including social change and one of the biggest changes of the period was the wide-spread availbility and use of Television in the UK and the USA. One website suggests that the Sounds of Silence is a warning of the social isolationism that was beginning to take place with the advent of television.
With the advent of television, rather than getting out and interacting with other people, there was an increasing trend of people simply staying at home to be entertained by their televisions.
And so in the opening verse of the lyrics, we find Simon and Garfunkel speaking almost in religious language speak of having seen a vision, or perhaps a deep insight being implanted in their brains… an insight and a vision that exposes the reality in which many people had begun to live.
It is a vision that leaves the writer restless and disturbed and the Sounds of Silence which is heard appears to be the silence of emptiness, loneliness and perhaps even meaninglessness.
And the moment of insight comes upon being confronted by the flash of a neon light. The reference to a neon light is significant, firstly because this was relatively new technology that had begun to proliferate in the post war period. It provided light, but there is also something quite un-natural about neon lighting. Also significantly, neon lighting formed the basis of the television set and the way images were projected in the tube of an early television.
It would seem that the author’s see the advent of this new technology as a catalyst for this increasing social isolationism. In the naked light of of this vision, the author see’s thousands upon thousands of people becoming more and more estranged from one another -
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
pwith no-one daring to disturb the sound of silence that was being created.
They see this social isolationism growing like a cancer in society, and speaking out like prophets trying to wake people out of their spiritual lethargy the authors make an appeal to try and rescue those lost in the sounds of silence:
In verse 4 “Hear my words that I might teach you. Take my arms that I might reach you”.
But the words of the author fall like silent raindrops and simply echoe in the wells of silence. Instead of responding to the call the author writes that the people continue to bow and pray to the neon god they have made.
I was rather intrigued with the last phrase of the song: And the sign flashed out it’s warning in the words that it was forming. And the sign said: “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls, and whispered in the sound of silence”.
What are the words written on subway walls: Adverts… is it possible that the song is commenting how modern society from the mid-20th century has increasingly turned away from the words of true prophets who speak with true wisdom, and have traded those words of ancient wisdom for the superficial wisdom of commercial advertising which invite us to constantly feed our more superficial appetites but leave the soul empty and hungry.
All in all, the song paints a fairly desperate and bleak picture of modern industrialised society, and I can’t help but think there was something quite prophetic about the song. A few weeks ago I flipped over the Al Jazeera news channel to get a different and perhaps a wider perspective on world events, and instead of the news they were airing a half hour documentary entitled: An Epidemic of Loneliness. The show was exploring the fact that in recent years people living in modern industrialised societies are indeed becoming increasingly lonely and disconnected from each other. On the documentry they highlighted that in the past two years there has been a dramatic spike in the number of people Googling the question: How to make Friends? It is quite fascinating. At a time when social media has grown bigger than ever before, connecting more and more people, at the same time, many people are feeling more and more isolated and lonely. And at the same time, traditional places of community like churches and other social clubs have begun to steadily decline. The increase in our technology, to which we often bow down and pray as the saviour of all of humanities problems has in many ways created many of the very problems we are trying to solve.
And all the while, from a Christian or a spiritual perspective the thing that all of us a really looking for is love and a sense of belonging. From a Christian perspective, it could be said that the essence of our human existence is that we were made by Love, in love and for love. It is in love that we find our true fulfilment in life. Love is what brings colour and warmth to our hearts. In the words of Jesus it could be said that love is like the salt that brings out the true flavour life. Without love there is just emptiness, isolation and disconnection. One could say, the sound of an empty silence.
It raises the question: How can we make sure that our churches are places of loving connection? That is the only way we are really going to survive? When people come to church do they feel connected and do they have a sense of belonging?
I want to close with a final reflection on the word Silence. In the song, Silence is seen in a negative light, and indeed when we speak of the silence of disconnection and isolation, then silence can indeed be a negative experience.
But from a religious and spiritual perspective, the Sound of Silence can also be a profoundly positive experience. The Psalmist suggests that it is in silence and stillness that we can truly come to know G-d, the Great Spirit of Love that connects us all to each other. Be Still and Know that I am God (Psalm 46:10). It is in the sound of the still small voice that we hear the whispers of God’s love. It is as we drop beneath the incessant chatter of our internal dialogue of constant opinions and judgements, that we experience the subtle realm of God’s love and joy at the depth of our beings. For as Jesus reminds us: The Kingdom of God is within you, the subtle and gentle realm of God’s love, peace and joy reside in the stillness of our own hearts, within the Sounds of Silence. Amen.
John 2:1-12 Nurturing Joy
I grew up with the Narnia books of C.S. Lewis. When I was young I have vivid memories of my father reading a few pages of the Narnia stories to me and my older brother in bed before the lights were turned out. CS Lewis has often been described as one of the greatest Christian writers of the 20th century. But he was not always a Christian. When he first went to study at Oxford University in 1916, he was a recent convert to atheism. But it proved to be a dead-end for him. Fifteen years later —by then an Oxford scholar in English literature— he abandoned his atheism and re-embraced Christianity. He describes his conversion back to Christianity with the words: Surprised by Joy. His Christian faith brought a joy to his life that had clearly been missing. I find it interesting that a number of years later, when he finally married, the person he married was called Joy.
Now here in Northern Ireland and across these Isles, we are currently in Wedding Season. And so today we consider a text from John’s Gospel that might be appropriate for Northern Ireland’s Wedding Season and also appropriate as we consider the theme of joy.
John’s Gospel is a very different Gospel to Matthew, Mark and Luke which for anyone who has read them even fairly superficially will recognize they are clearly related. They are sometimes called the synoptic Gospels a word which means “to see together” because they have a lot in common. The biggest thing that they have in common is in fact Mark’s Gospel. Both Matthew and Luke have used large parts of Mark’s Gospel almost word for word, in some parts changing and editing it, and in other parts adding completely new material. Both Matthew and Luke are expanded versions of Mark’s Gospel.
But John’s Gospel has a very different structure to it. Although it is clear that he is writing about the same Jesus the whole structure and feel of John’s Gospel is different. John’s Gospel is quite poetic and symbolic. It’s structure is designed around what the author calls 7 Signs, miracle stories that are meant to point beyond themselves to a deeper symbolic meaning. John’s Gospel also contains what are called the seven “I am” sayings of Jesus... I am the bread of life... I am the light of the world... I am the good shepherd... I am the Resurrection and the life...
In John’s Gospel, the first of the signs is the story of the Wedding at Cana. Now just as a signpost on the road points beyond itself. A sign with the name Belfast on it points beyond it to the city of Belfast. In the same way, the story of the Wedding at Cana is meant to point beyond itself to something deeper. In other words, I believe that it is meant to be interpreted symbolically as pointing beyond itself. It is a Sign of something of greater and deeper significance.
The first thing to take note of is that this is a wedding banquet.
Wedding banquets play a significant role in the New Testament. Jesus tells a number of parables about wedding banquets. In addition, Jesus is also called the bridegroom in Mark’s Gospel. At the end of the book of Revelation, the return of Christ is pictured as a wedding. The promise of these passages is that when God brings history to it’s final conclusion, it will be like a wedding banquet. In other words, the whole goal and purpose of history is that it should culminate in a joyful wedding feast. The promise of the spiritual journey is the invitation to be part of a wedding celebration.
And so, the ancient writers, reflecting on the life of Christ, believed that God’s ultimate purpose for us as human beings is a life of joy. In this regard C.S. Lewis once wrote that Joy is the serious business of heaven.
This is reflected in another symbol in the story: the symbol of wine. In the symbolic world of the Hebrews, wine was a symbol of joy. And in this story, significantly, the wine has run out. The joy is gone. While God’s purpose for humanity is joy, this story suggests a situation in which the wine of life, or the joy is no longer there. The joy has somehow run dry.
Another significant detail in the story are the 6 stone water jars used for ritual washing. The number is significant. The number 7 in Jewish thinking was a symbol for completeness and wholeness. The number 6, a symbol for that which is incomplete or has something missing, also a symbol for humanity who were created on the 6th day.
In addition, these 6 stone water jars are the type used for Jewish ceremonial washing. In the centuries leading up to the time of Jesus, Jewish religion had become more and more rule based. It’s whole emphasis had come to revolve around ritual cleanliness and purity. It had become obsessed with ritual rule keeping. These six stone water jars represent what Jewish religion had become. A legalistic, rule based, purity obsessed religion. One could say, a religion emphasizing man made rules and ceremonies with something missing... with no joy.
Jesus comes to to a Jewish religion that had lost its way in man-made ceremonial laws and man-made rituals, and he comes to transform it. To breathe new life into it. To restore it to God’s original intention as something that should bring life and joy, turning the water of ceremonial purity laws into the wine of God’s joy.
How sad it is that where Jesus came to bring renewal, new life, new purpose, new joy, Christianity, the religion that bares Jesus name has not always been good at nurturing joy. Like the Judaism of Jesus day, Christianity has sometimes got so caught up in a legalism and rules that it has stifled any true joy.
This is vividly portrayed in the 1987 film Babette’s feast. The film is set in a Lutheran community in Denmark in 1800’s, a community, that much like 1st century Judaism, had become austere, legalistic, joyless. The film, portrays how a ‘blow-in’ to the town, begins to help the townsfolk to get in touch with a sense of joy again as she prepares a feast, and invites the whole town to come. It sounds a little bit like one of Jesus’ parables. There are some in the town who are suspicious, but as the feast unfolds, so this austere, rigid community of people begin to loosen up, and slowly but surely they begin to find themselves actually enjoying themselves for the first time, seemingly, in a long long time.
It is very easy for religion to lapse into joylessness.
My mom describes how she grew up in a church environment that at times was quite constrictive, where sometimes the joy of life was squeezed out. Within the Salvation Army that she grew up in, dancing was a sin, a real no-no. They also weren’t supposed to go to the cinema. But she and her sisters would sneak in hopefully undetected by anyone else from the Salvation Army corps seeing them.
I get the sense that there is a legalism that is creeping back into some sectors of church life and that there might be some denominations that continue to see it as part of their responsibility to limit peoples joy rather than nurturing it.
If Christianity is meant to be a religion of love, where love is at it’s heart, then it should also be a religion of joy, because where love is truly present, there will also be joy.
I remember watching a documentary on the life of Mother Teresa. In it, one of the sisters in her order was interviewed. She says that on one occasion she had woken up feeling very down, like a cloud of depression had blown over her. Somehow for her the joy of life had left her. Mother Teresa told her on that day, she should not go out and serve the poor on the streets, because it was important in serving others, and especially in serving the poor, that she should be sharing her joy with them. If she wasn’t feeling joy, then it was better for her not to go and serve the poor. And so she was given some time off so that she could rest and so get back in touch with a sense of joy, before she would go out again to serve the poor.
It is a helpful little story to remind us how important joy is. Joy is important, not only for ourselves, but also that we might share it with others. If there is no joy in our lives, then it should be a little alarm bell that something is wrong, something important is missing.
When the joy of life has run out, it is an important moment to re-evaluate our lives, to make changes, to examine closely what it is that is sapping you of joy, and what is it that we need to do to help us to feel alive again, to help us connect again with a sense of joy.
May you bring to God those places in your life where it feels like the joy has begun to run out, those stone water jars of drudgery and joylessness may be touched with God’s grace and transformed into the wine of God’s joy.
Joy does not just happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every single day – Henri Nouwen
There are souls in this world who have the gift of finding joy everywhere, and leaving it behind them when they go - Frederick William Faber
What is the most courageous thing you have ever done?
Last week I spoke of my experience climbing up 5 chain ladders up a vertical slope to get to the top of the Drakensberg mountains in South Africa and how it was one of the scariest things I have ever done. I guess it took some courage to do that? Maybe it was foolishness. I was helping on a school trip and so after seeing a bunch of 11 and 12 year olds climb up ahead of me I didn’t really feel as one of the adult leaders that I could back out at that point.
But perhaps even more than that experience, I think that stepping down as a Methodist minister and spending a year and a half at a Buddhist retreat centre was probably the most scary thing I have done. Giving up the financial security of being in the church. If meant stepping out into the unknown. It meant giving up a familiar role. Going beyond social expectations. It was extremely difficult to explain to previous congregation members and family why Wendy and I were doing what we were doing? For someone who likes to play within the rules and doesn’t like to rock the boat or colour out of the lines of life, it took an enormous amount of courage to do. And looking back, I am very grateful that I did. I learnt a lot about myself in those 18 months. If I hadn’t done it I am not so sure I would have been able to go back into full-time ministry a few years later with a greater depth of insight into myself and my own faith.
In our passage today we encounter a number of characters and each in their own way are engaged in a variety of acts of courage.
First we encounter Matthew. His act of courage comes as he responds to the call of Jesus to follow him. He leaves all that is familiar behind him, leaving a familiar comfortable life style. In leaving everything behind to follow Jesus, Matthew leaves behind also his wealth and financial security. He gives his up financial status as a wealthy tax collector, to embark on a journey into the unknown with a religious teacher who was already beginning to receive some opposition. For Matthew this was surely an act of enormous courage.
Franklin D. Roosevelt once said that "Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear."
To leave behind his life of financial comfort and security must have been a fearful thing for Matthew the Tax collector. But perhaps in that moment he realised that there was something more important going on here than his fear that gave him the courage to do it.
In the story, Matthew could symbolize for us the external self, the part of us entangled in the pursuits of material wealth and societal expectations. Like Matthew, we often find ourselves ensnared in the trappings of worldly desires, fixated on amassing possessions and seeking approval from others. But they don’t answer the deeper needs of the soul and of our deeper longing for meaning, purpose, belonging and inner fulfilment.
And so for Matthew it takes an act of courage to leave everything behind in order to pursue a life of deeper meaning and fulfilment. It was a risk, but perhaps a risk he thought was worth taking rather than sitting in the tax collectors booth for the rest of his life.
Next in the story we encounter the Synagogue Ruler. He is a man of status and good standing in the community, unlike Matthew who was despised. In the case of the Synagogue Ruler, it takes courage to humble himself to seek help from Jesus, a man who many of his fellow synagogue rulers were sceptical of. But the Synagogue ruler overcomes his fear because there is more at stake than his ego and his pride. He is desperate to see his daughter live. This desperation gives him the courage to do what under normal circumstances he would have failed to do.
It takes courage to humble oneself enough to say to anybody… I need your help.
Thirdly we encounter the women who is bleeding. She is a women who has been living in the shadows of life. Strictly speaking she was unclean and therefore shouldn’t have been out in a public place because according to the religious understanding she would make others unclean just by her presence. It takes courage for her to come out of the closet of her house and risk being seen in public, as well as risk being told off by those who may have known who she was. It takes courage for her to reach out and to touch the cloak of Jesus for what right did she have to do this. How presumptuous it must have seemed especially when she could be accused of making Jesus unclean by her touch.
Fourthly, we don’t generally consider the courage of Jesus. But if Jesus was fully human as we are human, as all Christians, both Unitaian and Trinitarian would affirm, then Jesus too must be seen to act with courage in this passage. It takes courage for Jesus to be willing to be seen and identified with Matthew, the despised traitor of his own people as a Tax collector for the Roman authorities. It takes courage for Jesus, as opposition is already growing from the religious elite, to stick to his convictions that his primary calling was not to serve the religious establishment and the respectable members of society, but to serve those who were regarded as sinners and outcasts. For Jesus it was the spiritually sick who needed him the most not those who considered themselves well.
Lastly I wonder if the lifeless little girl in this passage might be a symbol for us of what can happen to us when we live without courage. Is it possible that a life that is lived without taking risks and locked into fear leads to a death of the spirit. Is it possible that it might take courage to hear the voice of Christ saying, little girl arise.
What have been some of the greatest acts of courage in your life?
In what way might you be needing courage in your life today?
I close with a few quotes:
"Courage is the power to let go of the familiar." - Raymond Lindquist
Like Matthew in the passage, is courage calling you today to let go of something familiar, to ope yourself to something new?
"Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen." - Winston Churchill
That is an interesting quote… we often think that standing up and speaking is what takes courage… and yet sometimes it might take even more courage to sit down and listen, because sitting down to listen may leave us feeling even more vulnerable than standing up and speaking.
And then a lovely quote by Mary Anne Radmacher:
Courage isn’t always the roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says
‘I’ll try again tomorrow’.
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