Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Artists' Sermons Part II - Music

On my so-called “smart phone” (which often acts a little dumb by locking up) I have an eclectic collection of music. Across the spectrum I have things from a past generation, Roger Whittaker, Lenard Cohen, Bread to a little less dated works of Avril Lavigne, All American Rejects and John Mayer. I also have a collection of classical music, which I’ve hand selected as my favorites.

One of my all time beloved classical music pieces is Pachelbel’s Cannon in D. I’m a little disappointed that these days it has been relegated as simply wedding music that comes just before “Here Comes the Bride.” Every time I hear it played on TV or the movies it is in relationship to nuptials. I think I first fell in love with the cannon way back in the early 80s.

I had a six-foot-three, lanky, cowboy roommate at the time named Ray. He was from the Platt River area of Nebraska where he grew up on a ranch. He was the typical cowboy, wearing cowboy boots, and donning a big cowboy hat at times. He also loved his annual shipment of mountain oysters . . . which forced me to leave the house when he cooked them up for his personal feast.

But Ray had just come out of the service and had been stationed in Japan. While in Asia, he purchased a fine collection of high-end (at the time) stereo system pieces. He had huge speakers (that took up our entire dinning room). The system had a player system that included a reel to reel tape player, cassette player, and a turn table.I remember coming in the door from class one day and Ray was beaming with his characteristic Mick Jagger, larger-than-life, smile beneath his white cowboy hat, which was rolled up on the sides.

“Hey man, you got to listen to this!” He put this album on the turn table, turned down the lights with the rheostat and turned up the speakers with the dial. There was this rhythmic popping sound as the turn table’s needle bounce over dust and a scratch on the lead up to the music. Then subtly I began to hear, more like feel in my chest, this soft base string plucking. Before that point I was expecting some loud fiddle and a cowboy song about rounding up little doggies. But the pulse of the base strings were plucked one by one. Boom . . . boom . . . boom . . . boom . . . boom . . . boom . . . boom . . . boom, softly until the—still soft—shrill of the violins bust onto my eardrums.

I remembered that I let loose of my back pack and allowed it to slip onto the floor gently as the straps slid down my arm. I made a carful, slow motion, collapse onto the dumpster- salvaged sofa. I was instantly mesmerized. I closed my eyes so I could see the violinists, cellists and organist in my mind’s eye. I fell in love with that piece of music that day, in the same way a man can fall in love with a woman at first glance.

My times with the Cannon have been unforgettable. There was the time I was caught in a military coup in Pakistan and had spent several nervous days trying to get to the West. On a flight that I found from Karachi to Frankfort, once we were out of Pakistani air space, I felt a wave of peace methodically coming over me. I remember that we were somewhere over Turkey and I plugged in the double plastic-tubed ear phones in to the twin holes at the end of my arm rest of the old 747 and glazed out the window down at the Black Sea. The water was the last barrier that separated me from Europe, which felt like home.Before long, I heard that familiar sound on the Pakistani International Airlines sound track. boom . . . boom … boom. It was one of the greatest feelings of peace I’ve ever known. Just like the most simple food, sardines, taste delicious after going without food for a couple of days, at the end of a long stretch of stress, this moment of peace came with a special delight.

Another time was at the end of a prolonged stressful time in our lives. It is too complicated to explain here, but it was one of those very hard things in life, that can drag on for months, but then have an abrupt and final resolution. If only all stressful things could end so definitively. Soon after the resolution came (and we were camping in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan at the time) I laid down in a hammock stretched between to large fir trees and closed my eyes. I put my earphones in my ears and turned up my Walkman’s cassette of classical music and fast forwarded to Pachelbel. Once again, looking out over Lake Superior, I found myself floating on a sea of peace.When I listen to beautiful music I feel God’s present. I don’t mean that in a trifle way. It can be the masterfully woven classical work or the heart-felt cries of Avril, begging for someone to come find her, because she is lost. It can be a John Mayer waiting for the world to change because he doesn’t know what to do to change it or of finding out that there is no such thing as the real world. Or it can be a Roger Whittaker describing the beauty of a woman that rocks his inward world.

I think it was Pythagoras who first noticed something divine in the rhythms of the strings of music like the same order he had seen in mathematics. But it is overwhelming. It is like coming here to Starbucks and sitting at a table where someone has just left. You never saw them, but there are cookie crumbs on the table. The chair is pulled pit at an angle. There is a café au lait ring on the top . . . all telling me that someone real has just been here. Sometimes you can sit and feel the warmth in the otherwise cold chair.

It is that way with music. You sense that God is near but not right in front of you. You can feel His nearness, the moistness of his breath, the smell of His cologne, but not see Him face to face which you can only do in Christ. Music is the best apologetic to me . . . more so than a hundred books. When you hear the order of the notes, the beauty of the refrain, you know that He is indeed there and the knowing is real.

When you hear the sound of voices of another heart telling the story of love (romantic) or sorrow, heartbreak and loss . . . you know that you are real too. You know that you are not alone. You sense a community of hearts who have all loved, lost and wondered if there is a better way for the world to live. You know that you are human.
That is the sermon of music to me.