Well, I’ve had show tunes on my mind this week. It started on the fourth of July, as I remembered my experience in high school when I was the second violin in the pit orchestra of the musical 1776. The year was 1996, and I was a freshman; our country was celebrating the bicentennial. The musical 1776—for those of you who haven’t seen it—is the story of how the diverse and often conflicted Second Continental Congress came to unity on the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It’s a great story—unlikely, hopeful, and true. A great number of large personalities had to find a way to trade their individual interests for a single, beautiful, shared vision—a vision that was a huge risk, that had no guaranteed outcome. They risked everything—reputation, security, their lives and even the lives of their families—for a democratic experiment that is still playing out today.
As part of the pit orchestra, I saw and heard 1776 over and over again as it took shape over a dozen or more practices. I knew—I still know—every word of every song, as well as the entrances and exits of the major characters. I paid extra close attention to Benjamin Franklin not only for his wisdom and wit, but also because I had a crush on the boy who was playing him.
But last Wednesday, as I hummed the soundtrack to myself, it occurred to me for the first time that all the drama, tension, and struggle we see in the musical is really just a snapshot of a moment of change that had started in earnest more than a decade before, when the Stamp Act was passed and colonists began to protest taxation without representation. And even the historic moment of the signing of the Declaration of Independence wasn’t—as momentous as it was—an arrival of any sort. Nothing was over at that point; nothing was done, finished, when that document was signed. Everything was just beginning. Everything risky. Everything uncertain. And each step, each battle, each struggle would be hard fought. There was a long road leading up to that point and a long road ahead, with moments of greatness shining along the way. Those moments, those snapshots give us a compass and a hope, they keep us moving toward a golden, shared ideal.
We all know this–it’s part of human nature to get discouraged. It’s hard to cling to a conviction very long. We need help in holding on to our hope when the road is long and challenging. We have so many emotional highs and lows, so many peaks and valleys. Things look bright one day and bleak the next. It’s rare when we’re able to sustain a long-range, unshakable view. Paul recognized this when he told the people of Corinth, “Don’t lose heart—even though things look bleak, even though we struggle, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” He was pointing toward an eternal reality, reminding us that struggles in the here-and-now are temporary and the transcendent truth is that God’s love, light, and order are ever-present, ever-available, ever-at-work if we have the eyes and heart to see them.
Richard Foster says this about Paul’s idea: “Endurance is one of the great and most strenuous of Christian virtues. We fall short of Paul’s call to live (as) Jesus (did). Further, if we urge institutional structures to (live) Jesus’ life…we open ourselves to ridicule, affliction, and recrimination. How are we to remain hopeful when the world supports empires propelled by violence, enmity, and worldly power? Paul’s answer is that living with Jesus …is its own reward. It strengthens us against affliction and sings of eternal life.”
Living our lives as Jesus lived his means living with kindness, humility, honesty, service. It means being open to others, caring about their suffering, doing what we can to be a help to those who struggle, advocating, teaching, loving, forgiving, praying, hoping—and most of all, turning our minds and hearts back to God, day by day, moment by moment. Of all the stories I love in the gospel accounts, it is the way Jesus turned to God, over and over again–for rest, for clarity, for direction, for companionship—that touches and inspires me most. If we could live just that part of Jesus’s example, it would transform us and take care of everything else. We’d see our world beautify, like sunlight spreading over a prairie, sea to shining sea. I think there’d be huge shifts in how safe and secure we feel, how kind and trusting we are, and how open to change allow ourselves to be as we work together to build a better world. If we felt cared for, looked after, directed by God—if we had an unmistakable, indelible sense of God’s involvement in our life every single day—all the normal, loud, stressful events that so capture our attention would simply fade to the background as unimportant and temporary, anyway.
Which brings me to another show tune I’ve been humming this week. Have any of you seen the play Godspell? It started out as a student’s master’s thesis at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. After a successful show, it went on to play at a few local dinner theatres, and was then recommended to a producer, who opened it Off-Broadway. Interest grew and eventually it became a Broadway musical and even a movie. Godspell is a modern retelling of many of the parables in the book of Matthew (plus one from Luke), and it uses music, storytelling, and often humor to reach audiences in new ways. For me, at 16, it brought the New Testament to life. This was another soundtrack I knew by heart. One of the songs from the show became a big hit in the 70s. You probably know it—it was called “Day by Day.” The words are
Day by day
Day by day
Oh Dear Lord
Three things I pray
To see thee more clearly
Love thee more dearly
Follow thee more nearly
Day by day
This simple, beautiful song sounds to me like something Jesus lived daily—turning to God again and again to rest and reconnect with his divine center of vision and hope. That would sustain him for the path ahead. And that will—Paul promises—sustain each and all of us for the path ahead.
So how, I wondered, might we, when we’re upset and anxious or concerned, see God more clearly? Our Old Testament reading gives us a hint. It suggests we sing to the Lord, all the earth. We tell the story of God’s salvation day after day. Talk about how God helps, loves, intervenes, cares. If we remember our own personal stories of how God has been with us, helping us, doubt and fear can’t get a foothold. We remember God. We give God room in the center of our thoughts. We know that God acts in our lives. And we’ll see God’s presence—in our tiny, daily events—more clearly than ever.
When we are feeling stressed or discouraged, like we’re losing our hope, how can we love God more dearly? It’s hard to generate feelings of love—that kind of open-hearted, warm feeling—when we’re feeling low or pressured. Some researchers say that when we’re under stress, we contract, we pull in, making ourselves smaller, less of a target. When we love, we open, expanding and feeling safe to share what we have with the world. If we have a tried-and-true relationship with God, in moments of stress we can choose to look God’s way, to open our hearts and trust that a good plan is unfolding, that God is at work in our circumstances and in our world.
I believe God knows this is a huge leap of faith for us, to let go of our fear or hopelessness and try instead to trust and rely on God’s love and care. I discovered something that helps when this is hard to do: I found that when I want to turn my heart toward God but my mind is not cooperating, saying a string of thank-yous changes my energy so I feel more in tune with love. I usually start with something simple, like “Thank you that I’m safe. Thank you for the sunshine. Thank you that you are here.” And the list grows from there. If you’ve never tried that in a moment of stress or upset, I recommend it: it can very quickly change the way we feel inside and calm us enough to reconnect with God.
When we feel lost or confused—or worse, angry and ready to stomp off in our own direction—how can we pause and choose to follow God more nearly? This can be a tough one because once our emotions get triggered, we often just want to do what we want to do, even if it’s not the kindest or smartest thing. It’s like our emotions generate momentum and it’s hard to stop that ball once it gets rolling. But when we notice we’re at a crossroads—we have a choice about how we’ll react to something—taking a breath helps. Maybe we can say a quick prayer. One quick prayer that occurred to me long ago is simply, “Welcome, God.” When I notice my thoughts are snowballing or I’m ruminating on something that upsets me, I stop, take a breath, and think, “Welcome, God.” To me, that means I am inviting God into my thoughts in that moment. I want to know God’s take on what I am spinning in my head. I don’t always get a crystal-clear answer, but I do always calm down. And I have the added comfort of knowing I’ve remembered God and invited him into my messy little internal world. That’s comforting because I’ve learned that if I invite God into the mix, sooner or later, things are going to be alright.
In our world today, there is much to feel stressed about and plenty to cause upset and concern. We may be tempted to believe this chaos is a characteristic of our time, but a quick look back in history will show us not only that conflict is part of the nature of change but that the road is long and endurance is key. We need to have a steady, continuous source of hope—a shining vision that pulls us forward when discouragement steals our energy and causes us to lose heart. God is ready, willing, and thrilled, I think, to be that source for us, our true connection to the divine heart of life as it is and always will be. Jesus knew how to find it. Paul pointed us that way. And our own souls know the path, if we’ll just listen and follow, day by day.
- OT: 1 Chronicles 16: 23-27
- NT: 2 Corinthians 4: 16-18
- 1776: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1776_(musical); also https://youtu.be/ds4dv4IS0PM
- Godspell: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godspell
Thank you, Friends.