Many years ago, my then 8th’grade son and I drove a frosty four hours north to Kalamazoo, Michigan for an evening of live music. We were both excited about the event; he had received two tickets to hear Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Jazz Center Orchestra live as they made stops across the country on tour. Our seats were amazing—we were just a few rows back from the stage—and we could see and hear and feel the expressions of the musicians as they played. We were witnesses to—and maybe participants in–their expertise, their freedom, their fun—and of course their out-of-this-world music.
I was fascinated with the way they improvised, each member in turn bringing something new and unscripted to the piece—venturing off in directions unique and really, thrilling, and then somehow coming back at the perfect point. It all wove so perfectly together. I watched their faces—were they hearing in their hearts what they were about to play with their fingers? To me, they somehow—in those highly creative moments of joy and freedom—were able to touch something far beyond them, a joy and a beauty that was perhaps playing anyway, with or without the instruments. And we, the audience were part of that. I thought, “Jazz is a perfect moment.” Perfect in its creativity and potential. Perfect in its joy. Perfect in its beauty. Perfect in the way it wove us all happily together. It must be the song of God.
But of course that was a special event, given maybe to high realizations like that—I still feel that sense of joy and wonder when I think about it—but everyday life is much busier and more serious and we have to be focused and smart and get the things done we said we’d do. Joy and freedom and wonder and play get set aside for another day and we focus on the practicality of it all. We get back inside our own heads. We shuttle back into our smaller, less-transcendent lives.
The thoughts that fill our heads almost around the clock help to facilitate that shift in our reality back to the normal everyday. Words, words, words, streaming through our heads all the time, narrating our experiences. We are so accustomed to the constant whir of thoughts that if things begin to get a little quiet in our minds, we will feed them more fuel—by checking our social media feeds, reading the latest headlines, watching a show, stirring something up. We are constantly in search of mental stimulation of one kind or another—our minds like to stay active. Too much quiet, and we fall asleep.
If we spend any time simply noticing our thoughts—as opposed to reacting to them or letting them inspire us into one type of action or another—we are likely to see that many of our thoughts are judgments: not necessarily harsh or unkind thoughts about others, but judgments about the world around us. Pretty mundane things, really, like
- Oh I wonder why they painted that house that color? I would have chosen something different.
- They put that mailbox way too close to the road.
- Jeez, why doesn’t that driver watch where he’s going?
Everything we see, everything we hear, everything we touch, everything we taste gets thought about and categorized and there is no doubt some kind of running commentary in our minds about it. The sweetness of the pie we had for dessert. The status of our physical bodies—are we warm or cold, comfortable or achy, uptight or calm, and on and on. Constantly narrating, planning, remembering, reframing—our minds are always busy, always on, always the loudest voice in the room.
And that is a natural part of being a human being, because our minds have a job to do, and they do it well. They carry our knowledge of the world and present it to us when there’s a decision to be made. They haul around all our stories about ourselves—who we are, what we like, what we did in our past, what we hope to do in the future. The mind cares a lot about keeping our identity intact and doing what it can to help us understand ourselves—according to the amount of light we have at any given time.
The function I’m describing here, with all the verbalizing and categorizing, is really the job of just one part of our brains: The left hemisphere. In his amazing new book, The Matter with Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World, psychiatrist and scholar Iain McGilchrist shows how each side of our brains actually present us with very different experiences of reality. In our modern, over-stimulating world, we just tend to navigate by one side more than the other—and to our peril, he suggests. I’m simplifying here, but generally the left hemisphere analyzes, judges, and breaks things apart, and the right hemisphere feels, navigates by intuition, expresses itself artistically, and feels in touch with Oneness. McGilchrist writes,
“For the left hemisphere, value is something we invent; which is separate from and, as it were, painted onto the world; and whose function is utility. For the right hemisphere, value is something intrinsic to the cosmos; which is disclosed and responded to in a pre-cognitive take on the Gestalt; and is not, other than incidentally, in service of anything else”.
In other words, when we’re judging and analyzing and narrating the world with our left brains, we see everything as separated from us and things only have value to us if we can use them for something. But when we’re experiencing life using our right hemispheres, we can sense the wholeness around us, we feel ourselves a part of something bigger, we are open to our intuitive leadings, and everything—just because it exists—has a kind of fundamental, inherent, tender value.
Guess which side of our brain is more likely to feel the joy of God’s presence? Which part helps us hear the song God is singing through us all? It makes me think of a lovely little poem by Kahlil Gibran:
“Only when you drink
from the river of silence
shall you indeed sing.
You shall see Him smiling in flowers…
waving His hands in trees.”
Our message today was inspired by a very brief but profound moment I had while driving home from work one day last week. The evening light was shining through the trees in a particularly lovely way, and I had been thinking about how full my mind was of those words that narrate everything, when I offered a most casual thought to God, thinking, “I would like to know what it feels like to have a truly quiet mind.” And instantly—and really just for an instant—the stream of descriptions in my head stopped and I just looked as I drove. No narration, no labeling, no deciding what I liked and what I didn’t. It was extraordinarily peaceful. But this moment was more than just peace, it was joy. In the absence of that running monologue of description, all judgment was gone and instead I felt God’s gladness just rushing at me from everywhere. Every tree, every car, every everything—for the tiniest moment—was just God playing in the beauty of the world. It was just a glimpse of what’s possible, but I knew it was real. I hope to be able to experience that again—maybe someday at will—but for now I am grateful to experientially know what it feels like to step out beyond myself for a moment and be part of the flow of God’s joy.
In our Old Testament reading for today, we hear the psalmist yearning for the once-close experience he’d had with God and then lost:
As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
These things I remember
as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
under the protection of the Mighty One
with shouts of joy and praise
among the festive throng.
Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God.
By day the Lord directs his love,
at night his song is with me—
a prayer to the God of my life.
David’s own story gives us the reason why he might have felt so agonizingly separate from God. His own actions, his own desires—all the words in his head—had gotten in the way of the joy and peace and praise he felt when he was in tune with God. Scripture tells us that David was a “man after God’s own heart” as he tried to live his faith, in spite of all his flaws. In this psalm he reminds himself to hope yet again in God because God directs his love David’s way and at night, God’s song is with him. He will not fear, he decides. He will hope.
We also continually have that same choice—to choose fear, as we look out at the world, or to choose hope, as we turn inward toward God. That clear and important choice points to a profound tension at the center of trying to live with faith in this world. Which do we trust more: The world outside us, or the Christ within?
Our New Testament reading today speaks right to this question. Jesus is talking with the disciples and they are having a clear and intimate discussion. They sound relieved and grateful for his directness. They say, “Now you are speaking clearly…we can see that you know all things…This makes us believe that you came from God.”
Jesus has been with these men three years, and some of them have known him all their lives. And yet they are just now saying this, which is pretty remarkable, when you think about it. Three years, they’ve seen him do miracles—turning water into wine; healing the blind, the lame, the lepers; teaching in the synagogue; speaking truth to power; living his divinity—that of God in him—in plain view for all to see. You might think that they would have been able to feel who Jesus truly was before then, that he was connected to a different reality than they were. Surely they could have sensed his divinity, the powerful Love that radiated from him, the goodness and peace that shined from his unconflicted soul?
Jesus answers them by asking, ‘Do you now believe?” and then forecasts the way they will scatter in fear when he is arrested. But then he said, and most kindly, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Jesus was showing them that there was so much more to life than their word-filled, anxious minds understood. They would come up against danger and persecution; they would have to try to figure out how to make a living again, once Jesus was gone. Their minds would be working overtime as they tried to solve their problems. But no matter, Jesus said. I have overcome all that. Let your words rest and find a clear and quiet spot where you can just trust me and feel the peace.
Do you remember the book Anne of Green Gables? That series of books is a childhood favorite for many people, set in a lovely town on Prince Edward Island off the coast of Canada. Anne is an orphan who is inadvertently sent to a family who really wanted a boy to help work the land. But she is a joyful, irrepressible spirit and as the story unfolds, the town begins to come to life around her. The hopeful story was an instant hit when it was published in 1908. In one of the early moments of the story, not long after Anne has arrived in the town, she says,
Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or into the deep, deep woods, and I’d look up into the sky—up—up—up—into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer.”
Feel a prayer. Isn’t that a wonderful phrase? Just feel a prayer. So often our prayers are full of words—we try to say specific things, remembering to mention the right people, including a list of requests or thank yous. But what do we feel when we pray? We should start paying attention to that. Feeling joy. Feeling peace. Feeling God. What we feel when we pray is the door back into our right brains, where we can reconnect with the Oneness, the wonder, the living gladness of God.
Out beyond the “have tos” and “ought tos” in our heads, past the words and expectations, rules and judgments of life, there is a beautiful, vibrant, joyful place where we can easily reconnect with the song of God. It is a loving and lovely melody, full of joy and hope and gladness, celebrating that we are simply alive together, now. If we have trouble finding it and want to, we can simply ask God for help, and help will come. Because God doesn’t want to sing—in fact I would say God can’t sing—alone.
That makes me think of a poem I wrote for my dad, right after he died in 2007. I’d like to share it with you in closing:
Ringing through the lives we’ve made --each a work of art blossoming in a thousand different faces-- Shared across the golden cycle of seasons, Sung like a round On a clear summer day. And on the verge of knowing Life whirls us each away, carrying us in different directions Rain on distant rooftops Drizzle here, Torrents there-- Patterns of percussion We hear and don’t hear In the same way. And then we come back around again Faces a bit more lined Smiles a little deeper The twinkle, Ever young, but more knowing now. Funny how one day we discover, After miles and years apart, That the tune we hum Mindlessly, to ourselves, when no one is listening, is actually melody and harmony, Of the same song.