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Apr 15, 2019

Sermon: I've Been This Way Before

as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, April 14, 2019

This morning’s sermon is about drawing spiritual lessons from the music of Neil Diamond. I will get to that in the moment. But first I want to tell you about one of my favorite artists, the French surrealist Marcel Duchamp. Do you know his work? He is perhaps most famous for his piece the “Fountain.” He entered it into an art show in New York City in 1917. The show had a simple selection criterion: anyone who paid the entry fee had their piece accepted. Duchamp, cheeky surrealist that he was, submitted a commercially manufactured porcelain urinal under the pseudonym “R. Mutt.” This enraged the selection committee. They complained that R. Mutt had not created the piece. It had obviously been produced in a factory. More troubling, the urinal was not art. It was an ordinary object that was used for, shall we say, basic human functions. Its presence in the show debased art. It placed one of the highest expressions of human culture alongside the ordinary, banal, and mundane.

Duchamp responded by publishing an anonymous editorial in an art magazine that he ran with a couple of friends. The relevant section from the editorial reads: “Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, and placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view--created a new thought for that object.”

The editorial gets at why I like the piece. I think it offers an essential religious lesson: all things contain beauty. It is a religious discipline to open ourselves to that beauty. An “ordinary article of life” viewed through the eye of the artist becomes art, becomes something beautiful. The artist has “a new thought for that object,” they see something new, something that challenges them, when they look at the familiar--perhaps the most familiar.

I invite you to try it. Pick an object in the sanctuary. A brick. A floor tile. A wooden pew. A section of the ceiling. Your shoes. It does not matter. Just pick something. The more ordinary the better. Look at it for a moment. Really look at it. Can see something of the beauty in it?

When I was preparing this sermon, I came down from my office, stood in this pulpit, and tried the exercise myself. I picked that brick. It is ordinary in its brown redness. There are a scattering of dark spots. These attest to the presence of the iron sulphate in the clay used to make the brick. A few of the spots are pock marked--evidence of where air bubbles burst when the brick baked. Some of the spots lack clear edges--they fade into the mass of red brown when the eye inquires for their ends.

As I stood in the pulpit, I watched light play off the brick. The beauty of the brick shifted as the sun’s rays filtered through the sanctuary window that sits above the choir. It had one set of tones when a cloud passed in front of the sun and another when the day star shone uninhibited. Looking at the brick, I thought of the canvases in Houston’s Rothko Chapel. Have you seen them? The chapel is under renovation until the end of the year. If you have not been, I hope you will go when it opens again.

Light in the chapel comes through the top skylight. As the earth spins on its access, as water vapor moves through the sky, the amount of light that hits each canvas changes. And with it the richness of the canvas--purple tones fade to black or move against pecan or hickory framing.

The roughness of the brick’s clay contains the same effect--it shifts as the light hits it. Looking at the brick, there is beauty in an “ordinary article of life.” There is “a new thought for that object.” Shall I name it? Perhaps, Seven Stars of Revelation--seven being the number of spots and a mystical number found over and over again in the biblical book of Revelation. That book attests, “These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand,” and unfolds one of the grandest mystical visions in the Christian New Testament.

The Unitarian minister and transcendentalist writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson taught us “revelation is not sealed.” These words are to remind us that we can learn something new, something beautiful, from each experience, from each ordinary object, in our lives. When I look carefully at the brick with the seven spots I am reminded of Emerson’s lesson--seven stars which help me open to constant possibility of revelation--of the feeling the sacred--that is around each of us in each moment of our lives.

Another exercise, listen. Not to me. Listen in this pause to the sound that surrounds the silence. When I stop speaking what do you hear? The musician John Cage composed a piece named 4’33”. It consists of a pianist sitting on a piano bench for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The pianist just sits there. They do not play a single note. Cage’s intention with the piece is to prompt the audience to listen to the sounds that are around us at all times--your breath, and mine, the heart’s beat, the passing street car, the rustle of your shirtsleeve. What is music? What is beauty?

A musician friend of mine made a similar point in a piece they composed called “Up Train, Down Train.” For the piece, they rode the commuter rail up and down the San Francisco peninsula. Along the way recorded the sounds of their journey: the ticket collector, the jostling of the passengers, the clatter of rail, doors sliding open, and the rain on window glass. In their recording studio they mixed in a variety of other sounds--fragments from classical music, bits of Beethoven or Brahms, snatches of jazz, spoken threads of poetry. Incidental noise and carefully crafted songs were combined to create a haunting composition that pushed me to open my ears to the ordinary music of life.

The heart can turn any object, any sound, any song, into a prayer. Prayer, in my understanding, is the act of reaching out for connection with that which is greater than any of us, surrounds each of us, and infuses all of us. Prayer need not be theistic--God centered--in its orientation. It only need be the opening of the individual self--the I, the you--to the infinity without and the infinity within. This is an understanding I carry with me as I move through the ordinary world, encountering the ordinary objects of life. And it is a lesson I take with me when I have preaching assignments that are not quite of my choosing.

This year at the church auction, I auctioned off the right to give Mark and me a prompt for a Sunday service. This a well-worn practice in a number of Unitarian Universalist congregations. It is one that comes with warning from experienced clergy. One minister I know tells the story about the time they were assigned the Apollo moon landings as a service topic. Well, actually, the person who won the auction item was a conspiracy theorist. They wanted to a have service on why and how NASA’s moon landings had been faked.

My ministerial colleague managed to craft a service that somehow served their congregations from that assignment. Nonetheless, I was a bit worried when this year I decided to auction one of our services. So, I was relieved when I found out our topic was to be the singer songwriter Neil Diamond. I admit that I did not that much about Diamond or his music--or at least I thought I did not. But music is a well-worn path to the spiritual. I knew that if I listened to his music and read something of his life I could find a lesson in it.

When I found out the service topic the first thing, before I even turned to Google, was call my brother Jorin. Jorin, you might know, is a painter who lives in Los Angeles. He is also a fount of information when it comes to popular music.

So, I got him on the phone and asked him, “Jorin, what should I know about Neil Diamond?”

He paused for a moment and then began, “Well, some people call him the Jewish Elvis. You definitely know his music. He wrote, ‘Sweet Caroline,’ and ‘America.’ He also wrote the Monkees’ song ‘I’m a Believer.’”

As I listened to my brother I realized that Diamond is one of those musicians who music infuses much of contemporary life. In this country, you are likely to hear a song like “Sweet Caroline” almost anywhere. It has been featured in movies, sung by a contestant on American Idol, and used in television commercials. It is one of those pop songs that it seems like almost everyone knows. The tune might be familiar, Mark. You might recognize the chorus as well:

Sweet Caroline
Good times never seemed so good
Sweet Caroline
I believe they never could
Sweet Caroline

Mark already played the other Diamond song that my brother mentioned, “America.” Diamond’s parents were themselves the children of Jewish immigrants to New York. He grew up in Brooklyn listening to family stories about his grandparents journeys from Poland and Russia to the United States. Diamond’s immigrant heritage inspired him to write “America.” Its lyrics suggest two things. First, the United States has represented a land of freedom and opportunity for many people around the world for generations. Second, most people in the United States are the descendants of immigrants. As the song begins:

Far
We've been traveling far
Without a home
But not without a star
Free
Only want to be free
We huddle close
Hang on to a dream

The intertwined messages of this song are important today when we have a President who praises dictators like North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un and maligns liberal democratic political systems such as the European Union. The song is a reminder that the authoritarian values of the current White House occupant are not consistent with liberal democratic values--the values that Diamond celebrates in his tune. The song is also a reminder that immigrants have contributed enormously to the economic prosperity and cultural vibrancy of the United States. The current President should know this. His mother was an immigrant from Scotland. His grandparents were immigrants from Germany. Two of his three wives have been immigrants as well. I could pause now to make the observation that the President’s comfort with his European immigrant family and his antipathy or even hatred for immigrants from Latin America highlights his ties to white supremacist movements. That, however, is not the subject of this sermon.

Returning to Diamond, I note that like a lot of Jewish America singer songwriters of his generation he got his start writing songs for other people. He wrote four songs for the manufactured British band the Monkees, one of the boy bands of the seventies. They used have a television show that my brother and I watched as reruns in the early nineties. The lyrics of “Believer” suggest of the way that love, that profound and intimate connection with another soul, can spring up unbidden and unexpected:

Then I saw her face, now I'm a believer
Not a trace, of doubt in my mind
I'm in love, and I'm a believer

As I researched Diamond I began to see something of myself in him. As I suggested at the opening of the sermon, any object can be seen to contain beauty. Anything around us can open the marvels of the universe. The same might be said of human biography. Each of us has a great deal in common with the rest of us. On some level, all humans need the same things: clean air to breath, clean water to drink, good food to eat, shelter, love, and some work to call honest. This observation is one of the core conceits of our Unitarian Universalist faith.

And so, I was not surprised when I came across words by Diamond describing his own experience as a songwriter and his approach to his music that resonated with me. They are from an interview he did in 1975 with Rolling Stone magazine. There he says that his work is an artist stems from an attempt, “to gain an inner sense of acceptance of the self.” My own approach to the craft of preaching is linked to a similar attempt to both find self-knowledge and stir it in others. At the same time, I find myself agreeing with Diamond that music and art are not bound by tightly dictated rules. According to the interviewer, he believes that his songs do not “need to be explained. Or even understood.” He just wants people to open to the music and be stirred by it. About the composition of music he says, “There are no rules, you see. That’s the beautiful thing about it. And the best things I’ve done are the things that people don’t really understand.”

The interviewer describes Diamond as “the consummate searcher,” a sentiment that is familiar to many Unitarian Universalists. A sense of that appears in his song “I’ve Been This Way Before” which the choir performed earlier:

I've seen the light
And I've seen the flame
And I've been this way before

The search for meaning that I find in this song resonates with the Unitarian Universalist tradition of a search for truth and meaning. And if there is any message that I have been trying to communicate in this sermon it is this: we can find religious truth, beauty, meaning, in almost anything. It is more about the perspective we bring than it is necessarily the content, the object, that is already there. For Marcel Duchamp, beauty or art could be found in the ordinary objects of life. For my musician friend, it was found in the rocking movement of the train as it travelled up and down the San Francisco peninsula. And for lovers of Neil Diamond’s music, it is found in his songs.

And now, before I close, two brief pointers to our readings and two spiritual suggestions for you. The poems I chose are each about finding the sacred, the beautiful, in ordinary life. Allen Ginsberg’s poem “A Supermarket in California” is a personal favorite. It connects to the way I tend wander through the world: a head full of poetry and a rather ordinary life of grocery shopping, children’s basketball, and laundry. Like Ginsberg, I often find myself opening to the sacredness of the ordinary in the most banal of places: the Trader Joe’s on Shepherd Street or the HEB on West Alabama. And like Whitman in Ginsberg’s poem, I discover myself going from the most basic questions to the most profound: “Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?” What about you? Do you have similar experiences in your life?

Naomi Shihab Nye is a Texas poet and the child of a Palestinian immigrant. Her poem “My Grandmother in the Stars” recounts a similar experience:

Where we live in the world
is never one place. Our hearts,
those dogged mirrors, keep flashing us
moons before we are ready for them.

Looking at the night sky, she finds that she carries memory, beauty, art, a sense of the sacred ever within her. It is everywhere. In the stars. In the universe which connects all to all. And in her unnamed companion.

Any object can open us to the divine. Any sound can be music. I conclude with my two spiritual suggestions. This, afternoon, or tomorrow, or anytime, take a few minutes to do two things. First, find an ordinary object from life. It could be a urinal, a brick, a piece of asphalt, a cigarette butt, or the beam on a suspension bridge. It does not matter. Spend five minutes really looking at it. What do you see? Do you find yourself opening a little more to the beauty of the universe when you engage the object.

Second, listen to an familiar sound. Pick a pop song that you do not know or choose the ambient collision of wind upon leaf. What sense of connection to the universe do you find within it? Do you discover that revelation is not sealed? That each of us has an original relationship with the universe?

Again, Diamond:

For I've been released
And I've been regained
And I've sung my song before
And I'm sure to sing my song again

Again, Nye:

...there is only the sky
tying the universe together.

Again, Ginsberg:

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked
down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking
at the full moon.

Let the congregation say Amen.

CommentsCategories Ministry Sermon Tags First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston Neil Diamond Marchel Duchamp R. Mutt Rothko Chapel Houston Mark Rothko Revelation Ralph Waldo Emerson John Cage Up Train, Down Train 4'33" Prayer Mark Vogel Jorin Bossen Monkees Kim Jong Un Donald Trump Immigration Allen Ginsberg Naomi Shihab Nye Walt Whitman

Jan 3, 2017

The Buddha Should Be As Useful As A Can (Sermon)

as preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, May 16, 2010

There is at least a segment of you who are wondering what just happened. The order of service shows that before the sermon we were supposed to have a piece of music called 4'33". But instead of playing music Karin sat in front of the piano doing nothing. No notes were played. No melody emerged. Nothing happened. This nothing is the entirety of this piece by the American composer, philosopher and artist John Cage. Yet the very presence of nothing throughout the piece makes 4'33" one of the 20th century's seminal musical compositions. Its central premiss is that everything that occurs during the piece is part of the piece. Each cough, uncomfortable shift in a chair, reluctant sigh, bird sound, traffic noise or incredulous murmur is music. 4'33" can, therefore, be understood as expanding music's definition.

Cage arrived at this piece when he set out to experience absolute silence. In the early 1950s he was invited to make use of an anechoic chamber. The chamber used a variety of techniques to blot out all external sound. Inside of it there was no rattle from a passing truck, no whisper of the wind, no ring of a telephone... There was supposed to be nothing. Cage entered the chamber expecting to hear pure silence. Instead he discovered two sounds, a high pitched whine and a low but steady beat. Upon leaving the chamber he asked the engineer in charge about the two sounds. The engineer explained to him that what he had heard was the sound of his nervous system, the high tones, and the sound of his heart, the low ones.

From this experience Cage learned that we are surrounded by sound at all times. "Sounds," Cage wrote, "occur whether intended or not." He realized that the traditional understanding of music was, in his words, "an ideal situation, not a real one." When conceiving of a piece of music a composer indicates through a score that a composition is comprised of certain notes to be produced on specific instruments. When the piece is performed listeners hear something different than what the composer intended for them to hear. They hear both the planned notes and the ambient noise of the environment. This realization led Cage to seek to incorporate his environment's, and his body's, unintended sounds into his music.

4'33" derives from Cage's realization about the constant presence of sound. The only sound in the piece is the unintended sound of the body and the environment. Normally the ambient noise of the environment is the background upon which music unfolds. Cage has reversed the situation. In 4'33" the ambient noise is the music itself.

Changing his listeners' understanding of what art and music are is one of the central tasks of Cage's work. Profoundly influenced by Zen Buddhism and other forms of Eastern religion Cage saw art as having "the function of awakening people to the life around them." One of his teachers, the Indian musician Gita Sarabhai, put it slightly differently by telling him, that "the purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences." Cage came to understand that the divine is "all things that happen in creation."

Cage's art is useful to a religious community like ours because his works help us to see and hear everyday life as beautiful. His music can provide a focus point through which we reinterpret and reengage with our environment. The actual sounds that are contained within his work might be unusual or may fall outside of the realm of what we normally consider music. This is intentional. Cage wanted his music to challenge listeners to reconsider the nature of music itself. He wrote, "People may leave my concerts thinking they have heard 'noise' but... then [they will] hear unsuspected beauty in their everyday life."

Heard with Cage's ears music becomes not a matter of composition or performance but the result of an attitude. The rattle of a washing machine is placed on an equal level with a fugue by Beethoven. One is not more beautiful than the other. Both are collections of sounds--the bow drawn across the tense strings of the violin, the water and clothes pushing against the metal sides of the machine, the piano's hammers hitting the wires and the bolts jangling as dirt is shaken loose from fabric. The beauty of the sounds is not an inherent value. It is a value assigned to them. If we choose we can assign all sounds the value of beautiful. Doing so allows us to take greater pleasure from them. It also opens up the world of experience. If, as Cage said, we "get over our likes and dislikes," then we can fully engage with anything that we encounter.

Cage drew inspiration from the French artist Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp used his work to confront conventional understandings of what art is. He is perhaps most famous for his readymades. These were a series of ordinary objects that Duchamp signed, gave titles to and placed in art galleries. They included a bicycle wheel, a snow shovel and a urinal labeled "Fountain." Duchamp hoped that seeing such familiar objects in the space of an art gallery would cause the viewer to ask questions like: Are these pieces art? What is art? Are we surrounded by art at all times?

Duchamp's work had the desired result on Cage. During an interview Cage shared this story about seeing some of the readymades: "his work acted in such a way that my attention was drawn to the light switch on the wall, away from--not away, but among--the works of art...the light switch seemed to be as attention-deserving as the works of art."

When I first learned of Duchamp's work it had a similar effect on me. One afternoon a friend and I went to a local grocery store. While there we encountered a clear milk jug filled with neon insecticide. The object fascinated me. It seemed beautiful and grotesque and problematic all at once.

The bottle of bug killer had as much of a story to it as any other object. It was unique. It had been conceived by a human mind, built with human tools and placed in front of me by human hands. The florescent light that shone on it caused the jug to cast a pale green shadow.

When Cage had such experiences they reminded him to celebrate the uniqueness of each object he encountered. During an interview with the scholar Joan Retallack he reflected on seeing a soup can in the supermarket: "when you see a row of soup cans, you notice rather quickly and easily that light falls on them differently. Each can is separate from each other can. They're only connected as ideas in our heads. But in reality light falls on each one uniquely, so that it is at the center of the universe, or is the Buddha, you see. So, it's worthy of honor..."

In response to Cage's ruminations Retallack replied, "Presumably the Buddha should be as useful as a can." Sharp quips aside, Cage's point was that viewed from a certain perspective everyday objects can trigger moments of insight. Every object encountered is both unique and connected with all other objects in the universe. Considering these facts can turn the most mundane incident into a spiritual experience. Any sound we hear, any article we see or touch is an invitation into deeper connection with the world around us.

The Buddhist monk Thich Nat Han created the word "interbeing" to describe this interrelation of all things. In one of his books he invites his readers to look at the piece of paper on which his words appear. Looking at it closely reveals that it is a connected to all things. "Your mind is in here and mine is also...You cannot point to one thing that is not here--time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper," he states.

Seeing the sheet of paper for what it is requires a certain perspective. Such a perspective is not always easy to obtain. Often we focus on the utility of an object or simply ignore it, consigning it to the sensory background. Cage's work is helpful because engaging with it can require a shifting of perspective: the paper is seen in a new manner; the washing machine heard for the first time; and the background sounds come to the foreground.

It is possible to cultivate this type of perspective through spiritual practice. Spiritual practice stills and sharpens the mind. It tunes the senses. It brings the background into the foreground. Spiritual practices vary by individual and community. Some choose meditation or prayer as their spiritual practice. Others prefer journal writing, painting or a regular exercise routine. All spiritual practices serve the same function, to center the self and to point to the possibility of insight.

For Cage composition was a spiritual practice. It brought him into tune with nature. Cage felt that "personality is a flimsy thing on which to build...art" and sought to transcend it through the use of chance operations in his later pieces. Chance operations are methods of generating art independent of an artist's conscious intentions. They range from simple things like rolling dice or throwing darts to more complicated methods involving the ancient Chinese divination tool the I-Ching or computer programs. Cage developed a complex methodology for composition using the I-Ching as a base. He would set a certain number of parameters for a piece--its length, the number of performers or the number of instruments--and then flip coins to derive a series of I-Ching hexagrams to determine the rest. This stripped intention from his work and led it, in his view, to more closely mirror the natural world. "What we do, we do without purpose. The highest purpose is to have no purpose at all. This puts one in accord with nature in her manner of operations," he wrote, reflecting on his composition technique.

Cage's understanding of the natural world reinforced his views about music and art. His primary engagement with the natural environment was through his passion for mushrooms. He foraged for fungi every opportunity he got.

Mushroom foraging is a lot like chance operation in composition. You commit to a particular technique--or in the case of mushrooms area--pay attention and see what the world brings you. Sudden shifts in consciousness may occur.

As a frequent forager myself I know how easy it is to slip from a forest bereft of mushrooms to a forest full of them. The chance turning of a leaf reveals a morel. Before there was nothing but early spring May Apples. Now the ground is littered with wrinkled grey caps.

Reflecting on this dynamic Cage once said, "ideas are to be found in the same way you find wild mushrooms in the forest, just by looking." The chance encounter of a mushroom is similar to the discovery of an unusual sound. He wrote, "a mushroom grows for such a short time and if you happen to come across it when it's fresh it's like coming upon a sound which also lives a short time."

Cage believed that we are surrounded by beauty, writing "Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look." Within this attitude to I hear echoes of the first source of our Unitarian Universalist Association: "Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder...which moves us to a renewal of spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life." Cage's work challenges us to directly experience the world that surrounds us. It is not be meditated through symbolic interpretation or given an explanation. It is just to be experienced. Such an openness leads to a constant state of wonder.

If this view has a limitation it is that, perhaps, ironically for a Buddhist, it does not offer an adequate approach to suffering. Throughout his writings and works Cage never seems to seriously wrestle with suffering. Instead he focuses on the possibility of beauty within the world. But I am not so sure we should ultimately find all things beautiful. Torture, pain, the degradation of the environment, war, liking or disliking these things is not a matter of aesthetics but a matter of ethics. While there might be moments of beauty found within them--the iridescent whirls of oil on water, the harsh stillness of a field before battle--it is probably best not to view them as beautiful. Doing so could lead to complacency or acceptance. In the face of the world's problems inaction is not a realistic option.

Art only pushes into daily life so far. It may be provocative to quote, as Cage did in his piece "Indeterminacy," the Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna by offering the words--"When Sri Ramakrishna was asked why, if God is good, is there evil in the world, he replied, 'To thicken the plot.'"--but it does little to goad people in action. It is no doubt my own rooting in a religious tradition that's objective is, in the words of one Unitarian Universalist author, "to build the world we dream about" that finds limitations in Cage here. He does not point the path to that world. In some of his writings he envisions an anarchist utopian society where work has been abolished and people respect the planet. Yet he never offers thoughts on how to create such a society.

Such was not his purpose. Instead Cage's work offers us the invitation to see the world as a blessing. And that is surely the first step towards making it whole. Cage suggests that viewed properly each movement we make is part of a dance, each breath the catch of a song, each thing we see a thing of wondrous beauty. If we understand the world's beauty how could do anything but cherish it? As Cage himself would say, "Everyday is a beautiful day." Let us make it so.

Amen.

CommentsCategories Sermon Tags John Cage Foraging Spiritual Practice Mycology Buddhism

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