Before I take up today’s topic, I should probably give you a little background of how I got to where I am today. I was born in Newton, Kansas, and as a boy I became fascinated with playing the piano. When I was ready to go to college, I convinced my mother that I could not go to Goshen since they did not have a regular piano teacher. We decided that I should attend Bethany, a nearby Lutheran college that offered a degree in piano. I followed this up with a year at Indiana University and then a foreign assignment through the Mennonite Relief Committee to teach at Woodstock School in Mussoorie, India for three years. I had lots of music possibilities at Woodstock, including teaching, annual piano performances, as well as a lot of conducting opportunities. I also got a little involved with learning Indian music, which resulted in an invitation from the Methodist Church to return to India to develop Indian music for use in the churches. But the Indian government would not issue a visa for my return to that country, so I was asked if I would be willing to go to Africa for a similar assignment. I was intrigued by that possibility even though I knew nothing about African music. I and my former wife were sent to Rhodesia, which is now called Zimbabwe, where I found a rich tradition of indigenous music that had been totally ignored by colonial governments and churches. We adapted chief’s songs and work songs for use in the churches, and we encouraged composition of new music which resulted in the publication of a small song book called “Songs of the Soil.” Upon return to the US I enrolled at UCLA for a degree in ethnomusicology while my wife stayed in New York. After graduating I was offered a job at the University of Washington where I was invited to bring along an African musician as an artist in residence. I chose Dumisani Maraire, a former student of mine from Zimbabwe, who stayed for a number of years and started a successful marimba tradition which has spread throughout the country and was even featured at this year’s Folk Life Festival at the Seattle Center. There is a video available of the spreading marimba tradition, and I have described all of this in greater detail in a little self-published book called “Beyond Boundaries.” It also tells how Thelma and I and our blended families got together after both of us came from earlier marriages.
It has been suggested that youth is a gift, but ageing is an art. Think about it. At birth, and for a few years after that, everything is provided for us. Then when we enter school we are introduced to a structure of learning and play. As we grow older we are motivated by our culture to follow the traditions established by our peers and associates. Then there are the demands of a job or profession as well as family responsibilities that provide the motivation and structure for living. It may be that only in retirement that we are free of the defining structures that have determined our earlier years. Finally we have the freedom to express ourselves, provided that our health will allow it. Medical science is now helpful as we age and is working miracles to keep us alive and well, but it is often depressing to witness the decline and mental depravity of many older people. If ageing is an art, how do some people achieve it while others do not? Charles Fillmore, the cofounder of Unity said at age 95 that he fairly sizzled with zeal and enthusiasm when he got up in the morning. How can we learn to sizzle as we get older? Even though we may have had an active spiritual life in our younger years I suggest that we use these older years to develop some spiritual practices that we may not have had time or motivation to develop in our younger years. Now we have the time to grow up spiritually.
The first of these practices that I am continuing to explore is the art of meditation. We are being exposed to meditation in many places. Even the Seattle Public Library is sponsoring meditation workshops. Dan Harris, an ABC newsman, has written a book called “10% Happier”, which is a description of his learning to meditate. The Buddhists are the major practitioners of meditation, where they emphasize developing mindfulness by bringing our wandering thoughts back to an awareness of our breathing. In our book group we have recently finished reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s very inspiring book called “Creating True Peace” where he describes in some detail the Buddhist practice of meditation. And then there is transcendental meditation which grew out of the influence of meditation practice in India where a word of centering was used whenever the mind started to wander. A Christian adaptation of this practice was developed by Father Thomas Keating, known as centering prayer, practiced quite widely in some Christian circles. It is encouraging to find out that Megan Ramer has led workshops on Centering Prayer at her church in Chicago. My own practice of meditation is done when I wake up in the middle of the night. I am presently trying to follow what is called non-directive meditation with the use of affirmations when my mind starts to wander. Some people can meditate best in a setting of Taize singing. Unity churches often use what they call guided meditation. The Bible uses the word meditation 21 times. The psalmist says that he meditates day and night. In our scripture this morning we are admonished to to hear God’s voice say, “This is the way, walk in it,” when we turn to the left or when we turn to the right. Maybe meditation can become our internal FM radio voice or our Internal Guidance System where God speaks to us and guides us.
Related to meditation is the power of positive thinking. It is so easy to become discouraged when we are bombarded with negative news from all parts of the world. I have been impressed by an article that the noted historian, Howard Zinn, wrote shortly before his death. In “The Optimism of Uncertainty” he describes some of the tragic happenings of the 20th century: two world wars, the destruction of peoples in the Communist world, etc. But he was still optimistic.
“An optimist” he claimed, “isn’t a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, and kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act…”
William Arthur Ward says that “Real optimism is aware of problems , but recognizes solutions, knows about difficulties but believes they can be overcome,…has reason to complain but chooses to smile.” Perhaps we can look at our world from the viewpoint of a movie director and not merely as a movie viewer. The movie director can see the parts of the movie that need to be changed. He can then revise, add, or eliminate scenes that are not appropriate. Likewise, we, with God’s guidance are the movie directors of our lives, who can determine what the movie needs to say, in order to be meaningful. But how can we remain motivated and optimistic in this production when we are surrounded by so much negativity and tragedy? I have found positive affirmations to be very powerful reminders of God’s power in our lives and in the world. Some examples:
I am now free from fear, anxiety, worry or distress.
Nothing can disturb the deep, calm peace of my soul.
God in me is coming through in new and exciting ways.
I let go and let God control my life.
We have on our breakfast table a tear-off calendar of affirmations by Louise Hay who has written a book on how her life has changed with the use of affirmations. I sometimes use an affirmation as a litany for my meditation time. One of my favorite affirmations is “I am bringing my conscious awareness into an expanding level of God consciousness.”
Speaking of consciousness, I am inspired by what Ken Wilber in his “Integral Spirituality” says about the possible stages of consciousness. He suggests that consciousness exists in as
many as nine levels. Two and possibly three of these levels we can understand as rational consciousness, deep sleep consciousness and then dream consciousness. It has been suggested that as the brain slows down we can enter deeper levels of consciousness. Some near death experiences might be experienced as a stage of consciousness. And then I wonder, can our eventual experience of heaven be considered as a final stage of consciousness? Could Jesus’ resurrection be considered as an advanced and deep stage of consciousness?
I would like to close with the words of Archbishop Oscar Romero who said just before he was murdered: “The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water the seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promises. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.”