Music, Despite Everything
Yesterday morning before worship, I saw a headline in a major Canadian newspaper imploring me to “at least try to pretend that I care about the BC drug overdose crisis.” I paused on that headline. What exactly was it telling me to do? I thought I cared at least a little about the poor souls trying to deaden their pain and loneliness and despair in any way possible (in BC or anywhere else), but it seems that it wasn’t enough. I should care more, evidently. Or care differently than I was at present. But how would I know if or when I had cared enough or in the right ways? And according to whom?
And what about all the other headlines clamouring for my attention? What about the tornadoes in the USA last weekend that have ripped so many lives apart? What about a warming planet and racial injustice and the threat of Russia invading the Ukraine? What about Syria and Ethiopia and Palestine and… ? (God knows there is always another “and.”) Care must be equally calibrated and distributed, no?
What about the seemingly limitless attention that many would like me to pay attention to Covid? Here, in particular, it seems like there can never be enough care given, never enough anxiety mustered, never enough fear and dread marshalled. There are always new numbers, new responses, new variants, new sombre warnings to remain vigilant, to do all that can possibly done to stay safe. Yes, I almost certainly should care more about Covid than I do. Although I suspect my caring should likely steer clear of pondering if our collective response to it has any connection to the opioid crisis in BC.
This week, I came across a poem called “A Brief for the Defense” by the late American poet Jack Gilbert. This passage stood out to me:
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
Delight is indeed a risk. Nobody really wants to be seen as a naïve Pollyanna walking around with rose-coloured glasses imagining that everything is sweetness and light. Particularly here and now. We inhabit a relentless media ecosystem where we are overwhelmed with browbeating headlines, which reliably generate way more clicks and revenue than their opposite. Our social media feeds are clogged with wearisome preening and signalling and endless finger-wagging for never doing enough (or at least being seen to do enough) to combat the evils of our world.
Perhaps Christians in particular, with all kinds of good and important Jesus-y ideas about protesting injustice and caring for those on the margins and resisting evil, can find themselves giving too much of our attention to the bad things, and becoming sad, anxious, and fearful people. Jesus himself, we should remember, didn’t seem particularly sad or anxious or afraid. Even God Incarnate engaged the bad things within limits, in a relatively tiny little corner of the world with a relative handful of people. I’ve long thought that this ought to give us more pause than it does.
And I think Jack Gilbert is right. If we hand all our attention over to the bad things in the world, we praise the devil. We forget or ignore that though the wrong seems oft so strong, the God of heaven and earth, the God who came, who comes among us still, and who will come again in glory is the Ruler yet.
We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.
We must rejoice, in other words. To rejoice is not an exercise in avoidance or insufficient care. It is not naïve or simple-minded. It is not to pretend that things are better than they are. The world is indeed a furnace, and it can be ruthless. But we must measure our attention not only according to that which remains broken and undone in our world but by that which sets our hearts alight, that which points above and beyond. This, in addition to resisting evil and building shalom and extending compassion into the dark corners of our world, is among the central tasks of Christian faith.
To delight is to wager with our lives that in the end it is joy, not despair that will have the last word in our world. It is to wager that the love and the justice of God is stronger and more enduring than all that causes pain and deception and sorrow and mistrust. It is to refuse the devil disproportionate attention. It is to admit that, yes, there will be music despite everything.
Parts of this were adapted from a sermon preached at Lethbridge Mennonite Church on Sunday, December 12, 2021, the Third Sunday of Advent.