Sunday Night Worship – 20 April 2008

Trust

Acts 7: 55-60

Have you thought much about the pace at which you live? I don’t mean just how busy and fast-paced a certain day or week or exam period might be. I mean that but more…the way you structure your days and weeks and exams periods, the people and things and places that get priority, what you choose to make life easier and where you purposely choose the harder, longer, slower path. Is this something you think about?

I don’t know many people who think they have loads of time and space to fit in everything that is important to them. It seems most people complain about the workload or the family responsibilities or how to do two majors and a minor and that internship that will look so good on the resume. Most people seem to recognize that their plates are heavy. But most of us seem to want bigger plates…36 hours in a day, more days in a week, more hands, more money, the ability to function better on less sleep….Do you recall hearing anyone willingly ask for a smaller plate?

There is a computer science professor and dean at Harvard, Harry Lewis (no relation), who sat down to pen a letter to incoming freshmen about 6 or 7 years ago and it has proven so popular that it’s been passed along to each subsequent incoming class (http://www.eecs.harvard.edu/~lewis/SlowDown2004.pdf). In the letter he encourages students not to graduate early even if they are able to.  He encourages studying abroad and says there is no shame in taking a year away from school if you’re struggling. He advises students not to choose their academic majors for professional preparedness, to pick only one major extracurricular activity, and to “leave something for after you graduate.”

To use the plate metaphor again, Lewis implores Harvard students to fill a modestly sized plate, not to heap it on, and to leave the table satisfied but still a little hungry for what comes next.

I know his letter is popular and somewhat counter-cultural but I don’t know any students at Harvard so I don’t know how much they take it to heart. Do they read it and feel a moment of relief before digging back into over-full lives or do they take it to heart and choose non-Harvard-seeming academic lives with room for daydreaming and changing their minds? Do they think, “Well, that’s easy for him to say, he’s already finished his degrees and got tenure!”? I don’t know but I find it fascinating. How would you take a letter like this, fresh from the desk of Mr. Casteen or the head of your department? Would the encouragement and permission make a difference in how you live while you’re here?

I discovered Lewis’ letter while reading a book called In Praise of Slowness by Carl Honoré (pp. 246-7). One by one, he examines realms of life where people are attempting to slow down – work, family, food, etc. In reading the book and contemplating its ideas I’ve been struck with how much trust this kind of living requires. Slowness takes trust.

There is something about slowing down and choosing the smaller plate that requires deep and abiding trust. Slowness is one way of saying It’s not all up to me. It doesn’t all need to happen today or this year or this class or this degree. I have a role to play but this story is larger than just my perspective or my life.

In his book Honoré tells the story of a musical piece called As Slow as Possible, composed in 1992 by John Cage and currently being played on an organ in a small German town (p. 244). They are projecting the concert will last 639 years.

The piece is being played on a custom built organ with weights attached to the keyboard in order to “hold down notes long after the organist has left” (p. 244). The concert began in September 2001 and one pause between notes lasted 17 months. During that time the only sound in the room was the intake of air as the bellows were inflating.

Can you imagine this? What would it be like to live in that German town and to stop into the concert every few weeks? During that 17 month pause how would the bellows have sounded when you stepped in on a lunch break? Would it have been different late at night? Would you have noticed anything different in month 16 than in month 3?

And what must it be like for the composer, Cage, to intentionally create music that will not only be played after he is dead but that will still be playing – after his grandchildren are gone?

Trust. To begin something meaningful and to entrust it into others’ hands because it is so much bigger than your own life. Cage started something he will never even hear all the way through.

It strikes me on this Sunday closest to Earth Day, as we worship in this cathedral of trees, that there are similarities with the Green movement. The 639 year concert and the ethos of slowing down are not a way of saying, “Let someone else deal with it.” Just as we can not, as faithful people and stewards of creation, continue to create an environmental mess and vaguely hope that the next generations will set it right, the composer doesn’t say, “I play for my own enjoyment and my own ears. It begins and ends with me.” Even those who aren’t creating centuries-long pieces tend to hope that their music will outlast them.

But with each of us there is a starting point. Our gifts, our abilities, our place in time. And within those contexts what we offer can be miserly and finite or it can be expansive and trusting. We can live only within the moment, hoarding and piling up grain in our barns that will outlast our needs but rot in the process. Or we can live within our moments with the knowledge and trust that our own stories are all part of the larger story God is creating.

With the environment, with life, it’s not “Let someone else deal with it” but rather Here is the best I have to give with my talents in my time and I trust what comes next. I trust that the end of the story is in God’s hands.ÂÂ

Stephen’s story from Acts is like this. Stephen is one of those back in chapter six who were chosen to make sure the daily food distribution was shared among all the disciples. He not only solved the dispute at hand but helped to further the spread of the gospel (Acts 6: 1-7). He is described as doing “great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). When authorities within the synagogue challenge Stephen, he speaks with such conviction and is so infused with the Holy Spirit that his accusers are threatened and falsely accuse him of blaspheming Moses and God (Acts 6: 8-15).

When he’s given his turn to speak in self-defense he launches into the longest speech in the book of Acts and basically gives the entire history of God and God’s people, with a prophetic tongue (Acts 7: 1-53). This is the gospel. This is what makes all of the rest of life make sense. This is what he is living for: to have a place in God’s grand story.

So he tells it with relish and in response his accusers stone him.

He becomes the first Christian martyr and by that very word, “first,” you know that there have been others. But Stephen doesn’t know this will happen or that this will give him a certain prominence. All he knows is the truth. All he knows is that his plate is filled with the blessings of God and that partaking in that feast has brought him this far. He trusts what comes next.

He doesn’t know what that will be but he trusts the Giver. He trusts the resurrection and proclaims it with the whole of his life. And I want to tell you that that is enough. That calling alone is enough, no matter what happens next. No matter what happens once it’s out of your hands. No matter who picks up a stone.

I also want to tell you that what seems like the end of the story never is, with God.

Over to the side watching the whole thing is a young tax collector, watching the coats (Acts 7:58 – 8:1). What an odd detail, but Acts reads like this: “…and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul” (v. 58). Like the bed at a party, Saul is the site of a pile of coats. Other than that we don’t learn anything else about him except that he “approved of their killing him” (Acts 8:1).

I’ll remind you again that what seems like the end of the story never is, with God. This coat-pile moment of Stephen’s witness proves to be a seed in Saul’s conversion to his life as Paul.  And we know his story didn’t end with him either.

With each of us there is a starting point. Our gifts, our abilities, our place in time. And within those contexts what we offer can be miserly and finite or it can be expansive and trusting. We can live only within the moment, hoarding and piling up grain in our barns that will outlast our needs but rot in the process. Or we can live within our moments with the knowledge and trust that our own stories are all part of the larger story God is creating.

Trust the resurrection of this Easter season! Trust that all of our endings can be places to begin again in God’s story. Trust that it is not all up to you but that God wants what you have to offer the world. That calling alone is enough, no matter what happens next.

Thanks be to God!

© Deborah Lewis 2008

Weekly Meeting Schedule
  • Sunday
    • 11:00 Morning Worship at Wesley Memorial UMC (next door)
    • 5:00 Sunday Night Worship
  • Tuesday
    • 6:00 Tuesday Night Dinner
    • 6:45 Forum — Discussion/speaker on a variety of faith topics and student life.
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