by Dr. Rickey Cotton
As I begin my address, let me first say how glad, honored, and excited I am to be here. Although this is my first time here at the festival, let me also say that I don’t feel I speak as an outsider—no, I feel already joined to and one with you and what you are doing and experiencing in this Festival and have been for its seventeen year history—but still I do come with a new or fresh perspective.
My title is “Sound and Silence—God and Creative Expression.” So what I am wanting to investigate first and foremost is God and how we relate to God—then to consider creative expression and its relation to God. God first in actuality, not merely in words or not even emotion.
Certainly we will enjoy the gifts of God in the days of the Festival, but I want us to first focus on the Giver, and not his gifts. And I want us to review together what God has done, is doing, and wants to do in and through the Festival.
My core scripture is Psalm 37:7, which says, “Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him.” And also Psalm 46:10–“Be still, and know that I am God.” Silence is key for this kind of knowledge.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is relevant here. Wasn’t the music we heard by him this evening fantastic? But this great musician knew about silence. He said, “Silence is very important. The silence between the notes is as important as the notes themselves” (from The Life and Times of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart). We will consider Mozart a bit more later in this message.
I also want to quote Charles Hulin, a little now and then more later. In preparing for this year’s festival, in his online blog Charles reflected on “Silence,” and he wrote about the consciousness that comes from giving ourselves to God in silence. He said, “With such a consciousness, we can learn how to sing a song of praise in a strange land, in a land where love has been rejected. We can learn to lead life as a meditation….”
This is a profound and important insight for those of us who love God, who love truth, beauty, and goodness, all of which come from God. We are indeed strangers here, an alternative culture, strangers in a strange land. So we must live our lives and practice our art in close communion with God.
So what I am first concerned in this message with is our relationship with God and only then with the arts, with music—and because Anna and I have been included this year—with words, with poetry.
I am first interested in what Jesus called the greatest commandment: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment” (Matt. 22:36-38). So often we just read through the first commandment, or read it too fast, and rush on to the second commandment about loving our neighbor.
But tonight let’s slow down and focus on the first commandment of Jesus. Jesus called it the greatest commandment. And this is what it commands, that we love the Lord our God with all our hearts and with all our souls and with all our minds. Again: with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our minds. That’s quite a challenge. To do it skillfully, effectively, we will need to slow down and recognize that we have hearts, souls, and minds. We will need to engage them fully and consciously practice integrating them and loving God completely with them. It is not just a matter of nice words or sweet intentions. It takes practice.
As I move into the heart of my message, let me mention John Cage. In our time, you can’t talk about music and silence with acknowledging John Cage. He is one of the most famous and most controversial composers of our time, and I suppose his composition “4 min. 33 sec.” engaging silence may be his most famous work. And there is his famous collection of essays, the title of which is Silence.
But we will engage Cage more fully Saturday night. Tonight I am doing something different than Cage. I’m emphasizing experiencing the presence of God in the silence.
But there is a good line from Cage I want to use. Cage said, “The act of listening is in fact an act of composing.” I like that. So tonight as we listen together to my words, let us remember that we are composing together, and let us compose together, in community, what God wants us to hear, let us together sense what and how God wants us to be.
Let’s turn our attention to the Festival Charter, which Anna read a few minutes ago. Seventeen years ago the four founders of this festival, including Charles and Kathy, signed a charter for establishing its foundational values. Here are three key statements from that charter.
First, “Lasker Summer Music Festival is a festival in which the spiritual nature of music is recognized.” That’s what we are doing now: we are exploring and recognizing God’s presence and action in music and in this music festival.
Second, “The fundamental premise of the Festival is that the effectiveness of music is ultimately from God and for God.” Yes, God is first, God is the source, and God is our purpose for being here.
And third, “By participating in the Festival, musicians are retreating into a type of Christian and musical fellowship that should re-ignite the fires of their inspiration, re-set their artistic compasses, and replenish their stores of enthusiasm.” I want to highlight the word “retreat” in that statement. This is key. To be what God wants us to be, we must “retreat,” that is, we must pull back from the world and regularly be with God in intimacy, depth, and yieldedness. And we must have times like this with one another. We do this for renewal, rebirth. Then we can enter the world as genuine expressions of God.
From the charter, let me turn to Charles’s own 2011 Keynote sermon, three years ago. He spoke on “Inspiration.” Inspiration—God breathed. We have to be present and open in responding to God’s breath, to his inspiration.
Let me just read a few of his comments. First he said, “At the opening of each year’s festival, I always stress that I view this as a sacred time devoted to the integration of our calling as musicians and our walk of faith.”
He also said, “And of course, creativity is not limited to the activities of people working in the arts. Preparing a meal, planting a garden, caring for others through the way we live and work – these are manifestations of the creativity God placed within us.” It’s vital that we understand that all of us here are artists, are creators. All of us are involved in the work of beauty, truth, and goodness. To be created in the image of a creative God means that we are creative, all of us.
Charles asked a question: “Are there steps we can take to become more alert to the possibility of inspiration in our own lives? Are there ways of living and looking at things that make us more fit as vessels through which inspiration can flow into the lives of others?”
His answer was yes. He said, “We can begin by diligently opening ourselves to the possibility of inspiration. This will require faith and hope that there is more to life than our ordinary way of living which fails to lift us to our great human potential. We must strive to recognize the divine breath…. To do so, we need to position ourselves in places of inspiration….”
He went on to say, “For inspiration to shape our lives deeply, we need to become contemplatives….” I love this. This was before he and I knew one another well, but God was already speaking to him as he was to me about contemplation, which simply means to be in communion with God, present and open to God’s presence and action.
“For inspiration to change our world,” he declared, “we need to become visionaries like Joseph who was able to see, and willing to pursue, new ways of life….[This] will require great vulnerability on our part.” Ah, vulnerability. Yes, we must be vulnerable to God and to one another. With care, with wisdom, but definitely vulnerable.
And last I want to note that Charles said “we must be willing to let go of who we think we are and of our way of being and then to enter into other modes of existence to which we are called” and that “to really make a difference, some of that will have to be done in the presence of other human beings.” This is essential. Christian artists are not lone rangers. They are expressions of the community of God. We do this together.
Now let me turn to Kathy Hulin’s 2004 Keynote address, ten years ago. Kathy was bold. She titled her message, “Filled with the Fullness of God.” Did you hear that? She called for us to filled with God, puny us; fragile, weak, limited us.
Kathy based her message in the book of Ephesians and first read Eph. 2:10 to us, which says, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” This is challenging enough.
Then she went for the heart of Paul’s message and challenged us with what it says. She said, “The culmination of these chapters is a prayer where I believe the central purpose of the letter is expressed,” after which she read Ephesians 3:16-19: “16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
Wow! Notice what the Apostle Paul was praying and that we are to be the answer to his prayer. Paul wants us to have power—not power to dominate; the power to know Christ’s love. To know that which is beyond knowledge. English professors like me call that an oxymoron, a fancy word meaning contradictory, non-sensical. And that is what the Apostle Paul and Kathy want, for us to know that which is beyond knowledge. And that’s not all. Verse 19 calls for us to “be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
Kathy goes on to say, “…here we are at the Lasker Summer Music Festival. We come as musicians and music-lovers and we are being called to live out of the fullness of God,” and she asks, “What does that mean for us here today? What personal message can we glean from this calling?”
This is her answer: “Right from the very beginning we are summoned to be filled with the Spirit and not with things of the earth.”
She adds, “I’m not sure my experience is universal, or that it sheds any light on interpreting today’s passage, but I believe it illustrates a powerful connection between God and music. That connection [has] allowed me to use music to experience the fullness of God in a way that released me from the pettiness of my old self.” Wow again, Released from the old self, she says. This is the promise of the Gospel.
“So, then,” she continues, “let us ‘be filled with the Spirit of God as we sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among ourselves.’” This is what the Lasker Summer Music Festival is about. This is what we are doing this week.
Kathy concludes her sermon this way: “These thoughts help us to contemplate the content of our music-making, but what about our attitude? If we continue with our passage, it says: ‘Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.’ Here we are instructed to give thanks to God always and for everything. Our attitude in all that we do should be one of thankfulness, and it should be at the root of our music-making. We should also come to our music-making with humility before God and one another. These are not radical ideas to the Christian mindset, but I believe they are radical to the musical world that teaches us our art. In many cases, thankfulness and humility run counter to the culture that trained us. That’s why we need passages like this and places like this to remind us of the significance of putting God first in our lives. Let us agree to put attitudes of thanksgiving and humility into our work this week and carry that into all the work we do back home. Let us be witnesses for Christ to the musical world through our attitudes.”
And Kathy gives final expression to her challenge this way: “So here we are – at the Lasker Summer Music Festival being asked to take into full account our musical work in light of our calling to be filled with the fullness of God…. I invite you to meditate on these things this week. Speak psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to one another. Take this time to think about how God comes first in your life and informs the work that you do. The Lasker Summer Music Festival is a unique place where you can explore your calling as an artist while striving to be filled with the fullness of God.”
Now let me turn from that challenge back to Mozart. He is relevant to being filled with the fullness of God. Remember these words of his: “Silence is very important. The silence between the notes is as important as the notes themselves” (from The Life and Times of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart).
What does this kind of awareness of silence and its relationship to music provide? What is the point? Let me quote a few famous Mozart fans for answers.
First, Johannes Brahms: “If we cannot write with the beauty of Mozart, let us at least try to write with his purity.” Remember that purity of heart is the term Jesus used, and he said that the pure of heart would see God.
Aaron Copland: “Mozart tapped the source from which all music flows, expressing himself with a spontaneity and refinement and breathtaking rightness.” I like the term Copland uses here: rightness. It suggests fitting together, all parts working together to create a sublime effect.
Albert Einstein: “Mozart is the greatest composer of all. Beethoven created his music, but the music of Mozart is of such purity and beauty that one feels he merely found it —that it has always existed as part of the inner beauty of the universe waiting to be revealed.”
And finally Georg Solti, the renowned conductor: “Mozart makes you believe in God because it cannot be by chance that such a phenomenon arrives into this world and leaves such an unbounded number of unparalleled masterpieces.” Isn’t this what we are called to do with our lives? To make people believe in God with the rightness of our lives and our purity of heart?
Now I am going to go from Mozart to the famous pop-rock musician Sting. If you know Sting, you may think I’m turning from the sublime to the…well, I’m not sure what comparison to use. I’m not actually a Sting fan—I am a fan of a commencement speech he gave back in the mid 1990’s at the Berklee College of Music. His awareness of silence and of the deep sources of music amazes me, and I want to share some of his insights with you.
This is what Sting said to those graduates: “For my mother, playing the piano was the only time that I wasn’t the center of her world—the only time she ignored me. So I knew that something significant—some important ritual—was being enacted here. I suppose I was being initiated into something—initiated into some sort of mystery. The mystery of music.”
Sting tells us that “musicians aren’t particularly good role models in society. We really don’t have a very good reputation. Philanderers, alcoholics, addicts, alimony-jumpers, tax-evaders. And I’m not just talking about rock musicians. Classical musicians have just as bad a reputation. And jazz musicians…forget it!”
“But,” he says, “when you watch a musician play—when he enters that private musical world—you often see a child at play, innocent and curious, full of wonder at what can only be adequately described as a mystery—a sacred mystery even. Something deep. Something strange. Both joyous and sad. Something impossible to explain in words.”
He speaks of the mystery of composing: “Still, if somebody asks me how I write songs, I have to say, ‘I don’t really know.’ I don’t really know where they come from. A melody is always a gift from somewhere else. You just have to learn to be grateful and pray that you will be blessed again some other time.”
But the deepest mystery of all, Sting says, is silence: “Paradoxically, I’m coming to believe in the importance of silence in music…. I’m wondering whether, as musicians, the most important thing we do is merely to provide a frame for silence. I’m wondering if silence itself is perhaps the mystery at the heart of music?”
As he moves toward his conclusion, Sting asks, “…is silence the most perfect music of all?”
His final words to those graduates were “… music and silence are priceless gifts, may you always possess them. May they always possess you.” A beautiful closing, a blessing.
Let me move from Sting to the Scriptures. I want to redeem myself for my excursion into pop-rock. Consider these verses with me in terms of our calling to love God first and relate to him in purity and silence and stillness.
“’Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’Jesus replied: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.’” Matt. 22:36-38
We need a practice to do this. We must practice slowing down, being present, being aware. It doesn’t just happen. All deep relationships require times of just being together.
John 4:24 “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”
Psalm 37:7 “Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him.”
Psalm 46:10 “Be still, and know that I am God.”
Psalm 62:1,5 “For God alone my soul waits in silence.”
Psalm 131:2 “I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.”
Gal. 2:20 “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”
Col. 3:11 “Christ is all, and is in all.”
This is our goal. This is our calling. And it takes some intentionality. Some practice.
Now as I move to conclude this message, just a few words from the famous spiritual writer Henri Nouwen, from his book The Way of the Heart.
He writes: “A word with power is a word that comes out of silence. A word that bears fruit emerges from the silence and returns to it. It is a word that reminds us of the silence from which it comes and leads us back to that silence. A word that is not rooted in silence is a weak, powerless word that sounds like a “clashing cymbal or a booming gong” (1 Corinthians 13:1)” (49).
Let me substitute music for word in that last sentence: “Music that is not rooted in silence is weak, powerless music that sounds like a ‘clashing cymbal or a booming gong.’” That really strikes me powerfully.
Nouwen continues, “Silence is the home of the word. Silence gives strength and fruitfulness to the word. We can even say that words are meant to disclose the mystery of the silence from which they come” (41).
Nouwen argues that silence is essential to nourish the inner fire of the Holy Spirit. He says, “A second, more positive, meaning of silence is that it protects the inner fire…. This inner heat is the life of the Holy Spirit within us. Thus, silence is the discipline by which the inner fire of God is tended and kept alive” (45).
“All this is true,” he declares, “only when the silence from which the word comes forth is not emptiness and absence, but fullness and presence, not the human silence of embarrassment, shame, or guilt, but the divine silence in which love rests secure” (49). Let me repeat those last words: “the divine silence in which love rests secure.”
As I draw to the end, I do want to quote at least one poet. I’ve quoted all these musicians, so here’s what one of my favorite poets, Li-Young Lee, had this to say about poetry and silence: “I feel the real medium for me is silence, so I could be writing in any language. To inflect the inner silence, to give it body, that’s all we’re doing. You use the voice to make the silence present. The real subject in poetry isn’t the voice. The real subject is silence.”
Let me invite you to consider embracing the attitude expressed by a poem I wrote some time ago, but revised for this year’s Festival. Let me read it to you.
SUBMITTING TO SILENCE
Yes, we submit to you, silence,
and gladly, too.
we have learned that those
who would use sound well
must understand what sound cannot do,
must realize that sound
emerges from silence
and must find the ground of its meaning
in its silent source.
Perhaps later we will compose and perform.
But first we will sit in your presence,
still and open,
resting in your quiet embrace.
Let’s take a few moments as we close to actually rest in the Lord’s quiet embrace together as the poem says. I want you to join me in a simple meditation on Psalm 37:7: “Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him.”
The meditation will work like this. I will read the whole verse and allow for a few moments of meditative silence. Then I will read the first half of it, “Be still before the Lord,” and allow some moments of silence. Then I will read simply the words, “Be still,” and again allow for some silence. And finally I will read only the word, “Be,” and after the word “Be” we will have our final silence. After this final silence, I will conclude with Amen. So please join me in this concluding meditation, and let’s together rest in the silence, open and present to the presence of the Lord.
[The first reading:] “Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him.” [a few moments of silence]
[The second reading:] “Be still before the LORD.” [a few moments of silence]
[The third reading:] “Be still.” [a few moments of silence]
[The fourth reading:] “Be.” [a final few moments of silence]