“Background Music”


In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

Wherever you go these days, there always seems to be music playing in the background.

You notice music in the elevator. In the supermarket. In the lobby. In the restaurant. In the airline terminal. In the subway—every place you go seems to hum.

And the music played goes beyond the old “Muzak.” Muzak consisted of packaged tunes so bland that the actual songs could hardly be distinguished by the people who heard them. Background music today can be much more noticeable because it’s by the same popular musicians we choose to listen to.

Even so, while we might hear background music and sometimes recognize the artists who are performing, we don’t consciously listen to it. Most of the music in public spaces barely registers.

It’s there—but in the background. We don’t focus on it like we concentrate on the performances at a concert that we bought tickets to and had gone to the trouble to attend.

This distinction between hearing and listening is an important one. When Jesus refers to “hearing” in today’s Gospel, he is assuming that his disciples will be paying attention. He wants them to listen for advice; and he expects them to follow that advice because by doing the will of God, they will find a new freedom and joy.

Yet, while Christians should indeed listen carefully to Jesus and obey his teaching, background music can be an image for another way that religion nurtures us in daily life. Religion itself can be seen as a kind of spiritual background music.

St. Paul once wrote to a group of Christians that they should “pray without ceasing.” Now Paul was well aware that his readers had lots of other things to do besides pray! He himself earned his living making tents.

But I think Paul was referring to another sense of “unceasing” prayer—what we might call its “spill-over effect”.

People who offer some prayer in the morning find that it has a lingering influence on the rest of the day. Their prayer is remembered, for example, when a difficult problem arises at work.

We recall the peace we felt when we prayed earlier. Now, when we’re in a period of stress, we can breathe deeply. And, now, we’re able to address the crisis of the moment with calm attention.

In other words, while we aren’t praying all the time, we are trying to live in an atmosphere of prayer. In that atmosphere, we find that we are able to listen to God.

And we may also find that the background contains blessings. As a result, instead of giving in to feelings of anger or fear, we are able to pull back and remind ourselves that “this is the day that the Lord has made,” and that “we will rejoice and be glad in it.”

No wonder the Psalms talk again and again about the presence of God. Think of what is perhaps the most famous Psalm, which we heard sung today: the Twenty-third Psalm.

Like Jesus, the Psalm writer uses the image of “shepherd” to illustrate the caring presence of God—the Lord who leads us beside still waters and who revives our souls. We can live with confidence because we know that God is always with us.

Though we might “walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” we need fear no evil, because God is present to comfort us. When we feel threatened, God will “spread a table before in the presence of those who trouble us”.

And, as another Psalm reminds us, when we feel ourselves stumbling on the road of life, our minds are steadied by the God who never “slumbers nor sleeps.”

Still, for most of us, listening to God and cultivating an atmosphere of prayer takes training. There are a few people who are naturally religious—just like there are people who by nature are athletic or artistic.

But just as those who aren’t athletic have to work at sports because they aren’t born athletes, so those of us who aren’t particularly “spiritual” by temperament need to devote time and energy to learning religious practice.

We may find that we sometimes need to work on our skills at spiritual attention. In the heat of the moment, we forget to pause and evaluate our priorities. We fail to consider what God would want us to do, or what we ought to be doing differently, or what God might already be doing in our lives.

Again, suppose that before you left for work, you said the familiar collect from the Prayer Book service of Morning Prayer—it was part of last week’s service. In that prayer, you would have asked that because God had brought you “to the beginning of this day,” He would not let you “fall into sin, nor run into any kind of danger.”

That prayer could then be for you a kind of interior armor. You are wary of making moral errors; and you’re prepared for external threats; you’re ready for whatever problems the day might bring.

Listening for divine whispers also makes you into a different kind of person. For example: living as we do in a large city, our basic instinct is to avoid unnecessary contact with strangers.

This habit is generally sound. We can’t have meaningful interactions with all the people whom we pass on the street.

But there are exceptions to self-imposed isolation. When we listen to the divine, other instincts develop. You might open the door for a stranger; you might offer your arm to a disabled person who is slowly making her way across the street.

And when you make these gestures, you’re acting without trying to “do good deeds.” You may not even be thinking about God; nevertheless, you’re living in a Christian way.

So, too, when you listen for divine whispers, you can find that the Good Shepherd prompts you to move out of your private comfort zone. You feel less isolated from the whirling world around you; you detect a new enthusiasm for life.

You discover, as the Psalmist said, that God’s “goodness and mercy shall follow all the days of” your life, and you “will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.”

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.

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