Both sides now…

Well, this post is something of a risk – for two reasons. Firstly, it is becoming clearer and clearer to me that more and more people out there from all walks of life are less and less interested in spending long periods of time reading – and especially if the material is dense and serious enough to require active concentration. Secondly, some of the theology contained is quite controversial – more on that later. However, given the specific areas that this blog is committed to, these notes from a Sunday sermon preached by the Reverend Gary Cox are interesting to me – and I am sure that they will be interesting to others who may chance upon this blog.

As it happens, this post is addressed rather more to secular readers than to ‘church people’ although both are of course welcome by definition. But the binary way in which many conservative Christians think means that they may not quite understand why this post is on this blog.

To ensure that certain Seventh-Day Adventists do not get confused and think that I am endorsing theological positions that contravene what my church teaches, please be advised that I am unquestionably not endorsing major parts of the theology below – in fact, I need to make it clear how much I dispute it! And moreover, the abject lack of Scripture in the sermon is a major problem for all Bible-believing Christians. However, he is at least consistent with the position of his denomination, as you will see if you get that far! BUT – the principle of engaging with a piece of popular music that actually has what we could call ‘conscious lyrics’ and pointing to a reality beyond that espoused by the lyrics – whiles acknowledging the seriousness and thoughtfulness of those lyrics – that is exactly what Christians artists need to do much, much more than they do! As I have previously observed, when secular performers and writers have thought hard about what they don’t believe, and Christians have barely engaged their minds on what they claim they DO believe, it is no wonder that many people have no real reason to explore Christianity more seriously! And as “Christianity” goes, this is pretty controversial. I do believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, so I do not believe in evolution, and I would say that the manner in which the issue of the ‘power’ that resides within humanity is expressed is very misleading indeed! And I’d say more, but given the massive word-count already the intro stops here.

So, do please keep reading, and please stick in a comment or two if you feel so inclined! Let me now hand you over to the Reverend Cox.

Sunday Sermon – University Congregational Church; Wichita, Kansas. April 25, 2005

I don’t know what makes a song truly great, but one of the indicators of a great song is that it is performed by a wide variety of artists. One of my favorite songs is called Both Sides Now, and it has been recorded by countless artists, including Judy Collins, Neil Diamond, Frank Sinatra, Glen Campbell and Chet Atkins.

The song was written in the 1960’s by a woman named Roberta Joan Anderson. She eventually changed her name to Joni Mitchell, and released her own version of the song in the early 70’s. It is a sad song, really, as the writer wrestles with her lack of understanding as she looks back on her life and considers all the highs and lows, all the ups and downs, and discovers that after all those years of living she doesn’t know much more than when she started.

In the song, she sings about three things: clouds, love, and life. She claims to have looked at all three of these things from both sides, and in her beautifully poetic way she opens her heart to the confusion that is a part of every human life.

I’d love to meet Joni Mitchell, and ask her if her thinking has changed since the days when she penned that song. Her first verse goes like this:

Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all.

Beautiful words, but a bit melancholy. Being a person who tends to think theologically about pretty much everything, I see this verse of the song “the verse about clouds” as being about nature itself. There are days when we look at Mother Nature and see this wondrous and balanced creation that simply overflows with great beauty; and there are days when it seems that death and decay wait around every corner. We watch some little bunny happily bouncing along the fence row, but the minute we start feeling all warm and fuzzy about the beauty of nature, Mr. Cottontail suddenly becomes lunch for some larger mammal, who is doing nothing other than acting according to his nature.

So we’ve all looked at nature from both sides. We’ve all looked at the clouds and seen “rows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air,” and we’ve all watched those same clouds “block the sun and rain and snow on everyone.”

Joni Mitchell concludes her reflection on nature by saying she’s “looked at clouds from both sides now, from up and down and still somehow it’s clouds illusions I recall, I really don’t know clouds at all.” And that’s where I have to take exception to her thinking. It’s good for us to look at clouds, and nature, and the mystery of creation itself with a sense of wonder, and it’s good for us to open ourselves to both the beauty and the pain that come from having open minds and open hearts where such matters are concerned.

But Joni, the beauty of those ice cream castles in the air more than offset the dreary days of rain. Einstein was once asked, “What is the most important question in the universe?” Einstein believed that the most important question in the universe is this: Is the universe a friendly place, or not? Here is a giant of a man who had look at the universe from both sides, and he wound up in the same place as Joni Mitchell: wondering whether or not the ice cream castles in the air are amazing enough to offset the rain; wondering whether or not this amazing creation of ours has enough goodness in it to justify all of the horrible things that happen.

Well, as a person who has spent his life looking at clouds from both sides, I would like to answer Albert Einstein and Joni Mitchell’s question. Yes. Yes, the universe is a friendly place. It may seem like a mess at times, but for all the pain, for all the evil, for all the horrible things we must go through in life, it is all more than worthwhile. It is wonderful. It is excellent.

Joni Mitchell, in the second verse of her song, sings about love. She sings:

Moons and Junes and ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As every fairy tale comes real
I’ve looked at love that way

But now it’s just another show
You leave ’em laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away

I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take, and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know love at all

Again, beautiful, but a tad depressing! Of course, Joni Mitchell is singing about romantic love, and she has clearly had some negative experiences in this area. I regret that she experienced such misfortune in this area, because I can attest that the greatest joy in life is being deeply in love with another person.

But I want to talk about a more encompassing kind of love. I want to talk about the love that Jesus speaks of when he tells us to love one another. I have a bedrock conviction when it comes to this subject, and it harkens back to our reflection on clouds, and nature, and whether or not this incomprehensible universe is a friendly place or not. I believe love is the reason the universe exists.

I confess that I am a theological thinker. The “why” questions really matter to me. Why is there something instead of nothing? Why does reality exist? Why not nothingness forever? It sure would have been a lot simpler if God had opted to exist alone in the emptiness of eternity. Why call creation into being in the first place?

And I have my answer. Love. Compassionate giving from the very center of who and what we are that is the same power that called creation into being. Only love was a power strong enough to call creation into being in the first place, and only love sustains it moment to moment. And as the universe has unfolded over these billions of years, it has not been a massive and meaningless accident, with life inevitably evolving and growing into more and more complex forms.

There is meaning and purpose to all of this. It is not a fluke accident that the universe ultimately gave rise to creatures who could think about creation itself, and who could question whether or not this universe is a friendly place or not. We were meant to be here from the beginning. And it took a long time, but we finally evolved into creatures who exist in the image of God. Not because we look like God, but rather because we can share God’s most important traits. Just like God, we can give of ourselves, we can love, we can use the resources we have to make the universe a friendly place. We have that power! It is the power of love, and it has been given to us. The 13 or 14 billion year wait was worth it! Love is that powerful. It is the reason we exist.

When Joni Mitchell says, “It’s love’s illusions I recall, I really don’t know love at all,” she just needs to keep looking. She needs to look deeper. I hope Joni Mitchell found a higher love, the love that gives life meaning and purpose. I’m reminded of one of my favorite passages from literature, spoken by Father Zosima in Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, The Brothers Karamozov. Dostoevsky writes:

“Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand of it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.”

I should end here, because there is little I can add to those amazing words. But we have a final verse left in Joni Mitchell’s song. Having considered clouds, and love, she turns at last to life itself, writing:

Tears and fears and feeling proud
To say I love you right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I’ve looked at life that way

But now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed
Well something’s lost, but something’s gained
In living every day

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all

That is one of my all-time favorite songs. It captures the confusion and the pain that can happen when we look at our lives with real honesty. Her beautiful song seems to have been written in a moment of despair, and we can all relate to her feelings. But I hope Joni Mitchell kept looking at her life, because I firmly believe that if we keep looking, we find our answer. I believe that’s what Jesus means in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”

It was Plato who first said that the unexamined life is not worth living. And that rings true to me. So many of us occupy ourselves with the trivial matters that comprise our days, and we never take the time to actually think about the fact we are alive. We are alive. What an amazing gift, this gift of life. We can’t purchase a single day of life, regardless of how much money we have. We can’t bargain with Mother Nature and have her give us a few extra weeks. We can’t guarantee our next breath, our next heartbeat. They are gifts.

How is it we take it all for granted? Perhaps it is fear. Perhaps it is fear that keeps us from looking deeply at our own lives, and thinking deeply about whether our lives have meaning and purpose, or whether they are just some sort of cosmic accident that occurred as a result of an unlikely series of fluke chemical reactions and fortuitous mutations over a period of billions of years.

But that is simply not the case. We have nothing to fear. We are not biological accidents. We are the children of God. And if God is for us, who can be against us? Yes, this is a matter of faith. Not a single one of the countless books of theology I have read over the years provides any kind of scientific proof that God exists, let alone that we have a God who loves us and cares for us.

Faith. Life is nothing without it. Literally nothing. Without faith human life is nothing more than a pile of dust that took shape and developed a consciousness whose only purpose is to torment us with the knowledge of our own mortality. But add faith – add faith and something amazing happens.

Add faith to human life and those rain clouds evolve into rows and flows of angels hair and ice cream castles in the air. Add faith, and love evolves from a simple emotion to a reason for being. Add faith, and the water of human life is transformed into wine, existence is transformed into creation, and fear disappears into trust in God.

We Congregationalists are not biblical literalists, but we recognize there is great truth to be found in the pages of scripture. Perhaps the most important truth is found at the very beginning, with the powerful and poetic expression of the way God called creation into being. If we can get our minds and our hearts around these words, we have nothing to fear. These words are not historic. They are not scientific. They are poetic. And they reveal a truth that only poetry can reveal. Once these words touch our hearts, we can look at the universe, and love, and life from both sides now, and know that in the end the universe truly is a friendly place. From the first chapter of Genesis:

And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.

God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. Amen.

2 thoughts on “Both sides now…

  1. I am left with the sense that the difference between Roberta and the Reverend is little more that dramatic inflection. When the capabilities of the Creator are dismissed as little more that the wandering fantasies of poetry, we are left to the failing devices of men. For me that engenders little hope.

    1. I understand the general tenor of what you have said. I am not sure that it is quite that straightforward. The Reverend has made some connections between the specific sentiments of the song and wider (theological) realities (as he perceives them – both the ‘theology’ and the ‘realities’). Even allowing for certain of his positions (not least his denial of the historicity of Genesis), he is quite right to point out that this song – one of the most famous of the last century in any genre – is an ode to the circularity and meaninglessness that ultimately defines the secular outlook – whether recognised or not.

      The Reverend is arguing that there is exponentially more to life, love and nature than this song would have us believe. It is a beautiful song in musical terms – but the sheer popularity of this type of musical melancholia has only one antidote – a theistic outlook. Notice that I have not said something more along the lines of ‘the hope found in the gospel.’ But we can only offer what we have experienced, and I believe that the good Reverend is trying to argue for Christianity against secularism, and I am with him on that. From the responses I have had from secular people who read this blog post only because they recognised the title of the song, it has indeed had the effect of making a few people consider a few questions from an angle that they might not otherwise have found.

      What’s interesting about the desire of an increasing number of Christians to advocate for a non-literal reading of Genesis is the fact that this ‘concession’ to secular processing has not resulted in greater respect from the secular world. And it is not true (of course I would say this as a Seventh-Day Adventist). But from more than one vantage point we can see that both the Reverend and Joni must be left behind – as you have identified. But the Reverend opens a door that might never open for some, and so I will take that – as indeed, I have done.

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