March 18, 2018

Soli Deo Gloria

When the Von Trapp Family first arrived in America, they hired a manager who strongly suggested they change their stage name.  “The Von Trapp Family Choir just sounds so ‘churchy’,” he informed them. “This is America, you’ll pull in a larger crowd if you lose the “choir” at the end of your name.”  And so, desperate for money and fans and a new life in America the Von Trapp Family Choir became the Von Trapp Family Singers.  Their music was still more or less religious, but through the years they found they were drawn more and more to performing Austrian folk tunes and then later American folk tunes.  All were agreed that with the change of name for this group, there came a change in dynamic.

I tell you this story because it is for this reason that when the Montreat College Ambassador Choir went on tour or sang in other spaces they chose to retain their name, “choir” and all.  It was a conscious decision of the director, that this was the way it was to be. We were not to be the Ambassador Ensemble or Singers or Group.  We were a choir.  In everything we said and did we were Ambassadors of Christ, and by this everyone, choir, conductor, accompanist, and listeners, knew exactly what that meant.

Our Director was a deeply spiritual man. A year or so before I came to the college he had been diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor. It was the kind that was very difficult to operate on because this kind of tumor had a tendency to act like a tree, growing root-like appendages that invaded brain matter and held on tight making it impossible to ever remove all the tumor and its roots. As long as even just a few of those small roots remained, the tumor will grow back, it’s only a matter of time.

Shortly before his surgery my conductor was called up to the chancel along with the Elders, Deacons, and pastors, they laid their hands upon him and they prayed. They prayed that God might see him through this surgery, and though he had never told the Pastor the type of tumor he had, they prayed that the tumor might recede, that it might shrink, bundle itself up and make itself easy to be removed. The day of surgery dawned.  There was a lot hanging on the doctors ability to remove this tumor, roots and all.  For if they could get most of the roots then it meant a much longer and healthier life, if they couldn’t it would mean death was imminent and unstoppable.

There was a lot to learn when he woke up from surgery, as there usually is when the brain is operated on, but when he awoke he learned that the doctor had successfully removed most of the tumor. And wouldn’t you know, it was the darnedest thing, it looked nothing like it did in the scans they’d done. It had almost no roots to it at all.  If he didn’t know any better, he’d say that thing just decided to stop growing altogether, maybe even regress a bit.

Life was a gift. Every day lived from that moment on was a precious gift given to him from God. And he lived his life as if it was.  And that message was received by his students. He conducted music, taught students to sing, and ran a choir all while being a living and breathing example of the work God could do. He lived as if nothing was his. And so long as we were in choir under his baton, we would operate under the same notion.

“Let’s talk about what we do after we sing,” he commented one afternoon just before a concert. “It’s possible that after you’ve sung they will clap for you.  That’s fine, it’s natural.  But let’s talk for a moment about how you will respond to them. If they clap, you will clap too, as a reminder. You don’t sing for them, you don’t sing for me or for yourselves.  You sing for God, to exalt God. If they applaud, clap with them and send every bit of the praise that you receive right back to the God who has given you the voice in your throat, the breath in your lungs, and the words in your mouth.  Soli Deo Gloria, I say.  To God alone the glory.”

Soli Deo Gloria, to God alone the glory…this is a common phrase in the Protestant faith.  We actually have five special phrases like this that guide our faith; we call them the five Solas.  Sola Scriptura, by scripture alone, Sola Fide, by faith alone, Sola Gratia, by grace alone, Solus Christus, through Christ alone, and Soli Deo Gloria, glory to God alone.  Taking theology classes I was already well acquainted with these Solas, but this was the first time that I’d ever seen a use for one of them outside of the classroom. To a freshman who had never experienced anything like it, the idea of all this was quite odd, maybe even funny. We were supposed to clap for ourselves? Wouldn’t that look strange?  Wouldn’t it be just as well if we took our bow, and then went outside and prayed?  Was that really expected to get the point across that we were trying to make?

In truth, I don’t know if our point was ever made. I never asked any of the listeners who came to our concert, never told them we called them listeners and not audience, because we were never supposed to think of it as a performance. I don’t know if they thought it was odd when we clapped for ourselves. But here is what I do know.  I know that the words we sang suddenly carried more weight than any other ensemble I’d ever sung with. I know that beautiful voices became a blessing, a gift that had to be shared with other. And I know that after every concert, when applause filled the room and my friends and I joined them there was a different dynamic than I’d ever experienced before in any other choir.  It felt as though we were one with the listeners. And in the noise around us there was always a moment when it all dulled. A moment when our conductor with his back still to the listeners folded his hands, cast his eyes up to the heavens, and the silent words that came out of his mouth became words that I have repeated to myself after every solo, sermon, and kind word that has come my way. Soli Deo Gloria, to God alone the Glory.

In our scripture reading today, Jesus has a lot to say. John, who is far more interested in sayings and miracles and symbols and meanings than pesky little details, tells us very little. There are a couple of Greeks who have come to see Jesus. The Greeks talk to Philip, who talks to Andrew, and the pair of them go then and talk to Jesus.  What follows is a series of sayings that are more or less familiar as they tend to be among those that people quote Jesus saying often.

The hour has come. Anyone who loves their life will lose it and anyone who loses their life will gain it. For where many are gathered in my name I am there also. But there is one final saying, one that is perhaps less familiar.  Jesus knows what is to happen to him, he understands that he must die and what that death entails. “Should I shy away from it?” he asks them. “No, for this is the very reason I was sent here, to glorify God. In all that I say and all that I do, in the good times but also in the bad times, God, may your name be glorified.”

A voice answers him.  Some say it came from the sky, that it was only thunder.  Others said it had the voice of an angel.  “I have glorified it.  I will glorify it again.”

Jesus lived a life in obedience and glory to God. He became and has become a magnet, a beacon, for those who know something is missing in their life, for gentle souls struggling to live peacefully, for victims of violence looking for justice, for refugees seeking safety, for men and women stricken down by cancer living every day as a gift, and for you and for me, no matter the faith story.

William Shakespeare once said “All the world is a stage and we are its players.” Taking the stage every day of our lives, make no mistake, people are watching. They are watching and waiting to see how we’ll handle tragedy, loss, pain, celebrations, good times and bad. The world will shine a spot light on you, often times when you want it least.  How will we respond to these times? What will our actions reflect?

We are coming to the end of our Lent journey; soon we will reach the climax that awaits us on an Easter Morning when the tomb is rolled away. Our music will change.  The trunk will be open and happy and joyful words will once more pour forth from our mouths. How will you feel when they do?  When we shout that first alleluia for the first time in weeks in response to the good news, will you feel like it’s bursting on your tongue, begging to get out! Will you feel relief, like something has been missing this time and has re-entered your life?  Will you feel something more? To whom will you shout those words?  For what reason? Because they are printed on the paper and we’re supposed to say them?

Pause. Take a deep breath, let the air fill your lungs, let your voice rise in your throat, and let the words that come out of your mouth not be for you, but for the glorification of the One who has given you the ability to do these remarkable things. Live your life like every day is a gift; like nothing you own is your own. Make your own life a testament to the One who has surrendered all in Glory to God the Father. And when people notice this, when they are drawn to you and to your life, point them onward. Become only a marker on their own long journey as you point to the cross, fold your hands, and look up to the sky. To God alone be all the glory, Soli Deo Gloria, Amen.