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March 4, 2012 | 4:00 p.m.
Disorientation . . . Reorientation
Adam H. Fronczek
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
I’ve never been to a Grateful Dead concert, and honestly, until last week, I’ve never really figured I was missing much. But in the adult education program here at Fourth Church we offer classes on lots of different subjects related to religion and spirituality, and last week, one of our teachers gave a great talk on the biblical themes in the music of the Dead. I knew that some of this existed, but I was blown away by what I learned.
The thing that was most interesting to me was an explanation of how the Dead would think about the whole concert experience from start to finish. Many of their concerts began with what came to be known as “sing-along time”: they would play their most well-known songs, one after another, each one lasting just a few minutes, and the crowd would sing along to those familiar melodies with the words they knew. It was comfortable and easy, and most people could appreciate it.
In the middle of the concert, things changed. Often they would again pick one of their more well-known songs, like “Uncle John’s Band,” and after starting in as expected with a couple of familiar verses, the band would then start to jam together and would improvise on the melody. These improvisations would sometimes last for thirty or forty minutes and would move further and further from the original melody or even from any melody at all, until the music was almost unlistenable, the members of the band using their instruments together to create what most of us would describe as ugly, disorienting noise.
This was all by design, because eventually the noise would resolve into melody again, and the concert would finish as the band played some of their deepest music, songs with explicitly religious and often biblical themes, songs about hope and aspirations for the future, songs that expressed the faith that out of the wanderings of our lives, the God that created all of us is waiting to welcome home the lost children of the world.
The Grateful Dead crafted this musical experience as well as anyone, and you don’t have to be a fan of their music to appreciate the overall idea. Jazz bands like Lucy’s group do their own improvisations that at times play on a similar idea, and you can go back to classical music from hundreds of years ago and see a long tradition of music that starts with a theme, a melody, improvises or plays with that melody in a middle section and then returns to the melody at the end. Mozart did it all the time.
The idea is orientation followed by disorientation followed by reorientation, a musical journey intended to mirror our journey through life, which, for most of us, is much the same as the Grateful Dead concert. Childhood is marked by feelings and thoughts that are pure and unambiguous, a clear sense of good and bad, right and wrong, a sense that the world works the way it is supposed to and that everything is for the best, the kinds of feelings and thoughts that, one day, we might look back on and think of as innocent or even naïve.
But things happen in our lives that cause us to question our early innocence. We make mistakes and question if we are as good as we thought we were; we observe or maybe even participate in war and politics and the brokenness of human institutions; we experience heartbreak or illness or some other form of disappointment; we see firsthand that bad things happen to good people. I have to imagine that if I had been a victim of the tornados of this week, this is where I would be, wondering where is God when my life is in ruins. And we become disoriented by these things. The world that once was a sing-along becomes a mess of noise that makes us want to put in earplugs, makes us long to get back to the innocence we once knew or return to life before the storm.
But in ways that we usually don’t quite expect and can’t quite anticipate, troubles in life have a way of working out. Time heals wounds, people offer forgiveness, mistakes are accounted for, and somehow life regains its equilibrium. Importantly, though, we don’t return to being the innocent and naïve selves we once were. It’s not a return to the orientation we had before; it’s a reorientation, a new orientation, one that appreciates where we’ve been and understands in a new way that we might not have arrived just yet at the end of our journey, but we’re on our way home and we’re yearning to get there.
Walter Brueggemann is a world-famous biblical scholar; we were blessed to have him preach here at Fourth Church just this morning. One of the things that put Brueggemann on the map as a scholar was an article he wrote back in the 1980s asserting that the psalms can all be understood as either psalms of orientation, disorientation, or new orientation (Walter Brueggemann, “Psalms and the Life of Faith”). It doesn’t happen in any particular order, moving from Psalm 1 to Psalm 150, but each of the psalms speaks to one of these three general ideas. Some express the idea that all is well in the world—good people prosper, evil people suffer, life is fair, and God’s justice fills the earth. As I said, it doesn’t always work in order, but as an example, Psalm 1 is a Psalm of orientation and it starts this way: “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night” (Psalm 1:1–2). It’s good to do the right thing, and if you do, things will always work out. It’s a psalm of orientation.
Other psalms express disorientation, and Psalm 22, which we sung before the sermon is one of the clearest examples of this: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me, why have you left me all alone, why are you so far from my cry and from my words of distress.” Psalms of disorientation are the words of a people who are just that—disoriented. Something has happened that is tragic or unexpected; a mistake is made, misfortune comes along, life is turned upside down, and the orientation is gone.
Luckily this is not the end of the story. Even out of the most tragic of circumstances somehow there is hope that in time, with help, we can emerge from disorientation and get back on our feet, and that’s why there are psalms of new orientation. In a moment, we’ll sing one of the best examples, Psalm 40, which voices how God has heard the prayers of disorientation: “I waited patiently on God, who stooped to me and heard my cry. God lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay, and set me on a high cliff, making my footing sure.” It’s not as if we haven’t been disoriented, haven’t been down to the pit, but we’ve been lifted out. God gives us a new vision and hope for the future.
The place I want to go with all of this is to point out that while music and literature have always done well to describe this journey through the disorienting times in life, holding on to disorientation is something our culture and the church don’t do very well. Our lives are full of disorientation; we witness and experience bad things all the time. But we often do a poor job of talking about it. We cover up the bad things. We find a pill or a bottle, an exercise class or a new hobby—anything to keep ourselves from having to talk about how disoriented we may feel.
The church is as guilty as anyone for being hesitant to talk about disorientation. We go to church and pray the nice psalms and sing the songs we like the most. Can you imagine me giving a sermon entitled “My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?” and leaving you with that message? No hopeful ending, no happy resolution, just a declaration that today I feel all alone and separated from God and I want you to feel it with me? Thanks a lot, see you next week . . .
I would actually consider preaching that sermon—I think it might do us some good—but I feel like I would need a guarantee from every one of you that you’ll come back next week and hear the end, because acknowledging disorientation is important, but, to be sure, the Christian outlook on life is not supposed to be hopeless. Yet disorientation is a part of life, and it is important to talk about it. Walter Brueggemann writes that disorientation “may not be fully experienced, embraced [or] acknowledged, unless it is brought to speech.” That’s what those psalms are for.
Naming disorientation for what it is is important, because unless we do that, we can’t really understand reorientation with any kind of authenticity. We love reorientation. We love talking about what we’ve been through and how much we’ve learned and how naïve we once were, but we can’t really have that talk until we’ve really been to the place of disorientation. And many times we don’t do that; we allow ourselves to be prematurely reoriented. As yet one more of our efforts to smooth over our sense of disorientation, we tell ourselves and others that we have fully processed whatever difficulties we faced, even if the truth is that we never really did.
The time we are in right now, called Lent, the season before Easter, is a time of disorientation. Here at church, the music slows down, the texts we preach from get a little more serious, and we talk to you a lot about taking time for some self-examination, some reflection on who God is calling us to be and how we could be living that vision more fully. It’s not the happiest time to come to church, but it may be one of the most important, because we will be much more prepared to appreciate the wonder of what God does for us on Easter if we first take the time to consider why we need it.
So over the next few weeks still before us, I invite you to try to stay for a little while in this place of disorientation. As if we were at a Grateful Dead concert, don’t take the noisy, unpleasant, disorienting time in the middle of the jam session as an opportunity to leave the show, take a break, go to the restroom, or get another beer. Stay with us, here. We’re playing a song of disorientation. Reorientation is coming. God intends to do great things. But this is where we are now. Knowing what waits for us in the future, let’s see what we may gain from where we are now.