Deep Breaths with Palestrina

Sermon for Sunday, March 22, 2020 || Lent 4A || Psalm 23; John 9:1-41

I usually listen to really upbeat music when I’m writing my sermons, often the Piano Guys, who do instrumental mash-ups of pop and classical music. Their driving rhythms mixed with familiar melodies propel me forward as I write. I’m sure I bop my head along, my fingers click-clacking across the keyboard in time with the percussion. When I sat down to write this sermon, I put on the Piano Guys like normal. But about thirty seconds into the first song, I had to switch to something else.

Because today is not normal. Today is about as far from normal as I can remember since the days following September 11, 2001. As I thought and prayed my way into today’s sermon, I noticed just how un-calm I was. I had not slept well in several nights. I had pain in my jaw, always a sign of stress. I had a thick knot of anxiety in my chest. I looked beyond the anxiety and felt a roiling mix of other emotions, which I’ll get into in a moment. Realizing my state on un-calm, I changed the music. I selected a setting of the mass in Latin by the Renaissance composer Palestrina, who never fails to help me take deep breaths.

So I started taking deep breaths and waiting for my fingers to start typing this sermon. Eventually they did, or else I wouldn’t have these words to say to you. I thought about the man who was born blind from our Gospel lesson this morning. How scary it must have been for him to receive his sight and then immediately be ostracized by his family and his community. His parents won’t stick up for him beyond affirming he was, indeed, born without the ability to see. When he testifies about what Jesus did for him, the people of his faith community drive him out. (By the way, the word used in the original language for driving the man out is the same one used for casting out demons.)

How isolated must the man have felt! Before this, others may have isolated him due to his blindness. People thought that physical conditions like blindness were punishment for the sins of the parents. But having been born blind, the man knew no other mode of living. He adapted from birth to his inability to see. And now that his eyes can behold others, the first people he sees are skeptical, the next angry, the next belligerent. Imagine seeing for the first time ever, and now that your eyes function, you only see scowling faces. There is so much pain in this story. And anxiety. And isolation.

But the man’s isolation is short-lived, blessedly short-lived. Jesus has been absent for most of the chapter, but now he hears that the man had been cast out like a demon from the synagogue. And Jesus does something he does nowhere else in the entire Gospel. He goes out and finds someone whom he has previously healed. Jesus finds the man like the shepherd finds the lost sheep in the parable. Jesus finds the man like God finds us when we are anxious or afraid.

This is where I am today. I’m sitting with the emotions of this strange and unsettling new reality that we find ourselves in. Because I have so many emotions all fighting for purchase beneath my anxiety, I know that my higher brain function is impaired right now. I keep slipping back into my lizard brain, the one that has only three responses: fight, flight, or freeze. Notice that none of those is “reach out,” “be concerned for,” or even “take a deep breath.”

So instead of trying to force my rational mind back on track, I’m praying with my emotions and asking them to speak their messages to me. For that is what our feelings are. Feelings send us messages about what is going on inside us in response to the varied stimuli of life. Right now, I’m wondering what God is saying in my life and in this moment in history. 

I start at the top, with my anxiety. Anxiety is a form of fear, fear that happens when we do not have control. Okay, that makes sense. I’m sure some of this knot of anxiety is mine, and some I’m feeling because humans are social beings wired for connection and society is anxious over a very real danger. Beneath anxiety, I am confused and helpless, and overwhelmed, all of which are also shades of fear. So all at once, I’m feeling four different types of fear. No wonder my lizard brain wants to take over!

Along with fear, I’m feeling irritated at the disruption the pandemic is causing in my life and in the world. I want my kids in school. I want to see people at church. I want to go about my regularly scheduled life. This irritation brings a wave of selfishness: I’m not sick, so why should I have to conform to all the public health guidelines! Irritation and selfishness are forms of anger. God, I didn’t realize I was angry about this. I thought I was just scared. But my boundaries have been breached, my freedom taken for a time. Anger is the expected response.

But there’s more. There are so many emotions. I feel guilty over being angry. I feel lonely even though my family is still around, and I’m not truly isolated. I feel tired, both physically and emotionally. All of these are forms of sadness. Not only am I scared and angry. I’m sad. We are giving up so much in order to stem the tide of this pandemic, and it’s worth it. The sacrifice is so worth it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be sad, too.

Palestrina plays over the speakers, reminding me to take deep breaths in the midst of all these roiling emotions: four kinds of fear, two kinds of anger, and three kinds of sadness. But then I realize what God is whispering to me through the beautiful polyphony of Palestrina’s masterful music. *Deep Breath.* That breath right there, that deep breath, is where God is. The emotions do not stop at fear, anger, and sadness.

Beneath all these, at the depths of my being, I remember that God is faithful, which helps me to be faithful. I find creativity in trying on new ways to come together while maintaining physical distance. I find thankfulness that so many people all over the world are making sacrificial adaptations in order to confront the pandemic. And this allows a tiny bubble of hopefulness to float up, that after this is over we will have the collective experience to make more sacrificial adaptations to address other threats like climate change. Faithfulness, creativity, gratitude, and hope – all these emotions exist alongside the ones that are dominating right now. Fear, anger, and sadness cannot drive them out entirely because they come from God, and they are telling me to trust that God reigns even in the midst of crisis.

Last Sunday, I came home from filming our first livestream. It felt empowering to do something when we couldn’t meet in person. But I also felt unsettled and unsatisfied. My wife and children had watched the livestream, and when I walked in, the first thing I saw was the altar my five-year-old son had constructed from pillows. He led our family in a short service of his own devising. And then he got out our copy of the Godly Play story of the Parable of the Good Shepherd. He laid out the felt underlay and prepared the sheepfold, the still water, and the dark places. He counted the five sheep into the fold. Then he told the whole story: how the Good Shepherd leads the sheep to the good, green grass and the cool waters. How the Good Shepherd stands between the sheep and the wolf. And how when one sheep was lost in the dark places, the Good Shepherd went out and searched and searched until the sheep was found.

Photo by David Beale on Unsplash.

4 thoughts on “Deep Breaths with Palestrina

  1. That was a heart wrenching and uplifting at the same time, sermon.Thank you Adam. With God’s help…..

  2. Dear Adam, Thank you for your post “Deep Breaths with Palestrina”; it is just what we need during this time of separation and fear. Thank you also for the link to the Palestrina Mass. I listened to it while reading the sermon. And especially thank you for the story of your son telling and showing the story of the Good Shepherd. It was very encouraging.

    Blessed Triduum,Verdery Kassebaum, San Diego

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