Kahu's Mana‘o

Keawala‘i Congregational Church
United Church of Christ (USA)

Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Rev. Kealahou C. Alika

“Growing in God’s Love”
1 Timothy 1:12-17 & Luke 15:1-10

“My Life” is a compact disk was recorded by Iris DeMent in 1994 in Nashville, Tennessee. I don’t remember what prompted me to pick up a copy of her music but when I first heard one of the cuts from the disk, I was taken not only by the music but by her writing and her voice.

While living in California from 1975 to 1991 a friend from my college days in Honolulu, who was born and raised in the city of El Cerrito, thought I would enjoy an evening of bluegrass music. We went to a club in San Francisco and from that night on I developed a fondness for the sound of bluegrass that has lasted down through the years.

Whether or not the music of Iris DeMent is bluegrass, it reminds me of what I heard that night in San Francisco many, many years ago. In the jacket for the compact disk DeMent writes about her father:

She begins, “Sometime, before I was born my dad had been a fiddler. I don’t know who told me. I just know that I have known it since as far back as I can remember. Later in my life, I learned the reason I had never seen my dad’s fiddle, or heard him play was because ‘when he got saved,’ he put his fiddle away.”

“I don’t remember ever contemplating the connection between ‘getting saved’ and ‘putting the fiddle away’ but I knew that getting saved meant, among other things, doing away with sin. When God came in, the fiddle had gone out, and so, I must have concluded that there was something sinful about the fiddle.”

DeMent tells of how one day, when she was around 7 or 8 years old, she found the fiddle high upon a shelf in her parents’ closet, she took the fiddle case down and went to her father and asked him if he would play a song. He hesitated and then picked up the fiddle and tried. But after a brief moment he grew frustrated and stopped because he felt he had lost his ability to play the fiddle. It had been too long.

DeMent says it would not be until many years later that she would come to understand what may have happened that caused her dad to put his fiddle away. She found out through her mother that it wasn’t so much that he “thought playing the fiddle was a sin as that he associated it with his past life.”

“I recall learning in church that when you get saved “the ‘old ways’ are supposed to fall by the wayside,” she explains. “Common to the churches I grew up in is a thing called ‘backsliding,’ which means slipping back into sin or back into the old ways. Altar calls were made not only for the sinners but for the backsliders as well, and it was standard for people to run to the altar, admitting tearfully that they had ‘backsliddin’ and asking God to save them all over again. For some people it was an every Sunday sort of thing.”

“I am proud to say that I never had to witness my dad doing any such thing. He was never pushy or aggressive about his faith but, to the best of my knowledge, he never wavered from it. I remember overhearing a religious discussion once between him and some other men from the church.”

“The thrust of it was ‘Who’s goin’ to heaven and who’s not?’ and there basically wasn’t much to discuss because they already knew. But they went on to busy themselves quoting scriptures to back their conclusions. As they all began to fold their arms and close their bibles, my dad opened his and read this verse: ‘Man (sic) looks on the outside, but God looks on the heart.’ There was not much said after that.”

“Though my own ways of thinking do not always coincide with those of the church I grew up in or the religion adhered to by my father, I know that he was an honest man, and in spite of any mistakes he may have made, his heart was pure. My dad was not a rich man, but he left me a great treasure.” She concludes referring to the recording, “These songs are for him.” (My Life, Iris DeMent, Warner Brothers Records, Inc. USA, 1994)

The songs themselves are about her life. They touch on childhood memories as well as on the ordinary things of every day adult life - of paying bills and taking care of things at home; of making coffee in the morning and dropping the children off at school. They include songs about death and loss, about shattered dreams and hopes, and about sin and mercy.

What comes through in our readings from The First Letter of Paul to Timothy and the Gospel According to Luke this morning is the focus on sinners – whether it is Jesus welcoming sinners to eat with him (Luke 15:2) or Paul confessing the ways in which God’s mercy and grace transformed his own life. (1 Timothy 1:13-14) In Luke 15, Jesus tells how what was “lost” will be restored through the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin.

In the letter to Timothy we are reminded that Paul was once an angry and violent man. It may be that we see ourselves as neither lost nor angry and violent. But most of us may look at our lives and confess that it would seem the ordinary things of every day life seem to weigh upon us heavily.

I have had that kind of a week – of my own family faced with a health crisis made all the more difficult because of health care costs and the lack of adequate health insurance; of someone else having to foreclose on a home and of a family losing their business; of someone troubled by a lifelong struggle with mental illness and of family members estranged from one another; of others faced with physical illnesses and debilitating diseases. We are almost always inclined to question why such calamities come our way. We want to know the causes for all of our difficulties.

Though some mean well it is of little comfort for any of us to say, “God has a plan or purpose for our suffering.” Rather than ask “Why is this happening?” the question should be, “How will we respond?”

Someone offered the following response: “Being in a relationship with God can, at times, be like a lover’s quarrel. However, God never gives up and is always seeking to repair relationships and restore love. God takes the initiative so that we may live securely . . . As we are growing in God’s love, we can learn to mirror God’s relationship with us in our relationships with one another.” (Seasons of the Spirit, Congregational Life/Pentecost 2, Woodlake Publishing, Inc., Kelowna, BC, Canada, 2009, page 26)

What I realized this week is whatever experiences may come our way, whatever circumstances we may find ourselves in, each experience, each circumstance becomes another opportunity for us to grow in God’s love. De Ment makes that clear in her writing and in her music.

Of the ten songs she recorded on the compact disk, My Life is the title track. The music includes a piano and a cello and her soaring voice. The following lyrics were written by DeMent.

My life, it don’t count for nothin’

When I look at this world, I feel so small

My life, it’s only a season

A passing September that no one will recall

But I gave joy to my mother

I made my lover smile

And I can give comfort to my friends when they’re hurting

I can make it seem better for awhile

My life, it’s half the way traveled

And still I have not found my way out of this night

My life, it’s tangled in wishes

And so many things that just never turned out right

But I gave joy to my mother

I made my lover smile

And I can give comfort to my friends when they’re hurting

I can make it seem better for awhile

At first it may seem that the words are full of sadness and melancholy. But for me they are truthful words – that we realize our lives here on earth are for only a brief season of time and that following our death there will come a moment when no one will recall us.

DeMent says that others may look upon the time we do have as time that amounts to nothing. But she insists our lives count for something.

We may look upon our lives and wonder about missed opportunities; of hopes dashed and wishes unfulfilled; of things that never turned out right. Rather than feel sad, DeMent writes that despite what others may say: “I gave joy to my mother. I made my lover smile. And I can give comfort to my friends when they’re hurting. I can make it seem better for awhile.”

We confess with Paul that we too are sinners. But we also give thanks that God seeks to find us and those who are lost. We give thanks for God’s mercy and amazing grace that sets each of us free to give joy to others, to make others smile and to give comfort to those in pain.

Mahalo ke Akua! Thanks be to God!


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