Column: Darkness Fails to Snuff Out Hope, Gratitude

 
 

By Pastor Alex Bryan

(Originally published by the Walla Walla Union Bulletin)

Cordiner Hall went dark Tuesday night.

But Maestro, musicians and music played on.

The oldest uninterrupted symphony orchestra west of the mighty Mississippi River was midstream in the furious rapids of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, when both house and stage lights failed.

Concertgoers will not soon forget what happened next: for some 25 measures of shadowy suspense, strings, brass, wind, percussion and baton, filled uncertain air with certainty. They didn’t, as we say, miss a beat, though many hearts likely skipped a beat, as uninvited darkness in our Eastern Washington music hall brought Paris awfully close.

At last the lights returned, the crowd applauded, conductor Yaacov Bergman turned from his still-playing orchestra, and toward his delighted and relieved audience, offering a wry, proud smile of accomplishment.

And Beethoven continued, uninterrupted.

At the end of the satisfying finale Allegro a sustained, impassioned ovation brought a knowing moment to both performers and patrons alike: We had, together, escaped. We had, as one, prevailed over and through the darkness.

Bravo.

The famed American composer Leonard Bernstein memorably observed, “Listening to Beethoven’s Fifth, you get the feeling there’s something right with the world, something that checks throughout, something that follows its own laws consistently, something we can trust, that will never let us down.” (Bernstein, “The Joy of Music,” page 105)

I have long shared this perspective. There remains, to my novice ear, something genuinely transcendent about Beethoven’s ear. He heard, though deaf, frequencies best described as extraterrestrial, or perhaps paranormal, or better yet, supernatural.

And what do we discover from Beethoven when we encounter what lies beyond? “Something we can trust, that will never let us down.”

You might imagine a Christian minister would have a bit to say about this mysterious, wonderful “something.”

So here goes.

To Beethoven’s revelation, and Bernstein’s interpretation, Walla Walla, this Thanksgiving season, can celebrate Bergman and band’s determination. If uncommon music can triumph over common darkness, what might be possible? Can violins trump violence? Can cellos calm our current chaos? Can trumpets blow back terror? Can the grace of batons defeat the unbrace of bombs? Can symphony overwhelm cacophony, even and especially discordant political noise?

The truly transformational question, of course, is not about the instruments, nor the composer, nor the players, nor the music itself, but a deeper reality communicated through all of the above — that “something that follows its own laws consistently.”

That something.

And where might we find it?

That something shows up in crème brûlée at Patisserie, in ginger carrot soup at Olive, in my friend Mrs. Thomas’ apple pie. 

That something shows up in the light-and-shadow show performed by setting sun upon Blue Mountains in the day’s final minutes.

That something shows up in streetlights of night on Main Street.

That something shows up in a fresh, smart haircut on my 5-year-old son.

That something shows up in the acres of arcs in the incomparable Palouse.

That something shows up in the collective voice of Whitman College’s Chamber Singers, who sang so beautifully of war and peace, just days ago, in the choir loft of my church.

That something shows up even on the worst scoring day at Wine Valley golf course.

That something shows up in the compassion of physicians and nurses at Providence St. Mary and Walla Walla General Hospital; of Walla Walla firefighters; of College Place police; and every first responder in the county.

That something shows up in the coos of babies and the curiosity of toddlers.

That something shows up where brush meets canvas, where pen encounters paper, where his hand joins together with hers, sending indescribable electricity through both.

That something.

That something showed up on a windy Tuesday night, in a darkened theater, via vibrations created by a German composer, who could not hear, via American neighbors, who live near, in our dark age of global fear.

Who is that something making appearance? That something, I propose, is none other than the Composer God. The Spirit named Holy took His seat, and we stood, applauding something more than performers donned in black.

We clapped, for the Divine paid us timely visitation.

And so: Thanksgiving. Of course, it is about gratefulness for grain and grapes and grandkids. But what lies above and beneath and through it all? 

Cordiner Hall went dark Tuesday night. And for a few bright and beautiful bars, our hearts were lit with hope.

Pastor Alex's Open Letter to Donald Trump

 

(Originally posted in Walla Walla's Union Bulletin)

Dear Mr. Trump,
Greetings from Walla Walla, Wash., a small Pacific Northwest town some 2,800 miles from Jacksonville, Fla., where on Saturday, Oct. 24 you made the following comments in a campaign stump speech:

“I love Iowa. And, look, I don’t have to say it, I’m Presbyterian,” said Trump. “Can you believe it? “Nobody believes I’m Presbyterian. I’m Presbyterian. I’m Presbyterian. I’m Presbyterian. “Boy, that’s down the middle of the road folks, in all fairness. I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about. I just don’t know about.”

I am a Seventh-day Adventist pastor, and since you seem sincerely curious about my religion I would like to offer a brief sketch.

First, perhaps it goes without saying, but I will say it anyway: We Adventists are thoroughly human. Like all religious and nonreligious people what we have in common with the whole of the human family far outweighs our differences: we love, we laugh, we work, we dream, we do good, and sometimes we don’t.

There are moments when we get life right, and other moments when, due to ignorance or arrogance, or just being human, we get it wrong. Adventist people are, pretty much, profoundly and simply human, like you, and like me. And by the way, we are Democrats and Republicans and neither, and I know of Adventists supporting a wide array of presidential candidates this year, including you.

Second, Seventh-day Adventism is a Christian denomination. We are Christians. Presbyterians (your tribe) and Adventists share about 98 percent of the same beliefs and values. What we have in common, you and I, as Christian brothers, far outstrips our differences. Together, we believe in the Deity described by Jesus Christ, a God who created the world, a God who is deeply involved in the affairs of our globe, a God who sets the highest possible moral standard for how we earthlings should live, and particularly how we should speak and act toward one another.

And this, of course, is best articulated in Christ’s paramount commitment: love. Seventh-day Adventists have a long tradition of investing in such love, in meaningful humanitarian concern. We have built one of the largest and most well respected health-care systems in the world — we wish to care for those who are sick. W

e have built the largest Protestant educational system in the world — we wish to provide a quality education for the world’s children.

We have built one of the most successful global relief agencies in the world — we wish to bring hope and healing amid chaos and tragedy.

Seventh-day Adventists are Christians who work (imperfectly, of course) to fulfill the commandment of Jesus to love the world as he did (John 3:16).

Third, and finally, Seventh-day Adventists are (drum roll) Seventh-day Adventists. The “Seventh-day” part means we enjoy the biblical (Genesis 2:1-3) rhythm of six days of work followed by one day of rest. Adventists are known to be hard workers (an attribute I know you admire), folks who then also know how to worship, rest and play (also an attribute I know you admire).

The “Adventist” part of our name recognizes hope in the return of Jesus Christ to this Earth (a Christian belief). This future event — announced by Jesus himself — will bring about the end of suffering and death, a dawn of immeasurable joy and limitless life. This year I have conducted far too many funerals: a teenage boy, a twenty-something mother, and numerous other beloved mom and dads, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. Each (Adventist) memorial service is not only marked by bereavement of death and celebration of life, but also by grounded faith in the power of Jesus’s resurrection as a forecast of a glorious resurrection to come. You will see her, you will see him, again.

How are Adventists unique? I suppose, mostly, in our stubborn habit of preaching ultimate hope.

Mr. Trump, I would love to talk — and I’m happy to fly whenever and wherever to chat life, religion, or whatever else is on your mind (your agenda, my dime). I’d give you my phone number but I’m fully aware of your propensity to tweet those things more broadly (by the way, moment of confession, I thought that was hilarious). I also thought about giving you my buddy’s phone number as my own in hopes of the ultimate practical joke on him. Alas, I chickened out.

Here’s my email: alex.bryan@wallawalla.edu.Let’s talk.

All the best in your campaign.

Warmly,

Alex Bryan

Pastor Alex Bryan, D.Min. is the senior pastor of the Walla Walla University Church.