February 15, 2016

No More, No Less

On November 2, 1830, after offering a farewell concert at the National Theater in Warsaw, Frederic Chopin, an artist of immense talent, left his beloved Poland to travel to Vienna, Austria. He was twenty years old.

Chopin had already established himself as a gifted performer and composer by the time he said goodbye to his homeland. He was a child prodigy like Mozart. By the age of 7, his compositions for piano were being published and he was giving public concerts. At age 12, his piano instructor confessed that he had nothing left to teach him. At 19, the head master of his school in Warsaw wrote in a report, “Chopin, Fryderyk, third year student, amazing talent, musical genius."

Chopin left Warsaw with a bright future before him. Previously, he had been well received in Vienna and he intended to build on this success. From there he planned to further his career in Italy.

However, soon after arriving in Austria, war broke out in Poland and forever altered the course of Chopin’s career and his artistry. He would never go back home again.

On November 29, 1830, the Polish people rose up violently against the influence of Imperial Russia in their land. The war that followed lasted for a year, claimed 100,000 causalities, and, from the perspective of the Polish revolutionaries, was a failure. The war also isolated Chopin in Vienna with only his worries, his since of national pride, and his talent to give him comfort.

We get a sense of the artist’s state of mind from a journal entry he made upon learning of the war’s end.

The enemy is in the house…Oh God, do You exist? You do and yet You do not avenge. Have You not had enough of Moscow's crimes, or, or are You Yourself a Muscovite…I am here, useless! And I am here empty-handed. At times I can only groan, suffer, and pour out my despair at my piano!
Later in this service, Leon will play one of the compositions Chopin first sketched during this era—his ballade no. 1. It’s an incredible piece of music—an epic poem played on piano that—like the best of Virgil or Chaucer or Dante—invites its listeners to go to the deepest and highest and farthest reaches of their experience—the very edges of their loves, disappointments, aspirations, and failure—and to report what they find.

Chopin’s ballade no. 1 is a passionately honest piece. About it, one critic writes,

It was during [the time of the war in Poland] that what was original, individual and distinctive in Chopin spoke through his music with great urgency and violence, expressing the composer’s inner world spontaneously and without constraint – a world of real experiences and traumas, sentimental memories and dreams, romantic notions and fancies. Life did not spare him such experiences and traumas in those years, be it in the sphere of patriotic or of intimate feelings.
Chopin’s ballade no. 1 is a passionately honest piece of music that obliges us to the work of honesty—to be honest with ourselves, honest with one another, and honest with God. It is, therefore, appropriate and worthwhile that Chopin’s music is before us this morning on this first Sunday of Lent, our holy season of honest self-examination and repentance.

Lent, and the entirety of our lives as Christians, is an exercise in setting aside our pretensions and pretentiousness so that we might fully experience, share, and participate in God’s love. Lent is about living honestly.

That’s why we begin the season by putting ashes on our foreheads as a representation of what lays beneath the surface within us—that despite our protests we are dust, mortal, sinners. We are not God.

We begin the season, too, by remembering the time Jesus spent in the wilderness. We remember that, after his baptism, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness where he faced temptation’s onslaught. We remember how the experience stripped Jesus of every external comfort, how it created the space in which fear can flourish.

“Aren’t you hungry?” asked the Tempter. “Wouldn’t a little bit of bread be nice right now?”

“Isn’t bowing down to me an easier path to glory and power than the cross?”

“If you really are who you say you are, then prove it!”

The temptation was real, yet Jesus remained steadfast and revealed to us that, even at the honest edges—where pretense and vanity vanish—God’s grace endures.

“[At the end of it all] the devil left [Jesus],” writes Saint Matthew, “and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”

God calls us to live honestly, but from our most egregious displays of pompous posturing to more subtle moments of simply trying to manage what others think about us, letting go of pretense is exhausting, almost as exhausting as keeping up appearances.

The theologian Stanley Hauerwas had in mind the barriers to authenticity when he wrote this prayer,

Help us learn to trust your perfect love. Help us accept the joy that comes from the honesty your love makes possible.
Take note of the sequence Hauerwas describes here because it’s important. First, before anything else, God loves us. Second, God’s love makes honesty possible because genuine love asks nothing more of us than to be who we are. Then—forgiven, loved, and set free to be our honest and true selves—we stand ready to accept, with God’s help, the gift of joy.

Hauerwas concludes,

You have forgiven the pretense that nailed your Son to the cross. Forgiven, you have given us a way to go on in a lie-shaped world. As your forgiven people, make us your salvation, that the world may see how wonderful it is to be no more or less than we are, that is, your creatures.
“How wonderful it is to be no more or less than we are!”

How wonderful it is to be honest.

This brings us back to Chopin’s ballade no. 1. Leon will present the ballade as the offertory at the point of the service in which we offer our gifts to the Lord in thanksgiving for all that we have received. I invite you to be acutely aware of this placement in worship, for while there’s nothing specifically religious about the music, it is meant to stir up something within.

The critic writes,

Chopin's ballades are pure music in their finest forms without any suggestive narration. Though Chopin was somewhat inspired by the stories of his native Poland…he wanted listeners to follow their own narration through his music.
This morning, I invite you to draw near to God, through the grace of Jesus Christ, with your story, your “real experiences and traumas, sentimental memories and dreams, romantic notions and fancies.”

Come honestly. Come humbly for our narration is the story of the love that will not let us go. It is the story of the love that not only allows us to be ourselves, but the love that reveals who we really are, the love that bring us into the joyous fellowship in which barriers, divisions, and artifice fall.

On Ash Wednesday, we heard the words of Psalm 51,

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
This morning, we heard from a heartbroken artist,
I am here, useless! And I am here empty-handed. At times I can only groan, suffer, and pour out my despair at my piano!
And in these voices, we hear the Good News of our deliverance.

Lent, and the entirety of our lives as Christians, is an exercise in setting aside our pretensions and pretentiousness so that we might fully experience, share, and participate in God’s love.

[O Lord,] Help us learn to trust your perfect love. Help us accept the joy that comes from the honesty your love makes possible.
O Lord, help us to give thanks for this Good News. Amen.