OK. So there’s Elijah feeling sorry for himself in the wilderness. He wants to die. Queen Jezebel is after him. Wants to do to him what he did to all of her prophets – kill him. He runs away. So God takes him to the mountain. And there Elijah has this experience with the great wind and the earthquake and finally the sheer silence. And, lo and behold, God speaks to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” This kind of reminds me of that famous Bill Cosby routine.
Who is that?
It’s the Lord, Noah.
And that’s probably how we all feel when we hear claims that God has spoken – right! And we conclude that God doesn’t speak that way these days.
So we come to the New Testament and we encounter this one sentence in the first chapter of Hebrews:
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son. (Hebrews 1:1-2a)
In the New Testament, that is how God has spoken – in Jesus Christ. There are those who say that Jesus was indeed the last word, there is nothing more needed to be said, that with the completion of the New Testament God is through speaking. Just believe in Jesus and that’s it.
So, there remains the question: “Is God Still Speaking?” Is God still speaking today? And if so, how? Well one way could be as expressed by The Most Interesting Man in the World of Dos Equis beer commercial fame: “I don’t always hear from God, but when I do, he sounds like me.”
But tonight I’d like to consider these words of Frederick Buechner:
Listen to your life. Listen to what happens to you because it is through what happens to you that God speaks…. It’s in language that’s not always easy to decipher, but it’s there powerfully, memorably, unforgettably.
God speaks today through the living of our lives; yours, mine. In his book, The Sacred Journey, he writes: “…if God speaks to us at all in this world, if God speaks anywhere, it is into our personal lives [God] speaks.” And then he proceeds to tell his story, a sacred journey.
Tonight I’d like us to consider how God has spoken through the life of Donny Hathaway. It too is a sacred journey but not obviously so. Donny was born in 1945 in Chicago but was raised by his grandmother in St. Louis. Went to church with her. Sang in the choir. Even got some paid singing gigs at the age of three. Music was in his blood. After high school he went on to Howard University on a fine arts scholarship. There he became good friends with Roberta Flack. So a side note: John Templeton also went to Howard University and he stayed in the same dorm room that was Donny’s (not at the same time, however). He left school early to pursue many job offers in the music business. And for the next ten years or so Donny’s beautiful voice, sophisticated piano playing and incredible music sensitivity graced the music world. He produced several notable songs and albums, the first being The Ghettowhich we’ll hear later and an album that Linda and I have loved since we were young marrieds, “Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway” with Where Is the Love (Come Ye Disconsolate is from that album), and a very impressive album in 1972, “Live” which, of course, is a live concert. He teamed up with Roberta Flack again in 1978 for the duet, The Closer I Get to You. There was no stopping him – except himself. On January 13, 1979 his body was found on the sidewalk outside the Essex House hotel in New York City. Apparently he had thrown himself out of his 15th floor apartment. Left behind were his wife and two daughters. He was 33 years old.
Donny suffered from a serious mental illness. In the height of his career he began to suffer from severe depression. He was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and took serious medication to try to control it. But as is often the case he sometimes didn’t take his medication. This caused serious problems. He was hospitalized several times and his mental instability wreaked havoc on his personal life. It drove him and Roberta Flack apart for several years. They came back together to record The Closer I Get to You and there was hope of resuming their singing partnership. On that fateful day a recording session was planned but as they started Donny began behaving very irrationally. They had to end the session and everyone went home. A few hours later Donny was dead.
I can only imagine what sort of tortured life Donny lived inside his head. And yet, somehow, someway, God still found a way to speak in Donny’s life even with all that. I see evidence of that in the music he wrote and sang. Many of his songs evoke a powerful pathos, poignancy, and spiritual yearning. And, more importantly, not selfish. Take Lord, Help Me Josh sang earlier. The opening phrase suggests a song about what he, Donny, needs from the Lord, but instead it is a prayer for others; that he might be of encouragement and influence. Or the song Josh will sing after this sermon, He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother. Now others have done this song but Donny sings it as if it is his own. He sang songs about the human condition such as Someday We’ll All Be Free and Everything Is Everything. And even out of all his troubles he could sing of joy and happiness with the likes of Magnificent Sanctuary Band and Put Your Hand in the Hand. Donny sang his life, the life God was working through even in the midst of pain and suffering. And we are the recipients of that life.
OK. That’s Donny’s story. It’s the same for you. We all have stories to tell how God has spoken in and through our lives. Yes, indeed, we do need to listen; we do need to pay attention. Self-reflection is not a bad thing. But I believe it is through what happens in your life that God speaks to you. And, as Frederick Buechner says, “It’s in language that’s not always easy to decipher, but it’s there powerfully, memorably, unforgettably.”
To bring that home I’d like us to stand and speak together “A Psalm of God’s Speaking” from Psalm 93. Let’s read together:
God acts within every moment
And creates the world with each breath.
God speaks from the center of the universe,
In the silence beyond all thought.
Mightier than the crash of a thunderstorm,
Mightier than the roar of the sea,
Is God’s voice silently speaking
In the depths of the listening heart.