Have you ever heard the song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams? A simple song with simple lyrics and a simple message, it became a worldwide hit last spring and was one of the biggest hits of the summer. Maybe, when you first heard the song you didn’t know what to think of it. Maybe it was a bit too simple, too happy-go-lucky and saccharine-sweet. But after hearing it a few more times, maybe it started to grow on you, you starting humming along. Eventually, it had you tapping you foot. Late summer may have found you dancing along and singing at the top of your lungs.
It happens all the time, as we hear a song over and over again it starts to grow on us. There are songs that I’ve heard for the first time and can’t believe I will ever like but, after a few more listens, I find myself singing along even before I realize what I’m doing.
We like repetition and familiarity. It’s comforting to hear or see the same things, like returning to an old friend or a favorite place. But sometimes, we can become so used to a song or a story or even a prayer that it stops making sense. Sometimes repetition takes away meaning.
The 10 commandments may be very familiar. Some may have learned them over and over again as a child and have them memorized. Even those of us who don’t remember all of the details may feel like we think we know them all: Thou shalt not have any other gods, no graven images, honor thy mother and father. Thou shalt not kill, shalt not steal, shalt not covet… I think there are few others in there.
We hear the 10 commandments over and over again but do we always pay attention? The list seems to cover a wide variety of topics but if we divide them into two sections, we find two simple themes: love your God, love your neighbor. After they’ve been around for about 1500 years, Jesus is asked which of God’s laws are most important, and he sums them up the same way: love God, love your neighbor. It’s a simple lesson – one that, hopefully, we all learned from our parents and one that we teach our children: love God, love your neighbor. Be nice to people.
It seems simple. Maybe it’s a little too simple, like the “Happy” song. Sometimes hearing a song over and over again may cause it to lose meaning; maybe hearing “love your neighbor” over and over again has the same effect.
Sometimes repetition takes away meaning.
There’s an interesting movement occurring in many towns and cities around the nation. People are finding the need to organize conversations about civility in their community. See, even though we’ve been hearing “love your neighbor” in schools and churches and homes for our whole lives, we’re simply not doing it. Town meetings and online forums are filled with rude comments and hateful vitriol surrounding major and minor issues. The problem has gotten so large and so widespread that, as adults, we have to find new ways to teach ourselves what we thought we already knew. We have to have meetings to learn how to be nice to each other.
This conversation about civility has started in Sudbury. The Clergy Association has been talking about it since the spring and after many contentious town meetings the League of Women Voters has also recently begun discussing the situation and exploring solutions. Over the next few months, these conversations will hopefully spread as our town begins to address our need to be nice to each other.
It may be easier to memorize the ten commandments than to live them out. It may be easy to remember to love our neighbors, to be nice to each other, but it seems more difficult to put into practice.
Has there ever been a song that you’ve listened to and sung along to for months or even years when all of the sudden you realize you’ve been singing to lyrics incorrectly? One popular example of this is Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” There have apparently been more than a few listeners who have misunderstood the chorus of “the answer my friend is blowing in the wind” and thought that the words were “the ants are my friends, they’re blowing in the wind.”
It happens sometimes. Even though we’ve heard it over and over again, even though we think we know the words, we’ve got them wrong. Sometimes repetition takes away meaning. If we take another look or listen, take the time to re-examine what we think we know so well, it gives us an opportunity to rediscover its true meaning.
There are many times when I’m preparing meditations and Bible studies and discussions for our Wednesday night services at “The Well,” and I’m faced with a familiar text that I’ve read or preached on over and over again. I often wonder how I’ll ever find anything to say about it that hasn’t been heard thousands of time before. When I take the time to re-examine the scripture – to look at different Bible translations, to delve into the original definitions of individual words, to read countless other opinions and reflections on their meanings, and when I spend time with the text in prayer, striving to listen to what our still speaking God has to say about these ancient stories in our modern world – the scripture often comes alive and its message is reborn.
Sometimes repetition takes away meaning. It helps to take a fresh look at the things we think we know so well.
In the past, we’ve taken the Lord’s Prayer and focused on each line separately in a series of meditations that last many weeks, exploring the familiar prayer in a new setting. This morning as we participated in the Communion of Empty Hands, we had a chance to think about what Communion means to us. Now, as we take this moment to reflect on that well-known list of guiding principles that we call the 10 commandments and to re-examine what we’ve always thought they were about, we ask the questions: What does it really mean when God tells us to be nice to each other? Can we truly love our neighbors?
The ants are my friends…I mean, the answer my friends is up to us. Sometimes repetition takes away meaning. When we’re faced with the familiar, we’re called to reflect and re-examine. When we think we know it all, we’re called to take another look. When we’re in the midst of conflict and disagreement with our neighbors we are called to speak the truth in love, listen with open ears and an open heart, to forgive and to ask for forgiveness.
We’ve all heard it over and over again, in church, in school, at home: be nice to each other. If we can do our best to hear God’s voice, to follow God’s path, to keep our covenant with God and each other, then we can create a better world, a world where our children will experience and share God’s love for a thousand generations. Maybe then the whole world can sing along with Pharrell, just because we’re so happy.