Sermon by Brian Walsh
A sermon on Micah 6 and John 20.19-23 in dialogue with Dan Steven’s “A Dying Age”
Some years ago I received a letter from high school student who was passionate, articulate and clearly committed to his calling to be a singer/songwriter, wherever that would take him. It was clear to me that this was a remarkable young man and I took some time to respond to him with words of encouragement. Don’t play sentimental and sweet “Christian” music, I encouraged. Get out and listen to live music wherever you can and as often as you can, I suggested. And then I sent the letter to a record producer friend of mine, Doug Romanow, and told Doug that I was giving him a pastoral responsibility to also respond to this young man’s letter. Tell him about the music business, give him some tips.
Years later I heard an amazing concert, and there was Doug Romanow playing his Hammond B3 up there with this kid. The music blew me away. After the concert I talked to Doug. “So who is this guy?” “Who is this guy?” Doug replied. “He’s the kid who sent you the letter.” And then Doug filled me in on the story of Dan Steven, the kid who sent me that impassioned and articulate letter. Dan had been diagnosed with a brain tumour and when Doug heard about this he helped Dan to put together his first album, Beggars and Kings. It was this album that they were showcasing that concert. The next morning I met Dan, and he thanked me for my letter some years earlier.
Dan’s cancer went into recession … for a time. And then it came back. While terribly sick, he got to work on another album, Voices from God. Dan got very, very sick, and he died on December 6, 2002 a few weeks before his twenty-sixth birthday. Dan’s life was one of intense and contagious joy.
He wrote a song when he was seventeen called, “Dance at my Funeral.” So we did. I’ll never forget taking his mom and dancing her around loving friends and family. A bus had to be rented so that kids in the youth culture of London, Ontario, could get to the cemetary. And during the service, all kinds of young people spoke of how this young man had so deeply touched their lives with the love of Jesus.
I view my friend Dan Steven as a prophetic voice that we lost so too soon. Well crafted, creative, and profound Christian artistry like the kind we meet in an artist like Dan Steven is like manna in the cultural wilderness of a pop culture driven by a death-dealing consumerism. Do you know what I mean? Don’t you ever feel that when you are watching TV or listening to top 40 radio that you are starving for something of substance, something that is true – true to our lives, true to the world as it is, and true to God’s vision for what the world is to be? An artist like Dan Steven offers us sweet manna in such a wilderness. So this morning I’d like to play a song of Dan’s from his last album, and then my sermon will attempt to bring together two prophets – Micah and Dan Steven. Think of it as a sort of an experimental collage/poem/exhortation that calls us to move beyond locked doors of our fearful security to the open doors of a remembered justice.
This is Dan Steven’s song, “A Dying Age:” I was in a hole and I saw hope; I was way way down and got thrown a rope; I will sing of nothing but holiness. Changes everywhere, all around, in the air. The more that I stop holding on, the more that I am free. A living prophet in a dying age. World spins round caught in a cage; it's closed the book and forgotten the page. And I, I stay here to remember; I stay here to remember. Noises out on a Friday night, people carousing in clothing tight. City streets in synthetic lights; no one stops for the fallen. Do you remember Abel slain by the hand of his brother, the hand of Cain? Sometimes I go walking in the rain to ponder upon it all. A living prophet in a dying age. World overcome, overtaken by rage. They've closed the book; they’ve forgotten the page, and I, I stay here to remember. Yeah, I believe in the world to come. I believe it shall soon be begun. I believe in the world to come. Soon I’ll be on my way ... We stay here to remember a living prophet in a dying age, in a world overcome, overtaken by rage. They’ve closed the book, they’ve forgotten the page, and I, I stay here to remember
-- -- two living prophets, two dying ages. Micah in the opulence, pride, self-security of 8th century Israel; a culture rich in idolatrous prostitution. Dan Steven in the opulence, pride, self-security of 21st century North America. a culture rich in idolatrous prostitution. Manna in the wilderness -- words of judgment, words of hope, words of prophetic critique, words of radical vision, words of death, words of new life. Changes everywhere, all around, in the air. Confusion and despair. Loss of vision. No one cares. A culture in crisis, going nowhere. Listen up all of creation. Hear, you mountains; listen to God’s voice, you hills; pay attention, the very foundations of the earth! God has a controversy with the people. He will contend with Israel. He will contend with the church. He will contend with us. We’ve closed the book and forgotten the page. Closed books, closed doors. Amnesia. Forgetting our God, forgetting our story, forgetting our calling, forgetting ourselves. Closed books. Closed doors. Closed memories. Closed hearts. Closed past. Closed future, “Living inside the future of a shattered past.”
But I, I stay here to remember. We stay here to remember prophetic memory, exodus, liberation, redemption from slavery. Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. Manna in the wilderness. Imperial obstacles removed, prophesying asses, the whole tale from idolatrous disaster to covenant renewal. We stay here to remember. Noises out on a Friday night, people carousing in clothing tight; city streets in synthetic lights; no one stops for the fallen. Noise and light, top forty trash, downtown glitter. Appealing. Alluring. Synthetic youth culture marketing noise and light. But no one stops for the fallen; no one hears her cry, no one sees the vacancy in his eyes. Averted gaze. Closed eyes. Deaf in our preoccupations, our embarrassments. But I, I stay here to remember; we, we stay here to remember. Do you remember? Abel slain by the hand of his brother, the hand of Cain? Sometimes I go walking in the rain to ponder upon it all.
Broken memories. Painful memories. Memories that bind rather than free: Brother against brother, father against daughter, mother against son. Broken families. The tragedy goes all the way down. The brokenness destroys our deepest bonds. There is no refuge, no open door, no open heart. World overcome, overtaken by rage. It's closed the book and forgotten the page. The powerful wage wars of deceit, the wealthy are full of violence, the marketplace manipulates and destroys. We stay here to remember. Can we forget the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked? Closed the book. Forgotten the page. Listening to the counsel of the entrenched media, obeying the statutes of lying leaders -- but we eat and are not satisfied; we save but it all dissipates in a society of too much. We have a gnawing hunger within us. There is sowing without reaping; olive oil, but no anointed blessing; wine, but not a decent, life-giving drink to be found. Synthetic culture, fast food, insatiable consumption, and we are starving. No bread, no manna in the wilderness. But I, I stay here to remember. We stay here to remember in the face of amnesia. We remember, and memory produces hope. Liberation past engenders liberation present.
God still opens doors. Yeah, I believe in the world to come; I believe it shall soon be begun -- in the face of despair, there is hope. Closed doors can be opened. Closed books can speak anew. Closed lives can be healed, closed hearts can be softened, and closed eyes opened. Closed ears can hear again a memory that remembers Abel slain. A memory that remembers a brother not kept can keep again, can give life rather than death, can save rather than condemn, can forgive rather than destroy. But how, Lord? How can there be manna in our wilderness? How can we give life rather than death? How can the deceitful violence end? How can we open the doors that have been locked? What shall we bring before you? What will be enough? What is a sufficient offering? What can we do in order to be people of memory? He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God. Enacted memory. Lived memory. The memory of a liberating God, the memory of an empire-confounding God, the memory of a God who is full of steadfast love, a God of justice who hears the cries of the oppressed and does not avert his tear-filled gaze from the brokenhearted.
We stay here to remember, to do justice in a world where the innocents are destroyed, to love kindness in a harsh world of disposability, to walk in humility in a world where only the arrogant succeed, to walk with God in a world that has closed the book and forgotten the page. We stay here to remember, to offer refuge to the vulnerable, create safe places in a dangerous world, open doors to those who have been locked out,remember those who are forgotten. We stay here to remember, to embody hope, to live in the world to come. But the doors are still locked. It is the first day of the week and we are afraid. And the doors are still locked -- but the risen One respects no locked doors. The risen One appears in our midst: “Peace be with you." Peace, in the midst of our fear? Peace, in a world at war? Peace, in the midst of family violence? Peace, here and now? “Peace be with you,” he repeats, as if we didn’t hear him the first time, as if we couldn’t believe our eyes. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
A remembering people is a sent people: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” A remembering people is a new creation: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.” A remembering people is a community of forgiveness. So unlock the doors. You can’t be sent if the doors are locked. You can’t be new creation behind doors of fear. You can’t forgive when the broken are locked out. Open the doors to hope. Open the doors to new life. Open the doors to justice. Open the doors to resurrection. Because we, we stay here to remember.
We stay here to remember sustaining manna in the winter of hunger, restoring manna in an urban wilderness. We stay here to remember the open- hearted God, the open hand of justice and kindness, the open arms of the crucified Christ, the open tomb of the resurrected one, the open doors of a remembering community. We stay here to remember a prophetic community in a culture of forgetfulness. A living people in a dying age. Open doors in a fearful society. We stay here to remember.
I was in a hole and I saw hope. I was way way down and got thrown a rope. I will sing of nothing but holiness. Prophetic memory and open doors. Hope in the midst of despair. Throwing a rope to those who are way way down. Redemption from slavery. Songs of hope that will tell the story of salvation. Singing of nothing but holiness, enacted holiness, holiness in the flesh, enacted memory, light shining in darkness. I was in a hole and I saw hope. I was way way down and got thrown a rope. I will sing of nothing but holiness. Changes everywhere, all around, in the air. The more that I stop holding on, the more that I am free. A living prophet in a dying age. World spins round, caught in a cage. It’s closed the book and forgotten the page. And I, I stay here to remember. _
********** Sermon by Laurence Steven *********
A Sermon preached at Waters Mennonite Church April 18, 2004 [Begin after scripture reading: 1Coronthians 15: 12-20; 30-38; 42-44; 50-55]
Aren’t those wonderful words Paul wrote to the Corinthians? Isn’t their logic irresistible? If there is no resurrection, then why not party, because we’re going to die soon. But we know better. “Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning” Paul says in verse 34. Remember who you are, remember the life you have been given; the eternal life. Though the body will die, we will be changed. Mysteriously, says Paul, “the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (verse 52). Exciting stuff. And it comes right out of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. The agony and the triumph are intimately connected. I want to share something personal with you today that reinforces the exciting power of resurrection, even in the midst of the world of pain and distraction that can so easily make us lose our senses and forget our real life.
My nephew Dan Steven died on Dec. 6, 2002, 2 ½ weeks shy of his 26th birthday. Some of you will remember that I had asked for prayers for Dan for some time; he died of an inoperable brain tumour that he’d been diagnosed with about 4 years earlier, but which had probably been affecting him from the time he was 17. In 1999 he’d been given little time to live; I attended an anointing service for him where the Spirit of the Lord was palpable. The cancer went into remission, and didn’t return until the fall of 2002.
I want to share something of Dan with you because he left a lot of himself to be shared. He was an amazing musician and poet, and after his first diagnosis of cancer he threw himself into the preparation of a CD of his songs. The result was, as they say today, awesome, more than any of us had expected. Songs that he wrote before the cancer was diagnosed seemed intuitively to know what was in store. They also revealed that Dan had a prophetic role to play through his music. There was an urgency about the work; a need to complete it before the message was lost. The CD came out, and Dan got sicker, undergoing as well the usual terrible regimen of cancer treatments. And then came the remission. Dan gradually came back from the brink. He began to play again, and write again, and even did some concerts, including one memorable one for the Institute of Christian Studies conference. He began to speak of a second CD. He felt he’d been given time to do this work. The vocals and guitar tracks were recorded before the cancer appeared again, but even after it did, and after he was bedridden, Dan continued to direct the production of the work. Though unable to speak, finally, he approved the last demos with a thumbs up. He died within days.
I want to share a few of Dan’s songs with you today, this first Sunday after Easter. As we bask in the glow of our risen Lord I think we’ll be able to appreciate the joy that bursts from his songs even as he faces a life that is fading and a world that has increasingly forgotten the resurrection. Two significant themes in Dan’s songs are remembering and resurrection. They are of course related; the reading from Isaiah earlier (46: 3-9) indicated how. Through the prophet the Lord says to the Israelites: “Remember this, fix it in mind, take it to heart, you rebels. Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God and there is none like me” (46: 8-9). He chastises them because they have taken to setting up idols and crying out to them, forgetting the covenant God had made with them to be their Lord and protector for all time. They have fallen from a state of full relationship with God; they need a resurrection, to be raised up again. They need to remember their former state. This is Isaiah’s prophetic concern.
I’d like you to listen to Dan’s song “A Tear for Civilization,” from his first CD Beggars and Kings, in which the same prophetic urgency is transferred to a downtown London, Ontario shopping mall, with a vibrancy and wit which only adds to Dan’s genuine concern that we remember and rise up to into our true selves in God’s covenant love. [Play “A Tear for Civilization”]
“People, people snap out of it.” Clearly, in Dan’s view, we know better; somehow we’ve allowed ourselves to get caught up in surfaces, idols which cannot satisfy. It’s like we’re hypnotized. We need to wake up, come back to reality, pay attention. We have fallen, like the Israelites, from the high covenant life and need the resurrection. Despite his shedding a tear for civilization, the tone of the song is upbeat; while recognizing the spiritual desert he’s surrounded by, the songwriter is concerned to write another song, to keep busking to earn his busfare home. He’s an observer. The song was also written before the cancer was diagnosed.
The next song, “A Dying Age”, is from Dan’s second CD, Voices from God. Dan’s cancer had attacked once, and was now in remission. Here, in a weakening voice, we meet a Dan who knows he’s been saved, despite the illness, and that his salvation has made him a prophet to a world that has lost its senses. [play “A Dying Age”] “I will sing of nothing but holiness / Changes everywhere, / all around, in the air”. What Dan is sharing with us is his own mysterious transformation: as his body weakens into death, a new strength, a resurrected life, surrounds him; he knows he’ll “soon be on [his] way”. In the meantime, he’ll do the remembering for us that all prophets do; he’ll keep reminding us where reality is.
The final song on Voices from God is called “Plane to Jerusalem,” and it has an otherworldly quality to it suggesting that Dan has begun his journey home. And the path he must follow, in his broken body, is that of our Lord: Gethsemane and Calvary. This is not a prideful putting himself in the place of Christ; rather, it’s a recognition that he only lives in Christ, and so has the courage to die in him as well.
[play “Plane to Jerusalem”] Dan always desired to visit the Holy Land, and in his last year he got his wish. He did play music on a corner of a Middle Eastern street in the summer before he died. But I don’t want to end on a somber note, even if Dan’s final trip was joyful for him. Paul wants us to rejoice in the resurrection, in the life that flows in us because of Jesus’ sacrifice.
The central paradox of Christianity is that such joy comes out of such sorrow. And Dan knew this intuitively, creatively, as a poet knows it, even before the cancer struck. I want to finish by playing “Dance at My Funeral,” the last song from the first CD Beggars and Kings” written before the diagnosis. If anything sums up Dan’s vibrant faith in the power of resurrection, this song does. There were about 500 people at Dan’s funeral, and we did dance. [play “Dance at My Funeral”] _
ARTICLE in LONDON FREE PRESS
By Vicky Smith
Sad events tend to halt our frenetic spinning on the wheel of life and cause us to reflect on what is important and how we take the gift of life for granted. My nephew, Dan Steven, aged 25, died of a brain tumour last week. Through my personal reflection I thought about Dan’s belief of what is important, which brought me to thinking about how we view what is important in our work life. This is my tribute to a special young man.
Dan was an exceptionally talented musician and songwriter. His understanding and deep feeling for social and moral injustice seemed far beyond his years. He had a passion for his music and it became his vocation. He worked as a busker to provide for his simple materialistic needs. Conventional, myopic adults in his life kept waiting for him to decide what his ‘real’ job was going to be and hoped he would any day now stop his day dreaming and join the rest of us in the stressful and fearful world of work we desperately hold on to.
I reflected on how Dan dedicated himself to his passion for music and because of that his family and the world have a legacy of two CD’s he professionally produced. Does your definition of a job/career/vocation create passion in you? Are you energized and excited when meeting your daily work challenges and tasks?
For many, work has lost its luster. It is a means to gain a lifestyle that even after acquired emotionally leaves many people flat like champagne left open too long. With all our hard work to gain affluence we have also been rewarded with divorces, addictions, depression and a deep longing for some type of balance in our lives. We have sedated our dreams and passions to become stressed out, dissatisfied and fearful workers.
As a gift to yourself think about what you could do to put more passion into your work life. What important decisions do you need to make and what fears do you need to tackle so that 2003 becomes a year of fulfillment for you instead of another year that has flown by like the wind, taking with it your zest for life?
Dan’s life mission was to be a positive influence in other peoples’ lives. At his funeral many people from all walks of life talked about his influence to inspire others to be optimistic and hopeful about their lives. His generosity with material possessions, kindness, humour, friendship but most importantly sharing himself were the consistent theme in all the testimonials. He was known for his random acts of kindness.
We work for an intrinsic reward which overshadows the responsibility we have to the people we work for and to the people we work with. We have a choice each workday to be a productive, encouraging employee and team member or an individual who creates barriers to building harmonious and dynamic working relationships. Spreading rumours, creating petty conflicts and demeaning people have turned into recreational activities at work. Why does it take a crisis for us to appreciate those around us? We can choose to appreciate and respect differences and find ways to develop harmonious relationships instead of actively participating in destroying them.
When Dan was diagnosed with cancer three years ago his parents became a strong supportive force creating the foundation he needed to realize his aspirations. His dream of producing high caliber CDs was realized through a joint commitment. Dan’s parents provided the financial and personal dedication to create a secure foundation for Dan to do his creative work.
As employers, do we provide a strong foundation for our employees to realize their work/career dreams? It is trendy to view employees as assets or intellectual capital. When we view people as capital why would employees be motivated to work passionately for us? As an employer have you asked your employees what motivates them and then built a strong infrastructure for them to thrive and work with passion?
This time of year for many is a season of giving to celebrate important people in our lives. For those who do not celebrate Christmas, this could be a time to reflect on the important people in our lives as we start a New Year. Think on:
What can I do to become more passionate about my job/career/vocation?
How can I make a difference each day in the lives of people I work with?
How can I be a more productive worker and encourager?
How can I become more open to performing random acts of kindness?
How can I as an employer provide a strong foundation for my employees to work with passion?
As this is my last article till the New Year, I hope the following verse from Dan’s song “Dance at My Funeral” on his CD Beggars and Kings will encourage you to live you life with passion.
I want you to dance at my funeral
I want you to celebrate your life
Yes, I want you to dance at my funeral
In this way you remember me
And you keep my life alive.