Rev. Gary Cox
University Congregational Church – Wichita, Kansas
Many of you know that I was a musician, of sorts, at one time in my life. I don’t’ want that to sound too romantic or anything. There was no great innate talent that the world was just waiting to discover, and I did not do an especially good job of developing whatever talent it was I had. But I loved music—and still do—and in my early twenties did my best to become the next Mick Jagger, or Paul McCartney, or what-have-you.
In retrospect, I can say that it is fortunate I did not become the next Mick Jagger. I absolutely love what I am doing. There are over six billion people in this world, and I would not trade my life with a one of them. And as for rock and roll, there’s nothing quite as embarrassing as watching some guy who is pushing 50 or 60 frolicking all over the stage and singing songs about youthful rebellion. (Although, I confess, I still have a soft spot for the Rolling Stones, as well as all those other bands I grew up with.)
Back when I actually made a living playing music—if you can call eating peanut butter sandwiches and practically living in the back of the band’s converted Frito truck “making a living”—I got to know a lot of recording engineers and technicians. These are the guys who sit behind the glass in the recording studio, with their hands on the extravagant looking console with all the knobs and levers and buttons. These sound engineers are the guys who are responsible for making whatever the musicians are doing get onto the tape with a sound that is marketable, or at least palatable.
As I got to know these sound engineers, I discovered they had a favorite saying—GIGO—G-I-G-O. Now, musicians tend to have big egos, so when a musician hears the sound engineer lean over and say to the sound technician, “GIGO,” the musician assumes it means something like, “Great instrumentalist, great orchestration,” (G-I-G-O), or “Good insight, great originality.” Well, what GIGO actually means is this: Garbage in, Garbage out.
You see, there’s this myth that no matter how poorly you play your instrument, and no matter how pathetic your singing voice, if you get yourself booked into an expensive enough studio, the geniuses behind the glass with their fingers on those buttons and levers will make you sound like Frank Sinatra, or Barbara Streisand. And often a person will pay the big bucks—we’re talking thousands of dollars—for an afternoon of studio time. And when they hear what they’ve just recorded, they’ll turn to the guys behind the glass and say something like, “That sounds just awful. Can’t you move a few of those levers and make it sound like Pavarotti?”
Knowing that what enters the microphone has a direct relationship to what ends up coming out of the speaker, regardless of the pricey equipment in-between, that’s when the engineer says to the technician, “GIGO—garbage in, garbage out.” Sometimes the singer might point at the elaborate sound console and say, “What does that knob do?” And the sound engineer will say, “That is an echo device—it makes your voice echo-echo-echo.” And the singer will say, “Well let’s try that last song with a little echo.” And the soundman will say, “Believe me, pal, hearing your voice once is plenty!” (I’d hate for you to think any of this came from my personal experience—I was just overhearing all these things!)
I have less and less time for my hobby of music. I have a little home studio I play around with every now and then. And I learned early on that there was no use in buying a bunch of expensive recording equipment. There is no device on the market—not a single electronic gadget—that will make me sound like Pavarotti. For that matter, there’s no device on the market that will make me sound like Mick Jagger, either. But somehow, that doesn’t bother me anymore!
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Okay, you’re probably thinking that all this sounds moderately interesting, but it doesn’t sound much like a sermon. But there is a point to all of this. The idea of GIGO—garbage in garbage out—has implications that reach far beyond the music world. The computer industry was the first to co-opt this phrase, although they often called in JIJO—junk in junk out. The same attitude that thought a music console could perform magic on bad music decided a computer could take bad input and turn it into something wonderful. Wrong!
I think it is important to be informed about what’s going on in the world, and one evening last month I was sitting at home, watching the news. But as I sat there listening to doom and gloom news about the economy, and the slaughter of innocents in both Afghanistan and Israel, and the incomprehensible abuse of young children, I found myself drifting into a bad mood. And I’d had a great day! Really. But as I lay in bed that evening I found myself feeling uncomfortable—uneasy. I couldn’t quite get to sleep, and I didn’t know why. And them it occurred to me. GIGO—garbage in, garbage out. I had watched the news with its less than beautiful outlook on the world, and then I’d watched a movie that was one of those psychological thrillers. Is it any wonder I wasn’t at peace?
There is a story about an old Cherokee grandmother speaking to her young granddaughter. The old, wise woman says, “There are two wolves inside of me, and they are always at war with each other. One of them is filled with peace and love, with joy, beauty and compassion. The other one is filled with anger and hatred, with bitterness, envy and pride.” Her granddaughter looks up at her with a frightened look in her eye and says, “Which of the two wolves wins, Grandmother?” And the old woman says to her, “Whichever one I feed.”
It’s funny. We know what it takes for a plant to grow. We make sure it gets a certain amount of water and just enough sunlight, and sure enough, it thrives. We wouldn’t think of pouring ammonia over the plant, or sticking it in a dark basement for weeks on end. If the plant was lucky enough to survive the experience, it would certainly show the effects of the abuse.
And yet…and yet…look at what we do to ourselves! We human beings are unique life forms. We are a miraculous combination of body, mind and spirit. How do we feed those three elements of our being—body, mind and spirit?
As for the feeding of our bodies, I hope your record is better than mine. When I was struggling with my voice problem, I went to one of those health food stores, thinking that I would find some herbal remedy for my vocal cords. The lady behind the counter said, “You know, it’s really true that you are what you eat. Do you eat whole foods?” And I replied. “Of course. Last night I ate a whole pizza, and tonight I plan on eating a whole bag of potato chips.” She wasn’t impressed by my sense of humor or my dietary habits. So much for what we feed our bodies.
As for our minds, well, I’ve already mentioned the evening news. But think about it—the things we read, the music we hear, the things we watch on television. What percentage of this input is poison? I am absolutely amazed at talk radio. Every month or so I turn it on and listen for ten minutes or so. I keep thinking it will go away. Who listens to this stuff on a regular basis? Now we have five or six men dominating the airwaves nationally. The only thing they have in common is a bitter contempt for people who don’t think like they do, and an angry hatred of all parts of our government with the exception of the military. And they seem to compete with each other to see who can spew out the most hatred, to see who can be the most angry, the most extreme.
If it is true that what we put in is what we get out, then is it any wonder that as a society our collective mind is in a bit of turmoil—that we are an anxiety-ridden lot?
And as for our spiritual side, well, God help us, and I mean that literally! As a minister I have many more opportunities than most to nurture my spiritual side. And frankly, what I get is barely enough to counter all the slings and arrows that the world throws at me week in and week out. I don’t know how all of you do it. I mean, I’m lucky. At any point I want I can drop to me knees and say a little prayer. And people will just say, “Well, he pastors a church—he’s supposed to do that.” Most of you would get locked away for that type of behavior.
Body, mind and spirit. I think it was Thomas Moore who said that is what our soul is. The human soul is that place where body, mind and spirit come together. It is what makes us different from all the other creatures in the world, and it is what makes each one of us different from one another. And if that’s the case—if what makes us unique in this universe is the fact that we have a part of us where body, mind and spirit come together in a unique and almost miraculous way—then we probably should take some care in what we feed our body, mind and spirit. After all, GIGO—garbage in, garbage out.
This is one of our great struggles. There is something inside of us that wants to run off to the side of some mountain in the Himalayas and just turn away from this crazy world. There are times we think it would be nice to spend hour after hour in mediation and prayer, to forget that this world keeps spinning day after day, and that the problems of this world seem to spin out of control faster than our best efforts to contain them.
Some spiritual traditions hold that there are a few people who hold this world in being with their prayer. They sit in silence, surrounding themselves with nothing but glorious thoughts of eternal God, and it is the power and strength of their prayers that keeps this world from coming apart at the seams. Sometimes I think it would be nice to try to be one of those people.
But I’m not. And neither are you. It’s not that we don’t care. It’s simply that we care too much to spend our lives sitting on the side of some mountain and pretending everything is perfect. Because it’s not. There are too many things going on in this world that hurt us. Things that make us shake at the deepest level of who and what we are. Things we just don’t understand. And even though we want to place ourselves in a situation where all we take in is joy and light, we just can’t do it.
I guess there are two questions: What garbage can we keep from taking in, and how do we respond to the garbage we can’t—and shouldn’t—avoid? First of all, we all know we would be better and happier people if we would shun all the garbage we could easily avoid. The horror novel; talk radio; the movie thriller; the television sexcapade—none of that has one positive effect on my life, and I doubt if those things are essential to your lives either. If GIGO is a reality in this life, and I believe it is, then we have to admit that we willingly take in our fair share of garbage that we could easily do without. And I think it would be a very positive move for us if we made a conscious decision to avoid as much of that garbage as possible. Because that would leave us with the energy to confront all the garbage the world throws at us that we shouldn’t avoid.
I would never pretend that I follow in the footsteps of Jesus. I don’t even come close. But I do recognize that Jesus set the example the rest of us can only hope to follow in some limited way. And Jesus spent his fair share of time on the mountaintop. He really did. He was always going off to be by himself and praying to God. He avoided the “garbage in” from time to time. But then, each and every time, he came down from the mountaintop and threw himself into the middle of all the garbage. He looked at the injustice, and the evil, and he stood against it. In fact, as I like to remind everybody from time to time, Jesus did not get killed because he was telling everybody to love one another. He got killed because his love would not allow him to stand by while injustice prevailed.
Jesus said he came that we may have life, and have it abundantly, something in which we should find great comfort in light of our many blessings. But Jesus also made it clear that this world is ours to shape into the Kingdom. The Reign of Love is coming, but ours are the hands God will use to build it. God is responsible for the kingdom we enter when we die. God has made us responsible for the kingdom on this side of death. And it’s the same kingdom. It just has different responsible parties.
For those of us who believe in the resurrection—not that Jesus is off on some cloud somewhere looking down on the world, but rather that Jesus is spiritually alive, right here, right now, seeing the world through the eyes of those who have yielded their lives to his love—for those of us who believe that, what kind of world is Jesus seeing? Does he see us honestly attempting to shape this world in the image of God? I know we like to think so, but the fact is we have a way of watering down what Jesus said and making it sound like an affirmation of our lifestyle.
If we are honest with ourselves, we have to look with honest eyes on the world Jesus sees through us. We live in a world where four out of five people live in severe poverty. We live in a world where children die of starvation by the tens of thousands every single day. We live in a world where warfare kills men, women and children every day, and our own nation enriches itself by selling armaments into every fight. We live in the greatest and richest nation in the world, yet it is a nation where over 40 million people—about one in seven—cannot afford health insurance. We live in a nation where millions of people work hard at 40-hour-per-week jobs, and don’t make enough to live on. Meanwhile, some applaud CEO’s who lay off ten thousand workers and in doing so receive 20 million dollar bonuses for improving profit margins. We live in a nation where a misguided 16 year old gets locked away for selling twenty dollars worth of marijuana, and a corporate executive gets a book deal and a circuit on daytime TV for stealing the retirement savings of 30-thousand retired senior citizens.
In light of his track record in the first century, I feel certain Jesus would have a few things to say about such things. And I doubt if his message would be any more popular with the political and religious leaders today than it was two thousand years ago. But if we pretend those problems aren’t there, then we might as well be off on some mountain in the Himalayas. I believe Jesus wants us to live in this world—the one with all the problems—the one with all the garbage. We can’t pretend it’s not there. We can’t avoid the garbage the world throws at us, but we can avoid what comes back out of us. We have the ability to control the way our bodies, minds and spirits respond to the world.
I guess what I’m trying to say is this: even though we can’t avoid all the garbage in, we don’t have to respond with garbage out. What if our motto was garbage in, love out? Of course we’d have to come up with a name for such an outlandish idea—garbage in, love out. May be we could call it craziness, or foolhardiness, or silliness, or…or maybe we could call it Christianity.