First Unitarian Church of Worcester

Sermons, Memos and other writings from the newsletter and worship services of the First Unitarian Church of Worcester. The First Unitarian Church is located at 90 Main Street, Worcester, MA 01608. Our phone is 508-757-2708 and our webpage is A audio CD is produced for almost every one of our regular services. Call our office or send a note to the office at our website to request that one be shipped to you.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

"Over My Head, I Hear Music in the Air" by Tom Schade

(newsletter memo originally published in June, 2006)

I have now equipped myself to listen to my IPOD portable music player through my car radio. I can now listen to whatever I want as I drive along down the highway of life. No more will I be endangering myself and others by trying to sort through disorganized piles of compact disks while driving. Yes, there is a confusing tangle of wires hanging from my dashboard that has to be arranged just so, but, in theory, it is much simpler and more useful.

Warning: All those who need to believe that the Associate Minister of the First Unitarian Church of Worcester, Massachusetts listens only to serious, informative, and spiritually uplifting books on CD while driving should stop reading now. The same warning applies to those who need to believe that the same minister only listens to our choir’s two CD’s, or to recordings of our Sunday morning services in a spirit of self-critical improvement.

Actually what I most enjoy is to set the IPOD on a setting where it plays any of the 2000 songs I have downloaded to it in a random order. I never know what is coming next. Aretha Franklin leads to Ella Fitzgerald to Pat Metheny to Van Morrison to Beethoven to Del McCoury to Bob Dylan to the First Unitarian Choir to Tony Bennett to U2 and on and on and on.

Now, here is the odd thing. As I drive along, it seems that there is logic and an order to how the songs are coming up. There is a connection between the artists, or one song lyrically is answering the question raised by the song before, or they have the same rhythm and beat. The other day while I drove through the rain, it was one sad song after another.

So, after a while, I begin to imagine that there is disk jockey in my IPOD who knows me, knows my present mood, and knows my music library and is choosing songs just for me.

Sometimes I concentrate really hard and wish that the disk jockey would play a particular song next. The DJ never does, or, at least, he or she hasn’t yet. Nonetheless, it is surprising how often the next song, while not what I asked for, is an even better choice. I am trying to learn how to be more trusting, to give up my expectations and stop asking for the next song. I just try to enjoy whatever comes. Just like I learned to give up my expectations about what constituted “a cup of coffee” in Spain.

As you can imagine, I have a running argument with myself over the presence of the disk jockey in my Ipod.

My rational self tell me: Remember that there is no disk jockey in your IPOD. After all, how could one fit in there and how would he or she breathe? You are indulging in the most human habit of imposing a pattern on random events. You are the one seeing the connections between the songs, and you are the one who is imagining all the messages in the shuffle play option.”

But then I answer myself: “As much as it is a buzzkill, I admit that it is just random sequencing. It is probably also true that thunder is not the sound of God bowling. Honestly, in some part of my mind, I have always known these actual facts. But does it really cause me any harm to imagine a DJ spinning just the right songs for me as I drive home? In fact, imagining a disk jockey in my Ipod unleashes my creatively. Listen it just went from John Mayer’s “Your Body is Wonderland” to Ella Fitzgerald singing Gershwin’s “How Long Has This Been Going On.” Now I have all this to think about, speculating about first love now and first loves in the 1920’s. If I only saw this sequence as random, would I even stop to think about it at all?

Wouldn’t the worst thing be if that I stopped listening to it actively, but just listened to the songs passively? No, I will not succumb to the passivity, to the numbness, to the despair of nihilism. I will believe in the DJ.”

“Skeptical Me” can only laugh. “Why do you have get so dramatic all the time? You carry on like St. Stephen, or Martin Luther, or Michael Servetus at the stake. It’s just you at work here. You are the ones making the connections in your thought processes. You don’t need to believe in a mythical DJ to do that. The danger comes from the fact that you are imposing your old experience of Top 40 radio from your childhood (The Dadd-I-o of the Radio on WHOT AM in Youngstown, Ohio circa 1963) on a completely new situation. Face the facts. If you don’t push the shuffle play button, it doesn’t happen. The random play is just part of the IPOD software.”

Myth-loving me shouts: “Aha, You admit that there is a programmer somewhere who wrote the code. So if you don’t believe in the DJ, you still believe that somewhere someone wrote the operating system. And how do you know what powers and capacities this almighty creator of the operating system has built into the code? Just because you cannot imagine how the Great Programmer designed the Disk Jockey function into the Ipod, doesn’t mean that it wasn’t done.”

Skeptical Me replies: If this so-called Great Programmer did design a disk jockey into the Ipod software, how come he or she didn’t call it “Disk Jockey” function, but called it “shuffle play” instead?

Myth-Loving Me: “His ways are not our ways.”

And so argument goes on, mile after mile. And then, I notice that my Ipod has just played “Abide with Me” as arranged by Theolonius Monk for a Saxophone section, “Grace” by U2, and then “Give Me the Faith” by the First Unitarian Choir. I rest my case.


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