There was an experiment done in 2007 to see if people were paying attention to what was going on around them. On Friday, January 12th, during the rush hour commute, at a busy Metro station in DC, a musician set up. It was the station where most of the mid-level government bureaucrats would get off to go to their government job doing things like analyzing, budgeting, facilitating and consulting. During the time the musician was set up 1,097 commuters passed him.
The violinist was wearing jeans and a t-shirt with a ball cap. He placed his violin case at his feet and put a few dollars of seed money in the bottom of the case facing out so passers-by could drop a donation in his case. He began to play.
Each passerby had a small moment to make a decision which any commuter in any urban setting has to make when they encounter a street performer. Do I stop and listen? Do I hurry past? Do I throw in a buck or some pocket change to be polite? Does it matter whether or not he is good or bad? Is he good or bad? Do I have a minute to stop and listen?
This wasn’t just any musician. This was one of the finest classically trained musicians in the world who would play some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. The music chosen was not popular tunes, but masterpieces for the violin. The Washington Post set up this experiment in wonder: “in an ordinary setting, at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”
So, what do you think happened?
The music director of the National Symphony Orchestra thought the violinist would gather a larger crowd in Europe, but in America given the crowd, time, etc, he thought the violinist would gather a crowd of 75 people and make about $150 in tips.
To give you an idea about the violinist, his name is Joshua Bell. The week before this experiment, he filled Boston’s Symphony Hall with seats running about $100. Two weeks later he filled the Music Center in Bethesda. And, as for the instrument. Bell played an 18th century Stradivari violin which belonged to composer Fritz Kreisler worth $3.5 million.
The music Bell chose was Bach’s Partita No 2 written for a solo violin and considered one of the most difficult violin pieces. During that 14-minute piece, one man slowed his gait and turned his head to take notice, but kept walking. One woman donated a dollar. One man stood against the wall and listened. That was the height of the activity over 45 minutes.
Bell went on to play Schubert’s Ave Maria, another piece by Bach and pieces by Massenet and Ponce. In total, 7 people stopped for at least a minute. The person who stayed the longest lingered 9 minutes. 27 people gave a total of $32 leaving 1,070 people who were oblivious to one of the greatest musicians in the world giving them a free concert worth at least $100.
The author of the Washington Post article said this: “…the fiddler’s movements remain fluid and graceful; he seems so apart from his audience — unseen, unheard, otherworldly — that you find yourself thinking that he’s not really there. A ghost. Only then do you see it: He is the one who is real. They are the ghosts.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/pearls-before-breakfast-can-one-of-the-nations-great-musicians-cut-through-the-fog-of-a-dc-rush-hour-lets-find-out/2014/09/23/8a6d46da-4331-11e4-b47c-f5889e061e5f_story.html?utm_term=.6d91b1ea6714)
We do need to make note of the role that context played in this experiment. Bell was so-called art without a frame. People may not have appreciated who he was or his talent partly because of the setting. He obviously commands a different response in a concert hall. Still, only 7 people gave him a minute. There wasn’t even applauding between pieces.
We are busy as Americans. Too busy. Too busy to stop and appreciate beautiful music. The author of the Washington Post article about the experiment cited the work of a young French sociologist who in 1831 was dismayed after a visit to the States. He was dismayed by the “degree to which people were driven, to the exclusion of everything else, by hard work and the accumulation of wealth.” Imagine that. A sociologist said that about Americans in 1831. How much more would he have to say today?
The author concluded with this thought: “If we can’t take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that — then what else are we missing?”
Imagine all the good things going on around us that we are missing because we are too busy or have blind eyes.
In our story today from Scripture, the people who were following John the Baptist had heard about Jesus and shared what they heard with John. John sent 2 of his followers to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is coming, or should we look for someone else?”
When John’s followers met Jesus, they said, “John the Baptist sent us to you. He wants to know if you are the One we’ve been expecting or should we keep looking?” Then, Jesus healed many of their diseases and illnesses and cast out evil spirits and He gave sight to blind people. Jesus said to John’s followers, “Go tell John what you’ve seen. The blind see. The crippled walk. People with skin diseases are cleansed. The deaf hear. The dead are raised. Good news is preached to the poor.”
John’s followers went back to John to report what they had seen. Jesus spoke to the crowds. Jesus asked the crowds what they were looking for when they went out into the wilderness. Were they looking for a traveling nomad? A king in fine clothes? Jesus said what they found in the wilderness was a great prophet who had been sent to prepare the way for Him to come.
The followers of John the Baptist had to go to Jesus, see what He was doing with their own eyes and report back to John before they could decide if Jesus was the Messiah. It required them seeing what Jesus was capable of doing for them to believe the reports and believe He is the Messiah.
How can we believe if we don’t see?
Are we taking moments to stop and appreciate what God is doing?
Are we stopping to reflect on what’s going on around to think, “hey, I think God’s working something out here”?
We get too busy going through the hum-drum of our days and laying awake with worries instead of lingering a moment to smell the roses or falling asleep counting our blessings. For me, I need a good long drive to reflect on what God is doing. It’s the best time for me to get away from the worries, set aside the problems, clear my mind of the stress and listen for my soul to well up with reminders of all the good things God is doing. But, how do we take time in our every day to see, to reflect, to listen? Why do we need long drives or fishing trips?
In Advent, we did daily practices through our Advent calendar to exercise our spiritual muscles so we could build up the habit of daily devotion. Lent is coming. It’s a great time to exercise our spiritual muscles again and train to go a little deeper in our devotion.
We loved the Advent calendar. So, I made a Lent calendar. 40 days of spiritual exercises to help us take a moment each day to reflect on God’s work in your life, devote yourself to your faith, and give generously to others. There are copies on the back pew. The calendar starts on Wednesday, March 1st with Ash Wednesday. It’s only 2 weeks away.
The Lent calendar will be a marathon of 6 ½ weeks of spiritual exercise. In these next 2 weeks, you need to do some stretching to prepare for Lent. Take some moments to pause and reflect. Take a walk. Listen to some favorite music or turn the radio off for a few minutes. Eat your lunch slowly sitting at a table instead of your desk or dinner on the couch. When you’re falling asleep, mindfully list as many blessings as worries. Start to stretch your faith now so we can make the journey of Lent together and really grow deeper in our practice of reflecting on God’s work and listening to God’s word.