(Isaiah 55:12, Psalm 19:14, lyrics to “My Life Flows on in Endless Song”)
In those times in our lives when there is tumult and strife and lamentation, the faith that carries us through is so often the faith that we have sung.
It’s the faith we’ve felt at our root as we sing, it’s the faith whose rhythms and harmonies we’ve felt with our whole body and shared with the body of our community, this is the faith that stays with us.
Folks who are in later stages of Alzheimer’s or dementia, or folks who are in the last stages in their lives in that twilight world, they can rouse up and sing the songs and the hymns of their childhood – verse after verse. It’s like a miracle to witness.
Our big ideas – and we have lots of big ideas – and all our sophisticated beliefs about the meaning of life and about religion and so on, they have their place. But when it comes down to matters of life and death so often it is the kind of faith we can sing that gives us that courage and peace we need.
If we can sing it, we can know it – deep down – and we can be it.
This isn’t just about religious music – music that’s religious up front. It’s also about any kind of music that sings out where our soul is, where our heart is. Whatever is the echo in our soul of the music of a new creation, music that arises from our deepest expression and conviction, music that moves us through whatever is blocking us from living well and moves us beyond that into new life, this is what I’m talking about. So if belting out Adele in the shower is what does it for you, go for it.
But there is something all the more powerful about singing these kinds of heart and soul songs with a community, and singing songs that connect us not only with each other right now but also with ancestors in our faith. We breathe together, we move together as we sing together, and we enter into a larger body of sound arising through all our voices that lifts us beyond this place, beyond this time.
There’s actually a bunch of research that shows that singing together is good for our health, both our physical and mental health (as if we need research to know that). It’s interesting, according to these studies it actually matters if you sing with other people rather than alone. We need that to get these benefits from singing. But what doesn’t matter if you sing in tune. It’s good for you just the same. I’ll be getting back to that point.
So it’s good to sing with other people, even if you can’t sing in tune. But more than that, I say, what’s most important about the singing we do in sacred gatherings like this is that it invokes the Sacred, we call on God with our singing. Singing can be a very deep way of praying – so, so deep.
In the beginning was the Word, and that Word, I’m pretty sure, was sung out – and it’s still being sung out. “The sweet, tho’ far off hymn, that hails a new creation” is resounding throughout creation.
That’s how we say it according to our faith. Physicists will use different language, but I think they’re getting at the same realization. Because they’ve found that basically the universe, all the way down to the sub-atomic world, is composed of various kinds of vibrations and rhythms, waves and cycles. The whole universe is a musical event, you could say.
In the old way of the Bible, we say, “In the beginning was the Word,” and the music of that Word resounds throughout creation. That’s in the revealed Name of God, that mysterious Name of God that came to Moses. YHWH – beyond pronunciation, is something like humming breath. That’s how to pray the Name of God. Elijah, we are told, encountered God in the “humming stillness.”
People long ago discovered that when we chant sacred words, sing simple sacred melodies, our minds and hearts and souls can open to the movement of the Divine. It is a deep way to pray.
People have also discovered how singing together connects us to each other and to a greater vision for what the world can be. The great social movements that have been how God has acted in history, these movements have been carried by song. It is by singing together that folks throughout the world have found the courage and have carried the prophetic vision to struggle for a more just and peaceful world.
“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. The truth is marching on. Glory, glory, hallelujah.” “We shall not, we shall not be moved. Like the tree that’s planted by the water, we shall not be moved.” “We shall overcome. Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome someday.” “I’m gonna down my sword and shield, down by the riverside. Ain’t gonna study war no more.” “For the people hear us singing/ Bread and roses, bread and roses.” “Won’t you help me sing, these songs of freedom. All I ever knew, redemption song.” “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.” That was a struggle song too. Fanny Lou Hamer turned it into a civil rights song. The Psalms of the Bible are sung prayers that often are similar songs of protest and encouragement. “By the rivers of Babylon where we sat down, there we wept for we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. for there our captors asked us for songs… How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High, to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night, to the music of the lute and the harp, to the melody of the lyre.”
These are songs of tremendous faith. It takes tremendous faith to struggle, and risk life and limb to defy unjust and violent power on behalf of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. It is through singing together that people have shared that faith.
And it is through singing that we share the faith, the work-a-day kind of faith, that can carry us through the struggles and joys of everyday life. That’s why as Protestants, we’re a singing people. The hymns that we sing together can awaken us to God’s tremendous love. They can help us to pray together and find our belonging in the embrace of a God who is deeper and broader than the horizons of this world.
“Why should I feel discouraged? Why should the shadows come? Why should my heart be lonely and long for heaven and home? When God is ever my portion, my constant friend will be, God’s eye is one the sparrow, and I know God watches me.” “What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul. What wondrous love is this, O my soul.” “No storm can shake my inmost calm, While to that refuge clinging; Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?” “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…”
We enjoy the sound of that amazing grace together by singing it together. And that grace is amazing regardless of how amazingly we sing. God doesn’t care if your voice ain’t so amazing.
God doesn’t care of your voice even honks or croaks or creaks or keens like a banshee. It’s singing with the heart with whatever voice you’ve got that shakes us awake to that amazing grace. That grace is amazing because it means forgiveness. That grace is amazing because it means freedom from judgment. That grace is amazing because it means freedom from that little gremlin on our shoulder that’s got such nasty things to say about such things as our voice honking or croaking or creaking or keening.
Most of us when it comes to singing got saddled with that gremlin early on, ’cause of some nasty comment about our singing voice we got from some school teacher or from some nasty hateful little bully kid.
Somehow we got the idea that unless right out of the gate you’re a little Julie Andrews or Michael Jackson or Prince or whatever, your singing voice has got to get banished to the shower. But fortunately for us, our God is not nasty like that. Our God is a God of grace, which means a God of those secret uninhibited moments when we’re just totally unapologetically ourselves, singing out because we want to sing out. “How can I keep from singing?”
I pray that we can enjoy that kind of grace together as a congregation, and share it. Whatever gremlins riding us with judgment about our own singing or about other people’s singing, may those gremlins will just get vaporized by a spirit of Grace. And we can sing our heart out, totally unapologetically ourselves. “If you want to sing out, sing out. If you want to be free, be free.”
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered September 24, 2016 at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)