August 27: The Science and Spirituality of Music

August 29, 2017

Reflection: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning August 27, 2017
Ps 42: p.766 VU (sung); Colossians 3:12-17

Ask a lot of people what brings them into church and what keeps them there – especially THIS church – and they’ll say, “The music”. That’s a sentiment I can certainly resonate with. I’ve worshipped in churches where the music was a bit hit and miss, or where it was just plain bad, or even churches where it is nonexistent – and somehow worship just didn’t feel the same. You know how much I love to sing – and I know how much many of you do, too! Even those of you who think you can’t sing or say you “don’t” sing, take great pleasure in hearing the music around you. It’s one of the things that brings us here on Sunday mornings. Music has not always been a part of Christian worship – there are denominations like the Quakers whose worship is largely silent – but in MOST of the church through MOST of the world through MOST of history Christians have sung and made music in worship. Some have even danced! (Shocking, isn’t it! )

What is it about music and worship, music and the human soul and our quest for the Divine that are so closely connected? I spoke early on in this sermon series about how we are “wired for sound’ from birth. In one of the books I read over the last few weeks, writer John Bird quotes Don Campbell in The Mozart Effect who writes that “music is humanity’s original language”. “Researchers have found out about two-thirds of the cilia – the thousands of minute hairs in the inner ear that lie on a flat plane like piano keys and respond to different frequencies of sound – resonate only at the higher ‘musical’ frequencies….”human beings probably communicated primarily with song or tone” (Bird, Spirituality of Music, 12) . Bird goes on to talk about how the fetus is surrounded by sound in the womb: the mother’s heartbeat, the swish of the amniotic fluid and the woosh of blood, the gurgling of the intestinal tract; the womb is not a quiet place at all! One writer compared it to the sound of a jungle at night fall, full of odd calls and rumblings and murmurs. Inuit throat singer Becky Kilabuk says that the sound she and her fellow singers make may have emerged as a way of soothing the babies women carried on their backs, where they could hear and feel the vibrations. Their throat singing may sound to the baby like the sounds she heard in the womb. (Bird, 19).

We human beings are physical beings who are constructed for sound. We have an affinity for rhythm and music that is inborn. We are also more than physical beings; soul, mind, consciousness, spirit – whatever words you want to use to describe that “more”, we know it is present. We connect with music on this level, too. “The [scientist] says that the voice comes from the spine, the diaphragm, the abdomen, and the lungs. The mystic says that sound comes from the soul, the heart, and the mind.” Hazart Inayat Khan (Bird, 9) Both are true!

Father/daughter musicians Don and Emily Saliers wrote: “Music is rooted in the human body and the human soul, and it gives voice to the spirit of human communities. Without songs to sing, life would be diminished. Thus, listening to music with care, creating music, sharing music with loved ones or strangers, and developing musical skills are more than ways of making sound. They are spiritual practices, shared activities open to those who seek lives of great depth and richness.” (Saliers, xiii)

” Coming alive to music is coming alive to deep memory, as music recreates our sense of the world and who we are in it, right in the midst of the terrors and beauties, the pain and deep pleasures, of human existence. Coming alive to music, we are led on a double journey: into the mystery of God and into the depths of our humanity.” ( Saliers, 1)

Don is a classically trained church musician and educator, among other things, and Emily is one-half of the Indigo Girls. Don is a Christian; Emily fits more into the “spiritual but not religious” category. She describes herself as a “spiritual mutt”; yet she and her father agree on this connection between music and spirituality. “Because music is so close to human emotion and feeling, and because faith is a matter of both the head and the heart, it leads us again and again into the realm of spirituality. As Emily observes, “Anyone who struggles with love and suffering and searches for the mystery ends up singing – or at least listening to music.” (Saliers, 17)

They see music, both sacred and secular, as carrying the power of healing, personal and social transformation, lament, thanksgiving, glorifying, community-building, remembering and more. They are not blind to the ways music can be abused; it can be exploited for propaganda, commercial or cruel uses. But they both have experienced the powerful potential it has to draw us closer to the mystery that grounds all life. Both of them were drawn to a verse of “For the Beauty of the Earth” I’d never heard before:

“For the joy of eye and ear, for the heart and mind’s delight,
For the mystic harmony linking sense to sound and sight,
God of all, to you we raise, this our song of grateful praise.” (Saliers, 31)

Music can be a great source of unity, of community, for many. In church, when we come together to sing, we become more than just ourselves. We become a singing assembly, a living experience of what it means to be one church, one body in Christ with one voice. Such moments can be incredibly powerful. Some of you may have seen the video of crowds in Charlottesville, Virginia, singing together, “Lean on Me”. THAT was a spiritual moment, despite it being a secular song in a secular place. It drew people beyond their self-preoccupation and joined them in one song, one voice.

Scripture tells us that since the earliest days of the church, the people who followed Jesus’ way sang spiritual songs together. I remember a novel I read years ago about a young person raised in a very strict Puritanical environment who fell in with a gang of ‘Jesus freaks’ in the 1970s, and his wonder when he discovered a verse in the Bible in which Jesus and the disciples sang a hymn after dinner before going to the Mount Of Olives (Mt 26:30). It hit him like a ton of bricks: Jesus sang! It was a revelation to him! To me, I think – of course, Jesus sang! How can a person of faith not sing? Even if it’s in the shower or the car, surely, people of faith sing! When Paul and Silas were arrested and put in prison, they sang in their chains. When the church gathered in the houses of wealthy mentors, rich and poor sang together “songs, hymns and spiritual songs”.

Music takes us to a place where few other things can go. Music bypasses the walls we place around our hearts and goes straight to the centre of who we are. I learned a long time ago that if I was feeling sad, it would be music that would trigger the tears. If I needed energy and renewed commitment, I’d put on some Christian rock or pop and belt out the songs – or put on Louis or Mahalia singing the great old gospel tunes – and the energy and power of the lyrics would lift me up in an embodied prayer.

Everyone has their own tastes in music – and that includes worship music! Listen to the sounds evoked in Psalm 150:

Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with clanging cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!

It’s not quite as sedate as the music some prefer in church, but boy, it would certainly express praise! Did you know that the organ was once considered too radical and too secular an instrument for church music? Even the traditional lyre and harp were banned as detracting from the simplicity of the Scripture, sung and chanted. The Worship Wars, as they’re known, have gone on for a very, very long time. Currently opinions tend to be divided between a) traditional classical hymns, with a few country gospels or spirituals thrown in; b) praise choruses played by a “rock band”, or c) contemplative services featuring chant or other forms of reflective music. These are not the only kinds of music in the church – we’ve gone through a bunch of them in our worship series! – but that tends to be where the lines are drawn these days.

Singing together builds community, and that’s a strength. It becomes a weakness when a preference for one type of music becomes a negative judgement about all other types of music. It is good to find one’s “Musical Tribe” – people who have been shaped by the same kind of music as you or who are spiritually enriched by the same kinds of rhythms, melodies or harmonies. I love to get together with United Church people and sing, because we know the same songs! It is not good when we judge others’ music – the music that speaks to them spiritually. Too often “I don’t like that music” really means a subtext of “I don’t like that culture”. We need the bonds of community to be bigger than our musical likes and dislikes, for as I said at the very beginning of this sermon, all different kinds of music, both sacred and secular, can invite us into closer communion with the divine and with each other – and even with the earth.

It’s interesting that, as Don Saliers points out, one of the most powerful reflections on love in Christian community begins with musical images, “If I speak with the tongues of mortals and of angels and have not love, I am a clanging gong or a clashing symbol.” (1 Corinthians 13:1) The harmony is broken when we make judgements that are not loving. Sure, there’s junk music out there just as there is junk food. But let’s not assume that my stuff is good and your stuff is junk, or vice versa.

“We human beings cannot live the fullness intended for us without music that sounds the heights and depths of the mystery of the world.” “Religious music would do well to listen for humanity’s hopes and fears, its joys and sorrows in music, great and small, not only within their own communities but also beyond them. Popular music would do well to resist simple formulas and commercial exploitation and to encourage the flourishing of fresh poetry and vital rhythms. All music – jazz and classical, secular and sacred – needs to draw inspiration from honest encounters with the mysteries of life.” (Saliers, 180)

So I have an assignment for you this week – and maybe the next! It’s a two-parter. I’m going to invite you to listen to two kinds of music you wouldn’t normally listen to: one obviously “sacred”, one obviously “secular”, or as some would say, one “Saturday night” and one “Sunday morning”. I want you to listen to this music, and see where you can find that dimension of depth, emotion, and the search for meaning that marks music that has the potential to connect us with the divine. Write down the artists and the songs, and bring them with you to church. Listen to Loretta Lynn or Queen Latifah, Amy Grant or Nine Inch Nails, Charlie Parker or Franz Josef Haydn. Stretch the boundaries of your “Musical Tribe” and find some music that points you toward the One who is Holy Mystery, and Wholly Love. You might be surprised what you discover! Lament and thanksgiving, healing and wounding, wondering and conviction, wandering and finding a home. All is part of the music we humans were born into and have created, whether it’s Saturday night music or Sunday morning praise, and all can help us grow into community with each other and the Divine. May it be so! Amen.

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