Where Is Our Music?

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This is not a “ripped from the headlines” opinion article. It is not about a current crisis going on in the world, though I could write about many. But since it’s Friday, how about a gentler and kinder blog post on a subject easier to contemplate, one that hints at real joy!

This blog post is about something as old as time, something timeless and enduring and cherished. Something that is meant, among other things, to bring us joy. It’s about the music that tells our stories — the stories of a nation, of a community, of a church.

The benefits of music on the mind and body have been recognized since the days of the Greek philosophers. According to Plato, music “gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, gaiety and life to everything.”

Today, researchers and scientists continue to explore how music affects emotions by  improving and enriching the way we think, feel and relate to the world. So we might ask the researchers, “where is our music?” Those in the know say that our music is in the right side of our brains, but researchers also tell us that listening to and performing music impacts the brain as a whole. Music stimulates both halves of the brain — the analytical brain (left) and the subjective-artistic brain (right). While the left brain processes elements in music such as pitch, tempo and structure, the right brain — often considered the more creative hemisphere — focuses on the melody in the music. 

And that’s all the physiological and psychological, scientific trivia I have about music. What I really want to share is how music affects worship. Where is our music when we worship?

I happen to be Baptist, and Baptists have deep roots in musical expressions of worship, seldom finding it difficult to sing from the heart — with unbridled joy — making melody and harmony that would soar through church sanctuaries large and small, simple and ornate.

Hymn singing has long been one of the most cherished acts of worship for Baptists. I dare say that many Baptists remember hearing about “the great hymns of the church” from an early age and learning about church music in their Music Makers or Young Musicians choirs. If funds allowed, the minister of music (AKA choir director) would receive music booklets from a subscription service designed so that children would learn about hymnody, music in worship, choir member deportment and, as we used to describe it, “singing parts.” 

Not so much today. These days, it seems that joyful, exuberant hymn singing is a little more difficult for worshippers. Many congregations are regrettably a bit more restrained than they once were. As for music in my personal experience, well these days the church music in my world is restrained enough to make me wonder, where is our music?

I have to say that our music is still an important element of our church’s worship, with hymns carefully and creatively selected to enhance worship. Then what’s the problem? I believe problem to be our disimpassioned attitude when we sing. That kind of attitude is robbing us of music’s full spiritual expression. I am not, by any means, a professional musician that can comment on hymn texts, hymn tunes, meter, or the history of Christian hymnody. I am merely a worshipper who finds music to be a primary expression of true worship. With a bit of reticence, I approach the conclusion that some of us sometimes sing words without paying attention to their meaning, sing hymns without noticing their theological message, or sadly, do not really sing at all, certainly not from the heart.

It is not for me to ensure that congregations sing and appreciate the words they are singing. I have no power at all to make individuals sing from their hearts. Yet, music that does not come from the heart is something like “fake worship.” 

There are so many ways our hymns can touch the heart and aid worship. I mention only three that seem most important to remember.

MUSIC EXPRESSES JOY . . . 

Most certainly, our songs and hymns can and should be expressions of joy. People in church don’t smile much, but singing, “then sings my soul, my Savior, God, to Thee, how great Thou art!” ought to cause us to smile with holy joy! The Scripture calls us to joy:

My lips will shout for joy when I sing praise to you—
I whom you have delivered.   — Psalm 71:23

Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord;
let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before God with thanksgiving
and extol God with music and song.  
 — Psalm 95:1-2

MUSIC EXPRESSES THEOLOGICALLY SOUND THOUGHTS . . .

The hymns we sing in worship not only inspire us, they instruct us. A hymn like “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is theologically sound, proclaiming the attributes of God. There are many such hymns that enhance our knowledge of God. The Scripture challenges us to wisdom and identifies singing hymns as one way we learn.

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.  — Colossians 3:16

MUSIC EXPRESSES OUR BEST WORSHIP . . .

When I contemplate that phrase in Colossians — singing to God with gratitude in your heart — I am prompted to more fully express my faith through song. I hope that our singing truly is an act of true worship, a time when we invite the presence of God and the Holy Spirit to be in our midst. Consider Solomon’s dedication of the temple. When all the preparations were done and the temple was finished, the worshippers sang and played instruments as an expression of praise, and the result was astounding.

The trumpeters and musicians joined in unison to give praise and thanks to the Lord. Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals and other instruments, the singers raised their voices in praise to the Lord and sang:

“He is good; his love endures forever.”

Then the temple of the Lord was filled with the cloud,
and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud,
for the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God.   — 2 Chronicles 5: 13-14

So I wonder: where is our music? Do we find it through our casual singing of three hymns every Sunday, or it is more than that? Could we make our singing more personally meaningful by paying  closer attention to the words of a hymn, receiving the thoughts expressed in the hymn into our spirit and reacting to them as part of our expression of worship?

I don’t know exactly what a temple “filled with the cloud” looks like. But it seems that a result of our songs of praise might well become cloud-like, as God’s Holy Spirit joins us in worship and fills the sanctuary with the power of wind and flame.

Don’t we need that kind of worship experience?

Lonely In a Crowd

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Being lonely in a room full of people can be disconcerting. You might call it “lonely in a crowd.” Not such a great place to find yourself! In these days of waiting to be transplanted, I find that this is precisely where I am, lonely in a crowd. Not alone, just lonely, as if being where I am emotionally is a place where no one has ever been before. No one I know is with me on this massive, nationwide transplant list!

People call it a “wait list,” and that is actually a very good name for it, because all you can do when you’re on it is wait. No one ever reassures you that your name has not been accidentally removed. No one gives you a magic beeper that you keep until you hear that glorious beeping that means they have a table for you. No one says, “Thank you for waiting. One of our representatives will be with you shortly.” No one tells you anything at all. It’s just a wait list and all you can do on there is wait.

The result is that being on a huge, invisible, impersonal list is a lonely place to be. As I sat in church on Sunday, with a fairly large congregation in fact.  I realized that we were gathered together but we were not really with each other. I looked all around me and thought, “I don’t know these people and they don’t know me. In a few minutes, we will all leave here, and I will have emotionally connected with no one.”

It made me sad, and all the more lonely. It’s my own fault, I suppose. I could make a concerted effort to engage more fully with the worshippers that surround me each Sunday. I could will myself to go deeper into conversations than, “How are you? I’m fine, thank you.” Surely there is another appropriate thing to say after such customary and gentile greetings. Whatever it is, I don’t say it. Therefore, I depart from the church a little bit lonelier than when I came. 

I left my church in Little Rock when we moved here to Macon, Georgia, almost five years ago. Leaving New Millennium Church was heartbreaking. I grieved for the good people of New Millennium for almost two years. I served as Minister of Worship there before I got sick. My mission was to plan worship each Sunday for a congregation that already knew how to worship. When New Millennium people took my plans for prayers and hymns and litanies, they lived into them freely and fully as they worshipped, and what emerged from the people was somewhere between pure exuberance and holy reverence.

And one more thing. It can truly be said of New Millennium that no one could leave there lonely. The people of the church had a way about them, almost like they collectively gave a perennial hug that expressed this truth: “God is with you, and I’m with you, too.”

I remember well the Sunday we sang this familiar hymn with a wonderfully comforting text.

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;

I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

“Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear,
And resting in His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears;
Though by the path He leadeth, but one step I may see;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;

Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise,
When songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies,
I draw still closer to Him, from care He sets me free;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

A congregation can always sing “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” but New Millennium Church really SANG this song — with empathy, with joy, with a special kind of conviction that forced you to believe its message. Indeed it is a message worth believing, worth taking into your very soul, all the way into that loneliest place.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are numbered.

 — Matthew 10:29-30 New International Version (NIV)

Yes, I am lonely. Sometimes even in the presence of people. Sometimes even in church. But I have a couple of choices: I can make a real effort to insert myself into the lives of the people around me. OR I can just accept the reality of the lonely place I am in right now and rest in it, with the assurance that, like the song says, God really does watch over me.

In your quiet time today, perhaps you would like to hear this beautiful song. I invite you to watch this video:

Seeing the Light: A Spiritual Discipline

DF9BF7FC-6583-4F1A-A78F-3F5CD0D37117I seldom talk much about the spiritual disciplines that have given me strength. A private retreat — just me and God — in a beautifully isolated hermitage was one of the most powerful spiritual experiences of my life. While there, I also practiced another of my spiritual disciplines — iconography.

Iconography is not merely a visual art, it is Christian sacred art, and has been an integral part of the worship and mystical life of Christians since apostolic times. Referred to in the Eastern Christian tradition as “windows into heaven,” icons have inspired and uplifted millions of the faithful, and have at times been the instruments for demonstrating God’s miraculous intercession in the life of humankind.

29074C09-C2E4-49B3-ACA8-FAED6A6069B8In describing the purpose of icons, the early Christians used the Greek work anagogic, literally meaning “leading one upward.” Photios Kontoglou, a renowned modern iconographer, expressed this perfectly: “Icons raise the soul and mind of the believer who sees the icon to the realm of the spirit, of the incorruptible, of the kingdom of God, as far as this can be achieved with material means.” 

So to appreciate iconography fully, we must approach it as a liturgical art form whose function is essentially spiritual. Since the creation of an icon is itself a sacred activity, the iconographer must be a person of prayer, not merely a technician. If the iconographer’s work is to inspire and illumine others, then it is essential that she leads a life of prayer and fasting that she may be inspired and illumined by the Holy Spirit, that her iconography becomes itself an expression of her spiritual life. Kontoglou writes: “The iconographers painted as they prayed.”

355CF8CB-A1B6-4D08-B5DD-DF59A9618C9AMy love of iconography resulted from the prompting of my dear Aunt Eirene. She was an artist extraordinaire and a gifted iconographer. She studied and practiced to hone her skills and each year, she went to an intensive iconography workshop at a beautiful retreat center. One year, she persuaded me (forced is a more accurate term) to go with her. Of course, I was extremely reticent to try this new art form.

At first, I called on my artistic skills and was doing a barely decent job. But then a lovely nun who sat next to me said words that literally imprinted on my heart. She said, “Your rendering of the Holy Child is beautiful. Look into his eyes. When you see the Light coming from them, you will fall in love with your icon.”

286998AD-4ACD-4E54-BBD6-EDCC0B0D4ED0She was so wise. I began to think more about the Christ Child’s eyes than my own art, and within a day, my iconography transformed from a painting to a prayer. It was worship, meditation and reverence. It touched my soul as I added color to the board, layer upon layer. It was an incredible experience to see the Light. I share with you here some of icons I created, as I remember the experience I had with each of them that opened my soul to the Light.

 

 

 

 

Behaving in Church

 

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Pope Francis preaching as a child sits nearby

I was moved today by a statement a friend made in a conversation. She is a mother of young children, and she said that she loved worshipping with her children and watching their responses to the worship experience. It was such a contrast, I thought, to the typical responses of parents through the ages struggling to corral their children during worship. When my son was young, I did some powerful corralling myself trying to keep a very active boy still and quiet in church.

Looking back, I wonder what made me believe that worshipping always needed to be still and quiet. I wonder what I might have learned from my child if he had been encouraged to offer his own expressions in worship. And, of course, I cherish and miss those days of taking my very expressive toddler to “big church.”

There is a delightful article by Jamie Bruesehoff printed in The Huffington Post (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/jamie-bruesehoff/parents-kids-church_b_3909085.html) entitled “Dear Parents With Young Children in Church.”

I see you with your toddler and your preschooler. I watch you cringe when your little girl asks an innocent question in a voice that might not be an inside voice let alone a church whisper. I hear the exasperation in your voice as you beg your child to just sit, to be quiet as you feel everyone’s eyes on you . . . When you are here, the church is filled with a joyful noise . . . I know that they [the children] are learning how and why we worship . . . They are learning that worship is important.

I see them learning. In the midst of the cries, whines, and giggles, in the midst of the crinkling of pretzel bags and the growing pile of crumbs, I see a little girl who insists on going two pews up to share peace with someone she’s never met. I hear a little boy slurping (quite loudly) every last drop of his communion wine out of the cup, determined not to miss a drop of Jesus. I watch a child excitedly color a cross and point to the one in the front of the sanctuary. I hear the echos of “Amens” just a few seconds after the rest of the community says it together. I watch a boy just learning to read try to sound out the words in the worship book or count his way to Hymn 672 . . . I can see your children learning.

Jamie Bruesehoff’s words call us to cherish the children among us, just as Jesus did so long ago.

Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” And he laid his hands on them and went on his way.

Matthew 19:13-15 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

It seems that recently, Pope Francis mirrored the actions of Jesus according to a post by UCatholic.

A beautiful little girl with Down syndrome, got up from her seat during a papal audience and went toward the Pope. The security guards quickly moved in to take her back to her mother. The Pope stopped everyone and said to the girl, “come sit next to me.” The girl then sat down near him and the Holy Father continued to preach while holding hands with the little girl.

Our words matter. What we say to our children becomes a part their memories.

As a child, I heard some pretty strong words about my church behavior. I heard such words as an adult. I even said some of them myself. “Sit still in church! Quit wiggling around so much! Be quiet! Children have to behave in church! Behaving like that in church is not pleasing to God!”

Or maybe these words are more Christlike. “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them.”

Amen.