Lyrical Living: Words to Live By
“Since Love is Lord of Heaven and Earth–
How can I Keep from Singing?” Click here for audio
Pastor Donna Buell
Psalm 63:1-8, Philippians 4:10-14
I feel blessed to have been given the gift of music, and by that I don’t mean the ability to make music. Oh, I’m a fairly good musician, I have a good ear, I can carry a tune, but that’s not what I’m talking about. What I mean is that I am grateful to have the gift of music in my life. I love music. With very few exceptions, I love all kinds of music. I love to play music, I love to sing music, I love to listen to music. And I have deep appreciation for quality music in all its many and varied forms and styles.
Music is something that accompanies me wherever I go. Any time my mind is not actively engaged in thinking or talking there is likely to be a song in my head. And I never know for sure what that song might me. Perhaps you have had the experience of finding yourself humming a tune, and wondering “where in the world did that come from?” But if you stop and think about the words of the song, you realize that there is likely a connection to something you just saw or heard or thought about. It’s comical sometimes the subconscious leaps and connections the brain makes, causing a song to pop into the mind. It can be annoying, too, like the little tune our washer and dryer sing at the end of each cycle that gets stuck in our heads.
Music carries associations for us. Most of us can think of songs or styles of music that are deeply associated with particular people or places or events from our past, and will always be so. We can hear a song and suddenly we are transported back to a particular moment in time or a period in our life. If I hear an early Beatles song, I’m back with my sisters in the living room while our parents are out for the evening. My oldest sister Jean is Paul McCartney, Carol is John Lennon though now and then she jumps up on the couch behind us to be Ringo Star, and I am George Harrison. If I hear the Boston song, “More Than a Feeling” I am instantly back at any Saturday night party during my freshman year in college.
Music and memory are closely linked in our minds. I’ve never been a person who was good at memorization, unless we’re talking about music. Once I have really learned a piece of music, no matter how much time has passed, I can still remember all the words, and sing all the notes, and hear all the harmonies. Recently I’ve been remembering a song I sang with my middle school choir, setting to music the words that are found on the Statue of Liberty. I am grateful that those words were engraved on my heart
Music taps deeply into our spirits. It touches a place beneath and beyond words. In his letter to the Romans Paul writes about the inadequacy of our words: “We do not know how to pray as we ought,” he writes, “but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” I think that music is one of the gifts the Spirit uses to help us express what resides deep within us. And so music becomes a means of grace for us. It can draw us into an awareness of God’s presence; it can lift our spirits to express our praise and thanksgiving, it can quiet us down and center our hearts in stillness and prayer, it can crack us open and release some of the feelings which we have kept bottled up inside, it can turn our minds towards a particular thought or a new idea, it can sustain us and encourage us in times of distress, it can challenge us and inspire us to faithful living, it can embolden us to work for justice. And the music of the faith not only reflects our faith, it helps to shape our faith, as well. So it is a form of spiritual practice for us, both as individuals and as a community of faith, and this is why music plays such a critical role in worship.
A few weeks ago Marty shared some interesting quotes about music. Here are a few more:
After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music. Aldous Huxley
Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent. Victor Hugo
Music has charms to sooth the savage breast, to soften rocks or bend a knotted oak. William Congreve
Great music is that which penetrates the ear with facility and leaves the memory with difficulty. Sir Thomas Beecham
There is something in music that transcends and unites. His Holiness the Dalai Lama
A song will outlive all sermons in the memory. Henry Giles
Music is the language of the human heart at full stretch. Don Saliers
Since love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing? Robert Lowry
That last quote is today’s lyric in our summer sermon series, Lyrical Living: Words to Live By, in which we have been choosing phrases from hymns and worship songs to help us explore aspects of the life of faith. In many ways, this whole sermon series is an illustration of the important role that the music of faith plays in both reflecting and shaping our faith.
Now I realize that not everyone experiences the gift of music in their life to quite the same degree as I do, but I know that there are those among us – those of us with a continual soundtrack in our brains – for whom the words, “how can I keep from singing” have deep, deep resonance.
According to that hymn, the reason for our singing is the assurance of God’s loving presence in the midst of all of life: “Through all the tumult and the strife” as well as in those moments when “the peace of Christ makes fresh our hearts.” And that same message is found in today’s closing hymn “It is Well with My Soul;” a hymn which includes the words: “Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say it is well, it is well with my soul.”
This is what Paul is writing about in that passage Alan read for us from Philippians. As Paul is nearing the end of this joy-filled letter he expresses gratitude to the church community in Philippi for the gift he recently received from them in support of his ministry. The Philippians had been feeling badly that it had taken them so long to come up with that money. And so as grateful as Paul is for that gift, and for the care and concern that it represents, he reassures his friends by saying that he is content with whatever he has, for he has learned what he calls the “secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.” That secret, for Paul, is knowing that God is with him. And in that deep assurance of the presence of God Paul has learned, over time, that he can do all things, that he can face all things, that he can endure all things, that he can accomplish all things, in Christ who strengthens him. “Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say it is well, it is well with my soul.”
There are a lot of hymns that express variations on that theme, for in many ways that promise of God’s presence with us, whatever our lot, is at the core of our faith. God is present with us, not as the one causing whatever is happening in our lives, but as the one who is with us and who will see us through.
That deep and abiding faith is found throughout the book of Psalms which is the hymnbook of the Hebrew faith, and it is beautifully expressed in today’s Psalm. In Psalm 63 we are reminded that what truly sustains life is God’s presence and power which God exercises as steadfast love. It is a love for which we thirst, a love that satisfies our souls as with a rich feast, a love which is with us through the long hours of the night, a love that calls forth praise and blessing and songs of joy.
This love of God is revealed to us in so many ways. We see it revealed in countless ways throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. It is revealed in the stories of the advent and birth, the life and ministry, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And it is revealed in the ongoing life of the Spirit that continues to be present and active in our lives and in our world. God’s love is made known to us in many ways: as light in the midst of the darkness, as order in the midst of chaos, as liberation for those who are held captive, as presence and guide for those who are in the midst of the wilderness, as a way of life to sustain community, as a promise and a way home for those who are in exile, as food and drink for those who hunger and thirst, as healing presence for those who are ill in body, mind or spirit, as comfort for those who are dying or grieving, as forgiveness for those who have erred, as courage for those doing justice, as compassion and presence, as blessed assurance and amazing grace.
It is this comprehensive love of God, the love that is God, that leads us to say, “since love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?”
Rev. Benjamin Weir was a Presbyterian minister who served for 30 years as a missionary in Beirut, Lebanon along with his wife Carol. One day in 1984 he and Carol had just left their apartment and were walking down the street when a car pulled up alongside of them, Ben was snatched from Carol’s side and forced into the car at gunpoint. He was held hostage for 16 months, most of that time in isolation. After his release he and Carol co-authored a book about their experiences during those long months. And in one of the chapters Weir describes the kinds of things he did in order to not give in to despair. One of the things he found most helpful was to try and recall the words to as many hymns as he could. And eventually he was able to assemble quite a repertoire of hymns that sustained him with the promise of God’s loving presence through those long and lonely hours, days, weeks and months of captivity. In the years that followed his release until his death last October, Ben Weir was a persistent witness for the cause of peace in the Middle East.
One of my favorite authors is Ann Lamott. She once described how she had gotten stuck while trying to navigate through a playground with her grandson. This incident caused her to remember the story from Winnie the Pooh where Pooh gets stuck in Rabbit’s hole because he has eaten too much honey. And after he and his friends try everything they can think of to get him unstuck, to no avail, Pooh finally surrenders himself to the situation and asks his friend Christopher Robin to read to him from a “Sustaining Book, such as would help and comfort a Wedged Bear in Great Tightness”
Now I have never been held hostage, but, like Ben Weir, I have found that music is one of those things that sustains me when I am wedged in great tightness. Perhaps it is for you, as well. When I am anxious, if I turn on some quiet music eventually it will settle me down. When I am feeling sluggish and need a pick me up, I’ll put on something lively and energetic, and allow it to work its magic. When I’m driving a long distance by myself and need to stay awake to pass the miles, I’ll bring along a CD of familiar choral music or familiar songs from my youth to which I know all the words and melodies and harmonies and I sing along. When I loose heart, I think of the songs of faith that have sustained me in the past, and they remind me that God is still with me and always will be. When I get discouraged by the troubles that beset the lives of those around me and that plague our communities, our nation, and our world, it is the Sustaining Book, the Worship of the community of faith, and the Music of the Spirit that carry me through, allowing me to proclaim: “Since love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?” How about you?
The well-known Biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann began each of his seminary classes with prayer. This morning I will be offering a prayer which he prayed before beginning a class focused on the Psalms. Let us pray.
We are people who must sing you,
for the sake of our very lives.
You are a God who must be sung by us,
for the sake of your majesty and honor.
And so we thank you,
for lyrics that push us past our reasons,
for melodies that break open our givens,
for cadences that locate us home,
beyond all our safe places,
for tones and tunes that open our lives beyond control
and our futures beyond despair.
We thank you for the long parade of mothers and fathers
who have sung you deep and true;
We thank you for the good company
of artists, poets, musicians, cantors, and instruments
that sing for us and with us, toward you.
We are witnesses to your mercy and splendor
We will not keep silent…ever again. Amen.