Lyrical Living: Words to Live By
“Music is the Language of the Soul” Click here for audio
selected verses from Revelation 4-5
Pastor Marty Raths
Our worship theme this summer is Lyrical Living: Words to Live By. We are preaching on some of our favorite hymns, and hymn phrases, but this morning I am going to talk about the importance of music in general. Since it is such a rich experience in human life, a lot has been said about music.
The writer Hans Christian Anderson had this to say, “Where words fail, music speaks.” The reformer Martin Luther said, “Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.” “Those who sing scare away their woes,” someone else has said. The master church musician Johann Sebastian Bach said, “Music is an agreeable harmony for the honor of God and the permissible delights of the soul.” And the poet Longfellow said, “Music is the universal language of [humankind].”
And this universality is a wonder, isn’t it. Now I am not altogether sure about this, but I doubt whether there has ever been a tribe, or a people, or a culture that has not had music. The desire, and even the need, to make music, in all its richness of instrument and voice, of melody and harmony and rhythm, seems to be almost as basic to us as the need for food and shelter.
Maybe it is just as basic a need, but it is more a spiritual need than a physical one. Someone has said that “music is the language of the soul made audible.” Music is the language of the soul. It is one of the ways that we give expression to what is going on deep within us, and it is one of the ways that we are able to speak to one another, depth to depth, soul to soul. There is a certain type of music called soul, but music by its very nature is soulful.
It is as if we have been created to make music. There is an old rabbinic saying, “God made humans because God loves stories.” If that is true, then so is this. God made us because God loves music. In one of the most glorious visions in all of scripture, John is given a vision of heaven and earth at the end of time. And what is it that John hears around the throne of God? The conversation of a committee meeting? No. The words of a preacher? No. The discussion of a bible study? No. The debates of theologians? No. What John hears is singing. “Then I heard,” John writes, “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing . . . “
Music is the language of the soul. In ways that words alone cannot, music helps us to give expression to our deepest experiences in life: joy, sorrow, struggle, triumph, patriotism, protest, freedom, faith, hope, peace. Music comes from the soul, speaks to the soul, and at its very best transforms the soul.
Music runs like a litany through the scriptures. When the Israelites safely crossed the Red Sea, they burst into a song of praise to God. When David and the people brought the ark into Jerusalem, they danced and sang. The psalms are filled with songs of thanksgiving, praise, petition, protest and lament. At their last meal, and just before going out to the Mount of Olives, Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn. And Paul encouraged his fellow believers to sing with gratitude in their hearts, psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God. And all of this culminates in that glorious vision of John, that cosmic chorus singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
As a congregation, we are so blessed to have choirs, directors, accompanists, and instrumentalists who help us to join in with this cosmic chorus, and who help us to join in with the faithful down through the centuries who have made, in the words of one of our hymns, “music for the Lord to hear.” There is just something about music. It can move us.
I realized this early on in my ministry. The more worship services I led in care facilities, the less theology I spoke, and the more stories I told, and even more than that, the more hymns I had us sing. While the residents seemed to be unmoved by all the theology I learned in seminary, they did respond more to my stories, and even more when we sang hymns like How Great Thou Art, or Precious Lord, or Amazing Grace. Their countenance changed, and so did their body language, and they came alive in the spirit.
There is just something about music.
Sometimes it is just the sheer beauty of the music that moves us, the haunting melody, the lush harmony, the elemental rhythm.
Sometimes we are moved by the deep associations that the music has for us. Sometimes the associations are personal, and sometimes they are communal, connecting us with a larger community of people or a broader stream of tradition. Somehow it would not quite be Christmas without all the carols, and it is hard for me to imagine beginning a Service of Worship on Easter Morn with any other hymn than Charles Wesley’s Christ the Lord Is Risen Today. As I preached a few weeks ago, few things move me with a deeper sense of nationalism than the singing of America the Beautiful, which strikes just the right balance between the patriotic and the prophetic spirits. And how is it that the hymn Amazing Grace, which is a hymn of confession by a former slave trader, has become so deeply connected to our experience of sorrow and grief. Add the bagpipes, and the Irish soul in me gets moved to tears.
There is just something about music. It can move us, and it can teach us, in ways that few other things can. John Wesley called the Methodist Hymnal “sung theology”. He believed that a hymnal should give musical expression to all of the essential teachings of the faith in part because we tend to remember better what we sing. The great 20th century theologian Karl Barth was once asked why he believed in the good news of the gospel. And you know how he responded? Now bear in mind that his Church Dogmatics spans fourteen large volumes, but this is how he responded when asked why he believed in the gospel, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” He responded with the words of a hymn that he had first heard as a child.
We remember hymns and hymn phrases. We carry them with us. They come to mind and heart in moments of gratitude, joy, sorrow, fellowship, struggle. They teach us, and not only by helping us to commit the faith to memory, but by deepening our understanding of the faith. I mean there is knowledge, and then there is knowledge. There is knowing here in our minds, and then there is knowing here in our hearts.
We could read a book about having hope in the midst of trials, and that would be one kind of knowing. Or we could take to heart some of the old African American spirituals like Swing Low Sweet Chariot or Old Ship of Zion or Go Down, Moses or I Know the Lord’s Laid His Hands on Me or We’re Marching to Zion, remembering that these spirituals were a way for black slaves to hold on to their dignity and their sense of humanity and to remind them that they too were somebodies in the eyes of God, and that would be another kind of knowing. That would help us to better understand what it means to hope, to really hope, to hope in our heart of hearts, for something better in life, even when everything else around us is telling us that we are nobodies and that our situation is all but hopeless.
There is just something about music. It can move us, and teach us, and it can inspire us. Our faith needs to happen here in our minds, and here in our hearts, and here in our eyes and ears and mouth and hands and feet. In other words, our faith needs to be not only thought and felt but lived. As we prayed at the beginning of the service, what we sing with our lips may we believe in our hearts, and what we believe in our hearts, may we practice in our lives.
Many of our hymns serve as this kind of encouragement to discipleship. Lord, I Want to Be a Christian goes another one of the old spirituals. But that is hard to do, to be like Jesus, all the time, day in and day out, over a lifetime. Life is full of distractions, disruptions, discouragements, detours, dead ends. Almost daily we are tempted to leave the way.
But music can bring us back, back to the present, to the needs at hand, to the challenges of the day, and to the call of Christ. There is a story about Francis, the beloved saint from Assisi. Francis sort of embodied that vision of John in his life here on earth. For him the world was alive with music and song. The sun, the moon, the wind, the rain, fields and valleys, mountains and seas, and every living thing, indeed all of creation, was one great chorus singing praises to God.
And Francis himself loved to sing. Once he had received his call from Christ, he just sort of sang his way through life. As he wandered through his native Italy, as he worked, as he ate, as he preached, as he prayed, he sang. Not that his life was always easy going. In fact he had more than his fair share of trials, but still he sang. And maybe it was because of his trials that he sang, or sang as much as he did.
For he was once asked by one of his followers, “Francis, why are you always singing?” And in his simple way Francis answered, “Brother Leo, I sing to keep the faith.”
God knows we need help and encouragement and inspiration along the way. It is not always easy going in this life, and maybe that is one of the reasons why God created us to make music, to help us to keep going, in the towns and hillsides of Northern Italy, in the cotton fields of the South, in the midst of our own lives. It is another means of grace, another way that God has provided for us, to help us to walk in the way of Jesus, in the ways of righteousness and holiness, courage and compassion, justice and peace.
I am not altogether sure what Augustine meant when he wrote, “Those who sing pray twice.” It is sort of like a koan in spirit, but it speaks to me. Those who sing pray twice. There is something about music, isn’t there. It moves and teaches and inspires us, and not just here in our minds, but here in our hearts and spirits and souls, and through our eyes and ears and mouths and hands and feet. And there is an echo to music, one that keeps sounding in us, and resounding deep within us, even long after the instruments and the voices have gone silent.
It is the language of the soul. Music. And the universal language of humankind. And in a scriptural witness that takes us into the realm of mystery it is the language of God. Music. For John testifies to the truth that, when all has been redeemed, everything in heaven and on earth, the only sound that will remain is the sound of everything, the whole of creation, singing before the throne of God.