2018/02/18 – 1st Sunday of Lent

Barbara Blaisdell – First Christian Church of Tacoma
First Sunday of Lent – February 18, 2018

Seeking God in Song over Two Millennia, an Introduction 

[1]

Isaiah 42:10-12 : 10Sing to the Lord a new song, God’s praise from the end of the earth! Let the sea roar and all that fills it, the coastlands and their inhabitants. 11Let the desert and its towns lift up their voice, the villages that Kedar inhabits; let the inhabitants of Sela sing for joy, let them shout from the tops of the mountains. 12Let them give glory to the Lord and declare God’s praise in the coastlands.

Psalm 105:42-45 : For God remembered his holy promise…. So he led forth his people with joy, his chosen ones with singing…. That they would keep God’s statutes and would know God’s teachings. Praise the LORD!

Ephesians 5b :18-20:  …be filled with the Spirit as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Nehemiah 12:46-47a: For in the days of David and Asaph long ago there was a leader of the singers, and there were songs of praise and thanksgiving to God. In the days of Zerubbabel and in the days of Nehemiah all Israel gave the daily portions for the singers….

 

  1. Knowing God Through Music

 In August of 2010, 33 Chilean miners were trapped over 2000 feet below the earth when the copper and gold mine collapsed.  Do you remember that story?  Hollywood made a film about it a couple of years ago starring Antonio Banderas.  For 66 days they were trapped down there together in the dark, under all that rock with limited water and food supplies and with temperatures in the nineties!  Have you ever read about what they did to keep themselves from going crazy?
They sang. Together they sang the Chilean national anthem, they prayed and sang what one news report called “religious songs.”  They sang as their families and friends kept watch outside the mines, demanding action from mine and government officials who were so afraid of bad PR that they tried to withhold information.  Now, some would say that singing and praying at a time such as this is simply one more way to help them feel better, to calm their emotions. But I think it was far more than that.

The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy said, “Music is the shorthand of emotion.” An anonymous quotation I have seen many times says, “Music is what feelings sound like.” And music is about emotion, I agree.  It is sometimes said that music is about feelings and words are about truth– but I believe that point of view just doesn’t say enough because music is also about truth.

For you see, one of the great untruths of our age is the way that seemingly absolute distinctions get made between head and heart, mind and emotion, rationality and feeling, intellect and affect. And then the proponents of each side line up and attempt to say that it is their “side” of things that is really real, really true and that the other “side” is wrong. You hear this kind of talk in the psychobabble that our culture so loves: “Don’t tell me what your head says, tell me what your gut says.” Or, “Oh, I don’t like that classical music stuff; it’s too ‘heady’; country music is real music because it’s all about feelings.” You know what I’m talking about. The proponents of “head” disparage the holders of “heart” as fuzzy and emotional. The believers in music-as-emotion claim that a praise chorus is more “real” somehow than a Gregorian chant or a Bach mass.

The problem with this cultural untruth that divides head from heart, reason from emotion, and then insists that you must be 100% one or the other is that obscures the fact that music is indeed one of the central ways that we know God. For you see, those Chilean miners singing their national anthem and praying and singing to their God weren’t simply making themselves feel better, they were also asserting through songs their belief and their understanding that their nation did indeed care for them, their families and their God cared for them and would do everything possible to free them.  When they sang and prayed, they weren’t just trying to make themselves feel better but were expressing their conviction that God was holding them in God’s everlasting arms and was motivating humanity around the world to care for them. They were profoundly connecting to both what they feel with what they think – which is always the best way to know something!

Those first scientists, the ancient Greeks, knew that music must never be sundered into two separate realms of heart and head. The earliest musicians of the ancient world were also the earliest physicists and their insight was that music was one of the highest and best things of this world because it could alter our state of being, our “feelings,” if you will, but also because it was an expression of the physical laws at work in the universe. Music and physics were simply two sides of the same coin, and both were ways of expressing our knowledge of the world.

The classic hymn, “This Is My Father’s World,” this beautiful line in it: “This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears, all nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres.” “The music of the spheres.” That’s not just a pretty phrase; no, it is a nod to the fact that foundationally music and physics, again, are different angles on the same thing. The equation that could graph a few bars of a beloved piece of music is not somehow more real than the sense that is evoked when hearing that music. To put it more simply, music is itself a way of knowing things, and more to our point this morning, of knowing God. When we hear, when we sing, the intricate and complex and beautifully structured strains of Beethoven’s “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee” we are expressing our knowledge of God’s good ordering of this world. And when we hear Mahalia Jackson run a spine-tingling improvisational riff on “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” we are reminded of the fact that God is not just a God of order – because order without intensity is boredom – but is also a God of the novel and the intense, the one who feels all, all our joy and all our pain and seeks the renewal of all. Psalm 26 says it this way “I… go [to your house,] O LORD, singing aloud a song of thanksgiving, …telling all thy wondrous deeds.”   Music indeed tells of God’s wondrous deeds in the same way a sermon or a theological tract can. Music is not just a way of feeling, but a way of knowing. And feeling is always a way of knowing and when in our music God is glorified, then indeed we know, we know, through both the notes and lyrics who God is.   Let us sing of both our knowledge and our feelings of who God is by joining in hymn #59, “This Is My Father’s World.”

II – Loving God Through Music

(Ephesians 5b :18-20) …be filled with the Spirit as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

 One day I was reading one of the religious blogs online that I sometimes read as part of my regular sermon preparation. The blog had published a letter from someone who was very unhappy with some of his church’s new music selections. Here’s what the letter writer said:

I am no music scholar, but I feel I know appropriate church music when I hear it. Last Sunday’s new hymn – if you can call it that – sounded like a sentimental love ballad one would expect to hear crooned in a [bar]. If you insist on exposing us

to rubbish like this – in God’s house! – don’t be surprised if many of the faithful look for a new place to worship. The hymns we grew up with are all we need.

Another correspondent had a similar point of view and said this in his letter:

What is wrong with the inspiring hymns with which we grew up? When I go to church, it is to worship God, not to be distracted with learning a new hymn. Last Sunday’s was particularly unnerving. The tune was un-singable and the new harmonies were quite distorting.

 Now, some of you are saying to yourselves, “Yeah! Right on! Preach it, sister!” Others of you are wincing because you so very much disagree.  But whether you agree or not to these writers’ thoughts, would it change or chasten your opinion to know that the first letter, the one complaining about the new hymn’s “sentimental rubbish,” was written in 1863 about the song “Just As I Am”? Or that the second writer, who thought that last Sunday’s hymn choice was “un-singable” and who longed for the “hymns we grew up with,” wrote his letter in 1890 about the song “What A Friend We Have in Jesus”?[2]

Such thoughts, whether they were expressed in 1800’s about the new music then or in 2018 about “the new music” now makes me sad. But it is the embarrassed sadness of self-recognition. For in the mid-90s, when I was younger and stupider, I said to the incredibly talented, deeply spiritual, twenty-something music director I’d just hired, “If I never hear another praise chorus in my life I’ll be happy.” Instead of simply pitying me, as would have been his right, this wise young man said to me “Then you will miss out on a lot of love.” And he was right; I would have. For I slowly but surely came to realize that whether the song was “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” or whether it was the then- contemporary praise songs of “O Lord, our Lord, How Majestic Is Your Name” in each case those making the music were seeking to express their love for God. And that’s the point: no one ever composes or selects or sings a song in worship because they want to annoy someone else. No, people sing their praises in all kinds of forms and meters and words and with all kinds of instruments because they want to express their love for God and what God has done for them and for this world. If you and I keep that in mind when a song is sung that is not to our taste, we will glorify God and we will strengthen and uplift those whose musical tastes are different from ours.

Because in the end, it’s NOT simply about my taste or your taste, it’s about love. And expressions of love differ.  I’ll never forget the Mother’s Day when my father, his two brothers and their families descended upon the farm that my grandmother owned.  We were there to celebrate her for she was one of the smartest, kindest most Christian people her sons and grandchildren ever knew, and we wanted to show her our love for Mother’s Day.  We brought her flowers and kisses and hugs.  And then came time for my grandfather to bring into the room his present for her.  It was huge and awkwardly wrapped.  And as Grandma Alice opened it, she revealed the gift, this love offering from her beloved:  an aluminum step-ladder.  I remember all three of her daughters-in-law sending clear but quiet signals to their spouses: “Don’t you ever, ever get me an aluminum step-ladder as a Mother’s Day gift.”  And I understand their feelings.  I would not find an aluminum step-ladder remotely loving.  But my grandmother did.  You see, she was one of those pioneers of the “make do” philosophy.  That is, if it works, make do with it.  We’d call it repurposing, reusing, recycling.  But for grandma and her family it was, make do!  So for her entire life she’d been making do with an ancient and heavy wooden step ladder to reach everything in the 12-foot-tall cabinets in her kitchen and summer kitchen and pantry that her 5 ft. 5 height could not reach.  She’d never even consider replacing that heavy, falling-apart thing—because it was still serviceable.  She could make do!  But as her arthritis got worse, the weight and the instability of that wooden ladder became more and more dangerous, more and more a hardship.  She would never have spent the money on herself and so was thrilled that her spouse was thoughtful enough to spend hard-earned dollars to buy her a gift that made every-day work a little less dangerous and painful. And that Mothers’ Day gift taught me that we give love and receive love in very different ways.  And if your expression of love toward God is different than mine, or if his expression of love toward God is different from yours, for that, we should only be thankful that we love God.  And now, will you join me in singing that unsingable new song from 1890, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”  #585?

III. Serving God Through Music

(Nehemiah 12:46-47a) For in the days of David and Asaph long ago there was a leader of the singers, and there were songs of praise and thanksgiving to God. In the days of Zerubbabel and in the days of Nehemiah all Israel gave the daily portions for the singers….

 Twenty-three hundred years ago, the Chinese philosopher Mencius said, “If the King loves music, it is well with the land.” At nearly the same time, but 5000 miles away, the Hebrew prophet Nehemiah, following the people’s return from their long exile in Babylon, re-instituted a practice – that went back to the time of King David – of employing Temple singers. In fact, this was so important to Nehemiah that every citizen in the land paid a daily tax to support these singers, whose sole job it was to sing to God. How very different than from our culture and society – and even, in some cases, the church – where too often music and art classes in schools, and music and art enrichment programs at the city parks for children, and employment opportunities for teachers of music and art are usually the first things to go when times are tough. The assumption seems to be that music and art are icing on life’s cake, fluff that is fun but dispensable.

But Mencius knew better: “When the King loves music” – that is to say, when music and the arts are valued and honored and seen as something essential instead of optional – “then all is well in the land.” And Nehemiah also knew better. For they both knew something about music that we forget at our peril, and that is this: Without music, without art, our children will not have the capacities for empathy and for justice that they otherwise could have. Because empathy is an act of the imagination.  Empathy is an act of the imagination.

While writing children’s curriculum several years ago, I came across pioneering research studies, done first in the slums of East St. Louis and since repeated elsewhere, that show that art and music expand the imagination of children and it is precisely in the imagination where compassion, and justice, and fairness are incubated and practiced.[3] If you want our children – and the children of this community and this country – to practice fairness, justice, and compassion we must first give them the imagination for these things. And that is what happens when children are steeped in the creative arts. If we want our children to have the ability to care beyond themselves, to see themselves as their brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, to know that God loves and values everyone God has made just as much as each of them, then the arts are not optional, they are essential. Musically-steeped children will be more inclined to see in their fellow humans the commonalities rather than the differences; they will, indeed, have so much more deeply embedded in their souls the capacity to love their neighbors as themselves.

In other words, we sing so that we can serve. For those who are being formed by music and art are the future Food Bank volunteers. Artistic-expanded imaginations will be the ones who will help us find more ways to serve our neighbor. It will be the children who were encouraged to sing who will someday serve as the elders who visit the homebound, taking joy in doing so. It will be those who were encouraged to let their childhood artistic imaginations run riot who will someday want to use their precious vacation times to go to Houston or Puerto Rico to rebuild homes and churches or will give up a weekend to minister at Yakima Mission. It is no accident that it will be the ones who as children learned to love the arts who will be among the first to stretch their wallets to help in the face of floods or tsunami or earthquake or hurricane when the lives of people they will never meet are devastated, but whom they know God loves just as much as them. We create so that we can care. We sing so that we can serve, we sing so that we can serve.

The choir is about to sing a very new song, one not written specifically for worship but written by a woman brought up in the faith, who after a deadly shooting had to put down in words and music what she was thinking and feeling.  Lady Gaga wrote this song after the death of Trayvon Martin but, unfortunately, it could also be about the death of young people this past week or the hundreds of deaths from gun violence in the last year.  Listen as the choir sings of angels down and dying and her commitment to be about doing something to help fix it!

4Cf., e.g., http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1741-5446.1993.00001.x/abstract

Lady Gaga’s Angel Down

COMMUNION MEDITATION— Beautiful communion imagery in the movie about Chilean miners.  But for this Sunday, let the music be our call to communion: “EAT THIS BREAD”

MORNING PRAYER

As we pray today, I can think of no one who could better advise us on the ethics of prayer than Disciples of Christ founder Alexander Campbell.  So today, I want us to read in unison his teaching on prayer:  #603 in our hymnal and then each of us pray silently for what we want for our children who have been and are all at risk of being devastated by gun violence, bullying and suicide, for what we want for our seniors, at risk for hunger, homelessness and lack of health care and for our country, at risk of total tribalization in the name of making America great again.

So read with me #603 in the hymnal about what Disciples believe about “thoughts and prayers” and then join me in silent prayer.

“To pray for anything for which we will not take counsel together, for which we will not jointly labor, for which we will not contribute with all our energies and means, is only mocking God and disappointing ourselves.”

…we aren’t done praying, but let us pray and sing together, first as we sing the Lord’s Prayer together and then continue to pray and light candles as we listen to the morning prayer song as sung by the choir, “Dona Nobis Pacem,” translated in English: “Give to us your peace, O Jesus Christ.”  May God guide our prayers and energies, our means and actions!

[1] I am grateful for the help of Chuck Blaisdell with the format of this sermon and for a couple of the quotes from others on music from a sermon he preached in Colorado Springs in 2010.

[2] http://www.dankimball.com/vintage_faith/2008/07/the-controverci.html

[3] Cf., e.g., http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1741-5446.1993.00001.x/abstract

 

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