Thursday, July 28, 2011

Rise to thee…

Verse one of Hymn #4 in our songbook includes this lyric- “Early in the morning my song shall rise to thee.” It’s a statement of praise, a declaration that not only does God deserve our adoration, but even that such language ought cross our lips upon waking each day. When’s the last morning you sloughed off the covers, stretched out your arms and began belting praise to God?!
The role of music in the life of faith has played through my mind recently, anticipating last Sunday’s Song Sing, preparing for August’s Song Sermon Series, pondering ways our church can better shine as a beacon of openness through the music we employ in worship. And I’m struck anew by the vital place of melodies and lyrics in worshipper’s souls. Why does it seem entirely appropriate that, in a moment of exuberant gratitude for God’s grace, we’d want to do more than pray, but go further and sing? Not everyone, surely, feels that impulse. But throughout history, many Christians have associated the substance of faith with favorite songs as much as with beliefs. The carol “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” derives from words and tunes created as early as the fourth century, remembered and updated across vast expanses of space and time. Hospice Chaplains share a common experience, that when caring for a person nearing death, having sadly lost the capacity to remember her life story and family and even identity, the patient, nevertheless, will sing along if the chaplain intones, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…” And it lifts her soul.

I’m no expert on the science of the brain, but I have learned that the way we make memories is richer than, say, assuming the brain’s an empty tablet upon which we write information for safe storage. Rather, it’s this dense weave of connections passing signals back and forth, running our bodies and retaining what we learn. Certain brain locations perform specialized functions- speech, motor skills, vision- though each interacts with the others and the whole seems greater than its parts. But memories, apparently, reside throughout the system, not just one place. Thus, they abide deep, dispersed across many connections so they operate and influence behavior long before bubbling up to the surface of consciousness. And, when attached to creative or emotional experience, like music, the stability and longevity of memories strengthens, opening more pathways to affect us than without. When my grandpa was away in WWII, my then 3-year-old uncle would occasionally see a man in the grocery store who, from afar, looked like his dad. He’d shout with joy, Grandma said, run up for a hug, only to stop short once the man’s face came into focus. The emotional memory of Dad, to Uncle Walt (and to many), had a special hold on his soul, deeper than he consciously knew.

I can’t say entirely what that means. Nevertheless, it reminds me that humans are so much more than “rational animals.” John 1:1 contends, “In the beginning was the Word,” and I suspect that’s true. Although, I’d wager that the Word back then was sung.

Some Christian theologians, being rationally adept folk themselves, have imagined God as this unmoving, unfeeling Judge of all Creation. An objective observer in a subjective world. There’s something to that, perhaps, though it’s hard to square with the Bible’s stories of God feeling compassion for the vulnerable, anger at injustice, joy for reconciliation. I prefer, instead, an image of God as Jazz Musician, a constant creator with a basic plan for how things will go, but willing moment after moment to improvise; to add a little flare, a subtle correction, an exciting run of glorious notes that would make Louis Armstrong nod with respect. That means God not only watches what happens, but delights in what happens, when we work with God to add ‘notes’ of beauty and goodness to the whole composition. It may even explain why singing our faith, claiming our place in the choir along with all God’s creatures, feels so intuitively right. Even if all we do is clap our hands, or paws, or anything we got. Early in the morning, or whenever!

Grace and Peace,
Read more!