For some of us, nothing lifts the spirit more, nothing gives more joy, nothing can compete with making music. This doesn’t just include those who might sing professionally, or sing in a choir, or play in an orchestra or band. We all smile when we see TV commercials that portray people singing their hearts out in the shower, or doing our own version of Carpool Karaoke during our commute. Making music feels like part of our DNA. And if we can’t make the music ourselves, we can at least hear it, all the better if it is live.
But for the last 18 months, we have been forced into making music in a vacuum. Concert venues, opera houses, Broadway shows, choruses, church choirs and praise teams, bands, orchestras, all have been put on hold as we tried to protect ourselves and the most vulnerable in our society. Yes, we learned to do some music virtually. Rock stars, especially those who are blest to be able to sing and accompany themselves, held concerts on Facebook and Youtube. Small ensemble groups recorded themselves and stitched the recordings together. High School Choirmasters spent countless hours so that their choruses could present what looked like all those voices singing together. But ask any of our choir members, who had to learn music on their own (with the help of rehearsal tapes), then record only your voice while listening to a master tape—and you will hear that it is no fun. I imagine that singing hymns or praise songs with your computer was a similar experience. It loses something in translation.
So, one more time, I am going to lift up an image that comes from the letter to the Ephesians that points toward the theme of Unity amid Uniqueness—this time from the world of music. We have explored the image of the church as the body of Christ, and we as members of that body; and the idea that we are knit together—coming from a single strand woven by God, but each of us being a stitch that is so integral that for one to break or be dropped causes damage to the whole. Today we add the image of making music together.
Of course, as many of you know, music is something that quickens my soul—and so I am not coming to this as an outside observer. I am called to listen to the Word of God for this community, but what I hear, what jumps out at me, cannot be disentangled with who I am. In this (I will admit) depressing time of rising covid cases (AGAIN), and fights and downright dirtiness in our political system, and anxiety about climate change, and worrying about ourselves, our families, our country, and our world—I needed this week to hear “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” Oh, I felt. We are not the only people in the history of the world who have ever felt like this. We are not alone. And our ancestors in the faith might have something to share, some morsel of “best practices” for living in a stressful time.
And what is the TED talk from the writer of the letter to the Ephesians? What does it say we should do? Be careful, be wise, make the most of our time. That doesn’t seem earth-shattering. And more advice: Watch how we fill up the hollow that has become so apparent—don’t do it by “getting drunk” or by getting high or by immersing ourselves in video games or bingeing on watching other people’s lives or comforting ourselves with retail therapy or whatever else we might do to shut out the rest of the world while we lose control (even if it might feel good in the short term). What do we do instead? What is left? If we are listening to Ephesians, it says: “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 other words—make music.
Now I notice that there is no requirement that you be a gifted music maker. There are no auditions scheduled. There are no elimination rounds. This is meant for everyone and is really a metaphor for how we are to live our lives. Which brings me to three questions. 1) How do we make the music? 2) Who do we make the music for? And 3) What does our music express?
How do we make the music? We know that very few people make music all by themselves. There are usually others: for instance-- the other band/chorus members, there might be instruments, there are the backstage people and audio people and the people who run the house and the people who are there to listen. And for most music making all of these intertwined parts are necessary for the experience. In the history of western choral music there has been a movement from simplicity and uniformity to complexity and diversity. Let’s take music in the Western (that means European) Christian church as an example. The printed music that we have, starts as a single voice, solely by itself, singing the Psalms. It then moves to a group of voices all singing the same notes, still by themselves. And then, to more than one voice each having its own part, and adding instruments doubling the sound, and finally, voices singing their own parts, and instruments playing their own parts, together creating one piece.
As I tried to image how to describe this multilayered, many-making-one sound, in my mind, what I pictured was an orchestral score—that huge piece of paper you might see a conductor looking at. It has a line for every part, the first violins, the second violins, the first flute, the second flute, the first trumpet, the second trumpet, the tympani, the percussion, and so on—that’s why it’s so large—because you need to be able to see all these different parts. And if you were to hear each part separately it might not make much sense musically—because they were intended to be played together. You can see why Unity amid Uniqueness came to my mind once again.
I think it is important that when we are urged to be filled with the Spirit—singing or making music it is “among yourselves.” This is not a solitary pleasure. It is a communal experience—those who have strength lend some to those who might be weaker in some areas, just as singing in a choir means if I don’t get one note, I trust that others will carry me through. Making music allows you to see that the sum of the parts is much bigger and better than any one by itself. We would do well to remember this in our lives—at church and in our world.
As Katherine Davis wrote in her familiar hymn lyric “Let all things now living a song of thanksgiving to God our Creator triumphantly raise; who fashioned and made us protected and stayed us, by guiding us on to the end of our days…(and she ends with) We too should be voicing our love and rejoicing; with glad adoration, a song let us raise till all thing now living unite in thanksgiving: to God in the highest, hosanna and praise!”
Who do we make the music for? I know looking at all the competitions on TV we might think that making music is for the judges, or the audience (so they might vote for us), or even for ourselves. But Ephesians suggests that making music is really about praising God. I don’t want to get into a discussion about what type of music we should be making—the church in its infinite wisdom over the ages has tried banning everything from all music other than the psalms, to any instrumentation, to anything secular. What is important to my mind is that as we blend our individual lines into the music of the spheres, we remember that even if we have remembered to include other voices, even if we have remembered to listen for the sound of creation, even if we have included the twinkling of the stars, there is something missing if we are not turned toward God.
Without bringing God into the equation the music swirls around within itself, and maybe pushes out to extend beyond itself, but it doesn’t rise to the heavens—it doesn’t fulfill the call of being filled with the Spirit. “Making melody to the Lord in our hearts” is a way of life. “Making melody to the Lord in our hearts” is a reason to get up every morning, and to keep on keepin’ on during the day, and to enjoy adding others who want to make this music as well, until we close our eyes at night to finally rest.
In our opening hymn, Fred Pratt Green expresses this focus on God. “When in our music God is glorified, and adoration leaves no room for pride, it is as though the whole creation cried: Alleluia! How often, making music, we have found a new dimension in the world of sound, as worship moved us to a more profound Alleluia!”
I could have picked any number of hymns to illustrate this sentiment: from “Sing Praise to God who Reigns above” to “Cantad al Senor (O Sing to the Lord)” to Siyahumba “We are Marching in the Light of God.” Listen to an unfamiliar hymn (at least to me) called “Sound a Mystic Bamboo song” which says it was written in 2000 to affirm the worldwide nature of the church and to honor the diversity of indigenous expressions of faith. “Sound a mystic bamboo song: raise a canting lyric voice; beat the drum and play the flute; let the church of God rejoice.” (AM play?)
What does our music express? This might be considered a trick question, because music expresses the whole of human experience—from rage to heartbreak to joy. But this music (this way of life) that intends for us to see ourselves as a beloved individual but only part of a whole, that nudges us to remember to include God as the vertical column holding our universe together, this music needs to have a foundation, the rock on which we stand. This foundation needs to be like the bass guitar (or the bass voice) providing the bottom of the chord. It needs to be like the cellos and basses and lowest instruments of the orchestra or band—that make the floor of the sound that then supports everything you build on top. If you don’t have a foundation, if your bass isn’t good—then the whole endeavor is in danger.
What is this bass, this foundation, this bottom undergirding all? Ephesians says (and this is found in other places in the writings of Paul): we need to be “giving thanks to God … in all times and in everything.” Gratitude has become a fad word—with gratitude journals and gratitude lists and gratitude crystals and even gratitude tattoos. Great, maybe the rest of the cosmos can get in on a secret that religious people have espoused for a long time: life is better lived if you constantly remember how much we have to be grateful for!
For those who have been in church a while the hymn might be “Rejoice, ye pure in heart, rejoice, give thanks, and sing!” while others might lift up “Just want to thank you forever, and ever and ever, for all you’ve done, done for me.” However we express it, gratitude, thankfulness, must be our ground floor. It is only then that we can share our praise, our lamentation, our hopes and our fears in being filled with the Spirit—in making music to our God.
Making music all together, making music knowingly in the presence of God, making music with a “bass” of gratitude is a task that takes practice and patience and perseverance. Some of the “voices” unfamiliar to us may sound discordant. Adding them in may require changes to how we have made music in the past, changes to where we thought we fit into the picture. But that is what we are called to do—to open ourselves to the evolving score of life in this, God’s world.
I hope we can commit to making music together, each adding our distinctive melodies and lyrics and tambre, lifting up ourselves to God, with grateful hearts and souls and lives. As the old hymn puts it, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.