During the recent Advent season, I challenged my congregation to savor the music of the holidays, and to listen with fresh ears to both the lyrics and melodies which carry our deepest longings and joys. As usual, in attempting to teach others, I learned a great deal. No matter the time of year or our personal musical skills, music is the portal to our experience with God and to our deepest selves.
In a recent podcast, social activist Ruby Sales tells about the impact of music on her life and work. Since her father and grandfather were both Baptist preachers, she was immersed in the songs of her faith and testifies that by the age of 7, she had at least 20 songs at her disposal. To use her words, that music became a currency for her to employ as she negotiated life. The songs became a shorthand language for her faith.
During Advent, I kept asking my people, “What would Christmas be like without music?” We could expand that by asking, “What would the Christian journey be like without music?” Without a doubt, our songs are our most primitive creeds, the way our faith is transmitted through the generations. Church historian Glenn Hinson once commented that though Baptists have no official creed, our songs are our confessions of faith.
Music sustains us in our dark times. Sooner or later, crises come to all of us, requiring us to access our spiritual playlist. In those desperate times, we need our song in the night. From his German prison cell during World War II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer bore witness to the rich reservoir which music provided. In a letter to his best friend, Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer reported that in those disgusting conditions, his ability to recall hymns of faith sustained him. As I read “Letters and Papers from Prison,” suddenly two Bible verses connect. The psalmist’s question, “How could we sing the LORD’S song in a foreign land?” is answered in Colossians 3:16, “with gratitude in your hearts, sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God.”
No doubt about it. Singing gives us courage. Music not only states what is true; it reveals what we long to be true. Through song, we lean into the future. The Civil Rights Movement in our own country confirms this. Ruby Sales also commented that music has a way of democratizing our faith. Singing creates a common language of the spirit, allowing everyone equal access to the holy. Through song, we stand up and say, “Move over; I have a place in God’s choir, too.”
Several years ago, I arrived in Guadalajara, Mexico, with a preaching team from the United States. As we met with our hosts in a hotel lobby and introduced ourselves, someone began singing worship choruses familiar to both our cultures. One song after another, a cascade of melody and harmony filled the room. After a brief silence, someone said, “Let’s pray.” My immediate reaction was, “I thought we were praying!”
In many ways, singing is the highest form of prayer. When I pray silently, I tend to stay “in my head.” When I sing, for better or worse, I do so with my entire body. From what I read in the Psalms, that makes God smile.