Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Songs for the Journey

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Psalm 126:

Our Psalm today is part of a collection, extending from Psalm 120 to 134, which are known collectively as the psalms of ascent or the pilgrim songs.  They are called that, first because the superscription says “a song of ascents,” simple enough, but also because it is believed that these psalms would be sung as people made their pilgrimage to Jerusalem in order to be at the Temple for the celebration of the most important Jewish holidays. Although nowadays as people make pilgrimages, as they are about to do to the Santuario de Chimayo to be there during Holy Week, people are just as likely to be listening to their iPods as interacting with the people they are traveling with, once upon a time they would spend their days talking or singing songs in order to pass the time.  It is more than likely that as Jesus and his disciples made their way to Jerusalem for the final time that, along with the others they were probably traveling with, they sang these psalms in order to not only pass the time but also to be connected with each other and with the past and as a way to lift up their concerns and celebrations to God.  These are traveling songs.

Each of the psalms in this group is relatively short, meaning they would be easier to remember, and a wide variety of themes and types are represented.  In addition, many of the psalms talk about concerns of ordinary life, which are then juxtaposed with those that talk about national concerns; they also switch between individual and communal positions or references.  Several scholars have even postulated that they are in the order they are in because they follow the path of a pilgrimage with psalm 120 beginning with those who live outside of Jerusalem, and hence needing to make a pilgrimage, and ending with psalm 134, as a benediction, when they are leaving and heading home.

But it is more than just these psalms that would have been sung by Jewish people, it would have been all of them because the Psalms are the song books of the ancient Israelites.  We most commonly use the Psalms today as prayers, and so as a way of continuing our look at prayers through lent, today we are going to be addressing the issue of songs and singing as prayer.  We have no idea how the psalms were sung, but of the 150 Psalms 55 of them contain superscriptions that contain instructions relating to music.  If you have your Bible with you can turn to Psalm 4, or on the screen.  After the title of the Psalm, we have the superscription “to the leader: with stringed instruments,” which is obviously an instruction of some sort.  The problem is we don’t know what this actually means, beyond the obvious.  Did they normally chant the psalms, so only some would use instruments, were they normally sung using drums instead of stringed instruments, so you would need to know this, or were they usually sung accapella?  We simply don’t know.  But in addition to the superscription if you look at the end of verse two, you’ll see the word “Selah.”  I’m sure that some of you have seen that before and wondered what it meant.  Well, if you figure it out, please let us all know, because we don’t really know what it means.

There is a lot of speculation about meaning, but most scholars are in agreement that its usage in the Psalms is as a signal to the choir director or the musicians about something, but what its precise meaning and significance are is unknown.  And one more thing, if you look forward to Psalm 6, there you will see a superscription that says “to the leader with stringed instruments according to the Sheminith.”  Again this is believed to be a musical notation, possibly the name of the tune that it would have been sung to, and in some translations, rather than saying “according to” they will say “to the tune of.”  Each time we read a psalm, we should see it as reading a hymn, and we know that Jesus and the disciples sang because in Matthew, immediately after the last supper, we are told that they sang a hymn before they went to the Mount of Olives, perhaps it was one of these pilgrim songs.

A phrase that is widely attributed to St. Augustine says that to sing is to pray twice.  In 1 Corinthians Paul says “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive.  What should I do then?  I will pray with the spirit but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also.”(14:15)   I think Paul is summing up what connects pray and song and it is that when we sing we should be doing it with our whole person.  Song moves us beyond something that might just be an intellectual exercise and instead it becomes something we can do with our whole body, not necessarily that we do involve our whole body, we are fairly white after all, but we could.  We stand when we sing not only to honor God, but also because in standing we involve our whole bodies.  When we sing sitting down the sound, the involvement, our very presence is very different than when we are standing.  This is not just true for music, but for other things as well.  Try yelling when sitting down, then stand-up and yell the very same thing.  You will be louder when standing because you involve more of your body, and in particular your diaphragm which is what helps you gain volume.

I know that many of you have never thought of song as prayer, and for some of you that terrifies you because you are afraid to sing or just don’t sing at all.  I had someone tell me that in the fourth grade her choir teacher told her that she had a terrible voice and that she should just mouth the words rather than actually singing.  She was now in her mid-60s and she still does not sing.  That rebuke had stayed with her her entire life, and so for more than fifty years she had not sung because her song had been stolen from her.  We all have a song in us, and hers, and maybe yours, has been stolen.

In a piece entitled, “we should sing more” Rev. Johanne Dame, laments the fact that we are being told that we should only sing…. If our songs are good…. If our voices are perfect.  We become, those of us not gifted with exceptional voices, she says, self-conscious.  We beat down the songs embedded in our souls.  Worse, she continues, we come to an acceptance that only ‘professional” music will do.  We have radios in our homes, our cars, our offices… we cannot sing for ourselves or together, we must hire someone to do it for us.”  Now there have always been people who have been hired to perform, who were clearly better than others, but that did not stop people from singing.  They sang work songs and drinking songs, they sang folk songs and songs that told stories.  Song surrounded them in just about everything they did, and most importantly they participated in it, whether they had good voices of not.  Even with increased portability of music, our singing has decreased.  Unless we are working alone, most of our coworkers would not be really happy if we broke into song, we leave the singing to others, but that has not always been the case.

Worse, as I already said, we attack those who don’t have the professional sound we expect.  A lot of the popularity of American Idol comes from watching the people who can’t sing try out for the show, so that we can make fun of them and laugh at their expense.  But singing is a part of who we are, it is, I believe, embedded into our very beings, and so I think we have to ask what happens when we lose the gift of song?  What happens when we as a culture lose these things which bind us together in some common ground?  Singing is one of the most basic of functions, and of course it’s not just limited to us as humans.  Huge portions of the animal kingdom sing.  In recent studies of whale songs, they are discovering that there are rhyming patterns, different tunes, different moods of songs, in other words they are like us.  When you are happy you don’t want to be singing a funeral dirge, and when you are sad you don’t necessarily want to be singing a song that makes us want to dance and clap our hands.  Our music, our songs, connect us to each other, they connect us to what we are feeling, they connect us to something deeper, they connect us with God.

I have spent some time in nursing homes, and especially with Alzheimer’s patients, most of whom could not tell you what day it was or what they had for their last meal, but if you begin singing Amazing Grace, they can not only sing along with you, but they even know all the verses.  Indeed, it is the way that they connect to something deeper; it is the way that they connect with the divine.  I have known of people who just before death have regained consciousness and have sung or recited their favorite hymns.

Music is important, it is indeed a form of prayer, it is way that we connect with God.  Judaism still recognizes this simple reality.  Their daily book of prayer, called the siddur, while it can be recited, it really designed to be sung.  In addition to that, they also sing, or chant, the scriptures as well.  The person responsible for this is known as the cantor, if you have ever attended worship where a cantor has sung, you know that that simplicity and beauty of it can bring a tear to your eyes, or at least to my eyes.  Singing is an integral part of their worship experience, just as it is to our worship experience.  Singing is important.  There is a reason why we begin and end worship in song.  Just as one of the purposes of pilgrimages is to move us out of our ordinary life and our ordinary time, to take us beyond ourselves and connect us to something deeper and more sacred.  Songs can do the same, whether you can sing or not or even if you can clap on time.

Music can move us out of kronos time, that is ordinary time in which we pay attention to the clock, and into kairos time, that is sacred or holy time.  When you don’t know what to say to God, sing, sing a song, sacred or secular, because they often contain the words that we could never come up with ourselves.  A few weeks ago I talked about using prayers written by others if you don’t know what to say, and you can use hymns and songs exactly the same way.  One of the books I use for my daily scripture and prayer also includes a hymn for each day.  Sometimes I sing it because I either know the tune or can figure it out, and other times I just read it as my prayer.  To sing is to pray twice.  Song is embedded in our souls, and when we lose that we lose a connection to the divine, and we lose a part of our prayer life.

Let me close with this story from John Thomas Oaks, who is a musician:

It was chilly in Manhattan but warm inside the Starbucks shop on 51st and Broadway.  For a musician it’s the most lucrative Starbucks location in the world, and apparently, we were striking all the right chords that night.  It was a fun, low-pressure gig.  We mostly did pop songs, with a few original tunes thrown in.  During our rendition of the classic, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” I noticed a lady sitting in one of the lounge chairs across from me.  She was swaying to the beat and singing along.

After the song was over, she approached and said.  “I apologize for singing along on that song.  Did it bother you?”   “No,” he said, “we love it when the audience joins in.  would you like to sing up front on the next selection?”

To my delight, he said, she accepted my invitation.  “You choose. What are you in the mood to sing?”  “Well,” she said, “do you know any hymns?”  This woman didn’t know who she was dealing with.  I cut my teeth on hymns.  He gave her a knowing look and said, “Name one.”  “Oh, I don’t know.  There are so many good ones.  You pick one.”  “Okay,” he replied, “how about “His Eye is on the Sparrow”?”

She was silent, her eyes averted.  Then she fixed her eyes on his and said “Yeah.  Let’s do that one.”  She slowly nodded her head, put down her purse, straightened her jacket and faced the center of the shop.  With his two-bar set-up, she began to sing.  The audience of coffee drinkers was transfixed.  Even the gurgling noises of the cappuccino machines ceased as the employees stopped what they were doing to listen.  The song rose to its happy conclusion: “I sing because I’m happy; I sing because I’m free.  For his eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.”

When the last note was sung, he says, the applause crescendo to a deafening roar that would have rivaled a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall.  Embarrassed the woman tried to shout over the din, “Oh, y’all go back to your coffee!  I didn’t come to give a concert!  I just came to get something to drink, just like you!”  But the ovation continued.  He embraced her and said “You, my dear, have made my whole year!”

“Well it’s funny you picked that particular hymn,” she said.  “Why is that?”

“Well,” she hesitated, “that was my daughter’s favorite song.”

“Really!” he exclaimed.

“Yes,” she said, and then grabbed my hands.  By this time the applause had subsided and it was business as usual.  “she was 16.  She died of a brain tumor.”

He said the first thing that found its way through his stunned silence, “Are you going to be okay?”

She smiled through tear-filled eyes and squeezed his hands.  “I’m gonna be okay.  I’ve just got to keep trusting the Lord and singing his songs, and everything’s gonna be just fine.”

In today’s song from the psalms, we have joy and we have sorrow, we have laughter and we have tears, we have sowing and we have reaping.  We have, in effect, the sum of our lives.  Music is important and when we leave it to others to do, we are missing a part of ourselves, and when we no longer sing, we are missing our prayers to God.  It doesn’t matter whether you can carry a tune or not, it doesn’t matter if you will ever be asked to sing a solo or not, it doesn’t matter if anyone can stand to hear you sing, because God loves to hear it.  Song is embedded in our souls.  Most people know John 3:16, which says for god so loved the world that he sent his only son that whoever should believe in him should not die, but have eternal life.  But there is another chapter 3 verse 16 that we should all know, and that comes from Colossians.  Colossians 3:16 says “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God.”  So for God’s sake, let us sing.  May it be so my sisters and brothers.  Amen.

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