Service: The Power of Music – May 18th, 2014

Frontal view of a small traditional New England church building with white painted siding and a gable roof with a steeple on top. Gray stairs lead up to the level of two doorways with a stained glass window between them. Below the window is a hard-to-read sign.

Presented 5/18/2014 at First Universalist of Turner Center, Maine.

Ringing of the bell, prelude, announcements and Doxology after the congregation’s usual custom.

Chalice lighting (sung):

Rise up, O Flame, by thy light glowing
Show to us beauty, vision and joy!
(Hymn #362)

Opening words:

O sing unto the Lord a new song:
Sing unto the Lord, all the earth!
Sing unto the Lord, bless his name,
Proclaim his salvation from day to day;
Declare his glory among the nations
His great works among all people,
For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised!

Let the heavens and the earth rejoice;
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it,
Let the fields be joyful, and everything in them,
Then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy.
(Psalm 96:1-4, 11-12)

The book of Psalms contains some of the oldest Hebrew Scriptures that are included in what the Christian tradition calls the Old Testament. The Psalms are traditionally attributed to King David, though modern scholars say they were more likely written by numerous poets over a span of centuries. These expressions of individual religious experience, captured in written words at a particular moment in history and handed down through the ages, still speak to us today.

Song, poetry and music are among many paths to the holy that transcend time and cultural context. We may consider the Psalms and the Song of Solomon in the Bible. We may also consider the Vedic scriptures in the Hindu tradition, the Norse and Icelandic heroic sagas, or the epics of Homer… The experience of song and poetry is a nearly universal part of being human. Songs and stories help us remember who we are, what we are here for, and the connection that each of us has – to all of us, to the whole of Creation, and to the Divine.

Hymn #108 My Life Flows On In Endless Song

Silent prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, reading of the congregational Statement of Faith, and collection of the offering.

Reading: “Spirit of Life”

A reading I adapted from “Spirit of Life” in the Tapestry of Faith youth curriculum, “A Place of Wholeness,” with additional material from Kimberly French’s 2007 interview with Carolyn McDade, and Christopher Walton’s report on Quebec City GA 2002, both in UU World magazine. I am not including the full text here since very little of it was my original writing.

Hymn #123 Spirit of Life

Sermon:

“Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.” It is a song, it is a prayer that has touched countless lives and continues to live in the hearts of UU’s around the world. But it is hardly the only hymn or the only song ever to do so.

Music and poetry touch us on so many levels, in so many different ways. At the most basic level, the rhyme and rhythm of poetry and the melodies of songs help us remember and learn things more easily. Anybody here ever learn the alphabet song? The one that goes [singing] “A-B-C-D, E-F-G…” I imagine most of us who know the alphabet already probably learned it using that song. That’s one example of a teaching song we use today, a song that makes it easier to remember all twenty-six of the letters in order. In fact, you can memorize them backwards using the same tune and then your parents have to figure out another way to keep you busy on car trips…

We don’t memorize a whole lot of things anymore – nowadays we write them down, or more often input them into our phones. But in times and places where people did not have cell phones or note pads, they would memorize stories and information they wanted to keep – and they would use poetry and song as tools to help them remember.

One of the interesting things that modern science tells us is that our brains recognize music as something special, something different: memories of music, for instance, are stored in a different area in the brain than other memories, like faces or facts; and the ability to sing resides in a different place than the ability to speak. Doctors and scientists have learned this from work with people who have suffered brain injuries: a person who has survived a brain injury, such as a stroke, and lost their ability to speak can sometimes communicate through song, or even re-learn to speak through singing, if the musical part of their brain is not injured. I have a friend, a musician who sometimes plays the piano in nursing homes, who has told me of patients with dementia who are no longer able to speak or recognize the people around them, but can and will still join in the singing of traditional hymns or even popular tunes from their younger days, their musical memories still intact when so much else has vanished long ago.

Fortunately, we don’t have to lose our ability to speak in order to make deep connections through the power of music. We’re hard wired for it. The musical parts of our brains are connected not only to the areas that control language, but also those that control our physical bodies – which shouldn’t surprise anyone who has ever caught themselves [brief music-in-my-head dance] bopping along to a bouncy tune – and, of course,to our emotional centers as well.

Think back, now, to a special time in your life. Perhaps there was an important relationship – maybe it’s one you still have, one that has changed over time, or one that came to an end long ago. Or perhaps it was a place, or a community, where your heart connected. Somewhere in that memory is a song – Our Song. You recognize it instantly – that song that stops you in your tracks when you hear it in a public place coming from a tinny overhead speaker, turned into elevator music for synthetic violins or licensed to play in the background of the latest car commercial. It doesn’t matter which song it is. Could be Elvis Presley, Paul Simon, Mozart… Could be anything. The rest of us won’t know. I’m talking about -that- song, the one that speaks to you. The one that snags you by the center of your soul and pulls you instantaneously out of whatever you were doing and into emotional space, into memory, into the gap between thought and action where, for just a moment, you are entirely lost in the music.

I had the opportunity last fall to attend a conference for UU seminarians down in Boston at which the honored guest presenter was the Rev. Dr. Thandeka, internationally-recognized theologian, author of several books both scholarly and otherwise. She happens also to be both a powerful preacher and an engaging workshop facilitator and we had the privilege of learning from her wisdom that weekend.

The workshop Thandeka led was my first introduction to liberal theology – using the word “liberal” not in the partisan political sense, but rather in the sense of freedom or generosity. Liberal theology refers to that branch of theology in which texts and customs are approached with openness and flexibility, as opposed to rigid literalism. The early 19th century German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher is considered one of the founding scholars of this branch of theology, and much of the scholarship in our tradition traces its roots back to his work. You don’t have to remember his name, there is not a quiz on this.

What captured my imagination during our workshop was Schleiermacher’s understanding of human beings as the animal which pauses. Other creatures, he asserted, must act on instinct. But a human being can stop, consider, and choose to do otherwise. For Schleiermacher this capacity to pause was the essential human experience – this gap between thought and action was the place where religious experience happened. Not that the gap itself was religion, no, only the space for it: a place where the rational mind became still and empty, allowing a momentary experience of presence and openness to all that just is: to be empty of all things and filled with the infiniteness of the universe, as mystics in traditions of every culture have described direct spiritual experience.

[I began to sing, and was joined by pianist, F. We began slowly, then picked up tempo into a gospel call-and-response style.]

Over my head… I hear music in the air….
Over my head… I hear music in the air…
Over my head… I hear music in the air…
There must be a God somewhere.

Over my head… I hear singing in the air…
Over my head… I hear singing in the air…
Over my head… I hear singing in the air…
There must be a God somewhere.

Over my head… I feel trouble in the air…
Over my head… I feel trouble in the air…
Over my head… I feel trouble in the air…
There must be a God somewhere.

Over my head… I see angels in the air…
Over my head… I see angels in the air…
Over my head… I see angels in the air…
There must be a God somewhere!
(Hymn #30)

Music is one of the tools we have for switching away from the chatter of the rational mind and all its words and thoughts in order that we might pause and be open to the holy. It is not the only one – mystery traditions around the world have used various methods, from the swirl of sacred dance or the heart-thundering beat of a drum circle to the haunting melody of chanted song or the visual symbolism of art and ritual. There are countless ways to short-circuit our deeply entrenched desire to think and explain and rationalize, in order that we may pause and create the space in which the mysterious and wonderful can make itself known.

“There must be a God somewhere.” God is somewhere: God is in the gaps, in the spaces in between, or at least that is where those who seek truth, meaning and spiritual experience can start to look. Stop and reflect – when those moments catch you off your guard, cherish them, for they are gifts: the music you haven’t heard in years, the sunset that takes your breath away, the gleeful laughter of little children running in the lawn sprinkler on a hot summer afternoon, the quiet lapping of pond water in the cool light of early morning. Consider this your personal invitation to seek for the holy, however you may understand that to be – the Universe, the Spirit of Life, God, Jesus, or Beloved Community – and in whatever spaces you may find it. And consider this an invitation to your community, to be together in ways that allow and encourage one another to pause, to make space for the wonder and mystery of all that is.

Let the silence be your prayer.

Hymn #121 We’ll Build a Land

Closing words:

As it says on the sign on the train platform, mind the gap. I’ll leave you with the words of songwriter Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is crack, a crack in everything:
That’s how the light gets in.

Amen.

Extinguishing the Chalice (#456)

Circle song, postlude and ringing of the bell, after the congregation’s usual custom.

Interior view of traditional New England church. Open box pews in the foreground with hymnals in the racks. Burgundy carpeting in the aisle and up steps to the chancel. Pulpit and chancel furniture of dark, carved wood. White walls. A US flag and a Christian flag stand at the back of the chancel. Hymn numbers are on a board on the wall. A piano is partially visible.

White sign hanging from black metal bar, reads "First Universalist Church of Turner Center. Sunday 10:00 am"

 

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One Response to Service: The Power of Music – May 18th, 2014

  1. irrevspeckay says:

    gorgeous

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