Songs that Change the World
by Louise Westfall
In the summer after ninth grade, I bought a guitar with babysitting money and an illustrated instruction book, and taught myself to play my favorite song Blowin’ in the Wind. I can still remember the feeling I got when I played and sang the poetry of protest; the burning questions about peace and war and sense of hopeful change. (The fact that it has only 3 chords was an added bonus).
Research shows that people bond most closely with the music they listened to during their teenaged years. Right now, think about what those songs are for you. Turn to the people around you and tell the name of your song.
I’m betting this wasn’t a difficult exercise and sparked all kinds of memories from the past. Turns out there’s science for this–music lights up areas of the brain associated with emotions, and assists with the release of “feel good” hormones. We were meant to sing! Making music comprises part of what it means to be human.
The Bible practically rings with the music of the spheres. The Psalms (including the one we read as the Call to Worship) overflow with references to singing and making music in praise to God. There are songs that span the range of human experience including occasions for lament and anger as well as joy and celebration. As a young man, David played his harp to soothe the ragings of the failed king Saul. Later as king he celebrated a decisive victory by dancing exuberantly before the altar of the Lord wearing nothing but his birthday suit, much to the chagrin of his wife Abigail. Hymn-singing was part of synagogue worship described in the gospels, as well as part of the ritual Passover meal. Music helps us remember. Music inspires and strengthens. It’s telling that Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn as they headed out to face his final hours before the cross.
Today’s reading provides another example of the power of song. The apostle Paul and his assistant Silas found themselves in prison after tangling with city leaders who accused them of disturbing the peace. The text details their severe flogging, and being cast into the “innermost cell” and having their feet immobilized. A reading from the Acts of the Apostles, in the 16th chapter at the 25th verse. Listen for God’s Word of liberation, sung from prison. [Acts 16:25-34]
Okay, okay. We all know that it wasn’t the singing per se that sprang Paul and Silas from jail, but I am intrigued by the fact that the Bible specifically mentions their midnight song. Amid the agony of their physical beating and imprisonment, cut off from their community, with an indeterminate sentence, the two raised their voices out loud to sing. What moved them to do so? Were they witnessing to the other prisoners? Did it provide a measure of pain relief? Were they singing songs of hope and freedom, and expressing their trust in God? Did their singing confer–even in that hell-hole–a sense of peace?
Maybe all of that. And I think all of that provides insight into the role of singing in church today. Congregational singing provides one of the only opportunities to sing in a group these days–the National Anthem at sporting events and “Happy Birthday” being two others. Yet psychologists tell us that singing creates bonds among people like nothing else. People who sing together report a sense of community and empathy with others around them. Singing can take us out of ourselves and connect us to one another…and even to God.
People who sing together report a sense of community and empathy with others around them. Singing can take us out of ourselves and connect us to one another…and even to God.
…but something I’ve learned as a pastor is that describing the benefits of singing doesn’t do much to convince people to sing. We’ve got some barriers that prevent us from experiencing the spiritual blessing of congregational singing. A common one is our assessment of our personal vocal skill. I can carry a tune, my own mother opined…in a bucket. Others have told terrible tales of being told by a music teacher to “just mouth the words,” or “sing very softly so you won’t stand out.” One of you has compared the sound of his singing to that of a monotone bear. Still others conclude because they don’t read music, they can’t sing. When Scottish musician and pastor John Bell was our visiting theologian, he identified another potential restraint to our full-hearted singing: We sit too far apart–if you’re more than two feet from another person, the only voice you can hear is your own, which tends to paralyze the vocal chords all together.
Our Zimbabwe sisters and brothers have a saying. If you can talk, you can sing. [There’s more to the saying: If you can walk, you can dance, but let’s work on one thing at a time!] So I propose a little experiment today to see if we can overcome some of these barriers. Almost no one can do something well without practice. What would happen if we practiced singing?
Let’s begin by re-positioning ourselves to sit closer together.
Next, consider the first hymn we sang today. It’s a magnificent statement of God’s universal love. Wil and I chose it precisely for this Sunday of Pride Week, as an explicit expression of our congregation’s commitment to an inclusive welcome, regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, or anything else. For everyone born…a place at the table, belonging, freedom. Amen? Amen!
But it wasn’t much fun to sing, was it? Unless you knew it already (and our choir has sung it as an anthem), chances are you were too busy figuring out the tune and some of the unusual rhythms for the text even to register. Maybe you were a little irritated that we’d chosen such an unfamiliar hymn! But could that change? Here’s Wil to help us practice. [WIL REHEARSES SONG WITH CONGREGATION] Practice requires commitment. We offer the very best of who we are to God, whether we sound like Springsteen or a bear coming out of hibernation. In the final analysis, it’s not how we sing, but that we sing.
What’s true for singing is true for faith–no one gets it on the first try. Or even the 100th try. But we are called to try. So, can we promise to stay close… keep learning… And practice, practice, practice?
Then watch in wonder, my friends, as prison doors open, chains fall off, enemies become friends, and the whole world breaks into songs of justice and joy.
God will delight, and I’m betting we will too. Let’s sing it again, number 769, rising as able.