With a Song in Your Heart
by Louise Westfall
I can’t think of a better illustration for a sermon on the power of music than the late great Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. After her death was announced on Thursday, the interminable barrage of political memes on my Facebook feed subsided, replaced by articles, interviews and recordings from her stellar 55-year career. Nearly every conversation I’ve had with anyone since (you know who you are) has been punctuated with … you make me feel like a natural woman or R-E-S-P-E-C-T. As something of an opera buff, I reveled in her amazing spur-of-the-moment Grammy award ceremony rendition of Puccini’s Nessun Dorma after scheduled tenor Luciano Pavarotti fell ill. Holy smokes, could that woman sing! — gospel and soul, funk and blues and … well, opera.
Along with tributes from the music industry came accolades from civil rights leaders, politicians, and ordinary people of all ages from the US and around the world. Her music inspired faith, accompanied marches and rallies, and galvanized multiple generations to advocate for justice and equality. She walked her … song, and witnessed to the power of music to move, redeem and transform us.
The morning text could be read as a command to make music — it’s probably one church music directors cite to recruit choir members (not a bad suggestion, by the way. Talk with Wil about it!) But that’s really too narrow of an interpretation, one that could make those among us who insist they can’t carry a tune just tune out. But stay with me! The injunction to sing comes at the end of a paragraph describing the difficult, even evil, days in which the people lived. It’s a reminder not to waste time, not to fear time, but to live with a kind of holy joy that wells up from within, born of trust in the good purposes of God. A reading from the letter to the Ephesians, in the fifth chapter at the fifteenth verse. Listen for God’s Word, so often carried on the wings of a song, through a guitar riff or majestic organ chord, and even by the rhythmic breathing and beating heart of our own bodies. [Ephesians 5:15-20]
Okay, a little exercise in imagination. It’s the middle of the seventh inning of a baseball game, and time for the seventh inning stretch. On your feet (as able), and sing along with me: Take me out to the ballgame, take me out with the crowd. Buy me some peanuts and crackerjack; I don’t care if I ever get back; and it’s root, root, root for the Rockies, if they don’t win it’s a shame. For it’s one … two … three strikes yer out at the old ball game! [be seated]
In the 30 seconds that it took to sing that song, you received major health benefits: endorphins—the “feel good” hormones were released; the frequency of your vocal sound waves struck a tiny organ in the ear called the saccules, which produces pleasure no matter what the quality of the singing; your throat and palate muscles were strengthened, which helps with snoring and sleep apnea. And you would have experienced those same blessings if we had sung Amazing Grace or I Heard It Through the Grapevine. It’s healthy to sing!
The benefits are not just physical either. We experienced a sense of solidarity through shared activity. Singing increases stamina and improves mental alertness (making it harder to nod off). And wasn’t it fun to laugh together?!
As we find our collective voice, our courage grows. Impossibilities become mere mountains to be scaled.
What a far cry from the dour perspective and pinched expressions that stereotypically describe “religious” people (you know what I’m talking about if you can picture the couple in Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting). There’s no judgment here, but the author does draw a sharp contrast. While alcoholic spirits may fuel the temporary mirth of partying, the Holy Spirit taps directly into the human heart, creating authentic gladness and gratitude. There’s a joy generated by living mindfully because you know God’s presence at all times and in every circumstance.
… which produces music. At least half of this text describes singing all kinds of songs and making melody as a response to God’s goodness and grace. Singing is a spiritual practice, and like other spiritual practices such as praying, meditation, Bible study, yoga, walking the labyrinth, affects the whole person: body and mind, as well as spirit.
Simple … and good for you. Except … there are so many barriers to this particular practice. Many of us suffer from “performance anxiety” when it comes to singing in church. What if they hear my growling voice? Or monotone harmony? I don’t want the people around me to get messed up because I can’t carry a tune in a bucket! John Bell, a Scottish minister and musician who was our visiting theologian last year, insists that what makes congregational singing so difficult has less to do about the quality of our voices and more about the lack of confidence we feel. He showed us that if there is more than 2 feet separating you from a number of persons seated around you, you hear only your own voice, and so sing softer and softer so you won’t stand out. One of the reasons we suggest sitting closer together in our large sanctuary is to experience the improvement and energy that come when our voices are raised as a whole; when yours becomes indistinguishable from others’ and we are united as one body praising God. It takes practice; even Aretha held legendary rehearsals lasting 12 hours!
But it’s worth it, because something happens when people sing together. The shared experience draws us closer together. We know we are not alone. As we find our collective voice, our courage grows. Impossibilities become mere mountains to be scaled. When I was an associate pastor in suburban Detroit, our church was paired with an African American Missionary Baptist Church in the City to do a Bible study together. You could hardly have imagined two more diverse congregations. We even had trouble deciding on where to hold the Bible study! My affluent, mostly-white congregation didn’t want to travel “south of 8-mile” after dark; the Baptists didn’t want to travel to the suburbs for fear of being pulled over for “driving while Black.” But we figured it out, and took turns meeting outside our comfort zone. When the four week study was over, the pastor of the Baptist church boldly invited me to preach at an upcoming Sunday service: the only woman and practically the first white person ever to fill their pulpit. I cannot tell you how nervous I was. When the pastor introduced me on that bright Sunday morning, he tried to make a joke about how lightening was sure to strike. Almost nobody laughed. And then I was standing in the pulpit, ready to deliver the Word of God. But before I could open my cotton-dry mouth, a sound came from the choir, located as they are here, behind the preacher. A single solo voice: This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine. Suddenly, the whole choir was on its feet and joined in and then the deacons on the front pew rose as one. Like a wave, the entire congregation stood, singing and clapping and dancing, ecstatic because the Spirit had brought down the wall that had divided us for hundreds of years and made us brothers and sisters. Somewhere in my files I have a copy of that sermon, but those carefully-chosen and agonized-over words can’t hold a candle to what happened when we sang together. No, racism in Detroit didn’t end that day. The shining lights of both those wonderful congregations flicker and grow dim at times. But the point is, that day we got a taste of how things could be, of how things will be someday, when God’s kingdom is on earth as it is in heaven.
And that’s a song in your heart that will carry you through the hardest day, in times of doubt and uncertainty. Keep singing, friends! The world needs God’s love songs. Amen.