The following will be in the May 2023 issue of the Fishkill UMC Newsletter
Why do we sing? Do we sing because we are happy (“His Eye Is on The Sparrow”, The Faith We Sing 2146)?
Do we sing because we want to make a joyful noise unto the Lord?
Perhaps we sing to express our feelings, our thoughts, and/or our emotions?
Or do we sing because what we sing rings in our soul?
To borrow a phrase from Genesis, there are as many reasons to sing as there are stars in the sky.
Each of us can identify songs and hymns, both traditional and not so traditional, that touch our hearts and move our souls, much as the early Psalms did. These are the songs and music from the heart that bring us closer to God.
We find our connection with God in many ways. Some will find it through the spoken word, others through the written word and sometimes it comes from music that speaks to our heart. (“Music from the Heart” – https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2016/04/19/music-from-the-heart/)
When I first heard the group Jefferson Airplane sing “Good Shepherd”, I marveled at the words of the song and how they seemed to echo words from the Gospel of John (John 21: 1 – 19). In looking at the history of the piece, I discovered that the rock and roll piece that I heard evolved from a mid-20th century blues-based folk song. And that folk song had evolved from a 19th century Gospel hymn with roots in an early 1800s hymn written by John Adam Grande, a Methodist preacher from Tennessee.
Jorma Kaukonen, the guitarist for Jefferson Airplane, who wrote the modern arrangement said that it was music like this that opened the doorway to the Scriptures for him. As he noted, he found that he loved the Bible without knowing it (see “To Feed The Spirit As Well As The Body” – https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2012/03/01/to-feed-the-spirit-as-well-as-the-body/).
Mickey Hart, the drummer for the Grateful Dead said,
“To fall in love is to fall in rhythm.” It is love for each other by which we know we are followers of Jesus, the ever-attentive shepherd. In the face of societal rules and attitudes that strive to foster “everyone for themselves,” they will know we are Christians by our love. How can we listen to the music that draws us together, “falling in rhythm” with neighbor to build up the whole?(see “The Music We Hear“ – https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2018/04/21/the-music-we-hear/)
Ann will tell you that it was Elvis’ Gospel music that provided her with an understanding of and a deep love for those who suffered. And it was hymns such as “Lift High the Cross” that helped affirm her belief in God and Jesus as her Savior. She will also tell you that another song, recorded by several groups and individuals, “He’s Not Heavy, He’s My Brother” had a profound impact on her and her relationship with others and God.
And just recently, as I listened to “I Still Haven’t Found What I Am Looking For” by U2 (https://youtu.be/e3-5YC_oHjE), I again heard ties to God reaching out to us.
But what do we sing? I am not talking about hymns or carols or folk songs or spirituals but the words that we sing. Do the words we sing have meaning?
To know if the words have meaning, we must listen carefully. I remember the first time I heard “Are You Ready?” (https://youtu.be/gzOeAXrgYBI) by the Pacific Gas & Electric rock group. It was one of the first pieces of music that could be called “Jesus Rock.” It contained a very subtle Christian message, but I don’t think that many people understood the message contained within the verses of the song (I certainly didn’t back then). I liked it because it was, for me, a good song with a good beat. But over the course of my lay speaking, I saw connections between this song and passages in the New Testament, such as Mark 13: 1 – 8 (adapted from “Are You Ready?” – https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2006/11/19/are-you-ready-2/).
And sometimes we may be ready to hear the words, but the sounds of society drown them out.
Some forty years ago there was a song that showed us how the message of society can easily drown out the message of peace first expressed on Christmas Day two thousand years ago. It was a version of “Silent Night” sung by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel and entitled “7 O’clock News/Silent Night” – https://youtu.be/E8d5C8kPlJA.
As they sang the traditional Christmas hymn, an announcer read the evening news. There is an interesting contrast between the beauty and serenity of the song and the darkness and fear that were then and are now the components of a typical news broadcast. The problem was that you had to focus on either the news broadcast or the singing; you could not hear both and it was entirely possible that the news broadcast with its litany of violence, death, and destruction drowned out the message first sung some 190 years ago. (The Message Is Clear | Thoughts From The Heart On The Left (wordpress.com) – https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2007/01/21/the-message-is-clear/)
Bob Herren, a blogging friend of mine, noted that we often only listen to the first verse of Christmas carols such as “What Child Is This?” and thus miss the story included in the other verses.
It is often the second or third verses of Christmas carols which get to the meat of things. The second verse of Dix’s famous carol gives us nails and spears piercing him through and the cross being borne for me and you. “O Come, All Ye Faithful” gets down to some serious Christology in the second verse as well. The first one is a rather general appeal to go to Bethlehem for a little sightseeing. O Little Town of Bethlehem waits until verse three to get into the forgiveness of sins.(Wednesday of Christmas – Psalm 2 – A Grace-Filled Life (wordpress.com) – https://bobherring2009.wordpress.com/2022/12/28/wednesday-of-christmas-psalm-2/)
As I was preparing to sing “Wade in the Water” last December, I discovered that many of the spirituals that we sing not only refer to the Bible but contain a second message, a message of freedom.
While the message of “Wade in the Water” centers on baptism, it has been suggested that those, such as Harriet Tubman, guiding escaped slaves to their freedom would sing this song to tell the people to get off the trail and into the water to prevent the dogs tracking them from finding them.
Similarly, the spiritual that I sang in January, “Down to the River” evolved from an earlier spiritual, “Down to the Valley”. This song seems to have roots in both African American spirituals and Appalachian folk songs. The valley represented a safe place to pray but was transformed into the river to represent a passage to freedom. Those seeking their freedom should head “Down to the river”; the “Starry Crown” was a reference to the stars that would guide them; and “Good Lord, show me the way” was a prayer for guidance and deliverance. As Glen Money wrote, when he sings it, he hears who did more than sing and hear but experienced the presence of God. (Down to the River to Pray | The Prompter (fbcstpete.org) – https://fbcstpete.org/moneytalks/2020/01/31/down-to-the-river-to-pray/ )
It is also interesting to note that the role the Bible plays in spirituals and folk songs. Spirituals serve as a source of education, passed on by oral tradition. Prohibited from learning to read and write, slaves passed on life lessons through the spirituals and songs they sang. And in learning the stories of the Bible, individuals learned about freedom.
So, we sing songs that move our souls and open the door to finding God. We sing to tell the stories of the Bible and stories that lead to freedom, both here on Earth and within the Kingdom of God.
So, let us sing.