I desire that all Christians cherish the lovely gift of music, a precious, worthy and costly treasure given by God to humankind. Next to God’s word, the noble art of music is the world’s greatest treasure.”
Martin Luther’s words express why we turn to music in the varied seasons of life to sing the faith and hear God’s promises.
Memories of my family nurturing me in the faith are inseparable from singing hymns. As a boy ready to play outside, I became restless when family devotions included Scripture, prayer and singing. Memorizing hymns for confirmation seemed like a chore. Yet these songs hold more than memories. They strengthen faith, bring joy, and unite my voice and heart with the saints across the ages.
When our children awakened in the night, my wife Ione and I took turns rocking them, quietly singing, “Children of the heavenly Father safely in his bosom gather.” Confirmands at a congregation I served sang that hymn when we gathered on a cold January day at classmate Laurie’s grave, who died at age 11. Holding hands with one another, we sang, “Neither life nor death shall ever from the Lord his children sever; unto them his grace he showeth, and their sorrow all he knoweth.”
Life’s beginnings and endings have been immersed in music. At our wedding, my ordination and installations, my parents’ funerals and our daughter’s wedding, the processional hymn was “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.” Oh, yes: “All that has life and breath, come now with praises before him!”
I can’t imagine those long, lingering hours consoling, weeping, praying and waiting with my parents, Ione’s dad and my Aunt Betty on their final baptismal journey of dying in the faith without hymns to sing. “Oh, Mark,” Betty said in a last request, “let’s sing the last verse of ‘Abide with Me.’ ” We sang: “Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes, shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies; heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”
Days later we gathered with family and friends to hear God’s resurrection promise of new life in Christ joined with all the saints at the Lord’s table. With resounding voices, we sang “O Day Full of Grace”: “When we on that final journey go that Christ is for us preparing, we’ll gather in song ….”
Amid prejudice and despair, music renews our hope and our resolve to work for justice and peace. When I served a congregation in a public housing community, the civil rights movement had achieved significant gains, but the daily struggles often seemed insurmountable. Then we gathered for Sunday worship. Led by the children’s choir, we raised the roof: “We’ve come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord; trusting in his holy word, he’s never failed us yet.”
Music, poetry and dance remind us that God’s relationship with humankind in Jesus is so much more than an intellectual experience. It is God’s full-bodied embrace in Jesus’ death and resurrection that finds you and me in baptism and liberates us. God created us with bodies and passions, with voices for singing and feet for dancing to the rhythms of God’s generous mercy, compassionate justice and steadfast love.
At Atteridgeville Parish in South Africa, during a five-hour Palm Sunday service in a packed sanctuary this spring, the assembly sang in four-part harmony, clapped and danced the freedom songs that moved the mountains of apartheid. As at Pentecost, the Spirit was liberating our voices and bodies to sing freely in many languages, including the body language of the heart and feet.
John Thomas, former president and general minister of the United Church of Christ, once wrote that leaders can “use language and symbol, liturgy and song, ritual and sacrament, silence and dance to help us imagine a world that is more than a marketplace, to claim a life that is profoundly connected and communal. Poets and liturgists are today’s evangelists who enable us to serve the improvisational God revealed in Jesus Christ, and love us into the company of those no longer satisfied with consuming or with living as complete strangers to one another.”
Thanks be to God for poets, hymn writers and singers who equip us to sing the faith and God’s promises.
© 2016 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers