from the Adult Choir for Music Sunday, June 4, 2017
How Can I Keep From Singing?
These words are from Jewish mystic, Abraham Joshua Heschel:
The sense of the ineffable is in search of the song.
When we sing, we are carried away by our wonder,
And our harmony sings the great unity and mystery
That is our being.
How can I keep from singing? I can’t, not really, nor do I want to! This hymn does sound a profound echo in my soul. Singing brings wholeness to my days, confirming brightest joys, plumbing oceans of grief, imbuing ordinary moments with meaning. Sacred notes and holy rhythms comprise my daily office and the mundane shimmers! Through whatever happens, I have faith in music.
On Wings of Praise
As a member of a large family who was immersed in the Southern Baptist church, attending a service and the music we sang, was like breathing. But somewhere along the way, as I grew older, I lost the sheer joy of singing during the service, partially due to the fact that the lyrics just didn’t seem to mean anything to me. We were just singing songs that somebody…somewhere chose to include in the hymnal.
Fast forward a few decades and after a few months of good natured badgering by Jason, I joined the choir here, and right away, it just felt different. There was always a connection between the music we sang, and the message of the day. That fact became crystal clear when I answered the phone one day and Jason said something like “we’re doing a blues service, and I need your help”. I said,” wait..blues to me means a smoky bar and brown liquor on the table” He simply said…trust me…and I said ok…
So we’re doing the service with music from BB King…Bob Dylan…and for the offertory , I’m singing..The best things in life are free, thinking that’s it …we’re going straight to hell…but a few minutes later the guest preacher put it all in perspective. He said you probably think we have lost our minds…but the message in the music is this, in almost every life bad stuff happens…we get the blues. And we can handle it two ways…keep it inside and let it eat at you …or talk to somebody… share your blues…most times we will feel better, if somebody just listens…that in itself shows they care…and can help you feel a bit better.
So, I learned, in this church, that the message and the music simply cannot be separated…and the joy of singing must be shared!
“Wings of Praise” speaks to all religions and therefore is inclusive. My most favorite segue is when we go from a minor key to major joy. Neighbors, covenants, justice and mercy. Wonder and love moved me the most. Soften our hearts. PLUS, it’s a FUUN home run with great excitement!
Peace, My Heart
When my grandfather passed away a couple days before my audition for Berklee College of Music, I was asked – as the musical grandchild – to select and perform a song at his funeral. He had been incredibly supportive of my musical endeavors and, for myself, music has always served as my connection to divinity. I agreed and began to wrack my brain for a single song that would be special enough to serve as the end cap on my relationship with one the most important men in my life.
I settled on “Somewhere”, from West Side Story. He had taken me the see the new production on Broadway a couple months before he passed and, in my opinion, it’s one of the best songs ever written about heaven. Years later, in college, I would sit down at a piano and analyze the harmonic structure of the song. The tonic – the chord that feels most settled – is Bb, but not once do we ever hear it serving that role. Occasionally it shows up in relation to a subdominant chord, driving the harmony forward but we never land on it. While the melody is beautiful and hopeful, the harmony is ungrounded and constantly tumbling forward. It gives the entire piece an air of uncertainty. There’s a better place where things are beautiful and peaceful, but we can’t know it in this life. It’s a giant question mark woven into the fabric of the song, serving both as foreshadowing of the tragic end the characters will come to and as a mirror of the nagging uncertainty many of us wrestle with in regards to what waits for us after we die.
And its beautiful, earth shatteringly beautiful. It was perfect.
Unfortunately, my family is Catholic. Not that being Catholic is unfortunate but if you’re familiar with Catholic practice, you know what’s coming. Secular music can’t be performed in a Catholic church. I was told that “Somewhere” was not on the list and was then given said list to pick from instead. Yes, there is a list of pre-approved music from which you must select a song the church has deemed acceptable for whatever occasion you’re honoring. The day of the funeral I sang Amazing Grace, all of its harmonic certainty grating against my own questions about the afterlife. I’m not Catholic anymore; will I ever see my grandfather again? Is he in the Heaven he believed was waiting for him? Is he with my grandmother? “Somewhere” transcended the barriers of belief; “Amazing Grace” threw them into sharp relief.
I cried for days over this, over my grief at my loss and my devastation at not being able to honor my grandfather in a way that was meaningful to me. For months afterwards, I sang Somewhere every night, over and over, trying to perfect my performance, thinking that – if only I sang it beautifully enough – I would be able smash though the walls of time and redo everything. If it was beautiful he would hear me. Somewhere.
When my Great Aunt Helen passed away last year, she managed to work around the no secular music rule by demanding in her will that John Denver be played throughout her funeral. This meant the service had to be held at a nondenominational funeral home rather than her home parish, but hearing the very confused deacon attempt to deliver funeral rights over Rocky Mountain High made me giggle through my tears.
Perhaps, unless you’ve had an experience like mine, being able to choose music that truly reflects your grief experience doesn’t seem so special. I don’t know that I can express how incredible it is to have a song like “Peace My Heart” to choose – or not. There isn’t a pre-approved list. And to have a song that, rather than handing everything over to a higher power, takes a humanist view of grief and death, that is truly special. Jason does use the tonic, but it’s the comforting hand of a friend on your shoulder, not the pounding, demanding fist of certainty declaring truth. The harmony rises and falls like the rhythm of tears and offers peace rather than demanding it. It is gentle and open and leaves space for the listener to add the color of their own experiences as they are carried through the music.
It is the kind of song that might find a way to stop time, to slip behind whatever veil we all pass through someday and be heard. Somewhere.
I often joke that I love sad songs about dead people, especially if the lyrics are in Latin. I find UUs’ acknowledgement of dying and death oddly comforting. It’s a welcome jolt of reality in a world full of glibness and pretense.
Reality needn’t be a cold, hard place. The poem Jason set to such beautiful music expresses the intense near-magic I experienced at my father’s death. In 1994, my father had a severe stroke that left him unconscious but breathing on his own. To my surprise, in the hospital room I felt a profound and unexpected connection with him even in his unconscious state. I knew when he died even before my sister, a nurse, signaled that his heart had stopped. One minute he was clearly alive and holding my hand and the next he was not. After that last touch, my father suddenly ceased to be, as if a bright floodlight had been dramatically switched off. I felt the abrupt demarcation between life and death, between my father and not-my-father. The severing of this powerful bond made me appreciate for the first time what it really means to be alive and known and loved.
As my shock and grief “melt[ed] into memory” I felt a surprising sense of peace. My father’s physical life was complete—a job well done. His soul wasn’t in heaven, but it was saved–in my curiosity, in my ability to love fiercely, in my beliefs about doing what’s right, even if it’s hard. I bow to him –and to the him that is in me, and that is in my daughter, and that will be in my daughter’s daughter.
With a Song In Our Hearts – Jason S
There was a time when I convinced myself that I was an atheist. And I really wanted to be. All the cool kids are atheists, you know? But after a few years of trying, I had to admit the truth: music messes up my atheism.
Now I’m not going to weigh in on the whole supreme being thing. That’s not my point. What I mean is that I know that music comes from someplace bigger than me or any of us, and when it comes to us it takes us to heights and depths that are unimaginable on our own. I have had the gift of receiving a melody or a lyric from seemingly out of nowhere, and I learned long ago not to question that gift.
And here the other, harder truth: music makes up for the moments when I am not enough on my own. When I have lacked skill or grace in the moment, music has bailed me out. When I have been overly concerned with small matters, music brings me back to what it important. When I have failed to be the minister you have called me to be, music has served us all in profound, life-changing ways.
And this is why we celebrate music’s ministry among us today. Because it is music that leaves us with a song in our hearts.