Nourishing Faith: Song

Music mystified Charles Darwin.  In 1874 the brilliant biologist wrote that humankind’s ability to produce and enjoy melodies was among our most baffling characteristic.  All human societies made music, and yet, for Darwin, it seemed to offer no advantage to our survival [Delving into the Archaeology of Music, New York Times, May 21, 2024, D8].    

Contemporary research suggests something different.  A comprehensive new study in which a team of musicologists, psychologists, linguists, evolutionary biologists, and professional musicians recorded songs in 55 languages and found shared features not entirely explained by diverse cultures.  A similar study discovered human neurons that respond only to singing—not to spoken word or even music played on instruments.

There is something distinctive about song as an acoustic signal that perhaps our brains have become attuned to over time, one scientist opined.  [ibid]

The possible evolutionary benefits include improving group cohesion – singing that brought people together for community rituals or in preparation for a battle, for example, or enhancing mating prospects.  Research shows the power of group singing in building social relationships, for healthy development of brains, emotions and lungs in children, and for adults, it’s as effective as light exercise to promote a sense of well-being.

I personally need no greater confirmation of its benefits than the powerful bonding that occurs between a parent (or grand!) singing softly to the infant nestled securely in their arms.    Human song provides nourishment like nothing else. It is God’s gift to us, to be received gratefully and practiced faithfully.

But.  Congregational singing is on the decline, and not just among mainline churches.  Decades ago, many congregations ditched their pipe organs in favor of “praise bands” and their hymnals in favor of projected words of simple choruses, with repetitive lines and phrases thought to make singing more accessible. But in fact, it’s reduced congregational singing in favor of worship music as performance.  The musicians on stage do their thing (and often very well), but without responsibility for encouraging congregational participation.  I’m grateful for Central’s music tradition dating back decades:  a diverse, high quality music program led by professionals who provide a foundation for all the rest of us to join in, no matter our training or skill level.

Singing belongs to every one of us. It’s a spiritual practice (operative word “practice”) that can deepen our relationships with the Divine and with one another.  I promise there will be no scolding or exhortation to sing with gusto….or else!  But I do believe singing together creates bonds among God’s people and a richer connection with Divine Love.

Now it’s true:  Thou shalt sing did not make it into the “top ten” Best Ways to Live, but there are over four hundred Biblical references to it, including some fifty direct commands.  Our morning text may well have been an early Christian hymn as it invites God’s people to sing both in unison and in “perfect harmony” of the love which we have received abundantly.   The text is part of a letter attributed to the apostle Paul circulated widely among the congregations in the dynamic city of Colossae in present-day Turkey.  A reading from the letter to the Colossians, in the third chapter, verses 12 through 17.

As we read it, consider your own practice.  Do you sing in the shower? Do you belt out favorite songs while you’re driving?  Are you a former rock star or a rock star wannabe?  How about hymn-singing in church—are you game to try new hymns, or prefer to stick to the old favorites?  Do you make a joyful noise?  Or as we used to say of our mother who loved to sing:  “She could carry a tune—in a bucket.”  Friends, let us hear anew God’s love song to beloved folks, including you and me.    [Colossians 3:12-17]

When we consider singing as a practice to nourish our faith and lives,  we have to get a few barriers out of the way.  The first and most obvious one is the objection based in musical skill. Or rather, the lack thereof.    I can’t read music.   I don’t have a good voice.  I sound like a cat with its tail caught in a vice.    I’ve heard horror stories of music teachers who relegated kids to the back row of the chorus, or even told them just to mouth the words.  Some of us carry a persistent voice telling us to SHUSH! when we’re even tempted to raise a melody.  Not to ignore trauma at any level, but I’m here today to tell you that when it comes to singing with the community of faith in praise of God, none of that matters.  Make a joyful noise to the Lord the Psalmist exhorted.

Congregational singing is not a performance; it’s an act of worship.   While we may all deeply appreciate the singing of a musical professional, that’s only one kind of singing.  It’s sometimes helpful to have a professional lead the singing, but we should never relegate the whole enterprise to the professionals.

Singing may take practice.  We start every rehearsal with the kind of warm-up exercises Terrence led us through earlier.  Look, the first time you picked up a golf club, did it feel natural?  Were you immediately able to have a smooth, powerful swing and putting accuracy?  It took . . . well lots of practice.  To conclude that you “can’t sing” because you tried it once and it sounded terrible is to sell yourself short as a learner. There may be some medical conditions resulting in an inability to sing, but they are the exception.

Some people feel self-conscious about singing in a group of people.  Musicians advise sitting closer to other people so that you don’t just hear your own voice—no more than 3 feet away.  Believe it or not, you’ll sound “better” when your voice comes from a group of voices.  You can sing softly if you want to, but song needs air so open your mouth and breathe.    As for self-consciousness, the best way to lose that is to lose yourself in the process—focus on the words you’re singing or the feeling of solidarity with others.  Oxygen releases the body’s endorphins, those “feel good” hormones, so singing is guaranteed to improve one’s mental outlook.

A Facebook meme caught my eye recently that laid out an argument against singing I had never heard before. Sure.  We can sing to Jesus [it read].  But Jesus never asked us to do that.  Jesus asked us to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, care for the sick.  Jesus doesn’t want songs.  Jesus wants justice.

Hmmm. Even if we overlook the Scripture texts that reference Jesus singing, it is a false binary to pit “spirituality” against “action” as if the two were in competition.  One feeds the other.  We can be sustained for the hard work of loving and serving by worshiping with others and singing our hearts out.

Conversely, serving together stokes a sense of shared identity and purpose worth singing about.  The Civil Rights movement in our country was sustained through song.  Its successor movement, the Poor People’s Campaign:  A National Call for a Moral Revival has actually compiled a song list to galvanize, encourage, and strengthen unity.

Song builds community among us.  Some of my favorite moments in worship are catching your eye during a hymn; with tears as we sing I was There to Hear Your Borning Cry after a baptism, or the oh-so-subtle Presbyterian sway during a spiritual.  Psychologists suggest that our musical tastes develop most keenly during our teenage years, so naturally we’re going to resonate with different hymns over many decades. In choosing worship music, I try to include a variety, and will always, always, incorporate any hymn that you identify as a favorite (so keep’em coming).

Song and the making of music can move us toward justice.   In addition to her amazing piano accompanying skills, Mallory Bernsteen is executive director of a nonprofit organization, Colorado Education Through Music.  This group acts on research that shows the importance of music –not simply as an extracurricular activity—but as an effective learning tool linked to the development of self-control, planning and verbal intelligence, in addition to supporting students social and emotional well-being.

Colorado Education Through Music partners with schools in low-income neighborhoods to provide quality choral and instrumental music programs as a core part of the curriculum. This non-profit promotes health equity and growth through music education for underfunded schools in challenging environments.  Mallory has shared comments from school principals referencing outcomes of the program such as empowerment and resiliency that make such a difference in students’ lives.  One student said “Music has helped me get through some really difficult times.”  Another youngster agreed, saying softly, “Without music, I feel a piece of me is missing.”

Thank you Mallory, for your leadership of this work, which is nothing short of divine.   [This is an organization that I personally contribute to and invite you’all to check it out as well]

Friends, let us sing to God…. and make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!   Let us come into God’s presence with thanksgiving and make a joyful noise to God with songs of praise.  

And let all God’s people SING  “A—men, a—–men, a-men, amen, amen.”