Imagine a world without any music. No songs, no bird song, no playing of the merry organ or sweet singing in the choir. Back in February 2020 this would have been unimaginable, at least it was to me, and then this nightmare has been our reality on or off, more on than off, for the past 16 months. I haven’t sung for all that time. And it has impoverished us more than many may have realised it would do.
I can’t track it down now, but I remember a children’s story about an evil king who banned singing and music making. He was portrayed as being a tyrant. A young girl just could not comply because her heart was filled with music and she just had to sing. The beauty of her singing filled the air and it brought colour and life back into a dull world without music. It became a song of protest and others delighted in her song. The king relented, his heart changed by the beauty of her singing. I may not have all the details right, but you get the point.
Music is a different language, one that expresses what even the most eloquent poet struggles with. It is the language of praise and lament, of celebration and sorrow, of reflection and shouts of protest. Think of the South African anthem and how this became a song of protest during Apartheid, or how Michael Tippet uses African American Spirituals to such good effect in ‘A child of our time’. Music can plunge into the deepest mysteries and its intricacy can bring us to marvel at the sheer engineering of the sound. It can move the spirit to action, calm the troubled mind, excite with possibilities.
In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone it is a beautiful harp that quells Fluffy, the three headed angry dog with big teeth guarding the entrance to the secret chamber. With it becalmed Harry, Ron and Hermione are able to get through, until it wakes of course. No music and its vicious side explodes. In the Old Testament David played the harp to quell the psychotic mind of King Saul, who on one occasion tried to pin him to a door with a spear.
A couple of years ago, before Covid shut us down, while I was taking communion to a nursing home, a woman would tell me she would have nothing to do with it. I played the hymn the Old Rugged Cross through a speaker linked to my phone and this woman sang her heart out at the bottom of the stairs through the door. It unlocked something inside her and she was released and set free to praise, where words and environment closed the door for her.
It was St Augustine who said to sing is like praying twice. When the music matches the words perfectly, painting them, they take on an extra potency that enhances, deepens and strengthens their force.
I have long found choirs to be a place where the mystery and presence of God can be felt in a unique and profound way. Those who direct them are missionaries in the service of the gospel and those they train and nurture offer a ministry of great importance. Of course it is possible to put the ego in the foreground, but all musicians know that the music must lead and the performer must be its servant – not a bad schooling for humility and service. It trains us to be humble, proud and liberated to flourish – to almost quote Gareth Southgate, the England football manager.
That makes music something profoundly radical because it cuts through to get to the heart of who we are and what we are called to be, to the better selves we have it in us to be so that we are tamed Fluffys and not the angry ones. We are more than mere functionaries or a collection of randomly occurring cells. Music is the sound track of creation’s purpose, of the Creator’s purpose and it helps us flourish in wonder, praise and adoration.
So be radical in your music making, with songs of praise and protest, lament and celebration, and in your living of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. May the hymns, psalms and spiritual songs train you as beloved children of God and heirs of Christ’s grace, filled with the Spirit’s vibrancy and song.
Sermon for RSCM Wales Region Online Festival Service, Saturday 19th June 2021