Music with Meaning

singing-in-the-carWhen do we utter words least true about our convictions, beliefs and attitudes if not during song? Often our words declared to melody lack scrutiny and we are not held accountable to them. In song the most unfaithful partner is permitted to declare themselves the most devoted lover; the timid observer morphs into an outraged blasphemer; for a few moments we become the very company we would never keep and others pledge allegiance to a belief they would never truly hold.

 

But of course we can say that the inverse is also true. It is when the music plays that our most private thoughts and intimate emotions are released, often revealing a fuller explanation to not only the hearer but ourselves. What we could never put into words suddenly flows freely off the tongue and takes on new and fresh meaning.

I doubt I need to persuade anyone about the power of music, especially in the church context. For it is under many steeples that our leaders have carefully structured the presentation and selection of music, knowing that it has often be used as a tool, a manipulator, to bring about superficial following and devotion. But how should we incorporate music? While we are all aware of its power I think most of us are also aware of its necessity; that we should not, simply out of fear, go without it.

An older person commented on a song we sang in church just the other day, talking about how difficult it is to sing these ‘new’ songs. ‘On the contrary’ I said, ‘many of the modern songs are repetitive and easy to sing in comparison to the range and melody line of some of the hymns.’ As with all our senses, we have preferences to certain tastes, smells and sounds. But these preferences do not come from no-where. They have been molded and influenced by experience.

Music Old vs NewTo quote a favorite writer of mine, F.W Boreham, “And thus music revives, as nothing else can do, the tender grace of a day that is dead…There is a sublime virtue in anything that brings us into vital touch with the glorious past.” When we are transported back into a time that was wonderful we cannot help but sing the song with gladness and joy. Even when we are reminded of times of sadness it allows us to sing with deeper meaning and reflection. It is our ability to feel and be driven by unexplainable emotion that connects us to music, for it is the music that pulls on these strings that are so seldom awakened throughout our tedious routine of life.

When we read the songs in Scripture indeed we are meant to reflect back on some past event and remember with emotion filled praise. Think of Moses & Mariam’s song in Exodus 15 “Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea”; David’s Psalm in 1 Chronicles 16 “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done. Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts”; the song of Mary and Zechariah in Luke 1, praising God for what he has done for his people. We are to remember and be moved to praise. But not only to look back and praise, longing for a past experience to be repeated, but to look forward in great expectation of what is to come. This is what sets songs of worship apart from ordinary music.

“These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” C.S Lewis

St Augustine rightly treated music with caution. Aware of its power he wrestled with the balance of the moving melody and lyrical content, determined to always uphold the latter. He described himself as having ‘grievously sinned’ when being ‘more moved by the singing rather than the thing that is sung’.  But is it not also true that some words are sung with inappropriate melody? Moving music is not something we should altogether avoid but rather use appropriately. I have often read the words of the Psalms and hymns and been so moved by them, only to hear them sung and feel indifferent and removed. The mood should match the message and when it does I don’t think we should be afraid.

The fact that we are called to sing and not simply to recite tells me that there is an appropriate emotion expected from us as worshippers which we seldom experience or express without song. So while we are to be careful of extravagant emotions we should likewise be warned not to suppress those that are necessary – for we should not only sing as the expression of our minds’ understanding for then we could simply speak, but in song our souls should praise and our spirits rejoice!

Reflections: The Starved Space of Improvement

reading in coffee

I discovered a lovely little place the other day while walking the many little streets of my neighborhood. Most of the attention usually falls, quite naturally, to the bustling street with broad pavements and many windows to peep into. But here, on the small narrow road, only 2 blocks long, I found a place which quickly sheltered me from the gusty winds which had suddenly picked up. I was delighted straight away as I entered to see how quaintly this old house had been transformed into the very place any young lady such as I might want to explore. And as the air stilled as I stepped inside I was welcomed by Clair de Lune, a very familiar friend who I had spent much time with growing up behind the ivories, and the homely smell of fresh bread, curry spices and the aroma most captivating to me – coffee on the brew (but there was no judgment present as might be in the thoughts of my acquaintances as they read).

I found so much delight in these simple sights, sounds and smells with the result that my imagination and creativity was immediately illuminated.  It seems antonymous but it is practically inseparable how the imagination is accelerated when the mind is calm; how we often chase after those peaceful moments of reflection. And so as I took a seat in solitude I began to read my new yet dusty pocket edition of F.W. Boreham’s Mushrooms on the Moor. I have taken to his writing quite incessantly and obsessively and at the expense of other authors on my shelf. I was fortunate enough to come across his essays when an old friend cleared out a ton of books of which I was able to sort through and pick and choose from. But on this gusty day, hidden inside, I began to reflect on why I was so attracted to his writings in particular.

If there is a quality so desirable and admirable about a person, text, melody or art, should we not investigate as to why? Often I find myself and hear others saying ‘I just like it’ or ‘I just enjoy it’. But what is it about it that we just love to like and enjoy? Today it seems the culture to simply embrace who you are without question, leaving a starved space for self-improvement; “I am like I am just because, so I like what I like just because I like it.” But if we were intentional about discovering why we like what we like, we could also intentionally implement what we find in our own expressions.

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I must clarify however, that none of this is intended to produce imitations, but rather the intent is to notice the good things, the likable attributes, the admirable qualities in others, ask yourself why they are so, and begin the process yourself. I think when one does that it will become clear that often the thing most captivating is not the act itself but rather the attitude and goal behind it which is expressed in the act. And consequently one might find oneself in a very different place at the end of the road from where they started. Indeed for myself instead of meditating on the refined expressions of others, and more specifically the unavoidable truths revealed in Boreham’s daily reflections, I ended up meditating on my own ability to conclude truth from my daily experiences. While it may have begun with external observation and analysis, the end result was a deeper searching inside of me to ensure I possessed those more captivating qualities, attitudes and attributes.

In conclusion, if I wish to be an effective youth worker the answer is not to necessarily mimic others I’ve seen be effective, but to ensure I have those elementary attitudes of love and concern for people which produce effective relationships. If I desire to be a good speaker and teacher I first need to ensure I have the heart and passion to dispense valuable truth, life-saving and life-transforming truth. And if I want to be a better communicator of truth I need to value it myself and search hard for it in every area of my life; not only in between pages but in between my every breath.