"Songs for Our Souls"
Meditation by Anne Ledbetter
Singing Our Faith Sunday
July 29, 2012

When asked what makes a song stay with you, Yip Harburg, who wrote "Over the Rainbow" and "It's Only a Paper Moon," replied, "Words make you think. Music makes you feel. A song makes you feel a thought."

Perhaps this is why we often feel our faith most powerfully when singing a hymn or listening to an anthem. Melodies have the power to elicit feelings - to lift our mood, stir up remorse, bolster our courage, soothe our hurts. Moreover, when lyrical poetry is set to music, it can reach out and touch the deepest recesses of our souls, often massaging suppressed feelings and unearthing wisdom we know to be true.

In the old hymn "This is my Father's World" the refrain echoes "All nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres." Indeed, with our windows open on cooler summer nights we awaken to birdsong, and scientists say that whale songs may be heard underwater for 100 miles or more. Singing seems to be embedded in creation. The cries of animals are often mating calls or distress warnings. But why do humans sing? In his book The Singing Thing, church musician John Bell suggests these eleven reasons we sing:

because we can (we are uniquely made to do so)
to create identity (ever notice how hard it is to read together, yet a familiar tune and regular beat enable us to sing in unison?)
to express emotion
to express words (it means a lot for someone to wish us happy birthday, but when people sing it as certain friends do every year on my voicemail system, I save it for months!)
to revisit the past
to tell stories
to shape the future
to enable work
to exercise our creativity
to give of ourselves;

and for people of faith: to give of ourselves, specifically to God - "Let us come into God's presence with singing, let us enter God's courts with praise." By the close of worship, our hymns will have embodied all these reasons we sing. Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, local pastor and prolific hymn writer summarizes why we sing as people of faith: we sing to help the Church grow strong, and we sing to share and rekindle our faith. How have hymns strengthened God's people over the years? And how has music nurtured your faith?

Our Bible contains the hymnal of the Hebrews in the Book of Psalms, and do these songs ever reveal the joys and travails of the people of God! Over one hundred of the hymns in our hymnal are based on these psalms which resonate with praise and thanksgiving, remorse and regret, grief and gratitude. Church father John Calvin believed the Psalter reflects the anatomy of the soul.

Protestant reformer Martin Luther took several of the popular drinking songs from the ale houses, and penned verses for church. Instead of the mysterious chants of the Roman mass, reformed worship resounded with hearty hymns sung with gusto - hymns such as "A Mighty Fortress is Our God." Using folk songs of the day, Luther took familiar tunes and gave them sacred words or teaching. Through hymnody Luther taught the catechism, the Lord's Prayer, and a number of psalms. His hymns were sung not only at church, but at work, home, and school - in community.

Or consider the rich and lasting spirituals which grew out of the sin of slavery? These songs of haunting melodies expressed deep faith, carried unquenchable hope, and conveyed covert messages as those enslaved sang of a chariot coming to carry them home - meaning a passage to freedom.

Some say that a person's theology often springs more from the hymnal than from the scriptures! What do you think? Looking back at two favorite hymns from childhood, I realize both have rousing refrains, and vivid imagery. While I still like both hymns, neither would make it to my top ten list today. What about you? What hymns stir your soul and speak to your heart? Our favorite hymns typically change over the years, and with our various life experiences.

Do you ever find yourself humming, singing, or whistling a hymn tune on your way home from church? Did you sing hymns to your children when you rocked them to sleep? Was there a hymn you sang as your father lay dying in the hospital? Did a hymn help you get through a period of despair or depression? Over twenty years ago, in a workshop in Texas, the leader pointed out that our prayers do not have to be spoken - that most of our hymns are actually prayers to be sung. He had us sing, "Breathe on Me Breath of God" and "Spirit of the Living God, Fall Afresh on Me" and ever since I've found that singing a prayer in the car to be calming and centering, as well as inspiring and invigorating.

According to Luther, "as long as we live, there is never enough singing." Philosopher and psychologist William James wrote, "I don't sing because I'm happy; I'm happy because I sing." Scientists have proven this claim of James to be true: singing produces endorphins which elevate our mood. Singing in a choir or congregation connects us to one another as we orient ourselves to God. Perhaps this is why the psalmist exhorts us to come into God's presence with singing, and the apostle Paul urges us to be filled with the Spirit, as we sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, making melody to the Lord in our hearts, giving thanks to God at all times.

When we sing we honor the one who made us, we get in touch with our truest selves, we connect to others, and we experience salvation, that is, we are healed and made whole. Remember it was the music filtering out of the windows of that little Presbyterian Church outside San Francisco that drew a hung-over Anne Lamott into God's loving embrace. She recalls, "Then the singing enveloped me. It was furry and resonant, coming from everyone's very heart. There was no sense of performance or judgment, only that the music was breath and food." Let us continually sing our faith, remembering that there are always others gasping for the Breath of Life and famished for the Bread of Life.