August 2, 2020

Sacred Song, I: Created by Song

Passage: Genesis 1:2


In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,
the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep,
while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. —Genesis 1:2


My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth's lamentation,
I hear the sweet, tho' far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;
Thro' all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?
What tho' my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Saviour liveth;
What tho' the darkness gather round?
Songs in the night he giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?  —Robert Lowry

Seeing that this pandemic would not let up, Ravinia canceled its season on May 1. Lollapalooza would have been happening right now, today, with teenagers spilling onto the Metra all weekend long to go hear their favorite band. No musical genre has been unimpacted: Austin City Limits, the Lady Gaga tour, James Taylor, Beck, The Smashing Pumpkins, Kenny Chesney, Kiss, Bob Dylan, The Black Keys, Pitchfork, Snoop Dogg, The Dave Matthews Band, The Lumineers, Kesha, Phish, Rage Against the Machine, Kelly Clarkson, Bad Religion, Foo Fighters, Bon Jovi, NYC Pride with opener Janelle Monáe, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Summer Fest, Shania Twain, Justin Bieber, Garth Brooks, Alicia Keys, Burning Man, it all evaporated.

We’ve grown accustomed to front porch performances or backyard concerts, singing along to Spotify playlists from home, or watching performances on Instagram live. The early March images of Italian neighbors stuck at home playing guitar and a makeshift tambourine out their apartment windows seem a distant memory, but one with which we can resonate. Music binds us together. Music lifts us up. Music makes our heart soar. Music gives us meaning and puts us back together. It brings us to tears, it vibrates within our whole body, it fills our soul.

Our sacred text is filled with song. The bible could really be called our sacred hymnbook. There is a book of Psalms: 150 songs sung first thousands of years ago but even now held deep within us. There is a book of Lament, as Bill pointed out last week: our own hymn of sorrow, a sacred playlist for sad times. The oldest verse in the bible, what scholars think is likely the bible’s most ancient excerpt, is a song sung by Miriam (Moses’ sister) after they finally get out of Egypt and put slavery behind them. Jesus’ mom sings a song when she finds out she is pregnant. In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul says they should “sing and make music” from their heart. We are a people of song. It is the way we praise God and the way we are bound together in community.

My faith would disappear into the ether without the songs that taught and held my faith together. I am created by sound. my faith is created by the song of God. And so Jo and I are going to preach this sermon series on music, on sacred song, as a kind of dual lament and praise, in praise of music and in lament for the many lost opportunities to be put back together by the live music that gives us life.

Eight hundred years ago, Hildegard of Bingen became a Benedictine nun, a theologian and later a friend of the Pope (Pope Eugenius III if pope-history is a place you hang your hat). Hildegard published an extensive set of writings, including an eclectic set of liturgical music. She died in what is now Germany on September 17, 1179 and yet, somehow, Ryan Belongie still sings her music today. Maybe Beyoncé and Madonna will have that kind of legacy 800 years from now. Hildegard’s theology was rooted in mystic encounters yet was thick with real-life metaphors. She was in tune with nature in a way that reminds me of Walt Whitman, or John Muir, or Mary Oliver. She talks at length about the “greenness” of the Holy Spirit—maybe our eco-friendly Green Team needs to look into this–the “greenness” of the Holy Spirit, or translated another way, the “vitality, freshness, greenery, fecundity, fruitfulness, or growth” of the Spirit of God. Hildegard was a bit of a renaissance woman serving as a leader of her religious community, while corresponding with religious and secular leaders of her day as a political advisor, and writing books on cosmology, botany, zoology, and medicine to match and exceed the scientific scholars of her day.[1]

Late in her life, Hildegard got into a bit of a theological power struggle with the mother church. She was asked to exhume the remains of a man who was buried at her convent because that man had been posthumously excommunicated from the church and therefore, apparently uninvited to be buried on formal church property. Hildegard refused and in response the ecclesiastical authorities basically placed a religious restraining order on her convent. They were not allowed to receive the sacraments or sing the divine office. They could speak their prayers, but they were forbidden to sing them.

As a woman dedicated to sacred music, whose theological tomes speak deeply of the ways God connects to us in song, the idea of not being allowed to sing was horrifying. She wrote letters to the authorities begging to sing. She said music was central to prayer and praise. It was necessary. It was vital. It was universal. She needed to sing. Music, she said connected her to paradise, to that song of creation in which God speaks all perfect life and light into being, in which land and sea make room for the animals to take form, and the first human beings are spoken into existence. Song was her entryway into the presence of God. She could not live without song.[2]

For me Hildegard’s insistence that music connects her to paradise sends me back to Genesis 1. The first opening verse in the Bible reminds us “in the beginning, God.” My pastor growing up would often say that his faith started here, in those first simple words “in the beginning, God.” Not necessarily the part about God creating, but the idea that there is no time set apart from God, that God is always, and we cannot find a place where God is not. For us, God is in the beginning, and so we begin all beginnings from a place of trust. God was there, and so God is here.

By the time we get to verse two, the God in whom we place our trust hovers over the formless void and the primordial stew—the messy stuff of creation that existed before God ordered it into something beautiful. God hovers over the chaos. God is present in the face of the deep, the unknown, the mess, the layered unmapped jumble that disrupts what we thought were well laid plans. God stands within the uncontrollable and the terrible. God is there from the beginning. We can trust God. And we can trust God because God is present in the chaos, even the chaos of this day, this time, this life.

Verse one says God is there. Verse two says God is there in the chaos. Verse three, I think, says God sings order and beauty and life into existence. I love this verse because it sets in motion the longer creation story in which God speaks light and everything else into existence, and that is where I want to stay for a while. God speaks light and life in existence. God speaks creation into being. The sound of God’s voice is how this whole place is formed. In other words, we are created by sound. We are created by the sound of God’s voice. And while not all sound is music, all music is sound, and surely the sound of God’s voice speaking light into existence is a symphony unlike one we’ve ever heard. It is an aria, a canticle of grace that would melt even the hardest heart. It is a melody, a harmony, a tune so sweet that it can give us sunlight and moonlight and forests and oceans and neighbors and friends. It is a divine song that ushers in life, and life beyond life, a song of love that makes possible you and me and every person and creature we’ve ever known and loved and more and more beyond human imagining. We are created by song. We are created by the sound of God’s voice.

There is no analogy to the time we are living through now. There has never been a time in which we have known how fraught singing and gathering to hear music could be during a plague. It’s even hard to find evidence of times throughout history where singing was forbidden. With no historical parallel, I feel a bit unmoored, unanchored, alone. The little incident in Hildegard’s convent is evidence that asking people not to sing is truly a clever punishment.

If you watched Bill’s garden chat with Lisa Bond this week, you’ll have heard Lisa talking about how unsafe singing is right now—the way aerosols containing the coronavirus can linger up to three hours after singing and how it’s just not possible to sing together without the possibility of bringing life threatening illness to one another. Our hearts are broken. Maybe in other times singing has been forbidden by the powers that be—during a religious war maybe or under persecution. At least then singing would be an act of resistance or a sign of faith. But now it is only an act of great danger, a threat to those we love and sing alongside. I’ve never in my whole life gone this long without singing in community. I grew up going to church and summer camp and music festivals. Five months and more to come without community singing is an unthinkable loss for me and my family and probably you and yours too.

We know that music is healing. We know the vibrations of singing that tangible reverberation within our bones can sooth our soul. In fact research suggests that even humming, the most simple form of singing possible, even for the most tone deaf among us can be healing. It can increase oxygen in our cells, enhancing health and wellness. It can lower blood pressure and heart rate. It can increase circulation and clear toxins from our bodies. It can increase melatonin and enhance our sleep. It can reduce stress related hormones. It can release endorphins that work as natural pain relievers and make us feel good. It can release oxytocin, that love hormone that creates trust between us. We need that kind of healing and trust and rest more now than ever before. We need the possibility of health. We need to sing a future into existence that brings about the justice and peace and thriving God knows is possible.[3]

Singing matters. It is healing, critical, and essential. And so Lisa continues to bring her musicians together virtually, having them sing in their bathrooms where the acoustics let their own voices reverberate, and heal, and renew. She brings that music to us virtually, with all the technological challenges and painstaking hours of digital editing that were a huge learning curve, and create unimagined possibilities for beauty, and meaning, and connection. And she asks Joel Fox our video and sound editor to put the texts of each song on our screens so we can easily sing and hum along from the safety and comfort of our homes, because we need to sing, and as the famous hymn says, “we cannot keep from singing.” May a song rise up within you these days. A melody that heals your heart, that gives you rest, that restores you, and brings order to the chaos. May God sing something beautiful into existence for you, even now. Amen.

[1]  Ramshaw, Gail. 2017. "Hildegard of Bingen and Greening the Liturgy." Worship 91 (September): 388–394.

[2]  Labriola, Christina. 2015. "The Symphonic Soul: Re-engaging Hildegard of Bingen's Theology of Liturgical Song." Touchstone, 33, no. 1 (February), p 19–25.

[3] Goldman, Johnathan. 2017. "The Humming Effect: The Simplest Sound is the Most Profound" Sound Healers Administration.