“[Anyone] who sings prays twice.” – attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo, 354-430
[A heavenly voice said] “This is my Son… listen to him!” -Matthew 17:5
When you’re sad, is there a song you like to listen to? For me, it depends on how sad I’m feeling. Slightly sad, and I just need to sing along to some showtunes, then I’m feeling better in no time. If I’m very sad, however, showtunes won’t do. In deep sorrow, I need the quiet, familiar music of hymns. “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” for some reason I can’t quite put a finger on, is especially soothing when I’m troubled.
Of course, sad music is different for everyone. I have a friend who listens to German metal whenever he’s feeling particularly overwhelmed. What do you like to listen to when you’re sad? Can you describe what it is about that song or musician that gives you relief?
Music is powerful, isn’t it? It allows us to express so powerfully not only what we think but how we feel about it. Whether we feel love, sadness, anger, jealousy, delight, or any other emotion, there’s a song for every feeling. In fact, there’s probably a song in every musical style for every feeling, from country to classical, from rap to rock-n-roll.
Music is so powerful that Augustine, an early Christian writer and bishop, is reported to have said that anyone who sings prays twice. Both the words and the music behind them express our needs. Think of this: you know the hymns Amazing Grace and O Little Town of Bethlehem? Both can be sung to the Gilligan’s Island theme song. Try it. Now imagine sitting together on Christmas Eve, singing O Little Town of Bethlehem to that tune. It’s just plain wrong.
The other great power of music is that it sticks with us. Visit any nursing home with a locked dementia unit. The residents won’t be able to tell you what they had for breakfast, but I guarantee they’ll sing along with the popular music of their childhood. (I shudder to think of my generation in our old age, remembering only the lyrics to “Single Ladies.”)
Music allows us to express what seems inexpressible and to make deep connections with what we sing. That’s part of why we sing parts of our worship service each Sunday- so that we remember “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us” even when we forget exactly what the sermon was about.
That deep power of music is also why it matters what music we listen to. Now I’m not about to say that you should only listen to hymns, because there are all sorts of meaningful and important songs out there that we would never use in worship. You might ask yourself, though: is this the song I want to remember when I’ve forgotten everything else? Is this song expressing something I feel right about? What we hear, especially in the music that settles into our bones, shapes us. When we listen to Jesus, that shapes us, too, as we hear the declaration that we are forgiven and loved.
God, I thank you for the gift of music. Let the songs I hear and sing shape me according to your will. Amen.