Philip Brunelle June 23, 2019
Scripture Psalm 47
Prayer: Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us. Quiet our minds that we might hear your word for us. Amen.
Carolyn and I returned a week ago from Europe, and our time there included a wonderful afternoon with Vivian Jones and his daughters, Anna and Helledd. Mary Jones suffers from extreme dementia and could not be part of our conversation. This was our first time in Wales since Anna’s wedding 25 years ago. Vivian turns 90 next January and lives in a wonderful nursing home with a room near Mary’s. He was full of good humor and so pleased to talk about Plymouth Church and his years here as our minister—and delighted to know that Jones Commons is a favorite meeting place for many. He hopes to write more about his life, especially about his time at Plymouth.
On to midsummer, which is this evening and tomorrow, the period of time centered upon the summer solstice and celebrated specifically in northern Europe. It is also, as I’m sure you know, the feast day of the birth of John the Baptist. You may remember that Zechariah, John’s father, upon hearing that his son would be named John, burst into song singing the Benedictus—praise to God for his mercy and salvation—which, in the Anglican tradition, is sung at morning prayer. So, it is a perfect day to reflect on song and singing.
We inherited the rich tradition of psalmody (such as Psalm 47) from its Jewish roots. The book of Colossians urged the Christians to “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in their hearts to God.” The Reformation, thanks to Martin Luther and others, brought about a great renewal of Christian music and hymnody. Though hymn singing came later to England, it was the Methodist revival of the 18th century, thanks to John and Charles Wesley, together with Isaac Watts, that began the great tradition of English hymnody.
Plymouth Church is a wonderful singing congregation—I know . . . I hear it every Sunday. Many of you have taken my words to heart: You may be inside but please sing with your outdoor voice! A century and more ago people sang at home, there were choirs in workplaces (Bell Telephone and Northwestern Bank had choirs that met weekly!), so coming to church and singing was not unique. Today it is unique, and so, as I select hymns for each Sunday, I try to include both familiar hymns and new hymns—with some in parts so you can sing without accompaniment (as we did this morning). I also try to pitch them in what my friend Garrison Keillor would call “the people’s key”: start it low to get the voice warmed up and then you can modulate up a bit.
You have probably noticed that our opening hymn every Sunday is one with energy so we can get our voices moving and our lungs expanding, and, of course, we sing standing—your body works so much better when you engage it from top to bottom! Music exercises the brain and the body, and singing is a very physical process; in fact, it is the multiple dimensions of music making—combining intellectual, physical and social aspects—that set it apart from other cognitively stimulating activities (like crossword puzzles, for instance). I was delighted to read about a study on creativity and healthy aging that found that seniors involved in an arts program are physically healthier and in better spirits overall.
I try to put hymns in a proper mood with the introductions I improvise or by playing some of Paul Manz’s inspired settings; in my first year at Plymouth (50 years ago) an elderly member came up to me after the service and asked me what that “stuff” was that I played before the hymn. I thought this would be a good teaching moment and said that hymn introductions are a tradition stretching back to Johann Sebastian Bach. Her response: “Bach wasn’t a member of Plymouth Church.”
Singing is, in and of itself, a sacred duty, and music of quality is a critical element within the life of the Church. I believe it is a necessity, not a luxury. Music of quality, in the context of worship, does not entertain—it reveals. By means of evolving harmonies, rhythms, textures, modulations, melodies and counterpoints, this rich art has the potential to create an aural environment that helps us contemplate the mystery of God. It was Vivian Jones who, one Sunday, spoke about us losing our sense of awe. He used the word “awful” in its original meaning—full of awe—and wondered how often in today’s world we have experienced awe. Where have we recently entered a space that gave us that sense of awe or spotted something in nature that we felt was awesome?
The words of worship exist to evoke within us a reality beyond our immediate apprehension. They are words which give us permission to imagine the mystery of God. What is critical in liturgy is the musicality of the words, their rhythmical development, their poetic symbolism, their ability to inflame our imaginations. I often look to the words of poets like John Donne and Robert Herrick in selecting anthems with powerful poetic images for Advent or Easter or Pentecost. How invigorating to hear words from George Herbert’s Easter poem “Rise heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise without delays,” or Alice Meynell’s Christmas thought: “Sudden as sweet come the expected feet. All joy is young, and new all art, and He, too, whom we have by heart.” I love to celebrate anniversaries of composers and poets, and this fall you will hear the choir sing several settings of Walt Whitman, this being the 200th anniversary of his birth.
Of course, how words are set is very important. As a young boy soprano, I heard an Easter hymn—“Lo, in the grave He lay, Jesus my Savior” and I thought they were singing “Lo, in the gravy lay Jesus my Savior.” Likewise, as a youngster, when I heard someone reading the words from Luke 2 I thought that it was a large crib holding Mary, Joseph and Jesus because the reader left out the comma: And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the babe lying in the manger. Later, I realized it should have been: And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in the manger. I, too, have tripped up—my first year here at Plymouth with the choir we were rehearsing the “Carol of the Bells,” which concludes with the men singing a bell sound, written “bm.” They sang it too softly and (without thinking of what I was saying) I asked them for a louder BM. You learn to choose your words carefully!
When you sing, musical vibrations move through you, altering your physical and emotional landscape. Singing a hymn as a group is exhilarating and transformative. Why is that? Researchers have discovered that singing is like an infusion of the perfect tranquilizer, the kind that both soothes your nerves and elevates your spirits. And it turns out you don’t even have to be a good singer to reap the rewards. According to one recent study “group singing can produce satisfying and therapeutic sensations even when the sound produced by the vocal instrument is of mediocre quality.” So, please, sing on! Ella Fitzgerald said that “the only thing better than singing is more singing” and Cervantes said, “He who sings frightens away his ills.”
When you combine the joy of singing with marvelous words, it is, as Libby Larsen said, a “double joy.” I believe the most wonderful part of a Sunday service is when we all join in singing a hymn. Of course, I love the other music in a service as well as the sermon and readings, but singing is what brings us all together. I selected the words of Walter Brueggemann, which he wrote for a class on the psalms, for this morning’s reading. Brueggemann is professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary and a UCC minister. I would like us to read them together from today’s bulletin:
We are people who must sing you,
for the sake of our very lives.
You are a God who must be sung by us
for the sake of your majesty and honor.
And so we thank you,
for lyrics that push past our reasons,
for melodies that break open our givens,
for cadences that locate us home, beyond all our safe places,
for tones and tunes that open our lives beyond control
and our futures beyond despair.
We thank you for the long parade of mothers and fathers
who have sung you deep and true;
We thank you for the good company
of artists, poets, musicians, cantors, and instruments
that sing for us and with us, toward you.
We are witnesses to your mercy and splendor;
we will not keep silent . . . ever again. Amen.
As we celebrate Midsummer, as we sing and play and as we enjoy the wonders of God’s world at this summer solstice, think of these thoughts of John Wesley:
Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can. Amen.