Monthly Archives: December 2014

Singing as if life depended on it

After noticing its persistent presence on my Facebook newsfeed for multiple days, I caved and watched the three minute video of Naomi Feil, a Jewish woman, singing Christian songs to Gladys, an elderly woman with Alzheimers.  While singing “Jesus loves me” and “He’s got the whole world in his hands,” Feil affectionately strokes Gladys’ face, matching her volume and pace to the intensity of movement and emotion expressed by Gladys, who is unable to speak.  At the end of the clip, Gladys, through a soft but clear whisper, actually joins in the echo of the song.  Feil: “He’s got the whole world…”  Gladys: “in his hands.”  Feil comments afterwards: “For a split second, we became one person.”  It’s a beautiful picture of love and music surpassing barriers of religious identity and medical condition.

It’s nice to have it confirmed by neuroscience, but it comes as no surprise that the brain experiences song differently than speech.  From a young age, perhaps even before we are born, song lodges itself in our being and carries us in its wings through life, and perhaps beyond.

Even though Mary’s Magnificat in Luke (1:46 ff.) begins with “And Mary said…” it has traveled through church tradition as Mary’s song, needing a vessel that powerful to hold its beauty and weight.  As much as we speakers/preachers try and carefully shape meaningful words for Advent and Christmas, we have no doubt that this season belongs to the songs.  It’s no coincidence that CMC’s music Sunday during Advent is one of the best attended services of the year.   Marlene Kropf, a longtime professor of worship in the Mennonite church, once commented that Mennonites don’t have sacraments, but if we did our primary sacrament would be singing – that vehicle of grace which bridges the human and Divine.  It’s interesting to me that people who were raised in the Mennonite church but, for whatever reason, no longer relate to a congregation, often comment that what they miss most is the singing.

This Advent season has drawn our attention to some especially troubling and difficult events:  the continued murder of black males, torture done in the name of state security, a massacre of school children in Pakistan, and our Ohio state legislature on the verge of passing a law that will jumpstart the death penalty, pushing further into the shadows an act of state killing done in our name.  It’s enough to make one sing at the top of their lungs one of the many remixes of Mary’s song: “My heart shall sing of the day you bring let the fires of your justice burn.  Wipe away all tears for the dawn draws near and the world is about to turn” (Sing The Story 124).  Sometimes we sing because we’re not sure what else to do with the world’s brokenness, pain, and divisions.  “For a split second, we became one person.”

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What do you want?

So, what do you want?

The last couple days Abbie and I have asked this question to each other as Christmas approaches.  This is not the first time the question has come up this season.  We’ve already passed around some lists with family members to prepare for gift exchanges.  I imagine this is a fairly common question these days.  In buying for our kids, we have tried to mitigate the potential insanity of the season by being guided and limited by a phrase Abbie discovered a few years back:

Something they want,

something they need,

something to wear, and

something to read. 

To quote a favorite line from the Lego Movie, “It’s true because it rhymes.”

There’s something about this season that unlocks a sense of longing, desire, and wanting that seems to be an innate part of being human.  A quote attributed to Plato says: “We are fired into life with a madness that comes from the gods and which would have us believe that we can have a great love, perpetuate our own seed, and contemplate the divine.”  How’s that for longing?  What do we want?  We want it all!

Our Advent worship is always oriented toward focusing our desires and longings on the love of God which, in Christ, is love in the flesh.  Worship orients us toward love, and the Source of love, which helps shape, discipline, and guide the rest of our desires.

But one of the most difficult things about this season is the painful recognition that what we want is often absent or out of reach.  We want our deceased loved one back by our side.  We want to be healthy and carefree.  We want everyone to get along.  We want peace on earth.  The longing is opened up, only to reveal how far away is that for which we long.  What do you want?  Sorry, you can’t have it.

If, for you, this is a season that is too quiet because of absence and longings unfulfilled, we acknowledge and honor this, and pray that love is present within it.

If, for you, this is a season that is too noisy because of buying and scheduling and longings out of control, we acknowledge and honor this, and pray a simpler and more joyful path presents itself.