I’D LIKE TO TEACH THE WORLD TO SING
Homily for the Eighth Sunday of Pentecost
July 7, 2013
On Season Five of America’s Got Talent (2010), the world was introduced to the New Directions choir, made up of formerly homeless ex-military personnel.
There are approximately 8000 homeless ex-military on the streets of Los Angeles alone. New Directions offers homeless veterans many social support services (housing, jobs, counselling, etc.) and one of their programs is a choir. George Hill, the choir founder and director, a former marine, was homeless for 12 years. One of the star members of the group had been homeless for 25 years! The choir brought the whole audience to its feet and tears to the eyes of many in the theatre.
Asked about their purpose, their aim in being on America’s Got Talent, their leader, George Hill said: “We want to let people know that it’s OK for a warrior to seek help.” Like Naaman the Syrian war commander, we live in a world of constant conflict and violence – you let your guard down for a minute and you could be in danger. We are accustomed to hostility, unfamiliar with peace. We are war-weary. Many social commentators and experts have warned us about the high stress and anxiety levels of modern urban living. We are deeply in need of healing and yet people don’t know where to turn. Naaman in his desperation turned to Elisha, a spiritual leader from a foreign country and religion, and was offered a path to new life – a new direction – which cured him of leprosy.
Recently, numerous studies at places like Yale, Harvard and the University of California have pointed to the amazing effects of singing. The findings suggest that choral singing is associated with decreased levels of anxiety and negativity, better health and workplace performance, and strengthened immune system.
Graham Welch, chair of music education at the Institute of Education at the University of London: “The benefits of singing range from the physical — because it boosts oxygen levels in the blood — to the psychological — because it lowers stress and boosts feelings of community.”
An article in the Guardian suggests that singing improves cardiovascular efficiency, reduces stress and increases alertness, and likely impacts longevity.
It gets better! …
Helen Astrid, from The Helen Astrid Singing Academy in London says that singing can create an influx of endorphins. “There is nothing like singing for generating that feel-good factor. It’s almost indescribable. It’s an incredible endorphin rush. You feel like you’ve got a spring in your step. You feel like you’re being totally true to yourself. It is like making love in a way. You’re using your whole body, everything is involved.”
Ella Fitzgerald (an expert in her own right) had it right when she said: “’The only thing better than singing is more singing.” Singing together not only produces individual well-being, it creates community.
The Guardian (UK) also reports that “last year, the government in England announced £40million of funding in the National Singing Programme to get every primary-school pupil singing regularly.”
However, along with being a society flooded by violence and anxiety, not to mention noise, we are by and large a society that does not sing. We listen passively to a great deal of music, but we do not sing, and, worse, we do not sing together. In fact, music has become a tool to separate us from others, as we see over and over again in people wearing their earphones, tuned out and closed off from the people around them. So many of the benefits of music are lost.
Years ago a Coke ad – “I’d like to buy the world a coke” — was transformed into the massively popular hit, “I’d like to teach the world to sing” by a group called The New Seekers:
“I’d like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
I’d like to hold it in my arms
And keep it company.
I’d like to see the world for once
All standing hand in hand
And hear them echo through the hills
For peace throughout the land
That’s the song I hear
Let the world sing today
A song of peace
That echoes on
And never goes away.”
What’s the song you hear? What’s the song you sing? As it has been said, “Many people die with their music still locked up inside them.”
The birth of Jesus was heralded by singing; his mother Mary sang a song of gratitude; heaven is often described in terms of music. Singing seems to be a symbol of something at the heart of the universe – at the heart of existence. Eastern gurus and mystics will confidently tell you that chanting Om (AUM) is a way of connecting our deepest self to the Source of all life, who is God. I can tell you that the effects of singing Gregorian chant are profound. And the deep breathing required of all singing is an essential aspect of many forms of meditation, so singing becomes not only an aerobic exercise but a form of spiritual practice.
And ultimately, that is what church music is intended to attain – connection with God — union with God. Yes, there are numerous physical, mental and social benefits from corporate singing, but it is as a spiritual practice that we promote singing in church.
It’s another case of: Surprise! Church is good for you! Church is one of the few venues where communal or corporate singing is still a major focus.
In a world of disconnect, singing connects us. Music connects us to other people – makes us aware of other people – obliges us to pay attention and notice. In church we sing together – it is a communal act, and singing together does bind people together, as dancing does, a reminder that life is meant to be harmonious, that we need others, that being with others makes us better individuals. Through the simple act of singing together, we can begin to see ourselves in relation to others, rather than in isolation, and we can experience directly what it means to combine our talents to make something we could never do on our own, but only in community.
When you have been chanting deeply or have been present at a very profound act of worship, you leave the place resonating with “good vibrations.” It is much easier to bring harmony to the world when we are centered in spiritual song. As Lao Tzu said “Music in the soul can be heard by the universe.” There is a rhythm to the world and to life that music helps us get in touch with.
Today’s Psalm (30) contains the lines
You (O God) have turned my wailing into dancing;
You have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy.
Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing;
O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.
As the Psalm suggests, it is often when we are down or struggling that discover the real reason for singing. When we experience the mercy and the love of God, song is a powerful expression of our gratitude, far deeper than we could express in mere words. The Psalmist says, “I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.” In other words, when he was experiencing success he was confident in himself – in his own abilities to manage – he felt like he was in control of his destiny and that it would last forever. But it doesn’t. We age; we get sick; we fall from the pedestal of juvenile invincibility. Like Naaman, even the great invincible warrior comes to a point of recognizing vulnerability, and becoming open to the influence of God, and the help of others. John Newton wrote Amazing Grace to describe his being saved from a terrible storm at sea. I can imagine the powerful song Naaman might have sung as he emerged from the water free of his disease. Maybe he danced as well.
As Colossians 3:16 says: “with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God”
St Basil the Great said that getting people to sing together is a “step toward unity, joining people into the harmonious union of one choir— and produces the greatest of all blessings, which is love.”
When you sing in community, you’re not just singing for yourself – you’re singing for others. I remember getting choked up during a funeral service and being unable to sing, and I remember the great gratitude I felt, the great strength I felt, as I heard the unified voice of the community continuing to sing, and it was as though their voices carried me. I love the sense of blending into one voice, the sense that, when one falters, others are carrying the torch, and of how encouraging that is. It symbolized beautifully the concept of bearing each other’s burdens that Paul speaks of in Galatians 6 – today’s Epistle reading. Love was what I felt for those people, many of them complete strangers. Sacred music has a way of doing that.
The ancient liturgies of the Church were virtually sung in their entirety. They had way more singing than we have. Even the Gospel was chanted.
The ancient Christian view was “Those who sing, pray twice,” because people who sing in a sacred context have always known it is a very effective way to connect with God – twice as effective as merely saying something. There comes a point when words are inadequate to express what we feel.
Johann Sebastian Bach was a spiritual as well as a musical giant, and one of the phrases he is known for is “Soli Gloria Deo” a Latin phrase which might be rendered in English as: Everything to the glory of God. In this sense, sacred music becomes much more than therapy –– it is a way of connecting with everything – with the All – with the One – and it becomes transformative at every level of our being.
St Augustine said, “When you worship God with hymns, you should be worshipping with your entire being: your voice should sing; your heart should also sing; your life should sing. Everything should sing!” (Enarrationes in Psalmos — CXLIII, 2)
One of my favourite memories of early childhood was standing next to my parents in church, hearing them sing, and trying to sing with them. They seemed so huge to me, and I am still grateful for their personal example, even though they were probably unconscious of the profound effect it had on me.
Like Naaman, people today are staggering about, sick and tired, unaware that the solution is often something very obvious and very simple. We have a very great gift – the gift of sacred music – the gift of communal singing – the gift of spiritual harmony. It’s here every Sunday.
We’re already doing it, but somehow we’re not sharing it very well. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus calls his disciples to get out there and share the peace that comes from knowing him – to generate peace and harmony in the world. Like the ancient disciples we need to let people know “The Kingdom of God is near you” – as near as your local parish church. It is high time we started to recognize and celebrate and confidently promote this gift!
So, convince your friends to come and sing and celebrate with us. Tell them its therapy – which it is. Tell them they’ll feel better for it – which they will. And maybe they will be surprised by joy – maybe they will find themselves tuning in to the song of the Spirit, the praise of the heavenly host, and the rhythm of God.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
A member of this parish recently wrote the following poem, and I am glad to include it:
Prayer is a love song inspired by God.
We are the chosen instruments
– a reed, a voice – for the Divine Lover
To breath the Spirit through.
In silence, the beloved hears
the eternal melody that has no words or music.
A heart overflows, sings out in love, and the tune
Is carried, echoing through the universe.
RCL-appointed readings for Pentecost 8:
2 Kings 5:1-14 Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the LORD had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said.
And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments.
He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.” But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage.
But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.
Psalm 30 I will extol you, O LORD, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me. O LORD my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. O LORD, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.
Sing praises to the LORD, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name. For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.”
By your favor, O LORD, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed. To you, O LORD, I cried, and to the LORD I made supplication: “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness? Hear, O LORD, and be gracious to me! O LORD, be my helper!”
You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever.
Galatians 6:(1-6), 7-16 My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves.
All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads. Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher. Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’
But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say,
‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’