Songs in the Night

Luke 2: 8-15

Is there anything more omnipresent, more pervasive than music? Millions now walk with thousands of Ipod tunes (if that is what they are) hanging around their necks. The boom of the woofers bombard through the windows of the adolescent auto next to yours. Rap and religious, country western and classical, CSO and U Two, it is all over the place, permeating the air we breathe. Music, Music.

Of course, what the young people think is music is often different from what we seniors enjoy. A fifteen-year- old lad returned home from a rock concert. “How was it?” his visiting grandfather asked. “It was great,” the boy replied, “You would have hated it.”

One woman tells of taking her child to a Christmas concert of the Messiah. At a pause she turned to her daughter and said, “Now this is great music. The trouble with your music is that it is just the same old words over and over again.” Then they arose to the first strains of, “Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.”

Music has always been there and always will be. At the heart of every wedding, birthday, anniversary and funeral. Holidays, feasts, celebrations…without song and dance, whether in Haifa or Hamburg, Greece or Grand Rapids, what would they be? It has soothed the troubled breast since the days of David down to the latest lullaby sung by a North Shore mother. It has seduced the hearts of lovers from Vienna to Vermont. It has lifted the spirits of worshippers from the Psalms of Jerusalem to the Chorales of Leipzig to the gospel songs of our south land.

Need I go on? Music, music, everywhere. So what’s it all about? Well, it is about a lot of things, some innocent, some dangerous, as innocent as a mother’s lullaby, as dangerous as outrageously amplified heavy metal, impairing hearing, overstimulating the nervous system, desensitizing the senses to subtler emotions.

But ever important to this business of believing, this life of faith. Because faith is about trust in stories, stories like those of this Christmas time. Because it is the stories we live from that tell us who we are and where we came from and where we are headed. Annie Dillard, in An American Childhood writes, “Every summer we memorized these things at camp. Every Sunday in Pittsburgh we heard these things in Sunday school…I had miles of Bible in memory: some perforce but most by hap, like words to songs. There was no corner of my brain where you couldn’t find, among the files of clothing labels and heaps of rocks, among the swarms of protozoans and shelves of novels, whole tapes and snarls and reels of Bible. Later, before I left Pittsburgh for college, I would write several poems in deliberate imitation of its sounds, those repeated feminine endings followed by thumps, or those long heart beats followed by softness. Selah.”

Some suspect that the moral breakdown abroad in the land is due, at least in part, to the reality that we have lost our formative stories. Alasdair MacIntyre, philosopher at Notre Dame insists, “I can only answer the question “What am I to do?” if I can answer the prior question, ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’ It is through hearing stories…that children learn or mis-learn both what a child and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are. Deprive the children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words. Feed them the wrong stories and you turn them into confused and alienated beings.”

But do we not live in a world cunningly designed to divert us from the stories of faith. We are so flooded day in and day out with the sights and sounds and images of other fragmentary and contradictory stories that we often literally lose our faith amidst them all. Television swallows up our thoughts and fills our heads like no other media ever has. The problem with TV may not just be the hours we spend in front of it. It may be the fact that it is there to fill up our mental horizon whenever a blank moment occurs, leaving no space for the imagination and reflection which stories require, particularly those of faith.

As I have already intimated, song has always been at the heart of the Christian story, more than any other religion. The great musical tradition of the western world has wrapped itself around the faith. Is it possible therefore that music is more important than extra hours at the office, or running to get the shopping done, or making certain the house is in perfect order, or making all the parties this season. “Express your joy in singing among yourselves psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, making music in your hearts for the ears of God,” writes the Apostle Paul to friends in Ephesus.

Kathleen Norris tells of who she is and how she became that way in her marvelous little classic, Dakota:A Spiritual Geography. She writes, “And this is who I am: a complete Protestant with a decidedly ecumenical bent…I still value music and story over systematic theology- an understatement, given the fact that I was so dreamy as a child that I learned from a movie on television that Jesus died. Either my Sunday school teachers had been too nice to tell me (this was the 1950s), or, as usual, I wasn’t paying attention. I am just now beginning to recognize the truth of my original vision: we go to church in order to sing.” Songs may be where we can keep our stories alive. I doubt that anyone ever left church on a Sunday humming a sermon. But songs, ah, they hang there in the back of the mind for years, ready to be drawn upon in need. Songs about the stories that have made us. Songs drilling into our souls the stories that shaped us as people of faith. “Jesus loves me.” “Father Abraham.” “O God, our help in ages past.” “In the Cross of Christ I Glory.” “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

Faith is a matter of dependency upon Another for the strength and courage to manage life in the here and now. Faith is not a matter of intellectual activity; it is a matter of receptivity, and we are not very good at that. We are much better at activity. Just watch how we “Type A’s” do Christmas, determined to be on top of everything, control all the details, make it come out absolutely the way we want it. Just watch how we go at life, filling every day and hour, with purpose and activity, as if an hour of quiet would arouse intolerable anxiety or guilt, an hour of rest would cause us to fall apart, never get up again.

But without receptivity, waiting, letting go, no opportunity for another Spirit to invade and invigorate, regenerate and make whole again. And music can help us here. For music regresses us, breaks down our ego control, awakens the childlike dependency in us, opens us up to a larger spirit than our own.

Which is why song becomes so important in the times when faith becomes difficult, challenged by reversal, illness, loneliness, struggle. The faithful have inevitably turned to song to help them keep faith in the story when darkness descends.

The singer of Psalms says it. “In the night his song shall be with me.” The Book of the Acts of the Apostles tells us of Paul and Silas in prison in Philippi, under threat of death, and about midnight, they were singing praises to God and the other prisoners were listening. And Jesus on the darkest night of his soul, sang the Passover Hymn with his disciples before going out in the dark of Gethsemane.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, sitting in his Gestopo prison cell, writes constantly of how the old hymns and chorales have kept him company and kept his faith. In one of his earliest letters, he writes to his parents, “The seventy-fifth birthday celebrations a fortnight ago were splendid. (His father’s birthday) I can still hear the chorale that we sang in the morning and evening, with all the voices and instruments: ‘Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation. …Shelters thee under his wings, yea, and gently sustaineth.’ That is true and it is what we must always trust.”

Song can break down the anxious defenses we build around our souls, can allow a new Spirit to slip in and take over, a spirit of dependence upon a strength not our own. In song we can and do let go and let God. In music we do take joy in an old story, the Christmas story of a God who is still present and at work in our lives.

But dare we sing while so many suffer? Dare we rejoice when so many in our world are in agony and pain? How dare we make music amid masses who have so little to sing about? We dare only if we sing not of ourselves, but of the old story, “Joy to the World, The Lord Has come.” And if with our singing, we give ourselves to making that story a bit more real in our time. We dedicate ourselves to helping others find a song. Indeed, the music of faith may be the very thing that enables us to transcend ourselves in service of those about us in need. It was Bonhoeffer who preached already in 1933, that only those dare sing the hymns of the church who also care about all those who suffer.

It has been my observation that those who set themselves to helping others, to saving the world, but without a song in their soul, in the end do little more than turn their victims off, sour the human scene. The most important thing we can bring to others with our gifts, is the music of hope, the song of joy. That song can save the story and lead to true service of others.

We were recently at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem again. But it is more than a hotel. It is the center of a remarkable saga of an expatriate family who devoted their lives to the peace and people of the Holy Land. Horatio Spafford, a successful Chicago attorney, along with his wife , Anna, set sail in 1881 for Jerusalem with an entourage of family and friends. They moved into a building in Old Jerusalem that was to become a children’s clinic and later a pediatric hospital, which it still is today. Horatio was later able to buy the residence of a Pasha and turn it into the first hotel in Jerusalem in order to support the hospital. Over the hundred years of its existence there have been drawn to it not only generals and statesmen, but also artists, scholars, celebrities, and foreign correspondents.

Horatio died after a few years, but Anna built a kind of Hull House to help Jerusalem’s sick, wounded and needy. Three generations of Spafford women maintained the colony through wars, political upheaval and the ebb and flow of empires, established another medical clinic, social welfare programs, soup kitchen and school. Each year now the seventy-year-old Spafford Children’s Center, a pediatric clinic which we support, welcomes over 20,000 poor Palestinian mothers with their children. The staff includes both Palestinian and Israeli doctors. The colony continues to maintain an oasis of healing and reconciliation that began over one hundred years ago.

Why do I tell you all this? Because it truly did all begin with a song. In 1873, eight years before he thought to go to Jerusalem for a life of service, Horatio sent Anna off to England with their four young daughters for a well earned rest. She had been active in helping survivors of the Chicago fire. A busy attorney, Horatio remained behind, hoping to join her later. The ship on which mother and four girls sailed, sank in mid-Atlantic, and Anna sent to Chicago a cryptic two word telegram. “Saved – alone.” Stricken with grief, Horatio sat in the Brevoort House Hotel on Madison Street in downtown Chicago, deep in thought and prayer. And on hotel stationery he began to write these words,

“When peace like a river attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll, Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to know, It is well, it is well with my soul. And Lord haste the day, when the faith shall be sight – the clouds be rolled back as a scroll, the trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend. A song in the night, oh my soul!” And these words became the inspiration for the vision that took the Spaffords to the middle-east.

And there have been other songs that have made stories of faith live, that have led to service of our Lord. “And there were shepherds, keeping watch over their flock by night. And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and singing, “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth, good will to all.”