Sunday, May 4, 2014

A personal perspective on Christian devotional music

My friend Julien, who has interfaith and ecumenical connections in our city, invited me to participate in a local conference put on by the Edmonton Committee of the Parliament of the World's Religions. I was offered ten minutes or so to speak about Christian Devotional music at a session on "The Importance of Music in Different Faith Traditions," along with people of Muslim, Hindu and Jewish faith traditions. It was an interesting interfaith experience of musical prayer. Each presenter either sang or played some music from their faith tradition, live or recorded -- and it underlined the value of song in all of humanity's interaction with God -- no matter our faith, music helps us to express ourselves when spoken word somehow falls short.

How does one do any sort of justice to the breadth of Christian music in ten minutes? I didn't even try, but rather shared my own appreciation for music by presenting a few bits of song that I love. I thought I'd share the text of my presentation, with a few pieces of music interspersed thanks to YouTube, for today's reflection. Thanks again to Denise and Dad for helping to lead the group in singing... and to Julien for giving me the opportunity.

A perspective on Christian music

I'd like to begin by speaking about Christian devotional music in my own life. Music has always held a particularly strong pull for me in the celebration of my faith in God. I find that devotional music speaks to and for my soul in ways that spoken prayer can’t. Fortunately, I grew up during the time when the Roman Catholic Church began switching from hymns based on Latin Gregorian chant, the maestros of classical music and ancient folk melodies to music with a more folksy, contemporary feel. As a little kid, I always got excited when someone played guitar instead of the organ because somehow, guitar music was less intimidating. But that doesn’t mean that those Gregorian- or classical music-based hymns don’t move me. Let’s try one verse of a song with  the melody of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, just to warm up our voices.

Songs of praise and thanksgiving to God are among my favourites. Marty Haugen's The Canticle of the Sun is a contemporary, lively, and joyful song that uses an adaptation of a prayer by St. Francis of Assisi, and I’ve already decided that I want it sung at my funeral, especially because of the final verse, which says:

Praise to our death that makes our life real,
The knowledge of loss that helps us to feel
The gift of yourself, your presence revealed,
To bring us home.

Much of the music that has been important to my faith life is based on scripture, which I believe is one way that God communicates to me how I am loved, and how I am expected to love. I also really enjoy songs that help me to express my love for God.

I suppose there might be as many different things that draw people to Christian music as there are people. As a music minister, I’ve worked with people who choose music based on the poetry or message of the lyrics, or the feel of a hymn, or its melody or rhythm. But the biggest draw in my books is the sense of community that comes with singing to God with others. I'm not one who wants to sit and listen to a soloist -- I like it when people can participate, and if people enjoy singing a song to God together, that’s reason enough to sing it! I love it when we can raise the roof with an uplifting tune... but I also enjoy quiet and reflective songs. So it was hard to choose only a few songs to share with you.

I've decided to focus on the music of a place known as Taizé, in France. It is a village where an ecumenical group of monks welcome young people all year round to sing and pray together three times a day, no matter what they believe. Youth come by the droves to spend a week in the middle of nowhere, sleeping in tents and living in community with the brothers. We’d like to introduce you to one of the chants used at Taizé. 

Bless the Lord, my soul, and bless God's holy name.
Bless the Lord, my soul, who leads me into life.

For the last twenty–some years, on and off, I’ve participated in and led Taizé prayer gatherings here in Edmonton, simply because I find it to be my favourite way to connect people – and myself – with God. Merv, Denise and I, along with others, will lead a prayer this coming Sunday evening (tonight) at St. David’s Anglican Church (7751 85th Street). I find that the repetition of the prayerful and musical phrases open a room in my heart where I know that God is; a door that often is forgotten in the bustle of my daily life... but the beauty of Taizé chant helps me to center my awareness on God.  Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase, “To sing is to pray twice.” Chant is my favourite prayer.

In terms of how music helps us to experience the glory and ecstasy of knowing God, or how it soothes our pain and sorrow, I could tell a dozen stories, but I’ll keep it to just two stories with a single piece of music. The first time I heard the chant we’ll sing in a few moments, I was at a Catholic-Lutheran student conference in Ontario, and the sound of many  harmonious voices and many instruments raising the song together gave me the goosebumps, and an absolute sense that God’s Spirit was among us. It was glorious and very uplifting.

The second time that song spoke to me of God’s presence was with the coming of my second daughter. Halfway through the pregnancy, during a routine ultrasound, a tumour was discovered on my baby. It was a very difficult time – I was scared, and sad, and eventually, angry – how could God allow such a thing to happen to an innocent baby? But to calm myself and soothe my child, I began to sing this same Taizé chant whenever I felt her move, trying to trust that God was taking care of us. Just after she was born, she had a surgery to remove the tumour, and we spent a few days in the neonatal intensive care at the University of Alberta Hospital. I rocked her in the rocking chair for hours, humming the melody, and that’s how a Taizé song of praise became her lullaby. Whenever I hear it now, it takes me back to a time when I am sure God was our consolation and strength, and still is:

Sing praises, all you peoples, sing praises to the Lord.
Sing praises, all you peoples, sing praises to the Lord.

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