You may have noticed that now that the days are getting warmer, the birds are back in the mornings. And I’m not talking about one or two lonely birds with thin, warbly voices, braving the cold to offer their thin, pure melodies. I’m talked about rich and riotous songs of all kinds—cardinals and robins and who-knows-what (actually I wish I knew them all), all mixed together, layer over layer of beautiful, free, rippling joy, singing up the sun. I tried one morning to count the number of birds I heard singing when I took Gloria and Olive outside first thing, and found it was impossible. The cold morning air was just full of birdsong, everywhere, near and far, overlapping and underscoring and echoing one another, far too many to count.
One evening this week, driving home from my son’s house, I had the window down just a little and as I drove past a marshy area, I heard peepers! Already! Once you’ve heard peepers, you know the sound forever—tiny chirps, en masse—as the miniature frogs call in the start of spring. And they are built for the job too; their bodies can withstand subzero temperatures and they don’t even mind if part of their internal fluids freeze a bit. They’ve got a song to sing and a job to do, and they tend to live in communities of hundreds—that’s why you never hear a lone peeper—together they create the chorus of celebration the start of spring requires.
On St. Patrick’s Day, I was starting my drive in to the hospital and turned on the radio in the early dark and the first song I heard was the perfect one: Danny Boy, arranged by Percy Grainger, a 20th century Australian composer who is known for lush, melodies that touch your heart. He also sometimes uses funny and unexpected instruments like the theremin, which gives of an almost eerie, otherworldly sound, and penny whistles and banjos in symphonies and folk music.
Some people, some animals, some beings simply have musical souls; and music just has to pour out of them, come what may. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that they are more in tune with the musical souls we all share, deep down, but they have learned how to let it out and share the joy and feel free.
Later that day, I heard a beautiful piece called Sonata in B Flat Minor for the piano and marimba, by Georg Philipp Telemann, a German composer who lived about the time of George Fox and wrote very metered and precise music in the Baroque style. When I heard the beautiful marimba part, I thought, Ooh! I want to do that!
And as luck would have it, I actually have my very own well-worn marimba, retired from my son’s middle school band department a few years ago. She has seen better days, of course, and still has the note names written on pieces of masking tape on her wooden keys, but she is perfect for me as I learn. My plan, after hearing that heart-lifting piece on the radio, was to find the sheet music and learn both parts—the marimba and piano—and then do a duet with myself by recording one part and playing the other. I wasn’t able to find that particular piece of music, but I did find another piece by the same composer and almost every night since, instead of watching television, I’ve been taking turns play first the marimba and then the piano, learning the parts so I can put them together. It’s not performance ready yet, but we’re getting there.
There is something about music that calms our minds and lifts our spirits, bringing us up into a place where it is possible once again to feel joy, to offer praise, to feel contentment. This might happen a dozen times a day when we switch from worrying about something to singing along with the radio, or whistling a tune, or suddenly becoming aware of birdsong around us. Our spirits get a boost. I see this over and over in hospice—patients who are all too aware of their physical symptoms and shortening time—feel relaxed and happy and at peace when we sing or listen to music or even talk about their favorite hymns.
Think of how comforting it is to hear or sing O Love That Will Not Let Me Go or these words from our beloved In the Garden:
I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses;
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear, the Son of God discloses.
And he walks with me and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own,
And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.
You probably have your own favorite hymns. I know I do. When we get a chance to sing a hymn that is special to us, it is special to us for a reason. It touches something deep in our heart. It says something true. It reminds us of God’s great love and faithfulness. It calms our fears. It restores our souls and strengthens our faith. That hymn, that music helps us get back in sync with God and we remember who we are, deeply, at the center of our souls.
Our Old Testament reading today is from Genesis and it is a passage we know well. It’s the moment when God brought us on the scene in the Garden of Eden:
26Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” 27So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
Male and female he created us in God’s own image, in God’s own likeness—living and breathing and loving and creating. In those two verses, the word create is used four times, and the word make once. That’s no accident. We refer to God as our Creator, and all we have to do is look around to see how infinitely creative God is. All the life forms, all the intelligence, the way everything in the natural world works seamlessly together, interdependent, system upon system upon system. Mankind seems to be the only species that can’t quite play nice with others—that’s part of what we’re learning as a world right now. And we are made in God’s image and likeness, which means we are creators too—it is an important part of our deepest and most original skill set.
And so what do we create with this raw and seemingly limitless ability to create? If our early experiences in life—parents, teachers, friends, and more—told us we were creative people, it’s likely we grew up in touch with our ability to create and hopefully we held on to that creativity—and maybe nurtured it—as we got older. But it’s also possible that we were discouraged from being creative, told it “wouldn’t earn a living,” and that nobody drew purple trees and blue dogs. Well-meaning educators—especially a couple of decades ago—often discouraged the fanciful in favor of the real. But without a little encouragement, a little space, a little creative freedom, kids forget how to dream…and adults struggle to remember.
But music can bring it all back. Chances are we sang as a kid and it feels good to sing now, even if we think we sing badly and we don’t want anyone else to hear. It feels good to sing. It praises God when we sing—whether we hit the notes or not. Life is vibration—all life vibrates—and what is music but vibrational waves moving through the air to your ear? What is color—the color of this beautiful spring world—except vibrations of light reflecting through space to your eye?
Everything in our body vibrates in our own unique and harmonious rhythm—our hearts beat, our lungs expand and contract, the blood courses through our veins, our eyes blink. When we walk it is with a rhythmic gate, first one side, then the other, step by step. But when we speak, our speech emerges at a higher vibration than any of the rest of the things our body is doing—and when we sing, when we sing, I’m sure we make God smile.
Early Friends were dedicated to silent worship throughout, waiting only for Spirit to speak and then rising to one’s feet and offering vocal ministry only when prompted from a leading within. This meant no singing in Quaker meetings, first and foremost because Friends wanted every word they uttered—sung or otherwise—to be true, and if we are singing words someone else wrote we run the risk of simply singing for its own sake, not expressing the truth arising within us. Friends also didn’t want anything they thought frivolous to distract them from listening to and worshipping God.
And as you know, we Quakers went through a time of austerity and rigidity in the late 19th and early 20th century in this country. Our singularly focused practice of faith—the old traditional silent Quaker way—was caught up in an energy of perfectionism and judgment that was most likely an intention to be devout and hold firm to the truth Friends had discovered. But the outward effects of such rigidity—which included disciplinary measures like families being tossed out of membership if they didn’t live up to the expectations of the meeting—hurt and divided people and created in groups and out groups, which eventually led to painful splits in our tradition. After the split, some groups held to the traditional practices and others began to include hymns and community singing. The hymn, “How Can I Keep from Singing?” by Robert Lowry was an early favorite:
My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the sweet, tho’ far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;
Thro’ all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?
If you’ve ever been with a bunch of Quakers on retreat or at yearly meeting, you know what a soulful treat it is to hear—and participate in—Friends’ singing. The simplicity, the harmony, the whole-heartedness of Friends singing together is truly medicine for the heart. You feel the richness of the song spread all through you. Many years ago my granddaughter Ruby and I went to the old Sugar Grove Meetinghouse on Easter morning. We left home well before first light, something like 5:30am. As we gathered for the sunrise service, the old historic meetinghouse was full. The wood floors creaked; the space was filled with a rich quiet. And then Quakers began to sing. Their voices in harmony filled that old wood meetinghouse like it was itself the body of an instrument, and we all felt the overflowing joy of present Spirit.
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he suggests that we create something meaningful that draws us closer to God and closer to each other when we sing. He says to
speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Maybe like the exuberant birds in the early morning and the choir of peepers in the cold marshy water, we too have a part in this great, ongoing soundtrack of life. Whether we sing with our voices or play on an instrument or dance our bodies around the room, we have the means to share our unique expression with God, offering praise, a hymn, a song from the Spirit, simply thankful for this life, this day, this spring, this moment.
It reconnects our minds and hearts with the truth presented in one of my favorite hymns:
There’s the wonder of sunset at evening, the wonder of sunrise I see;
But the wonder of wonders that thrills my soul, is the wonder that God loves me.
There’s the wonder of springtime and harvest, the sky, the stars, the sun;
But the wonder of wonders that thrills my soul is a wonder that’s only begun.
When we express our thanks in a soul-felt and joyful way—however we choose to do it–we are simply returning to God what God has already shared with us. As his children, made in his image and likeness, we use God’s own gift of creativity to share the simple and profound joy of life with the One who knows it best.
Try it and see. And feel your spirit soar.
- OT Genesis 1: 26-27
- NT Ephesians 5: 19-20