Church Music--The Way to Heaven's Door

This past Sunday, First Baptist Church of Asheville had a service of dedication for our new hymnals, a significant event for us, because it reaffirmed the centrality of God-focused, joyful and reverent worship for our community of faith. Our music ministry led us to sing "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" in a service filled with praise, prayer, energy, and passion. What follows are remarks I made as a part of that service:

Annie Dillard once said that “The Creator loves pizzazz!” Church music is praise and prayer, gratitude and longing, with pizzazz, which is why our pizzazz-loving God is also a music lover.

After all, music rises up from God’s majestic and wonderful creation. “This is my Father’s world/ And to my listening ears/All nature sings and round me rings/the music of the spheres.” Biologist Lewis Thomas heard the music of the earth and its creatures:
Termites make percussive sounds. . . “like notes of a tympani section. . . .Fish make sounds by clicking their teeth, blowing air, and drumming with special muscles against tuned inflated air bladders. The thrush in my backyard sings down his nose in meditative, liquid runs of melody, over and over again, and I have the strangest impression that he does this. . . for pleasure. Some of the time he seems to be practicing like a virtuoso in his apartment. . . It is a meditative kind of music, and I cannot believe that he is simply saying, “thrush here.”
Nature is pulsing with pizzazz and alive with song, ceaselessly thrilling with joy and clamoring in need. You and I, though, get out of rhythm, fall into disharmony, and lose our voices. Guilt or grief silences the music. Hurry and noise drown it out. Fear and worry leave no energy for poetry and pipe organ, searching words and soaring tunes.

In worship, though, we turn our attention from ourselves to God, open our souls as we open our hymnals, and lift our hearts as we lift our voices. In worship, offered to God, music becomes a means of miracle: Anthems announce the birth of joy in the place of sorrow. Doxology declares that God rules the world with truth and grace. Hymns herald the new creation, bursting to life amid the waste and ruins of a groaning, grieving earth. Songs slip past the sealed tomb of our despair and raises hope from the dead. Worship restores our pizzazz, and, while I am not sure exactly sure what it takes to brew up a batch of pizzazz, I know that two of its crucial ingredients are God’s Spirit and our music.

How impoverished would our sense of God’s grandeur be without “The Hallelujah Chorus? How much harder would it be to believe the Easter good news without “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”? Imagine a candlelit Christmas Eve without the wonder and peace of “Silent Night, Holy Night.” What merely spoken words of assurance could we substitute for “O Love that Wilt Not Let Me Go” What sermon could carry us through grief like “O God our Help in Ages Past”? How much grace would go unfelt, unknown, without “Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound”?

God’s Spirit and our music spark pizzazz, and that pizzazz takes us where words alone cannot take us. Like all things human, words fall short of the glory of God which shines from the face of Jesus Christ. Words fashioned into poetry and carried along by music get us closer to that divine radiance. Music wings our thoughts and feelings and sets them soaring to heights words alone could never reach. It takes us to depths that mere ideas and bare facts cannot plumb.

In his poem addressed to “Church Musick,” George Herbert said, “if I travel in your companie/You know the way to heaven’s door.” I don’t always know the way, can’t always see the next step, or, if I see it, I don’t always have the will and the strength to take it. The Spirit of our music knows the way. Hymns take us to bright joy and blazing beauty. Songs accompany us to shining wonder and shimmering hope. They take us home; they takes us to God. How can we, why would we, keep from singing?