I sat on a bus one afternoon and watched a child hum himself to sleep. His rhythm was impeccable. He was tired and taking a little rest, using his "hum" as a bridge from wakefulness to sleep. He was keeping a child's Sabbath.
More than one person uses music to keep the Sabbath's heartbeat alive. In fact, if you think you cannot keep Sabbath, or do not know how, just think of how you immerse yourself in music. Follow that path and you will not need to find Sabbath. The Sabbath will find you.
I was raised on music and the name of my music was Bach. The hymns of my youth in a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church still come back to me if I have a long line to stand in or a big painting job or a long car trip. I am astonished at how many hymns I can sing, all three verses. The same is true of rock-and-roll--start any of the fifties or sixties ditties and I can probably sing the whole thing for you. These hymns and songs are a bridge from the ordinary to the extraordinary. They turn regular times into special time by keeping time, by keeping the beat.
Many of us think we are not religious, but that is not the case. Rather, we are pre-religious. We hum or sing and forget about ourselves for a while. We find the path to God. When we become aware that we are making space for God in our space, and time for God in our time, we are keeping the beat. We are keeping Sabbath. We have become (sneakily) religious.
For me, the best time for keeping Sabbath with music is in the car, when I am alone and no one can hear my singing. My tape deck and local public radio station are my best friends. The music loosens up the knots. It smoothes me out. If I am not piping in music, I am putting it out. I can always tell if I am in a good mood: I am humming. When I am in these moods, I join all those who are making space for God in their space, making time for God's time in their time. These strategies are like Russian dolls: one fits inside the other, which in turn fits inside another, just as God's time is the core and the container of our time.
Music gives us a sense that we are in touch with the deeper parts of our lives. It solves our double bind of needing to rest and needing to work at the same time--sometimes we can do both. Even if we cannot solve the bind by both working and resting at the same time, music can dissolve the conflict and tension we experience. Music lets us see how nested and held and contained we are; it shows us how our lives connect with other people's lives. Music resembles Sabbath in the way that it separates from regular time: it brings us to time set aside for God.
One pundit says it this way: "If a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation. I would rather control a people's ballads than their politics." That is certainly true. The ballads contain the politics in a way that the politics could never contain the ballads. The ballads become a container, a bowl, for the work and the tension.
Watch how many people swarm to sing-alongs of the "Messiah" at Christmas time. Even my Jewish husband has his own score, which he brings to as many churches as he can in December. Imagine the revitalizing of our churches if we could get these same people who lust for choral music to sing in our choirs. Music lifts us above the pedestrian, during the big holidays or on the smallest days. I think more people worship in church for the sake of the music than for anything else. Even when the sermons miss their point, we can find God in the singing. Cultures change slowly but they change most dramatically with regard to music. People will put up with liturgical innovation, even with bad preaching, but they do not like their music to change unless they have a part in the changing of it.
People find music precious. When they cannot rest any other way, when they cannot find God any other way, they can find God through music. Thus the odd conservatism about changes in hymnody: people are desperate for rest and for God. They do not want anyone taking away their last, best hope. We have lost so much else that transports us to God that, by God, we do not want anyone interfering with our music.
We do not have to be so afraid. God can come to us in a Bach concerto, an Ella Fitzgerald croon, or a Leadbelly jig. God can use all kinds of music, including sacred music, to put us in the mind of eternity. Often people who are angry about changes in traditional church music are actually angry about something else. Sabbath is booking a trip to eternity, and they fear they will lose their ticket. So the more diverse our worshiping communities become, the harder it is for people to find their tickets. The more despondent they become about music, the further out of reach God (or faith in God, or church) seems. Ask any teenager: they cannot worship God through other people's music. They need to worship God through their own--and they will, and do, in churches or outside of them. Teenagers are not just buying CDs; they are also buying tickets to eternity.