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.
Once I conducted an Arab-Italian wedding at my church in New York. We had a few Moslem prayers, a few Catholic prayers, and I was the liturgical midpoint. There were three flower girls in velvet. The father of the bride was more than a little tipsy when he got to the service. After things had gone on for a while and he figured out we were almost done with the service, he stood up and demanded, "Where the hell is the Ave Maria?" At this point, the organist went right into it with great strength of song in her voice and in the organ. Everyone cried. We had a wedding. We had the emotional meltdown we had come for. People took their rest in the middle of the great anxiety that is "wedding" in America. The music allowed it to happen.
Theologian Harvey Cox tells a painful story of being forbidden to play his saxophone in church as a child. The exclusion of his music meant that he was excluded--not from church but also from God. Many others could tell the same story of the church, as guardian of the Sabbath, keeping them out. When that happens, people are damaged severely. They think there is no sacred time for them. They think that God is not for them, but for other people with other kinds of music.
We can keep Sabbath with music by loving the music we have. We can sing our songs and play them on whatever instrument we have. I will never forget my grandmother playing her hymns after dinner when she was genuinely relaxed. She was with God in these moments. Sometimes now when I sneak glimpses of my daughter dancing to her music alone in her bedroom, when she has forgotten to close her door, I realize her ecstasy. Her music takes her there. A great Tao saying observes, "All the fish needs to do is get lost in the water; all man needs to do is to get lost in the Tao." I would not be surprised to find out that the Tao is music.
In Meditations on a D Major Scale, musician Bertha May Nicholson speaks of how much she loves good music and how much she hates bad music. She goes on to say, however, that the more deeply she understands good music, the more capable she is of seeing inferior music as useful. It opens her up to the beat in people. Good music comes from "just music," after all. Luciano Pavarotti did not start out magnificent; he became magnificent. We do not need to be any more skilled than the child with the thumb to use music to keep Sabbath. One of the points of music is its populism. Anyone can keep the beat anywhere, anytime. There are no experts. You can hum badly and keep just as good a Sabbath as Pavarotti does.
When people fuss over liturgy or prayers or hymnody, they are really talking about keeping a more beautiful Sabbath. It was St. Paul who reminded us that when we were children, we hummed and thought and spoke like children, but when we became adults we put away childish things. Keeping time for the Sabbath becomes increasingly sophisticated because we want to keep it better and better, so delighted are we that God's time is so rich in and through us. We may fuss. WE may get our prayers and our notes just right. Only when we become self-righteous in defense of our excellence do we err from God and the Sabbath. When we fuss over music for the sake of Sabbath rest, we have no problem; when it is a way to avoid the peace of God, we do. Then we have simply rationalized our distance from God.
A colleague of the missionary physician and music scholar Albert Schweitzer tells the story of being near the African equator and hearing a Bach toccata wafting down the Ogowe River at dawn. It was eighty-six-year-old Albert Schweitzer practicing on his zinc-clad pedal piano with the intensity of someone who was rehearsing for a gala recital in the jungle scheduled for that afternoon. The man went to work for Schweitzer in the jungle, so moved was he by Schweitzer's music. Music makes some go to war, it makes some melt down, it makes many cry. For me, music keeps Sabbath. It carries me, it lets me rest.
In Underground Harmonies Susie Tannenbaum writes of music in the subways of New York, where we have "the ultimate New York City paradox, in the dingiest of spaces, a paradigm of beauty." We can keep Sabbath on Sundays at the cathedral at Chartres, with the best organ, the best tradition, and the most humble priests. We can also keep Sabbath if we are stuck in the Los Angeles airport and everyone has left but the custodian, who is humming, "I'm in the autumn of my days." We can keep Sabbath in the jungle and we can deep it in Jerusalem.
If the spirit does not always move us, sometimes a simple piety, like the doxology before dinner or a chant at dawn, can keep us regularly focused on the power of God in music. Gregorian chant is the music that brings me home on late nights from faraway meetings. The more we sing anything, the more deeply it carries us to God and God to us.Deciding what song will be sung at our own funeral is a good way to prepare us to die. I insist on "My Lord, What a Morning." It helps me to know that such a promise will accompany my transfer to the other side.
One day I want to be a subway sax player, or a cellist at the Louvre in Paris. I will join that little boy who knew how to put himself to sleep. I will put myself on permanent rest. I will keep Sabbath in this life and the next.
and adoration leaves no room for pride,
It is as though the whole creation cried
How often, making music, we have found
A new dimension in the world of sound,
As worship moved us to a more profound
Let every instrument be tuned for praise!
Let all rejoice who have a voice to raise!
And may God give us faith to sing always