Singing: The Way to Heaven’s Door – A Chapter from “A Pilgrim Heart” (Mar-Apr 2007)

By Matt Dabbs

by Darryl Tippens,
Chapter 12 excerpted from Pilgrim Heart: The Way of Jesus in Everyday Life
March – April, 2007

Be filled with the spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody in your hearts. . . .
Ephesians 5:18-19

Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise.
— Martin Luther

In her highly original autobiography, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott tells the story of how she came to faith. In a period of despair, when she spent long, lonely days in a fog of alcohol, speed, and cocaine, spiraling towards destruction, something utterly unexpected occurred. During this dark time she visited a flea market in Marin City, California; and there she passed by a small, sad, ramshackle church from which she heard the most remarkable music. She called it “glorious noise.” At the time, Lamott was hostile to Christianity. She could not bear to hear a sermon, but the music drew her in, and she returned for more in the following weeks. The singing, she said, was furry and resonant, coming from everyone’s very heart. There was no sense of performance or judgment, only that the music was breath and food. Something inside me that was stiff and rotting would feel soft and tender. Somehow the singing wore down all the boundaries and distinctions that kept me so isolated. Sitting there, standing with them to sing, sometimes so shaky and sick that I felt like I might tip over, I felt bigger than myself, like I was being taken care of, tricked into coming back to life.1

One Sunday in April, 1984, Lamott attended the church again. She stayed for the sermon that day, which she found unimpressive, but the music was mesmerizing: The last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape. It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling— and it washed over me.2

According to Lamott, “it was the music that pulled me in and split me wide open.”3 That day she decided she would become a Christian.

It would be hard to find a story that more vividly illustrates the power of music to enthrall and move a person to action. Through the centuries, music has been a primary means of conversion and spiritual formation, and it is happening today in a surprising way.4 For most believers, music is not a frill or an ornament, not some illustration of a theological truth; much more, music is the good news in word and sound, the purest and most potent expression of God’s presence and transcendence, and the best way to engage our hearts and imaginations, our bodies and souls. If one studies the lives of great Christians through the centuries, the central place of church music becomes clear. Augustine of Hippo is a case in point. The young Augustine had an experience similar to Anne Lamott’s. The church in Milan, under the leadership of Ambrose, was famous as a center of fervent hymn singing, and the music played a major role in Augustine’s decision to become a disciple. Addressing God in his Confessions, the great theologian writes:

How I wept during your hymns and songs! I was deeply moved by the music of the sweet chants of your Church. The sounds flowed into my ears and the truth was distilled into my heart. This caused the feelings of devotion to overflow. Tears ran, and it was good for me to have that experience.5 What was true for Lamott and Augustine is true for many today. Anyone serious about spiritual formation will give considerable attention to sacred music–the music of congregational worship, the music of youth groups and youth gatherings, and the music that fills our homes and automobiles. Kathleen Norris observes that when she was a child she thought “singing was the purpose of religion.”6 If singing is not the purpose of religion, it is most certainly one of its principal supports.

THE BREATH OF GOD’S PRESENCE

People are influenced by music because it has the power to transport them into God’s presence. It can awaken them to dimensions beyond their ordinary experience and kindle in them a love for God’s majesty, power, and splendor. Though this can also happen in prayer, Scripture reading, or a sermon, for most people it happens in music. It leads us into sacred space, sacred time. According to George Herbert, England’s greatest devotional poet and an accomplished musician, church music is “the way to heaven’s door.”7 Contemporary composers, worship leaders, and theologians make similar points. “Worship thrives on wonder,” explains Matt Redman, who, with his wife Beth, authored the popular contemporary hymn “Blessed Be Your Name”:

We can admire, appreciate, and perhaps even adore someone without a sense of wonder. But we cannot worship without wonder. For worship to be worship, it must contain something of the otherness of God. . . . [God] is altogether glorious–unequalled in splendor and unrivalled in power. He is beyond the grasp of human reason–far above the reach of even the loftiest scientific mind. Inexhaustible, immeasurable and unfathomable–eternal, immortal and invisible.8

Music, more than any other aspect of worship, has the capacity to awaken us to this sense of God’s otherness.

Christian hymns invite us to delight in God’s presence, not merely think about him. Music awakens us to God’s matchless power, beauty, and transcendence – his sheer otherness. Music can simultaneously make us feel God’s grandeur and our smallness compared to him. This is why, whenever a worshiper approaches God – as seen in Isaiah 6:1-5 or throughout the Book of Revelation – the worshiper invariably resorts to symbolic language, image, and song to describe the uncanny experience. These are the “tools” of the worshiper to suggest the unsearchable, ineffable nature of God. “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Romans 11:33).

Without music we are left with talk. The trouble with talk is that it tends to position the speaker in a place of power. It puts one in charge, which can border on a dangerous conceit when it comes to reporting on the Almighty. A different, humbler posture of spirit emerges in worship and song. When we are singing, there is a sense that we are not in charge. The leading comes from the music – or it should. Anne Lamott’s experience illustrates how we may submit to the power of the song (and therefore to the Reality behind the music): “I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling – and it washed over me.” Music has this power to hold us, open us up, and bathe us. It happens to us. And when it is taken seriously – when it involves a whole-body immersion—it brings us to God. For those suspicious of emotion, music’s power to take us where the intellect cannot go is alarming, but Scriptural example should allay our fears. The very fact that the Bible contains hundreds of song texts, many highly emotional in nature, tells us something important. Consider Mary’s song of praise (Luke 1:46-55). It expresses more than doctrinal truths (though it does that). The song overflows in ecstasy as the Virgin realizes she is to bear the Christ child. If we do not feel Mary’s transport, if we do not sense the sheer surprise and wonder pulsating in her words of praise, then we are deaf to the glorious music in the text.

In similar fashion the great songs of the Old Testament (especially the Psalms) express strong emotion – exultant joy like Mary’s, but also deep sorrow, brittle anxiety, raw fear, and luminous hope. The whole range of human emotion is captured in the Psalms, and this is precisely why we need them in our communal and private worship. The Psalms permit us, indeed require us, to be fully human before our fellow worshipers and before God. They dissolve our pretensions to having it “all together.” They expose our “niceness” as the sham that it is. They demand truth from us–not just pretty thoughts in our heads, but the full conviction and the passion of our hearts. Surely, if all the Psalms (not just a few favorites) were restored to the worship of the church, we would be a more authentic and faithful community.9

Singing succeeds because–like other spiritual practices–it requires the full involvement of the whole person. There is no other act of worship that is so visceral. This is especially so of congregational singing, for every voice is fully required. Those who have been reared within an a cappella tradition may have trouble understanding its peculiar beauty and uniqueness. A few years ago I attended a service at the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia. The music, as is true of most Orthodox worship, was a cappella. Those voices, singing melodies and harmonies in a tongue strange to me, were exquisitely touching, rapturous in their purity. On another occasion a woman in a Catholic Church in Oregon describes an experience analogous to mine:

After the entire assembly had gone forward, received Holy Communion, and returned to their pew, a second communion song was sung a cappella. Having that happen at the time of Holy Communion when we had just received our Lord’s sacramental presence really just tied together what we had done, what we had moved to, what we were all experiencing, and what we were then singing.10

Singing has always been the church’s means to teach, inspire, and build community. On the night Jesus was betrayed, he sang hymns with his followers (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26). Doxologies, hymn fragments, and references to congregational singing run through Paul’s letters.11 The Apostle urges Christians to employ song to teach, praise God, encourage one another, and express thanks: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. . . . [S]ing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody in your hearts. . . . (Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 5:19)

Singing builds community like nothing else, as Don Saliers points out: In our present North American cultural context, the singing assemblies in our churches. . .are among the very few remaining places where words and music actually form human beings into a communal identity. . . . [W]hen people meet to worship, public singing still offers formation in a shared identity. This identity flows out of an ancient story that continues to take on new life, in words and tunes that speak today. It gives voice to individual people in praise, lament, and need, but it does not leave them isolated, surrounding them instead with a great choir.12

EMOTION, INSTRUCTION, ACTION

Music moves us in more ways than one. Not only does it stir our emotions; it can also prompt us to make life-altering decisions (as in the case of Augustine and Lamott). The force of hymns is often extraordinary because, when we sing, body, emotion, and intellect are mysteriously connected. Great Christian hymns are effective because they implant the truths of the faith in our hearts, not just in our heads. They rehearse the stories of Scripture. In word and sound we experience Gethsemane, the cross, and the resurrection. We remember our sinfulness, our need for redemption, our duty to our neighbor, and the promise of eternal life. In a time when people have a diminished capacity to absorb long sermons, hymns stand ready to offer important inspirational and didactic service to the church, as they have done for millennia. It’s worth noting that the first piece of written English (of which we have a record) is a hymn. English literary history began when, in the seventh century, an Anglo-Saxon songwriter named Caedman composed a hymn telling the story of creation, which was used to bring pagans to faith.

Given the power of song to shape belief and move people to action, we should pay close attention to content. That which we sing, we tend to believe.13 This can be a very good thing. In a theologically shallow environment, singing may redeem an otherwise impoverished service. As a youth I heard sermons that occasionally tended towards legalism or moralism, yet the service was full of songs like “Amazing Grace,” “A Wonderful Savior,” and “Love Lifted Me.” The sermon may have been ensnared in law, but the music was rich in grace. In the same way, sometimes I heard sermons that warned against the dangers of excessive religious fervor, but then the congregation would stand and fervently sing:

When each can feel his brother’s sigh,
And with him bear a part;
When sorrow flows from eye to eye,
And joy from heart to heart.

William Bradbury’s stirring music and Joseph Swain’s touching lyrics trumped the sermon of the day, for what we sing and feel in our hearts remains with us far longer than what we receive through passive listening.14 So it has always been, for hymns are “active theology.”15 According to Don E. Saliers, “the continuing worship of God in the assembly is a form of theology. In fact it is ‘primary theology.’ Worship. . . is a theological act.”16

Paul understood the capacity of hymns to impart core spiritual truths. When he wished to encourage Christians to live sacrificial lives, he didn’t limit his discourse to reasoned argument. Instead, he appealed to people’s memory of worship, citing a familiar hymn, the great “Carmen Christi” or Song of Christ (Philippians 2:5-11). On other occasions the great missionary-evangelist quoted poetry or hymns to illustrate his message and move his readers or listeners to act (Ephesians 5:14; 1 Timothy 3:16; Acts 17:28).

COMFORT AND COMMUNITY

Singing is vitally important to spirituality because it builds community. We have seen how Anne Lamott found consolation and community in the music. When the church in ancient Milan suffered persecution, Augustine reports that Ambrose’s hymns provided encouragement and hope to the oppressed believers. The fact is that when a congregation sings “Be Still My Soul,” “Listen to Our Hearts,” or “When Peace Like a River,” it is mysteriously consoled and nourished in the same way spirituals comforted oppressed African-Americans in the days of slavery. James Baldwin expresses the power of gospel music in an old-fashioned revival:

As the singing filled the air the watching, listening faces underwent a change, the eyes focusing on something within; the music seemed to soothe a poison out of them; and time seemed nearly to fall away from the sullen, belligerent, battered faces, as though they were fleeing back to their first condition, while dreaming of their last.17

Sacred song tells our story and, somehow, makes it all right. In the music we recite “the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph. . . .”18

Music is vital to faith because it is a primary aid to memory. Hearing a song from our childhood can instantly catapult us to a precise location and moment – when we were singing in church, on a mission trip, on a retreat, or in the school choir. This mnemonic power is all to the good because spirituality presupposes, indeed demands, vivid recollection.

Of course, music’s power is not limited to church settings. In one of the lowest moments of my life, I recall how the music from a particular movie deeply ministered to my broken spirit. The 1986 film The Mission contains some of the most memorable music in film history. Ennio Morricone’s score greatly amplifies the story of eighteenth-century missionaries to the Guarani Indians of South America. Through panpipes, drums, unusual rhythms, and hymn-like chanting, Morricone conveys a story of sin, suffering love, tragic sacrifice, and redemption. During a time of particular stress I recall listening to this score over and over, sensing the undercurrents of pain, pathos, and devotion in the melodies. I drew strength and courage from this music, as it seemed to invite me to be strong, hold on, and be faithful. From Morricone I could see that even “secular” music can serve a spiritual purpose. I have friends who report the same power in classical, jazz or contemporary Christian music. All sorts of music can minister to us in all sorts of ways.

PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS:
HUMILITY AND FLEXIBILITY

Precisely because music is so important, we should not be surprised that anxiety is often aroused when a congregation contemplates changes in its worship. As we sort through the changes, everyone concerned needs an extra measure of patience and humility. The array of styles of church music is vast, yet most of us have been exposed to only a very limited spectrum. Thousands of hymns have been written over the last two thousand years, and only a few of these are known to us. If we turn to the Bible for guidance, we find that it never prescribes musical styles or particular hymns. Styles change, and no single era has an exclusive claim on musical excellence.

Every age has its forgettable tunes and inadequate lyrics as well as its masterpieces, but even the mediocre ones may be vehicles of faith for some.

It is worth remembering that “[t]he meaning of music resides in people, not in sounds.”19 So, one’s personal judgment of a song’s worth may be quite off the mark. I recall traveling for a week through Israel, hearing Middle Eastern music emanating from automobiles, restaurants, and homes as we drove through Arabic, Jewish and Druze neighborhoods. Was the music good or bad? I simply had no context to judge. Given everyone’s limited experience of music, and given the extraordinary breadth of music available today–classical and contemporary, local and international, European and Eastern, Catholic and Protestant, mainstream and charismatic renewal–being slow to judge the worth of an unfamiliar musical form is the charitable way.

Should we try to raise the general quality of music in worship? Yes, certainly. Excellence in music, as in all things, is a desirable goal. If music is as remotely important in spiritual formation as I am claiming, then training excellent music leaders makes sense. Perhaps the day is not far off when congregations will devote as much attention to worship music as they do to the preaching or youth programs. How much better would our worship be if we asked a few basic questions like these:

    1. Are the people taught? (Are the music texts theologically true? Is the language comprehensible and meaningful?)

 

  • Are the people inspired? (Does the music engage the emotions?)

 

 

  • Do the people receive balance? (Is dignity balanced by exuberance? Is joy coupled with reverence?)

 

 

  • the people joined in a sense of community? (Does the music encourage participation by the full assembly?)

 

 

  • Is there a sense of awe? (Would a visitor exclaim, based upon the conduct of the service, “God is really among you”? 1 Corinthians 14:25)

 

Even if we don’t achieve all these goals, even if our services lack something (as they will), spiritual formation in worship is possible, if the worship is practiced with sincerity and grounded in Scripture. Sophistication is not the goal. Passionate engagement is.

“THE WILD, HEROIC RIDE TO HEAVEN”

It is possible that the quest for the ideal hymn perfectly performed could obscure the goal of meeting God in worship. George Ives was a church musician and the father of the great American composer Charles Ives. The father taught his son to respect the power of vernacular music. Concerning a stone-mason who sang irritatingly off key, the father instructed Charles:

Watch him closely and reverently, look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don’t pay too much attention to the sounds–for if you do, you may miss the music. You won’t get a wild, heroic ride to heaven on pretty little sounds.20

George Ives’s counsel is, perhaps unintentionally, a fine commentary on Ephesians 5:19. The singing that pleases God is the melody in the heart, not the tune on one’s lips.

In the so-called “worship wars” too many people, trapped in futile debates about the “pretty little sounds,” have sadly missed “the wild, heroic ride to heaven.” If we would be but more patient and flexible, recognizing that our singing is our gift to God (and therefore not primarily about our tastes or what we like), then it would matter less whether the song selection matches our personal preferences. Christian music is first and foremost a simultaneous offering of our voices to God, a receiving of God’s word to us, and a statement of our faith proffered to the world. If we must err in one direction, a missional attitude is prudent. In the spirit of Luther we should advocate music that wins the hearts of the young and the untaught. Robert Wuthnow has noted that when children are exposed to religious music, they are more likely to take religion and spirituality seriously when they become adults.21 This being so, we should remember the youthful Augustine’s and the troubled Anne Lamott’s lingering in our doorways, waiting to be touched by the good news of God.

MUSIC, “QUEEN OF THE SENSES”

Music may well be the most overlooked of all the spiritual practices. As I reflect upon my own spiritual journey, I realize that music has been teacher, encourager, and friend. I vividly recall the day in high school when I decided that I wanted to attend a Christian college, a decision that forever changed the direction of my life. That same day a college choir was performing in a church not far from where I lived, and a group from my church attended the evening services and the concert that followed. As the choir strode solemnly into the sanctuary, singing a hauntingly beautiful hymn, my heart melted. The music “dissolve[d] me into ecstasies” and brought “all Heav’n before mine eyes,” as Milton expressed it.22 Though I can’t recall the specific hymns sung that evening, the effect of that music remains with me to this day. I am no great singer, but that doesn’t matter. I knew that evening that I wanted to be in a place where such music is possible. Words of faith set to music convert us, encourage us, console us, sustain us, and take us to heaven’s door. There would be little discipleship or spiritual formation without songs, hymns, and spiritual songs. New Wineskins

1 Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Pantheon, 1999): 48.
2 Lamott 50.
3 Lamott 47.
4 Robert Wuthnow shows that the arts, music in particular, are at the center of a revival of American Christianity. See All in Sync: How Music and Art Are Revitalizing merican Religion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
5 Augustine, Confessions, trans. henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992): 164 (IX.vi.14).
6 Kathleen Norris, Cloister Walk (New York, Riverhead Books): 90.
7 His poem “Church Music” contains these lines: “Sweetest of sweets, I thank you: when displeasure / Did through my body wound my mind, / You took me thence, and in your house of pleasure / A dainty lodging me assigned …. But if I travel in your company, You know the way to heaven’s door.” Louis Martz, ed., George Herbert and Henry Vaughan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986): 56-57.
8 Matt Redman, Facedown (Ventura, CA: Regal / Gospel Light, 2004): 23-24.
9 Dietrich Bonhoeffer once exposed the false piety of Christians who are uncomfortable with the passionate nature of the Psalter, “in so doing they want to be even more spiritual than God is ….” Life Together; Prayerbook of the Bible, eds. Gerhard Muller and Albrecht Schoenherr, trans. Daniel W. Bloesch and James H. Burtness (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996): 168.
10 Wuthnow 179.
11 Don E. Saliers, “Singing Our Lives,” in Practicing Our Faith, ed Dorothy C. Bass (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997): 183.
12 Saliers, “Singing Our Lives” 192.
13 “[P]erhaps our prayer (worship) determines our belief (theology) more than our belief (theology) determines our prayer (worship).” C. Randall Bradley, “Congregational Song as Shaper of Theology: A Contemporary Assessment” Review and Expositor 100 (Summer 2003): 357.
14 According to Wuthnow’s survey, 61% of the public says that listening to music has been important “in helping them grow spiritually and to develop a closer relationship with God” (69).
15 Bradley 357.
16 Saliers, Worship as Theology: Foretaste of Glory Divine (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994): 15.
17 James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues,” Classics of Modern Fiction: Twelve Short Novels, ed. Irving Howe, 4th ed. (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986): 634.
18 Baldwin 642.
19 J. Nathan Corbitt quoted in Bradley 365.
20 Jan Swafford, Charles Ives: A Life in Music (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996): 88.
21 Wuthnow 70-71.
22 Milton, “Il Penseroso,” lines 163-166.

tippensDarryl Tippens is provost of Pepperdine University and a department editor of New Wineskins. He works with the deans of Pepperdine’s five schools on all issues related to the effective planning and management of the university’s academic resources. In addition, he is directly responsible for the University’s Disability Services Office and the office of the University Chaplain. E-mail him at [darryl.tippens@pepperdine.edu].

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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