Decanting the Divine

According to scientists in Sweden, when we sing together, our voices aren’t the only thing that harmonize. Apparently, our heart rates do, too.

According to their research, “as the members sang in unison, their pulses began to speed up and slow down at the same rate.” The reason for this is fairly obvious. Directors will indicate where choir members should breathe as well as how quickly and loudly we should be, and when we do these things in unison, our hearts begin beating at relatively similar rates.

But that’s not the most interesting part.

They also found that “the more structured the work [is], the more the singers’ heart rates increased or decreased together. Slow chants, for example, produced the most synchrony. The researchers also found that choral singing had the overall effect of slowing the heart rate.”

I’ve been a musician (both instrumental and vocal) for a large portion of my life, and I can tell you that I’ve experienced this phenomenon first hand. When everyone is locked in on the conductor, fully focused on making a performance as perfect as it can be, and attentive to details like diction, phrasing, and dynamics, the feeling borders on rapturous.

I feel connected to something larger than myself both physically and emotionally in these moments. I’ve often told people that it’s like catching a wave. As the music develops, it carries me with it from crest to trough as the measures roll blissfully past. There are some pieces I’ve sung (especially in churches built with good natural acoustics) where the last note hangs in the air like a poignant memory. And as we listen to it fade away, I can look around and tell my fellow performers experienced the same thing I did. It’s all silent smiles and faces blushed and beaming. For the briefest of moments, we are transported somewhere else, and I can’t help but think that it’s something approaching heaven.

Image from gracechurchnc.com
Image from gracechurchnc.com

Something similar to it happens in 2 Kings 3, king of Israel, Jehoshaphat, and the king of Edom all approach the prophet Elisha to inquire of the Lord. He tells them, “As the Lord of hosts lives, before whom I stand, surely were it not that I regard the presence of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, I would not look at you, nor see you. But now bring me a musician.” The next verse has long fascinated me. It reads, “Then it happened, when the musician played, that the hand of the Lord came upon him.” By listening to music, he is connected to the divine and is given a prophesy by almighty God Himself.

When we worship God with music, I believe we open ourselves up the same way Elisha did. When we are focused on giving Him the praise that is His due, I think we receive something as well, something we define as a “synchrony” though the term hardly does the sensation justice. I believe we are decanting something of the divine, and the joy we feel is just a heady taste of what awaits us in glory.

In Ezekiel 11:19-20, God speaks through His prophet who says, “Then I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within them, and take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statutes and keep My judgments and do them; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God.” As Christians, we have been granted a “heart of flesh” that is sensitive to the still, small voice God uses when He speaks to His children. And worship is one way we can feel the beating of that “one heart,” the one perfectly aligned with His will, and know without doubt who He is and who we are in Him.

In case you’re in the mood to hear something beautiful, I leave you with one of my all-time favorite groups, the Soweto Gospel Choir, singing “Hosanna.”

What do you think about music? Is it something larger than us, something that gives us meaning….or are you of the mind that we give meaning to it? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

A Weary Pilgrim Headed for the Hollow Square

In Zora Neale Hurtston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie describes the moment she falls out of love with her second husband by saying,

Janie stood where he left her for unmeasured time and thought. She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside there to see what it was. It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered. But looking at it she saw that it never was the flesh and blood figure of her dreams. Just some thing she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over. In a way she turned her back upon the image where it lay and looked further.

While it’s nothing so dramatic as all that, it is the only way I can think to describe how I feel about church music right now. Corporate worship, as I have always known it, has fallen off a shelf inside me.

I’m not judging, casting blame, or saying one form is superior to another. If you’ve found a way to worship that connects you to God, I applaud you. Keep singing, playing, clapping, or banging a tambourine for all you’re worth. But with regards to the “worship wars,” I can’t muster the strength to choose a side any more. The argument has left me hollowed out and deflated. No matter the packaging or presentation, all worship feels consumption-based to me right now. It’s all well-manicured voices,  sterile words on a screen, and a congregation that just follows along. No matter what church I go to, worship feels too big. Too glossy. Too plastic. To my ears, it’s shiny sound without a soul. I don’t know why.

But it makes me ache.

I’m hungry for something authentic, something real and raw and unmistakable. I want to worship in a way that is focused on devotion, not performance. For too long, I’ve just accepted it. I’ve told myself, “This is just the way it is now.” But still, I find myself longing to lift my voice, my hands, and my eyes to God in the middle of a group–not in front of them or in lockstep behind someone else telling me what to feel.

IMG_1818Maybe that’s why the tradition known as Sacred Harp singing appeals to me so much. It’s certainty different from much of what I’m used to. For one, politics and denomination wars are not allowed inside the house, and part of me rejoices at that.

Another thing I admire is that despite its long tradition, the music remains relatively unchanged. As you can see by the picture I took, it uses shape notes. And what’s even better is that everyone sings. With gusto and in harmony. And while the pitch is relative, it always seems to work out. One doesn’t “lead” per se. The person who directs stands in the “hollow square,” as they call it, keeps the tempo and cues when necessary, and everyone has a chance to lead at least once. Also, this isn’t a service in the traditional sense. There is no preaching like there is on Sunday morning, just music. It’s something many of the participants do in addition to the activities at their church.

I’m still in the first stages of learning about this interesting community of musicians, but after having participated in one singing, I can honestly say that they are passionate, about the music if nothing else. Some of the people I met were lifelong Christians–everything from Primitive Baptists to high church Anglicans. I also shared dinner on the grounds with a woman who openly declared, “I’m not religious.” But there was something she loved about the  music, perhaps the gritty realness of it, that kept her coming to participate. If that diverse a group can get over themselves to sing, there must be something to it. And I intend to find out what it is.

I’ve begun my research into the history of this musical style and it’s people with several resources. The first is a comprehensive historical work called The Makers of the Sacred Harp by David Warren Steel and Richard H. Hulan. Hopefully, it will explain the origins of the songbook, how the music is composed, and all the other technical aspects I want to learn about. And for a more sociological piece exploring the diverse community, I’m diving into I Belong to This Band, Hallelujah!: Community, Spirituality, and Tradition among Sacred Harp Singers by Laura Clawson.

I’ve also procured a copy of a documentary two Sacred Harp singers recently produced titled Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp, which looks to be a treasure trove of stories and sound. And I am the happy, proud owner of a copy of The Sacred Harp hymnal, which I hope to be able to study in detail as I learn about how the songs in it have been composed and their respective histories.

IMG_1816

Part of this exploration is because, well, I’m happiest with my nose in a book. A researcher by nature, I find the answers to a great many questions I have by taking the longitudinal view of things and combing through what has already been said. The answer is usually somewhere in the middle.

The other reason is because I’m hoping to put down roots somewhere. I’m tired of shallow worship and simple faith. I’m desperate for something I can’t yet define. Sacred Harp very well may not be it. I’m well aware of this. I know that no system of worship, no matter how “right” it is, can be a substitute for God and a relationship with Him. But I’ve been stirred. Something in me has been overturned, and my soul is disquieted. It’s time to go wandering, to be a pilgrim again. The answers are somewhere I’m not, so I go to suss them out.

Here’s a brief video I shot on my iPhone at the singing I attended. There are much better ones out there, ones with better video and sound quality, but I wanted to share a little of what I experienced that afternoon.

If you’re interested in Sacred Harp singing, I’d love to hear your thoughts and learn from your research. Maybe we could even meet one day to sing together. I’m also hoping to hear from others on the state of worship in America. Do you think I’m way off base feeling this way? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Please share them in the comments section below!

I Sing Because…

There are rare moments when God blesses His children beyond measure, and what you’re going to read below is an example of just that. If you had told me two years ago that I would have been living in Atlanta and working full time for a magazine, I would have called you a dirty liar. However, after a long, dark period of strife that I’m not going to get into here, I’ve finally made it to a mountaintop. From where I now stand, I grasp the reasons for the spiritual valleys I’ve had to walk through. Like so many things in life, God has put them in their proper perspective.

The August issue of In Touch Magazine features two people who are very special to me–my grandparents, Boyce and Sybil Lindley. They are also going through a spiritual valley right now, one that they never expected to have to slog through. However, they aren’t walking through it alone. It was my pleasure and my honor to share their story with our readers this month, and I do hope what I wrote helps a couple or a family going through the same struggle they are.

 

 

If you enjoyed this, please visit this page to sign up for a free subscription to In Touch Magazine. We’ve got some great issues still coming this in 2012 and some amazing ones planned for 2013!

How Firm a Foundation: The Grace to Worship Through Uncertainty

This is the first draft of an article I’m writing for August. I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback. Are there areas that are unclear or could use a tightening up? Do you think the Scriptures I’ve selected are the best possible options. It’s a musical article, so if you’re a non-musician, does it still “speak” to you? More than anything, I want to tell the world about two of the most special people in my life, but I also want to show readers how they can learn as I have from their example. Any and all feedback would be very much appreciated! Thank you!!

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Not every couple can say their first date took place at a gospel singing, but that’s precisely where my grandparents, Boyce and Sybil Lindley, chose to have theirs in the summer of 1955. Perhaps it was chosen because music was what brought them together at a district church meeting where Sybil played the piano, or maybe God knew how vital it would be and chose it as the cornerstone of their relationship. Whatever the reason, I’m happy to say that it worked—so well, in fact, that after only a handful of dates and a brief engagement, they were wed on December 14, 1956.

Throughout their fifty-five years of marriage, they’ve spent countless happy hours in church together, singing, studying, and serving in various roles like church bookkeepers and Sunday school teachers. While they occasionally sought out the role of worship leaders, more times than not, it was a task was appointed to them. My favorite story about their years as musicians happened during their first visit to a new church in Poplar Bluff, Missouri. Like most visitors, they sat in the back row with their two daughters, taking in the place and its people, when the pastor welcomed them from the pulpit. He asked, “Ma’am, you don’t happen to play the piano, do you?” The church had been without an accompanist for some time, so you can imagine that my grandmother’s gentle “yes” was met with an exuberant chorus of hallelujahs and amens fit to rival Handel’s Messiah. She played that very Sunday morning, and nearly every service afterwards, until the week they moved.

By the time I came along in the late 70s, our family was full to bursting with music. We sang each Sunday in church (though never the third verse of any hymn for some reason I could never understand), and they often performed songs together as a quartet someone dubbed “The Happy Lindleys” after their favorite group, the Goodman Family. Whether we were riding in the car or sitting together after dinner, we usually sang. Someone would simply start humming, and within a verse or two we were harmonizing together. Granted, we might never have been a threat to the Von Trapp family, but our melodies were genuine, tangible expressions of our joy and thankfulness to God for each other. Singing might have seemed odd to many, but it was—and still remains—as much a part of our genetic make-up as brown eyes, long fingers, and a penchant for peskiness.

Because of their influence, when it came to music, I learned not to discriminate. Traditional hymns, Southern gospel songs, and spirituals all spoke God’s truth to me in ways I could grasp as a child. For instance, I understood Lamentations 3:22-24 because I had experienced “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” I rejoiced in the promise of Psalm 16:8 after learning “I Shall Not Be Moved,” and “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” fixed the truth of Matthew 10:29-31 deeply in my heart. Simply put, I came to know God with a Bible in one hand and a hymnal in the other.

These two wonderful people, who I nicknamed Nonnie and Papaw, have spent their lives walking with the Lord. They’ve been blessed with two happily married daughters and three grandchildren as well as with relatively good health and financial security. They’ll be the first to say there have been more than a few potholes and loose stones in their lives’ road, and they’ve been asked to make sacrifices in trusting obedience. However, each time, God provided, and their faith was increased. Boons like this make praise natural to come by for most people, but when things suddenly turn difficult, preserving the song in one’s heart might become more challenging.

Last year, Papaw believed he’d lost his debit card after cleaning out his wallet. A handful of panicked moments later, he realized the slim piece of plastic was still there—just backwards and upside down. He simply had not recognized it for what it was because of the visual differences. It didn’t look the same in its usual slot and, in his mind, was missing in action. At the time, they chalked it up to vision problems or fatigue, but several weeks later, he couldn’t remember his pin number. As weeks became months, they both began to notice words and phrases he’d known all his life—screwdriver, double play, bookmark—were suddenly gone from his vocabulary, frustratingly just out of his mind’s reach. Multi-step tasks such as making tea became nearly impossible without help, and items that normally called the pantry home started showing up in the linen closet.

Each thing was small, sometimes even comical, but when they were added together, they realized there was growing cause for concern. Naturally, fear and worry filled their hearts, but every time it threatened, they prayed and recited Isaiah 41:10: “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you; surely I will help you. Surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.” Whatever was happening, they reasoned, had been purposed by God for their lives because He had promised them countless times before, “No evil will befall you, nor will any plague come near your tent” (Ps. 91:10).

Anyone who has been diagnosed with an illness—be it physical or mental—will admit it’s unsettling. Many feel their bodies have betrayed them or have become inescapable prisons of flesh. For someone like Papaw, who is gentle and easily flustered, when those moments when the words wouldn’t come became more frequent, he was left silently anxious and shaking with frustration. Ever the optimist, Nonnie tried to reassure him with soothing words and kind gestures, but nothing seemed to quiet the apprehension that held him captive. One particularly wearisome Thursday when nothing else would help, Nonnie pulled their tattered maroon copy of the Church of God Hymnbook from the piano bench and began to play. It was all she knew to do. Over the next hour, songs like “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” “Rock of Ages,” “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” and “Mansion Over the Hilltop” quietly seeped from the burnished wood, filling their home with comforting and familiar sounds.

As her fingers coaxed “He Hideth My Soul,” a song she’s played countless times, from the instrument, she began to pray for strength, understanding, and, most of all, peace. In time, the words came to Papaw—sometimes easily, sometimes with great difficulty, and oftentimes imperfectly—but they came. She listened as he sweetly stumbled through the second verse, “A wonderful Savior is Jesus, my Lord. He taketh my burden away. He holdeth me up, and I shall not be moved. He giveth me strength as my day” and understood that, despite all outward appearances, God was with them and always had been. They had just been too busy focusing on the uncertain darkness to even begin to look for His light.

In My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers stated, “Sometimes God puts us through the experience and discipline of darkness to teach us to hear and obey Him. Songbirds are taught to sing in the dark, and God puts us into ‘the shadow of His hand’ until we learn to hear Him” (Isa. 49:2). Now, that is exactly what they’re doing, walking in relative darkness and singing all the way. “Whenever our spiritual cups get dry,” she told me, “we just sing until they’re filled up again.”

Hebrews 12:10-11 tells us that God “disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” Their spiritual strength, gained through previous hardships, makes worship possible, and while they are being further refined by this trial, our entire family is reaping spiritual rewards as well. As we watch them lean fully on the Lord for strength and wisdom, we are all coming to see the truth of Job’s declaration, “Behold, how happy is the man whom God reproves, so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty” (Job 3:17).

Just like the hymns I cherished as a child, my grandparents’ songs reveal the truth of God’s Word. Their simple melodies have shaped my understanding of His grace and make it real to me in way words alone couldn’t. They wake up each morning, uncertain of the new challenges they’ll face, but they are quick to point out, “Our heavenly Father knows.” Rather than worry, they pray for the measure of strength to help them until they lie down once again and thank God for the continuous supply. Like Job, they pose the rhetorical question, “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” (2:10), letting their song serve as a reply.

Not once have they asked, “Why us?” without immediately following it with, “Why not us?” because their hearts are in tune with God’s. They’ve spent so many years fully immersed in His presence that they speak to Him in song—their groanings are lyrical rather than wordless (Rom. 8:26-27). I feel the same tendency in myself, and I know that the Lord is using them to teach me the libretto of His love. To “put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise” (Ps. 40:3), the same almighty Composer is arranging both the coda of their lives and the second movement of mine.