By Steven R. Ford
Our brains are apparently hardwired for music and singing in a way they simply are not for things like language and logic. I can still sing “Jack o’ lantern, jack o’ lantern, big and bright and yellow,” which I learned in kindergarten, but I remember virtually nothing else from that entire year of my life. I can croon, word for word in the shower, hymns that were sung in church when I was very small, but I have no recollection whatsoever of any sermons I heard. I remember nothing (and I do mean nothing) about high school trigonometry, but I sometimes still sing to myself the Simon and Garfunkel songs that were popular while I was suffering through it.
Music and songs “Abide With Me,” just as they do with everyone else, both now and through ages past. In fact, the most ancient known passage of Scripture (“The Song of Moses,” Ex. 15:1-15) began its life as a sung ballad. Hymns popular among the Levites in the reign of Solomon and even earlier (Psalms) continue to be sung and pondered and prayed to this very day. Hardwired songs in our brains, apparently, can be hotwired into our souls. When that happens, the result might well be faith. The earliest Christians sustained their spirits, after all, by singing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” together (Col. 3:16). We continue to do that today.
What constitute spiritual songs for us personally? One of them, for me, is Lesbia Scott’s simple hymn (sung to the tune called Grand Isle) that I learned as a kid and continues to inspire me at age 61: “[F]or the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too” (Hymnal 1982, 293). Another of importance to me is Simon and Garfunkel’s “American Tune,” the melody of which is taken from a chorale in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (there’s a degree of class in my musical taste that’s totally absent in all other parts of my life). And the words clearly speak to my soul.
Paul Simon’s haunting lyrics initially give voice to the regrets and disappointments I’ve felt in my journey through life all too frequently. “Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken / And many times confused / Yes, and I’ve often felt forsaken / And certainly misused.” But who hasn’t? Simon continues: “I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered / I don’t have a friend who feels at ease / I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered / Or driven to its knees. … [When] I think of the road / We’re traveling on / I wonder what went wrong.” It echoes the Book of Lamentations, as it does a number of Psalms.
The song goes on, however, to describe a dream that in my mind cannot be shattered, as I’ve grafted it onto my soul as an article of faith. “And I dreamed I was dying / And I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly / And looking back down at me / Smiled reassuringly / And I dreamed I was flying / And high above, my eyes could clearly see / … And I dreamed I was flying.”
A dream inspired by music becomes a hope and even a promise once it’s become part of one’s soul. Simon’s “scripture devoid of Scripture” just happened to instill in me the eternal Christian truths that “unity … overcome[s] estrangement, forgiveness heal[s] guilt, and joy conquer[s] despair” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 429). It ultimately assures me, beyond any doubt, of my own eventual resurrection.
In more than 30 years of my priesthood, yet another song has bumped around in my head to the point that it’s joined with my soul. This one is Scripture, just like the Psalms and the canticles. It’s Suzanne Toolan’s adaptation of John 6:32-40, set to her own simple tune. “The bread that I shall give is my flesh for the life of the world. / And they who eat of this bread, they shall live forever. … I am the Resurrection, I am the life. / They who believe in me, even if they die, they shall live forever … [A]nd I will raise them up on the last day” (Hymnal 1982, 335).
Music and songs abide in us in ways that words and logic do not. Songs become Scripture, and scriptural (and even quasi-scriptural) songs can touch our hearts and become part of our souls. If there’s a more effective tool in Christian formation than music, I have yet to come across it.
The Rev. Steven R. Ford assists at St. James the Apostle, Tempe, Arizona.