The Search for the Sacred: Sacred Music
The Search for the Sacred: Sacred Music
I Samuel 16:14-23
August 13, 2017
Years ago, I began listening to a young single mother with three children. There were all the usual challenges of parenting plus the extra challenges of being a single parent, all of which would have been enough. That wasn’t what brought her to see me, though. What topped things off in her life was that her youngest child had cystic fibrosis. Keeping this disease at bay meant aggressive respiratory therapy, multiple times, every day. It meant having to be super focused on all the potential health hazards and being committed to a lifestyle for her daughter that would include things like gymnastics, simply for the way that throwing oneself around in a gym helped keep those young lungs clear.
Although for years, that mother and her daughter did everything right and worked with every expert available, the disease progressed. The disease was difficult but the timing of the disease seemed particularly cruel. The disease becomes the worst at exactly the time in adolescence when a young person is the least compliant with any rules, much less the rules that a parent sets. It is their job to break those rules. For this young woman, though, breaking those rules might cost her her life and following those rules didn’t seem to be extending it. These frustrations ended up opening a counseling time with the daughter, too. She was an amazing young woman whom I will never forget. There was so much life in her eyes!
Eventually, the only hope was a lung transplant. Across the course of 6 weeks in the hospital, lungs became available 8 times. Every time, the lungs turned out to not be compatible. The frustration and fear built for all of us as each pair of lungs was ruled out. In the end, she became too weak to be a candidate any more. Instead, her mother crawled into bed with her and held her until she died.
At the end of this heartbreaking journey for me there was just so much to be felt and all those feelings were so knotted up inside of me. I went to a Taize worship service, mostly wishing I wasn’t there. Then, Marian McNair played her bowls. The bowl began to sing and then Marian sang with it. Somewhere, really, really deep inside me, a dam broke. There was some secret note, a secret chord, that was pre-verbal but so powerful. That note hit those feelings and they came pouring out. It was just cathartic.
We are, all of us, a head and a heart. We are the things we think and the things we feel. Though some of us may naturally cling to one side of who we are more than another, we are, in the end, both. If we have any hope of being a whole person, somehow we have to think and feel our way through this life. We have to be moved by what we experience, moved enough to think about it and moved enough to just be in this moment and feel everything that is there to be felt. The problem is that sometimes it is just so hard to get access to those feelings… Or sometimes, we know that those feelings run so deep that we would rather hide them or hide from them than to be blown away.
Sometimes, I think about this through a metaphor. When I was in high school, I had the great good fortune to have a girlfriend who had a ski boat. (I know…pretty smart, huh? I want you to know that I didn’t know she had a boat when we started dating!) We spent a fair amount of time skiing on the Mississippi River. One of those days, I had a spectacular wipe out. I was going so fast that when I fell, I just skimmed across the surface of the water. I remember at one point it felt like I was sitting while I was skimming along. I wondered, “What is it going to take to break the surface here?”
It’s that “breaking the surface” question that I’m after. We get going so fast in our lives. We frequently do so many things at the same time. We are often processing the past and trying to plan the future, even while we are dancing through the challenges of today. However, despite our best efforts, we feel ourselves start to fall. We feel our best plans and our hopes and our dreams come unglued and we wonder, when will I ever break through the surface—the shallowness—of what is happening here. When will I find meaning and purpose and depth in this life again?
It should be no surprise that I think that meaning and purpose and depth is the spiritual dimension of this life, the dimension that we use so many names to describe. Though we think it is our planning and scheming and hoping and dreaming that will hold this life together, I am convinced that it is, in fact, the spiritual dimension that has been holding our life together all along. (Do you remember the little steering wheel that you could attach to a child’s car seat? Did you ever see how intently that child would steer, convinced as he or she was that they were, in reality, steering that car? Do you get my drift?)
There are a lot of things that can help us to get back in touch with that spiritual dimension, with the depth and the meaning and the purpose that are this life. However, this morning, I just want to say that one of the most powerful of those things is music. It is that particular note or that secret chord that breaks our hearts and leads us to feel again. It is being caught off guard by the song that you danced your first slow dance to when you were in junior high. (Do you remember his or her name? I bet you do! The song was “Color My World” and the girl was named Sandy.) It is being carried back in time through the trigger of the right song at just the right moment in a way that you aren’t left just thinking about a past moment but you can FEEL that moment once again. It can comfort or soothe or inspire or haunt us but if we are listening, it will not leave us alone.
One of the very best things about working out again for the last few years has been building music back into my life. I’ve often thought that the regulars at the gym should have to write down what song they are listening to and we should all have to guess who is listening to which song. Or, we should have to just trade phones and listen to each other’s music for a day. It is such an intimate thing—what you listen to when you can listen to anything. We would all know each other so much better. Imagine if we knew one another’s special notes and secret chords…
That is the thing in our text: David does know Saul’s secret chord—literally. Saul was the very first King of Israel, anointed by a prophet, Samuel, who never thought there should be a king in the first place. It is only when God tells Samuel to give the people what they so desperately want that Samuel finally agrees to anoint anyone. And I’m pretty certain, in Samuel’s eyes, that he was convinced that, in Saul, the people got exactly what they deserved. Saul was angry, paranoid, crazy and corrupt.
Saul’s fate was sealed when his troops defeated the Amalekites—which seemed, at the time, like it must be a good thing. However, Samuel told Saul to sacrifice the Amalekites and all their wealth and all their cattle to God. Samuel cheated. He kept the cream of the crop for his own wealth, enriching himself at God’s expense. That was the day when Samuel found a young shepherd boy named David and told him that he would one day be king.
When Saul heard this news, he became horribly depressed. Saul’s faith disappeared. He became convinced that God was out to get him. He was only barely able to function. The only thing that could console him was a young shepherd boy—David— (whom Saul had no idea would one day be his successor) who could play the harp better than anyone else in the Kingdom. It was David who could find the note or the chord that could soothe even Saul’s nightmares. Saul loved David for that and only loved him more when not long after this, he killed the top Phillistine warrior—Goliath— in another battle. Eventually, as more and more people fell in love with David—the musician, the warrior, the incredibly handsome young man—Saul would grow jealous. But, I suspect what would haunt him most of all was that special note, that secret chord, that only David could play. The last time he heard it was the last time Saul would ever feel whole—everything else was just the untangling of jealousy and envy and paranoia—all knotted up inside him.
I will be honest and say that in the wake of Barb’s death, I’m listening for that note or that chord myself, the one that helps unleash the feelings that are stored so deeply that it is even hard to find words for them. And yet, I think the point this morning is more “every day” than that. All sorts of products in this world are marketed to help people who feel broken or fragmented or who feel like they are just skimming across the surface of this life. Drink this! Smoke that! The possibilities for inducing an artificial state of wholeness are seemingly endless. And yet, the most reliable pathways to actually feeling whole may really be pretty simple.
Find the song that you used to love and ask yourself, “Did it hold up across all these years? (“Blackbird” by the Beatles—yes! “The Pina Colada Song” by Rupert Holmes…not so much!) Ask yourself…what if it is time to welcome some of these “old friends” back into my life, to open up the time and the space in my kitchen or my car or my living room for music once again? What if there is new music that is at least as worth listening to as the old stuff? What if there is a whole genre of music that it is time to listen to that I have never listened to before?
Any music that leads us into the depths of this life and the depths within ourselves is sacred music. That sacred music—whether found in a hymnal or on a radio station or on a scratchy old L.P.—will give us perspective, will lead us to feel again and help us to feel whole. That music will connect us to musicians we’ve never met and to moments that we never lived but which shed light on the moments we live every day. That music will enrich us all.