Home‎ > ‎Sermons‎ > ‎

"A Sound Spirituality" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - September 16, 2018

posted Sep 17, 2018, 1:54 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

This past Spring, Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco made news with its Beyoncé Mass.  The cathedral used several of Beyoncé’s songs - such as “Freedom” and “I was here” - along with readings from the Gospels and Psalms to explore female-centered interpretations of scripture.  One of the organizers explained the spiritual import one of the Beyoncé’s songs. “We used ‘Flaws and All,’ a song maybe Beyoncé wrote for her fans or for Jay-Z.  But if you listen to the words in an ecclesiastical context, it’s a very faithful, honest, raw acknowledgment of the imperfect relationship we have with God.”  And of course, from clips on YouTube, it appeared to be very fun.

About 900 people came to the mass; many of whom don’t normally attend church.  A crowd filled with young adults, people of color, and LGBT people drawn by the music and the novelty of singing favorite songs in a new way.

I love the creativity of the Beyoncé Mass; but I also love this story because it reminds us of the power of music to bring people in and embody the grace of God in new ways.  It reminds us to celebrate the role of sound in our spirituality.

The Catholic theologian Richard Gaillardetz (Gah-lard-e) once made an interesting observation about the Protestant tradition.  He wrote about the sacraments. The Catholic tradition has seven sacraments; Protestants have two - baptism and communion. But Gaillardetz said we Protestant’s really have three: baptism, communion, and music.

And he’s right.  Nothing can spark more controversy in a Protestant churches than music.  One of our former pastors, Bill Edge, often called the music staff the “War Department” of Plymouth.  I’m glad not to have that relationship with Donna and Larry! Yet whether in Plymouth or in other Protestant congregations, all our conversations about music reflect the deep importance of music to our spirituality.  Like baptism and communion, music - sung, played, listened to - becomes for us a way to feel God’s presence, experience our connection to each other, and know the sacred.

But what makes music sacred?  Must it be “religious”? Or can a song be “spiritual but not religious”?  Personally, I don’t find it very helpful to draw a strong distinction between sacred and secular music, because I focus on how the music affects me.  The old revival hymn “Just as I am” is clearly “religious” and the recent Top-40 hit by Charlie Puth “I am” clearly secular but for me both speak to our anxieties and fears transformed and healed.

Focusing on the effect of music on me, reminded me of a song Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum once sang at Plymouth for one of our justice revivals.  (Tiferet led Congregation Shir Hadash, the Jewish synagogue that meets here, before she accepted a new position out east.) At the beginning of the service, she sang a Nigun, a wordless song in which a sound is repeated, something like “lai-ly-lia-lia-lia.”  It was both meaningless and deeply meaningful. Meaningless in that the sounds didn’t convey any content; meaningful in that the sound communicated all of the joy and warmth and depth of Tiferet’s faith.

An old Jewish story once gave the origin of the Nigun.  In the story, a rabbi went into the woods to pray. He found the place, built a fire, and sang the service.  God said, “It is enough.” Later, the rabbi goes again to pray. He finds the place but forgot how to light a fire.  When he sang the service, God said, “It is enough.” Then the rabbi forgot where to go to pray so he just sang the service where he was; God said, “It is enough.”  Finally, the rabbi forgot the words of the service, so he just sang a series of nonsense syllables; and God said, “It is enough.” Any song, even a wordless song, can be a sacred offering.

As I thought about why, I remembered singing at the Sufi Center down in Racine.  (The Sufis are part of the Islamic tradition, as progressive within Islam as we are within Christianity.)  I went with some people from our congregation. First, we sat around tables to discuss some spiritual questions.  Then we shared a simple meal together, delicious Persian flavored vegetarian dishes. And finally, we sat down on the floor, two lines facing each other to sing several Zikr, a song which uses repetitive phrases to quiet the mind and bring the body into harmony with God.  To paint the full picture: we were singing (not my gift), in a foreign language (not my gift), while clapping hands on knees and then together (which involved both rhythm and coordination, definitely not my gift). I didn’t do it well; and yet even as I bumbled through the Zikr, I found the practice deeply moving, filling me with a quiet joy.  Perhaps because in the midst of rising Islamophobia, to sit with Muslim sisters and brothers felt healing. But even more, I think, because just as God didn’t need a fire, or a place, or even words to hear the prayer of the rabbi, it turns out God doesn’t need perfection either.

I felt the beauty of a sacred moment when I sang Zikr.  I moved from my head down into my body; now that might sound weird, but I think it is a common experience when we really let ourselves sing or play music.  Just as our diaphragm pulls down to fill our lungs with breath to sing, singing pulls our self down into our body.

Paul Freinkel, a professionally trained singer who works as a medical doctor in Africa, recently wrote about the deeply transforming experience of singing.  As he explained, “There is an embodied and powerful presence that enters my space sometimes when I sing - a knowledge, or an experience of something ineffable, transpersonal, part of me, yet far wider and inclusive: a voice soaring; sometimes wonderfully alone, sometimes in community; for others whether silently listening, or in song will some way join in this most powerful singing.  Singing has become a way for me to dip into my being, to contact an elementary authenticity and the simple, sometimes paradoxically painful, exhilaration of being alive.”

Even for non-professionally trained singers, we can have those moments when singing allows us to “dip into our being.”  When I came out in the 1990’s, I struggled with my sense of place within Christianity and within my family; and even, as a man; because the cultural models of masculinity didn’t include being gay.  I went to the Gay Pride Parade in Washington, D.C. during that time. It felt amazing to be in a crowd of so many people. Later that evening I went to a worship service at the Metropolitan Community Church in DuPont Circle, a congregation made up almost entirely of gay men.  About a hundred people filed into an almost too small room. And when we sang hymns that evening, the sound resonated off the walls, an amazing, strong, masculine, gay voice. It got me out of all the trouble I carried in my head, down into my body, till I knew I would be okay.

Embodiment - this dipping into our being - doesn’t just happen when we sing but comes as one of the gifts of music.  The deaf drummer Evelyn Glennie once described how she hears with her body because her ears can’t.  When she wanted to learn to drum, she listened to the drum with her hands, arms, cheekbones, stomach, legs, and even her bare feet.  As a young adult, she wanted to join the Royal Academy of Music in London, but they didn’t think she could because of her deafness. Still, she pressed them to let her audition.  And they realized she heard with her body. Now she travels the world, an acclaimed musician, whose ability to play music comes from her moving deeply into her body, hearing with her skin and bones the sounds her ears can’t perceive.

This embodiment that happens in music can be an experience of God.  As Christians, we celebrate God as a Trinity: God, the mother and father of us all; God known to us as Jesus our brother; and God present to us as the Holy Spirit.  Singing feels to me like a profoundly Trinitarian experience. When we sing, we use our own voice as the instrument; both musician and instrument at the same time; and from the singer and the voice arise the song.  The singer, the voice, the song: an embodiment of the Trinity.


But it’s more than that too.  Music - whether we sing, or listen, or play - connects us more deeply to each other.  I read once that a researcher studied what happened when a group sang together. Over time, the singers developed more and more harmony; they sounded better of course.  But, and this is what amazed me, even their hearts started to beat in rhythm together.

Even outside of a choir, the practice of singing deeply connects us one to another.  When we sing a verse of a Psalm, like we did this morning with Psalm 150, our voices ring with 3000-year-old emotions, maybe even older.

The ability of music to connect us can be very powerful, emotional.  Whenever a church member dies, we sing the first verse of “For All the Saints” on the Sunday after they passed.  Singing it connects us together in our grief but also connects us to others who’ve died. Such feelings of connection can be even stronger with a hymn like “Amazing Grace,” which threads through our hopes and griefs for generations.  So that through song we realize: we are not alone, because we sing.

We might think of this as a sense of reconnection.  Especially because, as musician Kathleen Harmon once pointed out, the very order of a hymn can be healing in the midst of our own disordered lives.  When we struggle with grief, the loss of a friend, the disappoint of a job search, the claustrophobia of unhappiness, the chaos of change, then the very rhythm of a hymn - the repetition of chords, the structure of verses and chorus - speak to predictability of God’s love.  And so, the music not only connects us to one another but can reconnect us when the disorder of life makes everything seem out of tune.

And yet sometimes hymns speak to emotions we don’t share or even find repulsive.  Tom Long wrote about one of those hymns, “Onward Christian Soldiers.”  He confessed to hating the hymn, feeling it should never be printed in any Christian hymnal but deposed as a glorification of militarism.  As he said, “This hymn, with its “hut-two-three-four” tune and its warring call for Christians to raise the battle flag, has long outlived its usefulness.”  You might have your own list of such hymns to which you’d say good riddance, either because of the words or the melody.

Vacations take Tom Long to a rural community and its very small Methodist church, two dozen people on a big Sunday.  The small church gets by as best it can musically: creative, earnest, far from perfect. As he explained, “An elderly saint plays the piano if her glaucoma isn’t too bad. On one Sunday someone squeezed out “Blessed Assurance” on an accordion; on another Sunday, a woman braced a harmonica against the handlebar of her motorized wheelchair and lovingly played “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain.””

Then came a Sunday service which opened with “Onward Christian Soldiers.”  Tom Long sighed with his whole soul. But the church members dutifully opened their hymnal and began to sing.  And suddenly this hymn he detested became something new and wonderful. Not because he changed his views on military power; but because the little church was anything but a battalion, and the absurdity of them as an army of God reminded him that the song could “be true only in the improbable reign of God.”  It moved him to tears to imagine his frail church as an army, not armed with swords but marshalled by love that sees no one as enemy.

Tom Long’s surprising reaction to a hymn he disliked came as a moment of grace.  He saw his congregation with a new beauty. And that’s one of the spiritual gifts of music: to move us unexpectedly.


Bringing us into our bodies, connecting us to another, even surprising us: music comes as a spiritual gift.  And perhaps it all comes back to our breath. In Hebrew, the word used for Spirit is the same as breath. So, no wonder singing - and by extension all music - connects us to the spiritual.  It’s all about breath; it’s all about spirit. Alleluia and Amen.


Sources (those not hyperlinked in text):

  • Boyce-Tillman, Joyce, “Music as Spiritual Experience”

  • Freinkel, Paul D., “Singing and Participatory Spirituality,” International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 2015.

  • Harmon, Kathleen, “Music Notes: A Spirituality of Hymn Singing,” Liturgical Ministry, Fall 2001.