Singing as if life depended on it

Dec 22, 2014 by

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After noticing its persistent presence on my Facebook newsfeed for multiple days, I caved and watched the three minute video of Naomi Feil, a Jewish woman, singing Christian songs to Gladys, an elderly woman with Alzheimers. While singing “Jesus loves me” and “He’s got the whole world in his hands,” Feil affectionately strokes Gladys’ face, matching her volume and pace to the intensity of movement and emotion expressed by Gladys, who is unable to speak.

At the end of the clip, Gladys, through a soft but clear whisper, actually joins in the echo of the song. Feil: “He’s got the whole world . . . ” Gladys: “in his hands.” Feil comments afterwards: “For a split second, we became one person.” It’s a beautiful picture of love and music surpassing barriers of religious identity and medical condition.

It’s nice to have it confirmed by neuroscience, but it comes as no surprise that the brain experiences song differently than speech. From a young age, perhaps even before we are born, song lodges itself in our being and carries us in its wings through life, and perhaps beyond.

Even though Mary’s Magnificat in Luke (1:46 ff.) begins with “And Mary said . . . ” it has traveled through church tradition as Mary’s song, needing a vessel that powerful to hold its beauty and weight. As much as we preachers, and other speakers, try and carefully shape meaningful words for Advent and Christmas, we have no doubt that this season belongs to the songs.

It’s no coincidence that Columbus Mennonite Church’s music Sunday during Advent is one of the best attended services of the year. Marlene Kropf, a longtime professor of worship in the Mennonite church, once commented that Mennonites don’t have sacraments, but if we did, our primary sacrament would be singing — that vehicle of grace which bridges the human and Divine. It’s interesting to me that people who were raised in the Mennonite church but, for whatever reason, no longer relate to a congregation, often say what they miss most is the singing.

This Advent season has drawn our attention to some especially troubling and difficult events: the continued murder of black males, torture done in the name of state security, a massacre of school children in Pakistan, and our Ohio state legislature on the verge of passing a law that will jumpstart the death penalty, pushing further into the shadows an act of state killing done in our name.

It’s enough to make one sing at the top of their lungs one of the many remixes of Mary’s song: “My heart shall sing of the day you bring let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears for the dawn draws near and the world is about to turn” (Sing The Story, 124). Sometimes we sing because we’re not sure what else to do with the world’s brokenness, pain, and divisions. “For a split second, we became one person.”

Joel Miller is the pastor of Columbus Mennonite Church. He blogs at Phloem and Xylem where this post originally appeared.


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