12. Music as spiritual encouragement



Ted Grimsrud

I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise; I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness; for you have exalted your name and your word above everything. On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul. All the kings of the earth shall praise you O Lord, for they have heard the words of your mouth.  They shall sing of the ways of the Lord, for great is the glory of the Lord.  For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly; but the haughty he perceives from far away.  Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies; you stretch out your hand and your right hand delivers me.  The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands. – Psalm 138

            In my experience of finding spiritual encouragement, music has played a central role.  I like to sing, though I certainly do not sing well, and I do not play an instrument.  For me, music is more something I listen to.  I believe listening connects closely with prayer.  Listening is at the heart of my spirituality – to people I converse with, people I read, myself, nature, music.  These are a major part of how I encounter God.  My most encouraging times are when I have actually allowed myself to hear, to see something in a new way, to learn something.  This is certainly true when I have heard some music that has touched me.

            Music is special.  When I hear, music touches my heart.  One of my favorite people to listen to is the Irish singer Van Morrison.  I came across this quote about Van Morrison from Bono, of the rock and roll group U2, which is known for its politically oriented music.  “People think [Van Morrison] doesn’t seem politically motivated,” Bono said.  “But this man is a soul singer, and his music melts the hardest of hearts.  That’s very political, because hard hearted behavior results in bigotry, racism, closed-mindedness, and greed – all the things we deal with [in our music].”[1]

            Music that touches the heart.  That is very important for analytical people like me.  The effect of listening to such music is to deepen my soul.  Music serves to help me to cry, to help me to laugh.  That is, music serves to help me to feel.  Being at least part Norwegian, I am not real emotional or “out there.”  However, I have learned in recent years, that it is important to experience our feelings, to be aware of our emotional life.  For me, music helps – a great deal.  Not that all music does so.  However, when music does touch us, it touches us in ways nothing else can.

            Music has always been important for me in my spiritual life.  However, early in my Christian experience, church leaders taught me that the kind of music I liked and listened to, was too worldly.  At first, I quit listening to my rock and roll records – such as Elton John, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Cat Stevens, and the Doors.  I probably went two years or so without listening to my records.  However, I could not bring myself actually to throw away my records.  I did start listening to them again – though for several years I felt a bit guilty about it.

            After awhile I became more interested in folk music, acoustic music – bluegrass, old-timey, then Celtic.  Also, some jazz and blues.  It was through Bruce Springsteen that I started getting interested in rock and roll again.  I think all along, even from when I was a teen-ager, I liked music that I felt spoke to life as I was experiencing it.  Listening to music was a major channel for me to experience my emotional life.  Protest songs helped me to feel anger at all the injustices in the world.  Love songs helped me to feel sentimental.  Sad songs brought forth at least some rumblings of grief at loss and brokenness.

            The Bible actually does not say much about music, especially in the New Testament.  It does talk about praise, thanksgiving, grief – that is, it talks about our emotional lives.  At least a few times, the Bible connects this with music.

            Psalm 138 speaks of giving God thanks with one’s “whole heart”  (v. 1), in part because God has increased the writer’s “strength of soul” (v. 3).  Then, later on there is a reference to singing “of the ways of the Lord” (v. 5).  To give thanks with one’s whole heart refers to something beyond simply saying “thank you” with words.  Music, poetry, and other forms of art help with expressing what one feels with one’s whole heart.  This may include direct thanksgiving and expressions of joy.  As well, expressing pain, expressing fear, even anger – when these are part of one’s heart – are a kind of thanksgiving.  They are a way of saying this is how I truly feel and I am grateful that I have ways of getting it out.  Such expressions, the genuine expressions of the heart, these stem out of God increasing the strength of our souls (v. 3).  Such expressions themselves are surely one of the means God uses to strengthen our souls.

            We certainly find an expression of pain in Psalm 137.  This psalmist is part of the group of Israelites exiled from home following Babylon’s destruction of Israel.  The psalm is a lament, a cry of anguish.  “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept” (v. 1).  Besides being a powerful expression of grief and loss, this psalm has to do with the authenticity of music.  These people, at least, kept their music very close to their souls.  To be themselves, they could not simply play anywhere and for anyone.  “On the willows there, we hung up our harps” (v. 2).  We are not going to “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land” (v. 4).  Their song had to come from the heart.

            A third text, from Colossians, speaks of music as praise.  As part of Paul’s litany, outlining a Christian way of life, he includes the admonition – “With gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God” (3: 16).  My early Christian teachers actually used this verse with me to try to get me to abandon my rock and roll.  I guess because of that I have always kind of seen it as a call to extreme piety and super-spirituality.  Maybe we should just sing Bible choruses all the time as we go through life.

            However, I now see this verse in a way that is helpful.  The context is exhortation to live honestly, respectfully and openly toward others, thankfully.  If we think of spirituality as that which helps us to so live, then “spiritual songs” are songs that help us to be honest, respectful, thankful.  They are songs that help us to experience our feelings.  They are songs that offer us insight into what life is about.  They are songs that help us to identify and express what our whole hearts are about.  They are songs that contribute to melting hard hearts and effecting wholeness.  So maybe, Paul would even support rock and roll – at least rock and roll which is genuinely honest about life.

            I believe Paul would – or should – support all music that is genuinely honest about life.  Such music is a tremendous source of nourishment for a spirituality for who we are.  One of the wonderful aspects of music is its diversity.  We can respect each other’s tastes, and likely find some common ground with each other.  Music helps me express grief, music helps me express joy, and music helps me in my struggle for hope.

            When I think about music and grief, I think of a line from W. H. Auden’s eulogy to William Butler Yeats following Yeats’ death.  Auden says something to the effect, regarding Yeats, “Ireland hurt you into poetry.”  That is, grief brought forth creativity.  Yeats is not the only Irish person this was true for.  I have found Irish folk music to be extraordinarily expressive of sorrow, putting into voice and music so much of the human experience of loss, longing, separation.  One major theme is the loss of loved ones who either leave Ireland or who stay behind.  The music also speaks of generations of oppression and of living under the harsh boot of English imperialism.

            I came to understand this a little better in an indirect way from a book by black American theologian James Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues.[2]  Cone focuses on black music in North America, especially spirituals produced in the slave culture of the 18th and 19th centuries.  However, the parallels of American blacks with the Irish are plain.

            For both, music was (and is) a major channel of expression of pain and grief.  In so being, music serves as a major channel of affirming life, of expressing some sense of hope.  Cone writes that what comes out of the spirituals for the people in great pain is an affirmation of their “somebodiness.”  In producing this music, they are asserting that, yes we are somebody, we can be creative, we can give voice – beautiful voice – to our experience in life.

            In giving voice to this grief, and as well to hope, by expressing it so beautifully in song, the people authenticate their experience.  They do exist.  They do matter.  They will continue to exist.  They will continue to matter.  There is great power in such affirmation.  In the spirituals, it is an affirmation of God’s presence with them, of God’s affirming of their lives as true and worth living.  Such an affirmation provided a basis for hopefulness and ongoing healing – even amidst what also certainly proved to be ongoing violence, brokenness, and pain.

            Above all else, the spirituals provide – this is true of the best of Irish folk music too – an avenue into the world of feeling.  They evoke emotion, grief and joy, awareness of depth in this central part of life.  They provide an avenue for people to get beyond the paralysis of numbness.  A major psychologically damaging effect that our affluent North American culture has on people is heightening the inability to feel.  In our culture we have an inability to know grief and joy, an inability genuinely to know what is going on in our hearts.

            I have found, at crucial times in my life, that sad music, when I truly listen, can open me up to feeling, to tears, to grief.  I have found that such opening is a key move toward healing.  I think that if we experience deep pain, a heart awareness of loss, in a sense that pain never fully leaves us.  However, loss is part of life, a rich part of life, a true part of life.  To grieve openly over it is to move toward acceptance of it, and living creatively with it.

            Traditional Celtic songs refer often to the sorrow of separation.  According to Cone, that certainly was a major sub-text in black spirituals as well.  Irishman Van Morrison, in his song “Carrickfergus,” with the mournful pipes of the Chieftains in the background, sings of separation.  “My childhood days bring back sad reflections of happy days so long ago.  My boyhood friends and my own relations, have all passed on like the melting snow.”[3]

           Another Celtic favorite of mine, Scotsman Archie Fisher, sings a beautifully sad song called “Ettrick,” which is basically a lament over growing old and the losses that brings.  “When I last rode down Ettrick, the wind was shifting, the storm was waking, the snow was drifting, my heart was breaking.  For never again would we ride together, in sun or storm on the mountain heather.  When I last rode down Ettrick.”[4]

            A third Celtic folk song, sung by Jim McCann, is called “The Town I Loved So Well,” and tells of growing up in the city of Derry.  “Those were happy days in so many, many ways.  In the town I loved so well.”  However, after regretfully leaving, the singer returns many years later.  The city, a center for the troubles of Northern Ireland, had changed.  “But when I returned, how my eyes they were burned to see how a town could be brought to its knees by armored cars and the bombed out bars and the gas that hangs on every breeze…. Now the music’s gone.…What’s done is done, what’s won is won.  And what’s lost is lost and gone forever.” [5] For this singer, what’s lost is his youth, the joys of the old days.

            These songs, and many others, at different times have helped me to cry at what I have lost, at separations I have faced.  These tears have deepened me and helped to accept and move on creatively in the midst of the loss.  These songs of grief have brought forth my grief, at times put voice and sound to it.  Hence, these songs helped me to openly express pain as my friend and not as a repressed ticking time bomb.  These songs have been a gift.

            So, too, for sure, have been songs of joy.  I can remember at times, and I still experience this, the effect of hymn singing in church.  It has been a way of giving voice to a sense of joy beyond what I could describe by talking about it.  This is how music can work, helping us to experience more of the range of our emotional life.  Black gospel music and Celtic jigs and reels evoke a sense of motion, of celebration.

            For the Irish, and certainly also the celebrating evoked by black Gospel music, we best see this as hard-earned celebration.  James Cone writes, “the spiritual is the spirit of the people struggling to be free….[It] is also a vibrant affirmation of life and its possibilities.”[6]  Celebratory music can call forth joy, it can help us to experience the joys which do come our way more deeply.  It can pull us forward in affirming the possibilities of life.

            Finally, and I guess this is the point most important for me, music helps me in my struggle for hope.  Music provides encouragement for resistance to the brokenness and evils that plague us.  Music is a resource for creatively struggling onward.  Music is crucial for my spirituality.

            Much of the music I like does not always directly voice hopefulness, though sometimes it does.  One of my favorite protest songs is “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” by U2.  This song also speaks to the troubles in Northern Ireland, but also cries out against the evils of war in general.

            “I can’t believe the news today, I can’t close my eyes and make it go away….Broken bottles under children’s feet, bodies strewn across a dead end street.…The trenches dug within our hearts.  And mother’s children, brothers, sisters torn apart.”  The music is that of outrage.  However, the song ends with an overtly Christian affirmation.  “The real battle just begun, to claim the victory Jesus won, on a Sunday, bloody Sunday.”[7]

            Even the songs which speak only of loss or fear or pain or outrage or despair, there is a genuine sense in which they are still expressions of hope.  An essay by Wendell Berry called “A Poem of Difficult Hope” helped me to understand how this could be.  Singing a song or writing a poem which does not directly voice hope is still an expression of hope.  Berry writes about a poem written by Hayden Carruth.  This is the poem, called, “On Being Asked to Write a Poem Against the War in Vietnam:”

            Well I have and in fact/ more than one and I’ll/ tell you this too

            I wrote one against/ Algeria that nightmare/ and another against

            Korea and another/ against the one/ I was in

            and I don’t remember/ how many against/ the three

            when I was a boy/ Abyssinia Spain and/ Harlan County

            and not one/ breath was restored/ to one

            shattered throat/ mans womans or childs/ not one not

            one/ but death went on and on/ never looking aside

            except now and then like a child/with a furtive half-smile/to make sure I was noticing.[8]

            Berry points out that in apparently refusing to write an anti-war poem, Carruth actually writes another one.  He certainly expresses despair – but is that all?  Berry thinks not.  “The distinguishing characteristic of absolute despair is silence.  There is a world of difference between the person who, believing there is no use, says so to himself or to no one, and the person who says it aloud to someone else.  A person who marks [one’s] trail into despair remembers hope –  and thus has hope, even if only a little.”[9]

            So by writing a poem, or singing a song, or painting a picture, the artist is protesting.  By giving a voice to the protest the artist implies that he or she has at least a trace of a hope that someone will notice.  They hope that what they say might be heard, might help at least a little.

            Berry goes on, though, to point out the actual significance of such protest, of such articulation of hope.  The point is not mainly dramatically changing the world.  “Much protest is naive; it expects quick, visible improvement and despairs and gives up when such improvement does not come.  Protesters who hold out longer have perhaps understood that success is not the proper goal.  If protest depended on success, there would be little protest of any durability or significance.  History simply affords too little evidence that anyone’s individual protest is of any use.  Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success:  namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.”[10]

            When one respects these qualities in oneself, that is the way the world will move towards healing.  As one respects these qualities in oneself, one then moves toward respecting them in others.  That is the value of finding ways to give voice to resistance and hopefulness.  We do this either through our own poems or songs, or at least through listening to others, listening with our hearts.

            Psalm 138 is a hymn of thanksgiving to God for the gift of life and God’s care of steadfast love.  This hymn is anything but cheap, superficial praise.  The psalmist trusts God, who regards the lowly and perceives the haughty from far away (v. 6).  The psalmist trusts God, “though I walk in the midst of trouble” (v. 7).  That is, the psalmist trusts God in life as it is.  Expressing this trust is not an avoidance of life.  It is not saying God is in control so I can avoid my pain, my grief.  It is not saying that I can disregard the violence of power politics, resting comfortable while others have their backs broken by an unjust world order.

            This kind of hymn is authentic when it follows from a hard-fought struggle for meaning.  Authentic music expresses a heart-felt openness to the pain life inevitably brings with it and a creative response to that pain.  This hymn follows upon many other songs, songs which themselves help us to see, understand, and feel life as it truly is – with the grief and joy.

            These honest songs, all honest songs, are gifts.  Gifts to be listened to, gifts to be sung.  Canadian Bruce Cockburn is one who sings of such gifts.  “In this cold commodity culture, where you lay your money down.  It’s hard to ever notice, that all this earth is hallowed ground.  Harder still to feel it, basic as our breath.  Love is stronger than darkness.  Love is stronger than death.  The gift keeps moving, never knows where it’s going to land.  You must stand back and let it keep on changing hands.”[11]

[1] Mother Jones  (May 1989).

[2]James Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation  (New York: Seabury, 1972).

[3] Van Morrison, “Carrickfergus,” on the album, Irish Heartbeat (Mercury Records, 1988).

[4] Archie Fisher, “Ettrick,” words by Lady Mary Scott, on the album Off the Map (Snow Goose Records, 1986).

[5] Jim McCann, “The Town I Loved So Well,” written by Phil Coulter, on the album, The Collections (Erin Records, 1999).

[6]Cone, Spirituals and Blues, 33.

[7] U2, “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” on the album, War (Island Records, 1983).

[8]Quoted in Wendell Berry, What Are People For? (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990), 58-59.

[9]Berry, What Are People For?, 59.

[10]Berry,  What Are People For?, p. 62.

[11] Bruce Cockburn, “The Gift” on the album, Big Circumstance (Gold Castle Records, 1988).

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