Thursday, December 24, 2015

Sing a Lullaby

See the child that Mary bore
On her lap so softly sleeping
In a stable cold and poor
Ox and ass their vigil keeping

Sing lullaby, sing lullaby
My own dear son, my child
Lullaby, sing lullaby
Lullaby, my little baby

Flights of angels ‘round His head
Sing Him joyful hymns of greeting
Peace on earth, goodwill to men
Each to each the song repeating

Shepherds kneeling by His bed
Offer homage without measure
Wise men, by a bright star led
Bring Him gifts of richest treasure

You may not know the name Yip Harburg, but surely everyone here knows this lyric he penned:

Somewhere over the rainbow
way up high,
there’s a land that I heard of
once in a lullaby.

Lullabies have been around for a long, long time.  The earliest recorded lullaby is a Babylonia text over 4,000 years old.  While its aim was to get a baby to sleep, its message was rather menacing.  It chastised the baby for disturbing the household god with its crying and also contained a list of repercussions if silence did not follow.  Many cultures have lullabies with dark overtones.  The Luo people of western Kenya sing “Rock, rock, rock,” to their infants before starkly warning, “The baby who cries will be eaten by a hyena.”  Think about our own western tradition of singing “Rock-a-bye-baby” where wind and crying result in a cradle falling from a tree branch!

Well, while some lullaby lyrics are more child-appropriate than others, Nina Perry, in a BBC article notes, “Wherever you go in the world, women use the same tones, the same sort of way of singing to their babies…  Rhythmically, there are shared patterns… giving them a characteristic swinging or rocking motion.”  All of this has a way of mimicking a baby’s experience in the mother’s womb. 

Lullabies function in at least five different ways:

  They build a bond between parent and child.

  They pass down cultural knowledge and traditions.

  They help to develop communication skills.

  They regulate emotions and behavior.

  They help a baby fall asleep.

One study of premature babies concluded gentle music helps to slow down the heart rate and improves feeding and sleeping.  Another study determined a live voice is more beneficial than recorded music.  Still another study found lullabies enhance an infant’s neurological development.

Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers fame) observed “All of us have had the experience of hearing a tune from childhood and having that melody evoke a memory or a feeling.  The music we hear early on tends to stay with us all our lives.”  Would it surprise you to know that lullabies help hospice patients to transition from daylight to darkness? 

Do you have a memory of someone singing you to sleep? 

The beautiful anthem we heard moments ago highlights how the lullaby has figured prominently in the Christian spirituality surrounding this night.  Angels praising, shepherds knelling, gift-bearing travelers from the east, all of this awe and wonder and still our attention is drawn to the most human of all experiences: a mother singing softly to her newborn. 

At last Saturday’s beautiful handbell concert, Al Reese introduced Cathy Moklebust’s arrangement of Still, Still, Still, saying it evoked the image of “softly falling snow, quiet dreaming, and the great mystery of God made flesh”.  You may remember he encouraged us to listen with our eyes closed, which I did and, true to his words, I was caught up in softly falling snow, quiet dreaming, and the great mystery of God made flesh.

As I listen to Mary’s Lullaby I hold it next to my faith that all things have been created through God’s Son.  The incredible power that launched the Big Bang, the Vision who dreamed up the quark, the One who is All and beyond All and largely incomprehensible to our human mind became flesh.  God needed to be held and succored and sung to in order that the heart rate might slow, digestion might improve, neurological pathways might develop, communication skills be learned, and cultural traditions assimilated.  Is there any better way to describe this than “the great mystery of God made flesh”?

I wonder how many of us have oriented our religious selves around coming to God.  We come before God with our petitions in prayer, our confessions, our praises, and our thanksgivings.  We come to God.  This is how we do religion.  But tonight suggests there might be something we are overlooking: God comes to us.  God comes to us through the unexpected visit of a friend.  What does a lullaby to our God sound like in this moment?  God comes to us through a soft and serene majestic sunrise.  What does our lullaby to God sound like in this moment?  God comes to us in the person who desires a new beginning in life, perhaps by attending tonight’s service.  What does our lullaby to God sound like in this moment?

The great mystery of God made flesh reminds me of my need to be gentle and tender and soothing and nurturing in this life.  So much of what God is seeking to do in our world begins as something vulnerable, as something in need of care, of compassion, of a lullaby. 

Earl Wynne was one of those solid, salt-of-the-earth good guys I have been blessed to know in my ministry.  He stood at the front door of the church, greeted every person by name, and escorted the women on his arm to their pew all the while shushing the choir and clergy out of the way, saying “make room for the paying customers!”  His association with the parish began in the 1950’s when he and his young bride first attended a service on a hot, humid Richmond Sunday in July.  Because the church was not air-conditioned the usher encouraged him to remove his jacket so he would be more comfortable.  That simple act of gracious hospitality convinced Earl not only to join the church, but to carry out a decades-long ministry of greeting people.  Earl would never say the usher sang a lullaby to him, but tonight that is what I would call it.  Earl and his wife, Juliet, were in a vulnerable place looking to begin something new in their lives.  The church received them with the gentleness and care of a lullaby.

When was the last time you realized God came to you?  How did you respond?  What did you do?  Do you think there are times God comes to you, but you fail to recognize it?  If so, what might you do to be more attentive?  When, where, and how do you sing a lullaby to the vulnerable new thing God is doing?  And what about you?  What vulnerable new thing might God be seeking to do in your life?  What does your lullaby to it sound like?

Monday, December 21, 2015

Keep on Singing!

I have a lot of Christmas music on my home computer.  How much?  Well, enough for five days of non-stop playing; 1,750 songs!  Please don’t tell the Bishop, but I start to listen to Christmas music even before Thanksgiving.  A few weeks ago I was making a purchase and asked the cashier how she was doing.  “I don’t think I can take much more of this,” she said.  “What is the problem,” I asked, suspecting that the volumes of holiday shoppers in foul moods had worn her down.  “I can’t stand the Christmas music playing all the time in our store.  I hear the same songs over and over all day.”  I could offer her no words of comfort.

When an artist records a song already released by another artist it is referred to as a ‘cover.’  Here are the top five most-covered Christmas songs of all time:

#5  The First Noel – 12,476 covers

#4  The Christmas Song – 13, 208 covers

#3  Jingle Bells – 19,080 covers

#2  White Christmas – 20,721 covers

#1  Silent Night – 26,496 covers

Did you know that Jingle Bells has appeared in 373 movie soundtracks? 

Here are the five most requested Christmas songs this year:

#5  Fairytale of New York by The Pogues

#4  Mistletoe by Justin Bieber

#3  Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree by Brenda Lee

#2  It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas by Michael BublĂ©

#1  All I want for Christmas is you by Mariah Carey.

According the play count feature on iTunes, my most-played holiday song is The Cowboys Christmas Ball by The Killers, which I have listened to a whopping 58 times.

One of the unique features to Luke’s gospel is its emphasis on music, or what has become music.  In today’s reading Mary sings when she is greeted by her cousin Elizabeth.  Zechariah sings when his son John is born.  Angels sing to shepherds.  And finally, Simeon sings when he sees the infant Jesus in the Temple for the first time.  Scholars debate the origins of these ancient texts.  Did the original characters compose these hymns on the spot, or were they developed over time, and if so, by who?  In the interest of Christmas cheer, I’ll spare you the details of their discussions.  Still, it is worth noting that Matthew, Mark, and John either knew nothing of these songs or deemed them not significant enough to include in their gospels.  We are indebted to Luke for recording them.

More important than where they come from is what they mean and how they function.  This morning we hear the words of Mary’s Magnificat.  At its heart it is a song of praise and joy: “My soul magnifies the Lord!”  But it is also deeply rooted in another traditional aspect of music: it is an act of resistance.  Singing is a powerful way to protest when you do not have the power to change the way things are.

Are you familiar with the traditional call-and-response carol Mary had a baby? 

Mary had a baby (yes Lord)
  Mary had a baby (yes, my Lord)
Mary had a baby (yes Lord)
The people keep a-comin’ and the train done gone.

Sung by slaves, the reference to the train is an allusion to the Underground Railroad and by including it in the story of Jesus it served to inspire people to throw off the shackles of bondage and to hope for freedom and a better life. 

Think about the Von Trapp family singing Edelweiss as the Nazis are set to take over Austria.  That was an act of resistance to be sure.  The Civil Rights movement was fueled by songs like We shall overcome.  The Velvet Revolution, the non-violent transition of power in Czechoslovakia that was the precursor to the fall of the Berlin Wall, began when a small group of people started to meet on Monday evenings at St. Nikolai Church to sing.  Over the course of a couple of months their numbers swelled to over 300,000 thousand people, more than half the country.  When the secret police were asked why they did not crush the movement, they replied they had no contingency plan for a song!

Mary too sings in this tradition:

God has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud
in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful
from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

These are not words describing a historical reality at the time, but lyrics of protest and resistance.  In no uncertain terms, Mary proclaims that the world is not right and God is doing something about it.

We say Advent is a time for waiting, but with the waiting there is a strong element of protest and resistance.  Our Advent readings and hymns proclaim that something is wrong with this world.  This season highlights the darkness all around us while holding out hope for God’s Light. 

Much of the spirituality of Lent revolves around the realization there is something wrong with me.  It focuses on the changes I need to make in order to live God’s dream for me.  If we look inward during Lent, in Advent we look outward.  We look outward and we see the hatred which infects our world, the violence that plagues our society, the sin which is racism in our land, our lack of care for the lost, the least, and the lonely.  We see it and we sing about it.

O come, o come, Desire of nations,
bind in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid thou our sad divisions cease,
and be thyself our King of Peace.
Rejoice!  Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

Come thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.

Comfort, comfort ye my people,
  speak ye peace, thus saith our God.
comfort those who sit in darkness,
  mourning ‘neath the sorrows’ load.
Speak ye to Jerusalem,
  of the peace that waits for them;
Tell her that her sins I cover,
  and her warfare now is over.

O Zion, that bringest good tidings,
  get thee up to the heights and sing!...
he stands in the midst of nations,
  and he will right the wrong.
He shall feed his flock like a shepherd,
the lambs he’ll gently hold,
to pastures of peace he’ll led them,
  and bring them safe to his fold.

He brings God’s rule, O Zion,
he comes from heaven above.
His rule is peace and freedom,
and justice, truth, and love.
Lift high your praise resounding,
for grace and joy abounding.
Oh, blest is Christ that came
in God’s most holy name.

Let the endless bliss begin,
  by weary saints foretold,
when right shall triumph over wrong,
  and truth shall be extolled.

Have I made my point?

Gracia Grindal, a Lutheran hymn writer, composed We light the Advent Candles as a way of explaining the meaning of this popular liturgical act.  The first line of her hymn says, “We light the Advent candles against the winter light.” Now, she could have written “We light the Advent candles because of the winter light” or “during the winter light” but by using “against” she proclaims this season to be a protest of the darkness around us.  We sing because we hope for something better.  We sing for change. We sing, because we cannot give up or give in.  We sing because we believe.  We sing for strength and for courage.  We sing because we know a new world is coming.  We sing!

So let’s retrace one last time our journey through this Advent season:

· On the first Sunday of Advent we said “Take Advent Slowly!”

· On the second Sunday we said, “Change Your Clothes!”

· Last week we said, “Your Life Matters!”

· How about we draw Advent to a close with this:  “Keep on Singing!”