Hellfire, Brimstone, and Saxophones: A Message for Music Appreciation Sunday

Today is Music Appreciation Sunday at Church of the Pilgrimage in Plymouth, MA. Our minister is on sabbatical, and several members of the congregation were asked to help lead worship during this time. Soul Mama here got Music Appreciation Sunday. I know, I know...  me? Seriously? Well... here's what this ol' agnostic reluctant theologian has to say on the matter of music and God, today, prayers, scripture and all. 

Prayer for Music Appreciation Sunday

In the spirit of the Love, Joyfulness, and Humility, we gather as a people who believe in goodness and yearn for truth, ever seeking God’s presence, ever in awe of the beauty around us. God, you are with us whenever and wherever we join together to make a joyful noise in Your Name. You are with us, also, when we stand still and listen. On this day accept our music as gift, our ears as receptors of your love, our words as offering, our lives as service, our breath as worship. Amen.

Scripture: Colossians 3:12-16 New International Version (NIV)

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.

MESSAGE: Hellfire, Brimstone, and Saxophone

Throughout my teens and much of college, I believed that I had been called to ministry—except that’s not the path I ended up following. I blame David. David was one of my close college friends. During our college years, Dave and I spent hours together playing saxophone, talking about spirituality, running scales and arpeggios then running up mountains when we were done. We had a lot of energy. But we also both had a lot of spirituality in us. For us, music was a spiritual journey—both the learning of it and the playing of it.

As my four years of college came to an end, even though I had been a music major, I still wasn’t sure if music was really for me, and I was trying to figure out next steps. The call to ministry was still there. I went to an open house at Harvard Divinity School, and came back even more confused. I loved it there, but it felt like something was missing. I sat with Dave, once again pondering the universe. What would I do, I asked. Become a minister or become a musician? “I don’t think it matters,” he said. “Aren’t they the same thing?”

For many of us musicians, they are. When we give musically in church, it is an offering. We make those offerings not just in church, though—but also on concert stages, at coffeehouses, in friend’s kitchens, around campfires, in classrooms, and even in pubs. Musicmaking is an offering to others and to God. Some call it the Universe. I call it Love. We sing and play not for ourselves but for Love, making music for the uplift or meditation of those around us, no matter where we are and who we are giving it to.

In Colossians Chapter 3, verses 12 through 15 of our scripture reading today, Paul describes ten positive behaviors that Christians are supposed to practice: Love. Compassion. Kindness. Humility. Gentleness. Patience. Forgiveness. Peace. Gratitude. Those are powerful. But one is so important that it gets its own verse, verse 16. Music. But not just any music, though. Paul means the kind that comes from the heart. Let the message of Christ dwell in you richly, Paul writes, through poetry, through singing, through songs from the Spirit.

I could be wrong, but I’m thinking Paul is not talking about the stage or even the altar here. He’s not talking about choreographed, suggestive sequin-clad dance moves in a stadium somewhere, though I will say that there have been many sequin-wearing singers over the years who have preached! What he means, I think is this: Deep music. Music from the heart. And by “you,” he means ALL of you. He doesn’t qualify that statement, saying “Well, only the ones with a music degree,” or “only the ones gifted with the voice of angels.” He’s telling all of us to sing and praise. There is no degree that qualifies you to make a joyful noise. Praise, song, and the sound of the spirit: That is a God-given right for all of us. And when we sing, I say, let it all hang out!

Think you can’t sing? Get that right out of your head, right now. Some musicians we revere have extensive training, but no one has a corner on the voice of God. As a public school music teacher, I have 150 music students that I bring into the world from beginners, and I like to encourage parents to never say, “That sounds awful.” Oh, trust me, and you may know firsthand: A child learning to make music is cacophonous. It can be loud. It can be soul-sucking on bad days. (Let me tell you… after spending eight hours in a cement, tall-ceilinged room with beginner trumpet players all day, if I praise Jesus when I walk out those doors, it’s not because of joyful noise. It’s for the blessed silence.)

However, I say this a lot: Any sound uttered in sincerity is a good sound. A strong sound, a sound of the spirit. And so, as today we appreciate the incredible music we have here in our church—our skillful artiste of a choir director, our dedicated choir, our masterful organist—we also must remind ourselves that in addition to these gifts, we have our own. Music belongs to all of us. We all can SING! When Paul tells the Colossians to sing, he means ALL of the Colossians, not just the ones who can sing with the voice of an angel, tickle the keys with the agility of an artist, or play a mean solo on a saxophone. He doesn’t mean just up there on the altar. He means right here in the pews. Because that’s where our hearts are.

In Colossians, when Paul says sing, he is talking to all of us. Imploring us to stand up and let our voices ring out with songs from the Spirit, from our hearts. And if you ask me, those are the only songs worth singing.

Let us be deeply grateful today for the gift of music. It is a gift God has given to all of us. May all of our voices ring out in praise!