A short sermon about music (West Mersea Civic Service 2011)

Those of you who read my Courier articles will know that I have a favourite philosopher, who has had a profound influence on how I understand the world – Ludwig Wittgenstein. He was raised in an extremely musical environment as his parents house in Imperial Vienna was one of the most important musical salons in that city; Brahms, Schumann and Mahler were regular house guests, Richard Strauss would play duets on the piano with Wittgenstein’s brother – this is the context for Wittgenstein to write, after finishing his greatest philosophical work ‘it has been impossible for me to write one word in my book about all that music has meant to me in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?’

Perhaps I should stop there… After all, what can be said in a sermon about music? It is rather like trying to talk about God in some ways – every attempt is bound to fall short of the reality, and yet sometimes we cannot but speak and the words have to stumble out of our mouths. Even shipwrecks have their uses.

Our first reading described the musician David with King Saul; here David can play music to soothe the troubled breast of the king – and this is certainly one element of music, as something which can soothe our spiritual aches and pains – bringing harmony out of discord – and yet, there is so much more to music than this.

In the context of this civic service, where we are dedicating ourselves to the welfare of all, we might perhaps call to mind the wider context at the moment. The financial crisis that has been running for a few years now but has not yet run its full course; the environmental and resource crises that are starting to bite as we start to run up against the Limits to Growth; the frankly frightening world context where violent militancy is on the rise. These are so many deep bass notes in a minor key, and we cannot overcome them with a blithe and bland melody. Yet there are ways to harmonise with those movements in a way that makes the music overall something that can be listened to, something which reflects who we are, something which might, perhaps, even heal. There are things which we can do even in this disquieting context.

For even though I don’t have much confidence that our governing classes have much idea about what is going on – one might say that their range of hearing doesn’t go down as far as basso profundo, or perhaps it’s just that they’re distracted by the sound of cats – my trust in God is still intact. In the end it is not for us to be in control – we are not the composer, we are not even the conductor, we’re not even the first violin – I suspect there is a good Trinitarian image there for Father Son and Holy Spirit – but we do have our own parts to play. We do not have to worry about the overall composition, it is not for us to know how the main themes and contradictions will be creatively resolved, we simply have to play our own part as best we can, confident that the creator can redeem any mistakes that we might make – as those marvellous words of Leonard Cohen have it ‘and even though it all went wrong I’ll stand before the Lord of song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah…’ For where there is no dissonance the music is in the end bland and boring and, most of all, unreal – and surely the complexity is real, the mournful notes are real – and in the end it is from the real deep well of our suffering that we will draw the refreshing water of joy. That is the trust with which we simply have to press on with the tasks that we have been given to do. And we have been told what we need to do: we are to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly before our God.

So may we commit ourselves this day to making real music together, in the service of our community, following the composition of, allowing ourselves to be conducted by, and being led in our playing by, the One in whom all things are harmonious, the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Alive and kicking

Yes, I know, there is more to a good blog that just continually posting YouTube videos but in the words of a good book recommended to me by my dear departed friend F**k it

You lift me up to the crucial top, so I can see
Oh you lead me on, till the feelings come
And the lights that shine on
But if that don’t mean nothing
Like if someday it should fall through
You’ll take me home where the magic’s from
And I’ll be with you


Thinking a great deal about music at the moment, under many different aspects, and came across this poem in a wonderful collection given to me by a friend. This is by Rabia of Basra, translated by Daniel Ladinsky:

It acts like love – music,
it reaches towards the face, touches it, and tries to let you know
His promise: that all will be okay.
It acts like love – music, and
tells the feet, “You do not have to be so burdened.”
My body is covered with wounds
this world made,
but I still longed to kiss Him, even when God said,
“Could you also kiss the hand that caused
each scar,
for you will not find me until
you do.”
It does that – music – helps us
to forgive.

If it be your will

I randomly picked up a Vanity Fair the other day, to discover celebrated atheist Christopher Hitchens talking about ‘If it be your will’.

There is a slight irony there. It is at least a possibility that Hitch is unaware of it…

It’s a song I’m finding comforting at the moment:

If it be your will 
That I speak no more 
And my voice be still 
As it was before 
I will speak no more 
I shall abide until 
I am spoken for 
If it be your will 
If it be your will 
That a voice be true 
From this broken hill 
I will sing to you 
From this broken hill 
All your praises they shall ring 
If it be your will 
To let me sing 
From this broken hill 
All your praises they shall ring 
If it be your will 
To let me sing

There are reasons for my lack of posting recently. 
Some time soon I’ll talk about them.

Music in worship: consumption or conversation?

From the May 2011 edition of Third Way magazine:

“…I went on going to church and I think I had the same values, only no longer quite with belief behind them. I went on with church music, which I liked a lot. Religious music still moves me, in a way that I suppose it shouldn’t, if you like. It’s not something that a Christian would think of as religion, but it’s a substitute.” (Professor John Carey)

I think Professor Carey articulates something very important to understand: that it is possible to appreciate religious music (or art or whatever) in such a way as to gain some benefit from it, even spiritual benefit – but this is not the same as worship. I think I would want to describe the difference as being between a consumer of religiously flavoured produce and being engaged in a conversation with something other than our own desires and perspectives. It is the latter that counts as worship, not the former.

Another music meme…

This one originates with the artsy honker, and I think I was tagged on Facebook but I’m not sure…

1.What is your favourite piece of music for congregational singing? Why?
As the question is about music, and not just hymns, I should confess a strong fondness for Personent Hodie, which has several different words available (“God is love, his the care…”, “Long ago, prophets knew…”, “When our God came to earth…”). I first came across it (that I can recall) at a friend’s wedding, and I find it marvellously stimulating and uplifting. I think the WM organist is getting a bit fed up of playing it though ;o)

2.What is your favourite piece of music for performance by a group of specialist musicians within a liturgical context? This might be a worship band or a cathedral choir or just a very snazzy organist or something else entirely, but the point is that it is not congregational singing and it is live music in liturgy.

3.What is your favourite piece of music which makes you think about God to listen to outside of your place of worship? Why? This could be secular music.

4.What is one thing you like about the music at your usual place of worship? Have you told the musicians about this lately?

What will enable this congregation to worship?

Musing on the various hymn/music memes going round, and pondering a way of gathering several thoughts and threads together. The question I want to ask is: what will enable this congregation to worship? The three parts each carry weight:

– what will enable – this is the end purpose in the choice of music (as of other elements) in a service. Will this get in the way, or will it allow those present to engage?

– this congregation – not congregations in general, not other congregations attending at other times of day, or times past or future, but this congregation here and now

– to worship – not be entertained or intellectually stimulated, have prejudices pandered to or preconceptions picked apart, but worship – to come into the presence of the living God in spirit and in truth, in adoration and thanksgiving.

So – a question, not an answer, but I think it’s a good question.