A month ago, I asked on Facebook, “If you could only have music or books for the rest of your life, which would you choose?” Of course, discussion broke out — and I watched as arguments for one or the other surged ahead of the other. My initial response was books, thinking of the way that writers like J.R.R. Tolkien, Geoff Johns, William Goldman, C.S. Lewis, Mark Waid, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, Max Lucado, Lee Child, Christopher Nolan – writers of novels, comics, movies – have impacted my life and formed me, let alone those people who wrote down the stories of the Old and New Testaments. But then, preparing for the worship services of Holy Week, my heart broke editing in the organ music hitting the notes of “Up From the Grave He Arose” and “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” And I don’t even prefer organ music! But the songs, without the words, moved my heart and made me realize just how much I missed the gathering of church, the commune of the saints, the joining together in mission, the breaking of bread.
As one of my colleagues loves to say, “We Methodists have a sung theology.” Consider hymns that Charles and/or John Wesley, founders of the Methodist movement, had a hand in writing:
“A Charge to Keep I Have”
“And Can It Be That I Should Gain?”
“Christ the Lord is Risen Today”
“Come, Sinners to the Gospel Feast”
“Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”
“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”
“O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing”
“Hark the Herald Angels Sing”
Frankly, those are some good ones stretching from the birth of Christ to Jesus’ suffering and death, and ultimately, our faith as we live out what Jesus taught and God has ordered. (I’ll assume by now that one or more of these songs is rattling around your cranium!) But just for the sake of a personal study here, consider the lyrics of “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”
“Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
Once He died our souls to save, Alleluia!
Where thy victory, O grave? Alleluia!”
“Soar we now where Christ hath led, Alleluia!
Foll’wing our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like Him, like Him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!”
“King of glory, Soul of bliss, Alleluia!
Everlasting life is this, Alleluia!
Thee to know, Thy pow’r to prove, Alleluia!
Thus to sing, and thus to love, Alleluia!”
In half of a song, the Wesleys have covered that Jesus died, rose, and conquered death; that we have been freed from our sins; that we have the capability to go and do what Jesus did as we are made in God’s image and freed to be like him by his death and resurrection; that God has placed all of what we see and even what we don’t see under Jesus’ feet. One might not know and memorize chapters and chapters of Scripture, but thanks to a tune, the Wesleys have provided us the means to know (and memorize) core elements of our faith.
Beyond knowing it or memorizing it though, there is also this: by melody and more, music has the means to lift our spirits, carry us to places we can’t currently get to (take me to church!), and remind us that there is hope in the midst of impenetrable darkness. Music becomes the prayers we need, even when we don’t know the words to say.
Sung theology, indeed.
Romans 8:26-27 (NIV) “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.”