There is no human practice or ritual more universal than making music. Before children start talking, they are singing—babbling, humming, tapping and banging on tables, dancing. We are music makers as much as we are storytellers. All the various sounds of music, whether a parent’s lullaby or Bach’s cantatas or African American freedom songs, tell us something about what it means to be so wildly and wonderfully human.
Take singing for example. Singing is such a bodily act. It requires breath, the vibration of our vocal chords, the use of our memory. Even subconsciously, the beating of our own heart serves as the metronome. For me, the act of singing allows that deep, visceral ache I carry in my heart and gut well up and rise to the surface. This is the universal ache that assures us we are alive and there is some meaning, some ultimate source behind this aliveness. This ache is an assurance of God’s mercy.
The presence of music in the world, therefore, tells us something about God’s mercy. All the endless possible combinations of tones, rhythms, vibrations, melodies, harmonies, chord progressions, and styles—not to mention the inexhaustible variety of sounds and rhythms nature offers us—reveal an aspect of God’s own abiding creativity and playfulness. As Amanda Osheim reminded us in her post last week that the creativity of God is, indeed, the primal and continuous act of God’s mercy. In this sense, then, music itself is one of finest examples of God’s mercy and compassion.
In light of this, it is no wonder then that the psalms—the prayer songs–stand at the heart of our liturgical prayer life. The Book of Psalms, also known as the Psalter, contains one hundred and fifty prayer songs. The majority of these ancient prayer songs were originally written for liturgical settings. Scholars categorize the psalms into three major forms: lament, praise (hymns) and thanksgiving; and two minor forms: the Royal psalms and the Wisdom psalms (these tend to be more instructive than evocative).
The psalms set our story of salvation to song. They are recited or, more appropriately, chanted or sung at every liturgical celebration. The rhythm of the Liturgy of Hours is set to the Book of Psalms. Because we come to know them through music, they are some of the most well known passages of scripture. How many times have we heard “On Eagle’s Wings” at funerals or some rendition of “This is the Day the Lord has Made!” at weddings? Through the music, the psalms provide the words for our darkest and most joyful hours. When we know songs by heart, they bubble forth when we need them most, carried along by a familiar melody. Pamela Greenberg writes in the introduction to her translations of the psalms:
“The modulations of tone that are possible in song allow for a greater expression of passion and intensity than do words alone. Song is the vehicle of both longing and praise and by its very nature, the act of singing out our suffering to God transforms it” (1)
Because they grapple with every human emotion and experience such as anger, shame, envy, fear, joy, love, sorrow, anxiety, praise, gratitude, loneliness, wonder and awe, the psalms give us a language to address the Holy one. This honest and heartfelt language reminds us that the creator and sustainer of the universe cares passionately for each of us and desires intimate relationship with all of creation. Through praying the psalms, we enter the most human expression of humility and in this vulnerable and humble posture, hands raised in praise or head bowed in anguish, we open ourselves to receive grace and mercy. The psalms assure us that God, in God’s merciful goodness and compassion, is approachable and that the pleas of our hearts are music to God’s ears.
A few weeks ago, President Barack Obama delivered the eulogy at the funeral of the Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the state senator of South Carolina and one of the nine people brutally gunned down at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston. The President reflected on Reverend Pinckey’s prophetic witness and generous service; he reflected on the powerful witness of the people and families of the victims who spoke words of mercy and forgiveness rather than hatred and vengeance. Throughout the moving speech, President Obama focused on the power of God’s grace.
Then nearing the end of the eulogy, he began to sing “Amazing Grace.”
Something ever ancient and ever new happened as the congregation of mourners stood, cheered, and joined in the singing of that old familiar hymn–a hymn deeply entangled in the fight against the festering wounds of slavery and racism. That passionate moment of prayer stirred up as much of the lament, pain, hurt, heartache, anger, and confusion that the worship space could hold. Even when watching the video online, I could feel that painful ache deep within me, that indescribable, overwhelming sense that this world is just too much, too painful, too hurtful, too raw. And at the same time, how wonderful it is to be alive, to witness such extraordinary courage in the face of such brutality. Singing together has the power to evoke the lament and hope at the same time. As musician Abigail Washburn observes, songs serve as both containers and channels, holding and giving voice to the depths of our human experience—whether deep joy, sorrow, confusion, clarity, or despair and hope.
President Obama’s impromptu rendition of Amazing Grace—a present day psalm of sorts—exemplifies how the psalms as liturgical prayers give us a unique access to experiencing and understanding the wideness of God’s mercy and catching a glimpse of God’s deep desire for the healing and reconciliation of a broken world. Scripture scholar Dianne Bergant explains,
“When we pray the psalms this way, we are not simply using their religious imagery to express our own personal devotion. Nor are we merely calling to memory events of the past in order to be inspired by the saving acts of God in our history. We are entering into and caring forward our creative, dynamic religious heritage…” (2).
When we pray the psalms, we carry our creative and dynamic faith forward. The familiar lyrics take on new meaning when voiced in the present. I will not hear or sing the “Amazing Grace” the same way again. The psalms, our liturgical prayer songs, are wellsprings of grace, offering fresh and reviving water to our thirsting, yearning bodies and spirits. This is how they help us experience God’s mercy.
How can we keep from singing?
1. Pamela Greenberg, The Complete Book of Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010), xxvi.
2. Dianne Bergant, “Reading Guide to the Psalms, in The Catholic Study Bible, 2nd edition, ed. Donald Senior, John. C. Collins, and Mary Ann Getty, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 252.