Dedication of Hymnals Sunday
February 15, 2015
Gladys Wilson had Alzheimer’s. The disease had robbed her of speech, but though she no longer had voice, she moved her hands in what is called, “repetitive motion.” Her rocking and tapping of her hands revealed a need for human connection. Naomi Feil, founder of a treatment called Validation Therapy, reached out to Gladys. She touched Gladys’ face, likening it to the touch a mother would give to a child. Naomi explained that the memory of this maternal touch is deeply embedded in each of us. Even the cells of our skin remember and crave that touch.
Then Naomi began to sing. “Jesus loves me this I know.” “Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me.” As Naomi sang, Gladys began to tap her hands to the beat of the song.
“Yes, Jesus loves me.” “Yes, Jesus loves me.” “Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.”
Naomi matched her pace to Gladys’ tempo, getting faster as Gladys tapped faster. Then she stopped singing, and Gladys, in this quiet moment, pulled Naomi close until their foreheads touched, and Naomi gently stroked her face. Then Naomi, in a quiet voice, asked Gladys if she wanted to sing more. Gladys tapped her hands in response. Naomi began to sing,
“He’s got the whole world in his hands. He’s got the whole world in his hands. He’s got the whole world in his hands. He’s got the whole world in his hands.” As this old hymn washed over her, Gladys’ hand stilled. Naomi sang on,
“He’s got the mothers and the fathers…”
Gladys, in a raspy whisper finished the verse, “in his hands.”
That is the power of music. I doubt that this truth about music’s power comes as a surprise to any of us. I’ve seen its power at work when we’ve caroled at nursing homes. I’ve seen it when I’ve led worship services in these same facilities. Residents, who sit in their wheel chairs, motionless, voiceless, their minds far away from the present, will begin to stir when a hymn is sung. Women and men, who often cannot remember the names of their children, will remember every word to Amazing Grace, Sweet Hour of Prayer, or He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands.
Music has power. I think that it is as fundamental to our lives and to our well-being as touch. We need it. We crave it as we do food and shelter. Music has power. The best lyrics tell a story, but even this word nerd knows that music is more than just the words that we sing. The combination of melody and harmony, chords and octaves, rhythm and time signature, has the ability to speak to our deepest longings. Music, in every form that it takes, is its own language. The only two words of the operatic aria, “Nessun Dorma,” that I understand are “no one sleeps.” But I don’t need a complete translation of the words themselves in order to understand the emotion and passion of the music. I just know that its sad beauty resonates with something in me that I cannot explain; its passion and heartbreak moves me to tears.
The poet Mary Oliver wrote, “We need beauty because it makes us ache to be worthy of it.” Music is that beauty for which we ache. Music is powerful and poignant and joyous and uplifting. The adjectives go on and on. Music is art. To paraphrase author Madeleine L’Engle, all art – even that which is deemed “secular” – is religious. Not because we proclaim it to be religious, but because art is incarnational. It is an instrument, literally, in which we are given a glimpse of the divine. Art is incarnational because it springs not only from the presence of God with us, but from the presence of God within us. Music is incarnational. Music is a gift.
It’s that gift that we celebrate today. It is music’s power to move, heal, and make whole that we celebrate today. We dedicate our new hymnal not just because it is new. We dedicate it not just because our Music Director and self-proclaimed hymnal geek, Alice Sanders, is so passionate about it that her enthusiasm is contagious. We dedicate our new hymnal because it opens our hearts and minds to the power of music, and even more to the incarnational love of the One from whom all music is a gift. Our new hymnal offers us new opportunities to worship, to praise, to pray, to give thanks. We dedicate this hymnal because it is a glorious example of music’s beauty. And on this Transfiguration Sunday, we dedicate this hymnal because it is a reminder of music’s incarnational power to transform. We give thanks to God not only for this hymnal but for the music of life.
So let all of God’s children not only say, “Alleluia,” let all of God’s children sing.
“He’s got the whole world in his hands. He’s got the whole world in his hands. He’s got the whole world in his hands. He’s got the whole world in his hands.”