My sister was asked to write and then recite her faith statement at her church. Our small group is going through a series on song this summer and with her permission I shared it with them and now with you!
I love singing. I don’t remember when I first began to sing, but I do know that it is second to breathing for me. Song has carried me through the victories and losses of my life. During my second year of college, I decided to take a music theory class. Previous to this class, my experience with music was primarily vocal. I learned songs mostly by repetition with a minimal understanding of their form and structure. Now I was learning so much about the way notes can be assembled and crafted to create song. Music theory is fascinating and complex. Although it was challenging for me, I found myself falling in love with music all over again but for very different reasons.
For instance, we discussed dissonance. Two notes that occur side by side on the scale create a clash when played or sung together. The two notes are so similar and so close together but just different enough to achieve discord, a sense of urgency and disagreement. There is a tendency here toward resolution. And often that is just what happens. One note yields to the other by becoming unison with it or by taking a greater step away in order that a more harmonious and pleasing interval might take its place.
I also learned about pedal tones. Pedal tones are repeated notes in one line of the chord that continue even as other notes change around them. Composers like Bach and Hayden used pedal tones to symbolize God: steadfast, unwavering, faithful. In a choral setting, for example, pedal tones are often given to the bass and alto parts. Perhaps because these are the lower of both male and female voices and repeated notes in a lower range conveys a sense of resonance and power. Maintaining a single pitch measure after measure may seem dull and boring. But there is a depth and interest to pedal tones. They provide foundation, rhythm, and contrast through which the other parts are free to flourish, explore, and dance.
Another vocal concept worth mentioning is staggered breathing. This is a crafty means of maintaining continuous sound in a choral setting while still allowing for breath. Individual singers plan to take a break and replenish their oxygen during a note their colleagues are singing through. These breaks are staggered through the music so that no two people are taking one at the same time and thus the note is maintained through out. Staggered breathing is used when a vocal line is so lush and full that to interrupt it for breath would diminish its quality and character.
Perhaps my favorite musical device- ironically- is silence; probably because it is such an unexpected component in music. Maybe it is counter-intuitive to find that silence is an integral part of the overall sound. So many of my choir directors have urged me and my choir mates to observe the rests and give them their full value when we have them. It can be tempting to sing right through them; however, honoring the length of a rest can be very meaningful. There is even a musical notation that extends a rest through out all vocal parts and is held out sometimes for a full measure. Three or four seconds of silence may seem insignificant, but trust me, if the entire choir pauses together even for a few seconds, the quiet is very very noticeable. The audience may wonder what has happened. Why has everyone simultaneously stopped singing? They can even begin to believe the song has abruptly ended, but they must be hesitant enough to postpone applause. The silence is most effective when it hangs in the air.
Thankfully, I can remember only a handful of times when a silence like this entered my life. I have mentioned that I like to sing. So when I think of a specific experience that has strengthened my faith in God, I do not immediately think of a single event, I think of several. And music seems like the perfect context through which I might explain the way I experience the world around me and the desire for God within me. Song is an active part of my faith. It is as present and available to me as God is. In fact, it is often like prayer for me; a means through which I communicate with my Creator. If I am feeling sad and blue, I start to hum and eventually sing and before long my spirits are lifted and my outlook is not quite so bleak. If I am feeling cheerful, then singing a song seems like the perfect way to express and honor that joy. Sometimes I don’t need to be feeling anything particular, sometimes I don’t even realize I’m singing and yes, I most definitely sing in the shower.
Imagine with me then, as I remember, how unsettling, how deafening those silences felt when my voice trailed to a whisper and then fell away completely. My heart, so heavy beneath the weight of whatever the particular circumstance, that I could not find anything strong enough to lift it- even just a little bit. I could not even find the will to sing. This kind of silence makes me nervous. I want to tell you all that I am perfectly poised and certain of myself at all times. But the truth is that when the winds of my life change direction and I feel that I have lost something: a friend or loved one, a missed opportunity, an ideal- and if on top of all those things I have lost also my song and with it my sense of connection to the divine- I begin to wonder what is left of me. And I am so afraid of what I’m about to see.
Personal crises have a way of turning the world upside down and making evident not only the notions I might’ve had about myself, but also the world at large. I do not handle myself well at times like this. I get anxious and insecure, and God is the first to receive the flurry of my frustration. I confess, in my weaker moments I have heaped my disillusionment heavenward demanding comprehensive and immediate answers.
“Hello God! Are you seeing this?! I’m wiggin’ out down here!” And then I proceed to describe every last detail- as I am invited to do in Ephesians. And when I am finished describing the discomfort and grief I am feeling in my life, I decide that I’d like to mention some of the other things that have been bothering me.
“By the way, what is with this thing called hunger? You have blessed and supplied the earth’s soil with a fruitful harvest and yet there is vast and needless waste in some areas and terrible shortages in others. Why are there little children struggling to live for something as simple as lack of food? Why are mothers and fathers made to witness this deprivation with so little ability to change it?
What is this thing called war, how it ravages and separates and destroys? What is with this abundance of suffering? How it takes on so many forms, how it touches everyone at one time or another and how there are no assurances that when it arrives we will be strong enough to endure it?
What are these promises called peace and love and diplomacy that are supposed to heal and unite but sometimes feel so abstract and ever-elusive, always just beyond our reach? Why- even with all our creativity and resources- are we so incapable of implementing effective solutions to these problems in our world and in our own lives? Why, why do we continue to hurt one another even when we have the option to love? Is this what you wanted me to see, God? Is it? I am horrified. I am heartbroken. Do you expect me now to believe that you exist? Do you expect me to believe you are here in this place?
Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote, “There lives more faith in honest doubt, Believe me, than in half the creeds.” I have a high regard for the Lord’s Prayer, and the serenity prayer, but I believe Tennyson is right. In silence, I don’t have the comfort of those songs and prayers to reassure me. But there is something. And I don’t know what it is really. Because it is greater and stronger- even in my weak moments- than anything I know or understand. Aurelius Augustinus explained it like this, “Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore, seek not to understand that thou mayest believe, but believe that thou mayest understand.” Before I can even finish my lament, I already have my answer. It’s not words or an explanation- God’s ways are not my own after all. It is the realization that I have become dissonant. The discomfort I am feeling is in my reluctance to let go of whatever it is I think I should have or be so that I might align myself once again with who I am and with what is. Martin Luther once wrote, “I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.” I think God understands how difficult this is for me because I am met with strong, steady bursts of hope and peace. Pedal tones. I may not hear them at first, but they continue as the days pass growing louder and louder until I am inundated with small and simple gifts, like witnessing an act of human kindness or nature at play. After awhile, I begin to suspect I’m being invited to join the motion unfolding around me in order that I might flourish and explore and dance. I am a little hesitant and unsure so I reach out to the comfort of friends, family, and community as I stagger for my next breath. And slowly, oh-so-slowly I feel a faint and familiar longing rising up from the stillness within me. Yes, I know what this is. This is all the sureness of things hoped for and certainty of what I cannot see. God is real. God is present. As surely as I can recall those silences in life that have so perplexed me, I can also testify to innumerable examples of pure joy. A joy so deep and encompassing that I experience traces of it even in my darkest moments. After all, Charles A. Beard said, “When it gets dark enough you can see the stars.” This is the joy of a Giver and a Lover who is with us, mighty to save, taking delight in us and quieting us with Love. This is the joy of the Lord and it is my strength.