I was just a seminarian, learning to care for those in a retirement home. I was given a list of people to visit from all across the spectrum from the non-disabled retired to those who were in hospice care in their last days. Some were easy to engage in meaningful conversation, and then there was Veronica.
Veronica appeared catatonic. I walked into her room and introduced myself, and I was met with a blank stare into the ceiling. I went back to my supervising chaplain and said that I had no idea what to do. With a knowing smile, he told me to take a copy of the hymnal and do the liturgy with her. I went back to her room and feeling rather silly, I said, "The Lord be with you," and she sang, "and with your spirit." We ended up having one of the most beautiful conversations ever as we sang the liturgy, and after a few tries, I found a hymn that was in her. We never spoke, but we shared the word of God through the singing of the liturgy and hymns. This dear saint could not tell me her name, she could not tell me about her family, but she could sing to me about her Savior.
This dear saint could not tell me her name, she could not tell me about her family, but she could sing to me about her Savior.
Martin Luther wrote, “…next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. She is mistress and governess of those human emotions - which as masters govern men or more often overwhelm them. For whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate, what more effective means than music could you find?” (Luther's Works 53)
Martin Luther wrote many hymns to teach us the faith, and he well knew the power of music on the human psyche. For years, teachers have used music to help students remember the subject matter. I remember in high school, a science teacher taught us to sing the elements of the periodic table: “There are Hydrogen and Helium, then Lithium, Beryllium, Boron, Carbon everywhere, Nitrogen all through the air… etc.” It's hard to believe that almost forty years later, I remember that much. The secret to retaining this is not my superior memory, as most who know me understand that my mind is almost as solid as Swiss cheese.
There are many scholarly articles in journals, and online that speak to the benefits of music for memory therapy for those who have Alzheimer's Disease. It seems that music that is deeply ingrained in the human mind becomes hard-wired into our essence.
I would be hard-pressed to speak the Sanctus to you, but I can sing it: "Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabaoth, heaven, and earth are full of Your glory, Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest…"
We sing, and in so doing, we are blessed as we are instilled with the word of God in word and song.
Singing the faith and hiding God's word in our hearts is also why we need to guard the hymns and songs that we sing in church carefully. Because music is such a masterful teacher, we must make sure that we are being taught the right things. So we are given to ask probing questions.
- Is this song about Jesus and His atoning sacrifice, which brings us the forgiveness of sins, or is it about me?
- Does it properly confess my sin and need for a Savior?
- Does the hymn stress what God has done for me and his promises, or does it stress what I will do for the Lord? Who is doing the verbs in this song, Jesus or me?
Who does what? As I often say, "If it is about you, it isn't about Jesus, Christianity is about Jesus." Sure, it is also about Jesus for me, redeeming me, cleansing me, saving me, but Jesus is the doer of the verbs in our salvation, and in our Christian life, it is Jesus and the Holy Spirit who points us back to Jesus who is doing the verbs.
We are given to guard our worship so that it reflects the One who has done all things marvelously for us.