Mendelssohn, Mozart and Power: Music and Prayer

Men’s Breakfast, April19, 2015


At the end of March, the Masterworks Chorale put on a concert at St. Mary’s Church in Auburn. That morning, Sandy Nichols made Katie and me aware of this by asking us after Church, “You do want to go to the concert in Auburn at 4 PM this afternoon, don’t you!”  Sandy is a persuasive woman. We said, “Yes,” and she gifted us with two free tickets to “Mendelssohn, Mozart and More”. So, we headed off to downtown Auburn on that clear, cold March afternoon and were rewarded with an extraordinary experience.
In that beautiful church, much like our own, with picture-less but beautifully colored and patterned stained glass windows, we experienced something extraordinary. Extraordinary not just in a musical sense, but in a worship sense. And that’s what I want to talk about today. The powerful, even mighty role music has in our worship experience.

By way of background, here is a quote from Jesus. The Gospel of Luke tells us Jesus was asked which was the most important of all the Jewish laws. Jesus said, in his own words and language,

Which means, in Skaneateles language, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might.”

Most translations have Jesus adding the words, “and with all your mind.” That may be because the word for mind and the word for soul can be the same in Hebrew. Nefesh.  But the Hebrew Jesus was quoting from Deuteronomy 6 is clear. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your Heart, and all your Soul and all your Might.” Might is Strength. Muscle. Sinew. Power. me'odechoh. To love God with all your heart, lev means with all our loving affection. To love God with all our soul, nefesh, means to love God through and through in our inner-most true self, without reservation. And to love God with all our might, all our power, me’odechoh, means, “Put everything you have into it.” There is a physicality, a “body-ness” to me’odechoh.

Me’odechoh can take many forms. It is a connection of intimacy and intensity. A connection of body and spirit and will. It’s sort of “being in the zone.” Champion athletes play me’odechoh. Great musicians perform me’odechoh. Great prayers pray me’odechoh. Praying, making music and living with power and all our might, nothing held back, pedal to the metal, letting it all hang out. Like Bill Nichols every time he blows that unpredictable Shofar during Lent, risking all, doing it anyway. me'odechoh

Music can be an entry to me’odechoh. In every religion I know of, and every Christian denomination, music is a key part of worship. Sufi Islamic music, drums and dance, Taizé worship, Christian plainsong, Protestant and Catholic hymns, Jewish chants, song and dance, Catholic Gloria, Agnus Dei, Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Church music and chant, American spirituals, Christian Rock, Rastafarian Ska, Buddhist heavenly singing, chanting and drums, Confucian benevolence through music, Baha’i music, African tambour and tam-tam, Shinto music of Japan, Hindu ragas. The Shakers danced, and today even the Quakers sing.

Music is central to every worship experience, from pagans playing pan pipes to Doris Hill playing organ pipes. If there was or is a religion without music, I can’t find it. And, even though some Islamists want to ban music today, music has always been a part of Islam as well.

The question is, “Why is music so central to worship?”  Here is a clue from the Gospels: Jesus, speaking to the formalistic, legalistic Pharisees and lawyers of his time, said, ‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’  Jesus compared this kind of rule-bound, traditionalist religion without power or faith, with being unresponsive to music.

When I was in first grade, way back in the last century, we were seated alphabetically in rows. With the last name “Weiss” I was of course in the last row. Not knowing I needed glasses, I thought the world was naturally a blurry place. The blackboard was something I heard being written on but couldn’t see. When it was time to assign groups for singing, we sang a simple song. Based on singing ability, we were assigned to one of four groups; nightingales, larks, robins and, my group, crows. The good news was I didn’t have to change my seat when it was time for singing; all the crows moved to the back. So come music period, Carson Clark joined Barbara Whittaker and me in the last row.

Knowing I was a crow, singing was not part of my early religious experience. The first Christian Church we joined was Congregational, and in my crow voice, I mumbled the unfamiliar words of the hymns. I didn’t realize the worship power of  religious music until a few years later in an Assembly of God Church.  One bright morning the congregation sang an old Swedish Hymn, "O store Gud." or, How Great Thou Art.

O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the works Thy hand hath made.
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.
Then came the Refrain:
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee;
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!...

When we sang that refrain, something happened. I experienced for the first time the liberating, self-unwrapping power of worship music. My eyes filled with tears as my body filled with sound. Not just my voice, but the whole congregation, as one joyful, grateful organ of the body of Christ. “Then sings my soul…” Yes, my soul sang. The crow’s throat opened and my voice changed. This was something new. Something wonderful. I sang and worshipped with all my might. Not just with my heart and with my inner-most soul; I blessed and adored the Father me’odechoh, with all my might.

Richard Rohr describes the difference between knowing about God and knowing God. And, the difference between knowing about faith and experiencing faith. Experiencing faith is a different matter from quoting its definition. Paul wrote, this  is not a matter of words, but of power, me’odechoh.

The power of faith, like music, involves both body and mind.  It’s a physical, somatic, body thing as well as a matter of trust. But it isn’t “work,” or physical effort. It’s more a matter of letting go, relaxing into it, letting go of yourself. Trust. Sort of like floating in water. Letting yourself relax and float in the lake is a matter of immersion and trust, not thrashing around. Get in the zone. God will do the work.

Let’s look at healing by faith. Jesus used healing, not just to heal, but as He said, to teach the power of faith. We think of Jesus as a Healer, but, Jesus did not claim to heal. Jesus said time after time, as the blind saw, as the lame walked and as the sick were made well, Jesus said, “Your faith has healed you.”

Certainly Jesus was the occasion of faith. His presence, his closeness sparked faith. Palm Sunday Craig read from Mark. The blind beggar Bartimaeus yelled out, “Son of David, Hosanna. Son of David, have mercy on me.” People tried to quiet him down, but Bartimaeus didn’t care about decorum, about social appropriateness. He heard Jesus of Nazareth was approaching and began yelling!  “Hosanna, have mercy on me!”  He cried out to Jesus with intensity, all his might, me’odechoh. Jesus noticed, and said, “Call him.”

Bartimaeus then took two physical actions, which are acts of power, acts of expectation. First, he threw aside his cloak and got to his feet, confronting Jesus. Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you.” Jesus always asks what it is you want.

Bartimaeus second action was to declare what he wanted, with power, with expectation that it could be so. “Rabbi, I want to see.”  “Go on your way, your faith has made you whole.” And Bartimaeus immediately received his sight, and followed Jesus. Jesus doesn’t wave a wand or pronounce an incantation. Jesus first asks the afflicted person what they want. Just because someone is ill doesn’t mean they want to be healed. The first step in healing is authentic desire to be healed. That means giving up the status quo. It can be risky. So Jesus asks you to be clear in your mind you are wiling and want to change. Once the person is clear they want to be healed, Jesus then asks, one way or another, whether the person believes they can be healed. This is often followed by a request to do something, such as stretch out your hand, or take up your bed and walk. Called to act with conviction.

In clinical trials for new drugs, you health care professionals know typical results might be; pure control group no change, experimental group 23% get better, placebo group 20% get better. The drug is 3% effective. So, what happened here? What about the 20% in the placebo group? Here’s what I think. Some in the placebo group wanted to be healed, and EXPECTED to be healed. And the power of their faith, their expectation healed them – not the dummy placebo pill.  Maybe the power and intensity of their faith they would be healed attuned and activated their white cells, we don’t know. There is evidence our bodies respond to the power of our belief, and our minds affect our bodies more than science knows yet, both positively and negatively. Not everyone who asks to be healed – whether in body or in soul, will be healed. This is a mystery too big for me to tackle. But, without the faith, without the expectation of healing, you are stacking the odds against healing.

What has this got to do with music? Everything. I believe God put standard operating principles for the Universe in place, and these operating principles underlie all of physics and psychology, all of matter and all of mind and emotion. The Bible is a textbook of these operating principles. Jesus, through parable and direct teaching was explaining the operating principles, and urging us to understand and live by them. If we really tune in and listen to Jesus teaching, they are plain to see.  Modern physics views the universe as constructed of fields of tiny, invisible vibrating strings. Think of angel harps or cherub violins. When we play or live out of tune – you know it. When we are in tune, you feel it.

Music in worship helps us tune, to attune ourselves with the glory and power of the gifts God is extending to us. Music helps us open up, tune in and relax into something greater than our self. Music can help release us from our rational selves, out of the practical box we are in, let go of our carefully wrapped selves. To act and feel and move with me’odechoh, with all our might, in the zone. We lock ourselves up with what we think is possible. How did we lock ourselves up? Maybe others did it. Maybe our parents. Maybe our friends at school and work. Maybe bad religious teaching. Our culture does it. We close down. We live with what seems possible, reasonable. We don’t dare reach outside of ourselves. But music, music can lift us out of our blindness, our lameness, our imprisoning chains. It takes power and energy to let the captive free.

The Holy Spirit is power, waiting and ready to fill us with flame. But our dampers are shut. The flue is closed. There is no room for draft. We are airless. There are some things that open us up. Music is one of the miraculous elements that break us out of our self-imposed shells and help us let the spirit in. We join the dance! We lose ourselves and open to possibilities.  And, yes, this happens in Church. This is the role of music. It’s not a concert. Sure, scripture tells us to make a joyful noise unto the Lord, to please the Lord with cymbal, and 10-stringed lyre and harp, and bells, and song. But, does God need this? Of course not! God doesn’t need the sound of music any more than God needs the fat of the burnt sacrifice. All this is for us. For each other and ourselves. The prayers, the sacrifice, the music. It is all for us.

God wants for us to make the music and to hear the music and to be transported by the power and meaning of the music. And, when we are transported out of ourselves, opened up and awakened by the music, by making it, hearing it with open heart, then the Holy Spirit can transform us, can move us. Like Bartimaeus, we can take action, throw our cloaks aside and stand up, expecting, expecting our souls to be healed!

The wind of the Spirit blows in ways we do not know, and our sails aren’t always set to catch it. Worship music can help us un-reef and set our tightly-wrapped sails, and let the power of the Spirit fill us and propel us. Haven’t you been moved to tears? Haven’t you found yourself singing with full voice and tearful eyes and heart? Haven’t you felt yourself lifted outside of yourself as you put your heart into the song, whether playing or singing or listening?

We’ll have time for comments and questions in a moment. But, a final thought: Jesus taught the first commandment is, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might, me’odechoh. Then, we are in tune for the second commandment. Love your neighbor as ourselves. And what better way to love our neighbor than to make music with him. But, if our neighbor needs to be fed first, feed him. If he needs to be clothed first, clothe him. If he needs to be released from his prison first, help to set him free. And then, and then, make the music of life with him. Me’odechoh. And let the Spirit blow us as it will.