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Thinking Out Loud

Songs

by Michael Jinkins | Apr 05, 2016

SongsWhen the great Glenn Frey, co-founder with Don Henley of the rock group The Eagles, died recently, I heard several people say that The Eagles had provided the soundtrack for their lives. I may have said it too. But, for some of us, much the same could be said of so many other singers and song writers: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Simon and Garfunkel (and then just Paul Simon), Chicago, Blood Sweat and Tears, Otis Redding, James Brown, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendricks. I could go on and on.

We could all produce our own soundtracks from the songs we love most. Many of us have done so courtesy of the "playlist” function of those ubiquitous little iPods, iPhones and iPads. Recently, I discovered that when my iPod tabulated my most frequently played songs, Nanci Griffith's "Going Back to Georgia" was No. 1, followed by Thomas Tallis's "O Lord, Give Thy Holy Spirit" (sung by Pro Cantione Antiqua, conducted by Mark Brown), and ZZ Top's "Tush."

Some may argue that this is taking eclecticism too far, but there it is. Our songs reflect who we are. They also shape who we have been and will become.

George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass" and the score of "Jesus Christ Superstar" shaped my teenage piety more than my pastor's sermons. Kris Kristofferson elucidated my restless heart when he sang, "The Pilgrim, Chapter 33." My brother, the week before he died, gave me a pirated copy of Don Williams singing, "Good Old Boys Like Me" because he knew the lyrics felt like they had been written just for me. Willie Nelson's "There's Nothing I Can Do About It Now" has gotten me through a lot of rough days. And Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," in all its gloriously sacred profanity, never fails to remind me why, how, and because of whom the spirit endures.

Songs travel to places inside of us that nothing else can reach. And they have the power to stick there, not just for days, or months, or even years, but for decades. They reflect us. They shape us. They cheer us up and balm our wounded souls. Songs don't represent the only form of music, and certainly not the highest, but they speak, and the best of them speak eloquently.

One of my most treasured memories relates to a small Christmas service I conducted in a nursing home many years ago. Debbie came along to play the piano. Our then very small children, Jeremy and Jessica, came along to see their old friends. I said a few words of introduction to the service, read the story of the birth of Jesus from St. Luke, and prayed. By this point, some had fallen asleep where they sat. Then we sang, and they woke up.

We sang and we sang. Carol after carol after carol. No hymn books were needed with this crowd. I shall never forget their eyes, cataract-clouded or clear, some open, many closed, seeing as they sang far beyond that moment to something long ago or yet to come, something fondly recalled or dimly hoped. People who could remember next to nothing (some of whom struggled to remember the names of their children) remembered the words of "Silent Night" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem." The moment that we began to sing, the present became (to use Paul Tillich's phrase) the "Eternal Now." The moment shimmered brighter than tinsel and rang truer than any bell.

That was a Christmas service, but something similar happened any old time we got the songs right. "Amazing Grace" with some, "The Old Rugged Cross" or "In the Garden" with others.

One of the sweetest memories I hold as a pastor was leading a Women's Guild meeting at the Beechgrove Church in Aberdeen, Scotland, when I served there. I had done a Bible study, which covered the usual business. Before we retired to the parlor for tea and cakes, we sang, "The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond." It had never occurred to me to listen carefully to this familiar song. But when this group of women, many of whom were widows, sang: "Oh, ye'll tak the high road and I'll tak the low road, and I'll be in Scotland afore ye; but me and my true love will never meet again, on the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond," I saw in their tear-filled eyes the longing they let one another see in that moment through years of practiced stoicism, and I put aside my cynical view that this was just a song sung for the sake of the tourists.

When I was a young pastor, I held strong convictions about what was proper to be sung at Christian burial services, but I'll tell you right now, if any of those women asked me if we could sing "Loch Lomond" at the close of their memorials, I would have said yes without hesitation. And, I suppose, after they sing "For All the Saints" and "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" (tune: hyfrydol or don't do it!) at mine, I hope they'll let Willie sing too, "There's Nothing I Can Do About It Now."

Stand if you are able, and let us sing.

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