Nate, our 2 year old grandboy, provided his family with a concert at dinner one evening last week. Anna reported that as they sat down at the table to eat, Nate burst out into song. He apparently sang the entire Queen catalogue, at least that part of the Queen catalogue that really matters to a two year old boy – “We Are the Champions,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “We Will Rock You” and “Bicycle.” Freddy Mercury, wherever he is, has got to be smiling! A day later, Anna posted a video of Nate in his car seat still singing “We Are the Champions” at the top of his lungs, oblivious to anything or anybody else, as they drove Drew to school for his first day. That little boy really likes his Queen!
So, when did we stop singing at the dinner table, and while driving to work? And maybe the better question is, “Why did we stop singing?”
Last Saturday afternoon was Valerie Gardner’s wedding at that church. It was beautiful; in fact, I would have to honestly describe it as “perfect.” And my favorite part of the day was when John stepped out of the choir loft after Max had escorted Valerie down the aisle on his arm to the strain’s of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” played majestically by Margaret on our wonderful pipe organ, and with a wave of his hand, launched the gathered congregation into a full-throated, full-hearted singing of “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” hymn #2 in the Chalice Hymnal.
Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee, opening to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness; drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day!
All Thy works with joy surround Thee, earth and heaven reflect Thy rays,
Stars and angels sing around Thee, center of unbroken praise.
Field and forest, vale and mountain, flowery meadow, flashing sea,
Singing bird and flowing fountain call us to rejoice in Thee.
Thou art giving and forgiving, ever blessing, ever blessed,
Wellspring of the joy of living, ocean depth of happy rest!
Thou our Father, Christ our Brother, all who live in love are Thine;
Teach us how to love each other, lift us to the joy divine.
I love singing a hymn at a wedding, and I wonder, “Why don’t we do it more often?” And could the answer be, at least in part, because somewhere along the line we’ve stopped singing at the dinner table and in our cars on our way to work?
In his spiritual autobiography, A Song of Ascents (Abingdon 1968), E. Stanley Jones quoted Nathan Pusey who was the President of Harvard University from 1953 through 1971. “What mankind needs” he said, “is a song to sing and a creed to believe.” And then E. Stanley Jones quickly added: “These two things go together – you cannot sing unless you have a cosmic basis for your singing.” Further explaining what he meant, E. Stanley Jones wrote that he wasn’t talking about “a ditty to divert us from reality,” but rather that what he had in mind was “a song which has behind it the ‘music of the spheres.’”
We sing about “the music of the spheres” in the hymn “This is my Father’s World” (Maltbie D. Babcock) –
This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears all nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.
The “music of the spheres” was an ancient philosophical/theological concept that saw in the harmonic movement of the planets in the solar system a kind of musical precision. The orderliness and dependability of that creative order was regarded to be a kind of symphony that continuously sounds to the praise of God. Surely this is what the psalmist had in my mind when he wrote (19:1-6) –
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth.
Of course, ears, and hearts, have got to be “tuned” in order to be able to hear the strains of this speech, and maybe little children, just like dogs who can hear the pitch of a whistle that we human beings can’t hear, can hear “the music of the spheres” better than those of us with more “trained” and “sophisticated” ears.
I once heard an Eastern Orthodox priest make the argument that when a new born baby suddenly stops and stares off into space, focusing on something that isn’t there to the eyes of an adult, that what they are seeing are angels! He said that the spiritual vision of little babies hasn’t gotten clouded yet, reminding me of something that John Killinger who had been the Professor of Preaching at Vanderbilt Divinity School once wrote in one of his books –
There was a time when I saw paradise all around me very clearly. It was during my adolescence. I lived, like young Wordsworth with “intimations of immortality” all around me. I lived, breathed, slept with a sense of the presence of God. Every bush was a burning bush, every creek a sacred stream. Once I saw an angel, bright as the sun, diaphanous as a movie projection. There was no question of its reality. I had not yet fallen into the way of dividing objective and subjective phenomena which our education system teaches and enforces in us. The vision was a gift, as life itself was. I saw with a single eye. Then the world began to wean me away from my belief in angels. Not suddenly or dramatically, but gradually. I became caught up in its frantic pace. I learned to speak the language of its jaunty secularism and self-assurance. I submitted to its subtle way of psychologizing everything about me – my dreams, my loves, even my beliefs. The enthusiasm, the fire that had burned inside me, was artfully damped. The living flame became a hidden coal. (Bread for the Wilderness 11)
I’m not sure that Queen is “the music of the spheres,” but I can’t help but think that the joyful, earnest singing of my 2 year old grandboy is his instinctive response to something cosmic, something transcendent that he hears so clearly right now but will soon be weaned out of him, “artfully damped.”
Back to E. Stanley Jones; he said that in order to sing you have to have “something to sing about.” And then, referencing the description of creation in Job 38:7, he concluded: “You sing the song that ‘the morning stars sang’ when all the sons of God shouted for joy’ – that strain is in it.” On Saturday, at Valerie’s wedding, we did this. The last stanza of “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” was its expression –
Mortals, join the happy chorus, which the morning stars began;
Father love is reigning o’er us, brother love binds man to man.
Ever singing, march we onward, victors in the midst of strife,
Joyful music leads us Sunward in the triumph song of life.
And I can’t help but think that my little Nathan singing Queen at the top of his lungs has this same “cosmic backing” to it. DBS+