May 17: “For the Time Being” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Click here to start at the sermon.
So let’s do this: type in the comments if you can recite the ingredients of a Big Mac.
Not if you can just kind of think of them, one by one, but if the jingle “two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun” is lodged somewhere in your brain, and pops up unbidden as soon as I ask the question. Right? A bunch of us older folks, anyway; some of you youngsters maybe haven’t been around long enough to remember that particular ad campaign. Those of us who were, though, heard it constantly over a period of a year and a half, and it became engraved in our neural pathways – part of the permanent fixtures of our brains. Decades, or maybe less, from now, when some of us are dwelling in the twilight of dementia, we will still be able to recite this sequence if prompted, because it lives not in our rational, deliberate memories, but in the place where music and poetry are stored – which is not administered by our executive intention, but rather by something more primal.
Once upon a time, it was standard practice in elementary and secondary education for students to memorize and recite passages of what was considered great literature – poetry, famous speeches, Shakespeare, and scripture. This kind of rote learning often left students with phrases and random fragments littering their engraved neural pathways, but little understanding of what those passages were supposed to mean. It was an intellectually unsatisfying sort of learning. It sometimes happened that as those students grew up, they came to a belated understanding of why the Gettysburg Address was historically significant, or why Hamlet was pondering whether to be or not to be, but you couldn’t count on it. Just as often, they remained chaotic trivia, much like the ingredients of a Big Mac.
Another place this kind of learning took place was church. Most Christian children learned to recite the Lord’s prayer well before they understood – if they ever did – what was radical and shocking about the way Jesus advised his disciples to pray. Many learned the 23rd psalm without having any idea what ‘the paths of righteousness’ might be, or why setting the table would be a good thing to do in the presence of your enemies. Maybe you used to wonder about that too. The other thing you might have been learning at the same time was hymns. Jesus loves me, this I know. All god’s children got a place in the choir. He walks with me in the garden. Blessed Assurance. A Mighty Fortress. I promise you, enter into any group of frail, unresponsive elderly people, and start singing one of these songs; it’s almost magical the way their eyes brighten, and they join in. Probably not because they are endorsing any theological proposition, but because they are meeting an old friend of music and words engraved long ago in their Protestant Christian neural pathways. Other traditions have other engravings – just try to alter the songs at a Seder dinner.
I believe that the hymns we are exposed to, and sing, and the words we learn to recite by heart because we encounter them week after week, become an important part of the furniture of our minds. Unlike ideas, that we may agree with or argue about, songs and poetry enter our brains through a different door, and become a spiritual resource in a way that concepts alone never can. When someone close to you dies, you don’t want a rational essay on the nature of death – at least, I don’t. I want to sing, and to hear others sing, the familiar hymns that have expressed the essence of my faith over the years. Often and often, it is music that overwhelms our carefully rational control, and allows the tears to flow. And this is true not only for moments of sorrow. When there is rejoicing to be celebrated, or commitment to be affirmed, or evil to be denounced, there is nothing so powerful as a familiar song – or perhaps, a new song that feels as if we have known it for a long time.
Those neural pathways in our brain do not sit there, passively empty until we decide to fill them. They are constantly absorbing the most memorable inputs from the world around us, whether that is the Big Mac jingle, or the opening sequence of Gilligan’s Island, or How Great Thou Art, or Spirit of Life. What we can decide, is what we want to expose ourselves to, and participate in. If the only song that you and your community ever sing together is Take Me Out to the Ballgame, that is what they will sing at your funeral, because it will be the only song you all know together. I think there are larger and better options. That is why it is important to have hymns, and hear hymns, and know hymns, and sing hymns, that reflect the values we choose to aspire to and teach. Those hymns are every bit as memorable, and contain a far more moving message, than the sales pitches that Madison Avenue would flood our minds with.
As we plan the worship experience here at All Souls, Anthony and I try to offer a creative combination of familiar and novel music, that will stimulate us with new appreciation, and comfort us with what is already accessible in our neural pathways as UUs. We appreciate your willingness to be adventurous, as well as your love of our accustomed favorites. I hope that the music of All Souls helps to fill your spirit with resources to carry you through the highs and lows you experience, and that it remains lodged in your mind and heart all the days of your life.
Please join me in singing the hymn written for our 150th Anniversary, Arise, All Souls.