Music as a Spiritual Practice

This is the text of a worship service at First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia on October 27, 2013.  It was a non-traditional service that I led from the piano.  It combined recorded music, spoken word, live musical performances, readings and congregational singing.

Music: James Brown, “Doin it to Death”

“Some songs make you feel good. Some songs make you feel bad.  Some songs just make you ‘feel.’  You may not understand all the words, but your heart truly understands the feeling.”  Those words are from R & B singer Peabo Bryson – the “real” pre-Disney movie theme Peabo.  In 1981 he released a live version of his 70s hit “Feel the Fire.”  I started playing it on my then-new Walkman cassette player before every exam, every trial and every big presentation. I played it the day I was sworn in to the United States Supreme Court.  I played it two months ago in July the day of my surgery. I played it today.  It’s always among the Top 25 played songs in my iTunes library.  There’s something about the energy of that particular version that makes me feel invincible.  The song you just heard is called “Doing it to Death” by James Brown, the Godfather of Soul.   Nothing can make you “feel” like a James Brown song.  Young or old, black or white, I’m sure that song made you feel something.  I hear that song and instantly feel good. Hopefully it made you feel good, too.  But maybe it didn’t and that’s ok.  That’s what today’s service is about – the power of music.  Eight simple notes.  Arranged in various combinations, played on different instruments, sung by humans or animals.   Whether it’s funk, opera, jazz, easy listening or heavy metal, it’s all the same eight notes.

For those who do not know me, my name is Connie Simon and I’ve been a member of this church since 2009.  I’ve been on the Ministry Leadership Team, the Membership and Multicultural Ministries, the Bylaws committee and am proud to be your Moderator this year.   Some of you know that I come from a musical family.  My mother and her sister were the organists of their respective churches. My sister sings in the church choir.  My niece Suzanne Burgess is a professional singer here in Philadelphia.  As a kid I sang in the choir and all the school choruses, played the saxophone and clarinet in marching band and have played the piano in all kinds of venues since I was eight years old.  Over the past few years, I’ve filled in for Jen Heyman, our previous music director and performed here with Cory Walker many times.

Even though I’ve made my living in law and business, music has always been the constant my life.  It’s my solace and my comfort.  It’s the one thing that is always with me.  No matter how I’m feeling – happy or sad, sick or well, fragile or unbreakable, loved or unloved, I turn to music.  It’s my “spiritual practice.”  It can calm me, excite me, motivate me and sometimes in its beauty even move me to tears.  Bach, Beethoven, Bryson or Brown, there is an arrangement of those eight notes for every occasion in my life.  I feel their vibrations in my soul and use them to heal and sustain me.   Today, I’ll share with you the power of music as a means of spiritual practice – as a vehicle to ground you, to carry you to a higher place or simply to take you home.  I hope you don’t mind but today will be a little bit different – a cross between a summer service and a Music Sunday.  With Reverend Nate as my worship associate, Cory, Suzanne, Joy, Zemoria, Dan and Schelly assisting, I’ll lead the service from the piano through Wonder-Joy, Prayer, Gratitude, Presence, Reverence and Hope.   My mission is for you to leave here feeling good.  I hope you enjoy and have a funky good time. So, let’s begin the way we do every week by saying simply “welcome home.”

Wonder-Joy

What exactly is a spiritual practice?  Ask 10 people and you’ll get 10 different answers.  The Spiritual Science Research Foundation defines it as “honest and sincere efforts done consistently on a daily basis to develop Divine qualities and achieve everlasting happiness or Bliss…. It’s “our personal journey of going inward beyond our five senses, mind and intellect to experience the Soul (the God) within each one of us.”    I’ve also seen it defined as something that “moves a person along a path towards a goal.”

You can define it any way you choose.  My spiritual practices are those things that keep me sane and guide my steps through this life and into the next.   My spiritual practices are tied to my core values and to the fundamental principles by which I live my life – honesty, kindness, knowledge and service.  I always speak my truth from my heart and I don’t compromise my integrity.  I believe in showing kindness and compassion to the other creatures with whom I share this universe.   I strive to learn something new every day.  And I truly believe in service.  In the words of one of my favorite authors, SARK, when asked what I do or who I am, I say “I am a creative spirit.  I just came here to help.”

Honesty, Kindness, Knowledge and Service are the outward manifestation of my spiritual journey.  Today, we’re going to talk about those practices that reflect internally and guide me on my path.  I’m going to use music as the medium through which I’ll explain what I mean.  Understand that I’m using “music” in the broadest sense.  I’ll introduce each spiritual practice with an explanation of what it means to me and then share with you a few songs, poems and stories that illustrate that practice and that are personally very important to me.

I’d like to start with the practice of “Wonder-Joy.”  Initially, in my mind, these were two different things with “wonder” suggesting amazement and appreciation for the things around me and “joy” referring simply to happiness.  And then I read “Experiencing Tears of Wonder-Joy: Seeing with the Heart’s Eye” by William Brand.  And finally, all those times I found myself stopped dead in my tracks by something I’d seen or heard made sense to me.   All those times I’d felt that indescribable feeling in my chest and the tears welling up – finally made sense.  Braud says “My skin erupts in gooseflesh, hairs standing on end.  Something literally takes my breath away; I gasp, involuntarily.  Chills run up and down my spine.  I feel a tingling around my eyes, my head, and the back of my neck.  The tone of the experience is positive.  Toward the end of the experience, or afterward, there may be some sadness.  In the midst of the experience I feel love and compassion.  My heart goes out to what I am witnessing.  I feel gratitude.  I feel a yearning, a poignancy, an intensity.  Around me, and between me and the provoking event, there is what I can only describe as a thickness, as though the surrounding air somehow has a greater density.  The experience comes up me – unexpected, spontaneous.  My attention is focused strongly upon what I am witnessing, what is provoking these feelings.  Other things fade from my attention.  … The rest of me pauses, shuts down temporarily.  I must cease, and allow the feelings to subside before I am able to continue.”

Wonder-Joy isn’t something you can look for; it’s something that’s already inside you, always waiting to be released and anxious to be set free.  As children, we’re taught that we have to “grow up and get serious.”   Sure, we all have responsibilities and obligations but we also have to keep our hearts and minds open to the world around us. Robert Fulghum says, “Surprise is the core of existence. It’s true. You never really know what’s coming next.”  Even the most mundane things can be amazing.   It is said that “Wonder begins in the senses, comes alive in the imagination, and flourishes in adoration of the Divine. It arises from our natural curiosity about the grand adventure of life. It increases our capacity to be a bold inner space tripper and an avid explorer of the physical world. … [it’s] all right here, a feast of epiphanies and astonishments in the daily round of our spiritual lives.  Put very simply by Ted Kosser, “I delight in the things I discover right within reach.”   I’ve experienced Wonder-Joy many times in my life.    In January 2009, I had a pretty good ticket for President Obama’s first inauguration.  The crush of people around me was incredible.  It was freezing cold.  But when we got to our seating area, I saw those thousands of people all there for the same reason I was.  We were one.  We were there to celebrate not just a new president but a new president who looked like us.  All at once the hopes and dreams of my ancestors were realized and in an instant – I was overcome by Wonder-Joy.  This summer I was driving through my hometown and spotted some cows hanging out on an Amish farm.  The sky was a perfect blue; the grass was verdant and plush.  When I stopped to admire the scene, one cow looked up at me as if to say “Nice day, huh?”  That’s Wonder-Joy.   Then there’s the song you’re about to hear.  My brother Doug introduced me to Chuck Mangione back in the 1970s and his soundtrack for the movie “Children of Sanchez.”  The movie, starring Anthony Quinn, didn’t do well at the box office, but the soundtrack is amazing.  One particular melody, “Consuelo,” which you’ll hear in a moment, is so haunting and beautiful in its simplicity that it always moves me to Wonder-Joy.  But first, you’re going to hear a poem by English poet Adelaide Anne Proctor about an episode of musical Wonder-Joy.  This 1858 poem was set to music by Arthur Sullivan in 1877 as a death-bed tribute to his brother Fred.  When I was young my mother used to play and sing it to me.  Even now, when I sit down at my piano at home, it’s one of my favorite pieces to play.

Poetry Reading: “The Lost Chord,” Adelaide Ann Proctor read by Dan Widyano

Music: Medley – “Consuelo’s Love Theme” and “Children of Sanchez” by Chuck Mangione, arranged by C. Simon performed by Suzanne Burgess, Joy Wiltenburg and Connie Simon

Prayer

Poetry Reading:  “The Old Slave Music” by Sarah Piatt read by Rev. Zemoria Brandon

Much of the “old slave music” referenced in that poem came from the anguish and despair of the slaves who had been torn from their homes and families only to be worked like animals, bought and sold like crops and often beaten until they died or escaped.  Many of their songs were pleas for help and deliverance from the hell in which they found themselves.   Sometimes we find ourselves in our own personal versions of hell.   Sometimes it’s poverty, hunger, loneliness, danger, poor health – or sometimes all of the above.  We cry out sometimes aloud and sometimes in quiet silence for help.  That’s what prayer is.

My brother-in-law has been asking me a bunch of questions about what this church is like.  Last Saturday he asked me if we were going to pray here.  I answered “yes.”  Whether it’s in our meditation/moment of silence, our sharing of names or the songs we sing, we do pray here.   Think about the lyrics of some of our hymns.  “Help of the helpless abide with me.”  “Roots hold me close, wings set me free.  Spirit of Life, come to me.  Come to me.”  “Precious Lord, take my hand.” [Opening line only sung a cappella by Suzanne Burgess]    Each of those songs is a prayer.  A Mahalia Jackson recording of that last one plays continuously at site of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.  I can’t tell you how many big strong men I’ve seen reduced to tears when they walk down that hallway and hear that song.

That song is a frequent prayer of mine.  When I first started coming here, I noticed that the words “God” and “Lord” had been removed from many of the hymns I’d learned as a child.  I didn’t quite know what to make of that at first.  The invocation of “God” and “Jesus” used to bother me because I didn’t accept Christian beliefs.  Then one day I realized it was all ok.  As Unitarian Universalists, we value and appreciate the wisdom to be found in other faith traditions.  It’s ok that I sometimes pray to my “Creator” using Christian songs with lyrics that mention God.   It’s all about the feeling of the music and the sincerity of my heart.  If the song moves me and stirs something in me, then it works.  And this next song definitely works for me.  It’s another one of my “go to” songs.  I have a lot going on in my life right now and sometimes it just gets overwhelming.  But as this song says, “after you’ve done all you can, you just stand.”

Music: “Stand,” by Donnie McClurkin performed by Cory Walker and Connie Simon

Gratitude

Gratitude is the simplest of the spiritual practices, yet it’s also the easiest for us to mess up.  Scientist Robert Emmons says that gratitude is not just about acknowledging the goodness in one’s life but also recognizing that the source of this goodness lies at least partially outside the self.   It’s more than just saying “thank you” for the things you receive – that’s the “simple” part of gratitude.  Where we mess up is in being greedy and wanting more, better or different.  We mess up when we feel “entitled.”  We mess up when we become jealous and envious of others.  I overheard someone say that you can’t be grateful while you’re coveting what somebody else has.

But what if that thing you are coveting is life itself? I was privileged to witness true gratitude as my mother was dying of cancer.  One day in her room at Lankenau, she said to me “It’s ok because I’m going to go be with my husband and my parents.”  I would have been angry – really pissed off – that after fighting so hard, was there really nothing else that could be done?  It just wasn’t fair.  But instead of railing against the injustice of it all, she truly was grateful for the life she had been given but understood that it soon would be time to go.  To me, that’s the ultimate express of gratitude and something to which I can only aspire.

I was given just that chance in April when my brother Rick died.  He had survived 23 years after a traumatic brain injury that should have killed him.  Sure, he missed driving and riding his motorcycle and playing with his kids.  But with the use of just his left arm, he built a new life for himself that was more active than that of many people I know. Even though he was still ornery as cat dirt as my niece would say, Rick was now gaunt and weak and his organs were failing.  My sister-in-law and I made the decision to let him go.  I didn’t want to, but I remembered back to that day with my mother.  I was grateful for the time I had with my brother but I knew he was tired it was time for him to go.

It’s not easy to let go of someone we love.  We get angry and upset at what their absence will do to us.   And that’s only natural.  Yet somehow, despite our sadness in their passing, we have to find a way to be grateful that their suffering has ended and pray that their soul found peace.

Music: “Safe from Harm,” by BeBe Winans performed by Suzanne Burgess and Connie Simon

Presence

We talk about presence a lot in this church.   When I first started  coming here, I didn’t quite get it.  I knew being present was more than just raising my hand and saying “here” but I didn’t understand how one could not be “present.” Then one day it hit me. I realized that I wasn’t living my life – my life was just happening to me. Sure I had moments of focus and clarity but I was not “present” on a consistent basis.  I’d “lose” whole hours of time during the day because I was always thinking about the next task, the next appointment, the next thing to be done.  I wasn’t living each moment.  I don’t know why I’m telling you this in the past tense as though it’s something that I’ve overcome.  I DO struggle with presence.  Think about how many more moments of Wonder-Joy I could have experienced had I just been present!  I made a promise to myself yesterday to slow down and stop letting my life live me.

When I walk through the sanctuary doors each Sunday, I make a serious effort to leave everything else outside so that I can truly worship and recharge for the week ahead.  This one hour each week is my time to lay it all down as Rev. Nate says and be still.  I come here to feed my heart and my soul and to spend time with each of you.   “Presence” for me is sitting quietly in the pews and feeling the essence of the members past and present who have attended this church since its founding in 1796.  Presence is getting my weekly hug from Barbara Higgins and seeing the latest pictures of Harvey’s grandchildren.   I enjoy being present for these moments – they nourish my soul and make me feel good.

What about our collective presence?  Each spring we do our flower communion.  We bring so many different kinds of flowers!  Each person adds his or her flower to the bucket and we make the most beautiful arrangement.  Our collective presence is reflected in the floral arrangement that we create together.

We light and extinguish our chalice each week with words spoken in unison.  Sometimes we get distracted in church – it happens to everyone.  I will admit that I have checked sports scores on my phone during service once or twice over the last few years.  But when it comes time to light and extinguish the chalice, we are all focused, together and collectively present.

In keeping with today’s theme, let’s talk about our collective presence as we sing together – our voices in unison.   Maybe it’s a hymn you don’t know very well, or one that’s too high or too low for you to sing – it doesn’t matter.  We’re all singing together.  Collectively present musically.

Hymn: Blue Boat Home by Peter Mayer

Reverence

The last spiritual practice I want to share with you today is “Reverence.”  One definition of “Reverence” is a “feeling of profound awe and respect and often love.”   Virtue.net says reverence is a combination of “loyalty, deference with love, devotion, honor and adulation.”     To me, reverence is simply remembering where I came from and living my life in a way that honors my ancestors and preserves their legacy while at the same time adding my own contributions for future generations.

As Blacks in America, my ancestors endured, persevered and thrived.  My maternal grandfather’s family were free Blacks as far back as 1820 and, with three other families, settled a town called “Hinsonville” that is now the site of Lincoln University.  They were brave and resilient people.   My mother told me stories about refusing to stand for the Star Spangled Banner as part of civil rights protests.   That took courage.   This is where I come from.  This is the stuff I’m made of.

As a Black person in America today, I know firsthand that racism still exists.  I know firsthand that there are still people out there who judge me by the color of my skin.  They think they know all about me.  We’ve come a long way from slavery and even from the civil rights era of the 1950s-60s but we haven’t made it all the way yet.  When I first prepared my notes for today, I was going to share with you a story about a time 13 years ago I was stopped by a policeman in my own neighborhood who didn’t believe that I had just purchased one of the new homes there.  But I don’t have to go back that far.  We can pull one of the stories in the news just this week about African Americans at Barney’s and Macy’s who were detained for “shopping while Black.”

In 1900, Florida school principal James Weldon Johnson wrote a poem called “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to be read at a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.  With his brother John, they set the poem to music.  The song became known as the “Negro National Anthem.”  Today we still call it the “Black National Anthem.”  We are very protective of this song – like the Star Spangled Banner, it must be treated with respect.  That is why we always rise when we sing it.  The first time I heard it sung here as part of a service, I have to tell you it made me a little uneasy.   But it turned out ok.  You see, it’s a very special song.  To me, it’s a WONDER-JOY experience of collective PRESENCE for me every time I hear it.  It is an expression of GRATITUDE for how far we’ve come and a PRAYER for the future.  I sing it with profound awe and deep respect, with loyalty, love and adulation.   I sing it in honor of my ancestors and every Black American who came before me and who will come after me.  I sing it with REVERENCE.

So now, I ask you to rise as you are able and join me in singing all three verses of hymn number 149 – Lift Every Voice and Sing.

Hymn: “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson

Benediction

Voice still and small, deep inside all,

I hear you call, singing.

In dark and rain, sorry and pain,

Still you remain singing.

Calming my fears, quenching my tears

Through all the years, singing.

 

Text of hymn “Voice Still and Small” by John Carrado

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