“Music Sunday Reflections”

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Music Sunday Reflections

June 1, 2014 – Music Sunday

Scripture:  Psalm 98 (from The Message translation)


There is an ancient saying that “to sing is to pray twice.” And so today, we will be praying many, many times, because our service is full to the brim with singing! We will also hear the texts of several psalms, because psalms are the oldest songs and prayers we have – several thousand years old, and still being sung and prayed.

We will also hear three testimonies to the power of music and its place in the life of our spirits. The sharing of these stories is yet another form of prayer.

As we begin, will you pray with me?

Come, God, come.  Fill us with the rhythm of your spirit, with the melody of your justice, with the harmony of your hope.  In these words and in these songs, Holy One, show us our place in your choir.  Amen.


A Story of Faith from Leslie Sweetnam

Music has been the bookends and the bookmarks of my life.

My first memory of singing was in junior choir, but BIG, 1950s suburban Boston size – HUGE stone Sanctuary, 40 kids with our own choir robes. The classical hymns and modern pieces we sang, sometimes along with the senior choir, resonated in that big space in a way that told me that singing meant touching something amazing and magical, and made me want more.

My first week in high school I was invited to a hootenanny and met musicians who wanted everyone to sing or play along. I graduated from tambourine to kazoo to washboard to washtub bass to harmonica (Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band was local and raucous and popular). I discovered that musical communities were open, generous and socially aware. We sang at events collecting canned goods to send to civil rights activists in the South.   I took my graduation money and bought a banjo.

I played in a bluegrass group up at Hobart College, way upstate New York: The Lonesome City-Playboys. I started playing the autoharp because it connected to that ethereal, spiritual music I remembered from Junior Choir.

After my BA in comparative religion from BU I joined a spiritual commune – from the Ivory Tower to the Trenches – a community that included members of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. Jim used to say that they would be so busy with important projects that they wouldn’t play for a year, sometimes, but when they finally found time, they weren’t rusty but better than before. Jim would say that you have to practice but that it’s living with and loving your friends that makes you better musicians.

I smoked cigarettes through my twenties, tried many times to quit. What a terrible addiction nicotine is! But when I moved here in ’79 I joined the Concert Choir – they were doing the Messiah and I’d only sung a few pieces of it. Dan Graves was conducting with that ecstatic musical fanaticism that he had. I fell in love with the music but I didn’t have wind for those endless strings of fortissimo sixteenth-notes! I knew what I needed to do. I quit smoking for the tenth time in ten years, but this time, every week, I had the joy of singing further through those measures without having to gasp for breath. By the performance I knew that music had, once again, healed me.

I got back into political music in the early 80s when Woodstock was one of the first of a long string of New England towns to pass the Nuclear Arms Freeze resolution. I joined the People’s Music Network, which held semi-annual song swap weekends where I met and sang with Pete Seeger, Holly Near, Charlie King and a hundred others. I took one of Bill Harley’s songs, No More Livin’ Under the Cloud, to a Trident-launching protest in Groton, and there, on the same side of the police barricades, I had help leading the crowd in song from a very pretty young woman with a beautiful voice and a big guitar. Long story short: seven years later, James Harrison married us right here, and next week we’ll sing to our confirmands one of the most beautiful love songs that we know.

Music is a time machine that can take you somewhere your body has never been. You may have seen me last week at our Memorial Day observance, as a Civil War soldier. My special gift to that reenactor community, for twenty years, has been to bring back to life forty of the songs that gave courage and laughter and solace to those young men, so far from their homes.

Bob Kirk pulled me into our Hillbillies, and now songs like I’ll Fly Away, May The Circle Be Unbroken and Old Rugged Cross, which I’d played but always though of as someone else’s spiritual home, those are songs of my soul now. Maybe I’ve just had a growth of imagination, or maybe it’s the faith of the people I’m playing with, and for.

Strangers ask me how long I’ve been singing and playing these odd stringed instruments and I’ve always answered, “Long enough to be much better than I am.” These days I add, “But I think I’ve still got a good shot at the Angel Band.”


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A Story of Faith from Debbie Gray

Music has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. When I was young, my Mom played piano at home and filled in as the organist at church. I loved to sit on the organ bench with her and turn the pages of music as she played. That was the start of my music faith story.

Throughout my life, music has helped me through difficult times. As an overwhelmed freshman at Boston University, with my Mom’s encouragement, I went to church at Marsh Chapel one Sunday. I felt right at home there and joined the chancel choir, singing there for the next four years and still singing to this day in my local church choir.

Once, on a business trip, I found myself in San Diego on my own and got so lonely, I called the local UCC association and asked if they had any activities that night in any local church. The women who answered invited me to her choir rehearsal and it was wonderful – I even knew some of the anthems they were practicing and stayed for snacks after the rehearsal.

When my Mom was diagnosed with Colon Cancer, I shut down and couldn’t even find a way to pray for Mom or our family. My local pastor promised to pray for us, handed me a hymnal and suggested that I might find solace in hymns, as many of them are like prayers. The hymns that I had grown to love over the years helped me to find my way through that difficult time and many other tough moments.

Music seems to run through me 24/7 and brings me joy and peace as well as comfort. I find myself humming anthem or bell choir songs all through the day. Music is the one place I know that I can experience being totally in the present, leaving the past and future worries behind.

Music is amazing because it can reach out in ways we can’t even understand, into places in the heart that words can no longer reach. When my Mom was in the nursing home, she gradually lost her ability to communicate and be present with us. But when there was music, it was like magic, and she would hum and nod her head and hear and feel the music. That is why I love the times that our bell choir visits nursing homes.

The day my Mom passed away, I had my hymn book in one hand, and hers in the other, and sang all the hymns she used to play. I know that somewhere in there, she heard me. It seemed fitting to me that she had music in her soul as she passed. And it gave me peace to share that time with her.

Today, I am grateful for the support of music in its many forms in this faith community and for the opportunity to participate in so many moments of music in rehearsals, on Sundays and special events. On this day that we celebrate the music of our church and the many musicians, I thank you for helping us to keep this wondrous miracle of music alive here on the hill in Woodstock – so that my music faith story may continue, joined by many of you as well.


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A Story of Faith from Matt Gardner Spencer

My earliest memory of church is not of a service, or a sermon, or even Sunday school. My first church memory is of the end of junior choir rehearsal. At the end of every rehearsal we would all sing in pairs or small groups: Go now in peace. Go now in peace. May the love of God surround you, everywhere, everywhere, you may go.

So for me, faith and music have been intertwined from the beginning. Whether I’ve been singing in a youth choir at church, the chorus in high school, the concert choir at Williams, or adult choirs in Providence and now here, making a joyful noise unto the Lord has always been a sacred experience for me.

And like that first memory of a rehearsal, the practices are often more meaningful than the performances. In repeated rehearsing of a piece of music, what was once a disjointed cacophony becomes a beautiful tapestry of sound. In repeated rehearsing, you discover that seemingly unimportant passing tones occasionally become the most important note in the whole piece. In repeated rehearsing, you discover the structure behind even the most abstract pieces of music. For the larger concerts I’ve been a part of, the most moving piece is usually the dress rehearsal. We are performing for an empty room, the conductor, and God. The music washes over me, often bringing me near to tears. I imagine the feeling is somewhat similar to what some people experience after deeply studying a bible passage or meditating. After a good dress rehearsal, the music becomes the embrace of God. Every time I sing it, in fact, every time I hear it sung, even just a few bars, I am near to God.

So, in truth, my faith story is a story about music. It has its minor moments, but also its major moments. It has complex inner harmonies with patterns only revealed with study, and, most importantly, it has a constant reminder of the everlasting presence of our God.