When my maternal grandmother was dying of emphysema, she was afraid. Her failing lungs couldn't take in enough air, so she felt a perpetual panic about breathing. Ironically, the more she panicked, the less she could breathe. For a while, I could help her calm herself by reminding her of pleasant memories.
But near the end, her strangulation fears became too strong to allow her to relax at all. Only one thing helped: I would sing her favorite hymn, "Angel Band." Then she would not only relax and smile, she would somehow find enough breath to sing along. In fact, the last words I heard from her mouth were, "Bear me away on your snowy wings, to my immortal home."
That's the first reason we're making "Music" our worship theme for May. Music can sometimes reach where no words can. Music can touch our bodies - and, I believe, go straight to our souls.
My grandfather loved to sing hymns, too. Raised in a rural Baptist church, he literally absorbed hymn singing with his mother's milk. His church didn't have hymn books. Everyone knew the songs and the words, so there was no need.
As an adult, though, he noticed a newer generation who hadn't grown up knowing the tunes or the words. When they came to church, the songs became a barrier: if they didn't already know them, they couldn't sing. And if they didn't sing, they obviously didn't belong.
Determined to include everyone in the singing, he spent years persuading that tiny congregation to invest in hymnals. When he finally succeeded, everyone who could read could sing along - could belong, could lend their voices to their faith. Now singing was what he wanted it to be: not a barrier, but an instrument of hospitality and unity.
That's the second reason to put our attention on music this month: "The congregation that sings together clings together."
What's the third reason? Folksinger Bill Staines wrote a song (now also a charming illustrated book) with the refrain:
The hippopotamus and the cow, Staines says, sing bass. Animals such as dogs and cats and honey bees sing in the middle. The high parts are sung by birds, even owls and jaybirds.
Singing, therefore, is a perfect model of cooperation and diversity: we each sing different parts in different voices. But - whether in church worship or in the soundscape ecology of the woods and wetlands - each unique voice forms a precious part of the whole.
As some of you know, I've always been more of a jaybird singer than a nightingale. But I insist we sing. I insist we join together in a way that is enriched by our diversity, that speaks to our souls - and that offers "a place in the choir" to everyone.