“All music is what awakes within us
when we are reminded by the instruments;
It is not the violins or the clarinets -
It is not the beating of the drums -
Nor the score of the baritone singing
his sweet romanza; not that of the men's chorus,
Nor that of the women's chorus -
It is nearer and farther than they."
-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
The first concert I ever went to was a Clint Black concert. I was 14 years old, and I’ll never forget it. We got a flat tire on the way home. One of Clint Black’s most popular songs is called “State of Mind.” Its chorus contains this line:
“Ain’t it funny how a melody can bring back a memory, take you to another place and time, completely change your state of mind.”
Music has a powerful ability to connect with us and stick to us. I don’t play an instrument. I don’t have a great voice. I can’t sing “parts.” But I love music. All kinds. My iPod moves from Mozart to Garth Brooks to Eminem, and I can lose myself in all of it.
This Sunday at HERITAGE we’re celebrating a great musician and a lifetime of Christian service. David Harrison has served as the minister of music at HERITAGE—with a brief interruption—since we were founded more than 20 years ago.
Unfortunately this Sunday will be his last as a staff member. A few days ago, David and I were talking about the importance of music in worship and in our lives, and David told me that musicians can sometimes get into debates about how music is received. Is it the notes played or the memories evoked that are more important to our experience of the music?
I don't think there's any debate. It’s both. Great music both resonates with us initially and also lasts a lifetime. Music's power is both in the initial experience—the notes played or sung—and in the opportunity to relive and remember that experience each time we reconnect with the music for the rest of our lives.
That's why we enjoy hearing the same music over and over again. Music is powerfully unique in that way. It sticks—and makes everything associated with it stick—like few things do.
I’ll never hear Sublime or Alanis Morissette without thinking about my first car, a 1987 Acura Legend. When those artists come on, I remember what that car smells like. I can see the sun shining through the windshield and the rips in the seats. And I can’t help but smile.
When Jewel or Ace of Base come on I think about my first job at Shorty’s Convenience Store at the corner of Pump and Patterson in Richmond, VA circa 1996.
And I’ll never hear “Hey Jude” without thinking about dancing in the rain with Julie as Paul McCartney played in Piedmont Park.
If you play “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” I remember an a capella solo in the Family Life Center at Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church. When you play “Victory in Jesus” I remember Sunday night hymn sings at the First Baptist Church of Chamblee where it was sure to be requested.
And “Go Rest High on the Mountain” by Vince Gill reminds me of a mountainside cemetery on a gently sloping piece of land overlooking Powell Valley where Tennessee meets Kentucky. I have family buried there.
When a choir sings “Be Strong in the Lord” or “The Majesty and Glory of Your Name” I feel safe and secure in God’s presence in a particular way that has rarely been recreated in me outside of a Baptist sanctuary.
Music evokes all those things and more in me. When I hear music I remember relationships and people, smiles and looks, places and feelings too intimate to share on paper or a computer screen.
Music cements in our memories the moments that make up our lives. And music in worship creates sacred intimacy with God.
So back to the musicians’ question. Are the notes the thing, or is it the emotion and memory evoked in the listener that's more important? Is our music in worship something we experience as people present in the room, or does it carry us off to distant places?
It does both. As Walt Whitman reminds us, music—and worship—is both nearer and farther than the people in the room. It’s as interior as the ribosomes in our cells and as far away as the expanse beyond Pluto.
Music is so integral to our experience of worship because nothing else comes close to being able to simultaneously express the immanence and transcendence of God like music can.
Music is more than what we hear. It is what awakes within us when we hear it. It is a remarkable gift that musicians give us when they perform—and a sacred gift when what awakes within us is God.
David Harrison is a remarkable and sacred gift to HERITAGE. He’s been awakening God within us for twenty years.
And so for David Harrison we say, “To God be the glory, great things He hath done.”
This week in worship we’ll be celebrating the power of music to connect us with God and change our lives.
See you Sunday.