This past May, our youngest child, McKenzie, graduated from Boyce College with a degree in biblical studies, focusing on music and worship. After 4 1/2 years of study, persistence, practice, and dependence on God’s grace, she finally joined the ranks of those who have a college degree.
In her final semester, she had to give a senior recital. Thanks to the excellent instruction from her voice teacher, Chandi Plummer, McKenzie has expanded her vocal range significantly, grown in knowing how to care for her voice, and become much more effective at communicating emotion and dynamics when she sings. All those aspects were on full display as she sang through her program of different languages (English, French, German, and Italian) and styles (classical, romantic, jazz standards, and contemporary worship songs).
I was thoroughly enjoying the artistry of the evening when she came to the “worship song” part of the program. One of those songs was Rita Springer’s “I Have to Believe,” a song that unabashedly proclaims faith in God’s promises in the midst of darkness and pain. McKenzie’s singing was heartfelt, skillful, and moving.
But in the middle of the 4th verse, powerful music was overshadowed by a more powerful Savior:
I have to sing praise when the hour is midnight
He unlocks these chains that bind up my soul
My sin and my shame
He has forgiven and made me whole
In a clarifying, surprising moment, the truth of those words for McKenzie’s own life overwhelmed her. Her eyes filled up with tears. She stopped singing. We waited.
Eventually she recovered and was able to finish her program.
What happened? I think it was an example of what I often remind myself when music affects me in a significant way: Music is great. Jesus is greater.
Music is Great
Music is a gift from God that benefits people of different cultures in countless ways. It expresses emotions that we sometimes can’t find the words for. It can amplify the impact of words we sing. Music can lift our spirits, motivate us to exert greater effort, draw our hearts towards transcendent beauty, deepen our sense of community, and give us one voice as we pursue a common cause.
Music can do amazing things. I’ve been involved with music for over 50 years and made a living from it for more than 40. A Beethoven sonata can bring me to tears. The opening of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” is indescribably peaceful. I’ve enjoyed songs from specific soundtracks over 1000 times. The number of creative bands, singer-songwriters, and individual musicians that I enjoy are too many to list here. I marvel that music continues to move me the way it does.
In fact, for people who don’t worship the true God, music can seem like a good replacement. In his 1994 commencement speech to the Berklee College of Music, Sting said, “If ever I’m asked if I’m religious I always reply, ‘Yes, I’m a devout musician.’ Music puts me in touch with something beyond the intellect, something otherworldly, something sacred.”
Jesus is Greater
Sting was on the right path. But he didn’t quite reach the destination. Music is a wonderful tool. But it makes a terrible god.
Yes, music is great. But there’s something greater than the gift of music. The Giver himself.
Here’s how C.S. Lewis put it in this oft-quoted paragraph from The Weight of Glory:
“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
When McKenzie broke down in the middle of singing, no one muttered in disgust. Nobody wondered why she couldn’t hold it together. No one complained that her artistry suffered. We simply saw more clearly that the transforming effect of God’s grace in Christ transcends the effect of music. We saw the Giver through the gift.
The Right Focus
I once heard a worship pastor say the first thing we must do to improve our congregation’s singing is to find a great drummer. He went on to insist we should lose the music stands.
I understand he was seeking to help people sing with more focus, emotion, and engagement. But when those of us who lead congregational singing rely on music and technology alone to move people, we run the risk of leading people into idolatry. Getting every note in tune, playing every riff perfectly, making sure every lighting cue is on time, and executing every groove flawlessly are worthy goals, but never ends in themselves.
Practice is important. Well-tuned instruments and vocals are important. A band that knows the music is important. Arrangements are important. All of these can contribute to moving people emotionally and help them focus on the truths that we’re singing.
Beyond All Other Glories
But I fear in our pursuit of musical excellence and proficiency we often miss the purpose of it all. Because nothing is more important than the Savior music can only give homage to.
Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who left his throne in glory to die in the place of sinners so they could be reconciled to God. The God-Man, who lived, died, rose, and now intercedes for us at the Father’s right hand (1 Cor. 15:3-4; Rom. 8:34). Jesus Christ, the radiance of the glory of God, the image of the invisible God, our Shepherd, Priest, King, Prophet, Lord, Savior, Redeemer, Ruler, and Brother (Heb. 1:3; Col. 1.:15; Jn. 10:14; Heb. 10:21; Rev. 17:14; Acts 3:22; Phil. 2:11; 1 Jn. 4:14; Gal. 3:13; Rev. 3:14; Heb. 2:12).
Music can move us. But only Jesus can save us.
Put the beauty of ten thousand thousand worlds of paradises, like the Garden of Eden, in one. Put all trees, all flowers, all smells, all colours, all tastes, all joys, all sweetness, all loveliness, in one. Oh, what a fair and excellent thing would that be! And yet it would be less to that fair and dearest Well-beloved, Christ, than one drop of rain to the whole seas, rivers, lakes, and fountains of ten thousand earths.
The Most Important Thing
Grant that I may always weep to the praise of mercy found, and tell to others as long as I live, that thou art a sin-pardoning God, taking up the blasphemer and the ungodly, and washing them from their deepest stain.
May God use our music to affect others deeply. But may we never think being affected by music is a substitute for seeing God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6).
Music is great. Jesus is greater.