Praise to the holiest in the height, and in the depth be praise –
In all his words most wonderful, most sure in all his ways.
(J.H. Newman 1801-90)
I am an amateur musician, a choral singer, with no formal training but a deep delight in singing as part of a larger group. It has been one of the greatest joys of my life to be part of a large symphonic chorus here in my home city, where we are privileged to work with professionals and perform on a public platform with world-class musicians. I especially appreciate singing music which expresses or reflects aspects of my faith, and the words with which I opened this post are from one such piece – The Dream of Gerontius, by the English composer Edward Elgar. He set words by Cardinal John Newman, meditating on the passage of the Christian through death to glory, which include this great hymn rejoicing in the utter goodness of our God. It was our close of season concert this year, with performances on Friday and Saturday evenings in Edinburgh and Glasgow respectively, and our voices are all very tired today!
The composer, Elgar, was a devout Roman Catholic and dedicated the work to the glory of God, pouring out into it a very personal expression of faith and the beauty, peace and strength which it brought to his life. When I sing such pieces, I am worshipping God too, regardless of the views of those around me, pouring out my voice as an act of willed praise and testimony. Many of my fellow musicians, while not sharing my faith, are deeply moved by the music and words which they sing, and I pray that God will be at work in their lives to remove the blindness which keeps them from seeing and accepting Him as the author of all the good things which they love and appreciate so much.
I believe that our worship of God consists of much more than merely our singing of songs on a Sunday morning – or on any other occasions! Worship is about an attitude of heart and mind, in which all that we are and have is continually made available to God for his glory and the blessing of others. So it can be as small and quiet a thing as a moment of urgent, silent prayer for a friend who is in need; the making of a cup of tea for a colleague who is too busy to get one for themselves; the hug or squeeze of the arm to someone in distress. My worship of God is my whole life – although I know that every day I am distracted and forget, this is still the truth, and is still my daily goal. May God be glorified in and through me, whether by noisy, obvious acts of praise, or by quiet private acts of service, they are all equally valuable.
But of course, as a singer, I am thankful that God has made it clear in the bible that music can be central to our expressions of joy, thankfulness, adoration, lament and grieving. We are made, in God’s image, in such a way that melody and rhythm are an integral part of who we are and how we express ourselves – surely that means that God is the source of all melody, that he is the great singer of songs and the consummate composer! When we make music, we reflect something very significant in God’s character, and can therefore surely delight in the gift while always remembering the Giver! When we begin to revere the music itself, seeking our fulfilment there, then we have set up an idol in place of God and begin to be led astray by it. But when God is first, then music is a wonderful tool for our own pleasure and the blessing of others.
I know that I will be singing bits of Gerontius to myself for days, it is so fresh in my mind and has gone so deep – and what better phrases to have buzzing in my mind than these?
O loving wisdom of our God! When all was sin and shame, a second Adam to the fight and to the rescue came.
O wisest love! that flesh and blood, which did in Adam fail, should strive afresh against the foe, should strive and should prevail!
O generous love! that he who smote in man, for man, the foe, the double agony in man, for man should undergo…
May this generous love be flowing so deeply and strongly through us in the days ahead that our lives bring blessing to all those around us, and glory to the Holiest in the heights!