My legs were burning as I hiked up a nearly vertical street that wound its way through narrow alleys towards the summit of Mote Hill in Stirling, Scotland. Having found both the time and the energy for a brief get away in the middle of a very intensive study abroad trip to London, I and a couple friends had taken the bus, arrived late at our hostel, and then promptly woke up the next morning to begin our exploration of the city. In the bright sun of a blessedly crisp May morning, I hiked uphill toward the first stop on the list: The Church of the Holy Rude for their morning worship service. I was drawn to the church because of its significant history: Having been built in the 15th century, it was the second oldest building in the city after the castle that neighbors it. It also has the distinction of being the only other church besides Westminster Abbey in the entirety of the United Kingdom to host the coronation of a king. So, as I crested the final rise of the hill to arrive at the ancient cemetery which encircles the church, I was expecting to be wowed, intrigued, and disoriented by the experience of being in this place of such historical significance.
I was not expecting it to feel like home.
As I walked into the beautiful sanctuary, lit by sunshine cast through stained glass and sat down in the pews to begin morning worship with the small congregation, the organ began the familiar strains of a hymn. As the first notes of “All Creatures of Our God and King” wove their way through the space, suddenly—in the midst of a 600-year-old church in the highlands of Scotland—I was home, gathered together as I would be at my home church, with fellow siblings in Christ, preparing my heart to worship God with the familiar melody and words of a hymn which claimed the beauty and agency of all creation to worship and praise God. In that moment as I lifted my voice to join the familiar melody, I felt an odd sense of belonging in this centuries-old building and with these people whom I had never met.
“…I felt an odd sense of belonging in this centuries-old building and with these people whom I had never met.”
Music has a unique way of producing this sense of belonging and meaning within us. It reaches a part of our soul that is often hard to draw out. From the time we are very little, we are exposed to music. It is sung over us in our infancy, given to us by those we love and trust the most, and used as a tool for our learning from cradle to grave. In addition to this exposure, there is something in the resonances and chords of tones joined together in harmony, dissonance, cacophony, and symphony which speaks into a fundamental part of what it means to human. As Plato put it, “Music… gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination.”
Beyond the significant physical and emotional impact that music has on humanity, it bears a high religious significance to Christians. Nearly all the world’s religions acknowledge music as a core element of what it means for humanity to interact with God, and Christianity is no exception. The act of praise through music is a consistent motif throughout Scripture: Miriam sings to God on the shores of the Red Sea in gratitude for the deliverance of the people of Israel; David composes wordless melodies on his harp to both praise the Lord and calm the emotions of the often-perturbed King Saul; an entire book of Psalms attests to the people of Israel’s regular use of songs in praise and worship of God. The witness of music’s influence on the people of God does not stop in the Old Testament. It was a fundamental part of the early church of Christ. It is in the practices advocated in the epistles, in the Magnificat sung by Mary in praise for the fulfillment of God’s promise to her, and in the acts of the Apostles in stories like that of Paul and Silas singing their way through an earthquake in a Philippian jail cell. The act of singing consistently finds its way into the stories of faithful witness of the church.
This centrality of song within Christian community has produced some of the most beautiful and well-known strains of melody in all of history. These songs have been used to weave together Christians from all corners of the world. Hymns, praises, melodies, psalms, and creedal settings reach across borders and differences and remind us of our shared community. Souls resonate with the ongoing hymn of praise that all creation sings.
“Souls resonate with the ongoing hymn of praise that all creation sings.”
I have been drawn to the act of worship, to the vocation of leading of worship, and to the crafting of liturgical art in music ever since I was a child.
I recently had the chance to lead worship at a church in my area of Michigan and one of the songs I selected was “All Creatures of our God and King.” When I selected it, I did so without any memory of that day at The Church of the Holy Rude nearly a decade ago. However, when Sunday morning came around, and the organ picked up those familiar strains, my mind was once again transported to that old church perched on one of the first highland hills of Scotland. I remembered the people I shared that morning with. As we began to join our voices with all the creatures of creation in praise to our God, I was filled with gratitude for the story that that music brought to my mind, to the people that it connected me to around the world, and to a God who has given us music as a gift that connects us to the ongoing story which is being woven together around each of us and across the world.