Last Sunday, Feb 10, 2013, I lead my first worship service as an almost-ordained interfaith minister.  It was (not-surprisingly?) a very different experience than leading a worship service as a lay leader in my UU church.    I would like to share with you here a taste of the service.  (Other than the final song, I have left out the music and meditations.)

With love…  

Opening quote by Sri Chimnoy: 
 “God is the Supreme Musician. It is He who is playing with us, on us and in us. 
We cannot separate God from His music. The universal Consciousness is constantly being played by the Supreme Himself, and is constantly growing into the Supreme Music.”

Reflection Part 1: God as the Supreme Composer

In the Christian Bible, John 1:1 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’  Although “Word” is often interpreted as meaning Jesus Christ, there is no doubt that “Word” also means a spoken sound. Thus a Sound was in existence before creation, the same sound was a friend to God and was, in fact, God Him/Her-self.

Similarly, in Hinduism, there is the belief that as creation began, the divine, all-encompassing consciousness took the form of the first and original vibration, which  manifested as the sound “OM”. The vibration of “OM” symbolizes the manifestation of God in form (“sāguna brahman”). “OM” is the reflection of the absolute reality, it is said to be “Adi Anadi”, without beginning or end and embracing all that exists. The mantra “OM” is the name of God,the vibration of the Supreme.

So in these two very different faith traditions, Sound is both the Creator and the Creation.

Christianity and Hinduism are not alone in this idea.  The belief that sound and vibration can influence and manifest in our lives in powerful ways is held in other traditions as well: in certain branches of Buddhism, through chanting; in Islam, through recitation of the Arabic words in the Quran; and in the Kabbalistic tradition of Judaism, with the Hebrew scriptures.

Beyond this fundamental recognition of the power of the vibration of the ancient sounds, why do most faith traditions include music and sound in their worship services?  From a modern perspective, we have learned that music triggers an emotional response in us that spoken words do not.  In fact, science has shown that the chills that we get from a great piece of music are indicative of the same physiological response in the brain as we get from addictive drugs like cocaine.   We can witness this physiological difference in the interaction with Alzeihemer’s patients.  Often, those patients that are otherwise past the point of being verbal can still sing along with songs that they learned in their younger days.  In addition, they can learn new information if it is taught to them as a song.

Quote by Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
 in a letter to Ritzhaupt, August 14, 1832:  “For me, music is always the language which permits one to converse with the Beyond.”

Reflection Part 2:  God’s Song in Us

Going back to opening quote: ‘God is the supreme musician’ – I would say that God is the supreme composer – not just creating the music, but composing the music and playing the music and BEING the music all the time, all at the same time.  We hear God’s compositions all around us in nature – in bird song, in the sound of water flowing over stones, in the rush of wind through the trees.   We also hear God’s song within us.

Schumann talks of music being the language to converse with the Beyond. We’re familiar with the stories of God speaking to and singing through people in the past.  One example is the Sufi poet Rumi, who wrote, “If the beloved is everywhere, the lover is a veil; but when living itself becomes the Friend, lovers disappear.”   We are also aware of the writings of the Christian mystics like Julian of Norwich, whose words we heard in the song before we began – “All shall be well again” – or Saint Therese of Lisieux, who wrote: “My soul experienced a peace so sweet, so deep, it would be impossible to express it. For seven years and a half that inner peace has remained my lot, and has not abandoned me in the midst of the greatest trials.”   Perhaps the most famous examples of God singing through humans in our culture are the Psalms in the Old Testament.  The psalms are often said to have been written by King David, though not all of them were – some were written by regular people like you and me, just in King David’s style or in his honor.   One of my favorites is Psalm 150:

1Praise ye the Lord. Praise God in his temple: praise him in the firmament of his power.   2 Praise him for his mighty acts: praise him according to his majesty.  3 Praise him with the sound of the trumpet: praise him with the psaltery and harp.   4 Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs.  5 Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.  6 Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord.

But does God speak to people today?  I raise this question, I bring this possibility to you, because I didn’t believe it happened. I thought God was a metaphor, a non-personal connection between us all. I thought perhaps people could be inspired by God, but that wasn’t the same thing as having a personal conversation with him. Perhaps God had a more personal connection with people when there were fewer people. Or perhaps only with ‘special’ people. I won’t say that God as impersonal metaphor isn’t accurate, but I will say it isn’t ALL. God is much bigger than we can imagine, and is both the non-personal connection and the very personal sitting-next-to-you energy form. How do I know this? I know this because He started talking to me.

I’ve written poetry and song lyrics since I was young. But about 2 yrs ago I went through the profound physical transformation of a double-lung transplant. On either side of that, I (not surprisingly) also went through a profound spiritual transformation. As my spiritual practice intensified, I found that my times of ‘inspiration’ while writing my poetry and lyrics became more frequent and more insistent. I felt called to the ministry and to Tree Of Life Interfaith Seminary. Then (through school) I was introduced to centering prayer – and God came and talked to me, as clearly as I’m talking to you. And I freaked out. (I had no framework for the experience.) As I calmed down, what began to happen was that God used me to write the songs He wanted shared – His songs – using me as his vessel to share with the world. I had to learn to get over myself and my conceptions of what God is or isn’t, does or doesn’t do – because clearly he was doing something here. I also had to get over my sense of not being good enough to receive God’s word. Really, I ask you – if God is the composer and the music and the musician, certainly he should know best in terms of whether he wants me to play his song. Doubting my musicianship in this case would be like saying to my best friend, “well, I’m really honored you’d like to talk to me, but I don’t think I’m worthy of your friendship. No thank you, I’m not going to listen.”

This is how it happened for me. But I am just one example.   Here’s another modern example that I read in Guideposts Magazine:    A man became disabled and fell into depression. He didn’t know how he was going to support his wife or kids. As he lay in bed day after day, he started seeing a blue floating light. It would appear for a little while, then go away again. The man realized that, somehow, this light was going to be able to help him. So he said “okay, where’s the message? What am I supposed to be doing?” But the light just floated there, for weeks and months. Finally one night, he realized it was time. The light led him out to his dining room table, where he got a legal pad and a pen, and sat down to write. When he finished, he went back to bed. In the morning, his teenage son woke him. “Dad! Did you write this? This is so cool!” The man didn’t remember writing anything, but what filled the page was his handwriting, spelling out in scientific detail – detail that he had no way of knowing – how to make cuttings from hardy trees to reforest the land. God spoke – through an angel, a spirit, a floating blue light – and he listened and followed, for the benefit of himself, his family, and the world.

I imagine that we’ve all had deep physical or emotional or spiritual challenges in our lives. And I imagine that God sings to each of us.

How can we hear God’s song?  In the same way that we hear a friend talk. How do you really listen for their words and the feeling behind the words? You listen. You get quiet, you still your mind of its natural reactions and impulses, and you listen. Why do we feel we can’t do the same with God?

Perhaps we are too far removed from God to have a direct connection with Him? Do we need to find a convent like Therese of Lisieux or cell like Julian of Norwich and lock ourselves away?  I say no.  There is a saying in Islam: “When you take one step toward Allah, Allah takes 10,000 steps toward you.”   God wants to connect with you, in any way that you are able to listen.  It might be through gut instinct, a still small voice, an insight during meditation, or a voice during prayer or centering meditation.

So – How do we quiet ourselves to hear?  Take time away from media. (Just try it for little bit.) Give your mind something else to concentrate on, so God can slip in and talk to your heart – perhaps in ways such as meditation, exercise / running, automatic writing, or music improvisation.  Make time to be with God, like you would make a coffee date with a friend.  Go to where you most often and easily feel God – in nature in general (perhaps the woods or the ocean), on a meditation cushion or in church.  Make a regular spiritual practice for yourself, so you become accustomed to making the time for God. The more you make time for Him, the easier you will understand his dialect.

Quote by Bruno Walter (1876-1962), 
Of Music and Music Making (1957):  “Music springs from and is replenished by a hidden source which lies outside the world or reality. Music ever spoke to me of a mysterious world beyond, which moved my heart deeply and eloquently intimated its transcendental nature.

Reflection Part 3: Sharing God’s Song

How do people react to hearing God’s song within them?  Often they can be scared or disoriented, as I was.  Spiritual experience can present itself like a mental illness, which can be confusing without a framework of understanding.  I sometimes wonder if at least some diagnosed mental illnesses are actually spiritual experiences. If one is hearing voices, it can depend on your psych team whether it’s dubbed “magical thinking” or whether your spiritual beliefs and experiences are validated.  I’m not the only one who has made this connection; on some retreats, the facilitators or teachers ask for a psych background from participants.   Rumi speaks of madness in “The Fragile Vial.”  He says: “It’s not my fault I rave. You did this.”

If you do have a framework for the spiritual experience of hearing God, it’s not so scary. It can be a validating and rewarding part of your spiritual practice.   Various religious works lay out the spiritual path.  It can help to read of the path through many different traditions or to read the framework within the religious path that resonates most strongly for you.  A couple of examples of books that describe the common spiritual path are ‘A Path with Heart,’ by Jack Kornfield – which describes the path taken through the context of meditation, with higher levels of concentration, jhanas, insights, and the connection through lovingkindness (metta) – or the Catholic ‘Lives of the Saints’ or ‘Enduring Grace,’ by Carol Lee Flinders, which allow practitioners to follow the example of the mystics through connection to God through prayer.

If we can be comfortable with hearing God’s song in our hearts, at a basic level, we feel happy, so we sing. We give voice to His song. It is as natural a response as smiling and laughing. How many have been told or have thought at some point that they can’t sing? That’s not God talking; God gave everyone the gift of song, and it is always pleasing to His ears, just as it brings joy to us to sing.  Rumi wrote, “Something opens our wings.  Something makes boredom and hurt disappear.  Someone fills the cup in front of us.  We come only from sacredness.”   And James 5:13 says that anyone celebrating should sing praises to God.

Once we are comfortable receiving God’s song, what do we do with the information we’ve been given?  Hopefully, we let it inform our lives. Sometimes this is easier than other times. Sometimes we need to find our equivalent of a cloistered cell, amidst our busy lives. Sometimes it takes a while for the truth to percolate through our system and through the manifestation of our life. Sometimes you can feel that the seed of the song has been planted, but it will take many seasons for the cultivation of the seed – the idea of the song and a few notes – into a plant of a melody – and finally into the full crop of a beautiful orchestral piece.

For me, receiving the blessing of God’s song as songs comes with the responsibility of sharing those songs. And I believe that, in time, we all have the responsibility and the ability to share the songs that we have each been given.

I would like to bring my thoughts to a close today by sharing with you a song that came through me on Thursday, specifically in relation to this topic. It’s called, “God’s Song.”

Closing song “God’s Song”

Closing prayer

Supreme Composer, Master Teacher, God, Goddess, Friend –

Thank you for singing to us through Creation. Thank you for planting your song in our hearts.

And thank you for the blessing of being able to hear and respond to your note as it is sung through us.

Amen and Blessed Be.