lenten journal: i can hear music


After writing about allergies, I went to bed with metaphors on my mind and woke up thinking about music as both metaphor and soundtrack for life, or at least those thoughts were running in the background. Before I left for church, I listened again to Scott Simon’s interview with Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell introducing their new record, Old Yellow Moon. Part of the discussion centered around aging and singing. “Can I ask both of you how does your voice change over the years when you hear it and you feel it?” Scott Simon asked them.

“Oh, boy.,” said Emmylou, “I mean, I sound so young and my voice sounds so high and kind of thin to me. I don’t mean in a bad way, but I really have shaken hands with one of my voices right now. I think it’s got a little deeper. It’s got some more grooves in it. And with me it was never about my voice as much as how can I tell the story of this song? And if I really love a song, nothing is going to get in my way because it’s more about the emotion of the story of the song. And if I can’t go as high as I would like then I’m just going to stay low.”

Rodney added, “For me, it’s truly my experience about 10 years ago, as I turned 50, I made peace with my voice. And now I really like the sound of my voice.”

Before church, I sat with a couple of friends who are both musicians and we talked about those performers, like Harris and Crowell, who have continued to write and sing as they have aged and those who have chosen to repeat hits from years ago rather than make a present day offering. Don’t get me wrong. When I see Emmylou perform, I hope with all my heart she will sing “Boulder to Birmingham,” but that song has more life because she has something new to sing as well. Because she has continued to grow, the song keeps growing with her. She isn’t trying to be who she was then; she is being who she is now.

When I sit down in the sanctuary for worship each week, one of the first things I do is look through the worship guide to see what hymns we are going to sing. Music is one of the thin places for me, so I like to see what invitations await. This morning I found one of my favorites: Robert Lowry’s “How Can I Keep From Singing,” which begins:

my life flows on in endless song
above earth’s lamentation
I hear the sweet though far off hymn
that hails a new creation:
through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
it finds an echo in my soul —
how can I keep from singing?

Somewhere in the first couple of lines, I realized the resonance with what had been running through my mind. Lowry’s words were the metaphor in the background: how can I keep from singing? (A parenthetical note: I’m a singer, not a dancer. If this were Ginger’s metaphor, she would choose the latter, I’m sure. The common ground, I suppose, comes from Guy Clark: “You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money, Love like you’ll never get hurt, You’ve got to dance like there’s nobody watching, It’s got to come from the heart if you want it to work.”)

As Ginger moved into her sermon, she quoted Walter Anderson, an artist and writer who — I found out later — suffered from severe depression:

Bad things do happen; how I respond to them defines my character and the quality of my life. I can choose to sit in perpetual sadness, immobilized by the gravity of my loss, or I can choose to rise from the pain and treasure the most precious gift I have: life itself.

His words made me wonder if he knew Lowry’s lyric, for he was also calling us to hear the music in the circumstance. I’m not suggesting we just tar-la-la our way through the trouble fields as though nothing is happening. Guy Clark, once again:

it don`t matter how much it hurts
you’ve got to tell the truth
some days you write the song
some days the song writes you

And when we sing, whether the songs are old or new, we must sing the song for today. We can’t reach back to make it feel like it used to; a nostalgia fix is about as helpful as pinning it all on the sweet by and by. We sang a new (to me) hymn this morning by Carl Daw, “God of Grace and God of Laughter” — here’s the second verse:

when our lives are torn by sadness,
heal our wounds with tuneful balm;
when all seems discordant madness,
help us find a measured calm.
steady us with music’s anchor
when the storms of life increase;
in the midst of hurt and rancor,
make us instruments of peace.

The music, for me, is both actuality and metaphor, the songs are both sanctuary and symbol. The stacks of CDs in our house and the number of tracks in my iTunes demonstrate that I am not speaking only metaphorically when I say my life has a soundtrack.

no storm can shake my inmost part
while to the Rock I’m clinging
since Love is Lord of heaven and earth
how can I keep from singing?




  1. Baylor A Cappella is singing How Can I Keep From Singing on our tour around Texas starting on Thursday:) ill send you a recording when we get one! it’s a little scary how often your blog posts speak in parallel with the things going on in my life; I love little holy coincidences like this one. Miss you! Molly Francis

  2. Thank you for your words. I, too, love “How can I keep from singing.”. It was a pleasure meeting you when you visited in Austin last month.
    Please keep writing.

  3. Thanks for the reflections. I am enjoying reading what you write. I just finished your book “Keeping the Feast”. I was very touched by the examples and stories you give. I am very sacramental myself and love Holy Communion. I am an amateur chef and love gathering around the table and sharing fellowship, food, and wine together with friends. I plan to come hear you next week when you are in Austin, Texas. Grace and Peace.

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