Music as a Form of Pastoral Care

“Man Singing a Hymn”,
by Arvid Liljelund, Finland, circa 1888

     For the past four or five months my daughter and I have been working with a few other musicians in a little ensemble at a Christian Church a few blocks from our home. As a songwriter and guitarist who ‘came up’ through the social and political coffeehouse scene of the 60s, then spent another 20 years or so investigating the musical and spiritual traditions from anywhere and everywhere in the world, EXCEPT the Christianity of my childhood, it came as a complete surprise to me, that I would be working up six new tunes every week for Worship. We work with Christian hymns, original and contemporary songs from some amazing writers I had never heard anywhere before; we utilize country, folk and gospel, even songs of my own, and lead a congregation in singing every Sunday morning. If you had told me a year ago that I would be doing this now, I would have smiled politely, then gone back to watching Stargate SG-1.  Now I don’t even turn on the TV anymore.

     As you can see in many of the other posts throughout this blog, I have had a sincere interest in the healing and transformational aspects of music on personal, social and global levels for many years.  But that usually entailed something like the science of sound in the classical Hindu music of Southern India, or shamanic drumming in Lapland or the Amazon, music for meditation, or for playing at the bedside in a hospice, or to ease the suffering of patients with chronic pain, or learning about Pythagorean and neo-platonic theories of sacred geometry in music and architecture…etc…

     For example, a story on National Public Radio about a group of Ethiopian women using music to heal a pregnant friend who was ill using music with a strong rhythmic pulse, rising and falling, repeated over and over, that sort of thing was more familiar to me than hymns from my very own tradition such as “As I Survey the Wondrous Cross”, or “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”, or “It Is Well With My Soul”.

    I was very pleased to run across an article today, with the same title as this post, by Thomas H. Troeger. I think his words sum up quite well far better than I could, what he has been working at for a lifetime, and I am only just now at 62 ‘re-discovering’.  A musician, at one time a professional flutist studying to enter Julliard, he went on to become a  composer of hymns, a Presbyterian minister, an Episcopalian priest, and a professor at the Illif School of Theology in Denver.  When asked about how his ‘calling’ came about, he explains how

“…the call sort of assembled itself to me over time. My mother read the Bible to me every single day from the moment I could understand English. Every night I would sit with my father and listen to Bach cantatas and Haydn symphonies. And these were very holy things. And my mother would pray with  me.  Now my father would not pray with me. He was a great man of science, and he talked about God as the Ordering One of the universe. And the same order and deep feeling came to Bach and Haydn, and there were certain pieces that would come on, and he would say, “Ssssh! The music will get very beautiful — God will come now.”

     Troeger goes on to point out that while the use of music in healing is common in nearly every culture in the world, we tend to not consider it that way in our own culture, with the exception of some wise souls who work in musical therapy.  Yet, he goes on, “as Martin Luther knew, evidence of such care is found in the Bible.”

   From a thesis by the Rev. Richard Gudgeon, Troeger recalls a story about a woman who was in a state of depression. Luther suggested that members of the church sing with the woman particular psalm tones and chorales. They did this, and the woman’s depression lifted.

“The music of our worship services often provides pastoral care. A hymn that was sung at a funeral or a wedding or a confirmation will often, when it is repeated during a regular service, aid the work of grief or of renewing vows or reclaiming the zeal of one’s first commitment to God. Music also may empower people to stand for justice and to show compassion. Because music, especially in the context of  worship, has such great power, it is vital that we think carefully about its pastoral function in the liturgy. Do we provide an adequate range of sonic variety as well as poetic expression to reach the wide range of need in the human soul? Just as pastors vary their preaching they also need to do the same in collaboration with their musical leaders as they consider the music for worship.”

     “Part of the importance of new hymnody is that it represents opportunities for providing pastoral care of the peculiar needs of our own age. New hymns alone are not sufficient because one function of worship is to connect the present to the great cloud of witnesses from the past. But new hymns belong in any healing understanding of liturgy. When we sing we perceive our intended wholeness with all that God has made. As I have written in a hymn for the dedication of a new pipe organ:”

“Articulate with measured sound
the song that fills all things
for even atoms dance around
and solid matter sings
Let healing harmonies release
the hurts the heart complies
that God through music may increase
the grace that reconciles.”

(from Thomas H. Troeger, Borrowed Light: Hymn
Texts, Prayers and Poems, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.) ©1993,
Oxford University Press

     Those last couple paragraphs are just what I’ve been fortunate enough to learn these past few months singing and playing each sunday at our church.  The traditional congregational hymns have a musical grace and beauty I never experienced growing up as a youngster, even singing in both Lutheran and Presbyterian choirs for several years.  But also, there are some really amazing new sacred songs being written by today’s younger songwriters that speak to their generation in very modern and creative ways, while also providing that essential link to the older traditions.

     I am really grateful to have this opportunity to work with my 17 year-old daughter, who plays viola, guitar, and sings, as well as with the other members of our little group, who come from varied backgrounds, and generations.  I also just recently discovered that since 2008, at several universities across Canada, including our own University of Washington in Seattle, The AIRS Project; Advancing Interdisciplinary Research in Singing, has been fostering a similar appreciation for linking today’s generation with older traditions through song, while not neccesarily religious in context, it is very similar in spirit.  In Canada, Iceland, Australia, and in Europe, there has always been a deep understanding of how music heals on a personal, intergenerational and cross-cultural level.  So much so, that programs like the AIRS Project and others similar, are a whole adjunct to the Social Sciences and Music Therapy around the world, but only just beginning to appear in American academic institutions.  High time I say.  All this has gotten me more enthusiastic in the past few months about using music in a deep and meaningful context, than I can ever remember feeling.  Maybe that’s partly just what happens as we get older, I don’t know, but it sure is great!


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