My memory clings to anything set to music. I learned my conjunctions, the multiplication tables, and the Preamble to the United States Constitution by the clever musical educators of School House Rock. Even songs I haven’t heard in years come back to me with a rush of memories, all the words intact. I believe everyone’s life has a soundtrack, music that has both informed the life and has been formed by it, a mixture of musical genres fitting the radically different life stages while, at the same time, cohesive in some way.
The classical music I listened to at bedtime each night laid the foundation for my love of music. And the folk music that my Uncle Ronnie would sit and sing with us, guitar in hand…If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the mor-or-ning. And the 8-part vocal arrangements of Christmas tunes practiced from September to December for Madrigal dinner performances in high school. And memories of my parents and their friends sitting around with the score of Handel’s Messiah, Mom singing -Dad only listening contentedly. 80s pop, unfortunately, became a big part of my soundtrack. I often wonder at the seemingly wasted space in my brain for songs like Pour Some Sugar on Me. But they are a part of the soundtrack, there to stay whether I like it or not. And, of course, the hymns we sang in church necessarily comprise a significant part of my life soundtrack.
When I was pregnant with my first child, I received as a gift a set of lullaby CDs. There were three of them in the set: Nature Sounds, Classical, and Hymns, all performed in soft, instrumental arrangements. The big day finally came where my son was ready to announce his arrival and we had our bags packed, ready to head to the hospital. I had all my favorite music packed to help me get into a meditative mindset as I was determined to forego drugs or epidural. We were settled in at the hospital, labor progressing well, but with every contraction I became more and more tense, unable to calm myself, making the pain worse each time. Then my husband placed the Hymns from the lullaby collection into the CD player. My heart wrapped around the familiar songs, though they were instrumental versions, the words of strength, comfort, and love encircled me with the cloud of witnesses from my childhood and from ages past, and I was able to center myself for the hard work at hand, letting go of the pain as it crested and waned.
My mother told me of a similar experience. She was undergoing chemotherapy after surgery for cancer several years ago. Even in the darkest and most painful moments, it was the words of the hymns she had learned as a child that helped to carry her through.
Those hymns in our soundtracks provide the words our hearts need to face difficult, painful times. In church terms, our soundtracks are a part of our “tradition.” Tradition has become a word much derided in some circles. We, as a society, have become mesmerized by the words “new and improved,” hypnotized into thinking that anything tried and true must also be old and irrelevant. In our churches, we have labeled our worship to market to new generations. We have traditional and contemporary and blended. But our hearts don’t really care much for labels. Our hearts crave relationship and depth. Our hearts need the words and melodies that connect us to the past, sustain us in the present, and form us for the future.
New songs can also be bearers of that tradition. But we feeble humans need repetition. We need time to steep in the melodies and allow the words to become a part of us. Songs we sing for a single Sunday don’t become a part of us. But songs we sing for a season have a chance. A chance at becoming a part of the soundtrack, a part of the tradition. Tradition doesn’t have to mean something ancient. Tradition, as a source for our living theology, is a living, organic creation. It makes me think of the Walt Whitman poem There was a child went forth where the child sees all these wonders that become a part of him for a day, or a certain part of a day, or for many years or stretching cycles of years. And the child is always growing and changing. So, too, with tradition. Some parts of our worship lives stay with us for a day, or a part of a day. But some stay with us for years or stretching cycles of years.
A song that always comes back to me when I think of the importance of tradition is by a band called Lost and Found. In part of their song Opener, they sing
I went to my church on Sunday, just to hear Good News.
And I confess it’s been years more or less since I’ve warmed these pews.
I am looking for something stronger than my own life these days.
But the church of my childhood seems like the YMCA.
Every Sunday is just like the last,
As if the church has no history and the people have no past.
We just sing the songs we like to sing and we preach about the news
And we think up some new thing just fill up the pews.
I want Palms on Palm Sunday, I want Pentecost still to be red,
I want to drink of the wine and eat of the bread.
But they strive for attendance while I starve for transcendence,
But I count among this Body both the living and the dead.
Our soundtracks do so much more than bear us through turbulent trials as individuals. They shape us as a community. We are a Church with a history and a People with a past. We do count among the Body both the living and the dead. It is what makes us a People. It is what transforms us into the People of a living God with a living tradition. A people whose faith stands strong, growing and changing, for many years.