I will never forget the day we heard a lecture about people's favorite songs in one of my Church Music classes during college. It was a class mostly about the planning an execution of weekly worship - theological connections to music, developing a sustainable program, running rehearsals that are based in spirituality, etc. Kind of basic stuff. Practical - how to turn the philosophical into the concrete. So we came to class ready for helpful hints. We read books about planning and the management of people and the liturgical year.
Then we came in one day and our professors said:
"I don't care if you hate somebody's favorite song in church - respect it. Even if you don't get it - respect it. You don't know why they love it. You don't know what it means to them. Respect it. Someday somebody will need you to program that song, and your reverence for the human being who loved it will make it special. That will need to be enough."
The topic of a healthy respect for other people's favorite music was covered in one of our books. I remember reading it and giving a small eye roll. The example given was, "In The Garden." My grandmother loved that song and I'd learned to sing it as a child, but theologically it doesn't do much for me. The writer talked about how a congregant had loved that song for a very personal reason, and that the congregant had requested it. The music minister said, "No." and told the congregant that the song was "fluff" - theologically empty - and that it would not be used in worship. The congregant explained to the music minister that she loved the song because it was the only song of faith she'd heard as a child . . . during years when she was isolated in an abusive home and not allowed to go out with friends - not even to church. It was her one song. Her one refuge.
Makes a difference, doesn't it?
Since reading that passage and hearing a lecture on this idea of respecting other people's favorite tunes, I have witnessed firsthand the importance of affirming for someone that it's right and good for them to love the music that they love - church music, specifically.
I have seen these songs used for a hospital playlist created for labor and delivery of a child.
I have seen favorite songs sung to a person as they've died - the tune still ringing in the air as their last breath moves in and out of their lungs.
I've seen family members clinging to words of a song that their loved one used to sing - something to hang onto when they can no longer hold the hand of the one they've always depended on.
Music is powerful.
Even the music that we ourselves don't love is powerful. It's powerful to somebody. A ray of light in the dark - and everybody's idea of darkness is different.
Today I did something I've done several times at this point. I began a list of somebody's favorite hymns.
As usual, some of the songs on the list are favorites of mine, too, and others are not . . . but the value of these tunes is undeniable. They give comfort to someone. When they are played and sung, something tense and fearful in the heart of this one particular person will unwind and relax. In fact, anyone else in the room will probably experience that same sense of momentary rest. I can't give you a scientific or medical reason for this. It's beyond my understanding.
Someday someone is going to write down this title . . . this hymn number . . . and it will be on a list for me. They will maybe sing it to me when I can no longer stand up on my own. And even if someone in the room thinks the tune is cheesy, they will see what it does to my heart rate - how the fear leaves my face. And the people who love me will have it when I can't be next to them anymore.
Friends, I'm about to narrow my career a little bit. As the birth of my child approaches, I'll be letting go of my work as a church music director for a time. I don't know for how long. At this point I know only 2 things about it all.
1) I know that I will continue writing music for the heart.
2) I know that I will continue to visit people in hospitals and hospice facilities . . . retirement homes and living rooms . . . and that I will continue making lists of favorite songs. Because the holiest part of my work has never been a Sunday morning or a Christmas Eve. Not even an Easter Sunday. The holiest part of my work has been done in hospitals and living rooms . . . and quietly . . . without lights or stages or microphones.
We would all do well to remember this. The most precious things in life don't happen in front of an audience. They happen in the presence of God and our small circles. Our little clouds of witnesses.
I never get used to this part. But my respect for the holiness of the last chapter of a life has continued to grow, even in the midst of the discomfort I've experienced and witnessed. God is right there in the middle of it, as always, tugging the good out of the human. Pulling the beautiful out of the dark.
That's why favorite songs are important.