The Reverend Allison Barrett

Loving the World with Words


And in the Beginning, There was Music – a reading and homily in honour of music ministry

Every year, we celebrated music ministry with more than one service devoted almost entirely to music.

One year, this poem served as a reading and the homily below followed.  But really, as always, it was the music that made the service.

From my vantage point at the front of the church, I can tell you that the music is where the sacred comes to life and is felt most profoundly. It is where we feel that which words alone can never really touch.


Long ago
Before religion was written
In the dry pages of a priestly book
The world sang with life

Skies opened and rain fell,
Beating time on roofs of trees and rocks
The earth erupted, rumbled
Oceans swelled songs of soothing and of fury
The sea below alive with sound unheard above

On the land – choruses of birds and wolves
And others – untold thousands giving voice to their music
Songs beautiful, ethereal, mysterious
Words known only to their singers
But heard by all in a great chorus of life

And we,
Before any thought of God
Voices raised together in the dark
Sang to tell stories of love and courage
Made music to feel less alone

Fashioned instruments that with tapping or beating
With breathing or plucking,
the caress of human hand on nature’s gift
made something more wonderful than each was alone

Before there was God,
Religion, church,
Choir or symphony,

There was sound
And that sound was life
We sing it to this day.



“Talking about music” said Theolonius Monk “is like dancing about architecture.” There are no words that say more than a song – so this is no homily, but a song without music, so that my words may not disturb the spirit that we have already summoned to this room.

An old family story goes: One day when I was about 5, my mother found me crying in my room for no apparent reason. And when she asked what was wrong, I told her “What about all the people in the world that I can’t talk to because I don’t know their language?” This is an extrovert’s concern; I remember my older sister Joanie saying “Thank God I can’t talk to everyone in the world!”

But I remember thinking, what if my best friend lives in Africa, and not only do I never meet her, but even if I did, I couldn’t talk to her! This truly troubled me for many years, until one day, right in the middle of a performance of music of the Andes – Incan music from South America, surrounded by people from many different cultures, countries and languages, it hit me! There IS a language understood by everyone, and I’ve known it all along. It’s music!

I can’t tell you what a thrill this realization gave me. To listen together to drums, and instruments that you blow through and pluck and play, to sing and smile in wordless communication and joy. Strike the harp and join the chorus! – the choir invisible of all human souls who have ever been moved by music. It’s a language that transcends the missteps that our words can make, and takes us to a deeper human level.

Archeologists recently uncovered what they believe is the world’s oldest musical instrument – save perhaps the sticks and stones belonging to early percussionists; Do you know what it it is? (Flute group, can you guess?) A flute made out of animal bone, belonging to a Neanderthal man, woman or child who they suspect had not yet acquired language but nevertheless did have – music!

More ancient than the temple is the dwelling, older than the spoken word is the sound, the singing in the night of voices or a simple flute. Music pushes through our subconscious and past our differences to a place of deeper connection.

What makes us one with each other? The music in us. The birds, too, sing, and look at us sideways when we join in, as if to say “With a little training, you might not be too bad.” The music lesson starts, and the dog, with his ancient wolf soul starts to sing along. Awooo… We used to play the piano and my grandmother’s dog Lucky would, I swear, sing “How Great Thou Art.”

Studies have shown that domestic cats actually meow in response to us – not often of their own accord, unless the cat food tin is nearby. You are not crazy; your cat’s meow really does sound like “Hel-lo” “Me –ow.” My car pulls up to the stable yard, and I hear a neigh from a far-off field, as I do when I drive away. Sing with me, talk to me, can I join in your choir? Hum with the vaccuum cleaner – it’s an e flat – go up a third and you have harmony.

Visiting in the hospital, in a church I served in Boston, an elderly man had not spoken since suffering a stroke. I took my harp and plucked a few strings and he began to sing! We wheeled him down to the recreation room and I found an old upright piano and began to play and so many words from all the old hymns came pouring out “I went to the garden alone… when the dew was still on the roses…and the voice I hear falling on my ear…” “Just a closer walk with thee” and “How great thou art” If only Lucky had been there to help out!

When we sing together, all difference melts away, and harmony remains to remind us of how close we are. Are you a tenor, singing the same as me but one octave lower in a perfect reminder of the beauty of the male and female voices blended together? Are we two women singing together, sounding like sisters, sirens, each a mirror of the other and so beautiful in our shared mastery of the treble clef?

Singing is mostly about listening, unlike talking. To make of the whole a thing of beauty requires making room for honouring, exulting in the other. What if the United Nations negotiated in song? What if before going to war, you had to sing in a choir with your enemies – perhaps a song about peace? What if the leaders of two warring countries had to do the duet from the Pearl Fishers or Lakme and keep at it until it was so beautiful it made you cry? When you cannot understand someone’s words you can understand their music and feel the shared connection.

It is for this reason that we worship in music at this time of year. In this congregation, December is quite a mixture of sensibilities, traditions, and differing expectations. I think it’s fair to say that there are some of you out there who want December to be more: more Christian, more Jewish, or more Earth-based and others who wish it was less: Christian, Jewish or Earth-based.

There are those who wonder why we talked about Buddhist meditation on the 2nd Sunday of Advent and those who think it was great that we talked about meditation and mindfulness on the 2nd Sunday of Advent; those who feel full of the “Christmas spirit” and want to sing every carol and those who would like to give it all a pass. Those who are full of seasonal joy and those who can’t even make it out to the Blue Christmas Service, so weighed down are you by your own sorrows or the unrealistic expectations of the season. And then there are those who love it all, who feel that the mix is what makes it special.

Today we sang “Deck The Halls” which hearkens back to Solstice/Earth-based or Pagan traditions, and a song celebrating Hannukah, and many other carols and songs of Christmas. They have all been different, and the music has been of many shades and colours; for the holidays are a time of many moods, not all of them merry. Sometimes Hannukah is marked by wondering if there will be enough light after all. Sometimes the turning of the year at Solstice brings uncertainty and change. Sometimes Christmas is a reminder only of what has been lost since last Christmas; the promise of new life born in darkness nothing more than a dream.

Only music pushes past the stories and meanings to a deeper bond, transcending our separateness with voices raised together in sorrow or celebration. It reminds us that we are made of the same stuff; we bear the same wounds and are in need of the same healing and inspiration and that we are all the music makers and the dreamers of dreams, and we sing with the rhythms of the earth and the universe.

Experts tell us that if you really want to enter into another’s worship experience, go to a church, synagogue or temple where your language is not spoken or sung. Our Blue Christmas service was mostly music in languages other than English. Music lets you feel instead of think; it points you to a place so deep you didn’t know it existed.

Do you have words to say why you cry during the hymns? What is it that wells up? There is one language that we all understand – winds, seas and creatures, one language that all people can speak, their voices united in grief, joy, sorrow, exultation, hope, thanksgiving, lamentation and love.

In the Hindu story of creation – one of the most ancient of all religious stories, God sings the earth into creation with a sound – an OM that is the beginning of all life. It sounds over all the waters, and is still singing – in the heartbeat of the drum, the hymn, the lament and the gloria that we gather to sing in our house of worship. It is beyond words. It is music. And now I will stop talking and we will sing together again.