I was making the regular Sunday morning post-church trip to Wal-Mart (an unintentional tradition, but one that stubbornly refuses to go away, possibly because payday is only two days prior and I never have time to shop for anything on Saturday) when I popped in a Phillips, Craig, and Dean cd. Two minutes later, I was pleasantly surprised to hear my six-year-old son, Ethan, singing along in the backseat to “This Is How It Feels To Be Free”. Such a great song! It was gratifying to hear those words coming from his mouth, at the same time that it was surprising—not because he doesn’t like the music, but because I didn’t think I had played that song often enough for him to have learned the words.
It didn’t take long for a hole to be poked in that particular bubble of pride, though, as I shortly realized that he doesn’t understand the words. He can recite them, but he doesn’t grasp them. Did I mention he’s only six? I’d like to think my children are geniuses and prodigies, but alas, it is not so. They’re smart, very much so—I have test scores to prove it—but they still have a lot to learn.
Music is a very powerful force for people in general, and it’s no less true—perhaps even more true—for us Christians. For the world at large, music is an expression of what is inside us, a way of not only telling the world how we think and feel, what we value and what we hate, but also of determining those things. How often has a song changed your opinion? Perhaps not on something large, but in small ways, I would guess that you’ve had that experience. Music influences our emotions, our state of mind, even some aspects of our physical wellbeing. As a believer in Christ, I have the same experiences, but with the added dimension of viewing the music in which I engage as a form of service to the Lord. Christians, as well, use godly music as a method of teaching and passing on our faith; it’s no great surprise that the creeds of the past were often set to music, or that the old hymns are rich in theology.
I listen to a great variety of music, both secular and sacred. I’ve found over the course of my life that I love music which has a grand feel to it; songs which are inspirational because they grapple with great and majestic themes, and because their musical presentation is uplifiting and powerful. I like nobility in music. I like precision in the choice of words, I like powerful imagery, I like strong and bold lyrics and bright, vibrant chords. I want to be moved, but I don’t want it to be simply an emotional response; I want the concepts and truths in the music to resonate with me for what they say as much as for how they are presented.
My six-year-old and my eight-year-old? They don’t care about any of that.
Tonight, while driving home, I played another song that resonates with me, especially on this Easter holiday: Steve Green’s classic, “He Holds The Keys”. I was singing along, as I often do in the car (the kids haven’t reached the eye-rolling stage yet), and then in the background I could hear them trying to do the same, feeling out the unfamiliar words, trying to piece together this new song. Suddenly the realization hit me: They aren’t singing because the song resonates with them. No, they’re singing because they like to sing. We play a lot of music in the car; I sing all the time, and it’s clear that they’ve picked up the habit. Which leads me to think that, possibly, deep down, they’re singing to be like me, which is entirely another form of gratification. Still, it gave me pause.
I feel as I do about “He Holds The Keys” and “This Is How It Feels To Be Free” because I’ve spent half my life gaining the knowledge and experience it takes to understand those songs in a deep and abiding way. I studied theology in college; I had excellent teachers for years in church (in addition to my school life); and I’ve studied on my own. As well, I’ve had the kind of life experiences, both good and bad, that only come with adulthood. When the song says, referring to Jesus, “You spared no expense for my pardon—You were used up and wasted for me,” I know what it means. I’ve been an adult, and I know what sin is, what forgiveness is. The same is true when the songs I play talk about suffering and hardship and difficult choices and need and pain and regret and all the other evils of life—it takes having lived life in order to truly understand.
My kids? They don’t understand it, not yet. When they hear and sing those words, they’re just that—words. That is as it should be right now. But they won’t be children forever, and that is where I come in—where each and every parent comes in. Parents, it’s our job to bring our children safely to adulthood, and that doesn’t mean preventing every bruised knee, or even every broken bone; it means giving them a foundation for maturity. It means that, although they will learn some of those evils of life through their own experience, we’re responsible for teaching them how to handle those things—and moreover, we’re responsible for teaching them the meaning of those things.
I want my children to hear these songs, someday, and feel what I feel, or something like it. I want them, ultimately, to grasp what I grasp, and perhaps more. I want them to know what the song means when it says:
And from death’s barren womb, the captives cry,
“Arise, for our redemption draweth nigh!
For He holds the keys,
He holds the keys;
And though we’ve been held captive,
At long last we are free,
For He holds the keys!”
But for now, that’s beyond them. They need direct statements. They need facts. Abstract concepts are still a stretch for them. There’s a reason why bible lessons for children usually consist of narratives rather than topical lessons; they can’t think that way yet. The stories teach character and other lessons as by example, rather than directly; and it’s the same with music.
But that will change. It’s up to me to prepare them for that change. Because, of course, it isn’t solely about music, but about life. It’s about truth. Music is one way of presenting it; there are others. In every way that comes to hand, be it music or something else, it’s my job to teach them the meanings behind what they face. It’s up to me to make the words make sense.