Heart Music

Every now and then, a song I haven’t heard in decades comes on the radio. Almost automatically, I find myself singing along with every word. How is this possible, when most of the time, I can’t tell you what I had for dinner the night before?

More than a hundred years ago, my grandfather was an orchestra leader on a showboat on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. He fell in love and married the lead singer, who became my grandmother. When my parents, aunts, and uncles got together, they loved nothing more than to sing around the piano. Singing together was how they expressed their love for each other.

Twenty years ago, I attended an Air Force Band concert in San Antonio where the band performed for the Texas Bandmasters Association. Since they were playing for music professionals, teachers and conductors, the band premiered an original work called “Dreamcatcher.” It was well-performed and well-received.

But when the chorus joined the band in “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” the place erupted. Those Texas music professionals had played or heard that song a thousand times, but there they were, on their feet, cheering, laughing, and crying. 

It was their heart music, played like they’d never heard before.

Music has that kind of power.

God gave us music as the means to express the deepest longings of our hearts. And when we experience sacred music, especially sacred music done well, we get the sense that there is a reality beyond this world that we were created for.

Last full measure of devotion

I hope you heard Irish Tenor Ronan Tynan sing “The Last Full Measure of Devotion” at the State Funeral for President George H.W. Bush this week. I will never forget the first time I heard that song.

On Veteran’s Day in 1997, Jana and I were sitting with the Air Force Band in the amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery. On the stage in front of us were President Clinton, who had just laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, and the Joint Chiefs. Behind us were thousands of veterans and their families waving American flags. It was the most patriotic scene you can imagine, especially for us in that moment.

A few days before, our family had returned from two years in Brussels, Belgium so I could take command of the 11th Operations Group in Washington, DC. I was responsible for the Air Force Band, Air Force Honor Guard, and the Air Force chaplains at Arlington.

When Senior Master Sergeant Richard Pearson, backed by the rest of the “Singing Sergeants” and the entire Air Force Band, sang “The Last Full Measure of Devotion,” I lost it. Jana and I were sitting in front of the French Horn section, and I remember wondering what they thought of their new boss, blubbering away. Over the next couple years, I got to hear Richard sing that song several times, always with the same effect. Ronan Tynan is great, but for me, Richard’s performance will always be the definitive one.

The song picks up a key phrase from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as it honors those who gave their lives in service to country. It’s a patriotic anthem, not explicitly Christian. But since I’ve become a minister, I hear the song in a new way. It reminds me of Jesus Christ, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant….”

There is nothing more touching or noble than someone who gives their life for another. How can we not be moved by the God who gave us his “last full measure of devotion?”