“Nancy, look Mr. Jones in the eye. Smile. Extend your hand and introduce yourself. Say, ‘Nice to meet you, Mr. Jones!’ Say it like you mean it.”
Do you recognize those instructions?
My parents taught me that was how to greet people: Look the other person in the eye. Smile. Extend your hand and introduce yourself. Say, ‘Nice to meet you!’ Say it like you mean it.”
This attitude and these gestures communicate respect for the other and kindness and interest in the other.
And there’s more … When we smile something happens to us, something happens inside of us: something both chemical and attitudinal. When we smile we can’t help feeling happier.
Let’s try it. Imagine something distasteful to you … some food you despise … something like calves’ brain or cow’s tongue or goat intestines … Okay, so those are my examples … maybe for you its Brussels sprouts or mushrooms.
Choose a food that is extremely distasteful to you … something vile and loathsome. Now, picture it in your mind’s eye and make a face at it … scowl at it … screw up your face into a icky, scowling face.
Well done. Now, looking at that same distasteful, vile, loathsome food and smile! Smile at it. You see! Merely smiling changes your attitude, improves your attitude. It is hard to hate something while you are smiling at it! Isn’t it?
There’s been research on this: on the science of the smile.
One study found this: when participants were instructed to make certain faces, they experienced involuntary biological changes.
For example: a person told to make an angry face experienced increased blood flow to the hands and feet … the same biological reaction in those who are experiencing genuine anger.
Participants in another study, when told to smile, reported more favorable impressions of other people. If you smile at me, you will feel more favorably disposed toward me than if you scowl at me.1
In another research setting, participants were instructed to hold in their mouths pencils.
One control group was told to hold the pencil in their teeth … these people could still smile, through clenched teeth. The other group was told to hold the pencil between their lips, which pretty much prevented them from smiling.
Both groups were then asked to rate cartoons. Those who held a pencil in their teeth and thus were able to smile experienced the cartoons as funnier than did those who held the pencil in their lips and thus could not smile.2
Here’s what I believe: that when we enter God’s house, it’s important, it’s polite to greet our host warmly. To look God in the eye. To smile. To say: “Good morning, God!” And, to say it like we mean it.
Singing, hymn singing, is an act of holy greeting. Hymn singing is sacred salutation.
Holy, holy, holy, God the Almighty!
Early in the morning we praise your majesty
God of all, to you we raise
this our hymn of grateful praise.
Praise to the living God, the God of love and light,
Whose word brought forth the myriad suns
And set the worlds in flight.
Holy greeting. Sacred salutation.
Not only is there interesting new research on the science of the smile, there are also recent, ground-breaking studies on the science of singing … on what singing does to us … does for us … does inside of us and between and among us.
People often wonder where in the brain music is processed. The answer: everywhere above the neck.3
Music, as it turns out, engages huge swathes of the brain. It's not just lighting up a spot in the auditory cortex.
Although I have learned that the corpus callosum, which connects the left and right brain hemispheres, is larger in musicians. We can safely assume, can we not, that our Minister of Music, Harry Huff has a colossal corpus callosum.
There are new studies that show singing elevates the levels of neurotransmitters which are associated with: (choir, are you ready for this?) … pleasure and well-being. That’s right. Singing gets you high!
Is it any wonder that the members of the Old South Choir come here twice a week? They are hear every Sunday and then back again on Thursday for their fix. The choir meets more often than any other group in the church. Now we know why.
There’s more. Not only does singing light up your brain … not only does it give you a holy high … other studies show that singing increases antibodies that are helpful to the immune system.
Singing is healthy.
Why does singing shower our brains with good feelings?
One researcher makes the case this way: our brains developed along with singing and music as a survival mechanism. Before there were governments or nations, tribes used song and dance to build loyalty to the group to transmit vital information, and to ward off enemies. Those who sang survived.4
Before the emergence of written language, critical stories were passed on through oral tradition … much of that was a tradition of song. Much of the Hebrew Torah, the Greek myths, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were sung long before they were written down because singing aids memory.5 Think of a child singing her abc’s.
When we sing we tap into a primal human practice. At the same time, we tap into an activity
that modern neurochemistry says makes you feel good …and which is showing to be profoundly healthy.
When the ancient Jewish rabbis were quizzed, "Where is the Lord?" they did not cite distant mountaintops or celestial markers. What they said was this: “The Lord is enthroned on the praises of his people.” (Psalm 104:31-34).
Therefore, sing, good Christian folk Sing, because it is in our singing and our praises that God is enthroned.
Sing, gentlefolk! Because hymn singing is a holy greeting… a sacred salutation. Sing, because in our singing we say things to God that are better said in poetry than in prose.
Sing, Christians! Because hymns tell the story of our faith … and because in singing them, we learn them…inscribing them upon our hearts.
Sing, brothers and sisters, aunties and uncles, little babies and venerable elders! Sing, because the act of singing lights up your whole brain.
Sing, beloved of God! Sing, because as the choir knows, it makes you feel good … it is a holy high.
And smile Christians! Smile, because it is the least you can do when entering God’s house.
Smile, sisters and brothers! Smiling will make you more favorably disposed toward God and God’s people … all of us … the sinners and the fallen, even the weak and objectionable, the vile and distasteful.
Smile, you beloved of God! Because the act of smiling makes you happier.
Smile as you sing! Because we believe in the entwining of science and religion, and in these twin holy acts—in smiling and singing—science and religion are wondrously and mysterious entwined.
In his letter to the Christians gathered in Ephesus, St. Paul urged them:
Be filled with the Spirit, sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs … sing and make melody to the Lord in your hearts …
Those are the words as Evan Shu sang them this morning… words from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
If I may, translating from the original New Testament Greek, I propose that the real meaning of Paul’s words goes something like this:
Look God in the eye. Smile. Say: ‘Good morning, God!’ Say it—or better yet, sing it—like you mean it.
1 Bernstein, et al
2 Davis & Palladino
3 Dr Aniruddh Patel from the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego
“This is Your Brain on Music” and “The World in Six Songs”. By Daniel Levitin, professor of neurochemistry at McGill University,
Bernstein, D. A., Clarke-Stewart, A., Penner, L. A., Roy, E. J., & Wickens, C. D. (2000). Psychology (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Davis, S. F., & Palladino, J. J. (2000). Psychology (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
“Torah on the Heart: Literary Jewish Textuality Within Its Ancient Near Eastern Context” by David Carr (from the journal, Oral Tradition, 2010)