Some of my earliest memories of church are infused with song: “Amazing Grace,” “A Mighty Fortress,” “Lamb of God.” Bright melodies and full, rich chords—the sound of my mom playing the organ. In a lofty, windpipe-lined balcony, I perched on a wooden pew nearby, swinging my sneakers, listening and watching. Eventually, I sang along. Making music is the first way I learned to express my faith.
Psychology Today tells me that music memory survives long after other recollections disappear. Even in patients with Alzheimer’s or other dementias, a favorite song resurrects deep memories. It’s no surprise, then, that my initial memories include music.
Martin Luther especially loved singing hymns in worship and believed in music’s ability to “move the listener’s soul.” Over 500 years after the Reformation, hymn-singing is a hallmark of Lutheran worship. Music heals, soothes, inspires and challenges. It has aided peace talks and revolutions. Songs act as a bridge propelling us forward into the future or transporting us back in time to significant moments in our lives.
You don’t need to be nearer the end of your life to experience the power of music memory. You can be in a coffee shop or an elevator or, in my case, a Lutheran church in Budapest, Hungary.
Budapest’s bustling streets are quiet on this Sunday morning. Pigeons scuttle over gray cobblestone. Mist curtains the Danube River.
Breath steady, I jog across a city bridge and pause in the middle to admire the foreign skyline. I’m here to capture stories. Yet, standing on this bridge feels weighty and sacred, and I can’t help but wonder about the story I’m living too. How will I encounter God on this journey?
Back in my hostel, I sling my camera bag over my shoulder and tuck a fresh reporter’s notebook inside before heading downstairs to meet my group. We’re visiting a Lutheran church outside the center of the city to film worship. We arrive early.
Unable to make small talk with the parishioners, I stay on the outskirts, clutching my camera while the video crew sets up their equipment. I linger at the sanctuary’s edges, taking pictures while watching the wooden pews fill.
Watching the faithful settle into their seats.
Watching old friends crane their heads toward one another in conversation.
Eventually, the organ prelude begins, and I set aside my camera and slide into a pew near the back.
The familiar weight of the cranberry hymnal is a comfort in this strange sanctuary. When I thumb through it, though, Hungarian words swim and dart on the page and land thick on my tongue like molasses. I struggle to keep my place in the service. A silver-haired woman beside me glances over now and then to tap-tap-tap the correct page numbers in her hymnal. I shift forward in the hard wooden pew, gripping my hymnal tighter. My palms feel clammy. Each tap on the page reminds me I don’t belong.
Following the sermon, the organ blares from the balcony rafters a tune I know by heart. My breath catches in my throat. Is this what I think it is? The major chords of Luther’s familiar hymn sail toward the nave, causing my chest to swell with recognition. This is our song: “A Mighty Fortress.” The people sing with a fervor akin to that of my childhood church home.
Each Reformation Sunday, Mom’s fingers pressed into the organ keyboard, filling the church walls with raw force, bringing the congregation to their feet. Our pastor led us in song, belting Luther’s words boldly and a little flatly.
“A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing!”
We sang together with pride and determination.
“On earth he has no equal.”
My Hungarian may be suspect, but I know this tune well and do my best to blend my voice with the hearty ones surrounding me, proclaiming what Luther once called a “living, daring confidence in Christ.” We declare, “Erős vár a mi Istenünk!” My silver-haired companion glances over and smiles.
As we sing, I marvel that since this hymn was first published in 1529, it has been translated and sung in a plethora of languages, including the Hungarian filling the sanctuary and the English that filled my childhood church home. Yet its melody transcends language, wraps me in warmth, bridges the gap between me and my companion.
“A Mighty Fortress” is Luther’s interpretation of Psalm 46, which begins “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
I imagine my faith as a thread in a larger tapestry of the global Lutheran church: this congregation where I’m worshiping, my childhood church, my home church in Chicago, the thousands of congregations and members of the Lutheran World Federation spanning South Africa, Honduras, the Holy Land and beyond. This communion of voices rises above language but is grounded in music—the bridge that allows us to look backward and forward through space and time and see the place where God is surely working.
We finish the hymn and I settle into my seat, beaming.