Psalm 98 – Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him. The LORD has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations. He has remembered his love and his faithfulness to the house of Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music; make music to the LORD with the harp, with the harp and the sound of singing, with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn – shout for joy before the LORD, the King. Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. Let the rivers clap their hands, Let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.
Psalm 100 – Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth. Worship the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs. Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the LORD is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.
Acting Out sermon series
Make A Joyful Noise
June 20, 2010
One of my favorite memories of my daughters when they were young is their experience with church music. I remember riding in the car with Sydney when she was two and hearing her sing the words to “Sanctuary,” a song I used to sing to her when I would rock her to sleep. And one of the first songs Molly learned was the Gloria Patri, because we sang it every Sunday in church. Of course, her version was a little different: “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Homey Boat.”
Chances are, for many of us our earliest memories of worship have a musical soundtrack. The majestic pipe organ, the simple and beautiful piano, the robust choir, the woman sitting behind you who sang off-key. You may not remember any points from any sermons you heard growing up, but you can remember singing “How Great Thou Art” or “The Old Rugged Cross.” And when you sang them, you were moved, experiencing God’s presence in a way that words simply could not capture. Music opens up an expressive part of us that allows us to connect with God on a different level than a sermon or prayer does. When there is absolutely no way to say what we feel, there is usually a song that can.
Back in 1996, as I began to deal with what I felt was a call to the ministry, I struggled to find the words to explain to my friends and family what I was feeling. How do you begin to articulate this strange and wondrous call? Then in church on Sunday we sang “Here I Am, Lord.” I cried as I sang “Here I am Lord, is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord, if you lead me, I will hold your people in my heart.” Those words captured what my heart was feeling and affirmed for me the call I had been experiencing.
Sally Brown, a professor of preaching, says “Sacred singing is full-bodied prayer, an act of worship that demands head and heart and sinew, a metaphor for discipleship itself.” Music is plays a big part of our theological and spiritual formation. We may not be able to articulate our theology of God’s redemption of humanity through the sacrifice of Jesus, but we can sing “Amazing Grace.” We may be at a loss for words when asked to devise an ecological perspective of the creative reign of God, but we can sing “For the Beauty of the Earth.” For many of us, the hymns we sing in worship have as much influence on our beliefs as the words we hear.
This revelation is as old as the Bible. Moses’ sister Miriam sings a song of thanksgiving after Israel crossed the Red Sea. Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon all sang in response to the gift of baby Jesus. The book of Revelation is filled with singing at the anticipation of the coming judgment and the new Jerusalem. And one whole book of the Bible, the Psalms, is a collection of 150 hymns and prayers. The singing of hymns and songs is so pervasive throughout the Bible that it leads us to believe that singing has long been one of the most effective and necessary ways to communicate with God.
The importance of music for praising God is not lost on us today. Think of all the ways we use music in worship, from our prelude to our hymns to our offertory to our postlude. Music sets the tone of the service, welcomes us in, joins us together, and sends us out. That joining together not only takes place through the singing of the same words together, but in the act of singing itself. When we sing together, we are living out the unity we have through Christ.
Music not only joins us together as a congregation, but as a universal body of Christ. When we sing “Holy Holy Holy” or “Be Thou My Vision,” we aren’t just joining our voices together here in this sanctuary, but we are uniting with voices across the world and through the ages that have sang those same words in cathedrals and country churches. Music has the ability to transcend boundaries of time and space, to bring together distant cultures and eras. When we sing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” we are singing the same hymn sung by the followers of Martin Luther in the 1500s. Some of our hymns and tunes date back to the centuries immediately following the life of Christ.
Music not only condenses time, but space as well. Our denominational hymn book, the Chalice Hymnal, was put together with the intent to reflect the diversity of God’s people. So when we sing “Somos Uno en Christo” or the African-American spiritual “Kum Bah Yah” or the Jamaican “Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ” or the South African “Siyahamba” we are opening ourselves to that culture’s language of praise and expanding our own family album of the children of God.
Because music has such power to join us together, to move us emotionally and to speak for and to us spiritually, I realize that we have to treat it with caution. This is especially true when it comes to music for worship. Worship is a holy time, a sacred time, and the music we sing and listen to should reflect that. Just because music is popular or appealing does not make it appropriate for worship. Believe it or not, there is some good Christian rap music out there, but I don’t want to sing it as a communion response.
So how do we find unity within that diversity, especially about a subject as personal as music? In his book “Good Taste, Bad Taste, Christian Taste,” my seminary professor Frank Burch Brown encourages us to work toward developing a more expansive taste for difference and diversity. He elaborates by saying we should strive, in the spirit of Christian unity, to try and understand what moves other people musically, even if it doesn’t move us. Author Marva Dawn puts this case more succinctly when she says, “a congregation has to love each other enough to sing each other’s songs.” We can do that because our worship’s embrace is wide enough to include all kinds of music, and music has the power to touch our hearts in surprising and transforming ways.
But we can only sing each other’s songs if we allow ourselves to become a part of the music of our worship. Now, I don’t want to name any names, but I’ve noticed some lips out there that are staying still when they should be forming the words of a hymn. And I have to admit I’m guilty of lip-synching hymns in my younger days, too embarrassed and shy to let anyone hear. I can’t carry a tune in a bucket, and wasn’t about to let everyone around me know that, also.
Until I met Gary. Gary was a member of a congregation I served a few years ago. Gary and his family were faithful worshippers, and had their accustomed spot in the pews. It was always interesting to note that people went out of their way to avoid sitting in the two or three rows in front of Gary and his family on Sunday morning.
You see, Gary, who was in his 50s, was mentally disabled, and had the mental capacity of a six- or seven-year-old. He also had one of the worst singing voices I’ve ever heard. His singing was slurred and never anywhere close to the right key. And he didn’t have the social development to recognize his lack of singing ability. So he just sang loud. Very loud.
One Sunday, without thinking, I sat down in front of Gary. As soon as opening hymn started, I realized my mistake. I steeled myself for a service full of Gary’s singing, settling into a spirit of annoyance instead of thanksgiving. And then I realized my bigger mistake. I realized what an asset Gary was to our worship, what a gift his voice was to our singing. Because Gary was singing not from his mouth or his vocal chords, but from his heart, and every word he sang was a word of sincere praise and thanksgiving. In his child-like innocence, Gary didn’t care what he sounded like or what others thought of him. He only cared to let God know of his love and thankfulness in full voice. He was doing as Ps. 98 commanded him, making a joyful noise to the Lord.
So I say, “Sing, Gary! Sing loud enough for everyone to hear, let your voice carry to the heavens!” And I say to everyone who thinks they can’t sing, that if God gave you voice, you can sing. Don Saliers, a professor of theology and liturgy, says “there is something about humans that needs to make music.” Amen. That’s a God-given gift, and one in which we can find true enjoyment by using it to praise and worship our God. God doesn’t care what key it’s in or how many beats you skip. Ps. 5:11 says, “Let all who take refuge in God rejoice; let them ever sing for joy.” The joy of music does not come from singing well; it comes from singing sincerely. So let’s sing!
(At this point in the service, I led the congregation through a mini hymn-sing, in which we sang the first verses of several of the songs I mentioned in the sermon, ending with “Amazing Grace”.)