The Whys and Wonders of Worship: On singing (and music) – Get Loud!
August 19, 2018
(Sing Psalm 100 variant version)
You could do this psalm so many different ways musically. Scat jazz, emo/screamo, gentle folk like Nick Drake or Dana Falconberry, or soaring, celebratory rock. U2 has done that with other Psalms. JDub reggae, like Matisyahu. It could be set as a repetitive chant, like those of the Taize movement. It positively begs to be translated into Spanish, with a horn section: “Cantad alegres a Dios; todas habitantes de la tierra.” You could rap this, and I would guess that someone has.
It’s for everybody – “all the earth.” And everybody all over the earth is going to bring something different to the musical table. In this age of the internet one can literally pursue great music and be mesmerized from anywhere in the world. There is no musical consensus now, if there ever was in the past. Tibetan throat singing? Of course. Psychadelic trip hop from South Africa? Find Christian Tiger School on YouTube.
Why do we sing? Why do birds sing? Because that’s what they do! So too we, though there aren’t many day to day opportunities for most of us to make singing noises, joyful or otherwise. We go through our lives speaking, whispering, occasionally shouting (not often, I hope) but many of us rarely sing. And we thus don’t allow singing to transport us anywhere.
Our sister-in-law, Susan Maury, is doing her doctoral work on the actual benefits of groups singing together as a normal practice, before workplace meetings and the such. She does this with a particular emphasis in the non-profit, social service world. It’s a working set of theories that singing together lowers inter-personal resistance, and correspondingly increases social cohesion. It helps people get along and work together better. The science is developing but it looks like actual productivity goes up, and so does satisfaction and even happiness in work. Which makes a fair bit of sense. Ask any British Premier League soccer fan about the effects of singing together, and how it moves them!
This has almost always been a hallmark of the Christian movement. From the days of Jesus and the first disciples to the present, for two millenia Christianity has been a singing movement. Some of the earliest known Christian documents contain verses from what scholars think were hymns, “sung theology” for the people of God. Given that, it is interesting that in the New Testament we find almost no references to singing or music. There is Mary and Elizabeth’s “Magnificat” in Luke, expressing the joy of the impending gift of the Christ child. There are a couple of toss-off references in Paul’s letters to congregations about singing and one in James about doing so when feeling cheerful. Ominously, the only reference in the four Gospels of the disciples singing with Jesus is at what is known as the Last Supper, before they all would proceed in their own ways to betray Jesus (Mt. 26:30ff). That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of workplace productivity and social cohesion.
So while the limited content about singing and music in the New Testament can give us some perspective as towards its relative importance – e.g., having a wonderful music program in a church isn’t as important as having a solid children’s program or doing substantial justice work with marginalized folks – it’s basic to religious community life.
And for that, thank God! Because however much our singing and music may or may not move God (we hope, but it’s hard to know…) we sure need it.
What is clear is that smack dab in the middle of the Hebrew Scriptures of the Bible are the Psalms, the Jewish hymnal as it were. Psalms are basically songs and there are included a tidy one hundred and fifty of them. They are of all shapes and sizes, some long, some – like today’s – short. As a catalog of songs they address so many of the facets of life in relationship to the Living God. Over a third of them can be classified as laments, the blues as it were, songs to sing when things aren’t going well. (Try Psalm 138 for a nasty take on “Biblical family values,” that might help to explain the fear behind some of our current policies towards immigrant children.) Some are songs of orientation, to help stabilize us in times of instability (the famous 23rd Psalm is one of those). Quite a number are songs of thanksgiving and praise, many of them upbeat, festive, joyous.
Psalm 100 is one of those happy ones, very happy. It’s more than likely that the simple purity of its happy message made it a go-to Psalm, one of the “hits” in regular rotation for the communities of faith. Making it number 100 when the ordering came about made it easy to find. “Turn to page 100 in your hymnal.” It’s basic, happily so.
The dynamic of the Psalm is simple as well. Good things happen in life and we talk about them – a lot. Moreover, music is a great medium for some of the deeper expressions of emotion, the head and the heart and all that we are. The best music connects with our life experiences and draws us in as whole people. This is so true – I’ve watched you folks when Sarah and Bryan and Sophia and others bless us with the beauty of their work. Think of the gospel standard “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.” Listen to it sung by Mahalia Jackson. “I sing because I’m happy. I sing because I’m free. For his eye is on the sparrow. And I know He watches me.” Her take will move you more than my reading of the same!
What Psalm 100 tells us is that God is good. God’s steadfast love isn’t seasonal, it’s permanent. Because of this the congregation and all of the individuals therein are called forth to do some things. They’re commands, but only in the same sense that “Have a great time!” is a command.
- “Make a joyful noise.”
- “Worship the Lord with gladness.”
- “Come into her presence with singing.”
- “Know that the Lord is God.”
- “Enter her gates with thanksgiving.”
- “Give thanks to her, bless her name.”
At the core of singing are our personal and collective expressions of relationship with a God that we experience as good. That’s worship in a nutshell. I hope you don’t show up to church as an exercise in self-loathing. It’s affirming that God is god, that we are not, and that’s just fine.
But I dare say that the happy, reciprocal relationship we celebrate with a good God may not be all that happens when we sing. It may well bless others too.
I know that many in this congregation treasure Anne Lamott’s writings. So do I. Among them her confessional Traveling Mercies is probably my favorite. So I’ll let her speak at a little length on this matter, as to how her church helped her begin to find God, for she says it so well. Speaking of the Marin City flea market, in Northern California near where she has always lived, she writes (Read from Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, pp.46-48).
It turns out that our singing may sometimes be the way that we guide one another into the light and warmth of God’s love. Not only is singing about our relationship with a good God, but our singing becomes a way in which we ourselves (and our neighbors) may be transformed in joy as well.
Now that’s wonderful but that may not be all that happens when we sing together. I will offer that singing, when practiced both in the sung music and in the lyrics which we sing, becomes an essential energy to fuel our commitments to the ways of the reign of God, of justice, of inclusion, of love for all the earth and its many inhabitants. Perhaps this is now and has always been most needed at times when other ruling powers are going in other directions.
How do I know this? Think of the Civil Rights movement. It was a singing movement. Here comes Harry Belafonte! There is Lena Horne! “Oh Freedom,” “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” “We Shall Overcome,” and “Lift Every Voice And Sing.” They sang those in the churches, they sang them in the streets and they sang them in the jails and prisons into which they were thrown. But don’t listen to me. Listen to Martin (read from MLK, “New Day In Birmingham,” pp.64-65).
We could go a lot of directions with this notion these days. I think that we should be singing “De Colores” here almost every Sunday and absolutely in Spanish. During these days when some in power wish to fortify our walls we should sing with the Psalmist that “all the earth” gets to enter God’s “gates with thanksgiving, and her courts with praise.”
One last thought on the Psalm, of the simple nature. It’s a grand call to participation in singing, “to lift every voice” – and for all to do so. It’s for all of us no matter how good or lousy a singer you may be.
After nearly 35 years of being a Jesus follower and a few thousand worship services I can more or less, sometimes, stay in key when singing. It may occasionally even be the right key. I’ve long subscribed to the old joke that one should always sing loudly in worship. If you have a good or beautiful voice, sing loudly to God in praise. If you have a lousy voice, sing loudly to God to get even.
It was one of my earliest discoveries when I was learning Hebrew that in translation “joyful noise” had nothing to do with quality and everything to do with volume. So while Peter or others may sing joyfully and wonderfully, a “joyful noise” is more like what you hear when UCLA scores a touchdown at the Rose Bowl.
It bears saying in this congregation that it’s not just the work of the pros and the semi-pros, the choir, our musicians, Rhymes With Orange and the like. The Psalm shows us clearly that the joyful noise making us for us all. Those of us who have lovely voices and those of us who do not.
“For the Lord is good, her steadfast love endures forever, and her faithfulness to all generations.”
All light beings
Come on now make haste
Clap your hands
If you think you’re in the right place
Thunder all surrounding
Aw feel it quake with the joy resounding
Palm to the palm you can feel it pounding
Never give it up you can feel it mounting
Oh it’s going to drop going to fill your cup and
Oh it’s going to drop going to fill your cup
The age of miracles
The age of sound
Well there’s a Golden Age
Coming round, coming round, coming round
Dear Science (Interscope, 2008)
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