Tuesday, May 30, 2017

"Singing the Songs of God: The Power of Music and Praise" - Meditation, May 21, 2017

Community UMC, Quincy
May 21, 2017
“Singing the Songs of God: The Power of Music and Praise”
Pastor Andrew Davis
Psalm 96; Psalm 150

        Now I may be a little biased being a musician, but music has always played an important role in my life and faith journey.  I have found over the years that music has the power to relax, calm, or even heal, particularly in memory care and in the hospital or nursing home.  Music helps us express ourselves in ways we may not ordinarily be able to do, as there is a special power in the songs and hymns that can bring us closer to God.  Like many of you, I too am deeply moved by the poetry and words of music, just as I am by the melodies that are written.  In a class I took at Wesley a few summers ago, “Exploring the Hymnal” with Dr. Eileen Guenther, Eileen made it a point that congregational songs and hymns are a means of “portable theology.”[1] 
After thinking about and reflecting further on congregational songs and hymns as “portable theology,” I find a new meaning in the words of the songs that we sing together and the stories that the hymns tell us.  The songs we sing in worship can tell us a lot, or a little, depending on the depth of the theology expressed in their words and how we can relate to God through the music we sing.  Songs and hymns of our faith can also teach us what it means to follow Jesus, and even teach us about doctrine of the church, which Charles Wesley did in many of his hymns.  Music can also help us spread the Gospel and has been a source of bringing people to Christ.  When asking people what brought them into the church, many times they will respond with the music.  Eileen always tells us in several of her classes and in Wesley’s chapel choir that “music says for us what we are unable to say.” No wonder music in worship can be so powerful!!  
So what kind of power does music have?  I think that the closing lines of Psalm 150 say it best, “let everything that has breath praise the Lord” (NRSV).  Or in Psalm 96, the Psalmist says to “sing a new song unto the Lord.” I also look to the stories of King David in his youth, playing his harp and dancing before the Lord, demonstrating the power music has on the body and there are a great many songs that will make you want to dance!!  Even in Paul’s letter to the Colossians 3: 16-17, Paul writes of the need for singing songs to God, in which music is a means of bringing people together.  Let’s consider Eugene Peterson’s translation of Colossians 3: 15-18 in The Message:
15-17 Let the peace of Christ keep you in tune with each other, in step with each other. None of this going off and doing your own thing. And cultivate thankfulness. Let the Word of Christ—the Message—have the run of the house. Give it plenty of room in your lives. Instruct and direct one another using good common sense. And sing, sing your hearts out to God! Let every detail in your lives—words, actions, whatever—be done in the name of the Master, Jesus, thanking God the Father every step of the way.

“Sing, sing your hearts out to God” (Col. 3: 16, MSG)!!  Music is highly important in our life in Christ as a way to bring us together by bringing us together whenever we enter the sacred!  And I know that many of you have expressed at one time or another how important music is in your own faith journey whenever we “sing our hearts out to God,” especially since we have a church that likes to sing and a large, talented choir.  Everything that we are singing, or in the case of the bell choir, ringing, this morning tells a story of God’s work in the world, through God’s relationship with humankind, or through the ministry of Jesus the son, or God’s work through the Holy Spirit. 
When I think of the power of praising God through the words of Psalms 150 and 96, I think of a joyful atmosphere of people gathered together singing to God and giving God their full energy and attention through the words of the songs and engaging with the music.  Both our Psalms this morning show us that there are many ways to praise God.  We can praise God joyfully, shout, dance, and make noise with whatever we have, as timbrels are close to some of the hand percussion instruments we use today.  In fact, Psalm 150 does not just call us to sing, but fully praise God even with loud noise and crashing cymbals, as we need time for loud and joyful praise.
At the same time, we also need quiet, contemplation, and even lament which music can also help us express.  When it comes to praising God through music, Hymnwriter Brian Wren writes that “when we wholeheartedly praise another, our attention is turned outward, not inward.  Even more so, when our music glorifies God, ‘adoration leaves no room for pride.’”[2] By letting our breaths praise God in song, we are leaving our own senses behind when we allow the Holy Spirit to move us in the power of song, whether it is joyful or contemplative. 
Music and song has the power to make us smile, empower us, re-charge us, or move us to tears.  Just like the music we may hear on the radio, at a concert, or in a symphony hall, music in worship has the power to transform and shape us, particularly if it is memorable and easily gets stuck in our heads.  I know for me, I am particularly moved by the great hymn, “I Love to Tell the Story” about how Jesus shared his love for all, or the words of “It is Well with My Soul” whenever I find my soul conflicted and weary.  Or I feel a great sense of hope in the resurrection when I hear Stuart Getty and Keith Townsend’s “In Christ Alone,” Charles Wesley’s “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” or Natalie Sleeth’s “Hymn of Promise.” At the same time, music can feel like it is transporting us to Heaven, as music in worship and congregational song can be a deeply spiritual experience and even put us in a trance. 
Music can also be prayerful, as a saying attributed to St. Augustine says that “music is praying twice.” Or if you have ever experienced worship in the spirit of Taize, most of the songs we sing in this worship experience are prayers.  In his book, Music and Theology, Dr. Don Saliers’ writes that “music confers upon human language addressed to God the appropriate silence and mystery required by prayer.  Music is the language of the soul made audible especially as music is the performance mode of prayer and ritual engagement of the community.”[3]
 Singing the soul’s language through hymns and congregational song helps to convey thoughts that we may not ordinarily say aloud, just as we just sang, “when words alone cannot express, bring music.”[4] Dr. Saliers further writes that “it is no accident that when poets or great theologians wish to speak of the deepest realities, they move toward poetry and music – heightened speech – as an attempt to ‘sound’ spiritual matters,” which is a further example of how hymns and congregational song are portable theology.[5]
When we take the time to fully understand and appreciate the power of the poetry found in the words of hymns and congregational song, music in worship becomes a deep spiritual experience that enhances the way that we hear the scripture and sermon, in which the entire service becomes the message.  But when we carry the music with us through the week, life itself becomes worship and prayer.  As we go into this new week with a song in our hearts, let us continue singing God’s song and bring that song into our daily lives and into the world around us. 

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let the church say Amen!!

[1] Eileen Guenther, Class Discussion, Exploring the Hymnal (Wesley Theological Seminary; May 28, 2013)
[2] Brian Wren, Hymns for Today (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 76. 
[3] Don E. Saliers, Music and Theology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 4
[4] John Thornburg, “When Words Alone Cannot Express,” Worship & Song (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2011), 3012
[5] Saliers, 72

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