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What’s Your Song?

Psalm 96

The Rev. Mark DeVries

June 2, 2013

             What would cause an otherwise stoic father-of-the-bride to be reduced to tears as he’s walking his daughter down the aisle to a bagpipe playing Highland Cathedral?  What would cause more than 60 percent of people aged 14-30 say they would sooner give up food than give up their music?  (YouthWorker, January-February, 1999, p. 15).  Anne Lamott asks it even more simply: “How come you can hear a chord and then another chord, and then your heart breaks open?” (Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, p. 264).  “How come?” she asks.  “How come?” 

             It’s because music has power. 

             Maybe you heard about the problem the University of South Carolina stadium was having because of the power of a single song.  Structural engineers said that, structurally, the stadium was fine.  But someone – maybe sound engineers – discovered that the song Louie Louie was a problem for the stadium!  It seems that the combination of the unique frequency of the stadium and the swaying in the upper deck made the stadium vulnerable.  So vulnerable, in fact, that the university asked visiting marching bands not to play Louie Louie.  And it has not been played there since 1986.  (Makes you wonder about Jericho!)  (Leonard Sweet, April 1997, Princeton Youth Forum).

             Music has power. 

             I love the way my friend Chan Sheppard, who teaches our class for nearly-weds and newlyweds, talks about the power of music.  He tells the new husbands, “If you’re driving home on a date with your wife, and you put on a little Barry White song, and things don’t go well for you, don’t blame Barry.”

             Music has power.  It has the power to propel us into mystery, into more than we can grasp, into questions big enough to make us ask, “How come?”  This morning, we will take a look at a single line of Psalm 96.  And to that line, we will apply Anne Lamott’s question, “How come?”  So, for those good Presbyterians with agenda anxiety, this psalm breaks down naturally into three parts: (1) Sing, (2) To the Lord, (3) A New Song.

  1. I.       Sing: How Come?

             I have been provoked recently by a book by Douglas John Hall called Waiting for Gospel.  In it, he says, “God, in Jesus Christ, does not give us Christians the Truth; God only allows the Truth, the living Truth, ineffable and uncontainable, to live among us” (Douglas John Hall, Waiting for Gospel).  God, in Jesus Christ, does not give us the truth, but allows the truth – the truth beyond our comprehension – to live among us.  In a world where many claim to speak for God with absolute certainty, something about those words ring true to me.  They call us to a faith beyond the kind of “dry, yeastless factuality” so common among many going through the motions of religion.  (The beautiful phrase, “dry, yeastless factuality,” I borrowed from The Life of Pi).

             If you have spent much time in the gospels, you know that the one characteristic of those closest to Jesus was that they did not understand.  They were often clueless about Jesus.  But they followed.  Albert Einstein said famously, “What is incomprehensible to man is in the realm of God.”  Even the brilliant Einstein understood.  Reason has its limits.  And maybe, just maybe that is where music comes in.  Maybe it is part of the answer to “Why do we sing?”  

             Some have said that the mascot of the Presbyterian Church just might need to be “Mr. Potato Head,” with our spirituality that is focused almost exclusively on the brain and little else; a brain filled with containable, comprehensible information about God.  No wonder a social commentator recently said that, in the church, it is not a matter of the blind leading the blind.  Our real danger is the bland leading the bland.  (Leonard Sweet, Princeton Youth Forum, April 1997).  

             Does your faith sing or is it just words?  I am afraid many of us would be happy if all references to “singing” and music in the Bible were removed.  Instead of “sing to the Lord a new song, we would be more comfortable with “trudge for the Lord a new trudge!”  But here is it (and in other places as well) undeniably, we are commanded to sing.  How come?  

             It has been said that in some indigenous cultures, “a dis-spirited or dis-connected person is diagnosed by asking four questions:

 1)    Where in your life did you stop singing?

2)   Where in your life did you stop dancing?

3)  Where in your life did you stop telling stories?

4)  Where in your life did you stop listening to silence?” (Mark Yaconelli, Contemplative Youth Ministry).

             Music has a way of taking us to the childlike place.  Maybe that is why we are so fearful of it.  It is easy in the put-down world we live in to hear the message, again and again, “Leave the singing to the professionals.”

             Harriett was a woman who loved to sing in the shower at the top of her lungs.  And each day when she came home, she would jump in the shower and sing to her heart’s content.  One morning, as she was walking out her apartment door to work, she saw the note, “Sing Low Sweet Harriett.”  It is easy to get the message that our singing is too much.

             When we sing, we take a risk, like Pastor Todd does every time he celebrates communion!  He refuses to let the fact that he does not have the voice of Raphael Bundage to rob him from the opportunity to bring more of himself into worship. 

             I love Nelson Mandela’s charge in his inaugural speech: “Your playing small does not serve the world.” (Henriette Anne Klauser, Write it Down, Make it Happen).

             Why sing?  Authentic faith is not a comfortable spectator sport.  It is a risky expression of worship and much too important to be left to professionals. 

             The next part of the psalm puts a finer point on our singing. 

 II.    To the Lord: How Come?

             The psalmist invites us to sing “to the Lord,” to the Audience of One, not to the people sitting around us, not even to ourselves or for ourselves, but to the Lord.  When we “sing to the Lord,” we might find ourselves surprised.  C.S. Lewis certainly did.  He said, 

 “I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music.  But as I went on I saw the great merit of it … I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize you aren’t fit to clean those boots.  It gets you out of your solitary conceit.” (Philip Yancey, Finding God in Unexpected Places, p. 226)

             Augustine may have been the first to use the Latin term “Incurvatus in se,” which literally means “turned or curved inward on oneself.”  When we sing to the Lord, we at least express our desire to move out of the shrinking way of living that orbits everything around us.  We all have a tendency to live with “the illusion of a safer deity,” to pare “God down to manageable proportions” (McCollough, The Trivialization of God).  I love the way Nicole Nordeman sings about it in her song Who You Are:

 “…to know you was to keep you in my pocket,

so easy to hold. 

It is easy to insist on what is packaged and precise,

and dismiss the clear suspicion

that you’re bigger than we’d like.”

             My bride had a similar discovery over a decade ago right up in the choir loft.  She was preparing for the morning anthem, just an ordinary day in the choir.  Now that particular morning, she was feeling a little grumpy.  The anthem that morning was in French.  And Susan had a little inner monologue going on in her head.  “How can THIS possibly be worship?  No one will have a clue what we’re singing!”  When it came time for the anthem, she stood her grumpy self in the choir loft and began to sing, and, she tells me, she was overwhelmed.  As she was singing, she was ambushed by the furious love of God, in a way so far beyond words she still cannot quite explain it.  

             When we sing to the Lord, we just might discover that God is bigger than the shrink-wrapped, well-packaged, predictable categories we like to keep God in.  When parents sing the songs of the faith with their children, they display for them a God bigger than words.  I am so encouraged by so many families who, when I visit with families before their child’s baptism, have been singing the songs of God to their children.  This week, my grandchildren are in town.  And each night as they go to bed, they transition from the craziness of the day into bedtime with a series of five or six songs their mom and dad sing to them on the way to bed, songs like This is My Father’s World, like He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands, like For the Beauty of the Earth

             We sing to the Lord, but there is one more discomforting part of this invitation…

 III.  A New Song: How Come? 

             We like our old songs.  They bring us comfort and connection with the God who is our help in ages past.  But the psalmist is very clear, we are to sing to God a new song.  How come? 

             It is easy to hear the challenge to sing a new song simply as a challenge to the church to be open to a different style of music.  Maybe.  That might be part of it.  But only a part.  But at a more profound level, God is about the business of His people translating their faith daily, like gathering manna every day, not saving up yesterday’s manna for today.  Every generation, every year, every season needs a new song. 

  •  The new song, the gospel, for Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in Nazi Germany, has a different tune than (but in the same key as) the new song sung by Martin Luther King from a Birmingham jail.
  •  The song sung by Keith Gunter at our church plant in Hendersonville may be different than the song of compassion sung by the staff at Preston Taylor Ministries or Jobs for Life.
  •  The song of reconciliation sung at Barefoot Republic Camp this summer may be different than the song sung in Young Life’s Club Capernaum.

 …all new songs, all translating the gospel in a fresh way.

             Giorgio Angelozzi was 87 years old with seven cats, moping through life in a tired village outside of Rome, Italy.  His wife had died 12 years earlier.  His only daughter was working in Afghanistan.  One day he grew tired of the dull rhythm of his life, a lonely life where he seldom ventured out, rarely spoke to others.  So he decided to sing a new song.  Here’s how the story is told:

             Giorgio Angelozzi put himself up for adoption.

             That’s right – the octogenarian placed a classified ad in Italy’s largest daily newspaper: “Seeks family in need of a grandfather. Would bring 500 euros a month to a family willing to adopt him.”

             The ad changed his life.  The paper ran a front-page article about him.  Inquiries poured in from as far away as Colombia, New Zealand and New Jersey.  Angelozzi became a celebrity overnight.

             He went from having nothing but time to having scarcely enough time to handle interviews and requests.  A pop star responded.  A millionaire offered servants and a seaside villa.

             But one letter stood out, Angelozzi explained, because every member of the family – father, mother, sister, brother – had signed it.  He settled into their ground-floor apartment, taking walks in the garden, helping with dishes and homework.  “I couldn’t have chosen better,” he says.  “Maybe it was luck, or maybe it was God looking after me, I don’t know … I knew right away I had found my new home.” (from Max Lucado, The Cure for the Common Life).

             IV.  Sing to the Lord a New song. 

             I am grateful to be a part of a community that welcomes the discomfort of new songs.  This reality became frighteningly clear to me 15 or so years ago, when we asked our youth director, Mark Schultz, once again, to write a song for Youth Sunday.  The songs he had written in the past had been mellow, calm, worshipful.  But this particular song had a bit more of a beat than maybe our congregation might have been used to.  Mark also had our good Presbyterian youth actually “steppin’ and swayin’,” which is pretty close to handling snakes in some folk’s minds.  And the kids were into it, so into it, in fact, that I was certain that relocation would soon be in my future.  They were dancing and singing their hearts out, in ways, I’m afraid might make John Calvin roll over in his grave!

             At the end of the service, as I stood at the door with trepidation about what folks might say as they were leaving, a dear friend in her seventies approached me.  I knew her well enough to know that this particular style of music was not exactly her cup of tea, so I braced myself, and said, “I guess that’s not something you see around here very often, is it?”  And she locked her eyes on mine and said, “No honey, but I hope it happens again real soon.” 

             This is a place that not only sings to the Lord but is open to singing new songs.  Thomas Carlyle has said, “Our grand business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand.”  You may not be totally clear on the grand vision for how God might be calling you as a disciple to change the world.  But you can do what lies clearly at hand.  You can take the one step that is in front of you … sing … to the Lord … a new song.

                                                                               Amen.

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