“To sing and love as angels do” is a line from one of Isaac Watts’ hymns (he wrote over seven hundred). I love the phrase. It places singing right up there with loving as one of those activities that pleases God. I have long pondered the central place singing holds in worship, and its importance to the worshiper. Here is an excerpt of an article I wrote about “the worshiping self:”
“In hymn singing the worshiping self experiences transcendence as one among many within a congregation. There, in worship, God the other is addressed by the singer, not in isolation, but as one voice among many others. The hymn singer uses the body as well as the intellect in an integrated act of worship engaging the whole self. Hymn singing also roots the worshiping self within the life of the congregation among whom the singer works and plays, rejoices and weeps. Since the congregation is the local embodiment of the church catholic (what P. T. Forsyth called “the great church”), the hymn singer is part, not only of the congregation physically present, but also the great congregation, both the ecumenical church in its geographical breadth, and the communion of saints in its temporal length across ages and generations.
Additionally, the hymn is a repository of the tradition of the great church, and the faithful learn scripture and doctrine from singing as much as they do from sermons and catechesis. Finally, and most significantly, the singer of hymns not only addresses God, but is, at the same time, addressed by God, so that hymn singing becomes an event of grace. The singer is addressed as a forgiven and justified sinner, and it is often in the singing of the hymns, that the worshiping self is able to experience the grace of justification, and respond with faith and obedience.” (“The Worshiping Self” in Persons in Community: Theological Voices from the Pastorate. Edited by William H. Lazareth. Eerdmans, 2004.)
I also believe that music in general and singing in particular can give us access to the divine presence as no other medium can, which is why even non-believers often are lovers of Bach’s great religious works. Even though my writing is primarily theological and devotional, I have sometimes turned to writing hymns because there is something I want to express that I can in no other way (to see some of my hymns go here.)
I recently wrote:
Singing can help faith, for sometimes we can sing words that we are not yet able to say. I have often noticed singers in choirs who would not call themselves believers belting out sacred music as if they meant it.
Perhaps they do mean it. Who is to say that a singer singing out “And he shall reign for ever and ever” in Handel’s Messiah is not expressing a faith and hope that he or she might have trouble putting into spoken words? (From my Still Speaking Daily Devotional, to see it all go here)
Singing binds us together and reminds us we are not alone. “Our personal faith may wax and wane, but the church’s faith goes on from generation to generation. I like to think of it as a great choir, where each part supports and strengthens every other part, creating something beautiful and harmonious. ”
When I was a child it was the very foreignness of the church that intrigued me. There I learned about what Karl Barth called “the strange new world within the Bible,” a world where a shepherd boy could slay a giant, where angels appeared and made strange promises, where a virgin could conceive and bear a son, and where a brutal execution was somehow seen in Easter light to be nothing less than the victory of God. I was fascinated by the language.
In those days we “vouchsafed and beseeched.” I wondered what the “seed” of David was. There were weighty Latinate words such as “propitiation” and “incarnation”. There were strange ancient creeds that one said for years waiting to understand them. There were hymn texts that shaped piety and theology. One of my favorites was this one: “Crown him the Lord of love; behold His hands and side, Rich wounds, yet visible above, In beauty glorified: No angel in the sky can fully bear that sight, But downward bends with burning eye At mysteries so bright.”
What was one to make of such language? Long before I had a theology of the atonement I sang those words passionately. I still do. And then there was the music: the strange modal sound of plainsong, the emotion of gospel, the pathos of spirituals, the stately progression of chorale tunes. In my childhood our preachers had other, better gifts, so I learned my faith from singing it and hearing it. I knew this was a different world and in many significant ways a better one than the world I inhabited at Norwood School #2, where the big kids might decide it would be amusing to kick the living daylights out of me at recess. So let me suggest that “enhancing OUR song in the new century” will mean attending to this alternative world. And I think increasingly so, as the values of a global consumer society and the values of the church of Jesus Christ part ways. Walter Brueggemann suggests, rightly I think, that the best biblical analogy for church life today is the Babylonian exile. Christians today live as dispersed aliens in a foreign world. Constantinian Christianity is gone for good. And in America the day is over when the Protestant mainline is seen as the golden thread in the seamless robe of culture. We are increasingly marginal to what really matters in the eyes of the world. Or at least of the Empire. By the Empire I means the official normative construal of the world—the world as seen on TV. For advertising is the liturgy of the Empire. Take Nike’s ads. They hold out the world of the competitive autonomous individual, free from community, free from tradition, free of constraints, and free from fair labor practices. “Just do it!” If you don’t think that is a counter message to the Gospel, listen to this: There is a T-shirt that says: “The meek shall inherit the earth” on the front. On the back it says, “Yeah, right! Just do it! Nike!” Now that’s Babylonian!!
Those of us who are parents of teenagers know the power of this dominant world and its liturgy. But the church at its best offers an alternative liturgy. Brueggemann call it a “sub–version” to the official authorized version of the Empire. For in worship we exiles remember our true home. Recall Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying “sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?’”
That is the question for the twenty-first century: how do we sing the Lord’s song in exile? And with it the related question: how much Babylonian do we want to let in to the church’s song? When church musicians and ministers of Word and Sacrament collaborate on the congregation’s liturgy there is nothing less at stake than what version of the world the congregation will experience in worship. Will the church’s liturgy create a world where God alone is to be worshipped, where people are treated as people and things as things and we know the difference? The tools we have to work with are words and music. If we are wise we will go about our work like the scribe in the parable, taking out of our treasure something old and something new. Jesus said, “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13:52)
On the one hand we take out something old. The church is a community of recollection. It has a culture, whose roots are in scripture and whose development has grown out of tradition. It wasn’t born yesterday, and for us to think that we are wiser than previous generations just because we came later is the silliest form of hubris. The church is a foreign country and its language takes learning. Some church people today are like American tourists in Paris who resent it when the locals don’t speak English. A tourist bureau can help make the locals more friendly to tourists, but there are limits to how much a culture can be translated. So we need to value what the church has always valued and bring out the best of what is old.
Yet we need to bring out the new as well. “Sing unto the Lord a new song.” After all God is a living God and “there is yet more light and truth to break forth from his Holy Word.” The content of revelation doesn’t change: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” But there are always new ways to witness to that enduring truth. There are new works of art, new texts, new music. It has always been that way. The music we now consider part of the canon was once new, and much of it was controversial in its day. Watt’s metrical paraphrases of the Psalms were considered scandalous. Bach’s chorales were considered unsingable. Much of what is new now will not last. The wheat and the tares grow together and time’s harvest will separate them. Over the generations the faithful will retain that which does the job. The ephemeral by its very nature won’t abide. As George Steiner says: “Fashion is the mother of death. Originality is antithetical to novelty. Art that is stupid won’t last.” (George Steiner, Real Presences)
So good liturgy is created by taking in proper measure something old and something new. Which means we are already acquainted with blended worship. Think about it. Let’s say you play a Caesar Franck chorale for a prelude, the choir sings an anthem by Palestrina and one by Virgil Thompson, the offertory is “Rhosymedre” by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and the hymn texts are by Michael Praetorius, Isaac Watts and Carl Dawe. That can take place within the most ordered liturgy and it is still utilizing musical and textual materials from several centuries, countries, styles and traditions.
In other words we do it all the time. The question then becomes, not whether we do it, but how do we do it so that it has integrity for Christian worship? What criteria do we use?
New or old, does it create that alternative world to the world of the Empire? In other words, is it a song of Zion? Or is it just Babylonian? Does it tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love, even if it does it in a new, new way? Can it bring people to faith, to devotion, to worship? Can it warm hearts and change lives?
In other words, the task of choosing our song for the new century takes spiritual discernment. It is a task that takes thought and prayer, knowledge and skill, an appreciation for scripture and tradition and an openness to the creative process. It is a task too important to be left to ministers alone or musicians alone but demands collaboration and collegiality. What is at stake is nothing less than how we see and hear the world which God loves and for which Christ died.
You are a church musician. At some time in your life you were moved to do this. It may have been a long time ago and you may be tired—tired from living in Babylon, speaking Babylonian, even singing Babylonian songs. I am here to remind you that you are a citizen of Zion. You have glimpsed her walls, worshipped in her temple, heard her songs. Don’t forget who you are, even if remembering Zion sometimes makes you weep.
Don’t forget who you are! Because if you forget, and I forget, musicians and clergy, who will sing the songs of Zion to our children? No one! They will learn only Babylonian.
So that is how you know what song to sing. It can be something old, or it can be something new, but sing me one of the songs of Zion. Amen.
A Sermon preached on July 27, 1998 at the United Church Musicians Conference.
Trinity Church Retreat Center, Cornwall, Connecticut.