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"Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things...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." Music, music, music. In the words of Carlyle, “Music is well said to be the speech of angels,” or if not that, the speech of those of us who would serenade the angels. Music.
Were you here at worship last Sunday? If you were, you heard a different approach to music for worship as the Praise Band from our Bluffton campus performed here while our Pope Avenue choir and handbell ringers performed in Bluffton. Since my wife is part of that contingent and since last Sunday our kids were here because that was our 40th wedding anniversary, wewere all in Bluffton for worship. VERY different approaches to music in worship, but each meaningful in their own way.
Several years ago, I was attending an Evangelism Conference. The keynote speaker asked us a question: "How many of you would give up your LIVES for your children and grandchildren?" Hands shot up all over the arena. Then he asked, "How many of you would give up your MUSIC for your children and grandchildren?" Some hands went up again, but more reluctantly and in somewhat smaller numbers. Hmm.
Once upon a time, a farmer who was a deacon in his country church was summoned to serve on a federal grand jury in a city. He was gone two weeks. First thing when he got back home, his wife asked him if he had attended church services while away. Of course he had. “Did you know any of the songs they sang?” his wife wanted to know.
“No, I didn’t,” the farmer replied. “They didn’t sing songs. All they sung was anthems.”
“Anthems?” she asked. “What on earth is anthems?”
“Well, it’s like this,” the deacon answered. “Now, if I was to say to you,‘Ma, the cows is in the corn,’ that would not be any anthem.”
“Of course it wouldn’t,” Ma put in.
“Wait a minute,” the deacon went on. “If I’d say in a long, quavering-out, dying up-and-down voice, ‘Ma, Ma, Ma, the cows, the cows - the Holstein cow, the muley cow, the Jersey cow, the old brindle cow, and old Spec, too - all them cows - the co-o-o-w-s--is in--IS in--the cow-ow-ows is in--IS in--the corn, the corn, the co-oo-rr-n, ah-men, men, men,’ that would be an anthem.” (1)
No doubt those anthems are part of what the Apostle Paul has in mind when he instructs about public worship: “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Sometime back public school music teachers compiled some answers that youngsters gave to test questions about music (2):
Indeed. Of course, worship has involved music from the beginning. The book of Psalms we have in our Old Testament has been called the Hymnal of the Second Temple.
To be sure, for a while we were not sure what to sing. In the years immediately after the Reformation, Protestant churches were divided on the question of music for worship. Lutherans and Moravians immediately began to develop a rich tradition of hymns in the language of the people. Most of those in the Calvinist tradition, on the other hand, maintained that God already had provided us with a set of inspired hymns in scripture, chiefly in the Psalms, and that it was not for us to say that was incomplete or inadequate and set about to write our own. Accordingly, they wrote verse translations of the Psalms and sang these instead of hymns. In fact, even today there are still some churches which will not use any music except that which is derived from the psalms.
The first church I served after graduating from seminary was in Clover, South Carolina. It was a Presbyterian congregation which had been established in 1951 after a fierce battle in an Associate Reformed Presbyterian congregation in which the tradition was only to sing Psalms. A number of folks wanted to expand that to modern hymns and anthems which was to the considerable consternation of those who wanted to maintain the status quo. Families were split; some people slept on couches; some missed meals; it was a horrible hullabaloo. Not because of theology. Music. It split that church.
Admittedly, we do what we do (however we do it) with varying levels of skill. C. S. Lewis recounts that when he first started going to church he disliked the hymns, which he considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as he continued, he said, "I realized that the hymns were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren't fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit." (3)
Russian composer Igor Stravinsky: “The Church knew what the psalmist knew: Music praises God. Music is well or better able to praise [God] than the building of the church and all its decoration; it is the Church’s greatest ornament.” (4)
Music is the language beyond words. It is the language of the heart. In the American church we hear it most vividly voiced in the songs of slaves in the South. The spirituals reflected an unconquerable faith even in the midst of a horrible life. They grew out of a deep yearning to pass beyond the harshness of today to reach a better tomorrow. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, comin’ for to carry me home...” That faith in the ultimate triumph of justice is with us still: “We shall overcome, We shall overcome, We shall overcome someday.” The language of the heart.
My father died suddenly almost 40 years ago. It was totally unexpected. Six weeks shy of his 65th birthday, not sick. He came home from church on a Wednesday evening, went to bed and to sleep, and never woke up. Two days later, as we prepared for the Saturday service, the family was gathered at the funeral home prior to an evening visitation. It was just us, gathered around the casket. We held hands as we had a brief prayer. Then afterward, as we stood together, my mother began singing, "Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia..." We all joined in as we were able. As you can tell, even 40 years later, I still have difficulty with that. The language of the heart.
For a number of years my wife has been very involved in the world-wide ministries of the church as leader of mission trips around the globe. Several trips went to the city of Villahermosa, Mexico to help with construction of a badly-needed new seminary there which is now open and serving a very fast-growing church in a region desperately in need of trained pastoral leadership. In addition to her tasks as worker recruiter, travel organizer, equipment arranger, language translator, and mother to each and all, Christie was also involved with trips to the countryside for ministry and worship with Christian brothers and sisters in more isolated areas.
Had we been with her for Sunday worship, we would have heard the same music in Mexico as we might hear in our own sanctuaries: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty. All the earth shall praise thy name in earth and sky and sea!” But with Christie, we would have heard three different languages - English, Spanish, and Chol (the dialect of a remote Indian tribe descended from the ancient Mayans). Actually four languages: English, Spanish, Chol, and MUSIC, the language of the heart. Despite the fact that the worshipers did not speak the same language, they did communicate wonderfully and deep spoke to deep. Christie says it was incredibly moving to see, at the end of the service, big burly men and little tiny women, all with tears streaming down their cheeks, reaching out with hugs all around. Despite all the other differences, they did share that language of the heart.
In 1722, the Town Council of Leipzig was looking for a new cantor in the School of Saint Thomas and organist for the church of St. Thomas. The Council searched for this new person, and selected one who, three weeks later, turned them down. They then contacted their second pick, and he too turned them down. They decided, as one member of the council subsequently wrote, that “since the best man could not be obtained, a mediocre one would have to be accepted.” This third choice they hired, the “mediocre” candidate, was Johann Sebastian Bach. (5)
Bach, whose music has come to be called “the Fifth Gospel,” would later say, “All music should have no other end and aim than the glory of God and the soul's refreshment; where this is not remembered there is no real music but only a devilish hubbub." He headed his compositions with the letters, "J.J." "Jesu Juva" which means "Jesus help me." He ended them, "S.D.G." "Soli Dei Gratia" which means "To God alone be the glory."
Our friend Will Willimon, the former Dean of the Chapel at Duke, then elected a United Methodist bishop, now back to teaching at Duke, tells of a visit he made one afternoon to the office of a lawyer in his congregation in Greenville. It was just a drop-in. Will says he did not know the man that well - his wife seemed to bear the church interest for the family. Listen to the story in Will's own words:
“It was at the end of the day. I entered the outer office of his law firm. Everyone had left. All was dark, except for a light coming from the inner office. He called to me. Invited me to come back to his office.
Thanks be to God for the gift of music, the language of the heart. Not many years ago, Fred Pratt Green, one of the church’s most prolific composers, was commissioned to write a new hymn for a Festival of Praise. We find it today in many hymnals:
When in our music God is glorified,
And adoration leaves no room for pride
It is as thought the whole creation cried:
How often making music, wehave found
A new dimension in the world of sound
As worship moved us to a more profound
Let every instrument be tuned for praise
Let all rejoice who have a voice to raise:
And may God give us faith to sing always:Alleluia! (7)
1. Kemp P. Battle, Great American Folklore, (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1986), p. 281
2. “Missouri School Music Newsletter,” collected by Harold Dunn
3. Paul Brand, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made quoted by James S. Hewett, Illustrations\ Unlimited (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 1988) p. 295
4. Quoted by Robert Craft, Conversations with Igor Stravinsky, American Biography\ Service, 59
6. Will Willimon, “The Gothic Spirit,” http://www.chapel.duke.edu/sermons/090896.htm
7. Text by Fred Pratt Green Copyright © 1972 by Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 60188. Reprinted by permission.