Songs of Praise & Worship
The following was offered as a reflection at Wall-2-Wall, a contemporary worship event at my home church.
Some years ago I spent time with a pastor of a church in a city that had fallen on hard times. It had once been a thriving industrial city and the downtown still bore the signs of it’s faded glory. The grand hotel, where the paintwork was peeling and worn. The stately churches that ringed the central square now largely empty and looking tired and beaten.
As we drove around his city he pointed out to me it’s features. The boarded up shops, the massive factories now empty and derelict or barely occupied. The homes that once echoed to expensive living and fine parties now cold and dark. Everywhere there was a sense of decline and despair as the great days were passing into memory and beyond.
Another feature of the town were the nursing homes filled with members of his congregation. Most poignantly he told me of those factory workers, men and women, now resident in these homes and the startling numbers of them that suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. As time passed these congregation members came to embody the decline of their community. They were the forgetful and forgotten remnants of a once thriving and lively city and church.
What was extraordinary though, he said, was that when he visited them many of them would be sitting in their chairs staring at nothing in particular while their hands made intricate patterns in the air in front of them. On asking what this was he found out that these hand movements were the movements they made on the assembly lines, building and forming the products that brought wealth and well-being to their city. They might forget their names and those of their grown children, but they still remember what they did to earn a living and gave meaning to their lives, even though their factories had long since closed and moved away.
The other extraordinary thing was that if he met to pray with them, or if he brought existing congregation members in to the homes to sing to these people, he would often notice their lips moving in sync with the words and music. Not infrequently in these moments these patients would experience fleeting flashes of clarity as if in the act of singing they regained their senses.
I have reflected on this story for many years now from several different perspectives. One of the important angles of the story points to the significance of what we are doing here this evening. Having spoken to several pastors and ministers now it seems to be generally true, and will be true for some of us here in the future, that when all other faculties have been destroyed it seems that what will be last to go is what is laid down in memory by the songs we sing. That is why this is important, indeed critical to our lives. We are being shaped and formed in this act.
Now I have a confession to make. I don’t find this easy. In fact there are lots of other things I would have preferred to do this evening than this. But I determined to come, before Brian asked me to say anything, because I need this. As my wife will confirm I love to sing, but I don’t particularly enjoy this form of singing, I get no buzz or emotional high from it. But I need it. I know I need it.
I need to stand alongside each of you tonight and every Sunday. I need to see you singing. I need to hear you singing. I need to join my voice with yours as we sing praise to God, so that you and I together are formed into the people of God. For something happens when we as a congregation sing together that builds us and unites us under God. And the emotion that is sometimes felt is the by-product or maybe the accompanying outcome of something deeper and more profound. For this reason we should be wary of seeking the emotional feeling or the high for its own sake, because by itself, it’s presence does not necessarily represent an endorsement of what we do as praise worthy of God.
But nor should it be despised as somehow beneath us. It is important, but not of primary importance. It’s why we should be careful of saying things like the worship was really good tonight…or not. For the work of God goes on as we sing together, whether or not any one or more of us think it was ‘good’ or not, whether or not the musicians played well or the singers sang in harmony.
For me to sing praise then is an act of spiritual discipline, a practice that I need. And to sing praise is something a congregation needs to do together as an act of devotion. One book, written by a professor of church music and his daughter who is a professional musician, says this:
The act of singing praise, lament, thanksgiving, or prayer to God goes beyond the surface of the words and beyond the passing sound of the voices. Singing and hearing music that expresses human life before the divine confers a special dignity on the singers and the hearers. If the words and the musical forms are adequate to the mystery of being human – to suffering and joy – then the sound itself becomes a medium of formation and transformation. Music is not simply an ornament of something already understood in words. Rather, ordered sound mediates the world to our senses and animates – literally, ensouls – those who enter it deeply…music is basic to any spiritual perception of the world, opening up the world and the rhythms of our lives whether we are making music or listening to it. Be attentive, and you will know that all people are far more than mere consumers of music and song.’
I love the idea of words and musical forms that are ‘adequate to the mystery of being human’. It’s joys and thrills as well as it’s miseries and confusions. It is this adequacy to mystery that makes our experience of music more than simply a transitory thrill.
Later they write,
This is what the two of us look for and long for: music that offers something to grow into, that isn’t soon exhausted, and that does not replicate in simple cliches whatever is popular at the moment.
Oh for contemporary worship music that offers more than the simple cliche. Songs that are adequate to express the complexity of our lives. Songs which will linger with us through the various stages of life, and can be heard afresh through every newly appeared gray hair, or emotional scar or deepened wrinkle.
For that though, we need poets to craft our lyrics and musicians to shape the melody, not the newest hippest haircut with a guitar and a barrel load of self-confidence. And we need to let our songs mature and mellow with age acquiring a patina of history and experience, rather than dumping them in favour of what’s hot. So that in those days of decline, when everything else fades away into a fog of unknowing, there will be songs of worship that have travelled with us right to the end and beyond until we take our place with that great congregation round the glorious Throne of God himself.
Tell me that’s not too much to ask.