Now I want you to think back to maybe the lat funeral you attended. As you came in and sat down, the organist probably was playing something familiar like, "O God Our Help in Ages Past" or How Firm a Foundation" or "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." The service began, and after the Scripture was read someone stood and sang something like, "How Great Thou Art" or "Amazing Grace." After the Preacher's remarks and the Benediction the Organist would again play something like "Come, Come Ye Saints, Who From their Labors Rest, All is Well, All is Well." From beginning to end in that funeral servicde music was the thread that bound it all together.
We don't have time to talk about what happens every Sunday. Preludes, Hymns, Offertory, Choral Pieces, Solos, Postludes. If we took the music out of the service our worship would be flat and boring. Aldous Huxley said that after silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music. There are some things that cannot be put into words.
In every age music has been part of the worship of the people of God. We know very little about Hebrew worship, but we do know that praise was at the heart of what they sang. As we move to the New Testament, we know that their worship grew out of the Old Testament synagogue service. They struggled with whether music and worship would be organized or spontaneous. Would they sing only Biblical words--or other words? Then as the Gentiles began to move into the church and shake things up, the church had to make room for the Hellenistic influences of that culture's music. No wonder we have often called the church music program the war department of the church. Almost from the beginning there have been so many struggles and battles that cluster around music.
When early Baptist began, they despised the strictures of the Anglican Church so they threw out their hymn book, the prayer book and they would not allow any words to be read or sung in the service that were written down. They memorized the hymns. They scorned any kind of prescribed order so they developed their own order. They still memorized the tunes and words. Members of those little churches sang extemporaneously as the Spirit led and sometimes when the Spirit did not lead.
In the Seventeenth century, Pastor Benjamin Keach split his church in two when he began to write hymns himself. They wondered why did he not stick to preaching. Some of the congregants called his hymns "the devil's invention." But that did not stop Rev. Keach. He gave Baptists their first hymn book in 1691.
As the Church moved from England to the new world, the hymns began to change. It was a rugged, informal land. So the two great strands of the heritage of order and freedom came together. Baptists still know these traditions today. There was praise to God and there were the most personal of gospel songs. So today as we look out at the church we have an infinite variety of music. We have people concerned with inclusive language. We have people concerned with the multiculturalism of third world hymns. We have churches with no instruments but the human voice. We have churches with an orchestra every Sunday. But we also have guitars and tambourines and drums and gospel rock and contemporary Christian and Praise songs as well as Bach, Mozart, Medema and Wren. Then there is that wonderful Taize music which comes to us from France which has altered some of the music forms in church. What are we to say to all of this?
Old or New?
The Church has always grown in a time when it's had to struggle between the old and the new.
There are people in churches that have been touched by the old hymns. Some protesting the new have said, "I like the old hymns!' There is certainly nothing wrong with this. For somehow so much of worship takes us back, way back to another time and another place. And we cannot take these powerful rememberings away from people.
There are people who love the new sounds. No hymn books, just screens and choruses and praise songs. Some call it contemporary music. But others opt for third-world hymns, while others want modern language reflected in hymns, praise songs and anthems.
Which is right? Which is wrong? Jesus told about a man who took out of this treasure house something old and something that was new and in the mix something happened. What would have occured if Benjamin Keach had not stuck his neck out and written that first hymn book for Baptists. What would have happened had Isacc Watts not swum against the tide? Read his biography. He was hated and despised by many. And back there English conservatives were suspicious of "When I Survery the Wondrous Cross," and "Jesus Shall Reign" and "Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed," and "O God, our Help in Ages Past." In our tradition, we would be poorer indeed with the blind Fanny Crosby who gave us over a thousand hymns like "To God be the Glory," and "Blessed Assurance" and "Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross."
We must be sensitive to those who cry out for language that includes all, for that's the kind of people we are. We must be sensitive to those long for new songs. Martin Luther used to ask "Why should the devil have all the best tunes?" And yet we cannot cut ourselves off from our roots. Several years ago Bill Moyers did a special on "Amazing Grace." He told how this simple hymn has been used so many different ways and occasions to touch the heartstrings of people all over the world. There are some things we can't let go of without losing part of who we are. We are to embrace the old and look seriously at the new.
All or Part?
Music should also express the whole counsel of God. I think this means that we ought to include the whole whole range of life's experiences.
Who comes on Sunday? Someone who lost somebody they loved and they are trying to sort it out. There may be somebody who wonders if they are going to make it through school--if the money is going to be there. Someone elxd may have lost a job and they are terrified. There may be a lonely High School Senior who is struggling with his sexuality.
And so when we show up on Sunday music should lift up the longings of our hearts. Church growth people have been telling us for years now that people come to church to be entertained. They tell us that the music should be upbeat and should make the people feel good. Close upthe Organ. Forget the cross. Bring in the Guitars. Feeling good may be a genuine part of worship. But if this is to be an authentic experience we must play on all the keys and not just a few. The sad. The dissonant. The happy. The joyous. The light and the somber. Martin Marty wrote once that if we only have a summertime faith this only touches part of our hearts. Faith has seasons as does the calendar. And worship should cover the whole counsel of God.
Entertainment or Praise?
So we have to struggle with the question: if our music to be entertainment or praise? TV has done a very good job of misshaping the way many of us worship. But unfortunately it has made us a nation of spectators. People travel from church to church wondering where they will find the best show. The standard of excellence is TV. We look around our little church with empty places everywhere and we wonder why we can't we be like that church in Texas with 50,000 every Sunday. What's wrong with us? Their preacher looks like a movie star. He is surrounded by beauty queens and football stars. Successful folks!50,000 of them! And our little church around the corner looks paltry indeed.
The difference? The difference is between reality and fantasy. One reaches out and involves you--and the other is just an experience of observation.
But real worship is reality. We come in and sit next to people who are just like us. People we have crossed swords with at committee meetings. People downright peculiar. But people who came to your daughter's wedding. Someone who drove a hundred miles to stand by you when your Mother died. And when you convelescing from your operation they brought you a casserole. And so you come on Sundays to listen to a familiar voice, much like your own. And you read out of the Old book. You listen to a choir crowded with people whose names you know. You know your church's staff by name. And sometimes you hear what Isaiah heard in the most ordinary of times. Sometimes you are moved and changed and lifted and carried along. When that happens, you cannot be a spectator. You are involved. Kierkegaard once said that we are all on stage as the actors. The Preacher is only the Prompter. God is the audience. Not the other way around. We are on stage. And we must respond. And that is real worship.
Everywhere or Just Special Places?
And we discover an amazing truth: that deep in our hearts we believe that we can sing the Lord's song in a strange land. That is the wonderful promise that flows all the way through the Bible. It's what the Psalms were all about--praises to God--even in a hard time. Especially in a hard time. That's what Isaiah kept telling his frightened exiled brothers and sisters after his vision in the temple. God answered their prayers. God would not forsake them. They really could sing the Lord's song in a strange land.
So Isaiah 35 is one of he great passages in the Bible. In the wilderness--the wilderness--we will find joy and singing and gladness and flowers and water and the glory of God. "And God will come strengthening weak hands and make firm the feeble knees and saying to hearts that tremble: Be strong, fear not. Your God will come." Now this is a news that makes the tambourines shake and the organ play and our hearts sing with gladness.
Clarence Darrow, one of the great lawyers in the early part of the Twentieth century, was an atheist. And one night he was asked to speak in a black church in Chicago. It was the depths of the Depression. Nobody had any money. Many had lost their jobs. Some were hungry and most did not know what the future would hold. It was a time when black people were treated the way many of our immigrants are today--second-class citizens. That night Darrow, a most impeccable orator, began the litany of complaints that the black folk had of their unjust society. Toward the end of his address he said, "And I don't understand it. With all of these things, you still sing. You still sing. How can you sing?' And a woman in the back yelled out, "We sing because we got Jesus to sing about." And the whole congregation began to clap and clap. And the old hard-nosed atheist Darrow had nothing else to say. He just sat down shaking his head.
In the middle of whatever place we find ourselves in--and it may the strange land of some wilderness--God will provide a way. That's what kept the black folk going when they didn't have anything else.
"And the ransomed of the Lord shall return to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away."
No wonder we sing. Even after all these years. No wonder we sing. We've got Jesus to sing about!