Reading Psalm 104:1-13, 24-35
Note: Across the service several members of the congregation had already shared about why musical was meaningful for them in worship and their life.
Why do we sing in our Sunday service?
There’s certainly no shortage of singing in the Bible. Whether it is celebrating escaping slavery, or a miraculous pregnancy, or sitting around the table with Jesus on the night he was betrayed, people sing…. And that says nothing of that whole book of songs we have included known as the Psalms. The Bible is a tap-dance and a reprise away from being a musical.
So, perhaps we can say that the reason we sing in the service is that the people of God have always sung about God, and their life in relation to God. And, sure, good answer. But as we have already experienced in some of the sharing we have had thus far, there are rich, varied, and personal reasons for the inclusion of sung worship beyond the appeal to consistency.
I’m going to draw out three aspects of sung worship that I think testify to its worthiness of being such a fundamental part of our service together:
1. Singing an embodied and communal act.
The voice is drawn up through the body and reverberates in the space, when we do this together our bodies are joined. In this joining community forms, a community strong and sturdy enough to resist forces of isolation, apathy, and the total noise of our modern world which relentlessly crashes in on our lives with a mix of nihilism and fatalism. With our voices joined together, faith is shown to be more than individual intellectual assent and makes us a body (a body full of bodies) in action. Singing reminds us that worship is an interactive event in which we both witness to and feel closer to the ground of our identity as the church.
As an addendum to this point, I want to note that because singing is in the body it taps into somewhere deep inside us. The songs we know, abide within us and emerge in surprising ways and surprising times. They often emerge when the body is stretched by grief or trauma, offering moments of peace in those tumultuous times. And songs, again because they are embedded in the deep parts within us, are often one of those things that even as mind starts to fumble on other details are able to spring forth, reminding us of the unfading presence of God, who remembers us, down to each hair on our head.
2. Singing is an act of resistance:
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?
In this Psalm (137), those exiled in Babylon refuse to sing their songs of worship for the entertainment of their oppressors. The incongruity of the memory of Zion with their current plight is too painful to bear and they hang up their harps and close their mouths. There is resistance and dignity in this silence.
There is also resistance in song. Protest songs, union songs, bawdy limericks at the expense of an authoritative figure – all have a long history of use. Spiritual songs too can be exercises in resistance, particularly when sung by those communities of faith long marginalised and maligned.
James Cone, the father of Black liberation theology in the US, wrote about the role of the Spirituals and the Blues in Black Christianity and their struggle for survival and freedom through slavery and segregation.* He wrote how the spirituals affirmed Black dignity in the midst of racist systems that sought to dehumanise. The spirituals told the truth about Black life (as human beings created, redeemed, and blessed by God) in the face of white lies which sought to deem them lesser humans. The spirituals affirmed that a greater power existed than the power of the racist state. God was that power, and as God had freed the slaves in Egypt, God would bring about freedom for the Black community. The spirituals affirmed that the state of the world was not reflective of God’s presence and desire, and judgment would come against those who wrought violence on their communities. The spirituals demonstrate how worship and singing binds a community to the truth about God and themselves in a way that can resist the demonic powers of racism and violence which seek to dehumanise, divide, and diminish the human life.
3.Singing testifies to the superfluity of God’s wonder and grace.
Those who don’t like musical theatre often tend to be hung up on one main thing – people don’t just start singing and dancing in real life, why are they doing it in the middle of this conversation about the woes of factory work, the plight of the orphan, or the name of that girl they just met… Now, my problem with this position is that we do – as people – sing or dance in moments of jubilation… some even sing and dance in times of frustration as a way of externalising those higher registry feelings.
Music is one of those things we turn to when our emotions swell to such an extent that they can no longer be expressed and contained by the usual methods. It is a means by which the swirling in our heart caused by something so marvellous or so overwhelming might burst forth.
And because of this, music is well suited to capture those realities and experiences that by their nature defy the more everyday use of language. This is why there are so many songs about love and grief – experiences that push words beyond their limits, find truer expression in music. And so, when we come to express something about the wonder and goodness of a holy, eternal, and perfectly loving God, and wish to express something about our lives in relation to that God, well then of course music is going to offer us something significant, something special.
God’s mystery and majesty, God’s presence and power, God’s love and life is too big for words, indeed it is too big for music… but sometimes, music gets us that bit closer.
And so we sing to remind ourselves that worship and discipleship are a fully embodied act. We sing to join us to one another, so that through the Spirit we might become a community grounded on God’s love, able to resist the dehumanising forces of our day. We sing because the glory of God, the wonder of the gospel, and the power of the Spirit’s presence is superfluous, is abundant – spilling forth beyond regular speech. We play music and sing, because this is one of the ways in which the presence of the Spirit and the power of Christ and the goodness of God is made known, not only in our heads, but right through our body, shaping us – all the way down – into the people of God.
* See specifically, James Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues (Orbis Books, 1972)
Image: Grace Cossington Smith / Australia 1892–1984 / Church interior c.1941–42 (inscr. 1937) / Oil with pencil on pulpboard / 55.2 × 42.2cm / Purchased 2001 with funds raised through The Grace Cossington Smith Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Appeal / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Estate of Grace Cossington Smith
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