Thursday, May 17, 2012

Singing Lesson

Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy. For the LORD, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth. (Psalm 47.1-2)

Still Here

It’s a quarter of seven in the morning and I’m at my desk, not altogether happy about an early conference call due to begin on the hour. I’m hoping the coffee kicks in for me to (at least) sound awake while my brain catches up. I click through the overnight emails. Only two interest me: The New York Times and the Daily Lectionary. Since I can’t guarantee the morning’s news will buoy my spirits, I open the lectionary. The morning psalm is 47, which opens with a real bang: “Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy. For the LORD, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth.” Clap your hands. Shout to God. Sing loud songs. I groan. Yeah, like that’s gonna happen…

The meeting host is late. While we wait for him to activate the call, we’re treated to chipper jazz—the sort of innocuous melody making whose sole purpose is confirming the line hasn’t gone dead. It’s soulless music, so intent on not offending anyone’s tastes that it has no taste at all. And I think to myself, “This is not the kind of singing the psalmists call for.” Psalm 47 is attributed to the sons of Korah, the Temple’s poets in residence, whose liturgical influence witnesses the power of redemption. The sons of Korah are descendants of a priest who led a rebellion against Moses (Numbers 16) and his name means “baldness,” denoting the empty place that remained after he and other rebel priests who sided with him were razed from Israel’s worship leadership.

So Psalm 47 is the exact opposite of the bland, on-hold Muzak that annoys me. Yet, in many ways, its purpose is the same. The sons of Korah are a noisy bunch. They like hand-clapping and shouting and loud singing because it’s a profoundly moving self-affirmation that tells Israel, “We’re still here!” And Israel follows their lead for the same reason. Its enemies watch and wait for this ungainly nation—essentially a loosely tied federation of 12 nomadic tribes—to implode and disappear, returning the land God gave them to its original tenants. Thus every time Israel unites in worship, the singing and music ring with praise for its existence and survival, its marvel at the beautiful country God has given it, and its gratitude for the land’s bounty. The same awe that brings forth raucous rejoicing is limned with defiance not unlike that of the veteran trouper in Sondheim’s Follies: “Good times and bum times, I’ve seen ‘em all, and I’m here. I’m still here!” When Israel celebrates with song, it declares to itself and its neighbors that the line hasn’t gone dead. The people and their God are actively engaged. They have a standing appointment—an ongoing call, if you will—when God and the nation discuss their lives and future together. Singing rehearses their shared history and points to what’s next. It’s not the style that makes their songs sacred; it’s what their music means and what it achieves. It’s an emotion-packed narrative device.

Necessary Soul Work

Singing and music are elemental to the believer's life, not only for specific thoughts and emotions they convey, but also as a primal, constant reminder we’re still here. When we sing or listen to song, we proclaim that our faith still holds, God remains faithful to us, and we share a common history and vision with God. As our pastor pointed out last Sunday, drawing from Psalm 98 (“Sing to the Lord a new song”), music is one of very few human activities that unite both sides of our brain—cognitive and emotional—in a singular pursuit. “But the psalmists didn’t know that,” she said. “They just knew that singing and praising God was necessary soul work.” All that we know music to be, everything it accomplishes—the feelings it mines, the truths it conveys—is God’s way of reaffirming divine presence in our lives and our existence in the world. The line between God and us isn’t dead. It’s open and alive and full of wonder and gratitude and endless possibilities for love and joy and, yes, even reckoning with God, others, and us.

We learn to sing and keep at it because singing is a perpetual life lesson. That’s why sacred songs never grow old. It’s why they creep up on us and get into our heads with feelings and messages that moor us during tumultuous times. They give voice to confessions of faith we might not articulate on our own. Notice Psalm 47’s second verse: “For the LORD, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth.” We are still here. But more than that, we are most assuredly not alone in our mortal endeavor. Our awesome God, Monarch of the universe and Captain of our souls, is with us, loving us, guiding us, and moving on our behalf. How can we not sing?

Just Sing

The Carpenters had a big 70s hit with a little ditty that housed a powerful lyric: “Don’t worry that it's not good enough for anyone else to hear. Just sing.” Performance quality doesn’t matter. From the greatest vocalist to the person who can’t carry a tune in a bucket, singing is an essential we can’t overlook. In Ephesians 5.18-20, we’re admonished to “be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We may not have what it takes to fill concert arenas. We may not know the difference between middle C and high F. Our songs may not be pleasing to anyone’s ears—not even or our own. But we've been given us this great gift of music. God wants us to sing. And especially for those of us who’ve been told we have no song—who’ve been lied to and all but convinced we don’t belong here—it’s our God-given duty to sing. As with the children of Israel, it is God Who brought us here and here we’ll remain, clapping our hands, shouting, and singing to the tops of our voices. That’s the real singing lesson. Don’t worry if you’re not “good enough” for anyone else to hear. Just sing.

When we sing or listen to song, we proclaim that our faith still holds, our God remains faithful to us, and we share a common history and vision with God.

Postscript: “Why We Sing”

Kirk Franklin’s elegant song captures the essence of why we sing. Take this with you as an inspiration to sing and keep at it. You’re still here. Your God wants you to sing.

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