Oh No, Not Another New Song!
John Bell Weekend
May 20, 2012
I must compliment so many of you for being polite to our guest. It’s not every day that we have a world-known composer in our midst. We welcome him. We are glad for the gift of his music, and delighted we have a chance to sing it, even though almost all of it is new.
All of us encounter the new song. We hear it and wonder if it is going to catch on. The song sounds for us on the radio, the first time. The tune might be catchy, we can’t quite make out the words. It may have an insistent rhythm, even if it leaves the person next to us quite cold.
As I retrieved my older daughter from the university on Friday, we sped home on Interstate 80. She was driving, and our rule is whoever sits behind the wheel shall determine the soundtrack for the trip. I didn’t know that some of those radio stations even existed. There she was, singing along to songs that I had never heard. When there was a lull in the action and we could not find a station that intersected with her tastes, I decided to pop in a couple of CDs that I had recently acquired. She feigned interest briefly, even to the point of benign neglect, and tolerated three songs that she had never heard before and probably never needs to hear again.
Oh, no, not another new song!
Church people know the sentiment, even though they are among the very few people in the world who sing all the time. In fact, in the treasure chest of old sermon illustrations, you can find copies of correspondence from people who complained about the new songs in church that they were forced to sing. They took the time to write to a pastor, organist, or choir director about something that they didn’t want to sing. One letter said:
"I am no music scholar, but I feel I know appropriate church music when I hear it. Last Sunday's new hymn - if you can call it that - sounded like a sentimental love ballad one would expect to hear crooned in a saloon. If you insist on exposing us to rubbish like this - in God's house! - don't be surprised if many of the faithful look for a new place to worship. The hymns we grew up with are all we need."
This letter was written in 1863 and the song that concerned the author was the hymn "Just as I Am". Another letter inquired:
"What is wrong with the inspiring hymns with which we grew up? When I go to church, it is to worship God, not to be distracted with learning a new hymn. Last Sunday's was particularly unnerving. The tune was un-singable and the new harmonies were quite distorting."
This letter was written in 1890 and about the hymn "What A Friend We Have in Jesus".
Let’s not forget that, once upon a time, every song was new. Let’s not forget that new songs are composed every day by thousands of the world’s composers. And let’s forget the advice of hymn writer Brian Wren, who suggests that the best way to deal with outdated lyrics and antiquated sentiments is by creating new songs that state our ancient faith in Christ in a fresh, new way. “O sing to the Lord a new song.”
Even so, there are many reasons why we don’t want to sing a new song. Can you help me name a few? Here’s one reason: we don’t know it, so we don’t want to sing it. Here’s another reason: we don’t like it, at least not yet. We haven’t heard the disc jockey play it four thousand times and tell us that it’s a good song.
Or here’s another reason: we aren’t so sure about doing anything new. That would push us beyond the boundary of the familiar. Perhaps we want to stick with what we know. Kind of like what the letter to the Hebrews says of old father Abraham and good mother Sarah – they set out not knowing where they were going (11:8). What kind of journey is that? Even if they had a map, God said, “I’ll show you when you get there.” The new song leads us on a new journey, to the place where we have to trust, the place where have to keep hoping, and keep hoping. As anybody who has taken that journey knows, the trip itself can change us.
Many of you know my friend, the saxophonist Al Hamme. Years ago, when he was a young man, he found himself in a city where the great saxophonist John Coltrane was playing. He went to the club, paid his cover charge, sat down front, right by the bandstand. The pianist that night was a fill-in, Bobby Timmons from Philadelphia. Bobby was a great musician, but he hadn’t been keeping up with Coltrane’s musical explorations. As John began to soar in a duet with his drummer, Bobby leaned off the bandstand, caught Al’s eye, nodded and said, “What (are) they doing?” It wasn’t obvious. The music was new, it was difficult. Bobby was signaling he couldn’t keep up.
I suppose if you’re bored, you could chase after all things new and the mysterious. Our part of the world revels in the new gadget, the improved dishwasher soap, the latest Top Ten tune. With our shortened attention spans, we latch like Velcro to the hot television show, the latest diet expert, or the brand new celebrity who graces the cover of People Magazine before we ever actually learned the names of the last dozen hottest celebrities. We live in a disposable society, where songs, like people, are heavily marketed, quickly used up, and dismissed.
That’s not the case with Psalm 98. Some scholars say the text is over 2500 years old. It’s been around a while. Somewhere along the line, we lost the original tune, so every generation has to make a new song out of this old set of words. That’s what faith does, as you know. We take the ancient words we inherited, and we spin some new gold out of that old straw. Faith is always one generation away from extinction, unless we take something old and, from it, we claim it as our own.
And this one truth is inescapable: the invitation to sing, to inhale God’s Spirit and exhale our song, is the invitation to welcome God’s Holy Breath into our bloodstreams and then to put it back into the air for others to hear. Singing our faith is our embodied faith. It is active participation, not passive observance.
I wish this were so all the time. When we have guests here, who visit a worship service and stand to watch while the rest of us sing, I often daydream about stopping the music and becoming rather direct. “Excuse me – let’s pause this song. It’s in the Blue book, people. Please pick it up, open to the page, take a deep breath, and make a holy sound.” Someday I might just do that – not because I want to be rude, but because I have come to the conviction that, until we sing, we cannot completely believe. Until we desire our faith to be processed through our lungs, it’s impossible to completely claim the faith.
I say this, because I’ve seen what happens when people sing about God. They are lifted above their distress. They are brought into the presence of a Judge who sees everything clearly and who works to correct every injustice. They are liberated from the prejudice and arrogance of this age, and welcomed by a God who really does love everybody. I’ve seen grumps and malcontents and the serious complainers strangely renewed when they start to sing praises. And I’ve seen how a good tune takes the broken-hearted seriously, and refuses to let them stay broken.
If we sing the new song, it can change us. Not merely by taking us to uncharted territory, but returning us to territory we know all too well. Psalm 98 does not have any difficult words to look up. There are no new concepts. This is the text for the most published Christmas carol of all time, “Joy to the World.” It’s hardly a new song for any of us, yet, it makes us new every time we sing it. Remember what the Psalm sings? God is coming because God remembers us. God is doing amazing things and “heaven and nature sing.” God rules the world, “with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glory of his righteousness and wonders of God’s love.” So we make the joyful noise, just like the roaring floods and the singing hills.
And if that’s not enough, there’s the text from the fifth chapter of Revelation. The door to heaven swings open from the other side, and what everybody hears is an everlasting song. Christ is praised as the One who is worthy to receive the seven-fold, perfect affirmation: power, riches, wisdom and might, honor, glory, and blessing. In the presence of God and of the Lamb, everybody is singing. That’s the ultimate reality of the universe, God’s new song. So we might as well tune up for it here.
I’ve been chewing on what we should do about this. Rather than finish the sermon with more words, let’s practice the very thing that our texts are preaching. If our composer and friend would come forward, we ask him to lead us in singing a new song, all the glory of God.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.