Saturday, September 1, 2012

Clap, Shout, Sing

Psalm 47
Jazz Communion
September 2, 2012
William G. Carter

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. 
He subdued peoples under us, and nations under our feet. 
He chose our heritage for us, the pride of Jacob whom he loves.    Selah

God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet. 
Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises. 
For God is the king of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm.

God is king over the nations; God sits on his holy throne. 
The princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham.
For the shields of the earth belong to God; he is highly exalted.

            It was a hot summer night in Saratoga Springs. It was thirty years ago this summer, but I will never forget the event. The outdoor performing arts center was bustling, in anticipation of the final act of the annual jazz festival. That’s a serious festival for hard core jazz fans – twenty-four concerts in thirty-six hours. The tourists fizzle out pretty early, and a few of my adventurous friends were sticking around with me to the bitter end. I was their ride home.

            We knew the final set was the highlight of the whole weekend. That’s how those festivals are programmed. Indeed it was an all-star cast: Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, Tony Williams on bass – that was the all-star rhythm section for Miles Davis. On saxophone was the great Joe Henderson, and the trumpeter was a kid named Wynton Marsalis, still young enough to have an Afro. And if that wasn’t a great enough line-up, guitarist George Benson was scheduled to play and sing with the band.

The crowd was buzzing as the lights dimmed. It was going to be a great concert. To our surprise, a scruffy looking man wandered on the stage. He looked like the janitor. He wandered around for a minute. Maybe a stage hand. All of a sudden, he slipped off his shoes. Then he unbuttoned his shirt and removed it. Picking up a microphone from the piano, he started banging on his naked chest. He cupped his hand, and it sounded he was clapping. The rhythm was intoxicating. Then he let out a shout and started dancing around. He had a rhythm going. It was amazing.

Then he sang. He sang high like a trumpet. He sang low like a bass. Everybody laughed. We never heard anything like this. Who was it? The warm-up act? He was a one-man band, simultaneously singing all the parts, high and low, banging his bare chest, making an extraordinary joyful noise. In fact, nobody seemed to care when the rest of the band came on stage and began to play with him. The music finished and Herbie Hancock said, “Say hello to Bobby McFerrin. We just met a few days ago.”

Bobby McFerrin
The music started here. It moved to here. Ninety minutes later, as we left for the three hour drive home, that was all we could talk about. Our jazz heroes were great, but we had never heard anybody make music like Bobby McFerrin. People have been talking about him ever since. As Newsweek magazine later said about him, “He sounds, by turns, like a blackbird, a Martian, an operatic soprano, a small child, and a bebop trumpet.” The guy could do it all – clap, shout, and sing.

            That memory brings me to the poet of Psalm 47. Clap, shout sing: those are verbs of that Bible text. Verbs are the muscles of Scripture. They do the heavy lifting. And when verbs jump into a room, they invite us to do what they are doing. Clap, shout, sing! Each verb from the Psalm uses human muscles to its work. Can we do them one at a time?

            Clap! It doesn’t say “applaud” It says “clap.” That’s different. “Applause” is what you do for somebody who stands up front and does something for you. “Clap” is how you participate in the rhythm with your own hands. In Hebrew, the verb is “ta-KAW.” It also means “blast,” as in to play the trumpet.

            Shout! It works best with a fist in motion, as if we are fist-bumping the clouds. Let me hear you do it: shout! Shout is not a whisper. It demands breath and force and exuberance. When the Psalms say, “Make a joyful noise!” this is the verb that the Bible uses.

            Sing! The verb comes with a tone – let me hear your tone: sing! There’s a lot of individual expression in that verb. If two or more do this at once, we have instant harmony. In the Psalm, there are five “sings” – sing, sing, sing, sing, sing. To sing is to make melody with your voice or with a musical instrument. The verb does not specify. Singing happens in a hundred different ways.

            Do you have those verbs memorized? Clap! Shout! Sing!

            Psalm 47 offers with this visceral, three-fold invitation. Clap – Shout – Sing! These three muscle words remind us that Christianity is not a spectator religion. We don’t watch from the bleachers – we participate. We don’t come to consume entertainment and decide whether or not we like it. Oh no – we are the ones consumed. To use Paul’s words, we present our bodies as living sacrifices. We come in worship, presenting skin and bone and breath.

A lot of us are Presbyterians, so the question is inevitable: why all the noise? The Psalm is ready with an answer: because God is the ruler. God rules over the earth, God rules over the nations on the earth. God rules over everybody and everything, and then some. The poet invites the human race to join in a celebration that takes place beyond this planet. God’s rule is a cosmic reality. All the “fake gods” and minor league deities are exposed as shams; the one God over all is proclaimed.[1]

It is an exhilarating invitation. And it can be dangerous. The joyful praise of God threatens the powers and principalities on this small planet. Just last week, seventeen people were murdered in Afghanistan by the Taliban. What was their supposed crime? They attended a dance party with loud music. The Taliban didn’t like that and condemned them to death.[2]

            Joyful noise can stir up trouble. It reminds me of that scene from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. After an impossible winter, the land of Narnia begins to thaw. Aslan the Lion, the Christ figure, is coming into the land, and the White Witch, the commander of the winter, is losing her grip. She comes upon a group of animals who are rejoicing at the change of seasons, and she explodes. She can’t handle it! She doesn’t want Aslan to affect anybody so positively. She waves her magic wand and turns the party into stone statues.[3]

            I’ve known people like that. They have an issue with joy. Especially around children! “Sit down and be quiet!” they proclaim. “Stop laughing. Put a lid on it. Settle down.” In other words, become as buttoned-down and repressed as the rest of us.

            We have been doing this annual jazz service for twenty-one years. Every year, I hear about somebody else who can’t quite fathom what this is about. They say to somebody in the grocery store, “You have jazz in your church? Really? How do you get away with that?”

            One lady said, “Well, the minister is a jazz pianist.”

            “Oh, I’ve heard about him,” was the reply. “And people put up with that?”

            Well, I suppose if she would rather go to a sedate, boring, stuffy congregation full of stone statues, I can suggest a few. What interests me, though, is that joy is a fundamental quality of life. We were created to enjoy God. We were created to enjoy what God gives to all of us. We were created to enjoy each other. Clap – shout – sing – it’s all an expression of this joy. And if anybody tries to shut this down, they are not acting on behalf of God.

            Jesus came walking into our world, just as Aslan came into the land of deep winter. One of two things happened when Jesus came to town. Either people got well, and began to flourish, and began to rejoice – or somebody tried to shut him down. Now, tell me – which is the work of God? Bringing people to the fullness of life, or trying to stifle the joy of God’s kingdom?

            If you put the question that way, there are only three ways to respond. Remember? Clap! Shout! Sing!

            Some of us make jazz. Others of us make apple pies. Still others paint pictures or draw with chalk on sidewalks or climb to the top of a mountain and sing when they get there. All of this is a human response to the truth that God rules over heaven and earth. This is God’s world. It is populated with God’s creatures. And all of them, in their evolving complexity, are expressions of God’s joy.

            Let’s wind it up one more time: clap – shout – sing. Our joyful noise is an echo of God’s joy. Nothing less than that!

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Laurence Kriegshauser, Praying the Psalms in Christ (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2009), 113.
[3] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (New York: HarperCollins, 1950) 127.

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