A Joyful Noise

Use your voice to give God praise! I will be spending next summer in Chicago. And I have you all to thank for that. Many of you know that Oglethorpe Presbyterian recently received a generous grant as part of the Lilly Endowment’s Pastoral Renewal Program. This grant will allow my family and me to spend the summer in Chicago, and will also cover any expenses related to pastoral, programmatic, and worship continuity here while I am away. It is a highly competitive program, and fewer than 100 congregations across the United States are chosen in any given year.

I mention all of this because of how it relates to our conversation today, about music and worship. The application we submitted to Lilly centered around creativity, and how engaging in creativity connects us to the One who is always creating and re-creating. In other words, creativity is a holy experience.

But you know that already, how the creative arts can speak to us in ways that words never can. When we see a painting, or hear a song, these things can take us to places that can be difficult to describe – and yet, they can be places of intimate sacredness.

It’s one of the reasons that some churches have come to be marked by the so-called “worship wars”. These are the battles over whether traditional or contemporary music ought to be used. Dividing lines are drawn, the world becomes very black and white, and the place for grays is squeezed out. I’m not surprised that this kind of thing happens, actually. If music speaks to us in sacred, non-verbal ways, no wonder we tend to get wrapped up in the kind of music that ends up in our worship services.

A few years ago, we surveyed our congregation about worship styles and music preferences. It was clear that we love our traditional music – that is, organ or piano accompaniment with traditional hymns. However, it was also clear that we see ourselves as a blended worship community. We mix things up with drums and guitars, with handbells and choirs, with gospel choruses and praise songs.

And when you think about it, that’s not too surprising, because we are blended community. Think about our communication styles for a moment. There are those of you who do not have a computer or email. And there are those of you who will tweet during this worship service. We know that about ourselves and about each other, and we appreciate it. So when it comes to music, we know one thing very clearly: we know that we are not the audience of our worship music. God is. As the preacher once replied to the member complaining about song selection, “It’s a good thing we weren’t singing to you.”

Music is a very subjective art. And while a particular song may not connect with me in a sacred way, it may be the most intimate, Godly moment for a fellow worshiper. Who am I to deny that experience?

All of this goes back to our overall conversation for the past few months, as we have looked back at the history of our congregation here at the corner of Lanier and Woodrow. And when we speak of music, there is far too much to say. It is clear to me that we are a congregation who has a high regard for music and its place in worship life, and that we value good music in all its variety. If you have been listening to our worship compilation CD, you know what I’m talking about; if not, you can find it streaming on our website.

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That is all true. What is also true is that what our worship music looks and sounds like changes through the years, sometimes dramatically. And it has its life cycles. There are ups, and there are downs. Our choir knows this better than most, as we have met many times over the past few years to figure out what we can do to recruit more choir members. John Cox has personally asked every visitor, and maybe even some complete strangers, if they can sing!

Let me pause here and just make a quick commercial: participating in the choir is not like being the boatman on the River Styx. You don’t have to trick someone else into taking your oar in order to get off the boat. Come when you like to Sunday morning practice at 9:45. Sing once a month, twice a year, whatever works for you. They’re nice folks, too, for the most part.

OK. End of commercial.

Recently, I was talking to a colleague who works with a lot of churches across the country about our choir numbers, and her reply was, “I don’t know of any smaller church who has a growing choir program.” I’m not sure how reassuring that message is, kind of the churchy equivalent of “yeah, times are tough all over.” And yet, I don’t know of a church our size who is blessed with a thriving handbell choir like we are.

For that matter, I don’t know of any other church our size that creates the kind of music we do. Friends, we have been blessed with an amazingly talented and inspired music staff. They arrange familiar songs. They compose new ones. That kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen in a church our size! And that gift extends beyond Tim and his predecessors. It’s in the congregation! We – you – have written songs we have sung in worship.

Forgive me for patting us on the back a little bit here, but this is the unique gift of music at Oglethorpe Presbyterian: we create our own joyful noise. And nothing will speak more directly to our heart or to the heart of God than the words of our own mouth!

The psalmist encourages us not just to worship the Lord, but to do enter into God’s presence with singing! I don’t think it’s any accident that it is called a joyful noise, because not all of us are blessed with the gift of pitch. Even so, on into our reading from Colossians, the faithful are taught not just to teach one another with words, but to sing psalms, hymns, songs of gratitude and thanksgiving. Music, our music, has always been a vehicle to reach the divine.

I think there’s a fitting tale from history in all of this. 500 years ago, a young monk named Martin Luther staked his life on the idea that the people who worship should be able to understand the words of Scripture. Even if it wasn’t an original thought, his radical idea to translate the Bible into the language people spoke was earth shattering. It changed the balance of power and interpretation in European churches. He then took this idea of vernacular worship even further, composing songs in native languages. Most galling of all, he took familiar tunes – beer hall anthems, folks songs – and wrote sacred words to them as a tool to teaching the people how to give praise to God.

I’m convinced that this is the stream of tradition and history into which Oglethorpe Presbyterian steps: the church using its own voice to give God praise. Tim Hsu has composed numerous pieces in his two plus years with us, and arranged even more.  The refrains we sing at Advent and Lent are his, as is one of my favorite pieces, a setting of the Lord’s Prayer in Mandarin. We have used Ted Kloss' song “Take Flight” in worship as well, and I know he has others we have yet to hear. Our summer music has featured original compositions of simple prayers, even an “Alleluia” set to a song by the band Arcade Fire. You all have even tolerated some of my original music, which is the truest sign of your grace and patience! And when I head off to Chicago in June, one of the things I will get to do is take a songwriting class. I have always loved music, but have never had the courage to write it. It is you, Oglethorpe Presbyterian, who have inspired me to do so.

All of this leads me to my question for you today: How can you use your voice to give God praise? What a fitting topic for our stewardship season, as we look for ways that our gifts of time and ability can fulfill God’s desires and serve God’s purposes! For some of you, there’s a very linear, literal connection here. Maybe you sing and would give the choir your time. Perhaps you play an instrument and would do so as part of our worship. Maybe you have a song you’ve written that speaks to you of God that you would risk sharing with us, or a poem that cries out to be set to music, or a melody that’s seeking words.

For many more of you, that voice you give may not be one of music at all, but you would know that better. Maybe you have an aesthetic eye, or a listening ear, or a patient heart, or a generous presence, or a joyful spirit. Perhaps you have keen insights or understand numbers or people in ways that few of us can, giving wisdom to our ministries and vision to our lives. Maybe you have had a financial windfall that can help serve God’s purposes. Or perhaps you simply have the luxury of time, a precious commodity in Brookhaven in 2013, time you can share with those who find it difficult to leave home, or time you can spend in prayer on behalf of God’s kingdom.

The fact is that each one of us has some God-given voice that can be raised up to make that joyful noise! That’s what it means to be one of God’s children, what it means to be part of Christ’s church. What is it? And how can we be a part of helping you connect those dots?

My prayer today is that this gives you a sense of focus to your daily prayer, that God would stir up within you the divine spark that God alone has placed there.