February 26, 2009

Psalms for the Journey

by Debra Dean Murphy
You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy . . . Psalm 16:11

It is fitting that we read, pray, and sing the Psalms during Lent—this season of the church year when we experience the full gamut of human emotions: sadness, doubt, confusion, rage, praise, thanksgiving, joy. The Psalms convey all of these emotions and more, and thus they place front and center something often lacking in our common discourse: honest speech. In their grappling with loss and abandonment, fear and pain, and in their ecstatic surrender to worship, praise, and adoration, the Psalms—the lamenting ones, the cursing ones, and the praising ones—help us to speak truthfully before God and one another.

Not for nothing, the Psalms have been called the hymnbook of the Bible. In their original setting—ancient Israel’s worship of Yahweh—the Psalms were sung by priest and people as a corporate act of devotion to the one true God. We have no way of knowing what the tunes sounded like, of course. And this many centuries hence, many people simply don’t know that the Psalms of the Bible were meant to be sung.

But when you read them attentively you can tell: these are poem-prayers with a musical lilt; they were created to be sung—and sung in a congregational setting.

EP endorser, Randy Cooper, a United Methodist pastor in west Tennessee, says that congregational singing is a primary means by which we are schooled theologically. He means that when we sing together we come to know the truth of who we are and who God is. We learn what we believe and how we are to live. We enter into a story and we learn how to live that story.

But of course, it matters what we’re singing!

Do the songs we sing tell the story of God’s grand cosmic purposes: creation; the calling of Israel; the incarnation; the resurrection; the calling of the church; the final consummation of all things? Or do our songs focus on ourselves, on personal “experience,” on individual salvation? Are we—as Lester Ruth has phrased the question—cosmic-story churches or personal-story churches? And how do the songs we sing together reflect the reality of who and what we are?

We do well to consider, says Randy, “that congregational singing is the highest and most beautiful musical act in the worship life of a congregation—more so than any other offering of music by choir, solo, or instrument.” In this way, singing is sacramental and relational; it is a gift from God and a means of grace.

But it is not an end in itself. Music should never be the “organizing principle” of worship. It should not be used to divide congregations generationally. But these are pitfalls hard to avoid—it’s rare for almost any church these days not to jump on the “music-as-a-matter-of-taste” bandwagon.

But when we return to the Psalms we find ourselves singing ancient words with startlingly fresh relevance. We find the story told in the Psalms to be one that points us beyond ourselves and our small lives toward God’s all-encompassing purposes for the creation that God called into being. We find a God who loves us individually but who calls us to be a cosmic-story people.

We are people who must sing you,
for the sake of our very lives.
You are a God who must be sung by us,
for the sake of your majesty and honor.
And so we thank you,
for lyrics that push us past our reasons,
for melodies that break open our givens,
for cadences that locate us home,
beyond all our safe places,
for tones and tunes that open our lives beyond control and our futures beyond despair.

We thank you for the long parade of mothers and fathers who have sung you deep and true;
We thank you for the good company of artists, poets, musicians, cantors, and instruments
that sing for us and with us, toward you.
We are witnesses to your mercy and splendor;
We will not keep silent . . . ever again. Amen.

“We Will Not Keep Silent,” by Walter Brueggemann

No comments: