Friday, June 7, 2024

Sing to the Lord a new song: the place of music in worship

Texts:  Psalm 150, Colossians 3.12-17, and Mark 14.22-26

Music is such an integral part of our culture, isn’t it?  Perhaps the easiest way to get a handle on that is to imagine a world without music.  Imagine, for example, watching a movie without background music, setting the emotional tone of each moment.  Can you conceive of a TV advert without music blaring in the background, trying to grab your attention?  “Go compare!”. Music is everywhere.  We sing on the football terraces.  Many of us wake up to music on the radio.  Long journeys are accompanied by the ‘choons’ we choose.  This week’s D-Day celebrations in Southsea were led by a huge cast of musicians, including some from our own Cathedral choir. 

But what exactly is music?  When you break it down to its bare bones – it’s a surprisingly simple thing.  In Western music, it is a collection of 12 tones – 12 resonating sound frequencies.  These are arranged in such a way as to be interesting, or inspiring to the human mind.  Some cultures have less than 12 tones.  Some, especially in the East, have more – quarter-tones that sit between the 12 that we have come to think of as normal.  

But why music?  What is it about these tones, these vibrating frequencies that stir our emotions, and which connect with us on such a deep level?  Why do we generally prefer the sound of musical notes to, say, the squawking noise of, say, a parrot?  Or the sound of wind in the trees, or water in a fountain.  Speaking as a musician, I’d say the answer to that question is complex.  It certainly has something to do with the way music resonates with our bodies.  Our ears, and other parts of our body, find the experience of being immersed in music genuinely pleasurable.  There is a physiological link between the sounds we prefer, and the way our bodies absorb and process them.   Nature has made us to appreciate music at a physical level.  

But nurture is also involved.  We love the music that we’ve come to know, from our earliest age.  Some of us find it hard to learn new music – because we are deeply attached, emotionally to the pattern of sounds we grew up with.  That’s why introducing new hymns in worship is always a fraught process.  And its why some of us maintain that any music produced since Mozart should be considered ‘dangerously modern’!

So far as we can tell, from archaeology and ancient literature, music has always been important to humans, practically from the moment we became humans.  In ancient caves, archaeologists have discovered animal bones with holes along the side – clearly intended to be used as a kind of flute.  We know that drums have a very long history too, in many early cultures.  We know that music played an important part in worship, throughout the Bible.  Key ideas about God were turned into music – which made those ideas easier to remember and to process. 

So, for example, we read about the Song of Miriam, the wife of Moses, who sang a song of celebration and praise when the Eqyptians were thrown into the sea.  Our gospel reading, just now, told of how Jesus and his friends sang a hymn before going out into the night.   The Bible includes an entire book of 150 song lyrics, called the Psalms.  We know from the last of those songs, number 150, what kind of instruments were being played to accompany the singing.  That last psalm – which the choir sang for us as a first reading - contains a list of all the instruments which were used to praise God – the trumpet, the psaltry (a kind of zither), the harp, stringed instruments (presumably something like violins or cellos), pipes (presumably like flutes or maybe bagpipes) and cymbals – well-tuned but loud cymbals!

Vitally, for churches (and this touches on the work of the RSCM) music is a way of helping us to absorb our theology and doctrine.  Our hymnody reflects and reinforces our theology.  Theology is, generally speaking, an intellectual exercise.  It forces us to think about the mystery of God, and our place in God’s world.  But music acts upon us at a deeper, emotional, instinctive level.  It can help us to bridge the gap between what we believe, intellectually, and what we live out in our daily lives.  That’s why the choice of what we sing is so important – and why care is needed in the choice.  Music has the power to carry truth – or lies - beyond the intellect and into the heart.  It can, in fact, be dangerous.  Here’s an example….

In a week in which we’ve all thought about D-Day, it’s worth remembering that Hitler used music to promote his pernicious nationalism.  The words of the German national anthem during his time were ‘Deutschland, Deutschland, uber alles’ – which translates as ‘Germany, Germany – over all’.  In other words – Germany is the best, the most superior nation, with a divine right to rule the world.  Sung at every Nazi rally, this message of an innate superiority of the German people went straight from Hitler’s warped brain into his people’s hearts.  Once convinced of this lie, some of them became willing to do almost any heinous crime in the name of German superiority.

That’s why it matters what music we sing.  That’s why Graham takes such care in the choice of the hymns we sing here, week by week.  If we choose hymns that push one particular theological idea, it’s important that that is balanced by an alternative view as well.  So, for example, take the modern hymn ‘In Christ Alone’.  Perhaps you’ve heard it:  “In Christ alone, my hope is found /He is my light, my strength, my song”.  It’s a smashing hymn, with a brilliant tune.  But, troublingly, it does contain this line:  “But on that cross as Jesus died/The wrath of God was satisfied”.  That is a very specific and deliberate statement of one particular theological idea – called ‘penal substitution’ – which is the view that Jesus had to die to appease God’s anger about human sin.  Another way of saying that is ‘that Jesus took the punishment which should have been ours’.  But that, as I have taught many times, is only one way of understanding the meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus.  If we only choose hymns that contain references to penal substitution, we’re in danger of ending up with a very myopic understanding of God.

The best and the greatest church music, in my view, is that which doesn’t get bogged down in pushing disputed theological ideas.  Such hymns are no better than football chants, which attempt to ‘big up’ the home team, while putting down the opposition.  The best church music is that which lifts our eyes and our hearts beyond the minutiae of theological debate – and which opens our inner being to the reality of God.  That’s why the psalmist says that praise should be the purpose of our song.  Praise for God, for all that God is, whether on the trumpet, or the psaltry, the harp, or even the loud cymbal!”  Amen.

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

We need some D-Day spirit today!

2 Timothy 2.8–15

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.  The saying is sure:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;

if we endure, we will also reign with him;

if we deny him, he will also deny us;

if we are faithless, he remains faithful—

for he cannot deny himself.

Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.

Mark 12.2834

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’  Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’  

Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”;  and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.


How much do you think you could endure, for the sake of the Gospel?  How much of your happiness and comfort would you sacrifice to love your neighbour as yourself?  Are you prepared to die with Christ, so that you might live with him?  Could you ensure hardship and suffering, for the promise of reigning with Christ – whatever that metaphor means?

These are the challenges of today’s readings, and of the commemorations of D-Day that are taking place in Portsmouth and in France over these two days.  The soldiers, sailors and aviators of D-Day gave themselves utterly to the task of loving their neighbours in France – to release them from the grip of Hitler’s Nazi regime.  And they did it for love….for the love of their French neighbour, inspired by the love of God, who rightly insists on our heart, soul, mind and strength.   Each one of them deserves our undying respect, admiration and thanks.

Other groups of people have been brought to the forefront too.  Yesterday, the King reminded us that Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus were among those who died and fought for freedom that day.  We must never make the mistake of thinking that only western, Christian, people understand the value of sacrificing oneself for one’s neighbour.  There are many in other religions to whom Jesus would say, as he said to the Jewish scribe, ‘you are not far from the Kingdom of God’.

Another group of unsung heroes are those who worked, diligently, sacrificially and often in secret, behind the lines.  Often women, these were factory workers, the farmers, the Land Girls, and the military support units, like the WRENS, who helped with the logistics, planning and delivery of the greatest amphibious fleet ever assembled in history.  Women flew airplanes from factories to the front, they drove lorries and logistics waggons, they provided food and nourishment for the troops, and nursing for the wounded.  

All of these ‘folks behind the lines’ made sacrifices to love their neighbour too.  Often they gave up their homes and normal lives to add their skills and expertise to the war effort.  They lived for long periods away from the families, and even their own children (who were billeted in the countryside as evacuees).  It may perhaps be said that no nation in history was ever so completely mobilised in the task of sacrifice and love of neighbour.  That is, of course, something of what we mean when we talk about the wartime spirit of Britain.  Churchill’s greatest achievement was to encourage and foster the spirit of sacrifice among an inherently selfish nation.

Yes, this was about defence – defence of the United Kingdom from the Nazi threat.  But it was more than that.  This nation, bolstered by our Allies, decided to sacrifice a generation of young people in the defence of Europe, and for the love of our European neighbours.  We led the charge against the blind and stupid nationalism and despotism of Hitler and his henchmen.

Which is why it is so worrying, 80 years later, to see some of the same patterns emerging in our politics today.  Extreme right wing ideologies are once again on the march.  Politicians and leaders routinely lay the blame for our economic challenges at the feet of those least able to defend themselves – just as Hitler did with the Jews. We are encouraged to look for people to blame – homeless people, benefit ‘scroungers’, foreigners, travellers, fat people, woke people, trans-people.  The millionaires who run our country don’t want us to look too closely at their wealth.  ‘Look over there’, they cry.  Be distracted. Blame the others.  

In short, we are forgetting the lesson of D-Day – that the path to glory is not paved with blame, but with sacrifice.  The more divided our nation becomes, the more we blame ‘the other’ for our own unwillingness to bend to their needs, the further from the Kingdom of God we fall.

What are the practical implications of this message?  D-Day was an example of national sacrifice, and logistical prowess combined in an epic battle for the common good.  One of the modern battles we are waging is one against the large total of net migrants to this country.  With net migration of three quarters of a million people a year, our hospitals, schools, housing and health-care facilities are under immense strain, without a doubt. 

What if we were to apply the D-Day Spirit to this very real challenge?  It would take a ‘wartime spirit’ that was, for example, willing to forego some of the high standards of building and safety standards we’ve come to expect.  It would mean a few less hospitals and homes designed to win prestigious awards, and rather more prefabs and Nissan huts.  But with sacrifice and love for neighbour at the heart of such a programme, if would be possible to mobilise the nation to quickly build new homes, hospitals and schools, and to relieve the pressure on public services by bringing-in immigrant builders, doctors and teachers – who would pay tax and build the nation. 

But what do we do?  We blame the migrants – instead of our lack of D-Day vision. So, we choose not to requisition the land of multi-millionaires as we did at D-Day, to meet a national emergency.  We choose not to build the prefab homes we once did to house people in urgent housing need.  We choose not to build hospitals in simple huts, or set up schools in porta-cabins.  No – because we are too good for these things.  Oh, they are good enough for poor people in far off lands.  We’ll set up field hospitals in tents for them.  But we have our own high standards here at home, and we’re not going to bend them for anyone! 

Has it never struck you as perverse that we can build glamping pods for wealthy British holiday makers, but we won’t provide housing pods for the homeless?  We can build acres of mobile home parks for wealthy vacationers, but we can’t provide safe parking spaces for travelling communities.  Doesn’t it seem odd that we want the right to travel anywhere in the world on our blue British passports, but we won’t give the same freedom of movement to ‘the others’. You see, the homeless, travellers, and immigrants are ‘the other’ – and we’re not going to sacrifice for them!

My friends, we’ve forgotten how to apply our heart, soul, mind and strength to the task of loving God, and loving our neighbour.  And until we regain the D-Day spirit of sacrifice, coupled with ingenuity, I believe that as a nation we will remain far from the Kingdom of God. Amen.