I have the privilege of serving this year as chaplain to the Dallas Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. I gave the brief homily that appears below at the opening convocation. I have posted it here, for whatever value it may be to organists, other musicians, vocalists, and those who simply love music.
Worship in the Splendor of Holiness
Oh sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth!
2 Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
3 Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples!
4 For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
he is to be feared above all gods.
5 For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols,
but the Lord made the heavens.
6 Splendor and majesty are before him;
strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
7 Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!
8 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
bring an offering, and come into his courts!
9 Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness;
tremble before him, all the earth!
10 Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns!
Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity.”
11 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
12 let the field exult, and everything in it!
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
13 before the Lord, for he comes,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness,
and the peoples in his faithfulness.
Psalms are like icons. We return to them time after time, discovering and hearing new depths. They move with us, revealing new truths and deepening our understanding of
God’s work in our lives. Like Rublev’s icon of the Trinity with its open, eternal altar facing the one who prays, the Psalms seem to have something new to say every time we read them.
It is not surprising, however, that preachers neglect them. Nor is it surprising that they are read in the lections on an average Sunday as if they were a bit of poetic relief before thinking again about the biblical texts that “really” demand our attention.
The Protestant dependence on sola scriptura had the unintended consequence of birthing a didactic faith that is less felt or lived than it is the object of thought. And the Psalms don’t lend themselves easily to that task. Factor in our left brained culture — along with our pragmatic nature — and it is not hard to understand why we pay so little attention to them in the pulpits of American churches.
Why? How? Because Psalms — and I would argue, music in general — triumphs in reaching the heart, when the mind forgets the way. Music does not do that by becoming empty, insipid, and emotional. There are six imperatives in the Hebrew of Psalm 96: The first three are the command to sing a new song. And the others, bless… proclaim…. declare… are complements to the initial commands, further elaborating on what it means to “sing a new song.”
What is the new song that the Musician calls for? According to the Psalm itself, it is a song that announces the salvation of the Lord, God’s glory, the creative act of establishing the foundations of the world, the act of filling that world with life that responds in turn with celebration. What is old is new. What is new is old. The psalmist’s music reaches and touches our hearts by drawing creatively on what is given and then casting it in new ways.
We construe that which is new a special status and for us, it is often a break with the past. It is the only kind of newness which we can imagine, because our capacity for creation is derivative.
Not so with God. Newness is grounded in that which is old and God is not confined by the past or threatened by the future, because God is the author of both.
If we could grasp that fact, it would free us creatively. Both because we would be aware of our limitations, but free to range widely in the creation that God has given us.
If I may be so bold, it seems to me, then, that Psalm 96 has this to say to musicians:
One, the works you produce and perform are icons — that speak to us in ever new ways. I suspect that it is easy to think about music as a once-and-done offering — something that stands on its own merits, is judged by the execution of the piece, and then “it’s on to the next thing.” It is very different for a musician to think of his or her work as a living invitation to prayer and it carries with it a spiritual, as well as artistic responsibility.
Two, as such — like the Psalmist the images and depths on which you draw are old, new, and new in their ancient roots — all three because church music potentially relies on God given grace no less than it does on artistry. That can be viewed as a burden. But I think the better label is “privilege” — the gift of participating in something divine is properly understood as an invitation to participate in something transcendent and enduring. Singing a new song strikes me as just such a privilege.
Finally, if all that strikes you as reasonable, then allow me to suggest that line of argument also makes you iconographers. The task of a church musician is an artistic endeavor, but it is more. It is the act of praying and of inviting prayer — an invitation to an encounter with God.
As such, the task of a church musician is evangelical, catechetical, and spiritual. Performance is not enough. Singing a new song should alert us to the presence of God. If we are blind to its invitation, we need to hear its purposes declared. If we are ignorant of its logic, we need to be taught. And none of that can be done by a musician who is not alert to the movement of God in his or her own life.
The writer of musical icons — like the one who paints them — lives at the temple’s doors, where those who sing are also those who declare, “The Lord Reigns.” And to stand in that place is to embody an awareness of God’s presence. As you begin this new year, my prayer is that each of you will be embraced and sustained by the Psalmist’s appeal to “Sing a new song.”