Sermon delivered by Joel Snider, pastor of First Baptist Church in Rome, Ga., on September 13, 2009.
Church meant two things to me when I was little; dressing up and singing.
—Kathleen Norris in The Cloister Walk
I want to take you back to when I was a teenager and AM radio was about the best sound you could get anywhere. All of the radio stations had singing jingles that would remind you of the station name, something about the station, etc. I remember one that said, “Take music wherever you go. Get yourself a portable radio.” Boy, have times changed. Now, music is everywhere. You don’t even have to carry it with you. It is just already there when you get there. Of course, we do see the proliferation of better musical devices than the old AM radio that I used to listen to music on or try to sneak into class during World Series time so I could hear the game.
If you go to the airport, it seems like almost everybody has an earbud. Sometimes, when I ride my bicycle, I come up on people running on the path and I want to let them know I am going to pass them. I am practically yelling to them, and as soon as I get to them, I realize they have earbuds in and they have not heard me coming because they have taken their music with them.
Instead of just a phone ringing, everybody has their favorite song or a song representing the people who might be calling them. Of course, music is the back ground for everything. You cannot shop, eat, or ride the elevator without hearing music. There is hardly any place you can go where music isn’t already there setting the mood, trying to encourage you to do one thing or another. Music sets the stage as if life had a sound track.
We all know how it works in a sound track. You can hear the change in the music and you know something dramatic is going to happen in the movie or TV show. At Christmas, you go into a store and the music is more frenetic, like you have to start buying in a hurry. It is the sound track of life.
The reason music is in all of these places is because it is such a powerful influence and a powerful expression. What is it that anyone of us could not say better with music? You can go to a ballgame and the school band strikes up. The snare drums are doing a introduction and you know it is The Star Spangled Banner. All eyes are at that place on the field where the flag is placed. You can feel the hair pick up on the back of your neck. But just staying, “I am a patriot” or “I love my country” isn’t anything compared to when all of the voices begin to sing together, “O say can you see.”
I can try to tell my wife that I love her but somehow that fails in comparison to Percy Sledge singing, When A Man Loves A Woman. That has passion. At wedding receptions, there are those of us who just sit and watch everybody dance because we don’t want to dance in front of anybody. But when the DJ plays, When A Man Loves A Woman, everybody is out there dancing because the music says it so much better. The music binds us together. There is a way in which music makes us a part of something.
If you go to a Georgia game and hear, “Glory, glory to Old Georgia,” then you are with it. If you are a Georgia Tech fan, you hear, Ramblin’ Wreck. The music separates the people who are a part of it from everybody else who just happens to be there. If you are a visiting fan and the other team breaks into the fight song, you think, “I am tired of hearing that,” but for the fans, it is the moment when they feel it and are bound together.
Music is used in the military. In World War I, everybody sang, Over There. I remember when our daughter, Rachel, came home from Iraq on the USNS Comfort in 2003. There, on the pier, the Navy band was playing. We were there for what seemed like hours as the ship pulled in. It seemed to me that they had played everything but Anchors Away. I went up to the person who was conducting the band and asked, “When are you going to play Anchors Away?” She told me, “Oh, we are going to play Anchors Away.” When the boat was docked and the gangway was let down, and the first crew member came up to salute the captain and the ship’s ensign, they broke into Anchors Away, and it was a Navy moment. It bound everybody together on that pier because music binds us together. If you know the music, you are part of it. If you don’t know the music, you feel left out.
Psalm 92 is probably about 3,000 years old, and we know that through the Psalms of David. Music, in the service of worship, goes back a least that far. Whatever music can do for my relationship with people that I love, my country, or a group that I am a part of, it also does for my faith and my love of God. When we are all gathered together, somehow music expresses something that a sermon cannot express. The music says things that speaking in prose does not. We all learn more theology from the hymns that we sing than from the sermons we have heard. I have just taken that as a given in my life. That’s just the way it is.
For 175 years, music has been a part of the heritage of this church. Now things have changed. For the first 25 or 30 years, the church could not afford hymnals. There were several efforts in those first 25 or 30 years to take up collections so that people could buy hymnals but they kept failing. It was a rather impoverished time. Some people had their own hymnals, and other times the leader had to line it out, or it was just done from memory. About 20 years after the church was founded, the women of the church raised over $100 and bought a harmonium which is a type of reed organ and two families left the church because they didn’t think it was scriptural.
Today, we pay tribute to the way music inspires us and enhances what we do. Psalm 92 tells us to sing, and I want to say a few quick things about how to sing. This is not instruction in music; this is about what goes on in our heads.
If the psalm tells us to sing, then I would say just make sure that you sing with your head and your heart. One of the things that I appreciate about Keith is the way he picks the hymns that go with what we are doing in worship each Sunday. What we sing in the last hymn draws everything together that has happened throughout the worship service.
We are touched by the tune. You can hear bag pipes play Amazing Grace and the tune can call back so many good feelings and positive experiences of hearing Amazing Grace, but there is something about putting our heads to the words and hearing, “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” We put those words in there and somehow it evokes something in our faith and experience with God that is different. I would say to you, “Sing, but pay attention to the words.” Listen to what it is that we are saying to God. Listen to what it is that we sing about God. It makes a difference.
Second, sing for yourself. The choir is beautiful and nobody appreciates the choir more than I do, but at least 50% of the music in the worship service is sung by the congregation. People who sing in a group sing about our faith but only I can sing my faith. Only I can sing what I need to sing for me.
It is a lot like prayer. I hear people pray sometimes and it is such a powerful expression of what I am feeling in my life and soul, and I am so glad that I was able to overhear their prayer because it spoke for me. But there are times when I have to pray for myself. I just can’t always rely on listening to other people pray. It is the same way with music. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard such beautiful music in the sanctuary and heard people sing in a way that I thought, “I wish I could sing like that,” but I still have to sing for myself. I must express what I need to express in that passionate and powerful way that only music lets me do. I have to do it for me.
Sing with your head and your heart and sing for yourself. Always remember, “We sing to God.” We are not singing for each other. We are singing to God. I have confessed how self-conscious I feel about singing. I preach every Sunday and feel very much at home, but if there were two people and I had to get up and sing, I am not sure I could do it.
When one of our daughters was about two, I was tying her shoes and singing, “Mama’s little baby loves shortening bread.” She put her hand on my mouth and said, “Don’t ever sing again for the rest of my life.”
I have known people who have been cursed about singing. On occasions across the years when I have mentioned my own reluctance to sing in front of people, almost invariable it will invoke somebody’s response. Somebody will tell me, “When I was 16 or 30 or when I moved to that church, somebody told me, ‘You really don’t need to be in the choir’ or ‘You can’t sing a lick, can you.’” From my pulpit vantage point, I can look out and see people who never sing because somebody has told them they can’t sing. They never have the joy of being able to express it from the bottom of their hearts.
I remember a little church I pastored in Louisville many years ago. There was a deacon named Don who was a fine person and a great friend and an equally terrible singer. He was in the choir, and one time I said, “How did you get in the choir?” He said, “You know, all God said was, ‘Make a joyful noise,’ and I can do that.” I have always remembered Don when I think about my own inability to sing. That’s what God wants. He wants whatever it is that the music evokes out of us. It is not for whomever else might hear us. We are singing to God. That’s what it is. Other things in our lives cannot express things the way that music can.
There are times when the choir or a soloist says it for us, but there are just times when I have to sing it for myself. If I don’t sing very well, you can move.
Music expresses all the great passions, all the things that we have felt deeply about. You may hear a country song and think, “I would never have thought about writing a song about that, but I have felt that way.” Music expresses all the things that we feel in life, and somewhere there is a piece of music that expresses it more deeply, more powerfully, than if we had tried to express it any other way.
We think about all these things that we have loved and believed. We think about music that expresses an age in which we were young and we believed all things passionately. We hear music, and it expresses how we feel about somebody in particular and how much we love them. We hear music and it reminds us that there is a savior who died for us. There is a God who loved us enough to send his own son to Calvary for our redemption and for the forgiveness of our sins. Our lives need music to say it all.
“It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High, to declare your steadfast love in the morning and your faithfulness by night, to the music of the lyre and the harp. For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work. At the works of your hands, I sing for joy.”
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.