“Which Song” is a critical reflection upon the current praise and worship phenomenon sweeping the world. It is a sermon based on Psalm 137 where I raise the question of whether the songs choices in praise and worship sessions are adequately reflecting the lived experience of the gathered worshippers. This was preached some years ago but I had cause to revisit it this past Mother’s Day when preparing the speak from Jer. 9. 17ff a call to the mothers and women of the land to wail over the status quo. As always I value your comments and interaction on the blog post. Thanks
The Music Department has chosen to call the gathered community at Grace this month to sing… to sing praises unto God. I think it is fairly safe to say that the majority of the congregants need no convincing of the reasons why we should sing praises unto God so rather than taking the easy way out and delineating such reasons let’s take the rough road of asking what kind of song should we sing?
Someone may just be rolling their eyes and saying “duh!”… a worship song of course” or a “gospel song of course”. My thoughts are not that basic this morning though…
Is it true that praise unto God necessarily means noise? Necessarily means clapping, shouting, dancing, smiles all around? What hymn did Jesus and disciples sing at the end of the last supper? Is there a place for mournful words in our praise?
Does Jesus care when my heart is pained
Too deeply for mirth or song,
As the burdens press, and the cares distress
And the way grows weary and long?
Does Jesus care when my way is dark
With a nameless dread and fear?
As the daylight fades into deep night shades,
Does Jesus care when I’ve tried and failed
To resist some temptation strong;
When for my deep grief there is no relief,
Though my tears flow all the night long?
Does Jesus care when I’ve said “goodbye”
To the dearest on earth to me,
And my sad heart aches till it nearly breaks,
Is it aught to Him? Does He see?
In 1901 Frank Graeff went through some very difficult trials. The period before writing this song was one of great despondency, doubt and physical pain. When he turned to God’s Word, 1 Peter 5:7 gave wonderful comfort: “He cares for you.” After meditating on that truth, Graeff wrote these lyrics, with the resounding affirmation in the chorus, “O yes, He cares…”
True biblical worship so satisfies our total personality that we don’t have to shop around for man-made substitutes. William Temple made this clear in his masterful definition of worship:
For worship is the submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness; the nourishment of mind with His truth; the purifying of imagination by His beauty; the opening of the heart to His love; the surrender of will to His purpose — and all of this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable and therefore the chief remedy for that self-centeredness which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin.
This is the kind of experience that the gathered congregant often seeks, and comes expecting… a release… a cleansing… a solace… a place where their lived experience is tempered by the Divine encounter… a place where the crucible of life changes from a ‘a so de ting set’ to an instrument of purpose.
Songs, worship, praise and worship, singing, song service or any other variant that makes up the cult in church circles which fail to penetrate the whole man in the manner described by Temple are therefore to be seen as futile babblings and a decoration on the program, printed or otherwise.
The Psalm before us today is fairly well known… at least its words find their way on the lips of those of the church who frequent wakes and nine nights… it is not the kind of psalm that makes it unto the praise and worship list very often in recent times. By contrast it is an all-time favorite among the rastafarians, whose concept of Babylon is as ubiquitous as their locks and pronouncement of JAH. I have chosen this Psalm to raise the question of which song.
The Psalm raises the question of whether or not the singing in our churches today are connected or far removed from the lived experiences of the worshippers. There are three movements in the Psalm ( and bear in mind that the Psalm itself was written as a song or poem at the very least). The movements are the context, the content and the catharsis. I’d like to suggest that we use those same movements to help us answer the question of which song.
The Israelites who first sang this song were captives in Babylon, working in a slave camp beside one of Babylon’s rivers. The Babylonian slave-masters tried to create some amusement for themselves (and some torment for their victims) by asking the downcast slaves to sing some of the merry songs of glorious Jerusalem (1-3). The cruel insults of the slave-masters pierce the hearts of the Israelites, because their beloved Jerusalem is in ruins. How can they forget all that Jerusalem means to them by singing songs that would now be a mockery? And all this just to amuse the slave-masters!
- Are song leaders sometimes guilty of asking the downcast to sing merry songs?
- Do song leaders sometimes demand songs of joy, complete with the movements of joy… clapping, standing, dancing, shouting?
These Israelites had a very clear sense of their context. Their nation had been plundered, their temple hazed to the ground, their God insulted, their ego shattered, their women raped, their children and elderly dehumanized, their identity assailed. Their harps were perhaps the last vestige of Jerusalem allowed to be taken in Babylon. As they sat down by the river side tired and weary, wounded and broken they hung their harps on the poplar trees. This is no time for merriment and instruments.
Can we identify such an acute awareness of an sensitivity to the national context in the space of public singing and worship? I’m suggesting to us that generally speaking the answer is a resounding no! There is usually very little that connects the what and the how of singing to our context.
Who mourned over the student from Penwood high who killed another recently… the girl who killed her sister… and what of the Public Defender’s Tivoli report? A report with chilling accounts… parts of which sound like a re-reading of psalm 137. Where does the weekly news feature in our song selections?
True believers should mourn when they see the church harassed, and find themselves unable to comfort her. In these our times the Babylon of error ravages the city of God, and the hearts of the faithful should be grievously wounded as they see truth fallen in the streets, and unbelief rampant among the professed servants of the Lord.
In the Psalm the content is naturally informed by the context… flows out of the context. In light of the state of affairs the exiles affirm their identity as the people of YAHWEH… refuse to sing for sing sake, refuse to sing to please the enemy, would not allow the enemy to add insult to injury. In graphic language they declare their ultimate allegiance to The Ultimate Power. The empire’s boot may have been at their throat, and the emperor’s sword on the heart but they will not forget Jerusalem and they will not make anything or anyone else their highest joy… their allegiance was not to Jerusalem the place but to the God of Jerusalem, the God who had established Jerusalem.
Compare the zeal of the exiles for their temple with the zeal of Jesus for the temple… Jesus’ zeal over the temple had much less to do with the temple itself and the cult/worship act of prayer itself and much more to do with the people who were being deprived of the opportunity to connect with God… the poor and the gentiles…
In “I was just wondering” Philip Yancey points out the fact that Jesus announced a great reversal of values in his Sermon on the Mount, elevating not the rich or attractive, but rather the poor, the persecuted, and those who mourn. Instead of lauding such traits as wealth, political power, and physical beauty, he warned against their dangers. A passage like Luke 18 shows the kind of people who impressed Jesus: an oppressed widow, a despairing tax collector, a small child, a blind beggar.
Where are those kinds of people located in our songs?
There are some striking similarities between the exiles’ experience in Babylon and the plight of our fore-parents, uprooted from Africa and enslaved in the West. They were mockingly asked to sing tribal songs, yet forbidden to speak tribal languages otherwise. Could there be a lingering trace of this when social lines are drawn and brought into the debate over the patois Bible? The songs of the slaves and the songs of the ex-slaves were immersed in a context, their harsh contexts… their contents represented resolve, courage, comfort, hope and solidarity. Far from being nebulous and foregin in language, imagery and style. “Swing low sweet chariots,” Kumbaya” “The woma of Samaria…” all came out of the belly of the beast as it were.
Philip Yancey, (p. 31, Reaching for the Invisible God) : Modern evangelicalism summons us to know God, to talk to God in conversational language, to love God as one might love a friend. Listen to the ‘praise’ songs in modern churches, which sound exactly like love songs played on pop radio, with God or Jesus substituted as the lover.
Whether consciously or unconsciously the religiously radio disc jockeys feed the listening public a steady diet of such songs typically originating in the North. An informal survey across churches in Jamaica on any given weekend will leave you wondering if there is a Praise and worship prime minister who sends out an email each weekend with the list of songs to be sung.
Then many of the songs that do emerge from the local artistes are either an almost exact replica of the ones from the North as described above [if loving you is wrong I don’t want to be right]… or woefully lacking in Biblical depth and theological correctness. The theology reeks of the name it and claim it prosperity gospel virus.
We hear much in our music which is frightening and very bothering. We have lost the doctrinal integrity of such great songs of the kingdom as “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Saviour’s blood” and have settled for such Christian entertainment as “God Ragga” which though good in intents says the following:
Welcome to one a God ragga ragga,
Wi worship with attitude, style and swagga.
Nuttn nu wrong if mi praise God and fly
A nuh sin if my Bible case even match mi tie
Italian suits sharp like samari
When yu si mi kicks (meaning “shoes” for the uninitiated) yu know a reptile die!!!
In the later verses ( Psalms 137:7-9 ), we have utterances of burning indignation against the chief adversaries of Israel, a righteous and a blazing indignation. Those who find it harsh perhaps may have a different perspective if they experience the Babylonian boot. It is one thing to talk of the bitter feeling which moved captive Israelites in Babylon, and quite another thing to be captives ourselves under a savage and remorseless power, which knew not how to show mercy, but delighted in barbarities to the defenseless. The song is such as might fitly be sung in the Jews’ wailing place. It is a fruit of the Captivity in Babylon, and often has it gve expression for sorrows which otherwise would have had been unutterable. The song is a call for justice, when read in light of the ‘eye for an eye’ maxim.
What would a song composed out of the Tivoli Commission of Inquiry report look like in the stanza of catharsis?
Amy Carmichael when criticized for her humanitarian work in India, responded, “One cannot save and then pitchfork souls into heaven…Souls are more or less securely fastened to bodies…and as you cannot get the souls out and deal with them separately, you have to take them both together.”
Jo-Ann Richards’ launch of CREW40:4 is timely and epoch making. An acronym for Culturally Relevant Expressions of Worship, the ministry seeks to promote the formulation of music that is culturally relevant and authentically true to one’s national identity. I laud Jo-Ann’s passion and efforts in this regard. She is a pioneer in helping us to begin to grapple with what it means to worship God is Spirit and in Truth.