Thursday, 10 May 2012

Sing a New Song

Rev Peter Lockhart

In a conversation with one of my colleagues recently he suggested a good way to test if a person was growing in their faith was to ask the question, “What was the last song that they had learned which had an impact on their faith and how long ago was that?”

For people who love music and a sung faith I believe this is a poignant question. Even for those of you who may struggle with music and singing there is something in this.

Through the scriptures the Psalmists especially encourage the people of God to have a sung faith and there can be no doubt of the power of music in our lives and in our faith generally. We remember songs. They bring back memories. They speak to our souls. They can enfold us in a warm hug like an old friend or lead us to feel again old hurts long past.

I have discovered through my ministry that often our favourites hymns embedded themselves in our lives at an early age, often as children, teens or young adults. Why? I suspect this is because our identity and sense of being is largely determined in these formative years, particularly with respect to our faith.

In these years our emotions are strong, there is vitality and hope in our outlook, there is passion for life and for love.

In terms of singing our old favourites are often associated with times of new and surprising discoveries about our lives, or our faith or about God.

Despite how beneficial our sung faith is to our spiritual growth and nurture I learnt many years go that the same sort of emotions evoked by our religious songs could be experience beyond the walls of the church

Like the Jimmy Barnes gig I went to at the Lismore RSL the night before my 18th birthday or the Hoodoo Gurus gig at the Mansfield Tavern or the James Taylor concert at the Boondall entertainment centre when his songs wafted through the building and left me soaring.

In fact it is because music is so powerful in our lives that I would constantly want to challenge people about whether hanging on to the favourite songs holds us back from new experiences that might help us to continue to grow.

The Psalmist encourages and yes also warns us to “Sing a new song to the Lord.”

Now singing a new song is an entirely personal experience because a new song is simply one that I have not sung before.

I can well remember the first time I sung the hymn ‘Lo! He comes’ at Toowong church about 15 years ago. I knew it was one of the minister’s favourite advent hymns.

Initially I saw the hymn as archaic; another dirge for the organ. But the reality was I was singing new song to God. It didn’t matter that it was a few hundred years old – it was new to me and I did not like it – I felt it was hard to sing and old fashioned.

Yet if old favourite’s fit like my comfortable old ugg boots then maybe new songs sometimes are like a new pair of shiny black school shoes. They might cause a few blisters but in time they can be worn in and their true purpose and comfort to protect and support my feet will be found.

“Lo! He Comes!” is now one of my favourite hymns – it has become like another old friend who reminds me of the promise of Jesus return and God’s love for me. It just took some time for me to get used to it.

Now I might have just well have chosen a contemporary song, or a more ancient hymn of the church to give my example. My point is that sometimes learning the new song, singing the new song, and doing it exuberantly, as the Psalmist suggests, is not that easy. It involves taking the risk to actually sing that new song and be open to new things in our journey of faith.

This is not a carte blanche to novel understandings of the faith rather a learning process of remembering God’s faithfulness. The Psalm invites new songs to be song about what God has done.

Generation to generation the music in the church has changed. I once read a sermon by a Presbyterian Minister from New Zealand written in the late 1800s suggesting that the organ was the devil’s instrument. I have heard the same things said of drums and electric guitars. At my wedding a Piper lead us from the church – no true Scot would have done that. The Pipes were banned in churches because they are an instrument of war – the clans were lead by their pipers into battle.

Styles and instruments and words change and we are ever invited to sing a new song to the Lord. Those new songs may be ancients sung discovered anew or freshly words and tunes for our new age. Yet, wherever they come from they are an indication of a broader issue that we are growing together as a congregation.

Of course the question of singing a new song might be applied to every aspect of our faith as well. God is constantly calling us to new expressions of who we are and what we are doing.

In the book of Lamentations we read: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness. "The LORD is my portion," says my soul, "therefore I will hope in him."

We believe in a God who comes to us afresh day by day to reinvigorate our souls, to create the new moment in which we are to live and to remind us of the constancy of God’s love revealed in Christ.

A constancy declared by the scripture which we heard today:

The good news shared with gentiles: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

The intimacy declared to the disciples: “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”

And the mystery of our participation in God’s grace: “And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.”

In the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church it declares in Paragraph 11, “The Uniting Church thanks God for the continuing witness and service of evangelist, of scholar, of prophet and of martyr. It prays that it may be ready when occasion demands to confess the Lord in fresh words and deeds.”

Our whole faith is to become a new song as it adapts to the news rhythms of life around us and the cacophony of new ideas, whilst not losing touch with that ungirding and grounding beat of the creation’s song described by the Psalm and the gospel which we proclaim.

The question that lies before us as a congregation is what is the new song we are to be singing now? The new song of our faith!

Sometimes like singing a new song the possibility of change might seem a bit of a difficult ask, it might take a little time for us to get used to a new situation and embrace it, yet still we do the new thing that we believe God is calling us to in faith. We focus on the composer of life, its creator, sustainer and redeemer and we sing our faith with every aspect of our being.

If music is representative of our faith then singing new songs reflects our growth not just in musical appreciation but in our relationship with God.

I wonder when you last learnt a new song to the Lord and came to appreciate anew the gift of grace for the mercies of God which are indeed new every morning so great is his faithfulness.

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