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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Praying Twice: Singing the Lord's Song

‘To sing is to pray twice’: that is the title of our service tonight. It’s a beautiful saying of St Augustine. What does he mean?  He is saying that when we sing to God, we are using not one but two kinds of language: the language of words and the language of music. We ‘double up’ in our prayers: not because it will make a difference to how God responds, but because it makes a difference to us: it reinforces our passion, our conviction, our sheer belief that the most important thing we can ever do in life is to offer praise and prayer to our Creator and Redeemer. 

Tonight’s readings underline this message.  In the Old Testament passage from Chronicles, Solomon is dedicating the temple he has built at the behest of his father David.  King David himself was known as ‘the sweet psalmist of Israel’, the king who sang.  He sang to placate his enemy Saul when he was in one of his rages: music has that gift to soothe the soul and David knew it.  But more especially he sang and danced out of sheer joy in the God who had been so good to him.  It gave him a voice to express his boundless love for God without reserve or inhibition – because music also frees the soul and the body to take us to realms that mere words can never transport us to.  So Solomon, at the outset, establishes musicians in the temple to give wings to its worship and to make its praise glorious.  When I was a canon of Coventry Cathedral, I often quoted a phrase from one of my predecessors: ‘worship without music does not easily soar’. It’s clear from Solomon’s cymbals, harps, lyres, trumpeters and singers that transfiguring worship was his priority for the new temple.

The New Testament reading takes us on from the Old. Here, Paul urges the Colossian Christians to ‘sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God’.  It’s not clear whether these were three different kinds of singing or three ways of describing the same thing.  But what is clear is the reason Paul gives for singing to God. He says: ‘with gratitude in your hearts, sing…’  Indeed, there are three references to thanksgiving in that short paragraph. Paul is saying that gratitude is absolutely fundamental not only to singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, not only even to the activity of worship itself, but to all of life.  ‘Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.’ Linking that with singing, we might say: as we sing, so we are.  If we don’t allow ourselves be carried up to heaven through music and singing, are we truly a people who live and breathe through thankfulness? The Greek word for thanksgiving is eucharistia. That is the central act of worship for Christians because thanksgiving lies at the heart of life: gratitude to the God who created and redeemed and sustains us. This is the reality singing gives substance to.  To sing is to thank twice.

So the gospel motivates us to sing because through music, heart speaks to heart, and adoration and love always belong to the heart.  As Beethoven put in his score of the Missa Solemnis, one of the greatest choral works ever composed, ‘From the heart: may it go to the heart’. But whose hearts was he talking about?  Our hearts reaching out to God in song?  Or maybe, just as much, God’s heart reaching out to us in music too.  In Bruce Chatwin’s novel Songlines, the aboriginals of Australia speak about how the world was created through the spirits’ songs, and as we ourselves imitate them, we too bring new worlds into being, tracing new journeys of son across the landscape and bringing them to life in ways undreamed of in our ordinary lives.  What music does is to open up new dimensions and possibilities to being alive. Music can transport us to glimpse a new heaven and a new earth.

I have my own story to tell about this. When I was a teenager I sang with the school’s choral society.  The first work I ever sang as a treble was Mendelssohn’s Elijah and I have had a soft spot for it ever since. But one year we sang Bach’s St John Passion.  My life was not the same after that.  I wrote about it many years later in a book about St John’s story of the crucifixion and death of Jesus which I wrote as a tribute to Bach.  I said that this schoolboy experience was unforgettable.  I knew then that it would change me and it did.  I would not be in this pulpit today if it were not for that spring which played a vital part in my coming to Christian faith. To me it felt not that I was singing Bach’s music to God, but that God was singing it to me, speaking personally to me, waking me up in ways I couldn’t then begin to understand, summoning me to look and see the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross for all creation and for me personally. The words by themselves might not have spoken so directly or powerfully.  But because God was singing them, it was as if he was proclaiming twice over, just as Augustine says that when we sing, we pray twice. I had not quite seen that until I was preparing this sermon for tonight.  But the more I think about it, the more I believe that this is a creative way of putting it.

This service marks the end of this wonderful year of celebration for St Giles’ Church.  So what does tonight’s theme of singing twice say to us as a parish?  Here are some insights I draw from the scriptures.  First: This has been a year of thanksgiving for all God’s goodness to this ancient parish and its people.  But thankfulness does not stop there.  We are called to live out of thankfulness in every aspect of life. Perhaps we could allow this 900th anniversary year to help us practise gratitude in a more committed way, learn how to bless the Lord at all times and in all things.  This is for all of us as a community, and for each of us as individual men, women and children. Thankfulness transforms the way we see the world and ourselves.  It is the secret of contentment, flourishing and having purpose in being alive.  To contemplate the wonderful works of God makes us glad. To sing of them makes us twice as grateful and twice as glad.  We give thanks twice and we pray twice.

Secondly, I hope this parish will continue to invest in the part music plays here in your worship. As you know, it lies at the heart of our mission at the Cathedral: not as an end in itself (though it gives huge pleasure to so many), and not as a contribution to the cultural riches of Durham and the north-east (which it does) but because when we are in tune with angels and archangels, our worship begins to take wings. This alone justifies the great costs of maintaining music in our churches: investment in worship always does.  But we need music to be accessible to many different kinds of people; it should be genuinely inclusive.  At the Cathedral we are trying to learn that not everyone listens to Radio 3.  God speaks on other channels too. 
Thirdly, don’t underestimate the power of song even in dark times when the lamp of hope runs low. To put our prayers into song is to focus attention on God even in times of suffering and pain.  There are more laments in the Psalter than any other kind of psalm: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’: those words were meant to be sung, a remarkable thought since our crucifixions are when we feel least like singing. Perhaps we need to recover the art of lament in our repertoire of song.  The danger is that if religion only consists of upbeat praise and worship songs, we don’t do justice to the realities of being human in a world where suffering afflicts the majority of the human race, and at times grievously afflicts all of us too. How do we ‘pray twice’ and embrace the cruel realities of the pain of the world and the valley of the shadow of death we ourselves, or those close to us, may be walking? How can our song and our prayer express our faith and love when we are baffled and bruised by things?  How do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land – the vale of sorrow and sighing and tears?

Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs have the power to change the world and to change us. So let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and above all, sing the kingdom of God so that in all times of our sorrow and in all times of our joy, our hearts may always belong in heaven where Christ is, to whom be praise and honour for ever.

St Giles’ Church Durham, 18 November 2012
(2 Chronicles 5.11-end, Colossians 3.2-end)

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