Speaking the Notes
Minnesota Public Radio has a brief feature called Composer’s Datebook. In fewer than five minutes, listeners hear about a composer on the anniversary of their birthday or deathday. Sometimes, we hear about a famous performance that was highly successful, or perhaps a dismal failure. We are then reminded by the narrator, that “all music was once new.” It’s a reminder to each of us -- each of us who has a favorite kind of music that we love and want to hear more than any other, that our favorite music was once new music. It was probably considered new-fangled and cutting edge. It probably broke the rules or shattered the customs that were in place.
Today’s symphony orchestras often appoint someone to be their New Music champion person. That poor person’s job is to try to convince the comfortable, classical-loving audience that there is something worth listening to that has been composed in our own lifetimes. It is a tough job and a hard sell, because once we latch on to a type or style of music, we hang on to it with white knuckles until they have to pry our fists open, very likely on our death bed! We defend our choice of music. We can’t understand how other people can listen to THAT kind of music. So, in a large metropolitan area like ours, there are dozens of radio stations, each with a format that appeals to a limited slice of the listening public. Shop around in a music store, and you will see section after section of styles and varieties, all pre-sorted for us, so we don’t accidentally touch something that we find repulsive or incomprehensible.
We have become so particular and persnickety about our music, that technology today makes it possible for us to easily download ONLY the music I like and want, so that we don’t even have to be exposed to any music we don’t care to hear. For many of us, our Ipods and our computers contain ONLY the music we like and care to keep.
Some of the music that fills our ears and our lives is instrumental music. There are no words connected to it – not now, not ever. For instrumental music too, we find we have different likes and dislikes – in volume, rhythm, speed, instruments. We develop our favorites and our prejudices, and we will even go quite far to try to convince others that God likes the music I like, and even more than that, that God hates the music I hate. That is really making God in my image, when I claim that God’s favorites just happen to be MY favorites!
Music has been a part of the believers’ experience for as long as we have records (no pun intended!). The Old Testament contains, not just a few songs, but 150 of them. The Book of Psalms is a whole hymnbook – a collection of songs which have been SUNG by God’s people on different occasions. Most scholars believe that that strange word, “SELAH,” which appears within some of the psalms, is a musical instruction that means “let’s have a musical interlude here without voices so the people can catch their breath.”
Psalms are the first thing mentioned by Paul in Ephesians 5: “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.”
The Psalms are special because they are inspired by God. God inspired David and others to write the thoughts and words that were recorded as Psalms. It’s natural that we would sing to ourselves and speak to each other the words of the psalms, because as we do that, we are speaking the Word of God. Many believers learn the words of some of the Psalms when they are very young, and they carry the words of those psalms with them throughout their lives. We use psalms and parts of psalms in our worship services – over and over again – because they are the truth of God, because they are the Word of God.
There are, however, no melodies or music attached to the psalms that are divinely inspired or inerrant. God’s people have put the words to notes for more than 3,000 years. I like the various ways we put music to the psalms. For hundreds of years, believers have chanted the psalms, in a way quite similar to what we often do in our traditional worship services. We have variable lengths of music to fit the words, because frankly, the words are more important. The music CATCHES our interest, and the music may CARRY our interest, but the words are God’s.
Paul also says that we should be speaking to one another with hymns. The words of hymns often express the truth of God, but we put it into our own words. Many hymns start out as poetry, and initially have no music connected with them. They get connected to a tune or melody generations or even centuries later. Other hymns come into being as words and notes are created simultaneously. I’ve written dozens of hymns, and each of them was written to fit the meter and the beat of tunes that already existed.
Before a hymn gets included in one of our Lutheran Hymnals, the words get a thorough going over from a doctrinal review committee. Our church leaders know that once a hymn gets included in one of our hymnals, it is going to be used in our worship. The hymns will be taught and memorized by some, and so each hymn should contain only correct, biblical teaching. Our hymns must not contain any false doctrine or teaching.
Finally, Paul says we should speak to one another with spiritual songs. While some interpreters think that “spiritual songs” is just another term for other psalms, I don’t think Paul would use three different terms to refer to one thing. Believers have long used spiritual songs to express their faith and relationship with God. When singing or speaking a spiritual song, one is not using a Psalm. One is not raising a hymn to God expressing our praise to Him or encouragement to each other. When we speak or sing a spiritual song, we are often witnessing to our faith; we are expressing the personal emotions about spiritual matters that move us to want to share what’s inside of us with others. Our spiritual songs deal with our personal reflections of what God’s power and grace has meant in our lives. They don’t just talk about mathematics or politics – they deal with spiritual things that come from the bottom of our hearts.
So Paul urges believers everywhere to “Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
What matters is the words, because the words come from our hearts. Our thanks to God is not the vibration of our vocal chords, but rather the deep feeling of what is in our hearts.
In this letter-lesson, Paul is guiding us on how to live. We are not saved by our music making. No one is condemned because of their music preferences. Our redemption has already taken place by the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our music doesn’t determine whether or not we are saved. Our music is a big part of our lives of sanctification – of how we live.
The toughest part of living with our music is that we believers, who have come together as a local gathering of disciples of Jesus, have to live with each other’s favorite music! We are often not content to focus on the words, because we are swept up with the melody, or the harmony, or the beat, or the syncopation, or the chorus, or the person at the keyboard, or the amplification of the microphones. We can hardly resist the urge to speak up and defend our favorite music – the kind of music we love and want others to love. We should never forget that our music does not make us right and acceptable before God. It only indicates what is going on within our hearts.
So Paul asks: “Do you want to know how to live? Do we want to live as wise, rather than unwise? Then sing and make music in your heart to the Lord. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
Rather than complain about the others who don’t make music the way we prefer, we should be giving thanks to God the Father for everything. We should be giving thanks that we have fellow believers in Christ who provide God-pleasing diversity in His family. We should submit to one another in regard to our music, out of reverence for Christ.
There is a growing trend in the Christian family to create stratified congregations – where people are guided to join hands primarily with those of similar ages or similar likes or similar lifestyles. Our music – our NOTES – has become one of the most prevalent stratifiers, or dividers. We may agree on the Word of God, we may agree on its interpretation and even its application, but we cannot agree on the best way to wrap music around it.
Can we live carefully and wisely, as God, through Paul, urges us? Can we agree that it is the message – the words – that are really important? Can we acknowledge that the variety of music which we love and defend is a gift of God that we will inevitably feel differently about? Are we ready to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, as a show of love and fellowship for another man, woman, boy or girl whom God loves every bit as much as He loves me? It won’t determine whether or not we are saved – that’s already certain. It is simply wise to do so. It is “making the most of every opportunity.” It will demonstrate that we are filled with the Spirit.
We will sing and make music in our hearts to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
©2009 Philip Tesch