Purple Rain: 2016
2016 was by any standards a remarkable year. On two days I awoke to the opposite outcome to that which I had expected in a national vote – I was personally disappointed on both counts. This time last year no one would have predicted all of the big events on the world stage of these past 12 months. It will, I am sure, go down as a historic year which set in motion events which will take decades to unfold. But 2016 was remarkable for other reasons. It seemed that everybody experienced a famous person that they liked, or admired, dying. The world of music alone lost Prince, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie and George Michael.
The most talented musicians leave a tangible cultural legacy. I find the role of music in culture fascinating. Have you ever wondered about the ubiquity of music? Why do we have song-after-song-after-song? Are there not enough songs by now? Is it really possible to do anything new with a song?
The cynic might say that the modern song writer is in it for the money. Whilst I cannot deny that there is a commercial dynamic to the music industry, there is something more. It is not cold hard cash that motivates budding musicians to work endlessly at anti-social hours for little or no money and limited recognition. I don’t think it is just a hope of future fame that can drive them. There is simply something creative about the human nature. Just as God created the Universe, as people in his image we are creative too. For some of us this means writing new songs and music and/or playing and performing music.
Psalm 149 makes much of singing a New Song. It is not alone in exulting us to sing a New Song. Psalms 33, 40, 96, 98 and 144 also refer to this idea. Isaiah 42 and Revelation 5 use it as a key motif too.
Hallelujah: Gathering to Sing
Singing together as God’s people is one of the essential activities that we engage in. There is something about singing with others. Of course not all of us enjoy it. Few of us choose to do it outside of Sunday worship and the football stadium. In football, and other team sports, singing together can be the very the worst of the tribalism that afflicts humankind—the singing of insults being a central dynamic. When we sing together in gathered worship this can be the very best of tribalism—the singing of praise being central. A football team are a self-serving and self-promoting tribe. To paraphrase Archbishop William Temple (1881-1944), “The Church is the only tribe that does not exist for itself, but for those who live outside of it”. [tribe is substituted for organisation.]
Singing together creates unity—we share the same beliefs and emotions; the same faith. The opening Hebrew word of Psalm 149 exemplifies this tribalism. Like the neighbouring Psalms it opens with the Hebrew Word hallelujah — or praise Yah—often translated as ‘Praise the Lord’. We belong to the tribe of Yahweh; the tribe of his son Jesus Christ.
Singing is partly about being together, being gathered, being the body of Christ. It is also education. In my church, and many others, there is scant opportunity to learn together in our time-poor lives. We do not have special classes; we do not have a second service. We learn primarily by singing and we learn from sermons. We probably never fully appreciate just how much we benefit from singing choruses and hymns. For most of us if we remember any words by heart that define our faith, it will be the songs we sing.
Education of course is not just about head knowledge—it is doing that teaches. Gathering and being together is itself a vital education. At the end of the day gathering is the gospel. Gathering is a foretaste of the age to come. The New Songs of the psalmist are a foretaste of the New Song spoken of in the Book of Revelation. New Song are songs of thankfulness. New Songs can be ‘old songs’ recovered and reclaimed afresh.
New Songs, in the Bible often seem to be connected with victory. For us the victory can sometimes simply be being a Christian after one more year in a world which throws the unexpected at us. Many of us have suffered closer, personal more tangible afflictions than Brexit, Trump or the death of our favourite celebrity.
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise in the assembly of his faithful people.
Let Israel rejoice in their Maker;
let the people of Zion be glad in their King.
Let them praise his name with dancing
and make music to him with timbrel and harp.
For the Lord takes delight in his people;
he crowns the humble with victory.
We might use different instruments but this is fine. In fact we have to as the Hebrew words for musical instruments tend to be uncertain. It is not our musical culture, musicianship or instruments that count, it is gathering before the same creator God, Yah.
Under Pressure: Singing 24-7
Our Psalm is not just about singing together on a Sunday or other church gathering. Sometimes we have a view of church as a place of refuge, a place to escape the ‘nasty world’. Perhaps what I have said thus far seems to suggest this. There is a sense in which gathering together is about being refreshed and strengthened, and about learning too.
And yet this idea is potentially problematic if we become consumers or passengers looking passively to be fed during the short time of gathering. In a small church in particular, you are unlikely to find all the food you need to sustain you. In a larger church we might be fooled into thinking we have all the food and nourishment we need.
Despite the apparent passivity of our culture, the talk of tolerance, the solid democratic processes that govern our nation, we live in an environment which is toxic to our faith. As Christians we are under pressure. Pressure to conform, pressure to consume, pressure to go along with everybody else. I cannot even begin to guess the temptations which we might each face to conform to the world’s values. But a key to cultivating faith in the face of the pressure to conform is the practice of an everyday spirituality.
Let his faithful people rejoice in this honor
and sing for joy on their beds.
May the praise of God be in their mouths
and a double-edged sword in their hands,
We can sing to God wherever we may be—not just church—everywhere, even bed. Although we should note that the ‘bed’ mentioned here is probably a reclining couch. The point is that worship is 24-7. It is the day-and-night meditation we read of elsewhere in The Psalms. It is the praying on all occasions we hear about from the Apostle Paul.
This can be a joy rather than a chore—a New Song not a new legalism. It is not as busy as it sounds—at its core it is about being single-minded. Being the same person whether in church, at home, at work or at play. New Songs sung ‘wherever we are’ could be the biggest thing we do in 2017.
Faith: Hopeful Singing
One of the remarkable things about The Psalms is that the psalmist can say anything to God. Yet, however confrontational these words the psalmist cries out from a stance of faith and trust. In any year, using these prayers and making them our own would seem to be a wise move. None of us know what 2017 will bring. What we do know is that The Psalms provide the words for every situation and for every emotion.
One of the challenges of The Psalms, however, is that they rarely do ‘what you want’—this is Scripture at its most surprising and untamed best. God has not given us a collection of nice pithy sayings. This is no catalogue of gift card niceties, nor the musings of a two-a-penny self-help Twitter guru or life coach.
By verse 7 we might think Psalm 149 has gone rather off the wall:
to inflict vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples,
to bind their kings with fetters,
their nobles with shackles of iron,
to carry out the sentence written against them—
this is the glory of all his faithful people.
Despite these verses jarring with our nice cuddly conceptions of God they are part of our faith and our trust in Yahweh and his Son Jesus Christ. They tell us that the massive wrongs of this world will be judged. They tell us that our God is Lord of history – whatever news reporters in the world’s war zones unintentionally intimate day-by-day and year-by-year.
These latter verses also make sense of the trajectory initiated in Psalm 2. That God will judge is not actually odd, it is a necessary perspective—how else can we claim that our God is a just God? Like the Psalmist we can look to God to deal with injustice. This is a major part of our hope. For the psalmist it is worth not only believing but making a song and dance about.