It is 2 o’clock in the morning, on the 9th of February if you want to know. I was sleeping pretty well when I woke up with these thoughts racing through my mind and I thought I’d better write them down if I ever wanted to go back to sleep.
Ephesians 5:19 kept repeating in my mind, in which Paul writes “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord.”
In a few hours, I have to wake up early, brave the freezing temperatures, go to where our congregations meets, prepare for Bible study, make (drink) some coffee, maybe shovel some snow, and wait for everyone to arrive so we can get this show going. Eventually we’ll enter a time of singing and, on any given Sunday, it always plays out differently. Most of the time, it can feel like a chore or feel uninspiring.
Earlier yesterday, I read a paragraph from Eugene Peterson’s ‘A Long Obedience in the Same Direction’, in which he writes, “I have put great emphasis on the fact that Christians worship because they want to, not because they are forced to. But I have never said that we worship because we feel like it. Feelings are great liars. If Christians worshiped only when they felt like it, there would be precious little worship. Feelings are important in many areas but completely unreliable in matters of faith. We live in what one writer has called the ‘age of sensation’. We think that if we don’t feel something there can be no authenticity in doing it. But the wisdom of God says something different: that we can act ourselves into a new way of feeling much quicker than we can feel ourselves into a new way of acting. Worship is an act that develops feelings for God, not a feeling for God that is expressed in an act of worship. When we obey the command to praise God in worship, our deep, essential need to be in relationship with God is nurtured.”
“Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.”
We don’t sing to make ourselves happy; we sing to cultivate delight in the Lord amongst His body.
“Speak to one another.” Singing may not be your thing; it may not be how you are “wired”. You may not feel like you’re “connecting with God” when you sing. You may be inclined to replace your congregation by independently seeking out more stimulating experiences. Please reconsider; as you sit there, shifting in your seat, waiting for this part of the service to end, try listening to what is being sung. Psalms, hymns—the story of God embedded in poetic prayers gracefully threaded by ancient communities who lived together, learned faith together, who argued and bickered together, repented and forgave together, who traveled through dusty deserts to the temple together, who aged and died together.
Try listening to who is singing those songs around you. Maybe it’s the hip Asian guy or the cute young family; it could be the obnoxious older guy that tries your patience, or the older woman who smells. They are all family, and they’re singing the hymns of our ancestors; these spiritual songs are retelling the Spirit’s story embodied in the lives of one billion clouds of witnesses. It’s the story we now embody together, the faith to which we now together bear witness. When we sing to each other, we witness to each other. We’re bellowing out the ballads, the lyrics dance upon the notes, bringing to life the story that has filled our hearts with hope. The music made in our hearts and gladly lifted unto the LORD is learned from Christ’s body singing it sweetly first to us.
Now 3:15AM, lines from A. Katherine Hankey’s classic hymn say it beautifully and best:
Tell me the old, old story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love.
Tell me the story slowly, that I may take it in,
That wonderful redemption, God’s remedy for sin.
Tell me the story softly, with earnest tones and grave;
Remember I’m the sinner whom Jesus came to save.
Tell me the story always, if you would really be,
In any time of trouble, a comforter to me.