Friday, 31 May 2013

Sing to God a new song!

by 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 old hurts long past.

I have discovered through my ministry that often our favourite 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 of 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 our 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 a 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.

It is 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?”

It is 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.”

It is 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.

Photo Creative Commons Tracy West

Friday, 3 May 2013

Peace: not as the world gives!

In the movie Miss Congeniality the contestants of the Miss America contest are asked, ‘If there is one thing in the world that you could wish for what would it be?’ One after another the contestants respond ‘world peace’, ‘world peace’, ‘world peace’¸ ‘world peace’… The answer is the expected one, it is the obvious one and in its own way it is the shallowest one.

Now whilst many people have hope for world peace the gospel reading today challenges us with a different
notion about peace than the peace that the world gives and that the world seeks. It speaks of the peace of Christ. So what is the difference?

If we think first about the peace that the world offers I would consider this peace on a number of different levels. First there is the idea of political or national peace. Second is the idea of peace in my personal relationships with family and friends. And third is the concept of inner peace.

To give a couple of examples of the kind of peace established by political means I would start by giving you the example of the world in Jesus time. In Jesus time people across much of North Africa, the Middle East and Europe were part of the Roman Empire. The Emperor Augustus established a vision of peace called the pax Romana or the peace of Roman. Rome established and kept this peace by invading territories and ruling those territories with might. True, the regions conquered by Rome were offered some concessions but ultimately it was on Rome’s terms. Peace was kept through the use of force and fear. This was the peace that the world offered in Jesus time. I wonder whether it has changed that much.

When I was growing up in the late seventies and early eighties people lived in the time known as the cold war. The two so called super powers, the USA and the Soviet Union, were having an arms race, building weapons of mass destruction to keep the peace. Peace was maintained through the threat of the annihilation of the planet. I can remember during my high school years believing that the world would be destroyed by war and I would die before I reached 18. As detached as I was from these great political events, I and many of my friends spoke of our fears. Just as in Jesus time a fragile peace was kept through the use of force and fear.

And, what about now? Well we know there is a still talk of a war on terror. Now I am not particularly interested in whether or not you agree with the ‘might is right’ approach to political power but ultimately this is the kind of peace that the world offers. It is unstable, often unsustainable and often very expensive. This kind of peace can inadvertently impact on the lives of millions.

What else can we say about the peace that the world offers? Do we have peace in our personal relationships and communities? I can remember hearing my own mother and many a teacher appealing for some peace and quiet. In most families relationships between brothers and sisters, parents and children, cousins and so on are never perfect. We may have good families but there are still times when there are problems. The same is true of friends, of colleagues, of teachers. Try as we might none of us develop perfect relationships. And even if we believe that we are getting on with everybody else we cannot control how others might be getting on with us. Is this the peace the world offers?

But what about inner peace? Spiritually and personally the world expects us to find inner peace, to have peace with ourselves, but how difficult is this when there is so much pressure? Reading any magazine, or watching the TV you will discover happiness lies in for example for a guy like me having a great set of pecks, and a good solid rack, enough hair, charm, good looks, intelligence, and charisma.

Questions continually confront us. Are you too fat or are you too thin? Do I wear the right brands of clothes? Is my hair perfect? What about my make up? The pressures to conform ourselves to the image of other people, especially the stars, is immense and contributes to great stress for many people – depression, anxiety, loneliness, isolation. The standards are unattainable.

Many individuals search out spiritual answers. Spirituality expos are on the increase. Meditation, crystals, oils and balms all directed at assisting people find their own sense of peace and well being. But even here the focus is often isolated from people’s experiences of life and when things don’t work out the sense of peace is too hard to sustain.

On all levels the peace that the world offers is limited to say the best.

So what does Jesus offer? Jesus says my peace I give to you. Drawing from his Jewish heritage Jesus when he speaks of peace is speaking of the fullness of a right and perfected relationship with God. Jesus had just such a relationship with God. His is a relationship which was not affected by sin, by turning away from God and God’s ways.

It is the relationship whereby God dwells in him and he in God and this has implications for Jesus relationship with the disciples and all other people. This is the peace that Jesus gives his disciples as a gift. The peace Jesus offers is not something that is to be strived for but accepted with thanks and praise. The peace that Jesus offers is our homecoming to God.

I am not sure where you think your true home lies but Jesus and the Bible speak of our true dwelling place, our home, to be in and with God. The reading from the book of Revelation this morning pointed us towards our future with God when we will live in the fullness of God’s presence. We sung of it in the song before the sermon.

Then we shall see a newborn sky,
A newborn earth below,
A newborn city, lit by love,
Where nothing false will go.
And God will live with humankind –
They will be his people sure –
And he will wipe their tears away,
And death shall be no more.

The promise of God’s future is that people will dwell in the presence of the glory and holiness of God: God who is the source of life in place that is abundant with food, with water, and with the light of God’s presence. It is a place where nothing false will grow. This is the destiny of all things reunion with God as God intends.

Yet in the reading from John it is clear that Jesus was going away from his disciples and that the new age was still to come. The fullness of the kingdom and peace with God lay ahead. So it is as I said to the children earlier that Jesus promise was that God would send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to teach and remind us of everything that Jesus had said. To remind us of the peace that we have already with God and the peace that is promised.

As Christians whilst peace is given to us as a gift this is not some excuse for us isolating ourselves from the world and its suffering to live in some cocoon of peacefulness. Rather, the Spirit is sent so that through those who follow Jesus’ word others would come to know of God and God’s peace. We walk through the ups and downs of life like everybody else but in the midst of our journey we can know that we are not alone.

However, like the disciples we are still awaiting the return of our teacher, as the song put it we groan in longing and ask how long? In the mean time we are lead into sharing Jesus’ peace which passes all understanding. In the presence of this peace breaking out around, in and through us we become witnesses to the promise of the coming kingdom as it becomes part of our lives right now.

The answer of the Miss America contestants in the movie was a little glib. And more often than not in real life and whilst many of us probably do long for world peace it is too complex for us to see how that might happen. As Christians the peace that we have been given and await for in hope is the peace Jesus offers. Peace with God, which ultimately will bring us the fullness of peace with one another.

(Photo: Creative commons. Flickr Samantha Celera)