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Music

July 2006

Dear Friends,

We express our warmest thanks to Elspeth Jones for allowing ‘Lifelines’ daily Bible readings to be printed in the Record over the last year. The Kirk Session recently decided that their continuance would depend on more than half the readers of the Record asking for them; failing which, they would be inserted only for those who request them. We sent out response forms and from now on postal readers will receive a copy inserted along with the Record only if they made, or make, that request.

Sandyford members will be able to take a copy of Lifelines from the back of the sanctuary. No charge is made but ‘Lifelines’ is a charity and donations are accepted. As a rough guide, each copy costs between 50P and £1 to produce. With the occasional theft from that area recently, apparently by a young man in student-type dress who comes early and leaves as worship starts, it would be best if you give the donation to Elspeth in person; or to me if it is in an envelope and labelled.

My theme for this pastoral letter is the absolutely vital one of our choice of sung worship. It is vital because our chief reason for existing is to glorify and enjoy God; worship is man’s most necessary and natural activity.

Music is powerful. It can be frustrating and divisive when improperly chosen; but chosen well it can be a vehicle for devotion, joyful homage and unity.

The words are even more momentous, but are not enough on their own. God made us musical, and the intelligent combination of music and words is a significant factor in our honouring and enjoying him.

The skill in choosing hymns and songs well is not achieved simply by stating the principles. We know that worship involves humbling ourselves and exalting God. We know that the test of true worship is not our pleasure but God’s honour. We agree with the Puritan Stephen Charnock:

‘When we believe that we should be satisfied rather than God glorified, we put God below ourselves, as though he had been made for us rather than we for him.’

But there remains the need for spiritual wisdom in choosing such psalms, hymns and spiritual songs that Sandyford can worship worthily; and we live in a day of enormous variety of choice in that regard.

Three negative feedbacks I have received, two of them referring to Sandyford, have been:
1. ‘I can’t abide these modern choruses with their vacuous words and no tune.’
2. ‘Having mostly these old hymns is killing worship for me.’
3. ‘I went along and there was not a single song in which I could worship God, they were all so new and the music so trendy.’

I listen to all comments carefully. You cannot please all of the people all of the time; but I do give a lot of thought to enabling your worship. As the Mennonite Eleanor Kreider comments, wise choosing has to do with ‘our variety of personalities and our experience. Some people thoroughly enjoy learning new songs. Others, confronted by ’yet another new one‘, go on strike!’ She also comments wisely, ‘some new songs get worn out very quickly. They’re like paper towels - they’re suitable for one job, but they disintegrate with use!’

Thus I have asked that we abandon one particular song which we tried recently. But I am so grateful to Alan MacPherson and Douglas Humphris for introducing new sung worship. That is partly out of respect for some of our youngsters: restricting our worship entirely to formally announced older-generation hymns makes it difficult for them to enjoy God in worship.

But it is much more than that. God is always teaching us new things, and times of fresh awakening to his grace have always been accompanied by new songs. Members of all ages are finding joy in worship through the ministry led by the praise group. The song ‘Jesus your name’, to take but one example, has been a source of homage in worship for me and some of these songs will surely join the permanent possession of the Church. I’d be surprised if ‘How deep the Father’s love for us’, with its intermittent use of assonance in place of rhyme, were not one of them.

For the same reason I have been reintroducing some of the Scottish metrical psalms, usually one per week. There is a unique greatness to them which is servicing our joy in God and introducing newer members to our spiritual heritage.

We are greatly in Andrew Nash’s debt, of course. Behind his musical leadership and quiet support lies a lifetime of interest in hymns. His knowledge is large and I am immensely grateful for his suggestions, for his introducing me to collections such as the new edition of ‘Christian Hymns’ and for his unremitting friendship and loyalty.

So am I just trying to please everybody? If so, where does that leave the principle of focusing on God?

No, I am trying to enable the variety of people that we are to honour God in ways they find meaningful, while limiting the excesses for the sake of unity. Kreider suggests that ‘a healthy repertoire of music includes hymns from the ancient church, songs from Christians of other countries, hymns from virtually every past century, and a continuous stream of new songs’.

For different kinds of musical worship have different strengths. Very rarely does one end a modern song slightly exhausted and sensing ‘that was great!’ But they offer other things such as meditation. Eleanor Kreider again:
‘Trained musicians often find this difficult to believe. I remember well my earlier annoyance at songs whose music was repetitive and whose music seemed trite. Singing ’Jesus, Jesus‘ over and over sounded ridiculous! But gradually I discovered that repeating those words in a simple musical setting indeed focused my attention on Jesus. ... In all of this, the goal of church musicians is a simple one: to serve the people ... in such a way that they can concentrate their attention upon God.’

Sometimes I get this wrong and I like having your feedback. As you will have observed, I don’t always go along with it! Well, that is my responsibility before God: to listen, and choose, and give a lead. Give me your suggestions and comments and then give my leadership your followership, and I believe we shall find our choice of hymns enhancing our experience of God, and our fresh enthroning of him, in worship.

O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvellous things!

Yours sincerely,

C Peter White

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