Listen To Article
Last week at a funeral, the pastor spoke about how we might see God, how we can pay attention to God, in a world full of busyness and distractions. The woman whose life we were remembering had raised eight children. Hers was a busy household, a busy life. But Sunday mornings, said the pastor, gave her a chance to re-focus, to pay attention to God. Because on Sunday mornings, she could gather with the people and sing. “For it’s in the singing in church,” the pastor said, “that the mind can see the things of God.”
During this Epiphany season we’re working through a series on Worship. This past Sunday, I preached on Psalm 96 and its call to praise. “Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord all the earth.” It’s a big psalm, full to bursting with imperatives that call us to praise: sing, sing, sing, praise, proclaim, declare, ascribe, say, worship, rejoice, resound, be jubilant!
But why? Why do we praise God? If you follow the psalm further, we read that “splendour and majesty are before him.” God already has all the strength and glory and honour. We can’t add to it or take away from it. He doesn’t need to be puffed up or encouraged or motivated. So why are we called to praise him?
I think a big reason, as suggested by Scott Hoezee in a sermon starter, is that sometimes we forget that God has all the strength and glory and honour. Psalm 96 declares that the Lord “is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.” God is sovereign, ruler over all…but sometimes, when we look around, it’s easier to see evidence of a mighty earthly empire than a victoriously reigning God. There’s a lot competing for our vision.
In their book Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire, Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat offer a targum, an extended translation and expansion, of Colossians 1:15-20. In these verses of Scripture, Paul talks about Christ’s sovereignty over the thrones, powers, rulers, and authorities of the world. Walsh and Keesmaat suggest how these powers change what we see.
We live, they say,
“In an image saturated world,
a world of ubiquitous corporate logos
permeating your consciousness
a world of dehydrated and captive imaginations
in which we are too numbed, satiated and co-opted
to be able to dream of life otherwise
a world in which the empire of global economic affluence
has achieved the monopoly of our imaginations” 
In a world where our imaginations have been numbed, satiated, and co-opted by competing value systems all vying for our allegiance, we praise God, not to give God what he already has, but to shape in us something that is lacking. To restore our imaginations. To shape in us a vision of the sovereign God. And to declare that this sovereign God is up to something. Walter Brueggemann says that in our songs of praise, the news that God is king “breaks out of the liturgy and begins to erode the old world. The liturgy begins to subvert the empire.” 
“It’s in the singing in church that the mind can see the things of God.”
Later in Colossians, in chapter 3:16, Paul writes, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” This verse fascinates me. We love to correct and admonish one another. But what does it mean to admonish one another through singing?
Earlier in chapter 3, Paul instructs the Colossian church to “set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” In her commentary on Colossians, Marianne Meye Thompson says that singing reorients us upward. “What ‘psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs’ share in common is that they are directed to God and sung with rather than to other members of the community…by directing the thoughts and minds of believers to God, these acts of worship serve corrective functions in the lives of believers, reorienting them to praise and thanksgiving to God.” 
(Incidentally, Marianne is presenting at the upcoming Calvin Symposium on Worship, during which the worship services will focus on the book of Colossians. There’s still time to sign up to attend in person or online!)
In other words, we sing to see. To see the things of God, to orient ourselves toward the things of God, to realign ourselves with that which God is about.
I love that idea.
But it makes me wonder.
Do we pay enough attention to what we sing to allow it to teach and admonish us? To shape us? To form us? Or do we trust that it just seeps into us over time?
And if this is true, are we being thoughtful enough in our choosing of worship music? Do we look at our song diets and question, “What do these songs teach us? What’s being left out? Do these songs give us a big enough picture of who God is in the world? Do they help us to see well?”
I think that would be an interesting exercise to do over a few weeks. When singing in church, ask yourself, “How is this song helping me see the things of God? What am I seeing?”
And what song will you then take into your day, into your week, by which the news that God is King breaks forth, helping the world to see the truth of God’s sovereign reign?
Image from Canva
- Walsh, Brian J., and Sylvia C. Keesmaat. Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire. InterVarsity Press, p. 85.
- Brueggemann, Walter. Israel’s Praise: Doxology Against Idolatry. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1988, p. 49.
- Meye Thompson, Marrianne. Colossians and Philemon: A Two Horizons Commentary. Eerdmans, 2005, p. 86.
Given that we tend to internalize what we sing to the point that it perhaps sticks better than the scriptures,(why else do I know all of American Pie) what we sing and how it represents our immeasurable God becomes of utmost importance. Not the most recent ditty as well as antiquated language that does not hold sway in hearts and minds anymore. The nitty-gritty is always: what do the words say and can our congregation sing it or learn it well so that it sticks. Loved your words. Thanks!