Preaching: Pastor Rebecca Henry
Date Presented: Sunday, January 15, 2017
Scripture Reference: Psalm 40:1-11
Sermon: Spiritual Affective Disorder: Soothe the Savage
About 15 years ago there was a TV show called “Ally McBeal” with Calista Flockhart. It was a quirky show about an office of lawyers. Music was a big backdrop to the show, often giving expression to the characters’ thoughts or as they would end their day at a club singing and dancing together. One of the things, though, that I often remember from the show is the advice given to Ally to have a theme song, a song she could play or sing in her head when she needed to lift her spirits or build up her confidence.
I’ve often thought about that at different times when I needed a little pick me up – drawing on those songs that make me feel, whether it’s singing the chorus of “Walking on Sunshine” or “My Lighthouse.” In the mornings I’ve been known to Mardisa’s “Good Morning.” A lot of us do this with the creation of playlists – songs to play before a game to get us revved up, songs that we like to run to or exercise with to keep us motivated.
The writers of “Ally McBeal” knew something about the power of music. It isn’t just the mood that music can establish. Many studies have been done that show music actually has an impact on us physically. In part it is because music affects many different parts of the brain. In a TED Talks, Anita Collins says that when listening to music the brain looks like the sky of fireworks with all the energy being generated across the brain. As such the brain then releases a number of hormones that foster happiness and a state of elation. In fact, the Journal of Positive Psychology reported a study in 2013 in which people who listened to upbeat music found their mood improving in just two weeks. Music has such a powerful effect it is being used more and more in therapies of all kinds.
Only it isn’t just the meter or rhythm of a song that has an impact on us. The words themselves can fill us with messages that strengthen us, motive, even reassure us. I tis clear that our ancestors of faith understood the power of music long before there were scientific studies. Evidence of this is found in the Book of Psalms. It is true that there are a number of psalms that are full of praise, songs that uplift and call us to celebrate, but there are equally as many songs that give voice to the times when we are hurting, uncertain, and in need of help. They knew there was always reason to sing, even in hard times, because we have confidence in God. Today’s psalm gives witness to this, especially if we are attentive to the verses that even follow our reading. It is a psalm that is in similar nature to “How Firm a Foundation” or “My Hope Is Built.” It is upbeat with words of praise and confidence in God, but it comes out of times of struggle. The psalmist describes times of trouble as being in a dangerous pit, or in a different translation as a “miry bog.” Even in verse 12 the psalmist speaks of still being surrounded by trouble, but there is also the reminder that God has been there in the past and as verse 17 says, God will be there again. It is a song of worship meant to remind people of God’s strength and help in times of trouble. As the psalmist says, God gives us a new song. It doesn’t mean simply that our circumstances change, but in giving voice to what God can do, a new perspective, a new song emerges within us. We aren’t caught in sadness and misery, but we begin to see and feel the days ahead are with hope. It is a witness to what music can do for us, both in the rhythm and in the words. It offers a message that stays with us.
For me, and for most of us, that is the power of music. It stays with us, replaying in our minds, or perhaps even singing it again later. I know for myself I often end up thinking about or singing hymns from Sunday later in the week. In this way I think the saying attributed to Saint Augustine is true, “Those who sing pray twice.” The song stays with us, becoming our prayer, and shaping our response.
I think that is why Charles Wesley gives the instructions he does about singing. If you open your hymnal at the beginning and look at rule 3, you will see that Wesley knows not everyone is confident in their singing, but he says when we sing we are blessed. The songs we sing elevate us to not just see our problems, but to see God who comes to help us through our problems.
That is why this week we turn our attention to music. There are so many ways we can invite music into our daily walks of faith. Maybe it is choosing a song to use as a prayer throughout the week. Perhaps you might choose a theme like hope or forgiveness and use Spotify to create a playlist. Listen to the Christian radio or write a song yourself. This week let the music shape you and lift you so that you feel more like you are marching or dancing through Emmanuel’s ground and not just trudging through some miry bog or deepless pit. Let a new song emerge within you.