The Joy of Worship by Dr. Michael Elsbernd
“Sing to the Lord a new song” – Psalm 98
“Come into God’s presence with singing” – Psalm 100
“Let everything that breathes praise the Lord” – Psalm 150
One would certainly expect a musician to insist that worship would not be complete if our communities did not sing. Can there be praise if there is no song? Certainly, we can offer our joyful praise to God and not sing, right? Do all songs invite a feeling a joy and praise? What about our songs of lament?
As a practicing church musician during a time of pandemic, I need to confess that I began to have a bit of empathy with the priest, Zacharias, husband of Elisabeth (Luke 1:20). Sure, our circumstances are different, but for a time, many of our assemblies fell silent out of a concern for the safety of our communities. A practice so commonplace – and noteworthy to our Lutheran heritage – became a health concern. Like Zacharias, enduring a time of imposed silence in worship gave us time to think, worry, and process our situation. When we finally returned to congregational singing, while masked, our joy may have been muted, but I sense that our hearts were stirred to joyful praise! Loosening our tongues through singing changes us and helps us respond to the unmistakable presence of God.
In his book, The Heart of the Matter: Church Music as Praise, Prayer, Proclamation, Story, and Gift, the Rev. Dr. Paul Westermeyer devotes the first of a series of essays to the topic of “Praise.” Praise is often the response we feel when we sense that God has acted. Westermeyer is fond of using this quote from Martin Luther, “…God has cheered our hearts and minds through His dear Son, whom He gave for us to redeem us from sin, death, and the devil. [Anyone] who believes this earnestly cannot be quiet about it…[but] must gladly and willingly sing…” (Westermeyer, 12).
How else might we rightly respond to the grace and love of God? What about our need to lament? What about those times and situations when we just don’t feel like a situation calls for praise? Westermeyer suggests that we reframe the question: “Is how we feel, no matter how good or how bad, the measure and control of our praise? Or is the praise of God fundamentally communal? Does praise of God itself stand outside of our individual feelings? Is it the church’s task as a community to praise God? We join individually when we can and as best as we can when we can’t” (Westermeyer, 13).
Worship is the perfect intersection of praise and lament. For those who follow ancient liturgical patterns in the modern world, something like the “Kyrie,” “Lord, have mercy,” can move beyond a sense of one’s own failures and shortcomings. Here, in community, we can look beyond ourselves and cast our gaze upon the Lord in praise. After all, is it not praiseworthy to note that the Lord is indeed the one who is full of mercy and shows us mercy? When we say or sing the petition, “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy,” we can recognize the joy that comes from knowing that our God has this power and inclination to show mercy!
From the beginning of our worship service to its ending, God’s loving kindness is revealed. We are invited into a joy-filled life, transformed by grace, mercy, and the truth of God’s Word. With Zacharias, may we proclaim our praise, spoken and sung, with loosened tongues – with all of creation!