Tune My Heart to Sing Thy Grace
Why we preach from Psalms
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Preaching on a psalm is like trying to give a talk on "America the Beautiful" or "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Psalms are meant to be sungor at least readagain and again, till we know the next line before we read it, till we know their spiritual pitch without a piano introduction, till our hearts naturally begin to think and speak in psalmic.
So what's a preacher to do when our text is a psalm? We tend toward spiritual musicology, lecturing on the song's history and structure ("Do you see the chiasm in verses 5 and 6?"). We take the word pictures and deconstruct them, as if to help people find the faint blue numbers under the psalmist's paint. We rightly point out the expressions of faith or joy or pain and try to walk our people into the music, but we end up sounding like a documentary on how the orchestra works.
The preacher of the psalms is like a choral conductor rehearsing his choir. I've directed choirs for years. I'm not great at it, but I know my role. For one thing, I see to the choir's soundpitch, color, dynamics, tempo. But it is also my job to see that they communicate the music: that they voice the message of the composer, that they bring the music to life. When it comes to psalms, we preach to the choir. We help them find the text's spirit, mood, and meaning so they can do justice to it when they sing it, or pray it, themselves or together. We preachers have to remember that in the end, God's people sing the song. We help them learn it and love it. Then we urge them to sing it as it was meant to be sung.
For example, in preaching Psalm 19, the magnificent paean to the God who speaks, our introduction could poke at our inclination to see God's Word as ordinary, as black type on white paper, as a thousand pages to be ploughed through. Then to the point: "Our text today, Psalm 19, is an anthem to God's speech, his talk, his conversation with us. Everything about God is glorious, but our ears are dulled by too much chatter, too many newspapers and billboards, and we can't see the wonder of the conversing God. But here we have a master of worshipDavidwho not only wants to teach us the wonders of God's Word, but to teach us how to sing for joy at the thought of it."
Then, of course, when the sermon ends be sure there is time actually to sing of God's good Word, preferably using settings of the psalmist's own words. Perhaps something special can be done to hold high the Scriptures, symbolically and literally. In our church, one thing we might do is congregational sharing: "One verse of Scripture that shines like the sun to me is…."
The meaning in the dance
The famous ballerina, Isadora Duncan, was asked what a certain ballet meant. She replied, "If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it." There is a problem when preachers try to tell people what a psalm means. Oh, I believe the text has an unchanging, God-intended meaning. It isn't a Rorschach inkblot open to any interpretation. Yet there is a depth of meaning, a quality of meaning, which the preacher can't describe. It must be danced. It must be prayed. And the more it is prayed or sung, the deeper the meaning. (I don't mean the psalm must be literally set to music, though I'm sure we're the poorer for our tunelessness, but that it becomes our heartsong, a lyrical prayer.)
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