April 19, 2017

Tuning into God’s Word

Danny Brymer

Once upon a time in 1992…

It was a cool morning in September. My mom made French toast, one of my favorite things for breakfast to which I scarfed down with glee. As I put my plate in the sink, the aroma of maple syrup and bread continued to linger in the kitchen to which I went upstairs and got dressed and brushed my teeth. When I went back downstairs, she placed a daunting assignment in front of me. I had been learning about a series of emblems with a complex heritage dating back to the early Middle Ages. By this time I was required to recall them in a specific flow of order as well as be able to illustrate them. Quite a seemingly intimidating task for my five year old mind to perform! As I sat with my no. 2 pencil clenched in my novice right hand, my mind began to recall a pattern of sounds of a French origin. It was a series of pitched sounds that my inner ear was sensing derived from a French folk tune, “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman.” As my mind began to play this melodic figure known to my kindergarten ears as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” I began to voice as well as write down those 26 emblems which were my ABC’s.

Letters and Bills

So the ABC’s aren’t exactly the Word of God, but there is something to be learned from the above anecdote. The method of learning that I utilized in learning the alphabet is known as mnemonics, which is using music to memorize. Using that popular lullaby tune, I was able to recall 27 different letters effortlessly in little time far easier than had I tried to memorize one word at a time through simply speaking them. “A … B … C … D … ,” and so on. The thought of continuing that all the way up to Z is painful! Through music, I was able to internalize the alphabet, though I did not fully comprehend what I was memorizing at the time. Yet, I have grown to not only understand the alphabet, but also how to apply it. Mnemonics can also be used to internalize concepts, ideas that are not necessarily meant to be quoted verbatim, but more understood as a process. For instance, at the ripe young age of 8, I understood how laws get passed in the USA. For those of you who remember School House Rock that used to come on Saturday morning cartoons, they had an episode/song called “I’m Just a Bill,” which depicts an anthropomorphic bill singing and explaining the process of an idea born out of necessity which becomes a bill which then goes through Congress with the possibility of being vetoed. Those concepts boiled down to a simple song, made it possible for my green mind to be able to grasp the concept of how laws or formed.

Scripture Tunes

The same is true of Scripture. By this point, you should have gotten the bad pun that is the title of this blog. The ABC’s and were not the only thing I memorized through song back in those days. Along with my ABC’s and legislation concepts, I memorized Scripture. Much of that Scripture was memorized through music. Growing up in the late 80’s and early 90’s, my mom used to get us cassette tapes (yes those, Millennials) of Steve Green- Hide ‘Em in Your Heart and GT and the Halo Express,  which literally took Scripture and made them into songs. When I hear Romans 3:23, Isaiah 41:10, Philippians 4:13, among many others, I still hear those old melodies in my head. I particularly remember memorizing the fruits of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22-23 through the Steve Green tape that I would listen to. My favorite verse since childhood, Romans 8:38-39 came from a GT tape that we had. Even being so young, the song that came with it helped open up the passage to me which describes the strength, power, and eternal quality of the love of God through Christ. I am reliving those days as I am raising children of my own and helping them to learn Scripture through song. It has not taken long for me to discover as a parent that kids memorize! Occasionally, me and my wife Heidi need to clear up some stuff that they have learned and memorized from various places. My oldest child Ellie who is nearly 5 still teases me about the time I was telling them the Easter story and after addressing my two year old son Lincoln mid story, I proceeded to tell them that Lincoln died on the cross! My attempts to recover from my accidental heresy were quite futile! Nevertheless the kids do know who REALLY died on the cross.

Along with learning Scripture songs, we have been working on teaching theology to our children. There is one children’s album from Sovereign Grace Music called The Ology, that we love and play all the time for them. This album does not use Scripture songs, but rather teaches theological truths, as can be deduced from the title. There is one song on there called “Totally God, Totally Man,” which of course, describes Christ. Then one time Ellie asks Heidi, “Mommy, what does it mean that Jesus was totally God and totally man?” Then I was faced with the challenge of explaining the doctrine of the hypostatic union at a 4 year old level. Of course she did not just say, “Ok I got it!” right then and there, but it got her thinking. Lately, she has been asking questions about the fruit of the Spirit. She particularly hears us say “self control” quite often, being a colorful, dramatic little character. Memorization of Scripture does not create rote robots. It creates thinkers. And my prayer is that God uses those forming thoughts to draw them to Himself.

Not Just for Kids

Using music as a means of learning Scripture is not limited to kids. Looking through songs of worship throughout the centuries, one can find anything from simple yet profound truths to dense and complex theology. Music is by no means the only way of internalizing Scripture or even necessarily the best way, but it is a way that God has gifted us with. Scripture was not only meant to be read and spoken, but it was also meant to be sung. Most people can quickly name the book of Psalms as an example, but spread throughout Scripture are many examples of singing such as the song of Moses in Exodus 15:1-18, the song of Hannah in I Samuel 2:1-10, and the song of Mary in Luke 1:46-45 among countless others. Concerning memorization, musician and theologian Bob Kauflin points to Deuteronomy 31:21 as an example of the use of music to help remember God’s words. He writes:

“As Israel was about to enter the Promised Land, God instructed Moses to teach Israel a song so that ‘when many evils and troubles have come upon them, this song shall confront them as a witness (for it will live unforgotten in the mouths of their offspring)’”

We often think of the music portion of the church service as being a time of praise and adoration to God and rightly so. But it is also a time of learning. We don’t start learning when we get to the sermon. The New Testament scholar Gordon Fee put it well.  He said, “Show me a church’s songs and I’ll show you their theology.” Some of what I have learned about Scripture came through a song in which I studied the theology behind it.

Singing Emotionally

Music not only helps with memorization, but helps bring out emotion that goes with the text. Our emotions should be stirred by the truth of Scripture. Do not just sing because it was what you do for 30 minutes every Sunday, but do so with purpose. Bob Kauflin writes

“Many Christians suffer from S.D.D., Screen Dependency Disorder. We know the words of the songs we’re singing, but our eyes are glued to the screen, as though we’d be lost if the screen went blank. But songs don’t come from the screen. They come from our hearts. Others suffer from H.D.D., Hymnal Dependency Disorder. We’ve sung the same hymns for decades, and yet we’d never think of lifting our heads from the page for a few moments to sing out the glories of the Savior.”

Instead of going though the motions, go through it with E-motion. This should not be confused with emotionalism in which emotion becomes the focal point. The most expressive emotions are not anymore adequate than robotic dirges. Rather when the Biblical text commands the reader to “rejoice” or to “fear and tremble”, they should be accompanied with the appropriate emotions that support rather than detract from the text. Sung lyrics have the advantage of being more drawn out, giving the listener/singer more time to ponder the meaning of the words. “In Christ Alone” written by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend is in my opinion one of the finest musical summaries of the Gospel. It could easily be recited in a minute and a half, but when sung over 4 minutes with the epic melody, I cannot help but be excited by the story of Christ, particularly by the third verse which speaks of His victorious resurrection. It helps combat the temptation toward dead orthodoxy and legalism.  Not only is what is sung true, but it is felt. Both sides are important as Christ describes in John 4:24, worshiping in “spirit and in truth.”

Singing Critically

This does not mean critiquing the notes missed or the rough transitions (I am guilty of those), but rather being aware of what you are singing. I often find the greatest danger of “ignorant praise” is in singing traditional hymns though it could happen in any song that the congregant does not understand what they are singing.  What does “bring forth the royal diadem” mean? What is an “ebenezer?” After singing those for years, I only later came to learn that the two terms refer to the crown of Christ from Revelation and a stone monument of God’s faithfulness from I Samuel. If you are singing something that you don’t know what it means, stop singing and find out. Better to not sing than to sing something that is possibly heretical. Like my little 4 year old daughter, ask questions. One Sunday, someone came up to me and asked me why some of the songs are not directed at God, in that they use the third person. I explained to Him that sometimes we sing toward others about who God is and that it is just as worshipful as singing directly to Him in the 2nd person. That cleared the confusion for him and he understood. As someone who is in charge of leading the congregation in musical worship, I am very critical of what we bring into our church. Worship leading in many ways is a form of teaching as described in Colossians 3:16 and I want to be sure that I am teaching accurate Biblical truth. Many songs that are popular in the CCM worship scene are nice sounding, yet shallow or flawed in the theology. If I cannot refer to a passage of Scripture through the lyrics in a given song, then I am inclined to reject it for congregational worship.

Pointing to the Word

Lastly, the music and the song should be the means to the end, not THE end. The music we sing should always point to the Word of God. Songs can be appreciated and admired, but ultimately their purpose is to lead to the truth. I was led to Psalm 104 through Chris Tomlin’s song, “How Great Is Our God,” which contained the line “He wraps Himself in light.” Matt Redman’s “Better Is One Day” led me to discover Psalm 84. If you are stopping at the song and not exploring the truth from there, the most important thing is lost. We should not let the music become an idol and miss out to what the end goal of the music is. For a while back in college, I loved playing Brenton Brown’s “Everlasting God.” It was an energetic and jamming song with a catchy riff and people seemed to get into it. Not until later did I discover the song came from Isaiah 40, almost verbatim. I totally missed out. It wasn’t the song’s fault for being too hip, but rather my own shortsightedness and placing more joy in the rousing music rather than in the mighty God who strengthens and protects those who depend on Him as described in the song. In the same way that a sermon is about the Word and not the preacher, so the song is about the Word and not the worship leader or the song. If you are a parent, expose your kids to music that helps teach them Biblical truth. If you are an adult, pay close attention to the words that you sing and learn from them. Just as the 5 year old me hid those letters in my mind, so I want the current and future me to “hide His Word in my heart,” be it through song or not, “so that I might not sin against God,” as that psalmist put it in Psalm 119.