Silence and Music in Worship

Silence and Music in Worship

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Mitchellville, March 7, 2004

We frequently begin services of worship with the words, The Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before Him. (HAB. 2:20) These words are usually followed by a very brief moment of silence before the minister and the congregation go on with prayers, music, responsive readings, and so forth. Upon reflection, we find that there is almost no silence anywhere in our services: even the interlude between the lessons and the sermon is filled with music. Perhaps some have wondered what is meant by the call for silence that is apparently never answered.

“Noise” stands for all the activity in our mind, all our thoughts and concerns about things of this world. Our plans, our hopes, our mental lists of things to do – our things. Whenever we sit quietly for a moment, all these ideas begin to flow into our mind, fighting for our attention. They make a kind of noise, they cause us to be distracted from thinking about elevated things. Our attention is totally directed towards ourselves, and we become self-conscious. Is the chair comfortable? Is the room too hot or too cold? Is it time for lunch yet?

Sometimes we feel self-conscious when reading aloud during the service, such as during the prayers and the psalter. We may worry about how we sound to others, whether or not we are doing it right, whether or not we are saying all the words correctly. Others of us are distracted by the songs – we may either sing an old favorite with too much enthusiasm, or worry about hitting all the notes in an unfamiliar hymn. There are a lot of different ways that we can become self-conscious during the responsives and the singing in the office.

Then, when we are sitting and listening to the lessons or sermon, we begin to make use of the quiet moments to get a little thinking done. We begin to work on the problems we are having at home or school or at work, or perhaps to plan the new patio, or redecorate the living room. And before we know it, the service is over, and we cannot remember a thing that happened or was said during the whole thing. We couldn’t hear it over the noise of our own thoughts. This is the noise that needs to be silenced.

We should not be embarrassed by this, for it happens to everyone of us any time we relax our attention. If this never happened, the Lord wouldn’t have mentioned it in the Word! Our invitation to worship tells us that we must do everything we can to enter into the true sphere of worship of the Lord by stilling the noise in our heads, by turning our attention away from the cares and concerns of the natural world and turning our attention towards the Lord and His Word.

In the Jewish Church, and to some extent in the early Christian Church, the function of the congregation was only to witness acts of worship performed by the priesthood. In the ancient Jewish Church, the average person’s contribution to worship was to bring the item to be sacrificed, and then watch while it happened. The priests and the Levites conducted the worship, the people stood outside the gates and watched. This carried over to a certain extent into the Catholic Church. The classic illustration is that of a monastery where each monk performs the mass by himself in his room rather than all joining together in a common service of worship; and is further illustrated by the practice (ended in the US in the 1950’s) of delivering the service in Latin no matter what language the congregation understood. Since they were only witnesses to something that the priests were doing, they didn’t need to understand. The Eastern Orthodox Church continues to provide services in Greek, proudly holding to ancient traditions and rejecting modern innovations.

In the New Church, the function of the priest is to lead the congregation in their own personal worship of the Lord, to help provide such forms as are suitable for genuine worship. The priest does not stand between the people and the Lord, but during the course of the service alternately represents the people to the Lord (as when he approaches and opens the Word), and the Lord to the people (as when reading the lessons). There is a whole body of doctrine on the subject of “Liturgics” that provides the basis for deciding how the priest will move on chancel, which direction he faces, the kinds of chancel furniture, and where the furniture goes, but the essential point is that in the New Church it is the whole congregation that is worshiping the Lord, and the priest worships as a part of that congregation.

The appearance is that worship is a passive thing. After all, the congregation spends most of the time during a service quietly sitting and listening either to lessons from the Word, to a children’s talk, or to a sermon, or waiting for the next thing to happen. But such listening is passive because no response is expected. Ask yourselves this question: would you listen differently if you were going to be tested on the material presented in the sermon? If you were going to be tested in some way, would you not wish to have pencil and paper handy to take notes to study from? Would you not wish to have a text book to follow along in? Would not our whole approach to listening become active instead of passive?

Everyone of us has spent a lot of time in school, and each one of us learned along the way that we enjoyed best and learned the most from those courses we took where we conscientiously did the work assigned by the teacher. Simply stated, we found that the more we put into our study, the more we got back out!

If such a thing is true in other areas of life, is it not also true in worship? Will not our own personal worship of the Lord Jesus Christ be as valuable and meaningful to us as the amount of effort we ourselves put into it? Does this not tell us how important regular study of the Word is? Does it not also mean that if we simply bring our bodies into church and expect worship to happen to us, it will not be a meaningful and valuable experience?

We need to learn to take part in the worship service by actively listening, that is, by listening to what the priest is saying with a sense of affirmative skepticism. –Think about what is being said. – Does it sound true? – If you lived according to it, would you being living a good life? – Would you feel right making decisions that way? – Does what the priest says agree with your understanding of the Word? – If not, why not?

Such questioning is essential to the development of the rational mind. Even in heaven the angels must be skeptical of what they hear, for we are told that they are never taught something without the opposite idea being presented at the same time, so that they will have to think about it, compare it to what they already know to be true, and come to a decision about it based upon their own understanding (See EU 77). Even in heaven, we will not be able to accept what is taught with blind faith. We must prepare ourselves for heaven by practicing active listening and affirmative doubt in this life first.

Actively listening, challenging, questioning and testing your understanding against that of the priest during his sermons or messages is also important, for by so doing you are actively taking part in the worship of the Lord, you are using your gift of intelligence in the way that God intended.

But, active listening, being fully involved intellectually is only half the story. Everyone knows that if we want to communicate ideas we use language. Words, either written or spoken, are the means by which ideas move from one mind to another. The Writings tell us that there is also a communication of affection from one will to another, and music is the means of that communication. In other words, music is to our loves as words are to our thoughts!

This concept is well known as shown in common speech. When we share an affectional bond with someone, we say that we are “in tune” with them. When things are going well with the people around us, we say that things are “harmonious.” We see further evidence of this when we remember that happy people hum, whistle, and even burst forth into song – any song – any fragment of a song! We say that people who are happy have a “song” in their heart! There are no doubt many other examples that we could use.

Not only is music a sign of a happy heart, but we also find that music is a good way to change a heart. Studies have shown that music is very effective in changing your mood. If someone is feeling low, you cannot just play happy, cheerful music and expect them to change. It’s far more likely that they will angrily turn the music off. However, it has been found that if you first play music that approximates the person’s mood, and you gradually change the selections from moody to cheerful to bright, the mood will follow.

We can see that, used properly, music can be used to bring a person’s state from depression to cheerfulness, from hell to heaven. If we agree to that view, then can we also assume that the opposite is true, that music is capable of taking someone from a heavenly state to a hellish one? Are there kinds of music that express anger and frustration and hatred and by means of presenting these affections in a powerful way actually bring people into a state of hellish affections? While we should be very careful before postulating a direct cause and effect relationship between heaven or hell and certain kinds of music, we must look carefully at the kinds of affections that any piece of music inspires in our hearts.

In heaven, the harmony is actual, not symbolic. Time after time Swedenborg reported hearing heavenly choirs. He explained that each heavenly society has its own distinctive affection or love, and this distinctive love is expressed in the songs of that society. These teachings were in the minds of the priests of the New Church as they set about the task of forming a distinctive new ritual for the New Church. These teachings about music, affection, and harmony are the reason why each service begins with music followed by congregational singing, so that the whole of the congregation can be brought into a common sphere of worship. In the same way, the service ends with congregational singing, followed by a period of quiet music, so that the people can quietly and gently leave the sphere of worship behind.

Music is a powerful tool for creating a response in worship. Just as words are carefully selected by the priest to bring an idea into form in the sermon, so, ideally, the music should be selected to bring the affections of the congregation into a focus that supports and develops the ideas presented in the sermon. The choice is also limited to those songs that a congregation is capable of singing with some confidence and pleasure.

Congregational singing is supposed to bring the diverse collection of people present for worship into a harmony of affection, a harmony that is more perfect according to the variety within it. In order for us to feel the harmony with the others in the congregation, it will be necessary for us to deliberately, consciously put aside our fears about singing in church We must try not to think about how we sound to the others nearby. We must instead try to think about the sound of many people singing together, and how each voice blends in and contributes to the beauty and the quality of the whole.

To do this, we must first find silence. We must leave our thoughts and cares about the world outside the church door as we enter. We must put away the thoughts about the cares of the natural world so that there will be room for the Lord to enter through His Word. Then, as we hear His Word read and preached, we must focus our attention on it, compare what we hear to what we already know, to what we believe, to what we have learned from experience. Finally, we must un-self-consciously take part in the affectional side of worship through song and prayer. Prayers are offered to the Lord by the priest for the congregation, and by the priest and the congregation together. This speech with the Lord is an important part of every worship service, for it turns the mind away from self and towards the Lord. It can be an effective means of silencing our self-consciousness.

When the noise of the world is put off, we will find our worship to be satisfying to us in many different ways. The more effort we put into the worship experience, the greater the spiritual benefit we shall receive.

“Oh, sing to the Lord a new song!

Sing to the Lord, all the earth.

Sing to the Lord, bless His name;

Proclaim the good news of His salvation from day to day.” (Psalm 96:1,2)


First Lesson: HAB 2 (port.)

{2} Then the LORD answered me and said: “Write the vision And make it plain on tablets, That he may run who reads it. {3} For the vision is yet for an appointed time; But at the end it will speak, and it will not lie. Though it tarries, wait for it; Because it will surely come, It will not tarry. … {18} “What profit is the image, that its maker should carve it, The molded image, a teacher of lies, That the maker of its mold should trust in it, To make mute idols? {19} Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Awake!’ To silent stone, ‘Arise! It shall teach!’ Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, Yet in it there is no breath at all. {20} But the LORD is in His holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before Him.”

Second Lesson: MAT 19:16-22

Now behold, one came and said to Him, “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” {17} So He said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” {18} He said to Him, “Which ones?” Jesus said, ” ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ {19} ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” {20} The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?” {21} Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” {22} But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

Third Lesson: AC 2594,5

Gentiles living on earth today however are not so wise, but for the most part are simple in heart. Nevertheless those of them who have led charitable lives one with another acquire wisdom in the next life. Let these be spoken of in what follows next.

I was once listening to a certain [choir] which sounded tuneful yet harsher than [choirs] normally do. From their sound I recognized straightaway that they came from the gentiles. Angels told me that they were gentiles who had been raised from the dead three or four days previously. I listened to this … choir for many hours and perceived that throughout the short period I was listening to them they were being perfected more and more. Wondering at this I was told that these people can be inaugurated into choirs, and so into harmonious groups, within a single night, whereas with the majority of Christians the same is scarcely possible within thirty years. …Choirs exist when many speak simultaneously, all as one, and each as all.

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Page constructed by James P. Cooper
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A Sermon by Rev. James P. Cooper
Preached in Mitchellville, Maryland February 11, 1996

“I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

It’s obvious that each of us has made either a conscious or an unconscious decision to come to church today. Today’s sermon deals with the reasons behind a person’s decision to come to church, and attempts to answer why people feel a need to attend church, and to discover what it is in the human makeup that draws us together to contemplate the Divine influence in the course of our lives.

Many of us come to church without taking much thought about it. It is what we always do on Sunday. Attendance at church is for many a tradition, a habit, something that is done as naturally as walking. I think we can say with a fair degree of assurance that the angels themselves have just such a habit, and it gives them great delight to freely express it. After all, is not the process of regeneration a matter of getting rid of bad habits and acquiring good habits with the Lord’s help?

But there are others of us, who, for one reason or another, have never acquired the habit of regular church attendance, and so must make a conscious choice to attend church each week. It is necessary to speak in broad generalities here, for there are as many specific reasons as there are individuals making the choices, and of course each individual makes that choice each week after balancing many different options, but several general areas that are worth thinking about can be identified.

The first area to consider is that of the very nature of our church services. Our services are designed to attempt to balance two uses: worship of the Lord and instruction from His Word. The worship includes elements of both humiliation and praise, the prayers while kneeling representing humiliation and supplication, and songs while standing representing praise and adoration. The instruction includes both reading directly from the Word and preaching from the Word. In other words, our church services have been carefully designed to serve many needs in ways as appropriate as possible. However, the area of instruction in general and the sermon in particular have taken on a greater importance than the worship. Perhaps this is because the sermon is the largest single element in the service. Perhaps since the priest spends a far greater time preparing the sermon than any other element of the service, it takes on a pre-eminent status in the priest’s mind, and so subconsciously affects his attitudes which then eventually find their way to the congregation.

Because of our emphasis on reading the Word, and the sermon as the most important part of church, and perhaps because of our traditional emphasis on education as a special use of the New Church, many people choose to come to church to hear the sermon’s message, to be instructed. We come to church hoping to hear something from the Word that will help us out in the trials and tribulations of our daily lives. We hope that we will hear something that will help us solve our problems. Fortunately, that hope and desire is satisfied often enough that we continue to come. Obviously, very few people would continue coming to a church week after week if they were never satisfied with the instruction they received. So we can say that one major reason that people come to church is to learn things that will help them live more satisfying lives.

But the skeptic asks, “Why do you go to church for that when there are so many self-help books and special interest clubs available?’ Indeed, why do we need to come to church for these things? Why is church felt to be so special? If people choose to come to church to learn things, why not have a doctrinal class format? These questions focus our attention on another major reason for attending church: to satisfy some of our emotional needs.

The Heavenly Doctrines tell us why we hunger for more than just instruction when they tell us that a person is more than just his intellect, that his mind is both will and understanding. The affectional part needs to be stimulated and fed too. However, it is more subtle in getting its message across. Unlike the intellectual side, the affectional side of us cannot directly communicate ideas, so instead it supplies the desire, the inclination, to worship, and the intellectual provides the reason (which of course it couches in its own rational terms). So we feel an urge to go to church (from the affectional side of the mind) and the intellectual side provides the reason, which is to go and learn something.

This is illustrated by the way we act on vacation. We take our children to a zoo or to some historical spot and we then commence to lecture them about the important events that happened at that spot, or instructing the children in the various things that we have learned about the animals. The affectional side of us just wanted to have a family outing to some place new and interesting, and perhaps to enjoy looking at the animals, but the intellectual side is embarrassed at such a blatant waste of time, so it has to provide some rational reason for such otherwise frivolous behavior. As a result we make a holiday trip into an “educational experience” for the children so that we won’t be caught having fun. We need to remember that the affectional and intellectual sides of us are partners, that there is value in play for the sake of play, in doing something together for no other reason than to share a pleasant experience.

This should remind us of the memorable relations where we see the angel wives gently but powerfully leading their husbands by merely a look or a gesture, but the husbands were unable to communicate in that way and instead gave lengthy explanations of what they were doing. This should illustrate the idea that going to church is like a marriage. Worship is the “wife” and instruction the “husband,” that is, the affectional side of a church service is as essential to the churchgoer as a wife is essential to a marriage!

Our affectional side, our will, speaks in our mind without words. It acts as an “inner voice” that does not argue, does not fight, but when we begin to choose to do the wrong things, it makes us uneasy. At the same time, it makes us feel good when we are doing the right thing. Indeed, it has been said that the reason people attend church is to “attend to the inner voice.” The interesting thing is that this inner voice has a common message to all people, a message that gently draws them to worship in some way. The Heavenly Doctrines tell us that the Lord Himself flows into the mind of every person, from the beginning of his life to eternity, with the message that there is a God and that He is one (see TCR 8). The Lord Himself is that inner voice, gently, quietly calling us to Himself. There are many places in Scripture where the word “voice” is used, and we are taught that when it is the voice of Jehovah, it represents a “revelation” from God (see AC 219), and at other times it represents the “thought and affection, which are the interior things of the voice” (AC 10455).

We are also taught that doctrine, that is, how we understand how the Word applies in our lives, is formed by reading the letter of the Word from doctrine. The teaching about the universal influx shows how this is possible. The Lord flows into the interior degrees of the mind of every individual from the first moment of life with this central doctrine: that there is a God and that He is one. Every human being shares this heritage and gift from God. What he does with it afterwards is a matter of his own free choice, but every one of us begins with this doctrinal basis “built in.” Everything we learn after that is learned in the light of this first truth, particularly the things that we learn from the letter of the Word. Can’t we see this from the way little children speak of the Lord with confidence and joy? They are pre-disposed to receive the Word with gladness.

As we grow older, we learn many things, most of which are not from the Word. We learn about cruelty, hatred, and greed, and as we see others exhibit these evils we become cynical, skeptical and suspicious. The “inner voice” cannot be stilled, but it becomes much harder to hear amidst the noise of a mind fully involved in the things of the world. But it is there, quietly, gently feeding its message of hope and peace into the turmoil of the active mind. So we come to church to attend to the needs of the inner voice as well as to learn strategies for coping with life, but we cannot properly care for the needs of the inner voice until we are aware of it and come to know its needs, to be sure to make our visit to church worshipful. We can improve the quality of our worship by first recognizing its importance as the feeding of the affectional side of our minds, and so preparing ourselves for genuine worship.

Two specific ways to prepare ourselves for worship are firstly to leave personal cares at home when we come to church, and secondly to examine the thoughts we have while in church from time to time to avoid allowing our minds to wander into thoughts about the house, or things yet to do at work, or whatever. It is very important that the mind be focused on the Lord and the things of His kingdom if genuine worship is to take place. Further, there must be an opening of the way if instruction about the Lord is to enter; the walls of resistance have to be lowered. This cannot be done automatically, but we must consciously choose to open ourselves to worship and instruction, for the hells do not want this to happen and will inflow with all manner of distracting thoughts if they perceive that we are beginning to genuinely worship and learn about the Lord.

Our rational minds tell us that we should worship the Lord because we have read the Word, and we have found that when we live according to the Ten Commandments our life is more satisfying than when we do not; therefore we can believe that the Word is from the Lord and is true: it is true because we perceive that to live according to it is good. The Word tells us in many places that we should worship the Lord, so we have duly set up churches and other places of worship where we go to fulfill this instruction addressed to our rational mind, and this is as it should be. However, we need to remember that the affectional side of our life needs nourishment too; it needs to humble itself before the God of Love, to join with friends and family to sing praise to Him who gives life to all, to rest in the warmth of His love, to be simply and profoundly grateful to Him who created us, and who sustains us with His love every moment of our lives. Amen.

Lessons: Exodus 30:1-10, 34-38; John 15:1-17; TCR 8 (portions)

True Christian Religion 8

There is a universal influx from God into the souls of men of the truth that there is a God and that He is one. That there is an influx from God into man is evident from the universal confession that all good that is in itself good, and that exists in man and is done by him, is from God; in like manner every thing of charity and every thing of faith; for we read: “A man can take nothing except it be given him from heaven” (John 3:27); and Jesus said: “Without Me ye are unable to do anything” (John 15:5), that is, anything that pertains to charity and faith. This influx is into the souls of men because the soul is the inmost and highest part of man, and the influx from God enters into that and descends therefrom into the things that are below, and vivifies them in accordance with reception. The truths that are to constitute belief flow in, it is true, through the hearing, and are thus implanted in the mind, that is, below the soul. But by means of such truths man is simply made ready to receive the influx from God through the soul; and such as this preparation is, such is the reception, and such the transformation of natural faith into spiritual faith.

There is such an influx from God into the souls of men of the truth that God is one because everything Divine, regarded most generally as well as most particularly, is God. And as the entire Divine coheres as one, it cannot fail to inspire in man the idea of one God; and this idea is strengthened daily as man is elevated by God into the light of heaven. For the angels in their light cannot force themselves to utter the word “Gods.” Even their speech closes at the end of every sentence in a oneness of cadence, and there is no other cause of this than the influx into their souls of the truth that God is one.