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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

You Need a New Song

2013-06-02 You Need a New Song

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

Psalm 96:1-4, 11-13

1 O sing to the Lord a new song;

   sing to the Lord, all the earth.

2 Sing to the Lord, bless his name;

   tell of his salvation from day to day.

3 Declare his glory among the nations,

   his marvelous works among all the peoples.

4 For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;

   he is to be revered above all gods.

11 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;

   let the sea roar, and all that fills it;

12     let the field exult, and everything in it.

Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy

13     before the Lord; for he is coming,

   for he is coming to judge the earth.

He will judge the world with righteousness,

   and the peoples with his truth.

1 Samuel 16:14-23

14 Now the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him.15 And Saul's servants said to him, "See now, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. 16 Let our lord now command the servants who attend you to look for someone who is skillful in playing the lyre; and when the evil spirit from God is upon you, he will play it, and you will feel better." 17 So Saul said to his servants, "Provide for me someone who can play well, and bring him to me." 18 One of the young men answered, "I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite who is skillful in playing, a man of valor, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence; and the Lord is with him." 19 So Saul sent messengers to Jesse, and said, "Send me your son David who is with the sheep." 20 Jesse took a donkey loaded with bread, a skin of wine, and a kid, and sent them by his son David to Saul. 21 And David came to Saul, and entered his service. Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armor-bearer. 22 Saul sent to Jesse, saying, "Let David remain in my service, for he has found favor in my sight." 23 And whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him.


When I was a teenager, I went to a Ted Nugent concert. Yeah, I know, everyone makes mistakes. I don't remember all that much about the show, but I do remember bragging to everybody at school about how it was so loud my ears were ringing five days later.

A couple of years ago, I had an MRI because of hearing loss. The doctor took one look and confirmed that, yes, I have a very tiny survivalist rock star stuck inside my head. It's hard to tell if the damage came from the volume or the influence of the Motor City Madman, but it's something I've just got to deal with, something stuck inside my head that can't and won't come out.

We're dealing today with what the Bible says about music that sticks in our head. But more than that, the Bible knows music's not just inside our heads. Music goes beyond the head, flows in the ear, down through our veins and into the heart. The songs we sing, the sounds we hear get woven into the muscles of our heart, and spun into the misty fabric of the soul. What we hear, what we keep, is such a vital part of us. Music can make us dance. Music can make us laugh, or cry, or bring up memories so real it's like we're traveling back in time. Or, on the darker side, the sounds and voices and circling drone can drive us mad. The songs of life are that powerful.

Most of us, most of the time, get to choose the soundtrack. We get to choose when it's time to change the song. There are clues that tell us, "You need a new song."

The question becomes, can we choose something new? And if so, what song will we choose?


Psalm 96 starts with, "O sing to the Lord a new song." Why? Is the old song bad? Is God tired of your old sing-song? Is the looping repetition driving God mad? It doesn't say. It assumes you need a new song. More, it commands us - each of us - "Sing to the Lord a new song." It's not just a good idea; it's a commandment.

One of the more fascinating stories in the Bible is the relationship between King Saul and the boy who would be king, the shepherd, David. King Saul was in trouble. His mind was starting to play tricks on him. The Bible says he was tormented by an evil spirit. Really, how is that a surprise? You try being the divinely appointed monarch of a Middle-Eastern country; see how you hold up. On the scale of jobs that will make you paranoid, Middle-eastern monarch has to be in the top five, right up there with football coach in the SEC. In the immortal words of Maj. Frank Burns, "It's not that I'm paranoid; it's just that everybody's out to get me." Yes. Yes they are. I'm pretty sure every ruler of Israel - ever - would agree.

So, King Saul's cabinet was concerned for his mental health. They did something really kind of remarkable, when you think about it. What did they do? They didn't call a priest. They didn't pray over him. They didn't lay hands on him. They didn't send him to a therapist.

They called in a musician.

They said (verse 16): "Let our lord now command the servants who attend you to look for someone who is skillful in playing the lyre; and when the evil spirit from God is upon you, he will play it, and you will feel better."

"Paging Dr. David. Delusional, paranoid monarch in room 5. Bring your harp."

Verse 23: "And whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him."

The prescription for Saul's torment was a new song.


We have such an amazing music program. Now, I know Carla and Scott aren't doctors. And even though we have medical professionals singing in the choir and playing in handbells, we don't think of them as practicing medicine during worship. But, in the eyes of the Bible, they most certainly are. When a choir hits the right note, when the tones resonate with us, they become something greater than the sum of their parts. The music they make, the songs they sing and play are like clear, refreshing water, streaming into our minds, down into our hearts. The music lifts up our souls like a rising tide. On a given day, the right piece of music can cast out some of the demons we bring with us. Even if it's a piece they've done before, we hear it with new ears. It's a new song for a new day, and it makes us sing a new song, a healthier song, a more pure song to the Lord.


O. Hey. Oh, hey. Hey, you. Yes you. Sing a new song to the Lord. You on this side: Sing a new song. You on this side: Sing a new song. You, way in the back where you think it's safe: Sing a new song to the Lord.

Now you're scared. "That crazy preacher's gonna make us sing." No, I'm not. Because the more I think about it, the more I wonder if the Bible's really talking about singing songs in the literal sense. Are we talking about music, really? Or are we talking about attitude? Are we talking about what flows into our souls, music or otherwise?

In that case, we all need to sing a new song to the Lord. Because if you don't, you will get stuck. And then you really will need healing.


I have deepest respect for anyone who will sing a solo in front of a group of people. Except for the poor souls on American Idol who don't make it past the regional auditions. You know the ones I'm talking about. ("Pants on the ground.") The ones whose friends really should have stopped them, or maybe called in a doctor. My #1 rule when I'm up here singing is, TURN THE MICROPHONE OFF. It's better for all of us that way. I think when the Bible tells us to sing a new song, it doesn't always mean it literally.

How many times have you gotten a song stuck in your head that you absolutely hate? The official name for that is an "earworm." You get an "earworm" and It can feel like an evil spirit, especially if it's something like, say, "Gangnam Style." It makes you want to bang your head against a wall. "Please, make it stop."

Doctors who study earworms - and isn't it good to know there are people who get paid for that - say the best cure is to re-engage your mind in something new. Do a crossword puzzle. Or read a good book. Or have a stimulating conversation. That is, learn a new song, figuratively, if not literally.  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/9950143/Get-that-tune-out-of-your-head-scientists-find-how-to-get-rid-of-earworms.html

But it's not always that simple.

Does your brain ever get stuck? Do you find yourself repeating the same thoughts over and over in your mind? Worries. Anxieties. Wasted energy, ruminating about the past you can't change or the future you can't control? "If only I had said this." "If only I had done that." "What if?" "What if there's an earthquake, and what if there's a zombie attack, and what if this headache is a tumor?" It's horrible. That's not just an "earworm"; that's a "brainworm." And pretty soon it turns into a "soulworm," squirming into your life and sapping your will to live. We see it all the time. People's arms and legs work great, but they're paralyzed in their thinking. Sometimes it's because of old hits we won't let go. Sometimes it's what we've been told.

You teachers, how many kids have you had in your class whose parents have told them the words of the old Linda Ronstadt song, "You're no good, you're no good, you're no good; baby, you're no good"? After a while, they believe it. And they start thinking: "I'm bad. I'm bad. I'm really, really bad." It's not a song; it's a soul-sucking sickness. The Bible would have called it the attack of an evil spirit.

Do you ever feel as if your life is just the same song, same verse, looping over and over and over? "O sing a new song to the Lord!" It's no longer a command; it's a prayer. "O Lord, help me. Help me break out of this into something new."

Scott - Dr. Scott - Doctor-Brother Hood - helped me see this differently. We were talking about Saul and David and he pointed something out to me that I hadn't seen. It's this: after Saul understood the healing power of the new song, he made a choice. Saul chose health, instead of illness. Whatever was tormenting Saul, he still was holding it together just enough to know he felt better, and he willingly chose the better way.

Oh Lord, oh Lord. How many times do we give away our God-given right of choice? Just give it away? We get scared. And the first thing we throw overboard is our ability to choose. We get scared and the we think, "Oh this is the worst! And it's never going to get better." Things are the way they are. Same old, same old. It is what it is.

Who told you that? And why on earth do you believe them, instead of believing the Bible when it tells you to get a new song?

If you can choose - and most of us can - if you can choose to sing a new song, you can direct your soul beyond the worm to something different. For your sake and the sake of the people around you, "O, sing to the Lord a new song." Please, please, please don't give away your power - your God-given power - to choose.

Most of us can choose. Most of us can choose the better, even though we forget. But some can't. For some of us our brain is chemically, biologically stuck in the rut. The people who wrote the Bible didn't have a clue about things like addictions and chronic mental illness; but thankfully, and by the grace of God, we do now. We still have musicians, but we also have doctors, we have therapists, we have medicines, we have recovery programs that can help us when the torment gets unbearable. Asking for help, or accepting help when you're stuck on repeat is absolutely OK. Think about King Saul: It took his entire cabinet staging an intervention before he did anything.

"O sing a new song to the Lord" can be a singular act of courage. It can also be a heartfelt cry for help. Sometimes it takes the form of some pretty blunt confrontation. But however you get singing, or press play, that song is the first step toward recovery, renewal, freedom.


Oh, I am so sorry. This was supposed to be a sermon about music. But it turns out that when the Bible talks about a "new song," it's talking about more than notes on a page. It also turns out that when the choir sings things like, "Joy in the Morning," as they did in today's anthem, they're singing about more than waking up and feeling rested, although that's a wonderful thing if you can get it.

It turns out that singing a new song is more about the "new" than the "song."

It turns out that in the Bible, "singing" is less about carrying a tune and more about carrying on -- about choosing to carry on with a healthy spirit.

So, choir - thank you. Thank you for another season of song. Some of the songs have been new. Some are old standards. But the spirit has always been fresh. A healthy spirit heals us.

Now what? What are we doing to do while the choir's on vacation? It may sound a little pitchy, but we're going to sing a new song. O sing the Lord, all of you, a new song.


[For more about earworms and the power of music, check out the always thought-provoking show, Radiolab, from WNYC.



one of my personal favorites ever, "Sound as Touch"


Thursday, May 30, 2013

Stop Noticing the Little Things

Stop Noticing the Little Things

People say life is moving so fast that we don't have time to notice the little things.

This is not true.

In fact, the faster we go, the more little things we see. We notice the lights that turn from yellow to red the moment we near an intersection. We notice the store checker who's scanner-challenged. We notice the unwanted phone calls, the dishwasher no one else will unload, the loud man on his cell phone, the two-cents-a-gallon increase, the temperature in the house, the barking dog next door, the people who insist on entering the elevator before anyone can exit.

The faster we go, the more little things we notice. Because it's the little things that slow us down. We notice the people who get in our way. We see the details of their errors. We count them, and they drive us crazy.

We notice the little things... that other people do. And the little things that we don't do, or forget, or avoid? What things? Sorry, I was in a hurry. Sure you were.

The problem isn't the speed. The problem is our noticing. The problem is our NOT noticing the things WE do that inadvertently get in the way of other people. The problem is we've trained ourselves to see other people as problems.

Stop noticing the little things that other people do. Practice seeing the big things: compassion, gentleness, patience - at any speed.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Memorial Day 2013

Memorial Day, 2013

It was a picture-perfect Memorial Day weekend. I hope you were able to get out and enjoy it, or see it through a window, or catch a few breaths of springtime air between work and the car and home and the chores that don't stop just because it's a national holiday.

I was sitting in a drive-in, being served by a carhop who thanked me for making her Sonic my Sonic, and then told me her name, as if I would actually say, "Hi, [insert name]. I'm James. Thank you for sharing your Sonic and making this happy hour slushie stop such an enjoyable event." But I wouldn't. She'd think I was sarcastic, or creepy, or needing a fresh mixer. Sharing your name and welcoming people to your business has become the new corporate faux-etiquette, and comes across exactly as what it is: a mandated script of tag-lines invented in the marketing department to create the illusion of hospitality and gratitude.

Enjoying my slushie, I listened to a radio interview with Brian Turner, a soldier-poet who served for seven years in the U.S. Army in Iraq. He talked about how it's almost obscene how many soldiers we bury whose names we never know, who never had the chance to receive anything close to sincere thanks for their service. He talked about how strange it is for returning vets to come home to a country who barely even thinks about the wars being fought, whose thanks and hospitality is both occasional and perfunctory.

Sincerity can't be manufactured. Gratitude can't be scripted. But both can be practiced until they're woven into the muscles of our hearts. If you know a veteran of Iraq or any other war, take a moment - not on Memorial Day - to send him or her a note of thanks. And, if you can't be genuine in your thanks to a carhop, at least catch her eye, smile, and tip well.

[The interview with Brian Turner and several of his poems can be found at: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5126583]

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- James McTyre