It’s the end of August and most of us are trying to wrap our minds around the fact that summer is gone and a school year is beginning anew. So for this week’s post, I offer a random reflection or two following a recent event.
I can count on one hand–with a finger or two leftover–the number of big concerts I’ve attended in my life. My wife and I went to see The Who shortly after we were married. We caught a Simon & Garfunkel reunion tour a few years back. There may be one or so more but none compare to the concert I went to August 15 with Paul McCartney. I have long been a fan of The Beatles and of Paul’s subsequent work. The Beatles “Anthology” came out in the late 1990s at a time when I was in need of something distracting. Immersing myself in their music and in the history of the band helped me through a tough patch.
Needless to say, when I finally scored a rather expensive ticket to see Paul, I was excited and looked forward to the concert with an anticipation that probably bordered on the absurd for a middle-aged pastor who works at a seminary for a living! The event itself, however, was a 3-hour over-the-top musical spectacle I will never forget. The local music reviewer said the crowd at the Van Andel Arena was “awestruck” and he didn’t tell the half of it. My friend Bob Keeley is a Beatles expert who teaches an Interim course on the group at Calvin College. He had seen Paul three times before August 15 but still deemed this particular concert the best ever.
It was quite the experience on multiple levels, not least of which was the curious happiness that came when I sang along with Paul and his terrific band and also along with about 10,000 other people. Having grown up attending worship services at least two times a week–and now more than that if I include midweek chapel services–I can say that singing in a large group is not the least bit unusual for me. Indeed, all of us who attend worship on a regular basis do something that non-church people rarely if ever do: sing in unison with a big group. Even so, it was striking to sing along with one of the world’s most famous rock stars and 10,000 others. When the concert “ended” (a 30-minute encore was actually yet to come) with the song “Hey Jude” and its protracted chorus of “Na, na, na, naaaa,” there were tears streaming down many people’s faces as they also held their cellphones aloft with the flashlight function switched on.
The following Sunday my pastor, Joel DeMoor, preached on the topic of praise and used Psalm 145 as his text. He mentioned the adulation of athletes at the recent Olympic games in Rio and also mentioned the past week’s Paul McCartney concert in Grand Rapids as evidence of what a long line of theologians have noted: namely, we are hard-wired to express praise and worship. And if we don’t worship God, we will aim our praise at something else. It reminded me of an irony noted by someone some years back in regards to another of the Beatles, John Lennon. Lennon had no use for religion and in his most famous song, “Imagine,” he asked us to consider how much better the world would be if we could imagine “no heaven . . . no hell below us . . . and no religion, too.” Yet after Lennon was murdered, a shrine went up in his honor in New York City and this spot is reverently visited by untold numbers of people each day who, it is clear enough to observe, engage in something much akin to worship when they honor their fallen hero. You can imagine no religion if you want but you can’t shake the impulse to worship.
And that same worship so often expresses itself in singing (or in full-throated chants and cheers at sporting events). Some years back after my wife and I had toured the majestic redwoods and sequoias north of San Francisco, we were sitting in a nearby coffee shop. A woman who had likewise just spent a couple hours strolling through that soaring arboreal beauty said to a companion, “This may sound odd but while we were out there, I just felt like singing!” I resisted the urge to ask her “To whom?”
But back to Sir Paul: I am enough of a Reformed person that I can chalk up my joy in singing “Hey Jude” to God’s common grace operating through a skilled lyricist and musician like Mr. McCartney (and thereby let myself off the idolatry hook that I was worshiping McCartney the man!). Maybe the others around me were not per se idolizing Paul, either. And maybe some were. But there was no mistaking the genuine joy and fervor that engulfed that arena. The act of communal singing only magnified that spirit.
It happens every week in worship, too, of course, and according to John’s vision in the Book of Revelation, it is occurring incessantly in the heavenly throne room this very moment, too. Music stirs us at very deep, fundamental levels that defy description. Followers of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ have known this from the beginning. And for all of us who enjoy belting it out with large throngs of people, the good news is that in the New Creation, there is every indication the songs will go on and on–na, na, na, naaa!