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Words and Music: Imagining God

Mornington Methodist Church, 2 September 2007, 9.30am


Psalm 81: 1-4, John 1:1-5, 14a


We are celebrating this weekend…

We’re celebrating 130 years of the choir at Mornington…

We’re celebrating the contribution Colin Gibson has made to the life of this congregation, through words and music and inspiration…

And not just to Mornington, of course, but to many people in many places across the world.

I bring connexional greetings to both the choir and to you, Colin, and thank you for your contribution to the life of the wider church…

And it is both music and words, woven together, that have encouraged us, opened our minds to new ways of looking at things, challenged us to sing God into today’s world.



Music is perhaps the most evocative of all forms of communication. It really draws responses out of us… We can just think about the popularity of “Classic hits” – I know I’m easily transported back to (um) a long tome ago, when familiar tunes appear. And it works with the old hymns, too – especially the music, which we know can make contact with people even through the fog of age and illness. And the newer church music of Colin and others, connecting us with life today.

Music manages to touch us beyond our rational minds. Memory and feeling and links with other people and occasions, tapped into by music…

Psalm 81 highlights the value of music – from 3000 years ago, and at the centre of faith and worship for a particular community… The Christian community – with some exceptions – has made good use of music. Music, along with stained glass, and sometimes drama, and flowers and colours in various ways (this Presidential stole – thanks to Jeannette) – all these have been ways the life of the church has communicated its message of life and hope.

In the sounds and colours and movement, God is met and the story of God’s love and care is communicated… at a very deep level in us. I suspect the significance of mantra and meditation in religious practices is that they use rhythmic sounds that function in a similar way.

Music communicates because it gets to that deep level that evokes responses of memory, of connection, of spirituality…



Words can do that, too, of course.

It’s the words as well as the music in many of our favourite songs and hymns that we respond to. Methodism – ‘born in song’ – has sung its theology in its hymns. In those hymns, the words are important…

Poetic language opens up possibilities and feelings in much the same way as music does; and that’s the delight of much of Colin’s creativity: the words and the music both work.

However, we Protestant Christians have often turned words into dogmatic statements and proper answers. We have ‘tied down’ imagination. We’ve wanted ‘hard data’ and accurate description, leaving no room for free floating ideas or images. Theologising has ended up as doctrine and truth-telling and heresy-hunting – a long way from music and poetry.

Of course there’s danger in un-thought-through and poorly expressed beliefs... But that’s about the quality of our thinking, rather than the use of words.

I hope we will think clearly about our faith – but we can use a wide variety of interesting and relevant words to express our thinking. Good poetic language – like that of Colin Gibson or Shirley Murray – arises from clear ideas and well-though theology. Jargon words and traditional formulas that we often use in preaching or praying or doing theology don’t really help us in talking about God.

In the opening of John’s Gospel, the word contributes to the creative process, and becomes ‘flesh’ and ‘lives’ amongst us. Embodied, creative, lively words express God and God’s activity.

Let’s open up our God-speak, using the creative words of poetry and song in our thinking as well as our singing. ‘Picture’ words – I think – point us most effectively towards the dynamic energy of God. The kind of God that energises me and touches my spirit is a God that cannot be pinned-down in logical language. My God floats free, and I need new, open, imaginative, lively words to speak of God and faith. “Jumping Jesus” perhaps…?

Let’s find words that work like music.



‘Imagining God’ is more productive, I think, than ‘proving God’. As theologian and teacher I’ve had to try to teach the traditional “proofs for the existence of God”. They don’t work. Or, at least, they only work if our faith has already got us in touch with God.

There are lots of wonderful images:

  1. Sallie McFague speaks of the world as “God’s body”… (significant in a time of climate change)
  2. Colin has the image of the “dolphin Christ”… (leading us on through difficult times)
  3. The Bible uses “mother hen” and “soaring eagle”… (amongst many images from nature)

Images that take us beyond trying to define God in abstract terms as all-powerful or present everywhere or totally good. Images that use ordinary aspects of life and invest them with extraordinary insights.

I’m glad that theologians today are using images, pictures – lots of them – forcing us to use our imagination, just like movies and TV ads and web sites in our postmodern world.

  1. I like Mother, Lover, and Friend… (speaking of trinitarian God)
  2. Or the mat-weaving God… (linking God to the Pacific)


Images that force us to see God differently, that are linked to our life here, now, that open up our God-ideas, rather than closing them down. We can never describe the God we cannot see. What we can do is use imaginative words and pictures that open up insights into God-possibilities.

Our God-speak is – I hope – becoming like music and poetry and dance and embroidery… the products of our free-floating and exciting human imagination… and very much part of the life of this Mornington congregation.

Let’s join in imagining and re-imagining God in today’s world.



130 years’ of choir music has opened up the imaginations of Mornington parishioners and fed our memories.

50 years’ of Colin Gibson’s music and words have extended the range of ideas and memories, and continue to prod our imagination.

Let’s keep finding musical words that help us imagine God.

Let’s keep singing God into today’s world.

For we are the singers…


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