May 22: Outdoor Hymn Sing

Scripture Reading (CEB) John 14:23-29

23 Jesus answered, “Whoever loves me will keep my word. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Whoever doesn’t love me doesn’t keep my words. The word that you hear isn’t mine. It is the word of the Father who sent me. 25 “I have spoken these things to you while I am with you. 26 The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you. 27 “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives. Don’t be troubled or afraid. 28 You have heard me tell you, ‘I’m going away and returning to you.’ If you loved me, you would be happy that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than me. 
29 I have told you before it happens so that when it happens you will believe.

Unite your voices together 

I’ve been told, several times, by different people, that they wouldn’t be back at church until we can sing again.  It’s usually followed with a quick apology as they see my puppy-dog-preacher eyes, but I reassure them I understand.  Singing has always been a part of our faith: Miriam’s singing and dancing at the Exodus, the psalms were the hymnbook of Ancient Israel as they put words of faith for the song in their heart.  Even in the 4th Century, St. Augustine said  

“For [they] who sings praise, not only praise, but also praises joyfully; those who sing praise, not only sings, but also loves God whom they are singing about/to/for. There is a praise-filled public proclamation in the praise of someone who is confessing/ acknowledging (God), in the song of the lover (there is) love…Those who sing well, pray twice…”

Now…we may have to define what singing well means, but thankfully our own hymnbook, Voices United, we’re helped along by John Wesley’s instructions for singing found on page 720 (edited):

“Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can.  Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead or half asleep, but lift up your voice with strength. Do not bawl so as to be heard above the rest of the congregation but strive to unite your voices together. Sing in time and do not sing too slowly. Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing.”

Hearing that is exactly why it’s been tough to bring back singing in church, especially since we’re not to sing as if half dead or half asleep in an effort to unite our voices together.  It’s something we desperately want, but moreso – it’s what we need.  That’s why it feels like there’s something missing in our services, in restricting hymn singing.  We’ll get back there I’m sure, as scientific studies continue to investigate just how much we’re actually spitting while we sing.  I have no doubt we’ll get to that point that we feel safe again, but just know, how difficult a choice it was in taking that away, because we’ve taken away not just a way of “responding” in faith, but something that pulled us all together.  Something that united us. 

And I’m thankful for those feelings of loss and missing out, because it means that you all still yearn for it.  We yearn for that unity.  We yearn for that uplifting moment of singing out with others beside you.  We yearn for something to pull us together, rather than pull us apart.  We need the words not written by you, that just happen to perfectly capture all that you believe.

I get it.  Desperately I do.  I had a video pop up in my Facebook memories just recently of an event I attended once called ‘Beer and Hymns.’  Imagine a small bar, filled with far too many preachers attending a week-long conference, blowing off steam together by belting out How Great Thou Art with not a hymnbook to be found.  We didn’t need the words because they were a part of our very souls. 

We were “in tune,” resonating with the heavens themselves.  I’ve led care home services with the same soul-touching power, as individuals deep in the throes of dementia or Alzheimer’s come alive when they hear the simple notes of Jesus Loves Me.  As the United Church’s statement of faith reminds us,

We offer worship as an outpouring of gratitude and awe

and a practice of opening ourselves

to God’s still, small voice of comfort, to God’s rushing whirlwind of challenge.

Through word, music, art, and sacrament, in community and in solitude,

God changes our lives, our relationships, and our world.

We sing with trust.

We open ourselves to God’s changing of our lives, our relationships, and our world. 

You may not recognize it as it happens but you can’t sing all are welcome and then exclude others.  You cannot sing, here the outcast and the strange bear the image of God’s face, and not train your brain to do that outside of worship.  It’s almost Pavlovian – the rewiring of our brains to enact the words we sing. Or we sing words that we hope to believe. There’s something transformative that happens when that music dwells in us – that like I mentioned of those in care homes – that gets locked away so deeply that the struggles of this world cannot touch.  For we are changed by the act of worshipping, the act of singing together.  This is where the peace that Jesus speak about resides.  Deep down when the worries of the world cannot reach.  It’s why you can listen to a piece of music and be instantly transported.

If I went around even today, I could ask each one of you – hymns or otherwise – what a piece of music means to you.  A song from your youth.  The first dance at your wedding.  Maybe even the song you want at your funeral.  The power of music is undeniable, and why you weren’t wrong in feeling that something was missing in our worship services.

So then between now and when we can again sing in the pews – I encourage you to think about not just about what you’re missing – but how to recapture some of the unity and peace that speaks into your souls.  How to recapture that in worship even if you cannot sing.  How you can pray the words of the hymns and allow them to change and shape the faith that God is calling you to now? 

For here we are Lord – not as we’d want to be – but opening ourselves to the dream you have for us, even now.  We sing with trust.

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