Psalm 100 (VT #20), Psalm 47:1, 6-7 (VT #108), Isaiah 42:10-11 (VT #106), Revelation 7:9-12 (VT #110)
I’m not very good at singing. You probably already knew that. I don’t really know how to read music, and I can’t stick with a part without help from others. So I just try to listen along, sometimes finding someone singing that seems like should be my range, and I try to keep up with them.
I blame my inability to sing on the fact that I grew up in a church where, every Sunday, the service was all about the worship band. They were quite good, actually, and very loud, which meant that I could never hear my own voice, let alone the voices of the people singing next to me. This was back when churches were trying to appeal to a new generation of church goers by making all the music sound like U2 songs, which isn’t bad. I like U2. Although I was always waiting for the worship music to mature from U2 cover music to Nirvana-styled praise songs, which never happened.
We, here at our church, also don’t sing Nirvana-styled hymns, which I think is wise, we’ve made good choices. I don’t think I feel very passionately about the so-called “worship wars” in general. Those debates are all about what style of music is more appropriate for church. People like to make normative claims, theological arguments about what’s best for everyone everywhere. I’m not ready to do that.
Instead, what I want to say, here, in my sermon, is more like a testimony—an opportunity for me to bear witness to what our singing has meant to me, what our music has done to me, how our style of worship has affected my faith. So, nothing normative or universal, just a modest testimony. I have three characteristics of our singing, about what our practice does to us: Reliance, belief, and hope.
First, reliance. I’ve had to learn dependence, our communal singing as the spirituality of dependency. I prefer to be self-reliant. I like to be independent. I don’t like to have to ask for favors. I’d rather do something for others rather than ask someone to help me out. I think that has been a good fit, in terms of my personality, with being a pastor. I like being available to help, and I’d do everything in my power to not have to ask for your help. It’s definitely a problem, a spiritual deficiency for sure.
And singing, here, with you all, is a confrontation with my dependency—both because of my lousy singing voice, and because our way of singing is all about mutual dependency. Each voice depends on the others in the room. We can’t do this alone, this singing, this worship, this life of faith. We need each other—to listen for how the song goes, how our voice joins another, how we harmonize, how our voices play with each other. There’s a joy in singing, a joy we make as our words commune in the air.
“Sing praises,” the Psalmist tells us (this is a verse from Psalm 47), “shout to God with joy” (Psalm 47, VT 108). And, again, this time from Psalm 100: “Make a joyful noise… enter into God’s presence with a song” (Psalm 100, VT 20).
Mary Oyer, the revered teacher and song leader, talked about singing during worship as a kind of communion—“an expression of [our] communion,” she wrote, “of remembering Christ and his commandment that we share with one another.”
Those are Oyer’s words—that we sing our way into communion with Christ, that our sharing of voices is a sharing in Christ’s presence. Then she adds another biblical image for communal singing, another scene from the life of Jesus: “Each song could be the humbling experience of washing one another’s feet.” That image, Oyer’s image of footwashing, makes sense of my experience of singing—that I can’t wash my own feet, I can’t sing by myself. Instead, my voice depends on yours, which is a way to remember that my life depends on others.
Communal singing teaches us how to think about ourselves in relationship to others. We learn a posture, disposition, toward one another and the world. We develop a kind of spirituality of listening, a commitment to receive the gifts other people offer, and how to offer our gifts in return, how their voice beckons ours, how their life calls us to share our life. Our communal singing, here, opens us to the holiness of listening and sharing wherever we go—to experience all of the communities we’re a part of as full of the possibilities of something like communion, something like washing each other’s feet.
That’s the first thing I’ve learned: a posture of mutual reliance. The second, is about the nature of belief, that our faith has a sound, that there’s a music to how we believe in God. To believe is not just about how truths fit together, as a kind of problem of logic, faith as a solution to philosophical dilemmas. Instead, as we hear in the Psalms, there’s a bodylines to faith, that words in the abstract aren’t enough to say what we believe. Language and our bodies go together. The Psalmist keeps that connection central, our embodied language of faith: the clapping of our hands, our voice as a joyful noise, the body crying out with praise.
Sebastian Moore, one of my favorite contemplative theologians, once said that, in our attempts to say anything about God, we always wishing we could become poets, because the poets confront us with the limits of our language, showing us where our words break open into mysteries. I think something like that happens in our singing, as our words become music. My sense is that it’s just not enough to speak words about God, or to speak words to God even in prayer, but something happens when we sing them. We access something more, something of our wholeness, body and spirit, when our words become musical. We become a body, together, as we venture into the fulness of language, of what we can say together, in song, that we don’t know how to say alone, that we can’t say by ourselves, with a single voice.
And I think part of what this does to us, this weekly music making, this listening and singing, is to open our senses to the beauty of God—that there is an artistry to God, a divine artistry that we respond to by turning our words into songs. God creates the world and our lives not out of necessity, but because God loves beauty.
God’s creation is not a bare bones project. Instead, God creates with a flourish, with embellishments. God is a bit extra, we could say. Which is kinda what we do here, with singing. We don’t need to sing, but how else could we respond to the extraness of God without our own attempts at being extra? We don’t just say things about God, we sing.
That’s the second thing I’ve learned: that something about our faith makes us break into song. The third thing, the last one for today, is that singing is an expression of hope. There is, of course, that vision from the book of Revelation about all peoples and languages singing together. That’s certainly an image of hope for our world, the blessings of diversity, of union across differences, a gathering full of peace.
All of that is true. But, at least for me, I experience our singing together as a source of hope because I get weighed down by the world when I’m left with my own thoughts. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got issues with the world, with the way things are, and that gets to me, existentially, I’d say.
So, to gather here, weekly, to sing these words, reminds me of our hope. The hymns we sing are filled with words of hope from our scriptures and from generations of people who’ve known of God’s hope, who’ve passed on to us their hope in these songs. We can sing the truth of these words because, even if we have a hard time believing them right now, for us, because of whatever we’ve got going on in our lives, we know that others have believed,
that God has sustained their hope, that we can rely on their trust, we can depend on their faith to inspire ours—their songs as what we need to go on.
When we sing together, we receive the gift of their faith passed on to us. We have songs in our hymnal that go all the way back to the first centuries of the church, preserved as gifts from one era to the next, offered from one corner of the world to another, as treasures of our faith.
With those songs, God’s people have found hope through the ages. And we have new songs, words and music from our word—“Sing to God a new song,” we read from Isaiah 6. We are always in need of expressions of hope, old and new, so that we can believe together, to depend on someone else’s faith when we need to, to trust in the words and songs that have sustained them.
We need each other to keep our hope alive. We sing our way into God’s hope for the world. I think Hildegard of Bingen, a hymnist and leader of the church from the eleventh century, said it best. I’ll close with her words from a thousand years ago:
Singing summons the Holy Spirit. The song of rejoicing softens hearts and makes tears of godly sorrow flow from them. Praises offered in simplicity and love lead the faithful to complete harmony.
 Mary K. Oyer, “A Philosophy of the Use of Music in Mennonite Meetings” (1955), in Nurturing Spirit through Song: The Life of Mary K. Oyer, eds. Rebecca Slough and Shirley Sprunger King (Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2007), 159.
 Sebastian Moore, God is a New Language (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1967), 143-144. “Anyone who talks of the divine encounter without at least wishing he could write poetry is talking about nothing at all… He is opening up before the thirsty wanderer the mirage that is the final exacerbation of thirst.”