The Practice of Singing

With only a few weeks to Advent, I've been anticipating the joy of Christmas services, and especially the opportunity to engage in one of my favourite activities - singing all the well known carols with a group of believers. Hopefully I will even get to do so in four-part harmony, but since this is actually the first time I have been with my local faith community for Advent (last year I was taking services elsewhere), the potential for that is still to be discovered. I do love to sing, and find it frustrating when I suffer, as I have this year, from respiratory ailments that make me lose my voice or sing out of tune. But perhaps there's more to singing together than staying on pitch. Don Saliers says that the deeply human practice of shared singing goes beyond the words and notes of the songs into an expression of our "deepest yearning and dearest joy."

Human beings have probably always sung together, at play and at work, in joy and in grief, around campfires and in opera houses. The Negro spirituals, the wartime favourites and even the football anthems express both solidarity and spirituality; grief and hope and magical joy that go beyond the individual, deep into our souls. In the church, we find ourselves singing psalms that are three thousand years old along with songs that were written this year. Both help us feel part of something bigger, something that stretches across oceans and down centuries. Sadly, this deeply participatory experience has now been starkly individualised; the technology now available to us enables us to record, download and listen to music of our own choice, at a time and place convenient to us. Today, if we want to know more about a person, we ask what is on their ipod. Music, even church music, has become a commodity, and the test of a worship service is often whether I enjoyed it.

Earlier this year, Rob Bell of Michigan's Mars Hill Bible Church (part of the "emerging church" phenomenon) taught a series on the spiritual practices, ("ways of being deliberate about matters of the soul"). One of the sermons, to which I listened as a podcast, was entitled "Why to Sing." Sadly, the message isn't archived at Mars Hill but you can still listen to it here. I found the insights of Bell and his associate Troy Hatfield inspiring and deeply truthful. Singing, they say, is a spiritual practice that is radically counter-cultural. At its heart it is a shared experience that does not happen in many other contemporary contexts; apart from the occasional "Happy Birthday" or "Auld Lang Syne" people today do not sing together, especially with strangers. Church is the exception, and even there we have lost sight of its real purpose. Believers sing together, said Rob, to proclaim in the midst of human pain and alienation that "there is more", and probably all of us, tuneful or tone deaf, can testify to having felt the healing power of sung worship. Even when we can't sing - because we just don't enjoy it, or because we are knee deep in an emotional mire - we can experience that healing, and come away saying., "I needed that." Bell describes being unable to sing in a worship time as being like participating in an animated conversation where you dont actually say anything yourself. There, you can be totally onboard with what others are saying, without making a comment of your own. In the same way, we can participate in musical worship without singing a note, by engaging with the shared experience, with the faith community's spirit and intent.

This intentional communal reminder of shared truth is a lost art, says Bell. We need to reappropriate the notion that singing together is not my time to worship God but rather my time to sing with others. The message includes some practical examples of "the power of mutual submission, " in the use of songs across the historical/theological spectrum, and in the collective tempo and the way we all breathe at the same time during a hymn. This alignment, they say, is a culturally subversive act; it goes against the individualism of our era.. Troy also refers to a 1989 book called Songlines, relating the songs of Australian aboriginals to their nomadic journeys across the land. In a preliterate society, these songs functioned as maps, and our Christian songs and hymns can perform the same function, reminding us of roads to follow, obstacles to overcome and the destination that calls us forward. I like that notion; it makes sense when I think of how music has featured in my own faith journey, with all its ups and downs and twists and turns. Songs can help me understand with my mind, but their poetry can also access something deep in my soul.

The Mars Hill observations challenge again the seductive option of churches offering a sung worship repertoire that fits with one's own musical preferences. A jazz service or a rock theme may work as an occasional special event, but in week by week communal worship, I think we need to be exercising that mutual submission that says, I'm here with God for you. I will participate in this counter-cultural shared experience, by singing and praying in a way that lifts you out of your mire, or sends you more hopefully on your way. I can do that, even when I have laryngitis!

To Chew Over: What songs have served as maps for you, helping you better understand what it means to follow Christ?

When, in our music, God is glorified,
and adoration leaves no room for pride,
it is as though the whole creation cried:
Alleluia! Alleluia!
How often, making music, we have found
a new dimension in the world of sound,
as worship moved us to a more profound
Alleluia! Alleluia!
So has the church, in liturgy and song,
in faith and love, through centuries of wrong,
borne witness to the truth in every tongue:
Alleluia! Alleluia!
And did not Jesus sing a Psalm that night,
when utmost evil strove against the Light?
Then let us sing for whom he won the fight:
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Let every instrument be tuned for praise!
Let all rejoice who have a voice to raise!
And may God give us faith to sing always:
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Fred Pratt Green, 1972.