Music is a hot topic in post-course evaluation discussions. And as a music minister my antennae twitch vibrantly when the topic comes up anywhere. At least in my community, nothing sparks intensity of opinion quite like the type of music used to lead people in worship and the way in which that music is executed.
But the ping pong match of "freedom in the Spirit" vs "comfort of tradition" and all the ways in which one can imperceptibly move into the other is predictable and boring after hearing out the personal views of particular individuals. A more fundamental question emerges from the strongly held stances.
Why do Christians sing? What does it have to do with being human? What does it have to do with prayer, and does anything about it lend itself to the life of conversion? And specifically how can singing together help propel our parish's ChristLife to its intended goal?
Why do Christians sing?
Ok, Scripture. Just in the book of Psalms we are enjoined to sing to God a bazillion times. We've been doing it forever, and our Jewish forefathers in faith have been doing it forever. So it isn't something that those who are raised in the church even think about, because it is so much a part of us. When I lived in Japan, though, it was pointed out to me, "Christianity is the religion where people sing together." Of all of the things that characterize religions, it never dawned on me that this would be striking for someone to whom Christianity was completely foreign. "They sing together." Japanese people sing together. We even use a Japanese word for one way to do that: karaoke. They have corporate songs and school songs, but not really any religious songs.
And Japanese singing tells us something about how music functions for human beings. Singing together requires an experience of corporateness. Many parts make up one body, one song-singing mass. We think or read the same words, the same timing, the same feeling, and we express these together. We speak one thing as one group.
Bump that up to the liturgical responses of Mass, or a Scriptural song where we are acclaiming God's word back to Him. Here, we are focus our words, our minds, our voices on the action of God or on the thoughts of God, and together with Him, we sing the words. We are corporate, with God. Singing, in this way, is one of the clearest human manifestations of being Church.
But at what cost?
There is something very vulnerable about being Church like this. This is not an accident. In order to actually sing, you have to let your voice be heard. But it's not your normal, daily voice. It's not your business voice. It's not your negotiating voice. For most of us, it isn't our most trained voice, the one we feel in control of. Singing denotes a revealing of a secret voice, one for sacred or intimate use. Scientists tell us that singing releases endorphins and bonds us to those we sing with. Human beings are designed to grow and thrive through this experience of giving into the vulnerability of singing together.
It sounds beautiful and poetic, and those of us who love music can be cheerleaders for this point. But those who have any experience of performing music for others will tell you there is a side to this beautiful and poetic experience that is terrifying. If you are performing a new piece or in a new context or it is especially important to you for whatever reason to do a certain thing very well, the adrenaline flows. You get nervous. Fight or flight instincts activate. Alertness levels peak. Doing this in community is actually part of what bonds people as they sing or perform.
So what about prayer?
Not everyone loves to sing. Singing in any context, let alone public performance, can evoke anxiety for some people, and therefore some simply don't sing, perhaps claiming that they actually cannot. I wonder how many of these would also feel they cannot pray. That they do not know how to make their voice or their heart heard to God. The hint I'd like to give them is that singing, in one way of understanding it, is unavoidably essential to prayer.
Oh, you can say prayers, recite them. You can pray silently. I do both of these every day. But in reality if the heart does not sing, the prayer does not rise.
And specifically, ChristLife
Let's look at a specific ChristLife context now. The fourth talk in Following Christ is all about forgiving those who have wronged us. The concept of forgiving someone is beautiful and poetic. Right? We are inspired by stories of people who do it. But the act of forgiving can be terrifying. It requires our energy, our focus. The experience is likely to dredge up what happened and lots of feelings. It takes courage to forgive.
And as we venture out into this fray of Following Christ session four, we sing a few songs. Why? Why throw songs in here, or in any Mass or any Christian context? It is not filler, it is not entertainment, it is not custom, it is no mere artistic segue. We sing to acknowledge our vulnerability before the God who made us, but loves us. We acknowledge that as God, he has every right to direct our lives. We acknowledge that we need and desire His grace.
So what is this worship music for?
We sing to open our hearts, to be real, to assent to our vulnerability, and to declare truth. I do not sing just for myself, but in singing for myself I am simultaneously singing to support the one next to me with the same truth. We sing to belong to each other.
To worship God is to lay our lives and hearts bare before the Lord, to allow His loving gaze to fall upon us, and to respond to His creative gaze with the love His Holy Spirit births into our hearts as we are there. And that's true whether we are singing, speaking, silent, acting, or crying: it is all a song. To worship God is an experience of emotion, but not only emotion. It is an experience of will, but not only will. It is a personal and private experience, and yet it is not only personal and private. Worship is to be the place of corporate authenticity of our deepest hearts, before God. Worship, expressed in song, is a place of faith and vulnerability. I believe this is the essense of the "new territory" that my community is learning to experience through ChristLife. And to navigate it well, it helps to state it explicitly.