Every week, millions of Christians all around the world gather together, and, amongst other things, sing. They sing. Together. Just as their forebears have done for millennia, they open their mouths, engaging lips, teeth, vocal cords - their entire beings, really (ideally) - and make music. Folks who wouldn't otherwise presume to vocalize, least of all in public, do just that. So I'm asking the question - why? Why do we do this? Force of habit? Perhaps. Good vibes? Likely. Unthinking tradition? Far be it.
As a pastoral song leader for going on a decade now, I've of course witnessed a great many people who won't sing. A whole post or two (or ten) could be devoted to what's likely happening with folks who dig in their heels and shut their mouths. Rabbi Benjamin Shalva has a fantastic article where he surmises that this dynamic is due in no small part to adult fears about letting ones' inner child come to play (or sing, as it were). Suffice to say in most cases it's likely a mix of self-consciousness, lack of faith, and a lack of vision. It is because of this last dynamic in particular, a lack of vision, that I write here. My hope is that a compelling vision for the power of singing can find its way to the eyes and ears of our people, a vision sufficient enough to overcome fears and proclivities to the contrary.
When we sing together, there are three particularly powerful dynamics that come into play. When we sing, we REMIND, we RESPOND, and we REALIGN.
First of all, singing songs REMINDS us. When we sing, we remember. We remember God’s nature. His character. His incredible power. We remember his mighty acts throughout history. For 1500 years the Hebrews sang “The Song of the Sea,” the song written in Exodus 15, to remind generation after generation how God had set them free from bondage, and how they were His chosen people. In song we also remind ourselves of who we are in Jesus, that God is a good Father who cares for us, and that we are loved by Him. So the songs that we sing remind us individually and collectively that we are not alone, that God is with us and for us. That He’s proven himself faithful over and over. That He is rich in mercy and slow to anger. We remind ourselves that God has a plan to renew all of creation, and that we are a part of that plan!
Second, when we sing, we RESPOND to God. Singing is an opportunity for and mode of response to God. This is why we are commanded over and over throughout scripture to sing. Hebrews 13:5 says “Let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God.” In light of who God is and what incredible things He has done, we are to respond by singing. To sacrifice our predispositions, our hangups, our fears. For some of us, that is a big sacrifice. Some of us have broken hearts, others are struggling to have any faith at all, to not be overcome by doubt. But this is a universal call - to those who feel the natural impulse to sing, and those who don’t; to those with fantastic voices, and those with not-so-fantastic voices (and research is showing that anyone can become a decent singer). We are all called to respond to God with songs of adoration, songs of joy, songs of gratitude. It makes God happy when we sing. And we can trust that as we respond in this way, powerful things will happen - in, around, and through us.
So when we sing we REMIND, we RESPOND, and lastly we REALIGN. Many of the things we find ourselves doing in our lives skew, break, twist, and harden our hearts. Moses knew this well. Nearing the end of his incredible, history-altering life, having played a key role in leading the Hebrews out from under the yoke of the most powerful empire the world had yet seen and into the land promised them, and having witnessed the waywardness of the peoples' hearts through 40 years of desert wandering, what does Moses do? He writes a song. "The Song of Moses" in Deuteronomy 32 has his final plea to the people he had loved and led for so long, to realign their hearts to the One who had proven Himself so faithful. Having sung the song before all the people, Moses pleads:
“Take to heart all these words to which I give witness today and urgently command your children to put them into practice, every single word of this Revelation. Yes. This is no small matter for you; it’s your life."
The SONG was to be the thing parents used to call their children back to the good life God had called them to. So too, as we sing, as we are reminded and respond, we find our hearts being realigned. Like visiting a spiritual chiropractor, singing REALIGNS our hearts to God’s. It expands God’s picture of reality, his kingdom, within our hearts. This is the beauty of poetry, metaphor, and story that is captured in song. It supersedes logic, and touches the depths of our hearts. As our emotions are stirred, our affections are moved, our hearts softened, and the very core of who we are is realigned to the Father. Singing actualizes our identity as beloved sons and daughters. Truths are taken out of the abstract, and into the stuff of our real lives. When this happens we can ask for anything and we will receive it because it will have been God himself who planted that desire in our hearts! Many of the songs that we sing serve to realign our hearts to God’s heart, and when we choose to sing as His church some powerful moments can take place in our midst propelled by the Holy Spirit. True miracles can and will take place.
When we join together in song, singing words that were written hundreds of years ago or words that were written two weeks ago, we are swept up into a reality that is bigger, better and more real than “this”. We join millions of voices that have found out that there is MORE. There is more than the suffering we see everyday. There is more than the injustices that we see around the world. There is MORE than the hatred we see alive and well within our society.
This MORE is our God. Yahweh God. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God made manifest in the person of Jesus. When we sing together we are creating space to say “no” to the ways of the world and yes to God’s kingdom! When we are successful in creating this space we partake in a never ending cycle of responding, reminding and realigning.
All of human and cosmological history is drawing towards a climax, a great crescendo - a glorious end to all pain and injustice, violence and sin, mourning and sorrow. The restoration of atoms and galaxies, the death of death itself. The great fulfillment of the Kingdom of God, and the coming of a new heaven and a new earth - the dwelling place of God and the dwelling place of man. A resurrection to new life, life qualitatively deeper, more expansive, more free and full than life as we’ve previously experienced it. And God - Yahweh God, more beautiful and glorious, more breathtaking and awesome than we ever dared imagine. We will behold him in unveiled glory, as we are drawn ever onward to the infinite expanse of his love, mercy and goodness. On that day and forevermore, our souls will sing. I'm talking singing from your toes, singing with everything you've got, singing at the biggest, loudest, most hopping party the universe has ever known. We will, together with all of restored creation, and with every tongue, tribe and nation declare the praises of the Lamb who was slain....in the meantime, let's get ourselves ready for that day. Let's sing. He is the reason that we sing.