Singing psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs…

When we gather as a choir on Thursdays and Sundays, our voices join together, in unison, in two-parts, four-parts, or more. Sometimes, it’s good enough to just hum a simple melody like “Jesus loves me” or “Amazing grace”. Our vocal chords vibrate with the sounds our brains tell it to make. Sing high, sing low, sing in the middle. Our voices are one of the wonders of creation.

But what happens to those folks facing us in the pews? What sounds do they make? Do their sounds matter? The most common response from the folks who are asked to join a choir is “Oh, I’m not any good. My voice isn’t good enough to do what YOU do!”.

One of the biggest shifts in my thinking came decades ago, but is one that I too often let leave my mind. The choir is not the leader of worship; they are enablers. And that hymns belong to the people….the congregation, and not to the choir. We should poke, prod, enable, and support the congregation. Most often, we do a great job at that. Occasionally, I need to remind myself that we need to do more with hymns, and do more to encourage congregational singing.

As we begin another year of ministry together, one of the main areas I am focusing on is hymn singing and education, both in worship for the congregation at-large, and in our Sunday school. Rosemary and I have been in conversation about how we can bolster the Sunday school curriculum to do more singing with the kids. In worship, this may involve more singing and “rehearsing” hymns at the beginning of worship; something I did a great deal when I worked in the Catholic churches.

Being raised in a musical church (albeit a BAD music church!) I quickly understood the importance of music in worship, and even more, the importance of singing in worship. Hymns help us ground our faith and, as the sayings go, “help us express what the spoken words fail to express.” For every hymn sung in worship, I’m responsible for choosing it, for good or for bad. Each (well, 98% of the time!) hymn that we sing in worship is chosen with a great deal of care. What does it say to us in the context of the other elements in any particular service? How can they help weave together the scriptures, the other parts of worship, our anthems, into a more cohesive and meaningful experience? Does the text reflect the other elements of worship?

When choosing hymns, text is primary, and music is secondary. That’s the way I approach hymn choices. Hymns begin life as a story, or a poem. Composers will tell you that it’s usually the text that speaks to them when they begin writing a hymn or other vocal music. I’ll take into account whether we know a particular tune or not, but generally, if the text fits which topics or themes are being stressed in any given service, I’ll choose it. Because the Chancel Choir is a strong musical presence, I don’t always steer clear of tunes we don’t know, because I know you’ll sing with gusto whatever I put in front of you! Some, to be honest, are just downright awful, and I won’t even consider going near them because of poor vocal lines (too many jumps/skips) or the music doesn’t really reflect the text. But that brings us back to the congregation and unfamiliar tunes. More rehearsal and enabling them to get new tunes into their repertoire.

No service is completely and fantastically crafted from top to bottom that everything and everyone is precisely coordinated and on the same page. Sometimes, that little bit of non-cohesiveness comes together on Sunday morning with some word in a sermon or a prayer. Or in an event that happened to all or one of us during the week before. In those special moments, or even the not-so-special, God is there…working through each of us.

Hymns are why I chose to do what I do. Or, as many might say, “It was God who chose you, not the other way around!” I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than sit at a piano or organ and play hymns for anyone who wants to sing them. When I’m stressed or panicked, I subconsciously find myself singing a line from a hymn: “Sing them over again to me, wonderful words of life.”— “No storm can shake my inmost calm, when to that rock I’m clinging; since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?” — “When Christ shall come, with shouts of acclamation, and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.” Line after line, hymn after hymn. These words comfort, encourage, strengthen, and uplift, carrying us through another week of exhausting and tiring work and tasks.

And I hope that our corporate worship will do the same for anyone within earshot of our Meetinghouse. (A side note…one of these fall days, we WILL open ALL the doors and windows of the Meetinghouse and let our voices flow out into the neighborhood! Wouldn’t you be drawn to a place where you hear great music being sung and played?)

So I urge you to consider the stories we are responsible for sharing each week in worship. Don’t allow yourselves to blindly sing that hymn you’ve sung for “fill-in-the number” of years. Make it come alive – lift it off the page and give it your voice, your breath, and your special treatment. Words make all the difference.

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