People have been singing their prayers, petitions, and praises to God for thousands of years. In the Jewish faith tradition, which is foundational to our Christian tradition, Psalms were written as songs to be sung by faithful people gathered to pray and worship God. Our United Church Hymn Book, Voices United, in its Introduction to the section on “Psalms and Scripture Songs” says,
“The Psalms of Hebrew Scripture are the oldest songs of the Jewish people. According to ancient tradition, the founder of this hymnody was the shepherd-king, David, who ruled in Canaan about 1000 BCE. The work that he inspired led, over the centuries, to the emergence of the book of
Psalms used for worship in the Temple at the time of Jesus.
…Christians have used psalms and songs from other parts of scripture [in various ways during worship]. …The United Church of Canada inherited these traditions for reading and singing the Psalms.
…The metrical psalms of Voices United may be sung as they always have been, as hymns in their own right. As such they offer our worship their own broad expression of praise, petition, lament and thanksgiving.”
(Voices United, pages 722-723, The United Church Publishing House, 1997)
Throughout the centuries psalms have played an important role in both Jewish and Christian worship. For example Psalms 120-134 are called Songs of Ascent because they were sung by pilgrims as they climbed up the hill to the Temple in Jerusalem. Psalm 96, our responsive reading today, is one of the many psalms that are hymns of praise to God.
Augustine, a bishop in North Africa in the 5th century, is credited with saying, “When you sing, you pray twice”, emphasizing the importance and stirring effect on the heart and soul when words of faith are combined with music.
Many centuries later, in the 1500’s, during the Protestant Reformation, congregational singing of Psalms and other hymns based on scripture was encouraged in worship. Supporting this trend were scripture references such as Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.”
During the 1700’s, Charles and John Wesley, the founders of the Methodist church, were great supporters of hymn singing as an essential part of worship. In his lifetime, Charles Wesley, wrote over 8,000 hymns, fourteen of which are in our Voices United hymnbook. Two of the most familiar of these hymns are, Hark! the Herald Angels Sing (VU # 48) and Love Divine, All Loves Excelling (VU # 333) Charles’ brother, John Wesley, was a dynamic preacher and advocated for congregational singing to be done with one’s whole heart and soul and never in any half-hearted way. To accomplish this, Wesley favoured using tunes that people knew well (many of these tunes were pub songs) which were matched with lyrics suitable for worship. Although John Wesley only wrote a handful of hymns, he had very strong opinions about congregational singing. He included “Directions For Singing” in a Methodist hymnbook published in 1761. These Directions For Singing are included in our Voices United hymnbook and give encouragement to contemporary hymn singers. Here is a sampling of Wesley’s suggestions for congregational singing:
“Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. …Sing lustily and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. …strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound. …Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing.” (Voices United # 720, The United Church Publishing House, 1997)
Inspired by earlier generations, The United Church of Canada affirms the essential inclusion in worship of congregational singing. In my reading, this past week, I discovered that the United Church has “A Theological Statement on Music” that is posted on its website. Here are some excerpts from this statement:
“We are a singing people. …Music permeates all God’s creation and enfolds and embraces all God’s people. Our musical life is rooted in and evolves from God’s relationship with us, and our relationship and response to God. …How we sing together as a people of God shapes and reflects how we live as human beings and how we live with creation and with one another. …[Singing] enables us to offer praise to God who has created and is creating. Music reminds us that we are loved by God and made for God. The fullest expression of this in the church is congregational song. …When we sing together, barriers and categories are transcended. Differences go away. Song enables us to bridge gaps. It unites us as the body of Christ. It helps us learn to listen deeply. …We are grounded in God’s Spirit as we sing to, for, and with the world. Through song, voices are found and nurtured. Song shows us how the world is and how it can be. Stewardship of the church’s song therefore requires faithful discipleship of us all.”
(A Theological Statement on Music in the United Church of Canada, 2010, excerpts)
Much of what I know about healthy and vital congregations comes from the lessons I have learned over the years in a variety of United Church choirs. I’ve learned that when you sing with others it is important to listen carefully to one another, sing harmoniously, and work as a team. One voice, or a few voices, should not dominate the group. Intentionally work together to achieve the best blend of voices possible remembering that each voice is important to the sound of the whole. Think about what you are singing and sing it like you mean it and you will soon realize that you do believe what you are singing. Look out for each other and when someone has lost their way help them get back on track. Be intentional about breathing and being aware of God’s Spirit guiding and energizing your efforts. Don’t worry when you need to stop singing to breathe because others will carry the tune for you and you will do the same for them when they need space to breathe. Music adds feeling to words. We can be more expressive when we sing if we think about the words we are singing and let the music emphasize and reinforce the feelings underlying the words. The sound of many voices singing together is encouraging and empowering for the whole group. It reminds us that we are not alone and that we do not have to carry the tune all by ourselves. Singing together creates a sense of community, of closeness, of shared vision and purpose.
The ancient Psalmists knew, as we know today, that song permeates the whole of Creation. Songbirds at dawn, crickets at dusk, the wind whistling through trees, water in a stream singing its way down a mountainside, all speak of God’s wondrous creation. We also know that God is present in all the moments of our lives as well as in all the wonders of our world. How then, can we keep from singing God’s praises?
I’ll close with excerpts from, A Song of Faith, the United Church’s most recent official statement of faith, adopted in 2006:
“God is Holy Mystery, beyond complete knowledge, above perfect description. Yet, in love, the one eternal God seeks relationship. …Grateful for God’s loving action, we cannot keep from singing.
…we sing of God the Spirit, who from the beginning has swept over the face of creation, animating all energy and matter and moving in the human heart. …who speaks our prayers of deepest longing and enfolds our concerns and confessions, transforming us and the world.
…We sing of Jesus…[who] knew human joy and sorrow. So filled with the Holy Spirit was he that in him people experienced the presence of God among them.
…We sing of a church seeking to continue the story of Jesus by embodying Christ’s presence in the world. We are called together by Christ as a community of…hopeful believers, loving what he loved, living what he taught, striving to be faithful servants of God in our time and place.
…We sing of God’s good news lived out, a church with purpose:
faith nurtured and hearts comforted, gifts shared for the good of all…members of a community held and inspired by God, corrected and comforted, instrument of the loving Spirit of Christ, creation’s mending.
(Excerpts from, A Song of Faith: A Statement of Faith of The United Church of Canada, 2006)
May we never cease to sing our faith,
in the words and actions of our lives,
this day and always!