Singing On

by Joan King

Somehow the songs sung long before we gathered here reach out across the generations and grab hold of us.

I remember sitting in church between my grandparents when I was a little girl. I remember their singing. My grandfather was completely tone deaf, and my grandmother had a quavering, small soprano voice. But how they sang those songs of faith and how they loved to hear others sing!

Now I sing in a congregation that has stood in one place for over two hundred and fifty years. Usually I am surrounded by at least three hundred other singers. Unlike in my home church, we almost always sing without piano or organ, supported only by the strength of the community. The quality of the music is different here from the church of my childhood, where the organ often drowned out the singing. Still the songs are often the same, and my grandparents are never far from my memory or my heart.

I have sung in my current congregation long enough to hear the voices that are missing. I miss the young man whose tenor voice was silenced by cancer, yet some Sundays his eighty-year-old father's clear tenor sings on, affirming that "it is well with my soul" and making me stop my own singing to listen. I listen to the alto voice behind me, singing alone these five years after her dear husband died, after being committed all his life to singing in this space. When they sang together, their voices would meet, then part, as their harmonies drew close and diverged.

I have watched us come together in grief at the death of a child, faces drawn in pain. The song is faint at first; the words of comfort and assurance ring false at first. But somehow the songs sung long before we gathered here reach out across the generations and grab hold of us. You can hear it happening in the crescendo of the music, as the parts begin to clear, the bass line is heard, and slowly but surely, that affirmation of faith becomes just that—an affirmation.

Never was the power of the singing as clear to me as it was the Sunday following September 11. In our congregation we have different lay people lead worship throughout the year. That Sunday was one of my days as a worship leader. When I stood to lead worship that morning, I looked out over faces filled with images of the week, of pain, of shock, of confusion. As a peace church we brought a set of questions to that Sunday morning that were particularly painful. What does it mean to follow Jesus' way of peace in the face of a faceless enemy? How do we love the "other" when the other seems barely human?

As we stood to sing, I sensed the ocean of emotion among us that day. Then the song began: "Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, help me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn; through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light. Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home." With each phrase more tears fell; with each phrase the song swelled, until finally it rang from the walls.

Did the singing change the world? Sometimes I wonder. What I know is that it brought those of us gathered there back to the place we needed to be, back to the place of struggle, back to stand before the face of God.

Some Sundays I arrive at church harried and frazzled from the life I lead, sometimes not even liking my daughters or my husband much. Then the singing begins. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.

In her book Traveling Mercies, author Anne Lamott talks about visiting a church and of the "singing splitting her wide open." When I sit in this place hallowed by thousands of Sundays of singing, surrounded by people as different from me as night from day—yet hearing what music we make together—I marvel at the wonder and the breadth of God's grace.

Something magical happens in the middle of a song when you look down at the credit line and realize it was written in 1869, or in 1789, or even before, yet here you are in the middle of postmodern America finding God in the same words, the same harmonies in which God was present one hundred, two hundred, even three hundred or more years ago.

Some Sundays I arrive at church harried and frazzled from the life I lead, sometimes not even liking my daughters or my husband much, depending on what the morning at home has brought. Then the singing begins. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me. Somehow the conflict over the outfit for Sunday morning, or who will clean up the kitchen, slides into its proper perspective, shoulders relax, and the Spirit flows down the row of our family. I suspect many Sundays this experience is repeated bench after bench.

What is it about this simple act of singing that has such power?

Singing, I think, connects us in new ways; it is a powerful metaphor of community with the power to create new realities for us. We sing together even when we don’t like each other, when we don’t agree with each other, yet we find what is common and shared through the song.

Singing connects us again and again to the past and, when we sing with our children or others younger than us, to the future. When I sing and hear, if only now in memory or through other elderly voices, the voices of my grandparents, all they were and gave to me comes near. When I extend that connection to others of faith who went before me, and realize they sang through times as frightening as whatever I might be facing, yet still sang on, I gain courage from that connection.

Mennonites talk all the time about community. We believe Scripture is interpreted in the context of the community, that authentic faith can only be lived in community, and that Jesus truly stands among us when we are gathered. We are at least as flawed and fraught with conflict as any other group of people. But our singing gives us hope. It is in the discord that the harmony is fully heard. It is only when we all sing the part written for us that the music is fully expressed. It is only when we are all paying attention to the song leader that subtle changes in dynamics can be expressed by hundreds of singers.

This crazy and sometimes wonderful culture we live in doesn’t often express the priorities we find in the gospel story. During the week we don’t hear much about the power of the powerless, the face of God reflected in the oppressed and downtrodden of our society, or the fact that God might be present in unexpected ways and circumstances. Then Sunday rolls around and we sing. In our singing the silence is broken, the denial crumbles, and the song that has been sung through the ages becomes our song, and sings on.

Joan Kenerson King manages her own therapy and consulting business. She is an avid storyteller, the mother of three almost adult daughters, and the wife of her best friend, Michael. She attends Salford Mennonite Church in Harleysville, Pennsylvania. If you were to pass her on the road riding in her little green Toyota Echo, you would probably see her singing.

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