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
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
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
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
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.