For those who are following along this Lenten season, it’s nice of you to keep up with the “mug shots.” Here is mug #26…I think. No one told me math was part of this.}

When the Presbyterians published a new hymnal supplement in 2003, it was called, as you can read on the promotional mug, “Sing the Faith.” The sub-title, also on the mug,SONY DSC fudged a little, claiming, “New Hymns for Presbyterians.” In reality, the collection was a bunch of new hymns for United Methodists first. It turns out that “Sing the Faith” was a “rebranding” of a Methodist supplement “The Faith We Sing.” The song list in the two books is almost identical, but the Presbyterian publicity that touted the new collection claimed that it “features more than 280 hymns, many of which have been written by and for Presbyterians…” I guess the Methodists really like all those Presby-hymns!

Quibbling over the origin of that book aside, the idea of “singing the faith” goes way back. The book of Psalms is an ancient collection of 150 songs held in common among Methodists, Presbyterians, Jews, and too many congregations to count through the generations since harp virtuoso King David wrote some of them. Lament and praise, complaint and wonder…those songs have been sung, chanted, prayed, read, memorized, paraphrased, and revised metrically for worship over the centuries. “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord…” “The Lord is my shepherd..” “I lift my eyes to the hills…” “O sing to the Lord a new song.”

Jesus quoted the Psalms from the cross. “My God, why have you forsaken me?” So not only do we sing our faith through the Psalms, but also our un-faith, at least, our doubts and fears and feelings of abandonment. Such honest prayer. Unguarded. “From the depths, I cry…”

I once served a church in northern Vermont, a congregation with Scottish Covenanter roots. The only music allowed in worship in its early history was the a capella singing or chanting of the Psalm book. No instrumental music. No “modern” (or contemporary for the times) hymns.  We got a taste of that when we visited a church in Scotland that still chanted Psalms in its Sabbath services. Fairly dreary as I recall. Seems as if a psalm of joy should have some uplifting beat or danceable rhythm. (I kept that thought to myself, lest we all be tossed to the cobbled Glasgow street.) The Vermont church had reformed its heritage many years ago and sang from the newer hymnals, though singing a psalm each week was still a tradition when I was there.

Sing the faith! Words are not enough. The head may “get” the meaning, but the heart must find the music for the meaning to be fully expressed. “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song,” Jim Croce sang, because “every time I tried to tell you, the words just came out wrong.” But music redeemed his verbal efforts, not covering up his awkward words, but adding an embellishment that communicated the emotion behind the nouns and verbs. Now, music may not save bad poetry or bad theology. Hymnals old and new hold evidence of that. Those books are full of (pardon the expression) God-awful lyrics and tunes that are syrupy or downright unsingable. But there are masterpieces too, and songs that feed the soul.

As Fred Pratt Green wrote, “When in our music God is glorified…it is as if the whole creation cried, Alleluia!” And, “May God give us faith to sing always…” And may God give us all excellent voices, like Pavaroti’s or Sills’. Well, that won’t happen, will it? So much for singing the faith, if one can’t really sing.

Some autobiographical notes here. I can’t recall ever hearing my mother sing. Dad, though, would walk into a room singing some ditty now and then, just fooling around. But he made fun of singing in church; thought it was silly. He said as much one day as we sat at the table together at Mom and Dad’s home, and in the presence of my wife, the church musician! The comment defined chagrin. When I reminded Dad of Joan’s musical vocation, he was a little embarrassed, though he didn’t retract his statement. (He also thought people looked silly blowing into horns.)

My first singing was done at my maternal grandmother’s piano. She was an elementary school teacher, and I know we sang songs together, maybe even before I went to kindergarten. Like every other child in school, I sang in the classroom and later, in junior and senior high choruses. Add church choir to the mix, too, but only after my voice had changed. In college, somehow I got up the courage to try out for the Vesper Choir. It wasn’t exactly a “select chorus,” since a tenth of the school’s population of 1200 sang in it. But it did expose me to some of the great anthems and religious masterworks of the ages, the Brahms “A German Requiem” among them.

Vesper Choir also exposed me to a voice major who sang in the Concert Choir as well as for Vespers. It was there in the Westminster College Conservatory of Music that we would look for each other before and after rehearsals. She had the voice of a talented soprano soloist, and I the voice of a trying bass chorus member. Or, was it more the trying voice of a bass? When I had left school for a semester just as Joan and I were getting serious about more than singing together in choir, I asked her to sing me some songs via tape, and I was thrilled to hear her sing “I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face,” with my reading into the lyrics her feelings for me. Ah, yes, I remember it well.

As Joan moved into professional church music, I continued to sing the faith in a more modest way, always trying to blend my voice well under the other basses in various choirs. Both of us found singing with the 500+ voices of the Adult Choir at the Montreat Music and Worship Conferences to be richly fulfilling, musically and spiritually. To hear the children’s and youth choirs add their repertoire to the week was a powerful reminder that the singing of faith had a future beyond yucky praise choruses and juvenile jingles. Not all sung faith has to be “classical,” of course, but music that is challenging and worth some work has a depth that moves us profoundly, and joyfully.

I have a gift for you, if you wonder if you have the right voice for singing the faith, or anything else for that matter. Click this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zELdyu3BKcQ to hear my old Richmond friend Steve Bassett sing some musical advice: “Sing Loud, and Leave the Listening to Somebody Else.”

A rather Cosmic Somebody.

 

 

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