Friday, July 25, 2014

Directions for Singing: Part 3a - Sing All

The third direction John Wesley gives us is like a shotgun blast. His aim hits the target, but does so in a way that covers a lot of ground. I initially intended to give my thoughts on this entire point in one go, but I happened upon a few interesting rabbit trails along the way and allowed myself to meander. 

3. 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. If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing.

Today I’d like to look at the first sentence: Sing All.

When I read “Sing All” I am immediately aware of three possible meanings: 1) Sing all of the hymns in the hymnbook. 2) Sing all of the words in the hymn. 3) Sing all, every one of you. Wesley may have intended it to mean only one of them, but since we cannot ask him (for he’s been dead for over two centuries) and since I think all of the meanings I’ve gathered from these two words would be agreeable to Wesley anyway, I’ll go for it.

Sing All of the Hymns in the Hymnbook
Sing every song. Every one of them. The whole shebang. Even that one. Allow me to backup before I run and jump into this. Singing all the hymns from the hymnbook is almost a foreign concept to our PowerPoint-shaped minds. Technology today gives us the ability to sing a 400 year old song and a song written 2 hours ago in the very same service without even a hitch. Even if you don’t have access to a projector, most have access to a printer that will meet your immediate needs (Gutenberg would be so proud). The way we view the hymnal today is vastly different from how it was viewed back then. Don’t miss the importance of this. In the past, the hymnal was more or less a requirement. Today the hymnal is optional. One could think of the physical hymn book as a well, and projected (or print-on-demand) lyrics as a faucet.

"Spring up, O well! sweet fountain, spring!"
In many ways the ‘worship wars’ transition of the recent past could be boiled down to how people viewed the physical hymn book. Folks who were used to the well, sustained by the well, whose lifestyle developed around the use of the well, were suddenly introduced to this newfangled doohickey called the faucet. No longer did one have to go outside to the well for water, you could just flip it on in the house. When they went to the well they knew exactly where their water was coming from. But this new plumbing brought water to the faucet from somewhere else. Surely there must be a reservoir somewhere, but how do we know where it came from? How can we be sure someone hasn’t put something else in it? Besides, this tap water tastes funny.

"Pour out your power and love"
Do you see what happened? Nothing essentially negative has occurred. But something negative might occur. And it certainly changes the rhythm of how life used to be. Something solid and reliable has been removed. The hymn book, for centuries has been a haven. A place of solace. Between these two covers is sustenance and safety. If you take a look back at the preface of hymnals such as those developed by pastors like Gadsby and Spurgeon, you will see that one of their concerns is to have a body of songs that have been vetted and approved and are ready for consumption. This is more or less the same reason there is a different hymnal for every denomination. For the good of their people they tailored their hymnbooks to gather the good stuff and avoid the junk.

Along comes technology and it allowed immediate access to new and different songs. The well water that is good for drinking, the one our fathers’ fathers have been drinking from for all these years, is suddenly unnecessary. Now, only pragmatists wish to destroy that which is unnecessary, and believe you me the modern church is chalk full of pragmatists. And because the modern church is chalk full of pragmatists that means they lined up on both sides. The Hymnbooker Pragmatists were of the opinion that the Projector and the music it brought with it were unnecessary in light of what they already had. The PowerPointer Pragmatists stood firm in their belief that the hymnbook was impractical in light of what they now had. Are you starting to hear the war drums beat? (Well…at least one side was pounding drums…) Meanwhile those Christians who hadn’t succumbed to the temptations of the goddess, Pragma, were taking part in a revolutionary concept in our day in age; they were singing together. For Christians are the best at reveling in that which is gloriously unnecessary.

Well that’s enough backing up, now for the run and jump. All of that was said so that we can see the reason John Wesley directed his people to “Sing All” was because this Hymnbook was the Well he dug and he knew it was good. Like Spurgeon and Gadsby after him, Wesley developed this hymnbook for sustenance and safety. Every song was included for a reason; to glorify God and to edify the Church. He wanted his people to draw deep and drink all the well had to offer.

Sing All of the Words in the Hymn
Growing up I figured there must’ve been some Baptist rule in hymn singing that went like this: “You Shall Sing Verses 1, 2, and 4. Never Verse 3.” Is it me or did they always skip verse 3? Perhaps the third verse was the Baptist version of diabolus in musica? Whatever the reason, skipping verses in this way conveyed to me, even at a young age, a pretty strong message: The length of the song trumps the content of the song. This, in turn, conveyed the idea that singing didn’t matter much. It was just something we do because it’s something we’ve always done. Get on with it. And if singing didn’t matter much, what we sang didn’t matter much. And if what we sang didn’t matter much, well then; songs to and about our Creator and Savior that don’t matter to Christians are the devil’s favorite tunes.

That said, skipping verses is not a bad thing. Sometimes it is appropriate and necessary. Sometimes singing one verse is enough. But this shouldn’t be the rule or arbitrary habit in gathered worship and I think John Wesley would agree. Skipping verses in singing is like skipping verses of Scripture. Imagine someone reading Scripture during worship and always skipping every third verse. You might get the point across but really you are betraying the context and the content. A hymn is more likely to build upon itself than our modern verse/chorus/verse/chorus songs. More often, hymns, like a puzzle, require each piece to see the whole picture. But in the end wisdom and discernment should prevail. If you as a leader, or you as a singer, choose to omit a word or a verse then it ought not be arbitrary or done without thinking.

Sing All, Every One of You
Out of all of the meanings I’ve pulled out of “Sing All”, I feel like this one likely hits closest to Wesley’s intention. The emphasis he places on “All” with italics causes me to want to interpret “All” as “Everybody”. And the immediate “see that you join with the congregation” also leads me there. Whatever his intention, this is good advice.

I would that you might suffer me another ‘growin up Baptist’ anecdote. I mentioned how skipping the third verse caused me to slide down a slope of Doesn’t Matter Much of Whatcha Sing. So it comes as no surprise that there were many mouths clamped shut during our times of singing. Singing was (is!) a burden to many. I grew up in a church full of lackluster singing. But I never knew how bad it was until I attended another congregation. The song was “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” and before I uttered two melodic syllables I was struck dumb. I stopped singing because I was amazed at the sound around me. The voice of the congregation boomed. I checked the ceiling to make sure it was still intact. I looked around me to make sure the heavenly host hadn’t joined in. And there was one more thing that took me a moment to pin down. What was that sound? That deep rumble. That punch. That sound that invigorated and fortified my soul. It was the sound of men singing. I mean, really singing. It was an experience I’ll never forget. The following week found me again at First Baptist Church of Dreary Song and as we stood to sing verses 1, 2 and 4, my soul was dismayed. No wonder Wesley encouraged everyone to sing.

We’ll dig a bit more into this in the next installment.

Previous installments of the Direction's for Singing series

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