In John Wesley’s first two points we have seen what to sing. His third point has allowed us to touch a bit on why we sing and specifically why we should sing together. Now in these final four points Wesley directs us how to sing. To be honest, this is my favorite instruction. Years ago when I first came across these “Directions for Singing”, this is the one that stuck out. It lingers about my mind nearly every Sunday morning.
4. Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.
A few posts back I mentioned an experience that contrasted with my normal expectations about congregational singing. After years of being formed by dreary, yawn inducing singing, I attended a congregation who taught me a lesson. We began with “Praise to the Lord the Almighty” and I thought the church would crumble like the walls of Jericho. The rumble, the boom, the power of that gathered voice, full of mirth and might, was almost overwhelming to my unaccustomed ears. It was this moment that gave me the clearest understanding of just how anemic my experiences up until then with congregational singing really had been. It was like being raised on rice and beans my whole life and then someone offered me a steak. These people were doing exactly what Wesley tells us to do; they were singing lustily and with good courage. And it made me want to join in.
What does it mean to sing lustily? Words like, vigorous, hearty, and mighty come to mind. There is oomph behind it. It’s warriors singing as they march to battle. It’s the National Anthem sung after a gold medal at the Olympics. It’s the seventh grade girl’s sleepover where hairbrushes are microphones.
Maybe the best way to think of it would be singing whole-heartedly. If we love the Lord our God with all of our heart and mind and strength then we should sing to the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and strength. That includes our voices. Which includes the volume of our voices. Which means your half-sigh-sing-along is less than whole-hearted. Which means your song is lacking in more than just volume. When you sing half-dead or half-asleep, or when you are ashamed of being heard, you are saying something to God and to the Church (and about them). You are saying that you are half-hearted. Which means the only thing you’re good for is to be spat out. Were that you hot or cold…
When I think of the epitome of whole-heartedness I think of my 7 year old son. When he sets his mind on something he doesn’t let it go. Ever. The kid is a pit bull. However noble (giving money to the church) or silly (playing a certain video game) he pursues his desire with every fiber of his being. His joy or misery hinges upon it. It’s his first thought when he wakes up and his last thought before his eyes close. Often it’s his whole-heartedness that gets him in trouble. The (fantastic) reason it gets him into trouble is because it gives him boldness. If he sets his mind on something he’s going to ask me to do it until I give in or punish him for asking for the 1000th time…or he’ll just do it without asking. He “knows” that he will get in trouble if he asks “one more time”, but in his whole-hearted boldness he risks it anyway. He’s still learning how to be obedient and how to have self-control, but his whole-heartedness is a good thing. But for most of us, whole-heartedness doesn’t come so easily. This is why we need courage.
And With Good Courage
Courage requires us to risk whole-heartedness. Courage tells us to act whole-hearted without being whole-hearted to begin with in the hope that acting whole-hearted will lead to whole-heartedness. That’s a chewy one. I explain it to my kids like this: You cannot be courageous without being afraid. Fear is necessary for bravery. You cannot have courage without it. If fear is absent from your action, then you are not being brave, you are being normal (or stupid). Courage is being afraid and doing it anyway. Every time my kids say, “I’m scared” it is an opportunity to teach courage. Courage never feels like courage to begin with. It feels like anxiety. You only feel courageous after the deed is done (maybe).
So singing with good courage doesn’t mean you have to feel like it before you sing. In fact, with our understanding of courage, it means the opposite! You don’t feel like singing? You’re exactly where you need to be. Now sing as if you are singing with your whole heart. You feel like a liar? Because you are. Keep singing. You feel your voice isn’t very pleasant sounding? At least you know it. Keep singing. Whatever fears and excuses (legitimate!) you have, sing through them. If Christ has conquered Satan and the gods of this world, if Christ has conquered sin and death, then whatever fears we have that prevent us from singing whole-heartedly when we gather to sing will pale in comparison. Christ gives us courage greater than the courage of the world because He has already conquered.
If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
So sing out!
Epilogue: A word to the men of the church
My eye is heavily upon you here. Growing up, those who actually did sing were the ladies. It was the men with folded arms and furrowed brows with their traps shut. That taught me another thing I had to unlearn later: Singing is for girls. Such an impact is not just harmful, it is evil. The force behind such thinking is satanic. Satan is dancing to your droning. He’s giggling like the schoolgirl he makes you think you’ll be if you sing out. Though the fiery dragon has been dealt a mortal wound by our great Savior, his death throes are still dangerous. He still has poison and the power to enchant you. But God has given you a weapon to break the spell and fight back. What are you doing with it? Yawning? Martin Luther said,
The devil, the originator of sorrowful anxieties and restless troubles, flees before the sound of music almost as much as before the Word of God…Music is a gift and grace of God, not an invention of men. Thus it drives out the devil and makes people cheerful.
Every Sunday when the church gathers in song, a sword is always held at someone’s throat; the devil’s or yours. Worship is war and your half-hearted singing is a position of pathetic weakness, a treacherous act. Your mumbled song is a whimper that only discourages your comrades and emboldens the enemy. Your children will see your defeat and follow you. What will their children do? Do you care? Paul encourages us to “be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.” Singing is a way to guard and stand firm in the faith, so act like a man and sing with strength.
This Sunday sing with vigor and might. That means with oomph. Your guts are going to have to get involved. Intestinal fortitude two ways. If people notice then you’re probably doing it right. You’re not going to feel like it, but that’s where courage kicks in. Sing out and sing through.
Previous installments of the Direction's for Singing series