Monday, August 18, 2014

Directions for Singing: Part 6 - Sing in Time

6. Sing in Time: whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind it; but attend closely to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can. And take care you sing not too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from among us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.

This is perhaps the most practical of all of Wesley’s directions. The goal here is twofold. 1) Again we see, as in Direction #5, he’s teaching his people to strive for unity. It should be remembered that this is his overarching purpose, but since we covered that in Part 5, I’ll not touch upon it here. 2) Wesley is trying to correct something that has obviously become normalized to the point that it has become quite useless or intolerable to many.

His last sentence is awesome. “This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from among us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.You can hear it in his voice can’t you? His disdain for lazy singing. I imagine my experience as a youth in the First Baptist Church of Dreary Song was not unlike what was driving Wesley nuts here. I can see him squirm and fidget with deep breaths waiting for the agony of the eternal song to end. God love ‘em, but is there anything fast, quick, or snappy about an elderly lady playing piano in church? Minor annoyances aside, what I think Wesley is ultimately getting at here is that songs need to be sung appropriately. The clue here is when he says “just as quick as we did at first”. This indicates that they were initially sung in the appropriate manner. I think that is the crux. I don’t think Wesley wants to sing every single tune like an auctioneer; I think he wants to sing every single tune the way it is supposed to be sung. Tunes and texts which lend themselves to be sung at a quicker tempo should not be sung as a dirge. Solemn tunes should be solemn, not dead. These songs initially, were sung correctly, but they have since grown slow and dull. I want to use this as a springboard to think for a moment about how songs are supposed to be sung.

For the most part I would guess that generally the songs we sing on a weekly basis are neither boisterous nor somber. They are probably somewhere in between. There is nothing wrong with that unless they are always somewhere in between. There needs to be a healthy diet of Gladness and Gravity, of both deep sorrow and abundant rejoicing. I’m not speaking here of the healthy textual content needed within the songs (which is hugely important), but a healthy understanding of occasion and purpose; when and how songs need to be sung. To translate this to the dinner table, we need both party food and food to be served after a funeral, not to mention all the meals in between. The food meets the occasion. We eat turkey and mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving, not on the Fourth of July. Beer and Hot Wings for the football game, not for Timmy’s first birthday party.

Let me get closer to (but not quite to) the point. I fear that we view our song intake much the same way the modern world views their food intake. They are always conscious of content to the exclusion and detriment of the context. In the modern mind you have Health Food or Junk Food. And often (and usually in the minds of the more health oriented) these become moral issues. Health food is good, Junk food is bad. And this leads some people to believe that because Junk Food is bad, there is now no good occasion for Junk Food. Health food all the time, for every occasion, or nothing at all. Content to the detriment of Context.

And because Health=Good and Junk=Bad, that means that we now have to have our Healthy Food look like Junk Food for the occasions that normally require Junk Food. Our football games still have chips and dips but they are now fatless and tasteless, or just plain gross. Or as St. Paul said, “Having the appearance of godliness but denying its power.” This sacrifice of taste is justified because it was deemed necessary for our health. Now I bring this up not to cause a food fight, but to point out the parallel I see in the songs we sing at church. We (like our health conscious friends) are looking for the healthy songs. The ones chock full of vitamins and nutrients. And this is great. There are a lot of songs that can rot the teeth out there. Some even cause cancer. But in our endeavor to feed congregations healthy songs, sometimes we force feed certain songs into occasions that don’t work.

The easiest example of this is always singing happy songs all the time. Here’s where our food analogy comes into play. The tendency is to think that Happy songs = Healthy songs so therefore they are Good songs; and Sad songs = Unhealthy songs so therefore they are Bad songs. I recall hearing a story about how Christian Radio stations were at a loss about what to play on 9/11. A huge tragedy had befallen the nation and when they reached into their archives to find appropriate songs they came up short. Tragedy upon tragedy! Because Christ is King over all things and Sovereign over all circumstances, we must have a song to sing for every situation. The great theologian Treebeard said, “Songs like trees bear fruit only in their own time and their own way” and I believe him. Songs must be sung according to their appropriate occasion and purpose, especially when we gather to sing to and about the Most High God and His glorious Son.

To be sure, the textual content of the song greatly aids in determining occasion and purpose, but not necessarily to the expense of the tune and tempo; the way in which we sing it. There is a reason we stretch and emphasize certain words of a song. Songs need an occasion and occasions need songs, and the wise will do right by figuring out the best way to join them when the church gathers each week.

That’s likely a little bit more than Wesley was aiming at, but I think it shoehorned in nicely enough.

Previous installments of the Direction's for Singing series

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