Last week I took a bite out of the first sentence in John Wesley’s third instruction. Today I’ll finish the plate.
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.
After addressing the people to “sing All”, Wesley follows up by encouraging everyone to sing together and to push through if it is a burden, because ultimately it will be a blessing.
Join With the Congregation
Wesley is telling us to sing along, to join the throng. Everybody sing. In the previous post I told you about my experiences growing up in the First Baptist Church of Dreary Song, where verses were skipped and the singing was lackluster. Unfortunately I've heard the same story from many others. The gospel of Dreary Song is cross-denominational, a truly ecumenical movement. Symptoms include the mumbles, folded arms, blank stares and/or scowly faces, half-heartedness, lip-syncing, and possible eye-rolling. Frankly, some congregations are truly united, but only in their effort to not sing. Unity of this type is also found in the graveyard.
To make a point I will now get off the topic for a moment. Carl Truman wrote an incredibly helpful and needful article called, “What Can Miserable Christians Sing”. His point is that in our day and age the emphasis in church music leans heavily towards the happy, glad, and joyful, leaving those who are miserable or hurting without a song to sing. His solution to this Happy Clappy Endemic is (spoiler alert) the Psalms. Aside from the fact that it needed to be written in the first place, everything about the article is spectacular and I pray it finds its way before the eyes of every pastor and worship leader in the land. That said (back on topic!), in my experience, the problem isn't that everyone is singing only happy songs, the problem is that almost no one is singing anything.
There is an awfully heavy side to this that unfortunately I’ll only mention briefly here. When there a congregation that resists singing about the One who invented music and formed their vocal cords—not to mention the One who saved their souls from the pit of hell—the fear is that they sing not because they are saved not. This is a real and dreadful conclusion that cannot be reached lightly and so I’ll leave it to the discernment of those shepherds to whom God has entrusted such matters in their own flocks. For my purposes, in these instructions I have a believing congregation in mind. Perhaps it is full of folks who grew up like me, where they were trained that the songs they sing don’t matter much. Perhaps it is a congregation full of horrible singing voices and everyone is a bit self-conscious. There are likely as many reasons as there are non-singing congregations so I’ll get to the point.
I believe Wesley instructs his people to join in singing with the congregation as frequently as possible to encourage even more singing. We've seen in previous installments that singing is formative and that these hymns are meant to teach doctrine as well as praise God, so it would follow that more singing means more teaching and more formation, and as a result, more praise to God. But there's a bit more to it than that.
You Will Find a Blessing
|"Just one more okay?" -said for the 10th time|
Singing is a natural part of our original glorious, pre-sin, Garden of Eden, state. But we are fallen, which is why singing (and singing together) can be weary and burdensome. And by golly, I think we have our finger on the foundation for the Dreary Song Movement. Singing is a burden in the same way playing is a burden. Think about how damning of a statement that is. Playing is a burden! At first glance it sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. Have you ever sat down to play make believe with a toddler? How long did you last? Long before my daughter brings me my 37th cup of tea I've been looking for a way out. I mean, she’s already given me 36 cups in under two minutes. I'm antsy and I can't blame it on being hopped up on imaginary caffeine. Go ask your mom if she wants some tea. Had we the time and had I the ability, she would keep this up for another, oh, 3 million cups or so. And that’s just me sitting on the couch, not moving.
Play is a burden and that it is a burden is evidence of our fallen state. Chesterton taught this to me.
The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.
In the same way, C.S. Lewis contrasts earth and heaven in those things (singing among them) which we consider to be frivolous:
Dance and game are frivolous, unimportant down here; for “down here” is not their natural place. Here, they are a moment’s rest from the life we were placed here to live. But in this world everything is upside down. That which, if it could be prolonged here, would be a truancy, is most like that which in a better country is the End of ends. Joy is the serious business of Heaven.
Singing is a burden because we are sinful people. But singing is good for us because it is the serious business of Heaven. The glimpse we get of the Throne of God in Heaven reveals to us four living creatures who are continually, without stop day and night, singing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty”. Without stop! Day and night! And we think, what a burden!
So our weakness and weariness in singing is a sign of our fallen nature. Wesley wisely tells us to battle through such weakness. He says to take it up as a cross and carry it and it will be for our good. This flies in the face of that masterful tactic of Satan; the phrase, “I don’t feel like it.” How many times have we given credence to this phrase? Not that it isn't true (most of the time it is true!). But we never explore why it is true. Why does singing make us weak and weary? Because joy is the serious business of heaven and we are steeped in the serious business of the world. Of course we don’t feel like singing! We’re too weak to understand its power. Wesley is smacking our face here, not to be cruel, but to snap us into reality. Hey, wake up! Stay with me!
Singing together is like a magic cordial offered to the sick and dying. Those who refuse to drink because the taste (at first sip) is sharp, harsh, and nasty will remain sick and dying and likely unaware of their state. Singing will never quite sit well with them and they’ll believe the fault lies somewhere outside of themselves. However, those who realize their condition will push past the first taste because they know ultimately it is for their own good. They will soon regain their strength and develop an acquired taste that leads to greater complexity of pleasure and enjoyment.
The burden of song may not be fully lifted for many until Christ returns, but when we sing together we help each other carry the burden. In the church of the Dreary Song the burden is crushing. But in a congregation where everyone sings together the burden is lifted and eased. Everyone shares in the load and the work becomes a foretaste of eternal glory.
Previous installments of the Direction's for Singing series