By Sarah Dorrance*
What does singing praise in church look like as we come out of quarantine? For that matter, what will choirs and music academies do without the gift of song being united in vocal artistry?
While none of us know that answer, we do know that Germany, in coming out of quarantine, has temporarily prohibited places of worship to sing due to the aerosol particles that are projected when a person uses proper technique in singing. There is sufficient scientific evidence to show that six feet apart is not enough when projecting your voice, as one does in singing. Orchestras, places of worship, choral groups, praise groups, and bands are all scrambling to find new solutions to sharing and performing music.
Music is an integral part of the human design. The hymn writer Robert Lowry asks, “How Can I Keep From Singing?” (This rendition of the song by the young people of the A Cappella Academy is particularly wonderful.) In every part of the world music, both song and instrumental, play a role in soothing the weary soul, in praising God, and in creating communities formed by the love of both creating songs and those who appreciate listening to songs. Some of us would argue that a world without music would be void of one the greatest gifts God has created within the human capacity of creativity.
As a theologian, I would argue that music is also pleasing to God, the giver and the creator of every living creature. From the beginning to the end of the biblical witness, we see that music is used to praise God. In the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) Moses sang a song of praise when the Israelites were delivered from slavery, the Psalms themselves are meant to be sung, and King David was notably one who regularly created music and sang songs of praise and lament to God. Isaiah the prophet, when he had his vision, was transported to the heavenly courts and witnessed the seraphim singing “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God.” Nehemiah had a music festival dedicated to God when the wall was rebuilt, and David danced before the Lord with no shame as to his lack of dress. The minor prophet Zephaniah also reminds us that God rejoices over us with singing!
When we move into the New Testament, we see music continues to be used by God’s people to worship God. James says, “Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.” Paul and Silas were praising God even when they were in jail when a mighty miracle — an earthquake — occurred to release them from captivity. Paul tells disciples, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” Music is pleasing to God.
Some of us would argue that a world without music would be void of one the greatest gifts God has created within the human capacity of creativity.
In my own experience, I have heard God speak to me when I was caught up in praise songs to God. One time was during a men’s Emmaus time of closing. The church was packed with men singing songs from their heart to God, and I heard the voice of God speak to me in my personal situation. Another time when I was leading worship, the choir was singing God of Heaven, and God clearly spoke to me and told me to move my place of residence into the town where I was serving as lead pastor. The voice was clear to me, and I began to cry, all from hearing God during a time of praise through music. When we are focused on praising God through song, our hearts can be softened to hear the voice of God! It has happened to me, maybe it has happened to you!
What are we to do with the potential paradox of not being allowed to sing in worship and the fact that music and singing songs to God gives pleasure to the Lord? How do we put these two contrasting ideas together? We remember that the Israelites, when they were captives in a foreign land were tormented and cajoled to sing, and yet they stated, “by the rivers of Babylon we hung up our lyres and wept. How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?”
We might feel that way too. The coronavirus has turned our known world upside-down. The obstacles are many: We cannot meet in person for school, concerts, movies, or worship. Some are facing economic challenges and lost jobs, others are experiencing shortages of food, some are fighting for their lives, and others are on the front lines as essential workers doing the fighting. Some have lost loved ones and experienced deep grief. How can we keep on singing?
And yet … (there is always an “and yet”). And yet, the prophet Isaiah, speaking to those who are weeping by the rivers of Babylon says, sing to the Lord a new song. Isaiah gives hope for the future, the hope of something new, hope that God has not abandoned, and a promise that God is still with us. We can claim those promises too. And we, too, can look for hope even among the devastating times we are currently experiencing. How do we do that?
First, we remember that we can use songs to praise God while in our own homes and in our own personal lives. It is important to do so, even when we do not feel like praising God. We praise God in the midst of the storm. If you have not done so, try to sing or play a song of praise right now. Maybe this one will speak to you, as the songwriter says, “Even when it hurts I will praise you!”
Second, while we cannot gather in person, we can join in the many different ways offered to gather virtually online. Choose one or two or three worship services to attend, and when they offer up songs in worship, sing with all of your might, right where you are seated —you can even stand in place and sing. I have personally enjoyed the smorgasbord of worship every weekend and I sing right along with all those who are praising God in all the many formats that are offered. Sing to the Lord! The people gathered together, even virtually, give glory to God.
Third, while we recognize that music is a great gift to use in worship to praise God, we also recognize there are other elements used in worship. Right now, one of those elements might be silence. Can you hear God speak to you in the silence? It was the prophet Elijah who listened for God in the wind, rain, earthquake, and fire on Mt. Horeb, but God spoke in a gentle whisper. God spoke in the silence of the mountain. Silence is one aspect of contemplative practice. Could it be that right now we are called to hear God in the silence?
Fourth, we can listen deeply to all of creation singing praise to God. In particular, Jesus says to those who try to stop his disciples from praising him, “If the people stop the very rocks will cry out.” Psalm 148 states that all the earth will praise God, to include the sea creatures of the ocean. Right now, the birds are singing; listen to them and join in praising God. Pastor Louie Giglio has a great teaching about the stars, the whales, and the symphony of all creation singing praise to God.
Finally, in the deepest part of my heart, I know this to be temporary. Music is so integral in the life of God that I cannot believe that the music in our hearts used to praise God in community, from song to instrumental, will be silenced to eternity. Use this time to pray to God to lift this pandemic from us. Personally, I believe in a God of miracles. We know that the God who created all of creation can also lift a pandemic.
Lift your voice in song, and your heart in prayer as we repent for not trusting God and join in the cacophony of all of creation in singing a new song to the Lord. Pray that all the heartache felt around the world from this virus will be lifted. And, when that lifting happens, remember to give God all the praise and glory.
How can we keep from singing? We don’t have to. While we wait and pray, we can simply learn to sing praise to God in a new way.
*The Rev. Sarah Dorrance is an ordained Elder in the Baltimore-Washington Conference. This commentary is shared by permission from her blog, “For those trying to authentically follow Jesus.”