The story is told that when George Frederick Handel’s Messiah was first performed, there was often such great enthusiasm for the work that singers and musicians would come from miles around just to participate in a performance. In fact, it is said that one early performance of Messiah featured a chorus of 3,500 singers, which very nearly drowned out the orchestra of 500 instruments!
But that was alright, because then, as now, there’s something about the blending of Handel’s music and the Biblical text – particularly in the “Hallelujah Chorus” – that lends itself to that kind of power and enthusiasm. As one critic remarked at the time, such music “gives me an idea of Heaven …where everybody is to sing whether they have voices or not.”
Well, we may not have a congregation of that magnitude at East Congregational UCC, but there have nonetheless been times as we sing together in worship that I get “an idea of Heaven.” I’ve actually been thinking about this since last Sunday’s sermon, in which we talked about the purpose and movement of our worship. Well, the other piece of this is that true and authentic worship also requires participation; and I am pleased to report, after having now spent a few months amongst you here in Concord, that where the act and attitude of worship is concerned East Church participates!
It’s true, friends; for instance, you might not realize it, but from this pastor’s perspective, East Church is indeed a “singing congregation,” always willing to jump right in and “sing to the LORD a new song” (Psalm 96:1). I certainly hear this in your joyful enthusiasm for learning all the goofball guitar songs I bring for the children, which ends up including all of us (I’m so grateful for this!). But I also sense it at times when the hymn we’re singing is an old and familiar one, the lyric and melody expressing a lifetime’s worth of faith and devotion. It’s even there in some of the hymns that might not be that well-known, and yet offer a fresh approach to singing our praises serves to tap into our joy in the Lord. These are all moments of Word and Sacrament that reflect the movement of the Spirit in our midst, an experience where the only suitable response issinging!
To put it another way, it’s heaven whenever we cast aside our insecurities and inhibitions, and then in faith come before God with joyful songs! After many years spent observing congregations from the vantage point of a pulpit, I can also tell you that there are always a few folks in the pews who feel ill at east making any sort of “joyful noise;” they’ll only venture a note or two when the hymn is very familiar, and then only in a voice barely above a whisper (sound familiar to anyone?). Whereas, having struggled to warble through an unfamiliar hymn or two in my time, I do understand that kind of reluctance, it’s also kind of sad.
I think what we often forget is that congregational hymn-singing is not primarily about being musically correct or powerfully operatic – if it works out that way, and oftentimes it does, wonderful (!) – but in truth, some of the most meaningful experiences of hymn-singing I’ve ever been a part of have involved groups of singers who have tended to be slightly off in tempo, key and melody, often all at the same time! In such situations, it’s the unfettered joy of the singing that gave the song its power!
In a book of songs from the Iona Christian Community in Scotland, there is a list of “Ten Golden Rules” for teaching and learning new songs, and Rule #1 is “believe in the voice that God has given you. It is the voice of an apprentice angel.” I like that, and that seems to me to be a good rule for each one of us on Sunday mornings. There’s nothing in the world like letting the depth and power of our Christian faith burst forth through song – it feels good, and moreover, it’s a feeling that’s contagious. And in the end, no matter what kind of notes proceed from our throats, we cannot help but better for the experience of singing, and we might just get a fresh idea of Heaven in the bargain – so friends, let us open our hymnals and begin!
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry