It was Friday nightI remember it like yesterdayand we were gathered in our living room for Bible study. Usually we would begin with a prayer and a few hymns, and then my dad would open the Word, perhaps read a commentary, and teach. Then another hymn would close our time before all of us flocked to the goodies in the kitchen. My sister played the piano to accompany us, and whoever was quick enough would choose the hymns we sang.
On that evening, Frank chose "Shout, for the Blessed Jesus Reigns," and my sister set into the music with zeal. And then we came in.
I remember sitting there on the couch and hearing my own voice as we sang the first, rousing stanza of the song: "Shout, for the blessed Jesus reigns; through distant lands his triumphs spread; and sinners, freed from endless pains, own him their Savior and their Head." I remember hearing my own voice because it was one of the three or four I could hear. We were a group of about thirty on a good night, and believe me, we could be loudat least when we were all talking in the kitchen over the goodies. But even as we sang, "Loud hallelujahs to the Lamb, from all below, and all above," our voices, for the most part, were barely above a mumble, the piano completely drowning us out.
I remember thinking how ironic it was to look around that room, full of "sinners, freed from endless pains," and see heads bent forward into the hymnals that lay in their laps, bodies slouched into the depths of sofa cushions. Their voices sounded more like they were singing about the endless pains than about being freed from them.
How familiar is this scene to us? Or, translated into a church setting, how often do we stand, grudgingly, with our hymnals resting on the chair in front of us and our eyes following the words we know too well to think about and our mouths barely moving as we get through yet another hymn.
For some of us, there's a method to our madness: nobody wants to hear us sing. We would quickly quote about ourselves the lines, "Swans sing before they die; 'twere no bad thing should some men die before they sing." We'll leave the choral feats to those with giftedbetter yet, trainedvoices, and wait for heaven, where we'll be able to carry a tune.
David, the inspired psalmist, would not let us get away with such an attitude. "Sing to the Lord, you saints of his," he commands in Psalm 30:4, "praise his holy name." Then again, in Psalm 96:1, he widens the command: "Sing to the Lord, all the earth." He says again, in Psalm 103:22, "Praise the Lord, all his works everywhere in his dominion. Praise the Lord, O my soul." And each time he gives such a command, he gives a reason for it: "For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime" (Ps. 30:5). "For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods" (Ps. 96:4). And Psalm 103 goes on and on, listing reasons to sing praise to our God: he forgives our sins, heals our diseases, redeems our life from the pit, crowns us with love and compassion, satisfies our desires with good things so that our youth is renewed, works righteousness and justice for the oppressedyou get the picture.
The mandate to praise the Lord extends to everything in creation. It is repeated over and over in the Psalms and throughout the Scriptures. But we are not only commanded to praise God; we are also commanded to sing his praises. Specifically, we are to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with one another as Christians because Christ's word dwells in us richly (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).
There are many things that set the Christian church apart from other institutions and religions, and our music is one of them. I will not presume here to direct anyone as to what kind of music is to be used in gatherings of Christians to worship, but I will say this: whatever you do, do it heartily as unto the Lord, not unto men. It doesn't matter whether or not you have a good voice, or even whether you know the hymnyou're supposed to make a joyful noise to the Lord, aren't you? Perhaps you've heard, as I have, the glorious sound of a little child belting out a well-loved hymn, half a beat behind (or ahead of) everyone else, off pitch, saying some of the words wrong, but with his heart really in it! Or think of the times when you've been carried away with the joy of saying, "Amazing love! How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?"
We sing, not only because of the Scripture's many injunctions to do so, but because we've got something to sing about, if anyone ever did. We've been saved, as my Sunday school teacher will tell you in a heartbeat, from "the wrath and curse of God," which is what every one of our sins deserves. We've been saved, as they'll tell you, by Jesus, the only Son of God, who became man and so was, and continues to be, God and man in two distinct natures and one person forever. Jesus rose from the dead: he's alive, Christians! He's the sovereign King over all this torn and troubled world. He's coming back. He loves us. So just think how ludicrous it is to mumble flatly, "Hallelujah, what a Savior, hallelujah, what a Friend. Saving, helping, keeping, loving, he is with me to the end."
Brothers and sisters, this Savior doesn't care if you're as tone deaf as a bat is blind. David doesn't seem to care if you're a tree or a star or a river or a mountainhe even tells them to sing and praise. The Bible doesn't say, "Sing to the Lord, all those with good voices who happen to feel like singing today." Nor does it politely ask adolescents, for some reason ashamed that they even have voices at all, to pipe down, especially if their voices are cracking. In fact, there's only one qualification to be in God's choir: exist. If you existespecially if you have lungs, and most especially if you belong to Jesusyou don't have any excuse for not singing your heart out every time you're with the church in worship. Hold your hymnal up high enough that your voice doesn't die at your chest, think about the words you're singing, and who knows, maybe if you keep at it, you'll learn the right notes.
Let our attitude be that of Robert Lowry, as he phrased it in his beautiful hymn: "Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?"
The author is a member of Holy Trinity Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Her Bible quotations are taken from the NIV. Reprinted from New Horizons, March 2009.