How can we keep from singing?

The persistent demand throughout the Bible that people of faith sing loud may seem cruel to those whose musical gifts do not fill the buckets in which we cannot carry a tune. Come Christians, Join to Sing would be less threatening if it was Come Christians, Join to Talk. Come Christians, Join to Eat would be nice.

When we sing When in Our Music God is Glorified some of us assume God is more glorified by the people singing around us. The cacophonous among us have learned to sing off-key at a volume that does not draw attention, with a rhythm that only we recognize.

Fortunately for the disharmonious, singing, at least the kind of singing described in scripture, has little to do with quality of voice and everything to do with openness of spirit. The tone deaf in Colossae were glad to hear Paul say that their singing of “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” was to take place “in your hearts.” Some of us find it comforting that singing is not about what gets to the ear, so much as it is about what penetrates our souls. Maybe every now and then pastors should sing solos just to make that clear.

We become too sensible to sing. We admire efficiency over spirit. We are preoccupied with what seems useful. Without a song in our hearts we become dull people. We baptize our grouchiness and call it maturity. The opposite of singing is not silence, but critical restraint.

God, deliver us from being rigid, clenched-teeth people who try to be more earnest than God. Faith gives us a lightness of spirit. Have you heard how it is that angels fly? G.K. Chesterton said, “Angels can fly because they take themselves so lightly.” Conversely, someone suggested that Satan fell to hell by the sheer weight of gravity. He took himself so seriously.

If there is no music bursting within us, then we need to open ourselves to the joy God has offered. When you open the Bible you hear music: the prophet Miriam, tambourine in hand, singing at the Exodus; King David auditioning musicians to lead in worship; Psalmists writing symphonies for harps, lyres, trumpets, timbrels, strings, pipes, and loud clashing cymbals (never a mention of guiet, soothing cellos). The hymns of the early church are sprinkled through the New Testament. At the annunciation Mary bursts into the Magnificat. At Jesus’ birth a choir of angels break into song. Paul and Silas have favorite hymn night in prison. In Revelation, The Hallelujah Chorus ushers in the kingdom of God. On virtually every page, we hear the music of the holy that transcends what is expected.

A theology student went to the philosopher Paul Tillich with nagging questions about faith. Tillich responded to this young person by playing a recording of Credo (I Believe) from Bach’s B Minor Mass. Credo does not explain the Nicene Creed, but surrounds it with violins, trumpets, flutes, oboes, and voices. Tillich realized that the most satisfactory answers to that student’s questions were more likely to be found in music than in sharper reasoning.

Some people sing life—four-year-olds on their good days, poor people who do not consider themselves poor, truly funny comedians, the best writers, genuine Christians, the ones who sing alleluia for the good they have been given. We have a song that we need to sing.

In the early 1960’s, when racial conflict was first erupting in the Deep South, a Southern white person went to where the trouble was hottest to see for himself what was going on. He watched African-Americans asking for their rights and watched them being beaten back. He returned home and a friend asked about what he had seen.

He said, “It looks bad. The culture’s against them. The laws are against them. The FBI is against them.”

His friend asked, “Do you think they’re going to lose?”

“No, I think they’re going to win.”

“You just said the laws are against them, the FBI is against them, and the whole culture is against them. Why do you think they’ll win?”

“They have this song.”

We have a song born within us each time we open our hearts to God’s presence. We have the song of God’s goodness, the hymn of the Almighty’s grace, the melody of the Creator’s mercy, the psalm of the Spirit’s love. How can we keep from singing?

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Reformation Day–498 Years and Counting

Seminary professors spend a lot of time around 24-year-olds. As a result, we spend a lot of time feeling old. Our church experience is different from theirs.

My parents took me to church three times a week. Their mothers took them to church when they did not have soccer practice.

I competed in Bible drills. My students walk labyrinths.

My Bible is on the nightstand, next to my glasses. Their Bible is on their phone.

We had a water fountain in the hall. They have coffee bars in the sanctuary.

They were taught that the church exists to care for God’s children. My church’s goal was to be bigger than the Methodist Church.

I was baptized during a Sunday night service with 10 other 8-year-olds. Some of my students were baptized on Saturday night in a swimming pool. They have the selfies to prove it.

Some of my students are in churches that have established Twitter hashtags to encourage people to share sermon quotes. I do not know what that means.

Most Baptist churches have lots of people my age. My students tell me that when they visit some churches they receive the kind of welcome a unicorn or some other mythical creature might receive.

According to the Barna Research Group, 59 percent of young Christians disconnect from church life after the age of 15 for at least a year. Churches work best for those whose career paths are conventional — leave home, get an education, find a job, get married, and have kids — all before the age of 30. Churches are not as good at the new normal — putting that stuff off as long as you can.

These young adults do not wander away from church for any one reason. They have a list of complaints. They complain that churches focus more on the institution than on God. They think that churches are not diverse. They believe churches are anti-science and do not want to choose between their pastor and biology professor. They struggle with what chastity means when they are getting married much later. They feel like churches are hostile to LGBTQs. They want to be accepting, and say they do not find that in the church. They want to know why the church is not what it should be, why the church is such a bureaucracy, and why the church is not more like Jesus. Some twentysomethings lower their expectations, some stay irritated, and many walk away, but the best do not give up or give in. They help us become a better church.

Martin Luther was 33 when he posted his famous list of complaints. Luther was angry about the immorality of the priests and their irreverence for holy things. He was so disillusioned with the church that he became a theology professor. Teaching the Bible led him away from his experience in the church to the grace of God. He came to love the God he used to fear. He discovered that God accepts sinful people. Luther complained because that acceptance was not what the church taught him.

On All Hallows’ Eve, October 31, 1517, Luther nailed 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Others agreed that the church should be given to faith rather than fear. The church changed because Martin Luther believed it could be better and complained.

The church can still be better. The comfortable approach to faith is as popular now as when Luther challenged it. Churches are less likely to declare like Luther, “Here I stand!” than ask like a marketer, “What do people want?”

Serving each other is simpler than serving those who most need help. Talking about prayer is less difficult than giving up security and comfort. Studying the Bible is easier than hearing Christ’s challenge.

And yet, God is still at work. God is making the church more open, compassionate and bold. The Spirit draws us to give ourselves in worship, care for one another, and grow in grace. The Spirit pushes us to minister with those with the greatest needs. The Spirit helps us hear scripture calling us to become more like Jesus.

Many who have been in church all their lives are amazed at the new ways congregations are living as God’s people. Churches have discovered that Christianity is not something you study, but something you do. Churches are tutoring underprivileged children, caring for senior citizens and sharing meals with the hungry. Some of the ways churches are acting like Christ were not happening 20 years ago. God is teaching us that the primary issue is not whether the church is getting bigger, but whether the church is living like Jesus. Every day is Reformation Day.


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