How Can I Keep From Singing?

One Sunday morning in November, I logged in at my church’s website for the worship livestream. After several slides of announcements, lyrics appeared, and something inside me did a puppy shiver-wag of joy.



This was one of the first worship songs I ever learned, around the campfire at Camp Concern, way back in the 1970s. I loved the repetition and variation of its structure, which made it easy to memorize. I loved the vaguely Native American-sounding minor-key melody, and the way the vocal drumbeat of its 4/4 time felt like walking, especially on the verse “we will walk side by side.” When we got to the final chorus, I waited, yearned, for the moment we would hold the word “love” extra long, for three full beats: “And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our lo-o-ove …” I wanted to stand forever in the communal embrace of that vowel.

So I was thrilled to sing it with others for the first time in years, maybe decades. The worship team launched in, hands at their instruments, mouths shaping the words, but no sound came out.

“There’s no sound,” people started typing in the chat box. The inner puppy snarled—doggone tech fail!—and then almost whimpered as lyrics kept replacing silent lyrics. But I knew this one. Why not sing anyway?

“Sing anyway,” someone typed. I already was.

Since September, when I started taking classes at an Anglican seminary, I’ve attended Morning Prayer several times a week. Toward the end, in a call-and-response after the Lord’s Prayer, the officiant begins a couplet from Psalm 132, “Clothe your ministers with righteousness,” and we all respond, “And let your people sing with joy.” On maybe the second or third morning, I startled myself when those words came out as an angry plea—louder than the prayer book’s boldface, indignant as a pair of exclamation marks.

When so many other forms of community have dried up, it’s been a great gift in this pandemic year to sit in this small chapel, praying and listening together, sitting, rising, and kneeling as one, in our distant pews. It was a gift to attend class in a real classroom together, then to go to the dining hall and get a delicious warm lunch to eat. Sitting three to each large round table inside, or at the picnic tables outside, was even more gracious. But it was a loss not to get to sing, not to share a pew or perhaps even a songbook with classmates and professors, not to not to know what their voices sound like in metered melody, not to harmonize as one body. A professor who also serves as an interim bishop said one of the hardest parts of his job this year was explaining to congregations why they couldn’t keep meeting as usual. Who knew that one of the many surprising and hard applications of “love your neighbor” would be “refrain from singing”?

I miss singing with people.

I miss singing in worship, sitting close, paying attention as the pianist teaches us a new song, hearing voices beside and behind me, or sitting farther back and noticing who can’t help but put their bodies into it.

I miss the Wednesday night choir rehearsals we’d normally be having this time of the year in the sanctuary, the vocal warmup of “Mama made me mash my M&Ms” before patiently practicing each part of this year’s selections—first soprano, then alto, then tenor, then bass—then layering them together. I miss the warbly voices of my elders and the pure tones of my youngers, and the music of our laughter when someone messes up that tricky part or misses a cue yet again.

I miss being invited to dinner with the couple who gravitates from the table to the guitar and keyboard, offering a dessert of shared music, with “Be Thou My Vision” always on the menu.

In this pandemic, we’re all learning something about what we can do, and do without. Less takeout. More cooking. Vast chunks of time alone. No time alone. This will pass, we know, we hope. Yet in the meantime, in the words of an old hymn written by Robert Lowry and popularized by Audrey Assad, “How can I keep from singing?”

This new abnormal has brought us new ways to sing with others, either in real time or, in one of this year’s buzzwords, asynchronously. When I “go to church” before the altar of my laptop, I can sing contemporary music with my people at 11, and warm up with mostly traditional hymns at 10 with the Anglicans across town (even if some portion of one or the other was prerecorded). For the song-starved, that church revised their traditional Thanksgiving Eve service as an informal Zoom version, hosted from one couple’s living room. About a dozen of us gathered, mostly behind cameras-off screens, able to hear only the hosts, but still to feel some communal presence. A dozen songs later, something within me felt both fed and still hungry.

We’re all going hungry in some way. Some of us can count our hugs since March on one hand. Kids trying to learn through a screen are dealing with focus and distraction burdens too heavy for someone their age, and pining for playtime with their friends. Journalists and bloggers write about touch deprivation, lack of socialization and other trends, trying to find and share what we know about the short- and long-term effects of various forms of isolation. Is anyone asking what happens when we can’t sing?

As it turns out, religion writer Peter Smith did in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette back in May. He interviewed the Rev. Amy Schifrin, a professor who teaches a course on the history of church music.

“‘So much of our life of faith, it comes to life in our voices,’ she said. ‘The psalter (book of Psalms) was not written to be spoken, it was written to be sung, and it has been through the ages.’

“Rev. Schifrin said she’s concerned that online worship is making ‘spectators’ rather than participants. ‘We have to find ways to teach our people to pray and sing in whatever places they’re in,’ she said.”

Sing anyway.

This wasn’t a new idea that November morning. Thanks to the a cappella tradition I grew up in, the camp counselors who taught us the gospel and Scripture in the form of songs, and the place in the brain that holds memories of music, I’ve probably sung at home more this year than ever. Sometimes when something was bugging me, a melody would come to mind, something I hadn’t sung in years. Hum and the first line will reappear. Sing long enough, and lo and behold, dredged up from deep in the brain, a line answers and stills the unquiet mind.

So thank you, counselors whose names and faces are lost to me, for teaching me Galatians 2:20 (there is no condemnation …) and Romans 8:1-2 (I’ve been crucified with Christ; nevertheless …) and Lamentations 3:22-24 (the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases …). Thank you for teaching me that the gospel is, in a word, love, joy, peace, and Christ. Thank you, Camp Concern, for showing me my heart’s hunger for that good news through my anticipation for the moment that each night’s campfire songs would turn from silly to serious.

During that silent service, sound returned just before the sermon. At the end of the service, the band repeated the songs we missed, and for a few minutes, they, I and everyone else at home were one in spirit and voice.

Since then, I’ve been to our first in-person service in almost nine months. Is it wrong to say that singing together felt more like communion than communion? “Bless the Lord, oh my soul,” we sang behind our masks. “For all your goodness, I will keep on singing.”

In 2020 we can still do what God’s people have done for centuries. Song is the most portable thing in the world; it takes up no weight or space when you’re migrating through the desert or furnishing a hermit’s cave or an anchorite’s cell. God hears.

I love you, Lord, and I lift my voice, first thing in the morning. Throughout the day, whatever comes to mind. In this darkening season of hoping anyway, O come, o come, Emmanuel. At bedtime, the doxology. And I long for the glorious day when we can enter chapel without masks and press in the missing puzzle piece of Morning Prayer, like the “200 male and female singers” the book of Ezra numbers among those returning from exile. I can hold a corner of a hymnal with someone in my systematic theology class and hear, for the first time, what that community sounds like in fearless, joyous song.

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