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When in our Music God is Glorified

My students are reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together this week.  Bonhoeffer wrote this little book over the course of four short weeks in 1938. Informed by his experience leading an underground seminary for the Confessing Church for two years during the growing Nazi threat, this classic is a meditation on the character of Christian community and the practices and disciplines that shape such a community.

I have always been particularly moved by Bonhoeffer’s commentary on congregational singing:

It is the voice of the church that is heard in singing together.  It is not I who sing, but the church.  However, as a member of the church, I may share in its song.  Thus all true singing together must serve to widen our spiritual horizon.  It must enable us to recognize our small community as a member of the great Christian church on earth, and must help us willingly and joyfully to take our place in the song of the church with our singing, be it feeble or good.

I often thought of these words during the last years of my mother’s life when frailty made church attendance difficult.  She loved her CD recordings of hymns, and when feeling particularly lonely or low, would play them, often singing or humming along.  I’m sure some of the comfort came in the memories they evoked of the church that had been her home for over 80 years.  But perhaps more important was her experience of what Bonhoeffer describes.  The congregation she joined in her retirement apartment was, in a sense, “virtual.”  But in joining in its song, she was reminded of her membership, her belonging, not simply to the First Congregational Church of Stamford, Connecticut, but to the great Christian Church on earth.  In her later years her once strong singing voice was feeble, but that didn’t really matter, for she could still joyfully take her place in the song of the church.  What a gift!

My father, on the other hand, never sang in church or anywhere else for that matter.  I always assumed he couldn’t sing, or didn’t like to sing.  It was not until some years after his death that my mother told me the real story.  When he was a student in grammar school, one of his teachers decided that his voice did not make a “pleasing” contribution to class choir.  She told him that when they performed he should mouth the words, but make no sound.  He never sang again – never a hymn in church, never a love song when courting my mother, never a lullaby at my childhood bedside.  Perhaps his voice truly was worse than feeble!  But how sad not to have the privilege of that which widens spiritual horizons and connects us to the song of the church through time and space.

Pastors and music directors have an enormous responsibility as they select the musical texts for worship.  Beauty, aesthetics, and the power of texts to teach are an important consideration for worship planners.  But above all it is the creation of the invitation to sing that is most important, constitutive of “life together,” of the bonds of Christian community itself.  When that invitation is warmly extended it can become a practice capable of sustaining us in all circumstances, including the often lonely waning days of our lives.  When it is withheld, for whatever reason, it can impoverish, denying a great gift for a lifetime.  When we open our hymnbook or praise collection to plan for the coming Sunday, or when we read for mediation one of the great texts of the ecumenical church, we hold more than music in our hands.  We hold tremendous power to bind together faithful people of all ages, tongues and races.  May the rush of other responsibilities never lead us to squander that power, or treat as casual a gift so precious.  For when in our music God is glorified, it is as if the whole creation cried, “Alleliua!”  (Fred Pratt Green)

John H. Thomas

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