A number of weeks ago I was asked to give a short talk to the All Souls choir open rehearsal on the subject of why we sing. I was given three minutes, took five, and found that I would have been happy to go on much longer. I think that singing can be one of those things that, as Christians, we just do without always thinking about why. Here’s why I sing and why I think you should too.
The title of this post is a quotation from a classic B.B. King song in which he says that everyone wants to know why he sings the blues. He then goes on to outline, in verse after verse, the injustices suffered by African-Americans from slavery all the way to contemporary issues around welfare and education. With each picture of injustice he comes back to, “… and everybody wants to know…” making the question sound ignorant and patronising. Another song, written by white songwriters but embraced by, and strongly associated with, the African-American community, is “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” (my favourite version being Marvin Gaye’s). This song includes the lyric, “I sing because I’m happy. I sing because I’m free. His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me”.
So some people sing to grieve over injustice and others sing because they are happy and have found great consolation. Which should it be? I suggest both. Singing seems to be one of the ways that human beings express themselves – whatever they are feeling. There appears to be something very human about singing. I’m no sociologist or anthropologist but I don’t know of a culture in the world that does not sing (There may be some so feel free to correct me on this point). All cultures express themselves through singing. It may be highly structured or very “primitive” but we, we humans, sing.
Could it be that singing has something to do with God, in whose image we are created? An intriguing verse in the Old Testament writing of Zephaniah (3:17) says:
The LORD your God is with you,
he is mighty to save.
He will take great delight in you,
he will quiet you with his love,
he will rejoice over you with singing.”
Another translation has that last line as, “He will exult over you with loud singing.” Did you know that God sang?!? Did you know that his people are somehow the reason for His singing? I don’t claim to know exactly what this verse means but it fires my imagination. And I suspect that this is a glimpse into why human beings sing.
But why do we sing; we at All Souls or we who are followers of Jesus?
Singing is communal. It is something that we do together as the gathered people of God. It has been said that the human voice is the only instrument that God created directly. As we gather together to use that instrument (however well or badly) in praise to Him, He is honoured. His people using His gift for His glory.
We also sing to proclaim the truth about who God is and the truth about who we are. Ephesians 5:19-20 tells us to, “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” As we sing we declare our faith to our gathered community the church, to our surrounding community, and also to ourselves. Most of us occasionally (often?) need reminding what and why we believe and our singing is a (not the) way in which we do that.
Singing also has the power to be transformational. As we proclaim truth, including our ideals about who we ought to be or want to be in light of who God is, we hold these things before our eyes and they serve as a goal for us to strive toward. Who among us doesn’t wake up some mornings with songs going through our minds. I think this can be a grace from God reminding us of what we’ve been singing; again, holding our ideals before us even days after we’ve sung them. And with many of our songs, what we sing is often direct quotations of, or allusions to, Scripture which itself is transformational.
One last reason we sing has little to do with us as individuals. I’m more and more convinced that often we are singing for others. Have you read any Winnie the Pooh stories? There is one story about Pooh going to Piglet’s house and eating so much “hunny” that he gets stuck in the door as he is trying to leave. Try as they might, Pooh’s friends cannot free him and he is stuck there for days. At one point he asks Piglet to read him “… a Sustaining Book, such as would help and comfort a Wedged Bear in Great Tightness?” Well you and I have a Sustaining Book that tells a Sustaining Story and as we turn parts of it into music we sing Sustaining Songs. Piglet’s Sustaining Book may have been enjoyable and edifying to Piglet but it was for Pooh. In our congregation(s), there are many people who are carrying pain and grief that we may never know about. As we sing our Sustaining Songs, we may be built up and encouraged ourselves (and it is entirely right that we are) but sometimes we’re lifting our voices for those who can’t lift their own. We’re declaring faith for those who are just barely holding onto theirs. We’re speaking the transforming truth of God over people who fear that nothing can change their situation. So let us not allow ourselves to ever have the attitude that we won’t sing a particular song because what it expresses isn’t what we are feeling on the day. It could be that God, in His goodness and compassion, has prompted His church to sing that song for the sake of one person who needs to sing it, or for it to be sung on their behalf.
So let’s be singers! Let us sing and make music, never forgetting to be thankful people. And whatever we do, let’s do it in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.