“I want to be a part of something bigger than myself.” I hear this more and more lately, an expression of our natural desire to know meaning and purpose in our lives. Granted, some people seem to be satisfied to know where their next burger is coming from, but most of us feel this restlessness. What is out there? Is there something worth living for? Am I all alone? How do I make the important decisions when I don’t know where I am going? Who am I?
Today I gathered with a group of people, a diverse mix of ages, education, nations, color, occupations. But they fell in two camps: male and female. In each, there were those with high voices, and low–four parts. We sang together, each taking one part. And I thought how marvelous it was to be a part of this living organism, this vox humana, a organ made of voices. My husband next to me sang the bass parts, providing a solid structure of chord roots and walking smoothly between them. Women sang the high part, the melody, which played off the foundation of the basses. Altos, the low-voiced women, filled out the chord in important notes, and the tenors, that rare breed of musical high-voiced men, contributed to the chords while supplying the excitement that is inherent in a male voice singing in his upper range.
Together we sang one text, in one rhythm, with one heart. We were singing off the same page, you might say. There was a place for everyone, even Freddie, the Down’s man who plays harmonica because he can’t read or sing and never will. There are men who are bewildered by part-singing, but know the tune, and so that is what they sing. There is no screening for this choir but we all look forward to it with joy. Where do people sing like this anymore?
Some say hymn-singing (for that’s what this is) is too hard, out of fashion, or even elitist. Better, some suggest, for all to sing melody, which symbolizes that unity we desire in our fragmented and hostile society. Put a band in front and everyone can sing with them. My heart always droops in sadness when I stand in a crowd and redundantly sing over the leader. I can’t hear my neighbor, and I can’t even hear my own voice sometimes; I am part of an audience in a sing-along competing with amplified instruments. If I have the sense I am part of a whole, it is as a nameless, voiceless component. I neither sense my individualism nor my part in the whole. While the experience represents a unity, there is no sense of our diversity. My contribution is meaningless.
Today, as I breathed my phrases, singing in complement with Judy’s soprano and Robbo’s bass (the elusive tenors don’t sit in near me, alas), I felt the surge of well-being I often experience at these times. Picture a spark in each of us, fanned into a flame by our breaths, creating a crackling, light-giving fire. Not just a comforting fire on a cold day, though it is that too, but the purifying, cleansing fire of people who acknowledge their sin before a holy God, and open their lips in praise of Him. We hear the diversity of parts but sense our place in the living organism of the church of Christ.
It is in hymn-singing I most connect with the organ that is the church, a living body that needs all its parts. Thanks, my brother and sisters, for adding your set of pipes.
Ruth, you truly have the gift of capturing the essence of things through your writing. What you wrote is so beautifully stated, so wonderfully true. I have never heard anyone express the truth of what I feel about hymn-singing, but never even fully understood, until I read this post. Thank you for this – I honestly think you should submit it to Christianity Today!
Ha! So glad someone else feels the same. Hymn singing was especially poignant this weekend as we sang with heavy hearts over Norm’s passing. The congregation expressed in the music what we had no words for otherwise. Sometimes I wept and let others carry the song for a while and I think many others did too. There is real comfort in the experience of being carried by fellow believers.