One church I served had an annual dinner and celebration for the feast of the Epiphany. It was my job to arrange for some kind of entertainment to take place at the party, but there was a year that Christmas came and went and I found myself completely unprepared for Epiphany. So I decided we’d have a sing-along. Before the event, I worried that it would float about as well as a lead balloon; people were used to REAL entertainment at these parties! I pulled out some caroling booklets from a dusty shelf in the office and loaded up a cart with hymnals, and prayed that no one would be too upset at my crazy, awful, boring idea. My trepidation continued as I started distributing hymnals at people’s tables after dinner to responses like “Oh, no!” and “What are we going to have to do?” But I soldiered ahead, announced my scheme, and waited for someone to call out a song. And wouldn’t you know… people loved it! Within a minute there were so many requests I couldn’t keep track of them all. We sang Christmas songs from the familiar (Hark! The Herald Angels Sing) to the long-forgotten (The Snow Lay on the Ground). Patriotic tunes were sung with gusto (Onward, Christian Soldiers and America the Beautiful) along with some of the secular Christmas songs (Frosty the Snowman)! Then there were those who asked, movingly, to sing songs that will be sung at their funerals (Love Divine, All Loves Excelling and Abide with Me). We sang for an hour and probably could have gone on an hour more. The next Sunday people were still talking about the fun they had. All in all, one of the more successful events we’d ever had!
Singing has become a rare thing these days. We might warble out a Happy Birthday a few times a year, and the braver among us might shyly mumble along with the national anthem at a sporting event, but generally it’s just not done. This decline in group singing has taken place over about the last 60 years or so, for a variety of reasons. Radio, television, and now digital entertainment have led our society increasingly to experience music as something performed by professionals and not as a participatory activity. Music education in schools, particularly in music-reading and part-singing, has decreased to almost zero. The melodies of some contemporary popular music styles are often not easily sung by a large group.
Still, music has the power to bring people together, and I think our cool, rainy Epiphany evening had just this effect. That evening’s music rekindled the friendships of those who were there and strengthened our sense of community. The same thing happens every Sunday morning when we meet for Eucharist. Some of us struggle to find the notes, others sing out with confidence. Either way, singing in church is a unique experience that we can only do together. When we sing together, we let go of our differences and unite to a common purpose. As we turn toward the Lenten season, let us unite in song and prayer to the One who sings with us always, our Triune God.