Community of Christ

How Can We Keep From Singing

President Steve Veazey shared this message during the sending forth service at the 2013 Peace Colloquy.

I am not blessed with musical talent. I can sing decently, according to my wife, when I sing with other people who have some musical talent.

In other words, I sing best when I sing with the faith community. I need us to sing together so I can sing at all!

Singing together means I can participate. It means ALL can participate!

Singing together builds a sense of sacred community.

Let’s experiment with CCS 112, “I Will Sing, I Will Sing.” We will sing it once through a cappella. Now, change “I” to “we” and sing it through again. Did you sense it?

Something deeply spiritual happens when the church community sings together. It is much more than just the sound of our combined voices. God’s Spirit lifts us beyond our individuality and weaves us into sacred community.

Anne Lamott in her book, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, describes the personal impact of this power. Anne, to say the least, was not involved in a church community. Between 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. on Sundays, as she frequented a neighborhood flea market, she heard robust singing coming from the open windows of a church. Inexplicably drawn to the singing, she began to stop in from time to time. The story continues in her words from page 47:

I went back…about once a month. No one tried to con me into sitting down or staying. I always left before the sermon. I loved singing, even about Jesus, but I didn’t want to be preached at about him.

She then describes the unique characters in the congregation and how its singing was translated into ministry and compassionate action. She continues:

I love this. But it was the singing that pulled me in and split me wide open.

I could sing better here than I ever had before. As part of these people, even though I stayed in the doorway, I did not recognize my voice or know where it was coming from, but sometimes I felt like I could sing forever.

Eventually a few months after I started coming, I took a seat in one of the folding chairs, off by myself. Then the singing enveloped me. It was furry and resonant, coming from everyone’s heart. There was no sense of performance or judgment, only that the music was breath and food.
 Something inside me that was stiff and rotting would feel soft and tender. Somehow the singing wore down all the boundaries and distinctions that kept me so isolated. Sitting there, standing with them to sing, sometimes so shaky and sick that I felt like I might tip over, I felt bigger than myself, like I was being taken care of, tricked into coming back to life.

Yes, congregational singing draws people into restoring community that breaks down barriers and opens them to new life. It also has the power to bind us together as a worldwide church community.

Thomas Long in Beyond the Worship Wars states:

Vital and faithful congregations emphasize congregational music that is both excellent and eclectic in style and genre. By singing music from many times and places, we expand our expression of faith. When we sing an ancient chant, we reflect on the faith of those who lived before us. When we sing the songs of another land, we think about the global community of faith to which we belong. When we sing songs that are especially meaningful to the sister sitting next to us in worship, we are reminded that we belong to a local community of believers…this approach helps us move from the “I” to the “we” in worship…

I like that thought. Congregational singing moves us from the “I” to the “we” as we grow in our understanding of the gospel. And, the movement from “I” to “we” is at the heart of our journey as Community of Christ.

Throughout this remarkable event, we have been given many reasons why congregational singing is so vital to our faith, identity, and mission. As we come to the close of this Peace Colloquy, I would like to summarize what I heard and experienced with all of you

We sing to praise God together!

As we become more and more aware of the divine presence, mere words alone are never enough to express our dawning sense of awe and wonder. It takes poetry and inspired music to even begin to give expression to our heart’s wonderment and desire.

I especially like the phrase from the third stanza of “God of Grace and God of Laughter” (CCS 100), which proclaims: “till we form a mighty chorus…”

Likewise, my soul tingles whenever we sing the refrain from CCS 118, “Great and Marvelous Are Thy Works.” Most know it well! It goes like this: “Sing of His mighty love for it is wonderful; let his praise through all the earth resound!”

We fully praise God when we praise God together with words and music that transcend our individuals ability to express ourselves!

We sing to confess and repent.

Most of us need help with the spiritual disciplines of confession and repentance. Just like Isaiah realized in his encounter with the divine, we come to understand that we are indeed people who knowingly and unknowingly rebel from God.

Inspired, thoughtfully written hymns help us sincerely express our contrition so we can receive the gift of forgiveness and be liberated to move on in life. It is a powerful community-forming occasion when we confess together and are forgiven together through Christ. Hymns such as CCS 215, “Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive,” show us the way.

We sing to be spiritually formed.

Part way through the extensive process of determining content of Community of Christ Sings, the hymnal team presented the Presidency with several large notebooks of hymns that needed some culling to fit the size of the book. Over the Christmas holiday I read every hymn in the collection of more than 700 recommendations that had been reduced from 4,000 submissions.. (What did you do on your Christmas holiday?)

To accomplish that task, I began a discipline of setting aside time each morning to read and reflect on a certain number of hymns. The practice of prayerfully reflecting on the hymns became a time of rich spiritual devotion. My understanding of the vision of the gospel and God’s call to the church was broadened and deepened.

By intentionally dwelling in the content of Community of Christ Sings, I think I became a better disciple, minister, and leader. I was spiritually deepened by the words of the hymns.

I highly recommend that in addition to regular congregational singing from Community of Christ Sings for collective spiritual formation, individuals order a copy for personal spiritual formation. Content from Community of Christ Sings has become my daily spiritual bread.

We sing to tell our sacred story.

Singing hymns of faith tells the story of God’s faithfulness over time, especially in challenging times. It was extremely important to the Hebrew people to tell and retell their story through song to remind younger generations of God’s faithfulness and steadfast love.

Telling our sacred story through congregational hymns connects us to all generations—past, present, and future—and strengthens our identity as a “called out people” whose sacred story clearly evidences God’s initiative and faithfulness.

We sing to Invite People to Christ.

Hopefully on a regular basis, seekers in our assemblies are considering their initial response to the gospel. The congregation expresses heartfelt invitation through singing songs of welcome, invitation, and summons to gospel response.

For example, the refrain of CCS 503, “Come as a Child,” invites people to “come, be baptized in love.”

Through congregational singing, doors can be opened for people to say “yes” to Christ’s call and “yes” to Christ’s mission through committed discipleship in Community of Christ.

We sing to mourn and lament.

Sometimes the vicissitudes of life leave us in the shadowy regions of sadness, grief, and despair. How do we help these deep feelings surface so they can be healed? Often it is the emotionally penetrating movement of sacred song that initiates and continues our healing.

For example, CCS 205, “When Senseless Violence,” is a very contemporary text that connects real-life suffering with Christ’s suffering. As we mourn and lament together through songs that realistically speak of human suffering and the ability of the wounded Christ to heal our wounds, we receive assurance, hope, and restoration.

One aspect of Community of Christ Sings that I am especially pleased with are the songs that speak directly to specific pastoral-care needs of individual, families, and congregations.

We sing to enhance generous response to God’s grace.

Congregational singing is an important element of the disciple’s pathway to abundant generosity!

Through potent images and expressions, we discover a new relationship with our time, talents, tithes, and testimonies. To the core, “heart change” occurs. And the heart freed to give as God gives becomes a happy heart that delights in blessing others through overflowing support of the ministries of the church. This spiritual movement in our lives is expressed especially well in the words from CCS 609, “Take My Gifts and Let Me Love You.” Listen to portions of stanzas 1 and 3:

now because your love has touched me, I have love to give away; …Take whatever I can offer…take my gifts and let me love you, God who first of all loved me.

We sing to be shaped into an authentic expression of divine nature on Earth.

Quite simply, if we can live hymns like CCS 276, “Let Us Build a House (All Are Welcome), we will fulfill the vision God has for Community of Christ. Let’s turn to CCS 276 and reflect together on some words offered there. Specifically, look at stanzas 1 and 4.

Let us build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live, a place where saints and children tell how hearts learn to forgive.

Built of hopes and dreams and visions, rock of faith and vault of grace; here the love of Christ shall end divisions: All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.

If we remain faithful to unfolding direction in the church, within the next decade we will be known by others as a church of remarkable “oneness and equality in Christ.” This is the kind of community of disciples Jesus prayed for so the world would have reason to believe in him (John 17).

We must keep singing together this vision of welcome, oneness, and equality in Christ so we can fully embody the vision of who God is calling us to be!

From the third stanza of CCS 273, “Draw the Circle Wide,” we are challenged to: “Let the dream we dreamed be larger than we ever dreamed before; let the dream of Christ be in us, open every door.”

We sing to more clearly hear God’s prophetic call to us.

The call for me to serve as prophet-president came through congregational singing. The congregation was the Council of Twelve.

Following a discernment process shared with the church, the Twelve discussed who was called. When they came to a sense of peace about God’s call, they sang as a community of church leaders.

Somewhat unfortunately for me, the song was directed to me: “I Have Called You by Your Name. You are Mine” by Dan Damon (CCS 636). It was a powerfully humbling experience without which I am not sure I would have responded.

I long for the day when each congregation experiences the same focus of calling to prophetic ministry. Singing songs that boldly confront us with our prophetic call as a faith community will accelerate our response.

When we prophetically sing of an alternative world in which compassion, oneness, and equality in Christ reign, we prophetically challenge the way things are. We add our voices to the “new song” that God is singing to bring a new world into being.

Just before I conclude, I briefly would like to address a few issues in our singing life as a church. These issues have to do with use of songs from sources other than those provided or recommended by the church.

First, I am concerned about songs that use the word “me” over and over without ever getting to the “we” of the gospel. The use of such songs can result in unhealthy self-absorption.

The gospel message is about abundant life in communities of oneness and equality in Christ. The call to Christ-centered community is the spiritual antidote to excessive focus on one’s self, which is so widespread in many western cultures.

Second, I am concerned about the regular use of songs that utilize exclusively male or male-warrior references to God. This reinforces patriarchy or male dominance that has wounded the church in the past and continues to hinder its witness today.

Scripture presents a wide array of images to describe God’s nature and activity as do the texts in Community of Christ Sings.

Third, we need to be careful about using songs that pronounce destruction and doom for the world or miraculous rescue from it for a select few. We are called to be a people of abiding, active hope who work to Abolish Poverty, End Suffering and to Pursue Peace on Earth.

When selecting songs from sources other than Community of Christ Sings, look at the implications of the content; really read the words! The music may be great, but the content may be questionable. What are we passing forward to future generations by the songs we sing?

In conclusion, hymnologists tell us the life of a hymnal is about 20 years. (By the way, Hymns of the Saints is 32 years old). However, at the local level, the congregational “canon” of songs is closed in about 10 years. By this time, the new hymns have been tried, favorites have been identified, and the congregation’s repertoire is largely fixed.

Through participation in this gathering, we are commissioned to create a new custom. Let’s help our congregations not only reenergize the power of congregational singing, but make sure the congregation’s collection of favorites includes songs that enrich and stretch our understanding of the gospel and the church's mission.

Let’s keep challenging ourselves with vigorous and evocative hymns that help us grow in fulfillment of God’s vision. John Thornburg calls them "gutsy" hymns.

God is blessing us through Community of Christ Sings as we continue our journey toward the peaceable reign of God. Community of Christ Sings is a way God is speaking to us today, revealing God’s nature and will, and promising God’s guiding presence into the future.

And, if that is the case, how can we keep from singing?

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