Singing faith

When I think of my own journey of faith formation, the companion book to the Bible has to be the hymnal. I grew up with singing about faith. There was always a hymnal on the piano at our home, and there were other hymnals in the bench or on the bookcase above the piano. We belonged to the Congregational Church, but our mother grew up Methodist. There was no Methodist Church in our town, the product of an old parity agreement between Presbyterian, Congregational and Methodist Churches in Montana. Our church was the default church for Presbyterians and Methodists in our town. For my parents, one of whom grew up Methodist and the other Presbyterian, the situation was just right. But we always had a Methodist hymnal in our home. I still have that hymnal in my library even though I gave away my collection of hymnals when we moved from South Dakota.

There are all kinds of hymns that are so ingrained into my memory that I cannot separate my faith from those songs. This is especially true at Christmas. I think of Christmas in the words of Carols: Away in a Manger, Silent Night, The First Noel, We Three Kings, While Shepherds Watched their Flocks, Joy to the World, Angels We Have Heard on High. The list goes on and on.

Our family has sung Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee at so many special events, including the memorial services for both of our parents. The words of that hymn are part of how I think of what it means to be Christian: “Ever singing, march we onward, victors in the midst of strife. Joyful music leads us sunward in the triumph song of life.”

We sang table graces including the doxology, which can be sung to the tune of Hernando’s Hideaway. We had our own version of the Johnny Appleseed Song that included the line, “for sun and rain and the family,” instead of appleseed. Amazing Grace wasn’t one of our mother’s favorite hymns, but the hymn is common meter, something that is true of a great number of 1960’s television sitcoms. We’d sing the hymn to “Gilligan’s Island,” or “The Brady Bunch,” or “Green Acres,” and laugh ourselves silly.

We had our own versions of sacred hymns with altered words to make jokes: “Amazing grace, O what great fun to play a joke on Grace!” We even learned that our mother had her own version of “I Was Sinking:” I was sinking, deep in sin, Whee!” The whole family, from youngest to oldest would sing.

When the organ peeled potatoes,
Lard was rendered by the choir.
As the sexton rang the dish rag,
Someone set the church on fire.
“Holy Smokes!” the parson shouted.
In the crowd he lost his hair.
Now his head resembles heaven.
‘cause there is no parting there.

When I have faced trials in my life, I have meditated on memorized scriptures, but I have more often sung hymns to myself. I sang hymns to our children as lullabies, a practice that I remember our mother doing.

In a strange twist of events, however, I now find myself in a position where I am asked to teach Christian Faith Formation without the use of hymns. Because Covid-19 is a virus that is spread by aerosol, there is evidence that singing makes it more likely for the virus to spread. Singing can propel the virus a greater distance than speaking according to some research. Our congregation’s Covid Advisory Committee, using the information available to them, has decided that at gatherings of our church, there will be no congregational singing. The current protocol allows for up to four singers, all masked and distanced from each other to sing, provided that they are more than 20 feet away from the congregation. They also have recently allowed members of the congregation to hum along, something that they couldn’t really prevent in the first place. I got really good at humming very softly, but there are some hymns, especially Christmas carols, that I cannot avoid humming just a bit.

Four part congregational singing is so deeply ingrained in me that I can hardly avoid joining in. Our father had little or no formal musical education, while our mother played piano, cello and trumpet. She had a beautiful alto voice and he learned to match pitch. In church, he usually sang the alto line down one octave as he sat or stood next to our mother. I learned to sing melody and then tenor and as my voice deepened, I could hit most of the bass notes even though my usual part is tenor. When I was in high school, I used to sing hymns by going through the parts, singing the soprano line on the first verse, alto on the second, tenor on the third, and bass on the fourth. For many years I sang in church choirs and learned to sing unison on the first verse and then four part harmony for the rest of the song.

Music has been an important part of the passing on of faith for thousands of years. It is likely that most of the book of Psalms was set to music, though we don’t have access to original tunes. Psalm 119 serves as a kind of “Introduction to the Jewish Faith.” It is arranged like an alphabet song, with a verse for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Poetic sections of other parts of the Bible also might have been recited to particular tunes. At least they were read in rhythm.

Prior to the pandemic, songs were a very important part of my teaching of the faith. I always sang songs with children at Vacation Bible School, at church camp, and in weekly class gatherings. I made references to hymns and often led the singing of a verse during Bible Study classes. I quoted hymn lyrics in prayers. The restriction on singing in our church has left me searching for ways to lead faith formation activities.

I am eager for the return of singing to our church and while I wait, I continue to repeat the lyrics to hymns. While I recite out loud, inside I’m singing: “There’s a song in my heart I am singing today.”