By Sheri Hostetler
Our Lenten series is “Spiritual Resilience in a Time of Chaos.” This is the first sermon of that series.
There is a memory etched in my mind from the last week of my Mom’s life. Her church women’s group has come to sing to her, as they have many times before during her long decline from Lewy Body Dementia. My Mom is sitting in a chair, slumped, with barely the strength to sit up, mouth open, like this is the only way she can get enough breath. She is so tired, so weak. She hasn’t been able to talk for months, and she hasn’t eaten for days. The women form a circle with her. They all sing beautifully, except for one woman who — convinced she can’t sing — whistles. She’s actually a really good whistler! This is what it sounded like (plays recording).
After each song, the women would decide what to sing next, and sometimes they’d take a few minutes figuring this out, or they would start talking about something else. When this happened, my Mom somehow found the energy to do this (move finger slightly), which meant “Stop talking and sing!” Once or twice, I saw my Mom mouthing the words.
Two days later, she will die peacefully, with her family around her singing (and please sing with me if you know it): “When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be. When we all see Jesus, we’ll sing and shout the victory.”
Singing brought my Mom peace and strength during the most difficult days of her life. What would we have done without it? My Mom was a “Bible-believing Christian,” but reading Scripture to her – while helpful – did not compare in terms of comfort to singing. I would sing to her out of the Gospel songs section of the red hymnal until I needed to give my voice a rest. Singing was her resilience practice.
And, of course, it is the quintessential Mennonite resilience practice. If there’s one thing we know how to do when the going gets tough, it’s to sing. Carmen told me that she would sing through the then new blue hymnal, alone in her hotel room, when she was a Mennonite Central Committee worker in Baghdad in the late 1990s, during a time when the U.S. was bombing the areas north and south of that city. Singing those hymns was a primary form of prayer and strength during that violent time. Russ tells the story of how his family’s entire village in Russia moved to Kansas together. Before they left their home for the long and difficult journey, they sang “Take Thou My Hand, O Father.” When they safely arrived in Kansas, they sang it again.
And singing is not just our resilience practice, of course. From spirituals to the blues to hip hop, the African- American community in this country has not only survived but thrived through song. The prayer book of the Bible — the psalms — were songs, and these songs have sustained Jews and Christians for millennia. And I’m sure we could all think of many other examples of people and peoples who have been sustained through singing.
So, what happens when we sing together? Why does it sustain us so much? I want to suggest three reasons for how song sustains us (and these are from the wonderful book Singing: A Mennonite Voice by Marlene Kropf and Ken Nafziger; most of the quotes are from that book).
First, we become mystics when we sing. For some of us, singing brings us into the presence of the Divine more reliably than anything else. I can still remember the holy hush that came over my home congregation when we would sing, “The Lord is in his holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence, keep silence, before him.” The presence of God was there, with us, when we sang. To use language popular now, we had slipped out of our ordinary consciousness and were in touch with a larger consciousness. We had slipped the bonds of our isolating ego and touched into the Source of life. That’s quite a feat for a bunch of practical, stoic Swiss Germans.
Marlene and Ken say that singing creates openness to the moving of God’s Spirt. In order to sing, we must breathe; in order to sing together, we must breathe together. The Hebrew word for Spirit is ruah, which also means breath. So when we breathe together, we invoke the Spirit in a very physical way. Or bodies and spirits get connected up. The Jewish writer Abraham Joshua Heschel puts it this way: “To sing means to sense and to affirm that the spirit is real and that its glory is present. In singing we perceive what is otherwise beyond perceiving. Song, and particularly liturgical song, is not only an act of expression but also a way of bringing down the spirit from heaven to earth.” So singing connects body and spirit, heaven and earth.
I also think that singing forms our religious imaginations more than anything else we do. Our hymns are full of images and concepts and verses from Scripture. We may not ask our children to recite Bible passages very often, but they are essentially doing that when they sing our hymns. Our understanding of who God is and what God does and how we are in right relationship with God and each other — all of this is formed in us as we sing. The ancient church believed that “first we sing, then we believe.” One of the reasons it’s so important to me that Patrick attend worship regularly is I know that he is being shaped by the “aural” environment here. I know that these songs are forming his imagination, his worldview, in powerful ways.
Second, singing forms us into the Body of Christ — it forms Christian community. Perhaps the most famous theologian of the 20th century, Karl Barth, said that the “community which does not sing is not the community.” When we sing together, we form community in, again, a very physical way. We breathe and vibrate together. We become an instrument together — a reed flute through which God’s Spirit blows, to paraphrase the poet Rumi. One woman interviewed for this book summarized how this mysterious unification works for her: “Singing undresses us. When we sing, we bring our bodies into the room, and our souls are undressed. I have this image of all these souls speaking to each other and then real things starting to happen.” Another person said that in singing, we “create an images of ourselves as we most want to be: a people in love with God and with each other.”
Singing also connects us with the Body of Christ through the generations; it connects us to our ancestors. We are singing the songs that formed their faith and their imaginations; by signing those same hymns, we are allowing the songs to also form us.
Last, singing forms us as people of Spirit in the world. Our song is not just for us, for connecting to the Divine or to each other. Our song is for the world. Or, as one music scholar put it, “music is not so much a thing of beauty as an ethical force.” What might he mean by that?
Marlene and Ken say: “Singing hymns provides a time and place where we can express what our hearts truly desire in words and commitments we might not have the courage to speak apart from music.” They use the example of hymn #512 from our blue book. We’re going to sing this hymn during the offering, and I invite you to pay close attention to the words as you do so. In this song, we confess that we don’t love God with all our heart, soul and mind. We really don’t want to make the sacrifices and give up control so that we can following in the way of Jesus. But we desire to do that, and we pray for the grace to live into that desire in this song.
Songs also enable us to live by our convictions in dangerous and hostile times. The best example of this from our tradition, of course, is the many Anabaptist martyrs from the 1500s who went to their deaths singing hymns. They sang so passionately and joyfully that their executioneers were afraid they would convert people to their movement through their song, so they would order their mouths screwed shut so they couldn’t sing.
I know that singing enabled me to be brave during the Inauguration Day action that I and several other people from this church participated in. I had never been chained to other human beings as I blocked an entrance before; I had never faced down police officers in riot gear, standing two feet away way from me. I had never been handcuffed nor had I ridden in the back of a police van nor had I ever been booked. If we hadn’t been singing the entire time, I think I would have been much more scared throughout all of this. Our song made me brave, and it brought out a nonviolent warrior in me I didn’t quite know was there. I wouldn’t hesitate to do such an action again, if I thought it was the right thing to do — and if I knew I could sing with others as I was doing it.
Our gift of song is something that we can bring to other people, to sustain them in their own times of trial. I think of the way some of us gathered around Alma as she was dying, and what a gift that was for her and all of us. I think of the way that we gathered around Congregation Sha’ar Zahav after the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh. We stood in front of the synagogue that Friday evening and formed a wall of protective song around the building. I left the singers for a few minutes to sit in the Friday evening service and heard the rabbi say something like this to her congregation: “I know many of you may feel like it is the 1930s right now, but I want you to know that that is not true. Back then, we were alone; no one came to help us. Our Christian neighbors turned away. But that is not happening today. Listen to the singing,” she said — pointing to the open windows — “our Christian friends are with us, protecting us, standing with us. We are not alone.” These vigils of singing solidarity are now monthly.
How we might continue to harness the power of song as an ethical force even more, especially during these increasingly chaotic times? How might our song not only steady and sustain us, but steady and sustain the spirits of others? What if we were to sing at prisons, detention centers, evictions, at the beds of forgotten elders in care homes? What if we sang as trees were cut down, as bulldozers broke ground for the next luxury condominium? What if we invited people to sing with us and teach us their songs? May the Spirit who breathes through us as we sing inspire us.