The sung word has an inherent power that pierces the heart, mind, and imagination all at the same time. For example, we speak about the lyrical beauty of poetry and the spiritual reach and depth of the psalms. When the psalms are sung and received well by the worshiper, they become deeply embedded in memory. They speak the language of the worshiper’s joy and lament.
However, for many of us, our ears are so accustomed to hearing a certain type of song—familiar modality, harmonic language and progression, versification and structural form, rhythmic pattern, cadential formula, and idiom or style—that the songs of another community or another language seem strange.
Consider the opening strains of “Abana alathi fi ssama/Abana in Heaven,” one of the songs in the new hymnal Lift Up Your Hearts (p. 35).
I sensed the cautious approach of some folks in my predominantly white church when this was first introduced. I heard them stumbling through that augmented second descent on the melody at measure 6.
Responses were mixed. Some thought it reminded them too much of Islamic influence; others embraced it with stunned awe and tearful conviction. But the more we sang this piece, the more it grew on the congregation, and the more fervent the singing became. I often choke up when I sing this song. You can imagine my delight to see many in this largely Dutch-American congregation having an experience similar to mine. I suppose this is typical of any church that sings or hears something unfamiliar. Worshipers may have any one or a combination of four responses:
1. Rejection. Anything that is unfamiliar is immediately dismissed or associated with an unpleasant experience or an undesirable idea. The music and text is “boring,” does not elicit excitement, does not “connect.” But the truth is that often the worshiper is disconnected with the whole notion of change, hospitality, and counterculture.
2. Indifference. A worshiper may experience a neutral response to the unfamiliar tune, lyric, and style. This is disconnection without strong impulse (apathy).
3. Curiosity. Some word, phrase, or turn of melody arouses the interest of the worshiper. It lingers with the mind for a while, and the worshiper examines the song or hymn once again and allows it to speak to the other places in her heart.
4. Acceptance. The hymn or song becomes a part of the worshiper’s experience of worship. The vocabulary of the worship experience is broadened, heightened, deepened. Barriers are broken; understanding is forged; there is a renewed openness to the idea that the experience of Christianity may be amazingly different but scintillatingly common to our celebration of Christ’s salvific work in our lives.
In our congregational singing, I believe it is important to open one’s ear, mind, and heart to the strange and unfamiliar. If we do, we can learn some valuable lessons:
1. The diversity of God’s gifting. Paul speaks of the various gifts of the Spirit and the gifts in the church. We are each uniquely different and uniquely beloved by God. Our diversity is a symbol of the plethora of riches Christ gives to his bride. Let us accept this immeasurable gift and celebrate it with our whole being.
2. The unity of the church. Christ wants the worldwide body of believers to be one. We are different threads sewn together into one tapestry of faith, culture, and voice. It is tantalizing to see those vivid colors, feel those textures, and smell the fragrance of those varied threads dipped in the perfume of a community’s offering that is different from ours.
3. Hospitality. To welcome strangers and learn from them, treating them as our guests and acting as hosts to their culture and community, is the highest form of hospitality. On Sundays, churches are often the most segregated places. When this happens, we grieve the Holy Spirit. We tell Christ that his prayer in John 17 is impossible to achieve here and now.
4. Living the Revelation vision. The book of Revelation describes an incredible scene in heaven where people from every tribe and every nation are gathered in the presence of the Lamb. The Revelation vision needs to be approximated in the here and now, especially in our worship gatherings.
Singing the songs of another community expresses much more than the desire to be multicultural. It reflects Christ’s incarnational presence in various cultures and worship experiences. He calls his people to gather together, to go out into the public square, into every corner of the world, not only to deliver his message of salvation but to share his desire for all creation to be renewed and reconciled in him.
When we adopt the language of another culture’s worship, we are simply singing the redemptive work of the Spirit that is undeniably common to all of Christ’s church. May all the songs in the new hymnal Lift Up Your Hearts find their place at the core of our singing—in our churches, in the fields and in the desert, in the workplace and in our dormitories, in the shelters for the homeless and the elderly, at our dining tables and fireplaces, and wherever we greet the beloved Stranger who knocks at the door of our hearts.