August 2, 2016

Sing On!

It was the first time I’ve ever sat down for this piece. I had all intention to stand up tall and conduct with precision and as much strength as I could muster, but when the choir processed to the front of the sanctuary and took their places, I looked at their faces, seeing the same deep pain I was feeling, reflected in their brimming eyes, and just couldn’t do it. The familiar three measure introduction rang out from the piano and the choral voices came crashing into the room like a wrecking ball on first impact. “Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. And he shall reign forever and ever. King of kings. Lord of lords. Hallelujah.” They sang the same words and same notes only weeks before, but they did so with a full choir on Easter Sunday, surrounded by white fabric and lilies and a joyful congregation beaming back at them. On this night, they sang to a somber and tearful room, stripped of the resurrection vibrance and color and replaced with sympathetic flowers and memorial photos. And there was a gaping hole in the alto section. A tangible and gaping hole. A voice missing. A presence so very missed. But this group got up and sang. They sang defiantly. They proclaimed “HALLELUJAH” in the face of death even though their hearts were breaking. It is a moment frozen in time that will stay with me for the rest of my life.  

There was an article in Slate magazine called “Ode to Joy: Join a choir. Scientists show it’ll make you feel better.” As a lifelong choral singer and choral lover, it laid out in paragraph form a knowledge I have had deep within my heart and soul for as long as I can remember. There is something about the physical act of singing that touches your emotions. It allows you to express every feeling — from the most elated sense of joy to the darkest pit of sorrow, all spilling out in melody and harmony. It doesn’t matter if you’re singing lightly or singing seriously . . . humming and piddling with a favorite song while waiting for your coffee to finish brewing in the morning, or singing a Taize refrain in the quiet of your personal devotional time, or singing evening prayers with your children or grandchildren, or warming up before a choral performance or worship service. It doesn’t matter what kind of singing you are doing — the very act of singing touches the very human soul at the core. Now take this physical and emotional action and combine it with the camaraderie of raising voices together in concert. The result is a bond, that I argue, penetrates deeper than the average human relationship. A bond formed from a shared talent, a shared experience, a shared responsibility for greatness, a shared willingness to blend and work together, a sharing of one’s soul.

We are a small church choir — 20 voices at most. When you are part of such a close knit, small group, you aren’t only singing together a couple of times a month. You are communing with each other as brothers and sisters in the body of Christ, raising your voices together in perfect unity. Members arrive at rehearsal carrying the stress of a busy day at the office, the weight of an unhealthy relationship, the demands of parenting young children, the fear of a diagnosis, the sting of death, the excitement of being able to share good news with everyone else. We gather to commune, to sing through all of life’s emotions together, and sometimes to sing for those who can sing no longer. Our dearly departed sister in the alto section died quickly after a very short battle with leukemia. Right after her diagnosis and before she began intensive chemotherapy, we met for rehearsal and sang to her over the phone. The day before she died, many members gathered around her bedside and sang. And at her funeral we kept singing . . . song after song, reminder after reminder of God’s promises and grace. Singing together did not make the pain go away and didn’t fill that gap amongst our voices, but it seemed like the right thing and the only thing we could do — and there was comfort in that. Individually we could raise our voice, in all its pain and sorrow and join with all the others to sing our lament, in search of hope and reassurance of God’s promises.

My life flows on in endless song, above earth's lamentation. 

I hear the clear, though far off hymn that hails a new creation. 

No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that Rock I'm clinging. 

Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing? 

Sing on, brothers and sisters. Sing on.

Kathryn Ritsema Roelofs is a commissioned pastor in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and serves as a worship specialist with Thrive, a ministry of the CRC. She is also the managing director of the Worship for Workers project through Fuller Seminary.