Singing our lives

Bird on a wall singing

I have no memory of life without God, and the reason this is so, I believe, is because of my mother’s singing.

I do have a memory—it must surely be one of my earliest ones—of being rocked in my mother’s arms as she sang. My mother has a beautiful voice, and she loves to sing. She sang in her church’s choir before her children came along, and I have seen photos of her in her choir gown, long brown hair curling, cascading to her shoulders, smiling broadly.

The Old Rugged Cross  and In the Garden were two of her favourites. I think I’ve known their words and melodies and of the God who inspired them, thanks to her singing, my entire life.

I’ve always loved my mother’s voice.

I still do, and I count it a blessing to stand beside her in church Sunday after Sunday and hear her sing. Her 86-year-old voice doesn’t have quite the strength or range it once did, but it’s still butter-rich and smooth. Sometimes, I try to harmonize with her, the way we used to when I was a girl as we did the dishes in the kitchen after dinner. I always harmonized badly in spite of her heroic efforts to teach me otherwise; in the vocal department it seems, I inherited more of my father’s gift for making a joyful noise unto the Lord, than my mother’s ear, pitch, and tone.

Given that I trace the beginnings of my faith to my mother’s music-making, it felt appropriate that the final chapter in Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People should consist of Don E. Saliers essay, “Singing Our Lives.”

Describing music as “the language of the soul made audible,” Saliers says that “human voices, raised in concert in human gatherings, are primary instruments of the soul.”

I’ve long been self-conscious about my voice. When, in my teens, I had the opportunity to sing back-up vocals as part of a Christian pop band for a teen television program, I auditioned, shyly, by singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” I got the part, much to my amazement, but I spent the next three years convinced that I was unworthy of it (in spite of my ability to keep up with the nifty dance moves.) Whenever our rehearsals would be interrupted because “someone” was flat, I just knew the someone was me.

And yet, I loved to sing.

When my husband and I were dating, and I mustered up the courage to suggest we sing one day while making the 90-minute drive to his parents, I knew he was the man for me when he joyfully joined me in singing “You Are My Sunshine,” and didn’t wince at all upon hearing my voice. “Here is a man,” I remember thinking, “who won’t mind my singing in the kitchen.”

Later, hoping to pass on the gift of faith to our three children, as my mother had done to me, I rocked and sang to them all. Our firstborn’s bedtime routine consisted of “three stories and three songs.” By the time our third came along, I’d cut back to “one story and one song,” for each of them, but the songs and hymns were an ever-present part of evenings in our home for many years. I had my own copy of our church’s hymnbook so that I could expose my children to a broader range of the music of our faith than my limited repertoire would allow. Usually, it went well, although I have a vivid memory of my son clapping his hands over his ears one night as he pleaded,“Mummy! Stop singing!”

But singing is in more than just my  DNA.

Singing is also the lifeblood of the church and it has been from the beginning. (We may not sing many hymns any more, and using hymnbooks is not the contemporary way. Today, congregational singing at my church largely consists of following the words to choruses projected onto a screen, while accompanying tunes played by instrumental and vocal “worship leaders.”)

The music has changed over the centuries, but, it has always been an integral part of Christian faith and worship. “The Christian church was born singing the songs of ancient Israel, the synagogue, and the Greco-Roman world,” writes Saliers. “Psalms and canticles formed the heart of prayer and the music of the earliest Christian assemblies.”

Embodying theology  is what we do when we sing our faith.

“Where people sing of God, an embodied theology—a way of living and thinking about life in relationship to God—is formed and expressed,” writes Saliers. “Through this practice, music lends its power to all the other practices that shape and express who we are.”

It seemed fitting then that I should conclude my musings on 12—out of possibly hundreds or even thousands—of practices of my Christian faith, with this reflection on the importance of singing our faith. For it was in my mother’s singing of her  faith, that the seeds of my own relationship with God were planted.

I’ve written previously in this series about singing hymns with and to a loved one who is dying, and of how doing so seems to be reminding her of important truths to which she has assented her entire life. It’s also affirmed my  faith to sing these songs of worship with her.

So when our church was seeking, recently, to dispose of the old hymnbooks that once graced our pews and guided our congregation’s worship for so many years, I asked for three, one for each of my children.

Because some day, God willing, they will sing to me.

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Practicing My Faith, Part 14 – This post is fourteenth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

Sabbath keeping

Candle by Zander Bederi

I remember the school children, running through the narrow avenues and alleys of the Old City of Jerusalem. Happy, but quietly so. Hurrying to get home for Shabbat, the weekly Jewish day of rest, which begins at sundown each Friday and ends at sundown the following day.

It was early on a Friday afternoon in the winter of 2005 when I saw them, when the streets began to exhale people. School children were the first to collect—like autumn leaves—along those narrow stones worn smooth. But soon, the labyrinthine paths were filled and flowing as restaurants and businesses closed up shop, blowing their owners and workers out of doors. They too scurried, but purposefully; all those people, generations, moving with purpose.

And then, just as suddenly, a hush, as the rushing bodies seemed to disappear, having been inhaled again into their hidden homes.

Later, as I sat in our hotel’s candle-lit dining room, surrounded by tables filled with families wearing their best, I listened as our host prayed, welcoming the Sabbath. I watched as he raised a cup of wine, sang a blessing, then blessed and broke sweet bread.

And I felt envy.

The gift of Sabbath

Ushering in the day of rest in an atmosphere of thanksgiving festive and reverent—with food and family, prayers and candles—struck me as a gift. And I couldn’t help but reflect on the contrast with how I carried out my own practice during a weekly day of rest and worship, which often began with the stress of trying to corral everyone to get to church on time and more often than not included catching up on one or more tasks that somehow just didn’t get accomplished during the week: groceries or laundry, budgeting or completing that not-quite-finished project for a client. The contrast deepened as I walked the silent streets of Jerusalem the next day and saw how the entire city had ground to a very visible halt. I realized: Shabbat is a gift the Jewish people have received from God, but also one that through their faithful practice of honouring the Sabbath—from generation to generation across thousands of years—they have embraced completely.

It is a gift, according to Dorothy C. Bass, writing in the sixth chapter of Practicing Our Faith, in an essay entitled, “Keeping Sabbath.” 

“For time-starved contemporary people, the practice of Sabbath keeping may be a gift just waiting to be unwrapped, a confirmation that we are not without help in shaping the renewing ways of life for which we long,” Bass writes.

The renewing ways of life. Whose life couldn’t do with a little more renewal?

Jesus, too, taught that the regular day of abstaining from work is a gift. The gospel of Mark records him as saying that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

A weekly day of rest set apart from the wearying labours of our lives was our Creator’s intention for humankind from the beginning. The Sabbath was made for us, and given to us.

But for a gift to be enjoyed it must be received. In the case of keeping the Sabbath, it’s not enough to receive it on some sort of intellectual level; to enjoy its sweetness and benefits it must also be practiced.

Deepening Sabbath practice

And yet, “Christians cannot keep Sabbath as Jews do,” Bass writes. “We know God most fully not through the perpetual covenant God made with the Israelites at Sinai but through Jesus Christ. … In an authentically Christian form of Sabbath keeping, we may affirm the grateful relationship to the Creator that Jews celebrate each Sabbath, and we may share the joyful liberation from drudgery first experienced by the slaves who left Egypt. But we add to these celebrations our weekly festival for the source of our greatest joy: Christ’s victory over the powers of death. For Christians, this victory makes of each weekly day of rest and worship a celebration of Easter.”

My own practice of Sabbath-keeping pales in comparison to what I experienced in Jerusalem. I gather with fellow believers for an hour or two on Sunday mornings to worship, fellowship, learn, and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Sunday afternoons my husband and I have long enjoyed the tradition of taking a “Sabbath nap.” But I’ve also frequently taken advantage of Sundays to get a little bit of work accomplished and justified doing so in my own mind thinking, “The Sabbath was made for me, not me for the Sabbath.”

This exercise I’ve embarked on, however—of exploring and deepening Christian practices in my life—is making me think that I’m cheating myself by not giving myself over more fully to honouring that one day as a day of rest each week. It’s not about uncovering new reasons to feel guilty or new goals to be conquered. It’s about more fully receiving the gifts that God has for those who embrace a life of seeking relationship with Him.

Recently, I’ve been making a concerted effort on Sundays to avoid my computer with its many technological temptations. It has felt freeing and I’ve liked it.

So tonight, when the sun sinks below the horizon, I think I just might light a candle and say my own prayer of thanksgiving to God for giving us this gift, and then I’ll welcome Sabbath.

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How about you? Do you take a regular day of rest? What sort of boundaries do you observe around it? I’d love to hear your thoughts, and invite you to leave a comment.

Practicing My Faith, Part 7 – This post is seventh in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.