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Singing in the Beloved Community

St. Augustine said that the one who sings, prays twice. We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words; we get closest to praying as we ought when we sing. But church singing has changed rapidly in the 30-some years I’ve been a pastor. The hip new hymnal that came out in the nineties contains far too many hymns that were written for an organ and a congregation in the hundreds, not a guitar, a piano, and a raggedy chorus of twenty-some.

My congregation wants to sing more, but there’s a sweet spot to be hit. Like the judge who couldn’t define pornography but knew it when he saw it, we know what we want to sing when we sing it, and “The Church’s One Foundation” is not it. Neither are the praise hymns with a dozen verses. I spend a lot more time than I used to looking for hymns—trolling Appalachian folksong websites, Googling “southern harmony,” searching the various hymnody sites for relevant songs in the public domain. Oddly for our progressive intellectual tradition, we find our hearts’ desire in primitive gospel songs with an unabashedly literal bent: “Who shall wear the starry crown? Good Lord, show me the way.”

One of my church members scribbled down a phrase from Brene Brown that she heard on the radio on the way to church: “Is it possible that our capacity for warm-heartedness cannot be greater than our willingness to be brokenhearted?” She raised it during our prayer time, alluding to the messiness of our lives and ministries. The fact is, we do not know the Church Triumphant any more; we know a broken-down institution and a wider, unchurched circle of spiritual pilgrims. We do not know Christus Victor; we know the Jesus who sent his disciples out two by two with instructions on what to do when rejected.

Another church member, now tragically deceased, was asked by a little Baptist church for the use of his farm pond for a baptism. A big, heavy woman was to get baptized, but the slope of his pond turned out to be too muddy for her to climb out. He had to get a winch to help the Baptists out, and he enjoyed it immensely. It strikes me that our co-religionists’ wholehearted dedication to full immersion is a template for my church members’ ministries. The hymnody to which we are drawn is that which expresses the poignancy of life and the sense that God is to be found in the low places.

When we sing these songs, we know ourselves to be part of a great cloud of witnesses, modest people who tried hard, loved incautiously, stumbled often. We feel the Holy Spirit breathing into us again. It doesn’t really matter how damn smart we are. We still don’t know how to pray as we ought; only the songs of strugglers can get us on track.

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