How can I keep from singing? Can we any longer silence our voices from singing? Were you ever the type to make jokes about Lutherans singing together? But can you joke about it any longer? What is it about singing that is so captivating for us as human beings?
Did you notice “Lift Every Voice and Sing” sung at the Super Bowl last weekend? I noticed it: a way of giving voice to the ongoing civil rights struggle of African Americans in this country. What is it about singing that gives us strength to carry on?
Have you been to a concert venue lately, or a movie, or a play, maybe for the first time in a long time? We’re still getting used to life as a “new normal” in the age of Covid—we’re trying to make safe and wise choices, and it’s gonna be a little awkward sometimes, maybe even worrisome, and that’s okay. We need some time to heal.
Dr. Betsy Stone, a psychologist who gave a lecture for the ELCA conference of bishops, spoke about how this pandemic has been a particular trauma for our society—our ways of life have been changed, and our brains have had to adjust. That’s what trauma is: how a person’s brain reacts to an event.
Our world has been utterly changed during this pandemic: the ways we relate to each other, the ways we have to adjust our social lives, the changes we have had to make to take care of our family and our health…and our brains are overloaded. We’ve gone to our coping mechanisms and found they aren’t working as well anymore, and other means of coping haven’t even been available to us. We’d love to come to church to see people, engage with Scripture, do some healing, and we haven’t been able to do that. When grieving a loss, we’d meet at a funeral, and since March 2020, we haven’t even necessarily been able to have funerals where people can gather and publicly mourn together.
If you’ve noticed that people seem more angry these days, it’s because we have unresolved grief, or anger at our helplessness, at our vulnerability, at our powerlessness. Dr. Stone calls anger a “second-order emotion,” meaning that anger is what shows up when the actual emotion is something different. It’s easier to feel angry than to feel sadness, or despair, or humiliation, but those emotions may be what’s really going on.
So how do we grow from this? Our entire lives, our bodies and our brains have been affected, and Dr. Stone says “a full-body experience needs a full-body response.” That means we can’t just think our way out of how we are feeling—our bodies have to be involved.
I heard an interview with Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, a psychologist who studies trauma, who talked about healing after trauma and how it always involves connecting with other people, somehow finding a way to reconnect. Trauma is isolating, making the person who has been hurt think that they’re the only one, that they’re alone, that there’s no one else out there who can understand.
In order for healing to happen, there has to be a way to allow connection with others. Humans are social animals—God made us this way. One of the ways out of the isolation of trauma is to move with others. We don’t even always have words to talk about this, and moving together can be an incredibly powerful way to heal. Our culture isn’t always good at this, but we can learn from the movements in other cultures, like through yoga, or tai chi—where people are doing the same thing at the same time.
Or another thing we do as a group: sing. And there aren’t many places in our society anymore where people sing in groups. We tend to think of singing as a matter best left to the professionals, that singing is about performance because of how the voice sounds. People will tell me, laughing, oh, you don’t want to hear me sing. My voice is terrible. The dogs start howling.
Let’s see, how can I put this delicately: NOOOOOOOOO.
What if I tell you: singing is not just about you! What if you sing for the healing of your own traumatized brain, and sing for the healing of your whole community? Would you do it? Can you accept that the sound of your voice is beautiful to God, and your song is a blessing to God? The song isn’t just the sound in the moment—it’s the melody that sticks with you, it’s the lyrics that shape your thinking and remind you of God’s goodness.
I had a grandmother who couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket but I sat next to her in worship and loved the sound of her voice—she had a deep devotion to God, to studying Scripture and serving God by loving people. I miss her voice. How can you possibly know who will be blessed by the sound of your singing?
And maybe all of this doesn’t need to be said—you might call it “preaching to the choir,” ha, see what I did there. After all, this is the congregation that has managed, throughout this entire pandemic of a respiratory virus, to not only keep the choir going but to grow the choir during this time. This is the congregation that invented “containment spaces” which were enclosed booths in the balcony with microphones inside, so that a singer could lead music in worship while being heard by the congregation. We de-commissioned those spaces last summer, but it was a creative response in the service of keeping people safe.
It would have been so much easier to cut out all singing, to just listen to instrumental music, to recite the powerful poetic words of hymns—and any of these things are entirely appropriate. We have had to slow down congregational singing for periods of time, and who knows, depending on how this virus affects public health, we may again have to stop congregational singing.
But we’ll never stop singing altogether. Singing is how we praise God, how we teach the faith, how we draw strength to fight another day, and how we heal together.
This is not insignificant, to care for our healing and for our bodies—healing is what the reign of God is all about. Jesus tells his disciples to love even your enemies, clothe the bodies of people who need clothing, give to people who beg, don’t judge against others. This is a radical peace movement, a commitment to healing not just within oneself but healing all the people around you, too.
Years after Jesus lived, the apostle Paul became a follower of Jesus Christ and tried to help others understand the implications of life in Christ. Paul understood the importance of Christians confessing that Jesus died in the body and was resurrected in the body—how all that happened, we don’t know, but Paul tries to make sense of the importance of bodies and flesh.
Now I’ll admit I don’t always get what Paul is saying, and I had to do a little more research about his letter to the Corinthians, but his point about physical bodies and spiritual bodies is really just trying to say that both forms of existence are bodily, just as Jesus had a physical body after he was resurrected: a body which had been transformed. For us as believers in Christ, on this side of eternal life, our transformation is in process by way of our baptism: we have died with Christ and been resurrected with Christ. God is the one accomplishing this healing, each of us individually and also together within a community as the Body of Christ.
Singing together is one way we can bear witness as the Body of Christ—maybe we don’t all sing at the same speed or in the same key, maybe some of us have lost our voice, but we keep practicing singing anyway. God brings us into tune with one another, healing the broken parts of our own minds and healing the broken parts of our larger community. We trust God to accomplish this healing, this reign of radical peace. We testify with our voices.
How will you use your voice in service to God’s reign? How will you praise God with your voice, with your life? How can we keep from singing?
 https://www.css-elca.org/trauma or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oI0P8RkXnYQ  https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/24/podcasts/transcript-ezra-klein-interviews-bessel-van-der-kolk.html  Michael J. Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters, Eerdmans Publishing Company: Michigan, 2004, page 281