How can we keep from singing?

In a few hours, I'll be meeting with my Church Council (via Zoom, of course), to talk about what it might look like to return to some kind of in-person worship services this summer.

Our state is still under Stay-at-Home orders through May 18, and we aren't thinking about opening up worship beyond online until the beginning of June.

When that happens, it'll still be limited to fewer than 20 people, we'll suggest wearing masks, and we will be instituting severe and stringent cleaning policies.

We'll livestream still for the rest of the church.

Will that still be enough?

I'd be lying if I said I had any idea.

I feel like we're all clinging hard to faith these days, just clenching our fingernails and toes to hope even as in my state, cases continue to climb each day into several hundreds, and today was a record number of deaths.

Our rural areas have been slower to see cases, but where they have, catastrophe has been quick to follow, particularly for factory and meat processing workers. Farmers are euthanizing pigs by the thousands.

Churches have long held societies together, and as a pastor, I feel the deeply held need to be community again -- somehow -- some way.

We will be, of that I'm sure.

And we have been, of that I'm sure, too.

Week after week, people have shown up online. We've prayed together and read the Bible together, and my Confirmation students faithfully gather via Zoom each Wednesday afternoon, one of them even joining from turkey hunting.

Our closeness travels across Internet bandwidth and Facebook messages, and it resonated across an empty cemetery last week, where I held my first socially distanced, family-only graveside service. The winds I knew carried the virus, but they also carried the Spirit.

What's saving your life today? is a question first posed by author Barbara Brown Taylor, in her memoir, Leaving Church. 

What's saving your life this quarantine?

For me, it's music. In the early days, it was an at-home live concert from Trisha Yearwood and Garth Brooks. Then, a video made by my best friend from college, set to the early 00s anthem, Tubthumpin, and featuring her own yoga moves at home with her two boys.

Music pulses through my earphones when I find myself alone for just 20 minutes, running down to the lake and back, avoiding cars and strollers and bikers and walkers.

I'm reminded of the words of the song in my friend's video:

"I get knocked down, but I get up again ..."

I think he was writing about a night of drunkenness (see the song's bridge), but the words are apt for coronavirus in America, too. I get knocked down. School gets canceled. Hundreds of thousands die. We don't protect our medical workers. We lose jobs. Bills are due.

But I get up again.

Music saves my life each Sunday. I've been leading worship from home with my family, and my 7-year-old son, Jacob, sings the Kyrie with me, and I feel less alone, if only slightly less tone deaf.

And in the midst of the service, I get to share YouTube videos put together by our church musicians and singers. The sanctuary, emptied of parishioners and communion wine and the shrieks of children at a children's sermon, comes to life again nonetheless in the soaring notes of the organ and piano, and the voices of the faithful.


Singing together for so many of us is sacramental. Amazing Grace. Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow. How Great Thou Art. Love Divine.

Our songs root us together.

Working with patients suffering from dementia, I'm reminded that just a few lines of an old familiar church song will bring them to life in a way mere words never can.

Singing together is sacramental, a gust of wind from the Holy that transports us to another time and place. Our individual voices don't matter; the music is greater than the sum of our parts.

I learned this week that when we gather together again as church, we will likely not be able to sing together for some time.

Our singing sacrament is also a disease vector, our swelling voices bringing music and coronavirus out of our lungs, potentially unknowingly, and into the air, where it is breathed into other lungs, dangerous more than speaking because our voices are so powerful and so dangerous.

Coronavirus has already robbed us of so much, how can it take our singing?

It's tempting to think that maybe we ought to give up in the face of so much loss. In the reminder of the story of the church choir from Washington that became a super spreader of coronavirus.

I am tired of adapting. My creative well runs dry.

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth's lamentation,
I hear the sweet, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation

Through all the tumult and the strife,
I hear that music ringing
It finds an echo in my soul
How can I keep from singing?

All day as I've thought about writing this blog, about choices that churches across America are making this week and this month about how we will worship in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead -- I have had this song in my head.

How can we keep from singing?

This is the first time I've taken to study the lyrics. And I am convinced that this song was written for us in this very moment. Our hymn is still far-off, but we can hear it, and it is sweet.

In the air is a new creation, a new plan for God's church -- centered on Jesus and the Gospel story, and not, alas, on our buildings or our traditions or our past.

We are the carriers not only of disease but of this message of new life. Music will go on. Church will go on. Perhaps we will only hum in our heads those first weeks or months, while people watching at home will shout and sing for us. Perhaps we will sing together outside this summer, far enough apart on a breezy day that we can be safe.

Maybe God's voice will have to be our voice, and we will have to listen first before we sing.

I'm listening. I hear that music ringing.


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