The hymn, How Can I Keep From Singing, is one of my favorite hymns of all time because it expresses something deep inside my soul that I can never explain on my own: 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?
For me, singing is not something that I want to do; it’s something that I need to do. It’s a compulsion, an impulse, an obsession. Singing is the only way I can adequately express my prayers, my hopes, my doubts, my questions, and my joys to God. And when I sing, I feel the presence of the Spirit moving through and around me, listening and answering and lifting my prayers on its wings.
For me, a service has three parts: the Word to feed the mind, the Meal to feed the body, and the Music to feed the soul. And cutting out any of these pieces leaves a service feeling unbalanced and unfamiliar. Without the Word, we have no connection to God; without the meal we have no connection to Jesus; and without the music, we have no connection to the Holy Spirit. We think a lot about the Word and the Meal within a service, but less about the music even though music is an enormously important part of our prayer.
In my home congregation, we say ‘singing is a way of breathing our prayer to God’ and I believe that our singing is a way of praying everything we can’t express through words, all those things that need something more, that need to be carried away on a river of sound. The things we feel and don’t have a name for, the hopes and fears, the things we carry, and the things we drag behind us. They all emerge in our singing.
One of my choir directors told me once that singers have the hardest job of all musicians because they are the only ones who must rebuild their instrument with every breath. For me, this also reflects the constant confession and forgiveness of our lives. We are constantly tearing ourselves down and God is constantly building us back up. So when we sing, we are not merely singing praises to God; we are interacting and conversing with God. We breathe in the Spirit and exhale our praise and prayers in music. And that is something we don’t necessarily get anywhere else in the service.
Most importantly, music unifies us. No matter who we are or where we come from or what place in our lives we are, when we join our voices together in song, we truly are one body. We breathe as one and each voice adds its own character to create one sound of praise, prayer, and thanksgiving. In music, we are made one in the presence of the Spirit.
So how can we keep from singing?