I Miss the Singing

Last night I was trying to remember the last song we sang on Christmas Day. Normally it’s nothing I would spend any time thinking about. Why would I? One season blends into another and one Sunday blends into another – and endless pattern of choosing hymns for the right church holiday, the rise and fall of the organ music always in the background. Music has always just kind of been there. Of course, there are songs I love and look forward to singing. Over the years I have so appreciated the skills and contributions of the musicians I have known. But I took music and singing together as a congregation for granted. It would always be there – like air, like the ground beneath me.

And then it was gone.

The last time I sang with my congregation was on Christmas Day 2019. I was supposed to lead worship on December 29th as well but there was a snowstorm that day and then I left for sabbatical on January 1st. By the time I returned from sabbatical, the world was already turned upside and our church had ceased in-person worship.

We are weathering the changes as well as any congregation. People check on each other, send cards, make phone calls, we create video worship services, hold zoom meetings, still participate in mission, and offerings are up. By most accounts, we are kicking butt at being the church in the pandemic.

But I miss the singing. It surprises me how deeply and truly and to my bones I miss the singing. I’m not a musician, I always had to rely on others to do song-leading – but if I could have anything back right now from life together as we knew it, it would be the singing. Hearing the voices beside me and behind me rising together. Some on key, some off. Singing the old hymns and the new. Singing the songs I used to sing when I would sit in church beside my mother and my grandmother. Singing the songs of faith I learned around a campfire by a Minnesota lake or surrounded by mountains in Montana. Singing ancient hymns I once sang and danced along to at a reggae beat on a New Year’s Eve service in Ghana. Rowdy Lutherans gathering at the Cormorant Pub to sing hymns and eat, drink, and be merry.

I miss the singing.

And to think we might not have that back for quite some time is hitting me hard. We church leaders keep getting reminders that experts say singing is a particularly dangerous activity because of the way it can spread particles in the air and spread illness. There’s no telling how long it might be before we can safely sing together again in our churches. And in quiet moments, especially for those of us with elderly congregations, it is sobering to consider that we may *never* again get to sing with some of our dear ones again. At least here on earth.

So I keep trying to remember the last song we sang together. I looked it up this morning and it was, “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice!” The final verse rings, “Good Christian Friends, rejoice, with heart and soul and voice; Now ye need not fear the grave, Jesus Christ was born to save! Calls you one and calls you all, to gain his everlasting hall. Christ was born to save! Christ was born to save!”

It’s a happy song – because everyone knows you end worship with an “up” song – a song that people might be glad to have in their memory the rest of the day. I didn’t know when we planned it six months ago that the closing notes of that hymn would be the ones that would need to echo in my memory for months and months, perhaps years. I didn’t know then that all the things I was looking forward to setting down briefly as I left for my time of rest on sabbatical would be literally scattered everywhere upon my return. Like puzzle pieces that no longer have a shape that really fits anywhere anymore. No more routine. No more greeting the same dear faces when they come by church for quilting or Bible study or worship. No more potlucks. No more confirmation kids roughousing in the youth room. No more little kiddos running about during the children’s message. Everything is different. Nothing the same. We are still a congregation but figuring out what that means now.

And like I said, we are doing great – all the zoom calls, all the video worships, all the staying connected with phone calls and cards and Facebook groups, oh my!

But oh, how I miss singing together.

Why Beer and Hymns? (Where Beer is Optional, Singing is Not)

A couple months ago, I went to the wedding of friends in the Twin Cities.  It was a beautiful event, as most weddings are, but this one was particularly delightful for numerous reasons.  One of the reasons was because the bride and groom have a large circle of friends who love music, are long-time church folks, and thus, participating in the singing of the hymns that day was deeply moving.  Our voices not only rose together in luminous harmonies, but as I looked around at the people gathered, everyone was smiling at the music we were making together. More than a few of us were also  wiping away tears as we grinned like fools.  It didn’t matter that some of us can hardly carry a note, we made a joyful noise along with those who were the professional singers and all together, the sound was not only breath-taking, but it was one of the most magnificent moments of spiritual harmony I have felt for ages.

I thought on the way home about how even though I sing hymns every week in worship with my congregation, it was so different singing at that wedding.  Surely, part of the reason was the pure joy of the wedding and seeing old friends, but I know it was also because I wasn’t leading the service.  I just got to sing for the love of singing and the love of God.  I wanted more of that feeling.

I talked with a pastor friend, the brilliant Dean Grier of First Lutheran in Audubon, and we decided that an opportunity for fellowship and song in our community could be a cool thing.  Yes, for us as pastors, because we would get to sing and enjoy the music in a way that is very different from Sundays when our minds are often cluttered with other stuff (is the scripture reader here? where did I put the stuff for the children’s sermon? maybe I should not tell that one story I was thinking about telling in my sermon…) and also as a form of evangelism.

In the church, we unfortunately tend to think of evangelism as getting people to come to church so they will worship just like we do.  We treat evangelism as a way to answer the problem of our empty pews and offering plates.

Of course, real evangelism is something quite different.  It is going out into the community where people already are and being the church there.  As Saint Francis of Assisi famously said, “Preach the Gospel always, if necessary, use words.” Sometimes this can look like doing service projects.  Sometimes this can look like visiting the sick and homebound.  Sometimes it looks like working at a soup kitchen or running a coat drive.  Sometimes it can look like gathering at a bar and singing hymns together.

Beer and Hymns at the Cormorant Pub will be very simple:  singing and fellowship.  Don’t expect a sermon.  Don’t expect structured worship of any kind and yet, don’t be surprised if the Holy Spirit chooses to move in that place.  I’m expecting it.

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Below is a blurb if you would like to share it with your church, Facebook page, or any news source:

Would you be surprised to walk into a bar and hear hymns being sung in four-part harmony?  Well, that is what is happening in pubs across the nation as Beer and Hymns takes shape in communities looking for faith, fellowship, and ways to share the joy of sacred music outside of sanctuary walls and Sunday mornings.

Do you like to sing? Do you, like Martin Luther, enjoy a nice, cold beer now and then?  Well, thanks be to God! Beer and Hymns is soon coming to a pub near you!  It’s simple:  we get together with friends and strangers and sing old hymns, eat food, drink beverages (beer is optional, singing is not!), and enjoy one another’s company.  We’ll gather from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 29th at Cormorant Pub in the center of Cormorant Village (10790 County Highway 5, Pelican Rapids, MN).  Invite your friends!  All ages are welcome.  For more information contact Ruth Hetland at  ruthehetland@gmail.com.

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