I glanced down at two little boys. Both are in grade school. They are busy scribbling and doodling on the church bulletin. and I wonder if they are hearing any of the good news being offered in the church service. I am standing. They are sitting. My thoughts wander back to when I was their age not really listening much in church. My parents were not religious and treated church like it was just another extracurricular activity. For them, the church was interchangeable with cub scouts. I sit back down near them as one thought enters my mind, “I want them to know what my voice sounds like.” So I continue singing the hymns trusting that beyond my very best efforts a God who delights in beauty will carry my song forward in surprising ways.
For many years I kept the church at arm’s length. In a hard and hopeless place, a conversation with a very committed Christian, who unfailingly invited me to church, changed my life. At her urging, I opened the book of Psalms and found something surprising — songs that gave voice to betrayal, heartache, depression, and anger. These were songs that expressed the full range of human experience — my experience. These ancient verses and poems gave me the language to express deep lament and connected me to a people that birthed poetry out of calamity and despair. I started listening for the good news. I stopped doodling and was ready to stand up to sing.
Of all the formative experiences at the Chinese church, perhaps the great gift the church gave me in my teens was a song binder and a book of chords. I remember my youth leader handing me a small binder of hymns and praise songs. Through a season of depression as a young person, I managed to learn enough chords on the guitar and paged through every song in the binder. I began to sing my way through the darkness, and saw the church as a great repository for songs of longing and liberation. The church was doing its job in passing down songs to fill the earth with beauty and glory.
Through the years, I continued to learn new songs from different traditions and branches of the church. After the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, one of the most helpful things I did was attend a Gospel choir concert. It was a powerful and fitting statement of hopeful protest which reminded me once again of our limitations in reasoning, and of our need to sing together through our despair as we learn to overcome. For many in the civil rights era it took a certain discipline to live with broken bodies and yet sing “Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe We shall overcome, someday.”
And shortly after violence erupted in Charlottesville, I attended a worship concert led by gospel artist Jonathan McReynolds. The concert was planned weeks prior, but the timing was clearly providential for me and many in attendance.
The large sanctuary was filled to capacity with many family members from the Black church and the room was sweltering with expectation, but in the middle of the concert, a storm hit. The power in the building went out and a collective gasp went up through the audience as darkness filled the streets of Philadelphia. Would the concert continue? What would be said from up front? Would people give up and leave in dismay?
To my surprise, after the lights went out everyone stayed. For two hours, in the heat and darkness, we kept singing. There were simple songs led from the front: call and response songs, and songs that people knew by heart. I reached for my phone to capture the whole scene but purposefully decided to put my phone away to be present as I felt my heart drawn to participate in this song of resilience. I was a witness to the fact that when the lights go out, the Church finds its voice. No sound system, no effects — just our voices, our hearts, and our lives, woven together in doxology in the darkness of the world.
And I have come to realize that the church is just people who have learned to sing in the dark.
We meet regularly in humble homes and grand cathedrals to practice our songs. We draw from a cache of liberation songs that protest the way things are and give voice to a day when all of creation, coursing with the newness of life, will sing of great glory. In the words of songwriter Bruce Cockburn, we are “kicking at the darkness til it bleeds daylight.” And though the church is threatened at every turn, as its leaders are found wanting, beyond every individual failing, the church as God’s chorus has and always will erupt in the midst of shadows.
The book of Acts presents a fledgling church persecuted from every side — in danger, yet singing, “Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening.” (Acts 16:25) For Paul and Silas, sitting together in the darkness, there was a song of liberation to be sung! This new hymnody was for Jew and Gentile alike and proclaimed that the sociologically impossible happened. Yes, even the prisoners were listening. I am so grateful that the church has taught me how to sing when tempted to despair in an eclipsing darkness. Long lay an imprisoned world that is indeed listening in on the song we are singing. There is courage available for we have a song leader that joined his voice to ours, “And when they had sung a hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives.” (Mark 14:26).
I have long wondered what that hymn was. On first glance, what seems unobtrusive, looks like a grand interruption in Mark’s narrative, for he moves quickly from the sacrificial symbol of the Passover meal, into the pending darkness of Gethsemane and Golgotha, but he pauses in this breathless narrative to note that Jesus and the disciples, in the midst of it all, had sung a hymn together. The church is the place where we learn to sing with God in the darkness. He has joined his voice to ours.
And as I hold out the hope that my children will remember what my voice sounds like, I am free to wonder, was Jesus’ voice bellowing? Was it like a cello? What was the color, tone, and resonance of God’s voice as he sang that night?
While the church carries the tune, it is her God who is bringing redemption in the midst of darkness.
How can we keep from singing?