Written by Sam Hodgkins-Sumner
“… there is no art that could be put on the same level with music, since, except for theology [music] alone produces what otherwise only theology can do, namely, a calm and joyful disposition.” – Martin Luther (in a letter from 1530)
It was happening again. He was singing. It was 7:00 a.m.
“Shut up,” I thought from my bedroom on the second floor. But my father carried on in his discipline of morning prayer—evidently, he had arrived at the hymn.
My father is deaf; he’s more than slightly deaf, though less deaf than stones are. As a result, he tended to bellow those morning prayer hymns. He missed a few notes, too. To my groggy teenage brain, his singing was tantamount to torture.
Memory is a funny thing, though. With time I’ve come to appreciate my dad’s singing. I appreciate the doxology my mother would start around the dinner table (“Praise God from whom all blessings flow”), punctuating each line by bopping our poodle on the head with a napkin. I appreciate those nights my father tucked me in with “I want to walk as a child of the light.” My parents built these little disciplines of song—at the bottom, disciplines of celebration—into our home life. I’m grateful for that.
In his book Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willarddescribes the discipline of celebration as a habit in which “we come together with others who know God to eat and drink, to sing and dance, and to relate stories of God’s actions for our lives and our people.” Celebrations mark a time to gratefully enjoy the pleasing things we’ve been given, a time to step aside from work and striving. Willard isn’t overly sentimental or mushy about celebration. He recognizes that this discipline rejoices in God’s greatness and goodness even “in the midst of our suffering and terror.”
We can find particular musical forms of communal celebration throughout Scripture and the Christian tradition. Innumerable angels surround the heavenly throne in Revelation and sing with full voices, “Worthy is the lamb that was slain.” Moses and Miriam lead the Israelites in a song of thanks for their deliverance from their oppression in Egypt, rejoicing with voice and tambourine. Dante’s polyphonic Paradise stands as a foil to the cacophony of the Inferno. Some of the greatest traditional spirituals originate from Black American slaves, the strength and beauty of whose praise is rendered all the more powerful by the atrocities they suffered.
Yet, musical forms of communal celebration have faded in our contemporary North American culture —this is true in a broad and secular sense, let alone the Christian discipline. I walk in a city of individuals living in little Spotify bubbles. Corporate pop drifts from speakers and bass booms from cars as drivers flex their way through Kensington Market. At large concerts we’re together (pandemics notwithstanding), but the dynamic is different, commercial. The audience participates, but not in the same way.
Communal, musical celebration allows us to be present together, to better know each other, and to each contribute to the joy of creation.
We can experience this by playing in a jam-band, going to local shows, or by singing in a choir. Christian celebration makes explicit that we’re present as equals before God, and that the joys of our creation flow from the Creator.
With the arrival of COVID-19, many of the places where we typically enjoy the discipline were shuttered. Churches and summer camps, the two most powerful venues for worship in my youth, were closed down. Many weddings were postponed—vows and receptions aren’t made for Zoom.
In the pandemic swirl of emotion and uncertainty about things personal and political, I didn’t notice how much I missed being in the pews and singing alongside others. Not until my roommate broke out a guitar one day in late April. My other roommate got out his bass and they played “The Weight.” We all sang along on our front porch. To be together and to celebrate.
It’s been a while since those days of family songs around the table and before we slept. I’ve learned a little bit more about the suffering and terror that seem to dominate so much of the world, and better understand the particular struggles my parents faced while raising us.
So, with every passing year, those songs my parents sang, those ways they practised the discipline of celebration, become more impressive and important to me. To be together in body and to sing in celebration is a subtle but lasting good. It’s a discipline that reminds us of what and Whom to rejoice in.
I don’t resent dad’s morning bellowing anymore, either. I don’t fault him for imperfection. When it comes to God’s melody, we’re all a bit off—all more than slightly deaf, though not as bad as stones. What’s important is to celebrate anyway.