The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


‘How can I keep from singing?’

Stewarding the gift of song

Sometimes the news is so astounding, the gift so overwhelming, that our thank you becomes a song. Such is the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she sings upon learning that she is to bear God’s son (Luke 1:46). 

When we consider the circumstances surrounding this song, it becomes all the more amazing. How can Mary, an unwed teenager, sing praise when her future is so uncertain, the words of an angel so incredulous?  

And what about us? Time and time again in our own lives the Spirit enters both our astounding joy and deep sorrow and brings forth a song. American hymn writer Robert Lowry understood life as “flowing on in endless song” in response to the new life we share in Christ: 

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? (“My Life Flows On in Endless Song,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 763).

Lowry’s question is rhetorical — we can’t keep from singing. In times of grief, when the spoken word falls flat, we cling to song with its power to lift our spirits.

Yet if we are honest, much does keep us from singing together in the wider culture and in the church. Instead of singing Christmas carols together, we attend holiday concerts where professionals sing for us. Similarly, over time singing in church has also become performance rather than participatory practice. Singing together has become exceptional rather than expected.

What keeps us from singing?
Last Christmas my spouse, an ELCA pastor, visited a parishioner with Alzheimer’s disease. Family members had gathered at the nursing home for a holiday visit, and my husband led them in prayer. He suggested they sing “Away in a Manger” together.

To his surprise, the only person to join in the singing was the woman who couldn’t even remember the names of her family members. Disease may have stolen parts of her memory, but it wouldn’t keep her from singing. 

What of her family members who didn’t sing? Were they silent because they didn’t know the hymn? Were they uneasy about singing together, especially in the company of a pastor whom they had just met? 

Public communal singing became less common with the invention of the microphone. Further advances in technology allow us to be surrounded by singing, yet not sing. As with so many other dimensions of life, we leave it to the professionals. We put in earbuds and are privately serenaded by our favorite singers. While there is certainly nothing wrong with enjoying musical performances, we can be tricked into thinking that we aren’t good enough to sing ourselves (except in the shower or in the car where other sounds drown us out).

Though we are often born singing, those infant babbles fade and we become more self-conscious. Instead of singing like Mary, we resemble Adam and Eve in the garden, hiding our voices, ashamed of being so vulnerable in front of others.

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Embracing diversity