I sang on my way to work this morning. The sun was rising over Washington, and my car radio was tuned to the local Contemporary Christian station. With the music playing in the background and cherry blossoms in view around the Tidal Basin, I could not keep from singing. I wanted nothing more than to keep on singing my praises to God for the dawn of a new day and the anticipation of another week. How could I keep from singing?
Most of us sing when we are happy. We sing in response to the joy in our lives. But I learned again last night the power of singing at all times - not just when we are filled with joy - but especially when we have no words to fill the pain of life - when only a song will do.
"60 Minutes" Lesley Stahl took me to Harlem last night where we were introduced to Vy Higgensen's Gospel for Teens program. Vy has been teaching teenagers in Harlem how to sing their lives for many years now. She uses the power of gospel music to reach individual hearts and transform spirits. The program's theme song includes the words, "How can anyone ever tell you that you're less than beautiful? How can anyone ever tell you that you're less than whole?" She pushes young people who have been told all their lives that they are far from beautiful and less than whole to belt out these words - to sing them until they own them. She also informs the teenagers that the one thing slaves always had was song - the ability to sing. "Song is our story" she tells them. "'The storm is passing over' is music born out of slavery," she continues.
Vy has a way of telling the teenagers that their storms are still passing over - that they can keep on singing through the darkness until they can again see the light. She shows the power of this abiding belief in their power of song when she invites a young person who has just watched a 15-year-old relative be slain to get up and sing - to get up and sing about the darkness going away - being replaced by God's presence and light. In Vy's world, song is filled with hope and possibility - singing allows us to see a different alternative.
The story of Gospel for Teens had me in tears last night. I listened to the power of God's call on this woman's life - how she has taken the gifts God has given to her and used them to bring out the God-given gifts in others. I watched as young people started to uncover the brightness of their light. I witnessed the power of music - the power of song - completely transforming dozens of lives.
Singing plays a central role in scripture. In the book of Acts, we are told that Paul and Silas are in prison. It is about midnight when they are praying and singing hymns to God. We are then told how there was suddenly an earthquake that shook even the foundations of the prison, "and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone's chains were unfastened." Music brought about release from captivity. It loosened the ties of bondage. We are told that the disciples sing a hymn immediately after the Last Supper in Mark's Gospel and just before Jesus tells of Peter's denial (Mark 14:26). Certainly the Psalmists are singing people. People sing for all kinds of reasons in the Psalms.
What about you? When do you sing? When sadness robs every ounce of your joy, do you turn inward and refuse to acknowledge God let alone sing? When darkness starts to evade the light of life, do you ever turn to singing? When prayers seemingly go unanswered do you give up on God or do you keep singing?
Vy's right. We have so much to learn from the genre of Gospel. We have so much to give thanks for when we sing the songs of people who knew the pain of darkness and bondage all too well but still kept on singing their faith in God. Their songs are a testament to God's power. Their songs are a testimony of a deep, abiding faith in a God who promises to never leave us nor forsake us.
What would it mean for you to hold your arms out and shake them fast and furiously, just as Vy instructs her students? What would you think about when you were instructed to shake away whatever is weighing you down, whatever is causing you pain, whatever is keeping you up at night? And once you have done a little shaking, how about starting to sing songs about how the storm is passing over, about how no one can ever tell you that you are anything but beautiful and whole, about God turning your darkness into light?
God, make our church a singing people. God, make me a singing disciple. How can we keep from singing?