Let my spirit always sing,
though my heart be wintering,
though the season of despair
give no sign that you are there,
God to whom my days belong,
let there always be a song.
—Shirley Erena Murray, “Let My Spirit Always Sing” (ACS, 1020)
This hymn text by the late New Zealand hymn writer Shirley Erena Murray (1931-2020) might have readers pushing back about the always of song. Does my spirit always sing? This Easter season may feel more like the extension of a very long winter. Does my spirit feel like singing? If I sing by myself in front of a computer monitor or distanced from others and muffled by a mask in a pew, is it complete? Where is the joy in that song?
Yet notice: “always” refers to the song, not the singer. As Lutherans, we rejoice in music as a gift of God, a gift of the whole creation. Since the morning stars sang together and the trees of the field clapped for joy, there has always been song.
What has changed in this pandemic year has been our experience of this gift of song. This most basic human impulse, to sing, now comes with warning labels. The same breath that animates the song can spread a deadly virus that has stolen the breath of over half a million people in the United States alone. Out of love for our neighbor, our songs have temporarily ceased in the ways that we have known.
We’ve faced many questions about our experience of music in this pandemic time, specifically our experience of assembly song. How will this time of reduced assembly singing shape our song in the months and years to come? How will it impact the church musician’s vocation?
Seek the disconcerting answers,
follow where the Spirit blows;
test competing truths for wisdom,
for in tension new life grows.
—David Bjorlin, “Ask the Complicated Questions” (ACS, 1005)
“In tension new life grows.” In speaking with musicians and worship leaders, a common theme is the “both/and” dimension to our questions regarding the church’s song. This is very much in accord with our theology as Lutherans: saint and sinner, law and gospel. Marcell Silva Steuernagel, a Lutheran and a professor of church music at the Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, said it succinctly: “Opportunity and grief go hand in hand.”
The embodied song
Christ is risen, Christ is present making us what he has been: evidence of transformation in which God is known and seen.
—John Bell, “Christ Has Risen While Earth Slumbers” (ACS, 938)
Lutherans treasure the Christ who became flesh for us and for all creation. This Jesus walked, tasted, touched, saw and heard. We trust that this embodied one is present now through the power of the Spirit. The spirited gift of music is an embodied art that depends on breath and heartbeat. Therefore, one of the most palpable griefs of this pandemic time has been the absence of embodied song in a gathered community. And singing together on Zoom doesn’t always work well.
Brian Hehn, director of the Center for Congregational Song, remarked, “Even when singing is live, I don’t get feedback. The only time I have felt any kind of connection or inspiration from music-making on Zoom was when [community song leader] Ana Hernández was leading a sing and I got to be on the receiving end. It’s what I call a ‘holy duet.’”
How might we explore other embodied movement and ritual in this time of reduced singing?
Chad Fothergill, cantor to the Lutheran Summer Music community, echoed this: “There was only one time for me … and this was during Scott’s funeral.” (Scott Weidler, a former program director for ELCA worship and music, died in January.) We often sing in quieter voices, following along with prerecorded services, if we sing at all. No monitor can replicate a breathing body of singers.
Yet with this grief comes an opportunity to consider other forms of embodied creativity in worship. Amanda Weber, director of choral ministries at Westminster Presbyterian in Minneapolis, connected with a local dancer to explore how movement could enhance the congregation’s worship. “We had her do movement, inviting our livestream congregation to move with her, but then plugged that into hymn singing.
“If and when we come back together and we are not able to do hymn singing for a period of time for safety’s sake, wouldn’t it be powerful to have [the] congregation do a movement together?” asked Weber, a former organist and choir director at Trinity Lutheran Congregation, Minneapolis.
How might we explore other embodied movement and ritual in this time of reduced singing? Moreover, how can other arts, especially the visual arts, be nurtured more intently?
Music in the home
As a mother comforts her child,
so God will comfort you.
As a hen gathers her brood,
so Christ will gather you.
As a wise one counsels her friend,
so the Spirit will counsel you.
The Trinity of love will be with you.
—Brian Wentzel, “As a Mother Comforts Her Child” (ACS, 1015)
We grieve the loss of physical connection to our communities of faith in this COVID time. We not only miss the embodied act of singing—we dearly miss those with whom we sing. Holy spaces, tied to memory and devotion, minister to us in ways that are hard to express.
Alongside this deeply felt grief comes an opportunity to sing and make music in the home.
This is nothing new. Fothergill emphasized the tradition of singing in the home inherited from the Reformation: “For so long, people brought their hymnals from the homes to worship. They weren’t just books at the church.”
Some congregations have created lending libraries through which people can sign out hymnals. Such practices don’t need to stop once in-person worship resumes.
All home situations differ, as do our church contexts, yet finding ways to encourage home singing will only strengthen the church’s song. By singing together we are reminded of the Trinity of love that surrounds us always.
One example of using technology to encourage singing in the home came through the work of Paul and Elizabeth Damico-Carper. Paul, assistant director of music and worship production at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Minn., and Elizabeth, pastor of Memorial Lutheran Church in Afton, Minn., began a ministry called the Community Video Hymn Sing. Each evening they or other guests would go live on Facebook to sing and pray together.
Paul noted that the service “began as a ministry of both our churches, but that enthusiasm grew.”
Based on the daily lectionary, the hymn sing evolved in different directions, and thousands of people found it a meaningful way to engage with the church’s song in their homes.
As Elizabeth described it, the ministry became a kind of “house church.”
The hymn sing, though no replacement for the community singing together in person, has been a kind of “flame-keeping ministry, a way to keep memory alive,” Paul said.
Dwelling in familiarity and newness
There is a longing in our hearts, O Lord,
for you to reveal yourself to us.
There is a longing in our hearts
for love we only find in you, our God.
—Anne Quigley, “There Is a Longing in Our Hearts” (ACS, 1078)
Music and memory are inextricably linked—love is recalled, connections revealed. Anyone who has experienced how those with memory loss respond to beloved songs knows these connections well. A deep grief in these times comes from not gathering to sing the songs that have nurtured us through the years.
Musicians have found creative ways to renew these connections. Anne Krentz Organ, director of music ministries at St. Luke Lutheran in Park Ridge, Ill., stood in her congregation’s parking lot on a cold Ash Wednesday and sang the refrain “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (“Remember That You Are Dust”; ACS, 919). As people drove by to receive ashes, they would hear the song.
“I was hopeful that this would call people back to remember [that] when we are in church together on Ash Wednesday, this is what we sing,” Krentz Organ said. “Even though they weren’t singing, I hoped it would transport them in their memories to when we did sing that [refrain].”
This pandemic time has also proved to be an excellent opportunity for teaching new songs. Weber has found that, though her congregation may not be receptive during in-person worship to commentary that describes the history or context of a song, participants have been responsive to it online. She hopes this sharing can continue once in-person worship resumes.
Vocational challenges and opportunities
Could it be that we are called for
such a time as this?
—Jonathan Rundman, “For Such a Time As This” (ACS, 1003)
This pandemic will inevitably change what church musicians need and require. To say these months have been difficult would be an understatement.
Church musicians are often separated from their worshiping communities, unable to lead music in the same way, unable to receive the energy given by a group. Musicians recording their performances feel the pressure of expected perfection, knowing services will be available online. Others have had to figure out how to direct a “virtual choir.” New skills are required, ones that may not bring the same joy or satisfaction.
Kevin Barger, president of the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians, has heard from members that they are working hard yet feeling unfulfilled. Digital capabilities are expected. Video editing is a must. Yet in many cases, the increase in responsibilities brings no increase in pay or continuing education funds, he said.
“Maybe it is not a return to something before but a turn to something new.”
“This whole situation is redefining the church music profession,” Steuernagel said. “The way churches look at the role of the church musician is going to change.”
What these changes will be remains uncertain. But just as the church celebrates music as a gift from God—a gift that shapes and serves, forms and expresses—the gifts of musicians, as leaders and stewards of the song, need to be nurtured, and training should continue to be funded and valued.
Moving forward into the unknown
Guide my feet, while I run this race,
for I don’t want to run this race in vain.
—“Guide My Feet,” African American spiritual (ACS, 987)
Paul Vasile, executive director of the nonprofit Music that Makes Community, emphasizes hope, finding opportunities that musicians have in this time of trauma. As a consultant to congregations, he has to work in unsettling situations and manage anxiety. “We need nonanxious presences now more than ever,” he said. And musicians, he points out, can harness the power of music to heal.
Vasile finds hope along the edges. Lutherans recognize the theology of the cross at work as God shows up in the places we least expect. But where are the voices we’ve not yet heard? How can we foster spaces for true listening, not only in our experience of music but in our life together?
It’s tempting to talk about a “return to normal,” post-pandemic. Yet as Easter people, we are guided forward. “Maybe it is not a return to something before but a turn to something new,” said Brian Christopher Clay, director of communications and AV technology at St. John Lutheran Church in Knoxville, Tenn.
Even after we all can unite again physically in song, we can reflect on what this time has given us—if only to ask better where we have been and where the Spirit may be leading us. As with so many of our songs created during times of pandemic or injustice, beauty has risen from the ashes of suffering. We mourn, yet we can live in hope: there will always be a song.
The spirit sings though we are shaken,
and Christ has shared our heartfelt cries.
Restored, our weary souls awaken
to join God’s song that never dies.
—Adam Tice, “Sometimes Our Only Song Is Weeping” (ACS, 1050)
Even as our singing voices have been quieter in these months, one sign of our continuing song and its importance for the church was the November 2020 publication of All Creation Sings (ACS), the new worship and song supplement to Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Hymn and song texts from ACS are woven throughout this article. Find out more at augsburgfortress.org/allcreationsings.