Meaning the Words We Sing and Say

July 18th, 2012

I grew up Disciples of Christ, a Second Great Awakening denomination that boasts “no creed but Christ.” Any communal recitations besides the Lord’s Prayer were rare, and we certainly never recited the Apostle’s or Nicene Creed. When I started attending an Episcopal church with my boyfriend in college, all the litanies and responses rubbed me the wrong way. They felt meaningless and rote. It was so easy to just read along without giving any thought to what you were saying, much less whether you actually believed it.

Surprisingly, however, this potential for meaninglessness actually ended up making my time in the Episcopal Church very meaningful. I was so determined to feel something personal in these communal recitations that I became very reflective and intentional about what I was saying, leading to much greater, deeper engagement with the beliefs, confessions, and affirmations being expressed—and with it, a greater connection with God and that community of faith.

And as this was happening, I realized something else: Anything can be rote and meaningless if we let it be.

Just as I could have easily recited the Nicene Creed or Great Thanksgiving without taking those words to heart, I could sing the latest Chris Tomlin song on autopilot, ending the song with little awareness of what I’d just sung, the same way you arrive at a destination with no recollection of the actual drive.

So I’ve been intentional over the years to mean the words I say and sing in church—internalizing litanies and lyrics to pray them from my soul, and even refraining from verbalizing certain phrases I find theologically objectionable. And since I’m a bizarre little denominational mutt, I’ve wrestled with this issue just as much in a darkened auditorium with lyrics scrolling on a psychedelic screen as I did in the breathtaking Episcopal sanctuary. I want the words I sing and say to verbalize things that I actually feel and believe, not just those of a songwriter or theologian.

But that kind of intentionality requires a lot of thought. A lot of concentration. And I’ve wondered lately if I’m so hung up on making sure my brain is on board with the words of worship that my heart’s participation in worship gets stifled. Would it be so bad if I let my brain off the hook and just let my heart sing? If a song was in a language I did not understand, wouldn’t the energy and joy of my voice still be pleasing to God? Wouldn’t it produce even more joy in me if I weren’t agonizing over words, words, and more words?

This internal dialogue (clearly, I have lots of words going around my head) has taken on a new dimension now that I sing in the worship band of a new Sunday evening service my church started. I have always loved to sing praise music, so it is a joy to sing it every week. But I’ve learned that singing in front of God and everybody is a little harder than just singing in front of God.

First off, I’m really bad at remembering the order of things. Is it verse 1, chorus, verse 2, bridge? Or verse 1, verse 2, chorus, bridge? And how many times are we repeating the chorus at the end? Even if I have it written down, I lose count while we’re singing, so I have to count on my fingers. If I dare think too much about the words I’m singing, I’ll most certainly miss an entrance. And if I dare get lost in the emotion of singing praises, it’s all over.

In these times when I am ministering to others by helping lead worship, all I can do is concentrate on the song itself, singing it to the best of my ability. As I get more comfortable in this “up front” role, I’m able to relax a bit more, and thus be more personally expressive in my singing, but I am still forced to live in the moment, to forget doctrine I ponder and any spiritual baggage that I may carry, and to let the vibrations of my vocal chords be their own praise. To trust that there is more to a song than words, my thoughts and feelings, and what they mean to me. Even if my song is “joyful noise,” the spirit from which it comes forth means something to God.

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