by the Rev. Lera Tyler
from the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Reflections magazine.
My Uncle Jim was a gospel singer, the bass voice in a quartet that sang on Sunday afternoons in the small rural churches of central Louisiana. Some Sundays, my daddy would manage to catch a bit of his brother’s singing on the radio, and we’d listen. While the piano may have been a bit out of tune, the voices were robust, suited for a robust faith, not afraid to sing about sin and salvation, lost and found.
Unlike my uncle, neither of my parents had the gift of a pleasant singing voice, nor am I a songster. I struggle a bit to stay on key. My vocal range hardly stretches beyond an octave. The sounds I make will never be great contributions to worship, but I sing anyway. I sing to rejoice. I play for solace. At times when the rest of my family has left the house, I take out a well-used songbook and begin playing the piano. In those hours, a peace settles upon me, and I steep in the pleasure of hearing melodies made as my fingers press keys, hammers move, and strings sing. I am attentive as the moments pass, and I feel an oneness about me, as if in prayer.
Most people who attend Sunday services with regularity will say that they best sense the presence of the Holy One in the Eucharist. For me, though, deeply felt moments in worship have most often come through the music we share: old hymns and new hymns, Taize chants and camp songs, bell choirs, trumpets and tambourines. In these celebrations, we are formed — together — into one instrument, or as Paul similarly writes, we become one body with many parts, many losses and gains, talents and opinions, hopes and fears. One song, hymn, anthem at a time, we sing together, whether or not we can read the notes or reach the correct pitch, despite our differences, our politics, our statuses, our histories.
When that happens, we can’t be far off key. We are formed and re-formed, a part of heaven and earth’s grand chorus. We gather in song, lamenting transgressions and negligence, and then in song again, celebrating the days ahead. We sing, as my Uncle Jim did in those country churches of Louisiana. We sing as Jesus and his companions did at their last supper together, as Paul and his companions did inside and outside prison walls, as the followers of MLK did on those brave walks for justice.
We sing because we too sense that the song is being heard and that we will be part of the chorus rejoicing in the presence of God, and as we sing the hymns, anthems, chants, and prayers regularly, the words and their trustworthiness become a part of us, not just the words themselves, but the everyday power they have to nourish us with hope, courage, and joy. And finally, we sing, believing that others too will catch a bit of the song, take it up, and sing their own tunes of God’s love and mercy.
The Rev. Lera Tyler is a former priest of the diocese. She now lives in North Carolina and Toronto, dividing time with her children. Reach her at email@example.com.