“A community of Christians living together will therefore try hard to master as rich a store of hymns as possible that can be sung without music and from memory.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 41.
I’m including the above in our reflections because of both “without music” and “from memory”. Hymns and other songs ought to be both old friends and sacred places; they are places into which we enter in koinonia with the Trinity as we experience life together. They are also words and images that have ripened from being acquaintances into old and intimate and seasoned friends. Hymns grow with us, or better they grow into us; and we grow into them. Hymns are our companions on pilgrimage, we sing them on the flatlands, in the valleys, and as we ascend and summit hills and mountains. Sometimes it is a lone audible voice that sings, sometimes it is those joined in life together; whether one voice or many all voices are joined to those in the heavens singing the Song of the Lamb.
Christocentric and Trinitarian content is vital to singing, for we sing around the Throne of God giving eternal praise to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When our lyrics are “the servant of the Word” they become faithful encouragers on pilgrimage, speaking to us as we speak to God and as we speak to one another. Songs with Biblical content stand both the test of time and of circumstances; lyrics grounded in God’s Word beckon our hearts and minds to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. Lyrical praise and testimony both ascend to and descend from the heavens and are sung in the pit of despair and at the pinnacle of fulfillment; these lyrics instruct us, chasten us, encourage us, humble us, and above all give God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ all glory and honor. They are lyrics that instruct us in the Word of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They are the songs of our pilgrimage and the Song of eternity.
While we may have different capacities for memory, hymns that become our friends are more likely to be embedded in our memory than those hymns that we sing only to sing. When we read aloud we are more prone to remember than if we read silently; when we sing we are more likely to remember what we sing than what we read because we have the dynamic of saying words aloud (singing) to melody – the melody reinforces what is said aloud. Second only to the Bible, a hymnal is the book which Christians ought to know and cherish. If we underline our Bibles and make notes in them, we ought to do so in our hymnals.
We don’t need music to sing. Music is beautiful and it is wonderful when we have it, but we don’t need it to sing. It is not practical to expect that we will always have music to accompany singing, but it is practical to sing for we are called to sing. When we think we must have music to sing we excuse ourselves from worship in song. If we feel self-conscious without music, let us remind ourselves that we sing to worship and to testify. As in reading aloud, the more we sing the better we will sing, and the more we sing in unison the better we will sing in unison. The most poorly technically sung song that is sung in worship with hearts focused on the Trinity is beautiful in the ears of heaven – the Spirit of God is well able to transpose such singing so that it reverberates with beauty in the heavens.
Singing hymns and psalms and other spiritual songs is to be a way of life in life together, we are to take joy in singing in the knowledge that our Lord Jesus takes joy in our singing – perhaps one reason He desires us to sing is so that He may accompany us.
“Yahweh your God in your midst, the Mighty One, will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness, He will quiet you in His love, He will rejoice over you with singing,” (Zephaniah 3:17).