“How Can I Keep From Singing”
By Rob Durocher
Minister of Worship and the Arts
For many of us it can be said that without the musical voices of the faithful worship might be somewhat inconceivable. We know that in both church history and in the scriptures that the earliest Christians sang as part of their worship. They sang in thanksgiving to our gracious God and they sang in lament. Perhaps in our lament of empty houses of worship, the suspension or tentative nature of singing in small worship gatherings or the use of choirs and instrumental ensembles in this day of COVID-19, the question surrounding all of this is: How can I keep from singing?!
Although many churches have set singing aside for now, at St. John’s the thought of stopping all music and singing from our worship experience has never been an option because our love for God and worship of him requires it. Sure, we’ve learned that congregational singing during these days cannot happen without the wearing of face masks. Proper spacing is also important, since absolutely committed to following best practices and protocol when we worship and when we are gathering, even smaller groups.
It’s also a comfort to know that many people in the science and arts communities have risen up to work on the concerns of singing safely. Why? Because they know how important it is for our souls.
And that’s just it, isn’t it? For a moment at least, I’d like to step away from the do’s and don’ts of singing — as important as they are — and speak more generally about our need to sing. All that we have endured these last five months as a people of faith reminds me of a hymn by a 19th century composer, Robert Lowry, who penned the following words:
My life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the clear, though far off hymn that hails a new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since love is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?
Robert Lowry (1826-1899) was a Baptist minister and hymn writer who preached throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He’s best known for his song, “Shall we gather at the river,” which was written in 1864 during a killer heat wave that caused many deaths. Unfortunately, not very much is known about the history of How Can I Keep From Singing, except that the text speaks words of comfort throughout the joys and trials of life. He reminds us that, for Christians, we have faith in the much larger reality of our sovereign Lord, who has redeemed the world and who will one day return for us!
The hymn text reminds us that “while we are in God’s hands, it does not ignore the fact that on earth we still lament and still face different forms of strife, like this pandemic. And yet, in the midst of our laments, the underpinning of our lives is a different tune – a peaceful, hope-filled song of faith, and How Can I Keep From Singing can be the song of our hearts!” (From Pastor Joyce Borger, Reformed Worship, May 7, 2013)
Singing during COVID. There is singing at our 9:27 Sunday worship, although folks are greatly spaced apart with masks on. At our 12:15 Wednesday chapel service, the worship leader sings on behalf of the others who have gathered for holy communion (read more on page 3). If you are tuning into our Sunday 11 am live streaming worship, you might be singing along with us in the safety of your homes. It’s all very different, but participation is a critical part of our worship experience.
Can we participate without singing? Sure! Participation can mean listening with your hearts and minds in meditation as our song leaders and keyboardists safely lead us in the song. It could mean mouthing the words or humming softly in your mask. Or — preferably if no one else is around — it could mean singing as loudly as you possibly can “for all the world to hear!”
I have stated several times in past articles that I know we’ll be singing together one day again. In the meantime, I urge you to remember the song that God began to sing to you at your baptism – a song reminding you over and over again that “you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever!” (Ephesians 1:13)
Robert Lowry’s hymn text ends with “the peace of Christ makes fresh my heart, a fountain ever springing! All things are mine since I am his! How can I keep from singing?” One of the timeless promises of Christ’s resurrection and ascension is that however crazy and fearsome things may seem, the Holy Spirit is always present to advocate, inspire and to light our paths. Whatever joys and comforts may come or go, the Lord our Savior lives! Whatever darkness gathers round songs in the night he gives! Storms, sickness, pandemic, absence of corporate worship and singing cannot ‘shake our inmost calm’ because we have a Rock to cling to who is also Lord of heaven and earth – so, HOW can we keep from singing!
Be strong and courageous, friends, and don’t forget to sing God’s praises safely wherever you are able to, because in so doing you join your voices with mine and many others as “we find an echo in our souls. How can we keep from singing?”
Enjoy How Can I Keep From Singing, arranged by Bradley Ellingboe, on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNIyp-8RJX0.
The Chancel Choir Recording Project
A note from Rob:
The last time the Chancel Choir rehearsed this year was on Wednesday, March 11, 2020 following the Mid-Week Service of Evening Prayer. On Thursday of that same week, St. John’s had to begin the process of suspending all activities and in-house worship due to the severe spreading of COVID-19.
Since then, the Chancel Choir has felt a nagging sense of absence from the singing and leading of worship that was such a part of their life and ministry’s rhythm. While it is still not possible for them to convene even as a smaller ensemble, it is possible for them to gather in very small groups of 4 or 5 socially distanced and masked to partake in what we are calling the Chancel Choir Recording Project.
Our hope is that as we advance to Phase 3 of the COVID-19 shutdown, we will begin recording four or five loved anthems in small groups with the goal of eventually layering ALL 40-50 voices together for each anthem, which would be shared during online worship and through social media.