In light of the recent surge in Covid-19 cases, residents of Washington face new restrictions starting this week. Amongst these is the directive that "congregation singing is prohibited." This, combined with the announcement that "no choir, band, or ensemble shall perform during the service," has caused no small amount of disruption to the plans that many churches and pastors had made. For four weeks (at least), this is our new reality.
For churches in the broader Pentecostal-Charismatic tradition (of which I am a part), the idea that we will not be able to sing together in praise and worship of God is a hard pill to swallow. Such personal and corporate kinds of expression are deeply coded in our DNA, and it feels strange--wrong, even. Though plans and processes are being made all across our state to comply with this health measure, there is a still a sense of loss.
I am not here to debate the new restrictions, but simply to observe the reality that they create. For those used to expressing their faith through the use of song--a long-held and common practice not limited to congregations in my circle--this represents a crisis. Like the ancient Jewish people facing exile in Babylon, we may wonder "By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps...how can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?" (Psalm 137). While the situations are indeed different, the feeling of wondering what we are supposed to do remains. This strange new world we live in is now absent of our voices joined in song, and we wonder how can worship God in this place and time.
It may not have been until seminary that I discovered this, but one of the interesting denominational and theological differences between my own Pentecostal-Charismatic tradition and a mainline church like Presbyterians is the way we refer to what we do together. When a Presbyterian gathers with others on, say, a Sunday morning and prays, sings, celebrates Communion, takes an offering, and listens to the preached Word, all of this is called the "worship service." For we Pentecostals, "worship" is often only what we do when we sing together, or at least what we do that is accompanied by music. Invariably, we describe the musical/singing portion of a Sunday service as "the worship," separating that out from preaching or other things. Deep down I think we know that worship is more than this, but our use of language tends to betray what we think is most important.
For a tradition that so emphasizes experiential engagement and singing, this in part makes sense. At the same time, though, it reveals a kind of theological deficit in our understanding of what worship is. Here, of course, other Christian sisters and brothers are helpful to us. They remind us that we can and do worship God in ways more than just through song. That we might not need to sing in order to "really" praise God.
It is, on the one hand, a relatively simple idea. On the other hand, it opens a whole new realm for our reflection and action, especially at this fraught time.
This year of pandemic has been a dark one for many. For all of us it has represented a season of change. Personal habits, plans, human livelihoods, and human lives themselves have all been touched by events of this tumultuous year. And now, with a vaccine in sight, we realize together that there may finally be some good light at the end of the tunnel...even as we are still in a complicated darkness.
We have learned a lot about ourselves in the shadow of the virus--our habits, practices, and the possibilities for adaptation and change. If there is a silver lining to the devastation of this year, perhaps it is that.
As we have begun to question old ways and update ourselves to new realities, Christian believers here in Washington have the challenge of heading in the Christmas season--a time marked with carols and congregational singing--in relative vocal silence. The voice of a soloist or the sounds of instruments may ring out, but not the harmonies of the choir nor the multiplied musical utterances of the congregations. In the face of this loss, we are forced to ask ourselves what we really think our worship of God is all about. What it means to praise the Lord. How we might worship God in alternate ways no less real or authentic.
In response to this situation my mind goes to another of the Psalms. Though perhaps I engage it somewhat broadly, its words nevertheless provide me a picture of how me might move forward. Psalm 96:1 offers this clarion call: "Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth." What if, then, for the next four weeks, this new song is one that isn't really sung at all? Can we "sing" to God and worship God in a truly new way? Questions worth asking, both now and long after this present crisis has faded into memory.
May we truly learn to worship God in new ways, together.