Over the past several days, deep in the Arkansas woods, various and sundry people have had the oddish experience of coming upon an exuberant commune of twenty very happy campers singing old hymns, Sacred Harp tunes, and now and then a folk song just for variety... around a campfire, in a canyon, along hiking trails, in the crags of staggering ancient rock formations, in pouring down rain... umm, maybe even once or twice in a camp bath house that was felicitously discovered to have chill-bumpish acoustics.
But that is not the strange part. Not to me, at least. The strange part is that it would seem, judging from some of the comments we got, that singing just to be singing has somehow become an unexpected sort of thing nowadays. Now don't get me wrong, these folks were jolly about it, even pleasantly enthused. But several of them said things like "your group is really getting in some good practice" or "we heard you all practicing last night around your fire."
Practice? Who drags twenty people out in the deep wilderness to practice? Who hikes a couple of miles down into a canyon to practice? Huh. And all that time we thought we were just singing. Silly us.
We know those friendly folks meant well, and we appreciate the encouragement, but there's an important point here about the nature of singing sacred songs that we earnestly desire to reconfirm for the general goodwill of the human race:
There is no practice. There is only praise.
(Hat tip to Yoda.)
Really, it makes me feel rather melancholy for the state of postmodern humanity that people nowadays would tend to assume that anyone singing in a non-performance setting must be practicing for a performance later. I mean, why bother to sing if you aren't performing? Sort of reminds me of the sad story I was told recently about a girl on a praise team of a local congregation who refused to sing one Sunday morning because the sound dude didn't hook up her favorite mic. Please. Do you reckon God cares about your silly mic? He can hear you just fine without it, if you'd just forget about performing and sing for Him.
Don't people just sing anymore? Or do we only perform?
Does God want us to perform, or to praise?
Here in my favorite universe, singing -- and particularly singing praise to the Lord -- doesn't require a microphone nor an audience nor even an event. It just is. And it's good when you're all alone, but even better with friends. And it is really sweet with friends in the woods around a campfire. (Oooooh, and even better with those same friends in a deep rock canyon with a waterfall. WOW.)
I think more people should try it. Wouldn't you just love to live in a world where now and then you could walk up on happy people singing hymns and folk songs just for the all-fired fun of it? What a delightful world that would be.
At our neighborhood Starbucks, late at night, a small group of Nigerians sometimes sings their native folk songs in a back corner. They sing so quietly you can barely hear them, but the little bits you catch are exquisitely beautiful. They lean in and look one another in the eye, and they look like they just couldn't bear not to sing something comforting and familiar from their far away home while they are all there together. That's exactly how I feel about singing hymns with my loved ones. Sometimes I wish those Nigerian folks would just cut loose for once and let us really hear them while we sip our mochas. Wow. Would that be cool, or what? But they probably assume most of us would much prefer the unnaturally polished pop blaring through the speakers.
You probably wouldn't have to go too many generations back to find your ancestors belting out folk songs in pubs, mills, gardens and fields all over Europe and Great Britain. I remember when I was a little girl going to the grocery store with my grandfather (born in 1894 and raised among relatives who remembered the Civil War era). He sang while strolling up and down the aisles like it was the most normal thing in the world. My grandmother sang while she cooked, while she rocked babies, while she did laundry. I bet yours did, too.
So are you going to sing to your grandchildren, or are you going to stick earbuds in their ears and call it good?
What's wrong with all of us? When did the human race develop the mutant stuffy gene? You know what I think? I think the advent of recording studios marked the death knell for spontaneous singing. Heavily edited professional recordings have got us all way messed up in the head with perfection garbage. Well, forget about that. Perfection is unnatural. Read that again, please. And expecting it of yourself or anyone else is just flat unhealthy. Nobody's editing you. And who cares if they were anyway? That would be their problem.
To loosely paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, anything worth singing is worth singing poorly.
Lots of fine folk songs and luminous hymns are gasping for breath out there. Don't you feel sorry enough for them to lend them some air? I bet you have at least one grandparent who did.
Those sacred songs we were singing out there in the woods last weekend are just too beautiful to go left unsung. How could we not sing them? Who will sing them if we don't? And what better thing to do out in the woods around a fire with twenty crazy people who feel the same way -- who all know we will feel so much better about being here in this strange place called time if we sing some songs from our real home together?
So sing something. You'll feel better.
Lo, what an entertaining sight
Those friendly brethren prove!
Whose cheerful hearts in bands unite
Of harmony and love.
When streams of bliss from Christ, the Spring,
Descend to every soul,
And heav'nly peace, with balmy wing
Shades and bedews the whole.
'Tis like the oil divinely sweet
On Aaron's rev'rent head.
Those trickling drops perfumed his feet,
And o'er his garments spread.
'Tis pleasant as the morning dews
That fall on Zion's hill,
Where God His mildest glory shows,
And makes His grace distil.