This is a web-exclusive article on the theme “Music and worship.” For more stories on this theme, see the July issue of The Mennonite.
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept.” —Psalm 137:1
The words of Psalm 137 have scrolled through my mind, almost constantly, over the past weeks. I sit by the waters of the Elkhart River, and I weep.
I weep for a world held captive by COVID-19. I weep for those whose health has been affected and whose livelihood has been compromised by this dreadful virus. I weep as I am reminded daily of the rising death toll across the world.
On a personal level, I mourn the lack of ability to hug my grandchildren, to spend time with friends and especially, to gather to worship with my congregation. What a glorious day that will be when we can be together again, within the walls of College Mennonite Church, here in Goshen, Indiana. I have found myself imagining what anthem our choir might sing to celebrate that joyful reunion and what hymns would fill the rafters of that domed space.
All that was before we started hearing reports about groups singing together. Who would have thought that singing in choirs, or, in congregations, would be unhealthy? It all started when the Skagit Valley Choir in Mount Vernon, Washington, held a rehearsal on March 10. Although they thought they were being cautious about following pandemic procedures, 52 of the 61 singers became infected with the virus and two members died. That’s when we began to hear that singers are super-spreaders of the coronavirus. The deep breathing required for singing causes far more respiratory droplets to be exhaled and aerosolized. It also causes more particles from other singers to be absorbed into our bodies. The aerosol cloud produced by singing can remain up to 12 hours and is redistributed by a building’s air handling system. Even wearing masks doesn’t help entirely since particles can move through fibers.
How can this be? The very thing that has the profound ability bring us together into the Lord’s presence has the potential to spread this illness even further.
“How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” says Psalm 137:4.
Indeed, how can we sing the Lord’s song in the land of the coronavirus, a land where it appears to be harmful for us to sing together?
Congregational singing has been important to Mennonites and Anabaptists since our very foundations. Early Anabaptists supported singing as the only form of music to be utilized during worship chiefly because the New Testament writings did not say anything about using instruments. Perhaps if our forebears had had the scientific data we now possess about the danger of aerosolized particles they might have rethought their views.
These days, I find it comforting to identify with these early believers. During the long history of Anabaptist persecution, songs were created to sustain those enduring these trials. Many of them were compiled in the Ausbund, still in use by our Amish relatives. These songs had to be distributed in secret, and when used in clandestine meetings needed to be sung very quietly to avoid being overheard by those not sympathetic to their beliefs.
Even today, there are Christians living who have to be very careful about being detected for practicing their faith. Believers in North Korea are one example. Stories told by North Korean defectors describe families singing hymns extremely quietly while one person stands guard to look out for informants. As they sing, almost inaudibly, they watch each other’s lips, to feel a sense of corporate prayer and praise.
We may not fear being hauled away and tortured for singing together, but the results are still potentially deadly. At least for now, our “sacrifice of praise” feels as if it is truly a sacrifice. Like it or not, until those in the medical field deem it safe for groups to sing, we must find alternative ways to praise God. Surely there are ways for us to worship as enthusiastically, and just as joyfully, without corporate song. What “new songs” is God teaching us now?
Perhaps we can spend more energy praising God with instruments, as the Old Testament instructs. Find those congregants who play instruments and create ensembles to play during worship. Hand out percussion instruments—drums, tambourines, etc.—to those gathered to accompany music played on piano or other solo instruments.
This might also be a time for us to better learn to worship while listening. Consider having strings or a solo instrument play a song while the words are projected, allowing worshippers to read and meditate. Or have readers read a song text antiphonally using mics and distanced from the rest of the congregation. It might even be possible to have one or two singers, again using mics and standing at a distance from each other and the congregation. All this depends upon the size of a worship space, taking into consideration concerns about particle aerosolization. There are likely many opportunities for creativity as we explore ways to worship through music during this challenging time.
This is also an excellent time to encourage members to sing during personal devotions. Congregations might even want to provide accompaniment recordings of well-loved worship music for individuals to sing in their homes.
“We hanged our harps upon the willows,” Psalm 137:2 says.
As devastated as they were by their situation, God’s people did not destroy their harps, but rather hung them up to be retrieved on another day when they would again be able to sing the songs of Zion.
Singing as a body of believers uplifts our spirits and points us toward the great and loving God whom we worship. Yet we know that love seeks the good of others, so, for now, let us find other ways to praise God as we look toward that day when we can, once again, join our voices in song.
Susan Naus Dengler is a former music professor at Goshen (Indiana) College and former member of the pastoral team at College Mennonite Church.