No one sings together anymore.
Or so lamented Mary Schmich in a glum Chicago Tribune newspaper column 18 years ago. Group singing used to be commonplace, she recalled – grade school children having fun, college students hanging out in a dorm room, families gathered around a piano. Especially at Christmastime – belting out carols with others cultivated a special sense of community. “Singing together is a kind of social glue,” she wrote.
But now, singing with others is a rarity. Well… aside from in churches, Schmich admitted.
In our churches, I’m aware of hearing frequent praise of choirs and special concerts, but I wonder if we’re taking joy in the fact that each week, we are doing something ordinary but special: We sing together.
We sing at Sunday worship. We sing at funerals and weddings. We sing in Sunday school classes and at General Assembly. Together, we sing.
A few weeks ago, I was the guest preacher at a church I’d not been to before. Being a guest, I had no shame opening my sermon with the (albeit poorly) belted lines of Handel’s “For unto us a child is born!” My hope was to remind the congregation that we move so quickly through Advent, eager for the sweet-baby-Jesus-savior to arrive, that we are prone forget about the “walking in darkness” that Isaiah shared just a few verses before. Could it be Handel’s fault? We, as a people, do love that chorus. And, before I could get through the first line, I was no longer singing alone. The congregation had joined in, singing along with me, with each other. Now, it may be because they couldn’t bear to hear me butcher a favored chorus, but I think it had more to do with the response of their souls. Their hearts needed to sing. They could not remain still and silent when there was good news to be sung. “How can I keep from singing?” as the hymn says. Unto us a child is born, a son is given – that is good news for the people of God and our souls long to sing it out.
But that’s not an experience that often happens outside of the church.
And so, 18 years ago, Mary Schmich concluded her column by saying she had considered having a Christmas carol party, but decided against it fearing no one would come. The next year, her bluff was called. Erin Zorn, another regular Tribune columnist, arranged for a night of strangers caroling together – a fundraiser with songbooks, a piano and a public invitation to gather and sing.
They gathered to sing that Christmas, and have been doing it every year since. Each year, five shows sell out. Pricey shows (at least on a pastor’s salary). Months ahead, they sell out.
And every year, I eagerly sign up to work the Songs of Good Cheer shows at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, where I volunteer. In a lot of ways, it’s like ushering at church: families attend together, grandparents and children in tow. Friends are happy to greet each other, in manners not unlike the passing of the peace.
And then, this group of strangers and friends, families and outsiders sing together for two hours. Some report feeling a peace totally unusual in the hectic holiday season. Children ask their parents if they can come again next year… and every year. Sure, they sing “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Happy Joyous Hanukkah”… but they also sing “Come, adore on bended knee Christ, the Lord, the newborn King” and “With the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus Lord at thy birth” with the kind of holy reverence that might make you think you had just stumbled into church.
Even as someone who sings these songs week to week in church (and sometimes at home at my piano), there’s a spiritual experience being in a non-church setting and hearing a crowd proclaim together in song “Christ the Savior is born!” as the evening concludes with “Silent Night.”
There’s a hunger in our communities for, well, community. For a community that is fostered by singing together. For a community that forges bonds by sharing our stories through song – stories of Christmases past and family life present. And for us, those who have slogged through Advent waiting until Sunday to sing the songs of Christmas, these carols tell the bold, brave songs of our faith.
So, as we gather this week for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services, take comfort in knowing we have the treasure of being able to sing our faith together. We are privileged to have yet another opportunity to sing our praises and our stories with our family of faith. And, especially this time of year, we have the gift to share this experience with visitors and strangers, that they may share our community, too. Thanks be to God.