This mysterious little word is sprinkled throughout the psalms. My colleagues tell me that its origin and translation are uncertain and cryptic. Likely it is a kind of marker, delineating thought and suggesting performance, like a poetic or musical caesura — a pause, a connective suspension, an in-between place, a breath.
One of my favorite six minutes of music is a recording by Duke Ellington called “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” It launches out of the gate, hurling spectacular blues choruses with blistering energy. As it travels, it sobers — instruments fall by the wayside, texture and dynamics recede, reaching a nadir: the briefest of piano solos by Ellington himself is suspenseful, eerie, strange. It fades… the moment is held… and then music is back, gathering strength, unbelievably vital, teeming, almost delirious with ideas and voices. But at the center, that mysterious piano solo and pause.
There is a dramatic and painful selah in our worship life right now: the grief-filled pause in congregational song, part of the larger grief of not being together. The latter makes the former even harder. We don’t gather in worship solely to sing, yet the sheer fact of togetherness is part of what makes singing somehow inevitable. We miss singing together and being made better singers by each other. We miss the collective groove that guitar and percussion invite; the vibrating bedrock of organ sound that pulls our voices forward; the sound of congregational song that wells up as though from earth’s center, from every child and every voice of God.
But for now, it has ceased for us, and the predictions are not encouraging. It may be long months before singing together is safe. Our singing is separate and sheltered, and yet what will returning to our usual worship spaces be like if we can’t sing there either? There’s a Belle and Sebastian song, “Act of the Apostle,” with this refrain: “Oh, if I could make sense of it all / I wish that I could sing / I’d stay on a melody / I would float along on my everlasting song. Oh, what would I do to believe?”
What do we do? I don’t think there are “solutions.” We desperately love congregational singing, but we can’t do it right now. We trust it will return to us eventually.
In the meantime, here we are, in prayer and online. Thinking about this, I went to Virtual-Music-and-Worship take-out and ordered an eight-pack of nuggets. This is what I found in the bag:
Nugget #1: Heart-songs. We can probably name some of the hymns or songs that our worshipping communities particularly treasure, and now may be an especially good time for them. Sermon texts and worship themes, yes, but also the mystic chords of community. We often “have church” when hearing or singing the songs that formed us and our communities, the ones we know nearly by heart, the ones that always seem to be there. Familiar, loved songs can reach across the distances that we yearn to shorten.
Nugget #2: Plainness. One of the things we most miss right now is being in and surrounded by music — not just the weave and thrill of sung harmony or instrumental ensemble, but the “many-ness” of a congregation singing a tune together. Singing at home (especially when “at home” means alone) may feel plain, awkward or uninteresting. But it may also invite us to re-claim some of the plainer beauties of music and our own voices. Alice Parker, in her book “The Anatomy of Melody,” calls melody a “primal means of expression” and says that “our own lone voice begins the identification with the delights of sound … the individual singing that brings [melody] to life.” There are delights and depths in simplicity, in plain tunes and unelaborate sounds.
Nugget #3: “Singing.” There have always been different ways to “sing,” to encounter songs. Simply acknowledging this to our dispersed congregations can be helpful. A spoken welcome or a waiting room instruction might say something like this: With songs in worship, know that there are different ways to participate. You might wish to sing from home. It is also possible to encounter a song by reading and studying the text, by humming the tune or by listening, remembering and learning. Songs offer us various ways to sing and echo.
Nugget #4: Plenty. When gatherings ceased and sheltering-in-place began, the deluge of tutorial videos and articles also began, adding to what has sometimes felt like a frenzied stasis: running in place, trying to keep up, afraid that we don’t know enough or won’t be needed. Some of our questions are related to the practicality and immediacy of ministry, such as serving our congregations’ concerns about employment. Others may trouble us vocationally. How do we know what we are supposed to do? What’s the “best way” to do all this? How do we stream worship? Live or recorded? What’s the technology and how do I use it? What if we can’t afford the technology? What if the church can’t afford my job? What is everyone else doing? Are we safe? How many views did we get Sunday? Is it good enough?
My former boss, Pete Peery, once told me, “You have responsibilities at First Presbyterian, but you are not responsible for First Presbyterian.” Can we respond to the moment without taking on responsibility for it all? Pastors and musicians need to commit to one another for faithful service that is honest and authentic to where they are and what they can do. The church is not Netflix. Technology will help us, but it will not save us. Only God can do that. We are called to enable gatherings more than to create productions. Our baptism is sufficient – plenty – for our callings, even now.
Nugget #5: Gifts. One of the ways we have gotten to know friends, congregation members and even newscasters and entertainers is that we have glimpsed each other’s homes. As we consider music during this time, we can remember the musical gifts in those homes. At Austin Seminary, the ordinary rooms of student housing have become mini-chancels as students have sung and played for worship. Music made at home takes on a different quality — a sort of liturgical chamber music, an intimate, kindly offering.
One of the pastors at our wedding, Sara Holben, preached on Matthew 5, describing love as being like salt: “down to earth, and basic, often hidden, and very, very ordinary.” Musical gifts, in a pandemic shelter, are similarly salty. We may have to shake them out a bit, but they will sprinkle into our worship life and, like salt, bring out flavor everywhere. Who are the musicians and singers, stuck at home? What are the songs they already know, even if they don’t line up with a worship theme? What are the purely instrumental sounds that can be recorded – bells, percussion – that invite our own rhythm and movement from home?
Nugget #6: Dialogue. Prayer, Scripture, preaching and song — all are conversation and relationship. Worship invites us to talk to each other and to a world that yearns for a gospel word. We miss worship as dialogue, the conversation of liturgy, the musicalized community, where friends breathe in Spirit and breathe out song.
Some songs in worship – often short songs – can create conversation. Call-and-response, antiphons or choruses alternating with speech invite people to contribute their voices. True, they involve rhythm and timing, which are harder online. Still, songs can be offered that summon the dispersed congregation in small ways. In “Glory to God,” hymns 59 or 473 might be good examples: the psalm texts can be read, with the online congregation singing the refrains. Some rehearsal, some intentional cues and a dispersed congregation can be pulled into that collective.
Nugget #7: Trust. My own spring and summer of live online worship has been curious, frustrating, exhausting, surprising and bumpy — as well as prayerful, beautiful, lively, tender and communal. (All those things were true of pre-pandemic worship, just in different ways.) One of the strongest curiosities for me has been the pivot in imagination. I know the congregation is somewhere out there (I peek at their tiny Zoom windows between hymns). Yet something wondrous occurs by leaning in spirit toward them: they seem less far away after all, possibly singing or humming or listening, somehow tuning hearts to sing, not always visible but trustworthy. Hymns may be played “alone” with a computer or recorded beforehand, yet we breathe with the congregation, giving them room for words and time for notes, wherever they are. Worship, virtual or not, is always an act of trust: in each other, in the song or liturgical moment, in the Spirit. Can we trust that God is using these strange days, that our knowledge, our past rehearsals, our cultivated practices are not wasted and will not return empty?
Nugget #8: Selah. The last nugget (the one that’s the surprise when you thought they were all gone) was that little word again. The silent pause of waiting, lament, trust and hope — not just a pause we hold, but a pause in which we are held. There is a thing we call congregational singing: we desperately love it, but we can’t do it right now. We trust it will return to us eventually.
There is a Selah moment at the pinnacle of Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony,” when the composer sets Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” text. The tune we know as “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” has rung out in orchestra and voices, galloping forward to a hard stop. Then: “Be embraced, O Millions! This kiss to all the world! … Do you kneel, Millions? Do you sense the creator, world? Above the stars he must dwell.”
All is suddenly broad, vast, ecstatic and then hushed as the millions kneel. A near stoppage of time, an unresolved chord, a suspended silence. (It will continue — won’t it?) The symphony’s paean resumes, eventually rushing headlong to its finish — but that moment of suspension sits at the movement’s heart.
Selah. It is possibly a cryptic word for this cryptic moment. The pandemic moment warps our sense of time: past and future are opaque; the present feels like a continuous “now.”
Life and worship breathe and sing. We yearn to sing; some yearn simply to breathe. In these days, we have to breathe so we can serve God’s purposes in the world — a world where too many people can’t breathe. Walt Whitman wrote of the “song of the bleeding throat” in his elegy on Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed.” Too many knees of power are on too many bleeding, breathless throats. The world needs our dispersed songs to vibrate. Our prayers may be Zoom-muted, but they cannot be gospel-muted.
Queen Elizabeth said it: “We will meet again.” Our singing will return, we trust. Meanwhile, our songs are still with us, in hearts and hands and voices, in feet and in memory, on YouTube and Zoom and traveling along garbled, shaky Wi-Fi — songs that will keep us singing because they are, as hymnwriter Adam Tice tells us, “an echo of the voice of God.”
Eric Wall is assistant professor of sacred music and dean of the chapel at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is also the conference center musician at Montreat Conference Center.