Jan Johnson

Wisbit - May 2016

Sing to the Lord—Even Badly?

Sometimes I sing at odd moments and I would say it’s even become a spiritual practice. When I’m hiking, I often wait until no one else is nearby and then I belt out a few verses of “Be Thou My Vision” or “Bless the Lord, O My Soul” (“Ten Thousand Reasons”). OK, so sometimes I do a few twirls too. When I’m tempted to be crabby, especially when doing mundane inventory tasks or household chores, I sing. Now and then, I sing when I’m angry—not to deny or bury the anger but because I’m tired of being angry and singing helps me let go of it.

In a class recently this idea of singing in response to life’s ups and downs came up and I was informed by several people that they couldn’t do this because they don’t sing well. One woman refused to sing with her grandchildren because she couldn’t stay on tune. Another did sing with her grandchildren but they were told to give her a little sign when she got off tune so she could stop.

2016wisbitpicLater I found myself disturbed by this. It made me think of my own mother and how she often sang off-key. She did this in church but I didn’t mind even as a teenager because it was just the two of us sitting together in the pew. She really got going in song—and sometimes quite off key—when she was upset. She was an accountant--a CPA, which was quite something for her generation, one of only two women to have graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a Business Administration degree at that time—and she ran an accounting firm from an office in our home. Now and then, she would leave her office to come to sit at the piano. There she would play and sing her heart out. She didn’t play the piano well either, but that didn’t matter. She was so alive when she sang and played.

So I learned from my mom to express myself to God in authentic, down-to-earth ways without a thought about performance. (Many times I also “caught” her unaware kneeling by her bed in prayer and quietly tiptoed away until she was done.) When she made her full-day road trips to deliver the monthly paperwork to her clients, I often went with her and we sang together so much that we kept a hymnal in her glove compartment. We didn’t always get the notes right, but we didn’t want to leave out any lyrics. We had great fun.

I’m very grateful that she taught me this and I’m finding myself grieved that singing and worship have become so performance-oriented. In church today so many people don’t sing because they “can’t sing.” They can, but they don’t do it perfectly so they won’t do it. Less-than-perfect singing is no longer acceptable. I’m so glad my mother didn’t think that way. On the one hand, she didn’t attempt to join the choir but on the other hand, she didn’t shrink from singing loudly in church and at home. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

It’s as if the psalms have now been revised to read

    But let all who take refuge in you rejoice;
         let them ever sing for joy, if they can stay on key.  Ps 5:11
    I will give to the LORD the thanks due to his righteousness,
         but I won’t sing praise to the name of the LORD, the Most High
         because it might offend someone.  
    Ps 7:17
    Sing praises to the LORD, who dwells in Zion, but only if you can do
         it with excellence!
    Declare his deeds among the peoples.   Ps 9:11

I guess I’m saying that if you and I are standing together singing, I don’t mind one bit if you’re off key or don’t get the words right. Please belt it out anyway. I will enjoy being there with you. And maybe you could overlook how I don’t always get my alto notes exactly right - I’m just guessing some of the time. Maybe we could sing to the Lord and not sweat whether we did so with excellence.

Shortly before my mother died, several of us surrounded her bed, holding what hymnals we could find. We sang and she sang - uninhibited with tears flowing. I wouldn’t have had that any other way either.

    Grace and peace,
    Jan Johnson



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