Once upon time, like third grade, I sang in the church choir. We had a children’s choir and an adult choir, and wore choir robes and filled the choir loft with the pipe organ at the front of the church where everyone could see me turn bright red when I messed up the song. I liked singing in the choir, but my brother told me I sounded like Olive Oyl from the Popeye cartoons on TV and I was dumb enough to believe him and became crippled with self-consciousness. I eventually left the choir.
Eventually, I left the town I grew up in and attended church only when I was home for Christmas and attending the occasional wedding. When I returned to my hometown after 12 years in Tennessee, I began attending church with my mother until I started working most Sundays in my current retail gig (it’s time-and-a-half and I need the money). The sanctuary is still as beautiful as when I was a kid, but the choir, like rest of the congregation, has shrunk. There are usually only three or four choir members now and they don’t wear robes anymore. Modern times. Some mornings I was one of the youngest people in church and that's just weird.
I don’t mind singing the few songs I actually know that make the list for the services, but most times I have never heard of the songs we are singing, and I forgot what little I knew about reading music since my last music class in, oh, seventh grade. If I’m lucky and try really hard to not space out, I might catch on to the song by about the last half of the last verse, but usually I am fumbling and barely moving my mouth.
One Sunday several months ago I was flipping through one of the hymnals we use (referred to as “the red book” and “the black book” due to the colors of the covers) and came across a list of “John Wesley’s Rules for Singing” from 1761. Holy crap. And I thought I was in trouble before.
I include for your entertainment:
John Wesley’s Rules for Singing (1761)
1. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing.
2. Sing lustily, and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of it being heard, then when you sing the songs of Satan.
3. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, as to be heard above, or distinct from, the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.
4. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before, not stay behind it; but attend closely to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can. And take care you sing not too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from among us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.
5. Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this, attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve of here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.
So many rules!
Sing all? No! The congregation is not ready for Olive Oyl sings the hymns. I promise. Consider it a public service. Can I choose to take up the cross behind door number two instead, please?
How can I possibly “sing lustily, and with good courage” a song from 1800 and something that I have never, ever heard of before? I’ll take the cowardly barely moving my mouth, thanks. As for those “songs of Satan”? Do you think Wesley is referring to Metal, or to Rap?
Number three has me confused. Sing lustily, AND modestly? Talk about a balancing act. Sing it, but not TOO much.
I can sing in time. That one is okay. I can think of a few others who need to pay heed to that one.
As for singing spiritually ... ummm, okay.
Ok, got it. Sing all, lustily, modestly, in time and spiritually. If I can get Johnny Cash or some early Prince or Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody on the song list and pretend I’m alone in my car, I might stand a chance at hitting most of the rules. Until then ... I'm not so sure.