My father-in-law’s most lasting impression on me (other than the existence of his daughter, my wife) is the singing. The Mitchell’s were a very hospitable family, hosting various student groups, church groups, and family gatherings in their home. There was usually food of some sort, laughter, joy (sometimes shared sorrow) and general good times. But, usually about 45 minutes before people had to start heading out, Stan would quietly get up from wherever he was sitting and head over to the bookshelf, where he had about 20 songbooks, and he would start passing them out.
If you had been to the Mitchell home before, you knew what was going on, and the books would be handed from person to person while conversation continued, the last of the food was eaten, or drinks were retrieved from various surfaces in the house. If you had never participated in this particular ritual before, it was a little confusing. Isn’t singing something you do at church? Why does he have so many hymnals?
Then, when the songbooks were passed out, he would firmly call out something like “alright everyone, please turn to number 145” (I don’t know what song that is I’m just using it as an example). We would all flip the pages (many still in the midst of conversation), he would blow a note on his pitch pipe, and he would begin the song. It usually wasn’t until about 3-4 notes in that all the talking actually stopped and everyone began singing in earnest.
The quality of the sound, as singing always is, was dependent on the specific individuals present. But the feel of the sound, that was always the same. It was distinct. It was worship.
My wife and I have about 10 songbooks (some of which he bought), and we sometimes break them out when we have people over. More often now, I cast the paperless hymnal from my phone to the TV. I have often noticed in my guests a hesitancy, an unfamiliarity, that I’m sure he experienced dozens of times. Nobody has to say anything, but it’s so clearly written on their faces. Why, they emote, are you interrupting our perfectly good fellowship with singing? It’s not malicious. It’s not irreverent. It’s simply unusual, and this saddens me.
I have never once thought to myself, you know, I wish we had done something else instead of the singing we just did. The transformation is subtle but profound. It usually takes about one and a half songs. I can read it in posture and enthusiasm and volume and demeanor: oh, this is nice. Why haven’t we done this before?
I’m sure other families and friend groups regularly sing outside the worship assembly. But I am equally sure that many more do not. Again, it’s not malicious. I don’t think most people have negative thoughts about singing itself. It’s just not something people do any more. Music has become something other people do, for our entertainment. It’s become something we consume, rather than create. This is true both of secular and religious music. It’s not anyone’s fault, and I don’t think it was intentional, but the results are what they are. People are not used to singing at home (other than maybe in the shower, or mindlessly singing while absorbed in some other task), and so, quite naturally, they don’t. It’s not normal, so it doesn’t happen. Intentionality is required to do something abnormal.
But it wasn’t just in the home. Stan wanted to sing whenever a couple singers were gathered. This audio is from June 12, 2015, right after his father’s funeral. We were gathered in the auditorium of the church building. It was just a dozen or less of us, everyone else had gone home. What else were we going to do but sing? As you listen (and you really should listen), note the atmosphere, the feeling of it. People were sad, of course; we had just commemorated Loy. But there’s a lot of joy in that room, too. Joy powered by and expressed in the worship of an almighty God who deserves every second of praise we can give Him.
Songs have amazing power. They can heal, they can remind, they can inspire, they can break us down and build us back up. I will always remember the day of Stan’s death. As he lay there in the hospital bed, a dozen of us gathered around him. There were family members, nieces and nephews and siblings and friends and colleagues. We sang about six or so songs. It was one of the most powerful things I will ever experience. Probably everyone wept at one point. We sang songs he loved, to be sure, but they were true, with right words and fitting music. And for just a moment, a singular instant of time, I think we tasted heaven.
I remember about a month later, after Tracy and I had come home, a couple friends came to visit. My parents and grandparents happened to be in town at the same time (guys I’m tearing up just as I type this). There might have been another couple there too. I think it might have been Gwen’s birthday or something. We ate and we fellowshipped and we had a good time.
And then we sang, because that’s what Stan taught us.
I didn’t record it, though I should have. We sang some of his favorites and some favorites of those present, including one song that only one person knew. And, as it always does, something magical happened. No, not magical, that isn’t the right word. Something divine happened. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Mat. 18:20). The singing broke us down and it built us back up. It opened our hearts, as only singing can do. Not everyone there was what the world would consider a good singer. But who cares? I know God didn’t. We sang, and it was beautiful, and it was powerful.
We should sing more. It is a tragedy, a travesty, that music has become something we consume, rather than something we create. It has become something for the experts to do, not the common person. I think that there are many Christians who only worship God on Sunday and Wednesday, and my heart breaks for them, because they are missing out on so much. You don’t need songbooks, or the powerpoints. Many, many song lyrics are available online, a simple Google search away. It’s probably a good idea to have at least one songbook, but its far from necessary. And, let me stress this again, it doesn’t matter how good you are at singing!
We should sing more. Not just for ourselves, but because God deserves it. God deserves the praise of His children, more than two or three hours a week. He who spared nothing in His pursuit of a people to call out from the world, what does He deserve?
We should sing more. I’ve never once regretted the choice to pull out those hymn books and sing, though there have been many times I’ve thought the opposite: hm, I wish I had thought to sing, that would have been so encouraging. Try it, the next time you have fellow Christians in your home. I think you too will be amazed.