Way back here, I wrote about an experience we had with the singing of Romanian churches. It’s very funny, so if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.
In America, we Christians have forgotten how to sing. We go to church, we listen to a rock-n-roll concert put on by professional musicians who are way better at singing than us so there’s obviously no point in even trying to sing. Besides, even if we did try, we’ve got the music cranked so loud that we’d never be able to hear ourselves anyway, so we’d never quite know if we were singing in key or not. Not that there’s any real reason to sing in key. Were Bob Dylan, Kurt Cobain, Louis Armstrong, or Chuck Berry concerned about singing in key? I think not.
I’m joking of course, but I think, as a culture, we as Americans have mostly given up our ability to sing. We’re so used to being sung to and entertained that, on the whole, we don’t know how to sing well and we generally don’t care to try. Sure, there are groups where singing is a huge part of the community, but that seems more the exception than the rule.
Tonight, Jessie and I attended a Christmas production at Biserica Sfânta Treime (Holy Trinity Church). Our friend Daniel was singing in the choir and invited us to come for the show. And, yes, once again, we were reminded that Romanian churches know how to sing.
So for the next hour we sat, crammed into a pew next to a cheerful old Baptist woman with bad breath, mesmerized by the interwoven harmonies coming from this choir of some of the best singers in the world.
I really like rock-n-roll. I’ve always admired guys like Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes or Aaron Weiss of mewithoutYou for writing and performing some incredible music despite their voices that wouldn’t make it on American Idol. I like the raw energy that sometimes comes with a growly, scratchy, straining voice. I like the passion and “realness” that can come from a less-than-perfect vocalist.
But as we sat mesmerized by the singing tonight, I couldn’t help but fall in love again with these people who really know how to use their voices. I know bad singers exist in Romania – I’ve heard some on the radio 😉 – but I’m pretty convinced that they’re not allowed into the churches. 🙂
I have some friends in the States who are amazing singers. The whole family sang in choirs all their lives, taught music, sang on TV, headlined rock bands, that sort of stuff. One time, Jessie and I attended their tweener son’s birthday party. When it came time to sing the Happy Birthday song, I expected the usual chorus of loud, obnoxiously off-key voices that didn’t mesh together but nobody cared because it was all full of joy and fun.
I took a deep breath and Jessie and I both belted out, at the top of our off-key, ill-equipped, misused lungs, “Happy birthday to you, happy birth-” and we stopped abruptly as we realized that we were surrounded by a family of singers and we were most definitely not singers. I felt very out of place and very out-sung, surrounded as we were by these world-class vocal chords.
I get that feeling a lot in Romanian churches. Christians in America, I think, have been trained to sing poorly and quietly, our voices drowned out by loud music. You can’t hear your own voice, so you just sing really loud and glorify God with a “joyful noise” that may not make everyone so joyful if the music were cut out for a moment. All this is an oversimplification, of course. Not all Christians in America are terrible singers. Nor is every Christian in Romania a great singer (yes, you know who you are). But I’ve encountered way more great singers here than I have in American churches.
Me, Ben, and our friend Jake Martin (visiting from the States) were invited by a church in town to share a word of encouragement and talk about what we’re doing in Bucharest. After we accepted the invitation, the pastor suggested the possibility of us also bringing a song, “like missionaries do when they do missions,” he said.
I told the pastor, firmly but kindly, “Uhh… We don’t sing.”
“OK,” said the pastor, “maybe no song. But maybe a song, OK?”
At that point I realized we would be forced to sing unless I made myself even clearer. “We have terrible voices,” I said as memories of our party with the Tennies family came flooding back, “you will lose half your church if we sing.”
“Don’t worry,” he calmed us, “all our singers are gone tonight. All the rest of us are terrible singers like you. If you don’t sing, there will be no one to sing.” Pastors are terrible liars. But I believed him nonetheless.
At the meeting, the pastor came and explained the order of the service and told me when we would be sharing our word of encouragement. Before he left to open the service, he added the infamous question that was not meant as a question, “And you have a song for us, yes?”
“Yes, of course,” I told him, seduced by his deceptive charm.
As he left, I looked at Ben, “We can’t get out of it. We’re singing tonight.” Ben was moderately fear-struck but positive. He saw a guitar and decided using that would be a good way to mask our voices and make the congregation think we were cool in a Nirvana or Violent Femmes kind of way. Anyone behind a guitar is cool.
Then I turned to Jake, who thought he had simply come along for the ride. “You wanna sing a song with us tonight?”
“We need you, man.”
I don’t know how, but eventually I did convince him to join us, so we were moderately encouraged thinking that surely one of us would sing decently.
Well, that encouragement was very short-lived after the service started and we realized that, much like little David Tennies’ birthday party years ago, we once again found ourselves surrounded by amazing singers, men and women with voices that could shake mountains, strip forests bare, and cause deer to give birth (Psalm 29). That pastor was a liar. All the singers were here.
And then it came our turn. “I like to tell people,” I began from the microphone, “if you have a good voice, sing loud. And if you have a bad voice, sing even louder, ’cause all you’ve got is volume, so you might as well use it.”
We sang even louder. And I think we might have caused some deer to give birth too. Our singing sure sounded like it, at any rate.
Moral of the story is just go for it. We’ve had a ton of opportunities to face some fears here in Romania, step outside our comfort zones, do things we wouldn’t normally want to do. I don’t know if anyone was extremely blessed by our singing that night, but I don’t think we caused anyone to lose their salvation either.