Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise,
High as the list'ning skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea
Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
-”Lift Every Voice and Sing,” verse 1 (ELW 841)

Have you ever sung in a choir? I know many of you have, whether in church or as a school child. It’s quite a bit of work to sing with other people, not quite as simple as singing in the shower by yourself. Singing in a choir takes practice, practice, and did I mention practice? 

It often seems simple at first, especially in elementary school: there’s just one easy melody, and the director works to make sure the kids are beginning and ending together, and that they all know the words. Maybe by 3rd or 4th grade the choir begins to sing music with two separate melodies, sung in a round. The singers have to work together, listening to each other, and paying close attention to the director. Otherwise, well, it can all get a bit jumbled.

It’s in middle school that singing in a choir starts to get tricky. Kids who didn’t like singing in elementary music drop choir, leaving a smaller group to make music together. And make music they do! Directors separate upper voices into soprano and alto, and lower voices into tenor and baritone. Singers learn to stretch their vocal range with warm-ups pushing them to new highs and lows. The choir has to listen to each other as they work to create harmony. And then the director gets even more particular, correcting the way the sopranos shape their vowels or reminding the tenors to enunciate the consonants at the end of each word. Singers have to learn to keep an eye on their music and the director at all times, or they might miss an important cue.

And we haven’t even talked about high school or college choirs yet! Singers might divide into six or eight part harmonies to fill out the sound of the song. They might even learn to sing dissonant notes, seemingly at odds with one another, all so that they can resolve back into harmony. When this is done well, it moves the very soul of singer and listener alike. When it’s not, well, it’s easy to tell that things didn’t quite work out as they should.

It’s no wonder that many Christians have compared our lives of faith to singing in a choir. It’s something we do together, each with our own part that joins together with others to create something we could never make on our own. Sometimes we go through discord in order to resolve into harmony again. It’s equally unsurprising that singing in harmony was a metaphor used by Christian leaders in the American Civil Rights movements of the 20th century. With many Christians working together, inspired by their faith, it was as if their joined voices made earth and heaven shake toward victory.

This brings up another important part of singing in a choir. All the choir members need to be singing the same song. If half are singing “Amazing Grace” while the other half sing “Jolene,” well, that isn’t going to work. If everybody picks their personal favorite song instead of singing what the director has laid before them, well, you can imagine the cacophony that would produce. Getting together out of a love for music isn’t enough; the whole choir must agree to one song. If a few voices won’t, the choir suffers by keeping the discordant voices in the concert.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” calls for a song of liberty, faith, and hope. Christians, whether at home, in their local community, online, or in their nation, ought to ask themselves: am I working together to sing a song that is liberating, faithful, and freeing to all my brothers, sisters, and siblings who hear it? Or am I singing my favorite song as if I’m alone in the shower, even though it doesn’t suit the choir God has assembled? 

This weekend, our nation will observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. His legacy may serve as a reminder to us that we can make beautiful, stunning, life-changing music together. It may also remind us that there is still singing left to do, calling us to join the chorus of that song of liberty, faith, and hope.

God of faith, hope, love, and liberty; God who made music and gave us each a voice to raise; let my voice be heard in your choir. Let me sing the songs you choose, following your direction as bravely and completely as saints like Dr. King have done. Amen.