One of the many blessings in my life has been the gift of church music. I grew up in a family who valued music and in a church that valued music. Because I was reared in a high steeple church, I was privileged to be exposed at a young age to string ensembles, handbell choirs, professional singers, and an organist who is a professor of organ music in a prestigious university music program.
When life took me away from home, I got to experience other kinds of church music. I served a church in North Carolina which had a teenage show choir and a men’s quartet who sang southern gospel music. I served a church in a small town in West Virginia whose pianist played every hymn in a gleeful, upbeat bluegrass style. I visited a Melkite church in Zababdeh in the West Bank, who sang their entire liturgy a capella.
These experiences contribute, I’m sure, to why the future depicted in John’s vision sounds so glorious to me: countless numbers of disciples from all nations, tribes, peoples, and languages will join together in perpetual worship, singing glorious praises to the triune God.
That they are singing is, I think, significant. There is no Heavenly Muzak playing in the throne room, no recordings of babbling brooks or birdsong to calm the masses. The people are not listening to song—they are making music, putting their bodies into their life of praise.
I owe my love of church music to the people who taught me to sing. I’m grateful for my parents and grandparents, with whom I sat in the pew during my childhood, and who heeded John Wesley’s direction to “sing lustily and with a good courage.” I’m grateful for Rae, a church member who was my piano teacher and also directed our church’s children’s choir. I can still remember her hand movements that, as she taught us Natalie Sleeth anthems, indicated we should try to adjust our pitch lower or higher. I’m grateful for Miss Nute, a church member who was the director of the choral programs at my public high school. She urged us on in excellence in a capella pieces and somehow got away with teaching sacred music to the choir. I’m grateful for Diane, the director of the African-American gospel choir at my college. She patiently taught us white kids who were in the choir to learn how to express our faith more freely in song than we were used to.
I learned to sing because of the people whose voices I could listen to and try to follow. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27) We only can sing the song of life because we are learning it from the one who was there when the music began. To learn how to sing it ourselves, we have to follow him.
We who learned to sing in the context of church choirs know that while singing is a craft that requires personal attention, the goal of our individual efforts is to join well with others in a corporate endeavor. We take our different gifts, our different voices, and make music together. We have to follow not only the director but listen to each other to make beautiful music. The singing of the heavenly throng is unified by their focus on the triune God. What makes the music of both the earthly and heavenly multitudes possible is the voice of the Lord. We can only sing together because he leads us.
On earth, the sheep hear His voice.
In heaven, the Lamb hears ours.
To God and to the Lamb, we will sing!