If you’ve been a member of this congregation for more than a year, then you have heard me talk about my annual family camp meeting. (If you’ve heard more than you want to know about it, feel free to skip to the next paragraph.) Every year, six hundred or so descendants of the Reverend Howell Taylor gather at Tabernacle Campground in Brownsville, TN, for a week of revival, eating and visiting. It is an old Methodist camp meeting that started in 1826 and is still going strong.
We go to church twice a day, and each year we have a guest preacher who preaches thirteen times over the course of the week. This year, we had two preachers: Dr. Ellsworth Kalas and his son, Rev. David Kalas. Dr. Kalas, who is now 91, has come to preach at camp meeting every three or four years since 1964, and we were able to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his “honorary cousinhood.” Hearing him preach over all these years has dramatically shaped my faith and my own preaching. Honestly, I think he may be a saint.
One of the things that both Dr. Kalas and his son David talked about this year at camp meeting was the singing. Indeed, one of my favorite things about camp meeting is the singing. When we gather for worship, we spend the first fifteen to twenty minutes singing old camp meeting songs from the Cokesbury hymnal, and we have most of them memorized. From the smallest children to the most mature adults, from the trained soloists to the nearly tone-deaf, we all sing our hearts out with joy and abandon. It really is remarkable.
But it shouldn’t be. Methodists have always been a singing people, but somehow in recent generations we have gotten timid in our singing. Why is that, I wonder? Maybe some of us are uncomfortable singing in public. Maybe we don’t want to be showy. Maybe we think singing should be left to the professionals up front. Or we feel like we can’t sing out unless we know the tune well. Or we don’t like the songs. Or the instruments have gotten so loud that our voices can’t be heard. I don’t know what all the reasons are, but I do know that singing has always been a vital part of worship. And it doesn’t matter what the style of music is—old gospel, traditional, contemporary—the act of singing can help us feel and express our love for God in ways that are unique and powerful.
John Wesley gave the early Methodists some directions for their singing, and we would do well read them. They’re on page vii of the red hymnal if you want to look them up, but here are a few of them: “Learn these tunes before you learn any others…. 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 it a blessing. Sing lustily and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep…Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard…. Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing God more than yourself, or any other creature…attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away by the sound, but offered to God continually.”
I want to invite and challenge all of us to sing more lustily and spiritually! If you hold back in your singing, for whatever reason, try taking just one Sunday to give God all you’ve got. As Brother Wesley says, “you will find it a blessing,” and you might find yourself doing it every Sunday.