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Breathing, singing and listening to God ‘calling for us’

Singing is a grace-filled activity, Routley lecturer the Rev. Dr. David Gambrell tells the Presbyterian Association of Musicians

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. David Gambrell is the Routley lecturer during PAM’s Worship and Music Conference. (File photo by Rich Copley)

LOUISVILLE — Singing begins with breath. With those words, the Rev. Dr. David Gambrell began his Routley lectures for the week, promising that each day those attending the Presbyterian Association of Musicians Worship and Music Conference would:

  • Ponder the phenomenon of singing.
  • Consider biblical passages that relate to the voice of God and the voice of mortals.
  • Reflect on the wonderful ways we encounter Jesus Christ through congregational singing.

Gambrell, associate for worship in the PC(USA)’s Office of Theology and Worship, said that each of us breathes in and out around 22,000 times a day, approximately 8 million times a year. Over the course of an average lifespan, 79 years or so, that’s nearly 635 million breaths.

Sometimes we take breathing for granted. Yet collectively, singers and choir directors spend a lot of time thinking about when to breathe and when not to.

“We want to breathe in ways that support the sense of music we’re playing, paying attention to the division of musical phrases and fueling the dynamics of the song,” he said. “Sometimes we even breathe together.”

Gambrell noted that the Hebrew Scriptures start with breath, with God’s Spirit breathing and soaring over the water. And then there was the voice of God — the Hebrew word for voice also means “noise,” “sound” or “thundering.” The first time this word appears in Scriptures is Genesis 3, with God walking in the garden looking for the humans.

According to Gambrell, we might think of this account describing big, thundering footsteps. After all, God was searching for the humans in the evening, and Adam’s response is, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked.”

“But what if the sound they heard was God singing to them?” Gambrell asked. “This is important,” he added, “because the first time we humans hear the voice of God, God is already calling for us: ‘Where are you?’”

God is made known to the people through the sound of this voice and in the sound God’s holy name, “I am who I am.” Though this name is mentioned nearly 7,000 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, it’s never spoken aloud. Instead, it’s replaced with another word, “Adonai,” or “Lord.” The people are to obey this voice.

Behind the word “obey,” Gambrell said, is the phrase, “Listen to my voice. When we hear the voice of the Lord, it moves us and transforms us. We cannot remain the same.”

Gambrell also pointed out that one of our theological ancestors, John Calvin, emphasized the work of the Spirit forming our faith. The church has special prayers for the Holy Spirit for portions of worship — the technical term for one of these prayers is epiclesis.

  • The payer of illumination before the reading and proclamation of the Word.
  • The thanksgiving over the water before the sacrament of baptism.
  • The Great Thanksgiving at the Lord’s Supper.

Gambrell said that in Christian worship, congregational singing has a similar function to those special prayers for the Holy Spirit. When members of the church come together for worship, the assembly is called the body of Christ, in which Jesus the risen Lord is alive and present to us.

“How do we really become the body of Christ?” he asked. “First, we stand together, in body or spirit, as witnesses to the resurrection, to the uprising of Jesus Christ on the first day of the week. And then we breathe together, and then we sing.”

It is in these moments — the inhalation of the spirit, the activation of the voice, the exclamation of the word — Gambrell suggests that we become the body of Christ. He believes it’s no accident that one of the first things we do in a typical worship service is to sing a song or a hymn.  Spiritually lifting our communal breath as a congregational prayer, practicing calling upon the same Spirit who moved over the face of the waters, stirring up a new Creation — which always begins with God’s grace.

“Singing, like breathing, is a grace-filled activity. It depends on breath, which comes to us as a free gift,” Gambrell said. “It is a gift of the Spirit, an act of trust and a work of love.”

This is the second week of the PAM Worship & Music Conference, which is being attended by 620 people in person at Montreat Conference Center, with another 120 attending online.

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