Yesterday in church the congregation sang a hymn I didn't know. In the past that wouldn't have been a hurdle any bigger than a twig. Singing hymns has always been the peak moment of any church experience for me, and my pleasure was never hidden under a basket. "If ya wanna sing out, sing out!" That was Cat Stevens' invitation and my motto long before Stevens ever strummed a chord.
I always sang out. If I didn't know the tune, I offered an imaginative substitute. If the song was pitched too high for me, I sang an octave lower, and considered the result harmonizing. But in any case, I sang loud and with fervor.
Little children several rows ahead of me would turn around in amazement. Boys of ten and twelve would snicker into their hands, unfamiliar with harmony. Girls just into the teen years would slump further into their pews and roll their eyes at each other.
Among other motives, I always hoped, by example, to inspire lukewarm pewsters to sing from their hearts. Not meaning any offence, I have to say that most congregations sound pretty weary and wishy-washy: Methodist, Mormons, Lutherans, Presbyterians--especially the Presbyterians, who were not only sad but funereally slow--all seem muted and Prozaic. Two exceptions: a wondrous group of full-throated Freewill Baptists in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and a lusty flock in bright muu-muus and neatly ironed shorts on the island of Oahu. In neither place did a single head turn my way.
But my days of merry freestyle singing are no more.
For months now, I have been taking weekly voice lessons. And oh, the hesitation, the modesty, the tentative sounds a little learning brings in its puny wake! All I could do yesterday with the unfamiliar hymn was silently mouth the words. Sic transit gloria ignoramus.