Mel Williams: Singing our way to hope


I come from a long line of singers. I remember as a child gathering around the piano with my parents to sing old gospel hymns.

My mother and father loved to sing, and they turned my three brothers and me into a pretty good quartet. In my preteen years, people discovered that I was a boy soprano, so I got invited to sing for various civic clubs in our small town.

Singing was also part of my church life. We went to church often, and I quickly figured out how to survive the long sermons: get ready for the next hymn.

On Sunday evenings, my favorite part of the service was the 15-minute “Hymns We Love to Sing.” Members of the congregation would call out the numbers of hymns, which we’d sing with gusto.

When I turned 18 and it came time for me to consider a vocation, some suggested that I pursue a career in music. Would I choose ministry or music? Was there a way to choose both? I decided then that I would use music as part of my ministry.

Thus, for my entire career, I’ve been a singing minister — in church choirs, symphony choruses, ensembles, a folk band. I occasionally sing in the middle of my sermon. (When preaching about healing, how can one resist bursting forth with, “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole …”?)

I’ve reflected often about why singing captures us and won’t let us go. What I’ve concluded is that singing inspires hope. In these times of tumult and strife, where do we find hope? I think that when a poetic text is set to a lovely melody, that combination becomes irresistible — and motivational.

It may be a simple text such as, “We shall overcome. … We’ll walk hand in hand. … We shall live in peace.” Singing this tune draws us together; it’s a galvanizing force that lifts activists and marchers in the struggle for justice.

Singing forms community. While solos have their place (and I’ve done my fair share of them), I’ve long preferred the chorus over the individual voice. Why? The corporate song draws us into a unity, a communal cohesion, connecting us with each other through times of stress and distress.

When we sing, we can’t do anything else. We get “lost in wonder, love and praise,” as the hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” says. The singing takes over and invites us to stay in the present moment, thus giving us access to vitality and aliveness.

As a pastor, I found that singing is another way to connect with members of the congregation. Songs express blessing, forgiveness, delight and lament. When singing makes us come alive, “that is the area in which we are spiritual,” as David Steindl-Rast writes in “Music of Silence.”

Go to any church funeral, for example, and listen to the congregation sing, “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing,” and you will hear hope singing through grief. Likewise, grief is tempered when we sing, “O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come.”

We sing the pain, and we sing through the pain. We sing with fervor until the song gets inside us, and the song sings us.

Through the years, various parishioners would confide to me that they were unsure about what they actually believed. They had doubts and questions that prevented a clear, verbal statement of their faith. When I heard these concerns, I usually asked whether they had favorite hymns.

“Make a list of your favorite hymns,” I would tell them, “and you will see what you believe.” Hymns have a way of moving into our hearts and staying in our memory banks; they become a storehouse and expression of our faith, theology and spiritual commitment.

“Amazing Grace” is often at the top of the best-loved hymns list. It’s a compelling affirmation: “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come. ’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

After singing these hymns for so many years, I often find an old tune popping into my consciousness at some unguarded moment. I then sing from memory a welcome word — the song is singing me.

A few years ago, I was sitting in the silence of a Quaker meeting for worship when a Friend rose and said, “This may be out of order, but I know Mel is here, and I’d like to call him out to sing ‘How Can I Keep from Singing?’”

I was startled, but I recovered and did as requested, singing from memory a version of the 19th-century hymn based on Psalm 145. It’s a call for hope in the midst of lament:

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the real though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.

No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I’m clinging;
It sounds an echo in my soul
How can I keep from singing?

On another occasion, I was walking in a forest when an old hymn started singing me. I found myself singing, “Are you weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care?” (The lovely word “cumbered” means “hindered” or “obstructed.”)

This hymn kept on singing me, until I got the message: release the stresses you’re carrying. As I finished my forest walk, I said aloud, “Thanks. I needed that.”

Theologically, it seems clear to me that God has chosen music as a primary vehicle to reach us. God rides on music. Singing becomes a spiritual practice; it wakes us up and gives us a surge of life and hope.

This speaks even to those who have difficulties with church. One Sunday, a stranger appeared in worship. At the church door, he said, “I used to go to church a lot, and now I don’t. The only thing I really miss is the singing.”

I understand what he was saying. In our worship, Scripture, the liturgy and the sermon can bring insight and inspiration. But as my aged mother once said to me, “I’ve been listening to sermons all my life, and I don’t remember a one of them.”

Yet she remembered many hymns and sang them often from memory. Those hymns sang her — and sustained her — through many ups and downs. And after a lifetime of deriving hope and joy from the music, how could she keep from singing?


I’ve had a lifelong, relentless wonderment about what compels people to seek a spiritual community.

“Why are you here?” I often asked myself as I walked into the sanctuary, facing a roomful of worshippers. Climbing the red-carpeted stairs to the pulpit, I would gaze out at my parishioners’ faces. Over and over, I would look out and ask myself, “Why are they here?”

The reasons are many — habit, pleasing grandmother, seeing friends, enjoying the music.

But I’ve always known that there is something deeper. There must be a restlessness, a longing that stirs us to show up. When I’ve asked directly, I’ve received typical answers: “I come to get my batteries recharged”; “I come to find a way to get through the week”; “I have a need to be with my people.”

Even as membership in mainline churches declines, people’s interest in spiritual practice remains vital. Those who say they’re “spiritual but not religious” may not identify with institutional religion; still, the spiritual impulse motivates them.

It may lead them to attend a mindfulness meditation group or a Buddhist retreat, or perhaps to seek a spiritual director or a life coach. Whatever direction people’s spiritual paths may take, I always want to ask them, “Why are you here?”

My question has reverberated with astonishing persistence. For 20 years, I have gone on retreat at a monastery, where I’ve repeatedly asked the monks, “Why are you here?” They give me a quizzical look and typically say, “I’m here to deepen my communion with the divine.”

Since retiring from pastoral ministry, I’ve been spending most Sunday mornings in a Quaker meeting, where about 75 people sit together in silence. There is no sermon, but persons who feel prompted by an inner message may speak.

As I sit silently among the Quakers, the questions continue to echo in my head: “Why are you here? Why am I here? Why are we here in this service of worship?”

When I ask my Quaker friends directly, they often say something like, “I’m here to attend to the inner light that resides within all of us.”

But none of the answers I’ve received gets at the core reason. So after my years of interrogating, what’s my answer to the Big Question?

I believe that we come to church, synagogue, mosque, Quaker meeting or mindfulness meditation because we want our life to be restored.

We want to come back to life. We want to be fully alive. We want the life force to rise within us with such strength that we can face our struggles, fears, dilemmas and pain.

At the monastery, I discovered that one of the earliest Christian prayers was, “God, remove the deadness. Make me fully alive.” These Christians did not focus on beliefs or dogma but on the gift of full aliveness.

They saw the human Jesus as Life Giver (“I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly,” John 10:10).

I’ve concluded that we come to worship, to our spiritual practice, with the same plea: Remove the deadness.

That means that we enter into a spiritual process seeking to release the pain, to let go of the struggle that saps our energy, to hand over the anxiety and the sorrows. We seek to empty ourselves of whatever may be blocking the free flow of aliveness.

As the monastic writer Bruno Barnhart has said, Jesus awakens in us “that which lies at the core of [our] own being.”

This is inner work; the living water will flow freely if we are willing to clear away the obstacles to the inner wellspring. We then awaken to embody the qualities of aliveness we learn from spiritual traditions: kindness, compassion, justice, love.

Such inner work opens the heart, releasing the love and compassion that are essential for engagement with the world.

My practice has emerged from different sectors of my life. Yes, it has come from my experience in Christian worship, where “confession” is part of the liturgy, a practice that releases one’s inner struggles to hear the word of forgiveness and newness.

I’ve learned it at the monastery, where the rule invites: “Empty yourself completely and sit waiting, content with the grace of God.” I’ve learned it from Quaker worship, where silence is the path to the inner light, the deeper self.

It may seem odd, but I’ve also learned it from my longtime group of backpacking friends. Five of us take annual jaunts into the wilderness, including the Appalachian Trail, where we can get back into the forest. We call it “the sacred center.”

Here we come to a meeting. It’s not formal worship, but it has some parallels. We hit the trail together to release stress, to bask in the moment, to feel invigorated, to realign with core values, to re-connect to life-giving energies. We take a journey together to come alive again.

My experience with Baptists, monks, Quakers and backpackers has prompted me to be more aware of the “come alive” moments in my daily journey.

I come alive in spirited conversations with my friends and colleagues. I come alive with my longtime folk group as the music takes us over and we feel that the song is singing us.

I come alive with my family as I rediscover the bond of love and laughter. I come alive in my community as I invest myself — with passion and perseverance — in advocating for economic justice, pushing to open opportunities for our neighbors to move toward economic stability.

This focus on aliveness gives clarity to how we approach our work in the world. As the teacher-mystic Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”