Forty odd years after it happened, my friend, Chris, had only to recite the number 555 to get me to laugh. The number is not a punchline to any joke. It is simply the easy-to-remember number of a favorite song in The Mennonite Hymnal. We loved that song because an elderly lady in our church sang it with such vigor and unique tone that it gave us the giggles. The excitement we had seeing 555 “Would You Be Free” printed in the bulletin rivaled that of knowing we were going to have a potluck that noon. Though I felt ashamed when we imitated her singing it in the church yard later, I believe we were secretly and mysteriously inspired by the hearty bass line in the chorus coupled with weighty phrases and images. The fact that I still have all four verses of that hymn memorized is a testament, perhaps, to this woman’s fervor.
Much like the 555 lady, my own mother seldom used a hymnal in church. The words and notes were imprinted on her heart. I used to be a bit embarrassed by her confident singing and sometimes thought it seemed almost arrogant, most likely because she always smiled when she sang.
Information tied to a melody magically takes on an attachment to both our soul and our brain, and it’s locked in for life. When I read the words to a hymn such as, “I Bind My Heart This Tide” I realize it’s a uniquely beautiful lyric, but it doesn’t give me goosebumps until I hear it complete with all four parts.
As a child, I marveled that my mother knew so many melodies and words. Forty years later, I realize that I also have a vast store of lyrics and tunes tucked away in my mind. Still, like the sense of smell, I can recall definitive, transformative moments that demonstrated the power of music in my own life. I am quite certain the hymn “Heart with Loving Heart United,” which I learned at Hesston (Kansas) College, solidified my career in music education within the Mennonite church. Its uniquely Anabaptist-oriented lyrics and memorable melody were often my solace the next year when I went from the lonely Kansas plains to the heart of Amsterdam, Holland, to serve with the InterMenno trainee program.
From my current vantage point, I can more easily connect the musical dots of my past. For instance, I can hardly play a G chord on my guitar without recalling my first jam sessions; not in a garage with friends, but with my mom while she played piano and sang, “God Loves a Cheerful Giver,” a Medical Missions Sisters hit. The phrase in the song, “He loves to hear you laughing when you’re in an awkward spot” torments me to this day with its simple wisdom.
The world of singing keeps evolving and is still interesting, challenging, and satisfying. In the same way that I was moved by connecting to my own Germanic ancestors’ musical traditions of Europe, if I want to be an authentic music educator, I also have to acknowledge other people’s histories and perspectives. This active listening and learning is not only what I do as an educator, it’s what I feel is at least a minimal requirement as a disciple of Christ.
Congregational singing can be a subtle, yet powerful, form of discipleship training. I would even submit that when we sing a cappella we are actually practicing something quite radical and countercultural. What if our Christian gratitude, convictions, hopes, salvation, and concerns were expressed through the sounds of confident, enthusiastic, congregational singing? What great influence would we have if we sang and smiled like my mother did?
This goal of good, lusty singing has become my mission as an educator in a Mennonite school. Of course I want my students to be musically excellent but, more importantly, I want them to own the songs with passion and understanding so that years from now they, too, can recall their own transformative moments—just like I had, listening to the woman singing 555.