Opinion: Singing for strength


Published: 11-12-2023 8:00 AM

Rev. Lourey Savick is the pastor of Wesley UMC in Concord.

I’m not the first to say so — the daily news has so much to shock and scare us. It is a wearying time. Despite all of the training and resources I have for spiritual renewal, rest, and encouragement, I still carefully choose how I will engage the reality of what is going on locally and around the world.

I don’t want to be capsized by difficult news, by worry and grief. I want to have the energy to serve this wonderful city according to my call. Thank goodness that, at least once every week, I sing.

Did you know that when a person swallows, hums, and sings, it vibrates the vagus nerve? This nerve is very powerful, regulating inflammation and connected to all your organs. This nerve can help a body be sensitive to its surroundings and take emergency actions. Do you stress eat? That’s the vagus nerve. Sometimes people faint in response to stress, that’s the vagus nerve.

Perhaps the public health crises of the last several years have inspired you to learn a little about the long-term effects of stress. Perhaps you’ve read “My Grandmother’s Hands” by Resmaa Menakem or “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk. A prolonged state of alarm in the body will shorten, and can end, your life or someone else’s. It makes it harder for you to recognize what’s true. It crushes your joy.

Singing vibrates the vagus nerve, sending a message to your whole body. The message is freeing, life-restoring. The message is, “I’m okay. I’m safe now.” Caring for and leading a congregation has meant learning about what humans need in hard times, and I’ve had to study what human bodies need in order for our hearts and minds to be free. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

Biblical characters sing through war, through infertility, through paradigm change. Those liberated under Moses sang. The captured Israelites sang despite their exile, not for their captors, but for themselves. As Robert Lowry’s hymn continues to ask, “Since Love is lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?”

Singing is a radical act of liberation and resistance. Singing in the face of threat says that you are strong enough, wise enough, to overcome. Singing in times of uncertainty says that uncertainty is not an enemy, that what seems clear isn’t always true, and that easy answers are about as nourishing as empty calories.

Singing with other people tells your body and brain that these other people, no matter how different and unfamiliar they may be, are not going to hurt you: we are safe with each other. Singing together creates a foundation for mutual trust.

Some of the most undermining ideas for the human soul are that we get what we deserve and everything happens for a reason. The oldest story in the Bible exists to challenge these ideas. If we get what we deserve, love is irrelevant. If everything happens for a reason, we are slaves. These ideas are tempting because they appear to offer a secure, understandable version of life. But is this appearance of security trustworthy?

What about the virus that strikes down those who loved and provided for us? What about the victims of mass shootings? What about the shortcut which went unnoticed, the lie that makes things temporarily easier, but would be shameful if it were revealed? Don’t we bear fierce witness to those who persevere against cancer, against a dominating force, against what we have determined is unjust? Don’t we give thanks for second chances, for unexpected consideration, for unreasonable love? If Love is lord of heaven and earth, how can we keep from singing?

Singing together is a revolution. If you’re skeptical, look up the Singing Revolution! It not only makes us feel like we are free, it sets us free, increasing our trust in one another, improving our executive function and satiation, de-escalating violence, helping us accept complexity, and making accessible affection and joy. It makes no difference whether you can carry a tune.

At least once every week, I am in a space in which everyone is meant to sing, and we all sing together. It is the best thing for me, and I believe that it is helping us all heal. If you don’t have a space in which you can sing, please find one. You are more than welcome in our Family Choir.

Don’t wonder if you’re good enough, or worry too much about the words. Find a place where you are welcomed to sing often enough, and loud enough, to start feeling safe and satisfied again. It will save our lives.