I teach community singing and chanting as a spiritual practice. I travel around the country meeting and singing with people in different denominations, teaching and learning new songs and insights, and moving on to the next community.
Through more than 30 years, the singing together has become as much a metaphor for noticing our internal states, finding our voices, learning how to modulate their impact by listening for the voices around us, and inviting them in. It’s an easy place to begin because we each have the voice God’s given us, and it is unique.
People from all walks of life attend my workshops, and singing in groups can be fraught. When we sing in a group, we can’t hide. We epitomize vulnerability. Even the finest orator can grow faint when asked to step out of their comfort zone, sit next to a not-yet-friend and sing something new. The first question I ask in every group is this: “How many of you think you don’t sing very well?” Usually, between 25-50% of the people present raise their hands, yet they have shown up to a singing workshop! I thank them for coming, remind the whole group that it’s pretty darn brave to come, and remind the people who think they are good singers to step outside of their comfort zones so that they might learn something, too.
When it’s easy to share your voice, the responsibility to listen for the voices of others deepens. Good singers tend to want to jump right in because they’re comfortable. But if we stay in our comfort zones, we don’t learn much—that’s why they’re our comfort zones. No thinking involved! And I ask them to be present to their automatic habits,to try and question where they’re coming from, and occasionally co-lead for the sake of the group.
Next we hum together on two notes. Humming has proven to be the safest place to begin. It’s easy to most of us to find a place in the circle, and breathing together slows us down. As we slow down, our hearts entrain, and we notice that beauty and calm begin to appear.
Then comes the first of many long silences that last as long as the group decides it will be. That’s when the magic begins. There’s no talking or looking around in this decision. We listen for the sweet spot where we all just stop. Together.
We learn to hold space for one another, and even to sing songs we don’t care for, secure in the knowledge that someone else will do the same for us. We share long silences, breaks, and lunch for relationship building. Sometimes, we notice that giving and receiving are essentially the same and that trying to separate them is like trying to decide which is more important, breathing in or breathing out. By the end of the day we find that we have been changed—either by what we notice, or by the sheer beauty that blossoms as we learn to trust the wisdom of the group.
We are the ones we‘ve been waiting for. The extent to which we’re able to create beloved communities begins in learning to manage the stories we tell ourselves and our emotional landscape The stories we tell ourselves about our needs and wants are natural, but when we grasp at them as if they define our identity, and show up with our deeply held opinions before we’ve listened for ways they might fit into the community, we tend to hear only what affirms our story. MIT innovation scholar Otto Scharmer calls this level of listening “Downloading.” Scharmer describes downloading as “— listening by reconfirming habitual judgments.” He continues, “When you are in a situation where everything that happens confirms what you already know, you are listening by downloading.” Scharmer’s next level is open mind, where we listen for facts and things that are are different than what we think we know. He speaks of Charles Darwin carrying a notebook in his pocket to keep track of disconfirming data, the things that didn’t fit his theories. Darwin understood that the brain tends to forget the things that don’t support our story. This is the level of listening that supports debating, which used to be based on facts.
Many people show up to church expecting the same things to happen most of the time, but that’s not how God seems to show up in my experience. Like many of us, I’ve been noticing some movement in the ways people are finding new ways of being church, and music has no small part in this. Indeed, music helps many people to move from mere downloading, and gathering up factual details, to what Scharmer describes as generative listening.
Scharmer’s third level of listening is empathic, or open-hearted listening. As empathic listeners, “we are engaged in real dialogue and paying careful attention” that allows us to “feel a profound switch as we enter a new territory in the relationship; we forget about our own agenda and begin to see how the world appears through someone else’s eyes. This leads us to Generative listening, which becomes possible on the basis of empathic listening so that we are able “to access not only our open heart, but also our open will — our capacity to connect to the highest future possibility that can emerge. We no longer look for something outside. We no longer empathize with someone in front of us. We are in an altered state.” Scharmer likens this “altered state” to “communion” or “grace,” and it is at the core of what music can bring to a community of faith.
Generative listening is the level at which we become willing to make space for one another, to enter the relationship so deeply that we are willing to be changed by one another, even to the extent of changing what we hold dear to create a new community based on including absolutely everybody. As you might imagine, this is deep work and can be made easier through practice. Singing is the ideal gathering for this work.
In some places, people are discerning ways to shift entrenched communities by growing new communities right alongside existing congregations. This takes study and work, often with a different focus from the original community, and by inviting and encouraging the people to plan and lead the community in innovative ways. At Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Newport, RI, the Saturday Morning Chanting Group is following this alternative path. The group is “open to all voices, all people, all religions and all forms of spirituality … Through the power of sound our group is deeply connected on a nonverbal level. The silence between the chants is when you experience healing. As we focus on opening our hearts we can feel God’s divine presence within the circle. We come together in loving friendship and sound out in a loud voice the song of love that is in our hearts.”
And, the chanting group at Emmanuel has had a concrete impact in the community, enabling them to raise $2,356 for a meal program.
Does this count as church? You bet it does. Amen.
Last November I was part of a really beautiful evening in San Francisco, where about twenty of us came together at St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church to share a meal, write chants to sing at marches, and make signs to bring along. Some cooked, others drew signs, and some made up chants until we were happy with them. There was space enough for all to create and also to encourage one another—all in the same room. Possibility is everywhere.
Not So Churchy, a Presbyterian community in NYC, founded by Mieke Vandersall, meets twice a month, once for a liturgy and once for a workshop, retreat, or service project. The most distinctive aspects of Not So Churchy (NSC) are the relationships and the sweetness I encounter when I play with them. Mieke understands that we need places “to explore and improvise and be able to play with our experience of the divine.”
Not So Churchy treats “Love one another” as a creative task to be engaged in and discerned by the community together, and not just by the leadership, or the adults. LGBTQ members are included in the leadership alongside straight allies, and whoever else walks in the door. NSC uses the Slack App to keep in touch, share insights, prayer requests, and announcements. Show up on Monday evening to find chocolate, seltzer, coloring books, and gluten free banana bread for all— and of course, tons of music!
Emmanuel, St. Aiden’s, and NSC are all communities grounded in generative listening. To what can we attend more deeply in our own communities to practice together to co-create beloved community more richly? Ask one another! Then listen from the heart—beyond convention, beyond gathering facts—to hear “an even deeper realm of emergence” in your community. Then make something together! If your church is full of artists, make and teach art! If it’s full of gardeners, plant, tend, and sow together! If the folks in Anchorage Alaska’s Hope Lutheran Church can pull off a food garden to share fresh vegetables with neighbors in need, what are the rest of us waiting for?
As we learn to listen and hold space for what we hear in one another’s hearts, we’ll learn to call each one by their true names, also opening ourselves to share what makes it possible for us to be called by our true names. To join with one another to co-create the communities we ache for takes curiosity, slowing down, and remembering that we’re all just walking each other home.
Dominican nuns have given us a beautiful chant to help us move into this generative reality:
We come to join in
the banquet of love,
let it open our hearts
and break down the fears
that keep us from loving each other.