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No Notes? Sing a Psalm Anyway!

When my dad was in sixth grade, his class was preparing to sing Christmas songs as part of a school musical. Everyone was excited to be a part of the Christmas celebration! To prepare for the event, the teacher listened to each child sing. When it was my dad’s turn, he sang out with joy, but the teacher winced and said, “Jim, you need to go into the ‘No Notes’ group!”

“No Notes!?”  What a denunciation! The “No Notes” group was comprised mostly of the athletes who didn’t make good musical notes. They had big muscles and out of tune vocal cords. They didn’t sing as much as they grunted and growled on the sports field! So, the teacher told my dad and his friends that, during the Christmas musical, they were to move their mouths and pretend to sing without making any noise! That was the No Notes Group.

Sadly, as a boy my dad got the message that his singing to Christ wasn’t pleasing so he shouldn’t do it. Obviously, Jesus would never want that! He would never downgrade anyone into a No Notes Group.

William Law Invited me to Step Out of the No Notes Group

Perhaps you can relate to my dad’s story of being in the No Notes Group? I can. I’ve always been self-conscious about my inability to carry a tune. A long time ago I had put myself in a No Notes Group. I still sang praises to God in church, but softly and hesitantly, always following the lead of others. Then a few years ago I read these soul-riveting words from an old book by William Law (written in 1728), one of the greatest masters of devotion to Christ:

There is nothing that so clears a way for your prayers, nothing that so disperses dullness of heart, nothing that so purifies the soul from pour and little passions, nothing that so opens heaven or carries your heart so near it as [singing the Psalms].  They create a sense of delight in God; they awaken holy desires; they teach how to ask; and they prevail with God to give.  They kindle a holy flame; they turn your heart into an altar; they turn your prayers into incense and carry them as sweet-smelling savor to the throne of grace.

You will perhaps say that singing is a particular talent that belongs only to particular people, and that you have neither voice nor ear to make any music… It is singing and not artful or fine singing that is a required way of praising God.

This objection might be of some weight if you were desired to sing to entertain other people, but it is not to be admitted in the present case where you are required only to sing the praises of God as a part of your private devotion…

Do but live so that your heart may truly rejoice in God and then you will find that this state of your heart will lack neither voice nor ear to find a tune for a psalm… He, therefore, who says that he lacks a voice or an ear to sing a psalm mistakes the case. He lacks that spirit which really rejoices in God. The dullness is in his heart and not in his ear. When his heart feels a true joy in God, when it has a full relish of what is expressed in the psalms, he will find it very pleasant to make the motions of his voice express the motions of his heart…

If you can once say with David, “My heart is fixed, O God, my heart is fixed,” it will be very easy and natural to add, as he did, “I will sing and give praise!” (A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, p. 98-100).

I Let Go of Self-Consciousness and Began Singing Psalms!

What a beautiful heart for God William Law was showing me! What a wonderful spiritual discipline for devotion to the Lord! I had been praying the Psalms, but I had never thought of singing them in this way. In retrospect it was obvious: the Psalms are songs! They are meant to be sung, not only in community worship, but also in private devotions. I knew that God was inviting me to set aside my self-consciousness and start singing Psalms to him.

But I was resistant. For months I couldn’t overcome my self-consciousness. I thought, I can write prayer poems to God — that’s my creative way to express my love for the Lord — but I can’t sing and I especially can’t develop a tune to carry a Psalm song.

Despite my resistance I kept going back to William Law’s example. I re-read his words over and over. I was further emboldened by learning that Saint Augustine, a great Father of the Church, is believed to have said, “He who sings his prayer prays twice.”

Finally, I ventured on God. I’m going to obey this prompting of the Holy Spirit and see what happens. I started singing my favorite Psalms to my own tune. At first when I started singing out loud I felt I had to look around me to make sure that there wasn’t anyone within a hundred yards of me! But little by little I sang out my love for the Lord, absorbing the words and rhythms of the Psalmist and singing them out with my heart and voice.

I was wonderfully surprised how much it blessed me to sing the Psalms. I had found a new way to meditate on Scripture — and what amazing insights God was giving me! I had found a new way to rely on God to lift my spirits when I was discouraged, anxious, bored, frustrated, or lonely! I had found a new way to turn wherever I was — showering, driving my car, walking in a stairwell or on a trail, or gardening — into a delightful sanctuary of joyful praise to the Lord!

But I Was Ridiculed

I began sharing this devotional practice with other people. Sometimes this included actually singing Psalms for them and inviting them to join along! To venture on God in this way I really had to take courage! A pastor changed his church’s way of doing worship to incorporate this practice. A friend started writing and singing prayer poems and singing them to God.

But once when I sang a Psalm with a church group I was ridiculed for my poor singing ability. I was tempted to go back into the No Notes Group.

But I reminded myself that “The LORD does not look at the things people look at… He looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). When we sing praise to God, he’s not critiquing our musical ability – he’s listening to our hearts and enjoying the love we express for him (Isaiah 29:13). When we express appreciation and admiration to the Lord, he is blessed by it! It ministers to him! God is especially please when we share our devotion to him with others, inviting them to sing from their hearts to him.

Singing Psalms with the Saints of Old

For 3,000 years God’s people have been praying and singing Psalms everyday — corporately or privately, going through all 150 Psalms regularly (usually in two months or less) – until recent generations. All of the Psalms, including the Laments, are in our Bibles are meant to be prayed and sung by us. Jesus and his Apostles sang from the Psalms and taught us to do the same (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16).

I invite you to try singing Psalms. Sing to the Lord! Don’t be self-conscious – let your voice express the love for God that’s in your heart.

To get started you can do this in private where no one but God can hear you. Put whatever pitch, tone, and rhythm seem to fit a particular Psalm. You’ll be amazed by the new insights and intimacy with God that come to you from this devotional practice of singing Psalms. You’ll grow in your prayer life and you’ll connect deeply with Jesus Christ because he’s in each Psalm — it’s prophecies, human experience, and righteousness.

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