Wren: Lessons in Relentless Song
Now he lifts his chestnut colored throat and delivers such a cantering praise– for what? For the early morning, the taste of the spider, for his small cup of life that he drinks from every day, knowing it will refill… But, every morning, there is my own cup of gladness, and there’s that wren in the hedge, above me, with his blazing song. - Mary Oliver, “The Wren from Carolina”
There are two contrasting sounds that I can be assured will greet me every trip out my front door: the faint doppler hum of traffic noise from the nearby interstate connector, and the persistently earnest teakettle-teakettle of the Carolina Wren. The highway was made to move through its environment unassessed. The wren was made to sing. Every morning this contrast presents itself at my front doorstep, and—if I let it—it will shape the core purposes of my life.
Noise is the cost of suburbia. Song is the privilege of saints.
Singing Your Heart Out
The Carolina Wren is a year-round resident here in its namesake state, so I can rely on its song through all four seasons as a morning loop over the dull background static of Michelins on asphalt. Three of them are singing even as I write this, each one tonally distinct and yet undeniably wren-ish. A Carolina Wren can sing up to 3000 times a day; their tune is wonderfully relentless, fully up to the challenge of interstate hiss, and refusing to surrender the airwaves. And they know how to turn the volume up to 11, with a confidently strident song that defies their impossibly small body—less than half the size (and a thirtieth the weight) of my smallest reliable Bluetooth speaker.
The wren sings year-round, experimenting with a couple dozen unique variations of essentially the same tune. It you pay attention, you’ll hear the nuances of his repertoire, but despite different songs it all sounds essentially the same (a sentence that would also describe an AC/DC album). The wren, to borrow from G.K. Chesterton, “exults in monotony.” It sings to define its territory. It sings to maintain the pair bond during breeding season. It sings louder when it identifies an intruder. It counter-sings to let others know where it is. Maybe sometimes it sings just for kicks. The naturalist David Attenborough says of songbirds, “These songs contain the most important message of their lives.” Disappointingly, Attenborough goes on to say that this most-important message is the biological impulse to mate and propagate the species. I’m guessing that feels oversimplified and under-poetic to you if you’re a fan of Emerson or Wendell Berry, although most of the curated Apple playlists I’ve heard might seem to suggest we humans have basically the same goal in mind.
But what if the wren sings under no auspices of evolutionary advantage, but simply because it can? Because it was made to? Built to?
To watch a Carolina Wren might be a little like watching a cranky Presbyterian. His movements are stiff, abrupt, maybe a little agitated. He will frequently scold the other birds, or anything that looks amiss with his surroundings, and he can be quite verbose in his criticisms. His tail is often lifted like a stiff caution flag and his eyebrows are always raised. Frankly he looks a little uptight. But all that melts away when he throws back his beak and sings. He was made for something better than fluttering and fretting.
Emily Dickinson wrote,
Hope is the thing with feathers That perches in the soul, And sings the tune without the words, And never stops at all.
What if this “little thing with feathers” in my maple tree can’t not sing, because its creator infused it with such pressurized hope? What if its DNA is shaped less like a double-helix and more like a treble staff?
A Singing Faith
And what about us? What if song reflects the hard-wiring of our core purposes—the privilege of saints? Have you ever considered the oddity of Christianity as a singing faith? There are few other gatherings in the course of your week that normalize singing. Imagine if your HOA meeting began with a couple little ditties about the privileges of home-ownership. Or what if your board meeting began with an ode-to-the-company sing-along? If we burst into song in most of the daily gatherings of life, it would feel like a Disney movie. I dare you to write a verse or two to present at your next executive staff meeting. The closest we get to normalizing song in gathering is that awkward birthday song. We’ve been singing it since 1893 and we’re still not very good at it.
But when Christians get together, they sing. There’s a God-commanded non-negotiable centrality to song in Christian worship. Our church leadership recently had this discussion, as we planned for in-person worship regathering after 20-something weeks marooned online. Pundits who have ranked the “most risky activities in COVID season” put “indoor singing in a religious gathering” in second place (presumably just behind “attending a presidential address in the Rose Garden”). So—we asked ourselves for about 10 seconds—when we regather, should we sing? And is singing truly dangerous?
The answer is yes, and yes. True, we currently sing with masks on (perk: it’s a great way to love your neighbor if you sing off-key). But we concluded quickly that our singing is an essential aspect of our Christian formation. Mike Cosper writes, “Singing itself is creational gift with formational effects. When people sing together, they literally unite their breath. They unite their words.”
And yes, because of that, singing is dangerous, but not for the reasons you might think (although perhaps that quote about “uniting our breath” loses its luster in this season of COVID). Singing is dangerous because it pushes back the darkness. It rides above the murmuring din of tire-and-asphalt, bringing hope with its feathers. Song—as worship, that is—can deliver a solid dose of rich theological truth and deep emotional range at the same time. It gets us at both levels, head and heart, orthodoxy and orthopathos, right knowing and right feeling. Songs like that are both sung and lived. They change us, shaping the experience of who we are. And whose we are. And where we’re going. And why.
The gift of song—directed to God or recited about him—also unites us to the invisible church, the gathering of God’s people through the ages. Christians have sung throughout our history, from inspired psalms of the Old Testament to the most recent quarantine-composed lyric. We are exhorted to formulate new songs with skill and sing them at full volume (Psalm 33:3), even in public places (Psalm 149:1). But it may perhaps be the older ones that unite us more experientially to the church across space and time; after all, history has preserved the most worthy home-run compositions, and let the foul balls roll behind the bleachers. In the hymns that remain, I am occasionally overwhelmed to imagine prior generations, long since home, drawing upon the same lyrics for the same purposes.
Yes, Mr. Attenborough, “These songs contain the most important message of our lives.”
A Singing Savior
But singing, as a ready avenue for our chief pursuits of glorifying and enjoying God, doesn’t just tell us who we are. It tells us who our God is. John Piper has said, “The fact that Christianity is a singing religion bears witness, not only to the way we're wired as human beings, but to the kind of God we have: namely, a God who is one day, according to Zephaniah 3:17, going to sing over us. He is going to lead a choir and celebrate the fact that we are his. And we're going to join in singing that he is ours, because God is so valuable and so beautiful and so multi-faceted in his perfections that to leave out the emotional component--and not let it spill over in poetry and song--would be to leave out a key element in worship.”
Our Lord sings over us. Can you imagine?
“He will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” (Zephaniah 3:17)
Think of our singing savior. We are told that Jesus literally ended the Last Supper in song. “When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” (Matthew 26:30). Disciples’ voices harmonized with the Messiah’s. The Word became flesh and sang with us. What did that sound like? Was Jesus a tenor or a bass? Would we have heard the first quiverings of Gethsemane emotion in the timbre of his song?
The hymn they would have sung that night would likely have been one of the traditional Passover-ending psalms, Psalms 115 through 118. The next time you read those psalms, imagine Jesus singing the lyric of Scripture to a now-forgotten tune, mingling his voice with his friends’ in a verse he himself inspired a thousand years prior, long before his incarnated vocal cords took air into them. You will never hear these songs the same once you hear them from the lips of your singing savior. The song anticipates the next day’s events, but redefines them.
“For you, LORD, have delivered me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before the LORD in the land of the living.” (Psalm 116:8-9)
Imagine the same song preceding those Gethsemane prayers, facing the cup of God’s wrath, asking—if it were possible—to let it pass from him, and yet celebrating the coming victory of a different cup:
I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD. I will fulfill my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people. Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his faithful servants. (Psalm 116:13-15)
Yes, singing is dangerous. Yes, these songs contain the most important message of our lives. They reflect a savior faithful to the end, as all our best songs do. And when explosive souls meet the language of the Kingdom, look out. Demons flee. Lives change...
And the wrens have returned and they’re nesting In the hollow of that oak where his heart once had been And he lifts up his arms in a blessing For being born again. - Rich Mullins, “The Color Green”
The Lord rejoices over us with singing, the Savior sings his way to a cross for us, and for us to sing in return is perhaps the only sane response.