My son is six, almost six-and-a-half, as he would be quick to remind me. Since he was a newborn, I have been singing him to sleep every night. My husband sings to him too. He outgrew my ability to cradle him and look down to see his eyes begin to close, but I still sat him on my lap to rock while we sang. Then he outgrew the rocking chair altogether, and I sang to him sitting on the floor next to his toddler bed. Now he’s outgrown that too, and we lay side by side in the dark on his double mattress, still singing. We used to look at books with pictures and no words, then pictures and stories together. Then I read to him from books with words but no pictures. Now he reads a chapter to me. Yet still I sing to him before he goes to sleep, every single night.
I keep expecting him to tell me he’s outgrown my lullabies. I don’t know any other children his age who still tolerate it, much less enjoy it the way he does. Every now and again I check in with him about whether he still wants me to sing every night, and the answer is always a strong affirmation to keep going. I will, until he tells me he wants me to stop. Here’s why: singing lullabies is the best way I know to teach my son theology.
The ancient theologian Augustine of Hippo is often quoted as saying, “he who sings prays twice.” Scholars can’t find those exact words in his writings, but they did find these:
For he who sings praise, does not only praise, but also praises joyfully; he who sings praise, not only sings, but also loves Him whom he is singing about. There is a praise-filled public proclamation in the praise of someone who is confessing God. In the song of the lover there is love.
The act of singing praises to God teaches us to love God. Singing with love and joy creates in the singer a testimony of faith, a proclamation about God and a love for God. While the act of singing praises teaches him to worship, the words of the songs teach him about the one we worship. Methodist reformers John and Charles Wesley famously penned hundreds of hymns, because they believed that the people could best learn theology by singing it. John Wesley even published a list of directions for singing, which instructs congregants to sing with attention to the meaning of the words, with boldness and courage, and with a listening heart. The brothers’ movement shaped the hearts of millions by planting their messages in songs that we all learned to love: “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.”
With that in mind, I think carefully about the repertoire of lullabies I share. What do I want him to know most about God? What do I want him to treasure about the Divine? What do I want running through his mind in times of terror or distress or grief? That’s what I sing to him. I sing “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry” so that he will know that God is by his side for his whole life. I sing “Amazing Grace,” so he will know the power of God’s forgiveness. I sing “Sanctuary,” and “They’ll Know We are Christians By Our Love,” and “Here I Am, Lord,” so that he will think about his own life as a vessel of God’s love in the world.
I doubt my son will remember a single sermon I have preached, or children’s sermon I have delivered, or Sunday School lesson his teacher has prepared. But he will remember these songs that we sing together every night, and it is my prayer that he will remember the good news about God that they carry. I will keep singing lullabies like this to him every night, as long as he lets me.
What about you? What songs do you teach your children, and why? Comment here and let’s assemble a repertoire of sung theology to pass along to our children together.