Learning to Praise

One of the things we have all been missing terribly in church is the permission to sing our hymns and songs together.

There is something incredibly powerful and moving about singing the words of those special sacred songs. I’m sure I’m not alone when I recall the hairs standing up on the back of my neck as we hear seasonal hymns being belted out at special seasons of the church’s year like Harvest or Advent or Christmas or Easter.

Those who watch church online tell me they give it their all in the privacy of their own homes, where it is safe to do so, singing along with the words as they appear, allowing them to praise God and lift their souls. Others tell me they love to sing aloud as they watch Songs of Praise or Carols from Kings on Christmas Eve.

We’re blessed with a rich and diverse musical tradition in St. Finnian’s and we have really missed the live music from Mark and the choir and from our band at the Connect services. We are cautiously hoping that we will be introducing live music in a safe and socially distanced way in the near future, in compliance with the current regulations, while lamenting that we can’t all pour out our voices together just yet.

I was honoured recently to receive a book from a dearly loved and greatly respected church member’s book collection after he died. It’s called ‘Songs of Zion’ and it’s a collection of broadcasts by the poet, John Betjeman, about hymns and hymnwriters. These broadcasts went out prior to Betjeman’s death during the 1970’s. Some people might be familiar with his famous poem about Christmas written in 1954 which reflects on the busyness of all the preparations and, yet, in the midst of that, a yearning that the incarnation might be true. John Betjeman, like many pilgrims on the journey of faith, had a complex spiritual journey. He had bad experiences of Christianity as a child and, as an adult, he found comfort in the rituals of worship. He found something transcendent in listening to choral music and took great comfort from the sacrament of Holy Communion. He struggled with doubts and in the mystery of faith and he longed to know and experience the person of Jesus in his own life.

I have very fond memories of an elderly parishioner, in a church I used to serve in, reciting that Christmas poem at an annual service of readings and music for Christmas. She read it with such meaning and expression that the words seemed to capture a yearning that is there in so many people.

It’s a yearning that has certainly not diminished in this season of pandemic. When we are uncertain about what we will hear next and what might unfold in terms of restrictions, we yearn for the Lord’s presence and His peace and His guidance.

My question and challenge today for the ‘church without walls’ is how can we be a people of praise if we are not currently permitted to sing? How can we, somehow, be visible signs or our lives become instruments of praise to God?

I have a number of thoughts in my head or pictures in my mind which might illustrate what I’m thinking of.

I think of people of faith heading off to do their day’s work and doing it for the glory of God. Maybe they are teaching in a classroom or preparing a lecture online. Maybe they are working in retail and reassuring worried customers nervous about coming into shops. Maybe they are in banking or finance and they are helping business owners to negotiate a loan to see them through this period, helping with the bureaucracy and paperwork and praying for that business to survive as they process their loan.

I think of grandparents of faith not able to visit or mind their grandchildren, but reading them stories over Zoom or Skype and praying for their children and grandchildren to have eyes of faith and to see Jesus in these difficult days.

I think of members of the congregation who love their gardens and share flowers and produce with neighbours and thank God for the gift of creation and the blessing it brings to them physically and spiritually.

I think of those in nursing homes whose bodies are frail and whose minds are bewildered and yet they find steadiness and hope in the words of old hymns and prayers.

I think of the many parishioners who are involved in making regular phonecalls or writing cards, those who do shopping or homebaking or clean the church between services, conscious that these acts are done with love and as an act of service to Almighty God.

I think of vulnerable people in isolation sitting with open Bibles and heads bowed in silent simple prayer, praying for the government, praying for the scientists, for the businesses and churches and people they know who are all affected in different ways by the times we are living through.

As we prepare to observe Harvest, a bit differently this year, on Sunday 25th October, we are encouraging parishioners who come to our services to bring one item of non perishable food to the service. It will be gathered for the larder foodbank which operates out of Mersey Street. Items like breakfast cereal, teabags, instant coffee, tinned goods are all welcome, with a request to ignore pasta this year as they have good quantities of pasta at present.

Our collection on Harvest Sunday will go to the Bishops’ Appeal, which works in partnership with projects run by Christian Aid, Tearfund, Fields of Life, CMS, and others to make a difference in the lives of the world’s poorest people. Envelopes will be available to take away from pews this coming Sunday and if they can be returned around Harvest Sunday they will be forwarded with our prayers and love. Not everyone will be in a position to do these things so, please, don’t feel under any pressure.

We are so grateful to all of you who are so creative in being people of praise without necessarily using your voices!

Look forward to speaking again soon.

Much love to everyone,

Jono.