How Can I Keep From Singing & COVID-19

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(Miss Pam’s sits at the piano with her choir and orchestra, with Beckie conducting.)

What does singing praise in church look like as we come out of quarantine? For that matter, what will choirs and music academies do without the gift of song being united in vocal artistry? While none of us know that answer, we do know that Germany, in coming out of quarantine, has temporarily prohibited places of worship to sing due to the aerosol particles  that are projected when a person uses proper technique in singing. There is sufficient scientific evidence to show that six feet apart is not enough when projecting your voice, as one does in singing. Orchestras, places of worship, choral groups, praise groups, and bands are all scrambling to find new solutions to sharing and performing music.

Music is an integral part of the human design. The hymn writer Robert Lowry asks, “How Can I Keep From Singing?” (This rendition of the song by the young people of the A Cappella Academy is particularly wonderful.) In every part of the world music, both song and instrumental, plays a role in soothing the weary soul, in praising God, and in creating communities formed by the love of both creating song and those who appreciate listening to song. Some of us would argue that a world without music would be void of one the greatest gifts God has created within the human capacity of creativity.

As a theologian, I would also argue that music is also pleasing to God, the giver and creator of every living creature. From the beginning to the end of the biblical witness we see that music is used to praise God. In the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) Moses sang a song of praise when the Israelites were delivered from slavery, the Psalms themselves are meant to be sung, King David was notably one who regularly created music and sang songs of praise and lament to God. Isaiah the prophet, when he had his vision, was transported to the heavenly courts and witnessed the seraphim singing “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God.Nehemiah had a music festival dedicated to God when the wall was rebuilt, and David danced before the Lord with no shame as to his lack of dress. The minor prophet Zephaniah also remind us that God rejoices over us with singing!

When we move into the New Testament, we see music continues to be used by God’s people to worship God. James says, “Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.” Paul and Silas were praising God even when they were in jail when a mighty miracle–an earthquake occurred to release them from captivity. Paul tells disciples, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” Music is pleasing to God.

In my own experience I have heard God speak to me when I was caught up in praise songs to God. One time was during a men’s Emmaus time of closing. The church was packed with men singing songs from the heart to God, and I heard the voice of God speak to me in my personal situation. Another time when I was leading worship, the choir was singing God of Heaven, and God clearly spoke to me and told me to move my place of residence into the town where I was serving as lead pastor. The voice was clear to me, and I began to cry, all from hearing God during a time of praise through music. When we are focused on praising God through song, our hearts can be softened to hear the voice of God! It has happened to me, maybe it has happened to you!

What are we to do with the potential paradox of not being allowed to sing in worship and the fact that music and singing songs to God give pleasure to the Lord? How do we put these two contrasting ideas together? We remember that the Israelites, when they were captives in a foreign land were tormented and cajoled to sing, and yet they stated, “by the rivers of Babylon we hung up our lyres and wept. How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?”

We might feel that way too. Corona Virus has turned our known world upside-down. The obstacles are many; We cannot meet in person for school, concerts, movies or worship. Some are facing economic challenges and lost jobs, others are experiencing shortages of food, some are fighting for their lives, and others are on the front lines as essential workers doing the fighting. Some have lost loved ones, and experienced deep grief. How can we keep on singing?

And yet, (there is always an “and yet”). And yet, the prophet Isaiah, speaking to those who are weeping by the rivers of Babylon says, sing to the Lord a new song. Isaiah gives hope for the future, hope of something new, hope that God has not abandoned, and a promise that God is still with us. We can claim those promises too. And we, too, can look for hope even among the devastating times we are currently experiencing. How do we do that?

First, we remember that we can use songs to praise God while in our own homes and in our own personal lives. It is important to do so, even when we do not feel like praising God. We praise God in the midst of the storm. If you have not done so, try to sing or play a song of praise right now. Maybe this one will speak to you, as the song writer says, “Even when it hurts I will praise you!”

Secondly, while we cannot gather in person, we can join in the many different ways offered to gather virtually on-line. Choose one or two or three worship services to attend, and when they offer up songs in worship, sing with all of your might right where you are seated–you can even stand in place and sing. I have personally enjoyed the smorgasbord of worship every weekend, and I sing right along with all those who are praising God in all the many formats that are offered. Sing to the Lord! The people gathered together, even virtually, give glory to God.

Thirdly, while we recognize that music is a great gift to use in worship to praise God, we also recognize there are other elements used in worship. Right now one of those elements might be silence. Can you hear God speak to you in the silence? It was the prophet Elijah who listened for God in the wind, rain, earthquake and fire on Mt. Horeb, but God spoke in a gentle whisper. God spoke in the silence of the mountain. Silence is one aspect of contemplative practice. Could it be that right now we are called to hear God in the silence?

Fourth, we can listen deeply to all of creation singing praise to God. In particular, Jesus says to those who try to stop his disciples from praising him, “If the people stop the very rocks will cry out.” Psalm 148 states that all the earth will praise God, to include the sea creatures of the ocean. Right now the birds are singing, listen to them, and join in praising God. Pastor Louie Giglio has a great teaching about the stars, the whales and the symphony of all creation singing praise to God.

Finally, in the deepest part of my heart, I know this to be temporary. Music is so integral in the life of God, that I cannot believe that the music in our hearts used to praise God in community, from song to instrumental, will be silenced to eternity. Use this time to pray to God to lift this pandemic from us. Personally, I believe in a God of miracles. We know that the God who created all of creation can also lift a pandemic. Lift your voice in song, and your heart in prayer as we repent for not trusting God, and join in the cacophony of all of creation in singing a new song to the Lord. Pray that all the heartache felt around the world from this virus will be lifted. And, when that lifting happens, remember to give God all the praise and glory. How can we keep from singing? We don’t have to, while we wait and pray, we can simply learn to sing praise to God in a new way.

Slowing DOWN for Advent

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The tree limbs are bare, the rocks look cold as they stand watch over the valley. The change of season has arrived. Some of us are struggling with the shorter season of light, some of us are wondering if the kids will ever settle down, some of us are filled with grief as the holidays are approaching because our situation has changed, others of us are busy with the hustle of the Christmas season. Whatever it is, it seems like the Christmas season has been filled with everything except Jesus. Enter in the season of Advent.

Advent is this beautiful gift that gives us pause–Advent helps us slow down. Advent means “the coming,” and we remember both that which has historically happened in the birth of Jesus, and we look forward to that which is to come; Jesus promised that he would come again.

Advent gives us pause to remember the words of the prophets who remind us that God will be with us, and remind us that God’s word will be fulfilled, “..So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:11) John’s gospel reminds us that Jesus is the living word. Jesus is the word made flesh, Immanuel, God with us, God who became one of us.

So what does this season of Advent mean for you and for me? We have been given a “pause button.” We have been given an opportunity in Advent to look more deeply. Maybe this is a time for you to pause by spending some time with God in reading the word, or spending some time praying for the promise of Jesus to come again, or maybe this can be a season of inviting the Holy Spirit to give gifts for the building of God’s Kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven.” Whatever it may be, know that we are given this season as a gift to grow in our relationship with the One who became flesh.

The cookies, gift buying, card sending can wait, use the pause button of Advent to preparing your heart for the One who is, and who was, and who is yet to come again. The tree limbs are bare from leaves, but our hearts can be opened wide for the coming of the Christ Child once again.

What is your favorite way to pause in Advent? Here is a song that might help in your pause.

Speak Life ~ Our Words DO Matter

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It is no secret that I am a Toby Mac fan. When I first saw this Christian artist in concert, I was not sure that I really enjoyed him, but then I heard him in a talk back session, and I realized that I liked what I heard from his heart. The more I see Toby, the more I like him and appreciate what he is doing to build the Kingdom of God. It is always with great anticipation that I attend his concerts.

His very short testimony of one of his songs speaks to my heart in a new way. I have been enjoying his song entitled “Speak Life,” but during one particular concert he told us the story behind the writing of the song. Toby had read the Raggamuffin Gospel when he was younger. He says he remembers reading Manning’s words, “When you speak to someone you either speak life or you drain life, there are no neutral exchanges.” Hence, the song that Toby wrote was birthed.

I’ve been thinking of this quote for a long time, “There are no neutral exchanges.” What about me and my words? Sure it is easy for me to speak life when I am doing the work of the church, that is easy. But what about when I am running into the grocery store to buy something quickly or as I move about my busy day in the world? When I am doing errands I have a purpose and I move through that purpose quickly. To be blunt and honest, people who are serving who are not on my same page when I am rushing around irritate me.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not mean, I am not impolite; but I don’t speak words of life. I thought these were neutral exchanges. Toby’s words, “There are no neutral exchanges” have been haunting me. I can do better, I can be better. Maybe these exchanges have a divine appointment for me or for someone else. Maybe I am the one to speak life into someone else’s life who is drowning. After all, I know the Good News, and maybe I can speak enough life to allow a person to trust me so that I can share that Good News which is what really matters.

Meanwhile, this week I have been practicing speaking life into the lives of those who would otherwise be “incidental” in my day. They have been wonderful exchanges. I am learning and growing.

How about you? Do you speak life or do you drain life? Are you the one from which someone will remember the conversation or are you the one they wish they will never wait on again? As for me, I am trying to practice new habits.

Thanks Toby, for giving me a new perspective on the way I speak in common everyday exchanges of words.