“Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all… As long as matters are really hopeful, hope is mere flattery or platitude; it is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength.”
~Gilbert K. Chesterton
It’s hard to know what to say sometimes, when things go horribly wrong. And yet we feel the need to fill in the silence by saying something, anything. I wonder if more pain is inflicted when, in the absence of hearing any wisdom from above, we fill the blank with our own words. It’s not that bad. Look on the bright side.
Sometimes it is that bad. Sometimes darkness threatens to smother us. Sometimes evil appears to triumph.
You can’t forgive pain you haven’t acknowledged. You can’t heal what you won’t diagnose. You can’t rebuild until you assess the damage.
Hope, real hope, doesn’t mean averting your eyes. Hope, real hope, means looking right at that pain, that threat, that diagnosis, that shattered home, that failed dream, that loss, and sitting in the silence of the shocking aftermath.
Hope means choosing, in time, to rise in the place of hopelessness, to set your face like a flint, and come, just as you are, into the Presence of the Holy. Hope means you can say, ‘Nevertheless.’
‘I am tired. I am hurting. I am frail. Nevertheless, I will not let my faith be shaken to the point where I refuse hope. Nevertheless, I will call upon my You, Lord, for You are my light and my salvation. You are my strength. You are my God. I trust You. I believe Your promises. I believe in You.’
You shall have a song as in the night when a holy feast is kept. (Isaiah 30:29 Amp)
Years ago my Mom gave me a plaque with the meaning of my name and this verse printed underneath. I think names are important and I’m grateful that my parents chose “Song of Grace” as mine. I think the verse was also prophetic as I have learned to pay attention to songs in the night.
The first time I realized God could use this way of communicating was after I prayed asking for wisdom. Someone wanted me to support them by taking up their cause. To be honest, taking up a cause without knowing all sides of the story has landed me in more troublesome murky water than just about any other action. I cared about this person and her desperation, but something didn’t feel right. For two days I asked, “Lord, what should I do?” For two days I had no further information and nothing to indicate a direction. I just had an annoying song stuck in my head. Specifically one line of a song.
This song was from a list of approved selections for early grades Royal Conservatory voice exams. I’m pretty sure you would never hear it pumped through the speakers in the mall or playing on a top ten radio station anywhere. I taught it to young singers as an exercise in musical story-telling, but I hadn’t thought of it in ages. It told the sad tale of a boy named Gilbert who mistook a strange lump in the bog for a rock. The very strange green lump was actually an alligator. The story did not end well for Gilbert.
While my husband and I were driving in the country I starting singing the line out loud in the car. “If you should spot an alligator sleeping, let it be.”
“I don’t know why this silly song is stuck in my head. I keep hearing it,” I said to him. At that moment I heard, “So pay attention,” in my spirit.
Then it struck me. I had been repeatedly asking a question and repeatedly getting an answer, but I didn’t hear it because I wasn’t paying attention. I wasn’t paying attention because I wasn’t expecting to hear. I took the risk of saying no to involvement in the situation – which turned out to be dramatically more complicated than I had been led to believe. What I had received via that song was a word of wisdom.
I have music in my head all the time. My life has been about music and even after retirement, I can’t bear to part with music books that fill shelves and bins in my house. At this very moment, I can “hear” the background music of a humorous Youtube video I just watched. Obviously, this carries no profound meaning. Singers can tell you how music they are trying to memorize disrupts sleep when it plays over and over as they toss and turn. That’s not what I’m talking about, nor are the kids’ songs you play in the car so often you don’t have to hit any button to start them up.
The songs I’m talking about often come out of nowhere, songs I haven’t heard since the seventies, songs my mother used to sing, songs from hymnbooks now boxed and stored in the shed behind the church building. Sometimes I hear songs I swear I’ve never heard before and sometimes I know I have heard these insistent songs before, perhaps even recently, but they are in a language I am not familiar with and I have to do an internet search for a translation. Sometimes one line from a song I am familiar with will repeat in my dreams like the ground bass in Pachelbel’s Canon. It underscores an entire night’s sleep.
God speaks in many creative ways. Because he is the creator of creativity he awakens creativity he placed in us. When our eyes and ears are opened we perceive his communication via his people in art, music, poetry, calligraphy, photography, dance, gardening, decorating, clothing design, food preparation, architecture and many other ways. Not all people hear the same way. Concrete practical thinkers need direct black and white communication with pre-connected dots. Artsy types float in metaphor. God smiles at your unique make-up.
Sometimes artists don’t even realize they are conduits. They don’t know why they used that word, or painted that colour, or added that variation. It just felt right.
For some time now I’ve had a song playing in that insistent way that I can’t shut off. I don’t recall hearing it anywhere recently. Certain lines kept playing on repeat, especially at night.
Love. Love will keep us together. When those guys start hanging around talking me down Hear with your heart and you won’t hear a sound.
Just stop! Stop! ‘Cause I really love you. Better stop! Stop! I’ll be thinking of you Look in my heart and let love keep us together – whatever.
I wondered why this song. Then I found out. I thought I was finished with a year of treatments and surgery dealing with health issues, but I’ve just received more discouraging news. More to investigate. More treatment modalities to explore.
I began to let my imagination be distracted by the voices of dismal forebodings clamouring in the back of my brain, those carriers of worry, shame and despair that taunt with, “Did God really say…? Where is he now? Does he really love you or has he abandoned you in the dark with pain that will only get worse? Where are your ‘God is good’ stories now?”
I don’t think Neil Sedaka had this interpretation in mind when he wrote the song, nor did the Captain and Tenille (or the guy with five ukeleles) intend it to carry a message of hope, but God used it.
He says, “Stop! Stop letting your thoughts run away with you. Take those thoughts captive and counter them with who I really am. I want to show you an aspect of myself you can only see in the middle of these circumstances. Stop it, because I really do love you. Look in my heart and let my love for you keep us together, whatever happens, wherever this part of the journey leads. I’ve got this.”
The next day lines from another song started playing in my head. A Stevie Wonder song:
For once, unafraid, I can go where life leads me Somehow I know I’ll be strong. For once I can say, ‘This is mine! You can’t take it! As long as I know I have love I can make it!’”
He’s got this. Therefore, I’ve got this.
Sunday night I heard another song in an orchestral arrangement. I knew it was a Stuart Townend composition but I couldn’t recall a single word. It took me all morning to find it because all I had was the tune and how do you google a tune? But I did find it. It’s about hope. And for some reason one of the first photos in the Youtube version I clicked on was one of mine! I don’t mind my work being used this way (although it is polite to ask). When I saw it I exclaimed, “What? Are you kidding me? This is mine!”
And in my heart, where I was listening and paying attention, God said, “Yes. Hope. This is yours.”
Worship is our response to the overtures of love from the heart of the Father. Its central reality is found ‘in spirit and truth.’ It is kindled within us only when the Spirit of God touches our human spirit.
I eagerly responded to the invitation to tea with a new acquaintance I met at a classical music event and the elderly friend she described as a fascinating scholar with many interests. I was new in town and finding it hard to make friends. His home was like I imagined C.S. Lewis’ to be with solid well-used antique furniture surrounded by over-stuffed floor to ceiling book cases and the scent of pipe tobacco. He poured me a proper cup of tea from a proper tea-pot. No dangling bags on a string in a chipped pottery mug for these people.
Both of them asked me many questions about myself. They leaned forward attentively and encouraged me often.
“Yes, yes. Go on,” they urged, smiling.
I had an audience and I was on a roll. I told them some of my best anecdotes and they paid rapt attention.
Then the gentleman and scholar turned to my new friend and said (quite excitedly) “Yes, yes! You are completely right! Northwest Pacific mixed with British public school. I believe I hear some Dublin Irish occasionally as well,” He turned to me for a moment, “Do you have relatives from Ireland?” but without waiting for my response said to the woman, “No matter. There is Dublin influence in there somewhere. But it is quite unusual for this area.”
“I told you,” the woman said.
“I watched an Irish movie last night,” I offered, trying to get back into the conversation. “I pick up accents very easily.”
It’s true. I do pick up accents, often unintentionally. It’s embarrassing sometimes. People think I am mocking them when I respond with the same vowel shifts they are using. When I am in performance mode the years of training as a singer slip in their influence as well. I unconsciously raise my soft palate, elongate the vowels and enunciate consonants. The result is that my accent changes slightly and sounds a bit like theatrical British posh.
Flashback: I’m doing a singing exam with an examiner sent to Calgary all the way from Trinity College of London: She apparently has been misinformed about Canadian weather and is sweltering in the June heat under her multilayered wool suit and hat with the bobbing pheasant feather. Suddenly she stops me in the middle of a song and tells me she can’t bear my atrocious accent a moment longer. “The word is ond, OND! Not aaand! Now sing it properly or I shall dismiss you immediately.”
I’m not aware that I’m changing my accent when I feel I’m being scrutinized, but people tell me I do. I thought I was the only one until I heard another classically trained singer speak. After listening to an interview of a famous woman I wondered where on earth a black girl from Georgia picked up that accent. Then I realized she did it too.
It took only a few minutes of hanging around the edge of the tea time people’s linguistic analysis conversation to realize they had not heard a word I said, only how I said it. I left shortly after, feeling very awkward, as they continued to discuss my phonation, and frankly, I felt lonelier than ever. Not only did they not hear my stories, they did not hear my heart. I longed for connection, for friends, but they were totally oblivious to that expression. It’s like the teacup mattered more than the tea.
This memory surfaced today in the context of a discussion of a blog suggesting that certain popular worship songs ought to be expunged from praise leaders’ repertoire. The complaints about the songs were that they were shallow, repetitive, theologically weak, or had uncomfortable imagery. To be honest, with little effort I could easily condemn them for more reasons than that – don’t get me started – oh what the heck – the main one being that many corporate worship songs are written for a musically illiterate audience and have to be easy enough for anyone to learn by rote after three repetitions of the words on a screen – in other words they have the lyrical and musical complexity of a commercial or nursery song. For many musicians, asking them to confine themselves to current expressions of contemporary Christian music is like asking a person who has trained all their lives to be an Olympic swimmer to be happy within the confines of a hot tub. There is nothing wrong with hot tubs, but they are not Olympic pools.
But then I see a crayon drawing my grandson made for me. It’s a bunch of semi-organized scribbles really, but to me it is right up there with the Mona Lisa, because he did the best he could in his efforts to honour me. I don’t see the colouring out of the lines; I see the little lad’s loving heart, and it thrills me. I hug him and plant a kiss on the top of his sweet head.
I believe in excellence and that those who can compose and play skillfully need to offer the Lord their best (Is there room in the Church for the Bachs and Brahms and Jenny Linds of today where they will not be accused of “showing off?”) But I also realize that praise and worship is all about the heart and not performance. When we worship together the Holy Spirit in me connects with the Holy Spirit in you and we unite to express our love to God. If that means extending grace to choose a simple repetitive song we can all join in, so be it. He is listening to more than the way we sing our words. He hears our hearts, our longing for connection, and He draws us in for a big kiss, sloppy or theologically tidy – He picks.
My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love. This is the only way we’ll know we’re living truly, living in God’s reality. It’s also the way to shut down debilitating self-criticism, even when there is something to it. For God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more about us than we do ourselves.
And friends, once that’s taken care of and we’re no longer accusing or condemning ourselves, we’re bold and free before God! We’re able to stretch our hands out and receive what we asked for because we’re doing what he said, doing what pleases him. Again, this is God’s command: to believe in his personally named Son, Jesus Christ. He told us to love each other, in line with the original command. As we keep his commands, we live deeply and surely in him, and he lives in us. And this is how we experience his deep and abiding presence in us: by the Spirit he gave us. (1 John 3:18 -24 The Message)
I’ve had the privilege of teaching some very gifted students over the years. I noticed that the most successful – those who developed and maintained a love of music and who sang or played both skilfully and from the heart – had something in common. They learned from their mistakes. They did not ignore them, neither were they overwhelmed by them.
The hardest ones to teach were the ones who, although equally gifted, couldn’t accept correction, no matter how carefully I phrased it. Some always had an excuse: “The sun was glaring on the page. You played a wrong note and it threw me. My parents woke me up too early and I’m tired….”
Some fully acknowledged their mistakes, but broke down in episodes of self-flagellation and dire prediction: “I’m so stupid. I’ll never get this right. I just can’t do it. I’m not smart enough. I haven’t got talent like the girl you were teaching before me. It will never happen!” (I may have been one of these.)
Some had plenty of talent. They swam in oceans of potential. They dreamed of accolades and standing ovations – but they didn’t dream of stopping to fix mistakes. They ignored them, or practised them over and over so that they were set in concrete after a few weeks, or they just plain never practised at all, as if the potential of being a star was close enough.
Someone told me the quality of being teachable is called meekness. On this last day of the year I have been doing a review of what I learned. It would be easy to ignore evidences of change and focus on failures, making excuses for my mistakes. There are hundreds to pick from. It would also be easy to fall into despair, and spout off my frustrations with my lack of love and self-discipline and tendency to repeat the same wrong note twenty times in a row. But self-criticism that condemns is debilitating. It removes hope and makes me want to quit and wallow in shame.
“God is greater than our worried hearts,” John the Beloved wrote. He knew our Great Teacher sees our potential. His corrections are directed at bringing out the talent he has already placed in us. He chooses the music that will challenge enough to stretch us, but not exasperate us. He urges us to practise, because he knows the joy and freedom we will experience when that which once seemed impossible flows naturally and beautifully.
The teacher smiles and says, “Well done!”
Then we grin, ask for our next new piece of music, and rush home to practise.
I heard Gayle Erwin say that (or something to that effect) and it stuck with me.
I read a number of blogs on the role of women, some of them arguing for the rights of women to receive titles and be recognized as church leaders, some of them worrying about the eternal repercussions of not defining gender roles properly. The push-back comments to these blogs, amusingly, are usually written by men. Some of them write about the roles of women in the home and in the church as if Adam received the specific command to pick the fruit and Eve’s job was to peel it, slice it, stir constantly over a low heat, and turn it into a nice compote, then clean up the dishes while her partner (did they ever sign a marriage license?) stared at the clouds and thought of names for animals.
There’s a whole bunch of history tied up in which scriptures either side of the debate choose to emphasize or downplay, but I won’t talk about that here, at least not now, because, frankly, I think they are distractions. It’s like the time the Sadducees tried to trap Jesus with questions about marriage in the next life (which they didn’t actually believe in. How serious can a question like that be?) His response was basically, “You really don’t get it do you?”
Sometimes I wonder, when we debate these kinds of things endlessly without getting an answer, if it’s because Jesus is still saying, “You really don’t get it, do you?”
Perhaps he is saying, “If you want accolades and public approval and recognition as a leader (male or female) you are missing the point. Don’t squabble over who gets to sit at the head of the table. It’s embarrassing when you get bumped off the seat of honour because I’m giving it to someone you never even noticed enter the room.”
This video shocked me. Many of you may know about Carol Kaye and who she is and what she accomplished. I didn’t. Since her name was often not even included in the credits, most people never knew that so many of the most famous bass guitar solos on hundreds of best-selling pop songs and TV and movie themes were played by an ordinary-looking woman who carried her guitar in and out of the studios right past the crowds waiting to worship “the big names.” She didn’t need the recognition to do what she did. She just loved music. And she created iconic music year after year. Check it out. If you’re older than iTunes I’m sure you’ve heard many of these.
Many of the women who followed Christ with their whole hearts (in his lifetime or shortly after his resurrection) didn’t wait for a board to give them a title at an ordination ceremony. They just did what they could. Jesus revealed his true identity for the first time to a Samaritan woman, and she, who had been rejected by five husbands but accepted by the Lord, became the first missionary.
Joanna and Susanna and Mary of Magdala used their means to finance Jesus and his disciples. Some, like Phoebe, carried valuable messages. Some, like Priscilla, taught men like Apollos who would go on to have a higher profile. Some, like Lydia, had the resources to allow a church to be based in their homes.
Some women stayed with Jesus through the worst of his suffering. Some prayed in the Upper Room believing for something they could not possibly imagine. Other women, like Dorcas, took care of the poor. One Mary was given the privilege of witnessing the greatest event in history and bringing her eye-witness report to the men, even though women then were not permitted to be legal witnesses.
Never forget that it was another very famous Mary (the one who burst out in a prophetic utterance that is still set to music by great composers), who physically carried the message of salvation, the Word of God incarnate, and not the man Joseph. Joseph’s job was to protect her. There are many others mentioned who served God, some in roles with titles, but most just quietly going about being who they were called to be and doing the works they were created to do, like Carol Kaye just did what she did, because she was good at it.*
Carol says this in the video: A note doesn’t have sex to it. You either play it good or don’t play it good. Some people can’t handle that.
Jesus had this to say to people who were discussing who was the most deserving amongst them: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.” (Luke 22 – the story of his last night with them -and last conversations are always important.)
If you need a title and official recognition of a position with built-in authority and a ready-made group of followers before you can be who God intended you to be, no matter what your gender, you are not ready to lead.
Maybe that’s why Jesus liked women so much and entrusted them with some of the most important tasks in bringing the good news of the Kingdom. Women in those times didn’t have titles to fall in love with. They just loved Him. And He honoured them.
*The photo? A beautiful girl doing what she does well. Running and leaping.
I’ve been helping (in a small capacity) my daughter and our beloved son-in-law write their story. The book is titled While He Lay Dying and is the story of one little family in a small city who saw the love of God through the worst circumstances, as a young husband and father lay comatose, and on life support, his body shut down from toxic shock after contracting flesh-eating disease. The odds of his surviving were 0%. For a long time he lingered as near to death as his doctors had ever seen in a person who survived. His recovery was nothing short of miraculous. There were angel sightings, reconciliations, revelations, heart-healings and far too many co-incidences to be co-incidences, but it was not an easy time. Every day our emotions rode a roller coaster.
Going through proofs with them has stirred up a lot of feelings for me. They tell their story honestly, candidly and dare to boast in the lessons God showed so many during that time, as tens of thousands around the world joined to pray with perseverance for the life of one man. A physician on the team also contributes his account of witnessing this event and a pastor shares profound insights that are significant for the universal Church –the Body of Christ.
I am overwhelmed that the Lord allowed me to be a part of this story, and even though I like to think I am a writer, words fail me. Today I use some of my images to describe the feelings of those days with music by Vitali.
From the Foreword by Bishop Todd Atkinson:
Jesus trusted His Father and gave Himself over to death on the cross, Then followed a long Friday night and a long Saturday… And while he lay in the grave, His followers asked, “What was that all about?”
For some of you it’s been a long wait… Something died years ago. Some part of your faith died. Some part of your hope died. Some promise you were holding on to died. We cannot raise ourselves out of that…
Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior, who daily bears our burdens. Our God is a God who saves; from the Sovereign Lord comes escape from death. Surely God will crush the heads of his enemies, the hairy crowns of those who go on in their sins.
Your procession, God, has come into view, the procession of my God and King into the sanctuary. In front are the singers, after them the musicians. (Psalm 68:19-21, 24-25)
(Elisha said) But now bring me a musician.” And when the musician played, the hand of the Lord came upon him. And he said, “Thus says the Lord, ‘I will make this dry stream bed full of pools.’ (2 Kings 3:15-16)
Who would place musicians at the front of an army? Who would react to a national threat with the command, “Bring me a musician?”
We were walking from the Mount of Olives, past the Garden of Gethsemane, down through the valley of tombs and back up the hill toward the other side where Caiaphas’ house has been recently excavated and inside the walls where the Roman pavement of the soldiers quarters still exists below a convent. It was very hot -at least to a Canadian who had been driving through a snow storm only a week before.
At the bottom, in the shade of an ancient tomb surrounded by hundreds of graves, literally in the valley of the shadow of death, this young man sat and played his instrument. The others in our group went on to explore more tombs, but I stopped and sat on a low stool by his feet and listened. The music was foreign to my ears. I didn’t understand the structure or the harmony, but it soothed my soul.
I had a dream in which a hotel we were preparing was inundated with new guests. At the front of the crowd, looking for a place to stay, were musicians of every sort. Some of them brought guitars and we put the instruments in gun cabinets while they rested. To me this spoke of the power of music in fighting the evil one.
When our son-in-love was walking through his own valley of the shadow of death on Good Friday, when doctors doubted he would survive, his faithful friends brought their guitars and sat in the waiting room quietly strumming and singing songs of praise to the great healer. Singing seems like an odd activity at such a time, but they understood the importance of warring with their instruments and with their songs.
There is something about music that by-passes our personal defence systems. It can get by the heart/brain barrier.
I had a singing student whose relationship had just broken up. She assured me, quite calmly, that she was fine, that it was a logical time to end it and she was ready to move on. We happened to be working on the song, “On My Own” from Les Miserables. She didn’t make it two lines into the song before the floodgates of tears opened. Music therapy works on the theory that words delivered via music can get past our intellectual defences and help us heal.
There is something about music that allows us to hear more than just the music. On that day in Jerusalem I felt jostled by crowds, harassed by vendors, impatiently tolerated by folk in religious garbs of many types, rushed by tour guides, dismayed by the lack of respect warring factions showed for each other and my feet and sun-burned neck hurt. Although our tour director carefully planned our itinerary to avoid the worst crowds there was no getting around this one if we wanted to see where Jesus spent so many critical hours. It was in the shade of a tomb, in the valley of the shadow of death, away from the crowds as I listened to a simple instrument played by a nameless man, that I heard my heavenly Father. He said simply, “Cease striving and know that I am God. It is finished. Rest in my love.”
The psalmist, David, understood. We war from a position of rest, in the valley of the shadow of death. That is where the feast is kept.