Sunday, December 25, 2016

Singing with the Angels

Today we join our voices to the ancient song announced by angels.
A Concert of Angels, Spanish School, 15th century

It's a song of joy. Of majesty. Of love.

Older than the hills, the seas, the stars, it sang galaxies into order, sang color into the smallest seashell.

Sang life into the human form, hope into the human heart.

Mostly we're too deaf to hear it, until angels gather overhead or the Holy Spirit breathes through us.

Or sometimes, in our human assemblies, the song echoes through us: hands raise, tears flow, hearts beat harder.

In song we reorient ourselves, recalibrate our hearing.

In the Sunday morning service we've been attending for almost nineteen years, we start our time together with three or four songs.

Often they call us from our business and burdens: 
Come ye sinners, poor and needy
Weak and wounded, sick and sore
Jesus ready stands to save you

Full of pity, love, and power. 
Sometimes that welcome echoes all the way through me: poor and needy is exactly what I am. Weak and wounded - all too often. Sick and sore at my own failure, the failure of love around me, the folly that threatens to engulf us all.

Singing together, we remind ourselves of realities beyond the labels, the divisions, the grid of expectations that controls our daily lives.

Another song we've been singing, often, in the weeks leading in and through Advent: 
All the poor and powerless,
All the lost and lonely,
All the thieves will come confess
,And know that You are holy.

 All the hearts that are content,
All who feel unworthy
,All who hurt with nothing left,
Will know that You are holy. 

All will sing out Hallelujah

We will cry out Hallelujah. 
Annunciation to the Shepherds,
Abraham Hondius, 1663
Words can't explain the healing that comes from singing together. We are those people. Poor and powerless. Lost and lonely. We are thieves and sinners, some days content, some days so full of grief we can't see a way forward. 

Scientists wonder at the purpose of song.

Why do birds sing?

Why do humans?

If all that matters is daily food and bread, song is extraneous.

But birds know: song is part of life together, part of life in the beauty around us.

Birds encourage each other through song.

Celebrate food, sun, safe space through song.

Delight in God's goodness through song.

Humans can do the same.

But song, music, worship go far beyond celebration.

Rob Bell tried to capture something beyond words in his Nooma video, Rhyhthm:
When I think of God, I hear a song. It’s a song that moves me, and it has a melody and it has a groove. It has a certain rhythm. And people have heard this song for thousands and thousands of years across continents and cultures and time periods. People have heard this song and they found it captivating; and they’ve wanted to hear more. Now there have always been people who say there is no song and who deny the music, but the song keeps playing. And so, Jesus came to show us how to live in tune with the song. Like that he’s the way and the truth and the life.
This isn’t a statement about one religion being better than all the other religions; I mean the last thing Jesus came to do was start a new religion. He came to show us reality at its most raw. He came to show us how things are. I mean Jesus is like God and… taking on flesh and blood and so in his generosity and in his compassion, that’s what God’s like. In his telling of the truth that’s what God’s like. In his love and forgiveness and sacrifice that’s what God’s like. That’s who God is. That’s how the song… that’s how the song goes.
This song is playing all around us all the time. This song is playing everywhere. It’s written on our hearts. And everybody is playing the song. See the question… the question isn’t whether or not you’re playing a song. The question is: are you in tune?
When we sing together, sing with joy in praise and worship, our hearts are pulled back into tune. We're reminded that the song is about more than us, that we're all part of it. Like instruments tuning for an orchestra, the image Bell's video uses, we take our place in a larger community, a chorus of voices sometimes strong, sometimes weak, sometimes beautiful, sometimes grating, all part of something larger.

The song sweeps away the troubles we brought with us and sets us into a wider, more lasting, more wonderful space.

Sometimes, as members of our congregation walk forward for communion, I sing and watch, giving thanks and remembering: that person who came to faith from a place of great sadness. That person whose love carried me through a very difficult time. That person who asked for prayer and saw God intervene. That person who prayed for me in a way that brought healing and joy.

Sometimes, as I sing, I remember other places, other voices: a gathering of tireless child and youth ministers singing together in a Jamaican hotel, in English, French, Spanish, Patois.

Voices echoing from a storefront church high in the hills of Guatemala. 

A spacious hall full of Christians from around the world, dressed in saris and sarongs, huipils and dashikis, every shade of hair and skin, singing in such harmonies even angels might be moved to awe.

Sometimes I think of song in places I have never been, but have been told of by friends and loved ones who were there: children dancing and leaping in song beneath a bugona tree in Uganda, death row inmates singing with fervor in a maximum security prison, Chinese Christians singing in a shuttered restaurant.

Our songs are imperfect approximations, but sometimes they carry us close to a joy far beyond human explanation.

Sometimes our songs break down walls of division, melt decades of doubt, sooth away anger and fear, leave us stronger, far stronger, than we were when we started. 

I've been blessed over the years by the music of Matt Redman, who, like me, struggled through family dysfunction and was nourished into faith through songs of hope and healing. This December he wrote a blog post about a new CD of Christmas music ( These Christmas Lights):
Some of the very best worship songs move from a place of re-enactment to a stage of realisation – in other words, not just recounting what happened, but actually placing ourselves inside the story and singing of what that means for you and me, here and now. 
Angels Appearing, Henry Ossawa Tanner, c. 1910
Like the shepherds, in song we find ourselves drawn from darkness into light.

Like the disciples, in song we find our prison doors fly open.

Like the angels, in song we see eternity unfold.

As our liturgy says, 
Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who for ever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name. 
Or as the carol says: 

Joyful all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim
Christ is born in Bethlehem.

An earlier Christmas post: The Christmas Miracle, Dec. 24, 2011