Readings: 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Psalm 137:1-6
Prayer: Gracious God, we have gathered as your people to praise, to pray, to hear your word for us and to go from here renewed in your grace and mercy, that we might be the people of Christ s you call us to be. May we open our ears to hear your word for each of us today and may our hearts be moved to renewed discipleship in Jesus name. Amen
Psalm 137, a cry from a people in exile. ‘How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.’
My study leave from the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand is to explore the place of music in our worship, to find the ways in which our singing and playing helps us to know God more deeply, to hear the stories of when music has opened the door to experiences of God and when it has not. This is a topic with very few boundaries and infinite possibilities, and I am still not sure what the end result will be. I have questions on the language we use in music, the way it connects with the liturgy, how to keep it fresh and yet honouring where we come from, and how it expresses our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. There was one thing though that I was particularly interested in before we set out – and that was the singing of the Psalms - and I have learned much about the love that especially the people of Scotland have for them.
So far in our travels Mike and I have worshipped at Manchester Cathedral, St Columba Episcopalian church and St Giles in Edinburgh, Church of Scotland in Braemar and Crathie and at the Free Church in Lewis – at Back (where the Gaelic Psalm singing moved me to tears) – and now here. It has been a journey that we have loved, missing our home but being welcomed as part of Christ’s body, his church in all these different places.
Perhaps if I could talk a little bit about where we come from, and the journey of faith that the early Scottish settlers took as they sailed from here to distant shores, then look at the ways in which hymn writing and singing has evolved in NZ and then share some thoughts of how music contributes to worship and to our faith journeys.
The cries of lament from the Hebrew people exiled to Babylon would, I am sure, resonated with the people of Scotland of the mid 19C – herded off their livings with often the only choice being to set sail or starve – how would they have felt I wonder? Bitter, angry at God even? Would they have found that being removed from the context of their faith shook their very foundations and left them bewildered like the people of Judah. Did they forget God, not remember whose they were? I don’t think so. I think they would have used the words of this psalm to remind themselves of God with them wherever they were. As Paul says to Timothy, as a gospel people they knew that there would be suffering and trial, uncertainties and challenges but that the power of God would hold them to purpose and that sound teaching would hold in the faith and love that is Jesus Christ. So they took their bibles, sang their psalms, praised their God even if it was in a paddock or a sod hut far from all they knew. Last year we were 150 years since the first sermon was preached in NZ – on the beach to the tangata whenua, the Maori people of Aotearoa – and it was at Christmas. We have a hymn, a carol, written of it: Not on a snowy night by star or candle light, .....But on a summer day within a quiet bay, the local people heard the great and glorious word. (Willow Mackay – Te Harinui)
It was different in this new land – and it challenged our ancestors I am sure. They had to find some new ways to sing the Lord’s song that not only was relevant for them but would also relate to a people who had never heard of Jesus before and had their own culture and spiritual understandings. Some of those early Christian settlers found ways to share their faith with grace and understanding and grow in their relationship with God and each other – others would have struggled to maintain their traditions without the rhythm of life they had left behind. Others would have been too inflexible, refusing to listen and learn and adapt to this very different land. Some of that inflexibility remains still. But generally, over time, there was a realisation that to worship God in a strange land was not just possible but brought new joys and understandings of God’s word.
The music they brought with them was a large part of this sense of continuity – praising God with psalms and hymns. Remembering where they had come from but remembering also to be apostles and teachers and prophets in a new land. When we were in Back, I spoke with the Minister, Calum McLeod, and we talked about the threads that join us even now as a Christian people around the world, not just of faith, but of the way we engage musically as we praise our God, different though our ways might be.
And in fact it has, in NZ, taken us a long time to find that expression of our way as we have grappled with some of the different contexts in which we worship and sing. But local hymns have been emerging over the last 60-70 years that reflect our NZ story. Today, here in Kilsyth, is harvest thanksgiving – in autumn, a time of settling and preparing for winter – for us in NZ we have this around April (our autumn)– and this means around Easter of course. Easter falls for us not at the time of new birth, of spring, but in the season of thankfulness for what we have had and preparation for a time of reflection and quiet, of winter, before the hope of new birth. So we have to think about how we preach and sing our Easter when our origins have traditionally placed it seasonally at a time of regeneration. And so this hymn from Shirley Murray – one of our prolific NZ hymn writers:
When evenings shorten and grow cool, as grapes turn purple on the vine, as golden grain is safely stored, we see again our Easter sign
As rowans fade along the hill, and bush birds come to us for food, in rain, or mist or bitter chill we meet again our Easter God.
As trees grow bare, we see the trace of life’s new buds along the bough. We do not need to wait for Spring; Our Easter Lord is with us now.
So let the Southern Church rejoice! As colour flames from hill and plain we come with confidence to meet the Christ who died – yet lives again! Words Shirley Smith Tune Gonfalon Royal
Then Christmas – the ‘depth of winter’ Victorian Christmas cards and hymns and carols just didn’t seem appropriate as our only music – we still sing them but also we sing also hymns that reflect our reality, this also from Shirley Murray: Carol our Christmas, an upside down Christmas; snow is not falling and leaves are not bare...... Sing of the gold and the green and the sparkle, water and river and lure of the beach. Sing in the happiness of open spaces, sing a nativity summer can reach!
And then there is finding words that have meaning for us as New Zealanders. Writing hymns that express our understanding of God, that help us to sing joyfully to the Lord in a meaningful way. Here are the words of a another hymn where kauri is a tall strong ancient tree, aroha is love and mana is the worth that we hold others in. Where mountains rise to open skies, your name, O God, is echoed far, from island beach to kauri’s reach, in water’s light, in lake and star. Your people’s heart, your people’s part be in our caring for this land, for faith to flower, for aroha to let each other’s mana stand.
Now some emerging thoughts on the part that music plays in our worship and our faith. In NZ in the Presbyterian churches we have a variety of styles of music and sad to say singing (or even reading) psalms would be occasional at best. We have choirs of differing kinds, we have music groups that lead with drums and guitars singing contemporary chorus music, we have strong congregational singing from various hymnarys, we have dance particularly from our Pacific Island churches, and we have Taize and Iona music too. All sorts. We have problems with some folk not understanding the difference between performance and praise, (a worry of the Gaelic Psalm singers as their music becomes increasingly ‘popular’ in the secular world); we have differing opinions over which tune or verses or words are to be used. We sing hymns where the theology is either outdated or quite flakey, we think that if only we can get the words right and a punchy tune then we will fill the church with young folk and it is always a balancing act with our combination of old and new.
Yet, it is in the lifting of our voices in worship to God that all of these things seem to disappear – or fade at least – how many of you would have stories to tell of times when the music has just simply become the presence of God? The times when we have allowed the praise and the joy and yes the lament to come from our hearts in our singing as we remember that we are never alone, that God is always with us, as we turn to face a new struggle and hold fast to Christ’s teaching to get us through, as we know that we can and must sing the Lord’s song in our new lands what ever they might look like. For you, for us, for Christians throughout the world and in all contexts let us continue to praise God with song and tune with all our hearts, for this is the good treasure with which we have been entrusted and that we carry with us wherever we go.
And to our God be all glory praise and honour – now and forever more. Amen.