What have you missed most about being in Church? Receiving Communion? Hugging members of the Church family? Coffee and cake? Praying together in person? The building itself? Or something else? I know that for some of us, one important thing we miss is music; singing together, hearing our wonderful choir, enjoying the richness of what our organist and music group offer. Music is central to our worship and we miss it terribly. Today is Music Sunday – we’ll be sharing a link on Facebook to a special service at 6 o’clock tonight, with some wonderful sacred music to enjoy and well loved hymns to join in.
And the music we are missing at the moment is not just an extra, the frilly bits around the edges, it’s a vital part of worship, a really important way of approaching God. It doesn’t just make us feel better. I probably know more hymn words than Bible verses; music shapes our theology, the way we think about God. It’s one way we experience and learn about God.
Just one example from this week. On Wednesday a group of us gathered on Zoom, including people who have joined us for worship for the first time online during Lockdown. As part of that session, Sam read the story of Zacchaeus climbing the tree from the Gospel of Luke. For many of us, that will immediately take us back to Sunday School and in our heads we will begin to sing:
‘Now Zacchaeus was a very little man and a very little man was he!’
As well as helping us remember Bible stories, music can speak profoundly too. In that same Zoom session, we started talking about suffering. It’s a question you can’t get away from if you are exploring faith and God. How can a supposedly loving God allow people to suffer? Innocent people? How can God stand by and allow that? At first glance the reading from Paul today seems to make thing worse. He seems to suggest that we should boast about our sufferings, because somehow they are good for us. Really? Suffering is good because it produces endurance, character, hope? That makes it all worth it, does it? That makes the suffering of so many people with COVID19 OK? That makes the suffering of generations of black people under the oppression of racism worthwhile? I don’t think so, and I don’t think Paul thought so either.
And here music helps me out, here. In particular, an African – American spiritual. A song sung by slaves on the plantations of the USA. A simple song with profound theology that says so much. A song that speaks profoundly about suffering:
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen Nobody knows but Jesus Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen Glory, alleluia.
There are several things for me about this simple song.
First, it is an expression of suffering, an outpouring of hurt and pain, especially when sung by someone more qualified to sing it than me. And in that out pouring of pain there is an inherent hope and belief. Hope that someone is listening. Belief in a God who despite everything is still there to hear, who loves and cares enough to hear our lament. Otherwise, why bother to sing?
Secondly, there is a recognition that our sufferings are more than just heard by God, they are experienced by God. Nobody knows but Jesus. Jesus, God made human, who came so that God knows what it is to suffer, God knows what it is to be stripped and beaten. What it is to be demeaned and silenced by those in power. Nobody knows but Jesus.
Finally, it is a song of hope. Take note of the ending. It doesn’t seem to fit. ‘Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, glory, alleluia.’ This is the equivalent of Paul’s boasting in suffering, boasting made possible because of hope, the hope of Glory. Glory. The promise of glory to come. This isn’t an opiate, a salve that means the sufferings we endure are as nothing. No. In the hope of glory there is not a brushing off of suffering in the here and now. Instead, it’s promise is a strengthening not to give in and give up and passively accept pain, a strengthening to keep going, keep believing, keep fighting for the time when suffering ends.
So, at the heart of this song and of the passage from Roman’s is a paradox, a paradox between what is now and what is to come. The paradox of suffering and hope.
The second song that has helped me grapple with all this is Amazing Grace. It comes from the other side of the experience of slavery. Amazing Grace was written not by American African slaves but by a former slave ship captain, Englishman John Newton. After his conversion to Christianity, Newton was sharply aware of his own sinfulness and Amazing Grace is a response to that.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me I was once lost but now am found was blind but now I see.
Here is the flip side of suffering. A recognition that while we do not deserve to suffer, nor do we deserve God’s love, God grace. God’s amazing, undeserved grace. In Paul’s words: ‘God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ And that’s why we can hope for glory. Not because we’re good enough to earn it, still less because we have suffered enough to earn it. But because Christ, through his suffering, has cleared the path to God for us.
And if these words and these thoughts have not made any impact, not made a great deal of sense, my guess is that the songs might. Listen to them on Spotify, sing along with Youtube. I hope they become your earworms this week, a way of expressing the paradox of suffering and hope, a way of experiencing God’s amazing, undeserved love, because music, God’s gift of music, can do.