A long time ago, my wife told me that she sees units of time as shapes. This northern hemisphere winter, for me, is feeling like a valley - the steep, deep 'V' from the middle of the acronym COVID. The virus is striking back, lockdown is reinforced, terrorism is rearing its ugly head and, frankly, the stress of the US election hasn’t helped!

In England, businesses, gyms, pubs, restaurants and churches are closed. Those churches that had gathered were unable to legally sing for fear that the breath poured out in praise was dangerous. Carols, to be completely frank, have never been my favourites but without them, it feels a bit like Narnia - always winter, never Christmas. There are questions about the science, legality and ethics of this rule but I’m more perplexed by the goings-on of my soul while the music fades.

Hymns of Faith

Time to sing a new song? PICTURE: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

Recently in the world of rugby, England replaced Wales as Six Nations Champions. What upset me more than the quality of our (the Welsh side's) rugby in the competition was the absence of the crowds singing hymns and arias (which we, the Welsh, always win). Yet robbing nations of chants doesn't compare to depriving worshippers of songs of hope and eternity. In the absence of praise rising up from feet stood on holy ground, what might we unearth while we hang up our harps?

The Jewish people hung up their harps when trafficked to Babylon six centuries before the first Christmas. Their captors loved their music but their music didn’t love that “strange land”. Their solution was this. They sat down by the rivers of Babylon (the same rivers which flowed through the Garden of Eden). They wept as they remembered all that they had lost. Then they put the complaint to music and made a song about it (Psalm 137). It contains some cruel, disturbing sentiments which many would prefer weren’t in the Bible (Boney M missed those bits out). But it’s good to know that we can dig up our angry frustrations before God even if we need the light of Christ on such dry, unyielding sods. 

"This time in this valley is a very good time for you to write your song. What do I mean by this? I don’t really know but it might be a combination of finding your voice and discovering your theme.  It will be adding harmony to ancient songs birthed in other plagues and tragedies. As metal might be hammered into a shape that, with breath, emits a trumpet call so the wind of the Spirit can blow through the places where we feel beaten and bruised. A new song of promise is waiting to be sung."

As we trudge through this deep 'V', I’m reminded of the Scottish hymn writer George Matheson’s words: “There are some songs which can only be learned in the valley. No art can teach them; no rules of voice can make them perfectly sung.” Perhaps, in this bleak pause, you might find that song which can only be written for such a time. No generation has faced such a global challenge with such technology and our age-old primal rage. Matheson wrote that there are “chords too minor for the angels".

This time in this valley is a very good time for you to write your song. What do I mean by this? I don’t really know but it might be a combination of finding your voice and discovering your theme. It will be adding harmony to ancient songs birthed in other plagues and tragedies. As metal might be hammered into a shape that, with breath, emits a trumpet call so the wind of the Spirit can blow through the places where we feel beaten and bruised. A new song of promise is waiting to be sung. 

On the eve of his sister’s wedding, George Matheson was in “deep mental suffering”. Perhaps he remembered how his own engagement was ended when it was discovered he was going blind. He wrote a song of a “love that wilt not let me go” and of “tracing the rainbow through the rain”. Through that song, countless weary souls have rest in calamity. Jesus modelled this for us. Facing betrayal, humiliation and death we are told Jesus sang a hymn with His disciples. Imagine the depth of that lament of rejection and the strong resurrection beat.

Thinking about this singing famine makes me realise that I need a new song. Surgery and radiotherapy 15 years ago threatened my voice and altered it. It was amazing before  - at least in my imagination. Now it is a little deeper, huskier, breathy and dry - like Louis Armstrong with a strep throat in the desert. When in church, I don't often join in with my previous gusto but I do bask in something which feels like Heaven. It is not enough. I need to find a different rhythm and a new pitch. We all do. The church and the world need songs in unfamiliar keys for this strange new world. It may not be an actual song. It could be a tapestry, a new business, a philanthropic innovation or something else but it will need a fabulous soundtrack.

In the Scriptures, Moses' sister Miriam did just that. She was the tambourine woman. When leaving the only land she knew, escaping slavery, and passing through the Red Sea chased by chariots, she managed to hang on to her tambourine. When the land seemed really strange with soldiers' bodies washing up on the shore, she pulled out the tambourine, found a song and danced.

Now it’s our turn. Sit down by the water. Weep. Wait patiently for the Lord and He will put a new song in your mouth. Then play that song for me.