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Songs of longing

Fasting with ‘small praise’ during the pandemic.

How can Christians celebrate Christmas without singing?! In my own congregation, in a survey seeking wisdom on whether, when and how to worship in person again, one person confessed, “I’m not a good singer, but that is what I miss the most.” That comment touched my heart. God loves to hear our praises, and our voices are strengthened when singing together. Alone at home, or when only two or three are gathered, singing is harder when remembering “how I used to go with the multitude” to meet with God (Psalm 42). Can God be pleased with such “small praise”? Can we?

A short testimony: A year ago, my oldest sister died from cancer; she had not been able to attend worship services for months, but it greatly comforted her to sing hymns together. I was able to visit her every day. Near the end, her voice weakened until I did most of the singing. Those were holy times, because the focus shifted from concern about our “small praise” to comfort and even joy for us both, knowing we were not at all alone. God was with us, and we were together with a great company of saints who sang with us across time and space.

How can we encourage each other to sing during this long “fast” from being together in larger assemblies? As my sister often encouraged me, “Just do it!” When you’re worshiping at home, join in the songs! We need practice to learn to focus not on the sound of our own voice, but on what and to whom we are singing.

Worship in all of life

Worship leaders have been working very hard and creatively these past months, making sure worship materials are available online and at home for Sunday services; we owe them our gratitude. Singing on Sundays is challenging during these pandemic days, but so is what we treasure in the Reformed tradition: to worship in all of life, also in our daily devotional life at home. Singing only on Sunday is not going to help us develop our confidence any more than showing up for a piano lesson without having practiced during the week.

Here is one small idea to expand our “small praise” at home: Rather than having hymnals stuck in empty pews, churches could offer them to those who don’t have hymnals. Consider a sign-up system and enlist teams of people to deliver them. As a hymnal editor who initially was more interested in the notes than the words, it was the texts of the psalms and hymns that nourished my faith and that I grew to love as testimonies from the communion of the saints. Psalms and hymns have come to us from people in exile, in prison, from sick beds, in times of wars and plagues, perhaps more often than from the good times. And so let us offer our own “small praise” and learn a measure of comfort and joy as we join in lament but in hope with others around the world suffering from so much death, isolation and exhaustion from this cruel pandemic. May this time of fasting open our hearts to hope and trust as we sing of God’s promise of shalom that is sure to be fulfilled.

Finally, perhaps we’re ready to remember as never before the difference between Advent and Christmas, between singing the songs of longing and waiting, and the carols celebrating the birth of our Redeemer. We sometimes forget how long God’s people waited for the good news of deliverance. The prophets called God’s people to repentance, to God’s call to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. We need to hear this again now, during a time of such suffering by so many. We sing Isaiah’s “Comfort, comfort now my people,” but Christ wasn’t born until 700 years later, and we’re still waiting for that comfort to be fulfilled when Christ returns. So we need to sing from the prophets, as well as from the familiar carols of Christmas.

Let’s hope and pray that when Lent begins on February 17 and we celebrate Easter on April 4, 2021, we will sing with joy both at home and – yes! – together again in our churches.

  • Emily is a life-long member of the Christian Reformed Church, editor of four hymnals and founding editor of the quarterly journal Reformed Worship.

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