Liturgy Lesson: May 3, 2020
Call to Worship: Psalm 95:1-7
Prayer of Invocation
Hymn of Adoration: Jesus, Where’er Your People Meet (#377)
Confession of Sin: Isaiah 55:4-6 & Prayer
Assurance of Pardon: from Ezekiel 34 and 1 Peter 2:24-25
Hymn of Praise: My Shepherd Will Supply My Need
Reading of the Word: Luke 15:3-32
Sermon: Rev. Eric Irwin
Prayer of Spiritual Communion
Words of Institution
Communion Hymn: I Was a Wandering Sheep
Closing Hymn: There is a Higher Throne
Sung Response: This is My Father’s World (last verse)
“No singing or use of wind instruments, harmonicas, or other instruments that could spread COVID-19 through projected droplets shall be permitted unless the recording of the event is done at one’s residence, and involving only the members of one’s household or living unit, because of the increased risk of transmission of COVID-19”
– Mendocino County Public Health Order
If my wife and I lived in Mendocino county, California, we would be outlaws. Our crime? Singing. For the last six weeks my wife and I have been leading the singing for our worship services, which are live-streamed from our sanctuary each Sunday morning. According to the Mendocino health officer and the board of supervisors, my wife and I may have been recklessly spewing coronavirus droplets around the room, putting our pastors and the sound guys at risk. Each note we exhale carries a payload of potentially harmful particles. With accelerated airflow as our ammunition, we then become criminals with hymnals, guilty of musical misdemeanors. And all that is without harmonicas.
If this sounds absurd, we must consider that this coordinated attempt to curb “infection by singing” is not unique to a small coastal network of towns isolated among the redwoods. In the still-frozen plains of Alberta, Canada’s government has heated up hysteria by banning singing during live-streamed church services, allegedly to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The penalty for violating the order is a fine that can range from $1,000 to $100,000 for a first offense and up to $500,000 “for a subsequent offence for more serious violations.” Canadian churchgoers now could be fined over a year’s salary for singing their favorite hymns. There is some rebellious part of me that wouldn’t mind the irony if I were censured for singing these words:
“Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold.
Take my moments and my days, let them flow in ceaseless praise.”
Turns out that the flowing of ceaseless praise is now precisely what stirs up fear. And that fear has spread across the Atlantic. International news states that Germany is considering a ban on singing as they reopen the country and loosen restrictions on public gatherings. “Ja, Fraulein, das ist richtig. Halt! Die yodelin und singin ist verboten!” Be assured that this order is not aimed at beer-garden crooners or rowdy football anthems. The chief concern is with churches and, specifically, their aspirations. By silencing the sanctuaries, they hope to suppress the germ in Germany.
All this sarcasm may seem like I’m plotting a rebellion and encouraging full-throated, close-quartered congregational singing as soon as we reopen. That’s not what I’m suggesting. In fact, considering what we know about the spread of the virus, that would probably be foolhardy. However, considering what we still don’t know, the heavy-handed government attempt to muzzle the church in the name of the common good is an extremely worrying development. I wonder what our ancestors in the faith would have thought of such draconian and desperate restrictions on singing. If Charles Wesley were alive today, enduring this pandemic in Mendocino, or Alberta, or Germany, I imagine he would find some way to boldly sing his very own words:
Jesus, my all in all thou art, my rest in toil, my ease in pain;
The medicine of my broken heart, in war my peace, in loss my gain;
My smile beneath the tyrant’s frown, in shame my glory and my crown.
In these decisions and during the days ahead, please pray diligently for the leadership of our church. The stakes could hardly be higher, and singing is a very serious factor in our deliberations. Some churches have already been identified as the source of outbreaks around the country and the world (see here, here, and here). And, of course, there is the local tragic story of the Skagit valley Choir who held a rehearsal in early March and later experienced an outbreak among members. This sobering anecdote made national headlines.
What are we to make of all of this? I have so many questions. What is the right way for Christians to respond in this moment? How much do we balance caution and courage? How can we be fearless but not reckless? Can we submit to the state and be obedient to God at the same time? How are we to think about our corporate singing when we begin to gather again? Are we to heed the medical experts, even if it means we jettison a biblically mandated aspect of our worship in the interim? Does our Lord, who delivers us from the scourge of sin, provide supernatural protection from diseased particulates for children who are gathered in his house? Should we sing quietly and/or wear masks while singing? Should we not sing together at all until we have a vaccine? What will liturgies look like for smaller groups and staggered services? Can we be creative with our use of the campus, utilizing the sanctuary, the chapel, and the outdoor space?
Just today the stay-at-home order was extended through May 31. Sigh. That’s Pentecost Sunday, by the way. Sigh again. As we all begin the four-phased slow crawl back to normal, we must be prayerful and patient. We can expect numerous restrictions on gatherings for several weeks at a time. We may not be able to consider a full sanctuary until later summer or even fall. These possibilities weigh heavily on my spirit. I miss the fullness of our combined voices in the sanctuary. I hunger for that foretaste of heaven. I have limped through these weeks of online worship, wrestling with God and asking him to bless it. I have prayed for discernment. I don’t have many answers.
But I do have one. Jesus is my sanctuary, my home, my joy. When all else is stripped away, He remains. I can sing to him anytime I please, and I defy any grim reaper or fear-monger who would tell me to shut up. I sing to the miracle-maker and consummate healer, Jesus Christ. In him is life, and that life is the light of men. This is the same power that Paul and Silas passionately proclaimed from prison at the midnight hour, after being beaten and flogged for doing something that the people and authorities condemned. Confined to the inner cell with their feet in stocks, they responded by singing hymns to God. And “suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose” (Acts 16:26). The song of the saints shall never be shackled. The refrain will never be fettered. We may be locked down, but we are not yet locked up. Even if this song is confined to our individual cells, it will be released, and it will break chains, shatter walls, and open doors. As for me and my house, we will praise the Lord. We will not be silent.
“They set a net for my steps; my soul was bowed down.
They dug a pit in my way, but they have fallen into it themselves.
My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast!
I will sing and make melody! Awake, my glory!
Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn!
I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations.
For your steadfast love is great to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let your glory be over all the earth!”
– Ps. 57:6-11
I Was A Wandering Sheep
Text: Horatius Bonar, 1843
Tune: New Lebanon, adapted by Hauck, 2020
One of the unexpected blessings of this quarantine has been the church’s rediscovery and endorsement of worship in the home. I have always been better at leading a worship service in church than leading my own family worship, but the past few weeks have brought a more concerted effort to narrow that gap. I have also been singing much more in my own personal prayer time. During a season where singing is mostly for private worship, I have looked for songs of personal devotion and “testimonial” hymns that are written in first-person language. The corporate “we” hymns that focus on collective encouragement lose a bit of their punch when sung in the context of one’s own living room.
For the next few weeks, pastor Eric is going to set up camp in Luke 15, and preach on the famous parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. When looking for hymns that resonate with that chapter, I found several. One of them that I stumbled across was new to me, but written by a familiar friend, the great Scottish hymnwriter Horatius Bonar. Horatius was a lifelong pastor who expressed himself in a beautiful economy of words that always gave a clear and impassioned articulation of the Gospel. His writing is simple, but never banal. His hymns always develop a theme, make personal application, and lift the soul in praise to God. His charisma and zeal for Christ was infectious for young people. Sinclair Ferguson said that Horatius Bonar had “poetry in his soul.” For more on him, I refer you to this liturgy lesson.
One of Bonar’s lesser-known hymns is “I Was a Wandering Sheep.” It is a near perfect encapsulation of the trifecta of parables in Luke 15, which Horatius frames as a 4-verse testimony of a soul that was lost and then found. It is equal parts confession and celebration, tears and joy, and even makes a nod to the Trinity. His affection for God is undeniable.
I was a wand’ring sheep, I did not love the fold;
I did not love my Shepherd’s voice, I would not be controlled.
I was a wayward child, I did not love my home;
I did not love my Father’s voice, I loved afar to roam.
The Shepherd sought his sheep, the Father sought his child;
they followed me o’er vale and hill, o’er deserts waste and wild:
they found me nigh to death, famished and faint and lone;
they bound me with the bands of love, they saved the wand’ring one.
Jesus my Shepherd is; ’twas he that loved my soul,
’twas he that washed me in his blood, ’twas he that made me whole;
’twas he that sought the lost, that found the wand’ring sheep,
’twas he that brought me to the fold, ’tis he that still doth keep.
I was a wand’ring sheep, I would not be controlled;
but now I love my Shepherd’s voice, I love, I love the fold.
I was a wayward child, I once preferred to roam;
but now I love my Father’s voice, I love, I love his home.
The existing tune (LEBANON) to this hymn was good material, but lacked shape and color. So, I have made slight alterations to the tune (now calling it NEW LEBANON) in hopes that the music will be more flattering attire for such a thoughtful and affective text. Hope you are blessed by the new tailor-made version, and that this is one that bolsters your at-home worship. Perhaps it’s a tune you can hum (mouth-closed, of course) as you begin to leave home and go about your business once again.
I really do hope to see and hear you all soon, even if our singing is a slow turn of the volume knob. One day, that long crescendo will reach its culmination when we are finally and truly home, in the arms of our Father, and there will be no fear, no death, and our song will never be silenced.