I’m rethinking my perfect surroundings for worship – what’s needed, what’s desirable, and what we can manage without, for a time. Perhaps what I love most about my church (One Church, Dover) is our times of worship, when up to around 200 people are drawing close to God together, and singing out heartfelt praise. These are tender moments, when God draws close, and we expect to encounter him. His presence is tangible. It’s one of the main highlights in my usual week. But while it’s my heart’s wish to be worshipping in church this morning, I’m reminded that the most exciting moments in my journey with God haven’t happened in a church building. I’ve known his direction when I’ve dug into his presence at home, and even when I’m praying and singing in my Mini as I do in the usual run of things. When I worship at church it’s from the overspill of my heart, because I’ve been walking with him through the week.
There have been times, though, when I’ve been in church and thought how amazing it would be if we could move the whole thing to an outdoor setting – not permanently, but just sometimes. There are many songs that speak of how God touches us and communicates with us when we’re outside, perhaps my favourite being ‘How Great Thou Art’. ‘When through the woods and forest glades I wander’ is a line I’ve long identified with, and the words continue ‘Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to thee, how great thou art…’. We take inspiration from walking through his creation, knowing that the One who made all that we’re enjoying is alongside us, even within us, if we’ve invited him.
Tuning into God while we walk is something most of us have the opportunity to do, whether living in or out of lockdown. Perhaps what’s especially significant about this song is that soon after it was written, believers were needing to find new ways to worship, and their usual Sunday routine had been taken away from them. Bud Boberg, great-nephew of Carl Boberg who wrote the song says, “My dad’s story of its origin was that it was a paraphrase of Psalm 8 and was used in the ‘underground church’ in Sweden in the late 1800s when the Baptists and Mission Friends were persecuted.” The song takes on a whole new relevance here for anyone who is living during a lockdown, or in an environment where church is forbidden, for whatever reason. When believers worshipped outdoors regularly in the past, it was often because of persecution; Bunyan’s dell in Wain’s Wood, Hertfordshire, was a place of clandestine fellowship, where he preached at night to his ‘gathered church’, a congregation sometimes of over a thousand, praising God under the stars.
In 1931 Boberg’s song was heard by Stuart Hine as a Russian translation. He wrote his own paraphrase, which is what most of us in the UK are familiar with now. Before completing the project he added a couple of verses of his own, including this one, which is new to me:
“When burdens press, and seem beyond endurance,
Bowed down with grief, to Him I lift my face;
And then in love He brings me sweet assurance:
‘My child! for thee sufficient is my grace’.”
Like everyone else, I’ve been thinking about how church will be different as we move forwards, and wondering when it will ever seem ‘normal’ again – when we will have our old, cherished routines back. It occurred to me this week that small groups will no doubt be allowed to resume first (confirmed a couple of days later by a message from a church leader raising the same thought), and pictures of the scattered early church are filling my mind. We’ll be in good company, when we think of those who have gone before. My imagination has got carried away as usual: So German churches are allowed to meet, but with facemasks and no singing. Imagine if our small group could congregate outside to worship and pray. Surely that would be allowed, when lockdown starts to ease? Several members of our group shared the vision this week – ‘I have the space for about 40 or so socially distant worshippers’ said one.
Of course, it never was about the building but meeting the Lord and having fellowship with the people of God. The current lockdown must be forcing Christians worldwide to push new boundaries, and here we’re no exception. To stretch my understanding of ‘normal’ worship further, yesterday evening I enjoyed what will be the first of many worship times at home as a family – it felt spontaneous, leading on from the practice of a song Maddy and Eliott had been preparing to sing to grandparents on Zoom. The whole household congregated, and I settled in with the cajun while the rest of the family strummed along on guitars and ukuleles. It was an opportunity to really worship, and while we got a few words (and notes) wrong, God’s presence was strong and it felt like a significant milestone. Would this have happened without the lockdown constraints? Possibly not. So while I miss seeing my church fellowship, we are all growing and hopefully becoming more resilient and self-sufficient as believers. As we know, ‘In all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.’
1973 version of ‘How Great Thou Art’. (Less familiar):
O mighty God, when I behold the wonder
Of nature’s beauty, wrought by words of thine,
And how thou leadest all from realms up yonder,
Sustaining earthly life with love benign,
With rapture filled, my soul thy name would laud,
O mighty God! O mighty God! (repeat)
When I behold the heavens in their vastness,
Where golden ships in azure issue forth,
Where sun and moon keep watch upon the fastness
Of changing seasons and of time on earth.
When crushed by guilt of sin before thee kneeling,
I plead for mercy and for grace and peace,
I feel thy balm and, all my bruises healing,
My soul is filled, my heart is set at ease.
And when at last the mists of time have vanished
And I in truth my faith confirmed shall see,
Upon the shores where earthly ills are banished
I’ll enter Lord, to dwell in peace with thee
 Romans 8:28