Gospel Voices in US

SMALL Gospel Voices COVER

Monday 16th November, 2020

Please contact my publisher, Faithbuilders, if you would like to order (or reserve) a copy of Gospel Voices in the US. More copies are being printed for US readership, and will be distributed from the Texas office. Faithbuilders hope to send copies to the US next week. (Invoices will be in dollars.)https://www.faithbuilders.org.uk/ Email address for Managing Director, David Powell: editor@faithbuilders.org.uk

Thanks so much for your interest!

Sunday 15th November, 2020

Hello to all you wonderful people visiting my site from America today! My publisher was hoping my book, Gospel Voices, would be available in the US around now. If you are interested, please follow this blog and as soon as there’s news you’ll be the first to know.

I’ve just had a request for a signed copy from an American reader and I’ll be sending that tomorrow. If you’d prefer this option, please let me know!

Thank you for all your kind comments on my Upper Room devotional. I look forward to getting to know you all!

Every blessing.

Flaming hedgerows

Autumn’s fire has been slow to catch light this year, but sparks were glimmering in the hedgerows from late August.  A preposterously large red rosehip intensified over days on our walk, and flashes of winter would catch my eye while the village gardens were in full flower.

Hawthorn berries

     Now the hawthorns are so heavy with berries that they are positively stooping, as if worried they might drop them – deep red clusters of warmth along every bough, the colour that cheers, that we’d happily wrap ourselves in.  These haws can linger on the trees until February or March, when winter is on its way out.  Holly berries, bright beacons of nourishment for the blackbirds, thrushes and fieldfares, light a bush with textbook glory, as Christmas lights are dotted through a tree and light up every branch.  The birds will stay off these until late December, when other supplies are running low and most seed heads are stripped and empty.

     It’s reassuring to know the birds are so well-catered for in winter.  I’ve learned that the pith of ivy berries provides ‘nearly as many calories as Mars bars’[1], and the anti-oxidants in many berries protect birds from the trials of migration. 

     As we face an uncertain winter with Covid, it brings me comfort to think on this.  I love finding the predicable changes too, like being reunited with old friends after almost a year apart.   My favourite, the spindle tree, an ancient woodland indicator and lover of chalky soil, is thriving again, its pink berries yet to open up into those Chinese lanterns that look so very un-English, despite the fact this is a native tree.  The lavish richness of all this reminds me that, after all, there’s nothing to fear.  We are living and walking through the pages of God’s creation, and his hand rests on all our days, if we allow.  The voice that spoke it into being has a loving message for you and me.  There are dark episodes in every narrative, but this real-life drama is one we can allow him to lead us through. We’re not meant to be living fearful lives, but hopeful, expectant ones.

     Find your own example from nature that creates awe in you today, and let it speak to you of a bigger hand than yours.  Are you able to go for a walk, or can you look out of a window? If not, look at a picture, even in your mind’s eye, of some small detail in creation.  Allow your focus to stay there for some time, and let it speak to you of our creator God, and that in him, all will be well.


[1] https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/natures-home-magazine/birds-and-wildlife-articles/features/birds-and-berries/

Long tales –

On long-tailed tits (a devotional)

long-tailed tit

30th August, 2020.

Out walking with Rupert and the dogs after ‘virtual’ church, coats on for the first time in weeks, sadness creeping in as summer peters out, and the long cold months loom.  Daily dog walks will still be needed when this drizzle is replaced with downpours, and blue skies but a memory.  Soon a family of long-tails flies over us and into a high hawthorn bush. We can hear their flock singing for another hundred metres, filling the lane with their joyful and distinctive si-si song.  The absence of many migrant summer birds makes a way for this song to be heard; we’ve walked this lane daily, but now that autumn approaches we can tune in to them, in a way we haven’t for months.  Autumn has some advantages that I’m glad to be reminded of!  The long-tails chatter constantly to stay in touch with each other, and in winter will roost together at night to keep warm, huddling tightly together in a row.

These small birds always bring me joy.  They look imbalanced, with their compact round bodies and unnecessarily long tails, added for the sheer fun of it I assume, like a child’s drawing of exaggerated proportions.  Small, silver dessert spoons of the hedgerows, diving up and over, apparently enjoying the space and each other.

These birds speak of community to me like no other.  For the first time since childhood, I’ve heard the cuckoo this summer, and from my open kitchen door; it’s appreciated for its novelty and disparaged for its usurping behaviour.  By contrast, the long-tail reflects the caring nature of God that we are meant to imitate ourselves.  In that flock of a likely twenty birds, only a few will be ‘true’ parents.  Many will have lost their own nest, and these birds use their energies to help feed the young of other long-tails; a typical nest will contain anywhere between eight and fifteen hatchlings, far too many for even the most hardworking of parents.  The ‘helper’ birds ensure the success of the families in the group.

How often the role of helping seems second-rate to us in whatever walk of life.  We want the role, the position, perhaps even the acclaim.  (We’ve all had at least one of those moments, if we think hard enough and are honest with ourselves.)   These contented little birds remind us to quietly get on with the work we see around us, supporting those who need us in whatever way we can.

That this behaviour is second nature to them, a distinctive part of who they are, is not accidental on the Lord’s part.  I imagine he delights in us discovering these small signs that he’s woven throughout his creation.  These birds are well worth researching further, just for the satisfaction of understanding something of the completeness and perfection of God’s planning; their bottle-shaped nests alone, sewn together with cobwebs, filled with around 1,500 feathers and given an expanding neck so the fledglings can emerge, is worthy of a good half-hour of your time.

But it is their kindness that I’ll always return to in my mind. As Christians we know we should be merciful because we have been shown mercy.[1]  It’s something we’re all called to, though some will particularly connect with the idea, perhaps because God has especially gifted them to show mercy; the Greek word for this spiritual gift is ‘eleeo’.  These people will be inclined to demonstrate patience and compassion toward the hurting.  They are equipped for the long-haul, and will stand by those who need them, for as long as it takes.  They will be empathetic, and are acting out a part of God’s character, weeping with those who weep (Romans 12:15).  They may not feel they are doing much, perhaps being a listening ear and a praying presence in someone’s life, but they are a lifeline and much needed in the church.  If you’ve often wondered what your spiritual gift is, perhaps this is yours!  Being a helper certainly isn’t a second-rate occupation, as the long-tailed tits will show you – it can make the very difference to someone’s survival.  And it’s always worth noting what metaphors in nature resonate with you especially – there must be a reason why…

Note:

For more on the Gift of Mercy visit the following websites:

https://spiritualgiftstest.com/spiritual-gift-mercy/

https://iblp.org/questions/what-spiritual-gift-mercy

 

[1] ‘Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ Matthew 18:33.

Mercies Unseen

Ferg for blog

An early walk with our two dogs and Jemima in tow, a soft breeze rippling the field of barley that’s not long to stand, an undiluted blue sky overhead dappled with benevolent clouds.  The shelf-life of these carefree summer days is limited; the crop is soon to be harvested, autumn routines begin to encroach and a health problem niggles in my joints and my mind.  Yet the routine of walking is good for us, and my spirit is alive to the wonder of another miraculous day.

A Border collie comes bounding towards us from the woods, then turns back on itself.  We follow it through the path in the barley, and there, just inside the woodland, is its owner, a kind lady who is filling up a natural basin in the tree roots with a bottle of water.  ‘It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone actually fills that up,’ I tell her.  ‘Our dogs always stop for a drink here.’

‘Most people don’t realize,’ she says.  ‘I do this when I walk through each day, morning and night.’

The neighbourhood dogs and resident wildlife all benefit, and it sets me thinking…

I wonder just how much God does on our behalf that we’re oblivious to?  Sometimes we know that he’s at work for us, but we don’t stop to acknowledge it.  That well that we stop to drink from – if it’s wholesome then he is behind it, if we look hard enough.  How often we overlook what he provides and what he does.  I’m sure that we’d be astounded if we knew just how many crises he’s averted, and how often he’s stepped in to orchestrate events for us.  One day he may tell us. He’ll explain the suffering too.  He will wipe tears from our eyes and hold us close, revealing to us why we went through what we did, how it grew us and made us more like him.  The Bible tells us that he prays on our behalf and we’re forever in his thoughts.  David Wilkerson, most famous for his book, The Cross and the Switchblade, writes, ‘The prophet we see standing on the hill with his hands raised up is our risen Christ.  And his banner over us is intercession.  Right now, he stands before the very throne of God, pleading our case.’[1]  He goes on, ‘If our Lord’s prayers prevailed while he was on earth, how much more will his prayers be effective for us in glory?  He has already assured us, “None of my children will be lost.”’

So be encouraged today that whatever your problems, God is one step ahead and he’s pouring out what you need, in intercession, in acts of mercy and in sheer abundant blessing because he loves you and he delights in you.  Ask him to make your spirit sensitive to some of what he does on your behalf.

 

‘Therefore he is able, once and forever, to save those who come to God through him. He lives forever to intercede with God on their behalf.  He is the kind of high priest we need because he is holy and blameless, unstained by sin. He has been set apart from sinners and has been given the highest place of honor in heaven.’  Hebrews 7:25-6.

 

Dogs on blog

 

 

[1] Wilkerson, David.  Hallowed be Thy Names.  Rickfords Hill Publishing, 2001. Chapter 3: Jehovah Nissi (God is my banner).

Works in Progress

ermine moth sack

Picture in your mind dozens of caterpillars squirming inside cobwebbed sacks.  Add these grey balls of entangled creatures down the length of a country path, drape them over the hedges and trees, so that you have the makings of a screen set for something a little sinister.  Not exactly a go-to image for the glory of God in creation.  Yet discovering this phenomenon has been as meaningful as a God-breathed sunset or a clear blue sea (though the realization did take time).

It all started well enough.

The family were in a good mood, and at 8.00 p.m. with the sun still shining, set out with me for another evening walk.  There was skipping – no Mum, you skip like this – laughter that causes belly ache – and happy banter, with mock accents from the girls for most of the walk.

A perfect summer evening out in the woods, when the sunlight comes in lower through the trees.  As it filters through the new-green leaves, the space feels more enclosed and intimate, as do our spaces at home when lit by side-lamps, rather than bright bulbs from the ceiling.

It was half-way round on our usual circuit we spotted them, for we notice different things as the sun hits them.

‘Why are there so many cobwebs along here?  What’s going on?’

Maddy took a stick to one to try to let the creatures escape, as we thought an industrious spider had trapped a nest of caterpillars.  But soon we discovered these cobwebbed parcels right the way along the hedge, at eye level in the blackthorn and up higher in the taller hawthorn trees.

I couldn’t answer Maddy’s question, and had to look it up when we were home.  ‘A hedge covered with cobwebs at the start of June’ I googled.  Up popped pictures of trees and shrubs that are stripped bare beneath the cobwebs, apparently decimated.  Like many things unexplained, people are describing the overall effect as ‘eerie’ and ‘ghostly’.   Yet as I read, I discovered they are simply webs spun by the larvae of ermine moths.  And the trees usually recover.

Ermine moths then.  I looked these up too and discovered they are quite beautiful.  They are, in fact, striking, with white bodies speckled like close, ermine fur, and a white, overly-fluffed head, with a furry hood in the same fabric.  A bizarre dressing-up outfit for a humble moth.

So what do I take from this image?  How does it point me to the Creator and bring hope and reassurance?

At first there was the shock of finding something so unattractive when we were having such a happy time.  A bit like the dawning of lockdown for some, as we were stopped in our tracks, downing tools of that which felt purposeful and worthwhile.  The caterpillars look trapped rather than preserved as they were, and isn’t that often our reaction, to see the worst in things?

As we walked on and before I’d understood what was happening, the first thing that occurred to me was that the lockdown has caused unhelpful fears in many of us.  Perhaps we carry our own squirming bundles.  We may wonder what will break out from our time under wraps – what the outcome will be for this situation or that.  What exactly will emerge, in us or society at large?

The reality is those sacks in the hedgerows are works in progress, and so are we.  Ermine is a symbol of purity – and perhaps we are going through a time of purification.  Surely, with God’s help, this can be a positive time.  As Christians, we can expect to emerge transformed, having grown in ways we wouldn’t have looked for, but will one day appreciate.  If we are serious about our faith, we will be developing as we are hidden away like this, for we’re not hidden from God, and are now able to focus on what really matters.  For some, it’s a deliberate time of preparation for flight, for others it’s just the daily faithful, devotional routine of prayer, Bible reading and drawing close.

The moths will take flight in July or August, and what else will be launched by then, in us, in society and in the church?  He wants us to keep on doing what we’re doing if we’re seeking and trying to honour him.

And the blessing is coming.

 

Lyrics from Michael W Smith’s version of Waymaker, a song that’s constantly on my mind these days:

‘Even when I don’t see it, You’re working

Even when I don’t feel it, You’re working

You never stop, you never stop working

You never stop, you never stop working

 

That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. 17 For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! 18 So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

Ermine moth

Recovery – in Nature and in Us

ivy on tree

Accepting help from the divine gardener?

Six-thirty a.m. and peace and quiet is mine!  I’m having my prayer time early in the morning before the rest of the family surfaces, sitting in my favourite red armchair, with a view onto a tree at the side of the house.  As I read a Psalm and glance out of the window, I can see its first white bloom of the year.  This tree[1] always brings me joy – it’s easily overlooked, situated where it is on a path from the front of the house to the back, but it produces a mass of white, pop-pom like flowers with a heady, vanilla scent.  I’m so glad it’s flowering this year, because on Good Friday I discovered it was being swamped by ivy, so much so that its lower branches were lost underneath and I wondered if it would ever recover.  The tree looked dead, and I didn’t know if it was, or if it simply hadn’t sprung back to life after the winter months.  Strangles of ivy were all you could see in places, thicker than my thumb, wound so tightly around the trunk and branches that it looked like it was the tree in its own right.  I pulled off what I could, yanking at the sections I could lift before, frustrated, having to call for help.  My husband came to my rescue, and once we’d traced it down the trunk and discerned its roots amongst the tree’s own, he sawed it off from the bottom of the tree.

This is how our garden rolls – it’s hard to keep track of every plant and tree, and there’s a certain rambling quality where we discover what’s growing, sometimes with pleasure, sometimes not.  Beneath the tree as I look out at it now, I see a jumble of wild, everlasting sweet peas and hollyhocks competing for light and space, periwinkles that have been left to rove, valerian in different shades of pink and wild geranium… It’s all managed with a light touch, and often only when it gets out of hand.  Yet the sight of that first white bloom really cheers me.  Spotting the flower in my quiet time, its metaphorical quality is all the more obvious.  It makes me think of how the Lord feels when he sees in us the first flush of faith, tentative at first, before an explosion of belief takes hold after those ‘If you’re there, God’ prayers.  We read that “there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents.”[2] Whose joy?  The Father’s surely, in the context of the Bible passage, for Jesus goes on to talk about the prodigal son and the way his father welcomes him home.

Isn’t so much of the beauty we enjoy outside simply part of God’s generosity towards us, as a new parent prepares their child-to-be’s bedroom, hanging a mobile above the cot, choosing the colour scheme, wondering how they will enjoy this thing and that?  God didn’t have to give us all this but he knew we’d enjoy it, and when something he’s made gives us pleasure, that gives him pleasure too.  This tree and its recent story remind me of another lesson: God doesn’t give up on us. Certain things may overtake us, not that we’d consciously allowed them to (or perhaps we had), but God is there, just like the gardener, wanting to pull away that which, when given long enough, may begin to strangle our faith.  We sometimes fear how God will deal with us; even allow sin to cling because we expect the process of release will be painful.  (We can all look back on at least one of those episodes if we are honest enough — times of clinging to old hurts, bitterness, unhelpful habits?)  Yet he is gentle, with the hands of the good shepherd himself, or the prodigal’s father, whose fingers perhaps tingled with excitement when he had the opportunity to drape the best cloak over his son.  (I know that story was metaphorical too, but I think we’re meant to be able to picture them, and their redeemed relationship.)

I can see, now that I study the tree hard, three more blooms, and a few waxy buds, preparing to unfold.  They might not be there if the gardener was forbidden from doing his work.

 

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.

Hebrews 12:1-2

[1] I think it’s the Philadelphus ‘Virginal’ (Mock Orange) tree, ‘Philadelphus’ meaning ‘extreme’ because of its overpowering scent.

[2] Luke 15:10

On the humble bumble (a devotional)

A new discovery on bumblebee behaviour has got me thinking…

Maddy's bee in her windowbox

I think sometimes that as Christians we grow so familiar with a passage of scripture that it can lose its impact on us. We enjoy hearing a well-known verse in a different translation, as the meaning catches us again, like a joking friend who’ll pounce on us from around a corner.  We need that vibrancy so that the truth settles in as it did the first or second time we heard it.  That’s one of the reasons I love looking at nature for new metaphors on what are heads know, but our hearts need reminding.

     We have all heard Jesus’s words on the sparrows and his Father’s provision for us:

29 What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin[a]? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. 30 And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows. Matthew 10:29-31

     Today in the news I’ve heard something that reminds me of that old truth.  Scientists have discovered that hungry bumblebees can cause a flower to bloom early, even up to 30 days, simply by biting a ‘half-moon’ shaped hole in its leaf.  These scientists have tried to recreate the effect but have so far failed.  It could be down to a special ingredient in bee saliva, but no one is sure.  Speculation is around the idea that this bee behaviour is ‘instinctive’.

     Lars Chittka, behavioral ecologist at the Queen Mary University of London says ‘It’s certainly surprising’ and states ‘it’s hard to imagine how it would have started’ – hmm.  As believers I think we have an answer for that one.  To me, it suggests yet one more incredible example of the Lord’s brilliance and thoughtfulness.

     The Bible speaks often about God’s provision.  He is Jehovah Jireh, our provider, and he knows exactly what we need.  If he can provide so wonderfully for the humble bumblebee, how much more can we trust that he has our future in his hands, and has a plan all worked out?

Source: sciencemag.org ‘Hungry bumble bees make plants flower early by cutting holes in their leaves’ By Erik Stokstad May. 21, 2020 , 2:05 PM

https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/05/hungry-bumblebees-make-plants-flower-early-cutting-holes-their-leaves

Birdsong (a devotional)

Open window

A member of one my adult education classes is in the high-risk category during this lockdown and has been told in a letter that she can have her window open a short way – the extent of her freedom (though if she owned a very spacious garden I believe she could use it at her discretion).  These restrictions would drive me insane!  Yet even with the window open just a crack, God’s reassurance comes flooding in.  How exactly?  It’s a rare place that has no birdsong at close proximity right now, and even in the normal run of things in the U.K. we can usually hear a bird if we stop and pause; a minute is long enough in the depth of winter, a few seconds in the summer, if that. Birdsong was the most quoted element from Rebecca Arendell Frank’s now famous testimony that came out of Wuhan as the pandemic took hold:

“Right now I hear birds outside my window (on the 25th floor). I used to think there weren’t really birds in Wuhan, because you rarely saw them and never heard them. I now know they were just muted and crowded out by the traffic and people. All day long now I hear birds singing. It stops me in my tracks to hear the sound of their wings.”

Hearing birdsong always lifts us.  There is something about the constancy of nature here; the birds are still singing – oblivious to the virus – it’s an irrelevance to them.  Today the birds sound like they’re really celebrating, which is appropriate on another level: it’s 75 years since the original V.E. day, and the village, decorated in red, white and blue bunting, is basking in a mini heatwave.  Seeing the birds swoop and dive seems to instruct us that this is the right way to behave.  The Lord has brought our country through worse and we don’t need to despair.

During lockdown the absence of traffic means all I can hear outside for most of the day is the birdsong. The harmonies, though unintentional, are stunning – the melodious blackbirds fluting in alto, the sparrows’ slow repetitive chirping, like an infant trying out new sounds, and on our walk today, the chiffchaff, with an even more exaggerated I’m trying to learn this sound as it tries out its name, over and over: ‘chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff’, and on.  The woodpigeons refrain always sounds like they are staking their claim with ‘I live here, don’t you know’, and these familiar voices go a long way to making this alien world still feel like home.

There is a complexity to much birdsong though, too; Olivier Messiaen called birds ‘God’s own musicians’, and from Handel through to Mozart (who owned a starling for musical purposes), to Wagner, to Messiaen himself and more recently Jonathan Harvey, composers have long recognized birds’ innate musical brilliance and sought to imitate it.  It’s as if their ability is better than ours, and more importantly, birdsong always makes me think of praise; this isn’t such an outlandish suggestion when you read from the Psalms.  That the birds ‘sing among the branches of the trees’ (v.12) is one aspect of life that makes the writer declare ‘I will sing to the LORD as long as I live.  I will praise my God to my last breath!’ (v.33) Psalm 148 takes it one step further and instructs the natural world to praise God, including, of course, the birds:

Praise the LORD from the earth,

you creatures of the ocean depths,

8 fire and hail, snow and clouds,

wind and weather that obey him,

9 mountains and all hills,

fruit trees and all cedars,

10 wild animals and all livestock,

small scurrying animals and birds,

11 kings of the earth and all people,

rulers and judges of the earth,

12 young men and young women,

old men and children.

13 Let them all praise the name of the LORD.

For his name is very great;

his glory towers over the earth and heaven!

14 He has made his people strong,

honoring his faithful ones—

the people of Israel who are close to him.

Yet even if birds are not deliberately singing praise (and we know that, at least in part, they are defending territory and attracting a mate), the fact that they are there at all, singing away, points us to God.  He didn’t have to add this backing track of joy to our world, yet he chose to.  How dull the world would seem without it!  And I wonder how many birds are singing the world over at any one time?  In our garden, even?  The American Museum of Natural History estimates that there are between 40 and 60 birds per head for the world population[1], which is still astonishing, even despite the decline of many species over the years.  That’s an awful lot of birds, and yet God hears each one, individually as well as corporately, just as he does our prayers and praise (though he listens to us all the more intently, hanging on our every word).  I love to think about how God can hear all of our communication with him simultaneously.  He sees his collective body worshipping without the walls in place.  At this current time – and perhaps at other points in the future, as is sadly the case for many believers worldwide – we can’t see or hear the output of each other, but there’s something comforting in the thought that we’re never doing this alone.  The cry of the persecuted or isolated believer mingles with those in a more happy, euphoric place, and of a vast angelic throng.  Yet perhaps the greater the sacrifice on our part, the greater the meaning to him.  In Revelation we read of ‘gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of God’s people.’ (Revelation 5:8)

My own church is operating a twenty-four-hour prayer marathon every Sunday this month and it’s wonderful to dwell on how the baton is being passed invisibly, seamlessly, and how for God this is a constant stream of prayer and praise.  Does this sound strange, considering the challenges we face?  I think that, like the birds, we are meant to be joyful – designed to be, and we need it all the more right now.  To be joyful isn’t to be happy.  It is a decision based on who God is, not a feeling based on our current circumstances.  When we utter truth about God, whether in speech or in song, we declare his goodness.  Something happens inside of us when we praise.  The birds, in their incessant chirping, remind us to keep going.  Their song is constant and so is God’s love.  So is his worthiness and reliability, that will never falter.  His devotion to us is never muted.  Let’s keep speaking and singing our love back to him – for somehow it renews us when we take our eyes off our troubles and look into the heart of our loving God.  We know we can go on.  What’s more, ours is a God of lavish celebration and he sings songs over us.  Here is an astounding verse to meditate on today.  Bear in mind that the Hebrew for ‘singing’ is said to refer to a joyful ‘ringing cry’… that’s the Lord Jesus’s celebration of you and me:

“He will take delight in you with gladness.
With his love, he will calm all your fears.
He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.”

Zephaniah 3:17(NLT)

[1] https://www.amnh.org/explore/ology/earth/ask-a-scientist-about-our-environment/how-big-is-the-bird-population

Worship during Lockdown

 

Worship during Lockdown

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.”[1]  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 praySurely 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.[2]

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,

Refrain:
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

 

[1] Ireland, Michael (7 October 2007). “Veleky Bog: How Great is Our God”ASSIST News Service.

[2] Romans 8:28

Outdoor worship