“Sing, O barren, break forth and cry aloud.” Isaiah 54:1
This past Sunday I stood in the church that my parents founded twenty-two years ago. It was “Anniversary Sunday” – and there was lots of singing – there are five different choirs! The tambourines were shaking, the piano keys were blazing and the drums were rocking a beat in celebration. Young, old, Black, white, Latino – everyone was on their feet with hands and voices lifted up in song. And I was taken back…
to a cold New England morning when I was twelve years old and we had our first church service. I stared out the window of the front door – much like Rhema gazes out of windows – hoping, wishing that someone would come to church.
My three sisters and I were the choir. And my mother was the choir director. The choir loft was positioned behind the pulpit, and we’d stand there and sing our songs to an empty church. Then the four of us would march down from the choir loft and sit in a row in the first pew… so that my father would have someone to preach to.
Over time the church grew so fast that we needed a bigger space. One day my parents brought home a picture they’d taken of a large building they wanted for the church. But the space was not available and financially out of the question. My father put the picture on his bureau, and my parents prayed that one day the church would own the building.
After five years of praying, we were able to buy the place. It took another year to renovate and build the sanctuary. I was away at college by the time worship services were held in the new church. But I know there was much rejoicing and singing that Sunday.
Months later, the day after Easter, the building caught fire and burned to the ground. Hymnals, choir robes, musical instruments, furniture – everything was lost, save a Bible in the pulpit. The story made the local news, and I watched on TV as people gathered at the site. They stood in the ashes and prayed and sang to the Lord. It was an image I will not soon forget as their sacrifice of praise rose like incense to the throne of heaven.
I’ve been standing in the ruins of my own self-destruction. Holding ashes in my hands.
My Rhema, she sings. When she wakes in the morning, when she falls asleep, when she’s happy, distressed, bored, excited – she sings songs in her own language. Her speech therapist calls it self-singing. She comforts herself with her familiar sounds in the midst of unpredictability. The sound of her song in her ears reminds her that she’s still here.
I wish I could go back to the twelve year old version of myself when my song was pure. When I didn’t know what I know now. But tonight I’m hoping, trusting that He’s still listening and that the song really is deeper, sweeter when sung in the smoking remnants. And so I sing:
Before the throne of God above
I have a strong, a perfect plea:
A great High Priest, whose name is Love,
Who ever lives and pleads for me.
My name is graven on his hands,
My name is written on his heart;
I know that while in heaven he stands
No tongue can bid me thence depart
No tongue can bid me thence depart.
When Satan tempts me to despair,
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look, and see him there
Who made an end of all my sin.
Because a sinless Savior died,
My sinful soul is counted free;
For God, the Just, is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me
To look on Him and pardon me
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Praise the One,
Risen Son of God!
Behold him there, the risen Lamb
My perfect, spotless righteousness,
The great unchangeable I am,
The King of glory and of grace!
(This video was recorded with my cell phone so the quality is poor, but this is Rhema dancing – check out her foot! -and singing to music at church.)
“There are songs which can only be learned in the valley. No art can teach them; no rules of voice can make them perfectly sung. Their music is in the heart. They are songs of memory, of personal experience. They bring out their burden from the shadow of the past; they mount on the wings of yesterday… The father is training thee for the part the angels cannot sing; and the school is sorrow. I have heard many say that He sends sorrow to prove thee; may He send sorrow to educate thee, to train thee for the choir invisible.”
~George Matheson, Streams in the Desert