Call to Worship (Based on Psalm 141: 1-3)
We call to you, Lord, come quickly to us;
hear us when we call to you.
May our prayer be set before you like incense;
may the lifting up of our hands be like a sacrifice.
Set a guard over our mouth, Lord;
keep watch over the door of our lips.
HYMN 110 Glory be to God the Father
You Lord, are our God,
and earnestly we seek you;
we thirst for you,
our whole being longs for you.
Your love is better than life,
and so our lips will glorify you.
We will praise you as long as we live,
and in your name we will lift up our hands.
You have searched us, Lord,
and you know us.
You are familiar with all our ways.
You created our inmost being;
you knit us together for your glory.
We praise you because your works are wonderful.
Have mercy on us, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion.
Wash away all our iniquity
and cleanse us from our sin.
Cleanse us and we will be clean;
wash me, and we shall be whiter than snow.
Let us hear joy and gladness again.
Create in each of us a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within us.
Restore to us the joy of your salvation
and grant us a willing spirit, to sustain us.
The Lord’s Prayer
Psalm 19: 1-6, 14
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth.
May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight,
Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Psalm 137: 1-4
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
Matthew 6: 5-8
‘And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
HYMN 189 Be still, for the presence of the Lord
By the rivers of Babylon
A few weeks ago, I was asked to think about how I may share with the congregation what worship would look once we re-opened our building on a Sunday. With us currently prohibited from singing, I thought about how strange it could feel to us. That led me to thinking of one of the Psalms; it is the one that many in our land probably know better from a pop song than from scripture. The song is, ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’.
If the tune is now stuck in your head, and will not go away, then I offer my apologies. It is a pity that we here know only this version of the song. It originated in Jamaica, had strong connections with Rastafarianism, and links to the ‘Back to Africa’ movement. These were movements that sought social justice, and to re-establish a sense of African identity among the descendants of former slaves. Remember, these people had been forcibly removed from their homelands. So, too, had the Jewish exiles whose emotions we find in the Psalm. It is a song about being far from your homeland; it a song about a sense of alienation; it is also a song about longing. Arguably it has the oldest lyrics ever to make it to the UK charts, with the chorus coming from the end of Psalm 19. However, both the song and the quote from Psalm 137 are relevant to us today. Together they speak of ‘singing the Lord’s song in a strange land’. Compared to the suffering of both the Israelites and the slaves, and the continued victimisation and oppression of their descendants, our discomfort pales to insignificance. Yet for us all there is a sharing of emotions, in this instance pain, in song. For us it is not exile that challenges us but the strange land of the pandemic. It is the latter that prohibits our singing in church and causes us, like the exiles, to weep. As we begin to return to our church buildings that strangeness may become more acute.
The location of the manse is on a side street that is not far from a couple of busy road junctions. In the year since moving in it has seldom been quiet. Lockdown changed that. The roads and pavements have been quieter; the air has been cleaner; the sun, when it appeared, seems to have been brighter. These are not the figments of a romantic imagination, but scientifically observable facts. These ‘missing’ things have left something behind – silence. It is a silence that is almost concrete in nature; it’s a silence that many have never experienced before. Silence can be terribly disquieting, especially if you are not used to it. It may feel worse for us because, in our tradition, we like to make lots of noise, whether it is singing or talking! Yet silence can be enriching. It is good for both head and heart; it is good for the soul too. Although we are not going to be returning to silent churches, it may seem so without the presence of hymns. So, what are we to make of this strange, new, silence of sorts?
Silence has an enormous spiritual value, and a place in all the Christian traditions. It is in silence that we most clearly hear the ‘still, small voice’ of God. It is in silence that we most clearly hear the workings of our own minds. These, together, may feel threatening yet with time they may also be liberating and enlivening.
As we regather on a Sunday, we may find the absence of singing to be almost a silent experience for us; it will be strange but may give us space to reflect. We may find ourselves asking “just why is it we choose to sing in church?” We may also find ourselves asking “why do we always need to be making noise?” This form of silence may be uncomfortable however, like more thoroughgoing silences, it will have its value. Like the psalmist, we will be in a land that is strange to us. However, also like the psalmist, we may learn new ways to serve and honour God. In the spaces where once we sang, we will now be able to listen. Perhaps we will hear in this the busyness of our own minds; perhaps we may hear the voice of God calling to us. Perhaps the call will be to “be still and know that I am God.”
Lord our God,
we come to you today
giving thanks for the privilege of praying for others.
Strengthen us, that we may come before you boldly,
and pray with confidence, according to your will
knowing that you hear us.
We bring before you those in our parish,
in our city, and in our church.
May those who follow you influence others for good.
Let them be salt and light, pointing others to you.
Deepen their love for you and for the people around them.
We pray for teachers, for students,
and for all those in authority and leadership throughout the world.
Give them your mind, and surround them with good counsel.
May they exercise integrity and work for justice, truth, and freedom.
We pray for the lost, the hurting, the lonely, and the sick.
We forget not the bereaved,
and those who are imprisoned—behind both visible and invisible walls.
Send your comfort, your peace,
and your calming presence to those who are without hope.
Protect the defenceless, and hold them close to your heart.
There are so many needs,
but you, Lord, are adequate for every one.
Your name is powerful, and your power is great,
and so in your name we pray – and believe.
HYMN 519 Love divine, all loves excelling
Let us go from our time of worship
sharing the good news of God’s mercy.
And as we go may the blessing of God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
go with us all,
now and evermore.
Rivers of Babylon – the original version by The Melodians (1970):
Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV®
Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®
Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.