The People – The church that matters by Juliet Fletcher

A personal look at music, life, death and eternity out of COVID-19

“Eat, drink, for tomorrow we die…” is the stark suggestion made by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:32. As my column is normally about music, you’d be right to wonder, What has this verse of Scripture got to do with music? 

I’d like to offer some closing thoughts about this season we’ve called ‘lockdown’.

MUSIC – A CARRIER OF HOPE

Even though I have had limited interactions with all forms of social and online media since lockdown started, I have witnessed the crucial role music has played amongst ordinary as well as professional practitioners. Can you imagine how dry, droll and totally devoid of hope we all would be without music during lockdown? Unimaginable, right? 

The arts – but very specifically music – are a means by which all levels within our communities have been able to participate in very simple but dynamic ways. I know of individuals who have started collective singing of hymns and inspirational songs with their neighbours, which has sparked a whole new meaning of community relations.

However, there would seem to be a massive gap within our UK gospel music that speaks of a disconnect between a spiritual dynamic of God in our lives and the reality of our everyday experiences, particularly in human suffering. The stark fact of this was frankly expressed by Dr Pauline Muir, Lecturer in Arts Management, Institute for Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship at Goldsmiths University. During her interview for theologian and broadcaster Dr Robert Beckford’s mini documentary, ‘Better Must Come: Black Pentecostals, the Pandemic and the future of Christianity’, she stated: “We don’t have a catalogue of sorrow; we don’t have a catalogue of songs that may reflect the day-to-day reality of some people’s lives.” 

So we only have to lean on the spirituals and deep hymnody, many of which are rooted in the US African American experience. And it’s these melodies and prose that have succoured us much throughout these times, as they have for centuries. We must change this. These extraordinary circumstances give us a chance to register a new history for our future referencing and needs should it arise (!!).

GRASPING THE DIGITAL THORNS FOR THE VIRTUAL ROSE  

When the sudden shutdown of our churches occurred, leaders had no choice but to grasp the digital strands to become more effective in reaching out to church members. And the youthful and digitally savvy individuals came to the fore and led the way. It really does mean that many of our churches and Christian fellowship groups have embarked on a new way of working – even where they have struggled before to come to terms with the digital age. Some of our seniors have even had the delight of being included as a real part of the Zoom digital age.

With this ‘new way’ of having church, it’s virtually impossible for our fellowships to take a backward step in the way they communicate. And no one is reporting this as a negative. Into church services have been posted more of our UK writers’ music, as well as not-so-well-known artists and worship leaders presenting music. That’s so good.

People are really appreciating the skill and knowledge of those who have long (in some cases fought and) championed the progress of trying new songs, new artists and ministers of music. And we pray this will continue.

VIRTUAL CHOIRS 

The most dynamic development has been the virtual choirs. This phenomenon was started some years ago, but has now come into its own. Lurine Cato’s singular efforts have been well noted by gospel industry colleagues, which included exposure on national television and radio networks. She (and her team) highlighted the cause of the Cavell Nurses’ Trust, which supports thousands of nurses, midwives and healthcare assistants, and who were recipients of the fundraising benefits. These and other virtual choirs have highlighted even more the power of singing. Virtual choirs will be a feature that will stay with us in a greater way far beyond COVID-19.

The united effort, as shown with ‘The Blessing UK’ recording (spearheaded by worship leader and pastor Tim Hughes), was very impressive to people, as it portrayed a strong representation of all types of churches, including BAME churches, in a powerful way. These gospel virtual choirs, also from the USA and African continent, are showing how much we can cooperate with each other; conduct genuine outreach, and communicate the power of song – whilst working really great arrangements. One of the best of these is the House Gospel Choir that has maintained a wide range of arrangements, producing more than a dozen virtually created videos during lockdown. 

Virtual choirs, as well as similar collaborative vocal and instrumental pairings, will become increasingly popular and are likely to grow. As technology develops more features, these choirs will become the normal way of sharing collective voices across local communities and continents. 

LEST WE FORGET 

After observing these mainly positives in this ‘Coronavirus Season’, there is something our churches – or rather WE – must not forget, and it is my ONE SINGLE REASON from which the opening Scripture “Eat, drink, for tomorrow we die…” is derived. The Apostle Paul said these words because there were people who said there is no resurrection of the dead. He then speaks of the apostles’ witness of JESUS seen alive; he speaks of his own experiences, and then reminds the saints of their own experiences of the living JESUS, who today we ourselves have encountered in our lives through the living Spirit of God. The context is that we are not confined to the material quest of existing or living in this life. THE PICTURE IS FAR BIGGER.

If you think about it, COVID-19 has had us enclosed in our homes; most of us not able to work; many of us having time on our hands to do many things we haven’t been able to do in our homes previously… but most of all focused on eating and drinking, and buying up all we can because we don’t know what tomorrow may bring – we may die. And, sadly for some of us, family and friends have died. 

Personally, I’m thinking very much of one of my favourite (I have many) Pentecostal denominations – COGOP – which experienced an awful statistic of deaths related to COVID-19. Bishop Theophilus McCalla MBE, Bishop Horatio Fearon, and my very dear sister-friend Colleen Laing, who served in the central office of COGOP under numerous Administrative Bishops. Her mother, Agatha Laing, also died within days of her passing. Like all others, the usual Homegoing and Celebration Of Life services were not permitted – tens of hundreds would have attended. It makes me miserable just thinking about that. Indeed, in the 19th verse of the same 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says: “If in this life only we had hope, we would be of all men the most miserable.” We must still find a way to celebrate them, to mark and express our mixture of joy and pain. We simply MUST! 

This may sound odd, but I believe through the quoted Scripture that what we have of ETERNITY begins in the believer NOW. Within this current experience I see it as a present possession. I cannot look at what we do with our music – with “the reason why we sing”or why we become involved in the arts and culture – without this fact to guide us: JESUS LIVES and He is coming again to change the physical earth and renew all systems – social, political, cultural. 

You name it; it will be made new. I am convinced that we need to look at all our experiences and all our teaching and preaching through the lens of ETERNITY, otherwise all we hope for here will be vanity. It isn’t about being too heavenly minded to be no earthly good. We need to pray “Lord, help us to be practical in bringing Heaven’s values – Your Kingdom principles – here, so that we can be of greater impact – more than ever before.” 

I’m so deeply impressed and am looking more into the ministry of Ravi Zacharias, founder of RZIM who died recently (not of COVID-19). Known as a Christian Apologist, an apology (in the conventional sense of the word) was the furthest thought from his work. He preferred the term Christian Thinker. His organisation’s strapline is ‘Help the Thinker to Believe and the Believer to Think’. He’d spent more than five decades speaking, teaching and lecturing around the world, and has a fantastic international team and an incredible legacy, which included a passion for the Arts. 

My prayer is that our ‘salt value’ and ‘light power’ will be experienced in new ways that transform the individuals in our communities and societies more than ever before. Hopefully we can see that it’s the people who matter more than the brick and mortar and, through the POWER of the HOLY SPIRIT, we will be better doers. Open our eyes, Lord, to creative methods in maintaining and celebrating all that we are and what we do as people of faith and the Way.

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