“I have been finding a great blessedness in these last few months in definitely obeying the command ‘Let them sing aloud upon their God!’ – I remembered Pearsall Smith half a lifetime ago, saying in a meeting – at the first Oxford Conference or thereabout – that he wondered how many present had ever obeyed it. But the seed thought has never got vitalized til now.'” Diary 5 February 1919
Amy Carmichael, posits the question: “Do you ever find prayer difficult because of tiredness or dryness?” She suggests, “When that is so, it is an immense help to let the psalms and hymns we know by heart say themselves or sing themselves inside us. This is possible anywhere and at any time.” Lilias took this a step further, quoting the Biblical injunction “Let them sing aloud upon their God,” making it a daily practice upon awakening in the morning.
It is interesting to note that this began decades after it was first suggested at an Oxford Convention. The context is all important in understanding why, after all these years, Lilias turned to a previously unheeded practice. The year was 1918. Lilias and her colleague, Blanche Haworth, made a return trip to Tozeur – after a 22 year absence. Thrilled to see the same spirit of receptivity, they rented a fondak (ancient inn) and prepared it for a desert out-station. Then, stepping out in faith, they identified yet another post in Monastir, along the coastline of Tunisia, to sustain workers during the hottest months of the summer. Energized by this new development, they returned to Algiers and resumed their somewhat curtailed wartime programs, writing, and hospitality, all the while strategizing future ministry in the Southlands.
Then, without warning, a fever that Blanche had developed, not considered serious, escalated into a fatal illness. On 8 March 1918, the morning of the 30th anniversary of their arrival in Algeria, Blanche “crossed to the other side all unknowing.” Not only had Lilias lost her beloved friend, united in vision and service from the first day in Algeria, but a colleague indispensible to the ongoing ministry. Visions for the future were curtailed as Lilias re-organized the forces to accommodate the pressing needs at home. Lilias moved from the Casbah, in Algiers, to the suburb of El Biar to sustain Blanche’s ministry of hospitality to native families and the constant stream of guests.
Lilias’s co-workers marvelled at her strength and grace as she threw herself into the various ministries and dealt with the reality of “hope deferred” in future plans. But the unpublished pages of her diaries took on a more personal turn as she explored the mysteries of Heaven – what did it look like? (would Blanche be welcomed by the “dear baby souls” taken in a typhoid epidemic?); pondering the theories of Paradise (waking or sleeping?) – considering the ever-diminishing barrier between earth and eternity. Almost lost, amongst her musings and reports of ministry, is this cryptic paragraph which reveals the dullness of her aching soul: “One’s first waking then has been heretofore so constantly a time of fighting through to a place where one could pray but… praising & praising the Precious Blood & the name of Jesus every drift of mist melts away & prayer can begin straight away under a clear sky.”
There are times when we don’t feel like praying. The loss of a loved one – or a way of life – has sealed our hearts. Our lips are mute. Difficulties that we face daily have worn down our spirits or made doubters of us. Why pray? Sometimes there are stretches of dullness, even depression, that makes the effort of praying seemingly impossible. Even if we want to pray, we can’t. Can something as simple as a song turn our thoughts to praise and our praise to prayer?
Amy Carmichael maintained, “Hymns, little prayer-songs of our own, even the simplest of them, can sing us into His love. Or more truly, into the consciousness of His love for we are never for one moment out of it.”
A friend who was undergoing chemo treatment, shared her particular dread of the MRI’s – her claustrophobic fear of the tunnel. Her antidote? She began singing a chorus from childhood, the deeper into the clanging tunnel the louder she sang. Her prayer-tunes out-sang the fears and the sounds of the machine.
Many of us, like my friend, have a “deposit” of hymns (as, Evelyn Bence wrote) – “valuable reserves hidden away for us to draw on”(1) stored in our memory bank. Sometimes it helps us to have the prompter of a hymnbook to express the words our mouths can’t seem to form. From time to time, especially when I need assist, I have used The One Year Book of Hymns (2) as a personal devotional, reading the daily story behind the hymn then (quietly!) intoning the words of praise that lead me to prayer.
Can it really be so simple – a song, a prayer? Certainly we grasp the importance of corporate singing – campfire, church, cathedral – from the earliest of time. Psalms, considered the first prayerbook, were set to music and sung by pilgrims of old. But solo? Me alone – with God? Can singing lift the dullness from my soul and turn my words to prayer? Richard Foster writes: “The medium of music gives wings to our words and freedom to our devotion.”
Can singing turn ones heart from dullness to praise… from praise to prayer…? Try it! Sing when you don’t feel like praying. Sing till you do feel like praying. Sing your praise. Sing out of the gloom. Sing for obedience. Sing for the glory of God. Sing!
“I will sing to the LORD… The LORD is my strength and my song.”
1) Spiritual Moments with the Great Hymns by Evelyn Bence (Zondervan)
2) The One Year Book of Hymns (Tyndale)
Painting: Journal 1898