So a week ago I was just emerging from my 13 hour ‘recovery sleep’ after GA12. Ever since I’ve been meaning to post some reflections on what was an incredibly fulfilling and infuriating experience!
Let me say that I have been deeply humbled by the wonderful feedback to the worship times we led at Assembly. Here are a few of my favourite comments:
‘…thank you for your music at Assembly and for making it welcoming for all but not too comfortable for anyone!’
‘Malcolm Gordon led with grace, simplicity, humour, pastoral sensitivity, and wisdom’
‘At all points Malcolm Gordon’s worship leading transcended the pettiness with simplicity and depth that restored our souls’
‘For the first time for years, I enjoyed the worship. Malcolm Gordon demonstrated a maturity we have longed for.
So, as you can imagine, this was more than enough to satisfy my need for appreciation!
But all insecurity aside, I wanted to reflect a little on what I had tried to do, what actually happened and how the Spirit of God seemed to be at work regardless.
Many have commented on the line up of musicians. It might sound unnecessary to say, but I wanted to have a group of musicians who could create beautiful music. Not just good music, not just tight music – but disarmingly, arrestingly beautiful music. I wanted people to stop in their tracks while we were rehearsing (which they did). I wanted Andrew’s versatility and brilliance on percussion to create foundations and feels for songs that would move people. I wanted Sophie and her cello, to give that warmth and richness to the songs, and the ability to create swelling musical moments that had us all stop in our tracks. I wanted Kirstin with her sensitive, passionate singing and playing, to back me up and to take the lead when needed. I needed Jon E around to make the reluctant sound gear do its thing, and to solve all the other problems that snuck up on us (and so I could gatecrash his live set in the theatre over dinner!)
It was a wonderful experience working with these guys. I haven’t played regularly with a group of musicians for the last 6 years – so it was a special kind of joy to have some friends to make music with. And I don’t have any shame in saying that we knew we were making really good music either. There were moments in rehearsal when we would stop at the end of a song and just pause and marvel at the sound we’d just made together. Conversely there were other times when we were decidedly unimpressed with what we were making. At times we couldn’t even articulate what wasn’t working – there was something almost mystical at moments, (an anointing perhaps) when some songs would fly, and others failed to get off the ground.
We had a veritably barrage of limitations to work within; time being the greatest of them. Other than the opening and closing services, we had two morning devotions (30 minutes) and two evening reflections (10 minutes). Both of these had other content, leaving us with less than half that time. Given that we had less than an hour of programmed time during the business sessions of Assembly, it is an absolute miracle the Spirit worked so powerfully! We wanted to use a decent number of new songs, both to tie into Ray’s theme of ‘Reviving the Flame’, becoming people of the Resurrection, but also so that we were all meeting on the same terms, rather than using songs from this group or that tradition. We were pretty ruthless on the songs that we used as well, and we had to be. With only the Friday and Saturday morning devotions with space available to learn something new we had to be sure what we taught was going to stick. The night before Assembly started we dropped ‘Come people of the Risen King’ – a brilliant Getty/Townend collaboration that I have used all over the country, because we couldn’t be sure it would take well enough, fast enough! In the end we focussed our energy on ‘I know he lives’ a new song by Graham Kendrick, and ‘Open our eyes’ by Wellington folk, Katie Lee and Zoe Henderson. Both caught on like a house on fire! It was pretty moving to see Katie and Zoe’s song being belted out on the Saturday night after a tense and often divisive debate session. I encouraged people to resist the temptation to close off to one another and to God, and to make some small gesture of ‘being open’ as we sang this song. People raised their arms, wept and held hands. It was beautiful.
Many people came and expressed their appreciation for the music and their longing for more of it. Each time I responded that the greatest proof for us that it was going well was the singing. At times it was deafening. On the Saturday morning Mark Johnstone led a devotion talking about shared spiritual disciplines – speaking from Colossians where Paul instructs his readers to ‘put on the clothes’ of the Christian life. At the end of the passage Paul writes, ‘above all, sing your hearts out!’ So we did. Andrew and Sophie led the largest Presbyterian drum line I’ve ever witnessed as we rolled our way through ‘Be thou my vision’ (without words as the projector had failed us that morning). There was something about giving people permission and encouragement to use their bodies in worship, to bang the chair in front of them, or clap their hands. This may sound all rather basic to you, but we in the PCANZ are in the remedial class when it comes to enthusiastic, embodied worship.
Particular highlights were the evening lullabies that happened almost by accident. Thursday was a ridiculously long day for many; flying to Auckland the night before, bussing to Ohope (4-5 hours) that morning, participating in the powhiri and opening service, then bussing to Rotorua (2 hours) and sitting through a 2.5 hour business session. At the end of it all, people were knackered. You could see it on their faces and in the way their shoulders slumped. So we sang a song over them. On Thursday night we sang ‘See how deep he loves’ which Matt Chapman, Kirstin and I had written at the songwriting weekend last year. On the Friday night, after another difficult day of business, we sang ‘Be still my soul’. Something special happened as we paused together, gave heed to something beautiful and unexpected, and found ourselves more deeply and honestly in the presence of God, each other and ourselves. It was wonderful to offer such a gift and refuge to people who were so weary.
One final thought. At the end of Assembly, we played music as people left the hall. People lingered to talk and say their goodbyes, and we used the chance to play all our favourite songs from over the weekend. As we ran out of songs and energy, I noticed a small group of women who remained seated together in the hall. They sat quietly, I think one of them was weeping, and they all seemed rather forlorn. They didn’t seem to be saying much, just sitting with one another. After a while they stood and left together.
I found myself wondering what they were grieving for, what they sensed they had lost. I had a sort of divine déjà vu moment, where I found myself remembering another group of women who gathered together to mourn over what they thought they’d lost, over the One they were sure was gone forever. I began to wonder whether there was an Unexpected Surprise around the corner for these women, an unforeseen resurrection.
I don’t know what they had lost, but I wondered how long it would stay that way for them. God comes to us from the margins, from the forgotten and unforeseen places. I wouldn’t be surprised if he surprises those women sometime soon, and hopefully all of the rest of us too.