Updating #ChurchAtHome

Who would have anticipated that we will be at this pandemic for 14 months and more?

By now, the novelty of watching Mass at home has worn out. In the beginning, it was interesting to see how different parishes put Mass online. Facebook Live?  Zoom gatherings? YouTube videos?  Basic cellphone video recording?  Professional multi-angle videos footage with editing?  Online screen prompts or display of responses and readings?  With all activities came to a halt at the beginning of the pandemic, there were plenty of time to think about baking interesting home “communion bread”. By the time the second lockdown came about, most “work”, but our social life, resumed.  Work might just took on a different form.  Some baking is still going on, but I am now baking the “essentials”.  Literally…bread. And then…my family started having lower tolerance for terrible music at online mass. Perhaps, it would have been easier if the hymns were on screen or made available before mass for people to sing along to hymns or Psalm response.  Unfortunately, I have only seen one parish that values parishioners’ participation at online mass this way. So, with the convenience of the mute button on laptops for live-streamed mass and the fast-forwarding mouse click for the pre-recorded ones, we watched mass online with less agitation. Click…problem solved.  

Needless to say, Sunday worship is now a passive activity. It has now been diminished to watching an ordained person worshipping at the altar. The most active work on our part is really to scout for the online mass with homily that speaks to us best. We have a choice! Some live streamed mass allows parishioners to greet and chat with one another. Although this allows some sense of community, the chats online during the live stream are also distractions to our worship.

I am writing all the above not to dismiss the genuine efforts of many clergies trying their best to keep the parish alive and to serve the parishioners. They have been trying and working very hard…and without technical training or formation for Online Ministry.  The reality is that this challenging time prompts us to constantly re-examine how the baptized worship and why we worship in a certain way.

I was reading Robert Johnson’s book on Inner Work and there was a passage that talked about rituals.

It led me to remember the times when I was fully engaged in playing a piano piece.  The last time I played the melancholy Brahms’ Intermezzo, Op. 118 No. 2 for friends after dinner, there was a long moment of silence, and I had goosebumps all over. It was a transcendental moment. I neither remembered the mechanical notes while I was playing them, nor did I remember my own actions/performance.  That was an experience of my body and my emotions feeling all the symbols on the paper! This memory made me realized how important it is for me to sing hymns as rituals.

For many years, I enjoyed the experience as a cantor at church.  I was excited about the words that jumped out at me as I sang.  I had talked about how the hymn lyrics were my first lessons in Theology.  However, I have never considered how the rest of my body, other than the brain, understood those words and experienced those words. After reading the quoted words of Johnson, I now understand why I would shed a tear every time I sing the choral piece “Pray One Hour” by Paul K. McKay during Lent. A piece on Jesus praying in Gethsemane, asking the disciples to pray one hour with Him, for tomorrow He must die. Every time. And… that piece “The Summons” by John L. Bell? Every time after leading that hymn at church, I felt compelled to think of my works of charity and act accordingly. Will you let my love be shown…Will you let me answer pray’r in you and you in me?… Perhaps, this is the effect of muscle memory that we talked about in piano practice when you practised to the point that the fingers just move to the right keys even when your memory fail you.  The body cells know what to do

For me, singing the hymns rather than passively listening to the hymns mean that my body cells get to know and fully engaged in the hymn lyrics. That is the effect of a good ritual.  Hymn singing is my ritual that allows me to have full participation in worship. This is something that I can do for #ChurchAtHome. For others, it may be dramatizing Scripture or taking an Awe Walk to have a transcendental experience. I am sure there are many rituals that can lead us to God.  After all, God wants to reach all of us! It will be silly for us to think that there is only one way for the baptized to worship.

I am so glad that I still have all the hymn books with me after retiring from music ministry. I think I am going to try the ritual of meditating on the daily readings and singing hymns on my own for the while.  Together with the experience of online faith sharing groups, I believe I get to worship and feel the love of the church community in the best way possible during this unusual time.  I shall update you on my #ChurchAt Home experience if the pandemic lingers on.

Singing for Hope and Joy

Something is amiss this Christmas Season…

True. We are all trying to survive a pandemic and we are all affected by it in different ways.  However, Christians previously struggled and never failed to be joyful during the Advent and Christmas season.  So, why do I find it so difficult to ignite that spark in my heart to feel hopeful and joyful this year?

I wonder…I wonder if it could be the lack of singing as a community that puts a damper in my spirit!

Something happens when we sing.  When we feel the vibration from singing within the cells in our bodies, we are invigorated! When we sing with a community, we are encouraging one another with the meaningful lyrics that are readily understood by the other, responding to others by singing the exact same words that they offered! It’s true that we sing to praise God in our communal worship, but we also sing as one Body of Christ and get that mystery through the embodiment of our beliefs. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I understand and agree with the need to not sing together during this pandemic.  I read many good scientific reports on the possible spread of the coronavirus through respiratory droplets and aerosols. We really should not aid the transmission of this terrible virus with our vocal projections.  That said…I think there is a really a huge loss for our worship and spiritual experience when we cannot sing together at church, especially during this Advent and Christmas season.

Advent hymns are all often filled with hopeful messages, such as “Come, O long expected Jesus born to set your people free…from captivity”, “In sorrow that the ancient curse…You came, O Savior, to set free Your own in glorious liberty”, or “When hope shall sing its triumph and sadness flee away.”  These hymns were sung through generations. The words remind us of our Hope was here, is here and will be here, no matter what circumstances in which we find ourselves. Sure, we may hear a single cantor singing those words for us, but we will simply be bystanders to those words and messages. In fact, most hymns are not even sung with all the stanzas by the cantor at church these days. Without the congregation joining in singing, music is treated more like decorations to our liturgies. In the last few months, I often hear one single verse of the first hymn sung by the cantor, just long enough for the priest to reach the altar from the church entrance. The first hymn is no longer a gathering hymn. To me, there is simply nothing like feeling the vibrations of every syllable in our bones for the messages to be hammered into my soul.   

Earlier, I checked out Christmas hymns from hymnals of several Christian congregations. I realised our Catholic Book of Worship has only three stanzas for Joy to the World, compared to the printed versions of the same hymn in hymnals of other denominations.  I wonder why the third stanza of the original Joy to the World is left out from our hymnals. Perhaps, whoever compiled the hymns thought we should only focus on the joyful glories of the Lord?  The original third stanza reminds us that God’s blessings flow, regardless of sins and sorrows in our lives. For our sakes during this pandemic time, I think it is good to remember He rules the world with truth. That would include our first parents’ original sin, our pains and sorrows, and all the frustrations that come with our current pandemic.  There should be no fear of singing about that as we sing that at the end, the wonders of His love will bring us Joy to this world.

I prescribe myself one possible antidote for the lack of Hope and Joy this season: To sing my heart out, preferably with someone in my household.  We still have a few more days of Advent.  Let’s sing all the Advent hymns we know. And if no one else in your household would sing with you, there are lots of good recordings with lyrics on screen on YouTube. It’s not too late!

Wishing you a Hopeful and Joyful Christmas!

When did you last see the face of God?

Seek His Face Always

Last weekend, my family took the time to watch the Tom Hanks’ movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.  The movie is about the encounters between the popular children’s show host Fred Rogers and the magazine journalist Lloyd Vogel, who was assigned to interview Mr. Rogers. Those encounters ended up being opportunities for Fred Rogers to help Lloyd heal an old wound.   Prior to watching the movie, I did not have much expectation on the movie, and simply looked forward to a relaxing evening. However, I was pleasantly surprised at one scene in the movie. During the scene, Lloyd, troubled by his father’s hospitalization, looked for Fred Rogers. Fred took Lloyd to a diner and asked him to join him for a minute of silence, to think about the people in their lives who helped shape them to become who they are now. Mr. Rogers assured him that the faces of those people would come to mind.

Sure enough, I took the opportunity to try the exercise…and many unexpected faces floated into my mind.  For sure, I saw the faces of many family members, teachers, and close friends.  However, there were also faces of the odd acquaintances, whom I realized only at that moment, who had starring roles in my life.  Some of them went through events of their own and I found their reactions to those events admirable.  Others had randomly made a comment to me or asked me a question at some point that greatly impacted me. All those people in my mind cannot be more different from one another.  They have different personalities, belong to a wide range of age groups, and they have different cultural backgrounds and beliefs.  However, it was clear to me towards the end of the exercise that all of them played a role in shaping me.

We often read about seeing “the face of God” in the Bible as knowing God. We are often reminded to see the face of God in others when we serve them. However, it seems that God also seek us and shape us through others! There are no random happenings in life and Jeremiah reminded us of that. “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord…” (Jer 29:11)  The people in our lives who shaped us, including acquaintances, are divine instruments, and their words and actions were sent our way as we need them.

Well, when do you think you last saw the face of God?

Just be silent for one minute and think about the people who came into your life and helped shape you. The many faces of God will float in your mind.