A few years ago some of us might have been hesitant of making too much of Remembrance Sunday. We’re perhaps wary of appearing overly nationalistic, and sceptical of too much formal ceremony. But increasingly, I think, we’re coming to see that it gives us numerous things that are positively, beneficially Christian:
expression of sorrow over those who have been, and are being, killed and injured in wars;
mourning over our human sinfulness that is the ultimate cause of war;
thankfulness for those who have given their lives to defend this country against tyranny (and you can be a committed pacifist and yet still be truly thankful for this!)
appreciation to God for his sovereign control over all things, including wars;
the praise of a Saviour who laid down his life for us, to bring us eternal peace.
What’s more, many in Britain are still suffering consequences of wars; many are anxious about future of peace; and a considerable number are more likely than usual to accept an invitation to a church service.
So, how should we choose music that best serves our God and our people on November 11th?
I would keep two bible passages in the back of my mind when preparing (plus, of course, the topic of the sermon). The first is Psalm 46: God’s sovereign control over all things, including the power to make ‘wars cease’. The second is John 15:13 – “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Often applied to soldiers; in context a challenge to all Christians to lay down our lives for each other, and ultimately a pointer back to the cross of Jesus.
We want (even more than usual) to have an eye on outsiders and visitors, and help them find hope in Christ. Having said that, I’m not going to treat it quite as I would a “Guest Service”. I’m going to be happy to use expressions like “I’m lost in wonder…” at the climax of songs, giving visitors the opportunity to experience our collective adoration for Jesus (though I won’t do it too often!)
We want to be sensitive to those who feel particular pain on this day.
What about the traditional two minutes’ silence? Many may find it odd if we omit it, and we don’t necessarily have to do it at 11 o’clock. But we need to make sure it’s not shambolic! A few well-chosen words of introduction, a careful prayer, and perhaps a simple ceremony like a wreath-laying will lend it gravitas.
THE NATIONAL ANTHEM?
Several re-written National Anthems have appeared in hymnbooks over the years, attempting to make it more Christian and less jingoistic. By far the best that I know is the Jubilate Hymns version, in 3 verses, available from www.jubilate.co.uk and covered by the CCLI licence. It enables us to sing the National Anthem in a form which feels sufficiently close to the original, yet to pray: “Lord, be our nation’s light; Guide us in truth and right; In you we stand…Teach us your better way…” And it doesn’t finish up by degenerating into a simplistic prayer for worldwide peace and brotherhood.
There are many effective ways to lead the National Anthem: you don’t need a pipe organ or a silver band. But, needless to say, this is not the time to entertain your delusions of being Brian May on the roof of Buckingham Palace! It’s definitely a time for playing church with a straight bat, so to speak.
Those two bible passages I mentioned, Psalm 46 and John 15:13, lead us to a range of music. Of course, you’ll want mainly to be using music that is well known to your church; but here are some specific suggestions that illustrate the principles we’ve discussed.
On classic hymns, there is “O God, our help in ages past”, Isaac Watts’ paraphrase of Psalm 90, with its themes of human frailty and God’s care and control. Psalm 46 itself has been set to the Dambusters March as “God is our strength and refuge”. But I’ll be avoiding that one today, because for many that tune has such a strong association with the sight of Lancaster bombers swooping over Germany. We don’t want even a hint of triumphalism.
If we’re having two minutes’ silence, then I probably want some more reflective music leading up to that – perhaps Maggi Dawn’s “He was pierced for our transgressions”, with its acknowledgment from Isaiah 53 that “We, like sheep, have gone astray…”.
I might, if I’m able, follow up the silence with a solo such as Simon Brading’s “Have you heard of a God of love?” This song builds, musically and lyrically, to the death and resurrection of Christ that provides and proves the answer.
And, by now, we’re ready for a stronger congregational response such as Martyn Layzell’s “You chose the cross”, which would effectively lead straight out of “Have you heard”.
Later on, I might turn to Matt Redman’s “Who, O Lord, could save themselves? (You alone can rescue)”.
For the end of the service, of course I’ll be guided very much by the theme of the sermon. But it will be good to finish with something strong and positive that picks up our central themes. For example, “To God be the glory” takes us right where we should be and can be done musically in a variety of effective ways.
If the preaching has challenged us about the state of our lost world without Christ, then “Lord, for the years your love has kept and guided…” is an epic and powerful 20th century hymn. Play it with a band in B major, and then after verse 5 we might switch straight back into the middle eight from the Redman song: “We lift up our eyes…you’re the giver of life…You alone can rescue…To you alone belongs the highest praise…”
And that is a great note on which to finish any service.