home

Can you hear the singing?

In my youth, I very much enjoyed being part of a parish church choir. One day, when a few minutes remained at the end of choir practice, one of the ancient members (I was a teenager; they must have been at least 40 years old) suggested finishing with The Wilderness. This anthem by Sir John Goss takes its words from Isaiah 35. The choir had learned it before I joined, but I had no problem understanding their enthusiasm. As sopranos, altos, tenors and basses sang overlapping parts proclaiming ‘streams in the desert’ and telling of ‘songs of everlasting joy’, the exuberance was palpable.

Fast-forwarding more than 35 years… I’d become aware of what I can only describe as an area of desolation in the deepest part of my heart. Now and then it would remind me of its existence, but most of the time it was silent and frustratingly inaccessible to my attempts to get a handle on it. I didn’t understand what had brought it into being, but I did know that I wanted to be free of it. I and others had prayed for healing, and I’d seen much benefit as a result, but an area of ‘desert’ remained.

One day, as I was travelling to meet a friend for further prayer, I felt God saying, ‘Today’s the day.’ And it was! After the Lord had been at work in profound ways that defy description, I began to ‘hear’ joyful singing—about waters breaking out in the wilderness and streams in the desert; about the ransomed of the Lord singing songs of joy. And my heart sang, too! The words of the anthem, not sung for half a lifetime, had come bursting out. They provided much-needed assurance that God had indeed brought healing and restoration.

Remembering

Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would remind them of everything he’d said (John 14:26). Given the traumatic time ahead, it’s just as well they had expert help with remembering his instructions! But this experience of the Holy Spirit jogging the memory is one for which followers of Jesus continue to be thankful today.

‘I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you,’ says the psalmist (Psalm 119:11, NIV). As a young Christian I was urged to memorize key verses, and did my best. It’s probably true, though, that singing implanted most of what my brain has retained. By God’s grace, psalms and canticles chanted in my teens often pop up at just the right time, when I’m mulling over something for work or when praying. They’re a rich resource, as are more recent worship songs based on scripture.

If you’re aware that there’s very little of the Bible in your memory—you’ve only recently become a Christian, or you struggle with learning anything by heart—don’t fret. Start now! Many people find songs and hymns based on scripture a good place to begin, but try asking the Creator who made you what will work best for you. The key point is to cooperate with God by filling your mind with things the Holy Spirit might conceivably wish to bring to your remembrance.

Picturing

My prayer partner tells me that she struggles to memorize words, yet has no difficulty with picturing scenes. Her experience, and the encouraging ending to the time of prayer I’ve described, point to ways in which imagination may be used to serve God’s purposes. It’s worth noting that while, in our culture, imagination is often linked to unreality and fantasy—some of it unutterably vile—God intended ‘the eyes of our hearts’ to be conduits for the truth and treasures of heaven. The apostle Paul understood this. Writing to the Ephesians, he said, ‘I pray… that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which [God] has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe’ (Ephesians 1:18–19, NIV).

In today’s world we’re bombarded with images that can so easily pollute this picture-making capacity of our minds. If you’re aware that your imagination has been contaminated by being misused, it would be wise to pray first (or ask others to pray with you) for cleansing. If the idea of using your imagination as you read scripture is new, you may feel uneasy. It’s good to pray a prayer for protection, asking God to come by his Holy Spirit and set a guard around you, especially your mind and heart. Then, check out any pictures and thoughts that come, and see if they’re in tune with scripture. You may find it helpful to make notes in a journal.

Isaiah 35 could be a good place to start. Read it through very slowly, a phrase at a time. Can you ‘see’ the parched land of the desert, cracked and with no sign of life? (Don’t rush on—stay with the picture, and listen to anything God might be wanting to say through it.) Now ‘watch’ as a trickle of water arrives, gradually becoming a stream, and then a gushing torrent. What happens to the burning sand? Can you see the flowers springing up? What is God saying as you contemplate this picture of regeneration and renewal?

How about verses 3 and 4: are you able to visualize the weak and dispirited people? What is their body language conveying? Weariness? Fear? Despair? What happens as they hear these words of hope?

“Energize the limp hands, strengthen the rubbery knees. Tell fearful souls, ‘Courage! Take heart! God is here, right here, on his way to put things right and redress all wrongs. He’s on his way! He’ll save you!’” (The Message)

Picture the faces of blind men, women and children as they begin to see—and those with all sorts of physical disabilities, now able to do things they believed impossible (vv. 5–6).

God has the power to deliver on his promises—and he’s on his way! Isaiah 35 is one of the passages we may use to keep our hearts expectant during the waiting time.

If your life has much in common with the wilderness, ask God to help you lift your eyes from the dust to what lies beyond. Can you picture that highway (vv. 8–10), bringing a sense of direction to the featureless wasteland? Purged of all evil and danger, it’s for those who have been redeemed and ransomed. Can you see them journeying together… sense the atmosphere, rich with celebration, as they arrive in the holy city? Can you hear the singing?

Whether or not you find it easy to visualize the scene and ‘hear’ the joyful voices, if you’ve trusted in Christ this glad homecoming is your destiny, too. And that highlights an important function of picturing—our imaginations helping our hearts to embrace biblical truths that our minds already know, helping us to enter fully into aspects of reality that otherwise we might only glimpse from afar. Note the important distinction from fantasizing: this exercise is reality-based imagining, rooted in biblical truth.

Enlarging our vision

In the days and weeks that followed the healing of my mini-desert, I thanked God for what he’d done. As I did so, I was able to ‘see’ a swathe of crocuses (35:1)—probably more English country garden than Middle Eastern desert, but truly a ‘symphony of song and colour’ (v. 2, The Message). Some months later, while I was thanking God for what he’d done in my life, it was as if I turned a corner. I realized that the swathe of crocuses I’d seen before was only a tiny part of a wide valley carpeted with blooms. Wow! As yet, I don’t know the significance of this extended picture. What I do know is that God is in the business of restoration, redemption and healing; of offering a safe way through the wilderness in the company of others on the same journey. I sense that he’s wanting to enlarge my vision of what he can do—and perhaps your vision, too.


Originally published in Quiet Spaces Journal: The Wilderness, published by Bible Reading Fellowship, 2006.