Holy Habits founder Andrew Roberts reflects on ‘The power of praise’ for Palm Sunday.
The power of praise
I recently witnessed something extraordinarily lovely. I had been invited to lead a short service of worship at a nursing home. As it was my first visit I thought I’d play it safe and centre the service on Psalm 23, say the Lord’s Prayer in its traditional form and play three really well-known hymns: ‘How Great Thou Art’ and ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’ in both its traditional form and Stuart Townend’s version.
As we were preparing to start, several residents were asleep (it was just after lunch) and one was registering her displeasure that the TV had been turned off.
But then, as soon as the first bars of ‘How Great Thou Art’ played, the room came alive with the most glorious singing and a wonderfully tangible sense of God’s presence, peace, power and love.
Several of the residents have dementia, and it was wonderful to see how the music and words of the hymns brought them alive.
One of them, Peter, was part of a church where I was minister some years ago. I was deeply touched to see this lovely man, who clearly did not recognise me, singing his heart out in praise of his Lord. I phoned his wife to tell her, and she was moved to tears of joy to hear of this.
After pronouncing a blessing, I was just about to pack up when another wonderful thing happened. The residents began singing ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’ all over again. It felt a bit like an encore at a rock concert. Not quite the UK equivalent of the recent events at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky, where thousands have participated in an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, but something very, very special: a moment when the Holy Spirit just gently takes over and nothing can stop the praises of God being sung. How I long for more of that.
On the first Palm Sunday, nothing could stop the praises of God being sung, shouted and celebrated. I love the little scene at the end of Luke’s account of Palm Sunday, where, in response to the Pharisees’ grumbling about the spontaneous worship, Jesus says that even if the crowd kept quiet, the stones would cry out:
When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ‘Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’ Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples!’ ‘I tell you,’ he replied, ‘if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.’
Open to the Spirit
I mentioned Asbury a moment ago and it has been fascinating to see what has happened there after a group of students stayed behind after a service and simply carried on praising God. Weeks later they were still at. If you’ve not seen what has been happening, just have a quick look on Google or YouTube and see what you think.
Personally, I’ve never been great at the spontaneous – a bit like Colin Firth’s repressed lawyer character, Harry, in the film Mamma Mia, for whom everything had to be highly planned and low risk. A friend of mine use to tease me by saying that if the Holy Spirit wanted to shape a service I was preparing she had better do so by Wednesday evening as I would have everything neatly prepared by then.
The events of Palm Sunday were, of course, a mixture of the planned and the spontaneous. Jesus made careful preparations while the crowds reacted in ways that surprised the authorities.
And significantly Jesus welcomes this despite knowing that the euphoria would not last and that some shouting, ‘Hosanna,’ would just a few days later be crying, ‘Crucify!’
So, this Palm Sunday, whether you love to dance as you sing or cling to your hymn book for dear life, why not open yourself afresh to the Holy Spirit? The Spirit who
led the students at Asbury to keep on praising
who led those lovely people at the nursing home to keep on singing ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’ until they all needed a cup of tea
who will make sure God’s praises are sung even if the rocks and stones have to do it.