THE SINGING FIELDS
The only entry under ‘R’ in Don Cormack’s book is ‘Has, Uncle’, with references to some twenty pages. Has and his daughter Rose are two heroic figures in the 1997 masterpiece “Killing Fields, Living Fields (OMF International and MARC, Crowborough). Their sufferings and triumphs can stand beside anything in Hebrews 11.
If the indexing had gone beyond main names and themes, a second item after the devoted Pastor would be ‘hymns’ . The book rings with the sound of the praises of Christ from the Cambodian church, faithfully planted, patiently nurtured, violently assaulted, and supernaturally fruitful.
Sometimes it is almost the sound of silence; hymns whispered as refugees huddle together in constant danger. ‘But when alone in the fields, the Christians found themselves quietly singing and humming the hymns they loved’. Notice, they ‘found themselves’; no need for dutiful recitation through gritted teeth. Hymns, like prayer, are the Christians’ vital breath, their native air. With few possessions but their remaining rags of clothing, they still managed to keep a couple of books hidden away from the Khmer Rouge. One was the Bible; the other, a hymn book.
In precious days of greater freedom, the singing blossomed with joy; converts from Cambodia’s strange mix of Buddhism and other ‘faiths’ delighted to learn the songs of holy Zion and compose many of their own. In days of reunion after long marches, separations, imprisonments, tortures and deaths, even stronger are the hymns of thanksgiving, evangelism and challenge.
One unique moment was filled with sweetness; ‘the fragrance acquired from walking close to the Son of God through the flames’. The Lord’s walking wounded could gather at last in safety to pray, preach and sing, without a trace of bitterness at their oppressors. In the highs and lows of this extraordinary narrative, hymns are never far away. How can they be, among the people of Christ?
Here is the perfect answer to those who think that hymns are for the library, the museum, or the bin. I do not rule out Christian songs in this claim; I do rule out the kind of junk-music and trash-words which the author condemns as being quite unable to sustain Christians in the face of worse than animal savagery.
It also meets another objection. What is the point, we are sometimes asked, of being seduced by the details of Doddridge or tinkering with tunes, while the world is ripped apart by such appalling slaughter? Surely we need political solutions or spiritual transformations before the finer points of Crimond or Common Metre!
In Cambodia they know that these are false distinctions. Whatever Paul and Silas sang in the Philippian cells, and whether or not Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego managed the entire Benedicite in the burning fiery furnace, Christians under extreme pressure never despise their hymns. Some texts reflect their daily traumas; others simply overflow with praise to our Creator and Redeemer.
Early in his pilgrimage, before the fall of Phnom Penh, Uncle Has and two friends lived out Daniel chapter 3 in their own stifling prison cell. Out of the darkness came ‘O happy day’; so it ever was, and shall be while fires and prisons last.
One final point; some readers may think this all sounds a bit evangelical. Spot on… so it is! But reassurance is at hand. By page 405 of this contemporary classic, its author is an ordained Anglican; on Palm Sunday 1993 he became Incumbent of the first Anglican Church in Cambodia.
I say this for some who can hardly believe that Anglicans can be Christians, and others who cannot grasp how evangelicals can be Anglicans. We have better reason than most to sing from the same hymn-sheet.
Christopher Idle is Assistant Minister of Christ Church, Old Kent Road in the diocese of Southwark.