How can we sing
How We Can Sing September 27, 2020 P. Escamilla
Overnight a pandemic has changed the world’s landscape. New rules, new restrictions, new dress codes, new vocabulary words, new precautions we must teach our children. Add to all of that a new sense of wariness and apprehension when we’re in public spaces, surely owing at least in part to the fact that all of us are dressed like bandits.
The other day at the entrance to the hospital I was asked a question that in the Covid season has been flipped on its head: The person at the door with sterile gloves and the touchless thermometer asked me through his mask, “Have you been in contact with anyone positive?” A year ago that would have seemed like a very odd question. I wanted to say, “Oh, my goodness! You have no idea. I’ve been with positive people all day long! It’s wonderful!” Knowing he meant “positive” not in the 2019 sense, but in the 2020 sense, I answered no.
In such a strange time, we can relate to the psalmist’s question: How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? How do we find resonance amidst such dissonance, tumult and strife, when the falcon cannot hear the falconer? Maybe we should just forget about music for now, protecting our options against the day when we can bring those out again, packing up the instruments for a while, boxing up the songbooks. “Sweeping up the heart and putting love away.”
The army of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon invaded Judah in 587 BCE. The Jews who resided there, particularly in Jerusalem, were carried off to Babylon, where they would spend the next fifty years in exile. Once they were there, their captors, looking for amusement, commanded the Judeans to pick up their strange instruments and sing one of their curious songs in their odd mother tongue about their peculiar faith in a peculiar God.
Psalm 137 we shared just a moment ago, captures that exchange: Sing us one of the songs of Zion. The answer: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Utter the sacred texts, whisper the intricate prayers, recite the precious litanies, intone the holy melodies here, and now? The psalm gives us the impression they refused, at least initially: “We hung up our lyres in the willow trees.” As though in protest, no we will not sing.
Do you suppose that ever changed? Did they ever sing the Lord’s song in that strange land during that strange time? I’ll ask you this, and you answer me that. Do you think they chose to cart their musical instruments a thousand miles from Jerusalem to Babylon just to hang them in a tree?
The soldiers are at the door, barking their orders. “Let’s go. Move it. Everyone out.” Over their shoulders, in the crowded chaotic streets in Jerusalem, a caravan of prisoners is shuffling past; the city lay in ruins, the temple destroyed. “Move it; let’s go.” The soldiers are shouting and inside the parents, the adults, are trying to figure out what’s up from down. What do we take? What do we leave? The baby’s hungry. Heirlooms. The children are fighting. Keepsakes. We have to go. They’re shouting at us. All our treasures. Never mind all that, none of it matters now. On their way out the door one of them pauses and says, “Wait, the lyre. We must take the harp,” and goes to retrieve it and for a thousand miles, a child is on one arm and a musical instrument on the other.
Who in their right mind, in disruption and disorientation, thinks of music? The same person who in this moment, this season of disruption and disorientation, thinks of music; still chooses to draw a bow across the string. Or stroke the keys of a piano. Or sound the pipes of an organ. Or ring the bells in a tower.
Who thinks of music at a time like this? The same community of faith that has pealed those tower bells every Sunday since Easter — two dozen Sundays in succession — declaring our resurrection faith for all the muted world to hear. Who thinks of music at a time like this? The same congregation that has chosen to enter this room and hum the tune while the words remain quarantined on the page, or sit at a kitchen table and sing as best you can into a computer screen. Who thinks of music at a time like this? You do. We do.
Why? Why do we sing, even when we can’t really sing, but have to hum instead? Or clap or snap or tap or sway or moan? Sing into a computer screen because we can’t be with others right now? Arrange for others to sing or make music on our behalf while we listen and share it vicariously? Why? Why?
Because we know — we know what the Judeans also knew even in exile — that sacred music is a path that leads in two directions at one time; back to memory and forward to hope. We make music to remember who we are, and whose we are; that we are called and claimed, and loved and named, lifted from death to life, from darkness to light. We remember.
And we make music with the hope of offering that very same light to one another, of bringing some beauty into a broken world; we make music to be assured that the sun also rises, that healing and deliverance will come, that God will see us through. It is a far-off hymn, but it is real, and we can hear it, and by the grace of God we can find ways to sing it, too.
Did they ever? Now it’s time to wonder. Did they ever lift their lyres from those willow trees, and in that strange time make sacred music, offer their praise to God, the God of their memories and the God of their hopes? How could they keep from singing? It is what in strange and challenging times the people of God always do. It is what, in this strange and challenging time we have done, and will again, here and now.