Many years ago, in 597 BCE, a group of people was forcibly removed from their homeland by a foreign power—Nebuchadnezzar. They were as discouraged and devastated as the caged bird that dreams of freedom, and they cried bitter tears. Psalm 137:1-4 describes their pain: “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
How, indeed? Have you woken up in a strange land recently? Maybe it was in the doctor’s office, hearing the specialist give you the 2nd or the 3rd opinion that you particularly dreaded hearing. Maybe it was in your work cubicle as you sat down, knowing that you days were numbered there and your choices now overwhelming. Maybe the strange land was the faraway look in your spouse’s eyes or the cutting look of hostility that your child gave you as he left the house in the morning. How can someone who is between an old relationship ending and a new life beginning sing praise? How can someone who is facing a serious diagnosis learn to get on with his or her life, just as it is? How can the elder sing a new song when our society worships youth and casts a dismissive glance on the trials and experience of the aged?
At times like these, we are caught in a holding pattern, caught in foreign territory, frequently against our will. We are not through grieving our losses; we are waiting for something better, some deliverance perhaps, some rescue from our pain from outside ourselves, but it won’t or doesn’t come in the time frame we expect. Meanwhile we are told by others to get on with our life, or to forgive or to assimilate before we are ready, or to wallpaper over our misery with cheerful acquiescence and pleasantries. “How are you?” a friend asks, and we know what we are supposed to say and how the verbal exchange is expected to go. “I am fine,” we may lie and say for the sake of social custom, suspecting that already our listener has moved on to the next thing. Our “tormentors” ask us to sing songs of gladness when we our throats choke back tears and our hands won’t stop trembling. Have you ever tried to sing when you are depressed? Or angry? Or just plain weary and worn out? Have you ever tried to sing when you’d forgotten why the song, your song, existed in the first place?
Maya Angelou writes,
“The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom…”
We need to sing songs of the unknown things, and all those things longed for still. We need to keep the memory of those things alive for each other and alive for ourselves. But what things? you may ask. We sing and speak the goodness that we struggle to see, the hope that we refuse to believe is long gone, the vision of what is possible, the kindness that does not disappoint, and the dreams that have not gone sour. We need to keep alive by our songs, prayers, stories, and symbols the love that won’t die, the friendship that doesn’t abandon, and all the moments that bear witness to the fact that pain is transitory, that the devils of this world will not win, and that human beings have not left each other to struggle alone and devoid of help.
This past weekend, I attended a writing workshop at Bon Secours in Marriottsville, MD, with the musician and songwriter, Carrie Newcomer. At one point during the workshop, an older woman raised her hand to speak. Moments before, a few of us had shared just a single sentence each which described in detail some small thing that we had seen or noticed on the way to the workshop. One sentence. The sentences had risen to the ceiling like balloons let go by eager children. The woman who spoke began to well up with emotion. She shared that she had lost her peripheral vision and begun to go completely blind. She thanked us, saying that she was so appreciative of those who risked sharing in this small exercise because each sentence helped her to see in great detail what she had so recently lost. In so many words, she thanked us for helping her to sing a song in a strange land…the strange land of encroaching disability and increasing blindness.
As a friend pointed out to me at that same workshop, we do not know the gifts that our song, our words and witness, will bring to another. Our experience, our truth and stories, woven thru with golden threads of hard-won hope or peace, and beaded with the smallest grains of faith often offer just the encouragement and empowerment that are needed for someone to take the next step on his or her journey. Those songs form a kind of path through the darkness and through the pain of this present moment; those stories remind both the giver and the receiver that such difficult times will not last, that there are more moments of grace and goodwill on the horizon, and that the evils that beset and oppress us will not prevail.
Carrie Newcomer, who is a Quaker, has written some 16 albums worth of songs. She is a prolific writer. I asked her if she ever had a period “where the words just would not come. Not writer’s block, but something more…a protracted period of wordlessness.” Essentially, I was asking if she ever had a time when she felt she could not sing in a strange land. What in the world did she do?
She thoughtfully paused and then said that yes, she had had such a time. She acknowledged that sometimes we need to rest in the wordlessness, but that we still practice; we still try to wake up and notice those small things around us. I took this to mean that we still try to hum a few bars when we can no longer form the words; we still try to notice goodness when our peripheral vision is failing; we still lift our pens, our hands, and our voices when God’s justice or a new day seems so very far away.
This, my friends, is faith. Not the holier-than-thou faith that doesn’t acknowledge that life can deeply hurt at times, not the kind of faith that leaves us in the hands of chaos and despotic leaders, not the kind of faith that wrings its hands at the issues of the day and apathetically states, “Who cares?” and “Why bother?” but the faith that seems so small that it is incomprehensible, the faith that puts on slippers and struggles to answer the door, the faith that makes the effort to be kind when it is easier to be snippy or mean, the faith that pauses before anger, offers an apology when necessary, and rises to practice seeing goodness when it is as if the whole world pulled down the shades and retreated in silence. It is the faith of our sisters and brothers in life when death is more profitable and seems all the more likely. It is the faith that moves mountains with a feather and a light touch, faith that bends to listen, faith that stoops to sing.
Hear these words by Carrie Newcomer, from a poem called “Singing in the Kitchen.”
My mother sang with full abandon
With the kitchen radio
When she was washing dishes.
She liked the old songs,
And she’d swing her hips,
Sashaying as much as a woman can
When elbow-deep in soapy water.
I would sit on the hardwood steps
Filled with pride and wonderment,
Whispering into my dog’s ear,
With sage five year-old assurance,
“My mother has the voice of an angel.”
As I recall, my dog agreed.
Standing side by side on Sunday morning,
I was horrified,
In the way only a teenager can be horrified
When her mother is singing
Loudly and confidently,
Completely and consistently
In front of her friends.
But now I understand
That my mother was a cautious soul,
Private and intentional,
And so I am grateful
That she taught me how to hold my little sister’s hand
And look both ways before I crossed the street.
But I am also thankful
That either she did not know,
Or she did not care,
That her voice was not smooth or perfectly pitched.
She sang anyway,
Because some things just have to be
Exactly what they are,
And a song must be sung
One way or another.
Sisters and brothers, I can hear my sisters and brothers singing throughout this land, and throughout the world this day. I can hear their songs echoing down through the ages– singing for their lives, singing to beat the band, singing to beat back the devil, singing in the face of tormentors, depression, diagnoses, debts, and disaster. I hear them singing to keep their yearning alive, their eyes and hearts open, and their minds at peace.
Can you hear them? They are not so far away.
Their songs can pass through walls, build bridges, soften hard places, restore justice, and resurrect life.
Can you hear them? Will you join them?
Your voice matters too.