Sunday, May 17, 2020

Sing with Me

Bird song starts early in my yard these days.

By six the bluebirds nesting in a front-yard bird house are singing in the bird garden just below my bedroom window.

Soon the house sparrows start, joined by goldfinch, then house wrens.

Wendell Berry’s short poem from A Timbered Choir says:

Best of any song
is bird song
in the quiet, but first
you must have the quiet

Is quiet essential?

When our kids were small I sang to them far more hours than I can count. Sometimes I sang lullabies to quiet children dozing on my shoulder, but sometimes I sang loud, cheerful songs to soothe loud, crying children. Sometimes I taught long, complicated songs to bored, grumbling children on endless car rides. I also specialized in amusing songs with antic motions to engage whole groups of kids, restless while waiting for the next camp activity.

The words were rarely the most important part. Sometimes melody mattered most, sometimes rhythm, sometimes exuberant noise.

Sometimes it was just the sound of my voice, no matter how quiet, or slow, or sleepy. “Sing,” one child would insist, late at night, any time I stopped singing, hoping she was finally drifting off. “Sing.”

C. S. Lewis wrote “God … shouts in our pain. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

I believe that’s true. I’ve been wondering what he means to say to us, during this strange, painful, pandemic season.

But I also believe he sings to us: in our pain, in our anger. In our doubt and grief and loneliness.

There’s a Nooma video, Rhythm, by Rob Bell that hints at what I mean. It describes God as a song, a song that gives form and shape to the world, that invites us to live in tune.

It’s an interesting way to approach the idea of relationship with God, but I’d take the metaphor farther. God is composer, conductor, composition. Songwriter, singer, song.
I’ve been struck during this pandemic season at the songs bubbling up all around me.

On Twitter, I stumbled on a song written by JJ Heller just a day or two before. I still can’t listen without tears; it captures the uncertainty of this time and offers a comforting reminder: God already knows how I feel, what I fear, how this whole story ends.

Someone shared a link to a song with my husband, Whitney. For days he played it, sang it, whistled it: I shall now want. 

An unexpected Hallelujah chorus, created for an unusual Easter service, turns social distancing into a creative adventure.

And then there are so many different renditions of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah: families playing outside for neighbors, choirs learning new ways to sing together from a distance.

What I realize, listening to music in so many unexpected forms: there is beauty in the minor keys, beauty in the musical passages that seem discordant, then resolve. Beauty in the crashing cymbols, the lilting flute. The meaning is larger than any one passage. The beauty is larger than any individual instrument.

More than that: if this life I’m living is my part of a grand composition, I don’t need to know anything more than my own part. I remember times on the cello when my job was just to count measures, quietly, watching the conductor for the moment when I picked up my bow and played the long-awaited next note. Like those kids in the Hallelujah chorus, holding their cards, waiting for the moment to hold them high, I wait, watch, give thanks for the others, in other places, playing their parts so faithfully.

Some Hebrew scholars have suggested that Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is a midrash (a textual interpretation) – of Psalms 146- 150. The summary would be this:
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Those five psalms are sometimes called the Hallelujah psalms. Each begins and ends with the Hebrew word Hallelujah: Hallel (praise) and the abbreviated name of God – Jah- the first part of the word Yahweh. 

There have been books written about those five psalms; the promise of healing and restoration, the call to praise, the description of all nature joining in song.

From 146: I will praise the Lord all my life;
    I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
    the sea, and everything in them—
    he remains faithful forever.
He upholds the cause of the oppressed
    and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free,
    the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
    the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the foreigner
    and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
    but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.

From 148:
Praise the Lord from the earth,
    you great sea creatures and all ocean depths,
lightning and hail, snow and clouds,
    stormy winds that do his bidding,
you mountains and all hills,
    fruit trees and all cedars,
 wild animals and all cattle,
    small creatures and flying birds,
kings of the earth and all nations,
    you princes and all rulers on earth,
young men and women,
    old men and children.

From 150:Praise God in his sanctuary;
    praise him in his mighty heavens.
Praise him for his acts of power;
    praise him for his surpassing greatness.
Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,
    praise him with the harp and lyre,
praise him with timbrel and dancing,
    praise him with the strings and pipe,
praise him with the clash of cymbals,
    praise him with resounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.

I’ve written before about the Porter’s Gate, an annual gathering of songwriters, theologians and worship leaders meeting to think and pray and create music together that invites and welcomes people not yet part of the life of the church.

The two CDs produced so far, Work Songs (2018) and Neighbor Songs (2019) have become a sound track for me in this strange time: songs of grace, hope, love for neighbor, reminder that we are not alone.

One song, “And the earth shall know,” invites us all into that great song of restoration promised in the final psalms:

And the earth
Shall know God's name
And the earth
Will sing God's praise
All of the earth shall sing the praises
Of our God

I don’t have answers.

I often don’t even have words.

Yet as I sing, as I join the song around me, I find it easier to trust, to hope, to let me heart and mind rest in what I know is true.

And in joining the song I find myself aligned with the power and prayer behind the song.

Sing it with me!