“The Reason Why We Sing”
Psalm 100 & Psalm 150
Rev. Chris Mereschuk
June 18, 2017
On June 6th, more than 30 members of faith communities and the Connecticut chapter of the Moral Monday movement entered the Connecticut State Capital to deliver a petition decrying the proposed state budget cuts to assistance and anti-poverty programs. After delivering the petition, the group gathered in the capital rotunda to speak out further and catch the attention of legislators and local media. After several minutes, Bishop John Selders of the Amistad UCC in Hartford began leading the gathered crowd in song – – “This Little Light of Mine.”
At that moment, Capital Police approached Bishop Selders and directed him to stop singing. When he refused to be silenced or moved, he was arrested along with 5 other faith leaders including Connecticut UCC Conference Minister Rev. Kent Saladi. The remaining group peacefully left the rotunda, but reassembled on the capital steps to continue their songs of witness and protest. Those arrested were charged with the misdemeanor offenses of Interfering with the General Assembly and Disorderly Conduct.
I find the timing of the arrests of Rev. Selders and Rev. Saladi and three others to be quite telling. See, the Capital Police did not prevent the initial group from gathering. They did not prevent the faith leaders from delivering the petition. They did not immediately break up the crowd when they assembled in the rotunda and spoke out against the budget cuts. No, the Capital Police only sought to end the protest when the gathered witnesses started singing.
I don’t know all the rules and laws about peaceful demonstrations at the Connecticut State Capital, so I can’t say for sure why the Capital Police tried to end the protest right then.
Maybe the they sought to end the protest because some amount of permitted time had gone by. Or maybe the crowd was growing too large. Or maybe some influential legislators complained. Or maybe the Capital Police tried to break up the peaceful protest at that moment because they know that music has power.
Music can lift us high up when we are down low. Music can soothe a wounded spirit. Music can make us feel joyful, affirmed, and understood. It can sing the song of suffering and longing. It can transport us to another time and place, bring back old memories and dredge up old regrets. Music has the power to really mess with you, get into your head and your heart and rock your very soul.
Music, and words when set to music, convey ideas and emotions, messages that impact the listener on a far deeper level than just the spoken or written word, or maybe even a painting or photo ever could. To paraphrase the theologian Peter Rollins, we are drawn to music because music can express things that we, ourselves, cannot – – music cries for us, laughs for us, screams and shouts in protest for us, lifts praise for us, and can even make meaning for us.
One could argue that music is a universal feature in cultures and faiths throughout history – – an impulse to respond with and respond to melody and rhythm – – maybe something in-born, even an instinct.
Music also emerges as a nearly universal response to praising God. Believers in a wide variety of faiths have a desire to call out to God in something more than their speaking voice, in tones and in patterns that dramatize emotion and devotion. You can hear this in the Islamic Call to Prayer, the Adhan; and in one of the most sacred Jewish prayers, the Shema. Further East, from the Buddhist tradition come wisdom chants. And each week, we are blessed to hear and to sing our own sacred songs. Arguably, music seems to be the common denominator among all of the world’s religions., enduring the forces of culture, time, and geography.
Looking at the Judeo-Christian tradition, we can find numerous examples of the centrality of music in religious life attested in the scriptures. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Song of Moses retells the story of Israel’s rescue from Egypt in the 15th chapter of Exodus, reprised in the book of Deuteronomy as his final blessing and instruction to the people of Israel just before his death.
The Song of Miriam follows immediately after Moses’s prayer song in Exodus, picking up the victorious refrain from Moses:
“Sing to God
who has triumphed gloriously,
who has flung horse and rider into the sea.”
Women were the traditional leaders of victory songs, melodiously lifting praise to God for liberation. The Israelite Judge Deborah sings a victory duet with Barak (Son of Abinoam) after the defeat of Sisera and his army. This poetic retelling of the battle, much like the Song of Moses, is believed to be one of (if not the) oldest parts in the bible. David sings praise to God for his victory over Saul in the Second Book of Samuel, promising God his eternal faithfulness throughout his descendants.
Tradition credits King David with authorship of 73 of the 150 Psalms, an entire book of prayer-songs. We can still read the instructions of the composer today: Psalm 5 is noted to be written for flutes; Psalm 6 informs the song leader to play the tune with stringed instruments, to the melody of The Sheminith. Psalm 22 is to the tune of “The Deer of the Dawn.” With their original tunes lost to time, many musicians have taken to create new tunes to fit the lyrics, such as the setting of Psalm 42 that we heard in today’s anthem.
Beyond their forms as songs, the Psalms speak often of praising God with song, of clapping hands and banging drums, clashing cymbals and blaring trumpets – – as with Psalms 100 and 150. Song from the LORD is comfort, surrounding the faithful. Just the same, the absence of song or the ability to sing them means the absence of God’s grace and mercy!
Exiled from their homeland in the 6th century BCE, the Israelite people call out through song for release from captivity in Babylon. Among the psalms of praise and thanksgiving, you can find desperate prayers for liberation, a cry out to God for salvation from oppression. Longing for their homeland of Zion, their captors taunted them, mockingly demanding they sing their praises to God for their entertainment. Hear the opening lines of Psalm 137:
“By the rivers of Babylon – – there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up 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!’ [But] How could we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?”
The forced exile from a beloved land, taken captive into a life of exploitation and cruelty, the captors mistaking songs of resistance and calls for justice as forms of entertainment – – oh, the twisted ways history circles back upon us centuries later, with another captured and exiled people in another strange land.
Perhaps it could be said that psalms such as these are the scriptural ancestors of what we know as African American Spirituals – – songs of resistance, songs of protest, songs of lament. The sound of the Spiritual is the music of shackles breaking.
The history of the Spiritual tradition is complex. We know that the captured and enslaved Africans brought with them a rich musical heritage of story-songs, passing communal histories through music, making meaning of the world around them. Missionaries and so-called masters seeking to convert enslaved persons to Christianity recognized the importance of these songs, and superimposed and interwove Christianity through these African melodies and musical traditions. Yet the enslaved peoples took the religion and scripture of their oppressors and turned it for their own salvation and spiritual – – and eventually, physical – – freedom. This radical reclaiming is enshrined in the canon of African American Spirituals, many of which began as songs sung on plantations.
To the undiscerning ear of the field boss, these plantation songs could sound like nothing more than typical Christian musings about the afterlife and heavenly reward. But to enslaved people who knew the deeper meanings, there was often encouragement for this world and detailed escape instructions. Such is the hidden history of songs that we still sing in church today.
Take for example “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” – – not just a song about heading off to heaven when you die.
“Swing low, sweet chariot” = A notice that workers from the Underground Railroad have come into the southern states.
“Coming for to carry me home” = Take me to the north.
“I looked over Jordan, what did I see” = Look out across the Mississippi or Ohio River; they’ll be coming that way.
“A band of angels coming after me” = workers on the Underground Railroad are on their way, so get ready.
“If you get there before I do, tell all my friends I’m coming too” = If my loved ones have already escaped and you see them, tell them I plan to escape as well.
“Steal away; steal away to Jesus. I ain’t got long to stay here.” = That’s an enslaved person letting people know, “I am escaping soon.”
“When the sun comes back and the first quail calls, follow the drinking gourd” = Wait until spring, then look for the Big Dipper (Drinking Gourd)
“For the old man is waiting for to carry you to freedom if you follow the drinking gourd” = Use the Big Dipper to orient yourself north; that’s where you’ll find someone to help you.
And during your escape, “Wade in the Water” = walk through rivers and streams to throw dogs off your track.
Spirituals have empowered generations of oppressed people yearning to be free. From slavery to Civil Rights to present day injustices, these songs still speak to us – – crying out on our behalf for liberation and justice. Such is the enduring power of the Spiritual.
But music doesn’t have to be about injustice to be liberating. In recent years, music therapy has become an increasingly popular way to engage people with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Selecting popular songs from the person’s young adulthood, therapists see nearly catatonic and dissociated patients perk up, smile, and in some cases attempt to sing along and even dance a little. According to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, music can “shift mood, manage agitation, and stimulate interaction.”
I witnessed this myself with my own grandfather. As dementia robbed him of his memory, made him agitated and disoriented, and left him unable to recall the names of family members, he still remembered his love of music. My grandpa was a self-taught jazz guitarist and harmonica player, and when my mother would play tapes of recordings he had made in his slightly younger days, he would begin to reminisce. Grandpa Guy would sit in his wheelchair in the nursing home hallway, grab his harmonica, and give free concerts for his fellow residents – – playing the old big band standards – – right up to the final days of his life. People would assemble in the hallway, clap, nod their heads or tap their fingers to the beat, and perhaps escape momentarily to a way-back memory of happiness. You could tell it brought him great joy, and to those who loved him, it gave us a glimpse of the Guy Farrar we knew.
Music is powerful, and I know that many of you know that and have felt that.
Now this is where you come in. We are a musical bunch here, so all of this leaves me wondering, what songs do it for you? What songs move you and inspire you? What songs sing for you your pains, your joy, your longings, your desires, or your praises? I want to know, I want to hear about them. They don’t have to be Spirituals or even religious. Or, at least, they don’t have to be in a hymnal or sung in a church to be spiritual or religious for you.
Note from Chris: From this point forward, the sermon was improvised as members of the congregation shouted out their favorite songs – – ranging from “Itsy Bitsy Spider” to “Fight Song” to “Sgt. Pepper.” A photo of the list is pasted below.
The conclusion of the sermon was a response to those songs, but had a message something like this:
Whatever your song, sing it out, play it out. Sing out the words that tap into something deep within you. Sway to the tune that leans you closer to the divine. Sing your praises, sing your joy, sing your pain. Sing out, and know that God is singing right along with you.