Exile, song and rage

I love to sing.

But sometimes I can’t.

It isn’t a matter of a loss of voice,
or even a question of not knowing the tune.

No, when I can’t sing it is a matter of spirit.
Sometimes at church, I just can’t bring myself to sing.
Sometimes at church, I have no energy to sing.
Sometimes at church, the spirit is stripped out of me.

Now I’m not talking about my most recent church.
In fact, I tend to sing my heart out at church these days.
Not always because I like the songs so much,
but more out of pastoral responsibility.

You see, there are so few of us at my church
that I feel that I need to help my sisters and brothers to sing.
So I sing loudly … especially at funerals.

But there have been times when I couldn’t sing.
Times when the songs during that ‘worship set’
were just so facile, so trite, so empty,
that it felt like a betrayal of my faith to sing those words.

You ever been there?

But there are other times when I can’t sing
because I just don’t have the heart for it.
Because while the words are true, they hurt too much.
Because while the faith celebrated is my faith, I’m too bruised to sing.

Those are times when I am carried by the singing of others.
Yes, that is precisely it. I am carried by the singing of others.

Some years ago Bob Dylan wrote a song
about the great blues singer, Blind Willie McTell.
The chorus repeated,
“Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willy McTell.”
And as you listened to Dylan delivering those lines
you couldn’t help but think,
“nobody except maybe Bob Dylan.”

In Psalm 137 an ancient Israelite blues singer
wrote a song about not being able to sing.

“By the rivers of Babylon –
there we sat down and there we wept.”

There, by those Babylonian rivers,
we hung up our guitars,
put away the drums,
packed up the keyboard,
and refused to sing.

Except for this one blues tune.

You see, when it comes right down to it,
not singing isn’t an option for human beings.
We are singing beings,
and regardless of the situation,
we only make sense out of our lives in song.

And so the psalmist sings the blues.
Hard, pathos-filled, tears-in-the-eyes blues.
And it isn’t very pretty.
In the end it is awful.
But it is true.

There is no life and there is no worship without singing.
The pastoral, prophetic and priestly ministry of our musicians
is profound, life-giving and liberating.

I was once asked in an interview about the Live Aid movement
and songs like “We are the World”
whether the church had something to learn from rock and roll
about how to reach into the hearts of people.
I replied, “No, rock and roll learned that from the church.”
And truth be known, the church learned it from the Psalms.

At Wine Before Breakfast at the University of Toronto,
we have always been a singing people.
Even if, or perhaps especially when, our hearts are broken.

And so it make sense that we join our voices
with the singer-songwriters of ancient Israel.
This semester we will dwell in the Psalms.

And we’ll start with one of the most difficult of the psalms.
We’ll go to Babylon and let out some rage.
We’ll contemplate what we might do if we had a rocket launcher.
We’ll sing some 9/11 blues.
We’ll come in our rags of light
and pray that God would end this night,
“if it be your will.”

In my next post I’ll share my meditation on Psalm 137.

[If  you are in Toronto, Wine Before Breakfast happens every Tuesday morning at 7.22 in the chapel of Wycliffe College, with a communal breakfast following the service. Come and join us.]

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

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